Archive for the ‘#mondayblogs’ Tag

Information Rich   6 comments

Inspired by a comment on a recent post.

Discuss: It never fails to amaze me that ALL the books ever written are made up of just twenty six letters.

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Teaching The Alphabet With Visual Sorting | Steps 2 Read

Information Density in Simplistic Form

The English alphabet is made up for just 26 letters that represent 45 sounds and a couple of letters we hardly use at all. Yet, a world of literature fills billions of books with very intricate stories written in myriad ways. How does it work that we can take such a basic system of communication and use it in such complex ways?

That is amazing to consider, but then I remember that the genome encodes billions of genes and can be represented by just four letters.

Consider math. It really consists of 10 symbols – 0-9 — and then repetition and recombination of those 9 symbols to create highly complex numbers.

Computer programing at its base relies on just two symbols – 1 and 0 — similarly combined in complex sequences to encoding information.

Information can be dense without requiring complicated symbolic systems.

Twenty-Six Letters with Myriad Uses

Of course, the 26 letters of the Eurocentric alphabet correlates — sort of — with the 45 sounds we make when we talk. Different languages, however, use the different letters in a myriad of ways. D in English is not pronounced exactly the same way as D in Spanish. If you speak both languages, you have a code-switch to correctly pronounce the words you read. Consider that the Hawaiian language uses just 12 of our letters to convey a lot of information. Their place names, for example, actually mean something. Conversely, Native American languages require extra symbols to stress the various ways speakers intonate the sounds, which can change the meaning of a sentence or a word. Both Athabaskans and Inupiats use far more “q” sounds in their language and while you’ll notice that if you read a page of text, when they speak, you hear a lot of sounds that are deep in the back of the throat, so it’s not really a “q”, but it’s what the translators are left with within the constraints of written English’s 26 letters.

Why Only 26?

English used to have a few other letters in its alphabet and some of them kind of make sense. I used to be a volunteer at our former church’s English & Citizenship school, responsible for teaching thousands of foreign-born folks to speak and read the English language and I can tell you that how English-speakers use the Roman alphabet can be confusing to people who speak other languages … and precision young English-speakers who are trying to learn to read for the first time.

Thorn: þ
This letter — which was pronounced “th” as in “them”. Although we combine t and h to make that sound, my son (who was a very precise human until his teen years) struggled with that combination. He couldn’t understand why the hard T got softened when combined with the “h”. He wanted me or one of his teachers to explain it. He wasn’t happy with the answer of “it just is that way.” Sometime in junior high school, he gave up the question, but when I shared this article with him while I was writing it, he remembered.

“I knew it! English can be so dumb!” He’d like us to start using this symbol immediately.

Wynn: ƿ
The Latin alphabet we use didn’t offer a letter with the “wah” sound popular to English speakers. Wynn filled the void, but not for long. Over time, it became popular to stick two double-“U’s” side-by-side to create the sound of wynn. Think “vacuum” and “continuum”. I don’t find the double-u to not make sense. Also, it looked like a “p” which would be confusing.

Yogh: Ȝ
The yogh sound entered during the Middle English to represent the back-of-the-throat “ch” sound (think: Bach). It disappeared thanks to the French printing presses, which decided to replace yogh with “gh.” It looks like a 3, so that would be confusing, but frankly, I would love to have a letter that represents that sound because “gh” creates guesswork for pronunciation. This is a similar problem to my Inupiat friends who have a similar (but more complex) back-of-the-throat sound that is rendered as a “q”, but isn’t really. Maybe we need another symbol that doesn’t look like a 3, but denotes sounds in the back of our throat. I had a friend in high school whose last name was “Back.” His father was descended from one of Johann Sabastian’s grandsons who migrated to the United States. So of course the question came up how the name morphed. Well, 1st generation Bach didn’t read English and someone had to write his name into the entry book. The name Bach ends with a back of the throat gutteral sound and the clerk probably didn’t know how to spell it, so he wrote it how it sounded — hence “Back”.

Ash: ӕ
You’ve seen it in medieval (when spelled mediaeval) or in aeon and aether. This is an example of Roman ligature, meaning the tying together of two letters, in this case “a” and “e.” Though it was dropped as a letter from English, it remains one in Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic. We do sometimes see words in English spelled with “ae”. This was another reading stumble for my son. Mr. Precision wanted to use the two distinct sounds. He would have loved the single combined letter that told him to blend the sound.

Ethel: œ
Another Latin ligature, this is the combination of “o” and “e” that can be seen in words like “foetus” and “subpoena.” Now in most cases, we replace this letter with an e. It maybe made sense in past times, but today, we doesn’t pronounce the “oe” sound, so it’s not necessary.

Ampersand: &
The ampersand was once considered part of the alphabet. In fact, that’s how it got its name. The end of the alphabet was “x, y, z and, per se, and.” Per se means “in itself, and,” meaning the symbol stands in for “and.” That became am-per-sand.

I think we could add two to four letters to the English alphabet to improve our rendering of how we pronounce some words to a better written equivalent. But the system we have right now works pretty well…most of the time.

Complexity Made Simple

Twenty-six letters to write millions of words filling billions of books. And here we are. We all pretty much understand one another because we have agreed on such a simple system that roughly correlates with how we speak the language. Who came up with it? It’s a product of the brilliance of spontaneous generation tumbled in the hands of millions of people, then polished by William Chester Minor and Daniel Webster who needed to make some decisions on standardization in order to produce the first dictionaries. Eventually we came to what works best for us. It’s possible it will change over time — just as my Inupiat friends have coopted “q” for that throat-clearing raven-clucking sound that characterizes their language. Because as an English-speaker who has tried to learn some of their language, I can attest it’s not a “q” and my Inupiat friends deserve a letter to use for that purpose. My son would vote for symbols for “th” sounds and “ae”.

Time will tell.

Describing It   3 comments

Let’s talk about book descriptions. Do you write yours before or after you write the story?

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How to Write a Good Book Description

Where Does My Cart Go?

I write my book description after I write the story. Why? Because I’m a discovery writer, so I don’t necessarily know what the best part of a story will be before I write it. That is revealed by my creative process.

I do have a basic goal in mind when I’m writing my series – “This book will focus on these events.” It’s how I can come up with a title for the next book and even sometimes a cover before the story is written. I know something will definitely occur in the next segment. But, sometimes, in the process of writing, a mundane event will become something special and so …

The book description is definitely a part of post-production.

Posted April 20, 2021 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Random Ideas   8 comments

Do you get story ideas that you know you’ll never write?

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Yes, Of Course!

I think all writers have ideas pop into their head. Maybe we mull it over for a while. Maybe it’s just a fleeting thought nudged by current events. But we know we’ll never write them. Why? Well, it’s not the genre we’re working in…it’s not part of the series we want to finish…it’s way more complicated than the stories we usually write…we know we’re going to forget all about it in 10 minutes….

I’ve had stories crop up in my thoughts from time to time for all three of those reasons and so…I know I won’t write them but I do sometimes jot them down in my suspense file just in case a story does evolve from that random thought.

Yes, But!

I never planned to write Transformation Project series when I started it. It was a fun thought experiment with my daughter during a long road trip (Alaska, yo! All road trips are LONG.) The character of Shane, who changed considerably as we came to know one another, decided he wanted his story to be told and I finally sat down to write it and an entire series came from it.

I keep a suspense file for those random ideas because you never know when one of them will blossom into a writeable story.

Posted February 8, 2021 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Chasing a Deadline   10 comments

How you keep focused during long writing sessions?

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Who says I stay focused?

No, really. I usually have two or three projects going at once. Focus may not be my thing.

Long Writing Sessions

I have them and they’re almost always character-driven. When a character is telling me his or her story, I write it down and sometimes it is so engrossing I don’t get distracted by other projects.

Those are the best times and distractions aren’t really a problem when that’s happening.

Editing, though?

Those are some long sessions as well and those can be distracting. I enjoy editing in many ways – it’s when the characters allow me to polish their stories to my own purposes (for the most part). But there’s those other projects calling to me, so I need to stay focused in order to get the best results.

How do I do that?

Coffee. A nice pot of coffee and a bit of scone helps. The act of getting up to get it actually gives me short breaks that help me to focus for long hours.

Genre- or scene-appropriate music, through earphones, so I can’t hear the world around me. If I can’t hear the neighbors doing something entertaining or my husband watching a movie or a U-Tube philosophy podcast, I am less likely to get distracted from my work.

A timer. Sometimes I go through periods when I can’t settle down and so if I’m struggling with that, I’ll set a timer on my phone. I say “butt-in-seat-fingers-on-keyboard” until it goes off. I also sometimes use the timer to break up my writing sessions so that I don’t wear myself out.

But Seriously?

I grew up in a small Alaska house where everybody did everything in the main room because the rest of the house wasn’t that warm. I learned early to concentrate even when there is activity around me. I can watch television and write at the same time — depending on what I am writing. I can handle the noise of my family — and in fact, miss it when it’s absent. Distractions are a part of life and sometimes that neighbor doing something entertaining is the kernel of a story idea, so ignoring them might not such a good thing.

Writing takes discipline, but it also takes observing and interacting with life. Sometimes I write for 12 hours straight with only bathroom breaks and maybe making a second pot of coffee. Other times, I write for an hour and then let life draw me away to reality. I let the story dictate what level of discipline I need to exercise in any given day. Right now, I’m trying to write a minimum of a 1000-words per day so I can finish the rough draft of “A Death in Jericho” before the end of January, but I recognize that too much focus on an enjoyable activity can look a little like obsession, so I won’t sweat the word-limit more than absolutely necessary. If I finish the rough draft by February 7, I’ll consider myself well-rounded.

Life Dream   13 comments

If you had unlimited money to start and maintain a business, what would it be?

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Unlimited Money, huh?

If that unrealistic dream were to happen … wow, I would probably have to wrestle my husband for which business we would support. He’d like me to support his, of course, and since today is our 35 wedding anniversary, I’d probably have to comply.

But if marital harmony were not in view …

Like, if we grew TWO magic money trees….

Fairbanks Alaska is a tough place for a local business even in the best of times and at least a dozen have closed their doors forever since March 2020. The bar where I had my first legal drink wasn’t a new business when I sipped (and almost spewed) the glass of chianti with pizza, but after 40 years in business as a dive bar with great bands and sometimes pizza parlor, even after rebuilding after a fire, The Marlin closed its doors for good this summer. The owner still owns the land and building, so there’s hope in the community that he’ll reopen, but he says he won’t. When I was an outside-sales person just out of college, my boss would sometimes take the crew to Sourdough Sam’s for breakfast. It was a new business back then (and it too survived a fire in the intervening years), but it’s now closed and the building and land are up for sale. Same for House of Kustom, one of the only decent furniture stores in town.

Meanwhile, the big box stores are open and selling cheap identical crap and identical food right and left. My son says this local Walmart has never had a better year in the 10 years it’s been open. It just goes to show that the government (even in a pandemic, or maybe because of it) prefers giant corporations that can be controlled and enriched by the government rather than small mom-and-pop companies that are free to do their own thing. We may well remember this era as the last for entrepreneurs and hometown restaurants and bars overwhelmed by a sea of big-box banality.

So, small business…best to have unlimited funds to keep the doors open or to pay the fines when the government tries to shut you down. Folks, I write apocalyptic fiction about people who go to war with the USDA’s cow cops over similar issues.

What would I do if that opportunity existed?

I’d open a LOCAL bookstore with a coffee and sandwich shop and places to sit down while you browse and I’d fill it with books — new and old. We used to have a really great used book store here in Fairbanks that had those features and I’d design my store along those lines. I’d also offer an opportunity for other local artists to display and sell their wares and maybe even do demonstrations of their art. I can envision local musicians playing in the background. I even know the building I’d buy to make it happen and since I have unlimited funds, I’d buy it outright to save on interest payments and have it super-insulated to cut down on heating costs — but I might also open some walls up with windows to let the sunshine in. That way, I could offer affordable rents to the small businesses that could occupy the rest of the space, which is a three-story former department store that has been mothballed for over 10 years.

Yes, I know, the building is uninspiring, but you’d be surprised what architectural elements can be added while the energy-efficiency is being boosted. Think Art Deco. I’m told that the shorter section — the most neglected shopping mall in Fairbanks is part of the building and it has a giant parking lot. It’s also just on the edge of downtown and right across the street from the library. You know what they say about location, location, location? It has location. The store closed because it was owned by a big chain that restructured and the building owner found it’s too expensive to remodel for a different use. But that’s not a problem if I have unlimited funds. Meanwhile, the building was used for the first time in a decade this past weekend for a Christmas bazaar, and it looked lovely all decorated for the holidays. It might even have space for an indoor playground to accommodate the entire family.

An artist’s coop isn’t really an original idea, but it is something my town needs. They’ve been started before, but funding (and therefore space) has always been an issue. Well, in this fantasy scenario … not anymore!

Posted December 7, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Creative Balance   Leave a comment

Are adverbs really the devil? If they sneak in occasionally, does it mean the writer is lazy?

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Dogmas

Stephen King says,

“The road to bad writing is paved with adverbs.”

Soon, all good writers have to a avoid adverbs like they’re some sort of flesh-eating microbe. We just know that we’re failing — ourselves, our readers, our editors — if we use adverbs.

Sure, Stephen King has written a lot of best-selling books that give people the willies late at night. Do those books contain adverbs? Maybe a few. I’m thinking it’s pretty hard to completely eliminate one of the four building blocks of grammar and still write that many novels, but even if King is not a hypocrite, he’s still not the boss of me. I don’t buy that all writers must write like Stephen King. If only for variety’s sake, Stephen King should write like Stephen King and you should “do you”. I should “do me”. Other writers ….

You get the point.

Adverbs are overused in bad writing

Most adverbs modifying verbs are unnecessary. Consider this —

  • The radio was blaring loudly.
  • The radio blared loudly.
  • The radio blared.

Just reading those three sentences tells us all we need to know. We don’t really need “loudly” to understand that a blaring radio is loud. It’s “blaring” after all, and the connotation of “blaring” includes loud. This is an example of a poorly-used adverb.

For subscribers to the “show, don’t tell” school of writing, writers who use a lot of adverbs evidence weak writing skills. Adverbs carry strong descriptions, preventing writers from expressing themselves clearly. Use an adverb like “angrily” and you don’t need to describe what actions a character engaged in that showed they were angry. The reader is just given the information that the character is angry.

“Joe angrily mopped the floor” tells the reader Joe was angry, but “Joe slopped soapy water over the floor, slamming his mop into the corners while muttering under his breath” shows the reader Joe’s rage. It’s more work, but it engages the reader in a more visceral experience.

I don’t hate on adverbs and I agree we should do the extra work to show rather than tell.

Not All That Bad

That doesn’t mean adverbs are literally the devil and we writers — particularly novelists — need to avoid them at all costs.

Adverbs are often redundant. “This is very heavy” is a great example of an adverb that is unnecessary because it’s modifying a adjective that doesn’t need to be modified. Heavy is, well, heavy. However, there are times when redundancy is a useful tool for a novelist or someone trying to make a sincere apology.

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • I’m so incredibly sorry.”

Depending on what the character has done, a simple apology won’t be enough. Red Kryptonite Curve ends with Ben telling Peter they can no longer be friends because his drunk driving hurt someone. Do you think Peter can go to Ben in “Dancing the Centerline” and say “I’m sorry” and all will be forgiven? He’s only going to have seconds before Ben walks away from him. “I’m so incredibly sorry” might give him a moment’s pause and Ben might listen to the next sentence or two if he emphasizes that he’s not just a little sorry for not listening to his friend in the previous book.

“I paid for the ticket. I’m attending the concert.” Okay. That conveys the meaning, but consider this —

“I paid for the ticket. I’m definitely going to the concert.” Technically “definitely” is an adverb, redundant, and unnecessary, but think about the meaning it conveys. It actually strengthens the feeling the character is expressing.

Most often, adverbs weaken the verb it is conjoined with, but not always. Sometimes, an adverb carries an emphasis that conveys a stronger sense of meaning. If you take “eliminate adverbs” as axiomatic dogma, you will miss the exception that might prove useful.

Gray Amid Black-and-White Rules

A rule that says “don’t ever” is black-and-white and traps us in corners we might not want to be in. Writing has no rules, unless you are a writer with a weakness you want to correct.

In truth, “don’t use adverbs” is a mutation of some excellent writing advice “be precise in your wording.”

  • The watermelon is very big.
  • The watermelon is enormous.

The second example is clearly more precise than the first. “Very big” is sloppy writing and doesn’t really give the writer the information he or she needs to know — that the watermelon is too big to lift. Both words are adverbs. One has a powerful place in the sentence while the other is filler.

At the risk of derailing this article into a discussion of passive versus active voice, the sentence would be better in active voice.

  • The enormous watermelon threatened to tip the wheelbarrow.

Although you could write the sentence without “enormous”, the adverb strengthens the image the sentence conveys. It doesn’t leave the reader wondering if the watermelon is just poorly placed. You know the watermelon’s size is the problem.

Adverbs can be important to the sentences we write, so long as we give them a role rather than use them as filler.

Adverbs are one of the four main parts of speech, together with nouns, verbs, and adjectives. They each perform a special purpose. We construct sentences using these basic building materials. When we omit all adverbs from our writing, we struggle to give important information about not verbs, adjectives and other adverbs.

Adverbs are often thought to end with “ly”, but any word or phrase modifying a verb, adjective or adverb is an adverb:

  • Rick smashed the zombie’s skull until his arm burned and flecks of rotted brain covered the sidewalk.
  • After surviving the exodus from New York, Joline would never trust another soldier.
  • Gregor stumbled back, avoiding Ilya’s grasp.
  • Janice faced forward because riding backwards made her motion-sick.

Almost no one objects to those adverbs because they convey necessary meaning in the sentence. Even “ly’ adverbs, used judiciously, can be powerful. Consider:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

That’s from the opening of a novel that is considered one of the best setting paragraphs ever written and look at all the “ly” words. They convey incredible meaning to the point where I don’t think the paragraph would have the same impact if they were eliminated.

Adverbs mean everything if you’re writing to a specific word count. As a novelist, Stephen King can describe events in detail. Short stories often need adverbs to stay under a word count, as do magazine articles. Journalists use all words judiciously because they have a tight word count (typically 350 words) and they use adverbs when it carries important information. If you wish to convey a clear meaning and place your sentence in a particular context, adverbs are a useful tool.

Dialogue with Adverbs?

Consider the difference between these two sentences:

  • You missed the train.
  • Clearly, you missed the train.

By reading the first sentence, we know that somebody missed their train. The narrator could be anyone – a ticket officer, a friend, a random passenger.

The second sentence shows a degree of criticism. The adverb clearly, when used in this context, can show some level of scolding or disapproval because the person missed the train. If the writer wishes to convey such a meaning then the adverb is preferred.

  • Diana is an emotional person
  • Diana is an overly emotional person.

Most human beings are emotional, so the first sentence really conveys irrelevant information. Who knows if Diana’s emotions are a good or bad quality. We can’t determine the narrator’s opinion on her emotional state.

In the second sentence, the narrator clearly believes Diana is emotional to an excessive degree. It makes all the different in the narrative.

Break the Rules When You’re Ready

I’m an overly educated writer (who just used an — gasp — adverb). Do you think I didn’t run across hundreds of rules while getting a Master’s degree in Journalism? Of course, I did.

Some people, especially editors, treat writing like there’s a checklist of dos and donts that must be followed. There are rules that are useful and then there are rules that render us weak writers writing weak books.

Of course, we should know the rules and make use of them to improve our writing. Of course, we should take advice from bestselling writers like Stephen King. There’s nothing wrong with that. I have a checklist of my known weaknesses that I use to improve my self-edits. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. I also keep a list of items to bring with me on business trips, so I don’t have to waste a lot of time going “Do I have everything I need?” Checklists are useful tools.

The trouble comes when an established writer’s experience (or the experiences of many established writers) becomes dogma. You need to “do you.” Establish your own style rather than copying King’s. Hemingway wrote in a specific style that I admire, but I don’t write like him — unless my POV character is that sort of person. See, how that works?

Writing is an art and art has “suggestions”, not rules. Whether it’s Stephen King who has sold millions of books or me who has sold somewhat less (currently), our “rules” are just advice and, yes, some advice is worth following. Correct spelling, for example, is highly useful for conveying meaning to readers. Using active voice rather than passive voice will almost always create a better story. Don’t overuse adverbs is equally good advance. Don’t use adverbs at all is a bridge too far. Rules are sign posts, common elements we find in great stories, but there are also amazing stories that break some of the rules, rejecting conventions when it makes sense.

Be aware of the rules and the risks inherent in breaking them, but remember, you’re an artist. Trust your intuition and don’t be intimidated by the clipboard Nazis with the checklists who think stories should all be alike. Consider what they have to say because they may be catching problems you don’t, but don’t take their advice as gospel. Enjoy your creative freedom while remembering that rules can be parachutes that will save your life.

See, balance! As important in writing as in trapeze acts and checkbooks.

Sky Dancer Clan   9 comments

As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?

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A Word on Spirit Animals

Spirit animals are an important part of Wyandot culture (my mother’s culture). Our tribal clan system is designated by animals. The Wyandot tribe was anciently divided into 12 clans, which each had a local government, consisting of a clan council presided over by a clan chief (sachem). The names the clans called themselves were:

Big Turtle, Little Turtle, Mud Turtle, Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Deer, Porcupine, Striped Turtle, Highland Turtle, Snake, and Hawk.

The order was important for the line of travel and for tribal encampments. On the march the warriors of the Big Turtle Clan marched in front, those of the Little Turtle Clan marched next to them, and so on down to the last clan, except the Wolf Clan, which had command of the march and might be where its presence was most necessary. The tribal encampment was formed “on the shell of the Big Turtle.”. This means that the tents were arranged in a circular form as though surrounding the shell of the Big Turtle. The Big Turtle Clan was placed where the right fore-leg of the turtle was supposed to be and the other clans were arranged around in their proper order, except the Wolf Clan, which could be in the center of the enclosure on the turtle’s back, or in front of it where the turtle’s head was supposed to be, depending on what the Wolf clan decided. In ancient times all Wyandot villages were built in this order, and in the tribal council the clans took this order in seating themselves, with the sachem either in the center or in the front of the door of the council chamber.

Most of the clans are extinct now and a lot of Wyandot who claim to be members of an extant clan are really more Caucasian and a mix of Wyandot clans, but the animals they were named after were meant to be the totem of that clan – your spirit guide, to use modern terms. Supposedly, the spirit behind the totem animals gave Wyandots power and comfort. I seriously looked into this as a teenager and college student, before deciding that as a born-again Christian, I could not partake in it. My only spiritual guide is Jesus Christ and I make nothing equal to or greater than Him. I don’t need to. He is more than sufficient.

What others do is not my concern. That’s just a personal decision on my part, and explains why I’m not going to select a spirit animal for this exercise.

Mascots and Avatars However …

But there’s another way of looking at it. The animals were not spiritual guides, but symbols for the tribe – avatars, if you will. After all, my high school had a mascot. The malemute is a husky dog that is very popular here in Alaska. There’s nothing spiritual about it. And, for years I have used the avatar of the aurora borealis on my social media sites.

Why?

It’s a long complicated story involving a nickname given to me by a college professor – the Aurorawatcher. I’ve shared it before. You can find it here.

I wouldn’t claim an animal as my mascot just because — well, it is just too close to the totems of my tribe and that kneeling at another altar thing, but I do claim the aurora as an avatar. Why?

Aurorawatcher

It’s beautiful and majestic and ethereal. It changes. You could watch the aurora every night for decades and never see two that are alike. And, they are mysterious. There’s a lot that’s known about the sky dance today, but there is a great deal that isn’t known. And, above all, if you haven’t experienced the aurora for yourself, I can only give you a taste of what it is like to stand out in the cold and stare up at the sky. It’s changing, whipping across the black velvet sky, sending out long tendrils, sometimes moving fast and sometimes barely moving … pulsing colors and flickering white and … and they can last all night or fade after a few moments.

It reminds me a lot of Christian faith, which is another thing you must experience to understand. I can only give you a taste of it if you haven’t experienced it for yourself. That’s not a failure of the faith, but a testament to it not being made up. It easy to explain that which is manmade and so much harder to explain that which is transcendent of human minds.

The aurora’s dance is also somewhat like how I write my books. I’m a discovery writer. I experience the stories as I write them. I rarely know where they’re headed before I get there. It’s only on rewrite that I can (somewhat) herd the story. I know the high points of a series, but I can’t tell you when my creative mind might fling out a pulsing arm of color that will surprise me as much as it surprises my readers. The dance of the northern lights has the same unpredictable, genie-in-a-bottle feel. Beautiful, mercurial, hard to capture. It’s not static, it’s always changing, and when it fades tonight, I know it will be back tomorrow.

Posted November 11, 2019 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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What They Say About Me   4 comments

Do you Google yourself?

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You can’t know where you’re headed if you don’t know where you are.

Apparently, most Americans don’t google themselves, but they probably should. According to a survey I read, 24% of adults and 43% of millennials said they’d been negatively affected by online information about them. While few actually searched for themselves, when they did, 20% found inaccurate information, 33% found their content had been shared without permission, and 12% said they were unpleasantly surprised at what they found.

So do I google myself?

Of course I do. And, I’ve discovered some interesting things. My husband’s uncle is a famous guy. His name is tied to 911. We have the same (married) last name and so — yeah, there’s stuff out there under my married name that is inaccurate and libelous. The frustrating part of it is that it has nothing to do with me or even Brad, but to do with my uncle-in-law who had to make a government decision during a crisis that some (not most) people disagree with and insist is evidence of some vast government conspiracy.

That experience is why I chose to use a pen name. The prospect of my creative work being forever linked to a terrorist attack I had nothing to do with didn’t appeal in the least. When I google “Lela Markham” I’m pleased that what comes up are almost always book/blog related or it’s one of my Facebook conversations. I totally own those. I’m proud of modeling what civil social media behavior ought to look like – civil, polite, principles-based and letting other people be wrong without ascribing evil, insanity, or stupidity to them. If my opinions make other people mad because they want everyone to agree with them, then they need to evaluate their own attitudes. But that doesn’t mean I want to be linked to 9-11 or my uncle-in-law, who is really a nice guy who did a heroic thing, but — yeah, the world we live in today …right? Brad and I and our kids are not him and he is not who the conspiracy theorists think he is … but in our modern world of virtual “reality”, it doesn’t matter what the truth is. And, although the things they’ve said about us, we’ve been able to shrug off (mainly because they were clearly untrue and living in Alaska makes it easy to PROVE you weren’t where they say you were at that time they say) there have been some younger family members denied coveted college entrance or jobs because of what was written about them. So, you’re darned right, I google myself and my children and I address what I find. And, yes, I have a lawyer if a warning from me doesn’t suffice.

I had a long career in administration before I published 9-11 and before publishing my first book so I didn’t need to worry that the google stakes get high if you’re job-hunting. According to an article on the website BestColleges.com, 70% of recruiters have turned down candidates based on information found online, and 84% believe online information will affect hiring decisions all or most of the time over the next five years.

Yet despite all these valid concerns, few of us do much to monitor our online reputations. Sixty percent of respondents admitted they never do searches on themselves, and of those who do, 47% do it only once or twice a year. That’s, by the way, is about as often as I do it because I have plenty else to do. This makes me a decided minority among those who’ve already been harmed by online information. Seventy-seven percent of those who’d had that unpleasant experience reported they now regularly check for online information on themselves. I have novels and blog articles to write and don’t choose to go to battle more than twice a year.

I regularly google my name(s) 

I check my online reputation by entering my name into Google, Bing, or another search engine. If your name isn’t as unusual as (both) of mine, try adding your employer, home town, organization where you’re active, or other extra information into the search.  

Particular Attention to Social Media.

This is slightly more time-consuming, because you’ll want to check Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest. Reputations are so often made and broken on Facebook, so remember to check your friends’ walls, your apps, events, etc. My author persona deliberately starts conversations about controversial topics, so I strive to be civil. You don’t have to agree with me — that would defeat the point, actually, but I want to know if what people are saying about Lela Markham is accurate. It’s okay if they disagree with me. I just want to know what I might need to defend myself against.

Check court records. 

This part of my online investigation started after my mother-in-law falsely accused me of domestic violence. In many places, including Alaska, public records can be found online, and even if you’ve never run afoul of my husband’s mother, you might want to check that your name hasn’t been attached to any bits of legal unpleasantness to embarrass you. What can you do about it? That’s tricky. My mother-in-law accused me of domestic violence back in 2010. Thirty days later, the case was ruled moot, meaning the judge recognized my mother-in-law lied. Three years and two strongly-worded attorney letters later, Alaska Courtview finally listed the court decision as “moot”. But if I weren’t checking regularly, I wouldn’t have known when that changed because the State of Alaska never notified me or my lawyer of the change. Brad and I have a friend whose Social Security number got switched for someone with a similar name and it took him a half-decade to force the State of Washington to rectify its error, so this happens more often than many of us realize.

Fix it.

If you yourself posted whatever it is that’s embarrassing you, then it’s usually a fairly straightforward matter to remove it again, although it can take a while to actually disappear, and even once it does people may still find it in cached pages. Moral of that story is – think hard before you hit POST and maybe stay off social media when you’ve had anything to drink. There are consequences and with Way-Back, they can come back to haunt you.

If the unpleasant information was posted by someone else, you will likely have to contact whoever put it there and ask that person to remove it, although Facebook and Google do have procedures for removing inaccurate or inappropriate content on your own.

And needless to say, if someone posted a piece of writing such as a blog post, or a photo that you took without your permission, that’s a copyright violation that should be rectified quickly once you point it out.

Overwhelm the Bad with Good.

You may not be able to remove all the reputation-damaging material you find about yourself online. Certainly my husband’s uncle cannot. Because the decision he made affected millions of people, he instantly became a public figure and the Supreme Court has ruled that public figures have less of a standing against libel suits. Still you can make things better, by raising your online profile in a positive way so that anything bad is pushed further and further down in search results. Contribute content to industry publications or websites, or local publications. Post regularly to social media in a way that reflects well on you, such as to note your own accomplishments, congratulate your friends and colleagues on their successes, or share valuable content.

And–if you haven’t already–consider creating your own website and/or starting your own blog – because that’s content you completely control. Why wouldn’t you use that kind of positive power if it is available to you?

In my case, you can read my books and find out what I stand for.

Wall of Despair   6 comments

September 30, 2019

How do you move past writer’s block?

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Being Honest

I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Every time I hear someone describe it, this little voice in my head goes – “Oh, they’re freaking themselves out. Don’t do that. Stop doing that. Move on, folks.”

I think every writer experiences inevitable moments when their prose are mushy and they can’t find a creative bone anywhere in their body. I’ve experienced that. I just don’t consider it a time to panic. It’s not writer’s block so much as it is often writer’s boredom.

Sometimes it’s not the right time to write about the story I want to write about. Maybe my ideas need to marinate a little longer before I can write them down.

Sometimes, if I’m really honest with myself, I am afraid to put my ideas and myself out where everyone can critique them and me. After all, who really wants to walk into the middle of a wolf pack with nothing between them and those teeth but a shield of toilet paper and a lace dress? Right?

Today, perfect is not an option – what a relief! But it’s still a struggle to want everything to be just right before you even put pen to paper or touch a keyboard. We all want that smashing-GREAT first line. I never write it in the first draft and that’s okay because that’s what second drafts and even third drafts are for. What a relief!

We all have self-defeating habits and fears that can tangle us up in personally-created red tape. Are there solutions to that dark night of the writer’s soul? Sometimes. I know what works for me, which is why I can say I don’t really believe in writer’s block.

I feel it. The huge brier wood of writerly complications that I must hack through to get the story I want to write. I hear the whisper of the voice of defeat every now and again. But instead of letting it block me from my goal, I start hacking away at it. The trick is to find something that works for you — this time.

“I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block. When I find myself frozen–whether I’m working on a brief passage in a novel or brainstorming about an entire book–it’s usually because I’m trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place.” Jeffrey Deaver

Anti-Solutions

What I don’t do — what I know will backfire every time — is to refuse to write until I feel “inspired.” Inspiration is the stuff of movies. Writing is work. It’s work I love, but it is still work. I don’t want for “inspiration.” I don’t feel sorry for myself. I don’t procrastinate and make excuses. Yeah, yeah, yeah – I don’t feel creative. So what? Create anyway.

Solutions

So I’m all bound up and I can’t create? Naw, maybe I just need a break. I go for a walk (up to a three-day hike). I make some coffee (or tea). I read someone else’s book for a while (I’m using “The Cold Dish” by Craig Johnson as my current distraction-cum-relief valve). I call an old friend. I spend time with someone who makes me laugh (Brad needs to come back from Texas). I go to the coffee shop and set up my computer there.

It doesn’t really matter what you do, so long as it works for you and it creates momentum. I have been known to write nonsense. After all, it’s just pixels. No harm, no foul, I can erase it later. Once you start heading in a direction — any direction — it’s easier to pick up speed and to guide yourself to the path you should be on. I never have just one writing project going. I have a primary, secondary, and tertiary project currently and I also have WIPs that aren’t anywhere near seeing the light of day — and it’s all fine because if I get bored with my primary project, I can switch to one of the others and still be writing — still making progress. And, in a few hours or a day or a week, I’ll come back to my primary project and, viola, I’m ready to write it again.

The fail-proof solution

You might already have guessed what my fail-proof strategy for overcoming writer’s block is. I write. I start somewhere, anywhere. I write a few lines. I say anything. I see what happens. I don’t think about it too much. Sometimes I write nonsense. I don’t try for the next great American novel. I just write. It probably isn’t eloquent or presentable. It’s just words on a computer screen — or sometimes a notebook. I write for the joy of writing, because writing is what I do. It’s how I talk to myself.

The fact is – if you’re not illiterate, you can write. Don’t make it harder than it needs to be. Just type a few words and get past the hump. You can fix it later. It’s something I learned in journalism. The difference between professional writers and amateurs is both encounter obstacles to writing, but one pushes through to the other side while the other gets paralyzed and stops writing altogether.

Vulnerable Doesn’t Equal Victim   9 comments

August 5,2019

What is your writing Kryptonite?

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I LOVE this topic because it bumps up against a theme in my work in progress “What If … Wasn’t.” More about that in a few paragraphs.

On the surface, kryptonite is easy. It’s what makes Superman weak. But of course, there’s several different kinds of krytonite. All of them affect him in a negative way, but red kryptonite makes him feel strong as it also overwhelms his morality. Interestingly, green kryptonite is the anecdote – judiciously applied, of course. You don’t want to kill the superhero while attempting to save him.

“It’s your krytonite,” Ben observed.

Peter sipped coffee, frowning.

“Not unless it’s red kryptonite. I feel so strong and capable when I drink. I can fly and take on that dude from the Phantom Zone.”

“Colonel Zod.”

“Yeah. It’s a powerful feeling.” Peter smiled at the memories, and then shivered. “And then the consequences hit.” He looked haunted.

“Are the consequences your green kryptonite?”

“That’s where your metaphor breaks down, Ben. Green kryptonite only affects Superman. It doesn’t kill humans. Mine does.”

Peter’s self-hatred oozed from every word.

“I don’t have a future as a comic book writer, but — Peter, it seems to me you’ve learned to leave the red kryptonite alone. Five years sober! That’s odds defying, from what I’ve read. So why can’t you forgive yourself?”

Peter sighed, looking for answers in the bottom of his coffee mug.

“Maybe that’s my green kryptonite – shame. As long as I take a dose of it everyday, I leave the red alone.”

“Maybe, but I’d recommend you reduce the dose below lethal levels.” Peter rubbed the back of his neck, clearly uncomfortable with the suggestion. “Isn’t there a happy medium between red kryptonite ego-maniac and green kryptonite self-hatred?”

Peter shrugged, then shook his head in self-mockery.

“If it exists, I wouldn’t recognize it if it bit me on the ass.”

The last of Ben’s anger at Peter dissolved like ice in the hot sun, scorched by Peter’s brutal self-assessment.

“Do you trust your friends enough to recognize it for you?”

“Do you trust me enough to be my friend again?”

For the first time, Peter made eye contact with Ben. Telling the truth was hard for him because it made him vulnerable and right this moment, Ben had never seen Peter more vulnerable. Shame wasn’t his only green kryptonite.

From “What If … Wasn’t.”

Krytonites exist all around us and I think we humans have a lot of individual kryptonites — that which makes us weak and those may be far less dangerous than that which makes us feel strong, but will also kill us. I could spend several novels exploring the various kryptonites that affect a whole range of characters.

So the question is, “What is my writing kryptonite?” and clearly I’ve recently given some thought to the kryptonite subject … but not so much as it relates to writing.

When I googled the topic of writer’s kryptonite, the first five articles said “distractions connected to the Internet” (e.i., research that becomes online shopping, social media, etc.) And I admit, I do get distracted that way sometimes. I start to do research and I answer a comment on Facebook and I get back to writing hours or days later and look what time I’ve wasted.

The sixth article mentioned worry about what people will think of your writing or the story you share. Yeah, that’s there too, but I’m a writer who hopes to be a bit subversive, so I recognize the desire to live in the good estimation of others as a green kryptonite and I’ve learned to recognize its effect and either move away from or overcome it in order to be a published author.

Too much creativity has been a kryptonite for me in 2019. Yeah … TOO MUCH creativity. I’ve started about six books, including choosing to develop “What If … Wasn’t” into a series, in the last eight months, interfering with my ability to write my primary project “Gathering In” (Book 5 of Transformation Project. (The manuscript just went to the beta readers yesterday. I’m only a month behind. It’ll be fine.) Creativity surge-tides are definitely a red kryptonite because I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of creative genesis. I’ve just had to force myself to concentrate where my focus needs to be. Book 6 (tentatively “Winter’s Reckoning”) may have a different schedule to accommodate my new projects. Sometimes kryptonite shows us where we need to adjust our course a little.

Transformation Project and “What If … Wasn’t” are teaching me that my true kryptonite is vulnerability. When we bare ourselves in our books, we risk ending up covered in goose flesh and embarrassment, which might be why too many people use fake vulnerability to garner attention as a victim rather than a purveyor of truths that should be revealed. Victimhood acts like fig leaves, leaving our vulnerability inadequately covered by the flimsiness of sympathy. Truth should always provide some nice leather garments to strengthen us in our weakness, so we can move beyond the pain and hopefully bring the reader to the point of empathy, which is so superior to sympathy.

The end of “Gathering In” is all about grieving and the next book will build on that by exploring the pain of post-traumatic stress disorder. “What If … Wasn’t” is all about the consequences of bad decisions. At every creative turn, I am called to be vulnerable through my characters while I don’t naturally want to be vulnerable because I long ago decided that my life is not about being a victim. Yes, I’ve experienced pain. If I’m honest, I’ve experienced a lot of tragedy in my life. No, I am not a victim. I’m a survivor and survivors don’t ask for tea and sympathy. Overcoming tragedy has made us strong and we have developed scar tissue that makes us seem invulnerable. And yet, good novelists expose our vulnerability through our characters. We open up the scar tissue to reveal our innermost frailty and, if we have truly learned the lessons of adversity, we can show where strength comes from.

Whether in writing fiction or interacting with the people around us, when we are vulnerable, we give someone else a piece of our self, not knowing how it will be received or reciprocated. We’re opening a vein to another, hoping for appreciation or empathy in return as we reveal the tragic beauty of a beating heart — hoping our readers won’t run screaming in the other direction.

Some people will run screaming, by the way. The world is filled with shallow people who only want to interact with shallow ideas. How dare I ruin their apocalyptic fiction with feelings. My vulnerability through my characters risks them feeling vulnerable and entertaining thoughts they’d rather not have. But I’m banking that some people will thrill to the vulnerability of an “invulnerable” character like Shane, because it makes him human and if they stick around, they might get to see a phoenix rise —

IF I don’t kill him, because nobody is guaranteed to live through my apocalypse – well, except JT Delaney who has opened every book with thoughts on what went wrong and is clearly writing from the future. Who is this person? It’s a mystery. I’ll give you a free e-copy of “Gathering In” (when it publishes) if you can guess. Email me at lelamarkham@gmail.com if you want in on this guessing game.

And Peter of “What If … Wasn’t” — vulnerability is the only way he can move beyond the consequences of his past to reconnect to other human beings again. He doesn’t have strength to rely on. He’s vulnerable because he’s broken, but what he’s done means he can’t claim to be a victim. He’s not allowed to feel sorry for himself. He has to be a survivor because no one will ever forgive him if he claims to be a victim. Writing him in his vulnerable state is scary painful, but it also makes me feel wholly alive — invigorated by a kind of truthfulness that you just can’t convey without bleeding a little of your soul onto the page.

When we’re vulnerable with others, we create an imbalance in the relationship. We admit we struggle in some way, knowing that truthfulness might engender ridicule, fear or dislike of us or our characters. That imbalance, however, leads to connection and connection – that’s where novelists should live. We become more compassionate human beings when we share stories of pain and struggle. Not all people can be the creator of such stories, but if the writer shares with the reader, the reader reaps the benefits of our honesty.

But I don’t want to be vulnerable. I don’t want to get naked before my audience. I don’t want to shine a bright spotlight on the beauty and sorrow of my humanity. Like everyone else, I prefer to be invulnerable — the superhero of my own life — and many of my characters wish the same. I have to force vulnerability on them for the sake of the story, as other writers have forced it on their protagonists.

Consider these scenarios:

  • Without the potential for contact with kryptonite and the dilemma of juggling two identities, is there any conflict or tension to Superman’s story?
  • Without the looming possibility of Holden Caulfield’s suicide, would we care about his whiny school-trip diary?
  • Without Romeo’s often-blind passion, wouldn’t we just wince at his and Juliet’s inevitable teenage romantic train wreck?

Our characters must be compelled by a need or desire they are desperate to fulfill. That desperation, the willingness to risk everything, is vulnerability. Readers delight in character kryptonite. Journeying alongside a vulnerable character as they find their way toward peace and healing allows us to experience uncertainty and risk without having to abide it in real life. Writers really are doing the human race a solid by giving our readers the opportunity to experience vulnerability without the personal tragedy.

And, yet, being vulnerable is my real-life kryptonite, which means I must willingly expose myself to that which makes me feel weak in order to be a stronger writer.

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