The Day I Stopped Writing, And How I Started Again

It happened one Sunday, Super Bowl Sunday to be exact. The day coincided with my mom’s birthday: she passed in 1999.

Sunday is the day I post my blogs—I had nothing. A few seemingly viable ideas, but they were all kindling lacking a spark. I paced, drank a couple extra cups of coffee, talked with my wife. Nothing worked.

I went to the park, a place of solitude that usually calms me and opens the word wellspring. A raucous family interrupted the peace I yearned for, and scowling, I left. I drove through winding tree-lined country roads, got out a couple times and stood listening to song birds and the river gurgling its way to the sea. At least I still appreciated the simple and beautiful things the world offered.

I had nothing to say. A vague idea for a new story crept into my thoughts: a character, a setting, and a problem. I didn’t write it down, and strangely, found not writing too easy.

I preach writing every day; usually I’m at my keyboard at least a couple hours, seven days a week. For some reason, writing did not interest me, a lack of will perhaps.

I justified my dull head with the acknowledgment that I was simply on vacation. Everybody takes vacations, right? I knew the problem wasn’t the dreaded and mythical Writer’s Block—ideas did not wane—but I just didn’t care enough to write them down.

I interviewed myself, much like I question my characters during development. I thought I might find the self-loathing all writers face—I’m not good enough, the writing sucks, who cares what I have to say—but that wasn’t it. I’m a realist, and although I’m no Dickens, Twain, or Rowling, I’m a competent writer (I glanced at my short story and the copy of the check hanging on the wall to prove it), so it wasn’t the Black Funk I’ve written about in the past.

I answered the interview questions honestly (I’m not self-delusional, you see), and I realized something: I was the recipient of too much information, input overload from the outside world.

News, direction, instruction, suggestions, offerings, warnings, hyperbole, and a litany of other bombardments accosted me a hundred, a thousand times a day.

Yes, I needed a vacation, but not from writing—I needed to stop the incessant negativity the “news” and world of “celebrity” provided. I do not search this information, but it’s there every time I open my browser, my email, talk to people at the store or pub or while on a walk.

I’m normally pretty good at ignoring the chaos, but there must have been a nick in my armor, and like a mosquito or tick that attaches to the only skin available, I was bit.

I thanked myself for the honest conversation and made a decision: no media for a week.

No TV is easy since we don’t have any form of cable, check. My phone is a flip, so no fear of going online there, check. Fulfillment of the next choice, the internet, proved not so easy: the Twit continued to blame everybody else, mayhem in the streets, no-talents making a fortune pushing their own brand of self-love, all the horrors that may happen, on and on.

This is what I decided to salvage my sanity: check email once a day, no earlier than the afternoon after writing during the morning, that’s it. Today I had to go online to post this blog, but that’s okay. I may have to disconnect my modem to assure that I don’t search for information I need for a project, but that’s easy enough.

The world is a rush of noise, which for the most part should not affect me and usually does not. I have discovered that I am vulnerable, however, and that knowledge gives me the ability to make decisions to offset the impact.

This week I will write and read a great deal, and those are two of my favorite things to do.

If you feel inundated and overwhelmed by the maelstrom (whether real or not, mostly not), take a break. Shut down the “little brother” that deceives and manipulates the human psyche, the circus barker or potion salesmen that offers happiness out of a bottle, tube, screen, or monitor.

It’ll be like a vacation.

See you on the next page,

Rick

 

 

 

Writing Quote:

“There are many more people who do not write yet feel perfectly at ease sniping at those who do. When such a snipe comes your way, remind yourself that you are the one putting yourself on the line, opening a vein, walking the tightrope, singing a solo under hot lights. You are part of a courageous bunch who are all about doing.” — James Scott Bell

Links: Free Books

Gutenberg: Thousands of Free books, many of the classics: Dickens, Twain, Stevenson, Longfellow, Austen, Melville, and hundreds more. For Speculative readers, Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft, Burroughs, Poe, Verne, and a host of others. Most available in Kindle format, EPUB, HTML, PDF.

Tor: Free Monthly novel download—sign up to get next offering in March.

Amazon: Free books to download in wide range of topics and genres.

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What Would Mike Say?

Books play an important role in our house: each room except the kitchen and bathrooms accommodate crowded bookshelves—there is no bookshelf or magazine rack next to the commode. Why sit on a cold, uncomfortable seat, pants dropped around your ankles, and read? I’d choose a nice easy chair, a cup of coffee nearby, thank you very much.

My wife is a voracious reader. Linda can read a book a day if she can find time between taking care of the animals–2 dogs, 3 cats, and me–cooking, cleaning, gardening, shopping, and a host of other tasks that catches her interest (she calls them projects, and each have babies).

Even after a twelve hour day, she’ll sit on the couch–dogs snoring and twitching at her feet, me the same thing in bed–and read. 1AM and she’ll doze, head drooping and hands dropping; 1:15AM, eyes bounce open, hands lift, and she’s reading. She can devour a book like I can devour a carrot cake.

I bought my wife a book, One More Time, by Mike Royco for her birthday last year; she’s read it twice. More than once I’ve had to squeeze in ear-plugs to drown out her laughter from the living room at midnight (maybe it was 2AM; I was kinda groggy).

Mike Royco was a Chicago newspaper columnist from 1963 until 1997. He started out writing a column for the The Daily News, then other Chicago papers, and finally he was syndicated throughout the country.

I had never read his columns, or if I had, it was by accident and only a time or two. But I wanted to after hearing my wife having such a good time.

For Christmas I gave Linda Mike’s second book (also a collection of his columns), For The Love of Mike. I confiscated One More Time and started to read.

Mike Royko is funny, irreverent, crass, poignant, insightful (did I mention funny?), will lambast police chiefs and politicians—Mayor Daley was a favorite—and offend anybody and everybody at least once.

He’ll make you angry, he’ll make you chortle and even guffaw once in a while. His words are cutting, biting, as sharp as a butcher’s knife and as soft as butter in July.

He’ll poke fun at you, himself, your neighbor, your father and mother, and your sister. He’ll banter with the Irish about drinking beer, the Scots about their taste for Haggis, and anyone and anything that suited his fancy on a given day.

He’s from Chicago: he loves the Cubs, he hates the Cubs, and by-the-way, stop razing all the quaint old buildings downtown to put in high-rise “projects,” thank you very much.

He’s for the little guy, you and me, and against dishonest money-hungry big business and politicos with their right hand in your pocket while waving to PTA members with their left.

He aims at the perpetrators, and fires off witty and to-the-bone truths about hatred and injustice. He finds it everywhere, and not only in Chicago. His camera is our lens, and we are his target.

His topics are as crystallized and appropriate today as they were when originally written—you see, his hand monitored the pulse of humanity, society, and not time.

He was just a regular guy, and funny. He’s worth reading for a study in style, humor, audacity, humility, and longevity. And just ’cause it’s fun.

In the current political and social climate, I wonder what Mike would say?

See you on the next page,

Rick

Writing Links: This week’s links are all about Mike
Mike Royko’s Books
Mike’s Quotes
Obit

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Chapter Length: How Long?

The question of chapter length comes up often in writing discussions and forums.

There exists no single correct answer, of course, other than “it depends” or “as long as it takes.” Not much help even though accurate.

Here are a couple things to consider about chapter length when writing and revising:

Reader Comfort

As a reader, my comfort level is greater when chapters are shorter, or at least broken up (indicated by the pound sign centered between paragraphs on the manuscript itself). I think many people feel the same way.

People have short blocks of time to read, while commuting, waiting for their kids to be released from school, or between other tasks that need attention—short sections give the book a faster, sprint-like pace while offering a “break spot” when a distraction interrupts them.

When that happens, the reader needs to be able to say, “Just a minute,” to get to the next section. People cringe and get all squirmy when disrupted in the middle of a sentence or paragraph—how do I bookmark that spot?

Shorter Keeps the Story Moving

Novel pacing wreaks havoc on many otherwise magical tales. Within the fantasy genre especially, long block-filled pages can drone on and on into 20,000-word chapters, the reader lost in a maze of unpronounceable names and moment-to-moment expression changes.

Writing shorter chapters—and sections within chapters which may act as transition or a new viewpoint character—speeds up the protagonist’s chase to their goal, propelling the reader forward so that, if not disturbed, they lose sleep cuddled up with a page-turner.

Those reasons alone are not a convincing case for shorter chapters, though.

Each chapter ideally should incorporate a character goal, tension, and action embraced by both. The action can be as simple as a conversation, which shouldn’t be simple at all.

The average chapter length reflects the short story norm, 2,500-5,000 words, an appropriate number of words to introduce a character, their goal, conflicts, and resolution . . . just like in a story.

Rather than thinking about the length of a chapter by number of words, consider what should happen within each chapter.

A chapter opens with the hero needing information (chapter goal); what follows are actions taken (and the obstacles faced) to get the needed information, but it doesn’t work out as they had hoped (tension). That is a good place to end a chapter.

The purpose of a chapter is to push the character into the next where more problems await.

Each chapter plunges the character forward in their ultimate quest (story goal) to save the damsel, find the one responsible for the murder, or learn to be a better person. But within each story goal are smaller, more immediate goals that must be met, and that’s the purpose of chapters.

Think of chapters as mini-stories.

Consider an hour long TV drama. Within that hour (maybe 45 minutes considering commercials) there are breaks, at minimum, between Act I and Act II, and Act II and Act III, and often Act III has a break between the climax and the credits.

What happens in those acts on a TV show? Characters are introduced, pressing problems arise, roadblocks inhibit forward movement, and a disaster . . . and now a word from our sponsors. That’s a chapter.

Not all chapters have to end in disaster (commonly called a cliff-hanger) and definitely shouldn’t or it gives the reader a “cry wolf” attitude, thereby reducing the impact of a true surprise moment. Use sparingly and save for those special plot instances.

Every chapter should incorporate at least one “reveal” moment, that is, something new about the character, their problem, or the plot. As with all fiction, words not relating to one of these topics need to be cut to move the story forward in some way.

There is no best answer for how many words a chapter should be, as long as you successfully introduce a character with a goal hurdling problems to reach a point where they start over again in the next chapter.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Writing Quote:

“I think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.” ~Norman Mailer

Writing Links

James Scott Bell, a favorite writing instructor
The Kill Zone–Thriller blog; James Scott Bell writes one a week, as do other authors.
How to develop a Writing Plan

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Writing is a Psychological Pursuit: Smile Past Doubt

To be a writer requires studying the effect life has on the human mind.

In a non-clinical environment, writers are psychologists, and better suited to the task than your local bartender—bartenders watch behavior, writers study what causes human action.

The study of human nature is essential for writers, whereas it’s just a bartender punch-line.

Characters act and respond based on how they think, flavored by their experiences and individual perceptions. Asking what motivates a character, and the life before the story that impacts their decisions, is a natural process for the fiction writer. Often, looking into one’s own outlook is the springboard catapulting the writer into the character development pool.

Self-doubt sharks swim in that psychological pool.

Writers worry if they are good enough, cringe and get defensive when others critique their work, betrayed when a story is rejected–each ignites the self-doubt fires. Self-doubt comes in many shapes, always wrestling with the fragile duo of confidence and ego. Invariably, the internal battle causes strife and creates a maligned attitude.

I love quotes because of their simplicity to a complex problem. One of my favorites is from the Moody Blues song, In The Beginning; although not specifically geared toward writing, it does deal with the psychology of writing.

“Face piles and piles of trials with smiles, it riles them to believe that you perceive the web they weave.”

The first part of the quote speaks to your response when faced with adversity, the second your perception and attitude toward the world around you.

Once you acknowledge the attitude problem is not them, but You, the hurdle becomes easier to leap.

You create the doubt and valleys of pain. When you take responsibility for that view, you begin to realize the roadblocks are not uncaring editors, a system stacked against you, harried agents that didn’t take time to fully consider your genius, but your own whining.

Yes, whining. We all do it. I’m sure my wife is tired of hearing mine; I know I am, so I decided to stop. Being a contemplative fellow, I considered:

What if I didn’t complain when a rejection appeared, but smiled? It felt counter-intuitive, and I admit at first it was just bad acting. I didn’t feel all fuzzy, nor happy or even content.

But then I thought, “Hey, it just didn’t work for them, the same way buying a new smart phone doesn’t work for me.” It doesn’t necessarily mean the smart phone is bad (the same is true of the story), but that it wasn’t the right fit at this place and time.

As I once told my son, “You have every right to disagree with me and be wrong.”

Maybe the next submission will be a better choice, and the editor will make the right decision.

Repackage the story or novel and send it to the next one on your list, and most importantly, get to work on your current project. And smile about the work you have before you.

You can’t control what others do, no more than they can control your actions. Control what you can, which is the delirious act of creation. Let the world take care of its own problems as you take control of the worlds you create, and those of the characters wrestling with their own doubt.

And smile—it’s the shield against the angst.

See You on the Next Page,

Rick

Writing Quote:
“Don’t write to become famous or to make a lot of money.  Write because you love it. Write because not writing for more than a few days feels like you have abandoned a puppy in a mineshaft.  Save the puppy.”  – Joe Beernink

Links on psychology and writing:

Brainpickings
Psychology Today
Helpscout

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3 New Additions At Knights of Writ in 2018

Fiction MusingThe week (and year) started well, working on the second novel in my fantasy trilogy, and adding the final polish to a couple short stories in preparation to market.

The first book of the trilogy, The Returning, which I’ve mentioned a few times, is currently with my writing friend, James, who has the task of critiquing the 3rd quarter of the 125,000-word tale. I am also critiquing his novel, and as I’ve written before, the process is an enlightening experience.

I stopped working on the novel (and any short stories) Monday evening. Halting my work was a conscious decision.

The Holiday Season and New Year had nothing to do with not writing (though there were extra events and happenings), nor was my decision caused by the mythical Writer’s Block, or even that the current novel project hit the dreaded lagging middle: I stopped writing to get organized.

The need to organize began innocently enough. I decided that in 2018 the Knights of Writ will include more to assist readers during their writing journey. I determined links to a variety of writing sources (agents and editors, magazines seeking stories, grammar assistance, and anything else to do with the craft) would be an invaluable addition. The problem was my bookmarks were a mess.

Whenever I see an article, blog post, or news story that catches my interest, I bookmark it with the intention of revisiting and studying the ideas and platitudes at a later time. Several folders are in my Bookmarks drop-down menu (Writing, History, Odd-Ball News Stories, etc.), and each have sub-folders to break the topics further. Disarrayed is how to best describe the bookmark menagerie.

Tuesday I tackled the History folder as practice—hundreds of places to visit awaited me. After a moment of panic at the sheer volume, I decided to organize the sub-folders by time reference (Ancient, Bronze Age, Medieval, etc.), areas and world civilizations (Greek, Egypt, Roman), or generalized topic (Science, Timelines, Miscellaneous, etc.) and shifted the individual bookmarks into the appropriate folders.

Some did not immediately offer a particular placement; I followed the link, quickly perused the content, and determined where it belonged. There were links that did not work or were old or were wrong and no longer interested me—those I discarded. Bye-bye.

Wednesday I wrestled with my largest inventory and the reason I chose this course of action—the Writing folder.

I bookmark a great many writing sites (many are also in my email folders, but that’s for another day). This is where the real work began.

I determined my folders: Agents and Publishers, Novel and Short Story helps (How-To’s), Reading, Markets, Writing Quotes (a new writer quote will accompany blog posts beginning in 2018 as well), General Writing, Organizations, Grammar, Blogs, and a few other less specific ones.

Each bookmark was given a home: special ones were moved to the top, others fell to the bottom. I added a few sub-sub-folders, which became my next job—as I said, I’m organizing; having the bookmarks entirely random in a general folder does not satisfy the task goal.

I worked most of Thursday, and Friday finally finished the Writing bookmark remapping—it was tedious work, but necessary. Months ago I did the same with all my Word doc writing files—it was also tedious.

What did I learn, and what can you learn from getting organized?

  1. Organization speeds up accomplishment, and adds confidence you can find what you need when you finish the allotted writing time. The last thing you want to do when writing is stop the flow to find some minutiae clarification; it’s always better to do it after writing. Make a quick note and come back later.
  2. It’s necessary to move bookmarks to their designated area promptly after saving it in the first place—seconds at the beginning over thousands of instances would have saved me hours and hours of organization this past week.

As I’ve written before, research is critical in all aspects of writing, and having the information location readily available saves time, effort, and frustration. In the future, locating the necessary research will be far easier.

I also reacquainted myself with a few interesting forgotten topics, and used them to make notes on new ideas and plans.

New for 2018 at Knights of Writ

Links to worthy writing sites
Writing Quotes, because we all need a little inspiration
Offers

Offers are not mine in most cases, but those of value as I search the internet and my in-box. Last year I received an offer from Writer’s Digest for a deeply discounted subscription of only $8 a year (10 issues, currently $19.99 or about $40 at the newsstand) with an offer to extend another year for $8, which I did.

I should have shared the offer, but neglected to in a timely manner. This year, should an offer brighten my door, I’ll let you know. There could be several, and not all will appeal to everybody—they don’t all appeal to me, for sure—but I’ll let you make those decisions.

There will be other additions as the year progresses, and I hope they will be of benefit in your growth to become a better fiction writer.

Below are this week’s links and a writing quote.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Writing Quote:
“Every hour you spend writing is an hour spent not fretting about your writing.” Dennis Palumbo

Links: Having learned a great deal through the critique process, I’ll start 2018 with a list of critique groups. Read how each operates and see if any appeal to you. I have participated in the first one, though it has been awhile; at the time I found the help valuable. So, wrap yourself in what James Scott Bell calls the Rhino Skin and dive right in, and remember, growth hurts sometimes.

Online Writing Workshop
Critters Writers Workshop
Critique Circle

Sure-Fire Habit to Increase Writing Output in 2018

Saturday is the day I take the dogs for a walk so Linda can clean the house without distraction. There’s a special place I go most weeks, a narrow field bordered on one side by train tracks, the leisurely Willamette River gurgling on the other. The area is sparsely treed, surrounded by hills climbing to snow-capped mountains in the distance.

There is a small rise where I look back on the path just traveled, and where I can also peer ahead toward my destination. For me, the end of the year is like that: reflection of the past twelve months and goal-setting for the upcoming year.

Reviewing the last twelve months, one habit defined why 2017 was a year of added progress and accomplishment over previous years.

The habit was such an easy and seemingly inconsequential event, something that took mere seconds but acted as both a catalyst and a proof: I call it Notes of Accomplishment, but the name does not matter—it’s the function that counts, that is, accountability.

Although I began 2017 making the notes, I trailed off during the early spring and summer (writing fell off dramatically during this time) and started again in the fall. Production is easy to monitor and gauge when I compare the amount of writing I did while noting accomplishments compared to when I did not.

The accomplishments noted are not majestic successes or wondrous revelations, but links in the ever growing chain known as craft.

The notes are private. Nobody, including my wife, is aware this is something I do each day; she will now, being that Linda is my first reader and nothing is published before she reads, reviews, and critiques at least once.

Noting everything regarding your writing each day, regardless of amount or topic or degree of success, are small little miracles.

This is not a journal, per se, where you jot character sketches, notes, or whine about how much you did not do; it is a place to note what you did, and that includes actual writing, research, reading, outlining, drawing maps . . . any task associated with your chosen career. Here’s an example from my own Notes of Accomplishment.

09.21.17–responded to blog comments, emails; worked on new short story, Timeframe, 375 words; read The Green Mile, pgs. 120-170; started new blog post, What’s it All About, Alfie?, 385 words;

09.22.17–read The Green Mile, pgs. 171-206; reviewed/edited short story, The Matter of Eve, cut 127 words over pgs. 6-11;

09.23.17–Nothing; doctor appointments in town.

09.24.17–worked on Ch. 9, The Case of More Than Six, 789 words; read The Green Mile, pgs. 207-225; edited/revised The Returning, pgs. 78-92, per James’ critique; critiquing James’ book, pgs. 38-65; completed current blog post, 425 words, and posted;

I italicize story titles, books and articles, whether read or written, and blog posts so I can easily skim the dated list; for the same reason, I bold the number of words I wrote during the day, regardless of project or venue. Some days I write 500 words, some days 1,500, others none or a low 50 words; either way, it’s documented—the importance of the process.

Documenting validates the time spent and the varied tasks completed; it also clarifies where I need to improve and shows me a goal I haven’t touched for a week and really should.

I also learned not to beat myself up on those 50 word days; more than likely I spent time doing something else, such as reading 120 pages of a novel or spent 2 hours working on the map for my fantasy world. All tasks are valuable when they pertain to anything within my selected field of interest.

I had days where I accomplished nothing having to do with writing, and that’s okay because I look back and see why, see that life knocked me off-track. I also see how tasks were picked right up the next day, and the next, and . . . .

Tracking what you accomplish—after the tasks are completed—proves you followed your passion, and thereby prompts you forward to do more in the upcoming days.

I use my Goal List (To Do) at the beginning of the day, my Notes of Accomplishment at the end, and together they show me how I am progressing. More than that, though, they prompt me and power me to do more.

This small and simple practice (which, given the nominal effort) easily becomes a habit, and with the habit your production will increase. Try it, let me know how it works for you, and by all means, I’ll

See You on the next page,

Rick

P.S. Let’s have the best writing year ever in 2018. Write On!

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Create Christmas Traditions—and Memories—for a Lifetime

Christmas is a time to nurture family, build traditions, but mostly it’s the memories we shape.

Sir Ken Robinson recalls the time his son was in a nativity play:

“The three boys came in, four-year-olds with tea towels on their heads, and they put these boxes down, and the first boy said, “I bring you gold.” And the second boy said, “I bring you myrrh.” And the third boy said, “Frank sent this.”

A delightful memory he was kind enough to share with us.

Our family developed many traditions and memories over the years. One of the first traditions was when buying our children presents, we strived to buy a gift for their body, their mind, and their spirit; admittedly, when young they often missed the point amidst other presents and brightly colored wrapping paper.

Still, they always received books, music, and the assorted clothing, toys and such. Always books, a favorite gift in our family. I have a shelf of dozens of books about baseball—a favorite topic of mine—given over decades. My son bought me Ken Burn’s Baseball documentary one Christmas, and I still watch it (all nine innings and the extra) every year in the Spring.

Another gift is a disc of family Christmas photos throughout the years our daughter gave us once they had both moved out of the home.

On Christmas Eve we visited my parents who lived a couple blocks away, where my mom would cook a fine meal and laughter filled the house; I suspect those are our most cherished memories.

Nat King Cole woke the kids up singing “The Christmas Song” each Christmas morning, and all during the opening of presents, music played in the background. Personalized stockings were first, and the four of us took turns watching the others open (and respond to) their presents one-at-a-time. There’s nothing like a child’s joy when they open a gift.

Here’s an important tradition: we never went into debt for Christmas. Each year we bought both what the kids needed, and some of what they wanted; it was also a season where learning you don’t always get what you want was part of the plan. Whether we had $200 to spend or $500 saved for the holidays, we never spent what we didn’t have–credit cards were off limits.

Other traditions grew through the seasons and became part of our ritual: Danish and hot chocolate after opening presents, A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott and A Wonderful Life (as a reminder everyone is important and valuable), getting acquainted with our new items, talking, laughing, playing in the snow—living in Lake Tahoe, it was always a white Christmas—and phoning loved ones who did not live nearby.

Christmas was a lazy day where we enjoyed each other’s company.

A few gifts are remembered from decades of giving and receiving, but most are long forgotten and used up, yet the joyous memories remain wrapped with love and bound by family.

And of course there were pictures. Our children tell us their brightest Christmas memories are the camera’s blinding flashes when they sleepily descended the stairs.

This season build your own memory storehouse.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays,

See you on the next page,

Rick

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