The Heart of It

Just as a fictional character can make a book shine, it’s the people we care about who bring the heart and love and emotion to our lives.

This thought rolls around my head every October. I have two good friends who celebrate birthdays this month, one on the 4th and the other on the 16th.  My grandmother celebrated her birthday on the 16th as well, and three years ago a family member passed on the same day.

So, October always makes me think of the people I love, those still here and those who are gone. I’m reminded of their strengths and vulnerabilities, their smiles and their laughter, the quirky things they say and do, but mostly I’m reminded of how they make (or made) me feel. Those feelings linger long after the end of a visit or a life.

A good book is peopled with characters who linger in the minds of readers long after the final page too. Sounds easy, right?

It’s not. It’s hard work creating characters who are nuanced and real. It takes effort, skill and refining (translation: rewriting).

Many craft books have chapters or entire sections on developing good characters, but if you’re serious about writing, it’s worth having a few books devoted specifically to character development on your shelf. Here are some to consider:

Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure by K. M. Weiland

Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors by Brandilyn Collins

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Dynamic Characters by Nancy Kress

For quicker reads, check out these blogs on character development:

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/01/13/25-things-a-great-character-needs/

https://www.nownovel.com/blog/novel-characters-15-tips/

https://www.creativebloq.com/character-design/tips-designing-believable-character-21619281

                Small – and Not so Small – Signs

Last week, I finished doing a substantive revision on No Right Thing. Revising, as I’ve said before, is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. Polishing and tweaking can take a story from good to great, and I think No Right Thing is one of the best YA novels I’ve written so far. A big shout out to Melanie Jeffs at Crwth Press for comments and suggestions that gave me the springboard I needed to dive in and make some changes.

One thing Melanie wanted me to look at was my story pacing. She felt the speed in which I showed signs of change on the part of my protagonist, Cate, wasn’t working as well as it could.  While Melanie wanted the external story to maintain its brisk, forward motion, she thought a slightly slower unspooling of Cate’s internal growth would serve the story better. So, I went back and started small, slowly stacking up Cate’s discomfort and signs of internal growth until she comes to the inevitable big, black moment when there is no turning back . . . when she is forever changed.

Starting small and not revealing everything at once is the pace you want in a novel because it creates tension. I thought I had that in place, but it sometimes takes a good editor to help an author take it to the next level.

In case I missed the message about the importance of slowly building tension, life reinforced the lesson last week in the form of a bear. Or, more specifically, the sign (this one not so small) of a bear.

Saturday morning, we took Team Sheltie for a walk along the trail behind our house. Within spitting distance of our back gate, we discovered a substantial pyramid of scat. It was bear scat, I told Mr. Petrol Head. No, he said, it was from a large dog. Not possible, I retorted. It was either an elephant or a bear and since there are no wild elephants on the island, I was betting on bear. But even as I spoke the words, I wasn’t entirely sure. I didn’t want to be sure.

Sunday morning while walking the same trail, a neighbor confirmed the left behinds were the gift of a bear, though he hadn’t seen it. They’re fairly common in this area, he reported.

I became uneasy. When we moved here a few months ago, we loved the close proximity to trails and creeks and ravines. I knew those areas were home to wildlife, but my citified mind conjured squirrels, racoons, birds, maybe a cute deer or two.

Monday morning, a second neighbor told us he’d been followed down the trail by a black bear the previous day. The only reason he knew about it was a couple walking towards him had seen it and pointed it out. He hadn’t glimpsed it himself.

My unease grew. I know the animals were here before us. I realize we share their habitat. I understand the importance of peaceful coexistence. But we live in a town. With paved roads. Streetlights. And houses. Lots and lots of houses.

Tuesday morning, yet another neighbor reported that she’d seen two black bears by the apple tree across the street. Last summer, she added, officers relocated six bears from this neighborhood.

Unease settled into my bones. Having a bear (or three) within spitting distance of my back door would take some (translation: a lot of) getting used to.

Just as I was mulling over the escalating tension and pacing of my own personal week, there was a new wrinkle in what we refer to around here as the weekly wildlife count. In fiction, we’d call it a twist in the action.

A cougar was spotted on the trail. Not out in the open because cougars, unlike bears, are stealthy creatures. A woman walking her dog in the moonlight caught sight of gleaming eyes staring at her out of the bushes. She beamed her flashlight in that general direction and, sure enough, it was a cougar. Crouched at the base of a tree. Waiting.

A cougar waiting in the bushes while she walked the trail. In. The. Moonlight. That woman, in a fictional world, would be the fearless heroine. She would not be me.

I have enough on my plate dealing with the pacing of my manuscripts. And the escalating bear sightings outside my back door.  

My August Reads

Here it is nearly the end of August; September is right around the corner. Soon school will be back in session, routines will be more in force and I’ll be back to blogging every week. For now, we’re still settling into our new home and getting used to the house and the neighborhood. As well as welcoming rabbits, squirrels, dear and raccoon to our yard, we have a family of quail that stops by fairly often. Mom (or maybe Dad) stands guard on a fence post while the rest of the family scurries along the ground. Fortunately, Team Sheltie has yet to see the quail parade. We might build a quail house next year. It’s on the list. Right now though, I’m busy revising No Right Thing, doing some freelance editing jobs and organizing my office. Oh, and finding a few minutes here and there to read. Here’s what I’m reading this month:

On the patio: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Before bed: Ageless Soul by Thomas Moore

In the kitchen:   We Fed an Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time by Jose Andres and Richard Wolffe

Books read to date in 2019: 37

And That’s A Wrap

The final few pages of a novel should bring a sense of completion and ideally some satisfaction or fulfillment too (which is why I love a well-written happily ever after). At the same time, a good ending should be logical, appropriate and have a sense of inevitability about it. It’s an art, hitting those perfect notes when writing a book. But it’s an art that allows for revising and tweaking until you’re satisfied with the story you’ve written.

Life isn’t like that. Endings come whether we’re ready for them or not. We can’t always control the outcome and they’re rarely as tidy as we’d like them to be. Endings have been on my mind a lot lately. Spring has ended and summer has started. This year, the end of spring brought a couple of things to competition in my life. And they were the best kind – happy endings.

The e fraud and stalled royalty issue I wrote about in a previous blog post   https://lauralangston.com/the-royalties-that-failed-to-arrive/  has been resolved. There was a big, black moment near the end (as all good endings have) where the bank refused to compensate us for the fraudulent interception, but ultimately that decision was reversed. The money was returned and my royalty payment arrived soon after.

My first ongoing mosaic project reached a natural conclusion recently too  (if you missed my process, go here: https://lauralangston.com/filling-the-well-mosaic-style/ ) I spent a few hours over a period of several weeks learning all about mosaic art and filling my creative well by trying something different. The final product may not be technically perfect or as artistically ‘tidy’ as I’d like it to be, but I’m happy with it.  In fact, I’m planning another mosaic project. And that’s another thing about endings. Done well, a good ending always brings with it the possibility of a new beginning, a fresh start.

 

 

 

Filling the Well, Mosaic Style

I’m not great at finding time to play, and that’s been especially true lately with so many demands on my time. But as Julia Cameron talks about in “The Artist’s Way” it’s critical to take breaks, interact with the world and fill the inner well that fuels our creativity.

I thought about that last week when I took a class from Debra Hagen, a Nanoose Bay artist who specializes in mosaic art. I knew almost nothing about mosaics until I visited Debra at her house (okay, technically Team Sheltie went on a play date to visit Debra’s two shelties, Seamas and Merlin, and the humans accompanied them). Her home is vibrant, welcoming and filled with samples of her gorgeous mosaic art. 

Every piece drew me in. Some were bold, others were more subtle, but they were all beautiful. When Debra said she gave classes in her studio downstairs, I was tempted, though I’m not at all artistic. I can’t draw, paint, or sculpt I told her. I’m lousy with textiles. I’d probably mess up papier-mache.

Debra assured me it didn’t matter, so I decided to make a trivet. Something bright for my new kitchen.

 

 

Debra’s studio overlooks the garden and it has the kind of happy vibe found in any creative space: a feeling of expectancy and a sense of promise. Plus, it’s filled with more of Debra’s stunning art.

I enjoyed a cup of tea while Debra gave me a very brief introduction to mosaics. She pointed out her many containers of tesserae, the small blocks of stone, tile, glass or other materials used to make mosaics . . . and the pottery and china that can be broken up and also used in a mosaic. It’s referred to as pique assiette.

She talked about the substrate or rigid surface that you need to form the base, the adhesive or glue that’s used to attach the tesserae, and the basic tools like the wheeled nippers I’d need to do the job.

Like writing, the first step was settling on an idea and getting started. I quickly realized saying I was going to make a trivet was like saying I was going to write a novel. The statement was too broad. In the same way that a novel needs a plot or a character or a problem from which to build, my trivet needed something from which to build too: a central focus or a color or a piece of tile. Something. I decided on a heart for the center which Debra helped me outline on my plywood substrate.

 

We looked at the various bits of red tesserae that might work, but I wasn’t hooked. My eye kept going back to the china and pottery.

I found a plate with colors and a pattern I quite liked. Though it wasn’t at all red or heart-themed, something told me to go with it. I began breaking it up.

I hadn’t consciously noticed the couple on the plate when I chose it, but as I began to play with my layout, I decided they would form the center of the heart. How could they not?

Because I wanted to be sure I was happy with my layout, I placed many of the pieces on my substrate before I began gluing. That made for a longer process but I felt more confident doing it that way. At the end of the day, I wasn’t finished, but my heart had taken shape and I was thinking about background colors which I’ll tackle next time. 

Once the background tesserae is glued down, those small pieces will need 48 hours to dry before it’s time for the final step: grouting.

I left Debra’s studio feeling refreshed and energized . . . and thinking about my next mosaic project!

Debra is a great teacher. She’s instructive and helpful, and at the same time she’s wise enough to step back and let the artistic process unfold. For more information on her classes or to buy one of her mosaics, she can be reached at goldbugmosaics@gmail.com

 

And I’m Off….

It’s family business time again and that means I’m off to Manitoba for a couple of weeks. At least this time I’ll be there after the snow but before the mosquitoes. Small blessings and all of that.

Just as I was thinking about writing this blog and how I’m short on time and out of pithy things to say, this piece popped up on Live Write Thrive. It’s about saying more with less.

How Novelists Can Say More with Less

Enjoy the read. I’ll see you back here in a few weeks.

When It’s a Happy Deadline

Canadian writers might want to take note of two quickly approaching deadlines. Some deadlines might bring with them a sense of urgency or even dread, but these are what you could call happy deadlines.

The Public Lending Right (PLR) Program sends yearly payments to creators whose works are in Canada’s public libraries. Registration is open for a few more weeks yet. For more information go here: https://publiclendingright.ca/

Another program that benefits Canadian authors is Access Copyright. If you own reproduction rights to a book, articles in a magazine or newspaper, or work in a journal that’s available commercially, you can affiliate with Access Copyright and receive a yearly payment, called payback. The deadline to register for Access Copyright is the end of May, though if you’re a first-time user, you may have to wait a full twelve months for your first payback installment. For more information, go here: https://www.accesscopyright.ca/

A tip: if you decide to affiliate, gather all your information ahead of time. PLR requires titles, ISBNs, publication dates and photocopies of copyright pages. Access Copyright focuses specifically on the number of books, articles, and pages written in a given year. For the latter, any works published in print format between 1998 to 2017 are eligible to be claimed. Digital and online works aren’t eligible, at least not yet.

Canada Council for the Arts and the Writer’s Union of Canada have both played a role in establishing and maintaining the programs. Registration costs nothing and those annual cheques are always a welcome bonus.

It Takes Time

I’m not particularly patient, nor am I especially self-indulgent. If I have a job to do, I like to get on with it quickly and efficiently.

Years as a journalist taught me the importance of meeting deadlines, getting words down, not making excuses. So, when I turned to novel writing, I brought that same attitude with me: Put your butt in the chair and get to work. I’m not the fastest writer in the library but I’m not the slowest one either. I’m a ‘steady as she goes, right down the middle’ kind of writer. It works; the words add up.

Or at least they used to. Lately, though, my writing has taken something of a backseat because I’m preoccupied with trying to help my sick father who lives across the country. I wrote about it last month: https://lauralangston.com/workarounds/

I struggled with the workarounds, though I did try. By the end of March, however, I realized that my writing output had slipped to an alarmingly low level. Barring the months postpartum with my kids, it’s the lowest it’s ever been. Acknowledging that sent me into a real funk. This isn’t how I work; this isn’t who I am.

A few days later, this blog post popped up on Live, Write, Thrive: https://www.livewritethrive.com/2019/04/01/when-slow-writing-leads-to-great-writing/

I don’t like feeling unproductive. A day or two is one thing but not for weeks at a stretch. The idea of slowing down and taking my time (or some days not having the time) feels incredibly frustrating as the Live Write Thrive post acknowledges.

I talked to a non-writer friend. She’s a geriatric and hospice nurse; her whole mindset is about people. She knows the circumstances of my situation and she also knows I have an intensely disruptive few months coming up. I’ll be flying back east at least once, maybe multiple times. She couldn’t fathom that I was even trying to write at a time like this. “You need to give yourself permission to stop,” she said. “Just stop and deal with the issues at hand.”

I’m not sure I want to stop writing for the next couple of months but I do need to give myself permission to go slowly. And I need to find the joy in it too.

Going slowly isn’t all bad. For instance, I love to cycle. It’s not the fastest mode of transportation, yet it’s a wonderful way to connect more intimately with your surroundings. Slow food also has its merits. My grandmother used to cook short ribs. They take forever (or it felt like they did) but that slow time is necessary to break down the connective tissue in the meat so they’re fall-apart tender and delicious. A good Bordeaux takes at least ten years to mature. A beautiful Bonsai can take five years to look like anything.

It may take me more time than I’d like to get my current novel written. But as long as I’m moving forward, I will get there. One word at a time.

You Know You’re a Writer When . . .

Here’s a blast from the past. . . a blog post I wrote in 2013 that’s as true today as it was back then.

I wasn’t that odd as a child, not really, although if you ask my father he’d probably disagree. I was sensitive to my surroundings (especially to the undercurrents of conversations and what wasn’t being said); I was prone to storytelling (others referred to this as exaggeration); and I had three special (imaginary-to-everyone-else) friends. I played with them, had conversations (and arguments) with them and I ate meals with them too. This did not please my rational father. He didn’t realize he had a writer-in-the-making in the house.

How do you know you’re a writer?  You know you’re a writer when –

You had imaginary friends as a child only they were real to you.

You are prone to wild imaginings that can literally make your heart race.

Conflict makes you smile.

You don’t get non-readers.

You laugh out loud at conversations in your head.

Some of the letters on your keyboard are worn off.

You have pens in every room of your house, including the bathroom and beside your bed.

A song on the radio sparks a story idea.

You stare at random people and memorize their quirks.

You can predict the conflict or turning points in movies, and your family has made you promise to keep quiet until it’s over.

You get excited by Scrivener.

Eavesdropping is second nature.

You love bookstores (but hate them if they don’t carry your books).

You live in a constant state of ‘what now?’ closely followed by ‘what if?’

Twist is not a cinnamon stick.

You have scribbled an idea, a word, or a piece of dialogue on a restaurant napkin, boarding pass, old envelope, school newsletter, or empty toilet roll.

You find those odd bits of paper – sometimes indecipherable – in pockets, wallets, purses, drawers, stuffed between the pages of a book, and you save them.

Pacing is a concept not an activity.

You found it easier to write when you first started.

You have missed a turn, an exit ramp or possibly a plane because you were so absorbed in your story.

You weren’t comfortable as a journalist because you always wanted to change the end of the story.

Proofreading is automatic.

Character is not about your personal ethics.

A hero must be flawed. But sexy as hell.

You gather ideas, thoughts, bits of trivia and snatches of dialogue like black pants gather lint.

You visit a cemetery and take notes.

People you barely know ask you to read their book, their article, their life story. Or ask you to write it.

You have a weird combination of insecurity and confidence.

Finishing the scene is more important than answering the phone.

The Muse is an intimate.

And, finally, you will read anything.

 

Workarounds

For the most part, I’m fairly disciplined with respect to my writing. It’s my day job; I show up at the same time five mornings a week and I write. I got into the habit when my kids were young and I’ve kept it up. If I’m on deadline, that writing often spills into the afternoons. If I’m not on deadline and providing I’ve already written a decent number of pages, then I’ll sometimes switch gears in the afternoon and do an editing job or research, respond to emails, or deal with any current business issues.

Not deviating and staying consistent with my routine keeps me productive and on track, and that makes me happy. Lately, however, my routine has been torpedoed.

If I’m being completely honest, things began going south in January, when we moved. At first it was the upheaval of relocating to a different town: unpacking, getting my office set up, all of that. Then I realized I was missing my morning gym workout, something I routinely did (and had done for decades) before sitting down to write. Cycling or running was out of the question; the weather wasn’t conducive. Since we’re not living in the community we intend to settle in permanently, I needed an affordable short-term workout location. It took me another week of checking out nearby facilities before I figured out which one would work best for me.

I was poised to sign a short-term contract – and excited about finally getting back into a regular routine – when my father fell and ended up in hospital. He lives half way across the country, by himself, with no family nearby. Someone had to be there for him and I was it. My one week there turned into two, and I returned home with the full responsibility of his affairs, both medical and personal.

He’s still in hospital, still working towards some kind of recovery, and facing an uncertain future. That’s his reality and it’s not a pleasant one. My reality, aside from the personal heartbreak of witnessing his decline (and that’s no small thing), is that there’s a two-hour time difference between the west coast and Manitoba. That means when my phone starts ringing at 8 am, it’s already 10 o’clock there and the middle of the morning. Calls to doctors or social workers don’t happen on my timetable; they happen on theirs. Water pipes don’t freeze at a time that’s convenient; they freeze when they freeze (which is usually overnight, only to be discovered first thing in the morning).

My priorities have shifted in an unexpected and unwelcome way.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a great blog post this week about priorities. https://kriswrites.com/2019/02/27/business-musings-priorities/

The timing of her post was serendipitous for me. She talks about how there are times when we all have to give up something on our priorities list. She stresses the importance of acceptance in the face of doing that.

My mornings are not always my own right now, and no amount of wishing or discipline will change that. I don’t like it but I’m learning to accept it. Afternoons, never my freshest time, are quieter. So, I’m writing then. Wish me luck.