The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible - Vladimir Nabokov

There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you - Zora Neale Hurston

30 March 2010

Be Happy Right Now

I remember when I first started reading blogs, I came across a post by Nathan Bransford that warned writers (who tend to dream about the future as much as they dream about the imaginary lives of their fictional characters) to make life their priority and not sacrifice work or family for their writing. At the time, I thought: what's with the serious attitude? Are you trying to scare us fledgling writers off? You telling us we shouldn't hold out for a dream that may never happen? Well, I'm not listening to you buddy. I want this, and I'm not giving up!

I'm still not giving up--don't worry, that's not the object of this post--but I now understand where he was coming from. Writing and learning to write better takes a tremendous amount of energy and spare time (even time you can't really spare) and there are no guarantees you'll achieve authordom, let alone the success you imagine. I've often been tempted to slack off at work to sneak in a bit of writing time, and I even gave up a sunny potential-snorkeling day last weekend to work on revisions. But I'm learning to balance my writing obsession with my life.

I still scribble book notes at 3 AM like any other writer, because I'm willing to sacrifice sleep, but I'm not willing to sacrifice time with my husband. I read, go to the movies, snorkel (I spent the whole day at the beach a week ago), and I'm about to take a few guitar lessons, not to mention the IVF I'm planning later this year after seven years of trying for a baby...The point is, life has to go on, even while you're writing, and you have to be happy right this minute if you have any hope of being happy in the future.

Natalie Whipple (in her interview at Elana Johnson's blog) said, "You have to make the choice to live as presently as possible, and be okay with things not happening when you hope they will." This is a girl who's fairly successful, represented by Nathan Bransford, and she still goes through down moods where she's frustrated with the slow pace of building a writing career. I love hearing this sort of honesty from writers. I want to know it's not all sunshine and rainbows ahead. I need to know what to expect. I say, "Bring it on", but I know the way I've got to deal with it is to have a happy life on the side.

There is plenty of scientific evidence (wonderfully summarised for lay audiences on TED--I hope that's the right link) that we all have a preset happiness level. One man, a year after winning a $350 million dollar lottery, was just as happy as a paraplegic a year after his accident. What this means to me is I won't be any more content a year after I'm published than I am right now. Therefore, I must enjoy the process of writing, learning, and getting there. Happiness starts right now.

Are you happy? Is your writing stressing you out or are other aspects of your life to blame? Is there anything you plan to do to improve the balance?

Finally, a shout out to DL Hammons at Cruising Altitude for making me feel happy and loved with the Prolific Blogger Award!

I'm passing it on to some truly wonderful (and prolific) bloggers whose energy and up beat attitude I admire: Elizabeth at Mystery Writing is Murder; Dezmond at Hollywood Spy; Mason Canyon at Thoughts in Progress; and Elana Johnson. Congrats guys! Hope I made you a teensy bit happier ?

24 March 2010


Lately, I've encountered some great posts on characters (All Write with Coffee, A Woman's Write...and others that I can't find again, sorry!). I've ended up typing paragraphs on the subject in people's comments, so I decided this might be a better forum for my long windedness.

A topic that comes up again and again is how much of your self do you put into your characters? I know one of my beta readers is always trying to figure out which character is "me". The answer, of course, is all of them. Even the villains. I'm not talking superficial traits, appearance, habits, etc. (there may or may not be some of that there)-- I mean emotions. You have to feel it to write it.

I often imagine myself with a character's history and present dire circumstances and ask, "How would I feel? What would I do?" Sometimes (like with bad guys that are way meaner than me or main characters that aren't as cool and James Bond-like as I'd imagine myself to be in their shoes) I have to do some method acting. I don't wander around the room muttering like a mad villain or anything, but I use my own experiences of anger or frustration to imagine myself as that person. Same goes for characters experiencing joy or sadness. Nothing like the memory of my old St. Bernard, Bernie, to get me sobbing like...well a girl. Once you're "in character" it's much easier to write their dialogue and actions. That's when they do things that surprise you. It's a great feeling.

Paradoxically, the most important thing a fictional character needs is honesty. Interesting characters do and say the things we hide away in the deepest parts of our subconscious. When someone comes to work wearing a hideous purple shirt adorned with giant polka dots, most of us will keep quiet to avoid being rude, maybe even grasp for a compliment. An interesting character, however, might blurt out, "My god! You're not quitting to join the circus are you? We're so far behind schedule even you're needed." That's a nasty example. Few heroes can get away with saying our worst thoughts.

Main characters need an even deeper honesty. They have to be self aware and show the reader all those internal doubts, fears, hopes, and dreams that the writer and all humanity share. How can you not feel sympathy and care about the fate of a character who has the same fears you do? A woman's child is stolen from their front yard and she's frantically knocking on every neighbor's door asking if they've seen him; you're so angry with your spouse you scream at them until they leave, and then they die in a car wreck and it's all your fault...I could go on, but those examples were getting me depressed. How about a teenager with Down's syndrome who learns flower arranging and gets a job at a local florist where he meets a girl that doesn't look at him with pity but with interest? You may not know what it's like to be disabled, but you do know what it feels like to accomplish something that seemed impossible or to experience the first stirrings of romance. The honesty of those experiences and how they are processed in your character's mind are what makes your story matter to the reader.

The problem with dredging up too much real emotion and honesty from your own experiences is that sometimes your characters come out alike; they're too you. That's why it's important to have different backstories and behaviors so you can hide that underlying "you-ness". Having a multiple personality disorder really helps with this :) Otherwise, you can borrow tidbits from other people's lives, friends, relatives, observation at the mall, people in the newspaper.... It's never a good idea to use their details entirely (a friend might recognize themselves and not like what you did with the character--ok, in my case, it was a relative), rather mix things up a bit. I have this scientist friend who truly believes that gummy bears count as a fruit because they have 10% fruit juice. I thought she was a logical person. Sometimes truth is more interesting than anything you could think up, so use it. However, I wouldn't make my gummy-bear loving character a scientist but maybe a health nut. Someone always exercising and trying the latest organic diets, so when the gummy bear thing comes up it's out of left field. Much more interesting.

Another thing (which I constantly struggle with, by the way, so any suggestions are much appreciated) your character needs in order to be a distinctive individual is a voice. This can be how they speak in dialogue, the length of sentences, vocabulary, rhythm etc., but, when it comes to a POV character, it's also how they think in their head. With some characters, I have no problem writing in a distinctive narrative voice, others end up sounding like me. The only thing I've discovered so far to help with this is to write the character's thoughts down (like a journal) in first person, even if the book is 3rd person. I make them tell me about their life until I start to hear their voice in my head.

Well, that's it. That's all I've got on this subject. What's your approach to writing characters? As a reader, what makes a protagonist sympathetic? And do any of you struggle with voice as much as I do?

21 March 2010

Guess what I've been up to...

Writing! Can you believe it? After months of having to devote extra effort to that pesky day job, I've finally got some free time for the fun stuff. I was so worried my muse would abandon me, but she didn't! As soon as I sat down for a full hour on Saturday, 1200 words poured out. They weren't bad, either. Much better than the sentences and bits of paragraphs I'd gotten down during the Dark Times (aka when I was grant writing). I've also been revising the first half of my book and dealing with those frustrating comments I left for myself: "Needs more threat"; "SHOW don't tell, stupid"; "should give this character a name..." and so on.
I'm 65,000 words in, which feels like alot, but it will be around 130,000 in the end. They don't call it epic fantasy for nothing. I also want to complete the second book in the series, so I know I can finish the story. That means another 130,000 words to go. Plus, I'm working on revisions for my last book and hoping to query Australian agents soon (I should say 'agent' as there aren't many open to new fantasy authors). AND I'm helping my husband get his dissertation on 'Art and Dyslexia' in shape for academic publication. Oh yeah, I thought it about time I did a blog post too.
Can someone out there please help me get organized? I'm feeling overwhelmed with everything that I want to do. Likely a side effect of being constrained with work for so long. Should I finish the revisions of the last book first and get querying, or should I plow ahead with the current epic while the vision is still fresh in my mind?

As for blogging, I have been speed reading people's posts, if not always commenting, but I thought it about time I stepped out of the shadows. Michele at Southern City Mysteries gave me the Beautiful Blogger Award several days ago, and I've been remiss in passing it on. Part of the reason was that I felt so flattered. I thought I needed to live up to the award, so I scribbled notes on a couple of grand topics like memoirs and forgiveness but didn't post any of them (at least not yet). In the end, I settled on the above humble progress report.

To finish fulfilling the requirements of the award, here are seven "interesting" things about me:
  1. I'm quick to anger and quick to forgive

  2. I know all of Darth Vader's lines in Episodes IV-VI

  3. Episodes I-III were SO disappointing

  4. I've become proficient at recognizing dialogue, even without quote marks, as my new Kindle often leaves them out for some reason

  5. Some colleagues were telling ghost stories about weird sounds in the building at night and one guy, in serious creepy storyteller mode, said, "...and then I heard Lorel's laugh, but she was no where to be seen..." And they all shuddered! So, apparently, I have a ghostly laugh.

  6. I wanted to be a veterinarian and did some work study at a clinic, but decided I liked animals too much to see them in pain every day

  7. same goes for why I decided not to become a medical doctor

I pass the award on to some seriously beautiful bloggers: Portio Sisco, whose posts often reflect just how I feel; Niki at Wool'n'Nuts who brightens my day with her beautiful animal photos; Jemi at Just Jemi who is so positive and seems like the sort of teacher I would have adored when I was a child; Heather at Heather's Odyssey, my long lost twin (the blonde version); and finally Crystal at Crystal Clear Proofing who is trying so hard to help all us writers with our poor grammar and spelling--a Herculean effort! I would pass this on to Michele too, who is also a beautiful blogger, but she gave it to me so that's against the rules!

Until next time...Maybe I'll post something about memoirs after all?

08 March 2010


Critiques are what we need, what will actually help us become better writers, but we can all use the occasional compliment too.

I feel energized today because my boss told me my grant proposal was the best written and best thought out series of experiments to ever come out of his lab! I suspect he's been taking management classes on how to motivate his employees, but it worked. The slog doesn't seem so bad today and the sun is shining a little brighter (it also took the sting out of him saying that I need to get more papers published).

Artists (be they writers or painters or whatever) thrive on compliments. Maybe it's because we're more in tune with our emotions. I have to critique my husband's paintings all the time, and when I tell him he's done something good--better yet if some random person on the street tells him the painting is good--then he's soaring and far more productive for months afterward. If, however, I have to admit that he didn't quite pull something off then he's in the doll drums for at least a week before he can get the motivation to go back and fix it.

Writers have to put up with a lot of criticism too (for our own good), and we wouldn't get any better without it, but there's nothing like a small compliment here and there. When one of my lovely followers says something nice in comments, I feel great and want to blog and write more. I think that's part of the reason my writing confidence has grown--this wonderful community of compassionate people. It's also why I try to compliment other people whenever I can, spread the love. We know we need criticism, and we expect it when we send something off to test readers or discuss our work in a critique group, but sometimes we just need someone to find one good thing in what we do and say "good job". With that, we can gather the energy to keep going and do better.

So, I wanted to say to all you struggling writers out there (published, unpublished, thinking about it...) good job! Keep trying, don't give up, and hold onto what you love, that's the most important thing.

Has anyone else received a compliment lately? Do you try to find something good to say to people even if you have to criticize some other part of their work? What keeps you going?

05 March 2010

The Truth

The best lies (and fiction) have an element of truth. I think this is what they mean by bringing honesty to your writing and the whole "write what you know" thing. The characters and events may be slightly altered or entirely made up, but the emotions are real, inspired by your own life or elicited by imagining yourself in the same situation as your protagonists.

For example, right now I'm at my workplace, on a Saturday, picking away at by grant in a dark little room when I just know the sun is shining outside. This (combined with the fact that I've been in caves before) makes it very easy for me to imagine an old time miner stuck underground all day, chipping away at hard stone, trying to find some valuable gem that will reverse his fortune and keep his family fed in the winter.

Since I don't want to leave you all in the dark like me (or that poor miner), I will now cast light on all those lies I had so much fun telling in my last post. The truth (in random order and aided by pics my husband enjoyed putting together) is:

#4: I saw a sea lion swallowed by a killer whale.... Lie. My husband saw this, but I've never laid eyes on a whale in the wild. I'll give partial credit to all of you who picked this one, since it is the truth, just not mine.

#5: I won $10K on Deal or No Deal and bought a Mazda2....Lie. While I do love my bright green Mazda2, I didn't win the money to pay for it on a game show. Actually, I still haven't paid for it, so maybe I should see if I can become a contestant?

#2: I was bitten by a shark...Lie. While I wouldn't mind having a cool scar, I prefer to avoid pain. I did see a small shark while snorkeling once; I freaked out and swam the opposite direction as fast as I could (which wasn't as fast as I'd have liked).

#7: My mother chases after rich men...Lie. I wish she had that good of taste! It wouldn't have taken me ten years to pay off my college loans.

#6: I thought I could get by with ancient Greek when travelling in Greece...Lie. I listened to language tapes ahead of time and carried a modern Greek phrasebook. However, there was a girl in my ancient Greek class who thought she could get an easy 'A' because she spoke Greek. There was a lot she had to unlearn, so she had a harder time than the rest of us and dropped the class after a few weeks.

#1: I was Homecoming Queen...Lie. My dyslexic husband was a first string, inside linebacker when he was in High School (in America), but I never did his homework, and I didn't get to accompany him to Homecoming because I didn't go to high school.

Therefore, #3, "I Was a Child Prodigy" is the correct answer. I'm actually quite embarrassed by this. People assume I'm smart and don't make mistakes (which is utterly wrong), but I think of it more as being precocious. I learned to read and studied like everyone else, I just did it earlier. I think I peaked earlier too. Nowadays it feels like my brain is full and can't hold anymore. I have to write everything down or forget it. I worry this means I'm getting dementia earlier too!
So, congratulations Crystal! You were the only one to guess it (although you said it disbelievingly).
Thanks everyone for your encouragement. With a 20% success rate, I need all the luck I can get with my grant writing, so this prematurely demented miner is getting back to work...See ya!

02 March 2010

First words out of my mouth...and they're lies

I have one week before my scientific grant is due at the university research office. One week. You know what I have so far? A two page outline.

Can you hear my heart beating really loud right now?

Moment of panic over. I'll be fine. There's tons of time, and the content of the outline and the gazillion research articles I read formulating it were the hard parts. The writing is easy.

I wish fiction writing was the same. Fiction writers not only have to come up with some great ideas and a believable plot, they have to weave a spell of words that draws the reader in and doesn't let them go until the last page. You can't simply say stuff; you have to say it well. On the upside, fiction is basically lying, which is tons of fun! Thus, I am giddy with delight at receiving the Creative Writer award from the sweet and lovely Niki over at Wool'n'Nuts. Even with a grant deadline looming, I've decided to come up for air and have a little fun.
The rules of this reward require me to post the pic (check), provide a link to the blog of the person who gave it to me (check--and thanks Niki!), pass it on to six other creative bloggers (will do in a second), and, the best part, tell six outrageous lies and one truth about myself. Here I am rubbing my hands with anticipation...
Six Lies, One Truth:
1. I was Homecoming Queen. I think it was because, somehow, I ended up dating the quarterback. He said he liked me for me, but I suspect it had something to do with him being dyslexic and in need of constant homework help.
2. I was bitten by a shark while snorkeling. It was a tiny one, and I lived of course, but I have a scar on my right ankle.
3. I skipped high school entirely and started college at the age of 14. I got lots of local media attention...until a 10 year old started his pre-law degree. Oh, the woe of a child prodigy--we grow up and younger prodigies steal our thunder.
4. I was standing by my dad's boat when, not three metres away, a killer whale rose onto the edge of the dock and swallowed a sunbathing sea lion whole! (btw this sea lion was bigger than me)
5. I won $10K on "Deal or No Deal" and used it to buy my bright green Mazda2 (I love that car).
6. When travelling through Greece, I thought I'd be able to pick up the language no problem; afterall, I'd studied ancient Greek in college. Turns out they're totally different languages. Thank goodness everyone spoke English.
7. My mother was drawn to rich men, marrying one after another, so I was always shipped off to my grandmother's so as not to cramp her style. At least she paid for college.
Can you guess which one was true?
Now, to pass it on to six other creative writers:
Tabitha at Through My Eyes
Tune in next time to learn whether Lorel's grant will be submitted in time, and if there is any truth to her lies...(It creeps me out referring to myself in 3rd person, so, don't worry, I won't do it again)