Your Sunday Puppy Pix Fix

In the seven weeks he’s been living with me, young Merlin has gone from 20.5 pounds (per the vet’s scale) to a whopping 23.6 pounds. He’s filling in and his bones no longer stand out, but he’s still ‘quite lean’, according to the vet. She says a good weight for him will be around 25 lbs, so we still have a ways to go.

Clearly, in addition to not getting enough to eat, he did not have much in the way of toys.  In his first few days with me, he could not bring himself to pick up or show any interest in the toys I’d gotten for him.  In particular, there was a little pink pig that caught his eye.  He would not look directly at it, but I could tell he wanted it.  I tried to give it to him, but he wouldn’t take it. It wasn’t until I gave him an old sock with a knot in it that he realized that he could have something to do with as he wished.

For a week, that sock was (and still is) the best thing since eating twice a day. The other toys remained ignored, but the little pink stuffed piggy called to him, in that secret language that only coveted things know. I was pretty sure he wanted it, but he wouldn’t take it from me.

So I gave him a box.

The simple joy of shredding a cardboard box into tiny bits of flotsam cannot be overstated. It rocked his world.

I think the action broke something open inside him–gave him permission to embrace his inner puppy. It took him about 30 minutes to destroy the box, and when he was done, he made a bee-line to the pink piggy and claimed it for his own.

I thought he would disembowel the creature within minutes (all my previous Aussies were experts at stuffed animal disembowelment), but Merlin does nothing but carry it around and mouthe it.

We play a game.  He brings Piggy to me and I give it back. That’s it. That’s the game.  Sometimes, he brings me the sock AND Piggy.  The purple squirrel with the three squeekies is also included at times, but that’s another story.

Piggy is his pride and joy.

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Dog Days of Summer Return

Behold!
Introducing Merlin the light-footed, or He of the Beguiling Eyes. Also known as Prince Snugglepup, and That’s Not For You.

Once again, I have a dog at my side. A miniature version of my favorite breed, the Australian Shepherd.  He is 11 months old, born on the same day as my dearly departed Mia, almost the same day my dear Rowan crossed the rainbow bridge.

For most of this past year, I’d been looking for a dog; the adoption websites, rescue organizations, you name it.  I knew I would know him when I saw him, and I did. When I went to look at him, he was emaciated, smelled something awful, and his coat was so badly matted, it took me a week to clean it up enough to give him a bath–and it was clear to me he’d never had a bath before. Never been to a vet, either. The first week I had him, he wouldn’t make eye contact, but he’s coming out of it.

We are taking things slow; hanging out, playing gentle games, and taking long walks. He’s returning to a playful, happy, loving version of himself.   And so am I.

Oh, the joyful dog days of summer!

Happy Solstice.

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Carpe Diem: Take a Hike

Great day for a hike this weekend. Temps in the 70s, and birds are everywhere you look; the gorgeous greens of Oregon are at their lushest best in the springtime.

I went out to Cooper Mountain Nature Park this morning for a lovely (if a bit steep in some places–after all, Cooper Mountain is, well, a mountain) hike.  It was the first time I’d been out there, but it was a perfect day, and there were a lot of folks enjoying the scenery as well. The trail I chose offers sweeping vistas of the Tualatin Valley and Chehalem Mountains, as well as passing through woodlands of oak, madrone & cedar and even a small prairie.

I didn’t see much in the way of wildlife, other than a bit of rustling in the underbrush and couple of Steller’s Jays (I’d hoped to see deer or fox). Next time, I think I’ll go earlier in the morning. However, the wild iris was in bloom and beautiful.

So get out there and seize the day. Even writers need to get some fresh air, sometime.

Carpe Diem. 

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Earworm Day

Sigh. Paul McCartney was right, all those years ago.

I never believed it would actually happen, but there it is, and I just can’t get that music out of my head.

To celebrate, here’s a story I wrote on my birthday 5 years ago.  It’s about chocolate. And pangolins.

I will leave it up for a week.  Enjoy.

THE ORDER OF THE GOLDEN GRAPEFRUIT
By Sharon Joss

(removed)

Copyright 2014, all rights reserved.  This is a work of fiction.  All characters and events portrayed in this work are fictional, and any similarity to real persons, living or dead, or incidents or events is coincidental and not intended by the author.  This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the author. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.  Purchase only authorized editions.  

 

 

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Let ‘er Rip: The Archer’s Paradox and Writing

There’s a term in archery called Archer’s Paradox, which refers the effect produced by an arrow flexing as it leaves the bow. To my mind, it’s an expression that also aptly describes story as it is loosed from the author’s mind onto the page. Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, the story flexes from what you planned to write before the words show up on the page.

At various writers workshops over the years, I have listened eagerly to different best-selling authors describe the point where they know they are ready to begin writing (their new novel). Some said they did all their research first. Others shared that they covered the walls of their writing studios with scene outlines. Even avowed pantsers confessed to starting out by sketching a few plot lines or writing out-of-sequence scenes. There seems to be no single method practiced by the masters in this business–nevertheless, it’s all fascinating stuff.

It was Tim Powers who confessed that he puts off the actual writing (of the novel) until the last possible moment. At a writer’s workshop several years ago, he mentioned that he spends most of the time allotted to his novel, not writing; building up the story in his head until the tension of the pent-up story is so compelling that when he does finally let fly the words, they burst forth in a torrent, and he writes as fast as he can to get them on the page. Like a taut bowstring, the story is loosed.  It doesn’t always exactly match the story originally envisioned, but it follows the path planned, flexing (with inspiration) as it travels rapidly toward completion. When I first heard him describe this process, it seemed like a rather unorthodox method to me.  Something that worked for him, not something for my writer’s toolbox; but I never forgot what he said.

As I struggled to meet a daily word quota on my latest work in progress, I eventually became discouraged and then totally blocked. I tried a number of strategies to get the story to come alive again, but it always died after I wrote the first chapter. After eight different Chapter Ones ended up in the trash,  I finally decided to try the Tim Powers approach; no words on the page until the words themselves could not be stopped.  Instead of writing chapters (plotter that I am), I went back to square one and worked on (a brand new) outline, not writing until story tension built up inside me.

It worked.

After a year of trying to force words to a story I didn’t care about onto the page, I stopped caring about word count and stopped writing for a while. I didn’t stop plotting or researching, or making notes or outlining, I just stopped trying to write anything that could be called a draft or chapter. After months of trying to force words onto the page, suddenly, I couldn’t hold them back anymore.  Today, I let my story fly.

It feels good.  Sometimes, not writing is the key. Let ‘er rip.

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Writing Dialog: Idioms & Colloquialisms

One of the secrets of writing good dialog is to make every character sound unique.  As a writer, you want your dialog (both the internal and communication between your characters) to also sound natural. And it’s got to sparkle.  To that effect, many fiction writers pepper their prose with informal expressions (often ingrained since childhood) known as Idioms & Colloquialisms. 

An idiom is a combination of words that has a figurative meaning. Idioms exist in every language. Defined as a peculiar phrase that means something very different from the literal meaning. For example, if you say someone has “kicked the bucket,” it doesn’t mean that the bucket is laying on it’s side, it means (at least in the US), that someone is dead.
– It takes two to tango
– When pigs fly
– Raining cats and dogs
– Over the moon

A colloquialism is language used in daily life, consisting of informal, non-standard phrases that rise from verbal speech. Or to quote Strunk & White, “a word or expression appropriate to informal conversation but not usually suitable for academic or business writing.”  Authors tend to use colloquialisms (including profanity, slang, jargon, and contractions) to give dialog the ring of authenticity.
– Pitching a hissy fit
– Chuffed
– Dine and Dash
– Wazzup?

But the thing is, both techniques are considered among the deadly sins in fiction. In particular, slang use tends to go in and out of fashion, and idioms or jargon can mystify the reader, who tend to skim over the phrase (and pop right out of the story). This is deadly for any writer, and most editors viciously target idioms and colloquiallisms for deletion.

That doesn’t mean that these techniques don’t belong in the writer’s toolbox.  On the contrary, the creative use of idioms and colloquialisms can liven up the text, inject humor, lock the reader into story, and above all, reveal character. Take a tip from these folks:

  • “When your mama was a geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.” Katherine Dunn, Geek Love
  • “…he ducked his head and smiled at that white man just like a salesman whose luck has gone bad.” —Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress
  • “Personally, I don’t have anything against shroud eaters.” Richard Kadrey, Kill the Dead
  • “Strikes me some people’s left their eyes outside in the sun, or maybe they’re just not very bright today.” Richard Adams, Maia
  • “…what you have mostly are rich ladies come out with their little doggies to make wee-wee. I mean the doggies, not the ladies.” —Elmore Leonard, Rum Punch 

Unique?  Check. Natural-sounding?  Check. Cliche? Not on your life. Ordinary characters don’t talk this way. These characters are compelling in their language and point of view.  They sparkle. Tell me you didn’t drink up every word of every sentence and want to read more.

Next time you find yourself searching for stronger internal narrative or dialog, don’t be satisfied with mere slang or epithets. Dig deeper into your characters and their attitudes. With the proper use of idioms and colloquialisms, you’ll be  happy as a puppy with two peckers at the results.

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2018: The List and the Lessons

At the end of every year, I like to look back at the books I’ve read and share some of my favorite reads, and while I’m at it, also offer up the top lessons I’ve learned as a writer in 2018. Sort of a literary year in review.

For me, this year was one of regrouping; of getting my feet back under me after a couple of years of struggling–and I’m not alone. Seems to me that the last couple of years have been pretty harsh for a lot of folks. With the shrinking of the polar ice caps comes a polarization of minds and hearts as well. Whether you get your news from traditional media or social media, it’s hard to miss the angst and anger these days. Thank goodness there are plenty of good books to offer a bit of escape and solace.

THE LIST:
I read 35 novels this year, but I got a late start. As I do every year, I always try to read authors I haven’t read as well as catch up with my favorites, and try a classic or two.

Favorite new (to me) authors:
RICHARD MORGAN’s Altered Carbon was recommended to me by a good friend and fellow noir genre fan, and I was not disappointed. Takeshi Kovacs is an intriguing character in a harsh and unforgiving future. Although I found a few plot elements unbelievable (surviving in the trunk of a car for hours in a southeast Asia summer), Morgan’s vision of immortality through downloadable memory stacks and progressive  human ‘sleeves’ felt more like manifest destiny than science fiction, to me. I liked it so much, I’m reading Broken Angels right now.

I also enjoyed Chuck Wendig’s Under the Empyrian Sky. I thought the world building and ideas around super-GMO corn and the rise of the seed industry to be believable, unique and engaging.

Favorite Classic:
A tie this year, for works by authors whose writing, craft, and genre couldn’t be more different. I’d never read any of Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, but I enjoyed The Sharing Knife (Book I). A little slow for my taste, but I liked the characters enough so that I’ll probably read more in the series. On the other hand, I didn’t like any of the characters in Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, but it didn’t matter– I will be reading him again. Man, can that guy keep me turning the pages.  Yes,  a detective novel, but a good one, with many twists and turns. I liked the ‘esper’ (as in ESP) world he built, where those with extrasensory perception belong to a layered guild, based on ability, and all the competitive politics to go with it.

As for favorite reads by favorite authors, I gorged on more than a dozen of Robin Hobb’s novels.  And as much as I loved the Farseer Trilogy, and the Fitz & The Fool series, I thought all four volumes of the Rain Wilds Chronicles were superb; and each book in the series had a better ending than the last. The series conclusion was absolutely stunning. And that is how you write a series.

THE LESSON:
My mentor(s) have always stressed getting words written every day, whether you feel like it or not. So at the beginning of the year, I set my writing goals and made them aggressive. I would write more this year than last year, I promised myself.  I planned to write three novels this year.

And then I didn’t.

Almost from the beginning, I struggled with getting words written, and those I did write, felt wrong. I thought that maybe it was because my 10 year-old ‘writing computer’ died, and the laptop keyboard didn’t feel the same. Or maybe it was that the story I was working on felt too tame, but I couldn’t seem to give it up and write something else. Anything else.

So I didn’t make my writing goals. Or even submit anything. I’d sit down with the intention to write, but ended up shuffling pages or rereading an outline that didn’t appeal to me. Maybe, I thought, I’d lost my creativity. Maybe I don’t have any more stories in me–ugh, what a thought. Or, maybe the day job is siphoning all my energy away. Creatively speaking, the well felt empty.

I quit trying to force it. I felt like a fraud.

And then (as life and all the other things that go with it do) my dog died. Big loss. Deep sorrow. Months later, and the emotions are still pretty close to the surface. I miss her, but I feel guilty too–at the sheer relief from worry. The worry of coming home every day for the last six months of her life and putting my hand on her side to see if she was still breathing. I don’t miss that. Or getting up several times a night to check on her. I don’t miss that either.

And slowly, in the place where all that worry used to live, the story is starting to whisper to me again. I feel the flicker of inspiration coming back. And it gets stronger with every good book I read. And weird little messages from the universe seem to be pointing me back to the ‘write’ path. I made myself very modest writing goals this year. Goals I’m pretty sure I can make. And I’m giving myself permission (again) to write crap, as long as I get the words on the page. I know from experience that once I start writing, I’ll fall into the story, and the writing will take care of itself.

And thus the lesson. There are times in your life when your focus is forced away from your story. Times when what is outside your control takes over your life. Life happens.  Do what you have to do to deal with it. But don’t beat yourself up for not writing.  Give yourself a break. The story isn’t going anywhere.  There is no time limit on creativity; or success. To me, creativity is like a well: sometimes, the water is harder to reach, but it has no place else to go. Keep reading. Eventually, the well will fill up again.

Here’s wishing you a 2019 full of good stories–be they yours or someone else’s.

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