Laugh. Smile. Breathe. Live.

March 11, 2018

So here we are again.  We’ve had another long delay between posts.  So far, there’s good reason, and the reason still isn’t here yet.  As many of you know by now, my wife and I are expecting our first child.  We’re predicting it will come sometime between today and Tax Day (April 15th for those of you outside of the US).  We’ve encountered people from all walks of life who have been willing to share words of wisdom with us, and it has been interesting to hear all of the different perspectives.

Yesterday, we ran into a roofer friend of ours at Costco, and he told us a compelling story.  At one point, a friend of his approached him with an interesting proposition.  She wanted to cross something off of her bucket list.  He was happy to oblige.  What was it, you might ask?  Skydiving.  She wanted a friendly, supportive person who could be there for her when she jumped out of a plane at ~13,000 feet.

Fast forward a few weeks, and our friend is up there in the plane, chatting with the skydiving instructor.  The instructor, a grizzled veteran of thousands of jumps (and I believe an army vet, to boot), was trying to encourage a lot of first time jumpers.  He was there with a rookie who was just trying to get his certification.  The instructor tells our friend that the rookie was likely to jump and then wake up on the ground, wondering how he got down there (presumably because someone with a little know-how saved his butt).  The instructor warned our friend that one thing nervous people forget to do is breathe.  So, the instructor gave our friend this advice, which he shared with us, and I will share with you.  When you jump, don’t forget to laugh, to smile, and to breathe.

Our friend shared this information with us in the hopes that it would help with our transition from a duo to a trio.  The prospect of childbirth has us bristling with anticipation, and shaking with nerves. However, he’s right, we just need to laugh, to smile, and to breathe.

I was ruminating on this, thinking that this would be something great to share with folks, and then I realized that this is also appropriate for writing.  We’ve all been in t hat situation where we just need to put something on the page, but we can’t.  Of course, we then need to put something good on the page, but whatever comes out just doesn’t look right.  We make mistakes.  As Stephen King said, he once wrote about “shooting peasants” rather than “shooting pheasants.”  Sometimes, we cringe at the mistakes that we make, but we catch them as we’re editing.  Other times, we aren’t so fortunate.  Some times, we’re asked to share something in front of others, and it all comes out at once.

For all of the times that we struggle to write, to read our work, and to share our work, maybe we should take a page from that skydiver.  Don’t forget to laugh, don’t forget to smile, and don’t forget to breathe.


Misspoken Words

February 12, 2018

One clip that has seemingly gone viral over the past two weeks is the Finnish comedian Ismo on Conan O’Brien, and his various uses of the word “ass.” I find comedy like this interesting, and also the chief reason why George Carlin was so successful for so many years. (Warning: links contain somewhat vulgar language)

It reminds me about how language is something that is dynamic, and how language in our writing can date us.  No, I’m not talking about spelling — though I will never accept “thru” as an appropriate replacement for “through” outside of where people get their hamburgers.  No, I am talking about certain words or phrases that place you and your characters in a specific era or a specific region.  It can give identify you as having a certain political, religious, or social affiliation.  It can also make you unintentionally funny.

I Could(n’t) Care Less

For instance, I’ve recently heard a growing number of people, both in person and in shows, say “I could care less.”  The problem, of course, is that the wording of the phrase implies yes, you could conceivably care less.  The reality of the situation is that you’re typically saying “nothing is less important to me right now.”  In other words, you could not care less. So, the next time you hear someone say “I could care less,” you might want to answer “go ahead.”


There’s two words that pop up constantly, particularly around here. One is “literally,” and the other is “hella/hecka.”  The first, literally, is one that is used so carelessly, so casually, that I don’t think people even understand the word beyond its use as an intensifier. I don’t think it means what you think it means.  If, by chance, you do not know what it means, here’s a crash course: literally comes from the word “littera” or “a letter,” thus literally means by the letter.  In other words, literally means the exact definition of the word.  To put this in context, I’ll give you a few examples of phrases that you’ll hear a fair amount, and the equivalent of what people are really saying.

“I literally died,” to mean “I was embarrassed / dejected / laughing so hard I could hardly stop myself,” by the letter of the word, is much closer to saying “I must be a spirit or apparition talking to you, because in that moment, I ceased living.”

“I literally sh** myself” to mean “I was laughing so hard at that,” by the letter of the word, is much closer to saying “I don’t have control of my bowels, so I soiled my pants and was walking around the rest of the night smelling like I have a loaded diaper.”

“I’ll literally just be a second,” to mean “I’ll be quick.” What it actually means… “One-one-thousand, two… oops, I’m a liar.”


Moving on to a regional slang term; “hella” is a word that people will blame on Northern California, because it may have originated in Oakland in the 1970s.  It is simply a shorter form of “hell of a” or “hell of a lot of,” and both of these longer phrases are fairly common, regardless of region.  As a native of Santa Cruz, which would be more closely affiliated with Northern California had it not been for the influx of Southern Californians attracted to the “Surf City” vibe of Santa Cruz and the physical distance from their parents, I knew many Santa Cruzans who hated the term “hella.” We would blame it on “transplants” or “trannies” from other cities.  Few of us, at the time, appeared aware that even our terms “transplants” or “trannies” have completely different meanings in different contexts.  No, we were simply referring to those folks coming from “out of town.”

Nevertheless, when I went to college, I remember several people saying something to the effect of “if you’re from Northern California, why don’t you say ‘hella?'” To the best of my recollection, the most flagrant offenders of the word ‘hella’ came from far flung places such as Seattle (specifically Mercer Island), Los Angeles, or San Diego.  In our little enclave of Santa Cruz, the term ‘hella’ meant you were an outsider, much like any of you who referred to Highway 1 as “the One” or Highway 17 as *shudder* “the 17.” A lot of people who dislike the word ‘hella’ might dislike it because it has the word ‘hell’ in it.  Sure, that’s a mild vulgarity for the Christian set, I sort of get it, in the sense that nobody wants to be reminded of the place where bad people go when they die, but those people who are offended by ‘hell’ in ‘hella’ sometimes will even be offended by the word ‘hello.’  These people are probably also offended when they see the word shiitake to describe a species of mushroom or the Tampa Bay Devil Rays being named after a cartilaginous fish, so I guess I just have a very thick skin when it comes to words.


Those who object to “hello,” may instead say “Heaven-O,” but this is clunky and just as offensive to social mores.  Furthermore, it is taking something that has nothing to do with Heaven and Hell and turning it on its head.  “Hello,” popularized by Thomas Edison, is a word of somewhat disputed Germanic origin.  Many Germanic-root languages (English included) have a word or phrase of similar meaning that is similar phonemically to “hello.”  Even a few Romance languages have the terms “hola” or “holà” that have similar meanings, and come as loanwords from early or Proto-German. In general, hello is not believed to be of the same origin as “hail,” as in “Hail, Caesar,” but even “hail” is German.

Hell is also German, and is used to describe the netherworld, but it was not a term that was used in Abrahamic religions until Christianity was introduced to Germanic people.  Yes, there was a pre-Christian Germanic underworld (particularly in Norse mythology, where we get the term ‘Hel’ as a proper name for the queen of the dead. However, the term that now offends people of certain religious backgrounds was not found in Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, or Latin versions of the Bible, and has the same origins as the term “hall” to describe a “covered place,” as in “I have to go to Study Hall this afternoon rather than sit outside.” Come to think of it, maybe “hall” and “hell” haven’t changed much in meaning.

Still, when I hear people object to the word ‘hell,’ I don’t think that they understand that the four letter word is simply representing an idea, and that the word doesn’t mean what they think it means — at least, not exactly.

It Started with Hook… sort of

February 7, 2018

It has been a stressful week at work, and I’ve had to drop one project with a deadline for another.  In times like these, I put on my headphones and try to disappear into my work.  It certainly helped, as I hardly realized that 5 o’clock passed, let alone 6 o’clock.  Soon, I was making my way back home at 6:30.  Definitely not a late night, but later than I intended.

When I put my headphones on, I only listen to music.  It can be music of any kind, but it often helps if there’s no lyrics.  Today, I started off listening to classical music (Sheherazade — a name that I can never pronounce correctly, just ask my wife) and then moved on to movie soundtracks.  I went from one movie that I enjoyed as a kid (ET: The Extra-Terrestrial) to another (The Neverending Story) and yet to another (Hook).

I’ve had many opportunities to grow misty-eyed over the past several months, and they’re mostly about family, both past and future, but Hook had me misty eyed for a few different reasons.

First, you might remember the children’s play, where they’re singing about men having to show up to work in “shirt and tie — yuck!” all while Peter ‘Banning’ has his cell phone in hand, on the phone with Brad.  Banning was so wrapped up in being a man… being “the man” that he forgot to be Jack and Maggie’s father (and Moira’s husband). He forgot what it was like to be himself, until he was forced to remember.  As Toodles said “Have to fly, have to fight, have to crow.”  I don’t think anyone ever wants to forget who they are, or who they were, let alone forget their childhood.

What’s the key takeaway for writing here?  Well, don’t forget that your characters were once children, too!  They have moments in the past that have shaped who they are as characters, and indelible memories that they hold onto for years and years.

The rest of this doesn’t have much to do with writing (but it does have something to do with baby… surprise, surprise).

Hook was a big part of my childhood.  Robin Williams. Stephen Spielberg.  John Williams.  Dustin Hoffman. Julia Roberts.  Should I go on?  As a matter of fact, Williams was the actor of my childhood.  I just have to shake my head thinking about all of the times that I tried to mimic  Genie’s scatting portion from Aladdin’s “Never Had a Friend like Me,” or the times I tried to sound like Mrs. Doubtfire when I said “hello,” or how (much later) I even started one of my college radio shows with the sound clip “Goooood Morning, Vietnam! This is not a test, this is rock and roll!”  Robin Williams wasn’t just some actor, he was your goofy Uncle Mork.  Yes, I know that he’d probably turn heel and run if I called him that (hell, ‘Mork’ might as well have done that), but there were so many stories and so many moments that all burst from the screen.  I must admit that I didn’t quite understand Moscow on the Hudson when I was 8 years old, but neither did the critics.  As I matured as a viewer, I even enjoyed some of the critical flops, from RV to The Crazy Ones  — especially The Crazy Ones.

It’s not that I expect Spielberg or Hoffman or Roberts to leave the profession any time soon, but I lament the fact that my children will never know what it’s like to see a brand new Robin Williams film, and may never get to uncover that Robin Williams special where the beloved star of stage and screen does something that you don’t expect. Robin Williams could make a scene.

Williams is about the same age as my parents, and his big break in acting came before I was born, so I have never known a world before Robin Williams.  I have also never known a world without John Williams, the prolific composer who is almost a given with any Spielberg or Lucas directed film.  Spielberg, Lucas, Altman, Jewison, Eastwood, Penn, Stone, Donner, De Palma and Hitchcock all used Williams throughout the ’70s and ’80s.  Add Ron Howard, Chris Columbus, and JJ Abrams to the list, and you have an unbeatable set of 13 directors who have all textured their feature films with John Williams’ work.  Having a lesser composer may have ruined some of these movies.  Others may have stood a chance, but John Williams’ work is unmatched in his field.  As I listened to John Williams’ penned soundtrack to a Robin Williams movie, I thought about how my child will likely only get to hear about Robin Williams (and perhaps John Williams) in the past tense.  Robin was… John Williams was… I wonder who will eventually fill their shoes.  Will it be somebody that we already know?  Will someone look at Jack Black’s career, 20 years down the road, and talk about how he reshaped comedy?  Will someone listen to Jonny Greenwood’s work on There Will Be Blood and say “this is the score that began the legend? It’s hard to imagine what things will be like when my child is 30.

As a writer, I aspire to be the kind of writer that can be self-sustaining.  I aspire to be the kind of writer who publishes because he enjoys it, and not because he is forced to or because he needs to make ends meet.  Unfortunately, I also understand how things can be fleeting and a product of their time.   Robin Williams, rainbow suspenders and all, probably wouldn’t have been able to get his break today because people are more interested in the so-called real life farce that is reality TV, and Williams was suitable as a man-child from another planet.  J.K. Rowling was a revelation as Harry Potter‘s creator, but her book might not be so effective in twenty years.  After all, what happened to Franklin W. Dixon, R.L. Stine, and the popularity of Louis L’Amour?  Okay, granted several of them aren’t with us, but these names have not ascended to the pantheon of LitFic, and the average 20 year old probably doesn’t even remember these names.

Every now and then, I watch this YouTube show called “Teens React: Do They Know…” and it’s always something like “’90s Music”  (by the way, it’s as if Alternative and Grunge never existed).  Some day in the future, perhaps when my child is old enough to be on that show, teens will react to a Robin Williams movie or a John Williams score and say “this guy is good?  This is who?  Robin Williams? Oh, I think my dad mentioned something about her.  Wait, she’s a guy?”

I can guarantee that my son or daughter will know Robin Williams, just as he or she will know John Williams; ET: The Extraterrestrial; and, yes, Mork calling Orson.


Visualization: Something that Has Helped me Write and Run

February 5, 2018

You wouldn’t believe it by looking at me now, but I was once a distance runner.  I wasn’t the fastest on the team — in fact, I was frequently the slowest — but I could keep going for miles and miles.  When I was a freshman and sophomore, one of the older runners took me under his wing.  We’d frequently run back home from cross-country practice.  It would add a mile here and there, and as much as three if we were running back from the school, but it was worth it.

Two years into my high school running career, I was suddenly one of the oldest (or at least longest tenured) members of the team.  There were four of us who didn’t quite make it all four years together, but we started out as the low men on the totem pole and spent several great years as teammates.  Our coach, Clare, retired, and our track coach, Victor, became our cross-country coach.

Victor’s coaching philosophy was a bit different from Clare’s.  Whereas Clare emphasized long runs and getting out there on the trails, Victor spent a lot more time focusing on speed work and cutting down times.  We learned more about stretching, and a fair deal about the mental aspect of cross-country racing.  Included among these many moments of focusing on the mental race, we learned about body scanning.

So, what is body scanning?  I’m sure you’ll find a much better description of this (and that Victor was doing his own  blend of body scanning and visualization techniques), but what it is, essentially, is getting in touch with where you are in that moment.  It is mindfulness, and mindfulness of everything that is going on — starting from the tip of your head and going on down to your feet.  Victor would take it a step further, and we’d try to imagine ourselves on the track (or on the path), getting ready to start our race.  We’d focus on things like our breathing, our form, and how we were going to think as we got out there in the race.

Now, one thing that I haven’t mentioned about this whole thing is that we did it lying down, on a concrete floor (or sometimes the rubbery composite of the high jump area), and that we’d have our eyes closed.  Body scanning and visualization wasn’t something that we did just for a few moments — no, this would last fifteen minutes at a time.   Because of the nature of this whole scenario (lying horizontal, eyes closed), members of the team would sometimes fall asleep.  There were three or four frequent offenders, but I think that many of us came close, on occasion.  I would stand up after these body scanning exercises a little drowsy, but overall feeling quite well, and confident about the whole thing.

I’ll admit, I was skeptical of the whole thing at first, but it proved to be useful, even long after my running career ended.  For the first half hour or so of me trying to fall asleep, I’m a light sleeper.  As my college roommates will tell you, I’m a “chalk outline” (to quote my friend Steve) when I eventually do fall asleep.  Until then, I’m thinking about everything other than what it will take for me to fall asleep.  It was particularly bad for me when I was a college freshman.  My freshman year was split between two dorms, and involved roommates that were seldom even back in the room before I was in bed (or had guests as I was trying to crash out).  It may have seemed weird, but by practicing my breathing or by performing a body scan, I could (sometimes) help myself fall to sleep more easily than I otherwise could have.

Fast forward a few more years later, and I’m now awaiting fatherhood.  My wife and I are taking a baby class, and our instructor, Lily, has us go through guided meditation and body scans, all of the while focusing on our breathing.  For the past few years, I haven’t been using this as a sleep aid, but this practice now takes me all of the way back to when I was in high school, running cross-country and track for Victor, Phil, Anthony, and the team.

So, as this is (mostly) a writing blog, you might be wondering what all of the above has to do with writing… or, specifically, with my writing.  When I write, I don’t always look at the screen or the keyboard.  In fact, I don’t always have my eyes open; that’s for editing!  When I tilt my head back and close my eyes, I can sometimes make out the shapes, the form, or the texture of the story.  I can sometimes picture a character much more clearly than I can envision him with my eyes open.

Visualization, if not exactly body scan, helps me define the physical aspect of a character.  Does he have a broad nose or a thin nose?  Does he have a moustache, or stubble, or is he clean shaven?  Now, some of these factors may not matter at all.  I can’t recall an incident where somebody’s facial hair became an important plot point in my own writing) although I recently saw an episode of Eugene Levy’s Schitt’s Creek where it was.  Other factors may become defining traits for an individual character; this is the case in my first novel, where a father and son had the same defining trait, and their reasons for that same pronounced trait becomes a relevant plot point.

I’m not the most qualified person to speak about the how or why about using body scan and visualization in your daily life.  However, I can say that it has been useful for me as a writer.  I am still trying to figure out how I can incorporate it into aspects of my life outside of writing.  I suppose that is what the baby class is designed to do.  However, I encourage you to look into it and attempt to augment your writing experience with some visualization, body scans, and overall mindfulness.


As an aside, I’d like to give a plug for my former coach, Victor Dubin.  Victor is a yoga instructor and business owner in downtown Santa Cruz.  He owns Nourish, a holistic wellness center in downtown Santa Cruz, alongside his wife, Jocelyn, a nutritionist.  Check them out here: Nourish

I’d also like to give a plug to the Mindfulness Birthing Program.  I’m still learning about the program, as we’ve only had a few classes.  I am appreciative of the ideas that our instructor, Lily, has imparted upon us, and I hope to learn more.  You can check out the umbrella organization that trains mindful childbirth instructors in Santa Cruz here: Mindful Childbirth Santa Cruz.   I don’t know if our instructor is still directly affiliated with them, but she does speak fondly of its leadership.


As a second aside, I’d like to give a shout out to my friend, Dan.  Dan is the guy who, two years my senior, mentored me when I was a young cross-country runner.  We had some great times together.  My favorite is when the two of us ran a 4×400 meter race, each taking two 400 meter legs because our track team was so small that we didn’t have enough middle-distance runners for a 4×400 team.  He was running down from being a miler/2-miler, and I was running what was then the upper limit of my track races — I didn’t start doing 800 meter races regularly until I was a junior.  We even ran “against” a women’s 4×400 team that had one of the best female runners to come out of our county.  I don’t recall if we beat the Soquel girls’ A-team, but I know we beat at least one of the teams that was out there on the track that night — if we hadn’t been disqualified for having too few runners. This is one of the fondest memories I have from my entire high school experience, and it is one that I wish we both were capable of repeating.

An Unmanly Thing Happened on the Way to Fatherhood

February 4, 2018

Yesterday, I did something decidedly unmanly.  Of course, in this era, it’s hard to say what is manly and what is false bravado. So, what did I do?  I participated (albeit briefly) in a baby shower.  As far as manly things, this is probably just a peccadillo.  After all, I wasn’t wearing baby blue or pink or doing anything that would make me seem like anything more than the expecting father around a bunch of female family members.

As far as guests went, it was mostly family… and that’s what prompted this post.  I spent most of the day down the street at my grandparents, where my grandfather and I sat back, talked basketball, golf, and politics.  We lamented about the fact that people were hooting and hollering at the Stadium Course at TPC Scottsdale, treating it like it was a Sun Devils baseball game.  We even talked a little bit about the Super Bowl, and how my grandpa’s local pool had people who picked either Philadelphia or New England to win it all when they started their pre-season picks.  When I looked around that gathering, I saw my grandmother, my grand-aunt, all five of my aunts, and 6-of-8 of my cousins (or their significant others) — as well as two of the seven members of the next generation.  I saw my sister, my sister-in-law, my mother and my mother-in-law, and my wife and our future child.  We all come from different walks of life, and have shaped our perceptions based on our experiences.  There were, of course, little things that keep us connected, but the biggest thing that connected most of us there was our heritage and the kinship of family.

There is something that all eight of my cousins (as well as my sister, myself, my future child, and a few members of the next generation of cousins) have in common: my mother has crocheted something for each of them.  In fact, my cousin’s daughter had brought hers the baby shower!  Our future child received the latest crocheted artwork yesterday.

Between hanging out with my grandfather and spending time with my aunts and cousins, I was able to look at a lot of pictures.  In the blur of the day, I’m not sure if it was on my grandparent’s bookshelf or my aunt’s bookshelf, but I came across an old photo that I’ve always remembered.  It was a summer event – perhaps a July 4th barbecue, because July 4th was always very big for our family.  It was a hot day, and the cousins (8 of us on that side) were in and out of the pool.  Eventually, we got together for a picture.  So much has changed since then.  The oldest of us were probably pre-teens, maybe early teens, and the youngest were still in early grade school.  I was always tall for my age, but back then I looked like I could have been twice the size of my younger cousins.  My uncles were all there.  All were young, healthy and full of life.  Unfortunately, all of them are now gone.  Life has changed so much for my grandparents, my aunts, my parents, and all of us cousins, but that picture represents a memory of the good times, before the weight of adulthood reached half of us.

All of these people, both in the picture and at the baby shower, have impacted my life in some way.  Yes, I didn’t really know some of my mother-in-law’s friends, aside from pleasantries here and there, but it’s a small world, and I know and appreciate them, as well.

When I think of my writing, I think about the characters and who they are as people.  Are they from a traditional nuclear family?  Have family members been estranged for many years?  Perhaps they’re a divorcee, spinning away from half of their family entirely.  In my first novel, Absconded by Sin, much of the story resolves around one character, Angela, who is alone with her son.  In my current novel, The Best of You, the main character, Guerrero, is out on his own.  Regardless of the lots that they draw in life, they do have family, and it is an important part of their characterization.

When you look at your own characters, draw upon your own family experiences.  You do not (and should not) need to pilfer from cherished memories, but you can always take what you remember and see how something like that might apply to your character.  Was your uncle a carpenter?  Did he build a wall that kept his backyard from flooding?  Was your aunt an animal lover?  Was she always bringing home pets, both domestic and exotic?

As the majority of the family members who have shared this family experience with me are still alive, I will save them from the specifics. I can tell you that the cousins have grown up to be very different people.  We have Democrats and Republicans, people who are looking to pursue their doctorates and people who have led lucrative and fulfilling careers without continuing on to a four year college, Niners fans and Raiders fans, and everybody in between.  I may not share the same views, cherish the same things, or have the same experiences as my aunts and uncles, cousins and every iteration thereof, but I am grateful that I’ve been able to spend time with them.

Maybe some of your characters have had that fulfilling experience with their extended family.  Maybe they remember when Uncle Leo took everybody to the ballgame, or when Aunt Petunia burnt the Thanksgiving turkey.  Maybe they remember their great-grandmother, who lived to be 106 years old and still baked her own bread.  Maybe some of your characters had never met any of their cousins, and have no memories of their grandparents. The experiences that your characters have had in life help add depth to the page, and can add a lot of texture to your stories.  Sometimes, even what was missing from their lives is what deserves to be on the page.

Thank you for your time, and keep on writing!



P.S., It looks like my grandfather won his pool, and my cousin’s husband got to check something off of his bucket list.  Congratulations, Philadelphia!


Photo Credit: qimono via Pixabay

I Need to Zero in on my Zero Drafts

January 28, 2018

Nearly a month has passed between New Year’s and now. Four weeks is a long time, but it never feels nearly as long as it is.  Perhaps I shouldn’t say that to someone going through pregnancy, or rehabbing an injury, or awaiting summer vacation.  These past four weeks have resulted in February staring me in the face, and not one, but two nearly finished “zero drafts” of my novels still waiting to be capped off.

I have deadlines upon deadlines. One, which is self-imposed in a manner of speaking, is to get one of these zero drafts ready for my wife before we have our first child.  That doesn’t give me much time.  The others are to wrap up ongoing projects at work — several of which should have been wrapped up in December.  Standing in the way of all of those (but a good kind of “in the way”), baby classes and basketball games have kept my evenings busy.  I’ve needed to move out of my house and move back into my house and alter my schedule (somewhat) to accommodate construction.

A few months ago, a colleague of mine took an interest in my writing.  This was during NaNoWriMo, when 1,667 words in a night was the bare minimum to keep a project going.  Her first question, and invariably the first question I get when people ask me about NaNoWriMo, was “how do you write so many words in such a short time?  I would run out of things to say.”

In my mind, there are two things that are most effective.  The first is writing whatever comes easy to you, and writing a lot of it.  The second is writing the basic actions that get you from point A to point B.  For some, this might not be all that beneficial; after all, rattling off the action might be what you do better than anything else.   For me, these are what help get my word counts up without bogging things down.  Ironically, writing good dialogue does not come easily to me.  However, it’s easy for me to write dialogue, and a lot of it.  The process of writing dialogue allows me to consider how characters act toward each other, what they think, and what they do, without getting bogged down with any of the details of how they act, what they think, and what they do.  After I write a scene that is almost entirely dialogue, I can go back and fill in everything: blocking, action, and symbolism all come through later pass-throughs. I may not have the meat of the scene, but I typically have some decent bones.

When dialogue and description aren’t coming to me, action usually does.  Again, this allows me to consider the motivation of the scene, without getting into the fact that the Camaro didn’t have a Rally Sport in such-and-such year or that Ronnie had twisted his left ankle, and not his right.  Often, a lot of interesting trivia comes from those action scenes.   Perhaps it comes out that Tony doesn’t have any cartilage left in his knee, or that Annie was the local Aikido champion in 1993.  Perhaps it comes out that Ruth is asthmatic or that Taro has put on twenty pounds due to months of inactivity. These might not be things that I set out to discuss when I penciled in basic character sketches, but it quickly becomes canon.

If I use this philosophy of focusing on dialogue and action, I might have a two-dimensional world when I finish my original draft, but I have a sense of where everything id, and perhaps where I can flesh things out in subsequent runs.  In this way, writing is like a baby, sometimes it gains length, and sometimes it gains weight.  It’s seldom both at once, and it can be difficult to predict when one will overtake the other.

I sometimes use this same philosophy when I write for work.  I work in market research.  Our omnibus syndicated research involves tens of thousands of words, and we try to keep it as current as possible.  This involves a lot of research.  The problem is, half of what my company discusses relates to products.  The other half refers to practices or general design philosophies. It can become difficult to figure out what is new and noteworthy in a twenty year old design philosophy, especially when our updates come every six months.  However, a product usually has a lot happen in six months.  This makes it easy to research, and also easy to write.  For this reason, I may skip pages entirely for a few days, but have other pages that I need to cut short for lack of room.

Over the past few weeks, I haven’t written much for either of my two zero drafts, and I find that I have to read more and more of my copy before I’m ready to add to them.  Fortunately, work is still ongoing, and I haven’t given up hope or interest for these projects.  Maybe I just need to add more to get me from A-to-Z.

What about you, fellow writers?  What do you do that makes it easier for you to put words on the page?  Let me know in the comments below.  In the mean time, thanks for reading and keep on writing!

A Writer’s Thoughts at 1am on Christmas Morning:

December 25, 2017

Christmas goes by many names.  Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity, Natale, Noel, Yule, and a host of others.  By tradition, convention, and perhaps even fact, it is celebrated on the 25th of December, every year.  There are some interesting notions as to why it is December 25th (as well as some as to why it is not), but so it is, so it has been, and so it will be.  The time has expanded.  Now, it’s two or three days, and for some people as much as 12.  We had a Christmas feast this year on Friday the 23rd.  We then spent time with one family on the 24th, and will spend time at three different places today (to be fair, I started this much earlier, but couldn’t get the lead out!).  I’ll throw in another two words that I associate with Christmas (and I’m sure I’m not the only one): Family and Gratitude.

I’m grateful to have celebrated Christmas with my family for oh-so-many years.  My first Christmas wasn’t the case.  In a manner of speaking, I was fighting to keep living.  Now, 30-something years later, I’m awaiting a new life in my growing family, and thinking back to all of the many lives that have impacted my own, people that my family has known and lost over the years.  Uncles, grandparents, friends, and family that extend beyond truly linear means have all left us in recent years, but their memories will not.

I am grateful not only for the gifts that they have given me in terms of physical things, but also the gifts they have given me in terms of memories and inspiration.  Inspiration doesn’t always come naturally, and it may take many years for me to evolve and figure it all out.  A lot of times, my inspiration appears in my writing.  I don’t always write with a future dedication in mind, but my two most current projects both have strong ties to the sentiments that I’ve felt at losing a loved one, and both of these people are people that I associate with Christmas.

A few years back, I was in the middle of writing an action-adventure novel, something that was inspired by the works of Robert E. Howard.  Conan the Barbarian, Kull the Conqueror, and Solomon Kane were all ubermensches, the noble savages that populated dark worlds of swords and sorcery.  In the middle of my work on this novel, my grandfather died.  Now, my grandfather wasn’t an ubermensch — he wasn’t a musclebound barbarian who was set to take over the World.  No, he was a man with a kind heart, and a man who fought to provide warmth, and understanding, and clarity.

Every year, my family would make the 3+ hour drive (which I’m now told is closer to 4) to visit my grandparents, who lived halfway across the state. My grandpa, and particularly my grandma, loved Christmas, and loved the time spent with family.  They loved showering us with gifts, and making one of my favorite foods with such great care that I felt like I could have been a king in their household.  When we were ready to return home, we would step out into the dry, biting cold of the Central Valley, and make the trip back home to a place that was (even if not warm) much more temperate.

When I created my main character for one of my current ongoing works in progress, Their Sharpest Thorns, I did so with my grandpa in mind.  The main character, Harold Parrish, is a gruff but kind-hearted man, and all he wants is to provide safety and sanity to his community, even as things fall apart.  The parallels between Harold and my grandfather run a little deeper than that, but the protagonist of Their Sharpest Thorns is far from my grandfather.

The protagonist of the next work in progress, The Best of You, is inspired by many people.  One of whom is one of my uncles.  A few years ago, we had a nasty run of deaths in the family, including losing two of my uncles within a few months of each other.  All of my uncles loved baseball, but one of my uncles was a particular baseball fan.  This uncle was particularly generous.  As he was simplifying his life, making plans to ease the transition, just in case such a time came, he gave me his collection of CDs.  He was an absolute audiophile, and the collection of CDs in my house easily doubled overnight. For some, this might be a burden.  For me, it was a blessing, as it gives me something to remember him by, but also feeds another one of my passions: music.  For reference, I was a DJ for about two years, and a radio sports commentator for close to three.

This uncle was the inspiration for The Best of You, a story about one of the greats in a fictitious baseball league.  The main character couldn’t be further from my uncle in personality.  My uncle was humble, and the main character is brash.  My uncle was soft-spoken, and the main character loudly proclaims that he is “Pelayo Guerrero, the best that ever was.”  My uncle was a wonderful family man, a devoted husband, and a supportive father; Guerrero is a self-centered bachelor, who beds a different woman in every city.  So, you may ask, how was The Best of You inspired by this uncle?  For one, it was his love of baseball.  For another, Guerrero is his opposite in so many ways.  However, there is a supporting cast that is a lot like my uncle, his brother (and brother-in-law), and their friends.  These aren’t one-for-one translations, but there are aspects that pull from people that I was accustomed to seeing on Christmas.

So, that leaves me here.  The presents are all wrapped, and the stockings are hung with care (as much as I can, at least), and I am left being grateful for the memories and inspiration.  To all of you, your families, and your future families, cherish the time that you have together.  It may sound hokey, but they are the gifts that you’ll remember.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a… holy heck, it’s 1am!

Happy reading!


On Turning 34

December 12, 2017

Stephen King said that 19 was a magical age for him.  It was the late 1960s, as the Summer of Love was rising, and at a time when The Lord of the Rings was at the height of its literary popularity.  In his essay “On Being Nineteen”, King describes nineteen as “a selfish age, and [one] finds one’s cares tightly circumscribed.”  Nineteen wasn’t as magical for me.

For me, most of 19 was 2003. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers had just entered theaters, but the action flick didn’t capture the minds of the hippies that had so latched onto the books in their youths.  At the time, I considered myself a bit of a hippie: no, not the peace-love-dope variety, but of the type who found happiness in nature and despair in civilization.  I wanted to live off the grid, but only off of the grid enough that I still had power to play video game basketball and write that novel on my oversized Gateway computer.  Yes, I was a hippie of the Oregon Trail generation, back when computer games involved dying of dysentery and drowning oxen.  No, my generation wasn’t worried about Tolkein’s allegory for industrialization any more than we were worried about BPAs in our Nalgene bottles.  We were waiting for the third installment of The Matrix with bated breath, and mostly didn’t care that Neo was Buddha for the Internet Age.

It may be hard for the average 19 year old to understand the historical context of 2002 and 2003, especially given how things have happened over the past eleven months.  The United States was at war that most felt was justifiable, but many vaguely understood;  the War on Terror was in flight, and the fervor of the new patriotism squashed the anti-war sentiment that followed everything Vietnam like a shadow.  Unlike Vietnam, there was never an immediate threat that we would get drafted to serve, whether we wanted to or not.  Unlike Vietnam, we didn’t know friends who defected to other countries in order to avoid dying on the other side of the World. Unlike Vietnam, we weren’t at war with a country; we were at war with a loose political philosophy. No, this wasn’t Communism; at least Communism was systematic.

Every now and then, I see these junk videos on YouTube (which wasn’t a thing when I was 19) that have teens guess the names of songs and the artists behind them.  The kind of music that I listened to (Matchbox 20, Third Eye Blind, and an entire catalogue of stuff that is way older than I am) is something that completely eludes them.  Sure, they know Beyonce, post-No Doubt Gwen Stefani, and Jennifer Lopez, but there’s nobody that seems to know Cake, Fastball, Pearl Jam, or Foo Fighters.  These bands are a bit older, but even the bands that were big when I was 19 are now footnotes in musical history. Audioslave, Linkin Park, and Evanescence were tearing up the charts when I was 19. Pop-punk was a thing.  Rock was still alive, and post-rock was my idea of Earth after the big boom.  Now, of course, Chris Cornell (Audioslave) is no longer with us, neither is Chester Bennington (Linkin Park), and only the devoted know where to find Amy Lee (Evanescence) on a given night.  Hopefully, the latter is in a recording studio somewhere, but I wouldn’t have a clue.

My freshman year (when I turned 19) ended with tumult, and sophomore year started with the hope for something brighter.  Back then, I didn’t have a cell phone, or a car, or anywhere to be between the hours of noon and midnight. I didn’t have many responsibilities, but I also didn’t have much control.  At the time, I was determined to not quit school, but certain that I wouldn’t be at that school much longer.  (I was right — I graduated a few years later).  I was a part of a writer’s group back then, and I co-hosted a radio show, but I was growing increasingly convinced that I didn’t see eye to eye with anybody at our meetings.  I wanted to be a radio DJ, a writer, and a runner, but all of those goals seemed so far away.

Fifteen years later, only one of those goals is still on the table.  Radio DJing and sports broadcasting are now a decade back in my rearview mirror, and running is something that I haven’t done consistently for about two years.  I write, and it is something that I still love to do.  Eight NaNoWriMos and two completed manuscripts later, and publication still seems far away — even if it seems so much closer than before.  In fact, I’ve written something for my novel every day for the past month and a half, and lament the fact that this streak isn’t any longer than that.  In this and so many other senses, I’ve achieved a level of consistency that I haven’t had since I’d consistently fall five seconds short of my all-time best mile time.  I was sick of it then, but oh, what I wouldn’t give to see 5:53 on my wristwatch again!

Now, I’m coming up at the end of 33 (a very good year), and looking forward to 34, which may be one of the best.  Better than 26? Maybe.  Better than 18? Probably.  Better than 14? As if there was any contest! As I reach this next mile marker in the race of life, I think about everything that has changed, and everything that will change in the near future.  Think about it: 34 is 15 years removed from 19.  In another 15, I will be knocking on the door for 50, well in the throes of middle age.

As I look forward to 34, I have so many responsibilities that I didn’t have at 19.  I have a cell phone — but also a cell phone plan.  I have a car — but also auto insurance.  I have a home — but also a mortgage.  I live on the grid, and couldn’t be happier.  To paraphrase Rockwell, “I work from 9-to-7ish, hey hell I pay the price.”  The things on my mind nowadays are still basketball and writing, but also a number of other things that weren’t even a blip on the horizon when I was 19.  Questions of insurance coverage, retirement savings, and HOA dues enter my mind (between whatever is going on in my main characters’ lives).

As recent as it seems, things have changed so much in this post-9/11 landscape, and when I think that a 19-year-old today was a toddler in 2001 (and still short of kindergarten when I was 19 in 2002/03).  19-year-old me wouldn’t have believed that 34-year-old me would be married (for a good few years, at that).  19-year-old me wouldn’t believe that 34-year-old me would have two cats (because 19-year-old me was going to have dogs).  19-year-old me wouldn’t believe that 34-year-old me would have a desk job (because 19-year-old me was going to be a forest ranger).  Moreover, 19-year-old me wouldn’t believe that 34-year-old me would see three Giants World Series wins, 2 Warriors NBA titles, and the Niners in a Super Bowl.  (To be fair, I didn’t see much of that last one.)

Oh, how different the world was then, back when Michael Jordan was still clinging to his playing career, and Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter were still considered heirs to the NBA throne.  The musicians that were still alive then, the actors and actresses that topped the World’s Sexiest list, and the web browsers that people used were all different then.  The iPhones and Android phones of today didn’t exist; a “smart” phone was the BlackBerry, and everyone I knew seemed to have a Motorola Razr.  Back then, MySpace was the new thing that seemed poised to take over the World (how’s that going, huh?) and blogs hadn’t entered the mainstream.  Where will we be in fifteen years?  Nobody could have seen BlackBerry’s decline, and MySpace’s near disappearance.  Not that Apple or Google or Facebook would allow it, but could you imagine a world where these brands are old news? Think back a few years, and you’d be amazed at the things that you never would have expected that you now take for granted!

Now, as I turn 34, I have a lot of changes ahead.  I haven’t shared it yet on this blog, but I will be a father by the time I’m 35.  In fact, my child will probably have taken his or her first step by the time I’m 35, will have started to sleep in his or her own crib by the time I’m 35, and may have started something vaguely resembling actual words (rare, I know, but possible) by the time I’m 35.  Imagine how the World will change in those nine months, but also imagine how the World will change by the time my first-born child is an adult! By the time this new person is 19, the Taylor Swifts and Ed Sheerans of the world will be like oldies, Nirvana will be ancient history, the Foo Fighters will be like the Rolling Stones are today, and there may be #1 radio hit from somebody who isn’t even born yet.  To this future 19-year-old, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, and Tracy McGrady will be like Alex English, Kiki Vandeweghe, and Kelly Tripucka were to me.  To this future 19-year-old, The Matrix might as well be Star Wars, and The Matrix Revolutions might as well be Ishtar.

What does any of this have to do with writing, you might ask?  Well, the first part of this is that you will now know why it may still take me a while to get published.  The second part of this is simple: in 19 years, when 34-year-old me is 53, and my own child is nearly 19, I hope that people will go onto their Amazon (or Lulu or Nook or whatever) accounts, or dash into their local book store and see my name on a shelf.  They will see “Jim Owen,” and wonder if they could someday write like him, or if they could someday have that success, or if they should check out this prolific writer because they’ve heard so much about him.

Fifteen years ago, when I was 19, I never imagined where life would have taken me to this point.  I never would have imagined that I’d be back in my home town, working less than a mile from my alma mater.  Fifteen years from now, or even 19 years from now, I wonder what 34-year-old me would never have imagined that I’d have done by middle age.

Website Wednesday: Shelly King

November 1, 2017

Hi Everyone!  Well, it’s been a while since my regular Website Wednesday feature was actually regular.  I thought that NaNoWriMo would be an appropriate time to look at a few more author websites.  Let’s see how it goes!  The first website is for a local author.  Shelly King, author of LitFic book The Moment of Everything will be sharing her thoughts about writing the best story you can, publishing, and everything in between.  If you’re in the Bay Area and free tomorrow afternoon, check it out:

Shelly King NaNoWriMo Kickoff Event – Thursday, November 2nd at 6pm
Scotts Valley Library, Fireside Room, 251 Kings Village Road, Scotts Valley, CA

I, unfortunately, won’t be there, because there’s not going to be much room between work and NaNoWriMo this month.  Instead, I wanted to share my observations of Shelly King’s website.

Shelly King, Author of The Moment of Everything

Ms. King’s website is a modern website, with all of the bells and whistles that you’d expect from a “simple,” responsive design website (although it looks like some of the code breaks if you sign into WordPress).  Yes, this is the modern site, conforming to the standards for phones, tablets, and PCs.  The front page is pretty simple.  There’s a carousel that changes every fifteen to twenty seconds between advertising The Moment of Everything and her writing classes and editing services.  This occupies about two thirds of everything below the banner.  The other third is a form, prompting you to subscribe to Ms. King’s newsletter.  The banner itself is much like what I’ve come to expect in any author’s site: About the Book; Events; Writing Classes (somewhat different); About the Author; Contact.

The Good: There are two things that stand out to me with this website.  First, the extras that are all ancillary to the book. This includes blog posts about the book, a Sirius-XM interview about the book and the author’s influences.  The Sirius-XM interview is particularly interesting to me because of the content: which movies inspired the book?  It’s an interesting concept, and something that I will probably explore on my own (I have a similar topic that is ready for release, and I will save this for later this month).

The second item that is of the most interest to me is the “About Me” section.  It shares a lot of small, important details, and then ends with some humorous, self-aware little quips.  I love the fact that she shares items about her dogs and cats. This is her website, folks, it’s not what Ms. Editor wants her to place on her back cover!

The Bad: I never like it when the website looks like it’s there to sell you something.  Of course we’re coming to the website because of your books!  This is a cross between the two, and that may be fine considering Ms. King is also using this site to promote her (other) business.  The one thing that bothers me is the juxtaposition of this carousel of The Moment of Everything and her writing classes and editing services and the forms for signing up for her newsletter.

In my own web experience, I seldom want to be bothered with the sign-up.  If it’s there, I might sign up for a newsletter.  I do this all of the time for my job (research purposes), but newsletters are otherwise not bery important to me.  Putting a newsletter front and (just off-)center probably wouldn’t be a decision that I would make for my own website, particularly if I’m also including forms for first and last name, along with the email address.

Finally, I find it funny that she’s not advertising her own events on her website.  The current events page doesn’t have anything, even though we know better.

The Verdict: King does a lot of things that she should with a simple site.  The banner has all of the pull-down menus that you’d want, and access to a few extras.  In terms of website aesthetics, the images serve their purpose well.  My own preferences aside, there’s no real faux pas with the design.  The splash page for her website might serve as an advertisement, but you must dig a little deeper to get to the “buy it now” prompt.

NaNoWriMo participants, take note: Shelly does a lot of things very well, and she’s an active NaNoWriMo participant in her own right.


Visit with Ms. King tomorrow, November 2nd:

Shelly King NaNoWriMo Kickoff Event – Thursday, November 2nd at 6pm
Scotts Valley Library, Fireside Room, 251 Kings Village Road, Scotts Valley, CA


Countdown: Reflecting on Past Projects #1

October 31, 2017

Just seven(-plus) short years after I sat down and told myself that I’d get serious about novel writing, I am here again, at the cusp of another NaNoWriMo, ready to start my seventh project.  Each of the last five projects are somewhere in development hell. Absconded by Sin is going through another rewrite, and its successor Big Man will one day demand a full rewrite.  This year, I hoped to complete my current work in progress Their Sharpest Thorns, by the end of October.  That didn’t happen.

When I wrote my first novel, now in yet another round of editing, I was already about a month into it — a solid month of intense writing and outlining — by the time NaNoWriMo rolled around.  I had more than 60,000 words committed to Microsoft Word, and my characters had undergone a journey that took them from a military prison to an archbishop’s quarters, and on to the mighty Sierras. The story had momentum, the story had legs, and I was so convinced that NaNoWriMo would take me through the second third of the story.  As it turns out, I was pretty close.  I ended NaNoWriMo 2010 with exactly 60,000 words, as luck would have it. My first draft clocked in at 187,510 words – 303 8.5×11 pages, and more than twice that when transformed into a 5 x 8 book with standard fonts and margins.  In other words, NaNoWriMo did as I’d intended, give or take a chapter or two.

I completed my first draft of Absconded by Sin in April of 2011, put some author’s notes on it, and called it a day.  Eventually, I came back to it and gave a few passes of editing before I was ready to open the door and have others read it.  Back then, I was more concerned with making sure that characters were robust and vibrant than I was with actual word counts, so an extra 1,000 words here and there didn’t bother me as much as the notion that a character might be flat or simply obscure.  When those 187,510 words rolled out, I was sure that my characterization was spot on.

Absconded by Sin became the subject of many months, if not years, of frustration.  After getting good feedback from my wife, I sent it out to my beta readers.  Some of my beta readers came back with very positive feedback, and some didn’t come back at all, but the initial feedback on Absconded by Sin was empowering.  I had an inkling that Absconded by Sin would be a success.

Work intervened with my writing life.  I was still writing, but 2,000 words per night became maybe a few hundred here and there.  By the time I was ready to address my readers’ comments, it was time for my second NaNoWriMo, and I didn’t have time to make those fixes.

One project rolled into another, and Absconded by Sin became lost in the shuffle. It wasn’t until April 2016, five years after I’d completed my first (or even “zero” draft) of the novel when I started looking for agents and publishers.  I sent out a handful of targeted query letters, and frequently heard nothing in return.  Those few responses I’d received were concerned that it wasn’t quite their genre (it is a bit interstitial that way) or that the word count was just too high to market.  Eventually, I found Perfect Analogy publishing, but even they said that the word count (to borrow from Jimmy McMillan) was too damn high.

There I was, on a cross-country flight to Charlotte-Douglas Airport (a stopover for Portland, Maine) with a binder full of my 187,500 words, trying to get them down to even 120,000.  It took several weeks from that point, and I failed in that mission, but 121,966 wasn’t too bad — not even a third the length of your typical George R.R. Martin book.

Toward the end of October 2016, NaNoWriMo 2016 was on the horizon.  I had a great outline, with just a few missing steps between the climax and the ending, and I was ready to go.  Unfortunately, as I was cleaning out our home office, my cat ran past me, I spun around, and I knocked my computer, USB-stick first, to the floor.  This USB stick, which carried the latest versions of at least three of my novels, was smashed, damaged irreparably (unless you have money to burn).  The last word on many of my novels, as well as the only outline I had for Their Sharpest Thorns was lost.

Their Sharpest Thorns, a combo police procedural / horror novel set in the Sierras, started out with some bumps.  I couldn’t decide on what to name my main character, my map for the town and critical locations was lost, and my notes for important symbols also went by the wayside.  I persevered; several months after NaNoWriMo ended, my 100,000 word first draft was complete. The problem was that this draft was ultra drafty, and I’ve been working to simultaneously tighten existing scenes and expand some lean scenes ever since.

This year, I’m coming into NaNoWriMo with some outline, a few test cases for my characters, but no real momentum in my writing.  As the calendar page begins to fold over, I am nervous about how this will turn out.  50,000 words is quite a commitment, even if I’ve been able to surpass it every year since 2010.  As trick-or-treaters are out roaming the streets, I am counting down to Halloween’s witching hour.  I might get in a few words after midnight, but I will be slapping the keys in earnest tomorrow afternoon.  Hoping to get a good lead on The Best of You before I’m behind the pace.