Friday, February 27, 2009

Superior Animals

I've been running lately. Dare I admit I'm training for a marathon? I hesitate to say such things in the fledgling stages. Too many things, physical and psychological, can go wrong in between now and that mythical run.

But there it is. I've spewed it out. I go to my local park and run around the outskirts with my dog, Lancelot, as I prepare to begin training on this hellaciously long run. And Lancelot loves it. I think it's because he was built to run, and I was built to plod along like an ape who's lost his tree. At home, I am the king. I have the access to the dog food, and I am the only one who can turn that funny, shiny metal thing that opens the door and allows Lancelot to relieve his bladder.

At the park, Lancelot is the superior animal. He ranges out ahead of me, checking out out everything, marking a few poles, trash cans and trees that other dogs have so foolishly claimed as their own, and then bolts back at me. He loves that part. He charges me, wanting to play. I'm sure it makes absolutely no sense to him that I just run around in a circle. No doubt he wants to make me feel better by running at me, leaping up, and trying to rend my shoulder from its socket.

So, during this morning routine, I fall to thinking. My friend Peter, who is also a runner and also a superior animal, does math problems in his head while he runs. He calculates distances based on time and, I'm sure, various other ape-out-of-tree activities. There's not much else to do, really. But me, I don't think about math. I think about fantasy stories, and I philosophize. Amateurishly, no doubt.

What jumped into my head as I watched Lancelot bolt onto the green, subjugate inappropriately scented trees, and race back to nip at me was the notion of Talent.

I always wanted to have Talent. Oodles and oodles of brilliant writing talent. I wanted to be one of those fellows who would think for a few seconds, then write a paragraph that everyone would “Oooooh” and “Ahhhhh” over. Doesn’t every writer want that?

Perhaps some writers already know they have it. Perhaps they see drivel all around them except the brilliance that flows from their keyboard, then they go on to become Michael Chabon or Dan Brown. Me, I’ve never felt that way. Seems to me I’m constantly surrounded by people who are smarter than me. I remember sitting in my AP English class in high school, listening to the amazing papers offered up by my classmates, and wishing I’d said it the way they did, or wishing I’d thought of that brilliant idea.

I wrote my first novel in high school in the midst of all of those smarter kids. The class was tacked on to the end of my senior year, an Independent Study class where I’d somehow convinced them I should be allowed to write a fantasy novel for credit. Boy, did I think I’d pulled the wool over their eyes. Getting school credit for letting my mind wander, jotting down scenes of burly heroes hacking through shiny, slimy nightmare demons. What a gorgeous moment in time. Of course, I was convinced that it would be a bestseller, that the characters would become immortal. When I’d barely begun, I took the fledgling chapters to my English teacher for approval.

I waited impatiently for days, dreaming of coming to class one day and having my teacher –Let’s call him Mr. Vidsa– announce to everyone that there was a budding novelist in their midst.

But he didn’t. Days turned into weeks, and I heard nothing.

I finally caught him at his office and asked him what he’d thought. I think he pointed out that I was very excited about it, and I seemed to really enjoy it. I don’t really remember his response.

I do remember what happened a few days later, though. My new best friend and I were talking about my book (I’d pushed the chapters on him, too), and I told him how Mr. Vidsa had been really excited about the novel, and that I was going to give him the most recent chapters today. My friend looked at me quizzically, and then he said, “Really? I was just in his office yesterday, and he said he was overloaded with work, and on top of it all, one of his students kept giving him dozens of pages of a wretched fantasy novel he’s writing.”

Two things clicked for me then. First, my new best friend wasn’t ever going to sugar-coat anything for me. Second, Mr. Vidsa didn’t think I had any talent at all and, by the influence our English teacher had on us, probably neither did my best friend now.

It hurt. I never took any more chapters to Mr. Vidsa, and he never asked for more, or asked me anything else about my novel. I told myself that he just didn’t like fantasy stories. I told myself that he was overworked and was probably just in a bad mood when he read them. I told myself anything that took the focus off the notion that I had no talent.

That knee-jerk reaction returned many times over the years, anytime anyone said they hated my writing. It always stung, and I always listened, and I always ignored everything that didn’t help me continue. And I wrote and wrote and wrote. Well, it’s been twenty years since then, and an interesting notion popped into my head while I was running this morning. If Mr. Vidsa’s appraisal of me was correct when I was eighteen, if I truly had no talent, but I now have several novels and short-stories published, what does it mean? Was Mr. Vidsa simply a bad audience and I was right to ignore him? Should we, as writers, be extremely cautious who we allow to influence us? Or can talent be earned? Is the word “talent” too narrow a definition to contain all the important pieces that can make a good storyteller?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I wonder. I wonder if a no-talent writer like myself can ever achieve a place on the New York Times bestseller list, or earn that mythical six-figure advance. I do wonder.

And it’s a nice feeling sometimes, wondering.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Colorado Springs Book Signing - February 21

Giles has returned to Colorado for a brief stay, and we are having another book signing for Queen of Oblivion! This one will be in Colorado Springs, and it is the perfect opportunity to grab a copy of the final book in the Heartstone Trilogy. If you missed the first book signing, don't miss this one, especially since Giles lives in North Carolina, and this will be the ONLY opportunity to get your book signed by both authors.

Come join us!

Stevie Ray's Eastside Grill

3020 N. New Center Point (off Powers)
Colorado Springs, CO
*view googlemap here

Saturday, February 21

7:30 p.m.

Mark your calendars! Todd and Giles will read from Queen of Oblivion, the third and final novel in the Heartstone Trilogy and also read from their current projects.

Also, this is your chance to help other struggling writers in Colorado. All proceeds from book sales at the signing go to the 2009 Pikes Peak Writers Conference Scholarship Fund.

For more information, email Todd at, or visit him on

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Muddle

Ha HA! I made it in under the one month mark. I told y'all that I sprint at the start. It's the middle part that always gets me. I'm quick to jump in, and I'm a pretty decent finish-line sprinter, but somehow I get distracted by shiny objects along the journey, and I have to stop and study them, which is what this blog entry is all about: The Muddle.

So I've been stuck in the middle of the book lately. Writing chapters, backing up, rewriting, backing, rewriting again. Second-guessing myself, questioning my inspiration, my direction and my talent. My friend Giles calls the middle of a story "The Muddle". I think he pulled the term from a screenwriting book, or he might have made it up. He's apt to do either at any given moment. But it fits very well. Navigating one's way through The Muddle seems to be a problem for writers everywhere, and I am no exception. Lately Wildmane has been languishing. I've been sitting in a round boat, rowing listlessly with one oar.

So I was talking to my mother the other day, and she said something to me that sent me straight back to my childhood. She was talking about how she and my sister were doing so well with their diets, and that they decided to take one day to cheat, so they went to Denny's to get a free Grand Slam breakfast. I didn't connect all the dots at first; I was just enjoying listening to my mother's stories, but then it hit me.

Understand that when I was younger, we were very poor. I didn't realize this until much later, and this is entirely due to my mother's constant, positive outlook, no matter what wretched situation we found ourselves in. I remember my mother, my sister, my brother and I subsisting off mother's hourly wage from Kentucky Fried Chicken while she wondered how she was going to pay the rent for the month. That was just one of many minimum wage jobs she held. We moved around a lot, chasing dreams and, I now know, a job that would keep us fed.

My mother has never made a lot of money, not since that day and not now, but her positive outlook seems indestructible, and has been a guiding star for me all my life. She talked about how exciting it was not only to cheat on her diet and get that yummy Denny's breakfast, but also how fun it was to be with all the other people waiting for the same. It was then I realized who would probably have been standing in that line with her during this sad economy. I had visions of the soup kitchens from the 1930s, and it struck me that she was doing it again. This woman, who makes less in a month than I do in a week, finds what is most important about life everywhere she looks. It doesn't matter if she's in a mansion or a soup-kitchen line. She proves every day that it's not what you have, but what you do with what you have. I was humbled, and not for the first time in my life.

I hung up the phone and that image, and my mother's smiling voice, lingered with me throughout the day. I thought of her enjoying the faces of the people outside Denny's, the excitement she had at the smallest things, moments others might consider insignificant, disdainful or even frightening.

Of course I thought about writing, about how I had been stuck lately in The Muddle. Every time I stumble across something that I think is wise, or that I find amazing in some way, I try to apply it to the rest of my life, so of course I constantly apply it to writing. And I thought about how my mother's outlook could help me break past that shifting, uncertain feeling of "am I going in the right direction?" for this story.

And suddenly the answer, like so many answers when you finally stumble across them, was simple. I would narrow my vision, pull back and look at the details of what was right in front of me. I would return to the initial principle that started me on this path in the first place. I threw aside all of my grandiose notions. I threw aside all thoughts of making a masterpiece, of having the adoration of readers worldwide. I threw out the idea that maybe I, too, could some day make something as popular and joy-inspiring as, say, the Harry Potter series. I threw it all out.

So I sat down at the keyboard and looked around at all my characters, standing in line waiting to get into the book. And I asked them, "Where do you want to go today?"

And, slowly at first, but with more vigor as my fingers began to fly, they told me.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Sparkling Hammers

I spent this weekend at Chez Mandeville having good conversations with good people, playing mediocre pool, drinking moderately and, most importantly, listening to the stories created by those in my writer's group.

This writer's group has become much more important to me than I would ever have imagined. It was 2001 when I was invited to join the then-unnamed group (We're called The Sparkling Hammers now, for the curious out there. And yes, there's a story behind it. And yes, you're going to have to wait for it). I'm not exactly sure why I joined. I wasn't looking for extra inspiration. I had plenty of that. I wasn't craving literary criticism. I suppose I'd always been a snob when it came to what and how I should write. I was a firm believer that the best way to enhance your writing was to read authors you admired, pay attention to them, and incorporate their skills into your craft. And more importantly, to just write. Write write write.

A college friend, Seth, invited me and I said "yes". It was a small group of five: Aaron, Andi, Rebecca, Seth, and me. I'm not sure why I agreed to join in the first place. I think I was new to Denver, and I was looking to do the "settle down" thing, which included joining an obligatory social group here and there, right? I'd been wandering for almost fifteen years, ever since high school, and I wanted to do those things that people who actually stayed in a community did.

After seven years with the Sparkling Hammers writers group, which has changed membership many times (current local roster is Aaron -our only original member-, Chris, Leslie, Morgen, and me), I would encourage all writers to create one or join one. I have derived more pleasure, inspiration, and writing assistance from these people than I would ever have thought possible. As I mentioned before, I don't go for the line-by-line criticism. I don't go for a cheerleading squad to rah-rah me on to the next chapter. What I have come to find so valuable about these get-togethers is the opportunity to see how my stories affect others. And also the opportunity to read aloud.

Read aloud?

Yeah, right? (Observe me attempting to use some teenage slang. That one's for you, Tiana)

Who would have thought reading aloud would be important? But it is. Giving voice to my story for an audience is an opportunity to hear my characters speak and move. It allows me to fill them with life and see them from the outside. It lets me hear how the sentences are fitting together.

So what started as a lark, a social opportunity, has grown into a continual, surprising source of writing help. And this past weekend, it was no different. I'm at a very important crossroads on the construction of Wildmane. I've had success with the first 100 pages, all from Mirolah's perspective, and now I must jump into the tangled thoughts of the character for whom the book is named: Wildmane, a pissy demi-god who must find the will to become a hero once again. It's almost like starting the story over, except harder. True, I have the advantage of 100 mostly-finished pages that I love, but 100 pages does not a novel make. This next section must be able to stand alone, and yet has to flow with the last, amp it up, spur the story forward.

Medophae has always been tough to write. He is the original inspiration for the story, but has, ironically, always been its Achilles heel. It's difficult for a reader to identify with a man who has all the power to do what he wants, but little inspiration to do it. Who can feel sorry for a guy like that?

At writer's group this weekend, they helped me find the right path at this crossroads. On Friday and Saturday, I read the first 100 pages. The story sang. I put my passion into the voices of the characters, and the group responded. They sank into my world. The time that I had spent to shape this story and my latest rule of polishing 100-page chunks before letting anyone see them really paid off.

Then I broke that rule. Riding an inspiration based on their positive reactions, I continued reading. I forged into the unpolished territory of the chapters from Wildmane's perspective, the chapters with which I had been struggling.

Almost instantly, the magic disappeared. I spotted the redundancy in the prose. I spotted the bad lines and the inconsistencies, and my writer's group did, too.

For a brief moment, in the first 100 pages, I almost transformed my writer's group into readers. Remember that these are professional or semi-professional writers, and they know what to look for in a story. They thrive off identifying weak spots and offering brilliant ideas on how to fix them. But this weekend, just for a short time, they became readers. They seemed to forget their purpose and let the story sweep them away.

And that should be the goal of any good writer.

But then I let them down. As soon as I started on the rough new chapters, their critical minds kicked into gear. They stepped off the raft and went to work trying to fix the story. While these suggestions were fantastic, many of which I intend to implement, the true gem was something I hadn't been looking for. I got to watch that shift from readers back to editors. I got to see where it happened and why. If a real reader, someone who picks up this book at the store for the first time, ever makes that shift, if they stop following the story to peer at the construction behind it, then I've failed.

So, like the beginning of the story with Mirolah, I have written five chapters with Medophae that will now be cast aside and re-written. And this will be done before anyone gets a chance to see them, before anyone has a chance to be jolted out of the story by poor writing.

And that's because I have people who can spot these pitfalls before they become public. That's why I have a writer's group.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Shotgun Approach

I have nothing to write today. So, in the theme of writing something even when I have nothing, I submit this very short and defiant blog.

This is an important premise, this "making something out of nothing at all" (and now I have a 70s song stuck in my head), and today I shall illustrate. I will call this my "shotgun approach", and by shotgun approach I do not mean "if I shoot I might hit something", I mean I will "aim and blow away the Revisionist when he has no business hanging about". The Revisionist needs to know his place. He should not whisper in my ear when I'm thinking about putting fingers to keyboard, when I'm vulnerable, thinking "what if the stuff I write sucks?" He needs to jump in a lake until I've typed 100,000 words.

When one has time to write, one must sit down and write, and train oneself to create at any given moment. Saying "I just don't have time to write", or "my life is too busy to really write" or even "I'm just too tired to be inspired" cannot be accepted.

K. Done.

Did anyone see? Did I hit him?