Pages

Friday, April 04, 2014

Quarterly Report



Despite all of the crazyness that goes with having three kids in middle and elementary school, three jobs (substitute teacher, sales associate, candy & dessert maker / partner), and the beginning of little league baseball & softball season with all three kids now playing, it was a productive quarter for my creative pursuits. And how? Well, through a mix of luck, discipline, and circumstance.
The luck comes from getting substitute teaching jobs where students are manageable, and the work assigned is mostly independent. Elementary school days are the least productive, with only lunch, and maybe a music or PE prep time to work. Middle school jobs theoretically give you more time, but require so much classroom management that there is never more than a handful of minutes to focus on reading or writing. High school jobs, unless they are PE or Special Day Classes are ideal.
And here Circumstance comes in, as I am fortunate to have been picked at one of my local high schools to be their permanent sub: meaning I go there everyday to fill in as needed, either on a class-by-class basis to give teachers an extra prep, or to jump in if a teacher has to leave early, or to fill in for a teacher that called in their absence last minute and couldn’t get a sub. The majority of classes at this particular high school are well behaved, and able to work independently, leaving me plenty of time to work at the writing game.
The discipline is still developing, but one of the things I have been working on to foster this is cutting out casual video games. Now, I love video games on the console and computer, and I find that many games offer intelligent storytelling and interactive experiences that I don’t consider time wasted. I’ve cut these out mostly because there is little free time at home to engage in these games. What I’ve discarded is the Candy Crush/Angry Bird/etc. type timewasters. Now whenever I have the urge to take a break I turn to ebooks on my phone, and am better at bringing a book for little league practices or work breaks.

So, with three months of 2014 already gone, here is a pause to evaluate my writing life so far this year:
I have read 10 books: 4 on audio, 1 ebook, and 5 ink-on-paper. They include some Mark Twain classics, some excellent indies, and some world-class genre novels.
So far I have failed at my goal about submitting short stories, having not put any out for consideration.

I’ve been a bit better about socializing online, but not as much as I should have been, so I’m going to call that a ¾ fail.

My novel writing is where I’ve seen the most productivity. I have added 16808 words to my literary zombie novel The Two Loves of Ugly Doug, 19792 words to my seriocomic novel about education and writing Diary of a Sadman, and 50 words to my satiric novel on sex and higher education The Great North-Southern Cock-Block, for a grand total of 36650 unedited words, for a daily average of 407.22 words. I had given myself a 250 words a day average goal, so ‘Way to go Me!’

For Quarter 2 my goals are to simply:
- keep up the reading pace.
- get those short stories out there already!
- keep getting words on paper (physical, or electronic approximations). I have raised my daily writing average goal to 350, because this is more accurate average number of words I put down in ink on one page of 8-1/4” x 11” college-ruled paper.

Good luck to you, good luck to me!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The State of an Individual: On 2013 & 2014



I’m a little late on the whole year-in-review and 2014 goal-setting, but then there are a lot of responsibilities to eclipse reflection and forward-thinking time around here. Who knows how long this will stay in ‘draft mode’ until I can get it all put together? Ah well, let’s not waste time whining about how little time I have.

2013. Not as bad as 2012, but then not a whole lot better either.
Concerning reading, I read 33 books in 2013—seven below my Goodreads goal—not counting books I reread. Twelve were made of ink on bound paper, three were ebooks, and eighteen were audiobooks. The best book I read last year was Russell Banks’ Cloudsplitter.

Concerning writing, I had two short stories published, one of which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. My short story writing count for the year is 2,896 words.

I dabbled for a little while with screenplay writing, but have lost ambition with it for now.

On my novel writing I added an additional 4,445 words to finish my revision of Alexander Murphy’s Home for Wayward Celebrities. So far this newest version of the novel has received two reviews, both of which made me blush.
Having finished this revision, I tried to decide which of my novels-in-progress to focus on next. The first, The Great Northsouthern Cock-Block, is an expansion of an earlier unpublished short story to novelic length. The story concerns a fictional generic college where a professor convinces the entire female student body to refrain from having sex. My intention for the story is for it to be a satiric, and outrageous examination of higher education, society, and sex. While considering this novel I read Neal Stephenson’s The Big U, which blew me away, and though it follows a different trajectory than what I had in mind for my novel, I think it intimidated me, and I only worked on the novel through the first months of the year, writing 3498 words altogether, putting the total unrevised word count at 17,851.
The other novel I had previously begun was originally titled Adventures in the Sub Trade, but I have changed the name since to Diary of a Sadman. This novel is an attempt to take frustrating, disappointing, and curious things that have happened in my life and give them usefulness in novel form. I would say it is quasi-autobiographical, in that while many of the things the narrator encounters in the novel have happened to me, or I have observed firsthand, I have translated their meaning to fit the main character: so that while he works at some of the places I have worked, and experiences some of the things I have experienced, his opinions and outcomes vary greatly from my own. For example, the plot involves a man whose girlfriend leaves him in Boston (didn’t happen to me) while he is studying architecture in Boston (which I did), and for economic reasons he has to move back to California (also did), and has to find a new career path, deciding to become a teacher while at the same time finally committing himself to becoming a writer (me too). I know this novel will be an exercise in editing, as the structure largely involves diary entries, dream-diaries, writing exercises, and educational materials—and it is also an exercise in my personal craft process, as it is the first major writing I have done directly into a computer, instead of my usual freehand process. Last year I only added 1,880 words, totaling the first draft manuscript at 12,915 words.
So, through the Winter I was vacillating between these two potentialities, rereading drafts, organizing and collecting notes on each, and trying to be more proactive about my reading. I got a long-term subbing assignment teaching Middle School science which gave me very little time to write, and then switched to another long-term assignment in high school Special Ed when a curious convergence of ideas ignited a new novel idea, and since I love hearing about the fate and circumstance that come together to form a story idea, I'll share mine.
It began with my wife and my anniversary trip to Hearst Castle in 2012, where we joked about how awesome the castle would be during an apocalypse, and my mind began creating scenarios and characters of its own volition. Due, I think, to my love of The Walking Dead graphic novels, and then the TV series, my end-of-the-world thought exercises began to include zombies, and then more representations of how I suspect many Americans would act if suddenly there was no police or military force providing a consequence to your darkest desires and actions, and the idea of how societal ideas of morality come into question when that society is gone. These ideas fermented in the cellar of my mind, next to other experiments quietly bubbling away, amid my work on other projects. I received the catalyst sometime in Spring.
I was subbing for an Art Class—I don’t even think I was assigned, I think I was just on loan from Special Ed during STAR testing, so this would be early April. By then I had thought of a post-apocalyptic character named Ugly Doug, who considers the zombie outbreak to be the best thing that ever happened to him, because it takes away all of the other humans that have made his life miserable. I was thinking about ways the world would be different for Doug while the art students were working, when it happened. It was nothing more than seeing a pair of beautiful girls at their desk, doing more talking that artwork, both surreptitiously playing with their phones, but it was enough to ignite that fermenting idea, and instantly it was an explosion of:

How would these girls handle a zombie-apocalyptic world?
When society goes, rules concerning “age of consent” would go to.
Doug would fall in love with both of these girls at first sight.

Kaboom! I had my plot, I had my characters, and more, I had an overwhelming desire to see what would happen in this story. By the end of class I had written three pages of notes; by the end of the day, I had written the first scene; by the end of the year, I had 39,893 words in the manuscript, which I have titled The Two Loves of Ugly Doug.

On other forms of entertainment: I only watched a handful of films last year, and it’s killing me. But there has been a lot of excellent television (since we don't have cable, we're a little slow on catching shows, because we have to wait for Netflix to stream it or for our library to carry them). besides rewatching the entire series of Lost and Entourage, I have enjoyed discovering/catching up with Boardwalk Empire, Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead, Burn Notice, Mad Men, Shameless, Mr. Selfridge, Homeland; I adore Warehouse 13 – the most joy I’ve had watching a show in I don’t how long, probably since watching Firefly. I am conflicted with Girls: sometimes I am impressed by its fearlessness, but mostly the characters frustrate me, and it has gotten to the point where I barely register when Lena Dunham is naked anymore I’m so used to it (and really, they capped off Season 2 by doing a When Harry Met Sally?). Finally, I enjoyed the last couple seasons of Dexter, but didn’t feel the ending (really? a lumberjack?).

I’ve had little time for video games, playing only Infamous, Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario 3DLand, and Mirror’s Edge; though I enjoyed them all, with my scattered playtime I didn’t feel like I ever had the ability to master their controls, especially with Mirror’s Edge.

And let me wrap up 2013 with a little discussion about work. I continue only substitute teaching—good for reading and writing, terrible economically. In September I abandoned all notions that I should only seek jobs commensurate with my education and interests, and began a second job at Pier 1 as a sales associate; my coworkers there are fabulous, and the job would be perfect if it paid about 10 times more, and if it didn’t have the pesky problem of customers.
Then in the Fall I partnered with my wife and her parents to begin a candymaking company, Chastity Chocolates. My father-in-law was a candy chef for many years, developing recipes, and has always had the desire to open his own candy/dessert shop one day.
 Since none of us are trained in business, and are doing this on the side after other full-time jobs, it has taken a while to figure out all the steps required for having a legitimate business. But we have had a successful open house, begun an online store, and the hope is that this Spring we will start participating in some local farmer’s markets, with the eventual dream of having a brick and mortar shop serving a variety of sweet decadence that will be all of our only full time jobs. Already we have awesome chocolate, caramel, cheesecake, and other treats; currently I am working towards ricotta mastery, with ricotta pie, and canolli—both of which I came to adore living in Boston, but have not been able to find equivalent examples of in California. Let me just say that research and development for a candy and dessert company is a particular luxury.
But still you may be thinking, from a career in education to candy? You see what really drives my wife and I to be involved in developing this business is simply happiness. Happiness, in getting to work together (for my wife and I really are best friends who wish they could be around each other more); happiness, in playing with the best ingredients we can find, combining them with inspiration and skill into splendid products; and the happy dream of having a place where customers can come to be happy. A good dessert or treat is a piece of tangible happiness, and the thought of creating a place full of such happiness seems like a worthy endeavor in our often cold and dreadful world. So if any of you would enjoy having some happiness delivered to your doorstep instead of just the usual bills and junk, come to www.chastitychocolates.com.

On Goals, and Plans to achieve them
My goals for 2014 are fairly simple:
- I want to be better about submitting short stories, so one plan is to have every short story I hope to get published out under consideration.
- I want to finish and publish at least 1 novel. To do this I am hoping to write a minimum of a page a day/250 words. Really this means 350 words during the week, because I rarely write on the weekends.
- I would like to read at least 40 books, and have more of them be the ink-on-bound-paper ones from my collection.

And lastly, I’d like to be better about socializing online: more consistent with blogs, and social media besides Likeing what others have posted.

So, good luck to me, and good luck to you.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Amusing myself while filling my writing pen after its annual thorough cleaning, with some pondering on the potentially superstitious nature of a writer's chosen instrument.


 There have been times when I ran out of ink, and I wasn't able to refill my pen, and wanted to continue writing,
 where I have forced myself to use another pen, despite queasy feelings of its unnaturalness and betrayal;

 but I admit that I would do that writing on scrap paper,
 and then properly transcribe it into the manuscript with my true writing instrument as soon as I could.

Is this akin to the athlete who won't play without his lucky socks? Do surgeons insist on using one particular scalpel? A painter's one precious brush? Or is this a special kind of screwy reserved for writers?

Thursday, August 08, 2013

We have Honorable Obscurity, How 'Bout You! - The Experiental Review of "The Honorable Obscurity Handbook"

The mark of a good book on writing, whether it involves craft, theory, or the writing life, is that it causes me anxiety, and I want to stop reading it. More on that later.


The Honorable Obscurity Handbook's cover says it all: the book is a collection of writing and supporting quotations on the importance of continuing to strive for your art, regardless of recognition. When it says 'ample quotations', it means it in the same way Rubens would paint an 'ample' lady.

I've followed Cunningham's writing for a while now, so many of the essays were familiar, because I had read them on his blog, or in their original publications. But these writings are of a type that are useful to return to. They help fortify the will of self-doubting writers; writers that are beginning to lose their ambition to persevere through the mire of publisher rejections, unresponsive agents; writers who have yelled their work into the wilderness, and never received an answering call that yes, someone has heard your words and enjoyed them - please send more.

The Honorable Obscurity Handbook is Cunningham's fourth book, with (at least) one other book waiting for the diamond band of acceptance for publication. This following quote (which does not appear in the book), was written before the publication of his first book:


"The challenges never let up; after facing one you find another waiting just around the bend -- but this is what I love about it all. Nothing else could possibly challenge me, engage me, force me to confront myself as much as writing. In essence, the whole craft seems to be a game of balances. Maintaining balances."

Though a decade lies between when this quotation was written, and his the publication of his 'Handbook,' Cunningham's course has remained true. With the tailwind of praise, or bushwhacking through modern publishing, he has stayed committed to the the creation of his written art - and in this book has shared the moments on kinship throughout the ages, the communions of reading, that have kept his quest moving forward.

Before I said that good books on writing cause me anxiety, and I want to stop reading them. They cause the anxiety to be creating those 'Honorable' works, to lay down another's book to build up my own. And so fellow writers, 'Obscure' or no, I advise you to pick up your own copy of The Honorable Obscurity Handbook (the book itself is honorably obscure - don't look for it on Amazon; I couldn't even say that I've read it on Goodreads; unless you're in Portland near Powell's, buy it direct from the publisher Atelier 26 Books), and when your nerve is tested, and your vision dims, read a section, read one of the 'ample' quotes, let that anxiety crackle in your body until it must be released through your fingers in whatever your method of writing.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

What I read instead of reading - The Experiental Review of "The Sweet Hereafter"

I've got three kids: 12 year old boy, 10 year old girl, 4 year old boy. They are all smart, funny, unique and beautiful. The thought of any of them ceasing to be is unimaginable, and I refuse to speculate on how I would be able to work through such a tragedy.

Now, I knew the general plot behind Russell Banks' novel The Sweet Hereafter before I started reading it - it wasn't like being waylaid and destroyed by the heartbreaking beginning of Pixar's Up. I first heard of the story through press for its film version, and then picked up the novel at a library sale. So I knew that it was a sad book that involved the death of children in an accident, but when I decided to read the novels I own by Russell Banks, I felt forewarned, and confident that I could treat it as any other tragic drama that I would encounter; I felt that I was a strong enough reader to separate the book's narrative from my own.

The book is split into five parts, with four narrators. The first section is narrated by Dolores Driscoll, a small-town school bus driver, and details the everyday procedures and bus route she takes to pick up many of the town's children and get them to school safely on a snowy winter's day, and how the mundane instantly becomes life-shattering as the bus goes off the road into a half-frozen, flooded sandpit. This section is thick with foreshadowing and imminent tragedy, with a strong-voiced narrator, and does an excellent job of introducing the community. When the section suddenly ends, just over the brink of the accident, at the starting point of action, I was compelled to continue reading.

The second section is narrated by Billy Ansel, a widower who was the only witness to the accident, who loses his two children. His narrative involves the dissolution of an affair he was having with another parent who lost a child, some back story on his past marriage and his relationship with his kids, and how his way of dealing with the tragedy is to lose himself in the bottle. As a father this section was certainly hard to read, but I felt so removed from the characteristics of Ansel that I was able to keep my emotions somewhat in check.

Now I considered taking a break from the book at this point - to read something with a lighter tone for a while - and would have if not for Banks' excellent structuring, having the narrator of the next section be Mitchell Stephens, a lawyer who comes to town looking to help out the victims' families. Now, while Stephens has his own family problems (a drug-addicted daughter), exploring the legal dimension of the tragedy provided the emotional break I needed to stick with the story.

But then there was the fourth section, which is narrated by Nichole Burnell, a fourteen-year-old girl who was paralyzed in the accident. Her voice, and the layers of emotion and tragedy that come out on top of that of the accident (such as a history of sexual abuse by her father), sapped my motivation to continue the story.

It was summer vacation for me by the time I got into the fourth section. I had time on my hands for reading, and didn't want to read my book in progress. Now, where was an avid reader to turn, to take a break from a heart-rending story? Should I read a lighter book in the interim? A so-called "summer-read?" A trip to the local library gave me the answer: graphic novels!

In high school I was an dedicated comic book collector. My interest waned in college, but I would pick up the odd graphic novel or comic collection from the library every once in a while to feed my love of graphic narration. My early tastes in comics were heavy on Marvel, with only a smattering of Batman comics, and John Byrne's "Man of Steel" mini-series comprising my DC holdings. Over the past decade my graphic novel reading has mostly involved DC's Vertigo imprint series (Alan Moore's "Saga of the Swamp Thing", Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" & "Black Orchid", Bill Willingham's "Fables", anything with John Constantine) some mature Indies (Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead", Alan Moore's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" & "From Hell", Frank Miller's "300") and titles I could enjoy with my kids (Jeff Smith's "Bone", Kazu Kibuishi's "Amulet", David Peterson's "Mouse Guard"). Besides Kevin Smith and Frank Miller's work for DC, I generally had no interest.

But, driven by my desire to read anything else but The Sweet Hereafter, I read a few DC graphic novels, including:

Batgirl: Year One
Batman: Battle for the Cowl
Batman: The Black Glove
Batman: Blind Justice
Batman: Death in the Family
Batman: Golden Dawn
Batman: Haunted Knight
Batman: Hush
Batman: Hush 2
Batman: Hush Returns
Batman: Heart of Hush
Batman Incorporated
Batman: Private Casebook
Batman R. I. P.
Batman: Under the Hood
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
Blackest Night
Blackest Night: Rise of the Black Lanterns
Brightest Day: Volume One
Brightest Day: Volume Two
Brightest Day: Volume Three
Catwoman: When in Rome

Final Crisis
Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds
The Flash: Rebirth
The Flash: The Dastardly Death of the Rogues
Green Lantern: Secret Origin
Green Lantern: Rage of the Red Lanterns
Green Lantern: Agent Orange
Green Lantern: Brightest Day
Green Lantern: War of the Green Lanterns
War of the Green Lanterns: Aftermath
Green Lantern Corps: Fearsome
Identity Crisis
Ronin

Like I said, a few graphic novels.

Then I read "Kick Ass: Hit Girl", and finally, all five volumes of Brian K. Vaughan's brilliant and affecting "Y: the Last Man" which was the first time I can remember being moved to drop a tear for a graphic novel.

At that point, though there are a few more random graphic novels available at my two local libraries, I broke down and finished The Sweet Hereafter in the waiting room while getting my car serviced. It did not wring any tears from me, but I think that it because the sadness the novel instills in its parent readers is like a deep ache. But I was able to use denial that such tragedy could occur in my family to finish my reading: I was able to stop questioning how I would ever get through losing a child, and keep the story's characters at a distance. So, as another Dolores Driscoll section bookends the narrative, and the characters are shown beginning to move on, I moved on as well, and finished well before my oil change and tire rotation did.

Next on my reading list is Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter - and I have no idea what it's about. I just hope it's not as sad as The Sweet Hereafter - I don't have enough graphic novels available to get me through!

Friday, July 19, 2013

An Update on Updates

It took me a while to come around to the idea of updating published works. When I gave up the idea of having my books traditionally published, I had no idea that there was anything more to Ebook self-publishing than 1. write a book; 2. make a cover; 3. publish! With the exception of Stephen King's The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition, publishing meant finality: like it or no, the words were set, and weren't going to ever change.

But then after becoming part of the self-publishing community, particularly through Smashwords, and following founder Mark Coker's blogs, posts, and guides, I found that clicking the little publish button didn't have to be the end of any story. So when I started getting feedback from readers I respected on my novel, I found that there were things I should change, and things I wanted to change.

As a part of the self-publishing community, I found an editor who volunteered her proofreading skills to find the unintentional grammatical & mechanical errors (& more), and solicited feedback from willing readers - something I probably should have done before publishing I know, but didn't know how to before becoming part of the Goodreads community, and discovering "beta-reading."

The outcome of that proofreading, and beta-reading, is the 2013 edition of my novel Alexander Murphy's Home for Wayward Celebrities, which features a draft significantly more free of unintentional grammatical/mechanical/spelling errors (some were intentional), a revised chapter system, and over 17,000 words of new content - including a new character, and an new ending. I even threw some color on the cover.

I was happy returning to the world of the novel, finding that there was more going on there than I had first imagined. So then, is it finished? All I can say is that it is finished for now, but if there is something I find later that belongs in the book, Ebook self-publishing means that my story will remain an open world that I can return to to play in.


My second update was to my story collection, My Governor's House & other stories. Now, though I have embraced self-publishing for my books, I still like having my short stories traditionally published through literary magazines before I compile them into my own collection, and some of the stories I want to include in My Governor's House are still looking for that lit zine first home. After they are published in zines, and the rights have reverted back to me, they'll get added to this collection, or the next collection. EBook self-publishing gave me the opportunity to publish a small collection of my previously published stories, and watch it grow to full as my orphan stories get placed. So this update was to include the story "The D. C. S. G. Meeting," which had been published last year in the fall 2012 issue of Menacing Hedge; audiobook fans can also find a reading of the story by the author there as well.

New readers will get the updated editions automatically; previous readers can update their files at any time to get the new edition - there is no extra charge for this: once you've bought the book, you have access to every future incarnation of the book.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Quotations Various - Fatherly Advice Edition, with help from Tom Robbins

Sometimes the advice you give your children require an outside source to enforce your point. My eldest son has anxiety about making mistakes, in his studies, in sports, etc. This anxiety often keeps him from participating at a level that we know he is capable of, for fear of failing. Over and over we stress how mistakes help you learn, how proud we are of him, how much we respect effort - an though he trusts us, he struggles living it.

And then rereading Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls get the Blues, I came across this passage, that made him smile, and think.

"So you think that you're a failure, do you? Well, you probably are. What's wrong with that? In the first place, if you've any sense at all you must have learned by now that we pay just as dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats. Go ahead and fail. But fail with wit, fail with grace, fail with style. A mediocre failure is as insufferable as a mediocre success. Embrace failure! Seek it out. Learn to love it. That may be the only way any of us will ever be free."