The Worst Thing That Could Possibly Happen

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Well, maybe not the worst thing. There are a LOT of terrible things happening in the world right now. The stock market is fluctuating like crazy, monster storms are flooding cities, people are shooting other people instead of talking to them. Those things are the actual worst things that could possibly happen.

But for a writer who’s been off his game for a while and then just starting to get right back on his game, the worst thing that could happen, happened. Right in the middle of some really important writing that I did not back up, my computer just gave up the ghost and went blank on me.

I had just gotten several great pages done on a new solo show I’m working on. This one is big. It’s life changing. I’ve avoided writing this one for years, that’s how close and important it is to me. It’s about my dismal days working on a big Broadway tour and how I almost didn’t survive those days.

I decided to finally sit down and really start working on it because I’m in a hotel room in Newark, Delaware, away from the family to do an acting gig. It’s the perfect set up to get some writing done. I had a few days off because my scenes are all in the second and third acts of the Feydeau farce we’re doing.

I could feel a good idea coming on. So, I paced around the room. I drank some water. I took some notes on a legal pad. LOTS of notes. Suddenly I knew where I would start and what I would call the piece. I opened up OMM Writer (a great writing app) and zen-ed out while I bled words. I got just about as far as I could before I had to go to rehearsal. I was elated and exhausted and excited, all at the same time. (That’s a lot of “e” words, but I guess emotions are somehow tied to the letter “e”.)

I saved my file and closed everything down and went to rehearsal. I thought about backing the file up, but then thought, “What could happen between now and later?”

When I came back to the hotel, I talked with my family for a while on Skype and then decided to watch “Fear the Walking Dead” on AMC.com. I thought of it as “research” because some of my years on the big Broadway tour were like being one of the walking dead.

Everything on the computer was running a bit slowly. The ads were loading strangely, the computer kept freezing up. I thought it was just the crappy internet that the hotel lets you use for free. Then, suddenly, like a zombie jumping out from behind a door, the computer froze up, the screen turned into a bunch of horizontal lines that wavered and shook and then the screen went black.

Uh-oh.

I tried rebooting the computer. It’s an old MacBook Pro. The Apple symbol came up. Good.

Then the screen went black for the video test.
Fine.

Then…the dreaded gray screen hang.

I did some searching on my phone about how I might be able to fix it. I tried rebooting it to safe mode. The computer belongs to a college, so there is a firmware password. I couldn’t boot it. I could just take it back to IT at the college, but it’s over three hours from where I am now. Plus, they might have to wipe everything. I wanted to try to save it first.

So, I tried buying a Thunderbolt cable and booting it as a target disk to another Mac. Nothing.

I tried removing the hard drive and getting an e-SATA cable and hard drive enclosure and plugging it into a PC. Well, the pretty blue drive light comes on, but at the hotel’s PC I have no access to it’s hard drive so I was still out of luck.

I left the hotel and carried the darn thing around campus for several hours looking for a computer. No luck. School is not back in session yet, so no Mac labs are open. I tried the PC lab. No luck there. The library was closed. The classrooms are all antiquated and only have plugs for PC laptops. The bookstore was closed.  I was hoping it was open so I could just walk up to their Mac sales display and plug this thing in. I really want those opening pages.

But it’s not just the pages for the solo show. I was also going to publish my second children’s book this week. Now I can’t. The formatted book is on the Mac.

I was making great progress on another play I’m writing. I can’t work on that either.

I was several pages into a short film we want to shoot this winter. That’s in there, too.

All in all, I’ve put in about 25 hours trying to get this information back. Hopefully, I’ll be able to use the e-SATA cable with a Mac tomorrow and I’ll report back that I was able to recover the information.

If not, I guess I’ll have to try to reproduce what I originally wrote. I know I can get close to it, maybe even make it better. But there’s something about that feeling you get when you just know something is working and it’s good. That kind of experience is hard to repeat.

I guess the moral of the story is ALWAYS back up your writing. Every time. Otherwise, you’ll end up like me, a poor lost soul wandering a huge university campus in search of a Mac computer, hoping that you can either retrieve those pages or remember them just as they were.

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Five Things I Learned About Writing from Being an IT Cable Tech

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I’m covered in drywall dust. It’s in my hair, my eyes, the creases of my skin. My blue jeans are cloudy white from all the dust covering them.

As I walk, little puffs of drywall dust, fall from my shoulders. I spent most of the day as a cable tech for a small IT Telephone Installation company doing the telephone and computer cables for a methadone clinic that is moving into a new building.

I worked 10-and-a-half hours today, never sitting, always thinking about what to do next, trying to figure out how to accomplish the tasks that needed to be done. As I stood on that ladder all day, my head in the ceiling, I realized that what I was doing was a lot like trying to get a first draft completed.

One of the main jobs of a cable tech is doing cable runs. The boxes of CAT 5 or CAT 6 ethernet cable start in the telephone closet. From there I have to run the cables up into the ceiling and then out to each of the rooms that needs a voice and data connection. I gather as many cables as I need for each run and use electrical tape to attach them to a long, flexible fiberglass rod of about 10-30 feet, that are called “the sticks.”

Then I open the drop ceiling and push the sticks with the cables attached in the direction I want them to go. There’s a beginning, the telephone closet, and the end, the office that needs the voice and data connections. But what happens in the middle and how I actually get to the end, is the journey that changes with every new location.

As I was drilling holes in the wall all day, this seemed like such an apt metaphor for how I was working on my current first draft I wanted to share it with you.

Five Things I Learned About Writing from Being an IT Cable Tech

1. It starts out as a MESS.

When we show up for a new job, the telephone closet (if it IS even a closet, sometimes it’s a flooded, moldy basement) is usually a tangled mess. There are cables going everywhere. Some are punched down (or connected) on the patch panel where they’re supposed to be. Some are cut and stuck in a hole in the wall and we have no idea where they are going. Some are just wrapped in tight knots around each other in a pasta-like configuration we call “spaghetti.” The great news is that by the end of the day, that mess will be a neatly coiled, fully functioning phone and computer system.

The first draft I’m working on right now is just like this. I have some great beats that I know will work, they connect. The characters know what they want and how they are going to try to get it. Those are the cables that are working.

But for the most part, this first draft is filled with all of these crazy ideas and tangents and random characters that are kind of stuck in that hole in that wall with no idea where they are going.

The 30,000 words I now have (on my way to probably triple that) are nothing but a giant mess of spaghetti. But I know that as I keep working on the story, teasing it out, stretching out the story lines, just like with the cables, my first draft mess will eventually be a fully functioning story.

2. We make a PLAN and stick to it, until something BAD happens, then we make ANOTHER plan.

Before we start untangling and doing cable runs, we go from room to room and figure out how many cables we need for each room, where they have to go and how we’re going to get there. I have to pop ceiling tiles, climb ladders and see what’s up in the ceiling. If it’s open and it’s a straight shot to the telephone closet, the runs are easy.

But if it’s all closed up tight, we’re in for a long day, because we have to figure where we’re going to cut holes in the walls to run the cables.

Often we think we’re going to cut holes in one place, but when we cut into a wall, there can be some not-so-fun surprises. I’ve cut into cement, hidden brick walls, old iron staircases, desiccated squirrels, electrical lines, wooden beams, water pipes, nails, screws, even an old Yankee’s baseball cap. If you can name it, I’ve probably found it stuck in a wall.

This is like sitting down to figure out the beats of the story – this happens, and then this happens and that leads to this, and so forth, until I get to the end.

I’m a plotter, so I like to know where my story is going. I write the beats out and make a nice plan. But I often find when I “cut into the wall” of the writing, that my plan isn’t as solid as I thought it was.

This can sometimes be frustrating and makes me want to stop writing the story. But in cable tech work, I can’t just quit, I have to find a new way around the problem or risk the client’s wrath.

Sometimes when I’m writing and get stuck, I take a break from that part of the story and see if I can work on another part of the story.

I often resist this because I think I have to keep a beginning to end progression as if I was telling the story, not writing it. It’s funny, because I also make films and we almost never shoot a film in sequence. We might shoot the ending where the couple is breaking up many days before we shoot the scene where the lovers first meet. But when I’m writing, I resist working this way.

Another thing I’ll do is make flow charts to see if I can figure out a solution that way. It’s a kind of IF/THEN chart from back in my days as a computer programming student. IF this happens, THEN this must happen. Sometimes it helps.

I also like to record myself telling the story to myself. I find that talking about it out loud to myself is a great way to get out of my head and think about the story kind of like an actor would. I start to ask questions like, “What else could the character do at this point besides this?” “What if the character wants this instead?” “If this character meets this person and does this, what are the consequences?” I find myself answering myself and arguing with myself and it’s usually pretty hilarious.

3. We take ACTION until we’re done.

A lot of the businesses we do cable runs for need their telephone and data cables up and running in their offices yesterday. We have deadlines to meet that, if we don’t meet them, the business doesn’t open and we don’t get paid as much. We often quote the clients how long we think the runs will take and if we estimate that we can get it done in a certain amount of time and bill them for that time, then we don’t make our deadlines, we start losing money.

With writing my first drafts, I often let myself off the hook on this one. I justify my low word counts and inability to get past sticking points. But if I were running my writing business like we have to run the cable tech business, I’d be hitting those word counts because my boss wouldn’t pay me otherwise. That’s where an accountability partner can be really useful. Since I’m my own boss as a writer, it’s easy to give myself the afternoon off. But when I have someone I have to check in with, those words counts really soar. It really helps!

4. We expect to get DIRTY.

I don’t show up for a cable job in khakis, dress shirt and a tie. I’m usually wearing work boots, grubby jeans, an old t-shirt and a flannel shirt as a layer if I have to go outside. Being a cable tech is a dirty job. I’ve had to crawl through fiberglass in an attic when it was 102 Farenheit outside. I’ve waded through flooded basements with I-don’t-know-what floating by to get to the telephone punchdowns. I’ve been in a two-foot high, dirt floored, sub-basement, lying on my back with endless spider webs 2 inches from my face. My hands and fingers get cut, my head gets gouged and my clothes get dirty. I don’t expect it to be any different.

Why, then, do I think writing a novel should be different than it actually is? If I’m honest with myself, I think I have this idea that the novels I’m writing should just spring from my head full-blown and enter themselves into Scrivener without me having to do much else but think about it. Laughable, right? But with cable tech, a skilled trade, I wouldn’t even consider the notion that the cables will get themselves run just by thinking about them. I read other

To get a first draft done, I have to get dirty. I have to be ready for the struggle. Appreciate when things flow, but work through the knots when they don’t. I have to go deep into character. I have to be as specific as I can with my words so the story can live and breathe. Why do I think that’s easy? Why do I think that shouldn’t take just as much effort as doing twenty cable runs a day?

One of the things that stops a lot of us are our expectations. If we can figure out what it is we are expecting, we can get past the disappointment of not meeting those expectations. Our expectations have to be realistic. As a cable tech, I expect to get dirty. As a writer, I have to expect that there is going to be some hard work ahead.

5. It’s HARD WORK, but endlessly FASCINATING.

When we get to a site, we have to unload the heavy collapsible ladders, the boxes full of cable, the server racks, buckets, vacuum, tools and everything else we need to get the job done. I usually sweat through my clothing by the end of the day. I spend most of the 8-10 hours on the job with my arms raised above my head, constantly moving. Standing on ladders all day, especially portable ladders, is painful to the bottoms of the feet and usually leaves bruises on my thighs.

But I love the challenges of the job, finding the ways to get the cables run and make sure the wall plates and jacks look tidy and are easily accessible for the end-user. At the end of the day, if we hook up the computer and it accesses the internet, or plug in a phone and it works, we know our job is done. We’ve worked hard and created access to communication for hundreds of people. There is satisfaction in that.

Same thing can be said for writing a first draft. I might be banging my head on the desk trying to figure out a scene, but when it finally clicks, there is that buzz of recognition, that “knowing it works” feeling, that can’t be beat.

I might set myself a word count goal for the day and struggle for an hour or so and then the story-teller in me suddenly takes off and, before you know it, I’m surpassing your goal by many words.

I might even stare at the blank page or screen and then give up, returning to some other task, only to be inspired a few hours later to start again.

Like being a skilled tradesperson, writing is hard work, but endlessly fascinating. By looking at it as a skilled trade and not something that should happen easily, I’m able to really put it into perspective.

Here’s a summary of what I learned:

  • Even though your first draft starts out as a mess you can work through the mess and refine it by untangling the knots. Sometimes you have to work out of sequence to do though
  • When you write out the beats of your story, be prepared to run into some problems as you write. If that happens, work through it until you come up with a new plan. Sometimes you have to drill a hole in a desiccated squirrel to get to the other side of the wall.
  • Giving up halfway through is just as bad as not starting at all. Take action and keep going! Get that first draft finished. If you’re stuck, find an accountability partner.
  • When you find yourself wishing that you were writing, faster, better, more like someone else, remember that false expectations can get in your way. It’s your journey, expect it to be just the way it is.
  • While you’re doing all that hard work, think about how rewarding and endlessly fascinating it is to create something from nothing. In the end, you’ll have something that communicates with people in a way that only you can communicate. That makes it all worthwhile.

I always love to hear your comments. Let me know about how your writing is going and any other ways you find to keep getting those first drafts out of your head and onto the page.

If you’re a fan of Sterling & Stone and looking for something to read, you can get a FREE copy of the steampunk anthology Beyond the Gate by clicking this link. My story, My Strength Will Ease Your Sorrow, is in there. The first draft I keep referring to is the novel length story based on this short.

Have a great writing day!

Fail Hard! The Only Way to Get Better at Writing, Jobs, Relationships and Life

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Flickr photo “FAIL STAMP” by Nima Badiey

Today I want you to FAIL and fail hard.

Yes, you read that right.

I often say this to my students at the start of a semester. I look around the classroom at freshly scrubbed faces eager to learn and be successful in their chosen field and I tell them I want them to fail.

I clarify this by saying that I obviously don’t want them to fail the class, that would do no one any good. They wouldn’t graduate and I’d most likely get fired.

What I mean when I say I want them to fail is that I want them to push themselves beyond what their every day habits and learned responses are. I want them to DO something (not try, there is no try according to Master Yoda) and fail if they have to. You won’t know what you are fully capable of until you do something with acceptance of the possibility of failure. If you feel stuck in something: writing, your job, your relationships, your LIFE; I want you to do something today that you might fail at doing.

Write a short story and submit it to a literary magazine or writing contest. You’ll most likely be rejected. So what? What have you gained by the experience of writing it and submitting versus writing it and never showing it to anyone? Post it to your blog as well. What if everyone hates it? You’ve learned how to NOT write a short story. That’s valuable. You’ve failed and gained.

Work on that novel chapter you haven’t opened up in a while in a folder on your laptop. Did you finish the rest of the novel all in one sitting? Oh, no! You’ve failed at completing your novel. The good news is you’ve made a giant step toward figuring out what your story is all about. You’ve put more words on paper. You’re taking one more step toward completion. You’re also spending some time doing something that you love while everyone else who isn’t working on their novel is not. See how failure can be a good thing?

Talk to that person you’ve been afraid to approach. Ask them out for coffee or just introduce yourself. They might laugh at you, but really, so what? Why waste any more energy dreaming about a relationship that might be when the idea of the person you’ve had in your head doesn’t match up to real life? You’ve failed at going out with that person, but have been successful at finding out something you’ve just been sitting around wondering about.

At your job, grab a colleague and ask for input on something you’ve been working on. What if they say it’s a ridiculous idea? So what. What if they give you new insight that makes the idea even better? What if two heads really are better than one and you create the next big thing?

Some very famous people have encouraged failure.

Bill Gates “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.

J.K. Rowling “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might has well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.

Napoleon Hill “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed on an equal or greater benefit.

Denis Waitley “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.

Roger Van Oech “Remember the two benefits of failure. First, if you do fail, you learn what doesn’t work; and second, the failure gives you the opportunity to try a new approach.

In fact, there are 40 pages of quotes about failure on BrainyQuote.com where I got these.

Failure can also point out something you need to change. If you keep doing something over and over and failing at it but you are loving the process, keep trying to figure out what you need to do to be successful. But if you keep failing at something and you hate every second of it, or you dread participating in it because there’s no joy, or you realize that what you are attempting just isn’t for you, then give up! Seriously. Stop doing those things that don’t bring you joy in some way.

I’m not saying give up on hard work and things that are difficult. I’m saying that if you find something absolutely oppressive about what it is you’re doing over and over and failing at, perhaps it’s time to move on. The more things you try DO and FAIL DOING, the closer you are to finding the successful work you love.

Perhaps you know deep in your bones and soul and stomach that you are a writer but you face constant rejection. Maybe you are writing in the wrong genre. Try writing something else. Maybe you just don’t have the skills you need to be successful. Take a class. Join a writing group. Ask for feedback. Write more. Write less. Do something different. Fail. Fail. Fail.

If you aren’t having success in a job search, perhaps you aren’t looking in the right place, or enough places or talking to enough people. Almost every FULFILLING job I’ve had in the past 20 years has been because I’ve gotten to know someone who works for that organization before I’ve worked there. I’ve almost never gotten a job just by submitting a résumé. Reach out and get to know someone in the organization you’re interested in working with. Who are you afraid to contact because you might fail? You do risk rejection by reaching out to that person, but you also have the opportunity to make a new connection and gain an ally in finding work. You’ll never connect with the people you don’t reach out to.

If you are in a relationship that isn’t working, what can you do to either make it work or give it up?  What haven’t you tried yet because you were afraid it might fail? Being grateful is one thing I’ve found makes all of my relationships better. Especially if it’s someone I don’t get along with very well. When I’ve decided to be grateful for what that person has to teach me about life, my outlook changes and so does my relationship. If it doesn’t, if I fail at being grateful, I stop being in a relationship with that person. Trust me, both of you will be much happier.

Finally, where in your life are you failing? Working out? Getting the house cleaned? Spending time with the kids? What you’ve accomplished in life? The amount of money you make? Where is fear of failure holding you back?

Take a look at those areas and see what failure is trying to teach you. What you resist truly persists. By not resisting failure, you allow space for success. Every amazing, joyful, successful experience I’ve had in my life has been a result of my being afraid of failure and deciding to face my fear and do it anyway.

Do one thing today that pushes you to failure. Tell us about it in the comments section. I love hearing everyone’s stories. Listen to this one from TEDx Teens Tara Suri and Niha Jain.

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SUBMISSIONS WANTED: I’m also still looking for short stories and essays for the Stories are the Wildest Things Podcast. Please submit them to pauljennynyc@gmail.com

We’ve gotten some great submissions so far, but I’d love to get more! Thank you to everyone who has submitted already. You’ll be hearing from me soon.

Have a great writing day.

5 Things I Learned about Writing from Fishing with my Brother-in-law

Hemingway with trout. Flickr photo by Don the Upnorth Memories Guy

Hemingway with trout. Flickr photo by Don the Upnorth Memories Guy

Ernest Hemingway was known as an avid fisherman. There’s a fishing contest still running in Cuba that’s named after him. It’s been running since 1950 and he won the first three years it was held. He once caught seven marlins in one day. He’s the only person to ever pull a giant tuna into a boat in one piece. Apparently, the only way he could do that was by shooting at the sharks that tried to eat his catch with a sub-machine gun.

In 1935 he won every fishing contest in the Key West-Havana-Bimini triangle. After living on his boat, Pilar, for a while, he eventually moved into Room 1 at the Compleat Angler Hotel in Bimini in the Bahamas.

If you Google Hemingway and fishing, 2.57 million results show up.

I went fishing in Buzzard’s Bay recently with my brother-in-law. It wasn’t your typical “movie-version” fishing trip where we got up at the crack of dawn to hurry out on to the boat and be alone in the outdoors to learn more about ourselves. We left casually around 10:15-or-so a.m. when the tide was on its way out. We invited a neighbor to come with us by yelling through his window as we were passing by. He paused, thought about it for 2 seconds, then said, “Yeah, sure.” He threw on a shirt and sandals and came running out to join us.

We jumped in the whaler and headed out to the spot where they had caught several large striped bass over the past few days. Instead of being humid and overcast like the past few days had been, we had clear skies and a cool breeze. It felt good to be in a boat on calm water, to smell the salt air, to feel the wind in your face. My thoughts turned to Hemingway. While the guys scanned the radar looking for schools of stripers, my imagination took me to the Keys and the Bahamas with Papa Hemingway, rod in hand, reeling in the big ones.

We threw in our line, an eel rig with spongy white rubber eels on an umbrella set-up of massive hooks, and let it out to about 30 feet. We trolled back and forth to the number 26 channel marker, trying to avoid the lobster pots that were just below the surface. The first few passes we mostly caught seaweed and had to clear the lines before the next pass. Occasionally we’d notice that a hook had or one of the fake eels was twisted on the line, a sure sign that we’d had a hit but didn’t know it.

On the third or fourth pass there was a loud click and high-pitched whirr as the fish took the bait and started to run. My brother-in-law handed me the rod and I pulled, feeling the weight of the fish pulling against my arms. I could barely move the reel and I sat back, adjusting the rod for more leverage.

“Keep the rod tip up.”

“Don’t sway from side to side.”

“Keep reeling or he’ll get away.”

The guys coached me and I reeled with as much strength as I could. It was tiring and the fish felt like it was fighting hard to avoid being pulled in. My arms started to feel weak and numb, but I kept reeling, reeling, hoping to see the fish as it got closer to the boat. The way the rod was pulling down, we all thought we had a monster of a fish on our hands. As I got near the end of the line, the guys stood up to get a better look.

“There he is, bring him around to port.”

I moved the rod around to my right, since I was facing backward, and my brother-in-law gaffed the fish and dragged it into the boat. It was a good-sized fish, a keeper, but not the monster we all thought we had. The silver scales and white belly flashed in the sun and a small pool of blood drained onto the deck. I put a foot gently on the fish’s tail to keep it from flopping around on the boat.

“That’s why it was so hard to reel in.”

We all looked at our catch and saw that the fish had gotten hooked in the back, not the mouth. What made it so hard to reel in was that I was pulling the fish through the water sideways.

Our neighbor put the fish in the live well and we went back for about fifteen or sixteen more passes, but we had no more luck that morning. Time after time we trolled the passage from rocks to channel marker but the fish weren’t biting. It was time to go home.

We came in to shore and cleaned the gear and the boat. I posed for a photo with the fish on the dock and we cleaned it right there. I was grateful for the camaraderie, the challenge the fish brought and for the meal we had later that day. As I walked back to the cottage, freshly caught fish in hand, I thought about how what I had just experienced was a lot like writing.

What was the first thing we did when we saw someone who had not been fishing with us?

We told them the STORY of what happened.

Here are 5 Things I Learned about Writing from Fishing with my Brother-in-law:

  1. Thinking about and doing are NOT the same thing.
  2. Sometimes you have to make a lot of passes to get something worthwhile.
  3. Making a choice about where to start is important.
  4. You probably won’t be good at something the first time you do it.
  5. What you think you’re going to get is not always what you get.

Thinking about and doing are NOT the same thing.

I’ve often thought about fishing on Buzzard’s Bay. I imagined how I’d toss in a line and wait patiently for a fish to jump on the line. I thought we might have to go into deep water to get the big fish and I worried that I might get seasick on the open ocean. But when we actually went fishing we were in fairly shallow water, very close to shore. The fish were right there and we trolled, pulling a single line with a lot of hooks and it was slow, tedious work.

This is what I’ve found writing to be like, too. I have two different ways of thinking about writing. In one fantasy, everything is going smoothly and I write the next great novel in 30 days. It flows from my fingers fully formed with no rewriting or editing necessary. The other fantasy is that I sit down to write and NOTHING happens. No words come. I’m mute and have to give up writing forever. The reality is that like fishing, the thinking about and the doing are very different things. It is rare that the writing just flows, fully-formed, with no need for rewriting. It is unrealistic to think that is even possible.

On the other hand, I’ve never sat down to write and had nothing to say. I’ve resisted the sitting down many, many times. But when I do sit and write, something comes. The lesson learned, “Fishing and writing are achieved by DOING the fishing and writing, not by sitting around thinking about doing them.” If you’re stuck, get in the boat and throw in your line. You might be surprised what comes out of the water.

Sometimes you have to make a lot of passes to get something worthwhile.

As I said, we must’ve made twenty trips back and forth along that channel to catch one fish. That means there were 19 times when we failed at catching a fish. I think this is a good lesson for many things we do in life. For writing, it reminded me that a lot of writing is rewriting and that I might have to make a lot of attempts at telling a story powerfully before I find that way that works. Those twenty passes weren’t failures, they were the journey leading up to the one fish. That fish was delicious and the journey to land it made for a great story. When you’re working on your third or fourth or twentieth draft, you’re just fishing for the best story. Make sure it’s a doozy.

Making a choice about where to start is important.

Buzzard’s Bay opens out into the Atlantic Ocean. There were a LOT of places we could’ve started fishing. We could’ve spent all day searching for the best place or another place, but we started where we started because they had luck there before. They went to the same place and started there and then stopped there. We didn’t waste a lot of time trying lots of different places to see which place might work better. I think this is an important lesson for writers because too often, I decide that the way I’m doing things isn’t working. I think, “Maybe I need new software to write. What’s the latest? What if I went to a coffee shop instead of the library? I started this novel but now I’m going to switch to a short story. What if this short story idea is stupid and I never finish it?” 

If I don’t plan where I’m going to start my writing day, I find that it’s half over before I get going because I spend so much time getting ready to write instead of doing the actual writing. If you find yourself doing the same thing, pick a place to start and stick to it. You’ll get a lot more done and can always a make a change after you’ve gotten your words in for the day.

You probably won’t be good at something the first time you do it.

I’ve done a lot of river fishing, but never fished for big fish like stripers. I thought I knew what I was doing, but the guys coached me about how everything worked for fishing in the bay. I wasn’t very good at fishing for stripers. I held the rod wrong, stopped reeling when I shouldn’t have, moved the rod too much and I’m sure a lot of other things. The important thing was that I didn’t let that get in the way of catching a fish. If you’re a new writer, or coming back to it after a long time of not doing, you’re probably not going to be very good at it. (There are always exceptions to this, but for most of us mortals, that’s the way it is.) That’s okay. The first time you do something, you’re not expected to be good at it. You might not be good at it the 100th time you do it.

If you believe what Malcolm Gladwell has to say about getting good at something, you have to put in 10,000 hours to become proficient at anything. If I had thrown the rod and reel in the water after being terrible, my brother-in-law would’ve thrown me overboard to get it first of all, but I also never would’ve caught that fish. Every time I start a new project I try to remind myself that this is something new I’m doing. I’m racking up hours until I hit my 10,000. If I give up out of frustration of not being good at it right away, I’ll never accomplish what I set out to do.

What you think you’re going to get is not always what you get.

We thought we had a monster fish, but it was just average. In our minds, this was the big one. It was hard to reel in and the rod was bending and bowing as I brought the fish closer to the boat. It was still a keeper, but it wasn’t the monster we were hoping for. I’m an outliner. I like to work out beats before I start writing. I put together story boards for small videos I make with my kids on YouTube. A lot of the time I think the story is going to go one way and by the end of working on the story and re-writing draft after draft, the story has completely changed. When I resist this process, I’m get much more frustrated and find myself giving up on the writing I’m working on. When I realize that my writing is a journey, like our impromptu fishing trip, I’ve had much more success and enjoy the process so much more.

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Paul and Striped Bass

Enjoy your writing journey by actually taking it. Decide where to start and stick to it. Take as many passes as you need to get the story you are looking for. Don’t worry if you’re not good at writing at first, we all take time to get warmed up and get better. Don’t be discouraged if the story has turned out a lot differently than you thought it would, you’ll surprise yourself and us.

Stories are the Wildest Things.

Lambert – Wildest Word of the Day

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Photo by Michael Kearns

According to The Phrontistery (The Thinking Place) and their list of unusual words, lambert is a unit of brightness and light.

It was also the maiden name of my maternal grandmother (pictured above) who died recently after breaking her tailbone and having a heart attack as a result. She was 90 years old. Her oldest daughter, my mother, died at 42. My grandmother never quite recovered from losing her daughter so young and so the past 25 years have been hard on her.

I would like to celebrate the laughter and light I remember as a child visiting my grandmother by sharing this word of the day.

Philip Pullman – Writing Quote Wednesday

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Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny with Flickr photo by Joseph Voves

I like to say we human beings live in story like fish live in water. Take fish out of water and they can’t live, they flop around gasping for breath wondering, “What happened?”

The same is true for us. We ask the same question, over and over again, every day of our lives.

“What happened?”

When we don’t answer that question we feel just like those poor fish.

When we experience anything, major or minor, we tell a story to relate it to those we care about (or to anyone who will listen). We want to share our experience with others and let them know, “This is how it is for me.”

I’m grateful that I get to do that every day as part of my human being-ness. I chose Mr. Pullman’s quote today because it puts the importance of story right up there with shelter, nourishment and companionship.

Please leave a comment about something that happened to you recently that made a big difference in your life. I’d love to hear about it.

Stories are the Wildest Things.

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Watch Philip Pullman doing an Open University lecture about his writing on YouTube.com

Flickr photo by Joseph Voves (CC License)

Writing Prompt 04: Write a Character who is the Opposite of You

Flickr photo "Opposites" by Karen Cox

Flickr photo “Opposites” by Karen Cox

What is the opposite of “you”?

When you think about who “you” are, what are the list of qualities you identify with yourself?

Are you loving, honest and polite?

Are you helpful and always there for your friends?

Make a list of qualities that you identify with and then make a list of everything that is the opposite.

Instead of loving, honest and polite, make the character hateful, lying and rude.

Helpful and always there becomes spiteful and withdrawn.

Write a story whose protagonist is the opposite of you. Try to avoid clichés and really show us how this person functions in the world. Let us see what they want and why they want it. Then throw in some obstacles that get in their way. Post a link to the story in the comments section.

Have a great writing day!

Is this the Single Greatest Tool for Solving Problems?

This short video by Mindvalley Academy, the online university for transformational education, teaches you a three-step technique for finding inspiration by one of the founders of the self-actualization movement, Napoleon Hill.

The ideas in this video remind me of how Steven Pressfield invocates the Muse before beginning his work for the day. He discusses this at length in his powerful book, The War of Art, a must-read for anyone engaged in creative pursuits.

I think there is some value in meditating on those who have gone before us and made progress in areas that we would like to make progress in. Theorists say that there are anywhere from 10-14 dimensions (or beyond). The ninth dimension is made up of “selection patterns that represent a generalized preference for one kind of universe over another.” I have a feeling that when we are accessing our imaginations, we are somehow tapping into this dimension of infinite possibilities.

I have no way of proving any of this, and my mind starts to fizz and pop like an electrical breaker box full of wet sprockets when I try to imagine how the ninth, tenth, etc. dimensions work, but I like the idea that there is a storehouse of all possible ideas that we can get access to if we are still enough and listen.

Let me know how the meetings with your mentors go by dropping me a line at pauljennynyc@gmail.com or leaving a comment below.

Harlan Coben – Writing Quote Wednesday

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Writing Quote created by Paul Jenny with Flickr photo “Kali Sweats it Out” by Abhisek Sarda

This gorgeous photo by Abhisek Sarda perfectly embodies this quote by Harlan Coben and how I feel right now working on the first draft of my MG adventure novel.

Kali is the Goddess of Time, Change and Destruction, and I feel like she is always close at hand any time we begin a creative act.

I sit down at the keyboard, inspired, ready to get more words on the page. As time passes, I begin to sweat because the story I have in my mind isn’t flowing as easily onto the page. With mounting desperation, I wrestle with my characters as they threaten to change and destroy the original idea of where the story is going.

But the beauty of Kali and the wisdom she imparts is that she is the “ultimate reality” and her change is inevitable. Like a devotee of Kali, I have to give in time and change and destruction. Resistance is futile. She is a goddess and she demands our full attention with her three eyes, four hands, skirt of human hands and necklace of skulls.

So do our stories, for they are the wildest things.

“O Mother, even a dullard becomes a poet who meditates upon thee raimented with space, three-eyed, creatrix of the three worlds, whose waist is beautiful with a girdle made of numbers of dead men’s arms…” (From a Karpuradistotra hymn, translated from Sanskrit by Sir John Woodroffe)

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Watch Harlan Coben talk about his early writing on RT Book Reviews on YouTube.com

 

Stories are the Wildest Things 

They chase us down in the middle of the night and we wake up, breathless and sweating, asking, “What happened?” and “Why?”

They sneak up on us while gazing out an apartment window at the young couple shuffling around in the apartment below saying, “This life, too, is odd.”

They beg to be told, nagging and pleading and throwing themselves at our feet until we give in and sit down and compose them and send them out into the world.

They define who we are and what we want and why we are here. They attempt to order the chaos. They make beauty and magic where once there was only the mundane.

They take us on journeys to the far edges of the multi-verse and deep inside us to the depths of our being.

We live in stories like fish live in water and stories are the wildest things.

 

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