Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Being Introverted - Does It Help Writers?

If you want to be a successful writer, does it help to be introverted?

The question begs asking. Writers spend hours and hours alone, accompanied only by their thoughts and keyboards. With the advent of the Internet and Google, many writers never venture from the seclusion of their desks, not even for research.  Given this, it must help if you’re content being alone.

While I could find no statistics on the subject, there is evidence to both support and counter this hypothesis.

Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Falkner gave a wild-eyed romance to writing.  They are reported to have enjoyed an evening of drink and merriment on occasion, but I’d guess these accomplished authors are more the exception than the rule.  Most writers I’ve talked to are more at home with a good book and a cozy fire than leaning on a bar and tossing back shots of whiskey.  I surely am.

Many aspiring writers balance day jobs, families, and other responsibilities with their quest to write the next great novel.  It’s likely these writers don’t consider themselves introverted, but if asked, it’s a safe bet many of them would welcome more time alone with their writing aspirations.

Not all writing is done in seclusion. Reporters, columnists, and research writers engage the world up close and personal, but even the success of these writers lies with their ability to find inspiration from within, often formalizing their findings alone.  

Time and talent are necessary to produce a successful novel, but not sufficient. A writer finishing a brilliant novel is unlike a medical researcher who discovers a cure for a disease.  While both may be comfortable in the lonely pursuit of their goal, it’s the writer who is faced with selling what he/she created.  

Soliciting agents and publishers, arranging book signings, giving presentations to book clubs and a range of other activities face writers seeking to gain recognition.  Not even well-known writers can turn their novels over to a publisher to sell.  Publishers expect authors to be available for public appearances, not exactly something an introvert welcomes. Marketing can take introverted writers outside their comfort zone.  Not being willing, or able, to market their books is one reason most new authors never sell more than a couple hundred copies.      

So, if you want to be a successful writer, does it help to be introverted?   

Like most professions, writing requires a balance of interests, traits and capabilities. While writers need to feel comfortable in seclusion with their thoughts, social interaction is required to be successful.  The Internet, social media and self-publishing have created a sea of writers seeking success.  No writer can rise to the surface sitting alone in his/her den with a cup of coffee.  Although, like me, I suppose many wish they could.           

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Reviews - Which Stick With You?

I accept that I have a lot to learn about writing.  In the six or seven years I’ve dedicated to writing stories and novels, I’ve made progress, but recognize there’s a difference between my work and those of accomplished writers.  To me, the process of improvement has been about assessing my strengths and weaknesses and using the feedback of readers and other writers to focus my efforts. 

There’s nothing that exposes you to criticism more than writing.  Once you publish your work, anyone can read it and provide feedback.  Most of the time, you have no way of knowing the reviewer, their qualifications, likes/dislikes, or motives.  It would be great if each reviewer provided this information. Although if they did, I’m not sure it would really matter. 

Regardless of who reviews my stories and novels, each review represents one person’s opinion. I’ve had reviews that simply state my writing stinks.  I’ve had more that declared it was good.  In both cases, not enough information was provided in these one-line reviews to alter how I write.  While I appreciate ALL reviews, it’s the thoughtful critiques that get my attention, telling me what I’ve done well or where my writing needs improvement.

I frequently submit my stories and novels to writing contests, most notably to Writer’s Digest and similar competitions. I suggest all aspiring writers do the same. I’ve never won a Writer’s Digest competition, but have received honorable mention recognition for short stories.   I’ve learned professional reviewers look at several areas to assess writing entries. These areas include, but are not limited to: Punctuation & Grammar, Plot & Story, Character Development, Organization & Structure, and Writing Style. 

I recently submitted a book to the Writer’s Digest 25th Annual Self-Published Book Contest.  I’m still reeling from the judges’ comments, although I couldn’t disagree with any of them.  I received good marks on punctuation & grammar and story development, but not so good ratings on character development and writing style.  Again, it was one person’s opinion, but the feedback was well-thought and thorough. Reviews providing feedback at this level tend to stick with me.

I’ll make adjustments and try again next year.  

Friday, November 24, 2017

Impatient Patient

I’m not a good patient.  I have enough self-awareness to realize that I’m not always easy to live with even when I’m healthy, let alone when I’m confined by illness or injury.  So, when I was presented with surgery for Achilles repair followed by an extended recovery period, my wife and I prepared for the worst.

For those considering Achilles repair, or any surgery involving tendons, muscles and bones, think carefully.  I had put off this procedure (a term used to downplay the significance of surgery) for several years. My orthopedist told me I would know when the pain and discomfort reached a level warranting corrective action.  Finally, I felt it was time.

The problem was that I had never really experienced pain before, and I based my decision to proceed on insufficient data.  The only other surgery I’d had was a hernia repair, and I came through that fine. On a scale from 1 to 10, I thought my Achilles pain had reached a 7 or 8 at times.  Using that as a gauge, what I experienced following the surgery was in the 15 to 17 range. 
    
Bandaged from toe to knee, my wife drove me home while I was still under the influence of heavy medication. It was all I could do to crawl up the two front stairs and hobble on crutches to the confines of our bedroom.  I fell onto the bed with my leg elevated, looking like a turtle unable to get to its feet.

Initially, I was fine.  The medication applied during and after surgery did its job, but early the next morning it had worn off. My brave exterior crumbled.  An impatient patient leapt from my body, shouting demands for immediate relief.  

My wife is a tolerant nurse…to a point.  She was at the ready every couple hours with needed medication, drinks and supplies.  I couldn’t have received better care.  However, there’s a line of demarcation where the intolerance of my condition crosses her tolerance of my growing demands.  The inevitable “This is why men don’t have babies” was first uttered on day three, signaling she’d had enough.

My pain subsided as the first week progressed.  By week two, I could no longer be considered ill.  I was just an immobile nuisance, unable to do much of anything.  My wife had to walk our dog three times a day in my absence.  She faced the holiday season and preparations on her own.  Even taking a cup of coffee to my desk was impossible on crutches and required her support.  I think you get the picture.

With all her duties, it was hard for me to be too demanding.  The impatient patient would need to find a way to suck it up, wait before calling out, and most of all, compliment her on the care she provided.  It would be difficult, but I was up to it.
   
I’m still facing rehab on my leg, but should be back to normal before spring.  My doctor believes my other Achilles will require the same repair soon.  For the sake of our marriage, I think it can wait.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Redefining Forever

Used as an adverb, forever means “for all future time.”  Couples want their love to last forever.   As an adjective, it means “lasting or permanent.”  Pound puppies are looking for their forever home.
Forever is a feel-good word, but does forever really exist? You could make the argument that it depends on how you define “all future time.”  If you use our universe to establish the parameters on time, there are few things today that existed when the earth was formed billions of years ago, and few of today’s earthly things will exist billions of years from now.     
As a child, a promise of forever is comforting.  Children don’t question their parents when told their mom and dad will be with them forever. When you’re only six, you don’t think in terms of billions of years, or that life on earth is finite.  You just want to be sure your mom will be there at 3 o’clock to pick you up after kindergarten.  Forever easily covers that length of time.
Many teenagers believe they are indestructible, maybe even immortal. To them, the future is something that will take care of itself.   They plan as far as their next date, the next football game, or maybe even where they’ll go to college, but forever relationships, careers, or commitments are something for another time.  They just hope high school will last forever, and for some it does.
When I was in my early twenties, starting my career and family, my future was filled with opportunity and extended before me, forever, like an Oklahoma sunset.  I’d lost my teenage feeling of immortality, but I still didn’t worry about forever.  Even my parents were young and productive.  Why should I be concerned if forever would end?  We all had a lot of living to do.  
I enjoyed my career.  There were times I wanted my career to last forever, but after a few decades of business travel and time away from home, my goal shifted toward an active, relaxing retirement. If I could afford to retire in my mid-50s, I’d have a long time to enjoy a carefree life.  Notice that I used “long time” and not forever to describe how much time I’d have.  By then, I knew forever had its limits.  My parents were slowing down.  I began to see my future in them.
I’ve been retired for nearly ten years.  I went on Medicare the other day.  My wife and I are fortunate to be healthy and active.  We read, write, walk mountain trails and spend a fair amount of time traveling.  We have many friends who live nearby; some are younger and some are older than us.  We’ve lost friends recently.  We’ve reached that point in our lives where we go to more funerals than weddings.  Each passing is painful.  It clarifies that we only have today. We don’t have forever, at least not on this earth.
Forever gets redefined as we age.  I’ve never been a deeply religious person, but I accept there’s a God and there is more to life than what we experience during our time on earth.  In this light, maybe a couple’s love can last forever and there really are forever homes.
I certainly hope so. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hearing Hart

I recently accompanied my wife’s book club to West Jefferson, North Carolina to hear John Hart speak at the Ashe County Literary Festival. It was a crisp September morning for the 40-mile drive, perfect for meandering along mountain roads and taking in the long-range vistas.  The book club had just read Hart’s latest book, “Redemption Road,” and all were excited about meeting and hearing the author.  I’ve  read Hart’s previous four novels, and count him as one of my few favorite authors.

If you’re unfamiliar with John Hart, you’re among a shrinking population of readers.  Hart, a North Carolina native, is a New York Times bestselling author of suspenseful, literary thrillers and stands alone in winning back-to-back Edgar Awards for best mystery novel.   

The activity room at the Ashe County Library was at capacity when Hart entered the room. It had been a morning filled with writing seminars and presentations, and Hart was the culmination of the day and the week.  I’ve been to similar presentations, but none that featured someone with the writing chops of John Hart.   I must admit, I was more than a little starstruck as he took the podium.

With the writing credentials to be full of himself, Hart was anything but.   He was clever, humorous, and informative, and at times, self-deprecating.  He spoke like someone addressing his peers, rather than a world-famous author speaking to a room filled with mesmerized readers, writers, and book promoters.  Without notes or props, he assessed his audience and our knowledge of his work before giving us an hour-long inside-the-tent look at his past, present and future writing projects.

As an aspiring writer, I came away from Hart’s presentation inspired.  It was insightful to hear him discuss how he approached writing, viewing himself as a writer of “character-driven” fiction. For him, and unlike many authors, the characters come first, not the story.  Hart has deep feelings about his protagonists. He gets to know them well early in his novels, long before he figures out where they will travel and the challenges they will face.
 
Hart takes exception to those labeling him as a writer of dark novels. Instead, he says he “searches for light in dark places.”  It’s true.  Through no fault of their own, many of his protagonists are damaged individuals, facing what seem to be unscalable barriers.  Hart describes their trials, their errors, and their relationships with other characters, as they attempt to overcome these barriers and step into the light.  

Oddly, I also felt a little diminished as I filed out of the meeting room.  I’ve long known that achieving writing success isn’t an easy journey, but after hearing John Hart, I realize success is even further away.  I fall short of the insight, preparation, and quality writing demonstrated by Hart.   His discussion of character development brought this home.  Admittedly, I don’t know my characters nearly as well as he does.

I will take what I learned in West Jefferson and refocus my efforts.  Writing is a process, where even your recognized shortcomings need to be viewed as stepping stones forward.  I will likely not come close to achieving the success of John Hart, but I continue to appreciate the process.  What better way to enjoy an early autumn day than driving to West Jefferson with my wife and friends to attend the literary festival?  The only thing better would be to someday view it from Hart’s side of the podium.      

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Two Types of People

I believe there are two types of people: those who read instructions before operating new devices, and those who don’t.  My wife Claudia is the former.  I am the latter. 
 
We recently purchased a new washing machine.  The old one finally committed suicide after 10+ years of faithful service.  For months, we tolerated an ever-increasing vibration during the spin cycle, at times registering a 6.0 on the seismic scale.  However, the bursting of the tub seal couldn’t be ignored.  What had been a minor leak suddenly exploded, leaving a small pond at the base of the machine.  We paid $100 for a service call to verify what we already knew.  The cost of repairs would exceed the price of a new machine.
 
Through the miracle of the internet, we found a washer meeting our needs and ordered it.  The new appliance arrived 48 hours later.  In less than 15 minutes, the old one was loaded on the truck and the new washer was installed in the utility room, ready for a backlog of dirty clothes.   Our old washer had two dials, one to select the cycle and the other to select the water level.  The new one has five dials and more indicator lights than a Boeing 767 cockpit.   Still, I saw no reason to read the owner’s manual before loading it and hitting start.
 
“Wait! What’s the difference between tap, cool tap, and cold water?”  Claudia asked, placing her hand over the start button.  It wasn’t a question I found critical to the maiden journey of the machine.  
 
“This washer can calculate the required water level.  Do we have that set correctly?” Her questions continued.  “We should read the manual.”  It was obvious my devil-may-care approach wasn’t acceptable. 
 
I have always waited until something didn’t work before breaking out the owner’s manual.  It’s a process that’s served me well for nearly six decades.  I’m probably lucky that I’ve never been injured or burned the house down, but in the long run, I’ve saved many hours by not reading technical manuals.  Claudia not only reads them, she highlights relevant portions. She has saved every owner’s manual of every device she’s ever purchased.  They’re filed chronologically in a kitchen drawer.
 
I’ve wondered if our different views toward owner’s manuals were learned or if genetics played a role.  After some thought, I’ve concluded they are learned behaviors.  Claudia grew up in a household where the first item out of the box was the operating instructions.  Her father placed high importance on reading them cover to cover before going further.  I don’t remember ever seeing an operating manual until I was married.
 
I was fortunate to find Claudia to balance my haphazard approach to operating new devices.  It’s one of the many examples of yin and yang influencing our lives.   Our complementary traits have also allowed me to write with freewheeling thought and reckless abandon, knowing Claudia’s editing and attention to detail will tidy things up later.  I’m creative.  She’s precise. 
 
And if it wasn’t for Claudia, I would have never learned the difference between tap, cool tap, and cold water.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Morning Moods

What’s your mood when you wake up each morning?   Do you look forward to the day ahead, or are you hoping you can just get through it? 
 
Admittedly, I am not a “morning person.”  It takes me a while to get my footing after I wake, but I usually look forward to the start of each day.  I have the same routine every morning—drink a cup of coffee with a blueberry muffin and/or bowl of cereal, watch a few minutes of the morning news, and then take our dog, Milo, for a long walk.  This all happens before 8:00 a.m., leaving plenty of time for whatever I have planned for the day.
 
On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 defined as bursting with energy and optimism each morning and 1 as wanting to crawl back under the covers, I’m somewhere in the 6-8 range.  I’ve known a few 10s.  It’s best to avoid these people until at least noon, especially if you’re a 3.  They act as if their morning coffee is laced with crack cocaine, talking rapidly with exaggerated inflection and arm movements. It is fine to be a go-getter in the morning, but please keep it to yourself until everyone else can catch up.
There are several factors that determine my morning mood and my overall outlook on life.  I imagine these factors are consistent with most people.
·         Health – If I feel well, I think and act with optimism.  I believe good health is the number one factor affecting your quality of life and attitude.  Everything else is a distant second.  That said, I know individuals fighting severe illnesses who face each day with a smile. These are extraordinary people.  I ask myself if I could do the same, and I’m not sure.  

·         Purpose – Your job or your hobbies may provide inspiration for the day.  Writing is a big motivator for me. It keeps me thinking. It keeps me moving forward.  I believe everyone needs goals to get them started in the morning, no matter how large or small.

·         Family and Friends – Without good relationships, it is difficult to face daily challenges.   When all is well with my family and friends, each day starts off a little better.    

·         Intangibles – I believe some people are predisposed to being positive and upbeat in the morning and some are not.  This could come from a combination of genes and environment.  If you come from a family of optimistic early risers, you have a better shot at being upbeat in the morning. Where you live may also play a role.  There have been studies (1) showing the time people report to work varies greatly by city and region.  For example, on average New Yorkers report to work 45 minutes later than those living in Phoenix. This isn’t to say Phoenicians are more upbeat in the morning than New Yorkers.  It just says they face the day sooner. 
One final note--It helps if your morning mood is shared by your spouse, or is at least in the same range. If not, evasive actions may be needed. 

(1)  https://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/which-cities-sleep-in-and-which-get-to-work-early/