Some Things Never Change

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The air conditioner at home didn’t sound like this. The sofa was lumpy in different places, there was no carpet, and family members (furry four-legged ones included) were never far away.

All of that has changed. I’m curled up on a new couch, listening to the air conditioner compete with my instrumental playlist. I’m the only person here tonight. No matter how many times I imagined it, or how much advice I was given, I couldn’t know what moving out really felt like.

As it turns out, it feels like my entire life has changed. Everything, from where I store cereal to the route I drive each morning, is different. Some people seem to thrive on change, and while I appreciate that change is necessary, I don’t always cope well with it. Too much at once leaves me overloaded and anxious… like tonight, when I called my mom in tears over a malfunctioning fridge and soggy waffles.

I’ve filled countless journal pages with the changes that have come in the past couple of years, so I won’t belabor that point in my blog post. Suffice it to say, a lot has changed and a lot of it has been to my benefit.

In two days, another one of those good changes will happen when I walk into a church as Miss Munson and walk out as Mrs. A. I’m excited, thankful and a little astonished over this season in my life. Yet as wonderful, memorable and joyous as this time is, it’s also a little overwhelming. (Hence the weeping over refrigerators and waffles.)

After agonizing over kitchen appliances, a stain on the sofa, and more unpacked boxes, I was convinced that my life had changed 100% and would never settle down. Did I mention that I’m a tad melodramatic when things get overwhelming?

Since writing is my therapy, I typed and backspaced several captions about “Change,” and started to ponder what had really changed. Then it dawned on me that even though so much has changed in a short time, some things haven’t. In life, nearly everything changes but there are a few things that remain. Reflecting on those steady things in chaotic times helps to anchor me. Some of my unchanging things are:

Love. My relationships look a little different now that I’ve moved out and I’m getting married, but I still deeply love the same people I did before this season. I’m still confident they care for me. It’s reassuring to know that even when I’m not down the hallway, my parents and brothers love me. It’s comforting that even when I’m overreacting, my soon-to-be husband loves me unwaveringly. I’m truly thankful for the friends, church family and work family who have sacrificed and supported me through this time. I’m in a different place but I’m still connected to many of the same people. That hasn’t changed.

Words. A one-in-the-morning blog post proves I still need to write. Even when I have no idea what I’m trying to say, my brain needs to clear itself onto paper (or a screen.) I used to dramatically say that I was born with ink in my veins. While I’m very much red-blooded, I agree with Lord Byron: “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.”

Chocolate. Just kidding… Maybe.

Community. The people we’re surrounded with cycle through changes, but I think it’s inherent that we all need community. Even when some friendships fade away, we need friends. I’m stubbornly independent and absolutely an introvert, but even I can’t change that I need others. While this forces me to be vulnerable and open, it also reminds me that I’m not alone in stressful times.

Jesus. Everything else could completely pivot, but we have the assurance that He is steady. He is faithful, until the end of time. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8, NKJV). Even though it’s a few years old, I love the song “Remain” by Royal Tailor right now. The lyrics are a perfect reminder that no matter what happens around me, God’s love will remain true.

The sky could fall
The ground could shake
The stars burn out
And seasons change
The time will pass
And beauty fade
But all my love will remain

If you’re overwhelmed by changes right now, know that you’re not alone and that despite all the differences, some things haven’t changed. Acknowledge the changes and start to get comfortable with them, but also reflect on what’s remained the same. Let those things be your anchor as you chart the course for your new adventure. Remember… some things never change.

Deadlines, Dreams and Doing it All

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It’s November and that means three things:

  1. It’s socially acceptable to begin preparing for Christmas. Time to buy more wrapping paper for my collection and start blasting Josh Groban’s holiday album!
  2. It’s National Novel Writing Month. Authors everywhere are surviving on caffeine and competitiveness as they scramble to write 50,000 words by 11:59 pm on November 30th. And…
  3. I haven’t posted anything in over five months. Cringe.

There are lots of words to describe the past 20-ish weeks. “Unpredictable,” “exciting” and “stressful” rank in the top three. 2016 has been non-stop and 2017 doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

With all that movement, some things get pushed aside or trampled over. In my case, blogging was one of those things. All my writing lately has been to meet deadlines. While that’s fine for my academic and professional life, it’s left me feeling stretched and empty as an author. I’ve met one deadline only to be greeted by four more. Each one seems to crowd out my dreams a little more. I looked at my planner the other night and realized my entire life has become a checklist.

When was the last time I did anything fun?  I wondered. A few social events were crammed onto my calendar, but my strongest memory of them was trying to enjoy myself despite the looming deadlines on my mind. When did I last do something for someone else? I thought as I flipped past scribbled out tasks. There was no time to serve others; I barely had time for myself. When did my life become a laundry list? 

Ordinarily, I like lists. But this time, my list made me feel more overwhelmed than empowered. It proved that I had too much to do, not enough time to do it, and no time to do anything else.

With every deadline and trying to do it all, I had left no space for dreams. Somewhere, I picked up the idea that busyness = success. I’ve made my lists, said yes to more than I should, and checked things off only to replace them with new tasks.

To be honest, I still do this. I’m still chasing down deadlines and leaving my dreams in the dust. And I suspect I’m not the only one. All of my friends, new adults and more experienced ones alike, nod knowingly when I talk about busyness. We all have twenty-four hours in a day and approximately twenty-four hundred things to do. In some capacity, we’ve all given up what we want to do for what we have to.

Part of that is simply being a responsible adult. But another part of it is something my mentors have told me, and I am finally beginning to understand: We can’t do everything. “Doing it all,” isn’t realistic or healthy.

Deadlines will always exist but they shouldn’t be all that exists. Life is dull without dreams-  those things we are passionate about, that make us smile brighter, love better, sing louder, talk faster, and dig deeper. Sometimes, the deadlines have to give way a little so the dreams can have a place to grow.

I say this as I have a list of assignments to submit and overflowing emails to answer. I’m shaking my head as I type these words, wondering if I’ll actually take my own advice.

Obviously, I can’t abandon everything and do whatever I dream. Much as I would love to spend every day telling stories, it isn’t going to happen right now. I can, however, carve out a little space to let my soul breathe. I can commit to making my passions a priority rather than an afterthought. I can give myself permission to take a break, to focus on something that is personally meaningful without guilt over being unproductive.

It’s not something I’m used to or fully comfortable with, but I’m taking steps towards finding that balance. This month, that means spending some time writing fiction. It means turning my phone off for a few hours each day, spending more time in prayer than political discussion, and making an effort to appreciate the people I love. These are’t drastic moves but they’ll clear some space for things that matter to me. I suspect that freeing myself from “doing it all,” and giving my dreams a place will also make me more productive when it comes to those deadlines.

I wonder, what dreams have you felt forced to set aside? Is there a small way you can bring them back to life? Your deadlines are important but your dreams are just as significant. If all you can see are deadlines, please do one thing to celebrate your dreams. Take a walk on your lunch break and capture photos of nature; publish that blog post; test out the recipe you found six months ago; support a charitable cause; try the workout you’re not sure you can finish. Deadlines don’t have to mean dead dreams. Living is done best when there’s space for dreaming.

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Author Interview: Mirriam Neal

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There are some bloggers who are simply unmistakable and unforgettable. Mirriam Neal is such a blogger. The first time I read one of her posts, I felt her storytelling seep into my soul. So much, that it’s been nearly two years and I haven’t forgotten the first post I read on her blog. I stumbled on her writing by following a rabbit trail of three or four other blogs, but hers is the only one in that trail I still read consistently. Mirriam writes with such eloquence and depth, but also whimsy and humor. Today, we’re celebrating the recent debut of her novel, Paper Crowns. (Which I desperately need to read. Curse homework for interfering with my reading habits.)

Until I can read the full novel, below is a little preview of Paper Crowns: 

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Ginger has lived in seclusion, with only her aunt Malgarel and her blue cat, Halcyon, to keep her company. Her sheltered, idyllic life is turned upside-down when her home is attacked by messengers from the world of fae. Accompanied by Halcyon (who may or may not be more than just a cat), an irascible wysling named Azrael, and a loyal fire elemental named Salazar, Ginger ventures into the world of fae to bring a ruthless Queen to justice.

Amazon // Barnes & Noble // Pages of Wonder

 

Doesn’t it sound magical? Be sure to check out the Paper Crowns Good Reads page for more. Before you rush off, though, pour a cup of mocha coffee and join me for a chat with Paper Crowns’ author Mirriam Neal. She graciously answered over a dozen of my questions, and her answers are as fabulous as I expected from her. They also make me even more eager to read Paper Crowns. 

  1. What does the beginning of your storytelling process look like? Do you outline, free write, etc.?
    The beginning always looks the same, but with different ingredients: I’ve had enough of said ingredients simmering around that I finally realize I can make something, as soon as I figure out exactly how. I’m a seventy-percent free writer and a thirty-percent plotter. I like to have a vague idea of how I want the book to end, and probably three major things I want to happen. Just enough pins to keep the whole thing from falling apart, and I take it from there.
  2. What was the most difficult part of writing Paper Crowns?
    Editing and revising, really. I wrote it in a month, so the whole thing was kind of a slapdash mess. It still is! I’m working on a couple more tweaks since a few scattered minor mistakes were found – it’s a process.
  3. Let’s play favorites! Without spoilers, who is your favorite character in Paper Crowns and why?
    This is phrased in a very tricky way, Sarah. Very tricky. Hmm. My favorite character to write? The character I’d most like to hang out with? WHICH ONE? Well, my favorite character to write was probably Azrael. He was the easiest. He wanted to be written (he’s pushy that way). The character I’d most like to hang out with is probably Hal. I’d have endless questions.
  4. What is your recipe for creativity?
    It depends, really. Sometimes it means a constant diet of reading, movies, shows, dramas, and music. Other times I need to step away for a while and not read anything but non-fiction. Usually it’s a good mix of both – but I try to immerse myself in stories and music pertinent to what I’m writing. I also try to get out and spend time in towns and cities as frequently as possible, and write in places other than my room or my house. Shaking things up a little often knocks something loose.
  5. Tea time! What’s your beverage of choice, if any, when writing?
    Black coffee is always my beverage of choice. Anytime, anywhere. (Although I’m a fan of many beverages and won’t turn down anything from tea to kombucha.)
  6. What is one thing most people wouldn’t guess about your writing?
    How hard it is, probably. Even the easy novels like the Paper series. They’re the hardest things I ever do. I get told my writing feels effortless much of the time, which is often a large compliment but sometimes feels a little confusing – is that good or bad? I don’t want people to think that writing is easy, or that I do it because I’m lazy. It’s real work. It stresses me and pushes me just like any job.
  7. What has been a defining moment for you as an author?
    My mother was reading one of my novels and was so physically revolted that she had to stop eating lunch. She asked how I could write something so horrible, and I pointed out that I hadn’t written anything horrible – I just wrote it so that her brain would fill in the gaps. She went back and re-read it, and told me, astonished, that I was right. This was a huge leap forward for me, both in style and in my personal confidence.
  8. If you could visit any fictional land, where would you travel?
    I would absolutely travel to Middle-Earth. #Basic, I know, but it was my first otherworld love and continues to be the strongest.
  9. What makes a good villain?
    I think the scariest villains are the ones who might actually do something good, or who show a human side to their villainy. In ‘Dragon Blade,’ Tiberius blinds his young brother with acid, but he weeps as he does it. He knows the pain he’s causing, and it pains him in turn – but he does it anyway. That’s terrifying.
  10. If you could have lunch with any author or artist, who would you choose?
    I would have lunch with John Howe. It’s still surreal to be able to say ‘I’m friends with John Howe,’ but it’s true – yet he lives in Switzerland, so we’ve never met. Having lunch with him would be a dream come true.
  11. Are there any quotes that inspire your creativity?
    Many quotes inspire me, but a consistent favorite is ‘be the person you needed when you were younger.’ It’s an important mindset, I think, and one I try to live by.
  12. Choose a superpower just for today.
    Flight. Every time.
  13. Would you rather have a pet dragon or unicorn? Why?
    A dragon. Unicorns are beautiful and often have healing powers, but dragons are more battle-fit, they can breathe fire (and often have other talents, like shape-shifting or voice mimicry) and they’re shrewd PLUS they can fly.
  14. Would you be most at home among hobbits, elves or dwarves?
    Elves. I think I would be happiest there. The history, the architecture, the art, the music, the war-skills, the aesthetics – the conversations I could have!
  15. Thank you for making an appearance at On Another Note today! Is there anything else you would like to share? The spotlight is yours!
    You have the ability to make an impact on everyone you meet. I think it’s an important thing to keep in mind. Thank you so much for having me, Sarah!

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About the Author: 

Mirriam Neal is a twenty-two-year-old Northwestern hipster living in Atlanta. She writes hard-to-describe books in hard-to-describe genres, and illustrates things whenever she finds the time. She aspires to live as faithfully and creatively as she can and she hopes you do, too.

Visit Mirriam’s blog, Wishful Thinking at mirriamneal.com or send a note to the­shieldmaiden@hotmail.com

Also check out the other stops on the Paper Crowns blog tour – you can view a complete list here.

Paper Crowns is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Now scoot, go get a copy.

Happy reading!

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Last Minute NaNoWriMo Survival Tips

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October 31st is a scary day, and it has nothing to do with Halloween. (Which I always forget about anyway.) No, this final day of October is frightening because November 1st is mere hours away… And with it comes National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, a.k.a. “The Month Writers Sacrifice Their Remaining Sanity and Neglect Basic Survival Skills.” Sounds fun, right?

Actually, it is. Sort of. Once you get past the lack of socialization and sleep, it really is pretty awesome. Last year, I wrote a post of 30 Reasons to do NaNoWriMo. If you’re on the fence about doing NaNoWriMo, maybe this list will push you onto the side of slightly insane writers taking the challenge. (You can read it here)

Let’s say you’ve already decided to get in on the action, though, but now you have no idea how November is already here and you still have NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE DOING WITH YOUR NOVEL. (Deep breaths. Don’t hyperventilate.)

Should you drop out? There’s always next November, right? Surely you can’t wade into the trenches of NaNoWriMo without a detailed battle plan, can you? You’ll never survive now that you’ve waited until the stroke of midnight to take action.

Never fear, my writing comrade. I’m right there with you. Until this morning, I hadn’t even settled on a story to work on this month, and I’m still having doubts. I logged into my NaNoWriMo profile for the first time two hours ago. If anyone isn’t ready to take on this monster, it’s me. But ready or not, here it comes. Part of being a novelist is being adaptable, and that’s a skill I work in November more than any other month. No story is ever truly ready, and writing is never without surprises, no matter how much we outline. Even if you just decided five minutes ago to get involved with NaNoWriMo, you can make November work in your favor.

Here are my simple tips for surviving NaNoWriMo, despite being mostly unprepared.

  1. Pick a story and stick to it. It doesn’t need to be your most revolutionary idea ever, or have any publishing potential. You don’t even have to like it after the thirty days of November are up. Just pick one idea and give it one month to see what happens.
  2. Speaking of ideas, if you have no ideas whatsoever, consult a prompt generator. My two favorites are the Google Play apps, Story Plot Generator and Writing Prompts. For iOS, there’s a similar app called the Great Plot Generator. Even if you don’t go with the exact idea generated, it may spark something. If you have too many ideas and not a single one stands out, write a few down and randomly pull one. There you go! Your latest literary masterpiece!
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  3. Be unoriginal. You only have four weeks to write 50,000 words. Now is not the time to create detailed character diagrams, in-depth fantasy worlds, or your own language. It’s okay if your main character reminds you of the lead in your favorite show. If your world is suspiciously like the Shire, keep writing. As you go, your story will take on a life of its own. In the meantime, don’t get so hung up on originality that you write nothing at all, original or otherwise. Even if you’ll have to make changes later to avoid plagiarism, borrow the ideas you need to keep going.
  4. Forget (almost) every writing rule you’ve ever learned. Go ahead and write one chapter in first person and the next in third. Ignore commas entirely. Ramble on for two pages without pauses. This is November. This is the month of writing anarchy and dangling modifiers.
  5. Repeat after me: This draft is going to be bad, and that’s good. I have to remind myself of this every November. The sooner you accept the inevitable badness of this draft, the easier it is to adapt to it. Make a bad draft work for you, rather than trying to work against that bad draft.
  6. Get a cheap notebook and a fast pen. I don’t recall who first said that, but it’s some of the most effective writing advice I’ve ever heard. My best ideas tend to come from marking up a blank page rather than staring at a blank screen.
  7. Don’t be distracted by all the shiny new writing apps and platforms. There are so many to try, but November isn’t the month to experiment with them. Keep it simple. Stick to what works.
  8. Create a rough outline. I use the term “outline” loosely, because it doesn’t even need to be in order. Just jot down anything that seems relevant to the story. Scene ideas, even if you aren’t sure where they fit, can be super useful. Character names, facts about dragons, chapter titles… Anything you want to include, dump into a document. Nothing is too insignificant to be inspiration for NaNoWriMo.
  9. Consult your calendar. Hardly anyone has time for NaNoWriMo, but if you truly are overbooked and can’t cancel anything, consider making an adjustment. Either pick a different month to devote to writing, or set a smaller goal than 50k. If you can squeeze your novel into November, block out some writing appointments. Lighten up on other activities as you’re able so you don’t burn out.
  10. Establish boundaries. I learned the hard way that NaNoWriMo will take over your life if there are no boundaries set at the beginning. The first time I competed, I ended up exhausted to the point of illness. And since I refused to take any downtime, I was probably sick for longer than I needed to be. Noveling is important, to be sure, but there actually are more important things. Don’t sacrifice sleep, meals, or relationships for a few thousand words.
  11. Remember why you’re doing this. You’re a writer, and you have a story to tell. NaNoWriMo is just one way of carrying out this goal. Keep that in mind, and don’t stress.
  12. Just start. No matter how prepared you do or don’t feel, nothing can happen until you start. Take it one day at a time, word by word. You may end up with 50,000 words at the end of November! And if not? It’s still a grand noveling adventure.This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and I could always use some more tips on surviving National Novel Writing Month. Comment your own novel advice below.Happy NaNoWriMo!

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Maleficent’s Character Depth

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It’s been a week since Maleficent released on DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming services everywhere. Five minutes after turning it on, I had decided it was brilliant. Fifteen minutes in, I loved the character of Maleficent. Thirty minutes later, I was thinking about how much Maleficent could teach me about writing other characters. The film was too good to distract myself from, though, so I turned off the writer part of my brain as best I could and simply absorbed each scene.

Watching the entire film once was not enough, so the next night, I did it again. This time, I took notes.

For good measure, I watched it a third time a couple of days later and added a few more notes.

Before I share my take on Maleficent, let me explain one thing: I’ve never seen the original Disney animated Sleeping Beauty. Maleficent scared me as a child, and then I never got around to watching the movie in later years. So I went into the retelling of Maleficent with no comparisons or biases. Thus, I can only analyze her character as it was portrayed in the Angelina Jolie version.

Oh, one more aside: If you haven’t watched Maleficent yet, I urge you to go no farther. The sections below contain spoilers, and I certainly don’t want to be guilty of ruining your experience. So if you’re planning to watch it but haven’t yet, just come back here later. I promise, the post isn’t going anywhere.

All right, now that I have all the disclaimers out of the way, let’s discuss Maleficent and what her character taught me about writing characters with depth.

  1. Maleficent wasn’t truly a villain in this version, but she does have a darker side. However, she wasn’t born with it. Her younger self was all lightness and kindness. Bits of her childhood still show through later, even as her darker side develops over it. Whether hero, anti-hero, sidekick or villain, I think it’s important to learn a character’s history and how their present traits developed. Back story is so essential for well-rounded characters!
  2. She was a dynamic character. This follows along with point #1: Maleficent changes over the film. Things don’t just happen to her; they shape her. Her reactions make her real and relatable, and I found myself wondering what I would do in her situations. A well-written character doesn’t simply move through scenarios; they respond to them and make us consider how we would react, too. Like real people, characters change as their lives do.

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  3. Maleficent longed for love. In some way, I think we all do. People (and apparently faeries) were created to love and be loved. Even after Maleficent was betrayed and no longer believed in true love, she couldn’t stop her heart from being touched again, this time by her adopted god-daughter. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I believe that even the coldest of characters has a heart in need of love.
  4. Even after she was broken and bitter, Maleficent had a soft spot. She rescues a crow, watches over little Aurora, and later tries to spare her enemy’s life. Granted, the most villainous characters are often devoid of all mercy; but for the rest, I find it highly important to infuse compassion into even the damaged ones. It gives us something to cheer for, and it also shows the character’s true strength.
  5. Loners need friends, too. Despite isolating herself in the Moors, Maleficent still needed companionship. Diaval is her faithful sidekick and servant, standing by Maleficent and growing to become her friend. Aurora also finds a place in Maleficent’s heart and life, so much that Maleficent is willing to go to any lengths to save her. Although Maleficent is undoubtedly independent, she needs help at times, too. Characters can be strong, even lone wolves, but just as we all desire love, on some level, we desire acceptance and understanding. There can be exceptions, but generally, I like to give characters at least one confidante.
  6. Brokenness isn’t weakness. Maleficent has her share of grief and heartbreak, and she doesn’t always deal with it in a healthy way. However, being damaged doesn’t turn her into a weak character. If anything, her trials eventually make her stronger than ever. I’m all for protagonists having flaws and sorrows, and for falling under their weight at times. In the end, though, I love seeing those characters rise above their hardships and come back stronger than ever.
  7. Her actions matter. Each choice Maleficent makes comes with consequences. To some extent, she decides her destiny. On the other had, her control only reaches so far. Maleficent cannot manage everything, and in some cases, her decisions don’t amount to as much as she would like. This is something I can fully relate to, and so it’s another important element for other characters. Their actions need to carry weight but no one can manipulate every outcome.
  8. Maleficent is intelligent. She plans her moves, considers her course, and acts based on what she knows. Never once did she seem slow-witted. Side characters don’t all need to be the brightest bulbs, but main characters should generally be smart enough to outshine them. After a while, cluelessness can become tiresome in protagonists.MALEFICENT
  9. She’s unique. No one else, faerie or human, has the same look, powers or backstory as Maleficent. Just as we are in real life, she is one of a kind. It sounds like an impossible task, but each character should be individual in their own way.
  10. Maleficent was never beyond hope. This is perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the story. In spite of all that went wrong, all she did wrong, and all that was lost, Maleficent had a chance to be restored. She took responsibility for her actions and did her best to amend them, and ultimately, she was redeemed. Regardless of my characters’ deeds, I believe they should have a chance to be redeemed. God lovingly teaches us that no one is too far gone to be forgiven. I try to extend this mercy to each character I write, even if they don’t all accept it.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope you enjoyed my take on the depth of Maleficent’s character! Maybe it will be helpful for you in creating your own deep characters. Is there anything you would add to the list, either about Maleficent or characters in general? What did you think of the film?

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All Maleficent images are from Disney’s Official Maleficent Movie Site. I do not own them.