Friday, March 25, 2016

Once Upon A Time . . .

Of the many things I've learned since taking my writing seriously, is that there's no magic formula.

I've watched writers hotly debate method, tools, style, etc. And just as one person will stand there and firmly say, "this is the way", there's always someone supporting the complete opposite with just as much passion.

On most things, there is no right answer. There's no solid "this is wrong and this is right." And sometimes, I wish it was the black-and-white!

So one of the first things I learned was finding out what was right for me. With almost any question a writer may have, I could probably respond with, "You have to find what's right for you."

It doesn't sound helpful, but besides saying what works for me, I think it's important for the questioner to know that my method and my tools may not work for them.

When I started posting Winterland for critiques, I was really, really nervous. I'd never had my writing critiqued in such a fashion. Besides writing papers and a few creative pieces for various high school classes, which were graded by a teacher, this was my first in-depth feedback.

I thought for sure I'd hate the process. That I'd be unable to handle criticism and would be a terrible learner. When the critiques started coming in, I was pleasantly surprised. Not just by the quality of help I was getting, but by my reaction. I didn't snap the way I thought I would. I was excited and energized by the responses I received. I had crossed this huge hurdle.

Most of the time, getting constructive criticism is wonderful for me. Even the hard stuff is exciting. I see where I'm lacking, but that makes me see it's potential. Critiques are like sparks that set off fireworks.

The easiest way I can think to explain it is with this:
Here is my first draft. It's solid. It'll keep out the rain. But man, it is ug-ly.

Critiques show me just how lacking my ceiling is, but here's what I envision after I'm done reading through the feedback:

That is what my writing can be. It can be more than functional. It can be this amazing piece of art that people will enjoy.

But that's not to say I never get depressed about feedback. I still remember the first critique that made me want to burn the world. It was probably a good thing I was several hours away from home at the time and unable to delete my story.

Part of it was insecurity. I kept thinking, "are they right?" And that made me defensive. Another part of it is I knew they weren't right and the way they talked to me was infuriating.

It was a good lesson for me. It's how I worked through the process of understanding that not everyone's advice was correct, or right for me. I didn't have to accept everything given to me. I also saw that not everyone could be pleased.

That's not saying this person wasn't possible to please at all. More that, my story was never going to please them. Because what they liked to read, was not what I wrote. And I think that's important for all writers. We have to accept that not everyone will like all aspects, or maybe any aspects, of our work. And readers shouldn't expect all writers to write what they like.

It'd be an awful boring world if everyone wrote the same things in the same way.

There were times as I was writing "Heart of the Winterland" where I had to say to myself, "It's okay to do this. I know some people will hate it, but it's my story."

First, I tackled the prologue no-no. I've read lots of prologues and I've never been given a reason to hate them. I didn't even know there was such a thing as anti-prologuers until I took up writing. My biggest "eye-roll" about the whole business is that it's a word, a name, a title. If you called a prologue "chapter one" it'd still be the same. Same content; different name. A rose by any other name? Yep, that comes to mind.

So I labeled my prologue as "Prologue" out of sheer stubbornness. It was a case of call it what it is.

My next hurdle was one that got almost 100% comments on it. That is, out of over 30 people, almost every person commented on this thing.

It's the opening to chapter one. "Once upon a time . . ."

Now I know you either winced or got warm fuzzy feelings at that! Well, maybe not, but for most readers it did invoke a reaction. Usually it was the two listed. I either got, "Oh,  I love when stories start this way!" or "Ugh, this is so cliche it's an automatic turn off."

Again I had to make a choice. Two groups of people and I could only please one. I chose the Once upon a time group, because they're like me. When I read a book that starts that way, I think, "Oh good, I'm in for an adventure." I want to settle in for the long haul at that point.

Multiple points of view, a predominately female cast, accents, extended flashbacks in the form of storytelling, death, unresolved endings, and the list goes on.

Facing each of those and deciding that I wanted to keep them(just like I looked at other things and decided to change them) helped me find who I was as a writer. I figured out what I liked, what worked for me, what my story was about, and which elements were part of my style.

What are some things that you've found in your writing that can be highly debated in the writer world that you decided to keep anyway?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Meet the Cat Clan

I know I've mentioned my cats, but I've yet to properly introduce them. So without further ado, the Kooistra cats!

Our oldest cat is Talianna. Better known as Tali You Idiot. She's about 6 years old and we've had her since she was a kitten.

We had went to our local humane society with the intentions of adopting an adult cat, as we figured kittens probably got adopted quicker.

When we arrived, we were surprised to see how many kittens were there. The staff informed us that they had so many kittens coming in that the kittens were growing up in the shelter before they were adopted.

Apparently there's enough superstition about black cats, combined with people not finding them very pretty, that there's a noticeable difference in adoption rates for black cats over other colors.

Don't tell Tali, because it'll go to her head, but I think black cats look pretty elegant!

Anyway, we adopted our little black kitten and she's been with us at 2 apartments and finally our house.  She's mellowed out a lot in her old age.

She doesn't attack my keyboard anymore, or much of anything for that matter. She's a very stately lady and isn't given to such childish fancies.

Tali is our most solitary cat. She likes her privacy, but she also loves her family. She's amazing with our kids and tolerates everything they do to her. Sometimes I suspect she likes the kid treatment. She's the most sensitive to when we're needing some love. She also gets very protective when I'm pregnant.

(recent picture)

She is an idiot though! Hence the phrase she hears so much. She does the most hair-brained things sometimes and no matter how many times I tell her, "don't do that" she just does it and then bolts.

One thing about Tali, though. She hates other cats! She's adopted a policy that goes something like, "You leave me alone, and I'll leave you alone." Basically she pretends the other cats don't exist and unless they try to pester her she doesn't react to their presence. If they try to cuddle with her or play with her, she'll go all ninja on them. For the most part the other cats mind their business and let her be, but as the kittens are getting older they're not as intimidated.

Sometimes I think Tali is incapable of warming herself. She gets a bit obsessive in the winter about blankets, or anything that could pass as one. I can't tell you how many times I've flopped on the bed and jumped right back up going, "Sorry, Tali, you idiot!" And sure enough, underneath the comforter will be Tali. I think most cats would hate being trapped under a blanket, but not Tali. She'll live under ours.

I've told my husband that if something ever happened where we could only keep one cat, we'd have to keep Tali because she'd be the one least likely to adjust to a new home. When people come over she hides until they leave. A lot of people assume she's mean or unfriendly, but she's the sweetest girl. She just knows what she likes, and that's her family. She's really just a big baby.

When we moved into our house, we thought, "All this space! We need another cat." This time we went to Petco where they were hosting a small shelter for cats. It's so hard to settle on just one sad face to take home, but we finally narrowed it down to two. There were two calicos we debated on, but what sold us on Kota was her unusual reaction to being taken out of her cage. Most cats try to escape, or panic, or try to climb up you like a tree. Kota hunkered right down in my arms and snuggled there. Love at first sight!

There's always that adjustment period when moving a cat(especially an older one) to a new place. Kota was no exception, but instead of hiding under the nearest piece of furniture, she would just sit wherever we put her. She spent a good part of the first few days on our bed. We had to carry her to the food/water and litter.

Kota was 2 1/2 when we adopted her and she's probably our sweetest cat, but she has zero tolerance for children.

When we first got her, she was very, very nervous. We don't know what kind of situation she came from, but she would panic whenever someone would get anywhere near her(unless she was on a piece of furniture). If she was on the floor, you pretty much couldn't walk into that room without scaring her.

To work with this, we would walk in a wide berth around her and ignore her. We wanted her to realize that every time someone was near, they weren't coming after her. From there we worked forward: walking closer, walking right past her, occasionally stopping and petting her; until finally we could stop and pick her up.

The whole process took about 2-3 months, but eventually she stopped bolting when we walked by.

Kota still is super antsy around kids, but she's a good girl and is excellent at avoiding them. On the rare occasion where she's been cornered she has given (mostly Luke) the kids a nice little battle wound to remember her by.

Kota loves to snuggle, and is a frequent sneak at nights. The cats aren't allowed in the bedroom at night, because of the baby, but Kota has this genius plan that involves her sneaking into the room during the early evening and hiding. Later, after we've gone to sleep, she'll sneak out of her hidey hole and jump on the bed.

The phrase Kota hears the most is "Not now, Kota." She can be a bit demanding about wanting attention or food. She has one of those squeaky, barely audible meows and she'll sit on the floor and stare at me while begging for whatever she wants.

One thing that surprised us about Kota, was when we got the kittens. She was so mad, she hid under the bed for a week and when the kittens walked in the room you'd hear her growling. Kittens aren't the brightest and who can resist a fluffy momma looking cat? Eventually they wore her defenses down and the three of them are terrible! Kota was such a well-behaved cat before they came into her life. Now she gets a little crazy. They(and they're doing this now) bolt around the house in the most insane game of tag ever. They cuddle together, eat together, hang out together, play together. Despite our initial thoughts, Kota LOVES those kittens.

(recent picture. My daughter has just come down the stairs and you can kind of see Kota's "get ready to flee" look.)

Which brings us to the kittens. This is the first case of "buyers remorse" that I've had when it comes to any pet(s) we've owned. At the time we had Kota and Tali, and our oldest two kids. We were expecting our youngest, but I figured since we already had kids and cats that I wasn't setting myself up for trouble.

The kittens weren't planned. I passed a sign for free kittens one day and thought my daughter would love one(which she does). They only had two left and I couldn't just leave the poor little boy alone! And I decided kittens need a playmate anyway.

It'd been a long time since I had kittens, and last time I did, we didn't have any kids or a house. I clearly forgot how much trouble they are. By the time I regretted the decision, it was too late. No one wanted them and we already had them. I didn't want to take them to a shelter, and really I had made the choice to get them and now I'm going to have them.

That's all just honesty in regards to the kittens. I would love to encourage people to adopt. There's so many cats out there who need a home. But please, before you do, think about everything it entails. An animal deserves to have a forever home and if you decide to bring in an animal, it's good to keep them barring something you just can't help(allergies, moving where they can't go, etc.).

There's a lot of people who get all excited to get an animal, and then they end up dumping them at a shelter when the fun wears off. Trust me, I know how tiring cats can be! So while I'm saying, take time to consider adopting a cat! I also want to say, "be informed and ready for the responsibility."

Now, that's the story of how we got the kittens, here's the fun details about them.

First is our little girl, Smokey. Smokey is all sweetness. She loves, loves, loves attention. She's actually been laying on my arm most of this post. It's hard to type with her tail on the keyboard and my arm pinned. Smokey's life should've been as the pet of some rich socialite who wants a cute little dog to carry in her purse. Smokey's phrase is, "Smokey!!! MOVE!" Because she is always underfoot. ALWAYS. She purposely puts herself in front of a person and becomes a tripping hazard, so that we get tired of dodging her and carry her. I can't tell you how many chores get done while I'm holding Smokey.

Smokey is very good with the kids. She's a lot like Tali in that sense. We have to keep an eye on her when she's with them just to make sure they're playing nice with her. She's still pretty little and she's so docile that the kids can get away with a lot if they want to.
Overall, Smokey is a great cat and I'm hoping with age she'll calm down. Right now the kittens are in the "teen" stage and still causing quite a bit of havoc and destruction.

(recent picture)

And then there's Merlin. I can sum Merlin up with a short story.

When I took the cats to the vet to be fixed, I had to leave them there over night. I came back the next day to get them and the vet came out to talk to me about how things had went.

She says to me, "Miss Smokey is such a sweetheart. She was so good the entire time. But Mr. Merlin . . ."

It's at that point I got that feeling parent's probably get when they're called in to talk to a teacher and it's that child's teacher.

She then regaled me with Merlin's antics and yes, Merlin needs less than 24 hours with a person for them to see what a handful he is.

In Merlin's defense, he is a very sweet cat. He loves people and will get all mushy on just about anyone.

That's about where his defense ends.

Merlin is the ringleader of the troublesome trio. He's also the one that's most likely to be causing trouble. He's the one knocking over flower vases at night because that water is better than the communal bowl. He's the one that will get himself locked in the closet. He's the cat responsible for most of the cat damage in the house.

He's a bundle of energy that makes me think we should've named him Havoc or Ricochet.

He's the one cat that doesn't have a "commonly used phrase", because he does so many things that the only thing in common in each phrase is "MERLIN!!!!!"

He's a very big boy and will probably rival Tali in size someday.
 (recent picture)
He's okay with the kids. He's well-behaved around them, but he'd much rather be left alone and is quite whiny. For example: Cheyenne sat down in front of the window next to him yesterday and he started crying for me. It's his, "Mom!!! She's sitting by me!" cry. I'm like, "You big crybaby, she's not doing anything to you."

"But mom! She's in my sunlight!"

Cats are a fun part of life. They're tiring, annoying, pesky little creatures. But there's nothing quite like a cat who's cuddled up purring next to you.

Some fun photos of the cats!


I'd love to hear about your furry companions!

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Final Lap

It's been a weird week for blogging and I feel like doing something short and sweet.

I was so happy to get my proofs(OH MY GOSH I'M HOLDING MY BOOK!!!) and I've been fighting ever since they arrived to find time to sit down and go through them.

This is the final pass. I'm making sure there's no formatting errors, no typos(hopefully I catch them all), and fixing some minor things.

I've always been a physical book lover and I'll never jump on the e-book wagon(though I do appreciate the idea and get why people enjoy them). So having a physical book to hold has put my story in a whole new light. Things are jumping out easily at me and I'm catching some things I missed after so many times of pouring over the document. Nothing major, just things that as I'm reading in my natural way I find I trip over a word or this would work better if I cut this word or added this word.

So far my best experience has been when I realized that the whole process was taking forever and most of that was because I don't have time. To explain, some parts of getting a book ready for publishing can be done in the scattered seconds here and there. The creative parts however cannot be done like that.

I write almost exclusively at night after everyone is asleep. I can't have distractions. I need to be able to focus and not worry that someone's going to need me or just the general "play quieter so I can think, guys!"(which never works).

Reading is somewhere between "creative" and "scattered" spectrum's.. I can't immerse myself in a book if I'm constantly distracted. I want to read this as a story and not a document to be scoured for problems. I want to just see what jumps out at me when I'm reading naturally.

Anyway, I told my youngest one afternoon that if she didn't want to sleep or play by herself that was fine. "You can stay with mommy, but mommy is going to read this book to you and you have to deal with it."

Darn it, I was going to make time!

So I sat her on my lap in a sunny spot by our sliding glass door and started reading out-loud to her. Wow, best experience to date with my novel. First, Elaina loved it. She just tilted her head back and stared at me the whole time and when I stopped reading to take notes, she'd start "lecturing" me until I started reading again. (demanding 4 month old!)

The other part was tied into struggling as I'm sure a lot of writers do with the fear of "Is this good?"
I've got this "thing" where I'm afraid people will buy my book and then read it and be like, "this isn't a real book!" I can't explain what I mean by that, just that I read stories and don't think about anything but the story and what mystery awaits me. But with my book, I know it all. I know the character's secrets, their endings, what happens to them. I know all the answers to all the mysteries. I'll never be able to pick my book up and read it as I can another person's novel and get swept away on an adventure that I have no idea where it'll go.

So I can't tell if it reads "like a real book", because it will always read differently to me than any other novel.

Now here's the cool part. I'm reading to my daughter and the story sounds like something out of Grimm's Fairytales! I don't know how "in" fairytales are, especially original ones, but that's what "Heart of the Winterland" strikes me as (granted I still haven't gotten very far). I'm going to be able to sit and read a fairytale that I wrote to my kids. That's like . . . AMAZING!

It was also encouraging to feel that maybe I am on the right track.

Overall I've been trying to squeeze this process into any feasible time period that also falls when I'm in the mood for reading(I don't want to miss something because I'm trying to read when I don't want to). It's been difficult and I'm not making very good headway.

Saturday I found some time as my oldest was watching a movie, Elaina was sleeping, and my son was playing quietly by himself. I curled up on the couch with my book, pen, hi-liter, and notebook. Shortly after setting up, my kittens decided to join me. It's been freezing, so I didn't mind the extra body heat. But the cute cuddling didn't last long.


It starts with Smokey rubbing her head all over my book and standing in front of my face so I can't see anything. I get her to lay down and stay out of my way, just as Merlin decides he wants to be a royal pain. I finally grabbed my phone and took some videos of the two rascals.

As you can see, I finally shooed him off at the end. I attempt to resume my work and immediately Smokey decides to do THIS!

In case you're wondering, yes, it is very hard to use a pen or hi-liter if your kitten is obsessively chewing on it and/or grabbing it with her paws.

I tried hiding the hi-liter and Smokey just got in my face and I couldn't see my book or notebook. And then she spotted my hi-liter again and well . . . I just gave up.

As you can see they were a bit like, "why did you stop, human?"

Sunday evening my husband watched the kids so I could again attempt to work. This time I attempted to be sneaky and hunkered down in my bed.

Cats. Cannot. Be. Fooled.

Tali and Smokey decided to behave and lay at the foot of the bed, but Kota wanted some love. She crawled between me and the book and rubbed her head on my face until I pet her. (I swear she knows I'm allergic. Yes, I'm allergic to cats and that didn't stop me from adopting them.) Then she laid down in front of my face and used her kitty powers to make me sleepy. It's terrible! I can't stay awake when there's a warm, purring cat next to me.

I fell asleep.

I'm thinking if I climb up on the roof I might be safe. (Now Elaina is waking up because she knows the cats need some time off from keeping mommy busy and she's taking up the slack.)

Friday, March 4, 2016

Heart of the Winterland

When I started this venture, I had no idea how far it'd take me. I still can't quite believe this dream is going to become a reality. I finished up my final edits last weekend, thanks to my awesome editor Mia Darien. Everything is coming together and I'm now writing my first post about my novel, complete with cover reveal!

I'm very excited to show off the cover for my first novel "Heart of the Winterland".
Heart of the Winterland was originally meant to be a placeholder title. As time went on, it grew on me and I couldn't think of anything that would work better.

There are four points of view in this novel: Cali, Voice, . Most of the story takes place in the present, while part of it is the tale of the kingdom's past (told mostly from Voice's point of view).

The back of the book blurb:

The Princess
On her 100th birthday, the enchantment that holds Princess Calisandra in a state of apathy breaks. Full of questions about her kingdom’s history and what lies outside the borders of her snow-cursed kingdom, she leaves home in search of answers.

The Sorceress
Fate has always been against Amee. Orphaned as a baby, she grew up with darkness snuffing out what little light she could find in her life. When her spirit breaks, she sequesters herself in the border forest. Powerful and angry, she waits …

The Guardian
An orb formed to protect Cali, Voice has never had a purpose beyond caring for the princess’s needs. But as she joins Cali on her journey, her magic vanishes and she starts to wonder about her place in the world.

The Captain
Captain Kota, in forced exile from her homeland, swears that never again will she be powerless. Ascending the ranks of the Shayal guard, her latest mission is to find the one who has escaped Duke Bludgaard. 

The Fugitive
A desperate search has brought Angel far from her home, but now Captain Kota’s relentless pursuit keeps her from her task. When she crosses paths with a na├»ve princess and a sage orb, she finds more than she anticipated.

Heart of the Winterland is a fantasy that would most likely be classified as adult because of the character's ages, but it does feel YA to me. Perhaps this is because I mostly read YA.

I've been participating in the 30 Day Writing Challenge with some fellow writers, and one of the days had us doing character portraits. So here's the five characters mentioned in the blurb and their portraits.

First there is Cali. Most of the story is told from her PoV. Cali is a 100 year old princess in a kingdom that's always covered in snow. Because of her solitary life, she is very naive. Cali's character is innocent and trusting. She's got that spark for adventure, but doesn't really know what adventure will mean. Her past and her kingdom's history are a mystery to her and one of the most enjoyable elements of me weaving this story was playing out the mysteries of Winterland. Cali had a lot of growing to do over the novel and it was so much fun to put her in new situations and see how she responded.

Voice was the one character without a portrait as she is best represented as she is on the cover--as an orb. My inspiration for Voice came with the idea for a character whose words mattered. Not her physical appearance, not what she could do, but what she said. The quiet supporter, the voice of reason. Originally, Voice was invisible, but around chapter 6 I was running into issues. At that point, I wondered if the invisibility was necessary to the character. After some thinking, I turned Voice into an orb. I don't think it changed what was most important about her(what she said), and it made it easier to work with the character and not focus on trying to set up where she was and how another character knew where she was.

Kota is easily one of my top two favorite characters. Kota is the antagonist(or one of them) of Winterland and the one character who was determined to do her own thing. Writers sometimes talk about their characters as if they were real people and taking charge of their story. Kota was that character for me. I would try and plan out what I was going to have her do, and by the time I finished that chapter, she'd done something completely different. Kota was the clearest from the start who she was.
 (Kota's hair is shorter and black.)

Angel was the hardest character for me to write. She was a character I had nothing in common with and when I was trying to write her scenes, I had to work to keep her character consistent. She's the hardened character, who unlike my antagonists, wasn't . . . well, a villain. She was a good person who simply had a tough disposition. I wanted her to be generally likable to readers, but stand out from the gentler character of Cali. Angel was the character brought into the picture to push Cali, to pick at her and give her a taste of reality, but she was also a character who cared.

Amee's character was my other favorite, along with Kota. Her story is told through Voice's narrative of Cali's past. Amee was the character I most related with. I felt like I could've been her if I'd gone through what she did. Better put, I think if I had lived her life, I would've turned out the same way. 

With Amee's story, I had to tell the parts that would interest not just readers, but Cali. As she's the one listening to the story, it needed to make sense for her to here. The storytelling also needed to fit into Cali's journey. Since it wasn't flashbacks showing everything, I had to pick logical points in the trip where Voice would tell this story.

I then had to make Amee's story fit with the present. Past and present needed to match. There were times I had to go back and change something to fit where I ended up in the present. It was definitely tricky in places to write, but I loved Amee as a character.

Her portrait is difficult for me because the one I'm sharing is how she'll always look to me, though it's inaccurate. The look, the hair, the expression, all of it perfectly matches Amee and I can't get past that. But Amee would look more like Cali or Kota.

Heart of the Winterland will be coming out this spring!

And book 2 "Heart of the Sorceress" is in the works.