Writing When Life Interrupts

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Yesterday was the two-month mark for having sent out beta manuscripts. You would think I could take a two-month vacation since I’m no longer working on my current script on a daily basis, but indie authors laugh in the face of such wussy pastimes. No. I did attempt to take a week of “down time” that ended up being only a few days of relaxation that included other writing projects. But since then, I have had the “fun” of doing things like weeding the jungle growing on the retainer wall in my back-yard and having to take my pet guinea pig to the vet multiple times because he stopped eating and was (is) starving. (It’s an on-going situation, so he’s back at the vet right now. I won’t know whether we can save him or not until I hear back from them.) An avalanche of personal, family, and life issues also chose “vacation” time to crash down on me in the past two months, so I’m actually grateful I have not been trying to relax and have fun, or I would have also ended up feeling disappointed at having lost something beyond my grasp. However, I’m grateful I haven’t had the added expectations of keeping regular “office hours” during the week. Sometimes, life just sucks. We’re stuck with days where we have to be okay with not being okay. If possible, I think it’s best if we can make space for those days. For writers and other people who work at home, who are responsible for lighting fires under their own butts when it comes to productivity, we have the space, but not the time to stay in bed and hibernate when those days hit. And people with jobs that require creative productivity can suffer greatly when reality sucks the creative energy right out of you.

One of the things I’ve been doing this week is reading articles on work flow and sifting through my notes and quotes on productivity and self-motivation. There is an ebb and flow to everything in life. Work and writing are no exception. Sure, you have to work on a schedule to make deadlines, even when working at home and being your own boss. But within that framework, sometimes you can create options better suited to the ebb and flow of your energy to minimize stress. For example, today I scheduled an hour for a scene in book 6; it ended up taking two. I’m grateful the creative flow lasted that long because stress has been killing my creativity lately. So today I stayed with my muse until stomach growls reminded me I had worked through lunch to grab that extra hour of progress. But now I’m drafting this blog article around my Cup Noodles, and I can tell my creative energy is ebbing again. So, I’m looking at my planner and contemplating whether I can alter what’s next. Normally, I would be doing editing tasks after giving my best energy to creative tasks. But only two of my beta readers have returned feedback so far, so I don’t want to start doing sixth-revision edits on Dragonling until I’ve received a “consensus” on the overall content. Then I can get nit-picky about any individual typos or technical concerns they found, one feedback list at a time. So, in lieu of editing, here are some ways I push myself to keep working, even when life sucks and the energy ebb is low.

1. Lower the bar on your expectations. If your to-do list is normally 10 or more items, prioritize what absolutely MUST be done today, then pick one task — only one. Set a timer, and do it for five minutes. If you’re good to go after five minutes, do 10 more minutes. Keep building in small increments of time like that until you have finished the task or at least made reasonable progress. Progress may feel like a snail’s pace, but in tough times doing something is better than doing nothing. As a good friend once told me, “Even the mighty elephant can take only one bite at a time.” No matter how big your project, it still must be broken down into small steps. The smaller the step, the more likely you are to feel you’ve accomplished something and keep going.

2. Pick a task that is mechanical. In other words, it shouldn’t tax your critical thinking skills too much when you’re already not thinking clearly. It should be a task that’s more routine or relaxed. When writing this article’s first draft, I accepted it was just a draft. And all first drafts are usually awful. I knew it had to be revised anyway before publishing, so as long as I had the outline and gist of what I wanted to say, I let go of fretting about trying to make a first draft as perfect as possible. Today I’m able to think more clearly, so you are reading the better-organized, proofed, revised article. 🙂 … Some other examples might include answering email, looking at articles bookmarked for later reading, or researching something relative to a question I noted about the next book’s content.

3. Pick a task that isn’t emotionally taxing. Unfortunately, my to-do list yesterday included preparing some divorce paperwork and force-feeding my piggy again, which he hates, so that’s frustrating for both of us. (No, the guinea pig is not part of my “job”, but since I work at home I have to juggle publishing tasks with taking care of my fur babies just as I did with my human babies when they were young. In the case of a guinea pig who isn’t eating, that means syringe feeding him a crushed-pellet-and-baby-food slush every couple of hours to keep his digestive tract working. Guinea pigs always have to have food going through their gut or they could get very sick and could die. Since we don’t know why he stopped eating in the first place, keeping his gut working full-time is the only thing I can do for him until the vet can sedate him for the full exam, x-rays, and blood work tomorrow to see what’s going on.) Feeding my piggy isn’t optional; his health and possibly his life depends on it. Working on the divorce paperwork, however, could have been subbed for something like cleaning a corner of my office to discard things I won’t be taking with me when I move. If that’s still too emotionally taxing, maybe I could swap “divorce/move” tasks with the art project I need to finish by tomorrow evening, and save the divorce tasking for another day. Since colouring actually soothes anxiety and depression, and since colouring isn’t as taxing as sketching and detailing, finishing the art assignment might be the best choice to keep productivity going in spite of feeling emotionally drained.

4. Meditate or nap for 10-15 minutes. I am a huge advocate of meditation because it has made such a big difference in my life ever since I started doing it on a daily basis. I always start my mornings with meditation now. But as the day progresses, my eyes can start burning staring at the computer screen all day. Or my attention can drift off toward news, social media, You Tube, iTunes …. Or sometimes it’s just receiving bad news that can flip the day upside down so focusing on the task at hand suddenly seems more exhausting than running to the top of Mt. Fuji. When everything comes to a dead stop, it’s time to shut down, set my alarm, and close my eyes for a few minutes of nothing but the breath. Science backs meditation’s ability to lower anxiety, help with depression, increase focus, and improve mood. Worst case scenario, I move to my recliner in the living room, set my alarm, and nap. Research has shown that both meditation and short “power” naps have restorative effects on the body and brain. Naps shouldn’t take longer than 20 minutes, though, or they end up counter-productive, leaving you sluggish and groggy. The goal is to rest and reset, not enter REM. The recommended amount of time for a mid-day nap when you have to keep going is 10-15 minutes.

This is how I survive the work day on days when I have trouble pulling it together. I will add that sometimes music can help reset things, as long as it doesn’t interfere with concentration. I realize that right now I am fortunate to be my own boss and work at home so I can have flexible office hours when it comes to bad days. But sometimes that means making up for taking a needed break during the afternoon by working through dinner, skipping Netflix in the evening, or staying up a little later than usual to complete that day’s tasks. However, these principles of productivity can apply to other kinds of work, as well, depending on individual circumstances. What’s nice about being a writer is that even bad events can turn into good plot material, sway the outcomes of certain encounters, or provide character fodder, which not only helps you de-stress, but might improve your story in the long run. (*Ahem* I may or may not be guilty of throwing a frustration or argument or two at my writing projects after a stressful day. Under such circumstances, using bad days as story fodder may or may not be rather cathartic, too.) 😉

Author Inspirations: Anne Rice

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In browsing my archives for inspiration about what to write about this week, I noticed my “Authors” category only had one entry. And that entry wasn’t about any particular author, but about censorship — an article which referenced some favourite authors, but it wasn’t about them or their impact on my writing. Growing up, I fan-girled over two things: musicians and writers. So, for today’s blog, I’d like to throw out some thoughts and gratitudes for an author who was a very deep inspiration to me: Anne Rice.

I was late coming to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series. Though I have always been a fan of stories with vampires in them, and vampires in general, I was just more interested in other things at the time these books were on the rise. I remember when the movie Interview with the Vampire was at its height of popularity, and had seen the Queen of the Damned movie on TV more than once. The books were always on my TBR list … which is huge. I mean, half — no, most — of the books on that list never actually get read because I simply don’t have the time to devour books as an adult the way I used to in high school or college. So, it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I picked up my first Anne Rice book. And it so-happened to be The Vampire Lestat. :3

Like with so many other Rice fans, this book was instant love for me. The character, the history, the prose, the sheer depth of the philosophical pondering of the meaning of life, death, and the existence of God blew me away. This is the story that took my love of all things vampire from an interest to a passion. Since then, I have acquired every book in her Vampire Chronicles collection, and even bought a signed copy of Prince Lestat. This might not seem like a big deal to some people, but I have only three other author-autographed books in my entire library, so it’s not something I usually go out of my way to purchase.

Rice’s vampire books are so meaningful to me, partly because I can relate to her sentiments regarding questioning the whole existence of God, Heaven, Hell, angels, demons, etc. We both came from a very religious background, but then came to a point where we felt as if the politics and mythos of the church had taken a drastically different course from the teachings of Jesus. She has stated that Lestat’s quest for God was always about her own quest for God, particularly after the passing of her little daughter. She wrote the Vampire Chronicles while coping with that tragedy. Years after giving up her faith, she returned to it, saying she would never write another vampire book, and she focused on writing about the life of Jesus, instead. However, the church’s political stances on things like gay rights still bothered her, so she broke from the church again, saying that while she did believe in God, she could no longer call herself a Christian because she could not support the church’s teachings and politics on such matters. She has returned to writing vampire novels, along with other new supernatural material, and now even has a TV series based on the Vampire Chronicles in the works, which I am excited about.

So, her writing simultaneously does two things. On the one hand, her characters are deeply introspective, using their own trappings in life (and death) to try to figure out this thing we call life and call out the lies where they see them. On the other hand, the characters’ conclusions will challenge readers to examine their own beliefs and faith on such matters. Memnoch the Devil, for example, presents a view of Purgatory and Hell that is shockingly similar to my own exploratory thinking of what demons are and how the afterlife might be understood. Memnoch is probably her most controversial book in the series because of that exploration into the nature of demons and Hell.

This is all Rice’s personal, fictitious take on religious mythos, of course. While some classics like Dante’s Inferno and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress are fiction with didactic intent (the intent to teach … and in these cases the subject taught is religious morality) — no one should ever read fiction with religious themes mistaking them for theological study material. This should especially not be done to point out how “misguided” some celebrity authors are. To take a work of fiction literally misses the point of it being fiction! So, I’m sorry to have to add this cautionary note, but I know people who have gleefully used books from the Harry Potter series as examples of “real” witchcraft to condemn both the practice and the books. And you just can’t do that with fiction!

Religious morality or conviction or guilt is not the point of Rice’s books. Rice tells stories about fictitious characters in a fictitious universe where supernatural vampires are real, but their quests for truth represent Everyman’s quests for truth. Nothing more. Every person on this planet has at some point questioned what it is that he or she truly believes, or questioned why the universe is the way it is. Are we missing something important because it’s been buried under centuries of religious, political, and pop culture lies? This is an important question for the human psyche. And one of the reasons I admire Rice’s writing is that she’s not afraid to ask the difficult questions and explore the possibilities of some really tough answers.

I have corresponded with Rice briefly a few times on her Facebook page — which I must say she manages better than I imagine any author with such a diverse readership could. Every day she asks questions of or presents inquisitive articles to her fans — sometimes relative to her writing, sometimes relative to current events, sometimes philosophical. On one occasion, she asked the “People of the Page”: “Theological question: is there any theory of Christ’s Atonement, or of our living in “a fallen world” or living in “a broken world” that does not take the story of Adam and Eve and the talking serpent literally? In other words, are these most influential Christian ideas all based on a literal reading of Genesis? What are your thoughts?”

Some of her comments to other people in regards to their answers included: “I continue to maintain that the idea of a broken or fallen world, indeed an entire Christian worldview is based on a literal reading of Adam and Eve and the talking serpent. And this is not a good basis for an entire religion.” And … “… that is all very beautiful poetry, and it is typically Catholic. But it doesn’t answer my question and it does not satisfy. —– The difficulty remains: don’t all theories of bloody atonement depend on taking Genesis literally? If they do not, then what is the foundation on which they are based? Atonement for what? —– Reconciliation with what? Why? The Pope can write beautiful poetry forever and publish book after book of it. But if Christianity is based on a series of lies, that has to be dealt with. —– My question remains: what is atonement based on if not a literal reading of Adam and Eve? If not for their sin, then for what is Christ atoning? And why is atonement necessary?”

This is where I entered the conversation: “Anne, this may not be the time or place, but may I ask your opinion on a question? This is something I have never received a satisfactory answer on from any of the religious people I know. And this is what, to me, defines the core of the …Christian faith. If the blood of Jesus is the only thing that can wash away sin, and he died an innocent sacrifice (though sacrificing innocent people and animals is usually frowned upon as a sin), how can the death of an innocent (which is generally considered murder in a court of law) make sin go away? In other words, how does a wrong act cleanse a wrong? How does an innocent death make anything right? To go by that example, I would have to kill my innocent daughter in order to forgive the guilty one that broke the lamp. Why not just forgive? Why a blood sacrifice? Is it because the magic in the blood washes away the magic that is sin? Because clearly a belief in magic is involved, or this question wouldn’t even be up for debate. Maybe there is a link between these questions I seek, and your questions on taking Genesis literally.”

She responded: “…, I am not the one to answer your very challenging and interesting question: because i don’t believe in the theory of the atonement through innocent blood. I think it is something made up by theologians. But I think you are certainly right to ask and keep asking. The whole idea of bloody Atonement for me is outdated and unconvincing.”

This is a sample of the intellect, honesty, and courage that shapes her writing, and one reason why her fans love her so.

Besides her own writing, I also admire Rice for her advice on writing in general. She’s always been supportive and encouraging of indie authors and other authors who are doing their own thing. “There are no rules in this profession. Do what is good for you. Read books and watch films that stimulate your writing. In your writing, go where the pain is; go where the pleasure is; go where the excitement is. Believe in your own original approach, voice, characters, story. Ignore critics. HAVE NERVE. BE STUBBORN.” (Advice to new writers, 2009) She recognizes that not every book is for everyone, and supports the differences in genres and styles because of that. She has even taken on the bullies of the book review world — readers who give spiteful, unfair reviews of books they didn’t like, to the point of attempting to destroy the careers of their author victims. Her interest in negativity on the Internet via anonymous criticism has inspired my own interest in the matter, but if anything like that comes to her page, she shuts it down immediately. She wants respectful discussion of tough subjects, not hate-filled rants filled with contempt.

So, Anne Rice inspires me not only to think deeply through my story content (being brave enough to speak Kethrei’s blunt challenges to the religious leaders of his time, pursuing a theme like the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, or presenting political themes that are scarily familiar with what’s actually happening in current events in some ways), but also to think deeply about how I speak my mind as an author (How would I handle great disparity between readers if they argued? Would I be willing to lose readers for the sake of maintaining my integrity, since I can’t please everyone?), and to keep asking myself the difficult questions about “life the universe and everything” in my personal life, as well. I’m so grateful that I did finally get my hands on that first book and followed it to the rest of her creative works. I’m thankful to have those books in my personal library, and to have someone like her to look to as a mentor.

The Capriciousness of Creativity

Thursdays are my days for blog drafting … according to my new schedule … which fluctuates with the seasons, events, and moods in my life quite often. Yesterday, I was suffering a migraine and nausea and various other spring allergy garbage so I found myself drifting across the internet without purpose, rather than drafting this week’s blog article. It happens.

Today I am trying to rescue my very unproductive yesterday. First, I read an article on long novels in hopes that would inspire me to draft something inspiring, educational, or at the very least witty. Instead, I am writing about … not writing.

But in sifting through the drafts of my previous articles, I found one concept file that I started and didn’t finish (ironically) after watching this TED talk from author Elizabeth Gilbert on “Your Elusive Creative Genius”.

If you don’t have time to watch the video, she basically distinguishes the difference between “being” a genius (which puts a lot of pressure and stress on outstanding productivity in creative professions), and “having” a genius (which is not only the historical/etymological origin of the term, but also humanizes the creator). The word “genius” comes from Latin and originally referred to a guardian spirit or deity that watched over a person from birth … a sort of spirit guide that helps you out in moral dilemmas or situations that require intuitive wisdom, wit, or other creative problem solving methods. It is comparable to saying the creative person has a muse that inspires his or her work. The genius was not considered good or evil by nature, but was just present to inspire.

On a side note, the word “genie” has nothing to do with “genius” because “genie” is Arabic in origin. But it does come from the word “jinn” … which is also a spirit. Jinn are considered “trickster” spirits, so they are viewed as evil more often than not. But their base nature was originally considered neutral. And more interesting, the word “demon” comes from Greek “daimon” and Latin “daemon”, but also used to refer only to a guiding spirit or lesser god. In other words, “demon” did not carry any negative connotations until the Christian church started using it thus, because of their own belief that any spirit other than their own deity was evil. But I digress. 🙂

The concept here is that if creative inspiration comes to you from a factor outside of yourself, like a spirit, that creates an interesting understanding of the capriciousness of creative inspiration. Ask any writer, and you will be told the best ideas do not come to you while you are sitting at your keyboard plotting. Your best ideas will come to you when you are in the shower. Or when you are driving. Or when you are getting in bed, have the lights off, and really do not want to walk across the house in the dark to grab your notepad and pen. Your best ideas will come to you when you are as inconvenienced as possible for catching them and pinning them down into notes you can work with.

The same is true of other arts. I often see faces or creatures in rug patterns, tree shapes, rocks, and other items that make me think, “That would make an awesome sketch!” But as soon as I walk away, it’s gone. Thousands of sketch ideas have been lost from one wood pattern in my door on a daily basis. Why? Because who has a sketchpad and a pencil when they’re getting dressed or putting away laundry?

This is so common to most creatives, in fact, that it would almost be a comfort to know that there is some kind of spirit imp hanging over my shoulder, snickering at how clever he is with casting ideas out there at inappropriate times, and then jerking them back as soon as I blink. And in some cases, perhaps thinking like that can help creatives lessen their burden. If the creative ideas are external, rather than internal, what is the logical solution to jump-starting your creativity?

First of all, it gives the creative person a choice. I can choose to snatch that idea and do something with it, or I can choose to let it go and it may or may not come back to me, but I go into that choice knowing that it is my choice — knowing how capricious ideas come and go because that is their nature, so I accept that I can’t count on that idea being there for very long or coming back. I will put more effort into keeping a notepad by the bed or shower or in the car, so that I have a better chance of snatching that idea out of the air and capturing it for later use.

Second, it gives the creative person freedom. Knowing I don’t have to sit at the keyboard to brainstorm ideas means I can take a walk, go on an adventure, live my life as I normally would, but keep a writing notebook handy to jot down ideas as I go along. In fact, I’m more likely to have more ideas while doing other things, than while trying to be creative at my work space. My work space is primarily for organizing, developing, and producing those ideas … not giving birth to them.

Third, it eases the expectations we creatives have of ourselves by giving us space between what we do and who we are. If you are a creative person, you know how difficult this is because your mental health probably depends on being able to create. You might not know what to do with yourself if you can’t create. In this sense, perhaps creativity is a lot like being possessed of a little spirit, so that you and your desire to create are one. But if we cannot unplug from those expectations now and then, we burn out. And if other people expect us to be switched on all the time, they will be disappointed when one creative project succeeds, but the next fails. It’s as if we failed, but really it’s just that human beings can’t be switched on all the time. No profession or individual can do this and maintain good health. I often say I AM a writer because it’s such a part of me that I can’t NOT design new story ideas or characters in my head. But even I have moments when I have to put the writing aside to get other stuff done. In those moments, I need to be able to cage the spirit and cover it, or I won’t be able to function in day-to-day life. If you are a creative person, you are probably nodding along because you have lived this, too. You get it.

So, the next time your creative genius flies off and leaves you high and dry for ideas, maybe try to reconsider it as a blessing. It’s a chance to rest. It’s an opportunity to leave your desk jockeying position and do something else that will invite your muse to return under better circumstances. And it’s a chance to prepare your living space to work in-sync with his capricious nature.

My Muse
My muse doodles a lot. 🙂

Look at that! A blog article born from the lack of inspiration for writing today’s blog … 🙂 I think I will thank the genius sitting on my shoulder for rescuing me today and give him the weekend off from writing, so that I can come back on Monday with fresh energy and ideas.

Joys and Disappointments of Re-Reading

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Image Source: OpenClipart by bf5man

Last week I did a book review for 1984 — a book which I stated having already read four times. I read an article this morning that made me think a little more deeply about why some of us re-read some books and not others. Is there any benefit in reading something more than once? Spoilers aren’t the only disappointments that can go along with multiple readings. The answers to why someone would re-read a book probably vary as much as people and the books they choose to read. But I was curious, so jotted down some of my own reasoning.

Disappointments

Let’s start with the obvious disappointment — spoilers. The reason I don’t re-read most books (or re-watch most movies) is because I already know what’s going to happen. I can NOT know what’s going to happen. So, the element of surprise, the plot twist, the freshness of getting to know new characters, the shock of losing a character, the absolute immersion of that first read is forever lost after the initial curiosity has been explored and satisfied. It’s a wonder anyone purchases any book or film based on that alone. Checking them out at a library or renting a view from Netflix will do for most one-time stories.

Another category of disappointments might be more personal. Perhaps I outgrew a book I loved as a child. Perhaps my ideology changed. Perhaps my education or life experience turned me in a different direction. It’s hard to appreciate fairy tales or romances in which the prince and princess live “happy ever after” when facing divorce because “forever love” becomes as credible a concept as unicorn poop. A doctor might read about a fictional wound and be critical of the author’s lack of real medical knowledge. Or a scientist might point out a flaw in a sci-fi or fantasy setting. Or perhaps a white author’s attempt to portray a black character is handled in a way that the reader finds offensive. These little annoyances can often be forgiven during initial reads because we’re distracted by other stuff going on, or we were too young or inexperienced to know or care. But as we grow and change, details like that can get under the skin like a pebble trapped in a shoe.

The third kind of disappointments with re-reading can be more mundane, namely time and energy. If my time and energy are limited, then I have to make choices about what I read, how much I read at a time, and consider why I’m reading it so that I can prioritize. I used to spend my high school summers lying in the backyard with a stack of sci-fi library books because the only reading I could do during the school year was school related. Summer was for MY reading list, and aside from part-time jobs, I had all the time in the world to delve into imaginative worlds. Now, I can barely squeeze in 30 minutes before bed, and even that’s not a guarantee every night. Do I really want to spend my precious 30 minutes re-reading something I’ve already read, rather than exploring something new? And if I’m tired, can I stick with it if it’s not fresh?

Joys

In spite of the reasons for not bothering to read books a second time … I do. I think perhaps the main reason for this is because I grew up loving books as if they were best friends. I’m an only child and spent most of my childhood reading, writing, drawing, and making music to keep myself entertained without having to rely on other people. Later I added language and culture studies to my alone-time interests. I went to the library once a week and came home with — literally — armloads of books, some that that were new, others that I had already read multiple times. I handled them with care, never dog-earing a page, never writing in them, never letting them get wet, always returning them on time … so that they would be there when I wanted them again. I was a member of several book clubs in and out of school, and I looked forward each month to receiving my little cardboard box in the mail or ordering through the Scholastic catalog. Books were treats, fond memories, comforts always there for me, even when people were not. I kept some of those book club favourites, and looking through them now is like looking through a family photo album. I can remember how old I was, where I lived, and what my interests were during my first read. Growing up, it becomes harder to make time for old friends, but familiarity and comfort are probably my number one reasons for keeping old books and reading them more than once.

My second most prominent reason for re-reading is depth. This is what applies to re-reads like 1984. My first read was in high school, and it was assigned, and it was taught with a particular political and religious bias because of the school I attended. I appreciated this book because it was a good dystopian story, but admittedly, most of the details were memorized for a test or writing a book report. When I had to read it a second time under college direction, my personal circumstances had changed. I realized much of the first read went over my head. And my disposition in life was different by then for a number of reasons. It felt like I was reading a hidden layer underneath the obvious one. I liked that. I was seeing things that made me pause and re-think interpretations I’d been taught. I was seeing parallels to other books and historical or current events. The third time I read the book, I was the teacher, so I dug even deeper. And this most recent fourth read went even deeper still. Every time I read this book I see a new layer of details and intangible subject matter. Books that evoke that kind of response deserve to be called classics and should be read more than once.

But perhaps the best reason for re-reading a book is the most simple: fun. It doesn’t have to be a childhood favourite or a literary masterpiece. Sometimes if it was fun the first time, it can be fun again for the same reasons you found it entertaining in the first place. Really that is the ultimate reason why we read fiction in the first place — for entertainment. If the book does nothing more than that, it has still done its job of providing a pleasant activity for a short time. Fandoms are built upon this kind of devotional investments in fictional worlds and characters. And in non-fiction, inspirational, practical, or academic refreshing of knowledge is always beneficial. I am currently reading Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You, and I can already tell I will be re-reading that one many times over for the remainder of my life. It’s so relative to me, personally.

If my forever home could have a floor-to-ceiling, grand library to keep all the books that I ever loved, I’d probably never use any other room in the house, except to eat, sleep, and shower. Realistically, I know I’d never be able to re-read that many books. I’d be desperate for new material, so why I hoard old books is a mystery to me. But every room in my current house has at least one bookshelf filled with books that I have either re-read, or that I intend to “someday” re-read. Some I hang onto for reference. Others I hang onto for memories and pleasure. And when I move into my next home, though it will be much smaller, I know I will have a hard time parting with many of my favourite books due to lack of space. I can’t imagine not having books available for re-reading.

Character Interview: Shei, The Bard

So, here it is February and The Dragonling still has not been placed in the hands of beta readers yet. My apologies to those waiting on it. There were many “life” distractions in December and January that slowed me down, including a bout of bronchitis that morphed into THE VIRUS FROM HELL. I was sick for 8 weeks with a deep chest congestion that simply would not go away! All the while, we had visitors, tons of snow that had to be shoveled (which takes time away from writing when it’s 1-2 hours at a time and multiple times a day), holiday stuff, and then January hit the ground running in some sort of surreal alternate universe that I can’t even begin to understand or explain. Oh, and the brakes gave out on the car. So, that was a week in the shop with its own interruptions and delays.

Meanwhile, I was also trying to read through all four previous books looking for inconsistencies that needed correcting or plot threads that might have been accidentally dropped, and I didn’t finish the last one until just a couple of weeks ago. All I can say is … life happens. Focus is lost. Productivity goes down. In my opinion, even when production lags, quality should come first. So, rather than rushing to finish, I am still checking notes from the other books against this one to be sure they have as much credible consistency as I can muster. I am now looking at March for beta reads, April for final edits, and May for publication.

To make up for the delay, I thought I’d have a bit of fun with posting something character related. Social media question games have always been around, but lately they’ve been used as a diversion from all of the bad news. In looking up character interviews, I found an interesting list here (http://thewritepractice.com/proust-questionnaire/) from Marcel Proust. I was surprised to see these little parlor games have been around since the 1800’s!

So, one of my most “entertaining” characters is Shei, a light elf bard. I know he’s in the middle of a dreadful dilemma right now in The Dragonling, what with being possessed by K’tía’s ghost, receiving terrible news about his father, and being a wanted fugitive that a bunch of dragons want to roast because of his friendship with Trizryn, but let’s show him one of these human inventions called a computer and see how he might answer one of these questionnaires. And if you’re a writer having trouble developing a character with depth, try interviewing them like you would a real person. Test out their voice to see how they might answer.

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Image Source: Melody Daggerhart — my Skyrim game screenshot. I put Shei in my Skyrim game to do the Bard’s College quests. Here he’s decked out to find a flute in a necromancer’s cave. What fun for him, eh? 🙂 … (Not!)

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Not being chased by dead things. Or dragons. Or necromancers who conjure dead things and release trapped dragons.
What is your greatest fear?
Did I mention dead things? Well, except for Triz. But he’s only half-dead and doesn’t try to kill me. Mostly.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Distractability. Is that a word? Why is it showing up red in your spellcheck? Ooh, Spellcheck is showing up red, too. What? Oh. Questions. Right.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Disloyalty. There’s nothing worse than a traitor.
Which living person do you most admire?
Trizryn. Wait, does he qualify as living? Anyway, he’s been through a lot, so it’s hard for him to trust people. But I admire his courage for continuing to try.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Clothes. Did I just admit that? Clothes. I look great in them, don’t I? 😉
What is your current state of mind?
Excited to explore a new world. Sorry. Can’t say more than that. Spoilers.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Abstinence. Of anything.
On what occasion do you lie?
To protect my friends, I’ll do anything.
What do you most dislike about your appearance?
You’re joking, right?

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Another Skyrim capture of Shei and his housecarl camping in the snowy woods. Shei is a Thályn elf, or light elf, or forest elf. The forest elves in my novels are white as snow with blue undertones. They are named so because of their affinity to light environments and visible, elemental magic.

Which living person do you most despise?
Ilisram. ‘Nuff said.
What is the quality you most like in a man?
Non-pretentiousness. Ironic, coming from someone like me, yes? Well, there’s a difference between entertaining people or having to pull off disguises and trying to be tough all the time to impress other people.
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Sincerity. I suppose that’s the same as non-pretentiousness, isn’t it? (And you thought I was going to say barrels.) 😉
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
All of them. I’m a story-teller and lore master, so I’m sure I’ve used every word more than once.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Dare I admit this? … K’tía. But that will never happen, now will it.
When and where were you happiest?
Oh, definitely pre-dead things and dragons.
Which talent would you most like to have?
There’s a talent I lack? Clearly you’ve never seen me perform an illusory painting with my lute.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I guess I tend to make light of things at the wrong time sometimes. That might be good to curb before someone slaps me.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Writing songs that made K’tía smile and sing and dance.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
Someone that doesn’t die? … No! Nevermind. That’s a wish that’s bound to end up cursed. Hairbrush. Hairbrushes are good.

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Shei is a bard, and I am in love with this Skyrim mod home for him. It’s very similar to what I imagine his flat in Thálynessa having looked like, except it’s not made of wood or in a tree. Still, it’s very small and packed with things he would love. It’s called “The Rookery” by Elianora, if you happen to be a Skyrim fan with a bard who needs a good home.

Where would you most like to live?
I’d like to go home. To my ratty little flat in Thálynessa near the Twin Stags Tavern, mind you — not Brinnan. Though there’s nothing left of either of them now probably.
What is your most treasured possession?
My hair.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Having no friends or family to lean on when you’ve lost yourself.
What is your favorite occupation?
Making music. Telling stories. Reading. Painting. … Anything that can make people smile and forget their worries, however briefly.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Vanity. Charm! (shoves Trizryn away for reaching over the keyboard when he should be minding his own business)
What do you most value in your friends?
Loyalty. Sincerity. Same as before. I know who will never let me down. And I know I’d be crushed if they ever did.
Who are your favorite writers?
You mean among humans? Shakespeare. He wrote about magic and faeries. And he visited the fae court once. Aija doesn’t believe me, but he did. How else do you think he got those ideas for Midsummer Night’s Dream?
Who is your hero of fiction?
I have many heroes, not just one.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I am unique. Trust me.
Who are your heroes in real life?
My friends. They are courageous beyond measure, especially when they’re weak.
What are your favorite names?
I like mine just fine. It means “hill spirit” in Thályntól.
What is it that you most dislike?
Spider goo flooding your face is unpleasant. So are dead things.
What is your greatest regret?
Not being underground in Absin’navad when I was needed most. Not being able to help K’tía.
How would you like to die?
What kind of question is that? What is this obsession with death? How many times do I have to tell you I don’t like dead things!
What is your motto?
Well, I would say “Grab not, get not,” but that’s not really how I operate. It just sounds good and pithy. My motto would be … “Seize the Day … but only if it doesn’t involve dead things.”

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Bards are challenging characters to work with, I think. If they are supposed to be charming, you have to write for them in a manner that actually makes them charming. Their skills are subtle, so the plot needs to make use of them as entertainers, sweet talkers, spies, assassins, and more. And they are handy for providing information to other characters if any kind of lore is involved among their talents … as well as maybe playing to the tavern crowd to earn a free room when your crew is short on change.

Plotting Intentions

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One way to enjoy peace of mind: expressing appreciation for moments of joy, little pleasures, and what we already have. Gratitudes come in many shapes and sizes.

Usually at this time of year, I am making resolutions. This time, I decided to write down my intentions because two of the things I rely on to keep myself sane used that word. It made me pause to look up the difference. After all, words are my business.

A resolution is “a firm decision to do or not do something; the act of solving a problem, a dispute, or a contentious matter.” An intention is “an aim or a plan; the healing process of a wound.” On the surface they may seem the same, but do you see the difference? To me, the difference is forced victory versus goals and healing. The first follows whatever means is necessary to reach the end goal. The second plots goals every step of the way, gently, with foresight, and emphasizes the means even though the end goal is still a positive resolution. The first is not concerned with a healthy outcome, just a finished one. The second approach is more holistic, integrating both the peace of mind about the journey and the destination.

So, this year, I am setting my intentions on peace of mind. I intend to explore the many ways I can achieve peace of mind because 2016 was such a rough year. I was saying just the other day I know I’m not the only one who feels as if I was run over by a large truck multiple times, then dragged to the top of a cliff and thrown over, only to be dragged to the top and thrown over again … and again. So, this year, whatever challenges it presents, I need a stronger mind and body. I feel peace of mind will lead to both. It’s not a final or finite destination, but a path I want to journey.

This past weekend, I had a conversation with someone who was having trouble plotting, and it made me realize that this is relative for writers, as well. Many people tend to see the plot as the end of the story, but it’s actually ONLY the means. The end is the objective or goal. The plot is the path that gets your characters from the beginning to the end. And that can be done many ways. So, if you set your intentions on ending your story, you must start with an objective or goal for your characters to accomplish. Once you have your goal, THEN you can plot points on how to reach it. Just like in real life when you start a project, you have to know what you want in the end, and then buy the materials, break it down into steps, and work on it little by little.

This doesn’t mean the plans can’t change. Nor does it mean the ending will turn out the way you originally thought it should. I’m a big fan of Bob Ross, and I love how he repeatedly points out there are no mistakes in the joy of painting, only happy accidents. So in stories and in real life, when things don’t go according to plan, it pays to be flexible and consider detours as part of the journey. Again, this is where intention is different from resolution. Resolution is often very unforgiving. If we set out to lose weight, but then eat a whole pizza, we may feel like we have to start over because our clean slate was ruined. If we plot a course toward an end for our characters, but then we hit writer’s block, we may wish to trash the whole thing and doubt our abilities to write anything at all. However, if we intend to lose weight, we can plan for pizza and chart our successes and failures because having more successes than we did last year is a successful improvement toward our goal, too. If we intend to write that novel, but can’t figure out how to conquer plotting, we can change the plot to have the characters “fail” that particular quest and come up with something better because road maps can detour onto many off-roads and still reach a meaningful destination.

The reality is no one is perfect. Failure happens. It’s inevitable. Therefore, what’s important is that we learn and heal and get back up again … and again. One of my favourite Japanese proverbs is 「七転び八起き」/ “nana korobi ya oki”/ “fall down 7 times; get up 8.” This is the difference between resolution and intention. This is the difference between fretting over plots and setting goals.

I wish all of my readers, my fellow writers, my friends, my family, and anyone reading this today a happy and healthy 2017. May your goals be reachable by many paths. May you find many ways to enjoy peace of mind. May you forgive yourself, get back up, and try again, no matter how many times you fall.

 

My Favourite Chameleon

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Cover art for Diamond Dogs album by David Bowie

I should be doing my budget and several other dozen tasks this morning, including working on the next scene for Erys in the fifth book of the Elf Gate series. But I can’t. I woke to the news that one of my favourite chameleons has passed away. Someone else called him a “unicorn too cool for this universe”, and I really like that description, too. But I relate to him as a chameleon. No matter how you remember David Bowie, he was a unique and magical talent. So, I have to follow my heart today and write about him before I can move on to non-magical things … like budgets.

I can count on one hand the number of celebrities that I shed a tear for upon hearing that they were no longer with us in this world. The day that John Lennon was shot, I felt sick to my stomach. Everyone I knew probably knew I was a big fan of his, so the shock that ripped through me upon hearing of his murder, and the fact that I cried like a baby for the rest of the day, probably was no surprise to anyone. Lennon’s music had a profound impact on my life. The loss of Robin Williams was the second time I cried for a life that touched mine personally without ever having known the man on a personal level. I thought at first the news was a cruel hoax, but when I found out it was true, I felt heartbroken. Again, I was a huge fan, but this was a different kind of sadness — a deeper kind of sadness because I had spent my whole life dealing with depression and suicide issues. I had tried to take my own life the same way he succeeded at taking his. I couldn’t understand why someone would murder a musician, but I could understand why a comedian would hide his pain until he couldn’t take living any more. Sadly, I must now add David Bowie to my list of “heroes lost”. And this surprises even me.

I am not what most people would consider to be a David Bowie fan. And yet I guess I am because his loss hurts. I was never truly dedicated to his music, but as I look back, I see now that he was like some kind of milestone marker for me. (Please click on the links to enjoy the memories I’ve been sifting through today.)

Though I was a small child at the time, I can remember seeing David Bowie sing on TV with Bing Crosby in a Christmas special. The song they sang — a blend of “Little Drummer Boy and Peace on Earth” — is now a holiday classic I still listen to every year from CD.

Space Oddity” is probably the first David Bowie song I remember hearing and knowing, “This is David Bowie.” But it is the Diamond Dogs LP that made me pay attention to the singer more than the songs. The older sister of one of my school friends played it during a visit, and I was mesmerized by that freakish cover art. I remember thinking something like, “Wow, here’s a guy who’s not afraid to be himself … or anything else that strikes his fancy.”

Maybe it’s because I also became a chameleon, and I could easily look to him as one of the first people I was aware of who fluidly and successfully reinvented his appearance over and over. Whether in costume or fashion, he wore his art and owned it. And I can appreciate artists who make their appearance and persona part of their performance, especially those who don’t fear androgyny. When I lived in Japan and came across complaints from westerners on the Internet about J-rock artists dressing in such outlandish costumes, or men dressing like women, David Bowie was among the names I pointed out in western culture for having made “glam rock” a popular thing, and Ziggy Stardust being the perfect example how all-encompassing a show or performance could be when presenting fantasy-element entertainment or using music to tell stories. (i.e. “Rock operas” anyone?)

Maybe it’s because when when he sang about “changes” or being “under pressure” the lyrics hit a little too close to home for me. Stuff was happening in my personal life that made me listen to such songs over and over and over again … because the music was deep, powerful, and relatable.

Or maybe it’s because I’ve always been a dedicated fan of the fantasy genre and was among the millions hooked on the portal tale about traveling to another realm and meeting a goblin king. The first time I saw a commercial for the “upcoming” movie Labyrinth advertised, I immediately wanted to see it. It was my kind of movie.

Or maybe it’s just his cheeky sense of humour that shows up in songs like “I’m Afraid of Americans” with Trent Reznor , and clips like this from Extras with Ricky Gervais. … Maybe it’s all of the above and more.

One thing I know for sure. The world has lost a versatile, unique talent the likes of which were never seen before. Fortunately for us, David Bowie’s influence lives on through the magic of his arts … just like stardust.