Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Waiting for My Ship to Come In

There’s an old expression oft used by hopeful optimistic people the (English-speaking) world over: “I’m waiting for my ship to come in.” English common law, developed over centuries and aided by the British culture’s emphasis on the importance of the written record (as opposed to the oral), is one of the foundations upon which the modern world rests. Investors in prior centuries would buy shares in ships that were bound for the frontiers of Asia or the New World. The written record of common law ensured that they would be paid—or that they would lose everything they staked—whenever that ship came into port a year or two after sailing. Spices, exotica, timber, precious stones and metals—these were the rewards a businessman speculator (or gambler in respectable garb) could expect to receive in return for his risk.

So why the history lesson? Because I’m waiting for my ship to come in. I too have risked, and believe I have backed a winner. I too have been hearing low rumors from the ether about its fortunes now for about two years. That ship is my own writing career. Roundabout September I believe I’ll see her majestically sailing into her home waters with the tide, making port heavily laden with the produce of the venture.

I’ve not financed her with gold or silver. Well, maybe a little treasure; whatever has been required. But mostly I’ve financed her with God’s favor, my own toil, my own time and effort and sweat, my own conviction that doing whatever it takes to be successful at writing will be worth it. That’s why I’ve gone back to residential painting again—because I need a little more cash to get through to September, yes—but mainly because that’s what a man does. Whatever it takes. I’ve been painting walls and trim in a rental home recently assaulted by several cats who marked their territory with impunity. The carpets ought to be pulled out and burned (they’d probably blaze with neon green flames), but that’s not my call. Maybe the same ought to be done to the previous tenants, but that also is not my call. I just open all the windows and crank up Journey on my iPod and paint in the midst of the poisonous fume. This kind of thing builds character, and besides: what right do I have to complain about anything at all?

My ship is coming in soon. Unlike my forebears in business, who had to risk their investments in the face of shipwreck, squalls, treacherous waters and still more treacherous men; and the captain and crew of the vessel itself, who risked all that in the flesh and still more besides, I risk only my time and effort. If for some reason that is not enough, I shall have more tomorrow to wager. The question I put to myself is this: how badly do I want it? I can assure myself of the answer: that I want it very very much; enough to have brought me this far and to carry me on as well.

If you’re a writer or think you are, my honest prayer for you is that you would find encouragement in the words of a fellow sojourner along the same pathways you no doubt tread yourself. The process is not easy; you and I know that. But it can have rewards, and not just at the end. Sometimes we gather fuel for the fire along the way. I hope as well that you would find a little healthy fear. Maybe that will be enough to spur you onward. Now I’ve gone from ships to paths to horses; oh dear.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How to Be a Good Writer, Part 2

Last week I posted the first in a series of blogs about how to be a good writer. I’d like to say thanks for sticking with me past the sheer presumptuousness of the very idea. And now that my anti-self-aggrandizement clause is out of the way, let’s get down to it.

In keeping with the template, I’ve come up with three more things good writers do all the time:

  1. Write.
  2. Write.
  3. Write.

Point one: write. Keep notes, in other words. Again with the reference to Stephen King here, but good writers always have a notebook handy and that’s something I learned by reading his book, On Writing. You never know when your ideas will come. Well, scratch that. You know precisely when they’ll come. 5% of them will come at extremely inconvenient times, like when you’re driving on the freeway or in the shower scrubbing off the detritus of another sweaty day at the keyboard. The other 95% will come at the moment you are just drifting off to sleep. To minimize blazing fits of profanity, please at least keep your notebook on the nightstand. Try to make a habit of it. And don’t forget the pen. This is very important—writers should always have some way to record their ideas and keep their notes near at hand at all times. You may think, as I have done, that you’ll remember it in the morning. You won’t. Trust me.

Point two: write. Write articles. This is where the rubber begins to meet the road, folks. I read about this little bit of advice in an article (imagine that) on Helium, a great place to get exposure and get feedback. You can sign up to become a contributor there, or on sites like Factoidz or Examiner.com. Start a blog. Get it on a schedule and post at least twice per week. I’ve done all this. And the discipline of writing concisely, clearly, accurately and simultaneously threading in various keywords for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) purposes will only help you in the long run.

And the long run perspective, by the way, is the one you’ll be wanting to adopt as your own. This is a little aside, but writers—or anyone, really—for the most part, do not make it big overnight. Sure, your life can change in a single day, but that normally only comes after years of hard work. So many of us newbies (a moniker I’m only now just beginning to outgrow) have this completely unrealistic attitude that something is owed to us. It doesn’t go well for anyone with that mindset. But I’ll get into that more next week.

Point three: write. Write stories. Now, I’m not recommending that you run off all half-cocked and dive into your magnum opus. I dabbled with that; it’s more work than it’s worth, really. Start off with a 5,000 word short story. Find a professional editor who will give you a read and give you some detailed feedback—you’ll probably pay them about $50-$100 for this, but the investment is well worth it. You might also want to look into joining a local writers’ group, where fellow writers meet perhaps once per month to read and critique their work, and read your stuff there. Your next short story might have a goal of 10,000 words, and you could do a novella, around 20-30,000 words, after that. You can even publish eBook versions of your (finely polished and edited) writing on Amazon while you’re busy working on the next project. It helps to earn rewards for all that work.

Next week I’ll share my thoughts on how to be a good writer a little more. We’ll be covering writing mechanics, plot and character development, and the all-important Attitude. Until then my friends, go forth and write boldly.

Friday, May 20, 2011


I just finished with a book. Notice that I did not say I "finished" it, but instead that I finished with it. Such is the plight of the borrower at the public library. One can always try.

And try I did. The book I'm talking about is The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. While it was amazingly helpful, I couldn't get through it, and it's not the first book I've failed to finish. I've been known to be a bit of a book whore, truth be told--I'll take five of them home with me on a given day and be faithful to one or none, I don't care. If they don't grab me right, I have better things to do with my life.

And this one grabbed me right. It's just that I ran out of time on it. It would be a great addition to my reference shelf, even with the obscene amount of copy errors it contains, because it resounds so deeply and truly in regard to story. Capital S Story, actually.

Given my lifelong immersion in Biblically sourced values, to include my perspectives on philosophy and religion, I came away from this book with a rather large exclamation mark over myself. Mr. Booker makes a case for the existence of seven basic plots, or archetypes of story, that define every book ever written, every fireside ghost tale ever told. But he also makes a case for these seven being types of each other, and gives examples of books that are exemplary of all of them at once.

Tolkein's Lord of the Rings is one fine example. While this work is monumental (and I would argue remains as a singular representative of the fantasy genre), there is another story that resounds as The Archetype of all History.

That, in my opinion, is the Gospel. The story of creation, the fall, the flood, the giving of the law of Moses, exiles, ongoing redemptions, prophets, priests, judges, kings, and the innocent babe born right into the poverty of the midst of all of it, that hearkened back to a time before time, and the plan of redemption that we can see from here near the end has been interwoven throughout all of it--stuns the imagination and challenges any denial of its veracity. It actually takes a lot more energy to deny the truth of the Gospel than to accept it as the simple truth it is.

To me, Booker's work on the archetypes of story is yet another witness to the Glory of God, among millions of others that, wittingly or not, have verified the truth of the Original Story. One of the most amazing parts of it is that 1) the story is ongoing, and 2) we are participants. And what else can be said? I am intensely warmed and encouraged by all of it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How to Be a Good Writer, Part 1

Recently I received notice of an anonymous comment posted to an old blog that said simply, “How do I become a good writer?” I’d like to respond with my own thoughts on how I’ve gone about that very thing. Keep in mind that there is no formula; there are no quick and easy steps to take to become brilliant. It’s all about the hard slog.

Now—I don’t want to be presumptuous here—I know I’m not God’s gift to writing—but I know at least enough to offer up three recommendations:
  1. Read.
  2. Read.
  3. Read.
Stick with me. There’s a method to my madness.

Point one: Read. Read books about how to write. I will cover this in an upcoming post (titled Archetypes), but read Booker's The Seven Basic Plots. Hugely instructive, that. I cannot recommend more enthusiastically a book written by Stephen King, entitled On Writing. You may or may not be a fan, but King is one of the masters of the craft. He’s also been quite successful. Besides, getting outside the boundaries of your preferences occasionally is part of what transforms your writing from ordinary to extraordinary.

Point two: Read. Read history. This is, in my opinion, one of the most important disciplines for any member of society to undertake because the reading of history provides so very much in the way of foundation of character in a person. It’s not to say that you have to go and pick up some dry old tome on the foundations of colonialism in West Africa, either, unless of course that interests you. The key here is to find something that does interest you and then read about it. I personally found Stephan Talty’s book Empire of Blue Water, a gritty and honest thrill ride about the real pirates of the Caribbean and the actual Captain Henry Morgan, to be one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read. It was one of those books you don’t want to finish because you don’t want it to be over. Anyway, read history—for your own good, for the good of those around you, and for the exercise of reading.

Point three: Read. Read fiction. This is something I’ve had to work at. But if you aspire to be a writer of fiction, that is, a storyteller, you can’t get around reading it. The only way to discover how to produce good dialogue (i.e. believable dialogue) is to read how other writers have done it. Some of it will be crap, and some of it will be stunning. You never know until you try. And you’ll never know how to construct a plot, develop a character, devise a good mystery and on and on, until you read enough of them to get some ideas of your own. One book that simply blew me away was Stephen King’s Desperation. Not for the faint of heart, but very rewarding. Another King novel that's not quite so gruesome, and still excellent, is Duma Key.

The idea, and hopefully you’ve guessed it by now, is to read enough different things that your mind is stimulated in new directions and then follow that stimulus on to wherever it leads. For now, remember that the only way to grow as a writer is to grow as a reader. Good writers are always reading. No excuses. On the treadmill. During the commute (if you drive, get into audiobooks). As an alternative to watching the drivel that spills out of the TV. Read several books at once, and on wildly different topics. You get the idea. And one last thing: get to know your public library. That place is amazing.