Sunday, March 27, 2011

You either have a story dying to get out, either you should get another hobby. :)

This week's post is inspired by a comment Stephanie Jones made after my Yoda post last week. "You're right - try doesn't get you anywhere in writing - I'm pretty blunt about this - you either have a story dying to get out, either you should get another hobby. :)"

It seems to me that there are a lot of people out there who like the idea of being a writer and the romantic lifestyle that it seems to be part of: drinking and womanizing a la Hemingway, living in self imposed exile a la Joyce, drinking and womanizing a la Lord Byron, and, of course, the ultimate in romance drinking absinthe and committing suicide because the world doesn't understand you. I must admit, what could compare with that?

And so, after college, I set off to seek this life and found it on the seat of a forklift from 7pm to 7am driving around a printing plant. I soon learned that it is only romantic when it is happening to someone else. When the trials and tribulations are happening to you they lose a lot of their luster and you need to really determine if this is how you want to spend your life.

I remember talking to a lot of bohemian types about art and literature in college over glasses of beer or wine. They talked and talked and talked but no one really produced anything. And, then they went on to jobs in the corporate world. This is fine. Everybody must be who they truly are and the sooner they find that out the better because otherwise you are living an imagined life.

But, it seems to me that people who must write, who must truly write, know instinctively who they are and will overcome any and all obstacles to meet that need. Human beings are physicaal manifestations of universal forces. We are all, in effect, the eyes, ears and voices of the universe. If you've got a story in you dying to get out that is the universal urge attempting to manifest itself into existance. And this is sad because so many people give up on their dream or, even worse, don't even start. That is why being a writer is a calling, not unlike entering the priesthood. It requires dedication, perseverence, faith and any number of other things. So, when you become frustrated with the writer's life you have to understand that it is a nobel life. It is a daring and romantic life by virtue of it's very nature. You have picked up the gauntlet that was thrown at your feet by the universe daring you to be the vessel that brings forth what it desires to be in existance.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Do or do not, there is no try - Yoda was right.

Something I discovered after many years of "trying" to write my first novel was that when I really put my nose to the grind stone and gave it the old college try and any other rah, rah platitude you can apply writing was really difficult. However, when I got really frustrated with the whole process and gave up, all of a sudden things started coming to me: ideas, dialogue for characters, sentences, paragraphes, metaphors, it was a virtual treasure trove. If you don't believe me just remember back to school days when you really liked someone and "tried" to get theem to like you. Nothing happened. No one likes a needy salesman. However, once you stopped "trying" something strange happened. People actually started liking you, in droves even, you attracted to you what you had been "trying" to, but without effort. Anyway, I quickly accepted that this is how the universe works because I'd rather not work at something than work hard at something...especially if I am getting better results.

However, it took me a long time to figure out how this all worked in the scheme of the big picture. After years of reading philosophical and religious texts as well as studying psychology and understanding a little bit about how the human brain and mind works I've got a pretty good lock on it. I won't bore you with the big picture but I will tell you why "trying" works against you and why I stopped "trying" years ago.

The act of "trying" actually implies the possibility of failure. Now Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychologist said that things that are not resolved within the subconscious must become manifest in the world around us. So, if you think that there is the possibility of failing you will manifest difficulty and potentially failure in your external reality. But, and here's the secret, drum roll please, failure, just like the existance of cold, is an illusion! Just as cold is really the absence of heat and doesn't, in itself, exist, it is impossible to fail. People who say they have failed have simply stopped moving toward their goal, they have given up. Things that appear to be failures are really lessons to teach you how to adjust your approach so that you will eventually reach your goal.

So take it easy, stop trying and keep working toward your goal.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What is your writing process like?

I have said before in previous posts that I liken writing a novel to trying to turn a cross word puzzle into a book. I would be very interested to see what other writers processes are like. The fact that my actual writing process did not compare with the way I thought the writing process should be frustrated me as a young novelist. Perhaps you might feel the same way.
I had this conception that the writing process should follow some set order like ABC. I thought that this is how people like Hemingway, Joyce, Shakespeare etc must operate. However, I found that my process was something more like AZWCRT with large empty spaces in between each step in the processs on the page and in the calendar.
For instance, I finished my first novel about 5 years ago and began looking for a publisher while starting to write my second novel when, like Dante in the Divine Comedy, I had journeyed half of our life's way, I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.
And so, I am getting back to the task of publishing and writing. The task of writing for me is about accumulating a whole bunch of notes, individual sentences, catch phrases and other mental detritus (you can tell I like this word because I’ve used it in another post) and figuring out how it all fits together.
For example I’ve got this saying that I think I’d like a character to use somewhere: “trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents.” And, maybe the only silver he has to spend is in his beard….who knows.
And, of course, Swamp Lily is a great nickname for a prostitute named Addie Beckly. And, she might say something like “a sexually satisfied man is a lazy and useless man. But, if you whip him into a frenzy and keep him there he can serve your purposes”. A manipulative little minx to say the least. I like her.
I’d also like to portray a drunk throwing punches at the moon and it would be really fun for him to say something like “Kiss the north end of a southbound horse”.
And, because the world ends at the end of the book I must somehow tie in the beginning of the world.
“In the beginning was the word, he thought as he walked across the…and down the…and the world was with God, and the word was God.
Just as Adam gave names to the animals in the garden of Eden with words, words, words, so too the indians gave names to the places of this world. They named Mackinac Island, Turtle Island where Nanabozho created the world on a turtle’s back with a bit of mud from a muskrat’s paw. They named the great lake Michigan, the Great Ocean Water, and the land of Wisconsin was the place where The Waters Gathered, Illinois was the land of Great Men and Chicago itself was the place of Wild Onions because the aroma of the swamp was to strong.
And, with each name they bestowed they became masters of their world. For, the act of naming defines things and gives you power over them. It is magical. “Things don’t exist until you give them a name.” His old college professor used to say. “This is the power of language. This is the power of the gods themselves.”
The indians named their world and each of those names told part of a story that portrayed their relationship with the landscape. But, why couldn’t he?”
Yes, why couldn’t he and why can’t I?
Oh, and let’s not forget that there is a Native American legend that says, " If you have a secret wish, capture a butterfly and whisper your wish to it. Since butterflies cannot speak, your secret is ever safe in their keeping. Release the butterfly, and it will carry your wish to the Great Spirit, who alone knows the thoughts of butterflies. By setting the butterfly free, you are helping to restore the balance of nature, and your wish will surely be granted."
This is great stuff because it ties in with the butterfly effect which is a concept in chaos theory that says, in effect, the movement of a butterflies wings in Japan can eventually lead to a Tornado in Kansas.
And so, I have all these little things I must string together like the flapping wings of a butterfly before they become a book. I’ve literally got hundreds of pages of this stuff that I must turn into a book. This is nothing like I thought it would be when I started out. It is more of an Easter egg hunt.
Found another one…
The room was filled with north side nabobs and Dapper Dans from out of town, nobodies from nowhere who were rally suckers and marks to be fleeced and released by the faro Tigers and the Card Sharps.
Good stuff, but what do I do with it now?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Second Novel

Sorry I haven't posted in a little while. Life seems to have gotten in the way. I was just walking along, minding my own business and, out of no where, I discovered I am about to become a grandfather. Didn't see that one coming. Ouch. But thankfully we had some great conversations with some published writers. Thank you ladies. I wish you every success in your careers. I've just received Marva Dasef's The Tales of Abu Nuwas and will be reading it shortly.

But, this has all got me thinking about second novels. In the early 90s I remember hearing about a fantastic first novel called The Slynx by Tatiana Tolstaya. A few years ago I heard this writer mentioned on the radio in a conversation about writers and why following novels are not quite as good and it was conjectured that so much focus and effort is placed on the first novel that following novels are something of an after thought. Somewhat like the team whose goal is to get to the Superbowl rather than win the Superbowl.

And, then of course, life tends to get in the way. It certainly has for me. But, I want to tell all of you struggling novelists who are trying to convert a pocket full of post it notes into the Great American Novel that you will eventually get there. Life is a battle of minutes and inches, keep going and don't let life get in the way. The three authors who have been recently intervied on this blog did it and, as I prepare to publish my first novel The Vagabond King, I am actually a bit amazed that I did it as well. It took me about 20 years and 25 drafts but it is finally about to see the light of day.

And now on to the second novel. Are you ready for this one folks? The working title is The Mythological History of the City of Chicago. Not a title that trips lightly off the tongue, is it? Well, that's OK because the premise is a lot easier to swallow. The story is narrated by the Potawattami trickster god Nanabozho and simultaneously follows a reporter at the turn of the 19th to 20th century as he tries to discover the real cause for the Chicago Fire, while the voyageur Robert Rene Cavalier de La Salle slowly goes insane a few hundred years earlier as he tries to establish the empire of France in the New World and as the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox compete in the7th game of the world series at a time sometime in the future. Spoiler alert!.....The Cubs will win the World Series a feat that even the most faithfull somtimes doubt. And, with the Cubs victory in the World Series, the book must end with the inevitable destruction of the world.

Yes, I've got my work cut out for me. Thank God for the magic of quantum physics.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Author interview - Chrystalla Thoma

I have had computer problems recently so have been un able to make any postings. Fortunately, we have an interview today with recently published author Chrystala Thoma. She's got a fascinating story, and that doesn't even include her book. Thanks for joining us today Chrystala.

Please give me a general biographic background to introduce you to the readers. It can be anything you want to share: where you grew up, education, interests, employment experience, age, marital and family status, publication history etc. Whatever you feel comfortable with.

Hi dear James, thanks for hosting me today!

I bear the name of both my grandmothers (Chrystalla), which is a typical name here in Cyprus. I am Greek Cypriot, and until the age of 10 I knew about 7 words of English. Boy did that change later! J I left Cyprus to study languages and translation when I was 18 (back then there wasn’t a university here yet). I studied in France, then in England and Germany where I did my PhD in linguistics and translation. There I met my husband, Carlos, who is Costa Rican, so we moved to Costa Rica for a few years. Since summer 2010, we live in Cyprus. Like every self-respected author, I have gone through different sorts of jobs – from answering phones in KFC here in Cyprus to teaching English and French to children, from being the guide for Cypriot tourists in Disneyland-Paris in France to teaching linguistics at university students and working as a freelance translator. Right now, I work as the European countries officer and Magazine editor for the Thalassaemia International Federation.

When did you first decide to become a writer? What was that like?

I’m not original in this: I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was about 10. And then seriously decided it again when I was 12 and wrote my first novel. It was a wonderful feeling, like going home after wandering aimlessly for years. But it didn’t last, because I was discouraged by everyone I knew. Not because I was a bad author (for my age!) but because in the Greek world at least there is no money in being a writer. What it was like? Like falling from a cliff. Scary.

Who were the writers who inspired you when you were younger?

One huge influence was Jules Verne, another was Michael Ende (The Neverending Story, Mirror in the Mirror, Momo). It was obvious from the start I was into science fiction and fantasy, lol! My first stories and novels were fantasy as well.

What kind of obstacles did you face when you first began writing? How did you overcome them?
Well, let’s see… The first obstacle was in my mind: since writing in Greek isn’t really going to be a career, and since Greeks don’t go much for fantasy and science fiction, which incidentally are the two genres I really like, then the solution is to write in English. My English isn’t bad, heck I even have a BA in English literature and translation. But, for some reason, I was certain that no author can write in any other language than their mother tongue. So I had to get over that mountain of preconception and fear. My first attempt at writing a story in English (from scratch – not writing the text in Greek and then translating) was scary. But after that it got better and better. Perseverance I think is the word – mulish stubbornness. I want to do it, so I can. J

How long and how many drafts does it usually take to finish a novel?

Ooh, such a precise question, looking for a precise answer… Horribly many? Countless, I guess. My problem is that once I write the first draft, I let it rest too long. So when I return to it, I rewrite it completely. And so on and so forth. So I have a piece of advice here, which I formulated in the past year after one such experience: never let your writing rest for too long (for more than, say, two months). Unless you want to write a different story from scratch. There, I said it. Too much resting is bad for the dough, er, story.

What kind of obstacles did you face when you first published? How did you overcome those?

Oh my, very good questions. Hm… Well, I mostly published short stories in journals, and there the main obstacle is of course getting accepted. Now, for my urban fantasy novella, Dioscuri, my main problem was promotion. My publisher is excellent, so I had wonderful editors and a great cover – so my part was to promote, promote, promote. Make a trailer, do interviews, get reviews, post on the readers’ groups, write posts about the story. And believe me this takes up more time that the actual writing or editing of the story. I haven’t really overcome this problem. I have dropped out of the readers’ groups, but try to participate in the Six Sentence Sunday (a project where many authors post on their blogs each Sunday six sentences from a story they are publishing or currently working on) and try to post as much as possible about my stories.

What are your thoughts on self publishing vs. the traditional route?

Actually this is a topic that has been a lot on my mind lately. With the soar in sales of self-published books in electronic format – be it on Kindle, Pubit, Smashwords, Mac or any other format – the image of self-publishing has completely changed, due to the lack of publishing costs. I would love to try both the traditional and the self-publishing routes. I am very happy with my publisher and would like to submit more work to them – but would also love to self-publish a couple of things, see how it goes. What I particularly like about the self-publishing route is that the author has total control on everything – from the cover to the price.

What are you working on currently? Can we see a bit of it?
Right now I am working on a retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. According to one myth from Crete, the Minotaur is Asterion, supposed to be King Minos’ son, but in fact his wife Pasiphae begat him with Poseidon who appeared to her in the form of a bull. Here are the opening lines (mind, though, that this is the first draft):

Asterion paced the length of the room, back and forth, fists clenched at his sides. The bull mask grinned at him from its perch on the altar, the golden horns sparkling in the candlelight, the gem eyes glittering.
“You must do it,” said a gravelly male voice.
“Or what? The world ends? Chaos will fall on us?”
“And if I said yes?”
Asterion halted. Bitterness welled in his mouth. “I can’t do it, silene. I can’t be his vessel for his gruesome sacrifice. I won’t kill them. I don’t owe Poseidon anything.”
The silene shook his shaggy head, long animal ears drooping. “He is your father.”

This story is set in the same world, in an Athens where the old gods have woken again, as my published novella Dioscuri, available now through MuseItUp Publishing here:

What advice do you have for aspiring novelists?
Write what you’d love to read. Persevere. Revise. Rewrite. Don’t ever give up.

Where do you see yourself ultimately taking your career?
I am working on a couple of science fiction and fantasy novels right now. I hope to publish some the traditional way, and some through self-publishing. And I hope one day to be able to concentrate fully on writing – so if anyone has a fortune they don’t need, please mark my email address and make me your inheritor. Please, and thank you. J

My blog: