Time to Reboot and Refresh

Don’t you just love computer language? Since computers are so much a part of our lives, it make sense that we would share vocabulary that pertains to them with reference to our own sense of wellbeing. That fact has to be made all the more ironic because computers are, of course, part of our big problem, too.

It’s true we each of us have control over computers and how much time we spend sitting in front of them. But this so-called control is not unlike, in my mind, how we have control over not smoking or stuffing Twinkies in our mouths. On the face of it, it looks like this is something we control, at least in theory, but do we really?

The US government doesn’t think we do. It actually encourages us to believe that we DON’T have control by affirming to us that the reason we’re all getting fat is not because we can’t stop eating the wrong thing, it’s because there isn’t a law forbidding us to eat the wrong thing.

The point I’m trying to circle around to is the one that says, once again, we are the authors of our own misery—caused invariably by the fact that we refuse to stop for a minute and see what we’re doing and see the damage we’re doing. And that’s true whether it’s cigarettes or iHop pancakes or six hours of staring at a computer screen. Six hours probably won’t kill any of us, but doing it every day—or bumping the six hours to ten like I can EASILY do—just might. And not in a grab-your-heart-and-keel-over-the-keyboard kind of kill you, but in a TS Eliot life-measured-out-in-coffee-spoons kind of death. Bit by byte. (Forgive me; I clearly have no control over easily resistible puns either.)

Six years ago, an anthropologist named Cheryl Swanson, a partner in the trend-tracking firm, Toniq, was quoted as saying that we (she was speaking about Americans but I can comfortable extend the target to my entire blog audience) are now processing information at 400 times the rate of our Renaissance ancestors. But we haven’t yet adapted physically or mentally to do it in a way that doesn’t compromise our health.

Added to the 400 times more information we are all attempting to process is the fact that it does not come with 400 extra hours in the day to do so. Without really agreeing to it or even realizing it was happening, how we get those extra hours is by giving up other stuff that used to enhance our lives and heighten our quality of life: sleep, staring at a sunset, walking instead of riding, watching a chrysalis hatch, eating a slow meal with loved ones. I’m a baker and a Martha Stewart zealot. I used to fantasize about a place setting for twelve for Thanksgiving dinner complete with matching turkey saltshakers at every place. And yet, the last year my son was home before he went off to college, our family meals consisted of the three of us standing at the kitchen counter to wolf down our meals (half the time our son took his meal in his bedroom with his calculus homework.) Swanson’s research indicated that in the sixties, dinner was 45 minutes long. By the nineties, it had shrunk to fifteen minutes and today—well, let’s just say that, sadly (forgive me, Martha!), I’m a poster child for family dinners of today. Standing. In fewer than five minutes. It takes more time to make it and clean up after it than to “enjoy” it. And of course, food manufacturers have been hard at work to help us with that part of the equation by creating cheap mix-and-go food that’s a snap to make and even digest. Of course it tastes like donkey dung and brings no moment of pleasure or satisfaction beyond killing hunger pangs but at least you can skip the wash up and just dump the cartons in the trash and call it done. (What next? An IV drip?) I guess there was some big fat reason that forced us to live like this. There was obviously some important trade off that made it worthwhile. I quake to think it was just so we could get extra time in front of the computer terminal or worse, the TV set.

Bottom line? We’re left with a population of people—of all ages—strung out, sleep-deprived and jittery with hyper-enlarged concerns (from ingestion of too much news) that we’re convinced matter very much and probably don’t at all.

Maybe that’s why I find myself writing and reading apocalyptic fiction so much. I have been fascinated (and fearful) by the concept of technological over stimulation in our culture ever since I watched my nine-year-old son eschew a live-action fireworks display in favor of saving the planet from alien zombies on his GameBoy. My post-apocalyptic book Free Falling was written, largely, because of my helpless concern  and my desire to live in a simpler, less technological time.

Let’s face it. Wasn’t the last time we all slowed down, lit a candle and stared peacefully into space  sometime during the last power outage? Or how about that time you got sick and stayed in bed with magazines and a box of tissues and just the sound of your own sniffling and the cat purring? Wasn’t it kind of wonderful at the same time it was miserable?

What does that tell you?

A Hero’s Quest – The Legend of Anaise

And now for something totally different… I’m hosting my very first other-than-me writer promotion for Author Sheryl Steines. There’s a cool rafflecopter and a fun giveaway, plus a chance for you to get to know Sheryl and her work. I hope you check it out. It looks like an awesome read!

Okay everyone, look very closely… are you paying attention?  This is  a contest to see how closely you pay attention when you read The Legend of Anaise (below) from the recently released novel She Wulf by Sheryl Steines.

GET RAFFLECOPTER CODE HERE

Don’t forget to take a tour around the participating blogs and answer all the questions – there are FIVE questions so you will have numerous chances to participate and win! There are several prizes, too – ONE random correct answer will win a signed copy of She Wulf. (Don’t worry if you don’t get it right you still have a chance to win one of several other prizes just for trying!)

Prizes:

  • 1 signed copy; winner selected  amongst all correct entries
  • 3 eBooks; winners randomly selected from amongst ALL entries (correct or not)
  • Gift Card $15; winners randomly selected from amongst ALL entries (correct or not)
  • Annie and Cham Swag; winners randomly selected from amongst ALL entries (correct or not)
  • BTW: if you have trouble reading the scroll for any reason, please go here for a plain text version

About the Author

Sheryl Steines is equal parts driven, passionate and inspired.  With a degree in English from Wright State University, Steines dedicates time everyday to her art.  Her love of books and a quality story drives her to share her talent with her readers as well as make the time to talk to book clubs and students about her process.

Sheryl has eclectic tastes and enjoys character driven novels.  In her own writing, the Annie Loves Cham series is driven by her love of the characters and her desire to place them in totally new situations. She enjoys testing their mettle.

Behind the wheel of her ’66 Mustang Convertible, Sheryl is a constant surprise. Her sense of humor and relatable style make her books something everyone can enjoy.

Sheryl can be found on Twitter, Facebook, or her blog. She also encourages her readers to email her and let her know what you think of Annie and Cham!

Okay, everyone, that was fun! I’ll be back to whatever  it is I do here on this blog tomorrow with a new post. I hope you’ll look at Sheryl’s stuff in the meanwhile and catch up with me back here.

Keep Writing! And reading.

What’s the deal with trunk material?

Dean Wesley Smith has this great analogy of perishable produce that he uses to describe how traditional publishers view the products that we writers create. His point is that publishers believe there is a time stamp on books and after awhile they become stale and no longer marketable. This is a fascinating notion when you consider that so many of the best stories are those that were handed down through the generations—or retreads on William Shakespeare’s plot lines—which were probably retreads on Cicero’s or someone else’s. The point is, most authors that I know (moi, for instance) totally bought into the whole my-book-as-rotting-fruit concept. If you shopped your manuscript for longer than two years, you’d start to get rejections based on the belief that the book was now “trunk material” which, I believe, alludes to the likelihood that it has been molding in a trunk in the attic (kind of like “Confederacy of Dunces,”)  and so, of course, is not as good as something fresh and new. (Mind you, by the time publishers get around to editing and publishing your book, it seems to me even the freshest manuscript could then qualify as being trunk material by the agents and publishers’ own definition but perhaps that’s just the inherent irony of a complicated, confusing (IMHO) business and therefore completely lost to me.)

Anyhoo, laying to rest the notion of trunk material is another victory that must be claimed by the Indie Author. When I published the first mystery in my Provençal mystery series, this manuscript—which was at one point represented by John Grisham’s agent and thrown out for a bidding war among the Big Ten (at that time) and ultimately failed to find a home—was riddled with so many dated references that I despaired at ever having the time to tweak it into the modern age. (It is 140K words.) Not only did multiple plot points depend on my heroine using phone booths and doing things in an airport that today (post 911) would not be do-able, it was written in a heavily descriptive style that was more popular in the nineties than it is today, leaning more toward PD James and Elizabeth George-style exposition. But, in typical Indie style, I threw it up there anyway, priced it at a buck so nobody would be too pissed at having purchased a story written way back in the early nineties and directed my focus to my fresh stuff—written with NCIS precision and iPhones and texting galore.

I’m sure you can guess how the end of this little story goes. My ancient manuscript, dusted off from the bowels of the trunk it had been sleeping in for the last twenty years sells very well. It was always a good story—complete with dated marker comps and nary a mention of cellphones anywhere. When I read reviews on it, I always look to see if anyone mentions being distracted by how old this story is and so far no one has. They talk about the emotion of relating to the heroine, of the anger at the hero for failing to act quickly enough, of the sadness of the murder and of the pleasure of feeling like they had been transported to Paris.

Nobody even noticed it was trunk material.

I’d send this post to my ex-agent (one of many) to let him know that it all worked out in spite of his crap advice about the manuscript being “too old” (a year after I’d signed with him) but I’m sure even he’s figured out by now that the world has changed. If he’s still employed, hopefully he changed with it, (although not as a resource for authors, I trust.)

We not only have cellphones now, we writers also have a brand new dose of self respect that begins with making decisions based on what we know in our hearts to be true. And that is: a good story is a good story. And it’ll be a good story twenty, forty, a hundred years from now.

No matter what anyone tells you.

Daily Creative Habits of the Rich and Famous

I read recently that there are three things that nudge your creativity to start percolating. Some of you may already do these things without knowing why. When I read them I thought: Wow. I do that!

  1. Unique. There should be some part of your daily routine that you don’t associate with other activities. For some it’s a certain music that you put on just before you sit down at the keyboard. I only drink coffee  when I write.  If you do this special thing at other times, it loses its magic.
  2. Emotional Intensity. This is that wonderful thing called flow that we all experience when we’re so immersed in our work, we forget time and place. As it happens, this intensity is necessary for true creative work. Losing yourself in the endeavor is the result when you give all of yourself.
  3. Repetition. Not to get too analytical here and kill the buzz, but when you can put your finger on the thing or combination of things that helped create magic for you in your work, you need to repeat it.

I read once that Alexander Solzhenitsyn use to sequester himself away in a little writing cabin down the hill from his home 365 days a year—no exceptions. Here are a few successful writers and their routines for your entertainment and information. Afterward, please take a moment and shoot me a comment letting me know how you wind yourself up (or down) to get down to business. A post following this one will be about less famous writers and their methods.

Stephen King: “There are certain things I do if I sit down to write. I have a glass of water or a cup of tea. There’s a certain time I sit down, from 8:00 to 8:30, somewhere within that half hour every morning. I have my vitamin pill and my music, sit in the same seat, and the papers are all arranged in the same places. The cumulative purpose of doing these things the same way every day seems to be a way of saying to the mind, you’re going to be dreaming soon.”

CS Lewis: “We…settled into a routine which has ever since served in my mind as an archetype. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the taproom the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes. At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend.”

Joyce Carol Oates “I try to write in the morning very intensely, from 8:30 to 1 p.m. When I’m traveling, I can work from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. Alone, I get a lot of work done in hotel rooms. The one solace for loneliness is work. I hand write and then I type. I don’t have a word processor. I write slowly.”

John Grisham said he would write for two hours before he had to turn to his job as a lawyer, and once there, there were “enormous amounts of wasted time” that would give him the opportunity to write.  He said “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important. The alarm clock would go off at 5, and I’d jump in the shower. My office was 5 minutes away. And I had to be at my desk, at my office, with the first cup of coffee, a legal pad and write the first word at 5:30, five days a week. I was very disciplined about it. Now I don’t have to.”

Toni Morrison: “Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was–there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard–but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee and watch the light come. And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space I can only call nonsecular… Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”

John Updike: “I do try to stick to a schedule. I’ve been maintaining this schedule off and on — well, really since I moved up to Ipswich in ’57.  Since I’ve gone to some trouble not to teach, and not to have any other employment, I have no reason not to go to my desk after breakfast and work there until lunch. So I work three or four hours in the morning, and it’s not all covering blank paper with beautiful phrases. You begin by answering a letter or two. There’s a lot of junk in your life. There’s a letter. And most people have junk in their lives but I try to give about three hours to the project at hand and to move it along.”

Ernest Hemingway: (Tell me you can’t hear the Hemingway of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” in this quote!) “When I am working on a book or story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and you know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.”

Truman Capote: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand.”

When William Styron settled in his Connecticut farmhouse and began a family, his life became every writer’s ideal: productive yet relaxed, sociable yet protected. On the door frame outside his workroom, he tacked a piece of cardboard with a Flaubert quotation: ”Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

So, assuming you have to be creative pretty much daily—whether because you have a daily word count or a day job that doesn’t suck and requires you to use that part of your talents—how do you get your best creative day kick started? Please, leave a comment and let me know your routine to get the juices going. Sometime next year, I’ll put your schedules right up there next to Baryshnikov’s and JK Rowling’s!