The gentleman in the corner

Sharon Ashwood
March 3, 2010  •  2 Comments

detectiveIf I wrote in another subgenre, it would be . . . well, the question is more what wouldn’t I write? Where my imagination roams depends a lot on my mood. Horror? Western? Fantasy? They all have their attractions, and I’m a literary flirt.

Still, I leave an idea to frolic in the wilds for quite some time before I rope it onto the page. This weeds out the passing fancies. If a story idea is strong, it’ll keep coming back to tempt me. Sometimes it’s just a character, a situation, or a setting that pops up every month or so to say, “How about me?” Sooner or later, I have to do something about it.

One genre that keeps coming back is historical mystery. I love history, I love the macabre, I love moody settings, and I know the detective because he loafs in an armchair in a dark room in my imagination, patient as a jungle cat.

“Someday,” I say.

“I know,” he replies from the shadows.

And we wait. I don’t know all the pieces of his story, although I know a few. It doesn’t pay to rush at this point because there are those whose claims on my writing hours come first. Deadlines, commitments, and promises to keep. However, I know his time will come, because he’s been there for years, growing a little bit stronger each time he strolls out for a look at what I’m up to.

“Hellhounds, you say?” says he with a lift of one eyebrow. “I hope they clean up afterward.”

“Back to your chair,” says I.

And he goes, just waiting for the imaginary murder that will call his talents into play.

Waiting for the right moment to begin a book is a bit like waiting for a pond to freeze. I know who wants to share my hero’s bed, and whom he watches cross the ballroom floor. What I don’t know is why. Without that, all I have is cat’s ice on a dark and murky pond. No skating yet. There’s not enough to support the weight of a book.

But, one by one, those answers present themselves in random moments, and only when they’re not pursued. Sooner or later there will be enough and then . . . we’ll see what this gentleman is made of.

Mistakes or simply outlandish writing behaviour?

Sharon Ashwood
February 16, 2010  •  No Comments

falling-catOne of the reasons I love cats is that they never make mistakes. If they’re prancing along the window ledge, misstep and do a belly flop to the floor, they pretend that they meant to do that, dammit. They pick themselves up, lick a paw, and sashay off to the next adventure. As an approach to life, I’ve met worse.

In writing, one has to decide when a mistake is a mistake. I’m not talking about grammar/spelling/punctuation, because when two or more copyeditors are gathered together, there shall be clashing opinions, none of which coincide with mine. The real blunders come on a much larger scale, such as when the plot goes to pieces. I often have a terrific scene in mind and will commit all sorts of logic errors just to get there. Or, I write the book how I see fit and find afterward that the result appeals to me and no one else. Most often, I commit the error of overcomplicating things. I do like my subsubsubplots. I also like shades of grey. I don’t always care about how conventionally sympathetic a character is. I’ll take “interesting” over “nice” every time.

Hence, I do a lot of rewriting.

Why do these things happen? Pull up a chair, would-be writers, and learn from the error of my ways:
1. Think through a scene (and a book) before committing it to paper.
2. Remember your audience. Who are you writing for?

With regard to #1, an outline can look better in a notebook than it does in action. Once you’re into a story, it can become evident that your brilliant plot twist was the product of that third glass of Shiraz. Unfortunately, backing out of a bad idea and slashing gobs of pages is sometimes necessary. Or, you can take the cat’s approach and act like you meant it. After all, stories are all about the motivation. Convince yourself, convince the characters, and sometimes it all works out.

With regard to #2, know the expectations of your genre. I struggle with this because I dislike the entire concept of slotting books into pigeon holes, and yet that’s the reality of the marketplace. Trying to be innovative can work, but it can also mean rewriting the entire book back inside the genre boundaries to make it marketable.

A lot of this stuff I don’t regard as mistakes per se, but as choices. An author can choose to be commercially accessible or not. He or she can choose to adhere to today’s favoured structure of story writing–or not. That doesn’t make it bad writing. Much literary fiction goes in the opposite direction and is well-respected.

The down side of there being so many “how to” resources for writers is that the concept of right and wrong storytelling techniques has become firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of the commercial writing and reading community. The debate over accepting first person point of view is a typical example. It’s not exactly radical stuff, but it’s been a hard sell with many readers. Experimentation is rare. Have we, as writers, followed “the rules” to the point where we’ve trapped ourselves?

What really matters

Sharon Ashwood
February 10, 2010  •  1 Comment

valentinespupI checked the Web for some Valentine’s Day fun facts. Here’s a few things I found:

• About 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged in the US each year, second only to Christmas
• About 3% of pet owners will give Valentine’s Day gifts to their pets.
• Approximately 110 million roses, the majority red, will be sold and delivered within a three-day time period.
• In the Middle Ages, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who their valentines would be. They would wear these names on their sleeves for one week, giving rise to the expression “wear your heart on your sleeve.”
• Richard Cadbury invented the first Valentines Day candy box in the late 1800s.
• The oldest surviving love poem till date is written in a clay tablet from the times of the Sumerians, inventors of writing, around 3500 B.C

It seems to me, though, what really matters are those unique traditions that spring up between couples. Y’know, the things that mean something to those two people but no one else. Stupid jokes. A favourite brand of coffee. Remembering to tape the other person’s favourite show. It’s the fact that your loved one is remembered, considered, and cherished that matters. The commercial holiday is lovely window dressing that can never, ever replace the real thing.

I always try to remember that when I get grumpy at someone for forgetting significant dates. Did they remember the important stuff, like my TV show, to feed the cats, or to send words of encouragement when life got rough? If they’re truly in the trenches with me 24/7, does the sparkly card matter?

To me, Valentine’s Day is a great excuse for a celebration in an otherwise blah month, but not much more than that. But, don’t get me wrong–I always accept chocolate.

And, BTW, if you’re looking to send an e-card, I have one here. For every one sent, a donation goes to the Animal Crusaders to cover the medical costs of the rescued strays.

How do I procrastinate? Let me count the ways

Sharon Ashwood
February 8, 2010  •  2 Comments

Any amateur can slack off, but fine procrastination is an art. Social networking, blogging, family visits, and housecleaning are obvious slacker favorites. Pausing to do laundry because your lucky writing shirt—the only one that can possibly be worn for the next scene—is in the hamper? Coming up with something like that requires a little more thought. It’s incumbent on us as professionals to hold a higher standard of work avoidance.

I always draft my plots on large pieces of newsprint. I can say with some pride that I successfully wasted at least an hour wrestling the roll out from the back of an overpacked closet. The fact that my cat was helping accounted for twenty of those minutes. Pets are some of the best procrastination tools ever, and I’m not too proud to employ every strategic advantage.

And then there’s the research excuses—every so often a chapter can’t possibly progress until you ferret some obscure fact out of the ether. When things aren’t going well, those occasions usually become too numerous to mention. I mean, I really needed to know every how many buttons an eighteen-century infantry captain’s coat had, right?

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this especially when we can’t afford the time?

Elaborate procrastination schemes can be part of writer’s block, or caused by something as simple as a bout of laziness. More often than not, I find it’s due to being a) tired and bored or b) the story’s stuck. Discipline can solve the first. The second is most often a symptom of sloppy thinking. The story gets vague and hard to manage, and I’m not quite sure why. When that happens, there’s usually something I haven’t thought through—either character or plot. That’s when it’s time to back off and do some basic writerly homework. A solid ten minutes of diagnosis and repair can prevent days of dancing around the problem.

Unless, of course, a vacation is the point. When that happens, I think it’s better to just admit you’re going AWOL and ditch the guilt.

What are your best procrastination techniques? How do you break through them?

Just print off a new set of lungs, will you?

Sharon Ashwood
February 4, 2010  •  No Comments

Every so often, I come across a news item that’s sufficiently cool I think it must be a fake. It’s just too good to be true.

Here’s one for you – a 3D bio-printer has been developed that “prints” organs on demand for organ replacement surgery. It uses the patient’s own cells, so there’s no risk of rejection.

The article says, “The 3D bio-printer allows scientists to place cells of almost any type into a desired 3D pattern. It includes two print heads, one for placing human cells, and the other for placing a hydrogel, scaffold, or support matrix.” The device already “prints” arteries and could be used in a heart surgery near you within five years. More complex organs aren’t far behind. Units are already being shipped to research institutions working on tissue construction and organ replacement.

With any luck, organ donor cards will soon be relics of the past.


Sharon Ashwood
February 2, 2010  •  2 Comments

Getting stories from my head onto the page is a bit like sitting on the couch trying to describe a movie as it runs on TV. That’s how I see books: as a film. I can start and stop and re-direct parts, but it’s always a case of trying to capture live action on the page.


The goal is always to try and crawl into that movie and participate: To feel what the characters feel, to use all the senses, and to never, ever skip over part of the scene just for convenience. Trimming can come later. It’s all about faithful recording. The better recorder I am, the better book I write.

This has its drawbacks. For one, I may not feel like getting gnoshed on by a vampire that day. Or crawling in slime. Or losing the love of my life to a demon-driven pestilence. It’s exhausting. It’s also part of being a writer, so Plucky Author just has to suck it up and feel the pain—‘cause if the author doesn’t, neither will readers.

The other difficulty is, no matter how good one is at slinging adjectives, translating what one sees on the mental screen is never seamless. The perfect, ideal book I imagine is always more fabulous than the reality of the book I write. So how do I combat this?

Experience generates knowledge, so I look for appropriate tactile adventures. Perhaps I should say adventure equivalents, since I don’t actually know many werewolves and slime demons. So, I bumble about studying the viscous qualities of household cleaning products, considering whether toilet bowl cleaner would drip the same way as ectoplasm. Ditto with half-melted jello, cake batter, and the stuff that goes into the car radiator. Anything is fair game when researching something that doesn’t actually exist.

As far as demon-driven pestilence goes, I’ve always imagined flu season combined with a really bad hangover. Zombification might be equivalent to an all-day policy development meeting. I know I’m ready to eat brains by five o’clock.

All that being said, it’s gratifying when a scene finally comes out really, really close to the mental movie. When I’ve got the atmosphere, the emotion, and the sense of urgency just right. That’s when I do a happy dance and thank the Word Gods for their inspiration.

Written language is a medium, to translate the movie from my head into yours. The better job I do, the more information you have to recreate it. Of course, your experience will influence the translation on your end. No two people experience a book exactly the same way. That’s part of what makes the process so interesting.

When you read, do you see it as a movie, or do you experience the story some other way?

No plan survives

Sharon Ashwood
January 6, 2010  •  No Comments


Made resolutions? Watched them turn to mush within weeks? Many of us are in the throes of resolution meltdown this week, reducing the New and Improved Self back to the Old Self in record time. Yes, it sucks.

To quote someone I knew and admired, no plan survives first contact with the enemy.

My to-do list for 2010 has the usual stuff on it – eat better, get to bed on time, exercise more, blah blah. I also want to tend to my blog and other social networks more regularly. Having said all that, what’s been impossible to manage in 2009 won’t happen in 2010 unless something changes. As my father used to jibe, you can’t fit ten pounds of potatoes in a five pound sack. I think he was referring to blue jeans, but the quip is transferrable.

But it’s useful to note that a simple plan will survive better than a complex one. Let‘s face it – stuff that’s easy is much more likely to get done. The more elaborate and involved the resolution, the less likely it is to thrive—not because of laziness, but time is at a premium, adult attention spans are shrinking, and survival mode prevails. One of the most successful things I did was to remove a lot of ornaments and clutter from the surfaces of my furniture. I got a covered wicker basket for the zillion remotes, adaptors and other gizmos littering the coffee table. I actually got around to hauling unwanted books down to the book sale, thus revealing acres of floor space. It all sounds very Martha, but suddenly dusting became possible because I could do it quickly. Otherwise, forget it.

Put another way, failure breeds sulky avoidance. Success breeds satisfaction, and we go back for more of that, don’t we? It’s no big mystery why the rules of simple, achievable, and measurable are the basis for most goal-setting advice. It applies equally to writing as to house maintenance, fitness plans or getting along with the in-laws. Many small success can and usually do add up to a big one.

But here’s the kicker–Will I follow my own advice? Hmm. Maybe. Good question.

How well we do often depends on what we’re getting out of our bad habits. We all actually know how to do better, are we ready to give our failures up? Do they give us excuses to avoid something else we don’t want to do? Does a person subconsciously keep the house messy to avoid inviting company over? Do we pursue an unhealthy lifestyle because if we felt better we’d actually have to, like, DO something?

What do you think?

New uses for bar codes

Sharon Ashwood
January 4, 2010  •  2 Comments

Here’s a creepy piece of news to ponder as we launch into the new year with dreams of watching what we eat …

The article reports a study by high school students, who gathered about 150 DNA samples from foods and objects in New York as part of a science project with Rockefeller University and the American Museum of Natural History. After gathering samples from a variety of sources, including supermarkets and fresh markets, “They sent the samples to the natural history museum, which tapped into a databank of DNA bar codes that was pioneered by Canadian scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario.”

A high percentage of the foods they collected as samples weren’t what was listed on the label. “That included a specialty sheep’s milk cheese that was actually made from cow’s milk, venison dog treats made of beef, and sturgeon caviar that was really Mississippi paddlefish.” In other words, cheap stuff substituted for expensive stuff. Not only are consumers being ripped off, but those trying to eat carefully for health reasons, like allergies, can’t rely on the package label.

If that isn’t enough food for thought, the article goes on to say, “The Consortium for the Bar Code of Life project involves identifying a particular DNA sequence in marine and animal life that is unique to the species. . . . Bob Hanner, a biologist at Guelph who led the work on bar coding, said [the project] shows the value of a technology that can be used to identify illicit goods at borders . . . he can soon see a time when people will be able to use tabletop devices at border crossings, schools and government departments to quickly identify a plant or animal.”

In other words, if something has the wrong DNA, they can be scanned at stopped at the border or anyplace else.

Interesting. The conspiracy theorist in me in all a-quiver. After all, people have DNA, too. Now we can really know whom we let pass through checkpoints.

The complete study will be covered in the January edition of BioScience magazine.

First task of the New Year

Sharon Ashwood
January 1, 2010  •  No Comments

Is setting up a new all-in-one Santa brought me. Unfortunately, they never have a tech guy packed in the box. Have made it print so far … we’ll see what else I can make it do …

New Year’s Eve

Sharon Ashwood
December 31, 2009  •  No Comments

Had a reasonable crack at a scene from ICED yesterday and hope to finish it up today. It always takes far longer to do about the first three chapters of a book. After that, I can set a good clip. The problem is organizing background info. How much, how little, how to reel it out so that the action keeps moving and explain the supernatural world while I’m at it. I’m always enormously glad to get that part out of the way.

Writing aside, today I have to clean the house before the dust bunnies have an uprising. It would be nice to start 2010 in an orderly fashion.

Here’s hoping you and yours have a fabulous New Year!

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