More Goodness Than Ever

High Fiber Cereal - now with TWIGS!!!

High Fiber Cereal – now with TWIGS!!! (Photo credit: Chasqui (Luis Tamayo))

Today I saw a television commercial for a well known brand of cereal (not the one in the picture. Think “candy in a box”). Their new campaign is also plastered over their cereal boxes. It states a fact that is meant to put us all at ease over the goodness of their product.

They say they use more multigrains than any other ingredient.

……    really?

It could be a microgram, it could be a 51-49% difference. The stuff could be slightly less than half poison, and slightly more than half corn husks and wheat germ. It doesn’t matter as long as the statement is “true.” And some marketing genius thought this would sell more cereal.

I’d like make a similar contention, in the hopes that I can, too, get people to believe anything I say. I promise that I’ve used more interesting words in my stories than uninteresting ones. I also promise that I have more correctly spelled words than misspelled ones.  I’ve also used more English words than from any other language.

Did it work?

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The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Denali Rainshower - Alaska -  Mountains

Denali Rainshower – Alaska – Mountains (Photo credit: blmiers2)

That place told of in those common words, always associated with suffering, the phrase a concoction of old English and ancient Hebrew, changed many times in modern translations, but never meeting the poetic formulation that has seared these words into the vernacular.

What is it like there?

It means many things to many people. Struggle, disappointment, heartache, fear. To those of us who’ve endured the trials of sickness, it means something more. It is a place we know well.

I have some very unique views on life and purpose. I’ve tried to voice them here, but I know sometimes my words seem dark. Like a painter, writers also give impressions of the things they see, the view surrounding them. They pay attention to the nuances of light, and the subtleties of color. And they try to describe, the best they can, what they see.

Many people fear those words “…walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”  But there is something more that comes after. “I shall fear no evil.” That isn’t to say you embrace evil, or celebrate evil. It means you aren’t afraid to paint its face, or say how it looks. Because in that valley, you see it every wrinkle and scar on its face.

I’ve seen things and felt things that were a privilege to experience. The lifeless struggle of a hospital bed. The agony of hurting the ones you love with your pain. The joy of taking a drink, and having it stay down. I’ve been to the Valley, and now, I find myself recalling those scenes, remembering the stories I heard there, and writing of the darkness.

But I try, I always try, to show how the darkness doesn’t stay. We may believe it will, but it won’t. A valley is a low land between hills or peaks. On the other side of any valley is a rise. It may be a gentle slope, or it may be a mountain. On the way to the mountain, we all pass through some valleys. Most of us, when we do, are afraid.

But we should not fear evil. It can’t follow us up the mountain.

Psalm 23:4

Climbing

Mountains - Autumn in Denali

Mountains – Autumn in Denali (Photo credit: blmiers2)

Every day I sit down in front of my computer and look at the screen. There are remnants of what I wrote the day before scattered across a Word document, scratches across the soil of my excavation. I’m trying to unearth a story, and it’s not an easy task.

When I look at that screen, almost every time, I experience a profound fear. I glance over the words, and I wonder where they came from. Sometimes I wonder who wrote them. They look so unfamiliar.

And then I begin to feel sick, like I’m lost, like I’m just pretending. Because I have no idea how to make words like that appear on the page again. I know I’ve forgotten how to do it, that my story will die in the middle of a random page because I’ve forgotten how to write the lines, the words, just like I’m feeling now, trying to finish this sentence.

Sometimes it takes more time, sometimes less, and then a thought will come. I write it down. I take a note. Then a few more thoughts come, building off of the first. I write them down, and then change my mind. I move the cursor back to the place on my manuscript where I left off and begin again.

Many people compare writing a novel to climbing a mountain. When you begin, the climb seems so high that you don’t know how you are going to make it up the thing. But with each step you get closer and closer. And if you just keep climbing, you’ll eventually be able to see the peak.

That’s what they say.

I also believe writing is like climbing a mountain, but not in the way I mentioned above. To me, as a writer, every morning, you have to start again, from the bottom.

Today

Driving Into the Sun

Driving Into the Sun (Photo credit: Travis S.)

Today, someone will wake up and be afraid.

Today, someone will wake up and know they can’t change what’s wrong.

Today, someone will see someone they love in pain.

Today, someone will not see the sun, for they thought the wrong thoughts, and have been imprisoned for it.

Today, someone will learn that love is a hurricane, and not everyone survives hurricanes.

Today, someone will wake up and have no one to say ‘good morning’ to. Or ‘good day,’ or ‘good night.’

Today, someone will hate God, but not know why.

Today, someone will hate themselves, and blame God.

Today, someone will wish that they were someone else, maybe someone like you.

But today, you have a chance to change the world. Today, you can redefine yourself. Today, you can be someone to admire, someone to respect, someone with strength. Today, you can help someone in need, you can comfort someone who is sad, you can fix something that’s broken.

Today, you can do what you’ve always wanted to do, you can try something new, you can start over.

Today, you can forget what you can’t change, and start living to never want to change another thing.

But most of all, today, you can be thankful for what you have, and if you have nothing left, you can be grateful that you have another chance to have something. Because someone admires you. If no one does, they just haven’t met you.

Because some people will wake up, and have nothing to dream about. But you do.

So be thankful that, at least, you can dream.

Unintended Consequences

English: `Stone circle` in a small open space.

English: `Stone circle` in a small open space. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While doing research for my new novel, I stumbled across something fascinating, and disturbing. One of the primary settings in the book, a church in southern England (which I won’t name because I don’t want to risk spoiling the story) appears at first glance to have a history dating from early in the last millennium. It has classic gothic architecture, with a form and design used in many of the churches that dot the island. But if you take a closer look, you see something doesn’t look quite right. There’s something odd about its foundation.

Around and under the base of the church, in regular intervals, are large, odd shaped rocks that have been incorporated into the structure. A little poking around and you’ll find the answer to what these rocks are. They comprise an ancient stone circle dating from the Bronze Age, used for centuries before the first missionaries reached the English soil by druids and others for worship and burial.

The church is built right on top of a pagan ritual site.

This opens the doors to all kinds of possibilities. Perhaps the early Christians wanted to appropriate this ancient place of worship to convert the people of the area. Maybe they wanted to cover up a religion that wasn’t compatible with their own. Or perhaps, they left the stones on purpose, exposed underneath the base of the church, to proclaim the superiority of their God.

Whatever the reason, the outcome is mysterious. The church was a setting in my new novel before I knew this particularly wicked detail. I’d picked it out from a search of churches in the area due to its appearance, but honestly, I could have chosen a dozen other churches in a dozen other towns. In fact, I’d already had the story plotted, and almost 1/3rd of it written before I discovered the rune stones in a place I’d already featured prominently. I felt as if the story had led me there, as if it had been part of the story all along. I just had to discover it myself.

I have to assume that this isn’t the only church built on pagan ruins. Perhaps it is the way of the world. But I can’t help but think that something remains of those people long ago who prayed to different entities. Call it what you want – spirits, energy, ghosts – but these things remain long after the physical has died. I’ve written about it before, in my post on Sarah Winchester. Here, in this English church, things that are opposed are existing on the same ground.

One of the characters from my new novel, an old woman imprisoned for witchcraft, gave this warning: “Be careful when you mix the gods and the demons. You can’t put them all in one place and expect them to stay happy.”

I can’t wait to see what else I discover about my own story.

What have you discovered while writing? Has something ever snuck up on you, without warning, and made you think that, just maybe, this wasn’t your story after all?

 

The View From Halfway

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (Photo credit: robert.molinarius)

Every skill, every art form, every task has one similarity. I’m pretty sure you know what it is.

I’m a writer, but I’m also a musician. Not a very good one, but I do play several instruments, and I find a thousand analogies between the two activities. Many writers think that they should be able to sit down at a keyboard, without learning about the craft of writing, the history of literature, the evolution of the story, the classics, modern prose, and award winning books, and turn out the next masterpiece. That’s like asking someone who’s never played the piano to sit down at one and play Beethoven’s Hammerklavier. It’s really an absurd thought.

The first time I picked up a trumpet, I simply couldn’t play it. After a month, I wasn’t much better. I was 9 years old. By the time I was 16 years old, I wasn’t bad. Not great, but not bad. That’s a seven year difference. When I first learned the guitar, I was terrible. I know I was, because I still have recordings of myself. After over two decades of playing, I’m okay. I have the ability to be great, I think, but I won’t invest the time it would take to play at that level. I know it would take about 3-5 hours of practice a day, probably for a few years. That’s a lot of time.

Writing also takes practice, just like any other skill. Musicians practice every day for years, sometimes since they were children, and most will never become household names. You probably spend eight hours a day at your job, and after a year or two, you got to be pretty good at it. But many writers don’t have that level of commitment. I struggle to write for 2-3 hours a day. I’m sure it’s not enough.

If you want to know exactly how much practice it takes to be good at something, read Kristina Blackwell’s blog post about 10,000 Hours. For me, it was a wake-up call. I rediscovered what I’d always known. I’ve chosen a very hard thing to do. It’s not easy, nor should it be. No one ever said that writing a novel would easy. You are making art, after all.

“But what about all of those books I’ve read that weren’t any good, and yet sold hundreds of thousands of copies?” Well, if they were so bad, why did you buy them? There must have been something that someone wanted – a certain story, a feeling, an idea. Prose will only get you so far (and not very far) and then you have to have a story to tell. Some people have beautiful words, and no story. But even if your words are lacking, if you have a great story, you are going to get much farther.

Every writer has to decide what kind of artist they want to be, and what kind of audience they want to cater to. You can’t please everyone, and shouldn’t try to. I can read a book, and honestly say’ “Not my thing, but I can see there is something in there of value.” I’m not a Justin Bieber fan. I even admit to making a few Justin Bieber jokes. His music is not my thing. But when I watch him perform, I can see he is the best dancer on the stage. His voice has that “boy-band” inflection down perfectly, even if the lyrics are lacking in emotional depth. He is a master at what he does. And what he does is different then what I do, or what you do, most likely. But the rule doesn’t change with the activity. There is still only one rule for success: you have to be a master.

Until you master something, you won’t be a good teacher, you won’t be a good mayor, you won’t be a good bureaucrat, and you won’t be a good musician. You still might be all of those things without mastering them, but your work will never be commended, you’ll never be noticed, and most likely, your efforts will be unremembered (or worse, be remembered in a negative way). So why do so many people think a writer doesn’t have to work much to become good?

I haven’t reached 10,000 hours yet. I’ve still got a ways to go. But I’ve been writing novels for over 10 years. Hopefully, that is putting me on course to be within range in my lifetime. One way or another, someday, I will master it. I’ve dedicated myself. But the bottom line is – anyone can be successful. Anyone can master this. Anyone – you or I – can do this. We just have to try and try and try some more, until we have it mastered. For all of us, the only way to get closer is to read more, and write more. Your audience will let you know when you are there.

Why?

I recently ran across a post by a fellow blogger (you can read it here)where he asked the question, “Why do you write?”

Audience?

Audience? (Photo credit: orkomedix)

People always say that if you are in it for the money and fame, you should probably find another thing to occupy your time. I didn’t think I was, but honestly, I’d never really thought about it much. I just write, that’s all. Why do I need a reason?

But there is always a reason, isn’t there?

After thinking about it for all of ten seconds, the answer came to me. I wrote this:

“I write because I’ve always felt that no one listened to me, so I thought maybe they would read what I had to say instead.”

For you writers out there, why do you write? Do you know?

The Dark Room

Opening of the cave of Debliške Livade in Koče...

Opening of the cave of Debliške Livade in Kočevski Rog (Slovenia) at the site of mass murder of Slovenian domobrans, Ustasha and Chetniks by Jugoslav partisans after WWII (May and June 1945). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I hope you didn’t look here to see a post about photography. I’m not sure if dark rooms even exist anymore. For developing film, anyway.

But they do exist.

Writers often hear the mantra: “Write your passion!” More often, it’s compressed into a more digestible idea: “Write what you know.”  Now let me ask you, how could any horror writer possibly adhere to that concept? I can think of no horror writers who are personally experts in mass murder, or becoming werewolves. And more than that, who could be passionate about psycho killers, and possessed children? Certainly not me.

And yet, my first frightening, and disturbing, novel is complete, and my second is well underway.

I sometimes feel like the accidental horror writer. In life, I’m a regular guy (well, almost). I like puppies, sit-coms, french fries and Disney movies. But when I sit down to write, I often find myself writing things that leave me unable to sleep.

I would suggest a different manta for writers. “Write what comes out.” Sure, there are several very successful authors that write what I would call “format novels.” Commercial fiction – Thriller, Horror, Sci-Fi, Romance – all of it adheres to certain themes and structure accepted in the genre. I love them all, but sometimes people think that to write it well, you have to follow a predictable plot outline. Some people have made that work, but the really good ones do more.

I think what is inside you is what will come out on the page, if you let it. That doesn’t mean that a romance writer has to be a virgin with a thorough knowledge of the Marquis de Sade, nor does it mean a horror writer has to be a serial killer. But there are things that come from somewhere deep inside, from a dark room, that give meaning to your words that is greater than the activities on the page, if you let them.

Horror for me seems to be a way to confront those things that are too terrible to confront in life – suffering, pain, death. I’ve known them all, up close and personal. If I told you how it really happened, you might not want to hear me. But when I re-read my stories, I see my experiences disguised in every character, in every conflict, and in every nightmare. And I sure didn’t plan on writing about those personal things, not ever. It just has a way of coming out, and sneaking on to the page.

Every story has the potential to be that way. But if a writer misinterprets “writing what you know” as “write what you know about,” nothing that matters will come out on the page. You have to write what you know, deep inside you, in places you don’t realize are there. You have to write who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, what you love, what you fear, and what it all means to you. And you have to do that while telling a story of child wizards, or dragons, or a zombie with a hatchet.

To write what you know, you really have to get out of the way and let your voice come out. Some people call it a muse, others call it instinct, and still others call it your subconscious mind. I don’t call it anything, except whatever is down there in that dark room. You just write for that “whatever it is,” and it will take care of the rest.