March 29

Shattering the Illusion

We all live in a sort of bubble where we are the main protagonist of the story and everyone else is a supporting character. On paper it sounds selfish, but in reality it’s simply what we do. We live inside our own heads, hear our own inner monologue, make decisions based on what’s best for us. It comes with being human. The illusion that we are the center and everything revolves around us.

But sometimes we can get caught up in that illusion and lose focus on the big picture. What I mean is, we get so self-absorbed that we fail to realize – or recognize – how our words and actions can affect others. In a way, we can end up being the antagonist in other people’s stories.

It’s not that we do it on purpose or with ill-will. I know that in my head, I can get wrapped up in my thoughts and forget to think of my actions and reactions. What I mean is, I don’t take into account how my actions and the way I react to things affects others, the people around me. For example, I can get wrapped up in being angry about something trivial (as we all do on occasion) and not realize that I’m allowing that anger to taint my interactions with my partner. I may snap at her when she asks an innocent and unrelated question – without realizing that I’m doing it – and that, in turn, may ruin her mood or her day.

I’ve been trying to keep this in mind with the short fiction I write. My stories revolve around a protagonist and how they deal with a situation, or several situations. I write about how it affects them and how they react to it. But what I don’t think about is the bigger picture, like how does my character’s situation affect those around him or her. My protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to see this or recognize this, but for the reader I think it’s important to show the bigger picture, the ripple effect.

It’s like throwing a rock into a still pond. The rock breaking the surface is the catalyst of the story, and the ripples are how the event affects everyone. Those closer to the point of impact are the ones directly affected because that’s where the ripples are the biggest. The further away a character is from the impact, the less they are affected, but they still see a disturbance in their world. Ripples on surface of pond.

In other words, we ourselves can be the rock that disturbs the stillness of those around us, just like our main characters can disturb the supporting players, or vice versa. Everything is cause-and-effect. Everything is connected.

With fiction writing, we can focus on the main character and get so wrapped up in them that we can lose sight of the world around them. Even if the story only has one character, their actions and reactions are going to affect the world around them. The same applies to us. We should try to keep in mind how our moods, our attitudes, our actions, can affect the people around us. It doesn’t matter if we know them or if they’re strangers, we will still have some degree of impact on their lives.

I’ve been working on that lately, mostly in my personal life, but I’ve also been trying to apply this to the way I write my stories. I don’t want to be complacent either as a human being or as a writer. I want to work towards being the best version of myself in both areas.

The key is self-awareness, as an individual and as a writer. In my life I’m trying to think ahead, to consider my words and deeds and how they can affect others. The ripple affect. This isn’t to say that I’m not selfish. We all are to some degree, but we can manage the impact we have on the world around us by being cognizant of the ripples. Self-awareness allows us to better understand our motivations, our feelings, our desires and fears. The same applies to the characters we create.

As a writer, I’m working at being more aware of how my protagonists impact the worlds around them, and how the worlds impact them. It also helps me to better understand them and their motivations. This doesn’t have to mean implications for the plot or narrative (although it can, if need be). I’m thinking in more subtle ways, to make the story and characters seem more real, more believable. Fist shattering glass pane.

Will I succeed? I sure hope so, but I think this is one of those situations where the “Under Construction” sign will never be taken down. A work in progress. Shattering the illusion piece by piece.

RB

 

 

March 24

Order from Chaos

I’ve finally organized my books. It only took a decade. Maybe two. When we first moved into our current house I had fewer books, bookcases in various rooms, and everything was fine. But you know how it is, there are more books being published, which means more books to read, which means I have to buy them. The way I explained it to my partner is that I’m doing my part to support the economy. So in a way, buying books is patriotic, right?

Story collections.

More to the point, I’ve bought a lot of books over the years and, as noted in a previous post, those babies were stacked two deep on the sagging shelves of some extremely old bookcases. Fun fact: The ones that sagged were ones we got either from stores or from places we worked (surplus office supplies). The one bookcase that didn’t sag was the one I built myself when I was sixteen years old. It’s been my bedside nightstand/bookshelf for, well, many years and it’s still holding up.

A lot of books.

What I needed was a big bookcase, something that would fill an entire wall in my home office. Something sturdy, with glass doors to cut down on the dust and dog hair. And something that would hold all my books.

I considered building it myself, but that would be a major undertaking. I don’t have a wood shop and I don’t have all the tools I would need for the project, like a table saw. And I don’t have a garage, either, so no place to store them. That left me with the option to find something I like online and hope for the best.

I did a lot of searching, comparing materials, prices, colors, designs, but I finally settled on the Billy Bookcase from IKEA (and no, not an endorsement; I paid for them myself) because I liked the design. Of course, these are mass-produced products, so it’s not particle board/pressed wood instead of solid wood, but I can work around that.

My main concern was sagging shelves. The bane of all book collectors. But I have a workaround. Shelf supports. Basically, I can cut some 1 inch x 2 inch pieces of wood, paint them to match the shelves, then basically stack them from bottom to top, adding support to the center of each shelf. And all I lose is one inch of space on each row. A small price to pay. I also need to tweak the way the doors hang. They’re all a little offset, but easy enough to correct.

A collection of poetry books.

Now, of course, comes the fun part: The organization. So far, I have all my books on the shelves, and roughly organized by fiction, poetry, humor, collections, religion/philosophy, and non-fiction. I’ll break those down into sub-genres, then by author. My partner, however, thinks I should organize my books by color. I tried to explain to her that would make it difficult to locate books, but she can be persistent. I’m hoping I can distract her by suggesting she organize her shoe collection by color. I think she has more shoes than I have books, so that should keep her occupied for a while.

My bookcase.

For what it’s worth, I feel a sense of relief now that all my books are in one place, somewhat organized, and will be easier to locate when needed.

Next on my to-do list? My vinyl albums. Wish me luck!

RB

 

March 23

Richard’s Kitchen – Chili Recipe!

Yep, I’m back in the kitchen after a long and unexpected hiatus. If it’s still kinda cold where you reside, seems like a perfect time to make chili. It’s incredibly easy, quick to make, stores well, and the ingredients won’t break the bank. In fact, you probably have most of them in your kitchen already.

Check out the latest episode and let me know what you think.

RB

March 22

A Poetry Moment – V – The Kiss

I’ve recently been on an OCD-inspired clean up of my home office space. And to be completely honest with you, I’ve been a bit of a hoarder over the years. Mainly books and things I’ve written. I have a couple of filing cabinets filled with scraps of ideas, single paragraphs, maybe a line or two of verse.

While rummaging through these random pieces of paper, I re-discovered a file that had some old poetry I’d written years ago. A few were familiar, a few had been forgotten. One that stuck out to me was one I wrote for my partner not long after we first started dating (twenty-six years ago!). Although I was inspired by our first real kiss, I think anyone who remembers their first kiss with that special someone will relate.

Love and passion have always been a favorite theme for poets. So with that in mind, I present to you…

 

The Kiss

There’s that moment of awkward silence as 

we look one another’s eyes, drawing ever closer.  

I feel a smile tug at my lips and I try not to laugh, knowing 

that it would ruin the moment.  Then I feel the soft flesh 

of your lips as they press against mine and a rush of 

adrenaline and fear, 

nerves and arousal.  

 

I feel your tongue entwine with mine, tender and gently probing.  

I feel the heat and moisture of your breath, your body pressing 

so firmly against mine, and I can’t help but notice how wonderful 

your breasts feel pressed up against me.  

I can feel the beating of your heart.  

 

My hands squeeze your waist, pulling your hips up close while 

your fingers move through my hairs like ten exotic dancers, 

pulling my face down toward you.  

I can feel the warmth of your body as we share our first lover’s kiss, 

revealing our desire with surprising intensity, 

almost brutally, 

stopping just shy of pain.  

 

The kiss abates and we pull apart, 

just barely, 

and look one another 

first in wonder, 

then amusement, 

then with hunger.  

And the kiss begins anew.

"kiss" by Bert Werk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

RB

March 19

My History of Rejection

Rejection has always been a mainstay of the writing life (and in many cases, my personal life). Well, at least it used to be. Nowadays, with the ability to self-publish, the only thing writers have to worry about is selling their stories on the multitude of online platforms.

But it wasn’t always this way. When I started submitting my stories to magazines in the mid-1990s, rejection was the name of the game. The internet was still in its infancy, so the only real options were to submit stories to magazines: formatted, printed, and stuffed into a flat envelope (no folding!) with a cover letter and the right amount of postage. There was a lot of money put down up front in the hopes of possibly getting an acceptance. And there was also the hurdle that many magazines wouldn’t even look at your story if you admitted it had also been submitted to other publications. No simultaneous submissions.

Oh, and if you wanted a response – either a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – you had to also include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Ah, the good olde days.

I think I was an aberration. I wasn’t afraid of receiving rejections for my stories. The way I looked at it, I knew the odds were against me. There were thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of writers out there submitting stories. That’s a lot of competition and, realistically, I knew half of them were going to be submitting better stories. It was all about timing, hitting the right market at the right time. Vegas odds, baby.

So the first thing I ever submitted was a poem to The New Yorker, arguably one of the best magazines for amazing writing. I knew I was going to be rejected. I had no experience, no publishing history, and was completely unknown. The way I saw it, if I was going to start down this path, why not get rejected from one of my favorite magazines?

Spoiler alert: I was rejected.

New Yorker Rejection
My first rejection!

Once I got that out of the way, the rest of the rejections (and yes, there were many) didn’t sting. In fact, I collected them. For many years I had a cork board on the wall next to my PC. It had a little card over it that read, “The Wall of Rejection”, and each rejection I received was lovingly thumbtacked to it. Well, until it wouldn’t hold any more. Then they were moved to a file folder.

I was tidying up in my home office last week and stumbled upon that old rejection folder. It wasn’t quite as thick as I remembered it, but there were still a surprising number. As I thumbed through them I was reminded of how varied they were. Of course, there were the straight-up form letters, there were ones with lists of rejection reasons with a checkbox next to each, and then there were my favorites, the personal notes. The simple fact that an editor took the time to read one of my stories – really read it, not scan it – then sit down and write a note explaining why they turned it down, what they liked about it, and what I could do to improve it, meant the world to me and inspired me to keep writing. They still do, even all these years later.

I thought you might find it interesting to see a few of the personal responses in my esteemed collection.

Vampire Dan Rejection
Vampire Dan’s Story Emporium
Pulp Magazine Rejection
Pulp Magazine
Short Stories Magazine Rejection
Short Stories Magazine
Outer Darkness Rejection
Outer Darkness

Now that self-publishing dominates the writing industry, and magazine publishing is fading into a tiny, niche market, I wonder if rejection letters will become a thing of the past. In a way, I hope not. To me, they are a badge of honor for writers. It shows that we tried.

And for what it’s worth, my writing career has lasted longer than most of these publications.

RB

 

March 15

A Photo Moment – Clover Flowers

There’s a saying with gardeners that, “a weed is just a plant growing in the wrong spot.” In fact, there are quite a few quotes that reflect on this premise.

I’ve always liked that idea. Dandelions, clover, thistle, among others, are always getting a bad reputation from people who believe that gardens should be perfectly manicured. I’m not a member of that group. I mean, I can appreciate the hard work and creativity that goes into what I call ‘display gardens’. However, I’m more of a natural garden aficionado. Or as a friend calls it, ‘lazy-person gardening.’

My backyard is one of those semi-natural places. I like to keep it so because it attracts birds, and I love birds. In fact, I’ve had generations of cardinals, brown-thrashers, and house wrens that have called my backyard home for the past twenty years. I must be doing something right.

It also allows me to have a wide variety of wildflowers – oftentimes called weeds – growing amidst the St. Augustine grass that once dominated my yard. The most prolific is the clover. It’s great ground cover, feels cool under my bare feet on a hot day, and attracts honeybees. There’s actually a guy who lives down the road from me who has hives in his yard, so I assume these are his bees that I see buzzing around the blooms.

Clover blooming.
One of the many small patches of clover in my yard.

What I love most about the clover are the flowers – soft pink in color, a sharp contrast against the green leaves, the way they flutter in a gentle breeze. I sometimes get distracted looking at them when I’m watering my potted plants. I find it meditative. Maybe it’s the Irish in me.

Now that spring has arrived, and yellow pollen is covering every outdoor surface, the clover is again blooming..and I’m a happy man.

RB

March 10

Meeting Expectations

I recently finished watching WandaVision on Disney+ and was impressed by the entire production, especially the writing. I think the scribes did a great job of addressing Wanda’s grief, and each character was fleshed out enough to allow me to understand their motivations and wants. Once the final post-credit scene faded, I started thinking about all the rumors, all the speculation, and how wrong everyone was about where the story was going to lead. Over the next few days I read a lot of angry comments and articles about how disappointed some fans are with the story, the ending, and that their specific theory didn’t come to pass.

Scarlet Witch casting spells.
Wanda in her final form.

That, in turn, got me thinking about what obligation writers have to meet the exceptions of their readers.

An argument can be made both ways, depending on the situation. A perfect example is the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin. Fans have been expecting a complete series, seven novels, but Martin has yet to deliver. Keep in mind, the first book of the series was published in 1996, with increasingly longer gaps between publishing dates on the subsequent novels. It’s now been nearly ten years since the most recent book, A Dance with Dragons, was published, and at this point, the readers have mostly given up on Martin ever finishing the series.

Cover of A Song of Ice and Fire boxset.
By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49705194

To me, a reader and a huge fan of the series (so far), I’m angry about this. It’s not just that Martin has been procrastinating on finishing the last two books, but that he’s been working on other projects instead. As someone who has invested a lot of time into reading (and mostly enjoying) these books, I feel cheated. And I’m not the only one. In this case, I feel that Martin has an obligation to complete the series. He told his readers there were going to be seven books, a complete story, and here we are, impatiently waiting for him to follow through and meet our expectations. And keep in mind, our expectations are based on what he said he was going to do.

As a writer, I feel that if I tell readers I’m going to publish three books, or five, or ten, then I’m obligated to follow through. Hell, even Robert Jordan’s fourteen-volume series, The Wheel of Time, was completed after he died. His estate compiled all his notes and outlines and hired Brandon Sanderson to complete the series, for the fans. I respect that.

But when it comes to storytelling, especially with known properties, are writers obligated to pay fan service (or reader/viewer service) and tell the story the way they expect it to play out, or have we the leeway to basically do what we want?

With WandaVision, the expectations were all over the place, and many viewers were expecting big reveals, big-name villains, big-name cameos. What the writers did, however, was stick with their initial premise and they didn’t deviate from it. Oh, there was a villain, of course, but not the one the fans were expecting. And there were some interesting revelations, like the truth about Wanda’s brother, but some fans felt cheated. I think they were expecting a series on a grand scale, with spectacle, like the Infinity War and Endgame movies. Sure, Marvel Studios loves to go big with the movies, but television shows, especially one that’s based on classic television, shouldn’t be expected to be the same way. It’s a smaller format, more intimate. I think the writers did a good job in sticking with the formula.

I think meeting expectations is a long-form storytelling issue, and in some cases it’s not a bad thing. Returning to Martin’s series, one of the things I love about it is that the story itself defied my expectations. Spoiler incoming: In the first novel, the main protagonist is killed in the last chapter. The first time I read it (and I’ve actually re-read it several times) blew me away. It was completely unexpected. I mean, who kills off their main character, and a well-liked one, in the first book of a seven book series? Was I mad that he blew up my expectations? Nope. I was actually thrilled by it. It was new, different, and damn good storytelling.

In general, I don’t think writers have an obligation to write what’s expected of them. Writers are artists, and writing is an art form, and art is subjective. What thrills one person may upset the next. What it comes down to is to being honest when it comes to storytelling. Some people prefer to comfort of a known path, the familiarity of recycled tropes, and frown upon any deviation from the formula. Others, like myself, prefer the odd twists and turns, the unexpected surprises, tropes turned upside-down. The only caveat is when a writer sets a goal or objective, like announcing they’re going to write a specific number of books in a series and don’t deliver. In those cases, I feel the writer has let me down.

Looking at you, Mr. Martin.

RB

 

 

 

March 5

A Poetry Moment – IV

While I adore poetry and enjoy writing verse, I don’t fancy myself a poet. However, there are moments when I feel I’ve actually written something worthwhile, or at least good enough to share.

One of my favorite short story writers is Ernest Hemingway. He’s probably more famous for his novels, but I’ve found that his short stories are more to my liking. Oftentimes, I sit quietly after finishing one of them so I can let it sink in, contemplate the theme, explore the nuance. There aren’t many writers who affect me that way.

Hemingway Writing
‘Papa’ Hemingway working on a story.

Despite his fame and fortune, Hemingway had issues. Alcoholism, a temper, and later in life, severe depression. All that, in turn, took a toll on his writing and led to the end of his career, and his life.

About twenty years ago I was on a Hemingway kick, reading just about everything he wrote and everything that had been written about him. I tend to do that with writers that I admire or who inspire me. After immersing myself in his work, I found I was inspired to write something. Here’s what I ended up with…

Ketchum, Idaho

Papa said goodbye there, 

in the hallway, near the front door.

His body prone on the floor like a discarded book,

the pages now blank.  The words

splattered against the wall with all the viscosity of gray matter.

He probably felt like a book of blank pages,

basically useless.

The words were no longer there, either

Deadened by pills,

Or drown in alcohol,

Or burned out by the electro shock.

So instead of dwelling on once was, he decided to bring

the story to a close

On a fine summer day, on the outskirts of Ketchum.

And standing in that doorway, if only in a dream, I can hear

a church bell ringing in the distance.

 

Not necessarily the happiest of poems, but it encapsulates what I imagine he was feeling when the words wouldn’t come. And in a way, this is my tribute to a writer who, despite his faults, wrote amazing, timeless stories and inspired generations of writers.

RB