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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

TTYU Retro: Tightening your plot by layering

There is something to be said for having everything happen at once.

Often we think of the climax of a book as the place where everything comes together and starts happening at the same time. However, we shouldn't necessarily restrict ourselves to the climax; layering can be beneficial at other points in a story as well.

I mention this because of my own experience. I had a sequence of events in my recently completed novel as follows: the protagonist had to go to a political event; thereafter my bodyguard character had to follow a nefarious character to prevent an assassination; thereafter my bodyguard had to come home and find a conflict going on between the master and mistress. It wasn't bad, but when it came to dramatizing the whole thing, I found it was dragging. I was struggling to get the protagonist out of previous plot points and over to the political event. I was daunted when I tried to imagine all the details of the political event. Then I couldn't figure out how to make the opening of the prevent-an-assassination sequence different from all the previous interactions between servants that I'd been working with (I try to make every interaction unique).

Over this weekend I realized what the problem was. Everything was strung out, all the events coming one after another like beads on a chain. That simultaneously put too much importance on each individual event, and made me work too hard to keep them connected.

I therefore decided that as many things as possible needed to happen at the same time.

I can get away with this in my novel, because it's supposed to be complex. It is certainly possible to overload a scene with too much stuff. However, if you can find a way to concatenate instead of stringing, the result can be amazing. In the case of the sequence I describe above, I decided that the political event and the assassination attempt had to happen at the same time. This accomplished several useful things for me.

1. Because the assassination attempt had to occur in a specified location, I suddenly had a place to put my political event that was more effective than the white-room-ish space I'd been fighting against previously.

2. Because the new sequence placed both my protagonist and my bodyguard in the same location, it allowed me to do a direct point-of-view handoff (I love those).

3. Because I could do the point-of-view handoff, I could shift to the bodyguard's perspective early in the political event, thereby making it unnecessary for me to elaborate on all the details of the event. In fact, the ceremonial details of what's going on are much less important than the bodyguard's attempt to foil the assassination. Layering allows me to place focus on the more important element and stick the less important element in the background.

4. Suspense went through the roof. Instead of having the bodyguard out attempting to stop an assassination on his own terms, he's right in the middle of a public event trying to figure out how to save the target from the assassin without having any means to reach the assassin (who is hundreds of feet away) or the target (who is at least fifteen feet away).

5. Consequences also became much more dire. The bodyguard won't be able to take action without hundreds of people seeing him, and this will result in entanglements that delay his return home, providing a perfect reason for him not to be where he needs to be when the conflict between master and mistress begins.

It's worth keeping an eye out for opportunities to do this. Especially if you are being told by critiquers that your story is wandering, that the pace is slow, or that it's one thing after another after another, consider whether layering might be the right answer.

You might also want to look out for this if you're trying to figure out how to shorten a work. What if you feel like you've taken out as many words as you can and the book is still "too long"? Maybe you're aiming for 90-100K words but you're stuck at 127K. Usually at that point it's the structure of the story which has to change - and if you can take a step back from your outline and create clusters of events that can either closely follow one another, or happen concurrently, then the layering effect will save you a lot of words that can't be "pulled out" any other way.

It's something to think about.

Friday, November 23, 2012

"Easy as Pie"? How easy is pie? (a writing post about mental hurdles)

Yesterday's Thanksgiving cooking got me to thinking about something. A lot of people these days, who aren't accustomed to cooking, think cooking is difficult. I think I've roasted a turkey all of twice, possibly three times in my life, counting yesterday. I got out my cookbook, found a recipe and followed it. But I confess that before I got the recipe out, I was in a panic, going, "I don't know how to roast a turkey!"

It made me think of the expression "easy as pie," which remains in the English language even though a great many of us wouldn't find pie particularly easy.

There are several different elements that go into perceiving some form of cooking as easy or difficult.
  • How often you cook.
  • How easy the ingredients are to procure. 
  • Whether you like to use cookbooks.
  • Whether you find following directions easy.
 If you've only ever tried to cook a cake out of a box, then it might seem really tricky to bake one from scratch. It isn't, really, though it might take more time. If you're an expert cook, you only have to have one or two tiny hints about how to vary a recipe before you are able to do something amazing.

What we're really looking at here are mental hurdles. What seems normal and easy to some people seems inconceivable to other people, just based on their culture and their personal experiences. This strikes me as something we should all be trying to fit into stories about aliens or stories about people from different cultures. After all, we can have extreme differences in skill and comfort in the kitchen, even compared to our own neighbors - surely there would be more such contrasts between people with greater differences.

I am continually amazed at how stories reduce friction between the people they portray, in service of a single main conflict. If there's cultural contrast and misunderstanding, often it's done in a peripheral or token manner. But this kind of thing is everywhere. Think about how different people are and what they are comfortable or uncomfortable with, what they find normal, what they find easy. Let that weave into the main conflict, serve it and drive it forward.

It's something to think about.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Hazards of TMI, or, Why the real world is trickier than the one you created

So let's say you are writing a story. In order to give the story the flavor you want, you need to use a particular body of knowledge. Either this is a body of knowledge that you've created yourself - say, through extensive worldbuilding about climate, geography, etc. - or a body of knowledge that can be accessed through research, such as the history of English language and culture, or that of Japan.

With a created world, this problem is almost more straightforward. You can assume that readers unfamiliar with your world will simply not know anything at all. There's a great solution for this sort of thing, even if you are so steeped in your own world knowledge that you can't judge how much is making it onto the page. You find a "naive reader," i.e. someone who is totally unfamiliar with your world, and let them loose on the story. They'll be able to tell you where they stumble, where they are confused, etc. They will be a perfect model of your target audience.

With the real world, it's much trickier, because you can't anticipate how much information your reader will have. Some of your readers will share this information. Some will know nothing about it. Some will be experts And you, believe it or not, are trapped in the middle.

I encountered this strange difficulty with a story I wrote, using a Japanese setting. Some people have loved hearing the story. Some have felt totally lost, and appear to have problems because they don't know enough about Japan or Japanese mythology. Some have felt like the story was too transparent, because they already know so much about Japan and Japanese mythology.

It's enough to make one throw up one's hands and go, "Argh!"

There's another issue here as well, and that is the issue of trusting the reader. Some readers will be okay with not knowing quite what is going on, not quite understanding everything; others will not. This actually means that the number of people who have serious trouble with the story will be smaller (fortunately) but the underlying problem remains.

My best suggestions are as follows:

1. Get a wide range of feedback. Take this feedback seriously.
2. Provide subtle contextual scaffolding.

What I mean by subtle contextual scaffolding is that you want to give hints that will eliminate confusion without actually giving too much information and making the informed people scream. I had one reader be confused when I included a direct translation of a Japanese idiomatic expression, "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down." Now of course, I can't actually explain the idiom in context - but what I can do is support it in other ways that will be more relevant to the main character and to the conflict we're dealing with. If he doesn't just think this in an unquestioned way, but thinks of someone who always says it, for example, it will make more sense, and people who already know the expression will gain character and setting insights so that the information provided won't be entirely superfluous. This is the perfect kind of place to make sure that whatever you include serves more than one narrative purpose at once - advancing plot, deepening character, reflecting and deepening setting, etc. People will be bothered by explanations that are only explanations. But they might be more interested if the explanation they already know gives them an insight into another area of the story that they know nothing about.

It's something to keep your eye out for.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

TTYU Retro: When do you walk away? And how do you know when to come back?

These writing projects of ours take a lot of time and effort. Some folks I know can pound out short stories (and more power to them!), but I know I'm not like this, and certainly novels demand more. Even those who write NaNoWriMo novels often spend a lot of planning time in advance of the writing period, and then more time revising and cleaning up afterward.

So let's say you've invested a large amount of worldbuilding time, design time, and writing time into a project, but no matter what you do, it refuses to do precisely what you want. It might be that you've dived into something but it has petered out in the middle. That was what happened to me with For Love, For Power after I'd written around nineteen chapters. It might be that you've rewritten something over and over but every time you fix one thing, beta readers keep finding something else that bothers them. That one happened to me with a work in progress called The Past Unhealed, and the things they kept finding weren't tiny fix-its, but major rethink-this-whole-section stuff. It might be that you've got whole books which are sequels to other books that aren't quite working (yep, I have those too). Or maybe your work in progress is just acting ornery and doesn't feel right.

Walk away.

Don't just leave it alone for a weekend. That's fine, and it helps, but by this time you've probably already tried that. What I mean is, go and write something else.

Yes, it can feel like failure. Holy cow, I put years of work into this! How can I abandon it? But I'm not suggesting you take all your precious hard-won files and toss them in the trash can (either literally or figuratively). I'm suggesting that you refresh your brain by giving it a different problem to work on. A challenge - particularly if it's something you haven't done before.

When I walked away from my first four novels, I started writing short stories at first. That felt different. A good number of those were in the same world as the novels, and were up against some big hurdles because of that, but it was good to give them a try. Why? Because I'd never forced my brain to think short. I'd never tried to create a story small enough to balance in the palm of my hand. Slowly I started learning that when the story was small, I could visualize all its pieces in my head at once, and I started understanding how the parts of the story related to one another. Writing the short stories took on a new fire for me, and my rejections started getting better.

Then I picked up a new novel. Totally new - not in the same world, with none of the same characters. I applied what I'd learned from short stories to this novel. Lo and behold it was working. I wrote the whole thing in (for me) record time. Revising it was still brutal, and I had a few very embarrassing failures with agents before I had it in the right place, but when it came out finished, it made me happy. And my agent liked it too!

Because it was a novel that used none of the same parameters, I exercised my brain on it in a different way. I did different things trying to revise it, and set my brain against different kinds of problems. For a writer, trying new things is really important. We have to try things that are challenging, because they help our minds and skills to grow.

For me, more than four years went by before I went back to my previous material.

I wouldn't have had to, necessarily. There are a lot of people out there with "trunk novels" that never see the light of day. I could have left mine in the dark, but there were some factors that drew me back to them.

1. The world wouldn't leave me alone. I'd be going along, and learn something about language or culture or writing, and a new connection would form in my head. Wow, I'd say to myself, that could really apply to Varin in an interesting way.

2. The story shifted whenever I started thinking about it again. My new ideas of structure gave me new ideas for how to approach it, and I started seeing things here and there that would change for the better.

3. The characters grew without me writing them. They kept coming back to me and whispering things in my head - but even more than that, I started seeing things about how they interacted on a larger level. And when I spoke about them with friends, I figured out even more. The fact that Tagaret had to be the protagonist in For Love, For Power (shoot, why didn't I realize that before?). The fact that sweet little Xinta can't be sweet little Xinta any more, but has to start out as the antagonist in the first novel where he appears (and I mean scary). The fact that one character whose head I've never visited has something terribly important to say that will add to the structure of the entire novel when I get back to it.

When I get back to it. Not if, though it was if for a very long time.

How do you decide to go back? I can't speak for others, obviously, but the thing that convinced me was when I decided experimentally to go back and think through the stories, reorganize my thoughts and outlines - and I discovered how much better everything would be. By writing for four years on other projects, I've improved my skills immensely. When I look at those old versions, I find some things that embarrass me, but other things that I think still have value. Those old words aren't a waste. They've created something in my head that has grown while I let it rest. They stand behind me now as I go back and write again. I'm not fool enough to try to revise them any more - empty files for me! - but if I need a reminder of what should happen next, or if I remember a phrase I loved, I can go back.

Here's the reward. Even before I'd finished For Love, For Power, I could tell it wouldn't die in the middle this time. I wrote a chapter in the beginning and I can feel everything in the story interconnecting. I could just  feel it was better. I could handle everything more confidently and more subtly because I'm a better writer now. I even feel ideas coming together for the books I wrote before this one, the really old books I wrote when I had no idea what I was doing yet. I'm excited now to think of those books, not embarrassed. I know I'll go back because I feel what I'll be able to do with them. The underlying structure of the world is still sound, even when I'm good enough to test it in totally different ways. It deserves a better writer to write it - and while I have no illusions of perfection, I know that I'll be good enough to draft something worth sticking with this time.

It's hard to walk away. But if you can do it, it might be the very best decision you ever made for those books you love.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Is character more important than worldbuilding?

I'm known for my worldbuilding at this point, but I must admit: if I were asked to choose my favorite element of storytelling, I would have to choose character.

World is something I really enjoy, and the better done it is the happier I am, typically. However, if I find myself reading a book where the world is terrific and the character doesn't make me care, it's not enough. I'm quite serious. Recently I abandoned a very famous book, one famous in particular for its worldbuilding, and one everyone told me I should read, because though the worldbuilding was masterful, the character couldn't make me care.

Characters have emotions. They have goals, and they have fears. Those are the elements that keep me reading.

Some of you will already be anticipating what I'm going to say next.

When worldbuilding is done well, it seeps into character. To my mind, any character who has grown up in a world will have judgments informed by the structure of that world. Their internalized goals will be appropriate to that world, even if they struggle with them. Their fears will also be rooted in the world, for what do they have to fear but what exists in their own world?

The character's emotions will be emotions we recognize - what you might be tempted to call universal emotions - but the more sophisticated the emotion, the more culturally informed it will be. Everybody will fear a hungry bear. But everyone will probably also fear loss of reputation on some level, and the way you maintain your reputation in one world versus another will be vastly different.

The commonality of feeling brings us together with a character in spite of the world's differences. We feel alongside the character, and then our logical understanding of the world tells us whether these emotions make sense in context.

That was one of the things I loved about the characters in N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. Every single one of them felt strong emotions, each for different reasons. There were the enslaved gods who were scheming, not arbitrarily, but out of deep anger for their betrayal and enslavement. I could tell that they used their emotions to inform every action they took, even when I didn't understand them. Lady Yeine was sharp, and driven, and full of emotions that grew out of her history - both her personal history and her cultural history as a Darre. You could see how the Darre emotions were expected to be more overtly passionate and the Arameri ones more calculating, but neither was any stronger at its core than the other.

Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games is constantly showing emotional reactions that grow out of her world. Bread has an alternate significance because of its scarcity, and informs some of her most important decisions about friendship. The food on the train carrying her to the games isn't just amazing, it's offensive and near-inedible as a result. Yes, she's subject to the Games themselves and there's a life-and-death reason why she has to survive, but everything about her life to that point is a life-and-death struggle, which to me is the more interesting aspect of the book. It's that personal, emotional aspect of the struggle that makes the Games themselves so much more than watching a gory video game.

It's important for characters to have problems, both external and internal. Worldbuilding should make its mark on both kinds. I love working with troubled characters, but I don't want them to be troubled for arbitrary reasons.

My character Nekantor is mentally ill, but it's not just because I want to tell a story about an insane brother. It's also because I'm telling the story of a world that is failing, of a Race that is dying out, and of what kinds of things that slow death will drive its people to do. The fact that Nekantor is obsessed with control, with making sure things stay in their correct locations, and behave in the appropriate manner, and that the First Family is always first, grows directly out of the nature of the world he lives in. It's the larger societal problem faced by the noble caste, played out on a personal scale, with the inbreeding as its cause.

My character Rulii from "Cold Words" is addicted to a substance called molri, and this gives him a lot of trouble, but it's not arbitrary. I didn't mean make him "an addict" the way we consider such things, and in fact the human characters in the story have trouble understanding his addiction because they assume more human reasons why a person might take drugs (for pleasure/escape). Rulii eats molri because it keeps him from shivering in the cold, and because shivering with cold would get him cast out of the Majesty's council, thus keeping him from helping the cause of his oppressed people. The reasoning, and thus the trouble and the emotions associated with it, grow out of the world.

To me, character is more important than worldbuilding. But there's no point in asking whether I would choose one or the other. Because to choose one over the other implies that the two stand separately, and they don't. Character and world should always be inextricable. When they are thoroughly entangled, a focus on character won't mean that your world is obscured - in fact, it will be even more visceral and more sharply defined.

It's something to think about.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

TTYU Retro: Secondary characters can add dimension and tension

Sometimes I come into a scene that I've really been looking forward to, and then I discover that it's not really popping the way I want it to. This happened to me as I was writing For Love, For Power with a scene where my protagonist, Tagaret, is reunited with his best friend Reyn after they've both been deathly ill. Honestly, I really had been looking forward to the scene - in part because I wondered what would come out of it, whether they would be closer as a result of their ordeal, or further apart. But when I got there and started writing it, it started feeling like some generic scene of reunion.

Generic is not allowed in my book.

It was at that point that I realized I hadn't been thinking through the surrounding context enough. By that I mean that it's always valuable to consider not only the situation at hand (in this case the reunion), but what surrounds it. It can sometimes be easy to think only about our point-of-view protagonist, and not so much of the others he or she interacts with. In my case, I hadn't really thought through how Reyn would be feeling, and what role would be played by the fact that a mutual friend of theirs contracted the same illness and died of it.

So I came up with two ideas that completely change the feel of the conversation:

1. Reyn lives without either of his parents (he's held back by law from accompanying them where they are working now), and has realized that he doesn't want to die without seeing them again. He has decided that as soon as the law allows, he will move to their city to live with them. This changes the conversation significantly, because instead of "wow, we're together again and we're both alive" all of a sudden it was "wow, we're both alive but you should know I'm going to skip town as soon as I can." The tension level is going to go way up as a result of this, and tension is generally good for story drive.

2. Reyn isn't just going to be thinking he needs to leave town, but he's going to be telling Tagaret (as opposed to thinking it but not telling him) in part because he's feeling survivor guilt. He feels terrible that their mutual friend has died and isn't sure that he deserves to be alive and part of this friendship when their friend cannot be. This gives him an added layer of motivation, and gives the conversation somewhere far more interesting to go when Tagaret gets upset about Reyn's declarations that he wants to leave.

Lucky for me, this also fits beautifully with the next piece of the chapter where they interact with the one friend of theirs who was untouched by the disease - I now have a lot of great ideas about both Reyn and Tagaret, their psychological states and how they'll feel about seeing their friend who got lucky and didn't have to suffer.

What does this mean for you?

Well, it means that if you find yourself entering a piece of interaction between characters, and it doesn't seem to have as much punch as it could, try reversing your point of view for a while. See if the non-POV character doesn't have something really interesting on his or her mind that could take the whole interaction in a different, more fruitful direction. Not only will it help to raise tension locally, but if you take it seriously (i.e. don't just stick it in for one scene and then forget about it later), it can make your secondary character much more three-dimensional and interesting. It will also combat that feeling that readers sometimes get, that they are listening to a conversation that is "getting stuff done" for the author but not really progressing with natural realism.

This change that I made did not change any major plot points, but it change the whole feel of the story going forward, and made Tagaret's motivations far more interesting and subtle as he headed into the rest of the "stuff he had to do." So as you work, don't just make the conversation go the way it has to to get the plot from point A to point B. Think of the hidden context, and do more.

It's something to think about.

Monday, November 5, 2012

"Eagerness to please," and the weakness of database marketing for directing the future of SF/F

Today I read this fascinating and challenging article from Damien Walter on the state of SF/F, which says essentially that science fiction and fantasy are too eager to please, and mentions among other things that Walter thinks Ursula K. LeGuin would have trouble getting published as a debut author today. His idea is that we aren't seeing the really edgy questions asked and explored because publishers want to please as many people as possible.

The whole thing reminds me of the response I got when I overshared (I meant to share it, but inadvertently overshared it) a petition asking LEGO to include more girl figures in their sets and to take girls into account in their marketing. I was told by a few notable folks that people send a message to LEGO when they purchase, and that LEGO has received the message and is acting accordingly, and too bad if I didn't like that.

In the current model of marketing, purchase patterns dictate how a company responds. I'm very familiar with this, and how these patterns are researched and how they are used to make planning decisions. In fact, my husband is a direct marketer and works in precisely this area: the analysis of purchase and customer behavior databases.

This is why I know that these people aren't seeing the whole picture.

Think about it. The premise here is that we base base marketing decisions on detailed analysis of purchase history and other customer behavior over a period of time. The problem is that purchase history and customer behavior are all made in relation to an existing product line, which is itself the result of analysis of customer behavior in relation to the last iteration of that product line. Even if a company is looking at the product lines of its competitors, the whole process is inbred. It is not possible for a company to receive any data on the probability that customers will buy something they have never seen in the product line before, unless that company already has a history of bringing out startlingly new products on a regular basis (after all, to define a trend, we need a large sample size!). There are some companies that do this (I'm immediately thinking of Apple, but there are others).

The longer this method is used, the more likely that the products that result will become more and more refined to existing usage patterns. This might be fine for electronics, or office supplies, but for books, music, or anything else requiring leaps of creativity, it is stifling.

The immediate response that I expect to hear will be how indie publishing is the way to go and that this is the trend that will refresh our experience of science fiction and fantasy. However, I really think that what we're looking for is a balance between traditional publishers, small publishers, and independent publishers. Amazon is a huge corporate wrench in the mix that will also have to be dealt with.

The world is complex out there right now, but I personally don't think it's a good idea to stay conservative and stick with the tried-and-true because creative endeavors thrive on the new, and desperately need innovation, whether it's a novel combination of classical elements or something no one has considered before. I hope that we'll soon see a shift away from the marketers and back toward the editors in what kind of books are chosen for traditional publication. If it's a question of handing that decision to someone who has read the book, or someone who's looking just at the numbers, I'll give it to the person who has read the book every time.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Culture Share: France - Standing stones, and the Eve of the Assumption on L'Île aux Moines

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Juliette Wade discusses the L'Ile Aux Moines.

As many of you know, I was in France during the month of August, and so I'd like to give you a peek into one of the marvelous places I experienced there. Our family was staying with French hosts on L'Île aux Moines, which translates as "the island of the monks." I'll return to why it's called that in just a moment. It's a tiny island, located in a bay on the south coast of Brittany that is almost completely enclosed (le Golfe de Morbihan), where a series of valleys were invaded by water when sea levels rose a very very long time ago (and yes, people were living there at that time). We accessed the island by a three-and-a-half minute ferry ride on this boat:
Upon arriving at the island, we waited for a taxi. L'Île aux Moines has only three taxis total, all of which are minivans and take groups of people at a time. This is probably because the island is only 1.7 kilometers long, and the roads are only just wide enough to pass one of these minivans. You only rarely see cars, which do manage to pass each other at strategic locations. Sometimes the minivan passes between tall stone walls that seem close enough to scrape the side view mirrors on both sides at once. The best way to get around on the island is by bicycle or on foot (we used the latter approach, when we didn't have luggage). 

The houses on the island tend to be several stories tall, without a large footprint. They are often built of stone covered over with plaster. The gardens are fenced in with tall stone walls. In our host's garden there was a stone tabletop built into one of the walls, which our host explained was once used for washing clothes. There was also a special stone set up next to the wall, which he told us was intended to be stood upon so the residents could gossip over the walls with neighbors passing in the street. The house we stayed in was three stories, with a living room, dining room, and kitchen on the ground floor, and bedrooms on the two upper floors. The second floor had a shower room, and the third floor had a tiny triangular toilet room. I had the impression that these were "introduced" rather than original to the house. There was another bathroom with both shower and toilet in a detached stone building in the yard, which was the original location. 

One of the fascinating things about the island was the way that the people living there fell into two groups. The first group was tourists, who were out there to enjoy island life and conditions in the summertime, and the second group was the residents. The residents typically were members of families who had lived there for generations. Our hosts were more on the resident side than the tourist side. The husband had lived on the island with his grandparents as a little boy, and he and his wife now own a house there where they go to stay during the summer. He was amazing, and full of stories that made the history of the island come to life.

In this region, we discovered that the tides made conditions vary enormously. The picture below was taken from one of the island's many walking paths. It shows a derelict boat sitting out on a mudflat. That boat is in water when the tide is in, but far, far distant from it when the tide is out. In fact, this affected us personally because we had an event (described below) where we were sitting out on the beach... and when we passed the "beach" the following day, it didn't exist any more. Everything was covered with water.

One of the most awesome things about the island was that it had standing stones. The picture below shows my family walking in a very large semicircle of stones (yes, it continues all the way around past the edge of the picture on the far side). For a long while this area was overgrown with forest and the stones were hidden, but now most of them are visible. The stones are estimated at 7,000 years old. You can just imagine the people who lived here in that era, and how much work it must have been to set up such large stones in this way! We also loved it because we are fans of Asterix, and so we all were able to think about Obelix and how he carries around his menhirs. We would not have wanted to try to carry these!

The stone in the first picture below is the largest one on the island, and for hundreds of years (almost no time at all relative to its lifespan!) has been known as "Le Moine," or "The Monk." I believe this is the reason why the island itself is called the Island of the Monks. We estimate that this stone probably weighs more than 5 tons. While we were on the island, we took pictures with the stone, and we also saw pictures of people standing with this same stone that were taken in the 1800's. I guess it's been popular to have one's photo taken here for quite a long while! The second picture shows a dolmen, or a stone table. You can see my daughter peeking out from inside it. We climbed up on top of it - it is really huge. If you go into the shelter of the table, you can actually see ancient carvings on the inner surfaces of the supporting stones.

The last thing that we experienced on the island was a wonderful festival, which occurred on the evening of August 14th, the eve of the Assumption, which is a holiday in France. There was a big gathering in the central market square for the "Bal des Enfants," or the "Children's Dance." There was a DJ, and there were stands where you could buy popcorn, or you could buy glowsticks, or you could buy paper lanterns and candles (which I'll tell you more about in a moment). The dance started while it was still light, and the DJ played French children's songs including "Savez-vous planter les choux" (Do you know how to plant cabbages?) and "L'histoire de Petit Jean" (The story of Little John). Since my kids knew this second song from their French classes in California, they really got into it at that point. Kids came from all over the island to dance, and their parents stood around the edge at first, many of them having an evening drink of wine. Then as things got darker, the kids got a little older and the music switched to being a bit more pop. The parents also started dancing. I found myself at one point leading a group of about 10 kids dancing the "Macarena," which was really fun and a blast from the past for me! It was an amazing atmosphere, with some people still standing around the edge talking and watching, and tons and tons of kids dancing, with the glowsticks wrapped around wrists or heads, or waists.

Finally the dance wound down, and everyone who had bought a lantern set up the lantern and lit it. These lanterns were cylindrical paper lanterns with bright color patterns on them, and each one had a stand for a candle inside it. They hung on copper wire from long thin dowels, so that they would be guaranteed to hang straight and keep the candle flame away from the paper (I did see a few lanterns with holes in them, but they had obviously been treated so they wouldn't burn easily!). Then just about the entire population of the dance in the square processed down the narrow street to the harbor and everyone took places sitting on the beach. Once most people had arrived, the street lights were extinguished and the homes on either side put out their lights, so everyone sat in the darkness with just the lanterns, until finally those were blown out too. That was when the fireworks started. There was a boat out in the harbor setting them off, so close that you could actually see shooting sparks illuminate the boxes of fireworks on it. The fireworks went off right overhead - I've never seen such a display of fireworks so close up. It was awesome, in the literal sense of the word. The fireworks finished with a grand finale and then the street lights and home lights came on, and we all walked back home. It was a magical night - and the following day when we went to look where we'd been sitting, the beach was completely underwater. It felt almost as though it had been a dream.

This was an amazing visit for us, and made me really want to return to L'Île aux Moines and experience more of it in the future. We are all so thankful to our generous French hosts who were able to give us such an intimate experience of the island during our short time there.