Confidence-building TLC for Writers

My lack of gardening skills isn’t news to most of you. I regularly mutter about the invasion of weeds and wild things throughout my rural garden. We’re on a well, so after their first year, most plants don’t even get watered unless the weather decides to rain down on them. It’s no wonder things barely survive from year to year!

When we moved here eighteen years ago there was a clematis vine that entwined itself around the stair railings on one side of our deck — a Jackmanii, I think (although I never knew for sure). Every year despite severe neglect it faithfully bloomed, albeit half-heartedly, in late September and early October until 2012. That year it didn’t make an appearance and I assumed it had finally given up and died. So last spring I bought a replacement — this time well labelled as a Jackmanii. I found a better location for it where its head would get sunshine (at least as much as any place on our property sees the sun) and its feet would be in the shade.

It grew. That’s about all I can say for it.  Its tendrils clung to the lower trellis and a nearby rhododendron like an insecure invalid while it made a feeble effort to produce a half dozen blossoms. Something ate holes in its rather small leaves.

This spring as I was pouring my usual dose of liquid fertilizer on the assorted bedding plants in our deck’s tubs and hanging baskets, I leaned over the railing and emptied the last half bucket’s excess onto the still-struggling clematis. After a June trip I came home to see lush vines of healthy green leaves enveloping the trellis. Encouraged, I included it in the next regime of fertilizing and watched buds materialize. I recently returned from a brief holiday and discovered – yes, you guessed it – lots of clematis blossoms! (I realize it may not seem like lots to some of you green thumb gardeners, but it’s a relative thing, and trust me, for me this is LOTS!)

Clematis Bush

It’s amazing what a little encouragement can do! Add to that, the fact that the forgotten and presumed dead original clematis has now decided to put forth tentative new growth, and it’s all quite miraculous. :)

It reminds me of the rejuvenation I feel after I attend writers’ conferences. By sheer osmosis I soak up the camaraderie and enthusiasm along with all the writing information and success stories. I always come home feeling inspired and ready to resume my creative endeavours with renewed energy. I realize it’s not possible for everyone to get to a conference, and I have to forego attending this year myself, but whenever I’m asked for my favourite writing resources, attending a conference (preferably the Surrey International Writers’ Conference) tops the list.

What’s your favourite writing resource for a boost… your go-to for renewing the glow and rediscovering your excitement of writing?

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Clematis 2

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“Without inspiration
the best powers of the mind remain dormant.
There is a fuel in us
which needs to be ignited with sparks.”

[Johann Gottfried Von Herder]

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In Pursuit of Coolness

 

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Nothing profound from me today. It has been, is, and will continue to be hot. Please don’t see this as a complaint. I wouldn’t dare complain for fear it suddenly changes to unending rain! Instead, I’m trying to think of a positive side to hot sunshine.

It does bring on the flowers. I’ll say that for it.

Summer Peony

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Summer Sun

Great is the sun, and wide he goes
Through empty heaven with repose;
And in the blue and glowing days
More thick than rain he showers his rays.

Though closer still the blinds we pull
To keep the shady parlour cool,
Yet he will find a chink or two
To slip his golden fingers through.

The dusty attic spider-clad
He, through the keyhole, maketh glad;
And through the broken edge of tiles
Into the laddered hay-loft smiles.

Meantime his golden face around
He bares to all the garden ground,
And sheds a warm and glittering look
Among the ivy’s inmost nook.

Above the hills, along the blue,
Round the bright air with footing true,
To please the child, to paint the rose,
The gardener of the World, he goes.

 Robert Louis Stevenson
(from - A Child’s Garden of Verses – 1885)

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I remember reading that to my Grade One students a good many years ago. There are lots of good things to say about the sun, but I don’t do well in the heat and right now I need something cooling to distract me.

Water 1

Ahhh… yes, that helps.

Water 2

Oh, this is much better! Now I’m of a mind to go in search of a beach and some ice cubes — the perfect pursuit on a hot summer day. :)

What’s your best way of cooling down when it’s too hot to think, let alone write?

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There will be a shelter
to give shade from the heat by day,
and refuge and protection
from the storm and the rain.

(Isaiah 4:6)

~

 

Comparing gardens with messy first drafts

A number of writers I know are also gardeners. I think it has something to do with a desire for control — or maybe it’s more of an artistic desire to create beauty. No, I still think it’s control. We take seeds, cuttings and bedding plants, tuck them into assorted nooks and crannies in our yard, add a little nourishment and water, and dream about how it will all come together into something beautiful. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t.

My garden beds always end up a jumble of plants, despite my good intentions. In the one small patch pictured below you’ll find a sword fern and a lady fern (I didn’t plant those… they just growed, like Topsy), hosta, scatterings of cranesbill, a clump of Siberian iris leaves, a golden phitzer juniper, a white astilbe, and some encroaching lamium. They’ve overrun each other and when I look, all I see is a crowded mess.

Messy Garden-1

I tend to be a little philosophical about my gardening. (That’s a tactful way of saying I don’t get my knickers in a knot when something doesn’t grow the way I expected.) The surrounding woods create acidic soil and lots of shade, plus we’re on a well and I don’t often waste water on the gardens. So I understand when certain plants appear to be growth-challenged. In search of better results, I embark on a dig-and-relocate mission. Of course if they don’t survive at all, it becomes a dig-and-discard event!

When plants surprise me, taking hold and rambling over and around neighbouring ones, I step back to marvel at their tenacity and scrutinize the effect. Given there are few blooms amid the various greens, it’s not the ‘English country garden’ look. It’s not any desired look unless it qualifies as au naturel. To be honest, it’s just plain overrun and unkempt, and some days I think I ought to dig it all out and start from scratch.

Bench-1

But if I take a closer look and can focus on the singular instead of the muddle, I discover teensy pockets of beauty. Exquisite shades of passion and capsules of colour among the graceful green fronds and glossy leaves. They are moments of glory to salvage. Maybe I need to reconsider my desire to bulldoze the whole thing.

Cranesbill-1

We take words and mash them up, sprinkle them around, link them together… all in an effort to make them convey the perfect story that’s hovering in our heads. First drafts, as I mentioned earlier this week, can be a mess. We work scene by scene and often despair of the writing ever coming together to be seen as worthy.

There is a time to step back, look beyond the scenes and evaluate the whole. Then there’s a time to prune and cull,  looking closely to see what gems might be salvageable.

Then again, there’s a time to walk away altogether — stop evaluating and second-guessing — and wait for another day when we may be in a better frame of mind and able to discern the beauty that was there all the time. A fresh look may give us a better perspective of what it’s going to take to make it all work together without turning it into a muddle or deciding to toss it into the trashcan.

Any other suggestions? In what way does your current writing resemble gardening?

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Writing Frustrations and Bird Poop

Bird poop is not pleasant. It’s messy, and one of the worst offenders around here right now are the robins.

Robin

Once winter is on the wane, I’m always delighted to welcome the earliest robins. They’re harbingers of spring, after all, and that makes me smile. By summertime, however, I’ve begun to tire of the white accumulations that adorn our deck railings and outdoor furniture, and I’m no longer smiling.

Robins are pretty, and they sing a sweet song, I’ll give them that. But they don’t eat birdseed. The lawn and garden are their kitchen source for earthworms and berries. The only appeal our deck apparently has for them is as a bathroom… a place to perch and deposit their doo-doo, which I don’t-don’t like! Someone had a warped sense of humour when they named the species ‘Turdus migratorius’.

We had 45 people coming here last night for a church barbecue. In preparation, we had pulled weeds and tidied the gardens. Hubby power-washed the deck, and I wiped down the lawn furniture. You get the picture. We wanted things to be neat and clean for our guests, and it was… until late-afternoon, just before the first guests arrived, when Mr. Robin Redbreast dropped in and dropped. Ackkk!!! It was too late to get out the hose, but there was no point in stressing over little blobby things, as maddening as they were. I found a rag, cleaned them away as best I could and carried on, soon forgetting all about the annoyance and enjoying a wonderful evening with friends.

The writing application that occurred to me later had to do with not overstressing about little things. No point in grinding to a halt  when the wrong words deposit themselves on the page during a first draft. Better to look at the overall picture, get on with the job and worry about cleaning up the messy bits during revision. There are bound to be more messy bits before it’s done and we’re ready to put the manuscript out on display anyway.

In future, when I’m getting really frustrated, maybe I’ll try and remember to mutter, “Oh, poop!!!” then have a laugh and get back to work.

What’s your method of banishing first draft frustrations?

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Weekend Scenes

Yes, it’s true … I’ve been gallivanting and I don’t have a ‘real’ post ready for you, so all you’re going to get today are some of the scenes from my weekend, and then I’m suggesting you come back tomorrow to read about Denise Jaden‘s soon-to-be-released fourth book, Foreign Exchange, and get in on its cover reveal.

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Now, about my weekend sojourn…

We took the trailer into the south Cariboo on Friday, and spent the weekend at Loon Lake helping friends celebrate their 25th anniversary. While we left the coast in the rain, we soon made it past the dark clouds and into glorious sunshine. It was an awesome drive. I hope you enjoy the scenery, and will remember to drop in here again tomorrow. :)

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Weekend-1

 

Weekend-3

 

Weekend-5

 

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Weekend-6

 

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The Appeal of a Writer’s Garden

Did you ever read The Secret Garden — the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett? I read it at a time when I was too young to care about its themes and symbols. The author’s interest in Christian Science and New Thought were beyond me, and by the time I later acquired the movie on DVD (the 1993 version), the childish appeal of the story and its magic was well embedded and I didn’t care what obscure meaning it might have. 


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I sometimes wonder if it contributed to my interest in gardening. I’m not a great gardener, but my homes from childhood until the present have always included patches of soil in which plants put forth blossoms and seeds year after year. Every spring I await the bursting of swollen buds, and often plant something new “just to see if it will grow”. Unfortunately I don’t nurture things very well, and sometimes they don’t grow!

It’s not the growing that fascinates me as much as the potential. Bare branches and seed pods that lie dormant and suddenly decide to produce green sprouts, leaves and flowers. Perhaps it’s reminiscent of the mystery invisible behind a locked garden gate, and secrets within.

Secret Garden

If you didn’t know my back yard, the cedar arch in the back corner covered by climbing hydrangea might seem like the gateway to a secret garden. It’s not. It simply marks the transition between our rather mossy back lawn and an unkempt bit of forest that leads to our marsh. Any mystery or magic exists only in one’s mind.

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I used to like sitting down there on the little bench my hubby made for me. It was a private sanctuary, perfect for thinking, plotting or just listening to the birds. Now that I know there’s a bear and her cub wandering nearby this spring, I’m less inclined to venture down there by myself, but I miss sitting quietly in those shadows.

Sunday afternoon I enjoyed wandering through a friend’s garden, seeing her lush plantings of flowers and shrubs. I came home thinking about what gardens mean to us as writers. The fact that my friend is also a writer reinforces my belief that whether we’re growing vegetables and fruits to nourish our bodies, or designing colourful flowerbeds to nourish our spirits, in some way the process parallels our desire to create via storytelling.

Planning the beds, preparing the ground, nestling each plant or seed in its appropriate spot, watering and fertilizing, watching it develop, and digging it out when it ends up not fitting that location — it strikes me there’s a writing analogy coming. It might take a stretch of imagination, but I’m sure there’s a semblance of one. Don’t dash my hope. I told you I’m not a great gardener! :)

If you’re a writer, do you like to garden… design special places or plant practical beds? Oh, and don’t forget my initial question: have you read (or watched) “The Secret Garden”? What did you think of it?

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Talk about cold feet!

You were duly warned. You were. I distinctly remember saying, “we’re probably doomed to an abundance of cruising analogies here for the next little while.”

Then I began browsing through the 500+ photos I took last week. A lot are just mediocre shots; I’ll undoubtedly trash a good many of them. But the odd one made me smile… made me remember the delight of discovery.

Below the massive Hubbard Glacier, casually riding a calved chunk of ice, was a gull who… in my mind, at least… had cold feet. She stood there for a time, then took off to flap circles in the sky before settling back on the iceberg. (I imagined she was getting her circulation re-energized.)

Cruise 5

Not far from the gull were two spotted ice seals who periodically slid off and then clambered back on an iceberg, eventually solving the problem of cold ‘feet’ by holding theirs aloft and resting on blubbered tummies.

Seals 1

Yes, I realize I was letting my imagination run wild, but that’s what writers of fiction do. We imagine, ask “what’s happening?” and “why?” and sometimes make up fanciful applications.

For me, those ‘cold feet’ are reminiscent of my jitters when I think about sending my stories out into the world. After a little agitation I settle back into my office chair and go back to the more familiar environment of writing or revising, even if it’s not the most desirable place to be.

I think many of us accommodate the negatives in our lives by rationalizing and adapting instead of trying to overcome.

Am I wrong? (A better question might be, can you dream up a more reasonable analogy from these photos?) ;)

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Story lessons from an iceberg

Taking a break from blogging has pros and cons. I’ve returned feeling rested and refreshed, but my mind is still focused on the many sights and sounds that filled my week away. So I’ll apologize in advance. We’re probably doomed to an abundance of cruising analogies here for the next little while.

Cruise 1

This past week provided opportunities for me to experience water in several of its forms. We didn’t get rain in any measurable amount, but there were a few sprinkles, and a morning of fog.

Cruise 6

Most days the ocean was remarkably calm, but there were occasional times of choppy waves and rolling swells.

Cruise 3

 

Cruise 2

The Pacific Ocean can be mighty chilly at times, but in the Gulf of Alaska there are places where it’s downright frigid.

Cruise 4

Alaska’s Hubbard Glacier is located in the northeastern section of Yakutak Bay, extending five miles across the end of Disenchantment Bay. Unlike most other glaciers that are receding, for the past century the face of the Hubbard Glacier has continued to advance. Chunks of ice regularly ‘calve’ from it, filling the water with mid-sized icebergs, along with smaller ‘bergy bits’ and ‘growlers’.

Cruise 7

Apparently the density of ice is less than that of sea water, so only about one-tenth of the volume of an iceberg is visible above the water.

Cruise 8

The seen and the unseen… how could they not bring a writing application to mind??? ;)

So much of the research, background and subtext that go into novel writing will never actually be seen by readers — or shouldn’t be – but will provide the foundation for a good story and give it stability. Whenever we’re tempted to reveal too much ‘fascinating’ information, we need to remember what happens when an iceberg drifts away from its source and warmer waters begin undermining the ice below the surface. When too much of the iceberg’s volume is above the water line, it eventually gets top heavy and flips over!

All those mottled and melted bits from the underside don’t have a lot of interest or substance. Imagine similar ramifications for a story. If you need more of a visual, drop an ice cube into a glass of water and then consider the importance of a good solid base.

I know, I know… I sometimes give my imagination too much free rein, but it bugs me when a writer top-dresses a story with too many details that were obviously gleaned during the research stage. How would you suggest utilizing interesting tidbits you’ve discovered, if they’re not going to add significantly to your plot?

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Prose and poetry that delve deeper

Eyes closed
mind focussed on a fragrance
sparked by the image
of lilacs

Wildwood Lilacs

 

Sandy’s words
a “fragrance of simplicity”
explode a kaleidoscope
of memories

Lush blooms
spilling from a milk glass jug
set on grandma’s table
glowing purple

Dappled light
filtering through heart-shaped leaves
onto a lavender-strewn lawn at
season’s end

French white
solemn in crystal beside a coffin
pristine and gentle beauty
without cheer

.

(Lilac Memories – Carol J. Garvin)

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We’ve reached the end of another month, this one concluding the study of Dave Harrity’s book, Making Manifest: On Faith, Creativity, and the Kingdom at Hand. Its meditations and writing exercises were meant to be daily devotional explorations, but I didn’t follow the rules. Reading snippets sandwiched into still moments, I didn’t take the journey as planned. Still, this month and its continuing focus on poemia – that’s Greek for poetry, meaning where anything is made – has reinforced my desire to plumb emotional and spiritual depths even as I write my secular prose.

We can’t expect readers to experience the lives of our characters if we don’t experience real emotions while we’re writing their stories. Scenes that flop effortlessly onto the page are sometimes not as inspired as we might like to believe, but are the result of superficial writing. I’ve been guilty of this, occasionally letting the words spill out without feeling any attachment to them.

Sandra Heska King refers to this month of digging deeper as “learning to see a little more clearly, to listen a little more deeply.”  She speaks of faith and matters of the soul, and “a holy awakening,” but truthfully, doesn’t it take a combination of heart, mind and soul to find and follow any writing path that God has mapped out for us?

The book study may be over, but now it’s time to continue the searching, to dig below the surface, to grasp that which is meaningful, and make sure it’s significant and honest before planting it on the page. Are you with me?

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Now that May is over I’ve decided to take a week off from blogging. There might be the occasional random post next week, or there might not be, but I’ll be back on the regular schedule by Monday, June 9th to begin my seventh year of sharing mental meanderings with you here. (Can it be that long ago that I ventured out onto the blogging stage? Wow!)

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The Rhythm of Words

Breezes dimple across the water and start wild grasses dipping and dancing. There’s a special rhythm nature brings to the seasons.

What do you think of when someone talks about rhythm? The repetitive thudding bass from the convertible that pulls up beside you at a traffic light? Maybe the toe-tapping that accompanies a rousing piece of music by a favourite band?

What about the rhythm of words?

Rhythm in Writing

I came across a fascinating ‘toy’ recently — the Rhythmwriter. Try it out and then come back so we can carry on our conversation.

Go ahead,

click on the link.

I’ll wait.

Isn’t it fun?

No matter the notes you choose, the resulting pulse is like a dancing heartbeat… a vital signs monitor gone berserk. One bar of assorted notes repeats to create a pleasing rhythm. At least, it’s pleasing until the repetition works its way into your head like an earworm and begins to drive you mad.

We need a certain amount of variety, in the rhythm of both music and writing.

“Just as musical notes blend together to create an auditory tapestry, so should your words.  Mix it up, shuffle the deck, alter the rhythm of your words.  Punctuate a paragraph with some staccato sentences.  Layer your language with elaborate harmonies.  Refrain from playing the same refrain over and over.  Use this musical analogy to think about your audience while you write and don’t forget to vary the rhythm of your words.” [Sari Mathes]

In writing, rhythm is achieved by varying the length of sentences and the style of their structure. We want the end result to sound like us — to reflect our literary voice — but at the same time we want the listening experience to be pleasant.

“The aims here are:

  1. to avoid overusing any one sentence structure in a way that becomes a distraction to the reader,
  2. to move gracefully back and forth between the clarity of simple sentences and the richness of complex sentences, and
  3. to evoke the rhythms of your own vocal style, with the same rising and falling of pitch, the same ebb and flow of phrasing between breaths.” [Michael Fleming]

Fleming suggests the best way to establish a natural rhythm is by reading your work aloud. I wonder how many writers do this. Do you? Do you read your manuscripts aloud while in the sanctuary of a closed room, play the words back to yourself via text-to-speech software, or perhaps share them with others at public readings or critique gatherings?

Are you conscious of developing rhythm in your writing? Do you think it’s more important in poetry than in prose?

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