Begin the Begin

20171031_184458~01~01.jpgI’m sitting here at my desk with a cup of coffee to hand, thinking up fantastic stories that will hopefully come to fruition in the next 30 days. It’s dark outside and I feel like utter crap, but my brain won’t shut down for the night. That’s because November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and I am once again taking on the daunting task of writing 50,000 words in a month. This is my sixth year doing NaNo, but there was a time when I never thought I’d ever even attempt it.

For a long time I was simply a writer of short works: short stories and poems were my forte, and I didn’t stray too far from those. They were creature comforts for me, as reliable as Old Yeller and much cuddlier. People would sometimes ask me if I was ever going to try and write a novel, and I would laugh at them. “Why would I stretch outside my comfort zone?” For me it was an easy answer, because for me it was all about doing what was easy back then.

My wife, upon hearing that I was gearing up for yet another NaNoWriMo, good-heartedly joked, “So we won’t see you for the next month.” On some level that’s about the extent of it, honestly, because NaNo takes a singular commitment. It means setting word limits every single day and hitting those word limits, come sleet, snow, or hail… you know, or even the dreaded writer’s block. It’s particularly tricky when faced with all that life likes to throw in the way, but that’s also what makes it so satisfying. When I look up on November 30 and realize I’ve surpassed 50,000 words in one month I raise my hands high like a fighter who has gone 12 rounds with a behemoth.

So I’m ready to begin again, but this time will be different from the ones that have preceded it. For one, I won’t be writing something directly from scratch. With every other NaNo I came into it with some ideas but nothing really set in stone. This time, though, I’m writing a sequel, which is a first for me. I’ve never written any kind of series, for probably the same reason I hadn’t written a full novel until seven years ago. Once I had the idea of writing a novel under my belt it became relatively easy to write with that in mind. But a series… well, it takes that much more commitment and an ability to take your characters and seamlessly slide them into another world, even if it’s the same world.

I guess it would have made more sense to just write 200,000 words in one shot, then separate all those words into two or three separate books, but I can’t imagine writing that way. For me every book has to have a beginning and an end, and splitting something in the middle seems just a tad bit wrong. Besides, now that I’m up for challenging myself, why not add on some more pressure? Maybe I should have waited until my 10th NaNo to attempt it, but I’m feeling like it’s time now.

Which reminds me, I’m tackling this as a YA series, something else I’ve never really done before (the first book hasn’t been released yet). It’s fascinating to me to write something so foreign to me, and yet I absolutely adored the first volume in the series. I knew while I was writing it that I wasn’t done with the characters, but I never thought far ahead enough to know exactly where I would take them next. Or where they would take me next.

I have a title, and that’s a start. I also have a chronology that I’m thinking will go in the beginning of every book in the series. It’s a start indeed. And first thing tomorrow I’m going to begin the beginning, as I attempt to string thread from where the first book ended off to where this one enters in. My thoughts have gone many places, from when I first decided to attempt to do this, to right now on the verge of actually digging in. Either I will get through it or I won’t.

But I think I will. Now I just need to begin.



Three Vignettes

imageTonight I had the pleasure of sitting with a group of other writers and going through a series of writing exercises at Barnes & Noble. It had been a while since I was able to do something like that with others, to explore that side of my writing, the “immediate” side, the one that can ad lib with anyone. I missed that. We wrote three small pieces, what I’ve always called vignettes, based on items in the store and a posed prompt.

Vignette #1: Choose a book in the store that speaks to you, and write about why.

We just keep killing Jesus, don’t we? With our societal restrictions and our lack of spirituality, true spirituality. And this book may have absolutely nothing at all to even to do with Jesus of Nazareth or anything at all about religion or the spirit or the lack of true depth to our existence nowadays. Having watched Bill O’Reilly’s program before I think I know where he might be going with this premise, and it isn’t religious history. It’s politics and politics alike. But it speaks to me as I stare at it across the room, speaks to me from a place down deep inside where I just listen and nothing more. I feel the passion and the pain tied up and twisted together in a rhythm so profound I almost don’t want to even open it up and destroy that illusion, that ultimate power it holds just by having its title and its cover imagery. Yet I still do want to open it, to see what history and politics have to say about the man from Galilee as a man and not just as the disputed son of god. I can just imagine the church tearing it down page by page, vilifying it like they did Jesus himself when he walked this earth. And I wonder if there will be photographs. Ever more photographs.

Vignette #2: There are random magazines and books spread out across the table. Write about them.

Chris-Rock-NYMag-webThey’re all named Chris, those dapper men who probably don’t have middle names, as they grace so many magazine covers it’s scary. From Pratt to Rock to Martin to every Chris who ever was and ever will be. Why not put them all together, to line them up end to end like so many 4x4s and see how far they would stretch? Not their mini magazine selves but the real Chrises, the actual men who would probably be upset that I roused them from what is probably a satisfying night’s rest to perform this vastly boring experiment where they have to line up based on the random fact that they all happen to be named Chris. It makes me glad I wasn’t born with that moniker, that I don’t know very many actual Chrises in my life, because it must suck to be in a large space with many other people milling about and somebody yells “Chris!” while they all swivel their heads to see if it’s them, if they are indeed the Chris someone else wants, and it’s usually not them. Disappointment makes each of the wrong Chrises hang his head in abject humiliation, as they all go back to waiting. Because next time… it might be him. And he should always be ready.

Vignette #3: Write about a time when you were freezing in July.

She turns on the air conditioner the second we are inside, obsessed as she is about denying the soul draining heat outside any entrance into our home. We put on our robes at the door, plush terrycloth behemoths that remind me of Eskimos bundled up in the frozen tundra for some odd reason. It seems wrong to be so insulated in July but it’s necessary. The temperature in the apartment drops to negative numbers sometime during each night and I don’t want a cold or for body parts to freeze and start falling off so I also put on thick winter gloves and solid fleece socks, two pairs. She keeps her hands free so she can warm up the soup we will eat for dinner and I don’t know how she does it. I can see my breath in the frigid air and it’s hard to remember that it’s July outside, that just minutes before I was sweating in the sweltering heat. But the sweat has dried hard against my cold, waxy skin and I feel like a mannequin in a window, on display for all to see and to laugh at. I’ve always been good for laughs.


Cutting Room Floor: Part 3

Scraps of papers on tiled floorSo, for the first time in my history of writing, I honestly don’t think I have a protagonist, and if I do it’s a tough call which one of my “main” characters it would be. The novel has a sort of staccato rhythm as it jumps back and forth between one character and the next, and amazingly enough I like the pacing and the lack of a solid “lead” character. In fact, I liken it to movie with an ensemble cast where everyone keeps up their end of the action. As I go back through the novel one more time for this final edit (the word “final” being relative, knowing me), I’m fascinated by the interconnections.

Now, of course, by fascinated I mean it’s a complex dynamic between characters in a very tight timeline. While I was initially writing it I moved through the complexity pretty quickly, but looking back on it it’s another one of those pieces that just seemed to write itself. Those are my favorites by far.

Well, I’m no closer to coming up with a title, but I’ve made a decision on that. Unless one just comes to me in an epiphany, while I’m editing I’m going to leave it to the side. That of course also affects the cover art, but I’ll deal with that as we get closer to the end of the month. Ideally I would like for my title to come from a pithy line in the novel itself. Those are probably my favorite titles, the ones that remind the reader when they get to it why the book was named thusly. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but inspiration could of course strike at any time. The second I know the title, you will know the title. That’s a promise. Continue reading “Cutting Room Floor: Part 3”

Cutting Room Floor: Part 1

Scraps of papers on tiled floorFor the first time in my life I have been able to stick to a writing schedule, and I’ve been able to do it more than once. 2013 was spent writing, writing, and writing some more. I finished rough drafts of two novels, edited another, and my debut novel, Detours, was released in April. Through it all I have also been able to maintain three blogs, two of which will be getting major makeovers in the next month or so. It has been the singularly most prolific year for me, writing-wise, and I have so many people to thank for making that a reality: my wife, my children, my coworkers, my Facebook friends, my real friends, and random strangers who I’ve come in contact with who have made me ponder some things. I never know where inspiration is going to come from, and I have so many who have inspired me just this year alone.

So, with that in mind, I have an announcement to make, and I’m nothing but giddy about it. My second novel will be released on February 18, 2014. The date is as firm as it can be, and I’m so excited to be able to announce it. Of course that means that between now and then there will be a whirlwind of activity to get ready for the release. I will be updating the progress here on my Journal in installments along the way so you can travel this road with me. I wasn’t able to do that with Detours, not like I wanted to, so this time around I will revel in the adventure. Here’s where I am in the process…


Keep in mind that I’ve gone through the manuscript with a fine tooth comb no less than three times already, from start to finish, but during those other editing sessions I was first reading for grammatical correctness, for punctuation errors, and for general understanding. Now I’m working on character and plot issues, including character and plot development and accuracy within their prescribed areas in the novel. I am basically working through each character and his/her interactions with others, and then going through each plot point and fleshing it out. If you were wondering, this part of the editing process takes a lot longer than the initial rough edits, but it’s a lot more satisfying in the end. Continue reading “Cutting Room Floor: Part 1”

Stressing Out

A little over three years ago, I began having horrendous headaches, as well as experiencing bouts of vertigo. Being someone who rarely gets headaches and had never had vertigo previously, I was understandably concerned enough to take time off from teaching to get it checked out. When the verdict came back as high blood pressure bordering on hypertension, I was floored.

However, I approached the diagnosis as I usually approach my life, with finding a plan to combat what was going in. My doctor gave me a prescription for medication aimed at lowering my blood pressure, but it came with a couple of caveats as well. I would have to work on lowering my daily number of stressful reactions, and I would have to adjust my diet. Sodium was no longer my friend.

“I also had to take action, to take control, instead of letting other people control how my interactions with them would go.”

Stress affects all of us in a number of ways, but for me it was through overthinking and overreacting. It affected me on my job and at home, and I had to find a way to stop doing all of that stressful thinking and reacting. I had to become someone who could just think and act, without going back over it with a fine tooth comb. I also had to take action, to take control, instead of letting other people control how my interactions with them would go. So, I began doing those things, making my decisions and sticking to them, and my stress was indeed lightened. The diet was another story, however.

Did you know that there is salt in everything that is pre-packaged? Salt acts as a preserving agent, particularly in canned goods. I love me some canned goods, so it was distressing to see that I would no longer be eating from cans. Or, if I was dying to have a canned good, I would have to rinse it completely to get all the salt off first. There went my soft pretzels that I adore, the salty potato chips, and salted crackers. Hello to Wheat Thins, to salt substitutes, and to eating more fresh foods. I make it sound so easy, don’t I? But it takes a lot of willpower every day, even now, for me to maintain my distance from salt and everything that contains it.

“The key to eliminating stress and keeping my blood pressure down is one word: moderation.”

And you know what I found out throughout this whole ongoing process? The key to eliminating stress and keeping my blood pressure down is one word: moderation. If I do everything in moderation, my stress stays low. Instead of getting angry because someone stepped on my favorite Yankees cap, I slow it down and remember that the cap is just an item, and it can be straightened out. Instead of working at 100% for eight straight hours, I work at 80% and I still get all the work done that I need to get done. Without all the stress. Moderation is helpful with foods too. Even though I can rinse canned goods, I know that some of the salt is still there, so I just eat a half serving instead of a whole one. The same is true with using salted butter when I can’t just substitute unsalted (which is indeed rare).

Now my struggle is taking my pills. It’s one thing to work on diet and lowering my stress, but my blood pressure needs additional help in staying below the critical line. I take pills twice a day to regulate my blood pressure levels, but they don’t help if I forget to take them. I have to stay disciplined enough to put it into my routine and never deviate from it, even on days when I don’t have to get up for work early in the morning. It works when I keep it regular, at the same times every day. I know it all seems like a lot to remember, but once you’ve gotten into those good habits it becomes a lot easier. I don’t think it’s ever easy, or ever second nature, but as long as it’s being done, none of that matters.

And having someone to hold my hand through these issues and stages is an absolute blessing. No matter what you’re going through, you need people on your side, and in your corner, to spur you on and help you achieve your best. How do you help lower your stress levels?


Layered: Further Revisionist Theory

So, yes, I’m the dummy who can’t seem to find a more efficient way to edit my novel-in-waiting. I have tried several different methods, like asking people to proofread for me, offering them chocolates to proofread for me, and trying to force them to proofread for me. To no avail. Well, strike that. My lovely wife (the amazing librarian) is working through an editing process for me, and for that I am grateful, but I can’t seem to beg anyone else enough to do it for me. Maybe if I paid them, but that’s the last resort. So, for now, I am doing my own editing, at least of this novel-in-waiting. And no, I don’t mean the first-level editing I talked about in Revisionist Theory. This is deeper, ground-sifting deep, if you know what I mean.

After the first round of revisions comes the lull, or at least that’s what I call it. It means I have the skeleton and some skin on the beast, but I can’t seem to fill him in with whatever makes him live and breathe. That takes other people and their opinions. I trust probably about four people to read honestly and critique my work constructively. Out of those four people, two of them will take forever to finally get to it, so they’re out when I’m working on my own deadline. The other two will start right away, but they’re both the same kind of editors, so I would be getting the same level of revision twice, and while I would learn from it, the other part would be neglected. Let me explain.

The first level of editing for me is the surface, cosmetic level. That’s where I make sure my characters are three-dimensional (round), that their dialogue rings true, and that the plot is a sound one. If there are any grammatical issues, spelling snafus, or related issues, this is also the place where they get hammered out. And the key to this level of editing is that I can do it all myself. I am so close with my characters by that point that we practically share a toothbrush, and my forte is English grammar and structure, so that’s right up my alley too. Alas, however, dialogue is not, and has never been, my strong point. That’s what my dear wife is working on for me as we speak.

That leads us to the second level of editing, in my world, anyway. This level is the storytelling level. It’s the when and where and how and why of my story. It’s where the research comes in. In this novel, for example, the story takes place in three entirely different locales. To get the feel of those places, the proper place names, and the juxtapositions of characters and their environments is very tricky, especially for the places of which I don’t have firsthand knowledge. This level takes so long to get through because as some things come together, other things fall apart. Plus, research is not easy, even with the internet at my fingertips.

The third level of editing is a tedious one as well. Once I have the characters interacting efficiently and effectively, and the stage is set with properly researched backdrops, there is the problem of plot holes. Everyone has them, and because I write primarily mysteries, those plot holes become more of a challenge to fill. That’s the part where I honestly look for someone who can edit the heck out of the material, because that’s everything. In the end, people judge mysteries based on how well the plot held together, and their ability to be surprised by the ending.

So, since I’m having trouble finding people to edit the material, I’ve decided to shelve it for about a month, then come back to it, and either see if one of my other three possible editors is available, or I’ll just do it myself. Provided I have some distance from my work, and I’ve been writing things in the interim, I can handle all of the aforementioned editing jobs. It just takes that distance, and that time for me to do it.

And don’t worry. When it’s all done and published, I’ll sign your copy.


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