Storm, Part 2

“Get a real job, a**hole!” I told the scam
man with the not-from-around-here accent
who woke us up from a midday nap
but maybe this is his real job
and he hung up on me because
I obviously would not earn him any commission
And Not because I hurt his feelings.
If I had to take a job calling people
in other countries and trying to steal their
money, my self-esteem would not be high.
I perhaps shall be nicer
to the next charlatan who
wakes me up.

A perfect Carly Simon playlist

Carly Simon is one of those artists who makes you feel like you know her from listening to her songs. I have been captivated from the moment back in 1971 (!) that I heard her first hit single, “That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be.” It was intimate, it was painful, it was real.

The Wikipedia article about her quotes a former fiancee as saying she was “the answer to any sane man’s prayers: funny, quick, erotic, extravagantly talented.” And her best songs pull you deeper below that surface.

I found myself looking at the description of her 1995 box set Clouds in My Coffee, and my brain started playing the track list of Disc 1, and I thought, “Holy cow, that is just about the perfect Carly Simon playlist.”

A few days and an eBay Buy It Now later, and the CDs are in my possession and I can now attest yes, if you want a perfectly curated set of Carly Simon hits, you could try this list first:

  1. Let The River Run
  2. You Belong To Me
  3. Nobody Does It Better
  4. Coming Around Again
  5. Jesse
  6. The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
  7. You’re So Vain
  8. Touched By The Sun
  9. Haven’t Got Time For The Pain
  10. Better Not Tell Her
  11. Legend In Your Own Time
  12. Mockingbird (with James Taylor)
  13. That’s The Way I Always Heard It Should Be
  14. All I Want Is You
  15. The Right Thing To Do
  16. Like A River
  17. Anticipation
  18. Give Me All Night

The world of instant books

Last week I wrote a series of blog posts about my “rules for writing.” You guys seemed to like them, so I packaged them all together in a mini ebook.

You remember:

  1. Show up every day.
  2. Have fun.
  3. Write what you love.
  4. Be silly sometimes.
  5. Don’t think.

I’m not here to sell you on something you just read last week and can click for free — although if you want to send 3 bucks my way and have those posts all in one place, I would not want to dissuafe you.

I just want to sit for a moment and say, isn’t this a grand world we live in, where anyone can write a short book or a medium book or a long book and ship it almost instantly? I mean, it went live on Amazon three hours after I had the idea for the thing.

There was a time when it was years between getting the idea for a book and holding it in your hands. Some of them still take that long, and some of them don’t.

This is one of the latter.

In which I beat the odds

I had a great time Saturday night at OtherWorld Books and More in Sturgeon Bay, the first gig in my not-exactly-a-book-tour since publishing Full: Rockets, Bells & Poetry earlier this summer. A rainstorm canceled the sidewalk sale at the last minute, but the folks at Park Place mini-mall had fun bringing the event indoors.

Margaret Magle and her husband, David, have created an otherworldly mix of new and used books, gaming supplies, comic books and even train sets and other toys that takes up about a half-dozen units of the mall, which David can tell you was a theater in the early 20th century before being converted into a mall, then offices, then headquarters of the Peterson Builders shipbuilding company, and then back into a mall recently after standing empty for about 15 years after PBI folded up its tents.

The slow traffic gave me a chance to explore the store, and although I don’t really collect old comics anymore, I couldn’t resist a quick exploration of the wall of comics boxes in the back. More or less at random, I started thumbing through a box that had some old Adventure Comics from the 1960s in front — that was “my” era.

A few books in, I found a copy of Dynamo #3. What are the odds?

Dynamo was the lead hero in a superhero series called T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, published by an independent publisher called Tower Comics in the late 1960s. Each of the agents was given possession of a device that gave them superpowers. I loved Tower in part because I like an underdog, and they were entering a market then dominated by DC Comics and an upstart disruptor called Marvel Comics. Tower had tremendous art by the likes of Wally Wood and Steve Ditko, among many notable comic book artists of the era.

Although their distribution was spotty, I managed to buy almost all of the original Tower Comics at the stands, beginning with T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1, which had a striking Wally Wood cover that drew me in right away. After a year or so, they were successful enough to spin off some of the characters in their own titles, including Dynamo.

Here’s why I said “What are the odds?” When I was 13, I wrote a letter to Tower Comics critiquing Dynamo #1. A few months later a friend told me I had a letter published in Dynamo #3. Unlike Marvel Comics, Tower didn’t have a Fabulous Flo who sent a postcard to kids whose letters were going to be published, so it was a surprise. I can’t remember if I was ever able to find and buy Dynamo #3, although I do remember seeing my letter somewhere along the way.

So what are the odds that I would accept the invitation to sit and sign books at OtherWorlds, the first time I ever ventured out of my turtle shell to appear as a guest author anywhere, that the rain would give me a chance to wander around the store, that I would decide to look through a comic box even though I don’t really collect these days, and that of the several dozen boxes of comics to browse through, I would pick the box that contained a comic book with my letter in it?

I had a small handful of letters printed in comics back then — my earliest published work! — and of those Dynamo #3 is probably the rarest book. (My most proud accomplishment among them is having my excerpt picked as the lead-off to the Amazing Spider-Man #100 letters column — check it out, I’ll wait.) And I managed to find it in the first box I browsed.

When I told Red this story, she sent me back into the night to buy a lottery ticket. Sadly, I had apparently used up almost all of my luck for that day, although I did win my dollar back.

Heinlein’s rules for writing

  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you start.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  4. You must put it on the market.
  5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

On Sunday when I embarked on this week’s posts, I mentioned Heinlein’s Rules for Writing , and I admit it’s pretty audacious of me to set out my own five rules for writing as if I’m in Heinlein’s league. (No, I’m not, just for the record.)

Dean Wesley Smith has a tremendous short book about Heinlein’s rules with plenty of solid advice about how to keep to them. If you’re strapped for cash, you can also find his original blog posts that became the book, but it’s worth scraping the pennies together to purchase.

Smith explains the rules far better than I could even try, because he has been following them for 40 or so years and has hundreds of books to show for it. He pretty much guarantees that if you follow Heinlein’s Rules, you can be just as successful, but he also guarantees that following these rules is so hard that most will stumble and many will be unable to do it consistently. Personally, I still grapple with Rule #2 much of the time.

The thing is, writing is so much fun and so rewarding that it’s worth the journey, with or without what passes for physical rewards in this world.

Speaking of the writing business …

I almost forgot to tell you I plan to be at OtherWorlds Books & More, 41 N. Third Ave., Sturgeon Bay, from 5-7 p.m. this evening (Saturday, Aug. 7), to sign books, chat and otherwise hobnob with any and all takers. See ya there?

Writers don’t think

In the titular essay of Ray Bradbury’s book Zen in the Art of Writing, he writes of three important concepts for success: Work. Relaxation. Don’t Think.

“The artist must work so hard, so long, that a brain develops and lives, all of itself, in his fingers.
“So with the surgeon whose hand at last, like the hand of da Vinci, must sketch lifesaving designs on the flesh of man.
“So with the athlete whose body at last is educated and becomes, of itself, a mind.”

Once you get past concentrating on the nuts and bolts of the task, in other words, you relax into a state where the words flow faster because you have stopped being conscious of them:

“Work, giving us experience, results in new confidence and eventually in relaxation. The type of dynamic relaxation again, as in sculpting, where the sculptor does not consciously have to tell his fingers what to do. The surgeon does not tell his scalpel what to do. Nor does the athlete advise his body. Suddenly, a natural rhythm is achieved. The body thinks for itself.”

This is frequently called being “in the zone” where you don’t quite know where your mind went, but your fingers improvised the most beautiful tune that ever came out of your musical instrument, or they told an amazing story or scored 50 points in the most important basketball game of your life.

That’s why “Don’t think” is the fifth and final of my little rules for writing. First you need to show up and do the work, to start having fun, to love what you’re doing, and to be silly sometimes. It all adds up to the point where, when you’re willing and able, you can stop thinking and let the muse take you where you both want to go.

Like an overnight sensation represents years and years of work, one day it all coalesces and you’re traveling on the road to Mordor to save Middle Earth, or you’re stranded on Mars trying to figure out how to survive the next several months before they can attempt a rescue, or you’re in your Baker Street apartment explaining to your befuddled partner how and why a dastardly crime was committed, or you’re in a secret apartment having an affair with a beautiful woman hoping that the totalitarian government won’t notice and arrest you both, or you discover that you’re the son of the Greek god Poseidon and monsters want to kill you, or … you get the picture.

Bradbury wrote a short story every week for much of his life, 52 stories a year, and “we should not look down on work nor look down on the 45 out of 52 stories written in our first year as failures. To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops.”

Nor does the success happen every time after the first time. Dean Wesley Smith writes of selling his first two short stories and meandering seven years before he sold another. Bradbury continued to write clunkers in between his masterpieces. Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee wrote two of the most memorable novels of the 20th century and never wrote a second. I dare say it might be because they started thinking.

I know I’ve used phrases this week like “let loose” and “unleash your mind,” because when you start thinking too hard about what you’re writing, your creative mind or imagination starts to seize up. (My brain just slowed to a crawl just now because I started thinking whether it was your “creative mind” or “imagination” that seized up and then decided to use both.) That’s where Bradbury is going with his references to relaxation and not thinking. We need to pitch the self-editing software in our minds and get the words out. The time for tweaking the words comes after the flame has burned through and the work is done.

And so, to sum up:

  1. Show up every day.
  2. Have fun.
  3. Write what you love.
  4. Be silly sometimes.
  5. Don’t think.

Go ahead, take those ideas for a spin. After a while you’ll probably end up adjusting them to suit your style, or even developing your own rules that work better for you. That, my friend, is the whole point.