On the Importance of Ritual

The other day a reader asked me if I ever wrote in long hand, much like Neil Gaiman is known to do. I do not–never. I hate the idea of writing something by hand knowing I’ll just have to type it again later, creating twice the work for me. But, I conceded, I do hand write my outlines, always. I tried to type one once because I always end up adding asides and run out of space on my papers, and I thought it would be nice to be able to just add in a line when I needed to but there was no magic in a typed outline.

So, always type a story, always hand write the outline.

Funny, right?

But it got me thinking about the rituals of writing. Any art, really, but writing is my magic, so that’s what I’m focusing on now.

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Any professional artist will tell you that you can’t wait for the Muses to speak to you, otherwise you’ll (almost) never get any work done. You have to make your Muses speak on days you just don’t feel like it. On days where you only have an hour, or less, to get the words done. You have to force the magic to make the art.

And there are ways to do this. There are ingredients to every spell and if you manage to figure them out, you can create the magic potion to get the art done even under the worst situations. A few years ago, I was stuck at jury duty for the full 8 hours. I got so much writing done that day, it must’ve been a record, all because I have my ritual to make the magic.

First, I outline. Now, if you’re a pantser, this part doesn’t apply to you. But for me, I allow myself at least a week to complete an outline before I ever start a new manuscript. You’ll have to figure out how detailed or loose your outline needs to be, that in of itself is its own magic spell. If too loose you leave yourself sitting at the keys, trying to figure out how to get from point D to point M. Too detailed you might feel like you’ve already written the story and lose your excitement to actually write it.

Secondly, if this is the start of a brand new book, not part of a series, I allow myself a day to start to curate a soundtrack for the book/main character. I know, this seems like one of those “I’m an artiste! I need my special music to write!” kinda things, but it’s not. For many, both reading and writing a book plays out like a movie in our heads and what is a movie without a soundtrack? You need the creepy notes that warn you the monster is coming. You need the pounding base to choreograph a fight and get your heart moving. You need the sweet strings of a romantic moment. But, I think, most importantly, it gives you the feel of the book or main character. This, for me, is what helps me get into the right headspace for a book, no matter where I am or what mood I am in. And with each book in a series, I add more and more songs to the list until it’s hours and hours long.

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I also have a few universal playlists to help me with certain types of scenes. If I’m in the middle of fights or battles, I have strong lyric-less soundtracks from movies or video games to help me. If I’m trying to get into the head of a strong, angry female, I have a playlist of what I call “angry power” songs, only sung by strong female vocals.

You could be trapped in the middle seat of coach, on a full flight, but you put your headphones on and turn on the soundtrack of your book, and bam! Watch the words flow. I won NaNo last year in that exact situation because I had my music.

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This also helps if you’re working on more than one project at a time. For example, I’m working on a witch book in my Matilda Kavanagh series and I’m working on a piece of flash fiction that is a spin off from my post-apocalyptic Ash & Ruin series. Neither MC is the same and both worlds are totally different. So, they have their own soundtracks to help me switch my brain depending on which one I want to write in.

Third, I always have something to drink. Usually it’s coffee, but sometimes just water. It’s a small thing, but it’s important. It adds to the level of comfort as you stare into that bright screen and create indents on your wrists as you pound away.

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There are other things, like I try to write in the mornings, but if I miss that window, I don’t skip on writing unless it’s One Of Those Days. It’s always easy to make excuses to get out of writing, but unless you’re under a contractual deadline, you’re just letting yourself down by putting it off or treating it like a chore. I mean, some days, it does feel like a chore but when it’s done, damn that’s a good feeling.

Figuring out your rituals to help you get shit done is important. It’s not being a fussy artiste, it’s creating magic. Allow yourself the special combo of ingredients that will allow you to create art no matter what the situation. Make no excuses for doing what you need to get it done and give yourself no excuses to avoid it.
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Speaking of… I have some words that need writing before dinner.

English Majors Unite!

The other day there was a bit of a kerfuffle on Twitter. I know, quelle surprise!

A very successful writer was asked for a bit of advice from a young fan as a new English Major.

The writer’s response? English Major = “Do you want fries with that?”

I mean.

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She told the fan to get a degree in something that would get them a lucrative job and write on the side.

Yeah. Sure. Some people totally do that. But to completely belittle the fan’s already chosen path while also tearing down the service industry? REALLY?

You won’t be surprised to find out that I, myself, was an English Major. I have a loverly BA in English with a concentration on Creative Writing. A major I created myself because it didn’t exist at my school at the time. I was very lucky that my adviser was also the department chair at the time so getting it approved wasn’t quite the battle it could have been.

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I am damn proud of my degree. I have both dyslexia and dyscalculia. Believe me, getting dyslexia under control has been much easier than my dsycalculia–there was no way I was going to be a math or science or business major. But guess what? As a self-published writer, I am running my own business. My husband also runs his own business, but I also help with that. I run the office for both of us. And my degree helped me, believe it or not.

English degrees teach you critical thinking, creative solutions, and so much more.

Now, do you need an English Degree to be a writer? Of course not. I know many writers who are also something else. Writing isn’t paying the bills just yet for them. But it might some day.

Did I need an English Degree to be a writer? To be a good one, yes.

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I can say with a little confidence that I had “raw talent” when I was younger. When I got to be creative with my English assignments, I always did well. I actually remember my senior English AP teacher writing “I can’t wait to see what happens next!” on a paper I turned in. It was an amazing feeling. I really thought I could write. I thought I was a good story teller.

Then I went to college.

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I had professors who were published novelists and playwrights and poets.

And they let me know raw talent wasn’t enough then and it wouldn’t be enough in the future. They tore my papers apart. I had one professor (the aforementioned adviser) who knew I was turning in the first drafts of papers and would automatically deduct a full letter grade because of it. I went to him, demanding to know why I kept getting B’s on my papers and he told me. He told me even if the paper was an A on the first try, that just told him the second try would be that much better.

My poetry was ridiculous. It was flowery and vague, like I didn’t want my reader to know what I was talking about. My professor shredded my poems until I learned to paint a damn picture that he could see.

I am the writer I am today because of the lessons those professors gave me. It was well worth the time and money. Maybe I would have gotten to that point as an English Minor, or just taking a couple of classes for fun, who knows? But I know being an English Major changed my life and I am damn grateful for it.

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Do you need to be an English Major to be a successful writer? Of course not. Or maybe you do. None of us are the same. Some of us need the instruction, some of us don’t. Some of us will write a NYT bestseller in our 20s and others will do so in their golden years. You are special and different and need to decide what is right for you. Don’t let some random person–even if they are a NYT bestseller themselves–tell you what is the right path for you.

Oh, by the way, I was a waitress all through college. It was the most thankless, degrading job I’ve ever had and I worked in insurance after college. Never tear down the service industry. Customers are assholes and service industry people are overworked and treated like shit every day. Everyone should have to wait tables on Mother’s day, or run a cashier over the holidays. People would be far, far nicer and learn some damn manners.

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Now. Thanks to that English degree, I’m putting out my 16th novel (under this name), and it is up for pre-order now! If you were a fan of my Ash & Ruin Trilogy, this is a companion novel, maybe you’d like to take a peek?

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Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Kobo Smashwords | Barnes & Noble | ibooks

 

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!

Sing in the Spring!

A traditional Brighde's Cross, woven from reeds
A traditional Brighde’s Cross, woven from reeds

Winter, in many parts of the world, is long and dark. The sun sets early and rises late. The earth is cold and sluggish. Growing things are bare and colorless. Living things retreat into their warm burrows and hibernate. Winter can be a great time for mental regrouping and quiet contemplation, but it can also be long and miserable. And by February, when the holidays are long passed and spring seems like a distant mirage, the winter can seem most miserable of all.

But yesterday and today marks a special time of year. Known to the pagan tradition as Imbolc, to the Christian tradition as Candlemas, and to the Americana tradition as Groundhog Day, February 1-2 marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

Historically observed throughout Ireland and Britain, Imbolc was a Gaelic feis, or festival, celebrating the beginning of spring. Derived from Gaelic, the word imbolc means “in the belly,” literally referring to the beginning of the lambing season, but also metaphorically referring to the quickening in the land and its inhabitants as spring approaches. Associated with the goddess Brighde, Imbolc is a festival of hearth and home, a celebration of new life and growth. Lambs will be born; the blackthorn will bloom again. The days grow longer, and the air grows warmer. All is pregnant and expectant–a promise of renewal, an unveiling of hidden potential.

In an interesting parallel to the modern practice of Groundhog Day, Imbolc was traditionally also a time for weather divination. The Cailleach–the divine hag of Gaelic mythology–was rumored to set out on this day to gather the rest of the firewood she would need for the winter. If she wished to make the winter last much longer, then she would ensure Imbolc was bright and sunny so she would have maximum time to gather her wood. Other legends told that serpents or badgers emerging from their dens could foretell the duration of the winter.

Candlemas also celebrates a return of the light
Candlemas also celebrates a return of the light

This time of year is special to me, and not only because February 2nd happens to be my birthday. Living up north, the winters are cold and snowy and sunshine is very much lacking. And no, we won’t see proper springtime for several months yet, if we’re lucky. But Imbolc is a reminder that the sun will return and the cycle will begin again. Birth, death, rebirth. The everlasting wheel of the seasons.

So I try to make this a time to let go of the past and to look to the future. To clear out the old and to create both outer and inner space for rebirth and inspiration. To light a candle for the year ahead and welcome back the sun. To rededicate myself to the important elements of a happy life: love, kindness, and creativity.

I welcome the returning light and witness my own appetite for rebirth. What was begun has now ended, and what has ended may begin again!

Do you celebrate Imbolc, Candlemas, or Groundhog Day? What does this time of year mean to you?

Sirens’ Con 2014

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This past weekend I was lucky enough to attend the 2014 Sirens’ Convention in Stevenson IMG_4642Washington, just outside Portlandia. If you’ve never been to The Skamania Lodge, I can highly recommend it just for the setting. Even rainy days were beautiful (though, truth be told, I love rainy days, but you get what I mean).

It was a fantastic place to go and get away from my desk and be in a place full of nature and sweet, fresh air. You really forget how sweet truly fresh air is.

IMG_4636This particular Con is a very small one – this year was probably less than 70 people. But what is awesome about Sirens’ is that it’s a Con focused on women writing in fiction. It is pretty cool to go to an event that is designed around celebrating women in fiction. Yes, there are a lot of women writers out there, but men still get far more attention, no matter what women do. It’s a sad, but true fact.

But not at Sirens’. Sirens’ wanted to celebrate women and diversity that we so need in fiction. It was wonderful. I got to meet my “writer friends” in person, put real faces to the pixels that I critique for and who critique for me. We had wonderful, lively discussions about books and writing. Conversations we never get to have in real life because we are often the readers of our groups of friends. I was amazed at how little “small talk” any of us IMG_4655had. When we talked about the weather, it was to marvel at the scenery around us and squee about moss on trees. It was rejuvenating really.

Because the Con itself was small and intimate it really gave us a chance to examine ideas and share stories with each other. I know, at one panel talking about haunted landscapes, at least four of us came away with a kernel of an idea for future novels.

IMG_4663While there wasn’t much on the topic of craft and there definitely could have been more panels planned, I did come away with some inspiration and ideas. And really, that’s worth the cost. I met friends I’ve only known online, happy to find out I like them in real life too and that’s priceless.

So get outside. Walk away from your desk. Bring a note pad and pen with you and your camera and breathe some fresh air. Talk about books, and writing, and share stories, and be inspired. Fill your well, because when it runs dry, there’s nothing left to give.

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THE MASKED SONGBIRD Arrives!

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It’s here!

IT’S HERE.

*breathes into paper bag*

You know those dreams where you’re stripped naked in front of the whole class? Yeah, well I never had those until I started working as a server. Then I had dreams where I had the whole restaurant as my section, every table got sat at once, I couldn’t get drinks for everyone, they all got REALLY angry……

….and then my clothes disappeared.

That’s ever-so-slightly how I feel with THE MASKED SONGBIRD flapping around in the wild. It’s my book. One I wrote, finishing the final words two years to the day before this one. And now it’s out there for everyone to read.

It’s a little terrifying. They say life imitates art, and as I read through the .epub file I was given by my publisher, there were some things in the book that stuck out to me like a cowlick or a sore thumb or other things that stick out. More like a sore thumb, because as Buffy would say, “Do they really stick out? I mean, do you ever look at thumb and go, ‘Wow, that puppy is sore?'”

But I digress. The point is, you all probably won’t notice those things, but I see them in every chapter. Bits of my life and subconscious that got woven throughout this story without my active decision-making. One character has traits of several of my good friends and my own inner voice snapped together like a rubber-band ball. Sometimes his words sound just like my best friend Julia. He breathes Scotland and is a baker like Jordan. He comes through for people like my bosom friend Kristin. He’s an activist like my Albannach and National Collective friends, a painter like my mother and my uncle and my aunt and my grandmother and my grandfather and like another good friend of mine.

Yet another two characters share names with a friend who passed, a Scottish patriot and an historian who loved the legacy of his country and hoped for a better future for his daughter. His name, David Ross, became these two characters I love.

I didn’t mean to do any of that. Any of it. I guess “write what you know” just bled out like that. I wrote the book in six weeks two years ago — and barely had time to think. Some of it didn’t click until after I’d sent the final draft to my editor after my last chance to review. I sat straight up in bed at 3 in the morning wondering how in the world I’d missed all that.

And deeper still, the setting itself is so threaded through my soul that I can’t read the book without thinking about walking arm in arm across the bridge in Inverness in the cerulean summer gloaming at 2 AM with Julia and Jordan. Or see the aquamarine crescent that is Achmelvich Beach. I can’t think of the coming referendum without wondering what 18 September holds for my beloved Scotland; she’ll be fine either way. I just wonder. And hope. And however much my life ended up imitating my art, I can’t predict what will happen.

This post turned super mushy.

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So sue me. Mah book just came out. If you don’t want to listen to me be mushy, well…

Go read it. 😀

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Mildly hapless Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving. She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a flatmate to share rent. Gwen’s biggest challenges: stretching her last twenty quid until payday and not antagonizing her terrifying boss.

Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength. All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbour from a beat-down by political thugs.

Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved. Finally—and most mysteriously—she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.

Gwen’s hunt for answers will test her superpowers and endanger her family, her friends—even her country.

 

Cuppa Fate: The Dubious Art of Reading Tea Leaves

Anyone who knows me know I’m a tea-fiend. When I’m writing, I mainline a variety of teas just to keep going. My husband and I bought ourselves an electric kettle for Christmas and then treated ourselves to a variety of loose-leaf Adagio teas. (Yes, in Lord of the Rings fan-blends… I’m a special breed of nerd.) If you want to attract a wild Kristin out in the world, coffee won’t do the trick, but waft the steam from your finest Earl Grey, and soon she’ll be eating out of your hand.

So when my birthday rolled around, my best friend gave me as a sort of birthday stocking-stuffer a copy of Little Giant Encylopedia: Tea Leaf Reading. I was thrilled. My experience with tea leaf reading extends only to reading about it with Harry Potter, and now I have a pocket guide to help me get started.

Since I’m a novice tasseomancer, just like Harry and Ron, and I’m assuming you are too, I thought we could all walk through this process together. You’ll need a cuppa tea, of course, but not just any cup: try to find a wide-bottom cup, preferably white or at least pale in color. And you’ll need loose-leaf tea—correctly brewed, of course.

Go ahead, make your cup. I’ll wait. *sips tea*

According to the book, once you have your tea you should drink it until there’s about a teaspoon left. Hold the cup in your left hand, swirl the dregs three times in a clockwise direction, and then very carefully upend the cup on a saucer to let it drain. Pick it up with your right hand (without disturbing the pattern the leaves have made), open your mind, and see what you can see.

Now, if you’re like me, you’ll make a huge mess the first time you try this. Don’t leave a teaspoon of liquid in the cup: drink until you have nothing but sludge, or you will find yourself hastily mopping up tea with a bunch of Kleenex and wind up with most of your tea leaves in the saucer.

Perhaps I should have just read my saucer... though it seems ill-omened to read the future in one's giant mess.
Perhaps I should have just read my saucer… though it seems ill-omened to read the future in one’s giant mess.

Assuming you do in fact have some tea leaves left in your cup, rotate the image until it makes sense and you see something. Consider what you see, and think of it fairly abstractly, like finding shapes in the clouds. You’re not going to see the tea-equivalent of Da Vinci’s sketches in your cup (probably), so, erm, try to clear your third eye and look into the beyond.

It may help to do this in silence, and it will certainly NOT help if a friend asks if your reading foretells forthcoming dog poop. Excessive noise and poo-related questions may (*ahem*) block your ability to read the leaves. So give it a go, and try to concentrate.

In my case, I saw pyramids and flying birds.

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Pyramids and flying birds. Hey, it’s my cup, I’ll see what I see!

The book tells me pyramids indicate “attainment to fame, honor, and wealth.” Sweet. And birds generally foreshadow happiness and joyful tidings, while a single bird flying means speedy news or emails. So I will soon be receiving good news that may lead to fame, honor, and/or wealth. Very nice!

Tea-soaked Kleenex and poop-questions aside, that’s not a bad first reading, if I do say so myself.

 So, are you reading to get started reading your own leaves? Here are a few basic shapes to get you started:

Square: may indicate perplexity and dismay, or some forthcoming embarrassing situation

Circle: money, presents, an engagement, faithful friends

Flowers: good fortune, happiness, love, marriage, spending time with a large circle of friends

Initials: may indicate initials of someone you know, or a place you may visit

Book: an open book may indicate a desire for information and an inquisitive mind, while a closed book may indicate expectancy

Good luck to you, friends! I’m going to go stare at my inbox now and wait for my forthcoming wealth and fame. (That’s how wealth and fame is acquired, right? By sitting and waiting?) Cheers!