Ramping up the Pace

In My Writing Life, I have struggled with progress. I love to write, need to write, and yet I struggle to make progress on a regular basis. I tend to write in binges. Those jags of writing have been scattered and unorganized. It has frustrated me for the past few months. I set goals but somehow never reach them.

Recently, I took time to inventory each project I have begun, note its progress, and status. Then, I recorded this information on a spreadsheet. It was immensely helpful to see each project, its status, if it had been submitted or published, and other descriptors. I am certain that this simple system will develop into a more complex tool over time. For now, it helps me to see what needs work and what is stagnated. There are several projects on the brink of completed. That informs my work flow for the next day, and lets me see progress. I also know that good push will get three more stories ready to be submitted for consideration.

Spreadsheet Snapshot

I am a new writer, so I don’t have much going on in terms of submissions. I do have some submission which I track those using Duotrope. It is a solid resource that helps me to find places to submit my short stories and track the progress of each one. Duotrope has a huge database of information about publications and their policies. It has been a valuable learning tool for my writing life.

 

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The ring of iron keys…

***This is the beginning of a short story I am working on.***

I climbed out and stood leaning against the solid bulk of the car. My breath fogged in the chilly air when I finally walked up the short gravel path. I pulled the key ring from my pocket. It was heavy in my gloved hand. I walked up three worn, shallow cement steps, through the screen door, and across the porch. The old boards creaked under my boots. The wood was bare, and dried by years of harsh winters and dry summers. I wondered when it had last seen a coat of paint. Memories flooded through me, as I fisted the heavy iron ring of keys.

I was four years old. It was hot and dry. The keys were in my father’s big brown hand as he unlocked the door. As we walked from his truck, the gravel burned my feet through my thin soled sandals. I was hopping on the boards of the sudden coolness of the deeply shaded porch. There had been a thin coat of paint on the boards that afternoon. I remember feeling very hot, but oddly dry, not sweaty. When my father opened the door, he had to shove hard. The door gave way with a familiar creaking sound, and a woosh of stale air greeted us. I smelled dust, stale lemons, and something oily. 

Today, the iron ring was in my own hand. The ring was big, my hand fit entirely inside the ring, my fist covering only half the circumference. Half a dozen old keys dangled from the smooth metal. I put one homely key in the lock and worked until it opened. I had to shove but the door finally opened for me. I felt the rush of air as cold raced past me into the relative warmth of the house. Then I smelled it:  stale pledge, cold ashes, lamp oil, and dust. I took a deep breath of clear cool air and stepped inside.

The porch opened into the kitchen. It was neat and tidy but covered with a  fine layer of dust. I walked across the wide planked floor to the window above the sink. The window was only a little bit dusty and I could see the outline of mountains across the valley. I stood, wearing my coat and gloves, as I allowed the presence of the mountain to fill me.

The little house was heated by a wood stove in the den. I was pleased to see that there was a neat stack of kindling in a box on the brick hearth. The wood pile was outside the back door, three steps from the house in a neat brick rack. I unlocked the back door with a key from the iron ring and brought in an armload of wood. After lighting the fire, I brought another armload. It would take a few hours to warm the place properly.

I re-locked the back door. As the heavy metal door swung tightly shut, another flood of memories hit me like a blow to the gut, I had to put a hand on the door.

I was eight years old the winter that a mountain lion stalked the little house in the shadow of the mountain. My grandmother and I were alone. Grandpa and father were working for the railroad and they stayed at a boarding house in town. They visited a few times before the snows came. Each time, they brought provisions, and news. It was a week after thanksgiving when the snows blocked the road. We would not see them again until the thaw. 

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Character Study #3

**This is part 3 of a character study, written completely in dialogue.**

Sam

We left there. Mom cried after saying good bye to her sister. We were real quiet in the car and drove with the hard top up because it was drizzling.”

“She was sick. Wasn’t she?”

“I didn’t know it then. She died the next spring. It was cancer. Dad knew when we took that trip but I didn’t for about ten years. She was in a lot of pain that winter but she was always there for me.

The trip home wasn’t as eventful as the one there for a couple of reasons. We had only two days to get home. And the weather was wet the whole way. I slept snuggled next to my mom or she sang to me. They even sang together while we drove. That was the first trip I remember.”

“Did you and your dad travel while you were growing up?”

“Not much. We drove to visit Jenny and Thomas every summer and once we went with them on a road trip to Chicago. That was fun but I don’t consider those trips Travel. You know, we were getting from one place to another. Jenny and Thomas had a couple more kids so I was kid-wrangler most of the time. Dad worked all the time. And he was sad for many years. We both were sad. By the time our grief lifted, I was older. I played sports all the time and we didn’t have time to travel.”

“You said you didn’t consider those trips ‘travel’. What does that mean to you?”

“There is the kind of moving from place to place most people do in life. They take a train or plane somewhere and stay in a hotel. They visit the sites in the guidebooks. They eat at the big restaurants. Maybe they even talk to local folks who wait on them at dinner. They leave the place without any sense of the uniqueness of it. They might know who founded the place, what the city is famous for, who did what and when. You can get that from the internet today. But they fail to get below the surface. It’s like when you meet someone for the first time. You exchange names and some basic data. My name is Sam, I am married to Anna. I write about travel. You know nothing about me.  Why do I write? Why do I travel? You are digging below the surface right now. You are asking questions. By the time we’re done, you will know something about me for real.

To me ‘Travel’ is getting down into the nitty gritty. Who cares who founded the town or what famous thing happened there? I want to get to know that guy who has run the butcher shop for thirty years. I want to buy him a beer.

This family I met in India one year was so fascinating. They have this ranch that has been in their family for several generations. Anna and I met them at the market years ago on our first trip to India. We were about the same age and both married only a few years.

Rahul and Zafira became our good friends. We saw them many times over the years. We wrote often and still see them from time to time. When I write about India, I am writing about Rahul and Zafira or their family. That is the difference between going somewhere and ‘traveling’”

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Character Study, Sam #2

**This is part 2 of a character study, written completely in dialogue.**

Sam

“We explored, my dad and me. Mom went back to the hotel to rest. Dad took me walking. Of course, we walked everywhere back home—to school, the store, drug store, dry cleaners and church. Dad had a car but he drove that to work. This was my first time to walk a different place. And we walked this whole little town. I don’t even know which town. We walked for hours.”

“What do you remember seeing?”

“People. The kids were just getting out of school when we walked down Main Street. They were bigger than me and I stood at the fence watching them all walk down the sidewalk in little groups. Then we stopped into the drug store for a soda. I watched the high school kids at the fountain. Dad went off to the druggist to get something for Mom. I sat there drinking my malt and chatting with these two kids. A girl and boy who were having burgers and fries. We talked about the soda fountain, their school, my friends. It was so cool. I felt like I had made friends there. Whenever I think of that trip, I think of those two kids. Now, I can’t remember their names.”

“That’s a feature of your writing. You introduce the reader to a place by telling the story of people you meet.”

“Yes, that is true. I guess this may have been the start of it. We walked on through the afternoon and evening, had dinner at another diner. We took a hot meal back to Mom. She was in her robe reading a book. Dad gave me a quarter to go get a pepsi from the machine at the front office. When I came back, Mom was dressed. I remember she ate her dinner at the little table in our room. After that, we walked to the park again. It was just about to go dark. I knew we had a few minutes to play so I ran ahead. I met a few kids and we played tag or something. Not long after that, the street lights came on and the kids all said good bye. We stayed a bit longer but it wasn’t as fun without them. The rest of the trip was like that. We drove a couple of hours at a time then stopped for food, or to see something interesting.”

“Your parents liked to stop at interesting sites?”

“They did. This one town and an old historic bridge. We stopped to walk around and see it form all sides. It was one of those covered wooden bridges. It was really old but well kept. It was painted red and it glowed in the autumn leaves. We had a picnic near that bridge. I thought Mom was kind of magical because I can’t remember stopping for food that morning but at lunch time, she produced a bag of sandwiches, a bottle of milk and two bottles of pepsi.

Anyway, we made it to my Aunt Jenny’s house and stayed several days. This was her fist baby so I didn’t have any cousins to play with yet. Her husband was real sweet to me, though. Uncle Thomas and Dad took me to the park while the women fussed over the baby. I loved it. We played catch and they pushed me on the swing. They even let me help work on the car.

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Character Study, Sam #1

**This is part 1 of a character study, written completely in dialogue.**

Sam

“Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Mr. Louis.”

“Call me Sam, please. And you are welcome. I don’t do many interviews, you know. So, be gentle with me, okay?”

“Of course, Sam. Why don’t you start by recalling first trip you ever took.”

“Well, that’s—a long time ago. I was a little guy, about five or six. My parents took me on a car trip. Wait, if my mom was still alive, I was only four. She died the summer after I turned five. I was about to start kindergarten.”

“That is a young age to lose your mother. I am sorry for your loss.”

“Yeah, it was a rough time. But the first trip I remember was that fall when I was four. We drove from Maine down to Vermont to see my Aunt Jenny. She had just had a baby.”

“That was quite a drive in the 50’s?”

“350 miles. It was pretty, though. I remember sitting in the front seat between my parents watching the beautiful fall leaves. We took three days to get there. Can you imagine? Today, you would get there in an afternoon on the train.”

“Times have changed. What car did your dad drive?”

“Ah, my dad loved his cars. This one was a 1955 T-bird hard top, first of the line. It was that light blue color. My mom was so proud of that. She called it Aqua. Gosh, I still have that car. I forgot that. It’s in a barn at my Dad’s old place in Houlton. How could I have forgotten?”

“That was a sweet car.”

“Yeah, we rode all bundled up with the top down for the whole trip. The sun was shining all three days. The wind was cool and crisp and you could smell wood smoke from Houlton all the way to St. Johnsbury.”

“Sounds lovely.”

“It was. We stopped for everything. It was the first vacation my parents had taken in awhile. I don’t know how long. I just remember they were really excited. The first morning, we left at dawn. It was pretty cold but we only drove an hour. Nobody wanted to put the top up because it was gorgeous. I snuggled up next to Mom. Dad had his arm across the back of the seat. You know how men used to do. We stopped at this little diner outside of Bangor for breakfast.”

“Sounds good.”

“It was. I got this huge stack of blueberry pancakes. And a pile of those link sausages. Hot chocolate with whipped cream. Of course, it looked huge to me. I am sure the pancakes were only a kid stack.”

“They served normal sized portions back then. Not like the super sized food at restaurants now.”

“Yea, I remember my dad got eggs and a steak, fried potatoes and a short stack on the side. He grinned like a king! Mom had coffee, oatmeal and toast. It’s funny that I remember every detail of that breakfast.

We drove down the road a couple of hours then stopped at a motel. We had sandwiches from the deli in town and bottles of ice cold milk sitting at a picnic table at the park.”

“Sounds idyllic.”

Thunderbird 1955

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Words that flow…

This fun little piece is from a writing class. The idea is to create a character to tell a bit about myself. So, here is Charlie Turtle!

 

Hello, it’s nice to finally be able to tell Robbie’s story. I’ve been her friend for years. My name is Charlie and I am an old turtle. I met Robbie when she was very young and I was just a middle aged turtle. It was a hot day on her grandfather’s ranch and she was out fishing with her grandmother. I was biding my time out in the shade near the far bank when she wandered over to put her toes in the cool water.

Dragonflies flew gracefully, skimming over the water painting the day with their understated iridescent brilliance. Everything on an Oklahoma ranch in mid summer is some shade of brown so the little flashes of blue and purple are a nice change. Even the green of my shell was coated with mud to keep me cool and hidden.

The only sound on that hot day came from buzzing locusts somewhere overhead in the scrub oaks and her little toes splashing.

I swam over and took a look. She pulled her toes in real quick when she saw me not knowing if I would snap off her toes. She was right to do so because there are some fierce little snapping turtles in every pond but I am not that kind of turtle. She spoke first saying, “Hi.”

Being polite, I answered back, “Hello.” Her brown eyes got big and she looked at me more closely.

“This is boring.” She pouted.

I couldn’t argue with her assessment. “Maybe so.”

“I wish I had a book,” she huffed as she put her chin in her hands and looked moodily down at the water’s surface.

I asked her what a book was and why she wanted one. She told me about her favorite books. She told me how she liked to write stories of her own. Everyone liked her stories.

“This one time,” she told me in a voice filled with excitement, “I wrote a story about the creation of the world for my fourth grade class. And my story was the only one the teacher read aloud. He smiled when he read it and said it was very clever!” She laughed then and told me in a whisper, “In the end, I made God a woman! That was when I knew I wanted to write stories. It’s the only thing I am really good at.”

I felt this child’s passion reach out and fill the whole of the pond down to its cool dark depths to the top of the sunbaked banks. And it filled me up, too. She looked at me with  direct brown eyes, “That was a secret! Can you keep a secret?”

I sat still holding her gaze with my own for a long moment. “Yes, I can keep your secret. And I will.” So, I kept her dream safe inside my shell. I have never told her story until now.

Robbie became a mother and poured all of her creativity into making a world where her three children could grow and thrive. They are almost grown and there is space in her heart now where her writing can live. She came to see me not long ago and told me her plans to be a writer were not a secret anymore. I could tell anyone I wanted. She thanked me for keeping her dream safe inside my shell all these long years.

I can’t wait to see what stories she writes.

Charlie Turtle

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Landscape of My Reading Life

I’ve been known to dive into a topic for months at a time. Years ago, I decided to read Russia: fiction, literature, poetry, history and biographies of Russia. It was fascinating and educational. I listened to music from Russian and watched movies. It is possible that I named one of my children after a character from that era of reading.

Since my Russian phase, I have take other literary journeys: Orson Scott Card, J.D. Robb, Claire and Jamie, Star Trek Novels, Jack Reacher, Theology, The Cynsters, and many more. Some journeys are an end unto themselves. Some trips through books are just a beginning.

I keep track of my reading (past, present and future) on GoodReads.com and I’d love to be reading friends with you! I have tried several times in my life to catalog the books I have read. This is the one that works best for me. It is easy to search for books by title, author or even isbn. GoodReads folks write a variety of reviews: some are fabulous while others can be ignored. For good or ill, it’s always fun to read the reviews. Beware of spoilers!

Visit my Reading Life on Good Reads and add me to your list of friends. You never know who will spark your interest in a wonderful new series or author!

M

My dog, Cassie and I at William’s Lake near Toas, NM

 

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