Saturday, July 30, 2016

How to Improve Your Writing

Running, Runner, Long Distance, Fitness, FemaleI enjoy walking for exercise. I have a balky knee, which keeps me from doing what I really love, running, but I continue to putter along in a less impactful way. Before my knee went bad on me, though, I ran pretty seriously. Slowly, but seriously. I ran in half marathons. And one of the things I learned in my quest to become better at running is that you don't always have to run long distances to improve. When I was training, in fact, I would only run long one day a week, with shorter, specific types of runs other days, rest on others, and cross-training on still others. Cross-training is doing other kinds of exercise that improve you in your chosen sport. There are specific exercises you can do to make your body more ready to run long distances.

The same is true for writing. If you're a novelist, like I am, in order to get better at that, the primary thing you should probably do, and I know this isn't exactly groundbreaking news, is write novels. But it's by no means the only thing you have to do. In fact, I would argue it's not the only thing you should do. Just like distance runners do specific kinds of runs and specific kinds of cross-training on days they aren't running long, writers should be doing other things regularly to improve in the type of writing they consider their primary writing mode. Here are three things I argue will improve your primary writing.

Child, Writing, Writer, Journal, Paper, Writer' Block1. Write If you're new to this blog, you may think a small child has broken in and taken over this guy's computer. But here's what I mean. You don't need to write on your novel every day. But you do need to write just about every day. One of the things that has made the greatest difference in the quality of my writing has been the fact that I've begun writing for a magazine. I started out writing book reviews, but have since branched out to play reviews and even general articles. I had no idea I was capable of writing non-fiction at all, much less do a decent job of it. But my editor says I'm actually good. And the bonus is that it's improved my writing on the days I'm working on my novels. I can't quantify it, but I can say that I approach my books with greater confidence and enthusiasm now that I've been writing in other modes on off days. So, if you can't get a job writing something else, then just do it on your own. Start a blog. Go on Pinterest and find writing prompts that you can use. Write poetry. Write letters to the editor. Write. All writing improves all writing.

Books, Bookstore, Book, Reader, Readers, Reading, Shop
2. Read. Read a lot. Stephen King said, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." I agree. But the question is, what should you read? Everything. If, like me, you write mystery and detective novels, you should probably be reading in that genre. But don't stop there. Read romance. Read YA. Read non-fiction. Read literary fiction. Read book reviews. Read articles and books about writing. Read deeply. A recent article in Psychology Today concludes that what you read, how much you read, and how you read it makes more of a difference to the quality of your writing than earlier believed. It's the mental equivalent of saying that if you want to get stronger, you need to lift heavier weights. If you're interested, the article is here.

Girls, Colorful, Smile, Funny, Happiness, Women, Pretty3. Live intentionally There's this image of the writer as a hermit who lives holed up in front of a keyboard or a pad of paper doing nothing but writing, but I think we can all agree that the best writers are not just those with the best vocabulary or ability to turn a phrase, but also those who seem to have something interesting and unique to say about the human condition and about how we relate to one another. In order to do that, it's probably best if you actually, you know, relate sometimes with other people. Human people. Meat world people, not just the ones we make up in our heads. So go places. Do things. Live. Talk to people. Laugh. Cry. Get angry. And pay attention. Take notes. Listen to what people say and how they say it. Write it down. Notice how people treat each other and how it affects them. Write that down too. Those are the things that will make your characters come to life when you get back to your keyboard or pad of paper.

So those are my ideas for becoming a better writer. Probably not new ideas, but how many of those are there? What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Qualify? Additions? I'd love to hear from you.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Finding a New Narrative Voice

As you may know if you follow my writing career, other than a few short stories, I've always written with one voice: Harry Shalan's. And people who know me well and read my books say that they hear me when they read Harry, so it's not much of a stretch to write him. Yes, hes' fictional and yes, he's married and yes he's good at a lot of things that I'm not and yes he's considerably younger than I, so he and I aren't the same person. But our sensibilities and attitudes toward the world are identical. We have the same moral compass and the same sense of humor and the same tastes in everything to women to food.

Which is why my new writing project is an exciting challenge for me. I'm writing with a third person narrator who is limited to knowledge of the thoughts of the main character. Part of what makes it tricky is maintaining the balance between allowing the narrator as a character to have a voice of its own and allowing the thoughts and level of development of the main character, who is currently an extremely gifted five-year-old right now, to bleed in. As she ages, so will her language and understanding of the world. But the narrator will remain static.
Sound, Wave, Voice, Listen, Digitalkunst
Another big change for me is the overall tone of the piece. It's not that it's humorless, but it's generally a much more serious take on the world than Harry's. Because I tend to be a sarcastic and humorous person, writing in a voice that isn't like that is tough sometimes. As I said, there are occasional humorous elements, but they are much more gentle and event-driven than in my Shalan books, in which the humor comes from the main characters' responses to situations.

Boxer Dogs, Dogs, Good Aiderbichl, Sanctuary
This is what Eddie looks like in my
head. He's modeled after my late
dog Ginger visually and in
I'm enjoying this change of pace, but if you're a fan of Harry, Dee, Jenn, Otis, and Eddie, have no fear. I've no intention of retiring them any time soon. I enjoy taking on the persona of Harry Shalan, Private Eye, the slightly bent but gallant modern knight, as he travels around town in his noble steed Ellie saving the day. So please be patient as I stretch my literary legs a little and see if I can find a different voice that's just as satisfying.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Difference Between a Writer And An Author

I've reflected a few times over the years on this blog about whether or not I'm a writer. In fact, it was one of the first posts I ever wrote, and I've re-examined the issue periodically. But now, looking back, I realize my focus may have been wrong. It could be that the proper question doesn't ask whether I'm a writer. Instead, I may need to ask myself whether I'm an author. I'm not a hundred percent sure they're the same thing.

I believe lots of people can call themselves writers. Bloggers, people who write poems or short stories or even novels are all writers. Literally the only thing that is required for you to call yourself a writer is that you do it relatively regularly, whether for publication or just because you want to.

Home Office, Workstation, Office, Business, NotebookBut I think maybe an author is a little different from a writer. I think it has to do with a few ways in which the two diverge, such as how seriously you take your craft (or even if you see what you do as a craft), how much time you put into it, and what you do with your writing when it's finished.

Writers write. That's all it takes. But I believe to become an author, I must take it beyond the simple placing of words on a page (or screen). Authors craft their words so that they do and say exactly what they want them to do and say. They closely examine all aspects of their writing, from word choice to sentence structure to character development to story arc. They see what they are doing as both an art and a craft. Truly great writers have a way with words, a facility for creating memorable characters and stories, but a writer who isn't an author won't spend the time and effort to make those words, characters, and stories have the maximum impact on the reader.

Entrepreneur, Startup, Start-Up, Man, Planing, BusinessAnother way in which not all writers are authors has to do with how much of a time commitment one gives to writing that the other doesn't. I believe I was a writer when I wrote my first book. I'm pretty sure I wasn't an author. I wrote a book, but I certainly can't say I crafted it. And that's the difference. I proofread it after I wrote it. But I didn't put in the time and work to make it approach the level of art. I'm not saying it's terrible, but I'm definitely not saying it's good. Actually I am saying that ugly brown thing I first published really was terrible. It wasn't good in any way. The cover was ugly and it just wasn't ready for publication. The process I go through now when I write a book is much more thorough and contemplative than it was then.

The final way in which the two things are different in my view can be illustrated by something a friend told me. He's a bookstore owner who carries a small section of local writers. He told me that I'm one of only two local authors who actually sell any books. He said a lot of folks have this feeling that they'd like to write a book, so they do, and they even go so far as to self-publish it. But then they stop. They don't write more books and they don't publicize the one they did write. I'd say I spend at least as much time on the non-writing half of writing as I do on the actual writing. I maintain my online presence daily. I enter writing contests. I do readings and signings. I go to book events like the WV Book Festival. I travel and meet with bookstore owners trying to get my book into as many stores as possible. I think that, as much as the actual writing, makes me an author.

Let me finish by saying that I didn't write this to exclude anyone or make anyone feel like less. This is purely a personal reflection. It's a reminder to myself that if I want to call myself an author, I need to take my writing more seriously. More seriously than I used to when I first decided I wanted to write books and more seriously today than I did yesterday. Otherwise, I'm just a writer. And I want to be an author.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Loving New Orleans

Greetings from the Big Easy! I've been visiting friends here since Wednesday and what a visit it's been. I've done more and eaten more amazing food already than one might expect to do and eat in a month. Each day has been completely full. And the best part is that I get to do all these things with my beloved friend Jenna, who is graciously taking time off from work to play host for my adventures. Here's a rundown of the week so far.

We hit the ground running with a New Orleans Zephyrs baseball game. Actually, half a game. My flight into NOLA was delayed for so long by weather that we ended up missing the first five innings. But we got in a good hour of baseball, with the home team coming out on top. But most of all, it was a nice chance to sit and visit with Jenna and her husband Mitch.

The next day got a bit of a late start because Jenna had to get some last-minute things done at her work. I took advantage of the time by getting a couple thousand words written on the first draft of my new book. More on that in coming weeks, but it's coming along quite nicely. But once she got back, we were off for a driving tour of much of New Orleans, ending with dinner in the French Quarter that was beyond my meager ability to describe it. The city is known for its amazing seafood, so I chose a jumbo lump crab cake after a peach and blueberry salad with goat cheese and candied pecans. The salad was delicious, but nothing compared to the heavenly joy that was the entree. It was impeccably prepared and, simply put, elevated the crab cake to the level of culinary art.

After dinner, we were off to Preservation Hall, which is a true hole in the wall. It has no air conditioning or restrooms, serves no food or drinks, the floors and walls are in varying states of decay and disrepair, and there is usually seating enough for roughly half of the people who pay the admission fee for one of the three nightly sets. But no one cares about any of that. Its name refers to the fact that it's dedicated to the preservation of the pure art of jazz music. The music was unadorned by any microphones or anything electronic. There was barely even any lighting. It was just an hour of six dedicated musicians plying their craft lovingly. It speaks to how transporting the concert was that it seemed to last only about fifteen minutes. I was genuinely flabbergasted when they said they were finished because I was convinced we had just gotten started.

Yesterday was even busier. It started with a trip to Honey Island for a tour. We were piloted in a great long flat-bottomed boat with the biggest outboard motor I have ever seen (250 hp!) by a skilled and personable man named Gary through the sometimes narrow and seemingly impassible waterways of the Honey Island swamp. Along the way, we encountered several alligators, which were drawn to our boat by the promise of hot dogs and marshmallows. We didn't get to see the biggie, though. Our pilot said Brutus, who is about fourteen feet long, is a little more cautious of the tour boats than the relatively smaller ones we got to see. We also saw a pack of feral pigs, many turtles, a raptor of some kind and a lovely crane. We also saw the devastating effect of Hurricane Katrina. Even all these years later, it can be seen in the industrial wreckage and empty pilings where houses once stood. Gary told us that some houses were picked up and carried more than a mile. It was a lovely, exhilarating, and humbling experience.

Back in town, we stopped off at a place called Mahony's for po' boys. I learned that the main attribute that makes a sandwich a po' boy is the bread. It's a French loaf that's super crusty on the outside and light as air on the inside. Mine had shrimp and a spicy remoulade sauce. I remarked to Jenna that my mouth was going to be so sad when I went home. Then we trekked across town to the banks of the mighty Mississippi and a visit to the Audubon Aquarium. Dedicated to showcasing and preserving the unique flora and fauna of the Mississippi delta and Gulf, it was a seemingly endless display of fascinating creatures. Plus, it was cool and dark--a nice counterpoint to the heat and humidity of the morning's swamp tour. After going home to shower (and take a two-hour nap), we were off again. Stopping by a cool joint called the Pita Pit to pick up dinner, we headed to the aquarium's sister, the Audubon Zoo, for movie night. We watched Jurassic World under the stars, accompanied by a highly curious and extremely loud peacock who seemed to know just when to squawk. He had apparently seen the movie before.

Today, after stopping for beignets for breakfast, it's off to Gulfport, Mississippi for a walk along the beach, some shopping, and a tour of a local brewery. I forget what Jenna has planned for us this evening, but it will undoubtedly be equally fun. Tomorrow, we're scheduled for brunch at a beautiful historic restaurant followed by a tour of the World War II museum. Sometime before I leave, we're touring a plantation and going to at least one more concert. I know I'm going to need a long, long nap to recover from this vacation and is it ever going to be worth it.

I have many more picture on my Facebook page if you would like to see them.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Happy July 4th!

Grilling, Grill, Frying, Picnic, Eating, HolidaysIt seems like my summer break from school has just begun and here we are, almost to Independence Day Eve. That's not an actual thing, but you know what I mean. I always thought of July 4th as kind of the midpoint of summer vacation. In no time, we'll start to see youth and school football, soccer, and volleyball teams practicing; gardens and yards start to die out; and that faint but unmistakable scent of the approaching-faster-than-seems-possible autumn. I don't mind as much as I did when I was a kid. I was always a worrier and, sadly, I didn't enjoy the part of of summer after the Fourth because I spent a lot of time counting down how many days of "freedom" I had left before I had to go back to prison. The irony of how much I hated school is not lost on me at all.

But I digress. The Fourth of July is a great day to contemplate the meaning of being American. I'm a patriotic guy. I believe that, when we're at our best, the US is an amazing place to live as well as an outstanding global neighbor. How often we're at our best is a question to be answered by people much more thoughtful and political than I. We are a place where you are free to do and be what you believe in, as long as whatever you do and are doesn't infringe on the right of other people to do and be what they believe in.
Usa, Flags, Stars And Stripes, United States Of America
At least we were. It feels like what it means to infringe on someone else's rights has been changed in my lifetime, and not always for the better. It used to be that we didn't have the right not to be offended by someone else because not being offended isn't a constitutionally defensible right. It's something you get over, not something you go to court to get redressed. Yes, there's bullying, which is reprehensible and shouldn't be tolerated, but being offended by someone's simply being who they are is a completely ridiculous concept. Even if that person is a horrible, horrible person, as long as what they do and believe isn't in itself illegal or harmful to others, that's not something that you legally force the to change. Disagree with them? Sure. That's your right. It's almost your obligation. It's what we should do here in the United States. Discuss. Hash out. Disagree. Agree to disagree. But to have the law intercede because their ideas are "dangerous" in that they don't match yours--well, that's un-American.

Censorship, Limitations, Freedom Of ExpressionSo this weekend, as we approach Independence Day, let me encourage you to consider your rights, but also to consider your obligation to protect the rights of others. Please consider the possibility that, even if you think someone's opinions or beliefs are un-American, they have the right to have those beliefs and opinions right up until the moment they actually do something to bring down our country. And if you feel like someone else's opinions or beliefs make you feel like less of a person, you have the right to disagree with those beliefs, vocally. Speak out. Stand up. Prove them wrong.

But please don't try to squash that other person's opinion. You're not going to change their minds by being louder. There's a really good chance you aren't going to change their minds at all. Human beings aren't really great at that. But if you do have a chance, it's going to be by proving through calm words and consistent actions that your beliefs are right. Every racist or misogynist or xenophobe who changed their mind did it because they were taught, through words from those they respect and through actions of others that show the error of their attitudes, that categorizing people by one attribute is narrow-minded and wrong, not because a bunch of the people they want to oppress yelled at them and got their rights taken away.
Monkey, Screaming, Yelling, Loud, Wild, Primate
That got a lot closer to political than I usually go. Mainly because I believe in your rights to be who you are so much that I hesitate to push my beliefs on others. But because I believe in that inalienable human right so much, I thought I should take the time to defend it.

I hope I didn't offend you.