I approached the microphone. “Hi, my name is Dan. My last blog post was September, and I haven’t written a thing since.”
“Hi Dan. Welcome,” replied the back-lit, silhouetted faces of my would-be judges.
Someone in the front row asked the first question. “Are you willing to share with us why?”
“I like to think I had good reasons, even honorable reasons,” I said. “Since mid-September, I’ve been home maybe a total of three weeks on a travelocalypse that began with a family reunion in Kentucky, a wedding in Colorado, a long planned, prepaid vacation with older siblings in South Carolina, a trip to Singapore, two-weeks with my mother in Florida, ending with Thanksgiving in New Jersey. Hell, I had to list it in a notebook to keep it all straight. I just got back last Sunday to autumn chores that went undone since it all started – which isn’t going to get done until it stops raining in Pennsylvania?”
Another audience member joined in. “We’ve all been through this in one form or another. It’s why we’re here.”
“Thanks.” I played with the microphone stand, embarrassed to confess in front of a bunch of strangers. “I’m glad Stephen King isn’t here. He’d be shaking his head, mouthing the word ‘slacker’.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” the shadowed face said. “Do you try to write while on the road?”
“Yeah, I tried. Packed the laptop and everything.”
“So – what happened?” another participant asked.
I exhaled through pursed lips to gather my thoughts. “Unlike other writers who can pen words to blaring music in a sunny windowed room with views of the birdfeeder, I need the equivalent of a sensory deprivation chamber to coax the muse out of her closet. You see – she’s kind of shy, and prefers I write in a windowless, spare bedroom in the finished basement.” I shrugged. “Just us and the radon.”
I was met with silence.
This month, I’m the featured author in the Author’s Roundtable, an online quarterly magazine of short stories for the Bethlehem Writers Group (BWG). Based on a theme that changes with every issue, this quarter is ‘Written in the Stars’.
A shell of its former glory, NASA in the near future discovers what Planet Nine really is, and has to convince a skeptical director who doesn’t understand the basics of our solar system.
“What’s this all about,” Trevor Stanhope asked his Associate Administrator.
The click of Helen Martinez’s low-heeled shoes kept cadence to Stanhope’s brisk stride as they hurried along on the polished floors of NASA’s subterranean levels. “The note mentioned recent information that needs your immediate attention,” she said.
Six months since Stanhope’s appointment as NASA’s Administrator, President Barbara Preston specifically asked him to shake things up by reining-in expensive projects and the Brainiacs who were too busy looking for ET. “Bring in some solid space science we can use while getting the Mars mission off the ground, like updated satellite reconnaissance and better asteroid killers,” she’d told him.
“Did they send a synopsis, so I can understand what they’re saying when they start throwing those pseudo-scientific terms and acronyms around?” he asked.
“All I got was something to do with all the increased meteorite activity, asteroid close calls, and TNO’s . . . Trans Neptunian Objects.”
“Trans-nep-toonia objects . . .” Stanhope chuckled. “Sounds like that Christmas rock orchestra that pops up every holiday.” A lawyer by education, and six-term, conservative US Congressman before President Preston handed him this job, Stanhope’s grasp of science was limited to high school chemistry. Where did they come up with these names?
Which leads me to confessing how I got into little big stories in the first place.
Aside from a writer’s muse that never sleeps, I’m used to finding #writerinspiration from mostly colorful photographs and art from a variety of sites. I post the ones I like on my Twitter feed and Facebook page. My favorite place for royalty-free photos without restrictions is Unsplash.com. Two of my boards on Pinterest – Searching for Light, and Characters, are both galleries of art and photographs used to fine tune the muse when I’m writing scenes.
This past Memorial Day weekend, I went on a desert excursion with my son-in-law in his off-road 4Runner. That my young grandson tagged along as well, made the trip extra special.
But – we were talking about writer inspiration.
How does one go from a visual inspiration of a colorful marketplace …
… and find inspiration in the homogeneity of a desert landscape?
First, you need to get off the beaten track, and into places most vehicles can’t tread. That’s where I discovered it isn’t the visual so much, as it is – the silence.
I was looking for some good villain names the other day, and stumbled across an article I wrote in April 2014 (amazing what one forgets). I checked the analytics and found it to be one of the more popular articles I’d written, and worthy of a shameless reblog. It may not spark an evil nym for you, but it isn’t for lack candidates from the women of Roller Derby.
Everybody loves a good villain, even better, a good villain name. To find a villain name that over time becomes a trademark of evil, the very mention of which instills a chill, is every author’s dream. Hannibal Lector, Darth Vader, Count Dracula, Cruella De Vil, Freddy Kruegar, Dr. Doom, Adolf Hitler – to name but a very few. Marvel and DC comics popularized pseudonyms to associate functional similarities like, Magneto, Dr. Octopus, Mystique, Joker, or Blackheart.
For me, the most inventive process of nomenclature for faux villains are pseudonyms used by Roller Derby girls with altered famous names, such as aptronyms – a name that matches the occupation of its owner, or charactonyms – a name suggesting a distinctive trait.
Everyone has his or her favorite name play-on-words. Rusty Bucket, Crisp E. Bacon, Solomon I. Lands, Dee Lyn Quint. One of my favorite primary school jokes of a fake library book: 50 Steps to the Outhouse, by Willy Makit; Illustrated by Betty Wont. Sophomoric for sure, but we loved it. Example of an aptronym could be Sally Blizzard – Meterologist, or an auto salesman with the name, Henry Ford Carr. Charactonym examples are more common, like Mistress Quickly, Dr. Horrible, or the famous Long John Silver.
Leave it to a once obscure sport to reset the bar on villainous name selection. If you’ve never watched women’s Roller Derby, you’ve been deprived. A main stay for us kids kept indoors on a midwinter Saturday afternoon when television had only four channels, it’s like speed skating with the aggressiveness of hockey and pro-wrestling. What makes the game even more fun is the cornucopia of pseudonyms used by the players.
Writers have an abnormal predilection for planting themselves in a chair – alone – surrounded by nothing – and wait for the words to rain. It just ain’t natural.
The 24th GLVWG Write Stuff Conference™ come and gone, this is the time I take a few days to reflect on what I’ve learned, what I’ve heard before, and why the hell I’m still writing.
Our keynote speaker and headliner this year was NYT Bestseller, Bob Mayer, a former Green Beret who wrote the Area 51 series, as well as 70 other titles in fiction and non-fiction. That’s me on the right (as if you couldn’t tell).
We spent a full day with Bob, listening to his advice on the standard elements of plot, story structure, character, the importance of tight narrative, and dangers of going off on tangents that don’t move the story. Anyone who has read my article from last year, ‘The Perils of Captain Tangent – a Pantser’s Writing Journey’, knows I have an issue with side stories that end nowhere.
It was the Day 2 of the conference that struck a chord with me. Bob Mayer spoke about ‘Write it Forward’, with lessons he learned in the military. He gave the classic pitch, “everyone stand up, look at the person on the right, then look at the one on the left. Only one of you is going to make it.” He reminded us that only five-percent of all writers ever finish a book, that five-percent get to the point of publishing the book, and five percent of those people ever get anywhere with it. In simpler terms, earning enough to buy a case of Yuengling beer is like winning the lottery.
After finally finishing my latest novel, I see a whole new set of beginnings coming with it. No time to revel in joy for completing the novel, I’m already looking for that new spark in the wilderness of imagination.
But first, I must reset the way I do things. Productivity this past year was in the shitter. I could rail on with a few dog-ate-my-homework memes. Birth of a new grandson a few months ago, and losing a father-in-law in past weeks would certainly headline the list. Too many times I found myself looking back to say WTF.
I made a commitment to finish the book, “The Gravity of Light”, by October. That slipped to November, which then slipped to December. In order to keep up between life events, I slowed my Twitter and Facebook posts, and let this blog lapse for a couple months to focus on typing those final chapters. Didn’t help matters I was already on version four, and heading into version five after realizing I was caught in a blizzard of plot holes.
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 Unsplash.com to help me.
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.
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?