Realizations and light bulbs

It’s been too long since I’ve written a blog post.  It’s also been that long since I’ve written anything of import.  I’ve pounded the keyboard on occasion, but it just didn’t go anywhere.  My get-up-and-go got up and went.  I pondered over it, tried to get over it, but the words just wouldn’t come.

Finally, I realized what had happened.  I was not writing because I was fixating on what I might do wrong.  Whoa, Nellie!  How the heck did that happen?

I’ve always felt I have a thick skin.  I can handle any kind of writing criticism.  Even a critique or a passing comment I totally disagree with is food for thought.  These people are readers.  Readers with their likes, dislikes and attitudes will hopefully, eventually be picking up a book with one of my stories in it or God willing, one of my novels.  What they think may or may not impact what I write, but awareness is good.  In an excellent eBook I just read, Making Story: Twenty-One Writers On How They Plot, edited by Timothy Hallinan, one of the contributing authors, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, said “If the people you ask to read over are trustworthy, they are not out to sabotage your work but help you.  So listen to them and make judgment calls for each criticism, putting your ego to one side as you do this.  Receiving criticism by e-mail beats reading the same in the review section of the paper, hands down every time.”

At a writers critique group I attended in July, one of the critiques I received was in my estimation over the top.  I came to realize the critique was less about my writing and more about me.  It was payback for probably more than one faux pas committed by yours truly.  Admittedly, I have trouble determining where the invisible social lines are drawn and find myself stepping over them occasionally.  I usually realize my mistake belatedly and try to make amends.  In the back of my mind I always worry about where those dratted lines are, but don’t always get it.  As I told another critiquer, I try to be nice, but I can be incredibly stupid.

I believe this reviewer’s take on my writing was as honest as it could be, but the way it was delivered aloud in the group and on the story she handed back to me was condescending, sarcastic and mean.  This kind of thing doesn’t happen to me often and I was totally unprepared.  What shocked me more than the review was that it led to a gradual paralysis of my ability to write.  It wasn’t that I thought I had no talent.  It was because I was too afraid of whom I might offend, insult or otherwise prod into a repeat.  It wasn’t about my writing.  It was about me.

Well.  That was then.  The only reason it worked so long on my psyche is because it took me so long to admit to myself it mattered what people thought of me.  When I was reacting on a purely subconscious level, it was devastating.  I’ve been living in the country, away from city and academic life too long.  My ability to recognize this kind of dynamic had been on hiatus.

The silver lining is that it woke me up to the possibility of more, but also the ability to recognize it for what it is and cope.  If I aspire to write on a salable, commercial level, I open myself up to be a target for more of the same.  There will be those who don’t like my writing and those who don’t like me.  I am sure some of them will be vocal or well-read.  Now I am more prepared.

So here I am, putting it out there again.  If I step on your toes, feel free to let me know.  It’s is much preferable to belated, oblique vengeance.  My obliqueometer is faulty, but it’s under repair.

While floundering with all of this, my novel has been percolating in my head.  I hadn’t quit, I was just stymied.  Realization upon realization – I need to rewrite the dang thing.  I’m mostly happy with the writing.  What I’m not happy with is the focus.  It doesn’t have any.  That’s why I’ve been having so much trouble developing a plot.  I hadn’t really settled on a core theme and story parameters.  Reading the above mentioned book has been a revelation in that regard.

I appreciate all who have been patient and understanding as I struggled toward another light bulb moment.

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What’s life got to do with it?

I arrived at home in Minnesota late last night after driving from Florida through temperature highs in the upper nineties to over a hundred.  My inclination was to sleep most of today away.  Various members of my family, however, couldn’t wait to show me the new colors on the walls, to present me with an awesome welcome home cake baked especially for me and to see the goodies I brought back from Florida for them.  And then there was the mail awaiting my perusal, sorted into order of importance.  <yawn>  I could hardly wait.  Really.

I crawled bleary-eyed out of bed, was truly impressed by the new paint job in the living room, ate a slice of awesome red velvet cake covered in white icing roses for late breakfast, dispensed T-shirts and other goodies and dealt with the mail.  Then I vegged out.  I ate a Florida orange and a hunk of home-made snack sausage (the best recipe yet) and just relaxed.  It’s good to be home.

This is a writing blog . . . the point?  Writing is another of those things that makes me feel good when I do it.  It doesn’t matter if I have to drag myself out of bed to do it, let calls from friends go to voice mail to do it or agonize over it because it’s not flowing out of my fingers and into the keyboard with ease, writing makes me feel good.  Getting my tired self out of bed to take care of family business left me in the end with a feeling of accomplishment and the warm fuzzies.  I get the same satisfaction from writing.  Not only that, sometimes my own writing will make me cry until I can hardly see the page, make me giggle like a little girl or make my heart speed up and breath quicken as I write a fight scene.  I have had lots of jobs over the years, everything from school bus driver to bartender to secretary for a manufacturer’s sales department.  Nothing gives me the thrill that I get from putting words on a page.  I even like editing.  Go figure.

My new schedule started today.  I scheduled a day of rest (except for this blog post.)  I have several tasks scheduled for tomorrow:  writing, outlining/plotting and editing for my own work and critiquing for my writers’ group.  Several there will be returning the favor on Sunday, and I’m really looking forward to that.  I submitted the first five chapters of my young adult (half-) novel, the one I started during NaNo last November and plan to finish during Camp Nano in August.  That’s what the outlining/plotting phase of my workday tomorrow will be about – getting ready.

Dang it, I forgot to bring home a book I found on my mother’s bookshelf in Florida.  It caught my eye because it examines, among other things, everyday life in medieval France.  Putting on schedule:  Call Mom and ask her to send book.  Need it for research ASAP.

Doing NaNoWriMo last November taught me if I determined to just write no matter what, it worked – I wrote.  I accomplished the equivalent of half an adult novel in a month – the month with Thanksgiving, my birthday, family and friend drama and drop-in company in it – and yet I managed to accomplish over fifty thousand words.  This August I plan to use Camp Nano as not a mere month-long writing event, but a way to vet my new schedule and develop the habits I need to become a prolific writer.

My eyes have gone bleary on me again and I don’t have the energy to proof this post adequately, so I apologize in advance.  Time to sleep tonight so tomorrow I can Write On!

Sit. Stay. Write.

I have been struggling with developing a schedule for my writing.  I’m retired from my “day job” for heaven’s sake.  I have all sorts of time on my hands these days.  What could possibly be the problem?

Well, I don’t really want to look at that dead on, but I will.  Denial is not really working for me.  My denial takes the form of good intentions, like after so many years of living in this skin I haven’t figured out the implausibility of that working for more than short stretches at a time.

I was surfing the web a few weeks ago doing research for a blog piece I posted a few weeks earlier and happened upon a guest post by Patti Larsen at Novel Publicity & Co.  Making time to write is always in the back of my mind and when I read this it spoke to me like an angel’s trumpet directly to my ear with a back up of angelic host singing the “Hallelujah” chorus.  Loud.  It didn’t relate to what I was writing about at the time, but I read it, wowed over it and bookmarked it for later.

This is the blog where I wanted to reference that post and begin the task of absorbing its message into my psyche.  Sadly I had forgotten the name of the author and I couldn’t remember where the heck I had bookmarked it.  I would liken searching my bookmarks to hiking through the Amazon rainforest.  The way is overgrown by flora that seems to multiply on its own (I don’t remember bookmarking this.  I wonder where it goes?) and fauna that threatens to eat my brain by taking me on side trips through everything from nostalgia (Oh yeah, I remember now.  Cool.) to predatory sites that ate my day away so efficiently once I saved them for a repeat.

My bookmarks reflect the rest of my life.  They are organized out of necessity due to sheer numbers.  There are folders inside of folders inside of folders.  Finally I thought to look for the coveted post in my saved documents.  Sure enough I had saved it to my hard drive.  Whew!  I could almost smell the rotting vegetation, hear the whine of mosquitos and other life-sucking forces and see the darkening green of the canopy as I closed my bookmarks.

This is what Patti Larsen has shown me in her guest post:  I can write an impressive daily word count and finish several novels and short stories (picking up speed as I gain experience) and she has provided the supporting mathematics.  The only thing I have to do is treat it like work.  I need to sit my derrière in my desk chair and put my fingers to the keyboard – for a set amount of time.  You can see the details for yourself here.

She’s not blowing smoke or selling a bill of goods because she’s not selling anything.  She’s saying what works for her, an accomplished, published author who writes young adult paranormal fiction.  <gasp>  That’s what I write!’

I’m sure I’ll tailor her advice as I find what works best for me, but the basic message is to sit myself down and write.  No more talking about it, no more intending to do it, no more being satisfied because I’m getting out two blog posts per week.  I enjoy doing the blog posts and I’m going to continue, but they were always meant to be an adjunct, not the whole enchilada.

At virtually the same time, a friend who buddied with me at NaNoWriMo during November 2011 (and who was also a winner) texted me an OMG because she discovered Camp NaNoWriMo.    Another challenge to write fifty thousand-plus words during the month of August.  It differs from the main NaNoWriMo in November in that it has a camp theme and the option of joining a “cabin” with cabinmates to schmooze with.  In light of the word count Patti assures me is possible on a long-term basis, I’m ready for it.

Another resource is Annie Neugebauer’s blog.   You may remember her from my “You’re not the boss of me” post.   Her latest posts have to do with writing tools, which is apropos, and she has a page called “The Organized Writer.”  I have downloaded to my hard drive a Character Chart Template and other forms she offers free of charge from her page (here.)   Under “The Organized Writer” at the top right of the page is a drop down menu.  I’m sure they will be a help as I try to hack out the second half of my YA novel during Camp NaNoWriMo.

By the end of the week I’ll be heading back to Minnesota from Florida.  I’ll keep you apprised of my writing progress once I get back home.  Write on!

Bias – for it or against it?

What effect do our biases have on our writing?  For that matter, how do you even know you have a bias?  That’s easy; we all have biases.  They come from having life experiences and drawing conclusions or emotional associations to those experiences, often with limited data.

For instance, I am only familiar with one person who wore a toothbrush mustache:  Hitler.  I think due to the enormous negative impact Hitler had on the world at large, men for the most part quit wearing that style mustache.  When I see a toothbrush mustache, I think of death camps and Nazi war crimes, no matter that the mustache was not responsible.  That is a bias.

Your biases and my biases are our opinions on a given subject, our slant, our views.  I may say I would never name a child of mine Hildegard because I knew a Hildegard in grade school who made my life a living hell.  That, my friend, is a bias.  Attorney bashing is a national pastime; it is also another bias.  What do people hope their children become besides doctors?  Yup, lawyers.  Social standing and prospective income notwithstanding, everybody needs one or the other eventually and hopes for a discount.  Is that a bias?  You bet.

Biases are a fact of life.  Our characters have them, but they should have their own, peculiar to them as individuals.  I’m not advocating that what we write be free of bias, but that we are aware everyone has them and we are judicious about them in our writing.

You can’t write without bias.  How flat would our characters be then?  We just need to be aware of the fact of and inescapability of bias as a facet of humanity.

Here are a couple of resources regarding bias in writing:

“Have Bias, Will Write” is an article by Scott Warner.  You can find it here.  He explores bias in such writings as the New York Times and Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

There are no end of biases to choose from.  “Biases in Science Fiction” is an article by Steven Novella that you can find at the Neurologica blog here. This article explores the biases of science fiction writers concerning designs of ships for star travel and how they depict gravity and thrust.  It sites such works as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and 2001, A Space Odyssey.

Persuasive words

I got “an opportunity” in my snail mail the other day from the car dealership where I took my new-to-me car for an extra coded key and a remote.  We bought a 2003 Ford Crown Victoria a couple of months ago and it only came with one key and no remote.  I’m spoiled; I wanted a remote.  I’m also absent minded, so I figured another key would be a must sooner or later as well.  The car has a coded key that works in concert with the car’s security system.  If I ever lost the key, which has happened before, I would have to have the car towed to a dealership so they could plug it into a computer and program a new key.

Back to the point.  The letter said they would like to offer me an extended warranty on my used car and assured me it would be a good idea.  All I had to do was call their Fulfillment Department.  Say what?  I cracked up.  Sounded like a department you might find in Saint Nick’s workshop, not a car dealership.  I suspect the reason behind this renaming of the financial or billing department is because it works; it persuades people to buy the extended warranty.  Who doesn’t want their wishes fulfilled?

There aren’t many people who know the impact of words on an unsuspecting public like admen do.  It’s in their job description- it’s what they get paid for.  Hey!  That’s what I want, too!  I don’t write for the money, I write because I love it and because I just have to.  If there was no way to make money at it, I’d do it anyway.  Heck, so far that’s what I am doing.

Fact is, I want to be so good people want to read my words – lots of people – people who spend money to do it, preferably, like I do to read the words of others.   I’m not content to be the writer-darling of my extended family and friends.  I love them dearly and am always flattered by their opinions, but I have to suspect them of bias, so it’s not enough.  Call me a validation hound, but there it is.

In order for this to happen, my words have to be persuasive and plentiful.   The admen are restricted by the brevity inherent in thirty-second to one-minute ads audio or video ads, magazine pages and advertizing letters.  To date my pieces run the gamut of one hundred words to fifty thousand words.  In all those words, my goal has been to persuade readers to feel what my characters are feeling, anticipate or fear for what might happen next and be so wrapped up in the words that they weep, chew their bottom lip or laugh aloud.

So, when you read or hear something that moves or compels you, whether it’s from admen or novelists, pick apart how they did that and see how it might relate to your craft.  The world is truly an education.  The lessons are everywhere; avail yourselves then tell me what you learn.

Parentheses, ellipses and dashes, oh my!

I have to admit to a love affair with the three versatile punctuation marks in this post’s title.  But like too many love affairs, this one is driven by undemanding attraction, convenience and an avaricious need for immediate gratification.  Mind you there is a place for such pleasures.  What I’m finding out is that given further effort and a deeper goal, the written word can be deeply satisfying and more in-depth.

Let me explain.  More and more what I’m reading is rife with said punctuation.  The writing is cute, flashy and trendy.  Like I said, there is a place for that.  If I’m writing a piece that’s short and sassy, cute, flashy and trendy may be just what I want.  If, however, I’m writing a piece that aspires to win the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature or a Pulitzer, limiting the use of such razzle-dazzle would probably be prudent.  I know, I know, winning a Nobel or a Pulitzer is not the goal of writing.  I’m just trying to show the pendulum swing from ditzy prose (which I occasionally write on purpose) to Literature (notice the capital “L”.)  While it grates my last nerve when people discuss literature as if it has a capital “L” and does not include genre or speculative fiction, I’m using it to make my point – which I then had to qualify.  Yeah.  That will probably be another post.

I was watching the past season of  The Voice at Hulu.com.  I never seem to be in front of the television at the right time, so I try and watch The Voice, America’s Got Talent and Britain’s Got Talent on the computer.  I love those shows but sometimes I get bored and play solitaire or Mahjongg at the same time – or even (gasp) click through the rehash parts and the yadda-yadda-yadda.  My point is that when the coaches work with the contestants, they invariably tell them their remarkable abilities to warble and hit Cloud Nine with vocal temerity is admirable, but it has more impact if it’s done less often.  The point of delivering a song is to impact, not merely impress the listener.  Impress them and they go “Oooooh.  Wish I could sing like that.”  Impact them and they go “Oooooh.  Where can I buy that?”

I looked up the ins and outs of usage for each of these punctuation marks and more, but I don’t have room in this post to recap it for you.  So here’s your homework:  Look it up yourself.  I’ll even supply some reference sites.

There are proper and improper ways to go about even a relationship based on infatuation.  Really.

Here’s what I found:

http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/dashes-parentheses-commas.aspx

http://www.myenglishteacher.net/dashes.html

http://www.uhv.edu/ac/newsletters/writing/grammartip2005.10.25.htm

http://darcknyt.deviantart.com/journal/Dots-and-Dashes-The-Em-Dash-and-Ellipsis-214173994

http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/ellipsis.aspx

http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/how-to-use-ellipses.aspx

On reading and being read

I really enjoy reading.  I was a voracious reader as a kid.  My reading included several Jack London books from my grandmother’s bookcase and whatever caught my fancy at the library.  If it had animals in it (mostly horses) I’d read it, which included Black Beauty and Flicka, of course.   When babysitting, in my teenage years, I perused the parents’ bookshelves, two of whom were doctors – a  a child psychiatrist (his kids were a challenge) and a neurosurgeon.  There was a plethora of illustrated medical textbooks, and I found lots of pictures of gross anatomy.  When I say “gross” I don’t mean it in the medical sense.  Another gal for whom I frequently babysat had a copy of Mandingo by Kyle Onstott next to her easy chair.  Yowser!  That was definitely not young adult lit, and I couldn’t wait to babysit again and read the rest.  I was too embarrassed to ask if I could borrow it when she was done, and worried she’d tell my mom in any case.  Gasp!

That was then.  Now I have grown children of my own and even grandkids who are reading and one who is starting to write stories.  Be still my heart!  When I read now, it’s usually on the Kindle app on my iPhone.  Not only is it easier physically on my wrists and hands (I have carpal tunnel syndrome) but it’s backlit so I don’t have to keep a light on when I read in bed.  Best of all, though, is the built-in dictionary.  I can highlight a word and up pops the definition.  Technology is a wondrous thing.

I’m kind of a techno- and info-junky in as much as my pocketbook will allow.  My husband and kids will tell you I should lose the “kind of.”  As a result, when I read a book, I’m more than likely going to look things up beyond definitions.  For instance, I was reading Death Calls by Caridad Piñeiro and the main characters, who were in Miami and of Cuban descent, ate a take-out dish called ropa vieja.  I’d never heard of it, so I went online and found not only a definition but a recipe.  Now we eat it regularly, and love it.  By the way, ropa vieja is Spanish for “old clothes” and is a popular dish in many Latin countries.  One of the sources assumed “old clothes” was a metaphor for a throw-in-what-you-have stew.

Another of my favorite resources is Google Maps.  I was reading the Riley Jenson Guardian series by Keri Arthur, and again I had to act on my curiosity.  The author lives in Australia, and the series takes place there.  In one scene, the protagonist was in Melbourne, Australia, on Lygon Street, which she said was famous for its ethnic eateries.  (Do you detect a theme?)  I thought if it were a real street, it would be on Google Maps, so I entered Lygon Street, Melbourne, Au . . .  and clicked on the entire address when it popped up.  Bingo!  There was not only Lygon Street, but a row of flagged restaurants and other landmarks complete with phone numbers and addresses.  Since I wouldn’t be visiting other than virtually that didn’t matter, but it did put me in the right section of the street.  I grabbed the little guy on the top of the map’s scroll bar and put him on one end of the street, which brought my view down to street level.  From there, I coasted down the street and took a look around.  I didn’t even have to worry about driving down the wrong side of the street.

One day at work just after aquainting myself with Lygon Street, I had occasion to speak with a gentleman who was in Melbourne, Australia, and time to chat with him while I was looking up what he needed.  I told him about reading the book and looking around Lygon Street on Google Maps.  He knew the street and said it was known for Italian restaurants.  Must have been his favorite cuisine – I also saw, Greek, Thai, Mexican and lots more.  He also coached me in how to say Melbourne like a local (MEL-bǝn) and had me practice until he said I’d sound like a local as long as I didn’t say anything else.

What does all this mean to me the writer?  This world we live in is getting smaller all the time.  (I was going to say “exponentially” but I try to avoid buzz words that don’t really mean anything.)  I am not the only one who can say to myself, I wonder if that’s right? or I wonder what that looks like? and find out almost immediately.

One of my favorite authors, who shall remain nameless for the moment, turned her protag into a ferret, which she said was a rodent, and another character entered her into rat fights as just another rodent.  I didn’t have to look that one up – I’ve had ferrets.  They are not rodents; they’re carnivores who eat rodents.  They have fangs, not two long front teeth in the middle.  Due, I’m sure, to the lag between writing and publishing, it took two more books before her protag said something to the effect of “everyone knows ferrets aren’t rodents.”  Oops.  I felt bad for her.  When I had ferrets I found that lots of people mistakenly think they’re rodents.

As a writer, if you don’t know if something is possible or true, you’ll probably look it up.  The danger is those things you assume are true and don’t bother to look up.  Stephen King has confessed he hates to do research and it has come back to bite his backside more than once.

It’s something to keep in mind.  If it does happen to you just say, “Rats!” and know you’re in good company.

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