20 December 2015

Another Year Ends

I think I'm going to make it--that is, if this hotel wifi holds together long enough! It's been iffy at best and I'm using my older, slower netbook instead of my fast newer laptop which, apparently got some malware at a previous hotel stop and now will not connect to any wifi even if I try to shove it down its wifi slot. (So beware those public access electronic connections!) But I digress...

So I think I'm going to make it. A long year full of frequent travel and everything else required of me with little rest or break between each. Makes one feel rather like a superhero. In fact, I've come to realize that my superpower is being able to trick myself into believing I'm going to make it. I shall adopt the name Incredibleman. Then I'll make-believe I believe it. And this sojourn of journeying is finally about to end, and end hopefully with a whimper not a bang. Easier to deal with a whimper, you know. 

Then I would like about a year off before I do anything else.

I began the year by traveling near and far, then I wrote about previous travels near and far, then I traveled again, mostly far. While I was traveling near and far, I wrote about other, foreign destinations (i.e., "far") but not about those particular destinations where I happened to then be traveling. For example, I wrote a novel about Greenland while I was in China. You can read about that a few blog posts back in the sacred timeline. It's a weird situation, I know. But that's how life goes, and I tend to roll with it as long as I get a boost from gravity.
The new year looks good, because it's a blank slate and I don't have much on my plate as I look ahead out the window at the future on the wilted lawn. Yes, 2016 is wide-open and waiting to be filled! I'll be back at the day job instructing young writers how to become old writers. I've also promised to punch out an "epic fantasy with dragons"--which I've started to the tune of 3000 words and 3 dragons killed (sorry, if you are a dragon lover). It's intended to be a personal challenge, so I accepted the slap of gauntlet. Or I could just as easily be tapped on the brain by a different muse, say, a Victorianesque romance involving well-dressed bunnies. Anything is possible. 

Thus, to all of you wonderful blog-readers who pass by these electronic files, I wish you a merry holiday season and the best of everything. Perhaps, even a full bag of coal. You know you can burn coal to keep warm, don't you? I never understood why it was such a bad gift. I mean, can you just go out and get some coal on your own? Where does one buy a lump of coal these days? You can buy your own knick-knacks and frivolous keepsakes yourself, after all, and in many different places. But despite the material accoutrements of the season, we always enjoy the personal greetings!

So thank you very much for your continuing support! I wish you the best of everything in the coming year! Keep safe and stay happy! Read and read again! (FYI, I just bought a fresh copy of Moby Dick, because I lost my dog-eared paperback in high school and never replaced it; otherwise, I have five or eight books beside my nightstand in various states of read.) And if you see something you like, tell others. I'm talking about books, of course. Tell others what books you've enjoyed reading and--if the mood should strike you--you might find delight in something I've sunk my blood, sweat, and tears into making. It's entirely possible. The world is full of possibilities! 

Enjoy the final days of 2015! Make the best of 2016! And never look back!

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

13 December 2015

3.5 Steps to Successful Writing Collaboration!

Collaboration is a new thing for me even though technically I suppose I've borrowed plenty of times before from real life situations, people, and places. However, this time, writing A GIRL CALLED WOLF, I had a definite plan when I decided to write a novel based on the true life of someone I had met. I realize in hindsight that there are exactly 3.5 steps to successful collaboration.

Step 1

The first issue to grapple with was classification. Is a novel a legal document? Does the word novel mean everything is guaranteed fictitious? I doubt everything in a novel is fictitious. There are always those disclaimers saying "any resemblance is coincidental." 

Writers "borrow" all the time from real people, places, and events. Writers fictionalize the real, usually for the sake of telling a good story, sometimes to hide some unpleasant details. And whose autobiography doesn't include a fair amount of hyperbole or glossing over embarrassments? What is truth, after all? Moreover, is the true truth all that important to telling a compelling story?

Is there actually a big difference between "based on" and "inspired by"? We see that at the start of many films. Even though the film purports to be a version of a novel, we do not get quite the same story. The way around telling the same story is to label it as "based on" or inspired by." Based on is a declaration of connection to a work and sincere attempt to duplicate a prior source. Inspired by is, obviously, only a source of inspiration, thus only serving as a starting point for any version the author/producer wishes to tell, regardless of how close to the original it may be. 

In the case of A GIRL CALLED WOLF, I wanted to tell an essentially true story. At least to begin with that story. However, the vagaries of time being what they are, the story could not end other than in the future. And that, as most of us know, would certainly be fiction. A made-up ending to a true novel. Is there such a genre? A hybrid biographical novel with a fictional ending? 

When I had compiled enough information through social media and some Q&A via email about my heroine's life in Greenland and Canada, and decided her story had to be told, we discussed how it should end. If the story within the "true zone" is already inspiring, the conclusion must also be inspiring--heroic, even. That kind of climax is not too difficult given her adventures through the years which lead up to the present date. It would be quite natural to continue in the same direction and literally go out with a bang--or not [spoilers avoided]. So we settled on A Novel inspired by a true life.

Step 2

Then there was the theme. The message. An old writing professor of mine liked to repeat some famous writer's quip: "If you want to send a message, write a letter!" That's true enough as a writing axiom. Theme might be a better word than message. Don't most novels have a theme, a moral point, or feeling that the reader gets by the end? I seldom start a novel with a theme in mind, but the story tends to develop its own theme by the middle of the manuscript and from that moment I work to accentuate that theme. Our heroine had a rough start to her life and overcomes much along the way in remaking herself into the kind of person she believes will make a difference, not someone who is merely one of the crowd. So we elected to take the situation of her present day world and run with it.

Thus, we have a novel which is a retelling of a true life--birth, childhood, teenage years, youth and on into adulthood--as accurately as can be portrayed given the need for approval from the woman whose life serves as the model for the story. So let's call it 88.5% true--because any one of us is likely to sugar-coat some events and exaggerate others, mute certain details and play up others. Is any autobiography 100% true? Perhaps only to the author! So it is a novel overall, a fictionalized account based on a real person's story yet with a conclusion inspired by the present situation for both her and the world she lives in. I think we've hit the Trifecta! 

To create such a hybrid, I did a lot of interviewing with Anna Good, posing many questions and getting many answers. As a life story, we divided the years by location, placing them in chronological order rather than using flashbacks. I asked her to list 10 major things that happened at each location. I tried to flesh out ("showing" rather than "telling") the more important ones. I wrote as factually as possible, substituting RGW--really good words--when there were gaps in the timeline. I tried to make clear connections that I saw between actions and reactions. Then I sent drafts to Anna for her approval. Generally, she accepted anything I tried to do, only pointing out factual errors or occasionally guiding me in new directions. She seemed happy to let me tell her story in a dramatic way that was, according to her, better than she remembered. That's the supreme compliment to a ghostwriter, isn't it?

Step 3

I began by asking for answers to a lot of questions. We began by breaking down the story into locations. Then compiling details about incidents at each location. If you are working on a collaborative project like this, feel free to use my list of questions.

  • For each location you lived, list ten things that happened.
  • Who was involved in each incident?
  • What caused it and what was the result?
  • How did you feel about it?
  • How did you feel about the result?
  • What did you think about the incident with regard to your life in general?
  • What ties to the past did the incident have and did you recognize that at the time or later?
  • What did you do differently as a result of the incident?
  • What caused you to change locations? Good reason or not good reason?
  • How did you feel about the cause of changing locations?
  • How did you feel after the change of location?
  • What are 5 things that stand out in your mind about the location?
  • Best thing and worst thing about the location?
  • What sayings or big ideas do you remember hearing from each location?
  • What did you gain at each location?
  • What did you lose at each location?
  • After you arrived at a new locations, did you ever wish to return to the previous? If so, why? 
  • Describe a dream you had sometime at each location.
  • Describe the major people you interacted with at each location.
  • Describe the place where you lived (the building/room) at each location.
  • Describe the food at a typical meal at each location.
  • Describe something fun you experienced at each location.
  • Describe something annoying or irritating that happened a lot at each location.
  • In childhood locations, describe a time you got into trouble. How were you punished?
  • In adult locations, describe an incident where you got into trouble. How was it delt with? Punishment?
  • Describe the appearance and personality of the major people you interacted with at each location.
  • Pets?  -for each location
  • Hobbies? -for each location
  • How did you travel around at each location? 
  • Describe an incident with a travel-related problem.
  • When living at each location, what did you want more than anything?
  • When living at each location, what did you fear more than anything?
  • What are some of the books you read? Which ones were important to you?

The village of Tasiilaq, east Greenland, on a nice summer day.
Anna Good, the model for this novel, had attempted to write it herself in the 2014 National Novel Writing Month competition but only got to about 5000 words, mostly about what she remembered of her earliest childhood. I used that in chapter 1, which helped us get started. Then I filled in as many incidents as possible. However, like any life, we tend to recall only the most significant events--good or bad. 

Keeping the novel manageable required us to limit the telling to those events which had significant impact on: 1) her reasons for moving to a new location, 2) her personal growth, 3) support for the theme of the book.

Therefore, chapter 1 has some flash-forwards, anticipating events to come. This is a result of melding Anna's original text with the text I prepared. It seemed to work, giving the reader a sense of where the story is leading without giving away any spoilers. It grows interest in the story. 

Step 3.5

The rest was careful manipulation of facts and sensory details. To back up my understanding of the locations, I did my own research on Greenland and the arctic. I also double-checked every detail with Anna. Mostly she let me write it out; then we quibbled over the details. We understood that I was not writing so much "her exact story" as a story of a girl similar to her who had these similar experiences. The deciding factor was the decision to use her real name(s; they changed at each location) thus forever linking this novel to her life.

The previous blog post describes more of this process.

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

06 December 2015

A Girl Called Wolf ...saves the world!

Ever since I was a little boy trying to write science-fiction stories, people have asked me where I get my ideas. It's a question most writers get. To me, the implication has always seemed to be that I'm either quite insane or I am cheating a little by borrowing real events. Both are partly true. Usually I develop a "what-if" scenario that intrigues me. Most of my books came about that way.

However, my latest book is a strange kind of collaboration. There truly are a lot of stories out in the world and if one merely pays attention one will hear them, read them, talk about them, and perhaps write them down so others can experience the amazing adventures of real people who walk through our lives. They say fact is stranger than fiction. Perhaps that's true. (Pardon the pun.) In this case, my new novel A GIRL CALLED WOLF is a hybrid of fact and fiction: telling the story of Anna Good up to the present day and then extending the story into the future--which may or may not turn out to be fiction.
Over the past two years I've interacted on social media with many people. They post bits about their lives, as we all do. Pictures, snippets of events, episodes that go well or as often go badly. I tend to hold back my personal life. Nobody's interested, or someone out there might be far too interested in me. Either way, it has been my tendency to sit back and observe. And I watched a mutual friend of an internet contact blossom from an introvert in real life to a confident social media maven eager to tell about her life.

Her username is Anna Good on Facebook and @Anna4Anybody on Twitter (how it came to be is in the book). Over the years, I have found her story compelling, heroic even. Her early life was definitely not what most children experience. I was intrigued. So I began a conversation that extended over the year, picking up all the key events, many of the details, becoming more and more intrigued and naturally absorbing Anna's way of thinking and speaking. It was a story I would want to read. 

Then I asked the fateful question: "Could I write your story?"

Ironically, Anna, a University of Manitoba student about to graduate with a degree in librarianship, is an avid reader. And she writes poetry. People told her she should write her story. She gave the National Novel Writing Competition a try in 2014, planning to write her autobiography, but couldn't make much progress telling her story herself. Not a problem: hire a writer to write it for you! On social media it is easy to become friends with writers.

Anna is an enthusiastic promoter of indie authors and was one of the more active fans of my 2014 vampire novel A DRY PATCH OF SKIN, enjoying it enough to help promote it on social media. She also enjoyed my novel A BEAUTIFUL CHILL, which described my brief encounter with her half-sister. (Yes, there's a kind of connection, after all, although Anna and I have never met face to face.) So Anna trusted me to be able to tell her story.

We began with interviews by email and on social media, lots of Q&A. Some of the material was difficult to handle--that is, situations in life not always being pleasant. I began slowly, as usual, searching for the right voice, trying to make the narrative sound like her authentic voice while maintaining a readable style that suggests a native speaker of Greenlandic. Being a trained linguist helps. We had to work around her classes and exams, and her fight schedule as a boxer (had to take some liberties with her record) as well as her training schedule as a member of the Canadian Army reserve. These could be spoilers. It's not a spoiler that her favorite word is badass. Definitely a long way from living "on the ice."

Then I left for China, where when I wasn't teaching a class on American Business Writing, I was pounding the keys of my laptop. (See my account of that here.) NaNoWriMo be damned! I still wrote more than 50,000 words during the month of July. With each chapter written, I sent off drafts so Anna could check them for authenticity and she often sent back suggestions for changes. We negotiated a lot: the cold hard facts vs making a good story. As with any life story, we had to compress some events, merge others, take some shortcuts, to create a compelling story which follows her adventures without reading like a set of diary entries. Writing to create drama, that is, to tell a good story, not just writing that this happened and then that happened. And yet, the writing flowed almost effortlessly. It seemed one of the easiest novels I've ever written. Of course, I always had a muse and a plot-checker working with me!

During the final revisions, we worked to accentuate certain episodes, particular details, and cut others until we had a good finished story. With Anna's approval, we finally get to bring her story to the readers of the world. However, there is a twist. Up to the present day, the novel follows her life. Beyond the present day, what might happen? It is easy to speculate based on what has happened in her life and in the book. An exciting ending to an adventurous story? What to do? Any more teasing would take us into spoiler territory. Of course the ending is full fiction--it occurs in the future, after all.

We chose the following structure, using larger chapters which place the events both chronologically and by location:

Chapter 1 - The Dark
Chapter 2 - The Ice
Chapter 3 - The Village  (...that would be Tasiilaq, on the east coast of Greenland)

Chapter 4 - The Town    (...Nuuk, the capital of Greenland)
Chapter 5 - The City     (...Toronto, largest city of Canada)
Chapter 6 - The Province   (...Manitoba; Winnipeg is its capital)
Chapter 7 - The Nation    (...of course, that would be Canada)
Chapter 8 - The World

The cover art was created by Anna's half-sister, Iris Schaeffer, who is by necessity a character in the book. She says she is "all right" with how she is portrayed.

Back cover text:
Ice and snow are all 12 year old Anuka knows outside the hut in Greenland where she was born. When her mama dies, Anuka struggles to survive. The harsh winter forces her to finally journey across the frozen island to the village her mama always feared.

But the people of the village don’t know what to do with this girl. They try to educate and bring her into the modern world, but Anuka won't make it easy for them. She sees dangers at every turn and every day hears her fate echoing in her mama’s voice.

Her mama gave her that name for a reason. She is A GIRL CALLED WOLF who searches for the place where she belongs, a destination always just out of reach, on a path she will always make her own.

Kindle version available now. Paperback coming soon--as soon as Anna approves a proof copy! Knock-knock...ahem...waiting!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my story and I'm sticking with it!

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

22 November 2015

How to Stuff a Wild Turkey!

'Tis time to tickle the titillating turkey! 

Soon many will be slouching and slumping and snoring or snorting, content in the afterglow of their gluttonous indulgences and warm family camaraderie the put off for almost 365 days each year. 

That is our holiday tradition in the north of America, no matter how the origins and historical developments and political corrections have affected it. I, for one, do not indulge much on these sordid days called holidays; however, I always enjoy a day off from the usual.

I recommend this source of information about Thanksgiving because practically all of it is wrong, or considered wrong to someone somewhere. Or the official source, Plymouth Plantation, if you care to surround yourself with facts and speculations. They may yet be debated, if you have time after dinner and between the games. 

I choose to boil it all down from whatever origins are true and run with the general idea of being thankful for what I have and be humble about what good things I may be thankful for in the coming year. You are welcome to believe likewise.

(A bit of personal connection: I visited the Plymouth site in Massachusetts as a child, gazed down upon the 1621-stamped big rock called Plymouth, yet did not travel there in a Plymouth automobile. The irony!)

Nevertheless, holiday traditions die hard (though the turkeys are fairly easy). From time immemorial I and all my relations would gather at the grandparents' house with much food in hand and have a grand feast. I recall dinners with a giant turkey at one end of the long table and a giant ham at the other end, and a hundred side dishes and a thousand desserts stacked everywhere. I was a little boy with big eyes; later, I was a starving teenager with a bottomless stomach. I do not recall having much leftovers.

Now, however, I can barely finish a turkey sandwich and a side of baked sweet potato. Then my cousins grew up (and I suppose I did, too) and we all had our own families. By then, the grandparents had passed on and Thanksgiving dinners became separate and self-contained. At some point it became pointless to go to the trouble of it, even at the risk of having no leftovers.

I remember the best of the worst:

  • 2003. Stuck in my doctoral program in the snowy hills of western Pennsylvania, it did not make sense to travel back to Kansas to visit family members for three days. Especially when I had final papers to prepare. So I just made burritos at home and kept typing my papers.
  • 2010. Nobody was interested in going to the trouble of cooking a big dinner, so I went out to the grocery and bought a portion of smoked turkey and side dishes from the deli in the store. Ended up I ate it all myself.
  • 1988 and 1989. I was living in Japan so it wasn't even a holiday. And turkey was an unfamiliar bird. I cannot recall exactly what I ate on those days yet it was likely something with teriyaki sauce on it.
  • 2007. I had the turkey dinner, which was fine. On the drive back to Pennsylvania, however, I had a flat tire on a rainy Sunday night passing through the bad part of Columbus, Ohio, and had to stay over to get the tire fixed the next morning. I ate at the Waffle House next to the cheap motel.
  • Another year in my youth. To gain the favor of a certain young lady, I agreed to participate a "starve-in" at a local church. Young people would empathize with the starving masses of the world by not eating Thanksgiving dinner. At all. To help us endure our hunger pain we played games and had other entertainments. When it was done, I went home and dove into the leftovers my parents had. I only went to that event to impress a girl. What a turkey I was!
  • Not sure of the year but it was while I was living at my parents' house, so I must have been young. We had a goose at my request. Richer taste, oily meat, less meat for leftovers, a free portion of pate de fois gras (liver), and a bad case of indigestion which was later identified as ptomaine poisoning. Cook your bird thoroughly!
Or, as the early founding chefs had prominently placed on the menu, stick with venison and lobster! Or, in the alternative, try soybean pudding, sometimes called "tofu." Perhaps a turkey substitute could be created from various local vegetables and exotic fruits. Use your imagination. And don't forget the turkey chili . . . for the next two weeks!

No matter what happens this year, indulge in moderation and may your moderation be indulgent. See you on the other side!

Stephen's Stuffing 

[please, no weird puns, ok?]

Ingredients: a loaf of cheap bread, stick of real butter, medium summer sausage, bag of dried apricots, bunch of celery, little jar of sage, a bottle of orange juice, salt & pepper to your tastes. (You could substitute cooked/dried cranberries for the apricots, if you wish; in that case, skip the OJ and use cranberry juice.)

Spread butter over several slices of bread. Tear up the bread into little pieces, putting the pieces into a large bowl.

Cut up the sausage; slice then dice. Put that it the large bowl with the bread pieces. Cut the apricots and celery into little pieces and put the pieces into the large bowl. Shake in a good amount of sage, salt, and pepper. Mix up everything in the large bowl.

Take the mixture from the bowl and put it into a small pan, something like 8x8 inches will do--or 9x9, 10x10, 12x12, whatever fits the size of your appetite. (I do not recommend stuffing the turkey itself because it is rather gross when you think about it and you don't know for sure what is still inside the turkey.) Then sprinkle some sage on top. Pour some orange juice into the pan; not a lot, but get everything wet. The OJ will make it slightly tart; you can skip the OJ if you want to and it will still be good.

Put the pan with the stuffing in it into the oven and bake until it starts to smell good, perhaps 30 to 40 minutes at 350*F. I'm going on memory now, so be careful. Putting foil over the top may help it along. It seems to me that we always put it in with the foil-wrapped potatoes for the same time and temp, so try that.

Or, you could layer each ingredient in the pan: bread pieces first, then the pieces of sausage, celery, apricot, sage, and repeat. Pour the orange juice over the top, let it soak down into the mixture, then bake. 

NOTE: I am not, nor have I ever been, a cook, chef, or baker. However, this recipe is a hybrid of recipes I assisted with in my youth, standing alongside one or the other grandmother, so it checks out. You will not get sick from eating it. Enjoy!

This shall also serve as an example of a process essay for students who do not know just how easy it is to write one.

And thanks to all of you for your indulgence, your patience, and your constant attention to whatever the heck I post here, lo these many months!

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

08 November 2015

Are you better at wasting time than me?

Last week I complained about vexing issues which may have seemed deliberately inane. I did not intend to worry anyone. I assumed that you would assume that I was busy and could not come up with anything more stimulating. And we both would be half-right.

No, the truth is much more glamorous than that: I have been decidedly un-busy. Slothsome, in fact. Sure, I've held up my end of the bargain at Ye Ole Day Job--which should count as some form of recreation. I go through my paces, saying the right words, smiling at the right moments, interacting as though I live and breathe. But it may be construed by any astute observer to be a very good act, perhaps worthy of an Academy Award. (That Acting 101 class has finally paid off!) I confess to using more and more of my office time to see what great things are happening in the world of social media...and find myself more often than not rather disappointed in humanity.

And I've been dutiful in my duties at home, i.e., the book business. Things are progressing nicely, but I shan't explain more lest certain somebodies be tempted to rant that I am promoting again. That nasty P-word! I'm not after huge sums of cash; I only wish to share a good story or two--or three. Welcome to my [invented] world, and all that! Enjoy the ride. (You can click on links to the top-right of my page if you wish to escape reality.)

It is simply the time of year that it happens to be now. The mirth of Halloween is done, the upswing to the Thanksgiving shopping season is about to begin, and that leaves us (well, me, anyway) with not much to do. Last blog post, I waxed on waxed off about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), lamenting how I could not participate because of my full schedule--then that full schedule never quite materialized. I look like a liar now.

So I made excuses. Sure, I've written 50,000 words in a month. No big deal. Sure, I've got papers to grade (well, those that have been turned in). Sure, I've got life issues to slap around--and, in turn, dodge the ripostes. Sure, the weather has been up and down, hot and cold, winter parkas and shirtsleeves. Sure, I avoid saying 'surely' so as not to link with that old Airplane movie's tag line ("And don't call me Shirley!"). Still, they add up to no excuse, which is just a poor excuse for having no better excuses.

However, I have been successful in one endeavor: wasting time. Of course, time is finite, and if you waste it, you don't get it back. It's a zero-sum game and you don't know the rules. Father Time is a cheater, too. (Truth be told, that time machine thing I mentioned a while back? Well, it's fictitious. I know you're shocked.) Clocks are evil, alarms like a musty foot out of hell. Calendars steal your soul. In a perfect universe time would be unmeasurable, one eternity as slick as one moment. Thus, what you waste is truly waste. And what a waste that would be!

So one day last week, I found myself standing in the middle of my kitchen wondering what to do: at that moment, lost between one particular second of time and another particular second of time, wondering why it's called a 'second' when certainly there is a 'first' and a 'third' that will tick by just as blithely as the second second. Choices. Nanowrimo or Yesowrimo? Coffee, cocoa, or tea? Bagel, muffin, or oatmeal? See a movie, browse for books, or shop for groceries? Too many choices. And then it hit me: the insight I'd been waiting for:

When you turn the last page of a calendar, you're done. No more. The end.

Well, that probably was not as dramatic as it could have been, but it fulfills the goal of cranking out a crank blog post before my first sip of coffee. Notice I pasted an hour glass instead of a calendar? That's got to mean something. Something profound, perhaps. Must ponder that. (That should take up an hour or so.) In the end I chose the muffin and the bookstore. I watched people come and go. Some of them stopped for a while, cracked book covers. Creepy! Others seemed as lost as me, wondering what to do between our lives, the here and now versus the whatever comes next. Some call it the weekend. End? Did someone just type 'w-e-e-k-e-n-d'?

Perhaps, I should have waited to write this until the first cup was finished. (The water has now boiled.) Then I would not need spellcheck. Then I could have been more verbose, more sanguine, more...whatever. I really should not blog on an empty stomach. Or when lack of sleep has caused the brain to wither. Or anytime in the month of November. Thanks for your patience. As always.

And remember: The blog you write may be your own!

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

02 November 2015

Why I'm not joining the Nanowrimo cult!

It pains me to use the word cult but perhaps that is the most accurate word. Let's try to keep things in perspective, however: it's a good cult. You might say it's "cultilicious"!

November is the month of worship in the cult of Nanowrimo (what the uninitiated may call the "National Novel Writing Month"). It is chiefly for those whose nervous fingers cannot avoid the succulent keys. I have never been able to participate because of its unfortunate scheduling. You see, November is the fattiest meat of the fall semester and tough to cut; it's when I have the most day-job work to do. Sure, I could write a draft of a novel in a month--if I had no day job to tend to, if I had no other disruptions, and if I had the idea in advance. But that is really the challenge of it.

That sticker was from last year, when I did participate. I had no idea but grabbed an unfinished sci-fi novella that had been sitting around for years and plunked it into the microwave for 90 seconds. Then served it to my Nanowrimo muse. I "won" by completing 50,000+ words during the 30 days of the month. Granted, I started with a couple thousand and an outline but I finished with more than 55,000 words, anyway, thus earning me another cool sticker.

November for me is typically the lull season. The past few years I have had ideas stew during November and take root in a Word file sometime in February. I pound the keyboard through the spring months and cruise into a final page in the middle of the summer. I revise and edit into the fall and voila a new novel is born. Then it hits me: the lull. Writers know what this is and dread it. The Lull Month is full of doubts. Did I just write a bunch of crapola? Will I ever get another idea? What in the world will happen to me if I can't write anything more?

Then spring comes--although, for me, it's usually in December or January. And the process starts over again. November? Not the best time for me.

In 2014, I wrote my medical thriller vampire novel A DRY PATCH OF SKIN on the above schedule. This year, I wrote a new novel about an orphaned Inuit girl who grows up and saves the world (forthcoming), A GIRL CALLED WOLF. But now I am in the lull month again and have no ideas. I still have not finished the sci-fi novel from last year's Nanowrimo but it would be unfair to try to use that again to achieve some dubious fame. 

There is nobody in my circles who would be impressed at me writing 50,000 words in a month. Those who know me, know I can do it. This past summer, I wrote 55,000 words on a laptop while sitting in a hotel room in Beijing and teaching a class on the university campus across the street twice a week. (I blogged about that experience here.) However, I've always been a quality over quantity type of person and go through many waves of revision, tweaking a word here or there until I cannot contain the urge more.

But I digress....

I shall cheer on those who dive once again into uncharted waters--for what could be more uncharted than the lexical spaces within the gray matter of a twisted mind? 

The goal for celebrants of NaNoWriMo is to create from sacred mind-fire a 50,000 word book. By definition, that is the minimum length for something called a novel. That seems to be easy enough. My previous novels have been in the 72,000 to 128,000 range. However, let us not forget the time factor: one month--with the day job looming precariously over all.

When we are embroiled in the vagaries of daily life, we cannot simply sit down at a given moment and type out a story! 

Good luck to all, and to all a long night!

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

25 October 2015

Halloween: The Sequel!

'Tis the end of October and the spooks are about, so it seems the thing to do is wax poetic on Halloween and Samhain themes.

For the quick studies among us, I offer these "cheat sheets": Some Halloween history  and Some Samhain history.

I haven't cared much for the day. Love the season, but not the rituals. I've never been a ritual kind of guy. But I have history on my side.

First Halloween I remember was in a distant realm where costumes were crafted by hand. 
I perfected the robot by combining several boxes, a larger one for the body, a smaller one for the head, still others for feet. Arms and legs remained sheathed in cloth. In the second grade I won a prize for having the best costume. What was special about the robot costume was that the non-steam-powered device was also an early form of the personal computer. If someone were to write out a question and introduce the slip of paper through the designated slot in the body of the robot, the robot would [eventually] produce a verbal answer to the question. The robot proved to be 90% accurate which was, pre-MSWindows, quite a remarkable feat.

Then came other costumes full of commercial interests: characters from TV shows, classical monsters, space aliens (the fierce and loathsome kind, not ET), and finally the minimalist kind of costume. Minimalist? You know the type: you put on a clean shirt and glasses and say you are dressed as a "nerd". Later, as an adult, I graced one, maybe two, adult Halloween parties where others went full out as sexy witches and vampire studs. I was still dressed as a nerd--still long before nerds were cool.

I often went trick or treating with my cousin, but our chief goal was less about collecting candy than harassing his sisters. Gradually, we forgot the costumes and simply ran wild through the night, sending rolls of toilet paper up into the trees of houses where girls who did not like him lived. We could, by then, buy our own candy--and we did. Then the reverse happened. We became candy givers! Definitely less fun. Ah, I have not given out candy for many years now. You see, congruent with my emerging adulthood came the cultural shift away from children ringing doorbells and begging for treats. Too dangerous now--pins in candy, creepy pedophiles, whatever. What a shame!

Well, it was never really about the candy or the costumes, anyway, I soon learned while hanging out with people who called themselves witches

Real witches. Though they dressed like "ordinary" people, they had many of the same beliefs I held at that time. None of us threatened people nor begged for snacks. A few preferred to dress in black year-round, and all wore the pentacle around their necks or emblazoned on their black t-shirts. All in all a friendly, charming bunch of social rebels whose chief activity was "raising awareness" of their existence--then complaining that everyone disrespected them.

Other cultures celebrate death and welcome back the dead at this time of the year. That's fine with me. I've had it both ways--err, well, perhaps not both ways in the way you might be thinking. Someday I will, of course. 

What I meant was the fun side and the serious side of the day. Now, however, it seems like just another commercial venture: Halloween "memorabilia" is present in stores hours after Labor Day sales have ended. I can deal with fake cobwebs and spiders and bats, even a few talking skulls or laughing zombie heads, but let's be real.
Death ain't so great. That's what I was told by a rather decayed ancestor of mine who happened to pop up in the middle of the night beside my bed--a day early, no less--just to warn me that on one of these Halloween nights I might not be around to celebrate much of anything. I said, in my sleepy voice, "Fair enough."

The laughter that followed my ancestor out through the cracks in the walls was unnerving enough to get me up from bed. I had to splash cold water on my face and awaken fully, just to be sure I was still alive. Shaking my head in front of the mirror with all the lights on, I knew it had not been a dream.

So, carefully, I made my way back to bed yet lay awake for hours, unable to close my eyes, afraid of the next snap, squeak, creak, breath, sigh, or moan--most of them, thankfully, coming from my neighbors arriving home late after the bars closed.

And the dawn sprite told me to go to sleep; my time had not come.

But wait! There's more! Have you ever wondered what the first sign is for transforming into a vampire? I wondered... and here is the amazing result!

Read a review in The Oklahoman newspaper here

(The only vampire romance story to be set in Oklahoma City... among other places.)

Turn, Mr. Stoker! Turn quickly in thy grave!

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.

17 October 2015

Understanding the Horror of Horror

"I ain't dead yet!"

As Halloween approaches, it's a good sentiment to have. However, as we accept the once a year opening of the door to the underworld and the unseen and possibly the undead, as well, it may be the best time to also reflect on what makes horror horrible...er, uh, scary. (You knew what I meant, right?)

Ever have a scary dream? Maybe it awakens you in the middle of the night and you don't know where you are. Maybe you still feel those pin picks or knife cuts in your skin. Perhaps your throat feels tight and the skin is rough from where the rope scraped. You might have been sensing the increasing pressure of heavy stones laid upon a barn door which was itself laid over you, all the better to extract a fictitious confession. 

Or perhaps your brand of scary is biting into a chocolate birthday cake and instead of pleasure, finding crunched up bits of cricket or other "foreign" matter there. Perhaps the beverage served reminds you a bit too much of freshly squeezed blood, donated by the kid who did not bring any gift. Or the sandwich you packed for lunch today somehow tastes strangely like human flesh instead of what it is: braised cow tongue. You open the lunch box and there are cockroaches squirming about. Is that your kind of scary?
Still another kind of scary is logging on the Internet--or, just as easily, flipping on the television--and there they are: so many stories of horror happening all around us and across the world. Killings of all kinds done in many creative forms. Solo assassins, self-designated mayhem artists, gangs of revengers, harmful idiots out for their own entertainment at the folly of anyone who gets in the way. Or the larger forms of them: armies of nations or parts of them doing the same thing: creating chaos for its own sake or the sake of someone's power structure. Where is the candy?

Or take it down to street level in your local town. Same thing: street thugs, simpletons with weapons, angry for anger's sake, and loners with axes to grind, guns to shoot, people to kill--for the sake of Halloween? Nope. Just people afraid of people, shooting before shaking hands. People afraid of their own shadows--or the lingering shadows of the previous night's dream. "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" It's all the same in an unsettling way: a spark of angst in the middle of the brain and we shriek.

Whether the horror is on the screen in a movie theater or on the page in a book, the mind provokes the body into a certain set of sensations and we act or react. Let the horror be real or let it be a fictitious fright. We feel it the same way biologically. And yet, the fictitious kind usually leaves us stronger, more confident, even less afraid, while the real horrors leave us in constant terror, constant stress, that we cannot simply put down or walk away from when we've had enough. That is the true horror of the horrors around us. 

Halloween is coming. Is it too little now? Is it too unscary compared to the real world today? Is it more trick than treat? Is it becoming a little better, or are we not yet at the peak? Be safe in your own little world and, at least for a night, pretend that all you have to worry about is a bad dream that will go away when you open your eyes. Or (it's happened to me too often), a lot of children ringing the doorbell after you've already given out your last bag of candy corn.
Looking forward to a day when this is the scariest thing we will see.

If you liked this rant, I accept donations of Kit-Kat and Jelly Belly jelly beans (any flavor). Thanks.

And don't forget our own library of horror--the fictitious variety (except for my contribution, which is 87% real)--and enjoy your midnight read!

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.