In sickness and in (kind of) health

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I had decided to do NaNoWriMo this year on a lark, with an idea for which I’d only had the opening at first, but which then turned around and came back to me almost fully formed: the beginning and ending I had, and major scenes were in my head. Terrific! I’ll do NaNo, something I’ve never really participated in, with this idea.

And then I promptly got pneumonia. Again. For the sixth time this year.

It has lingered on, thanks to all the circumstances that go with post-cancer treatments, but luckily it is on the fade. Now that I can really focus on a screen and words, I thought I’d talk about ideas.

From time to time, I’ll run across people who say they don’t have any new ideas, or that they are sometimes wary of writing because they think at some point they will run out of ideas and not be able to come up with any more. To both, I say: relax. All that’s necessary to get ideas is to pay attention and never lose your “what if” mentality.

If you’re a crime writer, for instance, the NY Daily News is a treasure trove of kickstarts for the writerly brain. An artist consumes the world, their brains selecting a pebble from this story, a grain of sand there, a word here, stirring these things together and then incubating the result to create a story only they can tell in whatever medium they prefer. There is no particular limit on creating ideas, no statute of limitations on the stories one might tell. You should always look to refill the well of creativity that belongs solely to you. If it seems to you the well is running dry, refill it: the world around you has everything you need to create your art. You simply need to be aware of it, and more importantly, be willing to take in huge amounts of information, even if you never immediately use every scrap of that information in some manner in your art. With all this information, and your questioning, your brain will eventually find the combination of things that burble up into an idea worth pursuing.

I hope those of you doing NaNo this year make it across the finish line, and those of you who are not doing NaNo reach whatever goal you’ve selected.


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How does one get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice!

This is an old saw, but still an accurate one. All writing is practice, really – whether it’s developing your own voice, or beefing up content you don’t quite feel confident in, like, say, descriptive passages so the reader can get a sense of where they (and the characters) are.

This practice comes with a caution, as most things do. Don’t fall into the trap of going overboard on descriptions, for instance. Yes, there is valuable practice in looking around you and describing the entire setting as well as you can, but remember that doing an info dump of every single thing in a room is not fun reading. Anyone who has had to read Moby Dick, for instance, may hold the same view I do, that Melville did a ton of info dumping in that book – even now, thinking about it, I can feel my eyes glazing over.

So, you ask, what should we do, and how will we know when enough is enough? It’s simple….but not easy.

The ideal kind of description gives the reader a sort of framework to build on, their imaginations fueling the scene by virtue of what you have not mentioned. For example, if you have someone pulling into the driveway of a home that belongs to a billionaire, describing every single item about the house will be tedious. Talking about the meticulously pruned trees and landscaping, the inability to see where the mansion ends when it is viewed from the side by someone driving in, the columns lining the front of it, the heavy wooden door with a quaint knocker as if any sound made by it could possibly be heard through its thickness, and the way the character feels tiny against the sheer size of the house provides enough that the reader can see in their head the mansion they have dreamed up to go on the skeleton you’ve given.

This is not to say you should always just go with a completely bare-bones type of description. “The mansion had two stories.” is not enough to allow the reader to join you in the world you’re creating. That is your goal: to have them immerse themselves in your world to the extent they do much of the heavy lifting to fill in the empty spaces while you concentrate on the heart of the story itself.

Until next time, peeps: be well. And get some writing done.


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I’m watching the Raiders and the Dolphins duke it out, and the video resolution of the game keeps going from the usual HD, perfectly clear resolution into a very poor, over the air sort of resolution, and then back again. I know it’s the game transmission, because all of the ads come through in lovely HD, from the fine print about all the various side effects of whatever the drug du jour is to fight cholesterol or diabetes to the latest artery-clogging sandwich from any number of fast food joints for which one may very well need cholesterol or diabetes drugs.

But this sparked a thought in my head about writers (some writers) who are paralyzed while writing because they believe what they write on the page must match exactly with what is in their head, and if it doesn’t, they cannot move on until it does.

This is not a good way to write that first draft. I know this, because I’ve had the same paralyzing grip of perfectionism myself that prevented me from making any decent progress on whatever I’ve been writing. It is the type of mindset that leaves a drawer full of half-written pieces – if we’re lucky to have made it that far – and folders of uncompleted manuscripts on the computer. Most of all, it is the type of mindset that, if maintained, will ensure you will finish nothing at all, thereby avoiding even the slightest whiff of external criticism.

There is a solution to this, of course. The solution is to plow past any roadblocks that tiny voice is putting into your head about how each sentence must be perfect before moving along to the next one. It’s completely acceptable to acknowledge that things are not going to come out of your head to the page exactly the way you thought it would or how you think it should be. These are things that can be fixed later – but you might find that some of the things you thought were simply awful and that you have now contributed to the detriment of literature overall are not really that bad. This can be particularly true if (as in my case) the story has been banging around in your head for so long that the entire story is basically written, and the story has been revised multiple times as it baked in your brain already, making the first draft very much like another’s second or third draft. Even if this is so, however, it would be a good practice for some writers – me again! – to not read back over the previous day’s work. It is just too easy to get caught in the quicksand of the perfectionism mind and have all the progress and momentum you’ve built up grind to a halt.

Remind yourself of this: you can edit what you’ve written after the work itself is complete. Make yourself a deal with that little voice that tells you everything you write stinks and you’ll never get anyone to act as a beta reader and you’ll never be able to revise it to come close to the imaginary utopia in your head and you’ll never get any interest from any agents or traditional publishing houses and you’ll be lucky if anyone at all reads it is you self publish and on and on and on. You can deal with these things if they even appear. Write without looking back over your shoulder at the road you’ve laid and instead look ahead to the road less traveled, as Frost would say. That is your path, and no one else can create it but you.

Deep breath. You may pour your heart and soul into the book, but the book is not you. It’s just a small piece of yourself you’re bravely sending out into the universe. And that’s more than most people ever accomplish.

Until next time, peeps: be well.

The next big thing

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The gardens. They are in terrible shape, thanks to the way 2017 was a total bitch.

The biggest project: weeding. We did get a good number of frames set up with weedblock, but the areas along the edges and in the holes punched for the transplants need to be weeded in the worst way. Fortunately, I decided on no fall crops this year, just allowing the frames to go fallow and break down more of the composted manure they have in them. Unfortunately, I decided on no fall crops this year, and could not/did not keep up with the weeding. Luckily, we do have a winter, such as it is, and the next few months will be devoted to weeding, replacing the plastic-covered frames with weedblock and positioning the irrigation lines, and getting the sides of the frames that have bowed out back to full vertical and braced.

Now I know, in my head, that this very big project just means starting with a small corner of it and working through to get it done. But there are also those fleeting moments when I’m looking out on the mess and thinking that it’s just far too big a job – it’s the same feeling I get from looking at the narrative outline here for this book and thinking about how much crazy is in me that I presume this is something I can do.

But in those moments, I just step back, take a deep breath, and remind myself that the elephant is eaten in pieces, not in one big gulp.

Unlike the novel, which I feel like I could write in two weeks with the story so fully developed in my head, the gardens are going to take a tad longer. It’s good exercise, though, and I’ll be able to visualize the plans for spring before the seed catalogs start arriving and it’s time to place my order(s).

Get outside, people. Even if  you’re not pulling weeds or thinking of corrupt cops and drug-distributing biker gangs like I am. There’s a big, wide world out there, and you should sometimes remind yourself that your small piece of it has something – at least one thing – you are grateful for when you look out over it.

Until next time, peeps: be well.

Step by step

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I decided to work on one of the novels for NaNoWriMo this month, while working on one of the other novels in the spaces between that writing and “real” work. This is mainly because the entire plot and story for this NaNoWriMo novel came to me last night rather suddenly and completely. I know exactly how it begins, how exactly it ends, and I know the larger chunks of the material filling in the gulf between those two bookends. I am not quite up to the word count total I should be after two days of working on this novel, but that is only because I had not actually planned to do NaNoWriMo, and had written a narrative outline for it to have the gist of the story in place while I worked on something else. This is a spur of the moment decision. As an even bigger challenge to myself, I’m setting my goal at over the 50K words that deems anyone a “winner” for NaNoWriMo, and I am also committing myself, here in public, to writing the entire novel, doing all the things that need to be done to get it into publishable form, and publishing it.

Lesson for the day? Make your goal a big one, but make sure your path to that goal is broken into manageable chunks. It’s too easy to have fear invade your mind because you are focusing too much on the giant goal you’ve set, thinking you must do it all at once. You don’t.  There is very little in life that can be accomplished in one fell swoop, but there are a large number of things in life that can be done with consistent, persistent effort, and a map that ultimately leads to the larger goal.

Until next time, peeps: be well.

The art in us

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Here we are. November has arrived after an October that seems to have gone far too quickly.

So what are we doing this month? Writing. Every day. On something real – the blogs don’t count, the facebook page update does not count, twitter does not count (although I will be trying to update this and those every day this month as well, even if my author twitter account tweet of the day is just a quote. This is not to say these things do not count in the overall scheme of things, because they do, but these things are not items I’m looking to publish. But novels? Yes. Poetry? Yes. These are the things that are roadmaps to some kind of audience at the other end. These are the things that someone will want to read, I’ve no doubt. There was a quote I discovered back in high school while researching something or another:

“In literature as in love, we are astonished at what is chosen by others.” (Andre Maurois)

This is true, of course. One need only peruse some reviews at Amazon or GoodReads and see that people love books we ourselves can’t stand, and for every one person who thinks the writing by an author is puerile and careless, there is another for whom the author’s prose sings in their heart. For every one person who thinks a particular book is a poorly done rehash of some other author’s story, there is another who has encountered the underlying story for the very first time and feels the story resonating in their bones. For every one person decrying a book as tedious because it seems to have been stitched together from many pieces of fight scenes just so the author could tag the book a thriller, there is another person who sees that same book as a page-turner of nonstop action that they read in just a few hours because they could not put it down.

And so with this in mind, it makes no sense to listen to that tinny, false voice criticizing every word that makes it to paper, that says no one will want to read any of the pap that’s been written, that says giving up on the writing is the best and honorable thing to do, to save others from having to experience its badness. No: that voice is lying. The words we have matter,  to someone. Making and finishing the art is far better and certainly more honorable than giving in to a voice that does not have our best interests in mind.

Until next time, peeps: Be well. And make your art, whatever that art may be.

Passing fancies

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The other night, as I was in that hazy zone between awake and asleep, an idea flitted across the front of my brain. I had a notebook within arm’s reach of where I was sleeping. I told myself to reach over and grab that notebook and write it down. Did I? Nope. I made the usual big mistake that people make and told myself I would remember it in the morning. It was, after all, a very good idea, and something I thought could be built up and turn into something rather good. Something that good, my sleepy brain reasoned, would stick around.

It didn’t.

The object lesson for today: if it occurs to you, write it down.

It doesn’t matter if you think the idea is so good that writing it down isn’t necessary, or that it is so good that it will stick to your brain until you get a chance to write it down (after waking up, perhaps): write it down as immediately as possible. There is no reason not to these days, when everyone practically carries a computer in their pockets. Almost every cell phone I’ve used has some kind of notepad application on it by default, and the new ones almost all have basic voice recorders of some sort – even without a voice recorder, they all have video recording. Even if you hate the sound of your voice or your visage captured digitally, keep in mind it’s only there until you can get it down on paper or your idea file or whatever else it is you use to keep track of what you think up here and there. It’s temporary, and no one has to listen to it or see it.

Whether the idea is one you think would be subordinate to a larger theme in a piece of work, or one you think could carry a work alone and be a bestseller. remember to write it down. It’s the best insurance for your brain you can have.


Strange bedfellows

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The other night, I had a series of very odd (even for me) dreams.  I am an insomniac, and the folks who are trying to determine why we dream – a question that I expect will likely never have a firm answer – have done studies showing that insomnia and sleep disruption associated with it can increase dream recall, often because the sleep cycle is interrupted during REM, when dreaming occurs. Since I wake up multiple times any given night, I can often recall several dreams, in part or in full. Some seem to me to just be working out something I had been thinking over, like how one of my characters can rationalize his work for crime families. Some are not so easy to understand, and some are downright bizarre.

For instance, during the other night I mentioned before, I woke up and had been dreaming about a group of people without faces. Literally without faces: they had heads, walked and moved and talked like any regular person, but their faces were just blank ovals. I couldn’t recall what exactly had brought me to them or them to me, but I did recall that part.

The other dream recall, however, was much longer. The first part of it was someone walking up the steps to an absolutely stunning building. It turned out that building was a library (not the first time I have dreamed about libraries, and likely not the last), but there was a very tall African man near the top of the steps, and he said, “I’m terribly sorry, but women who wear glasses are not permitted in libraries in Burundi.”

Now, I have never been to Burundi. I also do not wear glasses any longer, thanks to lasik surgery some years ago. A random question popped up in the back of my head about women who do not wear glasses potentially being allowed in libraries in Burundi, but it did not come up during the dream. As it happened, he was recorded saying this, and for some reason was desperate to get the recording and destroy it. That’s where the second part of the dream came in.

It turned out to involve a high speed car chase in a not-very-Burundi setting: a heavily populated, dense modern city. New York, perhaps, or Los Angeles. There were dozens of law enforcement vehicles involved, and a ton of property destruction as all the vehicles involved ran into innocent passersby in their cars, roadside objects like light poles and mailboxes, and even into storefronts and other building at some times.

I awoke during the chase part of the dream, remembering both sections of the dream vividly, but without a clue as to how these things were generated, much less how these could help me in any way – well, perhaps the chase scene. That might make it into a story somewhere. Burundi seems much more unlikely.

Still, when I recall these dreams after waking up, I’m sure they go right back into the hopper to churn around with everything else my subconscious is working on. At some point, some of these ingredients may combine in just the right way, and my subconscious will send up a flare about a an idea worth pursuing and developing.

And who knows? maybe one of those packages may involve Burundi after all.

Lesson: if you recall your dreams, pay attention to them. Turn them over in your mind as you go about whatever routine it is you follow when you awake before letting them float away. You never know what might become of them in your day to day work of writing.


I remember

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Once upon a time, in AP English, our instructor (who had gone to the Christmas break single and came back married and with a new last name) had us in a poetry unit. I was a senior then, and already had been writing a ton of poetry for years. But we read Thomas Grey’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and English classes (and literature classes in college) naturally revolve around getting to whatever “deeper meaning” is in a poem, as if every single poem in the world is written with Deep Inscrutable Meaning instead of being anything more mundane, like observations on a place or time or objects, or a description of an ordinary day, or how we value this thing over that other thing, or any of a million other possibilities.

At that time, after reading it, Mrs. Poole (that was her name after she married) asked us what the tone of the poem was. No one answered, and into the silence, I said, “Grave.”

I thought the reply quite funny, but did not laugh out loud, and no one else reacted at all to it. I don’t even believe Mrs. Poole even smiled at it.

That’s the down side of life: saying or writing things people don’t get, especially if it’s some off the cuff witticism that some (rather humorless) people don’t understand right away, or at all.

But I enjoyed that moment, even if no one appreciated it but me, because it isn’t often you have the perfect answer jump to your lips. Those memories should be savored, even if they are solitary ones.