How did it get so late so soon?

Courtesy Debug Design

Courtesy Debug Design

Helga’s Post # 27 — “It’s night before it’s afternoon. My goodness how the time has flown.” So said our beloved Dr. Seuss.

As the weather and by extension people’s moods improve day by day, so does the volume of junk mail fluttering into our mailboxes. Most notably, glossy catalogues about the new spring and summer fashion, and lovely outdoor furniture adorned with sexy models that can’t be more than sixteen years old (don’t these marketing gurus realize that women make most of the buying decisions?)

I usually take the whole lot and dump it unopened or unread in my yellow recycling bag. I do this because I want to buck the trend. According to statistics, the average person (in North America) spends eight months of his or her life reading junk mail. Smack me on the head! Eight months?

Eight months that could be spent writing a novel. A reasonable time to complete a solid, four hundred-page novel.

But that’s just the beginning. How else do we fritter away our most valuable commodity, time? How many sequels could we write if we transform said squandered time into writing? Here are some examples. Trivia to be sure, but a tongue-in-cheek eye-opener all the same.

The average person spends, in his or her lifetime, three years in meetings, over one thousand sick days in bed, seventeen months drinking coffee and soft drinks, two years on the phone (I would argue that is very conservative; think ‘teens’), twelve years watching TV, three years shopping, one year looking for misplaced items, five years waiting in line, an infuriating twenty weeks on hold waiting to speak to a human in call centers, and nine months sitting in traffic.

Time we could spend writing! Not all of it avoidable, like being sick, but without doubt the TV and phone time is something we do have a modicum of control over.

So I’ve been thinking how I could harness some of this wasted time. To confess, one of my many bad habits is pushing the ‘On’ button of the remote after waking up. Just to catch the news. Time managers would tell me to stop that. By the time I am done with the headlines, I will have watched at least twenty minutes of commercials. Not good. Most is trivial anyway – really, do I need to know what Justin Bieber is doing? Or what professional athlete got arrested?

Changes were in order. I now get out of bed without news on TV (I can catch those later in the evening). Thirty minutes saved every day just by getting rid of one bad habit. That’s a lot of writing time.

On to the next time waster, one that many writers can identify with: E-mails.

Since this post is about how to waste less time, I don’t want to waste more time stating the obvious. Instead, here is what to do to stop this colossal squander: Pushing the ‘Unsubscribe’ button. Relentlessly. Who really needs all this electronic junk mail? I managed to live very well without it cluttering my in-box, so why bother with special offers on anything from… well, you know, the sky is the limit. So if anyone claims they can’t find time to write because they get many hundreds of emails per day, it’s tempting to say, get a handle on it. I realize, emails are a great tool for people who are making a living in a marketing job, but the rest of us? Control it. Don’t be a slave to your own in-box.

Because that’s time you could spend writing!

But wait, there’s more. Of course there’s Angry Birds, a no-brainer. Moving on, there’s one huge item that time managers of the not so recent past have ignored, but are catching on fast and furiously. You probably guessed it: social media.

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I can’t even begin to guess how much time gets frittered away  starting the day checking Facebook and Twitter, and LinkedIn and whatever. Substantial, valuable time and mental energy. Sure, it’s tempting, it’s like listening to gossip, and it has all those pretty pictures. But really, let’s be honest. How much does it add to our education, our knowledge, our quality of life? Surely, that time would be better spent reading a good book, or doing research for the novel we are writing? I’m not saying social media has no value. It does. It allows us to share information with lightning speed and it builds communities. It has many benefits, worthy of future discussions. But for the purpose of this post, all I want to share is that I had to control it rather than allowing it to control me. I hope that I have succeeded (I  check my FB and Twitter just before bedtime. That way it  doesn’t rob me of my writing time).

If, after all the ‘wasters’ there’s still time left in the day, you haven’t counted the minutes spent on your cell phone. You can find an astounding statement on WikiAnswers.com: Four. Not minutes. The average person spends four hours a day on their cell phone (admittedly, it sounds improbable).

There is tons of advice on how to avoid time wasters. One such site that caught my eye as I prepared for this post is Inc.com.  Three items resonated with me:

–       You live online. Wasting time on Facebook. Playing with apps. Emailing and texting.

–       You network randomly. Relationships are critical to success. Networking and schmoozing are key to forming relationships. But randomly connecting with thousands of strangers online won’t help one bit.

–       You troll for Twitter followers. If you’re Ashton Kutcher or Kim Kardashian, that’s great. Otherwise, it’s nothing but a distraction–a complete and total waste of time.

Not everyone will agree.

What does all of this mean for my commitment to submit my completed manuscript to my critique group in time for our retreat? I had to seriously prune my time wasting habits to make the most of what matters most to me.  If I can stick to it, I should be able to harness my energy and a good chunk of time to spend on what’s important to me. For what I am. A writer.

Then again, I have to ask myself, whom do I write for? Because here is one more (my final) statistic: The average American adult between eighteen and sixty-four watches television five times more than they read.

A sobering thought. And while I think about it, I will take out a few minutes on my favorite time waster. Because, in spite of all the wisdom stated above, as John Lennon used to say,

“Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted.”

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A book critique

Joe’s Post #28 — Without a doubt, this retreat critique will be the most challenging one we’ve ever done. We’ll be looking at a whole book and that’s quite a lot to look at, read through, critique, comment on, then, at least in my case, remember what you’ve just done. In the past, we’ve done 30 pages a time. Pretty easy to get to everyone in a time span from about coffee cake time to high-tea snack time.

A whole novel, though. 400-500 pages. In 8 hours. Wow. That’s an undertaking.

So here’s a few things we’ve learned from all our critique sessions.  The first part will be this week. The second part, next week.

First up.

IMG_11951) Breaks are important. It may seem like it’s a good idea to power through the time together and pound out critique after critique after critique, but the truth is, the longer we go, the more rushed we become and that does a disservice to the writer. So we’ll have to find a way to break up the whole day with yummy and somewhat fattening foods, maybe a wee walk, and certainly lots of coffee. As well, we’ll have to set up a space for the critiquing and when we’re on a break, we’ll need to walk away from that space. If we can manage that, IF, then every writer should be able to get maximum value from the session.

2) We can’t get distracted. Oh, boy. Can we get distracted. Often many fascinating topics come in the submissions. Talking about Hawaii before the attack on Pearl Harbour. France in the 1970s. Bridge construction. French memories of the construction of a bridge in Hawaii. And then there’s the writing subjects like voice and grammar and outlining and character arcs and sagging middles and the overuse of the word ‘and’ in some sentences. Oh, yes, we are a well-read and opinionated group and that makes for a huge distraction pitfall. If we give in to our intellectual temptations and wander into the wilderness of cool ideas and interesting topics, we’re doomed. So, this time, one of the worst gabby sinners will be moderating the discussion to make sure we stay focused. Me. God help us.

3) Don’t Dig Too Deep. When we’re looking at 30 pages, it’s easy to take time to mention the odd wrong word choice, or verb tenses or dropped punctuation or when a character entered a room wearing a red shirt that says, spank me and no one in the room comments, but we won’t have time for that. It’ll be a whole different level of critiquing. Not ‘in the trenches’ but ‘flying high above them’. It’ll be hard. I’ll want to comment on that red shirt, I will. It’ll be like a need to scratch something I shouldn’t scratch in public. The temptation will be there, especially if I think I can make a funny comment and I want everyone to hear it. But I’ll be strong. We’ll focus on what makes a good story. Character. Setting. Plot.

And that’s for starters. Next week, the other, even more difficult things.

As for me, since I’ve written the novel that everyone will be looking at, I’m going to get my head out of my ass and refocus as well. Queries, boys and girls, queries. Yesterday, I finished hammering out a 1 page synopsis. Damn that was hard. I kept thinking, oh but what about this character and that scene and this plot twist and that cool them? I simply couldn’t keep them all. But I got it done.

Today I sat down and found a few more agents.

Goal for next week. 10 queries. Easy, right?

The crucible

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Paula’s Post #28

crucible

Pronunciation: /ˈkruːsɪb(ə)l/
Definition of crucible

noun

  • a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures:the crucible tipped and the mould filled with liquid metal
  • a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new:their relationship was forged in the crucible of war
What do you think of when you hear the word ‘crucible’?For me, Arthur Miller’s Tony award winning play about the Salem witch trials immediately springs to mind. Miller apparently wrote the play out of concern for the over-zealous persecution of alleged communists by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, the play his allegorical response to the mass hysteria spreading like a cancer through post-WW II America.

But this week, Silk’s post, Out of the Frying Pan… reminded me that “The Crucible” is also a pretty apt metaphor for our upcoming, marathon critique group session. Silk’s deliberate use of that deliciously trite idiom was intended to alert our followers to the fact that we’re entering a new phase, that we’re about to move from ‘the frying pan into the fire’.

Open a window, baby, someone just turned up the heat!

Some think us mad to have embarked on this crazy five month challenge in the first place. But hey, in retrospect, the ‘writing’  was the easy part, a mere prelude of what’s to come. The curtain has closed on ‘Act One’ and we’re about to embark on ‘Act Two’, or what I’ve fondly started to refer to as ‘The Crucible’.

Crucible or Cauldron. A week long, marathon critique session where each of us will attempt – and I use that word deliberately – to provide in-depth, kind but constructive criticism to the other four members of our group.

Tempers may flare, anger may simmer, blood may boil, but none will escape… the crucible. For days on end, we 5writers will be trapped in some little room together, like chickens and potatoes, stewing in a cauldron.

But this time, not just any ‘little room’ will do.

Since our critique group was formed, except for a few meetings in coffee shops or at the occasional bar, we’ve more or less taken turns ‘hosting’ the group at each of our homes. Our typical monthly critique group meeting invariably starts with a lot of coffee and a flutter of nervous anticipation. We then progress to a round robin critique session punctuated by a lot of coffee and more flutters of nervous anticipation. By mid-day, when nerves are starting to fray, we break for lunch and bruised egos are soothed and balm applied in the form of more coffee and, at least on those lucky occasions when we visit Helga’s house, a sumptuous meal.  Bread broken, fuelled by more coffee, we continue with critiques into late afternoon until, glassy eyed and exhausted, we bid farewell to one another for another month and crawl back to our writers’ dens, licking our wounds.

But not this time.

This time, we needed a special venue for what we anticipate may be a full week of mind-numbing meetings. A place where we can all be together, sans family, sans friends, sans distractions. A place where we can crawl back to our respective dens at the end of each day and shed a tear or two in private. A place that offers opportunities for both togetherness, and solitude. A place from which there is no escape.

But where?

We’re writers, se we have no shortage of ideas. Time and money? Maybe not so much. Clearly compromise may be required.

Right now, the three leading contenders for our mid-June meeting are:

1) Death Valley:

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Okay, not Death Valley exactly, but pretty damn close. To some, the California Desert may seem the perfect choice for our ‘crucible’ or ‘cauldron’.  At least outside. But sadly, it looks like five airfares south, even at that time of year, may proving prohibitively expensive, so we may need to look elsewhere for our ‘crucible’ or ‘cauldron’. Somewhere we don’t need to fly.

2) Baked Alaska:

What could be better than an Alaskan cruise? Chilly weather, attentive stewards, abundant food and drink and hundreds of ‘characters’ to study while enjoying scenic wonders. Since we’re based in British Columbia, we don’t even need to fly anywhere, we can travel round trip Vancouver-to-Vancouver. Best of all, when things get too hot, all we need to do is open a window. So we’re all kind of loving the idea of a week on a cruise ship. But wait! What about the very necessary ‘den’ to crawl back to? Hmm…. when subjected to closer scrutiny, the spectre of the dreaded ‘Single Supplement’, makes this option highly unlikely. How can one retreat to one’s den when the lion, tiger or bear who inflicted one’s wounds is sharing one’s cave?

3) Snowbound:

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Admittedly, we’re not scheduled to hold our marathon retreat until mid-June, so maybe there won’t be any snow left, but when my colleagues came up with the idea of a remote ski chalet in the woods up at Whistler Mountain… call me crazy but Stephen King’s The Shining did spring to mind. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m starting to feel the hairs prickle on the back of my neck. Don’t you know how many murders take place in remote, snowbound cabins?

Let’s face it, pick any of the three suggested venues and dear departed Agatha Christie, the Grand Dame of mystery fiction, would have kittens at the very thought of so many delicious plot possibilities: five tortured, desperate writers trapped together in…

…the desert/a cruise ship/a remote cabin in the woods…

…from where there is…

….no escape.

Fans of Agatha Christie know how much she loved ‘locked room’ scenarios. Exotic settings that carefully limited the number of suspects by confining her characters on the same country estate, or on a ship or a train. A clever device that allows the reader the opportunity to ‘play detective’ to ferret out the murderer from a cast of known suspects and ‘solve’ the crime.

So, what ‘locked room’ would you want to be trapped in for a week with 5writers?

Out of the frying pan …

iStock Photo licensed image

iStock Photo licensed image

Silk’s Post #28 — You know what comes next in that old saw. That’s the beauty and the curse of clichés: They’re useful shorthand for things commonly experienced, and therefore instantly understood. But because they’re so familiar, so normalized, so predictable, they’re like the cold, dead planets of literature – all the heat sucked out of them, devoid of life.

My mission in this post is to re-animate, in gut-wrenching detail, the second half of that old nostrum. And explain what it has to do with the 5writers5novels5months challenge.

Because we’re definitely into the fire now.

Let’s switch to a somewhat more evolved device in the writer’s tool kit and replace cliché with metaphor: the shift from our initial 5 month frenzy of first-draft writing to the next phase of reviewing and rewriting is like travelling from a hot, steamy, fertile jungle of a planet to one that’s burning under a relentless sun, where every warty pebble is starkly illuminated by the harsh light of critique.

Aaaargh, cough, cough. Too. Hot. Can’t. Breathe. [Brief delay, scrambling noises]. Gulp. Whew, that’s better. I just had to go get myself a glass of water.

Last Friday, the 5 writers met in person for the first time since we embarked on our (for us) epic challenge on September 5, 2012. We hugged. We chattered. We toasted ourselves with a bit of bubbly. And then we re-oriented and plotted the renewed course of our shared writer’s journey.

The easy part is over.

Easy? It certainly didn’t feel easy. In fact, as the self-admitted Tortoise of the group (and you can hold the Tortoise jokes, thank you), I’m still busy catching up. With new zeal, mind you, and a new drop-dead deadline of May 15. But the first draft stage – Act I if you will –  is the part of the journey when you can let your creativity run free and everything seems possible. You’re writing a book!  It’s work, but it’s fun. It overheats your brain, but it’s liberating. And at the end of it, you have this beautiful thing – your story, your creation.

The end of our Act I came February 5, 2013. And, yes, we took a fairly generous intermission. But now it’s time for Act II, where we subject our newborn stories to judgement. And even though our first critics, our fellow 5 writers, are a friendly and supportive audience, we’re committed to helping each other actually get published. That means some hard truth telling is in our near future, here on the Fire Planet.

Our come-to-Jesus meeting (or substitute the saviour of your choice) will take place near the end of June, in a venue yet to be chosen. No place too distractingly recreational, yet no place too familiar. No place our respective partners would be jealous about not being invited to. No place too luxurious, yet no place too cramped or spartan for at least a modicum of comfort. We’ll need it. We have work to do.

This is where a great writers group really proves its value. It takes a lot of trust to give, and take, criticism. As a group, we’ve embarked on this journey as companions with a common destination. In addition to our individual aims and ambitions, we also share the goal of helping each other succeed. We walk the fine line of encouragement versus criticism, teaching ourselves to be good teachers. In the process, the teachers learn a lot about themselves and the strengths and weaknesses in their own work.

But we don’t pander to each other. We don’t let precarious plot structures teeter without insisting on renovations. We don’t allow clichés to stand, or beginnings to stumble, or sub-plots to remain unresolved, or adverbs to run rampant, or middles to sag, or characters to lose their way, or endings to disappoint. So even when delivered in the most supportive of terms, this process is still a trial by fire – make no mistake.

All criticism is personal. And it’s not valuable if it isn’t genuine. If you want to forge a great book, you need to learn to stand the heat. Uncritical feedback, the kind you might get from a non-writing friend or relative who’s wowed by the fact that you actually wrote a whole book (and knows how much sweat you put into it), is a wonderful ego boost. But it doesn’t help prepare you for the next (and even hotter) circle of hell: the criticism of the agent or publisher, which most often comes in the form of a rejection letter. No critique. No rewrite advice. No hints as to why your manuscript is, in their opinion, not worthy of publication.

And if you do pass through that fire, you get to submit your work to the ultimate critic: the reader, and that particular kind of armed-and-dangerous reader called the book reviewer.

Because the publishing business is a pass-fail system. You get published, or you don’t. (Or you self-publish, which is a whole topic for another far-off day). And if you don’t get published, the only thing to do is tuck that manuscript into a drawer and let it cool off, then get started on a new one. If being a “writer” is your calling, the curtain has to go up on Act I all over again.

Back to the frying pan on that cosmic stove.

When the 5 writers began this journey and launched this blog, we were totally focused on the challenge of trying to get a book written in 5 months. Clearly, that was just the beginning. Our challenge continues. We’ve now refocused and recommitted to the next phase of that journey, and we hope you’ll stick with us as we jump out of the frying pan and into the fire (last cliché, I promise).

On to glory. We hope.

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© 2013, 5 writers image

Bending the truth – just a little

Helga’s Post #26 — A fresh wind blew across our blog yesterday, just in time for the first day of spring.

A story! Not advice to up-and-coming scribes (guilty as charged), not a ‘Dear diary’ post or navel-gazing exercise, but a real blue-blood story. What a novel idea, writing an actual story on a writers’ blog! Thanks, Joe, for doing this. I will follow in your footsteps.

Now I am not saying that our previous posts deserve the dung heap. To the contrary. Collectively, our 130 or so posts make a pretty good read. And we did have a sprinkle of real-life stories buried between a plethora of musings and morsels of wisdom. Really, why not post the occasional story (as different from ‘story’). After all, storytelling is what we do, if not for a living, then at least for the sheer love of it.

I for one welcome the opportunity to write the odd ‘short-short’ story. A little reprieve from writing a novel where every detail has to be right, where inaccuracies are not permitted.

So here’s a little anecdote I want to share. (It’s brief, because today is a busy and important one for our group: We are meeting for the first time in the five months since we embarked on our online writing challenge.)

The Dunk

Most of us are known to go to great lengths to avoid embarrassment. Even if it means tilting the truth to help preserve our respectability. And as a result, often the best-laid plans backfire.

That happened to me a few months ago while reading Fifty Shades Darker.

Fifty-Shades-DarkerI ended a busy day with a late night bubble bath, my favorite place for reading. An appropriate venue for the title, and a treat to reward myself for whatever I thought were my achievements of the day. It had been a challenging day, so I also needed a glass of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, a great combo with the book and bubbles.

So far so good. Only two minor problems. First, I dropped Fifty Shades in the tub when I fell asleep for just a second. Yes, it sounds unlikely given the topic, but I did. Secondly, the book wasn’t mine, but property of none other than the West Vancouver Memorial Library. I woke the moment I dropped the book and fished it out of the water immediately, but anyone who has ever dunked one, knows the results.

Four hundred sodden pages. I put it overnight on a heating register. Next day, I ironed them, to no avail. The book quadrupled in thickness, pages damp and swollen. What to do?

When desperate, think outside of the box. Put on your thinking hat. Brilliant, whoever coined those phrases. A few years back, I had to do some tests to determine if I had what it takes for a senior level management job. One of the questions, to determine creativity, was “How many uses can you think of for a brick?”

Forty. Yes, there are forty. I only got to about thirty, still a good score. Admittedly, some were pretty exotic, like throwing it through a window if you forgot your house key. Or for drowning a cat (sorry, Silk).

But I digress. So how to apply this to drying a damp library book?

A microwave oven has many functions. Not quite forty, like the brick example, but more uses than for cooking or heating food. Like drying books.

So what’s wrong with that picture?

Nothing. Except if you are drying a library book. Because of the tiny metal security tag attached on the inside of the back cover. Metals and microwaves are not friends. Especially magnetic metals. They spark and do all sorts of nasty things to each other when some stupid human brings them into contact.

Fifty Shades Darker did not look pretty after I rescued it. There was this dark brown burn mark the size of a toonie, that not only had burnt through the back cover, but through half of the book – two hundreds pages or so. Like someone had put a burning cigar to each page.

Mortified, I returned the book to the library, trying to think of a story that allowed me to escape with a modicum of dignity. I reasoned, like the famous song by Patrick Sky, ‘Reality is bad enough, why must I tell the truth?’

The clerk looked at the book, shaking her head.

“I’ve never seen anything like that in my thirty years on the job. What happened?”

“My 14-year old granddaughter dropped it in the bath by mistake,” I ventured. “And then she put it in the microwave when I was out. Stupid girl. Can you believe it?”

The clerk said nothing for a while. She shook her head again, leafing through the pages.

“I’m sorry,” I said, opening my wallet. “I will pay for the book, of course. How much do I owe the library?”

She looked at me with an expression like smelling a rotting fish. “You allowed your granddaughter to read this?”

Duuuuh.

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Time for a story

Joe’s Blog #27

I thought it was time for something different. No wise words of wisdom this time. No sage advice. No tales of computer malfunctions. No, something else.

A story.

Mostly true.

The Renovation

I have to confess that the worst job I ever did, I actually hired myself to do.

The interview went well, I suppose, though I thought the only applicant was a little on the tubby side and I didn’t much care for his attitude.  Still, he was the only one to show up and, frankly, the only one crazy enough to do what was being asked.

The job was simple.  At least it looked that way from the outside, standing there in the garden, in the summer’s heat, the roof a long ladder away.  All I had to do was dismantle the brick chimney so that we could continue with our renovations.

No biggie.

So what if I was scared of heights?  So what if I’d never done anything like this before?  We were about to have our house raised, a suite build underneath and that chimney simply had to go.

No biggie.

So I climbed up the ladder, spider-crawled my way up the roof with a chisel in one hand, a small heavy hammer in the other.  At the apex of the roof, I clawed myself vertical with the help of the chimney.  Standing, I took tool number one, the chisel, placed it against object A, the chimney, and swung tool number two, the hammer.

Clink

A bit of brick dust fell to the roof.

A good start, I thought.

I swung again.  Harder.  Klank.  Again.  Clunk.  Again.

I beat the bricks from the side, from the top, from the edges, and slowly, surely, they began to come apart.  By now the sun was baking me on the roof and sweat ran into my eyes and, I am very sorry to tell you, into the crack of my ass.

It was one such trickle that distracted me and one swing went wide.

Splat.

gaaaaaaaaaak!!!!!!!!!

Now, I have certainly hit my hand a good number of times building things, including a few times when I wasn’t the one wielding the hammer but never before had I done it on top of a roof.  I guess I should have practiced a bit.

Because what I did was leap back, hand flying to lips, coppery blood oozing into my mouth.

The problem was, there was no real, ‘back’.  Just a sloped roof.

So I fell.

And bounced.

And rolled.

And skidded, arms flailing, feet clattering.

Now contrary to what I had imaged, falling off a roof isn’t so much falling as scraping.  The trick to living, I discovered as I grated downwards, was to decelerate by friction, which is to say, you hope you don’t run out of skin before you pitch off the roof.

Luckily I didn’t.

Run out of skin, that is.

I have a lot of it.

I stopped a few inches before my feet would have hit the eves.

And there I waited for a moment, heart pounding.

Like a cat, I looked around, fearful that someone had seen me. Sure enough, a family was gathered at their kitchen window and dad was pointing to his son.  “See son, that’s what happens when you’re a moron.”

I hated being one of life’s cautionary tales.

But that was just the beginning.  I still had much to teach my fellow stupid people.

I lay flat on the roof for quite a while, the tar smell of the old shingles and the surge of adrenaline making me want to throw up.  I was scared to slither back up and definitely too scared to slither any closer to the edge.

At some point, I think it was a year later, my wife came out and asked what I was doing, and like any good cat caught in an embarrassing moment, I lied.  “Just checking the gutters,” I replied.

“Don’t take too long,” she said.  “Tomorrow the guys are coming to raise the house.  We need that chimney done by then.”

“Right-O,” I said and forced myself to stand as she left to go do a half-day at work.  My legs wobbled and my hand throbbed and my head whirled but I managed to teeter my way back to the chimney.

I dispensed with the chisel and got my gloves out of my pocket and just used the hammer to beat the living crap out of that chimney.  Each time a brick came free, I hurled it away.  Bad brick.  Bad, bad brick.

Piece by piece the chimney came down and the more I destroyed it, the easier it was to destroy.  Half hour later, sweaty and coated with fine red dust, a pile of bricks lay somewhere on the lawn and all that remained was the interior part of the chimney.

Now, I’m not completely stupid.  I knew that if I went to the base of the chimney in our basement and just hacked away, the whole thing would come down on top of me.  Pretty smart, eh?

So I began to dismantle the bricks from the top, piece by piece.  They had been built the bricks double wide but I made a good enough landing for me to stand on while I worked. So, as I hacked them loose, I’d take a step down, in effect creating the first disappearing spiral staircase.

Bricks fell down with surprising speed and I made great progress.  Sure, it was hot and when I say hot, I mean oven-like, and sure the air was so heavy with dust that I had brick snotsicles in my nose and the inside of my mouth tasted like gritty porridge and my eyes stung.  Sure.  But in another sweltering, sweat-staining hour, I had gotten down six feet.

Then I paused as a great thirst overcame me and I thought, standing there in what is essentially a stone hole, the sun baking me and the bricks, gosh, wouldn’t it be swell to get a drink.

And then it hit me like a, well, like a brick.  I had dug myself into a proverbial hole.

I stood there for a long moment, six feet down, chewing on the brick sludge in my mouth, perspiration dripping from my nose.  I could wait until my wife returned but then how stupid would that look?  She’d give me one of her looks, shake her head and walk away muttering why did I marry such a moron?

So I decided just to dig my way out and for the next six hours, as the sun set over me, I hammered and I sweated and I hammered and I swore and I hammered and the worked my way down.

I hammered until the blisters burst on my hands and the handle was coated with a clear, pasty goo.  I hammered until my arms trembled and my shoulders ached and my back began to seize up.  Nearly blind from all the dust, nearly deaf from all the thunderous sounds inside such a small space, nearly dead from lack of water, my tongue so dry I could have used it as sandpaper, I finally was able to crawl out the bottom, exhausted, dehydrated and so sore I could barely move.

Well, long story short, I ended up losing 5 pounds, most of the skin off my hands, a little bit of my sanity but hey, I kept my dignity.  And when my wife returned, she was impressed with all the work I had done and so distressed at what I looked like that she said I could take the next day off.

But holy crap, that was one job I’d never do again.

I marched into the bathroom, looked in the mirror and said, “I freaking quit!”

How do you balance the contrasts in your story?

Karalee’s Post #27

In nature animals either flaunt or camouflage themselves for the purpose of reproduction or safety.

The peacock and the peahen are a great example.

Once the male has strutted his stuff and successfully mated, the peahen must hide and survive to lay her eggs and then raise the next generation. These contrasting roles are seen over and over in the animal kingdom.

So are they in our writing.

Flaunt or camouflage. Hide or highlight. Loud or quiet. Fight or run. Contrasts are prevalent whenever we  have characters in our writing, both in the overall arc of the story as well as in each individual’s character traits.

Take any major theater or opera production. The major character(s) take center stage and play the arc of the story while the secondary characters and the stage setting fill in to give more depth. In addition, each individual major character has his or her own internal traits that also contrast. Even the most overt and in-your-face character will have some hidden depths that only he (and maybe close friends or relatives) know about and that contribute to driving him to do what he does.

And even the most introvert of characters have a point where emotions will explode or be expressed more openly than usual. 

To me, that is what creating a story is all about.

Whatever the story, the major characters take most of the type space (protagonist and antagonist, or villain and hero) and their individual character traits ebb and flow like the tides, and also boom and flash when the storms go over. Then, when the lights come back on surprises await the reader.

And they all make sense.

And that is the art of storytelling; the magic writers want to achieve. 

How do writers do it?

In creating a story the three major areas I’m initially concerned with  are:

  1. The three acts. They define the major climaxes of the story and determine what the protagonist and antagonist must also achieve by these stages of the story.
  2. Traits of my major characters. The profession of the characters and the setting of the story will determine some traits, but others will need to be decided upon to fit what needs to happen in the story. When I first started writing I thought that physical characteristics were the most important, but as I gained experience it became apparent that the internal traits play an even more important role and determine why a character acts a certain way.
  3. Secrets of my major characters. A person’s personal experiences as well as the family background will determine this. I often have great fun creating a character’s family history and personal experiences, and often this becomes a major part of the plot.

So how do you balance the contrasts in your story?

Turn, Turn, Turn

Bunny1Paula’s Post #27 – Tomorrow, March 20th, the seasons turn once again and we welcome the first day of Spring, a season of of rebirth, rejuvenation, renewal and regrowth. Depending on where you live, you may be starting to see the first tulips or daffodils stretching up towards the sun, or, if you’re lucky enough to live on a farm, like my 5writer colleague Silk, you may be welcoming in the first new ‘babies’ of the year: lambs on their wobbly, spindly legs, adorable kittens and puppies, or the iconic baby bunnies and chicks that we celebrate in our somewhat confusing part pagan, part Christian, Easter celebrations.

Spring is also a time of renewal for writers. When I decided on a topic for this week’s post, I had no idea how many ‘spring’ writers’ conferences and retreats exist to help those with lagging spirits and waning creativity recharge their writers’ batteries and move forward with fresh enthusiasm.

If you’re a writer looking for a little inspiration,  you may wish to check out what’s available in your area. Google away and you too will discover dozens of tempting conferences and retreats.

Personally, my attention was caught by Writer’s Renaissance in Florence, Italy, April 7th to 13th, but don’t get too excited, because it’s sold out. Okay, since that one is not an option, what else is out there?

How about the Relax and Write Retreat and Writer’s Conference at the Cuixmala Resort on 25,000 private acres on the Pacific Coast of Mexico, offering unparalleled beauty, luxurious accommodations and exquisite food (at least according to the website).

Oooh! Sign me up!

Or, if Mexico’s not your thing, how about joining headliner John Grisham at the Readers and Writers Retreat at Castle Hill in Keswick, Virginia May 20-23.

If you fancy the beautiful Oregon Coast, why not check out Dean Wesley Smith’s workshop on Character, Voice and Setting, April 6th-13th for a very reasonable $650 plus $50 per night room rate, but you better hurry, because this popular instructor’s courses frequently sell out. If you haven’t heard of Dean Wesley Smith, just ask our 5writer colleague Joe about Dean’s workshops.

But I don’t intend to write a treatise on writers’ conference and retreats, I’m already way over my word allotment after last week’s mega post: The Elephant in the Room. If you read that post, you’ll know that I could do with a little ‘spring renewal’ of my own. But this week, we 5writers are going to meet face-to-face for the very first time since the 5writers challenge commenced on September 5th, 2012. We have a full agenda, including the future of this blog and ideas for scheduling our own retreat to critique the five, 5writers novels. We’ve a few ideas: cruise ship, remote mountain cabin, a sweltering summer in Palm Springs where we’ll be forced to stay cooped up indoors and work, work, work. Maybe you have a suggestion for our venue for this mega critique marathon?

If you’ve an idea for renewing your passion for writing this spring, please share with us. We could all use a little inspiration.

 

 

Getting some perspective on perspective

perspective

Silk’s Post # 27 — This is a short trip into the murky territory of ‘perspective’ and ‘point of view’. These terms are often used interchangeably in general discourse, to describe some combination of outlook and opinion. However, they have more esoteric meanings to the writer of narrative fiction. Still, most people would probably say it’s pretty clear what these words mean.

But should they?

I thought I had a perspective on narrative perspective until I started doing a bit more research online. That was an hour ago, and it wasn’t an illuminating hour. (Since I’m on the road I’m without my library of writing books that have whole chapters on this topic).

I found many more references covering ‘perspective’ and ‘point of view’ in literature than I had time to read. Some seemed to interpret these terms as ways to describe the same phenomenon, others insisted they were distinctly different things. Some declared there were only four points of view in literature, or knocked off an appealingly simple definition (did you know there is actually a Point of View in Literature for Dummies online?). Some were mind-numbingly dense academic lectures. I concluded I could spend many more hours trying to interpret the various interpretations, and retreated to write my post in a state of only partial enlightenment.

It made me wonder how I wrote a whole book without really knowing the finer points of this stuff. But then, it would appear that a good many of the online references I consulted really don’t know them either.

Narrative perspective is a quicksand that can really suck you down when you dip your toe into the murky region of personhood: First Person, Second Person, and the whole Third Person family, which includes the pesky narrative voice triplets – Third Person Objective, Third Person Subjective and Third Person Omniscient – who like to fool writers by impersonating each other.

And let’s not even talk about Alternating Person View. About halfway through my first book, the eagle-eyed Karalee observed in one of our critique sessions that I had already created eight POV characters. Executions followed (of some characters, not of Karalee).

If you really want to drive yourself nuts, you can contemplate the differences between Third Person Omniscient and Universal Omniscient (sometimes referred to as the “Little Did He Know” POV). Or you might wish to converse knowledgeably about whether Third Person Objective is really better named (as some insist) Third Person Dramatic. And, of course, you’ll want to be aware that if you are using the Third Person Subjective narrative voice for only a single character in your book, it’s more properly called Third Person Limited.

Not only that, there are other, even more rarefied narrative voices to choose from – antiquated or black sheep POV cousins such as the Epistolary Voice (who speaks through letters or documents), and my personal favourite the Unreliable Narrator Voice (who obviously speaks with forked tongue).

Now that I’ve led you into this swamp, I wish I could pull you to shore with some nice, crisp definitions of all these POV variations on narrative perspective. Sorry. I’d love to help you but I’ve completely lost perspective.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that each of these POV varieties comes with its own set of strict rules, which must be absolutely followed except when they can be broken, and which often sound exactly like the rules for some other POV variety with the exception of some slight sub-rule?

[Sigh].

What’s in a number?

blog-post

Helga’s Blog-Slog Post #25 — Is there anything else we can talk about on the topic of writing that we haven’t yet covered in our 130 or so posts on this blog? I have to confess that blog-fatigue occasionally strikes me, especially when it’s my turn to write a new post. (I admit though that I can’t wait each morning Monday to Thursday to read my partners’ posts)

So I started philosophizing about the value of blogging. Never mind this blog. How about all the others, floating in cyberspace, vying for your attention? Just how many blogs are there, anyway?

Apparently, a number is difficult to come by, because Google and other search engines don’t share that information. Still, research firms have come up with estimates, although rough at best. Reason being, there are many so-called dead or ‘zombie-blogs’ littering cyberspace, which have been abandoned or discontinued.

To come up with a number specifically for writing blogs, is even more challenging. But blog statistics in general hold a certain fascination. Here are some early numbers I would like to share, courtesy from several sources, including Caslon Analytics. Keep in mind, these numbers are a few years old now, ending around 2006. (It’s instructive for putting it into context with current numbers, further down).

In January 2002 alone some 41,000 people created new blogs using Blogger, and there were then more than 500,000. In August 2002 another source claimed that Blogger had 350,000 users, with converts supposedly “creating a new weblog every 40 seconds, or more than 60,000 a month”. By early 2006 that had risen to around 160,000 per month.

Live Journal, according to New York Times, had signed up 690,000 users since 1998 and was currently gaining another 1,100 bloggers per day. It is unclear whether all 690,000 were (and still are) maintaining their personal pages and, if so, how frequently.

In the same month the Times claimed that Brazil was the “second-largest Blogger-using country” after the US, with up to 13% of the 750,000 Blogger users.

Wired exulted that “nine blogs are created every minute and 2.3 content updates are posted every second.” In November 2004, PubSub claimed to track 6.4 million blogs.

In July 2006 the Pew Internet & American Life Project estimated that the US “blog population has grown to about 12 million American adults”, some 8% of US adult Internet users. The number of US blog readers was estimated as 57 million adults (39% of the US online population), although few of those people read widely or read often.

But what about staying power?

Several studies indicate that most blogs are abandoned soon after creation (with 60% to 80% abandoned within one month, depending on whose figures you choose to believe) and that few are regularly updated. The ‘average blog’ thus has the lifespan of a fruit fly. One cruel reader of that page commented that the average blog also has the intelligence of a fly.

So much for blog writers. But what about blog audiences? Here are some tidbits on demographics:

One research company claims that blogs are primarily read by men (60% vs 40% women; currently it has shifted slightly to 55% male vs. 45% women) and in households where the total income is over US$60,000 per year (again, these are 2006 figures).

But wait, there’s more:

Researcher Leigh Philips (again from Caslon Analytics) sniffed in 2003 that “blogging remains the dominion of geeks, wittier-than-thou twenty-to-thirty-somethings in Manhattan and angry gay Republicans”.

Now let’s take a look at some more current statistics. What a difference a few years make. Are you ready for this? Hat Trick Associates, to use one example, has this to say:

Current estimates say there are about 450 million “active” English language blogs right now, but that number varies according to the source. Technorati estimated over 200 million blogs at the start of 2009, with exponential growth since then.

These numbers change daily however, as new blogs are started by the thousands (or tens of thousands) every day, and a large number of blogs have also reached the point of where they could be defined as “abandoned” and should be subtracted. When including non-English in the total number, especially those in Chinese Mandarin, and there may be over one billion blogs worldwide.

This equates to 1 out of every 6 people in the world with a personal blog!

That of course begs the question ‘How many people read or follow all these blogs?’

Once again there is no reliable tracking mechanism. But certainly we are talking about many hundreds of millions of people, maybe 500 or 600 million total (Compare that to 57 Million blog readers in 2006 as mentioned earlier). If you include non-English blogs again, we can easily assume a number well above a billion people (remember, there might be a billion bloggers!) perhaps even more than 2 billion – or about 1 out of every 3 human beings on the planet. Think about it:

~ More than 2 Billion Blog Readers ~

“With such a massive number of worldwide readers,” Hat Trick Associates reminds us, “it should go without saying that an active blog can be absolutely VITAL to establishing a strong web presence for your company or brands. Blogging also allows you to regularly share “fresh” content, the kind that has become key to solid search engine rankings from Google, Bing and other search engines…whose web crawlers are constantly seeking out and indexing new content.”

As expected, plenty of advice is available on how to become a ‘killer blogger’, if you are willing to fork over some money. Just check Amazon and search ‘Books on Blogging’. Last I checked, 483 titles were on offer just on that site. There are also a number of web sites that list all sorts of interesting demographics about bloggers and blog readers. For example, the typical reader of the world’s top blogs is 38 years old, according to a new @Pingdom study.

And the latest numbers on our own WordPress.com only, updated frequently, the current number of blogs at the point of writing this, is

 62,476,357

How many posts are published on WordPress.com?

WordPress.com users produce about 39.3 million new posts and 41.4 million new comments each month.

And if that hasn’t convinced anyone yet about casting your net wide to reach an audience, this one should:

How many people read blogs on WordPress.com?

Over 389 million people view more than 3.6 billion pages each month.

Happy Blogging all around!

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