Friday, October 21, 2016

Seeking Creativity? Try Walking.

Many famous writers turn to alcohol or drugs, either for motivation or escape: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few.  I’m not sure the total number of renowned alcoholic authors is sufficient to claim a high correlation between destructive compulsive behavior and writing genius, but there’s enough to make you wonder.  
A mysterious romance is often associated with troubled writers toiling over their unfinished novels in smoky studies with their favorite libations nearby. It makes you wonder if their coarse lifestyle infused their creative genius, or if their genius came first and was a burden too heavy for them to carry.  I suspect it’s the latter.
Let me suggest there’s a better way to stoke your creative writing juices than drinking: walking. 
Walking briskly for at least 30 minutes a day has been shown to stimulate your brain. Walkers are 50% less likely to develop dementia than non-walkers.   Higher fitness levels are correlated with continued development of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex of the brain, both vital to memory and complex thinking.  Those who remain physically active late in life are also more likely to demonstrate continued mental growth.    
It also has been proven that those who walk regularly are happier and exhibit higher levels of energy.  Regular physical exercise releases uplifting endorphins that improve your mood, as well as reduce stress and anxiety.  You may have heard of a “runner’s high.”  The release of endorphins is responsible for that buzz.  
I start each day by taking a 45-minute walk with my dog along mountain trails. I’m not so sure if the walking has made me a more polished writer, but I can attest to feeling refreshed and in a much better mood on the days I walk.  I am clearly more productive after my hike in the woods and able to focus at a higher level.  Walking alone also gives me time to think, time for my mind to wander.  I’ve come up with many new ideas for stories, plot twists, and character developments while sauntering through the woods.  
While walking may not be as mysteriously romantic as Hemingway passing out at his writing desk after a night at a Key West saloon, it will definitely improve a writer’s energy and longevity.  At age 64, I’d like to write many more years, so I’ll do anything to keep my body healthy and my mind sharp. 
Although, I must admit, if I thought going on a weeklong bender would elevate my next Miles Stevens novel to best seller status, I’d be downing double shots right now.              

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Book Reviews: They're Hard To Come By

Authors crave book reviews.  Most reviews of my books are well-thought and favorable, but I’ve also received not-so-positive critiques.   I appreciate them all.
As a self-published author, it’s difficult to accumulate reviews of my work, and it’s getting even harder.  I estimate fewer than 5% of my readers post a review on Amazon or Goodreads.  It’s difficult to calculate exactly.  I know how many books I’ve sold and how many I’ve given away in promotions, but I don’t know how many of my books have actually been read.      
Successful authors receive plenty of reviews, and getting reviews builds success.  So, what comes first, success or reviews? Many factors contribute to becoming a recognized writer, but without favorable reviews, aspiring will forever precede author in your title.
I’ve tried most of the typical approaches used by self-published writers to obtain more reviews:  book signings, author interviews, promotional giveaways, advance reader copies (ARC), and review swap groups.  I promote my work on my blog and via Twitter @drshoultz .   I even ask for reviews at the end of each of my books (a practice frowned upon by established authors).  I, and most new authors, work very hard for each review.     
The pursuit of reviews has become controversial in recent years, the controversy escalating with the explosive growth of self-publishing. The ethical, and even legal, dilemma surrounding solicitation of reviews gives all authors cause for concern.  Personally, I see no harm in offering free copies of my books to readers in exchange for honest reviews, provided the reader acknowledges the gift in their review.  On the other hand, I would never pay anyone for a review.  
Amazon has recently published book reviewer guidelines.  It no longer considers reviews by friends of an author as valid and goes so far as to remove these reviews.  I’ve had a couple taken down.  I told Amazon I couldn’t control whether or not my mom posted reviews, but her review disappeared nevertheless.
One might ask where and how Amazon draws the line on its definition of “friend”.  I know authors with thousands of Facebook and Goodreads friends.  They’ve cultivated their list of internet friends for the primary purpose of expanding their readership.  My advice to these authors is be careful how friendly you become with your readers.  
I guess one criteria of success for an author is reaching the point where you have so many reviews you (and Amazon) can’t read them all.  I’m clearly not there yet.  I’ve read each one, some several times--especially the reviews from my mom.       

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.


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  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.