The Dumbing Down of an Author

When I hear about writer’s block, this one and that one, f**k off!  Stop writing, for Christ’s sake; plenty more where you came from.”

~ Gore Vidal

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Following my last post, I received an extraordinary number of comments . . . or perhaps not so extraordinary considering the subject matter.  I pretty much announced my retirement from the writing life.  It’s a sad event to see something I’ve loved pass into history, but these things happen, and here, it seems, we are . . . but for those comments.

And a very fine lot of friends I have, I must say.  I expected resentment from the people who have enjoyed my work over the years, and indifference from those who haven’t.  But to my surprise, I’ve received nothing but support, from advice to do what my heart desires, to “get well soon.”  But not one word of negativity.  Such friends are better than I deserve, and I now apologize publicly for doubting they would support me.

But now comes a new matter, another one of those currents in the magma that hold the potential to change the world above.  I decided that having stopped producing new material, I would post nearly all of my old stuff for my friends and followers to read for free, and I am in the process of doing that, with two chapters of Chameleon posted to date.  I imagined that besides entertaining my handful of readers, it would provide a record of the journey of someone who has learned to write by doing.  But even on so straightforward an endeavor, things have taken an unexpected turn.

I always date the beginning of my writing career to 1958, when my 5th-grade teacher, Mrs. Warner, opened my eyes to the joy to be found in writing to entertain others, and while it is true that I wrote almost non-stop in the intervening years, I didn’t finish a novel until 1996, when Temple of Exile reached completion.  Temple was “pantsed,” as my writing friends would say, written on the fly by an author who had no formal training in what went into the structure of a novel.  Then, like most new authors who have finished their first book, I took it for granted that Barnes & Noble would soon be clearing out their front window to make room for the next big blockbuster.  It didn’t take long for reality to intervene.  An agent agreed to take a look at it, an event whose rarity I didn’t appreciate at the time, and returned a lengthy critique, an event of even greater rarity and great generosity.  The bottom line: while the story and mechanics were decent, it needed structure and discipline.  I set out to acquire these things.

I spent the next year reading a raft of how-to-write-books books, absorbing the advice of successful authors, editors, and agents on the subject of crafting a quality story.  The Writer’s Digest library was a big help, as were those of several university presses, but the greatest aid to my eventual success was a singular work by a New York superagent, Evan Marshall, who placed at my disposal The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing.  This book of charts, tables, templates, and explanations brought solid structure and discipline to my free-soaring style, and I credit it for everything I’ve accomplished since.

Chameleon was the first book I completed after absorbing the principles of The Marshall Plan and all those others.  It is the story of Colleen O’Reilly, a young woman whose life from early childhood has been devoted to the IRA, and who has risen to prominence as one of their leading “soldiers.”  In young adulthood, she has developed a conscience, remorse for her actions, and fled the Army, hiding behind a wall of aliases and disguises as she uses the only skill she knows, violence, to be a paladin for the oppressed, a court of last resort for those without hope.

That is the basic synopsis, and the plot may or may not interest you; if it does, click the tab above and start reading.  But the subject here was an errant current in the magma that has the potential to change everything, and I’ll now get to what that is:  For want of a better word, I’ll call it “richness.”  You see, in transcribing Chameleon word-by-word, I’ve come to realize that the physical world in which Miss O’Reilly plies her trade is infinitely more detailed and compelling than the world of Slayer of Darkness, my latest work chronologically.  Doesn’t it seem to you that my last book should be the best, given that I’m supposedly learning lessons and improving all the time?  But not so much the case, and that magma current is a seductive little voice whispering I could write like this again.

In casting about for reasons for this decline, I keep getting back to the modern world’s demands for minimalism.  Shorten it, tighten the prose, lose the adverbs, get to the point, keep it brief, and a thousand similar maxims bombard the amateur writer from every writing site, writers’ group, and critique forum out there, until the richness has been beaten out of your product and it’s like an old pair of yoga pants that have been washed too many times, and hang, shapeless, like a pair of sweats.  It staggers me how much better Chameleon is than Slayer, and that little voice keeps whispering, I could write like this again.

Is there a chance?  Of course.  There is no possible way for a writer to say “never again,” because it’s just too easy.  If I raced hot rods, and meant to get out of it, I would be selling a million dollars worth of shop equipment, cars, transporters, the works.  It would be permanent, with no easy way to go back.  All I have to do to start writing again is pick up a pen.  Whether I will cannot be foreseen at this time.  What I am going to do is get my backlist posted here for all to read, and when that lengthy project is done, we’ll see what feelings have stirred themselves in my story-telling soul, but here is one thing I must never lose sight of again:

I have built what tiny bit of fame and popularity I own by writing an old style of “boys-own” story that had its heyday in the 1930s, and had faded into oblivion by 1960.  I grew up following those steely-eyed heroes on their white-knuckle adventures into lands that couldn’t possibly exist, and I have missed them terribly, like old friends who have left the neighborhood, never to be seen again.  I determined that if no one else was going to write them, I would do it myself, and when I offered them for my friends and coworkers to read, they embraced them like they’d never seen them before.  If I do return some day to ply the great uncharted seas of adventure, I must never again stray into that modern Sargasso of brevity.  That isn’t what made those stories great, and it isn’t what those who read them today want.

So I’m thinking, always a risky proposition, but I’m just thinking.  Meanwhile, read Chameleon and the stories that come after, enjoy the adventure, and stop and say hello once in a while; I may not be active as a writer anymore, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t still love your company!

Interesting Read . . .

OrientalVagabonds

Oriental Vagabonds by Richard Regan.  This looks interesting to me because I sailed the Orient on the deck of an aging oil tanker in 1969, and the synopsis hints strongly at that boys-own adventure that I so love:

The eve of World War 2.  Hitler is finalising his plans for the conquest of Europe and flexing his muscles in Spain, while the Japanese are poised to invade China, and eyeing the resources of the East Indies and Indochina to fuel their war machine.  Dangerous times, but there are still profits to be made by men like hard-bitten Skipper Bill Rowden and his vagabond crew, as they work their aging tramp steamer around the treacherous waters of the Far East.  Uncharted reefs, tropical storms, corrupt officials, smuggling and piracy are all in a day’s work to Rowden and his crew, which includes an embittered hard drinking aristocrat, a knife wielding Welshman and a hot-headed, hard-fisted Australian.  On what begins as a routine voyage to New Guinea, Rowden discovers an illegal shipment of arms concealed in his ship, setting off a chain of increasingly dangerous events that drag him unwittingly into the centre of Nazi, Soviet and British attempts to gain the upper hand, before war finally breaks out.  Entangled with Chinese warlords, triads, and a beautiful Russian adventuress, Rowden narrowly escapes Shanghai before the bombs start to fall, but his enemies are closing in.  Deep in the Pacific, on a remote coral fringed lagoon, Rowden and his crew face a violent and explosive confrontation, with little more than fists and wits to keep them alive.  Free on Kindle.

And that’s 30 for today.  I’m still trying to hold to my four-day schedule.  That may be a little ambitious, given what’s going on in my life, but check back Thursday and see what I have for you.  In any case, Chameleon will keep going up daily, so read well, and write better!  See you around the stacks . . .

The Fickle Ways of Love

Stories are written by writers.  That much is a given, but what makes a writer?  I’ve spent sixty years seeking the reasons that I create stories and the next guy doesn’t, with little to no result.  But this morning, with the help of a profound comment on my last post followed five minutes later by reading a post on writing.com, the lightning has struck, and I believe I understand.

Writers pride themselves on their tools.  We have knowledge of the mechanics, command of the language, and a convoluted imagination that’s constantly taking us down dark and mysterious paths.  We apply these tools without letup, constantly seeking that unique combination of words and thoughts that will make us the author of the Next Big Blockbuster.  But the fact is that most of us have these tools to some degree.  We’re raised within a spoken language, and most of us attend some form of school to learn its formal rules and how to present it on the page.  We all have imaginations of greater or lesser strangeness, and we constantly imagine things that aren’t part of our daily experience.  So, why don’t all of us write?

I now believe that the ingredient that makes this person a writer and that one not is love; a love for the act of writing.  I have had that love for many years, many decades.  To see the story coming together on the page, to feel the joy of the subtle nuance that says so much and suggests so much more, to feel that thrill of anticipation of how your work will be received when you place it in front of a reader; that is love of the first order, and it’s what you have to feel from your skin right down to your bones in order follow this wild, unpredictable trade, be it job or hobby.

And I don’t feel it anymore.  I’ve been retired for over two years now.  I wake in the morning at six, or eight, or ten, it doesn’t matter, and the day is a clean slate stretching on to bedtime, waiting for me to use as I will.  For a long time, the first activity of the day was to write.  I was usually up early, and before the day’s excitement began, there were a couple of quiet hours when I could think and plot and carry on with nothing to distract me from my goal of quality wordsmithing.  The mornings are still like that, but I’m not.  For the past weeks, months maybe, I have gotten up, sat down at the keyboard, raised that white screen graced by the half-finished tale, and instead of thinking about where to take the story, I find myself wondering whether there are any household chores that I can do, perhaps some pressing research on my IRA distributions, or maybe a video game that is in desperate need of being completed.  I dread writing in a way that I never dreaded going to my job, and that isn’t what retirement is supposed to look like.

I’m just not in love anymore.  I’m not out of ideas, oh, far from it!  The inside of my head looks like the warehouse scene at the end of Indiana Jones, with boxed and crated ideas on ceiling-high racks that extend into a haze in the distance.  Oh, I still dabble at it here and there; that’s a perfect description of my Darklighters story, but if I was in love, I would open one of those boxes and ride it to the moon and back.  But all they really are are annoyances, constant reminders of what I “should” be doing instead of what I want to do.  It shouldn’t be like that.

The fact remains, though, that that’s how it is.  I feel guilty about the things I’ve committed myself to do, and I am sad about the friends that I’m certain to drift away from as writing fades more and more certainly into the past.  But I’m just not able to get up every morning, chain myself to this desk, and force myself to do something that has become more mind-numbing than any job-for-pay that I’ve ever had.  I can’t do it.

So I’m going to step away from it.  Perhaps after a break it will return.  Perhaps it won’t, but I cannot afford to care.  I cannot afford to spend the years or months I have left pursuing a dream that is of no interest to me.  To be any kind of a writer, you must be prepared to leave your heart and soul on the page, and I can’t even drag them to the page anymore; it’s time to go, and commitments be damned.  I need to say a few things to some people to wrap up the loose ends:

  • To Bryce, hold the presses on that book cover.  Should the writing bug return, I’ll get in contact, but don’t put any more work than you already have into a project that is at full stop with no prospects.
  • To the magnificent handful who have so graciously agreed to proofread and edit The Darklighters, allow me to return some huge chunks of your time for things that you enjoy.  If anything changes I’ll let you know, but don’t wait up for me…
  • To William, I will finish your map, and with this agonizing distraction gone, things are likely to happen pretty quickly.  Watch your e-mail for updates.

To everyone else, I’m going to leave this site up, because it contains (or soon will contain) all the things I’ve written in the past that I’d like people to be able to read for as long as they might like.  All those tabs across the top contain stories and books that have been well-received by readers and critics.  Enjoy them.  It will give meaning to all those years I spent writing them.  More will be added to them for a number of months, as I transcribe my work from years gone by, and I may even post more material in this blog, though I don’t know what it would be about here on this writing blog.  Probably promoting the work of those friends I mentioned.

But all that is for days to come.  Right now, I’m off to find my blues harps that I stuffed in a drawer years ago to make time for all this writing.  Who knows, maybe I’ll have time to get my chops back.  I’ve enjoyed your company on this long and convoluted ride, and I can’t say it hasn’t been interesting.  Thanks for everything; I had a ball!

 

 

Blimprider Times, No. 16

Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it.  Autograph your work with excellence!”

~ Many attributations

View from the Blimp

I have used that quote extensively over the past couple of decades or so, and have tried with some success to instill it in my children.  In researching the author, I was very much surprised to find it attributed to everyone from “Anonymous” through Vince Lombardi to Jessica Guidobono, who neither I nor Wikipedia have ever heard of.  Regardless, somebody said it, and it is profound.

So, why open with this quote, and why, for that matter, open with View from the Blimp?  I believe the reasons will reveal themselves as I press forward.

I have noticed a little issue I’ve been having since the end of May:  I’ve hardly written anything!  Analysis of this issue points up an interesting coincidence:  At the beginning of June I put this blog on a three-day schedule, that is, a post has been prepped and offered every three days like clockwork.  Now I have to ask whether that is an actual coincidence, or an example of cause and effect.  The only way I can see to determine that is by experiment, so commencing immediately, I will be putting this blog on a four-day schedule, and we’ll see how that affects my writing, or if it does at all.  The experiment will proceed through the end of August, and based on what I find between now and then, there may or may not be further changes.

The point of all this?  While I hope it is apparent through content, I try to provide quality work, to create something that has value as entertainment and as enlightenment; I try my best, in short, to make you think.  Producing any quality product takes time, and an hour I spend assembling this blog is an hour I don’t have to work on The Darklighters, so we’ll see if the four-day schedule returns some quality writing time to my pool.  Wish me luck!

Featured Site of the Week

CogpunkSteamscribe

The featured site this week is that of an Australian steampunk author who calls herself Cogpunk Steamscribe. A note to the sleuths out there:  The name on her books is Lynne Lumsden Green.  Regardless, she is, like so many of us, a struggling indie who cherishes each small victory, and she blogs about the many aspects of being an author on today’s playing field, from acceptances and rejections to the Victorians’ fascination with ferns.  Well-spoken, well-mannered, and an insightful blogger as well, this is another site that is very much worth a read.

Interesting Reads

Since we last talked, I’ve encountered a tremendously insightful blog that the sort of young and novice writers that are my target audience would benefit from tremendously.  It is titled simply Roger Floyd’s Blog, and concerns itself with myriad aspects of the writing Craft in concise, easy to follow articles that deal with a single subject at a time.  He doesn’t waste column inches nor even his header with showy artwork, but names his subject, and launches straight into the nitty-gritty.  He has been at it since May of 2010, which if my estimate is right would put him at around 300 articles, and if his recent work is a representative sample of the quality, this blog must amount to a college course in creative writing.  I don’t know how to state the case any more strongly than that.  If you want discussions to make you give serious thought to the way you’re doing things, here they are.

Reserve

The Reserve by Jordan Greene.  Cooper Bay has dreamed his whole life of acting.  So when his brother Nick surprises him with a leading role in a B-horror movie, Cooper can’t say no.  The only catch is the team’s filming location is off-limits to the public.  Yet, that doesn’t sway film director, Luca Sanchez.  He’s set on trespassing North Brother Island, an abandoned isle in the middle of New York City set aside as an avian reserve for a bird that no longer graces its shores.  Ready to make a movie, Cooper and his new film mates cross the East River to shoot their scenes among the restricted island’s decaying ruins.  But a day into production fellow actor, Riley Cannon, goes missing, leaving only a smear of blood on a nearby tree.  Cooper swears he heard something in the woods before Riley went missing, but no one believes him.  Once the screams begin to rise, Cooper wishes he had never signed up for this real life horror story.  99¢ on Kindle.

NautilusLegacy

The Nautilus Legacy by Lewis Crow.  The stunning revelation that his father became none other than the infamous Captain Nemo shakes a young man’s world to its foundation.  This fictional memoir recounts his life after a tragic war destroys his family and nearly kills him.  Learning the truth about his father years later compels him to make a difficult choice: will he keep his comfortable but unspectacular middle-class Victorian existence or forsake everything to continue Nemo’s work of exploring the seas and aiding the oppressed?  Researched to be true to the spirit of Verne’s source novels (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mysterious Island) and his original ideas, The Nautilus Legacy moves from Europe to America to the depths of the sea and beyond.  In addition to its literary and adventure themes, it is also the very personal story of an insecure man who struggles with the life of his father and their unfinished relationship.  $4.95 on Kindle.

ArrowsDesire

Arrows of Desire by Geoffrey Household.  It has been seven hundred years since the United Kingdom was destroyed.  In the aftermath of a global cataclysm, the peoples of Europe banded together under a single flag, but the English refused to go along.  Their resistance was rewarded with a genocide that wiped out half the population.  The survivors resettled in North Africa, and Britain was declared uninhabitable.  To celebrate the year 3000, the island is repopulated, to be ruled according to Federation law.  But there are those in the underground determined to begin old battles anew.  A barbarian king rides in the forests, drinking beer and promising to resist the Federation at all costs.  In the new capital, a student takes a shot at the High Commissioner, nearly killing him with an ancient weapon known as a rifle.  After seven centuries of silence, the British are ready to rise again.  $7.99 on Kindle.

Left Foot Forward by the Littmus Steampunk Band.  This is, as you’ve probably gathered, a music album, and you may wonder why I’m featuring it on a writing blog.  Well, one of the songs, The Gadgeteer, was written by an old friend of ours, Karen J. Carlisle, and is based on a character in The Illusioneer, which means she can now add songwriter to artist, photographer, and author on her resume.  You can snap it up for $1.50 right here.

And that’s 30 for today.  Join me Sunday when I’m sure I’ll have thought of something or other to waste bandwidth on.  Until then, read well, and write better!