Tag Archives: writing

My Writing Apprenticeship at Pan Historia

I earned my writing chops at Pan Historia.  Day in and day out, for more than ten years, I have logged in to my alternate self.  In the halcyon early days I am quite sure that I was averaging probably a thousand words a day easy, some days more, some days less.  The stories were numerous and varied.  I like a lot of different genres, and sometimes I found that what I liked to read was different from what I like to write.

I wrote historical fiction set in Ancient Egypt, the American West, and sometimes Rome.  I wrote science fiction, particularly beloved was the now sadly lost in time and space, “Forever is Far Too Long” (please forgive me if I slaughtered the title).  Forever was the brain child of one of my closest friends, a writer of amazing imagination and craft.  It was a real challenge not only to occupy a world created by her, but to occupy a character created by her.  I hope I rose to the occasion.  I know I surely learned a great deal.  I feel like it was a sort of apprenticeship.  I also wrote noir detective fiction with a fun bunch in our grand “Marlowe Detective Agency“.  That was an idea of brilliance, if I say so myself.  When I look at the way that people’s attention spans have shortened, even in the last ten years, it’s probably impossible to do now, but basically each episode was a complete mystery.  One person wrote the detective, and it was the detective’s job to actually solve the mystery the other writers crafted for him. Later on I moved to horror. I have never been a big fan of horror movies, but I have always enjoyed horror fiction from Edgar Allan Poe to Shirley Jackson to Stephen King.  I found great joy in crafting tales of dripping ickiness to disturb and creep out my readers.  I discovered I have something of an ability in creating villains that people love to hate.

For a long time I was so involved in my exploration of the American West through the eyes of Wyatt Earp and his brothers that I had great, and rather grandiose, plans for writing a fictional autobiography of his long life that was going to be so historically precise, and so magically astute as to his psychic and emotional landscape that it was going to be the final word on the subject.  The desire to take what I had learned from my near daily collaborative and role-play writing to a novel has always seemed to be a natural progression to me.  But for a long time I couldn’t get started. It seemed like I had this great idea, enough passion for the project, and yet I continued to divert myself with the small episodic posts in the collaborative environment.  The good was that I was writing everyday; the bad was that I wasn’t moving forward on my long term goal.

Finally I realized it was the project itself that was bogging me down.  My scheme was too research laden, too definitive, and too constrained by my own expectations and the structure of history.  My character, Wyatt Earp, couldn’t breathe. I simply knew too much about him, and yet too little at the same time.  My version of Wyatt Earp, the one I have now been writing for ten years, is not the same as the historical.  He’s grown into a very complex, and intelligent man, with a gift for the gab – which the real Earp never had.  I realized that I didn’t have to finish this project just because I had decided on it years before. In fact, after finally writing a version of the shootout at the OK Corral for my collaborative version on Pan, I realized that I had already written volumes on the man, and that my legacy to him was there – on the boards.

I was free to pick a different project.  Now I’m fifteen chapters and over 30,000 words into that novel, and I feel great about it.  My writing is solid (but there is always room for improvement!).  My ability to structure the novel and plot it has been aided by ten years of collaborative writing, but I’m missing the collaborative element.  With that in mind I am considering a coauthor, someone that has worked with me on this story as it existed on Pan Historia.  I’m hoping that another set of eyes will rectify the mistakes, point out the inconsistencies, and increase the liveliness.  What better way to build upon the many positive foundations that Pan Historia has provided me with?

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Discerning Between Your Inner Critic and Your Inner Low Self-Esteem

From Wikipedia:

The critic is considered to be the dialectic of genius. This insight was formulated early by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as “not every critic is a genius, but every genius is born a critic…genius has the proof of all rules within itself.” Kant scholar Jane Kneller has read this to indicate that, as opposed to the externally oriented and culturally dependent critic, “genius demonstrates its autonomy not by ignoring all rules, but by deriving the rules from itself”.

Derivation:

The word critic comes from Greek κριτικός (kritikós), “able to discern”, which is a Greek derivation from the word κριτής (krités), meaning a person who offers reasoned judgment or analysis, value judgment, interpretation, or observation.

Every November I get a little queasy and uncomfortable.  That’s because it’s National Novel Writing Month.  It’s not that I’m directly opposed to the concept of writing a 50,000 word novel in a month – after all it can pull you out of writer’s block, or any other self-imposed hurdles that keep you from actually producing a body of work, instead of just talking about it, and it could turn writers into authors.  It’s the emphasis that it puts on just throwing words at the page, seemingly without discrimination or concern for the finished body of work.

I put out a tweet a few days ago stating my concern:

I think one of my main objections to nanowrimo is that writing a novel isn’t just about throwing words at the page. Sometimes you need to take scissors to it.

I got some flack there.  Apparently there is plenty on the nanowrimo forums about it being a draft, etc., but that’s not my point.  My point isn’t that you produce a finished polished work in a month at lightening speed, because that’s rarely possible, unless maybe you’re someone prolific like Stephen King.  My point is that the whole flurry of tweets, posts, blogs, and so forth creates an atmosphere that seems to negate the self-critic.  It doesn’t focus attention on the hard work that needs to be done to create a book, ready for public consumption.  It’s part of the whole, to me disturbing, lack of discrimination that I see, as if producing art was easy, something anyone can do anytime, and that it doesn’t take dedication, commitment, and a hard long apprenticeship.

I remember I was teaching drawing some years back at a college, and I had a difficult student.  She was sullen, reluctant, and didn’t want to do the work.  The quality was poor, even though she was coming to class and doing the homework.  I asked her what the problem was, and she replied that she was a painter, and she was forced to take drawing, but there was simply no point to it!  I feel the same about the writer that only emphasizes self-experience and getting the words out at the cost of actually honing the craft, learning what works and what doesn’t.

That is where I listen to my lovely self-critic.  The muse may inspire, but the critic gets out the scissors.  I love my critic.  He walks with me every step of the way.  Sometimes I override him, but we have a good collaborative relationship, so he doesn’t take it hard, or say “told you so” when it all goes wrong.  Sadly, all too often, the critic gets the boot from people’s writing practice because he gets blamed for that which he is not responsible for: the nagging negative voice of low self-esteem.  The critic believes you can do it, but just wants to help you do it better.  Low self-esteem doesn’t even want you to try.  Critic will tell you off for wasting time playing mindless games, always pushing you to achieve your goals, reminding you that time is finite (don’t kid yourself it’s not), and that the best time to get your dreams accomplished is now.  Low self-esteem is always telling you that a game is better, or cleaning, or laundry, or you can do it tomorrow.

Critic is willing to tell you the hard truths: that page is crap – do it again.  Low self-esteem will say: that page is crap – just toss it out and go back to bed.  If you are truly listening to your inner critic, and now your low self-esteem, a lot of time the news is good: this idea rocks; you are doing great; don’t listen to that agent that doesn’t think your work will sell; wow, didn’t you write a lot today.  Critic misses you when you’re not writing, and tries to remind you to do it.  Low self-esteem just tells you you’re a loser for not writing.

Discerning the difference can be tough, but it’s worth the challenge.  One needs to be ignored, overridden, and combated.  The other needs to be taken on as a partner in the endeavor, for he has many words of wisdom to impart.

Back to nanowrimo – it’s fine idea, as long as you take your critic along for the ride.


I’m Just a Rambling Man

The writing has been kind of slow for the last week.  There has been a 50% improvement in the chaotic conditions of my family obligations, but finding that still eye of the storm is still proving to be difficult.  As soon as I feel like I’m close to it I get caught in an updraft and find myself hurtling away at impossible speeds from what I would really like to be doing.

That said – I have mastered some plot threads that needed tying together.  My iPhone, unlike the previous clunky yet small Blackberry, is proving a bit of a helpmate.  I was able to download a pages app for it that allows me to edit the most recent chapter on the go.  I don’t foresee any solid writing time on it unless I get the keyboard that I mentioned in the last post, and I am waiting for my finances to improve for that, but I can edit, add ideas, and not lose rolling trains of steamy thought.

One of my plotting solutions involves a famous historical character, Harry Houdini, who has now gained importance in the novel, and thusly I am forced (oh what terrible pain and joy!) to read the recent bio of him that I got.  Sadly it is not available on the Kindle… wait, it wasn’t but maybe it is now… let me toddle off and check…

Back. Ah, wonderful.  I feel like a walking, talking, typing advert for the iPhone, but I am a convert.  So I have downloaded the Kindle app to my phone, and my copy of the Houdini book is now there, on the page I was last reading, and I’m ready to snatch minutes from my workday to learn all I need to know about the amazing magician, contortionist, and escape artist.  Amusing note on the side: on my wall, by my desk, is my Houdini Action Figure.  It was a gift from one of my relatives – the same year I gave them one.  We exchanged.

Ok, well I was away from this for about an hour because my cat pissed on the laundry again.  It’s such a joy to be able to add the mental and emotional and maybe physical aberrations of an animal you swore to look after and love for all his days to your list of distractions from writing.  Mostly he’s been urinating on the wife’s things, seems he’s pissed off at me now too.  I am also hearing about the chores and programming/design tweaks I need to make at Pan Historia… it never ends.  And just when I have the list all organized, and all the things I have to do on it, I’ll head to work for nine hours, because that’s how I pay the bills.

Tune in next week to find out more about how my iPhone helps me to conquer the madness of modern life, and enables me to write a novel in the middle of it.  Or not.  You choose how you distract yourself from your own writing.

Perhaps you might join a revolution?


Have Keyboard, Will Travel

I’m glad to say that after my last update I made some time in my life for writing my novel again.  This is quite an achievement because the distractions and tornado keeps on building around me.  The whole world seems to want to go up in flames, and perhaps it should, and I’ve got wandering random family members in transition in this funnel of frantic windy energy needing a couch to sleep on.  Thusly I have no private space where the mind can be fertile and still enough that it suddenly freely sprouts words, one upon the last, building and building, until there is a tower of words, wobbly, but upright.

As a matter of fact I am writing this now instead of working on my book in the precious morning I have before work because I can manage this kind of personal writing with the distractions, but not the real hard work of writing a novel.  I’ve set myself a quota of words each day: a measly 500.  This can count towards that goal, as well as the collaborative posts I do at Pan Historia, but it doesn’t feel as satisfying anymore, not as compelling as getting into the heads of my characters.  I miss my book when I’m not at it.

I just took a break from writing this to browse computer tablets.  I started to wonder, since I have lacked a private space of my own, a space with a door that shuts the world out, if I were to go fully mobile could I pick up stray pockets of time and privacy from my maelstrom days to dash out those few measly words, make those notes, build that tower…

Nope, they lack the essential tool that I crave: a keyboard.  I could go retro and try the notebooks, and I have done that before, but unlike those folks that love freehand and the pen or pencil, I’m a sucker for the keyboard.  I can type about 50pm if I factor in the mistakes, or maybe faster by now, and I need the speed because that’s often how fast the words flow.  When I write by hand I miss words, phrases, even passages, skipping over them as the next word crashes into me.  I paint the same way.  I can’t do it slow.  Which of course begs the question: why isn’t my output greater?  The answer is frustrating: I fritter away much of my free time (little and precious though  it is) in frivolities.  I resolve, every day and every minute, to do better, but when you’re a speed freak, like the hare, you need a lot of breaks.

I have seventy more words to find… then I’ll have fulfilled my quota for the day.

Oh my god… had another idea, took another break – could this be the solution:

 Freedom Pro Bluetooth Portable Folding Keyboard

It’s a bit pricy, but so far the reviews are good.  I can whip this sucker out of my backpack, hook it up to my phone and be on my way.  Hmmm… this could work.  Have keyboard, can travel.  It seems I’m on the eternal quest to be completely hooked up until my excuses have no where to run and hide anymore, and either I write, or I admit that I’m not a writer.

 

Haha.  556 words.


I Have Never Shot a Gun…

“Write what you know.”

Boy, that’s getting to be the old chestnut of writing advice.  It’s also hugely misleading.  The kernel of truth in it is that whatever you writing should have authenticity.  Don’t let people catch you out in ignorance.  It trips up the reader when they totally figure out that the author has no idea what they are talking about.

This advice is not about, however, only writing from personal experience.  If we all did that the fictional landscape would be one helluva a boring place.  The whole point of fiction is to take you someplace you <b>don’t</b> know.  At least it is for me and probably the majority of readers.  Very few people pick up a book to escape into a reality so like theirs it is indistinguishable.  What they want to do is be able to relate to the characters in the book, but not meet any old regular joe.  They want to go to the far reaches of the galaxy, or to ride the Pacific Union Railroad with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid waiting for them around the bend to blow up the safe.

Even if you’re reading something that is contemporary you want to peek into the mind and heart, or maybe the madness, of someone you don’t know.  You might be able to relate, but you aren’t them, and they aren’t exactly anyone you know either.

The real key to writing what you know is to research and make sure you get the details right, even if it is pure and utter fantasy, and then inject your personal experience into the story to render it authentic.  You might not have been born in the 1900s but you can relate to something so tight fitting it makes it hard to breathe, you understand what riding a train is like, and you know the fear that the threat of violence brings.

Every character should be a little bit of an autobiography because you’re reaching inside yourself to imagine something completely, but that doesn’t mean you know what’s like to be a serial killer, or vampire, or a space cowboy 400 light years from home.  Every character is also a little bit of biography because you’re grabbing stuff from people you know.  Even the most ordinary friend has a bit of the extraordinary you can pilfer to bring your characters to life.

Always authenticity is key, so really the old chestnut should read: “write from the heart, and then even what you don’t know will come to life for your readers”.


Procrastination Bites!

You know the score. You’re supposed to be writing. Instead you find your eyelids drooping and a powerful urge to sleep coming on. Or you start clicking those stupid little games in FaceBook or you open your version of Spider Solitaire. Just a few games… honest. Then you’ll get back to writing. Or maybe you’re the type that will start cleaning the house or doing the laundry… oh shit, hold on, I just have to put the wash in the dryer now, be right back…

Ok, now where was I? Oh yes, procrastination – the bugbear of the would-be writer. Or maybe even the nemesis of all writers? Possibly so. Wait? Do I hear the siren call of a completely different writing project all my name? You know, something like a blog, or maybe even a new collaborative writing project at your favorite online writing community? Whatever it is – something is always keeping you from finishing your novel, that is, if you are at all like me.

So what are your favorite distractions? What’s your laundry list of things that suddenly need doing urgently every time you sit down to write and how the heck do you conquer those distractions and interruptions?

Games? Close the program. Delete the software. Social networking? Turn off the Twitter. Other writing projects? Perhaps time management is required. Too tired? What do you need to eliminate from your day that is a waste of your time so you’ll be able to find the time, space, and energy to write?

I want to hear from YOU.


Panthology

cover art for PanthologyI’ve been gone from the blogosphere a long time. Life got a wee bit hectic (marriages, moves, family, and much much more!). But here is the most interesting (for my bloggie buddies) reason for my absence:

I have been compiling, editing, and designing Panthology: A Celebration of Ten Years of Pan Historia. I’m really proud of this second volume of Pan’s creativity. We published The Pan Historia Birthday Book in 2004, and the second anthology has been long overdue, but how wonderful to be celebrating ten full creative years online as a collaborative writing community.

Here is my preface to the piece (and I hope it whets your appetite):

Trying to explain to bemused friends what I spend so much time doing online is a challenge mostly likely ending in mystification whether they are writers or users of social networks.

Media is increasingly filled with alarm calls that the internet is destroying our minds, our children, and our ability to interact with one another. Few people dare to challenge that notion. People apologize for spending time on their computers. Studies (skewed to the bias of the researchers no doubt) show that we are all increasingly unhappy, particularly when seated at our computers.

I cannot address these concerns except to counter with my personal experience, and then present the evidence to you with this anthology of one community’s creative soul. There is at least one place on the internet where the mind is stimulated, the soul is fed, the imagination set free, and people find genuine warmth and community: Pan Historia.

The stories and excerpts that follow are eloquent testimony to that assertion. Every day for ten years I have logged into Pan eager to see what the day will bring: forays into outer space aboard a derelict spaceship; a gunfight in a dusty silver boom town; romance in medieval times; blood feuds between faery races; fan fiction; good conversation; a new recipe for the best chocolate cake; battles with slugs and snails in the garden. The possibilities are endless, and in ten years, always changing.

It is not just the writing, but the companions that you take with you along the way. Read the story “Farewell My Heart” on page 499 by KhemumRa Hatshepsut to fully discover how imagination, fiction, and reality intersect. This heartfelt piece was the end of a long
collaboration between good friends, both at Pan and in real life, due to the death of one of the writers, Meritites. “Farewell My Heart” is a tribute, an ending – a perfect example of how deeply a community like Pan can touch people’s lives.

In Clio’s blog entries: “Musings” on page 497, the writer chronicles for her friends at Pan, one of the most grueling and painful experiences of her life – because she trusts us.

Behind most of these stories is another, true life, story. Marriages have been made, friendships have grown, children have been named in honor of Pan friendships and associations, and people have found solace for their real life afflictions and troubles. Young writers have literally grown up on Pan, maturing into seasoned adults. I could write a whole book about the incredible interactions I have experienced with my friends in this community. I have been moved to tears on more than one occasion when someone has confided in me how much the site has meant to them, and how it has helped ease them through a difficult period in their life.

There is so much to Pan Historia that one anthology cannot possibly encompass it all. When the Publishers were faced with the daunting task of choosing pieces for this collection it was simply impossible to include all the great stories, writers, and friends, that have graced our virtual world in the last ten years. We simply had to do the best we could. Hopefully we captured enough to give a window into our soul. At Pan Historia we don’t just write the stories, we live them.