Of Intricate Doodles and Ancient Texts

005Last week, while I was digging around in my closet for a new book to read, I came across some notebooks of mine from a decade ago. Sadly, I have not owned a bookshelf in years, so for now, all my books are being squished and smothered to death in weakening and crumbling cardboard boxes in the darkest corners of my closet. But among them, I found these sacred notebooks of mine that I have all but forgotten about. I knew they were in there. I have moved them aside many times in my searches for new reading material (of which I have quite a bit that has been unread by me – I had a bad habit of buying books and then not reading them), but I never cared to open them. I didn’t think that there was anything hidden inside. But I was gravely mistaken.

The picture shown above is a maze that I had doodled on the back of one these green hardcover notebooks (standard 8″ X 10.5″ military record books) during my early years in the Navy. I date it some time between June of 2003 and November of 2004, and more likely towards the latter. There is only one way through that giant tangle of pathways, and many, many dead ends. I have never forgotten about the maze – in fact, I reminisce fondly of it whenever I see it –  but what was written inside was what really caught my attention this time around.

In my teens, I dabbled here and there in writing stories, usually not making it more than a page or two before crumbling it up and tossing it in the garbage, and then turning to TV or video games. But apparently, I had some pretty good story ideas after I joined the Navy, because that was what I found within. The writing was awful. The sentence and story structures were terrible. But after all these years, I can still admire the ideas that I had come up with. And what makes it even better is that I found a 3.5″ floppy disk taped inside! Doubtless I had started typing out my story, but computers nowadays don’t even have floppy drives anymore, so I am unfortunately unable to see what is on it, if anything. I will hang on to it, though, in case I ever find a way to view its contents.

After perusing that notebook, I went on to the next and found more of the same. With this notebook, I was smart and had labelled it “March 2003.” No maze this time, but I had drawn a map of a fantasy world that I had been creating at the time. I had character names and their relation to each other, how they met, and what city they were from. I had even written a chapter and started a second. Again, the writing was awful, but I have already begun to rewrite it. I like the ideas that much. I have no recollection of any of it, though, except for the maze.

I am happy that I decided to take a look in those notebooks this time around. Not that I need any more ideas – I still have dozens to work with – but seeing what and how I wrote back then has given me a good view of myself that has severely diminished in an alcohol-induced daze that overtook me during my Navy years. Hopefully there are more lost (or locked away) memories that I can rediscover as time goes on.

I #amwriting a lot these days…

Perhaps I am a little over-ambitious by working on a novel before I’ve even had a single short story published, but I just don’t want to stop this freight train of ideas I’ve had recently. And besides, the short stories aren’t selling. I’ve sent them everywhere I think they will fit, but they “just don’t work” for the editors, whatever that means. I am tired of their computer-generated responses and fake heartfelt “good luck with it elsewhere” wishes. I’m not fretting, though. Not yet, anyway. I know many famous authors struggled to sell their stories at first, and it’s even harder now with all the millions of aspiring authors (not to mention them selling their self-published eBooks for next to nothing!).

I still have dozens of ideas for short stories, and get more with every story I read. But lately, whenever I sit down to write them, all I can think about is the novel. So, naturally, I close that blank page and open up my ever-lengthening work in progress. In the past month, I’ve written over 17,000 words, and have finally breached the 25,000-word and 100-page marks. I know I still have a long ways to go, but this is a big deal for me. It’s more than I’ve ever written on a single piece, and I still have so much to say. Sure, it’s not as productive as a NaNoWriMo piece, but I don’t care about that. I’ve never been a fan of speed-writing anyway. I do much better just taking my time.

For New Years, I set a goal for myself to write 1,000 words a day in any format (novel, short story, blog, essay, letter to my grandma, whatever). I should have been smart and excluded weekends from that tally, making it an even 5,000 words per week, since I normally work and have little time to write on weekends. But it’s not too late to change that. That being said, I’m actually pretty happy with how much I’ve written this past month. Not quite 1,000 words per day, but over 5,000 per week. So I am more than satisfied. Plus, I’m making great progress on the novel, which makes me absolutely ecstatic!

I believe my newfound writing process is the reason I am doing so well this month. I have found that hand-writing scenes and chapters first, and then transcribing them onto the computer, is helping immensely. Especially when I am stuck in a particular spot. I don’t know why, but writing the first draft by hand (in my favorite blue pen, by the way) enables me to think more freely than staring at the computer screen. Besides that, I am able to edit as I transcribe, which will save me a step in the future. I have found that I cannot hand-write the entire story before putting it on the computer, (as I tend to scribble, scratch out, doodle, and fill in the margins way too much to make much sense of anything), but switching between hand-writing and typing allows for the perfect balance. All I can hope is that I can keep up this pace throughout the rest of the year (and the rest of my writing life, for that matter). I’d love to finish the novel by the end of summer.

Between all that writing, I’ve also surpassed my reading goal for this month, and I’m pretty sure I will do the same for the next few months (college reading requirements will put me at a minimum of two books per month). My goal was to read 25 books this year, but I’m on track to read twice that many. Go me.

So far, January has been pretty good to me. Here’s to hoping the upcoming months will be even more fruitful!

Book 3 of 2014

Full_Dark,_No_StarsTo date, there has never been a Stephen King book that I did not enjoy. I haven’t read them all yet–only about 32 of them, and a handful of shorts–and I have heard some of his books aren’t  so great, but from what I have read, I have loved. It is true that he sometimes includes long lulls within his books (I’m thinking of you, part two of Tommyknockers!), and those lulls often make it difficult to keep plugging away, but it has always been worth it to finish the book. Once through all the boring stuff, the action always picks up, and often with more intensity than before.

Full Dark, No Stars (2010) has none of his infamous lulls in it. The book is comprised of four novellas, and each one is captivating and intense, with non-stop suspenseful thrills and horrific events from beginning to end. In his Afterword, King mentions his intent was to place normal, average people in unusual, terrifying situations to see how they would react, and he has done just that. The details and events in these stories get pretty wicked and gruesome at times, and the suspense kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire read.

The first story is about a farmer and his son who go a little crazy (well, maybe a lot crazy) after they conspire together and murder his wife, all because she wants to sell the 100 acres of land she inherited from her father to a pig-slaughtering company. The second story is about a slightly well-known writer who goes on an out-of-control revenge trip after getting raped and left for dead in a ditch. Story number three tells of a man undergoing chemotherapy (but doesn’t have long to live), who sells his best friend to the devil (playing a street vendor) to prolong his own life. The final tale is about a woman who finds out her husband has been hiding a terrible secret for nearly three decades.

It’s not the grisly and distressing situations that these characters get thrown in to that makes the stories great (although that is part of it), it’s how they react to those situations, how they deal with it and overcome (if they can). These are no powerful heroes that can fight any foe, they are your every-day people. People like you and me. How would you deal with it?

I give Full Dark, No Stars a lot more than the title suggests: 5 out of 5 for me.

Book 2 of 2014

200px-HemingriverMy second book for this year was a tough one, and I’m glad I got it out of the way early. I’m not a huge Ernest Hemingway fan, but I did enjoy The Old Man and the Sea and A Farewell to Arms (though I read them many years ago, before I was in the mindset to really appreciate his work), and I still plan to read some more of his books in years to come. That being said – and combined with how much praise he gets by just about every reader, writer, and critic – I delved optimistically into Across the River and into the Trees, ready for a good read that would leave me astounded and awed, anxious to pick up another book from him.

Boy, was I wrong.

Across the River and into the Trees (1950) came between For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea in Hemingway’s timeline. He originally published it in monthly installments for Cosmopolitan magazine. And if it had been the first Hemingway book I had ever read, I probably wouldn’t pick up another for the rest of my life. I really had to force myself to get through it, which is pretty bad, since I’m really not picky about what I read. I hate not finishing a book, though. You never know what jewels are hidden in the latter pages if you stop halfway through. And for that reason, I pressed on, hoping I would at least get a good quote out of it, if nothing else. There a few decent ones; nothing that awed me, though. I did enjoy how he bashed politicians and the American government, though.

The story itself was interesting. It was about a Colonel in the US Army (recently busted down from General for reasons only vaguely hinted at) who is stationed in Italy post-WWII. He is on a duck-hunting trip, which bookends the story, and the rest is told through a series of flashbacks. The main point of the story is this 50-year old Colonels love affair with a 19-year old girl in Venice, and how they can’t have a serious relationship because he is dying of heart failure. They do a lot of kissing and he tells her war stories about the Normandy invasion and the retaking of Paris, as well as others.

And it would have remained an interesting story if the writing had not been so horrible. Especially the dialogue. It was completely fake and unnatural. Even the narrative sounded as if it had been written by someone who was still learning the language (but who still knows the big words with deep meanings). The dialogue ruined the story for me. I’ve read a lot of books from the 1800’s and early 1900’s, and I know dialogue can be pretty lofty, formal, and flowery, but this was worse than that. Even for a romance, the back and forth, ups and downs between the Colonel and his love interest, Renata, are just awful. I think he must have been in a rush to write this, because if he would have just read a few lines aloud, he would have tossed it right in the fireplace.

I found Across the River on my Kindle for a whopping 99 cents, so I’m not too upset that I didn’t enjoy it. And I know that every writer needs to read the good books as well as the bad, so for me this is a learning experience. I have learned what does not work.

I give Across the River and into the Trees 2 out of 5 stars.

Up next: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King, of which I am currently a quarter of the way through, so it may be a week or two before I finish.

Book 1 of 2014

Shadow of FrankensteinI’m a little late on this post, purely because I wan’t planning on blogging about each of the books I read this year. But my old fear of not knowing what to blog about has prompted me to just do it. I’m already my third book of the year, which is crazy because I’ve never read more than ten or so books in a single year.

So for my first book of the new year, I read Stefan Petrucha’s The Shadow of Frankenstein (2004), which is more of a continuation of the Boris Karloff movies (Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein) than Mary Shelley’s original novel. The big difference between the two is the monster. The movies portray the monster as the iconic green-skinned, flat-headed giant of a man who pretty much just roars and grunts the entire time he is fleeing persecution.  But we know from the book that he is not anything like that. Frankenstein’s monster is supposed to be a quick-learning intellectual being that implores his creator to look at and accept what he has done, and even blackmails him to get his point across.

The book begins where the movies left off, with Henry (yes, Henry and not Victor) and Elizabeth Frankenstein fleeing their own persecution after the destruction of his laboratory with the monster inside. They sail to London, and the monster, who turns out has regenerative powers, follows. At the same time, Jack the Ripper has resurfaced in London, some fifty years after he disappeared, and starts killing hookers again, carefully dissecting their uteri while they are slowly dying from having their neck sliced open. The monster is not the only one who has followed Frankenstein to London, though. Inspector Krogh, whose son had his arm ripped off by the monster, is seeking vengeance and justice, and immediately blames Henry for the dead hookers. From there, it is a battle of wits and blackmail between Jack, Henry, Krogh, and the monster.

I was a little disappointed at first because Petrucha uses more from the movies than from the book. I’ve never understood why they made the monster green, dumb, and flat-headed, when the original monster was a much better idea. But I quickly got over my disappointment because Petrucha writes really well, and he has created a very interesting and unique story with characters we know well and love to read about. The Ripper’s purpose in this book, which I can’t state here because it will give too much away, is a wonderful idea and meshes masterfully with Henry’s original desires and the monster’s motives. From the moment I got over my disappointment, I found myself unable to put the book down and was captivated until the very end.

I give The Shadow of Frankenstein 4 out of 5 stars.

The next book on my list, Across the River and Into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway, will be coming soon.

Epigraphs

“A quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business.”     – A. A. Milne, If I May

On a lot of the stories that I have been writing, I have pasted an epigraph at the beginning. I’m not completely sure I know why I do this, other than that I enjoy. I think most readers enjoy it, too, but that’s not why I do it. I like connecting my stories to songs and other stories that I really enjoy, especially if they directly influence that particular story. It happens a lot with music, but I often highlight a quote in a book that I like or that spawns an idea in my head. I mentioned in my last post how music influences my writing, but I don’t think I really went into great detail with it. This post, however, will hammer that point home, and then I’ll shut up about it for awhile. Maybe.

I mentioned how song titles or certain lyrics of a song influence me. The first time this happened was with a song titled “The Ministry of Lost Souls,” by Dream Theater. It wasn’t the lyrics that struck a chord with me, it was the name of the song. The song is about some guy that died saving a girl from drowning, then as she thinks about committing suicide about it later on, he returns to try to save her a spot in heaven. Or something like that. I hope I’m not completely slandering the song, but that’s what I got out of it. It’s really a beautiful song. The title, though, is what stuck with me. I thought it would be a great title for a book, and the ideas immediately began to flood into my head. My ideas for this book had nothing to do with what the song was about, but they just came and came, and are still coming. I plan on making it a trilogy in the least. I know, huge plans for a beginning writer, but I’ve got my whole life ahead of me to work on it. That was when I first started writing.

As I continued writing, similar events happened. Sometimes, I would listen to a song and get ideas for a story. Other times, I would be writing a story when I suddenly hear a fraction of the lyrics, and I would just know that would be a perfect epigraph. It’s like the volume would increase right at that point in the song so that my mind would focus on that over my writing. And then I would stop, rewind, listen again, look up the words on the internet and the meaning of the song too, and I would know that I had to use it. I don’t care if nobody has heard the song before, but the fact that I can link my work to someone else’s thrills me.

So epigraphs have become almost an obsession for me. An epigraph fever, you could say. I can’t help it; I love quotes. I love hearing quotes. I love looking for them. I love when I’m reading and I find a really awesome sentence or paragraph that I can highlight and refer back to when I need some inspiration. And I love well-written lyrics that can do the same. I don’t look for epigraphs with every story, and there are some times when I don’t want an epigraph. But a lot of my stories have been inspired by someone else’s so I at least try to look for one. Sometimes I even make up a quote, like I did with a story about a poet. I made up a short poem written by that character and used it for an epigraph. I got that idea from Stephen King, by the way, in his novel The Dark Half. He used excerpts from his protagonist’s fictional novels for epigraphs. Obviously, he’s not the only one to have done this, but I thought it was a brilliant idea, so I did it too.

I hope that I can continue to use epigraphs, and that I never get sick of it. And I guess I hope my readers will never get sick of it, too. I suppose with the more books I read and the more songs I listen to, the more quotes I will find. Maybe I’ll even find some good ones for those stories that don’t have an epigraph yet.

Musical Inspiration

In my last fiction-writing class, we discussed on a couple occasions what types of music we listen to while writing, if any. Some people said classical, a few said rap, others said ambient or white noise works best for them, while many needed complete silence. I felt alone in my response when I said progressive (prog) rock and folk rock helps me write best. The professor had questioned me if the lyrics weren’t too distracting and I responded with, “No, they influence me,” and that was it. I still am unsure if anyone even understood what I was talking about.

Music has been a big part of my life since I can remember. I can still recall the first cassettes I ever got (this was before CD’s, by the way): Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, R.E.M.’s Out of Time, Metallica’s self-titled “Black Album”, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and the Wayne’s World Soundtrack, among others lost in the foggy reaches of my memory. But still, quite the collection, eh? Music followed me into my adolescent years, where I walked around high school with headphones on connected to my brand new Sony Discman, then into adulthood, where I always had music blasting in my car or room. I didn’t go anywhere without it, and though my musical tastes changed drastically from year to year, I never got rid of any of it, no matter how much dust it collected. It’s a lot like throwing away a book. No matter how bad it was, I still hang on to it, even if it stays packed away in a box in the darkest corner of the basement.  And I doubt I’m alone there. Books I didn’t enjoy, just like music, serve as time-keepers to show what I did in the past, lest I ever forget. And they are also there to show what doesn’t work, what not to do, which is important for a writer to know.

Music is also important for me, and always will be. I don’t know if this is just a passing phase, but as I stated before, I am listening heavily to prog rock and folk rock, and I write better with them playing in the background. I know they are two completely different styles, but they do share something in common. And that something is where I draw my influences from. In those two styles of music there are stories that are told that are completely unique from every other genre. Both prog rock and folk rock bands are prone to creating concept albums, which I find are much like musical books. Each song is a chapter of the story; stories which aren’t just about sex, drugs, and chillin’ at the Holiday Inn. I like the bands that have some sort of fantasy concept to their music, or are themselves heavily influenced by literature. Older bands like Pink Floyd, Rush, and Genesis (pre- Peter Gabriel’s departure), and newer bands like Dream Theater, Symphony X, and The Decemberists. Sure, they are all completely different, and they all have their political or statement songs, but they are also all notable for their conceptual albums – albums that tell, or re-tell, a story. I have taken lyrics or song titles from each of theses bands, as well as others, and created stories out of them or containing them.

My stories are all different than their stories, which is probably for the best to avoid plagiarism, but that’s what writers do. We take ideas (successful as well as unsuccessful) and shape them into our own. We take excerpts from our favorite stories and build on them to create something unique. Stories in music are no different, and more often than not, those songs are derived from some piece of literature or folk lore anyway. So that is how music influences me, and without it, I can’t even imagine where I would be.