Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Family, Hugs, and The Artist's Way

We are made of strong stuff. We will endure.

Those are strong, hopeful statements that I hang on to as I'm navigating the current situation with COVID19 and the stay-at-home practices that I need to be very mindful of. I'm in two of those high-risk categories; age and underlying health conditions, so I'm aware of how important it is to stay away from people. This has included avoiding my family, which is the hardest part of all.

I love my animals, but living alone can be, well, very lonely.

To keep me away from grocery stores, my kids do most of my shopping, and they come occasionally to do a chore that I can't do. Well, actually, I could, but the kids don't want me climbing up a ladder to change furnace filters.  But while they are here, we stay six-feet apart. We don't hug.

We're such a demonstrative, hugging family that it feels extremely weird for any of my kids to walk back out the door, and we haven't even touched. Human touch is so important. Research has shown the many ways we benefit from touch, from hugs.

An article in Nuro Nation had this to say, "Humans suffer from social isolation but react positively to physical contact. This has to do with the fact that when we hug someone, a hormone called Oxytocin is released in our body, which effectively reduces our stress levels. Additionally, our blood pressure sinks and we experience less anxiety during a hug."

My primary care doctor normally ends each visit with what she calls, a heart-to-heart hug; it's the opposite of the way people usually hug. It started because the right side of my face and head is so sensitive - thanks to Trigeminal Neuralgia - so I always offer the left side. Then my doctor said it was better that way, so our hearts touch. I love her!

Another way the nasty pandemic has seriously upended my life is the fact that I couldn't complete some classes that I was taking at the local community college. Those classes were focused on studying literature and film, and in the previous two semesters of the program, I'd enjoyed expanding my reading and viewing tastes.

In The Artist's Way Julia Cameron encourages us to take a break from our daily routine of writing and have what she called an Artist Date,  "a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly “artistic” — think mischief ." I remember when I first found that piece of her advice, I took it very seriously, and I would once a week take myself to go see a movie, or maybe play at a park. Often, I would return home invigorated and spend some very productive hours in my office.

Those classes at the college were my Artist Dates, and I miss them.

Before the pandemic hit, I'd been cutting back on my time on social media so I could get more writing done. Now I'm on Twitter and Facebook much more often during the day. I've made quite a few new friends on Twitter and find Tweets that make me laugh. Some that make me cry. And some that make me want to boil over in anger. Those I try to scroll past quickly.

If I can't get a hug, at least I need a laugh now and then. 

Writing is slow going, even though I have more time to write. Partially because of an uptick in the pain from Trigeminal Neuralgia, which is relentless, and partially because even though I'm an introvert, I do miss interacting with other people, and my creative energy lags. Social media is fine, but...

So what are some coping skills you use? Are you familiar with the Artist Date? Did you take yourself out on a regular basis? While you're here, check out some of the other posts by the BRP team, as we share an ongoing journal of coping with the pandemic.

Posted by Maryann Miller  Still maintaining social distancing, you can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Page, read her Blogand follow her on Facebook and TwitterHer online workshop on self-editing, part of a series of online writing workshops from Short And Helpful, can be found HERE

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Things Change. Things Stay the Same.

I have to admit, the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t changed my life very much. In early March, my husband and I were visiting family in Savannah. I came home for a meeting and a mystery panel at a local library. Both my events were canceled. I’d left my husband in Savannah with the grandkids, so I was alone for three weeks. During that time, I finished a book I’d been writing on and off for a couple of years. I went through it again, edited, then sent it to my editor. We're still trying to make it the best it can be.

Except for not going to the grocery store or meeting friends for lunch, life went on as usual. I had plenty of food, and because I’d recently bought paper products in bulk, I wasn’t in dire need of anything. During this time I was alone, I watched less cable news—depressing, watched the Amazon series, Hunters, with Al Pacino—somewhat depressing, read more, worked on my writing, and traded critiques with my long-time critique partner. The house was eerily quiet. My neighbors were eerily quiet except for one of them asking if I needed anything. I didn’t. I walked the dog. Even the neighborhood was eerily quiet. People walked their dogs, acknowledging other dog walkers from across the street with a nod. The cyclists who zoomed around the lake never acknowledged anyone in the best of times. That didn't change.

In early April I drove down for my oldest granddaughter’s sixth birthday—where has the time gone? The party consisted of a parade of twenty-three cars decorated with signs and balloons driving by my granddaughter, shouting greetings of happy birthday.
She knew nothing beforehand about what was going on. It was colorful fun, and a little noisy, too, but she loved it. No one got out of their cars except a few who dropped presents off nearby, got back in their cars, and drove away. We had a party that night with just our immediate family. A couple of days later, my husband and I drove home.

Finally, when my food supply dwindled but not the paper products, I followed food-shopping guidelines from NPR — "No, You Don't Need To Disinfect Your Groceries. But Here's How To Shop Safely" – and ventured out with mask to shop for groceries at four stores to fill our two refrigerators. I’m convinced I’ll never have to shop for food again. Of course I will, but it won’t be for a month or more except for milk. I haven’t bought flowers for planting, so that might be my next trip.
There’s a garden shop nearby that opens in the spring and closes before winter.

Of all people, those who write or paint or do dozens of artsy things from their homes have fared the best. We are solitary beings. Others can make this time productive or feel trapped and confined. I’ve made the most of my time without ever resorting to deep cleaning my house and not feel guilty about it. Life is short, getting shorter. I prefer to take the lemons and make lemonade.

Polly Iyer is the author of nine novels: standalones Hooked, InSight, Murder Déjà Vu, Threads, and Indiscretion, and four books in the Diana Racine Psychic Suspense series, Mind Games, Goddess of the Moon, Backlash and The Scent of Murder. 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.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Writing Take-aways from the COVID-19 Pandemic.

We've had a number of great articles this month on ways COVID-19 and multi-state stay-at-home orders have affected our lives. We also have an impressive list of books from the past that address the devastating consequences of worldwide pandemics. My post will explore how our current health crisis can affect our writing.

I find today's world situation to be alarming, even terrifying. The massive loss of life, critical illnesses, overwhelmed medical services, and resulting instability of the world's economy are indeed unnerving, as well as heartbreaking. While we see numerous acts of courage, of love, of reaching out to help others who are often strangers, there's a dark side to that coin.

We also see horrific acts of intentionally exposing people working in essential jobs to whatever germs or viruses those perpetrators may be carrying, such as by coughing and spitting on workers who risk their health and lives so we can continue to buy groceries, medicines, etc. We see adults and teenagers contaminating fresh produce by coughing directly on the food and then laughing about it.

People congregate in large and small groups despite governmental mandates not to do so. We hear so-called spiritual leaders defying those mandates and insisting on freedom of religion while stating that the Almighty will protect them because they're God-fearing folks. How many have come down with coronavirus and even died because of these people's wanton disregard for their fellow humans? We see a lot of folks out and about despite shelter-in-place orders. How many of them are wearing face masks and gloves? How many are staying 6 feet away from everyone else? How many of their trips are truly necessary?

As a person who is high-risk and the grandmother of a toddler with a serious heart defect and of a nurse on the front lines in the war against the virus, I am appalled. I shudder at the widespread callousness shown by such actions. The drastic change in the attitudes of the general public just within my lifetime blows my mind. This, in my opinion, is far scarier than the virus itself because it can perpetuate ongoing outbreaks that might continue to wreak havoc and take countless lives in the weeks, months, or even years to come.

How does all this affect my writing? My literary fiction books focus on characterization—what makes people tick. Protagonists, secondary characters, and bit players are portrayed realistically, and they act accordingly. I neither sugarcoat wrongdoing nor magnify goodness. People are what they are.

My plots reflect reality. Still, the stories are not downers, and the clouds often have silver linings; however, neither I nor my characters are Pollyannas. Not every ending is a happily-ever-after one, but they're always a satisfactory outgrowth of the characters' attitudes and actions. And there's always a lesson to be learned, perhaps several lessons.

I've created a recurring character who will appear in all the novels currently in the works. A psychologist with an inherent ability to feel the physical, mental, and emotional pain of others, she refers to herself as a healer rather than the more intimidating title of doctor or the supernatural connotation of empath. Her desire to help others cope with the drama in their lives and find a path to contentment often puts her in harm's way, but that hasn't stopped her yet. COVID-19 will provide a backdrop for some of these forthcoming books.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your writing?

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. Her novels fall into the literary category because they are character driven rather than plot driven, but their quick pace reminds the reader of genre fiction. They also contain elements of romance, mystery, and thrillers. You can contact her through her websites: LSLaneBooks.com and DenverEditor.com.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Virtual Writing Conferences, Workshops, and Groups to Join Online

With writing conferences and workshops cancelled or postponed for the time being, why not join a virtual conference or an online writing community in the meantime. Here are some we've found. If we've left out any of your favorites, add them in the comments.

Hurry if you want to sign up for these free Coursera courses, starting today:
Coursera Advanced Writing
Apr 16 2020

Coursera Script Writing: Write a Pilot Episode for a TV or Web Series (offered by Michigan State University)
Apr 16  2020

Also free are Gotham Writers' Friday Night Zoom Write-Ins, with the next one tomorrow.
April 17 2020

Writers' Digest Agent One-on-One: First 10 Pages Boot Camp
Apr 23rd 2020 – Apr 27th 2020

Jane Friedman's WD Webinar on How to Blog Meaningfully and Grow Your Audience
May 1st 2020

WDU Annual Science Fiction & Fantasy Virtual Conference
May 15th 2020 – May 18th 2020

Writers' Studio Online Courses Workshops in Fiction
Level 1 classes start on either Apr 28 / May 26 / June 1, 2020

Other ways to find your virtual writing community:
Camp Nanowrimo
Inked Voices
Critique Circle
Writers' Chat Room

And don't forget to check out:
Colorado Writers and Publishers on Facebook
- not just for writers and publishers based in Colorado - and our own Dani Greer is an admin ;-)

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Ten Dystopian Novels Inspired by Pandemics

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."

Charles Dicken's words have never been more relevant as we endure a worldwide pandemic with widespread quarantines and stay at home orders.

I have read a many dystopian novels and it certainly feels like we are living in one. In most dystopian novels, humans survive. Whether we continue to thrive or wither is on us. It can bring out the best in people, and the worst.

Here is a list of ten books inspired by outbreaks.

1Andromeda Strain  (1970) by Michael Crichton is by far the scariest tale I remember from my childhood. Images of people dissolving into dust stuck with me. A military space probe brings microbes back to earth, setting off an outbreak. Scientists race to understand and contain the threat. They keep it secret with total news blackouts. Of course back then we didn't have 24/7 news feeds or social media. I never looked at our space missions the same way again.

2A Journal of the Plague Years (1988) by Norma Spinrad  (a Nebula award winning science fiction writer)  covers a sexually transmitted outbreak similar to HIV/AIDS. I was a young adult when the onset of the AIDS pandemic began. It definitely put the brakes on the free love movements from the 70s and made everyone rethink the safety of sex.

3The Old Drift (2019) by Namwali Serpell  a Science Fiction novel inspired by the HIV/AIDS epidemic which devastated the population of Zambia. She takes several families through multiple generations with rich SciFi worldbuilding.

4Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood  writes another epic dystopian tale in which a plague has destroyed humanity and only a few lonely survivors try to find their way in a devastated landscape.

5Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939) by Katherine Anne Porter covers the Spanish Flu, one of the deadliest global outbreaks of the H1N1 virus, that rampaged through Europe and America from 1918 to 1920 during World War I. Estimates of deaths vary from 50 million to 100 million. I can only imagine how terrifying a pandemic in a war zone must be.

6Pandemic (2019) by Robin Cook (one of my favorite thriller writers) follows a medical examiner as he attempts to identify and fend off a new epidemic and mixes in genetic tinkering and the black market for body parts. He also wrote Outbreak (1988) and Contagion (1996).

7. The Plague (2012) by by Albert Camus and Stuart Gilbert involves a bubonic plague ravaging the people of a North African coastal town.

8The Stand (2008) by Stephen King examines a world bereft of the majority of its population. How do the survivors navigate the new, savage terrain while facing supernatural evil?

9Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel a takes a look at how artists help us navigate a plague that destroys our world. She interweaves the realities of life before and life after the pandemic.

10. Zone One (2012) by Colson Whitehead  covers a pandemic that strikes a futuristic US where people are separated into two categories: infected and uninfected. The main character is tasked with trying to keep them separated. I think we see a lot of that now with the current corona virus. How seriously do people take the quarantine? It is hard to parse the reality and the hype.

As we struggle to navigate our strange new world, it will be interesting to see what changes and what remains the same. I am certain there will be a plethora of books, both fiction and nonfiction, about this agonizing event in human history.

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Zooming Around During the Pandemic

"Plague time" fell down on me like a domino run: first, cancelled exercise classes, then on-site work was restricted, then shelter-in-place throughout first the county and then the state so everyone would STAY PUT.

From there, it was a frantic race as organizations, businesses, friends, and family set up virtual meetings for nearly every aspect of life.

 I now attend Zumba on Zoom, participate in work meetings with WebEx and Microsoft Teams, take part in a weekly Feldenkrais body awareness class that uses Jitsi, and attend virtual critique meetings on Google Hangouts Meet. For family and friends, we use whatever folks are most comfortable with, usually FaceTime, Zoom, or Meet.

My mind is a whirl as I try to keep it all straight. It's like going zero to sixty in—wait, I have to look up how quick the the fastest cars can accelerate—two-plus seconds.

It's ludicrous. (And who knew Tesla made a model called the Model S P100D Ludicrous+ model??)

Anyhow, it has been a real scramble to try and learn all these different applications spiffy quick. With our wheezy router and the bazillions of people who, like me, are struggling to reach others through video conferencing/chat apps, I find my meetings freezing, crashing, pixelating, you name it. Add to that, I have a problem getting the laptop microphone to work for WebEx. I invariably have to sign in to the meeting on my laptop to get the video and then use my cell phone to call in for the audio.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Can you see me now?? (Videoconferencing fun and games.)
Free photo 7936722 © Martin Allinger - Dreamstime.com

But really how secure are any of these apps? There are horror stories out there about Zoom, for instance. If you want to know more about the security issues with Zoom, you can check out this CNET piece, with is updated daily. Here is another CNET article that compares Microsoft Teams with Zoom. And here's a ZDNet article that gives an overview of ten different video conferencing services for businesses.

Still, let's face it, when it's communicating outside the office, we're not likely to turn to a heavy-duty business application. Never fear, CNET is here (again), with a nice little article about 10 free Zoom alternative apps for video chats, good for keeping in touch with family and friends. These alternatives include FaceTime, Skype, Facebook Messenger, and more. I am definitely going to bookmark this one and pass it around!Now, I've got to dash, because I have something ELSE I have to learn on the fly: FaceBook Live.

Why? Well...

Today, Friday, April 10, at 6 p.m., in a Facebook Live event on my personal FaceBook page. I'll be reading a short story I wrote for Low Down Dirty Vote, Volume 1, a crime fiction anthology to raise money for fighting voter suppression.

My story "A Clean Sweep" can be summed up as follows.
  •  When: 1870.
  •  Where: Wyoming Territory.
  •  Who: A woman with a broom who is determined to exercise her right to vote.
Hope to "see" you there!

Ann Parker authors the award-winning Silver Rush historical mystery series published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks. During the day, she wrangles words for a living as a science editor/writer and marketing communications specialist (which is basically a fancy term for "editor/writer"). Her midnight hours are devoted to scribbling fiction. Visit AnnParker.net for more information.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Best Ever Websites for Writers - Some of my Favorite Places on the Web

Often publications that do best-of series use a format of short bullet points: The best movies, the best books, the best food, etc, All with short lists of what the editors considered listing at the top for the last year or for the last decade.

Here at the Blood-Red Pencil, we've been going a little more in-depth with what we consider the best for the past decade in terms of benefiting the writer, and perhaps the best to use going forward with our writing. For instance, we're looking at the best writers websites, the best writers resources, the best instructional books, and... Well, you get my drift.

Here are some of what I consider the best instructional and inspirational websites for writers. I'd be remiss in not mentioning that the Blood-Red Pencil has a wealth of information and advice, but there are a few other blogs and websites I visit frequently.

The first, and perhaps my favorite, is Writer Unboxed. I've been a fan of that website for a number of years and have found the blog posts most helpful. Contributors are primarily writers who are sharing their experiences with writing, getting to publication, and the business side of writing. They always offer very good tips and advice to help writers at any stage of their career. There is an occasional guest post from an expert about taxes, copyrights, and other business-related topics.

One of my other favorite go-to blogs is Kristen Lamb's blog. I love her somewhat snarky sense of humor that always makes me chuckle a little as I learn something new about writing as well as getting inspiration to keep writing when the going gets tough.

Writer's Digest has a list of some of the top resources for writers, and the magazine itself is a great resource. I subscribed to the paper version long before there was even an online version, or the Internet for that matter. :-) Every month I looked forward to the arrival of the new issue and would devour it from cover to cover. That was very beneficial for my diet plans as paper has fewer calories than that hot-fudge sundae I was craving. The online version of Writer's Digest is just as satisfying.

The Writer, another of the long-ago paper publications that I loved, has an online presence with a list of writer's resources that includes agents, editors, publishers, and more. They also offer inspiration, writing prompts, and a list of contests.

Have you visited any of these websites? Do you find them helpful? Any suggestions for ones we need to include in future posts?

Posted by Maryann Miller  You can find out more about Maryann, her books, and her editing services on her Website and her Amazon Author Page, read her Blogand follow her on Facebook and TwitterHer online workshop on self-editing, part of a series of online writing workshops from Short And Helpful, can be found HERE

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Anyone Freaking Out Yet?

For me, the only thing that gives me pause is going to the grocery store. I feel like the guy in this photo as I’m approaching the doors to go in.


This month on the Blood-Red Pencil, we’re going to journal a few of our thoughts and activities, (pondering the sudden way life changed on us as well as what make us feel awful and what lifts our spirits), sharing anecdotes, posting photos of how we occupy our minds and keep our bodies fit, and asking you to share your feelings and activities if you wish.

My last trip to the supermarket left me with two resolves: 1) Don’t go back unless I’m wearing a mask, and 2) Just get stuff delivered whenever possible. I shopped at 7 AM to take advantage of the senior shopping hours, but I found not everyone is happy with that. As I was loading my groceries in the trunk, a younger and apparently seriously uninformed lady was getting back in her car, screaming, “I’ll find another store to shop at. I’m sure there are plenty of stores who’ll want to take my money.” Really? After more than a week of the well-advertised senior hours, she didn’t know? I wonder if she even knows about COVID-19.

Small unpleasant encounters aside, I’m finding people of all ages to be beautiful and kind and helpful and generous and encouraging and supportive. And that’s a wonderful thing.

For social time, I’m zooming a lot. My book club, two of my organizations, my writers group, and a cousin/grandcousin/greatgrandcousin group use Zoom and I like that a lot. The cowgirl hat in this photo was to hide my overgrown mop of unruly hair because it has now been almost 8 weeks since I got a haircut.

I like to watch the Facebook Live concerts by my favorite music stars. I vacated my chair to get a snack while watching Brad Paisley and came back to find Sassy enjoying the performance.

My husband and I are still working on a 4,000 piece jigsaw puzzle that we started before this horrid virus made its presence known. I suspect we’ll still be working on the puzzle when all you under 60 folks are allowed out and about. Katie Cat never fails to jump up on the table and stir the puzzle pieces while we work.

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I spend a little too much time checking out the news updates and statistics for my state and county, but I make myself shut it off after supper and focus on reading or watching some of my backlogged favorite shows on television for total escape.

And on a side note, the only things so far that have brought tears to my eyes were Brad Paisley singing In the Garden and the sight of the USNS Comfort moving up the river toward New York City. Sometimes it’s the little things that break through our bravado.

Do you have an anecdote for us? A favorite activity? The one thing that brought tears to your eyes? We’d love to have you share.

Pat (Patricia) Stoltey is the author of four novels published by Five Star/Cengage: two amateur sleuth, one thriller that was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in 2015, and the historical mystery Wishing Caswell Dead (December 20, 2017), a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Awards. This novel is also now available in a large print edition. Her short story, “Good Work for a Girl,” appears in the Five Star Anthology, The Spoilt Quilt and Other Frontier Stories: Pioneering Women of the West released in November 2019.

Pat lives in Northern Colorado with her husband Bill, Scottish Terrier Sassy (aka Doggity), and brown tabby Katie (aka Kitty Cat).

You can learn more about Pat at her website/blog, on Facebook, and Twitter. She was recently interviewed for the Colorado Sun’s SunLit feature that you can find at the Colorado Sun website.