May 13

Making the Best of Your Next Project

Over the course of my nearly thirty-year writing career, I’ve been lucky enough to work in a wide variety of areas. I started out freelancing for a regional trade publication titled, Construction Equipment Guide. Not the most noble of beginnings, but it got my foot in the door and helped me build up some clips for my portfolio.

Since then, I’ve written for several regional and local publications. I’ve also worked in communications and marketing, written about employee benefits, did grant writing for several non-profits, and written scripts for training videos. In between all that, I’ve penned quite a few short stories.

We’re all these jobs fun? Not especially. Some were great, some mediocre, and a few were awful. But through them all I always treated my writing projects the same way. As creative exercises.

That’s how I make the best of every project I work on. It’s sort of like making them into games. I have this information I need to pass along to someone else. I always picture an individual as my audience. That’s the person I’m writing for and I need to make sure they understand.

It doesn’t matter if I’m working on a grant, a short story, or an article for a magazine. In each case I write for that one person. I don’t necessarily see them or visualize what they look like. They are the unknown reader. What I do, however, is put myself in their shoes, look at my text through their eyes. I imagine them to be an ordinary person who may not know much about the topic at hand. My challenge is to write in a way that gives them understanding. typewriter on desk

I’ll give you an example. I was working with a national non-profit that focused on improving childhood nutrition. They had a program where they went into elementary and middle schools and taught children about home gardening, making smart food choices, and showed them how fruits and vegetables could be just as fun to eat as junk food.

I was helping this group to get a grant from one of the biggest retailers in the U.S. I assumed that the people reading this grant request probably didn’t know much about these topics. In fact, I figured they were all well off and probably never had to worry whether or not they and their families were eating well.

With that in mind, I knew I needed to get them to see these issues from another viewpoint other than their own.

So that’s how I approached the project. I had to get creative and figure out how best to explain the situation, what they non-profit was proposing, and how important it was for this giant company to help.

Sure, the material was dry. There were a lot of stats, a lot of data, and I had to massage it into something interesting and compelling. I had to flex my creative muscles.

And that’s what I did. I didn’t write the request in a sterile, by-the-numbers way that I’d seen in so similar documents. I told a story. I wrote about children in the inner-city who had never seen a vegetable garden. I wrote about kids in rural areas who were growing up with diabetes and obesity problems from eating so much junk food. I wrote about a future where the health care system is overrun with adults in poor health.

And you know what? They gave the non-profit the grant. Two-hundred thousand dollars. Not bad.

I’ve found that looking at every writing project as an exercise in creativity not only makes it more fun for me, but it also gives me a chance to do something different. Like with requesting a grant. I know the people reviewing these documents are seeing a lot of the same language, the same points, the same arguments. It’s got to be monotonous for them. When I give them something different to read, something that takes them on a journey, then it’s going to stand out from the rest. And in the end, that’s really what matters.

stacks of paper

If you feel like you’re getting into a rut with a project, take a step back and see if you can come at it from a creative angle. I guarantee you’ll end up with something better than expected.

RB

May 5

Book Review – A Quiet Rebellion: Posterity

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a good fantasy book series. The problem is that too many of them follow overly-familiar tropes. There’s the orphan who finds out they are actually royalty and must retake the throne. Or there’s the ancient evil that is returning and a plucky group of misfits have to learn to work together to defeat it. I mean, I’ll still read those stories, but in limited quantities.

But every so often a writer comes along and tries something new, a little different from what I expect. That’s the case with M.H. Thaung’s Numoeath series. The first two books (which I’ve reviewed here and here) were well-written, well-plotted, and overall fun to read. The characters were believable. No one was perfect, they all had some baggage they were carrying, made bad decisions for the right reasons, and basically behaved like real people.

The second book, Restitution, ended in a way that made me wonder what Thaung was going to do in the third book. It was somewhat of a cliffhanger, but even more so, I was thrown by an unexpected twist with the fates of several characters. Honestly, I thought the second book was dovetailing into a nice, clean ending. I was pleasantly disappointed. In fact, the ending of the second book stuck with me for several days after I finished it. I like it when an author can keep me engaged even after the last page.

The third book, Posterity, picks up immediately after the second, and expands on some of the history of this land and this world. I was hoping for that. Thaung does a wonderful job of building the world in the first two novels, but she doesn’t delve into too much of the history, leaving that for the final book. Was I happy with the payoff? Absolutely. In fact, even though she answers many questions and expands on the world-building, there’s still so much more left for her (and hopefully, us) to explore. book cover

Luckily, Thaung has also written some additional pieces that take place in this world. It excites me to think about world-building from a writer’s perspective. It makes me wonder how much she planned ahead of time, like, was Thaung piecing it together as she wrote? Or did she focus on the geographical area where the main story takes place, and now she’s slowly exploring the rest of the world? Either way, I find it all easy to visualize, easy to immerse myself in. It’s a world that comfortable and familiar, but still different than ours.

As far as the overall story is concerned, I think it’s good. Very good. There’s a potential coming crisis, but throughout the story questions arose about the legitimacy of the crisis. As a reader, I wasn’t sure who to believe in the story. Everyone had their agendas, some good and some bad, but even then I could understand why the characters did what they did. Basically, I understood their motivations even if I didn’t agree with them. That’s good characterization.

If I had to point to something I felt didn’t work, or could have been better, was the initial ending (there’s a nice wrap-up after the main story finishes). Not that the ending was bad or needed to be different. I just felt like it was rushed, that the final couple of chapters could have been stretched out a little bit more, a little more tension, a little more risk, and maybe a little more loss.

But hey, this is a fantasy story, fiction, so it can be whatever the author thinks is appropriate. I was still happy with how things turned out. It was a worthwhile read, a great story to immerse myself in, and as mentioned above, I continued to think about it long after the last page. If nothing else, that’s the sign of a story well-told.

RB

April 30

A Photo Moment – Amaryllis

One of the reasons I love flowers is because they remind me of the impermanence of things. It’s a tenet of Buddhist philosophy, that nothing lasts forever and our attachment to things is one of the causes of suffering. We have to appreciate things while we have them because we never know when they’ll be gone.

I’m reminded of this every spring when the Amaryllis in my yard begin to return to life. They’re flowering bulbs, meaning, they sprout and bloom when the weather begins to warm, then remain green through the summer, and die off in the winter. Amaryllis blooms

I have several of them in pots on my back patio, and a few growing in a bed further out in the yard. It’s kinda funny how excited I get when I see those first shoots rising up out of the soil, the flower stalk pointing at and reaching for the sky like a green rocket ship. I know what’s coming and I know it won’t last long.

Amaryllis bloom

This year they bloomed in a staggered fashion, first breaking the surface in one pot, then another, then another, as if they were trying to make the beauty of their blooms last a little bit longer. When they finally were in full display, the deep, rich reds were a sharp contrast against the greenery that served as a backdrop.

But my focus is always on the flowers. The colors are so dense, with the delicate stigma looking like alien antenna. Amaryllis bloom

Of course, there is one aberration, which is the one I call the candy cane. Predominantly white blooms with red stripes. There’s only one in the yard, but it’s my favorite. I don’t tell the other ones, though. Amaryllis bloom

The photos posted here were taken a little over a week ago, so now the blooms have faded and drooped and are ready to be cut back. It’s unfortunate, but inevitable.

However, I know they’ll be back again next year to brighten my yard for a few days. I’ll be waiting patiently.

RB

April 29

New Podcast Episode – Creativity and Death

The long-delayed Episode 42 of the Prometheus Project Podcast is now available!

In this episode I look at the topic of death and how we use art to explore it, to find answers, and to come to terms with mortality.

The podcast is available at iTunes, GooglePlay, Spotify, Amazon, and PodBean. If you prefer, I also have a YouTube channel.

Or you can listen to it right here:

April 28

The Magic of Decisions

I was recently reading about the power of our personal decisions and how even the smallest choice we make can change the course of our lives.

For example, a person bought a new pair of shoes and wore them to work in a bar. Halfway through the night, one of the soles came loose. This prevented him from going out with his friends after the bar closed. He could have, but he figured he’d rather not deal with the damaged shoe the rest of the night. He instead went home, went online, and met a young woman in a chat room. Two years later they were married and having their first child.

So if his shoe hadn’t fallen apart and made him decide to go home instead of out partying, he never would have met his future wife.

I read another example about a guy whose best friend was about to move across the country for a new job. The night before his friend left, they went out and got drunk, then later the guy decided to buy a one-way airline ticket and join his buddy. The job ended up not working out, so the friend returned home, but the other guy decided to stay in the new city. Seven years later he was married, had two kids, and a great job.

Again, a simple, spur-of-the-moment decision changed his life forever. shoes with arrows pointing in different directions

It blows my mind when I sit back and consider all the decisions I make on any given day. I decide what to eat for breakfast, what clothes to wear, whether or not I need to shave, what route I drive to work, what I’m going to have for lunch. The decisions are constant and never ending. And each and every one of them changes the course of my day, and potentially my life.

Using myself as an example, when I first moved to Tallahassee I met a guy at a restaurant where I had recently gotten a job. He invited me back to his apartment complex to hang out and meet some people. One of those people was a young woman. She and I would run into each other on and off over the next seven years, until finally one day I asked her out. We’ve now been married for twenty-seven years.

So if I had turned down the offer to go to this apartment complex and meet these people, I probably never would have met my future wife. Amazing, isn’t it?

There’s a theory in theoretical physics that suggests every decision we make creates a new timeline or a new universe. Every single one. That’s an idea that keeps me awake at night considering the possibilities and wondering how my life would be different if I had worn a green shirt today instead of black, or if I’d smiled at that person I passed on the sidewalk instead of staring at my phone screen.

That’s one of the things I think about when working on a piece of fiction. There are so many possibilities to consider – although I try not to overthink when writing fiction, otherwise I may end up in the weeds. We are our choices - Sartre

But still, as I’m writing I’m making decisions with each sentence, even every word, that I type on the page. With my writing style, which is akin to absolute and unplanned chaos, I really don’t know where my stories are going to end up. I usually have an idea of where I want it to go, but the protagonist, or maybe a supporting character, will more than likely make an unforeseen decision and the story takes a left turn into unchartered and unconsidered territory.

Not that it’s a bad thing. I love the unexpected in fiction. I think that makes it more like reality, like life in general. We get up in the morning with plans for the day, but how often does it all work out the way you expect it to?

And from a writing standpoint, I like it when my characters take the lead and show me things I hadn’t thought about or considered. As the saying goes, “No surprises for the writer, no surprises for the reader.”

RB

April 26

A Little Motivation

We all need a little motivation every now and then. Even the most driven individuals can get burned out, frustrated, lose their energy. It’s not a personal failing, it’s just something that happens because we’re human, not machines. Sometimes it may be due to personal issues, physical issues, or mental health. Other times it’s just simple burn out. Exhausted woman

I find it happens to me, too. I can get into a fantastic groove working on various creative projects, writing, drawing, cooking, making music. But eventually I’ll run out of steam and have to take a break to catch my breath.

The problem, I’ve found, is that it can difficult to get back to it. Why is it that we find it easy to slip out of good routines and processes, but so hard to get back into them? Just like it’s easier to pick up a bad habit than it is to break one.

It would be wonderful to have a cure-all for when this arises. Pop a pill, drink an elixir, do a funky dance or something like that. But no. As the saying goes, there are no easy answers.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t something that will work for you. You just have to find it. When you’re in one of those ruts, you have to ask yourself, “What motivates me?”

We’re all motivated by something different. It may be you have ideas in your head that you feel passionate about. Or maybe you have a desire to prove to someone – maybe yourself, maybe a friend or family member – that you’re better than they think you are. Or maybe you want to impress someone, a woman who makes your heart flutter, or a man who makes you feel funny inside. Or maybe you can’t sit still, that you have to do something, keep busy, keep moving.

Woman sitting on mountain top.
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

Whatever it may be, you have to remind yourself every once in a while. I’m not going to claim that this will shake off that funk your in and get you back on track, but I do think it’s a first step. What I mean is, the way to correct course is to take a step back and remember what it is that fuels your passion, that keeps the fires burning.

Once you remember that, it can start a chain reaction, like lighting a fuse. You remember that motivation – the spark – and it gets you thinking about your journey, what got you started in your creative endeavor, made you want to be creative. Then you’ll start to remember how good it feels to create. You’ll remember what it is that you enjoy about the process. And before you know it, you’ll be back in the groove. sparks

Like I note above, there’s no quick fix. Even what I describe about remembering your motivation isn’t going to immediately change things. There’s a process, everyone is different. But I think that this is a good way to begin that process.

Remember, we all need to be creative in some way. No matter what it is, try and do it regularly, get into a routine, follow your passion. It’s good for you.

RB

 

April 21

Does Word Count Matter?

I’m always surprised when I hear writers discussing word counts. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional humble brag. I’m guilty of that, especially when I pound out 2,000 words in a couple of hours. It’s akin to running a marathon, and if runners can brag, then so can writers. Luckily, I’ve never pulled a hamstring working on my MacBook.

But what I’m bothered by is when writers put an emphasis on word count. For example, when they seem to focus on how many words are in a story rather than the content.

Jumble of words

It’s weird, particularly in fiction. I understand that word counts matter when it comes to categorizing a story. Flash fiction is generally under 1,000 words. Short stories cap out around 8,000 words. Novellas run anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 words. Novels pick up after that.

Maybe it’s a badge of honor to some writers. Like a competition. “How many words did you write today?” “Oh, about 1,000.” “Only 1,000? Man, you’re a light-weight!”

I don’t think I’ve ever asked another writer how many words they wrote that day. Or on any day. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever asked a writer what their final draft totaled up to be. Why should the number of words matter?

The only thing that should matter to a writer is whether or not they told the best story they could, that they poured their heart and blood into it, and that they were honest (telling the story the way it should be told without forcing it into a specific direction).

I can understand paying attention to word count when writing. If a writer is working on a novel, then they want to shoot for 50,000 or more words. But, and I’ve mentioned this before on this blog and in my podcast, it still shouldn’t matter. A story is going to be as long or as short as it needs to be. If I start off thinking I’m going to write a short story and it ends up at 10,000 words, I’m not going to be disappointed as long as I stayed true to the story and didn’t fill it with a lot of stuffing just to make it longer.

Same thing goes the opposite direction. If I plan to write a novel, but the story ends up in the novella category, I’m not going to worry about it as long as I’ve told a good story.Stack of books.

The story itself should determine the length. If you can tell it in 2,000 words, wonderful. If it takes 20,000 words, go for it. We shouldn’t try to pad a story or slice and dice it just to force it into a category. Let the story decide.

When it comes down to it, the only time word count matters is when you’re ready to sell your story.

RB

April 20

Remaining Postive

It’s not always easy to maintain a positive attitude. Life can throw curveballs at you, trip you up, leave you wondering what the hell just happened. We’ve all been there at some point. Dazed, confused, lost, and trying to figure out what the next steps should be.

Of course, there are thousands of opinions on how to handle life’s obstacles. Some people choose religion and spirituality. Some try journaling or maybe seeing a therapist. Others numb themselves with drugs and alcohol. There’s a little something for everyone.

I’m not going to try and tell you what you should do to pick yourself up, how you should view life, or even offer you an answer. That’s something you have to do on your own. Everyone is different, and the solution for one person may not work for another. We’re all very unique when it comes to mental and emotional health.

Despite that, we all face similar issues. Bad jobs, bad relationships, unexpected expenses we can’t afford, death, injuries, loneliness are all part of the human condition. man at window

What I will do, however, is tell you how I manage. Maybe you’ll find something useful in my experience.

When I find myself slipping into one of those states of mind, when life is looking dark and I’m feeling adrift, I force myself to take stock. What I mean is, I look around myself and identify all the good things going on in my life. Sure, I could be sick or angry or hurt, but that’s not the entirety of my existence. No, there’s always more to consider.

I’m in a good relationship (twenty-seven years and counting) and I have also have a dear friend who would do anything for me. I also have two dogs that always seem to sense my mood and know when I need their attention. I have two self-published short story collections that have sold well, and I have the opportunity to express and explore my creativity.Peaceful Dog

It may not seem like much, but it’s enough.

And, of course, I write. A lot. I fill up a couple of journals every year, the pages covered in early morning or late night scribbles detailing my hopes, fears, successes, and failures. I have to admit, my journal is my therapist. It’s a fantastic way to vent.

The thing is, I know it’s easy to slip into a funk (and not the cool Parliament Funkadelic kind), to surround yourself in darkness, to feel as if you can’t do anything right, like no one cares.

It’s okay to feel that way. It’s normal. It’s natural. We all have those feelings. It’s just that some people can process things better than others. People who claim to never doubt themselves are lying. Same goes for people who say they’ve never been hurt, never cried, or never felt depressed. It’s all part of being human, of being alive. Don’t think that you’re the only one who gets overwhelmed.

Creativity, to me, isn’t just about self-expression. It’s about mental health. It’s about exploring the things in my head, the dreams, the nightmares, and everything in between. And yeah, it often helps me to get back on course. Remembering the good things in life and doing something positive, like writing or making music, are the things that keep me going.

RB

April 16

Pitcher Plant Flowers

You may already be aware of my love of carnivorous plants. Now that the weather is warming, most of them are starting to bloom and their flowers are amazing. The pitcher plants tend to bloom the earliest in my little shop of horrors, and this year I thought it would be interesting to take a photo every day to capture the flower’s life cycle.

I initially created a gif, but the finished product ended up too small to appreciate the beauty of the flower. That, and the file size was a bit too large.

So I ended up tossing together a video. It’s only about a minute long, but it gives you a chance to see just how incredible these plants are.

I also wrote the music, too. In case you were wondering.

Hope you enjoy this short educational moment.

RB

April 13

Music Moment – Tangled Up in Blue

I know that Bob Dylan isn’t for everyone, but he’s one of my favorite songwriters. With a career spanning sixty years, he’s made an indelible mark on the music industry. His creativity and originality have also been an inspiration for me. I can’t remember the first time I heard one of his songs, but for what it’s worth, it feels like he’s been part of the soundtrack to my life since the beginning.

And without a doubt, my favorite song of his is “Tangled Up in Blue”. It’s what a consider a ‘story song’, meaning, the words read like a lyrical short story. If you aren’t familiar with it, it tells the story of two lovers who end up finding each other even after years apart. They seem to know they aren’t right for one another, yet fate continues to cross their paths. For what it’s worth, I always assumed the woman’s name is “Blue” and the narrator is so tangled up in her that he can’t ever escape. Here are the lyrics as originally recorded:

Tangled Up In Blue

Early one mornin’ the sun was shinin’
I was layin’ in bed
Wond’rin’ if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red
Her folks they said our lives together
Sure was gonna be rough
They never did like Mama’s homemade dress
Papa’s bankbook wasn’t big enough
And I was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on my shoes
Heading out for the East Coast
Lord knows I’ve paid some dues gettin’ through
Tangled up in blueShe was married when we first met
Soon to be divorced
I helped her out of a jam, I guess
But I used a little too much force
We drove that car as far as we could
Abandoned it out West
Split up on a dark sad night
Both agreeing it was best
She turned around to look at me
As I was walkin’ away
I heard her say over my shoulder
“We’ll meet again someday on the avenue”
Tangled up in blue

I had a job in the great north woods
Working as a cook for a spell
But I never did like it all that much
And one day the ax just fell
So I drifted down to New Orleans
Where I happened to be employed
Workin’ for a while on a fishin’ boat
Right outside of Delacroix
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue

She was workin’ in a topless place
And I stopped in for a beer
I just kept lookin’ at the side of her face
In the spotlight so clear
And later on as the crowd thinned out
I’s just about to do the same
She was standing there in back of my chair
Said to me, “Don’t I know your name?”
I muttered somethin’ underneath my breath
She studied the lines on my face
I must admit I felt a little uneasy
When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoe
Tangled up in blue

She lit a burner on the stove
And offered me a pipe
“I thought you’d never say hello,” she said
“You look like the silent type”
Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
Tangled up in blue

I lived with them on Montague Street
In a basement down the stairs
There was music in the cafés at night
And revolution in the air
Then he started into dealing with slaves
And something inside of him died
She had to sell everything she owned
And froze up inside
And when finally the bottom fell out
I became withdrawn
The only thing I knew how to do
Was to keep on keepin’ on like a bird that flew
Tangled up in blue

So now I’m goin’ back again
I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know
They’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians
Some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
I don’t know what they’re doin’ with their lives
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue

Copyright © 1974 by Ram’s Horn Music; renewed 2002 by Ram’s Horn Music

The original version of the song appeared on the 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks, and it’s been a mainstay of Dylan’s live shows ever since.

What I find interesting, however, is that Dylan never sings it the same way. Every time he plays it live, he changes the lyrics, sometimes adding additional verses, maybe cutting a few, and sometimes almost completely reworking them. An artist’s prerogative, I suppose, but I also think it does that to keep the song fresh and new. Unfortunately, I’ve never had a chance to see him play live, but at least there are live recordings.

Dylan’s lyrics are always sensational, sometimes cryptic, but they always paint a picture in my mind. If you’re interested, listen to the clip below. If you aren’t familiar with the song, I hope you enjoy it. It’s one that continues to inspire me even after countless listening sessions.