Thursday, September 22, 2016

Writer's block, what is it?


All writers get it, but what is writer’s block?   
The term makes it sound like a cork stopper is jammed into the channel of the brain that allows free-following thought. Much has been written on the subject, some by writers, some by psychologists and psychiatrists.  Writers want to know how to overcome it.   PhDs and MDs are more interested in the neuroses that cause writer’s block to occur.   
As a writer, I find my encounters with writer’s block occur when I’m distracted by life.  Some of these distractions are good, such as vacations, visiting with friends and family, or getting a new pet.   Unexpected home maintenance, health issues, family drama, or the dog chewing a hole in your leather recliner fall into the not-so-good category. Whatever the distractions may be, they take time and focus away from freewheeling creativity and putting pen to paper.
Doctors have arrived at a medical explanation for this. It appears during periods of stress or distraction, the brain’s limbic system takes control from the cerebral cortex.    The limbic system controls instinctual “fight or flight” reactions, whereas the cerebral cortex is vital to the creative process.   The more stress, the less creativity.  Writers under a deadline may experience a negative feedback loop.  The more they stress over meeting the publisher’s or editor’s deadline, the less creative they become.
I also find some writing projects just lose steam.  It has nothing to do with personal distractions or my brain shifting from one side to the other, but more to do with my writing ability.  It might be my original idea for a book or story isn’t well thought, or maybe I’m just not smart enough to finish what I started.   Whatever it is, it’s led to many uncompleted writing projects. I have a Word file labeled “Elephant Graveyard” filled with the carcasses of dead novels and short stories.  I occasionally visit the file and kick the bones.  Every so often, one of the elephants comes back to life. 
So, what do you do about writer’s block?  Not being under deadlines, I have the freedom to wait it out, and that’s what I do.   I’m not big into mental manipulation or word games to free my thoughts.  These techniques may work for some, but I find putting my project(s) on the back burner for a few days and coming back fresh is the best approach. 
Starting a new writing project can also help.  If I hit a dead spot while working on a novel, putting it to the side and writing a blog entry or starting a new short story can jumpstart creative juices.  In fact, that’s what I’m doing now.  I’ve been working on the third book in the Miles Stevens time-travel action-adventure series and needed a break. 
I think I’ll grab a cup of coffee and get back to seeing what Miles is up to.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

When I'm 64, will you still need me?


Will you still need me?  Will you still feed me when I’m 64? 

Paul McCartney, the Beatles icon, was only 16 when he wrote the song which was later released in 1967.  At the time, turning 64 was nearly five decades away for young Paul.  He couldn’t have had a clue what being 64 would be like. This was obvious by the questions he posed.  

Will you still need me?
Will you still feed me?
Will you still be sending me a valentine, birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I'd been out ‘til quarter to three, would you lock the door? 

This is what a 16-year-old wonders about someone who turns 64?  On the one hand, he sees a 64-year-old as unneeded and unable to feed himself.  On the other, the same person is drinking wine and staying out until 2:45 a.m.    

Well, I turned 64 this past week, and I am definitely still feeding myself.  I tip the scales at 190 on my skinny days.  I’m also still paying bills, so I guess I’m still needed.   I received several birthday cards, and I drink wine daily, so I can check off that question, too.  As far as the final question, if I was ever out ‘til quarter to three, I wouldn’t need to worry about being locked out.  My wife would have already contacted highway patrol and filed a missing person’s report.  I haven’t been out past midnight since before Reagan’s presidency.  

I wonder what McCartney thinks of his song now.  He’s looking at 64 in the rearview mirror. The knighted mega-millionaire turned 74 this past June.  Maybe he’s working on a sequel, When I’m 94.   If he is, I might suggest the following questions find their way into his tune: 

Will Medicare still heal me?
Will Social Security still feed me?
Will you still be sending me a get-well card, bedside flowers, graveside stone?
If I fall and make a mess, will you mop the floor?  

Check back.  I plan to update this blog post in 30 years.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Why Write Short Stories? An Update


If you’ve read 11 novels or more last year, you’re in the minority—at least in the U.S. 

The percentage of Americans reaching this reading plateau has declined from 43% in 1978 to 34% in 1990 to 28% in 2014.  Nearly a quarter of Americans didn’t read a single novel last year(1).    Reasons for this decline are many, but it sure isn’t due to a lack of supply.  The number of new authors who pen their first work each year is in the tens of thousands, and quality books from both new and established authors continue to percolate to the top of best seller lists.   

Reading takes time, and many activities compete for the time of potential readers.  The average American spends an alarming 11 hours a day on electronic gadgets --TVs, smart phones, PCs/tablets, radios, DVD players or other devices (2).   If you sleep eight hours, that leaves little time for family and other interests.  

Avid readers have at least a couple things in common.  They tend to make reading a priority, setting aside time each day to read.  They also have typically been ardent readers most of their lives, becoming interested in books at a young age.  This could have been the result of parents reading to them as toddlers, or becoming interested in a young adult series as a preteen or just having an active curiosity that reading satisfied.

I believe short stories and novellas provide a means to get more adults interested in reading. Short stories have a compact and pointed plot and typically can be read in one sitting.  Novellas are works of fiction of intermediate length and complexity, usually requiring just a few hours to complete.  In today’s electronic media world and consumers’ desire for immediate gratification, short stories and novellas are stepping stones back to reading.  

I’ve written several novels and recently published my first novella, MOST MEN, packaged with a second collection of short stories. In addition to focusing on the Miles Stevens time travel series, I plan to continue writing and publishing short story collections.   This decision was driven in part by a desire to target new readers.  I've talked to many people who are becoming fans of short stories. They are willing to invest the time required to read these stories, but are unlikely to ever read a 350+ page novel.  

I enjoy writing short stories and have received literary contest recognition for several of them. Unlike with novels, editing of novellas and short stories goes more quickly.  Changes and improvements can be made without tearing through hundreds of pages.   On the other hand, space is precious and words can’t be wasted.  Character and plot development must be crisp, yet compelling.  

I hope both new and veteran readers will check out my short story collections, IT GOES ON and MOST MEN.  Maybe the stories will inspire you to read more novels this year.


Books by D.R. Shoultz can be found by clicking HERE.
 

(2)    http://www.geekwire.com/2015/nielsen-reports-that-the-average-american-adult-spends-11-hours-per-day-on-gadgets/

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Isn't there enough to worry about?


I had a minor surgery earlier this week, if there is such a thing.  It seems there’s a progression to skin cancers, ranging from basal cell carcinomas to the deadly melanoma.  I had the one in the middle, a squamous cell spot above my right eyebrow, and I had it removed.  Advice to all, use sun block lotions and get regular checkups with your dermatologist... but that’s not my thought for today.
I was given an antibiotic as part of my treatment, and it led to a discussion about superbugs, or strains of bacteria that have become immune to antibiotics.  There are several, but the most commonly referenced superbug is MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).  This nasty creature started showing up in hospitals years ago.  It appears that over time, bacteria can adapt to the drugs that are designed to kill them, and change to ensure their survival. 
That’s just what we need—smart bacteria.  Don’t we have enough to worry about without having micro-organisms targeting us?  Millions of people are infected each year by these superbugs, leading to everything from diarrhea to death.   
You can reduce your exposure to superbugs by taking antibiotics ONLY when you need them, and when you do take antibiotics, make sure to take the ENTIRE course of treatment.  Other than that, wash your hands and avoid unsanitary conditions.  Personally, I try to avoid going to the doctor’s office or hospitals unless I absolutely have to.   That’s where sick people hang out!
Life was much simpler when I was a kid.  Sure, medicine has advanced dramatically the past 50 years, but it now appears the diseases are getting smarter right along with us.  This comes at a time when we have more than enough to worry about—economic uncertainty, terrorism, rising worldwide divisiveness, and worst of all, the prospect of Hillary or Donald as president. 
Come to think of it… I’ll take my chances with superbugs.       

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Virginia is for Lovers... and Speeding Tickets



I confess. I was speeding. I was going 76 in a 65 mph zone, but then, so was most everyone else careening downhill on this section of I-77 in Wythe County, Virginia.
I’ve driven through Wytheville, Virginia dozens of times in the 20+ years I’ve been making the trip from our home in North Carolina to visit family in the Midwest.  More often than not, the Wythe County Sheriff’s department has been lined up in the median, hiding behind hills, before darting out to pull drivers over, sometimes two and three at a time. I’d avoided getting tickets in the past, but not this time.   
It was 9:00 a.m. Sunday.  My wife Claudia, our dog Milo, and I had driven for about an hour. We had 400 miles to go to reach Louisville where I was dropping my wife off to spend a few days spoiling grandkids.  I was then driving another 300 miles to tend to my 87-year-old mother in Illinois who had knee replacement surgery three days prior.  She was scheduled to come home from the hospital the next day.
Having just passed a slower moving car, I continued to gain speed, going downhill on the mountain highway.   I saw two county patrol cars tucked behind a roadside hill and glanced down at my speedometer.  I was going 76 and immediately braked and glided into the slow lane.  The two cars behind me did the same thing, but it was too late.  I watched in the rearview mirror as one of the patrol cars pulled out and came our way.  Wondering which car he was after, my heart raced as he closed the gap between us.  Finally, he slid in behind me, and the top of his car exploded with multicolored lights.  My more than 10-year hiatus without a speeding ticket was about to be over.  I pulled to the roadside.
Wise-ass comments passed through my mind as the stocky sheriff’s deputy lumbered up to my driver’s side window.  
Glad to see you were able to run down this 4-cylider Civic.
Just my luck.  I pass through town when your donut break is over.  
So, are you targeting grandparents hopped up on Metamucil this morning?   
Fortunately, I never said any of them.  I was madder at myself than the deputy.  I knew to be careful traveling this section of interstate.  There’s even a blog warning drivers about Wythe County http://www.speedtrap.org/city/12090/Wytheville.  The 65 mph speed limit (most of I-77 is 70 mph), the long downhill section of highway and the large number of out-of-state drivers adds up to a good source of revenue for Wythe County.
After introducing himself as J.P. somebody and informing me of my serious crime, I handed the deputy my license and registration and he walked back to his cruiser.  While we waited for J.P. to return, a couple other drivers were caught in the Wythe County Sheriff’s net.  The scene was beginning to look as if there had been a multi-car pileup.  With the heavy traffic on I-77 and the county patrol cars darting on and off the highway, it was a miracle there wasn’t a serious accident.  I wondered what the larger risk was, me driving 76 in a 65, or the backup of traffic resulting from the multiple roadside arrests.  
J.P. needed only a couple minutes to call in my license plate and fill out the two-page Virginia Uniform Summons.  After he returned, it took him less than 30 seconds to explain it to me.  His staccato memorized spiel blended together, sounding like Two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.  
I thought this must be the Wythe County Sheriff’s equivalent to calf roping.  Nearby, one of the other deputies must be holding a stopwatch.  As I pulled away, I looked back expecting to see J.P. throwing his hands into the air, signifying his calf had been successfully tied.
I handed the ticket to my wife.  She informed me that the total cost of my brain fart was $132.00.  Only $66 was for the fine. Another $51 was for “processing” and $15 for local fees, a.k.a. county windfall.  Not bad for roping one Civic.    
As we were about to leave Virginia, I saw a sign displaying the state’s motto, “Virginia is for Lovers.”  
Yeah, I thought, and for speeding tickets.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Car Travel - Then and Now


Car travel has changed dramatically since the days when my family drove cross-country on our summer vacations.
With the trunk of our new 1962 Ford Galaxy packed tight, a stack of board games in the backseat between me and my sister, and mom armed with a Shell Road Atlas, we took to the highway.  Weeks perusing dozens of glossy brochures preceded our departure.  Most of them were now stuffed in a brown grocery sack at Mom’s feet in the front seat. There was no Internet to research our destination or MapQuest to chart the course.  
These trips always started filled with optimism, which usually lasted until the first pee break, about an hour down the road.  “Didn’t I tell you to go before we left home?” was Dad’s rhetorical question.  Of course he told us, but my sister’s breakfast orange juice would not be denied.
There weren’t a lot of four-lane super highways in the early 60’s.  Travel was on two-lane roads, winding through every small town between home and our destination.  Signs foretelling fast food restaurants at each upcoming exit did not exist.   In fact, fast food was rare then.  My dad would seek roadside caf├ęs advertised on billboards 50 miles in advance.  A ten-year-old could starve waiting for Kelly’s Shiny Diner to appear on the horizon.
There was always at least one point where we’d get lost. Mom would have the road atlas unfolded in her lap, flapping like an unfurled flag as Dad shouted out passing road signs.  An argument would usually ensue before we pulled into a gas station to re-chart our course. Kids today don’t appreciate how iPhones and navigation systems have improved family harmony.   
My sister and I got along pretty well on these trips, even without video games, which were yet to be invented.  We’d make lists of the states found on license plates, challenge each other to find roadside objects, and play Old Maid.  However, we were ten and eight years old.  The silence wouldn’t last 1,000 miles.  It was usually around mile 300 that the first, “I’ll turn this car around right now!” would come bellowing from the front seat.
We knew Dad would never reverse course. He was driven by a timetable in his head--St. Louis by lunch, Joplin for dinner, hotel in Kansas City by nightfall, etc.  I think most men were like this, but my dad was fanatical.  I dreaded getting stuck behind a slow-moving truck.  It usually meant skipping the next restroom break to make up for lost time.  Hang on bladder!  
Dad loved to calculate our gas mileage on vacations.  Cars back then were the size of whales and had huge, inefficient V-8 engines, but then, gas was only 38 cents per gallon.  At each service station, Dad would fill up and then provide the number of gallons pumped and odometer reading to my mother.  She would do the calculation.  “Seventeen point eight,” she would announce. “Not bad. Up a mile per gallon,” Dad would proudly reply, and our journey would continue.  
I assumed gaining one mile per gallon was a huge windfall.  It wasn’t until my math skills improved a couple years later that I realized we were talking about 50 cents per tankful.  Today’s cars calculate gas mileage and display it continually.  I’m glad this technology wasn’t around in the 60s.  It would have robbed my father of one of his simple pleasures.  
We always made it to our destination and back home with the car and the family intact.  Memories of our time on the road eventually faded, replaced by happy photos of the vacation.  I’ve often wondered if today’s families could survive similar ventures.  Somehow, I doubt it.          

Monday, August 1, 2016

Dangers of Insomnia



I’ve never been a sound sleeper.  I wish I were, but I seldom get more than five hours a night, typically waking in the early morning, unable to fall back to sleep.  I’m writing this at 4:35 a.m.
My physician has warned me of the health risks linked to lack of sleep: high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, diabetes, and other ailments.  What he didn’t tell me was that insomnia can also be associated with nocturnal stupidity, at least in my case.
I have the bad habit of using the time normal people are sleeping to surf the internet—Facebook, Twitter, blogs, news sites, and yes, infomercials.  None of this is very productive.  In fact, it's dangerous.
Keep in mind, I’m a mature retired man who ordinarily uses good judgment.  You wouldn’t think I could get into much trouble sitting at a keyboard at 2 a.m., but you’d be wrong.  I’m embarrassed to admit what I did recently, but confession is the first step to curing what may be addictive behavior.
Of all things, it was a pop-up ad for wrinkle cream.  But not just ANY wrinkle cream.  This one used snake venom as one of its active ingredients.  I guess the theory is the venom will paralyze wrinkles. It was the snake venom combined with the before-and-after pictures that captured my attention. If this stuff could produce such amazing results, it was worth taking a further look.  So, I clicked on the ad.  Big mistake.
This wrinkle cream claimed to have been featured on the Dr. Oz Show.  Surely, that gave it medical cred over other wrinkle erasers.   I was becoming more convinced.  When I read you could get a 30-day supply for only the cost of shipping, I reached for my credit card to pay the $5.95.   Minutes later, I had been emailed a receipt, and was on my way to rediscovering my youth.
The cream arrived in seven days.  The only instructions were on the side of the bottle. Cleanse your face, pat dry, and apply lotion two times daily.  It seemed simple enough.  I used it every day for the next two weeks, carefully inspecting my sagging eyes, crow’s feet and lines on my forehead. My skin did feel tighter after applying the miracle potion, but I didn’t see results similar to those before-and-after photos. Not even close.  My face was stuck in the “before” position.
Upon closer inspection of the bottle’s contents, I discovered water was the first ingredient and “actual” snake venom wasn’t included.  Instead a synthetic ingredient with “characteristics” of snake venom was listed.  Huh? There are chemists with this kind of time on their hands?  I’m not so sure I would have ordered a wrinkle cream containing “fake” snake venom.
My embarrassing story could have ended there, with me out $5.95 for shipping and a bottle of half-used fake snake venom cream in my bathroom cabinet, but no.  Less than a week later, I noticed an $89.95 charge on my VISA account for something I didn’t recognize.   It turned out it was for the wrinkle cream!
I immediately called the product’s toll-free number and reached a young man with a distinctive East Indian accent and an uppity attitude.  “I’m sorry, but our ad clearly states you will be billed the full price in 30 days if you don’t cancel your subscription.”
“Subscription? I didn’t sign up for a subscription!” I argued, asking repeatedly to speak to his supervisor.  His supervisor was busy—no surprise to me.  Nearly 45 minutes later, I was successful in getting a 50% refund, but I was still out more than $50.00, including shipping, and my face still looked like a dried-out catcher's mitt.
I went back to the wrinkle cream website.  If I had scrolled far enough past the fancy ad and read the small print agreement, it did state I needed to cancel within 30 days to avoid further charges.  I wonder how many people actually do this, especially at 2 a.m.   It was a lesson learned.
Hmmm.   I’ve always wondered if these non-stick cooking pans actually work.  They must.  They have Cerami-Tech technology.