To Two Teachers: Sra. Diego & Prof. Gorsch

May 9, 2017
At work this morning, a colleague reminded me that today is National Teacher Appreciation Day.  After reflecting a little on teachers, I decided to give you this bonus post.  I hope to finish my thoughts about my venture into podcasts later this week, until then – – here’s a tribute to two teachers who have influenced me for the better.

As a MAE student at UCSC, I worked on two projects that served as alternatives to a thesis.  The first, part of the New Teacher induction, was a BTSA binder that prompted me to write about certain experiences in my teacher training and to provide examples of my lesson planning and pedagogy. The second, referred to as my graduate capstone, was a lengthy personal essay that described my teaching philosophy and the elements of education that I had taken from mentor teachers, my own personal teachers, and what I’d observed in the broader education sphere.  A significant portion of this turned into a discussion of things that I enjoyed from my teachers.  Considering that this is National Teacher Appreciation Day, I thought that I would write a little about some of the teachers that influenced my life, namely Yolie Diego and Robert Gorsch.

I don’t know when I decided that I would be an English major.  I know it was some time in high school, and that it factored heavily into how I viewed schools as I whittled my list down from a dozen or so colleges, prior to actually applying.  I do know that Yolie Diego made the decision to be an English major complicated.  Yolie Diego was my Spanish teacher for three years, starting with Spanish 3 and going all of the way through AP Spanish. In that time, I learned a lot about her, from her taste in music (decidedly not a Barry Manilow fan) to her journey from Colombia to the United States.

Sra. Diego kept a tight, well organized class, and provided us with many multi-modal means of learning the language, from having us teach the rest of the class how to cook a Spanish or Mexican meal, to performing a Saturday Night Live style comedy sketch, to singing along with the class to Shakira, Sra. Diego had an array of tricks up her sleeve to make us conversant in the Spanish language.  One of these tricks was simple, let us talk about ourselves.  Every week, we would be paired up with a new conversational partner, and would take a walk around the block in the quiet neighborhood that surrounded our school.  During that short walk, we would ask our partner about their weekend — practicing Spanish the entire time, I swear!  By the time we returned to class, we were already processing things in Spanish, and were ready to continue on with the day’s lesson.

Our high school had a unique structure that allowed individuals to accelerate their learning across a variety of disciplines. Being more inclined to learn languages, I opted to accelerate my education in Spanish.  As a result, I completed AP Spanish in my junior year of high school.  This, of course, meant that I was a little rusty by the time I took my first Spanish class in college.  At the time, I was looking to add a minor, if not a second major, and Spanish was my first choice.  Unfortunately, due to the rigors of my major, and the breadth of the general ed courses that I needed to take, I couldn’t fit in any more Spanish beyond that, but I’d always hoped that I would continue to learn Spanish.  Now, nearly fifteen years later, I hardly ever use Spanish.  However, I will always think of Sra. Diego’s classes among the highlights of my time spent in the classroom.

When I arrived in college, I didn’t know much about individual members of the English Department’s faculty.  I happened across Robert Gorsch through St. Mary’s collegiate seminar program.  Professor Gorsch, like most other St. Mary’s professors, would cycle through the collegiate seminar courses.  One year, he would teach Roman and Early Christian Thought, and the next he’d teach Twentieth Century and Modern Thought.  He was the second literature professor I’d had in the seminar program, the first being my first advisor, Br. Ronald Gallagher.  Professor Gorsch, much like Br. Ronald before him, did a good job of holding students to the fire with respect to reading the material; even then, the fact that many seminar students are forced into the class as a requirement, and do not care to read the material, took away some of the luster from Professor Gorsch’s depth of knowledge.

I took multiple other classes with Professor Gorsch, ranging from Literary Theory to Early British Literature, and several things impressed me with Gorsch.  One was his ability to speak Middle English.  As I’ve mentioned in a past post, the language of the Chaucer era is hardly recognizable to our modern ears and eyes, and Professor Gorsch taught us why.  Not only did he teach us why, but he spent a class teaching us how to read in Middle English.  Aside from his depth of knowledge, one of the lasting items that has stuck with me about Professor Gorsch’s courses, now more than a decade in my past, is that Professor Gorsch is passionate about his subject, whether teaching about the Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo or teaching about Aristotle’s three artistic proofs, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, or Alexander Pope.  Recently, I noticed that Professor Gorsch taught a course in Science Fiction.  I would have greatly enjoyed that class, I’m sure… even though it would suffer from a pronounced lack of Stephen King!

Hey, I did read Danielle Steel for a non-Gorsch Literary Criticism course, so King wasn’t off limits!

I have had the great fortune of working with and knowing many great teachers, even outside of my former occupation.  I even have two educators in my extended family, including one who is back at our alma mater, teaching a subject that I once enjoyed nearly as much as English.  Teachers are people who capture the imagination and instill practical skills across the world’s population.  They leave an imprint that can last for the rest of your life, whether that’s 40 or 100 years spent out of the classroom.  Without educators sharing their knowledge, writers would be even fewer and farther between; there would be less of us able to appreciate them, and even fewer of us who would create a demand for writers!

So, with the time winding down in today’s National Teacher Appreciation Day, I implore you to reach out to teachers who have influenced you for the better (hopefully, at this hour, you’re doing so via social media or email). It’s your turn to return the favor.

Photo Credit (applies to links from other sites only): Pixabay via Pexels, CC0 License.

Where Can Authors Promote their Books in Media? How about Podcasts?

May 9, 2017

Prior to the 1940s, the radio was the primary form of mass communication in entertainment.  It took years of experimentation, but television evolved rapidly through the 1930s and 1940s.  In 1946, just a year after World War II formally ended, standardized television schedules and broadcasts were just coming into existence.

Television’s first years of existence were not as innocent as they may seem.  Much like the radio stations that preceded (and ran concurrently with) them, popular shows were sponsored.  Some of these sponsors are still household names: Kraft, Esso, and Texaco are among them.  Beyond that, shows would regularly have a significant cast member, whether Harriet Nelson pitching ketchup or Lucille Ball pitching food conglomerates (in the early 1950s), or the narrator, such as Dick Wesson of David Janssen’s The Fugitive, announcing that the show has been sponsored by Acme Safe Company.

Ads today are more overt, separate productions that have production costs beyond John Wayne endorsing a line of cigarettes.  The 2017 Super Bowl has the most extravagant examples of this, with price tags in excess of $2.5M for a 30-second spot.  That may seem like a lot of money –indeed, it is – but consider that approximately 111M people saw the Super Bowl; that’s 2.3-cents per viewer!  I don’t know what kind of estimates they make based on a funnel of viewers to buyers, but I’m sure 2.3-cents is worth it when considering the average price for a Big Mac in the US is now $4.62.

Interestingly enough, authors have also used television ads.  In the past, I’ve seen trailers for James Patterson and Dean Koontz.  I’m sure there are others that I’ve missed, but I rarely watch any network television at this point in my life.  Still, television is not necessarily the medium of readers.  I know many book fans who also are fans of many authors, spanning across multiple genres, but I’d find it hard to believe that fans of reality television would kick back with a nice Thomas Pynchon novel and dive into his world.  With authors like Stephen King and Danielle Steel, there probably is more of a crossover between television fans and book readers, but these authors have had their books adapted into many movies and TV shows (successful and unsuccessful alike).

Where does that leave authors?  Books generally don’t have ads (although I see them pop up on my wife’s Kindle when she’s put it down for the night).  Television and the radio remain media that are dominated by corporate interests.  I’m sure you’ll find more ads for beer than you’ll find for any New York Times Bestseller.  Another medium, the Web, has become the refuge of the self-marketing author.  Social media like Facebook, Twitter, and even Pinterest allow writers to reach a broad community, while book-specific social sites allow writers to reach known readers.  In recent months, I’ve also seen “book trailers” on YouTube, and some of them have been done to great effect.  I’ve even mentioned Michael Wallace’s Quill Gordon book trailers in a previous blog.

However, there’s another resource that reaches the ears, if not the eyes, of targeted audiences every day: podcasts.  If YouTube is the democratizing of visual media (let’s not kid ourselves, it’s different from TV), then podcasts are the democratization of audio media.

There are plenty of podcasts out there for readers.  Bookriot provides one list of them right here.  I am in the process of recording for one podcast, but this takes a slightly different tactic.  The Modern Meltdown Network provides a podcast for writers every two weeks.  This podcast, Beyond the Words, hosted by Holly Hunt, takes writers through various aspects of the writing process.

I hope to share the link with you if / when it is released.  Until then, I plan on sharing some lessons learned about recording interview questions and thinking up responses to a recorded interview in an upcoming post.  At least one of these lessons learned will also apply to writing, so I hope you’ll enjoy the parallel.

In the meantime, I am continuing to write.  My first complete draft of Their Sharpest Thorns is still a few weeks away, but I am optimistic that I will finish this month.

Picture credit (applies to links from other sites only): Tookapic via Pexels, CC0 License.

First Impressions: What I’ve Learned from Linda Gunther’s Finding Sandy Stonemeyer

May 2, 2017

Personal Update: Tackling Camp Nanowrimo

Over the past month, I’ve been working on my current project, Their Sharpest Thorns.  I set out a goal for 20,000 words over the span of May.  That may not seem like a lot when you consider that the goal for NaNoWriMo (every November) is 50,000, and I typically surpass that goal with about a week to go.  This time, things were different.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the demands of the blog would often get in the way of my progress on the work.

That being said, I surpassed the goal on April 30th, and ended up with more than 22,000 words for the month, and more than 87,000 words for the project.  In terms of word count, that’s the equivalent of coming around the home turn, three laps into a mile race.  In terms of project completion, meeting word count goals does not equate a finished project.  In project completion terms, word count is just a guideline.  It is more important to get to those closing words, whatever they may be and whenever they may occur.

The next steps are when things begin to get difficult.  From the completed first draft, I go through my completed draft several times.  In the first pass-through, I look for plot.  I try to identify places where I skipped connections, or where some item, whether in terms of narrative arc or in terms of character development, needs more buildup in support.  The next several passes look for areas where I can improve the language.

At this point in my writing career, having completed two manuscripts to date, I’ve found that there is one specific section that doesn’t begin to crystallize until I’ve been through the novel a few times: the beginning.  The first couple of lines set the tone for the rest of the book, and are typically among the most memorable lines in a work.  The framing of these first lines, as well as how you might deem these first lines as successful or not, depends on the genre.  In literary fiction, in particular, it is important to create a sense of importance in the overall text.  In action and adventure, an author might want to throw the reader directly into the plot or describe the stakes.  In high fantasy or science fiction, an author will want to establish the rules of their world as soon as possible.  These are not hard-and-fast rules; an author may abide by these rules and successfully immerse the reader in one book, and then take a completely different approach in the next book, and still provide a memorable first line.

Like anything, the first impression is important, and the first sentence, paragraph, or page is the first impression with which you leave your reader about your work.  Speaking of first impressions, I had a very positive first impression following an interaction that I had last week.

Mini-Critique / Review: Linda S. Gunther – Finding Sandy Stonemeyer

On Friday, I spoke with a published writer about her experience in getting published.  She is a self-published writer, with books that span several genres, including thriller, romance, children’s fiction, and (a current work-in-progress) non-fiction.  Toward the end of our meeting, she asked me to take a look at one of her books, Finding Sandy Stonemeyer: A Romantic Thriller Set in Northern California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.  I left this for myself as a treat, promising myself that I would not read it until my 20,000 for the month of April was set.  On Sunday, I began her novel, and the first several sentences struck me right away:

“Never think for one minute that your life is one-directional, still, or steady.  Change hovers on the fringes of our existence, ready to strike at any given moment.  My name is Sandy Stonemeyer, mother of two forever feuding children: Luke, a curious four-year-old, and Jenny, a rambunctious nine-year-old.” (Finding Sandy Stonemeyer, (c) Linda S. Gunther, 2016).

Without having read beyond the first chapter, I can already tell you that this is the cornerstone for the rest of the novel.  It is the cornerstone of this novel because it needs to be.  Linda approaches her opening using several techniques that I don’t use myself.  It doesn’t mean that she’s right, and it doesn’t mean that I’m right, it’s just a different approach.  These are characteristics of our respective literary voices.  Notice the juxtaposition between the first two sentences and the third sentence.  Not once in the first two sentences does Linda give the narrator a gender or have the narrator refer to herself.  Instead, she starts with a “universal truth.”  This is the same technique Jane Austen used in Pride & Prejudice, Graham Greene used in The End of the Affair, and Charles Dickens used (albeit to a slightly lesser extent) in A Tale of Two Cities.  This style of opening sentence tries to appeal to the audience’s greater moral sense.  It distances itself from the action, in a way that Nick Carraway does not as the narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and hints at a lesson to be learned – either by the reader or by the protagonist – as an outcome of this tale.

There are moments in this first couple of sentences that border on cliché, but only in the sense that they are expressions that enter common use (i.e., “never think for one minute” and “strike at any given moment”).  Some would be repulsed by claiming something is a cliché, but a cliché is not a bad thing.  A cliché, a common aphorism, and a common turn of phrase are all made common for one reason: they work.  Furthermore, these two sentences redeem themselves from having more-or-less common sayings by what they attempt to tell the reader.  In addition, by using these common words, by turning these common phrases, the narrator allows the reader to drop in on familiar terms.  If you look at that second sentence, it is a reasonably long sentence (fifteen words), but it doesn’t waste any space.  The personification of change as an animal, presumably a snake, that is ready to strike leaves an impression.

The third sentence uses a technique that you can see in the beginning of innumerable novels, from Austen and James Joyce to the novels at the rack at your local supermarket.  It describes the players, and what you can expect from them.  Again, Linda wastes no space here, describing the narrator and her two children in twenty words.  We get a descriptive word to identify each child, as well as his or her age.  This is a technique that is particularly relevant upon first-person narratives, and authors often use this to get all of the introduction down as quickly as possible before moving on to the rest of the story.  It is not a technique that I particularly ascribe to, as I like to leave readers hanging for a little while as they form their own opinions of the character.  I’m still early in my current draft, so I don’t have anything to illustrate my most recent approach, but I’ve started my first novel Absconded by Sin without any concrete description of the main character in that scene:

“She took off her shoes and felt her bare feet against the tile floor.” (Absconded by Sin, First North American Serial Rights (c) 2017, Jim Owen)

Within my first paragraphs, the character’s name doesn’t appear.  This is by design.  Whether the character is named Jennifer or Theresa, the reader is divorced from any preconception that comes with the name.  I should note that I do not always follow this formula.  My past several incomplete drafts, including my current work in progress, all mention at least one character by name in the first sentence, and several do so in the first five words.  That being said, I use no adjectives to describe their disposition, except (perhaps) to discuss their emotional state.  In using adjectives or adjective phrases, such as “forever feuding,” “curious,” and “rambunctious,” the narrator of Finding Sandy Stonemeyer has already provided us with first impressions of the characters, and these adjectives should provide markers of what we will need to know, and what we can expect, moving forward.  As mentioned, without having read much further (I’m about 12 pages in as I write this), I don’t know if the story makes good on this promise. I’d imagine it does, because that is what the narrator has already taught us to expect.

Ultimately, there are several aspects of Linda S. Gunther’s first paragraph that bring me to some key points about good writing.

First and foremost, the narrative tries to reach us with an evocation.  Writers often use a “universal truth” to elicit some form of emotional or intellectual response from the reader.  Why can’t we think our life is one-directional?  What do we do when change strikes us unexpectedly?  These are questions that speak to a much bigger picture.  These “universal truths” also allow the reader to “tune in” intellectually, as everybody has their own thoughts about life and life changes, and these are not necessarily congruous with what the narrator has to say.

The second is that she establishes a sense of direction for the story.  This isn’t as obvious, but it is there.  We now know that the story is about a narrator who is the mother of two children.  We don’t necessarily know what will happen to them, but we know that there will be a change.  This isn’t always something that writers address in the first few paragraphs (I surely don’t), but it is important for the reader to understand what is at stake.

Beyond this, the narrative provides a slight emotional tie.  Through both the use of aphorism and the description of her kids, the narrator shows that she’s “been there,” and the use of the terms curious and rambunctious to describe kids are two examples of details that appeal to readers who have “been there,” too.

Finally, there’s one detail that appeals to the modern reader more than it appeals to readers of years past.  She’s brief. The beginning is the rhetorical equivalent of opening a presentation with a welcome: it does its job, and then you move on.  Many literary examples build up a short argument (note: not the literary definition of an argument), wherein the narrator lays out all of their stakes, goes into detail about the tapestries, or gives a detailed account of the hero’s pedigree. The narrator gives us all of the pedigree we need in the third sentence: she’s a mother of two.

If you are interested in Linda S. Gunther’s Finding Sandy Stonemeyer or any of her other work, please click here.

Author’s Note: I’ve missed my usual Monday update yet again.  I will look to update at once more during the course of the week.  Considering that this is going out on a Tuesday, please expect a bit of a delay as I gather my thoughts on other topics.

Running through Mud: An Update on my Current Project

April 26, 2017

It has been a little over two months since I’ve started blogging again; that isn’t to say that I had completely stopped, but there is a difference between shooting for two blogs per week and blogging when the muse strikes.  Setting myself to a schedule has helped my productivity, both in terms of blogging and in terms of writing, and has helped me think through a number of critical aspects of the writing craft.  In this time, as you may recall, I have also used Facebook Live to share some of my work, and have spoken at the Community Writers of Santa Cruz gatherings.  However, as I sit here, thinking of my next scene, I wonder just how productive I have been.

In terms of my current project, Their Sharpest Thorns, I am in the early stages of my fourth act.  I came into this month having written 65,511 words, and have since added 12,266.  Through dumb luck and a little bit of wordsmithing, I ended last night with 77,777 words in the project.  Having set my sights on 20,000 words for the month of April, I have come to the realization that I may not hit that mark; right now, I’m far off the track, but I have been known to pull 2,000 words on nights where I’ve been less than inspired.

Some of this stunted production does relate to the blog.  The blog has helped me get back into writing, but anything is an improvement in production when you’ve set your book aside for weeks at a time.  Nevertheless, when I devote 1,000 or so words to a blog, it is not the same as devoting 1,000 words to my book, and that’s time spent away from my book that I have no way of retrieving.

I can say that a part of this stunted production is that layoff.  When people ask me how I write so much in a month for NaNoWriMo, the answer is frequently “it’s easy.” It isn’t quite easy, but writing is about rhythm and momentum.  Writing 1,667 words nightly, as I do in November, is much easier than writing 1,667 words one day, and then waiting a week to write 1,667 more.  Furthermore, the muse is more likely to strike if I am already in the habit of writing.  My exhortation to those of you who write, whether it is poetry, fiction, or non-fiction: write daily.  It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about writing, whatever you write about will help you create that writing momentum to push you to that next milestone.

Of course, part of this grind relates to the need to produce good writing. Good writing has one voice – or, at least, one voice per narrative focus.  If you look at examples from your lit class, William Faulkner bounces back between Benjy, Quentin, and Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury, with the last section being a third-person narrator who does not closely follow one character.  There may be four narrators within the story, but the voice only changes when it jumps narrators.  By continually writing on a project, your project will be shaped by the same voice, and will have better cohesion in terms of the mood that you have set for your piece.  Furthermore, by writing every day and exercising your literary voice, you are allowing your literary voice to evolve naturally.

Finally, some of the stunted production relates to where I am in the novel. When I began this novel, I had a basic outline and an otherwise blank canvas.  Now that I have devoted nearly 80,000 words to this story, I have run out of outline and I am working with a world that now has rules, no matter how vaguely defined some of they may be.  It is far easier to write from the standpoint of everything goes than it is to write from the standpoint of “I must anchor this to the world that I have created.”

As I sit here, with not even one new word introduced to my novel today, I wonder if I will resign myself to missing my first NaNoWriMo challenge (my goal is 20,000 for the month) since I began engaging with NaNoWriMo more than seven years ago.  No.  As long as there are hours left in April, I will continue to pursue this goal.  That being considered, it will be one white-knuckler of a ride from here on out!

Image Credit: User: Canon EOS-1d Mark Iv via Max Pixel – Creative Commons Zero License

Learning Two Important Tips from Santa Cruz Writers

April 24, 2017

This past weekend, I shared a portion of my first completed manuscript, Absconded by Sin, for the first time ever.  I had previously shared a draft version of this in November of 2011, when I was still about a third of the novel away from having a completed first draft.  I wasn’t the only one to share, and far from it.  About ten authors shared their work, including one featured author, Michael Wallace.

We kicked off the event with one of our leaders within our small community sharing her prose.  Jennifer Pittman is a local journalist, and she moonlights as a memoirist and a nature writer.  I cannot find any copies of her creative non-fiction on her website, and her manner of writing journalism does not do her wordsmithing abilities any justice.  Jennifer has mastered that fine line between descriptive prose and poetry that engages the senses and evokes a sense of nostalgia within her audience.  An avid hiker, Jennifer uses her extensive time spent on the trail to weave a tapestry, and imbues that tapestry with the many vivid colors of meaning.

Click here to visit Jennifer Pittman’s website, and see her journalism.

Michael Wallace, the month’s featured author, shared excerpts from Wash Her Guilt Away, the second novel in his Quill Gordon Mystery Series.  Wallace, a veteran newsman in his own right, released the fourth novel, The Daughters of Alta Mira, in October.  Michael reminded us of an important task in any prose (and some poetry), the importance of handling your setting as if it is a character.  Unless your fiction is bordering on the absurd or psychotropic, this doesn’t mean that the setting itself has dialogue, but it does mean that the setting itself has some distinct characteristics that sets itself apart, rather than blending in to everywhere else.  Michael Wallace’s series takes place in the Eastern Sierras and in far Northern California, which has a distinct flavor, being far more remote than much of the state, and this is a characteristic that Michael seeks to evoke in his own writing.  In addition to the setting, one of the great characteristics that I noticed in his writing was his narrative authority in portraying a pair of characters who are in a fishing boat along a High Sierra river.  I’m not an angler, so some of the meaning of what they did was lost on me, but even Wallace’s main character, Quill Gordon, is a tribute to something that he loves.  (For reference, Quill Gordon is a famous American lure, made famous via its creator, Theodore Gordon.)

I did a little bit of research in preparation for Michael Wallace’s visit – all of which I promptly forgot, as there was originally another author on deck.  However, as he stood up, it came back to me.  Wallace has put together an effective website, including buttons to direct you to his YouTube, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn channels.  He includes an excerpt from one of his latest novels The McHenry Inheritance, and allows third parties to provide reviews (although they could stand to be curated a little). His YouTube, in particular, is the most effective in showing a book trailer.  This book trailer provides everything it should, introducing the book and the author, and sharing a little about what it’s all about.

Click here to visit Michael Wallace’s website, and learn about Quill Gordon

Click here to see Michael Wallace’s book trailer on YouTube

Through what these two shared, as well as the wit and wisdom of some of our other writers, I reflected on two things that make for good writing:

  • Word choice: being able to select the mot juste (right/appropriate words) to convey an idea, emotion, or action
  • Subtext: The story may have sprung from your fingertips, but you also need to understand the story behind the story from all angles, even if that latter story does not appear on the page.

As for me, I’d like to think that my presentation skills have improved slightly from one month to the next.  I did a better job of setting up my story, but still spoke like I was trying to emulate the guy who reads all of the disclaimers at the end of an ad for some new medicine.  Speaking after such a talented wordsmith like Jennifer, and such a practiced and poised speaker like Michael, was a bit intimidating, and reminds me that I still have a long way to go!  Finally, my latest live sessions on Facebook were not as successful as the first from the perspective of views, reactions, and clicks for my blog, but they were fun – and that’s an important part of being able to write well, too.

Unfinished Business (Part Three)

April 12, 2017

Note: This concludes a three part series about unfinished drafts of famous and not-so-famous works.  For the previous items in this series, see: Part One and Part Two.

Over the past few entries, I’ve mentioned some famous examples of novels that were left on the side of the road (or in the side drawer of a writing desk) due to frustration or illness, as well as a few examples that were left incomplete due to more dire circumstances.  As mentioned, Robert Burns made the phrase “the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry” a part of the public consciousness, if he didn’t coin the phrase himself.  In the third installment of this series, let’s take a look at some examples of my own work that are sitting there, incomplete.

Corporate Decree (2012) – “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / a stately pleasure dome decree.”  These are the opening lines to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan, a short poem that is arguably a long metaphor for the writing process.  The lines of this poem inspired me to draft out what became Corporate Decree, in which security guard for a massive live-work-play must investigate a suspicious death on his own, while his boss frets over the state of his company.  This has remained unfinished and untouched since September of 2013.  I still have most of this story, which clocks in at 56,000 words, but it is the last in a line of novels that I have started and hope to finish.

48 Minutes (2013) – Inspired from an idea given to me by my grandfather, this is the story of a man who mysteriously retires from professional sports, the circumstances that led to his retirement, and the path that he follows after his retirement.  I briefly workshopped aspects of this story with my friend, Adam, but it didn’t get much farther than NaNoWriMo 2013.  I abandoned this story in January 2014 with more than 76,000 words committed to the tale, but may return to it at some later date.

Untitled Disaster Story (2014) – This story is the tale of a group of mismatched parts who struggle to survive before, during, and after the first “man-made” natural disaster.  This was a long story, with many secondary and tertiary characters.  I abandoned this story in March of 2015 with 67,000 words spread out over several documents.  As of now, I am not certain that I will continue this one.

Untitled Robert E. Howard-style Novel (2015) – In 2015, I began an epic story that follows a group of adventurers through a foreign land, where an unlikely hero has to vanquish an evil queen.  I was having so much fun with this one that I was planning to break it into multiple books, and had to carefully consider how I addressed this.  Unfortunately, an unknown percentage of this one was lost due to the fact that one of my flash drives suffered irreparable damage.  I was able to locate a backup copy of this, which has about 56,000 words, but my full notes and most robust draft of this project were lost forever.  As far as incomplete manuscripts go, this is second among my priorities.

Their Sharpest Thorns (2016) – I workshopped this one recently at a writer’s group, shared some of this on Facebook Live, and committed to write 20,000 words for this during Camp NaNoWrimo.  It is still very much alive, so it might not be fair to say that this one has been abandoned.  However, this is the project that has sat in various stages of neglect as I try to beef up my blog and get my first novel, Absconded by Sin, published.  From November 2016 to March 2017, hardly any words had been committed to this work, and it has been just about two weeks since I picked this project up again.

Thanks for letting me share something about my own unfinished projects.  If you’re interested in any of these, or would like to see any other topics discussed in my blog, please comment below or reach me through your regular channels.

Photo Credit: Glory Cycles, Creative Commons 2.0 license via Flickr, 2012

Unfinished Business (Part Two)

April 10, 2017

Note: This is the second in a three part series about unfinished drafts of famous and not-so-famous works.  The third part of this series is scheduled to go out on Wednesday.

Last week, I mentioned my mentor’s fondness of the Robert Burns poem, To A Mouse (1785), which ends with “/ an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / for promis’d joy!” (essentially, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry, and leave us with nothing but grief and pain for promised joy).  Despite what we may plan to do with our lives, some things never come to fruition.  Due to writer’s block, frustration, illness, or myriad other things, some authors are forced to leave a work behind.

Of course, not all writers are fortunate enough to step away from a novel or long story and choose to set it aside. Some writers suffer from what tvtropes.org refers to as “author existence failure.”  The following are a few examples of writers who were not able to complete a famous work before they died:

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer – One of the early examples of great English literature (but by no means the earliest) is The Canterbury Tales, a story of pilgrims on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. There are 24 completed tales, and centuries of debate that go alongside them. The general consensus is that Chaucer did not finish his tales before he died c.October 1400 at c.57 years old, because the pilgrims never make it to Canterbury, and Chaucer’s work ended in the middle of “The Cook’s Tale.”

The Canterbury Tales, for those who haven’t subjected themselves to them, are a trip because of the nature of the language in the text. It’s nominally English, but the thing that you need to realize about English at that time is that it was still coming together as a collection of languages based on British Anglic, Frisian (a German language that is still spoken in portions of the Netherlands), Norman (an earlier version of French), and a handful of other native British languages. As a result of this still simmering stew of languages, some of the words are the same in appearance as they are today, but sound completely differently than you’d expect; for instance, “pilgrimage” is actually pronounced “pill-gri-mah-juh.”  If you can cast aside the almost foreign English language, you’ll find tales with a variety of different content, from the pious to the profane.  A lot of the tales have to do with relationships and sex, at least one of them has to do with roosters, and all of them were intended to entertain people 600+ years ago.

The Faerie Queene – Edmund Spenser – Like Virgil before him and Walt Whitman after him, Spenser set out to create a national myth for his country. He intended to compose twelve books (more like long chapters or acts) of an epic poem that followed the virtues that mattered to contemporary Britain, personified by knights staving off giants, witches, dragons, and dark knights.  Spenser was so well liked, and so well known in his endeavor for a national myth, that he was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, and received a pension of £50 per year from the crown in order to complete it.  However, he died at age 47 in 1599, allegedly of starvation, having completed just five of his books. Any notes on the planned installments are lost, and it isn’t clear if Queen Elizabeth ever even read his work.

Don Juan – Lord Byron – Prior to the 1800s, novels weren’t really much of a thing for English-speaking audiences, and the epic poem was the closest thing to what we see today, which is why you see examples of verse, such as The Canterbury Tales and The Faerie Queene on this list. Lord Byron came in that intervening period where epic poetry hadn’t entirely phased out, but the novel was still evolving as an art form. His Don Juan was a satire about a man who was easily seduced by women (not the womanizer that we hear about today). He published sixteen “cantos” (effectively chapters) before he died. The first two were anonymous, because he was worried that he would get in trouble for peddling “immoral content” (19th century smut). He was working on a seventeen canto, in which he effectively calls out his critics while continuing the story from the sixteenth canto, when he died from a sudden fever in 1824; he was 36.

The Love of the Last Tycoon – F. Scott Fitzgerald – Fitzgerald was of notoriously poor health due to his almost surreal ability to drink copious amounts of alcohol, but his heart attack and subsequent death in 1940 still shocked the literary world.  Fitzgerald wrote about 163 pages into The Love of the Last Tycoon, his unfinished work that gathered insight from his years in Hollywood.  It follows a fictitious director’s rise to power, and the conflicts that he encounters along the way, including a rivalry with another director. His family published the incomplete draft in 1941.

Islands in the Stream – Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway was incredibly hard on himself as an author, and relentless at editing his own work. This is indicative of his overall mental state, as Hemingway is the only person who had the final say on when he died; he took his own life via shotgun in July 1961. Islands in the Stream and the subsequent The Garden of Eden were both published posthumously.  Despite taking almost two years to complete (nothing compared to the fifteen years spent on The Garden of Eden), Hemingway’s work on Islands in the Stream is rough.  His family did publish a complete draft of the novel, which follows a man as he goes from an artistic recluse to an action hero.  There are characteristics of the novel that are clearly Hemingway, but the rough nature of his word choice makes some critics wonder if the seemingly finished work was indeed finished, or if Hemingway intended to publish it as is.

Bonus: A Fourth Millennium Series book – Steig Larsson – This one is probably fresh in many of your minds, but Steig Larsson, the author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was working on a fourth book in that series when he died of a heart attack in 2004. Furthermore, Larsson had written out notes for two more, and allegedly had plans for as many as ten books in the series. His partner, Eva Gabrielsson, inherited his laptop, which contained his manuscript and all notes, and elected to sit on them while she considered her options.  In 2015, David Lagercrantz, another author contracted by Larsson’s publisher, published a fourth book in the series.  It does not rely on Larsson’s original notes.

There are plenty of other well-known authors who have famously passed on in the middle of a famous work.  Are there any big ones that I’ve missed?  Feel free to leave some examples in the comments section below.

Unfinished Business (Part One)

April 5, 2017

Note: This is the first in a three part series about unfinished drafts of famous and not-so-famous works.  The second part of this series is scheduled to go out during the week of April 10th.

When I was in teacher training, I had no fewer than three mentor teachers.  I worked with one teacher per semester for three semesters.  For the fourth semester (second, chronologically), I assisted another teacher in an unofficial capacity before replacing her as a long-term substitute. The last of these three (or four) mentor teachers was a sharp-witted man named Nick.  Nick introduced me to a little tidbit that I’d either never learned or had already forgotten about John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The title of that short novel stems from a few lines of a 1785 poem, “To a Mouse,” by Scottish poet Robert Burns:

“The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley, / an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / for promis’d joy!”

(frequently as “the best-laid plans of mice and men oft go awry…”)

Let’s leave that last portion alone for a second, and think about the phrasing for “the best-laid plans” (one of Nick’s favorite phrases).  When I am writing at my best, I have a firm outline of where I want to go with my narrative.  I generally view it by act, following the same five act format that was popular in Shakespeare’s time.  At times, those five acts are reduced to four, and I group the denouement and the conclusion together. This doesn’t mean that I’m exactly successful at carrying these narratives out to the end.  In fact, only three of my novel-length works (and only two in my adult life) can count as completed first drafts — or beyond.

I’m not the only writer who has left something unfinished, either due to frustration, illness, or death.  Let’s take a look at the writers who stepped away from a novel, and were never able to complete it.

The Long Goodbye – Harper Lee – The woman who brought us To Kill a Mockingbird apparently had a follow-up that long predates her Go Set a Watchman “sequel.” The Long Goodbye was apparently 110 pages of what happened after the events of To Kill a Mockingbird, but I have not found out where it is in relation to Go Set a Watchman. It is among three known books that Harper Lee never completed during her lifetime, and abandoned long before her illness and death.

Dark America – Junot Diaz – Diaz is a darling for many contemporary lit teachers due to his economy of words, and the clever use of the words that he does use. His collection of short stories surrounding Yunior and Rafa, Drown, has graced many shelves since 1995.  However, Diaz has abandoned at least two novels, including Dark America. This, a sci-fi story about mutants, was something that, per the New York Times, Diaz found “stupid and convoluted.”

The Mysterious Stranger – Mark Twain – Over a period of nearly 21 years, Mark Twain tried and failed to complete The Mysterious Stranger. Each time, one of America’s most famous humorists, had to start over.  There are three vastly different drafts floating around somewhere, a fourth fragment that represents his earliest attempt, and who knows how many other false starts have vanished with time? They each follow the tale of a demonic figure, who is explicitly named Satan in at least one of the drafts, but the setting and story itself change from one draft to the next.  Each time, Twain set his story down, and there is no evidence that he attempted to publish any of those drafts.  The last version takes place in the same St. Petersburg, MO, a partial setting for several of his well-known books, was apparently “finished” in the sense that there is a beginning, middle, and end, but there are enough holes to make analysts highly dubious about its completeness.

Fountain City – Michael Chabon – If anybody knows the frustration of an incomplete work, it’s Michael Chabon.  Chabon started Fountain City, a book about architects who want to build a baseball stadium in Florida, and continued writing about it for 1,500 pages, before realizing that he hadn’t found the right way to end it.  He abandoned this book, but the experience inspired him to write the 1995 novel Wonder Boys, which was then optioned into a 2000 movie with Michael Douglas.  What is Wonder Boys about?  An author who cannot finish his 2,611 (gulp) page novel.

Eamon Diaz and the Vampire Queen – Larry Hama – You might not know the name, but comic book fans know his work.  Larry Hama is responsible for such titles as G.I. JOE: A Real American Hero and Bucky O’Hare, and has been an editor (as well as a writer and artist) on a number of Marvel projects.  A quick Google search does not yield anything about the content, but Hama’s oeuvre is enough to make this one notable, as if a Hiberno-Latino vampire hunter does not.

Bonus: The Cannibals – Stephen King – Stephen King is famous for the volume of books that he produces.  Because of his prolific nature, King was forced to publish several novels under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman.  However, Stephen’s consistency in delivering 2,000 words per day (a good sized novel every two to three months) has had a few misfires that he was unable to publish.  One of those misfires, The Cannibals, a project that King started in 1982, plagued him for years.  However, he was able to return to the book and, after a “partial” rewrite, he published the story as Under the Dome in 2009.

There are plenty of other well-known authors who have famously set aside a novel and never completed it.  Are there any big ones that I’ve missed?  Feel free to leave some examples in the comments section below.

Some Suggestions for More Robust Characters

April 3, 2017

Author’s Note: this started like an excerpt from a memoir, but eventually turned back to some fair reminders for characterization.

There are two aspects that are powerful when writing about characters, as everybody can relate to them on some level: nostalgia and jobs.  Everybody has their moments when they think back fondly on some period of their life, or when some aspect of their life reminds them of the way things were. Everybody has worked, does work, or will work at some sort of job, even if the job isn’t exactly the paying kind.  In order to create richer characters, and in order to draw readers into your characters’ world, bring relevant aspects of the characters’ pasts, as well as their roles in society into your narrative.

I’ve been pretty nostalgic lately.  Today, we went on a hike that reminded me of when I was first dating my wife.  We discussed her grandmother and her childhood friend, who are both since deceased.  Those memories spurred more memories, and so on.  I was fortunately enough to know her grandmother before she passed, and discussion of her grandmother hiking that trail reminded me of seeing this woman, then over 80, cutting the rug with her granddaughter at our wedding.  Aside from that, some alfalfa sprouts in my sandwich reminded me of sandwiches that my father used to order when I was a kid; I don’t know why he stopped having them, but you never see alfalfa on the menu anymore.  After that, tortellini with pesto reminded me of my childhood friend.  The point is, memories can flare and smolder like a campfire, depending on the kindling.

When discussing a character, and having that character advance through that plot, nostalgia doesn’t need to play a prominent factor.  However, consider all of the times you’ve been rolling down Broadway and you remember that swing-set that was there when you were a kid, or how that old theater reminds you of your first kiss.  Your characters aren’t going to reminisce of times passed when they’re busy hunting a serial killer, nor will they necessarily reminisce of times passed when they’re waiting for the bus, but there should be something there that hints at a time before your story began.

I’m in my early 30s.  My tenth college reunion is in the rear view mirror, and I’ll be closing in on forty by the time my next reunion (high school) takes place.  What this means, of course, is that I am part of our nation’s workforce. Regardless of what adults do in the workforce, from custodian to CEO, work takes up a great deal of their time.  How they go about their work, and what they feel about their work, is an important part of their character, as well.  My father repeats this one-liner from a movie (I think it might be the barbershop scene in Gran Torino) that goes something like “real men complain about their jobs.” It’s funny, but we all have stories from our jobs, whether mild frustrations or flat out grievances, peppering a character’s conversations and thoughts with complaints, worries, or even successes in their jobs makes for a more believable characterization overall.

For all of my fellow writers who are out there trying to paint a picture, use these thoughts and experiences to shape your character.  Is your character a former high school footballer who is stuck in the kitchen at the local diner?  Put in a little something about him grumbling about the big game.  Does your character know she is paid less than the manager’s underqualified nephew?  Add an interaction between the two of them!

Thoughts from an Unrelated Conference

March 31, 2017

I recently cited a Herman Wouk quotation that states that “a rule sometimes broken is better than no rule.” It has been a while since I’ve written new content, and the last time I worked on my current work-in-progress was Saturday, in which I spent time polishing a short section for reading at the Community Writers of Santa Cruz gathering.  A great deal has happened in the interim, but little of it is writing related.  My employers hosted a two-day conference, in which we had speakers from all over the high-tech landscape come and speak to other professionals.

One of the first speakers of the conference was a celebrity who crosses many fields.  Guy Kawasaki, a one-time colleague of Steve Jobs’, has spoken at conferences around the world, and on topics such as marketing to technical audiences, general marketing, and community management.  The general overview of his talk on Monday was evangelism, an activity he does for Canva, a company that provides free graphic design tools.  He generally speaks about the software development field, but many of the topics for discussion were general enough that they don’t need context.  It is very likely that I will mine these for content for future blogs, but also look to these to address my future endeavors as a writer.

I’ve mentioned another writer, Janice Mock, in my blog before.  Janice is a memoirist, whose debut memoir, Not All Bad Comes to Harm You, is currently available.  She has also harped upon Kawasaki’s book, Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur (APE): How to Publish a Book.  I haven’t read the book myself, but I have heard good things about it.  I have also seen a caveat, which is something that appeared in various forms after his talk at the conference.  It’s easy to get published when you’re Michelle Obama, Dwayne the Rock Johnson, or Guy Kawasaki.  During his talk, Kawasaki claimed that he’s getting 1,200 new Twitter followers per day.  It takes me a few weeks just to get that many Twitter impressions.  While there are probably a great deal of factoids that are useful in APE, it is important to understand that Kawasaki has a résumé that makes things happen on its own.

Not to take anything away from the man.  His presentation was great!  I also learned something very important through his presentation.  Along with Susie Wee, one of the CTOs for Cisco, Mr. Kawasaki introduced me to a concept that I hadn’t seriously considered before, using live video as a way of communicating with my audience.  Kawasaki and Wee used Facebook Live to live-cast their talks. In the time since their Monday talks, Kawasaki has had 7,700+ views.  Wee has just 39 views, but I have to think that she’s providing this somewhere else; Cisco is a major player in the tech world, and her presentation was simply outstanding.  I make a guest appearance in Wee’s video as a mortician who has ingested embalming fluid, so maybe that’s scaring people away.  My cousin’s husband, Steve, had already used the Facebook Live function to share his thoughts on life, but I didn’t think that such a medium would be particularly effective.  After all, it takes a second or two to get the gist of most Facebook wall posts, but a Facebook Live event might take five minutes or more for someone to extract all of its gems.  However, Steve got a lot of views.  As I sat in on Kawasaki’s and Wee’s respective presentations, I realized that what Steve had done could work for me, too.

On Tuesday, after I got home from the conference, I recorded my first Facebook Live session.  It had its moments, but was plagued with all of the problems with doing something live without any real testing.  After three attempts in which I actually went live, and numerous prior struggles with audio and video, I finally was frustrated enough to just go through with it.  There were small issues, as I was trying to flip through three pages of 8-1/2 by 11” document while reading from what I’d presented at Saturday’s Community Writers meeting.  I finally placed the three pages on a clipboard next to my camera.  It was my attempt to approximate eye contact with the camera – in essence, a kludge teleprompter without the “tele.”  This worked a bit better, as I was able to read through my work with just two brief transitions.  If you’ve seen the Facebook Live run, either live or recorded on my Facebook page, your teeth are likely grinding at the very thought of those transitions.  Surely, there is an alternative, but I will have to work this alternative out as I continue experimenting with this medium.

Tools for Live Recording

The Internet is the great equalizer when it comes to producing recorded content.  There are tools that make it easy enough to do.  Speaking as someone who came into it with no prior experience, I know that tools such as Windows Movie Maker and Camtasia can allow you to pre-record webinars with little more than a vision and a little intuition.  They are not necessarily professional quality, and will not be confused for something put out by teams that are dedicated to such tasks, but the bare bones are indeed possible, if not easy.  If you’re going for something that’s raw and grassroots, Facebook Live can instantly get you from ideation to a live broadcast. One of the major takeaways from Guy’s talk was the growing set of third-party tools that are already there to support you in your FB Live broadcasts.  There were three resources that he identified:

Telestream WireCast – This is a production studio toolkit.  It allows you to use multiple cameras and mics for Facebook Live, to capture live content, and to provide modern editing and layering to Facebook Live broadcasts. Telestream offers limited time trial versions, but the software itself runs around $500 for the base level.

Be.Live – This is more of a community for live creators, rather than a tool or integration itself.  This community is full of information.  One such post explains how you can download your live streams from Facebook.  This also sells “.live” domains for live content creators.  I’m not sure where the integration occurs here.

BlueJeans – teleconferencing technology that has integrated with Facebook Live.  From the website, it appears that most of this is done for enterprise teleconferencing, but I’m sure that you can stretch it to include live Q&A sessions with your fans, if you have the imagination.  There is a free trial of BlueJeans, but the full package is a subscription service.  With some exceptions, such as a 50% deal in March, the price is about $20 per month for up to 50 attendees at once.

Content is King

Later in the day, I watched my colleague, David I, illustrate examples of a developer portal that really doesn’t work.  He had some great points that make a lot of sense to all of us in the blogosphere.

The key point that resonated the most with me is that you may be trying to sell something, but the key reason why you should be producing content on your blog or site is to give something to your audience.  It doesn’t matter if that something is advice, information, or just you telling your story.  If you’re hocking something right off of the bat, you’re going to turn people away.

Another key point that I’d like to bring up is the volume of content, and the completeness of vision for your site.  If you’re reading this, you know that I have a blog.  I also have a Facebook author page that hasn’t gone live yet.  A large part of the reason why it hasn’t gone live is that it is still devoid of content and visual appeal.  With my blog, I have been focusing on delivering content, and do so because my only experience with blogs has been experience with text.  I have been exploring ways of expanding this to a full site.  For the time being, this is a blog, and the written content is king.  One of these days, when somebody picks up my blog, they will have a backlog of my thoughts, and will hopefully be able to trace my evolution as a blogger and as an author.  Right now, my Facebook author page has none of that.  For this and other reasons, I have not gone live with that page, and I may need to wait for some time before you, my friends, will see it.

If you haven’t heard about David I., then you’re missing out.  The man is a great presenter, and great storyteller.  He shares from his backlog of more than 45 years in the software development field, and his experience picking up an array of programming languages.  However, his reminiscing of days of compilers past is not what makes him so engaging as a presenter.  He has adopted numerous philosophies of presentation skills from presenter Jerry Weissman, and one of them is particularly helpful for those of us who want to use video as a medium for blogging and sharing content: ERA, earned run average.  Oops, nope. ERA…

Eye Contact – keep your eye on your audience, whether that is a camera or a live event.  If a live event, maintain eye contact with numerous people in succession.  A presentation is just a conversation with many people.

Reach Out – be welcoming, draw people in.  If you physically reach out (think with open arms), it’s like shaking hands.  There’s a visceral response to shaking hands, and it harkens back to centuries past, where you knew that if you were shaking hands, you weren’t carrying a weapon in that hand.  As most people are right handed, you’re proving that you’re at least vulnerable enough to not have anything in your dominant hand.

Animate – don’t just stand there, you corpse!  Lurch, the butler on the Addams Family, would stand there looking like the scenery, but most people are animated when they engage with others.  Use your hands.  Walk the stage.  If you’re only a close-up on a screen, laugh and smile, or gesticulate in some manner.

Closing Thoughts

After all that has happened this week, and my relative level of exhaustion, I didn’t think that this blog post would be as long as it is.  I’ll leave you with a few things:

  • If you’re trying to draw interest to your cause, try Facebook Live. It couldn’t hurt.  In fact, as of this posting, I have 165 views, and drew nine unique visitors to my blog in just under 40 minutes.  That’s not too bad.
  • Consider low cost or free production tools. Fiddle around with free tooling, and see what works for you. Some are fairly intuitive; even if they aren’t, you might learn something!
  • If you want to feel natural on the camera, you might not necessarily be able to animate, but try keeping eye contact with the camera as much as possible, and establish an open posture. If you look uncomfortable on the camera, then it won’t be any fun for your viewers.

Photo Credit: Cozendo on Pixabay.  CCO License.

If any of the above interested you, please check out the following:

Janice Mock
Guy Kawasaki
APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur
Susie Wee
David I