Monday, December 25, 2006

Winding Down...

We had eleven people over for Christmas dinner...and no unnecessary family drama. A nice, mellow day, all-in-all.

I'm thankful to God for this magnificent country I live in and for all the people who made it possible.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sunrise Through Branches

Lemons No Longer

In an earlier post, I recommended that you not consider buying the first iteration of Apple laptops with Intel processors (the Core Duos released a year or so ago).

Now, with several small updates to miscellaneous pieces and a new processor line (the Core 2 Duo), it appears that Apple has gotten their MacBook Pro act together. I would happily buy one and would think you'd be safe with it, as well.

One caution, I should add, though, is that I've heard from multiple different sources (sources with long Mac experience), that AppleCare is a must-have addition to your purchase. This is an extended warranty, which I usually shun, but laptops are more breakable than most electronics. In addition to getting a longer warranty, you will also apparently get better care during the regular warranty period.

As a relatively recent adopter of Mac--just approaching one year now--I can tell you that I'm still enjoying the experience and still recommend it as a platform for most computer users.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Ty's Dream Girl (The End)

A story written in three very-short sections for a friend's newsletter.

The Beggining

The Middle

The End
His panic began to smother him now, his chest constricting painfully as his legs grew leaden. After a panicked glance over his shoulder and to his left and right, he began a frantic, broken stroke for his own shore. As poorly as his limbs served him, he quickly grew convinced that he would weary and drown long before he even reached water shallow enough to stand.

He tried to deny his insistent urge to look back, but his will only held for a few strokes. Slowing briefly, he turned onto his back, continued with a clumsy, inefficient stroke and craned his neck to see if he could still spot the floating hair. At first, there was nothing but his own turbulent wake, but then he caught a glimpse of something...something very clearly not long strands of hair.

What he saw, instead, was a wispy curl in the water, a living, purposeful curl, a curl that was there and then gone. In nearly the same instant, he sensed as much as saw a large, fast-moving shadow in the deeper water to his left. With a terrified, choked grunt, he rolled back into a breast stroke and began to swim for his life.

The breaths came tight and shallow, his panic threatening to smother him. The shadow was faster than he was, looming, it seemed, on all sides, and--he knew without being told--lethal.

Finally, when his efforts at swimming had degenerated to simple thrashing, his toes struck bottom. With great effort, he forced himself to his feet and slogged through the shallows until the water was only ankle-deep. Turning there, he watched the shadow moving toward him with evident strength and purpose. But then it was at the periphery of the unreachable shallows and turning with wave-making speed to parallel the shoreline.

As the small breaker rolled across his legs, he raised a hand to wipe the water from his eyes. But before his trembling fingers reached his face, he froze. The hand, dripping water and shaking, was an old man's hand. He stared with terrified wonder at it for a moment, turning it slowly for inspection.

Suddenly, a voice intruded, making him start in his tracks.

"Grandpa? You alright?"

Ty turned to face a familiar young boy--how old was he, anyway?--standing a few yards away on the sand. There was an awkward silence before, "You thinking about Gram?"

The boy's name was Aaron. Ty could remember that now. With a faint nod, he said, "I suppose I am."

Aaron stepped into the shallows and moved to his grandfather's side, where he stared out at the deeper water. "She loved this place, didn't she?"

Barely aware that tears were coursing down his face, Ty said, "We both did, Aaron."

There was a long moment of silence as they both stared out at the water. "Did you really meet her here when you were a kid?"

Ty put a wrinkled hand on his grandson's shoulder and pulled him close. "I sure did, Aaron. Indeed, I did."

"Will we still keep coming? Even without her?"

Ty looked out at the water again, the lake now forming a huge indistinct shadow. "We're not without her, Aaron. She's still here. And as long as I'm still upright, we'll keep coming."

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Quick, Practical Writing Tips

Not sure who runs this site, or even how I originally got there, but I read many of the articles and found them thoughtful and useful. None of what I read was directed at fiction, but that doesn't matter at all; the ideas can easily be extended to any fiction you're working on.

50 Tools That Can Increase Your Writing Skills

Monday, December 11, 2006

Photo Talk About Writer's Block

Paul Butzi, one of a growing number of truly thoughtful photographers whose blogs I read routinely, has a post called 'Quantity is Quality' (you'll need to do a find for that heading). In it, he describes setting a goal for himself--early this year--of producing a mounted print a week.

While he hasn't quite lived up to the notion, he has produced much more than he did last year, and he has found, in the process, that more work (more consistent output) means better work. This idea touches very closely on the theme of the post I wrote earlier about writer's block. I mentioned there that forcing myself to produce, insisting that I put words, no matter how incompetent, to paper, made me a better writer. Not only did the word count improve, but the quality improved as well.

It was striking to see the theme repeated by a respect-worthy artist in an entirely different field.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Character is King -- And What That Means

More and more, as I read other writers--some published, some aspiring to be--and as I get more serious about my own writing, I come to realize that the activity in a story, the wars, car chases, fatal diseases and heroic last minute big-game victories, no matter how well presented, caries very little weight.

What matters is not what happens to a character. What matters is how that character responds to what happens to him.

I find, as I do my own writing, that I care most for the scenes that happen in the gaps, the scenes that allow a person to absorb and, with time for reflection, respond to the goings-on. At a certain point, the action stuff becomes almost a necessary evil, the noisy filler keeping readers listening until we reach the heart of a story.

It's a counterintuitive notion, really, that a character's somber reflections, a character's quiet redirection after explossive action in her life, is what matters. But when you really think about it, and you realize that you've seen every possible turn of physical events available to man--seen each of them done poorly and spectacularly--the only meaningful thing left to explore is how the character on stage right now will respond. It's the only real mystery, and the only rooting interest left to us.

More From My MotoFlex

Rolling down Imperial Highway--or somewhere thereabouts.
Not a single big-nasty-red-head in sight.

Cell Phone Sunset

My cell phone, a beat-up 2-year old motorola, occasionally makes for interesting impressionistic photos.

A Dopey Poem On Language Usage

I wrote this years ago and submitted it as filler to Writer's Digest. They rejected it with a form letter saying they had enough such material to last until the year 3021. For some reason, the poem has stuck in my head.

She said she'd been walking on egg-shells
I asked her, So why do you care?
If it's shells underfoot
Then the damage is done
And you needn't walk carefully there.

The point being, of course, that the phrase is--and sensibly so--walking on eggs.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

For God's Sake, Don't Say 'Hello'

Written dialog is special, meaning it's absolutely nothing like the blathering we usually do day-to-day as human beings. For every thousand sentences you utter in life, perhaps one could earn itself a place in your novel.

Your co-workers and I expect you to say Hello and Goodbye during the course of a business day, but they beg you--and I beg you--not to bore us with that crap in your novel, or short story, or poem.


Simple. Fiction is conflict. Fiction is drama. Fiction is not workaday chatter.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

A Tree Being Ignored

Just yards away from this spot, a class of perhaps twenty people assembled in their room to learn photography. Not one of them stopped to look at, never mind photograph, this great view.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Ty's Dream Girl (The Middle)

Ty faced the now-empty beach with a blinking incomprehension. It wasn’t possible for Kit to have walked--or even run--down to the water in the time he’d been submerged. And even if it were possible, where was the chaise?

Despite the impossibility of it, the evidence--a long slash-mark in the sand--pointed waterward.

Feeling stupid even before he began to move, Ty took a deep breath and dived under. Eyes open and alert, he took several slow underwater strokes toward shore.

Directly ahead, in the knee-deep shallows, he thought he could make out a cloud of dirt, the aftermath of some soon-to-be-forgotten disturbance. But when the impression failed to prove itself, he eased himself back to the surface.

Without really knowing what he was looking for, he turned around in the water, glancing off in all directions for some sign of help. The only visible activity was the sailboat he’d seen earlier, unreachable in the distance.

Some part of him--the hopeful, mystic part--felt that if he just stayed there, dog-paddling long enough, Kit would reappear, that she would come walking out of somewhere, and that her reappearance would make sense of her disappearance.

In a strange bargain with himself and with this girl he’d never even officially met, he decided to give her a count of 100 before taking any other action. But almost as soon as he began to count, the dog-paddling grew hard. An act that had been easy and natural just moments before grew labored now that it was being measured.

Despite the struggle, when he broke 50 his counting slowed in an unconscious effort to give Kit more time. But even then, the numbers seemed to come too fast.

He had just settled on an even slower count when something underwater grazed his leg. A whispered number “73” died on his lips and he instinctively jerked away from the touch, tucking his legs up toward him. Squinting down into the water, he waited for the next contact, sure that he would scream when it came.

Nothing happened for what seemed an eternity. He had just decided to swim for his own beach when, just a yard away, something floated almost imperceptibly to the surface. At first, the brown strands rolling gently in the water confused him. But almost immediately his brain made the connection; he was staring at a tiny island of dislocated human hair, floating long and brown there on the surface.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ty's Dream Girl (The Beginning)

Twelve-year-old Ty Austin lay face-down on the dock, head resting on an inflatable life ring, a barely perceptible breeze rolling over him from the north.

For the last half hour, he’d watched a sailboat--the only movement in sight--gliding down the opposite shore.

But now, he grew aware of a new movement. On the beach at the next door cottages, the new girl--he’d heard her mom call her Kit--pulled up a folding lounge chair and lay out in her bikini. Ty watched her with his one open eye, hoping that she wouldn’t sense his attention.

She was thin and pale, and the vision of her first stepping out on the beach a few days before had echoed in Ty’s head ever since.

Now that he was aware of her presence, he quickly grew self-conscious, feeling, without really knowing it, that he had to prove himself worthy of existing in the same space as Kit.

With a move he hoped looked smooth and nonchalant, he stood and stretched, stealing a glance at the girl. For a moment, she appeared unaware of him. He tried to will her to look his way, tried, through some undiscovered telepathy, to convince her he was worth noticing. He had nearly given up when she did, finally, turn toward him. With a nervous flourish, he executed a jackknife dive off the end of the dock.

His heart raced as he pulled hard under water, driving himself to the bottom before pushing off with his feet. He felt at once proud and stupid. Would Kit be impressed? Or would she think him a showy fool?

When he broke the surface again, he sucked a deep breath and wiped the water from his eyes. Dog-paddling now, he turned slowly around to spy her beach. For a moment, he was disoriented, facing an empty stretch of sand. He looked left and right to orient himself, but it only took one steady glance--noting the stand of three birch and the granite outcropping--to realize that he was, in fact, facing the right beach.

A nervous confusion blossomed in him. He took several tentative strokes toward shore to get a better view before an odd pattern resolved itself in the sand. In an instant, confusion turned to realization. The jagged lines from mid-beach down to the water were a signature, the final words of a lounge chair being dragged to nowhere.

A short story coming next

The next three posts are the components of a short-story written in three installments for a friend's writing newsletter.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Peaceful Time

Just back from vacation in New Hampshire (the first in a long, long time).

I'm reading Elizabeth George's Write Away--my second attempt--and enjoying it more this time around. It's much more detailed (at the nuts-and-bolts level) than Stephen King's On Writing.

I'll have more to say when I've actually finished it.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Don't Use Internet Explorer

If you care to keep your computer healthy, don't use Internet Explorer.

There are two great free options--Opera 9.x and Firefox 1.5.x. Both are capable web browsers, and both will expose you to far less mischief from the thugs of the internet.

Neither will free you from the need to have and maintain subscriptions to anti-virus software and anti-spyware. But, in combination with these taking these precautions, using Opera or Firefox will make for a much safer experience.

Get the World's Best Free Word Processor

Many writers I've met have spent too much energy hunting for a word processor they can stomach. Some can't afford--or don't feel like affording--Microsoft Word. Some simply can't tolerate the extreme complexity of Word's interface.

There is a good option called OpenOffice. It's an open source application available as a free, no-strings download. There's no registration required, and the software won't nag you to upgrade to some more functional, professional version.

OpenOffice was created and is maintained by a group of volunteer developers with the notion of creating a non-proprietary software suite that's compatible with Microsoft Office. For the most part, the applications succeed beautifully. The word processor--which I know best of the applications in the suite--is very capable (in many instances simpler to use than Word) and is, in most respects, perfectly compatible with Word.

If you're dissatisfied with your current word processor, OpenOffice it's definitely worth a look. The one caution I would give, though, is that you're facing a huge download. It's no problem for a cable modem or DSL subscriber but not feasible for a dial-up user.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Another Fine Writing Book -- Bird By Bird

Neurotic and witty, painfully honest and flat out funny, Anne Lamott clearly cares about writers and writing.

Bird By Bird is a generous gift from a woman at once tortured by the writers' struggles and hopelessly captured by the promise of what fine writing can deliver. The book offers emotional support, nuts-and-bolts workaday writing advice, and biographical human interest stories.

Lamott is a mercilously straight shooter when it comes to her own writerly behavior. At her worst, she looks terrified, unsure, petty, and mean. At her best, she's as generous and committed a friend as a writer could wish for. But, in truth, even at her worst she's at her best, unflinchingly honest and intense, curious and giving.

She won't blow sunshine up your backside, won't promise ocean views from the hills of Malibu. What she will do is tell you the truths she's learned about doing good work. And she'll likely make you laugh a bit along the way. Not a bad deal for your fifteen bucks.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Photography Web Sites

A couple great web sites for those of you interested in photography.

Luminous Landscape

The Online Photographer

Friday, August 11, 2006

Cynicism and Wisdom are Not the Same Thing

Too many people mistake cynicism for wisdom.

Cynicism is, in reality, a cheap pretender to wisdom. It comes nearly free--which wisdom most certainly doesn't--and it encourages all manner of dishonest behavior.

In truth, cynicism and dishonesty are the best of friends. A world that mistakes cynicism for something better is the kind of swamp that breeds 'journalists' who forge documents to suit their ends, photographers who reconstruct photos to further their righteous causes.

Wisdom demands that truth have a fighting chance, no matter how difficult or unpleasant it is to discern; cynicism promotes my way at any cost, and promises that truth is less important than agenda.

Cynicism is not only the enemy of truth, but it's the enemy of joy, as well. The best a cynic can really manage with respect to creating and sustaining joy is a smarmy sort of self-satisfaction. It's a cheap thrill for the person delivering it, and it's no thrill at all for the honest reader.

As an honest reader, myself, I have no appetite for it. Not on the web. Not in a newspaper. Not in a novel.

Genuine writing, writing with a chance to move me, demands honesty. And I'll even take my proclamation farther than that and say that genuine living--genuine thought and reaction--requires honesty.

As a writer, don't fall for the seductive simplicity of cynicism. It's true that you could roll out of bed tomorrow and adopt the mantle of cynic, embracing all the smug self-confidence that brings. But the rewards are shallow, and the world around you will be diminished for it. Do yourself and your readers a favor and aspire to wisdom, instead.

Note:. I plan to post examples of cynical and honest writing in the next couple weeks.
Maui with throw-away panoramic Kodak camera

Monday, July 31, 2006

Writer's Block Be Gone

After a nine year hiatus from writing, I'm a year-plus into my third novel, the first two of which went unpublished. Over the course of the last year-and-a-half, I've written 80,000+ words and am nearing a first draft I'll feel comfortable sending out into the world.

My life now, as opposed to my earlier writing days, is overrun with workaday pressures, allowing no extended writing time. The opportunities to write are few and short. From the first days I spent working on this book, I figured out that my old habits--which sadly included occasional frustrating writer's block--wouldn't get me through. And very soon after that, I figured out that, for me at least, writer's block has a simple cure.

Allow myself to write utter garbage.

It's a technique I can't recommend highly enough. So here I go, recommending it as highly as I can--but not highly enough...

Allow yourself to write utter garbage.

In fact, at least occasionally, force yourself to write utter garbage. What I mean, really, is not that the output will necessarily suck--it probably will-- but that the anal retentive editor in you should be bound, gagged and locked in the basement closet, silenced completely for an hour or three. Promise him he'll have his day, but don't let it be today.

It took me way too long to figure out that over-reaching perfectionism gaurantees I won't write as often or as much as I should. It's also a near-guarantee that I won't enjoy the process.

The freedom to suck, however, makes me more productive, makes me enjoy the work more, and, ultimately, makes the writing better. If the editor in me--a restrictive, tight-assed malcontent--asserts his will up front, the writing will be both sparse and constrained.

The choice is a clear one. If you find yourself struggling at all with writer's block, give it a try.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Giving Stephen King a Second Chance

Let me start by saying that, historically, I've been a huge Stephen King fan. The Shining was the first adult novel I bought in life (technically, I also bought Peter Benchley's The Island at the same time, but the terror of The Shining so completely overwhelmed that book that it hardly counts).

I was in junior high at the time and a victim of a horrid algebra teacher who humiliated me at every opportunity and bored me the rest of the time. One of the students seated near me, a kid named Joel, had bought both of the above books and took to reading them during class. I envied his escape desperately and, after a few days, decided I had to follow him to wherever it was that he had gone.

After school, I rode my bike to Sprouse Reitz, a low-brow variety store selling everything from cheap toys to bug spray to yarn. It was the only place within easy riding distance that had a decent paperback book rack, and, luckily, both of the books I'd seen Joel reading were there for the taking.

As I hinted above, The Shining utterly terrified me. Like a days-long rollercoaster, it kept my heart racing. And when it was finished, I knew that I wanted to make people feel like that.

Over the intervening years, I read many more of King's novels and several books of novellas and short stories, learning along the way that he was much more than a talented horror writer, that he had a breadth boasted by very few writers.

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that I am, by instinct, a Stephen King fan and that, in light of this, I was eagerly looking forward to his writing book.

I first read that book--On Writing--several years ago and was, sadly, underwhelmed. I thought it was too much about biography and too little about writing. And, at least as important, it seemed to lack energy (a problem I attributed to King's ongoing recovery from being flattened by an errant van on a backwoods Maine road). I didn't hate the book, but I was disappointed.

Recently, for reasons I can't explain, I pulled the book off the shelf again and began reading somewhere in the back half, the writing half. And my opinion is beginning to change. While I can't begin to put this book in the same class as John Gardner's wonderful On Becoming a Novelist and The Art of Fiction, I can certainly recommend it. King writes practically and without a hint of the mysticism that ruins so much art-related teaching. As a plain-spoken, capable craftsman, he has a voice that matters. And his phenomenal fiction career give his words a legitimacy that many teachers whose writing careers have shone less brightly--or not at all--can't match.

Friday, June 30, 2006

John Gardner, a Writer's Best Friend

If you're a writer and you care about your craft (beyond the simple question 'How do I get published?'), you need to read John Gardner.

A published and respected novelist himself, John Gardner was formost a teacher and nurturer of writers. He died, sadly, in a motorcycle accident at the age of 49. But he left the aspiring writers among us a wonderful legacy.

I've read two of his books--The Art of Fiction : Notes on Craft for Young Writers and On Becoming and Novelist--and recommend both for their generosity, their nurturing spirit and their BS-free approach to improving your craft. Beyond improving my writing, these books changed radically the way I think about writing and made me a more ambitious and--I hope--more thoughtful story teller.

You owe it to yourself to give him a serious read.

Monday, June 26, 2006

A Local Landmark

I'll be posting a photo here and there along with the writing talk. It's a non-sequitur, I know. But it'll break up the monotony of these little black squiggly lines.

These Apples are Lemons

Within the last six months, Apple Computer has introduced two new revamped laptop computers (both based on the Intel Core Duo processor) called the MacBook and the MacBook Pro. While the company has made a very smart move in the transition to a more powerful processor line, they have done an extremely poor job with design and/or manufactoring. Both machines are, sadly, riddled with flaws ranging from exessive heat production to annyoing noises of various kinds to early/ugly discoloration of the cases.

Even more sadly, it appears that Apple will not respond in any way the might prove comforting to loyal customers who've made the early leap.

If you're considering buying a Mac (and I just bought a new iMac desktop machine, myself), I think you'd do well to steer clear of this first generation of Intel-based laptops. And if my general warning isn't convincing enough, take a look here for some of the some of the gory details.

Why, you might ask, is this post about Macs on a writer's site? Simply because writers are more prone than most to want such a machine.