The Update Blog: Just where have I been lately?


I have to admit, it isn’t always easy keeping up with a blog. It’s not like I’ve been gone a lot (I was gone a little) or that my life had a major change (well, it sort of did) or that I was in the hospital.

I have been around, but . . .

What has kept me from keeping to a regular blog schedule? I blame it on Twitter. In this sea of information that we are all floating in, with the many platforms flooding our lives with information of all sorts, it’s more important than ever to try and say things that really matter. After all it seems everyone is saying something, so why should I be adding one more roaring thought to the information highway unless I think it’s worth being said? Carry that idea one step further and consider what one can (and cannot) do with Twitter. Rather than write four to eight hundred words every day I can write one hundred forty characters and be done. Off it goes, the best bit of wisdom I can muster in the smallest moment, and if it’s worth a damn then someone might notice.

At the risk of sounding jaded by overload I acknowledge that the blog is still a viable source of information. In fact, according to a recent article I read on social media, it seems the longer an article is the more likely it is to be shared. It seems the pain of reading a long essay is so masochistically intense that we all want to share it with those we love.  It makes me wonder whether everyone is really reading, and preferring, longer articles. I am suspicious. The imp on my shoulder tells me some of you are hoping your friends will read the behemoth and then tell you what it was about when you ask for their opinion. It’s a form of cheating on the exam, I suppose, but we humans are prone to taking shortcuts when we think we can get away with it. Still, Twitter has a lot of appeal and it’s where I’ve been spending a lot of my time . . .

One shortcut we cannot take is in reading the tome of a book I am attempting to read. As with eating an elephant (and truly that task might be far easier in the long run, though ultimately not as enjoyable) I am consuming David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The book is elephantine if you don’t already know, full of pages and pages. These pages contain characters, plots, subplots, lots of big words, looping inter-connectivity, and footnotes aplenty. I don’t know that I will honestly finish it, but it isn’t a bad read.  It’s just so hard to physically hold onto for very long.

I have been on a DFW binge lately. I recently read Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace and a book of interviews of him as well. I do this – I become infatuated with a writer every so often and I binge on everything I can get. This is one of the things I have been doing with my time rather than writing blogs. If you like Wallace’s writing, or even if you don’t, his life story is complexly entertaining and tragically sad. I do recommend it.

As it appears we are in the update portion of this blog entry I suppose I should mention that I have a short story coming out in January. I haven’t said much about it yet because January seems like a long, long way off. I’ll make a bigger deal about it in, like, December when things appear almost impossible to fall through.

And, finally, I have been revising the current novel in hopes of getting it to an editor this summer. It’s coming along fine – thank you for asking!

Meanwhile, my writer friends elsewhere are enjoying some successes of their own. J.S. Collyer is debuting her novel Zero this August, and David Michael Williams had his story “Going Viral” honorably mentioned in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest.

So stuff is happening. I hope everyone will keep sifting through the avalanche, keep reading. There is a lot to wade through but once in a while we find what we’re looking for and happiness happens.

See you out there.

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Three Things You Need to Stay Motivated to Do Anything

According to recent research, there are three key factors to achieving success in nearly anything we do: autonomy, value, and competence.  In an article written by Daisy Yuhas of the magazine Scientific American Mind (“So You Want To Be A Genius”), research has determined that these factors improve a person’s determination to succeed.  They essentially breakdown in this way:

Autonomy – this is the sense we have of control of, and the decision to engage in, an activity in the first place.  By willingly investing effort into the activity we are much more likely to complete it because it is something we want to do rather than something we have to do.  When we want to do something we tend to have much more energy and devotion to doing it, and thus are more likely to complete it.

Value – this is a factor we assign to things that we find important and/or meaningful.  In the creative life, we want to believe in the value of our creation, and in maintaining this value we naturally want to complete the work and share it with others.  Without a sense of value in doing something there is no reason to do it, and thus the work becomes tedious by virtue of it’s pointlessness, and lacking a motivating factor, including the faith that we will find meaning in the end, the project is most likely to fail.

Competence – this is the sense that we, the individual artist, have the skills and ability to do the thing at hand.  Without this sense of competence there is an eventual frustration when we are faced with difficult hurdles in the process.  The adage “whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right” fits here.  If the creative mind does not believe in, or at least have a sense of, its own competence, then the project is likely to fail for a lack of confidence regardless of the potential of the idea, the artist, or both.

For the beginner the challenge of competence is perhaps the most acute.  Competence feeds both autonomy and value because without a sense of competence there can be no faith in the value of the work, and without a sense of value there is little to no sense of autonomy.  We humans cannot control and manage the things we are incompetent in, and because of that we must focus first of all on building our competence, and our confidence, before we can hope to infuse meaning (value) and authority (autonomy) into our work.

And how does one gain competence in a skill?  For the writer there are only two avenues: reading and writing.  When I began composing my current novel I had to return to the old books I knew, the old motivators that led to the creation of the ideas that were in my head. But my current work is science fiction while my genre background was previously fantasy and horror. Even more distant, I have spent the last decade-and-a-half engaged in literary ventures. I had to turn to science fiction as a newbie just to begin to get an idea of what I was trying to write, and how it should be written. My sense of competence was low. Because of an established sense of autonomy, however – a sense garnered through other writing and teaching successes, not to mention the wisdom that comes with age – I had the confidence in my ability that many others lack as they set out to try something new. From there I built competence through reading, and continue to do so through revision of what I hope will be a most excellent piece of adventure fiction that is also meaningful to the reader. If you are struggling with any or perhaps all of the above, I urge you to work first on competence. The rest will follow quite naturally.

So where do you sit in the realm of autonomy, value, and competence? Do you struggle with one or more of these aspect(s)? Sound off here with your thoughts and questions.

Another Reason to Read (as if you needed one)

Not long ago I went on a rant about the cookie-cutter era and how, as I read through various journals, I couldn’t decipher one narrative voice from another. Well, that hasn’t changed much, but that’s not the point of today’s post.

I digress even further. I’ve written before about why we should read and mostly it’s because as writers we need to be informed about what others are doing and how we might “steal” techniques that help us learn how to be better writers ourselves. Reading informs our lives in so many ways, and it’s very good for us, like the way eating organic food is good, exercise is good, and being nice is good. All of these things take a little effort but there’s a benefit to be had in doing them. That benefit is a better life.

Last night I was enjoying some reading time with one of my favorite literary publications, Glimmer Train, and I wasn’t even feeling much cookie-cutter annoyance with the particular issue I was reviewing. Not, mind you, that I found the writing of some of the stories especially rewarding. There are still far too many first person narratives for my sensibilities (I find the first person POV to be a cheat. It’s narcissistic, indulgent, and way overdone. Not that it isn’t effective, but the overuse of the FP POV is like hearing the same five songs on the radio, all day long, every day), and I didn’t see much risk-taking. You know me (or maybe you don’t) and I like my fresh.

I got to thinking, with all of these FP POV stories and such a precedent of a singular narrative voice (ironic, wry, a little vulgar and trendy), what am I learning from reading this stuff? I thought, ‘if this story can get published why not mine?’ I thought, ‘if I were going to write a story like this I would do it this way . . .’ And a light went on. By the time I closed the pages of that journal I was ready for an easy sleep, because I knew when I got up the next morning I was armed with two things that will eventually make me successful (according to my terms). 1) I have a unique narrative style and I’m not going to compromise it to fit some mold of expectation in the current publishing world. 2) While there’s nothing new under the sun, by staying true to my voice and by fostering my style, I will be telling the kind of story I like to hear and read, the kind that gets me to open another new journal, or a novel, and try reading again, not because I need to learn how to tell a story so much, but because I enjoy the discovery of reading something twenty or fifty pages in that is unlike anything else in the collection. So while we may read for technique, and we may read for understanding, and we may read for subject matter, there comes a time when we read for something equally as important. We read for inspiration.

I have a new approach to writing time. After all, I struggle like everyone else with finding the motivation to sit down every day and write. But I have discovered instant motivation in reading contemporary collections. Not because I think my work is better than the others. Certainly they have been published and are being read by thousands of people, an accomplishment that is no small feat. But I do get motivated by seeing what I’m not fond of because it helps me hear my voice better. In addition, when I do find something I especially like, I still have the benefit of learning from it, and of the thrill of discovery, and in sharing that discovery with others.

A writer is not harmed by a little hubris (just a little). Five minutes of pride per day, just to get started, is rather a tonic for good health in the creative process. Like a shot of hard liquor, it’s not going to damage your liver if you keep it to a minimum.

The moral of this story, therefore, is that reading serves a great many purposes for the aspiring writer, from exemplifying the craft, to addressing technical challenges, to revealing cliched, tired styles and ideas. But most importantly reading can serve as inspiration for getting back to your own work, in your voice, and with some real effort maybe even in a new style of writing that others will one day enjoy not because they see it on every page, but because they can only find it on yours.

And so, if you have not heard it already, read on my friend, read well. Read much and plenty. Then go write, first and foremost, for yourself.


Read for Inertia, Not Imitation

How often is the fledgling writer told to “read everything” if they want to write well?

The inference is that we should read presumably for the sake of understanding good and bad writing, how to do it (or avoid it), and to know what has already been written so as not to waste our time doing what has been done before.  Few of our teachers and mentors really take the time to explain the concept further, however, sending us instead to wander among the monoliths of literature with a magnifying glass and a dictionary, never realizing that, to the novice writer, the letters in those infamous tomes are seven feet tall, each word ten yards wide.  And thus (dis)armed we proceed to the next easiest thing we can think of in the face of a vague and overwhelming concept: we imitate what we see.

One reason we imitate, of course, is out of respect and admiration for a favorite writer (Raymond Carver launched thousands of imitators in his day).  This is a natural desire, and not a bad way to practice the craft in private, but for professional publication there’s no more value in it than there is in the next reason we imitate: because we think that copying the style of those already in print improves our own chances for publication.  It’s a reasonable assumption – obviously the editor of that publication liked what they saw the first time – but this behavior slows the development of the writer’s own voice, possibly forever.  Finally, maybe more common than all of the above, is the simple fact that it is far easier for our species to copy what has already been done than to come up with something unique on our own.

Everything has been done, we are told.  There is nothing new under the sun.

Yet, frequently something new does appear.  That old bug-a-boo of style shows up, again and again, in fresh new ways, re-creating the ancient stories of Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Joe-anonymous and his special story, old tales that have never been told quite this way.  And so the novice sees . . . yes! . . . this is my future, and they rip-off the latest thing, possibly even getting published once before the market is flooded with other copycats.

There is, however, a more useful purpose for reading which is much more valuable than imitation.  By reading widely the young writer can tap into and collect the energy of those various pieces, can come to understand the vortex of creativity being generated on the shoulders of dozens of original voices.  The purpose here is to get connected with the current of whatever it is that’s powering the genre.  By feeling this energy the new writer becomes free to say what has not been said, in ways that have not been expressed in the writing they have witnessed.  These things have not been expressed because they are the unique flavorings that the young writer brings with themselves, having learned where their own voice fits in the gaps of a multitude of other voices.

Of course, so much about finding that unique voice rests on a number of other things we have already discussed: writing a million words, reading broadly, writing regularly.  As the writer evolves through these phases of growth the practice of creating first drafts in              accordance with Natalie Goldberg’s basic rules becomes more and more valuable not only for getting the work done, but for finding that unique voice.  Recall that Goldberg tells us, among several things, to 1) keep our hand moving, 2) don’t think, and 3) be specific in our details.  By combining these practices with our experience of reading, we will indeed find at least a glimmer of our own voice starting to appear.  From their we will revise and revise until that voice comes through.  With enough work the diligent writer stands a very good chance of breaking through.

Within the attentive mind all of those voices, those writing styles and stories, become a sort of map for finding the place where one’s own work belongs.  When all of these elements are combined the young writer builds inertia and this inertia creates a kind of buffer on which the writer is carried over the rocky landscape of the literary terrain.  By studying the opening paragraph of a number of works the writer can find a new paradigm for her own opening.  The same can be said for finding one’s way through the middle of a story, for handling difficult plot concepts, pieces of description, and effective, stunning endings.

Admiring another writer’s style is well and good for appreciating literature overall, and for practicing style and voice as part of learning.  After that the serious writer must leave behind the desire to imitate.  With so many voices vying to be heard across an ocean of media outlets it is as important as ever to foster a unique style.  By reading widely the novice writer may hear the singular timbre of their own voice among the chorus, may find the inertia to carry them into the fray, and thus join in the conversation as a peer once and for all.


The Purposeful Mind – Does a writer need an education?

Writers are an intelligent lot.  The act of thinking, of seeking meaning in ideas, and using language to texture and color these ideas in a written form is an intellectual pastime.  Fed by streams of inspiration and the emotional urge for expression writers seek to inform themselves about the world they see, and in the process of writing inform others of their conclusions.  The two primary rules of the game, that writers must read and writers must write, are the cornerstones of a writer’s education, and by engaging in these two things any writer can advance in her craft without the addition of a formal classroom setting.  This is not to say that there is no benefit to going to school, however, and whether a writer chooses college or self-teaching, there are pros and cons to both options.

The Purposeful Mind

By approaching the craft of writing with single-minded determination, a person intent on mastering the language and mechanics of writing is already equipped with the fundamentals of the craft.  Broad and constant reading, of the kind one might do in college, in addition to those works within the writer’s genre, also increases the writer’s knowledge and development.  Additionally, by collecting a small circle of beta-readers the independent learner gains some of the aspects that a writing workshop would grant in college.  Though absent of many of the formal subjects of a degree program (science, math, history) the self-designed program can benefit this sort of student so long as the individual has massive self-discipline and the confidence to keep going in the face of a void (the void being silence, mostly, and the internal critic who says the writer is slowing falling into the void).

The negatives of independent learning, however, are substantial.  To begin with there is no replacing the guidance of peers and experienced instructors with the one-sided lecture of a book.  In the classroom there is a dialogue, and one’s peers and mentors offer critical insights that might otherwise be missed by independent study.  Furthermore the few peers the writer has are likely to be inexperienced at proper criticism and unable to be of the kind of help a serious writer needs.  And even if the independent learner has assembled the most effective library at their disposal, and gathered around them a number of reasonably qualified peers, there is still the question of confidence – the root of a healthy writer.  The slightest doubt for a writer, in either the structure of their self-made curriculum or in the end-result of their work, can derail even the most persistent artist.  Furthermore, what the classroom offers is a multifaceted competitiveness that cannot be duplicated in private.  By sitting with other students and exposing one’s talents to strangers, the young writer immediately gets a sense of where they rank on a relatively accurate scale.  This awareness can be used as inspiration to improve and to create work worthy of the praise heaped on other students.  The conscientious student of writing is also benefited, whether they are at the top or bottom of the scale, by having access to an instructor who, if worth their salt as a teacher, can give them guidance and criticism that is helpful and encouraging when the internal voices of negativity begin to chant.

The Formal Education

For most of us the days of writing apprenticeship are long gone.  Unless you have the good fortune of being adopted by a professional writer willing to put their energy into making you into the next big thing, you’re better off looking into  the offerings of an accredited college.  The benefits of formal education are indeed many.  The structure of a set schedule and assignment deadlines engenders discipline – one of the keys to success of any kind.  College also exposes one to new ideas, information from areas outside of the individual’s interests and familiarity, thereby rounding out the intellect and knowledge that all writers use for their creative purposes.  College bestows on the active student mentors and peers who help shape the burgeoning writer, and it gives one a place to compose a large portion of their one million words.  Furthermore, it is not necessary to attend an expensive school such as Stanford or Iowa, but because of the nature of the writer’s mind any proper college, including junior and community college, is a good place to start.  It is the writer’s job to observe and learn – the information in most cases is all the same, and any good instructor will be able to teach the important details regardless of the geographic location and name of the school.

Still, the dangers of the college environment, although different, are just as substantial as those of the independent learner.  Academic environments are often stilted, with faculty who are busy trying to publish their own material in order to keep their jobs, or who, having their own favorite heroes of literature, may miss the particular genius of a given student working in a different style.  College writing students may also find themselves ensnared in trying to please their professors.  The pressure to earn a grade forces many students to write what they believe the instructor wants to read, and in some cases a bad instructor will demand it.  In addition, there is often an abundance of time spent reading various published writers, little time dedicated to actual writing, and even less to revision.  Without substantial time to revise students fail to learn the key to creating truly successful works.

To the question “does a writer need an education?” the short answer is “yes.”  Whether through independent study or formal classroom experience, writers must study their craft.  All writers should take courses, even if they choose not to pursue a degree.  The environment, if tempered with an understanding of the pitfalls, will save the student writer time through exposure to new writing styles, story ideas, peer review, mentoring, and by providing structure and discipline.


What Do We Mean by “Writer”?

“What do you write?”

You know the question.  Someone at a gathering mentions to someone else that you’re a writer and the invariable question comes.  Oh, we love this question, don’t we?  It’s a chance to share, perhaps with a modicum of modesty, that we write fiction or poetry or essays . . . And yet, there’s a guilty feeling inside.  Am I really a writer?  I have sixteen stories that have never seen the light beyond my room.  Fifty two poems.  A drawer full of rejection letters.  The question depresses us.  We feel inadequate and go home later either vowing to write better or maybe thinking we’ll give up on this business about being a writer.  No more questions, no more inadequacy.

But you don’t give up, you just drag yourself to the writer’s whipping post and pluck halfheartedly at the vision of your story.  All because you want to be a writer.

I didn’t use to call myself a writer during the years of real inconsistency.  I would have spurts and fits, and sometimes I would complete a story, particularly when I was in college and could make it part of my curriculum.  But then there would be long summers of suffering the call to go outside against the call to stay in and write.  There were events to attend, obligations to fulfill, gatherings.  And then the question came – what do you write?

Eh, fiction.

Nothing published, nothing to prove I was a writer.  Just my word.

I failed to realize, in those days, that I wrote volumes of quality business documents.  Memos to bosses, reports on conference events, letters to students, and though these weren’t stories and no one was giving me awards, I put a lot of thoughtful energy into those things to the point that when it came time for my colleagues to write memos they would ask for my help, ask me to review their work because I was “the word guy.”  Meanwhile I would write a poem here or there, about anything that inspired me, and these poems would end up in the hands of friends who wanted to keep them, or as gifts, and people took pleasure in reading them.  I never sent a single one out for publication because I was a fiction writer.  Fiction writers don’t write poems and nice, well-crafted memos.  And there were journals, too, at various points.  I kept records of some of my thoughts, stacks of papers with ideas and musings and daydreams.

What do you write?


All of my confidence as a writer was based on writing in one form.  If I wasn’t blowing through fiction and publishing across the planet then I still was not a writer.  I made the mistake of thinking that to qualify as a writer I had to be making progress on the one thing I wanted most.  I didn’t recognize the truth of what I was told by one of my earliest instructors: “Writers write – one word at a time.”  He did not say “writers write fiction – one word at a time” or “writers write poetry, memoir, essays.”

Writers write.

As I continue to work with others who have a love of writing I hear over and over how they despair about being any good.  Many of these people are fiction writers, and they complain that their stories are boring, uninteresting, that they don’t have what it takes. But writers write.  They do it every day.  They write on scraps of paper or they try to make a boring old memo exquisite.  They draw pictures on their meeting agendas and dream up stories about them.  In quiet moments they put down a few words, grab an inspired moment out of the air and pin it to the paper so they can come back and examine it later.

If you are putting in the effort to write then you are a writer.  We are what we do.  Words are as interesting to us as color, as music, as the smell of our favorite food.  They are a flash of naked skin, a sound we can’t pinpoint until we investigate.  We read them, think about them, and write them down.  We may want to make them into stories or poems or essays that someone else will love, and perhaps we will if we don’t quit.  But as long as we write we are writers.  This is as noble a calling as any because writing is hard, and when we get it right and can share it well with others we connect with our world and our world connects with us.

Many people want to be writers but they don’t write.  Perhaps they don’t read.  They just want, and wish they had the initiative to do what they imagine.  Writers do it, in every form they can, as often as they can.  Writers write.

Writing takes the same dedication as plumbing, law, medicine, teaching, managing.  Anything you can imagine takes as much effort as it takes to be a writer.  You can no more expect to be an expert carpenter the first day on the job than you can expect to publish your first writing a week after you finish it.  You start by carrying materials, rolling hoses, shoveling dirt.  With enough time and effort you move up to hammering nails, setting walls – you get the idea.

So next time someone asks what you write remember that writing is not one-dimensional.  If you write, you are a writer.


What a Million Words Will Get You

I have heard it said, or more likely I have read, that we writers don’t find our voice until we’ve written one million words.

The first five times I read this it didn’t sink in.  I read “million words” and thought ‘it will take me forever to write a million words – I’m just not going to worry about it.’  But you know what I did worry about?  For the last twenty years I have lamented the fact that I did not have a real, independent and bona fide style.  I had no idea where this ‘style’ thing came from, how my favorite writers got it, why I couldn’t find it.  I was like David Banner trying to discover the answer to the tragedy of why I couldn’t make an important difference when things depended on it.  But even then I was no closer to becoming the Hulk.

For writers style is everything.  Style determines our use of language, the originality of our expression, the nature of our themes.  Style is about the choices we make and how we tell our own individual truth.  Without style we are still amateurs at best, and perhaps we are still imitating other writers.  Imitation is fine.  It has its place and time.  Eventually, however, we must arrive at our own style.

I have to admit that style is a concept I have largely ignored outside of fretting over not having it.  I never directly addressed style in teaching writing students about writing.  Perhaps this is a good thing, or at least justifiable in the sense that most writing students (freshmen and sophomores) haven’t written enough to know their style.  This is not to say that young writers can’t or don’t have a unique voice.  Some people are just well attuned to their own nature from an early age and can express themselves with fair originality.  But style, I mean style.  That comes from somewhere else.

For Christmas I was given two books by writer Natalie Goldberg: Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind.  I just finished reading Wild Mind and among the gems of writerly wisdom that she imparted in that book was a return to this notion of a million words.  A writer does not find his or her style until they have written a million words.  She wasn’t even saying it as a fact, but was passingly observing the adage, yet the realization finally bloomed for me that I had not yet accomplished style because I simply had not written enough!


As weird as it might sound I had toe-giggles when I realized that I wasn’t a no-talent loser, I was still just finding myself.  Why hadn’t I gotten the message before?  All of the angst I carried prior to this epiphany was like the lost despair of the ugly duckling.  I wasn’t good at what I was supposed to be – and yet, all I had to do was be what I was supposed to be more.

Oddly enough, though not so oddly considering that this is how I do things in life, as the realization that I needed to write my million words to gain my style finally settled on me, I also realized that I have finally identified my style – and just recently.  This fall I wrote a story that not only manages the characteristics of magical realism which I thoroughly embrace, but also the lyricism of poetry.  This story I wrote, which is in revision right now, was unlike anything I had ever written.  It was relaxed, fluid, ephemeral, mystical.  Many of the things I deeply enjoy in the books, movies and music I experience.  I like the unusual, the weird.  Chuck Palahniuk, David Lynch, Daniel Johnston.  But because I was out of practice (being inexperienced due to a lack of writing enough) my writing had been stiff, distant, cautious.  At last, however, the event met with the training, and I am happy to say that my style is now on the horizon.

I admonish all writers, from this moment on free yourself from worry that you don’t have the talent or that you don’t have an original voice.  Write your million words – and I do mean a million.  Write out some terrible, bland stories, even a whole novel as I did.  Remember last year I finished a 560 page manuscript?  Remember how I edited it down to 330?  It turns out that the exercise was largely to fulfill my million words, and next year I will be rewriting the entire thing with . . . wait for it . . . style!

Have I actually written a million words?  Honestly I don’t know.  A million words is around 3,000 pages.  Yeah, I’d say I’ve written that much in my time.  Probably almost three times that.  But I don’t think all of those words count.  Our million words need to be intentional, focused, unflinching writing in our most creative moments.  A million words of fiction, a million words of memoir, a million words of poetry.  A serious writer can do it in a few short years.  This is how many famous writers established their careers as twenty-somethings.  But regardless of how and when you do it, what you will get for a million words is yourself, and your readers will get you, too, and your stories, and all of the enrichment that literature brings.

Enjoy the process, my friends.  There is nothing like the call to create – take the steps necessary to honor your craft.  Read a million words.  Write a million words.

And then write a million more.