Monday, December 22, 2014

Characterization with a Bit of Music

I want to talk about two of my favorite subjects. (My freshman English teacher would be pulling her hair out if she heard me begin a paper like that.  Still, I’m going to use it.) 

I want to talk to you about two of my favorite subjects: music and . . . Wait, what?  My editor’s putting her two cents in.  Or at least she is in my head.  Great.  My old teacher and my editor.  All I need now is—


Fine, fine.  You win.  I’ll do this “write.”  Hehehehe . . . You see what I did there.  OUCH!  All right.  I’ll do this correctly. 


I want you to do me a favor.  Listen to the song below.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of Billy Joel or if you’ve never heard it before.  Take a moment.  Listen.  It’s important.

Ok.  Now that you’ve disregarded it, go back and listen.  I’ll wait.

“Piano Man” is a fantastic example of characterization and setting a scene.  Because—yes—this song tells a story.  And it could be argued that every story, this one included, needs some sort of action.  And it does.  So I ask you this: where’s the action? 

At first, it seems that it’s right there—the first verse:

“The usual crowd shuffles in.”

But as the song progresses, you find there’s no action there after all.  The action doesn’t actually appear until the end, when Joel talks about performing.  So what’s the beginning about then?  He’s setting the stage, explaining who’s part of the “usual crowd.”  Joel goes on to prove this when he talks about the old man:

“. . . making love to his tonic and gin.”

Joel then goes on to explain just who this guy is by giving you a few lines about lost memories.  The old gent is in a piano bar, asking about sad, sweet songs of his youth.  We all know that guy.  He’s our grandfathers or great-grandfathers.  He’s the old guy down at the VFW Hall who served in Korea.  He’s us, talking with old friends about days gone by.  We relate.  Boom!  Character defined just in time for Joel to move on to John at the bar:

“He gets me my drinks for free.”

Does Joel need to say that John’s his friend?  No.  But in this world Joel’s created, it means something to say that he’s a friend.  In fact, John’s the only one he refers to as a friend, even though he knows Davy and Paul and the waitress, plus the manager.  So why mention it?  Cause it means something.  Telling us about free drinks only goes to further show how good a guy John is.

“He’s quick with a joke or to light up your smoke, but there’s someplace that he’d rather be.”

And, again, we relate.  I’d be a writer if I only had the chance.  My wife would work with movie props.  One of my friends would be a voice actor.  If only, if only, if only.  We know that dream and that need.  You feel for him.  Then we move on and continue to meet the people who populate this bar.

Next up are Paul and Davy.  Only one line is needed about them, but why?  Two reasons.  One: Joel’s already established his credibility with us.  With everyone he’s mentioned previously, he has them fit to a T.  Now we feel we can trust his judgment and understanding of the regulars and just let his opinion lie.  B: That’s all there is to them: 

“Paul . . . never had time for a wife, and . . . Davy’s still in the navy and probably will be for life.”

Read between the lines.  Their careers are their lives.  From our perspective as multifaceted human beings, we may know there’s more to them than that, but it sure doesn’t seem that way.  We, Joel, and everyone else have pigeonholed them.  And right now, that’s all right.

“The waitress is practicing politics as the businessman slowly gets stoned.”

Do I really need to go into that?  No, you see it now.  How about the manager?  According to Joel’s point of view, he cares only about the bar.  Which fits, considering how large his role is in the song.  It’s not that unrealistic.  Drinks still need to get poured, whether Joel plays or not.  So why say more? 

Then there’s Joel himself.  And yes, this whole song talks about him.  Let’s rewind.

The old man:
“Can you play me a memory?”

“Bill, I believe this is killing me.”

And then there’s the refrain:
“Sing us a song, you’re the Piano Man.”
“You’ve got us feeling all right.”

What does that say about Joel’s character’s mindset?  He reinforces it every refrain.  He keeps distracting you, but then at the end, the entire song centers on him.  His manager “knows that it’s me(Joel) they’ve been coming to see.” He describes his playing as a carnival—something which brings happiness and joy.  I’m not a fan of carnivals, but it’s hard to be depressed at one.  Of course, this impression is also deepened by the music itself, which sounds vaguely carnival-esque.  Everyone’s sober or depressed until Joel starts to play.  Then it’s better.  They love him, and he tells you by saying:

“. . . they put bread in my jar and say ‘Man, what are you doin’ here?’.”

You know exactly who Joel is.  He’s the narrator, but an unreliable one.  His views are tempered by the colored glasses he wears.  It’s about the music and always will be.  And again, we can relate through people we already know.

Now, if you haven’t done it, go back and listen to the song, keeping this all in mind.  A picture’s painted with depth and color using only the broadest strokes of the brush, but you know everything you need to know.  You have it all in your head.  You interpret the music, the characters, and the bar in your own way.  Though I’ve attached it, you don’t need the music video to show you any of these people.  Frankly, my opinions and impressions differ from those presented.  Especially about the “practicing politics.”

So why do I bring this up?  As writers, we look at characterization as some daunting task.  Every time we introduce a character, we feel the need to create everything about him or her.  Our thoughts become centered on the twitch of the hand, the color and brand of their clothes, how they speak.  What food they love.  The thing is, we don’t need to share all those characteristics.  95% of that information will never have any practical use.  So why worry about it?

I love Robert Jordan, and he will always be one of my favorite authors.  But one of his weaknesses is the amount of detail he expects you to remember each time he introduces a city, a character, or anything else.  Someday read The Wheel of Time.  It’s a fantastic story with a great narrative, but the characterization can get heavy-handed.  And I’ll admit it.  Sometimes I ignore his descriptions and move on, making it all up in my head. 

Now consider Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game.  Give me the description of Ender, Graff, or Peter.  It’s simple: Ender—shorter than average;  Graff—thin, then fat, then thin again;  Peter—taller than Ender, but otherwise an older version of his little brother. 

Simple.  Broad.  Strokes.

I realize this is mostly a stylistic thing, but it’s something you should think on.  Everyday people and places don’t need paragraphs of description.  Yet the more fantastical the concept, the more attention it deserves.  The one exception to this rule that I’ve made up in my head is if what you’re describing holds a special significance—a wedding chapel, the murder weapon, that hobo who saw everything.  But even still, you have to be careful to balance everything so that your description doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb.  It takes some doing.

Myself, I tend to walk the middle ground.  My main characters are hardly ever described.  Stephanie has red hair and Daniel finds her beautiful.  James has grey hair and a moustache.  Daniel?  Good luck figuring that one out, though he has a habit of comparing others to himself (i.e. thinner than him, taller than him, etc).  I spend paragraphs describing an apartment where a body’s found, but write almost nothing about Daniel and Stephanie’s office.  Mind you, this is also characterization of the speaker.  How often would you describe every detail of your home to a stranger, compared to someplace unusual?  It doesn’t happen.  Your house is every day, mundane, but that murder room?  Oh, that’s interesting.

I’ll leave you with this.  It’s an actual description for one of the characters in my book.  One of the whole two lines I spent on him.  And it’s about all you need to know about him:

“The mousy speech sounded from behind me, and I turned to see exactly the type of man you would expect to own such a voice.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

Between Work and Sacrifice


I’m back.

If you hadn’t noticed—and I bet most of you have—I’ve been sadly lacking in my blog posts for the past several weeks.  Six, to be precise.  That’s not something I’m particularly proud of.  Over these last weeks, I’ve had to make some sacrifices to stay sane.  Unfortunately, I decided to sacrifice the wrong thing.

You see, work—the thing that gave me a paycheck every other Friday—was dragging me down.  Stressing me out.  Something had to give, and I chose the writing.  Why?  Not because I wasn’t dedicated to my craft, but because I have responsibilities and the pay was good.  So I chose the thing that paid the bills, not what made me happy. 

Now, I sit here before you, unemployed.  I’ve been in many different states in my life, denial being the other one I’m particularly fond of.  Fond, of course, being used in a most sarcastic way.  Because, you see, I had myself fooled that this job was worth the time, effort, and sacrifice.  Clearly, that wasn’t the case.

That burns a little.  More than a little, if I’m to be honest.  I worked, sweated, cried, and sacrificed for nothing.  To make matters worse, I gave up all those things that make me who I am—my passions.  I became a robot and a fool.  No one likes to be made a fool of, even if it’s only in his own head.  There were days that I couldn’t make myself write more than a few lines or edit a page or two before stopping for the night.  Let’s forget about writing blog posts.

The thing was, I was all right with it.  My parents did a lot for me growing up.  The older I get, the more I learn they did for me.  That being said, one of those things they got through my thick skull was the importance of working hard, and, if you care enough for something, you sacrifice for it.  Before now, I’d been sacrificing everything for my writing.  I lost time with family and friends.  Money that could have been used for other things—some frivolous, some not—instead went to an editor or supplies.  Let’s not talk about my health.  But I was fine with it. 

You see, throughout my life, I’ve been smart enough to skate by.  As an adult, this isn’t something I’m proud of, but as a kid?  “Good enough” was, simply put, good enough.  But when things got hard, I stopped and gave up, moving on to other, easier things.  This bad habit has stuck with me into adulthood.  And even though I know I’m doing it, it’s hard to fight. 

Writing was one of the first things I didn’t stop doing when the going got tough.  I don’t know how many times I was knocked down, but each time I picked myself up and started at it again, pounding against that wall with fists, ink, or whatever else was available.  It’s made a difference.  Now, it’s a solace, a place of refuge.  I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

But I did.

That’s why it grinds so much.  I gave up a passion for a paycheck.  As a kid, way back when, I promised myself I’d never do that.  Yet, here as an adult . . . Yeah.

I betrayed myself.  I betrayed my family and friends.  I betrayed my dream.  The last is nearly impossible to live with.  So, despite my dreams, it feels blatantly wrong sitting here writing something for a blog when I have cover letters to type up.  What right do I have to spend my life enslaved to the written word if I’ll give it up, give up my dreams, at the promise of a paycheck?  Is any amount of money worth giving up your dreams?

I am a fan of trivia game shows.  For years, K has been trying to get me to sign up and get on one.  Various excuses have kept me away, the main one being pride.  Well, yesterday I had a realization forced upon me by a friend.  Pride only goes so far, and eventually you’ll be willing to sell it for the right price.  He pointed out to me that pride prevents me from going on a game show, but I’d do it if it meant my novel, my dream, would become a reality. 

And he’s right. 

Knowing the man, he’s probably the only person who could make me see it.  He’s sacrificed for a dream and now does what I want to do for a living.  Not running a comic store like he does, but rather making a living off my passion.  You will sacrifice so much if you’re able to do what you love for the rest of your life.  I don’t think anyone else could have made that connection and made me accept it as readily as he did.

If I’m to be honest, it makes a fatalistic sort of sense, too.  Everything since I took the first steps on The Red Dress has pointed my feet toward writing.  All roads lead to Rome.  Rome being writing.  I’ve met some great people doing this.  My friends and family are fully behind me.  Can I count the personal satisfaction and happiness, too?  Encouragement comes from too many directions to count.  It’s too late to give up.  I’m too caught up in it.  This is my life, and I only get one of those.

So I can’t feel guilty about it anymore.  I need to be focusing on this blog, editing The Red Dress, and writing the follow-up.  No, I can’t do it all the time.  I do need to find a job.  Cover letters need to be written, and bills need to be paid.  But all this feeling-bad-for-wasting-time nonsense has to go out the window.  This experience, if nothing else, has forced me to realize what’s important to me.  And while money’s nice, it sure as hell isn’t everything.  Peace of mind and happiness stack up for quite a bit.

It isn’t so much that I have to make amends for my time in the land of the misbegotten.  Rather, it’s another instance of picking yourself up after hardship, dusting yourself off, and going right back at it.  I never completely stopped writing, you see.  Just mostly.  And that was bad enough.  This was a learning experience.  Now I know what’s important.  Now I know what to sacrifice for.  And that’s just as important as the will and ability to give it all up for a greater cause.

I’ll never stop writing.  Not for the rest of my life.  But now, I’ll never let it get so far away, either.

Monday, October 20, 2014


At one point or another in our lives, each of us must choose something to find solace in.  Where we find that solace changes depending on the person.  Sometimes it’s an activity, sometimes it’s a hobby—all too often it’s a bottle.  My grandfather finds solace in his woodworking.  My mother in her needlepoint.  I really don’t know what my father does, but I’m sure he has something.  Myself, it’s this—the writing. 

Mind, if you could see me right now, all I’d need to finish the stereotypical-writer look would be the smoldering cigarette.  I sit in a nearly dark room, lit mostly by the computer screen.  A streetlight shines through an open window along with a faintly chill wind.  Melancholy music plays through computer speakers.  A tumbler of rum, uncut, sits to my left within easy access.  Rain pours outside, and I am lost in the thoughts that run through my head, the drumbeats echoing more on my soul than on the roof just above my head.

Bob Seger wrote one of the greatest songs ever about the life of a touring musician, “Turn the Page.”  In it, he writes about “the echoes of the amplifiers ringing in your head.”  The same goes for writers and their prose.  You can’t ever seem to let that go.  Words bounce around your skull like some sort of mouse amped up on both sugar and speed.  Those words are your saving grace when you’re seeking that solace.

Sometimes, without them, I don’t know what I’d do to stay sane.  It’s saved my marriage, kept me from staying inside that bottle when I crawl in to avoid the outside world, taught me ways to live that are not easily described, and allowed me to communicate with my fellow human beings when the spoken word has failed.  It’s no wonder that written communication has survived hurricanes, floods, tragedies of all kinds.  That no matter how much we try to ban the written word, to control its influence, it always backfires. 

I put this to you.  The written word has the ability to transcend you, me, and everyone.  To mold us into something greater than the parts of the whole.  Each word we write has the opportunity to become more.  We recognize that as a species.  For those of Faith, we find God in the written word.  For those not, we find something else, something just as spiritual. 

So what’s this have to do with solace?  Think about it and you’ll get it.  It’s a way of centering ourselves.  There are times when I wonder about the wisdom of this drink at my elbow, but I never once question the wisdom of why I write.  Does everything get published?  No.  But they are always the right words to soothe a troubled soul. 

It beats a bottle.  I’ve crawled into one of those before.  And crawled back out.  Not on a regular basis, but sad to say, I’ve experienced it.  Tonight’s one of those nights when I want to shut out the world around me.  Work.  Family.  Friends.  Television.  Everything. Just gone.  That’s why I love that I’m a lazy guy.  The glass holds a finger’s worth and the bottle’s downstairs.  And I won’t go downstairs again until tomorrow morning. 

But tonight I’m troubled.  I’ll admit it.  I’m questioning decisions and reactions, unsure if I’ve chosen the right path in my life.  Should I be more than I am?  Less?  Life gives you only so many bridges. Have I crossed all the right ones?  My thoughts are my own, these concerns overwhelming my thought processes for over a week now.  And I have no answers.  At least none that satisfy. 

So instead of trying for answers, I’m looking at a new path.  Just acceptance, for tonight at least.  To find solace in those things that I love with those people I love.  That’s why I’m here, in a dark room before a computer screen when I have books to read, video games to play, movies to watch, with a drink in my hand.  Peace. 

But now that drink’s gone, finished.  And with it, my time here.  K’s home and the rain’s stopped.  That wind has turned downright cold, and the window needs to be shut.  The cigarette never was.  “Turn the Page” has transitioned into “Her Strut. The light turns on, diminishing the computer’s brightness, and a kiss is welcomed.  Not too long, but long enough.

Fade out.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The List

I’m not one to talk about sex or sexuality.  There are too many people with opinions, all too willing to tell other people with their own opinions that they bang in the wrong way.  Seems a bit too pot-kettle-black to me.  So, like assholes, I keep mine to myself. 

Figure out the metaphor there.

But last month was one for the books for me.  All Bucket List-like.  I want to talk about it, so forgive me if I jump right in without more of a preamble.

I’m assuming that, like the aforementioned Bucket List, Your Five is a well-known concept.  Everyone I know has a list.  Except for my parents.  And if they do have a list, I don’t want to know anything about it.  But for those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, perhaps you know it by some other name.  The idea is this:

You have a list of five people.  These are the top five people that, given the nigh impossible opportunity, you’d have a relationship with—most of the time of a physical nature.  There are no penalties, no drawbacks.  Your spouse can’t complain.  He’s/She’s on your list. 

Now you know what I’m talking about.

It’s an escape from your day-to-day doldrums.  Throughout your life, those five names might change; they may not.  Others are close to the top five, but can never quite make it on the list.  It’s a fantasy that we all can relate to, though I can’t seem to appreciate my wife’s obsession with Hugh Jackman. 

Maybe it’s because I look more like this.

I, just like every other person—wait, I’ve covered that—have my own list.  And over the past few weeks, I’ve actually seen two of those fine women.
The first was just over two weeks ago.  On September 13th, my wife and I attended a burlesque show at the House of Blues in Chicago featuring the wonderful Dita von Teese.  On the list?  Yes.  Oh God, yes!  There was this one dance with an oversized martini glass and . . .  

Anyway, it was a wonderful show.  We stood right next to the stage—at times actively leaning on it—and watched everything in its beauty.  That was the glorious thing about the show—beyond seeing Ms. Teese.  It was a celebration of sexuality, free of judgment.  The whole thing was classy, beautiful, raunchy, and something I’d do again in an instant.  I came home deaf and hoarse.  That’s my most resounding endorsement. 

I want you to notice that I carefully chose one with her clothes on.

While Dita von Teese was important to me, she wasn’t the best, sad to say.  I met number one.  Numero Uno.  The lady at the top.   Last weekend, K and I traveled down to Cincinnati to visit my sister and attend the Cincinnati Comic Expo.  It was a fun little convention, but my draw happened to be one Jewel Staite.  She’s been on several well-known science fiction shows, including Stargate Atlantis and Firefly.  I started watching her at the tender age of “younger-than-I-can-remember-my-actual-age” on a show called Space Cases that aired on Nickelodeon in 1996.  If you’re so inclined, you can watch at least some of the hilariously bad episodes on YouTube.  Jewel Staite was the one with the rainbow hair.  In all honesty, I’ve been following her career long enough that both my sister and my wife refer to her as my girlfriend. 

I’ve accepted this.

It was a big moment for me.  I was all nerves.  She was kind and beautiful.  Afterward was a different story.  I fanboyed out with much hand flapping and hyperventilating.  That caused more than a few laughs, but it was worth it.  And a picture. She took a picture with me.  It’s the wallpaper on my phone.  Tee-hee.


What’s this have to do with anything?  Probably a whole lot of nothing.  I know that these events may seem small to you, but to me they were the highlight of the year thus far.  Sure, I could give more details, but those I’d like to keep to myself.  It was a couple personal moments for me.  I was so excited.  It’s like meeting an idol.  Or something like that.  I’d do it again in a heartbeat.  And each of you, given the opportunity, should take the chance.  It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  

Monday, September 15, 2014

About.......Me, I Suppose.

As I look back at all of my previous blog posts, I realize one overwhelming fact: I’ve never really introduced myself.  To be honest, those who know me best within the writing community I frequent don’t know me all that well.  That, in its own way, is a shame.  There’s a hurdle there, and while the rest of you are jumping them, I’m in the stands eating the world’s worst hamburger. 

All my life, I’ve craved attention of a sort.  I always wanted to be the funny guy in the classroom (I wasn’t).  I wanted to be the best at playing the trombone (Nope).  The smartest one around (Most definitely not).  Though I am good at those things, being the best eluded me.  Sadly enough, most of it was my own fault, as I refused to apply myself to anything remotely difficult. 

I’ve always been best at shooting myself in the foot.

So I developed an overactive sense of privacy.  A prime example of this is sharing my picture on the internet.  It’s a running gag between Susan Hughes (@hughesedits4u) and Rachael Ritchey (@rachaelritchey) about what I actually look like.  I’ve been most recently symbolized by my twitter profile picture—my foot—with a beard.  But when I was asked for my actual picture, I posted a rather dashing picture of Tom Hiddleston. 

I should go see a doctor about that.
If only I looked that good.

I didn’t post an actual picture of myself because I wasn’t comfortable with it.  Mostly because I’m not, and never have been, happy with how I look.  But I also did it because I found it amusing.  A dry sense of humor is something else I bring to the party—though I usually miss the party altogether. 
The thing is, my inhibition brings up a significant point.  If I’m putting myself out there for each of you to befriend, how can you respond or otherwise interact with me if you don’t know who I am?  And I WANT that interaction.  I love talking to people once I get past being shy.  And that’s really all it is.


So please forgive me, everyone, but I’m no longer in those stands.  I’ve left my hamburger behind (It didn’t taste all that good anyway.), and I’m now at the track. Please ignore those hurdles I miss as I face-plant into the dirt and mud.  I’m still going to attempt this.  I’ve got plenty to say and enough vanity to scream that I might have something worth hearing. 

So who am I?  My honest answer is to quote the Rolling Stones. 

“Hey! You! Get off my cloud.”

Damn, wrong song.  I was thinking more along the lines of “Sympathy for the Devil.”  But the problem with using that song is that after the first line, I’d claim to be “a man of wealth and taste.”  Well, the only part of that descriptive modifier that fits me is that I’m a man.  Or, if you ask K, more like an overgrown boy.  Not that I have any problem with that.  Life will age fast enough if you let it, so why rush the process? 

Obviously, I enjoy writing.  Maybe that was because my parents instilled in me a deep passion for the written word.  I devoured books as a kid.  Couldn’t get enough of them.  While my neighbors were busy with their Nintendo or pick-up baseball games, I lay under trees reading whatever I had at hand.  Libraries were my play parks.  But maybe I enjoyed writing because it was something I knew I could do—and do well, since I never stopped practicing the craft. 

How many stories did I craft as a kid?  I don’t know anyone who knows the actual count.  Do we count lying?  Because I was a bit too good at that.  All I do know was that my parents encouraged me to continue.  As I look back, there’s so much of them in me.  My father’s taste in music.  My mother’s ability to cook (when I want to focus on it).  There’s so much, it’s immeasurable.  They’re good people.

“And now I’m crying,” he says unabashedly.

I digress (See what I mean about avoiding myself as the topic?).  K and I are avid comic collectors.  There’s a whole room in our house in which we display our comic collection.  Everything from original artwork to statues to the comics themselves.  It’s what we do.  We have the gems of our collection, like the first appearance of Marvel’s Thor.  It’s something we do as a couple.  We love to attend comic conventions.  K dresses up as a mean Black Widow and has recently added a beautiful female Loki to her cosplay collection.   And yes, Loki was a female in the comics for a bit.

We own a lot of stuff.

Speaking of K, we’ve been together for quite a while.  We met while in high school—at a Boy Scout camp, of all things.  Best weekend of my life, but don’t tell her that (Love you, Dear!).  The rest has been twelve years of memories.  We were married almost five years ago and will be celebrating our anniversary later this month. 

What else to say?

There’s so much more.  Does education matter (two degrees)?  What about where I live (Indiana, USA)?  Siblings (one sister, three years my junior)?  Humor (Dry as a desert, but I love satire)?  There’s so much, but what’s relevant?  I guess the best answer I can give is ask and I will tell you what I can. 

I have opinions—we all do—that I’ll be sharing throughout the life of this blog.  But here’s the crux of the matter:  I also value discussion.  Strong , sound discussion is one of the simple joys of life.  I don’t have to convince you to change your point of view, nor you mine, but it should provide us the opportunity to expand our understanding of our fellow humans.  So respond to what I say.  If you disagree, tell me why, but do it intelligently.

Perhaps now I will open up.  There are events in my life that could prove difficult for you to understand without a base connection to me.  Last week, I received my novel back from its first professional edit.  Sure, you might be able to understand how that made you feel the first time, but me?  Without understanding my personality, it becomes much, much harder. 

As I wrap up this blog post, I feel as if I’ve already fallen on my face for the first time.  But I promised myself that I’d post this.  One of those things that needs to be done, whether you like doing it or not.  I’m sure more information about my personal life will leak out as time goes by.  Maybe in big swaths, maybe in tiny portions. 

But no matter what, each word will be exactly me.  I will be honest and heartfelt.  My passions will seep through:  pride in a refurbished desk (I love woodworking—runs in my family), or fixing a broken toilet, or repairing my Dodge Neon (over 260,000 miles and still running smoothly—or smoothly enough), and my other achievements—big and small.  No one else is going to do this for me.  Time for the big boy pants.  Though I still want my banana splits.

Had one yesterday.  It was delicious.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In Memory of Robin Williams

For this blog post, I had originally planned a heartfelt remembrance to Robin Williams, detailing everything he’d done and what it meant to me.  I’d even gone so far as to write the vast majority of it.  The problem was, nothing I could say accurately portrayed what he meant to so many of us.  Sometimes even words fail.  So all I can say is this:

Mr. Williams, you will be missed.   The darkness seemed to stay at bay a little bit longer with you here among us.  You were proof that we could be more than we seemed. That we should always cherish the kid inside us, no matter our age.  That just a number.  You’re only as old as you feel.  Your humor guided us through good times and bad.  Goodbye and rest in peace.

It's imperfect and I accept that.  My deepest sympathies go out to those who knew him best—his friends and family.  Thank you for sharing this man with us.

But, all things considered, there’s one thing left to say. Robin Williams, comedic genius that he was, suffered from depression.  It seems impossible that someone who brought such happiness to others could suffer from such a debilitating illness.  But it only goes to prove the opposite.  ANYONE can suffer from depression.  NO ONE is immune.  And we cannot act like it can be locked away in a corner and never spoken about.  That’s the one way we can damn everyone.

I know plenty who suffer from depression, both in private and in public.  It's nothing to be ashamed of.  Talking can help.  It may not be a solution, but it's a start.  Begin.  Speak to your friends and family, to your loved ones.  They would rather have you here with them than be left with just a memory.  Someone out there cares.  


Monday, August 4, 2014

Failure is . . . Wait—What?

Lately, I've seen a lot of blog posts and articles about failure.  No matter what we do, everyone is aware of it.  It’s a constant risk, but one that we live with every day—in every aspect of our lives.  Should writing and publishing be any different?  The thing is, some people seem to be taking it to an extreme lately, including a blogger who expounded on the idea that “failure is our muse.”


I hope you had the same reaction to this as I did.  It’s defeatist and makes no sense.  Talk about pessimism.  Have I ever experienced failure?  Oh God, yes.  Every time I try to run a mile, eat at Chili’s, or try to get a tan.  But calling failure my muse?  No.  I’m sorry, but if failure is your muse, then you are in the wrong fucking profession.

If that seems a bit harsh, think of it this way:  Does failure serve as inspiration for a surgeon whose patients die under his knife?  What about the mechanic whose newly-repaired cars blow up?  The architect who designs a house that collapses? 

The concept just doesn't fly with me.  It doesn't work.

Now, in the author’s defense, I understand what he was trying—but failing—to say.  Not muse, but motivation. (used since I can’t seem to find a copy of the OED without driving five hours) defines muse as verb meaning “to meditate on.”  There are other definitions as well, including “to comment thoughtfully or ruminate on” as well as the noun form of the word in reference to classical Greek mythology.  But not one of them means inspiration. 

I can’t think of a single instance when it is a good thing for anyone to meditate on failure.  Reflection?  That’s good.  We all need time to stop and look back on what we’ve done.  Time to see our path and correct our course.  But meditation implies a focus to the exclusion of everything else.  And where would hope and success be but with the all inclusive everything else? 

Ask a scientist what makes us human.  Depending on the field, the answer differs.  Opposable thumbs.  A developed brain.  The ability to create tools and adapt the environment to our needs rather than we to it.  Ask an artist, the answer differs just as much.  Ask yourself.  What makes us human?  For me, it’s a one-word answer:


Sure, we’re the culmination of so many adaptations that it’s impossible to narrow down humanity—and what it means to be human—to just a single concept.  And I would agree with that.  I agree with the opposable thumbs and the concept of self.  But for me, hope is the single theme running through the lives of untold trillions who have walked this earth.  That’s why it’s such a terrible thing when someone loses hope.  And what is the antithesis of hope but failure?  Or at least musing on failure.

Honestly, I am no better than anyone else.  I muse over failure much more than I should—much more than is healthy.  It’s part of my psyche, embedded there like a rusted nail.   But I can’t let it rule my life.  None of us can. 

Using failure as a motivator?  Sure, I can understand that—saving that patient, building the perfect house, creating a better vehicle.  Writing the perfect sentence.  It won’t ever happen, but it’s a goal.  My goal. 

But hope isn't my muse.  That would prohibit my understanding of the darker sides of life.  I wrote a murder mystery, for crying out loud.  I need those aspects in my writing.  If I focused solely on hope, then the story might look something more like this:

“Who killed Andrea?”
“I don’t know.”
“Man, I hope she’s all right.”
Andrea sits up.  “I’m good.  It’s ok, (REDACTED), you didn’t have to shoot me.”
And everyone lives happily ever after.

That would sell a lot of books, wouldn’t it?  To be a writer (or anything beyond an automaton), you need to understand the many different facets of humanity.  We can’t just focus on hope, or failure, or charisma.  It simply doesn’t work.  Imagine a rainbow of just one color or a forest that’s slate grey in the fall.  The bark, the leaves, the plants and animals—all just grey.  Boring, right?

Instead, we must take everything as a whole and notice the subtle differences.  Like when each of us looks at a picture and sees a slightly different image. 

So sure.  Use failure.  To avoid doing so would only make you a failure.  Failure is how we learn.  But don’t let it rule your life.  Motivation I can get, but a muse?  Hell no.  Rather, I would argue to avoid muses; focus instead on the wide world of color around you.  Notice how it shifts and changes within each person at different times.  None of us are red all the time, but can flow into yellow or blue at a moment’s notice.  And don’t forget the subtle shading.  Is that sports car the same color as the apple you ate for lunch?  No.  And we are the same way.

Unless you’re two years old.  Then your apples and sports cars can be the same color. 

Gloriously so.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Meet My Character Blog Tour

About two weeks ago, I was asked by the always fun Rachael Ritchey to participate in a “Meet my Character” Blog Tour.  To eliminate any sense of suspense, I agreed.  And if you haven’t met, talked to, or otherwise interacted with this fine lady, you’re missing out.  By a lot.  So get on that, all of you.  You can find her on Twitter at @rachaelritchey and her blog here.
Go ahead.  I’ll wait. 
But anyway, Rachael approached me for this character-driven—literally—blog tour.  I agreed but then started to think about my writing.  Rachael describes my work as “thrilling/mysterious,” but I have to admit, there’s a reason for that.  Most likely that’s only because I haven’t really talked about my writing projects other than to give status updates.  There’s nothing on the topic, the plot, characters, or anything else.  Only me saying that I’m working on it.
That’s not a whole lot to work on.  And I’m sorry about that, but I often post obscure tidbits about my life with no real details to support them.  I’ve always done it.  Drives my family nuts to say the least.  Maybe that’s a sign of some sort of complex or a lack of faith.  Maybe it’s modesty.  Maybe it’s something else entirely.  I tend to think it’s my innate sense of privacy I have to overcome every damn day. 
Trust me.  It’s harder than it sounds.
What you have here is a rare glimpse into the world of my novel, well before it’s released.  Only a handful of people know more than what I’ve already shared on Twitter—and I’m related to most of them. So, please enjoy this. 
’Cause I can promise there’s more where that came from.

1. What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?
                I’ll give you two.
Daniel Atwell- Husband. Employee. Private detective. Completely fictional.
Stephanie Hawthorne- Wife. Employer. Private detective.  Genius. Has absolutely no sense of style. Also fictional.

2. When and where is the story set?
                The story is set in our current time and place.  Nothing about anything should be unbelievable.  You should feel like you could walk into Stephanie’s office tomorrow so she can find anything from your lost grandpa to that misplaced baseball card from your 9th birthday. 
The exact setting is never mentioned in this novel.  In the next novel, setting becomes more important, and it’s disclosed that everything is set in Flint, Michigan.

3. What should we know about him/her?
                Daniel works for his wife as a private detective.  This creates friction, but both would rather work with their spouse than anyone else.  Stephanie doesn’t want to work and is abrasive to most people.  James, Stephanie’s brother, works for the local police department and is in charge of any murder investigations.  He’s the only one truly smarter than his sister.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?
                Daniel’s old girlfriend, Andrea Swope, wants to hire Stephanie to find proof of her husband’s infidelity.  Stephanie refuses and sends her away, only for her to be murdered later that night.  Andrea’s husband later hires Stephanie to find his wife’s murderer.  What follows is a web of delusions and deceptions Daniel and Stephanie must unravel, starting with a particular red dress.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?
                For Daniel- To catch a murderer
                For Stephanie- To get paid

6. Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?
                The Red Dress

7. When can we expect the book to be published?
                If everything goes to plan, I’m hoping to have it published in spring of 2015.

Now, I’m not the only person who wants to get in on this blog tour.  I want to introduce you to a couple of fun ladies.  Both are farther along in the publishing world than I am, but they’ve always been a blast to talk to. 
First meet Sarah E. Boucher.  You can find her at and on twitter at @saraheboucher
Also, I would like to introduce you to Ciara Ballintyne.  You can find her at @ciaraballintyne on twitter or at her website
I have talked to both Sarah and Ciara on twitter for a while now, not to mention enjoying their individual works.  When this blog tour came my way, they were the first ones I thought of.  Their willingness to join in thrilled me to no end.  With them gracious enough to join us in our bit of fun, this'll be a good time for everyone.  Personally, I’m looking forward to hearing what they have to say about their individual works.

Take it away, ladies.  The ball’s in your court.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Get Your Hands Off Me, You %@$! Dirty Ape: Our Obsession with Cursing

Before I get into this, let me say one thing.  I was raised in a household where I never called my parents anything other than Mom and Dad, did my chores before going out to play, and could never, ever swear.  If I did, I clearly remember tasting whichever brand of soap was on sale that week.  And I don’t hold it against them.  They always said cursing was the sign of a weak mind. 

Or at least, I think I remember them saying that.  I remember the soap more than my parents’ maxim.

Unfortunately, in my daily speech, such prohibitions didn’t quite take.  I can avoid swearing at work, but more often than not, my wife critiques my language whenever we go out socially. 

But what it did do was aid my written vocabulary. 

I remember being forced to develop other words to express emotions and situations.  That vocabulary slowly worked itself into my writing, which is why my characters rarely swear.  If they can think themselves into a bank vault, figure out an unsolvable crime, or save the world from an unspeakable evil against terrible odds, then they can think of some other term to express themselves.

That isn’t to say they never swear.  That’s impossible.  Jim Butcher once discussed swearing in one of his Dresden Files books.  Unfortunately, I have only the audio and lack a physical copy, so I can’t share the exact wording with you, nor give you the citation.  What I did find out was that, for the most part, I agree with what he said.

Cuss words do serve a purpose, and it’s not just to be vulgar—though some people or characters we create are just that.  But those words also serve as an emphasis on particular ideas and thoughts.  They were designed for exactly that purpose.   Used too often, however, they lose their ability to emphasize anything, and that’s when they become vulgar.  I paraphrase here, and perhaps misunderstood his intent, but Mr. Butcher seems to be making a valid point.

Growing up, I always argued that cuss words were just that—words.  I lacked the understanding, much later than I should have, that meaning behind the words was the problem, not the words themselves.  Comprehension eventually did dawn on me, and I adjusted my use of such words accordingly. 
Mr. John Scalzi (Side Note: I have the utmost respect for both Mr. Scalzi and Mr. Butcher.  They are fine authors, masters of their craft.) wrote a post on his blog Whatever in March of 2002 called “How to Send Me Hate Mail.”  I cannot seem to find the post, otherwise, I would post a link to it.  But you can find it in his book Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded.  In it, Mr. Scalzi, in detail, tells you how to send him hate mail.  There is a subtle—or really not so subtle—message regarding language in general and swearing in particular.  Be original.  Don’t just curse—use invention, alliteration, and all those other techniques when you make your point. 

And that sounds a lot like what I said above: Don’t be vulgar, but use cursing only as an emphasis.

I remember bragging about chewing someone out when I was a kid.  Looking back, it was about as foolish as can be.  Now I am more than a little ashamed by it, but let’s be honest, it’s what I did.  I wasn’t the wisest kid growing up. 

Anyway, my uncle and I were driving through Seattle, and we were discussing everything from his youth in the city to stories about my experiences.  And it was during one of those stories that he said something profoundly interesting to me.  It’s stuck with me since then, and I have found nothing but evidence to support it.

I told him about an argument I’d once had with the younger sister of one of my friends.  Eventually, it degraded to a contest to see who could chew out whom better.  During the first two rounds, we both swore and nothing came of it.  Her third round, she continued on the same bent, but I chose a different path.  Not once did I use a single cuss word, instead favoring combinations and ideas which would’ve been impossible without a broad vocabulary to draw from.  Low and behold, she walked out ashamed.

To this, he dropped one bit of knowledge on me.  I had won because swearing in excess only removes the emphasis you are trying to make.  Of course, those weren’t his exact words, but rather the gist.  Swearing doesn’t bring a point across, only a range of expression can do that. 

Which brings me to the point of this entire post.  I wrote a post about a month ago about how to write, or to be precise, how I won’t tell you how to write.  In it, I used a word that my editor suggested I think twice about because some people might be offended by its use.   She made a valid point.  But I went with it all the same.  Because the word was right

That made me ask a question.  Have we taken our prohibition against swearing too far?  If an adult cannot differentiate between vulgarity and the appropriate use of a word—in context—then we are facing more problems than that single usage.  No single word is “evil” every time it’s used.  Sure, some words are bad most of the time, but every single one has a point and a valid use.  Name one and I’ll explain it away.  But if we are using a word correctly, then what right does anyone have to claim vulgarity?

There are certain words that I won’t use.  Or at least, when I do, I feel dirty.  They don’t belong in my current day-to-day vocabulary.  But will I use it if it’s the right word in the right context?  Yes.  Unquestionably, yes.

Because it is the right word.

It’s really up to you to understand what is and is not the right time to cuss.  Does vulgarity fit?  Is it needed?  Or are we trying to express an opinion with that gut-wrenching emotion we can all relate to?  It’s up to you, but do me a favor.  Be aware of things like context and definition.  They make a difference.

 Now, I’ll get off my soapbox.  Bit proud of myself, though.  Spent an entire post talking about cursing but never once used a single swear word.

Damn.  I’m gonna have to fix that.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Child

I wrote The Child about ten years ago now, around the time I graduated from high school. This is probably one of the oldest finished pieces I still own and is the only one that I am willing to share without a complete re-edit.  I hope that you enjoy it.

The Child

As I walked down the street,
Just the other day,
A wondrous sight caught my eye,
As I saw a child at play.

He couldn’t have been older,
Than five or six,
And down at his feet,
Was a puppy of indeterminate mix.

The child had not a care in the world,
On that spring day,
As the dog with the kid,
Played and played.

My mind had been pondering,
On things often sought
About the world’s problems,
And things we have forgot.

I thought of Jews in concentration camps,
Nazis, and things we all hate.
I saw guitars and Elvis,
Woodstock and the music to which we all relate.

But the boy played on….

My mind was all a buzz,
With Martin Luther King,
With Hitler, Washington, and Armstrong,
And what these people mean.

But the boy played on….

I pictured Cold War politics,
And brother against brother,
Of Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth,
And the wishes of the Father.

But the boy played on….

As I watched the boy and his dog,
Far from my head were thoughts of Nuclear Holocaust,
But as I watched the boy play on,
I had to wonder when our innocence was lost.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Time: The Great Clock That Rules Us All


It's unique. I cannot think of anything so fundamental, yet fleeting, as it is. Time can never be reconstructed.  With infinite control and perfect knowledge, everything else can be rebuilt. Your first car can be saved from decaying into rust. Bring back every burned piece of paper. That perfect moonlit night of your first kiss. But time? Once used, it's gone.

Why bring this up? Because I'm running out of it.

Sure, in some metaphysical sense, we are all running out of time. Death waits for no man and all that mumbo jumbo. But that's not what I'm getting at. Rather, I have goals and deadlines to meet, yet my worst enemyprocrastinationsneaks up on me and takes hold.

Not fun.

That, I suppose, is why we budget our time, hording it like Scrooge McDuck. But for me, it goes beyond that. I always seem to be running, never quite at a standstill.  My body may be stuck in one place, but my mind never shuts down. Ever. Im always thinking about something or doing something, all because it needs to be done.

I'm not saying that I'm the only one in this predicament.  In fact, I tend to think that most of us are. And that's a shame. But it's also part of being an adult. I look at my life and often wonder where my time went.   Wheres the time to be myself and relax and be a husband and be an individual? It disappears faster than we ever realize.

Now, Im not complainingnot much, anyhow.   This is something we all have to deal with.  For right now, though, it has come as a startling slap in the face.  It all stems from my work on my novels.  First and foremost, I am sending off my novelThe Red Dressto my editor in August (Thanks Susan!).  But before I do that, I have a little more work I want to get done on it.  The usual stufftweaking lines, deepening character development, description, description, descriptionbut even though it may be simple-ish, it still takes time. 

The second reason is simpler.  On my new novel, I really thought Id be further along than I am.  Oh, there are reasons for that.  Mainly, its that I can reliably write about 500 words a day, but often lack the time and energy to do more.  Its hard to write when you areliterallyfalling asleep at the keyboard.

Time surrounds our lives, dictates our activities, and either provides opportunities or shuts them down.  We find time for those things that are important to us, which is why I spend time with my wife, I spend time writing, and spend time workingso I can afford to spend time writing and with my wife.  Our obsession with it really should be no surprise.  

Perhaps that is why almost every science fiction show Ive ever watched deals with it in some way.  Strike that.  Every show deals with it, though its most obvious in sci-fiwith all their talk of time travel and paradoxes and polarity reversalsto such an extent that it is expected and almost always horribly done (If you dont get that, watch a season of Star Trek.  The solution always seems to be reversing the polarity.  Sci-fi tropes will be another post some day . . . when I find time to write it.).If you know anything about time travel theory, a bad soap opera is often preferable. 

But sci-fi isnt the only genre with a heavy emphasis on time, just the most obvious.  Imagine, if you will, a serial killer on a spree, and the cops and their writer friend have to stop him before he kills again (Castle).  Or how about the looming wedding that one character is having second thoughts about (How I Met Your Mother)?  Traveling to space for the first time and coming back to Earth to find that your friends have moved on while youre out playing astronaut (The Big Bang Theory). 

The entire plot of 24.

The list goes on.  And I can go on.  Toss in movies, books, video games, sports.  Hell, just about everything in our lives, entertainment or otherwise, centers itself around time.  All of it to prove just one thing.

Dont squander it.

Its a maxim we heard how many times growing up?  Thousands?  Millions?  And we dont stop hearing it.  Always do your best with what you have.  Learn as much as you can and always give your best effort with the time you have.  It almost makes you want to toss it all away and do whatever you please.  But we know we cant.  Ignoring bills wont make them go away.  All it does is get our gas shut off.

So we are going to keep minding it.  Keep following every tick of the clock and relishing those moments.  To do otherwise is to die.  Literally. So, as much as I hate to do it, I will buckle down and get back to work.  That novel wont write itself.  And I cant expect my editor to do all the work for me.  If that was the case, then shed be the author, and Id be the bum on the street, people watching.

Who am I kidding?  I am that bum on the street people watching.  But I just call it research for my next book.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Shall We Play A Game?

I suppose that for my third post, I should actually talk about writing. This is a writer's blog after allit's expected. But I have trepidations about taking on that subject. Its an important one and one that, if I flub, could really be detrimental.  Whys that the case?

The answer isnt all that simple, and, besides, I have to make this entertaining for myself. Why else write it? So we're gonna play a game called Is It Enough?

(Insert cheesy game show music)

The rules of the game are simple. We'll keep it to three.

1) Play along. You'll miss out on the whole point if you don't.  So no finding and exploiting loopholes. Play by the spirit of the game.

2) Everything  must be read in one of those stereotypical, overly-friendly and exaggerated announcer voices. Starting now.

3) Be honest. That should be pretty self-explanatory.

How to win:

I will give you a set of situations.  For each situation, you answer Enough or Not Enough. Answer Enough if you think you have plenty of whatever it is in that particular situation. Answer Not Enough if you want more.  The more Enoughs you have, the higher your chance of winning. You win by having more Enoughs than Not Enoughs.

Got it? Good. Let's start.

1: Free cheesecake made by your Great Aunt Bethel (Damn, she can cook.)

2: Dog poo on the bottom of your foot (Barefoot)

3: Exams (Doesnt matter where or whenjust exams)

4: Time to do that thing you like to do

5: Batman and Robin (The George Clooney film from the 1990s)

6: Pastoral scenes from paintings in hotel lobbies

7: Money

8: Halloween candy when you were nine

Final Question:

9: People who write novels, but start talking about the nitty-gritty details of writing long before the book is ever published

You can drop that announcers voice now.

How'd you do? I suppose I tipped my hand there.  You can guess which question is the serious one and the crux of my problem.

I come from the world of academiaor at least a form of it.  Everything has quantifiable proof, and everyone has proven experience.  You keep your trap shut until you have enough papers, experience, and chutzpah to weigh down an elephant before speaking out. At least that was the case with my wifes and my own experience.  Maybe we are far enough removed now that the past is blurred. Or maybe that was the atmosphere at the schools we attended. I don't know, but what I remember coincides.

Yet, here I am, doing just the opposite. 

Perhaps thats why Im keeping my silence on writing for a while. I can write welldamn well.  My head is filled with definitive ideas on story construction and flow and all those little bits which make an entertaining tale. They bustle about like ants on a trapeze, and I never have to distinguish thought from instinct.  Im not perfectno one isbut I am good.

So why not share? Because I believe that multiple roads lead to the same destination. I think we can all agree that many authors are talenteda simple enough fact. But not everyone does it the same way. Many roads lead to success.

Just the other day, I had a conversation on Twitter about authors.  We discussed those who we felt were talented writers and what made them so good. Several names came up, including Robert Jordan and Anne McCaffrey. Both are incredibly talented authors, but I know for a fact that neither writes in the same manner. Fundamentally, Robert Jordan was an outliner.  You can see it in his notes and interviews about his writing after his death.  According to Terry Brooks, Anne McCaffrey claims to never have written an outline in her life. Both talented authors. Both took different roads.

Add to that the fact that my instruction on writing comes from names a bit larger than my own.  And I am not talking about Joe Smith, who wrote a book on how to write a novel, or some English professor I had in college.  My bibles are On Writing by a hack called Stephen King, Sometimes the Magic Works by that no-name Terry Brooks, andabove all othersWilliam Strunk and E.B.Whites Elements of Style. They obviously had no idea what they were talking about.

Looking at them, who am I to tell you how to write? In good conscience, I can't. Question #9 from above is a whole new ball of wax. Some day, I may explore it.  But today isn't that day. Really, all I'm going to say about writing can be summed up below.

Writing sucks. But it's also our heart blood. We need it like air, food, and water. That first draft tears your heart out. The lines suck, the paragraphs dont make sense, and let's not even start about the plot. But that's its jobto suck . That's why we have editors and spell check and dictionaries.  No novel is complete without your own blood, sweat, toil, and tearssometimes literally and oftenmixed into those of your characters. Without it, our novels just aren't complete. And we want them complete. Need them complete. It's what we do and who we are. We're writers, damn it, and we arent going to stop any time soon.