2018: Angling the Headlights Down #MFRWAuthor

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“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

~ E.L. Doctorow in the Paris Review Interview

I’ve always loved that Doctorow quote about writing because it reminds me of something very important. If you look at the big picture, sometimes you can get overwhelmed. But if you keep the focus on what’s right in front of you — this bit of road right here — you can get to where you need to go.

Normally, I’m a big planner. I have my 5-year plan, my bucket list, my daily task lists, my quarterly project sheets, all of it. But when it came time to formulate a plan for 2018, I found myself in the perplexing and unfamiliar position of just not wanting to think about it.

And I know exactly why this is. 2017 was not a good or productive year for me. Many things went wrong. I failed to reach almost every target on my annual goal list, but I can’t say it was from a failure of effort or motivation. Circumstances — everything from serious injury to family stuff — intervened. Sometimes life happens, right?

Even though I believe that I did the best I could — really, the best I could reasonably ask from myself under the circumstances, and I’m not mad or depressed or anything — I’m still having a bad reaction to that list of unmet 2017 goals. I conquer my goals. Always. Except in 2017, and that’s messing up my head a little bit.

So in 2018, I’m taking a different approach. I’m not starting the year with big-picture goals. I’m angling the headlights down, closer to the pavement, and I’m slowing my typical racing speed. I’m creating a daily plan — a vision of sorts for how I want every day to look. I’m not going to worry about how those days will mount up into a year. I’m just going to focus on daily habits and doing the best I can until this bad patch of road is long behind me.

So my resolution is to create a daily plan and execute it to the best of my ability every day. It will include things like working out, writing, work, social and family stuff, and so on. But, for example, I can’t realistically plan to run a half-marathon this year when I still need to do physical therapy for an injury that has basically killed my running mojo. I don’t know how much more therapy I’ll need or what kind of shape I’ll be in when it’s all done. This big-picture plan is beyond my control. And I have to accept that for now.

All I can do is look at the here and now. Do the best I can under these present circumstances. Aim the headlights down, keep the focus tight, and keep moving forward.

Eventually, I’ll get to my destination.

What are you planning for your new year?

 

Writing Tips for Newbies #MFRWAuthor

newbies

True Confession: I have a degree in creative writing and I teach writing at a university.

That confession is not offered as a way of gaining credibility, but as a way of explaining the tips I’m about to give you. In my experience, writing is taught differently in the classroom setting than in the shared experience of writers groups and working critique groups. There are many reasons for that, which we won’t get into today except to say that the reasons make sense and it’s all good. Instead, what I want to do today is offer two exercises that we use sometimes in the university setting to teach new writers.

Eavesdropping

This is a good one. Go to a public location with a notebook or laptop, sit near two people having an ordinary discussion, and transcribe their conversation. (It’s okay. They’re talking about their stuff in public. They know anyone can listen.)

Once you have a solid page or two of notes, stop listening and start looking. Do you see any speech patterns particular to one speaker? Can you learn to distinguish between the two speakers just from seeing the cadence and word choice on the page? Does one speak more? Does one tend to interrupt? What can you tell about the characters (age, education level, etc.) from word choice, topic, and other dialogue details?

The goal is to learn to identify speaking voice in dialogue and connect it to character. Two retired men sipping McDonald’s coffee at 6:00 a.m. will sound very different from two teenagers sharing fries after volleyball practice. And if you listen carefully, you will also hear the ways the teenagers are different from each other, not just from the retirees.

Rewrites from Memory

This exercise is great for helping you sift the wheat from the chaff in a scene that might not feel completely solid. It presumes you have a draft of the scene material, and that you’re not quite sure you’re hitting the target with what you want to have happen in the scene. Pantsers (people who write without outlines) often find a lot of benefit in this exercise.

Start by re-reading the scene. Then put it away. Don’t look at it again. Just read it once through, hide it so you can’t see it, and do something else for an hour or so — preferably something that takes your mind off the scene for a while. During this short break, you want to just let the scene simmer in the deep part of your mind. Don’t think about it.

After an hour or so of taking your mind off it, return to the page. But don’t look at the scene again. Just try to write it out again, top to bottom, without ever looking back at the original version. Don’t stress about word choices or worry about that one turn of phrase you really, really like in the first draft — all of that material still exists and can be accessed later. For now, you’re just re-creating the scene from top to bottom as best you remember it.

Once that is complete, take a look at the two drafts side by side. In the second version, it’s likely that you will have added some things and dropped some others. The cause-effect chain in the two versions are likely to be different. Pay attention to similarities, too, because these are also important.

Comparing the two versions will help you identify the core scene mechanics. The similarities show you the skeleton of the scene, and the differences show you the way that skeleton can be fleshed out. Once you see that skeleton, you can start identifying options for how to fill it in. You’ll see where you have flexibility and where you should preserve some consistency.

I hope those exercises help!

What kinds of writing exercises do you enjoy? Are there any that helped you learn something new about your craft or process?

 

 

Simple Everyday Cooking #MFRWAuthor

It’s no secret that I love to cook. In fact, I’m planning an upcoming book with a chef-owner of a farm-to-table restaurant just because it will make me happy to write about someone who likes to cook, too. This is one of the ways writers infuse our personalities into our work — we give our characters tastes or hobbies that match ours. In Daring Sarah, the heroine discovers a love of hiking and mountains mainly because I also love that. It was so much fun to write about Sarah’s adventures that I knew I would have to feature a chef in a future book, and that chef will be as interested in simple, fresh, vivid flavors as I am.

I’m more a cook than a chef — I like simple foods, and I tend to keep a lot of the same things on hand and repeat many of the same recipes. So when the MFRW 52-week blog challenge came up with “Share a Recipe” this week, I knew the accent would be on the things I make frequently.

You can always find a jar of this condiment on the top shelf of my fridge.

carrot jalepeno

Carrot-Jalepeno Relish

2 cups jalapenos, chopped (about 10-12 peppers)
2 cups carrots, peeled and chopped (about 4-6 carrots)
1 1/2 cups white vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 onion, chopped

Put it in a pot and simmer for one hour. (How easy is that?)

We use this on salads, tacos, or mixed into rice and bean bowls — it’s sweet and hot and so, so delicious.

This is an everyday lunch for me, a recipe provided by an Egyptian friend who says fava beans are a regular feature in her family’s diet. One of the fun things about being vegetarian or vegan is that we do tend to scour other cultures’ cooking habits for the really good bean recipes. This is one of them, and it’s both filling and very low in calories.

fava salad

Fresh Fava Bean Salad

1 cup cooked fava beans
1 cup chopped tomato
1 cup chopped cucumber
Dressing: Juice of 1 lemon mixed with 1/2 teaspoon each garlic powder and cumin

Just mix and enjoy! You can adjust the garlic and cumin to taste — I tend to go a little heavy on the garlic.

Finally, this is my go-to recipe when I need some comfort food. I don’t know what it is about pancakes, but eating them always makes me feel warm and cozy inside.

banana pancakes

Banana Pancakes

2.5 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups almond milk (or regular milk, if you eat dairy)
1 banana, mashed

Mash banana thoroughly and mix it with the milk. In a separate bowl, combine all dry ingredients. Mix wet and dry together into a smooth batter. Cook on a nonstick skillet and serve warm. Great topped with fresh berries or other fruit. For a stronger banana flavor, use two bananas instead of one. For a special treat, add 1/2 cup chocolate chips or pecans to the batter before cooking. Yum!
Makes 12 medium pancakes.

What is your favorite “always make it” recipe?

An Unplanned Absence: I Blame the Walnut

wood chip LK

I love trail running. If you’re not familiar with this activity, it’s exactly what it sounds like. I run on a trail through parks and woods rather than a formal track, treadmill, or other similar surface. We have excellent running and biking trails in the Chicago area, over 200 miles of interconnected paths, and I’m lucky enough to live right near several. I have my pick of trails to run on, including the wood chip trail pictured above. It’s one of my favorite ways to clear my head and burn off some excess energy.

In mid-October, I was running on a cool afternoon and enjoying every breath of the autumn air.  I’d just returned from Florida the day before, and after running in their heat and sunshine, the crisp fall weather was refreshing. Everything was perfect until I came to a patch of trail that was littered with autumn debris. There was a walnut tree nearby, and my left foot caught a walnut, and I fell hard.

walnuts

Have you seen walnuts right off a tree before? They don’t look like the bagged items in a grocery store! These are not the walnuts that clobbered me, but they are from the same tree. As I ran, I was picking my footsteps pretty carefully, but a walnut was hiding under some leaves and I didn’t see it. Wah!

Long story short, my right arm and hand were out of commission for several weeks, and I’m now the proud owner of several new first aid items, including a lightweight arm sling, a wrist brace, and several finger braces. Here’s hoping I never have to use them again.

It turns out that, in addition to being rather clumsy in the presence of walnuts, I am far more right-handed than I ever realized. Here’s a short list of things my left hand hated doing:

  • Getting the soup from the bowl into my mouth without dribbling half of it all over everything (tomato soup leaves stains, who knew)
  • Turning keys in door locks (which led to me being stuck outside my own home after I went out to get the mail, which in turn led me to install a new punch-pad based entry system — which I *love*, so it’s not all bad)
  • Dialing phones (which made it tricky to order the pizzas that kept me going when I couldn’t use cutlery)
  • Applying makeup (OMG, just forget it unless you want to look like a 3-yo scribbled on your face)

Oh, well. It’s mostly better now, and I’m out of the sling and able to hold a pen again. Still some healing to do, but I’m starting to ease back into my work and pick up the dropped reins. It’s good to be back!

Kayla Drake

Three quotes from very different books #MFRWauthor

Today on our blog hop, we’re talking about favorite quotes from books. I have a collection! I keep them in a little journal with a ribbon marker and elastic band closure. The journal was made by Peter Pauper Press, and it’s about my favorite blank book. The paper quality is delicious! Much thicker than other brands, and there’s no bleeding if you use felt pens. (I’m an office supply junkie. Goes hand in hand with being a writer!) So I can write all my favorite snippets on these archival pages and never worry about bleeding or fading.

In any case, many of my favorite book quotes end up being either about writing or about romance or about motivation. Sometimes about more than one! Here are just a few.

“But the lines were enough. She had only to utter them. They created the character in spite of her.”

~ from My Antonia by Willa Cather, one of my absolute favorite books

I love that quote because it reminds me not to stress out too hard about the characters as I write them. If I’ve done my groundwork and I know who these people are, then I can write them as they are. The lines are enough, and I have only to write them.

“Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.'”

~ from The Talmud

I have lots of angels, people who have taught me things, opened up to me, given me a boost when I needed it. Even when things are tough, there are angels whispering to us. We all have our angels! Look around you — you’ll spot yours!

“[I]n any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death.”

~ from Imajica by Clive Barker

This is an important reminder that what comes between characters is the engine that drives the story. I first read this book on an airplane, and I remember being so struck by the first paragraph (which develops this idea in detail), that over and over during the flight, I turned back to re-read it. It just made me keep thinking about the way that even abstractions can come between characters and keep them from connecting as we would like them to. But if everything was smooth and happy, where would the story be? We read because we want to see people jump over their hurdles.

What are some of your favorite quotes?

 

https://www.linkytools.com/basic_linky_include.aspx?id=280664

I’m the top October blogger at RLFblog.com!

Here’s something fun!

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Look at those pretty pink stones! I admit to being a girly girl and liking pink a little more than I should. In fact, if you ever see me in person, chances are I’ll be wearing pink or red, my favorites! So this lovely virtual necklace coordinates perfectly with the real me.

Thank you so much to the Romance Lives Forever blog for inviting me to visit them. And thank you for naming me the top October blogger!

 

Daring Sarah is now on pre-order sale for only 99 cents!

Guys, guys, guys! I’m so excited! Daring Sarah is up for pre-order on Amazon for only 99 cents! 

This book is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. Sarah really spoke to me as a character. Her heartbreak was so powerful at the beginning of the book, and I just wanted to keep writing and keep writing so that she could have the happy ending she deserved. It was my job — my duty! — to help her come out of her shell of widow’s grief and open up to life again. After you read it, you can tell me whether I got the job done!

DS ebook cover