The Perils of Captain Tangent, a Pantser’s Writing Journey in Pictures


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Sean Parker via

Imagine that’s me huddled in the rocks beneath an infinite sky with a story I’ve written cupped in my palms.  Do I release it like a dove to the big wide world, or not.  There’s no easy answer for a pantser writer like me.

It all starts well, but somewhere in the process I always get lost by straying from the story arc in search of a new trail. As a friend cautioned, I’m susceptible to the antics of the antihero, Captain Tangent, defined by Yogi Berra’s famous quip, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

I am the master of the side journey and story scenes that entice me toward a glimmer of light on a dark trail with promises of enhancing the story arc, only to lead to a dead end. I write with a story mindset easily seduced by a maze of infinite paths, unable to see the pitfalls around the next corner. You need to be more disciplined, make notes, follow a plan,” literary superheroes tell me.  I do make notes. I just – tend not to use them much. Why is that, Captain Tangent? My story telling imagination is a twisted spaghetti junction of chaos.  It’s where all the fun is, where the best story elements lie, waiting for me to grab on while riding a hundred-mile-per-hour carnival ride.

It’s hard to describe what I go through in words. How ironic is that? I like visuals you can sense, and I’ll turn to the amazing photography of talented artists from to help me.


Like most writers, I get a story spark from an ocean of ideas, and nurture it to the seedling of a first chapter.  It sprouts robust and green in the dung ball I planted it.


I have a sense for how I want the story to conclude. It’s that subtle glimmer on a distant mountain in the dead of winter, of which I must return the story back to the shores of where the spark arose and result in the sunset of a good ending.

A little studying to research best conditions for the seedling to grow, followed by rifling through the card catalog of genres to repot it in – science fiction (soft or hard), dystopian, alternate universe, contemporary or fantasy.  Who decides where it fits? So many choices, just write the damned thing.


What must sprout first in the story’s first chapters?  Characters of course. Some writers claim to have a clear visual of the protagonist, some prefer to obscure individual traits and leave it to the reader to decide. Me?  Physical traits tend to change as I write, and often remain a featureless manikin until it’s decided how to dress it.

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Samuel Zeller via

Voice.  I’ve learned the hard way how important it is for setting the tone. Important characters with a voice thinner than a sheet of paper will result in boring drivel.

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Meghan Duthu via

Will my characters navigate the journey within the noise of many?

Or walk alone?

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Luis Del Rio Camancho via

Do one last setting check, like a director framing a movie.

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Okay. I’ve got a handle on the beginning and the end. My plotter superheroes staple notes to my forehead. Hey McFly, take the straight and narrow road. Use the bridges. And for God’s sake, don’t go off again on those hairpin roads to nowhere.” They want me to turn off the GPS in my head knowing all too well it rarely works in remote terrain.

Think I’m ready now. The trail is clearly marked, and though it’s a little foggy and the path covered in leaves, I’m ready to take the first step.

Chapter one.  It was a dark and stormy night … read to the sounds of a phonograph needle scraping across a vinyl record.  Yeah, I know, don’t start with the weather. Just checking to see if my ADD medication has kicked in yet. Oh, and no waking up from a dream either.

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Jeremy Bishop via

How about this for a start.

Historical archives painted a somber scene of the few humans still surviving before extraterrestrials showed up like benevolent gods to save us from ourselves. Not like humankind had a choice. Do as our alien saviors suggested, or they would leave with all their advanced technology and return the planet to the state they found it in, and oh-by-the-way, will the last human standing, please turn off the lights.’


Enter the protagonist, the human who will guide us in the tale, resolving from the mist of my imagination.

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Tiko Giogadze via

Though I cemented my reputation as class gadfly with poly-metal-ceramic fiber, twenty-four hours from now, I will still join others in my age group, newly minted adult females in our so-called Utopian Matriarchy. We don’t fail these things.  But gee whiz, Behr, think you could have spared Aunt Victoria major embarrassment? To dump fuel on a burning shuttlecraft, Aunt Vic is going to kill me when she learns I accidentally dropped off the balcony, a dress she selected for the Presentation Day Ball.’ 


Four chapters written, the path looks clear ahead. I need a reality check. Did each chapter hook ’em, and did I leave ’em hanging at chapter end?


Ten chapters now completed, and it’s time to check the basics before continuing.

Showing versus telling – Roger Ground Control, we have a green light on all sensory detectors.


Finally, the faces have resolved in my head.


How’s that romance tension coming along?

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Mikael Kristenson via

Reread last few scenes, check action sequences, and see if there’s any road bumps in the dialogue and narrative. Looking good.


Time for a little mirth, give the reader a breather. Send in the clown.

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Diana Feil via


Doing great.  I love where the story is going. Oh look, need to make a plot decision to go right or left.

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Jens Lelie via

Pantser check light just came on. Ah – we’re fine. I ignore the warning. Go left.

Wait a minute, where’d these guys come from? They’re blocking the path. Can’t see where I’m headed.

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Yuki Eyre via


Let’s turn around, see if we missed a road sign.

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Adrian via

Okaaaaayyyyyy – this doesn’t feel like the right direction, but maybe it ends up on the highway.

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Simon Matzinger via


Oh, shit.  Now what?

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Leio Mclaren via


Hmmmm, I don’t remember this bridge, but hey, looks like a well traveled road. Onward.

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Ahmad Kadhim via


Sure getting dark in here.  Maybe I should just go back and rewrite the last few scenes.

Ooh, look, pretty light.  Must be the oasis of better story telling.  Let’s check it out.

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Wilson Ye via


Uh oh. I can’t believe I went down this tangent.  One thing for sure – ain’t going down that hole.

Pantser light just winked off. It must be the battery, or it just gave up on me.

How do I write my way out of this?

 Let’s try it this way. Little dark down there, but the cross-bridge looks intact. What could go wrong?

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Antonio Ron via


WTF. Where the hell am I?  I should have listened to my friends. What part of ‘don’t go down tangents’ did I not understand?

I’m three-quarters through my word count budget, and I can’t see the horizon.

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Dan Grinwis via


Wait.  Headlights up ahead. Yeah, always room for a new character. Hey buddy, you know how to get back on the story highway?  You can’t get there from here, he says, but if you go back a few miles, look for a weather-beaten sign with “Pantser Exit – Turn Right”, keep going until you see an old billboard with “Carnival of Unfinished Stories — Fun for the Whole Family”. Turn left until you come to it ends in a T. Go right, you can’t miss it.

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Son of a bitch. I turned right at the T like he told me. Was that bastard just messing with me? Now what? Flashlight of ideas is about to go out, and the story is colder than glacial ice.

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Jonatan Pie via


I give up. It was such a great story idea. Why do I always do this?  Write 20K words, trash fifteen.  Rinse, repeat. I can’t do this anymore. I plant my ass in the cave, and stare at nothing. I feel like my characters when they reach the end of their rope – drifting in endless woods of tangent side stories, my feet unable to find the way. Every time I reach out in the darkness, my hands find nothing.


I sleep on it. Maybe something will pop up in the morning. Daylight arrives, and I get my first good look at the world I’ve created, piled in the cave of discarded tangents of the past. I call one of my writer friends. What’s up dude? He shakes his head when he enters the cave. Whoa, you need to clean this mess up.

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I try a little levity to dull the sting. I tell him if I ever get out of this, I need to hang a sign above my desk. “Hi. I’ve lost my mind. I’ve gone to look for it. However, should it get back before I do, please ask it to wait.”


Like a good critique partner, he beckons me toward the cave entrance. I crawl out of the frigid waters of stories gone lost, wet and depressed.


Staring at a story that lost its wings, he reviews a checklist of parts that might get it air worthy.

The strangest thing happens. A shimmer of kaleidoscopic light appears over the wreckage. I say thanks for pulling my ass out of tangent hell, wave goodbye, and follow the inkling of an idea.

Well, I’ll be damned. My feet touch the asphalt of a well-written road several chapters back.


The road widens beneath a canopy of trees in their autumn cloak when I approach the story’s ending. Why didn’t I see this before. Writing a story is a lot like the seasons. They change depending on the elements, but the tree roots of a plot line remain firmly affixed to the ground in which it sprouted.

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Trevor Cole via


OMG, is that who I think it is? My characters silhouetted by the setting sun, embracing in the end, just as I envisioned when I first started.

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I dash toward them, heedless of undulating, ivy of tangent side stories reaching to ensnare me on the last page of the manuscript.

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I’ve found it. The end.


The last page written, the little sprout that could, has become a full-grown story.

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Johannes Plenio via



Thus completes my picture book, The Perils of Captain Tangent, a Pantser’s Writing Journey in Pictures.  May you never be cursed with an addiction to a malaise known as “Going-off-on-a-tangent.”



All photographs attributed to the individual artist have shared their amazing work free on the website,  If you need that perfect photo graphic for a blog or article, they give you the right to use it without restrictions. It isn’t required, but a little thank you to the artists when it pops up, goes a long way.  And don’t forget to sign up to their email list, so you stay current with the newest submissions.




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Writer Distraction 10

Considering I haven’t posted a blog article in a couple months, you might be tempted to say I’m lazy. Just for the record, I’ve been allocating all my time to finishing a damned sci-fi novel, in between standard and a few non-standard life issues.

Cue the sound of blowing raspberries.

Truth is I am easily distracted in my writing process, defined as taking too many side trips in storyville, or getting shanghaied by other projects.  It’s not unusual for me to write 10K words, then dump over half of it next day, cussing aloud for allowing myself to be drawn to unrelated tangents. It has something to do I think with my inability to compartmentalize a random synaptic twinkle without bounding after it like a dog after a stick.

As for diverting to other projects, it’s better demonstrated with an example. A couple months back, a group of fellow writers I hang with thought we should do an anthology. For those unfamiliar with the term, it is commonly a book or collection of selected writings by various authors, usually in the same literary form, or the same period, or on the same subject. It can also be a collection of selected writings by one author.  Never been much of a short story writer. How hard could it be?

Don’t answer that.

Writer Distraction 8

Just what a card carrying ADD writer like me needs, an invitation to board yet another distraction express. OF COURSE I’d like to participate. Thought I’d be efficient by skimming the hopper of story ideas for a suitable candidate. Couple of edits, change a few words, and presto, back to the novel.

That went over like a dirigible filled with argon gas.  I developed the character, and immediately fell in love with the story line. I painted the scene from memories of an old Shaker community I researched a bazillion-years-ago. Next thing I know, I’d written over 20K words, started wearing pants with suspenders, and used words like ‘thee’ at the dinner table.

Writing Distraction 5

So what’s the problem?  Couldn’t compress the story to be ‘short’ (I’m a pantser in need of an intervention if you forgot). My writer buds sensed it as well when they read the first draft. It wasn’t the usual affable commentary with ‘Gee whiz, this will be a great short story.  Questions made the rounds in our circle of chairs, like ‘what happened to such-n-such?’, and ‘you’re going to leave me hanging like this?’, and sorry dude, what part of short story did you misinterpret?

Starting to get the picture now?  My ‘writer style’, vernacular for characteristic behaviors associated with the amusement park known as my brain, goes deep into the story, unwilling to fit a great idea in less than 10K words. Too many neat side trails to explore.  I’ll start an idea, and not show up for meals. Nature calls to use the bathroom go unheeded until the cerebellum controlling automatic reflexes radios in with, Attention, urine release in five seconds – four – three …

Raise your hand if in the voluminous mail sack we call email, held invitations for time management courses specific to writers. Man-o-man, look at all those hands. It’s the subject du jour in writertopia. ‘Sign up today and learn how to organize your thoughts, finish that novel and not go crazy.’

Let’s clear the air. My definition of crazy is ‘mentally hilarious’, and I consider the word ‘organize’ akin to a four-letter epithet.

Sorry – got distracted.

Writer Distraction 11

First step in any intervention process is to recognize the problem. Check – got that one covered, I’m an effen basket case and proud of it.  Next up, identify actions required to change. How am I supposed to sift through a copious list of books, online help sites, and select one that covers the bases?  Remember that dog and stick mentality? Picture me as a gold retriever three tacos short of a combination plate, trapped in a gymnasium with an automatic tennis ball server stuck on rapid fire.

I settled on Time Management Tips for Writers, by Michelle V. Rafter. She gets the nod because it popped up on the first line of Google search. I mean – to get that slot means she has big mojo with the search engine gods – doesn’t it?

Ms. Rafter offered twelve helpful hints in short, easy to read order for quick scanning. (Another flaw in my character is speed reading, defined as just the facts ma’am – because I bore easily – which can lead to missing key points – wait, what were we talking about?).

Oh, right, the tips.


  1. Turn off distractions: A worthy starter. Now, how do I turn off the one distraction that gets in my way – ME.
  2. Use a timer: Oh, I’ve tried that. My cell phone dings several times a day for one thing or another. It takes a nanosecond to press stop without losing a train of thought currently holding my brain hostage. I could wire my chair to an electric outlet and time it, but I’d probably set the chair on fire.
  3. Use a goal buddy: Michelle suggests having someone schedule regular check-ins to see how it’s going.  Might work if I answered the phone while I’m working. Warbling phones have become white noise to me, like the air conditioner switching on, or the dog barking to go out (which I have to clean up later). I do work with a couple of awesome writer buddies, but I don’t think they’ll be into calling me up to see how my day is going, and ask if I need a potty break.
  4. Set goals: I set goals all the time, and forget them just as often. Setting a goal is a plotter thing. I’m a hard-core, easily distracted pantser. If I remember to wear pants, I met my goal.
  5. Reward yourself: You had me at ‘cocktails’. My wife knows exactly how to bring me back to the real world. I made your first martini. In truth, my reward is reading a first draft and saying, ‘damn, that’s good’. The feeling doesn’t last long, though. See Tip # 6.
  6. Break up the day into chunks: My best creativity is in the morning. I save the afternoon for trashing stuff that sucks from the day before. Forget evenings – martinis and productivity are not bedfellows.
  7. Follow a formal productivity regime: Oh God, this is beginning to sound like thirty-years of corporate experience, where ‘productivity’ was used in every other sentence, along with white-boarding, sticky-noting, and encouraging phrases like ‘collaborative brainstorming’. I don’t brainstorm, I brain-shit. It’s a messy business, but it works for me. Besides, memories of work-related productivity processes still give me the tremors.
  8. Use to-do lists: I’m an amazing list maker. I’ve been doing it for decades. I’ve got lists everywhere. Remember the movie, ‘A Beautiful Mind’?  How’s that working for ya?
  9. Work when nobody else is: I’m retired.  There isn’t anybody else, except my wife, and she has dibs on what free non-writing time is available. If I’m not writing – nobody – that’s me – is either.
  10. Work when you’re “on”: I’m always “on”. Just ask my wife when she catches me pacing the room, acting out a scene, mumbling to myself. When I’m “off”, it’s because I’m asleep.
  11. Tackle the hardest stuff first: Of all the tips here, this one makes sense, and I work at practicing it – until my creative imagination farts out a new thought. Then it’s off to see the wizard, merrily skipping down distraction brick road. Often makes me wonder how I stayed employed.
  12. Hire help: Michelle mentions hiring someone to complete banal chores like housecleaning, gardening, grocery shopping, and other tasks that don’t involve writing. On a retirement budget, I’m lucky to be able to hire myself. My wife considers me the hired help, often shouting through the heating  register with “shouldn’t you be cutting the lawn?” Cue sound of a mournful sigh.

Writer Distraction 12

A tip of the old fedora to Ms. Rafter for the effort. For a normal writer, it is an excellent starting point, which comes with her invitation for a more personal, one-on-one intervention.  As for me, should be obvious by now the concept of ‘normal’ is not an adequate descriptor. My siblings blame it on childhood years spent in the basement, lost in my own world.

If you stumbled here in search of answers, my profound apologies. I’ve learned to accept my quirks for what they are, and know I must trudge undeterred to completing things as best I can in distraction-ville.  The answers are out there, like Ms. Rafter’s Time Management Tips for Writers, and I’m sure you’ll do a better job of sorting through other help articles on the internet.

Writing Distraction 2

Oh, in case you’re interested if I finished the ‘damned sci-fi novel’, I’m close – as in two chapters to go.  So, enough chatter, back to the basement man cave where the radon and I have some unfinished business.


* Humorous graphics courtesy of the wonderful world of Pinterest, another site where I spend way too much time surfing.

Judging Someone Else’s Stuff


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Critique Wikihow

If you’re a writer, especially someone jumping into it as a newbie, eventually you find others who share the same experience.  Why? Well – it gets a little lonely in the writing cave. The one thing that drives us to others are strong messages that our work needs a second, third, maybe more set of eyes.

I participate in several writer communities.  From this network of fellow word smiths, I tested fresh pages of new work to a select few I’d grown comfortable with (by that, I mean established a degree of trust that I’d get a true, objective opinion).  I didn’t want to fall into that novice pothole by cringing from a no-holds-barred review, skulking back to my cave with ‘they don’t get my stuff’.  Kind of the point isn’t it?  Unless I planned to write stories, then bury them in a time capsule for aliens to find ten-thousand years from now, I needed feedback redolent of what the public might think.

As I built trust with others, they asked for reciprocation of services rendered by asking me to read their stuff.  I initially cringed with heavy doubt I was qualified to rate someone else’s stuff. It sent me to the archives of my groaning file of writer research for how to do a proper critique. Like everything else in this wacky art form we drudge through, how-to advice in writertopia is as varied as insect species on earth.  I chose a reviewing format in the same manner I use when purchasing new appliances, or looking for a plumber.  Which appliance (or plumber) is on most every one’s recommended list?  In this case, what pearls of reviewing wisdom floated to the top?

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Pantser – In Need of a Serious Intervention


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Photo by ©Drew Coffman via Flickr

If you’re a writer, you’ll immediately recognize the term, ‘pantser’, as in ‘by the seat of your pants’.  Translation, pantser is someone who writes without an outline, without plotting, and without a clue.  Smart writers are plotters – self-explanatory.

Guess that means I’m not very smart.

Oh – I have lots of files for the book I’m writing, ponderous files, enough to open my own library if ever I should print them, along with innumerable  internet shortcut links that takes a minute to scroll the entire alphabetic register.

It’s that irking process of plotting chapters that eludes me.

Trust me, I’ve tried to plot.  I have this lovely file folder with handwritten chapter notes, arrows drawn to connect to other pages, some of them with little post-it leafs for redirection, different color ink pens – you get the picture.  Even downloaded one of those cheat-sheets to help organize the chaos of my story-writing brain.

So – how’s that going DT? 

Have you ever tried to organize a card-carrying ADD writer? Oh yeah, I’m one those “squirrel” folks who is easily distracted by the slightest interruption.  Hell, I can’t even fart and not get distracted. The sign on my office door is “Man Cave – Enter at Your Own Risk”. That’s because it’s in the basement, with no windows, just me and the radon.


From Pinterest

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Searching for Darkness


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The Mobius Arch Loop Trailhead, by ©Clarisse Meyer via Unsplash

Ah, January – that time of year when the nights are longer, and if you live in a northern clime, you might be able to wander out to a hilltop on a clear, cold night, and be mesmerized by the stars above.  I remember amazing nights on a fishing boat in the Philippines during my Peace Corps days, where it seemed I could reach up and take a handful of the cosmos, or hiking the Three Sisters Wilderness area under a moonless sky so bright with stars, we didn’t need flashlights. And nothing stirs the creative juices for a sci-fi story I’m writing like gazing at the heavens.

I miss the stars.

Last time I caught the majesty of the Milky Way with the naked eye, was a few years ago while visiting my park ranger daughter at Pipe Springs National Monument in Utah.  I now use a smart-phone app called Sky Guide, a handheld planetarium of sorts, to view the constellations in real time. As if standing on a remote hill a thousand years ago, the app displays what we should see if the sky wasn’t hazy with light scatter.

Most of my adult working life was in or near major metropolises.  It’s a little hard to stargaze with today’s countless malls, homes, and streetlamps. Though I’m fortunate to live in a small, eastern Pennsylvania town where I can stroll the streets and cul-de-sacs at night, there’s still too much light pollution to see constellations with any clarity.

How bad is it? Take a look at a before and after shot during a Northeast power outage in 2003.


Source: – Photo by ©Todd Carlson

It has me wondering why we need all that illumination.  Apparently, I’m not alone.

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Still Pining for the Old Days?


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After surviving this past year’s extended edition of the Barnum & Bailey/Nintendo reality game, Jumbo the Elephant versus Donkey Kong, I decided to substitute my usual introspective, holiday missive with a festive infusion of humor.  I thought a trip down memory lane of what used be considered acceptable holiday advertising in days gone by might fit the bill.  I’m a big fan of vintage advertisements, and follow a few Pinterest pages dedicated to it. I was born in the early fifties, and some ads invoke warm flashbacks of when I was a tyke (and no, I didn’t ride horseback to school, we had cars). We had a different mindset inherited from the earliest days of the twentieth-century. Looking back, some of those ads now have me ROTFL.

Back in 2012, I was asked to guest post a holiday article to cheer folks up during difficult economic times. I blew the dust off it, and added a couple more graphics.

To quote a cigarette campaign from 1968, “We’ve come a long way baby.”  Enjoy.

Original Guest Blog Post – Blame it On The Muse, December 12, 2012



Many folks long for the good old days, especially holidays filled with nostalgic childhood memories of crackling hearth fires, and family gathered around a decorated, live-cut tree. Mom served eggnog in her new apron. Dad lit up a Lucky in his favorite chair. The kids wore their Sunday finest, jiggling with impatience for Santa to come.

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Happy Hallothanksgivingmas


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Woman with a Christmas Turkey thanksgiving


Did anybody notice I missed October?  Who could tell? When I went into Walmart a few weeks ago to get some Halloween treats, the seasonal aisles had Christmas decorations. I found broken bags of candy in a bin near the exit.  What’s that all about?

Hey, I’ve been chin-deep in a sci-fi story. Went upstairs the other day to refresh my caffeine drip and discovered October had come and gone. I didn’t even put out a pumpkin.  All those damn doorbell chimes a couple weeks back?  I thought they were church solicitors with an urgent need to save my soul. The Halloween candy I bought is still on the counter. I’m surprised my front door didn’t get egged.


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Writing Life


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Lots of old black-and-white photos

From: V. Niktenko –

A social group I belong asked a while back if I’d offer a few tips about writing an autobiography. Who me?  I’m more into making things up in fiction. Couldn’t think of a worse candidate for the job.

I have an elderly relative who loves to tell stories of his youthful escapades, over and over and over, infinitum. He’s not a bad story teller, and it isn’t the repetition that gets me. It’s an overwhelming fear that I will end up doing the same thing when I reach the golden years (or is it platinum, now that we’re all supposed to live thirty years on average after retirement?). Oh, and his epilogue after each tale, where he insists his life would make a great story. “I should write it”, he’d say. “My autobiography would make a great book.”


From: Pinterest

Cue in scene: Honey, it’s getting late.

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Still Trekking


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Hard to believe the little sci-fi series that almost didn’t make it, turns 50 on September 8.  After a pilot with Jeffery Hunter was rejected in 1965, Gene Roddenberry’s space adventure, Star Trek, got the green light from Desilu Studios. Yes, that’s the “I Love Lucy” studio.  A network executive claimed Lucille Ball never actually read the script, she thought it was about movie stars on a trek to entertain U.S. Troops, a mistake that still resonates a half-century later.  Thank you, Lucy.

A recent WSJ Arena article by John Jurgenson, Still Boldly Going, recapped a short history of the first Star Trek, or “lowercase fantasia” as rated by Variety at the time.  Jurgenson cites William Shatner’s memory of the era, “We were always about to be cancelled, always a sword of Damocles hanging over us.” One actor quoted “No one had any idea that 50 years later, the story would have a heartbeat.”

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Song of Fire and Smoke


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From: Ampack -

From: Ampack –

It’s August, and that time of year when I walk away from the word processor, kick back, and spend quality time with my two grills and smoker.

Yo DT, shouldn’t you be adding pages to that sci-fi story you’re stuck on.

Damned muse. Always giving me shit when I’m not focused on important stuff – like finishing the book. Annoying little bastard, but easily silenced with a couple cocktails and fibbing that it’s world building research for a dystopian tale I’ve been trying to finish since last year. Or was it the year before?

Exactly when humans began to burn meat over fire remains controversial. Scientists originally believed the early meat eaters ate sushi style, fresh off the bone, and didn’t start barbequing until 800,000 years ago. Then in 2012, a South African Primatologist examined evidence from the Wonderwerk Cave, where sediments revealed presence of burned bone in a campfire over a million years old. Sure hope it wasn’t a fellow hominid.

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