Tag Archives: Writing

When does the comeback begin?

Sitting at my keyboard and making words appear on the screen has been a rare event for me during recent months. Almost as exceptional have been the times I’ve laced up my running shoes and got out the door. If writer’s block or injury were behind this awkward, embarrassing separation from two activities that I purport to love … stop—I have to be honest with myself—love doesn’t cover it. Writing and running are two things that I have tried to use to define my existence. During these last few months without them, I have felt as though I am slowly losing substance—losing my place in the world.

Don’t get me wrong; I haven’t been wallowing in a pit of despair while I waited for my own Fezzik and Inigo to rescue me. Hikes with my wife, visits with family, and caring for my grandson helped me maintain a framework as I struggled with the direction my life was taking and the cumulative effect of the dramatic changes it has undergone over the past three years.

I’ve made a few stabs at getting back on my feet, both writing-wise and running-wise. In the latter, attempts have been half-hearted and riddled with missteps. In the former, every renewed writing effort has died aborning.

After several unproductive bouts with my keyboard I have come to realize that I have been avoiding a deeper problem. This problem is both a dilemma and an obstacle that may be causing the dawdling uncertainty that plagues me.

Although Harvest of the Heart has been positively reviewed by everyone who has read it, it isn’t the novel I first envisioned. In the editing process, I followed the advice of others—which was, from one point of view, excellent advice—to make changes and cut elements that both shortened the book and simplified the plot. I fooled myself into believing they were the right moves.

At the time, I thought I saw a way forward for my main character, but that path just isn’t one I want to follow. This is a problem because  the clear path I desperately want to take will require, to some degree, trashing an already published novel and doing a major rewrite. That means no sequel this fall; the way things are, that wasn’t going to happen anyway. Following this path also means retracing my steps … a lot of work to get to where I had hoped to be almost a year ago.

So… when does the comeback begin?

I ran today. I wrote these words today. I made a decision today. Although the proof will come only with results, today seems as good as any for starting a comeback.

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The Morning Stretch #14 – Kaleidoscope writing

Different pictures formed from the same jumble of crystals in a kaleidoscope. Some writers manage the same with words. (Pic courtesy of Wikipedia)

There are some writers—Neal Stephenson comes to mind—who treat words as if they were various colored crystals in the lens of a kaleidoscope; they throw them together, jumble them up, and bizarre, often beautiful, patterns emerge. You have to wonder—applying that word’s double meaning of  awe and confusion—whether the message you have divined from the mystical pattern is one the author intended. Sometimes you doubt any true meaning is contained in the ornamental arrangement on the page, even as you stand in awe of the artistry.

While I believe a writer, in most cases, should use the simplest combination of words to achieve his desired outcome, I can’t deny the pleasure I sometimes derive from complexity. But if a sentence is constructed to maximize its lyricism, as opposed to its meaning, the writer risks confusing and losing the reader. If that’s the goal, you should write poetry. (No offense to poets intended :-).)

So, why take the risk? For one, I’d consider being called an artist whose canvas rests between the covers of a book as high praise indeed.

Today’s exercise … craft a lyrical sentence whose meaning is secondary to its beauty.

—–

Plowed free by the tip of a pen, rough stones write the history of my run on the moldy carpet; hard testaments of a conquered trail soon swept out the cabin door and returned to the mountain from whence they came.

—–

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The Morning Stretch #13 – Ticket to Paradise

Since my wife and I are going to win the $540 million dollar Mega-Millions lottery tonight, it is possible that this will be my last post for a while. After all, I’ll be spending  a lot of time talking to lawyers, accountants and long-lost relatives.

Therefore let the last stretch be an easy one … fantasize about what you would have done with the money if you’d won. (My stretch, on the other hand, will be realistic planning.)

This evening, my wife and I—after our winning numbers have been drawn—will probably scream our selves hoarse … and then cry ourselves dry. After that’s out of the way, we’ll talk about whether to take the $540 mil as a lump sum ( about $359 million before taxes ) or settle for almost $21 million a year for the next 26 years. It’s likely we’ll take the lump sum so we can find out what it’s like to burn through that much money in record time, like many past winners have done.

Once that’s done, we’ll work on the obligatory list of all the causes and charities we’ll want to fund. I’m fifty-five and forgetful already, so the Alzheimer’s Association will probably get a big chunk. 🙂

Then, until dawn the next morning—since there is no way I’m sleeping tonight—I’ll be planning the Ultimate Writers and Runners Retreat.

Where I'll be heading after I hit the lottery tonight.

First, I’ll search the internet for a small piece of land in the Rocky Mountain region, something in the 50,000 – 500,000 acre range. This one’s a bit small and it’s in Canada, but it gives you the general idea.

After I’ve found the right property, I’ll start planning the loops of running and biking trails that will run through the property. They’ll be from a few miles up to ultramarathon length … and all within the borders of my runner’s retreat. We’ll have a guest house big enough to fit thirty or forty of our closest running friends; we don’t actually have that many close friends, but I’m sure that will change. And I’m figuring on putting a few small cabins around the most picturesque locations where inspired writing will take place.

I’ll need a private air strip so I can fly in my grandkids (yes, mom and dad, you can come, too), as well as the runners and writers I’ll invite. On occasion, my wife and I might use the jet to visit all the most beautiful, remote places in the world and see how they compare to the paradise that sprang from our lottery winnings.

That’s all the planning I can do right now. Figuring how to spend my winnings is going to take so much time I better use the rest of the day to clear my schedule.

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The Morning Stretch #10

There are two purposes for The Morning Stretch: 1) Loosen my creative muscle for a successful day of writing. 2) Strengthen my writing skills by stretching beyond the comfort zone. This won’t always produce great prose, but the goal is to become a better writer and trust that great prose will be the ultimate result.

If characters are to be believable, a writer of fiction must be able to empathize with each one he or she creates, at least to some degree … even the nasty ones. Otherwise, characters won’t act or speak authentically. For a basically decent human being, this can be difficult and I believe that anything difficult requires some practice if we are to do it well; a lot of practice if we want to excel.

Today we have another challenging stretch. It may loosen and strengthen. Do the first step before reading the second step. 

Step One – Make a list of three things you would NEVER do. Two of these can be things that frighten you or are physically challenging, but they should be possible. Don’t put “Grow wings and fly” or “Meet the creature from Aliens in a dark alley.” One of these must be something that you would never do because even the thought of doing it is repellent, illegal, or immoral. Give this some thought and be willing to get uncomfortable. Don’t list things you’d like to do, but can’t, such as “Keelhaul any agent who sent me a form-letter rejection.”

Here are mine –

1. Work in a needle factory. The one thing that turns my head from the movie screen is seeing someone get a shot/injection. I hate needles.

2. Smoke. I was raised in a haze of smoke; both parents dead from smoking related illnesses. ‘Nuff said.

3. Harm my grandchildren, or any child for that matter … just the thought is upsetting.

Step Two – Choose one item from the list and write a fiction scene where the character is doing the thing you would NEVER do. Write in first person, present tense. Don’t let yourself off the hook by being a reluctant character—if your choice was “murder my mother,” don’t write about how you were forced to do it, or that you felt terrible.

—-

My foot smashes through Oscar’s mouth but it doesn’t end the grating sing-song words. The shattered and sparking flat-screen is on its back—one end on the TV stand and the other balanced precariously on the sill of the freshly-cracked living room window—but an incessant  “Doin’ the Trash … Doin’ the Trash .. Doin’ the Trash!” is still goose-stepping through my aching head.

I kick the bedroom door so hard the knob punches through the drywall and keeps it from bouncing back in my face.

“Christ, Tommy!” I yell at him. “I told you not to leave the damn TV on! Now shut the hell up!”

Spiderman’s leap into Aslan’s mouth is arrested mid-air as my grandson looks up from amid his toys. He drops Spiderman and clutches the stuffed lion to his chest. I see the bottom lip pucker and clinch my fists. The three-year-old’s blue eyes are huge and his breath begins to hitch, “wuh-hic … wuh-hic … wuh … ”

I won’t be able to stand it if the tears start, and they do. Damn Sharlene for sticking me with this … this … who knows what he is? My whore of a daughter probably doesn’t know who the father is. From the doorway, the smell of sour piss almost makes me gag. Almost four and nothin’ seems to get through his head what the commode is for. Damned if I’m gonna change his dirty diapers.

As I step into the room, Tommy raises his hands over his head and wails. Shit! If he knows what’s coming, why doesn’t he just shut his goddam pie-hole? Still in the boy’s grip, Aslan stares at me as I aim the first slap at Tommy’s head, knocking away his only protection. The wails are louder now.

My arm is drawn back once more and for certain the damn racket will soon end. I clench my fist and swing again.

—-

Ugh! That’s an exercise that makes me feel like I need a shower.

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The Morning Stretch #9

A writer wants the people who inhabit his stories to resonate with readers. Physical description must deliver a picture that will help make characters, especially the main characters, real in the reader’s mind. You can more readily get readers to invest their emotions in a character if they “see” that character within a scene.

The face will often be the feature that distinguishes one character from another and it doesn’t take a lot of description to give the reader a template on which they can use their imagination to imprint a recognizable face. You don’t need to provide a laundry list for every, or any, character. Don’t talk to the reader like you would a police artist; one distinctive phrase is usually enough. Other features can be delivered in an almost unconscious fashion in the course of the story: “He wiped the sweat from his wrinkled brow” or “A finger brushed the pale scar on her dimpled chin.”

Today’s stretch: In one sentence, write an initial description of a new character’s face.

His flat, round face glowed from the effort, mottled like the bottom of a copper pot fresh off the burner.

 

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The Morning Stretch #8

Today’s Morning Stretch … is a cheat, at least for me. Describe your last physical exercise. (Picking up your coffee cup doesn’t count!)

I went for a long run (thirteen miles) early this morning; the first predawn long distance run in a quite a while. I began at 5 am and the start was sluggish, but once my body woke up, I started feeling pretty good. A weak, but faithful moon was in the sky; a thin river of clouds lay above the eastern horizon. Just above the clouds, the moon looked like it was being slowly washed away.

As I ran down Spring Lakes Road, a brightly lit tractor-trailer would occasionally make its way down 287 in the distance. Through the darkness, they looked like cigar-shaped flying saucers skimming the ground. Rocks and ruts in the dirt road were bare shadows as a result of the weak light cast by the moon. That made my arrival at the shoulder of 287 all the more enjoyable; on the smooth, flat asphalt I could maintain a steady pace and it was easier on my ankles. My achilles  had warmed up by then and the minor pain disappeared. When a south-bound truck rumbled by, I watched my shadow grow in front of me until it flashed behind; and then I drafted in the truck’s wake. Gradually my pace increased.

I spent a while thinking about a short story I’ve just completed for a contest. As matter of fact, it needs to be post-marked today! The story is titled Moonlight Shepherd and is bound to be controversial, at least in some quarters. It is about a little girl who thinks she sees Jesus on the prairie under the bright moonlight. An opportunistic evangelist sees her as a chance to increase his market share. The result is both dramatic and thought-provoking.

I also dwelt momentarily on the slow sales of Harvest of the Heart. After a promising start, they are anemic at best. Of course, I’ve done no marketing of late, as I concentrate on writing, so I guess that is to be expected.

It was only in the last mile that the sky became light enough for me to see my watch. I was pleased that, in the last mile, it appeared I had dropped below my goal pace for the Boston Marathon, which is only four and a half weeks away.

My nanny duties were supposed to start at 7 am, but I couldn’t see my watch for most of the run, so I didn’t keep track of time or note the distance. As a result, I had to guess. I’d planned on doing twelve and getting close to 6:40 … in time for a shower. A slow early pace and the extra mile brought me home at 6:49. Luckily, Chaitan had just gone back to sleep and I had time for a shower and this post!

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The Morning Stretch #7

Believable characters come in part from a writer’s willingness to be true to them, accept their flaws, and let the character lead the story. I think the ability to be true to your characters is dependent on being honest with yourself … a hard thing for some people.

Today’s stretch is a tough one. Write about a big mistake you’ve made.

About eight years ago, the company I worked for—my brother’s company—was in trouble with the IRS. I had started working for him years earlier because he needed the help, but I was an hourly worker; I wasn’t involved with the operation of the company. He and his partner had no business experience, but they’d once worked long and hard and the company had grown into a good source of revenue for them, although it wasn’t really profitable. I thought the mistakes that had put them into trouble could be corrected and the company made profitable, so I took out a home equity loan and got them through the IRS mess.

That decision was a mistake. I didn’t look close enough at how they operated and I didn’t initially insist on having some control. More money was borrowed and changes made, but the truth was that I never looked honestly at their commitment to “righting the ship.” My own hubris led me to believe that I could rescue this company. At one point, we were close to pulling through but it seemed the fates were against us.

Now, I’m thankful that life took me down that road. Otherwise, it is unlikely that I’d be where I am now—poorer, but doing what I’ve always wanted to do. Still, just because things may have worked out over time doesn’t change the fact that it was a mistake—my mistake—that lost us our home and left two brothers estranged.

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