Moving Forward: Don’t look to the right or the left

This post is only peripherally about writing. But it’s my blog.

My fun and games online started over twenty-five years ago. I originally got a computer to replace my word processor. Then I discovered you could speak to people online. I loved it.

I didn’t love it because I was a freak, although, I might very well be. That’s a different post.

I loved it because it seemed to me a means of taking what was in my heart and my head and getting it out. For my brand of introversion this was a very exciting thing.

Perhaps more importantly, I believed it was a way to see into the hearts and minds of others. This was even more exciting because I was certain most people spent a great deal of energy hiding their true selves.

I am an idealist, the type which I’m sure will soon be extinct.

Of course, lots of people lie online. But you can tell. Well, I can tell. I thought everyone would be able to tell. People’s words reveal them. Their lies reveal them. Their avoidances. Their choices. What they don’t say that they could say.

I suppose I’ve trained myself. I’ve been listening to the opposite side of political conversations all my life. I enjoyed testing my ideas and coming up with possible objections. I used to enjoy knowing what the other side thought.

But look what we have done. We’re idiots.

Very few of us listen to the other side and quite honestly, I can’t bear to even listen to my side anymore. Not on any topic. We’re talking to ourselves. It has no purpose.

I don’t even actually like politics and I’m not patriotic. I prefer my elected politicians to be ineffectual because it means I don’t have to pay attention to them. Ineffectual is as close to benign as a politician can get. If they’re also basically decent, well… that’s a plus but not a requirement. I’d say, as a politician’s decency increases, their ineffectualness can decrease. But there’s a point where even for a politician who is decent, it taps out. Which is to say,  being a decent human being doesn’t mean your ideas about what to change are good ones. It also doesn’t mean those around you are decent. Essentially, the odds of a group of decent people getting together and moving forward with focus and purpose is well…

Idealism leads to cynicism.

It’s really gotten to be too much. Although, I’m pretty sure my favorite political theorist, Robert A Heinlein, would say that the current shyster is as honest a shyster as one can get because he is so clearly a shyster. All politicians are corrupt. A politician who is clearly corrupt is honestly corrupt. But Heinlein’s characters were able to go off planet. I don’t have that luxury.

In the last year or so, we’ve put children in cages. That’s what we did. There’s no prettying it up.  The outcry was too little too late and quite honestly, there’s still reason for crying, and no one is doing it loud enough. There are too many distractions.

Now, we’ve put someone who is suspected of misusing power onto the Supreme Court. We witnessed this man exploit his power. Then we talked about what was fair and what was provable. We talked about whether he did it.

Whether he did it wasn’t the issue at that point. We witnessed him exploit power.

We don’t know what these things are. I mean, as a society, we don’t appear to have a solid sense of what it means to be decent or fair or truthful. It’s almost as though we don’t know what words mean anymore.

Because, it wasn’t about sex. It’s never been about sex. The first lesson learned, the first one forgotten.

It’s about the misuse of power. He was suspected of misusing power before the first sexual allegation. He’s written about power in a way which implies he approves of the misuse of power. We aren’t able to think well enough to string these clues together and conclude: this man misuses power. Even when he misuses his power before our very eyes, we act as though there’s doubt.

The internet has shown us what’s in our hearts and our minds. Another first lesson learned: Be careful what you ask for.

I’ve given up on politics. I don’t care to read any more Washington Post articles. I don’t need to watch Fox News to know what the other side is thinking or saying. I have no desire to stay in touch or share. There’s no time to keep up.

It’s clear we live in bubbles. This is often cited as the problem. I think that might be simplistic. It implies that if we got out of our bubbles for a short period of time, we’d change our minds. I don’t think that’s the case. Sometimes there is a good and a bad. Sometimes it is black and white. I happen to be on the side which so often waffles, who asks these questions which open us up to looking weak, unconfident, and vulnerable. Woo woo.

It surprises me that when given the choice, a large percentage of us choose the bubble which ultimately doesn’t serve our own best interests. I suppose they need more time to familiarize themselves with the terrain before they can recognize the landscape. By the time they catch up to their own context, it will be inescapable.

It’s important to note, they aren’t trapped in their bubble. It’s a bubble they’ve willfully chosen and while they don’t understand the implications of the attributes and characteristics of their alternative facts and nationalistic reality, the more literal aspects of their point of view aren’t vague. They’re not just atrocious. They’re atrocities.

Which means there’s a significant percentage of our populations who chooses white before children, power before women, and dogma before decency. They make the wrong choice every time and what they don’t see is that they have children, they love women, and everyone thrives when we’re decent to one another.

I am less concerned than I was yesterday about whether I am personally being fair. I worry less about whether I have all the information I need or whether my reasoning is sound. I have a lifetime of experience being fair. I know what it feels like. I recognize the terrain. There’s no waffling to be done here.

I’m not donating, protesting, or informing anyone because, those who care, already know. When something is so obvious, the problem is not lack of information. It’s not even something deeper.

Despite all we know about where totalitarian nationalistic societies lead, our fair minded, democratic, innocent until proven guilty society is choosing it because they think they’ll be the ones exerting the totalitarian power. So, it doesn’t matter what happens to anyone else.

What’s unique about our current situation is its being willfully chosen. We’re not being forced. We aren’t operating from ignorance or unfamiliarity. We’re choosing it. Which is all I need to know.

*We is being used in a general sense for the purpose of this post.*

 

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Finding creativity: two quirky exercises to beat the blank page

As a writer, there are days where the words just flow. Creativity possesses me, takes over, and I simply become the vessel. And then there are days where I stare at the screen, type a 100 words, delete 90, purse my lips and think, “well shit”.

This blog is for those days.

A lesson from John Marsden

I recently had the chance to attend a workshop with YA author John Marsden. Marsden is something of a household name for Australian readers—young and old alike. His most well-known series, Tomorrow When the War Began, has seven books to its name, has spawned a sequel series, a movie and a TV show. Suffice to say, this man knows his stuff.

To limber up the group’s creativity, he had us do two exercises–both of which I’d never encountered before:

1. Write about the beach—without using the letter A.

“No waves, no water, no sand,” Marsden said to us. It also eliminated ‘an’ ‘as’, ‘and’, ‘said’, ‘says’, ‘splash’, ‘salt’, ‘sea’, ‘seaweed’ and ‘swam’, among others.

Here’s my attempt:

The wind whistles; gulls keen. Swimmers skip into the cold, diving below; into silence. Currents tug at the kelp, pulling it into knots. Fish swim between the rocks, tiny slivers glinting through the blue. Red here, yellow there.

This exercise forces you to search your vocabulary a bit deeper, rather than spurt the same old tired combinations we’ve all read a hundred times before (e.g. the sparkling sea).

While it’s not something I could ever keep up over the course of a novel, or even a short story (though some have managed 50,000 words without the letter E), it’s a great tool for thinking up fresh descriptions.

2. Write four lists: adjectives, places, people and body parts.

As many as you can think of. Here’s a few to start:

 

Adjectives Places or landmarks People Body Parts
Colours: pink, purple, blue, yellow, black, white, gold, silver etc.
Textures: furry, hairy, gritty, gravelly, soft, hard, fluffy, smooth, rough, etc.
Shapes and sizes: tall, thick, giant, long, wide, huge, behemoth, short, stocky, round, squat, squashed, etc.
Sensations/feelings:

Hot, cold, wet, tingling, sore, angry, sad, etc.

Eiffel Tower

Big Ben

Leaning Tower of Pisa

The Colosseum

The Golden Gate Bridge

Statue of Liberty

Mt Fuji

The Great Wall of China

The Great Barrier Reef

Uluru/Ayers Rock

Berlin Wall

Stonehenge

Mum

Dad

Brother

Sister

Elton John

Michael Jackson

Stevie Wonder

Lady Gaga

Lorde

Henry VIII

Cleopatra

Mark Anthony

Martin Luther King

John F Kennedy

Feet

Hands

Fingers

Toes

Ears

Eyes

Hair

Nose

Chin

Arms

Legs

Knees

Heels

Back

Shoulders

Neck

 

Once you’ve got your lists, combine take an adjective and combine it with something from your other lists. The goal: weird. Quirky. The more unlikely the combination, the better.

To use Marsden’s example: Hairy Eiffel Tower.

Reject any word combinations that sound like they belong together, such as ‘wide eyes’, ‘open mouth’, ‘sore feet’. These combinations are stale. We want outside the box.

“We’ve been taught that words go together in predictable combinations,” Marsden told us. “But when you give people license to break the rules, their energy changes.”

I like this exercise for two reasons. First, it is an excellent way to learn to recognize and avoid cliché. The second is that the right combination can kick-start a story. So the Eiffel Tower is hairy; the Thames furious; your brother has turned blue–how did that happen? Why? Perhaps a member of the French wizard guild got drunk at a New Year’s party, or someone broke their promise to the Thames river god; maybe your brother has actually been swapped with a changeling. Once you’ve found an idea you like, off you go from there.

No need to wait

Somewhere along my writing journey, I realised that you don’t need to wait around for inspiration to strike. You can force it to ignite. If you’re stumped for an idea, give these a go. If they work, great! If not, onwards and upwards, there are plenty of other exercises to try. Inspiration can’t hide from you forever.

 

 

 

Fear and Acceptance

Scriptor Corruptus

This may be the first time you’ve seen my name, and that’s not your fault. I’ve been writing for years. Everything I did, I kept locked away secret, or it was shredded and thrown away. Now, I’m on the cusp of having my very first book out in the public’s hands. What happened? I keep asking myself if this is real life.

My problem – which may very well be your problem too – was fear. I wrote “in the closet.” I told myself nobody could possibly want to read any of the garbage I put on paper. I wasn’t as good as Stephen King, or Earnest Hemingway, and I certainly was no Shakespeare. So what was the point in putting it out there? Why voluntarily stand in front of all of human kind, figuratively naked, for them to dissect, laugh and point at? To be humiliated, disliked, talked about?

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Tarot as a Writing Tool

“According to mythology, there were nine muses. With the Tarot, you’ve got seventy-eight! ”

– Llewellyn, Publisher.

The practice of cartomancy, or divination, using playing cards is a ancient activity. How ancient exactly, it is not known. Playing cards arrived in Europe in around 1360 and were used for fortune telling also. The first written account of a divination done with tarot cards is 1527, but these activities are assumed to be much older, and playing cards are thought to have arrived from Europe via Turkey and before that, possibly China.

The Tarot is a specific, more recent form of cartomancy, thought to have started in the courts of fourteenth century renaissance Italy as a card game, Tarocchi.

The world’s most popular deck—the Rider-Waite Tarot—with its countless subsequent variants, didn’t appear until 1909 and was associated mainly with occultists like Aleister Crowley and Madame Blavatsky in the early 20th century, before exploding into popular culture in the new age 70s with books like Stuart Kaplan’s Tarot Cards for Fun and Fortune Telling, and by cult filmmakers like Alejandro Jodorowsky.

I am a professional Tarot card reader, and also a writer of non-fiction, fiction and verse. These are separate activities but I feel they come from the same source; that oldest part of the human mind upon which physical survival depended, and as we know, some parts of the human brain are indeed much more ancient than others in our physical evolution, while recently discovered, is the very speedy nerve connection directly linking gut and brain.

No surprises there. Thoughts and feelings can make us sick to our stomach. We’re a hunting animal and a prey animal. Feeling is our fastest way of thinking, faster than calculation, faster than language, and everywhere we look, we seek pattern, and meaning.

We’re all of us hard-wired for stories from earliest childhood from which can be deduced, story-telling serves some crucial purpose within the human psyche, both individually and collectively, while any story, however crazily fantastical,  still contains primal truths.

apocalypto
The story teller in Apocalypto

 

A great story makes us feel something before we know exactly why. A great story creates or presents anew, some ancient pattern of the world.

It makes us feel like it means something. We look up at the three stars of Orion, Alnilam, Alnitak and Mintaka, and see a belt resting on his hips as he strides out.

Orion
Image: constellation of Orion (the hunter)

Where is the overlap between Tarot for divination and writing?

The purpose of each is to establish an avenue of information exchange and emotional exchange creating a meaningful, resonant connection with another person, very probably a total stranger.

Predicting and so forth, well, that’s another conversation, and the writer need not trouble themselves about the divinatory uses for tarot cards. Fortune- telling can also be done with tea-leaves but there’s no need to worry about drinking tea on that account.

Novel writers and poets WB Yeats, TS Eliot, John Steinbeck and film director Alejandro Jodorowski, have found inspiration in the Tarot.

Jodorowki said that “the Tarot will teach you how to create a soul.”

That is a poetic statement, not a statement that can be explicitly explained or quantified.  Exactly right, there’s no recipe, and there are no rules. A tarot deck is a symbol system, a storybook of 78 individual storyboards dealing in archetypes and archetypal situations.

The archetypal story structure is widely known as The Hero’s Journey, as described in the book by twentieth- century mythologist, Joseph Campbell.

herosjourney

The 22 cards of the Major Arcana (Great Secrets) of the Tarot Deck also represent an archetypal journey – known as The Fool’s Journey, presented in three acts of 7 cards each with the Fool as the title card.

The Fool is numbered 0 and is sometimes also counted as card 22. The Fool is like an ouroboros, a serpent biting its own tail, representing an endless cycle of beginnings and endings, life and death.

ourobouros

The Fool makes mistakes but he is quick to learn, inexperienced but not stupid. This is the Tarot’s card of the eternal human spirit, born to explore on the material plane.

The Fool is you and me.

There is a video link in the resource section at the end.

 

Suggested writing uses of your Tarot deck:

 

circe
Circe, painting by J WW Waterhouse, c 1911.

 

Planning. Ask yourself, what is the story I want to tell? What is at the heart of this story? Why do I want to tell this story and not some other story? Draw a card for each question. Meditate on the imagery. By all means look up the meaning in the instruction booklet, but don’t let yourself be restricted to that book meaning.

Theme: Reflecting on your major story themes. Is this about The Lovers? Justice? Is it a catastrophe story? Maybe then it’s got the Tower card at its heart. Is it about childhood or an animal? Maybe it’s a Sun card story. Maybe it is about recovery from tragedy or despair, and it is a Star card story, or a Strength card story.

Plotting: Instead of post-its on a wall,  use your cards, experimenting with the story arc and ordering the chapters.

Character Development, reflecting on the great story archetypes they might represent. Would you say your hero is a King of Swords, for example, or a Queen of Wands, or a Knight of Pentacles? Is he or she walking the walk of The Hermit or The Devil?

All you need is a deck of Tarot cards, a fully illustrated Tarot deck. Not an oracle deck because you want that complete library of 22 major archetypes that only the typical Tarot deck delivers.

There are many hundreds to choose from, available from bookshops, New Age stores, or online via Amazon, Etsy, Ebay or Aeclectic Tarot.

Important Tip: choose a fully illustrated deck in the Rider-Waite tradition. Simply choose a deck that you like, that resonates with you emotionally. You need to relate to the artwork. That’s all. Most if not all decks come with an instruction booklet explaining the cards and their meanings.

You have a deck of unlimited creative possibilities at your disposal.

You, the writer, are the Tarot’s Magician, master of your sphere and of the elements that make it physical: air, fire, water, earth.

“Writing is Magic happening on paper” –

Bangambiki Habyarimana, Pearls of Eternity

themagician.png
Image: The Magician from the Legacy of the Divine Tarot by Ciro Marchetti.

 

Guest blogger

Katie-Ellen Hazeldine

Further Resources

Video: The Fool’s Journey

Tarot for Writers by Corinne Kenner; probably the definitive work.

The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition  by Christopher Vogler (Author), Michele Montez (Illustrator)

Tarot 102 The Fool’s Journey

Hot New Releases Thursdays: Movers and Shakers

While doing my usual scan of hot new releases today, I noticed two links placed about halfway down the hot new releases page. They may have been there for a while but this is the first time I paid any attention to them.

Amazon have a section for books which have had the biggest gain in sales during the last 24 hours. How Amazon calculates a books rank is a little confusing. Amazon doesn’t update the sales rank for all books in the same way. How quickly Amazon reflects a change in a books sales depends on where it is on the list. The sales for books which are selling quickly is calculated more often than sales for books which are ranked. But for this reason, it’s worth nothing which books are experiencing sales surges.

Also, not for nothing, while it might sometimes be a good idea to do pre-sales, clustering sales within a 24 hour period might also be a good strategy. I find it likely that for established authors, those who already have a following, pre-sales is a good idea and for new authors, clustering sales in a 24 hour period is a means of getting attention. Sometimes it doesn’t take that many books to be pushed up the lists in one particular category.

Now let’s look at the books on the Movers and Shakers page. It’s updated once an hour and so I suppose it could change at any moment. Right now, the book in the #1 slot is an African American Romance currently slotted into African American Literature. To earn it’s spot in that category, it had to sell 806 in 24 hours. It was released on September 18. The author has 17 titles and they’re almost all under 60k. All of her titles are in Kindle Unlimited, which means she’s making about a half a cent per page flip, but they’re all selling well. These are her most used

  1. savage    2. finale    3. love    4. wishing    5. was

The next book is a contemporary romance. The author has only about ten titles out but they are much longer–about 80k.

I suppose this information is only beneficial if there’s something that can be done with it. If you’re writing for the market, then you can use this information to decide what to write.

If you are looking for how to market your book, then looking at what sells on Amazon is good for knowing how to market. It can even be good for learning how to pitch your novel, how to write your log line, and how to write your blurb.

If you’re self-publishing, looking at covers is helpful. Knowing the symbolic visual shorthand of the genre you’re publishing in is important. Nothing pisses a reader off more than picking up a book which looks like one thing and turns out to be another.

It’s unsurprising that romance is at the top of the lists. As always, there are lots of bare male torsos. Something relatively new is titles with one part in script and another in block/sans serif type of fonts.

There are less fantasy novels on the list but there are some. In contrast, their covers send broad symbolic messages.

As would be expected, further down the list, the sales surge of each title decreases in percentage and there are more books which already had sales ranks.

 

You Piss Me Off Scrivener

It never takes me long to remember why I only sort of like Scrivener. At the moment, I’m using it. But I don’t see why it has to act all special like.

It doesn’t behave like a Windows program and it only sort of behaves like a Mac program. Although, more like a Mac program than a Windows program.

For example:

Most Windows programs have a default ‘Save File’ location. It’s one you can specify. I like to have one I can specify so I always know where to look. Where any one file is saved by default, is a worry I have filed under ‘I can fix it later’. But this only works if files I don’t specify to be saved in a specific location are saved in their default location.

If that makes sense…

….and perhaps not.

Scrivener saves a file, or a project (which is another, separate frustration) in the last place a project (any project!) was saved.

Also, what the hell? Why do I have to come up with a title before I’ve even started writing?

What do you take me for?

If I already had a plan, I wouldn’t need Scrivener.

Honestly. I’m almost always 75% finished with a story before I decide what I want to call it.

I don’t see an easy way to change a project’s title. There is. You would right click the file name in Windows Explorer or Finder. Fine. Of course, there’s a caveat. This doesn’t rename all the backups of your project. Also, new backups have the new name.

So remember not to forget!

Scrivener has many moving parts. If you’re not the type to get elbow deep in your file system, you may not have noticed. But I am that type and there are times I’m convinced Scrivener wants to control me instead of the other way around.

Your ‘who’ just said you were great?

By A.J. Brown

Today, I’m going to talk about a familiar tool in publishing authors like to use, sometimes too much: beta readers. I have to be careful with this subject. I could possibly offend some folks.

Meh … whatever.

Your mom said you are a fantastic writer. She said, “Child of mine, you should get your work published.”

Way to go, Mom. Way to encourage your child. I love it.

Momma could be wrong.  Keep that in mind when you set out to get published. Just because Momma said you are great, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get another opinion or sixty.

When you decide to get published you learn about all the hoops you have to jump through. Sometimes you can get frustrated or discouraged. It’s not supposed to be this hard!

It is.

Sometimes you may feel like you can’t catch a break. Nobody wants your work.

But I’m brilliant!

Maybe in your own head, or maybe you really are brilliant. But you can’t be objective about yourself most of the time.

Let’s say a publisher picks up your book (or maybe you self-publish it). There is editing to be done, rewrites to be …err … rewritten. A cover must be made. The book must be edited again and rewritten again. Then it needs to be formatted and prepped for release and, did I say there were edits and rewrites to be made?

Somewhere in all of the things that go on from the time a story is written and the time it is published there is one important person (or group of people) who can help you get your book to be the best it can be. They are called beta readers and they walk around in colorful costumes, wearing masks that disguise who they really are. They also have big B’s tattooed on their chest, which can be awkward if you’re female or have a very hairy chest.

Seriously …

The idea of a beta reader is to have someone, or several someones, read over a book before it is published with the purpose of giving constructive feedback to the author.  This feedback includes things like grammar issues, spelling, inconsistencies, logic flaws, character development issues, storyline, and the list can go on for days. The idea is to catch all of these things before the book is released to the reading audience.

Beta readers are like guinea pigs—they’re your test subjects. If one of them dies of boredom then you know you need to fix a few things to liven the story up. You certainly don’t want your readers picking up your book for medicinal purposes to help them get to sleep.

At its core, the beta reader is a great concept.

Unfortunately, a LOT of writers don’t use beta readers the way they are intended. A lot of writers—and this kills me—use beta readers to tell them how great they are, or how great their story is. Or both. They aren’t looking for critiques, which is the heart of the concept of beta reading. They want praise. That’s not a beta reader, folks. That is what I call a homer—someone who is a fan and who will never say anything negative about someone’s work, no matter how crappy the work is.

A beta reader is a critical individual who is supposed to be completely unbiased toward the author and give him/her sound thoughts on the story he/she read in order to improve the story. If you are using a beta reader for anything other than finding ways to improve the story, you’re doing it wrong. If you are looking for an ego stroke, then the people reading for you are not beta readers. They are friends. They are relatives. They might even be fans. She might be your mom.

Beta readers are not your mom or your husband or your best friend or even the old woman down the road whose grass you used to cut for six dollars a pop on Saturdays because your dad made you do it and if he ever found out you got paid … They are readers, and what they do is, well, read.

If you are getting your betas to read your books so they can leave reviews when the book comes out, then you are using them for the wrong reasons. Those are not beta readers, but book reviewers. The one thing those two classes of readers have in common is they are supposed to be unbiased about what they read. The biggest differences between those two? The reviewer gets a finished ARC (Advanced Review Copy) that should be edited and market ready, whereas the beta gets an unfinished product with the intent of helping the author improve the story. The other big difference? Once a reviewer gets it, if there are still mistakes in the book, it is too late to fix it before it goes live, and reviewers, even the nice ones, tend to state, ‘hey, this book is X, Y and Z, but there were a lot of issues.’ That doesn’t go to just the author, but to the world. and it’s embarrassing and damaging.

The bottom line is this: if you use a beta reader correctly, you are probably going to have some work to do when he/she gets done with the book. If you are using them for any other reason, then you are doing it wrong and the concept of the beta reader is lost.

A good beta reader is an honest person who will say, ‘hey, you might want to look at this,’ or ‘hey, did you mean to have this character picking his nose here? It doesn’t quite fit.’ They are not ego strokers and they’re not going to always tell you what you want to hear. Many of them won’t tell you anything close to what you want to hear.

And one final thing because I’m on a roll here: if you are an author and you are using beta readers to stroke your ego, and you have said, ‘I want people to tell me the truth if my work sucks,’ you’re not telling the truth. If you were, then you would use the beta readers to do their job and critique your work and not stroke the old ego.

(No betas were harmed in the making of this piece. I can’t say the same for some alphas—they can be so pushy sometimes…)

Hey, Ma, how does this story sound …?

A.J. Brown is a southern-born writer who tells emotionally charged, character driven stories that delve into the dark parts of the human psyche. Though he writes mostly darker stories, he does so without unnecessary gore, coarse language, or sex. More than 200 of his stories have been published in various online and print publications. If you would like to learn more about A.J. you can check out his blog, Type AJ Negative. You can also find him on Facebook (ajbrown36) and other social media outlets.