Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Clarinet by Any Other Name

October 25th 1805 caricature by James Gillray
"Harmony before Matrimony"

So there I was, minding my own business, writing a scene in my second book, when the fiendish captain picks up a clarinet and begins to play. What? Where in the world did that come from? I know nothing about instruments in 1805. Am I not already plagued by research? Did my characters conspire to force me into spending more time at the library? What manner of madness is this?

I've started looking into it and found a guy, online, who not only plays the clarinet, but has played the very piece my character is playing. I emailed him and asked him how he felt while he played it. Did it transport him to another place, another world? Did the perfection of the music (Mozart) make him want to cry, as it does me just to listen? Well? Fess up, man, tell me about your feelings!

What will this poor gentleman's reaction be to such ridiculous questions? I want to crawl inside the artist and feel what he feels, so I can write it. Is that so wrong? Is it? Will he even answer me?

(And if I didn't know better, I'd think the two cats in the above art were my own two precious rascals, who are obviously not impressed with the music.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Jingle, Jingle, Thwack

Pets are amusing. Except sometimes.

Last night, before I went to bed, I thought I’d play with the cats. I picked up one of Schooner’s toys and tossed it. Normally he plays an energetic game of fetch, but last night he just sauntered over to the toy and tapped it.

"Fine,” I said. “I was saving this for Christmas, but here is a new toy.” I dropped a new plastic ball with an obnoxious bell inside, and Schooner went crazy, batting it all over the house before running out of steam. He clamped his jaws around it and trotted to my feet, dropping the ball and glancing up. I scooped it up and hurled it into the kitchen, Schooner close behind. He batted it around for another two minutes before bringing it back. We did this several times before he dropped it too far for my reach. This seems to be the difference between a dog’s fetch game and a cat’s fetch game. The cat will call a halt when he’s had enough.

“That’s it.” I stood up, stretched, and shuffled down the long hall to my room. “Good night Hobiecat and Schooner.” They watched as I closed the door. The cats are not invited into my room because they use my bed as a drag strip at 5AM, which I do not find amusing. But I knew they'd go snuggle up in their beds and be warm and safe.

In the dark, the distant tinkle of a bell woke me. It got louder and louder and I knew. Schooner was batting the ball down the hall toward my door. I glanced at the red numbers on the digital clock: 4:10 AM.

The bell stopped for an instant, then began again; jingle, jingle, thwack; jingle, jingle, thwack; jingle jingle, thwack. He bounced the ball against my door repeatedly for about five minutes until he finally gave up the hope I’d come out and play.

Merry Christmas.

Maybe that pet rock thing was a good idea.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Guest Post--Self-torture Techniques for Writers

Yes, it is Christmas time and I've been busy, so once again, I've talked Carolyn J. Rose into doing a guest blog. In the interest of the season, she has decided to do her blog on self-torture. We've all been there, right? She has also been kind enough to offer a book for a contest. More about that later. Without further ado, heeeeere's Carolyn.

* * * * *

We humans are comfort-seeking creatures. Being a Virgo, there’s nothing I find more comforting than a routine—unless it’s the thrill of checking items off a list. My writing days are marked off by coffee in my favorite mug, peanut butter on homemade bread, reading the comics in a specific order, walks in a counter-clockwise pattern, water aerobics, cheese crackers, and a set number of pages written by nightfall.

The rut of routine is a comfortable place, but the deeper I slide into it, the easier it is to spin my wheels and write the same kind of book over and over. In that comfortable rut, there’s no incentive to change, no challenge to learn and grow. The other danger is that I might eventually get so mired down that I decide to turn off the engine and stop writing entirely. So I’ve got to get out of the rut and go where I haven’t been before. But how do I do that when the pull of routine is so powerful?

Well, I know that comfort doesn’t lead to change, but pain and pressure do. So I’ve learned to torture myself in many ways for many reasons. Here are some of the techniques I’ve used. Some involve mental or emotional pain and a few involve a degree of physical discomfort. If you’re faint of heart or your writing is where you want it to be, stop reading now, otherwise, repeat “no pain, no gain” and read on.

• Write in new and unfamiliar places. Leave that cushy chair, the coffee shop, the air-conditioned office. Drive to the airport and write in the lounge, cram yourself into a bathtub, pick out a park bench, writing standing up beside the washer. (Legend has it that Thomas Wolfe wrote in longhand, using the top of a refrigerator as a desk. Granted, refrigerators were shorter then, but he was 6’ 6” tall. I’m 5’ 2”. That’s why I suggested a washer.)

• Write with new materials. Shut down the computer and grab a legal pad. Toss aside the legal pad and pen and write on a paper bag with a nub of a pencil. Try finger-painting your next novel or grab a stylus and a clay tablet or a chisel and a block of stone.

• Write hungry. Skip breakfast and forego that cup of coffee.

• Treat food as a reward for meeting your writing goal, not an entitlement.

(But set small goals. Try to knock out 100 pages before breakfast and your blood sugar will be lower than the winter temperature in Nome.)

• Start a conversation with a stranger. Make it even tougher—pick out someone with a scowl, someone who appears unapproachable. (I suggest a well-lit public area for this one. Approaching the wrong person on a dark street could result in more pain than you bargained for.)

• Read challenging material. Pick up something by Henry James, James Joyce, or Stephen Hawking. Get a copy of the health care bill and take Cornell notes.

• Create artificial deadlines. Set an oven timer. Tell yourself you work for a newspaper, you’re on deadline, and the editor is breathing down your neck and checking his watch. (Use a hairdryer aimed at the back of your head to simulate that breath. Use the scent of your choice to further enhance the effect. Back in the day, many of my editors carried the scent of cigarettes or adult beverages.)

• Change critique groups. Group members can become too supportive or too snarky. Find a group where you’ll be “the new kid” and see what a fresh audience has to say.

• Invite a reader to beat you up. Ask for criticism from someone who will mangle your manuscript—an ex-lover, the neighbor who complained when your dog pooped on his lawn, a politician you heckled.

• Try a different style or voice. Write in the style of William Faulkner or Jonathan Lethem. Write in the voice of Huckleberry Finn or Stephanie Plum.

• Try a different genre. If you write science fiction, try romance. If you write romance, try your hand at a western, if you’re all about mystery, try out fantasy.

When you challenge yourself, you’ll challenge your characters. When you ratchet up the tension, they could surprise you by how creative they become. And, after a few weeks of pain, you’ll look in the rearview mirror and see that the rut is far behind you.

Bio: Carolyn J. Rose grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She teaches novel-writing in Vancouver, Washington, and founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking.

She is the author of eight mysteries, Hemlock Lake, Consulted to Death, Driven to Death, and Dated to Death, and the co-author of Sometimes a Great Commotion, The Big Grabowski, The Hard Karma Shuffle, and The Crushed Velvet Miasma.

Following her own advice, she and her husband co-authored a young-adult fantasy, The Hermit of Humbug Mountain. In this epic battle between good and evil, the fate of the world depends on a teenage boy with a flair for drumming and his precocious sister.

Visit her virtual home at www.deadlyduomysteries.com

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What do you want?

I keep getting asked what I want for Christmas. Usually my eyes get glassy and little bubbles appear at the corners of my mouth while I babble, "Um...well...I don't know."

Later I may think of something boring, like a Starbucks card, (okay it really isn't boring to me, since that is where I lose myself in the early 1800's and there is nothing boring about that), or socks, or a new pillow case; things no one really wants to buy as a gift. How can I tell my mother that what I really want is a cutlass?

When I sit in Starbucks, I can hear the song of the steel leaving the scabbard, see the glint of the candle reflected on the blade, feel the weight of it. Perhaps the Starbucks card is enough.

Monday, December 6, 2010

I Hear the Train a-Comin'

Vancouver, Washington Train Station, looking south
toward Portland Oregon

Saturday, in Vancouver (not BC), I had a few minutes to kill before heading over to the Angst Gallery for the Writers Mixer. I hardly ever get downtown during daylight hours and decided to drop by the Vancouver train station where I'd been involved in several emotional dramas (which you can see here). As good fortune would have it, a freight train was ambling south in front of the station. I screeched into a parking space and hopped out of the car, ripping my camera out of its case as I sprinted over some shrubs onto the platform.

I mean, a picture of a train station has to be more fun with a train in the picture, right? With my toes on the edge of the yellow, bumpy strip and the camera balanced in front of my eyes (it doesn't have a view finder but old habits die hard), I pointed it south and snapped a picture. But, wait, I thought, a picture of a caboose in front of the station would be awesome. I aimed the camera north and waited to see if the train had one. I waited and waited as the cars slunk by.
Vancouver Train Station looking north

I don't know what made me turn the camera south again, but a Burlington Northern bore down on me like a...ah...like a freight train (I need to work on my similes-that is just too cliché). I jumped back just in time. And no, I didn't hear it. Well, maybe I heard it, but I thought it was the other train.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe

Scared the beejeebers out of me. Train stations are dangerous. I think I should go back to hanging out at Starbucks.