Influences on my early writing

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It has been at least fifteen years since I’d read My Sweet Audrina.

I’ve always considered V.C. Andrews novels a guilty pleasure (like the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella). They are easy reads, and, considering I do most of my reading in bed at night before I go to sleep, it’s what I need.

I was afraid of reading Audrina—afraid that it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered—but even though V.C.’s novels aren’t considered literature, Audrina touches on a variety of important topics: self-hypnosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, brittle bone disease, autism, and how parental favoritism can destroy the favored child.

What is haunting about V.C.’s Southern Gothic horror novels is their timelessness. Reading this book made me nostalgic for that time when I was getting into more “adult” novels.

 

The first time I came across a V.C. Andrews novel was at a “Friends of the Library” sale (https://www.facebook.com/FriendsOfWFPL). It was Dawn—the first book in the Cutler family series—a crisp, hardcover edition sheathed in a dust jacket with a haunting family photo on the cover. I was immediately intrigued, and of course, I had to read everything she wrote after that.

When I was a teenager, I wrote part of a sequel about the Lamar Rensdale character in Audrina, bringing him back from the dead. I wanted Audrina to ditch Arden and marry Lamar instead—a man who helped her—even as Arden had failed her the first time, a second, a third…

I think my juvenile attempt to write a sequel to My Sweet Audrina was my way of living in that crazy Whitefern world just a little longer.

What’s more, I’ve always wanted to give characters happy endings—just like I wanted to give a happy glimpse of Ginger (from Black Beauty) in the afterlife.

 

Audrina is unputdownable, for it drew me into this strange, Whitefern world. Coming from a caring, but odd and somewhat dysfunctional family (a neighbor of ours, I found out, once referred to us as the Addams family), I related, however distantly, to the Whiteferns/Adares, for they live in an old house where things don’t always work and consider themselves outliers in the community. (My parents don’t even watch the local news.)

 

I think, when we read a book, we either like to be taken away or see ourselves in someone else’s work, to feel less alone—Audrina was both. It was also well-edited, unlike some of V.C.’s other books, where last names are spelled two different ways and middle names were changed altogether.

 

I don’t recommend any V.C. books after the Logan series, because the quality tanked and they all started to sound the same. I have no plans on reading Whitefern, the sequel to Audrina that Neiderman wrote, though I will try the televised version of Audrina. (The original flick, Flowers in the Attic, though not a masterpiece, had a haunting quality about it the TV movie lacked.)

 

V.C. Andrews had one hell of an imagination, and it’s too bad she passed away before she got to write more books. She was an influence on me in my early writing (who doesn’t love dark family secrets?), just as the breezy, Shopaholic series lightened what V.C. darkened.

 

Even though I read many novels by different authors, I think series books will always have a place in my heart, because I fall in love with the characters, and don’t want to let them go. I think that’s why I’ve always preferred novels over short stories, and short stories over poetry. It’s always been about the characters for me. Even the poetry I write is often about characters (many of them wacky).

Plots may keep you reading, but characters will keep you rereading.

 

Books: A part of my childhood, a part of my adulthood

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My earliest memory of books was when my dad read nursery rhymes to me—about  kings and queens, farmers and peasants—a precursor to fairy tales. When I won first place for my nonfiction piece, “A Memoir of Mother Goose,” I told my old professor that I had a slight “obsession with Mother Goose.” He’d chuckled and said it could be worse.

Mom and I read the Encyclopedia Brown series together, often in the car when my parents sold lamps and lampshades at an outdoor flea market in Summerdale, Alabama. Books were my salvation from boredom. If I didn’t have a new book, I’d reread an old one. I think I read Mom, You’re Fired! by Lou Kassem every day in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where I stayed with my grandparents every summer as an adolescent and tween. I also read many stories in the Mostly Magic installment of the Through Golden Windows series, printed in 1958; I loved all the retro books my grandmother’s bookcases were filled with. I remember it was a lot more fun to sift through books than it was to surf through channels.

Still is. 

Many Moons by James Thurber was (and still is) my all-time favorite children’s book, but I also loved the Wayside School series by Louis Sachar and The Face on the Milk Carton series by Caroline B. Cooney.

I guess you could say I’ve always been a series girl—The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin in elementary, Sweet Valley High by Francine Pascal in middle, and V.C. Andrews in high school—the last of which I stopped reading when Andrew Neiderman (Andrews’ ghostwriter) turned out to be a hack.

I read many a Harlequin romance in my early twenties, which I deemed as research. (I wanted to write for them.)  My mom and I shared a lot of books—Tami Hoag, Lisa Jackson, and Sandra Brown—the usual suspects.  

In my late twenties and early thirties, I fell in love with Linda Hall novels—Christian fiction that didn’t resort to caricatures (as a lot of Christian fiction does). I reread her books every so often, but LaVyrle Spencer’s Small Town Girl will always be my favorite. I remember reading it when I was live-in nannying for three girls in Sidney, Montana, and feeling a bit homesick. The book is set in fictional Wintergreen, Missouri, which, is close to Poplar Bluff. It was because of that reference, perhaps, that I called my Aunt Cheryll (she and my uncle had recently split up after 27 years of marriage), with her telling me that she loved me; I realized then she would always be Aunt Cheryll to me.  

If I had to choose three classic novels that top all the others I’ve read thus far, it would be Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. (Ironically, the films that were adapted from these fine works were flawless.) Sometimes I wonder if it were the heroines of these novels that make them so beloved—a feisty Southern belle who toughened up when push came to pushing back ten times harder and two precocious girls (one of them a storyteller, the other, a writer).

Though television programming has become portable with the advent of cell phones, back in the eighties and nineties, reading was the perfect, portable form of entertainment. At night, when I could no longer see (no Kindles then), I’d make up stories in my head.

My dad instilled in me, through poetry, a legacy of literacy—just as my mom shared that legacy with me. Thus, I am passing this legacy on to my daughter, who loves Mother Goose as much as I always will.

Updated 12/4/2019

Writer’s Digest Wednesday Poetry Prompt #343, Theme: Poem about a Book

A Paper Existence, 1957-1960

Like flowers in the attic,
the four, Dollangangers—
Christopher, the doctor,
Cathy, the dancer,
and the twins,
Cory and Carrie—
wither like blooms over their own graves,
like petals long forgotten after a wedding,
like flowers pressed into a book.

To them, hope was colored yellow,
like the sun they seldom saw,
like the daffodils that grew in their backyard
in Gladstone, Pennsylvania,
like their mother’s hair that fell around her face
as she kissed them good-night.

It is in the wee hours of a morning
on an indeterminate date,
they are whisked away to Foxworth Hall,
where “The Grandmother” lives.
It is the goodliest of good golly days,
that Cathy imagines milk and cookies,
of a kitchen that smell of cinnamon,
and a parlor that smells of potpourri,
of knitting needles and kitten paws,
of shawls over rocking chairs.
Oh, but the mansion appears haggard
in the moonlight,
its windows blacked,
like eyes without a soul.

Years later, Cathy will wonder
if the bus driver,
whose name they never knew,
whose face they cannot remember,
remembers the four, golden-haired children
who rode his bus that night.
She will wonder if anyone who had
memories of her father,
ever wonders what became of the Dresden dolls.

Their mother Corrine, like Christopher,
is whipped for the sins of their father—
sins she shared in the marriage bed—
and they, these beautiful children,
are the spawn of that sin.
By Grandmother Olivia’s hand,
the sins of her daughter
is being passed on the second generation.

Locked away in an upstairs room,
they explore their small world,
and find the attic—
like a dusty, forgotten heaven—
turning it into a paper Garden of Eden.
The grandmother is like the snake who
slithers below—
tempting them by telling them of the sins
they must be committing.
It is the lie that will become a truth.

Christopher and Cathy are innocents,
as Adam and Eve once were,
Cory and Carrie their children,
as the memory of their father becomes vague
in their minds—
their father, whose death brought them here.
Their mother has become like Lilith—
Christopher’s first love—
even as Cathy was her father’s first love.

Cathy blossoms like a calla lily in an alley,
and Christopher is entranced by his sister,
who is blossoming into womanhood.
He sees in her the mother he used to know,
and loved without reason.
When Grandmother sees Christopher gazing upon her,
she pours tar on Cathy’s hair;
unlike Samson, it is not her strength she diminishes,
but her beauty.
Christopher saves her crown of glory,
seeing beyond the hair
to the flesh that is as close to him now
as his mother’s breast once was.

Even as Cathy bleeds for the sins of Eve,
Christopher bleeds for the sins of his mother,
feeding his siblings the life of his body.
It was love that saved Cathy’s hair,
love that built the swing in the attic,
love that fed them now.

When Cory, the little mouse who didn’t make it,
lies in repose in the basement—
the hell of Foxworth Hall—
Cathy breaks out,
only to come upon her mother’s new husband
in his sleep.
Like a fairy in a dream,
she kisses him,
sealing a promise that she will return.

Christopher, his eyes turning from blue to green,
takes his sister as Amnon took his half-sister Tamar,
and then begs forgiveness from the sister
he never would have looked at had she not been the only one.

Then these remaining children,
malnourished and unloved,
except by each other,
escape through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia,
to redefine what makes a family.

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http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/wednesday-poetry-prompts-343

5-Minute Memoir to Writer’s Digest (former submission)

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The Writer’s Mind—A Literary Vitamix

I love blends. I don’t like pure cotton, because it shrinks. I don’t like plain chocolate–I like to have some nuts thrown in there (I don’t like pudding for the same reason, I like assorted flavors and textures). I love the new Coca Cola machines I see in fast food restaurants because I like Coca Cola and I like cherry, and I don’t want to have to choose.

I’m the same when it comes my writing, which makes it hard for me to pigeonhole whatever it is I’m working on (besides the broad category of novel, poem or short story). Me, I’m “V.C. Andrews meets Mormonism”, or “Fractured Fairy Tales” twisted with Biblical allegories. I even came up with a Shaggy God story told from a grown-up Alice (of Wonderland fame).

Blending genres starts off as an art (like cooking) and ends up being a science (like baking). You not only have to have the raw materials, you must make sure they’ll work together. If writing is painting with words, my palette is the Crayola 64-count.

What helps me most with novel writing is to make a full outline (and back story, though you must be careful with this—a reader is supposed to get to know the characters as they would a real person, a little bit at a time), and make sure something happens in each chapter. Each of my chapters is like a mini-short story, instead of just a continuation of the previous. That keeps me on track, and it’s also helpful if you want to have a cache of short stories on hand for contests (before the book is being considered by an agent).

Though it’s still a challenge to convert chapters of a book into stand-alone short stories, this way makes it easier.

If you have imagination, you can find the extraordinary in the ordinary. You won’t even need to look, because writers see what non-writers see. When I see an apple, I don’t just see a red, green or yellow (or candied) apple, I see Eve’s curiosity, the legend of William Tell, the story of Johnny Appleseed…

Sometimes just one word can be an inspiration. Think acrostic poetry.

Other times, a person, no matter how small, can be one of our greatest inspirations. Before my child was even born, I wrote her a nursery rhyme, which inspired me to write forty-nine more for a collection. Rather than putting my fifty eggs in one basket, I’ve been trying to publish them individually (while seeking a publisher who would consider publishing them as a book). That inspiration led to writing personalized nursery rhymes for my friends, who have been having babies.

Building up and then breaking down (whether it be books into chapters, or collections into individual short stories or poems), that’s what I do. You must be flexible that way. I’ve had novel chapters that make better short stories.

Like poetry, I used to think short stories were waste of time (at least commercially), but then I read an article where many big movies had been made from short stories. Even if no one else reads them, Hollywood does. Look what Tinseltown has done for Nicholas Sparks.

As a writer, I go through phases—I went through a Harlequin romance phase, then a creative nonfiction phase, and now I’m going through a poetry phase. I love having lots of different projects going on at once, which is ironic, as I can only read one book at a time.

Though many authors are known for one genre, I must stay versatile, or I get bored with my own writing, and if you’re bored writing it, “they” will be bored reading it.

http://www.writersdigest.com/submission-guidelines

 

Categorically, some of the best books I’ve read (thus far)

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LDS (Mormon fiction):  Shannon’s Mirror, by Luisa M. Perkins

  • I think a girl/woman of any age can enjoy this book, LDS or not.  Thirteen years ago, a friend of mine mentioned this book; the title stuck in my head until I finally bought it a few years ago.  It is a very beautiful, but very sad story, about how the quest for perfectionism (which I, as a former LDS woman, struggled with) can lead to heartache and destruction.

Christian fiction:  Any books by Linda Hall

  • This is the kind of Christian fiction I like–where Christians are real people who question things.  Rich in character, and description, too, but in a way that paints a picture as you read rather than slowing the momentum of the story.

Harlequin romance:  Redeeming Claire, by Cynthia Rutledge

  • Good Harlequin romances are as hard to find as an adverb in a Stephen King novel (or so I’ve heard), but this one is a gem because again, Christians are portrayed as regular people, not holier-than-thou or square as Wally Cleaver.  And it’s actually funny!

Mainstream romance:  Small Town Girl, by LaVyrle Spencer

  • I’ve read this book several times, and will read it several more.  It’s about a country music star who goes back home to help her mother and ends up falling in love with the one boy, now a man, whom she taunted all through high school.  The fact that Poplar Bluff, Missouri, the little town I was born in, was mentioned, was a bonus.

Memoir:  In My Hands:  Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer, by Irene Gut Opdyke

  • Though the subject matter isn’t unique, the voice was.

Biography:  Natasha:  The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad

  • I’ve been a fan of Natalie ever since I saw her as a little girl in “Miracle on 34th Street”, for she reminded me so much of myself when I was at that age.  She also personified physical beauty that did not come in blond hair and blue eyes (which I, and every other girl I knew, wanted growing up).  This book read like creative nonfiction.  I do think one would have to be at least a lukewarm fan to get pleasure from this book.

Chick lit:  Confessions of a Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella

  • Story and protagonist are hilarious (though I hope Becky learns her lesson by the end of the series).

Beach read:  The Sunday Wife, by Cassandra King

  • Though the author’s personal views are quite different from my own (and were presented in a very one-dimensional way), I enjoyed this because the friendship of two women was the focus, relegating the romance to the background.  Again, a bonus was that Pensacola, Florida (“The Buckle of the Bible Belt”/”The Redneck Riviera”), the town where I live, was mentioned.

Gothic horror:  Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews

  • I first read this book in high school and was hooked on V.C., till her ghostwriter became a hack.  I love this book because it’s just the kind of story I like to write.

Children’s book:  Many Moons, by James Thurber

  • I had read this book once, many years when I was in elementary school, and it stayed with me for almost 30 years, after I had my own daughter.  It epitomizes one of my favorite scriptures, “…and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

On writing:  Self-Editing for Fiction Writers:  How to Edit Yourself into Print, by Renni Browne, Dave King and George Booth

  • This book opened my eyes on how to break my stories up into scenes–how to show, rather than tell.

Best nonfiction/religious book (besides the Bible):  What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?:  The Positive Impact of Christianity in History, by Dr. D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe

  • This was an enlightening book.  I’d never thought about how life might be different had Jesus not come yet.  Whether or not you’re a Christian, I think it makes for a thought-provoking read.

Prequels and Sequels vs. Retellings and “The Wizard of Oz”

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Is either necessary?  I think most books are better left to stand alone, like “Gone with the Wind”.  I just read where a prequel to “GWTW” is in the works.  Wasn’t “Scarlett” (which, I admit, I never read) bad enough?  Maybe I just don’t want to like “Scarlett”.  I see writers who write sequels or prequels to famous novels as piggybacking off another author’s success.

I prefer retellings.

That said, years ago, when I was an avid fan of V.C. Andrews, I wrote a sequel to “My Sweet Audrina”–the only stand-alone novel V.C. wrote.  I don’t know whatever happened to it, but I am tempted to go back and rewrite it.  I know I could do better in V.C.’s stead than that hack, Andrew Neiderman.  (Most anyone could.)

I’d also thought about writing a sequel to “Pollyanna” (even though the movie was much better than the book), only to find that one had already been written by the author, Eleanor H. Porter.

What’s worse to me, though, is when an author like Nicholas Sparks writes a sweet story (“The Notebook”), and then pens an abysmal sequel (“The Wedding”).  For me, if the same author writes the sequel, it’s hard to separate the two.  Still, it doesn’t diminish the original book for me–I don’t let it.

I watched “The Wizard of Oz” last night.  Still a delight!  I hadn’t watched it since I was a kid, and I picked up on the allegorical nature of the film I didn’t back then.  To me, brains, heart and courage were something only a “wizard” (i.e. God) could give a person.  Glinda was Dorothy’s guardian angel.  The “yellow brick road” was the road paved with gold that led to Heaven (i.e. the Emerald City).  The poppies were drugs that caused them to lose ambition and the snow that refreshed them represented manna.

I tried watching “Oz:  The Great and Powerful”, but gave up about halfway through.  Such a disappointment it was, but one cannot help but compare it to the original, which was as bright as this one was dark.  Had it been a retelling and not a prequel (though the premise had potential), I might have at least finished it.

It’s been years since I read the book by L. Frank Baum, but I don’t recall there being a Good Witch of the South.  I just wrote a story about her and Dorothy’s granddaughter for a short story contest.  The theme was “alien” and what it means to us, so I made Dorothy’s granddaughter an illegal alien in the land of Oz.  Aliens from outer space was too obvious.

The biggest project I’m working on now in relation to this topic is a set of fractured fairy tales juxtaposed with Biblical allegories (i.e. “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel).

This is what “Writer’s Digest” had to say about writing a sequel to someone else’s book:  http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/questions-and-quandaries/legal-questions/updated-can-you-write-the-sequel-to-someone-elses-book

Looks like I’ll have to publish my sequel, simply titled, “Audrina”, for free on a V.C. fanfiction site.  (That was how the author of “Fifty Shades of Gray” got started; the story was developed from a “Twilight” fanfiction series and published on fanfiction websites.)

Are there any sequels (or prequels) you’d like to read or even write yourself?

Flowers in the Attic: A Young Girl’s Inspiration

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I don’t picture myself blogging too many movie reviews, but since I grew up with “Flowers in the Attic” (the book and the movie), I just felt compelled to put in my few cents about the most recent celluloid adaptation, which was much truer to the book, but lacked all the creepiness of its lackluster predecessor.

Lifetime’s production had a cheap look to it, and though the children were hidden away in the attic for three years, it looked and felt more like three months.  I wouldn’t recommend watching it for any reason other than curiosity.

V.C. Andrews was one of the greatest inspirations for my own writing.  My book, Because of Mindy Wiley, is V. C. Andrews meets Mormonism meets Peyton Place.  I’d written a sequel to My Sweet Audrina many years ago as a fan fiction piece, and I don’t know what ever happened to it.  Many of my early writings have been lost, though I am considering redoing the project, which I would simply post on my blog as “fan fiction.”  But then, why work on that when I can post original content?

I know with certainty Audrina Revisited would be better than the novels Andrew Neiderman has written under V.C.’s name.  The Logan series was the last that still felt like it had been written by Ms. Andrews.  However, with the exception of the prequel, they had a rushed feel to them.

My advice:  Don’t waste your time after the Logan series.