A Gift for the Coming Year


A long trail ahead of me...

A long trail ahead of me…

Well, by golly, I’ve been slipping again! My bad. No Christmas cookies for me!

But this is what happens when you get busy, working on things that do have importance to you, and finishing my current book projects is very important to me. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to take something from start to finish, and then go back and review it.

“Oh, but wait!” you say. “I have all these ideas and they get to a certain point and then nothing happens.”

I know. It happens to me all the time. I’ve spent untold hours coming up with ideas for stories, summaries, blurbs and titles, and wondering if they’d ever be finished. I have starts that stopped, and summaries that cry out for expansion into full-blown stories. Is there enough for a full-length book? Oh, who cares? It’s the thought that counts. The idea that came up on paper sits waiting in a dusty notebook, or an unsearched file on your hard drive, wondering if anyone cares about it enough to finish what you started. I knew somebody way back when who had a storage box full of notes and ideas and did nothing with them. In fact, she was so certain they weren’t worth the bother that she threw them away.

Come on, now! These are your babies, your brain’s offspring, your source of joy and pride and it does not matter one tiny bit that they’ve been sitting in a bin on a shelf in your coat closet for years or months, or just until you ‘have the time’.
Let me tell you something. The ‘time’ will never arrive on its own. The ‘babies’ will never become full-fledged, completed stories of any length by themselves. The offspring of your overactive imagination will spend eternity in a coffee shop, wondering if you are ever going to show up and get this show on the road.

They can’t live without your interference. This is how it works. If you can spare 20 minutes for a shower, a half hour to an hour at the gym, can’t you spare an hour and a half with one of those crazy ideas you wrote down on a note pad ten years ago?

I spent a good deal of time during my workaday life coming up with ideas for stories. I wrote down as many as I could on a pad of paper, and later typed them up on 3-hole punched paper, and kept everything in notebooks. When I moved twelve years ago, the volume of stuff I had put together as starters was huge and no, I did not throw out any of it. I simply kept it stored and here it is now, in my house, waiting in the storage boxes and notebooks it was stored in so long ago, waiting to be brought into existence. And I have all sorts of distractions to keep my attention off my ideas and stories and keep me from completing these things, but over the past summer, with an enormous distraction that turned into nothing at the end, I persevered and am moving ahead.

Because it’s Christmas, my gift to someone who thinks s/he has no time to do this kind of work is to say the exact opposite: you do have the time. You just think you don’t. The only thing standing in your way is you.

There are all sorts of books on how to do a good job of storytelling, and likewise, all sorts of books with exercises to nudge you along the writer’s path. But reaching the goal at the end of the path, completing the story, is something you have to do yourself.

Here’s how you do this:

1 – complete the story, period. Do not make corrections.
2 – print it out on 3-hole punched paper and store it in physical form in a 3-ring binder.
3 – put it away for several months.

On a cold, rainy day in the spring, when you don’t want to be outside, fix yourself a big pot of hot tea or coffee, get some cookies or other snacks, and reread what you wrote. Ignore the mistakes, just read it. If it still seems worth the time and effort it took, it’s a keeper. This is when you proofread and edit it, polish it, make the ‘mystery’ connections work, and decide whether or not to expand it to a lengthier form, such as a full-length novel, or keep it as a short story or novella. You may see the possibilities for a series of stories in it when you reread it after some time away from it.

I found that to be true for many of the summaries that I created a long time ago: they could be full-length novels as well as short stories.

It was up to me to complete them.

There is always something that will distract you. There is always someone who will be negative about what you’ve done. There is plenty of tremulous self-doubt floating through the air, enough to sink anyone into a Well of Gloom. These are people whose lives are limited by restaurant menus and coffee shop couches.

Writing is not about gaining fame and fortune. It’s about creating something out of whole cloth, floating moonbeams, and squeaky closet monsters. It’s your imagination at work, the part of you that wondered if you’d ever get to go to the Moon or find out that the guy who sells watermelons out of his pickup truck is really a philanthropist with a hobby that lets him meet people.

Now go on: get those ideas down on paper, filed on a jump drive, backed up on a terabyte peripheral drive, and printed and stored in a physically tangible notebook.

And have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, because a year from now, you may have a LOT of stuff done!

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The End of Summer…


It really is the end of summer now.  In the Pagan/Wiccan calendar, Lunasagh marks the beginning of the harvest of foodstuffs to be stored and used through the fall and winter into Spring.  In the old days, when icehouses stored winter ice cut out of ponds, lakes and rivers for use in the summer, people would find themselves coming to the end of their supply of ice.  In truly hot, humid weather, that could become a burden.

If you pay attention to the rising and setting of the Sun and the Moon, then you will mark the Moon’s position in her relationship to the Sun through the seasons.  Why bring this up?  Partly because most of my life until I was an adult was spent on a farm or in farming country. I’m still conscious of the seasonal changes. The Farmer’s Almanac and the Old Farmer’s Almanac (two separate publications) have online presences as well as published print editions that give weather forecasts, tidal changes, the phases of the Moon, the planets in their various constellations, and all the other things that people who work in a ‘natural’ setting will notice more than those working indoors in an office.  There is an article in my local newspaper noting that fewer and fewer people, adults and children alike, are spending time outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine for various reasons, and it does have a very real affect on their emotional state when they shut themselves up in buildings.  They become more fractious, contentious and sometimes aggressive.

I love fantasy stories. Good fantasy storytelling is always something I look for.  The things I’ve already mentioned – seasonal awareness, the effects of being outdoors versus indoors all the time, noticing changes in the sky in daytime and at night – are essential to making your people believable to your readers.  This is what Tolkien did when he created the Universe of Middle-Earth.

I also love good science fiction.  When Anne McCaffrey invented the world of PERN, she paid attention to those very things. Her people had to do so, or suffer the consequences.  It’s as necessary to fantasy as it is to science fiction, both of which I grew up reading, and wondering if I could come close to telling tales that resonated with people the way the stories of J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Robert Heinlein did.

If you are going to invent a Universe to populate with dragons and sea nymphs and Sea Kobolds (look that one up, it’s interesting), then I encourage you to fully understand that Universe yourselves.  If you are going to write fantastical tales of Knights lost in a wilderness, find out why they are there in the first place, and then tell us what happened and how they’ll get out of this dilemma.  How many will survive? What are they facing?

I have a good friend working on his first novel, trying to make it as good as he can, so my part in it is to ask him questions.  What? Who? Where? When? How? Why?  He will send me his chapters and I will send him mine. His is a world that is unique and has not been done before – or if it has been done, it did not last because it was not done very well by someone else and he’s found his stride in creating it.

I apologize for taking so long to write another post, but this is part of what happens when you do want to take your story from start to finish.  Your blog posts become unintentionally sporadic. You forget to fix lunch and you drink ice tea (when it’s hot) instead of having breakfast, and find that you’ve shrunk a full dress size without trying.  No harm in that. Just take your vitamins, get a ham and cheese sandwich and some grapes, and keep pecking the keys.  And if you get stuck, don’t worry about it.  Have something else you can turn to. And get outside in the fresh air occasionally. It will do you a world of good.

 

Storytelling ingredients… just like making cookies


If you’re human, you have a favorite dish.  Doesn’t matter what it is. It’s your comfort food, your go-to when you don’t want to be bothered with choosing, or what you remember the most often when you’re away from home and want something really good.  It may be simple and easy to fix, or complicated and time-consuming, but it’s the one thing you turn to when all other dishes fail.

This applies to creating stories, too. They have characters, places, narrative, beginnings, action, middles and endings.  Those are ingredients, and how you treat them determines how the story will proceed. You may have a favorite genre, such as steampunk or Regency romance or mystery. All have specific ingredients or qualities that make them part of a genre. You can make all these ingredients into something as complex as beef bourguignon (beef burgundy), or you can make your story as simple and familiar as mac and cheese.

I like making chocolate chip cookies.  I have the Tollhouse recipe memorized. I could make a batch in my sleep. But I have a secret ingredient that makes them more than just regular chocolate chip cookies. Well, I have two, but I’ll come to that.

The recipe itself is uncomplicated. The ingredients are simple: eggs, butter, sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, flour, baking soda, salt, chocolate chips.

But let’s dig into that list of ingredients. Instead of just brown sugar, I use dark brown sugar. Why? It has extra molasses, more than light brown sugar. More flavor. I use vanilla, a particular brand that seems to have a brighter flavor than regular vanilla. I use unbleached flour. The chocolate chips are heavier in cacao than the other chocolate chips, but they don’t cost any more than the others. I want some serious chocolate chip cookies, so I add a little more than just the usual ingredients.

There’s your story: a little more than just the usual ingredients.  You add bits and pieces of information here and there, like rich, dark chocolate chips scattered through cookie dough, that draw your readers into the story.  You describe neighborhoods and countryside and villages, cities and towns as if you’ve lived there half your life.  You know the people down the street and next door, because you invented them.

Oh, but wait! Your people don’t live on a street or in a neighborhood. They live on a large island with an inlet bay that nearly splits the island in two, and the two populated halves of the island have been fighting over fishing and sailing rights to that water body for longer than human memory.

The neighborhood and the island are the same thing as the cookie dough in my cookies. They hold the chocolate chips, vanilla, and sugars that enrich the story. They make it whole and believable.  You should be able to stand at the head of the inlet bay in the center of that island or in the middle of the park on the square in that neighborhood and give me, your reader, an idea of what it’s like to live there and who those other people are, just as you know the ingredients in your favorite recipe so well that you can recount them from memory.

Your cookbooks, to use a metaphor, are easy to find: the Chicago Manual of Style. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.  The Oxford Dictionary. Roget’s Thesaurus. Since there is a wealth of material available online for reference, you can search by subject matter. Better yet, you can go to the library and find even more stuff in the stacks.  Do not ignore the work of people you never heard of. They may add more than just exotic flavor to your stories.

If you’re still in school, there should be an English teacher somewhere who may give you extra credit for work you do outside of class and who may be able to push you into doing better work than you ever thought you could.

Now, with any recipe or any story, there are requirements you have to meet. Recipes require specific ingredients and specific methods. If you don’t follow those guides, the recipe fails.  There’s nothing wrong with trying to vary the recipe, but the first few times you use it, follow the instructions.  Get familiar with it, and then make the variations to suit yourself.

The same holds true of a story, whether it’s one page, a novella, or a full-length novel in a series. It has to have a start, middle, and ending. The characters really do need a conflict of some kind, something that needs resolution, and the ending should satisfy the needs of the characters. This is how stories work.  It does your reader no good to have wonderful character descriptions (midnight-dark 80% cacao chocolate chips) if they don’t do anything.  Where’s the conflict, or the problem, for the characters to solve? What’s the ending? What’s the argument?

If you have all the cookie dough ingredients standing by, including that bottle of real Madagascar bourbon vanilla, but you never get around to mixing them into cookie dough, you’ll never have a batch of chocolate chip cookies.  But you can mix the dough, refrigerate or freeze it, and come back to it later, and you just might find that setting it aside for a while gives you a better batch of cookies.

If you create a catalog of characters, put them to work.  If you can’t figure out where the story goes, that’s fine. Set it aside. Do something else and come back to the story later. But don’t throw out what you’ve already created.  Let it ferment, and see what happens to those characters. Give them something to do.

Oh, the two secret ingredients in my cookies?  The classic recipe calls for one teaspoon of vanilla.  I use two teaspoons of vanilla, plus the dark brown sugar instead of light brown.  Go ahead:  Hand me a plate of chocolate chip cookies and put me into the middle of the story.  Draw me in.

Just add a little more flavor.

 

To every season, there is a purpose….


My sunflower in bloom

My sunflower in bloom

Summer’s end is coming closer every day. We’ve had either too much rain or too little. The flowerbed I planted never sprouted and the ants ate the seedlings in the pots of flowers that I put out.

So I started over.

That’s what you do. I said in my last post that I will get stuck and have nothing to show for my time. It happens to all of us. Is there a solution to this problem? Of course there is! There’s always a solution!

Okay, but is the solution going to make you feel guilty somehow, when you think that maybe staring out at the distant blue horizon is less important and less valuable than doing something that everyone can see? I’m talking about brainstorming when you’re stuck.

I went to a restaurant on one of those boring, dull, off-and-on rainy days that had me feeling cooped up in my itty-bitty house and took pens and a small notebook along, with the intention of just making notes. Instead, I stared out one of the picture windows toward the west, toward the very pale, wimpy sun dropping lower through the rainy clouds toward the horizon, and did not put a single word on paper. Finally, I made a note: I have nothing important to say right now, with a big smiley face, and I paid the bill for my nice, crispy french fries, and went home.

And that’s it right there: sometimes brainstorming works, sometimes it doesn’t. Your brain goes blank. Your characters are taking naps in your mind. Your plotline has chosen a new path to follow without asking your permission. Your brainstorming session which was meant to refire the engine of your imagination petered out to a mere pop of backfiring noise and simply didn’t restart as you’d hoped. Gee whiz, even Chaucer and Shakespeare and Mark Twain and Charles Dickens had bad days, you know!

Normally, this is when people trash the story and delete it, but here is the solution: DON’T DELETE IT. Period.

Set it aside. Print it out. Put it in a 3-ring binder with the other stuff. Let it gestate. Go do something else. Make chocolate chip cookies with an extra splash of vanilla. Have a small notebook at your elbow and every time you put a sheet of cookies into the oven (10 minutes at 375F for chewy, 11 minutes for crisp), write a brief sentence about something.

Title this page ‘What if…’

See, this is when the notebook becomes your source for more stories. So you ran out of things to say about the story you were working on – so what? It happens. It’s part of the job, and yes, writing is a job, one that you chose to do, and one that you can do for the rest of your life if you want to.

If you inhabit the working world, you can carry that little notebook in your purse or briefcase and make notes on the train or the bus. You can write them up on your smartphone and mail them to yourself. I used to do that, with a pen and notebook. Then as soon as I got home, I’d put typing paper in the typewriter and copy my ‘what ifs’. They were all single sentences like ‘what if… your new neighbor next door never told you who he was or where he came from, but after he vacated his apartment, men with little plastic ID cards showed up and asked you lots of strange questions about him?’

Going through my 3-ring notebooks full of stuff that I started a L-O-N-G time ago, I found that particular story, which I started in 1989, reread what I had written, and decided I was glad I kept it because it was a good idea, after all. I just have to revise it here and there, and finish it. I don’t care if it turns into a novel or stays a short story or fits somewhere in between. If it was a good idea 24 years ago and it still works now, it’s worth the effort to finish it.

That’s my point.

Ditch the guilt and let your brain churn. This is not done for instant gratification. It takes time and persistence, and the more you do, the better a writer you will be.

I know people who will discard some bright idea because they can’t figure out how to make it work right away, or at least, they think they can’t. Well, if you come up with the idea, you put it into existence on a piece of paper and store it with the other ideas you had. Then go back and review it. You’ll most likely figure out how to make it work.

This is where you start over, replant the seeds and let her rip. Never mind if you run out of gas. Keep it. You can always do revisions later. You’ll be surprised how much is worth keeping and finishing.

Oh, yeah – my sunflower? Poor thing isn’t going to make it through the summer. The cardinals discovered it and they’ve been eating the seeds every morning. I can hear them around sunrise. They just think I don’t know. And there is another ‘what if….’

Endeavor to persevere….


Swifts in a bunch

Swifts in a bunch

Those were the words of Lone Watie, from the movie “The Outlaw Josey Wales’.

I get stuck on a regular basis. No excuses, I simply get stuck. I start a chapter and bog down. I start a sentence and reread it and groan.

We all have something to say. We all want to be heard, whether it’s stories, full-length novels, poetry, or just twittering in the Ethernet. We, the people on the business end of the monitor screen, want to know that someone, somewhere, is willing to take a few seconds or minutes or even hours out of their busy, busy lives to notice what we have to say or create.

We keep cranking out words and then finally, somebody notices and ‘likes’ it, or not. If it’s ‘like’, we’re tickled pink and giggly. If it’s ‘not’, we get upset. How could anyone possibly not like what I said, wrote, produced? How? How? How can anyone be so – well, insensitive?!?

Well, this happens all the time, and it happens to everyone, so let’s talk about that.

What I’ve noticed in the ‘newly pressed’ groups is the thousands of people who want to tell us something or show us something, and most important, they want us to know about it. Obviously, we can’t all be noticed all the time. The work of some people catches our eye and those are the people we latch onto and continue to follow. The others, not so much. We aren’t impressed by it, it isn’t to our taste, it doesn’t strike a common chord.

That’s okay.

In the process of writing, along with visual arts like painting and photography and sculpture, we cannot please everyone. We can only strive to do our best. So if you are not getting the audience that you had hoped for, ask yourself if you did your best each time you create something. I will not say ‘be your own harshest critic’, but review what you did and ask that question: did I do my best with my creative endeavor? If I were going to plunk down money for something, would I buy this? Would I check it out of the library, put it on my bookshelf, hang it on my walls?

I want to know what somebody else thinks of the stories I create, so I ask for feedback. I want constructive criticism. Constructive criticism is not flaming you. Constructive criticism is someone telling you ‘you got typos!’ or ‘spellcheck is not your best friend’. (Hint: Get a print copy of a spelling dictionary.) Flaming you is destructive, aimed at trampling you into giving up on the idea. If you can survive being flamed, it means that you have enough sense to take that kind of thing with a grain of salt… and then you go right back to what you were doing.

Someone did once post a very critical review of something I wrote, but instead of being hurt, I read it several times, reviewed my own work and asked myself if it really was the best I could have done. Could I have done a better job? I did not feel that I had been flamed. It was more a ‘heads up and snap out of it’ for me.

If you can’t take even constructive criticism without your feelings getting hurt, you need to rethink your priorities.

Are you doing creative work because you want a pat on the head and a ribbon just for showing up, or are you doing this work because you have something to say, to show us, to make us laugh and weep?

The creative arts are full of people who labor quietly, but whose continuous production never gets the immediate kind of attention generated by viral social media. Then finally, after what seems like near-eternity, someone notices and their stories, paintings, poetry, photography all begin to find a footing. These are the people whose work lasts, who generate long-term followings and whose work lives well beyond the end of their lifetime.

As Lone Watie said ‘Endeavor to persevere.’

A long walk in the woods provides… clues


A hike along the river....

A hike along the river….

I spent about an hour yesterday taking a long hike on a path along
a river not too far from my house. The hike started on a cloudy afternoon, with the very possible prospect of rain. I needed to get out and get some fresh air. There is nothing worse than being cooped up indoors. Even if the promise of rain is likely to be kept, getting out for a walk, however brief it might be, is better than no walk at all. So I went.

...continuing along the path

…continuing along the path

I am not sorry I did, that I spent the time on it, that the sun finally came out of hiding or that when I got back to my car I was quite warm, tired and happy to have done a mere 3.5 miles roundtrip in a little under an hour. For me, that’s a slow pace but I took my camera along, as always, and disregarded the distance.
Showy trillium on DP river trail

The point is that we all have a very real need to step away from the short-range, close focus on our creative endeavors and get some fresh air, on a regular basis. We need to put down the electronic stuff occasionally and look around at the real world, the tangible world that we live in if we expect the worlds we create out of whole cloth to be believable. It’s the small things which need to be noticed, not the illuminated screen in front of you.

Showy trilliums on the hiking path

Showy trilliums on the hiking path

Paying attention to those little things, to something as small as a frog on a log in the sunshine, makes your worlds more real to your readers. There are pollinating insects as small as the head of a pin that most people don’t notice, but they inhabit their own tiny world. If a detective in a mystery novel notices these things, shouldn’t you, the person who created the detective, notice those small things, too?

In regard to characters


Geese doing morning yoga

Yes, geese do yoga at the start of the day.

Now I’m going to expand a little more on what I said last time.

This has to do with the characters you create if you are writing fiction. I think it’s a real good idea to spend a little time interviewing them, to see how much depth you can give them. What drives them?

I’ve said before that one of my favorite writers is the late Georgette Heyer. She wrote a long, long list of period romance novels set in the timeframe of the Regency Period in England, before and after the War of Independence. She does refer to specific military actions to set the stage for some of the male characters and why they say and do some of the things they do. I don’t know if she ever did anything like an interview for any of the people whose lives she made so real for her readers, but her perception of those people was bolstered by superb research into the Regency Period itself.

For example, in ‘The Toll Gate’, Captain John Staple gets bored silly if he doesn’t have an adventure on a regular basis. The fights with Napoleon gave him that, and then he was picked up at sea by smugglers and spent a week with them. His mother wants him to find the right girl, all the girls he’s met bore him silly, and he wants to join his friend Babbacombe for hunting, because it’s early fall and the scenting days will give them a few great runs. So he bails out of his cousin’s dinner party, goes off to find his way north, and gets lost in the rain and falls into a wonderful (by his words) mystery. Along the way, he does meet his dream girl. You can almost hear the fanfare when they see other for the first time.

Piled into all of this are Heyer’s skillful inclusions of character assessment for each of the people involved in this adventure. She made tons and tons of notes for her stories. This is the best kind of example to follow.

So how do you do something like that for people who live in a world created out of whole cloth, as in sword-and-sorcery stories, fantasies, and science fiction, or just plain old fiction?

When I said last time ‘make a lot of notes’, this is something that I do. It’s necessary for me, at least, to do this, because I find that these characters which I imagined into existence not only decide what THEY want to do and how the story should be told, but they also are grumpy, happy, angry, excited, quizzical, lost and completely bewildered in the ‘why is this happening?’ sense, and definitely more and more solid.

I don’t mean that I merely ask someone what annoys or excites him or her, or that I create a physical description of someone as a frame of reference. If I have a team of five people who were thrown together and left on their own, I want to find out what their quirks are, what makes them part of this team, what makes them laugh and cry and what their goals and desires are.

All your notes, and if you also want to do the Q&A thing, interviews with your characters to find their speech patterns and how they think, are worth every second of your time and effort. I’ve found in doing this that I’ve compiled many, many pages of information that gives my characters more depth.

I want to know what it is that will cause a character like Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in ‘Breaking Bad’ to go from being just a man who left his job to being a dark, ruthless criminal. And why did he leave Gray Matter Tech in the first place? The depth of that fall into darkness was fascinating, because he could have done just the opposite and become a crusader like Jack Bauer played by Kiefer Sutherland in ’24’

It’s being willing to look at these things and put them into play that gives invented characters depth and makes them more real to people.