Write With Your Nose

A fellow writer recently shared a pretty hilarious online word generator, called “What Does Your Hero Smell Like?” When you enter the name of a protagonist or love interest, it automatically generates a unique smell just for them. Some gems for my characters included Sunder, who smelled like “meat and luck” (ewwww), and Rogan, “clean sheets and wreckage” (I…kind of…like that one). The generator is obviously supposed to be humorous, but it got me thinking a little more critically about how I use the sense of smell in my writing.

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If you’ve been writing for long, you’ve probably heard advice about how to write with all five senses. But in my experience, not all senses get top billing. Sight is the obvious leader, with hearing, touch, taste and smell trailing somewhere behind. Every sense deserves to be explored to fully paint a picture of whatever story you’re trying to tell, but in my opinion, the olfactory senses hold a special place in a writer’s arsenal.

Due to the anatomy of the human brain, smell is actually closely linked to memory, more so than any other sense. (Here’s an interesting article in Psychology Today about the effect, if you’re interested to know more!) Smells are basically encoded onto our memories, so that revisiting certain smells can directly trigger those precise memories. “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences,” author, poet, and naturalist Diane Ackerman writes in her book, A Natural History of the Senses. And, for better or for worse, odors also elicit the emotions buried within those specific memories. A smell can just as easily bring back a happy memory as it can trigger something traumatic.

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So, how can you use this in your writing? The possibilities are endless, so be creative! On a  basic level–and in conjunction with the other four senses–observing ambient smells in a story can flesh out the setting. But go a little deeper. Smells can be a fantastic way to introduce flashbacks for character development–anything from the whiff of an old lover’s cologne to the scent of wood-smoke on the air to a grandmother’s dryer sheets can bring back important memories. Smells can also evoke different places and different times for POV characters, introducing the possibility of foreshadowing and/or parallel structure. When employing the objective correlative, the odors noticed by a character in a certain situation can reflect how they themselves are perceiving the world around them.

And finally, although most of us modern humans go out of our way to cover up our natural scents with deodorant, perfume, and cologne, individuals do have individual physical scents. And whatever that odor might be–nasty or nice, pungent or pleasant–finding a way to describe your fictional character’s personal smell can go a long way towards accentuating their personality, and defining their place in the world.

Please, just don’t let it be “meat and luck!”

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It’s My Birthday, I’ll Blog If I Want To

Happy Imbolc/Candlemas/Groundhog Day, folks! And guess what? It also happens to be the anniversary of the day I, uh, drifted peacefully into this wide, weird, wonderful world! So I thought I’d take a few minutes away from stuffing my face full of cake and screaming my head off obsessively reading the news to share a little of what’s been going on with me!

giphy1Birthdays for me are always a time of reflection, and sometimes I get moody when I think of all the things I didn’t manage to do in the past calendar year. But today, I’d like to celebrate the things I have done. It’s been a pretty full year of working and writing and reading, but I’ve also managed to squeeze in some fun trips, pursue some health and fitness goals, and even carve out some headspace when necessary. (Recently, that’s been a lot.)

One of the highlights of my year was definitely a vacation to Scotland. The husband and I rented a rustic cottage on the Isle of Mull, way out in the Inner Hebrides, just across the bay from Iona, where Dark Age monks famously protected the Book of Kells from the Vikings. The landscape was absolutely stunning, with iron-dark tors draped in purple heather and grey fog. When the sun peeked from behind clouds the ocean sparkled blue as a sapphire. We hiked and rambled, visited a few distilleries, and ate our collective weight in shortbread. Leaving was like saying goodbye to an old friend you never knew you had, and we hope to visit again as soon as we can. *rustles around in the couch cushions for spare change*

16466223_10110227003544731_104815964_oOn the writing front, in early Autumn of last year I completed the millionth final draft of my latest YA fantasy novel, AMBER & DUSK. Set in a world where the sun never sets, a young woman with a mysterious bloodline wagers for a place at court, only to be tangled in a courtly web of cunning courtiers and predatory royals. Sylvie struggles to master her magical gift while dodging cruel pranks, vicious insults, and possible disgrace. And as beautiful as the palais seems, its mirrored hallways, winter gardens, and gilded marble are nothing more than a mirage to hide a brutal past and deadly secrets.

photofunkyMy agent loved it! …And we’ve been in query hell ever since. But it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written, and I really hope I’ll be able to share it with the world soon. If you’re curious to know more, I hope you’ll check out my Pinterest inspo board for a feel of the world’s aesthetic.

Since then, I’ve been working on a YA standalone romance that I’m tentatively billing as a Celtic fairytale retelling of Swan Lake. It’s pretty different from anything I’ve written before, with a moody vibe, a contemplative pace, and a very small cast. It’s been excruciating snail-like slow going these past few months, but I’m hoping to hit my stride again soon and crank out the first draft!

giphyAnd the rest is just little things! I’ve finished a few short stories, cobbled together from the odds and ends of books I never ended up writing. I’m hoping to shop them around soon. I’m contemplating a complete facelift of my main author website, Lyra Selene, but am utterly terrified since I can’t computer. If you or anyone you know is a regular programming whiz kid drop me a line…I’ll make you an offer you will probably refuse. And finally, I have some exciting–but still nascent–news I hope to share soon, so keep your eyes peeled and I promise to keep you posted…before my next birthday!

Holidays Are For Reading

christmasbooksI was always a voracious reader. As a kid, most of my free time was spent reading. Picture books, chapter books, horse magazines, fairy tales; pretty much anything I could get my grubby little hands on. But as I got older, school and friends and extracurricular activities started taking up more of my free time, and my reading time was more and more often confined to bedtime and weekends (heavens forbid). And that’s when I discovered the magical time known as the winter holidays.

Just think–two glorious weeks empty of schoolwork and extracurriculars! Friends off to visit relatives or tied up with family obligations. Shorter days. The winter break was, for me, a series of long, beautiful hours just asking to be filled up with reading. Plus, for Christmas I was guaranteed a pile of new and exciting books just waiting to be cracked open and devoured.

In middle school, my grandmother sent me Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. I sat curled up on the sofa in front of a roaring fire for hours and hours and hours. I did not come up for air until I had read every wonderful word of that book, and when I finally dragged myself off the couch it was to insist that my mom drive me to the bookstore to buy the next two installments (The Goblet of Fire wouldn’t come out for two years yet.)

Even though I’m older and the winter holidays are no longer completely free of obligations, this time of year still provides a special opportunity to curl up and read. Some of my happiest memories involve Christmas lights, a cozy blanket, and a great book. No matter where in the world I am, or who I spend the holidays with, I can always count on ample opportunities to stick my nose firmly in my novel of choice  and keep it there until I choose.

I’ve devoured a lot of books in my life, but some of my favorite and most memorable reading experiences have happened over the holidays. The first Harry Potter book. Crown Duel, by Sherwood Smith. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls. Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell. I had my heart broken by The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. One Christmas, I even burned through both The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. And those are not short books. 

In short, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas for me without a healthy dose of binge-reading. So if you’ve been busy with gifts and cooking and entertaining, maybe take a minute (or hour) to sit down with that book you’ve been meaning to read. Or check out my list of Favorite Holiday Reads from a few years ago if your TBR (To-Be-Read) list is looking a little thin! You deserve it.

Do you love reading over the holiday season? Do any books feature in special holiday memories? Share your thoughts below!

*This post originally appeared at LyraSelene.com

Doppelgängers

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Mirror, mirror

Picture this: you’re standing in front of the mirror, brushing your teeth. Your reflection stares placidly back. A whistle from the kitchen startles you–you turn to look into the kitchen, and you see the noise is just the kettle going off. You turn your gaze back to the mirror, and in that instant, out of the corner of your eye, you are certain that your reflection has not moved. You lock eyes with yourself, but your reflection seems suddenly wrong. Are your eyes really so dark? Your chin so sharp?

But no. You tell yourself you’re just being stupid. Of course that’s what your reflection looks like–it’s you, after all. Isn’t it?

Maybe. Or maybe it’s your doppelgänger.

Although the German word doppelgänger, translating literally to “double-goer,” is a relatively recent addition to the vernacular, the concept of an alter-ego or shadow self appears frequently in the mythology and folk-lore of many world cultures. Although a physical lookalike or double of the person in question, a doppelgänger often takes the role of a darker counterpart to the self. In many cultures, it is said that to catch a glimpse of one’s doppelgänger is a harbinger of bad luck, and potentially an omen of one’s own death.

How They Met Themselves, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
How They Met Themselves,
by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the ka was a tangible “spirit double” possessing the same memories and feelings as the physical counterpart. In some myths, the shadow double could be manipulated to perform tasks or duties while acting as their physical counterpart. In Norse mythology, a vardøger was a spirit predecessor, a shadowy double preceding a living person in location or activity, resulting in witnesses seeing or hearing a person before they actually arrived. And in Celtic mythology, a fetch was an exact, spectral double of a person, whose appearance was ominous in nature, often foretelling a person’s imminent death. The fetch could also act as a psychopomp, stealing away the soul of their living double and transporting them to the realm of the dead.

The concept of a dark double appears frequently in literature and pop culture as well. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” explores the idea of a doppelgängers with a reversal on the traditional “evil twin” story–one of the doubles is amoral and debauched, yet his wicked schemes are always being unmasked by his virtuous identical. Charlie Chaplin’s seminal film “The Great Dictator” also explores the idea of evil twins, where Chaplin plays both the good, simple barber and the megalomaniacal, Hitler-esque dictator. Even the modern show “The Vampire Diaries” has a doppelgänger story-line; Elena Gilbert’s vampire double Katerina is everything spice to Elena’s nice. Katerina is sexy where Elena is pretty, violent where Elena is gentle, and traitorous where Elena is loyal.

But why is the doppelgänger myth so prevalent in folklore and modern culture? What makes us so frightened of our shadowy doubles?

Myself, my shadow self
Myself, my shadow self

In Jungian psychology, the “shadow self” refers to the unconscious or less desirable aspects of the personality that the conscious ego does not identify in itself. In other words, the shadow self is a vehicle and receptacle for our deepest secrets and darkest fears, living in the darkest corners of our souls. And, no matter how much we reject them, these dark doubles are ultimately our own worst selves reflected back at us.

Perhaps the myth of the doppelgänger arose from this sense of shadow and darkness lurking within everyone. We are our own evil twins, spectral doubles confined to one body. Perhaps that is why, when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a darkened mirror or a pane of glass, we feel unsettled, reverberating with the echoes of familiarity and yet, unfamiliarity.

Perhaps, in the end, we are all haunted by the ghosts of ourselves.

Do you have a favorite doppelgänger or evil twin story? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

BTAF ’16 Panels

The Boston Teen Author Festival (BTAF) is a yearly event that celebrates YA fiction in the Boston area, aimed at connecting the Boston-area YA fanbase with the best authors in the industry. This is the second year I’ve attended, and for me, it’s a great opportunity to keep abreast of interesting ideas and trends in my industry, meet authors whom I’ve either only met online or who write books I admire, and come home with a bunch of book swag! (Because you can never have enough books, right? RIGHT?)

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Michael Buckley, Malinda Lo, Victoria Schwab

The first panel I attended was titled “Speculative Fiction Reflecting Our World,” and consisted of Victoria/V.E. Schwab, Malinda Lo, and Michael Buckley. First, the authors spoke about what drew them to speculative fiction. Schwab spoke about always wanting the world to be a little stranger than it was, and wanting to explore the notion that magic is just out of reach, accessible if only you knew how to reach behind the curtain. Lo noted the ability of fantastical elements in contemporary settings to allow for use of metaphor, which heightens the experience of the story. Buckley spoke about growing up as “basically one of those kids in Stranger Things” and loving the iconic battle between good and evil.

The authors then spoke about how speculative fiction, without being “supposed to” do anything, has the ability to reflect the real world through a fresh lens. Fantastical elements, whether they are science fiction or fantasy, challenge the reader to think about things they think they know in a different way. And while Schwab particularly noted that for her stories, escapism comes first, tragedies, pains, and issues, when presented in new worlds, take on new meaning. And while Lo pointed out that there are “no new ideas,” taking what’s been done in and presenting it in new ways offers a base of familiarity when including “alien” elements. Buckley wrapped up the discussion by saying that ultimately, speculative fiction is about being human, and these stories show you yourself in one way or another. Love, hate, war; all aspects of the human experience are reflected through a lens in speculative fiction.

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Roshani Chokshi, Zoraida Cordova, Daniel Jose Older

Later, I attended a panel entitled “Magic Beyond the Grave,” with panelists Roshani Chokshi, Zoraida Cordova, and Daniel Jose Older. The authors began by discussing the role of Death in teen fiction. Cordova noted how this common thread relates to young adults’ often complicated relationships with their ancestors and families, coupled with the burgeoning realization of their own mortality. Older spoke more specifically about how the presence of underworlds and death in his book took its power from the counter-narrative, specifically relating to his POC characters. For him, a traditional ghost story was too simplistic, and allowing his characters to embody a more complex relationship with the dead explored notions of power and ancestry in non-White narratives.

Chokshi then pointed out how reactions to and celebrations regarding death differ across the cultural spectrum. In Hindu belief, for example, death is a door to a new life, and the final release is an escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. For her, this opened up interesting avenues in her own fiction, as she explored notions of shadows, memories, and who we might have been before. She also spoke about how in so many underworld narratives, female characters are the closest to death and other aspects of the supernatural, and wanting to explore female power with regards to this; what if Persephone was not tricked, but had chosen to rule over the dead instead of living a mortal life with no power? Cordova expanded this point by mentioning that often, that which is forbidden to women in mythology, fiction, and even reality, is power, and denying it is a kind of internalized misogyny. Older agreed, saying that in his book, the patriarchy denies ancestral magic to women, thereby denying them links to both the supernatural and, via their ancestors, death itself.

The authors wrapped up the session speaking about their writing processes. While Cordova is a die-hard outliner, and relies on lots of planning to keep her on track, Chokshi  stressed the importance of flow; “remember the Orpheus myth, and never look back.” Older emphasized that regardless of your process, you should honor your work, trust yourself, LOVE your writing, and give yourself permission to create art.

Overall, the festival was another great experience and I came away with a lot to think about regarding the stories I want to tell! Have you been to any great panels recently? Let me know in the comments!

Type-Cast

Have you ever taken the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator test? I have, more than a few times. Junior year Psych, senior year Theory of Knowledge class, job applications, recreation–- you name it. For whatever reason, I’ve taken the famous personality test almost more times than I can count. And although the results have varied slightly from time to time, I’ve usually been impressed with how closely my resulting type mirrors my way of interacting with the world, my inner landscape, and the people around me.

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For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Myers-Briggs instrument (often referred to as MBTI), it’s a psychological test designed to measure peoples’ preferences in how they process information, make decisions, and interact with the world around them. Although the actual test is hours long, you can take an abbreviated version of the questionnaire here. Basically, the test measures responses to questions based around four basic dichotomies: Extraversion vs Introversion; Sensing vs Intuition; Thinking vs Feeling; Judging vs Perceiving. And while the test certainly doesn’t cover every aspect of personality variance, nor strength of preference, the test can still be a useful tool.

When I first took the test, I thought it was too simplistic, and possibly deterministic. But as I’ve gotten older and taken the test several more times, I believe that understanding the typing process and how the dichotomies apply to yourself and others can actually be a very valuable tool. Your type affects so many things, from the way you learn best and how you approach teaching others, to how you recharge mental energy and prefer to socialize. Knowing your own type as well as that of others in your life can help you appreciate and understand differences in relationships with friends, partners, and professional contacts. It can help you work better with others and manage your own work.

It’s also important to remember that the MBTI measures strength of preference, and not dichotomy. For example, the first time I took the instrument I skewed so strongly Thinking vs Feeling that a classmate accused me of “being a cold-hearted robot.” No. Just because I value the judgment of my mind over the judgment of my heart does not and never will mean that I have no feelings, or am incapable of empathy. Similarly, I often fall right on the borderline of Introverted vs Extroverted, which means that in many scenarios I can fall in either direction. Sometimes social gatherings make me want to leave without saying goodbye so I can spend the day in bed watching Netflix. Other times I feel lonely all day writing and want nothing more than to go out drinking with friends.

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It’s not a box to hem you in; it’s a language to understand and explain your preferences.

My type is ENTP: Extraverted Intuition with Introverted Thinking. According to the MBTI, this means I use my intuition to examine the world outside my self, absorbing ideas and images from the situations my life presents me with. I live in a world of possibilities; I’m creative, curious, and excited by concepts and theoretical challenges. But this type doesn’t come without its drawbacks. I’m more interested in generating possibilities and ideas than creating plans of action or making decisions. I tend to start projects…and then never finish them. I tend to overlook details, and often don’t value other peoples’ input as much as I should.

Anyone who knows me will agree that this sounds a lot like me. But having my personality type laid out in no-nonsense terms before me means that I can’t ignore the realities of how I look at the world and interact with the people around me. Knowing my type not only gives me insight into how I can leverage my strengths, but also which weaknesses I should focus on to manage my relationships with others and my professional productivity.

Because frankly, with my type it’s a miracle I ever finished this darned blog post.

Have you ever taken the MBTI? What’s your type? How has it helped you understand and appreciate yourself and others? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

The Sum of Its Parts

tumblr_mmro28hxbv1rzc0ato1_500A few days ago my mom sent me a link to a version of The Beatles’ Abbey Road with the vocal tracks completely isolated. Being a lifelong Beatles enthusiast, I was excited and curious to hear what the band’s final album sounded like sans musical instruments. I put it on this morning as I was making my coffee, and allowed the three part harmonies to wash over me. It’s definitely an interesting experience to hear very familiar songs sung without the usual accompaniment of guitar and bass and keyboard. I found myself focusing on the way the harmonies built on each other, and how the different tenors of the singers’ voices blended and complemented each other. But as the final song ended, I couldn’t help thinking to myself how much better I liked the original version, instruments included.

There’s a very, very famous quote that, although commonly attributed to Aristotle, actually originated with Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka. I’m sure you’ve heard it many times before: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” This is an integral concept to Gestalt psychology, in that our perception of any whole exists as an independent entity from all of its parts perceived individually. The sum is not necessarily greater, or better, but it does exist as other than the sum of its parts. A house is more than the bricks, mortar, timber and metal that went into its construction. A year is more than all of its days added together.

200I know, I know. I’m rambling.

Basically, this deconstructed Beatles album made me think about that quote in a way that I never had before. I thought the a capella version of Abbey Road was striking and melodic. I’m sure if I had listened to the guitar track or keyboard track individually I would have experienced something similar. And you could easily argue that Abbey Road (and many other albums) is basically nothing more than a series of vocal and instrumental tracks layered on top of each other. But anyone who has heard a truly great album knows that when everything is added together as it was designed to be heard, it becomes something more than it was before. A whole; complete and independent from the individual parts that were used in creating it. Both the sum of its parts and something more than…other than…greater than.

This is an incredibly important concept to internalize with writing. There are so many individual parts to writing–any kind of writing: journalism, short stories, genre fiction, poetry. Writing, when deconstructed to its most basic form, is comprised of a panoply of parts: tone, imagery, dialogue, rhythm, structure. And especially when revising and editing a manuscript, a writer must examine each of these in turn to make sure all the parts function independently of each other. Is the structure consistent throughout the piece? Does the dialogue sound realistic?

But at some point, a writer needs to step away from this collection of parts they have spread out before them and decide whether those parts function together as a whole that exists as something more, something independent of those parts. Does the tone work with the imagery to produce an evocative atmosphere? And is that atmosphere consistent with the plot and the structure? All the parts must function together, complementing and supporting each other, just like John, Paul, and George’s harmonious voices on Abbey Road. A book, poem, or short story, like a music album, is made up of a whole bunch of parts layered together, above, below, and twisted together. But if done well, the whole of those parts combined will be something other than and greater than the parts used to create it.