31 July 2008

Bavarian Mint Mix

Usually I'm in a hurry in the morning so when I pour myself a cup of coffee, I usually just put a little honey in it to sweeten it and get to my office. I love the taste of coffee, so it doesn't bother me to taste the actual coffee flavor. There are times, though, when I need a little something extra, so I take the time to flavor my coffee. A cinnamon stick and a little vanilla milk or a teaspoon or two of peppermint extract go a long way for me. I found this interesting recipe for a flavored coffee mix I'd like to share.
2/3 cup instant coffee
1 cup sugar
2/3 cup non-dairy creamer
1 teaspoon dried mint leaves

Mix the ingredients in a container that can be kept sealed. Add a teaspoon or two of the mix to your regular cup of coffee and enjoy!

NOTE: You can use chocolate flavored non-dairy creamer to make the mix more of a mint meltaway flavor.

30 July 2008

Ten Secrets to Success, According to Freelance Writer Robert Bly

Successful freelance writer Robert Bly has written many, many books (most of them available on his website in ebook form). The one I own is called Getting Started as a Freelance Writer. In it, Bly gives detailed information about how to become a freelance writer, as well as how to make a comfortable living at it.

Toward the beginning of the book, Bly gives a list of ten secrets of success.
  1. Define what success means to you. Then pursue success as you define it--not as others do. For me, it's doing what I want, and avoiding the things I don't want to do. For you, it may be getting your novel published or becoming a radio talk show host.
  2. Love what you do for a living. Noel Coward said, "Work is more fun than fun." Time never moves more slowly during the day than when you are working at a job you loathe.
  3. Find the intersection of your passions and the needs of the market. What do you like that also interests other people, and that they are willing to pay for? Therein lies your writing career.
  4. Become the best you can be at what you do. Work tirelessly to increase your skill and knowledge. It's been said many times that there are only two ways to improve your writing: write and read. So do both. Write every day. Read all the time, and read widely. Also, take writing classes. Attend writing conventions.
  5. Specialize. Master and dominate a niche of the market, rather than attempt to be a jack of all trades. Constantly add to your storehouse of knowledge and experience in the specialized fields you write about, whether it's cats, crafts, cooking, or computers.
  6. Be the consummate craftsman. Always do your best on every job. Never give work short shrift because you agreed to short money. Once you tell the client you are taking the job, she expects and deserves nothing less than your best effort.
  7. Be the client's ally and partner, not her adversary. The angry writer who is constantly screaming at agents and editors is a cliche. Embrace the positive attitude of prolific author Isaac Asimov, who said, "I love my publishers!"
  8. Do not undercharge. Charge what you are worth. But don't overcharge; don't make it difficult for clients to hire you.
  9. When in doubt, get the money up front. A retainer check for half the fee is the quickest way to separate serious clients from time-wasting prospects.
  10. Don't waste time with things that may be pleasant or entertaining, but do not help you achieve your goals. Value your time as the precious limited resource it is.

These tips have been helpful to me (I have the page marked in my book), and especially number two. "Love what you do for a living." That is the reason I resigned from my teaching position in order to become a full time writer. Harlan Ellison explains it perfectly when he says, "I didn't choose to be a writer. That's what I am--I'm a writer."

Bly's book also quotes Ray Bradbury, who explains the passion for writing:

The act of writing is, for me, like a fever--something I must do.... I've never doubted myself; I've always been so completely devoted to libraries and books and authors that I couldn't stop to consider for a moment that I was being foolish. I only knew that writing was in itself the only way to live.

While I appreciate Bly's ten secrets for success, I feel I don't really need any success secrets. Writing is so much a part of me it doesn't matter if I'm successful, or if my writing is something that stays only in the realm of Blogger. I'm a writer. That's just what I am.

So thanks, Mr. Bly, for the tips, but I'll be writing regardless, thank you.

29 July 2008

Some Signs It's Time to Take a Break

  • You measure time by word count.
  • You look up from your work and pitch an idea for dinner to your significant other.
  • To find out about your aunt's surgery, you send your mother a query email (and attach two writing samples).
  • In a phone conversation with a friend you ask, "Can I quote you on that?"
  • You get a screentan.
  • You close personal emails with "I look forward to hearing from you soon about this exciting opportunity."
  • Your thumb has to be pulled away from the space bar like skin on a leather car seat.
  • Starbucks asks you to be on their board because of your "generous contribution to the company."
  • You finally sit down to watch a little television, and try to use the remote to bring up a Word document.
  • Your cat poses as a client to ask your rates for tummy rubs.

Switching to Decaf

One of my favorite parts of my morning routine is getting up and starting a pot of coffee in the kitchen. While I’m getting ready and opening my office for the day, the smell of the freshly brewed coffee fills the apartment and helps me feel much more awake even before I’ve poured my first cup.

We know caffeine is stimulating. And recent research reveals even the aroma of coffee gets people going in the morning (as is apparent from my morning routine). What’s more, caffeine is addicting, so people become dependent on it to get through their days.

We also know caffeine can be harmful to our health. Pregnant women, for example, are encouraged to cut back on caffeine to protect their unborn children. Others find caffeine begins to effect them negatively. My mother can’t have caffeine or she gets “the shakes.” My mother-in-law gets terrible headaches if she has any caffeine.

If you’re a regular coffee drinker and you're considering making the switch, I urge you to do so carefully. If you're addicted to coffee, quitting "cold turkey" is not smart. If you do, you could suffer headaches, irritability, nausea, and other symptoms of withdrawal. So if you decide to reduce your caffeine intake, you should do it slowly to let your body adjust to the lowering levels of caffeine.

If you drink coffee every morning, get some decaf to mix in with your regular. The first day you do this, your grounds should be 2/3 regular and 1/3 decaf. Drink this combination for a few days, letting your body get used to the reduction in caffeine.

After a few days, adjust the coffee so ½ is regular and ½ is decaf. Again, drink this for a few days as your body adjusts. Then switch so only 1/3 of your coffee is regular and 2/3 is decaf. After a few days of that combination, you should be ready to switch to full decaf with little to no side effects.

Once you’ve made the switch to decaf, be careful about introducing caffeine back into your system. If you’ve weaned yourself off caffeine, then go to Starbucks and order a double shot cappuccino, your body will be more effected by the caffeine than it did prior to cutting caffeine out of your diet.

As with anything, you should make yourself aware of the health risks with caffeine intake. If you’re concerned, talk to your family doctor.

And remember: you don’t have to sacrifice your health for the smooth, delicious taste of coffee.

28 July 2008

This is why I love holding books in my hand.

"Whether it is Picasso or pornography, the data flooding across our screens is just that: data. You cannot touch it or feel it. It is gone in a second. An original manuscript, whether it is the piece of paper on which Paul McCartney scribbled down the words to "Hey, Jude," or a poem by Emily Dickinson, connects us in a visceral way to the past and brings us as close as it is possible to get to the men and women who have changed the world and given voice to the thoughts and emotions we ourselves cannot articulate."

--Simon Worrall, The Poet and the Murderer

Writing Dialogue: a Lesson from Playwriting

Early in my college career I took a playwriting course. When I decided to take the course, I was exploring my writing, and thought it would be fun to try writing stage plays. I'd enjoyed my course over winter break called Cutting-Edge American Plays, so I saw this as a writerly extension of that. I was looking forward to stretching my creative muscles a bit. I knew playwriting would benefit my prose dialogue, too.

In playwriting, dialogue is what drives the story forward. Exposition, characterization, and plot are all revealed through conversation, so dialogue is what makes or breaks a script.

Dialogue can reveal a lot about a character. After all, a young woman who says, "Can I help you?" is very different from a woman who says, "What can I get you, sugar?" is very different from a woman who says, "Whatcha eatin'?"

So as you write dialogue, you should try to be very aware of what the word choice reveals about your character, and what you want to reveal about your character, and that character’s relationship with other characters.

Dialogue is a great way to employ “show, don’t tell.” It’s easy to tell your readers that your main character is a reality TV junkie, but the story reads stronger if your character peppers her conversations with references like “Make it work!” or “the Jays” or “The game has evolved.” It gives the character depth, and is more subtle than simply telling the readers about the person in big blocks of narrative.

So how do you strengthen your dialogue?

Eavesdrop on conversations. The best way to pick up dialogue is to listen to it. Just as you would watch people to come up with a great character description, you should listen to people to pick up their syntax and dialect. I’ve had entire stories emerge from a snatch of conversation, and I’ve developed characters from listening to one side of a cell phone conversation at the mall. So when you’re around other people in line at a department store or you’re waiting for a table at the bar of your favorite restaurant, listen to what people say, as well as how they say it.

Read plays. There are amazing playwrights that write dialogue that simply pirouettes off the page (much more beautiful than leaps, yes?). Go to your favorite bookstore, and let yourself wander back to the drama section. Pick up a few plays that pique your interest, and read the dialogue. More than that, study the dialogue. What does each line reveal about the character? How does each conversation shape the people, their relationship, the plot? How does the playwright use the written dialogue to create pirouettes?

Watch plays and movies. Just as reading plays can help you learn tricks and tips for writing dialogue, watching movies and plays can do the same. The people who write the scripts spend a good deal of time getting the word choice and syntax just right, and other writers can learn from that work to get our dialogue just right, too. Watching plays and movies can be a little more helpful than reading plays because you’re able to hear how the dialogue sounds, and see the character embrace the dialogue as part of the role.

Since taking the playwriting class, I’ve found myself being more careful about my dialogue, and when I overhear conversations, my mind immediately thinks about what kind of character the speaker is, and how I can transform the bit of dialogue into something read-worthy.

Even though you may not do it consciously, writers are always listening to dialogue. So what's the best bit of dialogue you’ve ever overheard?

27 July 2008

Watching the Clock: When to Ignore Your Writing Schedule

I have a writing schedule for my freelance writing career, and I have tried to stick to that schedule to help myself think of my writing as a business instead of as a hobby, as well as being able to balance my home life from my work-at-home life. I've even taken to writing "CSW is open" on my white board while I'm working, and writing "CSW is closed" on my white board once I've quit working for the day. That way, Hubby knows when I'm working and when I'm not, so he knows if he can get attention, or if his asking "Are you hungry?" (to let me know he's hungry) will be met with a paper ball to the head.

I've been trying very hard to stick to my schedule, but I've learned that schedule isn't always the important thing, and yes, there are times when the clock shouldn't dictate your writing.

When you're on a roll with a piece, you should keep writing and get that extra work done. Obviously, if you're writing and on a roll you're being productive. It wouldn't make sense to interrupt that productivity just because the time you've set aside for writing has ended. I don't know about you, but if I'm writing productively and stop in the middle of it, I spend half my writing time the next day trying to remember where I was going with what I was doing, wasting precious writing time the next day. If I keep writing, I can finish my thought process, and then stop at a more natural place so when I pick up the writing again later or the next day, I'm better able to get into the writing quickly from the natural stopping place.

Not only that, I've had days when I feel completely stuck and can't write, and it would be even more frustrating to be stuck when I know only the night before I stopped myself from writing!

When you're on a deadline and writing an extra couple of hours means the difference between making the deadline and asking for an extension, keep writing. I set deadlines for myself frequently to keep myself on track, and if I've let myself get behind a little bit, I sometimes have to write a bit longer to get caught back up so I can stick to my deadline. Freelance writers not only have their own deadlines, but the deadlines of their clients as well. I'm working on a project right now that's on a particularly tight deadline, so I've kind of thrown my schedule out for a bit so I can be sure to get this project finished by deadline.

When I started writing to a stricter schedule, I did so to make sure I didn't short-change myself by spending half my day "researching" by posting on writers' forums. Since then, my writing schedule has been helpful to make sure I didn't spend every waking hour writing at the expense of my family life. But I've also learned that there are times to look away from the clock and just keep writing.

In his book Getting Started as a Freelance Writer, highly successful freelance writer Bob Bly draws the comparison between writing and dentistry. An old saying by dentists is "If you're not drillin', you're not billin'," which reminds us that in order to get money from writing, you must be writing. So even if you have your schedule, don't be afraid to write a little longer. After all, that little longer now is money in your pocket later!

Happy scribbling!

25 July 2008

You Don't Want...Coffee?

Some time ago, Progressive Conservative asked me about coffee house drinks sans coffee. I gave him a few suggestions, and I'd like to share them with you.

Italian soda/Cremosa
An Italian soda is a cold drink made from carbonated water and flavored syrup. If milk or cream (or whipped cream) is added to the top, it's called a cremosa. They can also be served frozen (like a slushie), and those are called Italian freezes. These non-coffee drinks are especially refreshing in the summer. The carbonated water adds the bubbly taste soda offers, but these drinks are much lighter (and with far less sugar). Usually they're served in flavors like raspberry, peach, strawberry, or even watermelon, but with the variety of syrups available for coffees, you can get just about anything you want. When I was a barista, there was a young man who came in and ordered a chocolate cherry cheesecake Italian soda. Yep. I never tried it myself, but if he liked it, I was happy.

Tea (hot or iced)
When I was younger, tea was either regular or decaf, but now, when you order tea, you have to decide between black, green, herbal, regular, decaf, flavored, organic, and then decide whether you want to add sugar (and if so, what kind?) and/or cream. And once you've decided what you want the tea to taste like, you have to decide whether you want it hot or cold. For those who like things, simple, though regular black tea still exists, and is a relaxing alternative to coffee.

Chai (hot or iced)
Chai tea is a spiced tea that can be served hot or cold (over ice or blended ice). It's made by brewing tea with a combination of aromatic spices. In Iran, India, and other countries, "chai" is simply the word for "tea," but for most English-speakers, "chai" always referred to as the spiced tea known as malasa chai. Many coffee houses also offer chai lattes, which use spiced tea instead of espresso. Though malasa chai originated in the East, it's been Americanized and is now widely available in many flavors at coffee houses and grocery stores. Many grocery stores also offer premade malasa chai powdered mixes that can be added to tea that has already been brewed. Some people say malasa chai is an acquired taste, and you should know that some chai's spices make it taste a bit "clove-y," but for tea drinkers who want a little something extra in their drink, this is a great option.
Please don't think that if you don't like coffee then the coffee house experience is not for you. That's simply not true. There are many options for people who don't drink coffee, and I would hate for you to miss out on the coffee house experience simply because you aren't drawn to the rich aroma of brewed coffee as others are.
Next time a friend says, "Wanna get some coffee?," say yes! Then try a non-coffee coffee house drink. You may find a new favorite!

24 July 2008

Currently Reading

The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worrall
New York: Plume, 2002
267 pages

As the author follows the trail of a forged Emily Dickinson poem across America, he journeys into a labyrinth of lies and intrigue where truth is illusion, and nothing is what it seems. Filled with the page-turning suspense and tantalizing sleuthing techniques of a literary thriller, The Poet and the Murderer paints us an unforgettable portrait of a man whose greatest talent - and greatest tragedy - was his ability to conceal his depraved brilliance behind the unique gifts and enduring celebrity of others." His greatest forgery, a fifteen-line poem in the style of Emily Dickinson, dazzled and then shocked the world of auction houses and academia. By weaving together the story of this masterful forgery with fascinating insights into the life and work of America's most elusive poet, Simon Worrall has created a book that explores the edge between art and artifice, and genius and madness.

[NOTE: This is a reread for me, but after watching an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent guest starring Stephen Colbert (ha!), I decided it was time for another look at this book.]

23 July 2008

Top 10 Ways You Know You Are Really into Coffee

by Christian Di Bono (found here)
  1. The "Coffee Fairy" leaves coffee beans under your kid's pillow in exchange for their molar.
  2. You quiz the pimple-faced teenager at McDonald's on the exact roast date of the "100% Arabica" coffee being served that day.
  3. You vandalize the local Starbucks by breaking in and taking a hammer to the new Super-Auto espresso machines, and as you leave, you spray paint a message that reads "Real Baristas grind and tamp their own coffee!!!"
  4. You ask for the espresso machine and grinder in the divorce settlement, but agree to give your wife the house.
  5. You enjoy watching squirrels after eating nuts into which you have cleverly embedded a coffee bean. You repeat this dastardly behavior on other animals like dogs, cats, armadillos, and blue jays.
  6. You had your pool made into the shape of a coffee bean when viewed from above. Unfortunately now that the divorce is final, your wife gets to enjoy it now, with along with the pool guy.
  7. You contend that Elvis' favorite snack was actually a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, 3 Qualudes, and a non-fat, 2 pump, extra shot, caramel macchiato chaser.
  8. Your favorite BBQ rub includes ground coffee, and you insist on using it on that $52 hunk of Filet Mignon, despite your guests telling you that it tastes like crap.
  9. You spent $6300 on a new DSLR Digital Camera setup, simply to take close-up photos of coffee beans and naked portafilter shots. Your current girlfried is considering a palimony suit.
  10. You roast your own coffee, but you insist on roasting each bean individually for the ultimate in quality.

22 July 2008

Writing from Art, Part Two: My Inspiration

I am writing a reflection on Van Gogh's Sunflowers, and I would love to read your own reflections on the painting. Using the picture below, follow the steps in yesterday's exercise, then email the result to me.

21 July 2008

Writing from Art, Part One: an Exercise

Years ago I took a directed study with my academic advisor called Personal Mythmaking. One of the earliest assignments I was given in the course was to write about my favorite work of art. It started as a description of the painting, Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers, and developed into my reflection on the painting, which developed into a sort of emotional catharsis.

Art can be very powerful, so there have been many times I use art to help me give words to particular emotions. I didn't realize how helpful visual art was to me until the exercise my academic advisor gave me, and it's something I haven't stopped since. In fact, I have several Van Gogh prints on the wall in my office space to remind me of the importance of visual art in my craft, and there have been a few times I've stopped what I was writing to just look at the prints before I pick back up where I was in the writing. Believe me: it helps!

If you haven't written to art before, I highly recommend it. Here is your process:
Choose your favorite work of art (it can be a painting, a sculpture, found art, whatever).
  1. Put the work in a place you can see it clearly (on you computer screen, or sit in front of it at the gallery or museum or whatever you have to do short of stealing it).
  2. Begin writing, letting the piece, how you feel about it, what you see, etc., guide your writing.
  3. When you feel you've said what you need to say, stop.
  4. Email the result to me at nicolepalmby (at) gmail (dot) com to be posted, if you wish. (Be sure to include the title and artist and a picture, if possible, as well as your name.)
  5. Repeat as needed to inspire you!

20 July 2008

Write every day vs. write productively

It's a debate that has filled pages of books, scores of message boards, and time after time, it's left unresolved. The question:

Is it better to write every day, or to write when you know you can write productively?

When I began writing, I was a "write productively" writer. I would go days without writing, but when I did sit in front of my laptop to write, I was able to get a great deal amount of work done. In college, due mostly to assignments and deadlines, I began to write more frequently even if I wasn't totally inspired to write so I could work more steadily toward deadlines and completing assignments. Now, as a full time freelance writer, I write every day for a minimum amount of time, regardless of my level of inspiration and whether or not I have a looming deadline. At the beginning of my day I look at my task list and create a list of goals for the day, and I don't leave my office until my goals for the day are accomplished. Writing a certain amount (or for a certain amount of time) is always on my goal list. Personally, I see writing as something that needs to be practiced to maintain (or improve) skill, so even if I'm not completing a project, I find something to write to help hone my skills.

I know this is a very personal choice akin to faith and political affiliation, so rather than try to convince you of one side or the other, I'd like to present both sides to you, and let you decide for yourself which you prefer.

Write every day
There are some who think the best way to write is to sit at their desks for a minimum amount of time each day and scribble. They are great at meeting their daily word count goals, and though sometimes they sit for a good deal of time staring at a blank page, they're certainly persistent.

One of the advantages of writing every day is that it creates a sense of routine for writers. You know that from this time to this time every day, you'll be writing. Ideas that come between writing times can be used at the time, or they can be saved until the next writing time.

One of the disadvantages of writing every day is that there may be times you sit and stare for the whole writing time without writing a word. This is not only unproductive, but can be very frustrating.

Write productively
There are some who think the best way to write is when inspiration strikes. They are the ones who keep notepads on their nightstand in case they wake from a dream with a great character, and though they may need to scramble to meet goals or deadlines at times, when they write, they write furiously.

One of the advantages of writing productively is that when you sit down to write, you'll have something to write. You won't feel like you're wasting time sitting at your desk with no inspiration.

However, a disadvantage of writing productively is that it can be sporadic, which can make it more difficult to make deadlines and word count goals since you're at the mercy of the muse.

There are certainly other considerations when deciding whether to write every day or to write productively. A large part of that decision is to examine your writing style, and figure out what works best for you. As I said, when I began writing seriously, I only wrote when I felt compelled to write, but as my writing life has changed, I've changed my writing schedule. Remember: if what you're doing isn't working, don't keep doing it because that will just be counter-productive.

The important thing is that whether you decide to write every day or write when inspiration strikes (or a combination of the two), keep writing! Figure out how to write and just keep filling pages!

And happy scribbling!

18 July 2008

How to Make Coffee at Home

When someone says the phrase "a good cup of coffee," do you think of your favorite Italian restaurant? Starbucks? That little coffee bar around the corner? Home?

When I hear that phrase, I immediately think of a strong cup of coffee from an indie hole-in-the-wall coffee house I used to know, and wish I could replicate it at home. I'm making progress, of course, but whenever I bring up the idea of an espresso machine at home, my husband raises and eyebrow and turns away. I guess the one I want just isn't practical in our one-bedroom apartment (but so pretty!). So I'm having to adapt my coffee desires with the limitations of not living in a fully-functional coffee house.

Though I don't have one (yet), I think one of the best ways to make a great cup of coffee at home is with a French Press. It's easier to control the strength of the coffee, the temperature of the water, and how much coffee is made over a traditional coffee maker.* It would work out much better for me since my husband doesn't drink coffee--I can make just enough for me and have considerably less waste.

If you would like to use a French Press, I do want to let you know it's easier than you may think. True, it's a bit more involved than scooping coffee into a filter, filling the resevoir and pushing a button, but it's less involved than a manual espresso machine, too. So here's how it works:

  1. Grind your coffee beans in a burr grinder. You should only grind enough for the coffee you're making at the time since ground coffee stales faster than beans. When you grind the coffee, your grinder setting should be a little coarser than the setting for a traditional coffee maker.
  2. Pour your coffee grinds into the French press. You should use approximately two level tablespoons for every six ounces of water.
  3. Boil water on your stove, then take the water off the heat for about five minutes. This will allow the water to get to the proper temperature (195-205 degrees).
  4. Pour enough water over the beans to wet them, and allow them to expand a little.
  5. Pour the rest of the water over the grinds and stir.
  6. Place the plunger over the press to retain the heat, but don't press it down yet. Let the coffee brew for three or four minutes (or longer once you figure out how strong you like your coffee in a French press).
  7. Push the plunger down slowly. This pushes the grinds to the bottom (under the plunger) and the brewed coffee to the top.
  8. Pour your coffee.
  9. Add sugar and/or cream to taste, and enjoy!
  10. Be sure to clean your French press completely after each use!
It's as simple as that! Enjoy!

*NOTE: If you do use a traditional coffee maker, be sure it's one that boils the water before pouring it over the coffee grinds or a drip-style coffee maker. If the water isn't hot enough when it's poured over the grinds, your coffee will be bitter instead of rich and delicious. (Don't say I didn't warn you!)

17 July 2008

Well, Now What?

Since July 3rd, I've been furiously researching and scribbling (although between July 3rd and July 11th my brother was here so I was a bit busy) as I've been working on my recent gig. Now that the gig is over, I feel a sense of relief, but there's also a bit of a void since I don't have another gig in progress right now.
So I've been thinking about what to do to use my time wisely while I'm looking at my writing prospects, doing some marketing, and living my life.
One of the most important things I'm going to do this week is continue working on my coffee house book. It's been a bit neglected the past couple of weeks, and every morning when I brewed my morning pot of coffee I could smell the manuscript calling to me.... It's time to get back to it! Coffee stales, after all!
I've found the best way to keep myself motivated after a big project is to keep writing, even if I'm not working on a specific project. I scribble character biographies or setting descriptions or whatever comes to mind. If I can't think of anything, I'll borrow from Beautiful Corpse and write the following randomly:
and use it as the beginning of a scene or story. It's not usually spectacular, but it keeps me writing.
What do you do when you find you don't really have any writing to do?

16 July 2008

My Home Office: how I work from home

I've really loved being able to work from home since school let out in June. I've been able to focus on writing, which has been wonderful, and I've been able to make my own schedule, which has also been wonderful.

At first I was nervous about having a home office--I was afraid one of two things would happen. Either I would find it too easy to walk away from my office space and I wouldn't get any work done, or I'd find it too easy to stay in the office and every waking moment would be spent working and my personal life would suffer. So far, it's been something in between those extremes. There have been days I've found things that just had to get done before I could sit down and write. And there have been days I've been on such a roll that when I finally stopped to take a break, it was a good three hours later than my scheduled stopping time.

To be honest, I don't think there's anything wrong with how things have been going for me. I'm getting the work done that I need to, and despite my cats' mentality that I'm home to play with them rather than work, I've had overall productive days since June 13th. I was afraid having all day to write would cause more problems than give benefits, but it's been working well for me. I decided early on to have set work hours. I haven't always stuck to those hours the way I did when I was in my first job out of college, but having them has given me the ability to mentally separate my home life from my work-at-home life. Those hours help me think of this more as a career and less a hobby.

I've also been working to improve the efficiency of my work space. I have a printer on my desk for small printing jobs (the big printer is across the room on Hubby's desk). The shelves next to my desk have some of my reference books on them, and the set of drawers next to the shelves keep various office supplies at hand. Time I save by having everything close by is time I'm spending writing.

This freelance gig has given me a glimpse into what my life is going to be like as a freelance writer, and while I may change a few things next time, I think it's going to be a good career.

15 July 2008


I sent off the articles for my freelance project! Yahoo!

5 Tips to a Better Coffee House Experience

1. Try something new. You never know what you might like, and if you don't try something, you'll never get to experience it. Usually get a mocha latte? Try the house blend. An iced coffee person? Order an iced chai tea.

2. Ask for a recommendation. Many baristas drink so much coffee that they're able to find interesting drinks and combinations that are very good, and if you ask for a recommendation, you may find something not so ordinary that becomes a new favorite.

3. Attend an event. Many coffee houses have open mic nights, author speaking engagements, mini-lectures, and other things available for customers to attend. At my local coffee house recently, for example, there was a french press lesson. Not only do you get to meet new people and learn new ideas, but it's just another opportunity to drink coffee! Yum!

4. Visit a new coffee house. Sometimes all it takes to appreciate a great coffee is to get a fresh perspective on your favorite drink by ordering it somewhere else. Each coffee house is a little different (even if the recipes are the same), so when you order your drink somewhere else, you get a slightly different drink, and it helps you discern what you like as a coffee drinker.

5. Sit at the coffee house to drink your coffee. There is atmosphere in coffee houses, and sometimes it's relaxing and refreshing to just sit and take it in for a while. Listen to the music, smell the coffee brewing, watch the people coming in and out, or the people hanging out in the atmosphere themselves. Maybe it's the writer in me that loves to sit and people-watch, but I think coffee houses are great places to spend time!

14 July 2008

Seeking Inspiration: Writing from the Scraps of Life

For those who are not aware, I'm also a scrapbooker. I've always collected bits and scraps of my life as memories, and now that I've begun scrapbooking, I have a way to put them all together in an attractive way instead of keeping them in a shoebox in my closet.
I recently finished my wedding scrapbook, and as I was putting together the pages over the past couple of weeks, I had to stop every so often, open my jotting journal (a journal I use to jot notes and ideas), and make a few notes about story ideas that kept coming to mind. I filled half a dozen pages of story ideas, characters, and relationships from the memories of my wedding day as I used acid-free adhesive to paste down embellishments and matting. (Once I finish this freelance gig I'll be starting a couple of character sketches based on my recent notes.)
I know I would've gotten through the scrapbook sooner if I'd saved my notes until I was finished with the whole thing and gone through it as a whole, but I couldn't bring myself to do that. So I scribbled while I waited for glue to dry or while I was thinking about how to cut certain matting or what color cardstock to use.

It was strange, really, that I got more ideas putting together my wedding scrapbook than I did at Anderson Gardens when I was there a few years ago, and I usually take lots of notes at Anderson Gardens.

Life is the stuff of stories.

So when your muse is out to lunch and you're on a deadline, why wouldn't you turn to the scraps of your own life for inspiration? It's close at hand, it's something about which you can write with true emotion based on first-hand experience. How better can you write to touch lives than by writing about the people and events that touched yours?

In my post "So You Think You're a Poet? Part One: Imagery," I talked about poetry being an experience. Prose is similar in that it should be an experience, and it's created by drawing a connection between reader and writer. And writing to create an experience can be done by drawing on your own experiences to create vivid moments and characters that touch readers because they, too, have experienced what you have, or met a character you use as an inspiration.
If you find you're struggling to come up with something to type (or write), I recommend going through your journals, looking back through photo albums, scrapbooks, or going through that memento box that is home to the ticket stubs from your first movie date, the love letter your significant other wrote that made you cry, and the broken piece of sand dollar you found during your first trip to the beach. You never know what might come out of it.

Happy scribbling!

13 July 2008

Mint Mocha Frappuccino Review

Recently, Starbucks revealed a new frozen drink: the mint mocha frappuccino (also available as an iced coffee). Being a huge fan of chocolate/mint combinations, I had to try it to see if it stood up to the Mint Meltaway I came up with while working as a barista. Besides, who better to try out a new drink than the coffee-stained writer herself?
So I ordered it recently and sat down in the relaxing atmosphere of a local Starbucks to try the drink. The drink is made like a mocha frappuccino with the added shot of spearmint, and is topped with chocolate whipped cream and mocha sauce (as pictured).
The preparation time seemed average for other frappuccinos I've ordered. I don't know if there's a separate mix for this drink or if it's simply the mocha frappuccino with a shot of spearmint added by hand. Either way, preparation time was negligible. The frappuccino I drank tasted as though it used dark chocolate for the chocolate flavoring, but I don't know if that's the standard (or if it was just my imagination). It surprised me initially, but I enjoyed the flavor. It prevented the drink from tasting too sweet.
I enjoyed the frappuccino when I first began drinking it. The blend of mocha and spearmint was balanced, leaving just a hint of minty flavor afterward. As the temperature of the drink rose and the ingredients began to separate, the flavor didn't mix as well. Mixing it with my straw helped a little, but that mixed in the chocolate whipped cream, which began to make the drink a little too sweet for my taste.
Overall, it was a good drink, but I think I would like it better over ice instead of blended ice (which I'll try next time). If you like chocolate/mint combinations, I recommend you try it either as a frappuccino or as an iced coffee.
Let me know what you think!

07 July 2008

Multi-Dimensional Animals

Allo. With our valiant Coffee-Stained Writer away from the office, I figured I'd sneak in and have my way with the place. Seems like a good time to answer a plea from an old and dear friend that ended up in me website email inbox:

When one puts animals in books, one should include a wide spectrum of emotions not just good/bad animals. Like us, they are complex living beings with a wide variety of emotions. In short, we are tired of reading about one dimensional animals!!

I'll be expanding on this theme for the Dojo someday, when I manage to wrestle enough time away from the 14,253,862 projects on my plate to update the bloody thing. But let's just do a quick hit-and-run to keep the Hankinator happy, shall we?

I'll leave it to our literary barista to hit this from the non-SF side. I'm just going to say this: if you're writing a mystery novel, please o please do not stick a cat in there contemplating its own awesomeness. Patricia Cornwell did that in one of her incredibly awful non-Scarpetta books, and it was surreal in the very worst way.

She could've at least avoided the Egyptian motif (soooo overdone!) and gone with a feline with severe self-esteem problems.

In fact, you should avoid animal soliloquies entirely, unless sentient animals are a central part of your story.

Now, let's move on to SF. I've noticed a definite tendency among many SF authors to have their animal characters act just like humans. Aside from the occasional reference to four legs and fur, you'd hardly know you're dealing with an animal as a main character. Talk about one-dimensional. They're delicious, nutritious, and act just like humans!

We won't even discuss those authors whose animals, like their people, wear white hats or black hats with nary a shade of gray. Ridiculous. It's obvious that animals, like humans, will be a complex mix of contradictory urges. Take my cat, for one: she has her moments when she's a perfect saint, and days when I think I'm living with the devil incarnate. You've all owned animals that, while usually well-behaved, occasionally give in to their baser impulses and leave you with a house full of chewed-up slippers and gnawed turkeys.

It's bad enough when an author's animals act just like people, but when they act just like cardboard caricatures of people, it gets really bad.

There are a few quick fixes for the urge to write one-dimensional animals.

First off, think of all the pets you've owned. Different personalities, weren't they? Proper little individuals. Write down a list of their traits, and notice how varied they are. The cats are as different from each other as they are from the dogs. Even fish have their unique moments. And horses - ye gods, the horses. Ours had Issues. One suffered from claustrophobia and the other separation anxiety. They had days when they wanted to go out and play and days when they'd do everything in their power not to stir from their stalls.

Second thing to do is research animals. There are some ways in which they're similar to people, but astounding ways in which they're different.

Start with physiology. Their senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch are far different from ours. Get to know how they experience their world. What does yellow look like to a dog? What does it feel like to find your way with your face, as cats do in the dark? Read all you can on the way the perceive the world and how their bodies work, and then try to move inside those bodies. Try to be the animal.

World seems a lot different, doesn't it?

Next, delve into animal psychology. There's a remarkable number of books that will tell you about the mind and society of dogs, cats, birds, horses, lizards, and just about anything else humans can get their hands on. They don't think quite the way we do. Figure out what their mental world's like. That will allow you to do new and interesting things with your stories rather than just telling them from the point of view of humans masquerading as animals.

Study their language. How do they communicate? How would that communication affect their relationships, the way they think? Language is a huge part of who humans are - people who think in different languages see the world differently. Imagine how much different it would be for animals who don't have the human vocal chords and language centers in their brains. They'd have to experience things differently.

But all living things have fundamental similarities. Once you've gotten through figuring out what's drastically different, it's time to move on to what's nearly the same. Almost every animal is going to have the same basic needs: food, water, shelter, sleep, sex, and love. Doubt me on the love part? Why does your cat sometimes deign to give you the time of day? That's right - she loves you because you feed her.

Finally, and most fun, bust the stereotypes. Cats are aloof and uncaring, small gods almost right? Write yourself a clingy, insecure feline in need of constant reassurance. Dogs are unfailingly loyal and friendly? How about a dog that's using that stereotype to grift? Talk about the world's greatest con artist! How about a cat and a dog that team up to fleece the gullible - the cat as the mysterious psychic, the dog as the shill in the audience, leading audience members to suspend their disbelief because he's so friendly and trustworthy? There's a story!

You're welcome to write it. I won't be using it - refer to the 14 million etc. things above.

Right, then. Off you go. And remember to make your animals well-rounded individuals, or Hankinator shall be very upset with you.

02 July 2008


Since my brother is visiting this week (and this weekend is Independence Day), my posts will not be as regular, though I will be posting. I plan to return to a regular schedule on Friday, July 11th. Thank you for your patience, and have a great weekend!

01 July 2008

Richard Blackburn on young adult writing

My Writing--Getting Ideas from Personal Experience
A lot of the action in The Gatekeeper is set in the year 1347. At that time there was a castle in West Derby, where I was brought up until the age of twelve. We know a castle had been there since very early times because the Doomsday book mentions it in 1086. The reason this is important to me is because the grassy plot in front of my house and the field behind it were part of that castle. Actually my house was outside the defensive walls, on the site of the midden, so I was actually brought up on the site of an old rubbish tip!

The village of West Derby was very important to me. The main square was paved with cobble-stones. I thought this was to make kids crash their bikes when it rained, and it certainly did that. At the side of the square, there was a courthouse and yeoman's house built in the time of Elizabeth the First. There were stocks which had been placed there to punish workers who, after the plague of 1348-51, tried to increase their wages because of the scarcity of labour (contravening the Labourers Statute, 1351). So it was a place of great historic interest but there was more. One of the very narrow old streets in the village had special properties. When I walked along it my footsteps would sound; click, click, click but then they would change to; dump, dump, dump. The ground was hollow in an area that seemed to lead to where the castle had been. I was sure it was an escape passage in case of siege and if I could get into it I'd find gold and weapons – all things of great interest to a schoolboy. I was a bit young to think of damsels in distress and I suppose she wouldn't have waited a thousand years for me to save her, anyway. Also, I came against a very stubborn adversary in the local councillor. He lived near there and wouldn't let me dig a hole in the middle of the road to satisfy my curiosity.

I also roamed around the fields of the vast estate of Lord Derby, the Earl of Sefton. This had been a Royal Hunting Forest in the middle ages and was only a few hundred metres away from my house, over a high sandstone wall. Even though it was trespassing to go in there, it was the most fantastic place to find willows, which grew really the straight new branches that we used as swords or made bows and arrows out of. Many of our games were inspired by Robin Hood and The Crusades.

Sorcery and Such
I'm happy to include time travel in my story because my family is Manx and they're all very superstitious. On the Isle of Man many people still believe in mystical creatures like the Phennodderee, the Bugain and the Fowar. My grandmother wouldn't have electricity in her cottage. She said it was the work of the Devil. She also swept the floors from the walls in, so as not to brush good luck out. At night the back door was left slightly open, to let the Phennodderee in if they were weary or cold. And in case they were hungry, she left out saucers of bread and milk. It was years later I put two and two together and realised that's why even the stray cats around there looked well fed.

A History of Story Telling
My father was a great story teller and I've tried to follow his example. I've always tried to make up short stories for my kids. At one stage my wife told me I should write a book of them and try to get it published. As you know, men always do what their wives tell them to do, so after thirty-odd years that is what I'm doing now. But I'm sticking to adventure, not the scary stories my father sometimes told.

I remember one of them was about a Bugain, the nastiest of the Manx mystical creatures. You see, there were three kids in my family and I was the youngest. I had to go to bed first and my bedroom was built over the garage, away from the rest of the family. There were none of those modern lights which you can switch on at the bottom of the stairs and off at the top so I had to go to bed in the dark.

After the story that night I was petrified. I crept up the stairs with my knees shaking. It was when I'd nearly reached my room I froze. I had heard the Bugain. It was shuffling along the corridor higher up, grunting at times and breathing heavily. I was mortified. I knew I was a gonner. I just hoped the end would be swift and painless. But then something happened – something seemed to go snap inside my brain. I started to get angry. I was determined not to go without a fight. I'd show that monster he'd taken on more than he'd bargained for when he picked on me.

I crept up the extra stairs and flattened myself against the wall around the corner from where my pursuer was slowly creeping toward me. My heart was thumping wildly as I prepared for the end. I waited until the creaking of the floorboards was right there then I threw myself around the corner with a bloodcurdling yell.


It was my grandmother. She had been heading toward the toilet ... carrying a full chamber-pot. Well, you guessed it. I was blamed for the wee on the ceiling. I was blamed for the wee dribbling down the walls. But she wasn't blamed for acting like a ghost and frightening me! So at an early age I learnt that life was not particularly fair. And in The Gatekeeper, Jenny, the heroine, soon came to the same conclusion.

Any YA historical fantasy writer who has not had the fortune to be brought up in an interesting location, come from a crazy family or been scared to death by his father must rely on research. The internet is so important and I also read old books or reprints of old correspondence such as the Pastern letters. My recent find is Wynkin de Worde's training guide for young lords written in the late thirteen hundreds. One of many instructions he tells them is:
'Don't spit over the tablecloth or on it
Definitely don't blow your nose on the tablecloth.
Don't spit in the water brought for washing your hands.
Don't spit a long way away from you but when you do spit, spit from behind your hand neatly near your chair.'

So large numbers of guests at a normal meal would very politely spit all over the floor – gross!

Writing for YA
When I have an idea for a story to write, it is always the sort of story I'd be interested in reading myself. I don't dumb down the language even though I don't include swearing but that is because I don't like swearing in real life. I don't include too much gore but I do portray the horrors of life as they were in those days. I use as many really interesting facts as I can.

I like fast moving stories and don't spend time telling my readers the sky is blue and the trees are green. I think they should know that. I read my work over scores of times. I read it out loud (although my dog is really worried by this and looks at me as though I've finally gone round the bend).

I also use footnotes for those facts that are not often known these days but need to be understood for the sake of the story. Many would be ugly information dumps if I put them in the text and I don't like looking facts up in the back of the book myself, so I don't inflict it on others.

Some of my scenes would have been considered a bit risqué when I was a kid but things have changed and I think it is a normal part of today's society.

Richard Blackburn, author of The Gatekeeper:
I was born in England during the Second World War. I grew up in a house built on the site of a 12th Century castle in a village that was important when Liverpool was just a few fishermen's cottages. My family was Manx, full of superstition and stories of the Phennodderee, Fowar, Bougain and Mermaid.

I emigrated to Australia at the age of twenty and worked at first as a bookkeeper on a cattle station to the north of the Simpson Dessert. I then moved to Darwin and worked as an internal auditor in the Health Department, travelling extensively around the Northern Territory. Finding the 'Top End' lacking in adventure, I moved on to Papua New Guinea where I worked for thirteen years among the primitive people, as a District Officer. This involved being a police officer, magistrate and senior Australian representative in the area he was responsible for.

Since returning to Australia I have gained an Associate Diploma in Management, an Advanced Diploma in Administration and a Degree in Information Technology and have worked for a number of Government Departments. I completed two TAFE short courses in creative writing to make sure my style had not been crushed completely by many years of writing in the public service.

My interests outside work are now restricted to my family and scuba diving. I have had to give up parachuting and long-distance running due to a back injury and now have to be content to leave the real excitement to characters in his stories.

I have had The Gatekeeper published in Australia by Zeus Publications and the sequel, Rudigor's Revenge, will be available later this year. Next year both stories will be published by Lachesis, Canada, probably as one book. I am presently writing the third book in the series and I have submitted another four books to my Canadian Publisher. These are aimed at a younger YA audience.