Monday, June 29, 2015

Monday Rerun: Lighting the Fuse

Post by Jenny

Last year, I spent the Fourth of July at a family reunion in Topeka, Kansas. Say what you will about eastern Kansas in July, but it’s a firework lover’s paradise. As far as I can tell, everything is legal. My sons went to the firework stands with their (much older) cousins and came back with enormous smiles and pyrotechnics the size of car batteries. Like shoes and cars, fireworks have names, and these ranged from the regionally appropriate (“Topeka Twister”) to the unimaginative (“Wow!”) to the inexplicable (“Who’s Yo Daddy?”).

A steady rain fell all day on the Fourth, but at sunset, the firework gods smiled on us, and the clouds parted. My family and I walked to the neighborhood park, where two of the more responsible adults among us set about burning up the equivalent of a month’s worth of grocery money.

There’s something special about the moment a fuse ignites. I love not knowing exactly what will happen. Will it bring a sparkling shower of multicolored light or a series of banshee shrieks? Will it be a bright, intense burn or a softer, more gradual glow? And what might a “Who’s Yo Daddy?” look like?

The phrase “light a fuse” means to get something started, to awaken, to excite. I realized as I watched the fireworks that I have not felt that crackling-fuse energy in my writing for a while now. I’ve been in turtle mode—working at a slow, steady pace, doing what needs to be done…and not having much fun in the process. It’s been a long time since I had a day when I was either sitting at my computer writing or counting the minutes until I could get back to it.

Fortunately, there is a cure for my lack of spark, one so obvious you’ve probably already identified it: write. Anything. It doesn’t have to be the world’s next great novel. I don’t have to know the end result before I begin. All I need to do is put a match to the writing fuse and see what happens. I can even revisit something that’s been resting for a while. Unlike old fireworks, old projects often retain a great deal of energy just waiting to be rekindled. And if I am completely stuck, I can turn to the internet for hundreds of writing prompts and other assorted inspirations.

Does your writing ever lose its spark? How do you get it back?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Being an Author Hurts So Good

By J.C. Lynne

I've been on a creative binge lately. Sure, I discovered the line edits on my manuscript didn't save. Sure, I've struggled with structure on a new novel. Okay, the dust bunnies may be a little out of control.

I received editor's notes on The Esau Convergence which means I'm a couple of hard working weeks away from getting it back to the publisher. 

Even if I've been stumbling on the story structure, I have completed twenty-five thousand new words on the new trilogy.

Laundry has miraculously made it to the folded and put away stage. 

These long writing days are hard work. Oh yes, I know what you non-writers think. Writers sit around drinking coffee, beer, wine, or scotch while musing on the inventive story at their finger tips. 

All right, I'll give you some of that. I certainly have spent most mornings with my coffee while I pound away, figuratively and literally, at the lap top grinding out words. 

This huge creative push has elicited some feelings of, dare I say, guilt. I've been feeling a bit low and flagellating. Yes, my second book will be published soon. No, I'm not rolling in the millions--yet. Yes, the dear hubby is slaving away practically night and day on his work projects because he's short staffed. Here I am spending my days on the back patio wrestling with brain tofu. Tough job. Wah, wah, wah.

He so kindly reminded me that The Martian was a self-published novel which has, after four years, landed in the money making spotlight. More reinforcement for the debunking of the overnight success myth. 

To be honest, I love my job. I'm one lucky writer who gets to devote most days to my passion. I am familiar with the "Are you making any money?" question. To be blunt, I'll get there. I'm creating worlds and arguing with characters. It's grand!

I wouldn't trade my job for anything, even on those fifty word days. I suppose this twinge is actually sympathy.  I wish everyone were blessed enough to work at their dream job.  

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Smaller Victories

by Rich

Image courtesy of digitalart at
Last week I received a call from my wife while doing something important at the coffee shop. Probably eating nachos and watching cat videos.

"Congratulations," she said with enthusiasm.

"Why?" I asked with caution, believing my sex video with Kim Kardashian had finally been released on YouTube.

"You sold two copies of Coffee Cup Tales at the bookstore," she said.

"Oh, neat," I replied with relief and a note to myself to call Kim and negotiate a settlement for the tape.

Frankly, I had forgotten about the books I placed on consignment. Each time I had gone to the store the three copies of Coffee Cup Tales I gave them remained on the shelf with those of other local authors. The consignment check meant I sold two-thirds of my inventory. A definite small victory!

As a self-published author and small press founder I need to take the small victories when I can, especially when things aren't moving as swimmingly as I had thought at the beginning of the year. Nothing gets a creative person down then when they have a hard time carving out hours to create. It's even worse when I look at my monthly sales.

I understand it takes time, marketing, and published works to build an audience. However, when I hear about all those self-published authors making six-figure salaries I have to wonder if I'm doing something totally wrong.

Then I pull back and listen to my own advice. I recently presented a talk at my local Ignite! event where I described how to get away from the couch and be more productive. The last item I mentioned to the audience is to have patience with their projects. So, while I want my six-figure income NOW, I'll pull back, work hard, and take the small victories as they come. One day, in the very near future, I know they'll turn into bigger wins.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Language of Kenpo

By Sarah Reichert

Almost a year ago, I began taking karate lessons from Fort Collins' long-established International Black Belt Academy ( The school holds with the traditions of both American and Chinese styles of Kenpo Karate.  I love it for many reasons but one in particular is the artful language used in naming its techniques.

Like much of the sport, Kenpo is a blend of defensive tactics, locks and holds, and flowing beauty. Each of the three levels contain five to seven techniques in six cycles throughout the year, providing nearly 130 different defensive movements that teach you a variety of ways to use your body in the most efficient way possible.  I, as a writer and inamorata of words, love the names given to each movement.

Techniques are given names like, "Locked Wing", "The Dance", "Circling Talons" and "Intellectual Departure".  Others make the immature twelve-year old in me giggle ("Aggressive Twins", "Squatting Sacrifice", "Squeezing the Peach").  But once you witness the destructive nature of these moves its hard to laugh because there is purpose in the poetry.

The names tell you how to attack and defend.  'Wings' are elbows, 'feathers' are hair, 'branches' are legs, and 'twigs' are arms.  "Intellectual Departure" departs the poor man from his intellect in the harshest way and 'peaches' are...well, exactly what you think they are.

At my next test I will have completed the first level, memorizing some 46 techniques, and I attribute the system of names with my ability to remember and engage in each.  But more than that, as a writer, it reminds me that language can be beautiful and still serve a purpose in memory, recognition and retention.  How often have you read a poem and the phrase sticks with you because of the power of its imagery and beauty?

So often writers are encouraged (even bullied) to use a 'less is more' tactic that streamlines our writing.  Don't over describe, don't over explain, and for God's sake cut all the words ending in -ly.  But we should be careful that we don't slash the beauty of words to the point of making our writing a desolate and barren landscape.  Language should balance beauty and meaning and we should always strive to use the best possible word. Words are roadmaps for our readers to enjoy on the journey we take together.

What are some meaningful phrases, from poetry or prose, that have stayed with you as a reader and writer?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Making Words Count

By April Moore
“My books already threatened to take over my part of the room and keep on going . . . whatever cargoes of words I could lay my hands on I gave safe harbor.”  
--Ivan Doig, The Whistling Season 

Words. I'd say they're an awfully important tool for writers. And a big thanks to Shakespeare for inventing over 1700 of them. He took certain words, added prefixes, suffixes; made nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, and just plain came up with original ones. Without Will's wordsmithing, thriller writers wouldn't know what coldblooded, premeditated, and bloodstained meant. 

Words form sentences, that lead to paragraphs, that create a scene, that give our characters' a voice, that make us smile, laugh or cry. They're powerful, those words. And it's not about using big ones where readers need a dictionary to decipher the story . . . size doesn't matter; it's all about how we use them; how we finagle, twist, turn, mold, and manipulate them. It’s about how we string them together to paint a picture. Words are an artist’s paints. Some get muddy when mixed together, while others can blend and swirl together to create a beautiful picture in the reader’s mind. Artists choose their colors carefully, so why wouldn’t writers choose their words carefully?

I'm not much of a wordsmith, which is why I keep a thesaurus handy. But one of the most helpful word-repertoire enhancing tools has come from things I read. Novels, essays, newspapers, etc. When I come across an interesting word—typically one I don’t use often—I jot it down in my word journal. Sometimes it’s a turn of phrase that catches my attention. I won’t steal it, of course, but it does help inspire me to think along those lines. I try to keep my word journal nearby while reading in case something catches my writer eye.

When I'm writing, I often consult my word journal which usually urges me to think outside the vocabulary box. Words have much more potential than we give them credit for. Use them in unconventional ways and think about nouns that can be used as verbs, too. For example: "Time colored his memories . . ." 

As writers, we often spend a lot of time focusing on grammar, or pacing, or character development. But taking the time to play with words is just as important. So jot them down, play around, and see what you can come up with. For great examples of this, I recommend reading books by Ivan Doig---he had a way with words: "In short, not much ever functioned on the Herber place, except gravity." 

Do you keep a word journal? And who are some of your favorite wordsmithing authors?

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Delicious! Evening

Post by Jenny
I recently had the opportunity (and by that I mean I bought a ticket, just like everyone else) to attend a local event featuring New York Times bestselling author and foodie extraordinaire Ruth Reichl. Fort Collins favorites Old Firehouse Books and CafĂ© Vino joined together to host the affair in the restaurant’s private dining room.

I appreciate good food, but I don’t consider myself a foodie by any means. Although I try eschew processed meals, I’m not an imaginative cook and too often end up throwing a chunk of meat in the slow cooker. Because this is thankfully not a food blog, I feel safe skipping over the description of the small plates and jumping right into the writer stuff. (But here’s a picture.)

Ruth Reichl has a long and distinguished resume, which includes restaurant owner, restaurant critic for the New York Times and the LA Times newspapers, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, editor of the The Modern Library Food Series, television host, lecturer, and author of five memoirs and the novel Delicious!. In person, her warm and gracious nature made the evening feel like she was the hostess of a cocktail party instead of the guest of honor at a ticketed book tour event.

Early in Ms. Reichl’s career in journalism, her first restaurant review column was well-received, and she was asked to write a second, to prove that she wasn’t a flash in the pan. Instead of writing another traditional review, she cast her dining companions as characters in a film noir and wrote the review as script. She dropped the review on her editor’s desk and was halfway home when she became convinced that she had made a terrible mistake. Panicked, she pulled over at the first pay phone she found, called the editor, and begged him not to read it.

It was too late. He had already read it, and he loved it. Writer’s lesson #1: Don’t be afraid to take chances, to put an original spin on a conventional idea. (I love that the word “novel” also means fresh, innovative, new.)

During the Q&A, Ms. Reichl was asked what advice she would give to food industry up-and-comers, and she talked about how much the food world has been changed by the times and by technology. As you all know, the same is true for the writing/publishing world. Opportunities abound that weren’t available even five years ago. It can feel overwhelming, which brings me to writer’s lesson #2: Don’t try to be everything to everyone. Narrow your focus, and find what interests you. 

When the venerable Gourmet magazine closed its doors, Ms. Reichl decided to finally try her hand at writing fiction. It was learning experience even for her, a seasoned and multi-published author, but the result was Delicious!. Writer’s lesson #3: when a door closes, don’t be afraid to open a new one, especially the one you’ve been loitering in front of for years.

Have you been inspired by any good writing advice lately?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Creativity and the Human Brain

by Kelly Baugh

Recently I heard a TED Radio Hour episode about the interaction between creativity and dedication that set my little writer's heart fluttering. It was given by Charles Limb, a music cognition researcher for Johns Hopkins University.

Limb and his team had jazz musicians play some tunes while hooked up to MRI machines. They studied the differences in the brain and which parts of it were active when the musicians played memorized music versus improvised music.

Here's what they found:
When musicians played improvised music a large part of the prefrontal cortex of the brain almost completely shut down, specifically the area involved in conscious self-monitoring. In other words, the part of the brain that's tells you what's socially acceptable, what you need to do to fit in and what will make you look the least awkward, etc.

At the same time, another area of the brain, the part that's thought to be autobiographical or self-expressive went into overdrive.

According to Limb, "We think that at least a reasonable hypothesis is that to be creative you have to have this weird dissociation in your frontal lobe. One area turns on and a big area shuts off so that you're not inhibited so that you're willing to make a mistake. You're not constantly shutting down all of these new generative impulses."

Limb speculates that someday scientists might be able to create pills that help activate and deactivate certain areas of the brain for optimal creativity.

If that sounds a little too Brave New World for you, Limb goes on to say, "I tend not to over-romanticize the idea [of creativity]. I think there's a bit of a myth that art  comes from some ethereal land of inspiration and just the lucky few are able to generate it. I mean, most artists have been working at their craft for their whole lives. They're putting hours and hours and hours into learning to play their instrument, or to paint or whatever it might be. This is something that they're practicing, it's not just magic. The idea that a professional musician can enter a flow state because they've practiced doing it is important."

Hard work, Creativity, and their interplay: the human brain is a beautiful thing.

Click here to listen to Limb's entire TED Talk What Does a Creative Brain Look Like?

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