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?

Writing Beautifully Disturbing Things

“Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are we bound to prosperity or ruin.”

—-  Mary Shelley, from the novel “Frankenstein” (public domain)

Although I have read almost more books that I can count by Stephen King, my favorite book wasn’t written by him. I also enjoy books not by “commercial authors,” of which – for better or worse – Stephen King is considered one of. My favorite book is “A Prayer for the Dying” by Stewart O’Nan. He writes dark literary fiction, but when I stumbled upon this book and finished it, I was shocked. This was horrifying to its core. And, delightfully beautiful.

By Stewart O’Nan

It was this book that inspired me to write in a new fashion.

“A Prayer for the Dying” is the story of a lawman, minister, and undertaker – all the same person – in a time of plague. But it’s not just his story – it’s yours as well, because the novel is written in second person.

Not many writers can pull this off, at least, not that I’ve seen. But this book is brilliant. You feel the emotions stronger, you feel the desperation as if it was yours, and you know the horror is real, because you are the one confronting it. Stewart O’Nan scarred me for life with this one, and I liked it.

But more than the unique perspective, this was the first modern horror(ish) novel I’d ever read that payed as much attention to the prose as it did to the events. The way he uses the language is an essential part of the story, for it puts you in the proper time, and the right place to see the things that are happening. It takes place before cell phones and the internet and the automobile. It is about a time when people rode trains, and bicycles, and sent messages by telegraph. I think in that time, attention spans were longer, and people looked to words not just to be thrilled, but to be enraptured.

When you think of horror as a genre, a few authors come to mind – Lovecraft, Stoker, Poe, Shelley. None of these writers would be given a chance today, because “literary horror” is not considered marketable, at least, by many in the business. But I wonder why? “Dracula” still scares me when I read it, and I’ve read it more than once. The words keep bringing me back. Poe frightens me with poetry – an art form that is decidedly on the out in popular media – and the line I presented at the beginning of this post – a line from “Frankenstein” – shows how deeply we can connect our fears to the beauty of our existence.

I wonder what you think? Is there a place in the market for a book that tells what could only be considered a “horror” story, and yet does not follow the pattern or the style of modern commercial fiction?  Would we have such staples of our culture as Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster if writers of a century ago were concerned with churning out as many novels in a year as they could? Or is it our fault for wanting something much simpler to read, that doesn’t challenge us to take note of the more subtle uses of the language? Will literary horror – like a mummy rising from a tomb – live again?

Learning from Sensei

Stephen King Books

Stephen King Books (Photo credit: o5com)

Okay, I’ll just say it. I LOVE Stephen King! I know you’ve heard that before, but maybe not from someone who yearns to be a literary writer. So I’m going to tell you why.

I started reading his books when I was in Middle School, I think. I hated to read. I thought books were boring, they took a long time to finish, and they weren’t as cool as video games (sounds a lot like a conversation probably taking place in someone’s family room right now). Then, one day, my aunt gave me a copy of IT. She was a teacher, and determined to get me to love reading. It was an uphill battle, but she had heard that this guy, this Mr. King, wrote spooky stories that young people liked to read. So I started that thing – and it is a THING at over 800 pages in paperback – and was hooked from the opening scene. “It” gave me what I wanted – scary stuff that made me want to skip to the end of the page. But it also gave me something else that I didn’t really understand then, and am only beginning to understand now. It told me the story of myself.

Now I know what many of you are thinking. “Huh? Are you an idiot? He only writes trash.” “He says the “F” word too much.” “His stories are about monsters. I want to write books that have a deeper meaning!”

Tisk tisk. Book snob.

After devouring about 5 of his books, I wrote a paper in my junior year Advanced English class where I said, “Stephen King is the only writer to really understand the human condition.” My teacher gave me an “A” with this comment – “Be very careful when you say something like that. You sound foolish.” Looking back on it now, what I should have said was, “Stephen King was the writer who first made me enjoy reading, and made me realize that to write well, you have to describe the human condition, even if you are talking about monsters in sewers.”

I’ve probably read over 30 books by Mr. King (that’s why he’s so rich, I guess, because everybody has). In that same period, I’ve read hundreds of books by other authors. I can say, even now, 20 years later, that he is still one of my favorites. Right up there… pretty close to the top. Why? How can that be? Let me show you.

I just started reading “Cujo,” a novel he wrote in 1981, and one which he confesses in his book “On Writing” that he can’t remember writing because he was intoxicated through much of the process. Nonetheless, it is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. I haven’t seen the movie, and hadn’t read the book before. I passed on it the first time because I thought the notion of a scary dog wasn’t “scary” enough. Shame on me. Sure, this book is simply about a big dog that goes stark raving nuts, and attacks people. That’s apparently it. But man, oh man, is there so much more.

About 1/4 of the way through, we see two of the main characters confront an affair by the wife that has been brutally exposed. They face each other as the secret comes out, and in the process, Stephen King tells us everything we know about how we would react, and then more that we didn’t know about how we would actually react, and then about the conflicting feelings, and loyalties, and how men always look for an efficient way to explain problems, and how for women it is always so much deeper. How, for a man, the weight of the world and a mountain of stress can provoke bad behavior, but for a woman, sometimes all it takes is one gray hair that sparks an insurmountable fear, and the world comes crumbling down. And how the yearning inside to reconcile is so often overcome by the urge to hurt, to make things even, to destroy everything because some part of it is broken. I read those three or four pages over and over, swimming in his knowledge, and his graceful, yet deeply agonizing, way of telling me what these two people were feeling, how their lives were coming apart at the worst possible time. I saw the situation through the man’s eyes, and then through the woman’s eyes. I blamed them both, I hated them both, and I cared for them both, and wanted them to stop hurting.

This is a story about a mean dog, mind you.

And this is why he is one of my favorite writers, and why he is so damn prolific, and why writers love him or hate his guts. Because he does it so well, and then ends it with a chainsaw.

If you’ve seen “Shawshank Redemption,” or “The Green Mile,” or “Stand By Me,” you know how good he can be at grabbing your heart-strings. He is also a master of tension, of building something huge out of almost nothing. And reading this book, trapped away in a box in my attic for over a decade, has reminded me once again what my job as a writer is. My job is to tell you who you are, and I can’t be wrong.

I don’t know how Stephen King came to learn what he told me about women’s emotions, but from everything I know, he was 100% right. Maybe his wife helped him out. I know he was right about the guy’s reactions. And half of the stuff he told me, even though I instinctively knew was true, I’d never really known before.

That’s our job as writers. We are not telling stories to throw out of the car on the way down the road, hoping someone will find it,  pick it up and like it. We are telling bedtime stories to one person (or to thousands, hopefully millions, if we’re lucky) sitting in a quiet place. We are saying words to make them happy, make them sad, make them angry, make them brave. We want them to imagine a place they are comfortable in, somewhere that feels “real” to them. It doesn’t matter if the story is happening 200 years ago, or on a planet in a distant galaxy. They have to believe it. And in order for the reader – you and I – to believe it, we have to be told who we are, and agree.

Thank you again, Mr. King, for showing me how to do it right, and also telling me I still have a long ways to go. I’ll keep following, if that’s all right with you.

Good Morning (to the same day, writers)

English: Sunset at Porto Covo, west coast of P...

English: Sunset at Porto Covo, west coast of Portugal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Writing is a very strange occupation. I’m not sure why anyone wants to do it. I’ll make it easy to understand – a writer spends hours, weeks, even years involved in a world that is totally made up by them. This place is so personal, and so damn interesting, to the writer that they put off chores, going outside, regular meals, conversations with real people, and sometimes give up really great opportunities to do something else, just so they can write down the things they make up in their heads.

Sounds ridiculous, huh?

Well, in a way it is, and in a way it isn’t. Books have really impacted my life. I’ve been entertained, taught lessons, and even been told (more than once) that I was okay, all by books. Writer’s want to do that, too. That is the only real goal of any writer – to have someone else read what they’ve written, and have it matter.

This need is no different than other human needs. We want to be loved, we want to be understood, we want to say something into the world and make things different with our voice. But it’s a big world, and our voices are very quiet.

And this brings me to the real reason I’m writing this post – rejection. I know, I’ve already touched on that. But I want to touch on it again, because there is more to say. When a writer is rejected, it can be for a number of reasons. Perhaps their writing isn’t good, or great, or perfect. Perhaps the story isn’t compelling. Perhaps the reader didn’t “connect” with the characters. “Don’t worry. It’s nothing personal,” they say.

But it is. For writers, this is us. This is our focus, our interest. These are our secret thoughts, the heroes we wished we were defeating the bad guys that we couldn’t beat ourselves. These are the adventures we’ll never take, the loves we’ll never experience, and the dreams that are dying in ourselves. When writer’s hear a “no,” it’s like that moment in school when all of your friends left in one moment, or when you weren’t good/fast/smart/pretty/funny/rich/cool enough to do whatever everyone else was doing. Writer’s only write for one reason – to give someone else something to enjoy. If they don’t enjoy it, then it is a failure.

So what then? We’ve all – us writers – had to face this moment. What do we do? Revise? Start over? Keep trying? Give up? The answer is different for everyone. There is a large dose of fate or luck in this endeavor, and many of us are perpetually unlucky.  And it’s tempting to want to run into the corner and hide.

But this morning, something started becoming more clear. Writers – you and I – we are the readers, too. We are the ones who buy books, love stories, think about them every day and night, study other writers, and talk about books with our friends. I’ve bought more books than almost anyone I know, who isn’t a writer. I think we are in this together. Perhaps we should be a protected class. At the least, we should at least have our own club. We give each other support, and we help each other get to where we need to go. So I’ll be the first to say that I need help. I have a computer full of my stories, but they won’t live unless they are read. Maybe some need new shoes, others might need a haircut. Maybe some need to take a bath. But they are good kids, all of them, and I want them to be loved and accepted.

I think many of you know what I’m talking about. I would love to hear your thoughts. We are all in this together.

And I know I’m right, because a fellow writer Kristina Blackwell wrote about the same thing a couple of days ago, so I’m not the only one thinking about this. You can read her take here. And also check out her bone chilling writing here.