Category Archives: On Writing

Add the Arts to the STEM Curriculum and Unleash the Full Power of STEAM

This year as Lewis Carroll fans worldwide celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I was privileged to attend a presentation by sculptor Bridgette Mongeon at the spring meeting of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America (LCSNA), held at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, in conjunction with the Center’s special Alice exhibition.

"Move One Place On" -- Copyright Bridgette Mongeon 2015

“Move One Place On” — Copyright Bridgette Mongeon 2015

Bridgette, an artist, sculptor, writer, educator, public speaker, and wife and mom too, has been commissioned to create a monumental bronze sculpture of Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter tea party, to be placed in a Texas park (the exact site has yet to be announced). Visitors will be able to not only admire the sculpture, but also sit themselves down to it and have a picnic lunch with Alice, the Cheshire Cat, the March Hare, and the Hatter, as shown in the above digital model.

In her talk to the LCSNA, Bridgette spoke of the STEM curriculum (science, technology, engineering, and math) and how vital it is to add an “A” for art, which turns STEM into STEAM. She has given STEAM programs to young women in grades 6 through 8, in which she ties it all together: Art, Technology, Medicine, Math, AND Literature. Bridgette creatively fuses art and technology: she creates sculptures using both traditional (clay and wax) and digital processes. Lewis Carroll fits well with Bridgette’s many interests because he was an artist and photographer, a mathematician, and, of course, a writer.

I was fascinated and inspired by Bridgette’s LCSNA presentation. In my freelance work as an editor for a national educational organization, I specialize in STEM and STEAM subjects. I’ve edited manuscripts on animation, archaeology, architecture, energy, environmental science, oceanography, photography, textiles, and theater, among others. Even the most technological subjects need the “A” added for “art.” Art imparts the human touch and often creates a fresh perspective that can lead to new discoveries.

Bridgette cited the example of an artist who sculpted her cancer tumor, and how the creation of “a full-on object that they could walk around” is changing the way oncologists approach the treatment of cancer.

I was also reminded of astrophysicists’ reactions to the computer-generated black hole in the movie Interstellar. Actual observational data was used to create the movie’s visualizations, leading physicist Kip Thorne to realize: “Why, of course. That’s what it would do.” From the art, he got something he didn’t expect: a scientific discovery.

With arts programs on the chopping blocks at too many schools, we all need to be championing STEAM. While the current emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math is very welcome, we must also keep a central place in the curriculum for art. While science and technology may reveal the structure of things, art reveals the heart.


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The “Alice” Books and Waterspell: How They Connect

Writers are often told to write what we know. Thus, it is not surprising that many authors choose to write about books and the people who love them.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak tells of a girl who steals the things she can’t resist—books. The hero of Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story becomes a character in the mysterious book he is reading. In When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, the protagonist relies upon her favorite book, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, as a kind of “life compass.”

Pool of TearsFollowing in that tradition, Lewis Carroll’s Alice books appear “as themselves” in my Waterspell trilogy. My heroine, Carin, first encounters Through the Looking-Glass (TTLG) and discovers the book holds within it a powerful weapon that only she can wield. Later, Carin gets her hands on a copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (AAIW) and continues to find veiled connections between the Carrollian world and her own perilous situation.

As an enthusiastic fan of Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice, I like to imagine how the late Mr. Gardner might annotate the Waterspell trilogy as he picked up on my novels’ subtle homages to the Alice books. I think he would remark on the reversed order in which Carin encounters the books. Lewis Carroll wrote AAIW first, then TTLG some years later. Throughout TTLG, things “go the other way,” so it is appropriate (as well as necessary to the plot of Waterspell) that Carin reads the books “the other way”—second book first.

Another play on the “other way” can be seen in the spelling of the names of the two leading ladies. “Alice” is vowel-consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel, while “Carin” (also five letters) is consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel-consonant.

The names of things are important in the Waterspell trilogy. In AAIW, the dormouse speaks of drawing all manner of things that begin with the letter M. I don’t doubt that Martin Gardner would notice the characters in Waterspell whose names start, like his, with M: among them Myra, Megella, and Merriam.

And on it goes. In Waterspell Book 3: The Wisewoman, Carin is required to travel under an alias. What name does she choose for herself? “Alice,” of course.

In no way, however, are the Waterspell novels a retelling of the Alice books. Though there are analogies—Carin’s reflective “mirror pool” recalls Alice’s looking-glass—my story follows its own unique trajectory.

To capture the gist of Waterspell, one might say it’s “Jane Eyre meets a sorcerer.” The relationship between my main characters is reminiscent of the stormy sparring between Jane and Rochester. Waterspell is a story for young adults and older. Though an Alice motif runs deep in my trilogy, Waterspell is no more a “children’s book” than is The Hunger Games or Philip Pullman’s epic trilogy of fantasy novels, His Dark Materials. My characters encounter great danger, violence, murder, and betrayal.

Alice150LogoWriting this blog post has helped me pull my thoughts together as I prepare to attend the April 18 meeting of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America in Austin, Texas. In the company of fellow Carrollians, I might have occasion to explain how my books connect to Alice. I want to be prepared, for I can think of no more appropriate readers than a group of Lewis Carroll enthusiasts who know the Alice books backwards and forwards. (There’s that reversal theme again!)


Waterspell trilogy by Deborah J Lightfoot

“If you like epic fantasy that sweeps you to amazing, immersive worlds and while following intriguing characters, be sure to add this series to your to-read list.” —Once Upon a YA Book

“Keeps you enthralled until the final sentence. Carin and Verek are such rounded and full characters.” —Kim Durbin

“I really loved the main characters, particularly because they are complicated. I also enjoyed the writing. It is stylized perfectly to the story, so you feel you are in the Waterspell world. I definitely recommend these books!” —Beck Digs It

“I was hooked instantly when I started reading [Waterspell Book 1] The Warlock. I willingly gave up sleep and honestly could not wait to get up to read more of this book. I’m reading the whole series, and I absolutely am loving it.” —Sarah

“… a fabulous trilogy that should be read by every fantasy reader who would like something a little different. The author cleverly creates tension without resorting to the battles, complex political intrigue and predictable structure favoured by many in the traditional fantasy genre. I give it 5 stars without hesitation.” —Tahlia Newland

“The writing is absolutely fantastic with so much detail and description. The imagery was so vivid that I felt like I could see this mystical world forming around me.” —Laura Hartley, “What’s Hot?”

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The Guidelines for Critique

Excerpted from “The guidelines for critique,” author/source unknown—a handout I found while sorting through old notes from writers’ conferences. These are excellent guidelines, well worth sharing. If anyone knows where this material came from originally, please tell me so I can give credit where it’s due.


 Critique Group Guidelines

  • Leave personalities out of it.
  • Keep it short and to the point.
  • If you don’t have something to say, don’t say it.
  • Have something to say.

Personal preferences as to genre have no bearing. If you don’t like a particular genre, chances are you haven’t read enough of it to make an important critical explication. This does not mean, however, that you cannot critique individual elements such as word choice, spelling, and punctuation. If you have a question concerning what genre a story is, ask.

Critique content only if relevant to the saleability or context of the book; e.g., blatant racism is generally unacceptable, and if the book is about a tea party [meaning a pre-21st century tea party], references to fighting in ‘Nam may have no place.

All critique, if valid and dispensed with good intentions, is positive. Even critique which may on its face appear to be negative is positive in that it points toward a goal of solid reconstruction. Praise, while nice, is not truly critique, and is rarely practically useful — keep it very short. “This is good,” springs to mind as a possible time-saver. As a rule, “negative” is more constructive than “positive.”

All critique, if valid and dispensed with good intentions, is positive.

Critique is not debate. As a critic, don’t get into a debate with the [writer] or another critic concerning any point you may have to make.

Don’t recount anecdotes of your own unless they’re directly and immediately relevant — and short!

Don’t repeat others’ critiques unless it is very important. Saying “I agree with such-and-such” is short and gets the point across nicely. Reiterating what that person said at length is unnecessary, time-consuming, and redundant in the broadest sense of the word.

Don’t contradict another’s critique unless you feel very strongly that it needs contradiction. Remember, it’s up to the [writer] to make the decision as to what he keeps and does not keep. An exception to this guideline is when you feel that another critic has missed the point of the reading or hasn’t a full understanding of genre requirements, or whatever. Sometimes the [writer] needs to know that his point was not missed by everyone.

Don’t ask questions unless you need a specific point of clarification.

Keeping It Short

The following is a list of individual points that critics often get hung up on when they should be looking at the broader scope of the [writing]. These are valid points. However, too much time may be spent noting specific references at times that might be better spent critiquing the larger, more deadly aspects of the work.

Checklist for critique:

  • Too many gerundal (-ing) endings
  • Too many adverbial endings
  • Too many adjectives
  • Too much “tell” and not enough “show”
  • Too slow
  • Too fast and superficial
  • Not enough emotion
  • Touch all the senses, including smell
  • Too many dialogue tags
  • Not enough tags
  • I got lost in the geography of the reading
  • The following words appeared frequently or in close juxtaposition: __________

(This series continues with Readers Facilitate Valid Critique and Critiquing Common Writing Errors.)


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Tough Writing–On the Spectrum of Writing Styles: Part 2

(Continued from Tough Writing: Part 1)

To look at another example of the declarative sentences that typify the style called “tough”:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
–Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (1929)

The driving beat of these sentences builds a picture in the reader’s mind of armies marching, marching, their boots pounding the road, raising the dust. There’s a definite note of desperation in this passage, a starkness that is far more effective than having the narrator crying out, or shouting at the troops, or otherwise showing his emotions.

As Professor Brooks Landon describes the “tough” style, the speaker/narrator/protagonist says only what he can see or directly experience, stating information without processing it. This style introduces the reader to a mind (a character’s mind) that is unreflective, almost anesthetized, or so focused on one purpose that it simply refuses to think about anything else or consider alternate points of view.

I’ve come to realize that, on a spectrum of writing styles ranging from “tough” at one extreme to “demonstrative” at the other, I fall nearer the tough end. The circumstances of her early life have made my Waterspell girl, Carin, a self-contained, rather stoic kind of person. She’s quick to act. And in a situation that calls for action, she wants to be all business. The time for “getting in touch with her feelings” comes later. She may be afraid, but only after the fact. She doesn’t take time during the event to dwell on her fear — which is a trait that some of my fellow writers see as a fault.

I, however, see it as an authentic character trait, because it’s my trait, a strong element in my makeup since childhood. I act first and think — or feel — later.

For example, when I was in college a bullet exploded through the wall of my apartment six inches to the left of my shoulder. My initial reaction was to fling open my front door and go storming out to confront the shooter. That was stupid, of course. For all I knew, that bullet through my wall was the prelude to a full-bore gun battle. But the shooter emerged from next-door at the same time I stepped outside, and his face was white. As I shouted at him — “What the hell are you doing? You could have killed me!” — he stood there looking faint. It had been an accidental discharge. He was cleaning a loaded gun.

I felt nothing of fear at that moment. Only afterward, when I had time to process what had happened, did I realize how close I’d come to catching that bullet. A few inches to the right, and it would have gone through my heart. Then — only then — I collapsed onto my bed and started to shake. After the fact, I knew fear.

That’s my Carin. She takes action, she runs, she fights, she shouts. Or she quietly, deliberately makes her plans and bides her time. Emotions take a backseat. They are a luxury that she has seldom been able to indulge in.

Most of my readers seem to understand her. Occasionally, though, I get feedback urging me to make her a more overtly emotional creature. Sorry. Can’t do it. That’s not who she is. Or who I am.

I go back to the examples I used earlier from Ursula K. Le Guin and Suzanne Collins. When those writers state information and omit emotion, they still provide an emotional undercurrent that gives me a feeling for all the things that are left unsaid:

“If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things.”
Ernest Hemingway

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Tough Writing–It’s All About Style: Part 1

Should a character’s emotions be often and overtly on display? Some writers think so. I was occasionally urged by my fellow writers and critique partners to make Carin — the somewhat stoic point-of-view character in my Waterspell trilogy — more openly emotional.

But many of the works I love best, like The Tombs of Atuan, the second book in Ursula K. Le Guin‘s Earthsea Cycle, are almost stark of emotion. The bare-bones style lends great power to passages like this:

“The room was higher than it was long, and had no windows. There was a dead smell in it, still and stale. The silent women left her there in the dark.

“She held still, lying just as they had put her. Her eyes were wide open. She lay so for a long time. … The glimmer died from the high cell walls. The little girl, who had no name any more but Arha, the Eaten One, lay on her back looking steadily at the dark.”

–from The Tombs of Atuan, copyright 1970, 1971 by Ursula K. Le Guin

Some might ask, “What is the little girl feeling right now?” But I am perfectly content to extrapolate from what I might be feeling in Arha’s place. I don’t need to have her emotional state — be it fear, desperation, resignation, or something else — laid out for me.

To cite a more contemporary example: Katniss, the admirably self-sufficient protagonist of Suzanne CollinsThe Hunger Games, faces the prospect of almost certain death. She reacts by calmly instructing her mother and sister in how to survive after Katniss is gone:

“… I start telling them all the things they must remember to do, now that I will not be there to do them for them. Prim is not to take any tesserae. They can get by, if they’re careful, on selling Prim’s goat milk and cheese and the small apothecary business my mother now runs for the people in the Seam. Gale will get her the herbs she doesn’t grow herself, but she must be very careful to describe them because he’s not as familiar with them as I am. He’ll also bring them game — he and I made a pact about this a year or so ago — and will probably not ask for compensation, but they should thank him with some kind of trade, like milk or medicine.”

–from The Hunger Games, copyright 2008 by Suzanne Collins

Readers don’t need to see Katniss’ fear. It’s palpable because it’s so carefully submerged under her tightly controlled exterior.

I’ve been watching “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” a course on DVD from The Teaching Company. Professor Brooks Landon of The University of Iowa talks about the “tough” style of writing:

“Kernel sentences that simply posit information without detail or explanation … state something and then leave it to subsequent sentences to add information …

“This is macho-speak that bluntly posits information without reflecting upon it or elaborating on it, and we find it exactly where we might expect it, as in the opening to David Morrell’s 1972 novel First Blood.

“[These sentences] are characteristic of the style Walker Gibson calls ‘tough,’ a style frequently associated with some of Ernest Hemingway’s best-known fiction. This style is effective when creating characters who act, but don’t think much about what they do.”

–from “Lecture Four: How Sentences Grow,” Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft, Course Guidebook, copyright 2008 by The Teaching Company

Here is an example that Professor Landon uses in his discussion of the “tough” style of writing:

“His name was Rambo, and he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew, standing by the pump of a gas station at the outskirts of Madison, Kentucky. He had a long heavy beard, and his hair was hanging down over his ears to his neck, and he had a hand out trying to thumb a ride from a car that was stopped at the pump.”

—from First Blood, copyright 1972 by David Morrell

That opening satisfies me. I see a hint that there’s more to young Rambo than meets the eye — “he was just some nothing kid for all anybody knew” tells me that people don’t really know him, and suggests that he’ll be a hard guy to get to know. That’s fine. I have no need to explore Rambo’s “feelings.” If he shows some emotion later on, it’ll be all the more effective for coming from someone who’s generally unemotional.

(Continues in Part 2 tomorrow …)

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