Like a lot of young girls growing up curious about that mysterious stuff of love and sex, I had a phase where I read a lot of romance novels during adolescence. Harlequin romances were easy to gobble up, but there was one bodice ripper that I was obsessed with, yet didn’t finish. I’m pretty sure Fabio with his long locks, square jaw, and bulging muscles may have been the male model for the masculine hero. I don’t remember what made me stop reading it. It may have been a rape scene or attempted rape scene or the sex scenes were above my head and far out of my comfort zone, so I stopped reading and never read a romance novel again.
As a reader, I outgrew romance novels. Many of my friends and family did not. As I grew into my writerly ambitions, I’m ashamed to say I expressed contempt for romance and those who read and write romance. Even though former writing teachers cite romance as the perfect example of our innate human need for stories with happy endings, I couldn’t see the value of it. To me, romance novels were not true to life and therefore, were inherently absurd.
A conversation I had last summer at a writers’ conference changed my mind. I ran into a woman I had met years before when I first moved to Portland. It turns out her genre is historical romance, and she absolutely adored romance novels, and always has. In the course of our conversation, she told me that she had been to the Romance Writers of America Conference, and had loved it. This conference is huge, with thousands of writers who come. She met a lot of great women with whom she really clicked. She also mentioned that most of the women she had met, who wrote and read romance novels, were a lot like her.
And how was that?
They were happily married women.
I raised my brows at that, because I’ve always seen romance readers as single women who have developed unrealistic standards on the men they want to fall in love with and marry; or they were bored housewives looking for a vicarious thrill; or adolescents trying to find the juicy parts in the mysteries of love and sex. When I asked my friend to elaborate on why she would love romance novels when she already got her happily-ever-after, her answer surprised me, even though it was kind of close to my second assumption about readers of romance.
“I really love to fall in love. Of course, my husband and I have been together for a long time, so it’s not a thrill ride. When I read a romance novel, I get to fall in love all over again and enjoy the rush. Everybody I know who loves romance novels love them for the same reason I do.”
That gave me pause. Instead of “bored housewife,” most romance novel readers were in the “stable and steady phase of love.” I never stopped to consider the vicarious emotional joyride that a woman would get immersing herself in a fictional heroine’s impossibly romantic journey, and how valuable that would be. All these happily married ladies staying true to their husbands, while enjoying the jolt of falling in love with somebody new in a way that doesn’t threaten their marriages. I had to respect that.
So anything that keeps the marriages of ordinary people intact as they go through the daily drudge of work, bills, and kids, repeat - how can anybody disparage that?
But I still don’t write it. I write love stories. There’s lots of room for tragedy and loss in a love story. Love stories provide a truer reflection of life.
It’s intimidating to get back into a project after a long absence from writing. In my last post, I mentioned the relief I felt finishing the rough draft of “The Shepherd and the Courtesan,” because I’d had writer’s block for years. If you want to read it, you can find that blog here.
That rough draft was difficult because my writing muscles had atrophied, and my abilities had gotten weak. It hurt to write when what I was writing wasn’t good; and for a long time, I didn’t have any faith that eventually, it would be good. But I kept it up and finishing that godawful mess of a rough draft about a year ago was likely the most magnificent achievement of the last five years.
More than twenty years ago, I discovered that I can’t write when I’m in pain. This was the year when my mother suddenly collapsed with a cerebral hemorrhage. She almost died, and if my brother, Robert, hadn’t been at the house to do CPR, she would have. I was journaling every day at that time, and I remember opening up my notebook, putting pen to paper to write about it, and I froze. I made nothing more than dot on that page that day because I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. When somebody suggested I write about the pain, I argued that I could do that from a place of remembrance. At the time, it was all I could do to live through it. I couldn’t bear to reflect on it.
Over the years, things happen. Things like betrayal, heartbreak, abandonment, death, and grief, and every time I would take a long absence from writing. I envy those writers who can produce even while they suffer, even when they wake up with anguish and go to bed with despair. I’m sure their writing is very powerful and deeply moving. But to date, I simply can’t do it. For me, suffering blocks productivity. Maybe that will change some day; maybe I will find solace in the fictional story that has nothing to do with what is current in my life, and that will give me an escape.
I have no advice on what to do when things are bad and the writing is blocked, but I can offer some ideas on what to do to shift your energy away from the inertia that grief often brings. Several months ago, I did a blog about changing your habits, which is pretty much how I became productive again. You can read about it here if you like.
But it really comes down to meditation and exercise. If you must choose one over the other, I suggest exercise that has a meditative quality, like walking, running, and swimming – especially swimming. Exercise pulls you out of apathy quickly, and meditation brings you to the inner stillness and peace I believe are necessary for productive creativity.
Then write. Make yourself write even if your writing sucks. You have to do something to get back your momentum. Eventually, your writing will be good again.
When I finished the scatterbrained rough draft of “The Shepherd and the Courtesan,” I was so relived I didn’t care about the miserable task ahead. That rough draft was a mess, which had taken many months to put to words to paper (or computer screen). But all that mattered to me was that this was the first new thing I had finished after years of writer’s block.
By the miserable task ahead, I mean the second draft. This process of 2nd draft is excruciating. At the same time, it’s also kind of exhilarating. The story – or triad of stories - is actually starting to find it’s shape, and I can see the novel’s potential. That’s it nut just jumbled chaos of words and scene and sloppiness.
I’ve always thought of writing a novel as putting a body together. The rough draft is only the skeleton of the piece, the bones that make the structure. The 2nd draft involves placing the organs – the brain, the heart, the lungs, the intestines and everything else in between, all those things that are needed to make a body function.
The 3rd draft is the skin, hair, teeth, and nails, in other words, refining the structure, plot consistency, character growth, and story arc. The 4th draft is the polish of language, reaching for the gold ring of lyrical beauty, harmonious rhythm of the written words singing in the brain, also know as the facial features of this particular body of work. What color and shape are the eyes and mouth? High cheekbones or jowly jaws? Is the body fat, thin, muscular, average? Is this body beautiful, endearing, homely, or sexy ugly?
Breaking the process of writing a novel down to building a body makes this doable for me. When I’m discouraged and convinced I’m a hack, I remind myself that I’m only building a skeleton. It’s not time for the features of lovely prose yet, so go ahead and let the writing suck. When I want to pull my hair out during the 2nd draft, I push ahead, knowing that when I comb through it the next day rewriting the spleen before reworking the pancreas, that the spleen may not seem so awful with a break and renewed TLC. But once I cross the finish line of a completed 2nd draft, I’m pretty home free.
Because writing gets fun at the 3rd draft and is giddy during the 4th. The 3rd and 4th draft make suffering through the 2nd draft worth it.
So what are some of your tips for slogging through the draft that sends you into orbit? Here is a more detailed blog with practical how-to steps to navigate 2nd draft if you’d like to take a look-see. Personally, I don’t use Scrivener.
Her beauty was staggering.
I had never seen so much flesh in my life as I did in the massive portraits on these walls. Standing, reclining, full front on, in profile, her back to the artist, the Courtesan was naked in every pose, her silhouette that of an hourglass. Her full breasts stood high on her chest, her torso curved to a slender waist above rounded hips, her legs were long and tapered. Her skin was creamy and luminous; and black hair cascaded to her waist. Her features were noble; hers was the classical beauty of the highborn class.
But her eyes made her unforgettable. Beneath arched brows, her large eyes angled on a tilt and mingled the hues of gold and amber. Her steady gaze held the controlled ferocity of a wildcat.
Such fierce scrutiny replicated in portrait after portrait overpowered my senses for a moment. I turned my back to gather my bearings, only to come back to the incessant pink of the foyer.
How in the devil did I come here?
That’s what I wondered as I encountered again the cavernous entry into the home of the most legendary Courtesan the Capital City had ever known. All I could think about was that afternoon when the Wanderer and I first stepped inside the Courtesan’s Casa.
The atrium had soaring ceilings with pale pink satin lining the walls, while mottled pink marble stretched along the floor and up the steps of the sweeping staircase in the middle. Maybe even the ceiling was pink. It was impossible to tell because the massive chandelier hanging in the space between the ceiling and the floor reflected pink everywhere. Hundreds of candles and thousands of crystal droplets married fire and ice when the tiny flames coupled with the glimmering teardrops, then flickered along the marble floor, the stairs, and the walls. Such a pairing had cast rosy radiance throughout the foyer to render everybody inside timeless and ageless.
The procession of servants and protégées lined up and waiting were the most gorgeous household I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe it when the men bowed! Even the strongmen actually bent at the waist, after they had pulled me and the Wanderer out of the rioting mob. They may have saved our lives! Yet here they were, bowing to us like royalty, while the women curtsied. The courtesan protégées made quite a vision as they fanned their sumptuous skirts. Even the most junior maids held their plain skirts wide. Their timing was impeccable. The Courtesan’s staff moved in flawless unison, but how could they have rehearsed that moment?
My friend, the Wanderer had enjoyed many grand adventures in his life. Yet his black eyes were wide in his face. He appeared as stunned as I with this spectacle. None of it seemed real, especially with the hard coldness of pink marble penetrating my boots to chill my feet.
Instead of gaining my balance, the glowing majesty of the entryway stirred the memory from that afternoon, which made me light-headed. I turned back to the paintings. This time, I found it easier to focus on the portraits lined along the wall north of the wide elegant staircase that cut a dramatic swathe in the center of the foyer.
The woman peered intently at the artist who had painted her. The loving attention to detail made me wonder if the artist had caressed his lover with each stroke of the brush. Carnality and lawlessness emanated from the Courtesan’s portraits. I could easily imagine a handsome, tormented soul painting with fevered intensity, a creator hopelessly in love with his libertine muse who would only cherish him in the moment. Perhaps they had made love in between sittings?
Before me were nine paintings displaying the glory of a legendary Courtesan in all the phases of her life. About five years must have passed in between each portrait. Her features matured and grew more defined with each painting, as she left the plump bloom of youth behind. Her body ripened to her prime, then past it; silver streaked her glossy black hair more and more in each portrait. Yet in all the paintings, her expression was much the same.
Those golden eyes sparkled with defiance and unrepentant joy. Her generous mouth curved in a knowing smirk. Had she anticipated her future audience when she posed for her portraits? Did she see past the artist, looking to those who would later gaze upon her? Her stare was relentless. She dared me to judge her, the scarlet woman who should have been an outcast. Instead, the joke was on the rigid and the proper. And the Courtesan knew it.
How in the devil did I end up here? What a day of madness this had been, I mused as I gaped at the sensuous portraits.
“So what do you think of my Vanity Gallery, darling Shepherd?”
Novel excerpt from “The Shepherd and the Courtesan,” a work-in-progress by Montgomery Mahaffey
©2019, All Rights Reserved.
Stephen King offered this pithy gem of advice in his fabulous book for scribes, “On Writing,” and he considered it crucial enough that he repeated “read a lot and write a lot” throughout the book. As much as I admire Mr. King for “On Writing,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” and the sheer mass of work he produced (I’m not a fan of horror), I have a slight tweak to add.
Read a lot, but read selectively. Write a lot.
The reason why is that I have found that whatever I’m reading affects the way I write. Although it probably affects character and plot development in ways that I’m not aware of, my biggest concern is the effect on the beauty and quality of the writing. In other words, if I’m indulging in a juicy piece of mind candy to escape from reality – and we all do it, chances are it’s not written in the gorgeous style of quality literary fiction. Chances are, the editing may not be that great either. But if the story is engaging, pulls me in, and I’m enjoying the read, I don’t care because I’m getting what I want out of it. However, I’m not thrilled when that less than high quality style of writing is coming from my fingers as I’m typing happily, especially if I’m in the 3rd or 4th rewrite. So it’s probably best to read the most sumptuous, lyrical, poetic prose I can get my hands on, especially while I’m in the later stages of rewriting, editing, and polishing.
I have found that what we read influences not just what we write, but how. This is especially true of the fiction we read while growing up. For instance, before I found my niche where I belonged, I tried my hand at writing a mystery. Why? Because I grew up reading Agatha Christie mysteries. I read all of them by the time I finished my teens. Between the pages of those deceptively simple tomes was a brilliant brainteaser of a Whodunit. Nobody did the Whodunit better than Agatha Christie. Nobody even came close. And the reason why is because it’s f***ing difficult. It wasn’t long before I found out that I sucked at writing mysteries in general, and the Whodonit in particular.
Yet there was no way I wasn’t influenced by Agatha Christie’s work. I read too much of her when I was young for any other outcome. How? What gift did I receive from the pages of those mystery novels I couldn’t write? Strict and obsessive attention to detail. From what I read, Agatha Christie didn’t neglect a single detail in her books, that’s why when the reader and the innocent characters in her stories finally got to Whodunit, every detail offered up was presented, including the details that she sneaked in. Not a single detail was wasted, whether it was to throw us off the path, or stacked to build a case for the murderer who had actually done it.
As a reader, I notice the abandonment of details - usually in subplot storylines that don’t conclude or even in the main story itself – and every time, I’m irritated with the sloppy, lazy writing and editing. I’m especially annoyed because those works actually got published. As a writer, I do my best to avoid that. Hopefully, I succeed in the goal of getting all stories and details to round out to a satisfying ending.
So those influences come out in sneaky and surprising ways.
Read a lot and write a lot. But be selective in your reading choices.
If you would like more of Mr. King’s pithy advice about writing, read his book, “On Writing.” In the meantime, here’s this blog: https://jerryjenkins.com/stephen-king-writing-advice/
“Artists are envied by millionaires.”
I don’t remember the book where I read this, but I do remember that claim and how gratifying it felt to read that. All flattery aside, this makes sense. Artists are creative and to be creative is to play God. Who wouldn’t envy that?
Personally speaking, I believe everybody is born with creativity. Yet few grow that quality or have that part of themselves nourished enough to have that creative strength throughout their lives.
Creativity is powerful. It is also overwhelming. Because I have found that a deep creative groove carves many paths, one detours to another, which then segues into another…and before one knows it, what was supposed to a straight road has become a labyrinth of various creative pursuits.
How heady is that? And how easy is it to get carried away and get lost and very possibly be left with a plethora of unfinished projects? Way too easy.
For example, I write original fables and fairy tales. I also enjoy the art of oral storytelling, my own stuff, as well as other people’s, and of course, the myths and folk tales from all over the world. Those two pursuits are very compatible, but I still have to stop writing to practice storytelling, even with my own stuff. Storytelling is not the same thing as reading from a book. It’s a performance, and that alone takes time and energy and repetition before a piece is polished enough to present to an audience. In other words, the path of writing segued into performance art.
When I was on the road with my collection of fables, I stopped in Santa Cruz for six months and came across flamenco dance. I even lived with my flamenco teacher and her husband for most of the time I was there, and was blessed to learn from excellent Gypsy teachers who came to California from Spain. Several months later, I wrote a lyrical piece, “Snowboarding for Flamencos” when I was torn between a flamenco workshop in Santa Cruz and the best snow season in SE Alaska where I lived at the time. Winter was intoxicating, and snowboarding won over flamenco. But the conflict was such that I wrote that piece and recorded, doing flamenco dance steps in a wide variety of footwear, including my snowboarding boots. So that is writing, spoken word, dance, and even music, because I made the cadences of my dance steps into as hypnotic a rhythm that would match the lyrics of “Snowboarding for Flamencos.” This short lyrical piece that was only two minutes long was doable, and very joyful when I finished it. I also used flamenco with another piece I wrote about an ecstatic experience I had on the Oregon Coast while on magic mushrooms. Again, performance art, choreography, dance, and live spoken word. That took at least 2 weeks for me to put together and practice, and if I did it again now, the rhythms would be different because I didn’t film or record it. Again, it’s doable. But I also fantasize about doing that as a book on tape for AN ENTIRE NOVEL. That would likely take a decade. That’s not doable.
So yes, creativity is overwhelming. But what a glory it is when all those segues and paths come together and something gorgeous is created!
That is the sweetest high ever!
“Fiction writers are strong in either plot or character - never both and each envies the other their talent.”
So said Margaret Grossman, my favorite writing teacher of all time. Her natural inclination was to write awesome, well-developed characters, the kind of people you’d want to sit down to coffee with and have long, intriguing conversations. But she struggled with finding things for these lovely characters to do.
My natural inclination is plot. I have absolutely no problem making stories up, with lots of plot points, twists, and turns. But it’s connection to the characters that keeps readers engaged with the plot, and I’m sad to say that my characters are often misunderstood and their development criticized. I struggle to flesh out fully actualized people in a fictional world - especially at that time when I worked with Margaret. I also think it’s peculiar, because I am always trying to figure out the psychology of people in the real world, and what makes us all tick. Perhaps all that amateur psychoanalysis has helped. Maybe I’ve improved since then, but criticism around character development is the most consistent when it comes to my writing. Perhaps that’s why I use archetypal types for my characters? Either way, I do the best I can, and sometimes that falls short. In my current novel, both the protagonists are telling their stories from 1st person “I.” I hope that will make a stronger connection between the readers and my characters.
Truth be told, I believe this weakness around character development is a pretty common problem with most indie authors. I haven’t made a formal study of it, but most indie authors whose work I’ve read have 1 dimensional characters as well.
I wish I could give some sage advice and how-to’s on how to write plot if you naturally write characters, but I’m one of those who doesn’t know how to teach something that comes very easily to me. When it comes to writing character, I say practice.
But another tool that may come in handy is to write up a character sheet describing each of your characters, and then add some of those details in your plot pages.
What does this character want?
What role does this character play?
Is this character sympathetic and trustworthy?
What is the primary struggle for this character in this story?
Feel free to add any more details that may help flesh out your characters into a person you’d want to hang out with or the kind of person you’d avoid at a party. It actually helps to list details of each and every character, no matter how minor they are. I don’t always do this exercise, but when I do, I find this tool helps bring characters to life.
And yes, as Margaret claimed, I do envy natural character writers their talent. But at least I have an exciting, juicy plot line to carry the day, and I’m sure some writer somewhere envies my ability to do that.
Yesterday I promised other random snippets - you know, impressions and stories that don't fit anywhere, but are good in and of themselves, but after the Pando story, it just didn't seem to fit. If you’d like to read letter before this one, click here.
Anyway here goes:
Hippie Belly Dancers in Shangri-la.
As I said, when I arrived at the Girdwood party in Kennicott, there was a drumming band playing and belly dancers gyrating. They seemed discombobulated though. Not all their troupe showed up and they were crowded amongst the ruins of a copper mine, and had difficultygetting it together, you know? It was cool and all that, but they were not in sync, within themselves or with each other.
Of course, I didn't know that until later, I just thought it was an amateur group having fun with their friends...
Later as the sun went down, and the "official" festival was over, the late-night band – Smooth Money Gesture - was setting up their stage down on the moraine - yes, as in glacier - because they agreed to be good neighbors and move the party away from the lodge - a drum circle started at one of the tents.
The festival was on a hill below an old lodge, which probably used to be part of the copper mine that was in operation in the area for a short time, and above the terminal moraine of a glacier. It's embarrassing, but I can't remember the name of it, but as this glacier cut through a few different valley, it carved so much silt, that it sat on top of it - three feet of it, so it looked like the surface of the moon. You could see rolling hills lines in reddish, yellowish, and grayish hues indicating that this soil came from different valleys. So that was the view.
The tent where this drum circle started up, was right on the edge of this moraine that looked like the end of the world - unless somebody told you, you'd never know there was an ancient glacier underneath. As two or three people started drumming, I left my dilapidated tent (I'd forgotten one pole - kind of a crisis when the tent requires two) to hang out there and sat on the ground, with everybody else. Before long one of the belly dancers came out of the tent. Instead of her skimpy top, she was wearing a lightweight white sweater with a hood, her long reddish brown hair flowing to her waist. As the music continued, she slowly started to dance, moving her shoulders and upper back in a wave as she spread her arms out and her hips joined in. A couple more people joined the drum circle, beating on plastic buckets, but strangely enough it worked. After a few more minutes, another dancer joined the first, and they synchronized beautifully as they shook their hips when the tempo was fast and circling their hands and fingers slowly above their heads when the tempo was slow. Then a third joined them, and those of us sitting down moved back as they danced in a circle, kicking up their legs and moving in concert. The fourth that joined them didn't have the space to dance, so she added to the beat of the music by shaking bells. The night was cloudy, but every so often the moon peaked through, illuminating the scene that was lit between twilight and darkness...Sitting on the ground, we were at the level of the music, while the dancers celebrated the life in their bodies above us - backlit by the night sky and whatever lamps were coming from the heart of camp. From the ground, they looked like goddesses, once I stood up to move around, they were ordinary women dancing with their friends. The spell was broken and I moved on.
It was only twenty minutes, but the magic of that time is forever etched in my mind.
Something tells me this is a good time to stop...
Feel free to drop me a line, y'all know I love to hear from you even when I am on my happy trails...
PS: This was from the DIY booktour/roadtrip I took in 2005/2006. Fortunately or unfortunately, my email journal to my friends was the record I kept of that time. I took NO PICTURES. So this image I used, although striking, has nothing to do with that night.
What part of writing do you resist the most? What is the least enjoyable? What do you put off until the last minute? For me, it’s setting. I used to hate writing setting. Most of my early pieces I naturally wrote in a void of the timeless and spaceless. Even as a reader, I’ve always found the description of place to be very boring. Setting slows down the pacing of action, and sometimes it seems to bring the story to a halt. If I had my way, the reader would simply fill in the setting details themselves without any help from me. And of course, setting has always been one of my weakest areas in writing. Perhaps that may be the clue as to why I’ve disliked it so much.
But it doesn’t work that way. A well-developed setting is needed for world-building, and not all readers share my tastes. Many readers savor the description of setting. They love it when a writer makes a place real for them whether it’s historical, fictional, or actual.
I remember the first time I wrote a setting piece that did my teacher proud. She said it was one of the best pieces on setting she’d ever read – which was a high compliment. In that particular piece, I wrote setting as a character. I wrote about the town I grew up in, a place that I hated from the point of view of its culture as a personality. So there was a lot of energy and even passion to what I wrote. It was cathartic and healing to make fun of my hometown through the written word. I would even say I enjoyed it.
Since then, I’ve been able to tackle setting in my stories with less reluctance and more willingness. I try to make the descriptions beautiful and sumptuous, and therefore more interesting to read. I also try to make the sense of time and place unique and fantastical. After all, this is a fantasy world I’m writing about, so make it beyond this ordinary world.
Yet it shouldn’t surprise anybody that the settings in my novel are nameless. The setting of the Ella Bandita stories is vaguely any country in pre-Industrial Europe, the implication that the country in question could be Italy or Spain or Portugal. Yet there are some scenes with winter and heavy snowfall – in the 3rd novel, snow and ice play a crucial part of creating a setting. So that could be the northern, Scandinavian countries. In other words, I make the setting to suit what I need in the novel, and I’m not going to restrict myself to one particular country, its history, or its limitations. It is also the part of my work that I focus on last, filling in the details as I rewrite.
I wish I had some strong words of wisdom on how to tackle those areas of resistance, those areas of weakness. The only advice I can give is to keep working on it, and perhaps take notes on writers who are strong in your areas of weakness.
Here’s a lovely blog by Jill Kemerer on her tips on strengthening weak areas of writing: https://jillkemerer.blogspot.com/2014/10/strengthening-weak-areas-in-your-writing.html
So how are some of the ways you handle an area of writing you don’t like or are even weak in? Writing setting as a character in one instance worked to open me up. Even if I still address setting last of all, I wouldn’t say that I hate to write it.
I used to think that procrastination was the biggest problem I had as a writer. But now I’ve come to realize that it’s my attention span. Perhaps procrastination is a side effect of ADD, or it’s simply a bad habit that happens to be very compatible with somebody who is distracted at the drop of a hat.
While I was growing up and through college, I timed my space outs really well, at points in the lecture where a story was being told or somebody asked a question. It never affected the information I gathered or my exam results. Of course, I took many breaks from studying and had the most epic conversations of my life on those breaks. But my grades always reflected my ability and the time I put into those courses. So no complaints.
Then smart phones came along and made me stupid. I’ve noticed in the not even 7 years I’ve had my smart phone and can surf the internet and check my email and Facebook whenever I want, that my attention span has plummeted. That nasty little tool makes it way too easy to get distracted from something that actually matters – like writing a novel. The hours of uninterrupted concentration I enjoyed with the collection of stories and my first novel, I don’t have that attention span for it now. And it has really freaked me out. Progress on the 2nd novel has gotten much slower.
But I’m still making progress.
So what to do?
Well, one really great habit to pick up is meditation. I stuck with it for 6 months, and that was when I finally picked up some steam with The Shepherd and the Courtesan/The Art of Taking Chances/the 2nd book in the Ella Bandita stories. My attention span increased and concentration became more effortless. However, I’ve let my meditation practice drop and I plan on picking it up again because it’s so good for me on so many levels.
But in the meantime, I haven’t dropped writing the novel with the drop in my meditation practice.
The one habit I’ve picked up recently is to actually work within the nature of my ADD. If I get distracted, I allow myself to venture off down another avenue, because I notice I get bored or irritated quickly when Facebooking, surfing the Internet, or a Netflix show. (Yes, I have Netflix on my phone. I’m such an addict.) When that happens, I go back to my piece and really don’t have too much trouble getting back in the groove. When I get distracted again, I started working on those short and sweet blogs, when I need a break from my novel or NetFlix or Facebook (which is not a satisfying pursuit anymore) or whatever else made me look for a squirrel. In fact, I found this habit the most practical, because I will go back to it.
And here I’ve written a lovely little blog on a break from my novel.
Piece of cake!
Fiction has changed a lot, and really, not necessarily for the better. My fiancée used to teach high school English, so she stayed current on YA fiction. She has a particular love for YA dystopian fiction, but she even read YA fiction she didn’t like to stay on top of what her students were reading. Like me, she loved to read her all her life. But I have given up on most contemporary fiction because I think most of it has gone down the toilet. She agrees, and insists that most of the great writing right now is happening in YA.
If I had to guess, I bet one of the reasons why is YA doesn’t cut out backstory.
I read voraciously when I was a kid. Growing up, I read mostly commercial junk and did not become actively interested in the classics until I was in college. But one thing most of my favorites novels had in common was that the backstory was a crucial part of developing the novel. Novels were often hundreds of pages long, and probably 100’s of 1000s of words. What made up all those pages and words? Quite a bit of it was the backstory. The backstory of each of the characters before they came to be a part of the main plot line was anything but shortchanged, usually described in great detail.
And these were great stories and I loved falling into those worlds.
The biggest mistake I made with my first novel of the Ella Bandita stories (Ella Bandita and the Wanderer) was cutting out so much backstory, and the reason why? Because I was trying to get traditionally published and all the agents and editors insisted on a word limit between 70,000 and 110,000 words. Sometime after the 80’s, novels became shorter and backstory was only a succinct mention, and in many cases all but disappeared. If the story is one that takes place in a short frame of time, that would work just fine more often than not. But where’s the space to fall into another world?
It certainly didn’t work for mine, and the criticism that is most often pointed out in reviews is the lack of backstory led to a lack of feeling connected or understanding of the main character. I know I should go back and rewrite it, add that backstory. But I simply can’t do it. I wrote and rewrote and cut out large chunks of that first novel so many times, I can’t bring myself to work on it anymore. There comes a point where one has to move on to the next book. Lesson learned, but ouch, that hurt.
So now I’m working on the 2nd novel in the Ella Bandita stories – working titles are: The Shepherd and the Courtesan or The Art of Taking Chances – and the Courtesan has a juicy backstory. Even if the transformation of an ugly peasant girl named Addie into the legendary Courtesan, Adrianna the Beautiful has nothing to little to do with the main plot, I’m writing it and it’s staying. Why? Because it’s good. Even if it makes the novel more expensive to print, it’s going in. Besides that’s the beauty of ebooks.
Maybe the glorious backstory can find its way back in to the pages of novels, now that printing may not be such an expense.
Since I don't have a common theme to play with today and there are lots of images I haven't found space to include, consider this the start of a rummage sale of moments, stories, and such that I've seen and heard while on the road.
But let's start with the god Pan, the avatar of drunken debauchery and profligate fucking from the pagan days when the worship of many gods for various purposes made sense and everybody was okay with that. Anyway, centuries later when the Word of the Lord was spreading far and wide and probably because Pan was the rock ‘n roll party god, he had the dubious distinction of his image becoming that of the Devil by over-zealous Christians who believed that the flavors of life should be only colored by shades of gray. In case you haven't figured it out, I am a blithering Tom Robbins fan, and “Jitterbug Perfume” gave the god Pan the respect he deserved, with a major, if not starring role, and the favorable impression stuck.
Why do I mention this now?
Because perhaps it’s possible that the god Pan had to go underground and reincarnate as various human beings to survive the attacks against him; and although he has lost a lot of power, his spirit still lives. And for some crazy damn reason, I'm convinced his current incarnation is in the form of Michael Pando, aka Pando to his friends. For those of you who know Pando, this statement makes total sense because he adores booze to the point of alcoholism and young girls barely into the phase of adulthood. Since he's lost god-status and invincibility, he is weakened by his passions for the party that doesn't stop and often winds up in jail. Everybody who knows Pando has a half dozen outrageous Pando stories to tell, which will become legend.
It is inevitable.
Love him or hate him, he is a character, but a character challenged by finding his good space in this world. He was chased out of Juneau due to a shoot out
with a psycho bum who had taken over the cabin Pando had built.
That kind of thing, you know.
This past summer, Pando had a touristic rafting job with an anal company - which seems to be the case with many touristic companies in Alaska, you know. Anyway, being himself, Pando got drunk one night and stole a golf cart - buck nekkid - and had security chasing him. To disguise himself, he put a box over his head and hightailed it to safety.
Thus he became known throughout this camp as "Box Man." Every so often, during the summer, Box Man would make a naked public appearance streaking through at the most random moments and it wasn't long before he became legend, and the best part was that nobody knew it was him. One day, he was talking to some dude from some other country and the guy said with a thick
accent, "Box Man, I think he like Zorro. Box man, he come for de peeple."
Can you imagine hearing something like that about yourself?
Eventually, Pando got booted out due to failing a surprise piss test – he also liked to smoke weed. Well, he had to make a spectacular exit, didn't he? His people would expect it of Box Man.
So one night, when everybody was at dinner, including all the bosses, Box Man makes his final appearance, nakedly running in with a box over him. He stops, strips the box away and stands there with his bare ass and cock, unmasked for all to see before streaking away and packing up his shit to go.
Pando may have even been sober.
Since I've only heard about this through the grapevine, I may not have all the details straight. But what the hell, it makes a good story. And when I showed this to Pando, he seemed more than a little flattered.
The god Pan keeping the spirit alive - what do y'all think?
PS This is from the DIY booktour/roadtrip I did in 2005-2006 when marijuana was still illegal everywhere. This is one of my favorite stories from that road trip. Although I did not experience it directly, I knew Pando, and Joe told me this story at the Blackburn Music Festival in Kennicott/McCarthy. I would later have a challenging night crashing in a squatters treehouse in Girdword with both Pando and Joe, while they were drunk and I was sober. Good times.
I love sex. Sex is sacred and sexuality is an endlessly fascinating subject. What drives us to our turn ons, our attractions, and how those change over time are mysteries that I’ve determined can never fully be solved. So needless, to say, when it comes to writing about sexuality and going into the details of a sex scene, I treat that with reverence because truth be told, writing about sex intimidates the hell out of me.
One might think I’m an exhibitionist from the sex scenes I write, but the truth is I’m very shy. My partner would tell you that I’m very reticent when it comes to talking about sex. So, it is really hard for me to write those intimate scenes in detail. I rewrite those the most often and those few pages take me the most time. But when I finally get those scenes down in a way that I believe that the sex is hot and the writing is beautiful, it is the best feeling ever. In “Ella Bandita and the Wanderer,” there are only 2 sex scenes and only 1 that goes into fine detail. It took me forever to get that scene to where I liked it, but I take the most pride in those several pages out of almost 300, because those were the most terrifying to write.
I’m working on the second novel in the Ella Bandita stories, and this one is much heavier on the sex scenes than the one that came before it. So that intimidation is with me all the time, as well as that challenge that I have to meet over and over again.
Given that I write erotic scenes in my novels, how odd is it that I don’t find most erotica erotic? Strangely enough, it may be because more often than not, the only point of the story is sex. But there’s no story of the characters and the mating dance between them. Without the psychological foreplay their motivations, demons, pain, willingness, obsession, reluctance, resistance, what they hope for, what they are willing to risk, how can there be anything at stake for the characters in a sex scene that happens? I find the sex scenes of most erotic short stories tedious, even silly more often than not. There’s nothing at stake for me between two imaginary friends that on the pages simply to get laid and for the reader to play the role of voyeur in a peep show.
I mean no disrespect to the writers and readers of these short and sweet erotic short stories. Erotica has its fans. But without a story before, during, and after the sex scene, I just can’t get into it.
Casanova allegedly said that the most satisfying part of a seduction for him was walking up the stairs to the lady’s bedroom. I think it’s interesting that history’s most legendary seducer said that. It wasn’t the act of sex that had his blood pumping. It was the anticipation of sex.
So if this was the opinion of the most celebrated rogue of all time, I ask myself how can a sex scene be truly erotic without any kind of story leading up to it?
As I said before, all this is on my mind because I’m working on the second novel in the Ella Bandita stories and there are many sex scenes. Happy reading everybody - that is when the time comes to release the 2nd novel. ;)
I think the biggest mistake I’ve made in my writing career is listening to others and believing their feedback was more important and valuable than my inner calling. This was especially true when it came to self-publishing. The year that I was on the road, I started to get a glimpse of the possibility of self-publishing as a path. This was in 2005, before ebooks existed, blogging was in its infancy stages, and everybody in the writing world advised me – no matter what – to avoid telling agents and editors that I had self-published this collection of stories. They would automatically assume that I was a hack if I did that. I hadn’t even gone to what was called a Vanity Press at that time. I had gone to a printer and my order was unique. The sales rep was quite intrigued with what I was doing.
That year, I got the idea of a collective of self-published writers who banded together to promote their work and each other? But when I mentioned it to others, a couple of ‘friends’ who were not writers told me that was redundant, that it had already been done, and there was no point in reinventing the wheel. One directed me to some writers’ house in Seattle, where none of the authors were self-published, and I heard that advice yet again to not divulge that I had self-published a book from somebody who was very involved in that community. She was very nice and understanding about it.
“They just don’t understand the need people have to experience the satisfaction of seeing your work in book form,” she said.
Looking back less than 15 years later, isn’t it so obvious what a mistake I made to listen to all those who thought they knew better, but didn’t. Since then, many authors have enjoyed a lot of success in the DIY arena and I could have been one of them. The internet, Kindle, and ebooks have changed everything. If I had followed my instincts, instead of listening to others, I may have started at the beginning of the wave as it started to climb and enjoyed the sweetness of the crest and fall.
So what’s the moral of the story? Trust yourself. Even if you screw up, there’s a peace of mind to screwing up on your own ideas, rather than screwing up because of somebody else’s.
In Anchorage with a lull in my book tour schedule - next round of dates not until September 12th and way out of cashola, thank god for the credit card.
Joe was lured by the promise of a fishing job in Valdez and he stayed while I drove on to McCarthy, and by some miracle, did not get flattened by the road leading to Hippie Shangri-la, the same road that just happens to be hell on tires since it's rocky dirt road built over old train tracks - nice! Just before the end of the road, I was tempted by the lure of full-service cabins with VACANCY sign. Pulled in and charged two nights for a yuppie cabin in the middle of nowhere - I mean, laminate floors in McCarthy! Andy, the keeper of the cabins, was very friendly and gave me three eggs, freshly laid, with some bread and butter for breakfast the next day, along with coffee. I figured what the hell? This is a business trip, I can write the whole thing off, treat myself to a comfortable bed, a big tub and lots of privacy after three weeks of camping, crashing on couches, and sleeping in the Brown Beast, which is hanging in there I'm happy to say.
The next day, I went across the bridge and walked to McCarthy, where I found out that the festival was in Kennicott - five miles away. There was irregular bus service, but the “contents were changing the world.” In other words, this bus in remote Alaska ran on peanut oil.
Layton and Sharmon, a couple from Soldotna, were on the bus with me. They were stocking up on beer and camping equipment, and when I said I was in work mode, Layton asked if I was a writer. I said yes, how did you know? And he said, you gotta be. He was a writer for the Clarion, a local paper on Kenai, and after telling him my story, he bought a book and assured me that of course I would sell all 20 as the bus running on peanut oil deposited us at the festival grounds in Kennicott.
I got off the bus and looked around; then I went into shock as the weight of 20 books in my pack settled on my back.
There were about sixty tents set up in a gravel parking lot with the ruins of the Kennicott copper mine and the Kennicott Lodge perched on the hill above us. Abandoned mining gear was laying everywhere in its rusting glory and a homemade stage was set up practically in the bushes. There were belly dancers undulating wherever they could find space amongst the rusting forgotten equipment, and people hanging out wherever they could find space.
Just beyond this scene looked like the other side of the moon, terminal moraine that's too cold to progress to the beginnings of forest because glacier ice is 3 feet underneath it - but just thick enough to cover the glacier, in uniform lines of silt in earthy tones of grey, beige, red, depending on which valley the glacier was carving through.
I looked at the homegrown festival - that was free, of course - and my vision of a big field with a variety of vendors was dashed. I muttered to the bus driver that this was not what I expected.
"Well, what did you expect?" he quipped. I’m sure he was as amused as he looked.
"I don't know, but it wasn't this."
Recognizing faces of people that I didn't know very well, I had the feeling I was at a Girdwood party in Kennicott and that this was not the right venue to be selling books. A gal named Valerie confirmed that suspicion a few hours later when she told me that she and her boyfriend were also promoting a book, "Wild Animus," written by an eccentric gazillionaire from Colorado, that wanted people to read his book so much, he was hiring promoters in every state to give his book away. Last year, they had given away over 2000 books and this year they were handing out CD's with him reading enticing segments of the book, so people would actually read it.
"Is it any good?" I asked her.
"It's a piece of shit," she said. "It totally sucks."
This was definitely not the venue for what I had in mind.
If you can't fight em, join them. I decided to just enjoy the party and hitched a ride by motorcycle back to the bridge and got my stuff out of the yuppie cabin I wouldn't be sleeping in that night, and got my camping gear for the party that went on until the wee hours of the morning...
That's all for now. Thanks for reading.
PS This experience was one of my most cherished experiences from that year on the road. It was proof that one does not take a journey. A journey takes you!
PS This was one of the most epic experiences I had from the DIY booktour roadtrip I did in 2005-2006.
I love storytelling. I grew up with it, and when I found my ‘writer’s voice,’ it was in the form of the oral art of telling a story with simple language and basic tools. I used to throw Story Circles where everybody had to share a story, and it was pretty awesome to discover what people came up with, especially those who were shy or very left-brained.
So I use storytelling to promote my work. I have for years. All of my blast from the past blogs are from that year I was on the road, telling stories and selling a book of original fairy tales out of my truck. I was living new stories as I was selling the ones I’d made up. It was an amazing year, one of the hardest and most exciting of my life, when I was fully out of my comfort zone. And I sold most of my books during that time, and met a lot of intriguing and open-minded people. Had some good adventures, each one unique in and of itself. I still use storytelling as a method of getting my work out there, and eventually, I will start a podcast. I go to open mics, and of course, I prefer the ones that allow 10-15 minutes, and 20 minutes are a dream come true. But most of them have become 5-minute open mics and I’m not a fan of those. I get it that the emcee wants as many people as possible to have their chance, but that’s just not enough time for anybody.
My most recent open mic in Portland, I read my first sex scene to a room full of strangers. Given that this particular Open Mic is around sexuality, that was the right venue and the right audience of a sex positive crowd. It’s a way for people to find out who I am and I still sell most of my books this way.
But nothing beats a space I created and a vibe that I have some control over, as well as much time as I care to give the stories I share. So Tea & Tales is my favorite. I have 2 more before the sun gets high in the sky and the people get restless for being outside. At my next Tea & Tales, I’m telling an excerpt out of my novel, Ella Bandita and the Wanderer, as well as the Tlingit tale of How Raven Ruined Crow’s Voice. I don’t think that’s the official title, but it’s how I remember it. If anybody reading this is in the Portland, Oregon area and would like to attend, drop a comment and I’ll give you the Facebook event page with the info. It’s on April 7th.
I’m not a fan of blogging. Isn’t this obvious given how long it has been since my last entry? It didn’t help that advice I received suggested the blog needed to be 1000-2000 words for SEO. Perhaps that is true, and perhaps it is not. I don’t think that makes a lot of sense for an author, because I’d much rather spend that time crafting a piece that is part of a much longer work – like my novel – rather than something that I do to promote my social media presence. This also doesn’t make sense to me because when I’m surfing the internet and come across blogs, I prefer them to be short and sweet. The ones that are longer and more detailed, I find tedious and usually stop reading after a couple of minutes unless the piece is really gripping.
I resent and resist this juggling act between creativity, promotion, and I drop a lot of balls.
Then I came across Seth Godin. This is a man who has written oodles of books and blogs EVERY DAMN DAY. Granted, he writes from a non-fiction entrepreneurial POV and I write fiction, fantasy that is rooted in archetypes and fairy tales. But he still has much to say that I need to learn about, so I finally checked out his blog.
Imagine my delight and surprise when I found that most of his blogs that I found are under 500 words. Within in those pithy pieces of brevity, there was plenty of sound advice and I didn’t have to spend twenty minutes absorbing his knowledge. He probably doesn’t need SEO like I do because he’s Seth Godin and I’m not an established name like he, but it made me stop and think that perhaps short and sweet pieces done quickly and more often might work more than having to spend more time on a longer article than I want to.
Like this blog. Less than 400 words. Perhaps you stopped reading after the first paragraph. But if you kept going, I didn’t demand much of your time and attention, now, did I?
In Anchorage to give the Brown Beast the medical care he deserves. Apparently, the BB has many leaking wounds, but according to the doctors, if I keep giving him transfusions on a regular basis, the BB should be good to go, for a long time...how about that?
Joe has joined the tour for the rest of the summer and he's set a goal to sell all the books in my truck. It is definitely more empowering to be a team of plural than a mission of singular, and the books are definitely selling. At Chair Five in Girdwood, I had people following me to the bathroom to buy a book - yippee!!! It is so much easier to have somebody else promoting me as a dreamer who is trying to manifest fantasy into reality. When I do it, I sound like a geek. At least for the next month, I don't have to endure the surface polite nods of those who can smell blood, while underneath the kitty sharpens its claws...okay, so I'm blowing things out of proportion.
Done with the Kenai Peninsula, and manana we're heading to McCarthy for the Blackburn Music Festival where we'll lay out a blanket and sell books. Heard good things about this festival, so it should be good, and then we'll be heading up north - we may even go to Prudhoe Bay just so we can say we did because I doubt a bunch of republican oil-drillers will be into fairy tales featuring my heart-eating seductress, but you never know. Then we'll be meandering on down to Fairbanks, and then...who knows.
Joe asked the I Ching a couple of questions...about chicks of course. And one said the great departs and the small approaches - after he made the decision to not spread himself thin to go see a gal on the other side of the world and the other was "The Marrying Maiden" with "The Arousing, Thunder" as the upper trigram, and "The Joyous, Lake" as the lower. Since that girl already compared him to a flower, because he's "sweet," that made Joe's day. He's been referring to himself as "I am the Arousing Thunder" ever since. And he's totally sold on the I Ching.
It's like traveling with my kid brother.
Anyway, my journal list is starting to get bloated, so I have a request of everybody...if you would like to keep hearing of what's going on, drop me a line and let me know one way or the other. If I hear nothing by the end of the month, I'll assume the answer is not and you're too considerate or too chicken to say so.
Anyway, hope all is well...
PS This is the 5th email I sent to my friends of what are now some cherished memories of my DIY booktour/roadtrip in Alaska in the summer and fall of 2005. It was literally called “I don’t know what to call this one; this is the fifth email.”