Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cookies, Fencing and Tag

Wow! The last month has been entirely the busiest month I can remember in recent history (if we're counting only happy busy months), culminating with today. My daughter is having a cookie decorating party tonight (extending our annual tradition to her friends). So today, we baked 3 batches of sugar cookies, resulting in who knows how many cookies, and made 6 batches of royal icing resulting in 12 colors (including black!). And now I get to put my feed up for a few well deserved minutes.

While the women of my house spent the day in the kitchen, the men were off on more manly pursuits. My son competed in a fencing tournament today. I love to watch fencing. I missed the tournament today, but my husband took some good shots. My son's the one on the right. I can tell by the shoes!

I've been Bookwormed by Linda Gerber.

The Rules are:

1) Open the closest book- not a favorite or most intellectual book- but the book closest at the moment, to page 56
2) Write out the fifth sentence, as well as two to five sentences following
3) tag five innocents [or more]
4)Julie takes it a step further and suggests doing the same for your manuscript

Okay - this is tough for me. On my desk are html and Dreamweaver books - not exactly riveting reading! On the shelf behind me is my entire TBR pile (minus the 3 books down by the nightstand.)

So, I'm going to cheat. I picked a book about to leave my possession as a Christmas gift for my stepfather - Vlad: The Last Confession - The Epic Novel of the Real Dracula, by C.C. Humphreys. I saw Mr. Humprhey's speak at the Surrey International Writer's Conference. I'm a sucker for folks with an accent reading Shakespeare. I melted the first year at Surrey listening to Jack Whyte quote MacBeth. Listen to Mr. Humphrey's podcast if you want to see what I mean. But I digress.

I bought the book with my stepfather in mind, but hoped to get a chance to read it before I gave it away (he's a writer too, he'd understand). But time did not allow, so this may be my only chance. (Unless I can convince him to loan it to me when he's done.) So, onto Page 56:

"A slave was defined by having lost the right to choose. She would be borne in a palanquin to Mehmet's saray. He would take her any way he wanted. She would break a vial of pigeon's blood over him if she did not bleed enough. She would choose nothing for herself."

Since I'm not up to page 56 in my new rewrite, here something from page 5 of The Long Road (working title), by Jenny Graman Meyer (me!):

"A pebble skittered to a halt at her feet and she glanced down, puzzled. It was followed by an acorn, this one bouncing off her toe before it rolled to rest against the wheel of the vardo. She glanced toward the trees, and had to dodge a walnut headed straight for her head.

As if a ghost called by her thoughts, Mirek emerged from the trees surrounding the campsite." know!

And I tag: Jo Bourne (who recently won a fresh-fiction award), Lottery Girl (who hasn't posted in way too long), Darlene Marshall (who recently posted some writing tips), Karen Henry (who posts frequently about Diana Gabaldon's writing), and Catherine Duthie (who needs to send me some new writing! I miss Jack)

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Oh, Go Google Yourself

(available from

Admit it. You've done this too!

I was sitting around today while working, waiting for a report to run. The system was very slow, and I got bored. I'm not sure what triggered the thought, but I decided to Google myself. I have to admit this isn't the first time. (Do you think there is a support group for this sort of thing?)

I started with "Jenny Graman". This, my maiden name, I am relatively sure will be my pen name - should I ever need one. I found the typical stuff - and thanks to this blog, the real me (or at least the pen-name used-to-be real me) shows up. The fact that my blog is now the top result when searching on Jenny Graman (even though I haven't used this name for 20 years - other than on this blog) shows the power of setting up your blog or website before you're published - it gives the search engines time to find you, and rank you at or near the top.

Then I searched on "Jenny Meyer". I always get a kick out of this. I'm a well-known jewlery designer. I'm married to Spider Man! And, best of all, I own my own Literary Agency - what am I worried about? If I'd just finished the book, I apparently have an "in" into the publishing world!

I'm used to finding these listings when I search on Jenny Meyer. It's one of the main reasons that (1) I plan to use a pen name if I'm ever published and (2) I don't bother using a psuedonym when posting on the Compuserve forum and other places -- there are just too many of "me" to ferret out anything truly related to me.

This blog does not appear on the first few pages of listings. Apparently, separating your first and last name with your maiden name results in a lower ranking. In fact, there is no sign of the "real" Jenny Meyer on the first 5 pages Google returns.

But here's the one that really bugged me (and this is new from the last time I googled myself). The blog HERE, which nobody has posted in IN OVER A YEAR! appears on PAGE ONE of the Google search results. WHAT? Ironically, not only does this person share my name, but they write. I swear, the post in this blog about Jenny Meyer is not me!

So, besides morbid curiosity, what does this mean? Well, for one, separating your first and last name with something in the middle (like a maiden name) lowers your search engine ranking. As a published or want-to-be published author, getting a good ranking is part of the process.

Second, the content of your posts do contribute to higher rankings. If you want people searching on a particular topic to find you, include key words in your posts. If you write, say, about Polish gypsies, include those keywords in your posts, perhaps in your profile, in a welcome statement on your blog or website. As an experiement, I am going to check back in a few days and see if this particular blog post appears in the Google listings higher than page 5, since I've intentionally included "Jenny Meyer" several times. Should be interesting, right?

What else can you do to improve your search results ranking? Well, I'm no expert yet, but I have been reading up on the issue as it relates to my web design business. In the interest of having a good, searchable title and keywords , come back in a few days. I'm pulling together an post on things you can do to improve your blog search engine results!
* UPDATE: I've been doing lots of research, and have put together a series of articles on optimizing your blog, beginning in January. Be sure to stop back!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving Traditions

Growing up we never had a regular Thanksgiving tradition. We always celebrated the holiday, but the activity changed from year to year. My parents were divorced, and some years were "mom" years, some years were "dad" years. And even then, nobody in my family had a regular tradition - a huge family gathering, to mark the holiday. Even the food changed from year-to-year. There was something about this lack of stability, on this one particular holiday, that always bothered me.

One of the first things I did after getting married was start my own Thanksgiving tradition. Three month's newly wed and I had everyone over for mom, my dad and stepmother, my sister, my half-sister. (Thanksfully, everyone gets along and this is a stress-free event as far as family relations goes.) Over the years, the families have grown - my mom is remarried, my sisters are married with children. Some years my husband's out-of-town family has attended (his brother was a regular for a number of years). We've had "stray" friends with no place else to go, family members with an occassional free holiday (this year my aunt attended). Most amazing, since my father's death a few years ago, my stepmother has remarried (creating what my husband likes to call my "staircase family" - step steps) and her husband attends. Last year, all three of his children and their families took our total up to 24 for the year!

Even with just our core group, we are up to 16, requiring 3 tables:

I love my Thanksgiving holiday. It's the tradition I created. It's "MY" holiday.

Have you posted about your Thanksgiving? Add a link here, I'd love to come read. Or do you have a unique Thanksgiving recipe you'd like to share, put it in here. What's a Thanksgiving post without a discussion of food?

Everyone has a Turkey recipe they love. It's the side dishes that make a tradition, IMO. Here's my recipe for Brussel Sprouts (a vegetable I otherwise hate, but love in this recipe - who can hate anything cooked in butter and cream!):

Brussel Sprouts with Marjoram & Pine Nuts:

3 Tbsp butter
½ cup pine nuts
1 ½ lbs fresh brussel sprouts, halved (or 1 ½ lbs frozen,
thawed, halved)
1 cup canned low-salt chicken broth
2 shallots
1 Tbsp chopped fresh marjoram
1/3 cup whipping cream

· Melt 1 Tbsp butter in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add nuts & stir until golden, about 3 minutes. Transfer nuts to small bowl.
· Melt 1 Tbsp butter in same skillet over medium heat. Add sprouts & stir 1 minute.
· Add broth. Cover and simmer until sprouts are almost tender, about 7 minutes.
· Uncover & simmer until broth evaporates, about 5 minutes.
· Using wooden spoon, push sprouts to side of skillet. Melt 1 Tbsp butter in center of same skillet. Add shallots, sauté until tender, about 2 minutes.
· Stir in marjoram, then cream. Simmer until sprouts are covered with cream, stirring frequently, about 4 minutes.
· Season with salt & pepper.
· Transfer brussel sprouts to platter. Mix in ½ pine nuts. Sprinkle with remaining nuts.

(Can be made 4 hours ahead. Cover and chill. Stir over medium heat to re-warm.)


Monday, November 24, 2008

What I Didn't Do Yesterday

I did not write yesterday.

I did not do the Thanksgiving grocery shopping. I did not clean the house, or do the laundry. I didn't even rake the leaves.

I did not spend time with my children, or my husband.

I did not critique queries in Writer's Exercises on the Compuserve Books and Writers Forum. I did not critique chapters for my critique group.

I didn't work.

I did not watch TV, or make Christmas cards, or finish that baby quilt.

What did I do?

Almost a year ago, a friend of mine lost her husband. Loosing a spouse must be difficult at any age, but as a young adult, I can't imagine the pain. For me, the hardest part would be the lost moments - those memories never made. The unrealized opportunities - because there just wasn't enough time.

It's been a difficult year for my friend, and emotions are still raw. But healing is a step by step process, and yesterday she took another big step. Three of us spent the day yesterday (and well into the evening) making a memory quilt. The quilt is made up of cut-up sections of her husband's pants and shirts, and while the process of cutting up the cloths to create the pieces was a tearful one, the process of sewing them together to form something new was a moment of healing.

So how did I spend my time yesterday? Just exactly the
right way.

Monday, November 3, 2008


How do your characters react to change? How do they face the unexpected? How long does it take them to adjust, and how hard do they fight the change along the way?

I ask this now because the software is in flux over at the Books And Writer's Community today, and there is no telling at present if the changes are permanent or the accident of some programmer who forgot to drink his morning coffee and accidentally pushed the RED nuclear detonation button.

My observation of people is that, on the whole, people react better to change when (1) they expect it and (2) they have some say in what's going to happen - even if their suggestions aren't taken, people like to feel that they've been heard.

Changes are threatening. They move people out of their comfort zones. Unexpected changes, especially, tend to throw people off. People like the world to be predictable – no matter how unrealistic this desire.

Some people adapt smoothly, some with anger, some with rejection of the new status quo. Most people come around eventually, if they are invested enough in whatever it was that changed.

Change is certainly something that often gets our characters off their duffs. It is a change in the status quo, or a threat of some sort, that spurs characters into action at the beginning of the story. It's the Call to Adventure.

What change spurs your character into action? How hard does your character fight against that call? What actions do they take to Refuse the Call? Certainly, if the change or call is insignificant enough, characters may just turn their back. Look at your story. Is the call something that might really spur the character into action? Or are they just moving along because you want them to?

Is your character someone who embraces change? This presents a different sort of challenge as a writer. If your character is someone who rushes off to join every new fad, try every new product, explore every new avenue, then how do you create the tension and conflict necessary to move them through your story? What changes are threatening enough for them to Refuse the Call? Or, if they don't refuse but go rushing in headlong, what is important enough about that goal to make them fail to hesitate and consider the risks? Or how do you show your readers how foolhardy that headlong rush is, and create tension that way? How do you make the character believable?

So, take a few minutes today to consider your reactions to change and how your own emotions related to change relate to your characters. Are they like you or different? How hard do they fight against change? And how, in the end, do they ultimately embrace the change and move into their adventure?

Good luck!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Surrey International Writers' Conference - Notes Posted

I posted my notes from the 2008 Surrey International Writers' Conference over on the Compuserve board. If you want to see them, navigate to the message here. You don't need to be a member to read, only to reply to a message.

One of the things that often happens at conferences is that speakers recommend various books, websites, blogs...that sort of thing. Below is a list of websites of interest to writers, recommended by Surrey presenters, in no particular order:
A blog where Janet Reid reviews queries and makes recommendations. She’s got a huge backlog, so don’t expect to see yours anytime soon, but a great place to scroll through and see what works and what doesn’t.
Social networking site that centers around updating and commenting on each other’s status.
Don Maass’s seminars

Zoomii books
A virtual bookstore for Amazon books. Displays the books on bookshelves, categorized by genre and bestsellers. Click through to purchase through Amazon.

Sarah Lovett
Articles about the writing process.
Video footage of great speakers talking about a variety of topic. There is a series on Master Storytellers. Recommended by Vicki Pettersson.
Rob Sawyer’s website. Look down sidebar for section on “How To Write” for his writing columns.
Author book promotion service.
Blog about book marketing

I'll post the short list of book recommendations from this year in the next day or so. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Surrey International Writers' Conference - Day Four

Ahhh...I've had my afternoon nap and now feel ready to face the rest of the day at the Surrey International Writers' Conference.

Reflect on This: At our forum party last night I was talking to Rachel Vater, agent extraordinaire. I asked her how many new clients she takes on each year. The answer, 8-10. 8-10 clients ONLY in a year. So, if a typical agent is getting 500 - 1,000 queries a month, 6,000 - 12,000 queries a year, and out of that hoard, they are only signing 8-10 new clients, imagine the chances of any ONE agent selecting your query, and then manuscript out of their pile. This just highlights that not only does your novel need to be well written, and you need to develop a really wonderful query letter, but that you need to really persevere when querying agents. In order to be selected by a particular agent, you need to be in their top 10 picks of the entire year. But if not this agent, then another. It may just be that they have their picks for the year.

Maybe this doesn't come as a revelation for anyone else, but for me it really highlighted just how competitive this business is.

How was the forum party? Wonderful, as always. Thank you to Kathy Chung and everyone else who helped organize the event. Diana Gabaldon read a selection from a story she and her son, Sam, are working on for an anthology. If the snippet is any indication, Sam's writing is as entertaining as his mother's and the anthology will be well worth buying. Michael Slade also read from his current book, Crucified. This is his take on a DaVinci Code style book, with puzzles and locked rooms. I loved hearing about his research, particularly on crucifixion. I won't describe it here. Let's just say Michael is a bit of a gory writer. Not my thing, but he is a riveting oral story teller and I always enjoy listening to him talk.

So, what did I learn today?

Donald Maass - Fear in Fiction:
This morning I went to Don Maass's Fear in Fiction session. Don's classes are wonderful because, no matter what his topic, he always makes you come up with new ideas to make your book stronger. Perhaps he ought to switch to weekly podcasts. Although his emphasis was on thriller and horror books - books that make you stay up all night with the lights on out of fear, the focus was really on creating believable villains. The thing that makes villains scary is that they are able to accomplish what we might otherwise consider unbelievable. Think your local shopping mall is safe from terrorists? Now, write a villain that eliminates all those improbabilities and makes the attack believable. THAT is what creates fear in fiction.

As always, Don offered an exercise. These are always more effective when your sitting in a room and have nothing else to do but sit there and think about his questions (he leaves VERY LARGE empty periods of time for you to think about what he's just asked). Even if you don't have an immediate answer, after about 5 or 10 minutes of sitting there thinking about his questions, something always comes (testament to the power of boring your muse into action). So, the exercise today is to answer the questions: What is the most unlikely or improbably event in your story? Why wouldn't this happen in the real world? What makes this event unbelievable? Now, ask yourself this another 20 times.

Once you have your list of 20 reasons why the event wouldn't happen, or your antagonist couldn't or wouldn't do what he did, start finding explanations or strategies to get around these obstacles.

Don's other advice: Make your monsters human. Villains who are so evil that they seem to be caricatures of evilness are not scary - they are unbelievable. Make them human - give them human wants, desires, opinions, daily activities and they seem more real and, ultimately, scarier.

Show and Tell, by Robert Sawyer
I attended this workshop not because "show, don't tell" is a new concept, but because the description included a promised discussion of when telling can be used effectively. Mr. Sawyer provided many good examples (an entire handout) of converting "telling" into "showing". Always good to get new ideas. Here is a short list (without discussion) of when telling can be effective:

  • Very brief instances of conveying backstory
  • Bridge over boring, no tension activities (a drive to the airport). Transitions.
  • Descriptions to provide information the reader needs to know, now. For example, if we need to know the room has a fire-escape because we'll need it soon, then include it. Otherwise, there is no need to include it in a description of the room. Readers will provide their own details. Writer's don't need to stage the scenery.
  • Move tension along in quicker scenes with a fast pace (showing takes longer than telling)
  • Briefly set the scene

How do you convey important information - for example in a legal thriller, or medical thriller, or historical? You have an interesting character telling another character who needs to know! WHEN THEY NEED TO KNOW IT. (Where is that fire escape? It's right there! Now go!)

That's all for now. I'll post some interesting links provided by presenters, as well as book recommendations from presenters next week. In the meantime, stop reading blogs and go write!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Surrey International Writers' Conference - Day Three

Wow! I can't believe how fast this conference is flying. Only a half-day left and that's it. :(

While attending the sessions at Surrey International Writers' Conference is informative, probably the best part of the conference is talking with other writers, discussing what we're all writing, and reflecting on our own writing.

I started the morning with a session called The 90-minute Novel, by Sarah Lovett. I was only able to stay for about 45 minutes because I had my blue pencil, so I missed the guts of the presentation. Probably the most significant point Ms. Lovett made in the earlier portion of the session was that your MC should have a credo. Something they believe in absolutely. Something that defines them. What is your protagonist's credo?

Vicki Pettersson presented her famous from last year talk on "Get Over Yourself and Get Writing". One of the highlights (for me) of the conference, Vicki gives one a kick in the butt and makes you believe that you, too, can finish a novel, become a published novelist. I have pages and pages of notes from Vicki, but probably the most significant of what she said includes (1) set daily, weekly, monthly goals and then do whatever you have to do to make them happen. Life is not an excuse. This may be a word goal or a edit page goal, or whatever works for you. (2) Chart your progress. It doesn't have to be anything fancy. She uses and accounting notebook. (3) Beware of psuedo-writing activities (blogging, forum activity, attending conferences, reading about writing). The only thing that is really writing is WRITING! Vicki made a number of suggestions on what to try to keep yourself moving. The biggest point here was do what works for you, and have a box of tools you can fall back on when you get stuck.

The last session I attended was SIWC Idol. If you haven't heard about this, workshop participants can elect to turn in the first few pages of their manuscript (or you can just listen). The wonderful Jack Whyte read the pages (and who wouldn't love anything Jack read). This year 6 agents listened, and raised their hands at the point where they would stop reading if this was a submission (generally within the first 3 paragraphs). The strongest messages: Absolutely DO NOT start your story with someone waking up. Start with action and tension/conflict. Keep description to an absolute minimum.

Tonight is the Compuserve Forum Members party at Surrey and I expect it to be a late night. Two more sessions tomorrow and then....the Surrey International Writers' Conference is over for another year. Take care!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Surrey International Writers' Conference - Day Two

You are getting very sleepy....very sleepy...

Well, at least I am. It was a big, full day at the Surrey International Writers' Conference.

By all reports, the best session of the day was Donald Maass's Designing Venomous Villains. Unfortunately, I did not choose this class. Major boo's on me. I always regret skipping one of Don's sessions. He has a talent for really making your think about your own work. But I sometimes think "Oh, I've heard that person talk before. I should try someone new." Next year, I'll remember to stick with the tried and true.

The beautiful thing about Surrey is that if you find yourself in a session you don't really like, you can just move to a different session! People are coming and going all the time (to attend blue pencil and agent/editor appointments), so this shifting of locations can be done with some grace, although when half the attendees leave a half-hour into a presentation, the presenter may want to reconsider their syllabus.

The first session I attended was Bob Mayer's "Plot: The Events of Your Story". Bob Mayer is perhaps most famous for his collaborative writing with Jennifer Crusie (Don't Look Down, and Agnes and the Hit Man), but has an extensive list of books he's published under his penname Robert Doherty. I recently read "Lost Girls", one of his recent books, and thought it was great.

Anyway, I was disappointed that the class this year was identical (to the best of my memory) to a class on plotting he gave two years ago. There was too much material. He talks too fast. And it was difficult to really get anything out of it. However, he did remind me of The Conflict Box concept, which both he and Jenny Crusie talked about a few years ago, and I think also covered in their one year writing class online. The basic concept is that every scene must have conflict between a scene protagonist and a scene antagonist (may not be the overall story antagonist. For example, this could be the best friend!). The protagnoist and antagonist should have competing goals.

Bob used an example from Lost Girls to illustrate this concept. The protagonist's goal is to discover the kidnapper. The conflict is that the kidnapping continues. The antagonists goal is revenge. His conflict is that someone is trying to stop him.

The protagonists and antagonists goals should work against each other.

Try this on a scene or two. If the scene protagonist and antagonist's goals don't conflict, there may not be enough tension in your scene. I know I have some better examples of this at home. If anyone's interested, I can post them when I get back.

My second session was Dialogue by John Lescroart. Unfortunately, the bulk of this session was structured around audience questions and answers, which tend toward the more basic sorts of questions, so I left after about 1/2 hour and moved to a basic blogging 101 (too basic for me). THIS was the session I should have gone to see Donald Maass. The best tip on writing dialogue was "Skip right to the point." Don't waste a lot of time with "Hello, how are you" and the like.

If you're here on my blog, you likely know everything Darren Barefoot had to say in Blogging 101. However, he seemed a good a knowledgable speaker. Wish I had time tomorrow to attend his blogging and social networking talk tomorrow!

Third up was Characters in Action, by C.C. Humphreys. Lovely British accent! The major point of his talk was that characters have objectives and obstacles (see conflict box above - goal and conflict). This seems to be my theme for the day. Mr. Humphreys uses an acronym to demonstrate his principals: COMOCA - Characters, Objectives, Meeting, Obstacles, Creates, Action. He also mentioned "The Rule of Three" - obstacle, failure, obstacle, failure, obstacle, success. Don't make life too easy for your characters. And finally, he said "get in late and get out early." Try to cut out as much set up and closure as you can in your scenes. Get right to the point (where the scene really starts), and finish immediately when the conflict for that scene is resolved.

It's all about the conflict.

Sessions were followed by dinner, followed by a night owl session led by Michael Slade and a re-enactment of an Old Time Radio Show! Michael slade is a storyteller extraordinaire, and accompanied by a cast including Anne Perry, Diana Gabaldon, Jack Whyte, kc Dyer, and others, they re-enacted two famous radio plays. Very fun!

Too tired for the bar tonight. Last night in the bar we were joined by Rachel Vader (agent), and a crowd of members from the Compuserve Writer's Forum. Surrey is such a great place to meet people, talk about writing, and just absorb the atmosphere. Can't wait for tomorrow!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Surrey International Writers' Conference - Day One

It's day -1 at the Surrey International Writers' Conference. The regular conference does not start until tomorrow (I still have 10 minutes until tommorrow!), but today was Master's Classes. Since I come so far, I always try to attend both Master Class sessions. This year, I chose Janet Reid's Query Roulette and Don Maass's The Tornado Effect. Both good picks this year!

A Master's Class is 3 hours long (as opposesd to the 90 minute sessions on Friday and Saturday, and 75 minutes (if I remember right) on Sunday.

Janet Reid's class was outstanding. There were 18 registered participants, and we all had to submit query letters in advance. She went through each query letter in detail, on an overhead, pointing out what worked and what didn't. We then spent the last hour trying to fix what we'd written. I think if she'd rated them best to worst, mine might have been on the bottom. She probably spent the shortest time of all on it, and had neither anything outstandingly wonderful or horribly awful to say. It was uncommentable. Ah well... I did learn a lot anyway.

Janet had 6 tips for "A Good Query Letter"
(1) Short - 1 page is best. 2 pages is okay, but probably means there's something you could cut out. 250 words maximum.
(2) Readable (lot of white space. Spaces between paragraphs)
(3) Don't forget to include your contact information
(4) Tells, in 5 sentences, what the book is about (no more than 50 words)
(5) Include the word count (not the page count)
(6) Surprise the agent in a good way

For #4, the exercise we did was to write 5 sentences (no more than 50 words). Introduce the main character and setting (if necessary). Explain the problem and the choice(s) the main character must make - what's at stake. (PERIOD)

No set up. No backstory.

It's harder than it seems!

Donald Maass - the Tornado Effect
Donald's workshops are always one huge, 3 hour, brainstorming session. You come out with a whole fresh perspective on your story, your writing, or a particular scene or character. Whatever it is, he really makes you think!

The Tornado Effect focuses on how to make one scene really shine. It's difficult to summarize his 3-hour sessions in a few paragraphs here. Don mostly asks open ended questions that set your brain on fire. But at one point, he summarized The Tornado Effect as a way to make a scene more dramatic by having the scene event impact more than one character. Whatever it is that is happening, show how or why it's important to multiple characters, and how each of those characters is changed in some way at the end of the scene. As a way to get to this, re-write the scene from several different points of view.

Well, it's officially "tomorrow" (12:01 am), and time for my head to hit the pillow. It was a great day! I'll post some about Surrey social life tomorrow, along with anything interesting I pick up at the workshops!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Surrey - Sitting in an Airport Terminal

Somehow, not quite the same ring as "the railway station". Or maybe I'm showing my age. Anyone else remember that song - "Sitting in the railway station, got a ticket for my destination, oh..." Who sang that anyway?

Somehow I ended up with a four hour layover in Salt Lake City. Well, I know how. I originally had an earlier departing flight, that allowed me to connect earlier in Salt Lake and arrive in Vancouver around noon, instead of 4:00. It was the old bait-and-switch. Almost as soon as I booked my flight, I got a notice of flight changes which meant I wouldn't make my connection and so here I sit.

On the upside, my first flight was upgraded to first class, my first time. On the downside, I had an annoying "roommate" in first class (and what else can you call the space in first class, having spent my life riding with the peasants in couch). She obviously decided that extra space required sprawl - like the suburbs surrounding a major city. No less than 7 magazines drapped out of the seat pocket in front of her, bottled water, power bars, packs of tissues, an assortment of medications, etc... littered the arm rests between us, her leg brace (which I can feel some sympathy for) lay on the floor between our two seats, and her backpack squeezed under the seat in front of me! (Those "under seat" spaces in first class being taken up by motors to control seat positions - including leg rests! - leaving too little space for my full-size backpack.) But this meant that every time she needed something from her backpack (what more could she need?), she had to climb over me. Then she went to sleep, leaving me no escape without climbing over her legs (and the leg brace) because the drapping magazines blocked the little existing space between footrest and seat back.

Not feeling sorry for me? Okay. First class was nice.

So, I'm sitting here with my 4-hour layover, and remembering a Muse Exercise we did in April over on the Compuserve Books and Writer's forum, here. The exercise was to find someplace different to write - someplace you do not normally write. Write by hand (no laptops). Observe your surroundings for 5 minutes. Write stream of conscious for 10 minutes - focusing on sensory observations (sights, smells, sounds, emotions). Then review your writing, looking for tidbits of excellent description. Use those gems and write a scene .

I'm obviously not in the mood to be creative. My observations this time were lackluster. But then, with four hours to spare, I should be working on my novel and here I am blogging!

So, as a warm-up to Surrey, want to try it? Go someplace different to write. It doesn't have to be an airport! Your living room. Outside (in the nice fall weather might be nice). A coffee shop. On a bench at the park. Just someplace different. What do you see? Smell? Hear? Write about it. Did it feel different from your normal writing sessions? Did you come up with anything good?

How do you respark your creativity after a long break? I'm hoping this weekend will do it for me!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Getting Ready for Surrey International Writers' Conference 08

So, exactly what does it take to leave one's family for 6 days? Well, if you're my husband, you pack your suitcase, give everyone a kiss, and off you go. (Okay, perhaps that is simplifying things. I'm sure there are things at work he must take care of too. )

I leave for Surrey International Writer's Conference in 5 days (if you count today. It's only a little past noon, so I guess that's fair).

  1. Complete assignments for new job. I'm now working 10-20 hours a week (depending on demand) from home. It's a great job so far, working for a former boss, doing health care insurance claim data analysis. The people are nice, very flexible, and extremely appreciative of everything I've done so far. But I'm home to take care of sick kids, etc... which there seems to be a lot of lately. Given 4 days of kids home sick this week, I'm behind by about 3 hours and need to make that up this weekend, plus work 6 hours Monday and Tuesday.

  2. Laundry. There's always laundry. I've already started 3 loads this morning. By my count, I've got 4 left.

  3. Grocery Shopping: I tried to pull out of the kids what they'd be willing to help cook this week. My daughter - cheesy hamburger (like sloppy joes with cheese wiz, served on a bun with tator tots on the side. I know, no self-respecting mother would ever serve this. It's one of those holdovers from my own childhood. ) My son - breakfast for dinner.

  4. Leave instructions for cooking meals (see above) and those Dear Husband agreed to cook. Heaven forbid anyone pay attention when I'm here, or open a cookbook!

  5. Speaking of instructions, I'll need to write out everything about who needs to be where and when. Not that it's any different from any other week, but, you know.

  6. Pack. Yeah! I've bought new outfits for Surrey. I don't know why I always feel the need to do this, but there's nothing to make one feel good and confident but something new and pretty to wear. I looked last night at a new blouse I bought and didn't notice until the tags were gone that it's dry clean only. Sigh. But it's pretty, so I'm keeping it! I also got a hair cut and color. Hair is too dark (didn't I say "my natural but currently faded strawberry? It's pretty much auburn.) And too short. Guess that's what I get for my moment of vanity.

  7. Write?! I have that editor blue pencil appointment (with Lisa Rector-Maass). I plan to take the piece I wrote while in Colorado with Tricia. My beginning. I periodically love it and hate it. I know it needs more polish. I'm not sure that's going to happen before Surrey. I was going to cancel the appointment, but Tricia (thank you) reminded me the purpose of the blue pencil appointment is to get feedback and advice, not to present something perfect, so...

  8. Finish bookmarks. I did these a few years ago to pass out at the conference and it was fun! ere are two of my favorites from this year:

  9. Load Kodak software on my laptop. Laptop! Hurray! Dear Husband won a laptop in his company raffle to give away some of the old laptops they were replacing. So, it's not state-of-the-art or anything, but it is a laptop! I'm hoping to post pictures of Surrey along with my blog updates (again, all depending on web access from the hotel).

I'm sure I'll think of more, but actually, it doesn't look quite so overwhelming, now that I've written it all down. Anyway, hope to talk to you next week from Surrey!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Surrey International Writers' Conference

At this time next week, I'll be residing in Surrey (near Vancouver), BC, Canada - visiting with old friends and getting ready for the Surrey International Writers' Conference.

Thursday is Master Class day, and I'm attending two. Query Roulette - by Janet Reid, and The Tornado Effect, by Donald Maass. (Why is it whenever you leave one of Donald's classes, you feel like you've been run over by a tournado?!)

Anyway, in my new, new commitment to get back to posting regularly on my blog, I plan to post every day from Surrey (assuming my internet connection works!). So, stop back and check in for my tip of the day, and a report on the sessions attended and the fun goings on.

And to all my friends from year's past who won't be attending the conference this year (you know who you are...Tricia, Stephanie, Catherine, Linda, and anyone else I'm missing), you'll be missed -- LOOSERS!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Character Archetypes

As y'all know, I've been very intrigued with The Hero's Journey of late. Over on the Compuserve Books and Writer's forum, I've been running a Hero's Journey workshop for the past month. In July, we worked on Character Archetypes - looking at the roles your characters play in your story. Since it's been up for over a month there, I'm going to post it here (below) if anyone doesn't want to go over there to play.

Last week I posted a worksheet to help analyze movies, books and their structure. At many of the conferences I've attended, writer's a-many have said "deconstruct a book if you want to learn how to plot". Huh? says I. I tried this, several times, but ran out of steam. Part of the problem, I think, was I was trying to track too many different things at once - layers, character development, secondary story lines, etc... Starting with the Hero's Journey format has made it much easier for me to understand how many stories are put together. In a few weeks, I'll post the worksheet for story analysis that currently posted on the forum. Or you could hop over there and check it out under "Hero's Journey 2: Story Analysis" in the Writer's Exercises folder.

Character Archetypes:
(originally posted 7/2/2008 on Compuserve Books and Writer's Forum - Writer's Exercises)

Without the characters populating our stories, the stories themselves could not exist. Like the stages of The Hero’s Journey, archetypes do not define the characters who must appear in your story, but provide you with character masks or roles that appear repeatedly throughout world literature. Understanding these masks can help to strengthen your characters and give them additional purpose or attributes.

Some archetypes may be associated with a character throughout the story. Some characters may switch back and forth between different archetypes or roles as the story progresses. Christopher Vogler identified 7 archetypes common to The Hero’s Journey:
(1) Hero
(2) Herald
(3) Mentor
(4) Threshold Guardian
(5) Shadow
(6) Shapeshifter
(7) Trickster

Are these all the archetypes that exist? Certainly not! There are hundreds of different archetypes defined in an almost infinite number of books, websites and other sources. I’ve listed a few of these for your reference at the end of this message.

I'm going to use the archetypes described by Vogler to help you brainstorm some about the characters in your story. Remember, you don’t necessarily need to include all these archetypes, or include every aspect of every archetype described. Just use the descriptions and questions below to think about ways you might be able to make your characters stronger or more interesting.

Many of the brainstorming questions below may seem more plot than character related. They are there to help you determine which characters fit these roles through their action in the plot. Don’t get too hung up on answering all these questions today! You’ll see many of them again as we move through the stages of the journey.

You will be revisiting the characters, their roles, and the archetype characteristics they assume in various points of the story as we move through brainstorming story points using the stages of The Hero’s Journey. So don’t make yourself too crazy with this at this point. I guarantee you, it will change and change again over the next few weeks. However, it will be really helpful to begin to identify the role each of your main characters plays as you start to think about scenes and journey stages.

(1) Hero - Often (but not always) the protagonist of the story. Usually the most active person in the story, the Hero’s will and desire drives the story forward. The Hero is the one who learns or grows the most in the course of the story. The mark of a Hero is his or her willingness to sacrifice or give up something of value. During the course of the story, the Hero will (1) separate from the Ordinary World; (2) sacrifice himself for the service of the journey; (3) answer the challenge; (4) complete the quest; and (5) restore the Ordinary World’s balance.

  • Who is the hero in your main storyline?
  • How does this character change by the end of the story? What important lesson does the hero learn? What wisdom does she aquire?
  • What actions does your hero take to move the story forward?
  • What sacrifice does the hero make? What of value (including his/her life – real or symbolic) is the hero willing to give up in order to succeed on the journey?
  • What universal drive is this character driven by: Desire to be loved? Understood? To succeed? Survive? Be free? Get revenge? Right wrongs? Seek self-expression?
  • How are these drives expressed at the beginning of the story (Ordinary World)? How do they grow, change or get stronger as the story progresses?
  • What does the Hero value most? What sacrifice would be most difficult for the Hero to make, but is most necessary for the success of the journey?
  • What admirable qualities does the Hero have? What qualities will the reader identify with?
  • How do conflicting traits help to define your hero (e.g., trust vs. suspicion, hope vs. despair, love vs. duty)?

(2) Herald – Heralds issue challenges and announce the coming of significant change. They get the story rolling. The Herald doesn’t necessarily need to be a person – it could be a dream, a book, a new idea, a storm, a telegram, a phone call, the start of a war, a drought or famine, an ad in the newspaper, the character’s inner voice.

  • Who is the Herald in your story?
  • How does your Hero become aware of the need for a journey? How does your Hero receive the Call to Adventure?
  • What change does the Herald announce? What message starts the Hero on the journey?
  • How does this message upset the equilibrium of the Ordinary World? How does this message make the Hero unable to return to his “old” life?
  • How does your Hero react to the Herald’s message? How does the message transform the Hero?
  • What is the Heralds motivation for calling the Hero to an adventure? What does the Herald get out of it?
  • Does your Herald appear once in the story or at several points, each time announcing an upcoming change?
  • Is the Herald a friend, foe, or neutral character? Villian or emissary?

(3) Mentor – Mentors have two main functions (1) training or teaching the Hero; and (2) giving gifts key to success in the journey. Gifts may include weapons, medicine, food, magic, important piece of information, or other items. The gifts may sometimes seem insignificant until later in the story. The Mentor’s goal is to get the hero past the stage of doubt and fear, and committed to the journey. The role or mask of the mentor may be worn by different characters at different points in the story, and may even be represented by the Hero’s personal code or a prop (e.g., book or other artifact) that guides the Hero.

  • Who is the Mentor or Mentors in your story?
  • What important lessons does the Mentor teach in order to prepare the Hero for the journey?
  • Does your Mentor’s teaching style match any of these? Drill instructor? Squad leader? Sergeant? Old police officer? Aged warrier? Trail boss? Parent? Grandparent? Wise old man or woman? A fool? (or some other style?)
  • What gifts does the Mentor give to the Hero to help him/her be successful? In what way are these gifts critical to the Hero’s success?
  • If you have multiple Mentors, what unique skill, piece of wisdom or gift does each give?
  • What does the Hero do to earn the gifts and wisdom from the Mentor? What sacrifice or commitment does the Hero give? What tests must be passed?
  • How does the Mentor help motivate the Hero to commit to the journey?
  • How does the Mentor test the Hero’s worthiness?
  • How does the Mentor impart the Hero with courage?
  • How does the Mentor motivate the Hero when he/she is refusing the Call to Adventure? How does the Mentor give the Hero a push?
  • Is your Mentor genuinely interested in helping the Hero, or is the mask of the Mentor being used to hid an enemy?
  • Does your mentor disappoint the Hero in any way?
  • Why does the Mentor help your Hero? What does he or she hope to gain? What is their motivation?

(4) Threshold Guardian – The Threshold Guardian generally appears as the Hero attempts to Cross the First Threshold into the Special World of the journey. The Threshold Guardian protects the Special World and its secrets from the hero, and provides tests to prove the Hero’s commitment and worth. The Threshold Guardian is typically not the antagonist or enemy in the story, but may be a henchman, a neutral character or even a secret helper. May even be an ordinary obstacle – bad weather, bad luck, prejudice, oppression, or hostile people.

  • Who is the Threshold Guardian in your story?
  • How does the Threshold Guardian test the Hero’s resolve to continue on the journey? How many tests must the Hero pass?
  • How do the Threshold Guardian’s test foreshadow difficulties the Hero will encounter in the Special World.
  • How do the tests thrown at the Hero represent the Hero’s own internal demons? (neuroses, emotional scares, vices, dependencies, self-limitations)
  • Why does the Threshold Guardian want to block the Hero? What do they hope to gain?
  • What does your Hero do to overcome the Threshold Guardian? How is this determination tested?
  • When faced with a Threshold Guardian, heroes may run, attack, craft a deceit, bribe or appease, make an ally, disguise themselves as the enemy, etc… What does your hero do?
  • How does the Threshold Guardian respond?

(5) Shadow – Often times the shadow mask is worn by antagonists, villains and enemies, but it may also be worn by other characters. The character who wears this mast most often, and whose motivations are in direct conflict with the Hero’s is the villain. Shadows represent things the Hero dislikes and would like to eliminate – the dark side or suppressed monsters.

  • Who are the characters in the story most set on blocking the Hero’s chosen course of action? (May be antagonists who disagree with the Hero’s path.)
  • Which characters are determined to destroy the Hero and his or her cause? (Most likely the villain and his/her henchmen.)
  • What dark characteristics do the shadow figures possess?
  • How do the Shadow figures represent aspects the Hero dislikes about his/herself? The Hero’s dark secrets? Qualities the Hero has tried to eliminate in him/herself?
  • Does the Shadow possess any positive qualities that the hero, for whatever reason, has rejected in him/herself?
  • What redeeming qualities does the Shadow have?
  • How does the Shadow challenge the hero?
  • What makes this Shadow a worthy opponent? What unique qualities does the Shadow possess?
  • How does the Shadow symbolize the Hero’s greatest fears and phobias?

(6) Shapeshifters - A character whose loyalty or sincerity, their role or personality, seem to change in significant ways throughout the story. Misleads the hero or keeps him/her guessing. Often represented by the opposite sex, a love interest. May be femme fatale/homes fatales. May also be a buddy or a magical figure.

  • What character in your story is not always who they appear to be?
  • How does this character’s loyalty or sincerity seem to change over time? How does this impact on the course of the Hero’s journey?
  • How does the Shapeshifter add doubt and suspense to the story?
  • How does the Shapeshifter keep the Hero off guard?
  • Does the Hero ever wear this mask to confuse the antagonists or to get past an obstacle?
  • How does the mentor’s use of this mask influence the story?
  • Does the Shapeshifter’s changing nature serve as a catalyst for change in the hero?
  • How does the Shapeshifter challenge the Hero (and the reader) to question their own beliefs and assumptions?
  • In the end, how does the shapeshifter either lure the Hero to his doom or to ultimate success in the journey

(7) Trickster – Tricksters are agents of change. They point out both common bonds, and folly and hypocrisy by drawing attention to imbalance and absurdity. Often mischievous – clowns, comical sidekicks.

  • Are there any characters in your story that create change by challenging the status quo?
  • How does the Trickster create chaos in the Ordinary World?
  • How does the Trickster call attention to the absurdity of the situation? Does your Trickster use word games, turns of phrase, humor, ridicule, or physical action to draw attention to the need for change?
  • Does your Trickster provide any comic relief within your story? Does this humor keep things in proportion?
  • Does your Trickster display cunning when facing a stronger or more powerful opponent?

(Note: although the research for the information above came from several sources including Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, Christopher Vogler and Michael Hauge The Hero's 2 Journeys, and Joseph Campbell The Hero With 1,000 Faces, the question format is my own. Please credit me and link back to this blog - or the original Compuserve Post, if you care to use it - Jenny Graman Meyer (c) 2008.)

If you’re interested in learning more about various archetypes, here are some places to check:

Situational, Character and Symbolic Archetypes:
Carol S. Pearson’s 12 Archetypes:
Dramatica Archetypes:
Tarot Card Archetypes:

In Elizabeth Lyon’s “A Writer’s Guide to Fiction”, she suggests the following books:

  • The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes, by Tami D. Dowden, Caro LaFever, and Sue Viders
  • The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By, by Carol S. Pearson
  • Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World, by Carol S. Pearson
  • 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters, by Victoria Lynn Schmidt

EXERCISE: After reading the description of the archetypes common in The Hero’s Journey, analyze the characters in your own story. Start with a list of your main characters.

  • What roles do each of the main characters play?
  • Can you add the characteristics of any of the archetypes to strengthen characters?
  • Can any of the characters play multiple roles?
  • Do you need to add any characters to provide critical functions within your story?

Note that you likely won’t be able to answer every question in the archetype descriptions above, nor should you try. And you may find that the answers to many of these questions are not immediately apparent, or that your answers evolve as you work through the stages of your story. That’s great. Our work over the next few months should be fluid, causing you to think, re-think, and revise your story as we go.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Writer's Retreat

3 Days of no obligations. Nothing to do but relax, enjoy the scenery, and write. Nothing to feel guilty over not doing (i.e., there's laundry to be folded, dishes to be washed, children to spend time with, a husband not to ignore).

Tricia and I spent 3 nights at the Lakeside Cottages in Green Mountain Falls, CO. ( It felt like being a guest in Kim and Lon's home, such is the care they show to their cottages, landscaping and guests. I can't remember the last time I've felt so relaxed. And having a good friend there with me was wonderful. Our days went something like this:

(1) Get up whenever and eat something (we had some groceries and a kitchen in our cottage). Maybe read for a few minutes.

(2) Settle in to write.

(3) Stop to ask questions: Does this sound all right? Can you read this when you get a chance? Can we brainstorm about this character for a moment?

(4) Write some more.

(5) Eventually need a break. Shop in the quaint town of Manitou, visit the Cliff Dwellings, take a walk around the lake.

(6) Pick up lunch or dinner while out.

(7) Write some more

(8) Stay up late talking

(9) Sigh over a satisfying day

(10) Sleep

(11) Repeat

In terms of word count, Tricia did better than I did. But I feel good about finally getting an opening scene nailed down that I feel good about. Maybe, in the end, it won't stand, but for now it's like having the foundation built - something that I can build upon, weaving in all those pieces of the story I've already written, and those that I need to fit in now that I've got a better idea of my structure (having gone through the Hero's Journey process).
I just wish I could recapture that feeling of utter peace and joy in sitting down to write that I had while in Colorado. Splended place.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Back to Writing (Fingers Crossed)

Writers should never take breaks. That old axim - write every day. Listen to it!

Two months ago (or was it more???) I intentially took two weeks off my writing to focus on some other projects. I haven't been back to it since. That is, until now (or, well, tomorrow).

Today I arrived in beautiful Denver, Colorado to meet my friend Tricia for a mountain writing retreat. Tomorrow we head up to Green Mountain Falls, Colorado (doesn't that sound pictureque) and for the next 3 days, we write.

So far it's been a fun trip. Poor Tricia's flight doesn't get in until late. But tonight my dear friend Stephanie and I met for dinner (thanks for picking me up at the hotel!) and we had such a wonderful time that it makes me sad we don't live closer. That's the problem with on-line friends who become Surrey friends who just become friends. They invariable live too far away!

So, back to the writing part of this adventure. When last we saw our bold writing hero, I was working on my outline. I have to admit that I never quite finished, although I feel I have a solid structure that will take me through.

You know, it's interesting to observe that my last post on this blog related to The Hero's Journey was "Crossing the First Threshold". I wonder how much of my diversion from writing was due to that same hesitancy that many hero's face as they enter that Special World. One last (we hope) Refusal of the Call!

So, how do you pick back up after being away from writing for so long. That's the trick, isn't it? Characters and storylines fade from your mind - replaced with more urgent issues. When I'm working consistently, daily, on my story, my muse is always there in the background, thrashing things around and popping up throughout the day - at odd moments (like traffic lights, and while I'm folding laundry) to say "hey! What about this...?"

When you put the book away for a few days, the muse gets tired of being ignored, or at best humored, and eventually packs a bag and heads off to the beach (or wherever muses go when they get indignant over being ignored). Bringing them back from their vacation with tanned hunky men of their own creation can be tricky.

Today on the plane I went through my notes, trying to re-establish the framework of my story in my head. Tomorrow on the drive to Green Mountain Falls, I hope to brainstorm with Tricia (over both stories - hers and mine), so that by the time we arrive at our cottage, I've got a scene in mind and I'm ready to go. I'm almost looking forward to someone on-hand to brainstorm with as much as I am to having the focused time to write.

What about you? Do you have trouble getting back into your writing after taking a break? What do you do to entice your muse to come back and play?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Writing, Not...and my new roommates

Okay - you may be wondering why I haven't posted much lately about my writing journey - and my exploration of The Hero's Journey, and my outline, and....

Uhmm...I haven't worked on my book for at least two weeks.

Now, this was a conscious decision on my part. I've had a lot going on, and a number of commitments, and I just knew something had to go. But I swear, come Monday, I'm back in the saddle. Besides, I'm responsible for a Hero's Journey workshop starting in June on the Compuserve forum, so I'd better get myself moving!

But I do wonder, why is it when life gets busy, writing always seems to be one of the first things to fall by the wayside? Do you find this to be true for yourself? How do you combat this? Do you have any special techniques for getting yourself up and running again quickly after spending time away from your writing?

And while you ponder those questions, check out my new roommates. For Mother's Day, my kids purchased supplies to get my aquarium up and running again (it's been about 10 years). The tank now resides on the shelves behind my desk chair - shelves just recently relocated to that wall, replacing the Eliptical Trainer that sat there for 2 years collecting dust (I thought I'd be more motivated to exercise if the Eliptical Trainer was so "convenient" (blush).

Anyway, my tank now has 5 fish, and they watch me work over my shoulder. No, really! Whenever I turn around, they are looking at me through the glass. Very intellectual fish!

The Atlantian theme was the kids' idea.

Here are four of the fish. The last one is shy!

Friday, May 9, 2008

A Writer's View

Many authors of my aquaintance have posted views from their office or writing space window. My office is on the third floor of our old house, so I view the world from tree level. 363 Days a year the view is quite mundane. We live across the street from the back of the Middle School. So on a typical day, I can watch the kids running laps in gym class.

But once a year, on the first Thursday and Friday of May, the school festival - know in these parts as May Fete - arrives. On these days, I have a totally different view.

Around here in the small suburb I live in, May Fete is a big deal. The festival has been happening since the beginning of time, or at least as long as anyone living can remember. Tradition holds that school is cancelled on Friday, and rides run both Thursday night and all day Friday.

Beginning on the Monday leading up to the big day, trucks arrive pulling rides and games, and the set-up begins. Now, if you don't happen to live across the street from a festival, you may never have considered how exactly those movable amusement parks come and go. Here's a few shots of the set-up this week.

The Pharoh's Curse receives its head (top right). The Merry-go-round is still packed up in its truck, (center right). Three men assemble the mini-roller coaster (bottom right). And of course, no festival would be complete without the all-popular Monkey Maze! (below).

Living across from an amusement park would probably be considered the dream of many children. Who wouldn't want a field full of rides in their backyard (or front yard, as the case is here)? And we do have fun. Every year we set up a buffet on our front porch. The kids run back and forth, and tired and weary adults - particularly those running the game booths, stop by to sit and relax and, later in the afternoon, drink Margaritas with us (the adults, not the kids). And did I mention endless access to funnel cakes for two whole days?

But when my kids were little, May Fete was a week of sleepless kids. Not only was the anticipation hardly bearable, but each night the carnival workers test the rides until way past bedtime, the multi-colored lights flickering in through the windows. May Fete at night is a really spectacular display -- better than Christmas. To get the full impact, you really need to see it in action...

But the most impressive part of May Fete is the illusions of what was. On Friday night, everyone goes to bed and sleeps soundly, tired from the long day. Everyone, that is, except for the workers. The workers stay up all night, disassembling the rides and packing up the game booths. By Saturday morning, nothing is left in the field but empty cups and an amazing collection of silly-string wads in all colors of the rainbow (Don't ask. It's part of the tradition.).

And the view from my window becomes mundane for another year.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Last Lecture

Today I posted a review on my reviews blog, see link to right, on The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch and Jeffrey Zaslow (non-fiction).

Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is invited to participate in the University's lecture series, known as "The Last Lecture". By the time his lecture date arrives, he has been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. While the lecture he delivers is both uplifting and lighthearted, it also contains a philosophy of life that everyone should take the time to consider. Here's one of my favorite quotes: "The brick walls are there to stop the people who don't want it badly enough. They're there to stop the "other people."

Mr Pausch inspires people to reach for their goals, to achieve their childhood dreams, and to give back to the people who gave to you.

While there is some overlap between the video and the book, the book expands on many of his thoughts, while the video includes material of a more visual nature that was excluded from the book. I would describe the two media as complementary. The video is 76 minutes long, but well worth the investment of time. Mr Pausch is one of those speakers who is probably fascinating, no matter what his topic. The book, a more portable format, would make an excellent gift for a graduate this spring.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Thoughs on a Meme

Last week I was tagged to participate in a meme: 6 Random Facts About Me. I have to admit that when I was first tagged, my initial reaction was to sigh and wonder if I could skip it. But being a good sport, I thought about it for a few days and finally compiled my list.

Of course, part of this game was to then tag 6 of my friends to play too. A few friends did play along. Other's declined gracefully. I get that. After my first few months on Facebook, I stopped loading every application someone sent my way. These things just have a way of growing until they could absorb every waking moment if you let them!

Saturday, I was sweeping pollen off my front porch for the second time in a week - each swoosh of the broom sending up big clouds of heavy green, VISABLE, pollen! Ick. My watery eyes and sheer determination to reclaim my porch gave me time to think about this meme, my friends' responses, comments on my meme, and something Donald Maass said at the Surrey International Writer's Conference last year.

Actually, I don't remember Donald Maass's exact words, but basically the message was - go beyond the obvious. When you seek to describe your characters, don't use the first thing that comes to your mind, or the fifth, or even the tenth. Really dig deep for that thing that makes them unique. Make a list, pushing yourself to write 10, or even 20 descriptive characteristics. Same goes for character motivations, or descriptions of scenery, or probably just about anything you want to describe in your book. Dig down until you get to that thing that really makes that character stand out.

Being a planner, I really thought about the 6 items I would describe for my "random" facts. I pretty much listed them in the order they came to me, but I thought about them for two days before posting my reply. And you know, in the few comments I received, it wasn't the first item that caused comment, nor the third, but the fifth (signs of creativity) that caught people's attention.

Interesting, huh!


Friday, April 25, 2008

Six Random Facts about Me

I've been tagged. (Beware, you may be next!)

Rose tagged me to write six random things about myself.

The rules:
a. Link to the person who tagged you.
b. Post the rules on your blog.
c. Write six random things about yourself.
d. Tag six random people at the end of your post by linking to their blogs.
e. Let each person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment at their blog.
f. Let your tagger know when your entry is up.

Okay, here goes...

(1) I did not grow up wanting to be a writer. In actuality, until my senior year of college, I wanted to be a psychologist. The writing bug hit me about 5 years ago and I've been trying to figure out how to do it well ever since.

(2) My all-time favorite vacation was to Hawaii. I got engaged to my husband there, but that doesn't explain my fondness for the islands. Up until that point, my travels had been limited (we went to Florida to see my grandparents every year). So Hawaii was just this wonderful tropical oasis. The engagement? My husband being who he is waited until the second to last night of a two week vacation, one month before his "drop dead" date to propose. When not snorkling or otherwise enjoying the scenery, I spent most of the time trying to figure out where my next apartment was going to be!

(3) I love learning. Given unlimited funds, my chosen career would be professional student. In addition to still working on learning this writing thing, my most recent endeavor is learning web design. It's facinating, and I love it.

(4) One of my childhood dreams was to live in an old house. My grandparents had a farm when I was growing up, and most of my happiest childhood memories are associated with that farm. I currently live in a big house built in 1906 (it's definately no farm house, but it is old.) . My adult dream is to live in a brand new house that never needs anything beyond minor repairs - and all the rooms have fresh paint and new carpet at the same time! {g}

(5) I love crafting. As a child, I learned to crochet and embroider. I've pretty much left the embroidery behind (although I do have this dream of making a crazy quilt), but I generally crochet something at least once a year. And as an adult, I learned to quilt - which I love but can be quite expensive. I also make stamped cards, and will try just about any craft once. In recent years I paper-mache'd a chip bowl for myself, made a rag rug for my front porch, created a locker-hook rug (also for the porch), scrapbooked, and, well, anything I can find an excuse for!

(6) I volunteer a lot of my time. Currently, I have a Girl Scout troop of 12 high school girls who are all working on their Gold Award - the top award in Girl Scouts. In the fall/winter I co-lead a group of boys (it was 10 last year, but this year it will be 6) middle-school boys in a LEGO Robotics competition team. I also volunteer some at the schools (less than I used to) and am generally willing to step up for other little tasks that need to be done (although I'm getting better at saying "no"). The one volunteer activity I won't help out with if I can avoid it? Fundraising. I hate fundraising. I'd rather do something hands-on - direct delivery of services.

Who do I tag?
Good luck ladies!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Crossing the First Threshold (Outlining)

So what does the "desk" of a compulsive outliner look like?

As part of my new resolve not to be distracted by e-mail, forums, blogs(!) and the like when I'm "working" on writing, I've taken over the guest bedroom. This is where I spend the first hour or so of most weekdays, meeting with my "mentors" and learning how to outline. If you dropped by today, here's what you'd see (left).
I like this picture because you can see the bright, sunny room I get to work in. (I hope my mom doesn't come to spend the night soon or she'll be on the couch!) But you don't really get the full impact of my outlining so far.

This pictures gives you a much better view of the appearance of my "desk". I curl up there in the upper left, pillow for a lap desk, reviewing all my notecards and scribbling down my ideas.
I'm using notecards. Lots and lots of notecards. I'm using green notecards for notes on The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler (the book I just finished). Pink notecards for notes and ideas on character development. White notecards to write mini-synopses on different parts of the story as they occur to me, and yellow notecards to actually write line-for-scene cards. The notes I've taken from the book (see green notecards) I use to brainstorm ideas. If it's just story flow - what needs to happen, I write these on white index cards. If I actually get down to a real scene, with conflict and scene arc, I write this on a yellow card.

While it may seem my attempts to organize are getting in the way of progress, I'm proud to report that I have a fairly decent outline for about the first 6 of the 12 stages of The Hero's Journey. I've decided my heroine (a young gypsy woman, for anyone not familiar with my work in progress) has three approaches to reaching her goal, and conveniently, there is a male character/potential love interest who represents each of these approaches. Having these three different approaches gives me a lot of options when trying to fill in that "saggy middle" of the story.

But it also makes for a lot of ideas floating around, and I've found the notecards aren't always as visual as I need. So, I've stolen an idea from my friend Linda Gerber. I took three file folders, divided each in half, and then in four sections. On the left, I've written each stage of the journey, and scribble in the highlights or broad overall structure of the story (like the three approaches noted above). On the right, I stick tons of post-it notes with my ideas. This is very visual, as I can see everything at once, and I can move the post-its around as my ideas about the story develop. I'm still using the notecards too (there's not much room on those tiny post-its). It may seem complicated, but it's all working for me!

Somehow, at the end of all this, I may have a comprehensive strategy to recommend to anyone who, like me, can't seem to move forward in writing without an outline. For now, it's working for me, and it evolves as I go along. The real proof of concept will be a finished book!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Meeting With the Mentor

Have you ever had one of those moments when you suddenly know yourself for who you are?

I remember being in my Sophmore year of high school, and being the annoying kid who wanted to know what came next in the outlining format. You know:


I guess I just feel better getting all the details down, not just the high level stuff.

Of course, this desire to organize didn't flow through to all my school work. I also have a vivid memory of my Senior year research paper. It was a compare/contrast paper on The Once and Future King, by TH White and, I believe, Idylls of the King by Alfred Tennyson. I still have my original copy of The Once and Future King. But I digress.

So I spent weeks taking notes from all the reference books I checked out of the library. I had a stack of notecards, basically cataloguing every fact I'd read, but I had no idea of the structure of my paper. So there I sat, in the middle of my mother's living room, surrounded by notecards and piles of books, sobbing.

Until recently, I've been able to laugh over this image. But I now have a 15-year-old daughter of my own and I'm having more and more trouble seeing the humor in the situation.

But the point is, this is who I am. The person who loves structure, and also wants to know everything I can about whatever I research, but am not always good at putting the two things together. My husband, who never reads fiction unless I force him, is actually a good advisor. One night fairly recently, we were discussing my frustration over this whole outlining thing. How I'm able to write non-fiction documents without any trouble at all, but I just stumble all over myself trying to write a complete novel without an outline. I want to be an organic writer. One of those people who can just sit down and write, fully formed plots appearing on the page. He pointed out that this just isn't who I am. It's not how my brain works. If I'm going to do this, I'm going to have to write an outline.

I need some mentors.

There are, of course, many methods to plot a book (at least I think there must be), but after some thought last summer, before I "Refused the Call" of plotting and went back to my old, unsuccessful ways (reached my self-imposed time limit of summer's end for plotting), I determined that my story fit well with a Hero's Journey structure.

The purpose of a mentor is to prepare the hero to face the unknown. They may provide knowledge (something I definately need), guidance, or magical equipment (oh, if only it was this easy!).

Where to find my mentors? Where I always go to find new information, of course. Books! I already had a stack of books on writing. But what I needed was books focused on plotting, and story structure. And then I needed to decide where to begin. For recommendations on these books, I turned to the Compuserve Books and Writer's forum (see right sidebar). My mentors:

  • Christopher Vogler - The Writer's Journey
  • Joseph Cambell/Bill Moyers - The Power of Myth, Hero with a Thousand Faces
  • Christopher Vogler/Michael Hauge - The Hero's 2 Journeys
  • Blake Snyder - Save the Cat
  • Holly Lisle - Create a Plot Clinic
  • Robert McKee - Story

Other mentors may appear to help me out as I move along my journey. I don't plan to learn from all these mentors before I begin to write again. In fact, I've already Crossed the First Threshold. I've finished reading The Writer's Journey, and I have plans. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Refusal of the Call

I've been dancing with this plotting thing for awhile now. Longer, really, than I'd care to admit. It's a two steps forward, one giant step back thing. There is something so alluring about "organic writing" and the creativity it implies. Plus, actually writing seems so much more productive than planning what to write.

My first attempts at outlining involved stating "I'm going to outline my book", and then randomly writing down any scenes ideas that occurred to me. The problem with this approach was that (1) there was no structure; and (2) there was no clues as to what needed to go into the "blanks" to create an interesting story; and (3) my story still seemed to wander down all sorts of interesting but unfocused side paths. I needed a tool to help me brainstorm scene ideas, and some structure to help keep myself on a reasonable path, but I had no idea where to start, so I just kept writing whatever came into my head.

I thought if I kept researching, I'd be able to fill in all the holes. So I've researched. A lot.

I kept coming back to the need to outline. But still had no clue exactly what to do.

My first attempt at finding a structure, about 15 months ago, was to listen to the Christopher Vogler and Michael Hauge Audio Seminar - The Hero's 2 Journeys. Great audio "book". I wrote down lots of story ideas. But I found there were still a lot of vectors my story could go in and I guess I just wasn't ready yet to get down to the hard work. I learned a lot, but didn't really internalize it. I wasn't ready for the journey.

So I messed around a few more months and didn't make much progress. Every time I tried to write an "out of order" scene, I kept getting stuck because I didn't know what I would have already written when I got to that point in the story. I kept trying to introduce characters from scratch every time they appeared, or fill in backstory. Very annoying. Perhaps I needed to find the beginning. So I worked on that. I have several beginnings now. {g} All of them different, and probably none I'll use.

At one point last Spring, I decided I was not cut out to write a novel. It was time to quit. I mentioned this to my mother and stepfather on one of my visits. My stepfather, who is also working on a novel, implored me not to stop. He said I had inspired him to write his own novel, and I should stay with it. He offered me some software he'd purchased called The Writer's Dreamkit. I'm not recommending this. It's very prescriptive and, in the end, spits out your plot for you, including prompts for each scene. Definitely a recipe generator. But it did cause me to think a lot about my story - the archetype of the characters, the goals of my characters, the dramatic theme of my story. Maybe one day I'll create an entire post on this software. As a brainstorming tool, though, it did provide some ideas.

I was fortunate right at the beginning of summer '07 to get a Writer's Sabbatical Weekend away from my family. In that one weekend, I wrote a significant number of scenes. I made a great deal of progress. It felt good. I had some really great dramatic scenes by this time, but still no structure. In one scene, I wrote about the death of my MC's sister. But was this a climax or a Call to Adventure? Where did it fit into my story?

On a roll, I followed this with Holly Lisle's Create a Plot Clinic. A great brainstorming tool, but it didn't provide the structure I was hoping for. I fiddled with writing a few more scenes. I wrote down ideas for many more. I resolved some more character issues. But after spending the summer months brainstorming and trying to create a structure, my time ran out. I'd given myself the summer to plot, and summer was over. Back to writing.

The problem was, I still didn't have a structure, just more scene ideas. I'd given up too soon.

In the hero's journey, heroes often give up because they are not fully committed to the journey. I guess this was me. Like those heroes, I needed some other influence, some external motivator or crisis, or the help of a mentor, to move me along.

I think a lot of authors have these fits and starts. What have you done to overcome resistance and just move forward writing your story?

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Call to Adventure

I am jealous of organic writers. You know, those people who can sit down and write a story from beginning to end, seamlessly creating compelling story arcs and developing intriguing characters without breaking a sweat? Or those who can write disconnected scenes and chunks, and then connect these like some sort of invisible road map only they can see. I know the reality is different, even for these people, but it seems that there are a fair number of writers who are able to plot in their head, intuitively or otherwise, without once mapping out their story on paper. I suspect they drank less in college than I did.

When I first started working on my novel, I didn’t realize there was any other way to write a story except to just sit down and start writing it. Of course, there were a lot of things I didn’t realize about writing a novel back then, but we’re focusing on plotting here.

I’ve written quite a few scenes the organic way – just letting inspiration take me where it will. In my current novel, I probably have over 50,000 words written in scenes varying from ones I’m very proud of, to ones I wouldn’t read to my cat. The problem with this method, for me, is that without guidance my imagination tends to go off in many different directions, as if ten writers were all given a high level concept and sent out to write my novel. No matter how hard I try, the scenes I’ve written will never go together in the same book.

I need a better plan.

It’s not that I’ve wasted my time writing those 50,000 words. I’ve learned a lot about my characters and their culture and environment. The characters have evolved over time, maturing and becoming more like real people. Their lives have become more complicated. I can’t wait to tell their story.

So, uhm…how does one outline a novel?

Novelists on the whole seem to have grasped this concept intuitively. Books on novel writing tend to focus on craft, with maybe a chapter overview on the three and four act structure. There are very few novel writing books that deal with plot, structure, and how to create them. Even the writer’s conferences seem to avoid this topic. I’ve heard advice like "dissect a novel" or "use Excel" or "buy software like Scrivner or Liquid Story Binder." But none of this advice really addresses how one moves a plot from point A, where the story begins, to point Z, where the story ends.

(And for those of you who are organic writers, and are now saying "give it up!", bear with me. It’s not that I have no idea what my story is about. It’s just the scene to scene building, deciding between competing ideas part that gets me in a bind.)

But the screenwriters? They seem to have a passion for structure. Maybe it’s just because pulling apart the structure of a movie takes 2 hours, over and over a few times, until you’ve got each scene mapped out. Pulling apart the structure of a novel takes 10-15 hours, a few times, if you’re lucky and didn’t decide to analyze Outlander (Diana Gabaldon) or Pillars of the Earth (Ken Folliet) or Gone with the Wind (Margaret Mitchell).

To start my own journey of learning to plot and outline my novel, I asked around at the Compuserve Books and Writer’s forum, where most of my writing friends hang out. I received a number of recommendations: Create a Plot Clinic (Holly Lisle), The Hero’s Journey (Christopher Vogler), The Hero’s 2 Journeys (an audio seminar by Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler), Story (Robert McKee), and Save the Cat! (Blake Snyder).

Note that all but Holly Lisle’s book have a primary audience of screenwriters. But the screenwriter seem to have a lot to say that makes sense.

So, I've set myself a task - to outline my novel. Like all good heroes, I've had a few false starts. I spent last summer looking at some software my stepfather (also an aspiring author) loaned me called The Writer's Dreamkit (more later, maybe). I also worked my way through Holly Lisle's Create a Plot Clinic. Then I reached my self-appointed end-date -- the end of summer, and discovered I had a lot of new scene ideas, and a new depth of understanding about my characters and story, but still no real structure.

Several months later and I'm at it again. And this time I'm sticking to it. I'd love to discuss my process and learnings with you - so stick around!