Writing in a time of funk and strange.

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Writing-wise, 2017 was lackluster – to use a generous term.

Twelve months on, I have one short story released at the last minute, birthed in a spasm of inspiration, and two larger projects stalled 20% from the finish line. So yeah. Not so hot.

Why? (that perennial question) Between real life, studio work, a persistent, low-grade funk, a national pandemic of strangeness and acrimony,  I confess it was a battle to sit down and slog through. Like pulling teeth. Now none of those are valid excuses – I’m responsible to do the work – but they are/were real. And if that was a battle, some kind of test of my creative mettle, I’m afraid I failed.

Maybe there’s something in the air. Maybe this malaise, this inertia is the accretion of my own naiveté and inconsistency. A consequence of laziness and immaturity. It could be put down to what Steven Pressfield termed “Resistance”, or perhaps I’ve hit what Seth Godin calls “The Dip” – that place in the process, the venture, where the initial inspiration and enthusiasm has worn off and the going gets tough. The Dip is re-evaluation time – a prolonged moment to assess whether to push on or be brutally honest and prune a branch that’s taking valuable time and energy that could otherwise be invested in some other, more fruitful way.

I hope it’s just a Dip I can get past, but right now, I honestly don’t know which it is.

That said, I do know that the passing of a year is an occasion to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. I also know I want to be a man of my word; I started those projects and I’m determined to finish them.

item4Now I won’t call this commitment a New Year’s Resolution. Gym memberships soar in Jan/Feb and fall back to regular levels by March. I’m too old and been at this too long to trick myself with slogans and effervescent, self-help sleight-of-hand. Resolutions only work if I’m willing and determined to chop away at them every day after Jan 2nd. However, by God’s grace I’m going to type ‘The End’ on both of those pieces in 2018. Then I’ll take it from there.

 

Here’s wishing you a happy and healthy new year.

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No reason for this picture. It was just too weird to not add.

 

Twenty Things

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So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”  

– Psalm 90:12

 

Lately, I go over this list whenever I turn on my computer.

***

  1. You’re going to die and you have no idea when.

Stop pretending that you’re invincible. Acknowledge the fact of your own mortality, and then start structuring your life in a more meaningful way.

  1. Everyone you love is going to die, and you don’t know when.

This truth may be saddening at first, but it also gives you permission to make amends with past difficulties and re-establish meaningful relationships with important figures in your life.

  1. Your material wealth won’t make you a better or happier person.

Even if you’re one of the lucky ones who achieves his or her materialistic dreams, money only amplifies that which was already present.

  1. Your obsession with finding happiness is what prevents its attainment.

Happiness is always present in your life–it’s just a matter of connecting to it and allowing it to flow through you that’s challenging.

  1. Donating money does less than donating time.

Giving your time is a way to change your perception and create a memory for yourself and others that will last forever.

  1. You can’t make everyone happy, and if you try, you’ll lose yourself.

Stop trying to please, and start respecting your values, principles, and autonomy.

  1. You can’t be perfect, and holding yourself to unrealistic standards creates suffering.

Many perfectionists have unrelenting inner critics that are full of so much rage and self-hate that it tears them apart inside. Fight back against that negative voice, amplify your intuition, and start challenging your unrealistic standards.

  1. Your thoughts are less important than your feelings and your feelings need acknowledgment.

Intellectually thinking through your problems isn’t as helpful as expressing the feelings that create your difficulties in the first place.

  1. Your actions speak louder than your words, so you need to hold yourself accountable.

Be responsible and take actions that increase positivity and love.

  1. Your achievements and successes won’t matter on your death bed.

When your time has come to transition from this reality, you won’t be thinking about that raise; you’ll be thinking about the relationships you’ve made–so start acting accordingly.

  1. Your talent means nothing without consistent effort and practice.

Some of the most talented people in the world never move out from their parent’s basement.

  1. Now is the only time that matters, so stop wasting it by ruminating on the past or planning the future.

You can’t control the past, and you can’t predict the future, and trying to do so only removes you from the one thing you can control–the present.

  1. Nobody cares how difficult your life is, and you are the author of your life’s story.

Stop looking for people to give you sympathy and start creating the life story you want to read.

  1. Your words are more important than your thoughts, so start inspiring people.

Words have the power to oppress, hurt, and shame, but they also have the power to liberate and inspire–start using them more wisely.

  1. Investing in yourself isn’t selfish. It’s the most worthwhile thing you can do.

You have to put on your own gas mask to save the person sitting right next to you.

  1. It’s not what happens, it’s how you react that matters.

Train yourself to respond in a way that leads to better outcomes.

  1. You need to improve your relationships to have lasting happiness.

Relationships have a greater impact on your wellbeing and happiness than your income or your occupation, so make sure you give your relationship the attention and work it deserves.

  1. Pleasure is temporary and fleeting, so stop chasing fireworks and start building a constellation.

Don’t settle for an ego boost right now when you can delay gratification and experience deeper fulfillment.

  1. Your ambition means nothing without execution–it’s time to put in the work.

If you want to change the world, then go out there and do it!

  1. Time is your most valuable asset–you need to prioritize how you spend it.

You have the power and responsibility to decide what you do with the time you have, so choose wisely.

 

Resist the Internet

A NY Times article by Ross Douthat

Yes, I am posting it on my blog. Irony can be pretty ironic, eh?

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reclaim

 

So far, in my ongoing series of columns making the case for implausible ideas, I’ve fixed race relations and solved the problem of a workless working class. So now it’s time to turn to the real threat to the human future: the one in your pocket or on your desk, the one you might be reading this column on right now.

Search your feelings, you know it to be true: You are enslaved to the internet. Definitely if you’re young, increasingly if you’re old, your day-to-day, minute-to-minute existence is dominated by a compulsion to check email and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram with a frequency that bears no relationship to any communicative need.

Compulsions are rarely harmless. The internet is not the opioid crisis; it is not likely to kill you (unless you’re hit by a distracted driver) or leave you ravaged and destitute. But it requires you to focus intensely, furiously, and constantly on the ephemera that fills a tiny little screen, and experience the traditional graces of existence — your spouse and friends and children, the natural world, good food and great art — in a state of perpetual distraction.

Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not. They are built to addict us, as the social psychologist Adam Alter’s new book “Irresistible” points out — and to madden us, distract us, arouse us and deceive us. We primp and perform for them as for a lover; we surrender our privacy to their demands; we wait on tenterhooks for every “like.” The smartphone is in the saddle, and it rides mankind.

Which is why we need a social and political movement — digital temperance, if you will — to take back some control.

Of course it’s too soon to fully know (and indeed we can never fully know) what online life is doing to us. It certainly delivers some social benefits, some intellectual advantages, and contributes an important share to recent economic growth.

But there are also excellent reasons to think that online life breeds narcissism, alienation and depression, that it’s an opiate for the lower classes and an insanity-inducing influence on the politically-engaged, and that it takes more than it gives from creativity and deep thought. Meanwhile the age of the internet has been, thus far, an era of bubbles, stagnation and democratic decay — hardly a golden age whose customs must be left inviolate.

So a digital temperance movement would start by resisting the wiring of everything, and seek to create more spaces in which internet use is illegal, discouraged or taboo. Toughen laws against cellphone use in cars, keep computers out of college lecture halls, put special “phone boxes” in restaurants where patrons would be expected to deposit their devices, confiscate smartphones being used in museums and libraries and cathedrals, create corporate norms that strongly discourage checking email in a meeting.

Then there are the starker steps. Get computers — all of them — out of elementary schools, where there is no good evidence that they improve learning. Let kids learn from books for years before they’re asked to go online for research; let them play in the real before they’re enveloped by the virtual.

Then keep going. The age of consent should be 16, not 13, for Facebook accounts. Kids under 16 shouldn’t be allowed on gaming networks. High school students shouldn’t bring smartphones to school. Kids under 13 shouldn’t have them at all. If you want to buy your child a cellphone, by all means: In the new dispensation, Verizon and Sprint will have some great “voice-only” plans available for minors.

I suspect that versions of these ideas will be embraced within my lifetime by a segment of the upper class and a certain kind of religious family. But the masses will still be addicted, and the technology itself will have evolved to hook and immerse — and alienate and sedate — more completely and efficiently.

But what if we decided that what’s good for the Silicon Valley overlords who send their kids to a low-tech Waldorf school is also good for everyone else? Our devices we shall always have with us, but we can choose the terms. We just have to choose together, to embrace temperance and paternalism both. Only a movement can save you from the tyrant in your pocket.

The windshield of the Present

Back to Writing and Fiction because Real Life is so unbelievable right now.

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A few years back, William Gibson said he veered away from cyberpunk SF because ‘the future got smashed on the windshield of the present.’ Razor-sharp Gibson-ese. An example of why I admire him.

I think it touches on the geometric progression/proliferation of technology as well as the simultaneous unpredictability and weird deja-vu familiarity of the future. Some dynamics of civilization are moving at a frenetic, methamphetamine-fueled pace while others are as ancient and rooted as the Great Pyramid of Giza.

In an odd twist of futuristic prescience, I see diced and commercialized slices of Pattern Recognition’s virtual art installations in the current Pokemon craze. (Apparently the US military had to advise folks not to wander into Restricted Areas chasing VR anime creatures – a statement I find deeply strange.)

I also notice the gap between my own futuristic imaginings and current events shrinking to quite literally 15 minutes in the future. Point of fact, my current Mil SF/NF short focuses on the remnants of a US Mechanized Infantry company caught up in a massive Russian invasion of the Baltics and Poland, which, if you’ve been following the news, is a thing that might actually happen. Especially after Putin’s shenanigans in Georgia, Estonia, Crimea, the ongoing fight in the Ukraine, and now the massive Russian military build-up in Kaliningrad.

Now I imagined the opening scenes several years ago, mulling over the old ‘Cold War turned Hot’ RPG Twilight 2000. Back then, my speculation was rear view mirror daydreaming. Common sentiment was the Cold War collapsed with the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. Now I’m hammering the story out by the end of the month before it literally becomes old news.

I would prefer to spend my energy on writing, not intense self-examination. There is a synergy, a mystery to making art that is only realized in the doing, not in the debate. I recognize value in discussion, but you can’t pin the process to a board like some specimen of exotic butterfly. It too easily morphs into Delaying Activity. Plus dissection has a tendency to kill its subject.

With that caveat, I confess the inspiration/motivation for this current short story is different. There’s an urgency and not the usual entertaining escapism behind it. I have this odd sense the Sun is shining right now but the wind has shifted. The barometer has dropped. (what Cape Codders call ‘a sea change’) I’m no prophet, but I think something nasty is just over the horizon and we might want to batten down the hatches. Salt that warning to taste. I hope I’m wrong.

In terms of larger fiction projects, once I release this new short, I’ll have to decide whether to pursue the three-part Fantasy novel or the contemporary supernatural thriller, “Dead Saints.” I’m also considering seeking out agent representation for one or both of those novels to publish via a traditional route. It would be nice to be commissioned to write in the same way I’m commissioned to make stained glass windows. All that has been added to my prayers, so we’ll see.

I’ll should have Pre-Release copies of this this short story available soon. If you’re interested in a freebie, let me know.

Thanks much and take care.

 

 

 

 

From the glass studio

The winner of The Barrow Lover Celtic Stained Glass Giveaway sent me this picture. Apparently it was a perfect fit for one of their bathroom windows. Bit of Irish luck, that is.

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That in mind, here are some shots of recent projects. There’s a large door panel that integrated salvage from a smashed antique piece in the new one. A door panel with roses. A Cape Cod waterview. Two simple Victorian pieces for a guest bath and a Mission-style piece for a front foyer.

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Now… Back to writing about demonic possession, jihadists, Sci Fi Spec Ops teams, and crazed djinns in a shattered post-apocalyptic fantasy world.

Have a good weekend. Hope all your shopping is done.

 

Calibrating the writing process

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A couple points I need to remind myself of when things are flying everywhere and I bog down trying to cram too much in too little space/ time.

  1. I have three modes to my writing process: Strip Mining, Assembly, and Polishing. It’s all “Writing”, but they are very different from each other and require different parts of my brain.
  2. I can’t do two simultaneously. Stop trying.
  3. Accept what mode I’m in. Embrace it even. At this point, the only deadlines I have are the ones I set. They can be extended.
  4. Remember that adage about the right word versus almost the right word? Very important, that.  Word Count can be a trap. Go for time spent instead. Why? Because WC varies by mode. Strip Mining = lots. Assembly = less. Polish = even less.
  5. That said, Busy-ness is NOT Productivity. It all comes down to finished pages.
  6. It’s OK to work on more than one project at a time. The background process still run. Focusing on something else might just let them work easier.
  7. Finish the piece to the best of my ability, kick it out the door, then move on. The Learning Curve  is just that – and the only way to learn is to do the work.
  8. It’s not what I can’t do but what I can do that counts. Life is a gift not a chore. Adjust attitude accordingly.

 

Some people have greatness thrust upon them. Few have excellence thrust upon them…. They achieve it. They do not achieve it unwittingly by doing what comes naturally and they don’t stumble into it in the course of amusing themselves. All excellence involves discipline and tenacity of purpose.

We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure all your life.
John William Gardner

Opening Lines

I started a file of opening lines; a compilation of those random phrases, sentences, even paragraphs that pop up in my head like an infestation of mangy, unrelated, prairie dogs from the profusion of dank, dark holes and scurrilous burrows worming the plains of my imagination.

But instead of my prose, I present the previous five winning entries of the prestigious Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. (he’s the ‘dark and stormy night’ guy)

Have a great day and feel free to leave your own ‘Opening Line’ in the comments.

 

2015

Seeing how the victim’s body, or what remained of it, was wedged between the grill of the Peterbilt 389 and the bumper of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade EXT, officer “Dirk” Dirksen wondered why reporters always used the phrase “sandwiched” to describe such a scene since there was nothing appetizing about it, but still, he thought, they might have a point because some of this would probably end up on the front of his shirt.
Joel Phillips, West Trenton, NJ

2014

When the dead moose floated into view the famished crew cheered – this had to mean land! – but Captain Walgrove, flinty-eyed and clear headed thanks to the starvation cleanse in progress, gave fateful orders to remain on the original course and await the appearance of a second and confirming moose. — Elizabeth (Betsy) Dorfman, Bainbridge Island, WA

2013

She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination. — Chris Wieloch, Brookfield, WI

2012 (personal fave)

As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting. — Cathy Bryant, Manchester, England

2011

Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories. — Sue Fondrie, Oshkosh, WI

Thoughts on the Conventions of Genre and Faith

 

” Those French have a different word for everything.”

– Steve Martin as huffy ‘Merican tourist

 

***

I’ve come to accept the fact – but not really comprehend – there are people who don’t read. Like, at all. It’s an exertion, painful on the same level as a marathon or a colonoscopy. And of those who do read as a past-time, there are some who don’t read fiction, especially speculative fiction. My brother for example sees no value in the Lord of the Rings, which to him is a bunch of short people and pretend creatures running around a make-believe land after a stupid piece of jewelry.

So… yeah.

(we are related – I checked.)

Sure you’ve got those dark suit, bowl-cut, body odor, Bible-quoters who hold any entertainment to be vain, carnal, and worldly.  “It’s all going to burn, brother.”  (real-life quote example, that)  Like the poor, they will always be with you, so leave them alone to mutter and scowl in the corner. In general though, I think fiction like poetry has lots of folk who don’t ‘get it’. Lack of or poor prior experience, too intellectually lazy, or some other reason. Other folks simply aren’t wired that way. They’re eminently practical. Fiction is just not their thing, and I’m OK with that too.

Not so for me. I remember walking into the Big Hall at GenCon 2000 and realizing I was part of a huge, weird, cool secret society. The Cult of Geek. It was as much a relief as revelation. Since then, transitioning from genre reader to genre writer, I’ve come to understand even more that Sci Fi, Fantasy, Horror… Spec-Fiction Genres are languages. They are distinctly different vocabularies from Normal; the jargon of real, day-to-day, life. In fact, I’ll go further and say Genres are separate countries, entire worlds even. Speak at length with a Hard Core Star Wars or Warhammer 40K Nerd and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Genres have evolution, histories, archetypes, symbols,  idioms, nuance…it’s incredible, and implicit to good genre-writing is a deft handling of those dynamics in manners that satisfy, even stretch and exceed the audience’s expectations. It’s hard to pull off, to be fluent, and not everyone will understand, but those that do, appreciate it. That is the mystery and magic of allegory, of parables. I think my first point here is that Discrimination – in the sense of a select audience – is perfectly OK.  Not everyone is going to enjoy, understand, or accept my work. It’s high time to stop being surprised.

The next hurdle I see is the challenge of approaching creative endeavor with an ideology, in my case a theological one. Don’t kid yourself: all art makes a statement  – overt or otherwise, religious or not –  because it springs from the mulch of the artist’s life. Having a defined worldview makes the challenge that much stranger because it either forms a strong foundation or  reduces it to propaganda. So not only does the fiction writer have to hone craft but they have to avoid capture. Sort of sculpting smoke while waltzing through a minefield. The wisps of imagination have to form an entertaining, yet credible make-believe world (a ‘lie that tells the truth’) without  shrinking or spoiling the medium.

I get that some people will scorn or be hostile to my faith. Getting your worldview shat on is part of the package. (part of Life, actually) The last thing I want though is my stories to be Terrariums for Pet Rocks: painfully, obviously contrived, tiny, artificial environments for my cherished doctrines.

So as I hammer away at my next novel, consider October’s Viable Paradise workshop, and view the recent Hugo dust-up in light of my own faith and artistic struggles, I’ve still of a mind to sink my roots deeper while growing wings. For me, it’s not an ‘Either/Or’ dilemma – it’s translation problem. God help me to learn the language and be an effective communicator.  An oracle, even.

 

 

 

Thanks to the schoolyard bullies


I was a bit surprised when a fellow Christian author blogged about bullying recently. Not that he’d been bullied, no surprise there. It seems to me it’s one of those ubiquitous kid things like zits. And not that I’m making light of his experience. Far from it. I was hit by a car when I was a kid, damned near killed in fact, and grew up with no memory before the age of 7, a nasty limp and a damaged eye. Dealing with disability is the only life I’ve known, really. So I get being bullied, and all the condescending rubbish that goes with being ‘disabled’. The surprise comes because I always figured an unhappy childhood was a prerequisite for being a writer. (or a serial killer. fine line, there)

I mean what else jump starts a person’s defensive mechanism of escapism and fertilizes the imagination quite like being taunted, mocked, shunned, ignored? A nice layer of creative mulch, that festering rotten crap. And who else can lay it on quite as stinky and thick in those crucial formative years as the jocks, teacher’s pets, and cheerleaders?

Forward is the only direction God has given us though, and I’ve learned over the years it’s not what you can’t do that counts; it’s what you can do. So decades later not only am I still married to the same beautiful woman after 29 years, have three great kids and three wonderful grandchildren, but when I’m not doing stained glass work, I get to write stories. Stories that people buy and read. Some of these readers even enjoy my stories and come back for more.

So thank you, schoolyard bullies, for forcing me to take that ‘less-traveled’ path, for laying the groundwork to my spec-fiction projects. It’s working, thank God. And you know what the really beautiful thing is?

I don’t remember your names.

Have a great day.

Something for the bullied and the bullies