Tips for Writers: What to do When Your Camel Does THIS

Let’s set the scene. I’m on a press trip in Israel, at a Bedouin camp, waiting my turn to ride a camel, when the so-called “ship of the desert” in front of me does THIS.

He kneels unexpectedly, and my friends start to slide off his back. For a second everybody panics (except the Bedouin camel owner, who already got paid for this).

Contrary to what many aspiring writers think, this is typical of the freelance writing life. Yes, sometimes we get to go on fantastic press trips. We get paid–can you believe it?– for seeing another part of the world, meeting new people, and experiencing new things. Hey, we know how lucky we are.

But what others don’t know is how often a camel takes a knee.

One of my big camels–that is, one of my best clients–is about to go down, and that means my income is slipping, just like my buddies on the press trip. I’m going to have to do what I’ve done many times before: I’ve gotta round up some new camels.

New writers don’t always realize that freelancing is as much about marketing as about writing. You constantly have to look for new outlets for your work. Putting all your eggs in one basket, no matter how big, is dangerous if things change. And believe me, they will. Editors leave. Publications fold. Budgets get cut and so do contractors and freelancers.

Right now, I’m searching the horizon for new opportunities. But it’s okay. I’ve had to do this before and I’m sure I’ll have to do it again. I’m not panicking. (Much.)

Whatever you’re doing–writing, parenting, selling shoes or painting houses–don’t despair when your camel goes down. Just look for the next oasis. They’re always out there, and that’s where you’ll find the camels.

 

 

Cruising with the Carnival Horizon

Queen Latifah

Well…okay. I didn’t really sail on the new Carnival Cruise ship, Horizon, so the title of this post isn’t quite right.

But I was invited to its official naming ceremony in New York, which was a blast. At a press conference prior to boarding, we journalists and photographers got to meet the Queen herself, Queen Latifah, who is partnering with Carnival Cruise Lines to support St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital.

What a worthy cause! The families of children fighting cancer and other childhood diseases never receive a bill from St. Jude’s–not for treatments, housing or food. It’s all provided free to them.

(If you’re moved to donate, click here. St. Jude’s has increased the survival rate among kids with cancer from 20%, when the research hospital was founded, to 80%. Our donations can push that number even higher.)

I’ll post more about the amazing Carnival Horizon naming ceremony soon, and while we stayed in port this time, I’m ready to set sail the next time I board a Carnival cruise ship.

 

Black Petunias: Black Magic For Your Garden

 

I know, I know. This petunia doesn’t look black at all in the photo. But I promise–when you see it in person, it looks like black velvet.

 

You know what they say about a little black dress. Every woman needs one in her closet.  But black flowers in your garden? Aren’t black blooms usually dead blooms?

Well, no. I recently found a basket of gorgeous, near-black petunias at our local Home Depot, and they were so velvety and unusual, I just had to bring them home. But they aren’t completely black. It’s hard to find truly black plants, and many are just very deep, dark shades of purple, purple-red, or blue.

I’m telling you, so when you look at the pictures of my petunias, you won’t wonder what I’m talking about. That’s because my “black” petunias, when photographed in the sunlight, look purple. But when the light is right, they’re dusky and mysterious and beautifully, velvet-black. Each bloom has a pale yellow star in its throat.

I  don’t know the variety name, or I’d share it.  It’s possible that mine are ‘Pinstripe’ petunias; click here to see for yourself.  I don’t think I have ‘Phantom,’ which is sold by other seed sellers and garden centers, because the yellow markings look too wide.  But I bet if you look around, you can find something similar.

If a dip into the world of inky plants makes you yearn for more, check out a book called Black Plants: 75 Striking Choices for the Garden, by Paul Bonine (Timber Press). The author covers black pansies, lilies, agapanthus, hollyhocks (like the ‘Black Watchman’ heirloom hollyhocks in my gardening book), and more, all of which might persuade you that black is the new green.

I’m not ready to convert my garden, with its springlike palette of pale blues, yellows, pinks, and rose-red, to all-black, but it’s fun to try something really different–and you know how we gardeners are. We always want someone to visit and ask, “Where did you get that?”

Update: Thanks to Gary, at PlantCareToday.com, who wrote to tell me that King George III sent Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph, to explore Argentina. While he was there, he collected samples that were used later to confirm that petunias and tobacco are related. Learn more about petunia care here.

 

Irresistible Shed Makeovers

artist shed, courtesy of Lowe's

Courtesy of Lowe’s

Today I’m sharing a post I wrote for HGTV.com about transforming an ordinary garden shed into –well, whatever you like. Turn it into a she-shed, a yoga studio, a place to paint or just a personal escape. Click here the to explore all the possibilities.

Woolly: A Book Review

Occasionally, publishers send me complimentary copies of books to review, or I’m approved for a title I’ve requested on Netgalley.com, like Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures (Simon and Schuster) I’ve got to admit: I thought this was a novel after I read the first few pages. Author Ben Mezrich is a really engaging storyteller, and this non-fiction book has a Jurassic Park quality that might make you think it’s all made up. But surprisingly, it’s not, and the way Mezrich writes about real-life scientists and their research work makes for a terrific read. Highly recommended, even if you’re not a woolly mammoth fan.

Hydrangeas!

My hydrangeas have really exploded with colorful blooms this year. It’s no thanks to me, really. I suspect the recent rains helped. Take a look!

 

 

 

 

 

The Nebraska Sandhills: Tanking

As a travel writer (I work for the Travel Channel), I get to take some pretty cool trips now and then. Recently I visited the Sandhills of central Nebraska, where we did something you can’t do in most places: we went “tankin'”.  That’s Nebraska-speak for floating down the river in a tank once used to feed and water cattle.  (Yes, it floats just fine!)

 

 

 

This photo is pre-launch. Once we climbed into the tank, we sat on benches inside, and had room for a cooler packed with sandwiches, fruit and cookies. A picnic on the Middle Loup River = unbeatable summer fun.

The water’s not very deep here; maybe 4 feet in spots. It was shallow enough that one of us to get out and give us a shove when we got stuck on a sandbar. The tanks drift with the current, so paddling is optional.

The sun coming through the cottonwood trees on the bank was glorious. If we had had more time, we could’ve pulled our tanks onto the shore and picnicked there. Floating was so peaceful and calming. Nothing but the sounds of songbirds and the gurgle and bubble of the water.

See the sand on the bank? That’s why this region is known as the Sandhills. There’s very little topsoil to support trees, but the sandy hills, which cover about 1/3 of the entire state, are home to mixed prairie grasses.

More to come in part 2!

The Rush of the Mush

I’m a bit late posting pix from my trip to The Resort at Paws Up, in Greenough, Montana. But since it’s May, and it’s supposed to hit 87 degrees today, this is a good time to look at some ice and snow, right?

I was in Montana to write about dog sledding for Roam, the Travel Channel blog. This was my first ride–and I hope it won’t be my last.

Resort at Paws Up

Morning at the Resort at Paws Up. Just another day in a wintery paradise.

 

 

I drove up to find see the dogs had arrived in their own “car.” Yes, those cut-outs are customized for their ears.

 

 

Hannah, my guide, let me peer into her truck to see the dogs’ harnesses and other gear. Dogs peered back at me.

 

Hannah could barely restrain the dogs, once they were hitched to the sled. It’s true–they’re born to run.

 

The dogs stopped to scoop up snow when they were thirsty. In case you’re wondering, bathroom breaks  are taken on the go.

 

At the end of the trail, Hannah and a few pups were happy to pose for pictures. This was a fantastic experience–thank you, Paws Up!

 

 

South Dakota’s Buffalo Roundup

baby bison and mother

Courtesy South Dakota Dept. of Tourism

You’d think you’re in a Western movie. Cowboys and cowgirls crack whips in the air, dust swirls, horses whinny–and then you hear it: the thunder of hooves coming out of the Black Hills.

Custer State Park bison roundup

Courtesy South Dakota Dept. of Tourism

Put the annual Bison Roundup, held in South Dakota’s Custer State Park, on your bucket list. I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see it while on a press tour. I rode, standing up, with other writers and photographers, in the back of a pick-up truck as we bounced across the grasslands, following the wranglers. (We held onto to safety rails as we hit stumps and prairie dog holes, or there might have been some headlines about trampled journalists.)

South Dakota Bison roundup

Courtesy South Dakota Dept. of Tourism

Riding alongside the bison–and these are American bison, although most of us call them buffalo –is a don’t-miss experience. Cowboys and cowgirls have to prove their skills to ride in this yearly event, when 1,300 of these massive animals are pushed into corrals to be counted and vaccinated. First year babies, or calves, are branded.

Bison

Courtesy South Dakota Dept. of Tourism

Custer is a 71,000-acre park, but the land can only support a set number of bison, so some are auctioned off. The rest are set free to roam the park again.

Cowboy at bison roundup

The 2017 roundup is scheduled for Sept. 29, and it typically draws a crowd of 20,000 or more. If you go, take a chair or blanket to spread on the ground, so you can watch from the hillside. It’s free and open to the public, but you can buy a pancake breakfast while you wait for the action to start, or hang around afterwards for a bison BBQ lunch, if you’re hungry. Bring your binoculars, video recorder, and camera, because these are memories worth keeping.

bison

 

Planning Your Novel With Janice Hardy

I’m excited to share a post today from guest blogger Janice Hardy, author of the teen fantasy fiction trilogy, The Healing Wars. She’s also the founder of Fiction University, a writing instructor and a popular speaker at conferences and workshops. Janice, thanks so much for sharing this excerpt from your new book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Author Janice Hardy

Is Your Novel Character-Driven or Plot-Driven? 

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Writers (and novels) typically fall into one of two camps: character driven or plot driven, If you’re the kind of writer who comes up with characters first and figures out the plot as you write, then you might find it frustrating to try to work out a plot first. Just like a plot-driven writer might find it difficult to develop the characters first. Knowing which you are makes going forward much easier.

If your idea (or writing style) leans more toward one side than the other, don’t worry. Writing is a process, not a fill-in-the-blanks, one-size-fits-all template.

Are You Character-Driven?

Character driven means the focus is more on the character and her internal journey than the external issues of the plot. This doesn’t mean plot isn’t important, but the issues the character deals with are personal and often affect only that person or the people closest to her.

The main point of the novel is to show character growth and have the protagonist learn a valuable lesson about herself that allows her to be a better person (or points out a fatal flaw that causes her doom in a darker tale. Not every novel has to have a happy ending.)

Character-driven ideas typically manifest as a character with a problem first. This person has an issue that is central to the story and the journey to understand that issue is at the heart of the conflict. What that character is going to do isn’t always clear at first, because the journey and the emotional story arc is what matters more.

For example:

  • A woman with a fear of commitment must learn to let others in.
  • A selfish boy must learn to think about others.
  • A workaholic must learn to take time for family.

 

How this works with a plot: These problems are all internal, even though they likely have external problems due to these issues. A fear of commitment might translate to being alone and unhappy, selfishness could lead to having no friends, and working all the time often ends in divorce.

But the end goal isn’t as simple as “find someone to marry” or “make a friend” or “quit a job.” Those goals won’t solve the underlying problem until the character goes through her emotional journey. There will be goals and problems that allow the protagonist to grow and learn what she needs to learn to achieve a specific goal, and that’s where the focus lies.

 

Key Elements of a Character-Driven Novel

  • The protagonist is responsible for what happens to her and acts to make the novel happen.
  • Internal forces affect the protagonist.
  • Personal growth and emotional change of the protagonist are major parts of the resolution of the novel.

 

Are You Plot-Driven?

Plot-driven means the focus is more on the external elements forcing the characters to act than on the personal journey. The stakes are frequently higher and matter more on a larger scale. This doesn’t mean the characters are unimportant, but solving the problem is more important than character growth or lessons learned, though characters can grow and learn even in plot-driven novels.

Plot-driven ideas typically manifest as a situation or problem first. An interesting situation has occurred and someone is going to have to deal with it. Who that someone is might not matter at first, because resolving the problem is what matters more.

For example:

  • Terrorists are planning to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge
  • A plane goes down in the wilderness and a survivor has to make it to safety
  • A protest at a factory turns into a riot

 

How this works with characters: These problems are all external, even though each will focus around a character who will likely have personal issues to deal with as she resolves her problem. Stopping terrorists entails personal risk, survival in the wilderness draws on untapped strength or knowledge, dealing with a riot requires commitment and diplomacy.

But the end goal isn’t “face your fears to stop a terrorist” or “find your inner strength” or “redeem yourself for a terrible mistake.” The novel won’t be about the growth or lessons learned, even though the protagonist will likely change a little over the course of the novel as she resolves the external problem.

 

Key Elements of a Plot-Driven Novel

External forces trigger the plot and cause the protagonist to act by reacting to that event.

Resolving the external problem matters more than a personal change in the character.

 

Are You Both?

It is possible to have both—a strong protagonist with a compelling emotional journey who is put into an interesting situation that needs to be resolved. Through resolving the plot problem, the emotional journey of the protagonist is experienced and achieved.

This is a powerful combination and it’s not a bad thing to aim for with every novel. But don’t worry if your idea leans more to one side than the other at this stage. You’ll have plenty of time to develop both sides—character and plot—if you want to do both.

For example:

  • An FBI agent faces his own seditious past while trying to prevent a terrorist attack.
  • A timid girl discovers her own inner strengths when her plane crashes in the wilderness.
  • A workaholic realizes the value of family when a protest at work turns into a riot.

 

How this works with both: These all have external problems that are made more difficult by internal issues. Stopping a terrorist exposes a dark secret, survival in the wilderness triggers a realization of personal strength, a protest turns deadly and reveals what matters most. The external end goal is the catalyst that forces the protagonist to change internally. The novel is about the growth and lessons learned as the protagonist resolves the external problem. The two sides work in tandem to craft a plot arc and a character arc that depend on each other.

 

Key Elements of a Plot- and Character-Driven Novel

  • External forces trigger the plot and affect the protagonist in a personal way that forces her to act.
  • The protagonist can’t avoid the external problem because it would have serious repercussions on an internal issue.
  • Resolving the external problem is what will allow the protagonist to resolve her internal issue.

 

Books don’t have to be fully plot driven or fully character driven. These are just terms for common writing styles that can help you figure out how to approach writing a novel. Don’t feel you have to be one or the other or your novel won’t work, but if you do know you think a certain way (plots first or characters first), that can be an asset in the planning process.

*Excerpted from my book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure

Where do you fall on the character vs. plot scale?

Win a 10-Page Critique From Janice Hardy

Three Books. Three Months. Three Chances to Win.

To celebrate the release of my newest writing books, I’m going on a three-month blog tour–and each month, one lucky winner will receive a 10-page critique from me.

It’s easy to enter. Simply visit leave a comment and enter the drawing via Rafflecopter. One entry per blog, but you can enter on every stop on the tour. At the end of each month, I’ll randomly choose a winner.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Looking for tips on writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel, and the just-released companion guide, the Planning Your Novel Workbook.