Reading and Writing

I read a lot and my book choices span most genres. Generally speaking, at any one time I’m probably reading two or three books. I might discover them at the library or learn about them from a friend, but either way there’s always a stack of books with bookmarks somewhere in my house. Sometimes my travels inspire me to read about a place. I enjoy reading, learning new things, and talking about books with others.

Generally I finish most of them and I find it pretty easy to pick up where I left off. Library books always get read faster, because of the timeline required to return them. When I’m writing, I often avoid fiction all together to avoid the possibility of another author’s style getting mixed into my writing project.

While some prefer sticking within a favorite specific genre, I enjoy the challenge and diversity of switching it up, based on my mood, what’s interesting to me at the moment, or which library hold gets delivered first. I could hardly say that I have a reading plan or anything that resembles cohesion. On my Goodreads page, I review books that I have enjoyed and you’ll see that they vary from science fiction to mysteries to non-fiction, and everything in between.

I also try to really challenge myself with a book that I wouldn’t typically read or something that’s super long and a big time commitment at least once or twice a year. My reading also inspires me about potential story ideas, characters, and improving my own writing by learning from other writers.

I’m sure that most writers read a lot – mostly because we love books. I do hope that readers enjoyed my book, The Magic of Cape Disappointment, and that it ends up in a lively discussion in their book club one day or with their friends. Keep reading, friends! There are so many wonderful books out there.

Writing with Sound

Waves can roll gently onto a beach while the trees whisper in the wind, or they can roar and crack the driftwood when they crash. Adding sounds to any prose can make a scene feel more real. Sound is an easy element to forget when writing a draft because typically the focus is on setting the scene and dialogue.

Sounds can be subtle scene-setters, however, and often in editing or even in early drafts I now will always make a point to stop and think about what the characters would hear in whatever situation I’ve written for them. Aside from spicing up the narrative and making the scene feel more realistic, sounds can also step in to ‘show’ something to the reader instead of telling them.

For example, imagine a scene in a busy restaurant where two people are having an awkward conversation. Telling the reader that the character paused during an awkward silence at dinner which can work to get the point across, but it might be better to focus the scene on the silence itself with something like: she didn’t respond to the question, and instead focused on the jangle of the spoon hitting the mug like a bell ringing as she stirred the coffee.

Because we often associate sounds with our own memories, the second version of the same scene that includes the spoon jangling in the mug brings the reader into the scene more closely and also help them remember that moment in the scene more because of what was excluded as much as the sound included.

When I’m stuck in a chapter or feeling a sense of writer’s block, refocusing the writing to add in sound often helps improve the scene and help usher me into the next chapter. It’s a little trick that I’ve found to be helpful. I hope that this writing tip ‘clicks’ with you as well!

Scene Setting

Setting the scene in writing projects helps transport the reader to the world they are reading about. I like to think that drafting out long descriptions of what a house looks like or what the characters look like then steals a little bit of the reader’s imagination. A reader brings their own view into the fictional world created by the writer, and it’s important to let the reader fill out some of the details in the scene themselves.

Details, and choosing the right details, shared about characters or locations provide just enough for a reader to transform themselves. For example, one thing that I make a point of doing in my writing is allowing the readers to determine what the characters look like. I trust the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks and to co-create the world that I’ve built for them.

That style grew from my own reading, where after a few details about reading about a character, I develop a picture in my mind about them. When additional details on page three or twelve then change that image in my mind, I personally get annoyed as a reader. I already knew what the enchanted cottage garden looked like with only the description of the beige limestone, slate shingles, and wild green garden that grew without any clear intention yet seemed purposefully designed (picture above, for example). Note all of the other details that I left out of my description on purpose.

When the writer then adds a long description about the type of gravel used in the garden paths and the specific flowers that dot the pathway, then my image is dashed as a reader. How authors describe characters and scenes I think probably has a lot to do with the types of books they enjoy and how much of their imagination they like to provide to the reading experience.

For my characters, I trust the readers to round out their images based on some carefully deliberated details. I don’t expect that the reader will have the exact same image in their heads that I do about one of the lead characters, Sam, for example. I describe Sam as someone who looks like a handsome outdoor clothing catalog model.

While some may say that this approach leaves too much for the reader’s imagination to fill in, I disagree. I think a writer’s job is to bring the reader to the the world and to introduce the characters with just the right details – then allow the reader to make the story their own. Trusting in that ‘team’ approach to writing is just one approach of many for setting the scene. The fun part of reading is being able to experience all the different types of writing styles and to discover which ones appeal to you the most.

Safe Harbor

Character development is a key factor of any writing project, and that includes challenging the characters with struggle.

John Shedd is known to have said, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” Character development in a novel relates to that sentiment because a character can be safe in their world, but that’s not what the novel is built for.

Novels are built for longer stories that immerse a writer into a new world where the protagonists must endure some sort of struggle.

In my most recent novel, ‘The Magic of Cape Disappointment,‘ the protagonist’s return to the safe harbor of her childhood is when her real adventure begins. This photo is a picture of the Ilwaco, Washington harbor where the protagonist grew up and returns after completing medical school in order to take care of her grandmother.

One of the concepts I thought was interesting to explore in the novel was the idea of the safe harbor both literally, in the case of Ilwaco, and figuratively with the protagonist’s soul mate. When the protagonist first returns to Ilwaco after many years in New York City, she first views this safe harbor as anything but, and her goal is focused on returning to New York as quickly as possible.

As the novel progresses and her safe harbor hometown is threatened by an unexpected force, she starts to realize the value of home and belonging. Of course, those lessons are learned not from quiet observation of her daily life, but by enduring several tests of strength.

I hope that wherever you are, that you’ve found a safe harbor, but that you also don’t let it stifle your development.

As for my character, by the end of the novel (and a theme in the following) she echoes the famous Louisa May Alcott quote, “I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.”

Novels are built to challenge the characters. As readers, we want to succeed vicariously with the characters as they move through their challenges to live happily ever after in their own safe harbors.

Travel as Inspiration

Several years ago, I stood at this very spot after a short hike up to the Cape Disappointment lighthouse. Standing here and looking out the beautiful view inspired me, and I’m sure many visitors to the area can share that sentiment.

Cape Disappointment (yes, that is the real name) was named in the late 1700s by a British sea captain, and when Lewis and Clark arrived there a few decades later, Cape Disappointment was where they looked out onto the Pacific Ocean after a very long and arduous journey.

Although Cape Disappointment is only a few hours drive from either Seattle or Portland, it still feels like a world away. Small fishing villages dot the map and the roads all follow or lead to the Pacific Ocean beaches. Lewis and Clark historic sites abound from the Dismal Nitch to Fort Clatsop and the Lewis and Clark interpretive center in Cape Disappointment State Park.

The state park has not one, but two, lighthouses to visit including camping spots along the beach where you can fall asleep listening the ocean waves roll along. On my first camping trip to “Cape D,” the idea for my latest novel took hold. Since then, I’ve visited the area several times – each time returning to my favorite coffee shops, museums, and restaurants.

I hope that you get the chance to visit this lovely area and to imagine being able to see the setting for ‘The Magic of Cape Disappointment.’ In the novel, this location of the lookout by the Cape Disappointment lighthouse plays a key role in the novel’s events. Hopefully even from this picture alone you can get a little sense of the location’s magic. 🙂

 

 

The Novel Path

Starting a novel can seem overwhelming, especially since there are so many how-to guides and unlimited advice books. Everyone has something that works for them so you hear things about writing every day, plotting tips, structure requirements, genre rules, breaking rules, etc. where it starts to feel like there are an impossible number of different rules that one should be following.

Everyone seems to have a recipe for how to write a novel and all one seemingly needs to do is to follow that path. Of course, the illusion is that there is a clearly marked path in the first place!

W. Somerset Maugham is known to have said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

From my view, that’s probably the most honest bit of advice out there. 🙂 Writing is a creative process and writing a ~250-page story that creates another world is no small feat. At least today we have word processing systems that make life so much easier (regardless of how many authors complain about auto-correct), early authors like Jane Austen wrote everything out by hand with a quill pen.

Over hundreds of years of novels, what we can generally surmise is that there are no steadfast singe group of rules for writing a novel. Rules are created and then broken by a pioneering author. There is no single path with clearly marked borders for you to follow. Even grammar changes over time and sometimes rules are optional (Oxford comma), depending on the writer’s preference.

Novels are creative – so don’t let yourself be limited. Create new worlds. Venture off the beaten path and try something new. Whatever you do, I hope that you keep writing and don’t let yourself get discouraged. And don’t forget – no one really knows what the rules are, so figure out what works for you!

The Writers Group

Joining a writer’s group can feel a little intimidating at first, stepping into a room of strangers and providing them with some pages from a work in progress. Despite the nerves, I think that it is a worthwhile experience.

When my writer’s group meets up, we sit around a big table and discuss a genre or things like how to best use dialogue, then we share and critique any work submitted by anyone in the group for the session, and we end each session with a writing exercise.

Each of us write in different genres with different styles and I really enjoy that element because it challenges me to think about other writing styles like using different points of view or seeing how other writers handle character development.

A writer’s group also provides writers with a safe place to test out new material with several constructive readers who provide valuable feedback. Constructive feedback is very possibly the most valuable gift a writer can receive when working on project. Sure, your family and friends can review something, but they will most likely hold back on more critical comments.

The group also provides inspiration, to see how others are working hard to improve their skills and refine their story ideas. It’s inspiring to see fellow writers struggling with similar challenges yet determined to succeed and share their unique voice with the world via an entertaining story, novel, or screenplay.

Most importantly, a writer’s group provides a sense of community, where you can celebrate success and where you also know that you can share a work in progress that might be a little rough around the edges.

Wherever you are in your artistic endeavors, I hope that you find a community of gentle and honest readers to establish your own supportive writing community. Writing itself is pretty much a solitary venture, so it’s worth the time to find a group and help others while also challenging yourself to advance your skills. Keep going, fellow writers and artists! 🙂

A special thanks to those in my own writing group – after each meeting I always enjoy a burst of inspiration and renewed dedication to my own writing projects.

Making Magic (seem) Real

One of the biggest challenges of magical realism as a genre is making magic seem real in the real world backdrop. The fantasy genre allows us to build a magical world with different rules, but magical realism adds magic to the real world and the overall effect should feel realistic.

In my latest novel, the protagonist has magical abilities that allow her to influence the natural elements among other things. It was really fun adding in magical elements to a contemporary fiction novel, but also very challenging because the magic that defies reality had to seem plausible.

Before I started writing in the magical elements, I created rules for the magic in terms of how it would appears and what the limitations were. For example, the protagonist is able to influence the weather, so the weather almost became another character in the novel. At first, the weather impacts were simply part of the description of the scene until the reader realizes that those descriptions were a deeper part of something directly associated with the character.

Because I selected the first-person point of view for the novel, the first plan I had for dealing with magic in the contemporary real world was to unveil it to the protagonist slowly, where the magic first appears and feels like a coincidence.

Rolling out the magic slowly in that fashion was one of the methods I used in the novel to make it feel more real world. Another method was to add in fictional myths that seemed to explain the origin of the magical elements and almost explain them that way. Introducing both the myths and the “coincidences” helped me create a way of introducing magic to the fictional real world.

At the end of the day, creating a magical world in fiction can be easier than introducing magical elements into a realistic view of the real world. That said, while magical realism can be very challenging, I really enjoyed the challenge and I hope that the readers feel transported into an escapist read.

Seasons in Writing

Letting the reader know the season helps establish the setting and also helps track time passing as a novel progresses. In my most recent novel, seasons bookmark the progress of the book and also reflect upon the protagonist’s journey. For example, the novel opens in November and the late autumn weather reflects the events impacting the character.

We find out later in the novel that the character herself is impacting the weather around her, with a magical ability to influence the weather of which she was unaware. Her world continues to become more bleak as Winter advances.

Of course, I could have written the same events happening in any season, however, I like to think there is subtle poetry with a seasonal reflection that adds dimension to the other magical elements of the story.

By the end of the novel, the opposite occurs with the season – when in January, the very middle of winter, the protagonist’s journey is complete and we learn of the details of the hope-filled happy ending. I like to think that the seasons influence the progress of the protagonist’s journey and also provide a little sense of underlying poetry for the reader.

Whatever the season, or seasons, in your writing project, I hope that they provide you with inspiration and help add depth to the story. 🙂

Into the Sunset

My preference as a reader is to have all the loose ends nicely tied up by the end of a book, like a lovely sunset rounding out a lovely day. I appreciate the sense of completion and being able to walk away from the book and know that the story has concluded.

While it’s definitely a style thing, wrapping up the details of a book by the end of it isn’t the only option of course. Many writers and readers prefer cliff hanger endings or fuzzy endings where the complete fates of the characters remains unknown, allowing the reader to build their own ending.

In my books, I’ve thought about alternative endings and ended up on the side of the tied up sunset where we know all about the characters fates.

There are, of course, challenges to tying up all of the loose ends of a novel before the reader closes the book. It means that all the characters introduced have a purpose and a role to contribute to the ending. The tone of the ending is also important because it factors in to how a reader feels at the end of the novel – is it a happy ending?

Endings are so important, no just for the final chapter but also the final sentence. Hemingway is known to have changed the last sentence of Farewell to Arms almost 50 times.

For my most recent book, The Magic of Cape Disappointment, I also spent a lot of time on the last chapter and the last sentence. I wanted to leave the reader with a happy ending and a sense of hope, so that by the end of the novel they generally felt better about the world. As a writer, one never knows how a reader will feel reading the last chapter and the last sentence. That said, I hope that my readers appreciated the ending.