Friday, July 17, 2015

If not a Peter Pan, at least be an Eeyore

We often hear, "Well, they think I'm a jerk, but if they knew the real me..."

There is the private inner "me" which is the sum of my experiences.  My experiences inform my hopes, dreams, fears, and thoughts.  This inner private "me" is the one I sometimes think is the real me.  However, it is no more real than the other me.

The other "me" is the perceived "me"- the one others are experiencing.  The other "me" is NOT the one I think I am sharing.  It is NOT the one I think others should be perceiving.  It IS the one they ARE perceiving based solely on my words and behavior.

The "me" perceived by others is every bit as real as the private inner "me" that I think represents my true identity.  So, while there are infinite shades of grey here, we can simplify and say there are four basic types of combinations making a real-self from the two halves. Using cartoon characters to lighten this a bit...

The Gaston-
If a person believes his private "me" to be a wonderful person, and others generally perceive him to be a jerk based on his words and actions, then he is equally wonderful and a jerk.

The Eeyore-
If a person hates his private "me" and thinks himself bad/worthless, but others generally perceive him to be lovable, then he is equally worthless and lovable.

The Peter Pan-
If a person believes his private "me" is a good person, and others generally perceive him to be a wonderful person, then he is equally good and wonderful.

The Scar-
If a person hates themselves, and others generally perceive him to be a bad person based on his words and actions, then he is equally worthless and loathsome.

Now, this bit is key- we are in control of both.  We can work on our own self-perception.  This is difficult, but by believing in ourselves and believing the kind words of those who care about us, we can come to love ourselves without becoming egotistical.

The biggest mistake is to blame others for how we are perceived by others.  We are in control of our words and actions, and other people are generally both reasonable and rational.

You can't impress everyone, but generally, when taken together, the consensus of all the people in your life is a true representation of your behavior and words.  There will be those who just don't like you, and there will be those who adore you no matter how despicable your behavior, but as a whole, the majority perception of you is the one you deserve, it is your real perceived "me."  You earned it through your words and actions, and to deny that is just a defense mechanism and perhaps a sign that you are a Gaston.

Although some don't believe it, how one is perceived by others is easier to fix than a poor self-image.

So I will work on both my private "me" and my perceived "me."  Sometimes I'll be up, and sometimes I'll be down, but at least I'll be trying.

I think if one cannot be a Peter Pan, at least be an Eeyore.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

So this whole YA thing...

Young Adult fiction just kept coming up.  I don't mean the new book sales.  I don't mean one agent after another who said they were actively looking for YA.  I mean readers.  Smart adults, that I admire, reading YA.

Now, I admit, I was skeptical.  Why would educated, erudite adults, all clearly smarter than I, be reading YA?  I know people are quick to point out that YA means that the protagonist is young, usually a teen, and that YA does not that the language in the book is written at a lower reading level.

So, I began researching and reading.  Turns out, most YA fiction IS written at a lower reading level than most adult fiction.  So, people who get insulted by those who say some readers have turned to YA because it is easier to read probably should get over it.

It is also true that most YA, actually I could find no exception, features a main character between the ages of 14 and 18.

However, it is also true that I was surprised by some of the YA fiction.  I was surprised to find some of the language- the diction, the syntax- was actually challenging reading and clever writing.  I was also surprised to find very intricate plotting, and complex themes.

I realized that not all YA was easy to read, and certainly some YA was difficult to write.  In light of this, and because I love to learn-by-doing, I decided to try and write a YA novel.  The entire book is written in 1st person, from the point-of-view of a 16 year old girl.  I did, in fact, learn a lot.

I also had a lot of fun.  I finished the first draft of my first YA novel today.  The working title is "Celestine," which is also the protagonist's first name.  Celestine Tolland has found herself in a new place and time, after great loss, and has to find her way.  These are familiar tropes, I know, but to live inside the head of teenage girl since November has been both eye-opening and exhausting.

I always learn from the characters I invent.  The Night Stalkers series I wrote featured a female protagonist, so that wasn't the particularly new part.  It was the combination of gender and age. Teenage girls live in an especially fun and simultaneously vicious world, filled with opportunities for stories.

Now, I'll set to revising the "Celestine," and hopefully I'll be querying agents about the project in the coming months.

In the end, I have learned that I enjoy writing Young Adult fiction.  I am not sure what my next novel will be, but it just might be another YA project.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


I have always loved baseball.  Since I was very little, I was told by everyone how great I was at baseball.  A real natural talent.  I've worked hard at it my whole life.

I've practiced on my own.  In the early morning, in the middle of the night.  I've practiced countless hours, sometimes 10 hours per day.  I've watched others play for innumerable hours, paying attention to every detail.

I've studied the moves of others, asked every single person I could for advice on how to constantly improve my game, and I went to endless training.  As an adult I attended legit baseball training, working with successful professionals at the peak of their own game and retirees filled with sage advice.  I've had incredible mentors.

I've even been paid to play.  In small markets mostly, but I had a two-year hitch with a major-league team.  I know you can't place my name, but that's because I played under a different name.  They wanted a DH and I didn't want to be known for just my hitting.  I know there's better out there, and maybe my heat was never that spectacular, but I've got a hell of a slider.  Pitching, baby, that's where it's at.

I want to pitch for the Boston Red Sox.  Nothing less.  That's the goal.

Now, I could stand on the street corner, and pitch into a net for the public to see, and put my hat out for spare change from passersby.  Another option is to join a team that has no stadium, they take all comers and, for a couple bucks, people could download video footage of me pitching.

But that would NOT be pitching for the Red Sox.  Ever since I was a kid watching Freddie Lynn, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice in the outfield, Carleton Fisk catching, and pitchers like Luis Tiant and Dennis Eckersley, I've been hooked.  Later there was Timmy Wakefield with that crazy knuckleball. The crowd loved them, and so did I.

What's more, they loved what they were doing, and they only had the chance to play in front of that crowd in Fenway because experts decided those guys were good enough.  People who REALLY knew the game, with a sense of form, history, and business, saw Luis Tiant pitch and said they had to have that guy, and Tiant had to try to live up to those expectations.  And boy did he.

Playing for the minors could be cool, but I'd always have an eye looking up toward the majors.  I'd still burn to go from Pawtucket to Boston, and would be working day and night to get there.

I know there are plenty of great players who never got picked up by the Red Sox or any other team, and maybe that's not fair, but that's how it works.  If you're good enough, and you keep at it, with a tiny bit of luck, you're going to the show.

I mean I could take this whole thing to a silly level.  If I laid out some money, I could join the baseball equivalent of a dude ranch, and have a uniform and everything.  Some of those dude teams, if you pay enough, even get to scrimmage the Yankees's bench for 5 innings.  But that would NOT be pitching for the Red Sox.

If I laid out a lot of money, I could start my own major league team.  I could pitch for them.  I could start every game.  Win or lose, I'd be playing baseball and after all, that's what I love right?  Except, I want to pitch for the Red Sox.  I want to play, but I don't want to lie to myself and say that my own team, or a dude-ranch team, or a Netflix-style team, or busking-baseball for spare change is the same as pitching for the Red Sox.

I'm not going to try to make myself feel better about the level of my play by trying to convince myself that Major League Baseball has shut out players like me, that ticket sales are down, and that it's all corporate or political.  I'm going to continue to try to pitch for the Boston Red Sox.  I will continue to strive to get better, and to someday earn the right to pitch from the mound in Fenway Park.

Of course, I will never stop playing even if I never pitch at Fenway, but I'll never stop trying to be good enough so that the Red Sox will look at my stuff and think, "Damn, we can't say 'No' to this guy."

But, you know, maybe I'm not really writing all this about baseball.  Maybe this entire post was actually about writing and getting published by a major league publishing house, and the differences as I see them between the different publishing options.

Still, I have always been, and will always be, a fan of ol' #24 standing out there in right field.  What an arm.  Holy smoke.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


I'm a teacher and a professor and I want to share something.

I'm not blowing the "Hurray for teachers!" horn.  While I started kindergarten able to read and loving school because my first teacher, my mother, was an excellent one, I had a terrible teacher in 2nd grade that had no business teaching children.  I won't name her, but when I look back at that year, I literally can only remember fear and humiliation, and even the colors are somber blue and grey.  Screaming and dumping of desks and kneeling in corners and worse.  She set me down a path of not taking school seriously, hating much of it, being quietly defiant, and setting me back years in my learning.

HOWEVER...along came a string of talented teachers.  Many, in fact, and more than I can name in this post.  If you were one of my teachers, and I don't thank you by name, please know I am still deeply grateful for the time and effort you put in for all of us.

After the damage done in 2nd grade, and a string of some great and some not so great teachers afterwards, it was in 7th grade that my rescue truly began.

A teacher who simultaneously was stern and loving, demanding and supportive, took an interest in my writing.  Outside of my parents, no one really had.  Her name is Julie Foss.  She was a veteran, and had taught my parents before me.  In a stroke of luck, I had Mrs. Foss for two years in a row.  Truly, I look back and know that she was the pivot point in my educational life.  It was because of her that I became a student again.

The scaffolding was not there for math, and so I continued to feel inadequate in the subject and would remain behind some of my peers throughout junior and high school.    Some math teachers assumed I was lazy, others probably thought me stupid.  I remember one instance so clearly...I discovered I finally understood my homework one night.  It clicked!  I worked for two hours on it, but it was fun!  Like solving a long-secret puzzle.  I went to class the next day, and the other students were talking about how easy the homework had been, how it had only taken them 20 minutes.  And then I learned that I had every problem wrong.

But another teacher came along.  Perhaps a bit eccentric, but energetic, and very smart.  For the first time, I enjoyed math, and felt I could actually learn it. I also began to care about doing well with the math because I wanted to please the teacher.  Mr. Frank Colgan was actually, primarily, a chemistry teacher, but I learned more math from him than I learned from anyone else in my life.  Perhaps all the years combined.

I had strong preparation in my English classes throughout high school.  In fact, we read more each year than most high school students read in four today.  We studied *gasp* grammar in a systematic way, even diagramming sentences.  This helped immensely when I went to Monterey to learn a new language in a year-long immersion program.  Well, actually, I was bored for a few weeks while foreign nationals had to teach the other Americans in the class the difference between between nominative and accusative cases (I just had to learn the labels, they had to learn the concepts).  Still, it was the last high school English teacher I had that marked another turning point.  All male teachers wore a coat and tie back then.  He would come in, like a reverse Mr. Rogers, in a suit and tie, and remove his high-top leather white sneakers, and slip into his shoes.  He once announced the next day would be the first day studying poetry and he brought in Led Zep lyrics to Gallows Pole.  I mean, everyone does that sort of thing today, but back then it was unheard of.  He was very young, and quiet by nature, but smart and, again, encouraging.  If Mrs. Foss made me want to be a student again,  it was Mark Kelly who made me want to teach.

I had some growing up to do before starting university, and after my time in the army, I was ready for full-time college work.  I found that even six-years removed, the prep I had received at little Madawaska High School was more than adequate.  When I took Biology at university, we didn't come close to covering what we had covered in half a year of Mr. Paul German's high school bio class.

There were three professors, among many great ones, whom I'd like to mention here.  The first was Dr. Bill Willan, who shocked me at the end of my first semester when he invited me to join an honors class in English for my next semester.  There was Prof. Brad Ritz, with whom after I had exhausted every course in economics that the university had to offer, we designed independent study courses so I could continue to learn.  I truly regret that I simply ran out of years at college before I could soak up more from Brad.  I have 3 semester hours in Brazilian monetary policy.  I mean, who has that?  I loved it.

And finally, my undergrad mentor, with whom I also took several courses.  He was such a different sort of person.  A man of huge frame, with a pony-tail.  From Brooklyn, but with a PhD from West Virginia.  I took a course in Evaluation & Guidance from him that I still refer to almost weekly in my own teaching.  If Mrs. Foss made me a student again, and Mark Kelly inspired me to teach, it was Jim Killarney who made me into an intelleweirdo-good-natured-skeptic desperate to learn more psychology, sociology, and philosophy.  Foss made me want to work, Kelly made me want to tell, Killarney made me want to ask.  When Jim lost his battle with cancer, one he did in his own inimitable way, I was truly saddened.  We'd lost another great one.

I had four mentors in grad school, brilliant writers all..  I will briefly mention them all, because they each gave me something I continue to use in the moments I am doing the work I love most- writing.  Suzanne Strempek Shea's kindness, expertise, generosity, and journalistic eye helped me center my voice.  Richard Hoffman did something that no one had honestly and constructively done for me.  He told me that my writing was not up to par.  That he expected more and he showed me how to build a pathway to get there.  I'm still working on it.  James Patrick Kelly was encouraging not only of my writing (and he is a master of plot) but also of my workshopping skills, something I love and get paid to teach at the university level today.   Finally, Mike Kimball, the cool one, not that other guy.  Novelist and playwright.  His humor and insight into the craft of writing has forever changed my work.  When I am editing/revising any of my own fiction today, it's his voice I hear in my head.

I'm a teacher and a professor and I am thankful.  Not only because these great teachers, and others like them, we able to undo the damage of one horrible person and the self-inflicted damage that came after, but because while underpaid and overworked and probably without knowing it, they saved and inspired one kid who is now doing his best to teach others with an example of how to do it badly and many examples of how to do it incredibly well.

Thank you.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Allan Hale Jr.

This morning I learned from an old friend that one of our dear and mutual friends has passed away, Feb 3, after a battle with cancer.

Last July, when I was living in NH for the summer, Allan Hale emailed me:
""Hi Kevin,
So you're in Groton? I'd like to meet you sometime for a beer! I live in Laconia now. I haven't been on email lately, I was out the last several work days . . . Just got back to work today. Let me know when a good time for you is.

We didn't get that beer. Now, we won't.

Allan was one of the good ones. Brilliant, kind, an extremely dry wit, and a worker. Intellectually curious and seemed to know something about everything. When Allan knew more about something than you did, you could never tell. He wouldn't tell you. He'd just smile and nod and let you share what you knew.

We two were the young-ins for several years of hunting parties. We'd go to camp with his dad Allan Sr. and his peers, funny guys like Bill Harris and others, and Al and I would listen to the stories and laugh at the "team" who slept in instead of hunting. And then we'd laugh again when those back in the camp would play the sound of sizzling bacon over the walkie-talkies while we were out freezing in the woods far up north by 3rd Connecticut Lake in NH.

We worked at a software company together, we started in the software training dept on the same day. The company was a spinoff from Cabletron called Aprisma, and we'd leave at lunch to go target practice at a range in South Berwick, ME. We'd smoke cigars and laugh. We rewrote coursework together. We once worked as a team to convince the state of West Virginia to buy the software by teaching them about it for 3 long days. When Aprisma began to build a new building for itself, we were put in temp work spaces. Al and I SHARED a cubicle. He talked often back then about learning to fly a helicopter and getting his license. He never did. We laughed a lot. It was in that cubicle, Al and I sitting shoulder to shoulder designing new course material, that we both learned of the 9/11 attacks in progress.

We went golfing on Waukewan, the course his veterinarian grandfather owned and built (well, he built the front 9, the back 9 he brought a firm in) and Al was so patient with my terrible play. His maternal grandfather, if I remember right, had been the police chief in Meredith, NH. So rooted in NH he was, but funny too. We once stumbled upon a tiny cemetery in the woods, one of those you really only find in NH, and by coincidence everyone in it was a Hale. No matter how I tried to make him excited about the chance find, he just shrugged it off.

While we worked full-time together, including at least 25% of each month on the road flying across the country and around the world, he earned his MBA at night. He was a worker.

Smart, driven, kind, funny, generous. How better to be remembered?
I'll miss him. I wish we had gotten that beer.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Saving Moira

My current work in progress has the working title Saving Moira and the first draft will run short.  I believe a novel should really hit the 70k word mark at the very least, and this novel's first draft will end well short of that.  This only means I have the room to go back through and weave an additional subplot through it, but I don't know yet what that will be.

In Saving Moira, Christopher Beranger made his dying wife a promise to bury her on the land they owned and loved.  What he couldn’t tell Moira, as she lay in her deathbed, was that the bank had already begun foreclosure proceedings.

Christopher and Moira lived with their dog, well-liked by neighbors, but they kept mostly to themselves.  When they received the dire prognosis, Christopher stopped taking work and they spent their time walking the wooded acreage together until Moira simply was no longer strong enough.

After she died, Christopher kept his promise and buried her in her favorite spot, down by a bend in the brook.  He then dug false graves, filling the forest with them, in an attempt to confound any attempt by others to find her.

The bank auctioned off the property, and Christopher was resigned to leaving the house with only their dog and a few odds and ends, until an order to move Moira provoked a confrontation.  Among those who wanted her moved were the land development company which won the auction, and Moira’s brother Mike, who wanted his sister buried elsewhere.

Sympathetic to Christopher were the local police chief, Lem Holt, and an attractive print journalist named Karen Kendall.  Karen took up Christopher’s cause, and wrote about the couple and Christopher’s promise.  Soon protesters were at the property showing solidarity with Christopher and Moira and angry with the banking system and the so-called 1%.  Mike, Moira’s brother, was also there, with a handful of supporters of his own.

Now, the sheriff’s department intends to execute the eviction order, and time is running out for Christopher….

…and that’s what I’ve written so far in the novel Saving Moira.

I'd like to write some more today, but I have to finish preparing for the college course I begin teaching tomorrow. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Aliens, Drywall, and a Unicycle

In researching The Twin, I read countless books.  Well, maybe not countless, and not cover to cover, but I read huge chunks of almost thirty different books and many different web sources.  I mean, I was immersed in Josephus (the 1st century scholar), the Gnostic gospels and Pistis Sophia, and three different translations of the Bible (of which, Young's Literal Translation was especially useful).

After The Twin, for my next project, I wanted to do something completely different.  As one might imagine, my use of language, tone, and even huge pieces of plotting were constrained by historical events and my imagined expectations of the readers.  When the next novel came along, I decided I wanted to go a bit nuts.

Even the working title- Aliens, Drywall, and a Unicycle- started as a bit of a joke.  In fact, it was even worse originally, as Aliens, Drywall, God, and a Unicycle, but I decided to shorten it a bit.  I also know that someday when the ms is published, the title will likely be changed.  Novels differ from poetry that way.  With a poem, the title is part of the poem.  With novels, the title is part of the marketing.

Aliens, Drywall, and a Unicycle is the story of Tom Tibbets, who takes a job at a weekly newspaper in Portage, New Hampshire and an apartment in the old Cooper Building where the residents form a kaleidoscope of the odd, interesting, and insane.  Tom, against his better judgment, is soon assigned to write a series of features on his colorful neighbors.  

There’s elderly Marie downstairs, who is sure we are all the descendants of ancient aliens, and there is Ben, the pothead philosopher who works at McDonald’s.  There are the Lennox brothers who hang drywall for a living and play with explosives for fun.  There is Winnie, the albino vegan pacifist, and Rich and Becky Kapel, who despite renting a top-floor apartment, are nomadic born-again Christians who drop by in their Winnebago from time to time.  There is Leaf, the self-harming nymphomaniac who attempts suicide every couple of weeks, and Miguel who is a middle-aged, long-haired, chain-smoking schizophrenic, who is always seen riding his unicycle.  Finally, there is the mysterious and wise Mr. Hitch whom no one seems to know, but who appears at different times wearing such varied things as wetsuits, cowboy costumes, and roller-blades.

At first, Tom feels like the only sane person in the building.  However, he soon identifies more and more with his neighbors who are more three-dimensional than they initially appeared and who actually might have life figured out. The very people he at first considered unstable and strange become a lens through which he gets a new look at himself and everything else.

His contempt for his job, his boss, the outside world, and his life as he knew it grows.  Just as it seems Tom will simply be assimilated into the cast of tenants, the tragic accidental death of one of his neighbors not only derails his life, but leaves the tenant community forever changed and off-balance.  Tom comes to wonder if his karmaic weight, added to the Cooper building, has thrown off the bizarre status-quo energetic balance of the place.  In the end, however, the story is a tragi-rom-comedy featuring Tom’s growth from delusion to examination to awareness of what is truly important in life.

To say the book is strange is an understatement.  I think some of the fun of writing is the capturing of different facets of the author in the projects.  Wave Momentum, The Twin, and Aliens all come from different corners of my head.  

Tomorrow, I'll discuss a couple projects I began writing, which have not died but are sitting idle for now while they incubate.  Someday, I'll reopen them.  

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Twin

The next of my novels I'd like to discuss is titled The Twin.  I was "inspired" to research and write this one after watching a BBC documentary on Jesus of Nazareth and his possible connection to India.  As the research went on, it was somewhat amazing how the pieces fell into place.  From a craft perspective, this novel was a bit more complex.

The Twin is the fictional retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth from the point of view of Thomas Didymos, known to most as Doubting Thomas. The narrative draws upon the belief of some that Jesus traveled to Kashmir during his missing years, studied Buddhism, and then returned to Galilee to begin his ministry.  After surviving the crucifixion, he returned to Kashmir to live out his life, dying of old age.  The locals in the region actually do believe that Jesus is buried there, in Srinagar, remembered as St. Issa or Yuz Asaf.

The novel is crafted as the translation of an ancient document written in the first person. The first layer is Thomas's own account, and the narrator is potentially unreliable, perhaps even schizophrenic.  The second layer is the translator, a fictional professor of Classics from the University of Cincinnati, who is obviously inept and an egotist, and who includes translator's notes and footnotes throughout.  While Thomas’s narrative is spare just as the New Testament gospels are, and is hopefully thought provoking, it also acts as a “straight-man” for the notes of the professor, which are designed as satire.

For example, the translator is so insecure and arrogant that he repeatedly adds bits to Thomas's account such as, "I was afraid" with a footnote indicating, "While the original document did not actually include this, Thomas must have been afraid at this point." The translator reports that he makes these additions to help the narrative because ancient authors, even writing in 1st person, rarely included how they felt. They only reported the facts, as they knew them. This leads us to wonder, however, how much of the story the professor is changing as he goes, whether due to incompetence or arrogance or both.

The story is provocative and entertaining, humanizing all involved with insecurities, joy, romantic jealousy, and eventually peace, but the narrators are potentially unreliable enough that the work is clearly not a structured attack on Christianity. 

As you can imagine, the reactions to this manuscript vary wildly.  When I talk about the project, there are people who shut down at the mention of the name, "Jesus" because without listening they assume it's a religious book.  The faces of some others darken when they learn the book suggests a story not taught in Sunday school.  However, many of those who have actually read the book have told me they enjoyed it.  My goals were only to be entertaining and thought-provoking.  

I'll only say this about faith in general.  It requires no faith at all to believe in what is obviously true.  It does not require faith to believe the sun will rise in the morning.  Where faith actually exists is when there is the possibility that ANOTHER truth exists BUT, with no additional proof, a person CHOOSES to believe in something despite the other options.  Faith is a choice.  

Friday, January 16, 2015

Wave Momentum

In the years since my first three novels were published, I have written three more novels, a fourth one about halfway written, and a fifth one which is really just an idea, a loose outline, and a couple pages. 

Instead of simply posting that I have a manuscript, or that I'm writing, or that I'm still looking for a new agent, I thought it might be fun to share what the novels are about, without including too many spoilers. 

So the first novel I'll share with you is titled Wave Momentum.

Wave Momentum is the story of former NYPD detective Jack Killarney who attempted to leave the darker side of society behind when he moved to a small coastal town in Maine.  However, when a local farmer murders his own young children and then commits suicide, Jack realizes there is no place so idyllic that evil does not eventually come calling.

Jack becomes obsessed with understanding evil and how and why such atrocities can occur.  His investigation and research lead him to Professor Vivian Rueil, an expert on the topic of evil.  She is brilliant and skeptical.  She also harbors a dark secret and is as emotionally scarred as he is.  Jack and Vivian discover a pattern which links seemingly disparate events such as a terror attack in Brazil and a cult suicide in Canada, and which allows them to predict where the next large-scale tragedy will occur.

This launches them on an international search, from Darfur to Morocco to Israel to Pakistan, pursuing the pattern and attempting to thwart the next human tragedy.  Ultimately, there is a confrontation with a being much older than even the Judeo-Christian concept of Satan.  An entity older than psychology, philosophy, and religion.

This novel was once a different manuscript and has been rewritten.  It's a different book now, but I  really enjoyed writing it, revising it, and dare I say- I still like reading it.  Of course, the author is a bit of a schmuck, but I'm learning more and more about living with him every day. 

Tomorrow, I'll try to remember to share what the second novel is about.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Right off the tracks

I've been working on my latest novel.  It has a working title meant as a joke, but I've tried changing it and I can't yet.  It's titled Aliens, Drywall, and a Unicycle.  Yeah, I know, but it's only a working title.

The bigger problem is the novel has run right off its tracks.  That might sound exciting, but it's exactly the opposite.  The novel was going well, the dialogue was alive, the characters were fun, and I was excited every minute while writing it.  I couldn't wait to see where it went next.

And bogged down.  I sensed it.  I let two friends read it.  Both agreed, it had lost what it had going for it.  So, today, I return to the WIP with a handful of dynamite.  I will blow away the dead stuff hanging onto the fresh living end of my story.  I'll start at the beginning, read the ms, and continue from the amputated end.

Hopefully, I won't make the same mistakes going forward.  I hope I can recapture what I had going.  I'm hoping the little voice returns today and helps me, whispering that same story into my ear.

If not, I'll be sad about the story I lost because I can't find enough time on a regular basis to keep a fresh end as I build these stories.  I need more writing time.  I need to insist on it.  Not insist to anyone else, but with myself.

Even if I end up finding the groove on this story again, I'll wonder at what I lost.  I have had ideas over the past months with no opportunity to jot them down or even to record my speaking them, and I know they're lost.  I can't remember what those ideas were, but I know I liked them.  With any luck, at the very least, another author will find those.

So, here I go.  I'm off to delete what computes to be 15% of the novel I have written, and to replace it.  I hope to lose fewer ideas, to be able to write more often, and with the help of willing friends/1st readers, to stay on track from here on out.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

To Write Organically...

When someone tells you they write organically, that is a pleasant way of saying they really don't outline in advance and that they like to let the story lead them.  Unless you think the entire "organic" thing has been co-opted by ADM and major supermarket chains and the like, because then it probably is less pleasant for you.

Anyway, I've written novel-length work both ways.  I have outlined and I have written with only the vaguest idea of where the story is going.  I'll admit that I enjoy the finish line much more when writing organically, much as a blind pilot probably enjoys having safely landed more than the sighted pilot does.

Looking at the finished novels, however, I'm not sure one way or the other increases the odds of writing a better story.  It alters the process and the author's experience, but it hardly seems to matter when looking for better.

I would argue it does impact the nature of the stories.  For example, without any sort of outline or advanced planning as in purely organic writing, there really is no way for an author to produce a complex series of foreshadows throughout the text which then culminate in a wonderful payoff ending.  An author could finish the book and then go back and add in the foreshadowing, but that's no longer organic, since not only do you have an outline pointing to the ending but you have an actual manuscript.

There is also built-in stress when writing organically.  It might be fun stress for some, comparable to bungie-jumping or walking on hot coals, but with each subsequent organically-written page, the author risks screwing up everything that came before.  While this can be true even when writing from a tight outline, the risks with an outline are lessened.  If you take a wrong turn in writing your story when you're 30 pages deep, who cares?  Most novelists will tell you that the first 30-50 pages are the honeymoon; easy and stress-free.  However, get 250 pages deep and then take the book the wrong way, and only catch it around page 300?  Ugh.  An author in that situation almost always has a flash-fantasy of chucking the whole thing out a 2nd floor window.  It'll wake you up in the middle of the night.  "What?  Really?  Did I really add a that to my novel?  I mean, why not just have the Fonz jump sharks while waterskiing?"

Now, I am DEFINITELY not a proponent of writing an outline in granite and never wavering from it. Here's how I work-  I outline on a yellow legal pad.  I don't know why it works for me.  I do NOT draft by hand, I type from the first word.  But the outline, that I do on yellow legal pad with a couple sharp pencils.  In fact, normally I'm lying down on a bed with pencils and pad, scratching notes, making arrows, crossing out, etc.  The outline for the novel will run almost three pages or so, and for heaven's sake, you won't find roman numerals or uppercase letters and other such nonsense in my outline.

As I sit at the computer and start writing, I glance at the outline.  I have a pencil ready too, because from the first day, I'll be making changes to the outline.  Sometimes I'll go a couple days of hard writing without looking at the outline and then suddenly look up and wonder, "Wait, where the hell am I?" and I'll go to the legal pad.

Typically, the end of the novel is pretty different than the original one outlined on the pad, but it's not purely organic writing.  I didn't wander through the forest.  I made choices at forks in the trails.

So, I have a VERY loose outline of the novel I'm writing now.  Broken into four stages, the novel has only a few notes per stage, but I know where I have to get my story by the end of each stage so that my characters can catch their connection to the next.

I wrote all this not because I was hoping to convert anyone to any system, nor was I even trying to help you.  I was just stalling; I was putting off going back to the novel, but I suppose I'll check that pad and see where I'm up to.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Writing Ain't Like Raking the Lawn

Ask any writer and you're almost sure to learn that the chief frustration in her or his life is not the effort to get published or writer's block.  I would bet it won't be lack of ideas or struggling with an ending or a character they can't love or any of those challenges that most writers know come with the territory.  Instead, the primary frustration is finding the time to write.

Mind you, just as Einstein told us, time does not exist as a separate entity.  When writers say they need time, what they are actually saying is they need time and space.

Sometimes non-writers will tell us, "Well, you've got some time...go ahead and write."  The time they are referring to is perhaps 30-45 minutes and the space is filled with distractions.  Writing ain't like raking the lawn.  It's not something you can pick up and put down in 20-minute intervals.  

Personally, I'm primarily a novelist.  It takes me at least 30-45 minutes of sitting quietly with the manuscript before I can hit a single keyboard key.  Next, I'll need at least an hour more to accomplish anything at all, but it's actually in the subsequent hour to that one that I'll probably write a paragraph or two that I actually like.  So, ideally, I need 3 or 4 hours dedicated to uninterrupted writing to make me feel like I'm not doing it half-assed.  Given that amount of time without a television on, meals to prepare, dishes to wash, laundry to do, phone calls to answer, other people's problems to solve, crying kids or barking dogs outside, day job concerns, or nearby fireworks/shotgun blasts and I can actually work on the novel.

People often ask how we writers find the time.  The answer is we often don't, or if we do it is expensive.  If you tell someone, "I can't make it today, I have to work at my day job," they'll have no problem with it.  If you tell someone, "I can't do that right now, I'm writing," they'll often get angry.  This is largely because many people see writing in the same way they see any hobby.  So sometimes we decide writing is too expensive in terms of our friendships, but then we resent being made to choose.

However, to someone who is serious about writing, it is not a hobby or a pastime.  I'm not going to be melodramatic and say something like, "To us, it's like breathing."  It doesn't quite rise to that.  If I stop writing for a couple minutes, I won't pass out.  Still, it's not just a hobby.  For those of us called to write, it is a fundamental element of how we self-identify.  It's a cause of which we are a part.  We are activists of the written word; whether successful or not, we are driven to communicate, to entertain, to provoke.  We are the conveyors of ideas, perpetually lost and happiest in the what-ifs.  

Worse than knowing in advance we won't be able to write on a given day is when we plan to write, reach the very mouth of the cave of our imaginations, and then we are called away.  We tell ourselves, again and again, that we'll hold sacred some time to write.  We make resolution after resolution, telling ourselves that from now on we'll write at 4am or four hours every other day, or all day on Saturdays.  However, life gets in the way, and we seem unable to protect the writing time.

I mean, I can still write with limited time and with all the distractions, but it'll be something a blog entry.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

To Whom and Why?

I'm deeply interested in researching decision-making and behavior given extreme stressors, including fear and time-pressures, and how those decisions are impacted by the verbal input of those around us.  

A few of several questions would be- To whom will we listen when we fear for our lives, or the lives of others, and we have only seconds to decide?  For whom will we surpress our own instinctual reactions in a crisis?  Who do they have to be, why do we grant them the authority, what do their words and tone have to do with our assessment of their mental states and with enhancing their credibility, and how does all this later fit into our processing of the aftermath and the assignation of blame/guilt or credit?

These crises could be as simple as two people inside an out-of-control automobile or as complex as a unit of soldiers engaged in intense combat.  I'm interested in the cognitive and linguistic cues involved and the decision-making process.  The results of the assessment of another's words and tone upon which we are willing to bet our lives.

After exchanging a couple emails with Prof. Malle at Brown University's department of Cognitive, Linguistic, & Psychological Sciences, I'm less sure that the research I'm interested in doing would form the basis of my pursuit of a doctorate in psycholinguistics, but I still find the questions interesting and worth asking.  I will continue to look for a professor in a psycholinguistics grad program whose own research interests might be a fit with mine, and who might be interested in working with me as I do the research.

The work might or might not be important, but it would certainly be interesting.  At least to me.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Five Films I'd Love You To See (If you haven't)

I know many of you have seen these and I don't mean to somehow suggest I'm familiar with something you're not since that seems to be the currency so many depend on, but if you haven't seen one of these movies, I recommend you run out and pick it up or go on NetFlix or however else you get your hands on films these days.  Yeah, I know, books are better but this isn't that blog entry.  This is about films I like.  Yes, there is profanity in each.  There is no gore or overt sex, but the language is rough in each, even though each of these are smart films.

5. Almost Famous- The well-known comedic-drama of the teenage writer on assignment for Rolling Stone (sort of) following a rock band on tour and what he learns about the music, the industry, touring, romance, friendship, and himself.  Based on the experiences of Cameron Crowe, whose film this is.

4.  Wonder Boys- This is a movie that every writer should see at least once and every person who tries to teach others to write should see more than once.  Far from one of those feel-good movies where we might watch a 110-lb former Marine suddenly inspire inner city kids with her goofy karate moves and most hackneyed Dylan Thomas quotes, this is a movie wherein every character is deeply flawed, the acting is wonderful, the writing is great, the whole thing is as quirky and weird as real life.

3.  Snatch- This improbable Brad Pitt sleeper has a great cast, fun writing albeit a goofy plot with gangsters and a stolen diamond and illegal boxing and pikeys . . . it has a bit of everything in it.  The British humor is fun and the voice over actually works somehow.

2.  Rare Birds- Here's one you've probably never heard of.  It is set in Newfoundland.  William Hurt stars in a quirky romantic comedy which features bird watchers, a secret recreational vehicle, government involvement, romance and friendship, and amazing views of the rocky coast.  Well worth it if you can find it.

1.  Sweet Land- Hard to explain this one, but it is the story of simple people falling in love, working the land, friendship and loyalty, and how banking and farming rarely mix.  There is also a generational aspect and a treatment on the durability of love.  No action-packed flick this one; in fact, one of the refreshing things about this film is how people actually pause to think from time to time before they speak.  Some breathtaking visuals in this one.

I was tempted to include Into the Wild, but read the book instead.  :-)  Otherwise you might miss the dual lesson of go ahead and be a free spirit, but don't be an idiot about it.


Friday, July 27, 2012

What is an MFA in Creative Writing?

I've earned one and I don't have the first clue what it means to anyone else.  I know why I studied and read and wrote and workshopped and listened and learned and presented but I couldn't tell you why anyone else did those things.

I wanted to learn how to write better.  Since my first three thriller novels were published by Berkley Books, I had been carrying around that same open secret that many published authors do.  I kept waiting for someone to simply walk up to me in a naked-emperor moment and say, "Man, those books sucked.  I've written 10 novels that no one will publish, or even look at, and every one of my books are better than any of your books.  How did you get someone to publish those?"

I'd be trapped and wounded and I'd be standing there facing my critic and facing the fact that the first words that would pop into my head would be, "Yeah, that's probably true.  I have no idea how I got that lucky."

So, I became a Stonecoaster.  I attended the University of Southern Maine's Stonecoast MFA program. There, with the help of a handful of great professors and a herd of grad students, many of whom are brilliant, I learned to write better.  What I write now is better than what I wrote pre-MFA.  I learned.  I still have much more to learn, but I made progress.

If you want to enter an MFA in Creative Writing program to find a community of writers who will completely understand where you are coming from with your writing obsession, you'll likely find some of that.  It will be as welcoming as you are willing to face where you are up to in your writing.  Some writers are stronger and some weaker.  I don't know who sets the standards, or what the metric is, but good writing is like know it when you see it.  You'll probably even see some bad writing that will have you scratching your head.  Let that go too, because if you're there for the community, be open to everyone.  Some people will have no real understanding of the publishing industry, though they will insist they do or that they don't need to understand.  Still, every member has something to contribute, and the vast majority will be more knowledgeable than you are, better read than you are, more published than you are.  The best way into that community is with an open mind and open ears.

If you are after an MFA because you want to be a full-time, tenure-track professor at a small liberal arts college in pastoral New England or a prof at a major metropolitan university, I wish I could say that there are jobs for everyone.  In fact, I wish I could say there was one position like that for every 100 MFA's out there.  There are not.  You can adjunct or be an instructor and put in your time and maybe you'll find a position will open for you.  There are two things that will help you if teaching full-time at the tertiary level is why you earned an MFA.  Be willing to move anywhere in the country, especially places where most people don't want to live, and publish a bestseller.

I don't want to be a writer.  I want to be writing, and not necessarily but preferably for an audience of appreciative readers.  The MFA was a way to try and buttress my ego a bit, a way to build my skill and confidence a bit so that the rejections had more fortress to wear away before getting to the chewy center.   It's worked, at least somewhat.  I even look back at those thrillers written for Berkley with pride.  They aren't half bad.  Like any carpenter, I can see every tiny gaff, every missed swing of the hammer, but they accomplished their mission of providing entertainment and I feel I "smarted" them up a bit.  Since those books, and with what I learned to earn my MFA, I feel as though my writing, my craft, has improved.

There has been no post-MFA writing lull.  After I earned a B.S. in English, I admit I stopped reading for a while. With reading loads like a single World Lit course which required the purchase of 13 books (one of which was the Muqaddimah, a book written in 1377 by Ibn Khaldun on the philosophy of writing history) the bachelors degree put me off reading for a while.  I didn't read for pleasure for perhaps two years after earning that degree.  However, after earning my MFA, the only constraint on my writing has been time.  I have two novels in the works and there are 14 short stories making the rounds at various markets, in addition to a completed novel wandering about in six different NYC offices looking for a home.

I'm happy that I now get to feel good about that (most of the time) and the fact I've made what I hope are lifelong friendships with talented, generous, creative, and supportive people.

So I know what an MFA in Creative Writing is to me, and I'm more than satisfied.  I wish that same satisfaction for every MFA candidate and degree-holder.

Monday, July 2, 2012

There Are Still Generous People

Even as we continue editing and preparing Chocorua Review for its inaugural issue, we write our own work.  Since it is really gauche to publish your own stories or poetry in the journal or magazine you are editing, we continue to look for journals that will accept our creative contributions.  
While looking, something nice happened to me.
I submitted one of my stories back in October 2011 to a very well-respected journal.  A very selective literary review to whom I'd sent a piece I like very much.  This past week, I finally heard from the editor.  S/he wrote this:
"I apologize it's taken me so long to get back to you about your story.  We liked it very much and it was considered for the magazine, but in the end, it didn't quite make it.  Please do consider submitting again, and feel free to send your submission directly to me as opposed to the submission manager."
As rejections go, that's as good as they get.  To invite me to send another of my stories to the editor's email directly is incredibly generous.  With the number of submissions they receive, there was no reason for the editor to extend such an invitation.  
In CR, we have a fledgling publication that we're just getting off the ground and we've broken the 1000-submission mark.  For this editor to do what s/he did, at a publication that probably gets a few thousand submissions per month, it was simply a very nice thing to do.
I hope as we go through life and see other people's creative work, whether it is a drawing a child made for the fridge, or a memoir that an old friend wrote, or wood carvings by the elderly man next door, we can all find a way to be generous and kind.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Turning points in a narrative

Even with the help of Aristotle, Joseph Campbell, and Christopher Vogler (and years of experience), it is still an anxious time when a writer reaches a turning point in a novel.

I am writing a piece of historical fiction.  This novel has four parts and I've just finished the first part, which is built around a particularly well-known piece of history.  I've begun the second part, which is largely supposition and invention on my part.  That transition is scary.

If the reader was loving Part 1, and suddenly the story pivots, that is a danger point.  I might lose her or him.  Also, Part 3 is based upon history that nearly everyone knows, so wherever I go with Part 2, I know I have to somehow come in for a landing and sync up with Part 3.

The novel may sound as if it is completely planned out, but it is not.  I have only the loosest of outlines and I am trying to write as organically as possible.  I am limited, of course, by history.

In my opinion, the fear comes from fondness.  I really like how Part 1 has come out.  It is complex.  For me, with the toolbox I bring to the work, it was a stretch of my ability and I like it.  That's a good feeling.  It is also the source of the fear.  What if I screw it all up with Part 2?

I know some of you think to yourselves, "Just fix it in the revision."  I'm not a draft the whole thing and then revise kind of author.  A small revision in Chapter 2 might necessitate the complete rework of Chapters 3 to 35, so I don't work that way.  I write and revise as I go.  If I do go back and revise a book-length work, I never like version 2.0 as much as 1.0.  That's just me.

So...anxiety.  Wish me luck.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Launching a literary journal: The on-going lessons

Years ago, I had my first experience editing a literary journal.  I was an assistant editor on The River Review.  This was something like 1995 or 1996 and we published material from such luminaries as Lee Sharkey and Wes McNair.  It was a great experience and I learned a lot from the editor, Paul Hedeen.

Subsequently, in northern Maine, my friend and I launched an independent multi-genre literary journal in 1997, titled The Karenjen Review.  This, too, was a learning experience.  Every submission came in on paper, but when it was time to go to print, we either had to retype everything or, in a few cases, we were lucky enough that those writers who had been accepted were able and willing to send us 3.5-inch floppy disks.  Few teenagers today even know what those are, but we were glad to have them.

Today, a few months in to The Chocorua Review, we are applying all the past lessons.  We've learned a lot about editing and publishing, surely, but there was much new to learn.  Through tools such as the online submissions manager Submittable (formerly known as Submishmash) and fundraising tools such as Kickstarter, some things run remarkably smoother.  Submittable makes organizing submissions by genre and assigning them to first readers much easier.  It even allows the staff of readers to vote without being in the same state or country.  It tracks whether a submission is new, in-progress, moved to the 2nd tier, a finalist, accepted, withdrawn by the writer/artist, or declined.  It also archives all the declined and withdrawn submissions.

Kickstarter, thanks to the help of many, and especially the remarkable generosity of a certain few, has taken the stress of fundraising out of the creative process.  We really needn't worry about costs again until summer of 2013.  We're hoping revenue from subscriptions will be helping by then.

What is more difficult this time?  We've been blessed with an avalanche of submissions.  It's well within the realm of possibility that by the time we accept the last story and the last poem and the last piece of visual art for the first issue of CR, we'll have received over 1000 pieces of work.  As I write this, I'm really just trying to hide from the fact that there are more then 208 short pieces of fiction alone waiting for me to read and carefully consider.  In fact, it is entirely likely that while I've been typing this, another couple stories have come in.

This is a nice problem to have.  It has afforded us the luxury of selecting the pieces we absolutely love. Will everyone love every piece we select?  Frankly, with all due respect, we don't care.  We are judging each piece on its merits, as we see them, and on how each piece fits with the general aesthetic we have in mind for CR.  Anyone who wonders what that aesthetic is may watch the video on our website again.  We do.  When we are unsure, or not in the mood, or we fear we're in the wrong mood, we watch the video once more.  No one has seen it as often as we have.  As of this posting, the video has been watched more than 800 times on YouTube.  We suspect about 300 of those are members of the staff, re-centering ourselves in the CR aesthetic.  (no, not really.  geez)

We've also learned a great deal about the people who submit.  There are those who are beginners and tell us so, and there are beginners who try to hide it.  There are those who think being cheeky in their cover letters will help and those who treat submitting as a business-like act.  There are writers who have told us that we're lucky to be reading their stories and there are those who thank us for providing a place to which to submit.

A few things are certain.  It is a ton of work and without the help of volunteers and friends, it would be impossible.  It is also incredibly rewarding.  It may well be that sending out an acceptance letter is the only thing more enjoyable than receiving one.  Thank you, everyone, who has made our launch so rewarding.  We hope more of you will try your hands at this sort of project.  Creative people need all the venues they can get!