Infinite power equals infinite boredom

I attended a seminar on World Building this week offered by Lindsey Schopfer, local author and writing coach. One of my strengths is in that area, and I realized, as I listened to his talk, that it is because I use the same steps he does to make my world as real as is possible. I always know WHERE I am writing, WHO, and WHAT I am writing about.

I begin by drawing a sketchy map.This way I have an idea of where the towns are in relation to each other. Nothing on a map is ever finite, they are only approximations–artistic guesses.

Heart of Neveyah relief 3-4-2013 001As I write, my map evolves, becoming more complex as the topography becomes more clear to me. In Neveyah, I began with a pencil sketch, and that evolved into a relief map that gave me the opportunities for injecting tension into the tale that I needed. It also provided me with a detailed explanation of where the resources are, so that funding my country is not an issue.

I build their political and monetary structure, and the prevailing religion. I decide who has the power and privilege in that society, and who is the underclass.

As I create the power-structure and the maps, the opportunities for creating tension within the story also grow. I keep a list of those ideas so that when I run short on creativity I have a bit in the bank, so to speak.

Another thing Lindsey mentioned that I also do is to create a sort of personnel file. (I was an office-manager for years, so I think in those terms.) Is everyone human? If not, what are their species and how do they differ from humans? What are their origins and why are they all together on this world. This information will most likely not make it into the tale, but it is important for me to know.

personel file for Elena and LangleySome people draw their characters, but my artistic talents run to less realistic things. In some cases, I select an actor who best represents my character or who could play him/her well. I am a whiz at cartoons and maps, but not at drawing people or animals, so that’s why I resort to simpler methods to cement them in my head. Once I know who they are, that is where I stop. The reader will decide from the bare-bones descriptions I will give as to what they look like and that will be more intriguing than if I belabor their violet eyes and stunning cheekbones.

When I design a religion, I do it from the ground up.  I know who the gods are, what they require of their worshipers and the rituals that worship involves.  The same goes for the political system. Who is in charge of the country, and what is their power-base? What is their currency and how do they get it? Alternatively, how do they spend it? Are they despots or benevolent?

Then, there is the magic. Who has magic? What kind of magic–healing or offensive or both? What are the rules for using that magic and why do those rules exist? I despise books where there are no clearly defined rules for the magic, because infinite power instills infinite boredom in me as a reader.

Ask yourself what sort of wild creatures will live in your world. What do they look like and how big are they? How do they survive, what do they eat? Are they hunted, or are they simply benign creatures that harm no one? What is their place in the ecosystem?

How are you going to name your people and beasts? Do your readers a favor and use spellings that look fairly simple and look good on paper. DO NOT USE THE CONVENIENT NAME GENERATOR websites that the internet is rife with. They provide you with hokey, ridiculous  names no barbarian worth his salt would claim.

How do they dress? Do they wear armor? How difficult is that armor to get on and off?

How do they travel? Horses or spaceships each have certain basic requirements–both require fuel of some sort and both frequently need maintenance, whether it is currying or cleaning the exhaust vents. Who does this?

In conclusion, assembling this background information is time-consuming, but once I have it all together, my work is so much easier. The hard work is mostly done at that point, so there is less stopping and starting. All I have to do is get my heroes off the sofa and out of the house to the final battle on time, so they can save the world.



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Billy Blackwell performing live at Wade's Place, Aug 24-2014

Billy Blackwell performing live at Wade’s Place, Aug 24-2014

Over the weekend we attended a large function where there was a live band. It consisted of five people, three of whom are very dear to me: my ex-husband, Darryl, on guitar, my younger brother Robert on bass, and my stepson, Billy (who is the child of my heart), on drums.

It never ceases to amaze me how much of an influence music has been in the life of my family, over many generations.

This tie binds us and has sometimes cut us apart, but in the end it always brings us back together.

Family is so much thicker than blood.  Gratitude is too.

Robert (Mad Dog) Johnson performing live at Wade's Place, Aug. 24, 2014

Robert (Mad Dog) Johnson performing live at Wade’s Place, Aug. 24, 2014

We are a close unit, bound by love and children.  Music is the common thread that runs through our lives–two horn players, one sax player, two drummers, three guitarists, three keyboardists–four working musicians and everyone else singing harmony–music is the core of our life, and a new generation is learning at their knees.

I loved this weekend.

The air held the peculiar quality of serenity that is unique to Black Lake-the lake of my childhood home.  The crowd loved  the music they played. Children ran wild and the food was fabulous–even the vegan found something delicious to enjoy!

Darryl Riffero performing live at Wade's Place, Aug. 24, 2014

Darryl Riffero performing live at Wade’s Place, Aug. 24, 2014

Seeing these three men, none of them blood related to each other, but all of them family and close as brothers, made me once again realize how much I have to be grateful for. Each has faced and overcome demons that would have killed a lesser man, and they are stronger for it.

Happiness and love of life fill their music, and it is beautiful to me.

My blessings are many, and I count them every day.



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Sharpening my clause

I’ve been reading a lot lately, some for editing, which is a great pleasure, and some for my own amazement, which can be a mixed bag of nuts.
So let’s talk about what it is that makes reading for pleasure not a pleasure at times:  Some authors don’t understand the basic rules of how to write coherently.  I suppose that’s not a surprise to you, but I am always shocked.
So what makes a coherent sentence? We want a subject, a verb and some words to help explain those two things. We call this a sentence.
Sentences frequently consist of clauses. Okay, they always do, but…anyway:
  1. a unit of grammatical organization next below the sentence in rank and in traditional grammar said to consist of a subject and predicate.
Well, that seems pretty simple–simply confusing, anyway.
According to About Education: A clause may be either a sentence (an independent clause) or a sentence-like construction within another sentence (a dependent or subordinate clause).
Subordinate Clause definition: A group of words that has both a subject and a verb but (unlike an independent clause) cannot stand alone as a sentence. Also known as a dependent clause. Contrast with coordinate clause.
If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
(John F. Kennedy)
Mostly I find subordinate clauses cropping up in conversation–dialogue–when I look at my own writing. These “grammatical juniors” are like any other form of seasoning in our writing and must be used consciously and sparingly. When we write with too many subordinate clauses, we separate the reader from the narrative.
If you go on a cruise that consists exclusively of drinking, dancing, and partying, I shall worry.
Well, I won’t really worry, but I shall be jealous.
In genre fiction, which is what I write, readers do not want to be held away from the story by too many words. They want to be immersed in the tale, living it with the characters. One way we do this by providing balance in how we phrase our sentences, using a variety of sentence structures. We use complex sentences, consisting of:
Fun-Fruit-Skewers-21. a simple clause 
I went to the grocery store.  (the meat of the matter)
2. a dependent clause
because I needed skewers. (technically not necessary but adds to it)
I went to the grocery store because I needed skewers.  
Who was I going to skewer? I don’t know, but I at least I had the right tool for the job.
We can set the clause off with commas:
The lake, its surface calm and black with deceptive serenity, called to me.
The lake called to me is the meat of this sentence, the clause describing it is technically not necessary, but without that clause the sentence is flat.
An excellent FREE and entertaining resource for writers who want to get a grip on clauses, commas, and all that conjunction stuff is:
You might want to check it out, it costs nothing and is really easy to understand.


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Journaling or Noveling

As summer ends and fall approaches, those of us who are regular NaNoWriMo writers begin to plan for our month of committed writing. We are jotting down ideas as they come to us, and making notes to help springboard ourselves into November with all our guns a blazing.

Generic-180x180People who have never heard of NaNoWriMo are always surprised that it is not only people who want to be published authors who use this month to create 50,000 word manuscripts. Family historians, dedicated diarists, people working on their PhD–anyone who wants or needs a month dedicated to getting a particular thing written will do so in November. More people do this during November than you would think–about half of our WriMos in my regional area are journaling or writing their theses. The support of the group really helps the graduate students stay focused, and it also bolsters those who are diarists and encourages them to write more about their thoughts and philosophies.

330px-Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623I’ve been asked many times what I see as the differences between journaling and noveling. (Sorry, word-nazis–I know,  I know! I just invented that word but hey, why not loosen up a bit and have a little fun with language? Willie Shakespeare did it all time!)

Anyway, journaling is keeping a diary. You do this on a daily basis, or at least frequently. According to Tiny Buddha “Journaling can help with personal growth and development. By regularly recording your thoughts you will gain insight into your behaviors and moods.” You start where you are in life at that moment, and for ten or fifteen minutes a day, you write stream of consciousness. This is an awesome way to jump-start your brain.

Noveling is telling lies, keeping them straight, and making the world believe it until the last page.  Again, William Shakespeare was awesome at this, and he put his work into the form of plays and sonnets, which were the most accessible media of the time for the common people.

shakespeare-word-cloudHow many words did William Shakespeare invent? According to Shakespeare Online Dot Com: “The English language owes a great debt to Shakespeare. He invented over 1700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original. …  For a more in-depth look at Shakespeare’s coined words, please click here.”

Whether you are journaling or noveling, the important thing is to do it every day. Write for as long as you can when you can, and that will build your ‘writing’ muscles. If I dedicated 3 hours a day to just writing stream of conscious, I will chunk out 2500 to 3000 words–about half of which are mis-keyed and misspelled, but hey, no one is perfect. Some words I invent–and some words invent me, but either way, I love words.

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Conveying the Mood

Something I’ve lately realized is that every author, even my favorite, has what I think of as ‘fall-back’ tricks they use when describing certain scenes, little quirks and twists of words that are as personal and unique as a signature. The great authors can get away with this, because their stories are just so darned compelling that we don’t notice or don’t care.

I’ve had to face it–when I, as an author, make a habit of resorting to writing my characters with excessive shrugging or sighing, it’s clear I’ve run out of ideas. I recently had a wonderful discussion with several other authors who have noticed this phenomenon in their own work. After that discussion, I found myself wondering how to maintain speed in my writing when I am in the zone, but still have a variety of words and ideas available to me for describing mood and emotion.

So–since tattoos are expensive, and my palm isn’t really large enough to contain a really good table of visual cues, I resorted to my handy-dandy Excel program, and created one there.

What I discovered while compiling this, is that my little brain is quite limited. I had to struggle to picture what these moods and emotions looked like.  Once I had the facial expression in my mind, it was easier to imagine how a character might appear to an observer.

What these cues do is help me come up with a fresh description when I want to show something that may happen frequently within a group of characters. I don’t necessarily use these cues verbatim as they are written here, but they do give my mind a jumping off point and I can extrapolate from there.

Please feel free to: right click> save as> png or jpeg and print it out for your own use.

Conveying Mood and Emotion in Writing



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Good bye my friend: a dialogue about depression and creativity

robin williamsWe have all been affected by the suicide of beloved comedian Robin Williams. His was a death that touched us as deeply as his life had. We felt we knew him on a personal level, and though we knew he battled demons, we somehow believed he had survived them, and that all was well at last for him.

But if there is one positive thing to come out of this sad end to a beautiful man’s life, it is that people are at last having a dialogue about clinical depression.

This is something I understand on a personal level. My mother suffered from clinical depression, to the point that many times she was incapacitated during my childhood, and my maternal grandmother stepped in to care for our home and for us all. It was the 1960’s and miracle drugs were prescribed right and left–and Mama was on all of them at on time or another with varying degrees of success.

I have fought depression all my life too, and know firsthand that there is no ‘cure,’ no ‘magic bullet,’ no one-size-fits-all pill to solve the problem. Telling yourself to just pull up your socks and get on with your life doesn’t help much either. Because my mother took so many medications, and they often worsened her condition, I have avoided them except at my worst, lowest point.

There is no way to express what clinical depression feels like to a person who has never experienced it.  You are not sad–that word is an approximation, but not an accurate description. There is sadness involved, but for me it was more a deep lethargy, a lack of interest in life. I wanted to participate in the world around me, but I couldn’t pull myself together enough to get dressed and go out the door. It was like being stranded at the bottom of a well of confused misery and I loathed myself for that, but there were times in my twenties when I was so paralyzed by this disease, I couldn’t scrape together the energy to clean my house. I had no idea what was wrong with me, or why I was such a failure.

Fortunately I had children. I refused to just stay in bed as my mother did at times. I forced myself to stay involved with them, only booked music gigs for early evening in places like Wolf Haven or coffee shops where I could take my kids, and I wrote short stories, fairy-tales for them. Having to provide a decent life for my children kept me going to work and functioning on a superficial level. For them, I could get up, go to work, and pay the bills, but it was a constant struggle and in the late nineties my third marriage fell apart and once again depression hit me hard.

In 1998 I began having severe panic attacks to the point I was unable to drive across town. I opted to go into therapy, in the hope I could learn ways to cope. Thanks to an extremely caring psychologist who was not afraid to try new ideas, I found the tools and skills I was looking for. He showed me simple ways to physically alter my brain’s chemistry without resorting to medications, and as along as I practice these techniques I do well. For me, this was an answer.

It was not as easy as it sounds, but now I have some way to deal with this. I have sort of gotten a handle on it, and writing is part of my therapy. Interestingly enough, I recently had the indignity of being denied affordable life insurance because of this diagnosis being in my medical record.

The Journal of Psychiatric Research recently published a study, “Mental Illness, Suicide, And Creativity: 40-Year Prospective Total Population Study,” examined 1.2 million Swedish patients from the country’s national registry and compared this sample against the entire Swedish population. The most interesting and surprising results related to authors. Writers were a whopping 121% more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder than the general population. Moreover, Simon Kyaga, the study’s lead researcher, said that authors had a “statistically significant increase” in anxiety disorders: 38% to be exact. Rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide also increased among writers.

Go figure.

In an interview on the website, Lit Reactor, Portland Oregon based author and psychotherapist, Philip Kenney, said: “It isn’t easy to see oneself, the strengths and weaknesses, the familiar imperfections, without a judgment that often spells, B-A-D. Inferior. I try to remember the beautiful patterns made by the cracks in the sidewalk. Practicing kindness is the best remedy.”

IMG727That is also my motto. Practicing kindness, forcing myself to be involved with life outside of my front door and pushing myself out the door to work in a coffee shop is an antidote for me.

I admit I am obsessive about my craft, and that has been both a curse and a boon.  It is a curse, because if I choose, I can use it as a reason to never go anywhere.  But it is a boon because through my involvement with  NaNoWriMo, Olympia Area Writers Co-opPNWA, and ABNA I am FORCED to leave the Room of Shame (my office) and through these organizations I have met some of the most wonderful, amazing people you can imagine.

And strangely enough–many of them frequently suffer from various forms of ill health, depression, and anxiety disorders. By staying involved, we raise each other up, and try to support each other when the road is hard.

I am grateful for my blessings, never more so than when someone  like Robin Williams, who gave us so much of himself, falls victim to the demons of evil, pernicious, clinical depression.


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Yes, but how do you really feel?

x - y chromosomesI love writing and I love my characters, but they are so stubborn about some things. Of course, many of them have ‘Y’ chromosomes, but still…. It’s frustrating because they don’t want to to talk about how they’re feeling.

Oh, for the love of Tolstoy–don’t they get it? I’m  a woman. I need you people to talk to me. Tell me what’s going on in your imaginary head.

It’s difficult to show the characters’ emotions and thought processes when it’s so much easier to just say he felt, or she was some emotion.  These thoughts and feelings are central to making our characters feel real. But describing them from a distance, as an author must do, may disconnect the reader from that character.

Sometimes, descriptions don’t allow the reader to experience the moment with the character. Instead, the author is telling them how the character feels.What we must ensure is that our readers remain immersed in the narrative, that no ‘speed-bumps’ come along to knock them out of it. Heart Search cover

One of the best at this is Carlie M.A. Cullen, whose urban fantasy series Heart Search  featuring a coven of vampires is gaining in popularity. I think her books are so compelling because of her ability to draw a reader into the character without going over the top. So, how does she do it?

The opening line of chapter one of Heart Search Book 1, Lost reads like this: The sun, a ferocious golden orb, burnt into his skin as Joshua wandered aimlessly through the country park.

She could have just written The sun was hot and Joshua was killing time in a park.

But she didn’t, and the story is better for it–AND she showed you both the scene and Joshua’s mood in that one sentence.

So what can we learn from reading our favorite authors? We can see how they craft their tales, and we can learn those skills. Painters do this all the time, and we paint with words. 480px-Schmalz_galahad

Let’s pretend we’re writing a fantasy novel. We can go over the top, like a painting by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, or we can find a happy medium between too much and too little. There is no need to sink into overly sentimental and exaggerated pathos in order to inject feeling into our work.

Here we have a character who is on the run from a creature of some sort. 1. He was afraid. He was terrified to look back.

Example one tells the reader how the character feels. We might write this in our first draft when we are just trying to get the story out of our heads. An unskilled writer would consider it just fine the way it is, as it expresses his thoughts perfectly.

However, it tells the reader how to feel, and readers really don’t like being told what to do.

2. He wiped the sweat from his brow with a trembling hand, fear from his narrow escape coursing through his veins. Heart pounding, he leaned against the wall, listening for any sounds that shouldn’t be there before chancing a glance around the corner.

Personally, I would read book number two over book number one, because it’s more interesting and makes me want to know more about this character and his problems. We need to use physical symptoms a character might experience combined with their actions, but  we need to describe them in such a way that it is a natural part of the scene.

John slid down the wall, sitting in the mud, his breaths coming in hard, ragged gasps. Something trickled down his cheek, and wiping it, his hand came away with blood.

Another example: Theodor_Hosemann_Weinstube_1858

Lord Deccan’s fist hit the table. “Wine now, you miserable worm–or I’ll cut off your other ear!”

The one-eared innkeeper scuttled to the cellar. He quickly searched the shelves filled with dusty jars of cheap wine, settling at last on a vintage he thought might suffice.

Baldric’s guests normally drank from wooden tankards, but he knew that wouldn’t suit. There was a goblet, one he’d come by in a peculiar way, but it was a fine cup and would do well enough to stave off a tantrum of the lordly variety.

His shoulders hunched in anticipation of trouble, he approached the angry lord’s table. Setting the only goblet before the nobleman, he left the bottle and stepped away, bowing with feigned obeisance. Baldric had  survived  the  war with all but his left ear intact, and intended to remain that way.

Sir Paul McCartney, image from Rolling Stone MagazineWhat we are doing here is exactly like interpreting what our loved one is telling us, when he/she refuses to use their words. Seeing them sitting slouched in the chair, clicker in hand and numbly flipping through channels is a good indication of their mood. So we must picture the scene and describe it .

We must show the emotions as they are reflected by the physical cues our characters give us, but don’t tell them–a difficult trick to master but one we must all do if we want our work to engage the reader.


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