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Monday, January 19, 2015

The Danger of Attempting to Describe the Creative Process

There comes a time in every writer's life where he or she has the urge to find a creative way to describe their creative process. This should be avoided at all costs, for while this exercise is fun to think about and write, invariably the product will be pretentious as hell.
Example: the following was originally planned as part of a series of blog swaps with author Nath Jones in early 2013. The intention was for us to begin in a void that we would each bring ideas and props in to discuss and examine and let it evolve before us. This contribution of mine pretty much derailed it...


Welcome to our void. As all voids long to be filled I have lent the void some materials from my mind. Let’s head over to those flashes in the distance; they’re not as far away as they initially seemed.
Here we are. Before us are five swirling clouds, each about the size of a baby whale, each a different color, each with flashes of image occasionally crackling in their foggy interior.
The first cloud is the brown of rich earth, well composted. It is memory.
The second cloud is variegated greens; the green of young shoots ready to be guided up the structure of a pole, and also the garish green of weeds that infect the garden. This cloud is dreams.
The third cloud is the flickering dance of yellow-orange campfire light, of candlelight, of brightness amid the dark, of the hypnotic quality of a story well told from the moment the log alights to the final coals that stay buried beneath your surface, waiting to kindle other stories. This cloud is every story I have read
The fourth cloud is a cool blue, at once electronic and photonic. Its images project out of the cloud like crystals of light. It is every story that I have watched, in film, or on television, or participated with in a video game.
Each of the first four clouds is at a level that I can reach into them, save for the fifth. This last cloud is hanging above me like a Charlie Brown raincloud, only it is red. Right now it is red and flashing like an emergency light. This cloud is my anxiety over writing. When I am being productive the light dims from an angry red to the sweet pink of bakery boxes—of old school soda fountain booths. But many things can inflame this red: if I read something too good, something I feel I can never match—or, conversely, if I read something by a successful writer that I feel I could write better; if I have spent too long idle, or absent from writing; or if I am frustrated with the work I am doing, and long for the mythic “writer’s life;” these sharpen the tone of urgency in the red.
It’s flashing like an emergency light now because I have been meaning to write this for a while, so the anxiety to see it written, to check it off the “To Do” list, has been building.
This is how I use the clouds.
There is a piece of paper suspended in air before me. I scoop a handful from each cloud until I have a rainbow cotton candy cloud floating in front of my paper. I then take a jar of India ink, and throw through the cloud, onto this paper. It dries quickly, but I always get some on my fingers: I like this though, as I like to get paint on my fingers, and graphite, and stone dust, for I can look at these stains afterward and have tangible proof that that day, I managed to do something creative.
Next, I skitter my fingers over the paper, performing the magic that pulls all of the ink out, and breaks it down until it is an ordered construction of electrons. From this state I can reorder the electrons at will. I used to send jets of ink through these electrons to rebind them to paper—either to throw more ink from my jar onto it (which I find I’m doing less and less), or to send them as offerings to holy men and women (which I never do any more—now I just send them the electrons).

That’s all there is to it.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Happy Anniversary to Me

Ten years ago the self-appointed designation of ‘writer’ was legitimized when I received a copy of my first published story. Printed in Illya’s Honey, a lovely little journal published out of Dallas, words I had set in order were printed under the name I had chosen for myself.

I remember receiving the letter of acceptance. Back then every submission consisted of a sheaf of papers – never stapled together upon pain of rejection (I have always preferred those pretzel-shaped ideal clips) – with a self-addressed-stamped-envelope that you charmed to repel form rejections. In the garage somewhere I have half-empty return address mailing labels for three different addresses. Today young writers would have to print out their rejection emails to have a collection from the world’s great literary journals to nail above their writing desks – I have actual paper rejections from Esquire, Playboy, Ploughshares, and more.

When that first acceptance came I immediately became a cliché: I had become so acclimated to no’s that I had to read it more than once to believe that it was a letter of yes!





Since that first yes I have received nine others, placing an additional pair of stories in a series of anthologies. A dozen stories released from my mind and accepted as worthy of publication by like-minded strangers. Eighteen other stories are either cruising around looking for a home, or back in the garage waiting for a tune-up. Here's hoping the next decade sees more of my stories find acceptance.

Friday, August 15, 2014

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

For not doing very much over summer break it sure has gone by fast! This is especially strange because fairly early into it, I signed a contract for a new teaching job. This is the first time in my educational career that I was ensured of a full-time position in June.

This forthcoming job is great for every part of my life, save for my writing.

You see, for the last two years I have been mostly substitute teaching. This has meant that our family has been living on the cheap for the last two-and-a-half years. We did not vacation; we did not take our kids to the movies; we ate more pasta and Costco pizzas than any family should; we did not go to a sit-down restaurant unless we had a gift card; my wife and I stopped giving Christmas and birthday presents to each other. And on rare occasions when we did splurge, we still managed to skimp: when my wife and I took an anniversary trip to Hearst Castle, we got a cheap hotel with no view; when we got season passes to Great America, we never bought treats in the park; when we spent a day at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, we never went on the rides.

I didn't buy books, CDs, blu-rays, or video games.

We had always been good about saving, but as the balance continued it's steady drip down I got a second job: retail, during the golden quarter, for slightly above minimum wage.

And besides having an awesome wife and kids, things were tough for every part of my life.

Except for my writing.

Substitute teaching, most days, are very productive for me. I estimate that during those two years I wrote around 200,000 words (not counting a nonfiction book that was mostly cutting and pasting) in various classrooms. When I was teaching full time, I had no time to write. I figured that eventually I would get my curriculum to a point where I wouldn't need to spend so much time developing lessons, but over those five full-time years that never seemed to happen. I stopped circulating my short stories. Occasionally I would tinker with my novel, but I had no desire to send it out to any other agents, and other than occasional notes I did no new writing for about five years.

Transitioning back to substitute teaching coincided with my discovery of ebook self-publishing, and I was able to publish (and later, revise and republish) my first novel. Some of my short story orphans found good homes. Not being able to decide which of my novel ideas to start next I started three of them. My book reading doubled. I began to think about starting some art projects. My creative life flourished.

Then I received a call to interview from a district that I had applied to months before and forgotten. An hour after the interview I got an offer.

This brings me back to this summer. Suddenly we didn't need to worry about money so much. As my wife is also a teacher, and teachers aren't compensated commensurate with their education and importance in our country, the money worries will never completely disappear, but compared to our previous no-frills existence this money was freeing. We booked a family cruise for our Winter Break. I bought some books, a few CDs, and a blu-ray movie, and convinced myself not to feel guilty about this. We bought my eldest son a bookcase, and would have bought our youngest a dresser if it was in stock. We didn't cringe so much with our back-to-school shopping. I have kept the second job so far, but instead of it paying the energy bill, it's going to the vacation fund. The monetary anxiety that had covered us molted off our bodies, and our flight feathers are growing strong again.

And I have the privilege that my only worry in all of this is how my creative life will suffer. When something wears out, or is outgrown, or breaks, we can replace it with little worry. My family is blessed that my biggest concern now is how well I will be able to carve out time from getting students to learn and work to produce something of my own.

I guess we'll see if I have the discipline and luck. A few more days and I'll get busy setting up my classroom. A few days after that I'll have my first day with students, and the real madness begins.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Wyrd Worlds & The Road to the War(s)



One of the blessings of self-publishing is the ability to write and publish whatever you want. I don’t have a publisher to tell me No. I can explore genres at my whim; let the muse off its leash and let run where it will. Therefore, in the file where I collect writing ideas (cleverly titled “Writing Ideas”), there are the spores of science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories among the standard literary fare. I’ll even admit that some following year you may find a Star Trek-TNG fan-fic novel - seriously.

But my science fiction story “Separate Wars on the Same Street” isn’t strictly a new story, flaunting my freedom from editorial pressure. In fact, in many ways, it was my first story.

I was a good student in high school. Though I never took any honors or AP classes, I was accepted to every college I applied to. (Honors and AP classes certainly would never have let me finish that last sentence with a preposition). So my non-honored high school self had the opportunity to take Creative Writing as my Senior English Class, where the class’s final project was publishing a class literary journal. Of the two finished short stories I wrote for that class, “Separate Wars on the Same Street” was far and away the strongest, and in a box somewhere in my garage is a copy that holds the original version of the story. When the Smashwords Authors Group I belong to on Goodreads got the idea to collaborate on an anthology I took the story out, stripped it to its bones, and built it back up to breathing to submit.

Since the story relies heavily on irony, especially situational, it’s hard to talk  about it without revealing spoilers. But I think I can safely give some background on the story of the kind I like to learn about the stories I enjoy reading.
My junior and senior years of high school were years of great transition, of course. One of the experiences that greatly affected me was the death of my friend Tommy. Tommy liked loud music, and had big headphones to accommodate this; I think this was why he didn’t hear the train coming as he was walking the tracks on the way to his job at Taco Bell. I was near to the accident without knowing it: the tracks flank the gym where I was having basketball practice, and though some of my teammates say they saw it happen, it didn’t become real for me until I got home. As soon as I got in the house there was my mother asking if the boy they were talking about on the news was my friend, and telling her Yes was the most awful thing I had had to do at that point in my life.
I had to wait for the national news to end before seeing the story on the local news, and besides the reporter standing besides the tracks, there was intercut footage from the news helicopter, footage of men carrying the yellow body bag that held my friend away.
“Now why do they have to show that?!” my Mom yelled, the tears starting up again. This question, and the long process of considering it during and past the process of my grieving changed the way I viewed the news. I had trusted the news to show me what I needed to see as a citizen, and so had always watched with both eyes, directly; the footage of aftermath, serving no purpose besides being lurid, reached out and pushed my head away, so that I have never been able to view the news again with the trust of both eyes, but always afterward at a wary angle. It was this viewpoint that combined with an affinity for mech-suits (Sigourney Weaver in Aliens; Robotech) the next year for the finished story; and was still present when I rewrote it over the summer of 2013.



Read my story, “Separate Wars on the Same Street,” as well as thirteen other excellent, interesting works from an international team of indie & self-published authors. All the links you need are over there on my side bar. The price is right (it's free), and if you read something there you like, help us out with a review saying so.

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?