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

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Sean Parker via Unsplash.com

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.

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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.

 

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#WriterDistraction

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Source: Darksky.org – 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

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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

From: DepositPhotos.com

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 – Depositphotos.com

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.”

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From: Pinterest

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

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Still Trekking

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From: nerdist.com

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 - Depositphotos.com

From: Ampack – Depositphotos.com

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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