Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Book Review: Not Dark Yet, by Berit Ellingsen

Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen
Two Dollar Radio
ISBN: 978-1937412354
Fiction, 202 pages

I don't review a lot of books, but when I do it's because I really want to--I want to share something important and real that I think other writers and readers will enjoy and benefit from. That's why I'm  taking a look today at Not Dark Yet by author Berit Ellingsen, a writer who has enriched my world and inspired me to keep writing, keep striving, keep going, and always take the time to read a good book.

I first heard about Berit via Twitter, the best source I know for discovering books and authors I wouldn't usually have the chance to learn about. Thanks to so many bookstores disappearing from my neighborhood (three more have just gone bankrupt this past month), social media has become my primary source for literary browsing, and when I read a post about Berit and her collection of short stories: Beneath the Liquid Skin, I had to order the book, prontoNothing in my extensive reading life had prepared me for the power and originality of those stories, so naturally I couldn't wait to read her novel, Not Dark Yet. I don't think anything else I've read before or after can compare with either of these books.

Berit lives in Norway, and her work reflects a beautiful sense of place, an isolated starkness that is in direct contrast with much of my own experience. Even desert-y Albuquerque doesn't have the sharp, cold lunar feeling I get from her descriptions. Coupled with this strong geographic presence is a staggering sense of precision to every word she writes, an exactness that has me re-reading many of her sentences for the sheer pleasure of it. In many ways I consider her a "writer's writer" and after I finished reading Not Dark Yet I sat down with my journal to examine what it was that made me love this book so much. Here goes:
  • Setting. An unspecified future; a mysterious Nordic city; a world without clear boundaries, countries, or cultures: the world of Not Dark Yet is a mystery. Yet despite the deliberate masking of time and place, I don't think I read a a single description that left me wondering where I was, or what the characters were experiencing. As I read, I felt every needle of rain, every clod of mud, every veil of mist--and I was actually sorry that I couldn't live there--and this was a depiction of a world in chaos and dangerous change! I mean, what kind of skill makes an awful world attractive?
  • Characters. Main character Brandon Minamoto isn't your everyday protagonist (thank goodness). A complex near-loner with a troubled military history, Brandon is torn between the need to form relationships and the need to be true to himself. I sympathized with his plight every step of the way and was heartbroken when I had to say good-bye on the last page.
  • Plot. I hate plot-spoilers of any kind so I won't drop even a single hint, but I was hooked right from the beginning. I HAD to know: WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO BRANDON?? You'll have to read the book to find out, but his story arc kept me glued to my seat.
  • Writing Style. Oh, wow. There is a zen-like simplicity and clarity to Berit's voice and style that I admire immensely. Seemingly matter-of-fact and terse on the surface, each sentence builds toward the next, roiling on your sub-conscious like some menacing monolithic disaster threatening to change everything you know or believe is true. It's rare to come across so much power in a deceptively plain-spoken sentence, and I found myself constantly wondering how she managed to control it.
  • Subject Matter. I hesitate to call Not Dark Yet science fiction, but I can't think of another category that would fit as well. Sci-fi isn't usually my first choice when choosing a book, but when it goes in the direction of also being character-driven literary fiction, I'm a fan. Not Dark Yet is an excellent example of how to blend (and bend) genre distinctions to good advantage, and one I wish more books would emulate.
  • Metaphor. I've always been impressed with Berit's use of metaphor and symbolism. Whether the focus is on food, the weather, or just getting dressed for a holiday--each scene, story event, or snippet of back story is rich with added-value meaning and subtext.
  • Discussion Points. Which brings me to my favorite thing about this book: I could talk about it all day. It's a book that makes me think. Good literature should lead to great (and memorable) conversation, and I can't imagine anyone not having an opinion or strong feelings about what happens to Brandon and the rest of the cast. In other words, it's the perfect book club book--especially if club members enjoy digging deep and aren't afraid to not always agree on social issues, character motivation, or "what would you do?" if placed in Brandon's shoes. Strong stuff.
So with all that said, I think I have to read the book again. Not Dark Yet is quirky, original, and packed with secrets--the kind you can't wait to unravel and sit with for a long while after. I found the book extremely compelling and one that has stirred my curiosity and desire to learn more, write more, and even try my hand at some fan-art. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy an authentic book of ideas and a serious voyage of self-discovery. Five stars from me--six if I could!

Tip of the Day: Be sure to check out Berit Ellingsen and her wonderful books. After all, to a writer it's love and reading that makes the world go 'round!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Pushing Past the Middle




Writing a series of poems based on my trip to Taiwan last year wasn't on my 2016 to-do list. It really wasn't, but now that it's appeared, I can happily say I've battled through and my first draft is well and truly finished. Yay!

That said, it wasn't an easy journey, especially when I reached a place several weeks ago where I was well and truly stuck: right smack dab in the middle. I was uninspired, tired, and beginning to worry that the whole project was a major distraction and a waste of time.

Reaching the middle of any project rarely feels like a victory. Instead, all I can usually think of is how much more work I have to do to finishSo when I found myself in the middle of A Taiwan Sketchbook (my working title) rather than writing the second draft of my new novel, Ghazal, I suddenly realized how long it had taken me to get to where I was, and how much more effort I had to put into the project before I could type THE END. Just thinking about all those hours of work ahead of me sent me to the couch and a headache.

While I was lying there, feeling both guilty and utterly defeated, I thought of all the stages of my project that had brought me to where I was, starting with my GRAND IDEA:
  • The excitement of STARTING. It was so much fun. I love starting new projects. All that anticipation, planning, preparing new notebooks and buying new pens. Nothing better!
  • Once all my tools were in place, the next stage centered around starting new rituals, new schedules, new dedication--writing every day, staying on track, marking my progress on a calendar.
  • And then . . . I had to skip a day. An appointment, having to stay late at work, no food in the house . . . 
  • So I had to put in double-duty the next time I sat down to write to make up for lost time.
  • Which meant: this is starting to feel like WORK. Where'd the fun go?
  • Before I knew it, I was in the MIDDLE of a project and it all seemed like chaos and hell and something that would take me the rest of my life to complete, if I ever survived to tell the tale.
The thing about all this, however, is it's happened to me so often it's nothing new. I know in advance that there will always come a day in my writing when resistance looms large, quitting sounds wonderful, and I'd rather be reading or painting. I've been on that same couch with the same headache so many times before, and yet, guess what? I've always started writing again. Here's how you can too:
  • Give up--yes! At least for the moment. Stay on the couch, read, watch a movie, take a break. If you really have reached the middle of your work, you deserve a little time off!
  • When you feel rested, start back at the beginning when you got those nice writing supplies. Organize what you have already accomplished into new folders and binders; brainstorm and create lists of what you need to do to finish.
  • Forget about order and following an outline. Write the scenes or portions of your work you want to write, don't worry about transitions or a table of contents.
  • Concentrate on your ending first. Write your last scene (or poem, or paragraph depending on what it is you're working on) and craft the rest of your story to fit your conclusion or theme.
  • Calculate how much time it took you to reach the middle. Now assign that same amount of time, plus an extra few weeks or so for emergencies, and give yourself a deadline. Write it down on a calendar.
  • Work fast. Remember this is first draft stuff. Just get there--it doesn't matter how!
If you've tried all this, though, and do discover that your heart truly isn't in a project, give yourself permission to stop, maybe even quit. Don't toss any of your work, but simply put it away and move on to something new. And if you find yourself missing the project at a later date, but you're not sure how to re-start it, evaluate what it was that kept you from continuing. Was it your choice of genre, voice, or style? Were you being too ambitious and trying to add too many (and superfluous) elements to your story-line? Were you trying to please readers rather than yourself? Spend a few days journaling about your situation and then see if things are really as bad as you thought they were. With any luck and a lot of determination you should be able to find some valuable solutions. 

Tip of the Day: Stuck in the middle of your WIP? Brainstorm! Create a list of 100 new "what-if's" and scenes. See which ones can inject fresh energy into your manuscript. And always keep in mind, once you've passed "the middle," it's all downhill from there!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Shake Up Your Writer's Group!


This month my writer's group is trying something new: art journaling together. It isn't the first time we've "changed the rules" and jumped into fresh territory, but adding artwork to our writing is a bit of a departure for us. 

To start things off, we agreed to each choose a special sketchbook or journal to work in. In keeping with many of my "how wrong can this go" attempts to get things right, I chose a sketchbook that came with impossible-to-remove stickers on both the front and back covers. After an hour of attempting to remove them, I ended up with a thousand little bits of paper still clinging on like limpets, as well as some deep gouges and tears in the cardboard. Solution? Start my art journal with some cover collage!



Lemonade out of lemons, right? 

Despite my somewhat rough start to the project, I think it's going well. We've had two art journal-based meetings so far; chosen themes for our journals (I've only changed mine twice); written down our intentions for our journaling practice, and started filling pages.

Regardless of whether we're working on journaling, short stories, or poetry, our group meets every two weeks, usually in a bookstore or museum cafe, and the one thing we've always done is have fun. The second objective that has kept our group strong and lively is that we concentrate on writing together rather than critiquing. It's made a difference to a) not have "homework assignments" between meetings; b) be able to support each other's creativity without playing editor, imposing our opinions where they don't really belong, and/or stifling a work at any stage of the draft-process. 

Writing together has had all sorts of benefits, new manuscripts being the least of them. More than anything we've learned to: 
  • Write on demand regardless of where we are, how we're feeling, or how lousy we think our work is at any given time. 
  • Be fearless. After we write, we read aloud. Although we've always provided the option to not read if something feels too personal or too raw for sharing, I've never known any one of us to use that option. 
  • Ink. In every color of the rainbow. We write by hand when we get together, and the results have never been anything less than impressive. (Hear that, writer's group? You are fantastic writers!!)
Some of the other ways we've kept the inspiration high has been to:
  1. Write flash fiction or poetry using word and picture prompts cut from magazines. Sometimes we'll all use the same picture, e.g., a strange setting, an evocative character, or an unusual object. At other times we'll combine them, or have a little package of our own (passed out during the meeting) containing two or three individual images. I never cease to be amazed at how different our stories are, or how publication-ready the writing is. 
  2. Go for timed writing. We give ourselves anywhere between thirty to forty-five minutes to write. Once the time is up, it's pens down. 
  3. Take field trips. We haven't had as many of these as I would like (note to group: take more trips!), but the trips we have taken have been unforgettable. I'm especially thinking of the time we all went up to Santa Fe and back by train. 
  4. Bring pot-luck brunch and meet at someone's house. Yum. 
  5. Treat ourselves to a restaurant lunch. No clean-up involved. We had pizza last time. Super yum. 
  6. Watch a how-to video together. Great for discussion (and eating. We combined the video with another pot-luck.). 
  7. White elephant parties. We got so good at this we've had to give them up, but essentially what we did was bring unwanted items from home, play a silly game to hand them around, and anything we didn't want was collected and taken to the thrift store the next day. Now that we're all beautifully de-cluttered, we've decided to keep our homes as junk-free as possible meaning the parties are over, but they were entertaining while they lasted.
I can't wait to see how our art journaling experiment works out. Although we are pretty much trying a free-form approach, we are also using this helpful list of 50 ideas I found at Blacksburg Belle for when we get stuck and need a small prompt (or a big shove). This motivational blog is loaded with lots of other excellent creative tips, so I highly recommend a visit. In the meantime, get out those glue sticks, write your hearts out, and keep the lemonade flowing.

Tip of the Day: Break out of the box. Even if you love your writer's group exactly the way it is, it never hurts to shake things up a bit. Meet somewhere new, read a book together, brainstorm some fresh possibilities. Drop a line a let me know how it's going.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Break Out of Your Shell!

"Mussel Shells"
Faber-Castell Polychromos Pencils
on Canson Pastel Paper
The drawing challenge from my color pencil group this month was to draw seashells. As you can see, I tackled four of them including the inside surfaces. Despite my initial resistance (too hard, too repetitive, not my thing, etc., etc.), I learned a lot from this exercise, much of which can be also be applied to my writing life, starting with practice, practice, practice. 

Thanks to my reluctance to start, I procrastinated like a pro. I answered email, cleaned my house, wrote more poetry; anything to avoid drawing. Finally the day came when I either had to get to work or go to my group empty-handed, aka "being a quitter." Not my favorite option. So with deep misgivings I started in with just one. Hmm. Not so bad. So I tried another. And another. And before I knew it I had drawn all four. Hey, I did it! Which made me realize:
  1. Repetition is valuable. One of the main things holding me back was fear of boredom: how could I draw four similar shells without losing my mind? The truth, however, was very different: first, the shells were NOT similar, and second, by repeating the process several times my technique improved as I got to the last shell. Practice, practice, practice! Whether you want to improve your drawing, write exciting action scenes or learn the intricacies of arranging a pantoum, it takes more than one attempt to get it right.
  2. Don't hide away in your "I can't do it" shell. Rather than setting yourself up for failure by aiming for the most incredible work in the whole of human history, start a dreaded project by drawing or writing in your most basic style: just get some shapes or words down on paper. Once that's done, tweak a little here, add a little there--before you know it your right-brain will be engaged and intrigued with all the possibilities. At this point, I dare you to stop.
  3. Shells make great writing and art journal prompts. The first time I wrote about a seashell in my art journal was an entry about playing with my grandmother's collection of shells from the Gulf of Mexico when I was a little girl. I loved holding those shells to my ear and "listening to the sea." You might have a similar memory, or you might want to write about your first trip to the beach, or your own collection of seaside finds. On the fiction side, including a seashell in a short story, poem, or novel could trigger all sorts of themes, associations, and plot twists--especially if the shell is rare and valuable!
  4. Artwork isn't always about drawing. How about brushing some ink or paint onto a shell and using it as a stamp in your art journal or mixed-media piece? Or pressing a shell into earthen or polymer clay? Drilling a hole into the top of a shell to add to a jewelry piece? Or simply painting and/or collaging the shell itself for a whole new look? 
  5. Using shells for meditation and mindfulness. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant, there's something profound about a seashell. Whether it's the patterning, the colors, or just the fact it once housed and protected some small and distant creature, shells make a good start to pondering life's mysteries. Add them to household altars, your writing room or studio, your garden or any other kind of creative sanctuary you like to visit. Personally I like to keep them all over the house in various nooks and crannies. 
Shells have always fascinated me, but that's no reason to take them literally and hide out inside one of my own. The drawing challenge for July is to draw green leaves. I'm so fired-up by the prospect I'm going to start and base an entire art journal on the subject. No hesitation, no holding back, just going for it. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme! 

Tip of the Day: One of the things I love about drawing is how it relaxes and pulls me into what I could almost call a different dimension. Memories; new ideas for writing; the book I'm currently reading: my mind seems to just float along with the tide. While I was working on my seashell piece I was reminded of one of my favorite books that I hadn't thought of for a long time: Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea. If you've never read it, or haven't read it for a long time, I can't think of a better text to check out for summer inspiration. Enjoy!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Sssh: Writer At Sleep


Sleep, glorious sleep--for a long time it's eluded me, and from what I hear, many of my creative friends have much the same problem. For roughly about the last two years, I've spent most nights tossing and turning, my mind going a zillion-miles-per-hour as I worry over plot lines, imaginary illnesses, remembering I have to pay a bill in two weeks, and oh, don't forget to return those library books by the weekend. . . . On and on. I'd say it's been a nightmare, except I haven't enjoyed any of the sleep that goes with a bad dream! If I got four hours a night in Slumberland, I considered myself lucky.

And then I got my Bucky pillow. Oh, my goodness.

I don't endorse many products outside of recommending some of my favorite art supplies, but I felt compelled this morning to tell everyone about my new pillow. I've had it for exactly two weeks now, and during these two weeks I've slept right through the night, EVERY NIGHT! Peeps, this is a miracle.

One of the reasons (I'm pretty sure) that I've had so much trouble sleeping is that I haven't used a pillow for decades. Every pillow I've ever tried has given me a headache, tried to suffocate me, or slid off the mattress (either that or I've thrown it overboard). Things got so bad a few weeks ago I even contemplated buying a new mattress. Then, out of the blue, I thought of trying a buckwheat pillow. Prior to this I had only read about these pillows in Japanese novels, and I've always been intrigued by the concept. However, the time had come to stop wondering and discover for myself what they were all about. 

I went to my local European-style pharmacy and sure enough they had them for sale (and on sale!). I bought two--one for me, one for my husband, and that first night I slept and slept and slept like I would never wake up. It's been that way ever since. I can't believe it. My husband is sleeping much better, too. Over the weekend I asked him if he wanted to go back to his old pillow. His reply? "Never!"

The pillows I bought for us are organic buckwheat on one side, millet on the other. They're smaller than a standard bed pillow, can be configured in a variety of heights and densities, and provide the best neck and shoulder support I've ever experienced. Although I have no scientific proof to back me up here (so please don't quote me), I have a feeling that the pillow is hitting all the right acupressure points in the back of my skull to induce sleep. I can't think of what else it can be, but whatever it is, it's truly amazing!

Sleep is vital to creativity. Heck, it's vital to life! I can't overstate how much better I'm feeling during the day, and how much less back pain I wake up with (currently none at all. Keeping my fingers crossed. . . .)

My next purchase will be to buy the Bucky travel versions of this incredible invention. Now that I've become such a total fan I can't imagine leaving home without one. And as my husband says, in case of global disaster, we can always eat them. A good deal, all round, I'd say.

Tip of the Day: There are many brands and types of buckwheat pillows available, "Bucky" being only one of them. But if you're suffering from any kind of insomnia or sleep-related problem, changing over to this type of pillow might be just the answer you're looking for. And if it doesn't work for you at night, I think you'll still be pleased at the way it makes an extremely firm and supportive head-rest for reading in bed or on the couch. Sweet dreams!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Poem Sketching

From my weekend sketchbook: Pentel Stylo pen, Sumi ink, and watercolor.
I've been studying Chinese painting techniques, especially trees--
very meditative and just right for poetry!

How did it get to be June? And how have I managed to skip out on blogging for so many weeks? It seems like the A-Z challenge was only a few days ago . . . 

May was a hectic month: Someone drove into my new car (all fixed now, yay!), I wrote at least ten versions of a new query letter and synopsis of The Abyssal Plain (finally settling on one I liked, thank goodness), and my day job was intense--I went to the post office so often it's a wonder they didn't offer me a cot so I could just stay the night.

So in between driving here, there, and everywhere and buying postage, I started writing poetry, and then I started sketching poetry illustrations, and before I knew it, I was living on another planet--a secret creative place that shut out the whole world. I didn't Tweet, I didn't email (sorry, email friends), I didn't blog, I just zoned out and concentrated on doing what I wanted to do: write and draw. 

The poems, as well as the drawings, are based on my trip to Taiwan last year. Ever since I got home I've been trying to duplicate my feelings and experiences through my artwork, but there always seemed to be something missing. Now I know it was the words to go with my pictures. While I was still searching for those missing pieces, I knew I didn't want to write some sort of travelogue (I did enough of that in my Taiwan Travel Diary blog posts), and I certainly didn't want to start a new novel or short story collection. But I wanted to express myself in some strong and meaningful way, and poetry seemed to be the perfect vehicle.

I try to write at least one poem a day, basing it on various aspects of my journey: from riding the bus, to savoring tea and cake while thinking about monkeys in a museum tea shop. To get the ball rolling, I use a brainstorming technique I learned in Writing From the Inside Out by Sandford Lyne. Before I start writing, I take a piece of paper and head up two columns: one titled "Inner" and the other "Outer." "Inner" is for everything that involves feeling, e.g., what were my thoughts, emotions, even my state of health? "Outer" is for everything that was happening around me, including the weather as well as the people, places, and details of what I observed. Once I have all my memories and notes in place, I weave them together into a poetry draft, seeking connections and making leaps into new directions for more writing. It's a helpful and enjoyable process, and sometimes it almost seems as if the poems write themselves.

The most exciting part of this new work, however, is that I now have a good use for my paintings of Taiwan, as well as a reason to continue painting them: illustration! Best of all, I can use the same pen to draw and write with, LOL!

Old tree trunk: Pentel Stylo pen, sumi ink, 
and Japanese watercolor.

Tip of the Day: You don't have to be a published poet or MFA candidate to write poetry. All you need to be is someone in love with words and the chance to play with language. The next time you sit down to journal or freewrite, try putting your feelings into a poem. It doesn't have to rhyme or have verses, or even have proper line breaks--it just needs to be you experimenting on the page with a fresh approach. If you need some inspiration, read a few published poets first and then try the "Inner and Outer" technique to organize your thoughts and feelings.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

#AtoZChallenge 2016 Reflections



I knew May was going to be a busy month, but what nobody told me was that instead of blogging every day, I'd be building a new website every day. Believe me, it's not something I wanted to do, but my web hosting service is in the process of upgrading and I've been notified to go with the flow or get left behind. Consequently I’ve had to learn a whole new set of tech-skills faster than you can say "pixel" and my head is still spinning. At this point in the game I'd do just about anything to set back the clock and return to the simple world of going through my ABC's. At least I have next April to look forward to!

Before I landed in this big website morass, one of the things that made this year's A-Z challenge so special for me was my theme of art journaling. To make my posts authentic, I had to create a daily art journal page to illustrate what I was writing about. Despite the extra work, I feel I got much more out of the challenge than I bargained for; I love the small journal I created for the month and it will always be a “Yes, I can do it!” reminder and reward for participating.

Besides the fun of creating a new journal, other benefits I received from the challenge include:

  • Learning I could write under pressure. During the challenge I still had to go to my day job and fulfill all my other routine obligations. But I always posted!
  • Learning that I could create an art journal with limited time and resources. You can do a lot with a little—no excuses.
  • Met many great bloggers--and from all over the world.
  • Felt easier than I usually do about opening up and sharing without my inner critic interfering. There just wasn’t any time to listen to her cautionary ranting. (Thank goodness.)
  • I felt comfortable calling myself a “blogger.” Often I just consider myself an author with a blog and that's the end of it. But I like blogging, and I enjoy having my blog. So I guess it's okay to call myself an honest-to-goodness real-life blogger!
  • I particularly liked having the routine and discipline of posting every day. Although I won’t be able to maintain that kind of schedule (once or twice a week fits my life much better) it made me realize how I can use that same time for a creative exercise every day, and with satisfying results.

So will I return for 2017? You bet! I had a great time with the challenge, and I hope you did too, bloggers and readers alike. Thank you to the A-Z team who made this exciting event possible, and thank you to everyone who took the time to visit and comment on my pages. 

Finally, and as promised, I have selected (using Random.org) a winner from my visitors who commented on my posts over the month for a copy of Overtaken! Name to be announced in my next post. See you then!

Tip of the Day: In order to participate in the challenge, I gave myself about an hour every day to both write my posts and work on my accompanying art journal pages. By carving out just a little extra time I found I could do a lot. The secret was in telling myself I had to do this—I had promised, I was committed. Now that the challenge is over, what can you commit to with that same dedication? Blogging, painting, journaling, beading? Whatever you choose, promise yourself you'll do it--seize the day.