Saturday, December 26, 2009

Out with the Old: Clutter Clearing Tips for the New Year

“Out with the old…” This New Year’s slogan is a good one to keep in mind when tackling clutter in your home. Most of us realize we have too much stuff, but acquiring things is often easier than getting rid of them. Once clutter gains a foothold in your home, it tends to spread like kudzu, rapidly taking over your living space until, pretty soon, the process of eliminating it seems overwhelming.
Clearing clutter in your home is like weeding a garden so the flowers have room to thrive. If your dining table is littered with newspapers, magazines, and junk mail, you won’t be able to enjoy an attractive centerpiece. Piles of clothing draped over a Victorian boudoir chair will completely obscure its graceful lines.
Clutter also makes it harder to keep your home clean –– you have to shuffle mounds of stuff around in order to dust, vacuum, or wipe down a countertop. Disorder and dirt continue to build on one another and the cycle keeps expanding until housekeeping becomes an insurmountable task.
Deciding what to save and what to toss is a personal matter, and each of us will make different choices. In my opinion, the advice of English designer William Morris provides wonderful guidelines for paring down clutter: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
Clutter Clearing Styles

There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to clear clutter from your home. Some people prefer to dive right into the deep water, so to speak, and start with a heavy-clutter area such as a basement or attic. They blaze through the accumulation as if they were hacking through a jungle with a machete. One of the satisfactions of this “take no prisoners” style is that it allows you to see dramatic results at the end of the day. Other folks are more comfortable wading in slowly –– say, organizing a spice rack or medicine cabinet –– gradually working up to the really big jobs.
An approach that works for many people is to start in the room where you spend the most time. Focus on one room or one section at a time, rather than doing a little clearing here and a little there –– you’ll notice greater results. The sense of satisfaction you’ll derive from finishing this job will help inspire you to tackle clutter in other parts of your home.
Often it’s easier to do a little at a time, every day. If you spend only ten minutes a day picking up clutter, you’ll make progress. This “easy does it” approach prevents burn out and helps you establish a regular clutter-clearing routine. Find your own comfort zone and proceed in whatever manner works for you. The important thing is to keep at it. As you clear away your clutter, remember the Buddhist saying: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
Here are some things you can do right away to cut down clutter in your home.
Throw out everything that’s really useless.
Do you have a drawer full of expired coupons? Warranties to products you no longer own? Plastic containers with no lids? Single socks? Start by trashing all this trash. You’ll immediately see progress and free up space.
Get rid of the biggest stuff first.
Eliminate the biggest pieces first –– the exercise bike no one rides or the giant panda you won four years ago at the fair. Making a noticeable dent in your clutter can help motivate you to continue with your task.
Return borrowed stuff.
One of the easiest and least painful ways to reduce clutter is to return all the stuff lying around your home that belongs to someone else. Other people’s books, housewares, CDs, videos, clothes, toys, tools, etc. can add to your own clutter. Make a point of returning things you’ve borrowed as soon as you finish using them.
Gather up newspapers, magazines, catalogs, etc.
Newspapers, magazines, and other reading materials scattered about can really make your home look messy. Recycle or toss those you’ve finished reading and shelve the rest. If you don’t have time to sort through them immediately, collect them in a basket or box until you can organize them properly.
Go through your closet and get rid of 10 things you haven’t worn lately.
Most people wear 20 percent of their clothing 80 percent of the time. How much of what’s hanging in your closet is just taking up space? Collect ten garments you haven’t worn in the past year and take them to a consignment shop or donate them to charity.
Pick stuff up off the floor.
If you don’t have time right away to do a thorough pick up, at least collect the stuff that’s scattered on the floor. Stash everything in a laundry basket or large box until you can deal with it properly. Your home will look neater instantly.
Toss or fix broken stuff.
Are you holding on to broken articles that you keep meaning to repair, but never seem to get around to it? If something has languished in its broken state in a closet, basement, or garage for more than a few months, either fix it or throw it away.
Every time you acquire something new, get rid of something old.
This rule applies to everything –– clothes, toys, books, CDs, etc. If you throw out, recycle, or give away something each time you get something new, mathematics shows that your clutter can’t increase.
To purchase Skye's books 10-MINUTE CLUTTER CONTROL and 10-MINUTE CLUTTER CONTROL ROOM BY ROOM, click on the link to Skye Alexander's Website then Skye's Books and use your credit card or PayPal to order copies.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice marks the sun ingress into the first degree of the zodiac sign Capricorn, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. This year the Winter Solstice occurs on December 21 (although it can vary a day or so from year to year).
In pre-Christian Europe, Britain, and Ireland the Winter Solstice celebrated the birth of the Sun God. This holiday of good cheer and festivities, also known as Yule, commemorates life over death and the return of the sun. The turning point in the year, it heralds increasing sunlight as the days grow steadily longer for six months. The holiday was so important to Pagan cultures that Christianity adopted this joyful season to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Like the Sun God, Jesus is said to bring light into the world during the darkest time of the year.
A Pagan custom was to build a fire from wood of the nine sacred trees (some people say seven) as part of the Winter Solstice ritual. An oak log, known as a Yule log, served as the fire’s centerpiece and represented the ascendancy of the Oak King, who would rule until the Summer Solstice. (A small piece of the Yule log was saved for next year’s fire.)
After the fire burned down, anyone who wished took ashes from the ritual fire and wrapped them in a piece of cloth, along with a pine cone. Then they placed their packages under their bed pillows to solicit nightly guidance and angelic advice about the coming year.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Ancient "Roots" of Holiday Plants

The tradition of decking the halls with greenery at Christmastime originates in the Pagan winter solstice festivals of northern Europe and the British Isles. Because the evergreen tree keeps its needles even during the coldest months, when other plants die or lose their foliage, our ancestors viewed it a symbol of everlasting life. (Christmas trees didn’t become popular in the U.S. until the late nineteenth century.)

Trees of all kinds were sacred to the Druids. According to Celtic mythology, holly bushes provided shelter for the faeries and nature spirits during the winter. The holiday custom of hanging it on doorways and in our homes stems from an ancient belief in holly’s protective powers.
The Druids also valued mistletoe, and considered it an herb of fertility and immortality. Used in talismans as an aphrodesiac, mistletoe was thought to enhance creativity of all kinds––perhaps that’s why we kiss beneath it today.

From the perspective of aromatherapy, the fresh scent of pine, balsam, and spruce offers cleansing properties. These evergreens help to clear the air during the winter months, when we close up our homes to keep out the cold. When inhaled, the essential oils extracted from these trees can also provide relief from winter colds and flu.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Light up the Night

Candles play a role in many holiday celebrations and traditions, especially at this time of the year when daylight hours in the Northern Hemisphere are short. According to Greek mythology, we are indebted to Prometheus for the gift of fire, which he stole from the gods. Archeology shows that ancient people may have soaked plant stalks in animal fat to form primitive candles and torches. It’s even possible that these crude, smoky illumination devices may have caused the soot on the illustrated walls of caves in southern France as Paleolithic artists painted by candlelight.

Five thousand years ago, the Egyptians formed beeswax into candles similar to the ones we use today. Beeswax candles with reed wicks have been discovered in the tombs of Egyptian rulers, placed there, perhaps, to light their journey into the realm beyond. About the same time, the ancient Romans fashioned candere, a Latin word meaning “to shine,” from olive oil, animal fat, and beeswax to which they added a flax wick that enabled the candles to burn more effectively.
Plant oils were the material of choice for many early Asian candlemakers, especially in India where Hindu laws forbade the burning of animal products in temples. The ancient Chinese pressed oils from the seeds of the tallow tree for their candles. In the Americas, native people extracted oils from nuts and various plants including bayberries, which yielded an aromatic, flammable wax, a practice the Colonial settlers adopted.

As the whaling industry developed during the early 1700s, New England candlemakers began using the oil of the sperm whale in their products. The following century, stearin was added to candles to harden the animal fat, increase the burn time, and reduce the odor. Stearin, a combination of palm oil and stearic acid, is still used in some candles today. In 1850, the discovery of paraffin revolutionized the candle industry. Distilled from petroleum by-products, paraffin produced less smoke than animal fat and emitted no unpleasant odor. Paraffin candles were also cheaper than those made from plant substances –– even today, paraffin wax is still the most widely used material in commercial candles.

In recent years, however, environmental- and health-conscious candlemakers arereturning to the age-old tradition of forming candles from beeswax and plant oils. A scientific study done by the University of Michigan in 1999 revealed the dark side of paraffin candles –– they contain nearly a dozen documented toxins, some of them carcinogenic. To make matters worse, metallic wicks often include lead, which is released into the air when the candles burn. 
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, “burning candles with lead-containing wicks may cause lead poisoning” and the American Lung Association has issued a warning that petroleum-based candles can contaminate the air in our homes. Leaded candles have been banned in Australia, and some health advocates and environmental scientists are recommending a similar action in this country.
Candles made from pure soy, palm, cottonseed, olive oil, and other plant-based materials with all-cotton wicks produce no toxic residue. Nor do they emit the smoke associated with paraffin candles, which can leave a sooty residue on walls and furnishings. These environmentally friendly candles also take advantage of plentiful, renewable, biodegradable resources.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Saturn Return: The Twenty-Ninth Year

Many of us approach our thirtieth birthdays with anxiety, even dread. We start looking for gray hairs and paying attention to ads for wrinkle creams. We question whether we are climbing the career ladder quickly enough. We hear the biological clock ticking loudly and worry that soon we will be too old to bear children.
Astrologers call the period between ages twenty-eight and thirty "Saturn Return."  That's because it's the first time the planet Saturn completes its cycle through your birth chart and returns to the spot it occupied when you were born. Internationally respected astrologer Rob Hand calls Saturn Return "one of the most important times in your life   . . . a time of endings and new beginnings."
For most of us, ending a phase of life that is familiar and embarking on one that is new and untried is unsettling, even painful. Few people describe Saturn Return as a pleasant period. While undergoing your Saturn Return you may find yourself turning inward and reflecting on your individual destiny. You examine your true needs and desires and the role you want to play on the world's stage. You may feel lonely and alienated from those around you, while family and friends think you are shutting them out. But this is a necessary period of consolidation, when you must retreat from the distractions of the outer world and focus on yourself at your most fundamental level. The Saturn Return is every individual's search for the Holy Grail.
Coming of Age
The first Saturn Return marks the end of youth and the beginning of the productive adult years. It is now that you truly become an adult––not at eighteen or twenty-one. You realize your need to define yourself as an individual within society and to demonstrate what you've learned. Newswoman Jane Pauley described turning thirty as having grown into womanhood. German film director Werner Herzog compared this period in his life with a maiden's loss of virginity, a line drawn across his path marking the end of his youth.
This transition into adulthood is often accompanied by a sense of urgency, a feeling that you must try to accomplish everything you've ever wanted or planned to do now. Goals start to come sharply into focus. If you have not settled into a definite career, or have been pursuing one that is inappropriate for you, you'll experience a strong push to establish yourself in a more fulfilling occupation. Sometimes this means a complete change. During his first Saturn Return, Vincent Van Gogh decided to be a painter rather than a minister. More frequently it means a new direction or specialization within your chosen field.
If you have been building steadily toward a goal that's right for you, Saturn Return can be a time of achievement and rewards. Your labors bear fruit. Runner Bill Rodgers' Saturn Return marked the first of three consecutive Boston Marathon wins. William Faulkner published his first novel at age twenty-nine.
According to California astrologer Stephen Arroyo, author of Astrology, Karma and Transformation, "The quality of the entire experience and the extent to which it is felt to be a 'difficult' time depends entirely on how one has lived during the previous twenty-nine years." If you have been pursuing an unsuitable vocation or merely fulfilling someone else's expectations, Saturn can be relentless in prodding you to make adjustments.
Revising Worn Out Patterns
Saturn strips away illusions and points out limitations, allowing you to view yourself in a harsh, often unflattering light. At the same time, it endows you with prudence, practicality, and the perseverance to work hard toward achieving your purposes. Consequently, this is a good time to rearrange your career or lay the foundation for a new one.

Saturn Return almost always requires some major adjustments in lifestyle, attitudes, and relationships. Anything you have outgrown, or have tolerated but not found satisfying, must end now or be altered to meet your emerging needs. According to Hand, "Consciously or unconsciously, you are pruning your life of everything that is not relevant to what you really are as a human being."
Often interpersonal relationships are deeply affected by Saturn Return. Gail Sheehy wrote in Passages: Predictable Crises in Adult Life that during this period "Almost everyone who is married will question that commitment." The U.S. Census Bureau lists the peak divorce years as ages twenty-eight to thirty. Some people experience more subtle or private adjustments in their patterns of relating, such as shifts in responsibilities. Many couples decide to become parents, not only altering their relationships but their financial obligations and perhaps their vocations as well.
If a relationship is sound, based on mutual respect, honesty, and sharing, it will probably survive the test of Saturn Return and become even stronger. But a relationship begun before the partners knew what they really wanted is likely to fall apart. Relationships that start during this period may have a "fated" or "karmic" quality about them.
When Enough is Enough

"Saturn. . . is never easy to deal with because his function is that of promoting growth," explains astrologer Liz Greene, author of Saturn: A New Look at an Old Devil, "and it is only frustration and pain which at present are sufficient goads to get a human being moving." This frustration and pain have given Saturn a bad reputation. But the planet's often misunderstood value lies in its very ability to evoke pain. Like the pain of an illness, it warns that something is wrong. Saturn doesn't create the problems, it merely illuminates them.
Growth is often accompanied by trepidation and turmoil. As the old self is pushed aside to make room for the new, you may feel weak and vulnerable. You want to move ahead, yet are frustrated by a fear of doing so, torn between a compelling urge to throw off everything connected with your past and an equally frantic need to cling to the familiar rather than brave the great unknown.
Even if your external world seems to be in order, your internal structure may feel as though it's being assaulted with a battering ram. Nervous conditions, irritability, depression, insomnia, and feelings of insecurity are common. Most people go through some sort of identity crisis.
Although your Saturn Return may be disturbing, ultimately it reveals what you truly want and sweeps away the clutter that may have been impeding your progress. Your Saturn Return is a personal spring cleaning. No matter how difficult it seems to let go of inappropriate people and things, the first Saturn Return is the time to do it. For if lessons are not learned, the problems will come knocking again during your second Saturn Return at about age fifty-eight, when you are more set in your ways. Once the conflict is confronted, the tension usually subsides. You feel stronger and more capable of moving ahead.
Saturn Return is one of the most crucial turning points you ever experience, when you assume the greatest responsibility of all: responsibility for your own life.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Five Feng Shui Tips That Can Change Your Life

Feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement, is thousands of years old, yet until recently few Americans knew about it. Its purpose is to create harmony and balance in your environment. Although feng shui (pronounced fung shway) employs numerous "cures" that may seem a bit like magic to Westerners, much of what it recommends isn't esoteric at all––it's common sense. Good feng shui is good interior design.

Feng shui practitioners believe that your home is a reflection of you. Conditions in your living space symbolize situations in your personal and/or professional life. If your home is cluttered, you may be experiencing messiness or confusion in your life. Inadequate lighting suggests lack of vitality or enthusiasm. Doors that stick represent obstacles, frustrations, or stagnation. By making changes in your home, you can improve your career, relationships, or health.
Here are some easy and inexpensive feng shui tips you can implement right now:
1. Reduce clutter. Get rid of things you aren't using and organize the rest neatly.
2. Turn on the lights. When you shine light into dark places in your home, you focus energy into the lack-luster areas of your life.
3. Fix broken windows, dripping faucets, and doors that stick so they don't hamper your well-being.
4. Position sofas and chairs so no one's back is to the room's entrance. Keep walkways unobstructed so people––and energy––can move easily through your home.
5. Keep your stove clean and in good repair. According to feng shui, the stove generates prosperity––a burner that doesn't work limits your wealth.
Although feng shui includes mystical and philosophical components as well as practical ones, you don't have to understand them to reap benefits. Feng shui may seem strange at first, but once you start using it you’ll see how sensible and effective it really is. 

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Aromatherapy for Colds and Flu

As colder weather rolls in, many people suffer from colds, flu, coughs, and other respiratory ailments. Aromatherapy––healing with scent––is a natural solution for the respiratory problems associated colds in the head, sinuses, nasal passages, and lungs. When essential oils are inhaled, they immediately go to work on the affected parts, offering fast, gentle, soothing relief.

Inhaling the cool, stimulating aroma of eucalyptus, spearmint, or peppermint instantly relieves stuffy nose and sinus congestion without drying out nasal passages or causing drowsiness. Frankincense, balsam, sweet marjoram, and lemon balm can ease congestion, coughing, and irritation in the head, nose, throat, and lungs. Pine, fennel, myrrh, and eucalyptus can help bronchitis and sinusitis. Cedar, bergamot, hyssop, and cypress effectively treat colic, asthma, and dry coughs. Tea tree oil soothes sore throats; it can also aid sores in the mouth and gingivitis.

Aromatherapy can even be superior to decongestants, shots, and other cold medicines in some instances. Not only is it fast acting, aromatherapy rarely causes unwanted side effects when used properly. Children and the elderly, who may be sensitive to medications, can derive wonderful healing benefits from the use of aromatic oils.

Tea tree oil, peppermint, and eucalyptus are sometimes available in inhalant sticks, but you can simply inhale the fumes of these essential oils directly from an open bottle. Tiny "pillows" or "sachets" of some aromatic herbs are available in health food stores, and can be placed on your bedside table or pillow at night to help you breathe freely while you sleep. Or, you can simply put a few drops of one of these oils on a handkerchief and inhale the healing fragrant fumes periodically, as needed. To break up congestion in the chest and head, rub aromatic salves directly on the chest.

If you prefer, put several drops in a vaporizer or humidifier to fill your room with refreshing, healing scent. Or, add essential oils to bathtub water and enjoy a soothing, healthful bath that will make you feel wonderful inside and out.

Only pure essential oils derived from plants offer true aromatherapy benefits––synthetic concoctions lack the plants’ natural vital energy. Some essential oils should not be ingested and some can be irritating to the skin if rubbed on full-strength––make sure you read the label before using any essential oil to avoid problems. 

Skye's Aromatherapy Card Deck will soon be available from Fair Winds Press.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Which Witch Is Which?

Despite the ugly face that’s been put on witches, historically most have been concerned with helping individuals and communities. Of course, there are some “wicked witches” just as there are greedy evangelists and pedophile priests. It’s important, however, to remember that fear and misunderstanding underlie the misconceptions many people hold about witches. Once you get to know them, witches are pretty much like everyone else––the person who cuts your hair or repairs your car might even be a witch.

The word witch comes from the Anglo-Saxon term wicce meaning “to bend or shape.” The Old English word wiccacraeft meant witchcraft.
In the past, many witches learned their art as part of a family tradition in which they were carefully trained. Villages had their honored cunning folk to whom people turned for all kinds of help, from encouraging crops to grow to fixing a broken heart. Healing comprised a large part of the witch’s work, and many witches were herbalists and midwives. In exchange for services, the witch might have received a chicken, a measure of grain, or other necessities.
Witches learned their skills as a craft, just as someone might learn carpentry or masonry. Religious constructs weren’t linked with the practice of witchcraft itself, though individual witches may have followed the beliefs of their families or culture. Witches do not need to believe in divine beings in order to use magick, although many do recognize higher powers and attempt to work with them. Nor do witches need to adhere to a particular dogma in order to perform their work, just as computer programmers and auto mechanics don’t have to be members of a particular faith to do their jobs.

For the record, witches are not necessarily Wiccan. Witchcraft implies a methodology (for example, the use of magick), whereas the word Wiccan refers to a person who has adopted a specific spiritual philosophy. Wicca is a religion, one that even the U.S. military recognizes. Wiccans practice specific rituals and moral codes just as people of Christianity, Judaism, and other faiths do. Witches can follow any religion, or none.
However, the lack of an ethical or religious construct does not mean witches are without ethics or religion. The use of magick is simply a means to an end and is, in itself, morally neutral. Ethics get involved only in how magick is wielded.
By the way, a male witch is not called a warlock. He is a witch, too. Warlock derived from an Old English word for oath breaker; later, during the mid-1400s, the word came to mean liar (whether the person was male or female). To call a male witch a warlock is a nasty insult. The words wizard and sorcerer can be used for a man or a woman. Wizard derives from a term meaning “wise,” and sorcerer means “witch” or “diviner.”
The word magician is also appropriate for both sexes and refers to someone who practices magick, regardless of his/her religious beliefs. (The “k” at the end of the word magick differentiates it from stage magic or illusion). Many magicians are adept in astrology, sorcery, or other magickal arts. Magicians come from various cultures and ethic backgrounds, belief systems and schools of thought. Most witches and Wiccans practice some type of magick, but not all magicians are witches or Wiccans. Shamans, ceremonical magicians, feng shui masters, and many others engage in various forms of magick. According to Aleister Crowly, perhaps the most famous magician in modern times, “Every intentional act is a magickal act.”

If you choose to follow a magickal path, as a witch, Wiccan, wizard, sorcerer, or other practitioner of the magickal arts, you’ll notice that everyone you meet is your teacher. In turn, you’ll teach something to everyone you meet. You’ll also discover that magick exists everywhere, all the time, and that you are part of the magick.

(Excerpted from my book The Everything Wicca & Witchcraft Book. Magickal artwork comes from my deck of "I Am" vision cards. All material copyrighted.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Halloween Facts and Fallacies

As Halloween approaches, we are once again subjected to lots of misinformation and downright foolishness regarding witches, paganism, and the occult in general.  Unfortunately, this ancient holiday's true meaning has become lost in a muddle of macabre sensationalism. Each year we read stories of children eating tainted candy and teens using Halloween as an excuse for bad behavior. In some places, conservative Christian groups try to get the holiday banned, believing erroneously that it has something to do with satanism.
Also known as All Hallows Eve, Hallowmass, and Samhain, Halloween is a holy day for witches and many other pagans. It is the witches' New Year, a time for reflecting on the past and looking ahead to the future. Originally, the custom of wearing costumes on Halloween was a way to visually demonstrate what you wanted to be in the coming year and to project that image out into the world. (No one who knew this would choose to dress up as a ghost, skeleton, goblin, or hobo!)
Samhain (what Wiccans, many pagans and witches call Halloween) is also a solemn time for remembering friends and relatives who have passed on––consequently its connection with death. However, the dead don't rise up out of their coffins and walk around as ghosts or zombies on this sacred holiday. Witches may enact rituals or light candles to honor departed loved ones. Some believe heaven and earth are close together on Samhain, and that this is the best time to make contact with spirits on the other side.

No belief system has been so maligned as witchcraft. It is important to remember that before the rise of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Goddess religions predominated for millennia throughout Europe and many other parts of the world. Between the 14th and 18th centuries––a period known as the "Burning Times"––tens of thousands, perhaps millions of women and children (the most famous being Joan of Arc) were accused of being witches and massacred by Christian zealots. Although most of the violence was levied against females of all ages, the Church also put astrologers, homosexuals, and other assorted dissidents to death. And we all know what happened in Salem, Massachusetts, a city that now capitalizes on its darkest hour and enjoys a brisk tourist business during Halloween.
Wicca is a Goddess-based religion––one of the few in a world where patriarchal belief systems prevail. Despite the fact that our male-dominated culture still denigrates witchcraft and paganism, many women (and some men, too) today are rediscovering these ancient traditions and finding a form of spirituality they can relate to, one that respects the feminine.
For the record:  Witches do not put hexes on people, fly around on broomsticks, snatch and eat children, or perform animal or human sacrifices. They do not believe in Satan (he's a Judeo-Christian conception). They do not deny the existence of God or the male principle. Most of them are not cackling hags (although the "hag" is one of the three manifestations of the Goddess: the older woman, representing wisdom). They do not hate men and have no desire to overthrow Christianity or any other religion. Not all pagans are witches; paganism is a general term for various spiritual belief systems that honor the earth, nature, and the cosmos. Many of the rituals, holidays, myths, and practices now connected with Christianity derived from the earlier Goddess-based traditions.
Fear and ignorance are dangerous forces. They are at the root of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, jingoism, and other forms of violence and hatred. This Halloween, let us put aside our prejudices and uphold one of the principles this country was founded on: religious freedom.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Sharing the Limelight

Today, I'm grateful to fellow writer Raine Delight for inviting me to guest post on her blog. (Visit us at One of the best things about genre writing (mystery, romance, etc.) is the people you meet––writers, readers, publishers, and booksellers. In my experience, most of them eagerly help writers succeed by sharing information, contacts, expertise, and promotional opportunities. 

Instead of viewing other authors as competitors, genre writers usually consider one another as colleagues and believe that a rising tide floats all boats. Guest blogging is a great way to meet new readers and introduce them to your work. Different voices also keep a blog fresh and varied. By cross-pollinating in this way and combining our resources, we can all benefit. I hope to soon feature some of my fellow authors on this site––stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Pseudonyms: To Be or Not to Be Yourself

Many famous authors have written under names other than their given ones, among them Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens), Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson), George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), George Sand (Amandine Dupin), George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair), and Voltaire (Francoise-Marie Arouet). Ellery Queen is actually the pen name of two cousins: Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. Even William Shakespeare is believed by many to have been a nom de plume, perhaps for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
There are lots of reasons for choosing to appear as someone else in print. In earlier times, female writers such as Sand and Eliot used men’s names because of the prejudice against women. The Bronte sisters––Anne, Charlotte, and Emily––posed as the brothers Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell respectively. Anne Rice, on the other hand, was originally given her father’s name, Howard Allen O’Brian, and decided when she started school to call herself by a female name.
Others opted for pseudonyms because their birth names were unwieldy, such as Joseph Conrad (né Jozef Teodor Nalecz Konrad Korzeniowski), or because they wanted something catchier, such as Mickey Spillane (Frank Morrison).
Many authors––especially genre writers––use pseudonyms, either to add color or to conceal their true identities. Because publishers of literary fiction tend to look down their intellectual noses at romance books, writers who pen romance novels frequently do so under names other than their real ones. Authors who write various types of books may write fiction under one name and nonfiction under another, to prevent confusion. Writers of erotica often use fictitious names to avoid static from employers, family members, etc.
It’s perfectly legal to call yourself whatever you wish, so long as you don’t do it for purposes of fraud. Publishers will respect your right to remain anonymous (although if you get rich and famous, information sleuths might figure out who’s really behind that notable non de plume). And yes, you can copyright your book under your pseudonym. However, if you ever try to make a claim against someone for copyright infringement, you might have difficulty proving your ownership. If you seriously want to protect your identity, don’t include your real name on records you file with the U.S. Copyright Office as that information will be available on the Internet. 

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Confessions of an E-Book Convert

I never thought I'd become an advocate of e-books. Call me old-school, but I love holding a physical book in my hands, flipping through the paper pages, highlighting pertinent passages and making notations in the margins. My favorite books are so bedraggled from use they're held together with rubber bands. Bookstores--especially funky ones with lots of odd, rare, or esoteric books--draw me like taverns draw alcoholics. When I go to someone's home for the first time, I always peruse the books on his/her shelves. (Maybe you can't tell a book by its cover, but you can tell a lot about people from their books.)
However, I’ve moved four times in three years. Each time I move, I schlep dozens of heavy boxes packed with books from one locale to another, promising myself I'll downsize my personal library soon. Yet parting with my books is like parting with old friends. How can I resolve this dilemma?
Enter e-books. Admittedly, wireless reading devices such as Kindle lack the tactile experience of physical books. But they're lighter and thinner than a typical paperback, and hold about 200 books! Talk about traveling light... (Now the money I might have paid a chiropractor can be spent for more books.) Not only can I read and store books on one of these handy hand-held units, I can even buy books with it--and download them instantly. Immediate gratification.
But the "green" factor is what hooked me. Before I became a full-time writer, I worked in the publishing industry for many years. Let me share a dirty little secret with you: the environmental impact of conventional publishing is phenomenal! Trees--lots of them--get cut down to make paper. The paper-making process pollutes water and fouls the air. (Ever stood downwind of a paper mill? It smells like an outhouse.) Toxic printing inks and dyes seep into the ground.
Then there's the little-known (outside the publishing world) matter called "returns." Ever see those flashy promotional displays in bookstores, featuring stacks and stacks of a new book? Many of those books will never be sold. The bookstore orders them, then return them for a full refund--even after they've been sitting around the store for a year and are so dog-eared the publisher has to trash them. Often stores just rip off the covers and send them back. The books end up in landfills.
So when Ravenous Romance's CEO Holly Schmidt invited me to edit The Green Love Anthology, I jumped at the chance. Here was an opportunity to combine three of my passions: literature, the environment, and sex. The anthology includes twelve tantalizing tales that blend ecology with erotica--each one hot enough to take the chill off a cold winter's night (you can turn down the thermostat and save oil). I even got to write a story of my own for the anthology: "Midnight at the 11th Hour Cowboy Bar." Going green has never been so much fun! (Anybody know how to get a copy to Al Gore? It might warm him up a bit.) 

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Anthologies: The Literary Equivalent of a Wine Tasting

I love anthologies. For me, they’re the literary equivalent of a wine tasting. I get to sample lots of different authors’ work to see what pleases my palate. I don’t have to make a major commitment to a particular author—I can try a little bit at a time, exploring myriad styles, themes, moods, characters, etc. If a story piques my interest, I can delve deeper into the author’s repertoire. If I don’t connect with a particular story or writer, I can move on to the next one. If variety is the spice of life, anthologies offer cinnamon, sage, paprika, tarragon, cumin, and more.
Over the years, many of my stories have been selected for publication in anthologies of various genres—mystery, romance, erotica, sports, supernatural, and literary. Some stories have even been translated into foreign languages, which got to be really amusing at times—try explaining baseball to Germans!
I’ve also been privileged to edit a number of anthologies. Recently I had fun editing a collection of erotic romance stories with environmental themes. I loved working with so many talented authors whose unique perspectives blended the unlike combination of sex and ecology––who knew so many intriguing possibilities existed?

Prior to that, I was a partner in the New England publishing company Level Best Books which each fall brings out an annual anthology of crime stories (some have won national awards). Working collaboratively with other authors and editors to create a cohesive, diverse, and enticing collection of stories is both a challenge and a pleasure. It’s like being part of an extended family of like-minded individuals who share a common goal. And the end result is a smorgasbord of literary delights––something for everyone.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

All You Need Is Love

The ancient Greek playwright Sophocles wrote, “One word frees us of all the weight and pain in life. That word is love.”
Admittedly, love is a pretty broad subject, and one that authors wiser and more gifted than I have addressed ad infinitum since the advent of the written word. Yet despite all that’s been said by poets and philosophers, mystics and musicians, in many ways love remains a complete mystery.

Perhaps that’s why I feel compelled to write about love in romance novels, suspense stories and mysteries, and even in nonfiction books (including a WIP titled Love Is the Answer to Every Question). Maybe that’s also why year after year romance novels outsell other literary forms.
Especially during these uncertain times, romance novels give us hope. The guy gets the girl and everyone lives happily ever after. But I think their appeal is more than that. Romances––even jalapeño-hot erotic ones––espouse old-fashioned values including loyalty, honor, courage, compassion, and perseverance in the face of challenges. Like the eighteenth-century French fairytale “Beauty and the Beast,” romance novels are about the transformative power of love and its ability to make us better people.
There’s some Beauty and some Beast in all of us, and in every relationship. Each close encounter provides an opportunity to love, not just the other person but ourselves as well. It could even be said that we unconsciously seek relationships so that we might transform our “beasts.” According to C. G. Jung, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”
I’m not talking about infatuation––that dizzying rush of euphoria that takes your breath away and makes your heart pound like a jackhammer. Infatuation isn’t about the other person, it’s about you––the projected image of yourself that you see mirrored in your partner. Infatuation is love in drag. And I don’t mean passion either. The word passion originally meant “to suffer.” From Camelot to Casablanca, storytellers have portrayed love as pleasure mixed with suffering. Literary fiction, contemporary dramas, and poetry often depict the all-too-familiar suffering that taints our real-life relationships.
In our jaded, self-absorbed, thrill-seeking society we put more emphasis on falling in love than on staying in love. As a result, nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. Romance novels, however, show us what’s possible if we make a commitment to love and realize that, as Marianne Williamson writes in A Return to Love, “to experience love in ourselves and others is the meaning of life.” Of course, infatuation and passion enliven the pages of “bodice-rippers” of every ilk––historical, paranormal, erotic, etc. But in the end, love prevails.
In The Phenomenon of Man, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin stated that “Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.” The Sufi poets tell us that divine love reveals itself to us through human love, and human love lights the path to divine love. Here’s one of my favorite poems, from the 14th-century Sufi master Hafiz:
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe
What happens
With a love like that,
It lights the
That’s why I keep writing about love, keep believing in it, and daily make it the centerpiece of my life. I think John Lennon was right when he sang, “All you need is love.”
(The picture above is the Love card from my deck of original "Dream Divination" cards, copyright 2009 by Skye Alexander.)