Reflections of the Past, Resolutions for the Future

Wow, what a year!

2014 was packed full for me, of both the good and the bad, but thankfully mostly good. My biggest achievement was earning a Bachelor’s degree in English at the University of New Hampshire, and I am extremely proud of myself for accomplishing that. I am so happy that part of my life is over – going to school full time is difficult while working and being a father of two small children. Part of me yearns to go back, though. Not just to earn a Master’s degree, but to sit in a room and talk books and writing with other like-minded people, to share my stories with them and to read theirs, to receive feedback and give my own thoughts and opinions. I miss that sense of community. Perhaps I should join a club…

The rest of the year flew by with the wind. Summer was over before I knew it, Halloween and Thanksgiving came and went, and Christmas was upon us almost before we had the decorations up. Now they are all taken down and today is the last day of 2014. Tomorrow is a new day. Tomorrow is a new year. And with every new year comes the time to reflect on the past and create resolutions for the future.

My goals for this year were only partially met, and I am not upset about it. Not too much, anyway. This year gave me a good bearing on what I can accomplish, and now I can set better goals for next year.

My first goal for this year was to read at least twenty-four books. I thought I would struggle with this one, but I passed it with ease around June or July. My final tally was: 51 books, 3 plays, and 28 short stories and novellas. Of the 51 books, 7 were non-fiction and 6 were collections of shorter works. It was an amazing and inspiring year of reading. I read great books and crappy books, long books and short books, old books and new books. I read books that I had never heard of and books that sat on my t-read list until they were covered in time-dust. I read fantasy and science fiction, horror and mystery and thriller, even some romance. I tried not to limit myself too much. The most important thing is that I learned something from every book. Some books had hidden jewels or inspirational passages, some had influential ideas or masterful architecture, and others taught me what not to do.

Next year, I am going to push myself a little harder. My goal is to read 55 books, 12 plays, and 25 short stories and novellas. I want to dust off a few more that are on the to-read list as well as explore with new authors and genres. I also want to read Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series again. I was too young when I read them the first time and want to read them with my more experienced writer’s mind. As for the plays, I started reading Shakespeare this year from the beginning. I am jumping past the Histories for now, but plan to read them in order of when they occurred in history (instead of when he wrote them). Hopefully I can surpass this goal again.

My next goal was for writing, and I did horribly, though I can’t say I’m not proud of what I did accomplish. My goal of 1,000 words a day was crushed into oblivion. I have come to the realization that I will not accomplish this until I can start selling stories and quit my part-time job. I also need a private writing space where I can be alone without interruption, which is also not possible because I need to watch over my hardly-napping two-year old. Sometimes the TV can babysit, but other times she just wants Daddy, and it’s extremely difficult to deny a princess. I also didn’t meet my one short story a month goal. I only wrote 9, but that is still the most I’ve ever done in one year. I can see my writing getting better with each story, though, and that is good enough for me.

This time I am lowering my goal to 500 words per day, or 3,000 per week. I still want to push myself to do more than that whenever I can, but I want to make sue I can set aside time to do at least 500. I still want to do one short story per month, and of course my ultimate priority is to get published. This year will be the year I accomplish that. I had set aside the novel earlier in the year so that I could focus on the short stories, but I have recently starting working on it again and plan to finish it by the end of 2015.

My final goal for this year was to lose some weight. And I did. Not as much as I had hoped but I finally broke free of the 190-195 plateau a little over a month ago. I hit 188 the other day, and now that the big eating holidays are over, I think I can shed a few more. I really want to fit into that pin-striped suit again!

And now is the time when we say goodbye to 2014 and hello to 2015. I hope your year was as fruitful as mine, and good luck with all your resolutions for next year!

Cheers!

Progress Report

At the beginning of the year, I told myself I would keep up on this blog–at least once a month, preferably once a week–just to keep myself actively engaged in writing. But then, towards the end of my final semester in college, I took a break to focus more on my schoolwork, most of which I barely managed to complete on time. And when the semester ended, and I was finally finished with school and earned myself a degree, I thought about returning to the blogosphere to maintain that one post a week that I had somehow managed to keep up for the first four months of the year. At the same time, though, I started using all my writing time for fiction, and I decided that was a much better idea. The blog could wait.

And it did. I found it’s still here, just the same as it was before. Imagine that.

Now that summer is almost over, I have taken a few moments to reflect on the past few months, and reviewing my New Years Resolutions, I decided to give a little update. A lot has happened.

My main resolution was to write. My goal was to become published; at least one short story out there for the world to read if they choose. I also wanted to maintain an average of about 1,000 words per day, write at least one short story per month, and work on the novel on the side. Unfortunately, none of that has happened. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been working hard. I have accomplished more this year than I have any other year in my past, and I am extremely happy with that. I don’t even think I’ve averaged 500 words a day, but I have completed nine short stories this year, and seven of those have been brought into being since school ended in mid-May. For the most part, I have been following a routine, which is good because I know it’s important. I feel a little burnt out, though, and for the past month I have been writing a lot less. I cut my writing time in half, managing only 100-200 words most days, just so I can spend more time with my kids before my son goes back to school. I feel that is the best decision, even if it hurts my writing. I still make sure I write SOMETHING every day, though, and that I am content with, for now. Next year is a whole new story, especially if I can get published this year. I do feel my writing keeps getting better and better, and that is not just my ego talking. I have learned a great deal by reading and writing a lot, not to mention the advice from other writers.

My reading objective is doing much better. I have been following the #readeverywhere advice, and I have been reading everywhere. I had originally planned to read 25 books this year, thinking that was a lot. It’s not. I’ve already hit 29. Five of those were non-fiction, and another five were collections of short stories. I have also read twelve separate short stories (from magazines or books or whatever). Now that I’ve seen how much I can actually read when I try, I will definitely bump that number up to 50 next year. I am maintaining a list of everything I read, even rating each book and story, and I plan on posting it at the end of the year, instead of writing a review like I had starting doing. That was just too much, and was taking away from my writing time.

My other resolution was to lose a few pounds, and I am happy to say I have succeeded. 12 pounds have been shed, and I see more going away in the future. At least until Thanksgiving and Christmas come around. But I have been more active lately, and have been eating and drinking less. I feel great. That’s the important thing.

So overall, I would say I have succeeded quite a bit so far this year. Though my writing is lacking a bit, I have still accomplished more than ever. It would be unwise for me to complain about that. There’s always room for improvement, though, and that I plan on doing.

Write for Yourself

A couple weeks ago I submitted a story to my fiction writing class for critique. This is an upper level class, by the way, with two fiction classes as prerequisites, so it is more than just the basic fundamentals of fiction writing. So far, we have been focusing on technique, detail, and the aspects of a story. It has been quite interesting, and the teacher seems to be one of those mad genius types. You know what I mean? He’s got the “poof” hair that sprouts in all directions, looking like he got right to work in the morning instead of combing it, and he speaks more or less in riddles, which I’m sure only the most brilliant writers can understand. Anyway, he’s a really good teacher, and seems to know what he’s talking about. He’s had some good advice anyway!

Anyway, our assignment was to write a 5-page story and the whole class would critique each story during two of our two-and-a-half-hour sessions. I submitted mine for the first session, entitled “The Interview.” It was about a journalist, writing for a supernatural tabloid, who receives an invitation to interview someone with a secret. During this interview, he is told what seems like some cheesy vampire story, but turns out to be a teddy bear come to life and given omnipotence and immortality. Sure, it was a silly story, but everyone seemed to enjoy it, even the teacher.

But he left one comment that disturbed me.

But before I get to that, I should note that our first two assignments prior to this were 2-page non-fiction stories. First, we wrote about an embarrassing or you-wouldn’t-believe-this story about ourselves. Then we interviewed another student and wrote about an interesting or eventful time in his/her life. Though it wasn’t fiction, it was an educational experience, and has helped to improve my writing regardless. Being a college class, most people wrote about a failed relationship, an incident while getting drunk, or a hallucinogenic experience with drugs. Boring if you ask me, but that’s just my opinion. My interviewer wrote an extremely good story about my time on the submarine. He captured more emotion and mood in two pages than I could possibly express in fifty, and it was my story!

So our first two stories being non-fiction, we were finally on to fiction, like the name of the class suggests. My story went well, though there was some confusion about it. But that was the point. My intent was to fool the reader into thinking it was a vampire story, when really it had to do with a living teddy bear. And like I said, the teacher even praised it quite a bit. But, though he wasn’t trying to offend me, he did, a little. On the back of my paper, after all the good stuff, he wrote, “Next time maybe – for experiment – a realistic story – guys on a sub?”

I was astonished. A realistic story? Isn’t this a fiction class? As far as I know, most fiction takes unreal ideas or events and makes them real, just like I tried to do. My story, though it involved a living teddy bear, was certainly realistic. It had real details of a house in the middle of the woods, just like you can find just about anywhere in the world. The main character was a realistic person – a journalist striving for a good story. So it delved into the supernatural…so what? That is what I enjoy.

I’ve always been told to write what I like best, to not write just because that specific genre or style is popular, and that an author that writes what he enjoys most will write a better and more believable story. There’s a million quotes out there by successful authors that say the same. Now this guy is telling me to write something different, something that he wants to hear. I understand that he – and other people – would be interested to read about life on a submarine. But that doesn’t interest me. I did that for eight years, and I don’t feel like reliving it by writing a story about it.

There is a quote I read recently from an English editor and writer named Cyril Connolly (1903-1974), who was a good friend of George Orwell, and it goes: “It is better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.” I cannot get over how meaningful that quote is, and it will stick in my mind until the day I die. Kurt Vonnegut, a favorite author of mine, also said something similar to a class he taught in 1965. He said, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” I keep that to heart as well.

For me, that ‘one person’ is me. I write for myself, not for what others want. Sure, I will write the occasional story for my child or for my wife if they ask, but they are family, and they deserve it more than anybody. But for the most part, I write what I want to write, and I will continue to do so until I have no more ideas to write about. If I make millions in the process, I will embrace it and be overjoyed that my stories have touched so many. But until then, and even after that, I will continue to do what I am doing. And that teacher may never hear about my time on a sub, unless I decide to write about it for myself. Even then, though, it may remain hidden in the pixellated depths of my computer.

Sleepy and Stupid

Every writer has a certain time of day that works best for them. For most, it is when they feel the most creative. For others, though, it is only when they get the chance. Unfortunately for the latter group, they probably aren’t getting their best writing done. I know because I am a part of that group. I try to write when I feel the most creative, but I always seem to get interrupted. The dog whimpers at my feet, wanting to go out. The baby starts yelling that it is time to wake up or eat or poop or whatever. I suddenly remember that some assignment is due the next day or in a few hours, and that if I don’t start working on it soon, it will not bode well for me. Whatever the case may be, I am yanked violently from my creative depths to deal with the issues at hand, if I am even allowed to descend into those creative depths. So, reluctantly, I write mainly when I get the chance, when those interruptions are tended to, when the baby and dog are both sleeping in separate corners of the house, when the homework is finished and all is quiet around the house.What comes out is mediocre at best, but I’m happy I’m at least getting something written. There’s always time to edit later.

So when is the best time to write? When do those creative juices flow more freely than ever? When is it that we are able to reach deep down into the darkest nether reaches of our mind and pull out the best material? Well, it differs for everyone, obviously, but there does seem to be some general agreement on one certain time, and my fiction writing teacher last semester put it quite nicely in a way I’ll never forget. At the beginning of each class, he would write a quote on the board. For the most part, these quotes had to do with writing. But if they didn’t, it was easy enough to relate them to writing, especially if they involved being creative. One day, the quote had to do with the time in which we are most creative. I wish I could remember the exact quote, because it was a good one, but the teacher  gave us his own version, and that has stuck with me. He said, “The best time to write is when you’re sleepy and stupid.”

When I told my wife that, she said, “Then you should be able to write well at any time!” Haha, she sure is funny! But it’s true, I am tired all the time. And as for the stupidity, well, I wouldn’t say all the time. Just most of the time! Anyway, there have been other, similar quotes, too. It was believed that Ernest Hemingway said “Write drunk, edit sober.” There’s no documentation of him saying that, though. I’ve looked everywhere, and others before me have too. But somebody said it, and it means the same thing: Write when your brain is sleepy (I wouldn’t advise drunk, unless you really want to do a lot of editing sober!). Write when you first wake up in the morning, when you are still groggy from sleep, and have fewer distractions. Write when you are drinking that first cup of coffee in the morning. Write late at night when you should be going to bed instead. That’s when the demons come out–when we aren’t completely ready for it.

There have actually been studies done that somewhat prove that we are most creative first thing in the morning, right after waking up. We are [somewhat] fully rested, maybe have some crazy dreams still lingering around, and our subconscious has probably been thinking all night about what it wants to do after we wake up, like an anxious child on summer vacation. The morning is exactly when I used to write. I would wake up every morning at 5 am (sometimes even earlier!) and write until everyone else started waking up. It was great. I had no distractions, no interruptions, I just sat at my desk and wrote. During those periods of writing in the wee hours of the morning, I not only wrote my best work, but I also wrote the most pages. Honestly, an hour of writing at 5 am got me at least twice as many pages as writing during any other time of day. Lately, though, I just haven’t been able to write that early in the morning. Actually, I haven’t even been able to get myself out of bed that early! But when I do, I just stare at the computer and try to find distractions for myself, instead of keeping them away.

I’ve been trying to get myself back into the habit of waking up early, but it’s been proving a little difficult lately. I’m not sure what the reasoning is, but hopefully I can get back into it. It’s been said that developing a routine will cause your brain to better prepare for it. So I say, why not create a routine of writing when I am most creative. Maybe getting back into that early morning routine will get me out of this slump I’ve been in lately.

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!

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.