Retreating to Reconnect

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

A view of the lake and connecting waterway.

April and May are reflective times of year for me. I often dwell on goals and achievements still unreached so I can set new goals, prioritize, and move forward. Interestingly, it has become a time to reconnect with past publishers. Not quite a week ago, I received an email from an educational publisher I worked with regularly for many years. The same happened with another publisher about a year ago. It’s even more interesting (and amazing) that this happened just before I left for a retreat and—perhaps due to the events/activities at the retreat—I received a

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

Beautiful banyan trees all around the property.

new assignment from this company two days after I returned home.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Arriving at the retreat house.

Feeling pulled in many directions and needing a moment (or many) of clarity, I made last-minute plans to car pool with a small group of friends also headed to Our Lady of Florida Retreat Center on the east coast. It was the best weekend I’ve had in five

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like "monks" holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

Inspiring architecture. Columns look to me like “monks” holding up the roof and floor of the dormitory wings.

years. (That’s about the time my father became so ill and much of my time centered around writing, teaching, and getting meals to him, or simply spending time with him.) I needed the break. I needed the peace, the fellowship, the downtime (no WiFi and I chose to limit phone use). I had time to think through life (and writing) puzzles and returned home restored and ready to reconnect—on a fresh frequency.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

What I saw at the top of stairs before turning left toward my room.

Those who follow my writing and workshop info know that I am drawn to nature to recharge. The grounds of this retreat center were beautiful. So was the architecture and art throughout the retreat house, dormitories, and grounds. I came away fed–physically, mentally, and spiritually. I cannot wait to go back!

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A Sense of Place: The Power of Observation

I don’t know exactly how it began, whether it was training for my goal to become an author or not, or due to journalism classes in which we focused on the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, why), but I notice details everywhere. The pattern of tile in grocery store. The flap of wall covering coming down in the corner of a room. The cut design of crown molding or the texture of plastered walls. The color of front doors, or a burst of color in flowering shrubs in landscape.crown-molding

These are important to writing because one such detail can provide a clue about a character or situation. When I was a new writer, I carried around a notebook and recorded names of people and streets and towns. I recorded brief scenarios and and bits of dialogue because I was told to. As a writer it was important, but I didn’t really “get” how this was going to help. Then the little things I noticed of someone’s home (such as those listed above) just appeared in a draft. They were brief and,like using an analogy, helped paint an image in the reader’s mind.

big-shoes-to-fillSoon I began noticing the things people did that hinted at their emotions or personality. The nervous clicking of a ballpoint pen, or the jiggling of a leg. As I began to teach, it was fun to notice how people controlled personal space—clutching a backpack on their laps, spreading books across the table into the next seat’s space, parking rolling bags in the aisle so no other student can easily pass to the seats behind. While I’m sure some of these students did these things unconsciously, I found them curious and intriguing and they provided insight into the anxiety these students must have felt (I taught remedial English and pre-comp writing and after the first class at least one student nervously approached to inform me he or she was “mistakenly placed” at this level. Sadly, they were not.)

Such details for both a setting and a character SHOW a lot. All can be provided in few words. They enrich the story. Now I cannot seem to turn off this observation. I often look around at the people, decor, and objects in a restaurant even as I carry on a conversation with those I’m with. It’s filed in my mind, even if I don’t pull out my writer’s notebook to jot them down.

blackbird-amcr7Sometimes a detail I notice triggers the next scene for one of my WIPs or an entirely new story idea. For instance, as I sit at a café a cacophony of crows (or some such bird) is out of my line of sight but not my hearing. They sound as if they are having a discussion, an argument, with a back and forth volley of calls that sound like a gruff “haha-ha” punctuated with a single “awk-awk.” This might trigger a fanciful children’s story or suggest the cadence for dialogue in a current story. Since it’s beginning to get on my nerves, it’s gone on long enough, it reminds me that the back-and-forth of dialogue shouldn’t drag on the reader. It’s a reminder to limit and ensure the dialogue adds to the story.

What details do you notice that can slip into a story to make it feel more authentic? For some writers it’s easier to practice with people we know well. What mannerisms offer insight into their personalities? For other writers, the unknown is an easier place to begin noting details that help show both place and personality. Whichever type of writer you are, take this challenge: For 3-4 hours, note at least one detail about every person or place you encounter. Once you begin, it becomes easier. Expand the length of time and the number of details (2, 3, 5?), or at the end of the day make a list of each new place and person and include as many details about each as you can recall.

Soon, these observations will become second nature and filter into whatever you are writing. Feel free to leave comments about how this challenge has improved your writing.

Notes of Spring in the Air

IMG_0184This morning I woke from a restless dream but once I inhaled the fresh and dewy air and heard the birdsong, I felt renewed. Memories of the dream evaporated on the wind. It’s no wonder I push my writing students to incorporate sensory detail into their stories and memoir—it is something I notice in my everyday life. Scent and sound are especially important to me and these are two of the little used senses in prose. Too often writing focuses on the visual. Sure, it paints a picture, but to give a sense of a situation, the reader needs more—and sound, scent, or taste can provide it.

I especially love spring mornings. This is the time of year in Florida when the greens are varied shades and vibrant from morning dew. The air is fresh and clean, and the winds are gentle, warm, and dry. A nest of squirrels live in the pine tree near my lanai screen and as they scurry from the branches to the trunk, the bark crackles.

IMG_0183This morning, though, the scent is less pleasant than usual. We had heavy rain showers most of the day yesterday and so my first few breaths smelled like worms. This is not entirely bad; it reminds me of where I grew up in Michigan. The wormy scent soon subsided but a lingering fishy odor wafted up from the huge pond along the golf course. Thankfully, after only a short time, the wind replaced this with the scent of rich loam, wet earth, which again reminds me of home.

Somewhere nearby, a spring-break visitor is either playing music or has his or her cellphone on speaker. The sound is faint, like murmuring, but I know it’s not a neighbor’s TV because it wavers as if this person is walking (likely around the pond).

IMG_0277I’ve lived here long enough to tell when the clink of a golf club from the 3rd tee is a solid stroke. If not, I’ll hear a clunk, thwup, or ping. If the palms and pine trees didn’t hide the tee, I might be able to connect those sounds with where the club struck the ball.

But these observations, noted as I drink a cup of dark French roast, do not merely help me wake. They prime the creative pumps. Whether I record these sounds and scents in my journal or not, they WILL make their way into my stories and personal experience pieces. Because they provide more than just the visual, they will enrich the scene. Sound and scent and taste (when that can be woven in) add depth to a scene and sometimes clues and hints about a character’s personality.

So listen to the world around you and note the details. Inhale deeply and note the scents and odors. Now draw on these details when you’re writing. Your readers will thank you.

After the Draft

Many new writers confuse editing with revision. Editing is one of the later stages and is focused on cleaning and polishing of your prose. During this stage you (try to) catch typos, misspellings, incorrect grammar, and ensure you have clean presentation (check formatting) and have carefully followed the guidelines for your submission. Editing is often completed by someone at the publishing house. But it should also be completed by the writer and is often possible in a single pass.

onestepattimeRevision, on the other hand, comes a bit earlier in the writing process than editing. It is also completed in numerous passes and/or various attempts. During writing workshops when someone asks, “How many times do you revise?” I tell them it depends. I revise as many times as it takes to ensure it’s clear and the best prose I’m capable of writing at this point in my career. This is never what the participants want to hear but it’s a reality of the writing world. If you want to publish, this is what you do.

It helps to think of revision as “rethinking” your story. Now that you have your draft–your story framework and basics–on paper, you can shape it, like clay; refine and rework it as you ask yourself questions about characterization, point of view, use of dialogue and detail. Perhaps you’ll even try a different approach in plotting or viewpoint for a scene or two. Revision is about refining but also developing and deepening the story so the reader has the best possible experience.

not-writejpgMost writers break revision into section or passes. How you approach it is up to you; it depends on your creative approach. Some writers draft and then revise a bit, draft and then revise, but eventually, they reach a point where they are focused on reshaping and rethinking (rather than adding chapters and pages to the manuscript). I’m in the camp of getting a complete draft on paper and then playing around with the writing elements, expanding and deleting scenes, rethinking, shaping, looking at the draft with fresh eyes: re-visioning.

REVISION CLASSES:
If you’re ready to learn more about “looking again” at your draft and revising, I have a revision class starting Wednesday, October 28 through ACE (Adult and Community Education) in Naples, Fla. Find details on my website workshops page.

Scent-sational Holidays

It’s no wonder I focus so much on sensory detail in my writing workshops (and in my writing) since I naturally key into sound and scent. I was reminded of this as I decorated for the holidays. It’s not just the tradition of listening to Christmas carols while we decorate either.

musicalMost of my ornaments and decorations trigger childhood memories, especially those items given to me by my mother, so decorating turns into time for nostalgia. But this year I realized that many of the ornaments make sounds–bells are most common–and I have more than a few decorations with wind-up music boxes that play tinny versions of Christmas carols. Many of the decorations also include potpourri or scented candles. I recall my college days when bayberry candles were a staple of gift giving and I still buy that scent for holiday candles.

This year, as I miss my father, I find myself also missing my mother and have been flooded with memories of her holiday preparations. These began with baking (and freezing cookies) in early November. While we were at school, she began baking and decorating dozens of pinwheels and sugar cookies. I still love the smell of entering a house and smelling the mild scent of crisped sugar, nutmeg and vanilla, with undertones of chocolate. There were always nibbles of cookies (which she claimed got broken or burned) as after-school snacks.

pumpkinpiesAs Thanksgiving neared, the scents of apples, cinnamon, pumpkin, and spices from pies and quick breads greeted us after a long day of math, science, social studies, reading, and holiday crafts. But my favorite days were those a day or two before Thanksgiving when the tang of tart cranberry sauce and brown sugar and cinnamon sticky buns wafted from the kitchen.

cookiescoolingAs December’s snow and chill took hold, holiday preparations continued but the scent of baking now mingled with the odors of Thanksgiving leftovers and hot, nourishing but easy meals such as vegetable soup or beef stew. They simmered all afternoon while Mom wrapped gifts to hide under her bed and at the back of her closet. Progress made daily for holiday magic to happen.

By the time school let out for Christmas break, we children were banned to the basement to play, and it was the perfect opportunity to sneak frozen cookies from the freezer in the corner. While I served as lookout, my brother peeled back the plastic cover of Mom’s massive Tupperware container and nabbed a few cookies. We shared them, breaking off pieces and savoring the chewiness the of mouth-thawed treats and tried to find the willpower not to sneak another and another. Oh, she always noticed that at least a dozen cookies were missing (by the time she pulled them out late on December 23rd), but it never prevented Santa from arriving to deliver presents to the cookie thieves.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays.

Though I’ve updated the traditions of which cookies and quick breads to bake, I do make sure to have a pot of soup simmering in my slow cooker and fresh dinner rolls rising and baking as I put up the tree and untangle the lights. Sausage, carrots, and lentils mingle with the yeasty scent of rolls and the lingering aromas of cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon as well as the tinkling of glass bell ornaments. It wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

So, when you’re writing, pull out the memories and use them as a springboard for ideas and events in your current project. Even if you’re writing fantasy fiction, consider what holidays your characters celebrate, how they react to them, what their happy (or unhappy) memories about them are, what they would change if they could. And don’t forget to focus on sounds and scents as you write those scenes.

Happy Holidays, and happy writing!

Distracted by Mother Nature

Creek in the woods, northern Michigan (lower peninsula)

Creek in the woods, northern Michigan (lower peninsula)

Nature inspires me. It has since I was a child playing on dirt mounds surrounding the newly dug basements in my subdivision playground and exploring the fields and woods down the road. Last night I was inspired by the lunar eclipse.

They’re calling it the Blood Moon because this eclipse makes the moon appear reddish orange. (It’s also part of a tetrad–4 such events this year and next.) Reading about this phenomenon in the past few days has caused me to think about a YA fantasy WIP rather than complete revisions on an MG historical novel. (Again, Mother Nature distracting me.)

I’m glad I got to see this lunar eclipse though it wasn’t as “blood read” as I

Blood Moon April 15, 2014 via RT.com http://on.rt.com/el2l6s

Blood Moon April 15, 2014 via RT.com http://on.rt.com/el2l6s

expected. To me it looked more blush colored. But, I was fascinated by the up-wattage of the surrounding stars. I usually have a hard time seeing most of the constellations in the city, but not at 3:15 a.m. this morning. Good thing I got up to take a peek at Mother Nature’s nocturnal display.

That didn’t work out the way I’d planned, either. I originally set my alarm, based on a report I’d seen that this phenomena would be visible around 3:30 and 4:30 a.m. Then I fell asleep watching TV and woke around 3 a.m. Still half asleep, I noted that it seemed rather dark outside and that it was best to wait for the alarm to wake me — if I would even hear it. I powered off the TV and stumbled to bed but couldn’t settle. A nagging thought told me to get up and look out the picture window. I tried to ignore it, telling myself I still had 30 minutes to sleep.

I’m glad I listened. It was amazing and I fell asleep thinking, this is what Kaelyne sees one night on her quest — and this is how she knows she is close to a hidden magic only she can uncover.  I woke again around 4:20 a.m. and again that inner voice nagged at me until I got up to look again. The bright white moon was a crescent along the bottom of the eclipse but still the surrounding constellations where extra bright. They, along with the edge of visible moon, seemed to glow more intensely than ever.

This time I went back to bed thinking of a different project–Kaia on her SF world–and lapsed into vivid dreams about both settings. I’m glad I experienced this event, though it will frustrate my critique group. (They wish I’d stick to just one project at a time.) What can I say? “Please excuse the inconvenience. This round of revisions has been interrupted by a message from Mother Nature.” Based on what I’ve drafted, the distraction was worth it!

May you each find and draw inspiration from whatever source spurs on progress. Happy writing!

Listening In for Motivation

As a writer, incorporating sensory description is important to me. I’m partial to those frequently overlooked senses: hearing, smell, and taste. I seem to zero-in on sounds and scents. I wake every morning joyful to hear birds singing outside. Now that it’s cooler, I love opening the windows to deeply inhale fresh, clean, jasmine- and hibiscus-scented air.

I like to listen and note the sounds I hear so I can later incorporate them into my writing. Lately, however, settling down enough to write is a challenge.

Enjoying a good book on a 5th-grade Saturday afternoon.

Enjoying a good book on a 5th-grade Saturday afternoon.

Sometimes I feel I would rather curl up in a good book and escape, but the To-Do list is heaping with extra tasks. Recently I decided to tackle some of the more mundane tasks (like sorting, clearing, cleaning) while listening to an old “book on tape” (which was actually an MP3).

It was a delightful experience that reminded me of elementary school when my teachers spent part of (almost) every afternoon reading a chapter or two in a novel. I even recall a few middle school teachers doing this on occasion. Back then, I enjoyed the “down time” as we were allowed to just listen and enjoy the story unfold. I recall thinking about the story later that day and sometimes even telling my younger sister about it.

Today, I enjoyed the time spent cleaning and thought about the story long after the tape concluded. I wanted more! It was a pleasant way to multitask and if I couldn’t stop the squirrels scampering through my head long enough to sit and read a book, then recorded books were a great option.

Listening to audio stories while organizing office.

Listening to audio stories while organizing office.

Then it hit me. The iPod icon on my iPad! I have rarely used it but now I opened it to discover I’d subscribed to several when I purchased my iPad, but I’d never listened. I went in search of short stories and writing-related options. Now, every afternoon I listen to someone read to me or interview a writer while I get tasks checked off my To-Do list. I feel more energized and settled — just as I do when I have a chance to read a good book — but I’m also trimming away that mile-long task list. And, in anticipation of the upcoming holidays, I’m looking for a few holiday stories I can listen to.

Here are a few of the “regular” podcasts I’ve been listening to:

EscapePod — new science fiction story each week
Clarkesworld — weekly science fiction story from the magazine. (To listen online, click a story title then “audio version” if that link appears.)
Fiction by The New Yorker — monthly story
Odyssey Writer’s Workshop — audio excerpts from workshop presentations at the annual Odyssey conference/workshop for fantasy, science fiction, and horror writers.

Look for them in your app/iTunes store or follow the website links to listen online. (Obviously I like science fiction.) Don’t forget the voice feature on many ebook readers either. Take the time to listen in and get motivated.