The Travel Muse

Antique postcard of Bacharach, Germany“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” ~Bilbo Baggins (JRR Tolkien)

Getting Out There: Since most of you are writers, I’m guessing a few of you will identify with this: I dread going places. And the longer I write, the worse I get. Even an approaching dinner party can make me squirm with reluctance. Heck, I even dread going to the grocery store on a Saturday. I’ll take a non-crowded Tuesday morning, please.

And as exciting as vacation travel can be, as the departure date looms, I am filled with dread. You have the packing, the passports, the parking, and dealing with people. There are airports, security checks, and dealing with people. There are hotels, tour schedules, and dealing with people. Have I mentioned that you have to deal with people?

I guess I’m a bit like old Bilbo. “Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not Today. Good morning!” But once something (or someone) gets me out there (I don’t have a Gandalf, but I do have an adventure-loving wife), especially after a day or two on the road, my old curious, wandering soul tends to reemerge. The dread dissipates and is replaced by what darn near resembles an adventurous spirit.

Such was the case on our last trip—a river-cruise on the Rhine River, from Basel, Switzerland to Amsterdam. And get this: the ship even offered second breakfast! That’s what I call traveling in style.

Seeing is Believing:

“Travel makes you modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” ~Gustave Flaubert

V Seeing is believingOne of the reasons we chose a Rhine River cruise was that part of my trilogy is set in the region (most of the first half of book three). Besides the second breakfasts, we also loved the idea of seeing such a vast swath of the heart of western Europe and only unpacking once. I’d done quite a bit of research in writing the segment set in the region. Traveling there let me know I’d mostly gotten it right; the slope of the river banks, the walls of the ancient cities, etcetera. But I knew from past experience, there’s nothing like actually being there and seeing it for yourself to sharpen your perceptions.

I’m actually looking forward to the inevitable rewrite of book three, just knowing I can imbue the prose with even more of the region’s atmosphere. Now I’ve actually stood on the banks of the mighty river, and contemplated a cold-weather crossing. I’ve gazed across to the far hilly shore, perfectly comprehending what it might feel like to know a hostile force was probably hidden in the trees overlooking the far bank (chilling). I’ve seen the old Roman arched gateway of Cologne—Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium in those days—and walked the original square. Roman glassI’ve seen the ornately-decorated, colored wine glasses and flagons used by the colony’s merchants and administrators (seen while touring Cologne’s Römisch-Germanische Museum, which was one of the highlights of the trip for me). I know from experience that the infusion of carefully placed details can breathe new life into the work. As wonderful a tool as the internet can be, there’s nothing quite like being in a place to sense its history.

Guiding Lights: I used to disdain guided tours while traveling. I used to think I was better off discovering a place on my own. I was a traveler, not a tourist, damn it! Tour guides were for blue-haired ladies and multi-camera-toting, sunburnt nerds. Now that I’m older (and a multi-camera-toting, sunburnt nerd), I’ve grown an appreciation. Particularly for a really good tour guide.

One of the first times I realized what a resource a guide could be was on a tour of Pearl Harbor and the USS Missouri. Here was a man who could point at the ground to show us where he was standing, at the age of seven, when he realized the attack was on. He then pointed up to the mountainous horizon as he told us where dozens of Zero fighters and Val carrier bombers came into view. The emotion was still fresh on his face and in his voice as he described first seeing the Japanese rising suns on the wings, and hearing the first rattle of machinegun fire. I can still clearly recall the tour, over ten years later.

Jack the Welsh tour guide.

Jack the Welsh tour guide.

And good tour guides abound. Some better than others, but there is always something to be learned from each. This trip was no exception. To name a few, we had Jack in Colmar, Alsace—a Welsh expatriate, fluent in French and German, with a tremendous grasp on the region’s history and culture, delivered with passion and humor. Then there was Franco in Cologne, whose knowledge of the cathedral and its history seemed an expertise that could not be topped—until we went to the Roman museum and he warmed to the topic of the Roman colonial era in the region.

So when the opportunity arises, don’t be too cool for school. Take the tours. Listen up and ask questions. You are bound to learn from those passionate enough about their area to put up with the likes of us sunburnt nerds. And don’t forget to tip!

Up With People (No, Really):

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men, places, and things cannot be acquired vegetating in one small corner of the earth.” ~Mark Twain

One of the things I dread about cruising is that there are bound to be other passengers. Have I mentioned my reluctance about dealing with people? And yet, I am always intrigued. For a writer, travel is a wonderful people-watching opportunity. And we met our fair share of interesting folks on this trip. For example, there were the sisters traveling with their mother, revisiting Germany for the first time since their German father passed. We’d gotten friendly onboard, and they already knew I was a writer. Over a traditional German meal (and quite a bit of German wine), it came out that their father had written a book—a memoir. Turns out he had been in the Wehrmacht during WW2. He was not a Nazi, and was forcibly drafted into service as a boy, toward the end of the war. The book was about not just his experiences in the war, but the aftermath—living in a postwar world as an ex-German soldier. It sounds fascinating, but I’d have never learned of it if we hadn’t spent a week, and several meals (and no few cocktail hours) with these interesting folks.

There are also the people you encounter at every stop and on every outing. Not just the guides, but the shopkeepers, hotel and museum workers, fellow diners, even waiters and waitresses. Even very brief conversations (often with the difficulty of language differences) enhance the experience of being abroad. It’s always fun to tell people that we are from Chicago while traveling abroad (we actually live in SW Michigan, but Chicago is the nearest city). I often get the sense their image of Chicago is one of heavy industry, gangsters, and corrupt machine-politics. Which gives me a better insight into my own worldview.

Broadening Horizons:

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” ~Henry Miller

There’s more to travel than the specific things you learn or the pictures you take. There is a gained sense of worldliness. It’s inspiring, and as exhausting as it can seem in the short run, it’s ultimately revitalizing. Travel renews our sense of wonder.

As author Bill Bryson says in his book, Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe: “[This is the] glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.” I can vouch for the danger of street crossing, particularly in France. Our Welsh tour-guide Jack warned us that the French used their brakes as if each application depleted a finite and precious resource.

Just like reading a good book, travel is an immersion experience, and is bound to broaden your perspective and your worldview—which can only be a good thing for us writers, right? So if you’re a reluctant traveler, like me, do yourself a favor, and step out onto that road. The odds of being swept off your feet are much better than if you stay holed up in your writerly den.V Black Forest

Your turn to embark. Has travel influenced or inspired your work? Where are you off to next? 

The Three-Phase Writer – Redirect to A Thought Grows

Today I am happy to be the guest at Julie Luek‘s lovely blog, A Thought GrowsJean-Francois-Millet - Rabbit Warren at Dawn-1867. I first came to know Julie on the comment board of the WU blog. Then we became Facebook friends, and realized we both love walking in nature and dogs–an excellent basis for a friendship, don’t you think?

Some of you might have noticed that I’ve been a bit scarce this summer. No, I wasn’t “reverse hibernating,” although I do love autumn and winter. In the post I explain my whereabouts, and my partial absence in the writerly online community. And I even compare that very community to, of all things, a rabbit’s warren.

So head on over, if you would, and join me at A Thought Grows for The Three-Phase Writer.

A Writerly Pilot Light – Writer Unboxed Redirect

Gas Flame in handsToday I have the honor of contributing to the Writer Unboxed blog. And it really is an honor. As most of you know, WU is the home-base of my writing community. I’m a moderator on the WU group page, and a contributor for Writer Inboxed, the WU newsetter. But it’s just such a special thrill for me to be a featured contributor to the main page–among some of my all-time favorite bloggers and mentors.

Today’s post is about dealing with writerly waiting. Which is hell. Sorry I haven’t offered anything here in a few weeks. I wrote the WU post a little while back, when I was just coming out of a waiting period. I’ve since finished another rewrite of book one of my trilogy, which is what’s kept me from blogging. It’s about to go back out into the world. Once again I’m banking my writerly embers for the long haul.  So rereading my own words on this is particularly helpful. I hope so for some of you, too.

So please join me over on WU for A Writerly Pilot Light.

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_7708392_hands-holding-a-flame-gas.html’>pakhnyushchyy / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Setting the Circumstances

Ancient books, ghostly imageMy “Career-In-Potential”:

“Once we turn pro (and even before we do), our Muse has plans for us. Those plans are our career-in-potential. They exist, whether we choose to believe in them or not. And they’re operating upon us, influencing us like the gravitational pull of an enormous invisible star.

If you’re a writer, your career-in-potential is a shelf of books. Your books. Books you’ve written. They exist now, even if you haven’t started Book #1.” ~Steven Pressfield

The above quote is from a post called Thinking a Career, from SP’s fabulous Writing Wednesdays blog series. If you haven’t yet, I highly recommend you not only read this post, but subscribe to the series. I think the piece resonates for me because I felt the “gravitational pull” of my career-in-potential long before I read it. I think I subconsciously felt that pull even as I trudged through the writing of my trilogy, and that was—in part—why I did not stop writing after book one was complete. As I describe in last week’s post, I was self-deluding about the work’s potential, unwilling to allow myself to think too far ahead for fear of freaking myself out (and having my career-in-potential fizzle-in-actuality). But I knew I needed to put my own pieces in place on the board in order to learn the game, let alone the stakes.

Masters of My Domain:

“When the student is ready, the master appears.”  ~Buddhist Proverb

I didn’t start reading Jacqueline Carey until I was nearly done writing the first draft of my trilogy. But after finishing her debut, Kushiel’s Dart, I immediately saw parallels. JC’s epic, character-focused stories and her detailed alternate-historical settings combine to create the kind of submersion for readers I was seeking to craft. And by the time I read Kushiel’s Dart, she already had six fat volumes (two trilogies) on the shelf—a fantasy lover’s treasure-trove. She subsequently added another trilogy set in the same world, as well as two pairs of urban fantasies, with more on the way.

When I started following JC on Facebook in ‘08, she had no author page, but she ‘friended’ her fans, and I was among the first 400 or so. Since then she’s transferred us to an author page, and the page has grown to over 13,000 fans. I admire the catalog she’s built, but I also admire how she has handled her growing fan-base. She interacts with her readers on an almost daily basis, and genuinely shares of herself. In my experience, she responds to every single thing someone puts on her Facebook wall with a ‘like’ or a personal comment. I’ve written her several times, and in each case she has taken the time to respond in a warm and engaged way.

And the reward for her efforts: loyalty! I’ve seen several stories from fans who’ve hand-sold her books to other shoppers in the bookstore. Not only do her fans (including yours truly) recommend her, they buy multiple copies to give and lend to readers they think should be reading her. Heck, there are even scores of fans who tattoo their bodies with images and words from her work (no tattoos here… yet). Talk about a tribute to an author.

Serial Aspirations:  To top it all off, Carey just keeps getting better. After reading her Naamah trilogy, I felt so strongly about her growth that I wrote her to tell her I thought she was at the top of her game. And she never stops trying new things. Fans of her epic historicals (like me) are willing to venture trying her urban fantasy.

I’ve recently discovered Robin Hobb’s Farseer series, and am on my sixth book. I finish one, consider the other books in my TBR list, then download the next Farseer book. So far, I can’t seem to sate my Farseer appetite. Plus I’ve learned a lot about internal versus external plot development, as well as creating micro-tension through constantly rising stakes. She’s another master of the epic historical fantasy domain. I consider writers like Hobb and Carey to be mentors as well as role models. For an epic fantasy writer, they both have careers worthy of aspiration.

Delivering On The First Order: When my wife and I were in the building materials business, we learned a valuable lesson about selling. We knew we weren’t just selling a bunk of lumber. We were selling a service. We sold to lumber retailers, and there were only so many of them in our delivery area. We needed their repeat business—hence, we needed their loyalty. We knew initiating trial was one thing. But once we got that first order, we had to deliver. To get them to commit to us, that first shipment had to be more than satisfactory. It had to be a knockout.

For a writer who aspires to sell a series, the lesson was a powerful one. I think some of my non-writer friends sometimes wonder what the heck is taking me so long (and perhaps even some of my writer friends wonder, as well). Many of them know I have four completed manuscripts, and that I’m on my fifth or sixth major rewrite of book one ( even though it feels like the 15th or 16th). But I know I’ve got to deliver on the first order, or the rest of the series will languish, or worse, never see the light of day.

The Comfort of the Familiar: I’ve been told by several readers that they enjoyed book two much more than book one. And a few have said that, from book one to my most recent manuscript, the writing only gets stronger. I think this is pretty natural and easily explained by my growth as a writer. But I suspect there is something else at work here. Starting into book two or three of a series is a completely different thing than trying a new author’s first book. You’ve become acquainted with the world, and hopefully fond of the characters. As a series moves along, it’s like visiting old friends. You share a history. You know the backstory. It gives a writer a tremendous amount of freedom. And once you have that comfort and loyalty, it even offers a bit of space to experiment and stretch, as Carey has done with her urban fantasy work.

I was discussing this with my wife the other night, and she said, “Sort of like the hair stylist thing.” I am absolutely positive I looked bewildered, because my expression made her laugh. She went on to explain that if you have a stylist you have been using for a while, you not only grow familiar with them, you start to get comfortable. And from that comfort, you begin to trust them. At some point, after several times delivering the hairstyle you know and like, you are open to their suggestions for experimentation. And after a few successful experiments or variations, if they screw up one of your cuts (or color sessions, etc.), you are more willing to forgive it. You go back (perhaps earlier than usual) because you know they can deliver on the sort of comfort you’ve come to expect. A pretty darn apt analogy. One that I never would’ve come up with on my own.

But you wouldn’t go back to someone who didn’t deliver on the first appointment. A series needs to earn familiarity in order to deliver comfort, and thereby to deserve loyalty. So back to getting it right on the first book.

Visualizing the Voyage:

“If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favorable to him.” ~Seneca

I have admitted I am not an optimist by nature. My wife handles that for me, thank you. I am not saying that I anticipate having the legions of fans Carey and Hobb have rightfully earned. I know it’s a competitive business. And the vagaries of the ever-changing publishing business paired with the fickle tastes of readers will make it challenging to navigate to any level of success.On board a Sailing Ship, by Caspar David Friedrich

I know I’m lucky. I’m lucky to have wonderful mentors and readers and writerly friends. Lucky to have found Writer Unboxed, and to have been given some wonderful opportunities to serve there. Lucky to have had the business background, the time, and (even though I often feel the opposite) the patience to strive for the right set of circumstances for a successful voyage toward publication.

I’m sure there will be storms to come, but the experience I’ve gained along the way will help me to steer through. Thus far I’ve had mostly favorable winds. But I know to what port I am steering. I believe in my career-in-potential. I can see those books Pressfield refers to on the shelf.

I’m not sure what to expect from my next destination, but I’m comfortable knowing I’ve done everything I could to make the best of it when I arrive.

Do you see your books on the shelf? Whose esteemed career do you aspire to? 

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The Day I Typed “The End”

Pheidippides collapses after finishing the first marathon run. By Luc-Olivier Merson (1869)

Pheidippides collapses after finishing the first marathon run. By Luc-Olivier Merson (1869)

Typical Me:

“I started something; Typical me, typical me, typical me;  And now I’m not too sure…” ~Johnny Marr & Morrissey (From: I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish, by The Smiths)

Sure, I’d spent thirty or so years threatening to write an epic fantasy. Seemed like stuff kept getting in the way. You know: life… and stuff.  I suppose a few decades of not starting something I’d been talking about since I was twelve eventually made me reticent about it. But with some of those close to me (read: my parents), I’d gained an ill-repute. First there was the writing thing, then came the guitar lessons I quit (I got blisters on my fingers!), and there was always the bedroom I wouldn’t clean, dishes I wouldn’t rinse, and so on. It also took me six years to work my way to a Bachelor’s degree. So yeah, I took some grief about my lack of resolve in finishing things.

Untypical Me: So from the time I left college until I left the business world in ’03, I worked hard to earn a can-do reputation. From product start-ups, to sales turnarounds, to remodeling projects, to building my own house—I became Mr. Stick-To-It-Till-Done. People looking for advice on how to tackle and accomplish difficult undertakings came to me. Me! The guy who never started writing, who switched his major four times, and who never cleaned his room. It took some time, but even I started to believe it about myself.

Then I started writing. At first it was a sideline to my carpentry gig—mostly for rainy days or between projects. I figured I’d knock my story out in, oh, say six to eight months. Yeah, right. That slid by, and I was still outlining. Woo-boy—Typical Me was back. Luckily, I kept my writing mostly secret. After all, I had a reputation to uphold.

The Blind Rush Forward:

 “For me, it’s always been a process of trying to convince myself that what I’m doing in a first draft isn’t important. One way you get through the wall is by convincing yourself that it doesn’t matter.” ~ Neil Gaiman

At some point I did just as Lord Gaiman describes in the quote: I self-deluded. It would just be a story for my niece and nephew (we’d long shared a love of fantasy stories). No one else had to see it. And it began to turn around for me. I made progress, and started to have fun, inventing names and researching Goths and Romans. As my story unfolded, I became fascinated by the revelations that seemed to come from nowhere. Characters took on personalities all their own, and the story expanded in startling and yet delightful ways. Nuances I’d never dreamed of including magically appeared. I’d been kissed by the muse, and I couldn’t get enough.

I no longer worried about showing it to others. I knew it was amateurish. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get through the story. The only thing I can compare it to is getting hooked on reading a book. A big, epic, unexpectedly mind-blowing book. I couldn’t wait to pick it back up and see what would happen next. From early on I had a vague idea for how the story would end. But the things that kept me going were the ongoing surprises and unexpected twists. Ah, the life of a newbie pantser. It was a real rush!

What, Me Worry? Then one day, two to three years into my little side-project, I came to a realization. I had no idea about word counts or story arcs, but at about 200K I realized my story was getting longish. I also knew, with absolute certainty, I was only a third of the way through the main story. But I was also at a seminal moment for my two main characters. Their lives were irrevocably changed. “Hey, this could be the end of a book,” I thought. And I suddenly knew the general shape of the two remaining arcs of the overall story. “Huh. It’s a trilogy! Who knew?”

I know every writer’s journey varies. Many writers would’ve stopped there, revised, polished and submitted book one, knowing they could write the rest later. That thought worried me. It messed with my aforementioned self-delusion. I told myself, “What’s the rush? Just finish the story. No one is going to see it anyway… For now.”

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum:

“When people come to me and say, ‘I want to be a writer. What should I do?’, I say, ‘You have to write.’ And sometimes they say, ‘I’m already doing that. What else should I do?’ I say, ‘You have to finish things.’ Because that’s where you learn from; you learn by finishing things.” ~Neil Gaiman

I blew out my shoulder in October of ’08. Don’t worry, it’s much better now. But at the time it was a fairly debilitating injury. I couldn’t even type for a month, and carpentry was out of the question for the foreseeable future. I had recently finished the second section of my story, and the final section was underway. Almost five years in, I had already changed my focus from mostly carpentry to mostly writing, but the injury was the universe’s final nudge. Time to go all-out and finish.

But that’s not the funny thing I allude to in the above subtitle. Something else was going on. My gut was telling me I might have a good story. I’d long since abandoned the idea it was for my niece and nephew. Heck, they were teenagers in high school by this time, not remotely interested. Plus it had clearly become an adult story by then.

I still tried not to allow myself to think too far ahead, but a tiny flame had been kindled in my heart. I started to believe my story could matter. I’d learned so much about myself along the way. I’d laughed and cried with my characters. I started to think that maybe it could be meaningful to others, too. I didn’t allow this hope into the front seat as I drove for the finish line, but I knew it was back there, hidden in the trunk. I wanted it to be published. I wanted to connect with others through my story.

Trudging Wrought Road: About halfway through book three, I decided to map out all of the things that needed to happen to pull all of my many story-threads back together. The story had sprawled on me, so it was going to be quite a feat. In the final few months, I knew each day what needed to happen to get me to the next step. It was a really rudimentary attempt at plotting, but it got me from day to day, week to week.

Even in writing this today, I have to remind myself that no one had read yet. My wife and sister both read the first draft, but not until it was completely done. I somehow trudged through these ‘plot steps’ I’d mapped out in a workmanlike fashion, and I marvel at my former self now. These were/are emotional scenes for me—the culmination of years of toil and systematic setup. I still laughed and cried at the appropriate points, but it was all in a day’s work. On to the next step.

And then I reached the last plot point on my list. And it was emotionally wrought. But I knew it wasn’t quite over.

Can You Say Catharsis? It needed an epilogue. I’m not even sure I knew the term then. But I knew there was one more scene. And I knew this one would be the one that got me. It did.

I remember telling my wife on our morning walk that I thought I would finish this last scene that day. But I kept it nebulous. Neither of us made too big of a deal out of it. Like the whole journey to that point, it was too uncertain.

I wrote the epilogue scene through the blur of stinging eyes. And I made a prominent point of typing the actual words. It felt so damn good typing “The End.” I wept. Do I admit that a lotJude-Law-in-the-Holiday-jude-law-5255540-399-223 in this space? I suppose like  Jude Law’s character Graham in The Holiday, “I’m a major weeper.” 

I instant messaged my wife and told her, and admitted I was crying. She messaged back: “Now I’m crying. So proud of you!”

The Beauty of The End:

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  ~Lennon & McCartney (From The End, by The Beatles)

I’ve typed the words “The End” since, and aspire to many more times. But that first time was special. Neil’s right—there’s much to be learned from finishing. In many ways, typing “The End” is only the beginning. It’s the start of sharing what you’ve gained, and that’s where the real growth happens.

So in the end, typing “The End” was about more than the conclusion of my story. It wasn’t even about discipline, patience, or perseverance. I’ve learned much more about those things from the journey since.

Typing ‘the end’ was one of the most profoundly moving moments of my life. And I sometimes think it won’t be surpassed by getting an agent or a publishing deal. It was about knowing I’d found myself. It was about trusting my heart, and a willingness to reveal myself to seek human connection through story. I’ve found joy and healing, friendship and love through writing fiction. And that’s no small thing.

The Road Goes Ever On: Then, after my cathartic moment, I couldn’t resist. At the bottom of my manuscript’s word doc, I typed: (Stay tuned.). I knew my story would go on. And it will.

Now, tell me about “The End” of your story. 

Orchestrating Impact

The Concert, by Theodoor RomboutsGetting Under the Shell:

“…A story is about how the plot affects the protagonist. The good news is that protagonists… live and breathe and make decisions the same way we do. The bad news is that writers often tend to leave this crucial layer out, giving us only a beautifully written rendition of the story’s external shell – the plot, the surface, the “things that happen” — rather than what’s beneath the surface, where the real meaning lies.” ~ Lisa Cron

If you are a regular reader here you probably know I’m working on another rewrite of book one of my trilogy. Thanks to some amazing feedback and guidance from some fantastic mentors and beta-readers, I’m well into the project. I knew from the start that this rewrite was about adding internal meaning to mostly external events (plot). But even with the insight I’ve gained, I need consistent reminding to dig deeper, to get under the shell and seek the “real meaning” in each scene.

The Lisa Cron quote above came from a knockout of a post on Writer Unboxed. I highly recommend taking the time to read. But if you don’t mind, please don’t go till you’re done here. It’s so thought-provoking, you might never come back. To give you an idea, in his comment on the post, Don Maass said he was unplugging his computer for a week to process what she’d written. Anyway, Lisa provoked at least a full morning of deep thought on my part… so far.

Of Bones and Flesh and Suits of Armor: About a week ago, when I first came up with the idea for this post, on a slip of paper I wrote: “Stripped to bone by revision, now addingSuit of Armor flesh back.” My first draft of this story had good bones, but it was most definitely bloated. I knew it needed to be stripped down, focused on what really propelled the story. So in my revision last fall, I mercilessly cut. The final result in its last incarnation was pretty lean and mean, fairly tightly focused on my two primary protagonists. In the process I’d sacrificed much of my characters’ introspection. This was a big portion of the so-called flesh I’d stripped away. But it was more than liposuction. I know it needed to be done. The introspection was often indulgent and disruptive, occasionally clumsy or unnecessary to the issues at hand, and/or slowing to the pace.

So the metaphor didn’t seem quite right. I don’t believe my characters were mannequins or overly archetypal, or that their goals or conflicts felt contrived. I’m confident I’ve created a unique world populated with multidimensional characters. And I’ve been told the result of my last rewrite produced a competent and polished draft. It was Lisa’s use of the word “shell” that made me think of it. My story had become a suit of armor—and a fairly well-wrought one at that. It was tailored to fit reader expectations, flexible enough to handle the action at hand, even fairly shiny, if I do say so.

But I realize now it was also built to be protective. I’d inadvertently given my story a hardened, slick outer shell, seeking to make it impervious to external attack. Critique of the story could not hurt me, because it was all about external events. Nothing could really penetrate it and get to me, because I hadn’t exposed much.

Turns out it still hurts to be told that your work is indeed slick, but that it’s also too invulnerable to be as significant as it could be. So much for armor.

Digging Deeper to Get Vulnerable:

“What gives a story high impact is that which is most personal and passionate in its author. That includes your own fears. They are your compass. They’re pointing you to what unsettles. And also to what matters.” ~Donald Maass (From Writing 21st Century Fiction)

So a few months ago, in preparation for this rewrite, seeking to gain a better grasp on all of the feedback I’ve received, I scheduled a phone conference with my mentor Cathy Yardley. We talked about how the characters were affected by the events, about how backstory informed their mindsets and thereby their actions, about doing a chart to map the goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC) for each scene, and so forth. It would’ve been a productive session with just those things. But Cathy took it a step further.

Turns out, besides being a wonderful editor and coach, she’s a pretty damn good psychotherapist (perhaps that goes with the territory?). She gently inquired again about what originally inspired my writing and what I’d hoped to capture (something we’ve discussed before). Then, in a flash, with surgical precision, she zeroed in on my fears regarding those passions. Before I knew it, I was wiping welling tears, unable to speak without a quaver in my voice. “Right there—capture that,” she said, “and your rewrite will succeed.”

Don is right, and Cathy showed me it was so. My most personal passions twined with my deepest fears about them guided me right to what matters, and to the beating heart of my trilogy.

Seeking Symphony: Being willing to reveal more of myself is not enough (and I still struggle with just willingness). It’s easier said than done. Adding the internal layers I’ll need in order to achieve higher impact will be an intricate operation. To take it to another level, I will need the internal and external, the backstory and the unfolding action, to work in symphony, building to a crescendo of emotional significance.

I was thinking about this in regards to a documentary I saw on the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water, the milestone 1969 album by Simon and Garfunkel. I was particularly struck by the evolution of the song of the same name. Paul had written the song quickly, and turned in an acoustic version, accompanying himself on guitar. You can listen to that early version here. He’d only written the first two verses, and he envisioned it as a simple, stripped-down gospel style song. Both Art and producer Roy Halee wanted it to be longer and to have more emotional impact. They implored Paul to write a third verse to bring the themes of the song home, so to speak.

If you’re like me, you’ve heard this song a zillion times (perhaps you’re thinking one too many?). But take a minute to listen to the final version again. After Art sings the original two verses over simple piano accompaniment, the song comes to a fitting climax, and that could’ve been a satisfactory end. In my opinion, it still would’ve been a hit song. But then comes the third, added, verse:

“Sail on silver girl, Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
…” ~Paul Simon

Now, for the first time, Paul is harmonizing with Art. The lyrics speak to a definitive sacrifice for friendship. “Your time has come to shine, All your dreams are on their way.” Then, “I’m sailing right behind.” My interpretation: things have been tough along the way, but I know good things are coming for you, and I’ll be there for you—no matter what. That’s heady stuff by itself.

But along with the theme enhancement of the added verse we are introduced to subtle bass and drum, and then strings. The instrumentation builds and builds to a symphonic crescendo paired with Garfunkel’s soaring voice. It’s wonderfully powerful. They took what would’ve been a perfectly sound song, probably a minor hit and, in my opinion, made it one for the ages. I’m willing to bet people will know that song for generations to come. All because Simon and Garfunkel were willing to dig deeper, to take it to another level.

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: Please know I am not comparing myself to Paul Simon… nor even Art Garfunkel. I am inspired by such things. But most of the time I feel like I fumbling forward in the dark, hoping I won’t be tripped on my way to “The End.” And all without a suit of armor. I know it’s still up to me to orchestrate the changes that will take this book to the next level. But thanks to my mentors and my tribe, I feel like I’ve got some moonlight to guide me. Thanks to all of you who’ve supported me. Wish me luck!

What about you? Are you polishing your suit of armor? Are you willing to dig deep and get vulnerable? Or have you heard Bridge Over Troubled Water one too many times, and couldn’t care less about having that kind of impact?

Image credit: mg7 / 123RF Stock Photo

Community Revisited – Watching the Ripples Roll (WU Redirect)

Whitecaps at Hazelhurst 143I’ve noticed that in past redirects to Writer Unboxed, I always use the term “honored,” as in: “I’m honored to be on WU.” And with good reason. It is an honor. I consider everything I do for WU to be an not just an honor for me, but good writerly karma. My writing life has been so blessed by everything this community has offered me over the years. I really do wonder if I’d still be writing if I hadn’t found WU. After I finished a first draft of the trilogy, and submitted it (way too early) to agents and editors for a unanimous rejection, I spent a few months thinking that was it. I gave the writing thing a shot, and it didn’t work out. I’m not sure if I could’ve lived with the regret, but that shrugging sort of attitude prevailed for a time. Then I discovered WU, and I discovered my journey wasn’t over, it was just beginning. I caught the WU wave that day, and I’m still riding it.

So with that in mind, allow me to say I am honored to redirect you to the source of my writerly wave, Writer Unboxed, for my article: Community Revisited, Watching the Ripples Roll.

[Photo by Vaughn Roycroft]

What Women Read (on What Women Write)

Skolani Warrior, blade over shouldersToday I have the pleasure of being a guest on my good friend Kim Bullock‘s blog, What Women Write. Kim’s a very talented writer I met through Writer Unboxed, and she and I serve together on The WU Mod Squad–the moderating team for the WU group page. Kim is a talented writer, and I’ve had the opportunity to read her manuscript and sure-to-soon-be-a-hit-book, The Oak Lovers, based on the fascinating life and times of her great-grandfather, painter Carl Ahrens. She shares contributing duties on What Women Write with five other talented writers, so being invited to post there was a bit daunting. Being a guy was just a small part of it. But, since it’s almost Independence Day here in the US, I decided to take a bit of a gamble, and write my take on what women read. I figure this time of year, even with the chance it’ll be a dud, or worse, blow up in my face, it’s worth the risk. If it flies, it could be fun to watch the fireworks.

So please join me on What Women Write, for my take on What Women Read!

Image credit: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/photo_9780536_blonde-girl-in-the-scandinavian-suit-on-a-blue-sky-background.html’>demian1975 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Life’s Too Short

A Powerful Cliché: As writers we’re supposed to avoid clichés, but the title of this post happens to be a special one for me. There’s a lot of power in those three words. I’m living proof… for the moment. Allow me to explain by starting with a quote:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” ~ William Hutchinson Murray

Unlike the title, that quote’s a bit long, but I still love it. I first read it in Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art in late 2003. It really resonated with me then and it’s only grown more meaningful for me since. If you’re wondering what the quote has to do with the title, I hope to show you in the next few paragraphs.

Mag Black and whiteMoment of Commitment: Over the past holiday weekend, I found myself retelling the tale of our life-change. My wife and I had been discussing the possibilities for a year or more before we committed to moving to our cottage in the woods and dedicated ourselves to living a more fulfilling life together. I’ve written about it before, but the retelling got me wondering which of the events was the one that tipped the scales and nudged us past hesitancy. I think there was one particular inciting incident, and it may sound strange to those who’ve never truly loved a pet. It was the death of our beloved Maggie, in September of ’02. Although we didn’t leave our business and move to our cottage for another year, Mag’s passing was the tipping point. More on that in a minute. For now, suffice to say it was the day my wife and I started routinely using that old clichéd phrase: Life’s too short. The more we said it, the more sense it made.

Tragic Impetus: As sad as our dog’s death was for us, it wasn’t the actual beginning of our life-change. There was an evolution of mindset. I think that evolution may have begun on September 11, 2001. Such a strange and tragic day. The earth seemed to tilt off of its axis that morning, and for so many it took a long while for it to return to spinning as it once had. I’m guessing for some, it still hasn’t fully righted itself. I don’t personally know anyone who was wounded or killed that day, but it was a definite mindset shift. I won’t trouble you to explain the details, as we each have our own personal version of it.

A Movie? Really? Shortly after that mindset shift came the next in a series of life-altering moments. Again, it may seem trivial for those who don’t share my lifelong ardor. This next moment came in the form of the release of a movie. Yep, a movie. And a movie based on a fantasy story, at that.

On December 19, 2001, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring debuted in theaters across the U.S. My brother-in-law and I went to the film’s first showing on Saturday the 20th. Beforehand I’d been skeptical. But I held a hope that the film would recapture my first favorite book. I remember sitting in the theater. The opening was a female narrator reading backstory. I still wasn’t convinced (although the footage of elves and men fighting orcs on the plains of Gorgoroth was pretty cool). But when the actual opening scene began, a panoramic view of the Shire, I was instantly spellbound. I whispered to my bro-in-law, “Does it look as good as you hoped?” He leaned over. “No,” he whispered. I turned and raised a brow. “It’s even better,” he added. We were grinning like idiots by the time Gandalf made his appearance.

So how was the release of Fellowship so life-altering? It reminded me of my former self. It reawakened the boy who had wanted so fervently to connect with story that he dared to imagine himself as the storyteller. I went home and immediately dug out my old box-set of LOTR and started reading. It was the first fiction I’d read in many years. I instantly fell back under the spell of well-told story.

Regained Perspective: Rereading LOTR helped me to make sense of a world that didn’t seem to make sense anymore. It reminded me of the real meaning of friendship and loyalty, of Frodo_Aragornthe importance of finding one’s own definition of honor in the face of death. For the sake of employment, I lived in a place I did not love, devoting much of my time and energy to earning a secure financial status. The Lord of the Rings reminded me of the significance of beauty and the exploration of emotions. It reminded me to appreciate a shared love. And of what the true ideal of home meant to me.

Canine Life-lessons: I mentioned the death of our Maggie earlier. When the day came, I was almost a year into the reawakening of my former self through rediscovering fiction. Saying goodbye to our girl was one of the most difficult and moving moments of my life. My wife and I both immediately knew things would never be the same afterward. She left us on a sunny autumn Friday morning. We couldn’t face going to work, so we drove to our cottage in Michigan, still in shock. When we arrived, before we even got out of the car, we were reminiscing about how excited Mag would get on the days we came to Michigan. She had known even before us—this was home. This was where we belonged.

Maggie had been with us through most of our successes in business. The presence of her spirit in our lives had been such a blessing—vital to our wellbeing during difficult years of hard work. But her life was over, and it had seemed so damn fleeting. Looking back on them, those years had been a blur. Because of her, we knew. None of the rest of it mattered. We belonged at home, exploring what really mattered, and finding it together.

Maggie taught us the true meaning of the words: Life’s too short.

Providence Moves: It was a bold step, leaving a lucrative business and moving to a cottage. But every step since we committed ourselves has been providential. In other words: “A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”

The move home led to much more reading, including Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. Which led me to his website, which led me to The War of Art, which led me to the above quote as well as this one: “Are you a born writer?… In the end the question can only be answered by action. Do it or don’t do it.” Which led to me scribbling the beginnings of a story in a notebook while I waited at a jobsite for the concrete subcontractor, about a Gothic boy who was a scion and the warrior-girl who was secretly his guardian.

The Providential Road Goes Ever On: From a tentative beginning, and through a mostly secret drafting of my trilogy, I was led to exploration of the craft and business of fiction. Which led to Writer Unboxed. Which led me to finding myself as a writer—and thereby as a person. As well as all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings. Including some of the most wonderful and meaningful friendships of my life.

Mag on PinehurstSo those three words, life’s too short, the real wisdom of which was only learned because we gave our hearts to a dog, has led to all manner of insight and opportunities, the likes of which I could never have dreamed would come my way. So thanks, Mag.

What about you? Have you committed to a bold step? If so, has Providence moved for you, too? 

[Black and white photo of Maggie by Mike Lanka, of Lanka Photo]

Re-Revision: Getting Messy

Henry John Yeend King, Victorian_gardenDon’t Tell Me: I’ve had my fingers crossed so long they ache. Do you know the feeling? Have you ever waited for feedback or through revisions, hoping against hope that this time was the charm? Anticipation rides high for a while. But time slides by and something changes. During the latter days of those fingers-crossed, hoping-against-hope waiting periods, I often begin to imagine the worst. They think it sucks. They weren’t drawn in. They can’t even force their way through my swamp of awful words. At some point a reversal occurs. I actually start to dread what I might hear.

Yet Again: So now I’ve actually heard, and lived to tell. I received some high-level critique of book one of my historical fantasy trilogy, The Bonds of Blood. There’s a lot to take in. Don’t get me wrong, much of it was good. I’ve been here before. I know I may be down, but I’m not out. And most of the advice I received this go-around rings true in my gut. Which means I am headed into revision…Yet again.

It’s not hugely shocking for me. But I must admit I’m disappointed. Of course after each round of revision, you hope your manuscript is finally ready. But even as I sent it out, deep down I had a feeling it wasn’t quite the book it could be. And it’s exciting to hear how close it is to ready, from several trusted sources.

The Labor Behind the Plot: I’m no gardener. But my dad was. My mom, too. When I was a boy, our family’s half-acre plot of land was lined with pristine garden beds, and there was always something in bloom. My mom had a real touch for it. In the early sixties, her gardens were featured in House & Garden Magazine. Neighbors would come and admire the gardens, as would passersby. My siblings and I were very proud of them, and her.

In the backyard my dad had a two huge vegetable patches. And he kept a compost pile. In the fall my dad would spread the compost accumulation and the lawn clippings over the vegetable patch. Then in the spring, he would turn the whole thing. By hand. With a spade. It took him a week or more, all in his spare time—evenings after work and weekends. But, boy, were his tomatoes wonderful! The soil in that patch of garden was greasy-black and rich. Everything grew well there—cucumbers, squash, radishes, peppers, carrots. It was all delicious stuff.

Our house was a simple, middle-class, three-bedroom ranch. But that simple little house was situated on a pristinely tended plot. And, having seen my parents toiling, having been put to work weeding, mowing, sweeping, and shoveling snow through my childhood, I knew that well-tended look, that riot of blooms, and those juicy tomatoes came at a price.

Digging Deeper: As I said, I’m no gardener. Maybe it was all those days weeding and mowing rather than riding my bike or playing baseball, but I don’t enjoy the act of gardening. I do enjoy having a nice garden and grounds. And now that I have my own house, I’m willing to put in the necessary level of labor to achieve a modestly attractive landscape.Karen's flowers (Photo by Karen Halsted)

As I was tidying our yard today, I was contemplating my upcoming revision. As I weeded and trimmed last year’s dead growth from our modest gardens, I realized a few things. Our gardens are never going to garner attention and admiration. We’ll never grow the kind of tomatoes that make people light up when we dole out the extras. Our yard and gardens are tidy, but nothing special. If we really ever want to make them special, it would take some serious commitment to hard work. It would have to start with the soil. We’d have to remove the surface mulch and replant everything. We’d have to dig deep, add nutrient-rich compost and manure and peat. And turn it. By hand. With a spade. For days. Like my dad used to do it.

My Pristine Garden: I may have work to do on my manuscript, and it is far from perfect, but one thing noted by most who’ve read it: it’s clean. I’ve worked at making it tidy. I’m not saying it’s masterfully written, but there are very few mistakes. The paragraphs and scene breaks work well. The POV changes flow smoothly. Mechanically, it’s fairly well-tuned, by most accounts. I’ve weeded my typos, and carefully trimmed and edged the breaks. The pathway through is smoothly groomed.

And, much like my yard, it’s very nice—but not as special as it could be if I did some diligent work and deeper digging.

Getting Messy: The most daunting part of returning to revision is knowing how messy it will be. If I dig in like I need to, all of my work to make it pristine will go by the wayside. Rewritten scenes will have clunky sentences and typos. And the scene changes may not be smooth. It will take more feedback to be sure readers aren’t accidentally tripped up on my new pathway through the garden of my manuscript.

But I realize it must be done. And my work this year may not yield ripe fruit and gorgeous blooms before the season’s changing. Another summer of my journey may pass. But if I am willing to get messy, and to be diligent, the growth in seasons to come will inspire the impact and results I seek—the response from readers that I know my story has the potential to inspire.

Pristine is not memorable or moving. Unlike my yard, I believe my story is worthy of being memorable and moving. Unlike my yard, there is no choice. I owe it to my muse and to everyone who’s supported me to get this far. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and take up my spade.

It’s time to get messy.

How about you? Ever had aching crossed fingers? Are you willing to dig into your pristine garden and get messy?