Article · Creativity · Stories · Writing Craft

How to Write when Life Bites, Like a Shark

Amber Victoria was a guest speaker at the California Writers Club in September. She introduced her topic about illustrating and publishing her children’s book, Twins European Adventure, by enumerating all the small towns she called home. This was followed by a lengthy resume of everything she loved about her education, interests, hobbies and life. Just as worried if, and when, she was ever going to talk about books, she veered into the oddest transition. She talked about her childhood fear of sharks, a fear so debilitating that she trained in competitive swimming to gain confidence.

And then it clicked. A swim race was like writing, she explained. How you talk to yourself is what gets you across the finish line. “Don’t negate yourself,” she warned, “or you will never finish.” Writing means you’re an independent entrepreneur and since it’s about learning, every step takes you towards an obstacle. You will find a way around it. Don’t be afraid of launching yourself in too many new directions, it may feel as if you are stalling, but, in reality, you are developing something new.

Victoria took a breath, and shared another obstacle, a very personal one. She is dyslexic. I was intrigued, dyslexia would be a significant obstacle when writing a book! It explained something else too. While coordinating the presentation schedule I noticed that the quality of her texts and email was uneven. At first I assumed she was a typical Millennial, perusing ebusiness on the fly. I even wondered if English were a second language. I did not catch a single error in her PowerPoint because her personal narrative was so compelling, but an English teacher spotted several distracting mistakes.

“Don’t let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.”

Victoria shared a motivational quote from the Dalai Lama, “Don’t let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.” Grammar issues would not be a surprise to her, and if a comment about grammatical imperfections were passed along, it would not have discouraged her. Belief and mindset was key to Victoria’s concept of success. She reminded the audience that bestselling authors received bad reviews. She mentioned a fellow writer who ranted about recommendations he disliked. She cautioned the audience, “You have to make sure you don’t absorb advice in a way that makes you the kind of negative person you hate.” Keep writing, she urged. Write what feels closest to your heart. Ask yourself, what is the outcome? What does my audience need to hear? What are the “what ifs”? Where are the morals and emotional growth issues? What are you teaching? And to whom?

She finished by giving specific examples of how her past influenced her present work, adding technical tips about the market for children’s literature. Her talk picked up speed and held together with verve and impact.

An audience member described Amber Victoria as an angel. “I embrace how she keeps inspired in her life, what an accomplished soul! What a blessing to have her on the planet and hear her speak about her love and putting it on pages.” Proving, once again, that when a storyteller effectively communicates his or her vulnerable moments, they leave their audience with the most memorable impressions.

Creativity · Writing Craft · Writing Prompt

Prompt: Write about “inspiration”

When I use the writing prompt “write about inspiration” it typically elicits a series of stories about a safe or interesting place, or a personal experience. However, what a writer calls inspiration, I believe is better defined as a calling. Writers have an inexplicable impulse to write that is accompanied by a feeling of divine influence. Inspiration is a trigger that unleashes a creative urge to share an observation or a story, an expression of the writer’s personality and personal preferences.

For some writers inspiration, or this calling, feels like a spiritual retreat, like a deep well of feelings, concepts and connections to people and events. For others, inspiration is a tangible location. It is a familiar place like a window with a view, or an old desk that relaxes and generates confident writing. Often, an unusual or unexpected place becomes the setting for a story or a scene, like the underground vegetable fields built under Tokyo, the ghost town of Calico, the forests of Olympic National Park.

Creativity · Writing Craft

Inspired by rituals

Where do you find inspiration to write?

In today’s world, writers no longer pray to goddesses for magical interventions and most prefer a healthy lifestyle to constant hangovers. Instead, they research practical guidelines to generate hours of blissful writing in the zone. A recommended technique to kick-start inspiration is the “manageable” approach. Beginning writers are advised to pen one or two paragraphs every day, or to target a consistent 500 word count every day. Other writers set aside a certain time of day to perform the rituals of writing. Some rise early to greet Inspiration at the crack of dawn, stealing time in the early morning before work, while other scribblers are habitual night owls. Many people never have a good time for anything, so they grab any opportunity, including hiding in cars during their kid’s soccer game.

Writers honor and seek inspiration with a mystical reverence. They experiment with ways to increase their artistic production. Modern writers set out elaborate traps for Inspiration with compulsive attention. They sit in a special chair, or write with purple ink. Some wear a fuzzy housecoat, or become superstitious about the placement of objects on their desk. Others must start the writing day with a hot beverage and an ample supply of celery sticks. Many need a deadline, or prefer the background hum of a café, or hours of uninterrupted silence.

What are your rituals and incantations?

Article · Creativity

The Nine Muses of Inspiration

The first time I noticed inspiration it was sculpted into the sides of a sarcophagus in the Louvre museum. Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, and Zeus, the great womanizer, had nine daughters together; the Muses of Inspiration. These muses were carved for prosperity into the cold stone slabs of a marble coffin. The most famous are Thalia and Melpomene, comedy and tragedy, best known by their theatrical masks. The Greeks had oral tradition of literature, alive with music, including a muse for dance, Terpsichore. A writer was mostly about poetry, and they had several variations: Polymnis who fostered musical poetry (or hymnody); Erato, the muse of love poetry; Euterpe, the muse of lyric poetry, and Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. The muse Clio holds a writing tablet while she records history. The odd one out is Urania, the muse of astronomy. She’s the lone scientist and placeholder for future generations of academic publications.

Screenshot 2015-04-27 21.43.39

The muses characterize the ancient ideals of a cultivated man, as represented by the likes of Socrates, or Homer. “According to a belief attested in Greece as early as the fourth century BCE, the practice of literature and philosophy, or daily intercourse with the Muses, ensured immortality and the soul’s salvation.”

Some things never change.

The moral is, since the earliest times, writers prayed or drank wine while yearning for inspiration. And, not content to be a legacy just in their own minds, they’ve all craved the immortal success of a best seller.

* Image courtesy of Sarcophages des Muses, copyright 1993 RMN, Herve Lewandowski

Creativity · Intercultural · Iran · Memoir · Stories · Travel · Writing Contest · Writing Prompt

A Snapshot

The last thing Sabria saw before they slipped the hood over her head was the corner of the room. It was oddly reassuring, although like most people she would have preferred to die in her sleep, in a bed surrounded by family and candles, oblivious to the time of day. Her unnatural misfortune was to know the hour and manner of her death.

When she watched her small shoes step onto the stool, she knew that today was not the first time she’d placed foot on death’s platform. Heads, hands and feet were images she often used to capture fleeting instances of humanity—an evocative technique when she recorded large and terrible events of destruction and injustice with her clicking camera.

Of course she was praying. She prayed for the courage to stand as still as a statue. Her mouth was dry, filled with fear and a wordless scream of anger lodged tight inside her throat. Her life was about to be extinguished as meaninglessly as a person swats a bug on the floor. The deprivation of a farewell enraged her. Tomorrow the world would wake up to the babble of Western media, sipping their favorite beverage of indifference but how would her family know what happened to her?

Her father was American. She had hoped this would make her case a political controversy or a bargaining chip for a hostage swap. Most of all, Sabria wished she could apologize to the two others who travelled with her to the refugee camps. They had been arrested with her too. If only.

There it was, that accusing voice reminding her that it was her fault. If only she could locate the triggering event that placed her on this stool. She’d erase it, like deleting a picture on her camera. Or was her death scheduled with ancient, inevitable predestination?

If she were still a teenager, she’d blame everything on her parents. Her father was a missionary; her tiny mother a Lebanese schoolteacher. Strife was an inheritance from Beirut, her birthplace. Or maybe fate was sown when her parents moved to Iran. Overhearing the political debates of adults, discovering the overlay of local and foreign perspectives had set the tempo for her adult life.

Perhaps destiny crystallized one particular day when she was seven, sitting on her bed memorizing the corner of her room. It was her rehearsal for a forever goodbye because she understood they’d be leaving Tehran. The earth rumbled with the grinding roll of tanks patrolling the evening curfew but the afternoon had been safe to shop for flat bread with her mother. She’d noticed the statue of the general-king in the middle of the roundabout, aloft on his pedestal, ropes hanging over his arms and waist.

The Persian baker, with his rheumy eyes, was apologetic. “Insha’Allah.” Perhaps he was the trickster who sent her out to explore the boundaries of God’s will.

Her husband would fault her obsession with her camera, adamant that her hobby sparked her foolish wandering. But photography never felt dangerous, it was curiosity through a camera lens. The clicking noise of the shutter was a detached viewpoint that recorded political upheaval and newsworthy events. Admittedly, she thrived on adrenaline intermingled with déjà-vu every time she reported on social unrest, but the dusty chaos of Middle Eastern countries felt like home, blinding her to realities like a jinn in a desert storm.

Maybe she had sealed her own fate. Last week, she’d spotted a web in the corner of her cell. She inspected it for an inspirational little spider, one that weaved hope for a better tomorrow. She considered baptismal names. Bruce the Bold, after the Scottish knight who hid in his caves before fighting the English, or Charlotte the Wise, the spider who distracted Wilbur from his porcine fate, or Penelope the Faithful, weaving and unraveling as she waited, anxious for her true love to free her. But the web was empty; no motivational speeches would be spun there.

Disappointed, she swiped the web with her hand. It now hung in a series of destroyed little hammocks from the ceiling. But she’d memorized that ugly corner because she wanted to re-direct fate and invoke a departure date like a divine incantation. Maybe her wish had been granted, with cosmic irony.

Months of solitary confinement pressed with dense suffocation inside her skull. She felt like a spider herself, scrutinizing the past and present with intolerable patience from the corner of the world. She was an old soul; she’d seen it all before. Click. Iraq, Tunisia, Pakistan and Egypt, click-click. She fed the world her digitized images of city squares filled with dark-haired mobs and chanting fists. Her pictures of falling statues in the middle of large plazas were front-page news. Classic. Iconic.

She felt grieving love for her husband, a British geologist. They’d sit on their balcony, cooled by a breeze flowing through carved wooden screens while she’d book the itinerary for her next free-lance assignment, places where toppling statues was still in vogue. She had not memorized any corners in their house. She planned to return.

If only she had not gone to the refugee camps. If only she’d missed her plane. If only.

It was a rush of thoughts, images and feelings—ballooning threads in a re-remembered moment. This was her release, execution in a dank room with a little stool, two guards, and a twist of blue plastic rope. Paperwork had been explained and a guard politely asked for her signature. It was a ridiculous request, but she signed without fuss.

She exhaled and memories collapsed around her. The last statue. From the corner of the room, her spider-guide was present, documenting the process like a photojournalist, waiting, patient, for long minutes until her warm heart ceased its struggle.



This story was inspired by the writing prompt “deja-vu” and won second place in the San Luis Obispo Nightwriters, 2014 Golden Quill Writing Contest.

Article · Creativity · Writing Craft

Importance of an Outline

If you know how the story begins, the flow through it’s story arc, and the end point, you will never have writer’s block because you know the steps to follow to the last chapter. An outline doesn’t have to be formal, fancy or detailed, but it must be completed before you start to edit or polish, otherwise you’ll get stuck or will have too many ideas and will never finish.

By outline, these seasoned authors mean a document of a completed story draft. Plotting by the seat of your pants is still an outline. An outline is a draft of the plot. It means no polishing or editing until you have the whole story on paper—from the beginning, straight to the end. A rubbish outline will do, said Perry. Once there’s an outline, the theme will become clearer. Often characters become more or less important and adjustments in the plot are allowed—re-write, re-write, re-write!

Anne Perry and Victoria Zackheim were on tour in April 2014 promoting their latest books. They spent over three hours mentoring writers at the California Writers Club, Apple Valley branch. Their focus was on how to approach writing projects. Zackheim is an experienced editor and an author specializing in memoir and personal essays. Anne Perry is recognized as one of the world’s top 100 masters of crime and her series of detective novels are set in historical fiction.

Article · Creativity · Writing Craft

Importance of an Editor

Victoria Zackheim, an editor herself, said that hiring a professional editor makes your writing a better piece because editors look for flow, cadence and repetitions and learning from them will make you a better writer. She’s an editor, but she hires an editor for her works. Find reviewers who will really read! Two or three dependable, honest people will do. Perry was even more adamant. “Don’t delude yourself that your final draft is ready. An editor will tell you if your skirt is caught in your knickers.” Perry has written over 70 best selling novels and she receives an editor’s red mark on every page of her final versions. “Ask for the right to review edits before publishing and check for the correct intention of feeling to ensure their edits match your voice.” If people reviewing your work are confused delete or clarify until your point is apparent to all who read it.  If you can remove a scene, or a character, and the plot still makes sense—remove it permanently, even if you love it. You can re-purpose it in a different work. If you really balk, ask the editors why they want the change, chances are they are right, and you’ll find a fix.

The re-writing phase feels unending. After every submission for review, Perry receives notes like “It’s nearly there!” “One more!” “It’s coming!”

But that is the hard work; your words must say exactly what you mean. “Writing is not a hasty lunch, “ Perry advised, sounding like a British schoolteacher. “It should be a feast for the gods!”

Anne Perry and Victoria Zackheim were on tour in April 2014, promoting their latest books. They spent over three hours mentoring writers at the California Writers Club, Apple Valley branch. Their focus was on how to approach writing projects. Zackheim is an experienced editor and an author specializing in memoir and personal essays. Anne Perry is recognized as one of the world’s top 100 masters of crime and her series of detective novels are set in historical fiction.