November 13

New Podcast Episode – Amateur or Professional

As creators, we all dream of being considered professionals. But where is the line that separates the two? Is it definite or arbitrary? Or are these just labels that don’t mean anything? Join me as I look into what it takes to be a professional artist.

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

Or you can simply listen to it right here:

October 27

The Art of Fear

Why are horror and fear popular subjects in the art world? For centuries, we’ve continued to seek out ways to scare ourselves and we keep coming back for more. Join me as I explore the reasons behind our obsession with fear and how we explore it in our artistic output.

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:

October 7

Outrage is Everywhere

I think we can all agree that the world can be a little nuts at times. Or maybe very nuts most of the time. Depends on your perspective.

As a fiction writer, I find it interesting to watch as people get outraged about things and cause a commotion, hoping that they can ‘take down’ whatever it is that’s offending their sensibilities. Just look at the fuss that was made over the Harry Potter books, the Captain Underpants books, and so many classic novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye.

The reason I bring this up is because last week was Banned Books Week here in the US. It’s sponsored by the American Library Association, along with dozens of other literary and literacy organizations. I feel awful that it slipped by me this year without me noticing. In my defense, I’ve been distracted by a lot of other things going on in the world at the moment.

I’ve written about censorship in the past, and even recorded a podcast episode about it, but Banned Books Week always reminds me that there are people in this country, and maybe in other parts of the world, who feel that just because something offends them then everyone should be offended.

It doesn’t work that way.

In fact, I make a point of reading books that get banned. It’s my small act of rebellion against censorship and to support the author. If you’re interested in learning which books are the most targeted, check out this list:

http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/top10

It breaks them down by year, which is sort of fascinating to see how the tastes of the censors change annually. Books that are near the top of the list one year are absent on later lists. Weird, isn’t it? I think it just goes to show that some people look to be outraged by something. It’s not about the actual quality or content of the books, it’s just chasing whatever hits their radar at the time.

Oh, well. Some people just can’t be reached. But you and I can still support authors, buy books, write reviews and provide ratings, and even tell our friends about them. In my opinion, the more outrage there is over a work of fiction, the more likely I am to buy a copy.

RB

September 25

Possibilities

When it comes to art, I feel that the possibilities are endless. There are so many plots, characters, situations, and scenarios that I can’t imagine a time where artists don’t have something to work with.

However, there is a caveat. At least, in some areas of art. Consider the guitar, for example. There are six strings and twenty frets on a standard guitar. I’m not a math person, but that basically breaks down to something like 10,000 or so ways to play a note. Considering how many guitarists there are and have been, coupled with the number of songs that have been written, it would seem that every combination of notes has been played. Yet we still get new songs written on guitar.

Same with writing. The saying goes that every story that can be told has been told. This means that modern writers have to find new ways to tell their stories. Much like a guitarist has to find a new way to combine notes in order to come up with something unique.

Other art forms, painting for instance, don’t quite have the same limitations. There are so many colors and color variances that I can’t imagine how painters could ever run out of color schemes. Plus, paintings can run the gamut from landscapes and portraits to surrealistic and post-modern experimentations.

Regardless, even areas of art that might seem limited still offer possibilities. I think that’s one of the things that makes art and creativity so endearing to me. No matter what, there’s always another option, another angle, another way to approach your project.

For example, I may feel like I don’t have anything to write about (I do) and feel stuck. Looking out through the window on my back door I can see – right now as I write this – two hummingbirds jockeying for the feeder on my patio. There’s a story, right there. I could anthropomorphize them, give them names and personalities, and make them a pair of angry ex-lovers who happened to run into each other at the neighborhood feeder.

Or maybe I consider the fact one of my dogs is laying on the patio while this oddly cute battle wages overhead. Maybe I could get into her head and write about her surveying her domain and wondering if she needs to break up this lover’s quarrel.

And just now I heard a car horn blaring angrily on the street out front. That could be a guy who’s running late for work and got stuck behind someone who wants to drive the speed limit. And he always gets caught behind the same car every morning regardless of what time he leaves for work. Is it a conspiracy? Bad timing? A prank by a mischievous god or goddess?

Maybe it’s just me, but I love to consider the possibilities all around me everywhere I go. I can find stories in the smallest of events or the most mundane of settings. The secret is to not overthink. Don’t try to concoct some intricate scenario or multi-layered plot. Just take it all in, let you mind relax, and soon you’ll begin to see stories everywhere.

The possibilities are endless.

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

July 13

The Elusive Writer

What happened to the elusive writer? It wasn’t that long ago – thirty, maybe forty years ago – when writers could be mysterious, anonymous, hidden behind pen names and pseudonyms. There was a certain mystery to some authors, like Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger. Familiar names, but most everything else about them was unknown.

Nowadays, a writer or artist can’t easily get away with something like this. Well, there’s Banksy, but I think he (or she) is an outlier. With everyone walking around with a smartphone it’s amazing that anyone can remain anonymous.

But the elusive writer, the mythical writer, I’m not sure they exist. Now everyone has social media accounts, YouTube channels, we have book trailers and readings. It seems to me that writers used to publish and their reputation alone could sell it. I don’t recall ever reading about Hemingway or Plath hanging out in bookstores and doing signings. Hell, Salinger kept his face and his personal life out of the public eye for his entire career.

It makes me wonder what changed. I mean, sure, social media and a connected world has something to do with it. But maybe it’s also a change of society, of social norms, or what’s expected from writers. We also have a celebrity-worshipping culture now, and many people are trying to ride that train. They’re either obsessed with knowing everything there is to know about a celebrity, or trying really hard to become one and get their fifteen minutes of fame.

I sort of miss the way it used to be. Not that I’m not happy with the opportunities I have now as a writer, but there’s something to be said for having a bit of anonymity, to be able to let your writing speak for itself, sell itself. Nowadays, it sometimes feels as if we’re inundated with input, media coming at us from all sides. It can be exhausting.

But I don’t want to come across like some old man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn. First, I’m not old, thank you very much. And secondly, the world evolves and we simply have to go along with it. Nothing lasts forever. Things change.

It would be interesting, though, to see if it could still be done. I think the last time anyone pulled it off was when Stephen King wrote under the pen name of Richard Bachman. If you don’t know the story here, he published several novels under a pen name to see if it was his writing or his name that was selling books. Bachman’s novels did well, but no where near what King’s books sold.

Do you think a modern writer could remain anonymous and still be successful? Perhaps a sociological experiment. And maybe I can get a government grant to investigate…

RB

June 24

Traditional Vs. Non-Traditional

When I was a younger man (which wasn’t THAT long ago, thank you very much), it was harder for a writer to get published than it is today. Commercial print magazines and traditional publishing houses ruled the writing world. Your average fiction writer had to comb through the newsstands to find magazines that might be interested in their work, type cover letters, buy envelopes (oversized so your manuscript wasn’t folded) and postage, then sit and wait. And it was very likely you’d never hear back from the editor.

Getting a book published wasn’t any easier. You couldn’t simply email a manuscript to an agent. You had to got through the same thing as magazine submissions – try and find an agent and mail him your best pitch, along with the first chapter of your magnum opus. Then there was the waiting. And more than likely you wouldn’t even receive the courtesy of a ‘thanks, but no thanks,” letter.

Of course, there was always vanity publishing. These were small publishing houses that you could pay to print your book. It wasn’t cheap and they generally made you pay for a specific number of volumes up front to make it worth their time and effort. Quality of the final product was also a problem.

As the internet began to snake its tendrils across the world, non-traditional publishing began to make an appearance. People posted on message boards, then came ‘zines. Anyone remember them? These were little twenty to thirty-page booklets, usually colored printer paper folded in half and stapled on the seam. They were low-budget labors of love with cheap websites and erratic printing schedules that published short fiction, poetry, and illustrations.

Fast-forward a decade or so and we arrive at online book publishing. The writer can now cut out the middle-man, avoid the hassle of contracts and negotiations, and publish what they want, when they want. Quality is going to vary far more than with traditional publishing, but it does provide for a wider variety of stories, styles, and voices. Writers who stories would never have seen the light of day twenty years ago can now reach an audience. Personally, I think the pros outweigh the cons.

For what it’s worth, I’ve done both. I’ve been published in commercial magazines and wrote a non-fiction book (written under contract) for a smaller publishing house. I’ve also been published in ‘zines (anyone remember them?), on fiction websites, and I’ve self-published a collection of my short stories.

Recently, I was thinking about the debate between traditional vs. independent publishing. For many writers, the traditional route is the only legitimate way to go. They like traveling the long road, working with editors, agents, marketing people, and jumping through all the hoops. Even publishing on a smaller scale – commercial magazines – there’s the wait for a response.

In my experience, that’s one of the most frustrating aspects of traditional publishing…waiting for someone to get back to you. In fact, looking back over my submission tracker (a Numbers spreadsheet), I can see that almost half the stories I’ve submitted over the years have disappeared like an errant sock in the clothes dryer. I never heard back, the stories apparently sucked into some publishing black hole.

Still, I can see the appeal that come with traditional publishing. I mean, that’s how most of our idols were published. That’s what many of us were brought up with, hearing about Stephen King or J.K. Rowling getting those sweet, sweet book deals and raking in millions. Who wouldn’t want that, right?

But it’s like acting. Not too long ago I read an article that showed how the average career of a professional actor is two years. That’s it. That’s the average. So for every Meryl Streep or Morgan Freeman, you’ve got hundreds of Carls who got two or three speaking roles in a some low-budget B movies and now works at Rent-a-Center. Not that I’m picking on the Carls. They tried. That’s worth something.

For most writers, we’re never going to get the attention of an agent and end up with a contract at Penguin or RandomHouse. And it’s not for a lack of talent or effort. That’s just how it goes. It’s a chaotic, random universe. Some of us find the sweet spot on occasion, the rest of us continue to do our best in relative obscurity.

So non-traditional publishing offers an opportunity for the rest of us to get our shot at having someone we aren’t related to read our work. There’s still a chance our story or collection of poems may sit and languish on a cyber-bookshelf, but we at least got a chance to show it to the world. That’s what really matters. Besides, just because someone gets published by one of the big publishing houses doesn’t mean their book is going to sell. You’ve seen the stacks of remainder books in the bookstores, the ones marked down from $19.99 to ninety-nine cents. Nothing is guaranteed.

In my humble opinion, I don’t see much of a difference between traditional and non-traditional publishing. In both cases, writers are being published and stories are going out into the world. That’s the point, isn’t it? To see our names in print, to share our imaginations, to maybe entertain someone for a little while. That’s all I care about. If I make a little money or maybe sign a couple of copies, that’s icing on the cake.

And one last thing: I think that people sometimes put too much emphasis on getting published. They believe they aren’t a “real writer” unless they have a book on a shelf or a story printed in a magazine. That’s just wrong. If you’re putting words on the page, either handwritten or typed, you’re a writer. It’s that simple. Publishing will happen for you eventually. Just continue to write.

RB

 

June 17

Words and Images

There’s something to be said for the way words and images compliment each other. They’ve been partners for thousands of years. In fact, some of the earliest writing was simply pictures. So, in a way, images gave birth to words.

I think that images can add another level of depth to a story or poem. For most of us, when we read something we immediately form an image in our mind of a character’s appearance, or what a setting looks like. Words are like different colors of paint, and they all come together to form a beautiful picture.

A great example of this comes from one of my inspirations, Shel Silverstein. He was a writer, poetry, songwriter, and illustrator. You may be familiar with some of his more popular works, The Giving Tree or Where the Sidewalk Ends. With both of these books, and most of his other output, Silverstein wrote all the content and drew all the illustrations. In Where the Sidewalk Ends, he illustrated each and every poem. They’re just simple line drawings, but they capture the essence of each poem so perfectly.

I’m always in awe of people with a talent for drawing and painting. I used to draw quite a bit, but I ended up focusing more on writing and let the sketch pad sit on a shelf and collect dust. I wasn’t bad at it, but I wasn’t that great. But that wasn’t why I let is slide. I simply wanted to spend more time with words than images.

Now that I’ve entered the self-publishing arena, I’m finding that my interest in visual arts is being rekindled. For my first short story collection I created the cover and had a blast doing it. I found a great photo with a creative commons license, then manipulated it to compliment the content of the book. I think it turned out to be the perfect cover. And because it was so much fun, I’m going to create the cover for my next collection.

Of course, it’s not just illustrations that compliment words, it’s also photography. One of the best short story collections I’ve read was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler, who was inspired by old photo postcards he found in second-hand stores. He’d read the cryptic messages on the back, examine the photos and images on the front, then write a short story.

I did something similar with an artist friend a year or so back. She and I would find random images, then we’d each have to create something based on that image. She’d draw or paint, I’d write, but we’d do it separately so we didn’t know what the other was creating. It was a fun exercise and we ended up with some fantastic output. In fact, on more than one occasion we both created something similar, where her image would match up with what I’d written. Artistic minds on the same wave length.

Words and images are like salt and pepper, bacon and eggs, beer and pretzels. They can stand alone, but they work much better when together.

RB

 

 

May 26

Returning to Old Favorites

I have this weird habit – at least, I think it’s weird – in that I have an urge to reread books. Specifically, certain books that had an impact on my life, influenced me in some way, or were just so amazingly written that I can’t get enough.

A few titles come to mind – The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, and Leaves of Grass (which is poetry, but still a book I reread).

What I often run into is that when someone finds out that I reread books, some more than a dozen times, they inevitably ask, “Why?”

I find that curious. Like one of those moments when a dog hears a weird noise and the ears go up and the head cocks to the side. I hope I’m not that obvious. Of course I reread good books.

I learned the easiest way to make people understand, and stop asking that question, is to respond by asking them why they watch reruns on TV, or rewatch movies. I know there are dozens and dozens of movies that I’ve watched more than once. Hell, I saw the original Star Wars, in the theater, thirteen times on its first run. Yes, you read that correctly. Of course, I was ten or eleven years old at the time. And it was summer break.

It bothers me that people find it weird to reread a book (“But you already KNOW the story.”) but not to rewatch a Seinfeld episode for the fiftieth time, or rewatch The Matrix or a Star Wars film ten or twenty times. What’s the difference between them and a good book?

Nothing, really, although watching a movie or a show on streaming is more passive than reading. A movie will give you all the visual clues and the actors act it all out. Whereas with a novel, the reader has to use their imagination, make up their own visuals.

Personally, I love to reread a good book. There’s a certain comfort to it, and much like a good film, it bears a return because there can be things that were missed the first time.

To me, reading is far more entertaining that anything I can watch on a television or movie screen. I think it’s more rewarding. And rereading a good book is like meeting up with an old friend. Don’t you agree?

RB