Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Breakthrough

A quick bit of business before I start: I'm going to be away next week, from my job, my normal life, and from blogging. I'm very excited to go on vacation (without going into detail, I'll just say that it's been a rough couple of weeks), but I can't believe it means I'm going to miss my first IWSG - EVER. Well, as long as 'ever' means 'since I signed up almost a year ago.' It'll make me feel insecure to miss it, of course, but I have a really good excuse: it's my birthday next Wednesday, and my wedding anniversary a few days after that, and I'm going to be as far away from a computer (and any other electronic device) as I can possibly manage.

I'll be back the week after, and back to the IWSG in August, so please don't take me off of the list yet, Mr. Cavanaugh! ;)

Now then. A couple of weeks ago, I complained at length about being bored to tears with research, and many of you gently told me to get off of my lazy, research-addled butt and write a little instead.

Ok, no one said that. You were all much nicer than that, but the message was received in any case. Gratefully.

Funny enough, it was the research itself that did it. I was so fed up with textbooks that I found a movie to watch instead - Himalaya. To quote its Rotten Tomatoes page, it is "a fiction film about the forgotten people of Tibet, focusing on their daily lives and traditional customs."

Daily lives??? Traditional customs??? JACKPOT! Here, finally would be real, normal people going about their lives! This is what I've been dying to find!! Fiction, schmiction, I say.

No, don't worry, I know it's a movie; I took everything I saw with a large grain of salt (which is ironic, but you won't get the joke if you don't watch the film). However, one of the best things about this film was that it was shot over nine months in the Himalayas, among the Dolpo people of Nepal, who, Wikipedia tells me, have "preserved...Tibetan culture in relatively pure form." In fact, with the exception of a couple of roles, almost every part in the film is played by an actual Dolpo tribe member.

The movie is only a little over an hour and a half, but it took me the better part of a day to watch it, because I kept having to pause it to take notes. Everything was helpful, from the way the women tied blankets around their waists, to how the men wore their hair, to where they slept inside their low stone houses. This is the sort of practical, everyday information that is so hard to find, and yet is so essential to me as a writer.

I really don't know if I could tell you if the movie is any good. I didn't really notice, which means, as far as I can guess, that it was pretty good, because I'm generally super picky about movies. But I was so focused on gathering every tiny bit of information that I truly didn't care one way or the other.

What I can say is that I'm very, very grateful to the movie - and to all of you. As soon as it ended, instead of doing more research, I went off and wrote two big chunks for the Tibetan lifetime. It took almost no time, and I have no idea if what I wrote will end up in the book, but I don't care. It was incredibly useful: it helped me solidify some plot points, get to know my characters better, and gave me a chance to write about the glorious, unbelievable setting I'd gotten to see in the movie.

Not bad, eh?? Image courtesy of

At some point, after I've worked on those freewrites a bit, I'll post a snippet here. Perhaps even when I'm back the week after next?

Thanks again to all of you, and I'll see you on the other side of VACATION!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What Does It Mean To Be Versatile?

It's been an exciting week in my blogland! Loni Townsend nominated me for a Versatile Blogger Award, which is, as you may have guessed, what this post is about. Thank you, Loni! Loni is a super talented blogger and writer with a clever, quirky sense of humor. Her epic fantasy novel, Thanmir War, is available on Amazon, and her blog is always available, so if you're not following her, go check her out!

Before I get to that award, though, I also need to thank Kristin Smith, Felicity Burnett, and Ava Quinn, who all nominated me for Liebster Awards in the past few weeks. Thank you all so much, ladies! As I was nominated for one, and accepted it a few months ago, I don't want to be an awards hog and accept again. BUT I am really grateful to all three of these bloggers, and highly recommend that you check them all out!

Now...the Versatile Blogging Award!

The rules of the VBA, should you choose to accept them, are:

  • You do NOT talk about VBA. Oh, wait, sorry, wrong club. Moving on.
  • Thank the person who gave you this award. Thank you, Loni!!
  • Include a link to their blog. Done and done - but in case you missed it, you can find her here.
  • Select 15 blogs/bloggers that you've recently discovered or follow regularly. ( I would add, pick blogs or bloggers that are excellent!), and nominate those 15 bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award.
  • Finally, tell the person who nominated you 7 things about yourself.

Because I'm a BIG RULE BREAKER (not at all, but we can pretend, right?), I'm not going to nominate 15 people. Instead, I'm going to nominate a completely arbitrary number of bloggers, because, well, because I can:

  1. Milo James Fowler, who writes a dizzying array of short stories in an equally dizzying array of genres;
  2. Ava Quinn, who never fails to make me laugh out loud, is wildly creative, and comes up with the world's most bizarre and wonderful blogging topics;
  3. And L.G. Smith, who always has a fascinating idea, unique insight, or thought-provoking question to offer.

Finally, seven things about me!

  1. Running is my best stress relief. I'm not very fast or very good, but when I can be running outside (treadmills, aka hamster wheels, do not count), I always feel better.
  2. I'm a serious foodie. I love shopping at farmer's markets, going out to eat at new restaurants in the city, and reading/learning/thinking about food. I would love to cook if I had more time - when I do have time, I really enjoy it, but most of the time it's just another thing I have to fit in, sadly.
  3. I once went paragliding in the Swiss Alps.
  4. I lived in a haunted castle in Holland for a semester when I was in college.
  5. I'm a huge nature nerd. I love to hike and I'll watch animal documentaries any day, anytime; I of course own both the Blue Planet and the Planet Earth series on DVD. I'll let you guess how many times I've watched them!
  6. I think teachers are our modern unsung heroes. Undervalued, underpaid, misunderstood, and under a ton of pressure, they still devote themselves to the future with passion and dedication. Yes, there are bad teachers out there (there are bad everything out there), but for the most part, these people are amazing.
  7. As a massage therapist, I believe deeply in the value of self-care - all kinds of self-care. I believe in non-Western approaches to healing, like acupuncture and massage (of course), and I work hard to take good care of myself, and to encourage other to do the same.
Accepting the nominations is totally optional for my picks, but visiting them is not - honestly, you'll love their blogs!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Patience IS a Virtue

It's been a long time since I posted anything about the 'progress' part of my WIP. While I'd like to blame this entirely on the A to Z Challenge, that would skip a whole month of posts, and would be rather like blaming climate change on America's love of gigantic, lane-hogging SUVs (which are, living in a neighborhood of teeny, narrow, winding city streets as I do, a major pet peeve of mine. I don't blame you for wanting a nice, big car, but what kind of urban dweller needs a Chevy Suburban?? Wouldn't a CR-V do the trick?). Part of the problem, but really not even close to the whole problem.

The main problem is that I haven't made much progress. I'm still doing research. I'm still wading through large volumes of dusty sociological treatises whose main goal seems to be to make fascinating information as dull as possible. I'm still digging around for elusive information on normal people in history: not the kings and emperors; not the war heroes; just the average, rather poor people who grew and harvested all the food that the rich and fabulous people ate. (Although I did find and start watching a lovely movie called Himalaya today, which, in addition to being about normal people, has the benefit of being fictional, and therefore, designed with the express purpose of capturing and maintaining my interest. So at least there's that.)

If I sound bitter, it's because I am - not about rich people in history but about how much they HOG the historical annals. I mean, wasn't it enough to be getting all the attention while they lived? Can't they share the damn limelight now?

Apparently not.

What this means is that my pace of discovery can be measured in weeks, not days. It also means that I'm searching further and further afield for information, and reading more and more obscure works. Yes, I am that second person in the world who read your dissertation on Marriage Customs in Tibet (besides your mother and your professor, who don't count). And I'm very grateful you wrote it.

I'm also realizing more fully just how long it's going to take me to write this book. I think I can best sum it up by saying: a really freaking long time.

Do I sound negative? Sigh. I don't mean to be. I'm just not the most patient person in the world.

Which means, of course, that I have to refer myself back to my own advice: be patient (I'm referring to #7 on that list, for those who are following along). When I wrote that, I was referring to the industry, but that advice extends just as well to my own work. BE PATIENT. Remember that I've chosen to write a book that requires a stupid amount of research.

Patience really is a virtue, isn't it? The more I need it, the more I realize how true that is.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Insecure Writers: Don't Be Afraid of Public Speaking!

NOTE: It's the first Wednesday of the month, so it's time for The Insecure Writers! For those who don't remember, it's an online group created by Alex J. Cavanaugh for writers. You, too, can join us anytime!

A few little birdies have recently expressed a wish for a post on public speaking for writers, and after delaying said post for too long (I blame the A to Z Challenge), I figured the IWSG would be a perfect opportunity to put together a list of tips and tricks. I originally wrote this up for the talented writer Julie Flanders, who was about to go to various events to promote her new book, and was - understandably - a bit apprehensive. I think most writers can understand this fear - viscerally, with some stomach-clenching dread and sweating palms - because for most of our working lives we have to be able to sit, alone, in silence, and write...and then every once in a while we're suddenly expected to leave the solitude of our desks and be outgoing, charming, consummate public speakers and marketers.

It's a weird shift.

BUT, there are a few very concrete things you can do to make this whole speaking-in-front-of-many-staring-expectant-people-without-turning-into-a-blithering-idiot thing much easier, and much more do-able. I learned these valuable skills because I got my degree at Emerson College, and because said degree was a BFA in acting, believe it or not. For those of you who aren't familiar with the school, it's a specialized college for communication and the arts, and it was founded by an orator - all of which meant that, at least while I was there, classes in Public Speaking and Voice & Articulation were mandatory. I was highly irritated about this at the time I was in school, because I was 18 and knew absolutely everything about everything and knew that actors didn't need this silly stuff, but now, quite a few years later, I have to admit that I'm pretty damn grateful that they made me go.

So, I've compiled this list (as an outline - what else???) from the training I received both in public speaking and in acting, which, as you might guess, aren't all that dissimilar when it comes down to the basics.

Public Speaking for Writers (and Other People Who Don't Want To Be the Center of Attention)

1. Body Language is Key: This is the first and most important tip - learn to use your body to help you instead of hinder you. If you're nervous, your body will show it: you'll have trouble making eye contact; you'll speak too softly and too quickly; you'll be sweaty and shaky; you won't stand up straight, and so on. All of this just increases the nerves in a nasty endless cycle. So instead, you pretend to be confident by making your body confident. The amazing thing about this is that when you force yourself to physically embody confidence, it actually works. You can calm yourself this way. And even if you still feel nervous, you won't come across as nervous to anyone watching you. If you have the patience for it, I'd recommend practicing this, so that your muscles and your body get used to how it feels, and then when you're in front of people, you can easily and quickly slip into this physical stance:

  • Stand up tall, with your shoulders back. 
  • Make sure your feet are under your hips, about hip-distance apart, with your knees very slightly bent (locked knees = danger of fainting = very bad), and your weight evenly distributed between both feet. 
  • Take deep, even breaths - you have to really concentrate on this one, and keep up that concentration until breathing like this becomes a habit. 
  • Speak slowly and clearly. 
  • Put your voice a lower register. If you have any familiarity with voice training, try using your chest register. If you don't, that's OK: just try to put your voice in a strong, deep tone. If you're a visual person, try imagining your words in a color you find confident and strong. For me, this would be a deep burgundy. 

2. Set An Intention, and Embody It: I remember this clearly from my public speaking class. It was specifically about giving speeches, but it applies to any public speaking situation. What this means is that you stop worrying about how the audience might feel, and think instead about how you want them to feel. So, you ask yourself, how do I want my audience to feel? As an author speaking, you might want them to feel interested, comfortable, curious, and/or also humorous or sympathetic, but really, this is up to you. I would just recommend staying simple, and picking only two or three emotions. Then hold onto that intention, consciously, as you speak, and let those emotions color your own words. Even just having this intention will help, but if you want to get more advanced about it, there are specific strategies for different emotions - it has to do with rhythm, tone, etc. For that, I would recommend getting a good book on oration.

3. Speak, Don't Read: Practice your speech or presentation or reading enough that you essentially know it by heart, and don't have to read it off of note cards or Power Point or from your book. You can use your notes, and refer to them in case you forget, but when you have what you want to say memorized, you're free to do something lovely - look up!You can look at your audience and interact with them, you can be more human and less robotic, and that will increase your confidence. You'll come across as human, confident, and approachable, instead of anxious or flat. If you're worried about looking at your audience, well, see below.

4. Concentrate on Heads, Not Eyes: I've never been a fan of the 'imagine everyone in their underwear' advice, because then I'm thinking way too much about putting people in underwear and not nearly enough on what I'm saying. I know that it can be weird and scary to make eye contact with people in your audience (although, if you can do it, it can also be really powerful), so if eye contact freaks you out, don't make the cardinal mistake of never looking up; instead, look just over the tops of your audience's heads, either at the scalp level or about an inch or so above them. The smaller the audience and the room, the less you can get away with this, but generally as long as you have a few rows of people, and you're at least a few feet away from them, it'll look like you're looking at the row right behind each of them. Now, if you're talking to ten or twenty people or less, this won't work, but if the group is that small, hopefully it won't seem as scary! This also won't work if you're doing a question and answer, of course; then you do have to look at the person talking. In that case, try to concentrate on the person who asked the question, and imagine you're having a conversation with just that person, instead of a whole group of people.

5. Be An Actor: If all else fails, you can look at this as an acting exercise, and no, you don't need to be a professional for this! You're just playing the role of the smart, confident, charismatic, talented author, who feels no fear in front of large groups, and is a super star when it comes to public speaking. It might sound silly, but so much of the fear of public speaking comes from worrying about what everyone is going to think of you. If you're not you, but are just an actor in a role, you can detach yourself a little bit from that fear. It's like the role is a shield, protecting you. We're all capable of this; we all played games where we took on many roles when we were kids. You just have to dig deep and bring that powerful imagination back to the surface.

And that's it for the basics! I hope one or all of these help you, and ease at least a little bit of that fear. If you have any questions, ask away in the comments, and I'll do my best to answer. And of course, if you have any tips of your own, please share them!