Thursday, August 28, 2008

A lesson from the strangest place

This past week, between frenzied scout meetings, fundraisers, the beginning of a new school year and the constant attention I place upon my novel, I somehow found the time to write an entry for the FaithWriters Weekly Challenge.

Over the course of a few days I outlined, sketched, drafted, edited then submitted “Slough of Despondence.” I had little illusion that I could repeat the previous week’s first place finish, but I thought the entry was splendid.

The next several days I received numerous “yellow boxes,” the comments of other writers. Their glowing reviews of the entry puffed me up greatly and I began thinking that perhaps I just might pull off two top-three finishes in a row.

Today, the results came in and as I read the list, I felt the air slowly buzz out of my self-made balloon. I didn’t see my name in the top three, the top fifteen, or even the top forty. I even used the search function on my browser just to make sure I didn’t miss it. There was nothing to be found.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I was or am heart-broken, but it was a huge let-down and did not connect with the comments I had read in the course of the past week.

As I sat at work, pushing out my digital projects, I listened to many of the speeches and commentaries that have surrounded the political air of the Democratic National Convention. Now, it must be noted that I am a fervent Independent and lean neither towards the Democratic or Republican parties. I find it difficult in these troubling times to honestly trust anything that comes out of the mouths of the wealthy elite of our nation.

However, when I came across a few stories about Joe Biden, something he said is still ringing in my ears. Failure and success is not marked by how many times you get knocked down, but how quickly you get back up. I am certain I have heard this pep-talk innumerable times from my own parents and elsewhere, but for some reason, the tone Joe Biden took and the look in his eyes spoke directly to me.

My life has not been marked with success after success, rather, failure after failure. Yet through it all, I have always gotten back up and moved forward. This little blip on my writing portfolio will not mark my downfall. I will get back up and I will continue on. Rejection is a most common aspect in the life of a writer and it is time I get used to it. Thank you, Joe Biden for the reminder. I’m probably still not voting for you, but thank you.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Trilogy Progress - Book One

To begin, I have decided to withhold the title of the books and series for added suspense ;)

The outline of this decade long project has been "complete" for nearly six months. As happens in the course of such a large project, the outline is dynamic and prone to tweeks here and there. There was one small gap, but a month ago a moment of inspiration hit and all of the blank spots are filled in. Once that final piece was written in, it felt almost as if the novel was now done. The relief I felt was indescribable.

My goal is somewhere between 80,000 to 90,000 words as I am certain it is likely to shrink during the editing process. I am making great strides and so far have nearly 20,000 words written. Now, it may seem surprising to those that I tell that the novel is nearly written when the word count has not even reached the 50% mark.

So why do I make this claim? The reason is simple, to my mind anyway. The first several chapters are used to build up to the part of the novel my mind is most familiar with. I believe that once I get to the 30,000-40,000 word count, the rest of the words will flow rapidly. I have those places, dates, characters, and settings so memorized in my head that sometimes I wished I could just plug a USB drive into my temple! It is setting the story with interesting historical fact, character development and plot driving material that has so consumed my time. I have also begun making research contacts and identifying locations for book two. That put some of my creativity time for book one on hold, but I think it is important to make these contacts. Having my facts straight for book two will aid in moving that book along at a much faster pace than book one.

I have also send the first chapter of book one to some trusted FaithWriter companions for critique and am anxious to hear their feedback.

It is my hope to have the completed draft for book one ready for edit by Christmas, 2009.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Know What You Write

Years ago, when I first began to realize a personal ambition to become a writer, I thought it was as simple as putting pen to paper. As any writer will attest, the process is nowhere near that cut and dry.

Of course I do not mean to say that writing is difficult. With few exceptions, anyone can write. My problem was that I actually desired people to read my words. Therein lies the rub. Writing something that is not only readable, but enjoyable, suspenseful, and perhaps even meaningful.

If you want to write for readers, you can't afford to cut corners. It is reasonable to expect that more experienced, published writers may indeed cut corners, but I tend to believe that to be an exception to the norm. The success rate for a person who sits down at a table and pens, from beginning to end, a best-selling work is astronomically low.

There are scores of great blogs and how-to's out there that cover the necessary mechanics to a well-written manuscript. This entry however focuses on only one aspect of the process.

When I first began to realize that my writing was sub par, I too began looking into the how-to's of writing, and still do. One of the themes that kept recurring in my research was this: Write What You Know!

I went through self-inventory processes to define just what it was that I knew so that I could begin writing. The problem was that upon honest reflection upon the things that I knew, I realized I didn't know what I wanted to write. Oh I knew what I wanted to write, but I didn't know much, if anything, about the subjects. What was I to do?

Two obvious options surfaced:

1) I could change what I wanted to write about and focus instead on what I already knew
2) I could learn more about what I wanted to write about

I chose option 2, but the subsequent question was, "Where to begin?"

Those were the days before the internet so I began in the library. I wore out my library card even had to pay a hefty overdue fine when I discovered one of the books had travelled around the world with me on a US Navy vessel. I spent so much time at the library, and visiting battlefields, that it wasn't long before my friends began wondering who my secret lover was!

The advent of the internet has made such research more accessible, but it has been incrementally more essential to check and recheck sources. The internet can be a great tool, but if you remember back to the beginning of this article, anyone can write.

Over the course of the last two decades of reading and research, I do not claim to be an expert upon the US Civil War, but I have arrived at the same understanding that most scholars come to. I know something about the subject, but the more I learn, the more I realize I do not know.

I think it is important for any writer, especially one engrossed in historical fiction, to reach this pinnacle. A writer who presumes to be an expert, often with little education (whether it be colligiate or personal), is bound to write a heap of garbage. People may read it, but what they have read is propaganda, not history. That, of course, is a hot topic for another time.

To return to the theme of today's topic, if you want to write today, write what you know. If you desire to write on a subject you are unfamiliar or relatively unversed in, you need to read and research to a point that you know what you write.

Friday, August 22, 2008

What's In a Voice?

"Speak up! Project! I can't hear you!" The gentle yet commanding words of the lengendary theater arts teacher, Mr. Ford, still ring in my ears. I loved the artistry of live theater and the words written by Mr. Shakespeare have no equal. I would read the scripts and feel their power, but the minute I was on stage, the triumphant words of Shakespeare might has well have been coming from the likes of Remy (the mouse of Ratatouille fame).

Throughout my highschool years I served several times as a patrol and senior patrol leader for my Boy Scout troop, but never mastered the art of speaking above the masses. The trend continued through my experience in Navy bootcamp and that is definitely not the place to have a sheepish voice. Years of working alongside Navy Chiefs, Lieutenants, Captains and Admirals, in the bowels of a dirty, noisy, busy ship did help, but I still needed to find my voice.

Years later, through Civil War reenacting, I gradually increased my skills in speaking with others as I was repeatedly called upon to explain aspects of the war and the life of the soldier. Those experiences helped me dramatically. Even so, when speaking to classrooms of middle-schoolers or university students (shameless plug intended to invoke your desire to have me as a speaker), I often find the audience, once actively enaged, to be reaching for something to hear.

Then I found FaithWriters. I posted a few articles and entered a meager number of writing challenges, only to discover that my writing voice echoed my speaking voice. Over the course of the years I have taken the wise counsel of many a FaithWriter and put the advice to the test.

I took a short break and worked intently upon my written words. I went back to the beginning of the novel I have been working on for several years and tweaked a sentence here and removed another there.

As soon as my sabadical from FaithWriters ended, I took some of my reasearch and applied it to a FaithWriters challenge. The comments began to roll in and my jaw nearly hit the table. As the week came to a close and the judging results were posted I expected nothing more than perhaps a brief "honorable mention." When I discovered my entry had earned second place and finally moved me up from beginners to intermediate, I literally jumped from my chair, did a little dance that would have embarrassed me in public, and sounded a great number of personal cheers.

I returned once more to my novel writing and another short break from FaithWriters for some needed vacation and rest. The summer drew to an end and I entered another challenge. Again, having moved into a higher bracket, I didn't expect much. The results came in and I nearly fell out of my chair.... FIRST PLACE!!!! There had to be a mistake! The next day the list of overall rankings came in and out of nearly 200 entries, my little 750 word piece was ranked 16th!

I believe, Mr. Ford, I have found my voice.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Pits and Pendulums of Writing

Anyone who has tried their hand at writing has experienced swings from inspiration to boredom and creativity to lucidity. For me, what causes these things is not as important as how to handle them. Certainly being a husband, father of five and a Boy Scout Scoutmaster lends itself to periods of pure exhaustion. Still, there are those oasis periods in that I find hours upon hours without something "scheduled" to do.

Naturally when these periods occur I tell myself to run to the computer and begin writing. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. Although I'm not much of a television person, I have been known to fill some of these downtimes with mindnumbing video excursions. Other times however I can be found sitting at my computer staring at a pure white screen that begs me to begin typing, but nothing comes.

The rarer of these occasions will find me at my computer, typing like a madman, unable to type as fast as my brain comes up with ideas. If I am writing on one particular project, those are some of the most fruitfull experiences. If instead I am simply writing to keep my mind excercised or to compose a short story or article, the files get saved and remain dormant somewhere within the recesses of that electronic black box.

In the past, I have had the luxury of specifically set aside times each day to write, but lately I primarily have only one small time slot during the week to write my great American novel. Sadly, these boxed in timeslots are often accompanied by an internal conflicted desire to simply relax. Sometimes that is just what I do.

Because my current status as a writer is more as a hobbyist than a career, I find it suitable to enjoy both the times of creation and relaxation. It has taken me a number of years to accept the fact that my novel will not be written this week, but each time I pen a scene or chapter, I feel a sense of accomplishment.

I rest in the hope that one day the story in my head will land in your hands, and the years of toil and rest will bring you joy and excitement.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Spirituality and the US Civil War

What could possibly stir up more controversy concerning the US Civil War than the issue of slavery. If nothing comes to mind, the next time you are at a Civil War roundtable or reenactment, ask someone thier religious convictions about slavery.

To me, this was (and is) at the very heart of the matter. If modern historical-revisionists insist on their claim that the United States was not founded on Christian principles, let them tackle the slavery question from an atheistic point-of-view. Of course this is tried time and again through socio-economic terms, but those views simply fall flat upon the revelation of historical documentation.

I no longer actively participate in Civil War reenactments but did so for the better part of a decade. The groups I participated in were considered "hardcore" representations of historical units. Our efforts were less on the dates and battles that history textbooks are ripe with and more upon the realistic portrayal of the private soldier. The problem was, everyone seemed to want to play the part of the drunkard or irreverant and profane backslider.

Few to none actually felt inclined to play the part of the reverent Christian of which the majority of both armies consisted of. Most wanted to be the general or the captain or the lieutenant, but few wanted to represent the revered regimental chaplain. In fact, in my early days as a reenactor, it was my own personal disdain for the chaplain that caused me much strife on a weekend event.

Through fervent study to try to revise the chaplain from the field, I discovered a most uncommon history.

Favorite Books

  • Portals to Hell
  • To Die In Chicago
  • While God is Marching On

Favorite Movies

  • Dances With Wolves
  • Gettysburg
  • Glory
  • Master and Commander
  • Red Badge of Courage