Elizabeth: Exercising Creativity

After more than a year of pandemic concerns, political upheaval, and social unrest, my creative brain can best be described as “in deep hibernation.”  Rather than getting words on the page, I’ve been hiding out in old favorite comfort reads and watching rebroadcasts of game shows from the 1970s and 1980s.

Calming, perhaps, but probably not a good long-term strategy.

Now that I’ve been successfully vaccinated and can leave the safety of my living room (theoretically), I’ve begun to try to get back to something approaching normality.  As I mentioned the other day, one of my first changes has been to acquire (second-hand) an elliptical machine like I used to work out on at my office gym.  Now I’ll be the first to admit that I pretty much hate working out (even after years of doing it), but after more than a year with only virtual workout classes available, I have definitely missed the benefits of working out.  Fortunately, the workout equipment shortage from the early days of the pandemic has subsequently turned into burgeoning supply of slightly used exercise equipment.

Thus, I was able to purchase just what I wanted and at a pretty good price.

I’m now three weeks into my new routine, adding another minute to my workout time each day.  After a few days I noticed that, in addition to some newly sore muscles, my brain seemed to be a little clearer and I actually had a creative thought or two.  According to the recent New York Times article Can Exercise Make You More Creative?, that’s not unusual.  Apparently, “active people come up with more and better ideas during tests of their inventiveness than people who are relatively sedentary.

Who knew?

I do know I’ve heard a number of authors talk about their creative processes and more than one has mentioned getting great ideas while out for a run or how, when they get stuck, going for a hike or doing something physical can trigger a solution.  That’s not really surprising since studies have long showed that exercise can increase productivity in many areas of your life, giving you more energy and improving mental capacity.

Who doesn’t want that?

A true test of my slowly awakening creativity occurred this past weekend when my son and I found ourselves brainstorming a new Hallmark Channel story idea.  I used to leave those movies on the television as a bit of background noise, so we’re very familiar with the actors, actresses, and storylines.  We’ve often bounced possible story ideas and amusing titles around and I’m pretty sure this latest idea is both unique and ticks all of the Hallmark standard story element boxes.  It may never get further than the living room, but it was fun to brainstorm and get that burst of creativity.

Proof that it all is not lost!

This week I’ll be adding a few more minutes to my workout time and seeing if I can get a successful writing sprint or two out of it.  Fingers crossed for success in both areas.

So, are you doing anything to boost your creativity or to get back to something approaching “normal” life?

Michille: Writing Prompts for Mother’s Day

With Mother’s Day right around the corner and a dearth of creative juices flowing right now, I stumbled on a post with writing prompts that celebrate moms. The point of the post is prompting one to write something nice to send to their mother. Of course, my brain went down the path of story ideas.

The first prompt is “Remember that time we went on that trip… Write about a recent trip or holiday you went on with your mother.” My writer brain takes a trip with a mother who drops her by the side of the road and leaves her. Or leaves her by killing herself a la The Queen’s Gambit.

Another is: “I always wanted to tell you… What is the one thing you always wanted to tell your mom?” How about: When you had that affair and dad took me away, did you know what an abusive son of a bitch he was?

“My mom’s favorite story about me is… when I was…” This could be a way to tell backstory to another character. The character’s mom tells a hugely embarrassing story, or maybe one that gives insight into the character’s current situation/goal.

Check out the prompts and see if you can come up with a twist that makes a better story.

Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers.

Kay: What’s in a Name

blondePhoneThe first book I ever wrote has languished on my hard drive for years. I was woefully ignorant when I started this book, but still, it wasn’t bad. A well-known publishing company held onto it for two years, promising acceptance and revision letters as editors revolved and changed and the company reorged. Ultimately, they rejected it.

As time passed, I learned more about writing. I did a couple of strong edit passes on it, and a few months ago, needing a project, I decided to look at it again and see if I could salvage it.

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Michille: Languishing

My last post was about looking for romance story ideas because my creativity had abandoned me. Part of that lack I believe to be motivation. Well, that, and being slammed at work for a year and a half. I believe I’ve mentioned before that I’m in the K-12 education grants game in my day job and education hasn’t looked the same for the last year and a half as it did for the previous, say, 50 years. We have to do a lot of amending.

But it appears that I’m not the only one. Michaeline’s last post was about Procrastination and Kittens. Although, it was really a wonderful reason to procrastinate (I’ve been known to procrasti-bake). And Jilly posted about needing to Take a Break because her usual creative wells have run dry.

And then on Monday, I saw a piece in the New York Times that struck a chord with me. There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing. The author, Adam Grant, called it the neglected middle child of mental health and suggested that it may be the dominant emotion of 2021. His summary of how he and those in his orbit were feeling went like this:

“It wasn’t burnout — we still had energy. It wasn’t depression — we didn’t feel hopeless. We just felt somewhat joyless and aimless. It turns out there’s a name for that: languishing.”

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Michille: Romance Story Ideas

Creativity has abandoned me. I hope it’s temporary. I googled ‘romance writing prompts’ to jump start my creative mind and got some interesting results.

The Write Practice. 20 Romance Story Ideas.
These are interesting and a little twisty with a gender-bender thrown in. A cop and a jewelry store owner who is tripping his alarm on purpose. Humans and aliens communicating through a plant. There is only one tried and true – the hero who has sworn off love falls for the spunky rookie with a joie de vivre.

Writing Forward. Fiction Writing Prompts for Romance and Love Stories
These are all pretty vanilla. Two characters at odds because they both want the same thing. Human falling for an alien (The Shape of Water anyone?). Casting a love spell. Mortal enemies fall in love.

eadeverll.com. 52 Romance Story Ideas to Write Now
There are some interesting ones here (and some stock ones). A clockmaker who falls in love with a fairy they find in an antique clock. Two beachcombers who come together when they find two pieces of an ancient artifact. A lexicographer who incites a “manhunt” when they use their unrequited love as the subject for a series of puzzles for a local newspaper. Two paranoiacs who invent their own secret language to communicate with each other (kinda funny). Two gods from different mythologies who meet after the end of the world.

Bryn Donovan. 50 Romance Plot Ideas.
These are vague ideas. She’s already ruled him out. They are competitors or straight-up enemies. He already won (inherited the estate/got the job that she wanted). He broke her heart in the past. He did her wrong in the past. He did something wrong in the past, period.

It didn’t immediately jumpstart my creativity, but it gave me some ideas. Any other ideas to get the creative juices flowing?

Jilly: Easter Eggs!

Happy Easter, if you’re celebrating today!

Do you enjoy Easter eggs? Story ones, not the chocolate sort 😉 .

In this context, an Easter egg is a bonus nugget—an object, action, character, or phrase—that isn’t critical to the story and may be overlooked by many readers or viewers but which is somehow significant and provides an extra hit of geeky pleasure to those who notice it.

Easter eggs may offer a wink and a nod to a sub-genre. Here’s an easy one: I have lost count of the number of romance heroes who say “As you wish,” when being ordered around by the heroine. No explanation is ever asked or offered, but most romance readers would immediately recognize the homage to William Goldman’s 1973 fantasy romance The Princess Bride, or more likely Rob Reiner’s wonderful 1987 movie adaptation. It’s what farm boy Westley says frequently to Princess Buttercup, and it means, of course, “I love you.”

Or they could be a tiny detail within a book or series that adds a little extra zing. In the final book of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, when the eponymous hero has finally found his HEA, there’s a quick exchange where his beloved says “You can give me a brooch. A sapphire one.” He answers, “But will you take care of it?” Which harks back to their very first encounter, in the very first book, when she’s a ten-year-old child. Lymond questions her to verify her father’s honesty. It’s frightening and dangerous, and when it’s over he pins a beautiful sapphire brooch to her nightshirt by way of apology. She rips it off, hurls it to the ground and grinds it under her shoe. Yay Philippa! Yay, Dorothy Dunnett!

An Easter egg could also be a reference to pop culture. The heroine of Ilona Andrews’ most recent book, Blood Heir, was an important secondary character in their bestselling Kate Daniels series. In the Kate Daniels books she’s Julie Olsen, but in Blood Heir she returns to Atlanta with a new face, a new name—Aurelia Ryder—and a whole raft of new superpowers. She becomes a temporary member of the chivalric Order of Merciful Aid, which makes her Knight Ryder. I laughed out loud the first time I read this. Because if you’re as old as I am, you might remember Knight Rider as a 1982 TV series starring David Hasselhof, a police detective who’s rescued after a near-fatal shot to the face and returns to town with a new face (thanks to plastic surgery) and a new name to become a hi-tech, modern crimefighter. I guess it was most likely a joke that became a book.

Easter eggs are everywhere. Peter Grant’s car (a Ford Asbo) in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London/Midnight Riot. Google it if you don’t know what an ASBO is. Ford Prefect’s name in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Quentin Tarantino’s sneaky cameos in many of his movies. A quick glimpse of John Thaw in a mirror in the Inspector Morse prequel TV series Endeavour.

I think they’re a nice bit of added fun. I enjoy them when I spot them. I don’t mind too much if they sail over my head.

How about you? Are you an Easter Egg fan? Do you have any favorite examples?

Kay: Reading Crime Fiction

My favorite literary genre is the mystery. I’m not a big fan of the “cozy”—the storylines of teacups and cats set in bookshops—but I don’t like sensationalist serial-killer stories, either. I don’t want to read loving descriptions of slow torture or the detached planning of sociopath rapists. This is not my idea of entertainment.

My favorites are those books that straddle a middle ground. I like the puzzle a mystery offers. I like a flawed detective. I enjoy good writing, unusual settings, and any time period. If there’s a secondary romance plot, so much the better.

After a year of not really enjoying anything I read, I just polished off in one week the first three books and four novellas in the Lady Julia Grey series by Deanna Raybourn. I’d been thinking about why this series, set in Victorian times, caught my fancy when so many other things did not in the past year. Lady Julia has a great deal of agency, Brisbane takes her seriously, and her large family—eccentrics all—is fun to read about. Also, the dialogue is good and the romance is slow-burning. So that’s all catnip for me.

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Michille: Kerouac’s 30

Whenever I see various writers’ tips on or rules for writing, I always click. I usually find something that speaks to me. However, when I stumbled on Jack Kerouac’s 30 rules for writing, that didn’t apply. They didn’t make sense. So I googled and found the same list called Cool Tips, Beliefs and Techniques, and Advice to Writers (this one has editorial). I’m sure if I’d gone further I’d have seen more descriptors of this list.

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969) was an American novelist and poet. Kerouac is a literary icon and a pioneer of the Beat Generation, best known for the beatnik classic On the Road.

Other writers were always asking Kerouac for advice. He set down 30 essentials in a note titled ‘Belief and Technique for Modern Prose’. Or what another website called: Hippy Nonsense.

Kerouac’s 30 Rules for Writing

  1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
  2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
  3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
  4. Be in love with yr life
  5. Something that you feel will find its own form
  6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
  7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
  8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
  9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
  10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
  11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
  12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
  13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
  14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
  15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
  16. The jewel centre of interest is the eye within the eye
  17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
  18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
  19. Accept loss forever
  20. Believe in the holy contour of life
  21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
  22. Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
  23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
  24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
  25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
  26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
  27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
  28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
  29. You’re a Genius all the time
  30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

I like “Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind” for its hippy nonsense quotient. But I think “You’re a Genius all the time” is going on my writing bulletin board. Do you have a favorite?

Jilly: Does Age Matter?

Would you choose a book because the main character is a certain age?

I’ve mentioned before that I read and enjoyed KF Breene’s Magical Midlife Madness, the first book in her Leveling Up series. I’ve since learned that the series is part of a new and fast-growing subgenre—paranormal fiction for women of 40 and over, or paranormal women’s fiction.

Apparently a group of savvy, successful romance and women’s fiction authors thought that there would be an eager readership for stories with female protagonists kicking ass and finding empowerment in their 40s, so they got together to make it happen. Their initiative has been a raging success. Good for them!

I have to confess, though, I’ve been trying to get my head around it. I think perhaps part of the appeal is the idea that it’s never too late. That a woman’s best years are not behind her at 30, or 40, or whatever.

I’m a woman of 40 and over. Ahem. I’m actually a woman of 60 and over. But when I look back over my life, I’m satisfied with how it’s gone so far. I’ve been married to the same man for more than 35 years and I wouldn’t trade him for anyone. I had a rewarding professional career, and when I turned 50 I exchanged it for writing fiction, a vocation that I love.

So I already know that middle age can mark the beginning of a fulfilling second life.

I love reading, and while I’m lost in a fictional world I definitely put myself in the protagonist’s shoes. I like my heroines smart and scrappy. Interesting rather than beautiful. I want them to face and overcome a near-impossible challenge and to gain a happy, rewarding new life. But as long as they are old enough to know their own mind, confident enough to trust their instincts, and they never give up on their goal, I don’t think I want their challenges to be defined by their age.

In short. As long as I find the heroine and her challenge fascinating, I don’t much care who or what or how old she is. I’ll even identify with Murderbot, and it’s an artificial construct with an attitude problem 🙂

How about you?

Jilly: Scrappy Underdog v Flawless Beauty

How do you like your heroines? Scrappy or stunning? Do you care?

A couple of weeks ago I re-read Ilona Andrews’ Blood Heir. The book was indie published in January and became an immediate bestseller. It has nearly six thousand ratings on the US Amazon site, almost all five stars. I’d been counting the days to publication, bought it as soon as it was available, and read it right away.

I enjoyed it—Ilona and Gordon’s books are an auto-buy for me and I don’t see that changing —but I didn’t love it the way I expected to. I don’t think my reaction had anything to do with the writing. The book was set in a familiar fictional world, with a nice blend of old and new characters. All the usual elements were present—kindness, humor, adventure, action, mythology, community, and snappy dialogue. I think my problem (if you’d call it a problem) was in what I brought to the book as a reader.

The heroine of Blood Heir is an important character in the hugely successful Kate Daniels Atlanta-set urban fantasy series. In that series she’s Julie Olsen, an orphaned, feral street kid who’s adopted by Kate. Julie gains a family and a community, finds trust, love, and protection in a dangerous world. She grows up and discovers her own considerable magical powers, but she remains scarred by the crucible that formed her. For example, she always carries food, even though she never goes hungry anymore, because she spent her childhood in a state of near starvation. Julie is pretty enough. She’s feisty, attitude-y, and independent, with some well-hidden vulnerabilities. I find her a relatable, fascinating character.

In Blood Heir Julie returns to Atlanta from her new home in California because a prophecy has revealed that an ancient and super-powerful Big Bad will try to kill Kate and destroy all that Julie loves. Except she’s not Julie now. She’s been re-born as Aurelia Ryder, a high princess of an ancient and powerful magical dynasty related to Kate. She has a new, flawless face and body, incredible superpowers, wealth, education, even a new scent. She can’t tell anyone she’s home, because if Kate finds out, Kate will face the Big Bad and die.

When I first read about this set-up, I was just super-excited to read a story about Julie. I speculated privately that maybe the new name, new face, no Kate setup might be somehow related to contractual publishing matters. Or alternatively that it might be a way to start a spinoff story without reinventing a super-successful series that had been drawn to a satisfying conclusion.

Blood Heir has a powerful emotional element. Julie/Aurelia is back in Atlanta, but isolated from the family she loves and the community she cares deeply about. She can’t tell anyone who she is, and she can’t go home. Add in the reappearance of a wolf shifter she’s had a lifelong crush on—he also has new name, a new pack and massively enhanced magical powers—and you have a heroine with material, magical, and physical advantages carrying a terrible emotional burden.

I’m sorry to say, I didn’t care about this as much as I should have, and I think it’s because Continue reading