Jeff’s Pep Talk: Roleplaying Games – Alternative Means of Expression Part III

Jeff's Pep Talk2

Roleplaying Games – Alternative Means of Expression Part III

By Jeff Bowles

The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.

Earlier this year, I wrote two articles about finding new writing inspiration in what I called alternate means of creative expression. In the first article, I talked about creating new non-writing projects to jumpstart your inspiration, and in article two, I shared the perspective that sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself in the face of writing burnout is to—get this—quit for a while. If you’ve read the Pep Talk before, you know I’m a huge advocate for treating yourself well as a precursor to good creative output. I’ve seen too many very talented, very capable writers hit a wall in their work and tear themselves to pieces because they can no longer commit to a regular writing schedule. Being an author can be a pretty tough gig, and it does most people no good to pretend burnout doesn’t exist. Be kind to yourself. Recognize human creativity is not an inexhaustible resource, but rather, is more like a battery that occasionally needs a recharge.

This month I’ve got some new ideas how to go about said recharge, all centered on a little thing many adults have a hard time engaging in: play.

I like to play. In fact, you could say I’m an enthusiast. When I was a kid, sometimes the only refuge from school, bullies, and the pressures of modern family life was in fun and games. The thing about kids is nobody has told them yet it’s not okay to use their imaginations. You may not believe me on this, but a lot of people learn to ignore their creative impulses because they’re not “practical,” “serious,” or “valuable” enough for the adult world.

But you and I are storytellers, which means we know better. I say the day you stop playing is the day you lose contact with your own heart and soul. When I was getting too old for make-believe on the playground, I got into playing video games. Later, I got into playing music with my friends. In either case, I refused to sever contact with that part of myself that required the emotional release of a rollicking good time. And since we’re all storytellers here, odds are you may be a lot like me, in the sense that some part of you still feels the need to bring to life concepts, characters, and worlds that previously only existed in your head.

In my very personal experience, video games are a good way of nursing a bruised and battered creative drive, and if you’re so inclined, or if you simply haven’t played a good game in years, you might be surprised to learn modern gaming offers so much more quality and variety than players had access to in decades past. Only problem with video games is that although they’re interactive by nature, they’re often no different than watching a movie or a TV show, at least as far as these things go. In gaming, I don’t get to create the story, not really. Some other storyteller is graciously offering his or her talents, which in itself offers a fine respite, but it doesn’t always help me find my own inspiration.

So may I offer an alternative, one that might shock you in its sheer unabashed nerdiness. Back in the 1970s, people used to have to—wait for it—use their imaginations if they wanted to play. On a whim inspired by fantasy literature like The Lord of the Rings, a small group of very talented and enterprising nerds created something brand new from some very old storytelling traditions. (Nerds is not a pejorative, by the way. Not in the year 2019. These days, I’m a nerd, you’re a nerd, the old lady down the street is a nerd, and so is her pet poodle.) In 1974, a man called Gary Gygax published the very first version of Dungeons and Dragons, and the world of tabletop roleplaying was born. Now I know what you’re thinking.

“Dungeons and Dragons? Isn’t that only for people with bad acne, social issues, and a penchant for dwelling in their mothers’ basements well into their mid-40s?”

I’ll admit, the stereotypes tend to cling to D&D like a shirt of fine mithril clings to the back of a frightened halfling. But here’s the thing, tabletop roleplaying games engage an individual’s storytelling capacity in some pretty surprising and dynamic ways. For those not in the know, roleplaying games (RPGs) involve a shared storytelling experience between players and a game runner—in D&D parlance, a Dungeon Master. The game is all pretend and dice rolls, slowly and joyfully co-creating and co-experiencing an unfolding adventure completely unique to you and your group of friends. And let me tell you something else, here in 2019, there are so many variations, spin-offs, and reinventions of the basic RPG schema it’d make your head spin. There’s fantasy roleplaying, sci-fi roleplaying, horror roleplaying, romantic roleplaying, and even roleplaying based on Saturday morning cartoons. And I’ll tell you another thing, these kinds of games have experienced a huge resurgence in recent years.

I’ll make a confession at this point: my wife convinced me to write this article. I didn’t grow up playing D&D. Like many of you, when I was a kid and teenager I scoffed at it. Sure, I collected comic books, wrote speculative fiction stories, played video games, and enjoyed the heck out of entertainment properties like Star Wars and Star Trek, but for some reason, tabletop roleplaying was simply a bridge too far. My prejudices continued well into adulthood, but very recently my wonderful wife turned me on to a new way of experiencing RPGs.

Round about the time internet culture discovered people like to watch others game electronically, it also discovered the joys of watching a group of strangers play D&D. The most successful example of this is Critical Role, which you can watch on internet apps Twitch and YouTube. Critical Role is a weekly show populated by a group of eight Hollywood voice actors who just so happen to be best friends and hopelessly devoted D&D enthusiasts. These guys aren’t your prototypical basement trolls, either. They’re charming, attractive, talented, incredibly funny professionals who are as dedicated in their own ways to the craft of storytelling as you and me. They play D&D like no one else, personifying their characters with impressive skill and gusto to generate an incredibly engaging and entertaining storytelling experience that shouldn’t be tons of fun to watch but is. And they show you what’s possible when you engage your imagination in a completely improvised way.

Admit it, sometimes the act of writing is lonely. It’s just you, your word processor, and your dedication to the craft. Fun is not at all required, as much as we’d like it to be. So here’s my advice if you’re dead tired of laying down one paragraph after another, one concept after another, one character, theme, or narrative arc after another, and your mind is aching for a bit of a vacation: go out and play a little bit. Not everyone has access to a group of people who like roleplaying. This much is true. It’s also true a huge chunk of the adult population considers such things frivolous at best. But look, roleplaying can be a hell of a good time, and as modern pop psychology often reminds us, sometimes you’ve got to nurture your inner child before you can fully embrace what it means to be a grown up.

RPGs force players to think on the fly, to produce results from nothing but their own creativity and random dice throws. It’s extreme storytelling, if you think about it, and if you’ve tried everything else to combat that nasty spell of writer’s block, it may be just what the doctor ordered. There are plenty of online resources that can help you find local games in your area, but if you’re still not sure, maybe just start with a little passive viewing. Do yourself a favor and check out some internet shows like Critical Role. There are a lot of options out there. See if it doesn’t spark something within you, and if it does, maybe consider giving it a try yourself.

We live in such a take-no-prisoners world. Is it really too much to ask of yourself to slow down every once in a while and just have some good, clean, creative fun for the sake of, well, good, clean, creative fun?

Until next time, folks, keep those storytelling skills limber and toss a couple d20s. That’s roleplaying parlance, by the way. It’s your adventure. Tell it how you want it.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, is available on Amazon now!

GB Cover

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Poetry For Yourself

The Many Faces of Poetry 2

 

Poetry For Yourself

Poetry has an odd position in the hierarchy of creative media. It’s too personal and intense to be an instrument of mass exposure. How many famous poets are there? Five? Ten? Who comes to mind? Mary Oliver. Of course.

So why do you write poetry? Asking that question is like asking “Why do you fall in love?” You just do…because the love is in you, wanting to get out. It’s a way of falling in love with yourself. Having created something beautiful, you sit back and think…”Oh..did I do that? Where did it come from? Did I channel it from some ethereal spirit?” Sometimes the poems we write seem to belong to independent spirits. They are alien and strange.

face in space with stars

Ghost voices grow

like weaving spires in the corridor of the night.

Stalactites of moonlight,

they hum and fade

through the wake of other minds.

A sheet of star rain glinting light,

a mist of moon- heat lost from sight

these spectral hints emerge

from the night floor in the dark.

Silver waving plants recede forever

in a song of twinkling echoes.

Ghost voices, shadow worlds

arise and converse

while my sleep waits beyond the hills,

listening.

 

If I wrote that it would be evidence that I am certifiably nuts. It must be read carefully, like drinking a fabulous milkshake one mouthful at a time.  Poetry can be a vessel for deadly serious topics, or it can offer room for comedy.

Shit

There’s shit on my shoes;

cat shit, dog shit, I hope that’s all shit.

Every step I take I risk stepping in shit:

Is this not life? There’s nothing wrong with shit.

We need it, like we need bugs

to nourish with its noxious stink the most natural growth.

This poo is for you, it says, as I wipe it off my shoe

with futile hope of avoiding my hands, then washing

again and again. How often in a day do I inwardly exclaim,

“Shit!”?

More than I would admit.

My mind is full of bricks, pies and purges.

Cats, dogs, owls, horses, all shit. People shit,

the cosmos excretes Dark Matter on these very shoes

which I try so hard to keep clean. Many are obsessed

with the minuscule taint of e.coli. Why should I bother to say

“Relax, we are exposed to e.coli and far worse

every day. We are sturdy,

knocking off shits and bugs heroic, undaunted

by the invisible stools of imagination?”. Instead I spread this blessing:

“You must be crazy in whatever way you want.”

Not every disease is preventable, nor is every affliction brought on board

by the shit on our shoes. When you stroke the cat, the dog, the horse

your hands investigate bacteria, resist infection.

After all, shit is the most common thing in the world.

 

 

I’ll be honest. “Shit” is one of the best poems I’ve ever written.  I think. I always feel that way about my latest poem.  It’s got rhythm and it makes people laugh.  What’s better than that?

I know, I’m taking up a lot of space, and I think I’ve posed enough questions. No matter how personal a matter is poetry, its importance is immense. It is filled with our most private introspection. If others read it, so much the better. I didn’t write these things to live in the dark. Some day they may find an audience. Meanwhile, I offer them for the pleasure of a small number of readers who may enjoy them.


A Midwesterner by birth, Arthur Rosch migrated to the West Coast just in time to be a hippie but discovered that he was more connected to the Beatnik generation. He harkened back to an Old School world of jazz, poetry, painting and photography. In the Eighties he received Playboy Magazine’s Best Short Story Award for a comic view of a planet where there are six genders. The timing was not good.  His life was falling apart as he struggled with addiction and depression. He experienced the reality of the streets for more than a decade. Putting himself back together was the defining experience of his life. It wasn’t easy. It did, however, nurture his literary soul. He has a passion for astronomy, photography, history, psychology and the weird puzzle of human experience. He is currently a certified Seniors Peer Counselor in Sonoma County, California. Come visit his blogs and photo sites. www.artrosch.com and http://bit.ly/2uyxZbv


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Poetry And Word Play

The Many Faces of Poetry 2

 

May 29 2019

 

 

My poems are always stimulated by the first line. The line appears in my head. I know it’s a poem, so I write the rest of it, then and there. I make a few tweaks, and I’m finished. Poetry is not an elaborate process for me. It just happens. I would be interested to hear how other poets go about writing, how their experience may differ from mine.

I was reading through the book that I regard as my “Collected Works”. It consists of poems that I considered worthy of putting down on paper or computer. The earliest poem goes back to 1965 and is a verbal commentary on a passage of music by John Coltrane:

 

The beast of the cosmos staggers,

wounded by the weapon

of its own life.

 

You may find this piece to be incomprehensible. Yet there it is, surviving in my book for more than fifty years. A piece that I love for its vivid image of a wildly animate universe, suffering through the changes that nature brings, accepting that life and death are intertwined. Stars live and die, galaxies too, even whole universes must come and must go. Coltrane played a long screaming guttural tone, a note suffused with paradox, with agony and triumph, and it captured my imagination.  I kept returning to it, listening, and wondering, “Did I really hear that?”  I did.

Out of curiosity, and to locate more fuel for this essay, I just googled “Poetry +Word Play” and I got a poem by Marianne Moore, a much-honored poet who is often associated with T.S.Eliot and e.e.cummings. This poem says a lot, so take your time.

 

Poetry

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful; when they become so derivative as to become
unintelligible, the
same thing may be said for all of us—that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand. The bat,
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twinkling his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—case after case
could be cited did
one wish it; nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
the result is not poetry,
nor till the autocrats among us can be
“literalists of
the imagination”—above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, in defiance
of their opinion—
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness, and
that which is on the other hand,
genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

 

I regard this as a magnificent poem. The subject is Poetry, and the play with words is so subtle and precise that we barely perceive it in the flow of the piece. She gives us a recipe for what is required for a collection of words to be a poem. She closes with the final ingredient, “Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” She equates being a poet with being a magician. I can’t argue with that. I should put this poem on a T-shirt.

Here are two poems that play with words, poems that emerged from me as always, virtually without thought.

 

Wholes

2003

 

There is no part of you

that is not a whole.

There is no hole in you

that is not part of you,

whole and alive.

There is no whole without holes,

no healing without wounds

no making without

unmaking

that which is a whole,

to begin again,

be born, again, whole.

What crying is this,

in the hole, in the hurt,

yearning to be whole?

Leave yourself alone,

quiet, make everything work

for you, everything,

the base and the noble,

the useless and the crucial,

whole is what is, resting in the center

of the hole.

 

Jonah

 

The moment is the whale

that swallowed Jonah

deep inside the body

where the juices reside.

The whale swallowed the moment

deep inside Jonah

deep inside.

Jonah swallowed the whale’s moment

inside the deeps

the deeps inside

the deep’s inside.

 

Thank you once again for your attention. Let’s put this essay in the “hmmm” pile and move forward.

 

A Midwesterner by birth, Arthur Rosch migrated to the West Coast just in time to be a hippie but discovered that he was more connected to the Beatnik generation. He harkened back to an Old School world of jazz, poetry, painting and photography. In the Eighties he received Playboy Magazine’s Best Short Story Award for a comic view of a planet where there are six genders. The timing was not good.  His life was falling apart as he struggled with addiction and depression. He experienced the reality of the streets for more than a decade. Putting himself back together was the defining experience of his life. It wasn’t easy. It did, however, nurture his literary soul. He has a passion for astronomy, photography, history, psychology and the weird puzzle of human experience. He is currently a certified Seniors Peer Counselor in Sonoma County, California. Come visit his blogs and photo sites. www.artrosch.com and http://bit.ly/2uyxZbv


Want to be sure not to miss any of Art’s The Many Faces of Poetry segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


We Can’t All Be Prolific Writers

writer

Not all authors can be prolific, turning out one, two, or even three books a year. To be sure, there are prolific authors out there. If you’d like examples, think Stephen King, Dean Koontz, J.K. Rowling, or take a look at my interview with the most prolific writer I personally know, Kevin J. Anderson. The words just seem to flow onto their manuscript pages with the right words, settling in just the right order, to say exactly what the author intended to say, requiring minimal editing and revision, churning out quality stories in mind boggling volume.

I am not a prolific writer. This is an epiphiny which came to me only recently. I know it can be done, but it’s just not me. Realizing this actually explains a lot about me. Now I know why I never could complete a NaNoWriMo. While it is true that I did once write a 35,000 word novel in nine days, it wasn’t the quality writing that I am capable of. It was a draft that was nowhere close to publication. I have to struggle through the plotting, and work things out in my head with my characters until I get it just right.

With Delilah, the first book in my western frontier saga, I completed the first draft and put it through a first read and revised, and ended up rewriting at least a third of the book because I changed one scene that impacted and changed everything that had come after, but the book came out better for it after two years.

The problem is that I’m a perfectionist, so anything that is less than as perfect as I can make it be isn’t good enough to go out there with my name on it. I don’t want to pump out a huge volume of sub-par writing just to bring in the green. My readers deserve more than that, and I won’t settle for less than the quality writing and well crafted stories that I long to create.

Delilah2 homecoming thumbnail

With the second book in the saga, Delilah: The Homecoming, I didn’t even get the first draft completed before the first rewrite. Around 40,000 words into the first draft, Delilah told me that the story was all wrong. Somewhere along the line, my plot had taken a wrong turn, and the story wasn’t going in the intended direction. (Yes, I talk with my characters with the stories in this saga.) When I reread what I had, I realized the truth of it. I had no idea where to take the story from the point it was at.

I tend to be a seat-of-the-pants writer. I get an idea and I have to get it down, so I just start writing. With short fiction, that’s not a bad thing, but when it comes to novels it can be. I could see a couple of places where I thought the story should go in a different direction, but the enormity of the task weighed on me and there were spots where I couldn’t see around what was already written. I set it aside for a month while I pondered the possibilities until I realized what needed to be done.

I may not be prolific, but I am obsessive/compulsive about writing, always having two or more WIPs in different stages of completion. While writing Delilah, I was also working on my thesis novel, which has now become book one of my Playground of the Gods science fantasy series, The Great Primordial Battle, along with completing several short stories during that time. Currently, along with crafting the first draft of The Homecoming, I’m working on two anthologies, preparing The Great Primordial Battle for publication, and working through the snags I’ve hit with my memoir, Losing Michael. It’s no wonder my books take years to write. Yet, I have the satisfaction of knowing that when I’m finished, they will be well crafted stories.

The soil of my mind is fertile and can produce an abundant harvest of stories. The children of my creativity just require longer gestation and growth periods. Stories don’t just spew out of my brain, ready made. They must be honed and crafted until they become the works of quality writing that my readers have already come to expect. But another thing that I’ve realized, with as many projects as I have going, when they all are finally published, and they are all lined up across my author pages and my website, it will appear that I am prolific to anyone who doesn’t know better.

The point is, as authors, we’re all heading toward the same goals, quality crafted stories. The path we chose to get there, they way that we approach the writing process, isn’t nearly as important as the fact that we complete the job. And we can all do that. What kind of writer are you?


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Jeff’s Pep Talk: Who Influences the Influencers?

Jeff's Pep Talk2

Who Influences the Influencers?

By Jeff Bowles

The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.

Are you an influencer? You might want to think about it a moment before you answer. In our culture, to influence is to make a big splash, to inform what individuals and groups value, how they think and interact. I’m an influencer because I’ve got a Mom and Dad, a wife, a brother, friends. I’ve had a huge impact on them, and it goes without saying, they’ve impacted me. We all influence each other, right? We can’t help it. If I know you and you know me long enough, we’ll start to get under each other’s skin. Science even suggests we’ll start to look alike, as terrifying as that sounds.

Human beings are the influential type. We’re social creatures, and usually, when one of us has trouble, there’s a whole baying wolf pack of supporters and naysayers coming up behind. One of the things I dislike most about our modern storytelling ecosystem is the fact writers today tend to favor death, tragedy, betrayal, all the nasty things in life. Whereas love, respect, loyalty, they seem to get left in the dust. So you’re a writer. You like to tell stories and communicate complex ideas that might otherwise mystify people. You’re an agent of truth, an avatar of righteous disclosure, and you need a clear mind and a firmly rooted foundation.

Enter the influencers. They come in all shapes and sizes. They can be that grade school teacher who first read you your favorite book. Or the acclaimed author who, after forty years of alcoholism, workoholism, and abject failure, produced that one brilliant novel that sets your soul singing every time you read it. You can be your own influencer, too. Who is it that forces you to sit down at the computer and write? Is it your work ethic? Where’d you pick that up? I’m an all-or-nothing guy, much more comfortable working in bursts and spurts. Also more likely to face periods of intermittent burnout because of it. But even I get uncomfortable when I’ve allowed myself to rest on my laurels too long. Knock me down, I get back up (eventually). Who influenced me to perform this way?

It may sound sappy, but I don’t believe people come into our lives by accident. I learned to work hard from my family. They taught me to laugh as well, which means my stories are par-boiled and strange as hell. I didn’t know I had talent until people close to me told me in no uncertain terms. Even as an adult, there have been those moments a special person has come out of nowhere and made me feel suddenly and delightfully valuable. A little encouragement goes a long way, right? And thank god for that.

But let’s not forget the negative influencers in our lives. The people who tell us we can’t, shouldn’t, mustn’t, that we’d never. Sometimes, especially when we’re just starting out, our naysayers seem more numerous than our supporters. I was an indie singer/songwriter until I turned twenty-three and decided I was a writer. Just about everyone in my life, my family, friends, even my fiancé, were puzzled by the sudden turnaround.

“Don’t you still want to do music on the side?” they asked, oblivious to the fact I might interpret their concern as doubt in my abilities.

I wasn’t born to write, not really, and neither were you. We worked at it, honed our abilities to finely pointed instruments of literary destruction. Sure, people like us have a natural aptitude for this sort of thing. But for crying out loud, my first completed short story was such a godawful mess I haven’t had the strength to look at it in all the years since. No, my family wasn’t super supportive of my choice. I think they wanted to be, but perhaps they didn’t know how. To say they were unequivocally negative about my chances wouldn’t be fair, but I was their golden boy when I had a guitar in my hands, something substantially less than that when I started cranking out sub-par stories. Like you do. Because we all have to crawl before we can crawl just a tiny bit faster.

Here’s the thing. I’m grateful for their doubt. I recognize now that if not for a little healthy adversity, there’s no way I’d be the writer I am today. Do you feel the same? Who influenced you? Who told you you could or couldn’t? You may be surprised to realize you needed both groups in equal measure. We never really know how bad we want something until it’s denied us. Ask any hard-case of unrequited love out there, it’s always so much more romantic when the answer is a resounding “no.”

I’ve got a brief writing exercise for you, a small motivational tool to unearth where you’ve been and help you ponder where you’d like to go. Write down the top ten people who have influenced you on your writing journey. Could be anybody, teachers, authors, loved ones. Now for each one, assign a numerical value from one to ten. Your high school language arts teacher, what was her name? She gets a seven because she’s the first person to compliment your out-of-the-box ideas. Tally up the final score for all ten influencers and answer one very simple question: did you do this alone?

No! Of course you didn’t. There were people ushering your progress the whole time, laughing at you, cheering you, doubting you, praising you. There were ghosts of old writers in all the books you collected, urging you to follow in their footsteps, to find truth in their work, such that it could be found. The sheer joy of the struggle, the artistic and cerebral strains, buoyed by hearts buoying hearts, the ability to sit down and craft a narrative that takes everything you are, were, believe, love, hate, condense it into chalky baby formula, slap it in the food processor, and then ka-blam! Gourmet word smoothies (literally speaking, of course).

It’s no small thing to think about these people from time to time. For so many of us, real support doesn’t manifest until we’ve been working for years and years. Imagine you were raised to go into business. Mom, Dad, I want to be a writer instead. Professors, Dean, sorry I’m leaving your wonderful but boring academic program. I’ve got the bug, you see, and there really is only one cure.

The older I get, the clearer it seems to me our desires don’t come to us by chance. Plenty of people try their hands at penning their first novel and never make it further than a chapter or two. So take for granted the fact that if the urge to create is so strong in you you’ve never been able to lay it down, obviously, much gratitude and respect, you are MEANT (that’s all caps, MEANT) to keep working. Saying nothing about MEANT to be super rich or super successful, MEANT to win awards, MEANT to change the world. No, simply MEANT to write, which is no small MEANT at all, thank you very much.

Do yourself a favor today and give some gratitude to all your many influencers. Without their love, support, disinterest, and bad advice, you wouldn’t be able to influence others in kind. Oh no, you didn’t think you were getting out of it that easy, did you? Of course you’re the biggest influencer of all. We don’t live in bubbled slip-space isolation, present state of geopolitical affairs notwithstanding. You never know who’ll come knocking on your door. That special individual may become the most important author of the millennium. Then again, they might just be a friendly guy or gal who needs a friendly pep talk and a kind word or two.

Don’t make your job harder, and don’t make them feel they should abandon theirs. Writers who make a point of discouraging others give me indigestion. Probably for the best, in the long and short of things. I never really listened to their sort anyway. Until next time, folks. Dream large. After all, if you don’t, who will?


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars.

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!


Want to be sure not to miss any of Jeff’s Pep Talk segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress.


Jeff’s Pep Talk: The Big C(riticism)

Jeff's Pep Talk2

The Big C(riticism)

By Jeff Bowles

The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.

I don’t think there’s a soul on earth who likes criticism. There’s just something about it that can cut to the bone. Human beings have such fragile egos anyway, those pesky little conscious seats of individuality that get bruised and battered when others make us feel small, less talented, less competent, perhaps even less valid as people. Some more than others, right? I’ve had writers tell me they never feel offended, angry, upset, or in any way discouraged after a round criticism. I don’t think I believe them. I mean, not at all? Even just a little? Really?

And of course, if you’re checking out this blog, odds are you’ve seen your share of creative criticism. It’s essential to the process, right? Every writer can benefit from it, from the newest of newbs to the most seasoned authors. And a change in attitude often occurs once a writer actually gets neck deep in a viable career. At that point, criticism has become just another part of the job, kind of less of a hassle than, say, making deadlines you have no hope of making or enduring long, drawn-out revision cycles.

But there’s another dimension to writers that’s so common it’s a cliché. Many of us suffer from mental illness. I know I do, and lots of my associates and acquaintances are in the same boat. Most of the time their personal stories boil down to a bit of depression here and there, but look, there’s something about a creative profession that requires long periods of solitude that seems to attract folks who are maybe a bit less emotionally equipped than the rest of humanity. Plus, you know, the ubiquitous link between genius and madness. Some of the greatest writers in history should have been in the nut house. Some of them were.

Now there’s a big difference between getting your feelings hurt over some bad comments from a crit group and losing your mind completely. We subject ourselves to the honest (and often brutal) opinions of our colleagues because we understand in the end criticism will make us better. Especially when we’re just starting out. If we can find a few people who really get what we’re all about and who consistently offer good feedback, we’re wise to consider them valuable resources. The fact remains, writers pour ourselves into our work. In many ways, stories and novels, articles and memoirs, they’re like our children. Sometimes it’s hard not to take criticism personally. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong in admitting it.

So as a writer who’s had one or two creative outbursts himself (sorry about that black eye, prof), here’s a few tips to soothe the wounded beast. Number one, and going back to the crit group thing, it really does help to know a few people who are on the same page as you creatively. It’s old advice, but it is enormously beneficial. Also, try not to work with writers who aren’t quite as skilled as you are. Likewise, learn to recognize when you’ve gotten in with folks who have a lot more ability and experience. Writers who punch in above your pay grade aren’t going to be able to help as much as you might expect, and you may even struggle trying to understand and disseminate their feedback.

Next tip: always keep a few pots on the fire. Okay, this new story didn’t work out for me, but at least I have that other one that shows way more potential. Dive into this process head first, if you can. Conceive, draft, and revise in cycles. Nothing blunts criticism like a sense of forward momentum. Keep an idea notebook handy. Never miss an opportunity to dream up something new and play with it a little. We’re still growing here. Got lots and lots of stories to tell in the future. Stagnation sucks. It crushes the life out of creativity. Avoid it if at all possible.

Tip number three: make sure to honor your private life. I mean that. Some people throw themselves into their work at such high velocity their relationships and daily routines suffer. You’ve got friends, right? Hang out with them, have some fun. While we’re at it, don’t neglect your romantic life, either. Seems like kind of a toss-off to some people, but look, you’re human. Biology is a factor, and it’s just a basic fact that people tend to be happier when they consistently engage this part of their personality. Family, hobbies, even other, more practical career goals, these can all serve as a refuge when your creative mind is battered and tired. Conversely, writing itself can act as a pretty powerful refuge from things like, oh, family, hobbies, career goals, romantic life, friends…

Fourth tip: don’t worry about developing a thick skin. Focus more on developing a keen critical mind. Say someone tears your latest to shreds. You can either A) get emotional about it, B) decide this loser doesn’t know what the hell he or she is talking about, or C) penetrate the matter a little more deeply, choose which criticisms are valid, discard everything else, move on to the next thing. Your lizard brain is your lizard brain. It’s a given. But your analytical mind, that you’ve got to hone. So get clinical if you can. Easier said than done? For some it really is. You’re not a robot. At least I don’t think you are. I mean, you haven’t blinked in several minutes. I’m watching you…

Do the best you can to stay neutral during and after a round of feedback. Or if not neutral, at least receptive and pragmatic. This is a process. Repeat it to yourself if it helps. This is a process. This is a process. And don’t forget to ask plenty of questions. Stay engaged. Again, criticism affects people differently. I imagine some will read this blog post and think, “I don’t see what the big deal is. This Jeff Bowles guy must be a total train wreck.”

To which I might reply, “Stop staring at my mangled caboose!”

…Ahem, yes. Anyhoo, there’s no accounting for temperament. Look, it’s always seemed to me writers just aren’t honest when it comes to these things. And why should we be? Nobody likes a hot head. No one’s particularly desperate to work with a soppy, spongy mess. But there’s always the case to be made for blowing off steam when necessary. Never let it jeopardize your work, your reputation, or your sense of professionalism, but don’t bottle it up, either. If you find the situation becomes chronic, do a little soul searching. What’s really bothering you here? Why does criticism seem to affect you so much? Self-analysis, some say, is the path to divinity. Not that divinity has anything to do with the life of a writer.

Speaking of which, and if all else fails, there’s still good old-fashioned counseling and therapy. It might sound dopey and overwrought to even remind you of it, but sometimes in life, it helps to get serious about ourselves and consider our own triggers and shortcomings. No shame in it, and never let people tell you there is. Mental health is extremely important, much more important than the modern world ever seems to recognize. And even simple depression can become dangerous if left unchecked.

And now to spoil the mood completely, some depressed writer jokes!

“Well doc, I guess it all started when they said my steampunk riff on The Notebook was even lousier than my 50 Shades of Grey fan fic written from the whip’s perspective.”

“Really? And how did that make you feel?”

“Like we should have used a safe word.”

Why did the anxiety-riddled writer cross the road? Are you crazy? I’m not going outside. That road is clearly a death trap.

[end of joke digression]

Ready to tackle another round of critiques? Well, in a perfect world, I guess you would be. Do what you need to do to combat discouragement and self-defeatism. One of the healthiest attitudes we can adopt as professional writers is the macro, career-long perspective and an abysmal memory. If the fates allow, you’re in this for the long haul, so just remember this or that little hiccup will mean nothing in the end. It’s a basic fact that we learn more from failure than success. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and fail as hard as you can!

Pep talk concluded. Feel better now, don’t you?


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars.

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Video Games – Music – Entertainment – So Much More!


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The Making of a Memoir: Stage 1: Prewriting Tasks

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His Name Was Michael

I’m starting this bi-monthly blog series, The Making of a Memoir, which will chronicle my journey as I write my memoir of my teenage son’s suicide and my life without him, breaking down the memoir process into stages. I am sharing thios process for several reasons. One, Michael’s story deserves to be told. It needs to be told. Two, telling my own story may act as a catharthis and help me to resolve my own unresolved issues surrounding Mike’s death. Three, commiting to bi-monthly accountability to you, my readers and fellow authors, forces me to create and meet deadlines, assuring that I make adequate progress on the book. It is too easy to make excuses and avoid the emotionally difficult tasks if I’m accountable only to myself. And four, I believe there are those of you out there who are interested in the methodology behind creating memoir.

Before I can begin writing the my memoir telling the story of my son’s death and the story of my own journey to find closure and my need to be sure that he will always be remembered, I must know what it is that I want to say, and have some idea of how I want to present it. After Michael’s death, I went through his writings and artwork, I went through every picture of him over and over and over. I listened to his music. And I cried and cried, and I thought I would never stop. It never has. At least not completely, but I did gain control over it by putting all his things away, to be dealt with at a later time. I knew I needed to tell his story then, but I wasn’t ready. Not then.

I actually made several false starts at writing his story at different times, I wrote poetry, some of it semi-epic, but the emotional wounds were still fresh. I was angry and overcome by grief, and I wanted by son back. I wasn’t able to portray what I was feeling with the depth of emotions I was experiencing. I had to set it all aside and heal some before I could undertake this immense task.

In addition, I wasn’t a skilled enough writer to undertake it at that point. I’ve since earned my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, published three books, and have short fiction and poetry featured in several publications and anthologies. Does that make me an expert now? No. But it has taken me down that path, and certainly I know more about writing books and my writing skills are much improved. I believe that I’m ready now to undertake the writing of my son’s story and my own.

There is no doubt in my mind that this book will be the most difficult book I could ever attempt to write. It is difficult because there is so much emotional investment in this book for me. I’ve collected and saved a mass of materials which may or may not end up in this memoir, but it first must be sorted and compiled. This is a difficult task because of the emotions attached to every piece of material I’ve collected and with the memories associated with each one. Michael has been gone from my life for a decade, but the compilation of these materials still must be taken slowly, a little at a time.

On the other hand, emotional investment in the author lends authenticity to the story and that, according to some, leads to best seller material that people want to read. If you go by that thinking, the more difficult the book is to write, the better it will be. You can let me know if I’m right after you’ve read it.

I thought I had the title. His Name Was Michael: How I lost my son to teen suicide. The title, “His Name Was Michael”, is perfect, for it reflects the feelings I had as time passed and others went on with their lives. Sometimes, I felt that everyone had forgotten about him except my husband and I. A title that would make people remember is a must, and I think it does that. But the subtitle, “How I lost my son to teen suicide”, although clearly and concisely telling the reader what the story is about, it doesn’t roll off my tongue smoothly when I say it aloud. I came up with the idea of  replacing it with “No Happy Endings”, and although it states a truth about this story, the potential reader picking it up off the shelf or spotting it online, might pass it over because it sounds depressing and doesn’t really tell them what the book is about. At this point, I have to wonder if a subtitle is even necessary. Comments on Facebook reflect the idea that the title is strongest without any subtitle. So, I am rethinking the title and I’m open to suggestions or thoughts in the comments.

There is still much to do in addition to compiling material and deciding on a title, before I can begin the actual writing of the story, pre-writing tasks, if you will. There are still more materials to gather and research to be done. I know you may be wondering what there is to research. Don’t I know my own story? After all I lived it. But the fact is there is research to be done on every book. On this one, I need to know things like statistics on teen suicide, and I need resources for warning signs of suicide and other information on the subject. I may not use everything I dig up, but I will have it available if I decide that it has a place in this book. I believe it does but I haven’t worked out how I want to present it. There is so much that I want to say, but not all of it belongs. Finding my voice for this book will mean finding my true voice.

There are several people I need to interview, people who I haven’t seen since Michael died, people who have something valuable to contribute to his story. I must learn to control the emotional whirpool that surfaces when I anticipate these contacts, the memories connected, cause turmoil within me. But, I know his story must be told, and to tell it in the manner it deserves, and so, I must contain my emotions and silence the memories in order to what must be done. The very act of doing this very difficult task for the sake of his story will become a part of my own, for it is my story, as well.

There must be at least a vague outline, which is now begining to take shape in my head. I believe I know how I want to begin the story and the structure I need to use. The next step will be to get it down in print, so I have a clear direction in which I want the story to go which I can refer back to to ensure that I stay on track. Outlines are a valuable tool  in giving any story direction and making sure it doesn’t veer off into left field and lose the storyline and the way I’ve chosen to structure this particular story demands that guidance.

I’m starting this blog series, The Making of a Memoir, which will break down the memoir process into stages, for two reasons. One, Michael’s story deserves to be told. It needs to be told. Two, telling my own story may act as a catharthis and help me to resolve my own unresolved issues surrounding Mike’s death. And three, commiting to bi-monthly accountability to you, my readers and fellow authors, forces me to create and meet deadlines, assuring that I make adequate progress on the book. It is too easy to make excuses and avoid the emotionally difficult tasks if I’m accountable only to myself.

Since I hope to get this memoir published traditionally, I will also need a book proposal, a query letter and somewhere around the first three to five chapters for that. We’ll cover that in the April segment The Making of a Memoir: Stage 2: Selling the story. I do hope you will join me on my journey.

 

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