From Snarky to Compassionate With a Simple Change in Person

The Olympic torch at the Closing Ceremony

Image via Wikipedia

I am a super fan of the Olympics. Specifically, I adore the winter games. Even as a child, I would make it a point to watch every sport I could during that two-week span of Olympic coverage on television. Back then, the games were on one channel, and we got to see many of the sports that Americans loved. Of course, we didn’t see any of the obscure sports, but that did not matter. The most popular sports, like skiing or figure skating, were always on during prime time.

To me, the sports always looked fun and always seemed easy when I watched them on television. Even though I never had any experience in any of them, I imagined that I would be able to practice many of the sports with little difficulty. When an athlete fell or otherwise lost an event, I would shake my head or scoff. I never really understood how difficult such sports are.

Of course, the fact I love to watch these winter games made me curious about trying them out on my own. While I have yet to learn to ski or snowboard, many of you know that I started ice skating seriously about a year ago. Now, if you have never ice skated, I can tell you it looks much easier than it is. When I started, I realized that figure skates are very heavy, especially when one leg needs to be lifted in a landing or a spiral. It took me about six months to be able to lift my leg high enough for a proper spiral. Of course, I still have to work on keeping my skating leg straight and arms and neck in the proper positions.

Clearly I am a work in progress on the ice.

The point is, when we play the casual observer, things often look much simpler than when we play the part of the actor. We watch others perform and automatically judge them on their performance. And when they mess up, we think they are flawed. However, when we are put in the position of the performer, we start to realized how difficult the activity really is.

Recently, I’ve put up another novel for sale on the Kindle called Evening Prayer. Unlike the two other books I self-published last year, which were written in third person limited, I wrote this new one in first person. This gave me a new perspective in writing, where I literally had to become the character when writing. It sounds bizarre, but it was true.

And ‘becoming the character’, so-to-speak, gave me a chance to put myself in the character’s shoes. I started to consider his language, his complaints and his fears in a way that did not come from the snarky perspective (i.e. third person limited) I used with the first two books. Instead, I saw myself  as the character. Then I considered how I would change and why. As I considered these things, I saw his difficulties as valid. They were not just his struggles. They were mine, too. I could relate to him. If I were him, I think I would also find his challenges almost insurmountable. So, when he does overcome his obstacles at the end of the book, I see his success as incredible. And I see his faith as a miracle.

I find it a challenge to write in first person, but ultimately, very rewarding. It develops a certain amount of empathy and compassion in ourselves as we consider writing as a flawed character. And as I continue to write in first person with the current novel I am writing (its working title is Invertebrates, and will out sometime in the late spring or summer of 2012), I hope I can transfer that skill into other areas of my life. Or, at least to my viewing of the Olympics. After all, the games will be back on the air this summer (I know they’re not the same as the winter ones, but the Olympics are the Olympics). It would be nice to be a little less critical and a little more understanding.

 

Posted in Fiction, Fictional Characters, first person, giving voice, Kindle Fiction, Self publishing, Winter Olympics, Writing fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My New Novel is Finally Out and Proud!

Evening Prayer is now out on the Kindle!

Imagine that your family forced you to follow a dishonest lifestyle.
Imagine that your friends could never tell you the truth.
And imagine that your lover was someone you could never really love.

All of these people helped you survive. But would you leave them all behind in order to try to achieve the life you want?

Follow one man, befriending monks and drug addicts and cross-dressers alike, as he slowly makes that decision to take the plunge and risk everything for a better life.

Now Available on the Kindle!

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My Secret Weapon in Writing: Playlists

Recently, I’ve rediscovered an old favorite of mine. Back in the 80s, when I was an exchange student and lived overseas, I became a fan of a band from Spain (relatively unknown in the US) called El ultimo de la fila. Their album, Como cabeza al sombrero, was one of my favorites at the time. And even these days, I’ll listen to it in its entirety, unlike most albums, where I only listen to only the bits and pieces that I really like.

My understanding is that the group disbanded sometime in the 1990s, I think, and their albums aren’t really available anymore. But what I didn’t know until about two weeks ago was that the main guy from the group, Manolo Garcia, has been putting out a bunch of solo albums since 2000. Again, most of his work is difficult to procure in the US, but I found two of his albums in itunes very recently. And both are really excellent.

I write about this because one of the albums in particular, Saldremos a la lluvia, was a particularly good discovery for me. This is because after having listened to it several times, I feel I can write something I had on the back burner for a while. I now have a guide. I now have a playlist.

Playlists are absolutely essential for me when I write. I cannot write a novel without one. I used one for Fragile Creatures, for Evening Prayer (out in January 2012) and I am using one for the novel I am writing these days, called Invertebrates (out in Spring/Summer 2012). I don’t usually need one for a short story, but once in a while I will use one anyway if I am inspired to do so. My playlists often feature one or two artists or bands, but will include songs from others if I think it will help. Most of the time, when I write a scene, particularly with a lot of dialogue, I will need to imagine it as if it were a scene from a movie. And a song or two during that helps me identify the tone of the moment or what I want the characters to say. Sometimes I will use multiple songs in a particular scene or chapter. Other times I’ll just one song, or perhaps none.

Luckily, I have a decent collection of music, due to my years and experience as a music nerd (think Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, but exchange comic books for music — specifically 70s progressive and glamrock, 80s new wave/alternative and early 90s shoegazing and the Manchester scene). And since I have this wealth of music from which to draw, I can procure moods, concepts and even certain lines (albeit sparingly) from that music to guide me as I write one book or another.

To give you an example of a playlist, I would like to share one with you. Here is my playlist for the novel Fragile Creatures. If you happen to have the novel and are interested in how the music plays a role, you might want to go to a chapter or section mentioned below and listen to the song related to it.

Indigo Eyes – Peter Murphy – Used for the 2nd half of Chapter 1, just as the plane takes off from Madrid to NYC.

Hypnogogic – Kitchens of Distinction: Used in Chapter 4, as Lorca wakes from sleep.

Pen and Notebook – Camera Obscura – Used in Chapter 4, as JM surprised Lorca at the steps of the dormitory.

Mad as Snow – Kitchens of Distinction – Used in Chapter 10 in its entirety.

The Scientist – Coldplay – Used in Chapter 11 as Lorca goes home for Christmas after rejection.

The Lazarus Heart – Sting – Used in Chapter 17 as the men discover their former classmate at the Olympics.

When in Heaven – Kitchens of Distinction – Used in Chapter 17 as Lorca and Carlos discover two of their classmates disappeared.

How Soon is Now – The Smiths – Used in Chapter 20 as Juan Maria drunkenly knocks on Lorca’s dormitory door until end of the chapter.

Fragile – Sting – Used at the end of Chapter 21

Under the Sky, Inside the Sea – Kitchens of Distinction – Used in Chapter 23, during the funeral

Blue Pedal – Kitchens of Distinction – Used in Chapter 24, in its entirety.

What Happens Now – Kitchens of Distinction – Used in Chapter 25, as Juan Maria drives from Ogdensburg NY to Vermont.

The Power and the Glory – White Lies – Used in Chapter 26, as Juan Maria returns home via plane and train.

If You Were Here – Thompson Twins – Used in Chapter 26, as Juan Maria arrives at the church until the end of the chapter.

I’ll Fall With Your Knife – Peter Murphy – Used after Chapter 26 to conclude the story.

Posted in E-readers, Fiction, Indie Authors, Kindle Fiction, Playlists for fiction, Uncategorized, Writing fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Better Edits, Better Price!

On Amazon.com, I’ve finally had the chance to upload files that look really great on the Kindle for both Fragile Creatures and Destined for Greatness and Other Stories. Plus, each has a new, low price of 99 cents each. Better edits for a better price!

And coming in January 2012, a new novel about cross-dressers, drug abusers and monks. You won’t want to miss it!

 

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The Myth of the Final Draft

My child no longer believes in Santa Claus. A few years ago, she challenged me a few days before Christmas and said, “I don’t think Santa exists. I think parents put the gifts under the tree.”

To that challenge, I promptly showed her the NORAD website for Santa (at www.noradsanta.org), which kept her believing in Santa until the next year. And that time, the website didn’t work. She was no longer a believer in myths. She came to realize that we were her Santas, and she came to appreciate the time we took to get her presents to put under the tree.

When I was younger, I was a believer. That is, I believed in the existence of final drafts. This is to say, I believed that there was such a thing as a perfect copy of one’s writing. In those days, I believed that it was possible to have perfect mechanics, perfect spelling, perfect grammar, perfect organization, perfect ideas. In those days, I would hand write compositions, erase or cut out ideas to either put them in other areas of the composition or to get rid of them permanently. Then I’d type the ‘final draft’ into one of those old-fashioned Mackintosh computers at the computer lab at my school. I’d spell-check the document first, then I’d print it out on a dot matrix printer.

Once in a while, I’d have an error or two, but generally speaking, I usually received pretty decent grades and rarely had to make corrections. Especially during my last few years of college.

But that was when I was writing compositions, not stories.

These days, I’m not so sure I believe that final drafts exist. Or, at least, not for creative writing. I say this because I am editing (again) my first novel, Fragile Creatures. It’s not that I’ve needed to change key points in the plot or characterization. But, I’d say that my style and, for that matter, my use of mechanics have changed and become consistent enough to the point where I now know how I want to show dialogue and the interior thoughts of the characters. I now feel more confident about my writing style. Or, at least, confident enough to incorporate that style in my first novel.

About this time last year, I thought my first novel was finished. Complete. Done. I had finished what I thought was the first draft, read it over for what I thought was several times and felt totally comfortable in shopping it around to different agents. And when I was promptly rejected or ignored by every last one of them, I simply converted it into an e-book for the Kindle and Nook.

I thought I was done with the novel. But, I was mistaken.

Strangely enough, while I used to hate to edit my work twenty years ago, now I don’t mind it. And when I find errors these days, it’s like finding a ten dollar bill in a book, or Christmas presents under the tree. I actually like to find my errors. I’ve come to enjoy the editing process because I can now appreciate how much better my writing is with just a bit more work. It proves that I can still improve on the story. I can make it better. My stories that earn a “meh” still have potential. They can be written better. Because there is no such thing as a “final draft”, there’s always hope for better writing.

 

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Eighteen Months of Good Books

Although it has not been exactly a year since I put out my first book, Fragile Creatures, it feels almost as though it is. Since I put out that first book, I’ve put out a second book, Destined for Greatness and Other Stories, and plan to put out a third one in the next month. Meanwhile I have another one in the works, which should be out in the summer, and I plan to begin a new one which will be out sometime late next year. This is assuming I have the time to write it.

I say this because a writer isn’t just spending time writing. A good amount of a writer’s time should also be spent on reading. It makes perfect sense: if you want to improve your skills as a writer, you should see how the pros do it. Find books that you like and that are, hopefully, related to the topic about which you write. That way you can learn from those already in the field.

Since August 2010, I’ve been reading books, mostly related to the topics about which I write. Reading has really helped me become a better writer. I’ve figured out what I like in a story, what I don’t, what seems to work and what doesn’t. Of course, while I’ve read more books than the ones I’ve listed below, the ones on the following list are the books I’ve  enjoyed and taught me to be a better writer. And I wanted to share them with you:

Books I’ve Found Helpful as a Writer:

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel. The initial reason I read this book was because I read Life of Pi about three or four years ago and I really liked it.  To be honest, this book was not as well-written. Still, it makes it on my list of good books because of its incorporation of animals (which seems to be a staple for Martel) and because of its ending. It was surprising, engaging, and shocking. In a way, it was not the typical ‘happy ending’ that we see in many books, but it did not seem unsatisfying. That’s because sometimes the less-than-happy ending can be more realistic, more appropriate, and therefore, more satisfying.

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan. Okay, this book does have a happy ending. But honestly, it fits and makes sense. And I know it’s a young adult book, but it’s so well-written, who cares? Imagine living in a world where people aren’t afraid to be who they are. Imagine a world where a boy can come out of the closet, fearlessly cross-dress in high school, and be captain of the football team. Imagine a world where you can paint music. Seem improbable? It’s not, if you read this book.

Celebrate! A Short Story Anthology About Recovering Lives by Keith Massey. As some of you might know, I happen to personally know the author. I know other authors too, but I can’t say that I would vouch for them. I can vouch for Massey, however, because these short stories are very interestingly interrelated without sacrificing plot or narration. The fact that the stories refer to one another helps show readers how one’s actions can have a direct impact on others.

The Collar: A Year Inside a Catholic Seminary by Jonathan Englert. This is one of the few books of non-fiction I have on this list. While most of the time I used my experience with working with seminarians when I wrote my stories, I used this book to fill in the gaps I could otherwise fill. I found it relevant, helpful and appropriate for my writing. I found it to be pretty objective for the most part. It was not overly religious or critical of the Church. If you have an interest in life within a Catholic seminary, this might be the book for you.

The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey. Even though I am currently reading the second half of this book, I chose to add this one too. While I may believe that Frey is not the best writer of the 21st century, and that he is kind of a fraud (remember what happened with him and Oprah?), the fact is he chose to write a book with a title that interested me. Only a few others (Jose Saramago, Philip Pullman) dare to write something explicitly about the figure of Jesus and call it a testament or gospel. For that, he’s got a lot of nerve, I’ll give him that. And while Saramago’s book is brilliant but long, and Pullman’s book is less than readable (at least my opinion), Frey manages to write something that engages the reader and flows well (and quickly). Each chapter is in the voice of a different person who meets the Christ-figure, and each one gives his/her own interpretation of him. I enjoy the changes in perspective and the modern day settings.

Life in Paradox: The Story of a Gay Catholic Priest by Paul Edward Murray. Finally, a priest willing to be super honest about his orientation and behavior. Finally! I learned a lot from this book, and when I finished, I thought about trying to send his publisher or agent a note of thanks. But when I did, I found out that Murray died only a few years ago. What a shame. Anyway, this is a good book to read if the topic interests you.

Next Stop: Spanish by Keith Massey. Again, another Massey triumph. Honestly, I found the book to be fun to read. Of course, you’ll learn Spanish along the way, just as the book advertises. But it won’t be painful. It’ll be a journey.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives of North Korea by Barbara Demick. I found this book to have an extremely interesting topic. There’s lots of descriptive detail, and because it focuses on the experiences of a small group of expatriates, it reads a lot like a piece of fiction. I really felt like I was there, among the others. Very engaging.

A Predator Priest by David Margolick. Holy crap! Seriously, this book was very sad, disturbing, but extremely well-written. Just like Nothing to Envy, this book is non-fiction, but reads, in many ways, like a piece of fiction. It’s short but full of information about Father Bernard Bissonnette, the predator that took advantage of his position in the Church to prey upon youngsters. But what I found to be more troubling was the ways in which everyone (including his superiors) took a very little to no action when they found out he was an abuser. Only because of the heroic efforts of one family of a victim (after the victim sadly committed suicide) was Bissionette finally punished. This book was, in many ways, was exceedingly helpful for me as I’ve been writing a novel about abuse within the Church.

Seventy Times Seven by Salvatore Sapienza. This is such a fun novel to read. It starts with a great first chapter (as all novels should) which captures the attention of the reader, includes a fun cast of characters, and ends with a believable and satisfying conclusion. I loved this book.

Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir by Scott Pomfret. Again, another fun book to read. This book is very similar to Seventy Times Seven, in that both protagonists are looking for a way to reconcile their orientation and Catholicity (what a great word). Again, this has such a great cast of characters and great plot twists that you won’t want to stop reading it.

Vestments by John Reimringer. I loved this book. In a way, it’s a lot like my book, Fragile Creatures, except for the fact that Reimringer’s protagonist, also a priest, is straight. Reimringer also writes in first person, which is particularly challenging for me (since my snarky tone in third person limited has been my trademark in my first two books). Still, it’s a fabulous book, and while I liked all of the characters, I must say that the priest’s father really takes the cake. The joke he tells in the middle of the novel might give you a sense of this character: “How do you get a Catholic girl pregnant? Dress her up like an altar boy!” Seriously, this is a great read.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Oh God, I can still metaphorically taste that chapter Egan wrote using PowerPoint. It was a gutsy move, but Lord, it was good. She had a lot of nerve to include to chapter, which could have seemed gimmicky if not executed correctly. This novel is outstanding, and if Frey were a better author, his book could have been as incredible as this one is since both he and Egan switch perspectives each chapter. But whatever. Egan’s book is fabulous. It’s about aging and becoming a has-been. Or better said, it’s about that pause in our lives between moments of greatness, where we find ourselves pining for what used to be, or what we used to be. If you’re dangerously close to forty or have recently passed that mark, you might want to read this book. It will probably speak to you.

Posted in Authors as Readers, Book Reviews, Catholic Church, E-readers, Fiction, Fictional Characters, Priesthood, seminarians, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Releasing That Next Novel Into the Wild

Last year was the year I returned to writing fiction. Before that, the last time I wrote any stories was in the 80s, before college. I can’t remember any of the stories I wrote in my youth, except for the first story I wrote. That one was a one-page story about an orange cat. Back then, I was naive enough to think that if I wrote a story, I would instantly have an audience. To start a following, I asked my third grade teacher if I could read my story to the class. She reluctantly agreed. At the very end of a long school day, I sat in the front of the class and read the story. Before I could reach the end, the dismissal bell rang, and instantly everyone took off to their buses. They had all gone before I could finish.

It was the first time I felt the sting of rejection regarding a story I had written. And it surprised the heck out of me. Something that I tended and cared for was ready for for the world. But when I let it out to share it with others, they ignored it. Their disinterest killed it. Or, at least that was how it felt at the time.

When I became a little older, I had a few opportunities to submit work in school. But I did not take them. My reasoning was simple: I didn’t have anything to submit at the time. Fast-forward to 2010, I decided to try submitting the first novel I had written, Fragile Creatures, to several agents. Again, I got nowhere. And this summer, I submitted a few stories to some smaller publications (both print and on the Internet). And again, I got the requisite rejections.

Of course, these days I’m lucky. Even if I can’t find an agent and publisher, I can still self-publish my work via the Kindle and Nook, and other e-reader devices. This has been a welcome alternative, and I am grateful for the ability to self-publish. A lot of people are doing that these days. Of course, it’s still difficult to find readers, but at least I have a platform with which to begin.

With the magic of the Internet, I can opt to advertise and promote on social media sites and other places where others might want to read what I had written. Or not. What I do with it is my choice. Also, I can continue to cultivate it by editing it after I publish it and then uploading the newer version to Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble. It’s like letting your indoor cat go outside, but in one of those habitrail, outdoor cages so that it’ll be safe. And it’ll have a cat door so the animal can return inside if it’s too cold or if it’s hungry.

Once again, as I finish a second novel, I am tempted to submit it to agents, just to see if I can find someone interested. I know agents and publishing houses are skittish, especially with the changes to the publishing industry, and I know I don’t have a series of already published short stories in literary magazines or other sites. And I know I don’t even have an MFA in writing, like tons of writers already have, so they will probably throw my query in the trash. But still I am tempted to try. Just to see what would happen.

Still, I’ll still have my e-reader option, which I like. You know, just in case. Because, of course, you never know.

Posted in E-readers, Fiction, Final Draft, giving voice, Indie Authors, Kindle Fiction, Ready to Publish, Self publishing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment