Embracing the process

shutterstock_592150196

The hardest thing about being a creative person is subjectivity.  You pour your entire soul into a piece of work; a few people will love it, many will be indifferent, and others will take your submission as an invitation to make you feel like a wart on a worm in the eye of a newt.

Last week, I offered my budding query letter up for review on a writers’ blog, out there in front for all the Fiction University blog world to see.  (A query letter is a one-page description of a book with a bit of a bio that a writer submits to an agent when seeking representation & a book deal.)  I took an entire week to get up the courage to read it.  And I got feedback.  Helpful feedback.  But even though it was immensely helpful, it was still hard as hell to hear what wasn’t working.  As I finish my novel, look for an agent, a publisher, and read online reviews once the book is published, I know the scary specter of rejection will be a frequent companion.

I was a Writing Arts major in college. We submitted our work for critique and the students read their comments out loud in class.  Apart from getting advice on being a better writer, I think this process was also useful to prepare us for the rigors of submission.  I mean, it’s hard enough to submit a paper in class and get it back all marked up in red, but to have those inadequacies trotted out in front of the entire class?  Yikes!!  I’ve heard even established authors still get the butterflies in the stomach when they submit work, so I’m guessing that nothing prepares you entirely.  But I believe you can learn how to turn that anxiety into good.

Because it’s that critique, if we can hear it and not let it discourage us, that makes us better, and anything that makes us better at what we love is worthwhile.  Every endeavor has a learning curve, in fact Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University psychologist, posited that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert.  But it’s not just about repetition, according to Ericsson,

“You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.”

“You have to tweak the system by pushing,” he adds, “allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.”

Ericsson argues the secret of winning is “deliberate practice,”

(From “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.” Copyright 2013 Daniel Goleman., https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/08/success-book_n_4059506.html)

In today’s sound-bite society, having the patience to work at something, to hone it, is challenging.  I want to be a perfect writer and I want it NOW! I’m thankful that I’ve been through this process before, as an artist.  I discovered pyrography — “writing with fire” also known as wood-burning — in 2011, and this was one of the first pieces I burned.  It honestly isn’t all that good.

img_1703_2.jpg

After a few years, I was still insecure about my work.  Many times when I sat down to create, I asked myself, “What the hell am I thinking, I’m no artist!”  In fact, there were at least two pieces where I realized I was in over my head and had NO idea how to work through a perspective or shading issue.  Those pieces sat for two years before I developed the skills to complete them.

One fortuitous day I found this quote by Ira Glass:

IraGlassCreativityQuote

Well, I’m a fighter, that’s for sure.  So, I dedicated myself to studying drawing, shading, and even took an oil painting class.  Seven years later, I can say I’m very pleased with how far my pyrography has come.  I no longer trace my outlines, I hand-draw everything.  And I feel comfortable working through the sticky parts that just aren’t working.  My latest piece was so much fun, and such a challenge with all the negative spaces and depth perception issues, but I’m ecstatic with the result:

img_9594.jpg

So, I’ve done this before.  And because I’m a “Jill of all Trades, Master of None”, there can be no doubt that I’ll continue to immerse myself in a gazillion creative endeavors, and will have to continue to strive, work, think, and learn.

When I submitted my query letter, there was a section for readers responses.  All of them were gentle, appropriate, and helpful.  Except for the one commenter, when asked if they’d ask for the full manuscript after reading the query letter who responded, “No. If I was 14 years old, maybe.”  Dude.  Pay attention.  It’s a Young Adult book!

There will be people who love my work, people who hate it, people who don’t care, and people, like the commenter above, who just love to troll.  I hope to take the constructive criticism with aplomb, to take rave reviews with humility, and to remember that we all have our issues.  I know I’ve been less than civil to people when I was having a bad day, so my goal is to accept those crappy comments with grace, and sympathy, in case that person was just having a bad day too.

Don’t let the haters get you down.  Keep on creating, keep on improving, and never let go of that drive to improve, because that’s what makes great art.

Have you experienced critique anxiety?  What helped you through it?

Finding Inspiration in the Weird

As a writer, I’m always looking for inspiration.  Fortunately, Mother Nature is a wonderful muse, especially when she presents us with creatures just as wondrous as any the most imaginative among us could invent!

Aye Aye

Take for example, the Aye Aye, cutest critter in the animal kingdom.  OK…maybe not so cute.  In fact, I’d say it might be the ugliest animal on the planet, and the Aye Aye’s looks alone are pretty deserving of the title “weird”. AyeAye

The Aye Aye uses echo-location to find prey, similar to bats and woodpeckers. They engage in what is called “percussive foraging”;  they knock on a piece of wood and evaluate the resulting sound for presence of prey (most often grubs and bugs).  Once they’ve located dinner, they gnaw a hole in the wood, then use their super-long middle finger to fish out the insects.  In some areas, the Aye Aye is considered an omen of pending death; if one points its middle finger at you, you are marked for a visit by the Grim Reaper.  Alternately, an Aye Aye might also sneak into your home and puncture your aorta with that long middle digit.

The Aye Aye can knock 8 times per second, which is many times faster than a speeding vacuum cleaner salesman.  I was surprised to find out that these gorgeous creatures are MUCH bigger than I had thought – they can grow up to three feet long, with a tail as long as their body!  It was thought to be extinct in 1933, but was rediscovered in 1957.  Perhaps it was just wishful thinking by the scientists from 1933?

Barreleye Fish

Speaking of odd-looking, most of us have seen pictures of Anglerfish, with their toothy grins and a handy little fishing pole hanging out of their forehead.  However, I contend that the Barreleye Fish is the oddest looking sea creature around.  The fishy body is pretty typical, it’s the head that belongs in a Sci Fi movie:  it has barrel-shaped, tubular eyes which are enclosed in a transparent dome.  The eyes are typically focused upwards to detect prey above, but they can rotate them forward as well.  Our fishy friend also is the only vertebrate that uses mirrors as well as the lenses in its eyes for focusing.

BarreleyeFishAnd to put another nail in the weird coffin, the Barreleye has bio-luminescent organs, which are used to confuse predators by breaking up its silhouette in the water.  This is why Barreleye fishes often conduct raves in the deeps of the ocean. (It could happen!  Or was that just a dream I had?)

 

Axolotl

Another odd critter that’s all wet is an amphibian called the Axolotl.  I love saying their name:  Axolotl, axolotl, axolotl.  Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?  These salamanders, also known as “Mexican walking fish”, are closed to being extinct in the wild, but they are bred widely and kept as exotic pets.  They are “neotonous” (which means that the adult retains juvenile features); in the case of Axolotls, they never form lungs, instead keeping their gills (which are on the *outside* of their bodies) and continuing to live an aquatic life.Axolotl

The coolest thing about the Axolotl is their ability to regenerate: they can re-grow many parts of their body, including some parts of their brain!  I’m thinking that regrowing parts of the brain might be helpful for those of us who may have done a little much partying in college…

Duck-billed Platypus

Finally, what could be stranger than a semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal with a duck’s bill, a beaver’s tail, otter’s feet, and a venemous spike on it’s hind foot?  The Platypus (also known as the Duck-billed Platypus) is so odd that when it was first discovered in 1799, scientists thought the animal was an elaborate hoax.

Platypus.jpgSimilar to dolphins and the echidna (also called the “spiny anteater”), the Platypus has electro-receptors in its head, which it uses to detect electric fields generated by the muscle contractions of its prey.  Hm….wondering if we could make a horror movie starring a Platypus?  The tagline could be “Just. Don’t.  Move.”

Do you have a favorite oddball-life creature?  (And by the way, brothers and sisters don’t count…)

Why writing is like playing poker

IMG_8827

Photo by me

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you are supposed to be doing something, but you discover that you’ve completely forgotten how to do it?  I had a lot of marching band dreams like that: I’m in the middle of the field with the rest of the band, and I’m not even sure how to hold a french horn, much less play it.  Well, my husband taught me poker a few years ago, and it felt pretty much exactly like that.  And now that I’m finally pursuing my dream of becoming a novelist, I’m finding myself in familiar territory.

First, you learn a few basic rules.  Low cards are bad.  High cards are good.  Here is how you construct a sentence.  Verbs and nouns have to agree.

And that’s fine, because you’re a beginner.  But at the same time, you can see all of the nuance that goes into mastering that particular thing you really want to do, and you want to have mastered it yesterday.  When I was a novice poker player, I could see that things like table position, bluffing, raising and re-raising were all great devices, but I had no idea how to use them.  In writing, we hear over and over (and over) again “Show, don’t tell.”  Easily said, not as easily done.  And then there is plotting a story so that it’s exciting.  And making your characters interesting and relatable.  And knowing just how much description to put into your scenes so that your readers get a real feel for the story without being bogged down and having them skip to the next paragraph.

After a while, a funny thing happened with my poker sessions:  I found I no longer had to think about where I was sitting at the table to decide which hands were playable.  I’d done it enough that it had become a habit.  I now have a good sense for when to raise, when to fold, and when to steal.  And I got there by taking one piece at a time, working with it until I felt comfortable, then moving on to experiment with the next skill.

ace bet business card

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And so it is with my writing.  I have my degree in Writing Arts, but that was thirty years ago, and believe me, you forget a LOT in thirty years!  I still struggle with “Show, don’t tell.”  I’ve read so many blog posts and books about writing, and as I edit my first novel, I’m hoping the same strategy I used in poker will work just as well with my writing.  For each editing pass, I choose a different thing to focus on, whether it’s making sure my characters have distinct voices or shortening sentences to create a feeling of suspense and excitement.  And by the time I’m done editing this novel, I’m hoping that the seven-plus years I’ve taken to write and edit this one will make Book Two of my trilogy a bit like qualifying to play the World Series of Poker.

I’ll never be a good enough poker player to win the World Series, but I do hope that one day my writing skills will be refined enough that I’ll have fans looking forward to the next installment of the adventure as much as I do.  Until then, thank you for joining me on this journey!

Cats, cats, and more cats!!!

I like big cats, and I cannot lie.  Actually, not just big cats.  Little tiny cats who should be much bigger (like my Panda Bear, pictured below), weird cats, hissy cats, cuddly cats, purry cats, grumpy cats, cute little kitten cats…pretty much anything feline.

IMG_4599

Panda Bear

And I’m not alone – humans have been engaged in a love-affair with the cat for a very long time!  According to Dr. David Kitchener, a Zoologist at the National Museum of Scotland, we have been living with cats for close to 100,000 years. He also suggests that domestication probably happened in Mesopotamia (not Egypt, as is commonly thought) around 12,000 BCE, when cats were most likely bred by Mesopotamian farmers to control pests.  The Near Eastern Wildcat is probably the closest modern-day relative to that ancient feline.

NearEasternWildcat.jpg

Near Eastern Wildcat (image courtesy of Shutterstock)

The Egyptians are famous for their love of cats, which is probably why so many of us believe that the Egyptians domesticated them.   They had a cat god named “Bastet”, who was keeper of hearth & home, protector of women’s secrets, and guardian against evil spirits.  I really want to know what secrets Egyptian women had, but my cats sure aren’t talking…

Bastet

Bastet (image courtesy of Shutterstock)

In the city of Bubastis (where Bastet’s temple stood), when a cat died, the people in the cat’s household would shave off their eyebrows to signify mourning.  The mourning period was over when their eyebrows grew back.  I may be a cat-lover, but don’t expect this kind of dedication from me any time soon!

 

 

Moose & Squirrel, and Moose in a Sombrero

I really love creative pet names – In fact, when you’ve had as many cats as we have over the years, you have to get creative with their monikers.  We’ve had Sherman (after Sherman & Mr. Peabody), Watney (Watney’s beer), Itchy, (Itchy and Scratchy), Charles Dickens vonBlackcat I and II (also called “Dickens” and “Charlie” for short), Niña (she was found during an “El Niño storm in California), Bram (after Bram Stoker), Moose & Squirrel (from Rocky & Bullwinkle), Pellet (who had been shot by a pellet gun before he found us), Otter & Seal (because Seal is a sealpoint siamese, so her sister also had to be a water animal), and our three new kittens, Frog, Turtle, and Monkey (after some of our favorite animals in Costa Rica).   Do you have any naming protocols for your cats?

 

 

Otter, Frog, Dickens, and Pellet the dog-cat

Cats also figure prominently in TV, film, and literature.  Personally, my favorite cat names come from T.S. Elliot’s story Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (which the musical CATS is adapted from):  Bombalurina, Electra Growlfinger, Mungojerrie (didn’t he have a popular song back in 1970?), Rumtum Tugger, and more.  Do you have a favorite from that story?

How many of the other famous cats below do you recognize?

  • “Buttercup” from Hunger Games – owned by Primrose and hated by Katniss
  • “Cat” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • “The Cat in the Hat” – Dr. Seuss
  • “The Cheshire Cat” and “Dinah” from Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
  • “Church” from Pet Sematary by Stephen King
  • “Crookshanks” and “Mrs. Norris” from the Harry Potter stories by J.K. Rowling
  • “Greebo” from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld – Nanny Ogg’s cat
  • “Pluto” from The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe
  • “Tab” from Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • “Mrs. Bigglesworth” from the Austin Powers movies

And then there’s all the comic strip and cartoon cats:

  • Garfield and Nermal from the comic strip Garfield
  • Felix the Cat
  • Heathcliff
  • Hello Kitty
  • Sylvester
  • Tigger
  • Simba and Nala
  • Scratchy (from Itchy & Scratchy)
  • Figaro
  • Puss in Boots
  • Stimpy

Who’s your favorite cat?  And don’t be shy – show us your cat pix!

On Archetypes: The Trickster

TricskterGraphic

So, what is it that makes a story “pop”?

Stories that speak directly to the human experience, with characters and themes that are familiar to us all tend to be the ones to capture our hearts and give us “all the feels.”

How do authors achieve this?  Often, they use something called an archetype:  A universal, symbolic pattern.  Joseph Campbell’s book  The Hero with a Thousand Faces, discusses the common themes and personality types prevalent in literature throughout human history.  These archetypes can be found across many cultures and time periods, and it’s exactly this universality that appeals to us, even today.

I’m going to be exploring some of the common archetypes in this blog from time to time, and today I’d like to discuss The Trickster.  According to Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers:

The Trickster archetype embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change.  All the characters in stories who are primarily clowns or comical sidekicks express this archetype.

Common traits of The Trickster include a tendency towards, as the name suggests, trickery.  They buck convention, and follow their own rules.  The mischief they enjoy can create all sorts of problems for the hero in a story, but often their antics end up being helpful, in that they give the Hero an outside perspective, and help her or him to find another solution to a problem.

Archetypal characters have two functions in literature:  The emotional or psychologial function, and dramatic function.  Emotionally, Tricksters are the characters who keep the hero humble, down to earth.  They point out our foibles, bring about healthy change, and remind us not to take ourselves too seriously.  They can symbolize the duality of nature as they are often shapeshifters, and are a good reminder to not just blindly accept the status quo. IMO, we should all keep our own personal Trickster in our closets!!

Dramatically, they provide comic relief in a story – when the action gets really hot and heavy, sometimes it’s good to throw in a little humor to lighten things up!

Some famous literary Tricksters:

Loki

  • Loki from Norse mythology:  There are numerous stories of Loki playing tricks on the other gods, wreaking havoc, then finding a way to make it up to them.   One example is when he cut off the hair of the goddess Sif, wife of Thor.  Thor threatens to kill Loki, but Loki then makes it up to Thor, by having a new, magical hair piece made for Sif out of gold.

Coyote

  • The Coyote in Native American tales: In one story, before people inhabited the earth, a monster walked the land, gobbling up all the animals except Coyote.  Coyote tricked the monster by claiming he wanted to visit his friends in the Monster’s belly.  Once he was inside the Monster, he cut out the Monster’s heart and set fire to its insides, freeing his friends.

BrerRabbit

  • Br’er Rabbit from African tales:  One of this Trickster’s antics was to get Br’er Fox to rescue him from a well.  He told the fox that the moon reflected in the water at the bottom of the well was really a block of cheese. So, Brer Fox jumps into one of the water buckets, descends into the well, and, in in doing so, enables Brer Rabbit to escape when the other bucket rises to the top.  In fact, rabbits are very common tricksters – their quick-thinking often saves them from larger, stronger animals.

There are also plenty of Tricksters in modern-day movies and television:

  • “Vikings” – Floki (a personification of Loki
  • “Star Wars” Han Solo
  • Cartoon characters, such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck
  • “Pirates of the Caribbean” Jack Sparrow
  • “The Simpsons” Bart Simpson

I’ve included a few links below if you’d like to do more reading on The Trickster:

Please comment, and let me know who is your favorite Trickster!

All photos courtesy of Shutterstock

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Sampling of Monsters (Or: Five Mythological Beings I Hope You Never Meet)

Baba Yaga – Slavic

 

Images via Shutterstock

The Baba Yaga is a common mythologic figure in Russia.  She’s the quintessential witch – she’s ugly, flies through the air, has a long gross nose, lives in a hut, and eats people who she doesn’t like.  What’s not to love?

Her nose is so long — here’s where you ask, “How long IS it?” — well it’s so long that when she sleeps draped over top of her giant brick stove her schnoz scrapes the ceiling tiles as she snores, making the horrible racket even more raucous.  She has iron teeth, and unlike many witches you’ve probably met, she does NOT ride on a broomstick, but she rides in a mortar, pushing herself along the ground with a pestle.  Her cottage sits up on top of a couple of chicken feet, and sometimes becomes airborn.  When it’s not flying, it’s sitting on the ground surrounded by a fence made of bones, and just may hover and spin about as you watch.

Sometimes Baba Yaga is seen with her two sisters, both of the same name.  That would get a little confusing at family reunions, methinks…

Bonnacon – Macedonia, north of Greece

Bonnacon

Image by unknown (medieval) author (http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast80.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Bonnacon has the body and mane of a horse with the head of a bull.  It also sports some pretty cool curved horns.  They curve inward, making them useless for self defense, so it has another way to scare off predators:  Fire Farts!!  If you startle this beast, it’ll shoot acidic poo at you, burning your skin and everything else nearby, and grossing you the hell out to boot.  The Firepoo can be launched as far as a couple of acres, so let’s just hope your new neighbor down the street doesn’t own one!

Akaname – Japanese

Akaname

Image by Utagawa Yoshikazu (歌川芳員, Japanese) (scanned from ISBN 978-4-7959-1955-6.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

IMHO, this is probably the most disgusting demon of all time.  Little gremlins with very long slimy tongues, the Akaname is also known as the “filth licker” because of their foul habit of licking up the congealed goo, poo, gunk, and other junk found in unclean bathrooms.  He inhabits only the dirtiest homes and public bathrooms, so if you see one of these running around your new boyfriend’s apartment, I’d get in the car and leave without so much as a “See ya.”

It’s often described as having red skin, with one toe on each foot and a nasty, gnarly nail growing from that one toe.  Someone buy that gremlin some shoes, please?

 

Aswang – Phillippines

Aswang

Image by H.M.Bec [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

The Aswang of Phillipine legend is kinda part werewolf, kinda part vampire.  Sounds like a Twilight movie theme if you ask me!  It loves to eat unborn fetuses and small children.  It even uses its very long nose to suck the babes right out of mum’s tum while she sleeps!  One description I read mentioned that the ghoul replaces the deceased with bananas after consuming them.  Hmm…was that really my baby brother in the banana costume  or did the Aswang strike our house!?

If you have someone in your town who looks pretty normal, but is shy and keeps to him or herself, he or she *could* be an Aswang.  By day they look like normal folk, but at night they assume the shape of a bat, crow, wild boar, black cat, or, most commonly, a big black dog.

How do you know if your neighbor is Aswan?  Stand with your back to the person, bend over, and look at them through your legs.  Is their upside-down image different than their right-side-up image?  If so, it’s an Aswang.  If not, you look hella goofy.

Dullahan – Ireland

Dullahan

Image via Shutterstock

I’m sure the legend of Ichabod Crane had at least some of its origin rooted in the story of the Dullahan, a headless rider who carries his or her head under one arm.  This demon, however doesn’t have a pumpkin head, but rather a head that looks like moldy cheese.  I don’t know about you, but I think I’d prefer the pumpkin.  A hideous grin adorns the Dullahan’s visage:  think of The Joker from Batman here, with a grin that *literally* goes from ear to ear.

In case the Dullahan wasn’t scary enough for ya, he or she uses the spine of a human corpse for a whip.  And remember that movie “Speed” where Keanu Reeves has to keep that bus moving over 50 mph or it blows up?  Well when the Dullahan stops, someone dies too.

in case you thought you might want to keep this scary monster out of your closet, it’s important to know tha there is no way to keep the Dullahan out — all locks and gates open as soon as they show up.  And whatever you do, don’t watch them, or they will either throw a bucket of blood in your face or lash out your eyes with their whips.  Not very nice AT ALL.

Hope you enjoyed my little tour of some of the lesser-known mythological creatures out there!  Tell me something about your favorite mythological beasties, and stay safe people!!

The Seeing of Things: Living in a Mythological World

I grew up in the woods in a time when kids were allowed to wander aimlessly for hours on end without a parent in sight.  And in those woods I saw creatures.  To be fair, a lot of people see creatures in the woods: birds, squirrels, bugs, foxes, wolves, bears, yada yada yada.  But those weren’t the creatures that I saw.  The creatures that greeted me were nothing you’d find in any zoo in *this* world.  If I’m to be honest, here, I must admit I still see them.  Everywhere I go.  It’s a little disturbing sometimes, but I figure SO FAR, none of them have tried to hurt me, so I should probably be fine.  Probably…

I See Tree People…

Whether it’s faces peering out at me from within a twisted trunk, roots reaching for my feet, or sinewy bodies wrapping and twisting, reaching for the sky with their skinny arms, the tree people beckon to me.  I swear it!  Tell me you DON’T see Happy Tree Dude reclining on the hillside here!

MorroBayTreeMan

Or these lovely ladies twisting and reaching for the sky?

TwistedTreeTrunk

If you’ve ever read JRR Tolkien, you might remember the Ents, keepers of the forest?  I assure you they are alive and well in our modern world…although this one looks a little shorter (and more surprised!) than most I usually see…

sunkenEnt

The Moss is Alive…

And in case you’re thinking I’m nothing but a tree-hugger, the hallucinations don’t just end there.  Have you heard of moss mice?  The little critters who live in the forest looking all innocent and immobile until you piss them off, then they swarm and mass into a giant ball of moss, cover you from head to toe, then turn you into stone?  No?  Well neither did these poor souls, who just sat down for a little meditation.

MossStatues-378134_1920

And for crying out loud, if you EVER run across a building that looks like this DO NOT ENTER!!!  Those Moss Mice on the roof are just itching to drop onto your head and turn you into stone!

outhouse-231551_1920

And speaking of Stone…

Oh, yes, there’s more.  One day I was minding my own business watching the waves crash on the beach.  I felt eyes on me.  My hair stood on end and goosebumps covered my body, but there was no-one around.  Then I saw him…the Stone Giant who lives at the beach.  Fortunately for me, he was pretty well ensconced in the clay soil so I was able to hightail it outta there before he got me.

Rock Man

Who knows?  One of these days one of these creatures might actually reach out and drag me (or you!) into their world.

Best keep your eyes open…and report back to me if you see any woodsy, rocky, tree-y, watery, or other well-hidden creatures that the rest of the world has missed…