Just a note...MALEVOLENCE is back up on request to read on the SHORT STORIES link.
BEFORE AND AFTER
** “I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter.” ~James Michener
James Michener’s statement describes me and my own process well. I’m not a person who sits down and taps out line after line of amazing prose needing few corrections. My “rough drafts” are the envy of coarse sandpaper the world over.
Last night, I read my latest work in progress (an 8k word short story) to one of my two most severe critics. I’ve been married to her for a long time. She expects the best of me and will settle for nothing less.
She doesn’t read the kind of thing I’m currently working on, namely crime and mystery stories. That makes her standards even more demanding, because she can’t abide clichés, schmaltz, tired writing tricks or voyages into the superfluous. To add to the challenge, she interrupts a lot.
Me: Pati, we’re not concerned with bad wording here and there at this point. I’ll clean that up later. I just want to know if the overall story makes sense to you.
Pati: I get that, but a word here and there can derail an image to the point where the story is inconsistent, and hard to make sense of.
I’ve stood on that that precipice many times before, and this kind of collaborative progress is slow, with a fair amount of discussion. In this instance, my short story recital continued for an hour or more.
**“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” ~Mark Twain
At the end of the “reading,” Pati told me that she’d been left confused about a couple of things. We went through those things one by one, and I told her that I’d been aware of them, and what my proposed changes would be. She told me that those changes would make all the difference for her and other readers.
**“I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” ~James Michener
She verbalized my fear, and the whole reason for reading the story to her. I loved the way the story read, the way that I had written it, and the emotions working back and forth between the characters involved. I didn’t want to change it for the reader unless I needed to. I did need to though, and the story is the better for it.
I can count on my wife to be straight with me about my stories. It’s why I swallowed my pride in preparation to kill my little darlings and went to her for her insights.
Me: What did you think of the story?
Pati: I thought it was good, though it isn’t the kind of genre that I would go looking for, personally.
Getting another opinion on genre classification.
Me: Would you describe it as “noir?”
Pati: It’s probably the kind of noir that “Key Largo” is.
She worried that some of the things that she pointed out were hurtful or offensive to me.
Me: Look, if you think this is a piece of crap now, you should have seen it ten revisions ago.
Her: Unrestrained laughter.
When I invite criticism, it’s no different than when I put on the gear in martial arts and spar with my classmates. The bets are off, and I’m wearing elephant hide. That’s the whole point, because what ends up being truly painful is publishing something, and realizing that it could—and should have been, better.
I rewrote the story again last night, changing some, but not all, of the things that we both felt were weak links in the telling. Today, I worked on the story again. Tomorrow, I will work on it again, and I will take that work to the point where I feel it paints to readers, the portrait that I want it to.
**“The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” ~Anaïs Nin ain
“We’re all sort of like, three people…the person others think we are, the person that we think we are, and the person that we really are.” That’s an amalgam of similar quotes from Michael Ovitz to who knows who, and I can’t really say who the original source is.
Its ring of truth has always been a fascinating concept to explore as a writer, where characterization is concerned. For example, over ‘lo these many years’ the object of a literary character’s perceptions, what their senses pick up or what their minds notice gave rise to the “unreliable narrator” or witness.
We’re pulled into the character’s perception of reality, when reality turns out to be something altogether different. Shakespeare did this type of character very well. I think we know how incredibly unreliable a narrator Horatio was.
On a more recent note, take the deceptively unreliable alcoholic Rachel from Paula Hawkins’ “The Girl on the Train.” What does Rachel know? She seems unsure of her own perceptions. We want to believe in her, because…well, we just want to, but we also want her to stop drinking and just come clean.
What about Matt Coyle’s brutally honest and self-denigrating ex-cop, Rick Cahill, who Coyle debuted in “Yesterday’s Echo?” He may not have been convicted of a heinous crime, but plenty of people still think he’s guilty of it. Are we even sure that Rick believes in his own innocence?
Those two character’s narrations are unreliable for completely different reasons, but as readers, we’re sympathetic to them, and we want to believe them, but there are different ways to look them. Are they the person we see, or are they different persons altogether? The answer to those questions are skillfully borne out in the evolution of those stories.
What about the peripheral characters in the storyline? They shape our view of the narrator too, and often they are like politicians, they are very good at sniffing out rotten eggs, but not at laying good ones, and the protagonist is usually right in the middle of the stink. We long to see them pulled out of the mess they’re in, but will that happen? That’s what usually keeps us reading until the end, that desire to see who the unreliable narrator really is. Oh…and to see the creepo in the story get what’s coming to them.
Firmly Planted in Mid-air
It's been a long week, physically. I've put in some extra hours after closing at work, and Friday saw myself and a co-worker picking up 700 chairs in a large event arena. The chairs were scattered over the one-plus acre venue, so my partner gathered while I wheeled the 250 lb. stacks across the arena and up into a truck with a special dolly.
Eighteen trips across the arena and up into the truck later, I was ready to be done, and we were, once we returned to the shop and unloaded the stacks. I consider myself to be "stout" but my hands were bruised when it was over.
Yesterday, work went on schedule and my co-worker and I spent the morning moving and repairing and then replacing stacks of extension ladders. After working in the afternoon, I split a cord of wood. The bruising is on the palms of my hands is gone now, and thankfully I had today to rest.
Today, I began working from my outline on a new novel. I've learned a great deal on this journey, and I think my writing is steadily improving. I'm looking forward to undertaking the process as I write and learn more.
Sometimes (and this will sound like I'm trying to toot my own horn--but I'm not doing that. I'm merely being honest) I feel like a superhero with a not-so-secret identity.
I'm weird, I guess, because I enjoy hard physical work most of the time. I like the challenge. It's a grinder, and it pays bills, but...I also love to fly, and whether writing ends up a wildly successful endeavor for me, or if I end up with ten fans, consisting of my wife and my friends...as I sit down and put the tip of my pen to the paper, I will be soaring.
Okay. I’m worn out today. No, it’s not the presidential elections.
Today, I tried my hand at outlining. It’s the first time I’ve outlined a story. Ever. I’ve written stories my entire life, and I have always worked the story out in my head. I have friends who tell me that they simply could not order a story without utilizing the outline format. I respect that (perhaps even more so now.)
I’ve written novels, and in my head I see the story in steps. When writing short stories, I have often begun with a general idea and fleshed it out as I’ve written it. That has worked fine. There are always rewrites. With a novel, my brain functions much differently. I have a beginning, I see an end, and in between while writing, I imagine the steps that get you from one to the other. Again, there are always rewrites.
I have outlining friends for whom the process is a pleasure, a piece of cake. I have outlining friends too, for whom the task is hard work. I think I must fall into the latter group so far. It isn’t that I’m a disorganized thinker. I’m not, but my mind organizes things in a way that is foreign to basic outlining.
Today, I worked within the confines of a framework that forces me to act before I’m ready to. The outline format demanded that I know in advance—each and every progressive step that my characters will be taking, the course of the plotline, and the overarching story that the characters will be driving. I made it just two thirds of the way through today before my mind began to sweat and thirsted for a cool drink.
I didn’t stop because I don’t know the remaining third of the storyline. I do. I just stopped because it was a blow to my system. This is kind of an important step for me, because I’m attempting to make this adjustment at the start of a new novel, and the effort will perhaps be telling, one way or another. My hope is that my writing will be the better for it. I have a day job and other writing projects in the works, but I’ll let you know, God willing, in about five to six months.
A Ramble on Fear
Everyone fears. If you’re a breathing, sentient human being, you’ve had to deal with the sensation at some point. It’s prompted by being faced with choices, by having no choice in a matter, by what’s going on around you, by what’s happening to your loved ones, or by facing an unknown quantity in your life.
I could have kept going on with that list. It’s easy. That’s what makes fear so prevalent in so many lives. If you’re an introvert like I am, you could allow fear to rule out certain types of interaction in your life. No problem. Cook up a few excuses and voila, there you aren’t.
Like I said, we all have our things, and I think a person completely without fear would qualify as a nut job. Fear can be crippling, which is bad. Fear can also be a common sense warning sign, which is good. When it crops up, we have to recognize it and deal with it.
On the creative side, some people like a stalwart, fearless character in fiction. I don’t. It might have played well in comic books of the 1930s, but it simply isn’t realistic. Indiana Jones for example, is an eccentric comic book character who is much more engaging, precisely because he has fears. He may be brave and reckless, but his fears are definitely apparent in the films, and the way he deals with them balance the performance and give the character a type credibility.
How about a character who is meant to be more starkly real? Take thirty-two year old Rachel Watson, from author Paula Hawkins’, The Girl on the Train. In her psychological thriller, Rachel is a recent divorcée, awash in fears and a Noah’s Arkload of angst. Her young, personally tragic life is governed by a combination of negative emotions that ebb and swell in a sea of confusion, until she is forced to rise above her fears and…well…read the book.
As for writers in an unstable industry, or in our day to day lives, fear can be a friend or foe. Here are some words on that from Jin Young, a martial arts intructor I admire. Jin’s advice on fear is sound, and not just for martial artists. It’s very sensible for life artistry, as well.
I can't get the video to play here, but just click on the link below, without fear.
When the Sun Shines
That most challenging time of year for me has come once again. Like a lot of writers, I have a day job, and will for the foreseeable future. I am working hard to change that, but the reality is that my life as a writer and my day job are in a symbiotic relationship.
The best scenario for this bond to work is to turn it into an alliance, to make sure it is beneficial to both aspects of my working life. I know that without a job, it would be very difficult to pursue a career in storytelling, so I want to take care of my job so that it will be there to nurture my writing.
It’s not unlike a parent/child situation. The day job feeds and supports the writer, until the writer is able to move on and support herself. As in any relationship, when a parent overshadows the child too much, the child can begin to feel smothered, and some friction may result.
That’s where I’m at right now. Over these past two months, my hours are up and the work is so physical that I need a more sleep at night. It’s a vicious cycle. If I don’t get the sleep, I’ll be generally too tired to devote my normal amount of time to write. If I do get the extra sleep I need, I sleep a fair amount of my writing time away. It’s a lose-lose situation all the way around. Or is it?
I had my second short story published last month. I have two others and a novel in submission, and I’m working on other projects. It isn’t an unproductive time, it’s merely a less productive time, but I can’t honestly say that, either. Truth be told, it’s been during these lags in writing time that some of my best story ideas have come to mind.
There’s an old idiom that goes, “You’ve got to make hay while the sun shines,” meaning that you need to step up and get something done when the conditions are right. What kind of world would any of us be living in though, if we never strove to get something done when conditions are at their worst?
If I'm sketching stories in my head, or even if I’m just thinking about possible story ideas when I don’t have much time to write, I’ll be doing better when that old sun begins to light up my pages again.
The Evolution of a Story
I was fortunate enough the other day, to be notified that another one of my short stories has been accepted for publication. It will be coming out in the July 8th issue of “Romance Magazine.” https://www.fictionmagazines.com/magazines/romance/
You may ask, since on my website here, or anywhere else for that matter, you’ve never seen a romance story from me, why I’ve written one now. The answer is very simple. I enjoyed writing it.
I am what you would describe, for lack of a better term, a “pantser.” A seat of the pants writer. I don’t outline my stories in the conventional sense. Oh, I do have an overall trajectory for the story in mind when I’m writing it, but I don’t necessarily break it down into scenes until I’m putting words on paper.
Sometimes, I write for a while and then sort of outline a bit, either on paper or in my noggin, and go back to writing. It would be misleading to say that I don’t ever outline. I do. I just have my own way of doing it.
I have writer friends who’ve told me that mine is way too scary of a way for them to write, and I get that. We’re all different. For me, it’s an enjoyable part of the whole creative process.
Take the story I have coming out in July. When I started writing it, I knew who my main protagonist was, and what she was doing when the story began, and why. What I didn’t know, was what the consequences of her actions would be, precisely. It didn’t take me long to find out. I simply went along with the story.
I didn’t start out to write the story I ended up with. I began writing a crime story, but it evolved into a story where intimate relationship became the focus of the characters involved. For those of you who prefer crime stories, there is plenty of crime to go around.
For all those reading whose bent is more toward romance, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed either. The story title is “BLOODLINES”, and when it comes out, I hope you’ll pay the above link a visit and give it a read.
There are many different artistic ways to convey meaning, and a great number of those fall under the umbrella term, “writer.” I’m one of those who would like to write for a living. I’ve worked in the service industry for thirty-eight years now, in a very physical job.
While I have family and friends who tell me I’ve been blessed with unusual strength (I get told this all the time) I don’t know how much longer my body will continue to endure the rigors, day-in, day-out.
The demands of my day job aren’t the only motivation for my desired change of vocation. I’ve always written, and I always will. It’s what I love. There are times when life gets in the way of things, and it must be lived. Time makes its demands on a person. One can try to deny the intrusion. Sometimes that’s a losing battle.
I’ve worked hard to get into a position to be able to pursue my passion, and over the course of the last six years, I’ve developed a plan to take me to my goal of being published, and writing to support myself and my family. I’m an eclectic reader, but my two favorite genres are crime/mystery and science fiction.
There are plenty of people out there who are willing to cast doubt on the possibility for success in such an endeavor. I believe I’ve heard them all, at least in variations on a theme; ‘There are too many writers out there to be noticed, even if you’re very good.’ ‘The publishing world has changed. Everybody who fancies herself a writer is self-publishing now.’ ‘If you don’t get picked up by one of the Big Five publishers, you’re just going to be another loser.’
Hardly a comprehensive list. I told a friend when I was happy to have finished writing my second novel, and he responded with, “Nice hobby.”
I take all of these things with a grain of salt. They may well be other writer’s experiences. They don’t have to be mine. Most writers who have been published and especially those who are doing very well are largely surprised (and extremely thankful) for their success, but they know that they’ve also worked for it. I know this because I’m Facebook friends with a few, and they tell me these things in complete sincerity. One thing they will all acknowledge though, is a sense of community among writers.
I have felt this well of support from the moment I started to ‘go public’ about my intentions. I hadn’t been on Facebook for very long before a young mother and aspiring author welcomed me to the writing community.
Others began to send me friend requests, and I sent requests to others, but the case has largely been the former. David Corbett once told me that crime writers are “pathologically supportive” and welcomed me to “the asylum”. He’s a fine writer, and we’re great friends and email one another constantly. Okay, that’s not true. Well, it’s true that he’s an exceptional writer, but we hardly know one another, which makes what he said to me a very kind gesture.
I took creative writing courses in college after being encouraged by my high school English teacher. It wasn’t the first time that I was encouraged to write, but it was the most meaningful.
Over my four years in high school with her, we developed a respect for one another, largely because the two of us had some fairly serious philosophical differences, and many discussions where she challenged me to my core. It may be a failing, but when someone intimidates me, I tend to intimidate in return.
Despite our differences, we remained respectful friends, even to this day. Her encouragement stemmed from an assignment wherein the requirement was to write at least a three-page work of fiction about any subject we chose.
When I got my story back, she had taken the red ink to it, challenging me once again. She gave my story an A-plus, “Not because you far exceeded the three-page length requirement, but because your writing is so good, David,” and then wrote the words, “Have you ever considered the possibility of writing for a living?”
Since then, I’ve never stopped.
I’ve read great authors. I’ve read (I’m sorry) crappy authors. I’ve studied, and I’ve practiced. I’ve learned a great deal. If there is ever a great deal that I don’t have to learn about writing, I will be taking the six-foot dirt nap.
Enter…Noreen Ayers, Paul D. Marks, Tom Pitts and Joe Clifford.
I can’t think of another way to drop these people’s names without actually…um…dropping them. Among them, all are award-nominees and award-winning authors and professional editors.
Noreen has been as pathologically helpful to me as David Corbett could have described. Asking to read stories, encouraging me (hey, she’s a teacher and she just can’t help it) even pointing out the short story that I might want to try to get published. Well, guess what? I submitted that story and it was snapped up. Good call, Noreen. She has also given me pointers. Invaluable pointers. I use the word ‘pointers’ because she always shows my writing respect.
Pointing to some bonehead thing I’ve done in my writing without saying, “Dave, this is a real bonehead thing, here.” Instead, she suggested possibilities by giving me examples that I can draw on in order to advance my story by making the connection for myself.
A few weeks ago, I was outside for several hours in one-hundred plus degree weather, doing grunt work. I say this because I was pulling weeds, and actually grunting—a lot. My wife Pati came out with a large insulated bottle of ice water for me.
I was standing on one side of our fence, and she was standing on the other. When she asked me where to set it, I handed it back over the fence to her and said, “Could you set it in the planter there, please?”
The planter was six feet away from me on the other side of our fence. Pati looked at me and asked the obvious question, “How are you going to reach it when you need it?” I had made an assumption that she would know the answer, and I had to tell her, “I’ll finish my work on this side of the fence shortly, and then I’ll walk around the house and work in the backyard, where I can reach the water.”
This is the major problem I have as a writer. I assume that the reader understands things the way that I do. I can’t do that. I have to explain things to people who aren’t privileged to the perspective lodged within my head. Sometimes, I won’t do this in ten stories. Sometimes, I will commit this author felony two stories in a row. Noreen Ayers was (gasp) honest with me about how I was doing this to the reader in one story, but she was also kind in the way she called me out on it.
I read one of Noreen’s short stories a couple of weeks ago, and I thought, “I don’t know if I can write like this.” I was envious. I am envious. Shortly after, she read one of mine and told me it was great writing, and just what she liked about it. My response was akin to the following--- o.o
It’s not that I don’t believe in myself. I do. It’s just that when someone whose writing I really admire tells me that I’m doing it right, I’m at once surprised and encouraged, because when I put myself out there, I’m never so certain about how what I’ve written will be perceived, even if I think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.
Tom Pitts and Joe Clifford have made their criticisms in the same way in my case. I’ve submitted stories to them, which they’ve kindly rejected. I mean it when I say ‘kindly’ because if they’d accepted them and published them, they both knew I would regret it later (not to mention they would have been publishing unworthy efforts).
These two men also fit the pathologically supportive profile, because they could have just told me to take a hike. Instead, they honestly spoke to the flaws without hammering me, and encouraged me to make the changes and continue. Both of those stories ended up being better by far for the rejection. You see, having a story rejected isn’t an insult. Rather, it’s a learning experience, and a generous one at that.
Paul D. Marks, author of the Shamus award-winning novel, White Heat, is just an encourager by nature. From my earliest experiences on FB, the notion of giving up from his point-of-view, is absolutely foreign.
Histories, writing and related stories about great mystery and fiction writers are a staple from Paul, whose respect for those who’ve mastered it is paramount. He has also brought to my attention, the names of writers whom I’d never heard of. This is a man who really appreciates the genre he has chosen to write in, and those who pioneered it.
I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know how all of this will end. I only know that as all of these fine writers have advised me, I will never give up, even if that means writing just for the love of it.
Chance and Circumstance
Yesterday was a special day for me. I was treated to some of life’s best things. Blessed, in other words. Many things happened. There were a number of them that are the kinds of things easily taken for granted. A writer friend (a professional) helped me, a lot. That will be the subject of a future post though, where I can give it the gravity it deserves.
There were several other unusual things that happened to me in the course of my day, but for fun, I would like to concentrate on just one of them here.
I like to write on my lunch hours when I have them, and there’s a nice little park across the street from where I work.
I’ll take a protein bar or some crackers and an apple and sit at a picnic table and relax into the process as I enjoy being outside in the sunshine, and the breeze. There’s the occasional playful screaming of kids on the slide in the play area, or of people playing with their dogs, crying babies and sympathetic moms.
Yesterday was different. It was the first time that my writing has been interrupted by an outside party. In the back of my mind, I was aware of my surroundings. I heard the sounds of a female voice calling after someone named “Clipper”. I didn’t pay attention to that though, until I realized that her speech was being directed at me, from about sixty feet away.
I looked to my right as a young woman was making a steady approach, talking to me about her dog. Her tone suggested that she was more than comfortable speaking to a complete and total stranger about whatever was on her mind. What specifically that was, is hard to say, because she kept jumping around from subject to subject.
She began by telling me that she’d just come from her vet’s office and paid a one-hundred thirty-eight dollar fee because her busy, black Labrador Retriever (Clipper) had ingested something he shouldn’t have and was now vomiting.
Before I could say anything, she said that she knew the problem had probably been the anti-freeze he had licked from the pavement at the local county fair. I didn’t bother to remind her that the fair had preceded our luncheon date by eight months. She then allowed that her dog had only thrown up three times. Poor doggie.
Next on the agenda, the comparative costs of the vet bill and seating at a rock concert, after which I was treated to a rather unimpressive air guitar performance. Don’t get me wrong, it lacked nothing in enthusiasm. It’s just that that the hand placements were all wrong.
Bandanas, in particular, were of great interest to this woman. She liked the one she was holding because it went well with her red hair. She said, “You can’t even tell it’s a bandana when you do this with them.” She held it between her thumbs and forefingers, folded it and made a special effort to crease it. “See?” It still looked amazingly like a bandana to me, but Clipper was wearing one and he seemed to be happy.
“I hope your dog is alright,” I said, finally.
She pointed, “He’s pooping, and I need to go and see what kind of poop it is.”
I looked over my shoulder and sure enough, Clipper had selected a spot for the deed. He was thirty feet away, but it just looked like poop to me.
She stood from the table without saying goodbye, chased Clipper down without looking at the special poop and walked from that park and out of my life.
I’d made some observations during our limited and rather one-sided exchange. One: her appearance was normal in every respect. Her clothes were coordinated, and she was clean and presentable. Two: she was articulate (aside from her rambling nature), possessed of a good vocabulary and good grammar. Three: she is not malnourished. She probably fights a weight problem, just the same as I do. Four: she’s very likely to be employed, as she was wearing her printed job lanyard around her neck. Five: She is either amazingly good at her job so as to be indispensable, or the company’s human resources manager needs to be alerted.
All of this to say, I feel blessed. Whether this woman is “nutty” or whether she is someone who is working to overcome crippling shyness and perhaps worked up the courage to speak with a safe looking stranger and this is what poured out at the result—I feel blessed.
I don’t feel blessed because I think I’m better than her. I feel blessed because she chose to speak with me for whatever the reason.
I am a writer though, so will this person be making an appearance in one of my stories? Yeah. Ohhhhhhhh yeah.
The Push and Shove
At certain intervals, I’m a life athlete. At other times, I’m a life warrior, but I’m not always sure if I’m warring with life, or with myself.
Life can be a bit of a challenge at times. The athlete. At other times, life seems to position a problem ‘in your face’, a problem which one can’t walk or run away from. It has to be fought through. The warrior.
There is a companionable process to those times though, which can mitigate some of life’s experiences. The philosopher.
One needs to play ‘the philosopher’ role a lot in one’s life, if one is going to make it over the hurdles, and if one is going to fight the battles and win.
Enter, upon occasion, the mood.
The ‘mood’ is a treacherous thing. A vile adversary, it can be dangerously pivotal, because one’s reason can be pushed aside by momentary emotion. At those times, one needs to keep in mind that there is a cost involved, and put the mood in its place.
All of life’s challenges come with a cost. There are gradual hills and there are sheer cliff faces that one must navigate. There will be injuries. There will be failures, and one has to weigh the benefit of one’s self-assigned goals against the personal cost, and then decide if the training, the effort and the outright beatings are worth it.
Are my goals worth the cost? Oh yeah. To me they are. Every scratch. Every scar. It’s all worth it, because although success can be as difficult to handle as failure, handling failure due to a lack of effort on my part—is unacceptable.
Write to Life
When life is battling with art, sometimes art has to rearrange itself in order to fight back. I’m still working away at other pieces. Longer short stories and another novel, but with a full time job, these things progress slowly. Not to mention, there are other things going on in my life right now, and even if I would like to write-write-write all the time, these things are demanding my time and attention.
It isn’t always easy to make time to write, but if one is going to be a writer, one needs to make time to at least think about writing. I have some things going on in my life (too mundane to go into) that are cramping my writing style. That’s where some of the motivation for writing flash fiction came from.
I decided to open a new page for flash fiction here on the website,Flash Front (The Dark Side) and I’ve been trying my hand at it lately (I’ve only written a few pieces). They've been good writing exercise for me, especially since it’s been darker work and at odds with the type of protagonists and other characters that I usually write.
It keeps the writing mind working when the writing fingers cannot, and when those fingers do make it to a pen or a computer keyboard, the story is there, short enough to get onto the page and long enough to provide a decent break. I hope you enjoy what emerges from the effort.
The Six-Gun of Six-Words
There’s an urban legend about Ernest Hemingway, having taken a bet from other writers that he couldn’t come up with a valid or complete short story in six words. He wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
I don’t know if the story is true or not, but it is a compelling line, is it not? Any writer would hope that what ends up on the page would spark such an immediate response from a reader’s imagination.
For me, the beauty of that short is its accomplishment in such pristine fashion. Verbosity is a problem for many writers. I’m no stranger to it.
Though many readers regard a wordy, highly detailed version of storytelling as cumbersome and annoying, a lot of them do not. Some feel cheated if they can’t pay forty cents more to receive something super-sized, because even if bigger isn’t necessarily better, there’s still more to enjoy. Fortunately, reading is calory free.
Some people can't stand to read Shakespeare. "Too long" or "too wordy" for them, but no one can deny his genius (unless you believe Oxford was the actual author, but that’s another subject). His plays were stunning in their content, often with single lines that are stories in themselves.
I’ll pick one at random. Hamlet, speaking to Ophelia in Act 3; “God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.” Standing alone, that line says so much with so little.
I don’t have any problem with big, thick books. I just don’t need to write them. Right now (or write now) I’ve been trying my hand at flash fiction. I’ve read some, and I’m reading more. I’ve only written a few at this point, and I can’t say that it’s going swimmingly, or can I?
In a first attempt to economize my words and come in under 1k, I produced nearly 2k. With little scissors, I trimmed fat. I re-read it. I pulled out a butcher knife and removed bigger slices of material. When that didn’t work, I swung a machete in earnest, leaving bloodied little darlings all over the floor.
However, I so focused on my word count that I lost track of my character’s point of view. What I ended up with was a short, confusing piece of work with real potential. Enter, professional friends with great advice.
I went to work on it again. It grew. It diminished. Finally, it evolved into a flash fiction story I can respect. It will probably show up in a new ‘bad boys’ or ‘black hat’ story link here, along with some others.
I’ll let you know when they’re available to read, and I’ll keep plugging away while I continue with my other works in progress.
Growth and Options
I’m fast approaching a tipping point in my literary ‘career’. When I decided to sacrifice the time (take time away from other people and things) and the effort to write in earnest, and toward establishing a later life career as an author, I also decided to give myself a realistic window.
To quit writing? No. Like martial arts, I’ll never quit, barring some unforeseen catastrophic health problem.
The idea isn’t that I need to get stuff Out there! Out there! OUT THEEEERRRRRE!!!! The simple truth is that I’m middle-aged and, like the rest of us, I don’t know how long my sojourn here will last.
Since I do want to publish books and short stories and make a living at it, or at least supplement the living I have, my stories will need a readership. I want to do something I love that doesn’t take such a physical toll from me each day.
Getting my stories out there is obviously a big part of my publishing goal, and there are two ways to accomplish that. Either I publish the stories myself and work for a following that way, or I manage to catch the eye of persons within the traditional publishing world and work with them to gain the readership I need.
Whichever way it ends up, there is one element in the process that remains the same. I have to write the best possible books and stories that I can.
At times in the past, I naively churned out pieces that could and should have been much better. Better worded, economized and less grammatically offensive, to say nothing of the clichés and the plot that only danced around the edge of something little more than a character study.
I still make easy choices at times and stupid mistakes, but on the whole, my writing is better than it was then, and it improves each year. If I couldn’t say that without braggadocio, I would be an incompetent writer. I’m not. I’m just a guy who is trying to attain a goal by bettering himself and his abilities with each passing day. So, I take stock.
One way of doing that is by comparing the rejection letters that I receive back from agencies and editors. Whether for a book or a short story lately, there has been a decidedly different tone to what I’m receiving.
Before the last couple of years, form letters or no response at all. This year, I’m consistently receiving personal letters, mostly with invites to submit in the future. I know those can be form letters too, but when the person writing to you quotes from your work and talks to you about your characters, you know that you’ve crossed the line from a computer-generated dismissal to personal interaction.
An amalgam of what I’m being told would go something like this, “In all, I have no problem with your writing, but your story is not what we’re looking for right now. It’s good though, so don’t give up on this. Do a little more research and find someone for whom it’s a better fit right now.”
Some have even written to me with advised changes. I find that very encouraging, and I'll take their advice while I keep at it, every day.
I hate hospitals.
It’s not that I hate the people that work inside of them, rather it’s that I know that most people, inevitably end up spending time in one, and it usually isn’t a pleasant experience.
Quite often (depending on which source you draw on) a person will make four to five stays in the hospital and on the last one, one will not make it out alive.
Not to be ominous about this, but I’ve reached the mid-point of my average now, and I would prefer not to have any further experiences.
I know that I don’t have to be in a hospital to meet my end. I fully understand that I could die anytime in any number of ways, but those are unexpected, and why should I court disaster by inviting the grim reaper to the party to apply the average?
I’m being a bit tongue in cheek here, but those thoughts do nag away, back in the corner in the dark of some recess within my little writer’s noggin. My visit to the house of ill repose this time wasn’t too big of a deal. It turned out to be a medication related issue. Apparently, the medication was too much and unneeded.
I titled this post “Intermissum Vitae’, or ‘Life Interrupted,’ and that’s precisely what happened to mine, one and a half months ago, when I collapsed while writing and smashed into my keyboard tray, ripping it loose from my computer desk as I hit the floor. I did a number on it, and my wife. It scared her, to say the least. It’s an odd feeling to look up from the floor, having a loved one patting your face with the blood drained from her face. My heart rate had plummeted to just twenty-three beats per minute.
I stood up, feeling fine, but I passed out twice more that day, including while I was signing in at the emergency room desk. I will say that you will have little paperwork or delay in being admitted if you follow this procedure. Staring up at the attendant from the floor with a bewildered look on your face tends to get their attention.
I don’t think I could have been treated any better in the hospital. They did everything but cut my food up into little pieces for me. The only problem with being there is that it’s an absolutely terrible place to recuperate.
I got great care, but $11,000 and 40 hours later, I had managed only one hour of sleep, even after the offending medication had been discontinued and counter-acted. This makes it hard to bounce back, but bounce back I have, even though my wife now treats me like I am made of papier-mâché, and even though my writing time has suffered, that’s not such a bad thing. She has lavished attention on me because of this.
Do you think a nice man would take advantage of something like that? I wouldn’t know. Go ask a nice man. My writing was put on hold, although my head wasn't, and I have been graced with a ton of ideas from this.
In all seriousness, I hope your New Year is speeding off to a wonderful start, and that it will end up being all that you are hoping for. My own New Year did not take a turn that was expected, but I’ve put the paddles on its chest, and I’ve yelled out ‘Clear!’ and I am pressing the button. How about you?
A NEW SHORT STORY DEBUT
I promised to let you know when my short story, “THE APPEAL” was published. That happened today, and is viewable online at “Over My Dead Body! The Mystery Magazine Online!”
Just visit their home page at: http://www.overmydeadbody.com/index2.htm and click on the FICTION link in the index on the left. My story appears in the December issue for this year. The direct link to the story is here: http://www.overmydeadbody.com/dvbntt.html
That my first short story to be published is being handled by people from my home state is a special treat. OMDB! is based in Auburn, Washington and I’m very pleased by that. Be sure to check out the offerings there by other authors. There are a lot of fun, entertaining stories to relax with. So grab a couple of chocolate chip cookies, a mug of hot coffee, sit back and check it out.
By Thee I For-Swear
Today on Facebook, I read a point-counterpoint blog article concerning whether or not authors should use profanity in their writing.
This particular article happened to be pro-swearing, and the author attempted to blow the con-swearing arguments out of the water with a verbal mini-gun while dropping f-bombs, even in the title. Of course, he was trying to make a point, so there was plenty of locker room fare all over the place.
I’ve seen this subject come up quite often over the years, and scant few of these articles on either side of the issue are objective or well-written, and they usually defensive, critical of others and are almost always prescriptive in their reasoning—‘I do’ or ‘I don’t do it—so therefore however I do it is right.
The issue seems to generate a lot of anger and resentment amongst the pro-swearing crowd, perhaps because they feel their creative freedom is being impinged upon. Few writers, myself included, tend to invite any kind of censorship unless it's their own idea. That's all easily understandable.
What isn’t understandable, or prudent in my belief, is insulting the character of people who object to the profanity, and the same thing goes for those who criticize the people using it in their writing. Sheesh. The people who are offended by profanity don’t have to read it.
The way I see it, this issue is kind of like the ‘war on Christmas’ that has been popularized in the media. No one is warring on my Christmas. No one is taking my rights away. I still worship as I please, where I please, and I still celebrate Christmas in my own way, despite all of the outcry. My rights have not been curtailed in any way.
I’m still free to do what I’ve always done, and if someone else doesn’t like saying Merry Christmas back to me when I say it to them, they are free to abstain or even tell me they are offended by my statement. Both have happened and neither response has offended my sensibilities or changed how or what I practice.
Personally, I’ve never used much in the way of profanity in my writing, because of the influences in my life which are relevant to me, and won’t matter at all to most everybody else. If I were going to choose a personal influence to explain it to the writing community, it would be because it evolved from the ‘Don’t tell me—show me’ part of my training. That doesn't mean I don't read books which include profanity.
It’s okay. I repeat—it’s okay. I’m not condemning anyone’s practices here (except for the name-calling and character assassination.)
I have four words for people in both camps; the matter is subjective. I’ve had people tell me that there isn’t ‘enough’ profanity in my storytelling. Certainly others have been told that there’s an overabundance in theirs.
Fortunately in this country and many others, we have the right to write freely, and decide just as freely, what we choose to read.
One major thing that book and movie storytelling have in common is an audience, and audiences too, are still free to vote with their wallets and their feet. I think there are enough preferences to go around.
Reflection on Rejection
It was just a small thing, getting rejected again. It’s interesting, how one feels when that happens. I’m sure that the reaction is as different as fingerprints when it comes to individuals, and very much the same for many of us when it comes to being human.
Another writer asked me, “Why does getting rejected bum me out so badly? I’m an adult for crying out loud. I should be able to intellectualize this.”
Caught a bit off guard at the time, my answer was a bit platitudinal; “Our efforts are a part of us, and nobody likes to be rejected by someone else.”
Many of us have read the cover letter that Hunter Thompson wrote when he applied for a job at the Vancouver Sun. It wasn’t a submission piece, but he dealt proactively and preemptively with any possible rejection. It was brilliant.
I’ve also read submission letters written with profanity and outright vitriol in absolute expectation of rejection, some tongue-in-cheek and some genuine. The latter, not so brilliant, though somewhat entertaining.
Recently, I sent off a short story, a flash piece for consideration, and I made some rookie mistakes. It’s the first attempt I’ve made at that type of writing. I don’t offer that as an excuse for it’s far less than perfect state at submission, but in order to paint an even-handed picture, I offer it as the reality.
I can’t explain why I didn’t see the problems. They were glaring. Also, if I had bothered to do what I always do—read my stuff aloud when it’s ‘finished’, I would have caught the problems. Would that have made the difference between acceptance and rejection? I really don’t know.
Enter: two men. I really like these guys. I won’t name them here, because I’m not sure they’d want me to, but gentlemen, you know who you are.
Do you know what they did to me? They rejected me. Well, not me, but the piece I wrote. Then do you want to know what they did to me? They gave me genuine feedback.
As a writer (if you’re not one) I can’t emphasize how valuable a gift that is, especially from talented writers like these two men. I say ‘gift’ because it’s something that they aren’t obligated to do for me or anyone else. They’re busy guys, and I don’t know if they just had a rare bit of time on their hands or what, but they invested a small but valuable amount of it in me.
As someone who’s been rejected for years now for many stories, I have never really been all that bothered by rejection. I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t bother me at all, because the goal is acceptance for several reasons, ranging from artistic to material.
I was lucky though. I was prepared for rejection. I happened by sheer chance onto articles about well known, highly successful writers and their records of rejection for years and years before they were ‘discovered’. I enjoyed the encouragement from them before I was ever rejected the first time. In short, it took a lot of the bite out of it for me, simply because if they got rejected, then I most certainly should expect to be.
The upshot is, I’m actually thankful that these men not only rejected, but commented on my story. In centering in on the issues within it, they essentially offered up what was necessary to fix it.
Last night, I stayed up into the wee hours doing just that. It’s the same story, but the issues are gone and with some additional tweaking, it’s a much better read.
I don’t know yet if I will submit it anywhere else. I may end up placing it here on my SHORTS page. As I told one of these gentlemen, I’m kind of fond of the story. That’s partly because it’s a departure from what I normally write. We’ll see where it ends up. I’ll have to cogitate on that.
Sifting the Rubbish
I attended a banquet last night, given in honor of a retiring park ranger that I’ve been acquainted with for over twenty years now.
It was a lot of fun, and coincidentally, yesterday was his birthday. I wondered how much working outdoors has contributed to the fact that he looks about fifteen to twenty years younger than he actually is.
There were speeches and no shortage of stories. Certainly, the most interesting ones were from the man himself. Living in town, I don’t know too many people who are fortunate enough to see herds of deer walking through their job site, see eagles mate or (more than once) nearly step on or trip over beaver wandering through the park at night.
Of course, his responsibilities on a daily basis included activities that one might see as less glamorous, even tedious.
When one of the other rangers moved here twenty years ago, his first meeting with ‘Ranger Reed’ occurred when he drove to the park ranger station and found Reed chest-deep in a dumpster (clad in shorts) in order to cull beer bottles and other recyclables from the rubbish.
The deal with Reed though, is that sifting through gunk isn’t something he necessarily resented having to do. Rather, doing it was something he believes in, because he was working to make things better. It’s real work, and as is the case it is very much worth doing.
As a writer, I’m learning to self-edit by sifting through my own trash. The rubbish may only be on paper, but trust me, it often smells as bad or worse than anything my friend Reed may ever have encountered in that dumpster.
I’ve enjoyed learning to get my hands dirty in order to pull out what is useful and leave the trash behind. Doing so is something I do because it’s worth doing, and will make the end product that much better.
This is part of what I took away from Reeds shining example, but there were other good things too. I’ve seen eagles, deer, elk, beaver, badgers, possum and lots of other critters in the wild. Listening to Reed talk about his encounters on a daily basis made me realize that it has been far too long since I’ve enjoyed those experiences. I think it’s time to plan an outing.
Not For the Feint of Heart?
I've had subscriptions to writer's magazines for over thirty years now. I love to read articles that tell writers what other people like to read. It is always interesting to read one that sets down the 'definitive' understanding of the way a reader's mind works.
“Readers hate to be tricked.” Really? I'm a reader and I don't mind it, if the trick is well thought out. Would it be irritating to be halfway through a novel narrated by the heroine, only to see her killed off and find that her ghost is narrating the remainder of the story?
I'm sure it's been done, but I think that would be a fascinating trick if it were done well enough. Would all readers like a twist like that? No, but I'm betting that there are plenty who love ghost stories who would.
Years ago I read an article where an agent said sometihng like, “I don't like reading a story where the main character dies at the end of the first chapter.”
On it's face that does seem like an odd storytelling tactic, because as a reader I can get pretty invested in a well-written character by the end of a first chapter. On the other hand if my focus is changed by a skillful author, I'm willing to hang in to find out what happens, because I like character-driven stories and there are usually more than one character driving it.
Mind you, I have a lot of repect for writers who take those kinds of risks. It takes guts. It made me wonder about what would happen if I gave some of my own characters such treatment. What would Jack Simington do without Ruben Sifuentes by his side? In the last installment, well...let's just say that there wouldn't be any more installments. Jack would have been dead.
There's a comraderie in those types of stories that I'm a sucker for, and a closeness that I believe people like. Not only is Ruben the kind of friend that people like to have, but in their ongoing relationships and especially between Jack and his wife Megan, frailties and strengths are revealed over time that cement an affection that people have for those characters. I don't want to mess too much with that. I've had enough feedback from people to know that they don't want me to either. I wouldn't want to betray that.
What if I did betray that trust though? How would those stories recover? For some readers, it's done. Book down, never to be picked up again. That's just a reflection of life though, because things happen in our lives all of the time that bring feelings to us that are hard to deal with, but deal with them we do, most of the time, bacause that's life, and it must be lived.
This is where my admiration for such risk-taking writers comes from. Their gut-wrenching writing tricks might fall flat on their face, or they might carry a reader through the ups and downs of an emotional rollercoaster that imitates the very life they live. The latter takes real skill.
Wait For It
I mentioned in an earlier blog post that I’ve sold my first short story. I haven’t been notified of the pub date, and I don’t particularly want to pester the people who will be publishing it, so I’ll let you know more when I know more.
In the meantime, I’ll wait. Waiting is a bit of an art. Some people might describe it as a pain in the…well…think of whatever part of your own anatomy that would least like to have a pain located, and use that.
Waiting is a necessary part of the job if you're a human being, and particularly if you’re going to make writing your profession. For example, I wrote a short story in late 2014. I submitted it to a well-known magazine for consideration…in early January 2015. I was notified of my story’s reception. They have it. It’s still up for consideration.
So…ten months and counting.
That’s fine. I know that they are drowning in stories, and it takes time to go through them, especially when a story is coming from an untried ‘nobody’. That’s cool.
I continue to wait, but the truth of the matter is that I really haven’t been thinking about that story sitting there. I haven’t been mooning over it and I don’t plan to, whether it’s eventually published or not. I only thought about it at this point because someone asked me about it. I have other things to do while my story is sitting…like writing. That’s really the not-so-secret-secret of the whole thing.
I don’t know if writers are more suited to waiting than other people are. I suspect not, but that’s what they are forced to do in all sorts of ways. Wait for responses. Wait for acceptance. Wait for rejection. Wait for publication, and you know what? That’s all just part of the process.
I understand that spewing a platitude like that is easy, but it happens to be true, and you have to fall down on one side of the issue of waiting or the other. One side is productive and the other isn’t.
If you’re a writer—write. If you submit something and start working on something else.
I’m not trying to be preachy here, but this isn’t just about writers. If you’re waiting on something that doesn’t seem to be moving forward, then seize the time you have and make it count for something. You owe that much to yourself and to those who care about you.
Write or Wrong: A Writer’s Opinion
By now, hundreds of millions of people the world over have heard about the mass murder which took place here in the U.S. at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon on 10/1/15.
Specific to the crime is that it was committed by a single man with multiple, legally obtained firearms. The U.S. has been getting spanked and lectured and called names from lots of different places. Nothing new. The U.S. has been the international whipping boy for many other nations who seem to need one for many years.
The criticism hasn’t just originated outside of the U.S. though. I’d venture to say that the loudest critics of gun ownership policies here are coming from within. I see that as a good thing. We still have the right to raise our voices and speak freely about this issue.
Today, I’m not writing about the general solution to the problem. I’m writing about a writer’s responsibility as it may or may not relate to being part of the problem.
I won’t bandy words here about which side of that argument one should be on. In not doing so, I’m not taking a coward’s way out. I’ll state up front that for many years, I did a lot of shooting. I haven’t for a long time though, because the art of sport shooting lost its allure for me. The precision of it is no longer a challenge. Let’s just say that I never had a problem hitting what I aimed at, and it became boring for me.
I know my way around handguns, rifles and shotguns. My dad was a master sergeant in the Army, and he taught me how to safely and responsibly handle firearms beginning at age nine.
I grew up watching all sorts of shows that involved gunplay. Westerns, crime dramas and action programs and movies were favorites of mine. I loved watching Lash Canino get his at the barrel of Phillip Marlowe’s gat in THE BIG SLEEP. I loved watching Roy Rogers shoot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand, nearly every weekend in those old reruns. I was entertained.
Unfortunately, the shooting in Roseburg wasn’t a child’s fantasy. It was a child’s worst nightmare. It was their loved one’s worst nightmares realized where children should be safe. It was a sick, and sad and tragic event.
I’m writing this particular entry because after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened in December of 2012, I heard writers talking about making changes in the way that they write. Talk of abolishing guns in their novels and short stories abounded. Script writers wrote about deescalating the gun violence in their stories.
I haven’t noticed any difference there. If anything, the level of gun violence in books, TV and movies seems to have increased, and the graphic nature of special effects has ‘advanced’ as well. I watched an episode of a popular new program last night and I realized after it was over that I couldn’t recall exactly how many people were murdered in the space of an hour, nor how many gun battles had taken place, because there were tons.
I’ve always had mixed feelings about whether or not what people read or watch influences what they do. I’m talking about mentally unbalanced people here, because normal people simply don’t read or watch something violent and think, ‘I’m going to emulate that.” Normal people are repulsed by the violence, because they’re supposed to be. That’s why it’s in the story, just like they’re supposed to be attracted to a long-suffering protagonist who takes one for the team.
The problem is, those folks on the mental tightrope.
“Hey, I didn’t put those people on the wire,” a writer might say.
“But you’re a member of society,” comes the answer, “and you have a responsibility to the members of our national community to work toward the common good. Writing things like you do causes people to move away from goodness. It causes damage because people who are damaged read it and get the idea to do further damage.”
Okay. I’m convinced. I stop using guns in my stories. I especially stop writing suicide scenes where someone ends their life with a gun. We have to think about that—because sixty percent of all handgun related deaths are suicide by handgun. So don’t write anymore of those, right?
Why? My short story, or some other writer’s novel planted the methodological seed? Robin Williams killed himself with a belt. Better stop writing scenes of any suicidal nature. While we’re at it, better stop writing about murders—period.
No more car vs. pedestrian scenes. No more scenes where someone pushes someone else off a balcony. No bombs. Don’t have to worry about conveying that sense of tension and terror while the bomb squad expert tries to disarm an explosive, and let’s not even think about writing a scene where the antagonist stages a crime scene to divert law enforcement attention from herself. No more… no more.
I don’t believe that books or TV shows or movies are what cause people to pick up a gun and commit horrific acts of violence. I don’t believe that immersive video games are a cause either. If they were, the streets of not just America, but those of many other nations, even nations without guns, would be stacked with corpses.
Here we are in America though, with mass shootings steadily ticking upward.
What has changed? Guns haven’t changed, but the society in which they are owned has most definitely changed. Our society is broken. If this problem is going to be fixed, society will have to change again.
Whether time will prove my last statement true or false I don’t know. I do know this…the use of guns in my stories and those of other writers, and the use of guns in TV and movies do not cause people to take a weapon and murder other people. The people that do these things are already broken, and they are acting out on a selfish, vicious, twisted narcissistic motivation. Not to be unkind about it, but these shooters are damaged goods. They're disturbed people in desperate need of help, and while we need to figure out a way to keep guns out of their hands, they will find a way to kill, whether I write it first or not.
The Hard Part
I’ve heard authors banter back and forth about whether they are organic writers or outliners, and why. Is one way of writing a novel superior to the other? I’m willing here, to throw my own hat into the ring of opinion, based on my own experience for what that’s worth.
I’ve read tons of articles with expert advice from authors who’ve written one book to those who’ve written fifty. One article that said that no matter what—a writer should turn out five-hundred words per day. More on that later.
According to what I’ve read so far by outliners, they generally start with a ‘big picture’ type of idea (or plot), invent and flesh out characters and then break the book down into chapters, and those into scenes. They write out descriptions of each and then proceed to develop them in order to form a cohesive story. (Please forgive the over-simplification.)
Organic writers supposedly, handle these different aspects of the creative process on the fly, developing all facets of their book as they write their way through the story.
Which way of writing a book is best? In my humble opinion….neither. But….William Faulkner outlined. J.K. Rowling outlines. James Patterson outlines. So I’m done, right? I need to start outlining and you do too, right? No, not really. Well…sort of.
Remember this is just my opinion, but EVERYBODY outlines. I can hear the protestations already from outliners who say, “Wait…I know authors who don’t outline, and their process is completely foreign to mine.” Likewise, I can hear organic writers like myself who are saying, “No way. I don’t use an outline. I do it in my head.” Those are the key words, right there, “I do it in my head.”
I used to be of the opinion that because I didn’t use a written outline, that I wasn’t outlining. For me, (and I believe other organic writers) that isn’t the case.
I don’t put pen to paper or keyboard to program and write out a physical outline, but when I write a story, I do it much the same way that outliners do. I start with a big, over-arching idea for the story, I invent the characters who will drive that story and then I write the story out, chapter-by-chapter. I may decide to kill a few darlings along the way, reorganize chapters I’ve already written and so on. Tell me that outliners don’t do the same thing. I have the story generally mapped when I start out, but I’m just keeping track of everything in my head. Either way, it’s still lining everything out—outlining.
When I look back at what I’ve written and how I’ve managed to get my words down on paper in a cohesive, entertaining story, it has been through a process of organization that I have created. In other words, I’ve simply modified the outlining process by doing it mentally without physically writing it down, in a way that suits me personally.
I can and have called myself an organic writer, but that’s just semantics. One way or another, you have to organize your thoughts and process them onto the page, which brings us back to that five-hundred word prescription.
Whether you write out an outline or handle that part of the process in your head doesn’t matter in the slightest if you don’t get words on the page. Sit down and write. For a lot of writers, that’s where the work begins. Whether the words you write begin with an outline or your opening sentence doesn’t matter. Get started.
Get the words on the page, and organize them in the way that’s most comfortable for you.
The Umph in Triumph
When I started this blog, I promised updates from time to time on my own writing progress. Recently, an online crime story magazine contacted me to tell me that the short story I submitted to them is one that they would be pleased to publish.
It’s a small thing, but it was welcome news. Why? It won’t bring me a lot of money. It won’t really change me or my life. The simple answer? I’m pleased that my work is progressing, because I achieved a measurable goal.
I set goals for myself because if I don’t, I will have to accept the random opportunities that life might otherwise present to me. Someone once said (and I don’t know who) that “The reason most people do not recognize an opportunity when they meet it is because it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like Hard Work.”
This will be the first short story that I’ve had published. Having accomplished that, what’s next? I’ll keep working at writing, and set more goals.
The Choices We Make--and Beyond
"We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future." ~George Bernard Shaw
At work today, I overheard a woman talking with my boss, “I knew he was an alcoholic when I married him, but not that bad.”
I don’t know (and I really don’t want to know) any other particulars of the conversation. For my purposes here, let’s leave that statement in a context all by itself. It struck me as not just reckless, but an invitation to detriment.
I know that you can’t help who you fall in love with, but you can help who you marry. You think you’re in love with someone. You look at your beginning together, the present and then try to see what potential future you have with them and whether or you will be happy or miserable.
Why in the world would you opt for miserable when the hope of happiness is the obvious and better preference? People do just that every day though.
The choices we make are awfully important. They spell out things to us—and about us. For one thing, the kinds of choices we make seem to fall into patterns. All of this would be kind of depressing if there were no possibility of breaking those patterns, but there is.
Making better choices and breaking harmful patterns is a matter of merely doing. To quote that old Jedi, Yoda, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”
“Oh sure, thanks. It isn’t that easy,” someone might say.
No, it isn’t always easy, but it is that simple. As a writer, there are lots of easy ways to derail my own potential. Giving in to bad habits is easy to do. Deciding I know better and not paying attention to more experienced people would be another. I could go on, but the simplest and surest bad choice I could make would be—not to write.
Writing consistently is key here. Deciding I don’t need to write consistently would be like choosing to be engaged to a bad habit. Not looking beyond that decision at how my writing career would be affected would be reckless.
The simple practice of looking at our choices, even small ones—and then to their future conclusion is a basic thing, and can and should apply to every area or our lives, for how they will affect not just ourselves, but the people around us.
After all, do we want to be happy or miserable?
In the Battle Between Health and Harmony
Serious writing is an occupation which demands devotion. Not allowing one’s self the necessary time to accomplish the task is a recipe for disaster in more ways than one.
Joshua Graham, the bestselling author of BEYOND JUSTICE, THE ACCIDENTAL HERO, DARKROOM and many other books knows this. He’s been a frequent encourager of other authors to not only make time for their writing, but for their health as well. That’s right, their health.
He has, on more than one occasion through social media stressed the importance of balancing the need to sit or stand at a desk for hours with the need to give your body a break, and has shared some ways to do so. The following example is just one article that he shared recently: https://www.yahoo.com/health/5-moves-to-offset-a-days-worth-of-sitting-126679460198.html?soc_src=social-sh&soc_trk=fb
I’ve been paying particular interest to the subject of writers and their health lately because this past year I have been through the ringer, and I am afraid that I have to admit that life has been only partly responsible for my journey. A pecentage of the weight lies squarely on my own shoulders. I prioritized things in my life a year ago and stepped up my writing habits, cramming every spare moment I have into churning out the material.
In addition to a very fulltime job, I finished editing my first novel, began editing my second novel and then wrote over a novel’s word-count worth of short stories. That’s a lot of writing and editing to do in one year---late at night, and in the wee morning hours.
Something had to give, and it did.
In a visit to my doctor for my semi-yearly wellness exam, I found myself tired, and twenty-nine pounds heavier than the year before (according to the doc).
Sitting in his office, we had a talk and I told him I could save him a lot of grief, that I knew I was in rough shape and that we should postpone the exam.
He listened intently to what I had to say, which amounted to this, “Give me a few months. I will shed the weight, come back here in shape and leave with a proper health report. Deal?” He agreed, and that’s what happened. Today, as a matter of fact.
There were tests and a lengthy examination. My physician was pleased that I not only lost the extra weight and then some, but also that I am in generally good health now. I still deal with hypertension, but even the amount of medication I take for that is less than it was before.
Joshua Graham does not split hairs on this subject, God bless him, and he asks straight questions like, “Are you getting enough sleep?” because deprived of enough of it, your body will pay a huge price, and you just may be ruining your health.
I haven’t quite figured out how to juggle a fulltime job and sleep while turning out enough writing to edge into the profession, and because of that, so far, sleep is still at a premium. However, I care enough that my health allows me to write that I will make the effort to balance these things out and create the harmony I need to succeed.
Thanks, Joshua Graham, for caring enough about your fellow writers to speak up, and share.
See what people are saying about New York Times bestselling author Joshua Graham's books at: www.joshua-graham.com
My first boss was often fond of telling employees, “Get busy and do something, even if it’s wrong.” It was said in half-jest, the idea being that productivity was likely to ensue, even if someone had to make mistakes in order to learn from them first. I hold to that theory. I’ve made a ton of mistakes while writing something I thought was great.
Not unlike the martial student who attempts to walk on rice paper without tearing it, one’s mistakes become glaringly obvious only after one has made them. Only in retrospect can any of the necessary corrections be made, but we’ll never have the opportunity to make those mistakes and LEARN from them, unless we ‘get busy and do something, even if it’s wrong.’
Gaining On It
“I’ve been so busy lately that there are certain things that I’ve neglected.” Most of us have either heard or made a statement like that. I’m raising my hand. I’m just as culpable as the next person.
Is the person saying this actually being neglectful? Careless? Irresponsible? To answer that question might reveal if you’re in a glass half-full or half-empty state of mind.
Being half-empty about it is easy. You just think, “Yeah, that person dropped the ball.” You might even be thinking that about yourself. If you turn to the half-full scenario though, you might be cutting somebody else or yourself a needed break.
There are only so many hours in the day, and maximizing them for every micromanaged desire isn’t necessarily possible. You have to set priorities in accordance with major and minor goals. What will that mean, in the end? It means that you devote your major fragments of time to your major (more immediate) goals, and the minor (less immediate) goals will eventually fall into place. Is that a trued statement? I have NO idea, but it sounds good to me.
Let me give you a personal example. I have been writing my entire life. I have always desired to become a published author, but only within the last few years have the demands on my time lessened enough to allow me to actively pursue that goal. (The detailed explanation would sound mundane. Trust me.)
After starting the push to accomplish that goal, I was diagnosed with hypertension. I told the doctor at the time of diagnosis that I didn’t want to be tethered to taking pills for the rest of my life. He said that there may be some things I could do to reverse the process. I (slowly) set about doing them.
Meanwhile, I’ve pushed hard on my writing. Though my health goal should perhaps be my first priority, I placed it on my back burner, because I simply cannot THINK about that constantly. It would simply drive me bonkers. That fact determined the priority placement, but I remained faithful to the goal nonetheless.
Lo and behold, yesterday the Doctor took me off my blood pressure medication. The minor goal came right along in tow with my more prioritized goals, and I hadn’t even seen it coming. The issue remains that goals are necessary, because without setting them, it isn’t likely that any will be achieved.
Life, With a Passion
Motivation is a funny thing, and it can spring up from the strangest, unanticipated sources. Sometimes we react to stimulus that we might not have even imagined that will push us to act.
It could be said that passion shares some of the same characteristics. Either one of these things can be sought, can be pursued and ‘caught’. Motivation however, is meant to wear out. Passion is not.
“I’m only human,” I hear myself say, “and I need some rest.” Nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s everything right with that, but don’t allow rest or anything else to sidetrack or distract you from whatever it is that you’re trying to achieve.
I’m not talking about being a mindless maniac either. I’m talking about focus, and trajectory. Make measureable, achievable goals, and make sure they’re pointed in the direction you wish to go, this way you’ll be able to build a pattern of success along the way, and keep the passion you have—hot.
Will there be ups and downs? Sure. That’s called life, and it must be lived. While it is lived however, make sure that your passion lives with you.
Taking in What’s Best
I’ve read plenty of articles (and a couple of books) with titles like, “The Best Writing Advice”. If you’re like me, and you’ve written a couple of books or more and you’re trying to get something published (traditionally), I think the reading is worth the time and effort.
At the very least, if you’re a storyteller (also someone like me) and you just want some of your stories out there on a blog or a personal website, reading these kinds of helpful articles could help you get out the best stories that you’re capable of.
In the martial arts, there are certain fundamentals; footwork, timing, speed, balance, focus....etc. You might be able to get lucky without learning them, but you will never be a world class martial artist if you don't work to gain command of the basic principles of martial engagement.
It's the same with writing. Bruce Lee once said, "Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own." Good advice.
In this post, I’ll look at just a few pieces of basic advice that I’ve been given so far. It has all helped me grow as a writer and storyteller. Take that for what it’s worth as you pursue your own literary endeavors, whatever they may be. I’ll try to keep it short.
I’ll begin with the beginning. Every storyteller has a moment or a period of identifiable time their own life when writing stories became important to them. For me, it began with reading stories written by other people.
I had two sisters who were diligent to read to me before I could read myself. I loved hearing the stories they read, and I wanted to make up stories of my own. That’s it. That’s where it began for me.
Then there was school, where I learned to read for myself. I read. I wrote, and my writing was encouraged by a beloved but challenging teacher.
That leads to important piece of writing advice number one: Read as much as you have time for. We all had to read before we could write. Reading is the fuel for the fire. I don’t have to rewrite what I’ve read, it’s just that it helps my own writing to burn that much brighter.
Number two: Study. Homework. Sorry. Most of the time doing one’s homework helps one achieve a better grade.
I’ve read books and articles on grammar, sentence structure, character development, plot mapping, etc. etc. and that knowledge is essential in order to create a cohesive, well thought out and entertaining story. Nothing is more distracting and disappointing for a reader than terrible grammar. That doesn’t mean that grammatical rules can’t be broken, but knowing what is proper lets me know how to break the rules in a way that lets the reader recognize that I’m doing it on purpose, and why.
Number three: Knock it off. Quit finding excuses and stop procrastinating. Sit your buttockal chunk down and write. Write every day. Don’t write when you have time for it. Write because you’ve made time for it.
Take care of your family, your relationships of course, but if it means just turning off the TV, shutting down Facebook or Twitter or whatever, then do that. I’ve had to learn to write amidst major distraction, but I do write, and that may make this particular piece of advice about the most important there is for me. After all, if I wasn’t diligent about making the time to write, none of the other advice would matter.
There is a ton of great advice out there, but I’ll conclude with number four: Cut yourself a break. You’re a writer. It doesn’t matter whether you’re like me and aspiring to writing professionally, or whether writing is a beloved hobby for you. Take ownership of the fact that you love it.
If you’ve met (like I have) those people in your life who want to diminish what you do or think it’s a waste of your time, don’t worry about what they say. You aren’t responsible for what other people think of you. You’re only responsible for what you are.
You’re a writer. Be the best writer you can be, and do it for your own reasons.
How to Take the Hits
There's definitely a learning curve on life. I'm thinking it's a very long arc, and like sastruga in winter, we find ourselves stepping over or through the ripple effect that is blown off from its wake.
This morning, while waiting for me to pick her up, my mother tripped and fell face-first onto the street in front of her home. I drove around the corner and there she was, being helped up by a neighbor.
She ended up skinning her nose and one hand. Even worse, her knee is terribly swollen and prompted a trip to the doctor's office. I feel bad for her, because this is the third semi-major incident she's had to deal with since September., and one of those, life-threatening.
Through it all, she has maintained a pretty good outlook on things. When she hasn't been in severe pain, she's been able to see humor in the circumstances, and that takes some doing. All in all, she's been far more gracious about the suffering and the setbacks than other people I know.
Two years ago on the Saturday preceding Easter, she caught her foot on something jutting out low and she went down on her face and took a horrific hit. Her eyes and nose were badly blackened, but not to be deterred, she insisted on attending the Easter Sunrise Service. What did she say when people asked her how she got so badly bruised? She told people that she and I were bar-hopping the night before and she got in a fight. I told you she had a sense of humor. I wonder how many believed her.
At age 87, I attribute this to her placement on that long learning curve, though she has always been a survivor. Someone once said: “Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.” That saying describes my mother, and I hope someday, me as well.
On Reading and Being
My aunt once told me, “There are day people and there are night people. Do you know how to find them? They’re married to one another.” It was another way of saying opposites attract.
Hers was not a scientific statement, nor was it an absolutely true statement, but it does have some practical application. My wife and I are desperately different in some ways and that’s fine. It keeps life colorful, but it would take some adjustment to get past one of us not being a reader.
That might make me sound shallow, but it is what it is. We get so much from reading. We stand to be informed, to be entertained, to experience a range of emotions and even to grow, personally. Fiction and non-fiction writers in their varying ways have contributed to shaping the way that we think, our worldviews, and the way that we approach problem solving.
There is history to be taken in, with all of its warts and blemishes, and all of its breadth and beauty. There is a future to be looked to, and there is the art of the mind that will take you on a journey that you may never fully return from. All of this is found between page one and whatever.
When was the last time that you had a conversation with someone about a book? For me it was just last Sunday. I like to listen to what people have to say about what they read, and how it affects them.
My wife and I don’t read the same kind of books. One time years ago, she picked a favorite book and so did I, and we traded them to read—just so that we could share what we thought about them with each other.
Someone once said, “Reading is just imaginary TV, and without sound.” Reading offers so much more than that strange assessment. Are there more important things than reading? Of course, but reading isn’t just a way to pass time. Reading informs, and is in and of itself an art of finding and enjoying what is complimentary to one’s own mind.
Running With It
This week I wrote a short story at 4.5k words in length. It’s basically a gift to someone. It isn’t commercial. I designed it that way, particularly because I wrote it for the sheer fun of it, with the idea of giving it away.
It came about because someone I know of on Facebook put up a post, and of course I had to make a wisecrack about how, reading the post, I had just gotten an idea for my next short story. Well, that was last week, and this week I’m a story richer.
It became a slight personal challenge to write it, because I had made the comment regarding the story being my next one in an offhand manner. I guess I don’t like it when I say something and then fail to follow through. So, here we are.
It was an odd turn of events for me, idea-wise, because I don’t typically get ideas this way. Make that, I never get ideas this way. I usually sit down and think a little bit and all of a sudden, story subject matter, characters and storylines just sort of come to me, so this was a new experience.
I made a joke about something, and then I got the overwhelming urge to follow through and turn that joke into a story. This one was fun for me from start to finish.
How do your own ideas come?
What’s Going On?
Allow me to show my appreciation for those of you who have expressed an interest in a future novel from me by telling you how that’s going. I’ve written two and I’m working on a third and a forth, simultaneously.
I took a break for a few months to write a novel’s worth of short stories. Some of those I’ve shared for free, right her on the website, and some I’ve recently submitted for publication. I have yet to hear back on any of those.
Of the novels, one is complete, and the second one is almost through the redrafting process. (Perhaps a couple more read-throughs.) This is very nearly where I was a few months back. I decided to place the novel on hold, mainly because a close family member became seriously ill, and I needed to turn my time and attention that direction. No worries, she came out on top.
That period of time was where I dove into the short stories. I did this for two reasons. The first was that I wanted to share some of my writing with a broad group of people so that they could see what I'm capable of, and also to allow them to share some feedback, which some of you have been generous enough to do with your time. The other reason was, to be honest, that it was easier to devote the scattered time and attention I had to cohesive, but shorter story lines. In short, the shorts have been a real blessing.
I’m back to working on the novel, and by the time it’s ready to submit, I will have taken it through many drafts and will be the best version I’m capable of writing. As I’m not ready to try self-publishing at this point, only time will tell when or if one of my novels is accepted for publication.
Thanks for asking, and I will do my best to keep you informed in the future.
Who Are We?
The press has taken a few pot shots from social media lately about the disparity in the frequency, quality (and seeming lack of concern) over the sparse coverage given to one of two recent and major events.
I’m speaking about atrocities committed by Muslim fanatics only a couple of days apart; the murderous, January 7th attacks on the victims at Charlie Hebdo in Paris (by a Yemeni-based branch of Al-Qaeda), and about the January 8th massacre (perpetrated by Boko Haram) of over two-thousand citizens of the northern Nigerian town of Baga.
The beef, as far as detractors are concerned? Their inability to come up with much of a reason for the lack of press coverage of the tragedy in Baga. A reasonable and logical complaint.
The sheer numbers of the slaughtered souls in Nigeria may surpass the number of fatalities (2,403) at Pearl Harbor in 1947. Local defense force members stopped counting the casualties when the numbers fast approached two thousand, and kept stumbling over uncounted corpses. It is probably the most deadly atrocity committed by Boko Haram to date.
The numbers of people killed in Baga and other surrounding towns could also surpass those of the almost three-thousand killed in the September 11 attacks of 2,001.
I’m talking about numbers here, so, is that what this is about—numbers? Some of it should be. The sheer volume of numbers is part of the outrage of an offense of this nature, and many are wondering why so large and heinous an act by a terrorist group in Nigeria has been dwarfed by press reports about the killings at Charlie Hebdo.
As I mentioned, it’s a fair question, and one that demands an answer.
The murders at Charlie Hebdo were terrible, and horrific. The lives of the families and friends of the men and women who were killed or injured there will never be the same. It is different, however. For Charlie Hebdo, there was international support. Amazing support. “Je suis Charlie.” We all saw the international leadership marching down Paris streets. We all saw the dramatic footage of solidarity. Loved ones were dead. Loved ones were injured. Heroes emerged. One of the slain was a Muslim police officer who stood up to the fanatics, outmanned and unarmed, ultimately laying down his life in an attempt to intervene for the sake of freedom of the press and expression, against censorship.
The mass murders in Baga didn’t leave behind a small sodality of war widows. It wiped out whole families, created orphans and stained communities with an abominable violence that is life-altering for survivors on a massive scale, and it’s likely to be soon forgotten for those not involved.
What is it about Baga and the other Nigerian towns which, having suffered such tragedy makes them less deserving of our attention? Nothing. Why didn’t they receive it?
My explanations will be woefully inadequate, but they’re the best that I personally, can conceive.
In the case of Charlie Hebdo, we are talking about a much larger, more metropolitan setting. News in that sort of arena travels fire in dry weeds. The footage of the shootings went viral almost immediately.
Like 911, not only were the freedoms of the United States attacked, but the freedoms of democracy at large. This time, this incident struck and immediate nerve, because people in France and around the globe recognized immediately that we cannot allow a handful of thugs to dictate our freedoms to us.
Uniting against such an enemy becomes a no-brainer.
But what about poor Baga and her sister cities? It’s unfortunate, but news of these killings didn’t spread quite so quickly. Even the president of Nigeria expressed sympathy for the victims of Charlie Hebdo without mentioning the situation within his own country. There were many in Nigeria who simply didn’t realize what was going on.
I said my explanations would be inadequate. They are. People in Nigeria have cell phones. There is a press corps in Nigeria, but they’ve suffered constant harassment at the hands of the government. After all, there is also the very strong presence of Islamic religious fanaticism there too. Perhaps that explains why Nigeria’s own press was so reticent to speak out about this.
The people at Charlie Hebdo were murdered because they stood up for freedom. The people of Baga were murdered in order to force freedom from the region. The people at Charlie Hebdo are seen as heroes because they were defiant in the face of tyranny. The men, women and children in Baga didn’t have the opportunity to be defiant, yet their last earthly freedom, the right to life, was taken from them.
When the first call about Nigeria reached the ears of a free presses everywhere—there should have been worldwide outrage. There should have been strongly voiced solidarity.
“What could we have done about it?” one might ask. No more than we could have done for Charlie Hebdo. But afterward, we were, and are--Charlie. At the very least, we should have been Baga too.
“just as it is a crime to disturb the peace when truth reigns, it is also a crime to remain at peace when the truth is being destroyed?” ----Blaise Pascal
....with thanks to Gary Johnstad
The COMPLETE Book of How-To, Volume 17
There are a lot of books available about how to write good short stories. I'm sure that they offer up a lot of useful information and advice. I wonder how much of what ends up in great short stories was ever the product of such influence.
It isn't my intention to be negative or cynical about how-to books for writers. I've read several on how to write a decent and attention-grabbing query letter. It isn't my intention to cap on bad short stories either, but they do exist. I know because I've read them. (I've also written the kind that have ended up in the trash can.) My curiosity comes in at the point where one is either helped and one's skill level is improved by reading how-to and help books on short stories, or whether one has wasted one's time.
The proof is in the proverbial pudding, no doubt, because an easy comparison could be made between the quality of short stories written before reading such books and reading those stories which come after, but who does that? Not me.
Knowing how, strictly speaking, is far from being the only or most important factor involved with turning out a great short story, however. For the last four or five months, I've been trying my heart at them. I've enjoyed doing it. Are they the best? Hardly. Truthfully, they're alright.
I think talent, inclination, heart and dogged determination (plus rewrites rewrites rewrites) are key components, but it's also a lot of devoted time. As with anything, if you don't put in the time, you will never become expert at anything. If you waltz into the stock exchange and declare yourself an expert trader, just because you believe in your heart that you are one, you will likely get tossed out onto the sidewalk by security. If you just sit on the couch and watch a lot of fights on TV, and really believe that you KNOW you could beat the champ, well...you'll never get into the ring. I could go on. Anything that you think you could be an expert at will require time spent, no matter what one's natural gifts are.
This raises the question? Am I willing? My own answer? Yes, if I live long enough.
Happy New Days…of the Year
I stopped making New Year’s resolutions many years ago. I hate to rain on so many parades, but New Year’s resolutions just seem to rain on mine.
I never seem to keep them. Maybe that’s because I always set my goals at too unrealistic a level. Take it down a few notches, that’s what I’ll do. Nope. That didn’t work either.
I’m not saying that I never managed to follow through and hit the mark, but if I illustrated a target, there would be arrows all over the place. Few would be close to the center, and a lot of them would be forgotten, now weathered and bent with age.
What a downer, huh? For some, but not for me. I tend to make resolutions every day. Several times a day. Some of them are the same resolutions day in and day out.
Does that mean that I’m not a disciplined person? I don’t think so. For me it means that I reflect. Often. If I didn’t things would just get away from me. The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions once a year and sharing them with friends is fine, but for me they seem to take on a sense of the plastic, and that's the problem. They become that way when the reflection turns inward.
What I resolve to do every day, and what I fail so often to do, is to love my neighbor as I love myself, and to treat my neighbor as I want to be treated.
I really hate striving for plastic, trendy resolutions every year. I’ll stick to those old wooden shafts of resolve, taking aim, trying daily to put one of them right in the center of the mark, splinters and all.
I’d just like to say Merry Christmas and best wishes for a wonderful week as we speed on together toward a New Year of the uncharted, and the unforeseen.
Sure, many of us can say that we expect to be safely ensconced in the arms of the status quo and the mundane, but none of us really know what the future holds for us in our day to day lives.
Having had my daily life take several major twists and turns since September, I can only encourage others to hang on tight and hang in there as you negotiate the roads, the bumpy and the smooth. You aren’t alone.
Heh….Kids (And Writers)
I love writing mystery/thriller stories. I also love writing science fiction. My first two novels are a blend of the two, and I really enjoyed building the worlds for those stories to take place in.
Little children do this on almost a daily basis. I love watching them at play. Their imagination is so unfettered with things like, I don’t know…reality?
I played a game of checkers with a couple of boys one Sunday. They were very young, and I thought I was going to have to school them on how to play the game.
Rather than assume, I decided to ask, “Do you know how to play checkers?”
One of them gave me the, ‘Doesn’t everybody?’ look. We launched into the game and I realized in short order that I was the one in search of an education. Before I knew it I was being introduced to ‘the helicopter play’ where checker wielding players (once kinged) are allowed to fly over the board (accompanying sound effects an absolute must) and shoot opposing pieces, driving them from the side of the board.
After about half an hour of this, I determined I was outclassed and I relinquished my side of the board to someone more adept at the game. (He was about eight years old, and apparently knew that the difference between red and black pieces was nominal). Silly me.
I’ve got to say though, these two little guys were having the time of their lives (once I got out of their way) and I had to admire them for it. They took something presented to them and built their own little world and set of rules around it, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
I think that childlike sense of creativity is essential to writing. Sure, grownup things appeal to grownups, and what I might find oh-so-adult would probably have most kids begging for nap time, but in writing fiction, if I weren’t able to give in to my imagination, to what entertains me, my writing—no matter how good—would be more or less mechanical.
Some writers are very good at it, and they have loyal audiences, but that kind of formulaic writing almost never attracts me. As a reader, I can recognize it on the page, and I feel somewhat disappointed by it when I see it. As a writer, I wouldn’t only be cheating the reader if I wrote in such a formulaic fashion, I would be cheating myself, because that’s not who I am, and imagination is not a mechanized thing.
It can’t be constructed. Oh, you can construct things from your imagination, but imagination is something you either let loose or replace with something established. Personally and professionally, I have taken my imagination off the leash, and I intend to let it run wherever it will.
A Crunchy Thanksgiving
My Thanksgiving started off with a bang this year, and then a crunch…and then more crunching. When I arrived home Wednesday night, I parked our car in the garage and pressed the button to close the door the way I usually do.
Unfortunately this time I had barely reached the front steps when I heard a succession of loud noises and turned back to see our garage door stuck a foot from the ground, having badly bent in the middle of the top panel. I walked back over and took a look at it, gently raising it manually.
The upper panel was really clobbered, and some of its damage had translated to the panel immediately below it. I went inside and took a close look at it. All of the damage had occurred because one single self-tapping screw had loosened up over time and had fallen out (incidentally ending up in one of our snow tires—you can’t make this stuff up).
I went inside, told my wife about it and went back outside to see what I could do. Not much, it turned out, with the resources at hand. The next day (Thanksgiving Day) I scrounged up some scrap steel, some nuts and bolts and went to work. With some advice from my brother-in-law (an engineer) I managed to return the panels to their previous shapes and positions, fab some braces, drill some holes and tighten everything into place.
The door does have a little sign of damage, not that you would notice, unless you were looking for it. The odd thing is, it works better now than it did before. Goeth forth and figureth.
The moral of this story? None. It’s just nice to have it working again, and it was a really nice Thanksgiving Day. I hope your Thanksgiving weekend has been the best. Blessings.
Reflecting Life in Character
“The journey of a thousand steps begins…” “If at first you don’t succeed…” “This above all things, to thine own self…”
I’d bet that almost anyone reading the above proverbs would be able to finish them. They’ve been spoken and written so many times. They’ve each been made the theme of many a book and movie.
The hero or heroine start out making steps in the wrong direction, and gain the strength of character to do what’s ‘right’ when they see someone else make a sacrifice, or they are taken under the wing of a generous and sympathetic mentor. Does “The Karate Kid” ring a bell?
Stories like this can be great. Uplifting is the word. There are also those stories wherein the ending takes a turn into a downward spiral from which the main character or characters never recover. Those stories can also be very meaningful, if a little hard to take.
I’ve also read books and seen movies where a mixture of triumph and tragedy have been gut-grinding and joyous at the same time. “Places in the Heart”, for example is a story that comes to mind. At the beginning of the story, written by Susan Southall the main character is handed a set…well, I hate to be a spoiler, so check out this 1984 gem for yourself if you haven’t.
I’ve digressed just a bit, so let me get back to my point if there ever was one and close this post by saying that what I put my characters through doesn’t matter as much as how they deal with what they are handed. The same is true in our real lives, is it not? A person’s true character is revealed, not in easy times (maybe a little bit) but in times of adversity.
Unfortunately for my characters, I can’t wait to see what I put them through next, and just how they handle it.
That “Ah-ha!” Moment
It seems that setting aside the short story I’ve been working on was the right thing to do. Just not doing anything with it while working on another writing project was apparently enough to prime the creative pump.
I should have known.
After cleaning my Remington 870 Express one time, I simply could not get the parts to reassemble, no matter what I tried. I called my older, wiser brother and asked him how to proceed. His answer was simple enough, “Set the gun down. Go get a glass of water and relax for twenty minutes or so, and then go back and reassemble it.”
I took the advice. The shotgun practically put itself back together in my hands. Sometimes a little break is necessary for…well, it just is.
Putting Forth the Best
This past couple of weeks, I have used whatever available time I've had ro accomplish two things. The first one has been to continue to refine my current novel work in progress, and the other has been to do the same with the short story that I wrote a couple of weeks ago.
The novel is coming along swimmingly. I love the story, and that makes it easy for to me keep going through it. I want to pour into it what it deserves. Everyone will be happier that way. I will be happier, the person who edits it will be happier, and ultimately the reader will be more pleased to have read it (always hoping).
I could say these same things are true for my short story but for one little thing...for these two weeks, I've known that something is missing from it. I don't have writer's block. I don't think I ever have. This is a component issue.
Have you ever taken apart something to repair it and forgotten to put a small but essential part back in? I trained a man at work to do repair a trenching machine and he walked up to me and held up a small metal sleeve that acts as a spacer on an internal pump.
He said, “I think it will work fine without it.”
I said, “We're not going to test that theory.” I made him disassemble it again and reinstall the sleeve into its proper place. It might have worked fine initially, but somewhere, somehow in an unforeseen way, it will break down.
That I think, is what I'm attempting to avoid with my short story. I read it, and reread it, but I'm not the reader that really counts, and I want to pour into that short little story exactly what it deserves. Anything less will be unacceptable.
Go With the Flow?
Yesterday was a perfect day for yard work. Today, it rained buckets. I'm glad that what I did yesterday did produce a day of regret today. My neighbor on the other hand, was slogging through cutting his tall, wet grass. I was inside writing, and I could hear him mow ten feet, stop and thump on the garbage dumpster to get the soggy green congealment out of the mower bag. He’s a nice man. I felt sorry for him. Today just happened to be the only window he had to mow his lawn.
It’s like that sometimes. I have certainly been on the other side of it. Life doesn’t always present itself to us in the order in which we want or expect.
There was a saying that originated…well, the first time I can remember hearing it was in the ‘80s. “Go with the flow.” There’s at least some practical wisdom in that. It’s very applicable to my lifestyle. I never know when I’ll be called into work, when someone will need help, when…blah blah blah.
I have an ongoing situation currently at work that, if I let it, would drive me batty. (My wife says that I’m batty enough.) When my brother wondered how I could stand it, I just told him that I had to go with the flow, because it’s something I have absolutely no control over.
However, a window of opportunity is forming in regard to the issue, and when it opens, I plan to be there to dive through it. Going with the flow is okay, but it’s a survival tactic, and those windows of opportunity are also a part of the flow of life. Personally, I don’t want to be slogging through tall wet grass in the rain, any more than I absolutely have to.
When one of those windows of opportunity appears, keep your head, and don’t waste it. Tomorrow…it just might rain.
Freshening One's Perspective
I announced boldly to my friends on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, that I was working through what I expected to be the final draft of my current work-in-progress. I did qualify the statement by saying that there would be another read-through (maybe two), or did I say that on Twitter? I can’t really remember. I also stated that I was hoping to query by the end of the month.
Like it or not, as the protagonist in one of my books says, “This is life, and it must be lived.” And, live it I have been doing. On the home front, my mother was sick for several weeks, my wife caught a cold, I broke my right foot and injured the muscles in my left, and one of my co-workers has a penchant for taking unscheduled time off, and guess who loses days off when that happens? So I have been walking around work with swollen ankles.
All of these things combine to slow things down, but none of them are too unexpected (except for the mom part. That was a bit scary, I have written my way through all of these kinds of ordinary things and worse.
“So…” he said, taking a deep breath… “I got the last draft done, and I really like it.” However, I set it aside for a short time. With all that’s going on, I wanted a break, so this last week I wrote a short story in the time that I have and put that through numerous drafts. I like it. I haven’t decided whether to post it here or try to get it published. Further cogitation required.
Now that all of that is said and almost done, I’m ready to read through the novel again. I needed the break to put some distance between my eyes and the words on the page. When I read through something I’ve written, I prefer to have ‘forgotten’ it. I want the experience to be as close as possible to reading it for the first time.
Impossible, this mentally gymnastic, self-induced amnesia, you say? Maybe, but it can be very close, and that’s all I need to help make it the best that it can be.
The Character of Characters
“Whether you weather the storm, or whether you become a part of it is up to you.”----Jack Simington
I kind of like that one. If you’re one of my protagonists, you often tend to be a bit of a philosopher, probably because philosophy is not a strong point of my own. I rather admire it in others, so having a strong, personal one is a quality that appears not only to live within the hearts of my heroes and heroines, but to occasionally spill from their lips.
Befitting the situation, their philosophical renderings could either be a mirror that begs for a common sense response from someone else, or even a life statement.
I don’t like to neglect my antagonists in this department however, because I depend on them to really strengthen a story. Quite often though, their philosophical perspectives are warped by their narcissism. Because of that, there is a delicate balance that’s necessary, to prevent them from looking like Snidely Whiplash. Neither do I want my protagonists to look like Dudley Do-Right.
This balance is achieved by allowing either type of character to have flaws. Narcissism is a real life, built-in trait among ‘bad guys’, so that isn’t difficult to work from. Add some intelligence, some hatred, especially for social injustice or any number of other things, and you have a villain that can make you pause before you finally say to yourself, “Yeah, but that doesn’t justify…” I love those moments.
Add some agreement between the antagonist and the protagonist, or even some parallel behavior and you can find yourself saying, “Wait a minute…” wondering if your protagonist is going to do the ‘right thing’ or not. I love those moments too.
Ultimately you know that they will be set apart by their philosophies, but even when all is said and done, their hearts and their bodies may still bear some small philosophical scarring. That’s okay, because it builds character.
“If you live right, you can’t die wrong.”----Ruben Sifuentes
Hammering the Blade
Today was a perfect day to wash and wax our car. I wasn't looking forward to the job before I started, simply because I valued the time over the outcome, but I got into it once I started.
There's something about the process of taking something in rough condition and improving its state until it looks completely different, and believe me, the car looked bad. The enemy from the skies has defintely been on target lately, and a nice dust storm the other day had covered the road mud evenly.
After washing and drying came the steady application of the pasty element whose gross removal brings such satisfaction. It takes time, and it gets all over the place, but the end result is worth the effort.
When I finally stood back and looked closely at what I had done, it was still just a car. That fact alone is enough to get some people all prickly with excitement, but I've never been a car guy. Still....it did look great. That's the way I want my books to read, when I've finished editing them.
I once made a knife blade from scrap metal. Same deal. It's a process that requires a vision. What you start with is just a rugged piece of material and an idea. It takes dedication and committment to see the project through, blow by blow to a polished outcome that is sharp enough to cut to the heart. I don't want what I write to accomplish anything less.
Distractions and Balance
I've delved before into the subject of writing amidst distraction. It's a subject that keeps recurring because perhaps, it needs reinforcement. It's certainly the case in my household. If I were to dwell on any of the many distractions that occur, I would rarely get any writing done.
Years ago, I had family members who were raising their first child. If you were visiting their home after 6:30 or 7:00 p.m., you could expect the decibel level to decrease to almost nothing. They simply would not tolerate noise of any kind while their child was trying to sleep. Consequently, there would be no TV (with any audio), no music, and conversations would be whispered. Laughter would be muted, when there was laughter.
I found this nearly intolerable.
A year after, I had a couple of good friends who also had their first child. We were invited over for a BBQ. They put their daughter to bed....and played music (somewhat loudly) we tracked in and out with the food from the cooker, joked, laughed and all without the worry of disturbing their little girl. I told dad that she must be a sound sleeper. His answer was that they insisted on it. He explained that they wanted her to learn to adapt to their family and fit comfortably into the environment that was their shared reality.
I have taken those words to heart when I write. Having quiet and isolation works, but I rarely have those luxuries. I have people noises going, loud TVs playing, a dog barking, jumping in my lap, etc. etc.. It almost never stops. I do write later in the evening quite a lot, but I've taken to listening to music on headphones as I do, because I'm used to it now.
Does this affect my writing? Not as far as I can tell. I've learned to thrive there.
Do I ever get annoyed at interruptions? Yes, but that's a different post altogether. :)
Help Along the Way
Everybody is on a journey of some kind. The myriad ways to look at that are something which fiction writers like me take almost constant notice of. Some of that fabric from real life is often at least part of the material I use to weave a story. The rest of course, is imagination.
I ran into an old friend from high school. We see each other every few years or so. It’s been twenty years since he first found out that I wanted to write books for a living, and he has always been encouraging about it.
Today, he surprised me. He asked if what I do (in my day job) is ever a help to me in writing mysteries. I hadn’t really thought about it. He even gave me some examples. I’ll be darned if Joe didn’t come up with some excellent ideas for me to use, and use them I will.
I have also been the beneficiary recently, of wisdom and encouragement from a professional writer who doesn’t know me, but who nonetheless took valuable time and spent it on me, for no other reason but that this writer is simply a caring person.
I guess that I want to say that I’m grateful for the unexpected help which has come my way, along my journey.
I was talking with a friend last night who told me that he had been promised things by different people lately on a professional level that simply haven't come to fruition. He's a very level-headed man with a realistic outlook on life, and so while the failed promises of others might be a disappointment, he is able to put such things in a proper perspective, learn from the experience and move on.
I certainly want to do the same. I can't say that anyone has done anything llke that to me lately, but I wouldn't be shocked if it did happen. Not to be cynical, but life is tough and short, and if one wants to maximize one's time here, one shouldn't waste time looking back, wondering why such promises were never fulfilled, and if they ever will be.
VIGNETTE is Available
The second installment in the lives of Jack Simington, Megan Dunfee and Ruben Sifuentes is up on the 'Shorts' page and available to read for those who are following. As they grow closer, Megan does her best to keep Jack from harm, but sometimes harm comes from a direction that one isn't expecting, and from a place which one is not prepared for, and life serves up a dangerous VIGNETTE.
Just Letting You Know...
I'll be posting another short story fairly soon on the SHORTS page. If you enjoyed INDELIBLE, you should also enjoy what's coming. That's right, Jack Simington, Megan Dunfee and Ruben Sifuentes are at it again. Be sure to check back in. I'll post notices on Facebook and Twitter as well to let you know when the story is up. See you soon!
I just read a short story by author Twist Phelan this morning entitled, "FOOTPRINTS IN WATER". It's a marvelous piece of writing. With a style that evokes emotion without being obviously emotive, she establishes an environment we 'see' into, courtesy of the main character, whose life experience and character both drive and guide the story. Brilliant. Ms. Phelan hints at a gift not only for languages in her writing but generously communicates the story's imagery through the perfect balance of her imagination, and the reader's. To try to pigeon hole this short story by describing it as a police procedural would be to short change it. I don't think you will find a better example of what short story writing can be at its finest.
The weather here (am I really talking about the weather?) has been above 100 degrees for days now, and it's supposed to get steadily hotter for the next several days. It has pushed me to do certain things in the morning before the temperature climbs to an uncomfortable level. That's okay, it seems that the necessary rearrangement of my schedule has provided me with more time for writing in the evening, which is typically when I do my best work. The current trend has also given me an idea for a short story, so...I'll take the heat!
I've put up a short story on the new 'Shorts' page. It's the first of which I hope will be several in a series of shorts based on the same character, Private Investigator, Jack Simington, along with other stories unrelated. Enjoy!
Insult to Injury
Writing is my passion. It's what I bring to the table intellectually, relationally and emotionally. Another passion, and what I bring to the table physically, are the martial arts. So, if you'll bear with me, I will use a fighter's analogy to talk about writing.
The ability to roll with a punch is a life skill that is often ignored. If you can't react well enough to move with a shot you didn't see coming in order to lessen its power, you have no business being in the ring. What it says about you is that you're slow, and your timing is off. It says that you haven't cared and don't care enough to work hard enough to stay sharp and toughen yourself to the eventuality that unexpected blows are going to come. You will either be caught totally off guard, or you will expect it to happen and move with it and learn from it. I choose the latter.
I have taken a few shots in the writing world, and I have come away realizing that I need to change. I can't change what's coming at me, so need to improve my game. If I'm not willing to take the hits, if I'm not willing to learn to improve, then I don't belong in the game. Guess what? I intend to be standing when the bell rings :)
Happy Memorial Day
My father was born in Portland, OR and graduated from The Dalles High School in 1929, the year in which the great stock market collapse signaled the beginning of the worst economic depression my country has ever seen. When he left high school, he moved to southern California to live with one of his older brothers, Verne.
Verne was house-sitting while working as a border patrol guard. The plan was for dad to live there with him rent free, while attending a junior college in a nearby town. The opportunity dried up when Verne's job dried up and the two men both moved back home.
The trip back home was highly disappointing to my dad. His family was poor and the depression made things worse. He really wanted to go to school and further his education. He worked at whatever jobs he could find. He picked fruits and vegetables until he dropped from exhaustion. He would race others to get a job loading barges when he heard the dock whistles blow. He worked often in a local cannery for several years.
At age twenty-six he began to work, drilling water wells with his father, who had three drilling machines at the time. After about two years he had managed to save up enough money to move to Des Moines, IA, and attend the Des Moines Still College of Osteopathy. While he studied there for a year, he worked part time in a drug store and barely managed to make ends meet, but in his own words, "It was a miserable gap," so once again, he had to move home.
His dad needed help again so he went back to drilling wells for about a year, but the money they made wouldn't provide enough for regular meals, so he made a decision to join the National Guard. He received a place to sleep, had three regular meals a day and earned twelve dollars a month. Six months after joining he made the rank of Sergeant and began to earn a dollar a day.
On the morning of December 7th, 1941, he was sitting on his footlocker in the barracks at Fort Lewis, WA, with his discharge papers in hand when the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor broke locally. Of course all discharges were cancelled and he was immediately inducted into the Army of the United States.
His first assignment was to guard the Weyerhaeuser Lumber Yard, and shortly after that, he was sent to Fort Clatsop, on the Oregon coast. There, he and a few men under his command were ordered to guard a fifty-mile stretch of the Oregon coastline with just three .50 caliber machine guns. How they were supposed to do that without gaping holes in their defense I don't know. I suspect it was so that somebody in charge could answer affirmatively that they had taken steps to protect what they were responsible for protecting.
In April of 1942, my father got new orders and was sent to San Francisco to ship out to Melbourne, Australia, where he stayed for about three months. From there he went to Rock Hampton for about a year. After that he went to Port Moresby, in Papua New Guinea, north of Australia and from there almost immediately by plane eastward to other side of the mountains. By then a Master Sergeant, my father marched his men up the coastline a distance where they stayed for a year.
I once asked my father, who was not talkative about the war, how many men he had under his command. There were one hundred and twenty. I asked if he remembered any of them. At that point my mother laughed. My father didn't have a great memory for names, but he remembered all of their names and all of their serial (dog tag) numbers.
I also asked him (I was young and stupid) if any of his men died in the war. Seven alone, died from accidental discharge of their own firearms. I was shocked. My dad had taught me to shoot and to safely handle guns from age eight. I asked, appalled, "Didn't they know how to use guns?" He answered by telling me that they had all received basic training before being given to him and that they all trained regularly with firearms.
While in Papua New Guinea, they engaged the Japanese military, and were shot at, bombed and attacked with hand weapons. My dad was a calm character, and when I asked if he had ever had bombs dropped near him he told me that the Japanese air force bombed their encampment once and he had to run for it and dive over an embankment to escape the bombs. In typical fashion dad said, "Stupid bombs threw dirt and sand all over me." It was striking to me that he showed no animosity to the attacker, but was instead annoyed that he got sand down his neck. If you'd ever experienced his sense of humor, this was classic dad.
He saw a lot of death. I never asked if he'd ever had to inflict it. He and everyone else there were given infected vaccinations for some local disease and several men in his unit died from the shots without ever contracting the disease. Coincidentally, the records of the men who died were lost by the Army. He was sick from that too and also contracted malaria, which plagued him for years after the war.
From the coast of Papua New Guinea he went to Hollandia (a Dutch state) for a month or two, and then finally he was shipped home on rotation aboard a Liberty Ship. In all, he was in the military for nine years, six months and 13 days. He saw things men shouldn't see. He was not hardened by the war however, as some men can be. He remained a gentle, loving man, whose memory still makes me weep with his loss. I will see him again though. It is one of the greatest consolations I have in this life. He died of cancer in October of 1991, and I still miss him terribly.
He wasn't noted in anybody's book. He wasn't famous, and I'll never be the man he was, and that's okay. Few men will.
While my father was in Papua New Guinea, a young couple, the Reverend C. Russell Diebler and his wife, Darlene, had been serving as missionaries in Western New Guinea from 1938 until 1942, on what is now known as the island of Sulawesi. They were imprisoned by the Japanese.
I can recommend Darlene's book, "Evidence Not Seen: A Woman's Miraculous Faith in the Jungles of World War II" and believe you will be enriched by reading it. This young woman, by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit endured many hardships that most of us can only imagine. She suffered greatly at the hands of her captors, even losing her husband and remained faithful to Christ.
So many served in this war in different ways and for just causes, made immense sacrifices on behalf of our freedom and for their faith. The stories are amazing. I will never forget the sacrifices made for us by my dad, by my brother and his best friend in Vietnam, or by someone like Darlene Diebler Rose. I will cherish what they did. Peace, and happy Memorial Day.
Going With the Flow
Life can certainly throw curveballs at you when you're trying to achieve something, and the other day when a straight, hard fastball came over the plate I swung hard and connected. I've been working seventy-hour weeks at my day job, and I caught a killer cold. There was no one to replace me and I plowed through and healed up. I would come home at night and I would fall asleep, too tired to do the revisions on the fifth draft of my current WIP, but I healed up and started to write again.
Just a week ago, I got plowed into by a 900 lb. piece of equipment at work that left me with a massively swollen leg muscle and a gimpy gait. After thirty years of martial arts, I wasn't about to let the injury take me out, so I began the stretching and the massaging and the whatever else right away to speed the healing process and forced myself to walk as normally as possible. With the heavy work load and the need to rest my leg (never mind the lawn still had to be mowed and blah blah blah) the writing time suffered again and it weighed a bit on me. I don't just want to get it done, I need to get it done.
Here I am a week later and the leg is almost completely healed. The swelling is gone and the movement is almost completely back to normal.
During the down time, I kept my mind on writing. Even when I couldn't write, I was thinking about it. I was in the zone, but I wasn't able to sit down and write without a lot of painful physical distraction. When I finally did sit back down, a funny thing happened. I was in the middle of doing revisions on my WIP when I read a simple quote by somebody about scars. Something clicked in my mind and I opened a new page and just started writing. Before I knew it, I had 750 words and the opener for a new novel. I even have a good working title.
I'm back to revising my WIP, and thinking toward the next.
Writing in the Thick of It
I've had a terrible cold for almost a week now. It's put a damper on everything. Work, sleep, everything. I can say that my spirit is indomitable, but I'd be a liar. When things weigh down on you, you react. When I get intimidated by someone, my natural reaction is to intimidate right back. That doesn't work necessarily with a cold. Oh, you can fight 'at' it with meds...cough syrup, zinc remedies and the like, but what about the things that life requires of you while you're weathering the storm?
In the thick of the storm, for example, I made a delivery to a local Mall of 120 tables and 425 chairs. I didn't want to, but there was no alternative. Promises were made and they had to be kept. People were depending on me to be as good as my word. I dove in. It was a killer, but I did the best that I could and things worked out.
My writing has been affected too. I simply haven't started the next draft of my work in progress. That will begin tomorrow. I hate it when I have to make that decision, but the choices were either to write and regret the stuff that ended up on the page and rewrite it again later, or simply give pause, and wait until my mind was working well enough to do it properly.
In most cases, I don't believe that writing should be forced or rushed. Even so, some amazing collaberations between the pen and the heart have come under duress. As a matter of fact, the single most gut-wrenching, emotionally charged and truthful piece of writing I have ever read, came from the hand of a young woman who was given the opportunity to write to her family, by her serial-killing pschopathic captor. She knew she was going to die at his hands, and because of this, the words on the page are given a stark and startling weight. It was just a short note, but it is one that I will never forget.
I write the kind of stories that I hope that others will enjoy and be entertained by. One of my whole books would probably never have the kind of impact that that simple, honest one-page letter had, and I would never expect them to, but that's still why I take my time. I have a lot to live up to.
"So much time and so little to do---wait... Strike that, reverse it."
This is one of those blog entries that must come with a disclaimer. It isn't meant to be a rant or to come off as whining. It simply centers around an observation. Here goes.....
I sent in a query letter to a very well-known and equally respected literary agent. She's a top associate, and with everything that she has published in my current genre, she sounds like a very good fit for me. I've read numerous books by both agents and authors about how to write a successful query letter. I have studied them carefully to avoid making the querying pitfalls and mistakes that I'm sure I've made anyway.
My query letter was as solid as I could make it. I had taken my material through multiple drafts (many). Nevertheless, my manuscript was rejected without even being read, based on not the query letter, but the concept of the story.
Now, this is where it all gets interesting, because the agent got the concept completely wrong. She must have shared her mixed-up understanding of my story with the agency president, because the president wrote about my concept in her monthly newsletter and got my plost flipped completely on its head.
Was I disappointed? Sure, a little bit, but that isn't what this is about. What matters is that I keep going, keep writing and querying and hope that no one will ever be this confused by one of my queries...ever again.
I can be an easily distracted person. It's an issue that I've struggled with all of my life. Like a crow, I can be pulled off course by whatever is shiny and obvious. Fortunately, I was blessed with amazing parents, and my dad was not the Luke Skywalker that I am..."Never his mind on where he is....what he is doing." Dad was patient and kind, and he gently goaded me to be more disciplined. He drew on the wealth of wisdon in the Bible about being in the moment and paying attention to what is necessary. It didn't hurt either, that he had been a Master Sergeant in the army, and knew how to guide men to achieve goals.
I have had many good coaches in my life, and distraction is an enemy that had me wishing later on that I had paid better attention to some of them. Some of them were able to have patience with me and some were not. For example, I don't have a clue how my Bujutsu master ever managed to teach me without ever losing his cool. There were a few times where he told me that something I was doing or thinking was just ...well...dopey, but he always did it in a kind way that was inoffensive and that really got my attention.
It's a good thing too, that God has placed the people He has in my life, because there are serious ways in which distraction, if allowed to take hold, can perpetuate a tacet form of procrastination that can derail almost any worthwhile objective.
In the practical realm, take driving for example...would you want your airline pilot and copilots to be distracted about a single, solitary thing while they're navigating? What's a few hundred yards or so where over-shooting a runway is concerned? No, I wouldn't want them to touch down anywhere but precisely where they are supposed to. I want their minds to be focused on what they are doing.
I'm two-thirds of the way through the third draft of my second novel. How many drafts will be necessary before I can call it my best work? How long will the unknown number of drafts take to work through? Those have to be secondary considerations, questions whose answers will be revealed through discipline, through not allowing myself to be distracted by other, even lesser considerations.
My job now is to be in the moment, and to sieze hold of the opportunities that I have today, because tomorrow is like the wind, and I don't know which way it will be blowing.
I finished the first draft of my second novel today (1-21-14). It's been a rewarding and interesting
process, given that a lot of the work is still ahead. Having read yesterday that the average novel takes 475 hours to complete, I'm looking forward with curiosity to see where my efforts fall along
that time frame after the final draft is completed.
My program keeps track of the time that goes into work that I do (in front of the computer, that is). That, I suppose, also means those gaps when I get up to go to the kitchen and look out of the window or those times too when I sit back and look at the screen, thinking.
So far, the accumulated time spent in the process is just over two-hundred hours. That's just over 25 average work days, which is fine for a shorter novel (just under 72k words), but the process actually started on September 17th, 2013.
I'm pleased with the pace, given the demands of the day job and other things. Balance, I guess is the key.
This has been enough for a day. Right now, I'm going to balance myself out to the living room and watch some TV with my wife. I'm slowly learning about this process, but so far I've figured out that being done and spending time with her is the best part about it.
Pressing On Into the New Year
I met another writer on Facebook today. She sent me a friend request and after accepting, we had a chance to chat. It seems that she's in the same boat that I'm in, only she has paddled a little farther than I have toward the destination we share. Namely, being published one way or another.
These interactions with other writers are very valuable, and a lot of fun. She asked me if I had attended any conferences, to which I had to answer no, and she said that she wasn't surprised, detailing for me the numerous costs involved, and the added angst supplied for her by leaving her family behind. (She's a mom and a mom's work and obligations are ongoing).
It's definitely a logistics obstacle for me to hurdle, but I'm sure that I will be able to meet the challenges someday.
For now, my first novel is complete and I am working on the sequel to it, and I am about 54k words into another stand alone novel. All three are sci-fi, but my forth project will be in the mystery/detective vein, and it is already mapped out. (I have four-thousand words invested so far).
So, as I map things out over the next year, I should have two novels completed, and perhaps three and be on my way to my fourth, "Lord willing, and the creek don't rise".
One thing I have come to appreciate are all of the authors out there (bloggers and otherwise) who generously supply a wealth of encouragement and advice. There are many names that I could list here, but I thought I would share just a few who have helped me in no particular order:
Jeff Goins http://goinswriter.com/
Rachelle Gardner http://www.rachellegardner.com/
Kristin Nelson http://nelsonagency.com/pub-rants/
Joe Bunting http://thewritepractice.com/
Victoria Grefer http://crimsonleague.com/
There is a generous amount of information in these pages, and it would take a very long time to digest it all.
Merry Christmsa, my best to you all, and may the most desirable mixture of your dreams and reality by yours throughout the coming New Year.
Art Ripping Off Life
I got a call the other night when the security firm let me know that the business I work at had just been broken into. The attempt to burglarize was fairly brief because our alarm is so obnoxiously loud that the thieves bolted the instant they kicked the door in. Even the police said that the noise just about put them to their knees.
If I had any doubts about having an active imagination, they were certainly dispelled when I arrived on the scene. I've been a martial artist for nearly three decades, and I intended to inspect the property myself, but my wife's widsom won out and I waited for the authorities to arrive.
There have actually been a rash of break-ins locally (about fourteen) in just this last week, and the police may have finally caught the culprits. I suppose they will be out of jail in a month. I'm sorry to sound cynical, but how else can I justify my imagination? I mean, I already have these guys dead-to-rights, having been hired as patsies by corrupt cops who walk the break-in scenes looking for specific items after the thieves have left. Oh....they had more houses to break into, but the thieves were so stupid that they messed up and got caught. Now they will be killed in jail because they intend to sing like.....oh....sorry.
Reality and Perseverence
It can be kind of a tough thing to do your work all by yourself, or it can actually be a kind of retreat. For me it's the latter. I can put my day job into a compartment and forget about it for a time, and put the emphasis on the story that I'm telling, but eventually I have to open the envelope and go back to work at that 'other' place. It would be really nice not to have to, but for now it's the reality of how things work.
Years ago, I listened to a young guy telling an older man that he was thinking about a certain vocation. The older man told him that if it wasn't his true passion, that he wouldn't be able to do the job justice, and that eventually he would realize that he wasn't suited for the work.
I take writing and storytelling seriously, because I want it to be my vocation, and ultimiately the way that I support my family. Doing so requires a commitment, and I have made one in my heart. The road to being published is getting longer with each passing day. I can allow that to discourage me, or I can learn from it, and incorporate what I learn into my writing. Once again for me, it's the latter. If I can't take what I go through and use it constructively, then I'm not taking storytelling seriously, and I'm not in it for the long haul.
I couldn't be more serious about where this ship is headed, because my shoes are nailed to the deck.
The Legacy of Greatness
A couple of authorical legends have passed away in the last couple of weeks. Both have been constantly recognized for their skills and artisanship in their vastly differing fields or genres of writing endeavors, namely Elmore Leonard and Seamus Heaney.
Heaney has left behind a wealth of information through publications and through what he conveyed to students and other professors during his tenures in offices of academia at several universities, Harvard and Oxford to name a couple. Elmore Leonard has left by example too, his own writings and numerous interviews and articles.
Each of these authors have had an influence on not only their fans and their peers, but upon emerging authors and writers like myself who are in the beginning stages of exploring avenues of publication.
One thing that these two men have in common that should shout out to every aspiring author--lead only with your very best. I will do my utmost to follow that advice, and to take the time that's required to insure that what I submit will reflect not only on myself, but upon the legacy of those who have gone before me.
I didn't know it until this week, but I'm a pantser. That's right. Pantser is a word that was derived from the saying, "Flying by the seat of his pants." In particular, the word describes a writer who does not use an outline.
I've been giving this some serious thought. I don't know if anyone can accurately claim to write without an outline. Maybe you could do so if you end up with a story that is completely without trajectory or structure of any kind, but if you have written a story with chapters that are interconnected, with a workable plot and characters who drive the story, you've gotten there because of an outline. It just happens to be an outline that you built along the way.
That's the major difference between the two schools of thought. Did you build an outline of your story and follow the structure carefully to craft the book, or did you just start writing with an idea in mind and flesh it out as you go? Either way is legitimate.
Taking Joy in Revision
It's taken me a while to realize it, but it probably wouldn't matter how many drafts I might take my book through before I thought it was completely finished. Of course it matters a great deal to other people. When one is submitting a novel, a publisher would prefer the final and inarguably perfect version of the story. I don't know if I can deliver that. My guess is no.
Is that because I'm a perfectionist? I don't know the answer to that either. I do know however, that many other writers are never completely satisfied with a 'final' version of their story, but they are willing to leave it alone and call it good.
I think it's a rare author who puts words to the page and never revises them. That's a gift. I have to admit that I don't have it. I'm fine with that too. Somehow, the process of revision brings me a very real kind of joy, because either I give birth to this literary child and abandon it, or I take the pains to raise it and reap the benefits of doing so. I choose to be a good parent. It's a privilege I wouldn't trade.
A BIT OF SELF-INDULGENCE
I've been working on the sequel to my first novel, and it is coming along. I have the story mapped out, and I have to say that I'm very pleased with the trajectory it is taking in my mind.
I'm also working on a third novel, expanded from a short story that I wrote, and I am REALLY excited about it. I am concentrating a little more heavily on it right now, largely because I am just enjoying myself and also, I would like to have a bit of variety to offer in the sci-fi genre.
KNOCKOUT SHORT STORY
For crying out loud---that's what you'll be doing if you read Ken Liu's masterfully written short story; "The Paper Menagerie". You can read the story here:
I would recommend having a few Kleenex handy.
I'm having what lately has become a rare occurance for me....a Sunday off. It's Father's day, and I'm remembering my Dad. He was my hero. He worked hard. He was dedicated, giving and he loved unconditionally. All traits that I admire, with many more equally admirable qualities than I could mention here.
I've been working a lot of hours (fifty-five to sixty-five hours per week) for a while now, and it does put a bit of a cramp my writing. If I'm too tired to write, it shows in the work, and it has to be dealt with later on. The point is to stay with it. Fortunately, I love to write, tired or not. Sure, there are other important priorities which take precedence to writing. My relationship with my God is paramount. Paying attention to my wife for example, when I'm working this many hours is not a small thing. She needs to know that she's still special to me. Paying attention to the rest of my family is important, and even paying attention to our dog Bailee (or 'the Boo' as we call her) is important too.
"How do you call yourself a real writer, if you don't put your writing first, and worry about this other stuff after?" For me, writing is a very important part of my life, and that is very real to me.
Into every life a little rain must fall, and it is pouring here today. Pretty refreshing though. I'm looking forward to the smell afterward. I've always enjoyed that. That "after the rain smell" is different from one place to another, however. That smell in Hawaii, for example is different from any other place that I have ever been. I just haven't followed enough rain. I wonder what it would smell like in New Delhi, India over a meal of curry and rice?
Life can present us with a lot of distractions and interruptions that aren't always easy. Last night we got a little scare when something happened with my wife's eyesight. Today we managed to get her in to see her eye doctor, and he spent 1 1/2 hours with her. Turns out, she suffered a posterior vitreous detachment, when the vitreous membrane tissue tears away from the optic nerve. She will need to take it easy for about six weeks.
Driving her home, she thanked me for being nice to her. I told her to shut up. (I have that kind of sense of humor.) She laughed, but it was a pleasing thing to hear. The good news is that it was not the detached retina that we thought it might be. The bad news is that for the next six weeks, I get to ramp up my share of the housework. I press on. Stalwart fellow.
My wife and I rented "Jack Reacher" on Amazon. I traded my writing time for an evening with Pati. A nice dinner together and a movie on the couch, foot-rubbing a must. Hers, not mine.
I sort of broke my own personal protocol in doing this, because I haven't read any of the Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, and I am one of those readers who almost always prefers the book to the movie. Also, I have this idiotic illogical loyalty thing going.....I have read every "Elvis Cole" and "Joe Pike" novel by Robert Crais. I'm a huge fan, and despite Lee Child's assertion otherwise, I believe Joe Pike would make mincemeat of Jack Reacher if I am left to make my comparison of the characters based on my opinion on this movie. (My apologies to all of you who neither know nor care what I am talking about--laughing here.)
Having said that...Pati and I both found the movie to be highly entertaining. If you're a shooter, (or a perfectionist) there are a couple of little things that might bother you, but on the whole, I thought it was well-done. Never hurts to have Robert Duvall in your movie, either. :)
We have a new puppy. She's been with us since early December. She's a Jack Russell terrier like Molly, our wonderful little buddy who passed away a year-and-a-half ago. Other than the commonality of their breed, they are as different as night and day. Molly was all ours, and a constant source of joy to us both, but she never liked to be held. She did enjoy being stroked--if she was asleep :) She was a grand little dog.
Bailee, or "the Boo" as she is also known, is a very sweet little puppy who loves to be held, and she will go to great lengths to make you aware of it. I was really happy about that for my wife's sake. She loves to hold that warm, affectionate little body close to her. I do too. It's amazing how quickly these fuzzy little creatures can position themselves so closely to your heart.
I'm glad that the two pups are so different in personality, because I wouldn't want a 'clone' of Molly, or to in some way to attempt to replace her. She was too big a part of our lives. Yet, here we are in the process of learning, of getting to know and enjoy another little creature of God.
I've been working long hours at my "day" job. Fifty to fifty-five hour weeks are the norm right now because we're running with a workforce deficit. Given the fact that I am past fifty and that the job turns highly physical at this time of year, I have been literally working my tail off, and I have shed some un-needed pounds, which is great. You would think that my energy level would take a beating, but oddly it has rebounded. It feels great.
Coupling these things with the fact that the weather here in southeastern Washington has been fabulous, this is shaping up into a great spring. Even better, when the creative bug could be squashed by the feeling that I am missing out on those wonderful evenings outdoors, I thank God for my laptop. What a blessing!
I’ve been getting advice from different people in publishing, some that I have sought directly, and from some whose books I’ve purchased to learn from. I have also been reading agent and agency blogs and watching video blogs as well. Most of it come across as very sound advice, although occasionally people within the industry tend to contradict one another. That’s to be expected, and one has to deal with that as it comes.
One such thing that I’ve run up against lately is ‘pacing’. One agent said that ones’ book pacing needs to be “relentless” and that if it isn’t, an author could just about be assured that his or her book would be passed over for others. That particular style of writing criteria would seem to fall into the category of personal preference for this agent, although I’m sure she is not alone.
I make that statement because I am a reader, and it is not my personal preference for pacing, and I also know that I am not alone. My tastes in reading run from non-fiction to many kinds of fiction genres. Among those fiction genres that I’m most fond of, namely sci-fi, mystery and thrillers, pacing is a very important element of the writing that helps to keep my interest, but it must work hand-in-hand with a few other things. Just a couple of those are strong and interesting characters and a development of them that makes a reader want to travel through the book with them, and in the case of sci-fi especially, a world built by the author that is believable, or at least appealing in its imagination.
Some of my favorite sci-fi novels over the years have also ended up being some of the most popular and award-winning books in that genre. I can’t think of one of them that had ‘relentless’ pacing. In every single one of them, the author took the time to ‘pause’ here and there, and there were more than one lengthy and quiet character building moments within them.
I look at many of the movies that have leapt off of the popular novel pages in recent years. They are good examples of what I’m talking about. The best ones have a balanced approach where pacing is concerned. They slow down here and there, just enough to make one appreciate the sudden twists, the sudden turns that keep the audience captivated.
If I were to think of an older movie to set up as a bad example, (I know that it wasn’t scripted from an original novel, but we’re on the subject of pacing) I would throw out “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”. The director went to a lot of trouble to give that movie a relentless pace, only to end up apologizing for the movie later, even though it had been successful at the box office.
To my way of thinking (based on the many novels that I’ve loved so much) a rollercoaster ride that only runs down…isn’t much of a ride.
Ever have a fresh idea when you were engaged in doing something totally unrelated to your writing? I guess that raises the question; is there anything that is totally unrelated to your writing? Seriously, for most of us, there are things that are either too painful, private or unsavory to write about, but those things shape our attitudes and for better or worse, have a definite influence on what we end up putting into words.
I haven't stopped being surprised when those ideas come to me either. I was making a delivery today at my day job, which took me to an assisted living facility. Nope. Nothing happened there, even though I was in (what is for me) a very foreign setting. I don't know anyone who lives there. I have in others, but not this particular community. I was leaving, and that's when the idea hit me. I won't elaborate on the idea. That isn't important. What is significant is whether or not I pay attention to those moments when they splash onto my mind. Are they worth pursuing? Perhaps or perhaps not, but they defintely come from who we are, and from our own experience.
Write what you know. I believe those are wise words, but I believe they should be coupled (especially for fiction writers) with, 'Write what you believe.' There's a quote about acting attributed to James Cagney. A lot of people have taken liscense with it over the years, so I can only hope this version is accurate: "Plant yourself, look the other fellow in the eye and tell the truth."
He took the words, made them his own and worked to make them as natural and believable as he possibly could. I don't think that it's any different for a writer. It doesn't really matter if what we present is written in first person or in a more omnipresent sense, because we need to metaphorically look the reader in the eye, and tell the truth.
I recently entered a couple of short stories in a contest. I've been told that short story contests won't do anything for a career, but I'm okay with that. If either of them win a first, I will end up being paid more for them that I would by the average publisher. If they don't, I can submit them elsewhere, and take a shot at a periodical publication. Win/win. In either case, I didn't do it to make a 'name' for myself. I did it simply because it was fun. Some people bungee jump, some people jump out of planes, blah blah. I love to write and invent enjoyable stories.
I found out about the contest after they extended their deadline. It was quick work, at least for me (I'm a slow typist). I chose to write in the crime category. From plot to characters to research to finished story to numerous drafts and proofreads, I finished in four evenings after work, and that was after working a fifty-five hour week at my job. So, discovering that I had finished the first one, and that I still had several days before the deadline left, I chose to submit a science fiction effort as well.
I don't expect to win anything really. There are many talented writers out there, but there is the hope of at least minor feedback, and that is always welcome.
The Ongoing Process
I'm currently in the middle of my eighth draft of my novel. A family member expressed astonishment to me the other day when he asked me why I didn't just submit it to someone at this point. I suppose I could, but at this point, it wouldn't be the book that I want it to be. I have a story in my head, and I want to tell it well. I could push it through. I'm at least competitive enough to accomplish that, but with each pass through the book I find things that need tweaking or correction, and I want the finished product to be polished.
With each effort, I am learning. Foremost, I think I am learning to be patient with the process. "You have to be willing to compromise." Whether that statement is true or not I guess would depend on what kind of compromise one is making. If one is compromising on where to go out for dinner or on what movie to see with one's spouse, then we aren't talkig about much of a sacrifice, but if one is talking about sacrificing quality for the sake of expediency, then the sacrifice is made in vain.
I never want that to be the case with my writing. It could be classified as work to be sure, but it is the kind of work in which the end result shoud bring true satisfaction, not only for the storyteller, but for the reader as well. I will put in the effort, and I will strive to make sure that the time is well-spent.
I finished my eighth draft a couple of weeks ago, and I am waiting for two trusted readers, (one a scholar and writer and the other an editor) to give me their valued feedback, and then I will take the manuscript through what I expect to be its final draft.
In the meantime, I have been refining both my synopsis and a general query letter, as well as working on a second novel. I have researched and chosen a specific agent to send my manusript to, but I don't have any illusions about the fact that this whole business will be a waiting game, if my work gets published at all, but I am strangely optimistic about what will happen. Agents read through a frightening number of query letters, juggle time, information and names and working relationships that have been built through years of experience. I can only imagine what a day might be like for someone in that profession. My plan of action, once I submit my first query letter....wait...and hope for the best.
I have thought about this a fair amount. I can't help it, really. It is much like the idea of having someone say, "Don't think about the pink elephant with blue polka dots sitting on your coffee table." It's kind of hard to drive the image from your head, and I do realize the likelihood of rejection. Some recent advice was given me..."Don't ever give up." I like that. It has not only a sensible, but noble ring to it. Simple, positive advice is quite often the best advice because it is so obvious.
So the question is raised, what will I do if I submit and get rejected? I intend to save the rejections, most expecially the first one. That one, I intend to frame :)
Age and Wisdom...hopefully
Another birthday has passed the other day, and I am (cough--cough)...years old now, and hopefully a little wiser than I was last year. I have done more drafting on my first novel and I am working diligently on the second one as time permits. With slightly less time afforded me to spend on writing until the winter months, it can be frustrating, because more than just about anything else, I enjoy writing. It can be hard work, but when you love what you do, the work is a reward in itself.
Tonight, I did something a little scary. I made up my mind that it is time to look for professional representation by a literary agent.
I guess where my low-level trepidation comes in is where my foot crosses over an unknown line. I have never been here before. It is a new experience and right now it is like the roller coaster is just about to crest the summit of the tracks.....and then it is the thrill of the ride that is at once exhilarating and alarming. One knows what the eventual outcome of the ride will be, but the purpose is to enjoy the ride while it lasts.
So far, the ride is fine.
I've been working diligently on the sequel to my first novel. The effort isn't quite what I expected it to be. It's still work, but this is a little different. I feel suddenly as though I am writing about a family of characters that I've known for my whole life.
A few years back, I went to a family funeral about a four-hour drive from home. I was about to see family members that I hadn't seen for quite a while. I was a little curious about how things would be until I stepped out of the car with my older brother. He sported a thick, full beard and I had long hair. A group of our cousins sat outside of the funeral home on a couple of benches. One of them piped up, "Don't they have barbers in Washington state?"
My brother's immediate eloguent response was, "Oh, shut up."
Everyone laughed and I knew that despite the somber reason for our gathering, that nothing had changed beyond the sad loss of our family member.
It's like that with writing the sequel. Things will happen. People will even die, but it's going to be okay, because the story is there. It just needs to be told.
I'm always the last to know. I recently found out that 'Ender's Game', the enormously popular novel by Orson Scott Card (who shares screenplay credit with director Gavin Hood) is brought to the cinema.
Apparently the film is slated to come out in November, 2013, and some of the cast members are; Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis, Harrison Ford, Abigail Breslin and as 'Ender Wiggin', Asa Butterfield. He's the young actor who recently played the title role in Martin Scorcese's "Hugo."
I'm looking forward to seeing how this one plays out on the big screen.
I recently entered a couple of short stories in a contest. I've been told that short story contests won't do anything for a career, but I'm okay with that. If either of them win a first, I will end up being paid more for them that I would by the average publisher. If they don't, I can submit them elsewhere, and take a shot at a periodical publication. Win/win. In either case, I didn't do it to make a 'name' for myself. I did it simply because it was fun. Some people bungee jump, some people jump out of planes, blah blah. I love to write and invent enjoyable stories.
I found out about the contest after they extended their deadline. It was quick work, at least for me (I'm a slow typist). I chose to write in the crime category. From plot to characters to research to finished story to numerous drafts and proofreads, I finished in four evenings after work, and that was after working a fifty-five hour week at my job. So, discovering that I had finished the first one, and that I still had several days before the deadline left, I chose to submit a science fiction effort as well.
I don't expect to win anything really. There are many talented writers out there, but there is the hope of at least minor feedback, and that is always welcome.
When is a novel complete? Is that fact established when a novel is published? That makes sense to me, and in that sense, my novel is unfinished. Oh, the story is there. Pages, chapters, characters, beginning, middle…even an ending. All of the necessary elements are there, but it isn’t finished. It has actually only recently been born, after a lengthy gestation in the womb that is my own imagination.
Now that the complete story is down on paper, it is coming into a life of its own, and draft after draft, I am working on refining the writing until it comes to full maturity. It’s a process that so far, I’ve always enjoyed.
There are times, it's true, when the right word doesn't come to mind, when the twist of a thought is just out of reach, and the sentence just doesn't come onto the page, but for the most part...it's coming along.
I have a circle of friends who write and who edit, whose business is the use of language to convey meaning. So far I've submitted my manuscript draft in one form or another to them, and I expect to hear back from them in the coming month.
I look forward to hearing from them, and also to taking away some wisdom from whatever they offer to me in the way of constructive criticism and encouragement.