Safe Spaces

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It’s been a long time since my last post. I know. I know. But I’m back, Baby! So let’s get on with the topic of where to write.

Every writer has and needs a place to write. It would be awesome to mimic a rolling stone and set up shop wherever you may be. But the reality is that’s just not the case for most of us. We need that place, dare I say that safe-space, where we can quietly concentrate, contemplate, and be our truly creative selves.

Some people make fun of the concept of the safe-space when referring to its original concept, which is:  an autonomous space for individuals who feel marginalized to come together to communicate regarding their experiences with marginalization, typically on a university campus. I’m not using the term in that way.

What I’m referring to is that place where the writer can go and be free of distraction and outside influence. Typically, this is your favorite spot to write like in your home office, at your local cafe, the backroom of a library, maybe by a lake, a porch, a diner, on the beach, or on the grass at the park. Wherever you find that place that allows you distraction-free creative work, that is your creative safe-space.

Now if you don’t have one, then you need to get yourself one. Your creativity will jump by leaps and bounds, I assure you. I have a home office that I share with my wife. I have an expensive high-back office chair that’s pretty comfortable (I’ve fallen asleep in it) and my computer desk is at a proper height that it doesn’t literally cramp my style. For the most part, my space has been relatively positive to my writer’s life.

Sharing a writing space can be problematic though. Now I’ve mentioned that I share this home office with my wife. On one side, I’ve got my desk; cluttered, semi-organized and lived in. On the other, she has her desk; neat, clear, everything in its place. When I work at my desk, I like to have Battle Music playing (some call it Epic Music). I find this type of music gets my creative juices flowing. While writing, battle music stimulates my imagination causing to me to picture what types of warriors are going head to head to this soundtrack. My imagination becomes unleashed. So it would follow that Battle Music helps me against writer’s block. Block is that enemy warrior to be defeated utterly! Hard driving and loud, battle music can be disturbing to those around me, so if my wife is in the office with me I’m usually blasting these tunes through my headphones. Even when alone I use headphones. The battle music comes in, the outside world is kept out.

My wife, meanwhile, likes to do her work with the television playing or listening to comedy from Pandora on her Amazon Tap. Whatever gets you through the day, I don’t knock it. And yes we have a television in the home office. Since the home office doubles as our guest bedroom (or vice versa) we’ve provided a television for our honored guests.

For me, of course, television is the Great Distractor. There is much sports, Netflix and CNN that requires my attention. Even if I have my headphones on and I see a television playing, I need to know what it is they’re talking about, so using headphones doesn’t help. When this situation arises, I have been going to the living room or kitchen with my laptop. Unfortunately, both locations are not conducive for writing. Both places provide even more distractions than a home office with two computers and a television would. There’s a wide-screen television, blu-rays, a super-comfy couch, and video games in the living room, while food, drink and yet another television beckon in the kitchen (We have four televisions in our apartment).

On top of it all, my wife requires my attention and affections as well, which while sweet and necessary, still distracts you from your writer’s life.

Distraction is the anathema of creativity as I’m sure you know. So when you get yourself that writing space, guard it with your life. Treat it like a panic room! Guard it against anything and anyone that would violate it. That may mean family members; especially family members since they will most likely be the ones violating your space. Talk to them nicely. and Be sensitive to their feelings, but be direct. Don’t get angry with them. Explain to them what your are trying to accomplish before you start your writing day. And when writing time is done, let them know you are available. This is why you should set an exact writing time so you don’t neglect loved ones.

 

One Revision Down, Another Revision to Go!

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The fourth draft of my novella is finally done. Man, what a bear that was! The purpose of this revision was dedicated to changing the tense of my story. Originally, my story was told in the past tense and first person. Since my story is a sci-fi action/adventure, I decided that the tension needed to be increased. To achieve that goal, I changed the tense of the story from past to present tense. Telling the story from a perspective from the past was weird. Since this story is supposed to be suspense-filled, how suspenseful could it be if the narrator is relating the story after it’s over. By default, he must accept that somehow he survived! Why should I invest in this protagonist if I know he survived his ordeal?  By changing the tense to present, my readers will experience the trials and tribulations of my protagonist along with him, when he does. In my humble opinion, I think the story is now filled with way more tension. What my writing group and readers think is yet to be determined.

This revision took well over a month to complete. Unfortunately, I was bad and did not write/revise everyday. But I did find a ton of time to be more dedicated to the process when I had a week-long stay-cation two weeks ago. This worked out quite well as I was able to revise three chapters during that time. The first four chapters were already in the bag. It took the following week to revise my last chapter.

For this particular story, the purpose of the next round of revision will be to incorporate the critiques that my writing group has given me. Every other week I submitted a new chapter to them. Their advice is so relevant and good, I truly appreciate the input I get from my group. They are super smart, super helpful, super creative, and have such super diversity of thought. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Get yourself a dedicated writing group! I was a member of writing groups in the past, but the dedication was lacking on all sides. We’ve been meeting since October 2016 and we’re going strong (knock on wood).

My writing group really needs to settle on a name. Maybe mix the the two names we came up with. Mash up ‘Blackrock Writing Group’ and ‘Climbing Ivy Writing Group’ and we get ‘The Blackrock Climbing Ivy Writing Group’. That’s a mouthful! Needs work. Stay tuned.

Submit!

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I’ve been submitting a lot lately (Yay! It’s about time!). With due diligence, my fantasy story is still being shopped around the science fiction/fantasy mags. Currently, it’s out among four publications. Here’s hoping it lands with one of them. So far one these publications (who shall remain nameless) has rejected it. The editor said, “…it didn’t quite work for me, I’m afraid.” Damn. I could’ve at least gotten some notes as to why. My online writing instructor teaches that when your story is in the submission phase, only revise on request. Which I’ve done for the rejections that gave me useful notes. I didn’t receive any notes this time around, so I’m not revising jack! And with that, I just have to suck it up and keep submitting!

When submitting, a major key we need to remember is: Am I submitting my story to the right publication? You may think, “Well that’s a pretty obvious assessment there, Zeke!” Not so fast, Missy! It’s not as simple as, “Here’s my fantasy story. Should I send it to a true crime magazine?” No, it’s more like, “Here is my adult dark fantasy story, should I send it to this children’s fantasy magazine?” Or “Here’s my space opera novel, should I send it to this magazine that only publishes hard sci-fi?”

What I’m trying to say is, make sure you know what type of story you’ve written and make sure you are submitting it to the right type of magazine. Make certain you are cognizant of the devils that are in the details of the publication’s content. In order to insure this, a good idea is to read the publication first. Most submission guidelines tell you to do this. It’s solid advice and that’s what I’ve been doing lately.

I’ve bought, downloaded and read some of the publications I’m submitting to and I’m trying to get a good sense of what they tend to publish. Some questions we should be asking are: Does my story fit their criteria? Is my writing style compatible with what they’ve published in the past? Is my skill level up to the task of what the particular publisher has put out? If the answers are ‘yes’ then submit away my friend! If the answer is ‘no’, then submit a more compatible story or submit the story elsewhere. I know this stuff sounds like common sense, but you’ll be surprised how much editors complain about how often they come across this issue.

Submitting to different publications can get a little hectic. What story did I send? When did I send it? Who did I send it to? Have I heard back yet? When should I query about my submission results? This can be very daunting. A good thing to create for yourself is a submission list. In order to keep track of what and where I’m submitting, I created an excel spreadsheet. This has been a godsend!

My submission list spreadsheet contains the:

  • Title of my submission
  • Submission date
  • Response date
  • Publisher
  • Category/Genre of the submission
  • Submission status (ie. rejected, accepted, in progress, etc.)
  • Publisher’s website and/or URL of the submission guidelines page
  • Contest (yes or no)
  • Publication genre type

So don’t just read the submission guidelines to the publication, read the publication as well. Know it. Understand it. Become one with the publication. Then submit!

 

At the Feet of a Master

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I didn’t post last week, not because I was inactive. No Sir! I was fairly active in my writer’s life. I dug into my reading. I attended a panel discussion at The Center for Fiction (more on that in a future post). I finished the second draft of my novella. So I was pretty active. I didn’t blog because I didn’t know what I wanted to blog about specifically. But this week I come back with a vengeance, baby!

My reading consisted mainly of the book Stephen King On Writing, which I just finished. This is King’s definitive work on the craft of writing with a ton of insightful memoir thrown in. King wanted to do a book on craft but also wanted to do a memoir as well. So the master that he is, decided to put the two together. This book succeeds on both counts.

The first half of the book is memoir. King relates pivotal events in his childhood (constant ear infections, school, reading interests as a child), his single mother’s trials and tribulations raising two sons alone, his extended family, his first forays into writing, college life, meeting his wife, his alcoholism and addiction. He links his life’s adventures to what inspired some of his story ideas and his opinions on craft. For instance, Carrie was inspired by two outcast girls in his high school. Graveyard Shift is based on King’s time during college working at a textile factory one long hot summer.

The second half of the book is on craft. King’s take on writing is most insightful. King states, “…good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your ‘toolbox’ with the right instruments.” King believes that, “…it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.” I’ll put myself in this category for now, if I’m being honest.

Regarding craft, King also says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I might have mentioned this in another post. My online instructor agrees with this philosophy. Not only that but my instructor attached a number value to it. A writer should write 20% of the time and read 80% of the time. Whoowee! That’s a lot of reading. Not sure if I’m at that level, but it makes sense. King says, “Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

King continues, “Good writing…teaches the learning writer about style, graceful narration, plot development, the creation of believable characters, and truth-telling.” The horror master brings it home with this straight-to-the-point nugget: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that.” It most certainly is as ‘simple as that’!

Near the end of the book (pg 271), King displays an excerpt from a rough draft of his tale 1408First he shows the rough unedited version, then he shows the version again, but this time with all his notes and edits for revision. Then King explains his reason for revising the particular sections. It’s a great look into the mind of the master and how he first drafts, then revises and why.

The book is just chock full of ‘aha’ moments that you can take to heart or not. Here’s a good one: eliminating adverbs from your writing.

Over a year ago, I started removing adverbs from my writing after reading an article on the subject. It stayed with me. Now I’m a firm believer. Stephen King subscribes to this belief, as well. Although King still uses adverbs, he does so at a bare minimum. King states, “The adverb is not your friend.” Goodbye Lolly, Lolly, Lolly and take your damn adverbs elsewhere!

King goes on to say, “Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind…the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously…With adverbs, the writer tells us he/she is afraid, isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.” King uses the process of revision to seek out and replace any adverbs he may have lazily used as filler in his first draft. Be as clear as can be in your writing and you won’t need most adverbs.

At the very end of the book, King lists the books that he likes to read. It’s fairly extensive with over 200 books he recommends, and you can be sure those were just the tip of the iceberg. They were pretty much what he could think of off the top of his head, more or less. But before King gets into this list, he has a section called, On Living, that is set aside for him to discuss his road accident.

On the 19th of June, in 1999, King was hit by a Dodge van while walking against traffic on the shoulder of Route 5 in western Maine. Bryan Smith, the driver, had a dozen vehicular offenses to his credit long before he allowed himself on this night to be distracted by his dog. Smith rode up on the shoulder of the highway and sent Mr. King flying. The writer barely survived and needed months of recovery.

Since King was in the middle of writing On Writing  when the accident happenedhe wasn’t sure if he would ever be able to get back to finishing it or any other book for that matter. King had to dig down deep and find the reason why he wrote in the first place; and that was for the love of it. Writing made his life “a brighter and more pleasant place.” This is why we should write; to create a brighter and more pleasant place for our readers and ourselves. King had to learn that again in order to write again.

I’m going to end this post with King’s words from the end of the On Living section of his book:

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”

and…

“…the rest of it (this book) is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”

Folks, I know King is right. I/We have the permission to write, so let me/us fill ourselves to the brim!

Distractions

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Uh-oh!  I think I did a bad thing!

Last week I had a $230 gift certificate for Best Buy. Currently, there was nothing of a pressing need electronically for my household. So I asked my wife, Rochell, if there was anything we needed around the house, but she said no. So I cursed the powers that be under my breath because I knew what lurked on the surface of my desire; wanting me to want it. I decided to swallow my pride and suck it up and bent to its will; I put on my big boy pants and went and bought myself an XBox One S! The top of the line in Microsoft gaming console goodness! Its white sleekness and slim design looks stunning.

Now I know some of you out there are saying, “Yeahhhh, that’s awesome! When can I come over and play?” I don’t know. I’m currently not entertaining gentlemen video game callers. But what you all should be saying to me is, “Zeke, nooooooo! Why would you do that?”

What’s the problem? Well, video games and writing are a dangerous mix. Dare I say an impossible mix, unless you are someone who writes about video games. It so happens I do not. When I play video games, I do not write. When I write, I do not play video games. Why? Because video games distract me from my creativity. Sure video games are fun and great at helping you problem-solve, but they sap you of your imagination, creativity and time. Part of my writing journey is finding and allocating more time to write. And what did I go and do? Why jeopardize my writing time by purchasing the beautifully alabaster-hued XBox One S of course.

The XBox One S came bundled with the game Battlefield 1, a highly advanced and entertaining simulation of World War I. BTW, World War I is my favorite war. Yes, I have a favorite war. And yes, “favorite war” is a thing. Don’t judge.

I bought the XBox One S on a Wednesday and resisted its siren call to un-box it. So it sat unplayed until the following Monday. Now that’s what I call willpower! To be honest, I tried hooking it up on Saturday night but the HDMI port on my cable box got damaged and I had to wait. Hey, I still consider that abstaining. On Monday evening, I fired the system up and began playing Battlefield 1 after downloading it.

The game looks stunning. It’s frenetic and realistic and frightening at times. World War I was hundreds of times more frightening, I’m sure, but this game will have you on the edge of your seat. If you decide to play the campaign missions, you grow attached to your playable characters who happen to be named after real-life participants of The Great War. After playing the tutorial as a member of the Harlem Hellfighters, you then play a grueling campaign as a British tank driver. I began playing at around 8pm and didn’t stop until 3am! The time simply flew by and that is the danger I mentioned earlier.

For those who follow this blog, you already know that I am currently revising a novella. If I sit down and revise with no distractions, I’ve been able to get through a chapter in two hours. In the time I spent on Battlefield 1, I could have revised 3 1/2 chapters! That’s not good. How do I deal with this dilemma of my own creation?

Well first acknowledge the problem: video games distract me from writing. Second, understand that video game distraction is nothing more than our old friend Mr. Resistance in disguise. He keeps coming back. He always comes back. Be ready for him. For now as a stop gap solution, I must allot time for playing just as I have allotted time for writing. And the twain must never meet. The time needs to be strictly enforced. Also, and this should go without saying but I will, writing must come first. My mother always said, “Business before pleasure.” Writing must be my business. To hammer the point home, The Good Book tells us, “Pay unto Caesar what is owed Caesar. But pay unto God what is owed God.” Video games are Caesar. They are mere materials of worldly pleasure that act on us externally. Meanwhile, writing effects us on an internal level because writing is art and art comes from God.

What’s the Story, Morning Glory!

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I’ve begun to write in the morning when I wake up. Well more like revise in the morning, but you get the idea.

I was listening to an episode of Jeff Goins’ podcast. His guest, Hal Elrod, promoting his book, The Miracle Morning, talked of the benefits of writing and being creative in the morning. In order to do that you have to get up. No hitting the snooze bar! When the alarm goes off, get your ass up! Elrod also suggested that you should have a glass of water next to the alarm clock because having a drink of water when you wake up is more effective at waking you up than coffee.

The best way to not snooze-bar it is to put your alarm clock on the other side of your bedroom away from your bed. This way you will have to physically get out of bed to turn it off. Back in the day, I used to do this. It was helpful for a while, but eventually I developed an immunity towards my alarm clock buzz and stopped hearing it altogether. Once I was in such a deep sleep, my alarm had been buzzing for two hours! Hopefully that doesn’t happen this time around.

So far I’ve been successful. I’ve woken up early five days straight, got out of bed and did about 45 minutes of revision each time. That’s a good start, I’d say. Maybe I should make a 21 day challenge of it and make it a habit. It’s all about living that writer’s life baby!

Now the challenge is to carry this over to the weekends and days I have off. This past Saturday I read and critiqued my fellow writing group member’s work when I got up. But Sunday I didn’t do a darned thing and slept in late. I did finish reading The War of Art, though (I swear I will do a post on this book soon.) But I’m off from work all this week and I haven’t gotten up early to write. I’ve written a bit during my time off, enough to revise two chapters of my novella, but I had time to do more. I still have two more chapters to go in this round of revision. At the same time, I can’t beat myself up for not using my time wisely. Move on and do better and take victory in the fact that I was able to get up early and write last week.

 

Reading With Purpose

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I’m am currently mired in the revision process for the science fiction story I’ve been working on since August. The good thing is that I’m on my second draft and I’ve completed revising three chapters. Unfortunately, I have five more chapters to go! I can get her done. I must.

Also I seem to have stalled in my quest to find outlets to submit my fantasy story to. Not sure why. Who am I fooling? I know why! Resistance. I am experiencing the resistance that Steven Pressfield wrote about in his book The War of Art, which I’m currently reading (more on this book in a future post). My Gotham Writers’ Workshop instructor bade us read this book and I have finally cracked it open. So far so good. The main takeaway: Resistance is the enemy of creativity and personal progress and it must be defeated whenever and wherever it rears it’s ugly head.

So in the meantime, while I marshal my forces in my never ending struggle against Resistance, I try to read with purpose. Previously, I wrote about the Gotham Writers’ Workshop courses. Once I started taking classes, I purchased their short story collection Fiction Gallery. This collection is full of great stories written by some of the great authors of short fiction. The purpose: to help you the writer be a better reader. By better reader I mean to become better at reading with purpose. That purpose is to understand technique, theme, character and mood; then be mindful of how the authors used these effectively so that you may use these more effectively in your own writing. After finishing some of these stories, I wrote down a synopsis, what I thought was the theme, and the writing style (i.e.- POV, tense).

The stories in Fiction Gallery are split into six distinct categories: Starting Out, Longings, Those We Know, The Job, Strangeness, and Sunset. The authors within each category are a diverse set of masters from different time periods brought together to give you a fine cross-section of successful short story technique.

Starting Out is composed of stories that focus on child protagonists. A few standouts in my opinion: Anton Chekhov’sA Trifle From Life.” A short tale of a young boy who learns the hard truth that adults are not always honest and will throw little kids under the bus if need be. ZZ Packer’s Brownies deals with a young group of African-American Brownie troopers learning to not judge a book by its cover and to not always assume the worst.

The section on Longings contains stories that deal with characters who long for true love. Sometimes that longing leads them down the most interesting and detrimental paths. There’s “Labors of the Heart” by Claire Davis, where an overweight man falls for a woman who has given up on men. Talk about a challenge. Lou MatthewsCrazy Life” is about a teen Latina who stands by her gang-banging man, even though she knows she shouldn’t. I really enjoyed T.C. Boyle‘sAfter The Plague“. Who said relationship turmoil would end during the Apocalypse?

The category, Those We Know, has stories about people who learn that the people they thought they knew best aren’t really known at all. Dorothy Parker’sHere We Are deals with a couple on their honeymoon already suffering from marital strife. For A Long Time This Was Griselda’s Story by Anthony Doerr starts off with two young sisters as teens; one, tall and popular destined for notoriety, while the other sister is short, drab who sinks into the shadows. Their paths, of course, diverge only to reconnect for a reunion that’s more like a confrontation. My favorite in this category is Hannah Tinti’s Home Sweet Home.” Two suburban homes are effected by a double murder. As we follow the detective’s investigation, we learn about a chain of events and the relationships of the occupants of the two homes. We learn the identity of the killer, but the relationships of the characters are way more interesting.

The next category is The Job. The tales in this section deals with characters dealing with their occupations both positively and negatively. Daniel Orozco’s Orientation is a satire about a new employee being shown around their new place of work. John O’Farrell’s Walking Into The Wind is about a man trying to gain respect for his most hated of professions. Edwidge Danticat’s Night Women deals with a woman trying to shield her child from her chosen line of work. Ethan Canin gives us The Palace Thief. A story about a Roman classics teacher at an exclusive boys’ school who’s mission to teach morality and ethics to the future captains of industry seems to fall on deaf ears, forcing him to question his life’s work.

Strangeness is next. This section has stories in which characters’ normal lives diverge into the Strange. Jose Luis BorgesThe Book of Sand deals with a book buyer solicited by a bible seller with a strange book that should probably go unread. In Charles Baxter’s The Next Building I Bomb deals with a protagonist who finds a scrap of paper with a bomb threat written on it. Is the threat real or is the protagonist’s imagination running away from him? In The Secrets of Bats by Jess Row, the strangeness of an American teaching in a Hong Kong school is surpassed by a quiet student’s ability to echo-locate and why. Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Third and Final Continent is the story of a Bengali man who comes to America to work in a university while adjusting to life in a new land. If that isn’t enough he lives in the home of an eccentric 103 year-old woman and is an arranged newlywed.

The final category in the book is called Sunset. In this section, the stories deal with aging and going past one’s prime. John Cheever’sThe Swimmer is about a man who decides to swim his way home through all of the swimming pools in his upscale neighborhood. He may be trying to prove he still has his great swimming skills, but in actuality he may be trying to avoid the fact that he’s old and his life is in shambles. Kate Chopin’s The Story of an Hour is a classic that deals with a woman who received bad news about her husband. But instead of grieving about the tragedy, she oddly finds freedom in it. Thom Jones’ I Want to Live is about a woman battling cancer. No punches are pulled. The disease’s progression is shown warts and all. The last story in the book is Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment by the great Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s an early science fiction tale of an old scientist who gathers a group of his aged friends for a drink of an elixir made from the Fountain of Youth. With the prospect of becoming young, will the test subjects use their newfound youth to redeem their past selves?

These themes are a good cross-section of great short story ideas. Coupled with interviews of some of the authors at the back of the book, Gotham Writers’ Workshop Fiction Gallery is a great source for reading with purpose and understanding some of the authors’ process and their views on writing. You don’t have to be a student of Gotham to get the book.

So remember whenever you’re reading, try to read with purpose. Be mindful of theme and style. And when you’re done with reading a story, take a breath, sit with it for awhile then write down what you think is the story’s synopsis. What are you waiting for?