Saturday, December 29, 2012

Looking Back, Moving Forward

My new scarf. Thank goodness I live in the tropics.


After discounting 2013: Year of Learning to Knit, I've yet to decide on a new blog title. All suggestions are appreciated, preferably by, um, Tuesday.

In the meantime, I join millions of others in looking back over the year of 2012, and wondering where the hours went and what I was doing while the hours were going there.

Way back in Week 1, I set modest goals for 2012: Year of Learning to Write, and I am proud to say that I stayed true to most of my endeavours, but acknowledge that my laziness got the better of me at times. So how did I do? Let's see now...
  1. Start and maintain a writer's blog. I'm not sure how I reached Week 52, but, by jingo, I did.
  2. Read one classic piece of literature a fortnight. I read at least thirty novels of various styles and genres over the year, and about as many 'how-to-write' books. To me, the two complemented each other nicely, that is, the 'how-to' books provided me with a better understanding of what I should be stealing from the literary masters.
  3. Write at least 500 words a day. I doubt I wrote 182,500 words during 2012, but I did draft an 85,000-word YA story (which is unlikely to ever see print, I fear), 51,000 words of a travel memoir, and lots of gumph in between, so I forgive myself.
  4. Complete one short story a fortnight (preferably one I've already started). I failed this one miserably. Those unfinished short stories are still pining for attention.
  5. Enter at least one writing competition a month. I entered six competitions, and won none. How could that happen?
  6. Submit at least six pieces for publication. This was a psychological and physical test. I submitted four small pieces, received two encouraging rejections, and two go-away-fool rejections. And I lived.
  7. Commence at least one writing course. No, I was very lazy and didn't do this, snivel, snivel.
  8. Establish a support network (of some sort). I attempted to establish local connections and have so far failed (such is the nature of a small island and my own lack of persistence), but the support I've encountered in the blogosphere has been most humbling.
  9. Maintain a tracking system for all of the above. It's all under control, folks. I know exactly what I'm doing.
  10. Learn and have fun! Not only have I revelled in the reading and writing challenges I set myself, I have met some fantastic people who - poor souls - think a little bit like I do, share similar dreams to me, and are brave and proud enough to open their hearts through their writing and their websites. Thanks a billion times over. (You know who you are.)

So at the end of it all, what did I learn about writing, if anything?

I've learnt it's more about heart, and less about technique.
I've learnt an original story and true characters will trump well-executed composition.
I've learnt verbs are the key.
I've learnt that to be a writer, one must write... a lot... and be incredibly courageous, or crazy, or both.
And I've learnt that one can never stop learning, about the world, about oneself, and about writing.

Happy New Year

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Week 52 - Family Dynamics

23 Dec - 29 Dec: 'We are family. I've got my brothers and my sisters with me.' Sister Sledge

It's that time of year again. Family fun. Laughter. Good times.

But is everyone as cheery as they seem? In real life, I sincerely hope so. If you're writing fiction, I sincerely hope not, or your readers are in for one yawn-inducing ride.

In Breathing Life Into Your Characters, psychoanalyst Rachel Ballon discusses the common sources of conflict within families, and encourages writers to draw on these to create believable relationships and intriguing characters that we can empathise and sympathise with.
  • Dysfunctional Families: These can occur in any shape or size. Members may be extremely distant from each other or extremely attached. Both extremes may be emotionally damaging, especially to children. Dysfunction may occur when death or divorce traumatize members and emotional adjustment and balance is threatened. Members may feel insecure, guilt-ridden, angry, out-of-control, fearful, paranoid etc.
  •  Family Triangles: Family members assume the roles of persecutor (dad's being mean), rescuer (mom, dad's being mean) and victim (mom, dad's being mean to me). 
  • Oedipus Complex and Electra Complex: This is Freud's version of specific triangular relationships where the son wants to marry his mother and kill his father (Oedipus) or the daughter wants to marry the father and kill the mother (Electra). 
  • Family Secrets, Myths, and Lies: Many families will do and say anything to hide the truth should it threaten the family name. [I recently found out my uncle, one of twelve children in a Catholic family, impregnated a girl when he was a teenager. This was kept a family secret for fifty years!]
  • Co-dependency: This is common in families of alcoholics and addicts, that is, one person lies or makes excuses to 'cover' the other person. 
  • Addictions: Irrational, criminal or violent behaviour may stem from an addiction and cause depression, fear, and low self-esteem within the family unit.
  • Physical or Mental Abuse: Abusers may be suffering an addiction or be a victim of abuse themselves, and they often display unpredictable behaviour, e.g. abusive one day and overly loving the next.
  • Sibling Rivalry: A child may feel that a parent favours a particular sibling and be driven to extreme behaviour in an attempt to win approval from parents, peers, or self.
  • Family Rules and Beliefs: Beliefs about race, religion, politics etc. are often handed down through generations and may provoke extreme behaviour.
  • Family Injunctions: These are messages that parents pass to children and which carry through to adulthood, such as 'You're too fat to be a dancer,' 'You're so lazy,' or 'Writing doesn't pay - study and get a real job.' These can result in low self-esteem, resentment, determination, recklessness etc. 
  • Family Values and Traditions: What would your characters die for? What values could you not tolerate in a life-partner or friend?
  • Dysfunctional Romantic Relationships: Unrealistic expectations of a mate may result in role playing, lies, disappointment, confrontation, avoidance, resentment, infidelity or violence.
Family units and individuals react differently to family conflict. Some people scream and throw large heavy objects; some people sulk; some people scheme; some families deny everything; some families actually sit down and talk their problems through (boring!).

Do your characters experience conflict through realistic family dynamics?

Exercise 99. What family conflicts do you recall from childhood or have in your family? Do you lend them to your characters? Can you intensify them to heighten the suspense in your story?

Exercise 100. Bah to family conflict. Show your own family that you love them. Have a very, very, merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Week 51 - The Submission Package

16 Dec - 22 Dec:

Be Prepared
Scout Motto
To stay true to my objective for 2012, I am returning to technicalities this week, and touching on the basics of submitting to an agent or editor.
Following a whirl-wind trip through ,
  • Creative Writing for Beginners,
  • Common Mistakes,
  • The Writer's Brain, and
  • Editing,

it is time for me to start thinking about submitting a manuscript to an agent or editor.

Below, I have outlined the recommendations contained in Your Novel Proposal: From Creation to Contract by Blythe Camenson and Marshall J. Cook.

[This book was published in 1999. If anyone can and would like to offer more accurate or up-to-date advice, especially from experience, please do so.]

STEP 1 - The Approach:

1. The Query Letter is a one-page letter usually sent on its own, in accordance with the agent or editor's submission guidelines. It should contain,
  • the hook - a special plot detail or unique approach;
  • the handle - something to hold on to, like a theme or comparison;
  • a mini-synopsis - main characters, core conflict, plot high points, setting and time period;
  • your credentials - how are you qualified and why are you interested?
  • your credits - do not apologize or mention no credits;
  • what you are offering - title, word count, genre;
  • the closing - offer to sent the complete manuscript.

2. The Pitch:
pitch line is a short, punchy, oral presentation of your plot. It must contain the 'hook' that your book contains. It can be used,
  • when meeting an agent at a writing conference,
  • when friends and family ask about your project,
  • when you unexpectedly meet someone who could help you find an agent or editor (like Stephen King in an elevator - you know what I'm talking about),
  • as the first line of your query letter.

STEP 2 - The Package:

Okay, you're talking the talk, and your query letters have been sent far and wide. When the phone call or email arrives that says, 'I want to see more,' any boy scout could tell you that zipping the material through straight away will carry more oomph than material sent after weeks of fluffing around. Here are the things agents or editors might ask to see:

3. A Cover Letter:
This may not be requested, but if it's not included, the recipient will have to sift through stacks of paper to find basic information. It should,
  • be formatted as a business letter, with date, names and addresses left aligned,
  • reference previous correspondence if appropriate,
  • summarize your purpose and reason for approaching this particular person,
  • state credentials,
  • close professionally.

4.  Sample Chapters:
This means the first chapters (perhaps one through three), not what you consider the best chapters. Camenson and Cook recommend sending the prologue if it is similar to the rest of the story, and not sending the prologue if it is set in a different time and place.
5. The First Fifty Pages:
Instead of sample chapters, an agent or editor may ask for the first fifty pages. When editing and preparing for submission, keep in mind how your chapters or first fifty pages end. Think, "I've got to know what happens next!"
 6. Synopsis:
This is a summary of the story, ideally no longer than a few pages, written in present tense and third person, and in a tone that reflects the style of the work. This is no time to be shy: jump into the action, and reveal the ending.

A synopsis should include:
  • the hook,
  • sketches of the main characters,
  • the core conflict,
  • plot high points, and
  • the conclusion.

7. Chapter Outline:
A chapter outline employs the same style and tone as the synopsis, but describes the story in much more detail, chapter by chapter.

8. Completed Manuscript:
No fiction writer would send out a query letter without first having a completed manuscript. Would they?
Exercise 97. Next time you need a break from your Work-in-Progress, compile a query letter, practice writing a strong one page synopsis, and work on your pitch. Be clear and confident about the hook.
Exercise 98. Read your first three chapters and your first fifty pages like an agent might. Does your story's beginning 'end' in tension or suspense. Test it out on willing readers if you can, or try the flogometer at Flogging the Quill.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Week 50 - They Know if You've Been Bad or Good

9 Dec - 15 Dec: be good for goodness sake. Seriously.

Half of my household is Icelandic, and I suspect generations of falling down glacial crevices and inhaling volcanic ash has done funny things to these people. (Bjork?)

Let's take Christmas traditions, for example. If you think a jolly fat man in a red suit creeping through your house on Christmas eve is a bit weird, spare a thought for the Icelandic children who have thirteen santas to contend with.

And what dastardly santas they are. Check out these dudes (with English translations; sourced from

Spoon Licker (Dec 15) and
Pot Scraper (Dec 16)
Sausage-Swiper (Dec 20)
Window-Peeper (Dec 21)

Doorway-Sniffer (Dec 22)
Candle-Stealer (Dec 24)

Every night for the thirteen nights leading up to Christmas, a child (i.e., my daughter) leaves a shoe on her windowsill (i.e., a stocking hung next to the Christmas tree), and agonizes over whether she's been good enough to earn a small gift each morning, or naughty enough to earn a... potato.

This year, since I can't keep these critters out of my house, I'm joining in the Icelandic Christmas spirit for the thirteen days before Christmas. If I have been good, that is, if my day has been productive and I have been busily rewriting or writing, the scary santa of the day will reward me, probably with something bad for my teeth. If I have been bad (i.e., lazy), I'll be checking out potato recipes.

So far, my daughter has two cool gifts, and I have two potatoes.

The santa for Dec 14 is Stubby, an abnormally short dude who steals pans to eat the crusty bits off them.

I don't want a potato from Stubby. I'm sure I can get an hour or two of editing in. I just know I can.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Next BIG Thing (or the Next Best Thing)

Before I tackle The Next BIG Thing quiz sent to me by Mr. M. L. Swift, creator of Monty Tucker and all-round nice guy even though he's over forty, let me tell you a little story.
Once there was a woman who cut her hair short, bound her chest, stained her skin with furniture polish, and began to walk funny, all so she could join the British army as a war reporter.
This woman fell in love with her comrade, who, believing she was a man, thought the woman was just a friendly kind of guy with a squeaky kind of voice.
During one especially trying day on the battle field, the woman was mortally wounded. The object of her affection carried her to shelter and attended to her wounds, only to discover - SHOCK HORROR - she was a woman!
Needless to say, the two ran away, got married and lived happily ever after. (Note: The story above is fiction. The real story of Dorothy Lawrence aka Denis Smith is very different and a great deal more tragic.)

So, what does this badly told story have to do with the Next Big Thing? Absolutely nothing unless it triggers a fabulous idea in your brain and you go on to write something wonderful.

But before I answer the questions posed to me by the excellent Mike Swift, I would like to say that I have noticed that some people in cyberworld seem to think I have a penis.

I can assure you, I don't.

(Having said that, a number of my college buddies accused me of harbouring penis envy, but that's another story altogether.)

Okay, so now that's out of the way, let's move on.

I have two W'sIP. Both I consider 'practice novels' and neither represent the genre I ultimately see myself writing. A waste of time? Perhaps, like training for a marathon by jumping on a trampoline, but I am enjoying myself immensely and learning rapidly.

I have applied the questions to my Wrimo attempt: A Tent Called Simba.

1. What is the working title of your book?
I changed it from Travels With Ro: Namibia to A Tent Called Simba, because the original concept was too simple, and I expanded the story to include escapades in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Tanzania. I'm hoping my sister (and sake when we meet up in Japan next month) will help me come up with a GOOD title.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
The idea to write simple came from the challenge of NaNoWriMo. Also, I had just finished reading Bill Bryson and a travelogue seemed like a fine idea at the time. Silly, silly me.

3.  What genre does your book fall under?
Travel Memoir, Creative Non-fiction.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Cool question. At last I can be better looking than I really am. If the movie was shot ten years ago, or with a good make-up artist, or even a bad one, I would nominate Toni Collette and Claudia Karvan, both fine, Australian actresses. The obligatory boy actors? No idea, but it's fun thinking about it.

Claudia Karvan
photo source: Courier Mail
Toni Collette
photo source: The Daily Telegraph

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When many young women are thinking about settling down and starting a family, sisters, Erica and Ro embark on a road trip through Namibia: no GPS, no internet, no idea. With a tent called Simba and a nose for adventure, the sisters discover the different faces of southern Africa, and learn a thing or two about each other, and about themselves.

(DERT - fail. That's two sentences.)

6. If you plan to publish, will your book be self-published or published traditionally?
I'm not sure how marketable my efforts are, but I might consider self-publishing, just so I have something to keep my daughter busy when she asks what I got up to before she was born. (That might be how 'the next best thing' got into my head.)

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Twenty-eight days. I suspect plugging the gaps will take much longer.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I have not yet read African Journal by Bill Bryson, but if my story is one-tenth the style of Notes From a Small Island (with a dash of chickie talk), I will be happy.

9. Who or What inspired you to write this book?
My older sister, Ro. She has lived (and does live) a darn interesting life and can tell a great yarn. I am urging her to inject her wit into the story, but so far she been too busy on her quest to conquer the world.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
I consider the story to be about breaking out of comfort zones, taking opportunities when they present themselves, and getting stuck into life, even when you have no clue of what you're doing, in fact, especially when you have no clue of what you're doing, because then you are stupidly fearless.

If I leave in the personal stuff, some might even consider it chick-lit (whatever that is). It talks about love lost, freedom found, and tent farts. And what's not interesting about tent farts?

So that's me. Thanks, Mike, for pushing me closer to... something.

Now I kick The Next Big Thing grid iron ball over to Rob Akers, a man with a mission and a hootin' tootin' story to tell.

And, if he's up for it, the word magician himself, Joseph Schwartz, author of The Crossover Test.

The rules are simple: answer the quiz so us nosey people know what you're up to, and then hand the baton to other writers who sound like they're onto something that might just be The Next BIG Thing.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Week 49 - Writing Between the Lines

2 Dec - 8 Dec: Actions really do speak louder than words.

Sixty to eighty per cent of communication occurs through gestures, most of them borne from primitive instincts, so forget the dialogue, and hone your kinesiology skills.
"I've got this," (for I am big and strong).
"Look at me," (I have features of a good baby-maker).

Back in my managerial days, I considered myself somewhat of a body language expert. I read the hilarious books by Allan and Barbara Pease (check out Allan’s YouTube videos), and on my quieter days, I studied my colleagues to learn what they were really thinking.

Real Life Scenario #1:

My little-big-man supervisor, Barry, would always, without fail, take a seat in my office with his knees far apart and his hands behind his head. “I am big and powerful,” his body would scream while his mouth asked about the project, “and so are my genitals.” Barry would then offer his suggestions regarding the issues at hand, his fingers touching in a classic steeple gesture, confident that his way was the best way. When I offered an alternative viewpoint, Barry would swing his ankle onto the opposite knee, ready for an argument, and then rub his eye and look at the carpet. “I think it’s a good idea,” he would lie, “but stick with my approach for now.” While I pressed my point, Barry would perch himself on the front edge of the seat, his mind already in the HR Manager's office. “I hear you. I really do.”

Real Life Scenario #2:

Although Barbie was engaged to be married to Bert, whenever Ken was close by, Barbie would play with her hair (a lot), tilt her head to expose her neck, flip her hand to show the fine skin of her wrists, slip her shoe on and off her foot, and cross and uncross her legs. I would guess that she was ovulating if she went so far as to twist her foot around her calf muscle and hook it behind her opposite ankle, as men cannot physically do this.

I found body language an ally in the workplace - when feeling especially childish, I would call a stand-up meeting and study whose feet were pointing where to determine who liked who the most - but the wordless messages we send to people are universal, and so ingrained that it’s difficult to disguise them.

Try this exercise: Cross your arms (a negative, defensive gesture in warm places). Seventy per cent of people will fold left arm over right; now try unfolding and refolding your arms with the other arm on top.

This is relevant to nothing, but here are some interesting historical facts from Allan Pease:

·        Nodding originates from bowing, a sign of submission, or subordination, that is, an effort to appear smaller when intimidated. Tipping one's hat and its offspring, saluting, are off-shoots of the bowing gesture.

·       Shaking one’s head is an instinctive gesture that babies learn when they have had enough to eat.

·        Smiling is a teeth-baring gesture that says, ‘I am fierce and can hold my own. If you don’t mess with me, I won’t mess with you.’

·        Crossing arms instinctively protects the heart and lung area.

·         Men’s brains are wired for hunting food. Women’s brains are wired for bearing children and protecting the nest. This is why men are generally more spatially aware than women (run, throw rock, hit deer), and most woman can multi-task better than most men.

Exercise 95. Do your stories reflect an understanding of wordless communication?
Exercise 96. Do your stories reflect an understanding of the cerebral differences between men and women, that is, why men don't listen and women can't read maps (see Pease's lecture if you're not convinced).