Category: Writing life (page 1 of 7)

Resolution – Meh!

 

It’s the new year and media abound with lists of resolutions

  • 8 ways to a happier marriage,
  • 10 tips to lose those holiday pounds,
  • 6 foods for better health,
  • 101 reasons to exercise.

This blog will not give you any suggestions for resolutions.  If you’re like me, you are a work in progress, always seeking to enhance your lifestyle, to improve your mind, to work smarter, and to cultivate relationships.  Those are not one-off resolutions to be written down in January and checked off in February. They are part of daily life.

What I am doing to mark the  new year, is clearing my closets. Over the years, I have accumulated “stuff,” and lots of it.  There are rods full of old clothes, that I kept because they might be good for costuming, or I could wear  again if I lost that ten pounds. (See 10 tips to lose those holiday pounds.)  Those closet hogs are going to the thrift store.  If  those extra pounds ever disappear I want new clothes, not old ones.

Dated or broken electronics.  We are never going to need that old VCR and the idea of repairing a broken tv is just a pipe dream.  Off to the recycling depot they go.

Harder, are the old Christmas decorations.  They have sentimental value, even if they no longer go on the tree.  Apparently, they have monetary value as well.  I saw a set of my old tree balls in an antique store, priced at $30.00 for a box of nine. I’ve still got mine in the original box and I paid $3.99 on sale, according to the price sticker.  Anyway, I’m keeping the pretty cut ball ornaments, but those fabric ones the cat scratched up?  They can go.

Clearing book shelves is harder still.  Some books were gifts, with the donor’s name on the inside page.  If I get rid of the book, am I telling the donor she no longer matters to me?  However, I got new books for Christmas, just like I requested, so space must be freed up.  I’ll take some old treasures to the used book store so someone else can enjoy them.

The basement and attic, I’ll leave to the man of the house.  It’s mostly his stuff in there anyway and I don’t have to look at it, except for my canning shelves.  They seem to be full of jars, yet when the season hits, I’m always running out of jam jars.  Another run to the recycle depot in my future.  Just because a jar is shaped like a bear, does not mean I must keep it.  I never put jam in an old bear jar.

Fabric, odd balls of yarn, worn out linens, these are the hardest tasks for me.  The last time I gave away my stash of yarn, I needed it a week later.  Even tiny scraps of pretty fabric can go into a quilt.  I dread clearing out my sewing supplies.  But it must be done.  The drawers are full and I’m still buying new stuff. However,  I’ve instituted a rule about not adding more storage space. Everything I have must fit in the space already allocated.

 

All this clearing and tidying and sorting gives me fresh energy. I feel as though I’ve cleared the decks for new adventures. The energy carries over into my writing life as well.  I’m better at seeing “stuff” in a stodgy sentence and throwing out the unnecessary words.  A ms that has languished for years is bound for the recycle.  It occupies space on my computer and in my mind but does nothing to promote my career.  Time to let it go.

There is nothing magical about turning a page on the calendar, but our culture seems to think January 1 is the start of new things. So, I take the first weeks of January as an invitation (command?) to clear out the dead weight of the previous months.  Then I feel refreshed and ready to go.

What about you? How do you mark the beginning of the year?

Finishing Touches

One of the Christmas traditions on my list is a handmade tree ornament for each of the children in my clan who are under eighteen. I started the practice when I moved far away from my birth family.  Although I kept tabs on everyone, I was not up-to-date on the interests, needs and desires of the youngest generation.  Some said I should just forget about presents, but I like Christmas.  I like the excitement of wrapping a gift, of hiding it under the tree, of watching the smiles on Christmas morning when someone receives exactly what he wanted.  Besides, I worried I’d become nothing but a name in my extended family if I didn’t do something to maintain a presence with young relatives I rarely saw face-to-face.  So, as a compromise, I agreed not to spend much money and my siblings agreed I could send little remembrances. 

All went well for the first generation. There were eight of them.  A manageable number.  When each of them reached the age of eighteen, they had a collection of eighteen ornaments for their own tree.  (I assumed the kids would move out of the family home and set up on their own.)  At first, I didn’t know whether my idea was well received or not, but in later years I’ve heard from nieces and nephews that my gift to them had a special ceremony all of its own.  In one family, it was the only gift to be opened on Christmas Eve and then hung on the tree.  Another wrote to me years later, when she was a mother herself, about unpacking her collection of hand-made ornaments and explaining them to her children, and feeling loved. 

So, now I’m full of warm fuzzies, and could have said “my work is done,” but instead, I started in on the children of the children. Now there are thirteen ornaments to be made every year, often in a mad, last-minute scramble.

This year, I tried to get ahead of the game by completing the ornaments in October. I set them aside, feeling smug, with a note that they needed a few finishing touches, but I had lots of time.  NOT! 

When I went to package up the gifts, I realized there were many finishing touches still needed. Names to add, loops to attach, ribbons to affix.  I was, once again, behind the eight ball.

As a writer, there is a lesson for me here. That first draft, or even second draft, that I confidently put away saying it only needs a tweak here and there, is not ready for other eyes.  In this age of instant communication, it is wise to pause before hitting the publish button.  Novels, short stories, social media posts, even e-mails, can all benefit from fine tuning.  Where my ornaments needed ribbons and tags, my prose might need tightening, the plot might need clarification, the characters could do with some polish.

I’m happy to report, that my Christmas gifts, with loops and ribbons attached, are all in the mail, carrying love from me to little folk I may not have met but who hold a place in my heart.

What about you? Any Christmas traditions in your family you’d like to share? A favourite book? Movie you have to watch?

Artificial Intelligence

My brain seems to have gone onto Christmas mode and I have no idea whatever for today’s blog. So, I thought I’d try one of those “blog idea” generators. 

I got a bunch of titles like 5 Ways to —–, 10 Things You Should —–, and a bunch of verbs and nouns.  I also got some weird stick figures with various parts of speech attached to them.  None of this produced anything for a blog but it did make me think of the current discussion on artificial intelligence.  You know, that thing where machines are smarter than humans and make decisions for us.  e.g. Facebook’s algorithms decides which ads you should see.  Amazon’s brain decides which books you should buy.

So long as artificial intelligence is confined to advertising blurbs, I guess it won’t hurt me, but if AI starts running political parties, or setting government policy, or determining patient treatment in medical situations, we’re in trouble. Some would argue that that is already happening.  Since I just spent a fruitless hour trying to place an order on-line, I can attest to the fact that computer programs don’t always work.  I would be afraid of a situation where there was no human to over-ride the machine’s decisions.

Have a look at this report aired on the CBC Monday night.

Robert McCheseney is a leading author on the subject of economic, democracy and technology. He suggests that deep artificial intelligence can pose a serious risk to society and even the future of humankind. e.g. AI, which is built and programmed by humans, can become autonomous and put their “prime directive” above all other considerations.  Thus humans could lose control of  autonomous weapons, programmed to kill.  The weapon then kills indiscriminately because there is no check on its operation.

Self-driving cars already exhibit a form of artificial intelligence, but if the self-driving car is told to drive on the left hand side of the road in North America, mayhem will ensue. I’d want the human driver of that automobile to have an over-ride button.

And that brings me back to the question at the top of this blog, “what will I write about today?”

Mr. McChesney tells us that a robot, or deep artificial intelligence is unlikely to adopt human emotions like love or hate or jealousy or forgiveness. So, I’ll keep writing stories about humans who suffer the joy and despair of love. Characters who struggle to find meaning in hardship, and sacrifice for the good of others;  people who’s souls respond to beautiful music or poetry; children who delight in the first snowfall and the wonder of Christmas.

Maybe, one day, a computer will write better plays than Shakespeare, or greater symphonies than Beethoven, or paint masterpieces that surpass Rembrandt. Until that time, I plan to revel in my humanity.  I’ll celebrate other humans and I’ll give thanks for the Child born in Bethlehem, come to save us all.

Filling the Well

 

Lately my life has been beset by small frustrations, unwelcome tasks, and a nagging malaise. My usual rosy outlook has darkened with the gloomy skies.  Cynicism has planted negative thoughts in my mind. Content has become a stranger.  Until . . .

I attended the symphony.

Music is a constant companion to my days. I turn on the radio first thing in the morning and I fall asleep to favourite recordings at night, but seldom to I really listen.  I’ve too many things to do.  So, taking three hours from my busyness  to just listen is a rare treat.  Not only that, but a night at the symphony afforded me the opportunity to hear a live performance. 

Even the most wonderful recording of the most wonderful orchestra in the world cannot take the place of  live music. To participate, as hearers, in the music-making,  to watch the conductor as he coaxes his vision from the players, to breath with the instrumentalists as they bring the composer’s work to life – that is something to experience first hand.

On this night Elgar’s Enigma Variations was on the program, an old warhorse in the symphonic repertoire.  I’ve heard it before, in recording and live, yet I fell under the spell of the music all over again.  By turns playful, bombastic and tender, the first eight movements brought a smile to my face. Then, lush and romantic, the melting melody of the ninth variation (Nimrod). A tidal wave of sound, crashing over the audience, carrying us into the deep waters,  beyond  understanding into a realm of pure emotion.  I float, as though on a great ocean,  rocked in the billows.  My heart expands to embrace the whole world. I breathe purity into my lungs. Cares and duties fade to nothing, there is only the music, achingly beautiful. At last the melody ebbs, brings me to the shore, and lays me gently on the warm sand. I am renewed, my soul refreshed, and my spirit peaceful within me.

I have “filled the well,” as Julia Cameron suggests.

As writers and humans, we all need to fill the well from time to time. As we head into the busy Christmas season, I urge you to be kind to yourself.  Attend a concert and listen with your heart.  Sit in a field of lavender and breath deeply.  Ski through a snow covered forest and hear the silence. 

Whatever brings you solace, seek it out, explore it with passion, embrace it with your whole being.  Then, refreshed and filled, you are equipped to bring joy and exuberance and ardour to your normal days.  You will be blessed and you will be a blessing to those about you.

How do you replenish the creative spring within? Please share in the comments section.  You just might bring inspiration to another.

 

The Call of the Pipes

 

There’s something about bagpipes that stirs the soul. Why else account for their use in battle?  Soldiers, tired, defeated, and frightened, will rise from their cover and follow the piper one more time into the fray.  Over and over in history, that scenario has played out.  One notable example is Canada’s VC winner, James Richardson. I’ve written about him here.

Recently, at a Remembrance Day service at our local cenotaph, I watched the pipe band marching past and felt the excitement race through my veins, but when I watched closely, I did a double-take. I had always believed those blowing the bagpipes were male members of Scottish clans. Not this time.  The band I saw had an Asian man, a black man, and a few women, wearing kilts, and proudly piping out “Scotland the Brave.” Welcome to Canada in 2017.

“That would never happen.” These dismissive words have blighted more than one budding writer’s career.  Even when the event in question is a true-life example, the editor or beta reader insists it is too far-fetched to be used in fiction.  Book guidelines say the editor is looking for something “new and different.”  The invisible subtext likely reads but not too different.

Publishing is a risky business, so publishing houses like to hedge their bets. If book A about a shape-shifter sold lots of copies, then they want more shape-shifters.  If book B about a werewolf tanked, they don’t want to see werewolves anywhere in your submission.

If you are writing something “different” don’t be discouraged. Remember someone had to be the first to write vampires, or steam-punk, or aliens, or a small-town knitting story.  And “real life” does give us some wacky examples of the non-probable. Like my pipe band, “different” but great!

Today, when “diversity” is all the rage, maybe a female of Chinese descent with a passion for bagpipes could be a captivating heroine. Or a male soldier returned from deployment in a war zone who finds solace in crochet – there are real life examples of that, too.

Finding the balance between the old and the new for readers and editors is never easy. What appeals to one reader as quirky and interesting, may elicit the “never happen” response from others.  In The Man for Her, my editor questioned the heroine’s long mourning period for her lost lover.  Yet, in real life, Queen Victoria mourned the loss of Prince Albert the rest of her life.

For writers, the best advice is still to write the best story you can, be true to your own vision, and keep trying.  Fads may come and go, but good writing will endure.  Combine good writing with some off-beat characters and you could be the next “big thing.”

Now, I’m off to listen to some bagpipe music, it will lift my spirits and send me forth with determination and courage.

Beginnings

This weekend I attended a meeting of my local romance authors group, where the workshop topic was “Brilliant Beginnings,” as presented by Vanessa Grant. We talked about hooks, and power words, and story questions, and tone, and sensory input and dialogue.  Everyone could agree on the importance to those qualities.  We also suggested a hint of the conflict should be present and something of the main character’s personality or background.  Quite a lot to pack into a few opening sentences, but we blithely agreed it could all be done.

Then we broke into groups to analyse the openings of several well-known authors and couldn’t agree on anything! In my group, I found the opening lines of Kristan Higgins’ novel, A Perfect Match, made me laugh.  I definitely wanted to read more.  Others in my same small group complained about a lack of conflict, not enough sensory detail and lack of story question.  When other groups reported in, there was a similar difference of opinion.

I was delighted to find disagreement.

I have maintained for some time that the axiom, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” applies to writing too. Readers have individual tastes, as do writers.  I may find a book that includes a character hooked on x-stitch intriguing while someone else may dismiss it as too old fashioned.  Some readers like lots of explicit sex, others, like me, prefer to close the bedroom door.  There is no one-size fits all.

This is not to say that studying writing, learning the techniques of successful authors, and  practicing the craft is pointless.  Those exercises are extremely valuable.  For by studying, learning and practicing an author can find her own style, her own set of “rules” and the readers who respond.  But as one who finds rules or templates hard to follow, I’m always seeking vindication.  Those who lecture on “this is how it’s done,” scare me.  I’ve tried to force myself into someone else’s shoes and my muse dried up completely.

So, I say “amen” to a difference of opinion.

What about you, dear readers? Want to play the opening lines game?  Here’s a few examples of my favourites.  Feel free to disagree.

“A fox got in amongst the hens last night, and ravished our best layer,” remarked Miss Lanyon. “A great-grandmother, too!  You’d think he would be ashamed!”  Venetia by Georgette Heyer

1801—I have just returned from a visit to my landlord—the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

As Clara Morrow approached,  she wondered  if he’d  repeat the  same small gesture  he’d done every morning. 

It was so tiny, so insignificant. So easy to ignore.  The first time. The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

I live with my father, Ray Nickel, in that low brick bungalow out on highway number twelve. Blue shutters, brown door, one shattered window.  Nothing great.  The furniture keeps disappearing, though.  That keeps things interesting.  A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

My house stands at the edge of the earth. the birth house by Ami McKay

 Maggie Ann Keaton swung shut the wrought-iron gates of her new home and secured the chain and padlock, giving them a hard tug to make sure they held, and hung a “No Admittance,” sign just for good measure. Love and Lilacs by Mary Alice Valdal

“I can’t believe we’re arguing about a waterbuffalo.” Annie Rush reached for her husband’s shirt collar, turning it neatly down. Family Tree by Susan Wiggs

Fear churned in Allie Tillman’s nervous stomach, like a butter paddle in a jar of thick cream. Bobbins and Boots by Shanna Hatfield.

Share your thoughts in the comments section and be entered to win a free e-copy of The Man Who Hated Christmas.  Winner announced Nov. 1, 2017.

If you enjoy dissecting the openings to books, the blog Writer Unboxed runs a regular feature called Flog a Pro.  Enjoy!

The Wisdom of Susan Wiggs

 

On a rainy Saturday, I attended a workshop given by Susan Wiggs and sponsored by my local authors group, VIRA. Wonderful way to spend a gloomy day. 

Being in a roomful of writers is a bit like going into the sunshine.  This group is positive, upbeat and cheerful – most of the time.  The workshop was no exception.  The room buzzed with energy and “reunion” conversations between Susan’s lessons.  While she spoke about her writing journey, you could almost hear the wheels turning as each writer present took in the information and considered how or if a similar strategy might be useful in her own path to publication.  I say “her” because it was an all female event, by accident, not be design.  Then again, the “femaleness” of the day may have contributed to the ambiance.  I’ve nothing against men, I’m quite fond of many of them, but a gathering of only women does have a certain vibe not present at mixed events.  I’m sure all-male events could say the same thing, although the vibe would be different.

Anyway, back to the workshop. Our group had send a list of topics we’d like to hear about.  I expected Susan to pick one or two.  Instead, she tried to touch on the entire writing journey from newbie to old pro and from idea to finished product.  A jam-packed day to say the least. 

Although time was limited, she did give us a few minutes to write down our three writing gurus, three essential writing tools and three writing triggers. Sadly, there wasn’t time to share, but even thinking about my own answers helped me to see a pattern in my process.  If I can exploit that pattern, perhaps I can increase my productivity and my craft.

One of my triggers is a clean slate.” That means a clean house, a clean desk, and a mind free of “musts” and “shoulds.”  For someone who procrastinates endlessly about housework, this creates a problem.  I have a cousin who sews and says she can’t work unless her sewing room is spotless and organized.  So long as I can find the sewing machine, I’m good to go.  Unhappily, I can’t apply that technique to writing.  Perhaps that’s why my second trigger is a coffee shop.

I believe the reason I escape to a coffee shop to write is because it provides that “clean slate” for me.  If there’s a streak on the window, it’s not my problem.  If the used cups are piling up in the bin, it’s not my problem.  If the lawn is a muddy mess, it’s not my problem.  At the coffee shop, the only requirement for me, is that I write.  Having coffee and chocolate for fuel doesn’t hurt. 🙂

My third trigger is research. I love to poke around in the library, the internet and newspaper archives for arcane bits of information.  Sometimes the research answers a question in my ms, sometimes it sends me down a whole new path.  I’d add a caveat to the research trigger though.  Be careful that it doesn’t take the place of writing.  Scholars have spent lifetimes on research.  A writer of commercial fiction can’t afford that luxury.  I try to make sure my research is focussed and doesn’t take me into a rabbit warren of facts that detract from the prime task of writing.

I’d love to hear from other artistic types. What triggers your creativity?  Can you work in a hurricane?  Can you balance your laptop on top of a to-do list and still make progress?

Leave a comment and get your name in the draw for a free copy of my Christmas short story anthology, The Man Who Hated Christmas.

Where Do Ideas Come From?

At some point in her career, every writer is asked “where do you get your ideas?” There are many answers, but I found a source for new story ideas at a concert at the Butchart Gardens last week.  One of the blessings of living in my part of the world is the live music hosted at the Gardens every night in the summer, or as one entertainer put it, “the best smelling concert venue in all of Canada.”  On this particular night, I heard Tiller’s Folly.  They are a B.C trio that now bills itself as “acoustic roots music.”

I went to hear them because I like Celtic music and that is part of their repertoire, but I heard much more than that. I got a lesson on Canadian and, more specifically, British Columbian history.  Tales of rum runners, and ghosts and explorers, and whales and miners and lumberjacks.

This group has done its research and brought history alive through story and song. I’m pleased to report they visit schools in our province so children are learning the history behind the names on streets, and mountain tops and waterways.

As a writer of historical romance, I was inspired. They told no tales of women on the pirate ships, but what if there were?  What if a woman joined a river exploration?  What if a woman tended a lighthouse?

If you are a writer, stuck for an idea, I’d suggest you listen to, or read the lyrics, of folk singers, or country and western singers, or opera singers. The music is full of tales of derring-do, of battles won and lost, of mighty men and inspiring women.  Sometimes they tell of small things, of a man and a woman and how they find love, of a family that loses its way, of a dream lost and found.

So, next time I’m stuck for a story idea, I’ll look up some songs by Tiller’s Folly. I’m sure I’ll be inspired.

Transition

My personal life is in transition right now, and it’s making me a bit grumpy. Of course, life is always evolving, always changing, but some changes , like marriage, or a new baby, or a disaster, or a lottery win, are more immediate and more disruptive than others.

As an author, I find change, especially big, unexpected change, fodder for the imagination. Many books on writing recommend “begin at the moment of change.”  And when I think about it, I believe I’ve read a number of books that begin with a marriage, or a new baby, or a disaster, or a windfall of fortune.  They’re great stories, that yank the reader into the lives of the characters with the first sentence.  The rest of the book explores the ramifications of that big change at the beginning, and follows the protagonist through the adjustments she makes until she emerges at the end of the story with a new normal.  If it’s a romance, that new normal results in happily-ever-after.

The book I’m reading right now concerns an orphan in the mid-twentieth century. Talk about transitions!  Each family she lives with wants to change her.  They don’t like her hair, they don’t like her speech, the don’t like her name.  During the course of her life her name is changed several times, merely to satisfy the sensibilities of others.

Classics, like Pride and Prejudice, begin with change – a newcomer to the district. Mysteries often start with a murder, a major transition if ever there was one.  Regencies frequently begin with a young woman becoming an orphan, cast on the good graces (or not) of her relatives.  A friend of mine is writing a story that begins with a jilting.  Runaway Bride, starring Julia Roberts used that premise as well.  In my book, The Man for Her, the story opens with the appearance of a man the heroine thought was dead.

Some transitions are less traumatic – a holiday, beginning university, starting a first job – but even such “tame” changes can generate a spellbinding story. Alice Munro, in her short story, “Runaway” begins with a neighbour returning from a holiday.  Such a small change, yet it triggers a whole chain of events that change the heroine’s life..

The change in my life is not earth-shattering or traumatic, it’s merely unsettling. But, as an author, I have the opportunity to experience first-hand the emotional effect of a life changing event.  This is why writers keep journals.  Not only does a journal give me place to store ideas, impressions and insights, it gives me a safe place to write out my grumpiness so I can get on with enjoying my life, and all the changes that mark our days.

So, here’s to change — may it keep us involved and growing and learning.

Fantasy Anyone?

Recently I joined an eclectic group of writers.  We call ourselves a critique group but there’s not that much critiquing going on.  There is a lot of chat about the industry, marketing, punctuation, especially commas, grammar, and grandchildren.   This is the same group that put together “Dreams and Promises,” to celebrate Canada 150.  We write historical romance, contemporary romance, suspense, fantasy and “whimsy.”  One of our group, LizAnn Carson, has just released a fantasy trilogy called Aura Weavers.  The three books are, The Healer, The Bard, and The Scribe.

As someone who relies on historical fact to provide the framework for my stories, I’m in awe of fantasy writers and their imagination.  The task of creating a whole world with its own rules — is there gravity?  are there cars and roads?  are there schools as we know them? what is the social order? government? history?– is daunting.  Authors are often accused of living in a world of their own, but LizAnn has managed to put borders and rules in her fictional world and has sent it out into the world for others to enjoy.

If you want to give gentle fantasy a try, you can find her stories here.

Now, I’m going back to my own world where cars run on roads, the law of gravity is in effect and history still serves up the best stories.  Right now, I’m celebrating Christmas in the Rockies in the late nineteenth century.  Can I conjure up snow and freezing fingers while the sun shines outside my window, the thermometer reads 23 degrees Celsius and a golden eagle soars over the hayfield next door?

Ah, the power of imagination!

 

 

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