That time of the month again—the time when I make my offering on behalf of Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group, a bunch of bloggers bent on being the best at helping fellow writers beam bright in the blogosphere and elsewhere in the writing firmament. If you’re interested in sharing your views, pop on over to IWSG and sign up. Each month, we write about something that interests us, and that we hope will be of interest to others; advice, fears, triumphs, etc.
This month, I’m going to depart from the usual advice to writers, to wit, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE, and tell you that sometimes the best thing you can do for your writing is to STOP!
Given that I’m usually spouting off that the only way to write well is to write often, and my frequent suggestion of having a 1 – 2,000 word per day writing goal, my regular readers are probably scratching their heads in wonder right now. Bear with me, though, and you’ll see the method to my madness.
Everyone has, no doubt, heard or read the old adage, ‘a healthy mind makes a healthy body,’ or something along those lines. The meaning of that is usually, a good mental attitude is important to maintaining physical health. But, scientific studies have shown that the opposite is also true: maintaining good physical health helps to improve brain functioning. Staying physically active, keeping your heart, lungs, and blood vessels healthy helps ensure adequate oxygen gets to all parts of the body, including brain cells. And, while we’re talking about exercise, which is great for maintaining the physical plant—muscles, bones, vital organs—it’s also great for conditioning the brain. That’s right. Science has discovered that the brain has more plasticity than previously thought, and even in adulthood, can be improved through exercises such as puzzles, learning a new language, or learning to play a musical instrument.
Ideas, and the manipulation of language are a writer’s stock and trade, which means that for us as writers, the brain is one of our most important possessions. It stands to reason, then, that we should keep it in top condition. So, to keep that idea engine humming along like a Mercedes Benz S500, step away from the computer for a short period every day. Get out and walk through the park—briskly. Start every other morning with a nice, heart pumping workout, work the daily crossword—with a ballpoint pen.
You don’t have to sacrifice any of your writing goals to do this. Like writing, exercise can be worked into a 24-hour day if you really want to do it. Turn off the TV for thirty minutes. You’ve seen that episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer anyway. Get out and walk around the block
Your writing will be better for it.
Looking for something different?
AIA Publishing has just released its fifth book, and in line with previous fiction titles, the book has a unique voice and a metaphysical bent. Spiderworld by Richard Bunning turns the tables on humans and spiders, and makes you think about humankind’s relationship with animals and with each other.
Not even the time-lord, Orlando Oversight, knows everything. But speculation can turn into a real future, and the Lush Star system, where spider-like beings treat humans as we do animals, isn’t such a distant dream away.
Do Jack Baker, the self-styled ‘Spartacus’, and his followers have a future as more than meat and slaves? Will Athalie have the life she hopes for with her hero? And will the ‘spider’ Boklung hold his business together while funding and organising the Arcraft’s voyage across the Milky Way?
Spiderworld is another of Richard Bunning’s quirky, speculative, science fictions.
Is it any good?
Of course it is. It’s published by AIA Publishing, a selective publisher with high standards in quality control. It’s also Awesome Indies Approved and has been nominated for an Awesome Indies Seal of Excellence in fiction.
Will I like it?
Here’s what the Awesome Indies review says:
This is a unique read in so many ways, and I loved it. Eight-limbed “spiders” rule the Multiverse. Humans (yeng) are an enslaved species, and also provide delicious meat to the Aranians. This was a book that pulled me into its pages. If you love sci-fi, alien worlds, even a bit of romance, then you’re bound to love this book.
Where can I buy it?
Who is Richard?
Richard is a citizen of the United Kingdom and New Zealand, but currently resides in Switzerland. He has seven substantive books published, plus one gift-market book written with few words and many short stories appearing in a number of anthologies. His novels are all speculative science fiction while his short pieces cover many genres. He’s also written ‘modern’ English language versions of French neoclassical plays that spouted from some quite different region of his author personality.
Details on all Richard’s writing, including free stories and ‘bloggins’, plus his reviews of many other writers’ works, can be found at:- http://richardbunningbooksandreviews.com
It’s July, and the first Wednesday of the month already. Time for another offering for Alex Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group, postings by a bunch of great and savvy writers with hints, advice, and stories of how we can all overcome the fear that sometimes gets us down. Want to join in? Go here and check it out. Sign up if you’ve a mind to. This month, I want to talk about political correctness—the bane of many modern writers.
On Fathers’ Day, I got into a conversation with my daughter about writing. We started out talking about some of the ultra-right wing writers who set our teeth on edge, and whose work I can never finish because it’s so biased and . . . well, you get it. Anyway, that segued into political correctness, and how much of it is too much in creative writing. This is a topic of particular interest to me because I write a western/historical series about the Buffalo Soldiers in the west after the Civil War, and given the racial and social dynamics of the time, some of today’s PC restrictions (words, topics, etc.), if followed to the letter, would make it impossible to tell the stories of these valiant men credibly.
In a way, though, the same goes for my mystery series. Although it’s set in the present day, it’s about every day (and sometimes not so every day) people who live in Washington, DC – not the DC of politicians, lobbyists, and spies, but the gas station attendants, drug dealers, grocery clerks – you get my drift – the people who live in the real world.
So, how far should political correctness or sensitivity go? In my writing, I have a few self-imposed rules I follow, not so much to be PC, but so nothing gets in the way of telling a good story.
Sex – Got nothing against it, but I avoid overly graphic sex in my stories, even the gritty mystery. My reason: the act itself does little to advance the story. The seduction and the aftermath might, in which case I leave them in, but the anatomical details of the act itself have nothing to do with the plot., so I leave them out. Besides, I find it more enticing to let people imagine.
Profanity – People swear, and that’s a fact of life. Some people swear more than others, and they can be quite graphic and colorful when they do. I don’t put a swear word on every page, but when it’s appropriate to the scene, I use the word the character would use in the situation in real life. Once or twice to let readers know what kind of character they’re dealing with. Usually that’s enough.
Ethnic, Gender, and National Stereotypes – Again, people do this, and when it’s important to establish this in a character, and it has to do with the story, I let fly. Again, as with profanity, I try not to overdo it—just enough to establish the character.
Handicaps, etc. – Unless it’s essential to the story, I don’t stress handicaps in my stories. There will be cripples, people with emotional or mental problems, etc., usually, though, it’ll play a role in the story. Gratuitous pokes, though, are a strict no-no. An example of what I mean: in a work in progress, a young man is accused of murdering the man he abused his mentally ill younger sister. The girl’s condition is key to the story, as it explains his reaction, and is also used to set up a couple of key scenes.
That’s not a complete list of PC stuff, but I think it’s enough to tell you where I stand on the issue. Political correctness, in moderation, is not a bad thing. We shouldn’t hurt people with our writing—unless, like politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, and other scumbags, they deserve to be hurt. But, we should also be fair to our readers. Writing holds up a mirror to the world, and says, ‘Look, this is how it is. Edited a bit for clarity and flow, but baby, it’s not that vanilla world you’d like to live in, so learn to deal with the bits of nut and chocolate chip.’
I was a diplomat for 30 years. I’ll bet you think that made me ultra-PC. Not so. Contrary to what you might believe from popular portrayals of diplomats, we can be quite blunt at times—when it gets the job done. That’s the how your writing should be.
As usual, her voice came out husky and choked when she tried to speak to him. “I’ll see you first thing Monday morning. Promise. But I can’t talk about this now.” She motioned to Emily, and Evan nodded but didn’t move. Jeez, he was so close.
They made small talk, and Paige actually found herself flirting with him a little, relaxing, while the line moved at a snail’s pace to the haunted house. She found out Travis was a neighbor whose parents traveled a lot. Evan also told her things she already knew: he had a brother in the Marines, his parents had retired to Montana to raise horses, lots of superficial stuff. She told him about her father taking her to haunted houses when she was a kid while her scaredy cat sister had stayed home with Mom. She mentioned her parents were dead, but didn’t give the details.
She couldn’t take her eyes off him. Dressed casually, he reminded her of the first time they’d met. He wore a black t-shirt and worn jeans along with the oldest pair of Converse she’d ever seen. His hair was mussed, as if he’d spent a long day at work, running his hands through it like a crazed man. With her constant avoidance of him, he probably had. A pang of remorse hit her hard. She hadn’t made this easy for him. It was time for her to step up and take responsibility. She’d hired him to do a job, and she needed to get over her school-girl crush and help him.
But it was really hard with him staring at her like that.
She could always blame the teenagers for her inappropriate thoughts. They were walking, talking, flirting hormones on legs. By the time they’d made it to the door, Travis had Emily’s phone number and they’d already made a date and were holding hands. She was positive that if she and Evan hadn’t been there they’d be making out. The teenagers that is, not them. Even though she’d relaxed quite a bit, her heart was still letting her know he was standing awfully close to her.
They went in like a train, with Travis volunteering to lead. Emily hung on to his belt loops followed by Paige. Bringing up the rear, one of Evan’s hands dropped protectively to her back. She ignored the warmth trickling through her t-shirt at the contact. Her heart pounded and her hands were clammy, but it wasn’t because of the fog, or the spooky lighting, or the clanging noises, or the zombies jumping out. It was all Evan Rocco, holding onto her.
As far as haunted houses went, this one was disappointing, or maybe she just couldn’t get into it with Evan’s breath on her neck, his hand at her waist, or his other hand snaking around her torso. The further inside they went, the closer they got. Travis was at the front of the line, jumping with every zombie clown that popped out, giving her ample warning of spooky things ahead. By the halfway point, Evan’s arms were around her torso, with her own hands clutching him while they walked in sync together, his hot breath on her neck warming her insides
At one particularly dark corner, Evan yanked her backward into an alcove, pushing her into the darkness. He leaned his forehead on hers while his forearms leaned on the wall on either side of her head, caging her in, keeping her from bolting.
“You have any idea how many times I’ve thought of this since April?” His body crowded her into the tiny, dark space while his minty breath sent her senses reeling.
“Haunted houses?” she offered weakly before his mouth met hers.
It was suddenly as if the puzzle piece she lost six months ago had been put back into place, and she melted into him as his tongue triumphed over the recesses of her mouth. He growled, a predatory rumble emanating from his chest that reminded her of that night last April, and she whimpered against him as he hauled her into his embrace, wrapping his arms around her tightly.
His tongue danced with hers, twining around inside her mouth while his hands roamed her body, cupping her ass. She twirled her fingers in his hair, bringing his mouth closer, fusing it with hers, unwilling to break this kiss which was rapidly undoing her—mind, body, and soul.
As her fingertips clutched desperately at his biceps, she marveled at how someone who was every bit as geeky as she was could be so fucking beautiful, because Evan Rocco was a seriously beautiful man. And this kiss was feral, something wild, causing her to throw caution to the wind and go with it for as long as it lasted.
Evan broke the kiss, leaning his forehead on hers again, his dark brown eyes consuming her. “Paige,” he breathed out ragged gulps of air. “What the fuck is happening?”
Here we are, another first Wednesday, and time for a contribution to Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer’s Support Group (IWSG), a talented (yours truly excepted) group of writers who share tips, advice, fears, and other neat stuff about writing. If you have something you’d like to share, trot over to the IWSG site and join up. In the meantime, this month, I’d like to talk about something that might seem counterintuitive—how having a relatively unvarying routine can help your creativity. That’s right, a dull, boring, same-thing-every day routine can actually be a boon to your creative process, so stop shaking your head and laughing and listen up. If the link above doesn’t work, go to http://insecurewriterssupportgroup.blogspot.com/. This is a temporary link until the insecure Writer Support Group moves to a new domain.
My Daily Routine
Every day, except when I’m sick and have to stay in bed (and, thankfully, my sick days are few and far between), I’m up between 5:30 and 6:30. I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember. I started life on a farm, where early rising was part of the daily routine, went from there to the army where it was part of the daily routine, and after 37 years of that as a daily routine, it is now hardwired into my system. Since I retired from government service three years ago, my wife has tried to get me to sleep in on occasion, but my body has become so accustomed to the 6 – 8 hour per night sleep, after 7.5 hours, my brain starts urging it to get up, and if I go over 8 hours, I get sore muscles, back aches and headaches. Besides, as you’ll see when I get to my ‘Work Routine,’ having a regular sleep-wake cycle is part of what contributes to my creativity.
After getting up, I do my daily exercise, shower and shave, walk the dog (or when we haven’t had a dog I just walk about half a mile), and fix breakfast. After eating breakfast I check emails, and then write for a few hours unless I have a scheduled activity outside the house.
After a couple hours writing, I take another walk. Then, if the weather is good I sit on my deck for two hours, smoking my pipe and either reading, taking pictures of the birds that visit the feeder, or making notes in one of my journals.
Two to three days each week, when I don’t have scheduled activity away from home, I take a two-hour nap from 2:00 to 4:00. As you get older, you too might find this a refreshing way to recharge and build energy.
In the evening, around 6:00, I feed and walk the dog again, wash up and eat supper, and then watch about two hours of TV. After getting my idiot tube fix, I hit the keyboard again and write until around 10:30, or sometimes 11:00, then I go to bed.
I do this Sunday through Saturday, holidays included. When I travel, it’s much the same except for walking the dog and fixing breakfast—I eat breakfast in the hotel restaurant on the road.
What follows is my writing work routine, and you’ll see how my daily life schedule fits it—and, hopefully, how all this feeds into what little creativity I possess.
My Work (writing, photography, and art) Routine
My focus here is on writing primarily. For starters, I have a daily writing quota of at least 2,000 words per day (I once did 1,000, but now that I no longer have a full-time day job working for someone else, I find it quite easy to make the 2,000 quota, and quite often exceed it by several thousand words. I do this regardless of any other planned activity, writing in portable journals I always carry with me when I travel. I write blog postings, book reviews, and work on whatever book project that is in progress—often having two or three books going at the same time.
I spend at least one hour each day reading. I read everything; books for review in several genres, books for pleasure—also in several genres, but mainly mysteries, thrillers, history, and science fiction—checking current news both local and international. When I’m reading, even for pleasure, I make notes of passages that strike me as exceptionally well done. These become guides or jogs for my own writing.
When I’m working on a book project, I write until I’ve reached a point where the ideas begin to slow, but not before I’ve done 2,000 words. I never stop at the end of a chapter, though, writing at least the first paragraph of the next chapter before closing it out. This makes it easier to pick up the next day.
Before I start on a book project, I do a rough chapter or section outline with main plot themes, characters involved, and the action for each chapter. I make character lists, with names, origins, ages, gender, occupation, and special characteristics of each character listed, and refer to them frequently as I write. I also do a timeline for the whole book, with start and end date, and then research to learn what historical events took place during that period. Sometimes the events will be specifically referred to, and at other times, I’ll have a character react to some historical event. I find this adds authenticity to stories and helps put readers more into what’s going on.
Sometimes I’ll devote most of a day to either photography or art (drawing and painting). For either I’m thematic. For instance, if I’m taking pictures, I’ll focus on birds or landscapes. Same with art, I’ll pick a specific subject and do drawings or paintings of that subject for a few hours.
How my Routine Helps my Creativity
At this point, you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with creativity. Well, since I have my day pretty well mapped out, and I’ve been doing it so long I no longer have to think consciously about it—for instance, when I put on my shoes I always put the left shoe on first for some reason. This leaves my mind free to focus on the creative aspects of my work. While I’m cooking my breakfast, for instance, I’ll be thinking about my work in progress. I might, for example, think about how preparing a meal could be worked into my current story, and how it might be used to foreshadow a key event in the story.
Even when I’m out taking pictures, my mind is taking in details of my surroundings. What sounds do I hear? How does the ground feel beneath my feet? What does the forest smell like at certain times of the day, or during different seasons? What color is the sky in the early morning as compared to late afternoon? All of these can add to the depth and richness of what you write.
Even when I’m taking my afternoon nap, my mind is working. I usually fall asleep thinking about my work in progress, and when I wake up, I’m one of a fortunate few people who can vividly remember my dreams. Immediately upon waking up, I go to my journal and jot down the most memorable parts of my dreams.
Now, I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made my point. By having a well-established routine, your mind is free to roam; to go off on those creative tangents that help to enliven your writing. You get more done—sort of two for one, if you will—the day-to-day activities of life get done, and at the same time you are creating what could very well be something a great number of people would enjoy reading or seeing.
In this month’s offering for Alec Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writer Support Group monthly blog, I’d like to continue my post from last month about the source of ideas for the stories I write. First, though, a few words about the group. This is a posting on the first Wednesday of each month by some outstanding bloggers from around the world addressing the insecurities and fears of writing as well as advice and tips on how to get the most out of your talent. You should pop over and check it out, and while you’re there, sign up to join this august crew.
Okay, enough promotion, now on to the finale of ‘where story ideas come from,’ an adaptation of a post I did a few years ago.
When I started writing the Al Pennyback mystery series, I didn’t have a specific sub-genre in mind. It’s not a hardboiled mystery with a hero who is always battling bad guys; nor is it a procedural mystery – I go light on the technical aspects of crimes, criminals, or police procedures. I was just going for a good story that had a crime as a central element, which the hero, Al Pennyback, would then set about solving.
My main motivation for writing this particular series was the fact that I live in the Washington, DC area, and have for more than 30 years, and most of the stories set in this locale are about politicians, spies, or high-powered lobbyists. I know that the average Joe and Jane who happens to call the Washington metro area home lives a life that can be just as exciting as the K Street crowd, or the boys across the river in McLean, so, about ten years ago I started drafting.
My first, Color Me Dead, went through more than six years of rewriting; the title changed, the central plot changed, and most importantly, the name and background of the main character changed. I no longer remember what I called him at first, but, one day as I was sweating over the tenth or twentieth draft, Al Pennyback was born. He’s an African-American; after all, the area is predominantly African-American; he’s retired military; being retired military, I can relate to that, and the area also has loads of retired military people; and he’s a sucker for puzzles and unsolved mysteries. Despite, or because of, his military background, he hates guns, preferring to use his wits or his martial arts ability to get out of tight spots. He’s a widower; gives him an air of sympathy; but, has a girl friend. The sex scenes are only hinted at. I think too many modern mysteries go overboard on the sex. And, the language is mostly mild. On occasion, Al or one of the characters lets fly with an earthy expletive, because that’s the way people talk after all, but you won’t find curse words on every page.
That’s sort of the definition of a cozy mystery; cosy in British English; but, I didn’t set out to write cozies. Despite that, one of my British readers has decided that’s the sub-genre of at least one of the stories in the series, Dead Man’s Cove. He gave it such a good review, I don’t have the heart to argue the point.
Following the advice given in most books on writing, I try to show, not tell. I let the characters’ dialogue and action move the story rather than filling page after page with exposition or descriptions.
Now, the question one might well ask is; where do the ideas for this series come from? The answer is – everywhere. I read newspapers, print and online, and every edition has at least one story idea. Till Death Do Us Part, for instance, came from an article I read in a South African newspaper on a flight from Capetown to Copenhagen a few years ago about a couple who’d come to Johannesburg on vacation and been victims of a carjacking. The wife was killed, but the husband escaped unharmed. It turned out later that he’d arranged the incident in order to get rid of his wife. I changed the setting to Jamaica and was off to the races.
I’ve done two books about radical militias, Dead, White, and Blue and Deadly Intentions. The proliferation of militias and other hate groups in the U.S. over the past several decades has always concerned me, so this was a natural.
Deadline started out as a story about scams against lonely women, but about one-third into the first draft I decided to throw a ghost in just for the heck of it. I’m a bit agnostic about ghosts – I don’t know that they are real, but I don’t know that they’re not, so there you are.
Whatever motivates the story idea, my main objective is to write a story that keeps the reader wanting to turn the page to see what happens next.
There you have it; that’s where story ideas come from. I’ll bet if you stop and think about it, you’ll find that your inspiration is similar.
I read and review a lot of books. Most of them I love, some I like — and some, well, I don’t like so much. I try always to give them as objective a review as possible. As an author, I know the importance of reviews to the visibility—and ultimately sales—of an author’s work.
Different people have different views of reviewing. I know some reviewers, for instance, who will not publish a review unless they can give it four or five stars. Others seem to delight in giving one and two-star reviews. Personally, if I can’t give a book at least three stars I will usually not review it. Some people view a three-star review as negative. I think that’s a mistaken view. It’s not over the moon, sure, but a three star review is saying that a book is acceptable, but it contains a few issues (typos, grammar, formatting, etc.) that detract from the reading experience.
As a writer I know how it feels to get a bad review, but I don’t think of the three-star reviews I get as negative. I take them as teaching moments. They’re telling me that I’ve written a so-so book that could have been better. If a book is on the verge of being great, but has two or three typos or grammatical errors, I’ll give it four stars. Five stars only go to books that wow me and have no issues. That’s the criteria used by Awesome Indies Readers and Reviewers which I apply not only to my reviews, but that I use when I’m doing the re-read and edit of my own work.
So, a piece of advice to young writers—especially those putting out their first book—that will help in the process of maturing as a writer: don’t let a three-star review send you into a fit of depression. Read it carefully and see what you can learn from it. Even after you’ve gained some experience as a writer, don’t expect to get all four and five-star reviews. Not everything you write will appeal to everyone. No problem. Just keep writing. Resolve to do better with each book, and let the stars fall where they may.