Van Gogh’s Café

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Van Gogh stares through the centuries. He could be studying every detail of the café for one of his paintings: every rose-tinted light, every bottle clink and curve. The colors of his century are abstract, inviting.

He scrutinizes a shadowed corner and finds me there. He is committing it all to memory. He just might go home and paint my stunned expression as I stare back at him.

I raise my glass in a toast, wanting him to know how much his art is finally appreciated. The bartender scowls. But then, she must think I’m toasting a blank wall.

For Friday Fictioneers, writers from all over the world come up with a 100-word story or poem inspired by a photo that’s posted every Wednesday. Thank you to Rochelle Wisoff-Fields for hosting and to Ted Strutz for this photo.



How Does Where You Live Affect Your Writing?

Chatham, Cape Cod

Our surroundings are constantly affecting us. But how much does where we live affect our writing?

Southern writers like Robert Penn Warren are known for a certain cadence, a more languid or lingering tone. His writing feels like sitting out on a front porch on a humid night with cicadas buzzing in the background. Irish writers also bring a sing-song lyrical feeling into their writing.

A certain tone is hard to pinpoint and I don’t know if my writing has anything like that because of where I live. It’s probably more because of what I read and the rhythms found there. But Cape Cod definitely contributes to the overall feeling of my writing, either through descriptions or something more mysterious.

Descriptions of the ocean and sky are always sneaking into my stories. The changing seasons find their way in because I can’t help but be affected by them. If I lived in the tropics, I’d probably keep looking for new ways to describe the heat.

Hancock tower, BostonI used to live in a Boston apartment. Boston is full of edges and angles, like this photo. I loved the energy of the city and being able to walk everywhere, but my writing ended up sounding depressing because I’d describe things I happened to encounter like gum splattered all over a sidewalk or the smell of an alley. I remember trying to describe that particular subway smell: a strange mixture of sweat, popcorn, greased metal, and feet. I could never really fully describe it. Maybe the fact that it can’t be described makes it sound even scarier.

Of course, the fun of writing is in using our imaginations. But our imaginations build off of our surroundings. While living in Boston, I’d be more likely to describe the way the light hit a certain building to make it glow or the sound of different accents and languages mingled together on the city streets. Now that I think about it, I miss Boston. Even that strange subway smell.

Boston street

How does where you live affect your writing? Have you ever tried to describe an indescribable smell?

Memorable Characters in Books and in Life

characterI spent most of January with the Brothers Karamazov. They discussed philosophy and psychology while I just sat there and listened. Sometimes we laughed together.

I still think about them and that makes me wonder why. What makes some characters so memorable? The Brothers Karamazov were pretty strange and they did contradict themselves a lot. They didn’t know who to love or what to believe in and while trying to figure these things out, they ended up tormenting themselves. It seemed like Dostoevsky was making fun of his characters and that made the whole story more interesting and even laughable at times.

Not all characters can be strange, but they should be unique in some way. It also helps if something about a character is a little mysterious so that the reader will want to figure that character out. Death in The Book Thief is memorable for that reason, but maybe also just because he’s Death.

Other memorable book characters have been Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath or Scarlett O’Hara (so memorable that I don’t have to name the book for that one). Their struggles become our struggles as we see them fight against starvation and a changing society. Atticus Finch has his own obstacles to overcome, but he’s known more for his patience and ability to explain complicated issues.

In real life, any characters I’ve known aren’t as memorable for their struggles as they are for their personalities. They’re either funny or adventurous or different in some way, and they help me see the world in a different way too.

What are some of your favorite book or real-life characters? Why are they memorable?

Out of Reach

reach

He shuffled by the statue on his way to work. He tried not to look but always did.

On the worst and grayest days, a demon grasped and pulled at his ankle. Sometimes the demon was love and then it wasn’t so bad. Still, the man kept reaching. But for what? Salvation, freedom, a better life in some other, faraway place? All that reaching could turn into too much. All that reaching could make a man fall. The statue showed him that. He ducked away from the drizzle and went to work.

Still, the man kept reaching.

For Friday Fictioneers, writers from all over the world come up with a 100-word story or poem inspired by a random photo. Thank you to Rochelle Wisoff-Fields for hosting and to David Stewart for this photo.


Beat the Winter Freeze with Freelancing

winter freezeSometimes we just want to hibernate. Our minds freeze up and we can’t find the words that normally flow. There’s been a lot of talk about writer’s block out there lately and I think the winter freeze could be to blame. Even if our bodies aren’t hibernating, our minds may want to.

Whenever that happens, it helps to put the current project aside and work on a shorter one. Short stories are good for this, but I also enjoy freelancing for my local newspaper. Freelancing will force you into writing, writer’s block or not, because there will always be a looming deadline. But the best part is that it will bring you out into the world to talk with people who have stories to tell.

To do this, it’s as easy as contacting your local newspaper to ask if they need freelancers. Reporters are usually understaffed and they’ll be glad for the chance to unload a story or two. When I first worked as a reporter out of college, I got the job by visiting newspaper offices with my resumé and a writing sample. A tired reporter happened to be walking by and asked if I’d write a story as a freelancer. One story led to another and I ended up working there as a full-time reporter.

Freelancing is more fun than full-time reporting because it doesn’t involve town meetings where people argue until midnight about sidewalks or traffic lights. Since I have a regular day job now, I write feature articles every few weeks or so. No town meetings are involved and I love getting out there to talk with people about all the exciting things they’ve done. It will make you realize how true it is that stories are everywhere and that will melt any writer’s block away.

Do you have any questions about reporting or freelancing? What do you do to beat the winter freeze?

Virtual Reality

For Friday Fictioneers, writers from all over the world come up with a 100-word story or poem inspired by a random photo. Thank you to Rochelle Wisoff-Fields for hosting and to Renee Homan Heath for this photo that taunts us with the promise of warmth during these frozen days.

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This one stirred her heart with the rustle of palm tree leaves. She could feel the sand between her toes and the warmth of the boardwalk. Her feet made a hollow echo while the waves sounded out their own rhythms.

Just as she was about to step onto the warm sand, everything changed and her feet squished onto a muddy jungle path. Monkeys screeched instead of seagulls and the leaf rustling felt much more menacing. These virtual realities never lasted long enough, but she knew if they did last too long, any fantasy could turn into a nightmare. She began to run.

Why Bother with New Year’s Resolutions?

sunrise or sunset

Resolutions can be as silly and as short-lived as those noisemakers and hats that appear on New Year’s Eve. I usually end up forgetting any resolutions as soon as they’re made, but I like silly things so I keep making them anyway. They give me hope. They make me think maybe this will be the year…if I could just remember to keep at least one resolution.

I tried to think of fun things to add this time around. If the promise of fun and excitement doesn’t make me stick to these resolutions, nothing will. So here’s my 2013 list:

1. Publish my novels. This makes me laugh because it’s been a resolution for too many years. If I can’t find the perfect agent for traditional publishing, I’ll try a small press or I’ll self publish.

2. Learn how to play the fiddle. For some reason, I keep wanting to do this but then I keep forgetting, probably because of being preoccupied with #1.

3. Plant more trees. This should be easy to do because I haven’t planted many trees lately.

4. Move around more often (even if that means stepping away from the computer). This one should also be easy because I don’t move around much on a regular day. Since the usual “exercise more” resolution never seems to work, this is a downscaled version.

5. Laugh more often. Probably already accomplished after watching The Big Lebowski recently.

6. Learn Italian once and for all because it’s so much fun to say.

7. Drink more wine and eat more chocolate. That one could be hard to do but it would be fun to try.

I’ve been subjecting everyone to this blog for about a year now. Thank you all for visiting and especially for your friendship. The best part of this adventure has been meeting you. I hope everyone has a happy 2013 filled with much love and laughter.

Have you ever kept a New Year’s resolution? Did you make any resolutions this year? Does The Big Lebowski make you laugh?  

The_Big_Lebowski___Jeff_Bridges

So You Wrote a Novel? Now the Real Work Begins!

Writing fiction has never felt like work to me. It gives my mind the chance to wander and play. So if writing fiction is like a recess, then query submissions are the exams.

Anyone who can write a novel should be able to write an exciting query letter, right? I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s the pressure of exam time. Maybe it’s harder to find those perfect words when they’re limited to just a few. Still, it’s something we have to do if we want to traditionally publish our books and find the perfect agent.

Finding the right words for a query letter can be as difficult as capturing a butterfly. Yet, they are all around us.

Finding the right words for a query letter can be as difficult as capturing a butterfly. Yet, they are all around us.

There are a lot of websites out there filled with advice on querying. Nathan Bransford is one of the best for general advice. Query Shark is a fun way to learn how to catch an agent’s eye because Janet Reid, the agent behind the shark, publishes real, live query letters and rips them to shreds while showing what was done wrong (or sometimes, right).

One way to tackle the query letter is to come up with a few general sentences about the book before writing it. Then everything doesn’t have to be siphoned down afterwards and the resulting blurb can act as an outline.

When emailing query submissions, it’s best to email them to yourself first so that you’ll see if any formatting issues come up. Especially if you’re copying and pasting, some email programs may add double or triple lines or may not recognize paragraph breaks and of course these things only happen after the email is sent.

For anyone querying or researching agents, these publications by Agent Noah Lukeman are free on Kindle: How to Write a Great Query Letter: Insider Tips and Techniques for Success and How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent. After reading through those and other publications, stalking the above websites, and attending a query letter writing class during a recent writer’s conference, I just might be able to find those magic words. Maybe.

Traditionally publishing a novel is a slow process. Ask any turtle.

Traditionally publishing a novel is a slow process. Ask any turtle.

Have you found the magic words to describe your novel? What’s the best querying advice you’ve received? What has the querying stage been like for you? 

Have We Progressed and Is Progress Worth It?

Novel themes are fun because they’re subtle. It’s possible to read a book without realizing what the theme is even though it’s usually there, lurking in the background.

Ironically, the theme of the novel it’s taken me more than a year to revise is progress. I think about progress a lot.

Have we, as humans, progressed? There’s no doubt we have. But sometimes it seems as if for every step forward, we take at least another step back. We have time saving devices like computers and washing machines, but they cause pollution and disposal problems. Cars and highways were once seen as signs of progress over horses and dirt roads. Now traffic jams slow any progress down.

Electricity was another sign of progress. Yet we still create most of our electricity by burning fossil fuels. Now we’re looking toward using alternative energy sources. Any meaningful progress seems too slow.

Throughout history, most of our progress has come at the expense of nature. Nature does have a way of fighting back though. Sometimes I can’t help but think this would be progress of a different kind:

nature, progress

Maybe progress shouldn’t be measured by technology and inventions, but by how we treat each other. When looked at that way, there have been huge strides since the 1950s when segregation ruled the South and a woman’s place was in the home (and only the home). So while we keep taking steps forward and back, hopefully we’ll continue to take a few leaps ahead every once in a while. Sometimes we don’t even realize progress is happening until we look back and say, “Wow, everything is different. How did that happen?”

What are your thoughts on progress? Is progress worth it?

Friday Fictioneers: Sunglasses at Night

It’s time for Friday Fictioneers, a chance to write a 100-word story or poem inspired by a random photo. Thank you to Rochelle Wisoff-Fields for hosting and to Ted Strutz for this mysterious photo.

The sunglasses were strategically placed near the toys that fly. Most people ran right up to the flying toys and sent them whizzing through the air. They didn’t see the need for sunglasses, even as the toy airplanes buzzed by their eyelashes and almost landed on their heads.

Jake put his sunglasses on and strolled up to the giggling pack of girls. They became shadows. He could no longer see eyes rolling or the possibility of condescending looks. He walked up to the girl and held out his hand. She took it. Without a word, he led her away.


The Great Escape

For Friday Fictioneers, everyone over at the Madison Woods site writes a 100-word story or poem inspired by a photograph. It sounds like fun and should be interesting to see how similar the stories or poems are once they’re posted each Friday. This week’s photo was taken by Jan Morrill. Even though it’s not Friday yet, it’s about time to start celebrating so here’s my first attempt.

He sprinted down the white-walled alley. A chill from the shadowed sand ran up his legs and settled in his gut. Each turn only led to more walls and more alleyways. The sky taunted him with openness.

If only he could fly like the birds he so loved to watch. He tried jumping but the walls proved too high. He scratched and scrambled and fell back down to the sand.

A sweet smell drifted from the door. Just as he took a step toward it, a hand gripped the back of his neck. Soon the dreaded leash was once again upon him.

What Do Bozo the Clown, the Ocean, and My Crazy Dog Have in Common?

Strangely enough, Bozo the Clown, the ocean, and my crazy dog all influenced me while writing a short story called “Wandering Universes.” I’m excited to announce that the story was recently published in Halfway Down the Stairs.

For any writers out there, this is a great publication to submit to. Each issue has a theme like “we all fall down,” “time” or “persuasion” and it’s fun coming up with a story or poem to fit each theme. This issue’s theme was “chaos,” which went along well with my crazy dog.

Bozo can also be pretty chaotic. I know this because I once appeared on the show and had to run around and catch as many balloons as possible. When the neighborhood kids saw me on television, they brought presents to the house and asked for my autograph. It was my one brush with fame. A lot of people think clowns are creepy these days, but the thought of Bozo still makes me smile.

The ocean, whether chaotic or calm, is always influencing me. In this short story, a couple continually walks a certain coastline, possibly too often, but doing so lets their minds wander. Until chaos arrives, that is.

In case you’d like to read it, here’s a link to my short story Wandering Universes.

Lucky Seven

I love the game of tag. It reminds me of running around the neighborhood while blending in with the twilight and feeling daring for being out so late. Kasia James of Writer’s Block tagged me for Lucky Seven. She’s a talented writer and friend from Australia. Please take a look at her site if you haven’t yet – it’s a great one.

Here’s how Lucky Seven works:

  • Go to page 7 or 77 in your current manuscript
  • Go to line 7
  • Post on your blog the next 7 lines or sentences – as they are
  • Tag 7 other people to do the same

Lucky me – I have two unpublished novels to choose from for this! The excerpt from the novel I’m querying gives too much away, so here’s the excerpt from page 7 of my first unpublished novel:

Cars of different colors and in different stages of disrepair glided easily along. From the outside looking in, everything seemed so simple. Every car stayed separate, yet the same road connected them all. That idea fascinated her. Where were they all going? Where would they end up? She peered in, catching glimpses of people she would never meet.

I’m going to reach out and wildly tag five people just to be different:

Joy in the Moments

Ross Gale

Bookish and Odd

Frivolous Monsters

Bailey Is Writing