Posts in Category: NaNo Prep

Emotion in the Process (NaNo Prep 31)

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. — Robert Frost

I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of. — Joss Whedon

When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable. — Madeleine L’Engle

Clear back on Day 3 I said I said I try to work around the Dislikes as much as possible.  In part that’s because we (as a culture) frequently treat the stuff we don’t like as somehow inherently better for you (think veggies vs. ice cream).  But one of the things I’ve learned about myself along this noveling journey is that imaginary conflict can sometimes be as hard for me as real conflict. (Biologically, your brain can’t tell the difference).

Sometimes my story has to be on-hold because my life is so stress-laden.

Image courtesy of Erika Thorpe via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Erika Thorpe via stock.xchng

Interestingly, sometimes my stress can be managed better when I have access to my imaginary world where I (in my god-ness) can see bigger and farther than the poor helpless characters who (post-modern as they are) don’t even know to hope for a happy ending.

And a deadline is one way to press on through the anyway.

 ~ ~ ~

My first tears while writing came when copying a poem at age 15.  I found the the story that framed the poem unremarkable, but the poem struck me so deeply I told myself this was going to be applicable when someone I loved was gone.

I wonder if Edna St. Vincet Milay cried while she wrote A Dirge without Music.

My first tears while creating was when I wrote a short story about the religious persecution and genocide in southern Sudan.

Maybe 19, I had just discovered that my university had laptops for check out, and for the first time in my life I typed in the privacy of my own room. And I felt the things I wrote about. The 7-year-old who watched his baby brother hacked to pieces, saw his mother brutalized before she was sold off and he was conscripted as a child soldier.

If I had been “in public” and by force of my will none of that had made me weep, I am convinced a part of me would have died.

I have wrestled with depression. I have been overwhelmed, buried by the intensity of my grief. And these are not the same thing. As much as we may remind ourselves that “none of this is real” (and those of you embarking for the first time may need most to hear this), nothing comes from nothing.

Especially in a hurry, especially when we file away our inner-editor, self-judgement, and concerns of what others may think, truth will emerge.

Image courtesy of Erika Thorpe via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Erika Thorpe via stock.xchng

Not until I wrote my first novel– in fact, not until I gave it to an editor-friend for feedback– I did not realize that one of my deep inner battles revolved around a fear of abandonment. It was all over my main character, but since it was my battle as well, I couldn’t do that basic, useful exercise I urged on Day 6 and tell you what her core issue was.

Many times over my noveling years (seven, now) I will be struck by a deep truth that there are few words for. I will weep or be angry that I can’t communicate it better, more-clearly. But we do what we can.

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day. ~ Emily Dickinson

The goal in my writing is to bring life. To bring hope.

Writing Hope is my goal, my motivation for pursuing and creating imaginary worlds.

Prepare for Imperfection (NaNo Prep 29)

Words are not as satisfactory as we should like them to be, but, like our neighbors, we have got to live with them and must make the best and not the worst of them. — Samuel Butler

I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their own validity no matter what. — Madeleine L’Engle

Image courtesy of Cris Watk via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Cris Watk via stock.xchng

Lack of faith in one’s own strengths necessarily results in a less-effective human being. My favorite example (though non-human) is of the squirrel who could do no better than a C in swimming, and the fish who got an F in tree-climbing.

There are some very important things I am just. not. good at (keeping up with laundry and healthy food is a perennial joke among parents, but sometimes we laugh about things so we won’t accidentally cry). I mean, stuff like food and clothing is not the stuff of life– the stuff we live for or want to be remembered for– but they are the things that make the stuff of life possible. They are essential, and they’re dead weight.

A lot of the time they seem to be won by those with the greatest endurance.

And this is not my strong place.

But, even though I know this is my weakest part, even knowing that writing is a greater strength, that doesn’t mean that everything I write is good, effortless, or even enjoyable (to me or a reader).

This can lead to some stinkin’ thinkin’: I’m not even good at ____________. Why is *everything* so hard?!.  Be careful about thoughts like that.

Shifting your expectations is a good place to start. Assume everything will be work. Then, when you make the happy discovery that some work can be fun, life balances out a little more positively.

Image courtesy of Joseph Mankin via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Joseph Mankin via stock.xchng

Every time something gets too hard and I want to wig out, I’m reminded of an inevitably recent example (in my homeschooling livingroom) that recently was on display. On a nearly weekly basis one of my brilliant, beautiful children will realize what they’re doing is not. perfect. and life will cease to hold any meaning. Bones will loose their rigidity, voices will leak through half-opened mouths, and the sound of despair will foul the sweet, wood-smoked air.

The words I use continually on them: This isn’t the end. Did you expect to be perfect the first time? For Pete’s sake, how much does this matter?! Are you locked into this forever? No! You will continue to grow!

These are the words I tell myself, before I melt out of my chair, sobbing. Because I am an adult, doggonit! I will NOT act like a child (if I think about it ahead)!


Whatever age you are, drink your milk (or take your calcium), let your bones do their job:

Stay in the chair and do the work.

Image courtesy of mihai9 radu via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of mihai9 radu via stock.xchng

If it is not everything you want it to be at this moment, celebrate that you see clearly enough not to be blinded to its imperfection by your closeness.

Remember this is just the beginning. Celebrate progress, silence that critical voice. If it needs acknowledgement, give it a pat on the head and tell it you’ll listen better after the 30th.

Odds and Ends (NaNo Prep 28)

Image courtesy of Arsel Özgürdal via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Arsel Özgürdal via stock.xchng

Choosing names, collecting images, rough-mapping (working with physical spaces) and using music in the writing process– these are all on my mind as we enter the homestretch toward starting our novels this very week.  EEP!

Here we go.


Three years ago (2010) when I decided I needed to write again, my youngest child was 4, and I had purged my baby-name books. I’d discovered the social security name site, and,and realized googling things like Indian last names actually gives me workable stuff.

But I wanted a talisman, I suppose (I’ve since learned that I’m very kinesthetic: I want physical objects to manipulate, which is why story-boarding is my current organization method of choice). I went out and bought a couple name books, new, not patient enough to wait for them to show up at the used bookstores, and not knowing what would be most-useful to me.

That afternoon when a friend came to pick up her child after a playdate she saw the new books on my kitchen counter. “Ooo, Amy!” She waved them at me. “Is there something exciting you want to tell me?!”

“Yes!” I said, matching my enthusiasm to hers. “I’m writing a novel next month!”

I’d recommend having at least one name book on-hand to jog your imagination, or as a back-up for when the internet is out. My best suggestion if you can find it (I’ve seen it used a few times):

  • The Baby Name Wizard— unique among name books in its way of grouping names by sound and association rather than meaning. No meanings listed, actually (that trivia is just a click away). One feature is sibling name suggestions. These offer a set of “norms” to contextualize the name(s) you’ve chosen, and I find them to be very helpful. The suggestions for my original main character’s siblings include her major nemesis.  The grouping is uncanny.

Collecting Images

One of the Features of Scrivener, and yWriter (a free software that does many of the same things) is the ability to collect images in a sort of scrapbook for easy reference and consistency in character appearance.

I watch (or used to watch) a lot of body-a-week shows: Bones, Life, Chuck, The Mentalist, Castle, Lie To Me. Every one of those has a core cast, but each of them also has to create a new world every episode for the core cast to investigate.  I find these bit players to be very useful.

An example:

Lisa SheridanWatching The Mentalist one day, an actress caught my eye. She had a look I liked: cute, and smart, and hard-nosed when she was pulling a con.  I went to (Internet Movie Database), found the Mentalist main page, the season, the episode, and scrolled through the cast-list until I recognized the actress I wanted. I then googled her name and clicked on the more images section.

I scrolled through till I found a half dozen expressions that gave me the range I was looking for, and I had my character model. and Google are incredibly useful that way. I’ve found characters when watching the Olympics, movies, and music videos. It’s amazing the resources we have at our fingertips.

Jensen Ackles AJensen Ackles BMy favorite “find” was for my 2011 WriMo when I needed a visual for my identical triplets characters. The twist is that they’re not actually triplets (as they’d been raised to believe), but all three clones of their “dad’s” beloved grandfather.  Three had been made so their crime-boss father would have a few spares.

(I’d been challenged to write a steampunk that year. Quite the feat, not having read any. I took the core idea of alternate history and technology and rolled with that).

Jensen Ackles CAnyway, the idea I came up with was to use the same actor (Googling a single name) and collecting three distinct looks for the three brothers. This way I knew that they could both be told apart (each with their own personality), but having, literally, the same face, they could purposefully conceal or confuse their identities.


Arg. I *hate* map-making.

The way I’ve managed this so far, is I layer imaginary worlds/countries/spaces over a known space, whether that’s a house over my home, a mansion over a church I know well, or a journey over the road from Fairbanks to Anchorage.

I lay out a town in relation to the walking trips I used to do around the city, or biking from school to home to the library, to a summer job.

By keeping everything in relation or scale to what i already know, I can be careful not to break any laws of physics without a good reason (like djinn blood, which imparts super-speed, along with the ability to pass through walls).

Another solution is to make everything happen in one town so you don’t have to work out any epic-travel maps. (I’m horrible about meal-planning for trips, anyway. I’m always wondering what these people are eating, really.)


Oh. my favoritey-favorite.

Image courtesy of Belovodchenko Anton via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Belovodchenko Anton via stock.xchng

I listen to Pandora when I’m doing my physical labor indoors. I have stations I’ve created and fine-tuned that slot perfectly into my noveling mind. I also have YouTube Playlists (which I call my poorman’s iTunes) that are quite extensive.

The playlists alternate with years, so far.

2006 NaNo each character has his or her own playlist: Linnea alternately triumphant and tentative, her love interest a bit more angsty and oppositional– and there are more.

There’s also the beta couple, and three angsty outsiders.

2010 NaNo has a single storyline playlist, with the emotional journey following some of the Romantic conventions pretty closely.

2011 NaNo Returned to named playlists, largely because I was trying to make distinctions between individuals, and I found music an incredibly helpful way to do that.

Charles is your generic forceful “oldest” brother. An antagonist and impressive violinist.
Frederick is definitely your more contemplative, introspective brother. The Violist.
Alexander is the “youngest,” a leap-before-you-look type who plays both violin and cello.

This year, I’ve actually Googled lyrics to nail down what drew me in, and chosen where (if any) the idea fits.  I’ve found that the lyrics are most-useful in naming an emotional tone or core that I want to see or shift in a particular scene.

It plays particularly well in my world of “self-awareness.” That is, my POVs are usually close enough to one character that we usually don’t know what they don’t know, so those people have to be very. aware.  And Song lyrics offer a glimpse of that:

What loose ends are you still weaving in?

Cross-Cultural Inclusion (NaNo Prep 27)

Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself. — Unamuno

Those who believe they love all kinds of people, but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, love only what they can control, and not humanity as a whole. — Amy Jane Helmericks

Image courtesy of ddrccl via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of ddrccl via stock.xchng

I am a white, upper-middle class woman.

And I write “people of color.”

This discussion makes me feel awkward, but I have a few words to put down anyway.

I feel awkward because I assume there are things I don’t know I don’t know. It is never my intent to hurt anyone or be insensitive, but since I don’t (anymore) go around apologizing to people for interacting with them, I figure the best I can do is treat folks with respect while opening myself to experience as many different types and personalities as possible.

The example I have to offer is how I feel as a woman when I read stuff written by men. Sometimes it makes me roll my eyes, but honestly, there is enough variation in humanity that I can usually suspend disbelief and accept that, yeah, humans can act they way sometime, and females are human.

Image courtesy of Aline Dassel via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Aline Dassel via stock.xchng

My reasoning is that we can’t exclude any kind of person, and when we can help it we shouldn’t force one person to represent all of their type.

That is, when I have a culture or skin tone represented, I try to have more than one when I can.

This comes from the great weight I experienced when (for a few years) I had only ONE novel I was working on.

For all those years, that novel consumed my story-mind. I had to get it *right*. There was no room or option for imperfection, or process, or second-guessing or setting it aside. ALL my hopes and expectations and even my image of myself was bound up in this one snarled mess of a plot.

And you can’t create like that. You can’t live like that.

A few people have asked me why I start a new novel when I haven’t published (or even finished) all my earlier ones.  I have a couple answers.

First, I am still learning the craft, and NaNoWriMo in particular is an opportunity to exercise that learning with the blessing of my family– who understand it contains the madness to a minimum.

Second, it is a dilution.  The more you have written, the less power any individual story has.

Image courtesy of Matthias Engel via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Matthias Engel via stock.xchng

In a similar way, when a story has a token minority (audaciously women– 50% of the population– are included in this “token” treatment) it often represents a check-list function being fulfilled.

By having more-than-one (granted, none of this was conscious when I started) I wanted to be able to let peoples be peoples: broken, redeemable, surprising, and predictable.

This first crossed my radar when the only female on Dr. House‘s team was criticized for being not XYZ enough, and too QRS.  And here I thought she was just written well. But, no, as a front-and-center “role model” for young girls everywhere (?!) she needed to be stronger and more exemplary.

Ever since then I’ve been aware of white-male-as-default (they can be anything without hearing about role models), and I’ve tried to respond by making sure I’ve got jerks and gents (or ladies) in as much of a skin-tone spectrum as the setting will allow.

Image courtesy of Silvia Cosimini via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Silvia Cosimini via stock.xchng

Here is a good place to direct you again to the “I hate strong female characters” essay. I think this is applicable for any character of any skin tone or cultural background.

I will probably continue to feel self-conscious about the dark-skinned character (largely because it frustrates me to have to redirect people’s predicted assumptions by specifying a color), but I’d rather do that than act like every character has to be white or young, or conventionally (who defines that anyway?!) beautiful in order for the story to be told properly.


Research Ahead (NaNo Prep 26)

Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid. — John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima


Image courtesy of hvaldez1 via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of hvaldez1 via stock.xchng

I used to say that the reason I loved to write fantasy was because I didn’t have to research anything to make a whole story. I’ve since decided that’s not exactly true.

Everything in my stories comes from something else, and same for you. Our brains collect an store and shuffle and recombine, and no matter what you’re writing, the job is easier with a greater supply of raw material.

The point is to stay open, and keep shoveling stuff in. And that’s anything you enjoy. As writers, we enjoy one of the most unique of realities: no rabbit trail is ever wasted. No time dinging around on YouTube or, no random novels that I start and keep me entranced enough to finish.

It’s all fodder for writing.

Confession time: I am a chronic non-finisher. I have (At least) 6-8 books going at any given time. Most are non-fiction, granted, so they aren’t necessarily gripping page-turners, but they interact with a sort of synergy that gives me new or deeper insights than either author might have had in mind, initially.

Image courtesy of Jean Scheijen via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Jean Scheijen via stock.xchng

There are probably dozens of books I’ve never finished, but none of them was wasted. I believe that our brains are so amazing that we never really forget anything. We may not have it at command, but it’s always there, waiting to be brought back with the right hook.

The same thing happens with life and fiction and non-fiction when you stay open and let the ideas mix and mush. All of my stories contain cross-cultural marriages as a sort of microcosm of of the differing approaches to life we bring to relationships.

The stories themselves are mash-ups of traditional tales from different cultures. And all this came from reading broadly, and enjoying the movies and TV shows I do.

My advice: embrace your loves. Follow your interests: this book suggests that getting ahead in anything is largely a question of endurance, and we’re all more likely to stick with something we find interesting.

As to the how of research, I am a big proponent of the dive-in-and-swim mode of research.

You might say my research style is opposite of my plotting style.

Image courtesy of Piotr Bizior via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Piotr Bizior via stock.xchng

You see, I know a lot about a lot of stuff (you probably do, too: it’s part of being a grown-up), so I can make a lot of reasoned assumptions where I don’t have facts at my fingertips, and failing that I can make most of my story hinge around human interaction that will be the same almost anywhere you find humans.

The trick comes when you want to do technical writing or (as I am learning in my novel this year) mystery writing; where the answers hinge not just on quirks of human experience, but also on physical laws of the universe or items of expertise in a specialized world like dog shows.

In these cases I tend to work from the broad to the very specific.

For example, in a mystery, there are the classic motivations to consider: jealousy, fear, extortion, greed, anger, etc.

Motivation may help pin the perpetrator, and that (working backwards, as we may, creating the story) can shed light on method, since knowing who’s responsible narrows down means and opportunity.

Once the broad strokes are identified, I can now consider where specific detail-searching comes into play.

My example:

I have a niggling memory of a news clip describing special visas for girls freed from the sex trade. The goal is to reduce the hold their captors have over them to keep them from coming forward or seeking help.

Since my story is set largely in London, I began my research by looking to see if there’s any sort of analogous safeguard in the UK. What I found is that the state of the courts is currently in something of an overhaul, and more research is needed, but I also confirmed that the discussion about “modern day slavery” is also happening “across the pond,” so my premise (a teen-Sherlock television episode where the characters are facing the questions of human trafficking) does fit, and I am now reading the public report from the Center for Social Justice.

“It’s okay, I found it on the internet” is becoming much less of a joke than a reality these days, and especially as we prepare to dive into a month of unbridled creation, the facts are guidance at this point, more than boundaries.

If something comes down to that tight of a specific, it should be something researchable in the midst. The point at this stage of the game, is not to stress about details that are not inherent to the core of your story, and if you’re not sure what’s at the core, some quick Googling will get you started.  There’s no shame in internet research, especially at this stage in the process.

Image courtesy of Odan Jaeger via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Odan Jaeger via stock.xchng

If you have (or guess you will have) serious questions, don’t hesitate to get on the internet and search for what you want to know (the NaNoWriMo forums are also a great place to fish for leads).

And if you’re really adventurous, you can use the internet to track down phone numbers or email addresses for experts in your area of facts for you your novel. That is, you could ask a sculptor or a garden-designer if they were willing to answer a few specific questions. You could call the business office of a police station 6 states over and (if they have time—preparing your questions will help them trust you) verify how they do things in their neck of the woods where your story takes place.

Just, don’t be afraid to ask questions—of yourself or anyone else. Questions can be the best way to make progress on a problem.

Every Helper a Hero (NaNo Prep 25)

We can surely no longer pretend that our children are growing up into a peaceful, secure, and civilized world. We’ve come to the point where it’s irresponsible to try to protect them from the irrational world they will have to live in when they grow up…. Our responsibility to them is not to pretend that if we don’t look, evil will go away, but to give them weapons against it. —  Madeleine L’Engle

Be kind. Everyone is fighting their own secret battle.

Take your life in your own hands and what happens? A terrible thing. No one to blame. — Erica Jong

Image courtesy of Simeon Tennant via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Simeon Tennant via stock.xchng

Helpers come in all shapes and sizes.
They can be Chekhov’s Gunman– a person met long ago (early in the story) who steps up with the needed information or protection at a critical point in the plot.

In the Hero’s Journey they can be the mentor and the friends gathered in the new world of the second act.

In the Heroine’s Journey they have their own stage (Support) where they prevent the heroine’s story from coming to an end, often reenforcing a story message about interdependence.

Image courtesy of Fergus Currie via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Fergus Currie via stock.xchng

Even the love interest can function as a helper. How many stories have you read where the LI makes a rousing speech or drops an offhand comment that meshes perfectly to close the gap in the MC’s mind and get the final action rolling?

However you identify them, helpers are critical to the story. Helpers serve the function of providing information, external motivation, practical, logistical helps, and emotional support (which matters a whole lot more than a lot of us want to admit, even in real life).

Knowing the kind of story we’re writing and the way we’re writing it will help us in expanding our cast of characters. Archetypes, for example, come into play even in thrillers or romances, and key characters can be identified by thinking back to the last couple movies you saw.

Image courtesy of Dimitris Petridis via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Dimitris Petridis via stock.xchng

No matter what role you choose your walk-ons to fill, the important thing to remember is that even un-main characters (should) have their own lives, hopes and dreams. They have their own motivations that drive them to act, or prevent them from acting. They need to, or they will not be different enough from each other to justify their existance

Some people don’t give a cat’s sneeze about our MC or his/her goals. This does not make them evil or even mean people. It makes them somewhat normal.

So even as you determine your major characters’ motivations, you should decide why these helpers want to help.

Their profiles don’t have to be as deep and extensive as your major characters, but knowing how they think will help your readers with believability, and will help with your writing process when change (inevitably) takes over your story and bit parts have to respond to more than one thing, with more than one reaction.

There are generous, self-sacrificing people in real life, but even they have their own hopes and dreams.

Image courtesy of Belovodchenko Anton via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Belovodchenko Anton via stock.xchng

Some want to take action/responsibility for these, and some don’t. And just as in real life, this willingness to accept responsibility ant act is a reflection on, and of, their character.

The way to keep your extras alive (and even let them surprise you with their depth beyond a playing piece), each helper, just like each person you meet in real life, is the hero of their own story.

Transport (NaNo Prep 24)

Image courtesy of the BBC One show site.

Image courtesy of the BBC One show site.

I enjoy the BBC Sherlock a great deal.

In fact, my novel this year is sort of a play off an imaginary spin-off of the show.  I have an affinity to the title character that has only been reinforced by a sweet friend who has an affinity to John Watson’s character.

She calls me Holmes. In public.

And I can’t say I mind. It fits in a lot of ways and it’s sort of fun to be open about it.

One of the show’s great exchanges happens in a restaurant when Sherlock urges John to eat, denying his own need or interest. Referring to his body, Sherlock says dismissively, “It’s transport.”

While I share Sherlock’s annoyance with having to eat yet again (what a waste of time!), I have learned well enough my need that I’ve worked through the denial and anger stages and skipped “acceptance” for the “how-can-I-minimize-the-tedium?” stage.

My path has been to learn what my best fuel is, and how to batch-process its preparation in order to minimize the extent of interruptions (aka, individual meal prep).

~ ~ ~

Now, I know I mentioned in my second post in this series that Baty (NaNo founder) recommends loading up on your favorite “vice” food, in order to free up some will-power to write daily.

My advice, in contrast is to know (or check) your nutritional type and then stock up on the stuff your body actually needs.  As I said yesterday, I have a persistent battle with depression that I can’t be lazy about fighting.

Image courtesy of Krzysztof (Kriss) Szkurlatowski via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Krzysztof (Kriss) Szkurlatowski via stock.xchng

Nutrition is one of those ways to fight, and I often must use my story mind and imagination to hold in my body the memory of how some tasty or convenience food made me regret its indulgence.

My type is the protein type, which means that I have to go out of my way to maximize the amount of protein I get, if I want to function optimally.

I’m going to share some ideas and advice for functioning as a protein type, because about 1/3 of people are each type, and all the healthy eating lists focus on types one and two (avoid fat, maximize fruits, veggies, limit protein, especially to fish, skinless poultry, and fat-trimmed red meat—if you indulge in the stuff at all).

This is okay advice as far as it goes, it’s hard to go wrong maximizing food without lables, but for types like me it is inadequate.  I thrive on a high-protein, high-fat diet.  Counting protein grams is about the only way I remember to stay on top of it, and to answer the next question, the only way I can really balance the calorie equation with straight-up fats (I stick to the healthy ones– almost none liquid) is to minimize grains and almost completely cut sugar.

My type of fast-food is a ¼ pound chicken sausage nuked in a paper towel and eaten while I work.

Just today I stocked up on enough to get me through November– if my family doesn’t learn to like them too, which they are.

I’m trying to be glad for them instead of pouting for me.

Other make-aheads and quicks (relatively speaking, though straight-forwards might be the better term):

  • A cup of whole-fat vanilla yogurt with diced pineapple (from a can) and a handful of raw oatmeal—mixed together and eaten like cold-cereal
  • Vegetable nachos: raw veggies sliced thin and covered with shredded cheese. Before I nuke  it I sprinkle on some homemade ranch-flavored powder (I have a jar of this in readiness).
  • Salmon fillets (I’m an Alaskan, so I have a stocked freezer) sprinkled with salt and ranch seasoning
  • Skin-on chicken thighs (with seasoning of choice on the meat under the skin), put in oven preheated to 450-degrees. Cook for 30 minutes (crisps skin), then reduce temperature to 350. Cook for another 40-60 minutes, till the thermometer reads something that fits your comfort level (I slightly under cook mine so do your own googling ;)).  This counts as a quick-food because I’ll individually freeze them after cooking and grab one later to nuke when I need it.
    • Great plain or as the center of a simple salad.
  • Image courtesy of gulizars via stock.xchng

    Image courtesy of gulizars via stock.xchng

    The crockpot is your friend: throw a couple frozen meat chunks in (a few chicken thighs, pork chops or a small roast), cover with broth, 1 ½ tsp. cumin, a cup of salsa and a couple cans of beans (salt to taste) and you’ve got  a generic chili/soup you can eat plain, mix in your favorite taco toppings, or (shred the meat with two forks once it’s cooked) serve it over greens and recreate Wendy’s Baja salad for a fraction of the cost.

  • Here’s one that works best if you have a food scale (at least for me, since I’m gluten free): blend 1 doz eggs (~24oz.) , 24 oz milk, and 12 oz flour.  In the preheating 400-degree oven, melt ½ cube of butter in each of two 9×13 pans – about the amount of time it take to combine your three ingredients (additional salt or sugar optional).  Cook at 400 for 20 minutes, lower oven temperature to 350 and finish another 20 minutes.
  • Image courtesy of Antonio Jiménez Alonso via stock.xchng

    Image courtesy of Antonio Jiménez Alonso via stock.xchng

    Spaghetti with meat sauce: cook whatever pasta you usually use and brown a pound of ground meat. Add a teaspoon of salt and tablespoon of taco seasoning.  While the meat browns, combine two (15.5 oz) cans tomato sauce, (8oz) can tomato paste, 1 T oregano, 1 ½ t garlic, 1t paprika and mix until smooth. Add the hot, seasoned meat and you’re ready to go. (Meat sauce can double as sloppy joes, or go over shredded cabbage instead of noodles.)

  • Finally, a major crowd-pleaser at our place is taco salad. Brown and season a pound of meat and combine with shredded lettuce, grated cheese, a can of beans, and crunched tortilla chips.  On the side optionals to add include sour cream, mushrooms, tomato, onion, extra cheese and salsa.

These ideas are mostly to get your own thinking rolling: whatever you already make will probably be faster to put together than someone else’s recipes. Even so, these are all things that come together under 20 minutes, or can be made in bulk and save meal prep for days (ask me how I know…).

So don’t feel that your health or sanity have to suffer because of your other goals.  We all have to eat anyway, so knowing how to maximize the time you already have committed can actually buy you more flexibility, later.

Self-Care (NaNo Prep 23)

I am 34 years old. By many standards I’ve had a good life and good health: never broken a bone, never had a cavity, not traumatized by bad dreams, bad parenting or broken hearts– at least, not any from failed romances.

Image courtesy of Kate Smith via stock.xchng.

Image courtesy of Kate Smith via stock.xchng.

But this time of year, especially, the fangs of depression try to get hold of me.

I wrestle with chronic depression.

All three of my children display signs of pediatric depression, and I, who have relatively little “mom guilt” of any kind, writhe over the question of how much of their suffering is because of me, and whether there is another scrap of energy to spend on their recovery in addition to mine.

Why bring that up now? This is a writing blog; I haven’t forgotten.

Writing is a part of life, it will always be affected by your life, and it will develop and train parts of your brain in ways that will, in turn, affect your life.

One of the results of conscientiously planning your novel (or even just recognizing benefits from the planning), is that your mind might take that power and effectiveness and try to translate it onto your real life.

This can be both good or bad, and caution is needed.

On the “good” side is how trajectory can help us with decision-making and motivation. We can be more content with incremental progress (like working slowly toward finishing a novel…) because we know that as long as we keep moving we must eventually reach our destination.

On the other hand, thinking about things we cannot control or change, ruminating and trying to reason our way out of problems [link] that are really “life” — this is the path to crazy.

Researchers Mark Williams and John Teasdale, authors of The Mindful Way Through Depression have some fascinating talks (the links I’m still trying o track down, so check back) on depression, and address this topic specifically.

They use the example of a map, and suggest there is a fundamental difference between reasoning how to get from a physical point-a to point-b, and the effort of reasoning your way from depression to not-depressed.

In the latter case, you are emphasizing your separation from where you want to be with every dig of your mental muscles, essentially fighting your way deeper into the quicksand of depression.

It is, ironically the stillness and waiting of mindfulness  (which Mark Williams and John Teasdale write about) that has been shown to provide some of the greatest symptom relief within depression.

As this month began, I was buoyed by my excitement for NaNo and this series of NaNo Prep.

Doing something you enjoy, and/or something you are good at is extremely important for solid mental health.

If you ever find that the activities you used to enjoy have lost their pleasure, and there is nothing enjoyable in your life: that is a Major. red-flag. I’m not going to tell you to go take a pill (unless it’s a huge dose of D, B-12 or a SAM-e regimen), but I will urge you to start paying attention. Education is not the ruminating I warn against above.

If you have any systemic thought patterns that emphasize your worthlessness as a person, your tendency to ruin things or fail constantly (even– maybe especially– if you have good, logical reasons to reach this conclusion) this is the time to reach out for help.

You don’t need to know all the “right” words yet. You don’t have to wait (to ask for help) until know what you need.  This is the time to catch your thoughts misbehaving, because this is the slippery slope to self-harm, and (no-nonsense voice here:) none of us has time for that.

As the month has progressed I have been fighting my old enemy—chronic depression— more and more, but at the same time I feel some victory: I am doing something I delight in (I get to discuss writing and planning novels!), something I know I’m good at.

I recognize diseased thoughts as they try to creep in, and know what to do about them.

The most common example these days is the “reasonable” reminder that the dishes aren’t done, or the bathroom needs cleaned, or some other legitimate responsibility of mine in the home.

This thought it not the problem. The problem is that it can hold a poisoned fang that kills the narrow strip of enjoyment you can find in a specific thing that is separate from that ought.

I lived for years imagining that writing needed to be treated as a reward I earned after completing all my “real” work. Only, the “real” work of a household is never done.

What I finally learned, and now shapes my behavior, is that I don’t start my day at 100% energy then choose where it goes, robbing “housework” or “homeschooling” by spending time on writing.

I start somewhere between 50-75%, and must either maintain or recharge based on self-care choices: How I eat, sleep and move.

I might someday start at 100%, when my sleep habits are better, but for now I have to make up for that poor energy-management through healthy eating and balancing demanding tasks with recharging ones.

Take a moment, today or tomorrow, to look at your life. Name what you you’re good at. If you’re not confident enough to declare that, name what you enjoy. Call it what it is: food for your soul, and start making a plan for regular nourishment.

You’ll not get through your novel without it.

Designing Relationships (NaNo Prep 22)

It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages. — Friedrich Nietzsche

Sometimes it’s a form of love just to talk to somebody that you have nothing in common with and still be fascinated by their presence. — David Byrne

Love does not die easily. It is a living thing. It thrives in the face of all of life’s hazards, save one: neglect. — James D. Bryden

When you love someone, you love the whole person, just as he or she is, and not as you would like them to be. — Leo Tolstoy

Here is another chance to take a stand and draw the world as you see it (or how you wish to see it).

I truly believe friendships are bound up in different sorts of love, and the need for allies, compatriots, kindred spirits and “inside connections” are built up with mutual respect and admiration that can stand completely separate from love.

Yes, I know I talked about Romance last week, but this is a different sort of love. If you find it helpful, re-read each quote, replacing the word love with the word respect or admire.

It is one of my pet peeves (on my (dis)like list, even) that any attraction tends to be interpreted instantly as sexual or romantic attraction.  What about attractions of the mind? Or “compatible neuroses”?

The most enduring pairs are made of healthy individuals or those with compatible neuroses. Compatible neuroses tend to make for the most engaging stories.

Image courtesy of Dark Water via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Dark Water via stock.xchng

What about the “perfect fit” of talking and listening personalities, or a leader and loyal follower where neither feel disadvantaged or put-upon?

Here I think about the messages I want my novel to offer, and how one of my goals is actually to model healthy relationships. As a result I have to include the types of interactions that I’ve found faulty, and lay the groundwork for them to turn out better.

Image courtesy of Clemente Lucca via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Clemente Lucca via stock.xchng

For example, I’ve got the girls-supporting-girls relationships (as opposed to the all-females-as-rivals model), parents-and-kids-that-communicate relationships, and males-and-females-without-sexual-overtones.

Now, most of these have to be earned, but the point is the possibility has to exist before you get them there.


I make a great effort to include positive relationships, but we all know that not all relationships ARE positive.

To live is to war with trolls. — Henrik Ibsen

So another effort is to model how to deal with powers beyond your control, or selfish people who refuse to change (or even consider they might be the ones at fault). The difference between the novel and real-life is that in a novel everything has to make sense, and if a problem isn’t solvable it’s hardly worth bringing up.

~ ~ ~

Considering what message or form you want to focus on will give you clues as to what sort of supporting characters you should create. So if you’re following the Hero’s Journey you need to consider the roles of mentor, threshold guardian(s), allies and enemies leading up to the big grab; the extras your hero will have to choose whether to listen to, rescue and/or ignore.

Depending on the shape of your novel, you may benefit tremendously from combining roles into a single character.

~ ~ ~

Image courtesy of Steffen Roch via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Steffen Roch via stock.xchng

Another thing to consider as you build your cast is how to keep individuals distinct from one another. This can be done with a visual or verbal tic, but to keep that from getting used up (very) quickly it helps to have the supporting characters different in your own mind. Fundamentally different.

You can do this through checking their preferences and quick-developing a specific “type” each character is working from (I keep track of this in a spreadsheet, double-checking personality types as I start each scene).

Once you have a sense of the individual character, their uniqueness begins to shine through on its own.

If you have an ensemble cast, it may be useful to consider group dynamics.

One of my early techniques was to make sure I had at least one representative from each of the 16 personality types. This was a fine start in making my characters distinct from one another, but to my frustration didn’t do enough to advance the story.

Perhaps as an introvert I don’t understand group dynamics enough through experience. Fortunately, I have discovered a couple models that I am happy to share 🙂

The five-man-band  Examples from original Star Wars The Adventurers Examples from Leverage
Leader  Luke Skywalker Paladin Nathan Ford
Lancer Han Solo The Rogue Parker
The Chick  Princess Leia The Bard Sophie
The Brain  R2-D2 The Wizard Hardison
The Big Guy  Chewbacca The Fighter Eliot

The idea with these categories is not to say that anyone is locked into a narrow role but rather to illustrate how there are multiple roles in a story to fill, and by assigning those roles on-purpose, more of the work gets done automatically.

These are perfectly useable categories, and they can also be simple starting places for you to build from as you create the relationships that will influence your story.

Stakes! (NaNo Prep 21)

“Never try to do anything that is outside of who you are. A forced smile is a sign of what feels wrong in your heart, so recognize it when it happens. Living a lie will reduce you to one.” ― Ashly Lorenzana

“You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.”
― Philip K. Dick

Image courtesy of jason Conlon via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of jason Conlon via stock.xchng

According to the chapter on stakes in Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, the truly best way to effectively enhance stakes is by creating a deeper connection with your characters.

Readers read to get lost a while in someone else’s world, someone else’s problems, and they are leaning in, waiting for you to give them a reason to care.

  • Give them a decency (or in the case of an anti-hero a consistency that makes them at least more decent than their rivals).
  • Show what matters to your MCs, and why
  • Make them the everyman (or everywoman): holding common fears or problems, and giving us a chance to watch a “beta test” at solving that problem
  • Put who they (and we) are in conflict with who they (and all of us) want to be.

These are all means of connecting us to the character. That’s step-1.

Image courtesy of Angelos Fasoulis via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Angelos Fasoulis via stock.xchng

The next stage is to make it look like s/he is going to lose it all, unless. Ask (and answer), What’s the worst that could happen? What if s/he doesn’t reach his/her goal?

Many stories, once they begin in earnest, don’t have an escape route or a back-out button, and that could be good or bad for your stakes. On the good side, knowing there’s no U-turns keeps the momentum up, since there’s no looking back. On the negative side, this could create questions of commitment: would this choice still be made (would you still choose the path of light) if the dark side weren’t waiting to cut you apart as soon as you slowed down.

I often felt this way about most fairy tale settings.

So much is made of Beauty’s honor and bravery when she saves her father’s life by choosing to return with him to the Beast. Some people will get sarky and call the B&B relationship Stockholm syndrome, but I have yet to see anyone discuss Beauty’s choice as an attempt at honorable suicide.

She was abused and without defense in her own household. Leaving must have felt like a relief– especially if she knew it would save her father’s life.

Contrast that scenario with Robin McKinley’s re-imagining in her novel, Beauty. In this novelization, Beauty comes from a loving home, with sisters who nurture and support one another.  This female alliance is unique in any fictional environment, but especially noteworthy in the fairytale atmosphere as they are all marriageable age and enduring character-testing trials.

Because of the strong bonds that already exist, Beauty’s decision to leave for the next stage of the story takes on greater significance, and gets to truly be about her and her (hard) choices rather than her response to her environment.

This Beauty’s stakes are higher because of the good she has chosen to walk away from.

~ ~ ~

As I said yesterday, Stakes are why your MC accepts the dragging through the mud and slime of Conflict.

Image courtesy of pamstock via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of pamstock via stock.xchng

Most often it is a life at stake.

When a life is not at stake, but most of the characters are still responding with that level of intensity, you are usually looking at a comedy. After all comedy, much of the time, is a study in proportion.

This could be a literal life, such as in a hostage situation, or a medical drama. It could also be a life-as-we-know-it, or the life of a relationship (which might have enough affect on our perception of happiness it can feel like like a life-or-death situation).

The thing to remember is that in our modern world, fictional lives are always at stake. There’s a whole category of entertainment I call body-a-week shows. The action can’t even begin (usually) until a body drops.

You want your Life to mean more than that. So does every one of your readers. Make your protagonist’s success or failure about more than another body dropping.

Image courtesy of Jayson Kingsbeer via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Jayson Kingsbeer via stock.xchng

In an essay about feminism and activism (two of the most risky things the average, modern woman may experience) Kathleen Trigiani writes, “Still, the appeal of activism seems to rest in three things: ethics, community, and adventure.”

I believe this is a fabulous summary of what drives meaningful stakes: Deep abiding truth, one’s connection to others, and the niggling (big or small, actively chosen or just accepting) of internal drive to action.

What is the ethical, community, or adventurous core of your novel’s stakes?


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