Archive for June 2013

What I’m Reading This Week: Banks, Holt, and Others

This week’s reading: Finish Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas, move on to Tom Holt’s Doughnut,  and try to work in a bit of the new Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

My Writing Manifesto: Or, Yes, a Manifesto is Usually a Bad Sign, But Not This Time

This, dear ones, is my manifesto.

Okay, that sounded ominous and pretentious. Maybe a more apt way to phrase it is to say this is my writing contract with myself. Hey, at least I didn’t invoke the dreaded words “mission statement,” right?

The problem is I’m dissatisfied with where I am as a writer. I know, I know. Alert the media and break out the sandbags and buckets.

Seriously, though. Day before yesterday, when I went to the doctor, the medical assistant was entering my information, and she asked me my profession.

I replied “Writer.”

She looked around at me and asked “Do you do anything else?” to which I answered “I also teach writing.”

“I’ll put that down,” she said.

This certainly didn’t make me angry. It didn’t really even bother me. It just made me think, and here’s why: I don’t talk about my writing that often, especially with non-writers, not because I’m a snob (I’m not), but rather because I don’t think people are all that interested in it. Along with that, it’s a difficult thing to talk about, and not in a crumply “it’s so emotionally close to me that I can’t bare my soul” way, either. It’s more that I sometimes find it difficult to articulate exactly what it is I’m working on at any given time.

As a result of this, the only people who call me a writer are usually the ones who don’t know me. Those who do know me, on the other hand, usually say things like “He used to work in music production,” or maybe “He’s a teacher.” Sometimes, if I’m really lucky, they might say “He’s a writing teacher,” or, more often than not, “He works? Really?”

Look, I’m fortunate enough to be able to hold a job that allows me to pursue my writing. I’m also lucky to be able to get side gigs writing, editing, reading, reviewing, and coaching, and I’m glad to be able to help friends and students with their own writing. These are all things, by the way, that I intend to continue doing. But if you’d told me twenty years ago that I’d have this level of freedom, I’d have said you were insane. I might have also asked you for a cigarette, too, but that’s another story. The point is that I’m fortunate, and I know it.

What some folks may not know is that I’ve actually been published. Not in any pubs that people would kill to get into, necessarily, but still a few good, solid magazines and journals that I can pick up and carry around with me. I’ve ghostwritten a couple of books and nearly won a big contest. Okay, even I have to admit that last part sounds silly. In my defense, though, it was big.

But I really do want to continue to be published. Really published. I’m trying to get the other areas of my life in line–exercise, nutrition, time management, and attitude–so I want to get my writing straight as well.

And now that I think about it, there are other similarities between writing and exercise. I’m good at bingeing on them: I can exercise like a pro for weeks and sometimes even months at a time, just like I can develop an alleged writing habit for short lengths of time. Same goes for eating well. As long as I can remain focused on it, I’m fine, but once my concentration wavers, it’s all downhill from there.

As I’ve said elsewhere, knowing what needs to be done is important; remembering what needs to be done is crucial.

But rather than complain about my dissatisfaction (please ignore the previous paragraphs, nothing to see there), I’m going to try my best to do something about it.

Here are my problems, as I see them:

  • The past four or five years have been disorienting, to say the least. In 2007, my mom died after a three-month battle with melanoma, and in 2011, my wife Shannon and I moved from Alabama to Colorado. So my life, to some extent or another, has been in flux for a good deal of time now. Of course, it’s not as if either of these changes is on my mind twenty-four/seven, but they have caused my life the be much different than it was five years ago. For that matter, though, it was different five years back than it was ten or twenty before. The point is, for whatever reason, these two major life events–one bad and the other good–have changed my creative perspective in ways I have yet to fully consider.
  • I’m terrible at self-promotion. No kidding, I would have made one of the worst salesmen in human history. I’d sooner take a beating than ask someone to buy something from me. In fact, I couldn’t sell talcum powder at a grandmother convention. As a kid, when my school would sell candy or other items, I usually ended up selling it to people who couldn’t possibly say no: my parents. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.) I can, however, pitch other people’s talents all day long. Maybe it’s something in my genes. Who knows?
  • I have issues with concentration. Nothing new there. For as long as I can remember, I’ve found it difficult to stick with a project through its completion, though I eventually found ways to work around this. Don’t mistake me, though. It’s not as if there’s a physical magnet in my head that makes me gravitate toward certain shiny things. Yes, it may feel like that from time to time, but it’s an illusion. If I become distracted, it’s because I’ve allowed myself to become distracted.
  • I lack a community of creative people with similar goals. Probably the most productive writing time for me was during my MFA. No big surprise, but my output consisted of more than the impressive amount of writing I was doing for school. In those two years, I also finished numerous short stories and a novel-and-a-half. Part of this was also due to two excellent writing groups I had the pleasure of joining, one directly after the other, successes I’ve yet to replicate. What both of these things have in common is that finding a well-fitting writing community is a lot like getting married, other than dealing with the communal property issues. MFA programs only last for a limited time, and locating that perfect writing group requires you to get out there and look around. As with dating, sometimes you have to sort through some duds before you find The One.

The thing is, I really do love writing when I’m doing it. It’s like exercise. Thinking about it inspires me, believe it or not, but gearing up to do it leaves me flat. When I’m actually in the middle of it, though, and immediately after I’m done, I experience full-on euphoria, or at least as close as I’m going to get. With writing, I like writing jokes, mostly because they’re snippets. They’re begun and done quickly, and I can move on to the next one. Writing longer pieces, though, takes more dedicated concentration, so perhaps that’s where I’m falling down.

What to do? I’ve sort of tried everything. I say “sort of” because I get lots of great ideas for becoming more disciplined about my writing, but few of them ever seem to pan out, primarily because I never implement them, or when I do I don’t stick with them long enough to actually judge.

Still, I need to find something that works for me, and the only way I’m going to do that is to try methods and see what works. Try them every day. There’s an interesting article I need to read–or I think it’ll be interesting, anyway–on working out writing schedules. I suspect that my best bet may be to mix it up.

All that to say that the writing contract I mentioned is not just with myself. It’s with you as well, my friends, family, colleagues, readers, postal carriers, and anyone else who has an interest in what I do.

As far as the concentration, that’s my bug to work out, but regarding the other two, you’re going to be hearing a lot more from me regarding what’s happening in my writing life. I’ll try to (shudder) promote myself more often, and I’m also going to become more proactive about finding writers interested in sharing work.

Oh, and also this:

To everyone who’s ever taught me.

To everyone I’ve ever taught.

To everyone who’s ever sat across a workshop table from me–you know who you are.

To the people who made me want to be a writer.

To my wife, who reads everything I write.

To Dad.

To Mom–I miss you.

Thanks to you all.

Stephen King’s Under the Dome: Coming to a Small(er) Screen Near You

I’m sort of looking forward to Stephen King’s Under the Dome, which begins tonight on CBS. The book was good, though it was nowhere close to any of King’s best works. It had a solid story, and the miniseries features some actors I like, most notably Breaking Bad‘s Dean Norris.

My main concern is that screen adaptations of King’s works don’t have the best track records, the stories suffer, and they almost always end up with bad endings. Even a notable exception, The Stand, also a miniseries and a a better effort than most, ended up with a shallow last act. The novel Under the Dome, in my opinion, had a not-so-great ending anyway, so we’ll see how that pans out.

Under-the-Dome-coverI’ll admit, though, that I read Under the Dome between the last installment of The Dark Tower series and 11/22/63–two exceptional novels, by any standards–so it’s very possible that Under the Dome suffered somewhat by comparison.

At any rate, I’ll be watching this. Or at least I’ll be DVRing and watching at a convenient time. Probably late at night.

Night Terrors: That Dream I Dreamed

Occasionally, I have dreams in which I’ve accidentally reenlisted in the navy. Yes, accidentally.

In these dreams, I’m at my current age, married, living in Colorado—all the things, essentially, that I’m doing now—but somehow I’ve happened to scrape a pen across an enlistment contract and sign away four more years of my life. So sorry, I tell my dear wife, but I guess we can still write each other, and when my ship is in port, I’ll come home as often as possible. Did I mention I’ve already been assigned to a ship? No?

Gary Boot CampThis is right up there with the dreams others talk about in which they’ve forgotten a final exam, or worse, they’ve shown up for the exam but neglected to wear clothes. As a college instructor, by the way, I like to think I’d have the presence of mind to confront someone on their nakedness, but honestly, it’s difficult to say how you’ll react in a situation like that until it happens. Unexpected nudity has a way of throwing things into disarray, I’ve found.

But back to my navy dreams. It seems significant that in them I’m at my present age. After all, that’s what makes it inconvenient, right? If I were twenty-two and accidentally reenlisted, that wouldn’t be so bad. Being in my late forties, with a wife, and with, you know, Other Things To Do, however, it could present a real problem.

Don’t get me wrong. My stint in the navy was exactly what I needed at that time of my life. It also just so happened to be a time when I could survive on scant hours of sleep and the occasional cup of ramen noodles. In those days, I’d developed neither my discriminating palate for fine food nor the impressive girth resulting from said food. They were lean years in more ways than one.

If I had to go back in the military now—which is actually prohibited by law, barring a reinstatement of the military draft in case of alien invasion, zombie apocalypse, or some similar event—I know I wouldn’t fare as well. The first time I had to stand a six-on-six-off watch schedule for two or three weeks, sleep on a concrete floor, or get by on only three cups of coffee in the morning, I’d cry foul, no doubt. At eighteen, I didn’t care. At forty-seven, I’m a bona fide wimp.

Well, I can still sleep on a hard floor. I just find it impossible to get up afterwards.