September 9

Bradbury Challenge – Update 2 [Writing]

So far, so good.

I’ve read another book, Packing for Mars, and been working my way through Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The latter is for my ‘poem a day’. I’ve read Leaves of Grass many, many times over the years. It’s one of the greatest poetry collections, so raw and pure, and I find it inspiring. A perfect accompaniment to this challenge.

The story is also coming along. I’m just over halfway through the first draft. I estimate the ‘halfway’, though. The story is leading me along and I really only have a rough idea of where I hope it will take me. It feels like it’s getting there, like I’ve gotten to the point where things are beginning to come together for a confrontation, a revelation, then a resolution.

I’ve been enjoying the routine and I feel like it’s making a positive difference in my creativity. I feel more inspired to write, I’ve had more ideas popping into my head, and I’m even seeing the world around me a bit differently. What I mean is, I’m not seeing it in a two-dimensional, black-and-white way. I’m seeing more nuance, color variations, more beauty.

For example, there’s a butterfly bush in the front yard. I don’t know what kind it is, but it produces these tiny orange flowers and small black berries. Over the past couple of weeks, the bush has been attracting a wide variety of butterflies. Black and yellow, bright yellow, black and blue, Monarchs, and some too small to identify from my seat in the living room.

Now they’ve been out there all summer, the bush and the butterflies, but it’s only recently that they’ve been catching my attention. I’ll see the fluttering wings out of the corner of my eye, and I stop what I’m doing – reading, watching television, sketching – and spend the next twenty or thirty minutes just sitting and watching these little guys (and girls, I’m sure) dancing among the flowers.

I think this is due to a change in perspective, which in turn is the result of the Bradbury Challenge. Pushing myself to be more creative is changing the way I see the world around me. In a positive way, of course. I think that’s amazing. Ray Bradbury

I’ll have my second short story draft completed in a few more days (barring too much distraction from the butterflies), and then it’s on to the next. I’m still not sure how far I’m going to take this before I stop to work on the completed drafts. Or maybe I’ll work the editing process into the challenge.

So many possibilities.

RB

August 8

The Bradbury Challenge [Writing]

It’s no secret that Ray Bradbury was a prolific author. By the time he passed in 2012, he had written over six-hundred short stories, twenty-seven books, plus essays, criticisms, screenplays, and poems. The man was a writing machine. 

Luckily, he was open about his creative process and how he was able to accomplish so much with the written word. As I noted in a previous post, his book, Zen in the Art of Writing, is a must-read for all writers. Bradbury was passionate about the written word, about creativity, and about encouraging other writers.

And this is where the Bradbury Challenge comes from: his daily routine as outlined in the book. Basically, each day Bradbury would read one short story, one essay, and one poem. That was the fuel for his creative fire. Fiction, non-fiction, and a bit of lyrical beauty to get the imagination working. Ray Bradbury

But it doesn’t end there. The most amazing part is that he also wrote one short story every week. Of course, there were weeks, maybe months, when he couldn’t because of other commitments. He wrote so many other things that I couldn’t imagine how he’d have time to squeeze a short story in each week. But then again, the man was a word machine.

Because he’d always been an inspiration to me, I thought it was time I challenged myself to the challenge. Now, I know that I can’t follow his lead exactly. I have a full-time job (writing, no less), plus other daily and weekly responsibilities. Bradbury was a full-time, independent writer. 

So I’m going to partake in a modified Bradbury Challenge. 

My challenge to myself is this: read one short story or book chapter a day, read one poem a day, and write one short story every two weeks. 

While more manageable than Bradbury’s routine, it’ll still take effort on my part. I’ll have to change up my daily routine and cut out some of my usual downtime in order to get words on the page, but I think it’ll be worth it. 

I’m looking at it like an exercise routine. I started back to exercising every morning two months ago. I started small, ten minutes a day alternating between core, strength, and yoga. This week I’ve upped that to thirty minutes a day, doing core/strength/yoga on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, while doing thirty minutes of yoga on Tuesday and Thursday. 

At first, it was tough. I had to push myself to get into the routine. But now, two months later, it’s gone from a routine to a habit. A good habit. 

I think the same can be applied to creativity. I’m going to start with this modified Bradbury Challenge and, eventually, get to where it evolves from routine to habit. Then, maybe, I’ll see about writing one story every week. 

I’ll be starting this on Sunday and will post updates, along with my usual musings, every week. And you’re welcome to join in, in your own way. 

I hope to make Ray Bradbury proud.

RB

July 20

Music Moment – Year of the Cat [Music]

If you’ve read a few of my other Music Moment posts, you know that I love story songs. You know, where the lyrics meld with the music to tell a story. Most songs are about conveying a feeling, an emotion, or setting a mood, which is fine, but I guess it’s the storyteller in me that likes the lyrics to take me on a journey.

“Year of the Cat” is one of those songs. Originally released by Al Stewart in 1976, this song immediately captured my attention. The arrangement begins slow and dreamy, then gently leads into the lyrics.

I think one of the reasons, or perhaps the main reason, the lyrics strike a chord with me is because they remind me of one of my favorite movies, Casablanca. The setting for the song feels like it takes place in someplace like Morocco or Tunisia. I always picture white buildings with brightly painted doors and stalls lining the narrow streets. It also helps that the lyrics actually reference Bogart and Lorre, who both starred in the movie.

The basic story is a man, a tourist, who gets lost in this strange city and meets a beautiful local woman who whisks him away on an adventure. He falls in love with her knowing that he can’t stay forever, but despite that, he plans to make the most of the time they spend together.

Lyrically, Stewart has a poetic flair. His descriptions of the setting, the woman, the way the man feels as this person leads him through the mystical nightlife and back alleys of the city, all weave together to beautifully. Even without the music, the lyrics stand up quite nicely on their own.

Musically, the song is a great mix of soft acoustics and, later, a driving guitar solo. But even though the song slowly builds to a crescendo, it quickly returns to a soft flow on the notes of a saxophone.

I’ve included the lyrics here and a link to the song below. I hope you give it a listen and find it just a magical, and mysterious, as I do. For what it’s worth, this song gives me chills every time I listen to it.

On a morning from a Bogart movie
In a country where they turn back time
You go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre
Contemplating a crime
She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running
Like a watercolor in the rain
Don’t bother asking for explanations
She’ll just tell you that she came
In the year of the cat

She doesn’t give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow ’till your sense of which direction
Completely disappears
By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls
There’s a hidden door she leads you to
These days, she says, I feel my life
Just like a river running through
The year of the cat

While she looks at you so cooly
And her eyes shine like the moon in the sea
She comes in incense and patchouli
So you take her, to find what’s waiting inside
The year of the cat

Well morning comes and you’re still with her
And the bus and the tourists are gone
And you’ve thrown away your choice you’ve lost your ticket
So you have to stay on
But the drum-beat strains of the night remain
In the rhythm of the newborn day
You know sometime you’re bound to leave her
But for now you’re going to stay
In the year of the cat

Note: YouTube is being finicky with the embedding permissions, so you may have to watch the video on YouTube.

RB

July 12

A Little Motivation [Creativity]

“Commitment to the most worthy purpose is of little value if we lack confidence in our ability to realize it.”

– Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs

I’ve been reading the aforementioned book the past few days, and this line stuck out to me. I read it several times because it resonated and made me think about my commitment to writing fiction.

I think one thing that many writers struggle with is confidence. Not just with themselves and their ability to tell a good story, but also confidence in the stories themselves, the characters we create, the plots and dialogue. There’s always that little voice in the back of our heads whispering, “Are you sure?”. Man with question marks over his head.

I’ve been writing a long time, probably close to forty years. I’ve written a lot of stories, some good and some bad, but regardless of the outcomes I continue to do it. Out of, say, one-hundred stories, maybe twenty or thirty were what I would consider good. The rest, well, I’ve categorized them as practice pieces.

And yet, I still doubt myself and my abilities. Why? Hard to say for sure, but there are arguably several reasons. First and foremost, I didn’t get much support for my writing until I was in my late twenties. Mostly I was told it was a cute hobby and that I should focus on something real so I can set my sights on a ‘real’ job. Either that, or my creative output was ignored.

Despite that lack of support, I continued to write. Doubt was always there, looking over my shoulder, whispering in my ear, but I persevered. The stories and poems were in my head, and I transferred them to the page. Even when I felt no one cared and that I was writing in a vacuum, I kept at it.

Why? Because I was committed to it. I love to write, I love to tell stories, to paint pictures with words. The thing that helped the most was when I decided that I was going to write for myself. What I mean is, I decided to stop worrying about what others thought, or if they even cared, and wrote things that I wanted to read.

That the reason my stories cross genres. My reading preferences are all over the place – fiction, non-fiction, weird fiction, speculative, horror, fantasy, cyberpunk, literary, historical – and in turn that influences my writing.

Once I realized I didn’t have to receive acknowledgement from others I found a new sense of freedom in writing. I became more confident. Sure, there’s still that whisper in my ear, but now I ignore it, swat it away and focus on the page in front of me. I can do it written on paper.

It doesn’t matter where you are with your creativity. Doesn’t matter if you’re a writer, a painter, a songwriter. We’re all going to doubt ourselves, some more than others, but we can’t let it stop us. We have to stay committed, focused, and continue to do what we love. That’s all that matters. Doing something you love.

When you think about giving up, tossing your laptop in the trash, going back to binge-watching something on television, remember this: you don’t have to listen to that negative voice in your head. You have one lifetime, a handful of decades, to enjoy yourself, so why not do the things you love? Be creative, be silly, experiment, try new things.

Don’t let doubt stop you from expressing yourself. Be committed to your creativity.

RB

July 2

What’s the Best Writing Tool? [Writing]

This is one of those topics that can be contentious. There are so many tools available to the modern writer that it can be overwhelming. I can’t promise you that I’ll answer all your questions. However, I think I can provide you with some valid options and, hopefully, help you make an informed decision.

First, when I refer to writing tools, I mean things that help the writer get a story from their head onto the page. Also, I’m not necessary endorsing any particular tool. I’ll cover the ones I’ve used over the years and offer suggestions based on my experience.

Pencils and Pens

Why not start off with a nod to old school writing tools? There’s something to be said for writing the way writers used to do it. To me, writing on paper with a pen or pencil is more organic. It makes me feel like Hemingway or Faulkner and that I should be sitting in a cafe somewhere sipping Cuban coffee.

Hand writing with pen.I also feel more connected to the words on the page when I write freehand. Sure, my hand gets tired much faster than my fingers so when typing, but that doesn’t deter me. If you’ve never written this way I suggest you give it a try. I doubt it’s going to change your life, or your preferred mode of writing, but I think you’ll find it fun and engaging.

Audio Recording

No, that’s not a typo. I’ve read of several authors who never put pen to paper. Instead, they carry a tape recorder or digital voice recorder and simply narrate their story. Later, they’ll either transcribe it themselves – typing it into their computer – or have an assistant do it. Once it’s on the PC (or Mac), they can edit to their heart’s content. Man speaking into tape recorder.

I’ve never tried this, but it sounds interesting. I know that I often work out stories in my head while I’m doing something like taking a walk with the dogs or fiddling about in the backyard. In a way, it’s sort of like telling myself the story. So it makes sense that I could carry a voice recorder with me and talk it out stream-of-consciousness style.

My only concern would be the neighbors thinking I’m weirder than they already do.

Also, keep in mind that most smartphones and tablets come with voice recorders built in. All you have to do is transcribe it later. Or pay someone to do it for you.

Computer Software

Honestly, there are far too many writing software options out there for me to adequately cover them all. However, I will tell you about a few that I use, and have used, and what I think about them.

Obviously, there’s Microsoft Word and Apple Pages. Both are fully-capable word processors and both are free (Pages comes free with most Apple devices; Word has paid versions and a free online version). I tend to use Pages more since I write on a MacBook, but I’ve used Word almost as much in office settings.

I think they both have their pros and cons, but for fiction writing I really don’t like to use either one. I find them to offer too many options and sometimes dealing with formatting can be a pain in the ass. When something on the page doesn’t line up correctly I end up spending WAY too much time trying to figure it out.

Typing on a MacBookOne of the nicer, all-purpose writing programs is Scrivener. It’s not your ordinary word processor. It’s incredibly robust and designed to be used by writers. Scrivener comes with templates for novels, short stories, scripts, and even poetry, and it’s a great tool for formatting ebooks.

However, much like Word and Pages, I find it distracting to write with when I’m working on early drafts. Again, too many options, too many bells and whistles. I often use it towards the end of my writing arc, for laying out short story collections and getting my work ready for print. I’ve been using it for years and recommend that every writer have a copy of this software on their hard drive.

Probably my favorite writing program is called FocusWriter. This is my go-to for first drafts, second drafts, everything up to the final. It’s an incredibly clean interface and you can set it so there are no distractions, no tool bars, no buttons, no pop-ups. Just you and the blank screen.

The other cool thing is that it has some simple customizations to help make your writing experience more engaging. For example, it offers a couple of different themes for the screen. I use the solid black with green font color…sort of like an old computer monitor. It also keeps track of your word count and has a spell checker.

The best part, however, is that you can set daily goals for yourself. You can set it for minutes or number of words, and the program will tell you when you hit that goal each day. I use this when I feel I’m slipping out of my routine and it helps to keep me on track.

Oh, and the very best part…FocusWriter is open-source, so it’s free (although I encourage you to make a donation to the developer).

There You Have It

Every writer has their preference when it comes to their writing tools. But I think it’s important for us to try new things every so often. It helps to keep us from getting complacent. Or bored.

For me, I use a variety of tools. I think of writing like other manual labor jobs, like construction. You have certain tools for certain jobs. I use pencil and paper when writing poetry, Word or Pages for business writing, and FocusWriter and Scrivener for fiction.

The change of scenery will do you good. Try a new tool every so often and see how it affects your writing.

RB

 

June 21

Be Like Water [Writing]

There’s a great quote by martial artist, actor, and philosopher Bruce Lee that always resonated with me.

Bruce Lee reading.“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

To me, this quote can be interpreted in different ways. From the perspective of a warrior, being like water means adjusting to your opponent’s attack. From a metaphysical standpoint it can be seen as a way to adjust to the chaotic universe around us. And from a creative view it can be taken to mean that we shouldn’t force art, but instead let it lead us to where it wants to go.

When writing fiction I’ve occasionally found myself trying to make a story go in a certain direction. I have a specific path in mind, I want to have a specific arc, have my character grow or change in a specific way, but the story has other plans. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t make it work the way I want it to, so I have to retreat a few steps, take a breath, and let the story lead me like a meandering creek.

I’ll admit, it can be difficult to let go. Writing a story imbues the me with a certain amount of power. God-like, in a way. I can create characters and kill them off. I can build worlds, even a universe, then snuff it out with a single click of the ‘delete’ key. So when the story resists my direction, I feel annoyed and frustrated.

That’s when I remember Lee’s words. Be like water. Waterfall.

If my story is resisting my attempts to steer it, then I need to stop being assertive and let the story guide me. There have been many occasions when I followed his advice with my fiction and suddenly discovered an entirely new direction I’d never considered. A better direction. As the poet, Robert Frost, once wrote – no surprised for the writer, no surprises for the reader. When the story takes me in a new direction and shows me new possibilities, I get excited. And when that happens I know the reader will feel the same way.

The next time you sit down to write, be like water. Be relaxed, fluid, allow the story to lead you on a new and winding path. You’ll be surprised and where you end up.

RB

June 18

Finding Your Writing Voice [Writing]

An author’s writing voice is much like a fingerprint, or even their actual speaking voice. It’s special, unique, and identifies them as an individual. When I pick up a book and start reading, the author’s writing voice identifies them, much like if they had called me on the phone. Fingerprint pattern.

When I was in my teens and learning how to write fiction, I was also trying to find my own writing voice. The thing is, I found myself copying the writers I admired at the time – Tolkien, King, Silverstein, Bradbury, Asimov, to name a few. In fact, I would literally sit down with a copy of one of their books, along with a pad of paper and a pencil, and copy the text from the book to the page. Why? Because I was trying to BE them. I wanted to write like the people I admired and I figured if I copied enough of their work I’d somehow absorb their voices.

Alas, that wasn’t the case.

It did, however, teach me a lot about writing. I learned about flow, sentence structure, how narrative ideas tied together. And yes, I think it did eventually help me to find my own writing voice.

The thing is, your writing voice isn’t the one you start out with. It’s like learning to speak. You hear the people around you speak and you pick up their vocalizations, the way they enunciate, the regional dialect. Also, the speaking voice you start out with changes as you mature and the more you use it. When I was a child I had a speech impediment and had a higher tone. As I matured and went to speech therapy, my voice changed. It deepened (thanks, puberty!), I found more confidence with it, and eventually it developed into what I have today. Fingers on keyboard.

My writing voice went through a similar evolution. I started out mimicking those that I admired and who inspired me. When I re-read some of the stuff I wrote back then I think the writing is immature. There’s no consistency to the narrative voice. Sometimes it reads like a cheap Stephen King knockoff or a bad Tolkien impersonator. Occasionally, there are glimpses of what would come later, but mostly it was bad imitation.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick and easy way to develop your writing voice. For me, I wrote. A lot. And then I wrote more. The one thing I can suggest is to not pay attention to it when you’re writing. You’ll become self-conscious and the writing will suffer. You’ll try to force it and that never works.

Spiral notebook and books on desk.Just write. It doesn’t hurt to try the practice I mentioned above, copying passages or pages from writers you admire. If you’re a young or inexperienced writer, I recommend it. Don’t stick with just one writer, do this with several of them so you can get a better feel for the uniqueness of their styles. By doing this you can also learn things about how these authors constructed their stories. It’s like looking at a blueprint to see how a building was put together. It gives you a different perspective. 

And most importantly, be patient. Some writers can develop their own style quickly, while with others it may take a while. Once you get there, though, you’ll know it. Also, remember that your writing voice will continue to evolve as time passes. Think of it as a fine bottle of wine that just gets better as we age.

RB

June 9

Quote the Writer, Not the Character [Writing]

Okay, I know this will sound strange, but it annoys me when someone quotes a character from a work of fiction instead of the writer. I should let it go, I know, but I think it comes from my belief that writers are under appreciated in general. 

It happens often enough in fiction. I mean, I can understand it to a certain point. People are probably more familiar with the character than the faceless writer. For example, if someone quotes a line from a Sherlock Holmes story, it’s usually attributed to Holmes and not the author, Sir Author Conan Doyle. Elementary, my dear Watson. Sherlock Holmes and Watson illustration.

But I think it’s even more prevalent in television and film. How often do you hear someone quote a line from, say, Casablanca (“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”) or The Terminator (“I’ll be back”) and attribute it to the character or the actor? Happens all the time.

Casablanca movie poster.

As a writer, I find it annoying. I mean, after I’ve spent time and effort to write a great story I would prefer to be the one credited with a memorable line. That came out of my head, from my imagination. I feel like it’s only fair.

And, full disclosure, I’m guilty of it, as well. I figured I should own up before someone goes back through my old posts and highlights every instance where I quoted a character. I’m sure there are more than a handful.

My partner has tried to help. After telling me to get over it – repeatedly – she’ll then suggest I try looking at it from another perspective. Writers want to be read, and as long as people are reading my stories, why should I care if they quote me or one of my characters? The character came from my head, as well, so if they get the credit, I sort of get it, too. 

She’s right, of course. You can quote me on that.

RB

 

June 7

A Poetry Moment VI – Surf [Poetry]

Hollywood Beach
A photo I took on Hollywood Beach, FL, 2013.

Anyone who knows me knows that I love the ocean. I grew up on and around the water, spending long hours swimming, snorkeling, boating, fishing, and laying on the sand with a good book to read.

I tried to capture the essence of a day at the beach in a poem. Something that expressed how I feel inside when I hear the ceaseless roar of the waves, the smell of salt in the air, the warmth of the sun. I think I ended up with something very close.

Surf

Porcelain white gulls,

shadows crossing me like a dream

as I lay in the gilded rays.

My thoughts adrift

on the audible surf,

gently bobbing

here and there.

The contours of the sand

like a maternal blanket,

holding me fast and secure.

Shadows flit over me,

gentle caresses,

a lover’s touch

and I sigh.

RB

May 22

Changing a Life

We’ve all had someone who touched our lives in a positive way. It might have been a loved one, maybe a stranger. Regardless, they had an impact on you, changed you, hopefully made you a better person.

I was thinking about this recently. In a broad view, almost everyone I encounter has an impact on my life. Someone holds a door open for me and shows a moment of kindness, which brightens my day and makes me smile. Or someone cuts in front of me in traffic and flips me off, which has the opposite effect. In both cases, they changed my life in small ways. Man holding door open.

Then I started thinking about it from another perspective. Specifically, the people who actually changed my life, who had such an impact on it that my personality, my outlook, my morals, were shifted and molded in a new way.

There aren’t many. At least, it’s not a terribly long list. My parents, for instance, helped to mold me. All our parents did, for better or worse, along with family members. Siblings who bullied, others who showed kindness. I had a great-aunt, a nun for over seventy-five years, who taught me about nature, creativity, and being myself. I had an uncle, a dairy farmer, who taught me about treating animals with care and about hard work. I still remember getting up before the crack of dawn to help feed and milk the cows. And clean out the manure troughs. It was educational, to say the least.

Bigger changes came later. In high school I felt out of place, like so many of us did then, and I immersed myself and reading and writing. I spun reams of angst-ridden poetry and lyrics for songs in my head. I also dabbled in fiction, writing Stephen King-inspired short stories. My sophomore year of high school I showed one of my stories to my Language Arts teacher, Mrs. Covert. She diligently read it, marked it up with a red pen (and I thought my story was bloody before then), then gave it back and told me to keep at it. 

She was the first person who ever read one of my stories. Funny, I don’t think she ever said if she liked it or not (I assume the latter), but the simple fact that she read it and gave me tough but fair feedback made a huge impact on my confidence. Teacher's desk in classroom.

A few years later I got up the courage to show some of my poetry to my senior year Language Arts teacher, Miss Wells. Quick confession: I think every guy in the school had a crush on her. She was young, fresh out of college, and sweet and adorable. Walking the halls, you’d think she was just another student. 

She read some of my pieces after class one day, then looked at me with tears in her eyes. That was mind-blowing. My words touched her. She went on to tell me how wonderful it was, how I had a talent for words, and asked to see more. I brought a few more to her later on, which she gave me feedback on and encouraged me to read some specific poets. Again, a huge impact on my early writing years. 

There were a couple of professors in college, too, who changed my life. One, in particular, Dr. Johnson, always pushed me to do better. I ended up having him for a couple of literature classes and most of my humanities classes. Every paper I submitted he’d give back to me and tell me to rewrite it and resubmit it because he knew I could do better. Every. Damn. Paper. But I did what he told me to do. He showed me that I can always do better than what I think I can, and that I should never settle.

The only other person who I think really had an impact on my life, who changed me, would be my partner. Because of her I’m a better person than I was twenty five years ago. It’s not that she personally changed me, but that I changed because of her. I wanted to be better, to be someone worthy of her, who could be proud of and respect. Without her in my life I probably wouldn’t be where I am today, with two published short story collections, a podcast, cooking videos, a house, a car. Without her I probably wouldn’t know the meaning of real love. 

Like I mentioned above, we all have people to impact our lives to some extent on a daily basis, but the ones who really have an impact, the ones who make you see things differently, who make you want to be better, are few. 

Two men hugging.Cherish them while they are in your lives. And if you don’t realize their impact on you until much later, then cherish the memory of them. 

And also keep in mind that YOU might be the one who makes a positive change in someone else’s life. Wouldn’t that be amazing? And the truth is, you may not even realize that you’ve done this for someone. 

Change is good. It’s inevitable. Just make sure it’s positive. 

RB