Saturday, January 28, 2012

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone - And be a Better Writer For It

Get out of the house. Get out of your pajamas. Take your headphones off and lift your head up when you walk. Does the above sound like something your spouse, or your friend would tell you because you're the type to stay in the house, in bed, or in front of your computer all day long? 

Well, I am...

A have the natural compulsions of a reclusive writer. And I know I'm not alone. 

My world is mostly in my head--in my fantasies. I shy away from socializing, from public speaking, because I'm overflowing with self-conscousness. Afraid of saying something wrong, embarrassing myself, being judged, or setting myself up too high only to panic. But yet I'm in a full time job where my sole focus is building relationships--with new people--all the time. That's it in a nutshell. I travel a lot, I meet hundreds of faces, sometimes 250 in one day alone. I speak in front of an audience of MBAs from the top business schools in the world. I shake hands with our company's leaders, strangers I've never met before, and I get asked about the importance of what I do. Then I go home, sit under a stinging hot shower, wondering why the hell I do this to myself, crawl into bed, shake off all the pent up anxiety and stress and then drag myself out of bed to do it all over again the next day.

And then something magical happens. I write. I write about adventures, about the most thrilling experiences (and some not so thrilling) and guess what? I write it convincingly! All because I've experienced those emotions, met hundreds of people to learn from, seen so many things that could fill a book. My characters become real--living breathing, twitching, cursing, quiet, belligerent, unreasonable and unique all because I dare to push myself out of my comfort zone. 

I know what my characters are feeling in tense, awkward moments, what goes through their minds, what pushes them over the edge. I know natural reactions: facial, verbal, physical. In a simple example, you should know several different ways to describe someone who's angry. You'll progress from describing the immediate pinching between their eyes, then nostrils flaring, chest expanding. In the next section you can describe their fists clenched, knuckles gone bone-white, threatening to rip through their skin. And then you'll describe their inability to hear beyond the rage, the hot blood thumping in their head, drowning out all sounds. All varied ways to keep the anger alive, palpable and building within the pages. 

The small cues give your character life, pull them from the pages to become a three dimensional human. I know what a stomach feels like in knots, and that it's accompanied by dry mouth; that familiar pinching between the shoulders after a stressful day; the dead weight of guilt and fear. I know how people feel and how they react and I do what a writer does, catalogue it. I'm not saying you need to experience everything to truly know it, because we both know that it's impossible. So experience it through others. Get out there, meet people from all walks of life, hear their stories, find out what makes them memorable, the variances in the way the react to things, and then walk away with a new piece of information that convinces your readers that you truly know them. 

Oh, and don't forget, the world--nature--around you is a character too...

Happy writing, folks!


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Impossible is an Illusion

I picked up an old Writer's Digest magazine of mine, Oct 2011 issue. In it was an interview with author Dave Cullen. He said something that struck me and I wanted to pull it out and highlight it for you (ellipses are mine):

"If you want to be any kind of artist, you've got to have that tenacity to keep beating your head against the wall...The idea of the impossible is an illusion, and it will look very different on the other side. It's a matter of persevering." ~ Author Dave Cullen

Certainly, I believe that to survive in the artistic world, you need to have a "no quit" attitude. Everyone gets rejected. It's important not to take those rejections personally (at least in the writing industry). It's hard not to take a rejection personally, if say, it had to do with dating! I'd cry my eyes out, hiccup, and then get angry--naturally.

But Dave Cullen has it right. I've seen my writing ability go from mediocre to something magical (and my metrics are going to be different from everyone else's, but I'm the only one stopping me, so only my opinion counts, thus far). And that's the kind of attitude you need to have. Every day lends itself a new lesson about the craft, a new tip, or strategy. I've learned most importantly that writing a novel is beyond "telling a story". Delivery is the key. Plot, structure, word choice, character development, dialogue, all of that falls under this. And you've got to have it all! Intimidating right?

I'm one who shies away from big picture revelations. I take every detail one at a time, burying the "what if I get there" speculations for when they actually matter.

Before I conclude, I wanted to add a tip for expanding your creativity. A lot of writers are naturally creative, whether you're fashion forward, express yourself differently (tattoos, piercings, hair style), drawing, painting, taking up photography, music, etc. I think you need to feed these other elements of yourself. Me, I enjoy listening to music (all the time--seriously), and photography is something new (and amateurish). I used to draw, but with writing taking up as much as it does, I can only dabble in things. Writing is my true passion. Anyhow, that's why you've been seeing many photographs on this blog (some of me, some of nature). Hoping to feed my creative soul in many ways.

Happy writing!

Love, Anna

Photo above: taken from my office in Palo Alto. Beautiful area to step out and go for a relaxing walk!

Photo above: I'm in Seattle for work, and I'm bored...clearly. I was torn between two captions for this photo, "Teary-eyed because I miss you" and "This is what happens after two glasses of Sauvignon Blanc" :)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Where is Your Focus?

"The first rule of focus is this: 'Wherever you are, be there'." ~ Anonymous

Trying to accomplish something with a creative mind takes an absurd amount of focus.
Natural daydreamers we creative people are; often leading us down so many thoughts that end up eating our short days giving us nothing in return than a sour mood for work undone.

I've been plagued with this for the past few weeks (see above photo, clearly, I've been focused...). After putting down From the Ashes to work on the final revisions of Violet Storm (which thankfully is back in the hands of my editor), I gave the whole novel writing a bit of a rest. It felt good. Amazing even. The first weekend, and then the next. Another weekend followed and gone were the good feelings. I was left with with a different emotion. Guilt. Guilt for wasting time and parting with the book long enough to have lost the momentum I'd gained. Fantastic... I was pissed. I am still pissed. So no more excuses. I parked my unfocused butt in a chair for hours revisiting the work, then went to the cafe for another three hours re-familiarizing myself with the story and editing it along the way. It made me feel marginally better.

So today is a new day. As with most weekends I wake up thinking, "What time is it? It better not be nine yet because I have a lot to write." Well...I woke up at nine. Yeah...So I overslept. You may ask, why does something as small as that matter? Well, that's the part about getting your focus in tune. You need to set goals, discipline yourself with a structured timeline, and set true expectations. And setting something as small as this helps me feel like I'm one step closer to where I need to be.

With that said, I hoped I've helped you get a little more focus with whatever it is that you're passionate about.

*     *     *

Here is a short excerpt on From the Ashes, taken from a section that my writer's group gave me rave reviews for:

             “Are you listening, Ashley?” asked Eldred. Her words were clipped as she focused on the road ahead.
            “Ash, just Ash, remember?” she said automatically. “Ashley is dead, just like her family.”
            Eldred studied her, a level of mutual understanding in her grim smile. “Except for your sister, I hear.”
            She stiffened. “What?”
            Eldred’s smile widened. “I’ve read your file. There’s a chance your sister’s out there. Whether she’s a Shade or surviving as a half-breed is the question. You know better than to hope for the latter, don’t you?”
            Teeth clenching, her heart drummed rapidly in her chest, the reminder of the odds against her sister feeling like stone growing heavy in her gut. She tore her eyes away from Eldred’s profile and to the darkened streets beyond her window.
            She worked to keep in check the deepening ache at the mention of her twin. She was being watched and she needed to be careful. Old world warriors like Eldred would not care for human weakness. And the last thing she needed right now was a lecture on learning to let the past go. It was bullcrap anyway. Despite what they told every new trainee, none of the Blackmores could function decade after decade, kill after kill just by letting their past go. The very best were driven to be the most successful hunters because they could never let go—never forget what had been done to them.
            “I hope for nothing,” she answered.

-- Read the first chapter of From the Ashes here:
-- The first chapter of Violet Storm can also be found here:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

To Know Death is to Live

I haven't experienced much death in my life. But even one is one too many. Within the past year I've seen my best friend get hit with it twice, the pain a haunting reminder that they are alive and their loved one is no longer. Today another death hit us. Ferocious and swift. Oh the frailty of life. The swiftness with which it can be taken--like the snuffing of a candle. Leaving only wisps of smoke as a remembrance of the warmth it once had.

A couple years ago, my dog was so sick I thought my only hope of saving him was giving him up. I took the burden--the decision--upon my shoulders and led him to a shelter where I'd hoped he would get adopted and that he'd find a family to take him in, pay for his exorbitant medical treatment and give him a new life.

I led him to the animal shelter, saw him curl up in the worn, threaded dog-bed, woozy from the vet visit. It hadn't even been a few hours since his diagnosis and I'd made the decision.

Five days.

He had five days to find a new home before he would be put down. The sooner he was there, meeting new families, the better. I know what you're asking. What kind of a person does that? Takes their dog to a shelter to die alone?

The memory is as raw, as fresh, as it was the day it happened. I cried, inconsolably for hours, for days. Sleepless. Floating weightlessly through the hours, curled into a ball hating myself. I'd wash the dishes, look up at the backyard, see his tracks and burst out crying. Just when I thought I was doing better, when there couldn't possibly be any tears left to shed, the pain would hit me. I doubled over, soapy hands emerging from the sink to cover my face--cover my shame. I had sentenced my dog to die. And I knew it. No one would adopt him. He was sick and no one would pay for his absurdly expensive surgery to save his life.

Chris stepped in. Said we could dip into our hard-earned savings and save him. I shouldn't have questioned the idea before. It was too much. But it was my responsibility. I should've fought to have done that from the very beginning. I thought I had done the right thing. Given my dog a second chance. But it had been a slim chance. I was young and I was a fool.

After two days of unimaginable hell, we went back to the shelter and took him back. He was mine--ours. I would never give up on him again. He's doing well now. Still living with my parents, happy and healthy. Those innocent, depthless chocolate eyes seared into my mind for the rest of my life. But I will never forget that ache, the guilt of things still yet undone. I will never forget the crushing pain that left me hollow, a walking shell looking back at the part of my soul that had died in that shelter where my best friend was soon to follow.

If that's what death of a loved one feels like. Then I'm sorry for your loss--your losses. Truly, I am. I pray that to know death is to be forced to live. That you may have the strength to turn your head from the tombstone of your family--your friend--and face the future still ahead of you. For you are still alive--breathing--gifted with another day. So live it. Love it. Be good. Be honest and kind. Don't let the darkness of hurt and anger turn you withered, cold and cruel. Death is a reminder that you are still alive to feel it. So feel it. And then live again.