Tree of Life

Sunday, February 28, 2010

"Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write."

~~Rainer Maria Rilke

SCENE: Love Is Blind--Part One

Friday, February 26, 2010

A quick reminder: Don't forget to sign up for the "Drunk At First Sight" Blogfest--a fun chance to write fiction for St. Paddy's Day! Get all the details here.

If you're stopping by for Friday Link Love, I'm sorry.  I haven't been able to do my usual link-collecting routine this week.  Your funny bone will just have to wait until next week.

But I have something else cued up.  I originally developed this piece for the "Love At First Sight" Blogfest (if you haven't checked out some of this fiction yet, you really should!) but decided to put "The Dragonfly" up for the Blogfest instead.

To me, this scene entitled "Love Is Blind", had some merit in the end, so I thought it would be fun to share it with you.  Here's part one.  I'll put up part two on March 1st, so check back.


Love Is Blind 
(Part One)
(c) 2010 Jon Paul

    The minute I heard her voice, I gave Phillip a nudge. “Who’s that?”
    “By the kitchen?” he asked.
    “No, over near the living room window.”
    “Ahh. You sly dog, you.” The party wasn't loud, so he leaned in and whispered to me in a conspiratorial manner. "You have good ears, my friend. That's Sloan Brady. Lawyer. Boston College grad. Intelligent, great sense of humor, but...I don't know...."
    "She's a bit of a handfull."
    "Well, you know. I was thinking about Sarah and stuff."
    I could hear the tentativeness in Phillips voice. It had been a year since Sarah left me, walking out one Tuesday morning after breakfast, sending me a breakup text that afternoon. A week later, the moving guys showed up to get her stuff. She never told me why it was over, but I thought I knew the reason.
    The birthday party had been Phillip's idea. Get you out of your shell, he'd said. Meet a new girl. At the time I had agreed; maybe I was ready for something new, but now that it was time to step up to the plate, I wasn't so sure.
    Phillip laughed. I bet the look on my face told him exactly what I was thinking. "You want I should introduce you two?"
    "Do you think she'll have a problem with--"
    "I think there's only one way to find out."
    I took a drag of my beer. "What's she like?"
    "Well, you know. She is a woman. But...well. Maybe she'd be too much for you."
    "Too much? What does that mean?"
    "You know. Like you couldn't keep up with her. She's too smart, too witty. You're getting slow in your old age after all."
    "Funny, I thought it was graceful."
    Phillip chuckled. "Naw. Just slow."
    "The problem is I can't figure women out. I always think--"
    "Dude, I know. I know. We've been over this ground a hundred times. But you gotta pull the trigger sooner or later."
    "Yeah, I just wonder if now is the right time, when--"
    "Look, I don't care. You want me to ask her over or not?"
    I thought about it. It was now or never, right?
    "Ok. Sure."
    "Right. One hot lawyer introduction, coming up." Phillip walked away.
    I leaned against the wall and took a measured breath. I wasn't nervous; rather the need to relax before any first time run-in with a member of the opposite sex was an old reflex, operating in the same mental space as tying my shoes or straightening my tie before a big performance: I did it without thinking. I rarely noticed it, except when my Spidey-sense told me something unique might happen. Like now.
    Phillip returned with Sloan in tow. "Sloan, I'd like you to meet Eric."
    "Pleased to meet you." Her voice hinted at a cautious interest, exuding a chocolaty coolness like the hush of a bowstring gliding over a cello's middle register. I extended my hand and she gave it a refined shake.
    I waited a beat too long before I let go, then smiled at the faux pas. "Thanks for coming."
    "Thanks for having me. Happy Birthday."
    "Thank you."
    Phillip patted my shoulder. "I'll leave you two to get acquainted."
    Dress shoes clacked on the hardwood as Phillip disappeared into the clamor of music from the other room and left Sloan and I alone. Harvey Sneed, my music coach, was telling an off-color joke in the kitchen. The crowd's laughter kept the silence between us from becoming uncomfortable. I'd heard the joke before and Harvey told it well. With great fanfare, he delivered the punch line--"When pigs fly!"--and Sloan chuckled. The rest of the gang laughed too and groaned as Harvey started another joke.
    Sloan spoke again. "So this is your place?"
    "How long you lived here?"
    "Let's see. Going on five years now, I think."
    She took a sip of her drink, like she was thinking. "I like your art."
    "No really. I mean--I don't mean to be, well--obvious--but how does a guy like you get such cool art to hang on your walls?"
    The art had been Phillip's idea too. When Sarah moved out, he said I needed to make a fresh start. Redecorate the apartment! he'd said. He helped me pick out the paintings. Actually he and Camille, a gallery owner he knew, picked them out. In the process, he tried to set me up with her, but in the end he said it would never work: she was too visual.
    The art was inexpensive. According to Phillip, the collection of pieces reflected my personality perfectly. Enough visitors had made similar comments in the last nine months that at some point I had started to believe it. Still, the fact that everyone made the same remarks about the art felt a little like a joke to me. I caught myself smiling and looked away. I could tell she was looking at me.
    "I hope that wasn't a rude question."
    "No. That's a good question, actually. People ask me that all the time."
    "Are your laughing at me?"
    "No. Sorry, I was thinking of something else."
    She reached out and pinched me hard on the forearm.
    "Hey," I said in mock alarm. "That's not fair."
    "Don't lie to me." She said, laughing herself. "I can smell a lie from a mile away."
    I liked her confidence. And her voice. I couldn't get over the sound of it, like a song far away and near at the same time.
    I reminded myself to take it slow. My affection for women ran in an easily recognizable pattern: meet a great girl, fall head over heels for her, go out for awhile, break up, pick up the pieces. And the girl always seems to think that my problems are the same as everyone else's problems. But they're not.  Funny.  My lifestyle seemed obvious enough, but the girl never understood it was going to be a problem until I had already committed one-hundred and ten percent. By then, it was too late.
    "So it's your birthday," she said.
    "What do you want?" I could feel her eyes on my face, appraising me. She let the suggestiveness in the question stand, gauging my response. I wondered if her directness rattled hostile witnesses when she cross-examined them on the stand.
    "Oh, you know. Cure for cancer. World peace. The usual things."
    "I see."
    I took a sip of my beer. "I hear you're a lawyer."
    "Yeah, pays the bills. You know."
    "So you...don't like it?"
    "I didn't say that. But it isn't my, shall we say, first love."
    "What's your first love?" I asked.
    "My aren't we nosy."
    "If this relationship is going to work, I'm going to have to ask you to show better discretion."
    "OK." I nodded and smiled like a schoolboy who'd learned his lesson.
     Sloan talked about her job. She worked in a law firm downtown--pretty prestigious from what I could tell. She'd been there for four years and guessed she might make partner in another five, if she really worked. She hated the office politics, the backstabbing. She couldn't trust anyone, which was a real adjustment for her because growing up she had always trusted everyone. She was constantly catching herself with her guard down and had now become super careful of anything she said. To her, it was like working in a police state.
     I nodded and smiled, trying to imagine her workplace, wondering what her office looked like. By the sound of it, the rest of the gang had moved from the kitchen out onto the patio. Phillip came by and asked if we needed anything. We requested another round of drinks and he said he'd be right back.
     Sloan said she wanted to sit down and so I led her carefully across the room, edging around the coffee table with my knee. We sat down on the couch together.
     "You know I saw you play once," she said with a hint of bravado.
     Here it comes, I thought. She's going to drop the standard line on me about how great my performance was, how she loved the concert, how the evening was such a treat for her. I loved playing the violin--it was my life--but the drudgery of going through the same story with a thousand different people over the years had taken its toll. I just couldn't bear to do it over and over again--almost verbatim--without busting into a sarcastic smile.
    I did what I could to keep a straight face. "So, how did you like it?"
    "I didn't think you were very good, actually."
    Ouch. I didn't see that coming. I waited for the joking laugh, but it became clear after a second that she was serious.
    "I guess you can't please everyone," I said.
    "I do remember reading in the papers that you were ill at the time--but went on with the show anyway. So there is that. Maybe it was just an off night."
    She didn't pull any punches, that was for sure. "Yeah, that was probably it."
    "But you know, I'm really no judge of music. I'm more a literature person."
    "Ah. I see."

Thanks for reading.  Go here for part two!

**[Author's note: If you are reading this, I have left my post in Baghdad and am now wandering aimlessly about the Kuwaiti desert on my long circuitous route home. In other words, I am off the grid. As soon as I am able, I'll make the full go 'round and respond to comments and check out any new followers. Thanks, and see you all in a few days.]**


Thursday, February 25, 2010

"A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author."

~~G.K. Chesterton

Review: John Knowles' "A Separate Peace"

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A quick reminder: Don't forget to sign up for the "Drunk At First Sight" Blogfest--a fun chance to write fiction for St. Paddy's Day! Get all the details here.

Now, down to business.  Any long time follower of this blog may recall I posted a web article I read discussing "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles back in January.  Subsequently, I purchased the book, read it, and today I am going to review it.

When I first sat down to write this review, my draft narrative drifted all over the place (I mean more "all over the place" than normal!).  I was trying to review the book and answer the issues raised in Metcalf's article simultaneously, with little success.  After wrestling with it for awhile, I realized I had two posts on my hands: a review and a discussion.  Therefore, I'm going to give you a straight review of the book in this post and publish a second post at a later date discussing the provocative issues Metcalf raised in his piece.

"A Separate Peace" tells the story of Gene and Phineas, two fast friends who attend a New England prep school called Devon, reportedly modeled after Phillips-Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.  Gene is the best student in the class, Phineas the best athlete, and the story relates the fierce rivalry between the two boys, set against the backdrop of a country mobilizing for World War II.  The separate peace of the title refers in part to a brief period of calm during the summer session--when it seems almost as if there isn't really a war, and Gene and Finny and their chums won't soon be enlisting and shipping off to distant places like Guadalcanal.  The title also refers to the primary conflict between Gene and Finny, and how that is finally settled.

The key incident in the story comes when the two boys are high on a tree limb overhanging the Devon river.  Inexplicably, Gene jounces the limb, and Finny's superlative athleticism does not save him from a nasty fall.  He lands too near to shore and is seriously injured.  Gene is confused and shocked, and much of the rest of the novel centers around whether Gene knocked Finny off intentionally (it is never made clear--and the subject of Gene's intentions has been the subject of many a High School English class) and what reparations Gene should make as payment for this awful act.

When I read this story as a teenager, I remember being stung by it's vibrancy, devouring the pages in short order because they spoke to me so clearly.  Much time has passed since then, and before picking it up this time, I wondered if Gene and Finny's struggle would still be real to me, whether I might have lost the understanding I brought as a teenager, so close in time and action to the age of the main characters, in the intervening years.  Perhaps I wouldn't like it at all, and the fact that I had mentioned it over the years as one of my favorites had in fact, with the passage of time, grown into an inadvertent untruth.

Happily, Knowles' novel did not disappoint me.  Gene and Finny's story is still as real to me as it was back then, and the problems that face these two boys are, I am now convinced, timeless.  Rivalry.  Insecurities.  Friendship.  Wonderment as yet unsullied by how the world really works.

Knowles' does an amazing job balancing many of the stories threads, and deftly handles scenes of great drama that would feel tinny and overdone in the hands of a lesser talent.  I found the imagery remarkable in its clarity; the scenes practically pop off the page, written in prose powerful enough to put you indisputably in the moment, almost like poetry, like in this scene after Phineas is injured and Gene returns again to the river:

"As I had to do whenever I glimpsed the river, I thought of Phineas.  Not of the tree and pain, but of one of his favorite tricks.  Phineas in exaltation, balancing on one foot on the prow of a canoe like a river god, his raised arms invoking the air to support him, face transfigured, body a complex set of balances and compensations, each muscle aligned in perfection with all the others to maintain this supreme fantasy of achievement, his skin glowing from immersions, his whole body hanging between river and sky as though he had transcended gravity and might by gently pushing upward with his foot glide a little way higher and remain suspended in space, encompassing all the glory of the summer and offering it to the sky."
Some will argue that Knowles' tends to overdo it from time to time.  I would argue that it is our tastes which have changed, not the brightness of Knowles' language.  In an age when novels are expected to be off and running in the first three pages, it is no surprise that it bothers the occasional modern reader that Knowles' stops and savors the moment from time to time.  My own feeling is that, even considered the rigid criteria of the modern commercial novel, "A Separate Peace" still holds its own.  There was never a moment where I felt the action dragged, or saw a scene I felt should have been cut.

In fact, not only is this a remarkable book, but it is astounding that it has stood the test of time as well as it has.  Despite having written it in 1959, John Knowles' could almost have published it last year, with the Iraq War as the backdrop instead of World War II.  The themes and images of "A Separate Peace "could be transplanted from 1959 to 2009, with young men readying themselves for war, measuring themselves against each other, puzzling over how to leave friends and family to go abroad, to fight, to dare to hope for a safe return home, to wonder at the end of it all what sins have been committed and what price has been paid.

These questions troubled me as a teenager--for fear that I should one day have to face them--and they are questions that trouble me now as I return home from Iraq.  That Knowles' could have distilled these truths so purely so many years ago shows both his clear literary talent and his unflinchingly prescient view of human nature.  His every page speaks to us effortlessly across the years, and will continue to communicate it's wisdom to readers for years to come, I have no doubt.

So I highly recommend "A Separate Peace"--one of the finest examples of American writing I've read in quite some time.

Have you read "A Separate Peace"?  What was your impression of it?  Are there other classic books which you've recently reread that you loved/hated?

**[Author's note:  If you are reading this, I have left my post in Baghdad and am now wandering aimlessly about the Kuwaiti desert on my long circuitous route home.  In other words, I am off the grid.  As soon as I am able, I'll make the full go 'round and respond to comments and check out any new followers.  As always, thanks so very kindly for stopping by, and I'll see you all in a few days.]**

Pin Drop

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"Writing is a product of silence."

~~Carrie Latet

KA-POW! Understanding Conflict In Your Fiction

Monday, February 22, 2010

**[Author's note: If you are reading this, I have left my post in Baghdad and am now wandering aimlessly about the Kuwaiti desert on my long circuitous route home. In other words, I am off the grid. As soon as I am able, I'll make the full go 'round and respond to comments and check out any new followers. As always, thanks so very kindly for stopping by, and I'll see you all in a few days.]**

A quick reminder:  Don't forget to sign up for the "Drunk At First Sight" Blogfest--a fun chance to write fiction for St. Paddy's Day!  Get all the details here.

When I was a kid, my mom used to say to me--like millions of other moms said to their kids: "Be good or Santa won't bring you any presents."  Sounds simple enough right?  What could be easier.

The trouble was, at least for me, that there was no playbook or DIY guide on how to be "good."  It was as if everyone knew what "good" looked like, and how to "do" it, but me.

I certainly was a terrible troublemaker as a kid--I want to avoid painting myself in an overly rosy light--and did plenty of things that I knew were bad, but there were also many occasions where I was doing something I thought was fine when I got some variation of the "good or no presents" threat.

As writers I think we often find ourselves in a similar dilemma.  There are plenty of great rules out there to help us improve our craft--"write what you know" or "show don't tell" are two--but we often spend more time talking about the rule than we do understanding how the rule works.

So let's take a closer look at one of these rules: Conflict equals fiction.  It is often said that without conflict, you don't have a story.  I can agree with that.  But what is conflict?  How do we make sure we have conflict in our stories?  How do we play with it, modulate it, make sure that all elements are in place to really make that conflict pop? 

I contend that when we say a writer must understand their characters, what we really mean is that a writer must understand the conflict in his or her story.  Conflict affects every element of your piece, whether it is a scene, short story, or full length novel.  It may influence how the story begins, and most importantly, the primary conflict in your story decides how the story should end.

In general, story conflicts can be divided into three categories (doubtless you've heard this before, but bear with me):  Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. NatureSome folks have concluded there are as many as seven conflict types, but I think they can all be boiled down to the three I mention here.

Here's a question: which of these three categories fits the conflict in your current WIP?  You may say "Oh, that's easy, it's clearly Man vs. Man."  But have you considered what affect that choice has had on the telling of your story, and on that ending you've been struggling to get right?

Let's consider a scene.  Two boxers are in the ring, slugging it out.  I mean, they are really going at it.  Is this a story?  Does the fact that the two of them are trying to beat each other's brains out make it a story?  It looks like there's conflict, right?  And you'll probably call it Man vs. Man, right?  But let's look a little closer.

Sure you need conflict for a good story, but having conflict doesn't guarantee it's a story.  Another important story element is meaning.  No meaning, no story.  What is important about the events--the conflict--portrayed in the narrative?  Based on the scant information so far, the boxer scene is simply an event.  If the reader--and especially we the writer--don't understand the meaning behind why the boxers fight, then the words on the page are like a news report, and do not rise to the level of fiction.  Depending on the meaning we assign, the scene of the two boxers could in fact fall into any of the three conflict categories.  Let me illustrate:

Man vs. Himself: Man vs. Himself conflicts derive from the MC wanting two contradictory things at once.  Basically he can't decide what he wants to do, and it is that tension and conflict which keeps the story moving forward.  That means the plot of your story is basically internally driven from the MC's motivations.  In fact, this kind of story is virtually impossible to do without showing the MC's thoughts and feelings.  Events occur, circumstances change, but the only reason why any of these events are important (or should be shown for that matter) is because of their impact on that central question: What should the MC do?

Let's say the scene is a boxing match between our MC and another boxer.  The MC is trying to decide to keep fighting and beat his opponent, or take a fall and collect the hush money the crooked promoter has promised him--money he needs to pay for his kid's operation.  You can see that this sounds like an external struggle because there is a lot of external pressure on the MC, but at the end of the day the story really focuses on a decision the boxer must make: should he be dishonest or not? 

Notice that the main conflict in the story is about the MC's honesty, not on who wins the fight.  You could conceivable have a very satisfying ending to that story where the results of the fight are never disclosed, because the action of the fight and the MC's internal conflict do not coincide.

Man vs. Man:  This is the more traditional mano-a-mano kind of story.  Man vs. Man applies to a story where two different characters want the same thing, or want two different things that put them into direct conflict.  In this case, it really is about the MC going at it with another guy, and the central question of the story really is: who will win the fight? 

Our boxing match could very easily be Man vs. Man.  You could conceivably tell the entire story, the setup, middle and who wins at the end without a shred of internal monologue (the opposite of Man vs. Himself).  Of course some internal glimpses now and then add to the excitement, but even without it, the reader would understand what is important to these two characters, and the ramifications of the story's setup and ending.

This is not to say that the internal ideas of the MC and everyone else aren't important.  Those actions will still drive the story forward, but the climax and denouement must be based on the original external question.  For Man vs. Man to work, a satisfying ending results only from the resolution of external actions and events, not internal decisions or struggles.

So back to our boxing scene.  If the writer sets the story as a true Man vs. Man conflict, fully painting both a protagonist and an antagonist, and showed how they are both after winning that boxing championship, would it make any sense at all for the MC to then up and quit in the middle of the fight?  The MC wimps out because he remembered his girlfriend didn't want him to box anymore and walks, leaving your antagonist standing around going "What the heck?"  The boxer's decision to quit has nothing to do with the antagonist.  Since the ending isn't externally driven, it doesn't make sense with the rest of the piece, and the reader will pick up on it. 

This is why it is common for beginning writers to start a story as a Man vs. Man and then, as they realize the end doesn't work, go back and add in a ton of internal dialogue for the MC, which pushes it into Man vs. Himself territory.

Observe also the impact the choice of conflict has on the main events in the story and how the writer chooses to reveal those events.  Man vs. Man is more external (description, more dialogue, characters other than MC are more well-rounded), and lends itself to third person.  Man vs. Himself is more internal (internal monologue, thoughts, feelings, more backstory needed) and lends itself to first person.  These tendencies are certainly not rules that must always be followed, but a skillful writer will understand how they work and consider them as they structure their piece.

Man vs. Nature:  Finally, we have Man vs. Nature.  This category basically has two subsets: 1) The story pits the MC against something truly external, like bad weather, or an avalanche, or 2) The story pits the MC against society or societal norms.

The first variety of Man vs. Nature story is much rarer than it used to be.  Jack London's "To Build A Fire" is a good example of this kind of story.  There were some Man vs. Nature elements in Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."  The hallmark of this kind of story is physical conflict and interaction with natural elements.

The second variety of Man vs. Nature conflict is more common.  In these stories, a character or group of characters who oppose the MC conducts themselves in accordance with the ideals and morals of larger society, and is understood to represent that larger group.  If the MC is beaten, then it is assumed that society has won.  This kind of story is really like a war between ideas or ideals, and is thus a conflict between the internal feelings and ideas of the MC and the external morals and pressures of society--and tends to not based as much in purely physical conflict.  George Orwell's "1984" is a great example, where the MC's nemesis, O'Brien, is understood to represent the repressive regime under which Winston Smith lives.

Going back to our two boxers, if they were simply having a fistfight over which one of them gets the girl, while nearby the volcano is about to erupt and level the town where they live, then you have a Man vs. Nature conflict of the first variety.  Note then that the boxing is not part of the main action, but a node in the subplot at the scene level.

On the other hand, if this fight were staged on TV for a world-wide audience, and the boxer the MC was facing was being sponsored by the corporation who wrongly imprisoned the MC's father and has taken over the U.S. Government, and the winner of the fight will be the next head gladiator, then you have a Man vs. Nature conflict of the second variety, since it's understood that if the MC beats his opponent, he's beating the corporation.  As you can imagine, the set up for this type of story would be very different from the others.

Note that Man vs. Nature requires the writer to work both sides of the fence, using all the tools to describe the MC's internal motivations and ideals (inner monologue, thoughts, feelings, backstory) while also utilizing the usual tricks to show a detailed and well-developed external world (description, heavy reliance on dialogue, well rounded characters).  For this reason, it's my feeling that Man vs. Nature stories are the most difficult to pull off, because if the writer does not excel in all these areas, then the narrative feels odd and one-sided.

One last thing to mention:  Taken at face value, you may conclude that any story must fit cleanly into one of these categories.  In fact, there may be more than one of these operating in the same story.  By way of example, in "A Separate Peace" (review Wednesday!!), there were actually two primary conflicts which worked side by side.  There was a Man vs. Man conflict between Gene and Finny (the two main characters) and there was a Man vs. Himself conflict operating for Gene, who was constantly motivated by thoughts on whether he was doing the right thing by Finny.  In this particular story, these two conflicts worked quite effectively to keep the reader engaged and keep the story moving forward.  So you can have more than one flavor of conflict in a story, but the writer--and the readers--should understand how those conflicts work together in a seamless way.  A writer should avoid at all costs starting a story with one kind of conflict and ending with another as this practically guarantees that the ending will not satisfy the reader.

In closing, I hope this post has gone a little way toward helping you understand the conflict in your WIP, to consider the way your story should begin, how best to reveal your characters, how to structure your scenes, and how the story ends.  That old saying "Conflict equals fiction" is true.  A writer's clear understanding of conflict is the key to writing fiction that makes your MC pop off the page, and keeps readers engaged.

What are your thoughts?  When it comes to conflict, what do you struggle with the most as a writer?  What is your favorite kind of conflict to write about?

"Drunk At First Sight" Blogfest!!!--SIGN UP NOW!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

I haven't had a beer in six months.  The picture on the right is really making my mouth water.

If you're Irish, you know that St. Patrick's Day is next month--and in my book, that's just around the corner (you may know about St. Paddy's if you're not Irish too :D).

A few of us got to talking and we asked ourselves this question:  "What could be better than sitting around on St. Paddy's Day evening drinking a (possibly green) beer?"  The answer is simple.  Sitting around drinking a (possibly green) beer and reading some great fiction, that's what!

So, following in the footsteps of the Fight Scene Blogfest, and "Love At First Sight" Blogfest, we are announcing the first annual "Drunk At First Sight" Blogfest! 

Here's how it will work:

1)  Sign up below.

2)  Write a new scene or short story, or dust off an old one, about a love/relationship situation that also includes one or more of the following elements:

     ---St. Paddy's Day as important event or setting
     ---Use of Ireland or anything Irish as a setting or prop
     ---An alcohol related event (party, hangover, cocktails, AA meeting, etc.)

3)  Just prior to March 17th (St. Pat's Day), post said story to your blog.

4)  On St. Paddy's Day, cruise around the interwebs, drink in hand, and check out everybody's amazing fiction.

That's all there is to it!  Sounds like great fun--and in keeping with the St. Paddy's Day spirit.  These other great bloggers are helping out with the Blogfest as well:
The DAFS Blogfest promises to be fun for the whole family.  No really.  The first (virtual) round is on us.  Sign up below, and spread the word.  The more, the merrier.  Let's raise our glasses on high and make this Blogfest a great one! 

Sea Monkey Graveyard

Saturday, February 20, 2010

[WARNING: Incoming off-topic ramble!]

Not too long ago, one of my co-workers in the office (hi Erika!) decided it would be fun to get some Sea Monkeys.

I know what you're going to say, and yes, Sea Monkeys are allowed in a Combat Zone under the Geneva Convention as long as you treat them humanely.  Which brings me to my next point.

They're dead.  Every single one of those little suckers.  The office is a bit of a mess now, everyone handling the loss in their own ways.

You see, Erika went on R and R and nobody fed them while she was gone.  And their Sea Monkey Souls went up to that too-small barely functional Aquarium (with built in viewing lense) in the Sky.

But we were discussing what we should do with the Bodies.  It felt weird somehow to just throw them out.  That feeling you get about properly disposing of pets.  What is the right thing to do?

Wow.  This post has taken a very weird macabre turn I wasn't expecting.

Anyway, we started wondering what a Sea Monkey Graveyard would look like.  I decided "Sea Monkey Graveyard" would be a cool name for a band.  But you know and I know that I'm way too busy to be in a band, even in one with such a cool name as Sea Monkey Graveyard (first hit number would be "Dying on the Vine in a Too Small Aquarium" BTW).

[Off topic ramble concluded.  You may return to your normal programming.]

I'm much too busy because cool writers like Christi over at "A Torch in the Tempest" are giving me awards.  Wow!  Thanks Christi!  I am totally blown away.  I mean that.  Totally.  Blown.  Away.

Christi gave me the Creative Writer Award.  Thank you so very much, Christi.  I'm honored.

I'm not sure what it is I'm doing to deserve such praise, but I'll try to keep doing it.  Now I'm supposed to talk about ten things that brighten my day and pass it along to a few worthy folks.  So without further adieu:
1.  Sea Monkeys.  Living, breathing Sea Monkeys.
2.  Comments.  The big fat juicy ones are my favorite.
3.  Any day without an IED or IDF (InDirect Fire--mortars, rockets, etc.) is pretty bright in my book.
4.  My daughter Muffin's laugh.
5.  A nap.
6.  A beer so ice-cold that it burns my hand to hold it.
7.  The way my wife Furnace Girl pretends not to trust me but trusts me implicitly.
8.  Good coffee.
9.  Reading all your (and when I say "your" I mean YOU) awesome and amazing and incredible blogs.
10. Licorice. 
So passing it on is always difficult.  There are so many great folks doing great work--some I've gotten to know relatively well considering the short time this blog has been around.  I think for this award, I'm going to choose a few fresh faces (at least fresh to me) that have caught my eye recently.  Here goes:
Thank you guys for all being great contributors to the writing community, and I humbly pass along this Creative Writer Award to you!  The fact that I have listed them here means you, dear reader, must now go visit them.  That's the rule, and around here, rules are rules.

Thanks again, Christi, for the award, and everyone don't forget to pay her a visit at her cool place too!  As always, stay groovy, and thanks for reading.

Friday Link Love: Life At The Front

Friday, February 19, 2010

We come to a rolling stop on yet another fun filled week here at WSMG.  I am stoked. It won't be too much longer before I start my journey home, so the heart's all a pitter-patter these days.

We have some very nice Link-ee Link-ee lined up, but you know what comes first, don't you.  Say it.  SAY IT!

That's right.  One joke.  Coming right up.

Joke du Jour:

A novelist wanting to write a novel about life at the warfront gets a once in a lifetime break.  The military decides to let him come in and interview some soldiers just before a big battle, where many of them are expected to lose their lives.  He doesn't have much time, so he boils his interviews down to one question: "Did you come here to die?"

The General's aide brings the writer into a makeshift barracks where they have a number of soldiers from different countries there who will be participating in the battle.  First up is the Brit:

Writer: Did you come here to die?

Brit: No, sah!  I figyah I got a pretty good chance of pullin' throo this mess, inf'n our sergeant major don't run us up the pike.  Ya know what I mean?
The writer thanks the Brit and goes to the American:
Writer:  Did you come here to die?
American:  Die?  Are you kidding me?  I'm not gonna die.  It's those guys on the other side!  They're the one's that are gonna die, get me?
The Writer thanks the American.  Next up, the Australian.
Writer:  Did you come here to die?

Australian:  No sir!  I got here yesterday.


*drumroll please*  And now for a big slice of Friday Link Love:
  • On her blog Secret October, Damien put up a nice post and questions whether writer's block really exists.  Thoughts?
  • Professional writer Roz Morris had this great post on her blog Nail Your Novel discussing whether your novel idea has already been done before. 
  • My friend Greg Romero is one of the most inspiring, hard-working writers I know.  He's a playwright currently working in Philly, and he truly has the truth hidden under his coat--in an elevator.  About every two months or so, I wander back to this amazing post of 73 passions he put up a few years back.  If you read this, I promise you, you'll be inspired in a new way. 
Enjoy, and write one of your writing passions in the comments.  I'll throw mine into the mix too.

Primitive Mover

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."

~~George Orwell


An Open Book

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

For most things in my life, my ambition far outstrips my level of effort.  I can report this trait has been a hallmark of my personality for a long time.

In one notorious example, when I was ten or so, I convinced a bunch of friends--and my mom--that we could break the world record for continuous uninterrupted play of a game of Monopoly (the Hasbro, not the robber baron variety).  I don't exactly remember, but I think the standing record at that time was like twenty days.  We did do enough homework to determine that the Guinness rules involved a five minute break every hour (or maybe two--I don't recall) to go to the bathroom or have a quick bite to eat.  The rest of the time we were required to be sitting in front of the game, playing.  For twenty days.

Looking back now, I realize my mom must have known what would happen.  After all, what parent in their right mind agrees to have her house taken over by Monopoly for almost three weeks? (I don't know what my friends' moms' excuses were).  But after about five hours of gruelling non-stop play, we decided we'd had enough and quit.

You may be relieved to know that when it comes to matching my effort to my ambition, my success rate has improved marginally since the Monopoly Marathon Fiasco of '78.

Yet, there are still pockets of over-ambition in my life.  Book reading has long been a constant source of trouble for me in this regard, although there have been occasions when I didn't get into trouble. 

I remember one summer, on a visit to Ireland for a six week vacation, being rather bored at the outset.  Vacations are really for the grownups if you think about it, so as my father and my grandmother and my other relatives all sat about the table and drank tea, talking about the weather and the high price of gasoline (89 cents!), I found myself with nothing to do.  Until I dug under the bed in the upstairs bedroom and pulled out a cardboard box brimming with old books!  I was thrilled.  I don't remember the titles of all the books I read, but I can tell you I was one pretty content kid for the rest of the summer.  I had more books than I could ever wish for and nothing but days and days in which to read them.

As a grownup, it doesn't always go so smoothly.  It is difficult--strike that!--impossible for me to go to a bookstore and come home empty-handed.  I'm worse than a kid in a candy store.  The covers of the books are so shiny and bright, the smell of ink and the binding glue so inviting--even as I write this I am reviewing in my mind the list of books I want to purchase next.  Make the mistake of setting me loose at a garage sale or flea market and I will come back, arms filled to overflowing, with paperbacks.  Furnace Girl raises the now famous Eyebrow of Disapproval and I feel like a goof, but sure enough, the next time I do it all over again.  Add to this tendency the wide variety of time-sucking activities that come with having a "life", and that means I bring home far more books than I will ever have time to read. 

In response to this dilemma, I made a concerted effort to pare things back over the last year.  I thought coming to Iraq would simplify this process, but it's actually made it worse.  Book trading is practically a professional sport here.  Everywhere you go, there are tables and bookshelves and nooks and crannys (when I build my retirement home, I'm going to tell the builder to include at least three crannies.  They're so useful!) filled with FREE books--some very good ones too. 

Despite that, I've been relatively successful at not overdoing it.  Right now--as evidenced by the pic on the right--I am in the midst of reading Lehane's "Shutter Island."  I'm liking it so far, although I've never been a big detective novel kinda guy.  I am also reading John Gardner's "The Art of Fiction" which is very good for helping me knock the rust off my writing skills.  I read it once before, but it's one of the best fiction how-to books around, so a second time through felt like a good idea, and I'm hanging on every word.  I'll be sure to share a few pointers here from time to time.

In the queue I also have Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" (another repeat) and I just picked up (for FREE) Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight."  Another Gardner book, "On Becoming A Novelist" is high on the short list as well and two others that I haven't picked up yet are "The Book Thief" and "Hunger Games".  But that's basically it.  This short list is a wide departure from the days when a stack of a dozen unread books literally teetered on my nightstand and taunted me each evening as I climbed into bed.  So I've been relatively successful at focusing my reading effort.

The exciting side benefit as I dig more into writing fiction is that the reading choices I am making have changed.  I still feel a bit the neophyte on the current fiction market, so I am following Faulkner's advice to "Read everything--trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it."  So far, so good!  In the past I stuck primarily to literary fiction, but this new approach--and the added variety which it brings--is yielding results.  Already I see changes in my writing based on tips and tricks I'm gleaning from the authors I'm reading. 

What about you?  How do you go about choosing what goes in your TBR list?  What's the relationship between your TBR choices and your writing process?

Literary Straitjacket

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis, and we'd have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads."

~~William Styron

Please Do Not Adjust Your Set

Monday, February 15, 2010

Hello.  How are you?  Fine?  Me too.  You're looking for something, aren't you?  Pre-tell.  Battle Plan, you say?  Hmmm.

I planned to post the next installment of the Battle Plan series today.  Unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control, dat jus ain goan happen.  Instead, we're going to talk about something more fun: this blog's first award.

I know sitting in Iraq and getting ready to go home and having twenty-seven unexpected things to do before I leave is a pretty lame excuse.  But watch as I mysteriously wave my hands--"you're feeling very sleepy"--and turn this excuse into a lesson in planning.  Say it with me: "There's a rabbit in this hat, a rabbit in this hat."

Seriously folks, I realized yesterday that there's much more to picking up your whole life and moving halfway round the world than I realized--and that goes double when you live in a combat zone.  At week's end I get on that big bad Rhino (the name of the armored "bus" that takes me to Baghdad International Airport) and the number of non-writing related tasks on my plate is growing exponentially by the day.  Between now and then my internet connectivity will be spotty--which means the likelihood I'll actually be able to publish as planned is low.

To add to the confusion, these next three Battle Plan posts--Implement, Improvise, Assess--need to be published in close proximity, time-wise.  I certainly don't want to publish only one and then leave you hanging.  So....much as I hate hate hate to do it, I'm going to postpone the rest of the series until some time late February or early March.  I'd like to give you a date, but this going home process will take about ten days and is shrouded in mystery.  I've no clue at this point what the art of the possible will be for blog posting, and I'd rather take my time and do it right.

Now I hear the groans (at least I hope there are groans--better than silence, you know), and I also hear you saying: "See, if you had planned for this...."  But the take away is--waving my hands in a mystifying pattern and saying "When I count backwards from five you're going to wake up refreshed and still think this blog is cool"--the take away is be prepared for the unexpected, and plan accordingly.  I guessed this might happen, so I have a few posts in backup ("A Separate Peace" Review!) to autopost if it comes to that.

Giant annoying excuse aside, I turn now to the real excitement of the day: this blog's first award! 

I am beyond thrilled, even if I do question the veracity of the statement that I am, in fact, a "Sugar Doll."  I got this from a guy (DL Hammons to be exact--check out his blog. Great reading!)--reputedly a "Sugar Doll" himself--so you do the math.  But hey, my motto has always been: "If life gives you lemons, you sell the lemons to some unsuspecting yahoo, take the money down to the local liquor store, get a bottle of dark rum and six pack of Shiner, make mojitos (with beer chasers) and kick it for the weekend.  Par-Tay!"  Maybe if it was called the "Sugar Daddy" Award, it would be more accurate, but who's complaining?

Thus, I heartily accept this "Sugar Doll" Award.  I'm supposed to list ten things about myself.  In fact, I haven't prepared any remarks, so I'm just going to run off at the mouth for a few minutes.  If there are small children in the room, you might want to ask them to leave.

1.  My name really is Jon Paul (shocker, I know!) but everyone in my daily life calls me "J.P."  You may call me Your Highness or 'Highness if you're in a hurry.

2.  When I was a kid, I thought if I popped a blank cassette tape in the player and turned the volume up really loud, the hiss I heard was the sound of silence.  In fact I still believe that.  No disrespect to Simon & Garfunkel intended.

3.  I met my wife, Furnace Girl, when my (now our) dog Stormy decided he should bury her at the beach.  Good dog, Stormy!

4.  I love to travel.  By last count, I've been to 164 cities in 29 countries.  Favorite place: Crater Lake, Oregon (pic at top); Least favorite place: Where I'm sitting right now.

5.  I hate being shot at (weird, right?!?).  Good thing the Furnace Girl doesn't own a gun.

6.  Brush with greatness, twice removed: My father was born and raised in Ireland and came to the States when he was 26.  My Dad's mom (rest her soul) lived in Dublin all her life.  On a trip to visit my Aunt Anne in Montreal (yeah, we're all over the place) she bumped into a woman who she had known when my Dad was a kid.  Her name was Mrs. Hewson.  If you don't know, the real name of Bono from U2 is Paul Hewson, and it turns out that my Dad grew up playing with Bono's mother--although he lost contact with her over the years and she died at a young age, when Bono was seven or eight, I believe.  Last time I was in Dublin, I thought about dropping in on my favorite band's front man, but I figured he wouldn't remember me (because we've never met).

7.  For much of my life, I have been a musician (guitar, piano, bass, drums, harmonica, kazoo, comb with toilet paper).  At one point a few years back we owned and operated a recording studio, but the lousy economy and this pesky day job caused us to have to close it.  One of my epiphanies this summer was that I was going to give up music--sell all my gear and get out for good--and focus exclusively on fiction.  I like how that plan is going so far.

8.  I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker.

9.  Furnace Girl and I decided that we didn't want anyone to know the name of Muffin, our two year-old, before she was born.  Instead, we concocted a naming structure to confuse the enemy: before we knew her gender, we called her Biscuit.  If she turned out to be a boy, we'd call her Sausage Biscuit.  Since she turned out to be a girl, we called her Muffin (that BTW is not her real name).  We have not yet decided on a naming scheme for the next one.

10.  My brother once told me he couldn't wait until he was older than me.  I laughed and said: "over my dead body."

"Bone" implored me to bear the standard of manliness proudly, to not crumble under the weight of all this viral femininininity in fiction.  I say "Here, here!" and, with as much masculinity as I can muster (we're talking bucketfulls), pass the "Sugar Doll" Award on to the following four fellahs who I'm sure will be pleased as pie:
  • When it comes to Sugar Dollery (yes, that's a word.  Look it up), the Postman takes--and then eats--the cake. 
  • Scott puts up some great stuff over at his place, worthy of some Sugar I'm sure.  Dude, like I had to do it.
  • I'm not sure JM is all that Sugary, but he probably knows what sweet looks like.  Rock it, JM!
  • And last but not least, Brian builds them up and knocks them down in his little corner of the interwebs.  Doll?  You be the judge.  Brian, no hard feelings, right?
Guys, I expect each of you to follow the illustrious example Bone has set and pass this award onto other guys of the male persuasion (why do I now feel like belting out a rendition of "Hello Dolly?").  And you, dear reader: why don't you wander over and check out the work of these four fine gentlemen.  I'm sure you'll be impressed.

So that's all the news that's unfit to print.  Stay groovy and thanks for stopping by.

The Dragonfly

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone!  Thanks for stopping by.  This is my post for the "Love At First Sight" Blogfest. Make sure and make a trip over and read some of the other great offerings. Enjoy!

The Dragonfly

(c) 2010 Jon Paul

    Heidi Mandrake materialized out of the shade like a mystery, standing ankle deep in the shoal of the creek, wearing a blue one piece swimsuit. Henry knew he would find her here, knew that most summer afternoons she sunbathed by the creek with her girlfriends, listening to the radio and reading a paperback novel. Today he could see she was alone, and a shiver flooded through him.
    He edged down the path until she came into full view, framed by the oak and elm trees that crowded together along the bank. A fire of red hair fell in a blaze down her back. Pearls of water beaded freckled shoulders. Long bare legs. Skin white and cool as vanilla ice cream.
    Henry had never kissed a girl--Heidi Mandrake least of all--but his mind constantly puzzled away at the idea, as if wishing could make it so. Last year, Heidi sat two seats in front of him in English, and he had fallen head over heels for her. Smart. Funny. She wrote amazing poetry and staged poetry readings at the local library. To Henry, she was perfect, although he found it impossible to keep a thought in his head whenever she drew near, and he sometimes went out of his way to avoid her in hallways. Any close contact--once she'd eaten lunch right beside him--left him sick with nervousness for days. He had admired her from afar, and he was quite certain she didn't even know he existed.
    He inched forward, awash in that familiar mixture of excitement and panic, that same ecstatic emptiness that fired the pit of his stomach every time he laid eyes on her. She knelt in the shallow water. Slender hands retrieved stones and turned them over. A constellation of reflections dazzled her face in white-yellow sequins of light.
    He wanted to turn back, but he knew he couldn't do that. His brother Kevin had said he was too afraid to talk to her. He'd taunted him--"Fraidy cat! Fraidy cat!"--and called him a wimp in front of his friends. Even now his ears burned thinking about it. Henry had been angry, withdrawing to the safety of his room, but he had also felt a kind of raw recognition of the truth. Maybe he was afraid.
    The sandbar lay at the edge of the creek like a piece of pie crust. Heidi had set up camp next to a few river rocks: green towel, sandals, a beach bag. A black transistor radio spit out Fifties music. Henry watched as she came out of the water and wandered toward him, curves drifting along above the ground. For an electrifying instant he thought she saw him, but she turned away without any sign of recognition. She put her crimson hair in a pony tail, brushed the dampness from her arms and legs, then lay on the towel.
    Henry's breathing grew shallow. He stared out across the sand at Heidi, who picked up her paperback and started thumbing pages. The smooth expanse of sandbar felt like an impasse; further progress risked stalling him out in the open, in plain view. He hesitated, half-crouching awkwardly behind a tangle of bushes.
    His brother didn't know it, but Henry had tried to talk to her before. One afternoon, he came late to the library and spotted her sitting at a long table near the window, reading a textbook and taking notes.
    For twenty-five minutes, Henry milled and thumbed books in the Arts and Recreation section, his mind ajitter as he troubled over what to say to her. He licked his lips. Act normal, he kept thinking. People do this every day. But when she collected her books and started for the door, panic overtook him. Every atom in his body screamed for him to go after her, but he just stood there like a dummy and watched her leave.
    This is stupid, Henry mumbled to himself, shaking his head. He should have gone with Kevin and his friends to catch horned toads. They'd seen some huge ones that summer, crabbing across the dirt over by the lumber mill. The gang had planned to set out after lunch with a butterfly net and a backpack full of glass jars, but Kevin grew perturbed when Henry said he didn't want to go.
    It was like Kevin thought Henry was trying to show him up in front of his buddies. "You think you're something special?"
    "No," Henry answered. "I don't wanna go."
    The other boys snickered. Kevin displayed a wide smile--things were under control--and grabbed Henry's shirtsleeve. "We need someone to carry the backpack. Who's going to do that?"
    Henry pulled away. "I don't care. I'm not going."
    Laughter echoed off the concrete floor. Embarrassment clouded Kevin's flat, sturdy eyes. Henry started for the door when Kevin announced: "If you don't go, I'll tell Heidi Mandrake that you love her."
    This drew hoots, and peals of laughter. Although Henry tried not to let it show, the words sliced right through him. Kevin's smile returned.
    "Go ahead," Henry said, forcing his voice to sound nonchalant.
    They'd been gone an hour before he set out for the creek. He'd struggled to soak the quiet calm out of the air in his room, attempted to read a book, but he couldn't keep his eyes on the page. He couldn't dispel the thought that he had to do something, he had to find out if something was wrong with him.
    Henry frowned. That voice in his brain urged him on, but another voice warned of shame and humiliation if he went any further. Heidi was less than fifty feet away, but she might as well have been on the other side of the world. If his brother saw him now, stuck behind a bush like some goof, he’d laugh--but Henry couldn’t bring himself to go any further.
    If he went home now, his brother wouldn't have to know a thing. He might not remember his threat, or carry it out. Even if he did say something to Heidi, would she believe him? She didn't even know who Henry was. Why would she care?
    "Are you spying on me?" Heidi's voice came out of nowhere and he looked up to find her standing less than five feet away. His heart started pounding.
    Her eyes floated in front of him like two green seas amid a milkyway of freckles. A wet heat radiated off her swimsuit. The way her hair fell free of her brow, the crackle of light in her eyes, these things together gave him an unexpected thrill.
    "Well?" Her tone took on a hard edge.
    He could feel his heart notched against his throat. When he spoke, his voice sounded as tinny as an old phonograph record. "I, was...coming for a swim."
    She raised an eyebrow. "Then where's your towel?"
    Henry looked around like maybe he'd forgotten it. Heidi tilted her head and followed his motions with remote interest, but a hard glint in her gaze told him she didn't believe a word he said.
    Henry tried again: "I...what I meant to say was...for later. I was coming to see for later." He knew he wasn't making much sense. He attempted to force a smile but the muscles in his face didn't want to cooperate.
    Heidi studied him for another second, then shrugged her shoulders and marched off. "It's a free country."
    She returned to her book, long legs sprawled out on her towel. After she left him, he caught his breath, then sauntered out onto the sandbar toward the water, knees and ankles swimming under him like balls strung together with rubber bands.
    An odd cheery weakness washed him along, but his heartbeat still rang in his ears. He migrated toward the water's edge fighting his nervousness, moving in a conscious way, attempting to convey an air of relaxed confidence.
    At first he was certain she was watching him, but each time he glanced in her direction her attention was elsewhere. She turned the pages of her paperback, tapped her foot to the beat of the song on the radio, wrapped a curl of red hair around a finger. After a long while, Henry decided that she had forgotten he was even there.
    His breathing and heartbeat settled down, then he realized he still faced the same problem that had stopped him dead in his tracks at the library. What should he say?
    He skirted along the creek bank toward her, trying to look natural. At one point, he took off his sandals; he scrutinized the trees and sky with great interest; appraised the water; scuffed dry sand with his toes; kicked over clumps and flattened them beneath his heel. After a few minutes he made an overly elaborate play of nodding his head and furrowing his brow, as if deciding: "Yes, I guess I can stay."
    At last he plopped down in the sand about ten feet from her. As soon as he looked up and realized her closeness, his heart rate doubled. He pivoted toward the water because seeing her at this distance felt like looking into the sun.
    "Was it something I said?" Heidi gazed at him over the edge of her book.
    "Why are you sitting all the way over there?"
    Henry traced the wide track of sand between them with his eyes. He was sitting pretty far away. Like a mile away. He wondered if he looked as stupid as he felt, but he shrugged and played it off. "I don't know. It's just where I sat down, I guess."
    "You can sit closer if you want. It doesn't bother me."
    "Ok." But he didn't move. With each passing minute, the initial spark of confidence that had gotten him this far was giving way to an insistent numbness. He closed his eyes. A picture of himself flashed through his mind: head down, sitting here on the river bank like he was made of granite, long after Heidi had gone, through endless cycles of light and darkness and rain, his feet fusing with the sand, river moss growing up on him until there was nothing left.
    It was like he was back in the library. His mind was a blank. Words eluded him. He sensed she was looking at him again. He kept glancing over but she was still reading her book, humming quietly along with the radio.
    Then, he thought he caught the flicker of her eyes upon him an instant before they dropped to the page, and it dawned on him. She was waiting. She was testing him, seeing what he would do next. Paralysis still gripped him like a spell but he knew he had to say something, anything. His mind fumbled and the words came out of their own accord: "Do you come here often?"
    She dropped the book to her lap and rolled her eyes. Henry was staring so intently at the water that he didn't notice.
    "What the heck was that?"
    Henry ignored the urge to scramble to his feet and run.
    "That's like the oldest pick up line in the book. I mean, that line is so old it's a joke now."
    Henry flushed with embarrassment and dropped his chin to his chest.
    "Try it again."
    At first he thought he heard her wrong and looked up, confused. "What?"
    Heidi brushed the bangs out of her eyes and flashed a broad smile. White teeth, laughing at him. "Try it again. It's not rocket science. Just say something natural."
    He squinted into the sun, feeling naked under the high canopy of the sky.
    She continued: "Like—ask me about the weather."
    He cleared his throat and spoke in a monotone. "Do you think it's very hot?"
    She picked up her book again. "Ok. Maybe not."
    Henry looked away, feeling like an idiot. He wished he had stayed at home. Coming all the way out here was a stupid idea--what the hell had he been thinking, anyway?--and now things were worse off than before. Sure, if Kevin had spilled the beans, Heidi might have thought he was a weirdo, but now she knew for certain.
    Heidi would tell everyone. He cringed thinking of Kevin's laughter when he heard about it. Here he sat, too dumb to talk to a girl, too scared to leave. He gave Heidi a long stare, but it was clear she'd forgotten him again, that the pages of her paperback were more interesting to her than he was. Some lead character probably had her wrapped around his finger and there was no way—
    "Did you know we had a class together?" His voice quivered but he managed to get the words out.
    Slowly, inexorably, she looked up. "What?”
    "We had a class together. Last year. English. Harris. Third period."
    "I know."
    Henry did a double take. "You know?"
    "I know. You're Henry Letourneau. You sat in the back row all year and didn't say a word to anyone."
    "I did?"
    "Yes, you did. Pretty rude if you ask me." Heidi looked back down at her book and flipped the page.
    Henry shook off her retort. He felt like he was on a roll and needed to keep going. "I...I-I like your poetry."
    She turned her green eyes up at him with a sudden skeptical curiosity. "Yeah? Name one of my poems."
    He frowned at Heidi and tried to think. She had shared so many of her pieces in class. There was one he remembered in particular but the title eluded him. Finally, he sighed and simply started talking.
    "The one about the woman in the field in the summer. She turns into an insect. I can't remember what the poem was called. But it was beautiful, the way her arms turned into wings, the way you talked about her heart withering away to nothing which made her want to fly away and never come home. I don't know why, but I really liked it. I still think about it sometimes, especially at night."
    When he stopped to catch his breath, Heidi stared at him for a long moment. An eternity. Those green eyes. He felt them in his soul.
    "But what was it called?" she asked at last.
    "I-I don't remember."
    "That's too bad." Heidi got to her feet, dusted the sand off her towel and wrapped it around her.
    Henry stood up too, trying to suppress the alarm rising in his chest. "Where are you going?"
    "Home. It's late." She turned off the radio and dropped it in her beach bag.
    Henry ran his fingers through his hair. He wanted to stay cool, but in the back of his mind he wondered if he'd blown it, if he'd missed his chance and would never talk to her again.
    "My friend Martha was supposed to meet me here today," Heidi said as she gathered her things. "But I guess she forgot. Does that ever bother you, when people forget?"
    Henry looked up, nodded.
    "Yeah, me too. People are careless, you know. They don't pay attention." She looked around. "I guess that's everything."
    He grumbled his agreement and stood there, feeling empty-handed and lost.
    She started across the sand away from him. The light was failing; the pale sun hovered behind a cloud. Just before she floated out of view she stopped and turned back, calling out to him: "I'm Heidi, by the way."
    He said "I'm Henry" before remembering she already knew that.
    She nodded her head and laughed. "Listen, I don't know whether you're interested or not, but I have a poetry reading at the library tonight. Six o'clock. Maybe you'd like to come."
    Five minutes after she left him, he remembered the name of the poem. He laughed as he strapped on his sandals and brushed himself off. It was so obvious. A warm satisfaction smoldered in his chest. He took his time, wandered up the path, followed in her footsteps with a half-smile, feeling clean like a blue sky after a summer storm.

Food for Thought

Saturday, February 13, 2010

"He that uses many words for explaining any subject doth, like the cuttlefish, hide himself for the most part in his own ink."

~~John Ray

Friday Link Love: String Theory

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hi gang!  It's Friday once again.  Man oh man, these weeks are flying by!  Are you ready for the weekend?  I am. 

Technically it's already the weekend here in Baghdad, since the weekend falls on Friday and Saturday in Arabic countries.  So instead of TGIF, we say TAIT:  Thank Allah it's Thursday.  :)

Before I forget: if you haven't already entered the "Love At First Sight" Blogfest, you can do that here.  I'll be posting my little short on Sunday.  I am looking forward to reading everyone else's stories too.

And now, our joke:

*drumroll please*

A string finished the first draft of his novel.  To celebrate, he invites some friends to a bar near his house.  He's never been to the place, but he throws caution to the wind and makes a reservation over the phone anyway.

On the evening in question, he walks to the bar.  Inside, he looks around.  He's the first to arrive, so he figures he'll order a drink and relax.  He goes up to bartender and orders a beer.
The bartender points to the sign on the wall: "NO STRINGS ALLOWED".  "I'm sorry," the bartender says.  "We don't serve your kind here."

The string frowns.  His friends will be here any minute, and he's rather embarrassed.  Unhappy though he is, he leaves peacefully.  Outside, he stops and thinks, then hits upon an idea.  He goes around the corner into the alley, ties himself in a knot, and frays one of his ends. 

Suitably disguised, the string marches back into the bar, up to the bartender and orders another beer.  A brief flicker of recognition flashes across the bartender's face, but he shrugs it off and places a cold beer in front of the string.

The string drinks up with satisfaction and waits for the rest of the gang to arrive.

Standing nearby, the bartender eyes the string, troubled by a nagging feeling.  Finally, he comes over and says to the string: "Hey! Aren't you the string who was just in here?"

"I'm a frayed knot."


Ahem.  OK.  Moving on to Friday Link Love:
  • While we're at it, let's look at Orwell's six rules--written with political discourse in mind, but appropriate to fiction as well.  Jeff at Alphabet City has a nice writeup.
  • Rachelle Gardner, who always has a great stuff, posted this illuminating piece on craft, story and voice.  A must read for any author wanting to get published.
So that's the rundown.  I hope you have a great weekend.  As I said, check back Sunday for my "Love At First Sight" Blogfest short, and on Monday we get back to my Battle Plan post series.

Stay groovy and thanks for stopping by.

And Now For Something Completely Different

I've been feeling a little odd and unfocused lately.  I'm not sure why, but I bet it's because of my impending departure from Baghdad.  I have about ten days left here.  My growing excitement at going home elicits a nervous jitter now and again.

Thus today, I'm going off the beaten path.  We all need breaks once in awhile, right? 

I share with you this absolutely breathtaking video of Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium.  The music is "Please Don't Go" by Barcelona (iTunes, Barcelona's website).

When I was home on R and R in September, my two-year old daughter and I watched this about fifty times.  In that fun way that kids never tire of repeating things, each time the video ended she would say: "Shark please again Daddy."  I couldn't say no.


BATTLE PLAN Part Three: Organizing Your Plan

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Welcome!  This is Part Three of a six-part post series entitled Conquering the Page: Creating Your Own Fiction Writer's Battle Plan.  You can find the first two parts here:

Part One: The Overview
Part Two: Defining Your Writing Mission

Your homework from Part Two was to come up with up to three writing goals.  Today, with those goals in mind, we're going to start sketching out the broad outlines of our Battle Plans--or BPs.

If you don't know, the military has a plan for everything.  Going to chow, clearing minefields--even invasions of entire countries have detailed plans.  It is part of our culture, and when conducting military missions, we plan without even thinking about it.

As we set out to plan for our writing though, we don't want to go overboard.  Writing is a creative and dynamic process.  Writing can't be organized in the same way that one might organize an assembly line, but organizing your writing process can still help.  Let's face it: if getting published were as simple as sitting down and banging out 1,000 words a day, everybody would be doing it.  But it's not.  For this reason, a tailored BP--one aligned with your unique needs as a writer--can provide you with a number of important benefits.

Planning Hierarchy.  In order to understand how we will construct our BPs, it will be helpful to understand a little about military planning.  Military planners organize their tasks using a hierarchy.  Plans are strategic or tactical (there's an intermediate type of operational plan, but it is not needed for our purposes).  This sounds complicated, but stick with me.

Strategic plans relate to high level efforts.  A plan to invade a country is a good example of a strategic plan.  Tactical plans apply to individual units--occupy and defend this road intersection, for example.

In order to win the war, the overall plan--the BP--must synchronize tactical level operations with the strategic objectives.  Problems occur if this is not done.  For instance, the Generals may have an amazing attack plan, guaranteed to catch the enemy by surprise, but the troops on the ground are poorly trained (no one thought to put it in the plan), so the attack fails.  Conversely, let's suppose the troops at the tactical level are highly motivated and trained, but the Generals have no real plan.  Individual units wander around the battlefield in disorder, and the strategic objectives are not met. 
The same idea can be applied to writing.  The concept for your novel is amazing, but your language isn't polished.  Therefore, you can't find an agent.  Or you write so beautifully that your first drafts read like published work, but your novel concept isn't all that inspiring.  Again, no agent.

The point is these different efforts rely on each other.  All your writing activities--first drafting, editing, critiquing, beta'ing, querying, platform building, market research, etc.--must work in concert and all be of high quality if you want to be published. 

Are you a General or a Foot Soldier?  Let's take a look at the goals you identified after Part Two.  Are they strategic or tactical goals?  If one of your goals is to publish a novel, then I would put that in the strategic category.  If, on the other hand, a goal is to write 1,000 words a day, then that would be a tactical goal.

For our purposes, we're going to call writers with tactical goals Foot Soldiers and writers with strategic goals Generals.  You may be a little of both and that's OK too.  (By the way, it's not better to be either a Foot Soldier or a General).

Generals tend to think big picture, but tend to not work out the details to get where they want to go.  I am about the biggest General around.  I always have some bright idea--writing or otherwise--that I think is earth shattering and amazing, but I struggle to do the day to day legwork needed to achieve the vision of the ideas I've chosen.  Generals tend to start lots of projects but finish only a few of them.  If you think you're a General, your job in constructing your BP will be to think more like a Foot Soldier.

Foot Soldiers are great at digging in and producing day after day, but they haven't plugged the constellation of their efforts into a larger set of long-term goals.  Foot Soldiers may finish the year and have accomplished a ton of work, but in terms of moving forward in their career (strategic level effort), they are really no better off than they were the year before.  If you have more than two finished novel manuscripts that you've never submitted to an agent, you may be a Foot Soldier.  If you're a Foot Soldier, your job will be to think more like a General.

If you find you fit somewhere in between these two definitions then pat yourself on the back.  You're already ahead of the power curve.

Constructing a Battle Plan.  Writers who want to be published have to be both Foot Soldiers and Generals.  The BP process will help us adjust our efforts to cover all the bases.

The job of building a BP begins with identifying all the different activities we need to accomplish to reach our writing goals.  This is alot like balancing the checkbook or building a monthly budget.  We need to make a list of each individual process in our writing effort.  Here are some examples (not an all inclusive list):

  • Career planning and development
  • Novel/story concept development
  • Platform building
  • Query plan and tracking
  • Mid to long-term planning
  • Market research
  • Plotting and scene development
  • Editing and rewriting
  • Drafting query letters and correspondence
  • Reading fiction (for fun and to see what published authors are doing)
  • Reading fiction how-to books (for craft and knowledge development)
  • Writing classes
  • First draft writing
  • Vocabulary development
  • Exercises and games
  • Production tracking and assessment
  • Muscle memory development and training
  • Fiction case study and language study
Homework.  The post this coming Monday will cover how we implement the BP--in other words, how we transmogrify this list of tasks into a real plan.  Here's how you create your own list of tasks:
  • Get out a legal pad (or you can do it in MS Word if you prefer) and title it [YOUR NAME HERE]'s Battle Plan.
  • Below the heading, write down your goal(s) from Part Two.
  • Next, place two headings on the page:  "Strategic" and "Tactical."  Decide whether each of your goals is strategic or tactical, and place them under that heading.  Then start brainstorming other tasks you think you need. 
  • If your a Foot Soldier, you'll be building up.  Begin to think about and identify strategic activities that your tactical goals ("write 1,000 words a day," for example) support.  The trick here is to start thinking big picture.  Where do you want to be six months from now?  A year?  Five years? 
  • If you're a General, the opposite will be true.  You'll goals will be high level, and you'll build down.  Your strategic level goal might be to publish a novel.  A corresponding tactical goal that you should write down will be to "write a first draft."  Edit, beta, etc. might be others.  So the game is to capture all the smaller efforts that are needed to get your novel published.
  • Simply provide a single line placeholder for each activity.  Don't worry so much about capturing the scope of each activity.  So "write every day" without mention of a word count is OK.  The idea is to have every kind of task listed--in the way you would try to capture every flavor of expenditure in a budget.  Next post we'll start defining these activities further and taking a look at how much time they take individually and together.
When you finish, pat yourself on the back.  You have started building your BP.  Woo hoo!  Let me know what questions you have. 

Monday will be Part Four: Implementing the Plan.  Thanks for stopping by!

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