Regarding…Me? – Redirect to Writers In The Storm Guestpost

A writer trimming his pen, by Jan Ekels (II)The ladies at Writers In the Storm have been generous enough to host me once again. It’s a vibrant, supportive, and insightful community they’ve fostered, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

The post is one that’s been brewing for quite a while. About ten years, actually. Although I admit I didn’t know it was brewing for over half of that time. I thought I was trying to write a story. And then I thought I was trying to make it worthy of being read by staying true to my characters. I didn’t know I was excavating my own deeper truths. How about you? Do you see your beliefs reflected back to you from the written page? Please stop by and delve a little deeper, won’t you?

Flipping Perspectives – Writer Unboxed Redirect

MC-Escher-Hand-with-Reflecting-Sphere-1935The good news? I’ve published an essay (good news if you enjoy my essays, anyway). The better news? I have the honor of having this essay appear on Writer Unboxed. Yes, that’s made it a very good day, indeed. Think I can make things better still? I think I can. If you keep an open mind. You see, it’s all about the way we see things – even our problems. I recently went through the deliberate exercise of changing my outlook on my writerly circumstances, and I challenge you to do the same.

So please head over to WU and start the metamorphosis. And if you’re so moved, I’d love it if you’d share your thoughts, either over there or here if you’d prefer. I hope you end up feeling as changed as I do as we head into summer.

Thank you for your support!

Story Archeology: Unearthing My Vision

“As a writer, one is busy with archaeology.” ~Michael Ondaatje

Bones by Dr.Narin SapaisarnAccidental Archaeologist: Honestly, I didn’t even know I was digging, let alone what I was digging for. Through the decades before I started, I always thought I’d write a book. I’d write someday, you know: “in the future.” Before I started, it really didn’t feel like a burning desire. More like a romantic notion of having an interesting occupation as I moved toward and through my golden years.

Turns out there was a steady pilot light of burning desire deep inside of me all along. And I think that the banked fire within led me to take notice of the archaeological artifacts I had been stumbling across, and to gather and store them away, like curious fossils found on a leisurely beach stroll. Each item was interesting, but they hardly seemed interrelated or valuable.

I’m not sure which of my little found treasures provided the nudge that led to my putting carpenter’s pencil to jobsite notebook, with the spark of a story idea. I’m guessing it was the cumulative trove, so to speak.

Return of the King: Although I’ve credited Tolkien for my interest in history and myth, starting in the sixth grade, it likely began even earlier. Thanks to my parents, I was surrounded by history, via books and through visits to historical sites. After loving Tolkien’s work, and while I took every history class available, I read quite a bit of epic fantasy. But I was always left a bit dissatisfied. During the decades between college and embarking on my writing journey, I read mostly historical nonfiction, with a dash of historical fiction thrown in. But then Tolkien returned to my life with the coming of The Lord of the Rings movies. After enjoying the movie version of Fellowship of the Rings, I reread the trilogy.

The experience reminded me of an elemental part of myself that I’d buried away. Through fiction, I was feeling things I hadn’t felt in half a lifetime. And, although I couldn’t grasp the personal dynamics of my being so moved, I knew I wanted more.

Roots Reach: So I started reading epic fantasy again. I enjoyed some of it, but again, it seemed much of what I found was lacking. Which led me to ponder what I was actually seeking. Was it something about the world building? I would’ve guessed this was it. After all, I was the kind of reader that had read all of the LOTR appendices, who knew Gondorians from Rohirrim. But I came to see how even the most intricate setting and backstory by themselves could not make an epic successful. I also quickly realized that it didn’t matter to me if there were dragons or elves involved. Nor did I care about the type of magic, or even whether there was any magic at all. I started to wonder whether it had to do with the characters. But if what I sought wasn’t necessarily their backgrounds or worlds, was it their goals? Was it the villain, or what they were up against?

Little did I realize, my digging had begun.

From Bits O’ Bones: So while I pondered what to read, and what made a fantasy story more or less effective for me, I sifted my mental sands and came across my aforementioned fossils. One such nugget I’d squirreled away years prior was a former teacher’s theory that Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan were modeled after the Goths. That’s right, he suggested that Eomer and company were based on the barbarous heathens that had been the first to sack Rome. With that fossil already in the sifter, I next came across a distant relation’s theory that our family’s descendants were not only Germans who’d fled persecution in the Rhine region, but that we were descended from the Goths. Yep, Goths. And not just any old Goths, but Goths who’d been ceded land by the Roman government, for their service in fighting for the empire.

Eomer side-glanceWhoa! Another find for my basket. We’re related to the Riders of Rohan? And they weren’t simply barbarous pillagers, but fought for the empire? And they also weren’t necessarily heathens, but somehow ended up being protestants? Huh. So, were these supposed ancestors good guys or bad guys? It suddenly seemed to depend on one’s perspective.

Now I had a couple of bits o’ bone that seemed to fit together. I’d stumbled across enough to fuel my enthusiasm for a large-scale dig.

To Exposed Skeleton: Mind you, I still hadn’t admitted to myself what I was up to. But my excavation was in full swing. I started reading about Goths and Rome online. I ordered a related book or four. Only when a friend asked me why, and I blurted the answer, did I realize it. “I’m going to write a book about them.” From there, I went full throttle. I depleted all three of my region’s libraries of books on related topics. After about a year’s worth of digging, I started to lay out what I’d found for examination. There were a lot of fragments that didn’t exactly fit. And in some cases I’d set aside pieces that I later realized I needed. Construction began in earnest. And before long, I’d laid up an admirable set of connected bones. I didn’t know it wasn’t quite complete when I started writing, but that didn’t matter. Nothing like coming up against an incompletion in your skeleton to motivate a supplemental dig.

Eventually I was satisfied with my story skeleton. Which, of course, incited me to want more.

The Lure of the Flesh: Isn’t that what every good archaeological exhibit does—inspires us to wonder? To seek? In the case of a skeleton, what did this creature look like? Was it a he or a she? How did she behave? What was life like for her? How did she interact with her fellows? Who else lived in her world?

Even though at this point I’d done no study of story craft, I began to see how these questions would flesh a story out, so to speak. This is when I took the facts I’d found in my research and began to apply them to actual humans. It started simply enough. Questions like: How do they look? Where do they live? What do they do all day? Then I went deeper, asking things like: What do they eat? How do they dress? Where do they sleep? And proceeded on with: What sort of rules bind them? Who is in a position of authority over them? What is their level of mobility? How are they restricted?

As I fleshed them out, the issues that arose quite naturally had me asking questions that took me to the next layer: How do they feel.

The Empathetic Archaeologist: Um, yeah—feelings. What a discovery! Feelings would be a big part of envisioning a story. Huh, who knew? So I asked myself a new set of questions. Who do they care about? Why? Who cares about them? Why? What do they want to do? Why? What’s stopping or restricting them from getting what they want? Do others want the same things? Or the opposite?

This is the layer that gave me the clearest vision yet of road ahead. I didn’t know it, but I was plotting the story, creating a rough synopsis via my disorganized notes. And, although I don’t consider myself a plotter, this is where the process came to life for me. I didn’t know much about the craft of writing yet, but I forged ahead, informed by the stories I’d loved. Elemental as they were at first, I found my way to character goals and motivations and conflicts.

One. Step. Beyond! Archaeology: The next layer for me is the most difficult to pinpoint or describe. I think I’ve gleaned various facets of it since I first beganMadness_-_One_Step_Beyond composing. And I’m still working to grasp it all and incorporate it into my work. Beyond our bones and sinew, beyond our obvious needs and desires, human beings are amazingly complex creatures. So much is built into our goals, much of which we veil even from ourselves. So many of our motivations are multi-layered. Many of our best intentions are laced with fear and shame, guilt and selfishness. Hence our conflicts, both internal and external, are just as intricate and complex. And that’s before we add the amazing stuff we humans are capable of feeling and expressing—like love and generosity, loyalty and honor. Comprehending this extra layer—this One. Step. Beyond!—it’s the makings of writerly Madness. I mean that in the best possible way (i.e. addictive, contagious, life-altering, incurable).

You’re Soaking In It: As I say, this step beyond laying out the bones and adding the flesh to a story is the part I still strive to capture. And I’ve only just come to realize—I always will. This is the gig! This is what brought me to the blank page. And I’ve come to understand that’s what brings us to read, as well. We’re searching for ourselves—for what it means to be human. We’re all grappling, and we want to slip into the skins of our favorite characters to see how it’s done, how others are coping and faring. It’s just that some of us are lured to start our own dig. We already have our bits of bones, and we simply haven’t stumbled across another excavation that offers up the right fit for them.

V's Fossils and Artifacts

V’s Fossils and Artifacts

Exhibit Ah-ha! If our stories are like archaeology, my books will be my display pieces. Come over to the glass case out front. Take a peek at the bits of bone I’ve collected and laid up. Interested? Okay, next check out some of my artifacts. Now, are you drawn to take a closer look? Are you willing to take the time, to make the effort, to perceive this archaeologist’s interpretation of time and place—his findings and how they relate to the human condition? Will you find answers? Or at least better questions? If you suspect so, step inside my exhibit. Take a look at my complete rendering—my story. Together we can grapple with the complexities of being human.

Now it’s your dig, my fellow story archaeologists! Tell me about finding your artifacts. Did you know you were digging or collecting? Did you know the bits of bone you’d found fit together? How’s your exhibit coming along?

Storytelling Tools: Experience and Instinct

Large Forklift - Large LoadAn odd juxtaposition of topics arose during a wonderful recent discussion with a mentor. The topics? Lumberyard procedure and storytelling tools. See? I told you it was odd. But it got me thinking about utilizing tools in a new light. Allow me to explain.

Versatile Tool: My insight starts with the forklift. Some may know the tool by the names fork-truck or lift-truck. Anyone who’s visited a lumberyard has likely witnessed the importance of the forklift to the business. Building materials are often heavy—dangerously so. Unloading trucks and railcars, storing stock, picking specific lots or tallies, and jobsite delivery are all tasks that rely on this marvelous piece of equipment. In a former life, I managed a lumber facility that operated over two dozen forklifts, ranging from small indoor propane models, to very large capacity diesel models. We even had one behemoth capable of lifting and hauling other stalled forklifts to our service shop. Even though we milled, prefinished, and delivered lumber on a broad range of equipment, the forklift was the piece of equipment that was indispensable to all aspects of our operation.

A forklift is really many tools in one piece of equipment. It lifts and lowers loads, as well as tilting them, and is often capable of shifting a load from side to side. It also transports both load and driver, forward and back, and in some cases with a multi-speed transmission, capable of going upwards of 30 mph.

The Daunt of Big Tools: Over the years, I oversaw the training of scores of employees in their operation and ongoing safe use of the forklift. It was a responsibility I never took lightly. Handling a powerful machine that can lift and move loads of massive weight and scale, in close proximity to others, calls for serious and ongoing diligence. One can never allow himself to become blasé about it.

Over the years I noticed that some forklift trainees were daunted by this fairly complex and dangerous machine. Sometimes to the point of becoming overly-cautious and hesitant in their use. Rightfully so. In such cases, it was necessary to build a trainee’s confidence by giving them simple tasks and small loads, out of harm’s way. At the end of the day, you can only read so many manuals or watch so many training videos. At some point, you have to get behind the wheel. The only cure for inexperience is to gain experience.

I suspect you might be starting to glean what my forklift background has to do with my writing epiphany.

An Impetuous Baseline: Allow me to use myself—as a former forklift driver as well as a writer—to illustrate the analogy. I started driving a forklift before I was licensed to drive a car. No, it wasn’t legal. Or safe. But it was a long time ago. Jobsite safety was not the priority it has rightly become. And I was under the supervision of men who had their own jobs to do, and who expected young men to have a natural aptitude for driving and tool use. And, as a typical teenage male, I was anxious to prove them right.

“The young are always ready to give those older than themselves the full benefit of their inexperience.” ~Oscar Wilde

In other words, I was a hotdog, a showoff, eager to test my own limits as well as the limits of this powerful machine. I’d had a few experimental, off-road experiences behind the wheel of a car before my first time on a forklift. And I’d watched a lot of others, both driving cars and operating forklifts, with an avid interest born of the anticipation to drive. So I had a baseline of experience from which I drew my confidence to try my hand at operating this complex piece of equipment. I didn’t know what I was doing, and my early efforts demonstrated my inexperience. Yet I somehow managed to get quite a bit done. And managed to not kill or maim myself or anyone else in the process.

“Never let inexperience get in the way of ambition.” ~Terry Josephson

The same goes for writing fiction. When I started, I was excited to “just do it.” I’d done some experimental, off-road (read: not to be shown) writing in the past. And I’d read a lot of books, with an avid interest born of the anticipation to become an author. What more did I need?

Needless to say, I didn’t know what I was doing, and my initial efforts clearly demonstrated my inexperience. And yet I managed to get quite a bit done. (And the only resulting injuries suffered were by my characters—unless you include the bafflement or boredom of some early readers.)

Caution Born of Experience:

“Intuition is reason in a hurry.” ~Holbrook Jackson

As the years went by, I not only gained skill that eventually became expertise, I came to more fully appreciate both what a forklift was capable of accomplishing, and just how potentially dangerous and costly its ill-use could be. I’d gotten to a point where operating a forklift seemed to come by rote. It felt intuitive. But I was often reckless and rushed. I had near misses and spills. More than I care to admit. Thankfully, my recklessness never led to injury, but it often came with a cost, in time and money due to damage. But with maturity came the wisdom that hurrying with a forklift often led to delay and mishap.

 “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” ~Albert Einstein

I was once a prolific writer. I don’t say this to show off. I produced many pages per day without pause. In the rush to “be finished” and to submit and be read, the words just poured out. It honestly felt good. I got to a point where it felt intuitive. I knew how to drive, and wanted to step on the gas, to get to the damn destination, already. The first draft of my epic fantasy trilogy was over 650,000 words. I was so naïve, I didn’t even know such a length might be considered a pitfall.

It was only through being read and critiqued, and then through trying again, and again, that I realized the cost of my hurry. Six years later, and only through many rewrites, through working with a professional editor and coach, and through many critiques, have I come to realized how much I didn’t know—to find pause to consider how much I still don’t know.

Taking Stock of the Lesson Load: So here I am, a decade into this new gig, experienced but cautious, still eager but mindful of the patience required for success. I doubt I’m as skilled a writer as I once was a forklift operator, but close enough to illustrate my point. The epiphanies I reach are manifold, but the biggest lessons seem to fall into two categories:

1)Structure and Efficiency: As a forklift operator, I learned to see a load of lumber to be built as a series of steps to be addressed. Each order becomes a unit, built with a solid foundation and a stackable shape. Units must then be carefully placed on the truck, in the proper order; delivery routes in the proper succession, to achieve any sort of efficiency. Knowing the optimal structure of a load allows you to more easily handle the addition of complexity. Once beyond a load’s basic size and shape, one must consider geography, urgency, fragility, perishability, to name a few. It’s wise to know the rules, but it also pays to learn how to best break them and when.

As a writer, I’ve learned to see story structure as an aid—a series of steps to be addressed in pursuit of efficient storytelling. From inciting incident to crisis to reaction to climax and resolution, it’s wise to know how to stack the basic blocks of the story I seek to build. If I know the basics of structure, I can then take into account the setting, timeline and peripheral obstacles. To maximize its impact efficiently, I must consider not only the goals and motivations of my characters, I need to be conscious of their worldview and the state of their psyche. After all, it’s not just about delivering my characters to “The End.” Rather, it’s about the changes accrued in making the journey, and the state they arrive in.forklift-auto-dash

2) Complexity and Intuition: As I pointed out, the forklift is a complex and versatile tool. If an operator stopped to think about each and every step, carefully considered each and every lever and pedal individually, with each successive use, it would either slow progress to impracticality, or completely debilitate the attempt. With practice, the operator gains the intuition to size up the load in question, find its center of gravity, lower the forks while steering and accelerating to scoop, tilt and lift while backing, shift gears while steering to avoid obstacles in route, gauge the proper height and alignment upon the approach to a truck bed, etcetera. Advance planning of the steps, and constant surveillance of the surroundings and assessment of the progress are needed, but these additional considerations also come more naturally with experience.

As I said, I’ve become a cautious writer. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also allowed the lessons to make me hesitant, allowed my awareness of the tools to overwhelm my progress. I have put in a lot of practice, and I’ve found my way to successes. I know how to plan and assess progress, and I’ve demonstrated I’m persistent enough to get to “The End.” I long to make progress, and yet I’ve become tentative.

Deliberate Intuitiveness: Thinking about my former skill operating a forklift reminds me to have faith in my experience. I need to get to a place of trusting my instincts again. Not in an impetuous or immature way. It’s not that I believe I have instinctual talent. But I do believe in my innate ability to adjust based on experience, to sublimate my story impulses, to unconsciously apply practiced lessons.

Hefting the Writing LoadI need to trust that I know my way around the levers and pedals of story by rote, and get this story built and delivered. After all, you can’t build an order file until prove you can deliver. And I’ve got a lot of back-stock to work through.

Fork it Over: What’s your intuitive skill? Does it provide a baseline for accumulating expertise? Do you ever find yourself worrying too much about all the levers and pedals of storytelling? Please deliver your load in the comments.

Photo credits: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_rfoxfoto’&gt; / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Whose Classic?

My classicsAll Lost (on the way to) the Supermarket:

“I’m all lost in the supermarket,

I can no longer shop happily,

I came in for a special offer,

A guaranteed personality…” ~ Joe Strummer and Mick Jones (of The Clash, from Lost in the Supermarket)

I’ve often written about how large a role music plays in my artistic journey. For me, the best part about doing things that are often considered chores, like mowing the lawn or driving twenty minutes each way to the supermarket, is having the opportunity to listen to music as I do them. I might more aptly describe this as getting lost in music while doing something that can be done by rote. It’s always been a big part of my creative process.

So this week both my trip to the grocery store and the time spent mowing the lawn proved to be no exceptions. In both cases I cranked the iPod and got to it, body doing one thing, brain doing a dozen others. Music allows my mind to work in a unique way. The best way I can describe it is to say that music seems to distract me enough to actually allow ideas to flow freely. Sometimes they flow directly from the music or lyrics, other times not so much (as in: seemingly from nowhere). They just flow. But music seems to be the stimulus. I hope that makes enough sense to continue reading. If not, thanks for trying. Please come back for the next post.

Doin’ the Epiphany Shuffle:

 “I was born in the middle,

Maybe too late, everything good had been made, 

So I just get loaded, And never leave my house,

It’s takin’ way too long to figure this out.” ~Tim Showalter (of Strand of Oaks, from Shut In)

Of late, the main thing I’ve been pondering while under my musical spell is the state of my current rewrite. I work through plot issues and character conflicts, of course. But I’m also often wondering if I’m even making it better. Of course my intent is to improve it, but over the years I’ve received enough conflicting feedback on rewrites to keep me guessing. It’s probably a good thing; the intention of my muse to keep me on my toes. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck to always be second-guessing myself. I’ve found it can’t be helped, though.

While mowing, with my iPod on shuffle, the Strand of Oaks lyrics above caught my ear: “Everything good had been made.” In that moment it seemed sort of futile. There are so many great books! Classics! In the moment it felt like all the great stories had already been told. What’s the point?

As I stewed on that notion, along came Just a Song Before I Go, by Crosby, Stills & Nash. Most people would consider them and this song a timeless classic. And I thought, ‘Well, this is a simple story,Rocking Mower a simple melody. Not one of their best.’ But then I knew what made it special: the power of their voices! Such talent! People listened to their later, more subdued songs because they knew and trusted their talent. As I worked that concept through, up pops The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now? “I am the son, and the heir, of nothing in particular.” How strikingly different! And less than ten years apart. Although The Smiths rank high on my list of all-time favorites, it seems I’m in the minority in considering them classic. Less than a decade after the likes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys and The Stones hit their high marks, bands like The Clash and The Police, then The Cure and The Smiths, were changing rock. And yet, were they? Wasn’t it just a unique spin on an existing genre? Who would say that one set of groups supplanted the other?

The clincher of my epiphany came when I heard Wild Horses by… The Sundays? Yep, a venerable Rolling Stones classic, gorgeously rendered by Harriet Wheeler and her jangly post-punk band-mates, twenty-one years after the original. It’s a song I love. Both versions. What a shame it would’ve been if The Sundays had considered it to have been “already done,” not worth their effort. In my book, both versions are timeless classics.

The Song Remains the Same:

“There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” ~Audre Lorde

I admit it. I’ve spent a lot of needless worry. Historical fantasy? Set in an alternative version of ancient Europe? A young man who is the subject of a so-called prophesy? Is he the heir to kingship? Oh Lord! It’s SO been done, right?

What about voice? Do I even have one? Is it unique? Are the elements of my novels novel? Are readers not by now tiring of archaic dialog, my good sirs and ladies? I durst not contemplate. (No, I don’t use durst. ‘Tis in bad taste, is it not?)

Will it ever sell? Can it be made better still? Without compromising my original vision? Will it ever be worthy of a traditional deal? Am I kidding myself? Should I just self-pub and move on? Will I know when enough is enough?

“Know my name, know I mean it,
It’s not as bad as it seems,
And we try in our own way to get better,
Even if we’re alone…”
~Tim Showalter (also from Shut In)

Know this, and know I mean it: None of it matters! I’ve been working on this too long to look back or to have regrets. No matter how many times I revise, the story remains the same. It’s an elaborate attempt to convey the yearnings of my heart. If I’d written it any other way, I wouldn’t have been passionate about it. If I hadn’t been passionate, I wouldn’t have found my voice (yes, I do believe I have one). The conflicts and passions of my characters may not be new. They are merely human. But the way I have felt them in the writing of my stories is uniquely mine. Perhaps that uniqueness can one day be conveyed to readers.

A Choice and a Non-Choice:

“Rejoice, Rejoice! We have no choice, but to carry on…” ~Stephen Stills (from Carry On)

Will I know when enough is enough? Yes, I think I will. And I’m not there yet. I recognize the choice, and I’m trusting my heart on this. I’m not willing to bet my record collection that my work will ever be considered classic. But I think, if I strive on, I have a shot at being on someone’s list of favorites. In a world chockablock full of books and songs, that chance alone is worth the effort. Each of us has a unique voice. It’d be a shame if we didn’t consider it worthy of striving to make it heard. All we can do is carry on, regardless of how we choose to share our work. On this we have no choice.

In the meanwhile, writerly angst and doubt aside, it’s not as bad as it seems. And I try, in my own way, to get better. You do too, I know (or you wouldn’t have followed this crazy thread this far). And even though we work alone, we’re not alone. We have each other. And our music. On shuffle.

How about you? Do you have your own list of classics? Do you think there are any new stories left? Is your voice worthy of being heard?

Written To Death – Writer Unboxed Redirect

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_A_Walk_at_DuskOnce again, I am honored to have one of my essays featured on Writer Unboxed. I never quite know when these opportunities might arise, and it seems a bit unfortunate to me that I chose a fairly heavy topic (death) and that my chance occurred on a sunny (here in the Mighty Mitten, anyway) early summer Friday. It may be a heavy subject, but I tried to keep my take lighthearted. Those of you who’ve read my work know that I do not shy away from the topic on the page. And I’m fairly certain that upon closer examination, death plays a role in your work as well. After all, death is a part of life. Hence, it should be a part of story.

On that sunny note, Happy Friday, everyone. Please smile as you head over and check out Written to Death, on the best darn writing blog on the interwebs, and the mothership to my writing community, Writer Unboxed.

The Arts & Crafts of Writing Fiction – Writer Unboxed Redirect

Horseshoe Front door 1Having one of my essays featured on Writer Unboxed is always a thrill and a distinct honor for me. Since I always say this, may I attempt to explain? As most of you know, it’s the Mothership blog of my writing community. It’s so special for me because it’s the first place I found that I felt the empathy and specific, relevant instruction that one can only feel from others undergoing the same journey. It’s a special sense of belonging, and it’s ongoing. And I hold the founders and regular contributors in such high esteem.

This time around, I wanted to demonstrate how my love of all things Arts and Crafts fits into my philosophy on writing. Some of you might have read my post on what building our Arts & Crafts bungalow taught me about writing, which might give you some idea. This time I delve a little deeper into the A&C Writer’s lifestyle I strive to live. It’s about how beauty can be found in simplicity and functionality (like our front door and Pewabic pottery–a few of my favorite Arts & Crafts possessions). So please head over to Writer Unboxed and join the conversation. A&C Pottery