Beginning at the Beginning. Again.

Full disclosure: I completely forgot to prepare this blog post, and I’m late. Apologies!

Every other Sunday, my writers’ group meets. In theory, we each take 10 minutes to read our most recent work aloud, the other members each get 3-5 minutes to offer a critique (depending on how many members are present), and if there’s time at the end of the session, we might have discussion. We try to stay away from author response (less affectionately known as the “writer arguing with the critique” effect), but we do allow questions for clarification.

I love writers’ group Sunday. It makes me happy, even when I don’t have new writing to share. But, sometimes, the best part? That’s the after meeting time. Our group meets at Barnes & Noble, because it’s free and they have coffee. It also keeps any member from having to clean his/her house, which is a factor. The advantage, however, is that because the meeting is not at anyone’s house, we can stay as long as we like. For me, that means I can’t see the dirty dishes/dog needing to be brushed/laundry needing to be folded/child needing to be reminded to do her homework/etc. It’s almost like a mini-vacation!

When it works, I get to stay at the bookstore for an extra hour or so and just write. This week–I revised. Yes, I began at the beginning again (see, you knew I’d tie in the title, right?).

I re-read my short story. I read the comments and feedback received by both my local group and my Mysteristas critique group. I reviewed my outline. I documented plot holes. And, I began filling in the gaps.

It was lovely. For me, I can get so lost in a project that I forget exactly where I started. Sometimes, I even forget that there’s good writing! When I’m stuck, I start to wonder why I ever thought I could do this. Then, I re-read, and I remember.

Beginning at the beginning serves all sorts of purposes for me. It can get me in the groove of my story if I’ve been away for awhile. It reminds me that I can actually write well, at least sometimes. Re-reading allows me to get excited about my story all over again! And the ideas–oh, so many ideas come to me when I go back to the beginning again.

This past Sunday was one of those delightful days when I began at the beginning, and the excitement and pleasure of writing and revising is still with me today. How do you feel about beginning…again?

Setting Your Intention: Beginnings

Happy New Year! This year, as I look forward to all the lovely beginnings any new year brings, I’m exploring the concept of intentions.  As we flew home from our holiday vacation–we spent Christmas on the lovely island of St. Thomas, and celebrated New Year’s Eve at 30,000 feet somewhere south of Boston Logan International Airport–I began thinking about what the new year might bring for our family, and for me as an individual.

St. Thomas (c) P. Oberg, 2017
St. Thomas (c) P. Oberg, 2017

I’ve never been much of a resolution kind of girl; it just never made a lot of sense to me. No one ever seemed to accomplish their resolutions, so what was the point, I reasoned.

Mindfulness, on the other hand, speaks to me. In recent years, I have learned a lot about the concept of mindful living. So, when I spotted articles in the magazines I toted along on our flights about setting intentions, rather than resolutions, I was intrigued.

According to mindfulminutes.com, “…an intention shouldn’t be confused with a goal—it’s not something you attach an expectation or evaluation to. It’s just something you want to align with in your life. It’s an aim, a purpose, or attitude you’d be proud to commit to.” For me, I love this idea of focusing on how we choose to engage with those around us and where we choose to aim our focus, rather than trying to count pounds lost.

A great post on Wanderlust  includes this tantalizing tidbit: “Connect with the elements of your life that are most significant to you and bring you the greatest joy, satisfaction, and energy. What gives you passion and fills you with a sense of purpose? Listen to that inner voice.”

I love this so much.

At my office, we’re working on a new management philosophy, one based on positive assessment of strengths vs. the traditional focus on weakness. (If you’re interested, start here.) We’re learning to identify our strengths, and focus on them; what are the natural talents that lie within you? It’s a lovely change of pace, and inadvertently fits right in with where my head is these days.

I haven’t quite figured out my intentions yet, but I’m working on it. It’s a beginning within a beginning, really. But as I think about what purpose or attitude I’m proud to commit to, and follow that with what brings me joy, satisfaction, or energy, a picture begins to emerge. It’s still out of focus, but I see giving myself permission to make my writing a priority, to enjoy the act of writing with a lessened focus on the product. I intend to place a greater focus on the positive, the things I can impact or change, rather than the things outside my control. And I definitely intend to think more about the all things that bring me joy, true happiness.

No Loose Ends: Wrapping Things Up

Happiness to me includes tidy spaces, tidy schedules, and even a tidy to-do list. (I’m sure you can imagine how rarely these things happen independently, much less together!) Nice, neat little packages of life, wrapped up cleanly, make me happy.

I love gift wrapping, too. For similar reasons, I enjoy the beautification of the carefully chosen gifts (although I’m not a fan of those oddly shaped ones). Determining a symmetry for the placement of the paper, placing odd numbers of bows on the neatly wrapped boxes, and organizing the wrapped gifts under the tree is something I look forward to doing.  My gift wrap is themed by destination: packages going to my in-laws might be all snow-people, packages going to my mother’s house might have Santas, and the friend gifts have reindeer. It helps me organize, visually, and I love how the gifts all look under the tree. That tidiness is soothing, relaxing, and calming; unless, of course, I buy that cheap paper that won’t cut evenly!

(NOTE: At this point, I sound incredibly organized. This is more like a dream sequence of how it should look. In reality, there’s lost scissors, not enough tape, ribbon left across the room…let’s just say the reality is not quite the same as the dream. But I do enjoy the process, and it’s mostly tidy!)

My reading preferences lean toward the tidy, too. Not from a plot perspective, but in a “wrap up all the loose ends neatly by the end” kind of way. Perhaps this is why I really, really, really don’t like reading literary fiction. Those stories so often don’t really end, so much as they just stop (clarification: I realize all lit-fic stories don’t lack a tidy ending, it just seems like they tend to do so, while mysteries tend to have cleaner endings, but of course nothing is absolute in fiction). Or they don’t stop; instead, there’s just unwrapping, and unwrapping, and unwrapping.

Those uncertain endings leave me with an uncomfortable, unfinished feeling, one that is the exact opposite of soothed, relaxed, and calm! I have no interest in deciding for myself how the story ends; I want the writer to finish her story, and let me enjoy the tidiness of it. I want to exist in her world for as long as the story lasts, unwrap the gift that is a clear story line, and then move on. With a series, I expect the main threads to be wrapped up, and just enough left undone to leave me interested in the next book, without leaving me annoyed.

Perhaps because the world is a vastly untidy place, I look to fiction for relief, for the enjoyment of something that is tidy.  The story that takes me on a journey, one that is unpredictable for its duration, but that offers the promise of a clear ending, is the one I truly enjoy. Choices are made, paths are followed, and when I read the last page, I know who committed the crime and how–and so does the protagonist. Certainly, there is much that doesn’t have to be wrapped up, but the core story has a beginning, middle, and end. And I love it!

How about you? Do you crave the tidiness of a neat ending, or enjoy the messiness of the not-quite-wrapped-up story?

Happy Holidays!

Absorption and Reflection

Atmosphere has been described as the umbrella of elements that make up the story. As I’ve read our posts this month, I’ve come to realize that atmosphere is also a sponge. It both feeds, and feeds on, the emotions filling and surrounding a space.

Consider, for example, the organization lead by a strong but fair leader, someone who presents a level, calm persona. She may get frustrated or angry, but those emotions come from a warm center; a place of careful thought and positivity. Employees feed on that positive energy, and reflect it back, creating a small universe of shared goodness.

However, there may be those who don’t fit in, who cannot recognize the many positive characteristics of the team and it’s leadership, for any number of reasons–perhaps they feel they deserved the leadership role, or perhaps the leader has called them out on their laziness or carelessness–and they begin to create a little dark cloud of negativity, a miasma within their space, that those around them begin to recognize–and likely avoid–for the energy-sucking experience that it is. Like a black hole, this kind of miasma sucks in and makes goodness disappear, negatively affecting our happy atmostpher. Chances are good that this negative Nellie will eventually be managed out the door, or leave on his/her own.

However, if the energy sucker is in a leadership position, or is able to contaminate those around him/her, their miasma grows. Suddenly, the atmosphere surround our community is much different. If allowed to grow big enough, dark enough, I envision it behaving much like the blackness in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Obviously, I’m no longer talking your regular office politics at this point! Now, I’m talking about an atmosphere so dark, so all-encompassing, that it simply seems to swallow all goodness.

I find it difficult to write this extreme form of the miasma, but I know it’s critical to the kind of stories I wish to write. Darkness, that I can write just fine. But what I’m describing is much more than just darkness; what I’m describing is that darkness that reaches all the way to hopelessness and despair. My nature just doesn’t naturally go there, and I struggle to understand the motivations, deliberate or unintended, that cause someone to have and hold that kind of negative energy.

What I’m fascinated by right now, however, is the concept of atmosphere sponging up the emotions and energy of a space, with an almost reflecting effect. (I’m picturing some sort of bizarre hall of mirrors right now, with emotions zipping back and forth; I think I’m tired!) The atmosphere around us isn’t fixed in time and space, as much as it affects us, we affect it. I suspect, if I put some study into it, I might find that I’m drawn to those stories where the author does a good job writing an atmosphere and character that change together. Hmm. . .not where I meant to end up when I began writing this post, but now that I’m here. . .I guess I’ve written myself something new to think about!

Anyway, what do you think? Is the atmosphere of a story or scene fixed, or is it more alive, more sponge-like, much as the characters surrounded by it are?

Grounded by the Space

This week we kick off a new theme: Atmosphere. As is my habit, I love to start a new theme by researching a few definitions. The usual ones you’d expect–surrounding mood, emotional tone–popped up, but my favorite was this one from Wikipedia:

“An atmosphere … is a layer of gases surrounding a planet or other material body, that is held in place by the gravity of that body. An atmosphere is more likely to be retained if its gravity is high and the atmosphere’s temperature is low.”

Now, I know some of you are thinking, “how does this relate to writing?” Walk beside me on the twisted path through my brain as I explain. The concept of a layer of gases–which I’m translating to the emotional energy of a space–held in place by the gravity of that body, or to my mind, setting. I’m currently in the midst of transitioning from managing one team of people to another. Soon I will move from an office at one end of a hall, to the office at the opposite end. I have one team that doesn’t want me to move, and another that cannot wait. One office is clearly warm, full, and “lived-in,” while the other is cold, empty, and devoid of personality. Where I currently spend most of my time, even the hall has a level of warmth and congeniality that is hard to define, but easy to feel. The other space lacks the energy of cohesion, leadership, and calm. To my mind, visitors would walk through either space and feel the calm versus the upset, the settled versus the unsettled. It’s very odd. But, while my current situation is a tad overwhelming, and being unable to make anyone fully happy right now is frustrating, I’m madly making mental notes of these feelings for use in my writing. The setting–new office versus old–is holding the atmosphere–happy hallway versus unsettled hallway–in place. The emotional energy is linked to the space, and vice versa. So, I’m going to move halfway into my new office soon, and focus on creating a space that encourages positivity, calm, and teamwork. I’m thinking about how to re-configure the space to make it functional for how I work best, how to decorate it to convey a feeling of support, how I’ll create a space that exudes confidence, organization, and calm. Colors, textures, and scents (I’m a big fan of sandalwood oil or cinnamon), are all things that will contribute to how I create the atmosphere I most want to have for this team. With some luck and a lot of effort, I’ll be able to maintain the current atmosphere for my other team, until we can replace me, and that team has new leadership who can take the wonderful camaraderie that exists to an even higher level. With hard work, I hope to create this experience for both my characters and my readers. (A bit more tricky, using only words to accomplish this!) Atmosphere is taking setting to another level, I think. Recently, I discovered Laurie R. King, who writes the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series. I’m in love! She creates not just a multi-layered setting for the reader, but a full-blown atmosphere with her writing. The setting grounds and holds in place the atmosphere she weaves, pulling the reader fully into the world she has created.  There’s a scene in one of the books where Mary follows Sherlock into London. They have a disagreement, and she spends the night (costumed as a young lad, in this post-world war I period) wandering the city. She shares stale bread with a street urchin, hides from the constables sweeping through, dodges broken glass in alleys, and so forth. She evokes the energy, excitement, danger, and confusion so well, the reader almost expects to smell the smells as s/he reads. It’s lovely. King moves beyond mere setting, but instead builds the atmosphere. What do you think? Is atmosphere just another word for setting, or something…other?

Social Engineering: The Art of Deception

Published in 2007, The Art of Deception by Kevin D. Mitnick presents the idea of social engineering as the key to successful computer hacking. Widely considered to be one of the most notorious hackers of the 80’s and 90’s, Mitnick knows rather a lot about this area. The premise of the book is that humans are conditioned to please, to be polite and trusting. For those working in the service fields, even more so. Which, in Mitnick’s mind, creates a multitude of opportunities for the zealous hacker. Why spend countless hours writing code, when you can just  convince someone to share a password? It turns out that for many hackers, writing code is the last resort to breaking security measures.

While I haven’t read the book, I found the concept fascinating, and all too believable. We’ve all met that person, that guy or gal that could sell anything to anyone. They just seem to project a vibe that’s oh-so-hard to resist. You watch them work a group or roomful of people, and you realize, “Wow, that’s a gift. A terrifying gift.” Sometimes, that guy or gal crosses a line, and moves from demonstrating uber skill to something else altogether. (In my case, I then feel like I want a long, hot shower because there’s something vaguely slimy about the vibe.) But, we can watch these guys and gals and they’re so often successful at getting the information, the sale, the whatever they’re after. It’s all done by preying on the natural tendencies most of us have, or the tendencies that were drilled into us by our families, to be polite and kind and helpful.

As a reader, I’m impressed by the authors that can write these characters with authenticity. We discussed in a previous post that it’s important not to end up with cartoon-like villains; likewise, it’s tough to write the evil wheeler-dealer types (again, as compared to those ethical and talented sales people, negotiators, etc.) without them becoming caricatures. (Then again, to the jaded among us, they may seem like caricatures in real life, too!) Where is that line? It will vary some by reader, of course, but in general, where is that line? I don’t have an answer. Perhaps the line moves based on how the story is constructed, as well as how the protagonist has developed. A Kinsey Millhone will not be easily swayed, but the receptionist as her old insurance company might. Eve Dallas tolerates little in the way of wheeler-dealer types, but the early Peabody would definitely overshare in her desire to be kind and helpful.

I don’t have enough of these in my WIP, either the evil wheeler-dealer or the naive, helpful, kind types, but after a few weeks of deception, I find myself pretty excited to begin working on them!

Depths of Deception

Happy October! As we enter the month of October, here in New England, we welcome cooler days and crisp-cold nights, pumpkins and gourds, agricultural fairs, and my favorite: apple cider donuts. I adore fall. (If it weren’t so close to winter, it would be my favorite season!) Fall also brings more writing time for this busy parent, and I’m excited to jump back into a few projects that have been languishing.  The story in progress? All about deception. How apropos!

Is deception just a nice word for lie? Deception sounds more sophisticated, more educated, more acceptable than “lie” somehow. On the Cambridge Dictionary site, I found a statement to the effect that the word deception does not inherently suggest blame. For instance, a magician practices deception for the purpose of entertaining an audience. Another source explained that deception is “the act of hiding the truth, especially to get an advantage.” So, not being untruthful, exactly, but perhaps hiding the truth.

Deception is certainly a key aspect of the mystery genre. Without deception, our stories would be rather flat and predictable. The trick, of course, is to deceive while treating readers fairly, too. Weaving deception throughout the story, with both dexterity and purpose, is the goal.

With a bit more research, I found this statement: “Deception itself is intentionally managing verbal and/or nonverbal messages so that the message receiver will believe in a way that the message sender knows is false.” (Thank you, wikipedia.com.)

Juicy, right? And somehow, I immediately began thinking about Agatha Christie. Her stories were delightful in their use of nuance and deception. Ten Little Indians. Murder on the Orient Express. P.D. James once said of Christie, “Her prime skill as a storyteller is the talent to deceive…she seduces us into deceiving ourselves.”

Now tell me–what author do you think is the master/mistress of deception? Do you have a favorite example?