Spirited Away

Welcome to Imagine That on Wednesdays!  Here’s a random fact about me: I love fantasy anime.  The breadth of imagination the writers and animators have inspires me.  Sometimes the images are breathtaking, sometimes they’re crazy weird, but that’s what makes watching it such an adventure.

Here’s one of those masterpieces by acclaimed filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki: Spirited Away.

Ten-year-old Chihiro is sullen when her parents uproot her from her home and move to a new neighborhood.  On the way, they stumble into the spirit world where her parents are transformed into pigs.  To find a way to save them, Chihiro takes a job at the bathhouse, run by the witch Yubaba.  Yubaba controls people by stealing their names.  Chihiro becomes Sen and must fight to remember who she is and why she’s in the spirit world.  She’ll discover courage she never knew she had as she faces a stink spirit, a monster who devours people, a curse, and a dragon who knew her as a young child, though she can’t remember how.

The Characters

Chihiro starts out as a pouting, obnoxious whiner.  However, throughout her adventure, she will learn strength and determination, not to mention the discipline of hard work.  She’ll learn to think of others before herself and face her fears on behalf of those she loves.

Haku is the boy (also a dragon) who rescues Chihiro when she first enters the spirit world.  He continues to help her by sending her to people he trusts.  Haku has his own agenda, and though he works for Yubaba, he’s fighting to remember his name and be free of her.  He thinks Chihiro holds the key to his true identity, though neither can recall how or where.

Yubaba runs the bathhouse and controls all her employees by stealing their names.  She’s obsessed with profit and running a business, so much so that she fails to notice when her baby boy is replaced with a dummy.

Boh is a selfish, fussy, screaming child who’s never left the safety of his padded playpen.  Yubaba’s twin sister transforms Boh into a mouse as punishment for Yubaba ordering Haku to steal her gold seal.  Like Chihiro, this swaddling baby boy undergoes his own journey from selfish brat to wiser toddler.

Zeniba is Yubaba’s twin sister who lives out in the boonies.  When Chihiro makes her way there to return the gold seal and plead for Haku’s life, Zeniba turns out to be quite the grandmotherly figure.  All the curses she cast were to teach lessons.

There are some other interesting characters.  Karmaji is a six-armed man who works in the boiler room with the soot mites.  No Face takes a liking to Chihiro, but accidentally loses control and starts eating all the employees at the bathhouse.

Spirited Away is a beautiful coming of age story wrapped in wonder and splendor.

So tell me, have you seen Spirited Away?  Are you going to go rent it?  Do you like the style of anime and the fantastical interpretations?  Or is it too weird for you?  I love hearing from you!

A Round of Words in 80 Days

Today kicks off Round 3 of A Round of Words in 80 Days, which I will be participating in for the first time.  It’s a writing challenge where we set our own goals, check in twice a week, and encourage each other to keep at it.  You can keep up with my goals and progress here, or click on the page above.  (You could also join.  😉 )

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been going through a writing funk.  Here I have summer stretched out before me with loads of free time, and I can’t bring myself to start my next manuscript.  I tried, and what I got was word poop, to quote Kristen Lamb’s recent post on Struggling with Burnout.

Over the past month I have embraced the funk and have occupied my time with other things: reading, drawing, cleaning, and blogging.  My creativity hasn’t shut down completely; I’ve just given it a chance at a different outlet.  The test comes this week, however, as I plunge into actual work.  Something will come of my efforts.  Good, bad, or poopy, I will write!  Thankfully, an idea struck the other day.  I’m not sure I like it, but since it’s a plausible subplot, I’m willing to mull it over and see what comes of it.

The idea came to me in the theater as I was watching a special showing of The Lord of the Rings, Return of the King extended edition.  Now, one might say that’s perfectly natural.  After all, LoTR has great storytelling, great characters, and a great plot.  What’s not to be inspired by?

Except I don’t think Gimli should engender thoughts about vampires.  Nuh-uh, not seeing the connection.  Talk about multitasking on the brain, trying to enjoy a mesmerizing tale of epic proportions and working out the motivations of a rogue vampire killer.  Seriously Muse, show some respect?  Sometimes you have the attention span of a two-year-old.

Anyway, wish me luck on this endeavor!  And in honor of this challenge, in this Monday’s short story it’s “Teagan’s Turn to Write.”

What is your character’s love language?

Hey guys, today I’m going to talk about character building.  There are a lot of methods and exercises for developing a character.  One of my friends, when trying to get to know her character, will write her in the midst of various emotions: what is she like when she’s happy, when she’s mad, sad, goofy, humiliated, etc.

Another layer to understanding your character is to know what his or her love language is.  Some of you are thinking this only applies to romance writers, but a person’s love language isn’t only about romantic love; it’s about what makes them feel valued and cared for in their relationships.  This might also help you with insight into causes for conflict, especially if your characters have different love languages.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  First, here are the Five Love Languages as defined by Gary Chapman (here’s the website if you want to read more about it; there’s even a published book).

Words of Affirmation–Compliments, praise, and the words “I love you” are very important to this person.  In turn, any insult or verbal degradation could be devastating.  “Sticks and Stones, but words may never hurt me” does not apply to them.

Quality Time–full, undivided attention.  No “let’s have a conversation while I watch TV,” or in a fantasy story (told you it applies across genres), “can you please stop sharpening your sword so we can talk?”  Being cancelled on, or having dates postponed, or the date showing up late are very hurtful.

Receiving Gifts–This person appreciates well-thought-out gifts, gifts that the giver took time to tailor to this specific person.  To the person with this love language, they feel valued when people show they care for and know them when they give them special gifts.  It’s not about materialism, but the thought behind it.  Which means that thoughtless or last-minute gifts are hurtful.  Forgetting occasions where gifts are usually given, like birthdays and anniversaries, is also devastating.

Acts of Service–Helping out and easing one’s burden can show this type of person they’re loved and valued.  The old family sitcom stereotype, “why won’t my husband help clean the house?” probably stems from this love language.  Not helping or making one’s work harder does not speak love to this person.

Physical Touch–Don’t all rush to sex here.  Holding hands, pats on the back, soft touches, and hugs are what make this person feel loved.  Withholding these from someone who needs them will feel like neglect.

So if you have two people, Sherri whose love language is Quality Time, and Marcus who likes gifts, there’s bound to be some conflict.  Marcus the pirate brings back booty to give to his sweetheart because that’s how he feels and communicates love.  Sherri the wench with wanderlust feels like she’s being bought off when all she really wants is for Marcus to sail away with her so they can have adventures and raid merchant ships together.  It’s not their love for each other that’s in question, but how they express it.

Your book might never go into love languages, and your characters never sit down and say, “you know, I’m feeling really unloved because my love language is ___.”  That’s probably a good thing.  We don’t want to get expository on our readers.  Even if you never use these types of conflict, you will still know one more thing about your characters, and it’s up to authors to know everything, even the stuff we don’t show our readers.

So what do you guys think?  Have you ever thought about your character’s love language?  Maybe you have, just under another label?  Do you know what your love language is?

The Phoenix

The phoenix is one of my favorite mythological creatures.  The power of fire as both destructive and regenerative is mesmerizing.  The myth is essentially the same across cultures–the phoenix is a firebird who bursts into flame at death every 100 to 1,000 years and is reborn from the ashes.  But there are some interesting varieties.

Egyptian Phoenix

The Egyptian phoenix was called the Bennu, and was thought to be the soul of Ra, the Sun-God.  It was not depicted in the traditional colors associated with the phoenix, but instead was a grey, purple, blue, or white heron.  At the end of its life cycle, it would make a nest of cinnamon twigs and ignite, thereby burning completely to ashes.  Once the new phoenix emerged, it would embalm the ashes of the old phoenix into an egg and deposit it in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis.  The Greeks adapted the same myth to their own liking, making the colors more bright and fiery, and associating the bird with their Sun-God, Apollo.

Persian Phoenix

The Huma bursts into flame every few hundred years.  It is said that the Huma spends its life flying above the earth, never to land.  To be touched by its shadow alone is said to bring good fortune, and should the bird alight on your shoulder, it foretells kingship.  Catching the Huma is impossible, but just the sight of it will bring happiness to a person for the rest of their days.  The Huma bird contains both male and female attributes, one on each wing/leg.  It is also said to be large enough to carry off a whale!

Chinese Phoenix

Originally, the feng were the male birds and the huang female, but tradition later blended the two into a single entity, the Fenghuang, and made it female.  The phoenix then became the symbol for the Empress and could be paired with the male Chinese dragon, who symbolized the Emperor.  Unlike Western traditions, the Chinese phoenix is more like a chimera, and is said to be made up of various different types of birds.  Phoenix are pure, and are said to only dwell where there is peace and prosperity, loyalty and honesty.

Russian Phoenix

This is the mythology I chose to base my novel, Phoenix Feather, on.  The firebird’s majestic plumage glows brightly like flames; even after a feather falls, it continues to glow.  The firebird is a symbol of blessing and doom.  It signals a difficult quest, usually inspired by the finding of one of those illuminated feathers.  The finder, mesmerized by the bird, then embarks on a journey to catch it, but the journey usually ends in woe.  The phoenix is also said to cry tears of pearls.

There are more legends and variations, not to mention popular modern day interpretations of these fascinating creatures (Fawkes in Harry Potter), but I didn’t want to get too encyclopedic on you.


While the feather by itself seems innocuous, there is a deep power associated with it.  Like fire, it is neither good nor evil, but has the power to either destroy or refine.  It’s entrancing by its beauty, and the potential to blaze with glory, yet it is also dangerous because of those very qualities.  This feather and what/who it represents is both a catalyst for darkness and destruction, and the vessel of love and hope.  In a world full of joy and sorrow, love and misery, this agent is a light seeking a balance between two inevitable realities in a sinful world, and is ultimately the final hope for something better.

Update from the Muse: Lost in Space

I think perhaps my muse was kidnapped after all, and last night’s dream experience was some sort of telepathic SOS.  It wasn’t smurfs, it was…marauding, intergalactic slave traders? 0_o  Uh, sorry muse, I think you’ll have to find your own way home.

This dream was a bit confusing for me.  It committed the storytelling sin of having too many characters.  Not only that, but I wasn’t even a character in this escapade.  I was a disembodied ghost floating around watching everything unfold.  I guess I was the omnipotent narrator.

So the dream: A 6-yr-old boy is kidnapped by above-mentioned slave traders.  Even though they were on a regular ship, there was some weird sci-fi feel to it.  Poor kid is crying for his big sister, who is stuck on shore, to save him.  Teary moment as they sail away into the dark fog, completely separated.

And now they’re sailing in what I can only compare to Planet Earth’s deep underwater caves—except they’re not underwater, but they are surrounded by walls of rock.  It’s dark, and frankly just creepy.  It feels like a journey to an alien planet.  (Because where else would you take 6-yr-olds for slave labor?)

There’s a lot of sniveling and crying going on, and lots of harsh treatment by the scumbag pirates.

Now we’re back with the big sister (big as in 12 or 13).  She’s mounting a rescue, venturing deep into this unknown territory to find her brother (aw, how sweet).  Will she save him?  Will they make it home?  Wait, suddenly we’re 11 years into the future?  What happened?  You mean I *slept* through the best part of the story?  My muse says, “sorry, had to disconnect so the pirates wouldn’t catch me communicating with you.”  Um, right, hush-hush.

So now it’s 11 years later, and there are two boys (huh?).  They are teenagers, and have finally escaped whatever torment they’ve endured and made it all the way home to what greatly resembles a Star Trek space ship.  And if that’s not enough to confuse you, who is it making a guest appearance as these two heroic boys?  Zachery Ty Bryan and Johnathan Taylor Thomas from their Home Improvement days.  (whispers: Muse, did the pirates drug you?)

The two sit down and tell their miraculous story (which I missed, humph) to the commanders of the space ship.  (Is that Captain Picard?  It’s hard to tell because being a ghost gives everything a slight haze.)  It’s a happy ending for everybody—wait, what about the little boy and his sister?  What happened to them?  I have no idea.  Is he still awaiting rescue?  Does this mean my muse is a 6-yr-old boy?  I suppose that could explain my tendency to beat characters into bloody pulps…

I don’t know where my muse is, but it sounds like she (or he) is experiencing much more excitement than I am.  Maybe she’ll have plenty of stories to tell when she gets back.

Someone call CPS–Character Protective Services

When I was in high school and working on my official first epic fantasy novel, I would go over to my friend’s house, another writer, and we would talk shop all day long.  Her mom used to give us weird looks whenever she walked by, saying if only we could hear ourselves the way others (non-writers) do.  It was probably due to our genre, but we beat up and injured our characters mercilessly.

“I had him take an arrow in the shoulder.  The left one, mind you.  He still needs the use of his sword arm.”

“Yeah, that’s important.  Should probably avoid leg injuries if we want them to get up and continue fighting.  A knife to the gut works.”

Why do we abuse our characters so?  Is it a cathartic experience?  Are we taking some of our own emotional or psychological pain and giving it a physical outlet?  Is it just another expression of overcoming immense odds?  Do we kill characters we love so that we may experience grief in a safe environment?  Does it help us root for the protagonist?  What are your thoughts?

(Hm, but if pieces of ourselves get put in our characters, does that make us sadists or masochists?)

And, if you want to share, what’s the worst you’ve done to a character?  Physically: kidnapped and tortured almost to the point of death might be the winner for me.  Psychologically: I sent a protag with severe arachnophobia to hunt down a nest of giant spiders.  (Yeah, that was definitely masochistic on my part.  Call it attempted therapy.)

Sometimes The Muse Just Won’t Shut Up

It’s a little after 5am.  I’ve been awake since 3, and am not feeling particularly endeared to my creative gears at the moment.  No one likes Writer’s Block, and I do appreciate my muse when it’s on fire, spouting out plot ideas and crafting sentences…but why must my muse be most active *after* I’ve gone to bed?  I am not nocturnal, by any means, though it appears my muse keeps a vampiric schedule.


I keep a notepad and pen in my nightstand for such occasions, quickly jotting down ideas so I don’t forget them come morning.  Sometimes, though, my muse starts writing out a scene in my head, and my hand just can’t keep up with the pace.  So with a heavy sigh, I turn on the light, get out of bed, and go to my computer where I can hastily type up the words swirling around in my head.

Then I try once again to go to sleep.  Do I have visions of sugarplum fairies dancing in my head?  No.  I get more plot ideas and scenes running through my mind like an internal movie screen with no off button.  Sometimes, after laying there for two hours, I can get back to sleep.  Then there are nights like tonight (now today?) where I might as well give it up.  Maybe if I didn’t already have problems with insomnia and sleep deprivation, these little bursts of creativity wouldn’t bother me as much.  But I do, and then my muse makes me cranky.  I had planned on devoting the entire next day to writing, couldn’t it have waited?  As it is, now I’m too tired to jump-start my editing goals.

I have a love-hate relationship with my muse.  What about you?  When does your muse tend to strike with brilliance?  Is it at inconvenient times, inconvenient places?  Or do you have the opposite problem, and your muse broods silently for longer periods of time?

Cursed Cliffhangers

We all know the purpose of cliffhangers.  Television shows run for a season, and producers want to ensure that their viewers return in the Fall.  The best way to do that, since they obviously don’t have much faith in fans’ loyalty if the show itself is great, is a cliffhanger, usually centered on the likely death of a beloved character.  “Oh no!  They can’t kill him off!”

It’s bad enough waiting around for three months to see what happens.  (Don’t get me started on the idiots who plan cliffhangers for premiere seasons and then cancel the show.)  I’m starting to see more and more cliffhangers in book series!  How cruel must authors/publishers be?  Books in the same series are lucky to come out twice a year.  Once a year is more likely, and what about those series that authors are in the process of writing?  Come on guys, you can’t foresee the future; what if you never write the ending?

Here’s my other thing: television shows are more easily remembered.  They run for 12-24 episodes over several months.  I read a book in 2-3 days.  I’m sorry, it doesn’t matter how amazing the story is; I have a gazillion other books to read, and by the time the sequel comes out, I’ve forgotten not only to look for it, but what happened in book 1!  Seriously, I started making a list of authors to periodically Google in case they come out with another book when I’m not looking.  Because let’s face it, television previews are all over–well television–the web, Facebook, YouTube, etc.  Book release announcements?  Not as easy to hear about unless you Follow every author you like.

Ranting aside, I’m all for serial books.  However, I think that each book should have a self-contained plot.  Even if there is an overarching megaplot with the big baddie that the protag won’t all-out battle until the end (hm, much like the levels in a video game?), there should still be some episodic structure to the book.  There are a handful of Young Adult series out that have become so popular (either the authors have gotten lazy or they feel they don’t have to work as hard to keep their readers) that by book 3-4, they become a series of events, a to-do list in this epic journey the characters are on.  There’s blood, sweat, and tears, but no triumph, no growth.


There are some great series out there that follow a character or group of characters through various life changes, but each book is complete in its conflict and resolution.  Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series is excellent.  Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty Norville series is good (consequences from one book may spill over into another, but the plots are still contained and resolved).  I’d like to add Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series, but alas, Book 11 (she made it so far) ended with a cliffhanger–granted, a character cliffhanger, not plot, but still, me annoyed.

I believe I’ve said my piece.  What about you guys?  Do you feel as strongly about cliffhangers as I do?  Do you love them?  Do you think they have a valid purpose in books?  Do they alienate or ensnare readers?

Those who can’t do, write–10 Things My Characters Do Better Than Me

I suppose this is going to be a bit self-deprecating, but it seemed like an interesting idea at the time.  These are in no particular order.

10 Things My Characters Do Better Than Me

1. Bake–One character made cherry almond torte for her date.  When I make cookies, they have to be eaten with a spoon.  (The incident that inspired this list.)

2. Math–Another character uses algorithms to track current patterns and find sunken ships.  I almost killed myself by miscalculating how much insulin to give myself for a meal.

3. Science–Heck, four characters in my latest book are oceanographers.  If it isn’t obvious yet, I’m an English-minded person.

4. Date–All of my protagonists (with the exception of one) get their guy in the end.  I am single (though now it’s by choice).

5. Garden–The character in book 3 of my new series is an earth elemental, which means she makes all things grow beautiful and healthy.  My mom had to buy me a “forever blossom” so I could maintain a flower in my room.  (I’ll give you a hint: it’s a fake flower attached to a lucky bamboo, the one plant I’ve managed not to kill.)

6. Exercise–When danger comes, you can bet my female heroines are capable of kicking butt, or at least running away.  I have a bad arch that gives in if I try to run; I’d be dead meat.

7. Blood–No adventure would be complete without action: sword/gun fights, explosions, car chases, and of course the various scrapes and contusions that come with it.  I get queasy at the sight of other people’s real blood.  (I know, for a diabetic who pricks her finger five times a day, that seems ironic, huh?)

8. Magic–Okay, so that one’s kind of obvious: many of my characters are supernatural and I’m not, but I’m running out of things to list.

9. Conflict–Someone pissing them off?  The arrogant, sleazy SOB getting in their face?  My strong female characters don’t take crap from no one.  Me…well, I do the deer caught in the headlights thing really well and the meanies usually go away after that.

10. The Outdoors–Whether it’s hiking, camping, or even living in the mountains, so far none of my characters have an aversion to nature.  I, on the other hand, can’t handle the creepy crawlies.  At all.

In my defense, there are a few things I do better than some of my characters, and it’s not like my characters are perfect, flawless people.  They’ve got issues; some they share with me, as a little bit of me gets put into every protagonist, but I get to live a little vicariously through my characters, so sometimes they get to do things I could never (or refuse to) do.

What do your characters do that you wish you could?

The importance of feedback–and how you take it


Writing has been called a solitary pursuit, and while this is mostly true, every writer needs a support system of critique and feedback.  Moms are usually great at support, but not so much on objective comments.  This is where a writing group comes in.  Not only do you get objective feedback (as objective as anyone can be, because let’s face it, writing and reading is a subjective business), but you also get a variety of perspectives.  Everyone interprets things differently based on their schema, the filter with which they see the world that is formed by their background and experiences.  It’s good to know beforehand how a reader might interpret something.  Then you as the writer can decide if you are comfortable with that interpretation, or if something needs to be changed to avoid misconceptions.


It’s also great to get input from people who’ve had different experiences.  As writers, we write what we know, but let’s face it, sometimes we have to use our imagination and a little research to go outside our realm of expertise.  We want the details right, don’t we?  I gave a character bruised ribs, and a person in my writer’s group said, “Hey, I’ve had bruised ribs.  Here’s what it’s really like…”

Not all feedback is created equal.  As the writer, you have to take it or leave it, though you should always listen to it first.  We use the word “objective” to describe the ideal kind of critique, but there really is no such thing.  Each reader, however well-read or accomplished in writing, still has their own tastes in what they like to see.  Sometimes a writer and reader click like brain twins.  Sometimes some serious deliberation is needed.  Sometimes we feel like the feedback is coming out of the blue and misses the mark.  That’s okay.  It’s all part of the process.


It’s also important for a writer to know his or her tendencies when accepting feedback.  Critique should be a discussion, not be perceived as a personal attack.  It might even help to figure out how you best receive it.  Maybe you need a sandwich delivery: positive/needs improvement/positive.    Maybe you’d like alternative suggestions, or just have something pointed out and you figure it out later yourself.

Yeah, the writing itself is a solitary activity, but writers themselves are not alone.  There’s a huge community out there waiting to embrace each other.  If you don’t already know about the #MyWANA hastag on Twitter, go to Kristen Lamb’s blog and read about it.  http://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/join-the-love-revolution-mywana/  #MyWANA means We Are Not Alone (writers).

Happy writing and critiquing,

~Dreaming wide awake