Friday, November 11, 2016

On America Today

So many people have spoken out on their thoughts about this election. Many are better writers with bigger audiences. I’m not intending to add to the discourse with my post. I just want to record my thoughts. If you’re reading this, welcome to my mind. You can agree with me or disagree with me, but please don’t call me any of the mean names I’ve seen people throw around on Facebook and elsewhere. I am guilty of doing it in private, among friends, because let’s face it, I’m frustrated. I think most of the country is at this point. But I refuse to stoop to that level in a public forum, even if my “public” is only 20 or so readers.

Here are the facts, as I see them:

We live in a broken nation full of broken people.

Honestly, I’m tired of it. Tired of the name-calling, the violence, the undiluted hate. I could say “from both sides” but are there two sides? Really? To some extent I think we all have our own “side.” We have fostered an environment where anything goes, seeking our own pleasure and happiness, “being real and authentic” no matter the cost, even to those we profess to love. Above all, we love ourselves. And now we are beginning to see how this culture of selfishness has eaten away at our identity as a nation. How preaching relative truth eventually causes lives and philosophies so full of contradiction that one might dare to look at it objectively and see hypocrisy. I have seen people preach love, kindness, and acceptance, while also spouting hate, vindictiveness, and intolerance, within the same post. I’m looking at you, liberals. And you too, conservatives. And the rest of you, whatever you are calling yourselves these days. And just in case anyone is worried that I think I’m somehow better, I’ve been tempted to do the same thing.

I read one post telling me everything I don’t understand about why some people are so upset about the results of this election. I had to laugh at the irony and shake my head because I do understand. I am very accustomed to voting for candidates and issues that lose. I fully understand the sense of grief and horror that comes with the realization that this nation is far from where it should be. Our systems are broken. Our people are broken, divided, aggressively opposed to each other over beliefs and ideologies and the horrors we inflict on each other. I have felt that way for 20 years. Please don’t tell me I don’t understand. We may have different beliefs and practices, and I may not really understand why some believe differently than I do. I can respect another person’s background, culture, and beliefs, while still retaining my own conviction that some faiths are wrong, some behaviors are sinful, and that there is one true God and that his truth is absolute. My love for all people leads me to pray every day that I would have opportunities to share my faith and God’s love. Keeping silent is a betrayal of my own belief. If you saw a loved one in danger and you could warn them about what was coming, would it be kind and loving to keep silent and let them make their own choice based on misleading or incomplete information? Would you stand at a distance and argue with them about the danger? Or would you scream in desperation and push them out of the way?

This moment in history is crucial but it is not unique. We didn’t suddenly wake up yesterday morning and find ourselves in an alien landscape. The conflicts we see lived out in the streets and in our families and on social media are not new. This nation is not where we are now because a few voters in a few states chose one candidate over the other. We are where we are because of the last 200+ years of our history. We are where we are now because the vision of the people who founded this nation is crumbling under the weight of selfishness and a multitude of bad decisions. America has always been a land of diversity and we have never handled it well. This was not our one chance to get it right. We have had chances to get it right for over 200 years and we have failed for that length of time.

What Americans need today is not a political answer, we need a savior. That savior is not Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton, or anyone in any government office. That Savior is Jesus.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

On Conversation Skills

I am at a Writer’s Workshop at the beautiful Glen Eyrie Conference Center (and Castle!) in Colorado Springs. If you’ve never been here, it looks like this:

Be jealous.

I’m super excited about this workshop. I’ve wanted to come to this for years. But right off I faced a potentially terrifying situation. There are I think maybe 80 or so people here and I don’t know any of them. At all. I walked onto the lovely terrace and saw all these people talking to each other and thought Oh dear, what now?

So here’s the thing. I might be an introvert. But then again I might be an extrovert. Honestly I’ve never been able to figure that out. I like people but I’m not exactly super social. I like meeting new people but I feel awkward in situations where I don’t know anyone. Over the years I’ve learned something that I’ve found extremely useful in situations where I know absolutely no one in a crowd of people: Conversation skills. Oh, and coffee helps a lot too.

So if you’re about to encounter one of those awkward situations, here’s my advice: Guzzle your coffee beverage of choice, find someone who looks equally as awkward as you feel, and ask, “Can I join you?” Then you ask questions. Start out simple. Ask their name. Where they’re from. What they do for a living. Listen. Ask more questions. Listen more. Smile. Laugh. It’s a simple enough concept but there are plenty of people in the world who are too shy to take the initiative to do it. Guess what? I am extremely shy. Or I used to be, before I learned to talk to people. If I could, I would thank all the beautiful ladies in Mary Kay who taught me how to do it.

I have no idea how well I did with this today but I met some people and had pleasant conversations. I’m pretty sure I talked too much, too loud, and too fast, and I laughed too much (thanks, coffee!) The thing is, writers are not often conversationalists. We love words but we prefer them on pages or screens, crafted painstakingly over multiple drafts. Conversations are just so...spontaneous. Original. Uneditable. Potentially awkward and yes, even terrifying.

Here’s a secret: I pretend to be way more confident than I am. I guide conversations like I know what I’m doing but I’m constantly wondering if people think I’m annoying. I engage in genuine conversation and I sincerely care about what people have to say but there’s always a little voice in my head ticking off pace and telling me things like, “ok you need to shut up now and let the other person talk” or “ok take it down a notch. Drat the caffeine.” I suppose that means I’m not a natural conversationalist. I do have to work at it. Still, I find it is always worth the effort. I love people. I love their stories, their energy, the expressions on their faces when they talk. I can dominate a conversation if I want to or I can let it happen around me. I might be annoying. I might be loud. But at least I can carry on a conversation when I need to. It’s a skill worth brushing off from time to time.

Friday, July 8, 2016

On Why Weak Characters are Plot Killers

Much has been said on the subject of plot vs. characters. I'm not sure why it's a debate. When writing fiction, you have a plot, and you have characters. Both are equally important. No one cares about the plot unless they care about the characters, and no one wants to read stories about people who never do anything.

I have heard a sage piece of writing advice, passed down from writer to writer until no one knows who first said it: “Every scene must move the plot forward.” It is true. Each scene must have a purpose, and even if the main purpose is character development or setting, it must tie to the plot somehow. It's easy to get carried away writing a scene that has developed in my head and forget about this important truth. That's why books are written on plot and structure and why outlines are important, to remind creative writers not to get so carried away with their creativity and their characters that they lose the plot. But it's also possible to become so tied to your plot that you lose your characters. And when you lose your characters, you lose your readers. That, my writer friends, is a disaster.

I'm reading a book right now with a compelling plot, and for the most-part, well-developed characters. The main character is a very sensitive soul who's just trying to make sense of the world she gets snatched into, and the people who inhabit it. She is lost and bewildered and not entirely sure what exactly she is or how she fits into this world, but she has a sense of who she is that cannot be shaken. Some of the secondary characters are very well-drawn as well, relatable and true to themselves. But one character, the love interest, is inconsistent to the point that no one in the book knows who he really is or what he's about, and neither does the reader. There are hints in the book that he has this great shadowy secret in his past and that perhaps his odd behavior will make sense once the truth is revealed. Meanwhile, I feel like I'm expected to like him because the protagonist likes him, for some inexplicable reason. He is bad but not all bad, and good but not all good, shrouded in mystery and I suppose that's why this girl is drawn to him and why I should be, too. But I'm not.

I've seen this done before. When a character is supposed to be a bad boy with a heart of gold, the kind that nice girls fall in love with despite their best intentions, there is a tendency to create such a thick veil of mystery around this character that no one can penetrate it, so that no glimmer of his real character can come shining through. In my opinion, this is a mistake. It is impossible to relate to, and therefore care about, a character who is not true to himself. And it is impossible for a character to be true to himself when no one except the author knows what sort of character he really is. It is such a subtle writing flaw that it's hard to explain but I always know it when I see it: It is character sacrificed for plot. The author knows the secret about this character, obviously. But in hiding the secret beneath levels of deceit, they have left the readers with nothing to grasp about the character. He is important. The book begins from his point of view. The only thing we really know for sure is that he cares deeply about his friend who is dying. He lies about everything else. Well, I can't care about a character who lies and only loves one person. That doesn't make sense.

In every interaction that the protagonist has with this love interest, you can see the plot ticking forward to some inevitable conclusion. It is clear to me that the author put more emphasis on developing the plot than on developing this character into someone I know and can therefore invest myself in. This is not an amateur mistake. This is a popular book written by a best-selling author. It's not a bad book, either. This character development flaw isn't frustrating enough to make me want to toss the book aside, but it is frustrating. It could have been done better.

So what can we learn from this? Know your characters. Let your readers get to know your characters. Even if you build them up as one sort of person and then reveal them as something completely different. That can be a great twist. If you've got a bad boy, then let us see him being bad instead of just letting him brag about it. Don't let him claim to be something he's not. If he has a heart of gold, then show us that. “Save the cat” is a cliche but it works because it shows compassion for the weak and helpless. If he’s conflicted, let us see his conflict, without hiding who he is. A poorly developed character kills your beautifully developed plot. Don't let any of your characters commit plot murder. Let them commit murder in your story if you must, but don't let them kill your plot. Your readers will thank you, and keep reading.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

More On Time

Time is a concrete absolute. Minutes pass, the sun changes position in the sky, seasons change and time marches on. Lately I've noticed how fluid and subjective our perception of time is. We're so familiar with this concept that it's built into our language. Time flies when you're having fun. That line took forever to move. I lost track of time.
Some days or hours seem to speed up or slow down depending on how much we are or are not enjoying ourselves. I observed recently after being asleep for an hour and having three different dreams that seemed to take several hours each, that dreams are proof that the human mind really can handle the concept of eternity. We are not as bound to time as we think we are. But despite that, time continues to pass, marching at its own rhythm, whether we want it to or not. 
I've been thinking about this lately as I watch my children growing up. They are my babies, but I see less of babies and more of children in them all the time. Their ingenuity, their growing perception of the world around them, their language and understanding is always changing, maturing, leaving babyhood behind forever. And although I'm not a baby person at all, and I'm glad I can have somewhat meaningful conversations with them now, there are moments that I wish I could store in a bottle and keep forever. When my son learns a new word or my daughter sits in the grass in her Cinderella dress and looks like she's contemplating some deep secret of life, or when they play together in that style unique to siblings, when they're cooperating and endearing one moment and screaming and fighting the next. Toddler tantrums are something I could live without but toddler language is delightful. And the hugs. I know someday I'll miss the hugs. 
So here's what I wonder. Do we get to keep these moments? How clear will our memories be in that mysterious plane of existence that we call heaven? Will we get a chance to sit and relive these times that make this brief life sweet and worth living? I don't know what time or memory will look like in eternity, but I know there are moments that I never want to forget.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

On Film Scores

I like to listen to film scores while I write. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. They're dramatic and usually instrumental so they inspire dramatic thoughts without a lot of distraction from lyrics. I mean, I love lots of music and lots of artists, including Adele and Josh Groban and Pentatonix and Rend Collective, but there's a time and a place for those. (Adele: Sad love stories. Josh Groban: Angsty love stories. Pentatonic: Fun. Rend: Spiritual thoughts. You get the idea?) Film scores are good general writing music to block out the silence of home or whatever annoying stuff they're playing at Starbucks.

I usually stream music from Amazon because I have Prime so it's free and I've never bothered to learn to use Pandora or Spotify or even iTunes, shocking I know but it's true. I listen to several different scores "stations" and playlists from Amazon and I find myself playing a silly game in my head when it comes to music I don't recognize. It's called "guess the composer" and it's silly because it's remarkably easy, even for someone like me who doesn't have a music degree. I like music and I'm married to someone with a music degree so I guess that's why I play the game in the first place. So here's how it works: First, there are the top three to choose from. John Williams, James Horner, and Hans Zimmer. They're the easiest because they've composed so many well known scores and they all have some signature sound that gives them away. But they haven't composed everything, I mean there are other people out there writing music and they're pretty good too. So if it's not one of them, the next step is to decide what other film score it sounds like and see if it's the same person. Why is this so easy? Well, if you spend any time listening to scores for the music, not the movie, and if you know anything about music history at all, you know that composers are identified as writing certain styles of music for a reason. Not quite that it all sounds the's like an author's "voice." One reason why we like particular authors and not others is because we like (or don't like) how they tell their stories. Not just the words and the writing style but the voice you can hear in your head when you read it. Some authors spend years and lots of money on classes to find their voice, and some just sort of naturally have it. Well, in my very musically uneducated way, I'm going to say that it's very similar composers. Do they "borrow" from their own work? Oh sure, all the time. You just have to listen to Star Wars, Superman, and Indiana Jones (John Williams) in close succession to realize that. James Horner has a particular horn riff that gives him away. Titanic and Braveheart sound very similar, and not just because of the bagpipes. Hans Zimmer, well I suppose there's a reason he keeps saying he's not going to score any more superhero films and then he does anyway. Because he's really, really good at it.

So today I was listening to another random list of film scores that included a selection from Epic, an animated film which I've never seen. I thought, hmm, this has got to be the same person who wrote the score for the first Batman film, the one with Michael Keaton. So I looked it up and yep, Danny Elfman. So I guess I win again. I also enjoy it when I hear something that sounds so original that I can't guess who wrote it. Since I'm only competing with myself I don't keep track of my points but it's fun anyway. And I keep collecting music for my writing playlist, which is another win.

How about you? Have you ever played guess the composer? Do you have favorite film soundtracks I can add to my collection?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

On Writing Time and Other Frustrations

As I've worked for the last month or two on a fairly clearly defined "writing schedule," I'm finding that getting time to write is difficult. I clearly understand why I had been making such slow progress on my previous project. In this day and age I think the myth of the "stay at home" mother who does nothing but sleep late and go on nature walks and make adorable craft projects with her perfectly behaved children, or whatever it is that we supposedly do all day, has been dispelled. In reality, it is hard work that consumes most of a mom's time and energy with very little immediate reward or visible progress, other than children who are alive, fed, and somewhat for the most part groomed. It is more than a full time job, it's a life's work that for several years is pretty much the only life we have time for. Personal pursuits such as part-time careers, hobbies and interests, are always secondary. And by secondary I mean they fall somewhere in the approximately 5% of time left after chasing kids around and trying (often failing) to run a household, eating, and sleeping. For me, finding time to write has meant making sacrifices in one or more of those areas. And I'm not the kind of person who sacrifices easily, especially when the sacrifices I make also mean asking the most important people in my life to sacrifice time and convenience, too.

So far, even though I'm supposedly writing on a schedule, that hasn't looked much like writing. There's been a lot of trying to research and outline and failing either because schedules fall through, other important things come up, or I forget essential items like my brainstorming notebook. Which, incidentally, is why I'm sitting at Starbucks writing this blog post this evening instead of outlining my book. It's been rather frustrating. I have made progress, although not nearly as much as I'd hoped to by this point. I'm looking at my anticipated first draft start date of June 1st and panicking a little. Sometimes a lot. From my conversations with other writers I know it's fairly common to have a certain level of anxiety surrounding a project, particularly if there is a deadline involved. So the fact that I keep wondering if I can really write this book, if I can write it on time, if anyone will want to read it once it's written, if I really have what it takes to be a writer or if I'm just a poser, is apparently not unusual. But it is moderately painful. Sometimes I'm just tired. Writing is work, and when you write from home you work when you can whether or not you feel like it, but the fact is that when I'm tired and distracted the plots and outlines and words don't flow very well as when I'm at least moderately rested and focused and alert.

The good news is, I have time. I have a fairly generous deadline. I have plenty of time to not only write but also revise and polish up my manuscript before I turn it in. I have hope that it will get better soon, as I settle into this new routine and start the actual writing. But today I'm a little low on inspiration and energy and not quite loving this writing life.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

On Mythology

The project I'm working on currently involves some well-known mythological characters, so I've been doing research into these characters and the stories that surround them. It's fun research because I get to read some imaginative stories, including novels, which are always my favorite. I'm learning that it's possible to get creative with mythology, because that's what people do. There's no such thing as maintaining historical accuracy because over the years people have turned these folks into whatever they want. Which means I get to do the same thing. As long as certain names, places, and things maintain a sense of familiarity, I can build on the mythological foundation and add my own piece to the structure. And that sounds really fun.

I'm making progress with my plot. In all the writing I've done previously, I've started with characters and then created a story. This time I'm starting with a plot and adding characters. In terms of craft it's a pretty subtle difference, and I'm approaching my outline the same way I normally would. But it feels weird to me because there are some characters who I don't have names for yet. I'm not good with names anyway. So I just think of them as "so and so" or as someone's dad or friend or goat. Actually that's not entirely true. The goat's name is Una.

My plan is to spend the rest of this month outlining, and launch into the actual writing beginning in June. I've tweaked my schedule and hopefully soon I'll feel more comfortable with this writing like it's a job thing. If you're reading this and you're one of my writer friends, I'll finally be ready to do some writing sprints in June so hit me up on Facebook and Twitter and stuff.

Today's blog is short (like me, haha) but I wanted to check in and update things for those of you who have been asking "how's the writing going?" Short answer: I'm happy with my progress. Long answer: Weeelll, I'm technically not exactly writing, not yet anyway. But I have most of a plot and I'm going to to some pretty mean things to my main character and I think she has a pet goat. I'm looking forward to writing this book. It might be painful but I think it will be good.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

On Research (and Libraries)

I'm a week into my cleaning and research projects, and I'm excited to announce that I have an acceptable place to write while I'm at home, a weekly schedule that includes daily and weekly tasks I've been bad about neglecting lately, a stack of books from my library awaiting perusal, and a TBR (To Be Read) list that is growing daily.

I love books. I love real, physical books most of all but there are advantages to ebooks as well. Mostly, I'm finding, one of the advantages is availability. It feels strange to say this, with my dust-collecting Master's degree being less than ten years old, but I come from an old-school library background. Maybe transitional is a better word. We did online classes and electronic databases but the physical collection, number of volumes as well as useful content, was still a matter of pride. Shelf space was as issue. My experience was also limited to academic libraries. So I was somewhat surprised during my trip to the local public library to discover that they have weeded out a large portion of their physical collection. There are still books available, but many of them have been dispersed among various branches. Luckily for me they have a terrific hold system which allows me to place holds on items, even from home, even for books held in my "home" branch's collection, and pick them up in the holds area the next day. As a former library assistant in Interlibrary Loan who delighted in rejecting patron requests because they were available in our physical collection (I'm a much nicer person now), I admit I find this system perfectly suited to my needs, and I take full advantage of it. Hey if they want to let clerks comb the shelves for potentially misshelved or missing items and save me the trouble of doing that myself, I say go for it. And then of course there's the whole world of internet and electronic resources. In this modern age, I can do all the research I need from home, or if that is too loud and crazy, my neighborhood Starbucks.

All that to say, I'm content to work with what I have. I'm the kind of person who does what it takes to get the job done, whatever that means to me, and not really the kind of person who goes far above and beyond what is necessary to ferret out every minuscule factual and anecdotal detail about a place, a time, or a group of people in order to move forward on my project. If I can get a good general picture of who people were, what they called themselves, how and where they lived, what they valued and how they spoke and what ate and wore and what kind of pets they had, I'm good with that. A benefit of fiction-oriented research is I can also use fiction to inform my world. What other authors have written about people and places is, after all, part of the body of literature on the topic. So I get to read textbooks, articles, children's books, encyclopedias, and yes, even novels and wikipedia, in my hunt for information. And all along the way, my mind is churning as I imagine new characters and how they will fit into this world, finding flashes of inspiration for their journey through it. It's so fun that I occasionally stop and wonder at the fact that I'm actually getting paid for this. This is literally a dream come true for me. Somebody remind me of that a few months from ago when I'm agonizing over a plot that's not moving properly and characters that just won't behave the way I thought they would. Deal?

Monday, April 11, 2016

On A New Project

Once again, I've let my blog lapse for nearly a year, not because I didn't have anything to say (I always do), but because I didn't necessarily feel that this was the time or place to say it. Now that I have some interesting new happenings in my writer life, I'm renewing my blogging efforts. I'm hoping to give my blog/website a fresh new look later this year, but for now, welcome back to Allie On Life. I've missed this. Have you?

So, what are these new writerly happenings? Here's what I can tell you: Earlier this year the CEO of Lineage Media and Solutions hired me and a couple other authors to write some novels to tie in with some of the company's creative projects. Last week, we met for two days at the office in beautiful Bellevue, WA to connect and collaborate and discover the world these novels are set in, as well as the plots and characters of our books, and how they all tie together in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. To say that it was fun would be an understatement. I'm hoping I played it cool and professional, like hanging out with other authors is something I totally do and I totally know what I'm talking about and all that, but basically I was geeking out for two days straight and IT WAS AWESOME!!

And now I'm going to write an actual book that other people are actually going to read. Again, playing it cool while totally doing the inner geek out thing. This is gonna be so fun. And crazy. And hard. And you, dear reader, whether you be real or imaginary (because imaginary friends are people too) are invited along for the ride.

The book I'm writing is basically a historical fantasy written from a Christian worldview. At least that's how I'm choosing to describe it. I'm keeping the title and premise secret because it's just so awesome that the world isn't ready for it quite yet. Is that sarcasm? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe you'll never know...

Because this is a historical novel, I'm starting out with historical research. Oh. Yes. I'm trying not to get too carried away because there is a book to write, sooner rather than later but hey have I ever mentioned I have a BA in History and an MLS in Library and Information Science? Well, I do. And yes it's been awhile since I've had a chance to do some historical research so yes I'm excited about the chance to do it. And yes there are people in the world who enjoy research. We're called nerds, people. There are a lot more of us out there than you'd think. Why do you think The Big Bang Theory is such a popular show? It's because everyone either knows a nerd or is a nerd. But I digress...

Along with the fun stuff about writing, like hanging out and talking about writerly things with other writers, and historical research, and plotting, and actually writing, there's some boring housekeeping kinds of stuff. Some of it is quite literally housekeeping. I need to create a space in my house where I can be a writer, since at the moment I'm a little bit too broke to rent a table (buy a latte) at Starbucks three or four times a week. I also need to make myself a schedule since the one or two hours a week that I've spent writing lately will not be enough to write a real actual novel in time for my real actual deadline. So this week I'll probably use most of my writing time for things like that, and setting up my notebook, and starting things like a basic outline and a list of questions that I'm hoping my research will answer. I'll check in here periodically to give an update on how things are going. You are cordially invited to tag along via this blog. I'm hoping it'll be a fun ride.