Monday, October 21, 2019

5 Things My Characters Have Taught Me

New cover for the upcoming
re-release, coming soon!
I had fun with my list post last week, so this week, I'm bringing you another one. No, I didn't get to go back to the beach (yet), but I thought I'd write about another one of my favorite things.

My characters.

You might think that an author is in charge of her characters and, indeed, that's how it usually starts out. But eventually, they begin to take on lives of their own and can become bossy or withdrawn or...whatever they've been written to be.

And then some.

The nice thing about this phenomenon is that it becomes a sort of two-way street. I retain creative control, but sometimes they teach me a thing or two -- or remind me of things I already know -- in the process.

Here are five of those things.

  • Change is always possible. So is redemption. The best characters grow over the course of a novel. Some grow into their potential, some mature and some show only a glimmer of hope (Jim). And, while they might not change a lot from the beginning of the book to the end, a reader needs to be able to hold out hope that change is possible even after the story ends.
  • Everyone responds differently. In my novels, Jim seems to elicit a consistent negative reaction from readers, but each of the women in the book responds to him in a different way. Angel sees the good in him that Charli wants to see and Marita learns to tolerate him for her daughter's sake. As a result, Jim responds differently to each of these characters (and his mother and his sisters) as well. He is the character my readers love to hate.
  • Relationships matter. I'm not much of a plotter. I tend to be more of a fan of putting my characters in a room and letting them drive the story, but those two things don't happen automatically. Writing dialogue that's a real reflection of the relationships and events is what makes this happen. Readers need to care about not just the people but how they connect (or don't) to one another and what's at stake because of it.
  • People make the story matter. Often, the stuff that happens in novels is not that far-removed from everyday life. People fall in love, go to work, take their kids to school, make dinner and go to bed -- alone or together. If we don't care about the people who are doing these things, all we have is a mundane succession of events. The same is true of life. When our homes and work places are filled with people who keep things interesting, even the mundane can be fascinating. It's my job as a writer to elevate the day-to-day stuff into the stuff that makes you want to turn the page.
  • Decisions are reversible. Maybe we can't go home again -- at least not in quite the same way -- but characters can revisit situations and decisions and places over and over again in an effort to get it right. Ask any soap opera fan -- happy marriages don't always stay happy and broken relationships don't always stay broken. Friends become enemies and vice versa and what seemed like an impossible idea is sometimes the solution to a problem when all the stars align. Because this is far less traumatic on the page than in real life, readers can watch it all play out from the safety and security of their most comfy chairs. 
These aren't things I didn't know (obviously), but playing with them in fiction helps remind me of all of the possibilities real life holds as well. Sure, it's a lot scarier to take a chance in real life than it is to watch a fictional character do so but if our characters can be brave, maybe we can be, too. 

Friday, October 18, 2019

Friday Feature: Celebrating Strength

Which would you rather spend time on: something you're good at or something you struggle with?

For most of us, the answer feels like a no-brainer. While we acknowledge the need to work on the things that don't come naturally to us, we generally find it more fun to do the things we're good at.

So, why not take that approach to life?

A few weeks ago, I had my students take a strengths assessment. As I often do, I took the assessment, too.

I've taken strengths assessments before but the one I had my students take yielded a profile that described me better than any of the others I've taken. I must confess that I need to go back and take another look at my results so I can consider ways to put them to use, but the whole experience left me feeling good about myself and caused me to reconsider a question I'd only scratched the surface of previously.

What if we used our strengths as our foundations, building on them with the same fervor we use to make up for what we (or others) perceive as our deficits? It seems to me that we could accomplish the same end goals with much less work and frustration (which is pretty much the premise of Know Thyself...but that's another post) :-)

I cannot take credit for this idea; though I embrace it fully, I first heard about it in a positive psychology course that I took. Either the concept itself is gaining traction or, now that I'm aware of it, I keep finding it in new places -- a whole focus on a strengths-based approach and strength-based culture in business, for example. Closer to home, a great article on Berkeley's Greater Good website discusses how to be as strength-based parent. It focuses on kids with learning differences but, to me, its approach seems applicable to not just kids with learning differences but kids -- and adults -- of all ages and abilities as well.

Want to know more about your own strengths? Check out either -- or both -- of the assessments linked above. Then, see how they fit with your own perceptions.

Curiosity satisfied? Go ahead and stop there.

Or consider the possibilities of using what you're already good at to be good at other things, too.

What a concept.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Online Book Party

On Saturday afternoon (1 - 2:30 EST), I'm taking my latest book to Facebook. It will be my first Facebook book party in more than two years, and it's my first one for a non-fiction book.

Facebook parties are a blast. I get to chat with friends, family and potential readers about the book and basically just hang out online for an hour and a half. Ahead of time, I write a script (so I don't make a fool of myself by winging it), create graphics (something I love to do) and put together theme-related prizes (Shopping? Sign me up!) All of these tap into my creativity.

These parties play right into my wheelhouse. I don't have to clean my house (no one's coming here), I don't have to get dressed up (no one will even see me) and I don't have to cook (no one needs to be fed).

For me, the best part of a Facebook party is the opportunity to interact with readers and get to know new people (and potential new readers). While the book is certainly discussed, there's no hard sell. In the case of Know Thyself, I plan to bring a little bit of content to the party, but also want to see if everyone can go away feeling a little bit excited about getting organized.

If you're available on Saturday afternoon, I hope you'll stop by and say hi. Participating is as easy as responding to a Facebook post, but if you prefer to stand back and take it all in, no one will drag you into the light. If you have a question about organization or writing books, I'll be happy to answer it to the best of my abilities.

To attend the party, just click this link: Facebook party! From now until Saturday at 1, the link will take you to more party info, but between 1 and 2:30 on Saturday afternoon, that's how you join in the festivities!

I hope to see you there!

Monday, October 14, 2019

5 Lessons from the Beach

We've had a lovely, long weekend at the beach and have had marvelous weather. For me, it's been a working vacation as I had three deadlines between Saturday and tomorrow, but it hasn't been all work and no play by any means.

Here are a few things I've learned and/or been reminded of.

  • It's possible to slow down before I hit the wall -- or before it’s the next day. As a night owl, I get a second wind sometime in the evening and so I typically work until after midnight, something that's just wrong when I'm on vacation. Relaxing feels pretty good. 
  • Screened-in porches make great remote offices. Thanks to the change of scenery, I've met my deadlines, in part because my work space is just so inspiring. It feels a little less like work out here.
  • My mirror is a liar. Clothes that I thought were perfectly acceptable somehow look terrible in the mirror down here. One pair of pants is most definitely not going back into my closet when I get home and at least one of my shirts needs alterations. 
  • Creativity is a fountain unlocked by new settings. I never fail to get inspired at the beach. I have two notebooks that I use only when I am here and I'm excited to crack them open, pick up my pen and see what flows.
  • I need to do this more often. Every time we're here, we talk about getting a beach house. Maybe some day. But, in the meantime, I think we need to intentionally make this a more regular occurrence.
Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time to conclude the work portion of this day.  

This plaque on the dresser in the master bedroom about sums it up.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Friday Feature: The Facts of Life

"You're going to die and you have no idea when."

Quite the opener. No wonder writer Matthew Jones called the article "20 Brutal Truths About Life No One Wants to Admit."

But, once you read past the first couple of items, the truths become less brutal and more uplifting. Take #15, for example: "Investing in yourself isn't selfish. It's the most worthwhile thing you can do."

Tackling topics from money and happiness to relationships and ambition, this article has the potential to be a quick read or a set of daily affirmations. I found myself nodding along as I went, appreciating some of the reminders that are both simple and difficult to achieve.

So, I guess you could say that after the first two truths, I didn't find the truths so brutal after all. 

Happy reading :-)

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Showing Up

pepperminting via Pixabay
When I was a freshman in college, fall break wasn't a thing -- at least not at my school. The first break longer than a weekend came at Thanksgiving and one of my high school friends bet me that I wouldn't make it until then -- that I'd need to come home for a weekend sometime between late August and late November.

Never bet a Jersey girl that she can't do something. She'll either correct you (I could do that if I wanted to) or set out to prove you wrong. In the case of the Thanksgiving challenge, I won the bet.

Sometime before I graduated -- or maybe it was when I was in grad school -- Bucknell instituted fall breaks, a decision all of us appreciated. Ironically, many years after my own freshman year, my daughter ended up choosing a college that didn't have a fall break either. Her freshman year, she decided if I could make it until Thanksgiving, so could she. So, like me, she saw her parents at Parents' Weekend in October and kept herself busy every other weekend between late August and late November.

Now a senior, she still doesn't have a fall break, but I do. This time, I'm on the other side of the desk and I have hurdles to clear in the form of papers and midsemester warning grades. I also managed to end up with not one, but two writing deadlines mid-month and this sundry collection of tasks stands between me and fall break at the beach like a succession of unwelcome dominoes. I have only myself to blame, since every single domino was my idea in the first place.

Yesterday, I was feeling the crunch. Unlike the pleasant crunch of leaves beneath my feet (which we've yet to feel here in Central PA as we had temperatures in the high 80s as late as last week), this time crunch makes me grouchy and leads to me doing things like yelling at my computer screen because MS Word is somehow displaying all of my formatting and I don't know how to make it go away. (I eventually figured it out).

I thought I was alone in this (the dominoes, not the yelling at my computer) -- that everyone else was somehow more organized and on the ball than I. But then, this afternoon, I sat in a meeting with a small group of colleagues as we tried to plow through a task. A little more than halfway through the meeting (which wasn't that long to begin with), everyone ran out of steam. We pooled our resources, wrapped early and scattered to our various tasks, the clock ticking toward our deadlines.

Apparently something about misery really does love company, at least in this case. It's nice to know that on this beautiful, dare I say perfect fall afternoon, other instructors are huddled over laptops, papers and lab reports, wishing for a deadline that's just a little bit later than the one we've been given.

Engin Akyurt via Pixabay
This morning in my first year seminar, I had my students pause to take in the orientation slide on which I announce assignments -- the one that had nothing on it except the discussions we were having in class today and Friday. Together, we sighed at the beauty of the blank expanse of space that usually contained assignments and readings. We knew they'd be back after break but, for today, the slide contained nothing for them to do except show up.

And, for the next several days, that is my task. I simply need to show up, ready to read, grade, calculate and, if necessary, warn that the second half of the semester will require a little more effort than the first.

When I put it that way, it doesn't sound so bad. And it sounds a lot better knowing that, even though I can't see them from my vantage point, my colleagues are showing up, too.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Ready or Not, Here I Come!

melkhagelslag via Pixabay
I am counting down to the beach, and I couldn't be more excited.

Last summer, for the first time in a long time, we didn't go to the beach. I didn't get to brainstorm characters while sitting under an umbrella on the sand with the ocean just a few feet away. I didn't get to post my blogs from the screened-in porch. I didn't get to browse in my favorite indie bookstore.

But all of that is about to change. My fall break is coming, and so is my beach vacation.

Before you waste too much sympathy on my alleged beach deprivation, let me just say that we didn't go to the beach because we went to Ireland instead. My daughter spent a semester in Cork and so we spent spring break visiting her.  As much as I love my beach trips, I have to say that the tradeoff was more than fair.

But I'm ready.

I'm not a hot weather fan, so fall beach trips are right up my alley. I love bundling up under a blanket on the screened-in porch and I long ago traded in swimsuits for the more comfortable beach attire of shorts and a tee shirt, so upgrading to a sweatshirt isn't a big deal.

I'm a unlikely beach goer. I don't swim or surf and more than 20 minutes in the sun is too much for me. But I love to sit under an umbrella and read (or write) with the sound of the ocean as my background. And I love to sit out on the patio with my laptop or my journal (and, with few exceptions, I journal only at the beach) listening to the frogs in the creek below.

michalkirk via Pixabay
Right now, my clothes and toiletries are in their usual locations and my suitcase is still in the basement, but my journals are sitting out, waiting to be slipped into a bag and taken along for the ride. I have lesson plans to write and papers to grade, but these activities (which usually consume my thoughts) are merely hurdles to clear before I can depart for my desired destination. I will do them with the same level of dedication they usually demand, but I'll do so knowing that each task I complete takes me one step closer to that screened-in porch where I'll meet my characters and my deadlines.

I'm ready -- well, except for the grading and the planning and the packing.

But if mental preparedness counts for anything, I'm already there.