I photographed this little fella on a warm day last month, when the sun and the clouds fought for supremacy, and the autumn leaves waved brilliant colors to the wind. Surprise blooms from tenacious roses caught my eye. I grabbed the camera and contended with the wind and the ever-changing light.
This one looks like he’s smiling, a mischievous cross between a rose and the image that “snapdragon” conjures in my mind:
And more roses nearby, clinging to a brick wall then flying out of shot whenever the breeze wandered by — the precocious pink flirts:
Though no longer blooming, these cannes lily plants were sturdy, green, fresh, as if they grew in spring rather than in schizophrenic autumn, chill one day and summery the next:
Maybe ten feet away from all this new life was this tree, covered in the vibrant colors of waning life:
The end is not necessarily the end. There are signposts of hope, if you know where to look:
Now that tree limbs are bare and flowerbeds barren, now that my life hasn’t turned out as planned and my writing is taking new directions, these pictures are reminders that not all death is tragedy, not all unwanted change is failure, and not every loss is cause for mourning.
My style would raise eyebrows on Fifth Avenue. Eyebrows lifted in amusement or shock, who knows? I like comfort. For shoes, I prefer Birkenstocks or Crocs, or a pair of lightweight Sketcher knockoffs made of sturdy, breathable material. For pants, capris (’cause I’m a weird height, smack between petite and average) or stretchy pants (’cause along with a weird height, I’m so oddly sized that I rarely find jeans that don’t turn me into a sausage or fall down to my knees). Shirts? Skirts? Again, comfort.
Comfort with my imperfect self, comfort with my imperfect appearance, and comfort with not fitting in to the crowd. My angsty, stressed, approval-driven teenage self wouldn’t recognize me now.
Neither would Rookie Writer Me, whose voluminous, pretentious prose painted many a page purple. Deep purple. Flamboyant purple.
By comparison, Veteran Writer Me is almost Earnest Hemingway. The writing is concise, direct. It feels comfortable, like a pair of baggy pajama pants.
But I don’t wear those pj pants everywhere. Such a style is not universally appropriate.
A note about style or voice: Neither of those elements should overwhelm the story. Style or voice should never become the star of the novel, but should serve the story. Therefore, when I say that no particular passage stands out due to style, that’s not a bad thing. I’d rather have substance than pretty, pretty lights.
The same could not be said of a particular fantasy novel I read a few years ago. Touted as lyrical and mesmerizing, the writing style was often so flowery — ahem, poetic — that my brain glazed and my eyes crossed. Although there were a couple of scenes where I paid close attention and read word-for-word, most of the novel passed in page-flipping disinterest. The style overtook the story.
Good writing will always be recognized, because it is smooth, refreshing, engaging, intriguing, a good vehicle for the story — but the best writing style doesn’t draw attention to itself. It doesn’t stand in the way of the story.
I’ve edited a spate of manuscripts plagued by sentence fragments. I love sentence fragments. In moderation. When they make a point. But always? For no apparent reason? Just to be trendy and “with it”? Not so much. (See what I did there?) Sentence fragments are great for indicating surprise, irony, humor, fear, but too many in succession can quickly grow wearisome.
An awkward writing style is a form of author intrusion. Ever read a book or an article that feels forced, not because the author doesn’t know his material, but because there’s a self-conscious attempt to be cute, hip, or literary? The author doesn’t feel comfortable, as if wearing an ill-fitting garment. No matter how luxurious the fabric or how fashionable the label, it looks cheap.
Play around with clothing styles to find your fashion sense, and play with different writing styles to find your creative groove. Get down inside it, turn around a few times, take a few steps to see how it fits. And then write, write, write.
We work all week so we can rest for a couple days. We scurry through chores so we can sit down and enjoy a moment of quiet, watching TV, reading a book, playing a computer game, solving a puzzle. We dream about winning a million dollars, retiring from a decades-old job, having more time, doing only what we love.
The grass is always greener. Our lives are always better. In some rosy far-off paradise in the future, everything will go our way and we’ll have everything we want.
In your mind, how does that future look? Who will be there? How will you spend your time? What does happiness look like?
In the present, I’ve caught myself complaining about things I once loved but now cause my jaw to clench. They chase away sleep and inspire rants.
Am I someone who is above being pleased? Never satisfied, plagued by perfectionism or idealism or just plain I-want-more-ism?
Maybe that’s not it.
Yeah, I’m like ‘most everyone — I dream of that nebulous someday — but what if the source of angst and complaint is something fixable? Not a bad attitude and “it’s all about me”, but something more tangible?
I’m reminded of a story told by Philip Yancey: He once served as the managing editor of a magazine, a job he could do but one that robbed his sleep, stressed him, and took away from his writing time. So, after trying and praying and plodding onward, he quit. Best decision. Now he could sleep.
A while back, I left a long-time job, and suddenly I could sleep. When I woke, I was rested.
Now, the sleep-thief is back. I’m doing a job for which I’m perfectly fitted, skill-wise, but temperamentally, not so much. The perfectionist in me expects more of others than they may be able or willing to give.
I’ve been in search of focus, calm, a quiet core of creativity and peace. However, like this rose blown about in the wind, the goal eludes me. The camera strives to focus, but can only capture pieces of clarity.
There is light.
I’ve been finding old stories, pieces of unfinished poetry, barely-decipherable notes on odd scraps of paper towel or restaurant napkins or torn half-sheets from spiral-bound notebooks.
After long weeks and months of literary drought, ideas are coming, rain to parched ground.
No final decision has been made, but perhaps it is time to set aside editing for others, and write. Only write. Write until the dreams come true.
A few weeks ago, I went on a research binge for a couple of novels — one complete, one in the works — and in the process sent out a lot of e-mail asking for help. I was amazed at how many people were willing and eager to answer questions and provide leads to other experts. I was equally surprised by those who were standoffish and almost suspicious.
I haven’t contacted the nearby police department yet — there’s time enough for that — but efforts to speak to any of several local paranormal investigation teams were in vain. Nary a reply. Maybe they’re afraid of being mocked by a skeptic or an unbeliever. Maybe they have no time for someone not in need of their services. Maybe they’ve given up the gig, and all their contact information is obsolete. (Given up the ghost? Ahem-ahem-ahem)
A few hours spent with writers at the OWFI conference, however, yielded an investigator who answered my questions with far more information than I expected, and in the process gave me new ideas for a scene involving teenage ghost hunters.
He did mention that I could pay for a training session, and participate in an actual investigation, but those are for true believers. Although it might help my research, it’s not my scene.
More in line with my interests, and one group that welcomed me, is the Barony of Namron, part of the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism). They invited me to their annual Beltane event (a far milder and less pagan May Day than some). But rituals and pagan practices were not my focus, but smithing and all manner of crafts and weapons. No swordsmith that day, but a blacksmith named Simon, an archer named Lawrence, a few other craftsmen and warrior types, including female archers in Viking garb, and a whole lot of friendly folk willing to share their knowledge (and, in some case, volunteer other people as resources, but no one seemed to mind my nosiness).
There’s still much to ask, but first I have to know which are the right questions. Although I learned that I set up the smithy correctly in the novel, my blacksmith is limited in his knowledge due to my own ignorance.
He doesn’t have to know everything, because the story isn’t about the everyday life of a blacksmith — he just needs to be convincing and not sound or behave like an idiot. And, thanks to Simon, he won’t.
After all, no matter how excellent the information, if I don’t use it correctly, my characters will suffer.
One solution is to be somewhat familiar with the topic before conducting interviews or gathering specifics. For instance, when I said I’m a writer doing research in order to make a fantasy novel more realistic in its details, people assumed knights and castles and tournaments and such.
Nope. The fantasy novels are set in an earlier era than that of plate armor and heraldry. Still, it was fun to watch the combat.
Other topics to research further: archery terms and equipment, chain mail, swords (their making and their use), cooking, leather-working, and clothing.
No one looked sideways at me during the SCA event. Fellow geeks and all.
But what’ll they say at the police department when I start asking questions about homicides?
When I (briefly) wrote freelance human-interest stories for a small newspaper, my focus was on “found” stories: not major events, not orchestrated photo opportunities, but the everyday lives or histories of people in the community. If a story crossed my path, I followed it: welcoming home a deployed spouse; surprising parents with a new house; caring for an indomitable adult son stricken with multiple sclerosis; hosting bluegrass and gospel jams each weekend at an old schoolhouse; reuniting with classmates fifty years after they scattered to serve in World War II.
Photography is much the same: whatever strikes my fancy will be captured by the camera. The photo here is from 2011, taken at sunset on my way home along a backroad. Wildflowers (weeds) in a ditch caught my eye, so I stopped and spent a several minutes shooting them. Most were discarded, but I liked the bit of whimsy here.
I also like pieces of history, such as this cabin, photographed several weeks before the clover.
Nearby is an old schoolhouse, a courthouse and jail constructed of stone, an old Army tank, a weathered barn, and a memorial to coalminers.
Something about the cabin, though, invites photographs.
A couple months later, a friend and I went on a writing-and-photography retreat for a weekend, and took a few shots of a town that clings to the mountains, full of history but now crowded with tourists, and overshadowed by social politics. Still, it remains a place full of photography opportunities.
We’ve been there many times on our own, I for writing conferences and history, she for exploring haunted places, but this time we decided to attempt a writing project together. After all, one of my favorite mystery series is written by a mother-son team; surely a couple of old friends who write all the time could collaborate on a novel, right?
Weeeellll, we attempted it, wrote a few pages and outline notes, and that’s as far as it went. Still, we had a blast, and those few days are a story in themselves, captured in memory and photographs that have, in turn, spurred imagination and the creation of fictional worlds.
Not so strange. A good photograph is like a story. It is a story.
E-mail flooded my inbox, and much of it looked interesting or required a response, but life (people) needed attention, and there was writing and editing to do, so the virtual stack of mail grew into a mountain.
Just the existence of all that information, all those questions, all those updates from friends, was enough stress to make my brain shut down.
Nothing to do but deal with the most pressing messages, compose responses, and then (sigh) toss the rest.
Cold, aren’t I?
Actually, none of my friends or colleagues were ignored, but newsletters, blog posts, industry news, reports — all jettisoned to lighten the load.
As a result, I may be less informed, less inspired, but, wow, do I feel free!