Friday, December 28, 2012

What I'm reading Now: "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott

Nearly every writer I've met has recommended Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott as a must-read selection with good reason. As artists, and we are artists who use words as our medium, each one of us has a different approach to our writing. However, there are some universal things about the craft that Ms. Lamott captures. The "shitty first draft," the hair pulling when we can't get a character, the blank stare at the computer when we fear the well is dry. The constant message is,"It's OK. Just keep writing."

I'm fairly new to this writing thing. I've only been at it consistently for a couple years. With two short stories published at Alfie Dog Ltd., my royalties don't even cover the coffee I buy as rent at the cafe where I write. I recently described my "process" to my sister as "Thumping around the hinterlands without a clue as to what I'm doing."  In some ways, it's very liberating. I'm not tied to one particular method, and I get to choose what I work on, where I work on it, and I am god of the universe I create. But for the very same reasons, writing this way can be very scary. I found myself highlighting a lot of quotes from this book that resonated with me, some not originally the author's.

"E.L. Doctorow: Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."
This idea is particularly comforting to me. Every time the organization gene gets all crazy and lays out a brilliant outline, my characters rebel and I am off the plan within three sentences. Lesson 1: long term planning is a monumental waste of time for me. I have to take it one scene at time and very often they are not consecutive. Writing the end of the story sparks an idea for a scene in the beginning. What I've realized, especially after reading the chapter entitled "Shitty First Drafts," is that my first draft IS the plan. That's part of the reason why it sucks so badly. People change names, a character is pregnant, then miraculously, not. The draft is the time to play with the characters, figure out who they are and what they want, throw a couple barn fires and maybe snipers at them. So I stopped calling it a first draft. I call it a rough draft. I'll go back and edit it so it is fit for human eyes other than my own. THAT will be the first draft.
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people..."
Lesson 2: Just write it all out without editing.  I became particularly good at this during Nanowrimo when I had a daily word count goal. I just put it all down, practically stream of consciousness. I broke all of the rules: telling, not showing, long description of characters and settings. I turned off, to the best of my ability, the inner editor who constantly snarked about how bad the writing was. In some ways, writing like that was a little boring. There was no challenge of working each word until it was the perfect one, massaging the scene until I was sure the reader would be with me in the story. I learned that revision really is the writing, but the inner editor had to stay in the box until I had something to revise. Otherwise, her constant commentary would have me mowing the lawn instead of working on my rough draft.

I could go on and on about the inspiration and community I found in the pages of Bird by Bird. However, there were parts I couldn't relate too. I don't hang around martyrs in my non-writing life and I I studiously avoid hanging out with writers whose identity revolves around lamenting about how hard it is to write, to get an agent, to get published. I find the "artist" angst irritating because writing IS hard but wallowing in that aspect of it is non-productive and just feeds that evil inner editor until I end up folding laundry instead of writing my shitty first draft. It could be I'm suffering from "Newbie" hubris, but, someone is finding an agent and getting published every day. Why not me? I know it's not easy and without emotional ups and downs. However, I've read enough to know that my writing is, with a lot more work, publishable. The desperation, fear, and depression Ms. Lamott describes don't jibe with my world view, at all.

Still, I'd love to have a cup of coffee with Anne Lamott and talk writing with her. She is experienced and funny and has a great deal of wisdom to offer others. I picture her commiserating on tales of woe and cheering successes. Regardless if we are talking about the bad or good, I can hear her saying, "Just keep writing." After all, for a writer, that's the answer to just about any question.

Friday, December 7, 2012

What I'm Reading Now: The Wheat Belly Diet by Dr. William Davis

Five or six years ago I dragged my husband to see a nutritionist. I wanted to lose some weight and eat healthier. Since he is the cook in the family, it only made sense to bring him with me so he could support my dietary changes. After going through a series of interview questions, the nutritionist found out that Michael suffered from migraines. "Cut wheat out," she said, "Its a huge trigger for headaches." So he did.

The results were similar to what Dr. Davis describes in his book. Within days of cutting wheat out, Michael stopped having gastrointestinal issues. Weeks later, he noticed he hadn't had a headache. Over the next several months he dropped about forty pounds without changing anything except avoiding wheat. My daughter and I continue to have wheat in our diet, but I suspect my daughter has inherited her father's sensitivity. Because of this, we have made the decision as a family to cut wheat out of all our diets beginning January 1. I picked the book up to get some pointers and suggestions.

Since we had already experienced what a dramatic difference a wheat free life can make, Michael and I ended up skipping the majority of the book and going to the end, where Dr. Davis deals with the specifics of the diet. Of the chapters I did read, the author seemed to use good sources, I learned a lot, and although I did not take the time to cross check the references, my "Bullshit Meter" didn't go off.

The diet Dr. Davis describes is what our nutritionist tried to get us to do those many years ago and what our trainer is talking to us about now. Eat a lot of vegetables and moderate amounts of meats and grains. Nothing new there. The reminder was helpful and the recipes were interesting. Because we are dealing with a teenager, we have decided to start by cutting wheat only. Once we get that down, we will start to reduce the other "no-nos" in our diet. I've learned over the years that too much change at once can be over whelming.

I would recommend this book, especially if you are having chronic digestive issues, headaches, or any other ailment that is not responding to medications or is just lurking in the background. As I said, I've seen the dramatic effect in my husband and I think it is worth at least conducting an experiment to see if skipping the wheat products helps out. You really have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Storytelling: Watching TV

I have a guilty pleasure. As a writer, I'm just a little embarrassed by it. I hide my predilection from my writing buddies, sneaking my fixes in between writer's groups. My family knows. How could they not? My husband sighs, shakes his head and leaves the room. I'm indoctrinating my daughter in my shameful ways. I try, but I can't break my TV habit. What's even worse is my taste runs to lowbrow. I'm in heaven this time of year with all the made for TV Christmas movies and holiday episodes of the shows I watch. This is what I tell myself: I'm studying plot and character. Yes, that's what I'm doing while I'm ensconced in bed eating popcorn and watching Holiday in Handcuffs, slowmo-ing the scene when Mario Lopez is naked to the waist.

All kidding aside, my friend and fellow writer, Rich Redman, regularly posts about TV shows he is watching, why he is watching them, whether he will continue to do so. He spends quite a bit of time writing about plot and character. I really enjoy his blog and have found some cool new shows to watch on his recommendation. I have also developed x-ray vision when it comes to watching TV shows and even movies.  Each one is a lesson in plot, conflict, character development, and dialogue and I usually come away with either an insight or a reminder about writing an effective story. Two examples come to mind when I think of shows I've watched recently, the CW's Beauty and the Beast and the movie Red Tails.

Full disclosure here: I am a romance junkie. I read romance novels, watch romantic comedies, and am drawn to TV shows that have a romantic elements. I'm writing a novel with heavy romantic themes. I'm into it. When I heard that the CW was going to resurrect my favorite romantic series from the late '80s I was in. I watched the first episode of Beauty and the Beast with the updated Catherine, AKA Cat, and Vincent, and decided it was worth watching another episode. Now, I'm hooked. What keeps me coming back is the sexual tension between the characters - a must in good romance - and the use of conflict by the writing team. The amount of obstacles the team keeps throwing at the two main characters is admirable. At first Vincent refuses to be near Cat for fear of her safety, then there is a misunderstanding, now there is a physical reason they can't be around each other. Add in the curious partner, and a newly suspicious ME and things are about to get very interesting for Cat. As an audience member, I know that ultimately Cat and Vincent will be together. Every episode I wait to see if we will get the first kiss. Not happening. As soon as I think things are resolved and as "normal" as things will get for the lovers, the writers throw a new wrench in the machinery. I have to watch the next episode to find out how the problem will be resolved. After every show I am reminded not to be nice to my characters. Giving them what they want makes for boring reading and TV watching. Inspired by the show I went nuts on my characters. Maybe having sniper fire and a barn burning in a twenty-four hour period was over kill, but at least my characters are not sitting around on their keisters.

On the other hand, Red Tails, was a great example of what not to do. Caricatures rather than characters, moral lectures instead of dialogue, a predictable plot line all contributed to a movie that I would give a C at best. None of the conflicts seemed to be that big of a bump. There just wasn't enough drama, enough nail biting, enough asking "how will they make it?" The cardboard cut out characters didn't help either. If I were black, I'd be offended that the brave men of this squadron were reduced to the cigar chomping father figure, the young firebrand colonel, the angry black man, the man struggling with his relationship with his father, and finally and so much the worse, the guitar plucking, backwoods talking, Smokey. Really? Smokey? The writers were way too easy on the characters and didn't ask them to step beyond these stereotypes. In comparison to Beauty and the Beast, which is not supposed to be high art or have any kind of big message, Red Tails was poorly written and missed it's mark widely.

Admittedly, Beauty and the Beast doesn't have a high mark to hit, but there is wisdom there. Know what you are trying to accomplish. If you are writing for a show on the CW that is all about romance, sexual tension, and the police procedural, that's what you write. Don't try to make it more than it is. There is no shame in writing a good story. Red Tails became too engrossed in the overall moral and forgot to tell the story. Once again, I am reminded my job, my charge as a writer is to tell a story, not  to impart a moral lesson. A well written story will entertain and get the point across without beating the audience over the head with a post.

TV and movies are like little intense writing courses if you pay attention. I've started to and I think my writing has benefited. "And so," you ask, "what is the benefit of watching Holiday in Handcuffs?" Well, you know, Mario Lopez's character is an excellent example of a romantic hero and honestly, he's hot. Who said school had to be boring?

Monday, December 3, 2012

What I Learned from Nanowrimo

The race is run. December 1st marked the return to normal after a spectacular literary sprint conducted by writers all over the globe. National Novel Writing Month, AKA Nanowrimo, the challenge to write 50,000 words in one month, came to a conclusion November 30. Now my blogging drought is broken and I am engaging in some serious navel gazing along with most of the other participants.

The first question most will ask is: "Did you win?" My answer is no and yes. Did I write 50,000 words? No, I produced just over 30,000, so I'm not technically a winner.  There will be no t-shirt or confetti or even electronic props. I did, however, win in the sense that I finally got down the vast part of a novel I've been dabbling with for over two years and I learned quite a bit about "my process."

Jack started walking around in my head about two years ago. He was the result of an exercise during a writing class I was taking. "Who walks in the door? And what do they see? What do they feel about us sitting here looking at them?" the instructor, Gwendolyn Jerris, exhorted. That's when Jack, the cowboy transplanted from Texas to Michigan walked into my head wearing his stetson and cowboy boots. His Mama taught him manners, so he has stepped politely aside several times in the last few years when another character waved his or her arms around and shouted, "Ooo, ooo, ooo!" in a Horshack-esque ploy for attention. When that character has gotten his or her due, he always returned, quietly asking for his story to be told. Nanowrimo finally gave me the opportunity to focus exclusively on Jack and his story. I wanted to say, "Gave me the chance," rather than "opportunity" but it would be a lie. I've had the time since I left my job in April. What Nanowrimo did was give me the focus I needed to pound out about three quarters of the novel. I'm sad its over and now the impetus has to come from within me. I'm happy that I've spent November giving a great character his due and will continue to do so in December. The goal is to finish before the end of 2012.

In his quiet way Jack allowed me to find out who I am as a writer. Writers talk a lot about the differences in their process. We pace around like divas and require absolute silence, classical music, or new age. Our coffee must be hot, cold, or decaffeinated. We constantly ask other writers, especially those with an agent or a publisher, what their process is. To entice the muse to cross our threshold, we contort ourselves in so many crazy ways. I learned that the muse shows up as long as I'm sitting at my computer. Its amazing how she shows up when the goal is 1500 words, do or die.

When the muse enters the room, the very most important thing I do is shut up the The Writing W(b)itch. Her haranguing about dialogue, plot, and even grammar will drive the muse away. I find that I must stuff the W(b)itch into a box and not let her out until its time for revision. This means that I write a lot of dreck and I mean pages of it. I expect to toss at least a third of the novel and cut out at least one character. But until I'm ready to do that, The Writing W(b)itch just gets in the way of getting the story down on the page, something I mentally refer to as "Brain Splat." Now, many of my friends are diligent  plotters. They have everything planned out before they start to write. I'd love to be a plotter. It appeals so seductively to my organization gene. Its a complete waste of time for me. I've outlined this novel at least three times and as soon as I write three sentences I'm already off the outline. This time I decided to just go with it and lean heavily on "Brain Splat."

The Brain Splat Method made trying to write this novel chronologically very difficult. I really started losing steam in the middle. To mix things up I'm writing scenes as they present themselves to me rather than where they will fall in the novel. I've already written what I see as the end of the book. I've also written parts of the middle and recently another one presented itself to me where Jack gets back with his male lover, Marcus. I'll probably write that one too. It may or may not make it into the first draft.

See how I used the words "first draft" there? That's because what I'm producing right now is a rough draft, not suitable for eyes other than my own. Once I finish this rough draft, then I will try to use all those wonderful plotting tools like character analysis and beat sheets to whip this amorphous pile of brain mush into a first draft that will not embarrass me in front of my writing buddies.

In the end, as crazy as it was to try to write an entire novel in one month, it was a fantastic experience for me. I was able to get a lot of pages out, most of which are really, really bad. (I'm not fishing for compliments, they really are really bad). More importantly, I learned that my process is as individual to me as my fingerprints. I was able to spend time developing it and getting comfortable with it. Now its time to push forward and finish this rough draft so I can let the W(b)itch out of her box.

This is The Writing W(b)itch. I let her out of her box for this blog post.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Second Title Accepted at Alfie Dog LTD

Happy, happy news! My second title,  The Christmas Tree Miracle, has been accepted at Alfie Dog LTD and is now available for download.  At just over 1500 words it is a quick way to get into the spirit of the Christmas season. Here is a little tidbit about the story to wet your whistle.

While Tina and Paul are shopping for a Christmas tree, Tina receives a phone call requiring a decision that will change both of their lives forever. Regardless of which option she chooses, there will be no going back. Will Tina be able to grab the brass ring and take the risk to fulfill her and Paul's dreams?
Angel of Fate by  h.koppdelaney (some rights reserved)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

West Bloomfield Little Free Library

A month ago I read an article in Hour magazine about the Little Free Library. I had to have one. Through the generosity of friends who have donated materials, expertise, and time, I am close to achieving my goal. I have only to finish coating it with a protective coat of polyurethane and get my signage done and we will be in business. I am incredibly excited about this project.

In my imagination, I see people walking past the LFL while they are out with their kids or dogs, on their way to beach, or bus stop, and stopping to take a look.  What new adventures will they find behind the purple door and plexiglass?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

What I'm Reading Now: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

My sister highly recommended this book and it's been on my Goodreads list for quite a while. The author, Geraldine Brooks, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her novel March. Although, this type of award doesn't make me jump to read an author anymore. I've read plenty of award winners that I thought were self-consciously edgy or precious. But my sister's recommendations are good enough for me since we usually like the same types of books. I'm not going to get into the plot of the book, you can check that out here. Suffice it to say because I'm an author, reader, and promoter of literacy, I'm interested in anything related to books and how they tell stories.

I liked how Ms. Brooks broke the novel down between the investigations that Hanna conducted into the various clues she found in the haggadah with the stories of how they came to be there. It was an imaginative way to show the history of Jews in Europe. When I think of the trials and tribulations in Jewish history, I've always thought of the flight from Egypt and WWII. There is obviously a lot of history in between, such as the expulsion of Jews from Spain

Monday, October 15, 2012

I Am Shiva The Destroyer

I am standing hands on hips surveying my domain.  I am Shiva the Destroyer.  

Really, I am looking over my friend's incredibly overgrown garden with a shovel in my hand.  Even though I don't have a third eye, four arms, or blue skin, I still feel like I am Shiva.  He must be the God of gardeners everywhere because of his fascinating duality.

Shiva is a third of the Hindu trinity: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer, an Eastern representation of the circle of life.  Although destruction sounds menacing, it is a vital component in nature.  How can you create more if there is no room left?  Shiva's job is to clean the cosmic house when necessary, to break it down so it can be rebuilt.  This is reflected in all kinds of ways big and small, the rotting log being reabsorbed into the earth, a star exploding and scattering cosmic dust that will condense into a new celestial body.

My friend's garden has become terribly over grown in the last ten years.  The bearded iris and day lilies are packed so tightly they have stopped blooming.  Thistles are waist high and the butter fly gaura and Russian sage are huddled against the sidewalk trying to escape the crowded bed.  This is where Shiva comes in.  Revitalizing this garden is not a delicate process.  Everything must be dug out of the bed, divided, and replanted.  Nothing can be spared the violence, even the guara and sage she loves so much. They are simply in the wrong place, victims of neglect, innocently wandering to the edge of the bed and blocking the sidewalk.  I'll mark them so I can find them in the Spring and and move them while they are still dormant.  But there are no guarantees, they might die.  This is the price of renewal.

The uprooting destruction continues unabated as I move from one side of the bed to the other.  I dig out huge clumps of day lilies, hostas, and iris.  I literally rip them apart at the roots.  By damaging the roots, these types of plants are stimulated to grow and flower more.  I have so many pieces that I have started planting them around trees and in other beds.  Out of the chaos and then destruction of a flower bed over grown and choked with weeds, new gardens and flowers will take root and bloom.  Shiva has done his job, laying waste to the old so that the new can grow and flourish.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Storytelling: How Storytelling Can Be Used In Business

Here is my newest guest post on storytelling.  It is everywhere, even in a *gasp!* engineering environment! Stories have been used through out history to illustrate a point or to educate, why should it be any different today?  Robert Brincheck is an engineer who works for a software company.  He is also married to Valerie, who wrote a previous post about visual art.  I think you will find his story interesting.  If you do, please share on Facebook and Twitter.

How Storytelling Can Make Complex Concepts Easy To Understand

By Robert Brincheck

I have a rather unusual job. I help sales people sell software to companies. Which is not necessarily unusual because selling anything to large companies typically takes a team of people. However, the team is usually composed of technical experts who know everything about how the software works. While I have a deep knowledge of what it does, I could not demonstrate the product to you if you put a gun to my head. Instead, my job is to understand the customer's needs, determine how they can be met using my company's software, and determine the benefits of using it instead of some other solution. This requires taking very complex concepts and communicating them in ways that are easy for non-technical people to understand and remember. I use storytelling to do this.

My company sells software that customers use to design and develop their products. It is a wide range of tools known as Product Lifecycle Management, or PLM, software. If you know what PLM is then you either work for a PLM supplier or are a technical expert in an IT or engineering department. If you are like everyone else you have never heard of PLM. You probably also noticed that while the name seems descriptive it is does not provide any real insight into what this software actually does. To be successful, I must convince the decision makers that I can help solve important problems with my company’s software. The problem is that I do not yet know what is important to my customer and they do not know enough about what my firm does to tell me.

The cost and complexity of PLM means the people approving the purchase are generally top executives. They usually have no idea what the software actually does so they lean on the advice of their technical experts. Unfortunately, these experts are typically too focused on their individual needs or on creating an ‘apples to apples’ evaluation process. Imagine buying a new car. This is a complex decision based on a variety of criteria. Assume you believed your current car had too many buttons on the dashboard and you could never remember what each one did. You want your new car to have fewer buttons. This is a easy criteria to measure because you can simply count the number of buttons and rank the candidates from highest to lowest. Now imagine you made your choice solely based on the fewest dashboard buttons and ignored all the other factors. You can see how the technical experts usually miss the forest for the trees when they focus on criteria that is easy to measure. This is where my job becomes important. I explain to the executives approving the project why our software is necessary to address their critical problems and strategies and why a couple of extra buttons on the dashboard does not really matter in the big picture. To do this I first need to talk to the executives and understand what is important to them.

Executives did not get to their position by openly displaying their ignorance about anything. They usually follow the rule of ‘better to be thought a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt’. Since most executives outside of IT do not understand what PLM software does they do not want to talk to people from PLM suppliers. Completing the Catch 22 scenario, they also assume it can not be valuable or important because otherwise they would know more about the topic. My first job at most customers is to convince their Chief Information Officer (CIO) or VP of Engineering why they need to let me talk to the senior executives about their strategies, initiatives, and challenges instead of simply letting their technical experts tell me how many buttons they want on the dashboard.

I have a standard powerpoint deck that describes the interview process I use and why it is the best way to work together. The second slide in the deck has two pictures of Detroit rock n’ roll legend Bob Seger. The first picture is circa 1983 and the second is a recent photo from 2011. 

Most sales people who review the deck want to take this slide out because it has nothing to do with the product. However, this is the most important slide in the deck. The story that accompanies the pictures is often the key to getting a customer to agree to move forward with my plan and provide access to their top executives. I explain that I saw Bob Seger in 1983 and one thing that struck me was all of the work needed to manage all of the wires and cables on the stage. The performers could only move in certain places or else they would be unplugged or trip on a cord and possibly be injured. Roadies were always seen on stage moving wires out of the way. I saw Seger again in 2011 and noticed that all of the instruments and microphones were wireless. The band members could now run wherever they wanted whenever they wanted. The stage was at least twice as big it as it was in 1983. It went out into the crowd for better interaction between the band and the audience and the roadies were nowhere to be seen. New technology had removed the previous restrictions enabling the band to create a performance that would not have been possible in 1983. I explain that PLM software is similar in that ten to fifteen years ago the technology had limitations that forced a company to change their processes to conform to the software’s limitations. At that time it made sense to have a software vendor explain how the software worked so they could decide if those capabilities worked for them. Over the last decade technology has advanced so far that today’s software is very flexible and has very few limitations. Like Bob Seger, a corporation should not let technology restrict the way they want to run their business. That is why it is easiest for me to interview a few key executives so I can understand their priorities and how they want to run their business. Then I can explain specifically where and how our software can help them be successful. By using this story I help customers understand two things. First, the technology has advanced so rapidly their technical experts are most likely not up to date. It would be a waste of time to try to explain everything the software can do since most businesses will only need a few of these capabilities. The best approach is for me to understand their business needs so I can explain exactly how I can help them. Secondly, and most importantly, PLM is really about running their business, not just about technology. This means that PLM is about what they know best and therefore must be important.

Without my Bob Seger story it would be much more difficult to explain why my approach is better than the process the customer typically uses. The story is non-threatening because they do not organize concerts. It provides useful information, specifically that changes in technology enable better ways of working. It explains that the executives need to be actively involved because we address the problems that are most important to them. It does all this without putting anyone in a negative light. The technical experts input simply comes later, once the big picture is defined.

The Bob Seger story is only one that I use on a regular basis. I will finish with another example. Installing PLM software can often take several years and one of the challenges is getting everyone in a company to do the same thing the same way. People usually resist change and while most requests should be dismissed, some requests are valid. Executives need to decide which are valid and which are not. I provide them with a simple way to remember that requests for changes should not be accepted at face value but should be investigated and justified. I start by explaining that people are like snowflakes. Each believes the work they are doing is very unique and must to be done in a very specific way. This is not because they are bad people but probably because they have never seen another way to do their job. They are knowledgeable workers who have been working at the organization for a long time. They will explain how the world will end and the sun will explode if they are not able to get the change they are requesting. I ask the executive if they know the story of how the diameter for the US Space Shuttle solid rocket boosters was selected. I had always assumed it had to do with a complex set of rocket science requirements. However, that is not the case. Instead, it was because the boosters were built by a company in Colorado and the only way to get them to Cape Canaveral in Florida was by train. The diameter of the rocket booster had to fit through the train tunnels in the Rocky Mountains. The diameter of the tunnels was driven by the gauge of the train which is the width between the wheels. What determined this measurement? Trains were initially popularized in England and they used the same gauge for trains as the existing wagons. The wheels on the British wagons were designed to fit in the ruts of the ancient Roman roads still in use. The Romans had decided on the wheel distance that made the ruts because it enabled them to use two horses for their chariots. Therefore, the diameter used for the Space Shuttle booster rockets was determined by the Romans over 3,000 years ago. I counsel the executive that when the snowflakes come with their requests and their doomsday scenarios, he has to be certain that they are not just following the ruts in the road. Storytelling allows me to help my customer address one of the major challenges they will face installing a complicated software system. It allows me to do this without having to even know the actual details of these future requests. I have set the stage so that the snowflake will have to do the necessary work to prove they are not just following the 3,000 year old ruts in the road.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

On The Cusp: The Prodigal Girl

The Girl is back from her tour of Europe.  Is she different?  Find out in my newest essay at Greenspotblue.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Garden As Life: The Garden Renovation - In the Beginning

As most of you know, I stopped working at a traditional job this year in order to pursue writing as well as some of my other interests, one of which is gardening.  Every time I get out there and "dig" I am amazed at how the garden reflects our lives.  Not just in the big metaphysical "Circle of Life" ways, but also in the seasons of our individual lives.

My Friend (MF) asked me to take a look at her garden recently.  She complained that she had alien species with huge spikes on them invading her space.  I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I suspected thistles.  We struck a deal that if I cleaned her garden up, she would repay me in kind with massages and astrological charts.

A couple years ago, MF went through a professional upheaval that involved betrayal and rejection by someone who had mentored her for several years.   The fall out was naturally very emotional and it took her months to recover her equilibrium.  This is when the thistles had started to appear in her garden.  Not a year later her ex-mentor was shown as having used his influence to take advantage of others in the organization financially and sexually.  Although he was driven out, the implosion of this entity ended up on MF's doorstep as she was still in contact with a lot of people from this particular group.  The thistle seeds that had been scattered the prior year by just a few plants, now sprouted with a vengeance invading her peace of mind as well as her garden.  People who had rejected her now sought her out to pour their hearts and pain out to her.  Many online groups had venomous discussions full of anger and finger pointing.  MF was right in the middle of it.  And she was sick of the weeds in her life and her garden.

My first foray involved thistles three feet high with three inch thorns.  I wish I had taken pictures of them.  I almost expected them to object as I pulled them out of the ground.  As I worked through her long neglected garden pulling weeds, it became clear, that weeding alone was not going to really help this garden.  Hostas planted in very hot sun were showing heat stress and burned leaves.  Day lilies were so overgrown they had stopped flowering.  A Russian sage and gaura butterfly plant looked like refugees huddled against the sidewalk, trying to find new space.  Each bed was going to have to be cleared, compost worked in, plants divided and then replanted.  I trooped into MF's kitchen to tell her the bad news.

"I've made a decision," MF said before I could deliver my message.

"You've decided to burn the garden and start over?" I asked.

She looked at me a bit funny, "No, I've decided to exit these online groups.  They are just negative and keep bringing up the past in a way that doesn't benefit me."

"I'm glad to hear it," I told her.  "I agree that reopening old wounds is not the best way forward at this point.  Listen, speaking of new beginnings, let me tell you what the garden really needs to flourish."  I explained the situation and she agreed to let me do a full garden renovation.  It struck me at how parallel her decisions were.  The decision to renovate the garden, the decision to renovate her life.  So this is the first post in the journey that is my first garden renovation.  I have some before pictures of the first bed I have started work on.

I have since pulled all the plants out, worked in some compost, and then replanted the bed.  This is what is looks like now:

I divided the tiger lilies, planted two new Russian sages in between them, moved some stella dora day lilies and iris to the bed as well.  That is an Eastern Redbud on the right. We are in the middle of a drought not seen since the 1950's so everything is looking a bit worse for the wear.  I am in the process of drawing up a permanent plan for this bed as there will be no winter, late summer or fall interest based on the plants that are currently in it.  MF is also not a happy gardener, so anything that goes into the garden has to be self sustaining and not particularly invasive.

Next up: What Shiva the Destroyer has to do with gardening.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Bonus Round: Beyonce

Here is a new blog post type: the bonus round.  This is when something comes upon me and I must blog about it beyond my usual schedule ("What schedule?" you ask.  Well, that's another post.  I'm working on it.)

One morning not too long ago, I sat twitching at the dining room table in the throws of a hormone induced anxiety attack of epic proportions.  "Let me catch up on my emails,"  I thought.  Because, really, when you are suffering from heart palpitations, what else should you do?   My sister sent me this blog post weeks ago with the message, "This is so funny.  A client shared it with me and I thought you would enjoy it.  I was laughing so hard I was crying.  Ron (our brother) loved it too."  I figured what the hell and hit the link (you should, too).  I knew I had come completely unglued when I realized that I was sitting at the table, alone, eating egg salad on egg and onion matzoh, laughing like a lunatic.  Tears rolled down my cheeks.  I had to stop reading several times.  I came close to falling off my chair.  I want a five foot tall metal chicken to leave on my friends' stoops.  The chicken possibilities were endless.  Then it hit me, I had a chicken.  It has been decorating my garden for the past couple of years.

Sure, it is only about two feet tall, we have not named it, and it won't cut you, but it is my own personal chicken.  Every time I look at it, I laugh and that my friends is a gift.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

On the Cusp: Bereft

Most of you already know that The Girl is touring Germany and France with the Blue Lake International Youth Symphony Orchestra.  How do I feel about her first big trip away from home?  My newest post on Greenspotblue will bring you up to speed.  Click here to read it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Story Telling Series: Caroline's Story

Welcome to the second installment in my series on story telling.  This particular post is by my very good friend and visual artist, Valerie Brincheck.  Valerie specializes in mixed media art and her creations range from jewelry to boxes and books to the beautiful wooden mosaic wall she created in her hallway.  I saw this particular project and it resonated with me, reminding me that people tell stories with pictures as well as words.  When you get a bunch of visual artists together, you never know what is going to happen!  You can check out more of Valerie's work at her blog at and don't forget to stop by her Etsy store to see some of her unique jewelry.  I hope you enjoy Caroline's Story!


 Like most stories that we have heard in our lifetime, this one began with three little words: "In the beginning"..... Well, actually it began with more than that. You see, to really tell you how it all began I need to go back further then how this particular journal began its life.

For those of you that are not familiar with a circle journal, here is how it started. A very smart lady, named Elena, decided one day that she wanted to do a project with some of her arty friends from her on-line community, so she sent out some emails. She asked if we would like to get involved in a project called a circle journal and she waited for our replies. I happened to be one of the lucky ones that she asked to participate and since I had no idea what it was, I was a little hesitant at first, but in the end I was curious and wanted something new to try. The way a circle journal (or round robin) works is simply this. A group of people decide on a project theme. In our case there were 15 ladies for the first journal. We each made the cover for our journal and the first page to give the next person an idea of our artistic style. We then send the journal on to our assigned mailing partner. (The partners remain the same during the whole project.) That person has a month to work on their set of pages before they mail it on to their assigned mailing partner. The journals continue traveling to each person over the next 15 months and when it arrives back home to the owner it is a completed journal with art from all 15 people.

Now this journal you see pictured below is not the first journal we did nor is it the second or even third. It isn't even my own personal book but the reason it appears here is because when I showed it to Jeanne she fell in love with the way we each told a part of a single story throughout this whole journal. (This is not something that always happens.)

So this particular story began with 3 simple words..... "In the beginning".... but the real story of how we formed the group and created these circle journals was really more like a couple dozen words. We should start a group and make circle journals and the theme should be "through the eyes of an artists".... and ......well, you get the picture. Anyways this was the 5th journal that we did and it is called "Artistic Evolution". The reason for this is because the journal was put together in a special way.  The book itself is 6" high by 11" long. The shortest page is 7" long and they get bigger by an inch until they hit 11" then they start over at 7" again. This gives the book 3 sets of 5 stepped out pages to equal 15 pages.
(Actually 30 altogether, if you count the front and back.) Each artist must do a double page spread and evolve from the previous artist work somehow. We can choose to select an image or shape or even just a word to inspire us to create our set of pages. (For example the first page can have a "bird", which can evolve to incorporate "being able to fly" which can then be about "spreading your wings" which can evolve to be about "angels" and so on.)  We also have to run the artwork over the edge of the page so that when the set of 5 graduated pages is viewed together there is an overlapping chaos of fun textures like you see in the photo below.

This set of pages is created by Carla Hayes and the story of "Caroline" has not started yet but the inspiration is already there. Carla imagined the girl that appears on the right hand page as a first time traveler to Paris to see all the wondrous sites to behold. A moonlit walk in a garden of tulips with beautiful butterflies or a trip to see the can-can dancers of Moulin Rouge can be seen in her expression of bliss and amazement. 

 This set of pages is done by Sue Young and here is where the actual story of Caroline starts. When I asked Sue why she decided to name her young girl she replied that she was having "issues" with family members and she felt the need to escape to her favorite place, Provence. We are always told as artists (and writers) to create or write about things that we know. After all we are most familiar with our own surroundings and can therefore concentrate on the meaning and forget about the rest because it is already ingrained in us. 

 This next set of pages is done by Marita Kovalik and she decided to keep the story of Caroline going by shipping her off to France. Don't we all wish we can travel to far away exotic places when we are young and do nothing but experience life on our own terms?

 This set of pages is from Sarah Walker who is all the way from "down under" in Australia. Because of postage costs there are several ladies that live overseas that don't actually get the journal to work in. (Sarah is one of 4 or 5 that do this.)  They instead get a photo of the previous artist pages plus the page measurements. They then mail the finished pages to their "tip in" partner who glues their pages into the journal before mailing it on.

Again Sarah decided to continue Caroline's story by having her travel to Rome to see the colosseum and the Trevi fountain. It seems that Caroline wants to stay in Rome but maybe something is missing in her life. Could there be romance on the horizon for Caroline?

 This next set of pages is done by Gina Goodling and yes it seems that Caroline is looking for love! After getting a telegram from her cousin Enya she decides to travel to a place that sounds like it has many eligible bachelors... the Isle of Man. They are even having an auction to sell all the extra men they have. (I bet Caroline felt like she hit the jackpot.)

Below are the items that are in the pocket behind the 2 motorcycle riders on the right hand page. 

 Below are my contributions to Lori's journal and I decided that Caroline was tired of looking for love and wanted to go back home. But you know what they say about love, right? You always find it when you aren't looking for it.

Below is the story card that sits in the pocket behind the photo of Caroline on the left hand page. 

The final set of pages in the journal at the time that I took all of the photos is by a lady named Inge Bekaert who is all the way from Belgium. (She is my tip in partner for this journal.) As you can see Inge's style of work is much quieter and softer then most of us but is no less beautiful in content. She kept it simple and left Caroline's story up in the air. Did she make it back home? Did she stay with Walter and create a flying machine? It seems the birds of the garden may have influenced their next mechanical creation. 

Of course this is not the end of the Caroline's story and she has many adventures ahead of her to experience. (Well at least 8 more sets of pages.) The journal is currently in Canada with Lillian Mederak and only she knows what will happen to Caroline next.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Greenspotblue: On the Cusp, "Mirror, Mirror"

Check out my newest post on Greenspotblue entitled "Mirror, Mirror."

Bar fight

This blog post is dedicated to Dr. Forté who just recently removed the wicked witch mole from my upper lip.  The mole, initially made famous by my September 2011 post entitled "Hair Management," was removed along with another lesion under my chin. Now I know why starlets go into hiding when they have surgery.  I look like I've been in a bar fight.  So, being a writer, I had to make up a good story to go along with the stitches on my face.  I hope you enjoy my flight of fancy.

My black leather duster creaked in protest as I leaned on the bar at the TGI Fridays.  To the average observer, the crowd looked like innocent people trying to forget their dull, grey days slaving away in cubicle farms. But as an agent of C.A.T.S.S. (Committee Against Thugs Smuggling Stuff), I knew better.  It was a hot bed of criminal activity and I knew my nemesis, Dr. Phloephekoekes, had been smuggling  synthetic cat nip through this all american eatery, right under the noses of the authorities.

"What'll ya' have?" asked the bartender.  The name badge read "Pablo" and his nose looked like it was acquainted with one too many fists. The lump in his front pocket wasn't because he was happy to see me. He was packing.

"Shirley Temple," I said.

"Amateur night, tonight," he snorted as he turned away to make my drink.  I glared at his back hoping his polyester vest would burst into flames.

As he set down the pink concoction in front of me, I noticed a ring on his hand.  I took off my mirrored aviators and took a closer look.  It was heavy and gold with a distinct design, a fluffy cat with emerald eyes.  I knew that logo.  It was Dr. Phloephekoekes' calling card. "Nice ring."

Pablo gave me the hairy eyeball then turned and yelled, "Hey, Jim, I'm takin' a break.  Watch the bar."  He moved like a tank as he left the bar, went around the corner and out of sight.

I turned and watched the crowd again.  I knew the enemy was here somewhere.  The doctor was a master of disguise.  Then I saw her, an exceptionally ugly woman in the corner.  Her hair was dyed blonde to the point of looking like straw, she had shifty blood shot eyes and her dress was a most unfortunate fashion choice.  Where was Joan Rivers when you needed her?  That had to be Phloephekoekes.  Why be beautiful and attract attention when you could be so ugly that no one wanted to look.  God, he was brilliant!

Wending my way through the crowded dining room, I kept my eyes on the "woman" to make sure she did not escape before I got to her.  He was even putting on act of being drunk, weaving in his seat and pawing his date who was valiantly trying to rebuff the attack.  As I approached I heard some of their conversation.

"You don't look much like your picture online," "her" date said.

Phloephekoekes weaved in his seat and put his hand high up on the guy's thigh.  "You do," he gave his date a sloppy smile and then did a little hiccup.  I wondered how many method acting classes he had taken.  He was unbelievably good.

"Fluffycakes, the jig is up,"  I shouted drawing my weapon.  I looked her in the eyes. Well, one eye, the other one was lazy and looking somewhere over by the bar.  Maybe that was the good one, I switched back and forth trying to figure out which eye to glare at.  Finally I just focused my gaze on the bridge of her nose.  "Tell me where the synthetic catnip is, Fluffycakes, and I'll go easy on you."

The "woman's" face wrinkled in confusion as her date stared at me in slack jawed amazement.  "I don't know what you're talking about," "she" slurred.

Losing my patience, I reached out to yank the wig off to expose "her" real identity.  "Her" head snapped back with my hand.   "God, this wig is stuck on good!"  I  yanked a couple more times and her head wobbled back and forth like a bobble head.  I let go and she leaned over, puked on the floor then passed out on the table.
Her date gazed at the unconscious woman then looked at me with eyes shining in gratitude.  "Thank you, thank you!" he called as he thew forty buck on the table then made his escape out the front door.

I heard a cackling behind me.  A beautiful brunette was standing next to Pablo.  All the men in the bar were staring at her, uh, assets.  "You've met my henchman Pablo the Taco.  Now you'll see where he got the name." She gave me an evil smile.

"Fluffycakes!  I knew I could drive you out of hiding!"

Her face grew angry and dark.  "Stop calling me that!  My name is pronounced flow-fay-keks, not Fluffycakes!  Pablo, turn her into hamburger!"

I made sure that Pablo's nose became acquainted with my fist.  The last thing I remember before waking up with stitches in my upper lip was a close up view of Pablo the Taco's ring.  The good doctor got away this time, but once the stitches come out, I'll be on the hunt again, protecting unsuspecting kitty owners from Fluffycakes and his evil intentions.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

More News From the Front Lines

So I think that perhaps Free Lance Writer Land should really be shortened to Fiction Writer Land since I am not actively pursuing any freelance work.  I have spent zero hours looking for a gig and when I think about working for someone else, my enthusiasm drops to zero.  After being subject to another person's priorities and whims for so long, I am in full rebellion and want to do what I want to do.  Now do I sound like a spoiled princess or what?  Trust me, I get up every day and thank my lucky stars I married a man who is a go-getter, successful, and most importantly, patient.  He knows I won't become J. K. Rowling overnight.  Next month will be fine!

The last few weeks have brought starts and stops in the quest for more and better fiction.  Not a lot of new words.  I continue to work on a short story that explores prejudgement and prejudice - where is the line?  It created quite a stir in my writer's group - really touched a nerve, which is good.  Makes people think, but I wasn't prepared for the reaction and I was a bit defensive and rather irritated.  Could it be because I always think I'm right and can't understand why someone doesn't agree with me when I am so obviously, well, right? Really poor form in a writer's group. Sigh, I thought I'd be smarter by now.

I am also revising a story about a vibrator (yes, you read that correctly) that, surprisingly, does not involve sex at all.  Hmmm, what could that be all about?  I learned from this session of revision to re-read the entire story before re-writing it.  I had forgotten that I had changed the ending.  Sometimes I feel like a squirrel that forgot where the acorns are.  You can just see me in my little corner of my basement scratching my head and thinking, 'What was I doing when I wrote that?'

By the way, I've had many comments on the picture of my little corner of writing paradise.  Yes, I am sitting by a refrigerator.  It is the beer fridge, which is one of my life long dreams, but not really a great tool for a writer's arsenal.  So far I have managed not to indulge during the day.  Alcohol definitely does not help me write better, it just makes me sleepy.

The novel has come to a complete stop.  I am not sure it is a novel.  It was starting to feel very artificial to me, like I had to make up all of this stuff to make the story longer and be a novel.  The more experience I get writing the more I realize that I am not a plotter.  I like to write until the story is done.  I now understand more fully what Stephen King meant when he said story telling is an archaeological dig.  As you brush the sand away with the words, the form begins to show itself.  For me, that is the fun way to write.  I never know what is going to come out or where the story is going and I am as surprised as anyone else at the end of the day.  So I am going back to the first scene of the novel, re-writing it a bit and then I will write from there.  If it becomes a novel, so be it.  If not, oh well.  As my favorite person in the whole world says, "It is what it is."

One of the best things that has happened, also covered in a previous post, is that my story Guide Dog was picked up by Alphie Dog LTD.  When people download it I will actually get paid.  Not a lot, but it is something.  I am channeling my inner Sally Fields: "They like it! They really like it!" This may come as a surprise but I never really quite believe that a story that is picked up is good.  I am always thinking, "Yeah, but... (insert negative thought here)."  What makes me feel good about Alphie Dog is that I submitted two stories and they requested revisions on one before they would accept it.  I declined to make the revisions, mostly because I had been through it multiple times and I was done, so they just took Guide Dog.  Alphie Dog is most definitely screening the content, not just throwing anything up there.  My inner cheerleader is waving her pom-pons.

I cannot believe how great it is to be sitting in my basement with the beer fridge and the cat boxes listening to the furnace as I create new stories and characters.  I thought I'd miss work.  I don't.  I thought I'd be lonely.  I'm not.  I thought I would struggle to find things to write about.  Right now the brain is pretty full with a psychic cowboy, a three hundred pound black woman, an OCD woman trapped in her house, and a 10 inch neon green vibrator named "Old Faithful."  Oh yeah, and a romance about a garbage picker.  Rats, I always forget that one until garbage day.  I am truly a blessed person.  I am living my dream.  I encourage you to go live yours.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

First Short Story Published

I am so very excited to announce that my short story, Guide Dog, has been accepted for publication at the website Alfie Dog Ltd.  Copies of the story can be down loaded from the website by clicking here.  Please take a minute to check the website out and support myself and the other authors that worked so hard on their pieces!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Storytelling Series: Games & Story

Welcome to a new series on storytelling that I will be featuring on my blog, hopefully monthly.  As a writer, I tend to see stories in everything.  So in order to prove I am not completely out of my mind, I have enlisted the help of some friends to help illustrate how stories help weave together the our lives from day to day.  Every where we turn there is a story, in the news, on TV, in the movies we watch, the plays and art we see, the games we play.  This first guest post about Games and Story is by my good buddy and big time gamer, Rich Redman.  I've known Rich since high school. As a matter of fact, I think I was one of the people he experimented on as an early game master and I have the twitches to prove it.   Anyway, here is how Rich describes himself as a writer/storyteller/gamer.  I highly recommend you check out his blog and other works, he is a discerning critic and a great writer.

Now an eccentric recluse, Mr. Redman publishes digitally because it's easierfrom his mountaintop fortress in Tibet. He claims to have a harem of firstreaders, and an army of bloodthirsty, opium-addicted, yetis who keep thechildren off his lawn. Mr. Redman is a multiple winner of National NovelWriting Month. He has written for, Dungeons & Dragons,Magic: The Gathering, Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game, Pathfinder, StarWars, Dark*Matter, and d20 Modern.Web: www.richredman.wsTwitter: @richredman

Games & Story

I have always been a gamer. My parents introduced us to board and card games at early ages. My sisters and I played everything from checkers to Monopoly together – not always peacefully. Sometime in late 1979 or early 1980, I discovered Dungeons & Dragons®, a role-playing game (RPG), and I’ve played it ever since. I’ve been writing tabletop RPG material professionally since 1999. My first computer game was the WWI air combat game that was part of the very first Microsoft Flight Simulator. My dad bought it for himself (he had a private pilot license for a while), and never got to use it because I was always shooting down biplanes.
So I’m what they call a grognard: Someone who’s been a gamer for a long time.
I was one of the first people in my group of friends to discover “D&D.” Since no one else knew how to play, and since I had to teach them, and since I didn’t want to game solely with my younger sisters (only one of whom was evenly vaguely interested), I took on the role of Dungeon Master (more on that below). I created adventures for my players to experience.

Do Games Have Story?

Yes, they do.
Some games have stories because the players create them. For example, many people make up stories about the properties, houses, and hotels they acquire in Monopoly. Ask any child or teen about the video game that they’re playing, and what they tell you sounds like a story.
Some computer games have stories because game writers and designers program them to. Players in those games make choices that lead them to one of the programmed endings.

Do Games Need Story?

This is actually a controversial question in game design. 
What game designers and psychologists alike observe is that players create story even when there isn’t a clear character, or even when the character has its own identity.
Listen to a child talk about playing a Mario game, or to an adolescent talk about playing the latest driving or sports game. They strongly identify with characters, teams, and action in the game. Adults do the same thing, but they tend to play more violent games and their language gets a little blue. Players string together events to make “and then” stories.
“The race started and I passed, like, half the pack before we hit the first curve, and then I was in second place so I started working on the lead car. I put some better brakes on my car this time, so I could brake later and come off the brakes faster, and then…”
So video game designers wonder how much time and money they need to spend designing story. If players find their own stories in any game, perhaps there’s no need to create additional story.
The art of story is in creating a compelling character in a relatable context with a thrilling conflict. Further, it lies on clearly identifying turning points in the story, building tension up to each point, and then releasing it, until the story’s climactic moment.
When players inject themselves into games, they rarely consider that art. Races, for example, may be of varying lengths and may get faster as the player “earns” or “unlocks” faster cars, but there are no turning points or climactic moments.
Games such as Battlefield, Halo, and Grand Theft Auto 5 do have them. Their fans relish the stories and want sequels so they can revisit characters and the contexts. They enjoy the tools available within the game, and using them to overcome challenges.
Grand Theft Auto is actually an odd exception, because the setting and character change with each game. Only the themes of criminal activity and driving are persistent.
What about D&D?
A tabletop RPG, like Dungeons & Dragons, in practice, is like a cross between improvisational theater and poker night. You get together with your friends for a few hours. You share some food and drink. You catch up with each other’s lives. At the same time, each of you has a character except for the gamemaster (GM; sometimes called a Dungeon Master, DM, Referee, or Storyteller).
Your character is not you. Your character is a role that you play in your little improve troupe. You might be a mighty warrior, a cunning wizard, or a clever rogue.
The characters, as a group, act as the protagonist. The DM provides the context (setting, including everyone else in the world besides your characters) and the conflict. Typically, that story is called an adventure. A bunch of thematically linked adventures make up a campaign. As your characters try to resolve the conflict, a plot unfolds.
It’s the DM’s job to describe how the context reacts to the party’s actions, and to constantly provide you with more information. Good GMs follow the improv theater model – they say, “Yes, and…” What comes after “and” is how the context reacts.
For example, JoAnna’s character comes upon a locked door. While the rest of the party guards her, she listens to see if she hears anything beyond the door. Typically, JoAnna rolls some dice and adds some skill rating from her character to the total of the dice roll. She tells the total to the DM, and the DM uses the game rules to determine what, if anything, her character hears. Then JoAnna decides that her character will pick the lock. She does the dice rolling again, and the DM tells her whether or not she can open the door. If she cannot, she puts her head together with those of the other players, and they figure out another way around the obstacle.
The player decides what the character does. The character’s skill, and some random factor, determines whether the character succeeds. Based on the results of skill plus random factor, the GM describes what happens.
While the game rules can be complicated, playing the game actually isn’t.

My Experience

My first stories were terrible. Granted, I didn’t have the best examples. 
My first box of D&D rules didn’t even have dice. It came with an adventure called B1: In Search of the Unknown. It was a map of a bunch of tunnels and underground chambers, accompanied by a thin book describing the contents of the rooms and anything special about them – hidden traps, locks, secret doors, and so forth. 
None of the rooms had inhabitants or rewards for the players. In D&D, those rewards would be treasure in the form of gold coins, magic weapons, mysterious potions, gems, jewelry, and so forth. Each DM had to populate the dungeon himself (or herself, I was lucky to always have female players in my groups, some of whom wanted to tell their own stories). I packed the place with monsters, weighted it down with treasure, and turned my players loose to loot and pillage to their hearts’ content.
At first, I thought that’s what all adventures were like. The characters met in a tavern, heard about some long-lost hole in the ground reputedly filled with valuables protected by fiendish traps and horrible monsters. They killed and looted their way through the hole, and then spent their money on better weapons, armor, and magic, so they’d be better equipped for the next long-lost hole.
While I ran games for my friends, I also played them at our local library with another group of people. I saw other published adventures, and those created by DMs. I realized that many adventures had real stories. So, I tried my hand at those.
They were awful.
Mind you, I thought they were awesome. However, I had specific ways that I expected things to happen, and a specific vision for how the characters would act, react, and interact with my lovingly crafted context and conflict. 
Thus, I learned one of the basic laws of GMing: No story survives first contact with the players intact.
Where I expected them to runaway, they attacked. Where I wanted them to attack, they ran away. Where I thought the need for stealth was obvious, they thought it was a good idea to smash down doors, bang on the walls, and generally raise Hell. Safe spots that I purposely created to give them a chance to rest and recover, they treated as sources of imminent danger.
It wasn’t their fault. It was mine. We call what I was doing railroading. As in, I expected the party to get on a set of rails and follow those rails, unerringly, through the adventure.
I was lucky. Enough players encouraged my early, flawed, efforts that I kept playing and kept writing.

Live and Learn

Hopefully, you love writing. I did, and I still do. I feel much the same about gaming. In fact, the thing I hate the most about working two part-time jobs and constantly scrounging for new contracts is that I have so little time to write game material.
Still, that love carried me this far and, if you don’t remember anything else, I hope you’ll remember that I got better, as a writer and good enough as a game designer to actually work, for several years, designing material for the Third Edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
Keep doing it. Keep learning. With any luck, you’re smarter and faster learners than me, and it won’t take you thirty years to see your progress.

Rich Redman

Twitter: @richredman


Next Month check out a post by Valerie Brincheck, artiste extraordinaire, about how art is a form of storytelling for her.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

First Report from the Front Lines of FLWL

Jeanne Tepper here reporting from the front lines of Free Lance Writer Land (FLWL).  The last ten days has seen an offensive of words thrown on the page at an unheard of rate, 3700 last week, over 800 so far today.  Will the attack never end?

I have been able to obtain an exclusive photo of the living quarters of a FLWL Native!  Bare and lacking some of the finer amenities to be sure, but the words coming out of the place, unbelievable!  

It can be a scary spot, this hidey hole of creative genius.  The occupant walks around muttering, "more conflict, the scene needs more conflict" and complaining about the cowboys, goth girls, and 300 lb. black women walking around in her head and talking to her.  There is a fine layer of hair littering the floor, pulled out while trying to figure out synonyms for "syncopated" and then realizing it was the wrong word anyway.

New websites, email addresses, and business cards are being ordered at an unbelievable rate.  Short stories are being submitted for publication, query letters are being sent out.  I have it on good authority there was even a meeting regarding technical writing involving, wait for it, the possibility of pay.  Pay is almost unheard of in this region of FLWL, although many citizens in other regions have pay and good pay at that.

This anonymous citizen has also noted that since she moved to FLWL time has actually slowed down.  "Yeah, my trainer emailed me this afternoon about the work out this morning and I thought to myself 'Did I work out this morning?' and then I realized that it was STILL Wednesday!"  Does FLWL exist in some sort of bizarre literary time warp that stretches each day into two?  Is there something in the air or water that makes each moment stick to you like peanut butter sticks to your ribs?  My source shrugs her shoulders.  "All I know is that I am continually asking myself is it still Wednesday?  I really get my days screwed up."  She does not seem to have a problem with it.  When asked if she would like to rejoin the rat race, the response is quick and unequivocal, "No way, I didn't expect that I would love living in FLWL so much, and let's face it I haven't lived here long.  But so far I love it and can't see myself moving back."

Monday, February 13, 2012

Time Management

So I started this year with big, big goals: tracking my writing production, 5000 words a week, regular blog posts.  God at that rate, I could have my novel done in a year and blog readership would be through the roof!  Well, like most of us who set goals in the beginning of the year, reality walked up and smacked me in the face and not six weeks later, I am already off track.  I knew this was the case because not only have I not tracked my writing in a couple weeks, but I am crabby. If I don't get enough writing in I get stressed and moody, and you pretty much don't want to be around me. So I called a meeting with my time management mentor to get me back on the right path.

My husband is the most efficient time manager of anyone I know.  He sets his schedule in his blackberry and when it beeps to remind him of some appointment or task he does it.  I, on the other hand, am like that at work, but resist all scheduling attempts at home.  This frustrates my time management guru to no end, mostly because he has to listen to me bitch and complain about how much I have to do and how stressed I am.  So once again, we sat at the dining room table over coffee and he explained to me, again, why setting and keeping to a schedule at home would free me to do the things I want to do.

And I listened and nodded and understood.  I do, I really do, understand.  I kept a good schedule for three days once, in a row.  Quite a feat for me because even as I sit here writing I can feel the claustrophobic feeling of cramming my life into those neat little color coded boxes on my iPhone rising like a tide inside me. Maybe it's the fact that I have three people's schedules on my calendar or that my schedule is entitled "Mom" instead of "Jeanne."  Maybe I think I shouldn't have to work so hard to fit my bright pink boxes into the space left by the purple and green boxes of daughter and husband or the big grey box of working for someone else.  Maybe I think that my schedule should just be magically respected and I shouldn't have to fence it off to protect it from marauding friends and family and cats walking across my keyboard.

After all that thinking I've realized that no one is going to respect my schedule if I don't have one.  Other people will take it as seriously as I do. So when I put my writing time in, I have to go write.  My husband and daughter know not to disturb me unless fire or an ambulance is involved.  I need to not disturb me too.  But life is messy and I also realize that the boxes are a goal, if I don't hit it today, I'll hit it tomorrow.  The key is to keep trying to get back to the box.  So today is my first attempt at getting back to the schedule and goals I set at the beginning of the year.   So I was successful today, got some "black on white" and I am happy about that.  I'll try again tomorrow, and then the day after that.  Who knows?  Maybe I'll break my three day streak.