Oculus Reinvents Family Dynamics in Horror Cinema

Oculus - Reinventing Family Dynamics in Horror Cinema

Oculus – Reinventing Family Dynamics in Horror Cinema

Oculus was released last weekend, starring Karen Gillan as Kaylie Russell and Brenton Thwaites as her younger brother Tim, who was recently released from a mental institution following the deaths of their parents ten years ago.

Both are in their early 20s now and, upon Tim’s release, Kaylie offers him a quick, welcoming hug before reminding him of the promise they made to each other just before he was stuffed into a police car and carted away for the murder of their father. Kaylie believes (and Tim did too, before the institution showed him “the error of his thinking”), a mirror the Gillan parents purchased for their new home ten years ago is possessed by a spirit whose occasional incarnation as a freaky girl is only slightly more disturbing than the mirror’s ability to create illusions in the eyes and minds of whoever happen to be in its immediate vicinity.

Promise me, Tim…

Kaylie made Tim promise they would destroy the mirror once Tim was released back into society, since Kaylie holds it responsible for the death of their parents.

The spirit possessing the mirror drove Kaylie and Tim’s mother Marie crazy, and then possessed and made their father Alan kill Marie. Only Tim’s ability to get his hands on Alan’s gun and shoot him dead in turn prevented Alan from killing him and his sister.

Oculus means “eye” and, in the film, it likely alludes to the mirror as an eye into the universe of dark spirits or to the human eye tricked by that mirror into believing fantasies.

The story also provides a refreshing perspective on family dynamics within the horror genre.

The Treatment of Family in Horror Cinema

The treatment of family in horror cinema typically goes either one of two ways. You have the Poltergeist approach, which suggests that families have to rely on their bond of love to survive the horrors that afflict them. More recently, in last year’s The Conjuring, it was a well-meaning family that had to stick together to survive the evils of a possessed home. Going back a year earlier to Insidious, father Josh Lambert had to enter the spirit world to retrieve his son Dalton who had been stolen away by malevolent, bad-ass demon.

The other approach to family dynamics is the one set up before Alan and Marie’s death in Oculus, and which has parallels in such films as Sinister and The Shining.

In this approach, the horror that besets the family is largely an extension of and, to some extent, a metaphorical result of internal strife within the family: a stressful move to a new town, or a workaholic or frustrated parent trying to win back something lost to the past, or some other attempted recovery from disappointment or tragedy. Obviously, kids must be part of this equation since they will be the ones who suffer the most.

In Oculus, Alan is trying to launch a new business from the small office in the Russells’ new home (the same office where the supernatural mirror is hung) and has a bit of a short fuse. When we first meet him, he’s juggling phone calls, trying to help Marie with the movers and telling the kids not to play in his office.

Think about the similarities with The Shining‘s Jack Torrance, a frustrated playwright who has a wife and son to support and not much in the way of steady employment, or Ellison Oswalt of Sinister who has unsuccessfully been struggling to recapture the fame that came from the publication of his first book and proceeds to ignore his family in the process.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that all the men who serve as vehicles for the horrors that beset them and their loved ones aren’t quite with the program in the family department.

In most cases, the horror successfully overtakes and destroys the family (Sinister) or the family narrowly escapes and must live with the memory of how a terrible experience destroyed someone they loved (The Shining).

So Kaylie and Tim are the kids who narrowly escaped the destructive force that killed their parents, which would classify them under the Shining model. However, THAT is only where the movie begins. After Tim’s release from incarceration, Oculus heads in a new direction.

Kaylie Won’t Forget….

Kaylie has held fast during this time to the decade-long promise she committed her brother to, that the horror can’t be abandoned or left behind. She wants revenge and is ready to jump back into the fray and destroy the mirror that killed their parents.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising.

Despite Kaylie’s freedom during the past decade, it is Tim who has landed in a better position. His doctor tells Tim as much just before he is released to society. Tim has had the benefit of mental health support following the deaths of their parents, the doctor points out, while Kaylie has not.

And viewers won’t exactly be enamored with Kaylie’s intense desire to drag Tim back and confront the demons of their past right after he’s won his freedom.

Kaylie represents a staple in much of horror cinema, a sweet young thing in a t-shirt and snug jeans up going against the baddies. But there is a slightly deranged quality to the way she sets up the mirror in the old family home and prepares to destroy it with a winch and metal hammer contraption attached to the ceiling. She has also set up multiple defenses against any attempt by the mirror to counteract her plan to destroy it.

When Tim sees what she’s up to, he is aghast and explains everything he learned in the hospital, that there was nothing supernatural about the mirror, that their father went crazy and killed their mother and that he (Tim) killed Alan to protect Kaylie and himself. The problem, says Tim, is that he and Kaylie both went through an awful experience and have not learned to accept what happened.

In real life, this is often true. One’s inability to accept and manage the emotions that accompany the tragedies in life often lead to internal disturbances. This is where the real horror can begin–a failure to just get a grip–and that is what Tim believes is bothering his sister.

Kaylie stubbornly will not accept that explanation but ultimately, after the viewers begin to suspect that yes, she may indeed be a tad bit off kilter, she ends up being right. The mirror is possessed.

It’s not my intent to delve into the rest of the film. It’s enough to simply highlight the back story and show how two survivors of a supernatural creature choose to face the presence that killed their parents rather than move on in their lives.

In the end, what this represents is a kind of re-prioritization of values within the horror genre. Most survivors of a supernatural attack feel lucky just to escape. If even one teenager can escape the blade of Jason Vorhees or Leatherface, count your blessings.

But for Kaylie, survival isn’t enough. I doubt she even notices. She just gets angry. Family, it seems, is everything worth fighting for and worth getting revenge for.

We’ve seen this before, in a way. Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left is a kind of mirror image of Oculus (no pun intended). Rather than children seeking revenge on those that killed the parents, in Craven’s film, it is the parents who go after the men who killed their children.

The difference in Oculus is that the mirror represents more than limited, mortal evil; it is supernatural evil with powers the siblings can’t quite understand or know how to fight. This same supernatural evil, mind you, killed their parents.

Kaylie and Tim can only HOPE to endure. And I won’t tell you if they do, but the movie reflects on more than simple escape from the horror.

Oculus is an examination of how those who have lost loved ones will go back and fight regardless of the consequences or their chances of survival.

That’s unusual in the horror genre. Again, survivors typically consider themselves lucky to escape despite the fate of other victims.

But perhaps Oculus isn’t really a horror story. Perhaps, after all, it is actually a love story.

Posted in Horror | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

3 Reasons We Need More Stories Like The Conjuring

"The Conjuring" by Novocastrian Photography  is licensed under CC BY 2.0

“The Conjuring” by Novocastrian Photography is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Last summer, I needed a day off from work. I had exhibited at too many trade shows in only a short time and had written too many business proposals. A talented member of my staff had resigned and I had to scramble to finish some projects he had left behind.

In addition to being a talented professional, he also happened to be a major fan of horror films. I hadn’t seen too many flicks in some time; that’s what happens when you’re the father of a two-year-old. You don’t get out that much.

So with a mental health day in order, I decided to head off to the movies to check out The Conjuring. There’s nothing quite like going to the movies by yourself in the middle of a weekday when the stadium seats are all empty and the rest of the world is at work. This is especially true if you’re going to see a horror flick. No one’s hand is available to hold onto either. When the terror strikes, you’re on your own. I love that feeling.

I left the theater two hours later and it was only after I stepped out of the dark and into the mid-afternoon sunlight that I stopped being seriously rattled. The afternoon had been well spent with its share of scares and gripping storytelling. Walking home, I also tried to figure out what I had enjoyed so much about The Conjuring. We definitely need more stories like it, I thought. Eventually, I came up with three reasons why.

1. The Conjuring doesn’t claim to remake the horror genre, but it does a good job of telling a story.

Sometimes the greatest courage in storytelling comes not from struggling to surpass what’s been done before and reinventing the wheel, but just from telling a good story within an existing genre. People like horror films. They have been around a long time, a very long time. Remember Nosferatu? That was 1922!

What that means is that you already know there’s an audience for the kind of story that will scare people, and so there’s no need to overthink things. You get too cerebral and sometimes the visceral fear that comes from a good horror story disappears. It gets too intellectual.

Here are the titles of some classic horror films. The Omen. The Exorcist. The Evil Dead. And now we have: The Conjuring. The writers of The Conjuring were wise in keeping with a simple title, the kind that has a tradition of success. Odds were, the writers were positioning themselves for similar success.

Well done.

2. The Conjuring is based on real events. There’s nothing scarier in horror than something that might have actually happened.

Ed and Lorraine Warren were real-life paranormal investigators from the 1950s up to the present. (Ed died in 2006). They founded the New England Society for Psychic Research, which, according to Wikipedia, is the oldest ghost hunting group in New England. The couple had, at least if it’s an accurate depiction in The Conjuring, a rather extensive museum of occult paraphernalia.

The Conjuring is based on a case the Warrens believed profoundly disturbing. A family moves into a Rhode Island home, where weird, horrible things promptly start happening. The family dog is found dead one morning after spending the night outside. Children are nearly yanked out of bed in the middle of the night by an unseen presence.

The presence then manifests itself in different ways–as a dark spirit that leaps at one of the daughters from the top of a bureau (truly frightening) and then consumes the soul of the mother after hovering malevolently over her in bed (um, that was pretty damn frightening too).

It gets sick and twisted real fast. The Warrens, in the film as in real life, are brought to the home where Lorraine, a clairvoyant, quickly feels the presence of the hateful spirits and convinces her husband they need to exorcise the entire house.

The Conjuring tells the story (in dramatized fashion, presumably) of this family and of the Warrens’ involvement in trying to free the family from the supernatural presence that has latched itself to them.

Anyone who ponders the intersection of horror cinema and “actual events” may be disturbed by The Conjuring. But it’s also one reason why more stories like this must be told, to challenge viewers and us as a society with the knowledge that there may be more to the universe than we can imagine.

Which leads me to my third point…

3. The Conjuring advances the importance of horror cinema in society.

Horror, in one sense, represents a rebellion against the norm and against all that is good and well in society. Compared to, say, romantic comedies, of which there are many, horror represents a smaller but, in my opinion, fundamentally important and threatening, niche.

Most people like to pretend if you do the right things and make the important decisions in life, then all will be well. You go to school, get educated, get a job, a family, a house and live happily ever after. Many horror films, including The Conjuring, begin with such a premise: the story of such a well-meaning family who stumbles unknowingly (and undeservedly) into unspeakable evil with no idea how to confront their supernatural oppressor.

That is closer to the way much of real life works too, where our best intentions get sideswiped by unpleasant, unexpected and–yes–undeserved realities. Many of our personal horrors have less to do with the supernatural and more to do with every day tragedies: domestic violence, murder, theft, drug and alcohol abuse and the toll addiction takes on families. And ten million other occurrences that reflect humankind’s many foibles. Really, there are a lot of ways human beings can be truly horrible.

Ironically, as a society, we also don’t like to face such unpleasantness though it happens all the time, everywhere. We do our imaginative best to avoid them. Many of us don’t exactly consider ourselves creative yet we somehow manage to pretend that lots of thing don’t or won’t happen. And if we do, we consider them aberrations, things that happen over there, in someone else’s yard or in someone else’s neighborhood.

But the reality is, bad things happen, even in your own home. Horror cinema taps into emotions we would rather not face most times, fear or even pure, abject terror. Films like The Conjuring evoke a portrait of simple, family life and turn it into something dreadful.

Maybe most or all of us will never face the supernatural as the Warrens and the Perrons did, but many of us have homes and families whom we want to protect, and life is filled with enough violence and hardship to represent a perpetual threat.

Word has it, a sequel to The Conjuring is in the works for 2015. Let’s hope it’s as good as the first film.

Posted in Horror | 2 Comments

12-Point Guide to Guest Posting (Guest)

I am very excited to have blogger and writer Denise Drespling author the first guest post for The Write Place blog. I hope readers will take a moment to consider her insights and comment below. I met Denise on Google+ a few weeks ago, so if you’re not already using social networks, my advice is: start now. Okay, let me turn it over now to Denise as she offers a 12-point guide to guest posting.

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I want to thank Joe for having me stop by his blog today to talk with you! It seemed only appropriate, since I am here visiting, to spend some time talking about the purpose of guest posting.

What’s the point?

Guest posting provides benefits to the guest, the host and the followers. It’s all about exposure.

1. The followers of the blog get new content from a fresh source. (And will hopefully find another blogger to enjoy and follow.)

2. The guest will get access to new followers and gain exposure for his or her own blog or web site, which will hopefully create new, lasting followers.

3. The host gets a day off from posting (and let’s face it, sometimes writing content is hard). Usually, guests will also post on their own site and social media outlets directing followers to the guest location. More traffic for the host site!

But it’s not only about exposure. It’s also about making new connections and building a network, which brings me to the next section. How do you go about guest posting?

Where do you look?

Joe discussed this in a recent post, and here’s what I’ve discovered to work. Start with your resources. Chances are, you already have connections that would be a perfect choice for swapping posts.

1. Look at your friends who do what you do. When I started blogging, I sent a message to my writer friends who also had blogs. The message was as simple as, “I have a blog about writing. You have a blog about writing. Want to swap some posts?” I have had many of my friends on my blog, and I’ve been to theirs. Since then, I’ve made connections on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter that I could ask to visit my blog and who would likely have me to theirs.

2. Make new friends! Here’s the quick story of how I met Joe and ended up posting here today. Someone posted on Google+. I commented and he commented. He mentioned something about wanting to do some guest posting and I jumped at the chance. I sent him a private message, and a few messages and a few emails later, here I am! Ask around. Chances are there are others out there who want to guest post, but aren’t sure how to go about it. (Facebook Groups and Google Communities are great places to make friends with like-minded people.)

3. Submit a pitch. Many blogs (especially the larger ones) will have guest posting guidelines. These differ from site to site, but usually involve you sending in a pitch to say what you want to post about, a sample of your other work, and a link to your site. The guidelines all vary, though, so be sure to read them carefully. Joe and I exchanged a simple outline stating the points we would cover in our posts. It was informal, but set expectations and gave us each a chance (before the work was done) to say nay if we felt the content was wrong for our audiences.

How do you make it good?

Once you’ve made a connection or had your pitch accepted, there are a few basic rules to follow. Common sense, I think, but hey. It’s not always as common as it should be.  ;)

Chocolate Cake - 12 Points to Guest Posting (by Denise Drespling)

Bring the fancy cake! (“Photo from sxc.hu by machadow.”)

1. Send your best work. Don’t write some quick and sloppy post. Your host is trusting you to provide good content. Spell check, grammar check, proofread. Polish it up and present them with a gem. And be sure to do your best at promoting the post. Drive as much traffic as you can to the blog. Think of it like bringing dessert to a dinner party. You bring the fancy chocolate cake, not the half-burned cookies you baked in a rush the night before.

2. A good way to make sure you provide quality content is to be familiar with the blog. Don’t send something (or pitch something) completely irrelevant to the reason the followers come to that blog. If it’s a blog about writing, probably a post about how you clean your house wouldn’t be relevant (unless it’s relatable somehow to writing—then go for it!)

3. Respect post length. If most posts on the site are around 1000 words, don’t send 2000 and don’t send 200. The followers are used to things being a certain way.

4. Respect your host’s suggestions/requests. If he asks for two links to your blog, don’t send five. If he wants a bio and a photo, include them! Not doing what’s asked can put your host in an awkward position and make him not want to connect with you in the future.

5. Be on time! If you’re given a deadline, either meet it or send it in early. If something major comes up, contact the host right away so they can fill your spot. Don’t just leave them hanging, scrambling to come up with content at the last minute.

6. Don’t disappear after the post is live. Hopefully, your post got some comments. Check back and respond. Engage with the followers of the blog. Ask questions and answer questions. Keep the discussion going.

When Joe responded to my very casual suggestion that we trade posts, he did everything right. He sent me an outline that fit my blog content. He searched out my common post lengths. He looked at the style of most of my photos and found one that fit. He even sought me out on other social media platforms and followed me. He told me his expectations of me and what sort of promotion I could expect from him. And you know what? That makes me want to have him back to my blog and keep him as a connection.

It comes down to professionalism. Yes, as I pointed out, everyone can benefit from guest posting, but your job as the guest is to make sure your host benefits the most. Think of the old adage that says you should leave a place better than you found it. It applies to digital space, too!

What have your experiences with guest posting been like? Tell me in the comments below!

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Denise Drespling thumbnail

Denise Drespling

Denise Drespling is the author of the short story, “10 Items or Less,” which can be found in the Carlow 10 Anthology, being released in spring 2014. In her words, she “writes like a fiend and reads like a maniac and almost always has multiple projects happening at once. She writes mostly fiction that contains some element of fantasy/sci-fi/supernatural/paranormal. Usually a spiritual element, too.” She has been told she is “uniquely unique” and “more entertaining than cable.” Also, in her words, she tends to talk a lot. :)  Check out Denise’ blog on books and writing, or follow her on Twitter.

Posted in Guest blogging | Leave a comment

Hey, Writers, Stop Building Your Online Platform NOW

Apples - Stop Building an Online Platform

Writers must stand out from the crowd. Many choose to build an online platform to find readers.

Why must you stop building your online platform now? You need to write, damn it.

Years ago, I went to see one of my favorite authors, Paul Theroux, read at a Barnes & Noble in New York City’s Union Square. He was middle-aged and accomplished already and, during his talk, bemoaned the changed status of the writer. Back in the 1960s, he quipped, the writer was a strange, anonymous figure known only by a somewhat rumpled and perhaps cantankerous-seeming photograph on the back of the book jacket. Now, he pointed out in a tired voice, writers need to get out there, be visible, give readings and talks, and generally have a public presence.

The Times They Are A’Changing

This was in 1998: an age well before social networking. The Internet had only been around a short time, at least to the general public, and today’s flourishing culture of online connectivity was still years in the future. (And judging by his frugal and not-quite-user-friendly website, one guesses Theroux just can’t bring himself to adapt to today’s times).

So now, beyond anything Theroux criticized way back in the late 20th century, the expectations of writers are even more unforgiving and, as he might grumble, unreasonable. More and more, literary agents may be factoring into the attractiveness of potential writer clients their success or not of successfully building an online platform.

Do you have a website? Are you active on social networks? Do you have a blog? Answer these questions three.

These expectations take a significant amount of time and effort to fulfill. First of all, writers tend to be storytelling types, not technology types. Now writers must learn how to develop skills for a series of online tools. WordPress, anyone? Care to purchase server space and a domain name from GoDaddy.com? You must also, by the way, learn how to market yourself in both the online and offline world. (In this area, incidentally, I may be blessed as my day job is in marketing. But I doubt this is the case for most other writers).

And you’d better hope your marketing is sufficiently attractive to engage a broad and potential audience of readers in an increasingly competitive environment. The world of writers would seem to be even more thankless now than ever before.

With all these obligations, then, when do writers find time to write anymore?

So What’s This About An Online Platform?

The fact that I was facing this new publishing environment came shortly after I finished writing my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, and began seeking agency representation. As I sought out agents, and read articles and blog posts on strategies to attract them, I kept coming up across this recommendation: build an online platform.

For a while, that advice was just something I tucked in the back of my mind. I didn’t act on it immediately. But I was getting exasperated. I was getting so caught up in the business side of publishing–that is, trying to find an agent–that I wasn’t writing anymore.

My friend and fellow writer, Beth Christopher, suggested I go easy on myself and write something new. So I did. I’ve always been a fan of horror fiction and horror films, and I had been carrying this image around in my head for a long time of skeletal creatures storming a castle wall, scaling the battlements and slaughtering a line of sentries set to stand guard. I wasn’t sure what they were guarding against but I sat down and wrote The Curse of Jaxx, a horror novella over the period of about two months.

I just self-published The Curse of Jaxx on Amazon.com as an e-book.

So that was good and I figured I had scored a victory. Even though I was seeking agency representation, I still could write. I could still do what I ENJOYED.

Fine…I’ll Do It!

And yet, the advice to build an online platform kept nagging me. The marketer in me knew that so much more of everything was happening online. And while I might take selfish satisfaction from the fact that I had gone around the humiliating process of pitching my story left and right and had published my novella on Amazon, writing Billy Maddox Takes His Shot required significant research and sweat equity. THAT was the book that really needed to get out there, and I wasn’t about to self-publish that.

Which led to the inevitable: it was time to start a blog. And so over the past few months, since late 2013 in fact, everything has been a blur of content creation, social networking, worrying about search engine optimization, checking out reader stats, finding and following influencers within the online writing community, and learning ever more about WordPress than I ever cared to.

Time Keeps Slipping Into the Future

A few paragraphs ago, I alluded to my professional background as a marketer as a kind of blessing, since it meant I might have likely developed certain instincts regarding promotion that it will take non-marketer writers more time to develop. It might take me less time to reach out and engage audiences of readers.

But the flip side of the coin–there often is one, right?–is that it becomes just a tad easier for the marketing wheels in my head to keep spinning even when I want them to just stop!

So while I might say to myself at any time, I will just work on my online platform a few more days and get back to the writing, the reality is that the more marketing I do, the easier it is to just keep considering new opportunities. Hey, what about this new strategy to engage readers on Twitter? I also need to consider the importance of guest blogging. Hm, commenting on other blogs seems to be increasing the readership of The Write Place, so maybe I should do more of that.

I was recently told that the pinnacle of genius lies somewhere between the mid-30s and mid-40s. I don’t know how true that is. Malcolm Gladwell would know, I suppose, so maybe I should ask him?!

I happen to be 41 years old. You can also say I’ve written either two or three novels–Journeying Away, my first novel. A version of Billy Maddox that I finished in 2006. The current version of Billy Maddox, which was a significant rewrite of the first.

I feel stronger with my writing now than ever before. I understand scene, setting, character arc, plot development, suspense and a million different other components of writing that even five years ago were likely weaknesses.

And if an online platform is meant to be the foundation for my writing, I need to figure out: where is my current writing and what have I done since Billy Maddox? Aside from the Curse of Jaxx and another barely started horror novella, Under the Sea, not much at all.

At such moments, when I feel it’s time to just drop all this online platform building so that I may not just write but also take advantage of the golden years of genius, I then stop to consider other writers who despise marketing and just want to write. Ha-ha, the deep, dark, haughty marketer inside me wants to say, who will see their writing in the long term? You won’t be like that, oh no!

Nevertheless, that voice ends up unconvincing. At the end of the day, one of the hardest truths a writer must face is that what they do has nothing to do with public accolades, status or reputation. In some ways, it doesn’t even have to do with readers!

The simple truth is that writing is an act of self-expression, the indefatigable statements of individuals who believe value exists in an indifferent world. I am here. I exist. This is what I have to say. Most writers (including myself, most times) can’t extricate themselves from the public exercise of writing: an act of finding people to read our words to great acclaim.

We all know the world is full of fame, celebrities, wealth, accomplishment. It is everywhere and it is sought everywhere. But the core of writing has nothing to do with any of this. Nothing of true value is a trinket or a bauble. Writing is a rose growing out of the hard pan.

So stop. Stop building your online platform for at least a month, a week, or a day. Your optimized website may slip a little; the number of your blog readers may take a shallow downward turn. People may wonder if you lost your dedication and commitment.

But no, the truth is that you have found your commitment. You are a writer and writing is what you do. You can always go back to building your online platform next month, next week, tomorrow.

Probably, if I had to admit it, I would say Paul Theroux was right. Writers should just stay home and stay off the social networks. All they need to do is write.

At least for now…

Posted in Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, Literary agents, social_media, Writing Business | Tagged , | 2 Comments

How to Find Guest Blogging Opportunities…and the Answer Ain’t Google Search

Guest blogging image - How to Find Good Guest Blogging Opportunities

Go grassroots to find good guest blogging opportunities

After launching The Write Place late last summer, I quickly started considering ways to generate reader interest in my blog. Guest blogging turned out a big one, at least that’s what the blogosphere was saying.

So I did what most normal people do in a situation like that and Googled “Guest Blogging Opportunities for Writers”. Reasonable enough, right? I tried a couple keyword variations in my searches to get a broader picture of what my options were and came up with a list of several bloggers who I immediately thought would be good to reach out to.

The only problem–and I should have thought about this from the get go–was that the bloggers whose names came back on page one search results were on page one for a reason. They’re the big time. They’ve made it, they’re accomplished, they’ve won the SEO battle and they have tons of people guest blogging and commenting on their blogs already. When you sign up for their e-newsletters, their drip marketing campaigns launch on steroids and you’re getting something delivered to your inbox, like, every day. That’s quite impressive.

Look, if you’ve just learned to play the guitar, you don’t tap Keith Richards on the shoulder and ask if you can jam. If you’ve just learned to sing, you don’t ask Norah Jones for a duet. If you’re new to blogging and you’re looking for guest blogging opportunities, stay away from Google search results because the suggestions you’ll find are the names of highly established, successful and SEO-savvy bloggers. Even if they’re still open to receiving guest blogs–and many of them aren’t because they get too many requests already–they don’t know you and may not feel inclined to respond. They likely won’t be Kelly Blazek rude, but don’t expect a set of open arms.

Does that mean give up? Fear not, intrepid and aspiring guest blogger. Of course not.

Once I realized what WASN’T going to work for me, I decided to channel my inner Peace Corps volunteer (which, by the way, I was in the late 1990s), and go grassroots. Read on.

1. Research your Twitter connections for opportunities.

It’s not difficult to build a community of followers on Twitter. Tweet regularly. Make them interesting and intriguing. Incorporate high-value hashtags into your tweets (such as #write or #writing), include other users’ handles in your tweets so they know what you’re up to and, within little time at all, you’ll accumulate a long list of followers.

Most Twitter users include the URL of their blog or website in their profile description; check out your followers’ profiles on a regular basis then check out their websites and, once you find users whose blogs resonate with you and your interests, jot them down for future reference. You literally can find dozens or hundreds of blogs this way, which may require a huge investment of time to sift through. But once you start scanning blogs, you’ll inevitably develop a decent filter and be able to determine which ones you should engage.

Besides, if your blog is targeted (and it should be), you’ll quickly find that, within the very large community of blogs, only a select number will be worth your time. Reach out to the bloggers who host those, explain how you found them and begin a dialogue about your goals for guest blogging to find out if they’re willing to work with you.

2. Meet people while commenting on other blogs.

It’s the ultimate compliment to a blogger that you would take the time to read their posts and comment on them. So the very act of leaving a comment will ingratiate you to the blogger and, potentially, ingratiate you to the point of having a decent shot of guest blogging in the future.

But that’s not my suggestion at the moment.

More immediately, and especially if you’re commenting on the posts of a reputable blogger, you can equally engage others who are commenting on the same post. Or, you may find a comment someone else has left that you find particularly interesting. Click on their name in the comment section to visit their blog or website, which should then help you determine whether their online presence is similar enough to yours to warrant dialogue about guest blogging opportunities.

I recently found a guest blogging opportunity while commenting on a Google+ post by Jane Friedman, a well-known blogger about writing (and a former publisher of Writer’s Digest). Another writer/blogger made a good point in a comment on the same post. We ended up taking our own dialogue away from Friedman’s post, recognized we were both looking for guest blogging opportunities and offered to trade.

3. Reach out to other guest bloggers.

There is the same potential hazard here that you might face reaching out to well-known bloggers. If you reach out to guest bloggers whose posts are associated with those reputable bloggers, they may also be operating at a level that makes it difficult to connect if you’re relatively new to the field.

But check out the blogs you’re discovering through your Twitter research. As you discover blogs similar to yours, you may also discover guest bloggers published there and who might appreciate the chance to connect with others. They may have submitted a single guest blog, or they may be looking for new connections and opportunities. You may be able to work out something (if they host a blog as well) to your mutual benefit.

4. Check out MyBlogGuest.com.

I got excited when I discovered MyBlogGuest.com. It seemed like an ingenious idea to create a market where bloggers could trade opportunities to both submit and offer to publish blog posts on a variety of topics. A quick online search of Ann Smarty, who developed the community, highlighted her affiliation with Search Engine Journal, demonstrating she has strong online cache.

When I first set up my membership and had some questions, I submitted an online query and received a quick, outstanding response. Ann and her team will occasionally recommend posts I might publish on my blog. Really, there’s quite a lot to like about this resource.

What I found pretty quickly, though, was that the Creativity forum (where writing-related exchanges takes place) doesn’t always have the most solid requests for guest posts. And when I submitted an offer to guest bloggers to publish on The Write Place, a gentleman approached me who offered a salesy post and linked that proposed post to his sales website. That was a little discouraging.

However, I chose to include MyBlogGuest.com here because the godfather of excellent blogging (my term) Neil Patel, supports it. And he does mention that you have to spend some time weeding through chaff to get to some real wheat, so the likelihood is that I need to invest more time on MyBlogGuest.com, potentially connecting with some of the users who seem reputable (and yes, there are many of them) and building a community with them.

And finally…

Before you publish your guest posts on other blogs (with one or two links back to your own blog), you’ll likely want to check out the quality of the site where you will publish. How is the quality of the inbound links? Does the blog have a halfway decent PageRank? All these factors may impact how well your guest blog impacts your search engine results.

Or will it? While the above advice gets touted from everyone from newer bloggers like myself to established bloggers like Mr. Patel, Matt Cutts of Google recently published an interesting post called “The Decay and Fall of Guest Blogging for SEO” (January 20, 2014). He explains how spammy a lot of guest blogging has become and that Google may begin rethinking how effective it will be in the future for search engine optimization purposes. Whether this comes to pass, I suppose, remains to be seen. And he does encourage high-quality guest blogging for other purposes. So, as is often the case, Google doesn’t quite spill the beans or spell everything out in exact detail. Mr. Cutts’ post may just be something to keep on the back burner for the time being.

And none of this should discourage bloggers from seeking new guest publishing opportunities. You don’t have to feel intimidated by the accomplishments of established bloggers such as the above-mentioned Jane Friedman and other notables like Jeff Goins and The Creative Penn. A little research, some online socializing and a strong understanding of your blog’s intent can take you a long way toward finding fantastic chances to write for other blogs and find new audiences for your writing.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Sucky Things I’ve Done As a Writer (#3 is an Epic Suck)

Frustrated Face: Four Sucky Things I've Done as a Writer

When you realize you’ve done something sucky as a writer, you may look like this.

It’s not like you can help but suck. Whenever you start something new, you’re bound to because you really don’t know what you’re doing.

The same is true for writers.

I’ve been writing for more than 20 years and, during that time, I’ve made some really big mistakes. I’m not talking about the occasional spelling or grammatical error. Those can be corrected in a matter of moments or, if you missed it yourself, all you need is an editor or proofreader to slap you on the wrist and you can go about your business.

When I talk about how I’ve sucked as a writer over the years, I’m talking about mistakes that cost months or years before I realized one day–either through simple growth or maturity, or because someone finally had the heart to bring it to my attention–that I needed to improve my writing in some pretty significant ways.

To help other writers avoid suffering the same fate, I list below four areas where I have truly sucked. Number 3, as promised in the title of this post, represents the epic “suck”. Keep reading to find out what not to do.

Wrote before I knew my protagonist’s history

This was a problem for my first two novels. I started writing them before I really knew my protagonist. I had this vague (and correct) idea that I needed to get him into some kind of trouble and I did fine on that front.

The only problem was I didn’t know my character’s history well enough to know how he had been shaped as an individual by past events (i.e. back story) which, in turn, would have influenced his response to the trouble I eventually got him into. I had no idea what demons he faced, what goals he wished to achieve, why he wanted to achieve them or a whole lot else about his value system.

My protagonist, in other words, lacked the kind of substance that makes readers care.

Back in college, I took some acting classes. My acting instructor told us once that some actors, as they’re studying their characters, will learn all they can about their personal histories even if those elements never make it onto the screen or the stage, and even if the audience never learns ANY of that information through other means.

As a writer, your protagonist’s depth and ability to respond appropriately and consistently to problems comes exactly from this area of development. If you don’t know who you’re throwing to the dogs in your novel, the stakes and the tension are bound to be diluted when conflict does occur. You won’t be able to write with the full power you need to keep readers flipping the pages and, while you may be able to create conflict or problem within the story, it will lack depth and have no meaning to the protagonist’s well-being. Without a complex character to care for, your reader won’t care for your story either.

Gave my protagonist no character arc

Did your protagonist change throughout the novel? Or, did your character face an opportunity to change but fail tragically?

One fundamental underpinning of fiction is the belief in personal freedom. We as writers and as readers all believe we can change our circumstances based on our behavior. This belief we have about our lives represents why we invest hope in fictional characters. We don’t believe they’re victims. We believe that if they just behave appropriately then things will work out.

The character arc in a novel takes into account that ability of the protagonist to improve his/her situation through proactive behavior. And it’s not even just the process of going through this process–it’s how characters are fundamentally changed. Humans grow, develop, mature and gather wisdom by experience. Your protagonist’s ability to face and be transformed by challenges creates a bond that readers recognize.

Without some kind of character arc–some learning and result that occurs as a result of experience–your readers will likely be bored with your story. So don’t do this sucky thing.

Of all the sucky things…this is the epic “suck”

So now I’m switching gears from speaking about my protagonist to talking about me, the writer. And yes, as promised in the title of this post, I’m going to explain that while I as a writer have done many sucky things over the years, this represents the epic “suck”.

Are you ready? I did not take care of myself.

Let me say that again. While writing, I ignored parts of my life I should have cared for during my quest for greatness. This primarily occurred when I was in my mid-20s though, I suppose, in some ways, it’s lasted even longer than that.

I started my first novel, Journeying Away, when I was 26 years old. I already knew the age at which John Irving, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe had published their first novels–all were in their mid- to late-20s. In my quest for greatness, I am afraid that I ignored parts of my life that I should have attended to.

I had a job, so at least I was making some money. But I isolated myself from people and missed opportunities to make new friendships and date women who expressed interest in me. In fact, those few occasions when I did date were rarely followed by second dates. I had my novel in mind; it was all I thought about and I spent a lot of time alone. I did, fortuitously, fall in with a bunch of artistic friends with whom I spent a few amazing years. Read this post to find out more about what those crazy years were like. But equally, there were areas of self-development and intimacy that I ignored, much to my detriment.

When I finally finished Journeying Away, a 900+ page monster, after a two-and-a-half year, I fell hard. I had to come to terms with areas of my personal development that I had ignored, had to face fears I had long ignored, face ugly truths about self-doubt in my personal life and deal with the significant anxiety that resulted.

I did come out of it. And in hindsight, whether you’re a writer or not, one’s 20s are rough for everyone by representing that crucial bridge between childhood and adulthood. It’s the time when you first find your sea legs as an independent person who becomes concerned about finances, housing, emotional maturity and employment. It certainly doesn’t help, however, when you hide yourself in your writing.

Ultimately, after several bad months through 2002, I re-emerged somewhat stronger. I took up biking and then martial arts in the fall; but it was a painful process getting there.

In 2003, I started my second novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. A few months in, I broke up with my girlfriend. Clearly, I hadn’t learned my lesson.

Writers need to take care of themselves. A balanced life includes writing and living: one hears stories of artists destroying themselves with drinking and drugs. I never went down that path; but the compulsions that cause one to withdraw from normal societal relations to write are not unfamiliar to me.

Didn’t rigorously develop my craft

In 1991, I took a creative writing class with Ed Falco at Virginia Tech where I was an undergraduate. Professor Falco was the known novelist on a campus renowned more for its architectural and engineering programs than for its English studies. He had just published Winter in Florida, which got some good play in the local papers. And so every aspiring writer on campus–of which there were more than in hindsight seems rational at a technical school–wanted to take his course. I was one of the lucky ones to get in.

After I wrote two short stories, View Through a Broken Window and Throwing Stones, Professor Falco told me that if I kept writing, I would be successful. Bad move on his part? I wonder how many people pursue a course in life because someone once encouraged them to pursue something they clearly enjoyed. Am I successful right now? From an economic perspective, absolutely not.

I am not unhappy with my professional life; I enjoy my job in accounting marketing quite a bit. My point though, is that I received some advice which I may have focused on too much over the years. As a result, out of a sense of predestination for success in writing, I likely avoided some learning I could have attained from a rigorous program in creative writing. Yes, I’ve had my subscriptions to Writer’s Digest and, yes, I’ve taken writers workshops with nonprofits such as The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado.

I learned a lot from those experiences. But I also learned a lot through hard experience, which is spending hours and days and weeks and months and years writing without consideration critical elements of fiction that writers must consider–such as the above-mentioned failures not to develop my protagonist’s back story or develop a character arc.

As I recently mentioned on a post on Anne Allen’s blog, some of the worst advice a writer can receive is about their success potential. If you want to support a writer in their quest for success, don’t pat them on the head and say, you will succeed. Grab them by the shoulders and tell them to work, work, work and to develop their craft.

The best kind of success a writer–or any professional–can achieve is the one they barely notice because they’re working so hard. That doesn’t mean writers shouldn’t stop, take a deep breath and enjoy what they’ve accomplished once they get there. But providing any commentary that might be perceived as the inevitability of success is a dangerous thing. In hindsight, given the way I held on dearly to Professor Falco’s comment, I wish I had rigorously studied my craft at an earlier age without visions of success dancing through my head.

Those are the four sucky things I have done as a writer, and which you will hopefully avoid. But what about you? What sucky things have you done that held you back or delayed your eventual success?

Posted in Character, Inappropriate writing, Writer-in-the-Making | Tagged | 2 Comments

Why Your Novel Needs an Editor

Why Your Novel Needs an Editor - Editor image

Why Your Novel Needs an Editor – Three Benefits and Three Pieces of Advice

My latest post was going to be about what horror fiction means to me as I just self-published my first e-book, the dystopian novella The Curse of Jaxx, on Amazon. But I had a Google+ exchange this past weekend that highlighted the importance of finding a good editor for your novel. So thank you, Denise Drespling, for bringing up the ethical importance of knowing what you’re doing if you claim to have the credentials to edit a novel.

Back in 2006, I completed a manuscript for my Border Patrol novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. After shopping it around to several literary agents in the search for representation and receiving multiple suggestions about why it wasn’t ready to be published, I finally decided to hire an editor.

I had heard–and continue to hear–of some writers having poor if not disastrous experiences with their editors; fortunately, I had a positive experience. That didn’t mean all she had to do was dot a single “i” and cross a couple “t”s before saying, go forth and publish. In fact, it meant that after working with her, I ended up shelving my manuscript for several months, taking it out again and blowing off the dust, rewriting about 70% of the story and then workshopping it all over again!! I completed my second version of the novel a little less than a year ago and have started shopping it around again.

Below are three reasons why your novel needs an editor.

You’re Not Objective Enough to Do It

You can let the first draft of your novel sit on a closet shelf for months before coming back to it, to start the editing process on your own. In fact, you likely SHOULD shelve your story a while. The problem is, you will still return to your manuscript from the viewpoint of the person who wrote it. Time may pass, you may read the story now with a fresh perspective since it’s been a while, but you still bring to your work the same opinions, prejudices, priorities and values that have made you the writer you are. In other words, you’re not objective enough to see all the potential flaws, shortcomings or areas that still need to be addressed.

One reason writers need to workshop their manuscripts is to gain new perspectives, consider questions readers may have that the writer never considered and gather what feedback is possible to rewrite a more complete and holistic novel. You need an editor for the same reason: feedback. The only difference is that, while you can workshop 20 to 50 pages, an editor will consider your entire manuscript and its structure. Not a bad opportunity for a writer who otherwise would be forced to use their own subjective take on the story.

You Can Find an Editor Through a Reputable Source

Having lived in the Washington, DC metropolitan region, my search for an editor started with The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, a local nonprofit that runs workshops and events for writers. It’s a mecca for writers, editors and teachers in Montgomery County, MD. I’d already taken a few workshops, made some friends and attended some readings so I already knew I could get good suggestions when I told them I was looking for an editor.

Recently, at the James River Writers Conference in Richmond, VA, I met Lisa Hartz, co-founder of The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, VA. She said writers’ organizations are sprouting out of the ground in a lot of communities. Case in point, at this short conference, I also met Heather Gerry Kelly of The Writers’ Loft in Massachusetts. It’s my experience that, if you’re a writer looking for an editor, you shouldn’t have to look far in your community to find a place like The Writers Center close to you. Do some preliminary research and you will be all set.

In my case, when I arrived at the Center, I checked in with the front office, told them about my interest in connecting with any reputable editors they knew about, and promptly received a list of instructors at the center who edited manuscripts on the side. The speed with which I received this information suggests I wasn’t the first writer to ever ask for this information.

You Can Work with Someone with Proven Expertise

From the list of editors, I ended up interviewing and working with Tammy Greenwood.  She was not only an instructor at the Writer’s Center but a published novelist herself. She also provided me with a list of references she’d already worked with who gave her the thumbs up. Not bad credentials. Even though I’d never worked with an editor before, I figured finding someone with that kind of proven experience was a good way to start. And, like I said, the experience ended up a positive one, as I will share below. These days, it is easy to Google any editing service and you’re liable to find links to a number of self-proclaimed book editors with a great presence online. But beginning your search somewhere other writers hang out is likely to generate some strong candidates.

Now, I’d also like to share three pieces of advice for working with an editor:

Ask for the Kind of Editing You Need

Editors do expect payment (imagine that!), as I will discuss below. Of course, I call it an investment, not an expense. But you don’t want to hire an editor for basic proofreading purposes if their experience positions them to review, analyze and comment on overall novel structure, or plot or character development. Basic proofreading services exist, and they come at a cost too. But you really want your editor to dig deep into those elements of structure that elude you–and you need to tell her what they are, at the outset.

How will you know what those areas are that require polish (or, in my case, significant restructuring)? I refer back to my earlier mention of writer’s workshops. If you belong to a writer’s group, and you’re hearing the same feedback over and over about something that’s not quite working for your readers, that is a good place to start. You shouldn’t also discredit your own experience as a reader. I mentioned that putting a manuscript away for several months, before you review it, is a good idea. While that may not position you to edit your own work with complete objectivity, you still–after several months’ time–will be more objective than you were when you first finished writing, and can likely make at least some insights into the story that will be valuable to speak about when you hire an editor.

Listen, Be Respectful and Don’t Take It Personally

After submitting my manuscript to Ms. Greenwood’s care, I waited for weeks (was it a month?) for her response. When it finally came, I marveled at the work she had done. She did provide line edits including some proofreading, thus contradicting my last point to some degree, I suppose. Whatever those line edits were, however, were not nearly as meaningful as these two suggestions, which I took to heart immediately, because I knew she was right:

a. Delete the first 200 or so pages. The protagonist of my novel, Billy Maddox, becomes a Border Patrol agent to come to terms with his younger brother’s death on the border years ago. Yet, in the first version of my manuscript–the one I gave up for editing–Billy doesn’t actually become an agent until around page 225 or so. What comes before that in the narrative is mostly poorly placed backstory. Ms. Greenwood made her suggestion in a slightly apologetic tone, as she must have realized the profound impact this might have on me as the story writer. But she made the point, to her credit, since bare-bones honesty was what I had asked of her. So after the first shock, I picked myself off the floor, read her comments again and nodded. I saw her point.

b. Provide a character arc. Billy Maddox does not go through any noticeable character development throughout the novel, she said. Again, she was right. This fundamental underpinning of every good novel was nowhere in my first novel, Journeying Away. And while the hint of it might have existed in my first version of Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, a hint was all there really was.

These observations made me realize I needed to completely restructure the novel. These observations made me put the novel away, AGAIN, so that I could return to the editing phase with a clinical perspective once Ms. Greenwood’s suggestions had sunk in. And these observations made me realize that, in some ways, I needed to start over again.

Listen, be respectful and don’t take it personally. You’ll know whether your editor did her job not because she says your novel is really great but because you know you’ve ended up with something like a black eye and cut lip. Her feedback, in other words, will be what it needs to be. I didn’t like hearing it. But anyone truly dedicated to the craft will celebrate any forward movement in their own development as a writer. The chance to appropriately develop and write in backstory, and develop a strong character arc are two key takeaways I took from working with Ms. Greenwood. I had to do a lot more work. But the editing experience was a good one.

Look at the Editing Experience as an Investment

Editors are professionals like anyone else and you will have to pay for their service and expertise. That is frustrating after you’ve put in your own hours, days, weeks and months writing the manuscript at an hourly rate of $0.00. Nevertheless, the sweat equity you’ve invested should hopefully mean you’ll also recognize the value an editor can bring to your project. There is no sense in spending all that time typing away at a novel only to have a manuscript with some fundamental flaws that make literary agents pass time and again.

This is not a judgment on you or your writing abilities. According to anecdote, roughly 90% of would-be novelists talk about their story ideas but never actually sit down to write their books. You’ve earned your creds as a novelist simply by doing it. Publishing is often a nasty business, too, where writers feel they’re not worthy unless their book is in print. Don’t get caught up in that nonsense, be proud of yourself for finishing that book and look at working with an editor as an investment.

Editing is a part of the process of developing a novel, not just for you but for every writer. Consider editing an investment to help you develop your craft (which truly is a reward), improve the quality of your fiction and complete a more publishable book. Yes, it means more sweat, paying someone and waiting longer, perhaps, before introducing your manuscript to a marketplace of agents.

But assuming you’ve taken some smart first steps to find yourself a good editor (and not a snail oil salesman), and that you can work with them in a constructive and professional way, no bad can come of the experience.

Really, your novel needs an editor. Good luck with your manuscript! Good luck working with a kick-ass editor!

Posted in Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, Writer-in-the-Making, Writing Business | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

What Happens to Our Imagination As We Get Older?

What Happens to Our Imagination As We Get Older

Children are active and imaginative. What happens as we get older?

I began writing fiction as a senior in high school. The first short story I wrote was in Mr. Yachymiak’s creative writing class in Cornwall Central High School and was motivated by several spiritual books I was reading at the time. Richard Bach was my go-to author at the time: Jonathan Livingston Seagull, One and The Bridge Across Forever.

The short story I wrote was called The Gift of Flight (a play off one of Bach’s titles, A Gift of Wings, which conflates spiritual freedom with his love of piloting). My story was about a man fed up with life who tries to commit suicide by throwing himself off a cliff into the sea. He transforms into a bird during his plunge toward the water (thus satisfying the anthropomorphic qualities of Jonathan Livingston Seagull) and, strengthened and energized by the sun’s radiance, soars loftily into the clouds above where he undergoes an equally important spiritual transformation as well. I had an active imagination back then!

Getting Busy: No Time Left for Imagination?

It’s more than 20 years later now and I have experienced much of life that happens in the world of human beings–marriage, parenthood, the loss of loved ones, travel, work, friendship, family, hard times, good fortune, happiness, pain and sorrow. I have sometimes embraced God and, at other times, I have worried too much about my worldly problems to see beyond the nose on my face. I have developed wisdom but lacked it in other areas. I have strengths but glaring weaknesses.

My life is insanely busy. My wife and I raise our three-year-old son just outside Washington, DC and we both work full-time jobs. We have no family locally to call upon for assistance, which means responsibility to take care of our son fall squarely on our shoulders.

And yet my obligations have not snuffed out what has always been important to me. I still have an active imagination and I still write.

The responsibilities and challenges that greet us in the world of adulthood can distract us from a spirit that burned so brightly in youth and brought to mind possibilities, hopes and dreams. Life and its commitments are not for the faint of heart and, as that life proceeds, it can corrupt. Disappointments have the potential to twist us into angry, violent or solitary people.

What Does Imagination Mean for Adults

But, as I mentioned, I continue to write. This, someone might argue, should likely also be a source of disappointment. Writing has never brought me economic awards or status. I am not Stephen KingAmy TanSalman Rushdie or John Irving. One could argue that writing has had its social benefits as I have friendships with other writers. Yet, one does not need writing to have friendships. Indeed, one might enjoy more relationships if one would just step away from the keyboard and pick up the phone.

Yet again, and this is the point I debate so frequently, I like to think the importance of writing is that it keeps me connected to the innocence I experienced when I was younger, when my imagination ran rampant and made me write stories without self-consciousness or self-awareness. At least that is what I tell myself. In this way, writing is my project to try to stay good despite hard experience.

Even further back in my life than The Gift of Flight and other stories I wrote was my early childhood and an even more visceral imagination. Imagination! It makes the world a boundless playground, blurs the hard edges of the physical world that restrains and binds. Who wouldn’t want that kind of dreaming to continue, though years pass and obligations multiply? The world of imagination was innocent then, filled with excitement and adventure. Those stories I wrote in Mr. Yachymiak’s class were pure and spiritual because I dared hope and believe in the future.

Later in life, it becomes difficult to invest in that unfettered realm of imagination when the coarse material world closes in, bats one about and bloodies one up when thoughts stray, behavior wanders or you dare color outside the lines. One false step and you’re done for! Creativity needs nurturing to thrive, and the weather of this world is a maelstrom seeking to squelch it at every turn.

Writing as an adult is, I say again, an act of preserving youth, a plug into the days of innocence. Writing turns obligation into a life of something like a state like purity. No agenda exists, no desire, nothing but the sublime experience of creation and discovery.

Imagination’s Darker Side?

My contrasting wonder, however, is that writing later in life may really be but an act of sad realization–and that the innocence that drove our dreaming as children has gone. In this scenario, the imagination is weighted by the challenges we have faced as adults. Writing, in contrast to what is described above, is not a deft liberation from shackles of responsibility. The imagination that drives our stories now is framed by our past fears, failures and pains and returns us, again and again, to those times and places from our lives that haunt us most. We gift-wrap hard memories so that they may appropriately be called fiction. But imagination, as a kind of playful innocence, has been lost.

Does the imagination darken in this way as we get older? Does it morph from the world of happy adventure into an act of hiding someplace from our ugly experiences?

Let A Great Artist Decide

What gives me heart is a quote attributed to Pablo Picasso“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” This has stuck with me over the years. (Picasso offers much wisdom about art and life.) The good news is that he doesn’t seem to doubt art can restore childhood’s innocence. Picasso believes it difficult but that imagination and creativity truly represent a restoration of something more pure.

That is reassuring. To write under darker circumstances would make writing a futile, navel-gazing endeavor. Critics like to point to themes that appear consistently in a writer’s work. And many writers may willingly discuss the bridge between their art and their life. But I don’t think many writers would keep doing what they did if they thought they were merely prisoners of the past lacking freedom to create something new through imagination.

I continue to believe in hope, in possibility and the creation of a better future despite life’s adversity. Perhaps personal burdens as memories accumulate like boulder’s in a hiker’s backpack, but I think possibility only truly vanishes for those who voluntarily give away hope.

What are your thoughts on the imagination? Do you believe your writing restores your freedom and makes you like a child again, or is merely an indirect reflection of past pains? If you are a reader, do you believe the world of imagination provides an escape from your life or do you think you read while enjoying in a child-like fashion the innocent fantasies of adventure?

Two theories. Which is right? Please comment below.

Posted in Imagination | Leave a comment

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman – A Book Review

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman - book cover

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Not many children spend the first 15 years of their lives in graveyards but not many authors write books like Neil GaimanThe Graveyard Book is the imaginative and award-winning* tale of Nobody (“Bod”) Owens, a survivor of the nefarious assassin Jack who murdered Bod’s family when Bod was an infant. Survival for Bod means being raised by the spirits of the deceased in a Scottish graveyard. Gaiman says, in explaining his tale, that he was influenced by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the coming-of-age story of young Mowgli who is raised by creatures in the jungle.

Bod spends the first years of his life acquainting himself with the kind spirits of the graveyard, learning stories of their lives hundreds or thousands of years ago while slowly coming to terms with the fact that his own life has started on a grisly, tragic note when he was orphaned by events from the outside world. His guardian, Silas, a towering, mysterious and reticent man who is neither alive nor dead and who, unlike the other denizens of the graveyard, can come and go as he likes, warns that nothing but danger awaits Bod beyond the graveyard fence, because Jack is still looking for him.

Growing Up in the Graveyard

But as with all growing children, Bod eventually grows curious about and then takes his first steps into the world where danger does indeed come close to catching up with him several times before his safe return to his sanctuary among the spirits of the dead.

Gaiman breaks the mold in this evocative tale of life and death, and the spaces that exist in between. With a wry sense of British humor, a set of careful portrayals of ghouls, witches and scorned dead poets, of individual spirits such as the Indigo Man and a slithering, invisible graveyard presence called the Sleer that hisses to anyone within hearing range that it awaits the return of its master, Gaiman draws a graveyard world no typical human might ever consider. Nor, within the story of The Graveyard Book, can living creatures experience it either. Indeed, it is Bod’s unique ability to walk that border—much like Silas—between the world of the living and the dead that makes him especially important to the mysterious man Jack as someone who must be destroyed.

Gaiman’s world is pictorially developed by Dave McKean, whose imaginative, black-and-white sketches throughout the pages provocatively interpret the graveyard and its denizens, and lend an air of mystery and excitement to Bod’s quest. Presumably some publications of The Graveyard Book will lack these supplements, though I would advise readers to invest the time finding one that contains them.

Bod Finds Courage, Friendship and Maturity

Eventually, Bod’s curiosity about the world overcomes his fear of the man Jack. It is not I who should be afraid of Jack, but he who should be afraid of me, Bod declares, thus creating a tipping point for the novel that now draws toward the story’s final conflict, revelations about Jack’s affiliation with a malevolent group called the Jacks of All Trades and Silas’ own behind-the-scenes effort to defeat Jack’s community of supporters.

A touch of the living slips into Bod’s world in the form of Scarlett Perkins, a young woman who knew him briefly as a child then returns from Glasgow as a budding teenager to participate in his struggle to confront and defeat the man who destroyed Bod’s family. In the world of readers’ lives, as in the world of Gaiman’s imagination, it is those adolescent years when the first stirrings of independence leads children to cast their sights toward the far horizon and hunger for the world that awaits just beyond. As Scarlett’s friendship begins to take on real meaning for Bod, he simultaneously recognizes as he grows older that his relationships with his graveyard friends never change because they are dead, and he is not. He continues to age and to change, and recognizes ultimately that the graveyard cannot be his permanent home.

Yet friends are friends, and as the man Jack and his dark allies descend on the graveyard to hunt down Bod and Scarlett, the two are not alone. The Graveyard Book is also a tale of friendship, kindness and love. When the graveyard battle concludes, Bod’s future is clear. Scarlett has been lost, at least in one sense, during the struggle but that is also as it should be. The way forward for Bod is to find that open graveyard gate, say his sad, final goodbyes to his friends (and to his adopted family, the Owens, who he has endearingly called mother and father throughout his graveyard tenure) and pursue his dreams to the world of the living where love, sadness, friendship, hope, dreams, travel and a million other experiences await.

Bod’s path into the land of the living may not be reminiscent of that of many readers but it makes for a remarkable and memorable adventure.

*The Graveyard Book is the recipient of the Newbery Medal, the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Novel and the Carnegie Medal.

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How to Balance Writing and Life – Part II

Balance Writing and Life - life raft image

Preserve your life as well as your writing. Learn how to balance the two with three more strategies.

Last week, I wrote about three ways you, as a writer, can balance writing and life. Writing can affect other activities in which we invest our time, even when we’re not in front of the keyboard.  It’s critical to find balance since, without it, everything may suffer including our writing. Bad feelings creep up, perhaps we lose our sense of purpose and so many other not-so-fun things happen to us.

As a follow-up to that post, here are three more ways to balance writing and life. I welcome your thoughts so please feel free to comment.

4. Don’t neglect your family with your writing 

Focusing on your writing at the expense of your friends and family was something I wrote about recently as a strategy some writers may choose to consider. As I did in that post, I will also recommend against it here. Not everyone has a family; for many people, relationships just have not worked out. Neglecting family by engaging in something like too much writing can bring as much loneliness to a family as exists for someone who doesn’t have one.

It can be challenging when you know what is supposed to happen in that next scene in your novel, or when you have an idea for a new story, not to drop everything and run to your computer to write. A writer’s mind is unpredictable and can dredge up ideas at any time of the day or night, even when you are with your significant other and children.

Value the time you have with your family; take notes for your writing when you’re in a position where you can’t or shouldn’t write to balance your writing and your life. Stories of neglect usually focus on parents who leave households and children behind. But neglect can be a mental as well as a physical separation. Don’t let too much writing intervene. Give everything in your life the space it needs to breath and flourish.

5. Participate in other activities — especially something physical

We all need down time. When we’re working too hard, we need a mental health day. When we’re raising children, we need time to take care of our own affairs. Similarly, we need down time from writing. We need to draw a breath and leave our thoughts behind. Because writing is such a mental activity, taking time to engage in something physical is an especially valuable investment.

Not so much anymore, but in the past, I’ve been prone to racing, uncontrollable thoughts, for which I was able to find an outlet in my writing. At some point, what I ended up starting to do instead, which became ultimately more healthy, was to simply go for a walk and watch everything around me. I identified the facades and construction materials of buildings, considered the dress and expressions on people’s faces, studied the components of the various urban landscapes in and around my neighborhood. I did this not for the purpose of getting ideas for my writing but to get out of my head, to simply do something physical–walk–and appreciate the external world around me for its own merits.

Years later, in fall 2002, I stepped it up a considerable number of notches by beginning to train in tae kwon do, but I ultimately found that finding a balance in writing and life comes down to getting out of your head for a while and jumping into the physical world.

6. Separate your writing from your socializing

For any serious writer, writing is as alive to them as just about anything else in their life. When we socialize, it’s the most natural thing in the world to discuss what’s been happening in our lives including, for writers, details about the story we happen to be writing at that particular moment. but it may not be the best idea to divulge too much information when talking with friends.

The world of the mind is a private one; discussing your story idea may come across to some as too personal or of little interest. Social acceptance of your story idea comes when the story is written, published and read. When you try to discuss your writing (presuming you are talking to non-writers), you may find yourself rebuffed.

That is not the only possible scenario, however, when you choose to discuss your writing. Another and potentially more annoying one for the writer is that you find yourself talking to someone who actually is interested but who also wants to HELP you with your story by suggesting changes or alterations. Presumably, it is not your intent to bring someone else in on the writing process, even if it is during the course of a conversation. Presumably, you may be dismayed when this happens, though impossible to escape this pitfall once you have fallen in, since you now find yourself in conversation with an eager beaver.

As I have written before, belonging to a writers’ group is tremendously valuable. It provides an opportunity to socialize with other writers who share your passion; it also represents a “safe” place to discuss your stories without either being ignored or finding that the person you’re speaking with suddenly has some great ideas about the story.

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So that is all as far as ways you should balance your writing and life. Six strategies, overall, provide an opportunity to write well and live well. Obviously, there are many more and I invite feedback or comments. But the main point is that writing is only a part of a much more complex life, no matter how passionate you are about your literary pursuits. Be passionate and find as much time as you can to do what you love–any life coach will tell you that. But there is always the danger that you may go too far in any one direction. This will be true of one person’s writing or another person’s involvement in some other activity.

Life is full of riches and, for writers, putting stories down on paper is one great source of wealth. Just don’t squander the rest!

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