Between times

466px-Yin_yang.svg

Silk’s Post #149 — It’s that mid-winter “pause” week. A little too late to say “Merry Christmas” and a little too early to say “Happy New Year”. It’s the space between official holidays that has become, in practice, a week-long time-out from normal work-a-day life.

So in between binge-watching shows I wasn’t able to keep up with through the year, and sweeping up (one more time) the needles dropping from our Christmas tree, and musing about what recipe I could possibly come up with to do something different with the leftover turkey … I started thinking about the role of “between times” in the plotting and pacing of a story.

There’s what happens – the plot points – then there are the times between what happens. Does this mean there’s nothing happening in those intervals? Absolutely not.

I think the “between times” are the natural spaces where the emotional tension builds in a story. These are the times full of questions about what will happen next. The times the reader is left wondering, speculating, reflecting, anticipating. So they need to be handled carefully, creatively, because they’re full of latent story power.

But how many writers treat these “between times” simply as unavoidable dark spaces between their starring scenes? Spans used functionally – to transport a character from one place to another, perhaps? Intervals that are story “dead zones”, or are merely hinted at in the narrative to hustle readers along to the important bits?

Perhaps the equivalent in visual art is “negative space,” the open area that surrounds the positive, or featured, image – in essence, defining it. In music theory, the “interval” between two pitches can have horizontal, linear or melodic qualities. Even mathematics has an “interval” concept (which I, wisely, will not try to explain because it’s way over my head).

In life – the great imitator of art – this principle of yin-yang is always at play. Says Wikipedia: “In Chinese philosophy, yin-yang describes how opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary, interconnected and interdependent in the natural world, and how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.” In this duality, “yin-yang … form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts.”

This principle plays out in storytelling at many levels, such as theme, conflict and character. In terms of plotting and pacing, it’s also a principle that can be used to craft a more compelling story.

The writer chooses which scenes to spotlight, to illuminate with bright yang energy, and which parts of the story play out under the surface in yin darkness.  The plot cycles through these mysterious dark intervals, when unseen forces are inexorably moving the story forward to an enlightening (or explosive) action scene – over and over throughout the narrative until a satisfying conclusion is reached. That ending could be seen as the balance point when the yin and yang elements combine to reveal the whole picture of the story premise.

Hey, you never know where your wandering mind will take you when you have the space of an in-between time to sit around daydreaming and munching the last of the Christmas shortbreads.

Maybe it’s just a sugar high. Or maybe I’m on to something?

Merry Christmas

Joe’s Post #161

christmas treeSo, sadly, no observational writing about writing. Not this week.

No posts about words. Maybe next week.

No pithy remarks or laugh-out-loud stories (if I even ever write those.)

Nope. All I wanted to do today was wish everyone a Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays.

I am so grateful to all the people who take the time to read our little blog. I love reading the comments here, or on Twitter or Facebook or Linkedin. I love knowing that we’ve reached a few people and that we’ve been able to share our journey as writers with an internet audience who are sometimes struggling with the same demons we are.

I also want to thank all the guest bloggers. I sure hope we can get a few more on-board for next year, but this year’s crop has been outstanding. Again, what a cool way to connect with other writers, other thinkers, other bloggers.

Honestly, I’ve had a great year this year and if my writing has suffered, it has suffered for a good cause. I’ve managed to rebuild a life with the Prettiest-girl-in-the-world and her two boys. I hadn’t expected to ever be happy, again, and here I am. Happy.

So thanks to all our readers, our writers, and our followers. I’m going to go have a quiet nightcap, then head off to bed, satisfied that I have done all my Christmas shopping, that I have some pretty cool presents for everyone … and that this will be the best Christmas yet!

Hugs!

calvin and hobbs

The mind’s eye

imagination

Silk’s Post #148 — Imagination is an amazing thing – you might even say a super power. It lets you, as a reader, envision in your mind places you’ve never seen, and stimulates strong emotions about people you’ve never met – even people who never were. If an author has done a good job, your imagination fills in the sights, the sounds, the smells and the whole atmosphere of a written scene and brings it to life in your mind’s eye.

That’s the alchemy of written (or oral) storytelling. It’s an ethereal collaboration of writer and reader that allows plot, setting and characters to become real and active and compelling, without being literally dramatized on stage or screen.

Achieving this dynamic balance between writer and reader gives rise to a lot of literary “rules” that warn writers not to break the spell by putting their foot into the proverbial bucket.

Avoid the overt presence of “author voice” is one of those – an admonition that sounds slightly absurd the first time the budding writer encounters it. In whose voice should a writer write, if not her own?

But what it really means is: don’t tell the reader what to think, how to feel, where to go. Make him an active collaborator by letting the story play out in his own mind’s eye. Let him conjure his own picture of your characters, imagine and share their emotions, envision the experience of being inside the plot.

Such a delicate balance, this suspension of disbelief. So many ways to unintentionally burst the bubble. Too much backstory or narrative, or too little. Too many details, or not enough. Wooden or clichéd characters. Laboured dialogue. Plot twists that don’t surprise, or that come out of the blue. Cascades of adjectives and adverbs that leave nothing to the imagination. Too much telling and not enough showing.

We all know what it feels like to get “lost” in a book, to compulsively turn the pages, to feel like we’re there. That’s when the magic is working: when the story world in our mind’s eye is almost more alive than the real world – not because we’re inside it, but because it’s inside us.

It’s where the imagination of the writer and the imagination of the reader invisibly merge.

Achieving this storytelling “state of grace” with words alone is truly a feat. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a moving picture is worth a fortune. But a book of words has neither. It calls on a reader to exercise imagination, to become immersed in a story, to be an active participant, in a unique way. (Perhaps that’s why the often heralded demise of books and reading simply hasn’t materialized and, I believe, never will – despite movies, and TV, and now the internet.)

I think the great storytellers are the ones who write with an innate awareness that the job of their words is to evoke more than explain. To lead the reader into the story, and inspire his imagination. To stimulate the reader to bring those words to life, to dramatize them – in pictures, and shades of colour, and motion, and emotion – all in his mind’s eye.

Would it change your approach to writing if you shifted your point of view to see the storytelling process as a creative collaboration between the author and the reader?

Hmmm. Just imagine.


5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

We’re deep into the holiday season now, and that’s challenge enough. Decorating, celebrating, shopping, wrapping, cooking, eating, drinking, visiting with friends and family. My post on imagination was a break from that non-stop holiday-making, a couple of hours spent at least thinking about writing, if not actually writing.

New pages written:  None

Word count:  Still 9,320

Rewrites:  Nope

Blog posts written:  One

Other accomplishments:  Fitting a turkey, a ham and about four bags of holiday groceries into my fridge.

Best new things:  Binge watching The Blacklist. Choosing a year’s worth of great reads for 2016 with my stellar book club. Receiving the gift of Helga’s treasured recipe for Dresden Christmas Stollen.

Holiday thoughts:  How to say “Peace on Earth” without it sounding as automatic and meaningless as “Have a Nice Day”? If we could all keep the spirit and grace of this holiday season in our hearts throughout the year, that would be a great start.

My warmest holiday wishes to all the readers of our blog and my wonderful writing friends.

Gifts from the heart

 

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Made from greens collected on Cypress Mountain, Vancouver

Helga’s Blog #121:

Gifts, gifts, gifts… can’t sleep because we still haven’t a clue what to give Aunt Nell, cousin Bill, the neighbour who pet sits the cat, and let’s not forget that friend who gave you a gift last Christmas while you had nothing for him.

Time has run out, shipping deadlines are past, stores running low on merchandise. We are doomed, sure to lose friends, certain to be snubbed by family members near and far.

There are always scented candles of course, they are stocked in every drug store, gas stations even, in a myriad of fragrances. A last option. A better one is to give nothing. Far better.

Alternatives?

Indeed. Likely the most helpful, most valuable gift you will ever receive, or give. And it doesn’t come from a store. I won’t cost you a dime. You don’t even have to leave your home, no need to elbow your way through throngs of shoppers, lose your temper fighting over a parking space, or any of the myriads of inconveniences called Christmas shopping.

That’s right. You can do this entirely from the comfort of your electric recliner chair if you so wish. Such is the privilege of people who love to read, and because of that love, may have turned into writers.

Because these people, lucky souls, know how to be creative. Like pulling a rabbit from a hat, they create something from nothing. No trip to the ATM is needed, no wrapping paper either. So perhaps it’s time to share this secret recipe of enduring Christmas success for years to come.

There are two options, depending on the preference of your gifting recipients. One assumes he or she is a foodie, the other that she or he loves books. Maybe you are lucky to have friends or family who embody both, so if you cater to their twin passions, you may have a fan for life.

Let’s deal with the foodie angle first. Until a year ago, I would delight family and friends with Christmas baking created from recipes handed down through generations. One that stands out has a special history. It’s a recipe for Dresden Christmas Stollen by one of Vienna’s premier patisseries. I will not indulge you with how I got my hands on this coveted recipe, but in the spirit of Christmas sharing, I am gifting it to you. If you follow the instructions as given, you will produce the best ‘stollen’ available. You don’t have to gift the baked product; a more classy option is to print the recipe on good paper and send it off with your Christmas card. (Recipe is in PDF,  measurements are in metric)

The second option is for the lover of books. No, you do not need to purchase any, your recipients can do that all on their own. As any avid reader knows, buying books is the easy part. Finding good titles is far more difficult. Your recipients will be lucky to get your carefully crafted reading list.

That’s it, you say?

Yes. That’s it. But this is no ordinary reading list. Sure, you can find excellent lists of great new titles at the New York Times Book Review or similar sources. What you, the gifter, will offer is a list of titles that you and your friends have come to appreciate and enjoy beyond published reviews. Not by commercial reviewers, but by avid readers who deemed these titles worthy of sharing with friends. You will offer a list compiled with love and honesty – a gift of passion.

So in the spirit of sharing, here is a short list of random titles (fiction and non-fiction) that trusted friends have recommended and enjoyed. They may not be your genre, but are well written and I am sure worth reading. I have read only a few but will make sure to work my way through the entire list.

Fiction:

Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Secret River, by Kate Grenville

Avenue of Mysteries, by John Irving

On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry

Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks

The Language of Flowers, by Vanessa Diffenbough

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

A Name of Blood, by Matt Rees

Elemental, by Amanda Curtin

Non-Fiction:

One of Us, by Asne Seierstad,

Dead Wake, by Erik Larson

Between You and Me, by Mary Norris

A Fighting Chance, by Elizabeth Warren

The Almost Nearly Perfect People, by Michael Booth

River Town, by Peter Hessler

The Shelf, by Phyllis Rose

River at the Centre of the World, by Simon Winchester

Dust of Empire, by Karl Meyer.

Happy Holidays to you all. May the muse stay with you and follow you into the New Year. And thanks for being our steadfast followers.

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From my Austrian recipes

 

What happened to pen and paper?

Karalee’s Post #130

Jot it downLast week I had one of those aha moments, the kind that’s hard to admit because it is so obvious. The kind that the young these days call a brain fart.

It happened while I was driving around doing my daily work, fitness, errands and chores. A typical day until I actually noted and listened to that little voice in my head that kept whispering like a mantra of sorts.

“I can’t write right now. My computer is at home.”

It became painfully obvious that I’ve been using this as my excuse to NOT get my writing done. Throughout every day, and I mean every day, I have a few minutes here and there that I could be jotting ideas down. Heck, many of my “great” ideas come while I’m driving and my subconscious is diverted. It’s the equivalent to other people singing in the shower and the idea bulb suddenly lighting up in the mind like a movie set.

The thought can be so strong that it makes you rush naked and dripping out of the shower to write it down before it slips away down the drain along with your soaped up water.

Wait!

Did I say you rush to write it down? On what?

Do you risk dripping water on your computer? Maybe you grab a pen and write that brilliant thought down on good old-fashioned PAPER?

Aha! I  could do that in my vehicle.

I could stop at the curb, pull out pen and paper and jot my ideas down. Easy peasy and as obvious as a pimple on one’s nose.

Joe’s post this week If Writers Had Drill Sergeants was meant to be if you believe in Karma. Imagine what I can accomplish in a 45 minute burst with my ideas already written down and saved on paper, real paper, and not buried back in my subconscious. My pages could be pounded out so fast and furious that I’d burn my fingertips from the keyboard friction. I’d feel so euphoric that I would be Battling the Monster; writers and mental health like in Paula’s last post and I’d be cured of depression and self-doubts, and, and, and….

Can all this be because of pen and paper and simply saving my ideas? Intuitively I feel like a weight has been lifted and unhealthy ties severed between myself and having to have my computer handy in order to write at all. I don’t need to isolate myself in my office.

Also, I don’t need to take my computer everywhere with me, and find an outlet, and WiFi.

I could even go away for a weekend without it! My computer doesn’t rule all.

When I outline a novel idea I do it on a big roll of children’s drawing paper from Ikea. I use pencil. I draw circles and lines and write on the sides. I put in my timelines and dates and use different colors. I drink coffee and pace the floor. I walk outside to clear my head. I have FUN and it’s always with good old paper and pen ( or pencils).

It’s after this initial burst of creativity that I start to rely on the computer. I organize my chapters and research and character development using Scrivener. It’s a great tool and I love using it. I could also make Scrivener work for me when I’m not home and the ideas rolling around in my head start to surface. It’s easy to print out the last chapter I’m on, or a scene I’m fiddling with, or even the character development folder. I could take paper with me. I could jot stuff down on it. I could let my imagination go wild.

Then when I take those ideas and enter them into the computer it’s almost like the second draft. At this point Joe’s Drill Sergeant can take over.

Do other writers out there feel completely reliant on their computers to get any and all of their writing done? I think this is a mindset that many of us have fallen into.

I’m going to let go of my computer umbilical cord for a few minutes here and there every day and get back to keeping a notebook with me. And a pen. I know my creativity flows all day. I will jot it all down.

I will write on paper.

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Productivity: I’m at the midpoint of my third short story. I will print it out and take my pen and some more paper with me from the house. I will let you know next week how it works for me.

Motivation:  I’m following The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. The book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is on my bedside table along with Dalai Lama’s book The Art of Happiness.

Happy Moments:

  • walking on the powdery snow-like beaches around Tampa Bay, Florida last week with my hubby and friends.
  • the heat in the sun in Florida
  • visiting the Chihuly Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida
  • my daughter dropping by with a list of recipes for us to bake for Christmas goodies. She has great taste.

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Perspective Photos:

 

chihuly glass

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

chihuly boat

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy writing!

 

 

If writers had drill sergeants

Joe’s Post #160

drill sergeantOk, I came across this on Writer’s Digest. I hope they don’t mind me borrowing it, but it had a neat take on how to keep writing. I kinda loved it. So here it is. My comments are in a lovely blue.

How to Guarantee that You Stick to Your Writing Schedule (Yes, Drill Sergeant!)


Matt-Meyer-featuredThis guest post is by Matt Meyer. Meyer is the pseudonymous author of The Boy, His Teacher, The Raven and The Peacock. He is a recovering fantasy football columnist and can be seen as half of the YouTube movie review team, Cinemaspresso. You can follow Matt as his alter ego ttamreyem on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.


Before you begin, get yourself an alarm clock with multiple settings. I use an app called “I Can’t Wake Up!” It’s evil. It makes me do math or match countries and capitals or it won’t shut off. I hate it. And I love it. Whatever clock you choose, get cozy with it. You’re going to live your life by it. She is your harsh mistress. She is your boss. Set your first alarm early. How early? How bad do you want to be a writer?

1. Reveille

Rise and shine, sweetheart. Get up, wash up, and clean up. Don’t dilly dally. War doesn’t wait. 15 minutes for the basics should suffice. 15 Minutes? You’re a writer now. Find a way. Add another 15 minutes for getting the kids ready for school. At least.

2. Morning P.T.

It’s time for stretches. Fire up your laptop and write for 20 minutes. If you have a blog, write your daily post. If you don’t have a blog, get one. Even a slow writer can churn out 250 words in 20 minutes. That’s a decent post. I don’t care what you write about. Just write. It’s just a free form exercise to get your writing juices flowing. Whatever you write, don’t delete it. Let it pile up. Heck, you can print it out just to watch your progress. And the more you write, the more you will notice two things. First, you will get faster. Your 250 words can balloon up to something astronomical like 500. Second, you’ll get better. You’ll make rookie mistakes, but not forever. History lesson: the word expert comes from the Latin expertus which simply means, someone with experience. The more you write, the closer you will come to being an expert. Ok, this one I really liked. I mean, why not?

[Here Are 9 Practical Tricks for Writing Your First Novel]

3. Mess Hall

Grab some grub and a cup of joe. Real recruits in basic training are give 7 minutes to eat. I’ll give you 20. Did I tell you to look at Facebook while you eat? That’s right. NO SOCIAL MEDIA. Little Johnny’s first day of kindergarten pics can wait. Simplify. Just eat. I know, it sounds impossible. Discipline yourself, or so help me. You had me at ‘grab a cup of Joe’, or in my case, a medium double-double from Timmies (Tim Hortons)

4. Live Fire

You’re warmed up and fueled up. Now it’s time to put up. Write hard. Write fast. You’re on the clock. Give yourself 45 minutes. But that’s not enough time. Tough luck. You can write 600 words easy, 750 with a little practice. That’s 3 pages of your novel. That’s half of a magazine feature. You’ll be amazed at what you can get done when you don’t have enough time to do it. When the alarm sounds, stop. Even if it’s in the middle of a word. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] I know, I’m one mean … See it’s that easy. Just start writing.

5. At Ease

Take 5. Get on your feet. Stretch. Walk. Run. Do some jumping jacks. Get your blood flowing. Get up off your rump and do something athletic. Even my great-grandma does the two step. Don’t think because you’re young and good looking that inactivity won’t catch up with you eventually. Me, I’ll go for a walk with the doggie.

If you only have a couple of hours a day to write, move on. If you have more time, repeat steps 4 and 5. Don’t run a marathon. Do a set of sprints. You’ll force yourself to get more done. I like this, too. Get the writing done first, and then you have the rest of the day free. 

6. Marksmanship

Spend 15-30 minutes sending out queries or LOIs. But what if I don’t have anything to sell? Simple. Make up a title. Write 3 sentences about it. Send it to someone. If they say they want to see more, write more. Look, kid, until you ask, the answer is always no. The more you ask, the more likely you are to get a yes. It’s a numbers game. Sales always is. And every working writer is a salesman. Ask at least one person every day to take a look at your work. That’s how you become a working writer.  The old Heinlein thing, keep your writing in the mail. This is something I SERIOUSLY need to work on.

7. Final Formation

The smoke has cleared. You wrote a blog, at least 3 pages of your precious novel, and a query letter. You’re starting to look like a real writer. Now you can tweet and pin to your heart’s content. Then go to bed, get up, and do it all over again. Every day.

That’s the real key. If you’re not consistently turning out writing, you’re not a writer. You’re someone who used to be a writer. Does that sound cruel? I’m not here to hold your hand and sing Kumbayah. I’m here to turn you into the finest writer that you can be.

Good night, ladies. See you bright and early.

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I really love this. I don’t know why this spoke to me. Maybe I was a recruit in another life, sent off to war and died horribly in the trenches or by a vietcong sniper. Who knows, but tomorrow, I join the writing-army.

Wish me luck

5 More overlooked emotions

skateboard-man

Silk’s Post #147 — I just got a like and a share on a post I wrote two years ago, which is a bit like sticking your hand in the pocket of a jacket that’s been hanging in your closet forever and finding a $10 bill. (Thanks Kelsie and Shannon).

So I went back and read it. And like any long-suffering, praise-starved, unpublished writer, my first thought was: Wow, this is better than anything I’ve written recently. Followed, of course, by a flutter of panic, pangs of angst, and a dash of hopelessness.

If you’ve been reading some of our 5writers posts recently, you’ve probably picked up on our collective struggles to put butts in chairs, get words on paper and keep enthusiasm high as we approach our self-imposed February 5th deadline for finishing our first drafts in the second 5writers5novels5months challenge. Last week I blogged about The art of course correcting as a strategy for giving ourselves the gift of more time, pulling ourselves out of our writing hole, and rehabilitating our 5/5/5 spirit.

After a probably unhealthy amount of introspection (and a couple glasses of wine), I concluded that there’s a life-imitating-art parallel between the arc of writing a book and the arc of becoming a writer.

At the beginning it’s pure excitement, ideas and enthusiasm and confidence bubbling up like one of those science project volcanoes. Then comes the interminable muddled middle, the all-work-and-no-play slog when you wonder what in the hell you were thinking when you embarked on this shapeless plot and whether you’re really cut out for the writing life. It’s all you can do to keep the faith long enough to reach The End, when you finally catch fire again, tie up all the threads, and bask in the glow of accomplishment. You need to really enjoy that glow, because it has to carry you through the next phase of rewrites and queries – a process that can be so demoralizing it will drive you either to start a new book so you can enjoy that beginning rush again, or quit writing and take up something easier, like rocket science.

Well, right now, I’m deep in the mushy middle – both of my book and of my second-career learning curve to become a writer of novels. The original excitement of the starting writer is long past, and the hoped-for success of the accomplished writer is still far, far ahead.

So it was almost shocking to revisit my writing self of two years ago and read the enthusiasm and engagement in my words. What happened to my writing joy? My competency? My confidence? Will I ever get it back?

Then, something unexpected happened.

My mood lifted. And I started getting excited again, because I remembered: I can do this. The proof was right there on the page.

As an hommage to that two-year-old post, The top 10 most overlooked emotions, I’ll work on getting my groove back by adding another 5 under-appreciated emotions to the list for consideration when you’re trying to add nuance and dimension to your characters. This time I’m focusing not on reactive, situational emotions, but instead on underlying emotions that shape a character’s personality and attitude. My preamble to that post still fits here:

In the service of the writer’s twin holy grails – TENSION and CONFLICT – we cram in the obvious basic feelings like LOVE, HATE, FEAR, HOPE, ANGER, HAPPINESS, IMPATIENCE, RESENTMENT, DOUBT, and EXCITEMENT. 

But it’s the subtler shades of emotion that help elevate characters from bland and predictable to spicy and complex. Without these grace notes, emotions can come across as cartoon-like as emoticons. Here are some more to consider …

1.  WELTSCHMERZ – I wish the English language had equivalents for some of the German words that pack a whole suitcase full of emotional complexity into just a few (admittedly chewy) letters. Just saying the word Weltschmerz seems to dredge up a whole gutful of deep, organic feeling. Weltschmerz, Weltschmerz, Weltschmerz. I just can’t say it enough.

Germans love to craft words that are collisions of two or more thoughts, and Weltschmerz, said to be coined by author and humorist Jean Paul (Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, 1763-1825) translates roughly as world-pain or world-weariness. Wikipedia defines it as “the kind of feeling experienced by someone who believes that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind … anxiety caused by the ills of the world.”

This below-the-surface emotion – a favourite of authors in the Romantic era like Byron, Hesse, and Heine – has added depth to memorable characters in modern novels by writers such as John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut and Henry Miller. It’s having a new vogue among today’s essayists, as they attempt to put a name to our collective unease at the world’s present dysfunction. And it even has its own built-in mission: to strive, even against hope, to make things right.

Do you want your action-oriented protagonist to be haunted by a certain sense of deep longing … the pain of a failed idealist that has not hardened into cynicism … a kind of hole in the soul that can never be patched? Give him a dose of Weltschmerz.

2.  PLAYFULNESS – This important emotion is too often dismissed as frivolous. Well, it’s not. Maybe it makes you think of puppies and kittens. I believe that a sense of playfulness is the bright face of curiosity (the dark face of curiosity is usually termed “morbid”).

Curiosity is all about “inquisitive thinking such as exploration, investigation and learning … [and is] heavily associated with all aspects of human development,” Wikipedia informs us. Thomas Hobbes wrote, “Curiosity is the lust of the mind,” and Edmund Burke called it “the first and simplest emotion which we discover.”

There’s all kinds of serious brain science behind this passion for understanding, but it starts in childhood in the pure form of play. Although psychological research into adult playfulness is apparently in its infancy (“probably because it wasn’t deemed worthy enough,” bemoans University of Zurich psychologist René Proyer), it has been highly correlated to academic performance, active lifestyles, good coping skills, creativity, and attractiveness to members of the opposite sex.

People like playful people. (Wouldn’t you like to meet the guy with the skateboard on his head?) So if you want to make readers love your character a little more, let him be playful. Maybe some of it will rub off on you!

3.  GRAVITAS – If you’ve Weltschmertzed your character successfully, you may already be on your way to achieving gravitas. But is it an emotion? Well, not exactly. But it certainly is the product of a cluster of emotions – or perhaps I should say of a person’s way of managing those emotions.

Gravitas was identified as one of the primary Roman virtues, alongside other qualities like dignitas and veritas. In short, it’s an attribute of people who take things seriously, and are taken seriously – and trusted – by others. People with gravitas are the “adults in the room”: responsible, earnest, dignified, substantial. People who have depth of personality. People not given to playing fast and loose with their emotions.

If you think about the traits of the spectrum of politicians currently in the headlines, for instance, you can quickly pick out those who have it, those who don’t but wish they did, and those who you might suspect are wearing a mask of gravitas that hides who they really are. See how much fun this is? How gravitas makes a great protagonist (think Strider)? And how much more interesting an antagonist who’s faking gravitas could be than a standard cardboard bad guy?

4.  GRATITUDE – The emotion of gratitude is getting a lot of attention lately, as it deserves. People now talk about “practicing” gratitude, as opposed to just naturally feeling it. According to some current thinking, “people aren’t hardwired to be grateful … and, like any skill worth having, gratitude requires practice.” (Really?)

Psychologist Robert Emmons, for instance, wrote a 2008 self-help book called Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You HappierIt doesn’t take a professional, though, to know that gratitude will make you more popular – people love an ingrate the way they love a person who kicks dogs.

Gratitude can be seen in an immediate emotional reaction to a stimulus, but it can also be present as a general attitude closely related to humility. A fictional character who exhibits gratitude will win the empathy of many readers … and could be a terrific opposing foil for a bad actor who makes readers want to choke him to death with a big piece of humble pie.

5.  INSECURITY – Ah, the writer’s companion. Definition: anxiety about oneself, lack of confidence, self-doubt, diffidence, nervousness, inhibition, sense of vulnerability or inferiority. Who has never, ever felt like this, even for a moment? Any hands? I thought not.

When it comes to characters, an insecure protagonist is usually a horrible idea unless you have some plan to rehabilitate her pretty quickly. It isn’t easy to relate to a clingy victim – or, on the other end of the spectrum, a bombastic over-compensator – as the main POV character. Insecure people are needy and often make others uncomfortable, as anyone who’s been closely shadowed by one at a party will attest. They can try your patience and suck your emotional energy. So, as main characters, they usually don’t cut the mustard.

But that makes Nervous Nellies or Bobby Blowhards perfect in some secondary roles. For instance, as the sidekick whose insecurity hides her brilliant mind, or big heart. This gives your protagonist an opportunity to exhibit sterling characteristics like empathy and loyalty. And sets up a satisfying surprise when the inhibited sidekick has to rise to the occasion and find her courage just when the protagonist needs her.


5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

Since we’ve done our 5/5/5 course correction in the name of sanity and mutual support, I’m now aiming to complete my first draft by April 5th. But I don’t want to float off completely into the ether of unaccountability, so I’m re-starting my blog post scorecards.

New pages written:  Since when? Oh, yeah – well let me just take a look, um. Right, uhhh … let’s see. What was the question again? Hold on – is that the phone? Sorry, I have to take this. I’ll, um, get back to you on that.

Word count:  Still 9,320

Rewrites:  None

Blog posts written:  2 this week (and this one’s early … a first!)

Research done:  A little tiny bit

Other accomplishments:  Figured out my ending, my villain and a main character’s motivation to take the action that sets the whole plot rolling. Hallelujah!

Best new thing:  My sciatica went away.

Holiday progress:  Christmas letter done. Decorations out from under the stairwell. Cards in progress. Gifts to be mailed away bought and being wrapped in … 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1 minute. Bye now until next week!

What are groups of things called?

Joe’s Post #159 —

Ok, now I'm super freaked out about crows

Ok, now I’m super freaked out about crows

Ok, I’m still having nightmares about Paula’s picture on her last post so I needed to lighten it up a bit. So, in case you were ever wondering what a group of pedlars (or pedlars if you’re British) were called, or a group of finches, this post is for you. If not, well, then, ah, errr, I have a video at the end for you. Something funny.

Personally, I loved what to call a lot of wild cats.

 

Fun facts!

blush of boys

drunkship of cobblers

hastiness of cooks

stalk of foresters

an observance of hermits

bevy of ladies

faith of merchants

superfluity of nuns

malapertness (= impertinence) of pedlars

pity of prisoners

glozing (= fawning) of taverners

Animals!

shrewdness of apes

herd or pace of asses

troop of baboons

cete of badgers

sloth of bears

swarm or drift or hive or erst of bees

flock or flight or pod of birds

herd or gang or obstinacy of buffalo

bellowing of bullfinches

drove of bullocks

an army of caterpillars

clowder or glaring of cats

herd or drove of cattle

brood or clutch or peep of chickens

chattering or clattering of choughs

rag or rake of colts

covert of coots

herd of cranes

bask of crocodiles

murder of crows

litter of cubs

herd of curlew

cowardice of curs

herd or mob of deer

pack or kennel of dogs

school of dolphins

trip of dotterel

flight or dole or piteousness of doves

raft or bunch or paddling of ducks on water

safe of ducks on land

fling of dunlins

herd or parade of elephants

gang or herd of elk

busyness of ferrets

charm or chirm of finches

shoal or run of fish

swarm or cloud of flies

skulk of foxes

gaggle of geese on land

skein or team or wedge of geese in flight

herd of giraffes

cloud of gnats

flock or herd or trip of goats

band of gorillas

pack or covey of grouse

down or mute or husk of hares

cast of hawks

siege of herons

bloat of hippopotami

drove or string or stud or team of horses

pack or cry or kennel of hounds

flight or swarm of insects

fluther or smack or jellyfish

mob or troop of kangaroos

kindle or litter of kittens

desert of lapwing

an exaltation or a bevy of larks

leap or lepe of leopards

pride or sawt of lions

tiding of magpies

sord or suit of mallard

stud of mares

richesse of martens

labour of moles

troop of monkeys

barren of mules

watch of nightingales

yoke of oxen

pandemonium of parrots

covey of partridges

muster of peacocks

muster or parcel or rookery of penguins

head or nye of pheasants

kit of pigeons flying together

litter or herd of pigs

stand or wing or congregation of plovers

rush or flight of pochards

pod or school or herd or turmoil of porpoises

covey of ptarmigan

litter of pups

bevy or drift of quail

string of racehorses

an unkindness of ravens

crash of rhinoceros

bevy of roes

parliament or building of rooks

hill of ruffs

pod or herd or rookery of seals

flock or herd or trip or mob of sheep

dopping of sheldrake

wisp or walk of snipe

host of sparrows

murmuration of starlings

flight of swallows

game of swans; a wedge of swans in the air

drift or herd or sounder of swine

spring of teal

knot of toads

hover of trout

rafter of turkeys

bale or turn of turtles

bunch or knob or raft of waterfowl

school or pod or herd or gam of whales

company or trip of wigeon

sounder of wild boar

destruction of wild cats

team of wild ducks in flight

bunch or trip or plump or knob (fewer than 30) of wildfowl

drift of wild pigs

pack or rout of wolves

fall of woodcock

descent of woodpeckers

herd of wrens

zeal of zebras

 

And this is how movies are made. Think of the head guy as George Lucas and you know I’m right.

Page count:  Not much over 100 pages now. I’m not proud of myself in a very big way. Non-writers have no idea of the anguish writers go through when we’re not writing.

Queries Sent:  2 back. All rejections.

Rejections:  See above. It sapped my morale.

Blogs Written Since Last Post:  2 (not a lot new at Just A Stepdad.)

Exercise:  None. When I have a failed week, I go all out and fail at everything.

Movies Seen: Rocky III and Rocky IV. We’re on a binge so we can see Creed, which is apparently a pretty good movie. Unlike Rocky IV to VI. See Monte Python Video to understand how this happened.

Battling the monster: writers and mental health

Monster

Paula’s Post #120 – December. A month when we are supposed to be happy. Full of Christmas cheer as we anticipate the arrival of Old Saint Nick and happy times with the family as we celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. For those of the Jewish faith, this is the time of Chanukah, the festival of lights, and for those of West African heritage, Kwanzaa. All celebrations; all times of joy.

At least that’s the idea.

But as we know all too well, the spirit of the season collectively known as ‘The Holidays’ is more often than not, just as likely to be fraught with anxiety and depression as it is good cheer and joyful merriment.

Here at the 5writers, we’ve embarked on our own ‘season of angst’ with each of us battling issues, big and small, that seem to be getting in the way of our collective productivity.

If you read my colleague Silk’s post of yesterday, The Art of Course Correcting, you’ll know that as writers, sometimes we must face ‘painful truths’ about the deadlines we set. In our case, our collective realization that ‘the second time around’ we may not have had either the ability or frankly even the same enthusiasm for writing an entire novel in 5 months. In Silk’s words:

Because I know I’m not going to have this first draft finished by our 5writers deadline – artificial as it may be – of February 5th. It’s just not going to happen. So I polled the other 5writers, and it seems I’m not the only one whose productivity has fallen a bit short of where we all should be in our stories by now – if we want to be typing “The End” in exactly 60 days.

Rather than avoid the problem, deny the reality, guilt ourselves into a demotivated state of inertia, painfully wedge enough scraps of writing time into the holiday season to make up for lost time, or just give up … we are discussing a course correction, including a reset of our challenge deadline to April 5th. This would also give us more time for mutual support, including some in-progress critiquing and feedback, and virtual group meetings.

Paths to any goal in life, after all, are just plot lines. They do take twists and turns, with something to learn around every corner. And if you’re afraid to make course corrections, you may never get there.

In my case, I was particularly captivated by Silk’s reference to building in “more time for mutual support”. If you’ve followed the adventurers of the 5writers you’ll know that, more than anything, this is what we are really all about.

While I had to look it up to confirm, the current 5 members of our little writers’ group have been together for almost 6 years. That’s a pretty good run. Some of us have been together even longer. We started as a traditional critique group, exchanging pages by email, then meeting to critique each other’s’ work in day long marathon critique session. These meetings occurred on more or less a regular basis and though often left mentally exhausted, we almost always came away with fresh enthusiasm  and dedication to our craft, each of us committed to becoming better writers.

Flash forward six years and we are struggling.

Although we started out strangers, we are now friends. Friends who, first and foremost, are committed to supporting one another, as difficult as that may be now that we live in five separate places in two different countries.

But that mutual support is what keeps me going, because I know another scary truth: writers are vulnerable.

In his blog, Electric Lit,  Joseph Jaynes Roistano writes:

The idea that creative writing is linked to mental abnormality is ancient: Socrates argues in Phaedrus that poetry is a form of divine madness. The literary world has lost many of its greats to suicide: Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and David Foster Wallace, to name a few. But are writers actually more prone to mental illness—or is this a myth fueled by memorable anecdotes?

In the largest study on this question (including almost 1.2 million Swedish patients), researchers found writers to have more than double the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder compared to a control group of accountants. Writers also faced a greater risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse.

Depression… anxiety disorders… substance abuse… bipolar disorder… schizophrenia – that’s quite a scary little laundry list!

Not content to rely only on Mr. Rositano’s research, I decided to delve a little deeper, discovering another blogger’s contribution and a coincidentally familiar sounding title: In ‘5 Writers Who Suffered from Mental Illness and the Impact it had on Their Art‘, Professor Kim McCann of Southern New Hampshire University explores the lives of five authors who not only ascended to literary greatness, but who, whether privately or publicly, also suffered from what were often debilitating mental illnesses: Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, Leo Tolstoy, Virginia Woolf and, yes, not to be forgotten, Ernest Hemingway.

If there is a bright side in all this, at least we don’t write poetry. According to Ms. McCann:

In 2002, Dr. James Kaufman of California State University in San Bernardino conducted a retrospective study of 1,629 writers that showed poets — specifically, female poets — were more likely than non-fiction writers, playwrights and fiction writers to have some type of mental illness. As such, the link between creativity and mental illness is frequently referred to as “The Sylvia Plath Effect.”

What does this all mean?

The heck if I know! But if I’m honest, I also have to admit I’m not the happiest I’ve ever been.

Anxiety? Check.

Depression? Check.

Bipolar Disorder? Maybe, certainly mood swings.

I never embraced the idea of writing as a ‘lonely profession’, much less a lonely avocation.  But quite frankly, right now, that is what it has become for me.

Up until a couple of days ago I was steeling myself for a grueling holiday season of lonely, marathon writing, envisioning a Christmas with the grandchildren where Nana locked herself in her room to write to deadline in an attempt to get back on course to complete my novel in 5 months.

But is this what we all want out of life?

Is this the cruise we’ve signed up for? I confess, I have a secret desire. A desire to poll the top 100 popular fiction writers – those committed to the ‘book-a-year’ deal with their publishers – and ask them, if they had it to do it all over again, would they walk down the same path?

One of the reasons we embarked upon our original five months challenge was to try to simulate the lives of these busy authors and the book-a-year schedule that demanded completion of a first draft in something under six months. Relentlessly, each and every year.

Well, having tried it, let me share with you what I’ve discovered: it’s haaaard!!!

Sure, sometimes it’s fun. In the heady beginning, when you’re fuelled by caffeine, adrenaline and enthusiasm, plotting and dreaming up exotic locales and fascinating original characters. But that ‘creative’ phase quickly wears off. Somewhere around page 80 or 100 or so you realize you have a long way to go. But by then, you’re already looking back and filled with overwhelming doubt about the choices you’ve made and the course you’ve charted.

That’s where I’m at now.

I’m depressed and filled with doubt. Right now, I don’t really want to take this novel any further down the line.

I long for the days when my 5writer colleague Helga and I co-authored a fun romp of a culinary novel, filled with wacky characters, luscious food and layer upon layer of plot twists. If one of us got down or depressed, the other was always there to put a positive spin on things and get our writing back on track. With culinary wiz Helga at my side, we used our husbands as test kitchen dummies and re-created the recipes in the novel in a series of spectacular Italian themed dinners.

I long for the days when my 5writer colleagues met on a regular monthly basis. For the days when, mired in the muddled middle, I had Silk and Joe and Helga and Karalee  to ‘brainstorm’ a way out. Where we shared our doubts and our anxieties in a support group that was as much about real life as it was about writing.

Bottom line, this time around, I don’t think we 5writers have taken sufficient care of our mental health on this challenge. And I say this knowing that I’m not the one in our group facing the biggest challenges at this time.  If I’m feeling this way, how must my other 5writers be feeling?

Pollyanna that I am, even I don’t believe that for every problem there is a solution. And this time around, I admit it, I don’t know what the solution is to the dilemma in which I now find myself.

If I’m going to continue writing, it is going to have to be fun again, because right now, plain and simple, it’s not. At least for me.

But I’m not giving up.

While there may not be one, all-encompassing solution, there are positive steps I can take that can help.

Step 1 – Balance: Was I really, absurdly, contemplating locking myself in a room this Christmas to write, write, write as carols were sung and chestnuts roasted on an open fire? Well to hell with that! Nix that. I will write if I feel the joy and the inspiration this holiday season, if not, forget it. If that means I’m not ‘a real writer’ then so be it, I’m at peace with that.

Step 2 – Read: Perversely, one of the huge disappointments of taking up the ‘writing life’ is the negative effect on the ‘reading life’. If I were to poll the other members of my writers’ group, I bet I’d discover I’m not alone. With only so many hours in the day, something’s gotta give, and that something is the joy of reading. This is not inconsequential: if writing is correlated with negative mental health, reading is correlated with positive mental health. The term ‘bibliotherapy’ first coined during the time of the First World War now encompasses a wide expanse of therapeutic approaches through literature. In this regard, I highly recommend Ceriden Dovey’s fine article published in the NewYorker, earlier this year, “Can Reading Make You Happier?”

For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery, in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of MRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.

Step 3 – Group Therapy. Okay, this one is going to be the the tough one. We 5writers have become most geographically challenged indeed. We’re not quite sure how we are going to get all five of us in a room together for an extended period of time. Admittedly, we may need to explore communicating by Facetime or Skype, but somehow or other, we all recognize that we are at our best as a group. Recapturing that group dynamic will not be easy, but we all feel the need to get back to basics, to get back to 30 pages a month, to get back to a soothing schedule of certainty and the knowledge that we are not alone.

So that’s my self-help prescription for ‘battling the monster’. How about you? If you’ve got any suggestions, I’d love to hear from you, in the meantime, I’m off to read a book.

Reading right now:

The Brutal Telling , Louise Penny’s fifth Inspector Gamache mystery.

Next up:

A Banquet of Consequences, Elizabeth’s George nineteenth Inspector Lynley mystery.

and

Circling the Sun, Paula McLain’s reimagination of the remarkable life of aviatrix Beryl Markham.

How about you? Any suggestions for a little ‘bibliotherapy’.

The art of course correcting

compass

Silk’s Post #146 — The course to your writing goal is rarely a straight line (a reality writing shares with most other life goals). When you start writing a novel – especially if you’ve done all the work of outlining, or at least envisioning the story arc from start to finish, you think you know where you’re going.

But when you encounter an unexpected impasse, what do you do? Press on ahead, no matter what? Or reassess and correct course?

In other words, can you – and should you – be flexible enough to deviate from your carefully-planned roadmap? Without feeling like you’ve given up, or failed? Or should you go backwards and try to “fix” whatever narrative deficits have brought you to this troubling nexus?

For some writers, the answer is “forward-ho!” Forge on to the predetermined end, and fix whatever problems are causing a sense of discomfort or dislocation in the second draft. Nothing wrong with that strategy, especially if it keeps you on-track with your writing discipline. Mind you, you may be spending a lot more time with your second draft working out stubborn plot or character problems than you had imagined. But it’s a way forward.

And forward is where we must go.

Other writers may pull up the reins, look around at their storyworld surroundings, and realize they’re just plain lost. How did I get here? Everything’s wrong! Feeling trapped in the bog of the mushy middle is no fun, and I wonder how many books simply die right there … slowly sinking into the quicksand of confusion and lost momentum.

To be brutally honest, some unfinished and unworkable stories do need to be given a decent burial rather than continue to suck energy out of their authors, to no good end. But many others are salvageable – maybe even brilliant, eventually – if the writer is willing to let go of the original prescribed plan and let the story bloom in its own natural time and manner.

What happens when an author gets to the narrative’s mid-point, for instance, and realizes – with horror and probably a wrenching ache in his or her gut – that the protagonist should  actually be someone other than the chosen lead character? Or that, even worse, the protagonist is terminally boring, or unlikeable? Or that close third person isn’t working at all, and the story should be told in first person? Or that the whole “voice” of the book is wrong? Or that the story is actually a mystery, not a romance, and needs major structural revisions?

Ah, but these are the lucky authors. The ones who can actually see what’s wrong in the course of the first draft. Why they’re struggling, why they’re swimming against the tide. For many of us, these insights may not come until much later – although “later” is still not “too late” when it comes to a novel. Many resurrections take place in the second or third draft.

However, making a decision to correct course in the middle of a writing journey can be more than daunting. It can be debilitating. Demotivating. Discombobulating. And, seriously – do we need yet more hurdles and self-doubt in our sometimes stuttering writing practices? After all, we’re not out on the high seas in a Clipper ship, our very lives dependent on finding the right course to make a safe landfall. We can just tuck that off-track manuscript in the bottom drawer and go do something more rewarding.

Persistance can be hard, but it can have a big pay off.

Correcting course requires some potentially painful choices. And they can be humbling.

It may mean literally throwing away a lot of stuff you worked hard on, and struggling to convince yourself that it wasn’t just a waste of time. It may mean psyching yourself up to counteract the demotivating experience of having to go backward before you can go forward. It may mean admission that you over-reached, or didn’t work hard enough, or didn’t work smart enough, or picked a genre that isn’t your forté, or any number of other writing sins.

And sometimes the worst sin of all is simply neglecting your writing practice. Maybe you’ve left your manuscript untouched for so long that it has become a kind of skeleton in your closet, Exhibit #1 in the damning case against your sin of omission, a personal rebuke. Maybe you got stuck somewhere along the way, the going got tough, and you put it aside for later. Now it’s later, much later. Are you going to keep avoiding it? Or summon your courage and seek a fresh direction?

To recognize you need a course correction, you have to admit you’re on the wrong track. And who likes to be wrong?

But this is where the art of it comes in – the art of nourishing your writer’s soul. Writers all work essentially alone. Yes, you may be lucky (as I am) to have a writers/critique group, or an editor, or a mentor, or any number of wonderful, supportive people in your writing life. And that really matters. But when the words go on paper, it’s just you and the blank white page. You are an enterprise with a staff of one: yourself.

You have to look after yourself and your assets – your mind, your imagination, your health, your skills, your commitment, your creative spirit, and maybe most of all your enthusiasm.

So don’t look back. Don’t beat yourself up. Give yourself huge points for making the decision to get back on track, take a breath, then get to work with renewed hope and energy. Because although writing is hard work, it should be joyful work.

In my own experience, writing feels incredibly good when it flows, when I know my scene, or my character, or my storyworld, or my narrative arc is working well. It only feels bad when I’m grinding my gears because something’s broken down.

Course corrections are positive. They mean you’ve learned something essential. They mean you’re becoming a better writer. And, hopefully, they lead you away from the struggle of wrestling with something that isn’t working right, and back to that euphoric place all writers seek: The Zone.

And The Zone is where I hope I’m bound this week. Because I have to admit that, of late, I’ve been guilty of the sin of neglecting my writing practice. Yes, right in the middle of the 5writers5novels5months challenge. While the hardy NaNoWriMo participants gushed hundreds of thousands of words during November, my writing output barely filled a teacup.

I was stuck with a few pretty major holes in my current story. Who, exactly, is my villain? How does the story end? And what motivates one of my key characters to take the action that unlocks the whole flow of the plot arc?

Yeah. Big questions. Until I answered them, I was paralyzed. I questioned whether the whole book premise even made any sense. I wondered whether I was capable of writing it, given that it’s a story far outside my own personal experience. I felt like a fraud, taking on a complex, dark, “big idea” story as a novice writer living my idyllic life on my nice, safe little Pacific Northwest island.

So I stalled out. I found other things to do. And my underfed manuscript sat abandoned on my drive. And meanwhile, the 5/5/5 challenge clock ticked towards our deadline.

But, almost unbeknownst to me, my mind kept at the story. Wouldn’t let it go. I wasn’t even aware I was processing it until last week, when the answers to my plot and character questions suddenly popped into my consciousness while I was driving to the grocery store. All in one big epiphany!

So I’m back to the keyboard, and it feels good. Not quite Zone-like yet, but I have renewed confidence I’ll get there.

But now a new course correction is needed.

Because I know I’m not going to have this first draft finished by our 5writers deadline – artificial as it may be – of February 5th. It’s just not going to happen. So I polled the other 5writers, and it seems I’m not the only one whose productivity has fallen a bit short of where we all should be in our stories by now – if we want to be typing “The End” in exactly 60 days.

Rather than avoid the problem, deny the reality, guilt ourselves into a demotivated state of inertia, painfully wedge enough scraps of writing time into the holiday season to make up for lost time, or just give up … we are discussing a course correction, including a reset of our challenge deadline to April 5th. This would also give us more time for mutual support, including some in-progress critiquing and feedback, and virtual group meetings.

Paths to any goal in life, after all, are just plot lines. They do take twists and turns, with something to learn around every corner. And if you’re afraid to make course corrections, you may never get there.