Thursday, May 27, 2010

Writing with the Mythological Voice; Learning from Natalie Reid

One of the best writing experiences I've ever had was the opportunity to take an all-day workshop with author and teacher, Natalie Reid.  Natalie teaches a technique she calls "writing with the mythological voice" and it is, in my opinion, the quickest and easiest way to find your authentic writer's voice. 

The Spiritual Alchemist: Working with the Voice of Your Soul is Natalie's complete presentation of her ideas and exercises you can do alone at home or with a creative group (preferably with people you trust and feel comfortable with).  The book even includes a beautiful CD to guide you along so that you don't have to break out of the creative flow to read about "what to do next."  There is so much I could say about the book:  it is fantastic; it is motivating; it is educational, but I think I would rather just offer one of the myths that I wrote during Natalie's class.  I called it, The Woman Who was Fast.

There once was a woman who was fast.  She could cook in three minutes flat the best of meals.  She could paint the living room before breakfast.  She could type 230 words a minute.  She could speak without breathing, run marathons in under an hour, make the bed with one hand, and listen to her own voice while hearing the problems of others.  She was so full of speed and energy it took the greatest powers of control to keep her feet on the ground and the clouds out of her hair.  There was nothing she couldn't do in record time or better, and soon she found her fame and speedy accomplishments whizzing around the globe and shooting out of the TV and computer screens.  There were instant blogs and short sound bites that praised her efficiency and miraculous abilities to go and go and go and never complain or take time out for rest.  Soon she learned that she could go even faster if she mopped floors with one foot, worked her time-saving generator with the other, dust with her left hand and write with her mouth.  In her right hand she could turn the pages of a book and read separate books with her two different eyes.  Faster, faster, faster she urged herself when she felt herself lag by a minute or two.  Time is money and money is all that matters in the end because without money how could any of the world's problems be solved?  Where would the food come from?  The clothes, the teachers, the houses, the machinery for war?  She couldn't let up for a second.  There was so much to do and she was good at what she did because she was fast.  She was so fast she could speed up her heart and she learned to love and hate and cry and speak with the same breath and all the while her heart pumped and pumped and pounded and thrust until her heartbeats became a distant whir and she woke up from the fastest dream of her life--no more than .002 of a second--in a cold sweat and sudden panicky fear that her heart was so fast she could no longer hear it.

It's been over two years since I wrote this piece in Natalie's workshop.  Unfortunately, like all myths, it is is still rings true.  Oh, dear...

Tip of the Day:  Wondering who your writer-self really is?  Go on the equivalent of a writer's vision quest with The Spiritual Alchemist: Working with the Voice of Your Soul.  The answers will surprise--and inspire--you.  You can also learn more about Natalie at her website,  Best wishes on your journey.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Adding Depth to Your Writing: Past, Present, and Future

I'm always looking for ways to go deeper into my writing.  Over the weekend I began finalizing my first book trailers--the subject of a whole 'nother post coming soon--and as I searched through my images I realized that to display the full "flavor" of a story, I needed to know the past, present, and future of my characters in an entirely new way.

Usually when I talk about past/present/future with my writing students and clients I'm talking about tense, e.g., try not to switch from past to present tense in the same paragraph, or, maybe 800 pages of present-tense-only is a little tedious.  But this time I wanted to use the concept to explore where my characters came from, where they are in the story, and where I want them (and the reader) to be at the end of the book.  Thinking along these lines has added a fresh new approach to my usual "character biography." For instance,
  • Fully examining your characters' pasts can give you the core or real story you are trying to tell. The place they’ve come from is a huge influence on all of their future actions, motivations, and goals. Know that place inside out.
  • Knowing where your characters have come from can help with your pitch and marketing materials: “A girl from the wrong side of the tracks…” “Born into the royal family…” Ask yourself what you really know about “the wrong side of the tracks” or what goes on behind closed palace doors. Find out and use those details to enliven and enrich your presentation.
  • When you can write about your character's past with a strong degree of empathy, you immediately create a bond with your readers, some of whom can identify with a similar past or birthplace.
  • “You can take the girl off of the farm…” We always take a little bit of where we’re from wherever we go. Tiny, telling details your characters carry with them can add volumes to your tale in minimal words. For instance, a habit of liking a certain kind of candy only available in a certain town, or flowers that only grow in the mountains of Tibet…  Speech patterns are especially telling.  Any colloquialisms, small phrases, or accents that can’t be abandoned can and should appear , especially at the most inappropriate times.
  • The past, for good or bad, can be something we all cling to.  Despite the need to change, having your characters attached to the past for comfort or out of bad habit will increase their difficult journey toward growth, and will add to your conflict.
  • There’s nothing like secrets to enliven a plot. Having your characters do their darndest to keep those secrets from the past hidden in the present can add a lot of literary oomph.
  • The present can be (and perhaps should be) a complete contrast to the past. If your character has come from warm and cozy, make sure his or her present life is hard and mean. A character from poverty suddenly thrust into fame and fortune can long for the days of scrubbing pots below stairs. An unfamiliar present can be a great source of misery.
  • Future goals are the impetus of your story; characters should keep their eyes on the prize at all times. The future should be a delicious dangling carrot or strawberry bon-bon always just there, in sight, tormenting and goading your characters into action.
  • The future can also be a bad place readers don’t want your character to go, e.g., into the arms of Mr. Wrong; that trip to Antarctica everyone knows they shouldn’t take; stepping into a dark basement without a flashlight or baseball bat. Increase readers' fears for your characters whenever possible.
  • As much as readers love to agonize and worry for your characters, readers also live for the hope that everything in your story is going to end happily ever after. Keep that hope alive as long as you can. And if you must re-stage Hamlet in outer space, at least make a body-strewn ending literary, satisfying, and “just right."
  • Sometimes the best endings fill readers’ heads with all kinds of possible alternatives. In my book club I know we love to speculate: Did Claire and Max get married? Do you think Rosie got the job she wanted? Does the world really end in 20102? Readers like to extend the story in their minds; it's part of what makes a plot “unforgettable.”
  • At the same time, don’t forget you can spin out your story into a near-never-ending future with a sequel or perhaps a complete series.
Tip of the day: Go through a manuscript you are still writing or one you have already finished. How can you pump up “past, present, and future” to reinvigorate your pages or to enliven your query, synopsis, and pitch?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Total Chaos or Creative Storm?

For the last few days I've been so scattered I could cry.  Really.  My writing room is a mess, my ideas are coming in too fast and furious, art projects are spilling out the door, my goals seem insurmountable, I owe dozens of return e-mails, and I'd rather be sleeping.  In other words, it's nearly that wonderful midway point of the year when I look at my creative life and wonder why on earth I ever wanted to do any of this.  Except that it's so much a part of me now I can't imagine any other way of living or being.

Two days ago while I was listening to possible music tracks for my upcoming book trailers (more projects, more goals) and staring at the chaos on my writing desk, something very weird happened outside my open window.  Three feet away on my patio a beautiful white and brown hawk swooped down and killed a dove.  I don't think I could have been more stunned if it had sailed right through my window and landed on my lap.  For several surreal minutes afterward the hawk and I sized each other up, the deceased dove between us.  I was too frightened to move; the hawk seemed to be rather proud of itself, showing me the undersides of its wings a lot and making quite a few victory noises.  A ridiculous part of me wondered if the hawk would next come inside the house in search of another snack (I had a wild parrot do that once).  My curiosity, on the other hand, wanted it to stay in place so I could keep watching this beautiful and ferocious bird that had somehow managed to infiltrate my small, inner-city backyard.  I mean, this is downtown Albuquerque, not a PBS nature program!  Eventually, though, the hawk decided I was far too insignificant for further conversation.  It marched toward the dove, picked it up in its talons, and flew off in an elegant and eerie departure skimming the treetops.  Just thinking about it now still gives me the shivers.

In her book, The Secret Language of Signs, one of my favorite nonfiction authors, Denise Linn, writes that seeing hawk imagery refers to the need to focus on your goals and to go after them with powerful single-mindedness.  Wow.  I didn't think I needed to be hit over the head that hard.  After I posted my woes on Twitter, blogger Kathleen Nolan at A Longer Letter Later  suggested that what I saw as the chaos in my life just might be a "creative storm."  I like that; it makes me think of the kind of storms we get here in Albquerque--torrential rain hitting parched earth, followed by a magnificent flowering of  every twig in sight.  Paired with all that rain and thunder I can easily imagine the hawk as my guide to the eye of the hurricane, helping me to see my goals in a "single-minded and powerful way" no matter the tempest around me.

Last night I made a list of what I hope to accomplish by the end of the summer:
  • Line edits and revisions for my upcoming fantasy novel, Overtaken.
  • Book trailers for 2 of my other books as well as for Overtaken.
  • Get the "Look Inside the Book" feature in place for the same 3 books on
  • Fully transcribe the hand-written draft of my new nonfiction manuscript.
  • Remember to set aside my weekends for artwork:  collage, pottery, watercolor, or drawing.
  • Re-commit to a daily practice of writing morning pages.
When I wrote out my list, it all seemed very do-able.  And calming.  I think I may actually get through the rest of the year with some much-improved focus.  Now to clean up my room.  Even signs and wonders can use a little dusting.

Tip of the Day:  What symbols, imagery, or metaphors are guiding you toward your creative goals?  Brainstorm a list of associations; the messages may surprise you.  (And don't forget to check out Kathleen's great blog A Longer Letter Later.  Thanks for the input, Kathleen.)