Dreams: Window to the Soul or Emotional Torture?

Have you ever gotten angry with someone for something they did…in your dreams? I don’t mean getting mad while still dreaming, but actually waking up and looking at that person and genuinely wanting to punch them in the face for what your subconscious imagined them doing during your brain’s nightly firing of neurons?

She may look docile, but she's dreaming about using that toy spading fork to stab her enemies in the eyes.
She may look docile, but she’s dreaming about using that toy spading fork to stab her enemies in the eyes.

Humans can be extremely unreasonable creatures in a great number of circumstances, but I think this may possibly be the most unreasonable reaction possible. And yet, if you’re one of many people who have had this kind of dream and experienced the aftereffects, you understand exactly what I’m talking about. You wake up and you know that it was a dream, you know that it was just your stupid brain making up weird stories with no basis in truth or reality…but you still look at that person and your body fills up with rage and you have to seriously restrain yourself from making an ass of yourself by calling them out.

I have these kinds of dreams constantly, and it can be very exhausting. I suspect that it’s a very normal thing to experience conflict and upsetting situations in dreams, but that most people forget those conflicts by the time they’ve woken up. As someone who has always had very vivid and intricate dreams – and almost always remembers them upon waking – I have to actually deal with those conflicts and the unreasonable emotion they awaken.

For example, one night not too long ago, I was dreaming that my sister-in-law and I were shopping with our daughter’s in a large and complicated mall. Sis-in-law suggested that we should get the girls tattoos and I laughed, thinking it was a joke because the girls are only 3 and 4. But then, when I turned around, sis-in-law had disappeared with both girls. I went on a frantic search through the ridiculously busy and difficult-to-navigate mall until I eventually spotted them at the food court. I relaxed for a half a moment until I saw that my daughter – my 3-year-old daughter – now had a tattoo on the back of her hand. I woke up absolutely livid, even though I know damn well that my sis-in-law would never do something so idiotic.

The human brain is wonderful at tricking itself into believing in nonsense, and I think that’s part of the problem with these kinds of dreams. There have been studies that show that people can be – quite easily, in fact – tricked into “remembering” events from their childhood that never really happened, so long as they are given sufficient evidence (other people’s testimonies, for example) that the event did occur. It’s not a far stretch, then, that your own brain should be able to trick you into believing that something it made up really happened, at least long enough to set off all the hormones and emotional responses that would equate with such an event. Thus, you wind up with the typical stories, like grown adults flipping out on their spouses for any number of events that were completely fabricated within their own mind.

And while I know that it’s entirely unreasonable to act on the emotion you took away with you from dreamland, I can’t really blame the people who do because, let’s face it…your sleeping brain can be a complete asshole sometimes. For example, I am in a completely happy monogamous relationship with my husband. I trust him, and he (I assume) trusts me, and we love each other very much. And yet, on a fairly regular basis, my brain will have me dreaming about him being unfaithful in some way. I have woken up from dreams feeling like my heart just got ripped out, and I have woken up from dreams certain that I was going to break his face while he was still sleeping. Luckily I’m a (moderately) reasonable person who knows the difference between dreams and reality, but that doesn’t make the emotions that follow such a dream any less real. Eventually, when the fallout wears off and I’m able to take a deep breath and think again, I blame my brain for being a total pain-in-the-ass jerk.

Dreams…the window to the soul, or an open opportunity for your subconscious to torture you and see how much of a fool it can make you act like?

I know I’m not the only one. Who else here has woken up mad as hell, or bawling your eyes out, even though you know that what you just dreamed about didn’t really happen? Have you ever accidentally acted on those feelings before you could bring yourself back to reality? Share!

Giving Thanks

Foreword for my American readers: I’ve known some Americans who were completely baffled to find out that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving on a different day from them, so this is just a little message to say, hey, feel free to ignore this Thanksgiving Day post. Don’t worry, I’ll still love you. 🙂

I have to be honestly: Thanksgiving is not one of the big holidays for me. For me it’s mostly all about the turkey and the stuffing that comes with it. Hey, I’m just being honest.

This is what it’s all about, baby! Image courtesy Lynn Kelly Author on Flickr

But in honor of this day that is supposed to remind us to be thankful for all we have, here’s a partial list of things that I should keep in mind whenever I’m feeling down:

– I’m thankful for my daughter, my little mini-me, who makes my heart swell and burst at least a dozen times a day.

– I’m thankful for my husband, who puts up with me (a difficult task) and makes me laugh constantly, even when I don’t feel like laughing.

– I’m thankful for the rest of my family (my parents, my grandmother, my aunts and uncles and cousins) whom I love and who helped make me who I am today.

– I’m thankful for my friends, even though most of them are far away from me, because I didn’t have that many of them growing up, so the ones I have are super-special.

– I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to get ahead in life, to get rid of debts early, and to make life a little better for my family.

– I’m thankful for every second I get to write, to do what I love to do the most.

– I’m thankful for all the time I’ve had, and whatever time I’ve got left, because goodness knows we don’t get a lot of it.

Happy Thanksgiving, fellow Canadians! Hope you all have a great day!

What the New Ninja Turtles can Teach Writers About Good Characters

I’ve brought up the Nickelodeon re-imagining of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a couple of times, not only because my daughter loves them, but also because I’m pretty enamored myself. When we first saw it my husband and I were a little bit wary – this was our childhood Nick was messing around with after all – but we soon found ourselves watching the show just as intently as our daughter was. Later we discussed among ourselves exactly what it was about the show that made it so appealing, and we established that it’s the characters. Specifically, it’s all the things about the characters that were lacking from the original cartoon.

So with that in mind, here are a few key concepts that I think Nick’s version of the Ninja Turtles can teach writers about creating good characters:

Your characters should BE who you SAY they are.

It sounds obvious, but not as obvious as you might think. A lot of people make the mistake of putting a label on their character, but then doing everything possible to make their character act like the exact opposite of that.

This is the first thing that my husband brought up when we were talking about what makes the new Ninja Turtles a great show: “They actually, you know…act like teenagers.” I realized right away that he was right. If you go back to the original cartoon, later iterations, and even the live-action movies, the Turtles consistently act very un-teenager-like. It’s a key descriptor in their very existence – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – but they’ve never acted as such. The closest they ever resembled actual teens was in the original cartoon, but I challenge you to go back and watch an episode right now. You’ll notice that they act less like teenagers and more like surfer frat-bros.

In the new version of the show, the Turtles embody everything we think of when we remember what it was like to be a teenager. They’re goofy and playful, quick to anger, and constantly getting in trouble. They defy their “father” on a regular basis, get crushes on girls, are cocky and overconfident, and have to take a major beating to learn any lesson. They’re also brothers who actually treat each other like brothers, constantly fighting and bickering, tormenting each other and picking on each other, while also taking care of each other and having each others’ back.

So think about this the next time you’re creating a character. If your character is a religious older woman she’s not likely to be hanging out at night clubs all the time. A jock character isn’t going to seem authentic if you never write him playing any sports. And a teenage character should act like a teenager.

Your characters shouldn’t be clones.

Quick, anyone who grew up with the original Ninja Turtles cartoon, what are each of the Turtles known for?

“Leonardo leads; Donatello does machines; Raphael is cool, but rude; Michelangelo is a party dude!”

Everyone who grew up with the show knows these distinctions. Leo is the stalwart leader, Donnie is the techno-genius, Raph is the feisty grouch, and Mikey is the lovable party guy. Right?

Again, I challenge you to go back and watch the old cartoon. We all know that these are the different personality types of the four Turtles, but if you watch the old episodes you’ll notice that aside from when Donnie plays with a computer’s keyboard or Mikey says, “Cowabunga!” all the Turtles act exactly the same. Raph is in no way any more “rude” than his three brothers, and Leo doesn’t lead so much as he lifts his swords in the air and says, “Get ’em!”

Hell, they even look identical except for the color of their headbands.

Take away the letters on their belts and put the pictures in black and white and I defy you to tell them apart.
Take away the letters on their belts and put the pictures in black and white and I defy you to tell them apart.

In Nick’s version, each of the Turtles have very distinct personalities. Leo is the leader, yes, but he’s also a huge geek who loves a Star Trek-like cartoon so much that he has the episodes memorized. Donnie is the techy, who he’s also gawky, and socially awkward. Raph has anger management issues and is extremely sarcastic pretty much all the time. Mikey is dumb as a brick, but in an incredibly cute and innocent way. And there are lots of little details that differentiate them all, like how Raph’s shell is chipped to show that he’s the rough one, and how Mikey is shorter than the rest to give the impression that he’s the innocent, youngest brother. Hell, just look at them…you can practically see their personalities in the way the new creators designed them:

2012-Teenage-Mutant-Ninja-Turtles-nickelodeon-33749841-800-871
The gap between Donnie’s teeth cracks me up for some reason.

Remember, even if your characters have a few key similarities, you want them to stand out from each other. They should have their own specific likes and dislikes, personality traits and hobbies. When a reader thinks of a particular character from your book, you want them to be able to picture that character apart from the other ones, to immediately know exactly who they’re reading about.

Antagonists should bring drama and tension to the story.

It goes without saying that The Shredder is, and forever will be, the main villain in the Ninja Turtles universe. He’s their arch-rival, the enemy that relentlessly strives for their extermination.

Also, in the original cartoon, he’s a bumbling idiot who can do nothing right.

I’ll admit that the late 80’s/early 90’s era was one during which most cartoons were a little weak in the drama center. They wanted to be light and fun, without exhibiting too much violence or anything that grumpy parents might find distasteful. But even taking that into consideration, The Shredder brought very little in the way of antagonistic tension to the original cartoon. He was such a pathetic fool that even as kids we knew there was no cause for concern because his plans always failed miserable. And he was a laughing stock, for sure. No kid who watched the original cartoon thought that The Shredder was anything other than hysterically inept.

The new Ninja Turtles, while still designed for kids and careful not to be too violent or mature, has fixed this issue with their villains. The Shredder is angry and powerful, and while his cronies may be a little pathetic, he is absolutely not. In the first episode in which the Turtles face Shredder, they get absolutely pulverized…and that’s the end of the episode. They are able to escape certain death by complete chance, and we’re left with the knowledge that our heroes are currently not powerful enough to defeat their enemy.

Even in a kid’s show, tension makes for good storytelling, plain and simple. Your antagonist needs to bring that tension. You want your readers to genuinely wonder if something horrifying is going to happen to your main characters at any given moment. Without that tension, the story serves no purpose and the antagonist is flat and pointless.

All characters should have flaws.

No one is perfect; not protagonists, not antagonists, not anyone. The original Ninja Turtles cartoon (along with most cartoons of that age) really glossed over this concept. The Turtles were always able to save the day easily because they always knew exactly what to do. They never made anything other than the smallest of mistakes, and lessons were learned with minimal effort. While this can be acceptable for small children (since they think their heroes are infallible anyway), it doesn’t fly most of the time. Characters without flaws are impossible to relate to.

The new Turtles have lots of flaws, and it makes them more relatable and likable because you can put yourself in their position. Leo is the leader, yes, but he’s also a teenager with all the angst and frustrations that the age group is famous for, so he makes mistakes and doesn’t always act like a leader. As previously mentioned, Mikey is dumb as a brick, and he’s constantly screwing up and getting himself and his brothers in trouble. Donnie is a tech genius, but sometimes his gear breaks down or blows up in his face. Raph lets his anger get the best of him and it lands him in lots of trouble.

Even the co-characters have their flaws focused upon. Splinter lets his fear for his “sons” cloud his judgement. April does whatever it takes to look for her father even when her ideas are dumb and dangerous. Shredder has a vendetta against Splinter that takes precedence over everything else and causes him to make poor decisions.

Readers want to be able to relate in some way to the character’s their reading about. If a character is clumsy or shy or a terrible drunk or has a gambling problem or an awful body image, it lets us put ourselves in the place of that character because we feel empathy with them. When a character (mostly likely an antagonist) has really awful flaws, like being a psychopath, it makes us root for their downfall that much more. If a character has absolutely no flaws it makes us wonder “where the hell this perfect person came from and why should I give a rat’s ass about them?”

In conclusion…

The characters make the story. Without good characters even the best of plot lines can wither and die. You want your readers to love your characters (whether they’re good guys or bad guys), to care for them, to root for (or against) them. There are a lot of books, movies, TV shows, and video games out there that are sub-par because the creators made characters who are hard, if not impossible, to like. And sometimes we, as writers, have a hard time seeing that our characters are unlikable, because they’re like children to us and our children are always perfect in our eyes. So I beg you to read articles like this one, examine the characters you love from all kinds of different mediums, and ask beta-readers about your characters’ likability. A little bit of extra effort can make a world of difference in creating characters that feel real.

A Memorable Idea

This past weekend was full and tiring. My parents visited Friday night, and two awesome friends visited Saturday night. There was drinking and eating and cleaning up before and after visits, and between all that we had the baby outside in her pool, going for walks and playing with the neighbor’s grandkids. In addition to all that I had a hard time sleeping Friday night, and we were up drinking and playing foolish trivia games until 3 am on Saturday night, so I’ve developed a rather debilitating sleep debt.

This is currently the face of my jealousy.
This is currently the face of my jealousy.

So it is with bags under my eyes and an enormous yawn on my lips that I sat down at my laptop and struggled to think of something to blog about for today. I considered a number of previously-planned options that made my head hurt because I am simply too tired to deal with them right now. I thought about reading the first chapter of The Artist’s Way and talking about that, but it turns out that there are half a dozen introduction chapters that seem pretty important before you get to the actual program part of the book, and my addled brain can’t really handle that at the moment. I thought about simply writing about my weekend, about the tomfoolery that occurs when the husband and I get together with our friends and some good liquor, but I couldn’t figure out how to work that into anything coherent and interesting.

With those ideas set aside, I thought I’d mention something that I had been meaning to bring up for a while. It’s an idea I came up with one day a while ago, something that’s one part memory exercise, one part mental therapy, and one part keepsake-that-can-be-helpful-when-writing.

I call it a Memory Book, for lack of something cooler. I don’t remember when or why I came up with the idea, but one day I picked up a pretty notebook and a nice pen, and I began writing down memories. I don’t make the memories long and complicated; they’re generally just a one-or-two-liner that gives the basic idea. For instance, I might write, “That time I decided to roller-blade to school, but the hill was too steep and I ended up having to admit defeat.”

The memories can be good ones (“The first time Jason told me he loved me…he looked so cute and nervous!”) or bad ones (“The first time I left for out West and I was waiting for the plane while struggling not to cry.”) or just random things from my past that mean nothing but that are non-the-less cluttering up my brain (“The time our cabin water was shut down so we kept having to collect stream water in buckets in order to be able to flush the toilet.”). Any random memory that I can think of can end up in the book.

So what’s the point?

Well, for one thing it exercises my memory (which has gone so downhill over the past six or seven years of my life) to bring up information that might be buried deep; alternatively, re-reading it allows me to recall things I may have allowed myself to forget about.

For another thing, it can be very therapeutic. Instead of struggling to think of something to write for my works-in-progress or my blog, I can just sit with this notebook and spill out information that’s already in my head, like a mental Spring Cleaning.

And lastly, having this notebook handy has actually been helpful to my writing. See, one of the hardest aspects of writing fiction (in my opinion) is coming up with relatable characters, people whom the readers will love and sympathize with. Part of this is making the characters feel more real, and in the past I’ve been able to accomplish this by using my Memory Book and juicing the memories up a bit to craft pasts for my characters. Why is a certain character so shy? Because of this embarrassing event, stolen from my Memory Book and blown up a bit to make it sound even more mortifying. How did two other characters meet? Steal something from the Memory Book and spruce up the details a bit. See what I’m saying?

A Memory Book might not be useful for everyone, but it’s been useful for me in several ways, so I thought I’d share and invite everyone to give it a try. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy…it could be a Dollar Store notebook tucked into your purse or wallet, or a Word file on your computer. You can write about any kind of memories you like, and you can write quick one-liners like me or write a whole page for each. Whatever makes it work for you.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear from you!

It’s a Bug’s Life

I have a confession to make. I can hide it no longer. I am a Clutter-Bug.

What the hell is a Clutter-Bug, you ask? Well, what does it sound like? My life and my mind are filled with clutter. Mountains of it.

Don’t mistake me for a hoarder, although material possessions are a little bit of the problem. Physically I do have a lot of hoarder-type clutter around my house. I have an entire shelf on my bookcase that is nothing but blank notebooks I’ve never used, and there’s a whole stack of drawers in the dining room that are filled with good old fashioned junk, like rubber-band balls and dead pens. I have a bit of a hard time throwing stuff away, even when I know there’s no point in keeping them.

But the type of clutter that I’m talking about is the kind that distracts, the kind that disguises itself as disorganization and generally messiness. There are almost always clothes on my bedroom floor, for instance, even though we have a hamper in there. I leave my phone, my tablet, and my Playstation Vita wherever I happen to be when I’m finished using them. There are books on top of my headboard that I haven’t touched in weeks. There are boxes of baby clothes sitting in my hall that I simply haven’t bothered to put away, even though it would take five minutes to cart them down into the basement.

I seem to have a mental block that consistently keeps me from ever putting anything away, thus cluttering up my house. It’s an illness. A terrible, debilitating illness.

But it goes further than that, because clutter can be mental as well.

For instance, in my closet there is a huge stack of jeans taking up a good three square feet of space. None of them fit. They vary between being a size or two off to being so tiny that I would have to get liposuction and a stomach staple to ever have a chance of fitting in them again. And not only are these jeans clutter in the literal sense of taking up space and never being used, they’re clutter in the mental sense because I have to think of them every time I look at them. Every time I open my closet I see this stack of jeans and they make me miserable just for the sheer fact that I know I can’t fit into them. I know I could fit into them if I worked really hard and restricted my calories and stuck to a daily exercise regimen and completely stopped drinking anything other than water and so on and so on and so on…you see? Mental clutter.

Most people do this kind of thing to themselves to some extent, but I, my friends, am an expert. I am the Queen Clutter-Bug. May all lesser Clutter-Bugs bow before me.

Original pic via photoalbum.davison.ca
Original pic via photoalbum.davison.ca

For another example, I have this habit I call “self-fulfilling failure to fulfill”. Basically, I have a mental list in my head of all the things I want to do, or need to do, and no matter how many things I am able to cross off the list I manage to add twice as many more. In this way my list is never complete, and my internal list-maker starts twitching like a drugged-up jackrabbit. It doesn’t matter if I’m working my ass off or sitting back and trying to relax, I have this never-ceasing mental clutter of half-finished to-do lists gumming up my brain.

It’s a horrifying condition for a writer because while I should be writing and working on my platform, I’m instead obsessing about a million other things. I can’t get any writing done around my husband or daughter because I’m so easily distracted by everything they say or do. I can’t get any writing done in my own bedroom because I can’t stop thinking about that basket of clothes on the floor or those damn jeans in my closet. When I do get around to writing I’m plagued by a thousand non-work-in-progress-related thoughts like whether I should be planning some blog posts in advance to give myself more time, or whether I should scrap this fan fiction stuff and just concentrate on my original work, or should I log onto Twitter and see what the other writers are doing? It’s a constant barrage of voices in my head yelling at me about everything except what I’m supposed to be writing about.

“Why aren’t you more active on Twitter? How do you expect to gain followers when you never say anything interesting?”

“Why are you focusing so much on this stupid supernatural romance stuff…it will probably just ruin your image for when the zombie horror novel is done.”

“Oh crap, did I write a blog post for tomorrow? Crap, I didn’t… Crap crap crap!”

It spirals on and on, until I have so many thoughts in my head that I can’t pick out any one particular one. And then I get very, very tired. Queen Clutter-Bug begins to slow down. She crawls into a dark spot and the other Clutter-Bugs swarm around and begin to eat her.

Image via science.kqed.org
Original image via science.kqed.org

But there is hope! Or so I’m told. There are cures for rampant Clutter-Bug-ism, such as meditation, relaxation techniques, and – if you’re a particular kind of person – alcohol. Scour the internet and you will find a million different suggestions for calming the shouting voices in your brain, the ones that keep you from ever being calm or satisfied. There are methods, if only one chooses to seek them out.

Or if you’re like me you can find your own release; little joys that keep you from going utterly insane. How do I dispel Queen Clutter-Bug? I do things that are completely against her nature. I purposely pick something that I know is material clutter and I toss it in the trash, sighing pleasurably all the while. I snuggle up with my daughter and watch cartoons – great brain-blanking animations that somehow keep your mind from thinking about anything else. I watch B-movies with my husband – films so absurdly terrible that you can’t help but just sit and laugh the world away.

My methods may not be ideal, nor might they work at all for someone else with similar Clutter-Buginess issues. But we all must deal with our issues in our own way, and for me these things are Clutter-Bug Raid.

Which reminds me, my mile-long mental list includes spraying some Clutter-Bug Raid. Excuse me, I really must get to that ASAP.

Distractions are…um…hold that thought for just one second…

This past weekend my husband and I celebrated the dual joys of our 4th wedding anniversary, and the marriage of two friends of ours. We enjoyed a beautiful ceremony in the lovely community of Cheticamp, whilst also spending time with another married couple who we hadn’t seen in a long time, and marked the whole thing off by staying at a sweet little chalet along the coast. It was all quite lovely.

Because it was our anniversary, we were inevitably asked what we got each other, and my husband got to tell our companions that he bought me a Playstation Vita.

For our wedding anniversary.

Because I asked for it.

Hey, if you’ve been reading this blog for a while and haven’t yet figured out that I’m a total and utter dork…now you know.

Hubby bought me a Wi-Fi version Vita with a 32 GB memory card, connected it to his Playstation Network account, and downloaded a bunch of free games for me (Sony, don’t ever change your Playstation Plus system…you’re definitely doing it right), plus he picked up Rayman Origins at Walmart. Since last week I’ve been glued to this little handheld joy-box. The Vita definitely has it’s flaws, as any gaming system tends to, but I’m absolutely loving it.

And that’s a bad thing.

Okay, it’s a good thing because it was a present and I wanted it, so obviously one would hope that I enjoy playing with it. But it’s a bad thing because it is a positive time vampire. This morning I got up at about 8:30 am and started playing it. Other than to put it aside long enough to get breakfast for the baby, a coffee for the hubby, and to dance with the baby when she suddenly decided I had to dance with her, I didn’t put the Vita down until 1:00 pm. I got a dozen or so Rayman trophies, and that is all I accomplished all morning.

This is the face of my procrastination.

I didn’t write, I didn’t edit. I definitely didn’t exercise. I didn’t do any laundry or dishes, and I didn’t start tidying up the guest room (which I have to do because we have two days worth of guests coming next weekend). I didn’t even really get dressed. I put on a pair of jeans long enough to run out to the car for something, but I couldn’t be bothered to throw a bra on under my shirt, and I still haven’t as I’m typing this. The baby is still wearing her pajamas. I only just took something out of the deep freeze for supper, and I haven’t established what I’m going to do with it yet. The kitty litter is full and the cats’ streaming water dish has been broken for several days. There are a ton of leftovers in the fridge that have gone bad and I haven’t thrown them out. There are about ten boxes of old baby clothes in the hallway that I’ve been meaning to go through so I can send some stuff to consignment.

But instead of dealing with any of these things that need dealing with, I played my new Playstation Vita for four and a half hours straight. And if I’m totally honest? The only reason I actually stopped playing is because I realized that battery was dying. Yes, the only thing that dragged me away from my gaming is the fact that battery scientists (that’s a thing, right?) haven’t figured out how to make mobile batteries last longer yet.

Distractions are a terrible thing when you’re in a position that requires you to be self-motivated. Currently I am not employed; I’m working on my writing, but I’m not in a position where I am getting paid or compensated in any way. That means that every morning when I get up I have to look at myself in the mirror and tell myself, “Okay. You are going to get some damn work done today!” And then I have to try to follow through with it. I have to pick my own self up, with no hope of any kind of payment of any form, and I have to force myself to sit down and write. That in and of itself wouldn’t be too bad, except for the fact that while I’m trying to force myself to write I also have to deal with a child who thinks I should wear little pink play glasses all day, and a household worth of chores and errands that never seem to slack off in any sense of the word.

Distractions are terrible and they must be eliminated. They must be stricken from the lifestyle. It is the only way. Only when distractions have been completely removed will one be able to go on with one’s day productively and efficiently.

Unfortunately, I’m way too distracted by my shiny new Vita to get on with eliminating my distractions right now, so if you don’t mind…

This is the face of my procrastination.
WHY DO YOU MOCK ME SO?!

No Page Left Blank: Lifehacker Edition

Everybody has their little “life hacks”; little tips and tricks that make life easier in some way. In fact, there’s an entire websites dedicated to them. With the joy of the Internet, people are able to share little bites of wisdom such as using strips of masking tape if you don’t have a lint brush, or easy steps to learning how to be a speed reader (some hacks are more useful than others).

Today, spurned by a shopping trip with my daughter, I thought I’d share one of my own little life hacks, something my husband and I have all but perfected.

Every year, come the holiday season, we watch people running around like chickens with their heads cut off. They desperately run around looking for specific toys that are sold out everywhere. They visit every store while becoming more and more agitated that they can’t find a damn thing that their mother-in-law might actually like. They struggle with the money it will cost to actually get their kid the specific thing they asked for. They pitch fits because something that was everywhere in the summer suddenly doesn’t exist, and dammit it would have been the perfect gift!

Every year my husband and I sit back and watch this chaos with grins on our faces, because for the overwhelming part, we are not part of the insanity. How do we manage it? It’s simple, really.

We shop for the holidays all year through.

File this image under one of the lamest things I've ever done.
File this image under one of the lamest things I’ve ever done.

It sounds horrifying, I’m sure. Shopping during the holidays is bad enough; shopping for the holidays all year through must be absolutely sickening, right? Right?

Wrong. Let’s examine the pros, shall we?

Pro #1:
If you keep your mind open for possible holiday gifts all year through, you’re more likely to stumble across something that a loved one would like, rather than wracking your brain at the last minute trying to think of something. I can’t tell you how many gift ideas my husband and I have come up with in the middle of the summer that saved us losing our minds as the shopping days dwindled come the end of the year.

Pro #2:
SALES. Sure, sales happen during the holidays too, but generally it’s only on the stuff the stores are trying to convince you to buy. However, sales happen all year through as well, and if you’re paying attention to them it’s very likely that you’ll manage to pick up a gift for significantly cheaper than the same item will cost you if you’re buying it in December. This pro goes hand in hand with things like sidewalk sales, clearance sales, and store closing sales. I’ve picked up tons of toys at store closing sales for a fraction of the price they normally cost, and simply stored them away in a closet where my daughter isn’t allowed. Easy peasy and saves a ton of money.

Pro #3:
The most obvious one…by the time the holidays start to creep up and everyone around you begins to lose their minds, you could actually have almost nothing to do. This past Christmas, aside from a few small things, my husband and I basically had our shopping done by mid-November. All I had to do was wrap everything.

All it really takes is the littlest bit of extra effort. If you happen upon a big clearance sale, take a few minutes to browse through and see if there’s anything one of your loved ones would like to have. If you’re at the mall and your kids are rampaging through the toy aisles, take a look to see if anything you know they like is on sale. And even if nothing is on sale, if you happen to be shopping and see something that makes you think “so-and-so would LOVE this”, just get it! Unless it’s some kind of food item it won’t spoil while it’s sitting in your closet for a couple of months.

Trust me, it’s an outrageously easy method to make the holidays 200% easier. As I type this there are so many toys, arts and crafts stuff, and kids books hidden in my closet that we probably won’t have to even buy anything for our daughter come the holidays…and almost every item in there was on sale when we bought it. Two birds, one stone, zero stress.

You’re welcome.

Accountability Tuesdays – Week 27

So here we are, on the first week of the second half of the year. It’s time for another accountability post, and I’ve got a confession to make.

That confession is: I have almost nothing to report.

I have done almost no writing, absolutely no editing, I’ve been eating terrible amounts of junky food, and the only exercise I’ve gotten is chasing the baby around. In fact, I’ve really got pretty much nothing of note to report.

Do you want to know why?

Because I’m home. I’m home for a while, with no threat of leaving again any time in the near future, and I’m enjoying it.

I know I can’t slack off forever, but I’ve been having a blast just being mommy and wife. You want to know what I’ve done this past week?

I arrived home on Wednesday and spent the rest of that day just rolling around with my daughter, enjoying the way she turns into a little barnacle when I come home.

On Friday my husband and I packed the baby into our car and we went shopping. We bought presents for my father and his mother (birthdays coming up), grabbed a stuffed Big Bird and Zoe for the baby (which she became extremely attached to), bought some games and fun stuff for ourselves, and picked up a couple of things that we can put away for the baby’s birthday or Christmas.

The next morning, on Saturday, we drove down home for the niece’s birthday party, where we ate barbecue, Ninja Turtle cupcakes, and ice cream cake while the kids had an absolute blast in the pool.

Sunday we took the baby to the parade for the Festival of the Strait (where she received a ton of candy), then I took her to the recreation grounds where she absolutely lost her mind in a giant Disney Princess bouncy castle with a huge slide inside, and in the evening we took her to the free concert after which she “ooh”ed and “ahh”ed and giggled like a maniac at the fireworks.

And yesterday we recovered by staying inside and relaxing.

Doesn’t that all sound awesome? Because it totally was. And during none of it did I worry about writing, editing, eating well, or exercising. Perhaps I should have…but I didn’t. So you’ll excuse me (I hope) when I tell you that I wrote a grand total of 1010 words in the past week, did not so much as glance at any editing, and probably gained a pound or two worth of ice cream cake.

Sorry, I was busy enjoying LIFE!

girlsswimming
Pictured: Life Being Enjoyed

With that said, I do know that I’ve got to get down to business at some point (even if I have a ton of other things coming up…wedding…visits…more festivals…), and with that in mind I have a few things to mention.

First of all, I’ve gone on a bit of a learning kick. I know that my zombie apocalypse story isn’t the “next great American novel”, and I know that I myself still have a ton to learn about being a good writer, so I’m taking it upon myself to start actually doing the research. I’ve purchased three books to start myself off with:
Kristen Lamb’s Rise of the Machines
Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way
Stephen King’s On Writing

From Kristen I hope to learn how to build a viable author platform (which, a year ago, I didn’t even know was a thing). From Julia I hope to learn some tricks and exercises to make myself a better, more efficient writer. From Stephen…well, I just hope to learn something because I love his writing and in case you haven’t notice, he’s been a wee bit successful.

I’m halfway through Kristen’s book right now, and already learning a lot, so if anyone has any suggestions for some other craft books I might want to read after these three, please feel free to let me know!

The second thing I want to mention is a bit of a vanity thing…upon publishing yesterday’s post I noticed that today would mark my 300th post on this blog. It may not be one of those super-satisfying numbers like 1000, but this is a big deal to me. A few months ago I surpassed a year of doing this blog, and now I can officially say that I’ve written several hundred posts. How awesome is that? Maybe I have a little bit of persistence in me after all!

fireworks

And with that, I bid you adieu for the day. I have a lot of things to do, the least of which is definitely not jumping on my daughter’s bed and helping her cuddle all her Sesame Street characters. Ta!

To Be a Writer

Recently I came upon a contest that Amazon is having. It involves writing a blog post that talks about the moment you knew – really knew – that you were a writer. I decided to give it a go, and before long I had surpassed the word limit that the contest set. I didn’t want to change anything, because what I wrote was truth, plain and simple, so I thought I’d just post it here anyway.

I've already used this, but I feel it still applies. :P
I’ve already used this, but I feel it still applies. 😛

I’ve wanted to be a writer since the third grade. That was a revelation in and of itself, but it isn’t the same as actually knowing that you are a writer. Many people talk about that moment when they knew, that singular event that caused them to realize “I AM A WRITER!”, but for me it’s a little more complicated than that. My “I AM A WRITER!” moment was less a moment and more a culmination of the passage of some 15 years of growth.

I knew I wanted to be a writer after a school assignment in the third grade. We were to write a short story, print it out neatly on white paper (this was before we had regular access to computers), draw a cover, and bind it all together with construction paper and string. I can’t recall the exact plot of my story (although I could probably locate it in my parents’ attic if I looked hard enough), but I remember that it was called “The Mystery of the Emerald-Eyed Cat”. My cover featured two glowing green cat eyes below the title, and it was all bound with green construction paper. I also recall that I signed the cover “by Tracey Lynn MARIE Clarke”, not because I had any sense of what a pen name was back then, but because I was a little gone in the head and often changed my name a bit to suit my childish whims. (My teachers just kinda…ignored me, I guess…lol)  I was very proud of that story, and my teacher at the time was a truly awesome man by the name of Mr Power who praised it and suggested that maybe I might consider writing as a career choice in the future. Though I was an avid reader, this was thought that had never really occurred to me before; but in that moment I knew for sure that this was what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Around the same time that I made my startling future career revelation, I met my best friend Kelly for the first time. As chance would have it, she loved writing too, and over the course of the rest of our grade school career we wrote a series of stories called “The Game Masters”, an adventure tale of a group of kids (ourselves and a few friends) who could travel in and out of video games. What Kelly and I had was an odd kind of a beta-reader relationship. We each wrote our own versions of the story – similar in many ways, but different in quite a few as well – and whenever we had each finished a chapter or two we would swap notebooks and read what the other had written. We praised each other for how clever we were, marveled at the amazing ideas we came up with and how “great” our juvenile writing was. We taught each other very little because we were so in awe of ourselves and how awesome we were, but it was excellent practice none-the-less, and it taught me another one of the joys of writing. I would strive daily to write as much as I could so that Kelly could read it. Even if the writing wasn’t perfect, it was a great thrill for me to have her read it and tell me that she enjoyed it, and so with that rush of fun and reader-acceptance I continued on with the belief that I absolutely wanted to be a writer.

Junior high school marked the turning point when Kelly and I both began to dabble into more mature original fiction. I can’t remember much about those first original stories because I personally tended to jump from storyline to storyline; whenever I would get a new idea I would drop the old one and start anew. Even so, it was excellent practice in creating characters and worlds and coming up with compelling plot lines. This era also marked my first foray into fan fiction, although I hadn’t ever heard the term at this point. Kelly, her cousin Melissa, and I became enormous Star Wars nerds in these days, and part of the way I expressed my nerdiness was by writing my own little Star Wars stories. I read a lot of Star Wars novels, and I got it into my head that I was a big enough fan that I could write one as well. My story involved Luke Skywalker discovering another lost Jedi – a gorgeous young girl, of course – and training her while trying to keep her from going over to the dark side. It was incredibly geeky. In these days I began to discover that I really had quite a lot to learn. My grade 8 English teacher, Mr Reilly, was not shy about telling me exactly what I was doing wrong when I wrote, and I would regularly compare my writing style to Kelly’s, which always seemed much better to me. I learned a bit of humility, but I was still totally wanted to be a writer.

By the time Kelly and I hit high school writing time became significantly more scarce. There was more work to do, and our social lives (such as they were) became more important as well. We started dating boys, we had extracurricular activities and lots of other unrelated hobbies. Regardless, Kelly and I still found ourselves writing little stories, only now they were quickly-plucked-out mini-chapters that we would write on typewriters during our keyboarding class. This time, rather than writing two different versions of the same basic plot line, or writing our own personal original fiction, we would take turns writing chapters of the same story back and forth. The “story” was loosely called “The Day the Earth Blew Up” and featured ourselves and our friends in an ever-more-ridiculous plot of adventurous hyjinx and tomfoolery. For all intents and purposes, the point of the story was to keep trying to make it more and more foolish. At one point there was an invading army of flying mini-pizzas. Yeah, we were a little bit loopy. But this little exercise of ours taught me a few more things about writing, such as the art of collaboration, and how to keep your mind fresh and new, constantly churning out interesting ideas. Though there were now many other things in my life vying for attention, I was still certain that I wanted to be a writer.

High school graduation was a turn in the wrong direction. When it came to the desire to be a writer, I dropped the ball. I’ve mentioned it before, but in these days I made a conscious decision: I was going to put my focus into technology. I still wanted to be a writer – oh lord, how I wanted to be a writer – but I was scared of failure, scared of the financial implications, and so I made the decision to move into a field in which I knew I could still thrive, but in which I was significantly more likely to obtain gainful employment. My inner child, the little grade-3-aged girl who had just written her first story, was positively screaming at me. “You want to be a writer!” she shrieked. “What is wrong with you?!” I hold that the decision I made was a good one in the long run, but it definitely set me back several years on my true desires.

I wrote nothing for a long time. As many young people do I spent my university years cramming for exams at the last minute, ripping out assignments on the bus on the way to class, and drinking away the weekends. The work load was intense, and I had to work part-time jobs to help pay for it all. My long-time boyfriend broke up with me and I started dating the man who would become my husband. We moved out on our own and had to learn to feed and clothe ourselves while somehow paying for rent and taking what felt like hundreds of hours of classes a week. At one point, sometime during my fourth (and final) year of university, I had an extreme loss of confidence in my future. I had done fairly well in all of my courses – aside from Calculus (which we won’t talk about) I made 80s and 90s in most of them – but I had this moment when I looked at myself and thought, “What the hell am I doing?” I had no idea what kind of career I was going to end up with, I had no confidence that it was going to be something I actually enjoyed or was good at, and I’d already spent upwards of $40,000 to come to this conclusion. It was around this time that Kelly reintroduced me to what we now know is fan fiction. She’d been reading a ton of the stuff on FanFiction.net, and encouraged me to do the same. The result was somewhat different; I ended up writing on the website. I didn’t really have the time to be writing, but I became somewhat obsessed and did it anyway. The one story I managed to complete, a Harry Potter fan fic called “Cry of the Wolf”, became surprisingly popular on the website, and with that I remembered something: I still wanted to be a writer. I had put a lot of time and effort into becoming a technologist, and I was going to finish that journey for sure, but all the time, no matter what else I did, I still wanted to be a writer.

It’s been seven years since I completed my university degree. In that time I got a job, moved away from home for it, bought a car, married my husband, bought a house, gave birth to my daughter, lost my job, found a new one that required me to travel back and forth across the country, and recently got laid off from that one because the job is over. And throughout all that I kept writing whenever I could. I wrote more fan fiction, I participated in several NaNoWriMo‘s, I set daily word count goals for myself, and I started this blog. I did all of this because regardless of what else might be going on around me, of the turns my life had taken, I still wanted to be a writer. Notice that I keep using that phrasing, over and over again: wanted to be a writer. That’s the phrasing I always used in my head when I thought about myself. I always used a future tense.

“I want to be a writer.”

“I’m going to be a writer.”

“Someday I’ll be a writer.”

That has been my thought process since that first story back in the third grade.

That is, until about a year ago. I’d written a zombie apocalypse novel for the previous years’ NaNoWriMo, but over the course of the month-long challenge I’d only gotten about 2/3 of the way through the story. I desperately wanted to finish it, as I’d never finished an original piece of fiction (that wasn’t a school project). So I set myself a goal: I would write at least 1000 words a day until the novel was complete. I can’t honestly say that I stuck to it every single day – sometimes life gets in the way, after all – but in what seemed like no time at all, suddenly I had a finished story. Sure, it still has to be revised and edited, preferably beta-read as well, but I had it; I had a whole original story, from beginning to end. That was the moment, though it wasn’t as much a revelation as a slow realization. Looking at the last sentence of my novel, and thinking back to everything I’d done up to that point, that was when I realized “I AM A WRITER!”

I may never succeed in becoming traditionally published, and I may never gain financial compensation for my work, but I’ll always be able to look back on that little third-grade girl and say, “Hey, guess what? You are a writer, and you always will be.”