Writers, like everyone else, can—and often do—use wait-time to read, check Facebook, etc. But writers have so many more options!
Things to do during any wait
Practice describing: Choose any one person and describe him/her in detail, and as vividly as possible. For the most benefit of this practice, try describing both stand-out characters and those who look as ordinary as possible.
Practice judging a book by its cover: Which is to say, consider another waiting person and, on the basis of what s/he is wearing, imagine socio-economic class, education, type of job, personality, and anything else that comes to mind.
Practice noticing non-verbals and extrapolating from them: If a man is fidgeting, repeatedly checking the time, etc., maybe his marriage is precarious, and he’s imagining confronting his wife, saying, “I swear! I was standing in the post office line the entire time!”
How are the waiters behaving? Is there generally patience, politeness, and/or acceptance? Grumbling, swearing, people leaving? What might contribute to the ambiance? Size of community? Geography? (E.g., Richmond vs. New York City.) Consider what would happen if someone behaved differently from the majority.
Practice disrupting the status quo: Do something unexpected, even if minor, and observe the responses around you. For example, sway from side to side, pat the top of your head, march in place, etc., and keep doing it. Don’t make eye contact—and don’t laugh!
Practice introspection: When stuck with a long wait—longer than expected—how are you feeling? Check your visceral reactions: breathing, muscle tension, heart rate, stomach. Are you relaxed, tense, bored, impatient, or something else? What are your inclinations—stay, leave, sigh audibly, complain loudly, try to jump the line, seek redress with someone who seems to be a gatekeeper, or something else? Why do you act on those inclinations—or not?
Things to do while waiting when noise isn’t an issue
Listen to ring tones: Try to identify them, or at least get the rhythm, and extrapolate from that their personality.
Practice eavesdropping—and spin a story from it: A woman says, “I noticed that your wife is wearing orthopedic boots.” Man says, “She has diabetes, and doesn’t have any toes on her left foot. She doesn’t have a big toe on her right foot. The boots are so she can try to balance.” Listen to mobile phone conversations and proceed as above.
Incite responses: This is in line with disrupting the status quo. Say something outrageous! You can say it to someone else in line or you can pretend to have a mobile call and let others in the line “overhear” you saying something outrageous. For example, “I’ve had sex with thirteen men—and, no, I’m not promiscuous!”
Opportunities in specific places
Airports: Where is s/he going? Why? What’s in his/her carry-on? Traveling coach or first class? Why was s/he pulled aside for further security screening? Is this person traveling alone or not? Is it a family? Business colleagues? Lovers?
Doctor’s/dentist’s office: What’s his/her condition? Is it terminal? Does that bald person have cancer? Does that person have reason to be nervous or is it just “white coat syndrome”? If the former, what reasons? If the latter, what is the origin?
Grocery store: Check out the carts around you. Is this person shopping for one or a family? Is this a health-food nut or a snack food junkie? Omnivore or vegan? What does it say if the other shopper brought bags, asks for paper, or goes plastic?
BOTTOM LINE: Use your waits to build your writing arsenal!
On several dimensions important to me—and to most writers—Ursula Le Guin has excelled almost beyond comprehension. One thing I admire, which doesn’t fit into any particular category, is that Le Guin’s writing is a spiral rather than a line, i.e., she didn’t write one way and then move on to another, never looking back. When you examine the list of her publications at the end of this blog, you’ll see that in any given year, she was writing in several directions, and in later years she circled back to earlier series.
Wonder Woman for Breadth
Although best known for science fiction and fantasy, over a writing career that spanned more than half a century, she wrote all sorts of things for all sorts of readers, across genres and formats. Her first publication was a poem, “Folksong from the Montayna Province,” in 1959. She continued to write poetry over the decades, but she would never have labeled herself a poet. The New York Times (2016) called her “America’s greatest living science fiction writer,” but she preferred to be known as a novelist.
Besides poetry, science fiction, and fantasy, she wrote children’s books, short stories, literary fiction, non-fiction, literary criticism, and blogs. Among her non-fiction writings are books of advice for writers, which grew out of her work as an editor and teacher (at Tulane, Bennington, and Stanford, among others), the best known of which is Steering the Craft. BTW, within the last nine months, this guide has been recommended to me by two separate and independent writing teachers.
Wonder Woman for Social Justice
Writing during years when what was socially accepted was evolving, her fiction often depicted alternatives seldom spoken of regarding gender options and alternatives, religion, race, sexuality, politics, the natural environment, and culture. Perhaps this was the legacy of having an anthropologist father and a mother trained in psychology who later turned to writing. According to Wikipedia, her writing contains many recurring themes and ideas: the archetypal journey, cultural contact, communication, the search for identity, and reconciling opposing forces. This is as I remembered her fiction from years ago. I think it’s about time to revisit Le Guin!
Her novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) has been called her first contribution to feminism. Le Guin created, for example, a planet where humans have no fixed sex. Her work brings to the foreground on an ongoing basis equality, coming-of-age, and death.
What I call her “sociological/cultural” approach is what appealed to me, as opposed to sci-fi/fantasy that depends on technology, genetic modification, mind control, robots, and similar machines of domination.
Wonder Woman for Achievement
Le Guin graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Radcliffe and was awarded three Fulbrights. In 2002 the U.S. Library of Congress made Le Guin a Living Legend in the “Writers and Artists” category.
A PEN/Malamud Award
American Library Association honors for young adult literature and for children’s literature
Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Lifetime Achievement Award
The Maxine Cushing Gray Fellowship for Writers from the Washington Center for the Book
The Emperor Has No Clothes Award from the Freedom From Religion Foundation
National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (a lifetime Achievement award)
Gandalf Award Grand Master of Fantasy
Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association
Induction into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
Grand Master of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America
North American Society for Utopian Studies Lyman Tower Sargent Distinguished Scholar Award
Awards for Specific Works
1 World Fantasy Award.
4 awards in short fiction
19 Locus awards voted by magazine subscribers
National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
Finalist for 10 Mythopoeic Awards
Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
Hugo Award for Best Related Work
PLUS: other annual “Year’s Best” awards
Wonder Woman for Productivity
See for yourself below. And this is only an approximation! I’ve marked award winners by *. For more than one award, multiple asterisks. Disclaimer: I’ve done my best but I’m sure I’ve missed both publications (particularly short stories and novellas, which often don’t make lists) and awards. Still, it’s pretty impressive!
October is traditionally the month to bring out Jack-o-Lanterns, ghosts, spiders, monsters of all sorts, and skeletons. But this October, my focus is on human skulls. Some of you are aware that I have been posting skull pictures on FB daily. But why? Short answer: because I love them! They can, do, and always have represented many meanings to many people and cultures.
As best I remember, I first noticed skulls on old tombstones in Boston. Virtually every tombstone featured some version of a skull. A frequent depiction was a skull with angel wings, presumed to represent death and life after death.
Subsequently, traveling abroad, I saw skulls in paintings, representing mortality, the swift passage of time, and that life is temporary.
In Rome, Prague, and cities in Portugal, I saw whole rooms and cathedrals walled and decorated with skulls, often honoring dead saints.
Skulls For Honor
Skulls honoring the dead took a much more personal turn in Cuzco, Peru. Since Inca times, mummies of the dead emperors were kept in homes and played an important role as leaders in Cuzco. Traditionally, families kept the skulls of ancestors on small altars in their homes. The pictures above are not mine, but when there I visited a one-room Inca home still inhabited by a family where an ancestral skull rested on a shelf carved into the stone wall, along with a partly burned candle and dried herbs. The skulls of loved ones are said to be good company, and to watch over and protect the family and the home.
In Mexico’s Day of the Dead, dead ancestors and relatives are honored in a joyous celebration in which sugar skulls in bright colors create a celebration of life as well as death.
Using the domes of skulls as bowls, as ritual drinking cups, and/or as a tribute to the victor goes back millennia. The oldest known one was 12,750 BCE. Posting or displaying the heads of slain enemies is well known. It may be that people made skull cups to honor and remember their dead, but it could also have been to try to tap into magical or healing powers.
Skull medicine has a long history. In the 17th century, people would drink from skulls, drink the powdered skull, or imbibe the entire head. This was part of a widespread tradition of medicinal cannibalism using everything (bone, blood, flesh, and fat) that continued into the 18th and even the 19th centuries.
But I Don’t Do Any of Those Things With Skulls.
I have skulls for ornamentation and symbolism. At first I wore skull scarves and jewelry for mystery book signings and panel presentations only. The more I looked at created skulls, the more attractive I found them to be. I’m not alone in this. A human skull with its large eye sockets is especially appealing to people and is easily recognized even in fragments. I especially like mineral skulls, and created this one-of-a-kind choker for myself.
I first read about the power of stones for a short story, “Beast and the Beauty.” Interestingly, I didn’t come across any stone for which the asserted power is malevolent. And even more interestingly (to me), some ancient societies believed that objects like crystal skulls represent life, the honoring of humanity in the flesh, and the embodiment of consciousness. That appeals to me.
If you search for skull symbolism online, you will find a post on bikerringshop.com, “Behind the Bones: the History of the Skull Ring.” This anonymously authored post includes a lot of interesting info; for example, “To the Victorians, a skull ring was a way to celebrate lost loved ones and a reminder of the wearer’s own mortality.”
In addressing the complicated symbolism surround skull rings, they address the following topics.
Death Symbolism: most obvious association; a way of embracing and understanding your fate
Carpe Diem: time is limited, so free spirits make the most of it
A Reminder of Life: associated with the afterlife in many religions, from Aztecs to Christianity
A Symbol of Equality: everyone will die, and one skull is pretty much like another
Toughness and Rebellion: representing rebels, people who play by their own rules; bravery and toughness in the face of death.
Actually, I have more pendants and earrings than rings, from the totally formal to the clearly casual.
BOTTOM LINE: Find out about skulls, consider their meaning, and enjoy them.
Celebrate it on Goodreads! Here you will find their list of the 50 most popular horror books on Goodreads, “From Mary Shelley to Stephen King.” You can also read the Ghastly Horror Subgenres (sic), Book-to-Scream Adaptations, 13 True Tales of Terror, and—just for fun—The Nightmare Generator. My worst nightmare is supposed to be an incompetent vampire in the nursery. For my husband, it’s supposed to be a paranoid cannibal in the attic. FIND YOUR WORST NIGHTMARE!
Edgar Allan Poe is only one proof that well-written horror is well-written literature. It’s timeless. And every set of tips on how to write horror includes the observation that good writing, and all the elements thereof, are the foundation with horror being an add-on. “Horror” means an intense feeling of fear, shock, or disgust.
Now Novel is a good place to start if you are thinking of dipping your toe into this genre. According to this blog, the 5 common elements of the best horror stories are these:
They explore malevolent or wicked characters, deeds, or phenomena.
They arouse feelings of fear, shock, or disgust as well as the sense of the uncanny.
They are intense.
They contain scary and/or shocking and scintillating plot twists and story reveals.
They immerse readers in the macabre.
The blog then goes on to discuss six tips:
How to write horror using a strong, pervasive tone.
The importance of reading widely in your genre.
Giving wicked characters credible motives
Using the core elements of tragedy
Writing scary novels by tapping into common human fears.
The difference between terror and horror.
If you want even more advice, you can find it at The Ramble. According to Chuck Wendig, horror is best when it’s about tragedy. It contains subversion, admonition, and fear of the unknown. Horror works on our minds, our hearts, and our gut. It can be gross, but that isn’t necessary. What is necessary is for characters you love to make choices you hate. “SEX AND DEATH ALSO PLAY WELL TOGETHER.” You should never tell readers they should be scared. He writes much more than this, of course.
In my opinion, one of the best sites is Bustle. It includes comments from ten authors, including Stephen King, who discusses gross-out, horror, and terror.
Advice from others includes:
Shirley Jackson: Use your own fear.
R.I. Stine: Get inside your narrator’s head.
Tananarive Due: Don’t worry about being “legitimate.”
Ray Bradbury: Take your nonsense seriously.
Anne Rice: Go where the pain is.
Clive Barker: The scariest thing is feeling out of control.
Linda Addison: Just start writing and fix it later.
Neil Gaiman: Tell your own story.
Helen Oyeyemi: Keep it real (kind of).
And the advice goes on. Bottom line: This is the week to read and/or write a little horror!
I’m picturing and talking about Kindle here because that’s what I have, but I assume other e-readers have the same characteristics. No doubt some of the points I make will be already known to you—for example, portability and convenience. As you can see in the above picture, my Kindle currently contains 338 books. That’s hundreds of books at my fingertips—i.e., hundreds of choices, virtually anytime, anywhere.
Then, too, any book can be read in large print. Sometimes, depending on fatigue, people who don’t usually need larger print temporarily do! Then, too, one can control the brightness to read comfortably in varying ambient light. And, not insignificantly, new e-books cost considerably less than their physical counterparts. (One can often find great prices on old books, overstocks, books in library book sales, etc. The downside is often not being able to get the book you want, when you want it.)
I recently started rereading Mary Renault. She was a favorite of mine years ago, and I decided to revisit her work and see what I think of it now that I write fiction myself. I’m not disappointed! She writes well: strong verbs, vivid action, good sensory appeal (especially visual), a well-rounded protagonist, and excellent weaving together of myth and archaeological evidence.
But, frankly, I don’t know how I made it through the physical books! For example, The King Must Die has a cast of thousands (only a slight exaggeration), references to gods who are (to me) only vaguely familiar, complex family relationships, unfamiliar geography, and lots of references to antique items and geology. KINDLE TO THE RESCUE! By holding my finger on an unfamiliar word, I learned that keeking means peeping surreptitiously, porphyry is a reddish igneous rock, greaves are shin armor, and hundreds more! Where in the past I would have skimmed the unfamiliar or approximated meaning from context, my e-reader gave me a much richer read.
The King Must Die was such a joy, I’m now on the next. Indeed, I’ve downloaded every Renault Amazon has available. (FYI, I binge read authors I really like.) And I believe every reader of the unfamiliar, whether fiction or nonfiction, can have an enhanced read on an e-reader.
Bottom line: Reading on an electronic device is an opportunity to broaden vocabulary, deepen general knowledge, and make the esoteric available to the non-expert!