Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Book Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

(I originally wrote this review in January of 2011. This remains one of my favorite books and I'm always surprised to find there are people who don't know it. I'm reposting in case you are one such person. Please remedy that immediately. Thank you.)

I am a fan of fairy tales - always have been. Partly because I'm a dyed-in-the-wool romantic, and nothing makes a romantic's heart weep like the will-they-won't-they relationships found in fairy tales. Partly because I was taught quite early in my childhood to always root for the underdog (Let's go, Mets!), and the heart of all fairy tales is the path of an underappreciated, misunderstood youngster who faces poverty, injury, loss, illness, and certain death in order to defeat evil. Mostly because I am drawn with every fiber of my being to a good rhythm, and there isn't a genre within the realm of the written word that can influence the tide of one's heart-blood like a fairy tale.

A well-written fairy tale makes you feel like you're sitting around a campfire that is just barely staving off the darkness and wilderness of night, going over the events of the day with people whom you can implicitly trust to have your back. It speaks to your mind's ear in the voice of a road-weary story-teller. It finds the right balance between the expected - the magic of threes, the foreshadowing, the black hat-/white hat elements - and the unexpected - the surprising twists that fling our hero(ine) into and out of trouble with such abandon. Fairy tales leave you wrapped in a patchwork quilt of emotional aftermath: elation, melancholy, fury, and of course, hope.

Mr. Rothfuss looks like someone who
can spin a good yarn, doesn't he?
There are a great number of fairy tales written specifically for adults. One of the best that I have come across is The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. I would guess that this book is officially considered a 'fantasy', but it felt very fairy tale to me. Imagine Harry Potter (exceptionally bright hero chafes under limitations and rules of youth) meets The Princess Bride (an innocent yet smoldering, star-crossed romance) meets DragonLance (feudal setting filled with burly peasants who gather at inns to discuss the nearby forest's potential for evil). It has adventure and science and magic and beggars and mead and candles and headmasters and maidens and copper coins and lutes and jealousy and keys and a maybe-dragon. In short, it is exactly the kind of story in which I want to immerse myself for hours upon hours at a time.

I have only a few complaints about this book. The first is that it was a mere 722 pages long. I devoured it in the course of several unintentionally late nights, and I am now slavering for more. The second is that, in the fashion of many great fairy tale/fantasy stories, this book is really just a large part of the whole story. It ends rather abruptly and leaves the many threads of the story all loose and dangly. This would be fine, if not for my third complaint. Thirdly, the second book in the story has yet to be released.  (Update: The Wise Man's Fear was released in March of 2011. It was also wonderful and some day I should review it. I'll have to reread them both first... isn't that a tragedy? ;-) We are now desperately waiting for the third book to finish the series.)

I am in agony. If you have any affection for fairy tales or fantasy stories, you should get your hands on a copy as soon as you possibly can. My misery needs some company.

Friday, August 26, 2016

On Making Believe: An Interview with Author Dianne Gardner

I met Dianne in the #Pitchwars Twitter feed
and felt drawn in by her diverse books,
her artwork, and her brave voyage into the realm of television screenplays.

My interest piqued, I figured the best way to find out more about Dianne's creative path was to ask her... And do a little web trolling.

Katie: Your books are diverse. You've written about life underwater, travels to magical realms, a dystopia, and a historical fantasy. What draws you to so many genres? Is there an underlying theme which connects your stories?

Dianne: Every story I have written has a fantastical element. Mermaids in Pouraka, Altered, though a dystopia, also has a Native American Myth woven into its thread. The Ian’s Realm Saga is a portal travel saga as is Cassandra’s Castle. I also have one humorous vampire story titled An Unconventional Mr. Peadlebody. Each of these fantasies are really the same genre, just a different subgenre and Cassandra’s Castle is the fifth book in the Ian’s Realm Saga.

Katie: Cassandra's Castle will be released on August 31st. You self-publish and handle your own promotions. Can you tell us what self-pub strategies work for you? What tips would you share with other authors considering self-pub?

Dianne: I’m still experimenting with self-publishing and am also querying agents with my next book. As much as I enjoy the control I have (I do my own covers), I find it extremely difficult to promote and market my own work. Some authors do a really good job getting their books seen and I think a lot of that depends on genre. Romance for example, sells well in the self-published arena. Young Adult fantasy, I think is a hit and miss. For authors that like speaking publicly, there could be a big market at schools and libraries.

Katie: Cassandra's Castle is the 5th book in the Ian's Realm Saga. What started you on the path from manuscript to screenplay? And can you tell us about your journey from manuscript to screenplay?

Dianne: Three years ago I got some friends together to film a book trailer for Cassandra’s Castle (I thought the book was going to be published by a small press at the time). A videographer, some actors, and my fencing coach. We gathered some costumes, some lunch, and headed up to Fort Worden near Port Townsend WA. We had a blast filming the book trailer and on the way home talked about how awesome it would be if we filmed the entire book. Well lots has happened in the direction since then including getting legendary actor Robert Miano to play the wizard, a director from Chicago, and one of Seattle’s best cinematographer. I’ve written the story into a TV series and fleshed out the character more than I had in the original draft of the book, and now since I edited, inserted some of the screenplay scenes into the novel. 

We’ve won 8 film festivals screening with our trailer, and three awards including best trailer and a trophy for my script for the pilot. We’ve applied for some grants to film the first episode and are waiting to hear.

In the process, I have discovered that there’s a huge venue for screenwriting. I wrote another of my stories (An Unconventional Mr. Peadlebody) into a stage play and that script won Best Mystery at a local screenplay festival.

There seems to be more demand for screenwriters than novelists. I hope to pursue that field further.

Katie: You created a video trailer for the proposed television series. What are a few little know facts about making a trailer like this?

Dianne: The trailer you see is 1.5 minutes long. That trailer took 14 hours to film, 30 cast and crew members and close to $8,000. Filming a period piece is of course going to cost more than contemporary productions because of props and costumes, and the fact we needed a castle to film at. Plus, we had Robert Miano come and play the wizard and we had to fly him, our director, and our unit project manager in. The amount of time and effort and funding that it takes to film is phenomenal.

Everyone loves movies and TV, but do they really appreciate what goes into one? I can tell you this, having a film made in your locale is an extreme benefit to the local economy. Some of the services we used are hotels, caterers, dry cleaners, fabric shops, rental companies, grocery stores, coffee houses, restaurants, taxies, office supplies, printers, seamstresses, pyro-technicians and supplies, antique stores, make-up artists, and the list goes on, and of course, we needed extras. 

Katie: On your website I found steps for creating a Yurt, an adventure on a large ship, and a map for the Ian's Realm Saga. How do you use visuals like these to inspire your writing?

Dianne: You saw steps for creating a yurt, and you also saw a day on a tall ship. I’m a visual artist. If you look elsewhere on my website you’ll see oil paintings that I have done. The experience of being on a tall ship, learning the vocabulary, and breathing in the taste of the sea and the whisper of the sails, are part of experience what we write about. Ian’s Realm Saga has Ian on a tall ship with pirates, and this ‘Discovery Voyage’ on the Hawaiian Chieftain was a hands on course for researching my manuscript. Same with building a yurt. In Ian’s saga, the native people live in yurts. I was indeed thrilled when my friends invited me to watch how they constructed their Mongolian yurt, which by the way is entirely hand made.

Katie: I read your post about the backstory for one of your characters. What is the most interesting or complex backstory you've created and how do you use backstories to influence plots or character arcs?

Dianne: Valerio has the most complex backstory. Being the antagonist of Cassandra’s Castle, I felt the need to really develop his history and give him a reason for being who he is. Overthrowing a monarchy is no easy feat, and he really needed to be grounded in his intent, for these sort of things can’t be taken lightly. I did not want a cliché villain. I wanted someone deep, someone the audience can understand, even if they don’t agree with him. And I needed someone who was convincing, because he has to convince Cassandra’s that his cause is for the good.

Katie: You've posted quotes on your Twitter feed and have character quotes on your website. What are some of your favorite quotes?

Dianne: When Cassie lies to the wizard, Silvio eyes her suspiciously and later when he accuses her of being gullible, she contests his accusation. He turns to her, and hisses at her saying “Those who party in deceit will be fooled by it.”

Valerio, when Cassie mentions that her father doesn’t know she entered the portal, thinks to himself she’s a young rebel. So when Cassie asks him what he and his men are up to, he looks at her with a smug smile and says, “Ah! The inquisitiveness of a rebel as to the work of a revolutionary!”

I asked Dianne a few questions, just for fun, to help us get to know her more.

  1. What’s your favorite location for maximum creativity and productivity? How often are you able to visit this setting?
I work best at my desk. We live on 1.5 acres of land, beautiful setting. There’s only me and my husband and he stays as much to himself as I do to myself. I can’t ask for a better place to work!
  1. If I gave you $40,000 to start a business, what would you start?
I’d put it toward filming the Pilot episode of Cassandra’s Castle.
  1. On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?
  1. Coke, Pepsi, or Dr. Pepper?
Pepsi always.
  1. When you were ten, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a graphic artist for Disney and work at Disneyland (I grew up in L.A.)
  1. What do you think about when you’re alone in your car?
I’m usually thinking about my stories. Almost always. That or filming.
  1. How would you describe the color yellow to somebody who is blind?
Think warm, a light-to-the-touch warm, with the taste of butterscotch and the fragrance of honey.
  1. Tell us about the project you’re most proud of completing.
Our trailer. I’m really proud of how it came out, the wonderful time we had filming it, my fencing coach and the time he spent teaching our actors to fence, the new friends we made, the encouragement everyone gave us, and all the awards we’ve been getting.

Katie: What else would you like to share with us?

Dianne: I can share an excerpt. This is the portal entry scene, when Cassie first discovers the entry into the Realm through her cell phone. She is in the woods with her friend Monica and Daemon, and she’s taking photos of them dressed in revolutionary costumes for a term project they’re doing.

The Term Project

“Are you serious Cassie? You want me to wear this? I mean the Khaki’s I can understand but this…this thing?” Daemon held up a cardboard cone painted red and stapled together. “On my head? Who made this thing?”
“I did and it’ll look like a uniform in the photo. That’s all we need. It doesn’t have to be real.” Cassie positioned him next to a stump and placed the make-believe fez securely on his head. She pushed his wavy overgrown hair behind his ears and took off his dark rimmed glasses. He blinked and then squinted, his thick brown lashes covered his dark hazel eyes.
“I can’t see.” Daemon was Cassie’s age but she always thought of him as a younger brother. Too skinny for sports, Daemon was a computer geek in every sense of the word. Getting him out in the sunshine was a feat in itself, much less having him put on a Turkish uniform for a term project.
“It’s OK. You aren’t going anywhere.”
“I don’t know Cassie,” Monica complained, tossing her blond hair over her shoulders and stepping next to Daemon. Her sneakers caught the hem of her long black skirt and she stumbled. “This outfit is disgusting. Suffrage? Seriously? I’m suffering in this dress all right! I don’t see why we couldn’t have done our term project on something cool instead of dressing up like dorks. Everyone’s going to laugh at us. Besides, cool things did happen in 1908, you know. Like Ford and the Model T, or Orville Wright and the airplane! Why did you have to choose a war?”
Cassie sighed. “Get closer to Daemon, Monica, he won’t bite. Why should we do the same report everyone else is doing? And our project isn’t just on war. The project is about revolution which is entirely different. Each of us will report on one of the major revolutions of that time period. Be thinking of which one you want to cover.”
“Why the fez?” Daemon snickered.
“The Turkish revolution is the easiest to make accessories for.” Cassie returned the sour look as she rummaged through her backpack.
“Begging your pardon, Miss Liberty, but this is not a Turkish accessory. It’s a paper plate?”
“Daemon does it matter? Who else will be dramatizing their projects like this? No one, that’s who. Just wait and see. We’re going to ace this.”
She pulled a toy rifle from her pack and placed it in Daemon’s hand. “Here, Monica.” Cassie handed her friend a flag painted with the word ‘women’s rights’. Monica rolled her eyes.
“Hold still now. Look serious.” Cassie stepped back and held up her camera. “Move in closer, Mon.”
“Are we supposed to smile or what?” Monica asked, scowling.
“No. Look like revolutionaries who believe in what you’re fighting for.”
“I don’t’,” Daemon dropped the gun and crossed his arms over his chest.
Cassie lowered her camera.
“You don’t? You don’t believe in freedom? You don’t think these are causes that people were passionate about? C’mon Daemon this is real. These people changed the world. Think Les Mes!” She picked up the toy and handed it to him again. He reluctantly accepted.
“Les Mes was overrated. No one was singing during the French Revolution. They were dying. People killed each other in these wars, Cassie. I’m not into that. The world can be changed without killing.”
“Maybe so but it wasn’t. Besides, what could be better to report on than movements that bettered our lives?”
“You want my opinion? I think we should do our report on Ed Ruelbach’s shutout against the Dodgers.”
“That’d be even more hilarious! We could all wear baseball jerseys and beat each other over the head with bats!” Monica sneered.
“Which would be a lot more interesting than standing in the woods letting Cassie take pictures of us in our pajamas! With red paper cones on our heads!” Daemon returned.
“Ah! Perfect!” Cassie exclaimed. That’s the look I wanted. There! Baseball did nothing to better the world.” Cassie argued. She held her cell phone up again and snapped several more shots.
“That’s your opinion.” Daemon said.
“Besides, sacrifices had to be made for freedom.” She clicked to the gallery on her phone, curious to see how the shots came out
“Easy for you to say. You wouldn’t have had to fight in the trenches. Are we done yet?”
When she enlarged the photos on her screen her mouth fell open. Shocked by the images, her mind started spinning. There had to be an explanation.
Monica sighed. “C’mon Cassie, this dress is wool and it’s 70 degrees.”
“What’s going on?” Daemon asked.
Cassie looked up at them and then at her camera again. Behind the still of Daemon and Monica were three soldiers. One kneeled in a firing position, the other two lying prone in what appeared to be a trench, their rifles smoldering. Smoke surrounded them and concealed much of their environment. Cassie saw water behind them, as though the men were along the coast shooting out toward the sea.
Daemon raced to her side and pulled his glasses out of her pocket. Pushing the spectacles onto his nose, he took a closer look at her phone. “Holy Toledo!” Daemon whistled. “What do you think that’s about?”
Cassie didn’t answer, though her heart beat against her chest. This was just like the stories her father had told her about when he entered the portal, except it was happening on her cell phone instead of a computer. “The Realm. My dad’s Realm.”
Monica looked over Cassie’s shoulder. After viewing the image, she finally spoke. “You’re kidding, right?”
Daemon tried taking the phone but Cassie pulled away.
“Monica, take a photo of me,” Cassie said.
“No.” Daemon snapped.
“It’s here, Daemon. The portal is right there by that tree! Dad’s world! Last night I saw a couple of strange images on my phone. A bearded kid and a hairy old man. I thought I was just tired, but now I know what’s happening.”
“Cassie what are you talking about? What’s happening?” Monica jumped back with her hands in the air, refusing to take the phone that Cassie offered her.
“She’s talking about the Realm. She thinks this is a portal now because there’s a glitch in that crazy camera of hers. Probably some website sent you those images.”
“No Daemon, I would know if it was spam. And it’s not a glitch. Look. Those are real people. Another click of the camera and I bet I go in. In fact, I’m sure of it.”
“Go in where?” Monica asked.
“The Realm. The portal.”
“You mean the place your father used to tell stories about?” Monica asked.
“They aren’t stories,” Daemon mumbled, reaching for the phone, again. This time he took hold of it, but Cassie wrestled it away.
“What? You believe her?”
“Rarely do I believe Cassie.” Daemon assured her. “But I do believe her dad. I’ve talked to Mr. Wilson about his adventures. There’s a world that runs parallel to ours and Mr. Wilson says portals exist that can take you there.” Daemon faced Cassie. “He also says it’s a dangerous world. He wouldn’t approve of you going through a portal. I’m sure of it.”
“Dangerous?” Monica shot a look first at Cassie, and then Daemon.
“The dragon’s gone, Daemon. Dad knows that. He’s the one that got it out.”
“Dragon?” Monica turned white.
“There are other dangers, too. A mountain where people disappear! Pirates! It’s an unpredictable world.” Daemon argued.
“Unpredictable and filled with intrigue and adventure.” Cassie laughed, excitement filling every vein in her body. She giggled. “This is the entrance! I finally found it!”
“Are you guys joking?” Monica’s eyes bulged.
“No!” Daemon and Cassie both answered in unison.
“You aren’t going to disappear. Not an option. No,” Daemon reached for her phone, again.
Cassie stumbled away from him and tripped into the ferns. “You can't stop me Daemon. I’m going in with or without you two.”
“That’s insane, Cassie,” Monica said.
“I’ll have my cell phone. You can text me.” Cassie scrambled to the spot where Daemon and Monica had been posed, and held the phone in front of her.
“No!” Daemon lunged for her.
Cassie clicked the shutter. Monica screamed. A great blue flash lit up the woods and when Cassie blinked, her friends were gone…or rather she was.

To purchase Cassandra's Castle or any of Dianne's stories, visit Smashwords and Amazon

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Accident

Steve finally eased his way through the narrow entryway in the tree trunk to the nest he shared with Hilda. He had hoped that she'd be sleeping, as it was already late morning, but no such luck. He licked a paw and ran it quickly over his ears, but he knew he still looked a mess.

"And where have you been?" Hilda chittered. Lately, her voice had become sharp, like barbed wire hidden under fallen leaves. Her tail twitched in irritation.

"I don't want to talk about it."

Hilda twitched her tail some more and sucked on her front teeth. For a moment, Steve thought she was going to let it go, let him get some much needed sleep, but no. That would have been too easy.

"Sheila said that Tracy said that Millie saw you in the dog yard again." Hilda sat back on her haunches and stared at him from the other side of the nest. Sunlight streaming in through the entrance glittered off her black eyes.

Steve sighed. Knowing there was nothing he could say that wouldn't set Hilda off on a lengthy rant, he chose to say nothing. Instead he curled himself into a ball in the darkest corner of the nest, wrapping his large tail up and around his head. With another deep sigh, the tension in his muscles released slightly and he sank deeper into the cotton batting they'd collected for their bedding. He drifted off to sleep to the sound of Hilda shuffling acorns around noisily, mumbling to herself about how right her mother had been.

Hilda was gone when Steven woke up several hours later. Steve stretched his legs in all directions as far as they would go, toes spreading wide. Then, scratching his belly absently with one paw, he rolled over. He must have been sleeping on his tail funny because it filled with pins and needles as he sat up. From previous experience, Steve knew he'd have trouble with his balance until it felt completely normal again.

He had just lifted an acorn off the pile in the corner when Hilda swooped through the entrance. She deposited two more acorns on the floor of the nest and grabbed the one out of his hands.

"Absolutely not, Steve. Those are for later."

"C'mon, Hilda. I'm starving. I'll bring you two more to replace it."

"That's what you always say."

"I swear." Steve held his paws up earnestly and flicked his tail charmingly. Hilda could never resist his tail flicks.

Hilda looked at him through the deepening shadows. She held the acorn just out of reach. "Tell me what happened this morning."

Steve's tail drooped. "I told you, I don't want--"

"I guess you can go forage for yourself," Hilda said, placing the acorn on top of others and positioning herself in front of the pile.

"Fine." Steve held out his paws. "I'll tell you. Give me the acorn." Hilda handed it to him and he turned it over and over in his paws as he thought. For once in her life, Hilda sat still, waiting. Finally, he said, "It's that damn dog toy."

"Oh, Steve." He could hear the frustration in her voice.

"I know. I know." He bit into the acorn. Through a full mouth he added, "It's just not right. I see it sitting down there, all matted up and I just can't stand it."

"It's not real, Steve." Hilda rolled another acorn over to him as he finished the first.

"I know that," he snapped. Hilda sat up straighter and looked away, trying and failing to hide the injured look on her face. "Hilda. I'm sorry." She looked back at him. "It's just ... I'm not an idiot. I know it's a stupid toy for their stupid dogs to play with." He stopped, disliking the way his throat felt, tight with emotion.

Hilda stroked his tail slowly as he cried. After a while, she said, "I want to understand. I just ... I just don't."

"You can't. You didn't see him like that," Steve said.



Hilda's glittery eyes softened. "Sometimes I wish I had. I wish I was out there on the road with you when it happened. Then maybe I'd be able to help you through this."

"No," Steve said. "I'm glad you weren't. I'm glad you don't understand." He took a shuddering breath. "Nobody should have to see something like that."

They sat together in silence, each remembering Eddie in their own way, until Hilda spoke, "So how can I help? What are you trying to do with that thing?"

Steve looked up in surprise. "Really?"


"I thought maybe I could get it through the fence and send it down the embankment. If I'm lucky, it will roll all the way to the river. If not, we can put some leaves over it or stick it under a log. Anything so it isn't just laying there in plain sight all the time."

Hilda swept up some acorn crumbs with her tail and tossed them out through the entrance. "Okay, then," she said, "what are we waiting for?" She scampered through the hole and down the trunk.

Steve followed.

(Story inspired by this video, taken by me on Aug 18.)

Friday, August 19, 2016

Necessary Torture

Torture with a deliberate purpose
Main characters.
They steal the show. A ton of time and effort is spent finding them suitable names, the right appearances, and personalities that will turn these figments of the writer’s imagination into believable people. Once they are fleshed out and filled in, they are a writer’s pride and joy. Depending on the work—a short story, a book, a book series—a writer should expect to spend weeks, months, or even years with these characters. It’s a long-term relationship. Unfortunately, for the most part, it’s also an abusive relationship.

Physical, emotional, and psychological pain are all in a writer’s demented arsenal of torture weapons used against their very own creations. The ways in which writers inflict this torment would normally be considered illegal if used outside the realm of literacy. These may include actual injury, the killing of loved ones, mutations, consistent anxiety, or even the extinction of the entire human race. Writers are sick people, right?

Of course, what would a story be without a little suffering and angst?

Given, a writer has free reign on how to make their characters suffer. But, if a character suffers for the sake of suffering, it creates a certain numbness in the writing. Their pain must mean something and must be done with a deliberate purpose.

A character’s suffering must add to the plot. Characters don’t always want to go where the writer wants them to, so a simple nudge (or a violent shove) might be needed to get them heading in the right—or wrong—direction. This can be anything from burning down the character’s house, to making the character an orphan, to maiming said character. Tragedy is a very motivating factor but it must be used sparingly. Again, too much will deaden the emotional impact of the event.

Doling out physical harm to main characters is a good way to remind them they are not invincible. In the real world there are very few folks who fight in a battle and come out unscathed. Why should main characters be any different? Injuring main characters adds realism to the story. So, in this case, battle scars are a good thing.
Also, physical pain can add to a story’s threat factor. Who doesn’t like the heart racing moment when a main character trips and gets impaled in the leg as they are running from some man-eating beast? The sight of blood or the crack of bone makes the danger feel more real and will convey a sense of urgency into a scene.

Sadistic obstacles placed into the story to frustrate a character’s goals are fun. No story is complete without them. Perhaps the loss of a mentor, the pain associated with a car accident, or being at fault for the death of another will affect a character. Their personalities will determine if these obstacles will ultimately crush them or drive them forward. Although these setbacks can be incredibly painful for the characters, they are expected. How the characters handle them will add texture and dimension to not only the characters themselves, but to the story as well.
Brutalizing the main characters of a story may also be used to create empathy. Everyone knows what it’s like to experience loss or pain. If written well, a reader’s heart will go out to them for what they are suffering. They'll feel sorry for the pain the characters are feeling and become more attached.

A main character who stays the same during the course of a story is boring. Writers allow pain, sorrow, and suffering to shape and condition their main characters. Torment can make characters pliable—just right for reshaping and improvement. In the same way, the identical circumstances may cause the character to become angry, bitter, or jaded.  Either way, suffering brings ample opportunity for change.

In closing, writers are unapologetic murders, kidnappers, arsonists, robbers, sadists, and tormentors. They take joy in the suffering of their main characters. As long as all is done with deliberate purpose, it's all good.

(Photos from Bing images license: free to share and use)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Maybe - A dialogue practice

"Maybe it won't be a big deal." Tara nibbles her bottom lip as she folds and unfolds the ticket in her hand.

"It will be fine. They'll understand," I say.  She looks at me for a moment, hope filling her brown eyes. I've failed to convince her, though. She flops onto her back and grabs Yertle, the stuffed turtle I use as a pillow.

"My parents are going to flip. Straight up kill me." She covers her face so it looks like Yertle is talking as she continues, "This is all your fault."


She pulls Yertle from her face and throws him at me. "You and your stupid obsession. I wanted to leave. You were the one who couldn't drag yourself away from Sarah."

My heart falters as she drags the syllables of Sarah's name out into a school-yard taunt. Was it that obvious?

"Geez, Jess," Tara went on, oblivious to the thudding in my ears, "I know you want to get on the team, but stalking the team captain isn't the way to do it."

She doesn't know. "I'm not stalking her. I'm just making friends. My dad says things like this are all about who you know." I set Yertle at the foot of the bed as my heartbeat returns to normal. "If Sarah has a positive social association with me, she'll be more likely to look favorably on my tryouts."

Tara sits up. "That sounds just like your dad." She strokes her chin and looks dramatically toward the ceiling. She lowers the timber of her voice in an imitation of my dad, "Blah, blah ... neural networking ... blah, blah, blah ... favorable outcome ... blah, blah ... social-emotional ..."

Her eyes go big and her voice falters as my dad appears in the doorway. "Hi, girls. How was your day?"

"Fine, Dad."

"Fine, Mr. Skinner," Tara mumbles.

"Good. Glad to hear it. Are you staying for dinner, Tara?"

"If it's okay with you." She still hasn't looked up at him.

"We'd love to have the company," Dad says. He looks at me. "Set the table in half an hour, please?"


"Okay, well, I'll let you two get back to whatever you were doing." He turns and heads down the hall. As he walks he adds, "See you in 30. Blah, blah, blah."

Tara's eyes go wide again. She stares at me, frozen, for a beat before we both collapse on the bed, giggling.

Once we can breathe again, Tara wipes her eyes and says, "Your dad is the coolest."


"No, really. I bet your dad wouldn't freak out over a stupid speeding ticket."

"Probably not." There are plenty of other things he would freak out about, though.

Tara resumes fiddling with the ticket she'd gotten the night before.

inspired by Daily Post prompt for 8/10/16: Maybe.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Mindgames and Mindsets

When it comes to writing contests and making submissions, I've had both success and ... not success. Both required patience while waiting for results. Neither gave me the head trip I've been on this last week after submitting to #Pitchwars.

What is Pitch Wars? It's a fantastic opportunity to gain a professional literary business mentor who will help you whip your full manuscript into shape with the goal of presenting your query and first page to an online gathering of agents. In past years, about half the participating mentees walked away with agents.

Unlike other submissions, this one comes with a full on, engaged Twitter community. Which is great-really. The mentors and the mentee hopefuls are kind and uplifting. They are endlessly supportive and giving. They are also a group of relentless teasers. (Which, to be honest, is half the fun.)

Literally, as in #PWTeasers.
Thus, the mindgames.

I've been following the Twitter feed for a week now-a habit I never had before. I'm pulled in by the hope, the slight (yes, 1% chance this year) promise my manuscript will get picked for mentorship.

I started trolling the feeds. Searching for teasers about my MS. Scanning for hints a mentor read, liked, and will maybe pick my submission. I laugh at the wit and banter and tell myself to stay strong, knowing a hint about my MS is bound to pop up.

Now, I am trying to keep my game face on. The one that does not let the slow, creepy crazy show through. Did I enter the correct email address on the sub form? Did the file really upload correctly? I think one mentor got it-so does that mean the others did too? I read there were a few upload glitches-what if mine was one and I never find out? I could miss my chance. So many doubts.

Reading the #Pitchwars and #PWTeaser posts from so many upbeat people reminds me a lot of Growth Mindset.

Growth Mindset is a huge buzz word/phrase in education, but is applicable anywhere.
Basically, if you believe you can make positive changes and continued growth, then you can.

The human brain is remarkable. You've heard of dendrites and synapses, those parts of the brain which carry electrical impulses and information? You can make more of them and then connect them together to create a sort of superhighway for information transfer.

The brain can also shut down, or at least parts will not function at their fullest potential if you have deficits. Deficits can come in many forms, like self doubt.

These lead toward Fixed Mindsets, or the idea that you cannot get any better than you are right now.

Though they do not know it, the people of Pitch Wars are reminding me to keep my Growth Mindset and 'stick-to-it-iveness'. I may not get a mentorship. I may not even get my current manuscript published. But I believe I have the guts to continue and the will to learn more.

Success is in my future!

Once again, the writing community is teaching me a lesson.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016


Preface: One of my favorite things to do is to get a prompt of some kind and see where it takes me. I get an email from Daily Post every morning. On July 28, the prompt was "Unstoppable". This is what immediately came to mind...
As I run through my morning media checks, I sip my tea and watch my little corner of the world. The dining room window overlooks a narrow section of the Mississippi River as it meanders through central Minnesota. "My river" attracts lots of wildlife, and I have strategically placed feeders around the yard to assist "my birds" as they raise their young and prepare for the inevitable winter. My favorite feathered visitors this year are a trio of juvenile blue jays (collectively known as "the Jays", an obscure reference to America's Next Top Model) and a trio of juvenile pileated woodpeckers (affectionately dubbed "Larry, Moe and Curly").

When we bought the house, it came with a large, covered bird feeder, complete with a squirrel-blocking tube around the pole. This great feeder, backdropped by the river and framed by white pine and oak branches, is a favorite to all kinds of birds. From the very beginning, it was a challenge to keep the feeder full of sunflower seeds in the face of such popularity. Lately, however, the task has reached Sisyphean proportions.

There are two things you should know about my family before I continue with this story.

The first thing is that my husband was born, raised and lived solely (until 2 years ago) in southern California, where squirrels are not common, especially not the big, bushy-tailed kind that fill the treetops in Minnesota. Despite my best efforts, he refuses to recognize them as the noisy tree-rats they are. He thinks they're "cute".

The second thing is that we have two good-sized dogs. (In California, land of the yappy lapdog, I used to describe them as "big dogs". Here, they are dwarfed by the hunting, herding and sled-pulling breeds preferred by Minnesotans.) They are good dogs, sweet and sociable with people, but I've been unable to break them of two bad habits: they chase small animals (like our elderly cat) and they run off whenever they get a chance. The first bad habit means they are not allowed in the house. The second means we had to fence a large portion of our yard, including the section that runs parallel to the river.

The new fence runs directly under the sunflower feeder. The squirrels think this is fantastic as it allows them to circumvent the anti-squirrel tube. Apparently squirrels are a gossipy bunch, because in the past month the squirrel population has exploded. Great big, pompous gray squirrels. Twitchy little red squirrels. Ninja-like black squirrels. I can't look out a window without seeing at least one. The dogs don't even chase them anymore; there are so many I think they've decided our yard is a squirrel sanctuary.

My husband likes this very much. He takes pictures and videos of them hanging upside down on the bird feeders and daydreams about feeding them peanuts from his hand.

I sneak up on them, getting as close as I can before clapping my hands and barking loudly (I'm trying to model the appropriate behavior for my dogs who are understandably confused). I encourage the bigger birds to "Show them who's boss!" and "Take back the feeder!", but they have yet to take my advice. They just collect in the trees around the squirrel infested feeder and sulk. When the squirrels have left, the pileated woodpeckers land on the roof of the empty feeder and drum their displeasure.

So, I pour more seeds into the feeder and hope the birds get their fill before the squirrels come back. I've also been teaching my pup, Wiggles, the difference between naughty cat chasing and good girl squirrel chasing. The squirrels may be unstoppable, but so are Wiggles and I.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Could You Be a Situational Procrastinator?

I might be a situational procrastinator. 

What do you think?

-I knew I was getting an ear infection, but wanted to finish The Last Kingdom on Netflix, so I put off going to the doctor until after regular hours and had to go to the urgent clinic. (I guess this is a weird king of Kuddos to the show.)

RESULT: My ear is killing me despite the meds and I wish I had gone sooner.

-My son is nearly ready for college application time. I wanted some bonding-time with him this summer, so jumped right in and planned a trip for the two us. 

RESULT: Seven days, five states and three schools later, we learned a bit about each other and it was a great experience. 

-I go back to teacher schedule on Monday. For two weeks my teacher inbox has been pinging with meeting and training announcement. There are two I am to complete from home and that I am avoiding, one for a new district wide tech program and one that comprises of six hours of online video torture followed by a repeated testing salt wash.

RESULT: TBD. Truthfully, I'm not a rule breaker and I hate to miss deadlines, so I will get these done. But you can bet I won't start the tech training until the day before it's due and the other doesn't HAVE TO be done until October, so....

-With school starting back I should not have been surprised when I got the call to go move my classroom (its a yearly ordeal). I thought I was smart by asking about this problem at the end of last year (was told I would not move and thus packed the cupboards full instead of sticking everything in easily transportable boxes), but alas...

RESULT: I got my butt up there and moved my stuff and got the basic setup of the new room done. Why? Because this work effected other people. If I did not do my part, others could not do theirs.
-Weeding. Sucks. I am way more interested in sleeping in while I can than getting up early (so not to die of heat stoke) just so I can pull weeds from a 120 ft long rock garden. Especially since hubby already bought this grass/weed killer easy pump thingy for me and I haven't use it. Yeah.

RESULT: I weeded. I sprayed. I left the pulled weeds in the grass planning to ask my son to take the mowing over them to pick them up. I didn't ask or he didn't hear and they stayed for a week. The weeds dried up nicely in the sun, got watered by the irrigation system and now I have MORE weeds.

-At the start of summer I sat down and made a spreadsheet of upcoming writing competitions. It is a great sheet, in order by date and then alphabetized with all kinds of handy columns. I then picked two I thought I was nearly ready for.

RESULT: I was overzealous. No, I could not meet the deadline for a travel article because honestly, I couldn't decide if my ideas or trips were article worthy next to the other already published articles. I did start taking notes for a short story idea but decided not to enter because the idea is too big for a short story (I'm not abandoning it, though. It's on the slow burner for now.)

-Scanning through Twitter last week, I came across the #PitchWars writing competition. I emailed my writing group buddies who have manuscripts completed, agonized over my query and synopsis, and edited my 1st chapter for the 123rd-130th times.

RESULT: I made my submission yesterday. Two days before the end of the sub window. 

Is this kind situational procrastination normal?

Yes. We all avoid situations which we find disheartening and wind up finding our happy place instead-my ear infection being a prime example. 

It's also a matter of motivation. Looking over my list, I found I am more motivated by close deadlines and taking action when other people are counting on me.
"Chronic procrastinators have perpetual problems finishing tasks, while situational ones delay based on the task itself." (source)
I take heart in this statement. I am not a chronic procrastinator. I finish many tasks and finish them well, thank you.

But I do have this problem...
“You know what you ought to do and you’re not able to bring yourself to do it. It’s that gap between intention and action.”
This quote below seems reasonable to me. As a busy person, one must learn to prioritize. Sometimes work wins, sometimes home life, sometimes massages and pedicures win.
"...procrastinators calculate the fluctuating utility of certain activities: pleasurable ones have more value early on, and tough tasks become more important as a deadline approaches. 
The more I read of the source article, the more I believe I am not the typical procrastinator who never completes a task, or makes lists of jobs to do, does one, shuffles the list, and does one more.

Maybe I am not a procrastinator. 

I don't fit anything on the list from Psychology Today.

After reading, this article (which I plan to share with my students), I think what I need to focus on is my attitude towards tasks-make myself find the positives and just get started. Again, looking at my list above, I can see how I've done this for the items I started on right away.

How to find the positive?

Here is a compounded list of steps from the Positivity Blog which I plan to take.

1. Find the optimistic viewpoint in a negative situation.
4. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.
6. Add value and positivity to someone else’s life.
7. Exercise regularly and eat and sleep well.
11. Mindfully move through your day.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Be A Better Beta Reader Series: So, You Want to Be a Beta Reader...

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the different kinds of problematic beta readers you might find in your writing group. I realized afterward that not everyone knows what a beta reader is or, more importantly, how to be a GOOD beta reader. So this week, I'm taking a tiny step back to fill in those basics.

Why become a beta reader?

Writing can be a lonely job. Beta reading is a way to show you respect what a writer is doing and want to see them succeed.

In my experience, most beta readers are writers who trade manuscripts with fellow writers. Beta reading is an excellent way to make connection and build relationships within a writing community.

Use What You've Got
Your day job might not appreciate all those college English classes you took, your nose for typos, or the fact that can spot stilted dialogue from across the room, but my Twitter timeline is filled with authors looking for someone with just those talents!

"I can't spend the day with your crazy Aunt Millie. I've got to finish reading this." Be honest. Who among us wouldn't love a legitimate excuse to stay in and read?

What is a Beta Reader?

Simply put, a beta reader is someone who reads a finished manuscript prior to publishing and provides feedback to the author. Beta readers serve as a sample audience, helping the author step out of her own head and see her story from another perspective. Many common problems--flat characters, plot holes, inconsistencies, etc--are more easily spotted by fresh eyes.

There's more to beta reading than the ability to read and enjoy a good story, however. Beta readers must be able to look critically at a story and analyze exactly what it is that they like or dislike about it. To this end, a beta reader must be
  • attentive to details
  • knowledgeable about aspects of storytelling
  • able to express themselves clearly

Beta Reader Basics:

Many people have written about this topic. I'll share some links to articles and posts I found most helpful. Here's what I've learned in my experiences as a writer and a beta reader:

Communicate clearly.
Make sure you understand exactly what kind of feedback the author needs at this point. Is this an early draft or is it about to be sent off to an agent? Is the author trying to nail down characterization and plot? Or is he looking for a line edit? Having a conversation about these things before you start reading can save you both time and frustration.

Set a reasonable deadline. Let the author know how long you think it will take you to get back to him. (Keep in mind that it will take longer to read critically than it does to read just for fun.) Once you've established a timeline, stick to it. Sending a manuscript out for beta reading is stressful. Don't make the author wait on pins and needles longer than necessary!

Write clear and descriptive comments. Explain your thought process whenever possible.

Respect the author's voice.
Remember, this is not your story; don't try to rewrite the story in your style. Instead, share your thoughts and feelings about the story and allow the author to decide how your responses will influence the story.

That's not to say you can't provide an example or give a suggestion now and then. Just remember that an author's voice is what makes their story unique.

Be honest.
First and foremost, it is your job to be honest. If you see something that isn't working, you must say something about it. Ignoring or sugarcoating problems to spare an author's feelings just sets them up for embarrassment. The agents she queries aren't going to rep her just to spare her feelings.

An author who is serious about being published will thank you for being completely honest. An author who only wants you to say nice things is wasting your time. That's what parents are for. :)

Be thoughtful.
There is a difference between giving an honest critique and tearing someone apart. Make sure that your comments are accurate and useful.

Remember to point out the good stuff. Not only does the occasional happy note make the rest of the critique easier to take, comparing what works to what doesn't work is extremely helpful.

Strong beta reading is built on analysis. Think about your own perspective and biases. Draw on your vast experience as a reader to make comparisons and draw conclusions. Don't just react to the story. Dig into your reactions.

Let it go.
Finally, you have to let it all go after you submit your critique. It is ultimately up to the author to accept or reject your comments. Don't take it personally.

Super Important Beta Reader Reminder:

A finished manuscript represents months, if not years, of an author's life. It is a labor of love and often represents sacrifice and struggle. It is vitally important to respect the author/beta reader relationship. Not sure what that means? Check out this post about the ethics of beta reading.


Helpful Links:

As promised, here are links to some of the other people who have written about beta reading. I found their posts helpful during my first beta read:

Corrine Jackson's How to Beta Read

Have you found some excellent advice on the role of beta reader? Do you have experiences to share? Leave us a comment!