Winter Solstice 2016

Today is officially the first day of Winter — the Winter Solstice — although the snow and below-freezing temperatures arrived two weeks ago. The first snowfall was powdery and dusted everything in the picturesque way that my imagination always likes to remember.

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First 2016 snowfall — the back deck at Wildwood

Unfortunately this is the mild west coast of Canada and before long the reality of our winter always hits. This week temperatures have been climbing, and thick wet flakes quickly doubled the amount shown here before changing to rain showers. Now we have ten inches of snow packing down under an icy crust and it will probably all wash away before Christmas.

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Icy snow crystals melting on the windshield

Still, on this first day of Winter, it’s beautiful to look at from indoors. This is what I’ll try and remember when it all turns to slush and mud.

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We’re preparing hearts and home
for the coming celebration.

May rich blessings be yours this Christmastime!

~  ~  ~

 

Runaway!

We saw a good number of hills and highways while travelling over six mountain passes on our Christmas trip. Lots of curvy and sometimes steep roads, most of them slick with either packed snow or ice. I was thankful our truck was equipped with good snow tires … but I know it takes more than good tires to navigate a challenging road.

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Periodically we encountered heavily loaded transport trucks heading up or down the mountains, their hazard lights flashing a reminder that they were moving at a very slow speed. Professional drivers understand the risk of steep grades, particularly going downhill. They know that if they accelerate over a specific speed, they could end up with an uncontrollable, runaway truck.

Highway construction over mountain passes provides for that possibility by building in ‘runaway’ lanes — easily accessed escape routes. They are practical, necessary safeguards to get a runaway vehicle under control.

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They led me to think about how authors cope with runaway stories, and with characters that seem to take over and speed away in unintended directions.

Does this ever happen to you? Perhaps if you’re an extensive outliner or a dedicated plotter, you manage to keep those renegade characters under control, but I’m not always successful. Secondary plot lines balloon into independent stories; unimportant characters keep reappearing in too much detail; scenes pop up without any purpose. Words ramble on, covering a page but saying little.

Ernest Hemingway said, “Since I had started to break down all my writing and get rid of all facility and try to make instead of describe, writing had been wonderful to do. But it was very difficult, and I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel. It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

In principle, I want to give creativity free rein and worry about tidying up  the messiness during revision. In fact, too much freedom often turns my story into a runaway vehicle — one that crashes and burns and cannot be salvaged. In a Hemingway-kind of revelation I’ve learned I have to maintain some kind of control during the journey. At some point I must pare down my wordiness to the basics of good structure and make every sentence carry the story forward at a controlled pace. During revisions I can elaborate and decorate as might be needed, but during the initial writing I have to stay focused on reaching my destination. There won’t be a suitable runaway lane to rescue me if I let my writing speed out of control in a pointless direction.

How do you control your storytelling and keep it on track? 

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A Smoky Start to September

Ann Voskamp’s ‘Joy Dare’ prompt for September first is to count three things related to summer. The first thing that comes to mind is s-m-o-k-e, and it’s hard to be thankful for the thick greyness of the hard-to-breathe air that’s been a byproduct of the abundant wildfires in British Columbia and Washington this summer.

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We drove to Cranbrook on Hwy #3 during the height of the Stickpin and Paulson Pass forest fires last week, and passed through some very eery landscapes.

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(Near Grand Forkes, BC)

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(View towards Paulson Bridge, BC)

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(Looking back at the city of Osoyoos, BC from the lower switchbacks.)

There is always something to be thankful for, even in the worst of times.

For instance, there is thanks attached to the wild wind and rain storm that struck southern British Columbia last weekend because, despite all the devastation and power outages, the rain and cooler temperatures have helped firefighters. (Still, the Stickpin fire remains only 20% contained at 21,638 hectares in size.)

There is thanks to give in that the evacuation alert has been lifted in Grand Forkes and Christina Lake — the two cities that have been most seriously threatened by the fire that rages less than five kilometres south of the Canadian border.

There is thankfulness for the neighbourliness that is emerging as firefighters on both sides of the border work together, and as communities ‘prepare for the worst and hope for the best’.

So yes, I can find at least three things to add to my ‘Joy Dare’ notes today. 🙂

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My August hiatus didn’t see me accomplishing as much as I had originally intended, but it’s been refreshing. When September arrives and fall routines get underway, it’s sometimes hard to remember that summer isn’t over quite yet, but it isn’t, and I’m thankful for that, too!

How did you spend your August days?

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(The early evening sun in Cranbrook, BC)

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Wildfires and Writing

 

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Red shadows shimmer from a red sun as smoke blankets our skies this week. It’s all because of the more than 180 wildfires currently burning throughout B.C. Everything is hot and tinder dry (including me!), thanks to an extended heat wave.

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Such unpleasant events always accelerate the climate change conversation. Unfortunately conversation alone won’t change anything. The David Suzuki Foundation website suggests many ways we can contribute to  the solution rather than be part of the problem.

“Though you might feel like your lifestyle is insignificant compared to things like oil extraction or vehicle emissions, the choices we make in our day-to-day life — how we get around, what we eat, how we live — play a major role in slowing climate change.”

David’s weekly ‘Queen of Green’ column offers all sorts of information about how changes in little everyday activities can make a difference.

As you might expect, my brain meandered in the direction of writing, and I began thinking about my fictional characters and their lifestyles. It’s never good to preach at our readers — most don’t appreciate being hit with blatant ‘thou shalt’ or ‘thou shalt not’ messages — but characters who display responsible preferences within a story can set subtle examples of good habits and stewardship.

I know one author who quite successfully writes novels to share her passions. Valerie Comer calls herself “a farmer, locavore, beekeeper…and the author of the Farm Fresh Romance series, farm lit from a Christian worldview.” She combines her storytelling abilities with her preference for locally grown food and her Christian faith, to produce wholesome fiction with an underlying message.

The inspirational genres are popular with Christian readers. What other authors and/or books do you know of that combine storytelling with a passion for something worthwhile?

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From the Archives: Beta Readers

One of my favourite (and best) beta readers was my dear Aunt Norma. Now that she’s gone I’ve been thinking back to all the reading she did for me, and remembering her insight and tact, her encouragement and wisdom. Beta reading isn’t easy, either for the writer or for the reader.

I’ve drawn from the Archives again, from January 2009, for today’s post.

~

One snowy Sunday afternoon as wind-driven snow whipped over the backyard peaks and valleys, fashioning them into anonymous mounds, I settled in by the fireplace. It was time to begin reviewing notes made by the long-suffering people who agreed to be beta readers of my current novel.

Beta reading is a necessary tool in the path to publication but I find it nerve-wracking. This is the point when a story first goes public — someone other than me gets to probe my creation, poke into its structure and pass judgment on its credibility and readability. I want and need honesty from the readers, but I cringe at what their opinions might reveal about my storytelling effort.

Few of my readers are impartial. Family members and friends have a built-in bias — they are predisposed to a positive response. More experienced critique partners can sometimes be the opposite, nitpicking to the extreme as they identify all the ways in which the story isn’t told as they think it should be. I’m not obligated to accept any of the criticisms or suggestions, but I value every one. Once the story is published (notice my positive attitude here!), I may never know what the majority of readers think of it, so getting feedback now is desirable.

But still, there is a small chill of uncertainty within me. I suspect it belongs to the icy heart of my I.C. (Inner Critic) as she circles close by, subtly trying to cool my flame of hope for the success of this story. Is it really the best it can be? Is there even a market for it?

As the evening begins to descend, the outdoor lights come on for one last pre-Epiphany sparkle and I put aside my pen and the comment sheets. I’m choosing to spend the rest of the evening curled up with a book… mine.

I wonder, can I be one of my own beta readers?

Evening descends ~ January 2009

The Solstice and Seasonal Turnaround

Late dawn. Early sunset. Short day. Long night. For us in the Northern Hemisphere, the December solstice marks the longest night and shortest day of the year.” *

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In last Friday‘s post I mentioned Sunday would mark several things — the fourth Sunday in Advent, the beginning of Christmas week, and the Winter Solstice. Someone on Facebook today said, “What? Wait! You mean this is only the first day of winter?”

Yes, it’s the first official day. I don’t mind winter, but it’s the one season here on the B.C. west coast I wish were a little bit shorter. Misty, grey days get tiresome. Still, today we can take heart in knowing that from now on, daylight hours will slowly begin to increase again.

I wish the moody seasons of writing were equally predictable.

Writing every day is a habit for me, but I admit the quality and quantity of my words are often seasonally affected. During November I concentrate on NaNoWriMo, but when December arrives I love to focus on Christmas. The days (and evenings) fill up with special activities and there is less energy leftover for creative writing. With the approach of the New Year I start thinking about my need for a renewed commitment to my W.I.P. (work in progress), whether that means adding new material or revising what I have.

Many people make New Year’s resolutions, but I’m not one of them. I don’t see the point of deliberately setting myself up for failure. Convincing myself that when the calendar page flips over I’ll magically be able to change my ways… well, I know from experience it doesn’t happen. It will still be winter in January. I’ll continue to put words on a page but it will probably be a good time to work on scenes that require darker emotions.

A new season is under way; the year is beginning to turn around. It’s the season for indulging our fictional fancies, maybe starting something altogether new…a different genre, a fresh theme or plot.

Winter is just right, too, for fleecy sweatshirts and cosy sweaters, shearling slippers, afghans and lamplight. Just right for settling in with mugs of sweet tea and hot chocolate. Time to hunker down and survive.

Spring is coming. I promise! 🙂

~

“For as long as Earth lasts,
        planting and harvest, cold and heat,
    Summer and winter, day and night
        will never stop.”

[Genesis 8:22 – Msg]

~  ~  ~

*EarthSky.org