So, How’d That NaNoWriMo Thing Go?

In a word? Lousy.

Long answer: On a more relative note, this was my most successful attempt at a NaNo novel to date. Previously, I had reached the 5k word count mark before I gave up/got blocked/got bored. This time, I managed to reach around 10k. That’s an improvement, and at least it gave my story a good start. Enough of a good start that I’m encouraged to continue. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage any progress during December, for various reasons.

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new . . . year. For me.

And so, onward. Beginning Monday, I will set aside time to write at least 500 words a day. That’s a much lower word count than the average 1,667 words I was expecting to pump out each day during NaNo (and did not manage), so maybe it’s a more a realistic and achievable goal.

My collaborator on Legacy has already agreed we need to get back to work. We might schedule a session soon; personal reasons are preventing us from setting a schedule at the moment.

Enjoy the New Year. I’ll try to do the same.

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Stop, Collaborate, and Listen

Collaboration: when two or more partners fuck a project up beyond all imagining. -- The Cynical Writer's Dictionary

So I’ve completed the first day of National Novel Writing Month with 1,711 words. Off to a running start. And it looks like I’ve got more to say, hence this post. I had pretty much convinced myself that I wouldn’t FaceBook or (un)blog during November, because all of my waking time would be spent crafting my already-forgettable NaNo story. Turns out the words flowed, if not like water, at least like molasses in January. So why not catch up on my writing history on Prevarications?

My NaNo story is one of sole authorship, but I have tried my hand at collaborating. None of the projects are what you’d deem sucessful in any light, but I have at least attempted it.

The first collaboration never got off the ground. Back in the late 80s, a friend proposed we write a “sequel,” of sorts, to the Camelot story of King Arthur. Our story would be about a child of the court, perhaps a child of one of the Knights of the Round Table, and what it would be like to grow up after the country’s unity, as symbolized by the table, had been shattered. It was an intriguing idea, but after batting it around a couple of times, we never set words to paper. We never decided on a gender for the child, whose offspring it would be, how much magic would be woven into the tale, and so on. The project died aborning, and frankly, that was probably for the best, because my King Arthur knowledge at the time was relegated to Le Morte d’Arthur, The Sword in the Stone, Camelot, and The Idylls of the King. Around this time, I began collecting Arthuriana, eventually amassing four book shelves in all, all in the name of research. I read maybe 1%, over the years, of what I owned, and then foolishly “lost” it all by selling it preparatory to moving back to the Quad Cities in 2003.

Another friend proposed the second collaborative project that I’ve been a part of. The novel, a murder mystery, began in 1998 or 1999, and is still, more or less, active. More about this in a minute.

The third collaborative project was proposed to me by yet another friend in 2004. This would be a long-distance collaboration (much like the second project; again, more about that one in a minute). We cast about for some common ground and lit on the idea of writing a comedic horror novel about professional wrestling, considering the fact that we both liked horror and we both watched WWE/WCW/TNA and the like. The premise was a fun one — a professional wrestler in an independent Texas league makes a pact with a demon to become champion. (I guess that would kinda be like signing a contract with Vince McMahon, knowwhutImean? That’s an in-joke for all you rasslin’ fans.) We worked in sly references to our individual writing projects, placed a Hulk Hogan like character as the proprietor of a used-book store, and were off and running. Or so I thought. We plotted out four chapters, wrote most of the first one, and . . . ran out of gas. I don’t know what it was — working long-distance or not falling in love with where the story was going or not liking what the other partner was proposing — but we fizzled out after a year or so of on-again, off-again writing sessions via email. I’d still like to return to this story, but have no idea if I’ll ever have the chance.

That second collaboration mentioned above? It’s the longest-running non-writing writing project I’ve ever been a part of, and that’s including a couple of my own efforts that date back to the 70s. The novel was mentioned in this post (as one of the great unfinished American novels): Legacy, a murder mystery, set in Dallas, involving an antiques dealer named Jordan Taylor who ran a store named Legacy. The story began with an idea, more like a dream, that the friend had: she dreamed that someone kept receiving scary phone calls from a mysterious, dangerous individual. The caller would threaten bodily harm or death, and then hang up. Why, my friend wasn’t sure, but from that seed grew full-blown characters, a plot (with a couple of ingenious twists, if I do say so myself), and a Maguffin that … well, you’ll have to read it to see what happens.

That is, if we ever finish it.

Things I’ve learned:

1. The Web is great for collaboration. Wikis, collaborative writing sites, document sites like Google Docs, and communication tools like Skype keep you linked in real-time, real conversation.

2. Write more than once a week. Believe me, every Friday night at Barnes & Noble or every Wednesday night online just won’t cut it. Serious about your writing? Do it as often as you can.

3. Respect each other’s schedules. Though writing more than once a week is necessary, sometimes it’s impossible.

4. BE ON TIME. You’ve scheduled a 7:00 pm starting time on Skype. Don’t be connecting ten minutes after the start time and expect to have a very cooperative partner.

5. Write an outline. Some teams are able to wing it, and more power to them. For my individual projects, I mostly just wing it with some idea of where I’m heading. But I’ve found that for collaborations, I and my partner have *got* to have a map and not just some vague idea of direction.

6. If you’re going to make a major change to the story (like, change the motivation of a major character), you better be prepared to do the heavy lifting of re-plotting the outline and testing your idea *before* you propose it to your partner. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions.

7. Be honest with your partner. If something isn’t working, tell her or him.

8. Grow a thick skin. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes, especially if it’s your first collaboration. And be prepared for your partner to dislike everything you’ve written that session.

9. I work best crafting sentences in real time with my partner, or having the partners alternate writing a few sentences, then going back and editing. Something that doesn’t work for me is “you write this chapter, I’ll write the next chapter” style of collaboration, which I understand is how Stephen King and Peter Straub wrote The Talisman. A local professional team that I’m acquainted with work it like this: the two writers plot the story together. Then the junior partner writes a treatment that’s roughly half the word count of the final project. The senior partner fleshes out the treatment, adding dialogue, deeper characterization, bits of business, and so on. Both partners read and discuss the product, making small tweaks to the final draft. Find a rhythm that works for you.

10. Take it seriously. Avoid using your Skype work sessions to share gossip, the latest music video you’ve discovered, or trade information best left to phone calls and/or email.

Today’s Prevarication: I’m the easiest writing partner in the world to work with.

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“You Just Don’t Get Me!”

“You don’t understand me! You never will!”

Whose fault is it when the message fails? The sender or the receiver? Some writing experts say you gotta analyze your audience in depth in order to reach ’em. So who are you writing for?

  • A a group of unwashed truck drivers who like panda bear porn?
  • A gaggle of Fraggle Rock fans with an unhealthy interest in poop-flinging zombies?
  • A bunch of bored househusbands who dream of winning it big in the lottery, buying two truckloads of Nutella, and slathering it all over the neighborhood?
  • Or are they, like, normal people? Hell, define normal, these days.

It would seem that Prevarications doesn’t have much of an audience. That became abundantly clear when “The Right to Die,” despite its controversial subject matter, raised little interest, even amongst my friends.

Partially, that can be blamed on Prevarications not having much of a focus, other than me blathering on like a blithering idiot about aspects of my writing life, and posting the occasional review. Perhaps during November, while participating in NaNoWriMo, I’ll use this here unblog to track my progress, my reactions to writing every day, and maybe some background about the plot or characters.

What I won’t be doing is posting each day’s output. That’s because it’ll be first-draft puke-stuff, not ready for prime time. Layoff won’t see the proverbial light of online, so to speak, until it’s two or three drafts down the line.

So, who is my audience? I would hope that, eventually for Prevarications, it’ll be fellow writers. I’m not as well-versed in the craft as someone my age should be, because I haven’t toiled at it every day. It would definitely benefit me to trade ideas and war stories with those who really do log a discernible word count every day. I still have a lot to learn from published and self-published writers.

But, until I have something to offer to that community, my Prevarications audience will necessarily remain just my friends — when and if they drop by, that is. In that meantime, my audience will be just me.

And, really, I should be my first audience, anyway, for these posts and for fiction. If I’m not happy with what I write, if I’m not entertained by it, then who else would be? No one, that’s who. Please note, I said “first,” not “only” audience. If I wrote only for myself, then I may as well just keep a journal. I’ve tried that before — it isn’t a good thing when you bore yourself.

Your second audience? That’s where you have to start thinking about, but not pandering to, your potential readers. If you want to sell what you write, you better know something about your market. Don’t just jump on the latest trend and hope you can ride the wave, however.

For example, Layoff‘s protagonist needs some hobbies, some secondary characteristics to help round out his life. I’ve already mentioned that he’s a film buff. While casting about for another interest, an idea came to me this week: hey, why not have him play zombie video games? Zombies are popular now, thanks in large part to Max Brooks’ 2003 book, The Zombie Survival Guide and his 2006 follow-up, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Zombies are cool, they’re really popular with Gen-X (the age-group to which my protag belongs), and they can also serve as a metaphor for corporate greed and mindlessness.

That’s when I had to put on the brakes. Zombies. Corporate wage slaves. Didn’t I do this joke before, albeit in different form? I took out references to The Office calendar and the Dilbert doll from a previous draft because they were too on-the-nose, right? Wouldn’t including references to zombies just pander to a potential Gen-X audience?

Yes. So maybe I’ll have to skip the zombie videogames completely.

These are the things you have to consider when crafting a story. What are you putting in that will just play to an audience, rather than being integral to the plot and characters?

This happened in the writing group I was once a part of. In the beginning, we were just writing to entertain each other, throwing in jokes or characters just to get group members’ approval. As I mentioned in the “Writing Groups” post, I started writing shit just to make the group laugh. Some day, I’ll dig out a couple of those “business card stories” to post here, just for shits and grins.

Here’s another example, from the same group — once, I wrote parody lyrics about the Harmonic Convergence, set to the hymn of “Blessed Assurance.” (Hey, the Xtians stole several pagan holidays to bring the “heathens” into the early Church. I figured turnabout was fair play.)

My singing voice is horrible, but for some insane reason, I chose to sing it in the group. One person began laughing derisively, so I lost my temper and nearly walked out of the meeting. That’s neither here nor there. He was, obviously, not my audience. (Arguably, my singing has no audience, AT ALL, and that’s the way it should be.) There were two or three pagan/New Age believers — and I wrote the parody to entertain them, specifically. It didn’t further the purpose of the group, it didn’t help my writing, it didn’t help anyone’s craft. It was a waste of time, and perhaps that person was right to laugh.

Nevertheless, I still say you should write first for yourself. Pay attention to market trends, but don’t write strictly to the market. As of this blog posting, Steampunk is big BIG BIG! But by the time you finish that steampunk romance, even if you finish it *next week*, by the time that novel is ready for publication, the steampunk ship will have sailed.

Five years ago, the paranormal romance market was beginning to explode. The category is still popular, but it’s seen its best days. The market already shows signs of fading; one such indicator is the fact that Charlaine Harris has said she’s written her last Sookie Stackhouse book.

Who knows what the next big trend will be? Besides, is that the kind of writer you want to be, just jumping on a trend because you think you can get a book published that way? Let me stress this again — WRITE FOR YOURSELF FIRST. Hell, if you like paranormal romance or steampunk, then go for it. Just realize that unless you bring something new and fresh to either subgenre, you’re going to have a tough time getting that book pubbed.

There’s always self-publication, of course, the route I went with “The Angel of Lies,” but going that way means the lion’s share of the marketing/promotion/book design lands squarely on YOUR shoulders. As John Scalzi is wont to say, the job of a writer is to WRITE. I’m not 100% in agreement with him, but I definitely see what he’s saying. If youou think Writer is a full-time profession, just add Marketer, Promoter, Book Designer, Cover Designer, Agent, Editor, Business Manager to it and see how you hold up.

Some people are made to be independently published writers. I’m not sure I’m one of them. As I’ve mentioned before, “Angel” has sold only a double handful of copies. But then, I’ve only marketed it to friends and Facebook buddies, not many of whom are 1) horror fans, 2) have an ebook reader, 3) are inclined to read anything I write aside from short status updates.

I like Nancy Kress’ advice, as published in Writer’s Digest, which seems to describe the kind of writer I am:

“Forget the audience while you write your first draft. Evoke that audience when you go through the second draft, revising and polishing. After all, an audience may be more welcome at a dress rehearsal rather than a first readthrough. “

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The Right to Die

(This post may severely upset some of my friends. Don’t worry, everything’s fine.)

You’re living on a ventilator, your mind completely gone. If it weren’t for the expensive machinery surrounding you, you’d be dead. Is it dignified to keep preserving your life, with no hope of reviving? Or is it more dignified to allow you to die?

If you’re suffering from a terminal illness, and you can still think clearly, I think you should have the right to choose when and how you stop living. What prompted me to think about the subject recently was Terry Pratchett’s documentary for the BBC titled “Choosing to Die.”

Terry Pratchett, perhaps the best living fantasist today, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2007. Since then, he’s written three more Discworld novels, developed documentaries for the BBC, and began a collaboration with fellow Brit, and science fiction author, Stephen Baxter, the first book of which is to appear in 2012. He’s kept busy, even though he’s lost his ability to type (he dictates through speech-to-text software and to his assistant) and, unfortunately, sometimes forgets what he’s written the day before.
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In 2009, Pratchett wrote in London’s Daily Mail, “I am enjoying my life to the full, and hope to continue for quite some time. But I also intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand…” [Full article]

In “Choosing to Die, ” Pratchett interviews two British citizens who have chosen to travel to Switzerland, where assisted suicide is legal. Both have been suffering from terminal diseases and are determined to die before rather their diseases ravage them beyond the ability to make a clear, sound choice. The group they have chosen to assist them is Dignitas.
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The film-makers recorded the death of one of the interviewees, a man suffering from motor neuron disease, but mercifully do not show it. We only hear his last moments as the camera shows Pratchett watching, emotionally overcome by the man’s death. At the documentary’s end, we are left wondering if Pratchett will eventually take that last step himself. He has argued for the legalization of assisted suicide in England, but fears it will not become legal in time for him. He is seriously thinking that he may travel to Switzerland again some time in the future.

In the United States, three states allow assisted suicide: Oregon, Washington, and Montana. The process requires significant documentation and specific procedures: a doctor is required to approve the request, the medication must be self-administered, the requestor’s life-span has to be measured in months, and so on. While it’s true that Dr. Jack Kevorkian served jail time for his role in assisting suicides, there are those who fully supported his efforts. And I’m not just talking about the “right to die” groups like Death With Dignity or The Final Exit Network.

Still, it’s a touchy subject, with many religious, ethical, and societal arguments to be made for and against it. Some are explored in the Assisted Suicide article on Wikipedia and on many, many other websites.

In 1983, my father died from throat cancer. In eight months, the cancer spread from his throat, to his lungs, and then to his bones. He was diagnosed in October of the previous year, underwent chemo and radiation, but to no avail. I was working and attending graduate school out of town, so I couldn’t be in town for him. I visited a couple times between that October and the following Spring. In May, I got the fateful call, and my spouse drove us homeward — 340 miles — in under five hours. Dad couldn’t speak, but he cried as I sat beside his hospital bed and looked into his eyes. Two days later, he died while I was holding his hand.

During part of that time, he was in obvious distress and discomfort. No one should have to go like that. He should have been able to choose a more dignified death, at a time that suited him. That is, if he so chosen to die in that way.

That’s all I ask. That we all have that right, should we choose.

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How Reviewing Movies Bought Me a Car

I’ve always enjoyed movies. Good, bad, or indifferent, the weekend usually found me plopped into a theater seat, munching a hot dog or Junior Mints and watching the latest Hollywood product. During the late 80s and into the 90s, I finally broadened my horizons and started attending arthouse films and enjoyed a great many of them.

While writing FutureView for The Buyer’s Guide, I reviewed a few movies (as I mentioned, I panned Star Wars in my original column). When the column ended, the next review I wrote was 8 years later for a very small limited-circulation amateur press publication. When that ended (the publication lives on, my interest in it waned very quickly), I still attended movies, but didn’t write reviews for another couple of years. During this time, 1989-1991, I developed a habit of attending up to three or four movies every Saturday. Tickets were…what…two and a half to three bucks for matinees? I could afford it.

Around the same time, I developed another addiction. I logged on to my first BBS (bulletin board system) in 1990, a system called Texas Talk. BBSes opened up a whole new world — I hadn’t used a computer in this way before. I could download text files and shareware files (usually games or graphics), I could play online games, and I could CHAT with other real, live people. Who needed to leave the house?

I developed many friendships during my days on two systems in particular, Texas Talk and Chrysalis, both hosted in Dallas. Some of those friendships continue this day.

On Texas Talk, the sysops (system operators) started publishing a weekly newsletter. Occasionally, a contributor would write something about online life, review a new game or a new movie, but usually wrote just a couple of paragraphs. While at a Texas Talk party, one of the sysops discussed needing more material and lamented that not a lot of people were contributing. Someone suggested movie reviews (no, I didn’t mention it first, even though I am pretty opportunistic), and I asked if I might send her some reviews. By the next week, I had four movies reviewed, and the sysop suggested I publish them as a separate newsletter, because the reviews ran longer than the board newsletter itself. That’s how my online movie review career was born.

The newsletter was called Lights Out (my online handle at Texas Talk was Acolyte, and an early version of the newsletter was called Lyte’s Out, meaning I was out at the movies). The weekly reviews were eventually distributed to a couple of dozen or more BBSes, mostly located in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Lights Out continued for a couple of years and was discontinued in the mid-90s due to personal problems. From there, in 1997 I applied for a position with a new website called The Mining Company, where I contributed movie reviews until sometime in 2000, when editorship and website focus changed. The name changed, too — you probably know it now as About.com.

That association with The Mining Company led to a six-month stint with an independent newspaper published in Virginia and a short association with Suite101.com, but both of these petered out, as well.

So, how did my reviewing movies buy me a car? Every columnist who was still with The Mining Company/About.com in 2000 received stock options when the company went public in late 2000. We were required to hold onto our options for a few months, I forget how many. By the time we could exercise those options, the stock was trading above the $100/share mark. Remember, in early 2001, we were still in the dot.com bubble? Tech startups were ridiculously over-priced (which is how AOL was able to buy Times-Warner, but you see how long that lasted), and that included The Mining Company/About.com. Two days after the date arrived when we could exercise our options, I called the brokers and told them to sell at $90/share. The broker claimed the stock may not hit that price (it had closed just under $90 that day), but I knew, somehow, that it would open either at or just above $90 the next day. I kicked myself for not having acted when the stock was hovering around $100 a day before. Yes, it was dropping that fast.

The stock opened just below $90, surged very briefly, and dropped immediately. At $90, my broker sold my shares and a couple weeks later (maybe six weeks, I don’t remember the timespan), I had a check in my hot little hands.

Within a week of receiving the check, I placed a substantial downpayment on the first new car I’d ever own (and still have to this day), a 2001 blue Hyundai Accent (stop groaning, I’m perfectly fine with it). The rest I socked away to pay taxes.

And that’s how reveiwing movies bought me a car. It also brings my writing history up to the new millennium. What’s happened during the 2000s? Stay tuned.

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Who’s Nipping At Your Fin?

A mini-review of Catfish, a 2010 documentary film.

I’m all kinds of naive, even at 55. I’m gullible, impressionable, a blank canvas on which others’ opinions help form mine. So I can fully believe that Nev Schulman, the vehicle through which we experience the duplicity and tenderness that make up Catfish, is totally taken in by the woman known as Angela Wesselman.

To tell you much more about Angela would really spoil the movie. As it is, I’ve probably spoiled some of it already. Catfish follows Nev’s blossoming relationship with Angela’s family, especially her two daughters: Abby, an eight-year-old painting prodigy, and Megan, a teenage beauty (we’re led to believe Megan is of legal age, so there’s no potential creepiness here — Nev appears to be around 19 or 20) who dances, writes songs, and works as a veterinary technician. A long-distance relationship develops between Nev and Megan, but throughout the first half of the film, they cannot meet, owing to the thousand-mile barrier between them: Nev lives in New York, and Megan lives in Gladstone, Michigan.

What happens after Nev and his film-making brother, Ariel, and Ariel’s film-making partner, Henry Joost, visit Colorado to shoot footage for a dance documentary is the part that contains the real surprise. The film-makers get glimpses of what’s to come when they finally begin Googling the Wasselman family members.

Some critics are calling Catfish a mockumentary, a fake documentary. One person even spent some time dissecting the film to catch all of the clues that show it’s fake. While the shell of the movie could have been fabricated or completely recreated, I believe that the core of the story, Angela herself, is completely true. I’ve met (and have sometimes been duped by) people just like her, both online and in person. You’ll know what I mean by the time the guys finally reach Angela’s house on their way back from Colorado. And you’ll nod in recognition.

If the entire film is a fraud, then I raise a toast to the Schulman Brothers and Mr. Joost. They are the catfish to the film industry, just as Angela is the catfish to their story. As Vince, Angela’s husband puts it, “There are those people who are catfish in life, and they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank God for the catfish, because we’d be droll, boring, and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.”

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Novelizing Short Stories

One of my past NaNoWriMo failures was an attempted expansion of my short story ebook, “The Angel of Lies.” In it, the story picked back up with Bobby Reith as a young adult, just graduated from college, and how he had been in and out of therapy since his encounter with the dreaded Angel Statue in the city cemetery. A school friend hooks back up with him and takes him out to lunch. During lunch, Bobby discusses the statue and the effect that fateful night has had on his life. They finish lunch, and as they’re headed for the car, the friend says that he needs to run an errand before he can take Bobby home. Once in the car, after they’ve traveled a few blocks, Bobby realizes where his friend is taking him — back to the statue as shock therapy, natch! — and he grabs the steering wheel, causing a tremendous crash that kills his friend. And then —

I have no idea. The expansion ran out of gas after a couple of thousand words. Even though a friend of mine recently expressed interest in a novel-length version of “Angel,” there’s no there there. There’s no place for Bobby to go because there’s no place for Bobby to go. End, finé, ring down the curtain because the fat lady sang.

That’s not to mean that I’ll never expand the story. It just means as of right now, it considers itself finished. Sometime in the future it could possibly shamble its way back into my head with new life, but that doesn’t seem likely.

There’s a long tradition of expanding short stories into novels, especially in genre categories like science fiction. A few examples include: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (short story 1977, novel 1985); Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (novelette 1959, novel 1966); “Night Surf” (1969), expanded into The Stand (1978), both by Stephen King; “The Sentinel” (1951), expanded into (the novel) 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968), both by Arthur C. Clarke; and “The Fireman” (1951), expanded into Fahrenheit 451 (1953), both by Ray Bradbury.

There’s also a book type called the “fix-up,” which is basically a novel that’s been cobbled together out of a series of short stories. Examples include: The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, by Stephen King (five novellas published separately in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction); The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury, from a series of stories that appeared all over the place, including The Saturday Evening Post; and Lawrence Block’s first three books about a hit man named Keller — Hit Man, Hit List, and Hit Parade — which began life as a series of stories in Playboy.

A novel, obviously, gives you more room to explore your theme (or themes), introduce new characters, add subplots, and let your story range over a longer stretch of time than a short story traditionally can. Layoff, this year’s NaNoWriMo project, feels like a novel and not a short story. There’s a lifetime of insults, depredations, and degradations that my main character has to make up for, so I’m going to give him the room for revenge.

Hmm. There’s an idea. Maybe he’ll establish a Room for Revenge, a combination planning/souvenir room. Maybe a killing room, too, if need be.

Where is that notebook? (write write scribble scribble)

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Writing Groups

(Warning: I’m going to drop a couple of names during the following story. Unless you’re into science fiction or fantasy, you probably won’t recognize them.)

It’s the summer of 1986. I’ve arrived back in Fort Worth after a week-long vacation visiting friends and family back home in the Quad Cities. That Sunday, I picked up the paper and breakfast from McDonalds and found a shady spot to eat my Sausage McMuffins in the car and look over the want ads. (I’ve always looked at the want ads, even when I’m relatively happy in my job.) In the Announcements section, I read:

"Science fiction writing group meeting in Dallas at Walnut Hill Recreation Center. Every other Wednesday at 6:00. New writers welcome. Call XXX-XXX-XXXX."

Huh, look at that, I told myself. I had just been telling my friends during vacation that I needed to get more serious about my writing. And the day after I got back home, bam, here’s this ad. If I believed in Fate, or Kismet, or whatever, I’d have called it a sign. (Obviously, it wasn’t, because here I sit in 2011 with just one short story ebook to my name and nothing else to show for my efforts. At the time, however, it seemed perfect.)

I lived 30 miles from the Walnut Hill Rec Center, so every two weeks, I dutifully drove Loop 820 to Highway 121 through the Mid-Cities to get there. A handful of short stories were birthed during this time (including “The Angel of Lies“), as well as a couple aborted attempts at novels.

The group was organized by Dan Eiler, who had written a short story for Amazing Science Fiction and a teleplay that was produced on Dallas Public Access cable. Other members included: Margaret, a homemaker married to a successful businessman; Barb, who worked in credit finance; Bob, who played bass in a lounge act; Bill, a retail worker, I think; and Pat, who worked in the classified ads department of the Dallas Morning News. All of us were aspiring writers, some more talented than others, some more motivated than others. The most motivated of us all was Pat, who started selling short stories to a science fiction market almost as soon as I joined the group. Occasionally, a published writer named Lillian would stop in to test some of her latest material.

The format was casual. Someone would read aloud from their latest work and then we would go around the table and critique it. Mostly, it was good stuff — rough, but good. Bob was working on a Western Fantasy called The White Horse, and his narrative voice was perfect for the material. Barb was working on a rich, sweeping fantasy novel. Margaret was working on an Icelandic saga that was brash and bold. Bill was working on gay werewolf stories that were…a bit explicit. Maybe too explicit for that group. Dan was working on more science fiction stuff.

If you’re thinking about attending or starting a writers group, I have some advice for you:

1. Make sure you distribute work at least a week before the meeting. Give each other time to read, absorb, and critique. Critiquing on the fly gets uneven results, at best. Members are relying on their memories for their critiques, or are writing notes (thus missing part of your story) while you’re reading. Plus, someone with a great voice or any kind of theatrical training can sway the audience, possibly pulling focus away from the weaker elements of the story.

2. When you critique, don’t pull punches. “I really liked it” is of no help at all to the writer being critiqued, unless you can pull out specific examples of what you liked and why you liked it. The reverse is true, too. “I hated it” is just as useless unless you can back up your opinion. Remember not to overstep common courtesy, though. When I say, “Don’t pull punches,” that doesn’t give you license to become an insulting, shit-spewing dickwad. You ain’t Don Rickles, you ain’t Lisa Lampanelli, and you ain’t funny.

3. Grow a tough skin early, and grow it thick. When people are honestly critiquing your story, it does you no good to get defensive or say something silly like, “It’s in the story because it has to be!” or “Well, fine, I hate your story, too!” Listen to what your fellow writers have to say. Sometimes they know what they’re talking about; sometimes they’re full of shit. You don’t have to take their advice, but if you listen openly and honestly, it could help make you a better writer. Don’t take it personally — they’re not attacking you, they’re trying to help your story.

4. Don’t do what I did. Take your writing seriously. Don’t write something because you know the group will like it. Write something that you like, and just hope that the group likes it, too. (I sank into writing what I called “business card stories” — lame jokes that could be written on the back of a business card while doing your business in the mens’ room. Yeah, my writing was that tiny — and that shitty — back then.)

When I realized I was wasting my time and the group’s time by writing those silly “finger exercises,” I decided to leave. Dan and I remained friends for a while, Pat and I communicated a couple times afterwards, and Barb moved away to Atlanta. The group effectively broke up not long after I left. One event had no effect on the other, of that you can be sure.

Okay, I promised to drop some names. The Lillian I mentioned? None other than Lillian Stewart Carl, successful fantasy and historical novelist who published a reader’s companion to Lois McMaster Bujold’s “Miles Vorkosigan” series.

And Pat? Well, Patricia Anthony went on to have a successful career during the 90s as a novelist. She was called one of the leading voices in science fiction. Her books include Cold Allies, Brother Termite (optioned by James Cameron! — the motion-capture he began experimenting with to use in Brother Termite was adapted and improved for use in Avatar), God’s Fires, and Flanders. Unfortunately, Patricia hasn’t published a novel since 1998, but that’s another story.

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Deadlines

Looks like I’ve already missed a couple of deadlines for (un)blog posts: Friday, October 14, and Sunday, October 16. These two missed days in the write-every-day experiment do not bode well for my participation in NaNoWriMo 2011.

Deadlines and I have not been on good terms throughout the years. Oddly enough, when deadlines are established for whatever regular job I have, they’ve always been met. Sometimes, the projects were finished early, a fact that cheated me out of an extra week’s paycheck from my summer contract job. (The project was budgeted for another two weeks, but we were so efficient, we chopped a week off of that schedule, and then the client decided that two items originally budgeted for were no longer necessary.)

But when it comes to deadlines for my side projects — the WRITING projects, mind you, the *important* stuff — I start to slip and slide around them. FutureView, the column I wrote for The Buyer’s Guide to Comics Fandom, met its monthly deadline for a good year and a half before I lost my way. (Granted, I got married along the way *and* moved 600 miles away *and* started graduate school. That’s enough to upset nearly any schedule.) During that year and a half, I did whatever I could to make sure I got the column in on time, even if it meant driving to the editor’s house in the middle of the night to deliver the column to his mailbox. (Which happened more than once, I must admit.) When I contributed movie reviews to a website during the late 90s, I had a weekly deadline, which, again, I met for a couple of years. Then the managing editor changed, the website’s focus began to change, and I began to lose interest. So, again, the deadlines began to slide.

That’s why it’s so important I try to keep to a daily schedule now, in anticipation of November’s project. If I slip one day during November, that’s a loss of 1,667 words, a loss that’ll be hard to make up. I may have to shoehorn in a couple more blog posts this week just to make me feel like I’m caught up. Psychologically, it’ll help, even if it just masks the truth that I botched yet another writing deadline.

This post barely touches the surface of my tussle with deadlines. I’ll have to devote another post to it later on.

So my question to you: Do you meet every deadline?

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What’s Your Dream Job?

So far, I’ve already had a few dream jobs. The first was working in production at a medium-sized radio station in a medium-sized Midwestern town. I produced commercials, the occasional public relations program, captured commercials from network, edited various items, and performed routine preventative maintenance (i.e., cleaning up). During lunch on Wednesdays, I’d run across the river to my favorite bookstore (Readmore Book World, how I miss you!) and pick up my weekly comics. If business was slow during that afternoon, I’d read the comics and eat a late lunch. Things were going along swimmingly until I decided to pursue graduate studies in Radio-TV. (No, I did not complete my masters degree, something I regret to this day.)

My second dream job came in 1984, in Fort Worth, Texas, when I was hired as the AudioVisual Coordinator (later Director) for a national retail company. This was the first job where I was hired mostly for my writing skills. The position involved writing, producing, sometimes shooting and editing, multimedia and video productions for the company. Mostly these were training materials for salespeople and instructional materials for consumers. Once a year, we did the “dog and pony show” at the regional sales conferences. I’d put together some fun shows to be shown over a two-day agenda, then I went along on the trip to stage the shows.

For my first year, I produced six multi-projector shows. At the time, before video or PowerPoint, we actually used slide projectors, nine of them daisy-chained through a computer and programmed in sequence to emulate motion on the screen, create special effects, and present information. I wrote a few comedic/motivational “Day in the Life of a Salesperson” shows, based on interviews with the president, store managers and salespeople in the stores. These were fun to do, showing some humorous situations in a fictional store location, and how that store’s staff reacted to them.

But the centerpiece was the presentation shown at the awards dinner. Richard Steel, private eye, is hired to spy on a store’s staff. The client says the staff must be doing something shady, because they keep racking up high sales and winning awards. The script is typical hard-boiled stuff with a comedy edge, inspired equally by The Maltese Falcon, Get Smart, and Firesign Theater’s “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye,” from their We’re All Bozos on This Bus album. When I turned in the script, my boss and her boss were nearly rhapsodic in their praise. (My boss’ boss actually said, “This is the best thing you’ve written.”)

When the production was finished, we previewed it for the president of the company, who loved it. When we showed it to the salespeople, they laughed, hooted and hollered, and gave it a big hand. The best compliment? My boss, who had to take maternity leave during the latter half of production cycle, saw the presentation for the first time at the last regional meeting, which was held at home base in Fort Worth. She never told me her reaction directly, but I learned second-hand that, after the Richard Steel presentation, she leaned over to a co-manager and said, “It looks so…professional!” Best praise I could have had.

Of course, five years later, the company laid me off, but it was a good run. And they continued to hire me on a freelance basis for three years thereafter.

My last dream job was as videoconferencing project manager for a community college system. I was hired in mid-summer. Before spring of the following year, we had established a VC network with three area high schools to offer them college-level courses through distance learning. That was an achievement that still surprises me to this day, considering the short time we had to put it together. A few mistakes were made along the way, but it was a learning process for all of us.

And yet, I still haven’t achieved my real dream job. Sure, I’ve made stabs at it here and there: the FutureView column for The Buyer’s Guide to Comics Fandom, the motivational and instructional scripts I wrote during the 80s and early 90s, the short fiction and aborted attempts at novels through the years, and the movie review career I tried to get started during the remainder of the 90s. I’m taking another stab at this dream job this November with NaNoWriMo.

Bruce Diamond, novelist.

Wish me luck. And please allow me to ask . . .

What’s your dream job?

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