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Many writing-related books and blogs I’ve read suggest using sensory elements to make the setting richer and more realistic. The toughest one for me to convey in my writing is the sense of taste. I’ve included scenes where characters were eating, but have been stumped as to how to describe the tastes without making it seem like a deliberate writer’s ploy. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a foodie, and absolutely hate cooking, but tastes are normally not something I think about—which makes them awfully hard to write about.

Yesterday 2 of my sisters and I spent the day sorting through the remaining items in our mother’s house, deciding what was worth donating, what should be discarded, and what we would keep to use ourselves—or save as mementoes of a woman who had impacted our lives more than any other. Afterwards, we went to the Cracker Barrel restaurant where each of us had taken our mother on many occasions. The sights, the sounds, the entire setting of that restaurant brought back memories that are precious to me, but the tastes were what reminded me most of my mother. I experienced firsthand how much emotion certain tastes can trigger, and how food really can have an important role in our lives.

All 3 of us chose chicken and dumplings as our main course, with cornbread to go with it, simply because that’s what my mom always ordered at Cracker Barrel. I even ordered lemonade and country green beans (not together!) in honor of her. As we ate, we compared our meals to the ones Mom had prepared for us as children. Her dumplings were heavier, somewhat doughier, but had a similar taste. I recognized the flavor of lard on the green beans; my mom always and only used lard as a flavoring. She saved the bacon drippings in a pink can next to her stove, and used it in beans, mashed potatoes, and gravies. It wasn’t until we all left home, and my dad died, that she started using store-bought cooking oils (Crisco), and that was only because she had no one to cook bacon for.

Memories of her will always be with me even though she is not; and though I may not be any better at describing tastes in my stories, I know that dumplings and green beans will forever remind me of my childhood and my mom.

 

 

What foods or tastes carry special memories for you? Which of the 5 senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, vision) is hardest for you to include in your writing? Do you agree that including tastes or descriptions of food in a story helps convey emotions or can have special meaning, or does it seem unnecessary to you?

My nephew recently made a comment that struck home with me. He said “I wish to be better at being myself.”

His comment inspired me to think about many things, including how I could apply it in a writing-related post. Examining the term “voice” seemed a natural choice, but I covered that topic in depth on April 9, 2010 and can’t think of anything new to add. Instead, I’ll discuss comparisons.

My daughter and I are similar in many ways. In fact, as she was growing up I often felt a sense of déjà vu when I looked at her. Now, I feel like a faded reflection of the girl I was; a totally different woman. Now I see in her the things I’m not; the differences rather than the similarities. And I’m fine with that.

 

Me and Lisa

 

Ads and television glorify the beautiful people, not the ordinary ones. Success is generally equated with how much money or fame a person has attained. We compare ourselves to our friends, our co-workers, the neighbors, published authors, etc., etc., and that comparison may stoke our egos or leave us frustrated.

What I remind myself of when the comparisons make me feel inferior is that I can only be the best I am capable of. Those other people have not lived my life, and don’t have the same responsibilities and experiences that I have. They are different. I am different. We may have similar goals, but we are not equally equipped to meet them.

As a child, my dream was to be an astronaut or a stewardess. Health issues and a fear of heights changed my aspirations. Then I decided I’d be a science fiction writer, and I devoured science fiction books and magazines about space and astronomy. Later I discovered sociology, and human relationships became more exciting than science. I wanted to save the world. Reality and love changed my mind, and I became a mother instead. (Of all my dreams, that one turned out to be the most challenging—and the most satisfying.)

Recognizing our strengths as well as our weaknesses can help us set realistic goals, but sometimes we need to work on areas of our lives that interfere with our attainment of them. Sometimes we need to set short term goals in order to improve our chance of success in the long term. And sometimes we need to accept the fact that we will never achieve our dream. In which case, we need to remember that doesn’t mean we should give up dreaming—we just need to focus on a different one.

At this point in life I aspire to write. My long-term goal is to complete a historical romance novel and have it published. In the short term, I work on learning as much as I can about how to accomplish that goal—and I write. Realistically, I know the chances of becoming a traditionally published author are slim. But that doesn’t stop me from trying. Maybe I’ll be successful, and maybe I won’t, but without trying, failure is assured.

We each have experiences that shape our lives, attitudes, and beliefs. Combined with our innate personality, these experiences help define who we are and what we will become—a unique individual. Let’s embrace our uniqueness. Let’s focus on being the best we can be as we strive to achieve our dreams.

 

 

For more encouragement specifically for writers, see agent Rachelle Gardner’s post entitled Comparison Doesn’t Work, and editor Lynn Price’s post Play to Your Strengths.

5 Novel Annoyances

Rest assured that this is not just a rant, though it is a personal opinion post. There are plenty of writing-related things that annoy me, so I’ve restricted myself to those. I’ve also limited my list to things I noticed in traditionally published books, so some agents and editors apparently weren’t bothered by the things that made me cringe.

 

1.  Quirks.

I keep reading about the necessity to make our main characters recognizable, identifiable, etc., and having a personal habit or quirk is touted as one way to go about that. But please. Use those quirks in moderation or you will annoy your readers and make them hate your characters rather than identify with them. Here are a few quirks I’ve encountered that have been used enough to become cliché:

Rolling the eyes . Some characters do it so often that I end up rolling MY eyes. Even worse is when more than one character does it. In a book I read recently, it seemed that someone rolled their eyes in every scene. I still enjoyed the story, but it was distracting enough that it inspired this post.

Raising one eyebrow. That may be a unique talent, but it has been overused in books. And every time I read it, I feel challenged to attempt raising a brow of my own. I can’t actually do it, and I know I can’t, so it’s really annoying to read about characters doing it so easily.

Twirling her hair around her finger. Lots of people do that, so how original is it?

 

2.  Deus Ex Machina.

God directly intervening to solve a problem the protagonist couldn’t possibly have figured out, especially when the protagonist doesn’t show any signs of a close relationship with God, is cheating. I want to be able to figure out what happened based on clues in the story, not witness a miracle (actually, I would like to witness a real miracle), but unless the story involves miracles as an integral part of the action, don’t end with one.

 

 3.  Explaining the ending.

Ending with page after page of people talking about what happened earlier in the book, even explaining things to minor characters who appear out of nowhere asking personal questions they are not entitled by manners or relationship to ask, is unbelievable. It is obviously a means for the author to reveal what happened in the book—in case the readers didn’t, or couldn’t, figure it out. This is a violation of the basic writing mantra of “show, don’t tell.” A good resolution will tie up loose ends, but shouldn’t have to explain the story.

 

4.  Stupid protagonists.

If the main character repeatedly makes bad decisions, doesn’t use common sense, or behaves like an idiot for no apparent reason, in my opinion she/he is stupid. (A time or two is excusable, as no one likes perfect characters.) We all do dumb things occasionally, but unless it’s a comedy I want protagonists to be people I can respect—even if I don’t like them. When stupidity is the basis for the story conflict, it feels weak and contrived. A good plot won’t need contrived behavior to keep it going.

 

5.  Poor editing.

I love words. I adore sentences that flow smoothly through my mind, leaving a vivid picture behind. But when words are misspelled, or the sentence structure makes it difficult to understand, I’m drawn out of the story and into reality. If I wanted reality, I wouldn’t be reading. So let me enjoy the world you’ve created—edit your work carefully. If you need help editing, get it.

 

What type of things pull you out of a story? What is your number 1 reading-related annoyance? What type of character quirks do you think are effective, and which ones do you consider annoying? Can you think of any “stupid” protagonists that are not annoying? Do you have any quirks?

 

I have habits, some good some bad, which structure my life and determine how I spend my day. For example, every morning before I get out of bed I pray. As soon as I get up, I straighten the covers and pillows so the bed will be ready and welcoming when I need it again. Next I turn on the coffee, feed the cats, and sit down to read my favorite blogs. From that point on, I’m usually at the mercy of whatever life throws my way.

One activity I want to add to my list of habits is writing. Oh, I write every day—lists and letters and reminders—but that’s not the kind of writing that will achieve my dreams. Like millions of others, I aspire to complete a novel. A good novel. To do that, I need to improve my writing habits. There are many changes I could make that would probably help me be more productive, but my research suggests that there are certain habits that are essential for someone who hopes to make writing a profession. I read many suggestions, but the following 4 seem the most crucial to me.

 

1.      Read everyday

Read a wide variety of books, not only for pleasure but also to analyze what works and what doesn’t. Immersing yourself in the written word will add to your knowledge, increase your vocabulary, and improve your understanding of how language is used.

2.      Learn new things

You’ve probably heard the advice to “write what you know.” The wider the range of your experiences, the more realistic you can make your writing. Often it’s the little details that you include that help readers visualize a scene. Enrich your life and acquire a goldmine of information to use in your stories by stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new things.

3.       Make writing a priority

Productive writers work a regular writing routine into their lives. The amount of time devoted to it varies widely, but there needs to be a commitment to writing. Continually placing writing at the bottom of your priority list makes it difficult (or impossible) to achieve success as a writer.

4.      Finish what you start

It’s common to work on more than one project at a time. A problem arises, though, when writers skip from one manuscript to another without ever finishing what they start. Or when they try to attain perfection, or avoid failure, by working on one project for years…and years…and years, and never submit it. At some point you have to say it’s as good as it’s going to get, and send it out.

 

 

Are you satisfied with your writing habits? What helps you be productive, and what interferes with your productivity? Do you make an effort to learn new things in order to add spice and authenticity to your writing?

By now I expected to have several posts up, be well on my way to completing my contest submissions, and have the basement cleaned out. None of those things has happened yet and January is almost over. On the positive side, though, I’ve read several books, come up with some blog post topics, and worked on my novel.

For today I have a useful tidbit of information to share with those of you who like tools to keep track of your writing progress. Svenja Liv has 4 free awesome spreadsheet themes for keeping track of your word count goals. Although I’m not experienced with Excel, I was able to download the steampunk spreadsheet template and correctly enter my data with no problem. I also use her site to update my progress bar, which is located in my blog’s sidebar. I fill in my data on her site, then copy and paste it into the widget area of my blog. These tools don’t get the writing done, but they are a visual reminder to me of how far I’ve come, and how far I need to go.

 

EDIT FEB. 15, 2013  The link to Svenja Liv’s site is broken. Not sure when/if it will be available. If I find another source for tracking tools, I will post it here. :(

 

 

Are you making progress toward the goals you set for yourself? Do you use word count templates or tracking tools that you would recommend?

A New Year Dawning

As 2013 begins, I hope to move forward in areas where I have been lax, such as writing blog posts. I’ll maintain the writing-related focus of this blog and, while I make no promises, I plan to post a minimum of once a week.

I’m at a crossroad in life and am not yet sure of what I want to do. Sort of like my cat.

Safety first!

Safety first!

He’s kept indoors 99.9% of the time and when let loose outside never ventures beyond the safety of the deck. He nibbles on the grass growing next to it, but won’t step out of his comfort zone to see what he could see. I don’t want to be like him.

I want to jump off the deck and wallow in the grass, figuratively speaking. I want to revel in whatever the new year brings me; to do things I’ve never done before—in reality, and in my writing.

 

Looking for adventure!

Looking for adventure!

 

Look out world; here I come!

 

What about you? What are you hoping to achieve in 2013? Are you setting specific goals or making any changes? Are you looking forward to anything special this year?

Mom at picnic

Choirs of angels sing—

My heart overflows with grief

Wishing you were here

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