Monthly Archives: March 2009

Taking Notes … or not.

wyatt_if_only In my friend Jerry’s blog he talks about taking a notebook with him to write down inspiration. Humorously he mentions taking a pen next time. It made me think about some of my own efforts to record inspiration so I don’t lose it. It has, for me, often been a losing battle, and yet I still find much of my inspirations coming out in my writing as if by magic. I’m pretty sure that much is lost however.

I tend to lose notebooks and pens. I have, on numerous occasions, pledged to carry one with me. I have nearly a whole box full of journals, dream journals, and notebooks where only the first few pages have been written on. All of these were started with the intention of keeping notes for inspiration and practicing my writing. They all ended up in the slush pile of Wyatt’s lost and lonely things. My next plan was equally short-lived: I bought one of those little tape recorders so I could speak into it. Two problems came out of that one: I lost it, and I never transcribed the notes I did take.

I have been told over and over again to keep lists and take notes. I lose my lists or forget to take them with me. I have had some better success with notes for projects I’m working on, but eventually those notes, too, get lost and every time I start a new project it’s like starting from scratch. The only thing that saves me is the computer and not a laptop either. I’m talking about my big old honking pc. I can’t lose it because I can’t move it. Which reminds me I did see a guy bring his pc, monitor, and the whole kit and kaboodle to an internet café a few weeks back. That’s determination for you. Anyway back to me. When it comes to my computer I always know where it is. I can keep track of the notes I keep for myself in their little folders (search if I lose them), and suddenly a whole new world of organization was opened to me.

But what happens when I’m driving in my car or walking through the woods and an idea strikes me? Generally, if it’s any good, I try thinking about it a lot, repeating the words in my mind, and then I hope like hell it’s still floating around in my skull when I get back from my trip so I can jump on the computer and write it. More often than not I forget before I get home, or I have something else to do before I log onto the computer. Actually even the act of firing my programs can lose it for me as I start to read email, read tweets, or begin a discussion with someone online at my community site Pan Historia.

So what do you do to keep track of your inspirations and ideas? What works for you and what have you tried that didn’t work?

The Internet is Killing Your Brain

brains2Casually my son informed me that as a species we were breeding out the redhead and soon they would be no more. I assume he meant because of the melting pot that is the portion of humanity that the Westerner is privileged to be part of rather than the rest of the world that still has its pretty sharp ethnic and cultural divides. Sweeping statements are pretty popular with people as a whole, as are the latest pet theories on what is wrong with us, or what is bad for us.

Cell phones are going to give us all cancer and the internet is killing our social skills. I have read a number of dire predictions, mostly targeting Facebook (because it has gone completely main stream and you can even find your Granny on it now), that we will lose our ability to socialize face to face. The rise of socially inept geeks is all due to the internet. Yes. That’s you reading this. Right now your brain is rotting and your social skills are ebbing away with each click of your mouse.

I’m here to say: Balderdash.

Yet again it’s a bunch of eggheads blaming the symptoms for the malady. The majority of us are using the internet as a useful tool. Even those of us, like me, that find themselves online for a great deal of time every day, aren’t necessarily losing track of our real lives. We still have spouses, kids, birthday parties, and game nights, trips to the beach, hikes, and a myriad of other activities. It’s a relief to get up from the computer and head out to the garden and get my hands dirty in soil.

The problem is serious and it’s out there, however, but it’s not the internet’s fault. That’s another case of saying guns kill people rather than people kill people. Kids and social loners spending all their time online and losing track of reality is a problem with their home life, and society at large. It’s easier and easier for people to feel isolated and removed from other people in our mega-malls and sprawling urban or suburban areas where we emphasize commercialism as the true god of our society. The fact that our TV sucks and the shows are often crude, crass, and mindless banal is a symptom too – not the source. Our media reflects us, not the other way around.

The problems in our society are so deep and pervasive that I can’t address them in a short blog, nor do I have the expertise to suggest the answers. All I can say is that when someone suggests a social networking site is bad for you ask yourself the question: do I spend too much time online at the expense of friends and family? If the answer is yes don’t blame your computer. The answer does not lie in your Ethernet cable. There are other issues at stake.

A Fire in the Belly

I have often been accused of being ‘too hard on myself’. I’m the first to admit that I like to set the bar high. I even set it so higher than it is possible to achieve – when it comes to art and fiction. In writing this blog my advice has often verged on aggressiveness in regard to my stance on what writers should do. In other words I tell them to write. No matter what just write. A few people have taken me to task for this. It’s true – not everyone has room in their life to take as much time out for writing as I do now, or enough time to get into the studio and paint, or sculpt, or whatever is they do, but that is because they have set other things as higher priorities.

When I was a single parent of a kid under the age of his majority I had to set a couple things as higher priorities than my writing or art. I had to make sure he had a roof over his head, food on the table, a good school nearby, and a pair of the right shoes to fit in with his peers. This often meant some sacrifices. Back when he was quite small I decided to become a painter. At times I was able to indulge myself, but when times got harder I had to cut back to the point that I didn’t have a studio to paint in. For me to do oil paintings meant that if I didn’t have a studio I didn’t tend to paint. I find landlords tend to keep your security deposit when you have ruined the walls and floor with paint and solvents (I’m a messy kind of painter). Oil paints and canvases are expensive. Their acquisition interfered with buying food and paying rent. Working freelance for a time meant that I found myself with less time as well. This was okay – because my priority had to be the young life I was responsible for. That didn’t take away my urge to create though. I found a way to do both.

I found myself on the computer a lot. This is when I began to write more earnestly. When I first started it was definitely only an outlet for my frustrated artist-self. Gradually, however, I found it was something that I could manage as a single parent and sole support of my difficult offspring. Collaborative writing, in particular, was suited because I could write in small chunks when time afforded, which was between work deadlines or when unmanageable demon-spawn offspring was finally restive (passed out or zoned in to his then obsession with Wrestlemania).

As I began to learn the craft of writing, I was beating myself up a lot over not painting. How could I call myself an artist if I didn’t do the one thing that qualified me as an artist, i.e. make art? I still wrestle with this problem since I have found that my inspiration for painting is either on or it is off. I don’t dabble. As a writer I have shown far more consistency. It fits in with my life style better. I can find room for it in my day. I can get up an hour earlier or stay up an hour later. It’s true I haven’t written the novel that I planned so many years ago, but I have maintained a pretty decent writing schedule for years now. Now the child is grown and I can change my priorities back to the creative life so it’s even easier than before to justify the time, but that doesn’t mean other things don’t get in the way. I just have to remember to move them back out of my way again.

Setting the bar high is my way of keeping a fire in my belly and a goad at my back. I don’t beat myself up for not achieving my goals; I beat myself up for not trying to achieve my goals. So again I say to you: you want to be a writer? Find the time to write. Even if you have to take a notepad to the crapper and lock the door, write. It’s just that simple.

But don’t forget to live – yesterday I spent the day at the beach combing for interesting stones – because you have to write about what you know.

Warming Up

The lure of good soil...

The lure of good soil...

If you follow my blog regularly you know that I recently moved. Life has radically altered, and yet… it must, by the nature of what I do, remain the same. I still need to get up in the morning, log onto my computer and begin my day. Besides any paycheck job I might eventually get I brought my work with me when I moved. I still need to work on my community site Pan Historia, I still need to work for any clients I get online, and I still need to be a writer. The challenge is fitting in the old into the new without losing why I came west in the first place.

There have been a lot of disruptions to my writing and Pan schedule. It’s been harder for me to find the time to do my fiction writing, or to write for my blog. New family obligations have popped up – and then there is the draw of the outside. Back east so much of the year was spent in cold, sleet, snow, ice, and wind that I had little temptation to unseat myself from my writing and take up other activities. Even in the summer I was rarely moved because I dislike humidity and New England summers are often very humid. I can’t even image what it’s like down south so don’t start with me.

The upshot is that it is very easy to get up from my computer and to take myself outside (which I wanted in my life, a big part of why I moved in the first place), and very hard to get back into my routine which I need to keep as well. It’s my writing that has suffered the most. While I have not completely succumbed to writing inertia I have only completed three posts for my collaborative fiction stories at Pan since moving into my new place, thus my stories are languishing. It’s not easy for my fellow writers to work around me. My blog has also suffered. Not being in the full flow of writing and thinking about writing means that I have fewer ideas for my blog. I hate to just write for the hell of it. Yet, here I am.

The purpose of this blog post (for me) functions just the same as warming up before an athletic event. Even though the sun is shining on my garden right now, even though the guest bed needs folding up and putting away, even though there are still boxes to unpack and sort and decide what goes back into storage, I am going to write. Even if I have to work later into the night to meet my deadline for my client, Bardic Web, I am going to write.

The lesson in all this for any writer is that no matter what you need to make time in your life to write. It doesn’t matter if you love the outdoors, or if you are on a job search, or if you are a single parent (I know of what I speak) you have to make that time and keep to it. It may not be as much time as ideal, but make it regular and make it priority.

There. Now I have warmed up my fingers a little bit. It’s time to go slip into the skin of a man who has endured natural disaster and a nuclear holocaust and is now living under a bitter sky.

Don’t Lose It in the Details

Reading some sound advice in another blog about getting the details right caused me to think about those things in your writing that can rip your reader right out of the reality you’re trying to create for them.

I remember, as a kid and inelegant teen, how I would often bring my author parent a sample of my latest creation. I was eager for praise and generally disappointed in my expectations. My parents were never like that, regardless of the occasion. I had to earn my praise. Every time I turned in a short story or a poem it was subject to a scathing critique which always began with comments about the grammar and structure.

“But the idea… do you like the idea?”

After a while I stopped bringing my little mangled mouse offerings of juvenile writing to leave on the parental doorstep. My ego had been wounded too many times. For a number of years I didn’t even write – why bother?

Now I’m here to tell you that all those little comments that drive you crazy when you ask for critiques are necessary. Bad grammar and structure will thwart your readers. Typos will exasperate them. Getting details wrong will wrench them from your world. If a sentence doesn’t agree with itself or you forget to tell the reader who is talking you will lose their focus. Do your research. Nothing irritates readers and fans so much as a faulty detail.

You think I kid? I would have LOVED the movie 3:10 to Yuma only the movie makers insulted my intelligence and the intelligence of everyone that had ever gone to Bisbee, Arizona. In the movie they went for the old spaghetti western trope of the windswept and isolated dusty town in the middle of a flat bleak nowhere whereas Bisbee is built in a wooded gulch with crazy steep streets and houses clinging to the mountainside. All they had to do is name the town something else and I would have been happy. Because they called it Bisbee I was annoyed and then angry. It broke the spell. The movie became a mere movie.

A lot of things can destroy the illusion you are seeking to create when you write so pay attention to the little things, to make sure your sentence makes sense, to those stupid typos that creep in everywhere (he grabbed her by the waste is disgusting and will break the mood), to the details that reveal you know what you are talking about or you simply don’t. When you are the author, you are the authority, so don’t lose it in the details.

Eating Cheeze Whiz While You Do Your Nails and Other Character Quirks

Real people have quirks. I recently heard a story about a girl that was a nail artist with inch long fake nails and sprayed on designs that was also totally obsessed with the American flag and Cheeze Wiz. They say you can’t make this stuff up – but you can. Writing believable characters might require you to start grabbing all these crazy anecdotes you’ve heard, filing them away, to bring out later and mix and match in your writing. One of my latest collectibles is about a woman that picked the lock when her guest was taking a shower because she thought someone left the water running.

I recently visited the house of someone that decorated their house with a combination of naive art and antiques, while feeding all of the neighborhood stray cats. They spent a fortune on cat food for animals they didn’t own and couldn’t pet. Or the wonderfully casual comment from the rich guy who has a huge house with multiple bedrooms, swimming pool, and a crew of migrant labor to clean his grounds and when you describe your 650 square feet of living space says “oh that’s plenty big enough for two, what more do you need?”

If you want to be a writer you have to start to develop a strong streak of curiosity, a certain amount of objectivity (i.e. be amused by the comment by the rich guy and file it for later instead of popping him in the face), and a good memory – or a good filing system. Remember to avoid clichés. One person might like to bathe every day and moisturize their skin twice a day while another person might forego bathing for days yet they both are obsessed about beauty and aging. Pick the set of character traits that serves your character best, and preferably the one that is less common if it works. The important thing to remember, regardless of the well-worn adage that “fact is more unbelievable than fiction” is that if you can think of it it’s probably true somewhere so just write it with conviction and you’ll bring your readers with you.

Speaking of aging: older characters tend not to be as popular with collaborative fiction writers. Very often writers go for the young and physically perfect. It’s good to remember that young people simply don’t have as much life experience or cumulative time to pick up wonderful idiosyncrasies as older characters (though my example of the nail artist was a young woman). Older characters can provide a level of depth to your writing that might be lacking from your typical young and nubile. Adding just ten years to a character’s age can result in greater opportunities for peeling back the layers of your character’s personality to keep the reader engaged.

A character doesn’t have to be likeable but they do have to be fascinating to keep a reader’s interest.

Book Breeding

A weird thing has happened to me. In the course of my new move, for reasons outside of my control, all of my books are now in a storage unit, packed at the back behind furniture and other assorted heavy objects. I will need, at some point, to break into this unit, with its similarity to King Tutankhamen’s tomb before it got cleared out, in order to access my copious western research as well as my all important computer techie library.

For the time being, though, I’m stuck in this weird bookless limbo that is both strangely compelling and disturbingly empty. It may cause me to succumb to the allure of the Kindle 2 or the Sony Reader that much sooner (though part of me just wants to hold out for my iPhone when my current phone contract ends). Meanwhile I have four books. I have The Audacity of Hope by our current President, two new westerns I picked up at Borders (new to me, not new to publishing – both are classics), and a western mystery, part of the Holmes on the Range series.

It’s kind of like one of those dreams where you arrive at school and you realize you forgot to get dressed that morning and now you’re in front of all your classmates completely naked. I’m not sure why being bookless feels that way, but it does. It’s both terrifying and liberating at the same time. I never intend to stop reading. I love books. I enjoy literature. I adore historical research through diverse periods. I want my art books so I can peruse the best the world has to offer right from the comfort of my own home.

But, good Galactic Bill and the Stainless Steel Rat, books are heavy sons of bitches. They weigh a ton, fill up many cartons, and then line your walls, demanding acres of bookcases (which also have to be carried). Perhaps if I was a naturally sedentary beast and never moved an inch but settled in one place, rooted like a tree (and not a tumbleweed), it wouldn’t be an issue, but I don’t see my tumbling throttling down just yet. The current apartment is a dream come true, but not an everlasting dream of contentment and retirement.

My bet is that, no matter how hard I try or even if I do get some form of e-book reader, that by the time I leave this place, whether or not I have transported books from storage to here, I will still be carting a couple hundred pounds of books out of here. Four books is quite a good start for any book breeding colony. They’re like rabbits you know.