Saturday, December 31, 2011


I've been meaning to write this for weeks, but the time never seemed right.  I mean, where's the harm of putting it off for another week or so?  It's not like anyone is breathlessly awaiting my few words of dubious wisdom so why not do something else, something more pleasant than bitching about doing it,after all, the appointment isn't for two hours and it's only an hour's drive away or  I'll start the dinner later, no sense letting the food cool or the deadline is still weeks away: I still have time.   Excuses, excuses, excuses - anything that will put it off, whatever "it" happens to be.

I must admit to the affliction of procrastination.   Some of it is pure laziness, a little worrying if a story is good enough, if it's as good as it can be, or just is a piece of crap not worth the price of a stamp or even the push of a button. Yes, and there's the fear of rejection that no matter how many sales you have is ever in your mind.  I've managed to overcome that last, but not my reaction when it happens.  But still I hesitate over a piece and then hesitate some more.

When a new idea comes to me I can draft at a fair rate, but usually tap out after two hours and have do ANYthing else. Successive two hour sessions work sometimes, but not always and hardly ever at night.  My editing speed is somewhat slower mostly because I try to craft each sentence and paragraph into sensibility.  When my primary editing (first pass) is done I usually begin the real process of writing - drafting new material to enhance or improve the story, shifting things around a bit here and there, and, of course, editing the entire story once more so it will appear to have come from the same hand.  I call this latter, painstakingly slow bit the plodding stage.

Would that each story went smoothly through the above stages like clockwork. Instead I find excuses to stop and work on something else (I have about twenty pieces at various stages now.)  Often I will work on a new idea so I don''t have to work on something underway.  Even when I manage to successfully finish something I find myself asking whether it is good enough, knowing that often better is the enemy of "good enough" or if I am just procrastinating?

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Paean to Holiday Food

The holiday season is filled with cheer. This is the solstice, the deep dark days of the year where every instinct cries for sugars and fats to better stave off the coming scarcity of winter.  We toke up to survive the cold, to put on the layers of insulating flesh, and to store energy that will help us better survive the lack of forage as the snows accumulate and trap us in our dens.  This instinct is the result of thousands of years of evolution, of mastering nature, and of coping with the seasonal cruelties.

Eating is as natural as breathing and yet the food nazi's caution us against feasting through the season.  Better to have a teaspoon of hummus rather than that wonderful crab dip, they declare.  Better for your health to eat a saltine than a sugar cookie, and certainly more wise to sip flavored waters than quaff that champagne they report.  Reduce the calories, eliminate the sugars, and don't ever, ever overindulge is their mantra.  For every cookie or eggnog recipe in the newspapers there are twice that number of cautionary columns espousing the benefits of nutritional health. It is as if there is a war on [gasp] actually enjoying the season's offerings..

The point that these scrooges seem to miss is that holiday food is meant to be ENJOYED. We don't eat only for the nutrition that fuels our daily efforts.  We also eat for the pleasure that it provides. We eat so we can experience the diversity of flavors and textures that are easily available at this time of year.  And yes, we also eat to enjoy the company of others when sharing a meal, a spread, or even that little plate of cookies in the break room.  Eating is a social activity that enhances whatever we happen to be consuming and when better to do so than in this season of good tidings?.

So I say to ignore the critics, the nay sayers, the gloomy nutritionally pure, and those whose bleak outlook on eating poisons the mind. Fill your platters, my friends, drink of the best offered, and experience the bounty that surrounds us during these dark days.

Winter is coming.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Role of Story

Producing a compelling story while writing well and with style is the shining goal of anyone who scribbles in their dark, lonely rooms and an objective too infrequently achieved.  But telling a good tale isn't about simply writing properly; it's being able to craft a story.

I think that writing properly, that is with the correct spelling, grammar, punctuation and sentence structure, is a skill that practically anyone can obtain through sheer persistence. You can even become an accomplished stylist, artfully stringing linguistic flourishes in pleasing cadences that speak to the reader's need for seamless continuity akin to poetry, but only after a lot of practice.  With even greater effort, you can possibly demonstrate such such supreme facility with language that the casual reader must keep a dictionary close to hand to grasp what is being presented.

The primary role of a writer is first to grasp the reader's attention to the exclusion of all else.  It is not difficult to writer something that will entertain, but being able to tell a compelling story that has heart, to challenge assumptions, to enlist the emotions, or to engage the reader in ways that speaks to their very soul requires that the writer has to go beyond mere skills.

I know very few writers who can create a story in a single pass.  I know some for whom the story emerges with only minor editing.  The vast majority of writers, I suspect, struggle like me to find the heart of their tortured prose and only after endless polishing does the story reveal itself. Often I do not know what the story is about until I complete the first draft, and most of the time, not even then.  In fact, most of the stories I've written were not obvious at the outset and, like a sculptor, I had to chip away the overburden of draft and grinding away the parts not needed to reveal the story within.

But where did that story come from? Was it there all along or did I impose it while editing? I have no answer to that question.

I doubt I will have time for another blog until the new year so I wish all of you a most blessed holiday season.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Grandma's Nut roll (Not a fruitcake!)

This is a fun project to do with your friends or kids, although you may not be able to keep them from snacking along the way.

One of  the delicious treats my mother -in-law prepared each year was her exceptionally rich nut roll, a concoction that combined the tastes of nuts, candy, and two sweet dried fruits.  We started making this roll ourselves twenty years ago as a Christmas treat for family and friends.  Strangely, we have never experimented with different ingredients, but I imagine that dried pineapple, mango, or papaya would work equally as well as dates and raisins.

The recipe is simplicity itself: Graham crackers, Walnuts, Pecans, Dates, Raisins, and Gum or Spice Drops, and Marshmallows.  That's seven pounds of ingredients, folks!

Tear off six or seven pieces of waxed paper about  twenty inches long.  You will use these to shape and hold the rolls later.

Measurement of the ingredients is simple since all of them come in (about) one pound packages that can simply be dumped into a large bowl for mixing after they have been chopped.  The graham crackers provide structure for the roll and so should be crushed into small pieces.  The most tedious task is cutting the gum drops into small pieces since their original size is out of scale for the other ingredients.

After you have everything except the marshmallows thoroughly mixed in the large bowl you need to melt the marshmallows with a cup of milk over low heat until the mixture is smooth. At this point you mix the other ingredients while stirring to coat everything with the melted marshmallows.  It never seems like there is enough, but persistence pays.

This next step cannot be done by one person since the mixture is extremely sticky.  One person should quickly place handfuls (about a pound) of the gooey mixture onto each sheet of the waxed paper.  The other person, who has clean hands, should immediately press it into a loaf shape.  Wrap the rolls tightly and refrigerate until cool (and solid).  Rewrap each loaf in fresh wax paper as soon as possible since the original wrapping with adhere tightly if left too long.

We generally cut quarter inch slices, since thinner slices tend to fall apart.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

How Many Characters to Use?

Over the years I've come up with a few rules (think more like guidelines rather than laws) about populating my stories.

The question I usually ask myself when I start to build a short story, novelette, novella, or even embark on a novel is how few named characters I'll need to tell the story. A single character can carry an entire short story but a novel usually calls for multitudes.

In general, I like to use full names for the main characters, single names (first or last) or title for the supporting players, and none at all for the spear carriers and chorus members unless they are some off-stage reference of historic character.  I have the same approach for providing physical descriptions, clothing, personality traits, etc. The reason is that I want to paint a physical picture in the readers mind, and this means providing specific details over the course of the story's arc.

An arc is a sequence of scenes, each of which has a beginning, middle, and end. The major arc is the main plot that drives the entire tale.  I try to let the main story arc revolve around a few named characters, preferably the ones who are going to appear in the epiphany and denouement - think of a couple in a romance, for  example.  At the intermediate lengths of novelette and novella, the arc of the story determines the number of character interactions.  Within longer works there could be many intermediate arcs and those digressions sometimes require different characters. 

I find it difficult to mentally keep track of more than three named characters and think the limit for any scene, and probably the arc containing that scene, should be limited to no more than that number.  A five part conversation is difficult to write and still harder to read.  By keeping it simple, merging characters, and consolidating you prevent the reader from having to twist their brain around all the "X said-isms."  Recently I noticed this "law" at play in Laura Anne Gilman's Vineart trilogy.  While the viewpoint character dominated the main arc, she never has more than three named characters interacting within an arc.

The general guideline is to allow the story to dictate the number of characters, but restrict the number within each arc to make it easier on the reader.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Grim Statistics

At the end of each year I compile the numbers on stories I've completed, those in circulation and in process, against those I've managed to sell.  As usual, I get depressed.  Despite this year's effort to increase productivity and pay more careful attention to craft, I've done no better than usual: I produced about 160,000 words of completed and edited material and sold approximately tenth of that (Three stories.) This is even more depressing when you realize that I generally draft twice the amount of words that make it to the final cut!  True, there is a lag between production and sales, but experience has taught me not to be optimistic. That same grim statistic holds up when I look at all the stories written and first sales (I do not count re-sales in my totals): for every sixteen words of finished words I produce I manage to sell but one.

I am not a prolific writer. I struggle to get a thousand words a day of semi-edited work done and end up casting most of that away during the editing process. I constantly hope for a plot to appear in the story, for my characters to come alive and their dialogue to be less wooden.  I wait for my scenes to glisten with reality and a theme to emerge.  I cast this way and that, the emerging story drifting with the tide, rudderless and lacking the wind of creativity.  It becomes an increasingly confusing mess and all the time, overlaying every writing moment, is the certain knowledge that whatever it becomes will not be found worthy of being published.

Which raises the question of why one chooses to write if there is so little acknowledgement, so little success from so very much hard work?  Am I so different from other scribblers out there?  Is the cursed reality of being a short story writer to face more rejection than acceptance?

And my answer is this: I continue to write day after day, ever seeking that perfect phrase, that precise word, that well constructed paragraph, scene, or chapter and, when I do manage even one of those little accomplishments, it makes it all worth the while.