And…He’s Back

I know, I know, I’ve been neglecting you the past few months. There are reasons: getting my latest novel To Hemlock Run ready for publication (look for it in February/March 2017; a very contentious election here in the States (and behalf of all progressive Americans I apologize in advance to the rest of the world); and a scarcity of new ideas. I found I was beginning to repeat myself in my posts. Not a good idea. So I decided to take some time off to replenish the well, if you will.

Now, with the end of the year looming in the near future, it is time to look back on the accomplishments and defeats of the previous year.

I did finish the first draft of my new novel, an accomplishment all on its own. The first draft is probably the most important step of the writing process because it makes all the others possible. There are no edited or finished drafts without the first one.

I have also edited, revised, re-thought, and re-written To Hemlock Run and refined it to a state where I feel fairly comfortable releasing it into the world. I will be beginning the publication process next week.

Last year, I devised a reading program for myself, pledging to read forty-eight books over the year, with a particular emphasis on writers who were not white American men. I did not fully complete that plan. While I did read the forty-eight books (actually fifty-two as of today), I did not range as widely as I’d hoped. I only managed to read a couple of novels by black authors and a handful written by Native Americans. However, I did read several written by European authors, set in European countries, with all the cultural and accompanying differences. I did read many more works (most very, very good) by women writers. Again, just because of societal pressures, the world is approached somewhat differently by a woman, than a man.

There will be more about what I’ve learned from these authors in the coming weeks.

In the coming year, I hope to continue my reading. Reading, for a writer, is really a type of industrial espionage, combined with a tutorial session with an established master. I very seldom read anything of consequence without noting how the author accomplishes the effects she does. For a writer, reading is seldom simply an exercise in escapism or entertainment. A part of the mind is always paying attention to techniques and choices.

Have you ever played “first draft” with a novel you’re in the process of reading? At some point, about halfway through the work, stop at the end of a scene and close the book. Now ask yourself: if I were writing this, what scene would come next and what would it accomplish? If you want, write that scene, then compare it to the scene the author wrote. Did the author make a different decision than you? Why might that be?

My reading program for the next year will be an attempt to read quality, more than quantity. I’m only pledging to read twenty-four novels, but I intend for half of them to be classics. I have several works by authors such as Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Hugo, Dumas and Flaubert lined up and ready to go. Since many of these works are long and very dense, I expect to read fewer of them, but perhaps learn more with each. To lighten things up, I will still read works in my favorite genre, friend recommendations, and newer works that strike my fancy.

And, of course, I will begin to work on another novel at some point in the near future. Ideas are beginning to flit around my consciousness like moths around a campfire.

Poetry, writing

Writing By Feel

At our writing critique group the other day an interesting question came up. It was voiced by a relatively new, relatively inexperienced member. He is new to the experience of seriously writing. Thus he is looking at the subject with new eyes. It’s refreshing.

Anyway, he was completely baffled by poetry. He did not “get” it and therefore did not feel competent to critique it.

Of the four or five serious members of the group, two work on poetry consistently. Though the rest (myself included) only write poetry occasionally, but do understand it well enough to critique.

So we were suddenly placed in the position of trying to explain what poetry is and how it works to someone with absolutely zero concept.

It was a challenge.

Some very, very gifted and intelligent people have spent their entire lives studying and trying to perfect the form. We did our best in the fifteen minutes available, though I don’t know how much good we did.

The problem is that you can talk rhyme schemes and meter all you want, but that is window-dressing. The same is true of connotation, allusion, metaphor and simile. They are integral tools in the poet’s toolbox, but they are just devices that help her reach her goal. They do not explain what the goal is.

The goal is to create a “good” poem. A piece of poetic art.

And thus, the circle of reasoning is complete is because now we have to try and define what a “good” poem is.

We couldn’t do it. I don’t think you can do it. You can’t define art. Like obscenity, you just know it when you see it. It’s instinct, visceral. It’s art.

So much of what the poet (or novelist, or whatever) does can’t be explained by rules or guidelines. It is art and art is something that can’t be taught in the same way that mathematics or science is taught. You can’t tell someone to do A, then B and then you will have a good poem.

Ask a poet why she put a certain phrase in her poem and odds are she will answer that “it felt right.” It’s instinctive. It’s the same when I create a particular plot twist or character foible in my writing. Why did I do that? Because it felt right. Instinct tells us to do it. Then it works, or it doesn’t.

So perhaps the question the neophyte poet or writer should be asking is how do they develop that instinct?

There is only one way I know to do that and that is to study the subject. Read as much as you can get your hands on: good stuff, mediocre stuff, classic, modern, and experimental. Read it; memorize it. Figure out what you like and what you don’t, then try to understand why that it. Write your own work in imitation of your favorite pros. See what works.

The key is that as you do this, as you study the form, you begin to internalize the rules, guidelines, and successful examples of the art. Then, as you work on creating your own examples of the art, this internalized information will bubble up out of your subconscious. Often without your conscious mind being aware of it.

Then later, when asked why you chose to use that particular word or device at that particular place, all you’ll be able to answer (unless you choose to make up some literary-sounding gobbledygook) is that it just felt right.

So what about our new member who wants to understand poetry better? We point him in the right direction. It’s up to him to do the work. It’s up to him to groom that feeling.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

7 Things School Didn’t Teach About Creativity

Since anything we do or want to do with our writing and our lives as writers all begins with one common thing, creativity, I thought we could take a look at the subject. So with some help from Michael Michalko, I present Seven Things School Didn’t Teach You About Creativity.

Everyone is born creative.

The only difference between people who are creative and those who are not is simple belief. Creative people believe they are creative. People who believe they are not creative are not. It really is that simple.

Creativity is work.

It is not easy to be creative. If it was, everyone would be doing it. You must possess passion and the determination to practice and learn the process of creating. Then you must have the patience and strength to continue in the face of adversity.

You must practice creativity to be creative.

Like almost any ability in this life, if you don’t use your creativity you will lose it. Moreover, when you create new ideas, you are exercising the creative parts of your brain, which leads to more and better ideas. If you want to become a musician, for example, and you play your instrument every day without fail, you will become a musician. You may not be a great one, but you will be a musician.

There are no bad ideas.

This is a difficult concept for many people. How can you say there are no bad ideas? What about genocide? How about murdering your wife for the life insurance? Yes, those ideas are immoral, illegal, and even repugnant, but they are not in and of themselves good or bad. They may be invalid, or counter-productive, but they aren’t bad. They’re just ideas. Nothing kills creativity faster than self-censorship of ideas. Think of all ideas as possibilities and generate as many as you can. Only then do you sit down and decide which ideas will work best.

Expect the experts to be negative.

The more expert and established a person becomes, not matter what field it is, the more fixed they become on validating their ideas. It’s human nature. You’ve spent your career championing a particular set of beliefs and opinions. When someone new comes along and challenges those ideas, you’re probably going to move heaven and earth to prove them wrong. As a creative person, you should be expecting these attacks and prepared to deal graciously with them. (It means you’re succeeding).

Trust your instincts.

This is related to the previous statement. You cannot allow yourself to become discouraged in the face of rejection or criticism. Of course, this is very easy to say and quite difficult to do. Surround yourself with friends and family who believe in you and your abilities. That will help. But most of all, you need to believe in yourself. Of all the people in this world, you have to be your own most dedicated fan.

There is no such thing as failure.

There’s a story out there that someone asked Ernest Hemingway if he did writing exercises. He replied that no, he didn’t do exercises. He wrote stories that didn’t work.

Hemingway had it right. Whenever you try to do something that doesn’t succeed, you have not failed. You have learned something that does not work. If you can, figure out why it didn’t work and come up with a different way of approaching the problem. If we learn from everything we do—even if it is just establishing what doesn’t work—we never really fail. We just take another step toward our overall success.

writing, Writing and Editing

Pulling the Trigger

So this week I faced a dilemma I think every writer faces at some point in the career. I call it “pulling the trigger.” As in do I “pull the trigger” or not?

What am I talking about?

Tuesday, I sent my new novel off to the publisher, but it sounds much easier than it actually was. Because that moment, that pull of the trigger, was preceded by days of agonizing indecision. Is it good enough? Is it as good as I can get it? Would it benefit from one more re-write/revision? Probably. Would the result be noticeably better than what I have now? (I am now working with the seventh complete version of the novel.)

That is debatable.

I was talking with a friend the other day and wondered aloud whether other people go through this and she assured me almost everyone did, especially those in the arts.

A musician practices and practices before setting foot on stage to perform a new song. At what point does she decide she’s practiced enough? When she can perform the piece perfectly? When she can perform it perfectly twice in a row? Five times? Ten?

The same goes for a stage production. When have you rehearsed enough?

For visual artists, from sculptors to painters to film directors, the question is different, but similar. Is it good enough? Is it ready? Can I make it better?

Do I pull the trigger?

Every writer who cares about what they’re doing probably goes through something like this with an article, poem, or story before they send out. Is it ready?

The truth of the matter is that there are no good answers to these questions. Is your poem ready? Who knows? Could it be improved by re-working it? Quite probably, since nothing we do (at least nothing I’ve attempted) is perfect.

Perhaps we’re asking ourselves the wrong question. Maybe we shouldn’t be asking whether we could improve the work given more time, but whether we can improve it enough to justify the time and effort.

We could easily spend the rest of our short lives revising our work in a fruitless quest for perfection. After all, we can never truly achieve perfection in our art. Heck, our definition of perfect can change from day to day.

Instead, we need to stand back with an objective eye and determine whether this work is, today, as good as you can make it at this point in our career. If the answer to that question is yes, then leave it alone, send it out and see what happens.

At some point, you just need to pull the trigger.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

What’s in a Name?

One of the hardest part of writing, in my humble opinion, is naming things. Characters, places, businesses, musical acts, it makes no difference, finding an acceptable name can be torture. I struggle. For some reason, titles are different. They can be difficult also, but they belong in a different category; they are added (in my case anyway) after the piece is completed and, unless you are working against a deadline, there is all sorts of time.

Characters are different. Place names are different.

I have been known to bring my writing to a skidding halt when the narrative calls for a name.

Why? Because each name, whether it’s that of a major character, or the street where the final shootout happens, or the nightclub the bad guy uses as a front is not only important. It has to be perfect. As perfect as I can make it.

Names are important. They are part of character.

Think about it. A man named Mark is going to have a different personality and life experience than a man named Elmer; a woman named Melissa will have a different experience than one named Gertrude. It’s why prospective parents spend so much time and energy discussing and deciding the new baby’s name. It’s important that the name be perfect.

I think it is the same with a name in fiction. Whether it’s a major character, a minor character, or the name of the street they live on, each name has to be perfect. It has to match the personality you’ve created (and enhance it) and each must be distinct enough that the reader will not get confused. (As in having characters named Jenny, Jeanie, and Janine in the same story).

Even more important, everything—absolutely everything—in our work, including the names, must serve a purpose. If your character’s name is Dan, ask yourself why? Why “Dan?” Why not Mark, or Tom? You may not have the answer to that question, but you should at least be thinking about it.

For instance, the protagonist in my first three novels, The Ni’il Trilogy, is named Dan. Why? Because I wanted him to be just an ordinary guy, strong, but flawed. I wanted him to be your next door neighbor. As a reader pointed out, “Daniel” is also my father’s name, though I didn’t consciously pick it for that reason.

Back to my problem with names bringing my creative narrative to a stop. What did I do about it? Two things: I created a database listing the top ten surnames of every nationality with a significant presence in the United States (since almost all my work involves Americans and is set somewhere in the country). Why surnames? Because otherwise I will end up with the same last names in all my fiction.

Second, I began using placeholders in my fiction when I come upon the need for a new name. I’ll just type in “XX” or “YY” and continue with the story. Later, when the first draft is completed, I can go back, database in hand, and decided on names.

It seems to work.

At some point, I would also like to compile a database of interesting business names, street names and other such things, but haven’t been able to get to it yet.

Other writers, such as Henry James and Charles Dickens were known to keep lists of names in their notebooks. Again, so they could reference them when needed. Dickens, especially, is famous for coining names that reflect the character’s personality, such as Ebenezer Scrooge.

However you decide to handle your characters’ names, take them seriously, as seriously as you would naming a child, because it is just as important. At least it’s important to your fiction.

Uncategorized, writing

Eulogy For Daniel Boyle

This post is going to be something a little different. Rather than my humble opinions on various aspects of the writing craft, I will instead offer a small example of my writing. A sample, if you would, of the finished product.

I had published some examples of fiction earlier in the life of my blog. Then I discovered that many publications consider works published on a blog as “published.” In other words, they won’t touch them. So, no more fiction I might wish to publish later.

But first, a short explanatory note about this work. For those who aren’t already aware, my father passed away on July 8. As we were preparing for his memorial service I was told I needed to write the eulogy. Apparently, my family thinks I have a way with words, or something. Whatever the reason, I did write and deliver the eulogy at my father’s funeral.

It is the most difficult thing I have ever written.



I have been asked to say a few words about my father. My Dad.


Where to start? How do you do justice to almost seventy-five years of life, of loving, in a few paragraphs? How do you put into words what words were never designed to convey?

My Dad would answer that question this way: you do the best you can.

So. Who was my Dad?

My Dad was a man.

“Well yeah,” some of you are saying. “We kind of figured that.”

No, not just an adult male; he was a man. There is a difference.

A man is strong. Look up the strong, silent type and you’ll find a picture of my Dad. He worked hard for years to make a better life for his family and that meant taking overtime whenever he could get it. There were many times when the family would be gathered around the dinner table in the evening and the phone would ring. Us older kids would ask “Are you home?” And he would usually nod that he was.

I once asked him how he’d worked for the same company for twenty-five years. He told me that you just kept going back the next morning.

So yes, he was tough and he was strong, but he was so never violent. He never raised his hand against the women in his life and never against us children. (Other than the rare butt swat we always deserved.) In fact, I never saw, nor heard of him raising his hand against anybody. When he raised a hand it was to help someone, not hurt them.

He celebrated his children’s victories and consoled us in our defeats. All he wanted was that we do our best. And when we did screw up or make a bad decision he never belittled us, never made us feel stupid. Usually, he’d just ask a simple question: did you learn anything from this?

Lastly, Dad had a deep and powerful faith in God. He didn’t talk about it very much; it was a private affair, between him and God. But as the saying goes, actions speak much louder than words and those of us close to him know that he honestly, consciously tried to live his life in a manner that Jesus would approve. And he came pretty close.

In his final hours at the hospital, we tried to find a priest to give him last rights. The hospital staff called one, only to find that he was out fishing and couldn’t be reached. They tried valiantly to find another priest, but were unsuccessful. This never happens in the movies. Personally, I wasn’t worried about it. In my mind, the extreme unction would almost be just a formality.

I’ll leave you with an image in my head.

(I have lots of images in my head, but I’m only going to share this one.)

Dad stands in front of St. Peter’s desk outside the golden gates of heaven. Not the battered, worn-out body he lived in toward the end, but the lean, strong body of the young Marine, ready to take on the world.

St. Peter consults his reservation book and hesitates, stroking his beard.

“Is there a problem?” Dad asks.

“Well, a minor one,” St. Peter says. “But yes, there is a problem. It seems you did not receive Last Rights before you passed over. I can’t let you in without Last Rights.”

Dad sighs. “What happens now?”

“You’ll have to go to the waiting area until other arrangements can be made.”

Dad is clearly disappointed, but the rules are rules. Before he can move, a shadowy figure emerges from the billowing clouds on the far side of the gates and steps up beside St. Peter.

It’s Jesus.

“Is there a problem?” he asks, smiling at my Dad.

“Yes,” St. Peter tells him. “This young man has not received Last Rights, so he cannot gain immediate entry. I was just about to show him to the waiting area.”

“Oh, Peter.” Jesus smiles and shakes his head. “Don’t be such a Pharisee. Let the poor guy in.”

St. Peter starts, but then nods, writes something in the book, and the gates swing open.

Jesus steps over to Dad. “Forgive him. I love Peter like a brother, but even when we were wandering the hills of Galilea it was so hard to get him to see the big picture.”

“Thank you.”

“Come, walk with me,” Jesus takes Dad’s hand and leads him toward the gate. “I think there’s some people who want to see you.”

Writing advice

Prose Need Help? Try Poetry.

A friend, who happens to be an excellent writer and editor, has a rule I would like to share with everyone because I think it is very good. Her rule is to read some poetry before you sit down to do any editing or re-writing. My only change would be to simplify it. I think it should read: read some poetry. Period.

But…but…I can hear the objections already…I don’t write poetry. I don’t even write fiction. Why should I spend my precious time reading poetry?

Another quiet voice says what many are also thinking: I don’t even get poetry.

I know, I know. I understand. I’m nowhere near a great poet myself and I haven’t made poetry (particularly modern poetry) a central part of my studies. However, I do read poetry I like and I will tell you why, then you can decide whether you should too.

Years ago, when I was in college and trying to get my feet wet in this writing gig, my roommate suggested I take a poetry writing class. The reason? My writing, though adequate for the beginner I was, lacked magic, lacked the music and beauty of language. He thought a term or two spent studying and writing poetry would help improve my prose.

He was right. (He was a very intelligent man. I was intelligent enough to see that and take his advice). After studying and writing poetry for a while, I began to write prose that was more poetic, with more of the beauty in language. Better.

Cool. But you still don’t write poetry, you say, or fiction. You still don’t see how reading or writing poetry can help you.

Consider this, whether you’re writing a humorous blog about the perils of family life, or a four-volume annotated history of The War of The Roses, you write description. You write scenes containing action. You may even write scenes containing dialogue. Wouldn’t these scenes be improved if they were more poetic?

The study of poetry (even if “study” just means reading a couple of your favorite poems to open your writing session each day) can help your writing in three important ways:

It teaches you to think and write in metaphor and simile.

If you don’t know what metaphors and similes are, I suggest you look up the definitions. Even in the driest of academic papers, the use of metaphor and simile can imbue (I always wanted to use that word) your work with deeper shades of meaning. It can also save time and space. “Walking through Bagdad on an August afternoon was like walking through an oven on broil.” gives the reader a richer mental picture than a hundred descriptive words about temperature and dust.

It teaches you to harness the native power of the rhythm inherent in language.

There is a rhythm to every language. The rhythm differs depending on what the language is trying to do. A speech to a political rally is going to have a different rhythm than a description of a peaceful mountain meadow, which is going to be different than an argument between spouses. Since the poetic form is usually short and consciously uses rhythm and meter, it is easier to see how the poet uses it to reinforce the message of the words she’s using.

It teaches you to write concisely, making every word count.

Poetry, by definition, is the use of supercharged language to evoke an emotion or idea. Thus, more than most other forms of literature, the poet searches intensely for the perfect word for what she wants to say. It not only has to have the right definition, but must have the perfect connotation and associations, the perfect allusions, and (see above) the proper rhythm. Reading good poetry gets your mind in the habit of writing with the fewest, most powerful words.

So, let’s say I’ve convinced you to try reading a little poetry as part of your writing habit. Now you ask me, what poetry should I read? There are thousands of poets. Shelves full of poetry books. Which ones should I read?

Well, read the ones you like. Don’t torture yourself. It will do you no good if you dread picking up the book every day. (Actually, if you don’t like it, you probably won’t pick it up much at all). So, go down to your local bookstore and find a collection. There are hundreds of them too, with titles like “A Treasury of Poems,” or “Best-loved Poems.” Something like that. Read a poem a day and mark the ones you like.

Personally, I like the English Romantics: Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, and Byron, with a little Tennyson thrown in for kicks. I also like e.e. cummings, Sylvia Plath, and Emily Dickenson. All have much to teach us. That’s why they are considered “Great” poets.

And then there is Shakespeare. Many of his plays, particularly the dramas, are written in verse.

Most of all, find some poetry you like and read a little—say one poem—every day as you sit down to work on your writing and see what effect it has on your work. I’m willing to bet it will be better.