LizAnn Carson

Releasing the stories into the world


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Winter Blahs

Gray is no longer a favourite colour.

As I write this, it’s raining outside and the crocuses are up. The skies are leaden, exactly the same as they have been since November. With luck, we’ll get long stretches of sun again in April. I hear of people who move to snow-clogged Ottawa, just to escape the gray.

Welcome to Victoria in the winter.

We pay a price for being the warmest major city in Canada. Long, depressing winters full of rain but rarely snow, summers that are pleasant but with few evenings warm enough to linger on the patio. Mild. Bland. Not much passion in our climate.

This year I’ve got the winter blahs, despite daffodils blooming here and there. SAD rarely affects me, possibly because I’m an indoor creature, usually with my nose in a book or a craft project, or losing myself in my writing. But this winter feels interminable.

A part of why I don’t (usually) notice the weather too much is that I seem to always be writing books that take place in the opposite season. The Christmas scene in Amanda was written at the height of summer. Right now, in my fantasy work-in-progress, we just celebrated summer solstice.  Writing demands that I not only remember, but convey to the reader, scorching heat, lush vegetation (okay, Victoria’s pretty lush any time of the year, but you get the idea), herbs ready for harvest, the aromas of food on outdoor grills…. This is a consistent pattern with me, and I wonder if my subconscious does it on purpose. By the time we get to summer here, the fantasy trilogy will have progressed into autumn. It’s like inoculating myself against whatever it is the weather gods send us. (Stay cool on hot days! Write about a blizzard!)

A few days ago, in a rare moment of respite, the sun blessed us and the temperatures soared to fourteen degrees (that’s 57 Fahrenheit). Every single person in Victoria went outdoors and did a happy dance, I swear.  I celebrated by taking my sunny mood off to the Empress Hotel for afternoon tea. The Empress is one of the grand old dames of the Canadian Pacific chain, and afternoon tea is de rigueur when you visit here. It’s nice to have the occasional reason (speaking as a woman who lives her life in jeans) to put on a dress, maybe a hat, and do it in style, especially with the sun glinting on the harbour.

Soon Victoria will conduct its annual flower count. This extravaganza is conducted mainly so that the rest of Canada won’t forget to envy us. Last year’s count in early March topped 17 billion (yes, billion: see http://www.butchartgardens.com/media/news-releases/greater-victoria-blooms-break-flower-count-calculators ) flowers. A willing citizenry counts like mad for a week, and there you have it. By then the cherry trees will be in bloom, and each one of them happily yields—well, I don’t know how many flowers. But lots.

Good luck with your winter – and watch out for those crocuses!

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8 Requirements for a Successful Writers’ Retreat

My writing pal and I, for different reasons, both decided to skip writers’ conferences this year. Instead, we planned a writers’ retreat. Totally renewed and with a fair amount of output under my belt, I can now tell you what made it a success:

  1. A suite (one bedroom plus living room and full kitchen) in a resort far enough away from home that it really feels like getting away. My friend and I chose Tigh-Na-Mara in Parksville, a vacation-oriented town a couple of hours up the island from Victoria.
  2. A general plan. Ours was to work in the morning, play in the afternoon, do things like critiquing and goal setting in the evening. That it didn’t work out that way is irrelevant. It’s a place to start.
  3. Food. My friend brought breakfast, I brought lunch, we both brought whatever else we wanted (sourdough bread and dips, Oh Henry Bites, Moscato), or needed (coffee for me, tea for her). We could have lived for a week or more, without leaving our suite, on the quantity of food in our kitchen.
  4. Enough time to make it all worthwhile. We had four days, Saturday through Tuesday. We left Victoria sufficiently early that we’d checked into our suite by noon. After stowing the food, we had all afternoon to discuss craft, set goals, and work in our cozy living room (complete with thermostat-controlled fireplace).
  5. A spa appointment. So help me, we ended up spending five and a half hours on Sunday at the spa. Limp from our one-hour massages, we went to their treetop restaurant for ‘endless tapas’. A new plate of food was placed in front of us every few minutes. We gorged (plus wine) for two hours. And we still had their large salt-water grotto pool to play in. The pool’s warmth left us feeling even limper than before. By the time we staggered back to our suite, neither of us had energy or focus to do anything but flop, chat, read, knit. Supper that night consisted of cheese, potato chips (purely for medicinal purposes, of course, renewing our salt balance), and the aforementioned Oh Henry Bites.
  6. Less than perfect weather. Other than that dissipated afternoon at the spa, we didn’t actually do any of the recreational things we’d semi-planned. We did manage to buy lottery tickets and go to a quilting supplies shop (with a side trip to Starbucks – for the mental renewal, of course).
  7. Dedication. We worked. We outlined, wrote, and edited. Our suite would be alternately quiet, then full of chatter as we took a break, fixed a snack, and/or discussed something in our writing worlds. Given the drizzly weather, we worked for hours, morning and afternoon, and accomplished a lot.
  8. Food. Did I mention food? Do I need to elaborate? Enjoy the food! You can lose the new pounds some other time.

Would I recommend a writers’ retreat? Absolutely. You get away from the usual pattern, fix a goal and go for it, with lots of conversation, support, and good times.

Now, with improved focus, I’m ready for the final push to get the first three books in the Calter Creek series released. So close, maybe another two or three weeks …


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Critique Partners

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I’m now in a position to say that this is true, especially when the child in question is a book and the village is a community of critique partners.

I suppose by now many of you have assumed that my blog is a thing of the past. Sometimes it’s felt that way to me, too. This is a case of best-laid plans – since we’re dealing in aphorisms here. Twenty-four hours only stretches so far, and thanks to my community of critiquers, my time has been filled to the max for the last few months.

You may remember that I’d planned to release the first three books in the Calter Creek series this past summer. That was before I joined the From the Heart online chapter of the Romance Writers of America. Arguably, joining FTH was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my writing life.

FTH has a critique loop. My first submission – the first chapter of Amanda – got a lot of responses. And suddenly I was looking at a whole new ball game.

When you submit a book for critique from fellow writers, you also critique a work of theirs. I found myself not only working through up to eight sets of comments about my novel, but also reading and writing critiques for eight other women, eight other novels. The FTH process was a thrill, not only because of the changes in Amanda, but also because I got a first-reader look at some incredible work.

Inspired by the positive effect FTH had on Amanda, I began to explore other critiquing options. Through the PRO loop (also part of RWA) I found three more critique partners, and a fourth is a member of my local writing group. So Pat and Mel went through their own critique processes, and once again I was privileged to read and critique some excellent work by fellow romance authors.

But all of this takes time.

My three books have all benefited immeasurably from these outside, objective, and sympathetic extra sets of eyes. My village came through, and I face my self-imposed publication deadlines with a lot more confidence.

The publication date is so close I can almost taste it. The book covers have been designed, the blurbs are (almost) written, Amanda is finished – finished! – and the other two have had their final edits. Now to spend the time on the last read-throughs, deal with formatting, and hit the button, which should be in late October or early November.

Once it’s done … ah, magical words. I’m sharing a writing retreat with a fellow author in a couple of weeks, which for me will focus on moving forward, not polishing off what’s already been. The next Calter Creek book, Julie, has a reasonably solid outline and some of the opening scenes written. I’m chomping at the bit to do some actual writing instead of months and months of revisions. But being a plotter, I expect the retreat will focus at least as much on the outline as on producing a new scene or two. (It’ll also feature playtime, massage, food I haven’t had to cook myself … oh, yeah, I’m ready for a break.)

With any luck, more time also means a saner schedule, and that means a return to my poor, neglected blog. I like writing these rambles. I’ve missed it.

Talk to you soon!

LizAnn


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Burnout

I dread burnout, and guard against it. By that I mean that I work like a fiend to make sure I get whatever I’m working on finished before burnout hits.

Logical, eh?

But there’s a history here, a pattern. I am what I choose to call a serial enthusiast. I live in terror of the day that I wake up and simply don’t want to do whatever it is that I’m doing anymore.

Some people have said that I get what I need from whichever activity engrosses me, then move on. This may account for the cardboard box in my basement full of partially finished cross-stitch projects. I love cross-stitch, honest. But then that morning comes, and the latest project goes into the box—for another time, of course.

I think the issue of burnout at the moment has a lot to do with my stated intention of getting three books released this summer. They’re all written, thank heaven. Two of them ought to be considered finished; I mean, there’s a limit to how many times you should even think about going through the manuscript one last time, tweaking this, finding the last missing quotation mark … yes, there ought to be a statute of limitations on this stuff.

And that brings me to another fatal flaw: perfectionism. Do you know why perfectionists can read all the advice about not being perfectionist, and not even see themselves in it? I can tell you why. Because that’s not how you see it. You’re not going for perfect. You’re going for good enough. What you’re doing will be judged, after all. People will see and comment. It’s not perfectionism if you’re just trying to make it as good as it reasonably can be. If you just want people to love it as much as you do.

Are you sensing a perfect storm here?

Well, what I didn’t expect was that it wouldn’t be my brain that would do me in. I’d been aware of tension amounting to pain in my neck and shoulders for a few days now (well, okay, maybe a few weeks), and for the last couple of days I’ve fought off a headache. No fighting this morning, though. Tension headache, steel band around head, the whole works. Acetaminophen, caffeine, and a couple of chocolate digestive biscuits later I felt better. So I tried to work on the current revision of Mel, the third book in the Calder Creek Series. Want to guess what happened?

Two ibuprofen and another cup of coffee later, I was pointedly avoiding my computer and relaxing with a new book on Zentangle, when my whole body caved in. It felt like a low blood pressure episode. I went limp.

Limp, I took myself off to the sofa for a nap.

Now, a cup of tea and a cinnamon raisin scone later, I feel better, although still weak. I think I may not work on Mel for a few days. I think that might be wise.

So, naturally, what do I do? Sit down at my computer to document this mini-collapse. Oh, I’m a wise one, you betcha.

Never mind. The sun’s trying to come out, the cat’s asleep in front of the fire (not that that’s unusual), and really, everything’s going pretty well. I will learn to pace myself, honest. I’m good at learning from my mistakes.

Maybe on the next book …


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About ‘Just’

If there’s one single thing that’s improved my writing (other than practice), it’s becoming aware of just, that pesky, useful nuisance of an adverb.

Just is on my mind because I’ve just (!) finished spending a big chunk of the morning going through Mel, the third book in the Calder Creek series, seeking out and destroying just wherever I can.

Think about this little word for a minute. We don’t really notice it, but it’s everywhere. It has multiple meanings and uses, and sometimes it’s exactly the word we need. Sometimes it’s not. I’m sure I’m not the only writer out there who has a propensity to overuse it. I have a few other seek-and-destroy words and phrases, too, like beginning sentences with and or but, but nothing has crisped up my writing like eliminating the overwhelming number of justs in my text.

Here’s an overview of the questions I ask when I’m on the hunt for just.

Dictionary.com gives these definitions for the adverb just:

  1. within a brief preceding time, but a moment before;
  2. exactly or precisely;
  3. by a narrow margin; barely;
  4. only or merely; and
  5. actually, really, positively.

1. How about “I just spoke to him.” You could eliminate just with some sentence modification, like, “I spoke to him a minute ago.” In terms of dialogue, to me the former sounds more casual than the latter, so rely on your characters and the context.

2. “This arrangement is just about perfect.” Change it to, “This arrangement is almost perfect,” and you have the same meaning. In this case, though, you need to consider the distinctive voice of your character. There are two ‘just abouts’ left in Mel. I left them because they sounded right for the character speaking. Writing is an art, after all! On the other hand, if the sentence was, “This day is just horrible,” I think you might question whether the ‘just’ does any good at all.

3. “You just missed her.” Can you change this bit of dialogue to get rid of just? You could try something like, “She left about thirty seconds ago,” or the more blunt, “You missed her.” Test it against your scene and see what works.

4. “It’s just that I really wanted to go to a movie.” You could change it to, “But I really wanted to go to a movie,” or, “I really wanted to go to a movie,” but to me they carry a slightly different emotional load. Is it close enough to the same in the context of your story to make the change?

5. In a dialogue, my character might say, “I just thought you’d understand.” Is there any fundamental difference between that and “I thought you’d understand”? I don’t think so; or at least not enough to leave in the extra word.

In going through my manuscript, I probably removed two-thirds of the justs. The first time I did this, with Seducing Adam, I couldn’t believe how much crisper the dialogue sounded. The whole book came more into focus.

So, search out your justs. Love the ones that belong there – but question every one! And don’t be surprised if there are far more than you expected.

(This has been a look at one of the exciting ways a writer spends her time. Honestly, does this qualify as a life? If you’re a writer, you accept that this type of morning is one of the facts of the writing life, so you might as well embrace it, laugh at it, enjoy it. At least know that it’s one step in producing the best book you can.)

 


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Spring Cleaning

It’s that time of year again ….

Have you noticed how, when spring comes, the light changes? Quite apart from the daffodils, twittering birds, baby animals, flowering cherry trees, and so forth, suddenly there’s this greater light, this cleaner, brighter light, flooding your day.

Ah, yes. Cleaner and brighter. And shining right in my windows. Just what I needed. Because now all that winter dust that’s been easy to ignore for the last few months has become resplendent motes dancing in sunbeams. Every winter activity is reflected in disorder—no, let’s call it chaos—throughout the house.

Yep. Time for spring cleaning.

Now, please believe that I have vacuumed and dusted and tidied and otherwise cleaned house throughout the winter. But spring changes things. There’s this need to throw open curtains and windows, let the outside in, get fresh air … and clean. Spring cleaning isn’t like other cleaning. It’s inspirational, almost romantic. It’s kind of like the first day you put on a short-sleeved shirt after a winter of sweaters: it’s about freedom. Freedom from everything that’s piled up over the course of the dark months.

I’m getting twitchy, so I’m taking action. I’ve already completed my income tax. (Now there’s a symbolic cleaning job for you!) Someday soon I’ll clean my desk, which is, frankly, out of control. How much discipline does it really require to take ten used printer cartridges to the recycling bin at the office supply store? How hard could it be to throw away the piles of scrap paper covered in notes that were undoubtedly important at the time but now are simply illegible?

(I’ll let my husband wash the windows. There are limits.)

And then there’s the writing. I’m drowning at the moment, and beginning to think that my plan to release three books together (The Calder Creek Series) is misguided. Part of this is because every time I go into a book that I thought was finished, I have to re-finish it. To “clean” it. There’s always something else to tweak. It’s driving me nuts. It’s time to bring order into chaos.

So I’m working on a plan. A tidy, orderly, clean plan, which will allow me to do final revisions to the first two books (which are for all intents and purposes done), while bringing the first draft of the third book up to snuff. Step by orderly step. Calmly.

I like the feeling of getting on top of things, of keeping it all under control, in the same way that I like an up-to-date calendar and a monthly budget. This is probably also the reason that I’m pretty solidly in the planner camp when it comes to writing (as opposed to “pantsers”—writing “by the seat of your pants”).  I love the free flow of inspiration, but I need the underlying structure or I get panicky. Spring is my time to get a new grip on that structure. Call the carpet cleaner, put the summer sheets on the bed, write, move the herb pots to their summer home on the deck, dispatch the dust to wherever dust goes. Write. Calmly. Cleanly.

I love spring.


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The Agony of the First Draft

I’m about two-thirds of the way to finishing the final book in the Calder Creek series. What this means, in terms of my process and my sanity, is that I’ve got the figurative bit in my teeth, I’m obsessed, I couldn’t stop writing if I tried, the finish line is so close I can almost touch it …

Unfortunately, it also means that as of now, everything I’ve written and everything I’ll write until the first draft is done is officially garbage. Awful. Boring. The worst tripe I, or anyone else, has ever produced.

Why, oh why, do we do this to ourselves? Writing is bliss, writing is hell.

For me, getting the first draft down on the page/screen is the hardest part. I become convinced that I can’t do it, that it will never be any good. I hate this. And the sad reality is that a lot of that first draft needs attention. I’ll put the whole thing aside for a few weeks, then go back to it. That’s when the fun starts. For some reason I don’t mind the revising, reworking, rewording, reordering, and generally cleaning up the mess that is currently Calder Creek 3: Mel.

This may not be usual. A fellow writer sweats her first drafts so they’ll be as good as they can be, because she dreads revising. Most articles I read imply that the revision process is akin to pulling teeth without novocaine. So maybe I’m lucky. All I have to do is survive that first draft and the rest is play.

I write quickly, and I put in the hours, so I fully expect to get to first-draft-completion nirvana in a couple of weeks. I sure hope so. This not-good-enough feeling is depressing. Those around me suffer. I eat too many carbs. I resent it when friends want me to come out to play. My sleep patterns go skewed. Not pretty. Not pretty at all.

I can already see some of where the book falls short: I don’t have a good enough handle on my hero. I know what he does, I know his motivations, I know what he looks like and how he feels. But there’s something in the essence of him that I haven’t been able to capture yet. I’m relying on that few weeks’ breathing room and the revision process to bring him to life.

Well, never mind. I love my heroine and I’m having a good time with the mess … er … situation she finds herself in. I’m glad she has a happy-ever-after in her future. There’s nothing wrong with a little romance, especially as winter drags on. (Even here in the Pacific Northwest where the plum trees and rhododendrons are in bloom and the spring bulbs are all up, days are chilly and gray.)

I’m going to stop typing now and make some supper; at this stage in the process I’m a master of fast meals. Then, I think I’ll write for a while. That finish line’s getting closer …