How To Train A Human: Lesson #1: Show Them Who’s the Master

You have to get serious right from the start. Nail this part, and the rest of the lessons will fall in line.

Begin by letting them know you’re the boss. They won’t get it at first, especially if they haven’t lived with a cat before. They’re so used to thinking that they are the ones in charge, that what they say is law. This is not so, but stubbornness is an inborn human trait. It’s up to us felines to root it out.

It won’t be easy, and it will take time. Sometimes a lot of time. But they will come around, eventually. Persistence is the key. Don’t let discouragement make you back down prematurely.

It’s best to start when you’re really young, if you can. The younger the better. The smaller you are, the more likely you can worm into a human’s heart. They really are suckers for babies of all kinds: human, feline,  even canine (shudder!)… But if you’re persistent, and really cagey, even older cats can master this step.

Start like this: Crawl up on the human’s lap, close your eyes (not all the way, keep them open to slits so you can gauge the person’s reaction), and purr as loudly as you can. If they try to remove you, use your claws. Humans have this thing about holes in stuff; unless they put them there, they don’t want any. Plus, for some reason, holes in fabrics are a real taboo. My human almost went into a panic attack about a few little pinpricks in her silk top. And in her car’s leather seats. Use your claws to make tiny holes that will expand into rips if they try to remove you, and they’ll back off fast. After all, what are claws for?

The added bonus? You can put holes in their flesh also. This lets the human know you really mean business, that you’re stronger than they are by far, and that what you want is the law. End of discussion.

This hole business goes for most soft surfaces: car seats, chairs, couches, beds, etc. Just crawl up, purr like crazy, and hang on. They’ll eventually get the picture, that you own whatever you are sitting on. Or they’ll get tired of trying to remove you, give up, and go into another room. Persistence is not a trait most humans possess in any quantity.

One last thing: If the human tries to stand up to dislodge you, simply dig in deeper, or scoot up higher on their torso. This gives you the opportunity to put holes in more of that oh-so-valuable clothing they love so much. Shoulder clinging is always a good strategy, and it lets you nuzzle their neck and/or chin and even give it a couple of good licks. Humans consider those ‘kisses’ and boy, are they suckers for animal ‘kisses’. Once again those hearts will melt and you’ll be in like Flynn (whoever that is!).

So, that’s it. Lesson #1: Grab on, hold on, purr, and just ignore their trying to dislodge you by using your claws. Works every time.

Interview with Andrea Chmelik

Today I have the privilege of asking author Andrea Chmelik, who describes herself as a writer, speaker, activist, wine enthusiast, pickle elitist, and cat lover. I’ve asked her some questions about her writing and her writing process and she’s given some pretty interesting answers. Enjoy!

1. Which came first: The characters, the plot, or the setting?

For my short stories, it is typically the characters and setting that pop up first, and the plot comes later. And thinking of it, it was a similar evolution with my novel as well. That one began as an observation to typical Disney stories – wouldn’t it be fun, I posted on Facebook, if someone wrote a book for children with a strong female character who does not need a boy to save her, and whose parents are still alive? And then that thought followed me and I started imagining the girl who would become the hero of that particular story, and what world would she live in, and the plot came later. 

2. Do you blog? If so, what do you blog about?

I used to blog. I started after my son was born, nine years ago. I was caught off guard by so many aspects of parenthood, so I made blogging an outlet – describing serious topics with self-deprecating humor, because in the end, the laughter was the one thing that got me through. And while I worried about sharing my feelings, I quickly gained a modest following of readers who appreciated both the honesty and the humor. My blogging came to a stop once I started writing my novel. I’m not very good in multitasking when it comes to writing projects. All of my focus was consumed by the book I was writing. 

3. How much backstory do you include in your stories?

It depends on the story and on the characters. In general, the backstory is reflected more in the actions of characters than in the narrative itself. 

4. What is the most surprising thing that happened while you were writing a story?

The most surprising thing so far was that I wrote a young adult book. I never saw myself as a young adult author. I love reading all genres, but always imagined if I ever wrote a book it would be Liane Moriarty or Helen Fielding kind of a story. Yet because of that one Facebook observation, my brain wouldn’t let it go until the story was written. 

5. What is the most surprising thing that happened while you were writing a story?

The settings come from my reflections about the world around me. I am an immigrant from Slovakia. Building my life on my own here in the United States has challenged both my preconceptions about the world and my purpose in it. Being an immigrant became a large part of my definition. Different country, language, culture, political and economic system – yet 17 years later, it feels more home for me here than in the country where I grew up. I set my stories so that I can explore the consequences of  such strangeness and familiarity.  

6. And now a “for fun” question: How many things do you have sitting in a drawer that you’d never want anyone to see?

Ha! I don’t have much sitting in the actual drawers, but you should see the mess inside my head! Luckily, that is mostly there to stay! 

Andrea, thank you for being here today. You can stay in touch with this wonderful wife, mother, and writer on facebook: ChmelikAndrea

Write Over the Hump

Nature can be one of the best idea creators. Here’s a photo of the sky that I took one day: is it daytime or night time? Is that the sun or the moon? Where is the red coming from? Is is smoke? Is the sky bleeding? Is it an alien sky? What does your imagination tell you about this picture?

Scintillating Settings

When we think of a place, what most easily comes to mind is what we see. When asked to describe a particular place—an office building, for example—most of us will concentrate on what the building looks like: how big it is, what it is constructed of, what color it is, what kind of windows it has, how many stories, doors, and so on. Few of us think in terms of what the building smells like, or sounds like, or even tastes or feels like.

But life is lived in all 5 sense dimensions: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Wherever we are, wherever we go, we are bombarded with sensory impressions on all 5 levels. Yet when we write, we concentrate mostly on sight. The two most important senses, those that most strongly evoke memory and emotion, are scent and taste. But how often are they used in setting descriptions?

To craft scintillating settings, the kind that are vivid and unforgettable to readers, we must incorporate all five senses into them. We must include the same kind of sensory detail that we encounter in everyday life. We cannot rely on one sense alone to convey the true feel of the place, or we run the risk of the setting feeling flat and unremarkable to readers.

How do we learn to include all 5 senses? By rendering the scene 5 times, each time concentrating on one sense only, and then creating an amalgam that incorporates the best of each of those scenes. Yes, it’s a lot of work at first, but after a while you’ll find yourself automatically adding scent and touch and taste and sound to settings you used to render in sight only.

Here is an example from an exercise I did in the writing class I teach. Same scene, rendered from a different sense, then combined at the end. See what you think. How much better is the 5-senses scene than the sight one only? How much more vivid and realistic? Which one would you—and your readers—rather experience?

Sound: The clang of laden metal being plopped onto a hard surface set her heart racing. Skylark, halfway into the room, stopped and looked around. To her left, she could hear a low murmur of voices, and she almost smiled at the covert flirting she could detect in the words. At the table in front of her, someone smacked his lips. Then a slurping sound rose into the air. Paper rattled and crinkled. To her right echoed the ring of a bell and the tick-tinkle of coins hitting a glass surface. Somewhere deep inside the building a voice called out, the sense of urgency in the tone underscoring her own rising fear. Outside, a horn blared and tires screeched. A woman screamed. And Skylark feared she was too late.

Scent: Hot cinnamon hit her nose the moment the door opened and Skylark nearly sneezed. She’d never understood the allure of cinnamon, though to most people it brought a sense of comfort. For her, it felt invasive, an sicky-sweet assault on her senses.

She moved further into the room, searching for her contact who was nowhere in sight. The pungent aroma of dark, rich coffee rose around her as she passed a table, laced with a delicate tracery of vanilla. Her mouth watered. That is more like it, she thought.

As she neared the back counter, a rich earthy scent wafted into the air and corkscrewed into her pleasure center. The underlying bitterness brought a smile to her lips as she thought of the lovely treats that sat on the table at home, awaiting her presence for dessert. She paused beside a towering display, disturbed by the heavy stench of decayed flowers—or so it seemed to her—that shuddered in the wake of the woman ahead of her. An omen, perhaps, considering the commotion that arose in the street just outside the doors. Was she too late?

Texture: The tiles beneath Skylark’s feet felt hard and uncompromising as she strode through the door. She laid a hand on the doorframe, bumpy from layers of years and paint. The cold it had picked up from the outside weather shivered into her. She shuddered. Something was off about this, but she wasn’t sure what.

She moved into the room and paused, ran her fingers over the smooth, satiny surface of a table top, encountering a sticky patch that wanted to take possession of her digits. At the counter, she wrapped her hand around a paper cup. Heat melted into her flesh, bringing a sense of rightness, though her heart didn’t buy it. She felt her fingers sink into the cloying warmth of the Danish she ordered, letting the coarse texture of the bread mix on her tongue with the smoothness of sweet cheese as she chewed.

Her contact wasn’t here. She rubbed her fingers over the cool bumps and ridges of the coins in her pocket, shivering as the coldness slowly warmed to her body temperature, then pulled her hand out, brushing against the plush nubby ridges of her jacket. She ran her fingers through her hair, silken threads that felt as soft as clouds, or satin, knowing she was fidgeting in fear, not boredom. Where was her contact? Had she missed her? Was Skylark too late?

Taste: She could taste cinnamon the moment she walked in the door. With one breath it arrowed deep into her throat and she almost gagged. Damn but she hated cinnamon.

Coffee, she thought as she made a bee-line to the counter, searching for her contact as she moved. The heat burned her tongue and the roof of her mouth as she let the nutty flavor swirl its way down her esophagus, erasing the sicky-sweet taste of the intrusive spice. She ordered a breakfast Danish to go with the coffee, something quick and sugary and slick tasting that made her lick her fingers when she finished. She loved the pasty aftertaste it left in her mouth, the lingering cloy of vanilla, but she didn’t love the fact that her contact hadn’t shown up. What went wrong? Had she arrived too late?

Sight: The aluminum door frame had warped, leaving a gap where the lock met the peeling wood of the building. Not an auspicious start to the day, Skylark thought as she pulled the door open. Why had her client wanted to meet here, on the downturned side of town?

The renovated interior of the place surprised her when she stepped inside. A clean, retro black-and-white tile floor stretched on a diagonal from from to back, neat diamonds gleaming in the overhead lights. Glass topped tables had been strewn across the room, their accompanying wrought iron chairs sporting seat cushions upholstered in bright primary colors. Half the table were occupied by a wide variety of patrons, from droop-panted, dreadlock bearing teens from the projects three blocks over, to suited and coiffed business men and women on temporary leave from nearby offices.

Counters ringed the side and back walls, their shelves filled with delicious looking goodies: cinnamon buns, doughnuts of all shapes and flavors; mouth watering fruit pies; an entire bank of breads in loaves and rounds, adorned with egg washes, seeds, garlic, rosemary, even a variety of cheeses.

To Skylark’s left, an aproned clerk stood behind an old-fashioned cash register that dinged with a pleasing regularity as the line of sweets-worshippers dwindled steadily. Four other clerks served those still making their choices at the counters. Skylark stood searching for her contact among the coffee drinkers at the tables, and those with bags heading for either the register or the front door. To the right, swinging metal doors hid the business side of baking from view, and Skylark wondered if perhaps he were in there. Or was she simply too late?

Combination: The aluminum door frame had warped, leaving a gap where the lock met the peeling wood of the building. Not an auspicious start to the day, Skylark thought as she pulled the door open. Why had her client wanted to meet here, on the downturned side of town?

She could taste cinnamon the moment the door opened. With one breath it arrowed deep into her throat and she almost gagged. She’d never understood the allure of cinnamon, though to most people it brought a sense of comfort. For her, it felt invasive, a sicky-sweet assault on her senses. Damn but she hated cinnamon.

The renovated interior of the place surprised her when she stepped inside. A clean, retro black-and-white tile floor stretched on a diagonal from front to back, neat diamonds gleaming in the overhead lights. They felt hard and uncompromising to her feet as she stepped forward, in stark contrast to the brightly colored cushions on the wrought iron ice cream style chairs that ringed the glass topped tables scattered around the large room.

Counters lined the side and back walls, shelves full of sweet delicacies. An aproned clerk plopped a laden tray onto a counter top. The deep clang of the metal set Skylark’s heart racing. To her left, she heard a low murmur of voices, and she almost smiled at the covert flirting she could detect in the tone. To her right, someone smacked his lips as he slurped from a cardboard cup. The scent of dark, rich coffee rose around her as she walked past the table, laced with a delicate tracery of vanilla. It made her mouth water, and she remembered she’d skipped breakfast today. If she could ignore the cinnamon assaulting her senses, she just might take a few of those chocolate covered doughnuts home with her.

Near the entry doors an old-fashioned cash register dinged with a pleasing regularity as the line of sweets-worshippers dwindled steadily. Skylark searched through the gathered people— droop-panted, dreadlock-bearing teens from the projects three blocks over and suited and coiffed business men and women on temporary leave from nearby offices—but found no trace of her contact. Had she not arrived yet? Or was Skylark too late?

Skylark sighed and moved to the back counter. She pulled a quarter from her pocket and traced her fingers over the smooth ridges of its face as she ordered a cheese Danish and a cup of hazelnut coffee. The soothing motion calmed her nerves, though her gaze kept roving the crowded room. Something felt wrong here. Off somehow. As though it were all staged for her benefit: the deep voice calling from within the bowels of the building, where the business end of the bakery went on unnoticed by customers; the cloying sweetness that rode the warm air; the contrast of the splintery wood exterior and the slick modern interior; the almost manic grins on the clerks behind the counters.

Where was Kelley? She took a sip of the coffee, hot and pungent the way she liked it, then almost dropped the cup when outside the store a horn blared and tires screeched. A woman screamed. And beside Skylark a menacing hulk rose to block her way.

Draft Done, Now What?

Our guest today is author Rolynn Anderson, author of 10 published novels in the contemporary/mystery genres. They’re all page-turners, so if you haven’t yet read her, start today! She’s here to talk about what she does after she’s at her novel’s draft-done stage. Sage advice for all writers.

Author Rolynn Anderson

The song “You’ve Only Just Begun,” comes to mind at the ‘draft-done’ stage in my writing process. Sure, I might pour a glass of wine to celebrate and tell my husband it’s a Draft-Done Dinner-Out Night, but forget about champagne corks popping in a restaurant with linens. After a glass of everyday Chardonnay, I strap on my humble belt, don a thick skin, and gird my loins like a Roman warrior. The battle has only begun.

I’ve written about fifteen contemporary mystery/suspense novels since 2001, publishing ten of them. I wish I could say I’ve streamlined my efforts and with each book, the draft-to-final process grows easier. It could be I expect more of myself with each story, complicating the after-draft steps. I like to think I’m improving as a writer, so perhaps smooth sailing won’t ever happen. The point remains: my next steps are an agonizing fight to the finish.

First, I determine a deadline for turning over my draft to my three book club members. I publish a book a year, requiring me to keep my eye on the calendar. Spurred by the clock, I polish the novel in about five focused run-throughs, roughly in the following order after I print out the text:

1.  Polish diction

2.  Scene by scene, revise for GMC (goal, motivation and conflict)

3.  Character drill-down (focus on individualizing looks, dress, way of speaking, gestures, personality, and what others say about each character.)

4.  Dialogue tuning

5.  Plot analysis (for tension/page-turning qualities) I pay special attention to avoid the sagging middle)

Next, I hand out print copies to my three book club members, women who are experts in responding to novels of all kinds. Three weeks, we gather. As the three of them talk about my novel, I listen and take notes, only writing down what they say and not interacting with them at all. This tactic allows them to react to my book freely. At the end, I might ask a few clarifying questions, but I don’t try to explain myself or critique their responses. I have pages and pages of precious notes to help me revise my novel: that’s their gift to me.  

Third, I rework all the aspects of the novel that I choose to ‘fix,’ based on what I heard from my critical friends as well as what I didn’t hear from them. In another three weeks, I have another draft to polish (five more focused run-throughs). At this point, I’ve arranged a date for my editor to read my manuscript and settled on what I’ll be paying her (based on word count).  

Fourth, I analyze my novel for freshness, eliminating/replacing repetitive words and phrases, and sharpening the use of senses throughout.  To name a few of my nemesis words: that, look, turned, pushed, pulled, nodded, still, just, gazed, glanced, breath, smile, shook, eyebrow, fingers, palm; pulled in a breath, shook his head, held up his hand. You get the drift.

When I’ve completed this stage, I will revise the blurb of the novel (because the story has changed!). Then I’ll read through the novel one more time, printed off in a new font. More polishing after that.  

Now I’m ready to send my draft to my editor, signaling my work on this novel is only half finished. Can you believe it? Only half done! Typically, I will spend as much time making changes suggested/implied by my editor as I have spent so far on my book. I include a final round with my beta readers, followed by a last quick polishing. 

Next…to the formatter/publisher. Even at the stage of reviewing my formatter’s work, I’ll find a few more mistakes, some made by the formatter, some by me. 

Finally, I’m ready to publish!

So here’s my tenth novel, WHEN MOUNTAINS FALL:

Running a marina in isolated Waka Bay, British Columbia was her husband’s dream, not hers. But now he’s dead and a prime suspect in a murder.

Shattered by grief, Camryn Hudson must return to the bay to exonerate her husband, protect her seven-year-old son, and save a failing business.

Loner Finn Weber’s mission seems equally impossible. He left a top job in Seattle to work in tiny Port McNeill. Fulfilling a bargain with his ailing mother, he must sail to Waka Bay every weekend. He never imagined the danger of cruising into Camryn’s heart while withholding a family secret.

A killer roams the land and vultures demand possession of the marina. Can Camryn solve a crime and survive in Waka Bay?

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Thank you, Rolynn, for some very sage advice on what to do once we reach the “draft-done” state in our writing. It’s a lot of work, but well worth it! And thanks for being here on my site,!

Write Over the Hump

Sometimes we see weird things along our way and wonder what was going on, how things got that way. Like the following photo of signs about road work. Why did these contradictory signs end up so close together? What does your creative mind tell you about them? You’ve got ten minutes: go!

How To Train A Human: Introduction

My name is Meggidy Mags. This is the story of my life.

I never thought this day would come. Everyone in the family told me to be patient, but I’ve been alive now for over four months and my supply of patience is fast running out. There doesn’t seem to be much hope left, but I try my best to look on the bright side. When I can find it.

It’s not that I don’t like living here, but it’s just so crowded. Our caretaker does her best, but there never seems to be enough food or water, or a clean enough litter box, for me. It’s not easy being the youngest of the clowder; there are 16 cats ahead of me so I have to wait for everything. There’s always someone shoving me aside, hissing at me, or swatting me with claws extended even though there’s a house rule against it. It’s getting old, really fast.

Mom and Dad have told me stories about living with just one caretaker, about being lord of the manor, the way a cat should be. I dream about that with every nap I take—four or five a day—longing for my turn in the sun, so to speak. But so few people ever come here, and those that do aren’t interested in cats. Besides, they are scary. They yell and they stomp around without looking where they are going. They often kick over our food bowls and even the litter boxes. They even kicked Benny once when he got too close; he still limps because of it. Merline’s tail has a permanent crimp from being stepped on.

I don’t like those people at all. I hide when they pull into the driveway.

But Mom promised me that my time would come. My dreams would come true. And maybe today is the day. Because I got that fuzzy feeling Mom talked about when I saw the tall woman with the long dark hair come out of the house and sit down on the top porch step, that feeling that said, ‘This is the one.’ I had watched her go in earlier, watched her walk around like she owned the place even though I’d never seen her before. She wasn’t one of the stompers. She has an air about her, a confident authority, like she’s the ruler. Like she knows everything.

But she doesn’t. She really doesn’t have a clue, poor thing. I know she needs me. And both Mom and Dad have given me their licks of approval. So, here I go. I’m going to crawl up on her and move in with her and make her my slave. I’m going to teach her what life is really all about. I’m going to teach her who really rules the roost. 

I’m going to realize my dream, have my own place, and finally Train A Human!

Write Over the Hump

Sometimes when we enter the “zone,” things pop up in our stories that we don’t quite know what to do with. They skew the story we’ve planned into uncharted territory. Being able to allow the story to unfold on its own, so to speak, will raise the bar in your writing. Here’s a strange scenario to play with.

Your new girlfriend/boyfriend invites you over for dinner. Afterwards, you sit together on the sofa and look at his/her family photo album. But there are no pictures of your friend anywhere in the album, just blank spaces on the photos where he/she might have been standing. Write about why this could be and what it means for 10 minutes, starting now.

Why were there no pictures of your friend in that album?