Friday, January 29, 2010

Weekend Family Fun

I'm in Long Island, New York this weekend, celebrating my youngest sister at her Baby Shower. I was thirteen when she was born; I remember it so well. Seeing her with that gorgeous belly makes me happy, proud, and so very excited for her and her husband!

The rest of the family is en route, including parents, three more sisters and four nieces and nephews. I can't wait :))

What are you doing this weekend??

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Unreliable Narrator

A literary device that fascinates me is the Unreliable Narrator. The unreliable narrator is one whose credibility has been compromised, so that the story filtering through his or her perception is untrustworthy. At some point, the reader realizes this. The success of the device hinges on whether the reader believes the narrator is incapable of figuring out that which the reader can deduce.

An unreliable narrator can be first person or third person limited POV. (I’m going to call the narrator “he” from here on out, because “s/he” and “his/her” gets annoying for me to type, and you to read!) Something in the narrator's personality or psyche severely hinders his awareness as the story unfolds around him. His prejudice by race, class or gender may skew his observations. His perception could be distorted because his age differs greatly from that of the other characters, as in the case of a child interpreting an adult’s world. He could suffer from drug addiction or dementia. He may be a person of low intelligence or with mental impediments. The unreliable narrator may also be consciously deceiving, as in the case of a pathological liar or a narcissist.

Like all literary devices, the writer must craft an unreliable narrator with authenticity, presenting the narrator’s point of view in a way that convinces the reader to believe and to feel sympathetic. Technical writer, poet and blogger John Hewitt says:

When done badly, a story written from [the unreliable narrator’s] point-of-view can be viewed as manipulative, misleading, confusing and pretentious. When successful, however, the results can be powerful and fascinating.” (Read Hewitt’s article here.)

Here are some celebrated books that use unreliable narrators:

To Kill a Mockingbird
(child narrator)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (child narrator)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (dementia)
The Tell Tale Heart (deranged, paranoid narrator)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (drug-fueled hallucinations)
The Native Son (skewed societal views)
A Clockwork Orange (skewed societal views)
The Catcher in the Rye (narrator personality flaws)
Flowers for Algernon (mental impediments)
Fight Club (multiple personality disorder)

I experimented with the unreliable narrator when competing in a writing contest prompted by a picture. The digital image had obviously been photo-manipulated, because it depicted a man at the wheel of a car that had just missed a hairpin turn in the narrow road along the edge of a cliff. It was as if the photo had been snapped moments after the car had burst through the guard rails, as it hung suspended in the air seconds before plummeting. I’m not a big fan of stories that end with, “…and then the world went black,” so I decided to go with an unreliable narrator. It’s short, under a 1000 words. I’d love to know what you think!

After The Ice

Grady had one goal. Catch that car. It made him fearless, one-tracked, stupid. A mud crusted boot rammed the accelerator impelling his car forward, closing the gap. He could make out the silhouette of the driver ahead, inanimate and lifeless as a mannequin. Unlike Grady, who hunched and shifted his shoulders in a full-body attempt to steer the car with more than just the white knuckled hands gripping the wheel. The cars raced up the winding cliffside road following the precipice that skirted the edge of the world. Far below, unseen waves crashed against the base of the rocky shoreline. Almost gotcha. Grady's crazed grin cracked his face in half. He flicked his head sending a boomerang shaped lock of greasy hair into the air only to have it return and obscure again half of his field of vision.

Brake lights lit up the back end of the lead car. Grady didn't comprehend the car's slight deceleration. All he saw were two fiery eyes glaring at him. Blood red eyes that mocked him; dared him to continue the chase; threatened him with unspeakable agony if he gave it up. Grady punched the gas pedal to the floor at the same instant the car ahead sharply negotiated a hairpin turn. He never had a chance to change direction. Grady's car tore through the guard rails and left the earth, taking flight over the ocean.

He had the sensation of being on a rollercoaster, enduring the excruciating climb toward the track's zenith just before the breathtaking plummet into the abyss. Those last seconds before the fall hung suspended in time; his mind was bombarded with flashing thoughts and images.

... He saw himself as a nine year old boy, smashing the game winning homerun out of the park. His heart swelled with pride as he rounded the bases, soaking in the warm glow of success as the crowd cheered. His future was so full of promise....

... Next, he sat slouched on the back seat of his old man's Pontiac. Clad in high school graduation robes, he watched in humiliation through the front windshield as police handcuffed his father for driving while intoxicated. His father's slurred protests wafted through the open window, "Come on. A coupla drinks never hurt anyone."...

... There was his devoted Laura wearing her mother's oversize, lace wedding gown. Smiling, she floated down the aisle toward a lifetime with him...

... In the delivery room, sweet precious Hannah was born perfect in every way. He promised to try and do right by her; to buckle down at the factory and spend less time with the guys. Laura said she still believed in him...

... On Hannah's fifth birthday, he would have given her the world. Shame pierced his heart as she wrapped her tiny arms around his neck even though he hadn't been able to afford the dolly she really wanted...

... Moving into their first house together, a small clapboard that had suffered years of neglect but still had good ‘bones'. A fixer-upper to be sure, Grady had high hopes for the place. He scoffed when his friends said it'd cost a fortune to bring her up to code. Hell, he would rewire the place himself and save some money...

... Coming home late, (the guys insisted on buying one more round), to flashing lights and emergency vehicles. The house was engulfed in flames. He pushed through the crowd, frantically shouting for Laura and Hannah. A firefighter stopped him from going too close to the conflagration, not realizing he was the homeowner. Grady grabbed the man below the collar, pleading for news of his wife and daughter. His eyes told the truth, no victims were known to have left the house. Fear gave way to dread. Oh my God, oh my God!...

... Relentless rain fell the day of the double funeral, driving cold daggers through his heart forever. Afterward, when the guys drove him home, his buddies tried to help. "Here, take this. It'll ease your pain for a while."...........


Grady's eyes fluttered open. A far-away, resonant voice said, "He's coming around, Doctor."

Another voice, closer. "Sir, can you hear me? What is your name?"

He couldn't move his arms or legs. Even his head seemed locked in place. Grady's dilated eyes darted around. Bright lights. Tile. Unmistakable smell. Hospital.

The doctor's disjointed face floated into view above him. "Sir? What did you take? Can you tell me what you're on?"

"Accident," Grady whispered hoarsely. The doctor's face loomed closer, straining to hear. Grady mumbled, "Car.. off.. cliff.."

"Does anyone know what's he talking about?" The doctor's voice faded and his face got smaller. Without warning, he was back, shined a laser light into Grady's eye and straight into his brain. Grady's head wouldn't obey when he tried to turn away. Clenching his lids shut, he heard the doctor say, "Sir, there was no car accident." Grady's eyes snapped open. "You were found unconscious in a parking lot near the Lower City Bridge. Paramedics transported you here, to the emergency room at E.J. Noble Hospital. We are taking care of you, but I need you to confirm what narcotic you overdosed on. Sir, what did you take?"

The need to catch that car came creeping up from the pit of his belly, consuming his mind. His body trembled with a cold desire that defied control.

A female voice from behind rang out, "BP is up to150 over 90, Doctor. Temperature is still at eighty-seven degrees."

"Doc." The doctor leaned in to hear Grady's weak voice. "Help me. Need. I need. More ice."


Author's Note : Many readers have expressed interest in knowing what "ice" refers to in this story. "Ice" is a common street term for the drug crystal meth.

Have you ever exerimented with writing an unreliable narrator? Have you come across the device and thought the author was successful?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

New Genre, New Process

Standing at the sun room windows, looking out at the backyard's monochromatic landscape, I contemplated my plight. I've been writing short stories for several years. There are dozens of them stored in my portfolio, each more tightly written and higher impacting than the last. And now I'm writing a novel. A novel. I feel like someone switched off the light and left me groping and disoriented in abysmal darkness. My chin dropped and my gaze fell to the peace lily beside me. I stared wide-eyed. Was that a flower forming on one of the tallest fronds? My disbelief was absolute; never in the three and a half years since it was carried over the threshhold had I been able to bring it to flower. I blinked to be sure I wasn't hallucinating.

In the arms of a friend the day she offered her housewarming present, the lily had boasted three small flowers. But its decline began that day. Within a week, the flowers had fallen away and the leaves were browned at their tips. My mother had once told me when a peace lily isn't doing well, put it in a closet. It made sense, sort of, since I knew the peace lily was a shade plant that thrived on a rain forest floor. So I repotted the plant and put it in a corner away from the windows. It didn't improve. Over the next two years, I moved it from location to location, starved it of water at times and over-watered it at others. Another friend said tropical plants like "moisture" not "water," and suggested I mist the leaves every day. After a while, I decided the plant just didn't like me. I resigned myself to its demise.

One day as I repotted another plant, hubby said I should put the peace lily in the window. Mom's advice floated through my mind, but I ignored it. Why not? I thought. Maybe that'll finish it off once and for all. A few days later, the lily's last remaining three fronds appeared slightly perkier than before. I pretended I didn't notice, in case the plant was toying with me. Some wicked plot hatched in vengeance. I watered it that Saturday along with the others on a once-a-week feeding schedule. By the next Saturday, new shoots had pushed their heads through the black soil. I took it as a peace lily peace offering. It began to thrive, and we've been friends ever since.

Still, in the last year of our renewed friendship, I'd never seen a flower! As I stared at it, I started to think about the long, hard road I'd walked with that plant. I'd struggled; I'd tried new things that failed. I almost gave up along the way. I listened to a lot of people's advice before someone pointed me in the right direction. It occurred to me that my transition from short stories to novels may turn out resembling my peace lily experience.

Right now, I feel pretty lost. I have twenty chapters written, though they're drooping and the edges are browned and curled. But, I know my novel project will blossom because I'm willing to do the work, explore the genre, learn. But I wonder if any of you have shifted genres like this? Any advice for me? Did you find it was hit-or-miss, that you had to re-start your first project(s) until you found your way? How did you battle your insecurities?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sensational Opening Lines

One of my favorite things to do in Barnes and Noble is go down a shelf row, pulling one book at a time and reading its first line. Sometimes the whole first paragraph is the hook, but I give snaps to authors who can grab my attention right out of the start block. So what is it about an opening line that makes it sensational?

For me, the best first lines have shock appeal. It’s an art form, really, because it’s so easy to do it wrong. The line must astonish rather than revolt, and possess a certain subtlety that draws readers to it instead of repelling them from it. Short, smart lines often work well.

An exceptional opening line sets the tone of the whole book. The mood descends upon you, envelopes you in its possibilities, casts its spell on you. The meaning of the first line goes beyond that of its subject and predicate; it tells you something about the entire work. And it insists you read on.

I was re-reading the first lines of books I own. Five favorite first lines from them are:

“When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily.” -- The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold.

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” -- The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.

“It was not easy to cut through a human head with a hacksaw.” -- Travels, by Michael Crichton.

“Even Grade walked past the spot on the bridge where Canaan caught the bottle with his head and saw the blood mark was still there, but just barely.” -- Mother of Pearl, by Melinda Haynes

“On the morning of her ninth birthday, the day after Madame Fran├žois Derbanne slapped her, Suzette peed on the rosebushes.” -- Cane River, by Lalita Tademy.

Here is one blogger's list of literature's ten most outrageous first lines. It's even more fun to read the comments below it, especially by those debating Orwell's meaning when he used "a clock striking thirteen o'clock" in the first line of 1984:

Do you have a favorite first line? Or what about a favorite book with a terrible first line? (Think Bulwer-Lytton's "It was a dark and stormy night.") What's your criteria for a sensational opening line?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Beyond My Profile

My name is Nicole, but my college and Internet friends know me as Nicki, my husband and sisters call me Nick, and I'm Mama to my two beautiful kids. Together, hubby and I have lived on three continents, and we currently reside in a small city outside metro Atlanta, Georgia.

I grew up in rural New York State, dreaming of the big world beyond the horizon. After college, I set out to discover it. In true Kerouacan fashion, I headed west to crash the party of life. After two years in Los Angeles working for Chiat/Day Advertising (creator of the Energizer Bunny campaigns), I was restless. I'd stand on the beach and look out over the Pacific, wondering what it would be like to interact with the world beyond that horizon. Too poor to realize any travel dreams launched from LA, I headed back east and lived with a sorority sister in Washington D.C. It took another two years, but I submitted my application for Peace Corps service, and it was approved. In 1994, I was stationed in the Central African Republic where I worked as a Community Health Extensionist.

I lived outside the U.S. for a total of seven and a half years, and during that time my life changed forever. Besides meeting my husband, I learned two foriegn languages (French and Sango) and acclimated to cultures that challenged my view of the world and my place in it. Today, I describe myself as a free-spirited woman, trying to live each day with arms wide open -- and most nights I go to bed content that I did.

I love to write lists (although I forget them on the kitchen counter when they consist of grocery items I mustn't forget to buy), so I thought I'd introduce myself to you in that format. The following are ten things that describe me. Here goes:

10 Things To Know About Me

1. I LOVE my family~

After 14 years of marriage, Christian and I still love and laugh like when we first met. Our kids, Cody (age 11) and Sidney (age 9), fill my days with sunshine that dazzles my soul and warms my heart. I am truly blessed.

2. I'm a writer ~ I used to think I was overly dramatic, listening to my internal dialogue as I took in the world aound me. Riding the Metro back and forth to work, I'd pull scraps of paper out of my bag and sketch the characters I saw on the platform or sitting across the aisle from me. In the Peace Corps, I dealt with homesickness and culture shock by scribbling emotional entries in my journals. In 2007, I discovered and for the first time I wrote stories with an audience in mind. My life changed. I became an author, passionate about the craft. Now I write everyday, and I love it.

3. I crave a technicolor life ~ Bright hues lift my spirits, so I surround myself with them. Christian and I painted the boring beige interieur of our new house in vivid sunset shades and ocean blues. Even when we entertain, we eat on the oversized country table in the kitchen. The formal dining room is our family art studio furnished with easels and cabinets of painting and drawing supplies. I frame our artwork myself and hang them, splashes of our colors, on the walls. If money were no object, I'd have stained glass in all the rooms.

4. The gym is my sanity ~ Four to five times a week for the past eight years, I've met my best friend Lorri at the gym. We arrive early, unfluffed and bare-faced, and get our sweat on. Our workouts aren't for the faint-hearted. We start with cardio, usually a forty-five minute-long combination of jogs, hills and sprints. Next we hit the weights, often scaring and sometimes inspiring newbies in the room. Of course, we talk about food the entire time we're exercising. What we ate the day before, what we wished we hadn't, what we plan to eat later on... But more than that, we just talk. We've exercised our way through pregnancies, fights with our husbands, boob jobs, problems with friends and neighbors, fortieth birthdays, moving into new houses. We've cheered each other on through good times and encouraged each other over the rough patches. My body and spirit are stronger thanks to her.

5. No recipe scares me off ~ I learned to make a mean pot of (spaghetti) sauce when I was growing up. In Africa, I befriended women and children who taught me to prepare their country's dishes, cooked over three-rock fires out in the yard. But it was when I moved to France with my new husband and became my mother-in-law's star pupil that I really learned how to cook. Watch out Julia Child, you got nothin' on me!

6. Cake Artistry is one of my hobbies ~ My creative side fears no medium, including buttercream frosting. As soon as my kids were old enough to ask, I've been making their birthday cakes. I raise the bar each year, and here are the two most recent cakes I made.

I made each rose by hand with Royal Icing -- everything on this cake was edible!

I crafted the palm trees with pretzel logs and fondant, and the monkeys with Royal Icing. Only the zebras, lions and giraffes were not edible.

7. I read tarot cards ~ A reading doesn't predict the future in any traditional sense. The tarot's power lies in the fact that while I meditate on a question or quandary in my life, I'm drawn to certain cards. I fan them out face down, close my eyes, and choose the number of cards needed for the reading. As I turn each over, one at a time, reading the card's interpretations, it mirrors a quiet truth I hold in my heart. Sometimes the truth is so still I can't hear it, but when it resonates loudly in the days that follow, the card's meaning is revealed. It never fails to astound and inspire me. I also like to pull a card in the morning, to give focus to that day.

8. I have a word box ~ My mother has a small stained glass workshop in her basement, and one Christmas she made me a gorgeous box of light pink and white glass. She soldered the joints and affixed the lid with hinges. Inside, I keep short, narrow strips of card stock, on which each I wrote a noun, verb, or adjective. When I'm feeling uninspired to write, I sometimes pull ten or fifteen words out at random and compose a poem. My daughter and I often pull two words out each and they become our names for the afternoon. One day she was Polite Lovely Green, and I was Pristine Flabbergast. Another day, we could be Sudsy Ricchorchet and Faucet Fade.

9. I love board games ~ There's something relaxing and nostalgic about playing games. Maybe I find comfort in the fact that everything you need comes out of the box, and once you've finished it all stores neatly back in the box. I love playing with the kids -- Monopoly is one of our faves. And my son is an excellent chess player. My all-time favorite, though, is Scrabble. When my sisters and I get together, you can bet the Scrabble board will be out the entire time.

10. I'm an idealist ~ I believe the world is as it should be, disasters and heartbreak and all. If life were easy and our challenges minimum, there would be nothing driving us to improve. Each of us has a responsibility to be the best human beings we can be, to spend our energies invoking positive change in the world, one person at a time. The soul is eternal; its journey continues. I want to make the most of my time here and grasp the lessons I set out to learn.

So now you know a bit more about me. Do we have anything in common? Tell me, leave me a comment!

Friday, January 22, 2010

From The Lips Of...Ray Manners

Ray Manners is writing today. He's a fictional character and the antagonist in "Overcome," my novel-in-progress. Ray is a thirty-four year old telemarketer struggling to keep his life orderly and organized. It isn't easy, considering the open wounds from an abusive childhood that refuse to scab and heal. No matter how tight his grip on the day-to-day, everything in his perception is linked to that old pain. The following is a moment from his life. [Note: This is NOT an excerpt from the novel. It is a writing exercise in which I practice capturing the voice of my character.]

It was eleven a.m., but that's lunchtime for me. Not because I'm hungry, I don't start missing food until mid-afternoon. I just can't take the noon hour swarms of people in the delis and restaurants. Hell, you can't even find a place to park at that time of day, and the chance of someone not paying attention and dinging your car quadruples. No thanks. Besides, by the time I finish my meal each day, the office is emptied out and quiet, just the way I like it.

I was in the mood for a sub, but I bypassed the sandwich shop close to work. The fat chick in there took meat off the customer in front of me's sandwich one day, when he changed his mind at the last minute and opted for roast beef instead of ham. Then she tried to put that roast beef on my bread. She looked at me like I was crazy when I complained. I don't want food that touched someone else's food, what was crazy about that?

I had my pick of spots in the grocery store lot. As soon as I walked in, a greeter in a goofy green smock said hello to me. Here's a concept I can't explain. Why do they station someone inside the doors? Are they that worried the shopping experience they have to offer won't beat the competition's unless they gush with enthusiasm at my arrival? Two more people in smocks shouted hello from their scattered positions before going back to their tasks of restocking shelves or sweeping the floors. I didn't even look at 'em, just kept my head down and headed for the deli.

The place was spotless, I'll give 'em that. Of course, the rush of people needing a quart of milk or something for supper was still to arrive once the five o'clock whistles sounded. They'll come bustling in, scuffing the floors and leaving unnoticed scraps of trash in their wakes. Ever go to a store around ten at night? The place is trashed. People are unbelievable.

There was no one waiting when I got to the deli. A dry old woman with a hairnet greeted me. I watched her struggle to pull the latex gloves over her liver spotted hands, but I looked away before she glanced up apologetically. Finally, she constructed my roast beef sub to order, and I was glad to note the cleanliness of the sandwich board and the fresh appearance of the condiments. A clock on the wall reminded me this area wouldn't look as neat and clean in another forty-nine minutes. I took the wrapped sandwich from the woman and thanked her.

I headed straight for the express lane to pay. A woman was paying at the register, and behind her was the only other customer in line, a big bellied man with a ten gallon cowboy hat on his head. The hat distracted me from noticing what was in his cart, but a moment later I looked down. Tex began transferring his items to the belt, and I counted along in my head. One, two, three...eight... I looked up at the express sign that read, "10 items or less"...eleven, twelve... I set my jaw. Sixteen items covered the conveyor belt when he was finished. The cashier greeted him with a smile, and ol' Tex spoke right up. He apologized for having so many items.

"Oh that's alright, sugar," said the cashier.

I felt my eyes narrow and heat rise up under my collar. I didn't think it was all right at all. I'd passed two other registers that allowed an unrestricted number of items, but Tex here must have wanted to get in and out without waiting. Must be his schedule was more important than mine. He didn't turn and look at me. Didn't offer an apology or anything. I guess I was shit in his eyes.

I clutched my bag and stormed out the store, ignoring the cheerful good-bye tossed out by the greeter. I wanted her to know my shopping experience wasn't that great. I drove to the stop sign you have to pass before turning down the short lane to the road, and whose truck arrived at the stop from the opposite side but Tex and his ridiculous hat. He pulled right out and made his turn first, even though I had the right-of-way. I slammed my hand so hard on the horn that I think the emblem in the center of the steering wheel embedded in my palm.

People really are unbelievable.

Identity Crisis

I'm a very visual person and I just can't seem to find the right look for this blog. I love color -- and by that I don't mean shades of beige -- so bear with me while I audition new layouts. I'm looking forward to this color neurosis being over ;)

Ahhh. This feels more like me!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Omniscient Narration

The mental image I had of Lisbeth Salander as I read The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo looked nothing like the girl on this book cover. I saw her vividly though, as clearly as if she were sitting across from me, riding downtown in the same subway car. Author Stieg Larsson did a wonderful job describing her appearance, and his characterizations were strong. So why didn't I ever feel a sense of intimacy with her?

I think the problem was Larsson's use of omniscient narration. When more than one character's inner thoughts and feelings are coming at me from the same page, I feel like I'm floating above the book. It's like watching the scenes unfold shoulder-to-shoulder with God, rather than from out the eyes of a character. Lisbeth Salander was a character I wanted badly to connect with, but I never really got there. Too many POVs stood between us.

My favorite books employ multiple POVs, but their success hinges on the fact that the authors allowed only one character-narrator per chapter. "The Witching Hour" by Anne Rice comes to mind. Rice shares the POV between several characters, two of which are central players Michael Curry and Rowan Mayfair. As each chapter filters through the perspective of one of these characters, the reader develops a strong, intimate bond with him or her. After reading that book, I felt closely connected to all the characters.

I've never attempted omniscient narration in my own writing. My short stories tend to be third person limited or first person narration. The novel I'm working on switches POV at the beginning of each new chapter.

What POV narration options do you prefer to write in?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I smelled Wanda's perfume the rest of that summer day. It'd permeated the fibers of my shirt and the wall around my heart that protected me from her vicious attacks. Each time the spicy, floral scent wafted up I was transported back to her embrace, back to her words...I have breast cancer...back to her apology for all the terrible things she'd said about me. My unsolicited enemy was now my friend. I couldn't stop thinking about her.

We spent a long time talking outside the elementary school just before Christmas vacation, after we'd applauded our fourth graders' first semester academic achievements. I complimented how pretty she looked in the auburn wig she wore. She fingered the ends with lengthy, French-manicured nails and told me she missed her blond hair. She was getting better though, she said. Her health was returning, no thanks to her ex-husband. In typical Wanda fashion, she spent the next twenty-five minutes talking trash about her ex, how cruel he was to her, how he'd refused to help her in any way through her treatments. I just want to be happy, that's all. Just me and the kids, happy. Her words haunt me.

Four weeks later, Wanda was discovered dead in her apartment. I heard the news as if sitting on the bottom of a pool, the weight of the water pressing down on me, muffling the words. Details bobbed and floated below the surface of my comprehension. A friend was saying they'd found her alone, her body, so the police couldn't rule out suicide or murder. I blinked hard, remembering back to earlier in the day. It was 8:30 a.m. and I was on my way to the gym. I came around the corner lost in my thoughts of how I'd organize my day. Movement caught my eye, and I turned my head as I passed Wanda's house. Her ex-husband, now sole resident of the place, was in the driveway, gesturing enthusiastically at me. He beamed as he waved; I returned the greeting as I drove on.

I could see that giant smile in my mind's eye, and the hair on my arms stood up.

A few days have passed now, and I still can't believe she's gone. That space she took up on the sidewalk opposite me feels empty when I picure her, standing there a few short weeks ago in a long brown leather coat and high heeled boots. She was a tiny woman, especially after enduring chemotherapy, but she was larger than life. Her insecurities drove her to dress provocatively, to stand too erect, to apply evening appropriate make-up during the day, to push back when someone, real or imagined, pushed first. Her personality wasn't compatible with mine, but our energies drew us together. If she was in the same restaurant or school gymnasium or at the pool, I was hyper-aware of her. There wasn't anything obsessive about it, but there was something connecting us. I feel it still.

I wonder at the impact Wanda made on me, and why we shared that enigmatic connection. There is a lesson in our story, and as I work through its meaning I celebrate her in my heart. She died young, before her bumpy road smoothed out. I find comfort in the belief that her objectives for this lifetime were met, and that she's again Home and at peace.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

From The Lips Of...Amanda Watson

Today's guest blogger is a main character in the work-in-progress novel entitled "Overcome." Amanda Watson is the best friend and sidekick of the protagonist, Julie Knotts. She and Julie met when Julie's family moved next door when the girls were ten years old. At the time, Julie's family was reeling from the sudden death of Julie's younger sister, the victim of an accidental drowning. Amanda knows better than anyone the burdens her friend has struggled with ever since, but right now her energies are focused elsewhere. [Note: The following is NOT an excerpt from the novel. Rather, it is a creative writing exercise to help me capture her voice.] Yesterday (Friday), I "took" Julie to the mall. Here were her impressions:

There's something about the mall that lifts my spirits. The air itself is charged with an electricity that hums through me, and I'm not be the only one. I couldn't believe all the smiling faces! People walked with purpose and a skip in their strides, especially those with brightly colored plastic bags dangling from their arms and bouncing against their legs with each step. Maybe it's the scent of new clothes that intoxinates the masses, subconsciously calling upon childhood excitement reminiscent of the first day of a new school year. Or maybe my perception was just plain distorted. Being so crazy in love will do that to you.

I caught my reflection in Ann Taylor Loft's plate glass window as I approached the mall's main entrance. I swear I saw the diamond sparkle on my hand as I passed by. How is it possible that even its monochromatic reflection is gorgeous?

I entered the mall at the food court, a massive atrium with potted trees whose top branches reach the second level. Over the din of the crowded area I heard the birds that fly freely in the canopy twitter and chirp to each other.

I needed to visit the restroom first thing, so I headed in that direction. Walking toward me was the most beautiful little girl I've ever laid eyes on. She was tiny, perhaps three years old, though I'm a terrible judge of children's ages. She was dressed in a brown jumper with cream-colored tights and a matching turtleneck underneath. Her thin legs appeared more narrow by the chunky, camel-colored, Uggs-style boots on her feet. Her hair was the same light brunette as mine, and her mother (I presume) had gathered up the top-most section in an elastic and finished the hairstyle off with a large red bow. I couldn't take my eyes off her as she trotted along a few paces in front of her mother. I wondered what my and Paul's children will look like? An electric tingle shot through me following that thought. I realized how widely I was smiling.

I left the restrooms a few minutes later and headed toward Nordstrom's. I hoped there'd be reasonably priced dresses on the after-Christmas sales racks. It's funny; I've never been one to look at price tags when I need something new, never counted pennies before. But now that I have the wedding to plan, and a life ahead of me that promises a new home, children to raise, and college funds to plan for, I've noticed a shift in my priorities. For example, I don't want to spend a lot of money on a fancy dress for the benefit I have to attend next weekend. I rarely dress up to that extent; it's not like I attend a gala every other week. I'd rather put my money toward the important things in life, like my future.

I was enjoying these musings and thinking about Paul when the first kiosk worker stepped in my path. I almost stumbled into him. I politely declined the offer to test the sea salt exfoliater he tried pumping into my hand, but he wasn't easily dissuaded. The mall shouldn't allow those people to pester shoppers. There ought to be a square on the floor, a perimeter they can't cross, so that I'm not obligated to actually sidestep their persons.

It happened three times between the food court and Nordstrom's, the anchor store on the far end of the mall. I may have lost my mojo mood completely had it not been for the sight of all the little children playing in Simon Kidgits Klubhouse. An open-air romper room of sorts, it occupies a stretch in the middle of the mall corridor that has been sectioned off, fortified by benches on all four sides. Within the low wall of benches, colorful carpeting runs underneath climbing toys in the shapes of cars and dinosaurs. In the center is a clubhouse with gadgets and gears mounted on the walls, stimulating children's hand-eye coordination. Mothers chatted with one another, a vigilant eye always on their little tikes, and snapped pictures of the children's antics. My smile was back. I glanced down at the diamond shimmering on my finger, and daydreams of good times to come again flooded my mind.

I attracted the attention of a sales associate the moment I crossed the threshhold at Nordstrom's. When she asked me what I was shopping for, I surprised myself. Instead of inquiring about a sale on dresses, I asked on which floor I'd find children's clothes.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Motivational Letter to Myself

January, 2010

I sit here calmly typing away, but inside I’m bursting with excitement. An exhilaration I can’t explain has taken hold of me, a promise of big things on the horizon. It’s a thrill, a delicious sensation of anticipation, like speeding down a stretch of elevated interstate as it passes through an urban forest of skyscrapers. Where it's coming from, this current of energy pulsating through me, I don’t know.

What I do know is I have to channel the energy, or I’ll explode.

Writing has become my true passion. Prior to joining I enjoyed journaling and poetry writing. It was when I started writing for an audience, in late 2007, that my life changed. I used to write when inspiration hit me; now I write every day. But a daily writing practice isn't enough. I need to optimize my writing time to reach my 2010 goals.

The time has also come to address a pitfall in my creativity. When I’m called away from the computer to wear another of my many hats: mother, wife, household manager, I’m still writing. For example, I can be bodily present at the dinner table while my mind drifts away, lost in the heady mist of my thoughts, disconnected from my husband and kids. I must find a balance between my creative life and my family life, because both are vital to my happiness.

So here's the plan to harness my energy and move forward in my craft. In 2010, I commit to these writing goals:

The project I choose to concentrate on this year is my novel, the rough draft of which I wrote during November’s NaNoWriMo. The novel as a genre is fascinating; the process is decidedly different than writing short stories. I realize how much I have to learn. Will the book be a publishable story one day? It doesn’t matter, at this point. I’m after the accomplishment of completing the final draft of a manuscript. In order to do that, I’ll have to make some tough decisions.

Bullet My daily WDC experience is very important to me, but I'm guilty of over-extending myself by taking on too many commitments. I belong to a long list of wonderful groups, all of which serve our community. I've decided I can only remain active in two at this time. I've chosen The Rising Stars program (I was thrilled to be promoted by Gabriella Loves RisingStars ! to Group Leader last spring) and the Circle of Sisters (I was honored with an invitation to join this past autumn). I love reviewing, and my affiliation with these two groups encourages a regular review practice vital to my own progress as a writer and the continued growth of the WDC community.

Bullet In addition, I’ll continue to moderate and judge the "Young Stars Shine Your Light Contest" , a contest close to my heart because it touches the writing lives of WDC’s youngest members and supports them as they improve their craft. I wish someone had encouraged me to become a serious writer when I was a teenager!

Bullet I plan to continue publishing bi-monthly group emails to "Teen Writers Info-Sharing Team (TWIST)" members. I believe in promoting WDC contests, groups, forums, activities and fundraisers geared toward young writers and the pursuit of writing excellence.

Bullet It’s with a heavy heart, and after weeks of deliberation, that I have decided to close "Nicki D-Zigns Sig & Banner Shop ~OPEN~" . The time commitment in maintaining the shop is simply too great, and I squander precious writing time searching the Internet for images and designing eye-catching texts. I will not delete the shop, as I envision re-opening it for special occasions until a time when I can again dedicate myself to its success.

I do my best writing when the house is quiet. Therefore, my principal time blocks are 7 a.m. – 9 a.m., and 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. I'll devote the first block to WDC, when I check my emails and interact with my groups. Between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. I'm in the gym, where inspiration often strikes me on the treadmill. Thank goodness for the notepad feature on my cell phone!

Between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day I’ll work on the novel. There will be days when appointments and holidays interrupt the schedule, so it’s paramount that I write diligently on the days I’m able. The design wall I’ve installed behind the monitor inspires me already, and adding images cut from magazines, “idea” notes, song lyrics, postcards, and newspaper clippings will keep me visually stimulated as I write.

I’ve begun to use my blog to experiment with writing styles and descriptive voices. My posts fall into two genre categories: Creative Nonfiction and Fiction.

The Creative Nonfiction entries focus on what I call ‘captured moments’ from my daily life, usually featuring my family and an incident that stirred my soul or taught me a lesson in humanity. I concentrate on vivid descriptions, fluid brush strokes to cover the story canvas, so that the reader experiences each moment as I did.

I’ve already become more in tune with the world around me through this exciting practice. And its benefits are two-fold: I believe it will encourage me to be more present when I’m with my family. Rather than retreating into the fiction of my mind, I’ll have my author’s eyes trained outward, capturing the precious moments unfolding before me and reveling in the essence of my family life, to be archived forever.

I'm equally enthusiastic about blogging in fiction. It began with an epiphany. I realized how much better I got to know a character each time I thrust him or her into new or challenging scenario. This led to an interesting idea: Once a week I'll give my blog over to a character from my novel. First, I’ll take the featured character on a short outing, to the grocery store, the gym, the mall, or a walk around the neighborhood. Concentrating on what I already know about the character, I’ll see the world through his or her eyes, recording his or her perceptions, actions, and reactions. Then, I’ll write the blog entry as the character, not me, and describe the adventure in his or her voice.

Like everything I've written, these goals were conceived as inspired thoughts. By virtue of fingers striking keys, they are now as concrete as any living thing. 2010 is here, and my plans are underway. The energy humming through me is palpable. It’s time to get in the driver’s seat of my life, and the goals underlined in this letter are my vehicle.

Now, go.

Lots of Love,

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Human Personality Traits and Character Development

The more you know about your character, the better your reader will understand and identify with him. The character’s name and physical appearance are important and will help the reader visualize the character you’ve created. But how the character speaks, moves his body, thinks, acts and reacts is what makes the character come alive in the reader’s imagination. Capturing the essence of your character is one of the challenges you must overcome to achieve a story that is engaging and entertaining.

For inspiration, some writers turn to personality profile typing charts. Leaders in the field of psychology have studied human behavior and determined that people fall into personality categories based on how they systematically act and react to social situations. Two such researchers were the mother and daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers.

Myers and Briggs developed the MBTI, a psychometric questionnaire consisting of seventy-five yes/no questions based on Carl Jung's theories on human personalities. They first published it in 1962. A taker’s answers are tabulated and indicate which of the sixteen personality types the taker falls into.

I have taken the MBTI test several times over the past couple years, and every time I’m typed as ENFJ (Extraverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging). To give you an idea of how the personality types can inspire your characterizations, listen to how an ENFJ character would be described: Warm, empathetic, responsive, and responsible. Highly attuned to the emotions, needs, and motivations of others. Find potential in everyone, want to help others fulfill their potential. May act as a catalyst for individual and group growth. Loyal, responsive to praise and criticism. Sociable, facilitate others in a group, and provide inspiring leadership. Exclaim My wheels are turning already; aren’t yours?

To take the Myers Briggs Test yourself, Click Here

To read a description of each of the sixteen personality traits, Click Here

David Keirsley, PhD also studied human behavior. His description of the Four Temperaments of the human psyche gained him international acclaim. He, too, devised a test to determine personality types called The Keirsey Temperament Sorter®-II (KTS®-II). According to his website, “(The KTS-II) is the most widely used personality instrument in the world. It is a powerful 70 question personality instrument that helps individuals discover their personality type. The KTS-II is based on Keirsey Temperament Theory™, published in the best selling books, Please Understand Me® and Please Understand Me II, by Dr. David Keirsey.” Keirsley claims every person falls into one of four temperament categories: The Guardians, The Idealists, The Rationals, or The Artisans.

[I took The Keirsey Temperament Sorter on 1/12/2010, and was typed an Idealist. In paranthesis were the letters (NF), or "Intuited Feeling." This is exactly in line with my results for the MBTI: (ENFJ).]

To learn about each temperament, Click Here

And to take the KTS-II, Click Here

Exploring personality types is a fascinating way to create and develop fictional characters. Let the type descriptions spark your imagination, lead you down unexpected storylines, and inspire you to write authentic, life-like characters.

Monday, January 11, 2010


This weekend set in motion my focus for the week to come.

Mornings are my best time of day. I'm energetic, happy, and look forward to participating in the unfurling day. An habitual early-riser, I was at my computer before the sun came up on Saturday morning, my fingers flying across the keyboard, giving life to an inspired stream of thoughts. I jumped at the voice of my daughter standing at my shoulder. I hadn't heard her come in.

"Mommy," Sidney began. "I want--"

Donuts, I thought, as the word sailed out of her mouth a nanosecond later.

My son, Cody inherited a lot of my genes: my looks, my temperment, suseptibility to headache and teeth-grinding, and my love for writing. But Sidney got my sweet tooth. In fact, she got Cody's share too. Double dose.

While the boys slept, Sid and I headed to the grocery store. I'm clinging to the diet wagon and refuse to fall off before my trip to New York at the end of the month, so we only picked out a couple donuts for each of the three of them. When we got home, Sidney tiptoed through the silent house like an elephant crashing through the brush, and within minutes the boys were awake. The promise of fresh donuts brought Christian and Cody to the kitchen in time to see the last bite of Sidney's first donut disappear behind glaze-smeared lips.

Cody chose one of the two donuts his sister announced were "his," a blue-iced affair with a face of gummy ring eyes and a red licorice smile. He ate it slowly, putting it down on his plate between bites. By about Cody's fourth bite, Sidney finished her other donut. She eyed him suspiciously when he declared he was full and excused himself from the table, leaving a half-eaten donut behind. He shouted "No!" over his shoulder when she asked if she could eat his second one.

The next day when I asked the kids what they wanted for breakfast, Cody was all smiles. "I'll eat my donut!" he said cheerfully. I looked over at Sidney, her arms hanging at her sides like a cut flower's wilted petals in a five-day-old bouquet. She was staring half-heartedly at the short row of cereal boxes on a pantry shelf. Cody followed my gaze.

"Little S," he said, "you can have half my donut, if you want."

Sidney and I both said, "Really?"

I was so proud of him! He wasn't prompted or goaded, except by an innate desire to do the right thing. And the look on Sidney's face was priceless. She went from partly cloudy to sunny in less than the blink of an eye. I hugged them each tight.

When I came back to the kitchen for a second cup of coffee an hour later, the kids were playing a collaborated game involving Bionicle robots and Littlest Pet Shop bobble heads. Their voices trilled with genuine happiness as the bizarre cast of characters interacted with indiscriminate ease. I stood there a minute, in awe of them. As if I'd made a sudden noise, they both looked up.

"What's wrong?" they asked.

I told them how wide my heart smiles when I see them getting along so well. And I pointed out that Cody's act of kindness in sharing his donut with Sidney started them both on a path of friendliness and high spirits. After all, if Cody had been stingy and not shared his donut, Sidney would have watched him eat with envy and resentment. She'd probably have delighted in needling him at every turn, irritated him to the best of her ability all morning. The day was more enjoyable because everyone felt the positive effects of Cody's action.

I was interpreting a life lesson for them, but I was teacher and student at the same time. Once again, my kids were a mirror reflecting life in its purest form, reminding me how we should act. The power of kindness overwhelmes all else; its light douses the darkness. You may not see all its effects, but if you tune in to the world around you, you will feel it.

Lesson learned, again. Thanks, kids!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Kids Are Smarter Than I Am

I had a fantastic evening with Christian and the kids. After working every day straight since Christmas, with not one day off (including New Year's Eve or New Year's Day), Christian took us out for dinner at LongHorns. A few years ago, this was a regular, bi-monthly event. But it's been a very long time since we splurged on dinner in a steakhouse, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

The conversation was lively as we waited forty minutes for a table. In an attempt to ignore the tantilizing smells emitted from the adjacent dining room, the four of us played word games as we sat crammed into an entryway bench fashioned to remind us of the rustic Old West. One of us would think of a fruit or vegetable, announce the color of its peel or flesh, and the rest of us made guesses until someone guessed right. We moved on to animals (the hint had to be its habitat) before our pager finally went off and we were shown to a booth.

By then we were starved; the waitress was on the ball, and in no time we were eating. The food was delicious.

At one point in the night, someone made a reference to physics, or outer space, I don't remember which. Eleven-year-old Cody began contemplating his different theories for how mankind could break the time-space continuem ( is that even how you spell it??). Christian made a remark about Einstein, which prompted our son to declare he agreed with Einstein's theories on all points but one: Cody feels Einstein was incorrect when he claimed gravity pushed us rather than pulled us down. I tried to contribute to the conversation by saying how goofy the Star Trek series was, with everyone walking around up there in space like their spacecrafts were full of the Earth's gravity. Cody agreed and said he had an idea for how to address zero gravity in space travel.

I interrupted him and said, "Weighted shoes?"

My son rolled his eyes at me and said he hoped I was joking. I guffawed; of course, it was a joke....

I realized then I was about Cody's age when I was a big Star Trek fan. One of my first crushes was on Captain Kirk...

As I smiled at that thought, I was struck by how big the kids are getting. Just yesterday I was a 'tween' and dreaming of adventures I'd have when I was grown up. Moments like tonight are precious and fleeting. Cody's mind is so sharp; I'm enjoying watching him grow and mature. The sky's the limit for that kid.

And so the close of another wonderful day has arrived. I'm off to dream about Captain Kirk, going where no man has gone before, in his weighted shoes.

Friday, January 8, 2010

From The Lips Of...Julie Knotts

Julie Knotts is writing today. She is a fictional character central to "Overcome," a novel-in-progress I'm working on. Julie is a talented twenty-four year old painter and sketcher who has chosen a career in nursing over one as an artist. This decision, and many others she makes every day, stems from unresolved issues carried over into her adult life from a traumatic childhood. She is writing today unaware of events to come (in later chapters), events that will either force her to evolve in her perceptions, or crush her spirit completely. [Note: This is NOT an excerpt from the novel. It is a writing exercise in which I practice capturing the voice of my character.]

I followed the woman with the fake tan out the gym doors, into a frigid wind gusting around the corner of the building. As if dancing synchronized to the same music, we pulled our hoodies tighter around us and bent our heads, leaning into the gale. I thought she looked mildly ridiculous with such unseasonably bronzed skin, but the second the thought flitted across my mind I scolded myself. It was only January 8th, and here I'd broken one of my New Year's resolutions, again. My mind must have been desperate to fixate on anything besides the freezing air that burned in my lungs as I rushed across the parking lot, because despite the self-reprimand for judging her, I couldn't stop thinking about that woman's skin. What sort of vanity drove women to subject themselves to harmful ultra-violet rays in tanning beds? Granted, the bulbs today are probably improved from back when I used to tan, before nursing school. I hoped that woman limited her indulgence to the bronzing bed where the UV-B rays are less dangerous. Although, considering the deep, rich color she'd achieved, I doubted it.

I reached my car and fumbled the key trying to unlock the door. I started the engine and let it idle a minute to warm up. I hated the idea of cold hand-sanitizer touching my skin, but I cringed more at the thought of how many germs I'd come in contact with handling the free weights. I pumped a generous dallop from the bottle wedged in the narrow pocket built into the driver's side door. As I slathered the product across my hands, I glanced at my pale reflection in the rearview mirror. It would be nice to have a tan.

I made one stop before heading home. With all the paperwork I needed to do, I didn't want to mess around with preparing food for lunch. I swung the car into the spot nearest to the grocery store doors in the Publix parking lot. A tingle of panic swept through me when I dug through my gym bag for my wallet. Suddenly, I wasn't thinking about lunch. What if I didn't have my licence and I had an accident, or was pulled over by the police? The burden of fear lifted as quickly as it'd gripped me when my hand closed on the rigid fabric of the wallet. I pulled it out and sprinted for the store.

The resolution I was managing to keep concerned my diet and exercise regime. I'm used to my friends rolling their eyes when I talk about the five pounds I put on over the Holidays. I'm naturally trim, but hey, when your jeans are snug you're just plain uncomfortable. It won't be hard to shed the extra pounds, most of which is water weight. As if my feet weren't paying a bit of attention to my head, they walked me right down the candy aisle. I slowed my pace and looked longingly at the malted milk balls in the bin candy section. Keep moving, I told myself sternly. My feet obeyed.

In the freezer section, I eyed the selection of Lean Cuisine meals. They all looked nasty to me, but I settled on an Asian-inspired meal, because it included edamame. Next, I walked down the aisle with dietary supplements, and chose a protein bar sweetened with sugar alcohols. At the register, I gathered up my purchases instead of wasting a plastic sack and headed back out into the cold.

I travelled a back road to get home, the sort with two lanes but no lines painted on its surface. Groves of tall evergreens lined one side, keeping the pavement in shadow. It was mid-morning, but the temperature was well below freezing and I could see patches of transparent ice. I felt a little better knowing I had my licence on me, but now I worried about the damage I could do to the car if I lost control and landed in a ditch. I maintained a speed under the limit.

My internal organizer spoke up, and I began mentally outlining the tasks to accomplish today. Most important on the list was completing the weekly report of my work with Mrs. Freeman, the patient with whom I spend most of my time. I'd need to call her, too, to schedule her appointments for next week. On the radio, my new favorite song began. I reached over and turned up the volume. The rapid beat drummed against my chest, and I smiled. I felt like dancing.

I must have pressed the accelerator without realizing it. The song raised my mood, and the car's speed followed suit. Before I realized what was happening, the back end fish-tailed, skidding sideways across a patch of black ice. I stomped the brake, the wrong strategy for righting the car but the one that came naturally to me. The car veered sharply to the left, then caught traction on a stretch of dry road. My eyes flicked to the rearview mirror and, thankfully, there were no other cars around. My heartbeat pounded in my ears, and I blew out through pursed lips a steady stream of air. I cut off the radio with a violent punch to the button, and silence filled the car. In control again, I continued, slower, toward home.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Character Development

Writers come up with many interesting ways to develop a new character. Techniques I've explored include filling out character questionnaires, interviewing my characters, and sketching pictures of them. Sometimes the inspiration for a character comes from a word or phrase, but I'm a very visual person so more often than not, I see a person in my mind's eye.

A questionnaire is a useful tool for making decisions on what I'll call the character's "surfaces," their external and internal "shells." The character's name is very important to me, but I often can't name the character until I know other things about him or her. A questionnaire directs my thinking about the character's "outer shell": How old is this character? What color hair and eyes does she have? What's her physical stature? What's her ethnicity and religion? From contemplating and deciding these things, I can better answer questions further down on the list. For example, what are her physicality traits? Is she graceful or awkward? How does she move her body when she's relaxed? When she's stressed? Does she appear introverted or extroverted?

A questionnaire also helps me gather information about the character's "inner shell" that may move the story in interesting, unexpected directions. Is she single or married? Does she have children? What was her upbringing like? Does she have strong ties with her parents and siblings? What's her education level or profession? Does she live where she grew up, or did she move far away when she left home?

I found this free worksheet on the Web. Check it out: Character Development Worksheet

Another good technique for developing a character is to interview her. I, the writer, become the interviewer. I follow a formal list of prepared questions, and I let the character answer each one. Like any good interviewer, I listen closely to her answers. If something she says triggers another question, not on my list, I go ahead and ask it, noting both the question and the character's answer. It's important to let the character speak freely during this exercise. Don't censor her. And don't be shocked by what she says! Sometimes I have to remind myself that she isn't me. If she doesn't like babies, or chocolate, or if she's carelessly promiscuous, that's neither a reflection on me, nor on my likes and dislikes, or my personal code of ethics.

Laura Cushing and Rich Taylor have come up with a list of 100 great questions to ask your character. Check it out: Character Interview Questions

As I worked through the first draft of my novel, I was struck by the similarities between developing a character and meeting a real-life person. When I'm introduced to someone for the first time, I note their name and their physical appearance. I hear the person talk and gather information throughout the conversation, from the person's speech patterns and word choices, facial expressions and gestures. But first encounters don't tell you that much about a person. People are on their best behaviors when they first meet, their conversations are guarded and polite, and oftentimes people mirror each other's mannerisms and body language. The initial steps in creating a character for fiction are very much like being introduced to a person for the first time.

If you spend time with a new acquaintence, you learn more about him or her. Guards come down as people develop a sense of trust and security with one another. Moments of stress or challenge reveal the inner workings of a person's psyche, and over time you find out what really makes them tick.

As I wrote each chapter and I put my characters into diverse situations where they were faced by conflict and personal demons, I was often amazed at how they acted and reacted. I realized I wasn't really writing them, I was channeling them. It was a fascinating revelation, one that represented a turning point in my journey from the short story genre to that of novel.

With the desire to push that revelation to new levels of understanding, my newest trick for discovering how my characters think and what makes them tick involves this blog. I plan to do this: one day a week I'll give the keyboard over to one of my characters. Every Friday, I'll take one character on an outing. I may run errands, go to the gym, or just go for a walk. During that time, I'll observe the world around me through the eyes of that character. I'll think like he thinks, perceive each moment through the filter of his prejudices and life experiences. When I blog about it, the entry will come through my fingers but from the lips of that character.

I can't wait to get started tomorrow. I hope you'll join me to hear what my first guest blogger, Julie Knotts (protagonist of "Overcome" [WIP]; click here to read the novel's synopsis and an excerpt) has to say.

Until then, what's your favorite method for getting to know your character? I'd love to hear what works for you and what doesn't.

Thanks for reading, and have a pleasant day!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Enjoy It, It's Free

The sun dazzled me this morning and the sub-zero air made me fully aware of my lungs. With each gulp of it I felt more vital, more alive. The grays and browns of winter's landscape dissolved in the technicolor brightness beyond the windshield. I smiled all the way to the gym.

In many ways, today felt like the New Year. The kids were back in school, and our daily routine replaced the loosy-goosy, time-has-no-meaning lolly-gagging of vacation. Don't get me wrong, I love staying in my jammies all day long. But after a couple weeks, this schedule-oriented woman was ready to get back on track.

Into the second mile on the treadmill, a personal trainer new to our gym arrived with her client. The trainer is a tall, muscular woman whose stature and gait make her more handsome than pretty. Her client was a doughty woman in her early fifties, quite possibly attempting to fulfill her newest resolution. I give her snaps for the effort, and I wish her luck sticking with a program. But she wasn't my focus as I jogged along.

The trainer was awesome! She kept the woman moving from exercise to exercise, huffing and puffing through each set. The woman didn't look happy, but the trainer stayed upbeat and wouldn't indulge her in laments. She counted out the reps, added "Come on!" and hand claps between numbers. "You can do it" became her mantra, and each time she said it, she used her voice like a musician uses his instrument, changing keys and altering tones, until the client was laughing, in spite of herself. I wanted to tell the trainer she rocks, but I worried she'd use the introduction as an invitation to sell me some sessions.

I'm no personal trainer, but I know my way around a gym. I've been working out regularly for a long time, and the last eight years I've trained with my workout partner and best friend. Even if none of that were true, I still wouldn't find money to squeeze out of our well-wrung budget for something like that. As I ran past the 2.25 mile marker, the trainer started me thinking about a play I watched Sidney's class put on last month.

Two classrooms of fourth grade children participated in the production of "The Baker's Neighbor." It was an adorable story with a cast of ten, and each of the three acts starred another group of children, cast in those same ten roles. That way, everyone had a chance to be on stage. I cracked up when a girl played the role of the baker in the second act, donning a large black mustache cut from construction paper, scotch taped to her upper lip.

Briefly, the story opens with the baker selling his famous sweetbread goods. A local named Pablo arrives, like he does every day, and simply stands in the shop, smelling the cakes. The baker realizes although Pablo isn't eating his baked creations, he is enjoying them, without paying anything. The baker tries to charge Pablo for sniffing the air.

I thought about this play while I was watching the trainer, feeling motivated by her energy, wanting to copy all her exercises. I didn't want to pay her, but I figured if I worked out near her, I'd get many of the same benefits as if I had. I was Pablo!

I spent about two laps on the virtual track worrying I was a terrible person, until I realized something else. The trainer was so inspirational because she was totally committed to what she was doing. She was joyful, living out loud, making the room brighter with her presence. That's what I wanted to emulate, not her workout routine, but the way she approached her life.

She left before I finished my three miles, but when I see her next, I'm going to introduce myself -- and not as Pablo, either!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Writing (Down) Goals

There's a creative writing contest held every January at called "Dear Me..." The gist of the contest is simple: Compose at letter of intent to yourself, outlining your writing goals for the new year. In the two years I've been a site member, I haven't competed in the contest. This year, though, I'll take a stab at it.

The format for my letter is taking shape in my mind. That's been one of the hurdles of past years; I've never been able to articulate my goals or find the right voice. Now, that forward motion I talked about in my first blog entry, that unexplainable momentum carrying me in a destined direction, is again holding the reins.

I pulled a card today from the Crystal Tarot pack. I do this from time to time, for fun, to see what in my perception at that moment can be mirrored in the card. I pulled La Lune, the moon. The card indicates an uncertain future but one to embrace, come what may. It's a complicated card with contradictory interpretations, and I can identify with both the positive aspects of illuminating the darkened path before me with unwavering optimism, as well as the negative aspects of being consumed by unfounded self-confidence and being led astray by it. Today, with La Lune in hand, the "Dear Me..." contest seems more important than ever.

Outlining goals in a format destined for an audience's eyes goes one step beyond merely stating my resolutions. It becomes a sort of pack with myself, a binding contract signed, sealed and delivered. The excitement I feel tells me what I need to know: trusting my instincts on this point is a very good thing.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Listing the Essentials

Slowly but surely, I'm getting more comfortable with the blog format. I haven't quite found my "blog-voice." I'm a bit like a novice singer in her first voice classes, practicing the scales and skill of projecting her song. I've enjoyed visiting other member's blogs, often going from one page to another by clicking the followers or links to favorite sites. With each stop I pick up more ideas to possibly incorporate here. Like all living things including artistic endeavors, this project's sure to evolve.
I found an interesting entry today. Penny offered her List of the 12 Things All Writers Need. It got me thinking about what's most important to me when I'm writing, and I came up with my own list:

My List of 12 Things I Need as a Writer

NoteV A reliable computer/word processor – When thoughts come fast and furious, my pen just can’t keep up.

NoteW – I love the ease of clicking back and forth between dictionary and thesaurus.

NoteV A quiet workspace

NoteW Piping hot cups of black coffee

NoteV My sister, Noelle- Happy New Year! (86) , who is always willing to help me flesh out a character or debate the necessity of a comma.

NoteW -- The BEST online writing community where I've come to rely on everyone's helpful, supportive critiques.

NoteV A hot shower – I don’t know why, but when I get stuck connecting plot points, the shower is the place where inspiration hits me. (Do they sell waterproof paper and pen yet?)

NoteW Chocolate – Okay, I try not to eat chocolate when I write, but it deserves a spot on any list of life’s essentials. Smile

NoteV The current issue of Glimmer Train -- Nothing wakes my uninspired muse like reading brilliant writing from successful authors.

NoteW My Gratitude Stone – Thirteen years ago I found a piece of sea glass on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s smooth and curved so my thumb lays perfectly in the groove. I hold it when I count my blessings, and when I commune with my characters and ponder their dilemmas.

NoteV Post-It notes – for those moments of genius I don’t want to forget to include in future (or past) chapters.

NoteW Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the support of my hubby and kids. On the (rare) days when I don’t have that, you can be sure I won’t be writing.

Making this list, and others like it, helps me reconnect with myself and the methods to my madness. I feel inspired to get writing. Are you a creative writer? What essentials are on your "writer's" list? And if you are of another profession, what's on your list of the most important things for your work or life? I'd love to read it!