Archive for February, 2011


I’ve recently rediscovered my love of writing, and by “recently” I mean in the past couple of years. I started out as a teenager wanting to do nothing but write, but life happens, side roads are willingly and unwillingly taken, and it can take awhile to get back to the main path again.

After writing several short stories, I got an idea for what I thought would make a good novel. Indeed, I started to write it as a short story first and quickly found that there was no way I’d be able to flush out the characters and their story to my satisfaction in under 10,000 words. I sat in my desk chair staring at the screen and actually said aloud, “Right, I’m going to write a novel.”

That was a year ago.

Since coming back to the craft, I’ve had the good fortune to meet several published novelists and I ask them about their experiences writing their first novel-length work. It’s split right down the middle:  Half say it was easy, a great experience, and to the other half it felt like an eternal root canal procedure. Thus far, I would have to side with the latter group.

blankslateI’ve been working one idea after the next for about thirteen months now. The longest manuscript I’ve managed to write peaked at about 42,000 words, and then I set it aside because I felt it wasn’t really going anywhere. In each one of my projects, I could feel the dry rot of writer’s block set in and I just couldn’t seem to find a way around it. Each attempt to add something to the story felt contrived and phony. I felt like I was forcing it.

Desperate to find an solution, I scoured the Internet and copies of Writer’s Digest and The Writer magazines, read article after article, but nothing seemed to help. So, I made sure to archive my in-flight manuscripts and held out hope that someday I might go back and finish them.

Two weeks ago, I had an idea for a new story. It was inspired by a dream (cliché, I know, but true) and wrote it down before it faded into the ether of consciousness. I was excited about the idea and I rushed to my laptop to start pecking out the first paragraph. But I paused. I realized I’d been in love with all my other ideas as well, and none had worked out. Like Dennis Hopper used to say in those financial planner commercials, “You, my friend, you need a plan.

So that’s what I did. In two weeks I’ve managed about 20,000 words, and the story is still rolling along like wildfire. For the first time, I feel like I have nothing but a green field in front of me and that, this time, I’m really going to do it.

What magical solution did I find for my writer’s block? If only it were magic; now that would be a story. No magic, just a new combination and arrangement of practices that seem to be working well for me this time around. I’ll share them here (and thus, provide another discoverable guide for future writers struggling with the all-consuming Block) in the event that they might help you too. I hope they do.

  1. Know Thy Characters As Yourself. In past efforts, my focus was on plot. I knew characters were important, but I figured that they would reveal things about themselves to me as the story progressed. I pictured building a relationship with them as we spent time together, the same way I would forge a new friendship or business relationship in the real world. Unfortunately, the world of my story isn’t like the real world. The fictional world of my book needs to be created and it will be my characters that will do this. If I don’t know them intimately from the start, I’m lost. The story can only go so far. I’m not saying you even have to know all of the characters that will eventually be in the story, you just need to really know them before you write the first word about them in your piece.
  2. Nail Your Beginning, Evolve The Ending. Traditionally, I’ve always attempted to layout the full scope of my tale before I start writing. I know that many of my favorite writers (Dan Simmons, for one) work like this, but unfortunately, I’m just not wired that way. I start out going in one direction, but inevitably, some subtle plot twist introduces itself and I feel obligated to chase it down. More often than not, this leads me away from where I originally intended to land. Once I realized this about myself, I stopped worrying about. Now I focus on really nailing the beginning of the story, on creating an irresistible hook that will compel my reader to follow me on my journey. If I can do that, then the story that follows seems to fall into shape nicely.
  3. First Draft “Analysis Paralysis.” One of my greatest strengths as a writer is that I have always sought to write near-perfect prose. My greatest weakness as a writer is that I have always sought to write near-perfect prose. When I looked back on my other attempts at writing a novel, I found that I had fallen into the tar pit of analysis paralysis: The need to get the quality of a second draft in the first draft. Shedding this behavior, more than anything else, has helped me propel this new project forward. The purpose of my first draft is only to get the story out of my head and into the computer. I’ll worry about grammar, imagery, simile and metaphor, exposition, etc. when I get to the second draft. This has actually given me motivation to finish the story so I can focus on the more juicy tidbits later on.
  4. Write Something Every Day. If you’re going to be a writer, this is something you need to do anyway, but it’s especially important if you don’t write fulltime. Some days, when I’m finally done with my day job, when I’ve made dinner and spent some time with the family, the last thing I want to do is sit down and write. My brain is oatmeal. But it is so important to write something. Even if you can only manage a couple hundred words, that’s fine. If you need a break from your book, spend some time working on something else. Often a block in one story can be shaken loose by writing about something completely different. Answers can be found in the most unlikely places. When it’s all said and done, writing is like keeping a tidy home:  A little bit of work each day is easier and yields better results than trying to clean the whole house just once a week.
  5. Work Your Plot When You’re Not Writing. My standard modus operandi before was to walk away from the keyboard after a writing session and clear my head completely of what I was writing. This was a common practice in other jobs I’ve had in my life and I always felt that it allowed me to come back to the work with a fresh perspective. Of course, writing fiction isn’t like other jobs (or at least I’ve never felt it was). Now, as I go about my daily business, I try to work through the next section of the story. I don’t try to tackle the whole thing, just what I would like to get written the next time I sit down at the keyboard. This makes my writing time much more productive, enjoyable and actually increases the continuity of my work.

I make no guarantees that any of these tactics will work for you—everyone works a little differently—but they have paid off in spades for me. If you keep finding that you are the biggest blocker to achieving your writing goals, it will be worth your while to give these tactics a try. Please, don’t keep the results to yourself. Let me know in the comments section below if they worked for you or not.

Happy writing.

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 You’ve read the books. You’ve downloaded the iPhone app. But do you have the 2011 “Bunny Suicides” calendar and organizer.

Yeah, you read that right. Andy Riley’s hysterical franchise on self-homicidal hasenpfeffer has followed in the large footsteps of Gary Larson and Scott Adams and published a book calendar and organizer for 2011 featuring many of my favorite moments in Leporidae suicidium, including:

  • The bunny sitting on a power drill pushing the On button with a stick
  • The bunny getting ready to ram a butcher knife attached to a remote control car into himself
  • The bunny throwing himself through the strings of an orchestra harp (while the harpist is still playing, of course)

I have a pretty black sense of humor, so this calendar will soon adorn my desk. I just thought I’d pass the good word around.

The Death of Manners

I’m not a prude. Anyone who knows me personally, especially my family, will attest to that. I have, however, noticed a disturbing trend in recent interactions with my fellow human beings. It all came to a head while shopping at the local grocery store yesterday.

One is hard-pressed to observe good manners in a grocery store anyway, but this was unusual even for that harsh environment. I was standing in the frozen food aisle looking for a bag of frozen peas for the shepherd’s pie I was going to make for dinner. As I scanned the shelves to see if the store actually carried “English peas” (I do so love Alton Brown and his attention to detail in his recipes), a woman pushing a cart walked in front of me, and then stopped.

When I was a child, I was taught that, should you need to step in front of someone who is clearly looking at something, you say, “Excuse me.” I don’t know how my parents got that to stick, but I do it to this very day. It would never occur to me to not excuse myself, no less stop directly in front of someone without a word said.

I opened my mouth to say something, and then decided to wait and see if she would eventually acknowledge what she’d done. Not having my stopwatch with me, I had to guess at the time that passed, but I would have to say it was a good ten to fifteen seconds, which is a veritable eternity in the grocery store. She eventually opened the freezer door, took a bag of frozen corn, tossed it nonchalantly into her cart and went on her way as if I’d never existed. That was the part that disturbed me the most:  She never even acknowledged I was there.

This is just one case, and an extreme one at that, but I think it calls out a disturbing trend in our society:  The death of common manners and courtesy.

Why God, Why?

Of course there’ve always been rude assholes in the world. It just seems like there are way more of them these days, and they’re coming in all shapes and sizes.

So what is causing this proliferation of pricks? I’ll leave it for the sociologists to publish the definitive paper (if you can ever wake them up at the party), but I’ll propose a few theories of my own:

Technology

The Internet. Wireless devices. Cellular telephones. What wondrous things these are. They bring the world together in ways my generation could never have dreamed when we were children. They’ve also created a preoccupation with a vast network of people that are everywhere but where you are.

It’s almost become a cliché, people walking around staring at a small, black device in their hand, oblivious to the turning and churning of the world around them. When you value the company of virtual people more than those immediately around you, courtesy dies. I often think of my teenaged daughter and her cell phone. She considers it extremely rude not to reply to every text message she gets, as if not sending an immediate reply would cause some lasting damage to the sender’s delicate self-confidence. However, as she taps away on the keyboard of her phone, she hears nary a word coming from my mouth and, of course, can’t understand why I’m irritated when I have to repeat myself. Look around you right now. I’ve got a ten-spot that someone nearby is interacting with a screen instead of the real, carbon-based beings physically near them.

Technology is a wondrous thing and enables us to do many things better than we used to, but it is absolutely a double-edged sword that will disembowel us all if we’re not careful.

Television

Like it or not, television is the predominant form of entertainment in this country. It is the bringer of information and the babysitter of children. Karl Marx would burst and aneurism to see that television has replaced religion as the opiate of the masses.

This is not going to be a bash on television as a concept. I watch some television and I don’t buy into the in-vogue idea that not watching television makes you somehow to superior to everyone else who does.

That being said, I think that the programming on most television stations is reminiscent of a poorly maintained cow pasture littered from fence line to fence line with steaming piles of bovine shit:  There might be a flower growing out there somewhere, but it’s going to be very hard to find and it’s certain your shoes are going to smell bad when everything is said and done.

The proliferation of so-called “reality TV,” an interesting idea at its inception, has rolled forward completely out of control. These days, for every drama or sitcom on the air, there’s a show about competitive baking, admonishing people for not dressing stylishly enough or, God help us, being a promiscuous drunk in New Jersey.

Interestingly, the worst that television has to offer appears to be the most popular. With the constant reinforcement that putting yourself first and others second is not only okay, but lands you a big-time television gig, what motivation is there to maintain simple respect for others? Answer:  None.

In the same way that television has desensitized a generation to images of violence, now it is slowly eroding our sense of courtesy and appropriate behavior.

And then, of course, there is the matter of television political pundits, but that’s for another article altogether.

Parenting

Is it just me, or does it seem that active parenting is becoming a lost art form?

I’m not saying that I am, by any means, a perfect parent, because I’m not. I don’t think such a thing has ever existed. I am, however, an active parent, probably much more so than my children care for. I’m involved in their daily lives. I care about what they do, where they are and with whom they’re spending time.

These don’t sound like extraordinary things for a parent to do, but as I meet the parents of my children’s friends, I’m astounded how unusual my parenting style seems to be these days. The idea that one of my teenaged children could be out until past midnight and that I would have no clue as to where they were is beyond me. I can’t even imagine it. Yet I keep encountering parents who are right there in that situation and, what’s worse, they don’t seem bothered by it. I keep hearing statements like, “Kids will be kids,” and “You have to let them learn for themselves.” While I agree in spirit with these sentiments, children are not supposed to learn about life and the cold, cruel world by themselves. The entire purpose of keeping them in your home until adulthood is to guide and teach them, even when they resist it with every fiber of their being.

With the combination of ubiquitous connections via technology, the wasteland of content on television and laissez-faire parenting style that seems to be evolving into the norm, it’s really no wonder that basic respect for other people is going the way of the mastodon.

What to Do?

This isn’t about opening the door for a lady, or keeping your napkin in your lap. This isn’t about laying your coat down over a mud puddle for your fair lass to cross or even insisting the other guy go first at the four-way intersection, even though it was your turn.

I’m talking about the kind of courtesy that comes from respect, pure and simple.

Wait staff in restaurants are always complimenting my children for their manners. Why? Because my wife and I require them to order food by saying, “May I please have…” as opposed to what I typically hear, “I’ll take the…” or “Gimme the…” These latter two examples are demands, where as the former is a request. What’s the difference? If you were addressing an indentured servant, then a command would be entirely appropriate-there would be no true expectation of respect. However, men and women working in restaurants are not indentured servants. They are people doing a difficult and tiring job and, in most cases, not making a lot of money doing it. The simple act of asking for your food (and yes, the word “please” is required) makes all the difference in that interaction. I’m fairly certain I’ve never been served food with spit mixed into the cream sauce.

Seeing as this seems to be such a rampant problem in our society, and I’m not big on bitching without proposing potential solutions, here are some tips that will facilitate more pleasant and respectful interactions:

  • Say “Please.” Say “Thank you.” A simple acknowledgement that someone has done something for you goes a long way. I consistently get smiles from waiters and waitresses because I will pause in a conversation at the table to thank them when they refill my water glass. Not only does it feel good to make someone else feel the same, I find that I get much better service from people. Courtesy should be a win-win for everyone involved.
  • Leave the cell phone in your pocket. I always have the cell phone with me. I will admit that. However, it’s important to note that FCC imposes no penalties on someone who opts not to answer their cell phone when it rings. All cellular plans have voicemail. If it’s important, they’ll leave a message. If they don’t leave a message, there’s always caller ID. You have options;  one of them should not be to disrupt other people’s lives with your phone. Sometimes I wish they never left the kitchen wall.
  • Say “Excuse me.” Let’s face it, we all get in each other’s way sometimes. Had the woman I introduced at the beginning of this article simply said, “Excuse me, I just need to grab something real quick,” I would have said, “No problem,” and you would likely not be reading this. It only takes a second to let someone else know that you know that they’re there, and it can make all the difference.
  • Remember, other people don’t care about your personal life. You personal life is just that:  Personal. Keep it that way. My family and I don’t want to hear about your most recent pregnancy scare. Nor do we care to listen to you say “Fuck” three hundred times in a four minute conversation with your step-brother. Have some decorum. If it’s not something you’d sit down and tell me one-on-one, then you should probably avoid yelling it into your cell phone in the middle of a restaurant.
  • The “Golden Rule.” ‘Nuff said.

In the end, there’s no great secret to bringing back manners and civility to our culture. Any time more than a few people choose to live in close proximity to each other, these things just start to make sense, or at least they should.

I have a challenge for you:  Try to incorporate one act of common courtesy into your routine each day. Start simply. Hold the door some someone coming into a building behind you, even if you have to stand there for a few extra seconds waiting for them to arrive. Tuck your suitcase under your table in the crowded airport bar instead of leaving it in the middle of the aisle. When someone yells, “Hold the elevator!” as the doors are closing, reach down and hit the button. You can tell him or her when they board that they should have said, “Please.”

It’s not hard. If we all start thinking outside of ourselves and remember that we’re all just ameba living together in this big blue petri dish, then things will start to take care of themselves. So please, remember your manners. If you can’t, contact me. I’ll help you remember them.

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Strength in Numbers

For the past three weeks, the world has sat and watched a true, modern-day peaceful revolution begin, expand and, in the end, force a change in Egypt’s long-standing and oppressive government. There were skirmishes throughout, but they were brought on by hired thugs paid by the establishment to break the protesters’ will.

But their will was not broken.

They stayed until the end and learned the one golden rule of citizenship:  The government, regardless of how it was created, is ultimately subject to the rule of the people. Millions of Egyptian citizens, having suffered under decades of oppressive rule by Hosni Mubarak, realized that they outnumbered the bureaucrats, the police and even the military. Also, they didn’t sink into mindless violence, destroying their own neighborhoods and business. They simply took to the streets and made their voices heard and, in doing so, changed much more than the leadership of their country.

This morning, I saw in the news that protesters in Iran are clashing with police in the streets of Tehran. The leaders of the so-called “Green Movement,” Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, have been under house arrest since last week. They are positioning these marches as being supportive of the Egyptian people, a stance the Iranian government took as the crisis in Cairo was reaching its climax. Now the government is trying to crack down, going so far as to surround their homes and keeping them from joining the marches.

Of course, all despots in the Middle East should have been thinking about this as events were unfolding in Egypt, especially Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmandinejad. After the world-wide condemnation of his stealing the 2009 election and then the brutal methods used to crush the opposition and their calls for justice in the aftermath, I should think he would have already had a plan. Perhaps he did, but the hypocrisy of supporting the people of Egypt and Tunisia in their revolution and then restricting his own people from gathering in public to do the same can’t be missed and should certainly not be a surprise to anyone in the world now.

The point is this:  We citizens far outnumber the members of out government. We think of ourselves primarily as being dependent on them, but actually, they are equally dependent on us. This symbiosis is what gives us our strength. If we don’t work, our government doesn’t work. Iranian security forces can fire rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds, and they will stop some of the protests, but what the events of the past few weeks have proven is that, eventually, they will run out of tear gas and bullets and be overwhelmed, or perhaps they will do what the Egyptian military did and refuse to fire on peaceful, unarmed people.

What the Egyptian people did transcends their immediate goal of ousting Mubarak from office. They set an example for all the people of the Middle East, of the world for that matter. They showed that ordinary men and women can force the change. It requires sacrifice, it requires courage, but it can be done. And you don’t need another country to do it for you.