Monday is October 18th of my Cosmic Calendar Life

Writing is one of the few professions where staring off into space is part of the job description.

My mind invariably wanders to strange places, asks patently odd-ball questions, and searches for even odder answers. The “What if” game is one of my favorites, and is often the springboard to quirky offerings.

A writer’s mind journeys to places others do not often travel. How many people do you know contemplate what motivates a person to act the way they do, the myriad of possible reactions to a single action, act through a scene to clear up a character’s performance, or study the why’s of how things are and their origins?

These wanderings are a writer’s playground.

The other day my “staring into space” followed an unexpected path:

I thought of the Cosmic Calendar I heard about years ago. Like many tendrils slithering through my mind, I didn’t remember exactly what it was, only the name.

Research followed (as it invariably does), and I found that famed writer and scientist Carl Sagan popularized the Cosmic Calendar in his book, The Dragons of Eden, published in 1977, and on his TV series of the time, Cosmos.

It seems that some scientists also contemplate weird thoughts.

So, what is the Cosmic Calendar?

Sagan superimposed the chronology of the universe (beginning at 13.8 billion years ago) on a one year calendar; the graphic above shows a few main events. Interesting epochs were revealed—here’s a sampling of when events occurred according to Sagan’s calendar:

Jan. 1 –Big Bang (or creation, if you choose)
Mar. 16–Milky Way Galaxy formed
Sept. 2–Formation of solar system
Sept. 6–Oldest rocks known on earth
Dec. 25–Dinosaurs
Dec. 30–Dinosaur extinction; mammals take over.
Dec 31 (at 22:34 / 10:34 PM) — Primitive humans and stone tools (barely made it, eh?)
1.2 seconds ago–Columbus arrives in America.

Here comes my What if:

I determined a person’s life at 80 years (as a starting point). Dividing a 365 day year (I eliminated the ¼ day for simplicity) by 80 years (average lifespan), I found each “year” of one’s life equaled 4.5625 days on a person’s Cosmic Calendar.

Weird, huh?

Using this mathematical formula, I realized that my birthday (which I share with JK Rowling and Harry Potter) this year will be the October 18th of my Cosmic Life Calendar. Damn . . . or as some people would have said back in the 1970’s, “That’s cosmic, man.”

We are all born, we all die, and in between we live our Cosmic Calendar. Of course there is no guarantee any of us will see 80 years (both my parents passed at 72), but it’s a place to start, like a first draft ready to be edited or an outline forming the foundation of a novel idea.

Recently I perused a few of my writing folders (snippets, short story ideas, etc.) and saw decent entries I jotted down with the plan to return to and expand them into a complete idea. I sat back, stunned—some which I thought were penned a few months ago range back 3 years—12+ days on my Cosmic Calendar!

Understanding that I’m currently in the middle of October (nights are getting colder, old joints creaking a bit more), I again remind myself the importance of prioritizing not only my writing, but my life . . . which brings me to the conclusion of this post.

My daughter, Janiene, and son-in-law, Abraham, are visiting from out of town. Linda and I will be spending time with them today, utilizing a portion of our Cosmic Calendar with the all-important family. As a side note, today is June 22nd of Janiene’s Cosmic Calendar—Abraham is a few days further into the summer.

What is the date on your Calendar, and how will you spend it?

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Daring Do’s and Dangerous Dont’s

As writers, we must stretch beyond our comfort zones, learn new aspects of the craft, implement the new knowledge, and rework sentences until they serenade our inner ear.

We must be Daring

Write something completely different from your norm: try dialogue using dialect without changin’ and wranglin’ the language; if you write macho-man sword-and-sandal pulp fiction, craft a tender romance where vulnerabilities keep a destined couple apart; romance writers can learn a great deal developing relationships in deep space.

Take sentences, the building blocks of prose, and twist them this way or that: beginning a sentence with a gerund can brighten necessary focus; articulating something in a sentence by setting it off with commas, like this, changes the entire tempo in the reader’s mind; experiment with colons and semi-colons, ellipsis . . . dashes even—each changes the pace and sentence focal point.

Have fun—it will prove profitable and time well spent.

Writing fantasy, many of my sentences flow long, use descriptive modifiers and parenthetical phrases, so I decided to write a story lacking those attributes—instead, short and pithy. The flash fiction story, “Boys ‘N Berries,” is now making the rounds. I learned a great many things during the process, some of which I will weave into future writings.

Beware the Dangerous Don’ts

All writers have reached a certain skill level. It’s impossible to know on what rung of the publishing ladder you now reside, or the untold number of rungs that lay before you.

Gee, Rick, thanks; that really helps (sigh).

There is a mystery to the writing craft no one can solve, a question all writers ask themselves, their agents (if lucky enough to have one), and their writing partners: How talented am I? Put another way, “Do I have what it takes?” The problem is the question itself.

Talent is weighed and diced into a million different pieces, and it depends on the audience, whether one or a thousand.

Talent and skill perception are arbitrary, and in the end, only an opinion.

The first Dangerous Don’t is asking the question in the first place. One could call it mental masturbation: editors and readers will determine your skill and the value of your stories. Your job is to write.

Write and your skill level improves, and thereby, you climb the talent ladder. How could it be any other way? The more you do something, the better you become—this is a natural progression.

The second (and nearly as important) Dangerous Don’t is attempting more than your capabilities.

I know, this post began by encouraging you to stretch and attempt writing in ways and types unfamiliar, and I stand by that.

Let me explain the concept of avoiding projects you are not yet capable of undertaking:

Most fiction writers begin writing short stories. The reason short stories are the first choice is because one can dash off a short story first draft in a few hours or a day compared to months (even years) it takes to create a 70,000 to 100,000 word novel.

A short story follows a single character (normally) and a pretty straight-line plot path. Even the simplest novel involves numerous characters, perhaps multiple POV’s, and a central plot underscored by any number of sub-plots depending on the complexity determined by the writer’s wishes.

This is daunting. My advice: don’t plunge into a fully developed novel until you have written a dozen or more short stories.

Writing short stories teaches brevity as every word must have a bearing on the character, plot, or theme—there is no space to meander from the chosen path like a novel can allow. (Some would say you should not “meander” in a novel either, but there is more room to take a side trail and make it pertinent to one of the novel’s plot paths).

Third Dangerous Don’t: don’t plunge into an idea without determining the costs

I have a novel idea deemed viable (see my post on determining writing projects) that is currently beyond both my skill and time requirements.

The story is a YA fantasy novel set in the ancient Mayan culture that thrived (and mysteriously disappeared) in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

Having started the preliminary research, and despite a semi-complete outline, I realize at this time, the project is beyond my means.

Working full-time, I do not have the resources required to immerse myself into the research and writing necessary to complete such a project. An excuse? No, a reality.

That does not mean I ignore the idea; the idea simmers in my subconscious, and on occasion I scratch the research surface and jot notes toward a future when I will delve into such a complex and research-heavy project. Understanding that now is not the time is as important as knowing when a story has percolated long enough so the idea can be successful.

The Fourth Dangerous Don’t

Banish the critic that resides in all of us. The critic is a tempter, brow-beater, and thug. My friend, Richard Weir, wrote a terrific post dealing with the problems writers face when allowing the critic a foothold that quickly metamorphoses into a stranglehold. You can find the post here.

Why are the four Don’ts dangerous?

Time is every writer’s adversary: each of the four Don’ts involve wasting precious time.

Calculate your strengths, your weaknesses, use your abilities in the best way possible, and write. Experimentation conjures its own reward, but don’t undertake a project that is beyond your current capabilities or time allowance; only heartache will follow.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Fear and Loathing of the Writer Self

The writer “me” wrestles with fear and loathing. The analytical “me” tells the writer “me” he’s an idiot and shut up. Both have valid points; I ignore them and write. One word after another, “enter” button to the next paragraph, there we go . . . .

The accumulative “we” are plagued with doubts, thrashed by rejection, and harried by the many duties required to be writers in the modern world: write, edit, post, respond, research, follow, send, wait, research some more, wait some more, all the while writing every day and dripping sweat onto our keyboards.

Writing is a wonderful thing.

One person appreciates what you agonized over, so who cares that no-good editor sent you a form rejection? Place that rejection in your collection-of-rejection file, send the story to the next market on your list—that reader might be the one to give your life’s work credence. Hope: Keep it, Embrace it.

Write

Only you can tell the stories you have to tell. Oh, sure, learn the craft, study published authors, every day add new knowledge to your masterpiece. That’s how it should be.

Write

It’s as simple as that. Not quite, eh? What’s the problem? Time and responsibilities got you down? Does “What do I Write About” haunt you? Vow to never grow stagnant. Create something outside your field of interest, your genre, and experiment.

You see, it does not matter what you write, only that you do. Writing is what matters, and the prose can be anything other than a grocery list.  Butt in the seat, fingers on the keyboard, thoughts transcribed in front of you. The crux of writing is writing. Can I be any clearer?

I understand it’s infinitely easier to sit on the porch sipping lemon aide, dreaming of being a writer and going to book signings, being lauded as the next great novelist.

I once dreamed of playing guitar. I never owned one, didn’t practice, took no courses to learn music.

At one point I wanted to be an artist, but I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. I never practiced other than scratching out one-dimensional stick men.

Dreams, mists, nothing more.

Is that what writing is to you? I will be blunt: if that is your attitude, if washing your hair takes priority over ironing out a plot problem or further developing a character, you are not a fiction writer.

It’s okay to not be a writer, just as it’s okay to not be a chef.

For me, writing satisfies a yearning and passion—it nurtures my soul. It may not be for you, and that’s okay.

But if the passion boils in you, simmers in a constant stew of writing thoughts, discard the negative as you would an old toothbrush—no regrets. Then please, please reach out to the keyboard or pad of paper and write. Create your dreams, and then share them with the rest of us.

The fear and loathing may huddle in the shadows, but at least your dreams will be a tangible reality—nobody can take that away from you, and perhaps the next editor on your list will hoist your by-line for the world to see.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Writer’s Block is a Myth

(To celebrate Knights of Writ’s 100th blog post, I offer this lie-buster)

Every week of every year writers compose articles and blogs about how to defeat the dreaded Writers Block. Each is a lie—Writer’s Block does not exist.

“Wait,” you cry out, “I’ve stared at the blank page for hours, paced the room, succumbed to a shot of Jack Daniels to loosen the thoughts. Nothing works.”

Before you scoff and click away—jettisoned to the next article entitled “Defeating Writer’s Block the Last Time,”—realize this: claiming Writer’s Block is only an excuse to not write.

You have bought the lie, and the price is a heavy burden indeed . . . inactivity.

Writer’s Block has grown to legendary status among writers (and by those composing articles to perpetrate the lie) and is a fodder field of articles entitled, “8 Ways to Guarantee You Don’t Get Writer’s Block,” or “10 Ways to Avoid Writer’s Block.” A recent Writer’s Digest Magazine published three articles under the umbrella heading, “Beating Writer’s Block.”

Although many articles about Writer’s Block contain nifty exercises or prompts to help creativity, their assumption is misplaced.

Why? Because writers have bought into the existence of the dragon.

The reason you feel gripped by Writer’s Block is simple—you have limited your options.

A well-known anecdote about Isaac Asimov explains how he had several typewriters in his office—this is in the 1940’s and 50’s before computers—each with a different writing project. When one did not shake his world, he went to another and worked. He explained the mind needs excitement and becomes weary when working day after day on the same subject.

Professional writers create whether or not they are “in the mood.” Does a doctor only operate when he’s in-the-mood, a lawyer defend when the mood suits them? Have you ever heard of a plumber’s block, or a longshoreman’s block, or a bartender’s block (heaven forbid!)? None exist; neither does Writer’s Block.

Writer’s Block is an imaginary entity we give credence. Perhaps it is our way of dealing with terror or maybe a self-worth issue. Although that may be the case, I usually find writers bemoan the “Block” when their work encompasses too few options.

So entranced and focused on a minimum of choices, a writer rolls over and over the same information, trying to fix the same problem, come up with the right idea, when all that’s needed is to let the subconscious sort it all out.

Writer’s Block is caused by an over-simplified expectation: you are ready to work on this particular project right now. Sorry, it doesn’t always work that way.

Often it does, and that’s when you stream through the story, fingers a blur, white spaced fill with squiggly black letters. Other times you have to take a deep breath, open a new folder, and work on a different project.

I have 5 books (3 fiction and 2 non-fiction) in varied degrees of completion, 5 times that many short stories, a dozen article ideas, 18 blog topics I wish to pursue—when I’m not tuned with a particular one, I find another.

I have a couple projects I work on most every day, but if I run into a wall for some reason, I have others to fall back to until I’m ready to re-tackle the primary item.

The point is this: writing every day is a given, and we must be ready to improvise and juggle when something goes awry, ie., when a specific piece of writing needs more simmer time.

This is a natural process, not a Block, writer or otherwise.

We must not give the Myth wings and let it carry away our sensibilities. It’s time to refuse to go along for the ride; instead, open another folder and work on a different project. In the end you will find you complete more, and in the process, improve your skills.

As a last word on the subject, I turn to Stephen King: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just sit down and get to work.”

See you on the next page,

Rick

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How To Determine If An Idea Warrants The Investment

An idea wakes you up. Stumbling to where a notebook and pen wait—no time for the computer to boot before the idea evaporates—you scrawl in a half-asleep daze.

Perhaps an idea pops into your head during a walk (or any of a thousand instances—why is it always when I’m in the shower?) and you scratch it out on anything handy. It’s not perfect, you know, just a seed of the “greatest damn idea you’ve ever had.”

Take a deep breath.

Ideas streak through your mind many times every day, but not all are worthy of a story or novel. It doesn’t matter; write them down anyway. Testing ideas to ensure they are worthy of the time needed to mold them into a completed project is the next crucial step. Not all ideas, no matter how great they at first appear, are worthy.

Writing projects take time. Validating an idea worthy of a novel, especially, can save months of gut-wrenching agony when you realize, at page 201, the story has no destination.

Due Diligence

My wife and I have owned and operated several businesses. We approached starting or purchasing a business with a set of tough questions geared to making the best decision based on information available at the time: This is referred to as Due Diligence.

Determining whether a writing project is worthy incorporates a similar Due Diligence process, which includes answering questions about the Costs, the Value, and the Expectations.

The Costs

The cost of writing is the approximate time required to complete a project. Unlike a business (whether online or brick-and-mortar) where tangibles exist—wages, taxes, equipment, travel time, rent, luring potential customers—writing has its own set of rules.

For me, a blog post takes between 2-4 hours; a short story may take a month or two; I calculate writing a novel at 1 year. Each of these approximates include several drafts and many edits.

The cost of writing invariably falls to time. How much time you set aside each day dictates output. 500 words a day equals 15,000 words a month—2 to 4 short stories (more if Flash Fiction), 8-12 blog posts, or 20% of a 75,000 word novel. Considering most writers have numerous projects in the works simultaneously, monthly completion is combined across varied projects.

Prioritizing the ideas comes when you have determined the worthiness of each project.

Value

Valuating a story or novel idea gets dicey. A great deal of thought is required to estimate if the seed idea is worth pursing to completion, not to mention the emotional upheaval caused when things don’t go right.

The idea must have great value to you, first and foremost. Taking an idea and transforming it into a full-fledged story will become an integral part of your life; you live with the characters, become them, anguish with them, and share in their joys. Many craft issues will also present themselves over the course of creation.

As best you can (and this is difficult), at this point remove emotion from the equation.

Secondly, the story must have value for your reader. Is the story unique? Are the characters’ lives intriguing and their goals reasonable to pursue?  Must the story be told?

Answering these questions enhances your decision of whether to proceed.

Expectation

Expectation starts with completing the story. Why else begin if you don’t plan to finish?

A caveat: No matter how much the Due Diligence convinces you to write a story, some languish in spite of your best efforts. At some point—hopefully not on page 201 of the novel—you realize the story has not gestated enough. That’s fine, and it’s okay to put it aside a while longer to allow your subconscious to figure out the rough spots. Regardless, the plan is to finish the story at some point. I have dozens of ideas awaiting my attention when my subconscious informs me the story is ready to continue.

If you plan to sell the story, whether to a magazine editor, agent, or publisher, is the idea fresh enough and the writing strong enough to withstand the scrutiny? This is a hazy gray area.

Less than perfect stories sell all the time, even dreadful stories make it past an editor’s icy glare. There is no accounting for taste, and that is true within the publishing world as anywhere else.

If your desire is to publish, especially in the traditional sense where somebody pays for your writing, several things can be done to improve your odds: beta readers, critique groups, a professional editing, etc.

Whether seeking the traditional path or self publishing, write the best you are able, compose a story only you can tell, and finish it. First Draft, editing, Second Draft, editing—repeat until the story satisfies the best you can do.

Some ideas demand to be written—they consume you. When this happens, forget the Due Diligence and write: evaluation can come later. When in the throes of the electric creative energy, get it down on paper. The story will not be complete at this point, but writing as much as possible makes the evaluation process easier, and in the long run is the best course of action.

No amount of planning guarantees success; too many variables can occur to derail even the greatest of ideas. But determining that an idea is worthy of the investment is the only way to tilt the pendulum in your favor.

In the end, you must believe in the idea with every fiber. Yes, there will be roadblocks, setbacks, and push-backs, and only your complete confidence in the idea will enable you to leap past the many hurdles toward your goal.

If there are no hurdles in your life, you are not running the race.

When the story or novel is the best you can do at this point in your career, send it to an editor or agent. A Writer writes, an author submits.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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