The Haar- A poem by Leslie Spilman

Today I bring you a poem written by a friend of mine. I met Leslie when I lived in Scotland many years ago and we’ve been friends (however separated by an ocean) ever since. She lives in a gorgeous cottage on a cliff on the eastern coast of Scotland and often experiences the beautiful, almost mystical weather event called the Haar (sea fog).

Here’s a poem she wrote some time back about the Haar. Thank you for letting me share it, Leslie.

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The Haar

Wraiths of sea mist
drift through my open door
like visitors
from the past.

Wrapping their cold fingers
around my hands as I write
reminding me
they were here.

I see them flit past
silently… silently…
on their way back
and through eternity.

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Emotion in Writing

I can’t believe it’s been two weeks since I attended Donald Maas‘s workshop and I’m just now writing about it. I almost didn’t sign up for it. The workshop was being hosted by the Richmond branch of the Romance Writers of America (VRW) and held in Richmond, Virginia–an almost two hour drive from my house. Driving far from home and to places I’ve never been to stresses me out to panic levels and I normally avoid it like the plague. But I really wanted to go to this one, so I signed up. Luckily one of my local writer friends signed up too and I was able to drive with her. I’m a much better copilot than a pilot in situations like this.

This workshop was everything I expected it to be and so much more. A huge kudos for the Virginia Romance Writers  who set up an amazing event in a great venue and for providing us all with a magical supply of food (especially the donuts which seemed to be forever reproducing themselves in the kitchen) and the awesome speaker.

DMaas and me

I’ve been to many workshops. Some were writing-related and others not. Some were excellent, others left me regretting the money and time invested. This one was inspirational. I came out of the full-day event revitalized, inspired, and motivated to write more and better. I also left vindicated somehow.  I’m an emotional writer. I have a tendency to neglect certain details (which in my mind seem superfluous) and focus on feelings. I thought that maybe I was writing romance the wrong way, but after this workshop I feel I’ve been doing the right thing. But I need to get better at it.

During the session I wrote a couple of the best scenes in my current project, not to mention I came up with the missing pieces of my plot. Pretty wonderful, don’t you agree?

Mr. Maas was a pleasure to listen and talk to. Nothing like being able to immediately apply what you’re learning to give you a sense of accomplishment. He took us on a journey through his last writing book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, and had us apply it directly to our current projects. It was truly magical.

I don’t normally recommend writing books, no matter how great they are, because we all write differently and what I’ve found is that one “technique” may be amazing for some and absolutely not work for others. However, this one is different. This one works with what you already have and helps you–through some pretty simple exercises–to make it better, to make it resonate in readers’ s minds and hearts. So I am totally recommending it. Further more I am suggesting that you buy it and read it as you edit your work. You’ll be amazed with the results.

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My only regret after such a great workshop is not having anything to send to Mr. Maas’ agency after he so kindly extended an invitation to all of the attendees to query him. Maybe one day, Mr.Maas, maybe one day…

Character Problems

Writers of fiction! Yes, you. Have you ever had a character that just demands to be written a certain way? One who basically takes over whatever you had planned for him/her and won’t listen to reason?

Authors are known for saying that this character or that in their own story surprised them with something they did or maybe something they did not do. For those who do not write fiction this must come out as ridiculous, an affectation of sorts. After all, characters are figments of an author’s imagination, the creative product of a writer’s mind.

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A characters is an amalgam of real and fantasy, a bit of someone the writer may have met at a party long ago or sat next to on a transcontinental flight. It can hold a little or a lot of the author’s own personality quirks and embody many of her dreams and/or expectations. Conversely it may impersonate the author’s fears and distastes.

Characters, albeit fictional, can be as complex as their human counterparts, so it is not altogether surprising if in the process of writing them the author is suddenly hit with something they didn’t expect or plan. If engaged in the act of creating a story, the writer ends up  falling in love with her own characters or feel as if they are old friends, it does not come as a shock to anyone who has “birthed” a few.

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In my next few blogs I will be exploring my own process of creating characters for my books. How they develop and become often so real to me, I find myself missing them after I finish writing the story. Come back and enjoy the ride.

Challenge (Are You Game?)

A teacher friend of mine, the very talented Katlyn, wrote this wonderful flash fiction piece as a response to a picture prompt. As soon as I heard her read it I knew I had to post it here. So very appropriate for a romance writer’s blog. But let’s turn it into a challenge of sorts. Read her wonderful, spicy story and finish it. No longer than one thousand words and keep it clean(ish). You can post it in the comment section or link it to your own blog. Your choice.

The picture prompt was Norman Rockwell’s “At  the Breakfast Table” . Thank you Katlyn  for allowing me to share it. Enjoy (I know I did).

Breakfast by Rockwell

The restaurant was more crowded than he would have hoped. “Drat,” he mumbled as he waited, cursing his decision to meet here. He knew she would be looking for a man with a hat and a copy of yesterday’s edition of The Post, but he guessed she would not expect him to be fully hidden by it. Oh well, desperate times and all.

He attempted to read, but was too distracted by the bustle of the cafe and his anticipation of what was to come.

Soon he felt a presence, and was torn between remaining fully camouflaged by the paper and sneaking a glance around it. He opted for the safe alternative- a glance downward.

He noticed  the billowing of a floral dress, a pair of black stiletto heels approaching him at a somewhat alarming rate. The chair across from him moved and then settled. Her leg tapped his underneath the table. He blushed.

He could feel her leaning in. She whispered  through the still expanded paper, “Having second thoughts?”

He tried to stop his hands from trembling. Discretion was his first priority, and a shaking newspaper was far from silent. “Only about the location,” he whispered back. His necktie felt suddenly tighter. He loosened it. Then, with a sudden bout of bravado, he breathed, “Where can we go?”

Serendipity and Vermeer

We went on a writing marathon day. I thought at first it was the same thing we often do during NaNoWriMo; a whole day dedicated to just sitting down and writing. I was very wrong (or at least 95% wrong). Yes, writing marathon day is about writing as much as you can, but it is also about walking, visiting, learning, and even socializing.

This event was organized by the NVWP (Northern Virginia Writing Program) Invitational Summer Institute that I am participating in. We all met at the historical town of Fredericksburg, Virginia with the goal of wondering around town, writing our thoughts as they ebbed and flowed.

I started the day by myself, frantically searching for that quaint little bookshop that sported a great coffee shop. But alas! It was no more. Instead, there is now a very nice used books store with great little nooks and crannies inviting a reader or a writer to spend some time in. I accepted the invitation and sat for a while, looking around me and writing. I had sat close to the Art books and my wandering eye immediately latched on to a big book about Vermeer.

I am known in the Facebook world as “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” because I use that painting as my profile picture. A couple weeks ago I even had a gentleman compliment me on how beautiful I was. I had to control my urge to thank him and tell him the girl in that painting has been dead for quite some time. But I digress…

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The point is I absolutely love Vermeer (more even than Da Vinci, my art/science idol). I don’t think there is a single painting of his I don’t like. His art is so serene, it’s like visual yoga. Years ago, when I volunteered as an art docent for Kitsap County Schools in Washington, I taught a lesson using the Milk Maid as the focal point. As I was preparing the lesson, a sense of calm came over me. Looking at the gentle light coming through the window and the young milk maid preparing things for the day ahead, you could almost hear the sound of silence, that magical sound that envelops the early morning world.

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When I was a child I liked waking up before everyone else. When the moon was still holding on to its supremacy over the sun. When the light was reduced to faint tendrils lacking the power to break the darkness yet. I sat at the window and watched the world wake up. One light here, another there. The first train of the day rolling on its tracks, early workers walking silently to the train station, a few early worshipers climbing the long staircase to the church. All was quiet. All was well with the world in that silent moment. Serendipity.

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Her Hands

Today, during one of NVWP’s presentations I was given this picture and after we analyzed and talked about it for a while I felt I had to write something  down. I had to write what this picture was telling me at that moment. So here it is.

 

Her eyes speak of long, hard days, empty bellies and desperation, but her hands tell another story; the way they cocoon her baby, pulling him closer to her beating heart.“Here child, take a little of my strength, ride the rhythm of my heart, drink from the fountain of my endless love,” they whisper…

 

For more of her and other Great Depression photographs, click here.

A Little Girl Called Mafalda

I’m writing this blog while I’m trying (in vain I should add) to drink a cup of coffee with a totally numbed mouth. I just came from the dentist where I endured a deep cleaning. As I sat on the dentist chair, mouth wide open with an ultrasonic drill scratching away all the plaque I have managed to collect in the last six months, I am reminded of one of my favorite cartoonist’s famous strips. Growing up I was a serious groupie (who am I kidding? Still am) of Argentinian cartoonist Quino and his most famous creation, Mafalda. I have every strip he ever drew and to this day I delight in reading them. He had that uncommon ability to appeal to children as much as adults and be able to tell some very serious truths about the political and social situation in his country at the time and also the world in general. He was drawing these comic strips at a time when the war in Vietnam was still going on. I read them quite a bit later, but his truths were and still are true today.

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Just as he was free with the sharp and biting political and social commentary, he was also amazing at articulating common truths, episodes or feelings that came straight from everybody’s life, no matter where you came from or how old you were. One of the funniest sayings of his (or hers, since most of these messages were being delivered by an elementary school girl, Mafalda and her friends) was that the dentist was yet another place where you go, you sit down, open your mouth to say nothing. I can concur 🙂

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Mafalda, a precocious little girl who wants peace and justice for the world more than anything else, named her pet turtle “Bureaucracy” (Burocracia). In one strip she reads the definition of democracy in the dictionary and bursts out laughing when it says the government of the people by the people (see below).

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I’m always amazed at how relevant she still is today. Mafalda is just a little younger than me (yes, I’m ancient) but while I age, she will always remain the six year old she was when Quino created her. Gotta love her!

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My Writing Process

I wanted to talk to you about the process of writing. I have read so many great advice articles about it and I thought to myself, “I’m a writer. I have advice to give, right?” Well, apparently if it’s there, it’s buried deeper inside of me than my little ceramic angel on my front yard today (Snowmagedon 2.0).

I seem to do things out of intuition rather than following any perceived and/or planned process. This is not just with writing. My teaching is the same way (try to explain that one to your principal) and so is anything in the creative realm of my brain. I am a pantser, but I do some planning. The problem is, I often change my plans as I go along or forget them altogether.

Normally when I start a piece, be it a long novel or just flash fiction, I start with a kernel of an idea and I just let my imagination take me wherever it wants to take me. Don’t get me wrong; this “system” has a lot of flaws. For instances, I often forget what my characters look like and then I find myself searching the whole finished manuscript for inconsistencies. It is not unusual for one of my main characters to start with brown and end up with green eyes. I’ve been training myself to write these things down as I go along so I avoid these time-consuming mistakes. I have tried character questionnaires and interviews. They are fun, but just like with real people I find it very difficult to describe the entirety of my characters’ personalities, likes and dislikes off-hand. They are a work-in-progress, they grow as the story grows and like most of us they change and adapt to whatever situation I throw at them. The same goes for the plot. It grows and stretches and demands certain things that I could not possibly have planned ahead.

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My so-called process probably does not deserve the name since I, myself, can’t really explain it. It is something that comes from inside of me as a seed and grows to a story. But, of course, I need the tools to do so. If I hadn’t learn to write properly or been a reader and a student of other authors’ art, no matter how creative I may be I would have never been able to write them. A solid piece of advice I can give any aspiring writer is to read. A lot! And not just read, but to pay close attention to the way the author writes, the words he/she uses and how he/she uses them. Writing is part creativity, part structure. For any writing to be good both parts have to be present.

Writing is sometimes a lot like weaving or knitting. Instead of yarn you are weaving all your experiences, your dreams, your fantasies into one story. Conversations you’ve overheard, a character you once met at a party or in the supermarket, a place you visited when you were twelve or a language you heard someone speak once. That’s the magic of writing; turning what could have been the most banal thing into something special.

Whatever your “process” is, the most important thing you can do is pay attention to your surroundings and let the ideas flow. And of course, your heart out.

 

Life Is Beautiful

 

My life has been a bit nightmarish for the past few months. Life as I knew it, and as I had hoped for myself and my family, took a turn in the other direction about 10 years ago. Lots have happened; some good, a lot of bad, probably nothing very different than what a lot of people experience in one shape or another. I guess I just wasn’t ready for it. I had a very happy, very “normal” childhood and part of me (a big part) believed that with the right attitude I could fix just about anything. I have since discovered I can’t fix everything no matter how much I want to, or how much I work for it. I can’t say I’ve totally accepted that, but I am learning to live with it. You know the prayer, God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. I have tried and it’s a mixed bag of results. Sometimes I can, sometimes I just curl up into a human ball and cry my eyes out.

A friend posted a clip from the online (at least I think it’s an online thing) movie/documentary Human where a French Jewish woman, who was in a concentration camp as a child, retells this amazing story of what a simple gesture can do to change someone’s life forever. It got me thinking about how fortunate I am. I have never been imprisoned, I was never a victim of violence, I was never really hungry (well, I came close one time but it didn’t last long. A story for another day), never had to wear rags or go naked, always had a roof over my head, people who love me in my life… Therefore, as hellish as my daily life sometimes is, it pales by comparison to many others. That’s when I decided to go back to my original plan; to focus on the good things I have rather than put all my energy into the bad.

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With Thanksgiving just around the corner I thought it was the right time to write a series of blogs (bloggings???) about things, events, or people  I am so very thankful to have in my life. For those “other” things that keep me up at night, cause me awful stress headaches, and make me cry ever so often, make no mistake; your time on (virtual) paper will come. But for now let’s smile and focus on the bright.

I start you off with a picture of serenity. Vermeer is by far my favorite painter, even more than Leonardo DaVinci (even though I am his #1 groupie). Vermeer’s paintings convey such serenity, such peace of mind, staring at his work is like therapy for me. So, I give you the Milkmaid. Bask in the quiet of the morning, the tender brightness of the new sun, the sweet promise of fresh milk; the calm before the storm of the daily madness. Namaste.

 

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The Artist (Flash Fiction)

The ceiling plaster peeled like it had been sunburned and great gaping holes appeared to spread along the surface as mold on old cheese. Rusted chairs collapsed on their sides and the once magnificent figures in the murals along the bottom of the stage were marred beyond recognition by the merciless passing of time. The curtains on the rotting wooden stage, threadbare and frayed, were faded to a non-descript hue and looked like they would vanish in a big poof of dust should anyone touch them.

The artist, standing in the back of the theater, didn’t see the ugliness that others saw. As his eyes roamed toward the ceilings, the frescoes of gods and goddesses of old mythology looked back at him with the haughty stance of the immortal. Exquisite chandeliers hung from the ceilings, a glorious shower of crystal, gold leaf, and glittering silver over opulent scarlet velvet seats standing straight and tall like royal members of the audience.

The artist’s eyes saw murals of vibrant color and unpaired beauty adorning the low wall along the stage and shiny hard wood flooring, rich and warm in color, sleek to the touch of the tiny ballerina feet that had once graced it with their pointes. The curtain fell toward the stage floor in a grand cascade of ruby red velvet, an artificial but enchanting night sky studded with sparkling man-made stars.

He walked slowly across the theater of his dreams, his work of art, his masterpiece. Hands brushing the backs of the chairs in a gentle caress, the artist reveled in the familiarity and intimacy of that touch, the memories it stirred, the feelings it inspired. Slowly as in a trance, the artist climbed the stage steps and came to rest center stage, staring blindly into the ghost audience of bygone days. There he stood for a few minutes, motionless and silent as if channeling the spirits of the past.

Like a wisp of smoke, he suddenly slumped to the floor and curling himself into a ball, the artist wept. Life had gone by so fast, he had barely had time to live, shoved from one day to another by a torrent of events he could not control any more that he could control the earth’s movements. He was not afraid of dying but terror filled his heart at the thought of leaving this world without having made his mark; something left behind to remind the world of his existence however brief, a memoir of his talents however fleeting. His then young skillful hands had painted those walls and adorned the arched ceilings with loving attention and infinite patience; innocently believing it would outlast him and others after him. Believing it would give him immortality.

But here he was now, old and pathetic, fingers deformed by arthritis, spirit broken by the knowledge he was to be forgotten as soon as his heart stopped beating. Nothing left to remind the world he had once sat in that theater amongst his own works of beauty, passion galloping through his veins, dreams of immortality dancing in his head. Now he writhed on that rotted and splintered floor, sobbing amongst eternity lost. Life was gone, snuffed away like a candle, remorseless and cruel. No one would ever remember his name.