Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Collapsing at the Finish Line

Well, folks, here I am on the other side of the poetry challenge. In case you forgot, April was National Poetry Month. I took a challenge from the blog Poetic Asides with Robert Lee Brewer to write thirty poems in the thirty days of April.

I did it.

And I've learned a few things that make me look back at my previous post on this subject and cringe a little. First, I must say that I have a tremendous new respect for poets as a breed, generally. I still maintain that many of them are pretentious, lazy, and take themselves much too seriously. I can say the same of many fiction writers, though, including myself at times.

What overwhelmed me was what a struggle it could be to stay on task with these daily prompts, writing poems even when it was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. So, today I tip my hat to poets; especially those that take the medium seriously enough to work at it their whole lives. I also realized that very few of them are ever recognized for their good, and sometimes great work. The market for poets is extremely limited. The establishment is cliquish and snooty in the extreme. Most of the people who pursue poetry seem to do it purely for the love of the craft of writing. I can't help but stand back and admire that.

I also found it surprising how quickly I tired of writing poems. I thought it was something I enjoyed more than that. As I predicted, there were only a few poems worth reading again. I've gone over them one by one and included two of the real gems below. Feel free to read them if you're interested, but you won't hurt my feelings if you ignore them. I worked hard on them, but I mainly wrote them for myself.

It was surprising what diverse topics my poems covered; what situations or snap-shots of life both real and fictional came to my mind as I tried to write something that fit the prompt each day.

I think I can honestly say I came away from this as a better poet, but only marginally. I think I'm a much better writer in the sense that I have more respect for writing as an art, due mostly to the fresh splash of cold water in the face that comes with realizing how much I DON'T know about writing and writing well.

I hope you enjoy these two poems. Whether or not you do, can you do better? Go ahead and post some of your own stuff on the comments section, if you like.

So We Decided to Play Baseball

Dear Claire,
I walked with you
Along the beach


Dear Claire,
I talked with you
Along the lines

Of foreign countries
Without A/C
And bands that sang
In English

You couldn't go;
You said. "America's home."
Remember? You drew lines
In the sand

To run along, Dear Claire.
"Don't chase me," you said.
You sat on first, looking down,
And shed no tears.

I found a strand
Or two of your wild
Chestnut hair. I wept alone
And threw it in a dumpster

Across the pacific.


I sleep tonight in quiet forgetting. I dream of a
napkin with a spent, bled, metallic packet of sticky
sick ketchup.

Icewater tendons strech over lifetime
fussing in the spingtime of
actual labor. I've forgotten what
it was like to let my pupils wander
over the contours of a wall
in Astoria.

I'll dream tonight of crisp, grey paper
sliding over the distressed wooden table that might have been used
for picknicks
And is, to me, like the crisp
snap of slacks over legs that have
only just forgotten the sensation of well-warmed cotton sheets.

After the stopwatch clicks I'll begin
Making love to a keyboard, humming
Tunes nobody ever
Heard in a McDonalds restaurant.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Poetic Asides

I’ve been working at my own poetry lately, as well as reading as much as I can. I’ve recently run across a great opportunity to work at it harder and longer. This, I hope, will provide me the practice and effort that will actually get me writing good stuff from time to time. This opportunity has come in the form of a Writer’s Digest blog that throws an annual April poetry writing marathon, April being National Poetry Month. The idea is to write a poem for every day in April based on a posted prompt. You can find the blog and participate here.

If all goes well, I’ll have twenty-five awful poems and five decent ones. If it goes exceptionally well, one of those five will be excellent.

It’s day four, and so far I’ve just taken each prompt as it comes, letting my imagination run with it.

I won’t lie; I normally have real contempt for poets as a breed of writer. The good ones, I have no problem with. They work hard and know that art can come in no other way.

But, on the very blog I posted above there’s an interview with a “poet” that really pissed me off and exemplifies everything about poets that pisses me off. This particular poet describes her habits by blithely remarking that she has a goal to write at least five minutes every day.

That’s right. Five minutes a day writing mediocre nonsense and you’re an artist. It’s just that easy; that is, if you’re one of those elite, godlike creatures called a poet.

Five whole minutes!? Oh, the backbreaking work! I can’t imagine how tough that would be. I hope she doesn’t strain or sprain anything. Maybe she should cut back to two just to be safe.

Excuse me, but between my freelance work, my novel, my screenplay, my poetry, my blogs, my stories, and whatever other miscellaneous projects come my way I put in several hours of writing every day.

Granted, I love what I do. I have one of the easiest jobs in the world. I reject the image of the tortured artist (a pose that usally accompanies the pensive poet’s and is equally obnoxious).

I realize, however, that art means hours of work. You have to do it for thousands of hours in order to do it well, no matter how much talent you’ve been blessed with. Real art is a result of hours of practice, inconvenience, discipline, setbacks, and triumphs that add up to making dazzling work look easy.

Real poets do this. Shelley, Shakespeare, Pope, Byron, Whitman and the like come to mind. They worked in forms, or when they didn’t it wasn’t because they couldn’t. They broke only the rules they had spent years mastering.

So, am I setting myself up as one of these guys? Hardly. I’ve written about as many poems as I have digits on my extremities. The one thing I hope I have in common with these poets is that I have a shit detector that works fairly well. I’m almost never satisfied with my poems. Even when I am, that feeling of satisfaction has a shelf life of hours.

In fact, one thing I love about writing poetry is that it gives my shit detector a good calibration and tune-up.

Do I read my stuff out loud to anyone other than just myself? Never. I won’t even put my fiction through that. I’m a writer, and I feel like there’s something incestuous or masturbatory about reading my own stuff; consuming and admiring my own work in public, fishing for praise.

Anyway, I don’t need the ego boost. My hat size is already bordering on the astronomical, which, sadly, is an occupational hazard.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

New Website Launches

Tom's freelance writing business kicked into high gear today with the launch of his new website. Feel free to check it out and keep him in mind the next time you have content that needs to be written, revised, or looked over.

Kudos to Jeff Spaulding for a great job with the site design! We'd recommend his services to anyone who has need of a designer in the future.

See you at!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Blue-Collar Writing for Dummies

In watching a recent documentary about Ernest Hemingway I came to some interesting conclusions about the art of writing generally, and Hemingway’s practiced hand in that art.

First what stood out to me was how infrequent and few Hemingway’s novels were. I counted only five of any significance and one of those was a critical flop. All those were written in a career that spanned nearly forty years. That roughly comes to only one good novel for each decade. To be sure, those novels counted. Each of the four (The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, For Whom The Bell Tolls, and The Old Man And The Sea) are taught in high schools all over the country and stand to be a part of the American cannon for decades to come.

Contrast this with the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald, my favorite author. Fitzgerald wrote far more succesful books in only fifteen years or so, not to mention a huge collection of short stories. However, only two of his books are remembered to the same degree four of the five Hemingway books are.

Fitzgerald was touched with a special genius and was blessed not only with an ivy league education, but also a natural sensitivity. The result of these elements is fiction that’s heart-breaking, timeless, and haunting.

What was the difference? Fitzgerald and Hemingway both worked hard. Hemingway worked a hell of a lot harder. Hemingway rose at a normal time and worked at his writing six or eight hours a day. There were times when Fitzgerald put in only a few hundred words a day and still managed to fuel his high living, hard drinking, late nights, and late mornings. Hemingway partied too, but he did it at night having worked through the day.

The only thing that made his writing great was his work ethic. I’ve read some of Hemingway’s earliest writing and believe me, he was worse than mediocre. I worship the ability he developed day after day, year after year, in spite of that early weakness. I take it as a challenge to work harder.

So, what makes a failed writer? Well, first and foremost a failed writer quits writing. A bad writer suffers from two primary ailments: a faulty shit detector (especially when reading his own work), and an inability to realize that his talent isn’t sufficient to compensate for his poor work ethic.

Fitzgerald couldn’t have been a bad writer. He was just too naturally gifted. He could have written anything, doing it whenever he felt like it and it would have been brilliant. For Hemingway, this wasn’t so. I think that’s what I like about him.

So, I say to myself; “Self, more work. Less naval-gazing.”

Oh, one more thing: Thank you, Papa Hemingway – patron saint of the blue collar writer.

- Tom

Monday, March 2, 2009

NaNoEdMo 2009

Many of you may have heard of NoNoWriMo. Tom and I talked enough about it last fall, and of course the book I reviewed last week, "No Plot? No Problem!" was written by the founder of this annual month of writer's insanity. Even if you're a long time participant in NaNoWriMo, however, you may not have heard of NaNoEdMo. NaNoEdMo was created by a NaNoWriMo participant who realized that once the initial rush of creating a 50,000 word draft faded, it was difficult to dive into editing the novel.

After letting your fingers fly across the keyboard for a month with little direction from your logical mind, you find yourself suddenly having to turn your inner editor back on. You feel let down and overwhelmed at the prospect of turning the disorganized mess you created in November into something you wouldn't be completely ashamed of if somebody happened upon a copy of your story. NaNoEdMo - held in March every year - can be a good way to help break yourself out of this rut. This community's sole purpose is to help you take the ragged pile of scenes you whipped out in November and start organizing it into a real novel.

The main rules:

1. You have to log 50 hours of verified editing on the website during the month of March.

2. Editing is defined as changing previously written material. Editing does not include writing a completely new novel. It does not include planning or researching. It does include anything from correcting the grammar and spelling to substantial rewriting of the novel.

So pull out your red pen and register on the NaNoEdMo website, and log in your daily editing time. There's no better time than the present!


Sunday, February 22, 2009

No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty

No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Chris Baty

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a great book if you want to get motivated to write that next great American novel. Chris Baty is clever and witty, helping you as the budding author learn not to take yourself too seriously as you travel the bumpy road that is novel writing.

This book is broken down into the before, during, and after process of drafting a novel. In the first section, you learn how to gear up and get prepared for the process of writing a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in 30 days. The next section breaks down the writing challenge into four weeks and what things you should remember and try each of those weeks. The last section focuses on "I wrote a novel. Now what?"

I would recommend this motivating book for anyone who wants to learn how to be more productive with their writing time, even if they have no interest in writing a book in 30 days.

View all my reviews.

Chalice by Robin McKinley

Chalice Chalice by Robin McKinley

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Mirasol - Robin McKinley's typical strong female character - gets thrown into a new life where suddenly everything she does is important not only to her, but also to everyone else in the demesne of Willowlands.

This was a difficult book to get into; the only thing that kept me going at first was the knowledge that I've liked most of the Robin McKinley books I've already read. After I got about 75 pages into it, the story moved more smoothly. By the time I got to the end of the story, I was ready to read a sequel.

View all my reviews.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Library or Wastebasket?

Most of us in the modern age have a collection of books. But as I was musing today about all the books I own I asked myself, am I using my personal library as a waste bin? If I am, it sure is a pretty insane thing to do. But, I ask myself, do you ever really read those books again? If you do, do you really read them enough? Or do you use it as a wastebasket: a place to put your books when you're finished with them because throwing them in the garbage just feels wrong somehow?

We live in a world that has survived the book-burning Nazi's, and I think we've all heard the dire warnings of Bradbury's Farenheit 451 and the celebrity-laden public service posters of the libraries of childhood reminding us to treat books with a sacred reverence. Even now, my wife admonishes me, with good reason, to take better care of my books.

For anyone who owns more than a few dozen books and has ever had to move, you know that moving those suckers isn't an easy task. But why do we go to all that trouble?
What's the point of it?
Do we really re-read the books we've bought, committing thereby to schlep them from place to place.

I like to say that I do, though I probably don't read them often enough, particularly the poetry. I've been working on that.
See's Candies has a great slogan referring to their product as "a happy habit." Of course their motive is to get you to buy more chocolate regularly, not just on special occasions, but there's some truth in the sentiment. Charles M. Shulz said "All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and again never hurts either." I agree 100%, but I won't get into the wonders and magical properties of chocolate just now. Suffice it to say that, as I've voluntarily taken up some of my poetry books lately, I've come to see them less as bran muffins (something to be forced down and gulped before you can taste it because "it's good for you," though it's really revolting), and more as little literary chocolates. I'm starting to look at them as a rich, liqueury, expensive-tasting chocolate of the type Mary See and Co. would have us consider a happy habit.

I've rolled the thunderous peals of Whitman around in my mouth (Walt, of course, not the drugstore chocolatier). He often starts with a sudden sting of an almost musical quality that reminds me of Beethoven:

"A California Song!" (Song of the Redwoods, Line 1)

What an opening! And what follows doesn't disappoint, especially not for someone as in love with the people and landscape of California as I have come to be. Check out Leaves of Grass if you'd like to see what I mean. And that's only the beginning of what my old books have been teaching me lately, but that's another blog.

My mother taught me some great things about collecting books. That advice can be summed up in this sentence; more isn't always better. After all, one can only read so many books in one's life.

Indulge me here in a little math. If you're a relatively slow, but avid reader like me, you probably average about a dozen books a year. Of those, how many had you ever read before? Probably few, if any. Which ones did you re-read? One or two? That's about the going rate for me. So, let's say that I'm fortunate enough to live to be, say, 75. Starting from age 18 that's only 57 good years of reading, coming to only about 684 books altogether, a mere drop of invisible water vapor in an ocean of titles. At two re-read books per year that comes to 114 books you justifiably own, assuming you only read those only once more!

So ask yourself, is your library just a waste basket? A place where good books go to die? That hardly seems fair. As for your children, that's another question. Now I ask myself two questions before buying a new book: "will I ever read it again?", and "would I want my kids to read this if I had any?" If the answer to either of these is "no," I just let it lie and buy a good cheeseburger instead. I've only got so much money, cheeseburgers, and reading time in my life. This, in spite of my attempts to trick myself into thinking I have, like the man in the Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough At Last" to read everything I want to read. But we know what happened to him.

Of course you have to stick your head up and live every once in a while. As a writer it's an occupational hazard of mine to just live deep in my books and while away a monk-like existence. But I really do have to go out from time to time if only to find something to write about. But reading is important – "a happy habit" that maybe we could all put a little more thought and effort into for our own good, and for the good of the next generation. Reading, like anything worth doing, is a skill. Consider taking a moment to examine how well you do it, as I've done here for myself.


Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Writing for the screen

I never had much interest in writing for the screen until this past summer. Tom and I were brainstorming ideas for an episodic short story series about a character named Willow, and I realized how perfect for television the concept was. I've been working on cleaning up the first installment as a short story - okay, it's more like a short novella since it's about 10,000 words - and plan on trying it out as a television script in April during Script Frenzy.

This week Tom and I started work on a movie script about a guy named Josh based on an idea that came to him in a dream a few weeks ago. It's been interesting working in a totally new medium; it's also helped me get back the fire for writing that I thought for a few weeks might be starting to slip away. Now I'm enjoying the ride as Willow and Josh discover what adventures await them in their respective stories.


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Writer's Toybox

We're calling our blog the "Writer's Toybox." We'll take turns posting here to vent about anything that may be driving us crazy as well as share our goals and triumphs. More than anything, we want to remember the fact that we love to write and look for every excuse to do so. This will be our toybox where we can play, laugh, or cry as we strive toward our dreams.

Amy and Tom