Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Last Days

Looking at old photos--particularly of yourself--conveys a sense of how fast time is flying by. When we're young, we believe we're invincible and will live forever. Then, one day we look up and realize time is running out. We're not going to live forever. We might not live until next week.

We notice friends and peers and family are dying all around us, some suddenly, and others in slow agony. And it suddenly occurs that we're not ready. Oh, I don't mean spiritually or emotionally. None of us are ever ready in that case. But there are things we should consider, more so when we are writers.

I sat here at the computer and pondered all the things my spouse would have to deal with if I suddenly passed away. There are things I would want him to take care of simply because that's the way I am. And others he would need to deal with because they are legal issues, but the truth is, he has no idea where to find the information he would have to have. So I made a list. I share it with you because you might want to think about it, too.

1. Transferring my retirement money to him. When I took my retirement, I signed off on the provision that would make him the beneficiary so he will receive my check each month once I die. He did the same with his retirement. But I'm pretty sure he doesn't know who to contact so that's at the top of my list. Ditto for our Social Security benefits.

2. Transfer of my book rights and the resulting royalties. This is something I'll need to check out with each of my publishers...including my books on Kindle.

3. Shutting down my various e-mail accounts and social media accounts. He'll need a list of the actual accounts with logins and passwords. This might seem silly to you but I noted quite a few people wishing dead people Happy Birthday this last week. Clearly, they didn't know the individuals were gone since they wished them many more years!

4. But prior to shutting them down, I would like him to post a simple notice that I've passed on. Since he's not known for his writing skills, I need to compose that and leave it with the other information so he can just type it in the status line. After a week or two, then he can close the accounts. You might think this is unimportant, but I have several professional friends who've fallen off the grid. I worry about them as I know they were unwell. Are they gone? I don't know.

5. It should go with out saying, but a will. It doesn't have to be elaborate, but it should state my wishes in the simplest terms. I've mostly passed on the physical items I wanted my children to have, but there will hopefully be some financial rewards. And I have pretty definite ideas about funeral arrangements. That should all be included.

As I continue to think about this over the next few weeks, I'll no doubt remember other items I need to take care of. And of course, all of us have different circumstances and conditions in our lives.

Heh. No, as far as I know, I'm not dying. At least, not anytime soon. But it never hurts our loved ones if we're prepared.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Marking the Days

The thing about retirement is you start to lose track of what day it is. We get up in the morning and it's the same as it was yesterday and the day before...and the day before. Kind of like Ground Hog day.

Perhaps that is why people started choosing certain days or seasons to mark time. Of course, to keep accurate records (even if they were just marks on a stick or stone) there needed to be a particular person responsible. In ancient cultures, that person might be designated a wise person or a shaman or a priest. It was an important responsibility.

Now we have computers and atomic clocks and other such mechanical devices to mark time. Every television station includes the announcement of the summer solstice in their weather coverage. It's the turning of the season. For modern first world cultures, it doesn't mean much. Folks nod their heads, shrug and move on to more important things like which team won the ball game or which contestant won on a television show.

In the general scheme of things, a small group of people mark days like the summer solstice with more formal recognition. Generally, the Judeo-Christians sneer at such groups as pagan or other pejoratives. What they don't remember is the times when all people relied on the turn of the seasons. Life itself was dependent on the knowledge. Crops were planted and harvested according to these specific seasonal changes. Long before we had months and weeks, we had the first clock.

You might say the Creator gave us the first measures of time--day and night, the lunar cycle, the solar cycle. With those three cycles, man was able to plant, harvest, plan for the coming year, and know exactly how long it would be before it was time to plant again. The marking of the solstices, the equinoxes, the lunar cycles had meaning and significance we've almost forgotten.

In our arrogant reliance on modern technology, we ignore the enduring importance of the first time keepers. Ancient wisdom isn't something to shove aside in our modern ignorance. There is great value in observing the old ways. The more modern medicine investigates, they more they prove the loss of health and well-being when we ignore the old time keepers. Now we work all night--and all day. We suffer from sleep deprivation because we no longer depend on the sun for light. We go, go, go, racing from one chore to the next, never resting, even on Sunday, the day Christians believe is marked in the Bible.

Maybe it's time to start marking the days. Time to really stop and observe the passing of the seasons. Time to truly understand the celestial clock and what a wonderful gift we've been given.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Shouting into the Wind

It's taken me a while to understand the popularity of Facebook and Twitter, but I finally believe I have it. I know why folks are so drawn to these and other social media sites.

It is our modern version of shouting into the wind.

Likely, there will be quite a few readers who have no idea what I'm talking about. Basically, it means no one is listening. On a more personal level, I remember many occasions when I went out to a deserted place and just yelled and screamed until I got all my anger and frustration out of my system. For the moment.

Posting on social media is the equivalent of shouting our deepest feelings into the void. I daresay most folks don't expect a reply. If you observe carefully, for most posts, there are five or six comments. Max. Now think about how many people are on Facebook on any given hour. Or twitter. And calculate what tiny percentage four or five people is of that number. Shouting into the wind.

You know ahead of time no one is really paying attention. That's probably why folks feel comfortable posting any old thing...including me. Yes, I'm guilty of posting odd stuff like what I'm cooking for dinner, or what the weather is where I live. Occasionally I post pictures of my socks or old photos of my family. The people who respond are generally people who find socks or old photos interesting. The average stranger doesn't notice my little post and think, "Wow! Look at that sock!"

I know this. Everyone knows this. But frustration sets in when our unrealistic expectations aren't met. Despite the reality of social media, we still (on some level) expect a response. I find it interesting that people mostly respond to tragedy. Second on the list is the rare 'good news' post. And after that I suppose the controversial/political post would drag in third place. Shallow waters out there on social media.

Heh. The post that attract the widest field of respondents are cute dogs and cats and other animals. Strange that they touch a responsive chord in so many. Perhaps, that's the ultimate message. Forget social media. If you're frustrated just go pet an animal. You'll feel better. And save time.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Have You Ever?

Recently a new post that asked personal questions floated around social media pages. I've never figured out why anyone would answer the questions on a public forum, but that's another blog. This is about the quality of the questions. Mostly, they were stupid stuff like...have you ever smoked marijuana or...how many people have you had sex with?

Again. Why would anyone answer them? Don't they know employers (both prospective and current) look at people's pages?

Anyway, I've been thinking about this questionnaire. I think it's kinda wimpy. If you're gonna answer personal questions, then it should be more revealing.

How many people have you killed?

Do you prefer a machete or an ax?

When you bury the body, is three feet deep enough? Or do you really like to bury them deeper?

Do you think four participants is enough for an orgy? Or should there be more?

How much alcohol is too much? Two drinks? Six? Twelve?

How many times have you driven a vehicle while under the influence? Did anyone die?

How many times have you driven a vehicle while using your cell phone? Texting?

Do you believe rape is the same thing as consensual sex?

See...If you're gonna share personal information on the Internet...then, hey, let it all hang out. At least then the cops will have a starting place when they investigate.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Wizard's Tower

Once in a while a story or video will show up on my FaceBook feed demonstrating the way some individual has repurposed an item in an interesting fashion. Folks ooh and ah over the creativity and say they wished they were that clever. I don't think it's so much about cleverness as clarity. Do we see the possibilities? Or can we only see the decay?

A lot of my writing is repurposing the main story. I suspect there's only one stripped down, simple story in the world. The details we use while telling the story is what differentiates our version from everyone else's. Take the building in the picture. I saved it to my 'writing ideas' folder because I see it as a Wizard's Tower. It's not a tower from the past, but a tower in the future, a time when humanity is starting over because they were so bone-headed they nearly destroyed themselves and the Earth.

Most of the survivors are everyday people, working hard for their small isolated communities. But there are a few, very few men and women who have extra talents--abilities that allow them to forecast the weather or predict conflict or heal the sick. They are the wizards.

Now any sensible person knows such a wizard would need a special place to live. This wizard's tower is ideal. It's tall so the wizard has a clear view of the surrounding countryside. From the perspective of the communities around it, the high building allows them to know exactly where the wizard is. It's a beacon of hope and consolation. It's a central gathering place in times of conflict and disaster.

It's the face of the future and the past.

A Wizard's Tower.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The END!

Welp. The sock is finished. Right? Not so fast, pardner. The sock is finished, but it's not ready to wear. See all those strings hanging around? The knitter has to do something about them. Every single strand has to be woven in so it doesn't show--or come unraveled when they're worn or washed.

The more elaborate the pattern, the more strands to weave in. A simple, no frills sock will only have two strings when the knitter finishes--one at the edge of the cuff, one at the toe. But for every change of color, every mix of patterns, there will be extra strings. And those leave more finishing work at the end.

It's the same when we write. The more elaborate the story, the more strands to 'tidy' up at the end. There are always spelling errors, homophones, grammatical potholes to deal with. And then there are the lost characters, the story lines that disappear in the underbrush, the mysteries that are never solved.

Just as you wouldn't give away a sock full of strings, you don't want to give away a book with jumbled strands and knots. Clean it up. Make it as beautiful as you can...because how well you do that will determine how long that story hangs around for more readers to enjoy.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Investment

More than once, I've written about my personal library. Some folks consider ownership of half a dozen books to be too many. Others--like me--will never have too many. But it might surprise you if I tell you I'm quite picky about how I invest my book dollars. I buy some books for research purposes. Most books I purchase for entertainment.

How do I choose?

Frankly, that is up to the authors. Yep. Whether or not I purchase a book is entirely dependent on how invested the author was in their story. By that I don't mean how much money they spent on book covers or publicity or conferences. I'm talking about how invested they are in their characters. Do they care about them at all?

There is a certain series of books I've loved in the past. I really enjoyed them and re-read them frequently. I was quite excited when the latest was released a few weeks ago. So far, I haven't made it past page three. The first few pages are obviously a set-up for the rest of the story, but I don't care what happens to the characters. I don't care!

I'm pretty sure the author doesn't either. Now, I know he's a more than competent writer. But this book? It's...cardboard. He's not invested in these characters. I get it that they're the bad guys, but that doesn't matter because a truly bad guy requires investment in the character. We have to care enough to want him vanquished. Think about Darth Vader from the Star Wars movies. He was the guy we loved to hate. We were invested in his demise.

A lot of authors wonder why their books aren't selling. They moan and groan over their non-existent royalties, even though they have fifty or sixty books published. Perhaps, just perhaps it's because they're not invested in their characters.

I buy mostly series. I freely admit I like following the characters, watching them grow and change as they face different challenges. I specifically like series that center around a group of characters that interact. If a romance is involved, that's okay, but the interaction of the group, the relationships revealed is what draws me to the series. Consider the television series most people invest their time and interest in. Is it the romance? Not likely. Mostly, it's the continuing cast of characters that keep people involved.

The writers and producers for a series are involved and invested in their cast. When they introduce abrupt departures and introductions of new characters, we get all riled up and annoyed. It's the same for a book, series or standalone. We invest our time and interest in the characters. When the author doesn't, it seriously annoys the readers.

What happens then?

We spend our book dollars somewhere else. I invest in several series that might not be prize-winning writing, but I am absolutely certain the author is well and truly invested in their stories. They care about their characters. Because they do, I do.

Investment.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Pesky Details

So the adventurous knitter has completed their crazy, mixed up sock. Their friends and family rave about it. Some folks even want to buy it...or one similar. The thing is...most people need TWO socks. And most of them want a matching pair. The secret to producing that second sock is in the details.

The adventurous knitter must also be a meticulous knitter--with the details. A record of colors, patterns, and row numbers is necessary to reproduce a second sock. Any reasonably competent knitter can create a a single make-it-up-as-you-go one-off sock. Their only limit is how creative they want to be. The rub is producing the second sock. That requires attention to all the tiny details created in the first sock. Without those matching details, the outside world observes the unmatched socks and usually isn't the least hesitant in pointing out the errors.

Writers have the same problem when they pen sequels or series--especially if the stories take place in worlds the writer has created. In that first book, the one all the readers rave about, the writer has set up their unique world. They've made decisions about culture, government, monetary exchange units, housing, technology...a myriad of tiny, specific details that contribute to their story. They might even toss in some 'made-up' vocabulary. They've peopled their story with interesting characters and family relationships. Their readers take the story to heart and demand more, more, more!

Ooops!

How to recreate their unique world for a second...or third...or fourth story? How do writers corral all the pesky details so they match?

Most writers have some version of a series bible. Let's face it--sticky notes won't cut it after the fifty or so. Every writer has their own version. Some keep their notes in a spiral notebook. Others have three ring binders or electronic files. I know of a couple who keep Excel spreadsheets. Personally, I'm slowly transferring my notes to One Note.

The method doesn't matter. Really. There is no 'right' way. EXCEPT!!! Yes, there's always an exception. And? You can't consult a non-existent bible.

Oh, I can hear you objecting already! "I don't write series!"

My reply? How do you know? I have quite a few standalone books I never planned to expand into series, but the unvarnished truth is plans change. What I considered a standalone two years ago might be getting lonely this year and demand a companion. If that happens, then I'm prepared. I always read the previous books in a series before I start, but having the details written down makes all the difference, whether I create this year--or five years from now. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Making It Up As You Go

When knitting (or crocheting) any item, most folks follow a pattern. So many rows, so many stitches. There are an adventurous few who dare to add little flourishes to the pattern. Some may use more than one color. Or try different stitches in place of the ones indicated in the pattern. If their size requirements differ from the pattern, they might add or subtract rows, use a heavier or lighter weight yarn or perhaps change the size needles or hook they employ.

But this crafter is still within the standard parameters of the pattern. The changes they incorporate are minor and within the normal ranges for the item they're producing.

Then there are the others--the ones who never learned to color in the lines. That would be me. Oh, I put in my time learning how to knit from a pattern and produced plain, serviceable ho-hum socks. They're comfy and keep my feet warm. Unfortunately, they're not 'me'.

I love colors--the more the merrier--and frills. Give me cables and twists and polka-dots. I love texture and bobbles. So after learning what I needed to learn, I finally burst the confines of the pattern and embarked on my own journey, secure in my skills. I started my own make-it-up-as-I-go socks.

Writing is much the same. In the beginning, you start out with a learning curve. You gather the technical skills you need to write. Things like spelling and grammar rules and voice. After a while, you add flourishes. Interesting characters, off beat locations or even new worlds.

But you might reach a point when you just explode, creating new genres, occupations, cultures, and even new creatures. Maybe you'll want to write about blue people or giant carnivorous shadowdancer spiders. Who knows? You might even imagine a world where King Arthur and his co-horts are still creating mischief, where he plays cards with talking dragons and his nephews are firebird shifters.

Staying on the sane, safe path is perfectly acceptable. Many writers have had successful, financially secure careers by writing within the accepted parameters. We need those writers because there are readers who aren't ready for the more offbeat paths.

Then there are the readers who seek something wildly different, who need a new adventure between the covers. Those are the readers who need that writer who might not color within the lines, the writer who might say, I wonder...

If you're a make-it-up-as-you-go writer, then welcome to my world. Creativity and color and the odd character or three can capture the imagination, allowing readers to have their own 'I wonder' moment.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Mountain

Trestle View by Paul Gould

I married in my teens, had four children, moved from Chicago to Houston to the Hudson Valley in upstate New York, and finally, in my forties went to college. Full time. While also working full time and wrangling four teenagers. It was a turbulent time in our household. On weekends, I climbed the mountain in the painting. 

There was a series of marked hiking trails that criss-crossed the mountain top. The route I used was about eight miles long. Up one end, across, down about mid-way, and then back along a rough track to the tiny parking lot where I left my car. I had a backpack of supplies--first aid kit, food bars, water, a book, and a rain poncho--and carried a sturdy five foot long walking stick.

The trail wasn't really a trail, but rather a rough directional aid that was partly stone covered stream paths, vertical climbing, flat granite slabs, and wild laurel. Overall, it was quite a bit more challenging than walking a loop around the neighborhood where I lived. Every week I arrived home at the end of the day with aching knees and sore muscles.

You might wonder why on earth I would do it then...week after week? Because it was the one place I was guaranteed solitude. The first time I climbed this mountain, when I reached the summit I looked out over the glorious Hudson Valley and felt this tremendous sense of accomplishment because against all expectations I'd beat my doctor's predictions. I wasn't in a wheelchair. I climbed that damn mountain on my own two feet.

But there were other benefits to my hikes. I desperately needed some alone time. There on the mountain top with only the birds and shy animals for company, I had the space and peace to deal with all sorts of issues that beset me on every side. I had time to pray or meditate or read a book or just look out over the valley. Each week I went back home fortified for another stretch of chaos and pressure from my job, my family, my school work.

To tell the truth, I'm not sure I would have survived without my weekly climbs. 

A few weeks before my graduation, on a whim, the hunk and I stopped at the Bethlehem Art Gallery not to far from where we lived. And this print was hanging on a wall. I fell in love with it, but it was far out of our price range--even unframed. 

Graduation day arrived. All of my children came home, even the one in the Navy. My parents drove up from Texas. My brother and his family came from Chicago. And in the midst of family and friends, the hunk hauled out this huge flat graduation gift. 

I ripped off the wrapping, wondering what it could be. And there it was, a beautifully framed and matted print of Trestle View by Paul Gould. It hangs over our bed now. We live far away from the mountain and I'm way past the capability of such a hike. But each time I look at it, I'm reminded of the summer I spent on the mountain top. 

Peace and temporary tranquility.  

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Worth the Price


I was playing a computer game this morning when I paused to marvel at the intricate artwork. And then I wondered, are the artists receiving the pay they deserve? Really?

That led me to another thought. Why do so many authors sell their books for next to nothing? Don't they have faith in their work? Don't they believe they are worth every penny? Oh, I know all the reasons authors list for under-selling their stories, but do they really make any money?

I'm going to go out on a fragile, moldy old limb here and speculate. If an author sells their work for pennies, aren't they sending a message they might not intend? Here's how I feel when I see a lot of books by the same author that are all listed at rock bottom prices:

A) The books are likely backlist so old the author no longer believes they are viable, but what the heck, whatever pennies they bring in is better than nothing,

B) The books are 'throwaway' stories, just banged out to keep the author's name in front of potential readers,

OR

C) The author has zero belief in the worth of his/her work.

There's a lot of conversation out there regarding book pricing. Many authors blame the readers, assuring other writers that readers won't spend the money to buy higher priced books. And therefore, the authors are FORCED to sell their books dirt cheap. Well, there IS a certain group for which this might be true.

But for a true reader, a true fan of your work, price will not be an issue. And word of mouth from true reader fans is the most effective publicity. Think about the years prior to the internet and social media. How did readers discover new authors? Through word of mouth. One reader telling another, "This is a fabulous book." 

And once one book is sold, if it's a quality well-edited story that captures the reader's imagination, then they'll search for other titles by that author. Regardless of price. Because the story is worth it.

So. Back to the beginning. Why are you under-selling your books? Are you worth the money? Or are you a cheap throwaway story? Only the writer can decide that. And the decision he or she makes can affect all the future books he/she hopes to sell.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Misty Memories


Every once in a while, I'll remember something specific about my past. Usually, that memory will be initiated by something specific. This morning for no apparent reason I thought about these two bookcases and wondered whatever happened to them. Why can't I remember?

The top one was what is called a barristers bookcase. The one in this picture has three sections. Ours had four individual sections that could be stacked in any configuration. During the early years of our marriage, we use this case to store linens and our clothing as we had very little storage and very few books. I loved this case. It had glass doors that slid up into the top of the case. And each section was huge.

The thing is...I have no idea what happened to it. For such a large piece of furniture, wouldn't you think I would remember who I gave it to? Or why we don't have it any longer? Sometimes, I think aliens take things in the middle of the night.

The smaller bookcase is similar to one I had in my bedroom in high school. Tall, skinny, and just deep enough to hold paperbacks or CDs. Of course, paperbacks weren't in my world. No money to buy so I used the library. Thank goodness for libraries. I would have gone insane in high school without books to keep me calm. And there were no CDs at that time. There weren't even any computers except the giant room sized ones that used punch cards. So, no CDs. But I had a few smaller hard-backed books the size of Nancy Drew mysteries. They fit on the shelves perfectly. And later, after I married and had babies, baby supplies filled the shelves.

So where did these two important pieces of furniture go? I have absolutely no idea.

Except aliens. Definitely aliens.