Publishing Paths

Recently I attended the Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference.  It was a learning experience and inspiring three days.  I had my doubts that this was something I’d benefit from, but in the end it proved to be worth the effort for this introvert.

This conference had master classes, seminars, workshops, evening readings, speakers and was focused on the art and craft of writing.  There were also activities for those interested in the publishing end of writing.  Each day had a pitch panel so writers could pitch their works to agents, a query letter writing workshop, and if you wanted you could get a one-on-one conference with a conference staff member to discuss your project.

Since I was there mostly to improve my poetry skills, I focused my attention on the poetry workshop I was in.  Still I managed to attend a couple of publishing sessions.  The one I like the best was, “Paths to Publishing.” 

In this panel discussion, four writers talked about how their books were published and the challenges they faced.  First there was a little discussion of self-publishing or how to promote through social media.  There were a few reasons for this – often came down to an admission that they weren’t really good at promoting themselves.

This isn’t to say it can’t be done, but understand who your are and what skills you have in that area before trying to be a self-publisher.  If you just want to publish for family and friends, the process is easy and you can get a few hundred copies out without too much trouble.  If your goal is to publish thousands of copies and make a profit, consider your business knowledge and marketing skills first.

If you’re not self-publishing, you need to attract the attention of a publisher and convince one to take on your book.  The big statistic that caught my attention was that there are nearly a million books published each year in this country with only a third of those being published by traditional publishers and that number is falling. The rest of the books are a combination of small press publishers and self-publishing. 

Getting published by a traditional press is a bit like winning the lottery.  You’ll need an agent to sell your work to the big publishers and getting an agent is no easy task.  One writer reported contacting 60 agents and not getting any to represent her book.  This was a typical report I heard.  The big publishers are in it to make a profit and they look at your book with the question of, “Will this sell enough to be profitable?”  Sadly, most first time writers don’t write books that will hit the best seller list.

The most common path to a published book was through the small press.  Often run by universities, non-profit groups, or dedicated individuals, these publishers are willing to take risks on books that the big publishers won’t.  Their reasons are many,  including – providing an outlet for literary writers, advancing a cause, or because they just believe that certain kinds of books and writing should be made available.  One example I know of is the Torrey House Press.  This publisher recently converted from a for-profit to a non-profit business model.  Their mission is to promote stories and books about the American West and the conservation movement.  They publish works on natural history, environment, or natural landscape themes.  If you’re writing a story about the American West, well, here is a possible market for you.

Oh, and you don’t need an agent to submit to them.

Most of the published writers I spoke with had their books published through small presses like this, or ones associated with education institutions or foundations.  Several had submitted works to various contests which included publication as one of the prizes.  It should be noted that many contests ask for a submission fee to cover costs.  Some are free, and some ask that you subscribe to their publication to be able to submit.

There are many good things to say about the small press and if you’ve got a book, story, or poem you want to get out there, here are a few positives:

There are thousands of small presses.

  • You don’t need an agent to submit (even for novels).
  • They believe in your work.
  • Most will get your book on Amazon.
  • They cover the costs of publication (be wary of those who ask you for money).
  • They generally don’t buy as many rights to your work – often only asking for first publishing rights or have a clause where rights revert to you after a specified period of time.  With the big publishing houses you often lose rights to your book.

But there are a few negatives:

  • They don’t pay much, if at all – sometimes contest winners get a small cash prize.
  • Most are run on shoe string budgets.
  • They don’t have promotion budgets, so don’t pack for the publicity tour.
  • They are often staffed by volunteers so don’t expect rapid replies.
  • Likely you’ll end up promoting the book yourself.

Some of the panelists did report that their press did arrange for some book store signings, or other book readings, but for the most part their promotion is adding the book to their catalog, putting out a press release, maybe an invitation to an awards dinner, and a few free copies.

So why go through the work?

Well a number of reasons:

  • It builds your writing resume (gets the line on an agent query letter, “I am the winner of …”)
  • It builds your contact list in the publishing world – networking is good.
  • Validation – many writers feel the need to be published because having a story published validates the writer’s work as being worthy.  Many of us writers suffer from low self-esteem and often question if we’re good enough.  Publication is a stamp of approval.
  • We feel the story is important and needs to be in the world.
  • Publishers can be a great source of editing input and can help hone your writing.

It’s really up to you and what you want to accomplish.  All of my current writing goes into my blog and I’ve sent very little of it out.  Part of me has always wanted to have a book published.  If I am brutally honest, mostly because I want that stamp that says, “You’re a published writer.”

And my ego would like a bigger audience.

If you have work that you’d like to get into the hands of a small press here are three resources where you can find these publishers:

Poets & Writers magazine: (
Great magazine and website for poets and writers.

The Review Review:
A website that reviews literary magazines and has a database of them.  Great place to find a magazine that speaks to you and your writing style.  Mainly for poetry, essays and short stories although some publish a book once in a while.

Winning Writers:
Website that has a list of writing contests and lists free contests plus has a list of contests and services to avoid (be careful, lots of scammers out there). 

A couple of months ago I decided to cut back on the amount of writing I do for my blog so I can build up a better body of work that can be submitted.  It’s a major change in my writing discipline and I am still feeling my way through the change in writing rhythm.  I am hopeful that the changes I am making will lead to an improvement in my writing.

I certainly found attending the conference to be a wise choice and it’s helping me to push to that next goal.

Keep writing!


Fourth Dimensional Writing

When I say, “the fourth dimension,” what images come to mind?  Hyperspheres, tesseracts, spacetime equations, quantum theory, or perhaps Doc Brown from the movie, Back to the Future, telling Marty, “You’re not thinking fourth dimensionally.”

Well, I think of writing.

One of the common things new writers are told (just after, “show, don’t tell”) is the famous, “write three dimensional characters.”  It makes some sense if you think about what that means.  Let’s step through the dimensions and see.

One dimension – a straight line or a character that only shows one aspect.  In a story that might be the waiter taking an order, or delivery person bringing a package.  The character is there for one purpose to move the plot in one direction – the needed food shows up, the unwanted interruption happens, or the forged passports arrive in a brown paper wrapper.  All we need to know about the character is the one thing.

Two dimensions – width and length in geometry – a simple, flat shape.  Perhaps a triangle, square or circle. This is a character who fits into the story; is predictable and often is a stereotype or archetype.  The character exists for the hero to interact with and does things, but we don’t really get to know them as people.  This might be a taxi driver who’s conversation gets our hero talking to reveal important plot information.  Perhaps it’s the doctor telling us how the murder victim died.  This 2D person is a minor part of the story.

Then there is the holy grail of the three-dimensional character.  Geometry class would be showing us cubes, spheres and cones.  English classes would talk about fully rounded characters.  These are people who have depth, feelings, history, are unpredictable and complex.  This is typically the story’s hero, protagonist or antagonist.  A 3D character adds details and layers to the story that in some cases don’t move the plot forward, but instead add a sense of reality or depth to the story.

That brings us to the fourth dimension.  Mathematically and geometrically difficult to describe and I won’t even try.  In popular writings the fourth dimension is often described as time.  The fourth dimension is watching a 3D object moving through time.  Likely not scientifically true, but in story telling the concept is useful. A 4D character is one who not only has width, height and depth but also changes over time.

A 4D character might be a soldier who at the beginning of the story is committed to the war, but by the end of the story has a change of heart (the opposite story line is also possible).  You might describe the young idealistic doctor early in the story then and show how the doctor transforms into the cynical old medic.  A 4D character is not constant in their reactions and over the arch of the story, changes. 

It’s possible for whole stories to be told in 4D.  Back to the Future is an example of that kind of story telling.  The ever popular Harry Potter stories are another example. Over the course of seven novels, Harry goes from innocent childhood to a battle weary youth to a hopeful young man.  A single well-rounded character moving through time – changing, growing, and becoming something other than his “under the cupboard” self.

My current work in progress is a 4D story and so far I am finding both fun and frustrating to write.  It’s fun to pick up an object and predict where it might be in five years.  A pencil will be shorter, a car dented, and a tree taller, but with people it’s not so easy.  Overcoming an obstacle might make one person stronger while it breaks the spirit of another.  When I envisioned my story it was a simple tale of a boy escaping a city and becoming a man.  Then I wondered how did a city come to exist that forced a boy to need to escape it?  That naturally flowed into the question, “What world does this new man find or build?”

The possibilities are endless when you can view a fully formed person over the span of a life time.

Reading the News for Better Fiction

Currently I am in research mode for a new book – one source of information is the news.  I do read the news daily and have some stories I follow.  I like to be informed about the world and I often find that something in a news story is relevant to a poem or story I am writing.

For example:

Here in Northern California the news story of the week is evacuation of the cities below the Oroville Dam. It’s distressing to read of all the people and lives disrupted by the emergency and my heart goes out to all those affected by this.  

For those who aren’t up on this here’s the short version:

The Oroville Dam sits on the Feather River in northeast California and impounds Lake Oroville, the second largest manmade lake in California with 3.5 million acre-feet of water – enough for some 25 million people and irrigates nearly 755,000 acres of farm land.  This winter has been wet, with rainfall totals far above normal.  By Saturday, Feb 11, the lake was approaching the top of the 770 foot tall dam.  The dam operators did the sensible thing and for the first time since 2011 opened the spillway.

Then the spillway started showing cracks and a gaping hole appeared.  No problem, there’s an emergency spillway, so the dam operators shutdown the spillway.  When water started to flow over the emergency spillway an epic erosion of the hillside started, and threatened to cause the spillway to fail and send a 30 foot wall of water downstream.  If that had happened we’d be reading about tens of thousands dead, missing and many cities washed downstream to the San Francisco Bay.  Instead officials decided to evacuate nearly 200,000 people.  In the end engineers were able to effect repairs, reopen the primary spillway, lower the lake level, and save Oroville.  How many fiction writers could come up with a story like that?

In the next weeks and months we’ll get more details and will read about all the finger-pointing on who failed to do what.  It could get interesting (upsetting if you’re a taxpayer here).

The novel I am working on is set in a post-apocalyptic California about 150 years from now.  There are a number of themes and stories I am weaving into my tale.  One of them is what happens to the dams and reservoirs after decades or centuries of neglect.  Is it possible that Hoover Dam will continue to be standing?  What about the many earthen dams, like Oroville?  Will they survive the extremes of weather – drought to flood?

These questions can be difficult to answer even with good research.  Heck, even the civil engineers who build these things don’t always know.  Like that whole emergency spillway thing –  from 1968 till Sunday, Feb 13, 2017 the pros said it would work just fine.  It didn’t.

That is one of the great things about following news stories and seeing how reality works out.  How many times have you heard, “You can’t make this up”?  

Well, that’s the value of reading news – it’s got stuff you can’t make up.  Especially if you can read political news without getting upset.  The other value is that you can learn about how people respond to extraordinary circumstances.  It’s a gold mine for a writer.

Of course, you can’t get all the facts from the news.  News reports are the result of research by journalists and often sensationalized to sell news papers or get views on a website.  However, each story offers something to the fiction writer and can be used as a basis for further research.  Many of the information sources used by the journalist are open to you the fiction writer.  Much of the information used in reporting the Oroville story came from two places: The California Department of Water Resources and the Butte County Sheriff’s Office.

In today’s internet world, both agencies have websites, video feeds and tons of cameras pointed at them – many of which end up on YouTube.  So if you find a story related to something you’re writing about it’s not hard to do your own fact checking and research.

And since we’re talking about writing fiction, don’t worry too much about misleading news or people lying.  That can be the best fiction.

I mean, what if the Oroville spillway was really destroyed by an alien spaceship landing in the wrong place?

Got to go, have a story to write.

Point Lobos to Character Development

Last October my wife and I took a day trip down to Point Lobos State Park which is just south of Monterey Bay on the California Coast.  This is typical northern California shore line with rocky cliffs, a few sandy beaches and the waves of the Pacific constantly eroding and reshaping the land.  We love walking next to the power of the sea and taking in the magnificent views of the ocean with its birds, sea lions, sea otters and other wild things.

It’s a place where I draw inspiration, a place where my mind can relax, and just breathe in creative energy.  While the point is largely a nature reserve, there is some history in the place.  Prior to the arrival of Europeans, indigenous people known collectively as Ohlone lived in the area, with Point Lobos being a spring and summer village site.  Earlier Spanish expeditions would have sailed past the point in the 17th and 18th centuries on their travels to explore Alta (upper) California and establish the mission system. The City of Monterey, which was the capital of Alta California under both Spanish and Mexican rule, is just a few miles north of Point Lobos.  From the 1860’s to about 1880 it was used as a whaling station and during the annual migration, boats would launch from there to hunt whales.  Later abalone divers took up residence for many decades.  By the 1920’s the point was well on it’s way to being a state park.

Walking the trail on one of the western cliffs and looking far out to sea, I imagined an early Spanish expedition sailing past and deciding to land in whaler’s cove to get fresh water and perhaps hunt for some food.  What would it be like to row in a small boat and land on that sandy beach in an unexplored land?  What would I find? What kind of people would take such an expedition?

Those were the questions I asked myself and after a bit of thought, a bit of google research, I wrote a simple short story titled, “Miguel.”  You can find this story on my blog at these links: part 1 and part 2.  It’s not an award-winning story and it’s far from a complete tale.  I’ve thought of spinning this into a larger historical novel.

A recent Writer’s Circle post, Inspiration for Characters got me thinking about how I came up with two of my characters and how I decided how they would react in the story.

First let me state that many of the details in my little story are likely wrong, like what kind of boat they used, the ranks of officers and other details.  I didn’t spend much time researching those. I did put some thought into Miguel and his friend, the Priest.  For the purpose of the story, I needed a soldier who would likely be sent ashore to hunt and an authority figure who would actually talk to Miguel.  A Catholic Priest seemed like a possibility.

In each case I needed to know some things about the characters so I would have an idea how they would react to the situations they were in.  First I thought of a history for each.  I know from history that Spanish soldiers weren’t always recruited from the best of society and thought that it might be good that Miguel had a little criminal in his past.  My real life model for this was a teenage boy I knew in high school, who at age 17 got arrested for drunk driving and wrecking a couple of cars.  Since he was about to turn 18 and no one was injured in his escapades, the juvenile justice system at the time was willing to make a deal and the young man found himself “volunteering” to join the Army and promising not to return to town until he’d earned an honorable discharge.

I did see this guy one more time a few years later and what I recall is some of the basis for Miguel.  As far as I know he made a career of the Army.  That is one part of Miguel’s inspiration. That along with what little Spanish I know helped me form a picture of a soldier recruited in Spain who joined to avoid confrontation with the authorities and who was just enough of a smart ass to get himself into minor trouble.

The priest in my story is a composite of a Catholic priest I knew as a teen and a few Methodist preachers plus the character Cadfael from the TV series starring Derek Jacobi.  Okay, I’ve only seen a couple of Cadfael episodes and didn’t really like it, but one thing I liked about Brother Cadfael was that he was a soldier before becoming a monk.  I wanted a priest that had some worldliness about him and wasn’t just a scholar or religious person.  I wanted someone who could identify with the crew because he’d been one of them and yet someone who the ship’s officers must respect because of his status as a priest.

As a teen I went on a retreat that was led by a Priest, who I’ll call Father Bob.  It was a spiritual development retreat (and no, I am not a Catholic and most of us who went weren’t).  Father Bob was a character.  He had great stories, was easy to talk to and yet had a deep wisdom that just easily flowed without sounding pretentious.  He also had his faults and past problems. Once, a few of us younger folks were outside in a garden talking during a break when Father Bob walked up.  He greeted us and put his arms in the sleeves of his robes.  I was expecting a lecture when instead he removed his arms producing a cigarette and a lighter. After lighting up he said, ”I needed a break too.  Anybody got a radio? I’d like to find out who won the Giants game.”

That’s my priest, an ex-soldier and a scholar who managed to get ordained and walks with both the elite and the commoners and isn’t afraid to break a few rules.

When you need a character for a story, think about people you’ve known and take the parts you need.  Then put them together to fit the needs of your story. With a little thought, you’ll come up with some interesting ones.

Keep writing!

Looking for Inspiration

I often hear writers say they aren’t inspired or can’t think of a story.  Inspiration is all around us, just look and be willing to ask a few questions.  Read the news, listen to friends’ stories, or think about something that happened to you. For example:

A couple of days ago I was frustrated with my computer.  More that normally frustrated.  You see, I was in a hurry to get something done at work when the weekly software update message popped up on my screen and wouldn’t let me continue until I clicked, NOT NOW!  Yesterday the same thing happened with my cell phone as I went to check my voicemail, “A new version of iOS is available, install now, install later.”  Okay it only took 15 seconds to click 10 times to get rid of the popup so I could get to listen to my voice mail.

Maddening.  Yes, I could go through and maybe silence all those, but some, like the ones my IT department at work forces on me just will never go away and will continue to popup at exactly the wrong moment.  What really got me thinking was this what if question, “What if I were in a space ship when ground control sent a software update?”

Or, what if my spaceship’s computer decided it was time to download and install a major software update just as I am landing on Mars?

A few years ago my local marquetry club had a guest speaker give a class on designing.  He stepped us through some design processes, gave us some tips and did a few design exercises.  One exercises was to take two very different things and see if you could combine them into one thing.

For example, take a giraffe and a toaster.  Now design something.  What I came up with is the Giroaster.  The finished concept is a toaster, with a light and a recipe holder. Okay, I added the recipe holder, but I needed something for the giraffe necked light to shine on that would make sense next to a toaster.

No, I haven’t solved the problem of toaster occasionally setting the recipes on fire.

Let me give you another example.  Let’s say you want to write a crime story that features an arson.  Are you an expert on arson?  I am not, but I’ve got a story to tell about an arson.  30 years ago I took a real estate sales class thinking that selling houses could be a career choice.  It wasn’t a good choice for me, but I heard an interesting story.  A man in our class owned a house that he rented out to a woman.  Over time the woman proved to be a bit mentally unstable and she stopped paying her rent, so he sent an eviction notice.  Shortly after the notice was delivered he got a call from a neighbor saying that they’d just called the fire department as people were smelling a strong chemical smell from the house.

When the man arrived the fire captain told him that someone had put pots of turpentine on the stove and they were starting to boil when his crew showed up.

It was a cautionary tale about a mentally ill person bent on destruction.  In this story everything turned out fine as the woman was quickly located, charged, convicted and sent away for a long time in a mental hospital.

Given those facts, could you build a story?  Let’s ask some basic questions:

  • What kind of man would own a rental home?
  • Why was the man taking a class in real estate sales?
  • What was the man’s relationship with the neighbors?
  • Why did the neighbors have his phone number?
  • How did the arsonist convince the man to rent her the house?
  • What other arsons had she done and why?
  • What kind of mental problems did she have?
  • What would happen to a pot of boiling turpentine on a gas stove? On an electric stove?

I am thinking that you could come up with a lot more questions to ask and in the end come up with an interesting story.  Perhaps something like this:

A man named Bob recently was laid off from his job as manager at a local restaurant.  His mother had recently died and left him her home.  A local real estate broker convinces Bob to rent it out and get a real estate license so Bob could work for the broker.  Needing a tenant for the property, he advertises and finds Sue, a 29 year-old who has just moved to the area and has a job with a local chemical supply company.  Little does Bob know that Sue killed a lover in another city by setting a house on fire.  Sue turns out to be a one woman crime wave (possible she’s involved with the drug trade which has taken a toll on her mind). And of course the neighborhood knows the fine young boy, Bob, who came to see his mother and their friend every Sunday afternoon.  So sad about Bob’s divorce just after losing his job and his mother dying.

So, just go get inspired.  Remember stories from your past.  Take two unrelated things and put them together, or think about what annoys you.

But mostly, just keep asking, “what if?” And keep writing.

Put Yourself in the Path of Inspiration

I cringe every time I hear the phase, “writer’s block.”  Gives me shivers and makes me itch all over.  Those two words used to be my favorite reason for not writing, “I’ve got writer’s block.” Those blocks could go on for years before I’d get back into a writing ‘mood.’  Sometimes I hear people say that they aren’t creative or that they’ve run out of ideas.  I get that, sometimes I don’t have any ideas either, but I don’t let that get in the way of writing activities.

You’ll often hear the phrase, “Writers write.”  Well, that’s true – mostly.  While writers are expected to turn out words on the page there are other things that need to be done before and after writing.

A simple analogy would be my other hobby, woodworking.  Think about building something from wood, say a box.  There are a number of steps that need to happen.  First a drawing is needed.  Then I have to get the wood, glue, finish, nails, screws, sandpaper, and other things.  Then I go to the workshop.  I’ll cut, sand, glue, nail and paint until I have my finished box.  Then I’ll likely show my finished box to my wife, some friends and brag about it at my woodworking club meeting.  It’s also possible that I’ll take some pictures of it and post it on my blog.

So what part of all that is “woodworking?”  Yes, all of it is.

Same is true with writing.  There are many parts.  There’s research, editing, revising, writing, posting to the blog, working with editors, and planning the publicity tour for your next best seller.  Come on, we can dream here.

Perhaps the most over looked part of writing is getting the idea for your story.  Often inspiration is considered a passive activity.  Some people think, as I used to, that you just go about life and suddenly a great idea will smack you upside the head and whamo you’re on the best seller list.

It doesn’t work that way and is the number one cause of writer’s block: sitting on your backside waiting for inspiration.  Becoming inspired and finding good ideas are proactive tasks.  You have to go searching for it and it takes some work.

In 1987 I found a book, Writer’s Block and How to Use It, by Victoria Nelson.  I think this one is currently out of print and the only thing I really remember about it is the title.  The title does hold the basis for how I think about writing now – if you’re blocked, use it, be active about your creativity.

After reading this book, I’d do things like free writing or reading books about writing – anything that would just get my fingers typing on the keyboard.  I also found during this time that often I get blocked on a piece of writing because of the emotions that the writing is generating in me – especially anything that is autobiographical. This is a time when I find spending time writing about why I am blocked, helps.

There are times though when we are truly empty inside and don’t have the creative energy to write anything. It’s times like this when I think of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way and her concept of breathing in.  The idea is that in order to spend energy creating something, first you have to gather in creative energy.  You do this in a number of ways.  Take a walk, hike, ride a bike, anything physical that allows you to let your mind just rest.  You should read books, watch movies, see plays and so on. Have a coffee with a friend, or go to a poetry reading. Go to art shows, concerts, museums – anyplace where you’ll find things that inspire you.  This is the act of breathing in.

As you experience the creativity of others, or of nature, you’ll fill up your creative self with energy, inspiration and lots of ideas.  After you’ve been somewhere take a moment to write about what you’ve seen, felt and experienced.  I am willing to bet that the words will just flow.

Which brings me to a book I found last year in an art museum’s gift shop, Steal Like an Artist, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon.

If you spend any time in the halls of your local university studying literary criticism, you’ll eventual despair as you begin to realize that all literature and indeed most creative works are really derivative.  Ideas build on each other and as it’s been said so many times, “It’s all been done before.”

Look at your favorite stories and movies in depth and you’ll find they are really just clever rearrangements of existing ideas.   Just think of the Harry Potter books and how much of that world we’ve seen in other places.  Witches, wizards, dragons, trolls, dark magic trying to take over the world and the young reluctant hero who has to save us.  How many times have we heard that story?

Yet JK Rowling added one interesting twist, “What if there was a school for magic that looked like an English Public School?”  And then wow, that one spark and we have a compelling story.

Kleon’s book starts out by asking, “Were do artists get their ideas?” The answer is, “They steal them.”  He then goes on to talk about some of the great ways we can be creative.  Things like have side projects, hobbies, be boring (let your mind rest), share your work, steal ideas properly, and write what you like.

Being consistently creative is really about putting yourself into the path of inspiration by looking at all the creative things around you, stealing the best parts and figuring out how to put those together in new ways.

And just so you  know, I stole most of this post from the three books I mentioned.

Writing Change

I’ve always wanted to write.  In my teens I had a love for speculative and science fiction.  In particular, I loved dystopia and post apocalyptic stories.  Books like, Earth Abides, Alas Babylon, 1984, Brave New World, and On The Beach, were subjects that interested me.  In the movies, Planet of the Apes, Phase IV, THX1138, Silent Running and other similar stories drew me in.  I wanted to write those kinds of stories.

At sixteen I even started to write a post nuclear war novel that I titled, The Day After.  Sadly in 1983, after years of little progress that title was stolen from me by a made for TV movie of the same subject.  Figuring I’d never sell the title, I gave up writing it.  Likely for the best as I’d gotten stuck writing endless descriptions of the tools the people used with very little story or character development.

After that my writing went in two different directions.  One was professional, on my job I did a fair amount of technical writing (procedures, manuals, theory of operation guides) and the other was short stories.  My fiction writing was undisciplined and I tended to writing bursts, sometimes with years between producing anything.  Some of it was okay, but most lacked the polish a good story needed.

My tastes in books started to change as I entered my mid-thirties.  I read less fiction and more religious books on theology, preaching, the Bible and so on.  Most of my writing during this time of my life was actually sermons I wrote for church or various workshops I attended.  Again, my writing was in binges, based in inspiration that rarely came.  It was frustrating writing, with only occasional flashes of quality.

It was about this time that I started back to community college with an eye toward completing my BA.  I was already employed as a software engineer and after having to retake calculus twice, I decided that I’d pursue my dream of being a writer.  I left the engineering and math classes and entered the world of English and literature.

It wasn’t easy.  In addition to a lack of discipline, I also suffered from three problems when it came to writing:

  1. I couldn’t spell – seriously, I almost failed the 6th grade because I couldn’t remember how to spell words.  Once I asked a teacher how to spell, ‘of.’  If it wasn’t for spell checkers, on-line dictionaries and my wife, I couldn’t spell anything (really, took me three times to spell that word ‘anything’).
  2. I couldn’t read my own hand writing.  They almost held me back in the third grade because no one could teach me how to write with a pencil.  If it wasn’t for typewriters and now computers, I’d just be one of the carpenters banging nails into your house.
  3. Proofreading was a mysterious art beyond my comprehension.  I’ve been told the theory, even took a class in it, but for the life of me I just couldn’t seee tpyos.

I had to find ways to cope with these impediments.  A good computer, word processing software and internet access has helped tremendously.  On the proofreading front, it’s my wife who graciously does most of the copy editing for me.  Without the tools and help from my wife, I wouldn’t be able to write as I do today.  I still struggle with these issues, but I make small improvements with practice.

Progressing through my English degree, I learned to perfect my writing skills as I wrote paper after paper for my classes.  Each had tight deadlines and specific requirements.  This helped give me more discipline and control over my writing process.  There wasn’t anything magical in the education, just a willingness to work hard.

Something else happened as I progressed through getting married, and studying English – my tastes in literature changed.  While I still like a good SciFi story, it’s no longer the first thing I reach for.  I am more likely to pick up a history book or a biography.

Along the way I also ran into Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  Cameron’s concepts have refined many of my notions on what writing and creativity is all about.  I am especially mindful of her notion of “Breathing in.”  That is, doing things that feed your artistic soul or in her terms, the artist’s date.  For me that is things like hiking in the woods, reading, working in my wood shop, visiting art museums, seeing movies and so on.

Writing doesn’t all happen at the keyboard.  Much of it happens in the car on the way to work or while walking around the roots of a redwood tree.  This part – the words on the page – is just the result of a longer process of creativity. That was a notion I missed in my early years of writing.

Today I write in ways I never intended as a teen.  Most of my writing is on my blog where I’ve managed to mostly keep up a weekly writing routine.  This writing is generally personal essays, light humor and poetry.

Poetry is the other major change in my writing.  Until recently, I wasn’t much interested in poems.  I studied them when I had to at the university, but never had a passion for them.  Some of my professors did note from time to time that my writing had a ‘lyrical’ quality.  Oh, I wrote a few poems over the years.  Some in my 20s, a couple in my 30s.  There was a poem about a computer, a house that burned down and even a love poem or two.

But there was one transformational experience that has changed my writing. In, 2011 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  The radiation treatments have worked and I am three years post treatment with no re-occurrence. Last year I thought it was time I wrote a book and thought I’d start with a book about my experience with cancer.  I’d blogged about it, so the theory was that I’d just tidy those posts up, add detail to them and expand it into a nice work of prose.

I sat down to write
and just couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t get past the emotion of
those days,
those fears,
those tears.

A sentence wasn’t long
enough to contain
that short punch to the gut
of the call
from the doc.

Only in abstract,
only in vision,
only in emotion,
could I show that tale
where the world shifted
and perception changed.

Holding the feeling my hand
and seeing with my heart
was the only way
my brain could paint
a story for your eye.

Today I write different
Today I think different
I embrace change
and let my words take flight.

That book of poems,
now sits on the coffee table
with a red pen as Heather edits
and I contemplate the next step.

So I’ll close with this thought:
embrace the change that is you
and keep writing however you can.


Showing, not Telling

“Show, don’t tell.”  Great advice for any writer and the advice that annoys me the most. Seriously, it’s irritating on many levels, not the least of which is that it is spot on in most cases.  The problem isn’t with the suggestion, but rather with the delivery.  The first writing workshop I attended that discussed this failed to offer any examples of what this looked like.  Instead of explanation and example there were vague threats like:

Your work will never be accepted if you don’t learn how to ‘Show and not tell.’

Great, not only did I not understand what it was, but now if I didn’t do it I’d be branded as an ignorant failure.

I’ve also had teachers who’ve taken their time to explain, shown examples and offered suggestions in my writing on how to achieve this.  Still, even with time and practice, it can be difficult to figure out what this means while your fingers are pounding away on the keys.

I will admit that it is something I tend to do by intuition rather than conscious thought.  I tend to feel my way through a poem or story and show where I think appropriate.  There are a few things in my mind that are triggers.  Some of the things I look for are emotions, the verb to be (is, was, etc) and simple nouns, like “tree” or “fence.”  These are areas where I am often guilty of telling rather than showing. I am also on a campaign to eliminate the use of the word, “very,” in my writing, but that’s for another post.

Emotions can be easy to show.  For example:

Bob was happy with the new car.  Could be rewritten: Bob smiled as he closed the door, smelling the new car smell just before he turned the key and the powerful engine roared to life.

Likely, I’d add a couple of more sentences to fill that out but you get the idea.

The verb to be (is, are, was, am, etc) is another trigger for me.  For example: Bob is a doctor.

Well isn’t that nice and boring?  Think about what a doctor looks like and acts like.  What do doctors say? How would you know one if you saw one?  Now, I’d like you to write two or three sentences showing me that Bob is a doctor.

I’ll give you a minute…

Here’s what I came up with:

Bob brushed a bit of lint off his white lab coat and pulled the chart out of the rack on the exam room door.  It was Mrs. Smith again, still complaining about her back.  He put on his best bedside smile and turned the handle saying, “Betty, let’s look at those x-rays I sent you to get and see what we can do.”

Or something like that.

Sometimes a simple noun, like “tree” or “car” needs more description around it to truly inform your reader what you mean.  Think of the word tree.  What image is in your mind?  Draw a picture of it.

I was thinking of the tall California coastal redwoods along the trails I like to hike.  Were you thinking the same tree?  Or were thinking of that maple tree just down the street?

One time I tried that little exercise with a group of software engineers.  Most told me about trees they grew up with: maple, pine, magnolia and cherry.  One engineer surprised me when he said, “I was thinking of a file directory tree on my computer.”  Your readers have the uncanny ability to interpret your words in ways you didn’t intend.  When it matters what kind of tree your writing needs, you have to be specific and show me what’s in your mind or I’ll be thinking computers while you’re writing about leaves.

Or sometimes, just telling me is okay.  Showing generates a lot of words and sometimes to move the plot along faster and maintain the story’s pace it’s okay to just say, “Bob sat under the maple tree.”  The question you need to ask is, “how important is that tree?” If it’s just a prop, tell me it’s there.  If it’s important that Bob be at that tree for a specific reason, show me why.

Now, let’s again think about that sentence with Bob sitting under the maple tree.  If you were a movie director, how would you film that?  What would it look like on a movie screen or as part of a TV show?  Movies, television, plays and other visual forms are all naturally about showing.

When you write about Bob and the maple tree, write it as though you were seeing it through the lens of a camera and show me the richness of the green leaves, the smell of new-mown grass, the slight rise of the hill, the cooling summer breeze, his shoes tossed aside and his smile as Betty slowly sits down beside him.

It takes practice, but you’ll get it.
Keep writing,

Hi, I’m Andrew

I’ve always had a desire to write and to be creative.  I wrote my first play in third grade and showed it to some friends.  They liked it and laughed at the jokes I put in.  It was almost three pages long.  Sadly, I’ve lost the manuscript.

In my teens I developed a taste for science fiction movies and started to read science fiction books.  Then I discovered magazines like, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Analog.  If you would have asked me back then what I liked to read, I likely would have given you a long, well rehearsed lecture on “speculative fiction” and how that differed from science fiction.  That is in part due to my taste for post apocalyptic books like Earth Abides, Alas Babylon, and On The Beach.

Over time I developed the urge to write and had the desire to become a science fiction writer.  It was more than just a bit of a dream, as I actually sat down and started to write a book.   Most of the adults who I showed it to were encouraging, but I was young and lacked the persistence to complete the work.

Later, after I started work as an electronic technician in the fledgling personal computer manufacturing business, I tried my hand again, writing a few stories.  Knowing that I didn’t really know much about how to write a good story, I did attend a few writing classes and attended science fiction conventions where I’d seek out the writing sessions.  I learned a lot and had the courage to send a few of my short stories and a poem to a few magazines.  All of which were, quite rightly, immediately rejected.  Since that experience I proudly tell everyone that I’ve been rejected by the best magazines in the world.

Then life happened and in my rush to develop a career, earn lots of money, a car, a house and all the “things” my young mind thought were important, I suppressed my desire to write.  I did take the odd class in writing from time to time and did write a story or two.  There was a fairytale I wrote for my mother’s birthday, a short story about the world falling apart, and one with the title, Turpentine.

That was a strange experience.  I had been at the grocery store and smelled the faint odor of turpentine as I got into my car. The word beat in my mind. When I got home, I sat in front of the keyboard and in the early hours of the morning finished a “boy meets girl” story set in an alternate reality.

I showed the story to my friends and they liked it.  It was a year or so after I wrote that story that I started dating a woman who was much like the girl I’d written about.  It was that realization that drove me to do the only really brave thing I’ve ever done, I asked her to marry me.  She’ll be the one editing this post before you read it.

There was another thing in my life that I had always wanted to do and that was to get a bachelor’s degree in English.  I didn’t have the money, or family support to go to the university in my youth, so as I approached middle age I was determined to find a way.  There were years of night classes at the local community college and years of saving money.  Then there was a very supportive wife and at 45 years-old, I took two years off work, and attended San Jose State University, where I earned that BA in English.

At SJSU I spent most of my time studying literary criticism.  I read the classics of English literature and wrote paper after paper analyzing them.  It was there that I finally admitted that I had lost my taste for science fiction and confirmed my desire to write.

In the spring of 2011, I gathered up my nerve and started writing a blog at  Sadly my first attempts were without much discipline and I didn’t achieve my self-made goals of frequency, or quality.

Then my world forever changed.  Late in the year, the doctor called with the news that short circuited my brain.  I had prostate cancer and needed to be treated.  Between the tears, fears and starting radiation treatments I felt an overwhelming need to write down what was happening to me.  I put those words in my blog.  They just poured out, and kept coming.

It was that experience that drove me to commit to myself that I’d write at least once a week and in the last three years, I’ve been able to maintain that schedule most of the time.

About a year ago I started having trouble writing.  It was becoming difficult to start and hard to complete the pieces I did start.  Then an odd thing happened – I started to write a post and out came a poem.

And then another poem.  Then came the memory of my teachers telling me I had “lyrical quality” to my writing.  I decided to embrace it and now call myself, “A poet and writer.”

When I sat down to write a book about my cancer experience, I decided to do it as a collection of poems.  It was the only way for my mind to approach the subject without freezing up at the keyboard.  I’ve finished that collection and am now working on getting it ready for publication.  I don’t have a publisher for the book and haven’t decided if I’ll self-publish or not.

Writing hasn’t been easy for me.  It has plenty of challenges and there are things I don’t do well.  I am horrible speller.  Seriously, I can’t spell to save my life.  In fact in the sixth grade there was serious talk of holding me back a year so I could improve my spelling. If it wasn’t for spell checkers, Google and my wife, I couldn’t spell.  Then there is handwriting.  I can’t do it.  Hand me a pencil and a piece of paper and even I can’t read what I write.  If it weren’t for typewriters and now computers, no one would be able to read my words.

And commas, what are those about?  My wife claims I don’t breath when I write.  Honestly I do commas by instinct and hope Heather corrects them before I press the publish button on my blog.

And the list goes on.  I am not a perfect writer and I still have plenty to learn.  It’s taken me some time to perfect what skill I have and I am always amazed that I’ve come this far.

That’s what I hope to share here on Today’s Author, what I’ve learned so far and how my writing journey is going.  I am convinced that if you have the desire, you’ll be able to write and grow in your abilities.

I am grateful that the good folks here have decided to let me join in the conversation as one of their writers.

Keep writing,