Sunday, September 29, 2019

Going Monthly

“You start by imitating others, there is lack of clarity, there are many reasons to fail. But there is a seed that slowly grows.” - Octavio Paz

When I was thirteen years old I went from drawing one page comics to making my own comic book. My stories were about the adventures of a martian named Green Cheese. I titled my comic Green Cheese Magazine. I drew a couple of one page stories and one longer story. One of the one pagers was a continuing story. I also wrote a fact page about space exploration. Finally, I added a contents page and a cover. The covers were simple affairs. I spent the least amount of time on those. I drew a rocket ship logo in the corner with the name of my imaginary comic book company, Galaxy Comics. I wrote the title and drew in a headshot and some spaceships. I did this all in pencil on notebook paper. Once I had enough for one issue, I put the pages in order and stapled them down the side. When I was done I got started on the next issue. I did this for one year and two months. I made fourteen issues. 

In hindsight I realize that I based the design of my comic book on the Scholastic magazines I was reading at the time. I have really fond memories of the Scholastic Book Club at school. I bought my first paperbacks through that book club. I also bought the Scholastic magazine, Dynamite, regularly. Each issue had a combination of articles, jokes, games, and comic strips. My favorite section was titled Superheroes Confidential which presented the origins of Marvel and DC superheroes in two pages of comics and a fact page. The covers featured characters from popular television shows. 

I still have every issue of Green Cheese Magazine. I went through them all recently and it brought back a lot of memories. The first thing I noticed was the huge influence television had on my storytelling. In the fifth issue I have a story titled “The Six Million Dollar Martian.” The sixth issue has a page of Martian ship designs all with Enterprise like nacelles from Star Trek. In the eighth issue I have a story titled “The Planet Eater” based on the Star Trek episode “The Doomsday Machine.” In another issue I have a story titled “The Space Station Z-1 Catastrophe” based on the first episode of Space: 1999.

My magazine went through some changes. My space exploration fact page became a joke page. That's right, from serious to silly. To me they were both important. I didn’t come up with my own jokes. I copied them from joke books and comic strips. I always added a credit though! When I tired of that I switched to a comic strip page. I cut out my favorite strips from the newspaper and taped or glued them on a page. I was looking for ways to keep the page count up and to make sure I got an issue completed every month. 

I’ve often looked back at this time in my life fondly. But in flipping through all fourteen issues recently something struck me, something that I hadn’t remembered before. Progression. As I put out out more and more issues I tried new things. I included a fold out poster in one issue. Another issue was a special all-color issue written in drawn in colored pencils. The biggest progression was in my art. I tried drawing new angles. I started added more details to panels. In one of the last stories I tried to put in as much detail in every single panel, including a full page battle scene. Nobody was pushing me to do this. I did it on my own.
I have yet to match this kind of creative output. Obviously I had a lot more free time as a kid but I had also had a stronger desire to create regularly. The closest I’ve come is this blog. I’ve been posting now for nine months. As I write this I realize that having some kind of schedule, some kind of deadline, even if it’s self-imposed, really goes a long way in getting creative things done.  Next: The Tiger Notebook

Thursday, August 29, 2019

From Playing to Creating

“Imagine it, create it.” - Toni Morrison

When I was about ten years old, I decided to draw a comic. Up to that point I had spent my free time watching TV, reading comic books, and building model kits. I had tried my hand at making a comic book once before, two issues of my own Star Trek comic book. This time was different. It was my own creation and I wasn’t tracing panels from other comic books. Where did this come from? It started with playing outside.

Playing at the neighborhood pool one day, my friend and I pretended that we were defending Earth from an invasion from Mars. We sat on the ground and threw our beach blankets over our heads. Instant jet fighter cockpit. Then we took off and blasted flying saucers out of the sky. We were good, but not good enough. The Martian leader got away to fight another day. 

I named the Martian leader Green Cheese. That’s right, Green Cheese. As in “the moon is made of geen cheese.” But he’s from Mars. Kid logic.

Instead of fighting the Martians again ourselves, we started acting out their adventures with toys. We built airplanes, flying saucers, and a base to be destroyed. When the carnage was complete we rebuilt everything and started over. This was my first exposure to what would become one of my favorite childhood toys, Lego. 

To add to the fun I took some pieces from a board game and used them as the Martians. They fit perfectly in little spaces I made in the ships. 
Pretty soon the storyline changed. After a few attacks we modified things. The Martians were no longer the bad guys. They became good guys exploring strange new worlds.

While that was fun, it came to a point where I wanted to do more. I now had the desire to draw comics about Green Cheese the Martian. I found everything I needed from my school supplies. I grabbed pencils, loose leaf notebook paper, and a ruler. I drew eight panels on a page then filled them in with a title, art, and word balloons. One page, one story. It was some crude, poorly drawn, silly stuff. But it was so much fun. As soon as I finished one, I got busy on the next one. I started experimenting with panel sizes. One page stories turned into longer stories, each page ending with a cliffhanger. 

No doubts, no hesitation. Just the drive to create. That’s something I’m trying to recapture these days. 

Next: Going monthly! 

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Consuming vs. Creating

A good friend of mine recently told me that he was thinking about how he should stop ingesting material and start writing. Consuming vs. creating is something I’ve been fighting with all my life. There’s always something else to read or watch. 

It you really want to create, there comes a time when you need to stop consuming and start creating. But then the doubts start. Do I have enough experience? Will it be good enough? Should I read/watch/study a little longer before I try to create something? 

I’ve learned that you need to just start. You have to have the confidence that you have enough experience, that you have consumed enough for now, and that you have something to say. But it takes takes effort and concentration. It’s much easier to sit back and consume, especially when everyday responsibilities take up so much of our time and energy. 

For the longest time I convinced myself that I would eventually get around to creating. The idea that I would just consume a little more now, and create later was comforting. Then things changed. It’s different for everyone. For me it was getting older and my father falling ill. He recovered but it made me reflect on life like I had never before. Then just as I got started, just as I was getting into a rhythm, the death of my father stopped me in my tracks. It was pretty hard getting started again. Life hits hard. 

Consuming good material is awesome and it serves a purpose. You turn the last page or watch the end credits scroll up, and you think, wow, that was amazing. I get a different feeling finishing my own work. It feels even better. But then the doubt comes back into play. That’s the next thing to overcome. Comparing. Understanding that it can’t compare to what influenced you, and that it’s okay if it’s not as good. The important thing is to finish it. Whatever it is, a story, a comic book, a zine, or a blog post. Finish it. 

Then start the next one.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Education of a Wandering Man

“We are, finally, all wanderers in search of knowledge. Most of us hold the dream of becoming something better than we are, something larger, richer, in some way more important to the world and ourselves. Too often, the way taken is the wrong way, with too much emphasis on what we want to have, rather than what we wish to become.” - Louis L’Amour 

I grew up watching a lot of westerns on television. As a child in Germany, my family and I would watch back-to-back episodes of Bonanza. After watching an episode in English, we would switch the channel and watch another episode in German.  

I watched plenty of other western shows as well. Gunsmoke, The Iron Horse, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Wanted: Dead or Alive. The Wild, Wild, West was a particular favorite. After moving to America, I watched The Big Valley, The Lone Ranger, Maverick, and Wagon Train. 

When I got into reading I started with science fiction. It wasn’t until I was much older that I started branching out into other genres. Mostly mysteries and historical fiction. John MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Robert Parker’s Spenser, and Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe. 

A couple of years ago I was browsing in a Barnes and Noble and found the western section. Most of the shelf space was taken up with Louis L’Amour books. I had heard of him but had never read anything of his. Among the many novels were a series short story collections. I was surprised to see adventure and crime stories included among frontier stories. This was around the time that I had just rediscovered my love of short stories. I picked up the first volume of the frontier stories, read a few stories, and really enjoyed them. 

Recently I learned that Louis L’Amour had written a book titled Education of a Wandering Man, about his experiences traveling, reading, and writing. It sounded quite interesting so I grabbed it. It turned out to be one of those books that one thinks about when you’re not reading it, one of those books that you can’t wait to get back to. 

The book is part memoir, part reading list, and part writing advice. Louis L’Amour writes about leaving school at the age of fifteen and traveling around the western U.S and the Far East during what he calls his knockabout years.  He describes his experiences as a hobo, a ranch hand, a mine guard, a seaman, and a few other occupations. 

The one constant is his search for knowledge and books. It’s amazing how much he read and how interested he was in other cultures. It does jump around a bit. He’ll drop a topic suddenly and start writing about something else. He repeats himself sometimes. He mentions more than once that it’s basically a first draft. It does read that way sometimes. It’s a shame that he passed away before he could revise and add to it, but it still makes for fascinating reading. 

In the last chapter he talks about the efforts that have been made to preserve our record on earth and our need to leave an account of our presence. He also explains that in some parts of Asia, where there are frequent rockslides and cave-ins, one may not be certain if the way will be clear. When people in those regions meet in passing they often greet each other with, “May there be a road!” 

That really spoke to me. I mean, that’s life, right? You never know what kind of obstacles may be in your path, or even if the path you are following will lead somewhere. It seems only natural that people would want to wish each other good luck on their journeys.

I found that last chapter extremely motivating. I’ve gone back and read it a number of times now. 

The appendix includes lists of the books he read from 1930 to 1935, and 1937. It’s an impressive list.

His sincere enthusiasm for books, for learning, for other cultures, and for life in general grabbed me for the start and would not let go.

May there be a road! 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

My Father and Reading

In the past, when I would think about my father, I would usually think how different we were. Now that he’s passed away I’ve been thinking about our similarities. I’m pretty sure that I got my love of reading from him. 

Up until the day he died, my father always had books around the house. He was always reading something. I have lots of books around my place now and I’m always reading something. 

When I first started reading books I started with short stories. I’m pretty sure that I checked out every collection of science fiction short stories from my high school library. 

One day my father took a look at one of the collections I was reading and recognized the authors. My father read a lot of science fiction when he was younger. He pointed out one author and told me to be sure to read that one, that I was sure to like it. This was during a phase when I was disagreeing with my father a lot so I saved the story for last. When I got to the story I was hesitant to read it. But I did. And I loved it. It was the best story in the book. 

Next: Education of a Wandering Man

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Six Months In: Putting What I've Learned Into Practice

“You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.” - Stephen King
I started this blog six months ago to give myself a reason to write regularly. My goal was to post at least twice a month. So far so good.
A number of things have helped me to get me to this point, but there are three things that stand out. The first was easy. Reading books on writing and reading interviews with authors.

As I’m reading books on writing, I’m highlighted pages and taking notes in a notebook. I’m using a Rhodia Goalbook for this. It has 224 numbered dot-grid pages and a 6-page table of contents. I’m up to page 56. I have notes on Ray Bradbury, Ken Rand, Algis Budrys, Stephen King, and Neil Gaiman. I call it my Writing Study Journal. Pretentious, I know. But it’s got me studying.
The second was the most challenging. It’s also had the most impact. I changed some habits.
At the end of last year I decided that I wanted to write and I wanted to write regularly. I didn’t think writing on the weekends would be enough. I am not a morning person and I’ve always tended to stay up late. I realized that if I was going to the find the time to write, I was going to need to make some changes. I decided to start getting to sleep earlier and to start getting up earlier. This has allowed me to get some writing in before work. I still stay up too late sometimes and I don’t always get up as early as I want, but overall I’ve managed to squeeze in extra time. The amount of time varies, but it all counts, it all adds up.  
Trying Things Out
Third was picking and choosing what advice to try from all the advice I had come across. I realize now that the things that I figured out fall into four categories: Writing tools, time and location, system, and mindset.
Writing Tools
I do most of my writing on a small laptop using Google Docs. When I don’t have my laptop with me I use my phone. I also use the Evernote app for writing down ideas. When I don’t have my devices with me or it’s too much trouble to take them out, I go old school. I carry a passport sized notebook and pen with me. You know, sometimes I just want that feeling of a pen writing on paper.
Time and Location
One piece of advice I kept coming across was to establish a particular time and place to write and to keep to a regular schedule. I found this pretty challenging as my schedule changes a lot, from the days I work to the hours I work. Then I read that Frederik Phol carried a laptop with him so he could write on the go. Aha! I bought a very small laptop. Most of the writing I’ve done in the last six months has been on the go. Coffee shops, craft beer bars, and trains.
Of all the advice I came across, there were two more “Aha!” moments. I read that when Ray Bradbury was writing he would sometimes think of more than one way to word something. Instead of stopping and trying to figure out which version to use, he would just write the two or three versions down and keep moving forward. Then he would go back and figure out which version to keep later. I found that so helpful. The second, and most impactful piece of advice came from Ken Rand who said “Some is better than none.” I can’t always find the time I want, but even just ten minutes is worth it. Some is better than none. This has become my mantra.
In the past when I wrote, I tried to do everything at once. That just lead to stress and not finishing anything. Author Jeff Goins breaks writing down into three separate activities: collecting ideas, writing drafts, and editing drafts. Discovering that writing can be broken down into three distinct categories was pretty darn eye opening. It also fit in with the things that I had decided to try out. It helped me focus.
In Conclusion
Years ago I had the idea of bringing a notebook to my local hangout and writing. I really liked the idea and thought about it a lot. But I never went beyond the thinking stage.
Now I write.
Next: Memories of my father.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

One Last Story

Laying in my deathbed I couldn’t stop thinking about the person that I had once loved the most in this world, and I was angry. I hadn’t thought about her in years. Now memories of her drifted through me like ghosts. I tried to laugh but it came out as a cough. I’m not quite dead yet but I’m in hell.
  I was young and foolish. She was younger and even more foolish. I was the older one and knew better, but I just couldn’t let go. I made excuses.
    An old memory rose to the surface. We had just finished having lunch in a restaurant. She was looking at her phone and I was sketching a figure and making notes.
   She looked over and asked, “Who’s that?”
   I looked up at her. Then I looked at the drawing and notes in my sketchbook.
   “Not sure,” I replied. “I guess that’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
   In the end she was the stronger one and broke it off. It was for the best. I still have the scars to prove it.
    I reached for my glasses, put them on, and looked around my room. A cluttered desk. A television surrounded by shelves of books. A nightstand covered in pens, books, and medicine bottles. Lots of medicine bottles. A remote was perched precariously on a stack of books.
    I grabbed a random book and started reading. I didn’t get far. After a few pages the words stopped registering. I put the book back on the nightstand with a sigh.
    I reached carefully for the remote and turned on the television. I flipped channels until I found something familiar. I lasted longer this time but once again I found myself unable to concentrate. I turned off the television in frustration.
   I coughed again. After taking some medicine I took off my glasses and closed my eyes. Getting this old isn’t fun. I don’t recommend it. I managed to drift off to sleep.
   Suddenly the sun was in my eyes. I blinked and looked around. I was in a park on a bright sunny day. People were walking, people were sitting on the grass, and children were playing. I saw her in the distance. She smiled and waved. Then she turned away and chased after two little boys.
   A bird landed on my shoulder. Its dark little eye was so close. It was like swimming in black ink. It moved its head up and down and I realized it had something in its beak. It looked familiar but I couldn’t make out what it was. I held my hand under its beak. It dropped the object into my hand and I grasped it. It felt familiar. When I opened my hand I could see it. A fountain pen. Suddenly the bird flew away. I closed my eyes at the flutter of its wings.
    When I opened my eyes I was back in my bed. Happy memories rose to the surface pushing down the bitter ones. I put my glasses back on and scanned the books on the nightstand. I knocked one of the stacks out of the way and books tumbled onto the floor. I grabbed a leather hardcover with gold leaf decoration and raised bands on the spine. After fumbling with the metal clasp I managed to open the book. Inside the back cover was an inner pocket. From it I pulled out a sheet of paper and unfolded it. On the paper were notes for an unfinished story. I turned to the front of the book. The pages were blank. I knew I didn’t have much time left. I took a pen from the nightstand and started writing.

No idea if it's any good but enjoyed working on this. It started out as an exercise with a few steps. The first step was to answer a question. The next step was to take the answer and write the opening to a story in thirty seconds. I failed miserably. I was still working on the first two sentences after thirty seconds. I finally came up with something but it took a few minutes. Then the next step was to take the opening, set a timer, and finish a story in thirty minutes. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it but I gave it a shot. I was typing the last sentence just as the timer hit thirty minutes. I did a lot of revising to get to the final version here.

Things I Learned:
I learned that I can write the first draft of short story in thirty minutes! Although it’s short something like this can become the start or the end of something longer. Once I set the timer and started writing the world around me dropped away and I wasn’t over-thinking things. I was just writing. Felt good!

Next: Looking back at the last six months.

Going Monthly

“You start by imitating others, there is lack of clarity, there are many reasons to fail. But there is a seed that slowly grows.” - Octavio...