Sunday, September 29, 2013

Baltimore Book Festival

My friend, Beth, called to invite me to go with her to yesterday's Baltimore Book Festival.  I'd never attended so I decided this would be a good opportunity for a new experience. 
 Looking down one street of
the Baltimore Book Festival

Beth also sent me an email with a link from the Maryland Romance Writers (MRW) stating that they were accepting the first page of your manuscript to be read aloud and critiqued.  She playfully dared me to do it.  Not wanting to back down from a good challenge, I accepted. 

We met near her office building, just down Charles Street from the festival, and walked the few blocks to Mount Vernon Square, the site of the Festival.  First, we checked out the used books but decided that we’d come back later since we didn’t want to lug them around all day.

Nathan Hale illustrates Charles Stanton
from his novel
"The Donner Dinner Party."
We found the MRW venue immediately so we wouldn’t have to search for it at the last minute, across from the three-dollar bookstand that we both wanted to revisit.  Walking on, we saw author of graphic novels, Nathan Hale, on the Children’s Stage.  He has a historical series for children called “Hazardous Tales.”  He talked about his books and the history behind them while he drew pictures to illustrate.  He was funny, well read and interesting and we thoroughly enjoyed his talk.  We looked for his books afterward but they had already sold out.

Peabody Institute Library
Books, books and more books
A tour of the beautiful Peabody Institute Library was next.  As a child, my mother took piano lessons at Peabody so I’d always wanted to see the inside.   Along with a book sale, there was an author talk in the library.  When Beth and I stepped inside, we both stopped, mouths opened.  I felt like the heavens parted and a choir of angels were singing.  Several levels of books lined three sides of a large atrium.  They looked like boxes in an old theater, with each box holding shelves of books.  I could spend the rest of my life there.  I took a picture but it truly doesn’t do it justice.
Mt. Vernon UMC

Next, we toured the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church.  The stained glass windows were gorgeous and the parishioners friendly and well informed about their church.

Scrabble Game

Finally, we headed over the MRW venue.  I handed in my pages and we waited for a seat after the “Pantzer vs. Plotting” talk, which was lively and informative.  Beth wandered over to a giant scrabble game while I stood in the middle of a bush listening to the talk.

MRW Panel.
This bush is not as comfortable as it looks.
When the crowd turned over for the next event, we were able to sit.  After several wonderful submissions, mine was read.  I was told that it was well written but they wanted to me expand the description about the hero character.   

Mary Sue Seymour

Afterward, I chatted with agent Mary Sue Seymour and then at long last we visited the three-dollar book sale.  I only ended up with six books.  One of those was for my husband so that one doesn’t count.

After we dropped off our loot at the car, we headed to an Irish Pub, Mick O’Shea’s. I was glad to sit down since we’d been there for about six hours.  It was a great choice since the food and the prices were good.  
Beth at Mick O'Shea's

My husband raised his eyebrow when I walked in with a passel of books but I handed him a bag of cinnamon almonds and one of the books so that he wouldn’t say anything about yet more books coming into the house.  He smiled at me in that knowing way spouses have since he knew what I was doing, but he didn’t comment.    

Another step in the delicate dance of marriage.  But that’s a blog for another day.        

Monday, September 23, 2013

Doing it Old Skool

Old Skool. That's where I've spent the last few weeks. Living the dream. What dream? or more to the point which dream, I hear you cry. The stay up late, read til your eyes turn red and you want to call in sick but don't because you no longer work retail. Yes, I've been rereading Julie Garwood. And not contemporary Julie Garwood. Or even Western Julie Garwood or crazy -ass Regency Pirate Julie Garwood. No. I'm talking Medieval Scottish and Norman England. Oh, yeah. Old Skool. (did you notice the misspelling to make it more emphatically OS?)

I have this memory of Green and Orange. No. Not the NY Mets. I have very few memories of baseball. (they are baseball, right?) No, it was my parents' orange couch and a green book - The Secret. I was working at Crown Books at the time, and it had arrived in the shipment. Brand new. Day one. Or near abouts because this was the Olden Days when only novelists Danielle Steele, Tom Clancy and Scott Turow  arrived on the store floor on its proper release date.  So, back to The Secret and my parents' couch.

I stayed up all night reading that book. All night. As in, bed at about 5 in the morning. Jet lag for the next day. I loved it. Medieval Scotland, complete with daily bathing, Highland Games, and sweet cottages for the clan to live in. (Unless you were a warrior who preferred sleeping under the stars.) There were plaids, rushes on the floor, men tall as pine trees, a heroine in danger, and food eaten from trenchers.  Oh, yeah. Julie Garwood's Medieval Scotland. So glossy it should be sponsored by Maybelline. And I loved it. I loved Iain, with his way over the top alpha-ness, his broad shoulders, his bluster, his over protectiveness, the way he wore his plaid so masculinely, and the way he fell for the heroine.

And so, I wanted to revisit that feeling and see if I could still ignore the head-hopping, the historical not even inaccuracies but complete glossy blunders, a heroine so beautiful and naive as to not be believable, and a situation too farfetched to be even possible. I read The Secret when it was first published in 1992; it is twenty-three years later. I could have given birth and had a grandbaby in this time. My go-to reads now include Barbara Samuel O'Neal, Ruthie Knox, Simone St. Claire, Jennifer Crusie and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I hesitated before picking up Ransom, the sequel to The Secret, which actually is my favorite of her Scottish Medievals, because in honesty, I didn't want to lose the love.

The feelings that Julie Garwood gave me, the clutch in my belly, the sighs, ohmygod, this feeling is why I want to write. This is what I want to create. And I was so afraid that if I reread her novels, all I would see is the problems, and I'd no longer read the story. But I needed the familiar. I wanted to feel it, experience it, be swept away by it. I wanted to once again read about Jamie in The Bride and Madelyne in Honor's Splendour warming Duncan's feet. To feel Brodick's possessive desire for Gillian in Ransom. So, down to the basement I went and pulled all of these books from the back of the keeper shelves, and set about reading them, plus several others.

And, yes, there are problems. But ohmygod, Julie Garwood still pulls me straight into those Medievals, and delivers on everything. Hot, possessive hero. Humor. Emotional rewards. It is all there. Still. I am brought back to that Orange and Green feeling of rightness. Of the power of being literally swept away for hours on end into a completely unreal, Brigadoon-ish Scotland - or the Highlands, to be more JG-accurate. And all has been good with my September.

What Old Skool books have you been reading - or meaning to read recently? Who made you want to write in the positive way? In the I-want-to-cause-that-in-my-reader way?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

From Panic Attack to Story Attack, Capitalizing on Your Imagination

Lately, I've been working on a woman-in-jeopardy story that marks a turning point in my life, specifically, in the management of anxiety and panic attacks. It's a turn for the good. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, affects 6.8 million adults and Panic Disorder (PD) affects 6 million adults. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men.(Learn more).  

Based on my own life, I wonder if GAD and PD affect creative, imaginative people more than the general population. Panic attacks are periods of intense fear or apprehension that occur suddenly and last for a few minutes or hours. When I'm in the grip of a panic attack, I am also in the grip of an intense woman-in-jeopardy fantasy that is horribly real.

I can't tell you the number of panic attacks I've had over the years, but I can say the frequency has significantly increased since 9/11, the sniper attacks in DC that followed so closely, tragic attacks like those at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and the simmering anti-American hostility we now find ourselves swimming in.

Five years ago, I was waking up almost nightly in a cold sweat, sure that every noise I heard was an intruder bent on murder. I would bolt wake at an unfamiliar sound and then play the fantasy like a movie in my mind's eye. Each frame brought a new horror that I tried to combat, overcome and outsmart in order to save my family. I felt like a character in a Jason Bourne book, constantly under attack from an unknown threat.  Finally, one morning I said that's it! We're getting a dog. A big dog.

The dog has helped. He's not a scary-looking dog. Most people see Gus and want to hug him. But, Gus is a herding dog and he is serious about his job as chief security officer at our house and nanny/body guard to our son. If the Darling children had had Gus as their nanny, Peter Pan would have been missing more than his shadow when he flew out that window.

Gus makes me feel safe and, thanks to Gus, I've developed a new strategy for preventing and managing panic attacks.  It happened last year on a chilly March Sunday. I took Gus up to Rock Creek Park near Kalmia Road and 16th Street.  It's beautiful there and during the weekend, the trails are usually crawling with joggers, hikers, families, and dogs. We had started a little late and dusk was nearing as we got back to a steep hill I call “killer hill”--I usually try to jog up the hill, backwards. (Vigorous cardio exercise 4 x week is another of my prevention strategies.)

A friend had introduced me to this trail and the day she and I were there, I read a notice tacked on tree warning women to travel in pairs as several women had been attacked when alone.  My brain obviously filled that away until the Sunday in March.  I made it to the top of the hill, backwards, and stood breathing heavily at the top. Gus was off leash and had momentarily disappeared when I realized I was completely alone in the darkening woods. There were no other people and even thebirds were silent.

It hit without warning. In seconds I went from peaceful to a full-on, no holds barred, panic attack. A cold sweat broke out around my neck and shoulders. Hands clenching, my heart thundered. I halted in mid-step almost doubling over with the severity of the attack. On a ragged breath, I jerked my head up, searching for the danger I felt was imminent. What if there is a man? What if he has a knife?

A crashing sound in the underbrush had me gasping for air. What if?  The fantasy over took me. I immediately assessed all my resources – no weapons: no knife, no gun, no mace, no... Wait a minute.  I had a secret weapon. I had Gus. I was so scared I couldn’t shout. I managed to wet my lips and sent a shrill whistle out through my teeth. It split the quiet afternoon air. Gus broke from the underbrush with a great clap of noise, like a pheasant. His doggy face wore a sloppy grin and he carried a tennis ball in his mouth.

I crouched on the trail and hugged him. He sensed my fear and anxiety and stayed close but went on high alert. I knew then that Gus would protect me. IF there was a real threat, but this wasn’t real. Except in my head. I had to stop these nightmarish fantasies from crippling me. I had to take control.

So, I took the “what if” to a new place, a place where I had power of it. I took it to story-making. What if the dog erupted from the underbrush and attacked the attacker? What if predator became prey? What if the heroine was no ordinary couch potato? Hmm, what it?

By the time I arrived home, I had the plot and characters established for “Hunter's Moon,” a thriller
novella with a canine hero, a heroine who can hold her own, and the cop who wants to hold her. Last month, I began putting it all together. That day in March came back to me in sharp definition: the suffocating silence, the clammy sweat gathering at the nape of my neck, the primal fear. It all came back but not as a living nightmare. Now it’s a story. I’ve reframed the panic attack into something positive. I say I’m having a story attack.

What’s something negative in your life that you’ve creatively reframed and now count as strength?  Share your comments with the Rockville 8.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Eyes Have It

I’ve always been fascinated by body language.  Like many writers, I like to observe others and see if I can gain insight into what they are thinking and feeling based on more than just what they say.  Over my next several blog posts, I will focus on some aspect of body language.

Body language is defined as the nonverbal ways we communicate with each other.  Some researchers state that it comprises between 50 to 70% of all communication.  So it’s important that writers understand what their characters are doing is at least as important as what they say.

It has been said that our eyes are the windows to our soul.  But there are other things that our eyes can show us as well.  Gaze, blinking and pupil size can also be very telling.

During a conversation, direct gaze can signal interest and attention.  However, if it becomes too prolonged and focused it can be threatening.  Think about the movie “The Terminator” when the Terminator stares at the policeman and finally says, “I’ll be back.”  The audience instinctively knows that this is not going to end well.  By contrast, looking away or breaking eye contact can mean that the person is uncomfortable, distracted or hiding their true feelings.  Every parent knows this look that indicates that his or her child has done something wrong.

Blinking is a natural reflex.  But doing it too much or too little can have meaning.  Rapid blinking can signal distress or discomfort.  Increase in the rate of blinking can mean someone is thinking more or feeling stressed. This can indicate dishonesty because the liar has to think more about what they are saying than if they simply tell the truth.  To combat this, the person may force their eyes open and appear to stare.  Decreased blinking can also increase the power of the stare and can portray either dominance or romantic intent.

Pupil size can also indicate emotions.  Cognitive effort can dilate pupils.  People are said to have “doe eyes” or “bedroom eyes” because dilated pupils can indicate sexual desire.  The dilation of pupils during sexual interest may indicate that the person is considering how to attract and sustain interest of the object of their desire.  Contracting of the pupil can signal a dislike of the other person, much like squinting.  Therefore, small pupils can also make someone look threatening or unpleasant.  This anger or negativity can cause what is sometimes known as “beady eyes” or “snake eyes.”

Using the proper dialogue tags or actions can increase the impact of your story.  If your story is in first person, then body language can become even more important.  Regardless of whatever narrative style a writer uses, use of body language techniques can deepen the story and add interesting layers to the plot.