Friday, April 18, 2014

What Is Your Story?

An Excerpt from The Life Organizer by Jennifer Louden

You observe the world in your own way, a way formed by your biology, life experiences, education, culture, spiritual beliefs, and many other influences. That’s a common enough idea — you observe the world through a lens fashioned from all these facets of you. Yet consider: to observe is to interpret. You literally cannot experience reality as it is, just like you can never see yourself without a mirror. You live in a world first filtered through your brain’s system of sorting, editing, and ordering information and then shaped by your observations. It is a narrative system — information comes in, and your brain sorts it into a story, which is a good thing, since 400 billion bits of information are received by your brain every second. Without this narrative-making brain, you would soon be insane. Creating narratives is how you make sense of things. Everything you experience is the product of this storytelling process; without really knowing it, you become the shape of your stories. You look at a person, and you see your story of him and whatever meaning you assign him. You start a business, and it fails, and you create a story out of those events. “We do not see how things are; we see them according to how we are,” writes Australian coach Alan Sieler in Coaching and the Human Soul.

We can create tremendous pain in our lives, our communities, our corporations, and our world by confusing story with fact, interpretation with truth. When we believe that there is only one true religion or that one race is superior to others, for example, there is no limit to the evil we can perpetrate in the name of “truth.” On a more intimate scale, how many of us are unhappy right this second because we believe our co-worker or boss or partner or child ought to be a certain way, in spite of the reality that he or she is not? How much time and energy do we spend nagging and hoping that people and circumstances be different than they are, more in alignment with our interpretation or story of what is right?

Given this powerful automatic dynamic it is critical to ask yourself these questions: What stories am I telling myself? What do I base these stories on? Do I base them in fact? What is fact and what is interpretation? How life giving are my stories? Is there a kinder story to be telling myself?

Here’s an example of how powerfully the stories we tell can shape our lives. Having had my share of knee injuries and two surgeries, when my knee started “sticking” as I rode my bike, accompanied by a couple of sharp pains, I immediately assumed (or interpreted this to mean) that something was seriously wrong. On the ride home, I imagined a future in which hiking, yoga, and biking were gone and a knee replacement was looming.

Over the next few weeks, I stopped exercising. I ignored my knee, told myself I was getting old, and beat myself up for not being able to participate in extreme sports — never mind that I don’t even like extreme sports. After a few weeks of telling myself this story, it finally occurred to me to go see Mark, an orthopedic surgeon, to have my knee checked out. He laid his hand on my knee, twisted it in each direction, and told me my knee was in solid shape and that I was most likely experiencing “wear and tear,” and perhaps a small tear in my cartilage.


Because of his grounded assessment of my knee, which was based on his years of training, and my trust in his ability, my mood and my use of my body changed — instantly. Suddenly, I was literally leaping around his office, flexing my knee, calculating how many yoga classes I could fit in that week. My interpretation of the sensation in my knee had changed — the twinge, the catch, the pain were no longer “serious,” just due to wear and tear. Yet the sensations were the same. Before I walked into Mark’s office, I was telling myself a story that I was broken and doomed. Ten minutes later, I was ready to climb Mt. Rainier. All that had changed was how I interpreted the pain.

Separating the Story from the Facts

To understand the power of stories, you need to cultivate a habit of noticing your interpretations and whether they are serving you. What if, instead of assuming that the sensations in my knee meant I was badly hurt, I had said to myself, “Hmm....This is a new sensation. Let me take a moment to feel this. When I stand I feel a catch. My knee feels like I don’t want anybody to touch it. I don’t want to ride a bike or do deep knee bends.” When I remain with the sensation in my knee, without having to decide what it means, my field of possibilities widens dramatically. When I decide that my interpretation of an experience or sensation is a fact and I forget I’m making up an interpretation, forget that I am observing through the lens of me, my ability to shape my life becomes cramped and limited, or it shuts down altogether. When I believed my own story that there was something wrong with my knee, my mind went instantly about its job of proving my story to be true.

When I don’t observe the story as simply that, a story, it becomes the truth. Often we observe without being aware of the context that shapes our observations, just as a fish isn’t aware it lives in water (or at least I don’t think the fish is aware). Water just “is,” and many of our interpretations have that same quality of inevitability: this is just the way I am, this is just the way working in this company is, this is how I always feel when my mother comes into town. Oh really? Is that true? This is rarely anything other than an interpretation.

Excerpted from the new paperback edition of The Life Organizer: A Woman’s Guide to a Mindful Year © 2013 by Jennifer Louden. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA. 
Jennifer Louden helped start the self-care movement with her first best-selling book The Woman's Comfort Book. She's written 5 more books including The Life Organizer, just out in paperback. Visit to get your free app and four more super useful gifts.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Characters - Peel Away Those Layers

To me, a book is ALL about the characters. Strong characters can shore up a weak plot, but weak characters won't help even the strongest story. Characters should be like artichokes. You don't get to the heart until you do some serious work peeling away the layers. What the reader sees, as well as what other characters see when they meet a character, be it protagonist or a secondary character, will be superficial at first. Perhaps the character was too good to be true, and as time goes on, faults are revealed. Or maybe it's the other way around. An unlikeable character turns out to be golden inside.

We spend a lot of time getting to know our characters so we'll know how they'll respond in any situation we subject them to. Or will we? It's just as important to know how your character will behave when confronted with the unexpected. And, as authors, we need to keep the unexpected happening.

What happens when your hero finds himself in an unexpected environment? How will he cope? Does he grumble and complain? Does he make the best of it? Go into hiding until it passes? In one of my Blackthorne, Inc. books, Where Danger Hides, Dalton, the hero, is a covert ops specialist. How does he respond when Miri, the heroine, drags him along to her shift as a 'baby cuddler' and he's forced to face not only something he's unfamiliar with, but something that calls up memories he's tried to bury. Will he suck it up? Refuse? Explain? Or suddenly remember somewhere else he has to be?

The best characters are the ones who have to cope with NOT having their creature comforts, or their professional tools. What happens when the hero is a chef renowned for his veal and lamb, and he prepares an exquisite meal to impress the heroine? Who, he discovers, is a strict vegetarian.

Or the hero who's a whiz with technology: What happens when he doesn't have any of his fancy equipment? Does he give up? Go into MacGyver mode and create a high-tech gizmo? Or utilize a totally new way to solve his problem, not relying on technology at all?

Peeling away those character layers makes for three-dimensional characters—characters your readers will care about.

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Making a Point or Three

Graphic courtesy of
Hello, dearies! Well, it seems that Mother Nature can’t make up her mind. Eighty summery degrees one day, snow the next. I must confess that I’m sorely tempted to simply toss my coats and T-shirts into one large pile and draw my wardrobe at random. It would make about as much sense as the latest weather patterns.

To spur the jet stream into sticking with a decision, let’s have a little look at ellipses versus periods, shall we? While some writers delight in the use of ellipses to trail off thoughtfully in a sentence, many editors (and readers) rail against this trail and demand closure. Firmness! Decisiveness! Like a good analyst, they seek closure in their sentences.

Here are a few tips to help nudge you in the appropriate direction when faced with the decision to dot or not.

1. Ellipsis points indicate the omission of some portion of a quoted passage. The omitted portion mustn’t be essential to said passage, or you run the risk of skewing the meaning.

2. Suspension points (same thing, different use) are used to show suspended or interrupted thought, much as an em dash indicates an abrupt shift.

3. A period, in the words of the CMOS, “marks the end of a declarative or imperative sentence” or a single-word response.

In the end, it all boils down to clarity. Is your character suffering from a derailed train of thought? Go for the ellipses. “Now then, I need to buy a pair of stockings. Heavens, what an awful plaid pattern on that coat! Hm, where was I? Something else I needed to get …”

If, on the other hand, your character has focus on par with the Hubble telescope, get to the point with a period. “I’m going to buy those shoes. Hand me my checkbook.”

That’s all for now; it’s nearly time to go out and watch the lunar eclipse. I don’t trust this ever-changing weather, so I believe I’ll wear a heavy coat while I’m outside. For the first ten minutes, at any rate. Until Mother Nature settles down, be sure to dress in layers and remember: a well-turned phrase is always in style!

Photo by Darrick Bartholomew

Faced with a choice between giving up King cake and buying a new (larger) wardrobe, the Style Maven opted to adapt the recipe into smaller portions, creating Epic Raisin Cinnamon Rolls. She is currently planning to install a treadmill in the kitchen

A Caper about a Caper

As I struggle through the third book in my Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, I thought about the finished book waiting in the wings that I never published. I’m sure it needs a good edit and updating. I never published it because the book is fiction written around a real event, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, pulled off in Boston in 1990. This still remains one of the largest art thefts in history, valued at $500 million, and none of the 13 stolen pieces has been recovered. I’m from the Boston area, went to art school there, so the theft left a big hole in my heart, along with eleven empty frames still hanging in the museum.

I’ll certainly add a line or two in the preface to explain the creative license I took to write the book. But twenty-four years is a long time for a crime to remain unsolved, and I’m willing to take the risk. It is fiction, remember.

Another consideration was the arrest of master criminal, Whitey Bulger, a man thought to be involved, if not in the heist, as a middleman to raise money, specifically for the Irish Republican Army. If Bulger knows anything, he hasn’t disclosed the information to the public’s knowledge. Even though the FBI now claims to know who the culprits are, the statute of limitations has expired on pursuing their arrest and prosecution. However, anyone in possession of the art can still be brought to trial. The most anyone can hope for is a return of the stolen art.

My book, titled Cross Currents, is primarily a caper that revolves around one piece of the stolen artwork, Jan Vermeer’s The Concert. What makes the Vermeer, all the Vermeers, so valuable is that only thirty-four are known conclusively to be painted by the artist. The worth of that painting alone is $200 million. That’s a sizeable chunk when you consider the rest of the stolen art includes three Rembrandts, five Degas sketches, and a Manet.

Part of the fun in writing this book was that I learned about art forgers like Hans Van Meegeren, who replicated canvases of Vermeer and others to such perfection that they were hung in major European museum and found their way into the collection of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering during World War II. The development of modern scientific techniques such as gas chromatography tripped up Van Meegeren away because the pigments in paints had changed significantly since the seventeenth century. Still, he reaped millions and millions of dollars before he was caught. He died of a heart attack right before his trial.

I’ll return to Cross Currents as soon as I finish my work in progress. The book is filled with the trademark characters I love to write: those tempted to cross ethical lines, although in this book, some of them have made a career out of being on the wrong side of the law. Does my heroine, Zoe Swan, find the painting? Is it the real thing or a forgery, and will it fill the frame at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum? I’m not telling.

Polly Iyer is the author of six novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Deja Vu, Threads, and two books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games and Goddess of the Moon. A Massachusetts native, she makes her home in the beautiful Piedmont region of South Carolina. You can visit her website for more on Polly and connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Act of Writing

I’ve always been an inveterate list-maker. Maybe it’s because list-making reduces my stress. Or maybe it’s because I have to write things down in order to believe they are real.

About twenty years ago, I was undergoing a particularly stressful time.  I was in the throes of changing jobs, moving to a new state, selling my house and buying a new one, hunting for a new school for my daughter, and saying goodbye to friends. There was a lot to do. My lists were long, and getting longer.

No matter how diligently I wrote everything I had to do on my ever-growing lists, I was haunted by the feeling that there was something I was forgetting. I was sure it was an important something.

But the only time I remembered what that something was, was when I was asleep. Nearly every night I’d have the same dream – I dreamt I remembered the something. I would wake up, breathe a sigh of relief, and go back to sleep.

The next mornings I remembered having the dream, remembered waking up, remembered the relief -- but I never remembered the “something” itself.

This cycle repeated three, four, sometimes five times a week for two or three months. I spent many of my waking moments trying to remember my dreams or figure out what the something was that I was forgetting.

Finally one night when I woke up after the dream, I got out of bed, stumbled across the room to my desk, and scribbled “the something” down on a scrap of paper, making a list. Then I stumbled back to bed and fell back to sleep.

In the morning when I awoke, again I remembered the dream, remembered waking up, and still did not remember the something. Ah, but that didn’t matter now! I had written it down on a list! Saved at last! I scampered over to my desk, excited and filled with curiosity about what I would find. 

This is what my list said: 


???? To this day I have not figured out what those words meant. I do not know what my subconscious was trying to tell me. Maybe it was just playing a joke on my conscious mind – you know, kind of a “gotcha.” But the really interesting thing is that from that time onward, my feeling of having forgotten something important went away and never came back.

I have come to believe that the point of this story is that what you write is not as important as the act of writing.
Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit

Friday, April 11, 2014

Opening Hooks

Grabbing the reader’s attention in the first few lines of a book is essential. Below are two examples of openers from my writing manual. Which of the two do you like better? Why? How would you open this scene?

Scene 1:
Stretching long pink fingers across the horizon, the sun scurried away from ominous thunderheads that rolled across the sky. Sharp winds charged the air with chilling expectation. Dusk yielded too
early to the dark.

Maria sat on the window seat and shuddered as jagged bolts dissected the air. Putting her hands over her ears, she tried to shut out the thunderous roars that followed.

The storm matched her mood, her life. Hurricanes, tornados, blizzards, she knew them all. They defined her existence.

Scene 2:
Streaking across the black sky, lightning dazzled the dark room with eerie brightness. Thunder answered in earsplitting claps.

Maria stared out the window. Where was Hannah? Her daughter had promised to come home before the storm hit. Maria punched the redial button on her cell phone. No service.

Another flash chased a gust of angry wind. Grotesque shadows skittered across the limb-littered yard. Dangling in haphazard fashion over the bare branches of several trees, a broken power line shot sparks toward the rushing stream that, moments before, had been the street.

“Mommy! Mommy!” The rain beat so hard against the window she almost missed her son’s words. “Where are you, Mommy?”

“I’m here, Danny, on the window seat.” She stretched her arms toward him as another flash brightened the room. “Is Devon with you?”

“He’s under the bed. I’m scared.” His voice quivered.

“Come over here and sit on my lap. I’ll keep you safe.”

“I have to go be with Devon. He’s scared, too.” Danny bolted from the room.

She jumped up and hurried after him.

Linda Lane and her editing team mentor and encourage writers at all phases of the writing process. To learn more about what they do, please visit them at

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Establishing Character

Last month, I got together with a big group of friends. We’re all writers of one kind or another and you couldn’t ask for a better convergence of personalities. We meet at various houses, supposedly for lunch, but it goes beyond that since “lunch” usually lasts around 3 or 4 hours.

We gathered at a perfect house. Not a humongous house like those around a country club. Not a cozy lake house overlooking Lake Travis. The house was perfect because it so very much reflects the owner. It’s bright; it’s funky; it’s elegant; it’s colorful; it’s warm; it’s inviting. It’s HER. You could be blindfolded, taken to this house, and when you saw it, you’d know whose home you were at.

 Now that’s something to keep in mind when you’re establishing character. The character’s home tells a lot about that person. It’s not black or white. It tells you about the character. Also keep in mind that every character’s home, office, car, etc. doesn’t have to match your tastes. They should match the tastes and lifestyle of the character and his/her personality. Even more than that, they should reflect the character; they should be an extension of the character.

 The reader should be able to enter their home and learn more about the character than what’s been told to them. Yes, as someone said, it’s all in the details. But for you to use the environment to establish character, you don’t have to have a lot of details. The room doesn’t have to be described ad nauseum. One or two things will tell the reader more than you could describe in a page. Like the delicate, porcelain, hooting owl on the coffee table. Or the twirling, kicking, pom-pom Barbie on the bookshelf.

 Or the blue and yellow office with the upside-down shelves on the ceiling. (My office.)

Helen Ginger
is an author and blogger. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of 3 books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, Angel Sometimes, and two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe. Her next book, Dismembering the Past, is due out in Spring 2014.


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