BATTLE PLAN Part Five: Improvising for Success

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I want you to drop and give me fifty push-ups.  No really.  Yes, right now.  No, this isn't the Drill Instructor.  Just little ol' Jon Paul.  That's right, fifty push-ups.

Trouble?  Oh, I see.  That's alright.  Maybe we'll do them later, shall we?  OK.

To tell you the truth, before I joined the military, I could barely do twenty-five push-ups myself, so I understand.  I've had a few "practice sessions" in the last eighteen years so I could do the fifty now, if need be.  In fact, just about anyone who's spent time in the military could probably knock out fifty push-ups without hardly thinking about it.

Here's a different proposition: what if there was a book deal at the end of those fifty push-ups?  Yeah, like the magic lamp and three wishes--sorta.  If you did the fifty push-ups, then there would be an agent there ready to sign you and ready to pitch your book to anyone and everyone.  Oh, OK.  I'll wait.  OK.  Oh, you'll  figure out something?  Great.  OK.  I'll tell ya what.  Let's knock out this post and we'll come back to this idea.

Hiya!  Today is Part Five of my six part post series Conquering the Page: Creating Your Own Fiction Writer's Battle Plan.  If you missed any of the first four parts, they're linked on the right sidebar.

So far in our Battle Planning sessions, we've identified goals and tasks and organized them into a staged schedule.  In other words, we've built the Battle Plan--or BP for short.  Having finished BP construction is a great accomplishment, but that only gets us half way there.  Your BP is still untested.  The quality of the effort we make to execute the BP and to judge our success are as critical to our long-term writing success as having a plan in place in the first place.

Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth Carl Bernard von Moltke, a late nineteenth-century military strategist, famously said: "No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy."  This is the military corollary to Murphy's Law: "If anything can go wrong, it will."  This will be true of your BP too; I can almost guarantee that day in, day out, month in, month out, your BP will not go the way you planned it to go.

What does this mean for us writers?  It means that we can have the best plan in the world, but there's also this thing called real life that sometimes gets in the way.  Cars break down.  Kids get sick.  Sometimes we have to work late.  Sometimes an event occurs which changes the entire rhythm of our lives, but that shouldn't mean that the writing doesn't get done.

The trick to being successful has two parts:  1) get up on the writing horse, but equally if not more important 2) stay there!

When we talk about improvising and being flexible in the execution of our BP, what we are really saying is "Find a way to get the writing done, regardless of other demands on our time."  Expect things to change.  Expect the two hours we set aside for writing this morning to become thirty-minutes.  Compensate.  Practice re-arranging your schedule to accommodate your writing tasks.  Sacrifice.  Make hard choices.  Give up the television show you love.  Buy voice recognition software for your laptop so you can record yourself on the drive to and from work.  Stay up a half hour later.  Get up a half hour earlier.  Get creative.  Do whatever it takes to get the job done. 

Think of it this way: every day you delay is another day before you get your book deal (or whatever your long term goal happens to be).  For success in the writing business, we need opportunity, but as Malcolm Gladwell argues, we also need to put our time in.  He believes that a person cannot become an expert in a field until they've put in 10,000 hours.  Here's an excerpt from a recent interview following the release of his book Outliers:
Anything that is cognitively complex seems like it requires at least 10,000 hours. ... It's deliberate practice, so it's focused, determined, in environments where there's feedback, where there's a chance to really learn from mistakes. What's fascinating about this notion that expertise arises only after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is that it seems to apply incredibly broadly to an astonishing array of different professions - from playing chess to writing classical music to being a brain surgeon to playing hockey.
So putting your time in is key, and the key to finding that time is in learning to improvise and be flexible.  Practice writing, but also practice being absolutely ruthless with yourself in the pursuit of your goals.  Find a way to get it done.

Now back to the fifty push-ups.  Being able to do fifty push-ups without thinking about it comes from being physically fit.  If you want to succeed as a writer, you also have to attain a kind of improvisational fitness--beyond simple practice, until finding time for your writing is no longer a conscious effort, but an integral part of the day-to-day fabric of your life.

Years ago, when I graduated from Officer Candidate School, the Marine Corps Master Gunnery Sergeant who ran the school gave each graduating officer a placard which I still keep handy and go back and look at from time to time.  It says "Be a contender, not a pretender."

I believe that to be a true contender, you have to get the job done, come hell or high water, no matter what else is happening or what circumstances have changed.  Make yourself a contender!  Build flexibility into your BP!  Give your writing the planning, time and attention it deserves and you'll be ready when the big writing opportunity presents itself.

Homework.  Take a look over your BP and identify tasks which may go by the wayside or are in conflict with other activities in your life.  Brainstorm and write down the work-arounds you'll take to accomplish the task anyway.

Thanks for stopping by.  Part Six, Assessing Your Progress will be next week!

For fun, I leave you with this scene from "With Honors" starring Brendan Fraser and Joe Pesci, highlighting how important flexibility and improvisation can be.

The Far Shore

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"Every creator painfully experiences the chasm between his inner vision and its ultimate expression. The chasm is never completely bridged. We all have the conviction, perhaps illusory, that we have much more to say than appears on the paper."

~~Isaac Bashevis Singer

Beef Stew

Monday, March 29, 2010

Before we get started, if you didn't hear, Anne Riley is hosting a Murder Scene Blogfest--sure to be a ton of great stuff to read.  Go sign up here!

Now say it with me: Mmmmm....beef stew.  Doesn't the stew in the picture on the right look delicious?  I'm getting hungry as I write this.

What does food have to do with writing, you ask?  Let me tell you: lately, I've been paying more attention to my writing process--both in terms of my approach and to my end product.  I've concluded that the way I write is very similar to the way a cook might prepare a stew or soup: a pinch of one ingredient here, a dash of another ingredient there.

I would love to tell you I'm one of those Iron Chef types who can take the most exotic idea or character, throw him into any situation and out pops a tale so well told, so compelling that it is guaranteed to take the reader's breath away.  I wish I could tell you that, but it's not true.

Rather, my approach is to inch along, do the standard recipe with nothing fancy, get lots of words on the page, do tons of free-writing, lots of thinking, re-examine my assumptions, push on, cut out content, add a dash of exposition here, a sprinkling of description there, until what I have at last may or may not taste alright.  In fact, sometimes I'm not even sure the piece is complete when I finally make the decision to put it aside.

Once the initial first draft work is done, I bake in a desk drawer (or more often on my hard-drive) for anywhere from three days to two weeks before I come back to read it.  Only then do I know if I pulled off a tale worth keeping.  Looked at later, the story usually looks and tastes completely different than it did at writing time.  I see things I missed the first time around--either omitted elements that need to be added, or places where fat needs to be trimmed.

Because I am never quite sure how my stories will turn out, I tend to write more than one at a time, understanding that not every piece will be good when it's done.  For example, in preparing for the Drunk At First Sight Blogfest, I actually had two pieces in the running, but the one I originally favored didn't turn out the way I thought it might--so I posted the second one.

This ramshackle writing approach has required me to learn to review my fiction with an eye for certain ingredients which I believe are essential.  Here are three that I always look for:

Is there an action or decision in the scene/story?  My feeling is that for a story or scene to work, the MC (or group) must take an action to achieve a goal (or take action to avoid a circumstance they don't want), or must be faced with a decision.

Depending on the length of the story, it is possible for a character to be on the brink of a decision and not actually make it, but movement in the story relies on the MC approaching the point where they must make a decision, or having taken at least a step or two forward in pursuit of a goal.  It is also possible for a story to work if the MC has made a decision and is dealing with the consequences of that decision.

For this one, my most common mistake is to have characters who want things (sometimes really badly), but don't take concrete steps (or struggle to take concrete steps) toward achieving their aims.  Usually, the chance for action is there, but I miss it in the first draft, or obscure the thrust of action in irrelevant detail.

Do the events in the story matter?  This one is probably the easiest of the three to fix, since what it deals with is stakes: what is at stake for the MC (or other characters) if the decision/action fails or succeeds.  Why is that guy robbing the convenience store?  Because he's a deadbeat criminal, because he can't help it, just for fun, or because his sister needs a kidney transplant that his blue collar father cannot afford?

The stake explains the motive behind the MC's actions.  Without a clear stake, your characters will seem wooden and melodramatic.  With too much at stake--and if your characters fail to act accordingly--your characters will appear cold and uncaring.  Also, if every character in your story has an overly deep reason for the way they act, the drama in your piece may seem overwrought and heavy-handed.  After all, people (and characters) do things "just 'cuz" sometimes too.

When writing, I typically know exactly what's at stake for my MC, but I don't always get it on the page, so adding a few lines explaining what he/she is really after usually does the trick.

By the end, has the MC changed? In my mind, this is the hardest one to pull off, because the change can take many forms.  The MC can learn new information, can understand themselves better, can have a different view of their world, can realize they were wrong about someone or something--the list is pretty endless.

The bottom line is that by the end of the story or chapter there must be something new in the way the MC behaves or sees the world.*  This change is a crucial part of the "a-ha!" moment felt by the reader that signals the end of the story.  If your story doesn't feel done, it's probably because nothing's changed.

For me, I usually get some sort of change in, but it doesn't always match the direction of the action and/or decision, so I end up going back and rewickering it to fit the beginning (or fixing the beginning to match the end).  It still surprises me how much the setup influences the quality of the ending, and making sure there's a change is certainly one area where that is true.

These three are by no means a comprehensive list.  There are certainly other things to look out for in good fiction, other ingredients that need to go in to make it taste good.

What about you?  What is your writing process like?  What are the "ingredients" you look for?  What do you find you need to change to get it to "taste" right?

*It is possible for a story where the MC doesn't change to work too, but these kinds of stories usually operate by comparing the lack of change to a change that should have taken place, i.e. a man who conducts a brutal killing but is remorseless in the end.  The reader understands that a normal man would feel remorse--and so the lack of change at the end creates drama through the comparison. 

The Art of Discovery

Sunday, March 28, 2010

"The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new."

~~Samuel Johnson

Friday Link Love: The Tale of the Green Monkey

Friday, March 26, 2010

Wow! This week totally flew by--at least for me.  I don't know if Father Time's unusual quickness relates to my finally finding a sustainable daily rhythm in this new life of mine (returning from living overseas for a year can make that a challenge for a guy, I guess) or whether it relates to my excitement at being back home with the family--and a ton of friends, many of whom I haven't seen in years.  Either way, it's pretty cool, frankly, and I'm pleased as pie. 

A funny thing has been happening: to my eye, accustomed to sand and T-walls and everything that comes from living in a combat zone, the objects and situations populating my current surroundings appear old and new simultaneously.  Old because I've lived here before; new because they look different and more interesting now. I find myself noticing details I would have missed before; I stop and smell the roses and savor moments without thinking about it or without undue effort.  On the drive into work this morning for example, the new day's sun rising over the horizon caught my eye and looked wild and beautiful, and I couldn't help but tap my fingers on the steering wheel along with the song from the radio and smile. I'm loving it.

On the writing front, I'm finally back on track--for the most part, I'm write my posts the night before and I am getting around more often (oftener?) to your blogs to see what you all are up to.  And everywhere I turn, I see great talent and great people and great things going on.  It's pretty great.  REALLY! 

In other news, I am due to start the first draft of my novel next Thursday.  I've been doing research and thinking and character development and thinking and plotting and thinking.  I am totally grooving over how the prep process has gone so far, and if you are really nice to me and leave me lots of comments and stroke my ego in a way that only a Worldwide Audience of Blog Readers can, maybe I'll share some 411 about it before the month is out.  Maybe.

But first, it is time for this blog's weekly tradition: Friday Link Love, where I point out a few fun, useful, or fun, useful things I've seen around the blogosphere this week, with joke.

I suppose my jokes have gained a well-deserved reputation for their high groan potential, but I should still warn you: today's gem is probably the worst groaner I've ever come across.  Since today's joke is longer and groanier than usual, I'll Share the Love first, and you few brave souls willing to wander further into dangerous territory can do so as you see fit.  

Up first then is Link Love:
Thanks all you knock-out folks for making this such a great week.  And now, for dessert:

The Tale of the Green Monkey (remember you were warned!)

    Jimmy went to spend the night with his friend, Zach.  They hung out most of the afternoon in Zach's basement bedroom, playing video games and goofing.  After awhile, they got tired of the games and started telling each other stories in that braggadocious style unique to teenagers.
    Jimmy wanted to be a professional writer, and had in fact won a prize the year before with one of his short stories.  He felt compelled to tell a better story than Zach, and so spun out a long tale involving vampires and demons and other creatures of the night that ended in a epic battle for the future of humanity and for all Life on Earth.  Jimmy finished up, sitting back with a devilish grin, feeling like the yarn had been a pretty good effort.
    Zach, however, was unimpressed.  He said that not only could he tell a better story, but every word he would utter was absolutely true.  Jimmy guffawed.  He knew Zach was a pretty good storyteller in his own right, and the statement about the story being non-fiction was designed to raise the stakes and improve the story's impact.
    After a minute, Zach began an elaborate tale about a race of monkeys who lived in an ivory-leaved tree on top of a crystal mountain, and their King, a green-skinned monkey who was half as large as the others.  They were peaceful, and spent their days hanging out in the limbs of the tree and eating bananas and smiling. 
    But anyone who laid eyes on the monkeys must be warned: don't be drawn in by their calm demeanor and laughing eyes.  The monkeys would remain calm and peaceful until one thing happened--someone touched the green monkey.  If that happened, then all hell would break loose and the person who did that would live to regret it.  NEVER TOUCH THE GREEN MONKEY.
    Zach sat back with a grin of his own. 
    Jimmy shook his head.  "That was a pretty lousy story, Zach.  In fact, I'd argue it really wasn't a story at all."
    "Yeah, maybe you're right," Zach said.  "But it's all true."
    "Yeah, it is."
    Jimmy knew that Zach was making the whole thing up and said so.  Zach said Jimmy didn't know what he was talking about.  The argument went back and forth and escalated until they were practically yelling at each other. 
    "Fine!" Zach said at last.  "I'll show you!"
    Zach led Jimmy over to a closet in the corner.  Upon opening the door, Jimmy saw that the closet was full of unusual equipment: machetes, rope, helmets, spiked boots, lanterns and flashlights.  Zach directed Jimmy to gear up.  The two boys laced up their boots and put equipment on tool belts and in backpacks.  Jimmy still thought Zach was pulling his leg until Zach reached up and toggled a switch behind the door frame and a hatch in the back of the closet opened with a vicious hiss.  Zach threw Jimmy the "See, I told you!" smile and pulled the hatch open.
    Leading the way, Jimmy crawled through a short metallic tunnel, like an air-conditioning duct, until they exited into a darkened cave-like chamber.  As they passed into the chamber, a bright flash of blue light engulfed them as if they had passed through one of those trans-dimensional portals Jimmy'd seen on Sci-Fi TV shows.  Jimmy popped through to the other side and looked around wide-eyed, waiting for his eyes to adjust.  Zach pushed another button at the lip of the tunnel and the sound of the hatch closing behind them could be heard.
    "What is this place?" Jimmy asked.
    "You'll see."
    Jimmy lit a lantern and the yellow circle of light illuminated what looked to be the inside of a cave.  They traveled along the rocky path, twisting and turning until at last, after twenty minutes, they emerged from the cave into the afternoon light.  Jimmy could see that they stood in a sandy alcove with dense jungle all around.
    Zach pulled out his machete and walked over to a tuft of jungle vines.  "Watch this," he said.  He sliced the plants at the base and to Jimmy's amazement the vines grew back to the original height after a few seconds.  Jimmy explained that they needed to get through the jungle, and in order to do so, they'd need to chop down the vines and then move forward so the vines would grow up behind them.
    Jimmy said OK and they set off.   They chopped at the undergrowth and jaunted forward, and the plants grew up in the spot where they'd been standing.  After awhile they realized it was kind of fun, and they laughed and challenged each other to see who could go faster.  In a half hour, they emerged on a beach.
    In the distance, Jimmy could make out an island across the water, crested by a shiny mountain.  Zach laughed at Jimmy's wonder, muttered "I told you" under his breath, and walked up the beach a short way until they reached a shallow cove where a boat was pulled up.
    After climbing into the boat, they seated themselves and oared their way across the water, the silhouette of the island growing larger until the shadow of it loomed over them.  The whole time, Jimmy found himself speechless, and rowed on, feeling like he'd stepped out of his real life and into a strange dream.
    They arrived at the island and started off from the beach toward the crystal mountain.  It rose high above them, and the summit was wreathed in cloud.  The smooth surface of the crystals was slippery, but the spiked boots helped.  Jimmy kept looking up as they climbed, and finally, through the misty scud, the shape of a large white tree began to come into view.
    At the base of the tree, Jimmy could see everything: the ivory leaves that Zach had described, and there, high in limbs of the tree, a group of perhaps fifteen monkeys, all of whom stared down at the two boys with a kind of lazy amusement.
    "But where's the green one?" Jimmy asked.
    "There."  Zach pointed and Jimmy saw him at last, a blot casting a black shadow at the very apex of the ivory tree.  He was tiny. If Jimmy squinted, he could see a vivid odd looking face with a toothy grin looking down at them.  The green monkey's eyes followed their slightest movement, beckoning and laughing--as if daring them to climb higher.
    Jimmy started toward the tree trunk.
    "Where you going?" Zach asked.
    "I want to see him."
    "This is as far as we go.  Remember what I told you: No touching the green monkey."
    "But what happens if we do?"
    Zach just smiled and turned away.  "Come on.  Time we headed home."
   Jimmy hesitated, then followed Zach away from the tree.  They climbed down the crystal mountain, took the boat back across the water, chopped through the jungle, traversed the darkness of the cave, climbed back into the air-conditioning tunnel until they finally pushed through the hatch back into the closet in Zach's room.
   "That was fun!" Zach said as he doffed his gear.  Jimmy muttered agreement, but he couldn't stop thinking about the tree and the green monkey.
    They both agreed they were hungry, so they went off to get dinner, returned to play some video games until it got late, then laid down for bed.  The whole time, Jimmy couldn't get the green monkey out of his head, and Zach had to nudge him several times to bring him back from his daydreaming.  What would happen if he touched the green monkey? Jimmy wondered, but he knew Zach wouldn't tell him so he kept the question to himself.
    They climbed into their sleeping bags after midnight, and soon Jimmy could hear the sound of Zach snoring.  He couldn't get the image of the monkeys out of his head.  He lay there and told himself to forget it, but every time his mind began to wander toward sleep, that green face popped back up and mocked him.
    Finally, since he couldn't sleep, he made up his mind that he was going to go see the green monkey again for himself.  He went to the closet and geared up again, and felt around until he found the switch that opened the hatch.  The noise of the opening hatch door hissed into the silence; Jimmy looked back half expecting Zach to wake up, but the other boy slept soundly and did not stir.
    Jimmy climbed through to the cave, used a flashlight to light his way until he reached the cave mouth, where he stood in the sand and looked out at the jungle.  Strangely, it looked like it was daytime, with the sun still high in the sky.  Something really weird is going on here, Jimmy thought as he cut the jungle undergrowth with the machete and pushed on toward the beach.
     He climbed in the boat and rowed across to the island.  The crystal mountain was slippery but after a half hour of climbing, he reached the base of the tree.  The monkeys stared down at him, still in the same places they'd been hours before.  Their grins were haunting, especially the way the green monkey seemed to know why he was there, seemed to know what he was going to do next.
    The spikes in his boots dug into the tree trunk and with some difficulty, he started climbing.  As he got to the first of the branches, he could hear the monkeys giggling softly at him.  For some reason he felt an odd urge to nod at them as he climbed past, and they nodded back knowingly.  Finally, he reached the highest branches of the tree, nearly within arm's reach of the green monkey.
    The green monkey stared back at him, a tittering light emanating from his eyes.  He was waiting.  Waiting for Jimmy.  For a brief instant Jimmy thought maybe this whole thing was a mistake, maybe he should have listened to Zach and he should climb down the tree right now and head home.  The way the green monkey looked at him gave him the creeps, and looking down below him, down from the tree and the high crystal mountain and the island's sweep of beach and water beyond, an abrupt feeling of vertigo shook him to the core.  What the hell was he doing here?
    Then, as quick as it had come, the feeling passed.  He was being silly.  He shook his head, got hold of himself.  This was a synch, a piece of cake.  After all, he wasn't a wimp.  What's the big deal?
    Slowly, inexorably, he reached out his hand until his fingers were within inches of the green monkey's skin.  The monkey's eyes didn't look down, didn't hardly notice Jimmy's proximity, but stayed locked on the boy's face.
    The second he touched the green monkey's skin, an electric shock ran through Jimmy's hand, surprised him, took his breath away, and Jimmy pulled back his hand reflexively.  The green monkey began to grow in size, larger, larger, and that horrible grin kept taunting Jimmy, leering at him.  Jimmy started scrambling down the trunk of the tree, afraid of what was going to happen next, afraid of what he'd started.  The other monkeys shimmied quickly along their respective branches toward the main trunk and Jimmy narrowly missed several of their swipes.
    Moving as fast as he could, he hit the ground running and only managed one look back as he launched himself over a crystal outcropping on his way down the mountain.  The green monkey had tripled in size, huge venomous looking fangs growing from his mouth, rapier claws sprouting from every finger and tow.  Hand over hand the green monkey came down the tree trunk covering the distance in the blink of an eye.  The other monkeys fell in behind their King, and Jimmy cursed under his breath.
    Jimmy decided to throw caution to the wind and he threw himself feet first down the mountain as if he were tobogganing down a ski slope.  The monkeys bounded after, staying right behind him.  Jimmy realized if he could get to the water, they monkeys wouldn't be able to follow him.  Monkeys couldn't swim, right?!?
    He rushed to the boat, pushed it off the beach and rowed with all the strength and speed he could must.  The monkeys came up short on the beach and Jimmy started to breath a sigh of relief, until the green monkey plunged into the waves and swam after him, the rest of the monkey horde following in the green monkey's wake.
    The small rowboat crossed the distance to the far beach in record time, the sting of exertion burning Jimmy's arms and the backs of his legs.  He climbed up onto the beach, the monkeys right behind him.  Maybe the jungle will stop them, Jimmy thought without much hope.
   He chopped his way through the jungle, slashing like a weed-eater gone berserk.  A quick glance back confirmed his worst fears.  The green monkey and the others behind simply uprooted the vines and undergrowth, tossing the plants aside in enormous clumps and scampering along in his footsteps.
    A dense fear blossomed in Jimmy's chest as he clambered past the treeline and into the cave.  By now, the monkeys were only paces behind him and Jimmy swore he could feel the green monkey's breath on his neck, feel his ghastly-happy eyes boring into his skull.  The cave floor moved in a blur beneath his feet until he came up to the air-conditioning tunnel.  He started feeling around for the switch.  Where was it?  Where was it?
    He kept feeling for the switch with one hand, turning around, feeling their presence in the room, the air going cold, his breaths condensing like icicles in his lungs, freezing his mind.  The green monkey towered above, leaning over him.  Jimmy couldn't believe his size.  He was so tall that looking up at his circus-clown face was like staring at the tops of skyscrapers.  Jimmy kept feeling around with his loose hand, but a sinking feeling passed through him like a jolt of electricity.
   The green monkey slid one massive hand down from the ceiling, moving it toward Jimmy's chest.  To Jimmy, it was like standing in a freeway lane with an oncoming car hurtling toward him.  A noise escaped his lips: "Oh, God."
   The green monkey's hand flew right in without stopping, and in the last instant, Jimmy was sure he was going to die, sure that he was going to meet his maker right here, right now, in this stupid cave.  Why hadn't he listened to Zach?  Why had he been so stupid?  What a dumb way to die.  What a dumb way to do exactly what he'd been told not to do.
    But at the last possible instant, the monkey's hand came up short, the end of one massive finger hovering inches from Jimmy's hyperventilating chest.  The green monkey ogled him, those terrible eyes still laughing, still sure where this was all going.
    Jimmy held his breath, unsure what to do next.  Gently, the green monkey touched Jimmy's chest, touched him so lightly that Jimmy found his dread suddenly replaced by a feeling of confusion and surprise.
    "What...the....?" Jimmy stuttered.
   The other monkeys were laughing at him now, really laughing, openly mocking him.  When the green monkey spoke, his dark voice surprised Jimmy even more, and he hardly believed the words that issued from the green monkey's lips.
    The green monkey said:  "Tag!  You're it!"


Stay groovy and have a great weekend!

Sleight of Hand

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"Drama, instead of telling us the whole of a man's life, must place him in such a situation, tie such a knot, that when it is untied, the whole man is visible."

~~Leo Tolstoy

BATTLE PLAN Part Four: Implementing Your Plan

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hi all! Today we embark on Part Four of my four part post series based on my experience with military planning called Conquering the Page: Creating Your Own Fiction Writer's Battle Plan.

In Part One, the Drill Sergeant yelled at us for a few minutes, gave us the overview and an inspirational movie. Part Two kicked off the process of defining your writing mission and identifying associated goals. Part Three assisted us in identifying all the other associated writing tasks that will be part of the Battle Plan--BP for short--and also helped each of us decide if we were a General of a Foot Soldier.

As we embark on Part Four, here's what you'll need:

1) Your writing goals (up to three).
2) Your BP worksheet with writing tasks divided into strategic or tactical level categories.
3) A calendar or scheduling program (like MS Outlook or Google Calendar)--a paper calendar works fine too--your preference.

Building Your Battle Plan.  The question before us is this: how do we take the writing task list we've already created and convert it to a BP?

The answer relates to one ingredient in our writing process we have not yet discussed: time.  Time is such a critical part of a BP--in fact it is the one ingredient that makes a task list into a plan--that I now give you not one, not two, but three quotes on time to get us started (you know I love those quotes):
"You may delay, but time will not."    ~~Benjamin Franklin
"Time is what keeps everything from happening at once."    ~~John Archibald Wheeler
"Time is an equal opportunity employer.  Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day.  Rich people can't buy more hours.  Scientists can't invent new minutes.  And you can't save time to spend it on another day."    ~~Denis Waitely
Time is the only element of the BP that is not negotiable.  Each of us gets no more or less per day than any other, so a big part of devising the BP is choosing the best use of our hours, days and weeks to accomplish goals in a way that fits our lifestyle.

The single worst enemy of your writing is real life--all the other things you have to do on a daily basis that decrease the time you available to perfect your craft.  It is therefore extremely important to understand how long the different tasks in our writing routine take; how long do I need to draft a query letter?  How much time should I spend commenting on blogs?  The road to publishing is made up of tens, maybe hundreds of smaller tasks, and organizing these tasks in a meaningful way will make the trip more efficient and less stressful.  Thus, the next step in constructing a BP is to arrange writing tasks over time in an organized way to best meet our writing goals.

Time Budgeting.  If you're like me, your list of writing tasks is extremely long--so long, in fact, that it should be pretty obvious at first blush that you can't do them all at the same time--or even during the same week.  The trick then is to come up with a way to organize all these varied activities over time.

The first step is to work out some time budgeting.  This process is a lot like balancing the checkbook or calorie counting for you fitness gurus out there.  Take a look at your list of tactical tasks.  For each task on our list, estimate the amount of time you believe you'll need to accomplish it, then write that number down beside your task.  You might write "read 25 pages of fiction--30 minutes".  Keep it simple: fifteen minute increments should work fine.  

Some of your tasks will be easy to budget.  You probably have a pretty good idea how long 500 words of first draft writing takes, for example.  Others may be more difficult, like plotting and scene development.  Jot down your best guess.  If you think it takes you six hours to develop a query letter, then so be it.   As you sketch out these times, don't get hung up on getting it exactly right.  Remember, a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.  We'll talk later about how to refine these numbers.

Stages.  Once you've assigned times to your tactical level tasks, the next step is to begin to organize them into a schedule on a calendar.  As I said before, you likely can't do all the tasks in the same day or same week even, so we need to begin to focus our efforts on the tasks that need doing now in a way that makes sense.

Here's where your strategic tasks and your goals become important.  Ask yourself: "Where am I in my writing process?"  I'll use myself as an example.  I am currently in the skills development stage (I recently came of a multi-year hiatus from writing), and my plan calls for starting the initial draft of a first novel in April.  You could look at the two periods I've described ("skills development" and "first draft development") as stages, and when you do that, you can see that certain tactical level tasks immediately align with the stages in question, and other tasks don't belong.

So, during my skills development stage (note: this is what I am calling the stage.  Name your stages in a way that works for you), I am doing a lot of fiction reading for craft, reading how-to books, conducting fiction exercises, etc.  Other tasks such a query letter development and plotting and scene development don't really fit this stage--so I do not currently do them, but I will put them into future stages when their accomplishment is appropriate.

In this way, we can identify the tasks we should be working on now and those we will accomplish at a later date.  Once we've identified the "now" tasks, and since we know how long each task should take, we can begin to fit them into our days and weeks in a common sense way. 

Think of it like an assembly line for a tank or jeep.  Certain of the parts have a set manufacturing time.  Once the manufacturing is complete, then they must be shipped to the construction site, which also takes time.  Then the parts need to be bolted and welded together, until we have the basic chassis sitting there in front of us.  Slap on a coat of paint.  Fuel her up.  Provide ammo and food supplies for her crew.  Take her for a test drive.  Tweak her until she's running like a Swiss watch.  All these processes take time, and they have to be done in a certain order--can't start painting right off the bat, for example.

Only after putting our writing tasks in proper order and after summing the time required for each activity together will we know the total investment in time needed before we can be published.   

Homework.  Here's where we get down to brass tacks: actually building your BP.  Today we'll set up the general structure; Parts Five and Six will discuss the process of judging how well our BP works. 

For starters, today we're only going to worry about two stages--the one you're in and the one that comes next; eventually you'll want to build the plan as far out into the future as you can manage, with as many stages as you require to reach your most distant goals.  Here's what you do:
  • Get out a piece of paper (or do it on the computer if you prefer) and make two headings: one for the stage that you think you're in, and one for the next stage.
  • Under the current stage heading, copy down all the tasks you believe apply to that stage, with associated times.
  • Do the same for the next stage.
  • Now break out your calendar (or calendar program--I use Google Calendar) and start placing tasks as necessary for each day and week.  Do this for all activities until complete.
  • So, for example, if we want to write a 100,000 word first draft and we write 500 words an hour, then it will take us 200 hours to complete.  If we are able to write two hours a day, six days a week, then we should be able to complete a first draft in a little less than 17 weeks, or around four months.  So we would place a two hour block on our calendar for each of our writing days until we cover the allotted time.  Next, we'd pencil in time for research, for example.
  • As an aside, it is also helpful to put many of our other routine non-writing tasks on the Calendar which allows us to see the various time conflicts we have in our schedule.  If we have to make an early morning run to the airport and we write in the mornings, for example, we will have to move our writing slot or account for the lost production.  Keeping track of how our schedule conforms to reality will be extremely important when we discuss improvising and assessing our BP in the last two posts.
  • Once you've done that for each of your tasks you can begin to get a feel for when this stage will end and when the next stage will begin.  Using the above example, if the first draft writing was the longest task in terms of calendar time, then one could begin to think about the next stage (revising, for example) in about four months.
  • Also, if you begin to plug all your tasks in over the week, you can see that it can fill up pretty quick.  This is why I compare this process to balancing a checkbook.  You will likely have a sense of "where do I get the time I need to do all this stuff?"  This is when you need to get creative.  Maybe one kind of task gets done on Mondays.  Maybe we accomplish a different task the next day.  Maybe what you build is more like a two week cycle than a one week cycle--keep playing with it until you figure out what looks right for you.  The key is to schedule all current stage tasks and then reach some conclusions about how long it will take in daily, weekly, and monthly time to get to the next gate.
  • After you've completed this process for the current stage, take a walk through the next stage as well.
Once you're done, give yourself a round of applause.  You now have a true BP in your hands and, I hope, some sense of how your writing process will go in the future.  But our work isn't done yet.  Next week, we'll discuss how to manage the plan "in the wild" once you've built it--these last two posts will perhaps be most critical to the future success of your BP. 

Next Wednesday will be Part Five: Improvising For Battle Plan Success.  Make sure to check back, and thanks for stopping by.

The Long Road

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"There is no royal path to good writing; and such paths as do exist do not lead through neat critical gardens, various as they are, but through the jungles of self, the world, and of craft."

~~Jessamyn West

Truth and Sweetness (Not Necessarily In That Order)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Today this Blogpost, tomorrow the World!--but first, these messages!

Seriously, I hope you chocked up an awesome weekend--one for the books!--you're ready to hit this fourth week in March running and you have plenty of fun-filled and entertaining adventures lined up.  We certainly do have some fun in store here at WSMG.

A few highlights:
  • Fiction Writer's Battle Plan Part Four.  Yes, that's RIGHT!  Wednesday I'll post the fourth in my six part series on how to devise a Fiction Writer's Battle Plan to absolutely conquer any and all writing challenges, and to set yourself on a path for writing success in the future.  If you missed the first three parts, you can check them on the sidebar to the right.  We'll knock out Part Five and Part Six in the next couple weeks.
  • Book Reviews and Discussions.  In the last thirty days I finished reading Lehane's "Shutter Island", Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" and Meyer's "Twilight".  This gives me plenty to talk about so I'll have posts/reviews on each of these texts in the next couple weeks.  I also owe you a second post relating to issues from "A Separate Peace" (check my original review here, if you like).
  • Craft Posts.  I am working on several more writing craft posts--which I'm really excited about!--including a discussion of some description and sentence structure techniques I've learned recently that I think you might find helpful.
  • Blog Redecorating.  Finally, a new blog template with my very own URL is in the works, so stand by for that unveiling soon.
And now the World Domination part!  I have recently received two more awards!  I can't believe my good luck at being able to use my powers of mind control to convince other bloggers that I deserve awards but it appears to be working.  Maybe it's all those subliminal [give me all your money] messages I've been inserting into [yes, I take checks but I would prefer cash] every sentence I write.

Seriously, I am really honored by all this attention.  It's just little old me here doing my thing so it makes me feel truly stoked to hear that folks enjoy what I'm putting up.  And of course, it is great to see how talented and supportive everyone else is out there--like we're one big happy family.  Couldn't be better IMHO.

So first up is the Sugar Doll Award--yes I've earned it once already but that doesn't matter!  An award is an award, right?!

Sarah, who puts up some great material over at The Wit and Wisdom of Another Sarah gave this one to me (thanks Sarah!).  I think the rules dictate that I should pass this onto a few other groovy folks, so here goes:

1.  Emily's emcogNEATO!
2.  Jenn's Every Day I Lie A Little
3.  Amalia's Good To Begin Well, Better To End Well

And Mia, who has a ton of fun at her place--Literary Jam & Toast--gave me the "From Me To You" Award (I think that's what it's called) where I share seven truths and give the award to seven folks.

Someone time me with their wristwatch.  Ready.  Set.  Go!

1.  Our dog Stormy was named after a triple coincidence: 1) the day we picked him up, there was an unseasonable thunderstorm that literally came out of nowhere, flash-flooded the roads and made a general mess, 2) "Riders on the Storm" by the Doors played on the radio when we pulled up at the gate at the breeder's place and 3) we had decided on him the day before--they say your pet picks you and in this case it certainly was true--but the breeder warned us when we picked him up that he was the most rambunctious of the lot and might be a handful.  The breeder was right--and the name stuck.

2.  I have climbed three volcanoes in my life--Mount Fuji in Japan, Mount Etna in Sicily and Diamondhead in Hawaii.  I brought back volcanic rocks from the first two that now sit on my writing desk (as the third is a National Park, I declined to bring one home).

3.  If I stayed airborne continuously for a period equal to the total flight time I have accrued in my 18 year Navy career (I'm a pilot by day), I would be in the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week for nearly 15 weeks.

4.  When I was a young single guy, I decided that naming a star for a girl was a pretty good gift idea.  It was unique and goofy and romantical and a little bit crazy--exactly what I usually went for.  I named five stars for girls; this was long before the internet and before it was common knowledge that the whole thing is basically a hoax.  Since I eventually broke up with all of them, I don't feel so bad that it wasn't legit, and I am relieved that the wreckage of my love life is not strewn among the night skies like so much detritus on a fallow tide.

5.  My two favorite poems are Edna St. Vincent Millay's Renascence and T. S. Eliot's Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.  Yeah, I know.  It makes no sense.

6.  The first time I got drunk, I was one.  It was at a party my folks threw, and when they adjourned to the other room, I managed to climb up on the chairs and drink the dregs from all the guests glasses.

7.  I'm dating myself here, but I wrote my first computer-based fiction story on an Atari 400--cutting edge technology in 1985.  This was back in the stone age when each alphanumeric character was about 1k and roughly a page and half of text would fit on a 5 and 1/2 inch floppy disk (512K).  The story I wrote took nine disks.  If my math is right, then my 500 GB hard drive would hold 113,975,000 such stories.  Talk about coming a long way!

And now, the following seven blogs are hereby awarded this rewarding award, if that makes sense:

1.  Liza's Middle Passages
2.  Postie's The Sententious Vaunter
3.  Scott's A Writer's Blog
4.  Carol's Carol's Prints
5.  Summer's ...And This Time Concentrate
6.  Bone's Cruising Altitude
7.  Dawn's Dawn Hullender's Southern Musings

All ten of these folks write world class material week in, week out, so I strongly suggest you make a tour and see them all.  I promise you won't be disappointed.

That's it for now.  Check back on Wednesday for the Battle Plan.  Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for being patient with me over the last couple weeks as I get my wits about me after my return from overseas.  I promise to up the ante from here on out and get back to a more regular blogging routine--and that means more fun for all!

It's A Beautiful Day: Pure Unadulterated Link Love

Friday, March 19, 2010

Weekends are exciting and I am happy we have come to the end of another week here at WSMG. 

I hope today finds you well, and all is right with you and your world.  Wednesday we had the Drunk At First Sight Blogfest--a total blast!  Everyone put up great fiction and fun was had by all.  I find myself again blown away by the level of talent and commitment out there, and want to thank everyone--contributors and readers alike--for making the day such a great success.

I am having a profound blast visiting some friends and family here in San Antonio this weekend and posting this one from the road, so have no time to get down a joke.  Sorry.  Go ahead.  Slap my hand.  A pox upon me for a clumsy lout--should have banked one, but, well, there you have it.  Instead, if you think you can handle it, I give you pure unadulterated Link Love:
I want every single one of you to pledge to stay groovy and thanks for stopping by!  To finish the week on an up note, here's U2 performing "Beautiful Day."  Enjoy and have a great weekend!

Drunk At First Sight Blogfest--TODAY!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Today's not only St. Patrick's Day, but it is also time for the Drunk At First Sight Blogfest. Below is my entry, but here are the rules: before you even take a gander at my piece, I want you to go to the link and read all the other Blogfest fiction pieces being posted by a bunch of other great writers.

Also, I'd like to thank the following folks who helped getting the word out for this Blogfest:

You guys totally rock!!!

And now here's mine, but remember only after having read everyone else.  That's alright.  I'll wait.

OK.  Here it is.

(c) 2010 Jon Paul

    My father wanted to record the World Series, and the doctor had promised they'd see what they could do. I offered the pretty nurse a sheepish smile as she fiddled with the VCR, but she didn't seem to notice me. After a moment, I turned and watched Dad in the hospital bed. He looked tired after the surgery. A telling fatigue obscured the clarity in his eyes. His silver hair matted in knots against his forehead.
    He was studying the white-clad nurse with a half-smile and it made me remember a summer trip ten years ago. Back then, Dad had always wanted to visit Ireland, but Mom had nixed the idea. "Who wants to sit in a smoky pub?" she always said. "And I can't understand a word they say anyway."
    But after the divorce, there was no reason not to go. My father said then that he stilled loved my mother, that some people couldn't find a way to live together, and that the parting had been amicable--a word whose meaning I didn't understand until years later. My mother told a different story: Dad talked too much. She often complained that he always had something to say, and what he said never really added up to anything worth hearing. I once heard her tell my aunt on the telephone: the man simply likes to hear the sound of his own voice. It's as simple as that.
    Dad moved a few pieces of furniture and his clothes out into a small apartment a few miles away from our house. When my younger brother Michael and I went to visit him on the weekends, he never cooked; he took us to our favorite fast food restaurants instead. In fact, I don't even think he owned any pots or pans, and sometimes he served us donuts for breakfast on paper plates. Still, by all accounts, my father handled the breakup well. He laughed with us, and we played games and watched our favorite television shows together, though a strange faraway look sometimes flickered across his face in restaurants or while we were driving in the car. After a couple years, I'd been in and out of a few relationships myself, and I realized what he had been thinking in those moments: he wondered, since things had gone south with my mom, if he even stood a chance of ever finding someone else again.
    A trip to Ireland was still something he wanted to do--more now than ever--so it happened that later that year, the week after school let out, Dad picked Michael and I up and drove us to the airport. The trans-Atlantic flight lasted forever--Michael and I dozed most of the way while my father reviewed documents for work and chatted at length with one of the stewardesses--and we woke with the light of a new day streaming in through the airplane windows, the green fields of western Ireland scooting below us like a brilliantly-woven medieval tapestry.
    Driving a rented car, suitcases fitted into the undersized trunk and film loaded in our instamatic cameras, we set out from Dublin around lunchtime. The plan, sketched by my father on the back of a napkin during the first hours of the flight, called for a circuit from Dublin around to Galway Bay and back over the span of ten days. Each evening, we'd stay in a Bed and Breakfast or Inn and rise early the next morning, the better to get a start on the day's driving. The first night, we were to stay at a cozy place halfway between Archerstown and Ashbourne called the Shillelagh House. Dad said he'd made all the arrangements.
    We stopped along the roadside now and again to take pictures. An occasional drizzle glossed the roads but that didn't deter us; we pressed on. We took a break and a snack at a village pub where my father engaged in lively banter with one of the waitresses--in fact we had to pull him away after it became clear the woman had other customers to help. We pointed out thatch-roofed houses and castle ruins and anything that caught our eye as we drove along the country roads. We were happy the trip was off to a pleasant start, and we enjoyed the lazy pace of the day.
    The late afternoon sky was growing cloudy when my father finally pulled the car into a graveled driveway and the Shillelagh House came into view. It knelt at the top of a squat hill, down a ways from the main crossroads, and was simply but sturdily constructed in brick and finished timber. We knocked at the door and a stunning red-headed woman answered. She introduced herself as Charlotte. She smiled at my father--she had been expecting us and we were just in time for tea--and welcomed us in, the singsong lilt of her accent adrift in the air like a siren's voice.
    We were her only boarders that night, she said, and had the run of the house. Michael and I would sleep in the loft--my father told us to take our suitcases up and we did as we were told--and he would lodge in the master suite. Breakfast would be served promptly at eight-thirty.
    The small, cozy rooms looked like something out of a Forties movie; heavy darkwood furniture; beds covered in thick down comforters and quilts; paintings of the Irish countryside on the walls. The dimensions and accoutrements of every room conveyed a refined comfort, useful in keeping the chill of an early spring rain or late winter wind at bay.
    Downstairs, Charlotte served tea and sweet cookies--the fact that she called them biscuits drew a chuckle from us--and Michael and I devoured them, sipping the hot tea with care; we had barely realized our hunger until that moment. Charlotte's green eyes flashed upon us as she spoke--again her accent amazed me--and she asked about America and our lives there.
    My father explained that we were from Texas. He worked in banking.
    "Oh, so you're a banker?"
    No, he was an accountant who worked in a bank, he explained, as odd as that sounded. My father went on to describe where we lived and told her about our schools and the kind of television shows we liked to watch.
    Charlotte smiled at the two of us. "So what about you boys? What do you want to be when you grow up?"
    Michael gave her a noncommittal shrug. He hadn't decided yet.
    My father put his hand on my shoulder. "Pete here wants to be a writer. In fact, James Joyce is one of his favorites."
    A sudden light danced in her eyes. "Is that right?"
    "Yes," I said, avoiding the urge to look at my feet. "My favorite short story of his is 'Araby'." When I spoke, she nodded her head and listened in a thoughtful way, and I knew then that I liked her.
    She spoke to me like a fellow conspirator, as if it were only the two of us in the room. "Did you know that when I was a college student in Dublin, I lived in a house around the corner from where the Bazaar was supposed to have been?"
    "Yep. Joyce is one of my favorites too."
    I laughed, charmed and intrigued.
    After a few minutes' further discussion, Charlotte told us about the local area. Many years ago, most of the surrounding countryside was part of a larger estate, land parceled off over the years until the only piece remaining was the corner lot where the Shillelagh House stood. Charlotte had inherited the property and had decided to convert it to a Bed and Breakfast several years back.
    As she described other local attractions--there was an old castle ruin up the road worth seeing, for example--she must have caught Michael dozing in his chair because she said to Dad: "It looks like your little one is fading fast." I was having trouble keeping my eyes open too.
    After a quick discussion, we decided to turn in early so that we could get an early start in the morning. Climbing into bed under the heavy covers, my head on a goose feather pillow, I realized I was so tired from the flight over that I didn't even mind missing dinner. I was soon fast asleep and I woke only once, several hours later, to hear the voices of Charlotte and my father chatting pleasantly in the parlor below.
    When Michael and I came down for breakfast the next morning, Charlotte had laid out a feast. Rashers, black and white pudding, baked beans, brown bread, butter, raspberry jam, marmalade--a true Irish breakfast.
    She stuck her head out from the corner kitchen. "Morning, boys."
    "Morning," we replied in unison.
    We ponied up to the table and poured ourselves glasses of orange juice. My father appeared after a few moments, freshly shaven and looking bright. He sat down and we shared a smile at the bounty of food in front of us.
    "Wow! This looks great," he said.
    Charlotte came in and placed a plate with a fried egg in front of each of us. "Don't be bashful," she said. "Eat up." She addressed my father: "Merrill, can I get you coffee or tea?"
    "Coffee would be nice, if it's not too much trouble."
    "No. No trouble at all." She disappeared into the kitchen and we served ourselves food from the platters. After a moment, she returned and sat with us, sipping only tea and smiling as we chatted and ate our breakfast. The meal went quickly and the food was delicious. I gave Michael a happy look and he grinned back at me while chewing a butter-topped piece of brown bread. We finished our meals, wiped our mouths with napkins, excused ourselves from the table and stood up.
    "Thank you so much, Charlotte. This meal was delicious," my father said.
    "My pleasure. So where are you off to next?"
    "The Golden Arms Inn. I believe it's near a town called Monaghan."
    "Oh, that is a very nice place. I know the owners, the Mullaneys, rather well."
    "You should really make an effort to go over and see Castle Leslie, nearby," Charlotte continued. "It's worth a visit. Just follow the road out of Monaghan toward Glaslough. It's very popular. They even advertise on the television."
    Michael and I were halfway up the stairs when my father said: "Do you know, in America, we have a way to record television at home?"
    "Really?" The interest in Charlotte's voice was genuine.
    My brother and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes as my father began to tell Charlotte about Video Cassette Recorders--by then, everyone in the U. S. called them VCRs. He explained how it was possible to record a television program at any time with the press of a button. Simply connect the cables up to the back of the television, press record, and the broadcast can be replayed later at a time of the viewer's choosing.
    "We don't have those in Ireland," Charlotte said when my father stopped to take a breath.
    Michael and I edged down the stairs to get a better view. My father stood talking with a smile while Charlotte faced him, a pile of dirty dishes in hand.
    "Give it time," he said.
    She turned to go to the kitchen. "Well, that sounds like a fantastic piece of technology. One of these days--"
    "But that's not all!" My father gently shifted his weight to keep her attention and block her exit.
    I laughed silently with Michael as my father explained that for a VCR to work, you didn't even need to be present to record the broadcast. To my ear, he sounded exactly like a VCR salesman trying to close a difficult customer. My father continued: Each VCR had an onboard clock. Set the clock to the current time, then a time could be programmed in when the VCR would begin recording automatically.
    "So, you can be out to dinner and the VCR records your favorite show while you are away. It's the easiest thing in the world," he said.
    Charlotte nodded politely, an uneasy smile on her face. "Thanks, Merrill. That sounds, uh, sounds grand, and I'll--"
    When my father interrupted her again, Michael gave me a worried look. I glanced at my watch. It was starting to get late and we needed to get moving. Michael indicated that as the oldest, it was my responsibility to go down and break things up. I nodded that I would try, inched down the stairs and crossed to where Charlotte and my father stood, his voice filling the small space with technical VCR details.
    "Dad?" I said, giving my voice as much intensity as I could muster.
    My father glanced at me and Charlotte gave me a thankful look.
    I spoke again, trying not to sound too pointed. "I think we need to get going..."
    He looked back at Charlotte and gestured upstairs. "I'll be there in a minute."
    I paused, unsure whether to trust him.
    He looked at me directly. "In a minute."
    I shrugged and turned away. "OK."
    My brother and I retreated upstairs, standing together on the landing. We could hear my father continue the History and Times of The Video Cassette Recorder and I imagined Charlotte standing there, trapped, shifting the dirty dishes from one hand to the other, giving my father every non-verbal signal in the book that breakfast needed to be cleaned up and that it was time to get on with the day. In between my father's long lines of explanation, she gave a polite grunt here and there, and agreed when necessary, but under the politeness a definite undertone of impatience had set in. Nonetheless, my father pressed on, unaware and undeterred.
    I sighed, exasperated. I suppose I was embarrassed; I didn't understand what my father thought he was accomplishing. Michael and I grabbed our luggage, making plenty of noise as we dragged the bags down the stairs, bustling pointedly past my father and his victim as she stood pinned against the dining room wall, a solemn white pallor having overtaken her features.
    I had hoped the obvious move toward the car would change the equation, would knock something loose in Dad's brain, would make him realize that we were overstaying our welcome, but he didn't move an inch. Now he was explaining that a VCR allowed you to watch a program on one channel and record a different program on a different channel.
    Outside, the sun was up, the day bright. I went back in for my father's bags and returned with them as well, making as much noise as possible but still having no effect. We piled the bags next to the rear wheels of the car and stood around. Eventually, Michael climbed up on the trunk and put his chin in the palms of his hands. One look at him told me he had given up and would wait as long as it took for my father's tirade to come to an end.
    Of course, just as mom had said, Dad had done this before, but for some reason this time it really bothered me. Charlotte seemed like the nicest lady. We'd had a splendid evening the night before and a very nice breakfast this morning. I simply didn't see why Dad had to go and ruin it with all this talk about VCRs.
    I hadn't understood until that moment that my father's actions reflected on us. It bothered me that Charlotte's memory of us, if she retained any memory at all, would not be of a pleasant conversation about James Joyce, but would instead be a silly tale about a loud American who couldn't keep his mouth shut, who loved the sound of his own voice.
    I marched back inside, a new kind of resentment warming the back of my neck, resolved to drag my father away. Charlotte had set the dishes she had been holding back on the table in resignation and, with arms folded, glared at my father in open dismay. The sonorous rattle of my father's voice was now outlining the detailed steps required to set the clock from 12:00 a.m. to the local time. I couldn't believe my ears.
    "Dad, we have to go!"
    He smiled down at me, as if I hadn't really said anything. "In a minute."
    Charlotte sort of laughed slyly at this. At least she saw some humor in the situation, but by this time, I did not.
    "You said 'in a minute' fifteen minutes ago," I said.
    My dad offered a good-natured smile, more for Charlotte's benefit than mine. He pulled the car keys from his pocket. "I know. Here, put your luggage in the trunk. I'll be out in a minute."
    I thought about objecting, of pointing out the late hour, of pointing out that Charlotte probably didn't care one bit about VCRs, but I realized it would be no use. To make a bigger deal now would make the situation more embarrassing than it already was.
    I retreated to the car, deflated. We loaded the bags, climbed inside. I stuck the keys in the ignition and started the car, and there we sat for another thirty-five minutes.
    Finally Charlotte and my father emerged from the house. He wore a bright smile; she looked slightly withered, but still as pretty as when we'd first met her. My father climbed into the driver's seat, put the car in gear. We waved as we pulled out of the driveway, and Charlotte waved back until she was out of view.
    "Wasn't that fun?" my father said, the strange look on his face competing with a smile.
    I rolled my eyes. "Sure, Dad. It was a blast."
    My father's cough brought me back to the hospital room. His head dipped forward slightly with each exhalation, then fell back on the pillow when the fit was done.
    "You doing OK, Dad?" I asked.
    He managed a weak smile, the gleam still strong in his eyes. "Yeah. I'm fine."
    The nurse was still working in front of the TV. Her red hair fell prettily along the line of her neck. My father caught me looking. He knew I'd been having girl troubles lately and he nudged me, nodding in the universal sign: she's attractive. What about her? I shrugged. I wasn't sure I was ready for something new.
    The nurse turned around with an exasperated sigh, holding the VCR remote in her shapely hands. "I can't get this thing to work. Can one of you help me?"
    My father nudged me in the ribs again and grinned like he was sharing the secret of the world. "Why don't you tell her?"


Thanks for reading, and Happy St. Patrick's Day everyone!

A Place Of Our Own

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Woo Hoo!  Tomorrow's the Big Day!  Don't forget to sign up for the Drunk At First Sight Blogfest if you haven't already.  And of course check back in the morning to read all the great fiction.

Now, on to the business of the day.  I am still relatively new to the writing game, and so every day I learn something new about my fiction process and pick up tips and tricks to continue to try to cultivate my creativity and to keep pushing out content--regardless of distractions.  My recent journey back to the United States, a trip that essentially returned me to a life and lifestyle I stepped out of a year ago, has got me to thinking about place and it's importance in my writing process.  I've always had a strong affinity for different kinds of places, and have gathered--not necessarily consciously, but through self-observation after the fact--that my creativity ebbs and flows based on my geographic location.

When you get right down to it, my writing setup in Baghdad was pretty simple.  We lived two to a room in units called CHU's (Containerized Housing Units--gotta love those acronyms), basically sheet metal single-wides.  Lights.  Electric outlets.  Rudimentary furniture.  Not much else.

My writing routine involved getting up about two-hours before work, tip-toeing around so as not to wake the room-mate, making a short walk to other side of the compound and back for coffee, then getting down to business.  Fiction attack position was in bed, in the dark, laptop on my laptop, typing away.  I wrote until time to hit the showers, shave, and head off to start my "normal" workday.

Occasionally I got time to write mid-afternoon, and then again late in the evening.  If given the choice, I turned the lights off regardless of the time of day, because I found it easier to focus without the pale fluorescent glow of the overheads.  I could make it work with lights on or at other locations if I had to, but I certainly got down a better line in my dark little cubby with no distractions.

And that's the key.  Though my surroundings were rather spartan, they were also remarkably free of distractions.

At the house in Corpus Christi where I am now, I am learning that the lack of distraction in Baghdad was indeed a luxury.  Not that I don't enjoy hanging out with Furnace Girl and Muffin--on the contrary, it's the allure of spending an hour watching TV or going out to dinner that gives these distractions their power.  With jet lag and the new rhythm of life, it's been hard to get back to my early morning routine.  Also, since we are renting, finding a space in the house that I can call my own, where I can settle down and get to work, has been a challenge.

When I think about writing and place, I remember a story one of my college English professors told about Jose Luis Borges, who taught for several years at the University of Texas at Austin--my Alma mater.  Borges, of course, was a brilliant fictionist (if you've not read Dream Tigers, I suggest you get thee to an Amazon or a Barnes and Noble and purchase a copy post-haste), but beyond all the mirrors, labyrinths and libraries that Borges evokes on the page, it was one of Borges' comments reported by that professor that has stuck with me the longest: Borges said he liked Austin.  He dreamed well there.  And if you have read Borges, you know that dreams are a big part of his fiction.

That idea of the importance of place has always stuck with me.  I wonder now what effect this new place and lifestyle and all that comes with it will have on my fiction.  During my travels, certain cities have historically gotten my creative juices flowing.  Dublin is hands down the best place for me creatively.  I think it's because it feels foreign and exotic and like home at the same time (my father's family is from Ireland and I've visited Dublin a dozen or so times over the years).  New York--not surprisingly--is another inspirational place, although I've only visited there a handfull of times.  I remember the last time we went to visit friends, I quite literally had a voice in my head as we walked all over town telling me there was a story around every corner.  Corny, yes, but true.

I also find that specific kinds of places can overturn a creative stone or two.  Everyone knows that showers, exercise time, and that last few minutes right before falling asleep can be virtual creative goldmines, but I also get some of my best story ideas in other locations like airports, bus and train stations, museums and churches.

What about you?  What kinds of places inspire and influence your writing?  If there was one thing you could change about the location where you currently write, what would it be?

Immersion Therapy

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper pattern at the right moment."

~~Hart Crane

The Road More Traveled

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

As I write this, I sit at the kitchen table at my house in Corpus Christi, Texas, sipping a hot cup of foo foo coffee, having risen from a restful sleep, content in the knowledge that I'm not going anywhere for awhile.  None of the rest of the clan is up yet--Furnace Girl, Muffin and the pets are still sleeping soundly--birds chirp outside (a corny detail yes but true), and I feel great at having finally come to rest back in the place I call (at least for now) home.

My trip home from Baghdad was rather involved.  It would take much too long to relate the entire story, but it may suffice to share some of the gory details.  For example,I started traveling on February 21st and reached home on the 7th of March, so I was on the road living out of seabag for that many days.  This is not to say that I was moving forward every day; some days involved taking care of administrative tasks and turning in equipment, but it was still a long stretch of wandering, no matter how you slice it.

I did some quick back of the napkin calculations: during that time, I flew on ten airplanes, rode on four buses, slept in fourteen different places, ate meals at twenty-seven different locations, and counted every minute.  If I'd just been going from point A to point B, then none of this would have been much trouble.  Instead, the desire to get home to the family after having been away for so long made every bump in the road, every unexpected twist and turn, into an unbearable delay.

But enough of my belly-aching.  That's all over now.  I'm happy to be home getting to know the family again, so all is right with the world!


Somehow, despite my being absent from the blogosphere for an extended period, I picked up a couple awards.  First, I received the Sunshine Award from not just one person, but three people!

Carol at Carol's Prints

Roz's Nail Your Novel

Postie's Sententious Vaunter

Thanks Carol, Roz and Postie for thinking of me.  Wow!  I am still picking myself up off the floor.  These are three members of our writing community who do great work.  Stop by and pay them a visit.  The rules require me to pass it on to twelve other bloggers, all of whom make me chuckle or regularly brighten my day, so here goes:

Christi's A Torch In The Tempest
Rachel's Does This Font Make My Blog Look Big
Amber's Musings of Amber Murphy
Travener's The Big Litowski
Emily's The Chronicles of Emily Cross
Claire's Points of Claire-ification
Lydia and Joe's The Sharp Angle
Christine's The Writer's Hole
Tabitha's Through My Eyes
Meghan's Writerland
Glen's Differences With The Same Likeness
Damien's Secret October

The above are fantastic writer's and bloggers--every one--so you should make your way over and check them out.  To put the cherry on top, Dawn Simon gave me the Over the Top Award!

Dawn produces great content day after day, so you should also pay her a visit.  I'll wait here until you come back!
I think the rules for this award require a series of one word answers to questions I have no idea how to get my hands on, but since this post is getting long, I'll call it good for now.

I think that brings us current.  Over the next few days I'll be getting around to see what everyone was up to while I was away, and also saying hi and thanks to my new followers. 

Stick around.  We have lots of fun in store, including the final three posts of my Battle Plan post series, a second post discussing some provocative ideas in "A Separate Peace" (review here if you're interested), a couple of writing craft posts I've had in the works, and the PG Love Scene Blogfest and Drunk At First Sight Blogfest.  Looks like March is gonna be chock full of fun!

So stay groovy, and thanks for stopping by!

Friday Link Love: The Luck of the Irish

Friday, March 5, 2010

Hi all!  I am back on U. S. soil after a fun-filled journey home from Baghdad.  I don't actually get to my home in Texas until Sunday, but it feels good to be close to seeing the family again.

While I was away, you guys left me a ton of great comments--Wow!  Thanks!  I haven't had a chance to go through them yet, but I will!  I'll respond to the comments and tell you more about my homecoming over the next day or two.

Today, we have a quick issue of Friday Link Love, but first a couple reminders.  Simon of Constant Revision fame is reluctantly hosting a PG Love Scene Blogfest, due to go up on the 15th.  I signed up this morning.  It should be fun!  And don't forget to sign up for the Drunk At First Sight Blogfest I'm hosting, due to run on St. Patrick's Day.

To put us in the mood for St. Patrick's Day, I bring you this Friday Link Love Joke:

An out of work Irish novelist takes a job as a bricklayer to make ends meet.  The first day on the job, the foreman warns the novelist that the scaffolding where he will work gets very unstable in high winds, and the weather that day is expected to be bad.

The novelist wants only to get the bricks laid so he can collect his pay and go home to write.  He ignores the foreman's warning, and climbs high up on the scaffolding.  He manages to lay several courses despite the poor weather.

Finally, a huge gust of wind comes along and knocks the novelist off the scaffolding.  He falls the fifteen feet to the pavement and lays there.  Several other workers run up, they send for an ambulance, and the foreman says to another man: "Quick, get this man a glass of water!"

The Irish novelist looks up at the other men and says wryly: "How far do I have to fall to get a glass of whiskey?"


Now--Link Love:
That's it for this week.  It is truly a pleasure to be back in a similar timezone with all of you, and I look forward to getting back in the swing of things in the next week.  I have picked up a few new followers recently, so if you're not too shy, feel free to introduce yourself to the group in the comments below!

Stay groovy and thanks for stopping by.

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