Sunday, March 31, 2013

Back home

Ahh, it is good to be back home and no longer driving. Here's hoping I don't dream of the road rushing past like I've done after other long trips.

Friday, March 29, 2013

One of the tricks in my writer's toolbox

I am more a visual person than a kinesthetic or auditory person, and as I have developed my novel writing skills, the part of my nature as strengthened.

As I write my stories, if I am unable to close my eyes to imagine the scene in its entirety, then I try to use visual aids to help me.  Sadly, I can't draw anything more than silly stick drawings - I wish I could, but I certainly missed out on gaining any talent in this area! So, I am forced to improvise.

One of the way I have found I often use to assist me visualise the stories I'm writing is to find pictures - drawings or photographs - and paste a copy or printout of them in a visual arts book.

For instance, one day I was just idly browsing through a Fantasy Art website to gain landscape inspiration for the story I was trying to write, when I came across a black and white drawing the fantasy artist had done of a male character. This random close-up image by the artist was so close to looking exactly like the male lead character that I had held in my mind for nearing two years it sent chills up my spine, and I couldn't help myself: I just had to copy the picture. I had to keep a copy of my Mason!

It was this picture of Mason that gave me the idea to start collecting other images to help me with my story writing.

Since that day, I have collected drawings and photographs of both weird and wonderful places, and a handful of images that closely (but not as perfectly) resemble my other characters from the different stories I have in the works. 

When I am stuck for words, especially descriptions, I am able to pull my visual arts diary out, flip through the pages, and before you know it I am back scribbling words down on paper or my fingers are desperately trying to keep up with the speed of thoughts and get the words up on the screen without errors.

The last time I came to visit my mum, I went for a walk and came across my idea of a Wizards tree.  A few days before I returned earlier this week, a tornado ripped through this beautiful country area and left a trail of devastation in its wake. On my first evening here, I went for another walk to check on the state of my Wizards tree - because its location was in the direct path of the tornado.  I was relieved to find my Wizards tree still there and without damage - but the trees surrounding it were broken or else looking worse for the wear.  Those other trees had been my Wizard trees buffer against such howling brutality.  I already had a photograph, already firmly pasted into my visual arts diary, for when I one day get around to writing the story with which I will use this perfect Wizards tree in the setting.  But the child in me - the one that loves story's with magic and wizardry - couldn't help but consider that perhaps my Wizards tree had been protected by magic.

Do you use little tricks like collecting interesting pictures to help you in your storytelling descriptions, or even to get you into the writing mood?  Share your thoughts in the comments section!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Vote for me, please

Hi Everyone

Entry for the Australian Writer's Centre Blog Awards has now closed, and voting can begin.  Please take a few minutes out of your busy schedules to support me and my blog by voting for me NOW!

There are lots of wonderful prizes on offer for serious aspiring authors like myself; so please help me win one of those precious prizes!

There is two ways for you to vote... You can either click on the Vote for Me badge below, or you can click on the direct link here to be taken to the voting page. When you click on the 'continue' button, you will be able to scroll down the alphabetical listing of entrants and find "Char Mesan Writes".

And to everyone who kindly supports me... Thank you!

Blogging versus Novel writing

One of the things I am really enjoying about blogging - my recent discovery - is the ability (and pay-off) to write short or long posts, depending on the writer's mood and the topic being address.

What I don't like, is that since I started blogging, I haven't really spent any time working on any of my novel's in progress.  By the time I feel compelled to write (and edit) another blog post, which can take me anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours, it is hard to then 'switch gear' (a driving metaphor) to get back into the swing of writing something that isn't going to give me any 'pay-off' for quite some time. It takes me a lot of rereading what I have already done before i can pick up and continue on with my novel manuscripts.

I still have three storylines that are competing for me to finish them, and every time I read a book that I enjoy and is in the same genre or along the lines of what I am writing, I get a strong urge to focus more on my novels again rather than blogging.  But, I enjoy my newfound hobby so could never abandon it either now. 

So, once again, I am left with the same old wishful thinking that has plagued me for some time: I wish I was a full time writer.  Because that way, I would be able to work on all my projects more frequently, and get some of them to the end!

Book Review: Shara and the Haunted Village

Book Review: Shara and the Haunted Village
Author: Jeffrey Getzin

Kindle Price: $4.99
Paperback: $4.99

Book Description
A Desperate Gamble

An ancient mystery, a legendary wizard, ghosts, magic, a demon … and Shara, an impoverished seamstress.

Shara has fallen on hard times recently. She’s starving, has just lost her home, and she can’t find work anywhere. However, a chance encounter with a a sociopathic giant and a charming rogue might just be her escape from her hand-to-mouth lifestyle. All she has to do is guide them to the haunted village she had stumbled upon when she was a child.

But can she trust them?

Char Mesan Writes
This is yet another of my free Kindle book downloads. For those of you who have read other reviews I have written, you will know by now that I love the fantasy and fairy tale type stories like that of when I was growing up – but in adult form.  It is the type of books I most love to read, and is also the type of stories I am most enjoying writing.

Shara and the Haunted Village captured my interest from its title alone; the book cover aided me in my decision to download; but the opening (and then subsequent) chapter(s) compelled me to keep turning pages and read on to find out how things will work out for Shara in the end. The author has certainly mastered chapter ending hooks to keep you hanging in there reading while you should have turned the lights out.

The story starts with Shara being newly homeless, desperate for food and worried about her long time survival.  In traditionally fairytale style, an opportunity taking Shara away from her ordinary live arrives, this time in the form of guiding two travellers to a place she and a her innkeeper friend, Gil, discovered quite by accident as children: the haunted village.

Ooh, a magical place with ghosts, and a legendary wizard.  Yep, I was most certainly going to keep on reading!

Like all good fairy tales of long ago the quest involves things happening in three’s. The Chekov’s Guns are all nicely fired by stories end, and the story’s underlying mystery is enough to compel you to read on.

One strong criticism I have with Shara and the Haunted Village is some of the strong swear words contained in the story, keeping the read as an adult’s only book. Some of it – actually, correct that, all of it – was not necessary; the brashness caused me to be yankedly removed from the reader’s fictive state when I read such (unwarranted) jarring lines of character dialogue.

Without giving too much of the storyline away, there is a character who it is an essential part of that character’s personality to use such brash language, and, I don’t have a problem with cursives within a story, so I wouldn’t have had a problem with this story if the swearing had been contained to just that character.  That first incident of swearing by a character just came out of nowhere so it hits you strongly because the same character had not uttered any foul language up until that point, making it unnecessarily crude and strong when it arrived, and without any further crudeness by that character later on, I had to question why this character swore so harshly during this scene.

As a writer myself, I think the author could have tried harder to keep the story in line with the conventions of the genre the story is in; the look and feel of the story was that of an old-style fairy tale slightly modernised for a current audience.  From my perspective though, the modernisation just didn’t need to include modern swearing; the same affect (in depicting the character react in anger) could have been easily and more appropriately achieved using old-style cursives, to keep the story ‘clean’. Actually, come to think of it, I think the swearing was the only modernisation within the story – the rest of the story felt timeless or classic. 

Another aspect of the storyline that I wasn’t keen on was the author’s handling of brute violence scenes.  Yes, many a popular classic fairy tales did often include scenes graphically depicting violence. But really, I didn’t buy into the main secondary character suddenly coming at the heroine with an axe in reaction to Shara being slow at recalling her movements of over ten years ago while trying to find the entrance to the haunted village. Even brutish, bloodthirsty characters have to possess good, logical reason(s) for attacking someone they’ve paid a lot of money to help them find an object or place. Yes, such a character would be highly suspicious that the hired help might have lied just to earn the gold on offer, but no, no, no they wouldn’t be so quick to try to kill that person before they get what they came for (especially when there are only two known characters – Gil and Shara – who have found the haunted village previously, so there is not a lot of choices as to who can guide him).

At story start, I truly engaged over the character of Shara and her plight, but as the story progressed, I realised there wasn't much depth to her or any of the other characters. There wasn't a character arc where the heroine came away all the wiser for the experience when the story came full circle for its end.
What I did like about the storyline very much, as always, is the magic and the characters using their skills to get themselves out of perilous situations. The story pace and suspense were good, but towards the end I was starting to skip a lot of the text so I could get to the end.

With all the good and bad points discussed above in mind, I’m giving Shara and the Haunted Village a three-star rating. The story idea was a good one, but the execution of this novella could definitely do with a number of improvements to get it up to where it could easily have belonged.

The story was priced 'just right' for me, so the Kindle price of $4.99 is just too excessive for what the story is. (I would have been happy to have paid $1.99 but not much more).

You can purchase a paperback copy of Shara and the Haunted Village from here. It is also temporarily available as a free Kindle book.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Recipe: Char's Pie

Feeling adventurous, I cooked my mum a pie creation for dinner last night, which included a lot of our favourite foods (I'm taking advantage of being away from my food-fussy children to enjoy all my healthy 'likes').

Anyway, it tasted delicious, so it is going to become a new favourite of mine from now on:

I'm going to call it "Char's Pie"

To make...
You will need
Pie base: Shortcrust pastry
Pie filling: baby spinach leaves, baby roma tomatoes, beetroot, bacon, onion, garlic, egg, cream and topped with Feta cheese.

Cooking went sort of like this...
1. Boil beetroot in water until cooked (approximately one hour).  Allow to cool then peel and chop into cubes. Set aside.
2. Defrost pastry and drap over pie dish.
3. Chop baby spinach leaves and sprinkle over the base.
4. Chop baby roma tomatoes and sprinkle over the spinach.
5. Add cooled beetroot.

6. In saucepan, cook chopped bacon pieces, diced onion and tablespoon of crushed garlic.  Stir until cooked.  Drain in paper towel to remove excess oil/greasiness.   Sprinkle in pie dish.

7. Crack six eggs in a bowl and whisk.  Add thickened cream.
8. Chop and sprinkle feta cheese over the top.

9. Bake in oven until cooked.

The beetroot and tomatoes give it a nice sweetness.  The feta, bacon and onion give it a nice 'crumbly crunch'.

Tasted great eaten hot and cold.

Update  27/3
Look, left overs the next day!
(Char's Pie, satay chicken tenders, fresh chilled beetroot, avocado, mint in greek yoghurt, kiwi berries and blackberry). Very filling, and lots of taste!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Beauty from the Front Porch

I'm back visiting my mum.

Had great fun amusing myself on the long drive down, by searching for the perfect tree that matches a story I want to write so I could take a photograph of it (if found).  There were lots of interesting looking trees, but nothing that caused me to get excited or think, 'That's it!'

But at least my searching helped pass the time away: it can be very boring driving along the highway for approximately nine hours on your own.

And now I am arrived at my country destination.

As I write this post, my mum has gone off to work for a few hours and I am sitting on her front porch overlooking a golf course.  All I can see are trees, and bushes and manicured golf lawns.  But none of this inspires me to learn how to play the game.

I'm enjoying this idyllic setting, everything from the visual feast of nature's beauty, to its auditory sound effects, to the clean, fresh smells.

I'm under the shade of the front verandah.  It is a bright, sunny afternoon, with lots of fluffy white cloud cover. The temperature is a comfortable thirty one degrees (Celsius). At the edge of the verandah is a garden bed of flowering shrubs, both native plants and English garden. The grassy lawn is littered with shrubs and small trees one of which is adorned with bird baths and bird feeders, then there is a wide golf green followed by in the distance by a thick row of well established trees, followed by yet another golf green.  Barely visible from my position beyond that last golf green is one last row of massive gum and Australian native trees lining the edges along the banks of the Murray River.  The place is both beautiful and peaceful.

Up close, Mum's pretty garden bed is alive with colour and activity. Pansies in bright pinks, rubies, and purples nestle in ceramic pots while native shrubs, for which I don't know that names but are similar in looks to bottlebrushes are in shades of orange, and peach and apricot are bunched side by side all along the front of the cottage, and around its sides..  Everywhere else that I look, is every imaginable hue of green, green and more luscious green.

Tiny little red nose finches barely the size of my thumb are bathing in the bird bath, splashing themselves with water, dipping their beaks for a drink.  Earlier this morning, at least a dozen were hopping along the ground pecking at tiny insects and flittering away wherever the nearby Cockatoo's squawked up a loud commotion.

The bees that were feasting two per flowerhead in the bottlebrush-type bush are still gathering nectar three hours later.  A crazy blowfly just buzzed straight past me and stunned itself when it smashed into the clear plastic blind on the verandah's side where the rain usually comes in as it tried to travel to the side garden.

A Kookaburra sits in one of the bared branches of the closest gum tree, and just had caused to find something highly amusing; it's laugh is quite infectious. This close, he (or she) is really loud, even though the branches of a shrub is blocking my view of him sitting on a low branch.

Occasionally, golfers whiz past along the closest green in their canopied golf carts. A lot of the golfers have found their balls in the sand bunker today, or in the row of trees, so the humans have come closer than what I've previously seen them. But they don't stay for long; within seconds of having sent their ball soaring through the air again, they are back into their motorised carts and tearing up the course off to find their ball.

I'm enjoying how the breeze flares up out of nowhere and then dies away again, as though someone has just taken a giant breath and then decided to exhale until they can expel no more.  I'm loving the coolness and freshness and marvel how within all the 'whoosing' you can also hear the rustling and rattling of the leaves.

I am going to enjoy my week long stay!

Update.  I went back outside with my camera to try to take photo's of the finches, but when I got back they were gone.  I took a few photo's of the view, and was surprised when I realised that the Kookaburra had come in closer than I first though

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Pet Writing Peeve: Off of

I've read a lot of Kindle books lately - both fiction and non-fiction, and both published and self-published - where the author of the book writes the phrase 'up off of'' or just 'off of''. (Some of the books I read this phrase appeared multiple times within the work.)

Beside looking and sounding clunky when you read it, but I have to wonder, "is the 'of'' necessary?"

Take this sentence as an example "Julie got up off of the sofa and headed for the kitchen."  It is clear Julie was sitting down and got up, and she then walked to the kitchen, right?  I don't know about you but I stumble as I read the words 'up off of'' before the rest of the sentence rolls smoothly again.

Well, what if we reduce the word count by one little word and just wrote "Julie got up off the sofa and headed for the kitchen."  I think it is still clear Julie was sitting down and got up, and then walked to the kitchen.  But this time, I didn't stumble while reading the passage. And as a reader, that is what counts when I am determining if the book is fantastic, good, okay, so so, or not my cup of tea.

Now, I have just spent the last ten years trying to improve my novel writing skills; but, although I have improved greatly in the area of grammar (I was always a good speller, and fairly adequate punctuation-er) I still have a lot to learn when it comes to understanding grammar at the highest level.  Maybe the 'up off of' is grammatically correct and thus dropping the 'of' isn't, but as a reader, I would rather read a sentence that I can read with ease instead of one I find myself tripping over.

Maybe (which I suspect is more the case than not) it is a difference between the Australian conventions I have learned, and that of other countries.  Either way, I have to say I would avoid the unnecessary word of 'of' because it doesn't change the meaning of the sentence in any way by excluding it, so make the jump and start excluding it and see if your sentence sounds stronger and better for it.

Do you use 'off of'?  Are you an editor that can explain whether it is grammatically correct or incorrect to include or dump the word 'of'?  Please comment below!

Ego-friendly day for the Lucky Charm

Compliments.  We all love to receive them, and we probably don't give them often enough.

Today, the new Manager who started at work on Wednesday, made a comment as I was cleaning up the jobsearch room that I didn't hear properly.  As I went to ask him to repeat himself, I realised, that although Head Office had introduced the man as our new Performance Manager, I hadn't caught his name, so I was left awkwardly trying to ask him to repeat himself without making myself seem rude in how I asked this.

He was a bit of a mumbler, so even though he repeated himself, I think he worked out immediately that I still hadn't understood what he had said, so he came closer in order say it so I could hear him this time.  This lead us to having a conversation.

Because this new manager was sitting on the other side of the building to where my office is located, and he didn't really have any reason to head over to my side, although the other side staff were all getting to know what the new manager is going to be like, our side are still at the stage where we can only speculate based on the snippets of comments he has given us.

Without caring, I joked, "Well, aren't you are rude one for not coming over and introducing yourself a bit more thoroughly so our side of the building can put you through the third degree?"  And he immediately laughed, agreed and apologised for his rudeness.  Equally joking, he asked me, "So would you care to interrogate me know, so you can report back to the other side?"  I laughed, agreed and led the way to a vacant office, much to his surprised amusement.

Anyway, during the conversation, he introduced himself by name, and gave me a (not so brief) snapshot of his (colourful) career leading up to his coming to work for our company.  Half a hour later, when I was up to speed, I was finally able to do more than just nod and say, "Uh huh" (to show my interest in what he was saying) when he paused briefly mid-sentence to take a breath before continuing. So, now that he was finished, I said, "Well, my name is Char--" and he interrupted to say he was already well-aware of my name and position. I was a bit taken aback (seeing as we had not been properly introduced, but I guess the other side had had cause to mention who I am and what I do so I shouldn't have been as taken aback as I was).

I couldn't help myself, I said, "Ahh, so my reputation precedes me."  And here I received the best compliment I have gotten in a while, when he replied immediately, "And so it should when it is so glowing and favourable."  This shocked me.  I had to ask, "So who's saying nice things about me?"  I really had to know.  And he smiled, and replied, "Everyone in the company.  The CEO, the HR Manager, the Site Manager, all of the staff on the other side of the building.  They all have said that you not only have the best client engagement the company has ever known, you are also the most efficient worker and friendliest and most helpful staff member they have ever had too. Pretty much, they tell me that they have nicknamed you Lucky Charm because they feel they scored well by getting to have you on the team."

Wow, wow, wow.

I sort of felt like a bitch for my 'joke' in telling he was rude for not introducing himself, because as we all know, there is often an element of truth in those sort of jokes - the laughter and smiling is given to lessen the blow of what the person really feels the need to say.  But, gee it was nice to get such nice feedback about how my fellow colleagues see me.  I mean, I have always known that I try hard to do a good job, work efficiently and be nice to people, so it quite ego-friendly to hear that other people see this side of me as well.

And my team mates have been calling my Lucky Charm, Princess Charming, and (strangely enough) Charmunda since I started.

So, I've had a very lovely, ego-friendly afternoon, which carried well into my evening.  I hope you all are on the receiving end of your own beautiful compliment by the people in your circle by the day's end!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Novel writing exercise: It was a dark and stormy day

Okay, you are into writing your novel and the scene you are about to write is on a day that is dark and stormy. But to describe it as this (dark and stormy) would be a really bland, and boring, way to express this. Yeah? Yeah.

I saw this activity a few months ago on an author website, and even though I was too late to participate, I read through the many answers to see how creative and unique writers could say the same thing.  I was most interested to learn how other writers, especially the published authors amongst the participants, handled this in the hopes of being able to analyse my own handling of setting the scene and creating the required mood, so that I might improve my novel writing skills.  Only, the problem was, from my perspective, many of the writers who did participate deviated from the true purpose of the exercise. Where what was being asked was to write this setting, nearly all of the writers that participated instead used the sentence as a jump-off point and started to tell (or show) their own mini stories that they were suddenly inspired to write. Not what the exercise was calling for.

So I thought it might be fun if we revisited this common novel writing exercise here.

Published or unpublished, why not write a few sentences (or a paragraph or two) setting this scene:  'It is a dark and stormy day' in the comments section below, and allow other readers to gain insight  into the technique of Showing, Not Telling, and the concept that the same thing can be expressed in many different ways (our writer's voice and style).

Note. I was going to go first... but as soon as I started to write, I developed instant writer's block. So I'll let you go first, and participate once I'm not so tired, okay.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Nagging worked!

A couple of years ago, my darling son decided he wanted to join the Police force (if he could).  But before he would consider sending in an application form (despite knowing that the application process could take months, even years) my son was determined to try to lose the ten kilo excess he was carrying from too much partying and drinking and get into shape so he wouldn't have to suffer like some of the unfortunates being filmed on "Recruits"  (Channel Ten television series about Police recruits joining the NSW Police force which we watched each week).

Now I had tried to encourage my son to eat healthier and to get him to do some sort of exercise for a very long time, so naturally when he told me that he would need me to support him in his efforts I did a very good job at not bursting out laughing at his earnestness. "Sure" I replied, straining to remain upright, because what I really wanted to do was roll around on the floor cracking up with hysterical laughter.  My son? Commit to exercise?  (Even the memory of this makes me want to laugh hysterically!)

So with a straight face, I asked him exactly how I could support him.  He rather surprised me when he asked me to be his Drill Sergeant (though, I shouldn't have been surprised, really, because at the time we were playing some electronic word game on Facebook (which the name escapes me), and which we had both reached the rank of Drill Sergeant only days previously).

For the next four to six months, three times per week I drove my son and myself up to our local Athletics park and I put him through his paces.  I barked orders for which he wasn't allowed to refuse or argue or whine over.  He performed laps around the track, dropped to the ground to give me twenty push-ups or sit ups or star jumps.  I ordered him to run up the steep embankment, do a loop around the tree then take the stone steps over in the tiered spectator area to return to the starting line and do another lap.

Most evenings I had to nag to force him to get his joggers on, to hop into the car.  He was lots of hard work convincing him to stick with his goal, but no matter how hard he protested, I nagged, nagged, and nagged a lot more until he surrendered just to get me off his case (I took being Drill Sergeant to heart).

Well, the police dream didn't pan out, but my son did develop a love of maintaining his fitness.  It was at his encouragement that I bought a decent treadmill after eighteen months of saving up to buy one.  I wanted one so I could try to regularly exercise whether it rained or not, but I got one because I knew it wouldn't be just me using it in the end, so was well worth the money I couldn't really afford to part with.

Earlier this year, after having gone months without walking on the treadmill, and feeling all the worse for this sad state of affairs, and my son not having used it either because he was always at the Gym, and my youngest daughter not being able to use it because her stride is longer than the treadmill's rolling platform, he said to me something along the lines that 'the treadmill is just becoming a dust collector', and we both committed to starting to use it all over again.

In January, I decided as part of my belated New Year's Resolution that I was going to try to walk three times per week on it for 45 minutes to assist me build and maintain my fitness and lose a few extra kilos.  I was tracking really well, until I went away to visit my mum.  Since I got back, I hadn't got on the treadmill at all, mainly because I still haven't caught up at work so my days have been very long and tiring so that last thing I want to do is be energetic or do some exercise.

Last weekend, my wonderful son who has maintained his regular going to the Gym and walking or running on the treadmill regime told me that he will support me to get back into the swing of exercise again, and would if I didn't comply, start being a Drill Sergeant towards me. I protested that I am coming home too exhausted to do even fifteen minutes, and somehow or other, he managed to nag me into agreeing to do ten minutes every single day until I re-gain my motivation and energy and drive to do this (or more) for my own self.

So, Monday night, goes something like: "Mum, have you don't your ten minutes yet?"  I snap, "No.  I just walked in the door, and have to cook dinner.  Can I at least have a bit of time to rest and relax before you start nagging?"  He replies, "Fine.  At 8pm, if you haven't gone and done your ten minutes by then, you will have to do fifteen minutes tonight."  I started to protest, but he counter-argued, "Fine, I'll make it twenty then."

Suddenly realising I am not going to come out winning here, I forced myself to complete ten minutes (I only did exactly ten minutes, not a second more) before 8 pm rolled around.  When I went back to the lounge room where my son was watching some television, before I could say a word, he said, "Hmm, that was only nine minutes and forty five seconds."  I had to argue hard before he would accept that I did do my exact ten minutes.

So, Tuesday night, I walk in the door with a bad headache that I had not been able to shake all day with either my Sunbreeze Oil (a first, which I am surprised at) or Nurafen Rapid Relief (which goes to show how bad and long I had been suffering because I hate taking medication to get rid of headaches).  Dear young son says, "But you're not going to try using that as an excuse to get out of your ten minute treadmill commitment... are you, Mum?" No son, not with YOU bullying me into it.

So, tonight, I beat son home, but then had to take youngest daughter out for driving lesson and get her to her basketball game. I walk back in the door yawning after picking her back up, and ask my daughter, "Are you going to eat or have a shower first?"  (She usually says 'eat' and tells me to have my shower first. Not tonight!)  Daughter replies, "Shower."  I try to talk her into her having the dinner that is waiting for her so I can go have my shower. She is almost in agreement when Drill Sergeant pipes up from playing his game and says, "You can't have your shower yet, Mum.  You haven't done your ten minutes yet."  I tried to protest.  I lose the battle.

I did another ten minutes on the treadmill tonight.

Thanks, son.  :-)

(Bloody nagging Drill Sergeants!)

Messages on Whiteboards

The other week I bought a whiteboard for my study to help my organise my writing projects, particularly now that I had just started this blog and was looking for a convenient way to write down post ideas.

Since that purchase, seeing as my study is often commandeered by two of my three children for their course studying requirements, I have been finding random messages being left for me - my children think they are funny - you know, 'I was here' nd that sort of thing.

Well, today I came home to find my daughter who doesn't live at home any more has been to visit (use my computer), and she left me a message that made me smile: under "Ebook ideas" she has written '[her name]'s Crazy Personality'.

Yes, middle child. I most definitely could write a series of books on the things you say and do.  I could 'novelise' pretty much most of your life since you were born, you've provided me with a lot of juicy material to include in comedy, romance, suspense and horror scenes.

Hmmm, have I just struck upon yet another fantastic story (or scene) writing idea?

I'd go on to sell millions, I'm sure!

Nahh, as interesting as writing about your crAzy personality would be, I'm not going to do it.  I don't want to share the riches I would make with you... so if you are reading this, daughter-dear ...


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Fleshing out Ideas: The Orange exercise

Fleshing out Ideas: The Orange Exercise

A couple of years ago, when my son was at university, he was coming home upset when he got his assessments back either with a fail or barely scraping in a pass.  He complained that he was giving it his best, and that he just mustn’t be good enough. He didn’t want to drop out, but he wasn’t sure how much more humiliation he could take, constantly facing being a failure.

My son is never a failure, even if he fails in some of his efforts. He always received top marks for all the practicals required of him and was able to answer the lecturer’s questions even when no one else attending the lecture could, but according to him and some of his lecturer’s they just had no idea why he couldn’t transfer his competence when it came to getting things on paper.

Being an actively involved mum and worrying about him not achieving his dreams, I asked if I could assist in any way. And, because I have been working on improving my writing skills over the last ten years, even though I was applying them within my novel writing, he asked if I wouldn’t mind having a read of his failed assessment to see if I could detect where he was going wrong. We both knew that if I had completed the same assessment, I probably would have got higher marks, so we just needed to know what I would have done to work out what he was missing out on doing.

First up, my son was in deep trouble with putting words down on paper.  What he could rattle off to me with ease verbally became a tangled web of confusion when he attempted to say what he meant on paper. All those years in primary and high school, and he had never been shown how to get his words down right, never shown how to improve, only assessed and graded at a lesser level than others.  So my first piece of advice to him was to write it like he says it; to actually answer the question by speaking it aloud first, then having heard his answer and how smooth it had come out, to then try to write exactly what he had just said, verbatim.  This took him quite a bit of practice, but he started improving his written words immediately, until this was no longer a problem and he no longer had to answer the question aloud first.

The next thing I noticed within his answering was that he was limited in his ideas.  Whenever there was a ‘give an example’ type question, my son was unable to come at that one thing from a number of different angles. 

I used to be the same back when I used to go to school, but I must have changed over time while learning to write novels. Quite exacerbated with him one afternoon when I could see three or four different points that he couldn’t think of on the topic he was trying to answer staring at him in his text book, I worked out that he was suffering from ‘limited thinking’ and was just not allowing himself the time to come up with ‘more’ ideas with which to include as part of his answer, not allowing himself to explore other options.  

To try to help him along, I spontaneously asked him to think of the word ‘Orange’ and write down everything he could think of in relation to the word ‘orange’ over the next hour no matter how loose the association for him, and whether or not that association is ‘correct’ or not; and advised him that I would leave the room and sit down somewhere and do the exact same activity so we could compare results.

I left him sitting at his youngest sister’s writing desk and I went to my study.  I grabbed a piece of paper, and I listed all the things that were shouting for me to write down on the A4 notepad from the moment I wrote ‘Orange’ in the centre of the top line. 

In the first five minutes I listed one item after another until I had about fifteen items listed.  Then, my well of ideas dried up, and I looked over my list feeling quite satisfied by my efforts. Then, having given my mind a few minutes of rest, a second wave of associations to the word ‘orange’ started coming to me, and I slowly added another couple of items to my list, feeling rather proud of myself.  As I reread the list, just to make sure I had listed everything I could think of (not believing I could come up with any more ideas), yet another wave of ideas hit me. By this time, I had cottoned on that I needed to give myself breaks in between listing things, to allow some of the previous words listed in front of me to trigger new lines of thinking, sparking even more ideas.

Some of these new ideas weren’t directly associated with ‘orange’ only the association listed, and some ideas repeated themselves. But I kept adding more things that I associated with the word ‘orange’.  When the hour was up, I returned to my daughter’s room where my son was sitting down looking bored and frustrated even though he was straining to get a few more ideas on paper so that I wouldn’t be disappointed or something because he could hear me coming. I was surprised (and slightly disappointed – but not in him) when I found he had only five things listed on his sheet of paper.

When I told him how many items I was able to add to my list, he cried with frustration and amazement that I had reached thirty two things. 

Now I wasn’t trying to make him feel bad for not having achieved the same; but I was able to point out that there were more possibilities than he wasn’t allowing to flow through him.  I suggested that he cease trying to force the ideas to come to him, and do little things to help him become stronger at generating more ideas than just the initial ones. So, I didn’t show him my list.

Instead, I left him alone again with the advice, ‘now that you know that there are at least thirty two possible associations that I have come up with, why don’t you try again. It doesn’t matter if you don’t get a high number like I did, just that you find a couple more ideas than what you have.’

This cheered him up a bit; it wasn’t a competition for which he was losing. He was free to only have to churn the cogs in his brain enough to come up one or two more than what he currently had.  The pressure came off. I stayed outside the room he was in for a few minutes listening.  

At first, he wasn’t writing anything on the paper, because I couldn’t hear the pen scratching.  But, after a while, I heard sudden movement followed by the pen on paper, and I could tell even without seeing him that he had just hit on his second wave of brilliant ideas; and I smiled.  I knew my son had it in him.  I knew he is smart and just needed to stop limiting himself to what immediately comes to mind, to give himself time to let those ideas come to him. 

Maybe, me being twenty three years older than him gave me more life experiences, more associations to the word ‘orange’ than him, but I didn’t think so.  He lived in the same house, the same suburb, the same country. Therefore, he saw much the same things as me.  This was not about how intelligent or smart either of us might or might not be.  This was about letting go of control and trusting your own self to deliver what is already within you.

When I returned to the room, my son did something that I do often but he had never done before: he lifted a hand into the ‘stop’ gesture, signalling for me to not start talking else I would ruin his concentration, ruin his line of thinking, would cause him to lose the flow of ideas now coming to him.

Did you get that?  Line of thinking.

Lines of Thinking

When my son first sat down to complete the ‘list anything and everything you can think of associated (no matter how loosely) to the word ‘orange’’, he only allowed himself to listen to the first line of his thinking; the one with the immediate responses.  But he had other lines, buried deeper, just waiting for a neural pathway to connect the lines and bring the idea forth into his consciousness.

I immediately retreated from the room.  And waited until he was ready to come and get me.

Then we compared lists.

Our first three things listed were exactly the same.  These were the immediate, easy, obvious associations we both made: it’s a colour; it’s a fruit; it’s the middle colour in traffic lights.

My son had built his list up and now had seventeen things on his list’ a huge improvement from where he had first believed possible.  And, when we compared what we had both recorded there were three or four items that were on his list but not mine, and vice versa that when we both heard the other persons idea that we had missed out on, had us both slapping our foreheads wondering ‘how did I miss that?’

My son learned a very important lesson that day that he still applies to this day.  For all future assessments, he no longer stuck to just the first three things he thought of (though he made sure he included these because he would have lost marks if he didn’t include these obvious ideas), but he started providing more content and less waffle. Everything his teachers and lecturer’s had been telling him all the way along, only he had not understood how to provide more content so did what most people do: fluffed his word count out with waffle. I’m really proud that I helped him learn this; and I appreciated him taking me out for dinner as his way of saying thanks.

And because of this new understanding, his marks jumped from averaging in the 48 – 53% mark to now hovering consistently at the 70 – 75%: a comfortable pass rather than a fail or just scraping in one.  We both don’t understand why he doesn’t get higher compared to other students, but we took the marks happily because they fell into the ‘breezed it in’ pass range.

This expanding your thinking exercise is useful for writers, and jobseekers, not just struggling university students. 

As a novelist, don’t limit yourself to just the first couple of story or scene ideas that come to mind.  Why not allow your mind to give you its second, third, fourth, fifth or more lines of ideas as well.  You might later dismiss some of those ideas, but at least you have more to choose from; at least you aren’t playing it safe and going with what everyone else thinks of.

As a jobseeker, don’t limit yourself to the same old boring method of submitting cover letters.  Use this technique to assist you think about your skills, knowledge and experience, so you can present the right information to potential employers.  Every jobseeker tells employers ‘I’m reliable’ and ‘I can do this job’.  Come up with examples from your past and demonstrate your knowledge rather than claim it.

Yesterday, I chanced upon a blog by a novel writer giving the exact same advice that I gave my son four years previously. Under the context of novel writing, this same blogger/writer was dispensing the same points I was trying to make with my son that day.  Unfortunately, I can’t link to that post because I was working on my laptop under battery power, and was unable to get mains powered in time, so lost the page I was at.

So, if you are a school or university student, a writer of fiction or non-fiction, or a jobseeker stuck for ‘fleshing out’ ideas, then I recommend you completing a similar idea generating exercise to that of my ‘orange’ exercise. You never know, you may just find that you too have more ideas than you thought you had.