Friday, June 29, 2012

The Expanding World of Your Novel

My teenage self leaned against the counter in our kitchen, listening to my dad. I don't know remember what we were talking about, but the things he said were so eye-opening and revelatory to me that I can remember every detail of that moment--the dark wood of our 80s style cabinets, the dishwasher running, my mom sitting on a bar stool, correcting papers. Both of them in one room probably meant they were telling me I couldn't do something (and very rightfully so!) or maybe they were telling me I ought to be doing something. But I don't recall feeling upset. Instead, I just remember having this exciting a-ha! moment.
"When you are a baby," my dad said, "your world is very small. You don't do anything on your own, and if you are by yourself, all you can see is your crib or the ceiling. Then you learn how to sit on your own, and your world triples in size. When you learn to crawl, your world expands to encompass the whole room. As your ability to take care of yourself increases, your world continues to grow--eventually you've allowed into more spaces in the house, and then into the yard. One day you're world grows to include the street, or even the block. Bikes increase your world, and so does your driver's license; until one day you realize that your world includes most of the planet earth--and beyond, if you work hard and are really lucky."

You probably didn't just experience that same flash of inspiration that I had as a teenager. You might even think I'm pretty silly for not figuring all that out on my own. However, that concept gave me a bit more patience as I waited for my own world to expand. I even remember wondering if I'd tried to expand my world a little too soon when I was lying in the emergency room after I'd gotten in a car accident in an unfamiliar town.

But this concept can translate to writing advice too! In fact, some of my favorite authors use this concept in their books:

The Harry Potter series:

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the very first scene in the book sets up the magical world we've all come to know and love. A cat sits on the corner reading--no, looking at--a street sign. People in capes wander the streets and owls are flying everywhere. Slowly the world expands--Hagrid comes and tells Harry about a school. They go to Diagon Alley. Harry figures out how to board the Hogwart's Express and spends the rest of the year at school.

In book 2, we learn about house elves and meet the families of some of Harry's classmates, especially the Weasleys. We see the Burrow for the first time, and learn how life is different in a magical family. We get our first glimpse of the dark world of Knockturn Alley. In book 3, we learn about Azkaban and especially about Harry's parents and their friends. The world expands to include werewolves and dementors. By book 4, we know so much about the magical world that it doesn't seem like there is much left to know, but Rowling is just getting started. Harry gets to go to the Quidditch World Cup, where we learn that there is an entire world left to explore. We get to know schools in other parts of the world, and we learn a lot more about the Ministry of Magic, both good and bad.

In book 5, we actually get to see the Ministry of Magic and also spend time at St. Mungo's Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. In book 6, we delve more deeply into the rich history of Harry's world, and in book 7, we don't even make it to Hogwarts until nearly the end of the book.

When I want to reread a Harry Potter book, I'm not very tempted by book 1. It's not as rich a world as the others. But can you imagine if she'd tried to stuff all of the characters, their histories and the whole magical world into book 1? It would have been too much.

The Queen's Thief Series

I just finished reading The King of Attolia. Then I went back and reread my favorite parts. Then I gave up and started the whole book over again. It was that good. While I was reading the first book, The Thief, though, I couldn't imagine the author being able to get an interesting sequel out of the story. Although it was interesting, it seemed too simple. Without spoiling it though, I'll just say that she pulls off a twist at the end that proved that the whole story was more complicated then I'd originally thought.

Book 2, The Queen of Attolia is so much more intricate that it seems like a different story altogether, and so dark in the beginning that I had to keep reminding myself that loads of people loved this and I was going to find out why.

By the middle, I knew why. It's Eugenides. And the other characters. Their relationships with each other are dazzling. Megan Whalen Turner's series pulls in tightly on one aspect of her world. Then it expands out to show a dizzyingly complex world, and then pulls in tight to explore another part of the world, and then another. 

I haven't read book 4 yet, but from what I understand, a great deal of it centers around a character we haven't seen since book 1. I'm excited for that, as long as I still get my Eugenides time.

Expanding Your World

You can create a snapshot of your whole world by showing how magic/religion/history affects your character in one place at one time. As their world expands, so does your opportunity for storytelling.

This is not a hard and fast rule. I can't even tell you that it works every time. What I do know is that we are quickly becoming a society ruled by sequels. We like to get to know our characters and the worlds they live in very well. The Tortall Universe, by Tamora Pierce is a great example of this. She's written 5 sets of books set in the same world, with different heroines, but overlapping characters. People love it!

In the Tortall universe, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of planning from one series to another. I don't think Tamora Pierce had ever dreamed of Daine when she wrote about Allanna, or that she had Beka Cooper in mind when she first created George (ah George. He's right up there with Euginides on my list of favorite characters ever). However, I think she knows where she's going from book one of a series to the end of that series.

And we need to know where we are going too. Readers can magically tell if we don't really know our world, even if we're only showing one small piece of it at the moment.

Happy writing!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

How much reality is too much?

As a slush editor, I very much enjoy reading other magazines’ guidelines. Today I was looking over Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine guidelines. When I saw they had a list of common problems, I went straight there.  Much of it was standard, but there was one interesting perspective that caught my eye.
14. Characters Ain’t People:Characters are the shoes that readers want to slip on for a vicarious stroll through the clusterf***s of life that no real person would actually want to step into. Characters are relationships. They are the focal points of the push and pull of all the things that drive a story but they aren’t actually people. If you think of your character as a real person, it will be far more and far less than a character should be. If your character comes across as a whole person it will be too much. It will be too full and there will be no empty spaces left for the reader to imagine what it would be like to be the person the character is supposed to represent. If your character comes across as a real person, it will also be too small. If the reader is going to slip inside the character’s skin, that skin needs to be at least a bit oversized. The character needs to have that little extra that allows it to break from the ties that bind real people.

You know, I’m not certain I agree. I can’t see why you wouldn’t want your character to be as real as possible. The characters that have most stuck with me aren’t those that I identify with as much as those that seemed to be whole people, who seemed to be so real that I could imagine the way they’d approach any situation.

But it does seem that some readers like to put themselves in theplace of a character.  I remember reading once that part of the reason the Twilight series works so well is that Bella is hardly described. In other words, any young female reader could easily imagine herself as Bella.

Whenever, as a child, I became really entranced by a story, I envisioned myself hanging out with the charactes… not actually in place of someone like Anne McCaffrey’s Lessa or Tamora Pierce’s Alanna. There are all sorts of in-betweens, of course, that  involve identifying with or sympathizing with a character or her choices.

What do you think, as writers and/or as readers? Do you prefer characters to be real – or to be able to put yourself in the role of the character and live the story?

Also, this made me giggle:
Corollary 3.1: Dialog is inherently superior to prose. If you can replace three sentences of narrative with a single line of dialog, you are morally obligated to do so. In fact, if you don’t you will go to hell, directly to hell without passing go, and it will be one of those really bad levels of hell where all the fiction is written by accountants

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Writing Emotional Tension

So I found this post, Anatomy of a Tear Jerker, from the Wall Street Journal, really fascinating. It explains scientifically why so many people have an emotional reaction to Adele's song, Someone Like You. The key to it, and other songs like it, seems to be an  appoggiatura (yeah, I didn't try to pronounce it either), which is a note that is dissonent with the expected progression of the music. In other words, it's a chord that's out of place, and when the song returns to the harmonious melody, it actually causes a release of tension in the listener. When multiple appoggiaturas are stacked one after the other, it has the effect of raising tension and releasing it in an ever heightening pattern.

Sound like something we learn about in writing, doesn't it?

I've mentioned before that I use the outlining method of Helene Boudreau  (author of several novels including Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings).

The way she structures her climactic scenes reminds me very much of the appoggiaturas from the article. Briefly, her stories are split into 17 sections, with the inciting incident in chapter 1, plot point one in chapter 4, pp2 in chapter 7, and pp3 in chapter 10. All that is fairly routine.

This is where it gets interesting to me:

Chapter 11 or 12: False Victory - a resting place for emotions, may even be lighthearted
Chapter 13: Lighting the Fuse - introduction to the stressor
Chapter 14: Watch it Burn - the dominoes start dropping
Chapter 15: Kaboom - finally we see the culminating event
Chapter 16: Denouement - letting all the tension out
Chapter 17: Resolution

Before finding Helene's method, I had never considered how important a long build-up was to the climax. Since then, I've found this pattern employed over and over in smaller plotlines of stories as well as in final confrontations.

Here's an example of its use in a subplot from the Hunger Games:

False Victory - Katniss has allied with Rue. They help each other, they have plenty to eat. Katniss sees Rue as a surrogate for Prim on so many levels. They even have enough confidence to hatch a plan against the Careers - things are working out, there is a lull in the tension.

Lighting the Fuse - After the bomb blast damages Katniss's hearing, she makes her way back to the rednezvous camp. Rue isn't there. Something not quite right, but Katnniss isn't really worried yet.

"When I reach the site of our first meeting, I feel certain it's been undisturbed. There's no sign of Rue, not on the ground or in the trees. This is odd. By now she should have returned, as it's midday... She's probably just being cautious about making her way back. (HG, p 229)

Watch it Burn: Katniss eats and hangs out, even saying, "...this is the most relaxed I've been since I've entered the arena." But finally, she goes in search of Rue.

"In less than an hour, I'm at the place where we agreed to have the third fire and I know something has gone amiss. The wood has been neatly arranged, expertly interspered with tinder, but it has never been lit... Somewhere she ran into trouble. I have to remind myself she's still alive." (HG, p 231).

The dominoes are dropping.

 "And that's when I hear the scream. It's a young girl's scream, there's no one in the arena capable of making that sound except Rue. And now I'm running, knowing this may be a trap, knowing the three Careers may be poised to attack me, but I can't help myself." (HG, p 232)

Kaboom: We are in full panic mode.

"When I break into the clearing, she's on the ground, hopelessly entangled in a net. She just has time to reach her hand through the mesh and say my name before the spear enters her body." (HG, p232).

And by this point on the first read (okay, and the second, maybe the third) I was bawling my eyes out because the build-up of emotion through those stages was so strong. Do you notice, too, how there's a brief moment of hope - 'Oh, it's just a net, Katniss can get Rue out of that,' we all think - that hitches the emotion all the more when that spear comes out of nowhere and kills Rue?

Denouement: Katniss removes the threat (by killing the boy), and then that aching scene where she sings until Rue dies. The emotion is just flooding out by this point.

Resolution: She covers Rue's body in flowers, both to bury her and to shame the Capitol for what they make children do to one another. We begin to feel the strength of her resolve and understand that she's now fighting for more than her personal survival.

Okay, I've never been good at summarizing things and wrapping them up with a pretty bow. But here goes: Taking the time to allow a climax to unfold provides a more emotionally satifying experience for the reader. This unfolding includes the early signs of tension and trouble, as well as spending enough time on the aftermath to allow the reader to process the event before moving on to the next. In this way the reader can become fully invested in the action and feelings of the characters. And by employing these steps throughout a story in smaller plotlines, it gradually heightens the emotional level of the entire piece until the final climactic scene.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Movies Versus Books

I know I blog a lot about movies and television shows.  I think it works better than discussing books since most people have seen the movies I’ve seen, and a lot less have read the books that I have read.  And while I enjoy story-telling in any media, I have to say, I do prefer books.

Yeah the chairs look comfortable, but......

Movies and TV have an advantage.  They can set the scene immediately.  What takes a page or two in a novel takes two seconds on film.   Watching a movie is easy and takes considerably less brain cells than reading  (there is nothing like watching TV and zoning out).  Although there are definitely some movies that are complex and require some serious concentration to follow like Inception and Memento (two movies that I think are awesome).  Even then, just presenting the visuals does a lot of the work for the audience.  Because of this, everyone (or nearly everyone) watches movies or TV, but not everyone reads books.


...wouldn't you prefer this.
But books offer something that movies and TV can’t.  You may have to piece the images together from a string of words, but you can also delve deeper into the POV characters.  A good book draws you in and lets you feel what the characters feel and experience what they experience, not just see it.  And to me that is the power of books that you just can’t get from watching a movie.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that movies can’t be emotional or moving.  Many movies have brought me to tears, but it isn’t the same way that books move me.  Books can (not all do) go deeper into the thoughts of the characters.  Make me relate more to them, understand them better and feel more for them.  That is something that can’t be translated to film (although it has been tried through cheesy voice over narration--like in the Twilight movie).

Example-Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows

We have all seen our beloved books turned into movies and even when it is done really, really well, there is something lost in the translation.  Rarely are the movies as good as the books, and even rarer are they better.

Spoilers:  If you haven’t read or seen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows yet, do not read on.

I thought the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was well-done, but it could not compare to the emotion in the book.  Especially in the scene when Harry realizes that he has to die, and he walks willingly towards his death.  When I read this scene in the book, I was sobbing.  I had to stop every few pages and wipe my eyes because the tears were so thick the words were all blurry.  I had spent seven books with Harry, and I loved him.  I felt for him and empathized with him, and seeing and feeling him accept his death was emotionally draining.  Of course the movie didn’t have as big of an impact on me.  Sure there were tears, it’s not really that hard to make me cry, but nothing like it was when I read this scene in the book.  I did read the book first, but I still don’t think the movie had the emotional impact that the book did.

To further illustrate my point, here is a brief excerpt from Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows (the beginning of chapter thirty-four right after Harry realizes that he has to die in order to kill Voldemort).

“Finally, the truth.  Lying with his face pressed into the dusty carpet of the office where he had once thought he was learning the secrets of victory, Harry understood at last that he was not supposed to survive.  His job was to walk calmly into Death’s welcoming arms.  Along the way, he was to dispose of Voldemort’s remaining links to life, so that when at last he flung himself across Voldemort’s path, and did not raise a wand to defend himself, the end would be clean, and the job that ought to have been done in Godric’s Hollow would be finished:  Neither would live, neither could survive.

He felt his heart pounding fiercely in his chest.  How strange that in his dread of death, it pumped all the harder, valiantly keeping him alive.  But it would have to stop, and soon.  Its beats were numbered.  How many would there be time for, as he rose and walked through the castle for the last time, out into the grounds and into the forest?”

Honestly, how do you capture this in a movie?  Actors can show emotion through body language and facial expressions, but the thoughts going through the character’s mind cannot be captured, and that is what pulls the reader in deeper so that we can really understand what the character is thinking and feeling.   Only books can do this.

Show don't Tell

I think that this is the real meaning of show don’t tell, to delve deeply into the thoughts and feelings of the POV character that the reader is almost experiencing them as well.  It’s not about adding more details, but the right details, the ones that the POV character would notice and described reflecting the character’s personality and mood. 

Reading (and writing) an entire book with this deep of a POV would be exhausting (not to mention the pacing would be so slow), and that is why there are times when telling is okay, when it is best to pull back from the POV and/or summarize.  But those big moments like when the hero is knowingly facing certain death but going on anyway without hesitation, you need to delve deeper and make the reader feel it too.

I know this isn’t easy.  I struggle to keep going deeper and deeper at those big moments.  It is easy to describe what a character is doing, but it is much harder to describe exactly what a character is thinking.  And in trying to achieve those moments of deep penetration I can’t help think of the quote.  “Writing is easy; you just open up a vein and bleed.”

So tell me what do you think are the differences between movies and books?


Monday, June 25, 2012

Status Update

In the last two posts, I told you I was Beyonce and a Young Brad Pitt.

I may have some identity issues.

Let's explore.

But first check out this picture.

I don't usually like this kind of picture. I'm a skeptic of cuteness trying to manipulate you emotionally, but...have you seen this picture.

 I mean... really.

 Look at it.

Oh my freaking gosh that bunny is so squishy.


I stole it blatantly from Facebook, but if anyone asks, I'm just sharing it. I think my identity issues may stem from Facebook, where you can post anything and claim it as your own.

You can represent yourself as religious by posting this.

 Because this is how you share your testimony.
By copy and pasting a cheesy graphic.

 You can show you are funny, by copy and pasting someone else's humor.

You can prove you are smart...

You can even influence politics...
Newt was the front-runner when this brilliant gem came along.
You're welcome Romney fans
You can proclaim yourself weird.

You can be classy, clever, wise, serious, cute,or stylish-- all by pointing and clicking.

Honestly, I think that is kind of awesome.

On Facebook, you can find out who thinks the same way you do. You can find people who are the same, and people, whom you still love, who are completely different from you. It's amazing to me, how much you can find out about people by what they choose to post. (For example, we are no longer using a certain babysitter, because of what she chose to post.)

Helpful. :)

But my point...Facebook, is really...just a book.

See, in books, I get to be smart, funny, clever, or stylish. I just follow the POV around, and pretend that that's who I am.

In books, I can find people who think like me. I can find membership in a world of strangeness.

In books, I can find people who are nothing like me, who think differently, but who I find I still love.

So, the next time my husband asks me why I'm still checking out Facebook, I'll tell him I'm not wasting my time, I'm doing research.

Yeah... I think he might buy that.

More random awesomeness...

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Poetry in Unexpected Places

Did you know Abraham Lincoln, sixteenth president of the United States and writer of the Gettysburg Address, was also a poet?

I found this out while visiting his birthplace last week.  In a small shop near the monument at Sinking Springs, I found a very small book containing a compilation of his poetry.  It was all the more impressive after visiting the museum erected in his honor where I learned that Lincoln was mostly self-educated.  He had only a couple years of formal education in what was then called a blab school (due to the fact that they didn't have enough writing tools and therefore all the lessons were oral.)  As a young boy, he enjoyed writing out the letters of the alphabet in the dirt or snow, or even the dust on the window.

He was also a storyteller.  He'd sit at night and listen to his father telling stories, then run out to the fields the next day to recite the stories in a language his younger friends would understand.  They would gather around him and listen, transfixed by his abilities as both an orator and a storyteller, a skill I think that came in handy in his later years.

For a man from such a humble background, he was incredibly well-spoken, and his poetry is beautiful.  I thought I’d leave you with an excerpt from one of his poems about his early life.  Maybe if you’re thinking of seeing the movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter this week, you’ll first take a moment to appreciate the man that inspired the (somewhat obscure) film.

My Childhood Home I See Again
By Abraham Lincoln

"...As dusky mountains please the eye
When twilight chases day;
As bugle-tones that, passing by
In distance die away;

As leaving some grand waterfall,
We, lingering, list its roar—
So memory will hallow all
We’ve known, but know no more.

Near twenty years have passed away
Since here I bid farewell
To woods and fields, and scenes of play,
And playmates loved so well..."

Friday, June 22, 2012

Sparks of Creativity

I usually write my blog posts on Thursday so I can let them sit awhile before I publish them on Friday. But yesterday was crazy. All my kids are home for summer vacation now, and yesterday we went strawberry picking. In my old house, we lived pretty close to a strawberry field, and so we would pick up a quart or two whenever we wanted some, and go once or twice to buy enough to make homemade strawberry jam (once you've tasted it, you can never go back to store bought). But we don't live anywhere near a strawberry field that lets you pick your own now, so when we went yesterday I knew it might be my only opportunity. 40 quarts of strawberries later, I thought we might have enough. J

A LOT of strawberries 
It was hot and humid yesterday, and we spent the entire day hulling strawberries and turning them into jam. Did I mention that this year's strawberries seem to be smaller than usual? Every now and then my heart would flutter with panic at the thought of writing a blog post. Usually I've got a topic in mind a few days before I write, but not this week. If you could have heard what was going on in my brain, it probably would have sounded something like this:

I really need to think of a blog post topic. OK brain, think of one. Good heavens, I can't even think of one. Usually I have a handful of ideas by now, and I can't even think of ONE. Come on! Blog post topic, blog post topic...

It turns out that's not the best way to think of ideas. Who knew?

Creativity is not something that you can batter into submission, whether your deadline is a blog post or a looming deadline set by your editor.

8 Ideas To Spark Creativity:

Just get started: 
Yesterday, before the strawberry picking, I got out of bed determined to exercise. I really didn't want to, but I forced myself out of bed, got dressed and turned on the DVD. When I heard Jillian Michael's voice say, "Let's begin with arm circles" I felt a surge of relief. I'd finished the hard part--getting myself there. Creativity works the same way. Brainstorm ideas. Pull up that document you need to edit. Start writing, and don't let yourself stop even if you're only typing "I don't know what to write yet" over and over. The magic can't happen until you begin.

Start a routine: 
When parents are training their children to fall asleep on their own, experts recommend a 5 step routine to get them in the right frame of mind. A bath. Pajamas. A snack. Teeth brushing. A few stories. A prayer. A drink of water. Some songs. Cuddling. Whatever works for your family. The same pattern can work with getting yourself in a creative frame of mind. Meditate. Listen to music. Get a drink of water. Read a chapter of a book (ONLY if you have the self discipline to put the book down after one chapter!). Look at pictures. Stretch. Go on walk. The possibilities are endless.

Get moving: 
Ah, snow! Doesn't it look lovely?

My best moments for creativity occur when I am hiking or snow shoeing. The mindless nature of putting one foot in front of the other, the physical exertion and being taken out of my daily routine all combine to open my mind up in a way nothing else can.

Do something new:
Several of the blog posts I looked at suggested that you should live abroad. This may be extreme. But doing the same thing day in and day out can numb your creativity. If you can't fit living abroad into your life right now, even little chances to break out of your normal routine can pay big dividends. Read a book in a genre you wouldn't normally choose. Take a different route to work--or a different form of transportation.  Listen to new music. Write with pencil and paper. Take a class.

Be repetitive: 
Mindless tasks allow our brain to wander to far-flung places. Some of my most brilliant flashes of insight come while I'm doing the dishes. Other people swear their genius comes while they are in the shower. But in order for that to happen, you've also got to:

Lately, I've been filling my mind constantly. I listen to audiobooks or music while I'm doing dishes. I watch TV while I'm folding the laundry.  I've become almost frightened of my mind's own chatter. It's only now, as I'm writing this, that I see the correlation between that and my own recent lack of creativity.

Perhaps if we'd spent yesterday hulling strawberries in silence instead of turning on Avatar: The Last Airbender episodes, this blog post topic wouldn't have been so hard to come up with. (Or maybe it would have been even more difficult, since my children would have deserted en masse and left me to do it alone.)

 Sleep on it: 
It's almost miraculous the way sleep works. I've seen my children have panic attacks over a difficult piano piece or math problem, and yet the next day they can do it with ease. Panic is a particularly awful state in which to get something accomplished, but perhaps even more importantly, our subconscious minds keep working on problems while we sleep.

Relax and play:
Perhaps this is just a variation of the "do something new" idea, but it's important enough that it is getting its own entry. Henrik Edburg said, "Go out and do somethingwith your friends or family and just relax and have a lot of fun. Doing thisfor a day or an evening can recharge not only your creativity but also yourmotivation and general sense of well-being for days or weeks to come. " (

Don't forget: laughter boosts creativity. Find ways to make yourself laugh every single day.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Mood music: Delerium edition

I’ve blogged before about how music can be very helpful to me for creating a particular mood. I always listen to music when I write, but there are certain songs that are much more active in my creative process. This is especially important for horror stories. I’m not exactly going around all day thinking dark thoughts (except when someone forces me to listen to Nickelback).

My favorite group for dark, inspiring music is Delerium. Yes, that’s how it’s spelled.  Delerium got its start in the late 1980s, and released seven albums just in the 1990s. You might have heard their song “Silence” with Sarah McLachlan. It was all over the radio in the late 1990s.

"Silence" from Karma 

Unfortunately, after 2000, they took a sharp veer toward pop. Their latest releases have sounded like standard pop with a slight new age tinge.

Wikipedia describes their early sound as “dark ethereal ambient trance and voiceless industrial soundscapes.”  I love the imagery of the latter phrase, like dark skies over cement factories and identical-looking workers with tape forever over their mouths.

In any case, here are a few of my favorite tracks for creating a proper horror-writing mood.

"Inside the Chamber" from Faces, Forms and Illusions

"Tundra" from Stone Towers

Delerium also released a double CD with a more science fiction /space vibe.  The tracks were inspired by 2001: a Space Odyssey, and some lines from the movie are in a few of the songs.  One of my favorites is Hypoxia.

Two of Delerium’s more upbeat CDs, before the too-commercial turn, became the soundtrack to my cross-country trips.  They were usually the first things I put on as I set out, before the sun rose.  Songs like Consensual Worlds are now the epitome of night driving for me.

 Consensual Worlds, from Semantic Spaces

Whew, that's a lot of videos - and believe me, this is me holding myself back. 

Unfortunately, some of Delerium's earlier CDs are near impossible to find these days.  On ITunes, Archives I and II are a collection of some of their earlier songs. For anyone looking for less dark and more upbeat trance music, I highly recommend Semantic Spaces and Karma. Those albums also feature an excellent collection of female vocals (anything with Kristy Thirsk is a must).  And, of course, this song, which is one of my top three favorite songs of all time.

"Euphoria (Firefly)" from  Karma

What songs do you listen to in order to create a dark  - or a light - mood for writing?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Clark Kent lived at my House

Art by Jim Lee and Scott Williams
With all the talk of superheros lately, and of Mary Sues  and of memories of those we love, I thought I'd do a mash up of all of them and throw in a great big Thanks Dad! in the process.

A half century ago, Superman was the ultimate hero. Strong, handsome (look at that chin!), impervious to wrong-doing. Maybe his perfection was his kryptonite, because these days he just seems a little...Mary Sue compared to the the tortured Batman, or playboy Ironman.

But I'm here to tell you, there's nothing better than having Superman for a dad. Or at least Clark Kent.

Just a short month ago, most of us here extolled the virtues of our moms as Mother's Day neared. So, I was completely red faced when Trisha wished everyone a happy Father's Day, and I realized I'd let an opportunity to brag on my dad slip by.

So here goes: 

My dad really is Superman. And Mother Theresa. And Einstein thrown in for good measure. And nobody'd probably ever guess it to look at him.

Born to very humble circumstances in the heart of the Depression, this son of a farmer and a fiery redhead was reading Winnie the Pooh by age three. At age five my grandmother insisted on reading Tom Sawyer to him before bedtime, but he begged her every night to just give him the book because he could finish it faster himself (my poor grandmother - deprived of the joy of reading to her kid before he even hit kindergarten!). At eight he was in charge of his brothers and sisters after dinner and through the night while his parents worked second jobs and night shifts. At seventeen he left the farm and went to the university in the big (and I do mean big) city without knowing a soul (my own son is seventeen - I can't even imagine it!).

Those are the things I heard about my dad.

These are the things I know:

The hum of his electric razor woke me up before five every morning. I'd climb onto the bathroom counter and swing my feet and watch him shave his 'wickers' as he got ready to take the bus out to the super secret research facility where he worked.
At dinnertime I would run to the bus stop and wait for the 'stinky bus' (the EPA would have died if they'd seen the fumes coming out of that thing) to pull in so I could walk my dad home, hand in hand and have him ask me what I'd been up to all day.

When I was ten, I became so sick I could hardly breathe. He placed his hands on my head and prayed for me. And then he slept (or didn't sleep) on the floor by my bed all night listening to each ragged inhale. I woke in the morning before five to the sound of his razor as he prepared for a full day of work.

He sent me some journal entries recently. This is how they read:
Flew in from a conference in France. Drove the girls to a volleyball tournament.
Got back from Austria late. Drove to Dad's farm and helped him lay irrigation pipe (The Latino workhands would laugh and laugh because my dad always wore this huge sombrero to cover his very sensitive skin).
Just back from Pennsylvania, had time to visit a friend at the hospital.

If you ask him what he wants, my dad says he has everything - and means it. As far as I know, he's never failed to do his best, or to help someone in need, or to think of the other guy first. I could never write a character like my dad in a book. He'd have the label of Gary Stu plastered on him so fast my head would spin. But he really is my dad. And he really is that awesome. And I really do love him.

Thanks Dad!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Amateur is NOT a Bad Word

Sarah here. I am thrilled to be guest posting for MaryAnn this week. Thanks for having me back, everyone! I am tempted to wave at the screen like you can see me. This must stop. On to the post...

I am constantly rearranging my living room. I can’t help myself. The furniture doesn’t fit. There’s no good place for a TV. A support post divides the room into odd shapes, with a fireplace on the wrong wall. And then there’s the Steinway grand piano.

My parents dipped into my college fund to buy this piano when I was 13. It was understood that I would take the piano someday, when I had a house of my own. (Also that I would go college in-state. Wahoowa!) My husband and I searched and searched for a house in our price range that could accommodate it. That turned out to be an impossible dream in 2007 Los Angeles, so we went all in on what we could afford and gave up on the grand.

Then my parents retired and sold my childhood home to move across the country, and the piano was homeless. My husband and I looked at our living room, measured a few things, looked some more, and agreed. We would fit it. Sort of. 

The Beast. I don't know if I picked the right spot, but I can't move it.
Family and friends all thought this was a bad idea, space-wise. They were right. The piano is lovely, but it is not helping my decorating problems. I fantasize about selling it, and how nice it would be to have a normal living room with an entertainment center along the piano wall and space to walk around the furniture.

I can’t sell it.

Music vs. Writing: Upping the Ante

I used to practice almost every day, until I decided to focus more on writing. As a mom of young children and a Netflix addict, I don’t have the time or discipline for two passions.

I discovered a huge difference between playing piano and writing novels, although I do think the former helps my typing. Novels come with expectations. People find out I write and ask, “Have you been published?” Then they tell me about a friend who has been trying to sell his novel for the last twenty-five years.

The grand piano is humble in its hobby-ness. No one ever asks me, “Where have you performed?” Or, “Do you have any recordings?” Because that would be idiotic.

99.99% chance of not being the next
Evgeny Kissin, but oh well.
In high school, I was stumbling over arpeggios at a lesson when my teacher took a phone call from a new student's parent. She hung up and shook her head. The parent had said something piano teachers hear a lot: “We aren’t training little Johnny to be a concert pianist.”

My teacher laughed and said to me, “Do you know how many concert pianists there are in the world? I can count them on my fingers. I can promise little Johnny is not going to be a concert pianist."

To my knowledge, she was right. But I bet he learned a lot from her, like how to study tone and rhythm and dynamics and follow them down a predictable path to unpredictable beauty. That's what I learned, anyway.

Writing is different. Writing is seductive in its accessibility. Who hasn’t read a mediocre book, even a best-seller, and thought, “I could have written that”? When we get bitten by the writing bug, it’s easy to decide we’re going to be professionals. We encourage each other to cultivate the dogged determination to get published. We complain that other writers who talk a big game should, ahem, make with the number two or vacate the lavatory. We have the optimism of knowing that success is something we might realistically achieve, but we bear the weight of that same knowledge. 

Do what you love and the money will... matter less.

Determination is good. Treating writing like a job is good… if it works. But all that pressure can backfire. If you’re feeling like you should have landed an agent by now or you should be writing faster or you should be improving faster, then I have a suggestion: Be an amateur. Be an amateur the way musicians who practice every day are amateurs. Be an amateur the way kids taking piano lessons get to be amateurs. 

The thing you have when you’re young and never, ever appreciate (aside from glowing skin and miracle metabolism) is the freedom to concentrate on whatever interests you and work at getting better. Once you have bills and kids and all those grown-up responsibilities, it’s hard to let yourself work at things that aren’t paid (or just plain necessary, if you’re an at-home parent).

It’s hard to justify hours at the piano bench when no one will ever make a direct deposit to hear your Chopin. It’s hard to justify hours at your computer when you don’t know if what you’re writing will sell or rot in a drawer. Meanwhile, a little voice is saying you wouldn’t feel guilty about the time if you just made some money at it.

Treating “amateur” like an insult can make us forget where the word comes from, which is love. Love is what turns work into play and play into work.

I think that’s why the piano continues to dominate my living room, and maybe why my husband is as attached to it as I am. It's more than sentimental; it’s a physical reminder that losing yourself in something you love has value beyond money. Or space for the TV.

As my writing goals evolve, the biggest one is to never stop being an amateur at heart, a person who does what she does because the reward is in the doing. I hope the same for everyone who is lucky enough to love something.


Monday, June 18, 2012

The Long-Awaited Beyoncé Post.

I've been challenged by my friend Maurine to write more honestly, and from the heart. 

So here goes.

I'm secretly Beyoncé.

Same Person

Several months ago, in the first official Proser post, I mentioned how I think I'm like Beyoncé, and it wasn't a joke. I hear her music, and it's like our brains are the same brain. I close my eyes, (and my curtains), and I get to booty-shaking.

Yes, my kids do laugh at me, ( how'd you know?).  They don't see what's happening in my head. In my mind, I'm wearing a leotard, and the spotlights are bright and trained on me, and everyone watching is thinking, "Dang, that girl is talented."

The difficulties come when I'm in my car, and one of Beyoncé's songs come on the radio. There are no curtains in my minivan, and I can't  listen to  Beyoncé  without singing along. I shake my hair, and shimmy my shoulders, so every car around me gets a free  Beyoncé  show.

Aren't they lucky?

But the other drivers aren't grateful for the Grammy Award quality show that's going on in my head. No, there is sometimes laughing and pointing, and I suddenly realize that I am a white girl/ mom/ driving a minivan/ making a fool out of myself.

My Hero Lucille Ball.

It makes me feel like Lucy Ricardo.  Lucy wants, more than anything, to be in show business. The problem is, she's not a good singer, or dancer, or actor. She is all desire, and ambition, and light on talent.

I feel like that.

 I want to be a writer, more than anything. I've always been this way. I started my first novel in fifth grade for crying out loud. I'm trying. I write almost every day. I submit my stories, and my novels. I'm doing everything I can.

But most of the time, I feel like I'm putting on a costume, and looking ridiculous, as I stand with my heart on my sleeve, and every drop of talent I have don't have on display.  People laugh. People ignore me. I make a fool out of myself. I fail, even though I want so hard to succeed. 

I can't stop, because I believe in myself to the point of delusion. In my head, I think that everyone who reads my stuff will think, "Dang, that girl is talented."

But that's not what happens.  I realize occasionally that I'm ignoring my children/house/ reality, so I can look foolish.

My soul sister  Beyoncé  know what I'm talking about.

Sweet Dreams.

My guilty pleasure, I ain't going no where

Baby long as you're here I'll be floating on air

'Cause you're my

You can be a sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare
Either way I don't wanna wake up from you
(Turn the lights on)

I mention you when I say my prayers
I wrap you around all of my thoughts
Boy you're my temporary high

I wish that when I wake up you're there
To wrap your arms around me for real
And tell me you'll stay by side

Clouds filled with stars cover the skies
And I hope it rains, you're the perfect lullaby
What kinda dream is this?

This just took a turn for the sad,  ( Beyoncé  will do that). I'm not trying to get sympathy, or support, or even adulation. That's annoying. I'm just trying to be honest as challenged.

See, that's part of the difficulties about having dreams. Not everyone who dreams will have their dream come true. Not everyone who dreams is good enough for it to happen. And you don't know which person you are, so you can't stop trying, just in case. Years pass, and there's no guarantee that all that effort will pay off.

Sometimes dreams are actually nightmares, dragging their victims around by their hopes.

 Either way, I don't wanna wake up. Because in my's beautiful.

 So I close the curtains so it's just me and the bright lights, (and occasionally a leotard,) and I get to booty-shaking. 

Talented or not, successful or not, I love to dance, and I love to write. Who cares about the destination anyway? I find joy in the dreaming.

I'm not gonna quit singing and dancing in my minivan when Single Ladies comes on, even though people may laugh. It might be the only time they laugh the whole day. Why on earth would I want to stop? 

I'm not gonna quit writing when the inspiration hits me either, because I write for me.

I don't need an ever after to be happy.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Midwest is Humid! Who Knew?

Remember last week when I was complaining about the weather in Colorado?  Well this week I am complaining about the humidity in the Midwest.  I stopped for gas in Missouri and thought I was drowning.  The people who live in this area must be semi-aquatic.  I miss my mountains and my altitude.  Most of all, I miss air so dry your shower evaporates before it hits your skin.  That being said, I'm having a blast.

About a month ago I wrote a post about my grandma Austin's house, and how it was my inspiration when  I first started writing.  I was surprised to find it still inspires me, years later, in a whole new way.  I think it has something to do with being a parent, rather than a child.  My values have shifted, my perceptions changed, and that has made a huge impact on what I write and how I write it.  I look at this place and I want it to be the same source of wonder for my kids as it was for me.  I look at my books and I want to preserve the adventure for them, when they're old enough, in a way they'll appreciate.  I guess what I'm trying to say is I write for them now, while before I wrote for me.  It's a humbling realization.

Anyway, I'm on vacation so I'm getting back to it.  I'll leave you with some pictures of my first muse, and my current muse.

First Muse

Across the lake where I played as a kid (and mysteriously avoided both poison ivy and fire ants)

The dock where I've spent the last two days trying to catch a bass

The bridge that crosses the lake

Current Muse(s)
My son having a creative brainstorm

My daughter with wildflowers she picked herself

My husband and son scoping out the fish

My daughter and my grandma

PS:  Happy Father's Day everyone.  Especially to my husband who makes more sacrifices for his family than anyone I know, and my own dad, who continues to patiently teach me new things.  Thanks for helping me change my spark plugs and breaks, Dad.  I think I could swap out break pads and shoes with my eyes closed now.