Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Urge to NaNo

NaNoing in the writing world has nothing to do with the study of very small things. NaNoing has an entirely different meaning and, ironically, entails the production of a large set of words within a short time period. If you participate in National Novel Writing Month, you are NaNoing.

Last year, I NaNoed (is the slang annoying you yet?) and attempted to write my last Musketeer novel in the month of November by hammering out 1600+ words a day until I reached the 50K-word mark. I fell 15K words short. (This very day, I'm about 13K short. I know, I know...) Thanksgiving arrived, and that put a meat fork in my productivity.

The exercise challenged me to not belabour any details and keep moving. My crit group read sections as I moved along, and the story almost moved along too quickly. It seemed to keep the same pace as the month, fast and sloppy. It's an attractive exercise in no regrets, no layers. You just go for it. I've heard lots of names for this type of writing: stream of consciousness, downloading, free writing (which can be more personal), or the ever popular, puking on the page.

Now that fall has come back around and the days are closing in on Nov. 1, I'm thinking again about whether to give it another try. My story could use an ending and NaNo focuses the mind on the task: writing the draft. This is such an important, crucial step in a book. You have no book if you don't have a draft. That idea gurgling around in your head? All you have is an idea, mildy formed, amusingly mythical, until you put words on the paper. Then you have something. It might be trash, but it's trash in actual black and white that can be edited, revised, manipulated. In my case, layered. I need to add layers and details and give the story a little heft.

Maybe the turn of the season or the way light is starting to diminish more each day causes NaNo to pull at me a little. C'mon, Do It. The challenge and the companionship (because there are thousands participating and a networking website) change the lone-writer reality into a competition and a virtual party. That said, I don't think I'll ever write a book in a month. My habits (bad, maybe) and thought processes don't support a high daily word count. I like thinking about my sentences/plots, and finding the best way to tell the story and its nuances. I'll sit for 10 minutes on one sentence. It's not painful. It's particular. I want to tell the story the way I feel the story.

But, boy, NaNoWriMo makes you write. And right now, I could sure use a little virtual party and an ending to my book.   

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Your Digital Footprint Or Finding Brad Land

Writers of fiction generally try to build a platform somewhere online. Be it Goodreads, a blog, an active Facebook page, a smart-ass Twitter account. But then there are the ones who don't. If I could ask Brad Land why he's not online, I would, but he's not online to send him an email or a snappy tweet. He has no digital footprint. Or he doesn't have one that I can find. He might be lurking under a psuedonym, like my kids do on Tumblr, but again, no one can find him that way.

Granted, a few interesting articles are available online about this enigmatic writer, but much of it is old, from when he became well-known in the literary world. He wrote a best-selling memoir in 2005, Goat, published by Random House about young adulthood and violence and two incidents that shaped his life. First, he was abducted and beaten by strangers from a party he attended; then he was hazed at Clemson University while pledging his brother's fraternity, Kappa Sigma. I read the slim, brooding book last month, and his writing threw me back to my own angst-ridden college experiences of trying to fit in (I rushed one fall but didn't pledge. It was a stomach-churning mistake, and sorority life wasn't for me.)

Land wrote his memoir while nearing the end of a graduate program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. It became a national bestseller and next month, a movie will be released based on the book. I didn't know any of this while I was reading the book, but as I was reading, I wanted to know more about Brad Land and his more recent work. So I started to do what anyone in 2016 would do to find a person: google him.

Mostly, old press from Goat populated the search but nothing about him recently. None of my searches on Facebook or Twitter turned up anything, so I tried emailing the publisher. The only email I could find for Random House Trade Publications was to request review copies of books. I sent an email with a subject line, "Interview with author Brad Land," but I got a disheartening generic robo-reply that said, basically, tough cookies.

In a lucky twist, a writer friend of mine said she had interviewed Land once after a reading he gave in Asheville. A review she wrote about his second book, which is still posted online, gave me the best leads. It sent me to an old website of his,, which must have been Land's attempt at the time of Goat's release to hurry up and put up a web presence. The site has some helpful links, but it's also a convoluted, writer-be-damned, who-gives-a-shit site that really doesn't mention Land by name. One of the links goes to an obvious Q&A about the book. I tried the email address on the site. My mail bounced back, undeliverable.

The last place he was known to have lived, according to my online search, was Carborro, NC, where another writer friend of mine also lives. My friend says that he remembers meeting Land once briefly around the time of the memoir's release. But has heard nothing more.

Why did I go through this rigmarole? Because he was from South Carolina, went to grad school for an MFA in creative writing in NC, and wrote a damn good memoir. (His second book, Pilgrims Upon the Earth, was not commercially well-reviewed.) I thought, why not find him and find out what he's working on and see if he can spare some insight on this writing life?

But he's off the grid. Which made me also wonder why so many of us want to be ON the damn grid. Who wants to be an open public record? Who wants to have to continually market or sacrifice privacy for the sake of the constant need for sales or to create searchable content or to feed the public's hunger for the dish? Not that Land is a celebrity, but he certainly made a splash and the subject matter of his book is intriguingly harsh, and the way he wrote the narrative is worth studying.

I had to stop when I felt the urge to google his obit. He's out there, just not interested in the rest of us.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Why Writers Need Each Other

It's official. I now have more writer friends than any other kind. Bully! This means maybe, just maybe, I have a chance at making it.

Here's why: Writers pull other writers outta the gutter, the place we trip into regularly, absolutely sure that's where our work should be, and, oops, there we tumble over our shitty drafts. Once we're soaking in the sewage and our pages are illegible, sometimes we feel that's just where we should stay. But it stinks in the muck. Then look up, and lo, see all the other writers who just climbed out of the same stinky gutter but were cleaned off by a good, hard rain. They're offering you a hand up. Jeez, thank you.

Take the help. Squeeze the mother-loving milk out of it and wait for the next rain to rinse off the stench. You'll need that gang of travelers again and again and again. The gutter has a funny gravity and the road won't be any less slippery. My turn comes to extend a hand.

This year, in addition to launching a micro-press, I feel a need to start a patronage circle for working writers and artists in my community. We all need help, usually in the form of money, and wouldn't it be good to raise a few bucks for CREATIVITY'S SAKE?  Not for a political agenda, or a church, or a disaster fund, but for people who make art and take risks to expose the human condition, entertain us, and make life a lot more interesting.

Nina Hart is our guinea pig. Nina and I met years ago in a group called Women Writing in Asheville. She read these wonderful vignettes that elaborated on quirky characters and situations the likes of which I had never imagined. Her quirky stories of strangeness usually left us all a little excitedly befuddled and wanting more. She kept working on her craft and decided to start her own business,, to encourage other creative writers. She's been at it for three years now and wants to go to the next level by taking an intensive, yet expensive, training course. I say, let's help. We'll be having a party for her in the coming months. We'll drink, be merry, talk, recite some lines, and generally make life easier on some level for Nina.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Er, Cat Therapy?

Two months ago, my kids convinced me to adopt a new pet. The day-long search ended by bringing home two new pets -- litter mates. We renamed the long-hair domestic feline beasts Fish (gray) and Slayer (black). At the intro of the new cats, my two-year-old short hair, Ollie, made noises we'd never heard before. Deep, unhappy, throaty growls. We immediately began an on-the-fly program of assimilation. One set of cats on the kids' end of the house; the other younger cat on my end; wet food inbetween. We've seemed to survive Ollie's incessant, instantaneous grumbling phase. Now, he just deals, snout in the air. The cats have formed an uneasy alliance. The dog slinks about, trying not to get in their way.

My project list has evolved into a similar state of d├ętente. I have papers in various forms stuffed in folders and anti-version-controlled computer files (anti-version-controlled is my way of saying, if I bother to open it, it must be the right version). One box holds a memoir. On the desk, a folder barely keeps the loose contents of a precious novella. Another stack is marked non-fiction book. An unfinished novel hasn't even justified the ink. Each book doesn't cross territories. I kinda wander in and out of the words, and generally watch passively as they decide whether they want me to pet them.

At some point, all those projects were something like therapy. Good for the gut and brain to spill out. The stories, whether real or made up, had a point and a purpose. Then they become something else. Real objects to consider. Revisions to undertake. Thoughts to apply.

I watch my cats instead. They're easier therapy. I know what to expect out of the fur fatties and their short lifecycles. The books, less so. I'm still trying to define their territory. Maybe I should just kick them out of the house. Tell 'em to make it on their own. I'd done with you, manuscript! Just get out in the world already. Leave me to my cats. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Truth About Improving Your Wordcount

Blogging can be a responsibility. I believe that if my words carry any weight, it's because I've chosen to write the truth. Many bloggers take different approaches. Some offer helpful advice and expert opinion. You can spot those blogs because most of the titles will read something like "Five Ways to Improve Your Wordcount." Sure enough, in the post, you'll find five ways to improve your wordcount, delineated by a pithy intro and subheads for each pointer. And the phrase "improve your wordcount" will be mentioned about ten times in the course of the post.

This isn't that kind of blog. A few of you already know that.

I tell it like I experience it. And writing for a living is not an easy road.

First, let me divulge the truth. I don't make enough money to "live" off of my writing. Very few writers (who write fiction) do. Here is my educated guess on how many writers in my creative, artistic community of 80K do: seven. Seven writers who write full-time and have sold enough books to dedicate their lives to writing other books. This, compared to the 200 to 250 fiction/non-fiction writers (or more) in my community. I'm ballparking these figures because there are no reliable stats. The majority of us struggle to finish/edit/sell a manuscript. Most of us, if not retired, have other jobs. Even though I write for magazines, I still don't make enough money to support my family as a writer.

If you don't feel a little down-hearted now, good for you. You know what you are in for. If you are feeling down, that's normal. Writing is a difficult road to success, recognition, credibility. The last one will come before the other two. I say this because if you stay serious enough about your writing, you will be considered a good resource for other writers seeking guidance. But credibility doesn't pay for buttered toast. I like buttered toast. I like coffee. I like to go on the occasional road trip. But a few years ago (after the publication of my first book) I abandoned the idea that this is the road to making a "living." It's a road to a lifestyle, and in many ways, this must be enough.

You will meet intriguing people. You will read and hear some fine and not-so-fine writing of others. You will write some fine and not-so-fine writing about many topics you thought you wouldn't write about. You will experience moments of ecstasy, for a passage or a project, and it will make you so high that nothing will seem impossible. Success will seem possible. Big success. And then, you'll crash. You'll feel the rough bottom many times. Experience the kind of self-doubt that most ordinary people with ordinary jobs don't understand. You'll have friends who understand, friends who will ask politely but not understand, friends who never ask you a whit about your work. It will become your "work."

You won't write. For months, maybe years at a stretch. This will release you from the burden of having to produce but also shadow you with a tinge of melancholy.

And you'll get fan mail. From that one perfect person who "got" you. You'll love
Solenne Poltier, my perfect fan.
them and wish for more like them. Or, maybe you'll never publish. And you'll come to terms with feeling satisfied that at least you wrote a book, something most people in the world will never say they've done.

In other words, your wordcount will suck and soar.

I wish I had some pithy ending for this post. A silver lining. Another cliche to throw out at you to make it all better. That your journey will be worth it and satisfying by the time you finally put away your pen or laptop for good. But, I'm not there yet. I'm still on the road.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Fooling Around for National Poetry Month

I'll bite. Poetry, yeah, I read it. Write a few. Wish for inspiration. Here's one I'll share, and then offer a shorter version, maybe better, leaner, more core.

Hawk Song
In the woods, a hawk spoke.
She wanted to sing together.
“Sing,” she called, and we threw our voices.
Circling in my sky,
she flew endlessly as I wandered,
as I sought a different ending.
Like the hawk, I must call out, must circle,
must crease the air.
Difference is,
the hawk lives in the now.
The hawk never questions.
When I go, she becomes the woods.
If I am silent, her song spins on.
Difference is,
I need more than the hawk needs.
I need someone to hear.

In the woods, a hawk
She wanted to sing
"Sing," she called
Call, circle, crease
In the now
Becomes the woods
Song spins on
More than the hawk

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Bane of Earnestness

Earnestness and writing may appear to go together, when in fact the opposite seems to breed success. Too many writers gyrate themselves in the public social sphere and succeed at selling their work. Do reclusive introverts, the loners at home with their dogs, make best-selling writers? Only the damn good ones -- the really damn good ones who spend the end of their lives in seclusion, writing backstories for all their famous characters, while hunched over manual typewriters in wooded shacks, down the hill from the main house where the fifth spouse does laundry. Okay, maybe that's a hair exaggerated.

Not happening for most of us. It's a new age. Get your platform-on, sister. Jesus, I hate that word. Platform. It doesn't really mean anything. I wrote a damn book, and then another, and a few other things, and by God, my brain wants me to write a few more before my wrists give out. But I'm freakin' earnest. I'm probably not going to crank anything resembling a marketing machine into something viral.

Ego is a good asset to have to market a book. When you have a big one, it doesn't matter if pieces fall together or apart because the next sales trick will work, and so what if it doesn't? You're a genius, or so your ego says. It induces a bolder-is-better attitude and license to TRUMP the message. BUY MY SNAKE OIL.
Dog in Space.

I'm sitting here writing poems between novels (poems, for God sake) because they give me a sense of accomplishment. I can finish one in a day, an hour. Novels are gangly and complicated. (I'm sure a few poets would argue with me.)

Ariel Gore, an earnest writer who's earned literary success for her memoirs, says after her books reach the 100-page mark, they become harder to manage. The story can't be read in one sitting. It can't be diagnosed and fixed easily. That means more time, more thought, longer stretches between publication, unless you write full-time like mad. Unless unless unless. Ego, madness, kinda go together.

My next project? I'm thinking sci-fi. Why? Because the story can be out there. It can have space monkeys. But damn my soul, my book idea is stricken with earnestness. The protagonist is left behind on a dying planet with a dog. Hmmm, life and art track oddly close together.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Give a Writer a Hug

Few career pursuits require as much external positive reinforcement as writing. The trek of a writer is often full of negativity, rejection, self-doubt, and road blocks. Your writing might be good, but the world might not want to read it. Can you imagine spending years on a project that few people read? The hurdles can weigh even the most buoyant, positive-thinking talent (just ask Elizabeth Gilbert, who attracts ire, for better or worse).

I don't believe in resolutions, but on the first day of 2016 many personal truisms poured out of me from somewhere. For any creative person, it's good to take out the list of Good Things to Remember, those ideas that supply hope when the world may strip us of it. 
We are dwarfed.

Here are a few I should pin up next to my keyboard:

  • Let your heart lead as much as your head.
  • Consider the opinions of others but don't always be swayed by them.
  • It's okay to go your own way.
  • You will forge a path that gives you what you need.
  • If you look inside, you will find the right answer.
  • Stay connected to stay strong.
  • People will help, if you ask.
  • Don't be afraid of the unknown. There will always be the unknown.
  • The mystery of life will be with you forever. Have faith in a positive outcome.
  • Do what you can do to make a difference and be at peace with yourself and the effort.
  • A little is better than none.
  • Plant seeds for the long seasons ahead.
  • You are confident and beautiful. You were always this way.
  • We will get lost; underneath, we still are who we are.
  • Take a measure of contentment in the core of who you are; it will never fail you if you access your true self.
  • Mistakes are just lessons learned along the way.
  • Fear is rarely productive.
  • Step back and assess. It's okay to recalibrate.
  • You'll know when it is right.
  • There are good things ahead as there were before.
  • You'll fight and struggle, but that is part of life.
  • See yourself for who you truly are: a shining beam of pure light.
  • In the greater scheme, you will live the destiny that was always yours.
  • Help others understand they, too, have a destiny.
  • Feeling good is easier and better than you think.
  • If you take risks to pursue a dream, know that the effort is the greatest gift you give yourself.
  • Understanding is always in shortest supply from within, not without.
  • This moment is yours to mold; the future is clay.
  • Love is the world's treasure; share it and it multiplies.
  • Gratitude grows your heart and the hearts of those in need. 
  • Maybe the well doesn't need to be filled; it is just a reminder that we are alive.
  • Kindly think of yourself and others, and the thoughts will manifest beauty.
  • The world is better off from small kindnesses.
  • Where you are now is not a measure of your goodness or worth; it is another step along your path.
Ask, and I'll tell you my top two.

Friday, January 29, 2016

The Monster You Call a Novel

So many things can go wrong when crafting a novel. Shall we?
  • Your characters are cardboard. Flat Stanley, if you will (although for a flat kid, he has immense personality).
  • The plot splits off into threads of lunacy. Lunacy! No logic, I tell you, such that you can't dig out of the rabbit hole (see, it happened to Alice!) and you just have to stay there playing croquet with a mad woman.
  • Nothing happens. Absolutely nothing but the workings of your characters' meandering minds. Though Holden Caulfield is the shining exception. (You literary types, button it. I know you think nothing has to happen in your novels, but it does anyway.)
  • Secondary (or, God forbid, tertiary) characters upstage the protagonist/antagonist. How can this happen? They start out so cute and sweet and then - DEAFENING SUCKING SOUND - you feel compelled to write novels to explain them (anyone heard of Bree Tanner?). (Other writers would call this a spinoff, collateral, branding extraordinaire and run with it until the train is too far gone.) (Again, Bree Tanner and her brood will NEVER die).
    Scary, isn't it?
  • You think writing in ALL CAPS or using parenthetical phrases will make the story more interesting. (ahem)
  • The hero dies too soon. It seems to work in psychological thrillers, but Hitchcock, you are not. 
  • A hundred-thousand words into the story and you haven't the vaguest idea when it will end or how. Or the opposite, 10K words in, and you're finished. Separate but equal problems.
  • The gangly mess you loved is no longer lovable because, in fact, you lose interest in the storyline. If you can't love it, no one else will.
  • You finish, writing 50K-80K words, tidily wrapping up loose ends, and set it aside for a few weeks. Then you reread it. Realize you may have wasted a good eight months to two years of your life. Doughnuts and a good cry are in order. But they won't help the revisions.
All these, and so much more, make writing novels a scary proposition. Novels eat up your time, your hemoglobin, your sanity, your ability to think of anything else. I say to friends, they are monsters. I have to write poems inbetween novels because a poem is a few lines, finished, neat. Yes, they can be improved but in minuscule proportion. Novelist must be obsessive and a little off-kilter. Does this help? It can't hurt.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

And for 2016, A Micro-Press

Last year, I had a dream. Not a night-time, fuzzy version populated by strange characters from my past slinking in and out of the scenery. I had a dream to start a tiny publishing house. House. What a big word for such a small venture. Mine is more like two playing cards (Jokers) leaned up against each other.

Everything in my logical mind (and here is where I spend far too much time, hence many of my dreams are never pursued because practicalities outweigh possibilities) said GET REAL. Who are you to publish other people's work? A literary genius? An editor with aplomb? A deep-pocketed heiress? No, I am none of those. And I started a press anyway.

Enter the world, Black Bomb Books.

The name suggests my thought process. I wanted to blow up my own conventional ideas about what I was supposed to do. Smithereens, we're talking. Who has a corner on the publishing world? I'm here to tell you, no one does any more. The landscape is a shambles, and so why not agitate the chaos and send another voice into the smoke heaps. The old ways of publishing are burning down. Black Bomb is another detonation. More like a firecracker.

Thing is, I knew plenty of good, dedicated writers who couldn't find the right place to publish their work. It often takes years of trying. Years of writing something new. Writing something commercial, something marketable, before an agent or a publisher takes interest. This causes good writers to give up. Should they? I think there is room in the world (the galaxy) for many, many stories. If one writer's story or poem fails to attract the interest of the NY brain trust, should the writer up and quit? What a tragedy. And this happens far more than is researchable. Drawers and drawers full of dusty manuscripts.

I'm not the answer to rejection; I just didn't want to contribute to it when I had the skills to give a few good pieces of work a little push out into the world. That's how I envision it, as a way to put a shoulder into a writer's efforts, give the artist some encouragement, tell her the work is fine work, should be birthed, and wouldn't it be grand if he could hold it in his hands, for kicks, for others to read, for mom-n-dad, for people to see the connections.

Writing is truly about connecting with humanity. A writer's ideas are letters of hope (even the zombie books and the erotica). We fling our stories out into the universe and say to the swirling stardust: You might be bigger, but take a look at this. I hope my little press launches a few good ideas and the writers who wrote them. Potentially lighting a few more fuses.