Thursday, December 31, 2009

Saying Goodbye to 2009

Last post of the year and I want to thank everyone who has visited my blog and web site, added comments, and taken the time to buy and read my books. Thank you so much! I appreciate each and every one of you.

2009 was a year of huge achievements for me. The short list includes:

  • Publishing The Great Scarab Scam and Better Than Perfect.
  • Maintaining this blog.
  • Taking a refresher clay class and becoming so inspired I bought my own kiln.
  • Traveling to Frankfurt, Germany in April and Portland, Oregon in November.
  • Joining Twitter (!).
  • Sharing a year's worth of company and inspiration with my writing group.
  • Learning all about art journals and even starting one.
  • Editing an important nonfiction book for a writing client (and meeting my deadline).
  • Writing all 50,000 Nanowrimo words on time and actually finishing the manuscript--hurray!
As I close out this post, I also want to say a big thank you to all the writers, artists, and mentors who have encouraged me to stay on the creative path and to never give up. I want to pass that same message on to you. No matter how difficult your day or year may seem, take at least 30 minutes out of your 24/7 to write at least one page, cut out some pictures from a magazine, or sketch a few gesture drawings. Always honor your creative spirit and never make it "second" or "third" or "last of all" on your to-do list. Wishing you a happy and safe New Year's Eve and a wonderful 2010. See you next year!
Tip of the Day: List your 2009 achievements and successes. I know you must have dozens of them. Congratulate yourself on a job well done!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Favorite Reads of 2009

My favorite books this year are mainly the ones I found at the library or bookstore by sheer chance and lovely coincidence. 2009 was also the year I probably read fewer books than at any other time in my life except for my first three when I was still illiterate. The problem was that in between publishing my own books, The Great Scarab Scam and Better Than Perfect (definitely favorites of the year!) and working full time, I was usually too tired to get beyond page one of many of the books I tried to read. A plot or subject had to be pretty compelling to get my attention this year and the following books are what pulled me in and kept me reading right through till the end.

Best Fiction: Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami.
I had been waiting to read this book for a long time, ten years! I found a copy at the library by accident while I was looking for an entirely different title, don’t ask me what. Seeing a few of Murakami’s books on the bottom shelf reminded me that I had wanted to read Norwegian Wood but had never got around to it. This particular library copy was a miserable, stained, dog-eared, and torn paperback I would normally pass up on hygiene reasons alone, but I wanted to read it so badly I ignored my squeamishness. Norwegian Wood was first recommended to me by some friends who belonged to a Japanese book club in Atlanta. Japanese fiction has long been one of my favorite genres. Ever since I discovered Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse as a teenager, once again perusing the shelves of a small, suburban library in Auckland, New Zealand, I’ve been hooked. I love the straightforward clean prose of Japanese authors, and I’m intrigued by their somewhat harsh, maybe even nihilistic outlook. Japan has always been a country I have wanted to travel to, perhaps because of my reading. Norwegian Wood lived up to all my expectations: dark, stark, and the equivalent of reading very pure jazz. I never wanted it to end. Now I want to go to Japan more than ever.

Best Poetry (and Nonfiction, too): Rilke and Andreas-Salome; A Love Story in Letters. Translated by Edward Snow and Michael Winkler. I love Rilke’s poetry but had no intention of buying this book until the night my book club got yelled at. For some inexplicable reason the management of the bookstore where we used to meet went ballistic that night, saying we “took up space and never bought anything.” Not true! I still dread going to my book club every month because I always come home with an armload of books. While explaining this to the manager, I picked up the nearest book in the store and said, “See? I’m buying this one right now!” I grabbed a purple sketchbook as well just to make my point, and I’ve been delighted with both purchases ever since. But boy was I mad. Still seething all the way home, I had no idea what I had bought except that it was something about Rilke. And what a something it turned out to be: a biography in letters filled with poetry, heartache, longing, and a lot of complaining. Rilke was very whiney, as well as fascinating, a genius, and a poet without equal. Lou Andreas-Salome, the recipient of his letters, was spectacular in her own right, too. Many of her letters back to Rilke are also included. This book is truly a keeper.

Best Rediscovered Classic: Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte. This was a book club selection and when it was first announced no one other than the member who had chosen it wanted to read it. No way were we going back to tenth-grade English class and besides “we all knew the story.” Or so we thought. Re-reading Wuthering Heights was a shocking experience to say the least. When I first read it at fifteen, I thought it was romantic, rebellious, and exciting. As an adult—the book was horrifying! Hateful, spiteful, vicious characters locked in a macabre dance of fate and misogyny; I was compelled to read every line. The Brontes were freaks of nature. Where they really came from, what planet they were channeling, and how they wrote so well will be always be a mystery I’ll never be able to solve. (And I do know "Bronte" should have an umlaut over the "e." I just couldn't find how to get it there!!)

Honorable Mentions: The year wouldn’t have been complete without The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory and The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. I loved both of these books. The Other Boleyn Girl was beautifully written, and despite years and years of reading books on Henry VIII and his many wives, I couldn't stop reading this one. I just had to “find out what happens” as if somehow the events of history were going to miraculously change and reveal an entirely different ending. I kept telling myself I was nuts to be so glued to such a familiar story, but Gregory’s writing is compulsive. The Gargoyle was special in that it was such a surprise: lyrical storytelling combined with the horrors of a burn ward; not a combination I would ever have thought readable let alone likeable or entertaining. While some parts were difficult to read through (warning: the descriptions of injury and pain are graphic) they were well worth the effort. A book I won’t soon forget.

Tip of the Day: It’s the holidays! Give in to your cravings and read like there’s no tomorrow. Reading fills a writer’s soul. The need to read should always be honored and respected.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Rewriting the Fairy Tale; Little Goldie


Baby Bear wanted to keep her.

“Papa,” I said, “we’ve spoiled that child. He’s had the comfiest chair, the smoothest porridge, the best bed. But I draw the line at blond girls who don’t know better than to break into a stranger’s house and mess up my housekeeping. He can’t have everything his heart desires, you know.”

Baby wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Instead, he threw one royal fit. He was growing up and I didn’t like the look in his eyes or the way he flashed his claws--reckless and sharp as razors. He was always leaving huge marks on the door frames we’d just had varnished not two months ago.

“No,” I said, dodging those claws. “You cannot keep her.”

Goldilocks pretended to be asleep. But she couldn’t fool me. I’d seen her kind before: cunning behind those Shirley Temple curls, those dimples, those shiny Mary Janes. I knew what a girl like that could do with her “Yes, ma’ams” and “No, ma’ams.” She wasn’t coming to live with us, no thank you.

Papa Bear ignored the whole thing. Instead, he left in a huff and went back to the woods. After that, it was just me and the girl and Baby, except he wasn’t a baby anymore. Frankly, I was afraid of him. I was almost ready to give him the girl and be done with it. Then I thought of what it might be like making porridge and feather beds for the two of them and what about down the road? Who could say they’d stop at two? “No,” I said. “You cannot keep her.”

It was no good. She stayed anyway and it was just like I thought. My porridge was always cold from rushing around waiting on those two lugs and making sure everything was “just right” for Little Miss.

Things went from bad to worse. That fancy pinafore was just one long streak of mud before those long curls became as tangled as a bird’s nest. I felt sorry for her then, what with Baby Bear tormenting her day and night, bringing her centipedes and crawfish, farting and burping and pulling her hair. She was just pitiful in the end. When he got bored with her, he threw her to me while he went out to join his father.

I tried to clean her up but I was too clumsy. “Run away, little girl,” I crooned into her mossy ear. “Run away or I’ll blow your house down.”

“That’s the wrong story,” she said.

“Well, if you’re so smart, sing your own damn song.” She grabbed the brush and turned her back on me. I wanted to spit, but all I said was, “Look here, missy. You just stay out of my way and we’ll get on fine.”

A half hour later I saw her out there in the yard eating those centipedes and crawdads. The look on her face was terrible. I could tell she hated every bite but I also knew there was something she was trying to feed. Those cubs were taking their toll on her, but there was nothing I could do.

By the time the cubs were born I knew she wasn’t right in the head anymore. “Don’t you even want to name them?”

“You can call them Hansel and Gretel for all I care.”

I looked down at Hansel and Gretel. Talk about the wrong story. Gretel was as gold and wooly as a little lamb. Hansel looked good enough to eat. They sure were cute, more’s the pity when I knew what I had to do--sell ‘em and recoup my housekeeping expenses. That Bo Peep was always crying about how she’d lost her sheep, and everyone knew the Beast’s wife lived to take on lost causes. Nobody would blame me for doing a good deed. Before I could think too much about it, I bundled the cubs in blankets from Baby Bear’s own bed then carried them into town.

I took the first offer I got--a handful of beans from a woman leading a brindle cow. It wasn’t much, but the way I saw it, at least with a cow the cubs would never go hungry. I didn’t want to tell Papa about what might not be seen as the world’s best deal, so when I got home I just threw the beans out the window. Looking back, I think providence was guiding my paw.

As soon as the first stalk appeared, Little Goldie was off in a flash. I never saw a creature climb with the speed of that child. Maybe whoever’s up there will have better luck getting her tidied up and talking sense. Anything’s better than what she got here.

It’s been three weeks while I sit in the shade of my vines, everyone gone. I’ve taken the best bed for myself and my porridge always turns out perfect. Baby and Papa are off somewhere in the woods. It’s no concern of mine; they can drink swamp water for all I care. Sometimes I can almost believe there really is a place called Happily Ever After.

Tip of the Day: It’s fun to play with fairy tales, turning them upside down and inside out. Try taking one of your favorites and rewriting it to a different beat. Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Where Do We Go From Here? First Round of Nanowrimo Revisions

Yay! Nanowrimo is over. Congratulations to all those who reached 50K! I managed to scrape over the finishing line on Sunday night and what a relief it was, too. But as I mentioned in my last post, despite reaching a 50K word count, Ghazal is still very much incomplete. But not for long. I’m devoting the whole of December to getting it finished and then it’s on to tackling the first stage of revisions.

Because Ghazal was based on a series of random word and photo prompts, it’s also a bit of a mess (read "total disaster area.") I have a lot of work to do and the following checklist is what needs to be done before I can move on to rewriting and wordsmithing.

1. Make sure this first draft is really finished. No matter how full of loose ends, blank space, and dangling heroines I may end up with—I want to do my best to tell a complete story. It’s too easy to hide the manuscript away because I don’t know where the story is going, and rewriting too soon or before I reach the end is a sure way to never get there. So I want to keep writing for a few weeks.

2. As soon as I know I truly have reached “The End” the first thing I want to do is analyze and flesh out my characters: who are they, do they have their correct names, where do they live, and why do I care about them? This will be the time I write up their biographies and detailed back stories, merge some secondary characters into one, and even get rid of some altogether.

3. Conflict. Do I have enough? I always ask myself three questions: What is the outer story conflict? What is the inner story conflict? And how are they resolved? Knowing the answer to these three will automatically write the bulk of my synopsis for me.

4. Setting, or is my story really where I want it to be? Why did I choose these particular locales? If you’re like me and have written huge blocks of description to help boost your word count, hey—keep those descriptions handy! What you want to do is separate them from the places where they are slowing down your action and set them aside for later. When you begin your serious page-by-page rewrite you can then chop them up and sprinkle in a few lines at a time to add color and context to your various scenes.

4. Research. I’ll make a list of everything I need to find out and where I need to go to get this information.

5. Details. Highlight all those wonderful and unique details and look for story symbols: e.g., an old umbrella, a favorite book, a child’s blanket. Items such as these can represent the story theme and should never be overlooked as “minor.” Note: If you can’t find a story symbol in the pages you’ve written or you don’t like the ones you do have, make at least one up now. Story symbols can be the basis of some of your most poignant and/or important scenes.

6. Search for a theme. Themes used to give me a lot of trouble. I never wanted to think of them, probably a leftover from being assigned too many uninspired school essays or cringing from the smug little morals at the end of clich├ęd children’s books. But I’ve since discovered that a good theme is simply what your characters, especially your main characters, have learned in the course of the story. The trick is to not make it obvious, with someone saying at the end of the book: “And I’ll never play with matches again!”

7. My final task is to decide on my genre. Once again, because Nanowrimo is based on writing like crazy to achieve a desired word count, it’s easy to mesh and confuse genres to the point of absurdity. Now is the time to figure out where my book will fit on a bookstore shelf. I want to say “literary” but I find I’m more drawn to “experimental” or even “graphic novel” because I’m playing with the idea of including artwork. The point is to find and settle on one genre that best describes the book and to then focus all future rewriting toward that market. Once that’s done I’ll be changing or eliminating any scenes and chapters that no longer serve that genre.

Tip of the Day: The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript is my book designed to go with my series of writing workshops. Much of the book covers how to organize and plan your writing along the same lines I’ve discussed above: e.g., creating character bios, finding the conflict in your manuscript, and going to market. In many ways it's an entire workshop in a book. Check out a copy today!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Who Are You Writing For? Nanowrimo Week 4

I hope the answer is that you’re writing for yourself.
Because unlike the rest of the year, for one entire glorious month Nanowrimo gives us permission to abandon thinking about “the market.” Instead of worrying about query letter techniques or whether Aunt Edna will be offended when we use bad words in our manuscript or whether vampires are still “in” or if anybody is reading family sagas these days, we can let go and write what we darn well please. Nanowrimo is your free pass to find out what you and only you love to write about.

The other night when I was struggling to bring my word count to a reasonable level before getting too far behind, my husband asked me if I “really needed another manuscript.” Well, of course I don’t. I’ve got manuscripts coming out of my ears, closets, and overstuffed filing cabinets. Having another manuscript at this stage of my writing life isn’t the point. What I do need to learn and be reminded of is that I have the self-discipline and desire to write at all. With Nanowrimo I have the opportunity to fall in love with writing all over again because in many ways it is the writing closest to my heart.

One thing I am certain of is that if and when I reach the required 50K mark to “win” Nanowrimo this year, my story will be far from finished. I don’t just mean that it will need a complete revision and ruthless editing; I mean I won’t be writing the words “The End” at the close of November 30. The main reason for this is it has taken me most of the month to discover and learn what the heck I am doing when I sit down for my daily writing sessions. When I started this crazy Nano journey, I had a rough vision that my plot would involve the theme of symbolic life doorways and the passing of time and what it means to live a life worth living.

With the best of intentions I dutifully picked up my pen and began writing on November 1 about a character named Robert Moreno and his family’s love of tamales. Don’t ask why—it just happened that way. Maybe because there was a Mexican restaurant in the airport where I was writing at the time. From there I followed Robert until for some bizarre reason I ended up at a convent and nuns doing laundry. The manuscript got sillier and sillier, more like a comic farce than the literary masterpiece I was aiming for. But then out of the blue I started following the thread of a story about one of the young novices and my original blueprint came back to me. Everything started falling into place as I began to explore in depth what it means for a young girl to go against her parents, society, and to break away from everything she has been raised to respect and believe in. Finally, at Week Four I can say I am engaged with both my manuscript and my characters and yes, I do need them very, very much.

2010 is going to be a crazy year for me as I suspect it might be for you too. I have a new book scheduled for publication in the summer and two manuscripts I want to get into serious shape for submission. But sneaking in through the back of these plans I know I will also be working on finishing Ghazal at the same time. I’m excited that this story came into my life. Even if I don’t reach my 50K, I’ll have gained much more than I could have imagined. I’ll have gained Robert Moreno and Hillary Stuart and the kind of insights into life and love that can only be gained by writing about them.


So to those of you still pounding away at your keyboards or refilling your fountain pens, I salute you. And to those who have perhaps drifted away because you have become a little fearful or tired or bored or feeling defeated, come on—back to work! The goal is still in sight, and believe me, it’s not the 50K. It’s that wonderful story that only you could write and it’s hungry for your attention.

Tip of the day: No matter where you are in your word count, don’t give up. Your story needs you and you need your story. It just takes one word at a time and I know you can do it. Let’s go!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Crossing the Himalayas; Nanowrimo Week 3

Week Three of Nanowrimo is to me at least, a little bit like crossing the Himalayas with a big purple handbag and a paper umbrella. Not that I’ve ever attempted any such thing of course, not even with the right equipment, but I can imagine the cold, the fear, the exhilaration of simply surviving without a safety net. And survival is the key word for our third week.

By now some of you may be either loving or hating your stories. I’m somewhere in the middle. One good thing is that I had a breakthrough last week when I finally got my random characters to meet up with each other. A whole new plot development much more in keeping with my original intention of working with the theme of “doorways” appeared and I’ve been much happier with the way things are moving.

In case you’re currently stuck in the “hating the manuscript” stage, here are some tricks that under normal circumstances would make an editor want to strangle you but can also save your sanity until you reach the 50,000 mark:

* Go off on tangents. If you can think it, then write it. It doesn’t matter if your sudden fascination with the history of gloves or crystal healing therapies has nothing to do with what you had hoped the story would cover. Seize every wild idea and get it down on paper. There’s a reason why you want this new direction; respect it.

* Transitions. If you’re having trouble figuring out how to get your characters off the mountain or out of New York, don’t stop to worry about the “how.” The “drop down” (four spaces between paragraphs) is your best friend here. In the writing classes I teach, I often warn people away from the overuse of the drop down because it can look lazy or choppy on the page, but during Nanowrimo the only rule is whatever it takes to keep those pens or keyboards moving.

* Alternatively, you can go very, very sloooow. Record each pebble and Sherpa coming down the mountainside. Describe the ponies; give them names, genealogies; take five whole pages to comment on the snowflakes and get to the next outcropping of rock. Words, people! It’s all about words! You can cut and revise next month. And you might be very, very glad you know the names of those ponies.

* “It was all a dream!” Yes, this is one time you can do this guilt-free. If your story is truly driving you nuts have someone wake up, shake his head, and then start the real story.

* Hallucinations. Like dreams, your characters may have been just imagining they were in your Nanowrimo effort. Give them a quick antidote to whatever poison was in their veins, and send them off to a fresh plot. (And think of all those words you don’t have to write. They’re done, behind you.)

* If your MC is boring you to tears, turn him or her into the villain. Likewise, try turning your villain into the sympathetic lead.

* It’s suddenly the end of the world! Run for the hills! How will your characters cope? Go for it.

* Declare war—on something. If your characters are becoming weak and lifeless, give them a cause. It can be politics, the environment, sick animals, or anything that suddenly gives your characters some passion about something worth fighting for.

* Kill your MC’s best friend. Cruel but sometimes necessary to plumb emotional depths (or lack of them).

* Burn the house down. Give your characters entirely new surroundings and belongings. Use magazine cut-outs to refurnish and describe their new homes.

* Amnesia. Take a cue from the soaps. If your MC can’t remember what’s happened in the first half of your manuscript, great. You can forget all about it too. Now what was it you really wanted to write?

Tip of the day: Whether you’re writing for Nanowrimo or simply working on a new journal entry, your only commitment to a first draft is to write what makes you happy and keeps you inspired. If you don’t like what you’re writing, stop! Take a deep breath and start over. You can still keep your word count and best of all, you’re now free to find what it is that truly interests you.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Riding Wild Horses; Nanowrimo Week 2

Here we are into week two of Nanowrimo and I have to tell you I have no idea what my story is about. None. I’m up to over 12,000 words of the required 50,000 and I have a manuscript so rambly and full of unrelated characters galloping around like crazy herds of wild horses I defy anyone to make sense of it, not to mention all my run-on sentences. The good news is, I don’t really care!

And to me, that’s what Nano is all about: breaking free of set-in-stone plot lines or worrying about “making sense.” For the entire month of November, Nanowrimo grants us the creative license to write non-sense, and with that comes, I believe, some of our greatest work. The sudden revelation, the bizarre foray, the unexpected character, the impossible location: they all come together somehow and by the end of the month they truly do gel. I’ve been through this process three times already (four times if you count the year I took part in Scriptfrenzy) and if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s this: trust your gut and just let it happen. If your heart says, “Write it,” obey.

In between the madness, though, there are certainly times when I’ve exhausted my ready-to-go writing prompts and have found myself lagging behind on my daily word count quota. To get things moving again (and to get those wiley words on paper) I’ve come up with a list of pen movers:

* Closets. List what’s inside. I’ve found lost documents, old shoes, lockets, and prison records. Each of these has made great starting points for the next 1000 word burst of inspiration.

* Memories. Forget everything you’ve ever heard about tightening or deleting back story. For one month at least, back story reigns supreme. Even if most of it has to go in the bin when you revise, you will know your characters better than you ever would if you’d followed the rules and left out these very important histories. Choose any timeframe you want: a birthday, a holiday, the first day of school, or just spilling a cup of coffee at work ten minutes ago.

* What’s cooking? What does your character love to eat? Have him or her make it, preferably with another character in the room to add some conflict or subtext.

* Dreams. These are doozies and can use up a lot of words.

* Write about your characters’ great-grandparents. Why are they important to the story?

* Describe your character’s best friend.

* Followed by their worst enemy. With any luck this person could turn into the story villain.

* Your character just received a mysterious parcel. What is it, where did it come from, and why is it the worst thing to happen this year?

* Where did your character go on vacation last year and what terrible thing happened there that they still can’t get over?

* Describe your characters’ dysfunctional workplaces.

* Write letters, e-mails, tweets from your characters to each other. Their quirks, problems, and complaints can take up pages and pages of writing.

Tip of the day: Even if you’re not participating in Nanowrimo, it’s always helpful to have a list of writing tricks and prompts ready to go. Feel free to use any or all of the ideas above. At the same time, try making a specific list of your own that fits whatever project you’re working on now. The key is to do whatever it takes to keep you writing. Like the little boy said when handed a shovel and faced with a pile of manure: “There’s just got to be a pony in here somewhere!”

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo

… National Novel Writing Month, that is. And if you haven’t tried it yet, sign up now! You have nothing to lose except for maybe the wildest 50,000 words you’ll ever write.

This is my fourth year of participation and I’m counting the days, pen in hand, ready to start along with thousands of other writers the first day of November at the crack of dawn; no mere figure of speech for me. I’m currently on vacation and in the middle of traveling so I’ll be writing at the airport of all places, waiting for an early morning flight. Should make for an interesting beginning to both the month and my plot!

My working title for this year’s manuscript is Ghazal, inspired by an actual ghazal I wrote and posted on 7/07/2009. My genre is “literary” and the blurb I added to my user page (user name “poppywriter”) at http://www.nanowrimo.org/ reads: “Thirty years, thirty doorways. Every breath, every door we take matters to someone.”
To further help me get into the NaNo mood, I made a Polyvore set (top of this post) a few weeks ago to illustrate my theme, and I’m using that as my visual inspiration to ensure I’ll keep writing. I’ve printed it out in a larger format to slip into the front cover of my 2009 NaNo binder, a wonderful periwinkle blue notebook that truly speaks to me and makes me hungry to write. Color does that to me whether it’s a binder, a new ink, or the paper I’m using and it’s all part of the fun of abandoning myself to “just write, don’t think” for an entire month.

The rest of my binder consists of:
  • 30 sheets of paper, each with a picture of a different doorway taken from magazines (of course!).
  • A writing prompt for each page selected from A Writer's Book of Days by Judy Reeves.
  • A cut-out phrase from my magazine word pool added to the bottom of each page.
To create this visual “outline” I matched doors to prompts and phrases totally by random. After pasting everything together I shuffled the pages up, and then arranged them into a 30-page/30-day sequence for each day of November’s writing marathon.

I lucked out unbelievably on my first page: a dark, mysterious door slightly ajar and leading to a garden passageway coupled with the phrase “Every story has a bead…” The writing prompt joining these two items commands: “Write about ‘what goes without saying.’” Wow. I couldn’t have planned that better even if I’d tried.

Tip of the day: 50,000 words in 30 days is only 1,667 words a day. You can do it. Go sign up now while there’s still time: http://www.nanowrimo.org/. Can’t wait to see you on the other side of the finishing line.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Book Review, Harvesting Your Journals



Harvesting Your Journals, Writing Tools to Enhance Your Growth and Creativity by Rosalie Deer Heart and Alison Strickland. Heart Link Publications, Santa Fe, 1999. 200 pages.

Every few years I think about throwing away my journals. As someone who moves a lot, prefers a minimalist approach to decorating, and doesn’t have a lot of closet space, keeping all those storage boxes of spiral bound notebooks sometimes seems just plain nutty. I know I’m not alone in this. Once at a Christina Baldwin seminar I heard a participant ask, “What do we do with our journals after we’re finished?” One suggestion was to have them buried or cremated with our bodily remains.

Despite my rather grandiose visions of ancient Egypt or sending my journals off to Valhalla in some glorious fire ritual, I still find myself asking, “Yes, what to do with the darn things? There’s so many of them!” The day I came across Harvesting Your Journals was one of those times I was feeling the weight of my collection and was ready to put every single page through the shredder. After all, I reasoned, I had “gleaned” every morsel I would ever need from all that writing: from dreams to character sketches to bad poetry; really bad poetry. It was time to move on; I was finished with the past. Or so I thought. After reading the first chapter of Harvesting Your Journals I began digging through my old journals with an eagerness I hadn’t even known when I was writing them.

Central to Harvesting is the idea that when approached with creativity, old journals are anything but boring. Reading through past journals allows us to discover all the things we didn’t write about, things that were perhaps too painful, confusing, or too embarrassing to record. Or perhaps we were so caught up in the tide of the moment while writing we were unable to look at events with the depth we wanted. By re-examining those events as jump-off points for new directions and choices, we can also gain confidence by realizing how much we have grown. I have to admit that at first I thought this would be impossible—all those pages of complaints! But inspired by the authors’ guidance and ideas for pre-planning the best way to return to your journals, such as making search lists of themes or specific questions, I found myself reading old entries with fresh interest.

The book is divided into four sections, starting with “Entering the Fields” and ending with “Celebrating the Bounties.” Each section provides readers with an extensive list of ideas, tools, and writing aids to begin the journey into the past in order to “invent the future.” Throughout the text the authors—friends for many years and journal keepers themselves—share a wealth of personal examples showing how and why their techniques work.

In case you’re thinking that there aren’t enough hours in the day to write in new journals let alone go through the old ones, the authors assure readers that revisiting old journals isn’t meant to be some dutiful chore, starting with the first journal ever written and then plowing through until the present day. Instead, readers are encouraged to start anywhere. The point is to take your time, savor the process, and delight in your discoveries—the same steps to enjoying any form of creative writing.

Tip of the day: Revisit your old journals. Choose just one and experiment with questioning and revising your entries. What have you learned since writing them?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Finding True North: Bring Your Settings to Life

Last night I had the privilege of speaking to the Albuquerque branch of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. They’re a friendly group and I was happy to discuss some of my ideas on how to maximize the use of setting in our writing. For today’s post, I thought I’d share some of the things we talked about.

For starters, I enjoy writing about place, especially foreign places. Four of my books are set in New Zealand (two of these are nonfiction) and one is set in Egypt. One of the best things I can hear from a reader is that my settings “made the story come to life.” I take that to mean that I’ve made the setting essential to the plot; without my setting details, the story just wouldn’t be the same.

The following list includes some of the things I do to make writing about setting just as much fun and vibrant as all the other story elements I strive toward.

1. Choose the setting you love, not what you think will please an editor or follow a trend. In many instances, the place we are from is our best starting point; it’s our “root” equation. Give that same foundation to your characters. Everyone has a sense of “home” with both good and bad associations.

2. For fictional settings: write first, research later. Even if you’re describing your hometown, get your story down on paper first and don’t worry too much about the “facts.” You can add all the precise information you need later. This goes for any kind of extra detail you might need to further your plot. For instance, in my current WIP, my heroine is an art restoration expert. I don’t know how to restore a painting or what kind of environment is needed to do so. It’s far more important to me that I write about her motivations, goals, and character development before I worry about her cleaning products. Right now I’m calling whatever she uses to fix a painting “Magic Art Clean.” I’ll insert the correct brand names later. I’m writing a novel, not a treatise on art conservation. Equally, when I write about place in fiction, it’s important for me to keep in mind that I’m not writing a travelogue or a term paper. I don’t need to know everything.

3. To find what part(s) of your setting is important and worth including, think in terms of levels or “boxes”: in your WIP notes, describe your characters’ immediate safe place, i.e. their room, cave, or cupboard. Follow that by describing the home that contains that room. Move out into their yard; their neighborhood; workplace; city; country; and finally any foreign destination that takes them away from these safety zones.

4. Whenever you’re embarking on either fiction or nonfiction research, ask yourself: a) What do I already know? b) What don’t I know? c) What do I want to know? Brainstorm your answers. Make extensive lists and then pursue the information you truly need. Useless research can eat up a lot of creative time.

5. Narrow your focus: rather than try to describe an entire panorama, choose a few unique details to define your setting in as specific and simple terms as you can. The main reason editors and many readers claim to dislike the inclusion of overly-descriptive passages is that they slow the story down.

6. Good news, bad news: you don’t have to travel to the places you write about. (And here you were thinking you could call that dream vacation "research.") Foreign travel is great of course, but not necessary to your writing. The trick is to use research opportunities that go beyond simply reading a nonfiction book about your chosen setting. My absolute favorite starting point (as you’ll have gathered from my last two posts) is to collect magazine photos to get a feeling for the look of the place. I gather photos that show my setting by night, midday, dawn; luxury tourist areas and the poverty-stricken backstreets; private homes, grocery stores, schools, business districts. I try to get as wide an angle as I can on every aspect of my setting.

7. Read cookbooks. A good cookbook is so much more than a collection of recipes. Besides providing insights into foreign foods and ingredients, the books are often filled with memoir, historic references, and overall cultural attitudes to life, religion, festivities, as well as tiny details that may otherwise be overlooked. Trying out some of the recipes is just as important too!

8. Foreign newspapers are excellent resources, especially the back pages. Advertisements and the classifieds in particular can help you learn about the types of employment in a town or country, as well as the price of items and what kind of things people are interested in buying and selling.

9. Read as much foreign fiction as you can that originates from your chosen setting. Watch foreign films and television programs.

10. Order some items from your chosen country online: food, clothing, cosmetic items, and crafts. Just seeing how these things are wrapped for shipping is an amazing view into “how things are done.” Often these items will have their own unique and sometimes surprising scent that conjures up all kinds of images. For instance, I recently bought some paper scraps from India. The smell of incense, curry, and industrial strength bleach emanating from these colorful sheets is enough to describe an entire marketplace.

11. With that in mind always, always write with your five senses. Description of place goes far beyond the way it “looks.”

12. If you do get to travel to your chosen setting, make sure you take some time to be by yourself away from tourist sites. Go to the grocery stores, shopping centers used by locals, back neighborhoods. Be still; observe and record; again, use your five senses.

13. When in doubt, make it up. (Within reason of course!) But really, there’s nothing on earth to stop you inventing your own apartment building, restaurant, private school, or subdivision. Just make sure it follows the “norm” of wherever it's set and isn’t too bizarre, such as a Starbucks at the top of the leaning tower of Pisa (though maybe there is such a thing now, who knows…).

14. Fantasy, science fiction, or mythological settings. This is when you can put the Starbucks wherever you want it. The key to creating fantasy settings is to stay consistent. You will have to make maps, create your ground rules for place and image, and once again, use the five senses as much as possible. Magazine cut-outs are especially useful here to help you portray and remember your other-world.

15. Finally, keep in mind that setting is tied into the emotions of your characters. It can be a source of conflict, comfort, wonder, pleasure, and downright boredom for them. It’s up to you as the writer to choose which parts of your setting are the most important to your characters and discard whatever doesn’t keep your story moving forward.

Tip of the day: Get out those notebooks! Try a week’s worth of writing practice based solely on setting. Where are you now? Where do you wish you could be? Write.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

More Ways to Use Magazine Cut-outs in Your Writing

Magazines are full of bizarre statements and attention-grabbing headlines. Taken out of context, they make incredible writing prompts to go with the magazine pictures I talked about last week.

Susan Wooldridge was one of the first writers to get me started on making "word pools" when I read and loved her book Poemcrazy. Susan suggested writing down words on the backs of paper tickets, the kind you can buy at any stationery store. I tried that for awhile, but then found I preferred cutting words out of magazines because I enjoyed the colors, various typefaces, and just the overall look of the re-arranged words.

I have two methods for making my word pools: the first is to simply scour magazines for strange or mystifying statements; the headings in bold or italics work the best. Then I just cut them out. Pretty simple! Advertisements in particular are a real goldmine: “Monkey optional.” “The Passion of Performance.” “Spanish Lessons.” The second method I use is a lot more finicky, but can be well worth the trouble. First, I clip out entire columns from the publications. These are always just a couple of inches wide and I often cut them in half to work with a piece no more than four or five inches long. Using an X-acto knife, I cut away excess words that don’t suit my purpose, and then work my way down the column until I have something that resembles haiku or free verse. I like to see how far down the column I can go without cutting off the paper too soon (or cutting myself…those blades are sharp!). The longer the "story" or train of thought I can get out of a column, the more fun it becomes. Whichever method I use, listed below are some of my favorite ways to play with random words.

1. Titles for poems, screenplays, short stories, and novels. I’ve found some of my best titles from random cut-outs. The title of my short screenplay, “Julian’s Dinner of Small Flaws” came from cutting my way inch by inch through a restaurant review.

2. Timed writing prompt. Timed writing works best when you don’t think, just write. Having a pool of prompts ready to go makes a huge difference between starting and procrastinating. I always carry a zip bag of words with me wherever I go.

3. Inspiration for non-writing related projects. For several years I took a one-on-one class with a ceramics instructor. At one point my teacher decided I needed to work with porcelain. Faced with twenty pounds of the whitest, most featureless clay I had ever seen, I used my word prompts to design and decorate the finished pieces. The results were surprising: “The Rattlesnake Ritual,” “Glance,” and "Earth Circle" are pieces I could never part with.

4. The smaller cut-outs can form an entire haiku or short poem on their own. For instance, this is a piece I put together with a visual collage of Buddhist and Asian inspired images: How do you discover/other worlds/secluded doorways/the secret/glimpses of the past?

5. Fragments such as those above can form a much lengthier work, with each section comprising a new verse. Here is the beginning of a piece made entirely from cut-outs that went for two pages in a large-sized sketchbook: I remember the robust tanginess of/chilling/buttermilk/cooking barefoot/when I was young/in search of/miraculous/baskets, bowls, and/a paper heart.
6. When I paste the words on the pages, they look like a somewhat less sinister equivalent of those “anonymous letters” in an Agatha Christie novel. Sometimes just the combination of colors and fonts is enough to make the creative wheels turn. When combined with pictures, they can make a startling collage, and a well-placed phrase or series of words can be just the thing to make the entire piece pop.

7. Create a word prompt journal. I like to buy a blank journal and paste a word or phrase on each page before I start to use it. This also makes a great gift for my writer friends, too.

8. Party time. At your next writer’s group, ask everyone to bring their own selection of cut-out words. Pool them together in a basket or jar and then agree to write for an hour or two. Every ten minutes, draw a new prompt from the jar.

9. Design your novel: plan ahead how many chapters your next book will have. Then use a word or phrase with a picture to be a prompt for that entire chapter.

10. Choose a theme. I've always believed creativity thrives on restriction and limits. By choosing to work with only one kind of magazine, e.g., fashion, politics, or gardening, you can start to harmonize the types of cut-outs you save. For instance, right now I am working on a novella-length found poem based entirely on what I've harvested from food magazines. It’s fun to specialize.

Tip of the day: Organize your word clippings into categories: single words; phrases; large headlines; “the small print.” I use self-sealing plastic envelopes to store my collections. Once you have a good variety, start playing. Try pasting your words on large sheets of art paper or tiny little scraps of cardstock. Add some pictures and don't be surprised when your friends start asking, "Do you want to sell that?"

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Thirteen Ways to Write With Magazine Cut-Outs

Magazine cut-outs and collage have been the foundation for many of my writing projects. Not only is it fun to read the magazines while looking for photos (hey, it’s research!) but I find the pictures add richness and detail I would have trouble coming up with on my own. After all, I can’t always travel to Tokyo on a minute’s notice to set a scene in a backstreet noodle shop, but a great National Geographic shot can provide an amazing amount of information in just one frame.

My primary source for photos is the library where there is always a stack of magazines for exchange and recycling. I like to go for big and glossy: Martha Stewart, Food and Wine, Opera News. I also love trade-oriented magazines that cater to the textile industry or jewelry making. Friends know I love to “write with cut-outs” so they are always happy to share with me old issues of Vogue, Elle, and Marie Claire.

I cull through my magazines on a regular basis, always searching for the unusual and most startling photos. Once I have the latest bunch, I keep them organized in file folders: People, Places, Animals, Things, Background Colors. The system is a bit idiosyncratic, but it helps me find exactly what I want at any time. After I have my latest collection, the really fun part is to use the pictures as a jumping-off point for my writing. Here are some of my favorite things to do:

1. Book Covers. Whenever I start a new WIP, I like to make a collaged “book cover” I can slip into the plastic front of the binder I’m using. I choose images that illustrate my plot and theme.

2. Character ID. Magazine photos help me to see my characters more fully. Rather than just giving them “brown hair and brown eyes,” photos of the right models can help me see freckles, eyebrows, and smiles with more individuality.

3. Characters’ Wardrobes. I love to dress my characters; it’s almost like playing paper dolls. Keeping a full “closet” of dresses, suits, and evening gowns keeps my writing consistent. I know what everybody’s wearing and when, and I also get a better idea of who they are by their taste in clothing.

4. Where They Live. Decorating my characters’ homes and work places is almost as pleasurable as buying my own new furniture. I typically choose for each character a photo of their home’s exterior followed by a living room, bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen. Then I try to find one space unique to that particular character, for instance an attic or a secret part of a garden they love to visit.

5. Scene Settings. These are the spaces where my characters interact and are the basis for where the action takes place. For my current WIP, a contemporary romantic suspense, I have pictures of France, dockyards, cloisters, and art galleries.

6. Sequel Settings. After a strong action scene, I need a place for my characters to unwind and plan their next line of attack. I try to have a number of “safe, quiet” photos that describe a good place for them to “think aloud” while keeping reader interest high. It’s too easy to forget about where characters actually are while they’re internalizing. Photos help me remember the wind is blowing, or steam is rising off their coffee.

7. Story Symbols. I love collecting photos of everything from rhinestone Chihuahua collars to Bavarian tea-sets. These are the things that define my characters and offer story “symbols.” For instance, a tea-set can be a recurring motif, something a character inherits, say, and is afraid of breaking because it will mean losing the last contact with “home.” Conversely that same set can be what my hero hates because it’s what a mean aunt always used during horrible holiday get-togethers. Breaking it symbolizes breaking with the past.

8. Dreams. The stranger the photo, the more valuable it is as something a character can dream about. In my next book due out in 2010, I have my heroine—a newlywed—dream about a row of brides. This scene would never have occurred but for finding a bizarre photo of a dozen brides in a Vogue magazine. That dream eventually came to stand for an important revelation that foreshadows the rest of the story.

9. Memories. Photos of children in school, family reunions, birthday parties can all be used for important memories that motivate my characters’ actions and emotions.

10. Past Generations. Whenever I can, I grab old-timey photos of the past. These are great for describing a character’s family origins and history.

11. Favorite Colors and Feelings. Sometimes it’s helpful to create a collage just using all the colors and objects that describe to me what my story is about. Even if I never use half of the items in the actual writing, just seeing them in front of me is very useful. For instance, a picture of a kimono can remind me of some important detail in my heroine’s psyche that I want to convey, such as her modesty or love of decorum.

12. Outlining the Story Arc. In my WIP binder, along with scene notes and character bios and all my other important photos, I like to arrange a story arc solely through pictures, sometimes one per chapter. This is the picture that sums up what that chapter is about. Having it there just helps me feel the chapter with all my senses.

13. What If? More than anything, unusual and unexpected photos get me thinking. They make great story prompts for keeping me enthused about the WIP or for any other kind of writing project. One favorite thing I like to do is simply paste a variety of images throughout a new journal before I’ve used it. That way, any time I turn the page to start writing I will always have “something to write about” and no excuses about “lack of inspiration today.”

Tip of the day: start cutting up those old magazines! If your library doesn’t have a “freebie” box, ask if you can help get one going.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Writing the Picture Book, An Interview With Author Margo Candelario




For several years I’ve taught workshops based on writing for children and teenagers. As part of the course I usually try to include at least one session on the difficult topic of explaining death and grief to young children. Looking to the Clouds for Daddy by Margo Candelario is one of the best books on the loss of a parent I’ve come across in a long time. Its treatment of the subject is heartfelt and deeply personal without being sentimental or “preachy.” The text is both poetic and conversational; the artwork by Jerry Craft is first-rate and solid. Like all top picture book artists, Craft has managed to create illustrations that go beyond simply filling out the text. The innovative artwork flows across the pages and creates what could almost be described as “mini-chapters.” Best of all, the compelling mixture of words and pictures drew me in as a reader. I could easily imagine a small child wanting to sit with this book, reading and re-reading it over and over again. The girls in the story are so appealing and the memories they hold in common are so endearing that readers will want to hold on to this story for a very long time.

1. Margo, please tell us the story behind you writing this book.I wrote Looking to the Clouds for Daddy a little over ten years ago in an attempt to document the conversations I overheard my children having about their father who had recently passed away. The dialogue and physical expressions were so powerful that it was necessary to transfer the feelings to paper for their well being and for others suffering from the loss of a parent by means of death, divorce or separation.

2. What was your writing process like getting the story down on paper?
There was no “technical process” of writing and re-writing for this project. I jotted a few comments and quotes down on post-its, put myself in the moment of the conversation, recounted the day’s activities, visualized the climate—literal and temperament—and then just let the story flow. It wasn’t very complicated because the characters are real, the situation was real, the questions were real and in-the-moment; they demanded truthful answers so I didn’t need “fill” dialogue.

3. Do you have any stories to share about taking the book out into the community now that it is published?The girls and I receive different reactions. Young people are fascinated and intrigued with meeting the characters in the book. The illustrations are so vivid and lifelike along with the use of personal photographs which enables the reader to identify with the family and its crisis. Children appreciate Real Life and identify with truth, so meeting the girls at book signings drives the purpose home. The reaction I get from the adults is teary silence and a head nod, with utterances of unfinished business, and the cold reality that there is never any closure with unexpected death. The book crosses over from children to adults because of its universal language so it allows for kinship.

4. You write poetry. How has that helped you to write a picture book?I’m sure there is a link, I’m just not sure how direct it is. My poetry is on another plane. I write poetry for the feelings I no longer verbalize as a single parent and widow.

5. Are you working on anything new right now?I am working on another story about the girls; people are looking forward to their next trial and triumph.

6. Do you have any writing advice for new picture book writers?Yes, keep the writing simple, truthful, energetic and write with purpose. Remember that children are people in small bodies who often have more sense than tainted adults.

Tip of the day: Read Looking to the Clouds for Daddy, Illustrations by Jerry Craft; Karen Hunter Media. ISBN 978-0-9820221-7-7. Be sure to check out Margo's website at http://www.margocandelario.com/. Perhaps you have a personal story to share with small children, too. The picture book format could be just right.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Writing the Picture Book

Writing a picture book is not easy. Which is probably why I’ve always wanted to write one, kind of like wanting to climb Kilimanjaro or run a marathon—could I really do it?

For one thing, I’m wordy and I know it. Confining myself to the equivalent of writing child-friendly haiku to tell an entire story isn't my style. For another, I just don’t think I have the kind of whimsy that appeals to very young children. Not that I haven’t tried. My first attempt was a book based on an adorable litter of kittens. I called it This Little Cat and submitted it to about a dozen houses. To my astonishment, the book was taken seriously (I must have done something right!) and received personal rejections from all the head acquisitions editors I submitted to. But the letters were still rejections. Eventually This Little Cat went on to be rewritten and reworked as “The Cat Circus” a poem that was published in The Divine Feline, an anthology of cat stories, poetry, and artwork.

That project is quite a few years behind me now, but I’m thinking (uh-oh) of trying another one. I know a new manuscript is going to take a long time: getting those word choices “word perfect” is a challenge indeed. To help me get into picture book mode, every few months I like nothing better than going to the library to spend an afternoon reading my way through the children’s section (although they’ve just got to do something about those low shelves and pint-sized chairs…).

Several weeks ago while I was there I gathered up some of the books scattered on the tables. Right away two things struck me: most had been favorites of my own as a small child, and all were about animals; talking animals nonetheless. Among those I particularly enjoyed were Millions of Cats by Wanda Ga’g; The Story of Babar, The Little Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff, BunBun at Bedtime by Sharon Pierce McCullough, and Astro Bunnies by Christine Loomis. Like all good picture books, the stories were not only illustrated with care and imagination, but they held my interest from beginning to end as complete “plot lines” centered on charming and believable characters.

After several years of doing this kind of research, I’ve come to some conclusions about why so many picture book manuscripts are rejected:

1. Too many characters; side stories; subplots. Published picture books have page lengths that rarely, if ever, vary. Like all books, they’re printed in multiples of 4. Baby or board books can be as short as 12 “pages,” but the general rule for a picture book is 28 or 32 pages depending on end papers, etc. The longer, more text-driven “story book” can have 48 pages. Those pages have to be coherent and focused.

2. Too many words. The PB word count is short. 1500 words is really pushing it and heading for rejection. I suggest scaling back—way back. 250 to 500 words are about right. With picture book text, less is always more.

3. Don’t illustrate your own work even if you’re a professional artist. Simply send in your text typed in the exact same manuscript form as a 350-page novel. If you are a professional artist seeking to illustrate children’s books, submit your artwork to the publisher’s art director according to their guidelines.

4. At the same time, there is absolutely nothing wrong in making a “dummy” mock-up for your own purposes. In fact, you should! One quick way is to simply fold 8 pieces of paper in half, giving you a little booklet of 32 pages. Play, draw, write and see how your story and line breaks work against the pages. You can also get a good idea of where “double page spreads” will give an illustrator something to really illustrate.

5. Your words should always inspire your illustrator. With that in mind, you don’t need a whole lot of description, sometimes none at all. The pictures will take care of that for you. But your words you do choose must be picture-generators.

6. Should you rhyme? As a general rule, I know editors like to say “never,” but then you will see rhyming text everywhere picture books are sold or read. Like talking animals, it really “depends on what the animals are saying,” as one well-known editor once put it. I think this “rule” about discouraging rhyming text started because of the amount of doggerel coming over the transom. To create good, clever rhyme is an art, and a difficult one at that.

7. Stories about inanimate objects. Just—don’t.

8. Talking animals (again). Some editors say “no,” and I say “phooey!” with one exception: religious or praying animals. You have no idea how many manuscripts I have been given to critique or edit that have included religious animals. I find them weird and I think most editors do, too.

9. Moralizing. Would you like your next exciting romantic suspense to end with: “Okay folks, listen up: lying, cheating, stealing, and killing are bad things and will make your nose grow crooked…” You wouldn’t do it to an adult reader, so please don’t do it to a kid!

Tip of the day: Okay, go write the next great picture book and make me proud! Spend some time at the library re-reading your favorites and checking out new titles. If nothing else, you’ll have a wonderful “artist’s date” reliving some of the best moments of your childhood.

Next post: a special interview with picture book author Margo Candelario on her new book, Looking to the Clouds for Daddy.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

All About Better Than Perfect (Sort of)


Good news: Better Than Perfect has now been officially released and is for sale on Amazon.com, my website, Barnes and Noble, and anywhere else that sells books.

From the back cover: Can anyone be ‘better than perfect’? That’s the question lonely teenager Elizabeth Haddon struggles to answer when she is sent from England to live with relatives in Auckland, New Zealand. Arriving in the dead of winter, Elizabeth soon falls under the spell of her beautiful, but enigmatic cousin Ravenna who insists the most important thing in life is to ‘fit in.’ Elizabeth, who wants only to be accepted by her new family and their affluent social circle does her best to comply until she starts to see the cracks; cracks that turn into virtual canyons when tragedy strikes.

Yep, it’s a New Zealand story all right: dark, satiric, and ultimately (I hope) redemptive.

For a long time I’ve battled with “what New Zealand means to me.” For those who don’t know my background, I emigrated there from California a few weeks after my seventeenth birthday when my father, a New Zealander, decided he wanted to return home. For years I suppose he had imagined happy family reunions with me and my little brother being best friends with our extended family. And for awhile I suppose we were. Then real life took over, kind of like when they say that wherever you go you take yourself with you. We might have been thousands of miles from home, but we were still Americans. My mother was angry and depressed by the move, my father did his best to put a good face on things, and my little brother grew up wild. I stayed for as long as I could, eight years, and to this day don’t know if they were the worst or best years of my life. During that time, I was a displaced Persephone; my journey truly one of descent. For a year before I went to the university I studied nursing, until I could no longer bear working with the child abuse victims passing through the hospital wards and I became ill myself. Things I witnessed in New Zealand continue to haunt me: acts of violence borne of frustration from people trapped by weather and circumstance “with nowhere to go.”

My escape during those years was to immerse myself in New Zealand art and literature which I still think is some of the best in the world; precisely, I believe, because of the restrictions living on a tiny island at the bottom of the world can bring. It all started when I was in my one and only year of NZ high school and the late poet James K. Baxter visited the school a few months before he died. There isn’t room here to adequately describe the impact that visit had on me, but Baxter remains one of my most important literary influences to this day. Barefoot, red-eyed, straggle-haired, and draped in an ancient gray thrift-store suit, Baxter was as different from anyone I had known back in the San Fernando Valley could be. He may have been sick and dying at the time, but he could still recite his poetry with the power and madness of some Biblical prophet whirled in from a demonic wilderness. John the Baptist without the favor of God comes to mind. Baxter’s words and images burnt themselves into my memory; it is impossible to forget him and his rendition of “Thoughts of a Remuera Housewife.” I had only been in the country a few months, but already I knew what he was writing about: a suburban world so precisely “New Zealand” and yet so universal in its theme of “going through the motions” that it seemed to contain the whole of human experience in its brief stream-of-consciousness stanzas. I never forgot it and eventually it became the inspiration for me to write Better Than Perfect. I start the book with a quote from the poem: "….No, it’s not/ a world at all, but Pluto’s/ iron-black star; the quiet planet furthest from the sun." A few brief lines that sum up everything living in New Zealand was like for me.

Several meetings ago my writer’s group experimented with a technique adapted from Judy Reeves's A Writer’s Book of Days: write a full page as one sentence. We used the suggested prompt of “It’s all you could expect.” This is the unedited, raw version of what I wrote:

It’s all you could expect, my father said when he carried the sheep carcass up the hill toward my parents’ house, the lights shining like a beacon for the shell-shocked stragglers who still managed to make their ragged way up from the beach below where glass littered the tide pools and my brother caught minnows the size of his small hands when no one was looking and my mother sat in her room all day and night, shutting her ears to the sheep screaming and my father preparing to play Abraham sacrificing his first-born because God had commanded him and it was his right, his role, his dignity that was on the line and not some sob-story about “Daddy please just listen, just give me this one last chance to find the path I’m supposed to take,” and when the tide came in and crashed against the tide pools full of tiny snails and one-legged octopus, when my brother ran outside to hear the commotion and when even my mother unplugged her ears to hear the waves, the crashing, the thunder, the shouts of the drunken tourists demanding their rights on their beach on their land, then it all seemed like a Greek tragedy caught in the wrong place and the wrong century and all I could think of was opening the sheep pens and calling out the animals one by one before there were any more deaths, any more blood sprinkling this holy night of my father’s anger and his wish to follow a jealous God’s commandments.

Is it true? Yes and no. As another writer, Eunice Scarfe, so wisely says, “Any story told twice is a fiction.” This and Better Than Perfect are my stories told twice.

Thought of the day: What are your stories "told twice"?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Remembering Hugh Cook

Here’s what I’m thinking: If I hadn’t jumped up on a hot spring day in Auckland, New Zealand in the middle of an interminable political studies tutorial and declared myself an anarchist because I couldn’t think of anything else to say, I would never have met the late New Zealand author, Hugh Cook, and I would never have become a writer. Unraveling this tangle of clues I also know I would not be writing this blog, or publishing my new book, or even maintaining a Facebook page if it were not for Hugh.

Why I signed up for that dreadful class on Scandinavian politics is still a mystery to me. I was in my third year at Auckland University, majoring in Spanish (taught by Welsh professors who insisted we speak with a dithinct Barthelona acthent) and for some crazy reason thought political studies would make a nice fit with Marquez and Lorca. I think I had the misguided notion the professors would be showing Ingmar Bergman films all day, or serving smorgasbord for lunch—whatever, the class was a horrible mistake. Instead of “Wild Strawberries” we studied middle-class voting statistics. The class was sheer torture and for no good reason except that I was bored, I remember standing up, the lone American in a sea of Kiwis (long story for another post), and shouting to some fellow idiot, “I don’t care what you think because I’m an anarchist.” After the few seconds of stunned silence and airless horror, the class became quite animated. Within minutes I’d been invited to several sit-ins, a street march to protest student fees, and numerous action groups. Except for one very interesting woman sitting next to me that day and who had just returned from Viet Nam where she had been working in an orphanage, I thought they were all nuts. I was also highly embarrassed. Despite my red face, the interesting woman promptly invited me home for lunch to discuss anarchy in what turned out to be a very civil setting. We soon became good friends, and from there I met an entirely new set of creative and fascinating people, including a fun-loving girl who introduced me to her best friend who before any of us knew it had fallen in love with the up and coming young New Zealand writer, Hugh Cook. And that was a shock because Hugh at the time was known as an eccentric, irascible, unromantic curmudgeon who delighted in writing cynical poetry for Craccum, the university newspaper. He scared me to death and I hoped I’d never have to meet him.

Fast forward a couple of years to London where I was working as an executive secretary in Europe’s largest advertising agency (yes, it was a lot like Mad Men. A lot.). One day as I was walking home from work, taking my usual route via up Regent’s Street and about to stop in at the chemist’s for soap and toothpaste, suddenly right in front of me was Isla in brilliant Madras plaid on a glorious summer evening all blue and pink and gold like her dress. I remember the sun shining off Isla’s freshly hennaed hair and that she was wearing hot pink lipstick and she was just so sunny, nothing like her old New Zealand gray-cardigan-black-skirt self. She was dazzling. The surprise of meeting was overwhelming to both of us. I think we started screaming and jumping around and in a rush of words and unrelated phrases while she told me that she had married Hugh and that his first book, Plague Summer, had just been published. It was for sale in the New Zealand bookstore in the Strand and I had to see it, and, and, and. Our thoughts were all jumbled in the excitement of finding each other unexpectedly in London. Our adult lives were finally just starting out and there were so many stories to tell. But more than anything I will never forget the thrill I felt when I learned that someone I knew had actually written and published a book, a real book, and it was for sale in a bookstore.

Within hours that night my husband and I were having dinner and a nonstop conversation with Hugh and Isla that lasted for hours. For the next several months we stayed together as a tight group: tea at the Ritz; art exhibitions at the Royal Academy; drinking tequila on my birthday; Isla and I rowing in Hyde Park. And Hugh was so much fun. Kind, sweet, witty; he was nothing like his Craccum persona. When he learned that I harbored a desire to write, he invited me to afternoon tea because he wanted to help me.

Try as I might, I can’t remember if we went to Fortnum & Mason’s or some funny little place off Charing Cross Road. It was after all, a long time ago. But wherever it was we went, for me it was one of the best and most important afternoons of my life. Although we talked about many aspects of writing, the one thing that has always stuck with me was Hugh’s injunction that I buy a journal and “write every day.” He told me that if I did that I would be a writer and that he believed in me. I have never forgotten his words, and I have done my best to follow them.

At the end of that year my husband and I moved to San Francisco and Hugh and Isla left the UK to continue exploring the world before returning to NZ. And then one day out of the blue, Isla came to visit me in America on her own. When she arrived, she told me she and Hugh were too different from each other and they had grown apart. Eventually after she got a job and her own apartment, she admitted to me that she had decided not to go back to New Zealand. I was devastated. She and Hugh were the first couple in my immediate peer group to divorce and it frightened me. I didn’t know what to think or feel, but I was smart enough to know it wasn’t my place to interfere in their decision.

The last time I saw Hugh was at his home in Auckland. Isla had sent me to pick up her belongings: a box of clothes, books, and table linens. Hugh was glad to see me, glad I was writing, and especially glad to get rid of Isla’s stuff, but the visit was too loaded with emotional baggage to be as comfortable or as easy as our socializing had been in the past. While we parted on a friendly note, I knew that by representing Isla I had “taken sides” in their divorce and that I wouldn’t be seeing Hugh again. When I published my first book, a nonfiction book about New Zealand for young readers, I did my best to thank him by including mention of his acclaimed The Wizards and The Warriors series. After that I learned Hugh had moved to Japan, remarried, had a daughter, and of course continued to write his heart out. He also became very ill.

Last year, Hugh passed away from brain cancer. His memoir Cancer Patient details much of his thoughts, treatment, and grueling experiences with the disease. The other day on Twitter I saw someone had written, perhaps because of the approaching anniversary of his death: Hugh Cook was the best sci-fi writer ever! I wanted to add my own hearty “yes” to that. Yes, he was and I’m so glad his fans are still as prolific as his writing.

In a tragic side note, Isla also died far too young many years ago in California. She had also remarried, leaving behind two children. There rarely is a day that I haven’t thought of her or Hugh in one way or the other, especially now as I am preparing to release my next book. Every time I pick up my pen and journal, I hear Hugh telling me that to be a writer I must write. Although our lives circled in different orbits, the memories of those unique friendships continues to prod and inspire me. So I just wanted to say thank you, Hugh. And thank you, Isla. Thank you to everyone who has encouraged and helped me to be a writer. I hope I can pass the magic on.

Tip of the day: List your mentors. How did they help you to become who you are today? Thank them by simply following their advice the best way you can.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

You Gotta Love the Conflict!

Conflict. If you’re anything like me, the very word conjures up argument, avoidance, ‘peace at any cost.’ In real life, conflict is rarely fun or something I go looking for. But leave it out of our writing, and we can have some serious conflict with editors and readers.

The first step toward understanding conflict is to know what genuine artistic conflict is not. Compelling conflict rarely stems from:

* Slammed doors.
* Slapped faces.
* Misunderstood fragment of overheard dialogue.
* A spilled drink.
* Romance characters tormenting each other with “fake” lovers.
* Characters complaining they are never understood because
men and women can't communicate.

You get the picture. All of the above are actions and events; things that can certainly be the result of conflict and that can make characters angry, but conflict is much more than anger. Authentic conflict often begins long before your story opens and is the motivating spur behind every decision and action your characters will make. In order to uncover as many levels of conflict possible (and to make life near-impossible for your characters) it can be helpful to explore the following seven areas.

1) The World or Society at Large. This is the world your story characters inhabit. It can be as simple as a barren desert or as elaborate as a feudal realm set in the distant future. Whatever it is, it contains problems; problems that can disadvantage and hold your characters back from their goals in significant ways. For instance, a world at war can be set anywhere from ancient times to the present day, from Middle Earth to outer space, but no matter the weaponry used, war always involves great suffering.

At the opposite end, a peaceful, apparently beautiful society can be filled with social injustice or a devastating class structure. Characters caught up in a perfect life may be the most discontent of all. Consider the poor heroine who is engaged to the perfect man, has the perfect job, eats perfect dinners with her loving, supportive parents every Friday night. On the surface she seems happy, but she may be ready to strangle them all.

Including a backdrop of social turmoil to your work will provide your characters with either past negative experience to overcome, or an ongoing situation that creates constant hardship. “High society” with all its rules and traditions, vices and hypocrisies can be a terribly low place filled with dark secrets and psychoses.

2) The Immediate Professional Environment or Workplace. No matter the times they are born into, your characters all have to do something to make a living. Even if your heroine’s sole purpose in life is to be married off to a peer of the realm, this is still her “occupation.” No matter if your characters are nannies or rock stars, advertising executives or harried FBI agents; they will at some stage encounter the monster boss, rival co-worker(s), ruthless or incompetent employees. Sometimes the workplace itself harbors corruption and is a great source of conflict, such as an unethical law firm or a company cutting corners on its products.

3) The Family. Your characters’ families can provide some of the most interesting and complex levels of emotional and physical conflict for your readers. For instance, the vengeful ex-spouse; jealous or dysfunctional siblings; ill, difficult, or rebellious children; a dependent, needy parent. Keep in mind that even if your characters’ families fall into the warm and supportive category, there can be family conflicts that erupt between “good” and “bad” branches of extended families that can sometimes last for generations.

4) The Achilles Heel. Strong characters should each have an inherent weakness that trips them up precisely when they most need inner balance. You can find this weakness by writing character bios, but also by establishing both an outward goal and an inner goal per character. An outer goal is based on “what they want” while an inner goal is “what they really want.”

Your main character’s outward goal will provide much of the plot structure for the entire book. A good method for ensuring that you have filled this goal with conflict is to interview your character and ask what are his or her doubts, fears, and insecurities. For instance, a woman who wants to rescue abused children may in reality be seeking the nurturing and acceptance she never received from her own family. Her efforts to start a children’s shelter might reveal her own need to finally have a home where she, too, can belong.

5) The Hero and Heroine as a Pair. “Opposites attract” may seem to be your most obvious choice, but even if your hero and heroine are a match made in heaven, at some point you will want to make sure that their individual story goals conflict and send them reeling.

6) Secondary Characters. The problems and conflicts of secondary characters can often mirror those of the hero and heroine. Sometimes these problems can add more conflict for the hero and heroine to solve, especially when the efforts of secondary characters to “help” simply mess things up even further.

7) Villains. Villains can be found from any of the above categories and are one of your strongest sources of conflict for your characters. The job of the villain is to try everything possible to prevent the other characters from achieving their goals. The key to writing great villains is to keep them human with a mixture of both good and evil. Your readers and your other characters should continually be conflicted in their feelings toward villains—tricked, deceived, enraged, sympathetic, and horrified all at the same time. And villains should feel the exact same way about themselves.

More than anything, as you write keep in mind that conflict, at least on the page, is good. If you'd like to learn more about the subject, I've written an entire chapter on creative conflict in my book, The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript.

Tip of the Day: Go for the jugular! Read some of your favorite books again and look for the different levels of conflict. While you're at it, go through your current WIP and see if you have used any of these seven conflict areas. What can you include or expand?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Premios Dardo Award, Part III



The last few weeks have been crazy getting my new book Better Than Perfect off to the printer, learning all about Twitter, writing a new manuscript, working the day job. It's been a lot to juggle. The best way I can describe what's been going on is to quote/paraphrase from Sarah Ban Breathnach's Simple Abundance, "You can have it all, just not all at the same time." That pretty much sums up my life right now.

One happy escape I've had from the "all" is to search out new (to me, at least!) blogs and the people who write them. The following list comprises the last five blogs I've chosen for the Premios Dardo (Top Dart) Award. As before, my choices are to honor personal values and dedication in blog writing. The list is:

Recipients, the rules to accepting the award are simple: copy and paste the award onto your blog; pass the award on to fifteen other blogs and let them know they've been chosen; and link up to the blog that sent you the award. And take your time. I studied the web for awhile before I decided on all fifteen of my choices. To read about the other ten blogs that received the award, please go to my postings of 5/31/09 and 6/15/09. With that said, know that I truly enjoy all the blogs I've passed the award on to and hope you will find other sites that equally delight and inform you.

Tip of the Day: Go slow. Often as writers and creative people we can tend to rush, rush, rush to get a manuscript written or a pot into the kiln, always thinking of the next project without enjoying the current work. Take the time to savor every word, every moment. It only happens once.


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Writing the Ghazal

One of the great pleasures of writing is to experiment with new forms and ideas. A few weeks ago I began investigating the “ghazal,” a poetic form that dates back to 6th century pre-Islamic Arabic verse. The idea for this was brought to our writer’s group by Elaine Soto, a gifted artist and writer whose current work concentrates on the Black Madonna. (You can see her wonderful paintings at http://www.elainesoto.com/.)

Elaine learned the following exercise in a poetry workshop she had taken at a writer’s conference the day before our second-to-last meeting:

1. Choose 10 images cut from magazines, personal photos, etc. Attach one image each to a separate sheet of paper. Number each page 1-10.
2. Now write a line for each image.
3. Now match the lines in this order: 8+2; 5+3; 1+9; 10+4; 7+6. Each of these “doubles” forms a couplet, giving you five couplets. If you like, title each couplet.
4. Go back over the lines. If you need a transition or any extra word(s), feel free to add them.
5. Now place the lines together and you have a version of the ghazal.

According to Wikipedia, a true ghazal has a definite form, meter, and refrain. Similar to writing a sonnet or any other structured poem, there are some real rules involved. So consider this version and exercise a very loose experiment and/or writing prompt that you can always re-work to follow the more usual order found in many how-to poetry books. What may surprise you, however, is that your ghazal will more than likely contain the essence of the original intention: “A ghazal may be understood as a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of pain.”

Because I can never follow recipes or any kind of instruction without changing something, I decided to set up my images in 10 sets of 2. I took the theme of “doorways” as my starting point, giving me 10 pictures of doorways matched to 10 random images of all kinds of things: rivers, marketplaces, old churches. Next I wrote 2-3 lines per page of images. I then completed the exercise in the order stated above, but I repeated it with my extra lines so that I could have more “verses” within the same ghazal. Confused? So was I! But it was interesting how the lines fit together (or didn’t in some cases) and how I enjoyed the randomness of the piece as well as the overwhelming feeling of the surreal. Poetry to me doesn’t always have to “make sense,” at least not right away or on the surface. Often the peculiarity of a line or image is the very impetus a reader needs to make his or her own leap toward personal understanding and meaning.

So here goes:

Every Breath is a Doorway

The ancients believed the birds carried souls to heaven in their beaks.
My thoughts are never-ending portraits of the past, sepia colored and curling at the edges.
In spring, even the shadows are sacred.
I wear dark glasses to keep the past at bay.
The river is a scarf of green.
In the winter we light lamps, shell peas, share stories of what may not have ever happened.
The light like your smile becomes my touchstone.
Even kings and gilded carriages break down into the dust of decay.
Arches that lead to courtyards and courtyards that lead to only more questions.
A book is a rock I cling to.

A bird alone in winter wind, trusting nothing but life itself.
The thing we fear the most is the sun itself, shining into all the dark corners of our lives.
The church remembered from childhood was shaded by apple trees and superstition.
The sort of glasses I had longed for as a child; dark and mysterious, the kind that hid my tears.
I would never forget the scarves hanging in the marketplace, a reminder of when we had money and throats left to wrap the silk around.
The peas in their blue bowl; no one shells peas anymore, there isn’t the time or the patience.
“She could never grow up so vain,” you said, “as to wear a dead bird upon her head.”
In a house where it is always safe and you know you will always belong.
My dreams are riddled by the dead; the dead and their dark graves forever piling up.
They are columns of stone, carved and set in place by hands no different from my own.

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, and no good thing ever arrived.
Stones from the river are carved into houses, castles, dreams of the very poor.
Flowers cling to an adobe wall.
A flight of stairs to a room no one enters any more.
In winter I look for lighted windows and pretend they are lit for me.
Midnight and still the prince drives by.
I can still hear the children playing, long after they are grown.
“You could always depend on reading,” she said.
Unlike her family, a book could never let her down.
I am a tree at the end of the world.

Tip of the day: Try writing a ghazal. Think “fun and experimentation” rather than “tried and true.” That said, if you enjoy the exercise, do consider taking it to another level and writing a more customary and ordered piece following established ghazal guidelines.