Haven’t blogged in a while

I’m never sure what the correct etiquette is when a blogger fails to post as regularly as expected. I suppose that is a matter of how popular the blog is. If no one has been reading it, then who cares. Since blog apologies have always made me uncomfortable because the act if blogging is by nature borderline obnoxious and vain, I’ll no apologize. I’ll simply admit that it’s been ages and ages since I last posted and leave it at that.

You haven’t missed anything and I frankly have missed blogging. It had its enjoyable moments but for the most part it was simply a time suck and, too often served as an easy excuse not to write my fiction.

In fact, I should be writing now. I’m in the middle of a fun short story that starts down the path of Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” but spins out in another direction. I’m very hopeful that it will represent a different, more professional direction for my writing. 2014 should shape up to be my first deliberately paced writing year. Still, I won’t go into more details about the story, not wanting to overthink the thing or waste my energy describing it rather than actually writing it.

The only reason I got on the blog in the first place was that Google Analytics came out with an updated version of their tracking code and I wanted to make sure my site had it in the event my blog for whenever my blog becomes a genuinely useful platform tool.

Well, if you read this, look to your left and right and know that, statistically speaking, neither of them will have. That makes you special.

Happy New Year 2014!!! May this year bring you many ideas, words, and the energy to put the two together.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight rules for writing fiction

In a recent meeting of our glorious critique group, Drafthouse, Sanford and Joe got to talking about the wonders of Kurt Vonnegut’s work. They cited one after another after another story or story element that I simply didn’t realize that was being done at the time he worked. Crazy shit but crazy shit that obviously worked.

It seemed, growing up, every time I had heard Vonnegut’s name it was being mentioned by in stuffy terms by pretentious people. But to hear Sanford and Joe go on about him, it was like hearing my own deep praise for artists like Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood or Alison Krauss’s Jerry Douglas. I mourned my not having read literally any of Vonnegut’s works and decided right then that I would remedy the situation.

As of this writing I still haven’t read my first Vonnegut, not having reached to the end of my current read in progress, but I’ve had time to poke around about Vonnegut’s writing approach. This morning, I came across this short list of his Eight Rules for Writing Fiction on troubling.info, just one of their long list of people listed on their slightly disturbing page, People.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Eight rules for writing fiction:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. Now matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them — in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

– Vonnegut, Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1999), 9-10.

1-4 run parallel with about every other writing how-to I’ve read.

  • Don’t betray the reader’s trust.
  • Make characters sympathetic.
  • Drive characters’ action with desire.
  • Making every sentence necessary — for Poe and his preference for shorter work, it was every word.

As are 6-8, though I found fresh Vonnegut’s belief that a writer strive to please just one person, especially his choice of a pneumonia analogy.

But it was 5 that I hadn’t run across before. I had heard similar, beginning-centric advice as:

  • Start at the first interesting moment.
  • Start in the midst of conflict.
  • Start with a hook.
  • Start somewhere interesting and go back later and fill in back story.

But I had never heard a writing tip that measured from the end, the story’s resolution. The line’s uniqueness stopped me. It got me thinking. I started to mentally test my own stories to see if I had begin them at the correct point according to Vonnegut and in most cases the answer was “no” or “close.” There were too few yeses. And the shocking was that the small handful of stories that did pass Vonnegut’s test happened to be my stronger stories.

I considered the story that I was — and am, truth be told — working on, a short story about a woman whose obsession with creating the perfect culinary dish for an upcoming national competition leads her to insist on human meat as her protein. At the time I had read the article, the story began with her slow progression toward obsession, nowhere close enough to the end. By applying Vonnegut’s advice, the story needed to begin with her already having succumbed to her demons.

This may sound like the beginning-centric advice above but it’s subtly different. Instead of concerning myself with the right opening line or the right conflict to begin with, I’m looking at the resolution and moving backwards to the very last conflict that I can’t under any circumstances omit and still have the story understandable.

So out was her guilt that she’d put her family through who-cares-what. Out was leading with the inciting incident. Instead, I rearranged the story to begin with the disturbing moment she obtains the key ingredient, the conflict after which all other events are closing out the story. I found that flashing back to earlier conflicts, those that forced the character to the main conflict itself.

The difference was marked. Now I can’t wait to put this story to bed and possibly revisit and rearrange the events in one or two of my recent favorites.

My mentee, Kyler Herrera’s, Creative Fiction ISM presentation

Tonight was the final stage of my mentorship of Kyler Herrera, a Junior in the ISM program — Independent Study Mentorship — at Mitchell High School here in San Antonio, his presentation to faculty, family and friends, covering what he had accomplished over the school year and specifically what he had produced, a finished, quality, ready-for-submission 5000-word short story.

I was pleased to find Kyler, understandably nervous, but joking and looking confident in his suit and slicked up hair, guiding guests to sign in, enjoy refreshments and take their seats. As time for the presentation neared, you could see him settle, a sign that he had practiced many times what he was about to share with us.

He proceeded to outline the meaning and function of the ISM program as a vehicle to help motivated students learn about the subject or career field of their choosing and to produce a “product” that is relevant to the real world at the program’s end. Being naturally bored by rules and order, it was a bit of a mental struggle for me to keep my attention on what was being said but I managed. When he got to the part about the craft of writing and his experience in writing his short story, I perked up.

He began with choosing fiction, specifically creative fiction. Then it was a matter of choosing a topic. Then a hook. Then a strong first paragraph. Then a strong first page. Then a full dirty first draft. I was most pleased, however, to hear that it was the rewriting and the re-rewriting and the re-re-rewriting that he most enjoyed in the process because this is the substance of real writing — the editing process and the learning of when to abandon edits.

“I had an aha moment,” Kyler related, “when I saw how to rearrange the sections on a page to reduce it to half a page,” this said in reference to his success in keeping his story under 5000 words, a key cut-off for many short story publishers. In the end his story weighed in at about a score under that 5k limit while stilll reading easily and feeling uncompromised.

Late in Kyler’s presentation, he brought me to the front, thanked me in front of everyone and presented me with a travel speaker, a gift card and a thank you card with a hand-written note of appreciation. Very touching and appreciated but in all honesty completely unnecessary since it was my deep pleasure to mentor such a solid, focused, ordered student, a fellow I am fully confident will go exactly as far as he chooses to pursue writing.

I don’t praise the young man lightly. Writing requires a certain gene that imparts patience, temperance, creativity and the ability to work at sometimes tedious unrewarding tasks — or rather to see this sort of task as not tedious and unrewarding but challenging, even pleasurable.

I couldn’t hope for a better mentee than Kyler and wish him the very best. And to think that I had decided in December that I would not — absolutely NOT — take on another mentee because I simply had too much on my plate. Thank goodness for well-timed flaky days.

My new WordPress writing site

The dreaded “Sorry, I haven’t posted in a while” post is the surest sign that a writing blogger’s engines have been — and, too often, still are — sputtering and that their blog is likely to fall into the “better things to do” ocean.

I can’t tell the future, but I never haven’t enjoyed blogging and I miss it. I’m as curious to find out whether I continue as you might be. There’s only one way to tell — I’ll click Update tonight and wait until tomorrow to find out if my posting momentum remains with me.

Notes about the new site:

  • First off, I’m sorry I haven’t posted in a while. I had to get that out of the way. I’m sure the six of you who followed my blog in it’s old location have been missing me something fierce, as we used to say in Tennessee. But I’m back, perhaps not with the same 5-days-a-week dedication with which I had posted before, but with a promise to add posts with some respectable regularity. That frequency was difficult to sustain whenever life or work got too busy.
  • So far, I’ve brought over fewer than the nearly 350 posts from the old site. I had begun blogging back in 2007 if memory serves me correctly, so not including those leaves out a TON of my early writing history. But, given how long the 37 posts, with their links, lists, pictures and various and sundry special instances, I’m not promising that I will ever go back and add them all. I would like to say that for each new post, I’ll an old one, slowly working my way simultaneously forward and backwards until they’re all included. What I really want to cleanly import the posts from the old database and have it done in one step, but that may be asking too much.
  • Excuse the mess, if there turns out to be one. If you find anything squirrely about the new site — WordPress has all manner of odd twists and turns, new ones of which I’m learning about daily — please shoot me a quick note. It helps a lot since you are likely to use this site differently than I am and will, therefore, be more likely to run across such oddness. Also, please feel free to let me know if using the site is in any way difficult or annoying. Font colors and sizes are the most frequent issues with a new site. If you can’t read something or an element seems jarring or distasteful, copy the page url and, again, shoot me a note. I want things found and fixed as quickly as possible and your assistance is greatly appreciated :)

 

The awesome Kristin Lamb

When it comes to marketing advice for the professional writer, one would be hard-pressed to find a better source than Kristin Lamb, her mighty blog and her god-send books, the latest being “We Are Not Alone.” [Get the Kindle edition here.]

For instance in her currently most recently blog post, “Want to Be a Successful Author? Burn Your Ships!” about how, if we are really prepared to write in a professional way we should be prepared to kill any means of escape from the hard task that writing is, she ends by assuring her followers that blogging IS not only a valid part but of the writer’s life but one that could be considered indispensable. As well as she laid out her argument, it really was her defense of blogging that stuck with me — only because it hit so close to home.

I had all but given up on blogging at the end of November 2012, some nearly two months ago. There had been spans where I blogged Monday through Friday but found the exercise exhausting to my writing any my mental energy. Though I may not return to the days of blogging daily, Kristin made a solid enough argument that I will be returning to blogging to an as yet undecided degree. As with most things, one should seek a balance between the two extremes.

Still, I’m confident that at least one of my fellow authors will question the wisdom of my returning to blogging, but Kristin is right about its benefit to a writer. For one, it keeps one writing — and there’s nothing negative about putting well-though-out words on a page. Second, it keeps one on track with any goals or resolutions he may make.

This post, for instance, isn’t a long one, but already I feel more in-touch with my writing that I have in, well, probably since I stopped blogging.

I say let the nay-sayers nay away — I’m back to bloggin’, bitches.

My peaceful and productive vacation in the Mexican jungle


Yesterday was my first day back to my full-time job since being out all of last week at Present Moment Retreat in Guerrero, Mexico, a top-notch yoga retreat with ocean front bungalows, five-star cuisine and selections of yoga, meditation and Qi Gong classes as well as an assortment of other off-campus activities like horseback riding, hiking and surfing.

In a word it was extraordinary. If you’re interested in my review of Present Moment from a traveler’s perspective, click here. This post, however, will focus on the change I experienced at Present Moment and that change’s benefit to me and my writing.

Know that I have historically been a nervous nelly. I’ve been confident in my abilities but somehow continuously afraid to show the results of my creativity and constantly questioning whether the good work is good enough, always seeing more that a work could or should be.

I’ve either sat on good stories, good music, good paintings, good poetry, and good graphical work for pretty much all my life, opting to move on to the next work rather than market myself; or, I’ve turned down or choked with fear when given opportunities to showcase my various talents.

A cluttered and rushed mind can be a terrible liability. I felt I had worked myself into a stupor of frustrated disorganization. So it was off to Mexico for what I thought would be a week of unwinding from my job. But it turned out to be so much more.

In my late 20s I had suffered from panic attacks. Some doctor’s believed I was depressed. I didn’t feel depressed. Others thought I was simply hyper and needed to be tranquilized. Medications to remedy those guessed-at conditions numbed or otherwise crippled my ability to live normally. Taking matters into my own hands I began reading extensively about Taoism and learned how to focus on my breath in order to still my racing mind. Voila! No more panic attacks — literally overnight.

From the very first day at Present Moment, I resumed the meditation practices I had begun back then, and with confidence and peace, as if I no time had lapsed. And again, I felt an immediate improvement in my thinking. I didn’t have panic attacks to overcome but I could feel a change.

I had decided that I would spend at least part of each of my days in Mexico writing. Some had warned that by doing so, I was either wasting my vacation “working” — I’ve never thought of writing as working — or that I needed a break from writing as much as I did from my regular work. Both turned out to be reasonable assumptions but both turned out to be wrong. I was taking a vacation TO write. Somehow I knew that, even if nothing at all happened, I would benefit from the peace that writing itself gives me. What I didn’t expect was that peace itself would, in return, feed back into my writing.

On the second day, I gave myself a pass on morning yoga so I could sit for the first time at my remote writing setup — great food for an upcoming post, btw. I was still hung over on stillness from morning meditation so began writing in a near dream state. Gone was desire for a specific word count. Gone was the smallest worry about accuracy or word choice. It could all be sorted out later.

Breathe. Relax. Align. Enjoy. And then it hit me. I was enjoying writing at a level that I hadn’t enjoyed, well, anything in more years than I cared to count.

Writing is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Correction: GOOD writing is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. One has to either enjoy it a WHOLE lot or be a single-minded workaholic in order to pull it off. I was some of the former and too TOO much of the latter. Now, all of a sudden, I found myself, despite the heat, despite the incessantly pouring sweat, despite the bugs, enjoying the act of writing. Fully enjoying it. I mean like childish enjoyment.

I considered it was the place. The coastline of Guerrero is breathtakingly beautiful and the harshest of the summer’s heat had more or less passed. But my enjoyment wasn’t coming from the sights or the sounds of the birds or the ocean. It was my relaxed state. I knew it. Believe me, I had fucked up enjoying great things before and was confident that, if given a running start, I could fuck up my days at a yoga retreat.

But I had meditated. I had killed want and time and pride.

I hadn’t created a new thing as much as I had killed threats and had knocked down obstacles. I had made way for enjoyment to calmly walk up and wrap its arms around me. The whole week, I never once checked my word count and never fretted that all I put out might have been a paragraph at a sitting. Instead I read, decided and rewrote with the same youthful approach as I had applied to my poetry in 10th grade back in our home in Tennessee. I enjoyed looking back at a writing session as much as I enjoyed the session itself. And, more importantly, I enjoyed looking forward to the next writing session as much as I did looking forward to meeting a non-judgmental friend for lunch.

I suppose it’s obvious that I will continue meditating.

Voices in my head OR The evolution of finding the right voice for my story

An old old friend once summed his own fears about life after high school this way:

“We’re smart, Thomas. We can accomplish about anything we choose in life through sheer intellect. The only hard part is deciding what that something is going to be. What do we take up?”

Recently this difficulty in deciding upon a path has strongly manifested itself in my writing, in a particular story. I have begun it in both a serious voice and one that is undeniably Douglas Adams-esque. Neither attempt measured up to my expectations but that was only partially due to my indecision concerning voice. Now that I have (I’m hoping) solved the story’s non-voice shortcomings, what I have left is the choice of voices.

It’s taken me some six years after originally commiting myself to serious fiction writing to finally approach control over a professional, consistent voice. I finally hear my calmer self in my writing. Still, since my story ideas tend to vary widely — at least from my perspective — I find myself occasionally tempted into using that lingering Adams-like, voice.

Keep it or kill it?

[wavy flashback disintegration - wah wah wah]

During design school, I entertained the notion of becoming an illustrator/graphic designer but was urged by an instructor in very confident terms that I would be shooting myself in the foot by so splitting my focus. “Anything slash anything slashes your chances of success.” So I chose graphic design and never looked back. In the same way, is switching voice between stories good or a bad from a career marketing standpoint?

To assist in finding a solution, I read “Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing” by Julie Wildhaber from about two years ago for Grammar Girl in which she described voice in writing better than I’d ever heard before:

Voice is the distinct personality, style, or point of view of a piece of writing or any other creative work. Voice is what Simon Cowell is talking about when he tells “American Idol” contestants to make a song their own and not just do a note-for-note karaoke version.

Cool. Nice popular culture reference. Thank you.

Finally understanding what voice in writing is, I still was left to decide whether I should stick with the voice I’ve been honing or allow the funnier of the two voices to tell my story.

Enter “25 Things Writers Should Know About Finding Their Voice” at terribleminds.com, specifically #19 of the article, The Banshee’s Scream, copied here in part:

Voice matters. Voice is important. But at the end of the day, if it takes your story and drowns it in a hot stockpot of scalding soup, then you’ve done yourself a disservice. In the Great Cosmic Chain Of Telling Bad-Ass Motherfucking Stories, voice is subservient to story, not vice versa.

Again, cool. Sounds like an argument for fuck the dilemma. Tell the story how I want. But wait, maybe it’s saying tell the story based on what you’re wanting to say, who you’re wanting to say it to. Maybe there are even other unknown considerations.

A bell went off. That list from “Understanding Voice and Tone in Writing” — things to think about when developing one’s voice:

What you want to communicate about yourself or, if you’re writing for a business, about the company’s brand. If you asked your readers to describe your copy with a few adjectives, which words would you want them to choose?
The purpose of what you’re writing. Should your voice be different for an obituary than for a movie review? Do you want to inform, entertain, or motivate readers to take action?
Your target audience. Are you writing for kids, professional investors, soccer fans from around the world?
I get that Wildhaber was referring more to non-fiction, but I think the same holds true for fiction. A fiction writer still has an audience in mind when he writes. When I wrote my recent nose sex story, I knew I wasn’t writing to retirement-aged Floridians, or Mrs. Rose’s kindergarten class. I was writing for readers who appreciate the very very weird, aren’t offended by murder and sex and who appreciate more literary writing — he said with crossed fingers.

I asked myself a couple questions based on Wildhaber’s list.

What do I want to communicate with the story? Futility even after resolution.
What is the story about? Eventual healing after a terrible prolonged loss.
Who do I want to reach? Readers who can tolerate a less-than-happy ending and readers who, again, can appreciate weird.
And just like that I realized I couldn’t afford the lighter voice. There was too much darkness, even in the lighter parts, always under the surface, driving the story forward. I just couldn’t see how the Adams voice could pull it off and retain that darkness.

There may come a day when a humorous middle-grade story draws me in. At that time, I’ll resurrect the Adams-esque voice, but for myt current story, I’ll keep with the voice that has been subliminally waving its red flag at me for weeks.

(And I’ll keep writing about my writing when I run into any creative blocks because doing so hasn’t failed me yet :)

Why coffee shops are great places to write and work

There’s been a lot of conversation lately about how getting out of the traditional office helps your concentration and productivity. But it’s been more specific — just getting out of the traditional office isn’t enough. Apparently, heading home won’t work as well and taking a left to the nearest coffee shop. Even a simple Google search turned up these articles:

Why Ditching the Office Could Help You Be More Creative
[Replace shitty coffee shop chain name with "Coffee Shops"] May Help You Do Your Job Better
Study of the Day: Why Crowded Coffee Shops Fire Up Your Creativity
There are many others like it. Seems a few things might be going on here.

First, is everyone in agreement that coffee houses increase productivity. Well, it turns out, according to the Interwebs, they are. I had a hell of a time finding any dissension on this matter. Just a couple crazies on fringe forums and their main arguments seemed odd — either coffee is killing people, hipsters are killing people or productivity itself is killing people. Basically it all boiled down to killing.

Second, if coffee houses do increase productivity, why?

Could be the caffeine. I heard once that caffeine makes you swim faster. Maybe it’s the drug. Of course, wouldn’t that increase productivity wherever folks can get the drug? I remember there being coffee machines in the last offices I worked in. Crap coffee, but coffee. Maybe that’s they key — it has to be good coffee. But the second article above says the magic is even happening at Starbucks and few would agree that, after you strip away the cream and sugar you’re getting anything better than office coffee.

It must be the atmosphere. But what part is doing it for you?

Could be the bustle. So why not head to an emergency room? Well, folks who have looked at this seem to think it has more to do with the noise level and the type of noise than the action. Isolated action gets you the opposite result — decreased productivity. The place you work has to not only have a fairly steady come-and-go — no sudden, distracting peaks and valleys — but it also has to be noisy. And the noise has to be real noise, not loud music. Again, distraction. The noise has to be a general buzz — white noise. Or, as I’ve learned, brown noise. That’s the good stuff. It’s white noise without the hearing ruining high-end. All the shhhhhh without the khhhhhh, if you follow.

Though the studies touch on it, they seem to be focusing more on the coffee shop is rather than the important things it isn’t.

It ain’t the office. You don’t have the forced mix of different personalities. The atmosphere is changeable, if necessary. You also don’t have the boss or other coworkers popping in with their special projects. To seek out workers/coworkers, you need to apply more effort than simply standing up. You need to craft emails, copy and paste links. Then you have to hunt down the other party. Email, IM, call. The higher requirements better insure that you actually need the help in the first place. So the benefits are two-fold: you become a better thinker/problem solver because you will be more likely to face the fire or face more fire before you go groveling for help; and, as a result, you’ll have fewer distractions throughout the day.

It ain’t home. This, in my opinion, is a biggie. At home, you have couches, TVs, beds, bathtubs, back yards, undone laundry, messy floors and cluttered counter spaces. Everyone talks about the distractions of the home. It takes a Spartan to remain disciplined when you’re being constantly tempted away from your work to-do list. Getting out of the house insures a few other things: you to get dressed because you can’t be productive in your PJs — no, you can’t; you get fed because you know you’ll be out for a while; you get groomed because you have to show up in public.

Somewhat related to the last point, you’ll find — or I hope you don’t have to — that working from home tends to bring your crazy out. You become a dog, a homeless person, the couch itself. You HAVE to get out in order to avoid become nothing.

So it turns out there’s a recipe for a great remote work place.
coffee shoppe (not shitty)
1 cup of coffee (refillable)
1 steady loud buzz (avoid explosive interruptions)
Begin with a routine: emails, FB, etc. out of the way BEFORE starting the day ONLY
Limit acquaintances & set boundaries: Make friends if you must but train them to kindly leave you the hell alone once your head is down or your earbuds are in.
Take scheduled breaks: stretch, set break timers — when to go and when to come back, and go to the bathroom when you need to, for goodness sake. If you have to pee, you’re not at your best.

What’s the word? OR concepts from other cultures that lack words in English

What’s the word? OR concepts from other cultures that lack words in English
During my German studies in high school, college and abroad, I first learned that there are words, beliefs and other aspect of unfamiliar cultures that defy easy understanding or translation. Often these are the words that get to the heart of the culture from which they live. Because a word may have no parallel, even in languages that are often considered intermediate, the concepts get somewhat lost. Or masked as something more complex than concepts we perceive as simpler only because we happen to have a word for them.

I ran across an intriguing article at BigThink.com, The Top 10 Relationship Words That Aren’t Translatable Into English.

Here’s are the first two. Visit BigThink.com for the rest. And think about how many other lists there must be out there yet to be compiled, how many other concepts are waiting to be shared or given words.

Mamihlapinatapei
(Yagan, an indigenous language of Tierra del Fuego): The wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something, but are both reluctant to start.

Oh yes, this is an exquisite word, compressing a thrilling and scary relationship moment. It’s that delicious, cusp-y moment of imminent seduction. Neither of you has mustered the courage to make a move, yet. Hands haven’t been placed on knees; you’ve not kissed. But you’ve both conveyed enough to know that it will happen soon… very soon.

Yuanfen
(Chinese): A relationship by fate or destiny. This is a complex concept. It draws on principles of predetermination in Chinese culture, which dictate relationships, encounters and affinities, mostly among lovers and friends.

From what I glean, in common usage yuanfen means the “binding force” that links two people together in any relationship.

But interestingly, “fate” isn’t the same thing as “destiny.” Even if lovers are fated to find each other they may not end up together. The proverb, “have fate without destiny,” describes couples who meet, but who don’t stay together, for whatever reason. It’s interesting, to distinguish in love between the fated and the destined. Romantic comedies, of course, confound the two.

READ MORE >>

Trimming fat OR Cutting extra prepositions on out of your writing

On out of? How about just out of?

Sanford Allen a man of many types of fame — music, journalism and fiction among them — and whose musings can be followed at sanfordallen.com, once offered a tidbit of writing advice that could have easily slipped by unnoticed.

Good for me I am experienced and as wise as the soaring eagle.

Sorry.

The advice was this (and, dammit, I’m paraphrasing):

If you’re using more than one preposition in a clause, try to kill one of them sombitches.

Okay. It’s not going to make or break your story, but since it’s something that probably crops up in everything you’re ever going to write, over time, it’s golden. Still not convinced, you selfish bastard? Well, imagine eyelets on a tennis shoe — those little metal rings you string laces through. You could make a lace-up shoe without them but I think that if I ever found myself forced at gunpoint to craft awesome shoes I wouldn’t.

So, back to prepositions.

Why should it matter if you’re using two instead of one preposition? Don’t we look up at the stars? And wasn’t English so sure of itself that it combined on and to into onto? Yes and those are good examples of when a preposition following another is cool. When it’s not cool is in sentences like “The army moved on into the woods” and “The UFO lifted up off the ground.” Sometimes the better solution is to scrap BOTH prepositions. Rewrite “He reached in after the rabbits” as ” He reached for the rabbits.”

It’s almost always better to change “in between” to just “between” It says the same thing and is leaner.

I’m sure you hear double prepositions in conversation all the time but you’re a dick — or an instructor (who is possibly a dick) — if you point it out. But when it comes to writing, you’re almost always better off sticking with just one preposition. Of course, if you’re trying to make a character sound authentic, go for it.

As with anything else in writing — or any endeavor, for that matter — there are no absolutes. In the immortal and often short words of former-Pres., George W., “[You are] the decider.”

Kill? No. MURDER Your Darlings

I must have dreamt something extraordinary last night. I woke with the phrase “Kill your darlings” running around my stress-and-caffeine-addled mind. Writers should recognize the phrase as some of the most common advice in editing one’s work. What it means, for those unfamiliar with it, is that if you run across a conspicuously beautiful passage in your work — a darling — don’t simply consider it for removal, just remove it. To fall in love with your work, even parts of it, should be thought of, according to that nugget, as lethal.

But kill them? What a luscious, in appropriate thing to say. So 1800s. But

Being the curious chap I am, I decided to research its origin. According to Steven Wright’s [no. not the comedian.] article, Don’t Kill Your Darlings, it was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who actually said more than a century ago,

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

Oof. Murder them? Rough treatment. Further reading reveals that Arty had a bit of a beef with folks of the surname Darling, thus the choice of both murder and darling. There’s a Peter Pan connection, but that’s not the point of this post.

So now that we know, what do we think about it? Far from me, a Thomas, not to initially doubt all that’s said to me, at least a little. Should we or shouldn’t we (ahem) murder these precious pieces of prose?

Steven Wright [still not the comedian] argues that Quiller-Couch was full of crap and wrote that bit of timeless advice in a place where writers couldn’t exactly trust other writers, that showing another your work would likely bring not only harsh but inaccurate and spiteful criticism. Putting myself in his shoes at that time, I’d probably have the urge to remove any passages that could justify someone poking fun at me. I’d love to know how much that played into his statement. Wright then lightly argues that one should keep their beautiful pieces where they are, that if you like them they’re good.

The other side argues that, more often than not, anything conspicuous inherently means the work is uneven. If you’ve got a beautiful piece, the whole work had better be beautiful. Then, following that logic, who wants to read prose that is beautiful from beginning to end? To do so risks — OMG — poetry. And no one wants that, right? Right?

I tend to be in the second camp myself, but I can see that there could come a day when a conspicuously pretty something or other should stay. I’m never one for absolutes [note my irony, a genius trait]. I’d say, as it is with most things advice-related, know the suggestion, know cases and others’ opinions on the matter, then forget the advice entirely. It’s there and you’ll use it when you need it and allow it to go unnoticed when you don’t. The Taoists call this “unlearning.”

NOTE: I’D LIKE TO CELEBRATE THE FACT THAT THIS IS MY 333rd BLOG POST, MAKING IT 50% “THE BEAST.” AND IN MY BOOK — WHICH I AM CONFIDENT IS NOT YOUR BOOK — THAT’S PRETTY AWESOME.

Diary-like writing as a means of solving any — yes any — writing problems

This blog posting is a bit of an experiment to prove something that I have said a few times in the past to my mentees and in this blog, that all writing problems can be solved by simply — and possibly ironically — by writing.

When I sat down to write a blog post, I didn’t have an idea about what I was going to write. That, in my book, qualifies as a writing problem. The most basic and common type from what I hear. Writer’s block of a sort.

And since my philosophy has been that any writing problem can be solved through writing, I simply began writing. And voila, it was solved.

You see, writer’s block is not a matter of having nothing to write but of failing to decide between too many ideas or lacking faith in the idea we have. But we’re remarkable and you only need to trust that anything you do will also be remarkable. You only need to do and the results will prove you correct.

The same is true with story-specific problems. Don’t know which direction a character should speak? Can’t decide on her motivations? Wondering if a logic problem should be solve this way or that? The cure is the same — simply sit down and write.

Of course this sort of writing is mostly going to be throw-away or utility. What I do nine times out of ten is write like I’m talking out loud to a table of other me’s — who are always well-behaved, wonderful listeners.

“If I keep the carnival aspects, I really need to ramp them up because the theme of this anthology is carnivals and I don’t want to risk coming off like I already had a forgotten story lying around and I just added a couple carnival elements to make it fit their requirements.”

Then I add the OR. That’s when the other me at the imaginary table stands up and offers his/my counter-point.

“OR I could remove all aspects of carnival, turning the story in another direction. Of course, that would mean forgetting the anthology I had in mind. But that should be fine because this is a good story and I shouldn’t have a hard time finding a quality outlet for it.”

Then comes the SO

“SO if carnival is out, how do I apply my critique mates’ comments?”

You get the picture. What I create ends up taking on a programmatic flowchart feel. Lots of IFs and ORs and ANDs, etc. but I ALWAYS arrive at a best solution.

The above example is global in relation to a story I have been working on for a while, but the same strategy works for even the small problems I alluded to before. Talk about the pros and cons of two different types of shoes or if someone should shut up and leave a scene or deliver one more line before parting. Even if you’re stuck on What to write, I’m sure you have a couple of ideas. Write the debate out — why one is better or worse then the other.

There should be no anxiety about writing in order to find solutions to your writing problems. But if you do find yourself unsure of how to start, I suggest starting with a line like, “I can’t begin to understand why I’m nervous about solving my writing problems, but I suspect the cat has something to do with it… or my mother… or those green guys I saw last night.”

The landscape of serious writing is acknowledging that there are always reasonable and loud excuses not to write.

At work, you have to get all the disparate parts to work together. You have to work through your to-do list. You have to face the pain of completing difficult or unpleasant tasks. If you don’t, you get reprimanded, written up or fired. At home, you have to pick up the kids, drop them off, attend games, all while still managing to get groceries, balance the checkbook and fit in the occasional date with your spouse. There are arguments and break-downs and all other unknowns obstacles along the way every day. But what do you do? Failure, neglect and divorce aren’t options.

No, you keep trudging forward, one step at a time. If you stop trying, you’ve got yourself a country song. You lose your job, your house, your wife and kids. Eventually your dog.

Well the same is true with writing. Crafting a story begins with seemingly endless inspirations, influences and grand goals running against the reality of experience, education and the many distractions of real life. It’s a puzzle where every piece is itself another puzzle. And what’s worse, you don’t HAVE to do it. The world would be just fine without your little story. (Yes, they’re ALL little from a world perspective.) So what motivation do you have to face yet another set of spinning blades when your plate is already full.

I don’t have an answer for that, actually. In fact I almost talked myself out of continuing my own writing. I’m that good. No, you have to answer that for yourself. Maybe it’s because people say you can’t. Maybe it’s the high-fiber muffin of your life — I has to come out or you’ll explode in a cloud of stinking shit.

Ahem. Sorry.

Or maybe writing is enjoyable specifically because of the hard parts. You enjoy the stories. You love the sharing. You love the too-rare attention and praise. But you love the part of it that is puzzling. It’s your daily New York Times Crossword. Writing keeps your mental juices flowing. It’s okay that creating a story play a love-hate role in your life.

Whatever it is that has every caused you to plop down in front of a keyboard or curl up with a diary or notebook. Find that whatever that has ever put you in the midst of hipsters and jazz or old folks and their poetry and memoirs (I love you all, btw) and give it a hug. Welcome it back into your life. Move things around. Explain that whatever to those who love you. Or just have faith that they get your weirdness.

But get back to writing. Just like there’s never a perfect time to get married or a perfect time to have kids, in my opinion there’s never a perfect time to write. If you’re not sacrificing or shoe-horning it in to a certain degree, you ain’t doing it right. The landscape of serious writing is acknowledging that there are always reasonable and loud excuses not to write.

Snap! OR Utilizing mental fatigue to produce writing energy

For years, I have noticed a certain phenomenon I have never heard talked about either in art or psychology circles. For that reason, I don’t know a correct term for it. I call it a mental snap.

If you’ve ever thrown an object competitively — a baseball or a Frisbee — you’ll know that you give a sort of snap right at the end of the throwing motion. Without it the object will travel fine but with a probably unhealthy snap, the object will scream for its mother as it disappears over the horizon.

When I’ve worked all day, especially a long day, especially tedious sorts of tasks like database work or (probably) accounting, my left brain is putty, completely exhausted, whereas my right brain has been napping, hitting the bong, or whatever its been doing while it’s not been doing anything.

That’s when I pick up the guitar and shame even Kottke. That’s when I draw the best centaur I have since middle school. And that’s when I sit down to the keyboard and Mozart out a story faster and with better focus than I have since I learned how to write.

Snap!

It’s like any other endeavor. If you want to be at your best for an event/activity, you gots to train. If you HAVE to put out words later, count grains of rice. Read Pi to a thousand digits. Watch Fox “News”. Do anything that makes you want to gouge your eyes out and that numbs your creative mind. I guarantee you’ll emerge from your near suicidal stupor charged and ready to write.

It’s official: Thomas McAuley’s dream of ArmadilloCon ’12 dies

ArmadilloCon ’12 did a little trick this year. Every since my attendance of it last year, it gradually became less and less of a certain. As soon as ArmadilloCon ’11 ended, there was no doubt as to my going the following year. I had enjoyed it and HorrorCon ’11 but was sure that ArmadilloCon was the closer of the two to my type of writing — not to mention the closer of the two geographically. I had already decided that I would only fully attend one Con in ’12 so the decision was easy.

Then came the latest big revelation that I was incurably weird. Soon after my surrender to this new truth, I learned about BizarroCon ’12 in Portland, Oregon. My involvement in it would necessitate reducing my commitment to ArmadilloCon ’12 to one day. Saturday was the likeliest day as Cons tend to pack the best of the best on that day, knowing that many folks have to work or have kids or whatever and can only swing one day.

So I lived out the next six or so months planning on heading up to Austin tomorrow, Saturday. My younger son didn’t work. He didn’t have soccer practice or a tournament, something that had complicated one Con or another for the previous two years.

I even told a number of folks that my attendance was akin to certainty. Young or beginning writers and writers who were new to the area or hadn’t yet built up a local network of friends or fellow writers. I can’t remember who all I told or verbatim what I said, but I know myself well enough to know what all I’d say — any or all of the following.

“ArmadilloCon? Oh, it’s great. I really learned a lot last year. I’d suggest it, it being so close and all. I’m like 90% sure I’ll be up there on Saturday. That when all the good stuff is scheduled. Head up. At least you’ll know someone up there.”

*uncomfortable snicker*

Saturday is my 23rd anniversary. Not the best time to schedule a day in Austin at a writing convention. We’ve had reservations to Morton’s for a good while, sure, but I’ve known about my upcoming anniversary every year for…22 years.

So BAM! The fucker is dead. I’m out of ArmadilloCon ’12 entirely and will have to set my sights on ’13 with a little more attention to detail.

Did I mention *uncomfortable snicker* ?

The real and the fake regarding the monikers, absurdist and bizarro, as they pertain to my glorious writing blog website

I’ve had some folks ask me about this whole “absurdist” and “bizarro” thing since changing the direction and mood of my website. Let me take a moment to clarify what I’m doing.

On one hand, understand that the labels “absurd” and “bizarro” don’t really matter at least as labels. I don’t confine my writing in any way. If anything they’re convenient terms to help others narrow in on the type of writing that I USUALLY do. That’s not to say that I don’t have freedom to shit out an erotica novel if I’m so inclined. (Bam…double pun!) I simply had it pointed out to me by someone I trust and respect greatly that the vast majority of my stories sort of don’t care about the inconvenient constraints of reality.

But why, you may ask — some have — is that sort of writing any different from fantasy, sci-fi, etc., which also give the middle finger to reality? In once sense it’s a matter of degree. How far off reality are we talking? In fantasy — let’s say High Fantasy, with dwarves and shit — you have, well, dwarves and shit. They have families and buy things and poop. Pretty normal stuff. Same with sci-fi. The astronauts with Hal in 2001 were regular Joes in irregular situations. Bizarro has regular — though sometimes weird — Joes do weird stuff for weird reasons with weird outcomes.

Know that I’m not a fan of weird for weird’s sake, though. I have read some stories in the bizarro genre that I’ve struggled through because the weirdness just shows up for no reason at all — weird for weird’s sake. But the better stories make us think. What IF this fellow really DID ejaculate a small man with a mustache and that man always smoked and began tiling the masturbator’s body? What terrible trouble that would cause. Love it.

So there’s the real part of it. I write what I want and I tend to want weird shit going on because I’m a guy who likes to ask Why and What if. I write the stories to find out the answers.

Now for the fake of it.

Websites and blogging are married to marketing. Websites need to be found so they can be viewed. Granted, there’s a huge aspect of blogging that is strictly masturbation (points for the, now, triple masturbation reference) and/or vanity. It’s also a necessary part of marketing one’s writing career. Judge if you will, but it, like a normal business website, requires being found and read. The way all that works is via key words and key phrases. The major search engines “crawl” the Internet looking for relevant content on any subject. It looks at your website/blog title, its headlines and text and says This site is about thus and so. Then it asks how well the site covered thus and so and compares it against all other sites that address thus and so. Everybody gets a grade on how well they did and are ranked highest to lowest.

So, in my case, I asked myself what kind of writer I am. Any writer knows that one of the first questions anyone will ask them when they find out you’re a writer is what sort of writing you do. That’s a valid question when dealing with websites and blogs because that is basically what they’re going to type into the search engine when they’re looking for you — or, more accurately, writers LIKE you. Like you because, in most cases, if they already know you they won’t be searching for you.

What would someone punch into a search engine to find me? Not my name, right, because they don’t already know me. No, it’s going to be some combination of the terms “San Antonio” or “Texas” plus “author” or “writer” plus they general type of writing you’re looking for. In my case, “absurdist” and “bizarro” are as close to the mark as anything I’ve found.

So as a responsible web marketer / shameless self-promoter I hammer away at those terms in my writing website. Oh yeah, “writing website” and “writing blog” are two more terms that folks will likely use. See how I slipped those into a relevant blog post? That’s how the game is played, folks. You can’t just spam terms, you have to slip them in to your conversation as if you were, well, an author on a talk show. The more mentions you make of your title, where it’s being sold, and on what dates you’ll be where, the better your turnout for signings and the higher your sales figures.

So even if the labels don’t tell the whole story, “absurdist writer” and “bizarro writer” are good enough descriptions for my reality but they’re money for gaining the attention of Google and other major search engines.

A hundred different ways to work

My latest writing mentorship confirmed a few things for me, most notably that there are a hundred different ways to work. Hey, that sounds like a great title for a blog post.

Coming off my first mentoring relationship six months before, I figured my next mentee, being the same sex and age and experience level would talk, act, and work the same. There were similarities in the talking and acting, but when it came to the working, the two couldn’t have been more dissimilar.

It’s possibly important to note that here were marked differences in the programs that brought each of the students to me. The first required unique “sources” for pretty much each week of the mentorship. Many if not all of these distracted from the important work of helping the young person become a better, more prepared writer. I’m sure we spent too much time fulfilling that requirement considering there was no measurable advantage.

But I digress.

Both mentees were ultra-frightening-smart. Either could have lapped me in most any intellectual conversation about any topic outside of writing. Each was a lovable, self-proclaimed proud nerd. Each sat at the top of their classes. And each wanted to write serious material that befit their age and life experience.

I talked with each about writing resources, techniques, pitfalls and best daily habits. I talked about as many of the uncomfortable real-life obstacles as I could, trying to add the appropriate amount of spin, considering the doe-eyed stares they had when dreaming about being an author someday.

And I started each of them with one of the most useful tools I was ever taught — thank you various writing books and Beckie U. — The Hero’s Journey (or Monomyth, explained here on Wikipedia and countless other sites). Here’s where the two mentees diverged violently.

When I instructed mentee number one to create a Hero’s Journey outline she took two or three sessions and produced a fairly detailed outline any sane person would expect from a talented young student. There were a few holes and areas that might have needed some additional detail or notation. Afterwards, she began her actual writing. First line, first page, first chapter.

However, when I assigned mentee number two with the same task she did something quite remarkable. She pulled out a self-made pad of butcher paper and a slew of assorted color markers. And for the majority of the remainder of our time together, literal months, she created a Hero’s Journey of Biblical proportions. The pic to the right shows some of her extraordinary work.

I told mentee number two that, at points, I felt as though I was letting her down, not pushing her past the current task, but she assured me she very much wanted to continue on the path she was on. She had a story that needed to be realized, details to be sorted out, potential endings to be tested. She further assured me that the breaks we took — 10 minutes every hour; same rules as a write-in — covered more than enough of the non-outlining writing work she needed, that she in no way felt cheated or neglected.

I HAD shared with her right up front that the most important skills for a writer were BIC HOC TAM — butt in chair, hands on keyboard, typing away madly — and unhealthy coffee consumption. She opted for tea in place of coffee and markers on butcher paper in place of hands on keyboard, but I figured it was enough the same.

The important fact was, both mentees got a ton of different sorts of work done. And that’s the same for any writer but to a different extent. Whereas I would urge a more experienced writer away from the butcher paper, figuring it to be a distraction from real writing, there are parallels in my own experience.

I took a ridiculously long time on my story Forever By His Side. At the time and now looking back, I know I needed to suffer through more than a year on that one. My writing chops weren’t where I felt they needed to be. I needed to stick with a difficult (for me) story and see it through to completion, if only to show myself that I was truly serious about my craft and that some ideas were worth pursuing.

Bottom line is everyone is different so it stand to reason that each one of us should work differently from one another.

It’s official: Thomas McAuley is attending BizarroCon 2012

I know the blog title gives it away, but play along for a moment, my little sugar plums. Are you sitting down? Here goes…

It is official! Come mid-November I’ll be flying out to Portland, Oregon to the Edgefield Manor to attend BizarroCon 2012.

There will be readings from folks like Cameron Pierce, Carlton Mellick III and Rose OKeefe. There will be workshops and panels. But the part that I’m looking forward to most is the networking and goofing around with the wall-to-wall weirdos. Oh…and one of the weirdos is reportedly a home brewer. Knowing that, and my being a home drinker has me looking forward to the Bizarro Beer that is reported there each year.

The hotel promises to be extremely cool, too. Edgefield Manor was created as a way of helping folks out before the days of the New Deal.

From the hotel website…

At Edgefield, during its seven-decade run as a poor farm, a remarkable array of personalities congregated under its roof: sea captains, captains of industry, school teachers, ministers, musicians, loggers, nurses, home builders, homemakers, former slaves and slave owners. There were Germans, Italians, Japanese, Chinese, Native Americans, African Americans; Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Buddhist. Frankie of “Frankie and Johnny” notoriety was there. The nephew of celebrated Confederate General Stonewall Jackson surpassed age 100 while at Edgefield. The one common thread among them was, at one time (and perhaps others) in their lives, each needed a “leg up.”
The full history can be found here.

November can’t come quickly enough. However, I feel that I have a lot of reading to do before then. I want to have read as many of the folks I’ll be meeting. I know that’s not necessary, but I’m not typically good at striking up conversations and having something substantial to talk about should lessen my anxiety. Everyone, probably artists more than most, enjoys talking about his own work.

The convention tends to be small, they say — between 50 and 100 attendees, so visit http://bizarrocon.wordpress.com/ for all the information I couldn’t include and easy registration.

The mad genius of Matthew Revert

I have recently — as of the last couple of months — discovered an author who is proving to be hugely influential in my writing mind. Matthew Revert (pronounced ri – VERR) is an Australian absurdist writer (and graphic designer). He is also the author of a good number of short stories, some collected in A Million Versions of Right, as well as the novel, The Tumours Made Me Interesting. He ALSO turns out to be a pretty spot-on graphic designer as well as a blogging curator of mostly graphically interesting finds at Trash Complex.

Being a website designer, a writer and lover of the weird, I feel like I’ve found a lost cousin in discovering Mr. Revert. Of particular interest has been his sharing of a shit-gob of old Penguin paperback covers. They have proven to be an almost daily nostalgic, inspriational walk through an older, simple design mentality. One can certainly see their influence on some instances of his own cover work.
Here’s a link to the first, but do take the time to look at them all.

Finally, take a few minutes to enjoy one of his short stories, Are You Ever Going to Put Me Down?

Knowing your story OR Embrace the aha

There are a number of differences between novels and short stories. Length, being the most obvious. Chaptering, being another. But the one that has intrigued me for the last couple years is a difference not in the way they are created but in how they are consumed.

Novels are more often read a bit at a time, sometime over weeks. Short stories, however, are usually — if fact should be — read in one sitting. They are of such a length that the reader is in a single place and frame of mind in most cases. So it is the writer’s responsibility to create and maintain a single consistent trance for their reader.

This is why writers hear another difference between the novel and the short story. In a novel, once has the luxury of dawdling in detail of character, concept and place. But that disappears in a short story. Every line — every word, some would say — must point to a single, well-defined and satisfying end.

Therefore, a short story writer must truly know his story, probably well better than the novelist.

I’ve heard fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writers and seasoned pros say they regularly write and only edit for spelling and punctuation. Enviable, but probably not applicable for most writers. I believe that most writers, even many other of the seasoned ones, write their stories only to have the real story revealed to them during that writing. Then it’s off to rewrite heaven.

I would suspect that the afore-mentioned one draft writers might even be missing something by allowing themselves the one write-through. How can one incorporate the ahas that I find during my writing, the moments of inspiration that MUST be paid attention to?

During the writing of any story, I think of a connection between two story elements, a unique turn, or the strange emergence from memory of a detail that I couldn’t possibly leave out. These usually not only make the story better but make the story that I really wanted to write possible. But these unexpected finds have to be added in and that almost always takes time.

Maybe that’s the secret of the faster writers’ success. Maybe they sense these ahas, just like I do, and they have the discipline to jot them down for later or ignore them altogether, continuing with numb focus on the path they started out on. Outside (or inside) influence be damned. I’m not sure I’d feel the same about the idea later on if I ended up keeping and referring back to that jot later on. I’m not even sure I’d know how to create a story similar enough in the way necessary to incorporate it.

If you run across your own ahas, my advice would be to listen to them. You decide whether to jot them down for later or incorporate them. But whatever you do, if you decide to pass them up, let your decision be based on something other than distaste for the work or time that it would require to include them. Ultimately — and I’m sure others would argue against this, that the deadline or the output over years supersedes this — the best story you can write is the only story you should write. I get that that can easily be abused and come out, “I never write a story,” or “I’m never actually done,” etc. but be logical. Of course, you would improve upon your story every time you read through it — at some point you have to stand away, allowing yourself to be done. I’m referring to the ahas that occur during the first crafting of the story.

If you’re too many ahas are arriving early on, you need to look at the concept a little closer. You’re not really writing, you’re outlining. If you’re running into none, however, you may not be listening for them or seeing them when they knock on your door.

Picture from http://imo.thejakartapost.com