Writing

This post first appeared in Organic Coffee Haphazardly. You ought to stop by that site and meander on through the literate entries. 

 

writing

He answers the question each time he raises his pen to paper. The story came before the word. It is a rhythm, the storytelling. Each cluster of thoughts breeds opinions on where to go next. Choosing a path, he keeps the flow going. He follows his instinct not worrying about pretty. Just let it flow.

It is his addiction; stringing words together. He has been there many times feeding the craving that defies rules of prose and punctuation, yet appears from nowhere to take up residence on the page. Like a fine piece of art, this first draft is the sketch that defines the composition. It tells the rudimentary story. Countless edits later that story will be the painting he envisions. Not today. Today the story is a new idea. A colt trying to stand on spindly legs, falling but getting up again while gaining strength with each failure.

The coffee gets cold. A refill is not on the horizon for the words have control. No interruption. An element of backstory emerges as he maneuvers a character and wonders why she did that. The pen moves to the margin to jot a quick note and capture the fleeting thought, phrased in a shorthand he hopes he will remember in the weeks to come when he returns to this page. A memory causes a smile as he recalls wondering if this paper with such wide margins was going to be useful or a waste of space. He has created entire worlds in less than ten words in those margins. The depth of his characters lives there. It is a soup of partial memories and unformed plot lines that are the writer’s equivalent of biographical fiction.

Forward. The pen moves him where he needs to go. Ink flows from the nib to the paper providing a tactile feel for each letter with a sound that applauds progress. Pushed forward under his control the pen yields surprising turns. How often, when he feels he has a clear view of the story ahead, does the pen take him in a different direction? A line of site interrupted by an obstacle set there with cruel subconscious intention, reminding him that life is seldom a straight line. And the challenge of the obstacle lets him show his characters in a new light. They are as surprised as he, and that surprise finds its way into the syncopation of syllables, creating an energy of anticipation. ‘Yes,’ he thinks. That could happen, and the flow continues. Fresh and alive.

For a moment he wonders where the need to tell the story comes from. What ancient, prehistoric challenge had man faced that made storytelling a survival trait. It is nothing but constrained lies bundled together. Then he wonders if a simpleton, binary thinking computer, that is only as good as the fiction of the code that man has created for it, can be induced to create a new thought or even polish up an old one? Maybe some day they will rediscover the analog computer and find the secret to artificial intelligence. The secret of infusing a survival skill into a computer. All this in a mental flash that is more image than prose.

That is what he does. He is less a writer than a transcriber of the images that form in his mind. The stories don’t form in sentences and words. They form as high definition movies in his mind where he can rewind and fast forward instantaneously until he settles on the scene that will be transcribed. A change in dialog or location to suit his will. The will to tell a good story. It is magic and he doesn’t overthink it. He let’s the magic move him. Understanding it too deeply might ruin it for him, but that thought leads him to ponder more questions. The cycle continues and each turn of his mental crank reveals more of the story. His pen scratches more words on the page.

Writing is presentation of discovery.

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Same Sex Marriage and Information Technology

An odd combination for a blog topic, but not really.

In the world of IT the pendulum of control has found a logical resting place. For the majority of enterprises those services within the enterprise that are considered common are under the  management of a central IT department. Services like email, data center servers and storage, shared network, remote access, security, and local connectivity are examples of services that fall into that category.

Before the pervasive use of IT, each line of business was best served by doing their own thing and focusing on their own bottom line. As technology became pervasive and the enterprise recognized that information was foundational, the recognized the need to share and interconnect systems. Barriers were quickly seen in technical, process and financial areas and acceptance of common standards developed to resolve those differences and make information readily available so the lines of business could focus on generating revenue.

handshake

You see, most enterprise leadership recognizes that IT is too complex and having each line of business do their own thing is not only inefficient, it leads to high risk from a security and financial perspective. Consistent delivery of connectivity, server, storage and desktop services provide benefit to the enterprise. Even for applications that are specific to a business process, there are still basic guidelines that are followed – not using static IP addresses in code, as an example. It is all for the common good.

The millennium transition (remember Y2K?) and a need for constant security readiness have taught most enterprises that they need to accept and enforce the right level of common infrastructure and standards. Times have changed and business has adapted.

global IT

Now, think about our national infrastructure. What would it be like if Eisenhower and Congress had thought to let each state make it’s own highway decisions? We’d have varying gauges a roads and different numbers for the same streets. Yes, there is a lot of local influence and investment in the national highway system but the foundational structure and rules of operation are mandated by the central authority.

US interstate

The examples of “common good” mandates can go on for quite a while. In almost all cases there is a transition point where local authorities or lines of business are given control, but they have to play within the standards that promote the common good.

When it comes to the rights of individuals, the common good in the United States is synopsized by the first 10 amendments of our Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.

It was primarily penned by James Madison and is one of the most eloquent and simple statements of human liberty ever made into law. My favorite of those amendments is the first one, which guarantees freedom of the press, speech and religion all in one simple sentence.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

That is the entire amendment. It means that people have the freedom to practice religion in their own way without government interference. The counter is also true. The government can not force a religion onto its people (no law respecting an establishment…). This is a fundamental difference between what is civil action as expressed in law and what is moral action as expressed in individual religious belief.

Constitution and gavel

Kind of a simple construct. You may legislate civil actions but you may not legislate morality. Morality, expressed through religion, the press, and speech is an open forum, within the tolerances of civil action. Civil action is all about guardrails. Killing someone in a premeditated manner is murder and, as a society, we have decided that it is wrong. There are religions that concur with that fundamental, but it is not because of those religions that we hold it true that murder is wrong. As a society we have made that compact. Clearly, we do not agree on the consequences for murder, but we do agree that murder is wrong.

Marriage is both civil and social. We have wrapped legal fabric around an action that is a social construct so that there are basic rules that we follow in terms of licenses and dissolution. Even then, there are nuances in every state when it comes to how marriage is created or dissolved.

If the only reason for stating that gay marriage is not allowable is because of a religious cannon, then that is not defensible from a constitutional framework. The first amendment does not allow the government to make a law “respecting an establishment of religion.”

We the People

If your religion mandates that gay people can not marry, then do not allow that, but do not force your beliefs on the rest of the country. When it comes to the law of the land, you are totally allowed to follow your beliefs, but a) you must accept that other beliefs are just as valid under the law and b) you can’t ask the government to make your religious cannon into law.

I’ve tried to write a better ending to this post than the paragraph above, and anything I say beyond that seems trite or argumentative.

I often end my blogs with the wish that you run free. That, to me, is the purest expression of freedom. The freedom to move under the power of my own body and enjoy the world around me. Today I exhort you all to celebrate freedom. It can be difficult to hear what other people say, but at the end of the day, we should all be grateful that we have the freedom to say what we think.

Be Free

Four Things I Wish I had Known Before I Started Writing

You Don’t Need a Compass

When I was in fifth grade I sat at my sister’s Smith Corona typewriter and started punching out a story. It started with an accident during a Gemini spacecraft training exercise. There had been a news story about how they were training and it caught my imagination. I recognized the kernel of a story. And then I stopped. Because I didn’t know what was going to happen next.

I left the page in the typewriter and went off to do whatever a fifth grader does. My older brother happened by the short piece and read it. At dinner he said, “When are you going to finish that story. I want to know what happens.”

I shrugged. That is as far as the story went. Compost in some landfill in Pennsylvania.

compass

I give you permission to start writing without knowing where you are going.  Actually, I encourage it. Let the characters tell you where they want to go and what they think. If you let them drive the story, you’ll get a much better end result than if you start to think about how it will end. That doesn’t mean you can’t outline and plan. It means you need to listen to what is going on. Don’t force and ending or a plot shift.

In my first published book I had included some technology that I thought was cool.  It was like a Siri who did real time editing.  The book is in first person, so I thought it’d be fun to have him getting frustrated trying to get technology to work. Since it was a techno-thriller, wouldn’t the contrast be perfect?

Wrong. My first real beta reader said that whole little process sucked and diverted from the story. That was a great lesson. I had found something I wanted to include but it was not something my characters wanted or needed.  When I got rid of it, it was like moving from 720p to 1080p. The story became high def.

Jump in. Start putting words on paper and introduce yourself to the characters in your head. I virtually hang around with a lot of writers and the successful ones always talk about their characters demanding them to do certain things or surprising them with plot twists they hadn’t considered. It’s true. As a writer you need to open yourself up to the characters in your head and let them run.

Pen and Ink, Keys and Ribbons

Which brings me to input. I was lucky that my first attempt at writing was on a keyboard of a manual typewriter. I wasn’t a great typist and that keyboard forced me to think of each word, misspelled often, as the key hit the paper. That is what I know in retrospect.

Decades later I decided to give writing a novel a try. Since I liked sci-fi and was a technologist by occupation, I envisioned a space opera (I didn’t know that term at the time). On my computer with MSWord I set off crafting a story that I still love. Trouble lurked in the software. Word allows you to find many reasons not to actually write. You can delete, rearrange, format, reformat, change font, change font, change font, insert section breaks, insert page breaks, create a table of contents. You get it. I was trying to craft a final, physical version of my book in the WYSIWYG capabilities of a word processor and losing the story.

My daughter, who, as editor, had led her high school newspaper to a national award, made a comment to me one day that “using a manual typewriter is a great way to overcome writer’s block.” I didn’t have writer’s block. I had writer’s interference. But I thought I’d give it a try.

Fast forward to my post e-Bay purchases and I transitioned to a manual typewriter. I haven’t looked back.  I also use pen and paper and always have a small notebook with me. But the best rhythm I strike is when I am at the keyboard of my trusty Olympia SM9 – the ultimate in manual typing.

My Oly SM9

My Oly SM9

The beauty of hand crafting your first draft is that you can’t get diverted from the writing. Sure, you can cross out and backspace, but that it a laborious process and it is much easier to move forward. Plus, on a manual keyboard you can only type so fast. Which forces you to think of each word, and gives you just the right amount of latency to have time to think about the next sentence clicking in your mind.

pen and clairfontaine

It is your first draft. It is the draft just for you. It is strewn with crap and vile writing, but don’t worry about it. Under the covers of your lousy prose is the story that wants to come out. That story will become crystal clear and beautiful once that raw diamond is polished by the jeweler.

50 Shades of Editing

Great writing can be crippled by poor editing. Here’s a 3-star review I got for my book. It is one of the best reviews I have ever received.

This is a SIX star story. The quality of the writing easily rates FIVE stars. However, the edition I read had apparently not been copy-edited nor proof-read. This diminished the pleasure in the reading. Imagine “puisant” in place of “pissant” and “passed” for “past.” As one doesn’t love the child dressed and polished for a party any less for turning up scratched, smuged and muddy, I still look forward to more works from this master storyteller – wordsmith.

I confess. I self-edited my book and published it on my own. I did have a very expert proofreader go through it twice, but some things slipped through anyway.

editing generic

Working with a good editor is like getting involved in a BDSM relationship. There’s even a contract involved, but it isn’t like the one in 50 Shades.  It is painful, but necessary. A good editor will understand your voice and force you to make it clear. They don’t rewrite your work. They find where you need to rewrite it and help you fix it. My editor (and I do take that with a lot of personal ownership) is dSavannah George. What struck me when she and I first talked about working together was her approach. It resonated with me and has proven exactly the kind of editing I need.

So, Sav is editing my content and when she is done I am going to enlist a copy editor to proofread everything. I don’t want to have a “puisant” insert itself when I really want a “pissant.” (For that I’ll blame autocorrect.)

There is a side to self-publishing that is reflected in my multiple 5 and 4 star reviews. All of those seasoned readers looked passed the editing mistakes and loved the story. I call it the cell phone effect of indie publishing.

In the days before cell phones, our calls were exceptional. You picked up the phone connected to a land line and you got dial tone. If there was any scratchiness, you called the phone company and they fixed it. Solid quality. Cell phones taught us to accept less than exceptional quality because we got great convenience.

Traditional publishing subjected books to many edits before they hit the brick and mortar store. To find a typo was like finding a four-leaf clover (1 in 162,000). Now, I think we have grown to accept formatting and spelling issues along the way. If they stay below a certain level of obnoxiousness, then we ignore them and read on. After all, we have a queue lined up in our e-readers.

Write Where You Live

In my thirties I had this great idea I got from one of the women I dated. Her mother read a lot of romance novels and bought hundreds of them a year. That seemed like easy money to me, so I started to pen a romance novel.

Go back to the top of this post and you’ll know why it didn’t go anywhere. But there was more. I had no clue what I was writing about even though my friend gave my a typical synopsis of a successful story. I had never read a romance novel and I made no effort to understand that genre. It wasn’t in my blood.

When I took to writing in earnest, I chose areas that I felt comfortable in – sci-fi and techno fiction. That doesn’t mean I won’t extend myself into other genres or create my own – I am working on a sci-fi erotica right now. But wherever I go will be because it is something I want to write about. Something that makes me explore areas of interest and characters that are compelling.  Hell, my sci-fi might turn into a romance if that is where the characters want to take it, but I’ll put my own twist on it.

Don’t write about something because you think it is what will make you money or what will be popular or what someone else suggests you do. Write because you are compelled to tell a story.

For that matter, don’t classify you story to a genre until you are forced to in the publication and promotional phase. Just let it rip, then rip it up and make it better. What I am really asking you to do is not judge yourself before you even put pen to paper. Don’t think of your story as being in a class of stories. Think of it as a story that needs telling and you are the best person in the world to tell it.

Because you are. One word at a time,

As always, I would love to hear from you and get your comments.

Remember. Run free. Run easy.

Three Problems With Being Funny

The original version of this post appeared in Organic Coffee, Haphazardly, a forum for creative use of words and interesting minds.  Many thanks to Allie Burke and the staff at OCH for extending the platform and hospitality to me. Please, drop on over, read some  interesting work and let them know I sent you. I get bonus miles on Merriam-Webster for each referral.

Three Problems With Being Funny

In fifth grade a classmate ratted on me to our teacher, Mrs. Bashore. It was near the end of the year and we were called out of the room for some special thing I can’t remember. Probably a health lecture. When we came back to the room Mrs. Bashore asked if all was well. That’s when I got turned in.

“Jerry talked out loud,” the squealer squealed.

There was a silence. Mrs. Bashore looked at me and said, “Well, he’ll be someone else’s problem next year.”

1) Being funny is disruptive

Problem?

I was in fifth grade just being my expressive self. As a 10-year-old boy, I didn’t quite have the self-control to not say whatever popped into my mind. In today’s world I’d be diagnosed with ADHD and given happy pills. Or, actually, mild speed. We didn’t even know about sugar or gluten and it was well ahead of GMO.

Listen, I am only trying to make a point, not garner sympathy. Well, not much. I had problems. We all do. I was the shortest kid in class and an introvert who talked out loud. I didn’t want attention (which is what some must have thought). I wanted to say the funny thing in my head.

if-thought-bubbles-appeared-above-my-head-id-be-screwed-92b5b

I am well trained in quippery. That is the art of quipping and a word I made it up. Quipping is the act of taking any comment, turning and twisting its context until humor is rendered from its linguistic bones. That twisting, when spoken out loud, interjects itself into the stream of thought of those listening. It provides an alternate take on something just cognized, acting, therefore, as a disruptive influence.

Not every comment can easily be augmented with a quip, but there are enough opportunities everyday that I guess you could be considered disruptive if you took advantage of enough of them. Which I did. I think. It might be that my affliction with quipping is a kind of Tourette syndrome for humor.

I came by quippery honestly. My family did it all the time, especially at dinner. The ability to make a funny comment was laughed at, encouraging even more funny comments. What wasn’t understood was that I lacked that cluster of grey matter and nerve endings that gave some form of control.

I still interrupt people a lot. Which annoys the shit out of my wife. It’s not on purpose. The thought jumps in and I say it.

2) Funny Doesn’t Mean Clown

I was never the class clown. Clowns need attention, like a Kardashian. I have been an introvert as long as I can remember. My outbursts were not calls for attention. For me it was about the alternate way you could say something to shift the context and create a humorous meaning. I am not well polished at telling jokes, but I can slip a quip with ease and grace.

I guess the force of my creativity found the path of least resistance – my mouth. My satisfaction was found in expressing the alternate view of things more than it was in getting laughs.

Being a comedian is hard. I don’t tell jokes well, although I do have some practiced funny ones that I can pull out as needed. Comedians write and practice jokes all the time. They are like musicians working on timing and changing words and phrasing to make the joke hit home. For them it is a performance. They get on stage, all eyes on them and they give their humor in a way that makes it feel like a conversation even though they have done it a thousand times before.

george carlin

I am funny because I am quick to see an opening into a different reality. I jump in and take advantage of the moment and watch the recognition of “funny” blossom in other people’s eyes. A quip is short lived. It can be repeated in a different context, but once it happens it is gone like breath on a mirror.

You can’t quip without sexual innuendo. Maybe you can, but if you avoid sexual innuendo, you are missing an entire category of quips. I loved the people I worked with in my first real job out of college. We were part of a sales organization and my kind of sexually laden quip was well accepted. One of the women I worked with had a waiver from sexual harassment thumbtacked above her desk. It was all good natured fun. It is way to serious today, so the workplace is off limits.

That leads me to the final challenge in being funny.

3) Being on the Watch

There is a constant vigilance that comes with being a compulsive quipper. After years of practice, it becomes second nature. It’s all about context.

Two things make quips funny. First, a quip works in a moment with a short decay, as mentioned. If you miss the cycle of conversation when the quippable comment is made, than you’ve lost the opportunity. You can’t rewind and throw it out. That isn’t funny. The best you can do is log that funny comment for some future use and have it at the ready. You have to identify the trigger that would make it usable and wait for it to happen.

Second, quips are all about context. Context has multiple meanings and shadings. It is why quipping takes practice. And the willingness to deal with failure.

context clues

I was in a fraternity in college. We would invite a sorority over for a nice dinner once in a while. During one such dinner I made a couple of my typical comments and was put up for auction at the end of the dinner. Auction meant that I would have to do the winning brother’s house chores for a week. At the start of the auction the house president noted my dual offense by saying, “Gentry’s up twice.”

My immediate response was, “That’s what she said.”

Once the laughter subsided, I was absolved of any obligation to do chores. Several of the sorority sisters sought me out to say hello later. When your mind works like mine it is always a crap shoot. It could have easily turned the opposite way, but I read the endorphin rating of the room correctly and felt free to take the chance.

Had we had parents at that dinner, I would not have made any comments to be put on auction. By college the cerebral cortex or whatever part of my brain is engaged in making quips had matured enough to give me some sense of control. I would have understood the context and kept my funny thoughts to myself.

On the other hand, when we did have our first parent dinner of the year I did manage one comment. I was sitting with my dad at the corner table. After dinner we were asked to introduce ourselves and I was the first. I said my name and where I was from while seated. The president instructed me, “Please, stand up.”

“I am,” was my response. Laughter and light heartedness resulted and I felt good. I stood and waved. My dad laughed because I caught that sense of humor from him.

And that leads me to the governing principle of good quipping. The result of my family inspired and coached quipping was learning intelligent humor. Well, the comments are stupid, but intelligent because they do not belittle other people in order to be funny. They are funnier because they require some thought.

I am glad I grew up in a conversational household. With social media you can’t always tell a quip from abuse. Not without an emoticon.

I have a friend who is a paranoid schizophrenic and sometimes hears voices. After a recent post siting the book being read, my first thought was to post a comment asking what the other people in their head were reading. I didn’t.

My friend is confident enough that I would have gotten a chuckle and a friendly “fuck off.” I was worried about the people I didn’t know who might not have understood my compulsive humor or that I was, indeed, joking. The main exception to the principle of not belittling other people is being able to gently poke at people you know. Never with malice. Always with respect.

Here’s what I do know. The mental athletics that my life as a quipper have put me through have made me very creative in a disciplined way. That creativity bleeds through to all aspects of my life. As the CEO of a consulting firm I used to work for commented, “You sit quietly and listen and observe, then you come up with a flash of brilliant insight..”

You see, I can be quiet. It just took me a few decades.

DilbertContext

A Conspiracy of Women

Something sinister is afoot.

I feel compelled to warn my fellow men. And I mean men, since women are already conspiring. Let me deconstruct that thought.

As men we are quite comfortable with seeing and understanding conspiracy, usually, in video games, politics and between cubicles in our offices. We do not have the genetic code to recognize conspiratorial activities among women. Mostly because we are interested in having sex with them, so our depth of thought regarding their actions mostly stops at whether or not we are going to get laid.

The conspiratorial hand was tipped by a friend of mine, @allieburkebooks. She is the queen of selfies and quite a wordcrafter.

allie

proxy

Anyway, a post of hers almost slipped by my unnoticed. If it hadn’t been for the narcotic effect of the oxycodone I was on because of my hip surgery I might not have become aware of these machinations. In her post Allie commented how thankful she was for all the strong and supportive women she had connected with. In my state, I was able to see what this really meant. There was a conspiracy of women. Somehow they had deformed social media to make alliances and tender support across the ether to share stories of success and offer consolation and advice to each other.

Once I unmasked this dastardly endeavor I began to see it everywhere. Following the trail left by Allie led me to a nexus of activity. I saw this woman frequently on social media and it surprised me that I could have missed all the signs. So clever of her to hide in plain sight. Among her many virtual personas the one I first encountered was @RachelintheOC.

rachelintheoc

 

Sure, she looks innocent enough and professes to be a social media expert, but her real intention is to use her multiple personas to align women of all makes and models in such a way that they feel good about themselves and gain a sense of power through self worth. So devious. So blatant.  I was so upset when I realized her true intentions. I mean, at one time she gave me sage advice on how to improve my online presence. Of course, I ignored it because, well, I’m a man and following advice wasn’t going to get me laid. It is kinda like asking me to read a map.

Through the clarity instilled by the opiates in my blood I saw that she was helping women to help themselves. Even covering her tracks by throwing occasional assistance to men. She started discussions and threads to help women understand their emotional states and face their inner fears and uncertainties. And encouraging women to be honest about those emotional things that we men spend 28% or our caloric energy on keeping bottled up. I saw her influence on the young and impressionable mind of Allie Burke. She is helping create a generation who know what they want and are content to help each other find ways to be happy in their own skin.

I was so devastated that I decided to ignore it and do something I liked instead. That was running. Since I was having hip issues, I couldn’t actually run, so I went to my running magazine, Runner’s World, to find solace. To my surprise I saw an announcement that they were creating a new ezine, called Zelle, about running. Except is was running for women with a focus on how the activity helps build personal strength. The subterfuge continues. This time the instigator is @EJComeau.  Don’t let the cute dimples fool you. She is dedicated to promoting the conspiracy and showing any who care to listen how running can improve the quality of life in many ways.

ejcomeau

These women only marginally care about times, pace and distance. Many are accomplished, world class runners, but most are just normal – whatever that is.

In anguish I slipped into Twitter again and tried to find a twitter crush to waste time and develop hormonal alignment with. Instead, I found other women who were doing more than just running to find their inner strength. Sure, there were some like @SheRunsforLove who uses running to develop strength beyond the purely physical.

sherunsforlove

Then the is @muscleboundmama and a host of other women who pump iron. I mean serious iron. They don’t glisten, they fucking sweat when they workout. Furthermore, she coaches on fitness. Do you know what that means? She is helping other people become self-confident. Men and Women.  muscleboundmama

Here’s the deal. When you ask them for help or input, they just give it to you. I mean, I tested it by throwing our some questions and I got honest, heartfelt responses. Not the wiseass, half assed, intellectualized, palp that I was expecting.

It is diabolical!

My head reeled. The conspiracy was all around me and there was nothing I could do. It was revealed. All out in the open and I was powerless to stop it. I had but one option left.

I grabbed a beer and turned on Netflix to watch a marathon of Arrow because the IT chic, Felicity, is pretty hot.

Felicity

 

POST SCRIPT:

Just in case someone doesn’t get my sense of humor, all of the women mentioned in this post (sans Felicity) are real and are friends of mine. They are amazing, strong and smart in their own individual ways and I am graced to know them.

The Body of Writing

You won’t find blogs from me with the “N things you need to do to be a successful writer.” Frankly, there are a lot of people out there giving advise on how best to succeed as a writer so my voice would just be lost in the din. The best  advise I ever got was from Stephen King in his book “On Writing.” In that tome he dispelled some misbeliefs I had held and which had kept me from writing for decades.

Up until then I thought you had to have a fully formed plot in your head to be able to start a book. As I read other books I’d often wonder how authors thought of all the plot twists before they started to write.  I tried outlining and found that I was not built to construct that way. After each little attempt I would put it aside and let the idea simmer on a back burner.

At one point I decided to try writing the kind of literature people were buying. Romance novels! I had a friend who was an avid romance novel reader and she told me what made a good romance.  I attempted a few starts because at least I had a plot strategy. (Sorry, I can’t remember what it was. That notebook is decomposing in a dump in Arizona.) I did learn that I was not up to writing that style of book. I couldn’t even get out of the starting gate. I hadn’t read any romance novels, so it was not territory I could navigate. Reading is the foundation for writing. I didn’t really understand that, but have always been an avid reader.

Years later, when I read the King semi-biographical tutorial, everything changed. He recommended a very simple mantra. “Just fucking write.” Stephen freed me from the deception I had. He explained that he seldom knew where his books would go, he would just come up with the premise, start the story and let things get mixed together and develop as he went. It was as much a surprise to him as it would be to his readers.

So I decided to make my start and reinforced the effort by buying a fountain pen and a nice notebook. That was just something I wanted to do. Little did I know that creative first draft writing is all about using a pen or typewriter. A manual, tactile connection to each word.

Words on the page

Words on the page

Computers are fantastic. I love my MAC. But my first drafts are almost entirely written in ink or typed on a page.  I learned the difference between a first draft and an edited draft from King, too. That was the second liberating idea. Kind of a corollary to the first.  “Just fucking write and don’t look back.”  Get all the rambling thoughts and ideas out on paper first and don’t stop the stream of thought by trying to fix things that will obviously need to be fixed. There is no delete key on my fountain pen. Yes I do cross things out and make little notes, but I move forward with each touch of the nib to the paper or the key to the ribbon.

My #1 Olympia SM9

My #1 Olympia SM9

It might be that I am just a physical person, but this works for me. My sister, who is an expert typist and has immaculate penmanship, thinks I am funny. She was a professional secretary and she types faster than a manual typewriter can sustain. That little delay in putting the words to the paper makes me have to think of the word I am committing to. It makes me have to phrase the sentence and feel the rhythm of the writing. Good typing is all about keeping a smooth rhythm.

I got rhythm and off I went. At first by hand and later by keystroke, six-hundred pages later I had created my first novel.  It is entitled “A Bend in Space” and is still nicely tucked in my filing space awaiting my deft hand in reforming it into something that people would like to read. I like the concept and the plot but it needs work. I have learned a lot since then and need to go back and apply that learning. The beauty of it is that I have all my original writing to reference. Every moment of brilliance that leaked from my pen and every WTF-did-I-mean sentence that seemed necessary at the time. Nothing deleted.

By the time I started my second book, SYN-FIN, I was no longer afraid to just start attacking with words. In a nice bar in Santa Clara after a Cisco Users Group meeting I had a beer and began writing this image that started to form in my mind. For me writing is about how I describe the movie that is unfolding in my mind. Here’s the image:

Hungover, face down on the crushed granite of the Arizona desert, the early morning sun warmed the skin on the back of my neck.

frontcover

I loved the start. It still makes me smile, and that is all any writer can ask. Write what you like and about what is interesting to you and it will come off in the words you choose and the phrasing you make.

I guess I did come up with a list. You see what happens when you just start and let the words take you along?  This is what happened just now:

  1. Read.  Read a lot. Read often. Read good and bad and every genre you can stand.
  2. Just fucking write. It will get better.
  3. Don’t look back. Save editing and self doubt for the second draft.
  4. Don’t write to an audience. Write what you like. The audience will find you.
  5. Write anywhere and everywhere at any time.

Photo Nov 07, 5 15 18 PM

Sometimes, if I stop for a refreshment while waiting for a train, I’ll start putting words on paper. At home I have a writing area. Here’s my desk. I show it because it means you can pretty much write anywhere. I need to clean it up a bit, but it represents the history of writing because there is pen and paper, a manual typewriter (actually, several) and two laptop computers (MAC and Windows). And coffee. Coffee is important.

Photo Nov 18, 8 59 04 AM (1)

This is where I go word surfing. I like that term. Does that mean I have to wear a bathing suit when I write? Hmmm.

Want to be a writer? It’s all up to you. There really aren’t any rules. Go and discover your own and then publish a blog with a list of what you found. Feel free to use any of mine.

Run Free

Parallels

I don’t know why, but I often find parallels between two or more unrelated concepts.  Some call it peculiar, but I call it a gift.  During an early morning cup of coffee, as I sat down with my Aurora fountain pen and a clean sheet of paper, it hit me that there are several parallels between writing and working out.  Since I am an avid runner and cyclist as well as an author (SYN:FIN) I was surprised it had taken me so long to see the relationship. Let’s take a look at the parallels.

Passion

To get good at either writing or a sport requires you have a burning desire in your gut.  The kind of desire that gets you out on the road or sitting with a writing device to ply your craft.  It isn’t a one time effort, either.  Writing and running are lifetime commitments to me.  I may finish running a race (jlgrunr.com) or complete writing a novel, but I know those are just milestones along the way.  There is more to come and, if you have passion, you relish the idea of what’s ahead.

Discipline

An emotional draw is only the calling card.  To be successful and grow requires discipline.  As a writer, if you sit and start throwing words out you may feel fulfilled, but are you creating something of value that is truly the best you can do?  As a runner or cyclist, if you go out on the road and cover the same track every time are you really gaining anything?

A long time ago I made an attempt to race bicycles.  It was a great learning experience, which led me to improving my riding, even though I never attained much in terms of racing accomplishments.  Early on, I went out with some experienced racers on a training ride and got dropped.  Twice.  Tucking my tail between my legs, I pedaled back to the bike shop on my red Pinarello racing machine and talked to the team manager.  After hearing that my training consisted of putting on miles by just riding progressively longer routes around town he told me “You aren’t going to get there by doing what your’re doing.” Those miles were like empty calories.

What he prescribed was a different approach.  One that actually had fewer miles with a more focused effort.  It made a world of difference.

A Mixed Regimen

For the last several years I have been working on novels.  My normal writing time in the morning is either writing or editing those works.  That has been a bit of a mistake. It has been through some discussions with other writers on Twitter and Facebook that made me realize the error of that approach.

In running, I learned that I need to do diverse efforts to really improve.  The past 7 months have been a little different for my running since I am converting to a minimalist style of running.  That has had me going back to square one in terms of form and mileage.  It also had me re-gearing my training program.  In order to get the most advantage out of low mileage, I did several runs during the week that focused on hills and hill repeats (yes, running up and down the same hill several times in a row).  Other times I slowed my pace and went for longer distance or just went out and had fun.

In writing, I am now taking that same approach.  I started to write some short stories, a craft that I have a growing respect for.  Those shorts are in genres that I don’t normally write in.  I penned some erotica or YA fantasy (I’m not combining the two!). I haven’t tried poetry or a screenplay, but they are goals.  Hell, practice writing book blurbs or new copy for advertisement.  It all applies

As a runner, I have found growth and strength come from changing the level of intensity and the terrain on which I run.  In finding that strength, I have confidence to push myself further and harder.  You know what?  Each time I go to a new limit I discover I have a lot more I can do.

The same with writing.  Just in the few weeks that I have started to vary my writing challenges, I am discovering that I can pen my main WIP with more focus and clarity.  So go after it.  Try something new and totally fail at it.  You’ll never get success until you blow up.  Jump into a Flash Fiction challenge and see how bad you can write in 15 minutes.  Accept a wordmongering challenge from someone, or even throw one out there.  I did that a few days ago for the first time and added over 400 words to a blog post I had been putting off.

Structure

I am not a creature of habit, but I am one of structure. Seldom do I do the same thing exactly the same way.  I have a flexible plan now for my writing, the same way I do for my running.  In transitioning my style of running I knew I had to establish some limits on a weekly and monthly basis.  To go too fast too soon would lead to injury and a much longer transition.  It takes a while to develop the muscles and form.

For writing, I gave myself some targets in terms of words and also made a commitment to try a different style sometime during the week.  I knew that by the end of the week I wanted to have achieved some goals, but exactly how and when I got them was more spontaneous.

Focus on Form

As I said, my early running transition focused on short runs following good form.  If you haven’t tried a new genre, then take it slow.  Don’t worry about word count, worry about quality.  Make sure that even if you write only one sentence, that it is a good sentence. A poet friend of mine (Eclipsing Winter) enters contests and writes in forms that she is unfamiliar with. Not everything works, but I have admiration for the way she exercises her poetic muscle.

I do suggest that you don’t delete, just start a new line and keep the mistakes for reference.  Once you start to get the form down, you can go longer, faster and with more ease.

My initial focus on minimalist running was becoming more “barefoot” aware.  I did a portion of the runs barefoot (it was November and December in New England, so it was a challenge!) because barefoot on the pavement gave the most immediate and effective feedback on form.  If you run wrong barefoot, you feel it immediately.  As the form became engrained, I ran longer distances and less time barefoot.

Outside Your Comfort

As part of the development, you need some stretch goals.  In running, I plan for a run or a race that is more than I’ve ever done or a faster time than I’ve ever done or a more challenging course.  There are many ways to vary the effort to make the stretch goal something that will make you reach further than you think you can.

In writing, your comfort zone might be more than just trying a new genre.  It might be having a different peer review.  Don’t give your work to friends and other supportive writers all the time.  Find someone who you respect but have had little interface with and ask them to review.  Develop that thick skin that will breed confidence in your prose or poetry.  Put yourself out there and welcome the feedback.  Post a sample to your blog and invite people to tear it apart, but be sure to ask them why they don’t like it or where it fell short.  You want constructive feedback.  Ignore the pissants.

Forward Motion

I want to encourage you to keep moving forward.  Another virtual friend of mine (Marissa) has been challenging herself for fitness and improving her self perception.  It has been an up and down roller coaster to witness, but the one thing I see her doing is moving forward.  Any step backward is followed by a couple of steps forward. She makes mistakes, but who doesn’t.

Just as in running, there will be setbacks.  Early in my transition I went out and ran a lot more than I should have.  For two weeks I had massive pain in my calves and it set my transition back about a month or so.  That said, I had capped any individual run at about 10 miles the last few months and was still nursing some achilles tendon sensitivity when I signed up for a Half Marathon.  I ran that last weekend and pushed past the limit I had set.  At home after the race with lots of leg pain I wondered if I was back in the same boat.  But, two days later I had no pain, did several runs, including a 9 miler yesterday, and have reached a new level of readiness in how I feel.

There are times when you have to say, “fuck it”, and go past the limit.  You need the base before you do, but when you have the base, don’t hold yourself back.

Rest

I closing, I want you to recognize that rest is as important as effort.  Yep, the key to development is to find the right space to rest.  In running, it is pretty common to have a rest day where you do much lighter workouts or a different type of exercise to let you leg muscles recover after a hard effort.

In writing, take some time away from the keyboard (or paper) and spend a day reading, but think like an editor.  What would you do differently?  How would you improve the plot or characters?  What has the author done well and why did it work?  You can also watch a movie and think like a screenplay editor, always keeping a critical eye on how to make the work better.  Believe me, it will improve your work.

So there you have it.  I have had the pleasure and good fortune of virtually hooking up with a lot of authors in a forum that I love.  Some are newbie and some very successful.  What I have found is that the ones who keep moving forward are the ones who challenge themselves in lots of different ways.  They build a discipline around that challenge and then work toward the goal.

Don’t stop writing, but don’t just write.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Please, post those comments.  It is all part of that feedback loop!