Supporting Artists

Imagine: you’re at home, you’ve finished the laundry teetering in the baskets, swept the floor, and your children (if you have them) are playing, happy, and quiet. (If they’re quiet, go check them. Now. You’ll thank me later.)

Congratulations! You’ve found a chunk of time to write. You sit down, power up your laptop, and… nothing. The house is too quiet, or too loud, or the incessant dripping from the kitchen faucet makes it difficult to think. You need music. Through a non-scientific experiment of my own, I’ve built a list of composers and artists that keep me writing.

I have a few requirements for music to make my list. First of all, it can’t have words. If it does, I’ll end up humming it all day and my writing will suck. (Or suck more than it already does.) Even if it’s an instrumental version of Adele’s Hello, it’ll distract me. Secondly, it has to fit the genre or scene. If I’m writing a love scene, I don’t want to listen to The Imperial March.

Pull up some of these on Pandora and see if they work for you on your next WIP.

  1. Anything by John Williams (Indiana Jones series, Jurassic Park, Star Wars series, and many others) Something about this man’s music makes me type faster, and the scenes unspool in my head in an epic rush. I’ll admit, though, I haven’t tried writing to Jaws. Just sayin’.
  2. Some of Hans Zimmer’s scores. I like all of the Pirates of the Carribean series and a few tracks on the Inception soundtrack are good. (I’m planning on using Dream is Collapsing for my future WIP’s dark moment.)
  3. Anything instrumental by Lindsey Stirling. The girl with her violin is gold.
  4. Vivaldi is good for just about any genre. His concertos known as The Four Seasons are my favorite.
  5. Warcraft II (the video game) I wrote the battle scene for Spark while listening to it. Again, something about those selections had me writing faster. Some writers claim any video game music will work because it’s designed to allow the gamer to focus on another task other than the music itself.
  6. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves I found this on Pandora one day, and I’m now convinced my current WIP would be an awesome movie. The tracks will give you “delusions of grandeur,” I promise, which is not a bad thing. You have characters who are doing their own thing, a sagging story arc, fantastic plot points that now seem stupid… Any bolstering, real or otherwise, is sometimes needed.

We’re an eclectic household. My two daughters listen to pop music when they write and do homework—I don’t know how they do it. My husband listens to electronica while working. I listen to primarily instrumental music on Pandora. This article http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/24/music-creative_n_5511501.html from Huffington Post also has some interesting facts about music and creativity. Do you have favorites that inspire you? Comment below and share what music you’ve been listening to.

 

Three Firsts at Realm Makers

Over a month ago, I traveled to Villanova, Pennsylvania, to attend the Realm Makers Conference, a writing conference for Christian speculative fiction writers. It’s the place rm-signsto be if you’re writing Christian fantasy, science-fiction, supernatural, steam punk or any other “weird” genre fiction that doesn’t fit nicely into other categories. To say it was a weekend of firsts for me is an understatement of epic proportions.

But first a little background story: many moons ago in a galaxy far, far away (AKA before I had children), I attended a Christian writers conference. I wrote romance at the time and had a manuscript to pitch to a publisher. (For my non-writing friends, a pitch is a chance to tell an editor, publisher, agent, or person of influence, about your story in the hopes that it catches their interest and doesn’t sit moldering in your filing cabinet). As my first manuscript, it wasn’t ready for publication (and never will be, although I learned a lot while writing it). During my appointment, the publisher was snide, condescending, and less than kind. I came home ready to hang my word processor up for good. Fast forward twenty years later, that incident still sticks with me, like bad Chinese take-out. So much so, that the thought of pitching anything more than laundry in a basket filled me with dread. Still, I had the opportunity at Villanova, and I hoped things had changed in the years while I was off building a family.

My first “first” was the chance to attempt a pitch and leave with a positive experience. Did I want a publishing contract? Yes. But my most pressing need was to leave with the knowledge that I should keep pursuing my dream, I wasn’t a hack, and editors/agents/publishers were nice people who wanted to help writers who were serious about their craft. Mission accomplished. At the end of the weekend, I completed two successful pitches, and all the publishers I talked with were genuinely nice people.

rm-roomies

My second “first” was the opportunity to participate in a cosplay event. For the awards banquet the second night, we were instructed to dress up in our favorite fandom. Being the fantasy writer that I am, I pulled out my trusty sewing machine. After watching waaaaay too many You tube videos, I pulled together a medieval mercenary outfit (or at least my interpretation of one), complete with a sword and sheath, and a matching corset and bracers set. It was loads of fun, and I came away impressed with everyone else’s costumes. Doctor Who? He was there. Rapunzel with her frying pan? Also there. At our table, a Vulcan sat next to an elegant vampire (who did NOT sparkle. I’m thinking Stephanie Meyer might have made that up). A couple Reys’ from The Force Awakens, as well as elves, fairies, ladies-in-waiting, and superheroes were scattered throughout the room.

My third “first” was the chance to be in a Nerf war. People, unless you’ve done this before, you’ve no idea how much fun you’re missing! I picked up an inexpensive Nerf gun with LOTS of ammunition before the conference, and came away with the desire to do this a lot more (so much so, that I bought three extra Nerf guns—one for each member of my family!) The conferees split into two teams, named Fury and Doom, and took over two floors of the one dorm. I had so much fun shooting foam bullets at the dude hanging out in the stairwell.

At the conference, I made friends and met face-to-face virtual friends I knew only from the internet. Despite my social anxiety and awkwardness, I came home with a new “tribe,” a group of people who understood what I wrote, and why I wrote it. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt comfortable with strangers that quickly. There were no awkward conversations that went like this:
Friendly Individual turns to me with a smile. “What do you write?”
“Speculative fiction. It’s a portal fantasy, you know, like Narnia.”
“Oh.” The individual’s smile freezes as they nod uncertainly.
Conversation over.

The keynote speaker was Thom Locke (pen name for T. Davis Bunn). An eloquent speaker, he shared encouraging tips to get our butts in the chair and write. Despite authors’ love for writing, it can sometimes be intimidating and very difficult to carve out time to do this. I also attended classes on writing led by Kathy Tyers (Firebird Trilogy, and several Star Wars books) and bestselling author Tosca Lee (Iscariot, The Progeny, and others).

It’s over for this year. You missed it, your bad. But don’t despair because it’s an annual thing. Next year is the fifth anniversary, and it’ll be held in Reno. Bestselling author Ted Dekker will be the keynote speaker. Make the effort to attend this conference and come prepared for learning and fun. You won’t be disappointed.

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman: Review

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I don’t often do book reviews, usually because I’m so far behind the trends. By the time I post a review, I’m guessing everyone else is thinking, “Yeah, read that one three years ago. What’s she been doing, living under a rock?” I leave the book reviews for the quicker readers. But this is an exception. Nightbird, by Alice Hoffman (author of Practical Magic, among many others) was released last year.

Nightbird is juvenile fiction, appropriate for ages 10 and up. It covers the story of the Fowler family, in particular Teresa Fowler (aka Twig) who attends sixth grade in Sidwell, Massachusetts. Twig loves living in Sidwell, next to the apple orchards her family has owned for forever. But dark secrets plague Twig and Sidwell, too. The witch that used to live in Sidwell many years ago cursed Twig’s family. And the descendants of that witch just moved in next door. Her mother forbids her to spend any time with them, but Twig is intrigued by this friendly family. Before she knows it, their daughter Julia becomes her first best friend.

The townspeople have always believed a monster haunts the town, but when things start to go missing, people become concerned. The mutterings about hunting and killing the monster develop into concrete plans. Twig’s terrified when she hears of the plans, because she knows something the townspeople don’t. The monster may be closer than they think.

As Twig, and her new best friend Julia, attempt to understand and fix the curse, they get some help from friendly townspeople and long lost papers. As usual in a Hoffman novel, magic is found everywhere, from the special Pink apples grown in the Fowler’s orchard to the exotic fragrant teas offered by the town librarian.

Although there was an opportunity for the author to explore the topic of bullying, she instead focused on how the unveiling of this secret changed Twig and her family. (Best of all, nobody died. That’s important to me. If a character dies, there better be a darn good reason for it.)

So if we’re giving stars, I’d give Nightbird 4.5 out of 5. If you love clean speculative fiction with family secrets and magic, I’d encourage you to pick it up.

Bowling A Strike

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Last weekend, our family of four went bowling. Our kids had never been (yes, they’re sheltered). It had been a long time since I had gone, too, like twenty years long. Although I expected to be rusty, I’d only need a few warm-up throws.

Things didn’t start out well. I couldn’t find the right ball. My two kids and my hubby had each picked a ball and were waiting for me, but I was still in the back . . . looking. This wasn’t a color problem. This was a no-upper-body-strength problem. Many of the balls were too heavy for this weakling. All of the light balls had very tiny finger holes, as if they expected a house-elf to drop by to bowl a few games. My first frame was played with an eleven pounder—gutter balls galore. After searching some more, I found an eight pound ball. That seemed better, better as in my–arm-can-support-this-ball-without-it-killing-me-tomorrow.

After a second scoreless frame, I was worried, but tried desperately to hide it. I’m a very competitive person. If I’m not doing well when we’re playing (during any activity, board game, sporting event, Wii game), then I’m not having fun. This sets a lousy example for my kids. This time, I was determined to have fun even if I lost, darn it. I was being a Good Example and building character. (Nobody told me I’d still be building character as an adult; I don’t like it any better now than I did when I was young.)

By the fourth frame, everyone had scored except me. I kept a smile firmly planted on my face, even while throwing gutter ball after gutter ball. The kids offered hugs. My husband offered advice. His tips worked in the second throw of the fourth frame. I finally scored, by knocking over one pin. Everyone cheered, like I had bowled a strike.
So, I had all the kinks worked out, right? Um, no, not even a little. I didn’t score again until the eighth frame and finished the game with a stellar score of 53. (And in case you were wondering, both my ten-year-old and sixteen-year-old newbie kids beat me).

While we were playing, I mentally reviewed what I needed to do and what a good approach looked like, but I couldn’t make my body do it. The hand-eye coordination was missing (as were many other things). So, I simplified. I gave up on an approach and concentrated on throwing the ball in a straight line. My kids were having fun, so I tried not to let losing bother me. It wasn’t too hard to do. Both of them picked up the technique pretty well. And by the time the game was halfway through, I settled into a lovely little bubble of defeated helplessness.

While reflecting on the experience, I realized this was a lot like Life. We know what we want it to look like. Most of us make grand plans for it, especially when we’re young and starting out. Some of us even plan for contingencies with a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C . . . But then things go wrong. Whether we planned well or not, we’re left with unexpected difficulties. Sickness, divorce, debt, and other troubles—gutter balls, if you will. We scramble to make the outside look good. We smile and say we’re fine while things fall apart. Defeated helplessness and worry sets in. Maybe we should simplify. Start praying. Enjoy the things that are going well. Admit the troubles, rather than hide them. Listen to the advice from the people who love you. Take the offered hugs. Pray some more. Then pray with others. It’s surprising the number of people willing to help, if we only become transparent.

This transparency is hard. It makes you feel vulnerable, especially if you’ve spent a long time trying to make things look good. But do you really want to spend your energy trying to hide the gutter balls? Or do you want to work with others and let others love you, so you can finally bowl a strike?

No Easy Answers

questions
Some people are never satisfied with the status quo—especially when it comes to someone else’s life. They’re quite content where they are, thank-you-very-much. But you, you should be out there changing the world! Or at least your own corner of it.

I’d been dating the same man for two years (my husband now), when the difficult questions began. People would discover we’d been dating a while, would nod and smile, and then ask, “So, when are ya gonna get engaged?” The first time this happened, I blushed furiously, laughed, and hoped my boyfriend hadn’t heard. My choices of retaliation were limited. I couldn’t publicly strangle this person and claim insanity later. There was an expiration date on dating? Nobody had shared this privileged information with me. I hadn’t read the manual.

After hearing that question for four years, my boyfriend buckled under the pressure. We got engaged. When “they” heard of this new development, the question became, “So, when are ya gonna get married?” For the next ten months, I heard this question over and over while I ate, breathed, slept, and dreamed the planning of my wedding. I thought “they” would be happy when the magical day arrived.

I was wrong. Before long a new question started: “So, when are ya gonna have a baby?” When I expressed no interest in having children, it was as though I’d claimed to be Elvis reincarnated— raised eyebrows, overly bright smiles, and quiet whispers reserved for the mentally unbalanced. “They” had never heard such a thing. Had I buried my maternal instincts under a rock? Maybe I was deficient and didn’t have any.

That was only the beginning. “They” devised tests (aka suggestions) for me, hoping I’d declare my mission in life was to bear dozens of children. I was told, “You should see Jane’s new baby,” or “Why don’t you hold Cheryl’s new baby so you can practice?” or “Go stand next to Tammy and Jennifer—they’re both pregnant.” As if something like that was contagious. (Names have been changed to protect the pregnant.)

It was five years before a maternal instinct hit me. They were necessary years, because now I was ready to have children, rather than feeling like I had to. In five and a half years, I gave birth to two beautiful and gifted girls (no bias here), and closed up shop. Still, I wondered how many other questions “they” had up their sleeve. Would “they” ever be content, or would it be a constant stream of questions? I could only imagine it: “When are your kids gonna get married?” “When are you gonna have grandchildren?” “When are you gonna retire?” What could be the last question? How about “When are you gonna die?”

To my relief, I haven’t heard any of the former imagined questions. Because God’s calling the shots, I don’t have any answers for these kinds of life-changing questions. After forty-five years, I’ve learned I’m not in control and I’m okay with that. His plans are bigger, better, and more phenomenal than anything I’d dream up. So when we talk, I don’t tell Him how to fix my problems. He’s got me covered.

The Naked Truth About Naked Selfies

empowerment
Last week, Kim Kardashian took naked selfies and posted them on Twitter. I don’t follow the Kardashians, but some of the talk shows picked up the news. I saw the edited version of the selfie and heard there was backlash from it, some of it from celebrities, like Bette Midler and Chloe Moretz. But there was also some defending her choice, mentioning “empowerment” and “using her body the way she wants,” which I’ll get to in a minute.

After some of the celebrities’ comments, Kim responded by mentioning her $40 million dollar paycheck and her popularity, as if that excused her behavior. I was trying to wrap my mind around the idea of a naked selfie tweeted to millions of followers. The idea of empowerment stuck with me long after I turned off the talk show.

Kim’s audience is made up of 18-24 year-olds, young men who find her attractive and women interested in fashion and the Kardashian brand. She has over 41,000,000 followers on Twitter. This is her life. This is what she does. (If looking good was my job, I might spend time checking myself out in my bathroom mirror, too. I just wouldn’t put it out there for everyone to see.)

These selfies are porn. Really. I’m surprised no one’s calling it what it is. Aside from the porn issue, millions of female followers who received an eyeful of Kim’s assets are self-comparing in their bathrooms. They’re learning, “This is what I have to look like. This is how I get attention. It’s okay.” And we wonder why teens are sexting. Dosomething.org says “24% of high-school age teens (ages 14 to 17) and 33% of college-age students (ages 18 to 24) have been involved in a form of nude sexting.” While boys are more likely to send sexually explicit messages, girls are more likely to send nude or semi-nude images.

These pictures aren’t about empowerment. Empowerment means to give power or authority. There’s nothing authoritative about standing in front of your bathroom mirror and showing everyone what God gave you. Anyone with a camera can do it. Instead use empowerment to share the memo “I’m more than just my sexuality. I’m a person of value and it doesn’t matter what I look like.” It’s hard to get the message across when you’re naked.

A talk show host praised Kim for “using her body the way she wants.” Good for her. But just because you want to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should do it. Kim claimed she wanted to be known as someone other than a person famous for her sex tape. She should start acting like it.

I don’t have a problem with Kim Kardashian. I have a problem with any person, celebrity or not, who uses pornographic nudity to “share,” empower, or otherwise seek attention. Girls are being sexualized at younger and younger ages. Kim could do girls a great service by using her platform differently: show girls how to be powerful with their clothes on.

And They Lived Happily Ever After: A Manifesto

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Romeo and Juliet. Allegiant. Marley & Me. The Fault in Our Stars. Quick, what do they all have in common? Yep, you guessed it. A main character dies. (For those of you who haven’t yet read these books, but planned to, my apologies.)

The works listed above aren’t recent releases, but I can recall several recent books and movies with the same problem. I’ve become leery of paying good money to read about someone’s death. In love stories, this dying trend seems ironic to me. Forgive my romantic leanings, but a love story should have one vital requirement: a happy ending. Remember the familiar ending to many romantic tales, “…and they lived happily ever after?” I’d like to know who replaced it with, “…and he died, leaving her alone and heart-broken.”

Even if the story doesn’t “require” a happy ending, many time it’s what the reader wants. I don’t understand why someone would choose a book with a depressing ending. With a drama or a thriller, grittier elements like poverty, drugs, terrorism and death can be expected. But with a love story? Where’s the joy in watching a couple fall in love, only to realize the two people so suited for each other will never be together? And I’m not so sure the adage about it being better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all really works. Ask someone who has lost.

My reason for reading a book is simple—escape. I want to laugh, to smile, and to walk away uplifted. Give me a good ending, one where justice is served, someone’s perspective is altered for the better, and the characters find their soulmate. There’s plenty of sadness and bad news infiltrating reality without creating more of it on the page.

I’ve had this aversion to sad endings for as long as I can remember. After hearing someone raving about Casablanca, I chose to see the old classic on television. Afterwards, I couldn’t believe I had spent valuable time just to hear Humphrey Bogart mutter, “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and disappear into the fog. And against my better judgment, I watched Titanic, only to cry for a good thirty minutes afterward. Even now, I refuse to watch movies or read books with sad endings. Friends and family members shake their heads when they discover I read the last paragraph in a novel just to make sure I know what I’m getting. I knew my habit was incurable when I found myself checking the ending of my daughter’s board books. In my defense, when those ten ladybugs started to disappear one by one, I wanted to make sure they weren’t being eaten. Who knows how my daughter might have been traumatized?

But I refuse to be disenchanted by Bogie, Hollywood, or any NY Times bestseller. If I want sad endings, I’ll just watch the news.

ADHD: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

adhd
I have a daughter with Attention Deficit Disorder (also known as ADHD). But she’s not a high-energy kid. She’s shy, quiet, content in her own space, and has difficulty making friends. Many people think ADHD looks like someone without an off switch. Sometimes it does, but not always.

I knew there was something different about my child early on. At different times depending on her behavior, I thought she had a hearing problem, or a vision problem, or autism, then just decided she was different. So what? We were okay with different. When her grades started slipping, we started to investigate. A’s one minute, F’s the next. There was no middle ground with her. It was frustrating because she was smart, but struggling.

Even her primary physician, who I like and respect, took one look at her and said, “ADHD? Really?” My daughter wasn’t climbing the walls, or doing giant leaps off the exam table. I ended up getting a second opinion, with a doctor who specialized in ADHD.

As we gathered information about this disability, we discovered there’s more than just one kind. There’s the typical high-energy, loud, always moving ADHD with hyperactivity (which is what the “H” stands for). There’s also ADHD inattentive, which gives you kids that are dreamy, unfocused, unorganized, and content in their own heads and spaces. This second type is less familiar, and it affects girls more often than boys. There is also a less common third type, which is combination ADHD. It includes symptoms of both ADHD hyperactive and ADHD inattentive.

If you have child who seems unfocused, lazy, or distracted, they could have ADHD. Every year, I took my daughter to the pediatrician and asked, “Do you think she has ADHD?” Finally, when her grades started to slide, we made an appointment with a specialist. The sooner your child is diagnosed, the better the outcome.

Trust your gut. If something seems off, schedule an appointment with your pediatrician. As of my daughter’s last progress report, she’s getting straight A’s. Although it isn’t easy parenting an ADHD child, when was parenting any child easy?

How Contests Changed My Writing

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Do you participate in contests? I never did. I’d receive the Publishers Clearinghouse packet in the mail, and I would do a free throw right into File 13. After all, why bother? Thousands of entries, but hardly thousands of chances. You’d have a better chance of being struck by lightning.

Until I started writing. That was a contest based on skill. Sure, it’s a subjective thing. What one person hates, another loves. But work at the craft, polish the writing, and it becomes great. I entered a few writing contests many moons ago when I was working on my inspirational romances. I never won, but the feedback I received helped me improve.

Fast forward to over a decade later: at a conference by author Hope Clark, she said, “If you don’t enter, you won’t win. So enter as many contests as you can.” It was good advice. I began entering more of my projects—poetry, short stories, the first five pages of novels. Some of the contests were free (yay!), while others had a small fee. After a couple years of losses, I received an honorable mention for a novel in 2012. Then in 2015, I won an Editor’s Choice Award for a short story. But even when I lost, I won. The unparalleled feedback I received was invaluable, especially with ACFW’s First Impressions contest.

Now the ACFW Keystone Chapter is holding the Great Beginnings Contest. They’re not looking for much, just the first five pages of a novel and the synopsis. And the cherry on top of this sundae is the nominal entry fee ($10-15). So polish those pages and send them an entry (or two!) After all, if you don’t enter, you won’t win.

Three Tips to Writing Good Bad Guys

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The author, Bethany Jennings (@simmeringmind.com), recently sent out a list of thirty-one WIP Joy Themes. It got me thinking. I had to add my own joy theme: why I love writing about villains.

Writing about villains gives us a chance to be bad. The author gets carte blanche to say bad things, do bad things, think bad things on the page. And each and every choice is legitimate and can be excused because he’s bad, right?

Um, no.

Here are a few tips to writing good bad guys.
1. He or she won’t be bad all the time. If they are, they come across as two-dimensional, cardboard cutout bad guys. Make them interesting by making their choices interesting. For example, he’s a serial killer, but has a penchant for rescuing stray dogs. This leads to my second point.

2. Give him a chance for redemption. To make your bad guy more thought provoking, give him the chance to make a good choice. Think Darth Vader’s saving of Luke in The Return of the Jedi or Severus Snape’s deathbed tears given to Harry in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (I apologize to those of you who haven’t seen either of these movies. If you haven’t, go watch them. Now.) Both Darth Vader and Severus Snape became infinitely more fascinating when they made choices that seemed out of character.

3. Make sure there’s motivation for his behavior, either good or bad. To follow up my theme in #1, he’s a serial killer because his mother beat him all through his childhood. When he kills, he releases the anger and powerlessness he carried all through his teens. In addition, every person he kills resembles his mother. Nothing is worse than excusing his choices by claiming, “He’s a bad guy!” Yes, he is, but there should be a reason for his bad actions.

So check your work in progress. Give your baddie a goal, a story arc, and an excellent backstory. Flesh him out; make him three-dimensional. Don’t allow your villain to be fade-into-the-page boring. After all, there’s no excuse for bad writing.