Exploring the Future...until we get there

Category: Art of Writing (Page 1 of 2)

Short and Sweet

Hope everyone is doing well this lazy Sunday afternoon. Here in the NW FL Panhandle, we are getting a good soaking from Tropical Storm Cristobal, but not too alarmed about her doing much harm, at least not in our neck of the woods.

I have been continuing to write a great deal as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. I’ve been among those fortunate enough to continue working from home and I’m so thankful for that. A major benefit of the down time has been the opportunity to get several of my short stories posted to my online account with Amazon’s KDP.

As a side benefit of the extra time at home, I’ve been reading back through some of my older stories (say from a decade ago, or even two in some cases) and evaluating their content from my current writing perspective.

Some of the takeaways from the time spent are described below. With effort, some of our most stubborn bad habits can be improved over time.

  1. Short words are usually better than longer ones. I know I know, it’s kind of fun to try out that word we just learned because we just love the way it rolls off the pen. By all means. But we always need to be aware of our reader and perhaps dip into the deep well of loquaciousness only once in a great while.
  2. Short sentences are usually better than longer ones. Some of mine droned on much too long. In my last post Icebergs (link below), I outlined how whittling down your writing to the bare minimum is a practice in brevity we can all stand to impose on ourselves. Whether as a writing exercise, or just as a way of keeping our content crisp, deleting or crossing through can be cathartic and energizing. It’s amazing how many words we discover are just not necessary when we are forced to prune our word garden down to the barest essentials (that whole last sentence could be stricken).
  3. Short paragraphs are usually better than long ones. It’s easy to get carried away in the moment, when the ideas are sprouting forth like new buds on the creeping vine. On and on we go. Before we know it, we have thirteen sentences all sitting snugly together in an unbroken block of intimidating text. Readers’ eyes are looking for visual breathing room moment by moment. Short paragraphs of perhaps 3-7 sentences can lend the needed space. Easier on the eye than great swaths of continuous text (“much like you see here,” he said, sarcastically).
  4. If you truly are a writer, parting ways with beauty should not scare you. What does that mean? Simply that, no matter how lovely your last sentence, your last paragraph, or even your last chapter may be, you should be unafraid to delete it decisively, knowing with conviction that it’s not the last beautiful thing you will ever write. Not by a long shot. Edit with impunity.
  5. How much time you invest in your writing may have little to do with how good your story is. If you are not investing time, effort, and possibly money in your pursuit of improving your writing, you may ultimately become frustrated by the fact that you keep hitting the same brick wall. If such is the case, ask yourself why, then chase down the remedy with conviction.

Hope that helps. Probably none of it is anything you haven’t heard a dozen times before. But seeing such pointers yet again may help them stick even better in your writing head. Don’t fall so deeply in love with words on the page if they lend little to the purpose of your story. How essential are they? What do they contribute to the setting, the theme, the plot, the forward movement? If the answer is “Nothing, but they’re so pretty,” chase them away with the backspace key. Your reader will thank you.

Writing Exercise: Open up one of your previous stories in your favorite writing software. Beginning with some logical starting point, scroll down and highlight approximately 1000 words. Copy and paste this section somewhere else where you can work on it. Challenge yourself to whittle it down to 750 words. Is it better? Is the essential meaning still there? Do you like the result? Now cut down what’s left to just 500 words. Is it still good? If so, you have just learned a valuable lesson about your own writing. Tighten it up!

Links:

Please check out my Author Page at:

www.amazon.com/author/garygunter

Icebergs

Icebergs

In the past two weeks, a couple of writing situations presented themselves to me that wound up being quite challenging to fix. And they were mirror opposites of one another. I had two stories, both good candidates for Amazon KDP, and both with length issues. The first one was too long, and the second too short. I wanted both of them to land around the 7500 mark for word count (my restrictions, of course, not Amazon’s).

In my ongoing efforts to improve my approach to writing in general, I have recently stayed focused on the principles of “Show, Don’t Tell” and the “Theory of Omission.” The two are quite related, and both came into play as part of my efforts to fix my conundrum. If you are unfamiliar with these guidelines, Wikipedia has useful topics on each, and I would encourage you to read up as a great way for improving your own writing (Iceberg Theory is Hemingway’s and the reason for this post’s title).

It didn’t take much time for me to realize that the easier of the two tasks would be adding content to the one, rather than stripping away sentences from the other. Why? Probably because it takes more effort to decide what has to be yanked out than it does to just plunk in more good stuff. So, we’re only going to talk about the pain, and not the pleasure.

An analogy might be having a garden that needs to be weeded. In some cases, it might be hard to figure out where the plants that you want to keep end, and where the weeds start. If you can picture in your mind a garden that has gotten more than a little out of hand, the idea of having to go in there and find the invaders so you can dig them out feels visually daunting.

Imagine pushing the good stuff carefully out of the way to get to those pesky weeds. Down in the dirt, sweaty, grimy, irritated, thinking about visiting the produce section more often instead of deluding yourself that organic produce grown with your own sweat and tears (maybe blood?) is the better way to go.

Okay, I’m overblowing this on purpose. The point being, if you don’t get to the weeds, you’re going to lose the garden, including the stuff you want to eat. Might as well get started.

I stared at my story, realizing that about 2000 words had to go. I vowed I would never put myself in this same situation again.

With that in mind, here are some guidelines for you to ponder, so that you can better avoid getting into this same predicament. These are offered in the form of questions that you will want to ask yourself:

  1. Have you made an outline of your story, so that you have a good idea of its beginning, its end, and most of the stuff that happens in the middle?
  2. How long do you want your story to be? Is it a short short story, short story, novelette, novella, or novel? (There are other word-count breakdowns, but those are the main ones you will likely run into.)

Those two questions are pivotal as you approach your goal of working within a semi-established story length that will (hopefully) accommodate everything you want to communicate as vital parts of your storytelling.

Going back to the garden analogy, wouldn’t it always make for a better experience if you took the time to lay your garden out? If you decided what plants would go where? If you were careful the whole time to ensure that you took everything slow, worked steadily, made sure the weeds stayed under control in the first place?

Yes, of course. But you didn’t listen to sage advice and now your vegetables are growing up and over your back fence, while also threatening to join you in the kitchen as a vine without end.

Okay, that’s it for the garden! Here’s what you do with your troublesome story, again offered in the form of questions that you will want to ask yourself:

  1. Does your story start at the right place in the overall progression of events? If it starts out too far away from the end, and this is part of your word-count problem, nudge the beginning and the ending closer together.
  2. Are you over-explaining things (telling, not showing)? If so, take the time to figure out the details that are nice, but not critical to include. Get out your paring knife and start whittling things down (that may be where the blood comes in).
  3. Is there too much dialog? Why is everyone talking so much? Is the conversation moving the story along in efficient manner? If not, tell some of your characters to shut the bleep up!
  4. How much of your iceberg is showing? (This is related to number 2 above). Don’t underestimate your reader. Hone your craft so that you give them just enough to cause an anxious turn of the page, not so much that they feel weighted down by too much description. Icebergs that are top heavy will flip unexpectedly.
  5. Even if you did have an outline of your story, it’s possible that you still went substantially over your word count. Why? Two reasons that are most likely: either there’s more to your story than you thought, and the additional words are actually vital; you’ve done too much meandering off the main path. If that’s the case, go through all the elements of the story and ask:
  • Are all my characters necessary?
  • Are all my scenes necessary?
  • Are all the places in my scenes necessary?
  • Are all my sentences as tight and succinct as they can be?
  • What have I missed? Where can I improve? Have I really dug deep? Have I really let go of all the fluff? Am I holding on to aspects of the story because of my emotional connection to them, or because they are actually crucial to the structure of my story?

Well, good news, I was able to trim the fat from my bloated short story by about 1500 words or so, and now I think it makes for better reading. I also hope not to repeat that torturous task too many times in the future. It was not fun.

Have fun in your gardens and on your keyboards and here’s to summertime writing!

Thanks!

Links to my short stories are here:

Mariazell & the Workshops of WeeBitten

Book cover
Mariazell & the Workshops of WeeBitten

Just posted the above short story up to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) yesterday. It came together really well and really fast. The only part I’m probably not thrilled about is the cover. I have not yet invested the time in acquiring that skill set to any great degree, but I’d like to think one day I might. In the meantime, KDP offers a quite rudimentary version of cover design software as part of its overall offerings, so I thought I’d go that quick and dirty route, even as I acknowledge the visual could be much stronger.

While I don’t want to give too much of the story away, I think I’m revealing little when I say that the element of snow globes plays a part in the plot. Of course, I did a small bit of research on that commodity and found that it all started with a man named Erwin Perzy, a maker of surgical instruments, who was looking for a better way to focus light in surgical lamps. Without going into the details (you can click on the link below for the Wikipedia article) his quest accidentally led him to the start of his snow globe business. Never know where your path is going to lead you.

The basilica in Mariazell was Perzy’s inspiration at the time for the model he used in his first snow globe. The more the name Mariazell stuck in my mind, the more I decided it should serve as the name for my short story’s main character (she started as Helene–not nearly as alluring).

There’s quite a bit more I could share with you about how the story began, but I don’t want to be presumptuous. I will say, however, that it falls into my personal categorization system as a Toggle Switch. If you want to understand more about that process (which I use pretty often, and it’s a little weird, and that’s why I love it), you can click the second link below to go directly to that post.

Anyway, I hope you are inspired to give my short little story, which you can get to directly by clicking the third link below.

Happy writing!

Links:

For the Wikipedia story about snow globes: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_globe

For the entry on this blog describing my Toggle Switches:

https://floodedplanet.com/living-on-writers-block/

To get directly to my book on Amazon:

INVICTUS by Ryan Graudin

As a follow-up to my post titled Fire Sale, I offer my second update regarding those reading assignments I have handed myself. This, as a way of improving my own science fiction writing pursuits by digesting the efforts of others.

Although it is probably among the best of good writing exercises to provide in-depth critique of other writers’ yarns, I’m certain it’s one I’m no good at, and I’m probably not desirous to become so. It’s enough for me to know internally why I did or did not like a certain book. To communicate those reasons with conviction is the realm of the critic. I’m happily a hesitant stranger there.

Yet, it was undeniably me who said that we should compel ourselves as readers to be honest in our assessments of books, even to the extent of providing written justifications as to why our read was a smash hit or a big stink bomb. That said, I feel compelled to give this an honest shot.

INVICTUS by Ryan Graudin is a fast-paced, perpetually unpredictable romp through time and space aboard the book’s namesake with a claptrap crew of young over-achievers trying to “right their ship” as they also attempt to right past wrongs. As they soon discover, however, no bad deed goes unpunished forever, with more trouble never farther away than the next jump’s horizon.

While stealing valuable relics from civilizations long since perished for a greedy and dangerous black markets dealer, the crew quickly learns that their collective future will forever bump into the misdeeds of an ancient past until a surprise visitor-uninvited, and definitely unwelcome-provides the mind-bending clues they’ll need if they’re to escape a most unfortunate fate.

Everything the ship’s captain and his crew thought they knew about themselves, their past, and their mission will be turned on its head.

**

Graudin is a powerful writing talent. With great plot twists and turns, beautiful command of the written word, teenage emotions dripping off nearly every page, and imaginative settings I could envision in my head, she kept this reader mostly well-invested. She pulled me in strong with her opening scenes and I was off to the races. As I mentioned, the pace was breakneck, and probably a bit too much so for me (this coming from a guy who requires that plot move along briskly to stay interested in the story).

Better put, perhaps it wasn’t the pace so much as the details packed into that pace. And because of that ever-increasing mental burden, I felt the cantering story slowly leaving me further behind with every chapter.

I always try to imagine what a book’s tale might look like on the big screen. I threw this one up on the silver and, in my mind’s eye, it seemed to come off pretty well…until I envisioned the director attempting to translate in footage that stickiest of widgets in fiction-Time Travel. Trust me, this tale gets very involved, very quickly. Many passages required a double back by me, just to be sure I understand the intricacies of the tech.

In the end, and literally toward the very end, where I should have been exhilarated in the turn of each new page, I found myself actually a bit fatigued. Ultimately, I burned out, pulling up lame before concluding the last few pages. I’m not sure why, though I have my suspicions, and I believe the fault may be as much in my court as it is in Graudin’s.

The teenage chitchat became too tedious for this old man. And I didn’t swoon where I was probably expected to (again, I’m not the author’s target audience, so swooning at my age is just hard on the knees). Some of the later scenes-piling up on top of one another like the wardrobe-strewn time machine that served as home-away-from-home for these swashbuckling amateurs-became too bursting with emotion-filled longing for love’s first kiss. And the unknowns that were racking up, as well, began to make my head spin.

In the end, the dizziness induced by this adventurous race against time demanded that I dismount while I could still look back at all that ground I’d covered and not feel too much regret for failing to cross the finish line. The plot line was a lot to take on, and probably more than enough for me. I was disappointed to find that I was not in need of yet more INVICTUS adventure.

So yes, not so memorable characters (Eliot was by far my favorite), some interesting tidbits from history (with a particular focus on the Titanic and ancient Rome), inspired, imaginative, extremely well-thought out plot that I personally was never able to fully understand (again-Time Travel…requires suspension of disbelief through and through, and especially from someone who readily acknowledges he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed).

One problem for me might stem from the fact that I cannot properly decide if INVICTUS is primarily character-driven, or plot-driven, since it seems to possess an even measure of both. Is that a good thing? Possibly. For me, however, the author who can captivate me by hooking me, reeling me in slowly, steadily, revealing ever-deepening recesses of each character’s personality, motivations, and best-kept secrets-she’s the one I’m going to follow.

I think Graudin might have better scratched my reader’s itch had she shown me yet more of Farway, Gram, Priya, and even the bad guy, Lux. Even if this meant sacrificing an action-packed scene or two.

Then again, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m not Graudin’s target reader, and perhaps the level of personal backgrounds she afforded her story’s main actors was just about right for a target reader a third my age.

On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being stellar, I would rate this mostly solid read as a strong 7, and would definitely recommend it to the children’s children of friends and family.

Hard – Science Fiction

As a follow-up to my post titled Fire Sale, I offer my first update regarding those reading assignments I have handed myself. This, as a way of improving my own science fiction writing pursuits by digesting the efforts of others. I’m only somewhat pleased to relay (because I realize now that choosing so many books at one time was probably overly ambitious) that I have finished exactly one. If I’m reading, I’m not writing…a conundrum I must accept and conquer, heartburn be damned.

Carbide Tipped Pens is an anthology of seventeen short stories, collaboratively put together by Ben Bova and Eric Choi. Mr. Bova I fondly remember from his days at OMNI magazine some decades ago, and the sole reason I selected this book (name-recognition). I should include that for a young teenager longing for good reads over sometimes boring summer vacations, a subscription to OMNI, with a fresh issue arriving in the family mailbox each month, was about as magical as it gets.

After diving into one or two stories, I realized rather abruptly that I probably should have left this title on the shelf. Certainly not because of the stories, which are just fine. The problem, I’ve discovered, lies in my court. I wasn’t careful enough when selecting to realize that this one is stuffed full of “hard science fiction.” Took me no time at all to notice that I’m not a big fan.

Right now, I’m looking at the titles of all seventeen stories as they appear in the Table of Contents, trying to decide which ones best held my interest. Of those (almost 400 pages worth), perhaps only three mostly fit my reading style and interests. Of those, perhaps two were satisfying for the most part. And perhaps only one thoroughly entertained me from start to finish. The remainders proved to be difficult reading for me, not because it was uninspired writing, but because the plots left me feeling uninvested.

Not that I don’t like science as much as the next guy. I certainly do. That is, if the next guy isn’t too serious about it all, doesn’t get all hung up about the feasibility of the physics, and isn’t too bothered by dialog that, at times, feels like stilted conversations between engineers arguing over the finer points of unproven theories that are a bit beyond, if not his mental prowess, at least his reading stamina. Ignoring such indiscretions meant that only a small percentage of these shorts held enough entertainment value to keep me from scanning and skipping forward.

Short stories, more so than formats that have the luxury of time (read word count), must draw a reader in super quickly. If their whole plot only spans perhaps 20-30 pages, reader interest has to be established in the first precious paragraphs of page one.

It makes sense, then, to dwell on that very quality-“reader interest”-for just a moment. What is it that creates this thing in us, this desire, this yearning to know more? As we consume more stories over the years, we will come to know what kind of stuff draws us in quickly, then holds us in a stranglehold for the duration. We will also recognize those genres that may or may not hold us within their grasp as we do our level best to remain focused, giving the story a fair shake, so to speak.

And certainly, we will also come to know well what simply never trips our trigger, no matter how many soft fluffy cushions and delightful snacks we pile high around ourselves.

Such is probably the case for “hard science fiction” and me. Too much science, not enough fiction. It’s not likely that the hard stuff will ever become my good buddy; nor will we likely hang out together on the weekends. Just not a good fit.

The lesson I’ve learned is that reading is a journey of self-discovery, an exploration of one’s own palate, a refinement of its likes and dislikes as we invest our precious time in the experience, caring enough to acknowledge what gives us joy and satisfaction, and what does not. If something’s not clicking, don’t think of it as wasted time. Think of it as something newly realized about your own personal preferences. That’s a good thing!

If you want to throw a book against a wall, ask yourself why, then take the time to offer up a sincere answer. If you refuse to go to bed at a reasonable hour because you simply can’t put the thing down, again demand a reason. Write things down, make them stick.

In my case, I know I like action, suspense, plot twists, interesting characters, unexpected conclusions, themes that hold personal meaning for me. I won’t read something that is otherwise uninteresting simply because I’m supposed to care about the theme according to society. I’m selfish that way, and I hope you are, too. Diversity and divergence are expected. What you love I might shun. What I embrace you might reject.

So it goes.

I won’t dwell on what I didn’t like about Carbide Tipped Pens. And I won’t tell you which of these stories I liked best. I will share with you the reasons behind embracing what I did: superior character development, fast pace, lots of scene changes, interesting settings, plot twists, beautiful prose, tragedy, death, and all the rest. It’s a wonderful thing to see all the qualities of a good story done well. Nothing beats good writing. Nothing trumps a satisfying read. And if it takes sixteen so so reads to get to that one brilliant find, so be it (next time, however, I’ll be more careful in my selections).

Now go write! Or go read…something.

Inspiration

Many of the writer’s reference books I read frequently now suggest that every serious writer should be gathering ideas for stories nearly all the time. The authors of these books say that inspiration can strike nearly anywhere, and at nearly anytime. We should be ready to receive this spark when it happens, since the same idea might never visit us again.

Some of the books even offer methods for encouraging the muse to come and sit on one’s shoulder, murmuring in the ear of the would-be-novelist as she meditates in the living room, takes a long soak in the tub, or sits idling in traffic on her long commute back home from work.

I’ve always had ideas come to me while communing with Nature. A leisurely walk in the park will surely trigger a flash or two of insight, as well as biking, walking, kayaking, or just sitting quietly on the back porch while the breeze blows through the trees and the birds sing me into a nap with their happy little songs.

Such was the case today while I was outside for several hours, engaged in the intensely laborious task of mowing my weeds. I have about an acre and a half, much of which could be categorized as mangy and feral. I had actually lived on my property for several years before stepping foot on much of it, some areas so thick with trees, bushes, brambles, and thorny things, that I was simply unable to penetrate there. A few years ago, I was motivated to clear some paths. This is an excerpt from a post I made on this blog in October 2016 titled Backyard Playground (my daughter came up with the trail names):

“It is only very recently that I set foot on parts of my own property, simply by deciding that I would cut through the undergrowth (along with the overgrowth and middlegrowth, if those terms can properly describe the thick mass of vegetation that crept and hung and tangled its way across my path from head to toe). Now, after several weekends of effort, we have forged, for our walking pleasure, trails with the following names…Deer Run, Walking Stick, Three Sentinels, Armadillo Hideaway, Picky Vine, Knife Fork and Spoon, Brown Bench, and one or two more. I blazed two of the last ones today (Sunday), before deciding that the look and feel of the place is just about right for now.”

Hurricane Michael roared through our neighborhood two years later, and it is only just now, in April of 2019 (six full months after the life-altering destruction) that I have ventured back onto my trails to clear them out once again. The task has been anything but easy.

But let’s not get side-tracked. We’re talking about inspiration here, and not the kind that drives a person to wage war against jungles that spring up on the sides of country roads, but the stuff that drives writers to create best-selling novels.

There was an episode today, and a comical one at that, during which I stepped into a hole about a foot deep, knocking myself off balance. Skittering sideways, I crashed into the stump of one of the trees that had probably been laid low by the storm. My ribs took the brunt of the impact, causing me to relinquish my grip on the handle of the mower I had been using to gain some leverage against the fall. On my way down, and with the handle of the mower now on its way up, I got cracked on the chin with an upper cut that caused my teeth to clap together, forcing me to call out in pain. The mower having gone silent, suddenly I was surrounded by the buzz of nature. My head felt full as I lay there on the ground, wincing at the abruptness of it all, thankful I wasn’t hurt too badly, surprised that I was on the verge of laughter.

I read somewhere that Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.” In that moment, Mike seemed very wise to me.

In the meantime, I had knocked my glasses off, and was unable to find them, try as I might. As I hoofed it back to the house to ask for my wife’s assistance (and who would surely have something to say about my ongoing habit for inflicting physical pain on myself for no apparent reason), I realized something rather happily. I had come up with an idea for a story! My altered view of Nature, blurry in the extreme, made me realize that I, my house, the paths I had re-established, and everything all around this quaint little rural scene was constantly and steadily being inundated with green. If I did nothing to keep it all pushed back, in a year the house would be impinged upon by the foliage. By three, it would be half-overtaken. In five to seven, the structure would be well on its way to being overrun by the rightful earth-bound dwellers of the place.

And thus came about my inspiration for my latest apocalyptic story – “Creaking.” Humanity is going to be done in by Nature, and it will be at the hand of the foliage Mother sends to do her dirty work. I can’t begin to tell you how many ideas came swirling into my brain as a result of this very temporary stroll down my walkway, surrounded by these great big blobs of green, clumped together and coming at me from above, below, and every side. In this cheerful little tale, Gaia will rid herself of at least a size-able portion of her most invasive species-us. It will be a real mind-bender. I’m laying out the plot lines as we speak.

Look for inspiration. Write down your ideas as they come to you. Be on the look out no matter where you are or what you are doing. Keep the best ones. Develop one or two. Make them into something beyond just a quick moment of inspiration that you just as quickly forget. These lightbulb moments came to you for a reason. Honor them by paying attention and exploring where they might take you next.

This is all the difference between those who write and those who dream about writing. Make it happen!

Fire Sale

Terms of Lease can be something you definitely want to read carefully before signing on the dotted line. Who would think that the renter of an office space in an outlet mall would be held as the responsible party for replacing the rusted a/c hardware on the roof above their square footage to the tune of about fifteen thousand dollars? Unfair? Undoubtedly. Yet, there the owner was, up a creek without a paddle, in a leased storefront with no way to adequately cool it, and with a second blazing hot summer knocking at an already very hot door. The decision was made to close down. Sell everything and sell it fast, before everything buckled under the searing heat of another Florida scorcher.

There was more inventory to drag out than I thought the place could have held. I, myself, held out until the end, refraining for a couple of months’ worth of ever deepening discounts. Once the overly hot establishment finally began to look respectable in its emptiness, I began seriously contemplating my purchases. It wasn’t until just a few days ago when I entered the place, the brisk breeze from several large fans pushing the air around as best they could, that I was finally satisfied with the prices offered. Hardbacks were going for $1 a piece. I bought seventeen of them before stopping myself, lugging myself and my brood out of there, quite proud of what I’d accomplished.

Strangely enough, I haven’t read the works of other sci-fi writers’ all that much, and it’s high time I did. I’m excited to get started. I’ll let you know what I discover.

Keep writing!

Writers, Prepare for Endgame!

When my daughter asked me several months ago to watch a Marvel movie with her, I couldn’t possibly have known what I was stepping into. It all seemed innocent enough. Excitement, adventure, superheroes saving the world. Good stuff. My daughter is pretty low key, however, so I was caught a bit off guard to witness this imaginative personality so unrelentingly captivated by this hulking behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even less predictable would have been me, the dad, getting so thoroughly swept up, as well. I’ve sat down on the couch once, twice, now at least a dozen times. I’m hooked. I’m a fan. I can’t wait for more! Why?

It’s the beginning of April 2019, and I’m just as excited as the youngsters about the release of “Endgame,” now only a few weeks away. I’ve been casually searching my brain to pin down the source of such unbridled attraction to this tantalizing franchise. My answer came quickly and was certainly predictable, since it’s an element I find important in many creative efforts, including my own: it’s the details.

If you ever want to gleefully jump down a bunch of frivolous and entertaining rabbit holes, go to Wikipedia, then hop around in the world of superheroes. Click on the name of a specific character. Any of them will do. Let’s say Iron Man. Wow, look at all those Team Affiliations! He’s a busy guy. There’s a whole day of reading right there. Fictional Character Biography could be another hugely wonderful waste of time. Now click on his Armor link to go to yet another page dedicated entirely to that one aspect of Mr. Stark’s character. Oh jeez! So many links beckoning me. I don’t have time for this. And yet, I find that I actually do, and there’s a good reason why – I’m honing my craft by studying the pros, seeing how they do it.

For someone still learning the tricks of the trade in fictional writing, this is not trivial stuff. It’s a gold mine to be discovered and explored. MCU is not just for kids. Oh no. I’d be willing to bet the adults love the storylines even more than the young fans. And for me, the guy still putting “pen to paper” after all these years, the value of spending ridiculous amounts of time ogling the special effects on the big screen, trying to figure out the web of intricacies that tie it all together, wondering how I’ll ever keep it straight, then realizing that, slowly, I actually am…this all counts as a very good investment in my book. Not to mention Marvel has given my daughter and I something very fun and endlessly entertaining to share and talk about, and that’s always a good thing.

So I’m happy to sit on the couch, my little sidekick by my side, both of us riveted to our seats, watching, listening, waiting, only to be surprised, time and again, by something new, or an unexpected someone coming to steal the scene in surprising, mind-bending ways.

MCU has become my classroom. For those of us drawn to speculative fiction, Marvel can teach us a’plenty about character development, plots and subplots, world creation, twists and turns, pacing, good dialog, danger and suspense, and unexpected endings that leave us yearning for more.

If you, too, are a writer, struggling to get your creative juices flowing, I urge you to spend some time with Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, Thor, Scarlet Witch, Captain America, and all the rest. Consider it study time. A fun homework assignment. Your portal to see how the professionals go about bringing their audiences back, time and again. How many of your own story ideas might your cranium generate as you watch, glued to the screen, imagining new characters coming to life on the page, your own new worlds springing to life, your own new plots being planted like seeds in a vast plain of potential.

Can’t wait for April 26. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing. You should too. Seriously…go get busy!

Little Gems of Addiction

(fiction…sort of) I’m sitting in my house. It’s the weekend. I have some time. Precious little. What to do? I already know. Right in front of me, sloppily stacked, one tossed on top of the other, is a hastily acquired collection of Little Gems, aka writer’s reference books. I showed not the least hesitation in bringing them home, scoring one more hit each time, the last one, the last one, my mantra, until I needed another, then another, individually, sequentially, collectively hoarding them, now all residents in my home, unhesitating in their role to quench my thirst for more.

How could I deny myself? Their titles so titillating, their promise so unbearable, seducing me with subtitles suggesting that I can master plot twists, can write with emotion, tension, and conflict, can change the world if I so desire.

“No I can’t,” I’m arguing with myself.

“Yes…you can,” squeals the Little Gem from its perch. I swipe out quick with one hand, then thumb through quick like.

“Of course I can,” I whisper quietly, like I’m in a library or something.

“of course i can, of course I can, of Course I Can, Of Course I Can…” The Little Writer Who Could, I find myself plodding, yet again, toward the front of the store, my supplier, a dingy little outfit daring to include the word “Noble” in its name. Ironic, since there’s nothing noble about the way it feeds my addiction, my thirst for knowledge. Surely I’m not alone. The experience is debilitating. For me…for all of us.

I stand there at the checkout counter, silent, not making eye contact. Smiling quickly to myself, I feel grimly satisfied with my latest Little Gem, furtively snatched from uncomfortable nest, it squeezed tightly on both sides by competitors, all fighting for that same rite of passage-to be purchased by a complete stranger.

Driven home to unfamiliar surroundings, fully aware that I, its new owner, will only care for the briefest of moments about its pretty cover. It knows, it confesses, without a doubt, that I, the stranger, won’t hesitate the slightest bit to find out just exactly what hides inside. I almost sense an exhilarated shudder from the Little Gem, struggling only slightly to free itself from my grasp, the smallest of doubts lingering about leaving its safe haven.

An addiction. What else can I call it when the only happiness I can find is to stand at the checkout, yet again, quietly waiting my turn. I wonder if that lady behind the counter, who now knows my face, can sense my sickness, my compulsion. Some people turn tricks. I turn pages, God help me, and I don’t even care. She fires a glance my way, even before I’m half-way to the swipe, nervously smiling all the while. Then she fires another quick shot down toward the freshly harvested Little Gem that will be getting in the car with me, plucked from its temporary orphanage at the very back of the store.

I sense her artificial satisfaction. We’re all complicit. Without me, she gets sent home, as well, another casualty of a shuttered supply house. I know they’re disappearing all across the nation, the authorities intent on shutting them down, trying to stamp out the addicted, the ones like me frequenting such establishments, all of us feeding our needs and wants, our hopes and desires. It’s all so twisted. So raw. So…literary.

She’s anxious to get me out the door. Familiar with all the many flavors of obsession trudging toward the exit, she’ll have something personal to say to each of us. About me and my particular brand of weakness? She’ll ask if I’m a member yet, knowing I resent the insinuation.

“Hell no!” I’ll say.

“You can save a lot of money,” she’ll reply, reprimanding me for abstaining from that indulgence.

“I don’t want to save money,” I snap back. “Why must we have this little dance every time. Who are you to exploit me!”

She calmly smiles, almost expectant of my outbursts now, as though she knows it’s probably just a matter of time. I dread what’s coming next.

“Well, here’s a buy-one-get-one-free coupon for a cookie, and you have a nice day.”

It’s all very non-committal. I stare down at my paunch, then explode.

“Don’t you think you’ve already done quite enough? You’re the one who needs to have the nice day, Lady, not me. And don’t look so smug. I’m not the only one addicted, you know?”

I traverse her up and down with a critical stare, sneering all the while. She knows that I know. It’s no accident when I drop my coupon on the floor. Everyone watches it sway, back and forth, fluttering down for the longest moment. One guy makes a leap for it. I cut him off with nothing more than a step, trapping the little shred of wood pulp beneath my shoe. Everyone feels sullied. Shaken. The checkout lady drops her head in shame. I’ve called her out.

Everybody standing around virtually applauds me in silence, all the while gripping their select Little Gems a bit tighter, shuffling forward in the line, anxious to make their own purchase, to get home as soon as possible, only caring for the briefest moments about their individual exteriors, hesitating not a bit to find out just exactly what hides inside.

I’m sitting at my house. It’s the weekend. I have some time. Precious little. What to do? My symptoms are on the rise. My head is spinning. I’m dizzy and overwhelmed, caught-up in this frenzy of information overload. I’m an addict, doing what addicts do. Situated comfortably on my couch, mindlessly sipping coffee, cradling my latest Little Gem in slightly trembling hands, a trickle of sweat slowly sliding down my back, a roaring raging river of unbridled writing desires carving out huge swaths of an interior shoreline badly in need of a makeover for untold years.

I take another sip of coffee, feeling pathetic. My wife is staring at me curiously. Does she know. Can she tell I’m daring to believe? Maybe I’m too far gone to care.

“What?” I say.

“Oh nothing…it’s just that…”

I bring the Little Gem toward my nose and sniff deeply of its fragrance.

“Don’t judge.” It’s all I can manage and she knows it. She turns away, barely stifling her amusement, heading pridefully toward her own coddled collection of Blue Rays, mostly unaware that a freshly minted universe is violently exploding itself into existence inside my aging cranium.

I casually play with the corner of my Little Gem’s cover, scarsely aware of its glittering exterior. Something about mastering plot twists. Whatever. I tear open the cover to get at the meat. What I find waiting inside leaves me utterly astonished. And yet, I remind myself, it’s been hiding there all along.

The Humbling Act of Honing

I mentioned a few blogs back that I’m working once again on a novel I initially started about ten years ago. How that passage of time occurred, or where I was while it unfolded, I truly cannot say. It’s rather eye-opening to think how much productive time I lost by avoiding the pain of really buckling down. Had I worked out the kinks in the manuscript back then, the story could have more quickly resembled something close to the state it’s in now, lo these many years later.

What’s most humbling to me, however, is the idea of how much I absolutely did not know about writing a novel ten years ago, but was thoroughly convinced that I did.

The difference between the opinion that I held of my writing back then, as opposed to what I think about it now, is the acquisition of knowledge. Specifically, knowledge about the art of writing. More simply put is to say that I have recently decided to dive deeply and take the time to hone my craft. Now that I have started in earnest, I can confidently say that I’ve begun to accomplish a whole new level of writing.

It’s not that I became a better writer. Perhaps I did not. ‘Better’ is a subjective term. It is only that I became a more involved writer. What does that mean? Mostly that I am now aware of many more components of writing. This awarenesss, while wonderful to be sure, is also perhaps responsible for the anxiety that more intensely accompanies my efforts. The devil is in the details. More details, more devil. Damn!

The same question that surely must have always been there in my mind, even as I was only beginning to understand what it means to pick up a pen and write, now cries out in a voice that is deafening – Am I getting it right? The worry, the stress that I feel now is surely more intense than it was when I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

And certainly I’m not suggesting that I’m done with the honing. No no…the self-flagellation shall continue. So the future surely carries only one message for me: be prepared for more suffering. Oh, what misery have I wrought?

This must be why the saying Ignorance is Bliss feels comfortable sliding in here, since it seems so appropriate to express such sentiments. Knowledge is power? Maybe. But be prepared to acknowledge that, the more you know, perhaps the more you don’t want to know.

To hone your craft can only mean one thing-you will become much more unhappy as a result. But maybe, it might also mean that you will one day achieve literary greatness. Hmm…

Better keep writing, anyway, you wretched, miserable soul!

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