Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Round-Up, 2010

I love to read--probably way too much, but as another year comes to a close, I am filled with gratitude for all the wonderful books that made my time spent reading extra-special.  I don't think I read a single book I didn't like on some level, but as always there are some books that stand out for me and that I know I'm going to remember for the rest of my life.  So in no particular order, I'd like to share with you the best of the best.  These are:

Best Novel A Valley of Betrayal (Chronicles of the Spanish Civil War, Book 1)  by Tricia Goyer.  If it wasn't for Twitter,  I don't think I would have had the opportunity to learn about Tricia and her excellent books.  So I'm delighted to have a venue to tell you all how much I enjoyed discovering her entire list of titles.  For my initial purchase I chose A Valley of Betrayal, the first in a trilogy set during the time of the Spanish Civil War.  I based my choice on the fact that  although I have a degree in Spanish literature, I actually know very little about the civil war beyond the murder of poet Federico Garcia Lorca.  However, thanks to the wonderful characters and strong writing in A Valley of Betrayal, my understanding of who was fighting whom, and why, was greatly enhanced and deepened.  The characters and plot line were so compelling that immediately upon finishing the book I had to zoom back to and order the next two in the series, and needless to say, they are just as good as the first book.

Best Young Adult Novel The Luxe by Anna Godbersen.  From the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, I then plunged into the social whirl of Manhattan 1899.  What a wild ride that was!  And what a super book this is for teen readers of all ages--and who isn't a teenager somewhere in their secret heart of hearts?  The Luxe is another book that is part of a longer series of four (I seem to have been drawn to series this year, probably because the writing was so good in all of them I couldn't stop at just one book).  The best way I can describe this particular title is by saying it's like Little Women with bad girls meets Project Runway a la Henry James and Edith Wharton.  The clothes, the settings, the misbehaving characters...   I was totally captivated, and of course I cried buckets at the end.

Best Short Story Collection Cliffs of Fall: And Other Stories by Shirley Hazzard.  Hazzard is one of my favorite writers, so when I learned of this collection I just had to read it.  Many of the troubled relationship themes presented here are ones that are explored in more depth in Hazzard's novels, but as little stand-alone pieces--sometimes no more than a sketch or a vignette--they are quite perfect.  A keeper, for sure.

Best Novella The Tropics: Child of a Storm - Caught in a Rip - Hurricane Secret by Mary Deal.  Several months back I wrote an entire post about this incredible book which contains three related novellas (series, again!).  You can read the post here, but before you do, I just wanted to mention that Mary also has some fabulous island- and tropical-themed photography that is the perfect complement to her writing.  I knew she was a talented writer, but seeing her photography and has brought my memories of her stories to vivid life.  Exquisite! 

Best Nonfiction People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil by M. Scott Peck.  I hope you never encounter genuine evil in your life, but if you do, this is the best book on the subject I have ever read.  For many years I have struggled with the question:  Is there really such a thing as evil?  And for just as long I have tried to think of so-called evil people as "crazy" or "willful and stupid."  After reading this book, I am now convinced that evil does exist and that there can be no other explanation for some people's behavior.  The book is also an excellent resource if you are a writer, and can help you to understand that there is a very real difference between the story villain or antagonist who simply "does bad things" and the character intent on destruction.  Highly recommended.

Best Poetry Return from Erebus by Julia McCarthy.  Ah. Poetry.  'Fess up, all:  When's the last time you picked up a book of poetry and read it from cover to cover?  If it's been a while, here's the perfect book to get back into what I consider poetry with a capital P, aka "the real thing."  Not some pretty lines strung together or journal entries broken into verse or opening a vein and seeing what happens on the page, but seriously structured language that delivers surprise after surprise.  Reading Julia's work is like opening some kind of wonderful origami puzzle box that with each new unfolding  leaves you astonished at the rightness of it all.  Buy this book.  Now!

Special Mention Necklace of Kisses: A Novel by Francesca Lia Block.  Weetzie Bat and her extended family have long been some of my favorite characters ever.  For a long time I resisted reading Necklace of Kisses because I didn't want to think of Weetzie as a grown-up.  Now I think I was supposed to wait because every so often the right book falls into your hands at the right time.  Soon after returning from a trip to Los Angeles, I found this book on sale at Borders for a dollar.  How could I refuse?  From the minute I started reading it felt like I had just walked or driven through every scene described in the book, the same places I had explored as a child and teenager long before Block even started writing.  Block's descriptions of Los Angeles are, in my opinion, the best ever written and after reading them I was compelled to devote a dozen or so pages in my art journal to record and collage my own impressions.  This story is sheer magic and that enchantment has stayed with me all year.  Loved it!    

Tip of the Day:  It's fun to keep a record of your reading.  It's also a valuable exercise to discover what your reading tastes are and why.   I like to save a few pages in the back of my journal to jot down titles, authors, and a couple of lines about why I liked (or didn't like) a book.  Not only is this good information to share with my book club and reading friends, but it helps me define my publishing niche.  For 2011 it might be a good idea to start an entire journal to keep track of the year's books. 

In the meantime, Happy 2011, everyone--wishing you a great new year of books, writing, and creativity!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Season's Greetings

Merry Christmas, everyone!  Hope this finds you all ready to celebrate the holiday with joy and a renewed sense of childlike wonder.  Because that's what I consider the best gift of the season:  our chance to get in touch once again with our child-s(elf), the one who believes in miracles, hope, and universal goodness.

Like many people, Christmas holds a lot of memories for me:  funny, confused, sad, exuberant.  The memories cover a lot of ground, things like the time I wasn't allowed to be a reindeer in my first-grade Christmas pageant, and instead had to be a "stationary snowflake."  I remember feeling so crushed:  reindeers got to wear antlers made out of tin foil and run around the auditorium, two by two.  All I got to do was stand still and wave a tissue paper snowflake--a TORN tissue paper snowflake.  Then there was the year my little brother was born the week before Christmas and my grandparents were staying in the house with us as well as my chain smoking "Auntie Mame" who'd come to seek refuge in between divorces (complicated story).  I guess we were too jam-packed in our little house:  the adults suddenly had a scream-fest, knock-down, "you're gonna get it" argument over towels of all things, and I remember hiding under my bed and thinking Christmas wasn't supposed to be like this.

But then there were the other years when the cookies got baked, the fireplace worked, and even the California weather cooperated by being cold enough  for us to wear sweaters and have a "real Christmas."  Those were the good years, and I still remember the thrill of opening my favorite presents:  books.  Heidi, The Wind in the Willows, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Around the World in Eighty Days...  Oh, how I loved, and cherished, those books.  I still do!  In fact, I'm going to go re-read one of them in a few minutes.

And that brings me to what I guess I really wanted to say here, that a great portion of how we enjoy the holidays rests on the memories and traditions we bring to them, and no matter how bizarre those memories are, they can be turned into something special and meaningful through our writing and artwork.  Every time we pick up a pen or a paintbrush, we have the opportunity to go back and help that little child-s(elf) to have the happiest life, or birthday, or Christmas, or Hanukkah ever.  So go out there and spread joy to the world with your creative spirits.  It's been an honor to have you all visiting my blog this past year; thank you each and every one!

Tip of the Day:  What are your holiday memories?  Perhaps you'd like to start recording them in some special way, either through writing or artwork, or both!  Whatever you choose, I wish you all a great day tomorrow of good times, good friends, and good memories.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Art Journal Wrap, 2010

Now that Nanowrimo is over for the year (at least for me), I took the extra time these last few days to finish up the two art journals I have been working on since New Year's Day. For my final entry, I decided to write about what I had gained from keeping these volumes--it was a lot! For instance: 

- Art journals gave my writer's group a purpose and a theme to keep us all focused on a shared creative goal. For 2010 we chose "Travel," mainly because there were so many ways we could interpret the word, from actual on-the-road traveling, to individual life journeys, to placing our fictional characters in unknown and foreign settings, e.g. Paris, 1930. Travel also gave us a multi-faceted prompt for the accompanying artwork we created. 

- From the class and the journals, I gained confidence in art making. I could experiment (and fail) without having to explain or apologize for why things "looked the way they looked." In his book, Writing Poetry from the Inside Out, poet Sandford Lyne refers to journals as private studios. In my art journal, I could experiment in private. 

- Art journaling for 30 minutes before working on my WIP, or before making a piece of pottery, centered me. It was meditative and helped me to get rid of the "noise" I sometimes find following me into my work space, you know, things like, "Buy milk. Reply to e-mail." 

- Art journaling gave me a weekly class to attend over the summer; I love being a student. Homework assignments encouraged me to keep journaling. 

- I felt part of a community of art journalers. I am so inspired by these creative souls. 

- I found a wonderful way to outline my writing--with pictures. Although I have always used magazine cut-outs to illustrate my characters, scenes, and especially my book cover mock-ups, this year I found I was able to go much deeper. By creating multiple collages that followed my plot chapter by chapter, I was able to express my story visually before I wrote it. When it came to the actual writing, it seemed to just flow straight from the pictures. 

- I gained a lot of insight into what I believe is the future of the book, especially with the increased use of e-readers. I feel certain that books are eventually going to be illustrated throughout with both still and moving pictures. Working with an art journal is a great way to prepare for what may be the next step for all of us who write. 

- Looking for ways to make my art journal interesting, I learned techiques I would never have tried before: rubber stamping; colored pencil on black and white photocopies; drawing and painting onto backgrounds such as papyrus and mulberry paper. 

- Which also meant I learned some new techniques to share in my own workshops. 

- And because I had to go shopping to buy these fun items, I had no excuses for avoiding Julia Cameron-style "artist's dates." 

- My finished art journals have given me some deeply personal, but quite wonderful "picture books" for my own appreciation and enjoyment. 

Reaching the last pages of these two latest art journals was much more emotional than I thought it would be, similar to the end of any great adventure that took me to places I never thought I'd go, but that also turned out to be some of the best times of my life. 

There have been so many journals of various types throughout my life, each one completely different and each one my "favorite" in some way or another starting with the first lined, spiral notebook I bought in London from Boots the Chemists on Regent Street. In it I wrote about friend and author Hugh Cook and his raincoat (well, he did tell me to keep character notes!); I wrote about someone's gray eyes that later were assigned to the character of Ravenna in my book Better Than Perfect; I wrote the story that I'm still writing over and over every day of my life--the story of me. Every character, thought, idea, setting that has been a part of my novels, my poems, my drafts, my screenplays, my Christmas cards has come from my journals. What would I do without them? 

Tip of the Day: Wondering what to give for the holidays this year? Art journal supplies can open a beautiful world for someone special. Maybe even you!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Nanowrimo Week 5--Hey, What Week 5?

Yes, there really is a Week 5.  I call it: Getting Life Back on Track After Nanowrimo.  And the first thing I want to do is congratulate everyone who reached--and passed--that 50K goal (me, too!).  Good job, writers.  Good job, also, to those who did their best to stay with the program but for one reason or another found themselves lagging behind.  Take heart; you've got some word counts you didn't have before the month started, and with any luck you have some great ideas and plot lines to keep working on until you reach The End.

For the five years I've participated in Nanowrimo, not one year has been like the other.  Not just because I wrote wildly different types of stories and worked in various genres, but because of what I wanted to do in Week 5.  Some years I continued to work furiously to add on another 50K words.  Other years I just wanted to read and sleep.  This year I want to put my manuscript to bed and carry on writing the WIP I was working on in October.  To do that I still have to place my Nanowrimo pages in binders, make some notes to remind me what the story is actually about for when I do go back to it, and I need to spend some serious time re-reading the earlier WIP.  I also want to evaluate some of the things I learned from yet another month of non-stop, first draft writing:
  1. Not everyone wants to write novels.  And that's okay.  More than once I found myself reassuring writer friends and student newbies that it's fine to discover you're a nonfiction writer at heart.  Follow your passion--write what compels you to keep going.
  2. We all have different endurance levels.  There is no "one size fits all" when it comes to the word counts we "should" have finished by the end of each writing session.
  3. Self-discipline and scheduling; what works, what doesn't?  If Nanowrimo encouraged you to find the perfect time of day to write, don't let go of that.  Cut out everything else, but save that precious slice of time when you're at your most productive level.
  4. Subject matter and genre.  My Nanowrimo story, Into the Woods, was a murder mystery.  While I enjoyed the foray into puzzle-solving and giving my characters dark secrets, I still found myself wanting to break the rules.  When it comes to fiction, I'm a literary writer at heart and my job is to stay true to everything that means.
  5. Writer's groups.  While I was writing, I kept thinking how much I would have enjoyed learning from other mystery writers.  When I'm ready to start my rewrite, I plan to look for a mystery critique group.  You might want to explore joining a group that supports your new-found genre, too.
  6. Then again, because of my "rule-breaking" I found myself being something of a lone wolf.  Writing without critiques from others might be the best way for you to trailblaze your own original path.
  7. Writing tools.  My Alphasmart Neo was, yet again, my lifesaver.  I love that little machine.  I also found I loved orange ink, calligraphy pens, and the most expensive legal pads money can buy.
  8. How do you react under pressure, otherwise known as "a deadline"?  For some reason, I felt incredibly unpressured this year.  It could have been because I was also at my most prepared:  outline, character bios, and backstories were all in place before November 1.
  9. There's no room for perfectionism in Nanowrimo, and there's no room for it in any first draft.  "Just write, don't think" should be our mantra every time we sit down to write any draft.
  10. Sleep is highly over-rated--at least when you want to reach a goal.  I got up an extra hour earlier than usual each day and not only did I improve my word count, I think I felt more productive all day long.  I've decided to stick with this new schedule and I'm excited about it.
  11. What are your "avoidance" tactics to stay away from writing?  This year I was pretty good about putting my writing first, but there was one day when I decided to wash the kitchen curtains instead.  Writing would have been much more fun, I can assure you.
  12. Renewed knowledge that yes, I can do it, you can do it, we all can do it.  We're writers.  Given a task, we deliver.  And that is the one and only secret to getting published:  words on pages.
Tip of the Day:  National Novel Writing Month is intense, exhilarating, fun, and draining.  Give yourself a break for at least a week:  read, rest, doodle, dream; and if you do want to keep writing--pamper yourself along the way, you deserve it!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Nanowrimo Week 4, You Can Do It!

Yes, really! 

Nanowrimo Week 4 can be a difficult time: Thanksgiving, Black Friday, all the temptations to sleep in, goof off, and enjoy the start of the holiday season with friends and family. And here you are, having to churn out X-amount of words for Nanowrimo. Fun, isn’t it? 

Three years ago I had the worst ever last week of Nanowrimo. My beloved calico cat, Mitzi, aka Princess Mizzy, suddenly became ill from an undiscovered tumor the day after Thanksgiving. She was 16 years old, and the time for her to leave us was of course inevitable, but I just wasn’t ready for it now. Especially as on Thanksgiving Day she had been jumping around grabbing tofurkey off everyone’s forks; leaping from the back of the couch cushions; slamming through her kitty door to skid around on the icy patio. She’d always been a live wire, and that particular Thursday was no different than any other. But the next morning, she was still and quiet and apparently in great pain. It was awful. By the time we could see a vet, the consensus was that there was nothing we could do but say goodbye. 

I was devastated. Over the previous eighteen months I had gone through that same depressing vet visit with my two other cats. Both of them, like Mitzi, were senior citizens who had simply succumbed to age-related illness. With Mitzi now gone, though, I was without any pets at all, and I can tell you, the last thing I wanted to do was write 1400 Nanowrimo words that would take me to the 50K mark. 

When we came home from the vet that evening, Mitzi’s lifeless body wrapped in a little quilt I’d brought for her, it was snowing and dark. My husband went to bed, the strain and stress making it impossible to eat dinner or watch TV. My response was to go into a cleaning frenzy: laundry, scrubbing floors, rounding up cat dishes and toys and food for giveaways to the neighbors. By the time I was ready to go to bed I still had a few hours before the clock struck midnight and Nanowrimo 2007 would be over for good. I only had 1400 words to go. It was hard, but I wrote them for Mitzi. 

It was a fitting tribute. Mitzi had been my writing partner in one way or another ever since she came into my life in Carrollton, Georgia. A pregnant stray, no more than a kitten herself, she was desperate for food and love, and she literally jumped into my arms the day I found her. The two years I wrote a pet-astrology column, "Zodiac Zoo" for the now defunct online site, Baku’s Zine, I gave her a byline of her own, deciding she had contributed as much as I had to the writing. Ah, Mitzi.  Bunny and Poppy too.  I miss them terribly. And I still have Nanowrimo pages to write. 

When I sat down to write this post, I hadn’t expected to write so much about loss—this was actually meant to be an inspiring “pep talk." Maybe it still is. Because what I just want to say here is that life rarely offers up the “perfect moment” or time to write. Sometimes it seems all we have is the page, the pen, the typewriter or computer screen, and a backdrop of absolute chaos, despair, and worry behind us. Sometimes it seems impossible to turn our faces in the other direction and just write. But you know, you can do it. You really can. 

I hope your week is a good one, and that you are not going through any kind of serious difficulties or problems. But if you are, I send you my most sincere best wishes for strength and healing, for patience, and the ability to overcome. There must be a good reason Thanksgiving falls during this last week of Nanowrimo—maybe it’s just to be thankful for all the goodness that writing and creativity brings into our lives. So let's be thankful, and let's write. 

Tip of Day: Life happens. Not just during Nanowrimo, but all year long. What seemingly insurmountable obstacle is keeping you from writing? Maybe the best thing in the world is to write about it, and then write some more. You can do it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Nanowrimo Week 3, What's Your Genre?

Here we are, nearing the end of National Novel Writing Month 2010, Week 3, and I'm already worrying about my marketing plan.  No matter that my current manuscript won't be ready to sell for a good two to three years, maybe even four; I just want to be sure I can describe my story in a quick and easy logline that starts with a key word:  my chosen genre.

As I've mentioned earlier, for Nanowrimo 2010 I'm attempting my first adult murder mystery.  While the mystery genre is not exactly new to me, my book set in Egypt for 8-12 year olds, The Great Scarab Scam, is more of what you'd call a "caper."  The plot revolves around stolen and forged antiquities, presenting a dangerous puzzle for my junior sleuth, Lydia Hartley, to unravel at great risk.  Despite plenty of action, scary moments, and some real bad guys--there are no dead bodies, an absolute must in the adult mystery.  But there are some deeper levels to writing genre fiction that go beyond "mysteries must start with a murder," or "romances have to end happily ever after."  These extra levels are the real reasons people are drawn to one genre over another.  For instance:
  1. Do you believe in justice--that crime doesn't pay and that good can prevail over evil?  The mystery genre might be just right for you.
  2. What about love?  Does love make the world go 'round?  Does it "conquer all"?  Do you believe there are such things as "soul mates"?  Romance may be calling.
  3. Technology, parallel universes, six impossible things before breakfast.  Science fiction can be a real pleasure to write if you enjoy stretching the "what if?" boundaries of the known world into new and foreign (outer) limits.
  4. Using those same stretches of imagination as science fiction, fantasy and paranormal fiction allows writers and readers to explore the world of myth and fairy tale in a modern format.
  5. Do you find yourself frequently dreaming about the past, wishing you lived in another time and era where life was more difficult but perhaps much more interesting, too--and the clothes were fantastic?  Historicals may be your perfect genre.
  6. Are the stories you prefer centered around women in all the various stages and aspects of their lives:  juggling career and family, being a daughter, sister, wife, best friend?  Women's fiction certainly doesn't  mean "no boys allowed," but it does focus on issues that can be unique, and special, to women's lives and experience. 
  7. Do you love the sound of words and language?   Do you enjoy "open" or even tragic endings?   Are you fascinated by experimental, off-beat plots, and "breaking the rules"?  Literary fiction may be a good fit.
  8. What about belief in a Higher Power and the role of faith in our lives?  Inspirational fiction can be a dramatic expression of your strongest and most uplifting values.
  9. Choosing to write for children does not mean you live in Talking Bunny Land (but if you do, I'm envious).  Neither does it mean you have the mind of a child and are only comfortable with fourth-graders.  What it does say is that you can celebrate themes of wonder and innocence, as well as understand and acknowledge the pain of the "bad stuff":  first betrayals, bullying, fear of the adult world.
  10. And what if you just can't stand the "made-up" story, and prefer to write things that "really happened"?  Go for it!  Nonfiction sales make up 95% of the book trade.
Other points to consider when choosing your genre are things such as patience and endurance levels:  Are you prepared for a marathon (reading and writing hundreds of pages, with months and years of revision)?  Or are you more of a sprinter, enjoying the quick, satisfying read of a shorter word count, and willing to write one or more books per year?  If so, you may be perfect candidate to write a series.  And what about the "multi-genre" book:  the paranormal Western, or a romance where the principal characters are also working for the FBI?  The best approach is to still choose one main category and describe your book in those terms:  "A Western where the sheriff just happens to be a vampire."

Whatever you choose, the secret of genre choice is not what you think will sell, but what you really, really want to read more than anything in the world.  If you love to read it, chances are you'll love to write it.

Tip of the Day:  Brainstorm some of your favorite books and movies.  Identify the themes and genres, and then write about why those themes were meaningful to you.  You may find certain phrases will pop out that can help you easily steer your current WIP in the right direction for both the actual writing and your marketing, too.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Nanowrimo Week 2, Taking Control by Letting Go (of Transitions, that is.)

Wow, here we are in the second week of Nanowrimo and I have to admit I am behind on my word count.  This morning I realized I needed to make some changes to my approach.  In my previous four years of Nanowrimo-ing, I've simply dived in, written my heart out, and ta-dah!  A 50,000+ word manuscript, messy as a mud pie, but still, mine own.   This year things aren't going quite as smoothly. 

What makes the situation even stranger to me is that I came to the table much more prepared than ever before:  I had an extensive outline, I had my writing prompts, I had my collaged "scene illustrations" all made in advance.  Now I'm thinking all this advance work could be my whole problem:  I may be a little too organized.  I know what I want to have happen in my story, and it seems to be taking me forever to get there. 

So starting today, my new modus operandi is to experiment with writing only my key scenes, whether they're action, dialogue, or descriptive passages that express my characters' emotions.  I'm not going to worry so much about the "how" or even the "why" regarding my plot structure, I'm just going to put my characters in place and in jeopardy and have them fight their way out of the story "trouble."  I know they can do this--they're tough, resourceful, and very motivated.  In fact, they'd be great candidates for tackling 50,000 words in 30 days!

Already I can see some serious benefits to this new writing system.  For one, it really does follow my favorite writing maxim regarding scenes:  "Enter late, leave early."  I think by ignoring transitions, at least for the moment, my writing will be much tighter when it comes to the revision stage.  Any transitions I do need later on will be fairly easy to pop in where necessary.  But the real benefit is going to be in my renewed willingness to get to the blank page and start writing.  By concentrating on the scenes that truly interest me, I have a genuine reason for participating in Nanowrimo--I can't wait to find out "what happens next."  And if I can't wait to start writing, with any luck that same enthusiasm will fire up my readers to want to keep reading.  In my opinion, there's nothing worse than a boring book, either to read or write--and I've got better things to do than cope with boredom.  I'm sure you do, too!

Tip of the Day:  Experiment with abandoning or minimizing your transitions, at least for the first draft stage.  You may actually find your word count increasing despite the loss of endless pages of characters opening and shutting doors, or taking several hours to learn how to handle a gun that really needs to just be fired.  At the same time, don't forget The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript is still on super sale.  You'll find great information inside on all aspects of writing, including transitions.  Just click here for my US $5.95 plus free S/H special.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

National Novel Writing Month 2010, Week 1

Well, here we are again...National Novel Writing Month, sometimes better known as Whoever Thought of This in the First Place?  The answer is of course, Mr. Chris Baty, and while 50,000 words in 30 days might not be everyone's cup of tea, I personally think Chris is a genius.  I love Nanowrimo and I'm thrilled to be taking part in the whole crazy business once again.

This year I'm writing a mystery:  Into the Woods.  My plot revolves around the Internet, the opera, and a whole bunch of bad stuff for my much-beleagured young heroine, Kate Sheffield.  The story opens just as Kate is leaving with her husband for their honeymoon in Jamaica, hence the Polyvore set at the top of this post, which is meant to be a small sampling of her trousseau.  Within minutes of landing at their destination, though, things for Kate and her new hubby fall apart, badly, and the trouble begins...and what a lot of trouble I have planned for Ms. Kate.  Oh, yes, indeedy.

I made the Polyvore set as one of 30 I created as writing prompts for the duration of the month.  A writing prompt set up in advance for Nanowrimo is a great way to stay focused and to keep writing when the inspiration starts lagging.  However, taking a second look at the set, I think it also says a lot about how I feel about Nanowrimo.  To me, November 1 signals the start of a very special writing adventure, one that I have no idea where it will take me.  Like Kate, I've got some nicely packed suitcases, my passport to foreign territory, and the bluebird of happiness to guide me on my way.  So why would anyone want to to tell me not to go there?

This year I've been amazed to read a number of articles denouncing and criticizing Nanowrimo for all kinds of things, from filling the world with "bad writing" to causing unnecessary stress.  I'm not sure what all the fuss is about; I mean, I don't think the Nanowrimo team sends out special agents who knock on your door at 2 AM and demand you sign up or face a firing squad.  The people who sign up for Nanowrimo want this experience; we want to force ourselves to write, to be disciplined, to take ourselves and each other seriously as writers.  For me, Nanowrimo is one of the most Zen-like opportunities of my writing life.  For an entire 30 days, I'm allowed to focus solely on my plot, my characters, my themes and my specific details without worrying whether we have enough milk in the fridge or if the bookshelves need dusting.  For 30 days I get to go on my equivalent of the writer's spiritual retreat.

Which leads me to my top 5 reasons why I love Nanowrimo:
  1. Nanowrimo is like a giant writer's conference where participants get to run the show, not just sit in on lectures or workshops.  It's our equivalent of the Olympics or a World Fair:  we gather to share a common goal and interest on a grand scale.
  2. During the rest of the year, I get a lot of ideas for writing.  But most of those ideas have to go into a folder labelled "Ideas for Future Writing."  November is the month I get to use those ideas.
  3. For me, writing is rewriting, and the sooner I can get a first draft down on paper, the sooner I can get to the "real writing."  If I have a draft ready to revise, I have a real, live WIP to polish and get ready for publication.
  4. And that means that by participating in Nanowrimo every year, I am assured of having a body of work waiting to be revised.  The amount of time between writing a Nanowrimo first draft and the day I sit down and rewrite it is at least a year, usually longer.  The longer I am away from a draft, the stronger my editorial eye and the better my sense of detachment.
  5. Writing covers a lot of bases for me:  it's my "hobby" (yes, I'm not ashamed of that word); it's a source of income (I'm a professional, too); it's a source of passionate interest; and it's a spiritual discipline.  The "practice of writing" reminds me to be consistent in all areas of my life.  Mindful writing equal mindful living and I try to do my best in both.
So that's why I'm saying "Nay!" to the nay-sayers, and wishing you a great Nanowrimo 2010 with lots and lots of words.

Tip of the Day:  In honor of National Novel Writing Month 2010, The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript is still on super sale for one more month.  At only $5.95 plus FREE US shipping and handling, it's a steal.  Come on over to my website and get your copy today.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Weekly Check-in with Visual Journaling

I can't believe Nanowrimo starts in just a few days.  I can't believe how fast this year has gone, or how behind I am in my WIP revisions, or how much there is I still want to write, draw, paint, do before the calendar turns yet another page.  Life is crazy-making sometimes and that's why it's a good idea every once in a while to stop, take stock, and realize just how much you have accomplished in spite of it all.

One of my favorite books for helping me to stay centered in the midst of chaos is Visual Journaling: Going Deeper than Words by Barbara Ganim and Susan Fox.  It's one of the best books I know on using art (as the front cover says) to:  reduce stress; reduce anger; resolve conflicts; get in touch with feelings; give voice to your soul, even if you can't draw.  My kind of book, for sure!

I've owned and used Visual Journaling for a number of years, way before I heard of the concept of "art journaling," which to me is a related, but quite different process than that described in the book.  That said, I also know I became interested in art journaling thanks to authors Ganim and Fox and their very encouraging exercises that led me from my first nervous pencil marks to drawings and paintings that gave me the confidence to call myself an artist. 

One of my favorite lessons in the book is the basis for the entire text:  the check-in.  The check-in entry is all about simply sitting down with your journal at least once a week and discovering exactly what it is you feel at that exact moment.   The process is simple: open your journal so that you have 2 blank pages facing you.  On the right-hand side, write down an "intention," i.e., the question you want an answer to.  For me this is usually along the lines of, "What am I feeling right now?"   Or, "What is the lesson I am supposed to learn from this past week?"  Or even, "What is the real theme of my WIP?" 

After writing down the question, close your eyes, calmly breathe in and out, and let your feelings turn into images.  Don't judge, just let whatever needs to appear come to you.  After a few minutes, or whenever you feel ready, draw your images on the left-hand page.  By "draw" I mean make purple circles, orange squiggles, little dark green squares, or an entire family of stick-figure lizards drinking tea if that's what appeared in your mind's eye.   Subject matter doesn't matter at this point.  If you have polished drawing skills, by all means use them, but you might also find the most honest, energetic expression of your feelings is to stay with a strong degree of abstraction and the willingness to "just draw, don't think."  Let yourself be a little kid again and don't worry about what the grown-ups next door will think.

Once you have your drawing as finished as you want it, the next step is to write about it on the left-hand page, underneath your written intention.  There are a number of set questions you can ask to get going, such as, "How does this drawing make me feel?"  "What do the colors remind me of?"  "What do I like best about this picture?"  "What disturbs me?  And how can I turn that feeling around?"  You can also ask your own questions, too, ones that fit your intention more precisely.

Visual Journaling: Going Deeper than Words  is an amazing book and it's one that I like to re-visit from beginning to end every few years.  Starting in January 2011 I'm thinking of using it as the basis of my writer's group meetings for the year.  I think the other members will enjoy the book and it will give a new focus to our meetings--something you might like to try, too.  If you don't have a writer's group already, inviting people to join a group based on the book is an excellent way to start one, and if your existing group needs an energy boost, there's nothing like a complete change of writing "scenery" to get the ideas flowing.

Tip of the Day:  Treat yourself to a new mixed-media sketchbook, some colored markers, crayons, an inexpensive tray of watercolors, and your favorite brand of pens.  Experiment with the "check-in" exercise described above and see what happens.  Who knows, you may end up with an entirely new direction and resolve for your creative and/or personal life--one that celebrates your accomplishments and lightens even the heaviest of to-do lists.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ekphrasis, Anyone?

I have to admit I'd never come across the term "ekphrasis" until I was browsing through an old edition of Poet's Market.  Listed under "E" was Ekphrasis, a literary journal devoted to poetry based on works of art.  Immediately I was intrigued because unbeknownst to me, I'd been playing with "ekphrasis" for years, not only in my daily writing practice, but in my writer's workshops as well.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition for ekphrasis is:  "a literary description of or a commentary on a visual work of art."  The plural of the word is "ekphrases" and apparently the word's first known usage was in 1715.

Anyone who's been reading my blog will know that I love both art and literature.  I spent two entire years attending art history lectures at the National Gallery in London, sometimes going as often as seven days a week.  I know my Gainsborough duchesses and Mannerist nativity scenes, I can tell you!  So combining my two favorite subjects is a fun and natural way for me to "play."  And while the actual word "ekphrasis" is just fine and dandy for people who like precision, personally I just call what I do "writing inspired by a painting."  Not only is it a fantastic exercise for my writer's groups, it's always been a favorite in my workshops, especially ones I've presented to young writers: high school students and home schoolers.

Here's a couple of samples taken straight from my journals.  They're first drafts, unedited, warts and all, but that's how I like to share my writing here if only to help you break down those inhibitions and just write, don't think.

This first one is based on Goya's painting, "Family of Charles IV":

Our Subjects Hate Us

They want to kill us. 
In turn, Papa, Mama, and
all the others standing here
want to kill their subjects,
if not in blood, then tax them
through the roof:
more wine, more grain, more gold.
There is never enough
for this one starving family
to consume, so we have started
to eat each other.
We have bitten off whole pieces
of ourselves, and finding the taste
disgusting, we spit and vomit and spew
up our lineage all over Europe.
We cannot escape each other.
Like barnacles or mud
On the bottom of a barge,
we cling together.
Members of the same asylum
bound by madness and the fact
that no sane person would

touch us with a pole.

Our madness is contagious, like
swollen joints and bloody noses.
We pass on our tics and stutters,
our narrow vision and faulty hearing.
We pass on our royal blood, so polluted
Even the rats run away from us.

I don't know how accurate my history is there, but I sure had fun!  This next piece is based on a more modern print, "Romantic Stroll," by Brent Heighton.  The picture originally inspired my entire Nanowrimo effort last year, but I also wrote this short piece while doodling on my plot:


We walked a little dog at night,
your hand tucked into the pocket of my coat.
I remember the smell of coal fires,
the smoke curling into the sky like incense,
the kind I knew from those Cairo bars
and the ships we docked at Algiers.

It seemed a hundred years ago, and not
a simple, shortened ten.
You said, “Nothing will ever
be the same again,” and I agreed.
I knew that when the walk was over,
we would return to the crowded flat,
remove our coats, pour out the gin and tonic
into glasses we had already left to chill.
Habits, like walks and dogs, we could not
forego without a sense of loss.
And all the while memories rising
to the surface that could never be repeated:
little girls playing in their starched summer
dresses, the boys in rubber flip-flops,
the sound of birds and monkeys all tangled
up in the soughing of the great green
leaves, their broad plates catching green rain
water and sunlight in one glorious crystalline
riot of coolness on the hottest of summer days.
It left me breathless.
It left me, like so many things, alone.

Tip of the Day:  Look through a book of your favorite paintings, choose one, and start writing.  I experimented with poetry in my examples here, but you might want to go a step further and try plotting an entire novel or screenplay based on a work of art.  And don't just stop with writing.  The collage at the top of the post is a Polyvore set I made taking Gauguin as my inspiration.  Play, have fun, and make something to fill your creative soul.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Researching the Children's Book; Make it Fun!

I'm baaaack--from a great 3-day weekend in Santa Fe, NM, that is.  I had a wonderful time attending the New Mexico Women Author's Book Festival where I presented my talk, "Researching the Children's Book." 

The subject is especially important to me as five of my books are for young readers, and I've never written any book for any age group, fiction or nonfiction, that I haven't had to research.  Convincing other people that this is even necessary, though, is a whole 'nother story.  Only a few days ago someone asked me, "Why would anyone research a children's book?" 

Comments and questions like this can make authors for children want to overcompensate and tackle far more research than is actually necessary or required for the book they are writing.  But too much research can be as bad as not enough.  Staying mired in endless research can be a convenient excuse for not writing anything at all. 

My three rules for researching the children's book are:  keep it light, keep it fun, and keep it as accurate as possible because chances are that whatever you put in a book could stick with a young reader for life.  I know I believed everything I read growing up, and I still can't believe there are no tigers in Africa.  In line with my three rules, I have five steps to keep my research on track: 

Step One.  I only research or write on subjects that I love or find interesting.  I've never chosen a subject because it was "hot" or because I thought it would be a quick sale.  Sometimes editors will suggest a topic to you.  Be wary about saying "yes" too quickly.  If you don't hold much passion for that subject, not only will the research process be long and tedious, but it will show in your writing. 

Step Two.  Once I've settled on a topic, I ask myself three questions:  What do I already know about this subject?  What would a child want to know about it?  And what are the things I need to know for this particular project?  These questions keep my research focused.  They also help me to think in terms of "kid-sized portions." 

Step Three.  Once I've brainstormed my answers, I start my research, often starting with the encyclopedia followed by the children's section of the library.  In today's info-driven world,  the choice of resources can be overwhelming, a dilemma made even worse by the Internet, which I have to say is not my favorite place to acquire facts.  The information found there is often too subjective and in some cases, downright wrong.  That said, the Internet is great for finding leads and links to sites and book titles I feel I can trust. 

Whatever your preferred method, though, the worst thing you can do is check out 50 library books and set out for a "course of study."  Perhaps the most cumbersome part of this process is accumulating so much good information that you feel compelled to add it to your book whether it fits, is required, or is even interesting to anyone else but you.  This is particularly true for fiction.  Novels can be ruined by research.  Information-heavy stories often seem contrived and can ring false, especially for younger readers. 

Step Four.  Now that you have your basics in place, you will want to add the flavor, the spice, those specific and unique details that make you and your reader feel "I really was there!"  My favorite research technique is to travel, which I admit is not always the easiest to do, but travel doesn't always have to be out of the country.  It can be as close as visiting the next town over.  If you can take a trip, take your journal, make dated and continuous entries, and go to all the places that have nothing to do with tourism:  grocery stores, schools, suburbs, post offices, banks, malls, apartment blocks, recreation centers, toy stores, houses of other words, all the places that make up a child's world in that particular setting.  Record details with your five senses, especially if you visit any kind of local industry.  And stay honest:  if someplace is stinky--say so!  Inquiring kids love the worst of details. 

If long-distance travel is impossible, I've often found foreign consulates and embassies to be great sources of information.  Not only do they have dozens of free publications they will happily give you, but many of them have excellent libraries and and photo banks for you to use as well. 

Magazines, my source for all sorts of things such as collage and found poetry, are also pretty good when they're used the way they were designed:  to be read!  Writer's Market can be a  starting point for finding industry-specific magazines with topics ranging from ice cream making to tropical pets to motor racing.  And don't forget to clip out, arrange, and study the accompanying photos for details not included in the actual articles. 

Step Five.  Beyond the reference book.  Sources such as cookbooks (children love to learn about weird food); foreign newspaper classified ads (What's for sale?  How much does it cost?  What kind of jobs are being offered?), and local chambers of commerce can all point you in a new and unexpected direction. 

And then there are blogs.  Here's where I think the Internet comes into its own.  Sometimes it seems the whole world is keeping a blog, and that's not such a bad thing.  Blogs, especially those written by young people and children, can be good sources for personal, day-to-day tidbits that you would never have been able to access in the past.  Written by real teens and families, blogs tell real stories about aspects of life you could never make up. 

Step Six.  Round-up.  Once your facts are in place, sift through and don't be afraid to discard anything that's boring or puts you to sleep.  As a writer for children, always think in terms of, "What would I have loved knowing as a child?"  As soon as you start thinking, "Children need to know..." or, "Children should know..." you're entering dangerous territory, one that borders on the moral tale: "And after her disobedience burned down the entire street, little Suzie never played with matches again..." 

The best advice I've ever heard came from my first editor when I wrote my first book on New Zealand:  "We want a nonfiction book that children will choose to pick up and read because they want to, not because someone told them they had to."  Goes for pretty much everything we want to write, don't you think? 

Tip of the Day.  More than anything, children want to know about other children.  They want to know what happens during a school day, what games children play around the world, what are the jokes, what pets do they have, the clothing, what do their houses or rooms look like?  When reading for pleasure, children rarely care about how many tons of export products come from where, or the precise dates that mark the beginnings and endings of long ago wars.  Keep your information interesting and you'll keep a child reading.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript

Back to School Special:  My how-to book on writing, The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript is now on super sale!  Instead of $10.95, I've dropped the price to $5.95 plus FREE US shipping and handling, but only if you order direct from my website,

 I wrote the book primarily for my workshops when a student asked if I had a book of my own to go with the course.  It was at the end of one of my summer sessions, a hot Georgia night with a thunderstorm on the horizon.  I was a little surprised by the question because I always provide workshop participants with loads of notes and photocopied handouts, as well as a thorough bibliography of other writers' how-to books.  But there was something about the idea that intrigued me.  Thinking on my feet, I found myself saying:  "No book yet, but there will be.  Soon."  A few months later I went on to write and publish the book, and have used it in hundreds of workshops.  One chapter, "Creative Conflict," even went on to be sold and reprinted in a textbook on video production.

The Essential Guide for New Writers is a book close to my heart.  In many ways it could also be subtitled, "Notes to Me About Writing" and it's chock-full of everything I consider important to make your writing dreams come true, e.g., streamlined plot and characterization techniques; end-of-chapter writing exercises;  easy synopsis and query letters tricks.  

The Essential Guide for New Writers is a book for all writers, no matter your level of expertise.  If you're just starting out, the book will help you get past those first-draft jitters and well on your way to having a finished, polished manuscript that's submission-ready.  And if you're a writer with a few years of sales and experience behind you, there's nothing like sitting down with "beginner's mind" to refresh and charge up your creative batteries.  As I like to tell my students, every time you start a new piece of writing, you're a new writer.  The day you think you know it all could very well be the day you need to change careers.

Tip of the Day:  Get your copy now while the sale lasts.  Remember, this offer is only available through my website, and nowhere else.  Happy writing!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Guest Blogging--and Why I Love Social Media

Hi, Everyone!  Guess what?  Today I'm a guest blogger at Charissa Weaks, A Day in the Life of An Aspiring Writer.  Sending a big thank you to Charissa for her lovely welcome and for providing us all with a great site to read and follow.  I met Charissa through Twitter and I can't say enough about how happy that makes me.

Although it hasn't even been two years yet, I can't believe there was a time when I wasn't Tweeting, or blogging, or chatting to my friends at JacketFlap.  And I'm always happy to meet more!  Which brings me to the question many of my non-Tweeting, non-blogging writer friends ask me:  How do you manage to find the time?  The answer is that I don't find the time, I make it.  Social media is important to me because:

  • I am a writer and I love to share what I've learned or am learning about writing.  My blog and my website are all about passing on information--for free.  When I was starting out as a young writer, I was fortunate enough to be mentored by some great and well-known authors, now sadly no longer with us.  I like to think I am helping to keep their legacy alive by passing on what they taught me.  I enjoy talking writing, and I'll gladly talk to whoever wants to listen! 
  • Social media is a lot of fun.  It's entertaining.  I enjoy reading other people's blogs, especially the ones that are "mini literary journals."  I try to add to the mix with my own efforts, e.g., things such as the collages that I put at the top of my posts.
  • Social media has been very educational for me.  I've learned so much, especially through Twitter.  Every day I come across some amazing treasure trove of information, from tips on marketing and and writing, to collage techniques and the latest theories on Iron Age burial mounds.  I love the buzz coming from creative and thoughtful people and I love being part of that conversation. 
  • And, finally, I do, ahem, have books to sell.  I've sold a number of books through my contacts and various sites and I'm very, very grateful to those book buyers.

That said, it's really time for me to finish this post and get back to work on the WIP so I can have a new book to sell!  Have a great day, friends, and be sure to go visit Charissa and see what's happening at her site.

Tip of the Day:  The key to making social media work for you is to schedule the times of day or night you'll sign in.  For instance, you might want to "reward" yourself with 10-15 minutes of Twitter for every five pages you write or revise; or perhaps you could give up watching 30 minutes of television to visit some blogs instead. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Keeping it Clean--The Writer's Guide to Housework

Housework.  The word alone is one of the best cures for writer's block I've ever known.  Just the thought of pulling out the vacuum cleaner can sometimes be enough to send me scurrying back to the WIP:  "Got to finish this chapter first and then we attack those dust bunnies..."

The big problem, however, is that I can't stand chaos.  I can't work in a cluttered environment, and unfortunately I don't live in a fairy tale world where the windows magically wash themselves and the broom sings Broadway show tunes.  It's a dirty world and somebody's got to clean it--usually me.

To solve the dilemma I've come up with some fairly easy solutions that I hope can help you, too, the next time you're torn between giving up the chores or neglecting the manuscript:

-  My biggest and best discovery in the whole world ever is microfiber cleaning cloths.  I love them, adore them!  I keep a huge stock of them in my linen cupboard and am always buying more.  The best and cheapest way to purchase them is to get the ones from the automotive aisle at any discount store.  For some bizarre and discriminatory reason "kitchen" cloths are priced several times higher than those packaged for the garage.  The automotive cloths are the exact same thing and they're also sold in convenient bulk packs.  Wherever you buy them, though, I think they are a miracle of modern science.  They clean everything--I mean everything--with a minimum of detergents and other chemicals, sometimes none at all, and they leave surfaces streak-free.  The best compliment I've ever received was right after I bought my first package.  A visiting friend walked through the front door and said, "Wow, it looks like you have two maids.  Everything sparkles!"  Yes, indeedy. 

-  I've become so obsessed with these cloths that I usually have a damp one with me at all times, even in my office, ready for that "wipe down/clean up" break that I can accomplish in a few seconds flat. 

-  Having my cloths ready means I can always pick up after myself in a hurry, encouraging me to rarely let a mess accumulate.  For instance, I wipe down the shower and sink every morning (takes all of 1 minute), or dust my desk "while I'm thinking."  Some other little tricks that help me get through the mess are things like having plenty of waste baskets close by (throw that junk mail out the minute you get it!), and using satin padded hangers that make me want to hang up my clothes because it just looks so nice.

-  I am also a dedicated minimalist--with the exception of my microfiber cloth collection, that is.  I limit my possessions which means little to no clutter.  My entire wardrobe could fit in a good-sized (well, okay, large-sized) suitcase, my books in just a few boxes.  My new policy is I have to give away one book for every one I buy.  If I'm not reading, wearing, or using an item, out it goes to the thrift store, friends, or trash.

-  Lastly, I "reward" myself with housework.  For instance, if I write for an hour, I can then vacuum, or dust, or do the dishes.  That way I can stop thinking about chores while I'm trying to work on a new scene or chapter.  My rule is I always have to write first--then I can take a break and clean whatever my heart desires.  Writing between laundry and dryer loads is a great way to practice "timed writing," too.

-  The benefit to all of these simple tasks is that my house and office are usually at a level that requires only a minimum of time and effort to maintain.  And that means I have a lot more time available to write and pursue my other creative interests.  Just call me "Eloise"!

Tip of the Day:  Keeping a damp microfiber cloth in a plastic bag in my car or purse has been a true lifesaver more times than I can count.  Whether I've used it to clean up from art classes when I've managed to get more paint on me than the paper, or needed to wipe sandwich mayo from my hands before putting a manuscript submission together at the post office, microfiber has become this writer's best friend.