Friday, July 30, 2010

Transformative Change

I love it when a number of things swirling about in different areas of my life all converge and make me sit up and pay attention.

And as I mentioned last week, I've been reading The Hero Within and in it the author talks about transformative change as we move through the different stages of our journey.

Transformative change. For some reason that phrase has really stuck with me, always in the back of my mind this week. Probably in no small part because I've reached the point in the manuscript when everything is building to that big moment when my character sheds her old skin and steps into her new self. When she is truly and completely transformed by the events of the novel.

Then a couple of days ago on twitter, @Quotebelly posted this quote:  

"The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails." - William Arthur Ward

And it hit me; the act of adjusting the sails is not just about being realistic; it is also about being open to transformative change. A mere realist would batten down the hatches and hold on. But the act of adjusting the sails, of preparing yourself to accommodate what life is about to send your way, is a much more profound act of acceptance.

For some people, those bumps on life's road completely derail them or make them bitter or cause them to feel victimized. And while I hate tragedy and mishap as much as the next person, one of the only ways I can put my head down and get through it, is to try and see the situation as an opportunity for that sort of deep rooted change. To extract the life lesson that the universe is sending me. In doing that, in finding some nugget of wisdom to take from the incident, I feel that no matter what I have lost, I have also won.

The thing is, no one taught me that; not my parents or a church or a therapist. I'm pretty sure I have managed to learn that concept though stories.

Which is why in fiction, as writers, it is so vital that things in our story make sense, that the events in our stories are pushing our characters toward this transformative change. That is one of Story's most important roles in our lives, showing us what that sort of deep change looks like, feels like, how to recognize and respond to the opportunities when they arise.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Vulture Pigeons

No, they are not a new creature in one of my books, unfortunately.

My husband’s ornithological activities have come home to roost in a decidedly creepy way. As I have mentioned before, we have quite a collection of birds who consider us the local dinery; lots of cute little brown birds and black birds whose names I don’t know; mockingbirds (who always make me think of the Hunger Games now) quail (with button size babies!) and charming ring necked doves, even a woodpecker or two. But the last couple of weeks we’ve been having these new birds—Vulture Pigeons we call them, and they are decidedly creepy. They look like they sound, hulking vulture-like pigeons with evil little yellow eyes and very curved, sharp little beaks.

And they are big.

And they move around in packs.

So every morning when I open the front door I hear this huge flapping of a bunch of giant wings as they startle and I cannot help but think of Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS. If I ever stop posting here altogether, you’ll know what happened to me…

Edited to add a picture, per Vonna's request.

They look scarier in real life. Trust me.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Boredom Buster Award

Yowza! I was thrilled to learn from my editor that the Theodosia books have won the Family Fun Magazine Boredom Buster award for August! Family Fun is published by Disney, and the books appear in their August issue. Color me thrilled!

Here's a link to the online version:  Family Fun Boredom Buster Awards

Thank you muchly, Family Fun!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Character Growth and Personal Journeys

For me, one of the most satisfying parts of a book is often the character’s transformative growth. All of my favorite writers strike me as exceptional students of the human condition, and it shows in their writing. However, sometimes stuff that we know intuitively, escapes us when it comes to wrestling with the nitty gritty logistics of arcing out a character’s internal journey. We know a character must change or grow, attain some new level of awareness. But unless we have a child development or psychology degree, the nuts and bolts of that process might be unfamiliar to us or cloaked in mystery. It is probably not surprising then, that half my favorite internal growth references for characterization are actually psychology books.

I am very fond of The Hero’s Journey and think it is particularly well suited to middle grade and YA stories because it so mirrors the coming of age process. Many of you have probably read The Writer’s Journey by Chris Vogler, but if it’s been a while, take the book off your shelf and look at it again. If you have a firm grip on the basics of the journey, try re-reading his section on archetypes and how they can serve as different facets of the hero.

Another book I enjoy browsing through but don’t seem to have used yet is 45 MASTER CHARACTERS. What I like about this book is that it breaks down personality characteristics into mythical archetypes, which can be helpful when you’re trying to navigate your protagonist’s internal landscape. For example, there is Artemis (The Amazon) and Athena (The Father’s Daughter) and Isis (Female Messiah), as well as the Dionysus, the Lady’s Man and the Ares The Protector and Apollo the Businessman. (Okay, now I see why I haven’t used this part yet—a lot of those archetypes only minimally apply to kid protagonists!)

She also discusses the difference between a masculine and feminine archetypal journey. I tend to think of them as either character-centric stories or more externally driven stories, and both work for either male or female characters. The main difference is the focus of the journeys.

The masculine is the one we are familiar with:
Challenge (Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Mentor)
Obstacles (Tests, Allies, Enemies, Ordeal, Reward)
Transformation (Resurrection, Return with the Elixir.)

The Feminine Journey is:
Containment (Illusion of a Perfect World, Betrayal of Realization, The Awakening) Transformation (The Descent, Eye of the Storm, Death—all is lost)
Emergence (Support, Rebirth/Moment of Truth, Full Circle)

Interesting that the transformation in one comes in the middle and the act of true victory is maintaining that transformation when one returns, rather than having the transformation be the end of the story.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s WOMEN WHO RUN WITH WOLVES provides an absolute wealth of internal journey scenarios. Most of her chapters, in fact, are the equivalent of an internal growth arc. For example, the one I’ve been using as I shape the Theodosia series is The Retrieval of Intuition. I think it works really well for character’s who are discovering their inner powers. It breaks down something like this:

Allowing the Too Good Mother to Die
Exposing the Crude Shadow
Navigating in the Dark
Facing the Wild Hag
Serving the Non Rational
Separating This From That
Asking the Mysteries
Standing on all Fours
Recasting the Shadow

She also has a great arc for love relationships (Facing the Life/Death/Life Nature of Love) and Finding One’s Pack, which works really well for stories where someone is trying to find their tribe.

My newest discovery isn’t new at all, but an old classic, it’s only new to me. The Hero Within is being very insightful in helping me see nuance in how different characters need to grow. She has six major archetypes she discusses, Innocent, Orphan, Martyr, Wanderer, Warrior, and Magician. But of course, they’re really stages we all go through on our life’s journeys. What’s particularly helpful with this book is that she breaks down different tasks and points of views that accompany each archetype. For example, what each archetypes greatest fear is, or what they are looking for in relationships, or how they move through the material world. There’s tons of rich material in there for character development.

Do any of you have any books you’ve used for character development? I know some people use the Meyers Briggs typing and other swear by the Enneagram. I’ve never used either of those for characters, although I have had fun taking the tests myself. ☺

Friday, July 16, 2010

World Premier--Nathaniel Fludd Four Cover! (Unicorns!)

My editor sent me this yesterday afternoon and it promptly chased all other thoughts from my mind and I just had to share. Isn't it beautimous?? ::very happy sigh::

I truly am the luckiest of authors...Once again, Kelly Murphy is a GeNiUs!

Plus I figured all of those suffering from way too much heat would enjoy looking at all that cool green forest...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Can We Pretend It's Still Monday?

I have spent the last three days laid low by an absolutely vicious stomach flu, then a migraine because I couldn’t eat for two whole days. It wasn’t a pleasantly indulgent kind of sick either—it was the kind where you lay there, staring at the back of your eyeballs, praying for deliverance.

But it is gone today—hurray!—and all the world is made fresh and new and hopeful again. That is the one lovely thing about suffering through illness—when it lifts, it really is like being born again. Plus? I am having my first cup of coffee in what seems like forever. I am sure that doesn’t hurt my perspective one little bit.

Being ill has put a serious dent in my writing progress, not to mention my ability to write pithy, brilliant blog posts, but I did want to share a couple of fun (if not downright silly) things.

First, a very fun little tool Deva Fagan posted about on Facebook that allows you to plug in a chunk of your text and see what famous writer your writing is similar too. I got three different answers, depending upon which book I used. Theodosia was H. P. Lovecraft (which was perfect!) Nathaniel Fludd was Nabakov (whom I have never read and so don’t quite get the comparison) and my YA was the author Chuck Palahniuk. Yeah, I had to look that up, too. He’s the author of Fight Club, which actually worked perfectly. I was actually pretty thrilled that all three had such distinctly different answers as they are three distinctly different voices. I accomplished that much, at least! Never mind. This is a scam. Sorry to have steered you in that direction!

The second thing is a clip of a hilarious owl that Casey Girard posted a link to over on Twitter. It is no secret that I am endlessly fascinated by animals and their odd behaviors, which are second only to humans and their odd behaviors. It was so bizarre that at first I suspected it was photoshopped (or the video equivalent of that). But the more I watched I decided it wasn’t then the behavior seems to be confirmed by a wikipedia entry (yes, I know it’s wikipedia, but still. It was good enough for me in this instance.)

A good writer mindful of structure would have a third thing to share with you, but I am going to let go of that pressure and just share these two for now. Enjoy!

Friday, July 09, 2010

Full Steam Ahead

Okay, so on Wednesday I got totally wadded up, slogging through far too many words and scenes that were clearly such vestigial tails of earlier drafts that I had to stop and do some serious trimming.

Over the last two days I've cut away pages and pages of deadwood. I had 340 pages and I cut away about 60 of those and another 60 will have to be rewritten from scratch, but I can use the existing scenes as an outline.

I've finally, finally, FINALLY figures out how the romance turns and more importantly, how the jigsaw pieces of my protagonists tattered souls fit together. 

I've hammered out a working outline for the third act, where I was just stumbling blindly in the dark.

I've also started a project thesaurus. I do this sometimes when I find myself using the same words over and over again, especially when the book deals with something in particular that I need to describe a number of times, like curses or shadows or something sinister. So to keep myself from flailing around more than absolutely necessary (because I do concede that some flailing is right and necessary) I've begun doing these thesauri. When I was working on Theo Four, for example, I put together a list of words to describe curses, and also evil. Or words for describing a desert. Or ancient ruins. Or I jot down bits and pieces of descriptions for the streets of Cairo.  I fill a whole page so I have a huge variety of words to choose from. Plus, being the total word geek that I am, I love pouring through my thesaurus and creating these lists; it reminds me of words I've forgotten about or aren't used enough. I don't know if it's a function of getting older or from having written a fair number of books in a short amount of time, but I am definitely feeling the need to fill my word well.

Anyway, now I have my writing house in order and can dive back into the story and make some serious progress.

Or here hoping, anyway...

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Coming to Terms With Fear

I am not generally one to experience fear when I write. Normally, I am too immersed in the story to hear the Internal Perfectionist or Cranky Editor when they hurl insults or doubts my way. The fact that am working on series probably also helps with that, as the concepts and generalities of what I am writing have some proven acceptance.

But I do find myself struggling with Fear as I write this story, and it is not a comfortable feeling. It does probably mean I’m writing the story I need to be writing right now, but it also means I have to learn to come to terms with Fear, either by ignoring it, succumbing to it, or staring it down.

I am afraid I am writing a fish with feathers (to appropriate a phrase Blythe used over on Shrinking Violets) and it will end up being neither fish nor fowl, a spectacular failure. I am afraid it has too much history for a YA, and focuses too much on the romance relationship. But now that I am writing it in first person, present tense, I also know that if it fails as YA, it will have no home in the historical romance market either, so I have pretty much built myself out over a precipice.

And yes, I know that I just have to write the book, but as a working writer, it is extremely hard to devote so very much time to what I fear may be unsellable.

It is also absolutely necessary so that I can grow creatively.

But it is not a comfortable place to be and as I said, I am having many negotiating sessions with Fear.

Now for a complete segue which, I promise, will come full circle in a minute.

I subscribe to the DailyOm and those puppies come in faster than I can contemplate them. I now have about 247 DailyOms sitting patiently in an email folder waiting for me to read them. (Yes, I am well aware of the irony of that, thankyouverymuch.) But every once in awhile, one of the titles catches my eye as being something extremely pertinent to what I am dealing with in life, and yesterday was one of those. The title of the DailyOm was, Underneath the Noise.

We all know that saying, if you want someone’s attention, just whisper. This DailyOm expounded on that somewhat but the sentence that really zapped me between the eyes was this one:

“It is generally true that the more insistent voices in our heads delivering messages that make us feel panicky or afraid are of questionable authority…Their urgency stems from their disconnectedness from the center of our being, and their urgency is what catches our attention.”

How many different ways do I love that? But of course. Bullies always shout the loudest. And they always shout because they are insecure or full of bluster. They are of questionable authority.

Boys and girls, our Internal Editors and Cranky Perfectionists are so damn loud because they know they’re wrong! That is why they are shouting at us; to make up for in volume what they lack in truth.

As I read that last night, those voices yelling at me to be afraid went silent; they shrugged sheepishly and slunk away.

At least for now. I am sure they will be back, but now that I have their secret, it will be even easier to stare them down the next time...

Monday, July 05, 2010


I am moving right along on this major rewrite/revision thing that I’m doing right now and one of the things I find I am using a LOT is the literary equivalent of spackle.

Spackle when writing is just what it sounds like: a flimsy lick and a promise to get back to a spot and create something better. Stronger. Heftier. When I am in the zone and the story is unfolding before me, if I take too long in trying to capture the words, they’ll disappear before I can get them down. For me, always, the race is to get the story down while I’m in the heated flush of that writing zone. I can linger and dally over language all I want later, once the bones of the story are firmly in place.

Spackle often shows up as a set of brackets [like this] when I know I need a better word or simile but I don’t want to stop the writerly flow and search right then.

Something in his face made me [uneasy].
His eyes hardened like [sharp flat stones].

Sometimes though, spackle can be an entire action.

[Nate and Greasle find out figure out a way to catch the basilisk and not get poisoned in the process.]

As you can see, that’s no mere phrase or word choice, but an entire plot point that needs to be worked out. But again, if the big pieces of the story are flowing or the voice is really working or I've got a firm grip on the ending, I don’t let myself grope and flail when there are perfectly good words trying to bubble out.

This weekend, entire scenes and chunks of acts are falling away as I trim and shape this manuscript. I know I will need new scenes in there. Some of them are showing up, right on cue, and others aren’t. But I still need a placeholder in this new draft I’m building, something to help me capture the pacing and the rhythm of the scenes. In that case, I spackle entire scenes, which go something like this:

[They arrive at court. Hero leaves her to talk politics with duchess’s advisors. She pretends she’s bored and wanders away. Uses this as excuse to eavesdrop on other’s conversations. Learns Count Z has returned, sees Lord X and Lady Y in tete a tete, wonders what they’re up to. Protects one of the serving maids against an overbearing baron, accidentally runs into the French ambassador, then Francois finds her and invites her to dance.]

In that bit I list all the things from the various plot threads I’m juggling that I know have to happen then, in that scene. It also helps me capture in really broad strokes what the scene will encompass, while also giving my subconscious time to figure out more of the details and the nuance and even what the scene will actually be about. (Because clearly, from looking at that list, I do not have a clue. Yet.)

Oftentimes, I’ll figure out major epiphanies for that scene in subsequent scenes—scenes I never would have written if I’d let myself get totally stuck and stymied in one spot and not allowed myself to use spackle.

So if you aren’t currently using spackle, you might see if there’s a place for it in your writer’s toolbox.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Some Recent Movies

I enjoyed The Young Victoria much more than I thought I would. I had no idea that the young Victoria had had such a restricted, suffocating childhood, nor been so browbeaten by her mother. That she broke out from under that so young shows a sturdy character.

I also hadn’t realized Prince Albert had died so young. I had known that they had nine children and populated most of the royal houses of Europe. It fascinates me that that was a method for spreading influence, consolidating power, and assuring allies. It didn’t work out so well between Germany and England, with Victoria’s grandson becoming fierce rivals with his own uncle. Which just shows how complex families are and how likely it is that your most bitter antagonist will likely end up being a family member.

I also watched The Duchess, which was a visual feast and Keira Knightly was wonderful, but the whole thing just broke my heart. The poor duchess was hemmed in at every turn by that horrid duke. (And honestly, has Ralph Fiennes ever not played a jerk? Between this and The English Patient, I am NOT impressed. Which I suppose, conversely, makes him quite a good actor.)

I tried to watch The Book of Eli. Dystopic adventure starring Denzel Washington? I’m there. Except, there wasn’t any there there. I actually had a number of problems with the movie, but the one that finally had me turning it off midway was when the mysterious book everyone was after turned out to be the bible. Even though I knew it would be biblical in nature, having it be the actual bible was just too on-the-nose for me. It made it feel like there wasn’t any story involved. Also, the visual aesthetic was so harsh in contrast that it made it hard to watch. That and they were so busy framing the shots they forgot about story. And character. And all the bad guys felt really one-note. I have since heard there was a really intriguing twist at the end that made it all worth while, but that was too late for me. Which translates into a really good lesson: don’t save all the good stuff ‘til the end because people won’t wait that long…

Thursday, July 01, 2010


Yes, I've been doing a bit of re-decorating around here. I was tired of all that yellow. And it was way too hot for the summer.

I like the clean, cool look of this current design but it is giving me fits because, on my computer at least, it scrolls in a very laggy way. Being the thorough person that I am, I exported everything to a test blog to see if it was the sheer number of posts or images or something like that, but the test blog that is set up EXACTLY like this one doesn't lag at all. ::le sigh::

I guess it's possible it could just be me. (Yeah, that was optimistic.) I'll keep working on it. If you return in a day or two and it's an entirely new design, it means I couldn't work out the bugs on this one.