New Year and New Goals

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We are already two weeks into 2017. Every January, when the year is brimming with potential, I like to set concrete goals for myself. It’s a helpful tool for pushing me to take steps toward my larger dreams, especially with my writing.

In 2016 I set sixteen goals for myself, but I later abandoned three and completed eight of the remaining thirteen. My biggest accomplishment as a writer was having my first novel professionally edited. It was a wonderful and challenging experience, and I learned so much about writing and areas I need to grow in as a writer. As the year progressed, I realized that I had chosen too many goals for the year. Sixteen objectives spread my attention too thin rather than enabling me to focus on a few important ones. Learning from this, I have decided upon only eight for 2017:

  1. Read 12+ books
  2. Read 1+ book in French
  3. Write 3+ short stories
  4. Write monthly blog posts
  5. Self-publish something
  6. Compose a piece of music
  7. Learn a new skill
  8. Practice ukulele

I don’t know what this year will hold, but I hope to continue learning, growing, and challenging myself. I hope you will too. What goals have you set for 2017?

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A Writer’s Side Project

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Today’s post departs from the normal topics of story, genre, or language to share another fun writing related project of mine.

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Our neighbors have a pecan tree which overhangs our yard. This time of year it drops pecans, which are not really worth eating, into the yard. This abundance of nuts inspired me to find a good use for them. I knew walnuts can be used to make ink, but what about pecans? Turns out they can.

To make pecan ink, all you need is:

  • 1 non-food grade pot you don’t mind staining ugly black. I bought mine at a thrift store for a couple bucks
  • 2-3 handfuls of pecans with the fleshy husks on
  • Water
  • Fire source (preferably outside in case it overflows or sputters)
  • Old sock or other cheap strainer
  • Storage jar
  • 1 tsp salt

Every website and blog I consulted made sure to warn THIS WILL STAIN, THIS WILL STAIN, CREATE AT YOUR OWN RISK, so I feel compelled to pass the warning on. I made my ink on the gas burner of our barbecue and had no problems.

Directions:

Pound pecans until broken up. Add to pot. Add water to pot until half full-ish. Put on heat and bring to a boil. Let simmer for an hour. Remove from heat and allow to soak overnight.

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Remove pecan debris, return to boil, and simmer. The more you let this reduce, the darker the ink. When reduced, pour through old sock into storage jar and add salt (to prevent molding)

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Now, dip a quill in your homemade pecan ink, and start writing!

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Verbs for Time

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We all know the power of words; they affect us every day. Our words influence others and ourselves. This is the inspiration for those of us who want to become writers; we want to use the tool of our words to tell good stories. As a writer, I am aware of the effect word choice has on the mood, character, and framework of a text. The words I use, and their connotations, create the imagery and the tone of my writing.

Three years ago, my wife and I moved to Grenoble France to work with a student association. We taught an English course while we were learning French. It was fascinating to examine these two interconnected languages side-by-side. Something I noticed between them was the difference in the verbs for the usage of time. In English, we use economic verbs: spend, waste, or invest time. In French, the dominant verb is to pass (passer). Anglophones spend time together while Francophones pass time together.

This observation, in conjunction with Keith Chen’s TedTalk (view here) in 2012 about the effect our native language’s word choice has on our thoughts and behaviors, made me think about how our language and our verb choices for describing time affect our perception of life.

To spend time with someone or devoted to a task has a connotation of finality. When we spend money, it’s gone. This can imply that time is spent and then over. While the linear progression of time is true, I cannot help but wonder if a different verb would be beneficial.

I have decided to modulate my verb choice for time from “spending” to “investing.” I believe the concept of investing better articulates my views of time usage. When I invest time in having coffee with a friend, I retain the reward of deeper friendship. My investment is not gone; in fact, I am richer from that usage of time than I was before. Similarly, when I employ time to the development of a skill or a leisure activity, I am enriched by of these choices. I have long believed that time is a terrible thing to waste. I try to invest my time well, and I see the fruit of my labors as the return on my investment.

The idea of word choice affecting our perception is not limited to the subject of time, but I want to start with this significant topic before exploring the effects on other matters. What other words that we commonly use influence us? Can you think of alternate words to choose? If so, please leave a comment. I would love to see what you all think of.

Thank you for your investment in reading this post, I hope you feel encouraged. Now go invest time in something.

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A Writer’s Bestfriend

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When we got our dog, Hobbit, a year ago, I was worried having a puppy would be a huge distraction from work and writing. Puppies take a lot of time: playing, walking, feeding, taking out to use the bathroom, cleaning up after accidents, and more. As it turned out, Hobbit demanded more time than I imagined.

But even though Hobbit took so much of my time, what she gave me in return was far more valuable. As I discovered, when Hobbit would interrupt my work (I often work from home) or my writing time, it provided me with free time to think. My schedule is dominated with mental activities: writing, emailing, reading, teaching, organizing events. Having to regularly step away from my work and engage in a short physical activity: walking, cleaning, standing around waiting for the dog to pee presented my mind with opportunity to disengage from whatever mental task I had been preoccupied with.

These mental breaks give my mind the rest it needs to maintain productivity. It is amazing, I am able to focus more and get more done when I take time to walk Hobbit. Longer walks also provided me with the opportunity for ideas to rattle around my head and percolate without my active effort. It is amazing the clarity, creativity, and productivity that comes during these times away from whatever I am working on; so much so I have learned to always have a note-taking device with me when I step away from my computer.

While puppies are a cute option for a distraction/time-sink, any rhythmic disruption will suffice. Perhaps you can set alarms to remind yourself to stop working and relax. I need someone else to prompt me. Now if you’ll excuse me, Hobbit wants to play fetch.

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Getting Back into Writing

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We’ve all been there; life gets crazy and an embarrassing amount of time passes between our present moment and when last we were crafting our “current” work in progress. A week, a month, a year: all of it can feel like it’s an eternity since we last sat down to write our story.

This summer my wife and I had an intercontinental move and now, as the dust is settling, it has been over eight weeks since the last time I wrote/edited/hung out with my characters. I have been here before. Many people say that if you cannot write each day, to at least read over what you have written to keep it fresh in your mind. By now, I am way past that. So what do I do? How do I get back into writing and getting reacquainted with my characters and where the story was when I disappeared?

Perhaps you can dive right back into the midst of everything. Personally, I cannot jump straight into my story. I have to get my feet wet and wade in one step at a time. But this time does not need to be wasted.

I have found these times of warming back up to writing are great opportunities for writing short stories, flash fiction, blog posts (like this one) or general world building.

Maybe my main character is a bit shy or feels abandoned since I left. Another idea is to “have coffee” with my main characters. I open a word doc, imagine I am at my favorite cafe with my character, and write out a dialogue between us. I try and shoot the breeze with my characters to help them feel comfortable and bring them back to my mind. This conversation is private; I won’t post it (but I would perhaps recycle bits). The purpose is not to write story material but to pick up where I left off.

Here is the list of questions I ask my character while we grab coffee:

 

Describe the café: what is the décor (colors, style, furniture)? How loud is the room?  What are the aromas? Who are the people around us (age, profession) and what are they doing (talking, writing, studying for the MCAT)?

Where do we sit?

What is the character doing? Fidgeting? What are his/her mannerisms?

  • What drink does he/she order? What do I order? Does he/she order a pastry?
  • Is he/she happy to see me?
  • Is he/she mad at me?
  • Does he/she feel abandoned?
  • How do I explain why I have been gone?
  • Is he/she understanding of why I have been busy?
  • Did this time away stir up any fears or insecurities in him/her?
  • How is he/she feeling now?
  • What do we talk about?
  • Is he/she talkative, guarded, subdued, snarky, bored, tired, etc?
  • How does he/she feel about the story/where we left off?
  • Is he/she ready to jump back in, or does he/she need more time (side quest or backstory)?

 

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Ten Characters I Want to Write

PeopleCharacters are a critical part of a story for me. We have all seen or read plot-driven stories where tensions are high and character development is nonexistent. While these tales may be fun, my aim is to create stories with engaging and relatable characters. 

We want characters who are new and unique, but we have to balance this desire with the knowledge that “there is nothing new under the sun.” It is interesting to see what stock characters and archetypes are used, recycled, and favored by society at different points in time. A certain character type may be reused because it is easy to write or because something about this character rings true for the audience.

Below is my current list of ten stock characters and archetypes that I want to write. None of these characters have names or stories yet, none of them have been crafted beyond basic character design, but I hope to soon flesh each of them out and find stories to make their homes in.

  1. The weary wanderer
  2. Femme fatale with depth of character
  3. The trickster
  4. The pirate
  5. The hero who fails
  6. The humble leader
  7. The anti-hero
  8. Loyal sidekick
  9. The happy old couple
  10. The lone wolf
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Why I Write Fantasy More Than I Write Sci-fi (Part 2)

IMG_8902In my first post (here), I describe one of the key attributes, for me, about fantasy fiction is the emphasis on wonder and amazement. I want to further explore the nature of fantasy fiction by comparison with the genre’s sister, science fiction. Of course, everything I am describing is generalization and there are plenty of exceptions to the “rules”.

Fantasy stories often depict either a lost history or a secret world around us. A fantasy setting can conjure a sense of a mythic past golden eras or instill mystery about the reality of our world. Either way, we feel connected to the fantastical setting as though it is part of our world, our past, us. Science fiction on the other hand, describes alien worlds or a future to come. We may marvel at the oddity of another planet, but we do not relate to it the same way we may feel toward a fantasy setting.

Both fantasy and science fiction can sidestep modern scientific principles with magic or advanced technology, but these two solutions around our understanding of the universe affect the characters differently. Technology is a tool; it is impersonal and communicable. I can hand you my phone or someone can steal my spaceship. Magic is often depicted as an innate ability like perfect pitch or a photographic memory. Even when technology is user specific, perhaps with biometrics, it still is external to the individual when magic is internal.

Within a fantasy setting, strange and wonderful things can exist without needing a technological or monetary reason. In a science fiction setting, most technology will require some justification for its existence. While the economics of technology in science fiction makes sense and serves the context, it often speaks to human ingenuity rather than wonderment of life and our world.

Again, these are just a few thoughts on the differences between fantasy and science fiction. What do you see as differences between the genres? What are the strengths and weaknesses to either?

 

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