July 31

Empathy

Of all the skills a good writer needs in order to write well, I think one of the most important is empathy. It doesn’t matter if you have excellent grammar, seamless plotting, or snappy dialogue. If you don’t have empathy for your characters, both the heroes and villains, then the story is going to show it. Characters are going to feel two-dimensional, like cardboard cutouts.

You, their creator, have to get inside their heads, understand their motivation, their backgrounds, their reasons for being. If you can’t understand them, even sympathize with them, the characters are doing to appear flat on the page. Plus, the reader will pick up on that because they won’t be able to empathize with the characters.

Unfortunately, empathy is one of those traits that you either have or don’t have, and additionally, there are degrees of empathy. What I mean is that we can feel bad for someone having a rough time. Let’s say someone lost their pet. Some people will feel bad for them, others will be reduced to tears, while a few simply won’t care.

Can empathy be learned or acquired? Good question, and honestly, I have no idea. I’m one of those who tend to be overly sensitive to other’s pain and misfortune. I wasn’t necessarily raised that way. I mean, some of my relations are sensitive like I am, while others are indifferent. That makes me think it’s not genetic, but something we might learn when we’re young, like being kind or helping the less fortunate.

I’ve had empathy on my mind lately, hence this blog post. It’s also the topic of my next podcast episode. I think I’m struggling to understand why people aren’t more sympathetic. Or why more people aren’t more sympathetic.

Personally, I think that empathy and creativity go hand in hand. In order to write compelling characters, we have to feel their pain and joy. It’s as simple as that. And I think it applies to being a good person, as well. In order to be a good person, regardless of your faith, beliefs, or lack thereof, we have to be able to feel and understand the emotions of others.

I know, this post is all over the place. I’m struggling to understand and writing about things helps me to sort it out in my head.

Anyway, if you have a comment or opinion on empathy, feel free to leave it below, or contact me on social media.

RB

 

July 30

The Coming Storm

I’ve lived in Florida for most of my life, and have had the opportunity to live in different places across the state. I grew up in South Florida, spent a couple of years in Central Florida, and wound up in North Florida. Funny thing is, I’ve enjoyed all three environments. And yes, there are differences.

But the one thing I’ve never liked about living here is dealing with hurricane season. It’s unavoidable. In fact, over the years I’ve had the displeasure of riding out nine big storms, and on a couple of occasions had the opportunity to step outside while the eye passed overhead. A very cool experience, but it’s not worth the stress that comes with one-hundred + mile-an-hour winds.

And I’ve also been lucky that I’ve never personally experienced extreme damage. Sure, downed trees, downed power lines, some light flooding, but nothing that couldn’t be removed and/or repaired.

As I write this, there’s a storm brewing in the Caribbean and, at the moment, is forecast to head towards Florida. Of course, it’s still a few days out and the path can change east or west. That’s the fun part of these things – never quite knowing where it’s going to go, or how strong it’ll end up being.

I also feel guilty in a way. Why? Because I wish the storm would go somewhere else, another direction. But then that would mean other people would be affected by it. I always hate to see these big storms hit the islands. Their infrastructure is already fragile and it takes them years to recover. Ideally, it would simply curve back out into the Atlantic and be a fish storm, something to keep the dolphins entertained.

I’ve had people ask me why I stay somewhere that can be devastated by storms, but I always counter by asking where could I go that doesn’t have the potential for natural devastation? Out west, earthquakes and fires. In the south, tropical storms. In the mid-west, tornadoes. In the north, blizzards. What about along a coastline? Rising sea levels and tsunamis. There is no true paradise, is there?

I know, I’m being sort of silly here. I don’t mind dealing with the weather. At least with hurricanes we have warning. It’s not like it just appears and blows shit over. Plus, I’m prepared. Canned food, extra supplies, gas in the vehicles. My Cub Scout training finally paid off.

If you’re in Florida, the East Coast of the US, or on one those beautiful islands in the Caribbean, please stay safe.

RB

July 29

The Write Stuff

It always bothers me when people say they can’t write. Sure, some people may have more talent than others, but they probably write more often. In my opinion, and my experience, anyone can write. Doesn’t matter if it’s an email, a school report, or a piece of fiction. Anyone can do it.

The thing is, it’s putting words on the page. Nothing more, nothing less. You have an idea, something you want to convey, something you think is important, so you write it down. That’s all it takes.

Of course, not everything that everyone writes is amazing. Hell, even professional writers, best-selling authors, write a lot of crap in-between their best selling books. Stephen King readily admits he writes a fair-share of crap before he hits upon a good story. So for someone like you or me, well, it goes to show that we’re in good company.

The thing is, we have to realize that nothing is going to be perfect the first time. A first draft isn’t your story, it’s an outline, the rough idea sketched out. Think of it as a drawing: you start out sketching the rough image on the page. Then you make another pass and fix some of the angles, maybe begin darkening the lines you like to make them more permanent. All the while, you’re looking and re-looking at it, checking it from different angles to make sure you’re capturing what you see in your head.

Writing is a similar process. For me, the first draft is just a rough sketch. I know beforehand it’s going to be crap, or mostly crap, and I also know the final draft will look nothing like the first. The rough edges will be sanded down. The loose ends will be connected to create something coherent. Time and patience will be rewarded.

In my opinion, anyone can write. What differentiates the serious, professional writer from your average non-writer is persistence and patience. Most people, in my experience from working in an office, just throw words on a page and move on.  They don’t take the time to go back and re-read what they’ve written. They don’t let it rest before sending. And that’s where miscommunication and embarrassing typos happen.

Writing isn’t like being an astronaut. There’s no need for years of training and experience. You don’t have to have an advanced degree or deep knowledge of a subject. All you need is imagination, patience, and a little bit of thick skin. To me, it’s about self-expression, and hell, anyone can express themselves. Just take the time to craft your words.

RB

 

July 27

The Right Attitude

One of the drawbacks to being creative is dealing with disappointment. It can be awful when one of your projects doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, or when people don’t like it, or things just fall apart. I’ve had stories that I simply couldn’t make work. I’ve had stories that never made it past the first draft. I’ve had people tell me something I’d written sucked and I should find something else to do with my time.

All real things that I’ve dealt with. And yes, it can be a blow to the ol’ self-esteem and self-confidence. I think it can be especially hard for creative people who may be immature or new to the game, who aren’t experienced enough to handle these let downs.

I used to let these things get to me. They’d get under my skin, inside my head, and fester. It was like having an infection of negativity. It was unpleasant and on several occasions almost got me to give up on creativity altogether. I figured, screw it. I’ll spend all my time playing games on my PC and reading comic books.

Eventually, however, I realized that I didn’t need to let these thing get in my head and live there rent-free. Art, like humor, is subjective. What one person likes may not appeal to another. For example, some people love Monty Python (myself included), but others find it stupid and nonsensical. No one here is right or wrong, it’s just personal taste, personal opinions. And just because one person does or doesn’t like something doesn’t mean that everyone else should hate or love it. Again, it’s up to the individuals.

To me, people who create have to have the right attitude when it comes to their art. That being, don’t worry about what other people think. Don’t worry about it if a project blows up in your face. Don’t get upset when the project doesn’t turn out as good as you hoped it would.

Why? Because it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that you can start over. You can clean up the mess and begin again. You can show your work to someone else who may love it. Or at least like it.

The bottom line is that YOU need to be happy with what you’re doing. Are you writing a story that you’re in love with? Fantastic! Are you painting a picture or illustrating a story and it’s all coming together? Awesome! Did you write a song that you can’t stop humming and singing? Excellent!

You see, creativity is all about self-expression. I know I repeat this quite often, but it’s true. It’s about you, what you have to say or express or convey. We create not only because we have a need to, but also because it makes us happy. That’s all that really matters here. And in order to be happy we have to have a selfish attitude when it comes to our art. As long as what you’ve done works for you, then it’s a success.

And those projects that don’t work out? Well, so what? Start over. Try again. Come at it from a different angle. That’s one of the great things about creating, you can do whatever you want, as many times as you want, until you get it right. Or at least as close to right as it can be.

Don’t worry about an audience, about who may like it or who may hate it. Don’t worry about making money off it or becoming famous. It’s all about the creative process and making yourself happy.

Be sure to do something creative today. Not because you have to, but because you want to.

RB

 

July 24

Pulled BBQ Chicken

I was tempted to use this recipe as the subject of one of my cooking videos, but because I’m using a slow cooker I figured it wouldn’t be quite as much fun. I mean, who’s going to watch four hours of chicken breasts slowly coming up to temperature?

Slow cooking is often dismissed as “not real cooking”, but I disagree. It’s just another way to get the job done. Just like there’s no one way to write a story, there’s no one way to cook a meal. I’ve been using a slow cooker for many years and made many fine meals with the old girl.

Last weekend I picked up some boneless chicken breasts that were on sale and decided I’d try my hand at BBQ pulled chicken. I haven’t made this before and thought it might be fun. And unlike some of those cooking blogs that make you read through 1,000 words of backstory before getting to the point, I’ll give you the recipe, then show you the process. This is what I used to make this specific batch:

Pulled BBQ Chicken

  • 3 lbs of boneless chicken
  • Seasoning – salt, pepper, smoked paprika, garlic powder
  • Chopped onion
  • 1 1/2 cups of vegetable stock

Sauce

  • 3/4 cup Catsup
  • 3/4 cup Brown Sugar
  • 1/4 red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 TB Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 1/4 tsp of dry mustard
  • 1 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • Hot sauce to your liking

As I always say, you can customize either recipe (chicken or sauce) to your liking.

First, I chopped up a couple of Vidalia onions. I love the sweetness of them and they add a little body to the final dish.

Chopped onions in slow cooker

Then I seasoned the breasts and added them. If I had thought ahead I would have seasoned the meat the night before and let it sit in the fridge overnight. The dry rub is a great way to get flavor into something bland like chicken breasts, but they really need to sit for at least twelve hours for the seasoning to penetrate.

Seasoned chicken breasts in slow cooker

I then added about 1 1/2 cups of homemade vegetable stock. I would have added beer, but I was out. I’ve also read that adding Dr. Pepper (soda) is good. After that, I put the lid on, set the heat on low, and let it do what it does for about three and a half to four hours. Surprisingly, the breasts were ready to go at about the three and a half hour mark.

(A note here about the chicken: I’m partial to dark meat. It’s has more flavor than the white meat due to the fat content. Also, this means that it’s harder to overcook the dark meat. However, the breasts were on sale and, well, I can be cheap.)

I pulled them out and used a couple of sturdy forks to shred ’em. It’s the hardest part of the recipe, but also the most rewarding when finished.

Shredded, cooked chicken in a bowl

I also used a colander to drain away the cooking liquid and retrieve those wonderful onions.

Cooked onions in colander

Then they all went back into the slow cooker. Now, for the sauce…

Homemade bbq sauce in Ball jar

I made this the other night so it could chill in the fridge and allow the flavors to mingle. Unfortunately, it turned out to not be quite enough. The thing is, chicken breasts tend to be a dryer meat, so when I added the sauce to the slow cooker, the chicken meat sort of absorbed it.

Quick thinking saved the day. Not mine. My partner’s. She suggested I make more. I quickly dumped all the ingredients into a saucepan, turned the heat to medium, then kept stirring with a whisk until it was thick and bubbly…about ten to fifteen minutes. I added the extra sauce to the chicken in the slow cooker and let it simmer over low for another hour.

Despite the small miscalculation, the BBQ pulled chicken turned out to be quite nice.

BBQ Pulled Chicken

Next time I’ll make more sauce before I begin. And I think I’ll add some horseradish to it. But hey, that’s how it goes in the kitchen. It’s all about creativity and trying new things, or trying old things in new ways.

I hope you give this a try. It hits all my favorite notes – fun, easy, and allows us to be creative.

Enjoy!

RB

July 22

A Balanced Reading List

Okay, I’ll admit it…I have way too many books on my to-read list.

The problem is that I want to read them all. All the books. All the books I can get my hands on. I know, I have a problem.

Part of the issue is that I have too many interests. Sure, I love reading fiction, but I love non-fiction, as well. I read biographies, autobiographies, history, astronomy, biology, social sciences, psychology…the list goes on.

But even with fiction I go down the rabbit hole reading sci-fi, horror, steampunk, and post-apocolyptic stories. I also love classic literature. I’m a big fan of the classic Russian authors, like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gogol. I love classic British literature, specifically the Romantics. Lately, I’ve been exploring Asian literature, both classic and sci-fi.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, then I torn between both traditionally-published authors and indie-authors. I’ve learned that just because someone is published by a big publishing house doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good book. On the other hand, just because someone self-published doesn’t mean their book isn’t good enough to be read.

But wait, there’s more!

I still have to decide if I want to buy a hardcopy of a book or an ebook. Hardbound books are wonderful. I love the smell of the paper and ink, the feel of the pages between my fingers, the way they look all lined up on a shelf. But then, ebooks are so convenient. My reader fits in my backpack and weighs much less than a physical book. I can tote it anywhere.

I know – first-world reader problems, right?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. It’s more like lamenting…lamenting the fact that I’m lucky enough to live in a time where books are so readily available, and in an amazing variety of topics and themes and genres. As in all aspects of life, I like to try and find balance. Reading is no exception. I like to read fiction and non-fiction concurrently. I like to mix things up, try new authors, explore new genres.

We, the readers, have it so good at the moment. We have almost an infinite number of stories at our fingertips at any time, day or night, weekday or weekend.

I just don’t want to end up like the protagonist in one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, Time Enough at Last.  If you haven’t seen it, check it out. It’s a story about a reader, a man who only wants to be left alone so he can read. I feel I can relate. I won’t give away the story…it’s Twilight Zone, so you know there’s going to be a twist.

But it’s the reason I always have a spare pair of glasses.

RB

 

 

July 20

Review – Go Set a Watchman

If you grew up in the U.S. back in the 1970s and 1980s, you probably read To Kill a Mockingbird in school. Harper Lee’s coming-of-age story was mandatory reading when I was in eighth grade, but the book left an impression on me and I re-read it when I was a sophomore in high school.

Go Set a Watchman was originally touted as a sequel to Mockingbird. Later, it was revealed that Watchman was actually the original story that Lee wrote and submitted to her publisher. From what I read, the publisher liked the story, but thought it would be more interesting to focus on the younger version of the protagonist, so Lee went back and rewrote the entire novel. That’s how we ended up with Mockingbird.

However, Watchman still works as a sequel. The basic premise is that the protagonist, Jean Louise (Scout), returns home to Maycomb, Alabama for her annual visit. What she ends up discovering, however, is that her small-town world isn’t what she grew up thinking it was, nor are the people she grew up with. The book follows as she learns these hard truths and tries to come to terms with them.

The first half of the book is mostly set up. For those who haven’t read Mockingbird, this is fine because it introduces the characters and the dynamics of the cast. For someone like me who read and fondly remembers the first book, it was somewhat tedious, but later I was glad that Lee went through the trouble. What I remembered was young Scout’s views on things and how she interacted with her friends and family. Seeing things from her adult point of view was helpful, especially in light of the changes she has to deal with.

The second half of the book…well, I’ll admit I had a hard time getting through it. This isn’t because of the writing or the story, but because of what Jean Louise has to go through, the hard truths she discovers. The story in Watchman takes place not long after Brown vs Board of Education is decided (desegregating public schools), and seeing as how the story takes place in rural Alabama, you can imagine how well things are going.

Jean Louise was always strong-willed and saw everyone as equals. She wasn’t one to judge a person on skin color, which already made her an oddity in her small town. After spending several years living in New York, her views are even more at odds with her friends and family back home.

And sadly, the race issues covered in this book are still timely. It’s unfortunate to see how some things have changed, but so many other things, like ignorance and prejudice, haven’t changed a bit.

But the story isn’t just about race, it’s also about growing up and learning that our parents aren’t who we think they are. Many people grow up thinking their parents know what they’re doing, have all the answers, know what to do in every situation. But at some point, we have this epiphany and realize that they are just as clueless as we are. We learn they are human.

Is Go Set a Watchman as good as To Kill a Mockingbird? No, I don’t think so. Is it a worthwhile sequel? Absolutely. I think it’s an important conclusion to Jean Louise’s journey to adulthood. Having read a story about her as a child, I think it was a nice bookend, seeing her finally grow up and learn what it takes to be a good person, well, it resonated with me.

However, I feel I must warn you that the language in the second half of the novel can be tough to read. I don’t think it’s any worse than what you might read in Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn, but it can still be jarring.

I recommend Go Set a Watchman. It may not be the best novel you’ll read, but I think it’s an important one, especially if you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird.

RB

July 17

Writing Practice

I think it’s safe to say that most writers focus on pieces they want to publish. Short stories, poems, novels, it’s all done with the end goal of seeing it in print. That being the case, I think it’s also safe to assume that many writers don’t do any writing practice. You know, exercises, vignettes, little one-offs that will never see the light of day.

I think that’s unfortunate. To me, any writing is good writing. Even if you think it’s trash, the fact that you’re putting words on the page is a good thing. It’s practice. It gives you the opportunity to try new things, do something silly or stupid, or simply keep your mind active.

There are all sorts of ways one can practice writing and it doesn’t have to be dry and repetitive. You can work from writing prompts, which you can find all over the internet. I have a little tiny book someone gave me years ago that’s just pages and pages of quick prompts. Every so often I flip through to a random page and write about whatever I find there.

You can also pick a random passage from a book on one of your bookshelves. Open to a random page, pick a random sentence, then use that to come up with few hundred spontaneous words. It can be part of the story in the book or something completely random. The choice is yours.

Along those same lines, if you’ve read something that you didn’t think was very well done, maybe a chapter of a book or a paragraph in a short story, use this as an opportunity to rewrite it how you think it should have been.

In a previous post I wrote about having fun with writing, and writing exercises fall into that category. Exercises are an opportunity to take chances, try something new. Maybe you can use one of your own writing projects as a starting point. For example, say you’re writing a science fiction story. Try rewriting it as erotica. If you’re writing historical fiction, turn it into steampunk. You don’t have to rewrite everything, just a few paragraphs or pages, if only to see what you can do with it.

One of the best places I’ve found for writing practice inspiration is the website LanguageisaVirus.com. I’ve been visiting it for many years and I always find something interesting to play around with. There are writing prompt generators, games, character trait generators, all sorts of things that will stimulate your imagination and provide you with ways to practice your craft.

Working on your projects is important, but I think it’s just as important to practice on the side. Doing short exercises a couple of times a week is beneficial. Just like physical exercise can improve your overall well-being, writing exercise and practice can improve your writing skills.

Give it a shot. You don’t have anything to lose and everything to gain.

RB

 

July 15

Having Fun

Art can be serious business. People who create take their projects seriously. We agonize over them, we cuss at them, we deal with frustration, aggravation, annoyance. We want to produce the best objet d’art we can. It doesn’t matter if it’s the written word, paint on canvas, or audio file. We live and breathe art. It’s our life.

But this doesn’t mean art can’t also be fun. I think that we forget that when we get so caught up in getting the story just right, or when we’re feeling uninspired and blocked, or overwhelmed by having too many project going at once. It’s understandable.

But oftentimes art can be a way to relieve stress, to unburden our minds. Sure, reading a book is a great way to escape reality for a while, but I believe that writing and creating can be just as beneficial.

What I mean is, if we don’t take ourselves or our writing too seriously, we can end up having just as much fun as our readers.

When was the last time you wrote something for fun? I’m not talking about your current work-in-progress, I mean something that you don’t expect to publish or show off. When was the last time you wrote something silly, crazy, something that made you laugh?

Have you ever written a limerick? A silly poem? What about writing down something funny that happened to you or someone you know? We’ve all had funny experiences in our lives and we’ve heard stories from others, so why not write them down and turn it into a piece of creative non-fiction?

For example, a guy at a party once told me about a time years ago when he went to a “gentleman’s club” with his wife (her suggestion), but the place she chose wasn’t exactly top of the line, and the dancer they ended up watching had a wooden leg. That’s one I desperately want to turn into a piece of fiction. So many possibilities…why did the wife want to do this? To prove a point? Why did the dancer have a wooden leg? Did anyone end up with splinters? And yes, you’re welcome to steal it and write your own version.

I think it’s healthy for us to take a break every so often from the seriousness of writing and simply have fun. We can’t allow ourselves to get bogged down in the trenches. We need to stand up, stretch, take a break, do something else for a change. Not only will it help you to relax, but I think fun exercises like this help to keep our minds fresh, help to stimulate new ideas.

There’s no harm in having fun. You deserve it.

RB