Chaos or Routine

The following is a work of fiction.  I began thinking about my own battle between chaos and routine and the following tale just poured out.  I’m always working to improve my writing skills, so when I have this inspiration I truly enjoy getting the words out of my brain and molded into a definitive structure.  I know this is not perfect and having just read the How to Embrace Imperfection as a Writer by Blake Powell on The Write Practice, I was prompted to wrap this up and post it rather than sit on it for several more days pondering how it could get better.  I am always looking for feedback and constructive criticism so I can continue to improve and grow as a writer.  Feel free to tell it like it is in the comments.

I’m not sure how it seeped through the crevices I had worked so hard to seal.  I’ve always run a tight ship and even converted my wife to this way of life early in our marriage.  But one day, probably longer ago than we first recognized its presence, it just arrived, settled in and never left.  At the time I was certain it was one of the worst things we could face as a family and would likely be our downfall.

We are a family of fourteen living with chaos.

I’ve always been routine since the first day Mom told me to clean up my room.  With every one of my Legos, Matchbox cars and Corgis spread out all over the floor leaving only enough room for a boy of four or five to tip toe through without screaming in pain, Mom finally had enough and politely instructed me to find a good place for my toys or I could start folding and any putting away my own laundry.

With all of the toys spread in several toy universes on the tight, almost industrial carpet which made playing cars and building Legos easier than on shag, most of the cabinets and shelves in my room were bare at the time.  I had saved all of my Lego boxes and simply tossed at the bottom of my closet.  With bare shelves and boxes galore at my disposal this was the moment my life had been righted toward the path of routine.  With zest, I began the process of deconstructing each Lego model and carefully placing each set back in the original boxes.  When complete the cars had been neatly lined on the upper shelves as if parked in a dealership and the Lego boxes lined the lower shelves looking more like the Lego aisle of a Toys R Us than a kid’s room.

Since this time I wouldn’t say I have been set in my ways, but slower to adjust to change.  When my wife and I first met, she assumed my behaviors related to OCD.  As we fell in love and got to truly know each other she realized that had been an extreme diagnosis.  I needed structure to be happy and keep down the stress.  It was as simple as that.  I tried to get her to see the virtues of a structured life but it was not for her.  She is a free spirit who acts on pure instincts from impulse, emotion, and gut feelings.  I act on thought and logic.  We are a pair.  The perfect pair.

Twin girls came first, so for a couple of kids in their mid twenties who now suddenly had two kids, the only way to handle this and keep our sanity was to establish an effective routine.  My wife was difficult to bring over to my way of dealing with this situation, and the babies did not take to the routine I tried to establish.  Chaos is inherently part of life with a baby and more than doubles when you have twins.  After setting out guidelines for who would get up for feedings and comfort each night my wife soon realized that the structure helped us both get a little extra sleep and retain most of our sanity.  It took time, but she slowly began to see the light.

One the years, more bothers and sisters were added to the crew.  As the kids grew they mostly eased into the routine we had established.  A couple were a bit rebellious at times, but they soon saw the ways of routine over chaos because the end result was more fun times as a family.

Learning and exploring the world around us added challenges to our structured life.  With all of the dance try-outs, auditions, piano lessons, play dates and other activities maintaining a routine was a must.

The sports didn’t really start until our third child was five.  At that time tee ball was about the only activity for a boy that young, but by the time our sixth child was old enough for sports, there were quite a few more options.  Our eleventh and twelfth kids have pretty much an unlimited spectrum of sports to choose and s I remember it they both tried them all.

You can only imagine the smells of five or six teens coming home from practice and games nearly every day, but I lived it.  Eventually it occurred to me I that I could turn the mostly unused basement into a locker room.  The old house we lived in had a pair of those slanted basement access doors leading from the backyard directly to the basement.  We added some tile, threw a number of metal lockers, added a couple of sinks and cordoned off three rooms for two showers and a toilet.  Additional ventilation was added after the smells, which we thought were being contained in the basement started slowly seeping upstairs and through the large, mostly unsealed original air ducts.  The final addition was a laundry room and large closet for towels.  At one point I considered hiring a laundry service, but by now I knew we our new sports routine had nearly been solidified and this should be the last tweak.

Molly, child number five and Tommy, child number eight, were the the only ones who showed no interest in sports.  Of course not all of the other ten were superstars but they each enjoyed the competition and exercise, at least that is how it appeared to their mom and me.  Tommy kept mostly to himself and a small gang of friends pursuing more imaginative and intellectual pursuits.  Molly pursued the arts.  Pretty much all of them.  We turned part of the attic into a studio for her to paint, sculpt, write and compose.

Over the years our nemesis chaos kept seeping in, but with the help of the entire family we adapted our routine to keep it at bay.  If I do say so myself, I think we did a pretty good job.

The kids are grown and gone, mostly.  My wife and I have retired, but couldn’t bear leaving the house that had so many wonderful memories.  The locker room is clean and quiet, the studio is more of an art museum, and we keep mostly to the family room and kitchen.  We are happy relaxing and enjoying life in retirement.

The Chaos I knew retired along with me, sending his own kids on to live and challenge ours.  He still comes by for visits every now and again, mostly when the kids or grand kids come calling.  Like my wife and I, he feels younger and gets more active when our our gang of twelve children, ten spouses, two girlfriends, and twenty-nine grandkids all get together.  Each family bringing their own child of Chaos along.

It took sixty-five years, but I finally figured out that Chaos wasn’t my nemesis.  Chaos was my challenger, my competitor, my foe.  My sport had been working to beat Chaos at every turn.  He was a respected opponent, and I am a better person for having known him.

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Writing Away the Stress

We’ve all been there.  We all have to deal with stress in our lives.  More often than not I feel at least a bit stressed although usually it’s just the normal everyday kind that ebbs and flows with my mood.  Sometimes I’m not sure if it’s stress or simply worry, but categorizing these feelings doesn’t typically help make anymore sense of them.

I’ve heard tales about people who are never stressed and I cannot wrap my brain around that concept.  Everyone has stress triggers in their lives: work, money, kids, relationships, and the list goes on.  They may cause us pain at the time but much of this stress makes us better.  It pushes us to grow.  It helps us learn.  Understanding how we deal with the stress aids us in bettering ourselves by providing the tools to reduce that all encompassing shut-down the factory stress so many of us have experienced too often.

My biggest stressors come through as nagging worries repeated over and over in my mind.  Did I do the right thing?  Will I meet my deadline?  Can I afford it?  Usually the worries pass relatively quickly either because there is something else to worry about or because my rational voice squashes the worry with reason and logic.  Anything I worry about causes me stress and when the stress reaches a certain level I don’t want to do anything except worry.  Being paralyzed by stress is not helpful.

Shutting down, worrying and waiting for the stress to pass used to be my primary approach because doing anything remotely enjoyable in the midst of a bout of extreme stress only added more stress and worry.  Upon reaching this stage I knew I needed to learn new more effective ways to deal with the stress or it would fester and become debilitating.

Stress Relief through Writing

Lately I have turned to writing when overwrought by stress.  It is something I have wanted to do for a while and provides an outlet for my creative side.  Writing allows me to escape from my worries through a form of physical expression that must occur outside of my own internal voice.  I implemented three effective writing techniques to help me alleviate the stress.

Journaling

Writing down my thoughts and feelings in a journal places the emotions enabling my stress into perspective.  By expressing myself in a journal I can add a rational viewpoint to the stress encouraging voices in my head that constantly work against me through a circle of worry-doubt-panic-frustration thoughts.  Approaching the cause of the stress from a common sense perspective helps me to set aside the emotions which fuel the stress and allows me assess the situation with from a pragmatic point of view.

Blogging

Generally my blog posts do not directly address the causes, symptoms or the effects of my stress.  Even this post discussing stress lacks specifics of the work stress I am currently experiencing.  Blogging provides a creative outlet to get my mind off specific issues by approaching them from a wider angle.  My logical thinking rushes to the forefront as I craft my supposition and support.  For example, looking at stress in general, without focusing on any one specific stressor, has helped me compare the various ways I see myself and others handle stress effectively and ineffectively so I can determine current or new approaches that may work for me.

Creative Writing

Working on short stories, novels or any other creative writing helps me to escape from stress into a world of my own creation.  Letting go of reality when stress is at its worst can be more difficult, yet at the same time the effects can be so rewarding.  The options available with this avenue are truly unlimited.  I’ve imagined a character going through the same situation or something even worse and we’ve worked through the issues as a team.  I’ve jumped forward to work on the happy ending where everything works out for the best and happiness prevails.  Determining what will work in each situation has to feel right to you.  I try not to force myself to actively deal with the stress creatively if my brain tells me it would be better to disappear into a world where nothing is wrong.

Moving from shutting out the world to taking deliberate action has been a challenge that is helping me approach stress with a rational and realistic mindset.  Directing my emotions into writing refocuses the voice in my head away from negative thoughts to positive and productive ideas.  Journaling, blogging and creative writing have all helped me take control of these situation.  Engaging in something I enjoy during these times of trouble has been a successful first step to taking back control.

Writing is not my full-time job, so for now writing has not a source of stress for me.  For those of you who write either full or part time, can writing help you or do you engage other outlets you rely on to combat stress in your life?

Recommitting For Success

I started this blog over a year ago, primarily to give myself a place to express thoughts and ideas, practice my writing in relatively safe yet public environment, and simply as a way to be creative.  It’s been more than 10 months since my last post because creativity is hard.

Nearly 25 years after I graduated from film school I have done very little creatively.  I explored other career options that seemed safer and surprisingly more interesting at the time and I didn’t have a need to be creative.  I witnessed the struggles my friends and classmates worked through to eek out a living in the highly competitive entertainment industry while I jumped ship for a stable eight to five job that has since turned into my career.  I have been happy with the choices I have made although I still get the urge to jump back into film when I see my friends’ and classmates’ successes as the credits roll on major films and television programs.

Over the past two years the urge to incorporate  more creativity into my daily life has blossomed.  At the end of 2014 I finally put forth my first significant effort to re-enlist in a creative endeavor.  A little over seven years ago, I first discovered NaNoWriMo after reading an article by Jason Snell, the editor of MacWorld at the time.  Up until this point I had never done much writing, but I would periodically recorded ideas in various documents scattered throughout my computer.  I think deep down I always held some desire to be a writer, yet I had never acted on it.  For five years either the creative urge wasn’t strong enough or I had not fully developed a clear notion that I could actually accomplish what NaNoWriMo asked of its participants.  Finally, in October 2014 I made a personal pledge that beginning November 1st I would participate and finish NaNoWriMo by month’s end.  I “won”, along with thousands of other successful writers, by generating over 50,000 words for my own novel, but what I had was no novel, it was an incomplete mess.

Finishing NaNoWriMo motivated me to keep up my writing.  I made big plans to complete and edit my novel.  I dove deep into many, probably too many, writing blogs and several books to hone my writing skills.  I even created this blog to stimulate my creative juices in yet another outlet.  I left plenty of time for reading and learning, but almost no time for doing any actual writing.  This was my ultimate downfall over the past year and the first thing to suffer was my newly created blog.  I continued to jot down blog ideas, story ideas, and any other idea no matter how crazy in my Scrivener Idea Projects document.  What I didn’t do is execute.  Without execution, there was no way I would successfully achieve any of my writing goals I had carefully laid out (I even writing a blog post about them).

I did learn quite a bit about myself over the past year in the process, so even with my lack of producing any finished projects at least I have something to show.  Three of these lessons jumped out as being the most important to my future development as a writer.

First and ultimately the most important, I need to find time to write.  Actual writing.  Squeezing in a few minutes here are there.  Complete writing.  Working through the hard parts.  Finished writing.  Reaching the end where I would feel comfortable sharing the work with others.  I am a pro at starting projects.  Getting down the parts I am excited about is easy.  Seeing them through, developing complete stories and characters, resolving problems and getting to “The End” is where I falter.

Second, I am a plotter even though I think of myself as a pantser.  I made it to 50,000 words on my first two attempts at NaNoWriMo but as the deadline approached I found myself cramming in words by jumping around the plot to wherever the words would flow.  I failed to generate any cohesive plot line or character development using this method, so I am not sure if there is anything salvageable or if it may be better to start over with a fresh, concise and well developed outline.

Third, if I am going to be successful I need to commit.  Commit to writing each and every day.  Commit to completing.  Commit to deadlines and holding myself accountable.  Commit to sharing and getting feedback.  I’d give myself an “F” for each and every one of these today, but I’m throwing out the report card and starting fresh.  Beating myself up won’t help my commitment but, at the same time, continuing to give myself too many free passes will have the same effect.

I could probably lump all three of these lessons together as a need for structure.  I am a creature of habit, at times driving my wife crazy.  This is why I should have known all along the I am a plotter.  I’ve incorporated other demands on my personal and professional life by incorporating those responsibilities into the structure that is my life.  It only goes that I can do the same for writing.

I have re-committed to this blog to reinforce all I have learned about writing and enhance my own creative process over the past year.  I have amassed a long list of blog topics including expanding on all of the things I learned this year in a addition to the top three I have already mentioned.  Time to commit.  Time to execute.  Time to succeed.

The difficult things we accomplish in life are always the most valued.  Creativity is hard, but it’s worth it.

Postivity for Character Development

I have followed the tried and true character development methods including writing out a detailed character description, interviewing my characters and, most important of all, determining what kind of ice cream each of my characters crave. After all of this work I sometimes still look at my characters on the page and see flat, lifeless, uninteresting people who merely do what I tell them rather than the other way around. I want my characters to drive my story, taking me to places I have not thought of even if it ends up turning my plot completely upside down.

I have just finished reading a business book that has just the recipe to help bring my characters to life. If you’ve read any business books, most are about understanding behavior or changing behavior to generate improved group, team or company results. This book is no different in that respect. What the book does offer, that made my mind go straight to character development, is an interesting twist that the same ideas can be used on personal relationships.

Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential AND HOW YOU CAN ACHIEVE YOURS by Shirzad Chamine has a formula, once I turn it in on itself, to generate evil, sweet, struggling, depressed, and over-achieving characters we all love and love to hate.

home-book

The main premise of Positive Intelligence explains that we all have Saboteurs in our brains that were originally responsible for keeping us safe and helping us survive. As we grow and mature the Saboteurs want to keep control, not letting the Sage in our mind come forward. This book shows when the Saboteurs are influencing our thoughts which helps diminish their power and let our Sage come forward.

For most, our primary Saboteur is the Judge. The book describes in detail nine other Saboteurs that exert influence over us in different situations. Our individual personalities help determine which ones are more powerful in each of us. I know several people who definitely have strong Controllers and others who are strong Sticklers. For me, my Pleaser and Hyper-Vigilant Saboteurs are quite influential.

As I neared the end of the novel I began thinking about how these ideas could be used to help me develop the characters in my novel. Then it clicked. The strength of the Saboteurs may be the key to fleshing out each of my characters. I reviewed my character development pages that still felt unrealistic and two dimensional, and I began assigning Saboteurs to each of the characters.

My main character is definitely a Controller and Avoider which got him into his current situation. The antagonist was more difficult to pin down which is probably why she seems so flat, but now see her has a Hyper-Achiever with tendencies toward the Victim and the Pleaser. As a rewrite many of her scenes it will be interesting to see if anything else comes through as a dominant Saboteur. I’m committed to working through this with each of my major characters by asking myself which saboteurs resonate in each character?

Saboteurs
1. Judge
2. Controller
3. Stickler
4. Avoider
5. Hyper-Achiever
6. Pleaser
7. Victim
8. Restless
9. Hyper-Vigilant
10. Hyper-Rational

Next, I took the idea of the main character developing his Sage powers to more realistically show his evolution throughout the book. The interesting thing about developing Sage powers is that we all will fall back to the Saboteurs at one time or another. Showing success with his Sage will help him escape some precarious situations while falling back on his Saboteurs will result in setbacks that place him further from his goal. Other characters may have to make similar changes over the course of the story, so I asked myself which of the five powers of the Sage will each character use in his or her evolution?

Five Powers of the Sage
1. Empathize
2. Explore
3. Innovate
4. Navigate
5. Activate

Positive Intelligence may not be for everyone, but it has helped me see find more realism in my characters. It won’t be the only tool I use which is why we have many tools in our toolboxes. If you are struggling with your own character development, perhaps this will give you the insight you need to bring your own characters to life. Even if it doesn’t help with your own character development, there is still much more to learn from this book to help anyone become a more positive, empathetic, productive and happy person.

Urges

I recently read an intriguing article in Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing E-Zine about writing Flash Fiction and decided to give it a try.  Flash fiction is generally stories under 1,000 words which was quite the challenge.  For me the most difficult was providing enough details to make the writing interesting without wasting words.  Additionally, ensuring there was enough development to allow the reader to connect to the characters and the plot.  Enjoy.

Have you ever had that urge to yank your steering wheel hard and sail off the edge of a mountain road?  What about wanting to run as fast as you can with your grocery cart then let it go?  Where do these urges come from?  Hopefully most of us never act on these, but the urges are there.  

My unusual urges sprung to life one day driving home from work, luckily I don’t drive canyon roads.  Speeding home I remained in the far left lane even as my exit approached.  Three miles to exit 60.  Two miles.  One.  Gone.  Usually a cautious driver, I try to move right early, so I don’t cut anyone off.  Today was different.  I stayed in my lane without even glancing toward my exit.  Of course there were other exits, alternate routes, ways to turn around, but I didn’t.  I continued to heading north toward my unknown destination.

Over the next couple hours my phone vibrated frequently with new messages.  I let it go to voicemail, then I followed through on another random urge—I turned it completely off.  I knew who was calling; knew I should answer; even knew what she wanted.  We had been growing apart for some time as she focused on moving up the corporate ladder while I wanted out.  She needed her friends while I only wanted to be with her.  Were we really this different when we met?

I was over two hours away from home with no explanation or destination in mind.  Hunger came over me like a tidal wave.  My stomach assumed control and headed toward the nearest exit.  I couldn’t recall which state I was in or the nearest major city, but I knew there wasn’t much around including light.

Turning off the highway, my conscious mind figured neither direction was likely to resolve my hunger, yet my stomach chose to go east.  Both directions were pitch black like tunnels with the starless sky above and towering pines growing close to the berm of the road.  The darkness grew darker.  My headlights didn’t pierce far enough ahead to insure my safety.  Another half hour passed before light seeped in through the edges of the tunnel walls.

The town wasn’t much.  Aging neon lights announced the barber shop was closed and the diner was open.  Dim street lights struggled to reveal the unlit signs for a woman’s clothing store, drug store and bank.  The movie theater marquee was dark, but I could make out “CLOSED” as its coming attraction.

I parked in the empty space waiting for me in front of the diner.  For a brief moment, my rational side broke free and turned on my cell phone.  Ten missed calls and 28 missed texts, all from Audra.  The last text read, “Thought we were going to talk.  Can’t do this by myself anymore.” I clicked it off knowing I would never read any more or listen to the voicemails.

An engine roared to life; bright lights shone in my rearview mirror.  A beat-up pickup pulled out into traffic, sputtered down the road, and disappeared where the street lights ended.

The greasy smells pulled me through the diner’s door.  For the middle of nowhere, the diner was not lacking for business.  Heavy, flannel-clad workers hunched over their meals at the counter while ageless waitresses refilled their coffee.  A lone man in a suit read a folded newspaper in the corner booth while a young couple giggled and slurped milkshakes near the door.

“Anywhere you want, hon,” a waitresses offered from behind the counter.  I shimmied into a window booth and the waitress pushed a menu and glass of water in front of me.  She departed as quickly as she arrived.  Hunger gnawed at me but my eyes stared out the window at the shadowy, deserted street.

“What can I get you, hon?” the waitress asked.  I ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a coke.  Without another word, she floated away.

Headlights flashed as a familiar looking car parked behind mine  A woman rose and her tense gaze caught my eyes over the car roof.  Her face flushed, she shut the door and entered the diner.  Both waitresses stopped like statues, neither acknowledging Audra, as she plodded toward my booth.

Water and a menu appeared before Audra’s arms touched the table.  We stared in silence until the waitress returned.

“What is this place?” Audra asked.

“The Way Station Diner, dear.”  Our heads tilted in mirror images.  “A place to refuel before taking the next step in your journey.”

“Together?” we both blurted out.  “But, we broke up.”

“I don’t even know where I’m going or how I got here,” I said.

“No one here does.  We usually only see singles and the occasionally couples, but they arrive together.  The two of you are the first couple that I have ever waited on who arrived separately.”

“What does that even mean?” we asked in unison.

The waitress shrugged.  “When you figure it out, hon, you let me know.”  She floated to the next table.

I stared at Audra and she unexpectedly stared back.  Slowly, smiles grew on our faces like on our first date.  She began to laugh and quickly clasped her hand over her mouth.  I threw my head back, shaking it and laughing.

The waitress returned with my meal.  Audra snagged a fry from my plate, just like she boldly had done on our first date.  I raised my water glass and offered “Cheers!”.  She responded, clinking her glass with mine as we had done at every dinner out since.

Reaching across the table I gently took her hands.  Her eyes softened and our smiles grew wider.  We slid out of the booth without losing hold of each other and left the diner.  Audra headed toward my car, so I trotted ahead and open her door chivalrously.  Hopping in the driver’s seat, I pulled out into the deserted street with no clue where we were going.

I’d be interested to hear what you think, so if you are so inspired, please leave me comment.  Thanks!

2015 Annual Plan

They say it is never too late to start, so I picked May 1st as the beginning of my new year.  In April I finally cleaned out my personal inbox.  Cleared out all the junk, filed away the things I wanted to keep, and left all of the blog/newsletter e-mails to read.  It took a week or so, but I finally made it through all of the Writing Practice and Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine e-mails from the past several months.

I started a new notebook in Evernote to save all of the important blog posts that I didn’t want to keep in e-mail, as they tend to get lost or forgotten in folders and sub-folders, never to be seen again.  Evernote works great and whether I was reading the e-mails on my MacBook or on my iPad, Safari on both devices has an Evernote plugin that sends the page I want to whichever Evernote notebook I choose.

Since many of these e-mails were from 2014 as well as 2015, there were a number of year-end/beginning of the year suggestions that I had never done.  The one I latched onto from Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine was drafting a personal Annual Plan.  Since I did not do much writing and had not made a plan for 2014, I skipped this initial evaluation phase, jumping right into creating my plan for 2015.

Writing and blogging is not my full time job, so I began by estimating the number of hours I had available per week for creativity.  Beginning May 1st left 35 weeks in the year. I estimated I had 8 hours a week for a total of 280 hours of creative time.  This seemed like a huge number, but then I considered that 280 hours is really less than 2 months of working full time.  Based on my own experience, I estimated that I could write 800 words and hour, so assuming 100% writing productivity I should be able to generate 224,000 words.  This seemed unrealistic since some of the goals I planned to accomplish would include planning, outlining and generating ideas.  I revised the estimate for actual writing to be 60% of the total time, thus setting my word count goal at 134,400 (or 3,840 per week which is far less than the 11,667 required to win NaNoWriMo!)

The next step was to list the projects I wanted to complete by year end along with time and word estimate, where applicable.  This was a bit tricky to ensure my individual goals did not far exceed my time estimates.  I came up with the following seven goals.

1.     Edit 2014 NaNoWriMo novel (50 hours)

2.     Complete 2nd Novel first draft (75,000 words/94 hours)

3.     Plan next project (30 hours)

4.     Develop business plan for Edited 2014 NaNoWriMo novel (20 hours)

5.     Blogging – Write and Post 1 to 2 articles per week (40,000 words/35 hours)

6.     2015 NaNoWriMo novel (50,000 words/63 hours) – participation only in November

7.     Track progress toward plan

Once I put these down in writing, it didn’t seem as daunting and having them banging around in my head.

Number 7 was going to be my nemesis.  I’m a spreadsheet guy, so building a spreadsheet to track and analyze my time was right up my alley.  The problem for me is that I can easily get sucked into messing around with a spreadsheet, making it better and better until I have wasted so much time I never get to the writing.  I decided to search out a time tracking app to eliminate this time suck.

I’m a Mac user, so my first stop was the App Store.  I had a couple of requirements – it had to be able to track multiple projects (at least one for each item above), it had to have an easy to use interface that would track the time for me, and it had to have a free option.  I wasn’t opposed to paying for something that would work, but I prefer to give things a test run before committing any cash.

After two failed attempts with preview version apps, I found a completely free, cloud-based app that had a computer app, iPhone app and a similar browser interface.  TrackingTime (iTunes link) was going to be my app of choice.  The features are far more expansive than what I need for my writing, such as the ability to track multiple team members, but I can set up multiple projects, multiple tasks in each project and multiple to do items for each goal.  I kept the set up simple by setting up a Writing Production Plan 2015 project and added the first six goals from above.

To track my time, I simply select the task I will be working on and click the button to start the timer.  When I’m done I click to stop and it records my time.  If it detects that I am being idle, it gives me a warning and asks if I would like to remove my idle time automatically.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 6.33.40 PM

One caveat is that you must set up an account before using.  I was a bit skeptical of this, but they only ask for your e-mail address and a password to establish an account.  Now my data is synced and I can access the same tasks from any of my devices to track my time anywhere.  Although I do not do a lot of writing on my iPad or iPhone, for those brief times when an idea over takes me, I can easily track my time while jotting down these notes.

If you are in the market for time tracking software, I highly encourage you to give TrackingTime (homepage) a try.  It’s easy to use and I expect this will be a valuable tool to keep my writing goals on target.

I made May 1st my goal to start and I have already logged over 2 1/2 hours in 2 days.  I’m well on my way to complete my 2015 plan.

May the Editing Begin

I officially participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time this past November.  Although I achieved the goal of writing 50,000 words in November, the event ending version is not complete, has loads of holes, and has far too much non-action for anyone to truly ever want to read.  But, that’s okay because the editing process is all about fixing these issues, right?  I have been putting off going back to edit the work for a few months now, and I highly regret not jumping right back in even though November had come to close.  Reaching the goal gave me such a sense of personal accomplishment that I “rewarded” myself with too much time away from my writing.  I have now reached the point where I am determined to push through to a complete first draft. As I work up the courage to move to the editing phase, I thought I would share the opening scene.

Charlie awoke suddenly.  He never slept well in strange places, but had fallen into a deep sleep tonight shortly after crawling into bed.  What was it that woke him up?  He didn’t remember hearing anything.  Although he had lived in California and had been awoken for earthquakes before, he was now in Michigan, so that would have been strange. A still silence continued.  Charlie stared at the ceiling thinking it would now take forever to get back to sleep.

He looked over at the nightstand, but there was no clock.  He grabbed his phone, yanking out the charging cable that didn’t quite reach all the way to the bed.  Pressing the home button the iPhone came alive.  It was only two thirty-seven, the same time he woke up regularly at home. “It would be easier to get back to sleep in his own house, his own bed,” he thought.

The ceiling had a couple faded water stains above the windows, which was not unusual for an older house.  The ceiling fan was quite dusty.  “Didn’t his friends clean before inviting guests for a long weekend?” he mused.  Then the unending stream of worried thoughts began  Did he send out that report to his boss on Thursday before leaving?  Did he lock the door, turn off the stove, set the alarm?  “God, I hate all thoughts that invade my mind when all I want to do is sleep.”

The squeak was subtle, more like the extended, quiet screech of an old door opening very slowly.  “Could that have been what woke me?” Charlie considered.  “I’m usually a heavier sleeper than that.”  Other people in the house getting up to use the bathroom or get a drink never woke him up before.

Huffing, out-of-breath noises followed by soft footsteps directly outside his bedroom door were more pronounced.  The steps were quick, like socks or very soft soled shoes alternating on hardwood and the hallway carpet runners.

Charlie was more alert now.  The random thoughts had been swept from his mind by these unusual sounds.  “It’s not my house,” he thought to himself, trying to put the odd footsteps and breathing noises out of his mind.  Charlie closed his eyes and tried to force himself back to sleep.

Several minutes passed again with nothing.  “Tim’s dog, it must have been Rascal.”  Rascal was a big Golden Retriever.  His soft pads and panting could easily have made those noises.  Charlie let out a deep breath trying to slow his heart rate and get his breathing back to that slower pace of sleep.  He had tried to learn meditation but never got passed the first lesson or two before losing interest.

PFFT, PFFT, PFFT.  These noises were new.  That was not a sound from a dog.  Wide awake, Charlie sat up in bed.  The flowered comforter fell to his waist.  He slowly swung his feet to the right until they found the edges of the bed covers. He scooted over until he could feel his bare feet soundlessly touch the floor.  He tried to remain as silent as possible, less in an effort to hide his presence and more so he could continue to focus on the noises outside the guest room door.  “It could be her,” he thought as his heart rate increased again.

For several more minutes, no more sounds reached his ears.  Charlie questioned, “Did the dog finally settle down? Did the person quietly moving about the house return to their room or were they simply out of earshot?” He could feel in his gut that there would be more sounds; this was’t over.  He didn’t know when the next noises would come and if they would be recognizable.  He had to wait to make sure everything was alright.

Perched on the edge of the rarely used mattress Charlie considered his next move. He feet on the floor grew colder with every minute he pondered the situation. “It’s not my house, I’m not used to these sounds,” he rationalized.  This was now the longest period between noises since he was startled awake.  He grabbed his phone again. Two fifty-two.  Only fifteen minutes had passed since he first checked the time.

Now he was wide awake, but the only thought keeping him up was what could be happening elsewhere in the house.  Charlie had always been a curious kid and had retained this trait throughout adulthood.  He had this inherent urge to be part of the action, at least the action he thought would be the most fun or interesting.  He had no fear about joining a group of kids on the playground or inserting himself in a conversation of strangers at a party.  In business he could take control of a meeting or larger conference because he could show what appeared to be a genuine interest.  In many cases he had some level of interest but he had a unique ability to fake it if necessary.

With the noises in the house, his curiosity grew. The noises were nothing to be fearful of, but now that he was awake he needed to know who else was up.  Sleep would be a long way off now.  The noises had been quiet for some time now, at least that was Charlie’s perception.  In reality it had probably only been a couple more minutes, but late at night for an insomniac, those minutes tick by slowly.  He lifted his feet from the floor and began to swing them safely under the covers.

SCLASH.  It was a quick noise like the shattering of safety glass. Charlie’s feet hit the floor quickly.  HIs right big toes snagged the hem of the sheets and dragged most of the sheets and comforter halfway across the bed.  Cautious to not make any noise of his how, Charlie did not stand up right away.  It wasn’t his bed or his house and could not be certain about a squeaky bed frame or loose floorboards.  He untangled his toe from the sheets and pushed them behind where he sat on the bed.

Each new sound had been stranger than the last and grew in intensity.  Were they closer to his room at the far end of the hallway or simply louder?  He knew he needed to investigate.  Although not his home, these were his friends, they were like his family.  What if they were in trouble.

I learned more about myself while writing the first 50,000 words than I ever expected.  I did it on the sly, so my wife was not aware of my participation until I reached the goal and revealed to her what I had been doing for the past month.  From the start I had serious doubts that I could reach the goal particularly because I did not feel I had a clear enough picture of the characters, plot and especially the ending in my head to be able to get the words out.  The process revealed to me a number of things I did not know about my writing style

  • I can let my characters lead me down the path they want to go
  • I am not an up-front outliner.  Writing scenes helps me work through the plot problems.
  • I do not need to write in order, but can jump back and forth throughout my story to write the parts that interest me when I sit down at the computer.
  • I can achieve my own personal writing goals, even if I know at the time the writing is horrible.

I used this event to show myself that getting the work out is the most important part of writing.  Although I pushed out my fair share of bad writing, at least I was writing and recognizing the good from the bad and what might work from what didn’t make sense.  In the end, I found that my very worst writing was a completely blank screen.

Grief or Regret? One and the Same

When I first started writing the following passage, the words flowed from an emotional reaction to a couple of losses over a number of months.  I only recently felt the need to put these feelings in writing.  At first it was just another snippet to keep filed away until I found somewhere to use it, either in a similar form or as inspiration.  While I wrote and rewrote, I thought more about what the passage may be saying in a broad sense and not simply what the words an emotions revealed about my own recent experiences.  I am not sure the passage, as written, fits into a story that has seen a little writing recently but is mostly banging around in my head looking for a release, but writing the passage presented a more natural motivation to begin her quest than I had come up with so far.  Writing these snippets as they come into my head is an important part of my writing process because they generate new ideas, ways to approach stumbling blocks in my plots and, simply, some good practice.

Either or.  This or That.  Why do people need everything need to be so black and white?  Should I be sad or relieved?  Should I regret what we missed or be satisfied with what we had?  Why should I have to pick one?  Can’t I be all of these things at once?  Any passing is sad but they also give us time to reflect on their lives and the meaning their lives gave to ours.  Life is never simple and neither are the many emotions these passings draw forth.

Often I struggled to understand why she was still with us.  She didn’t understand either and had been ready to go for sometime.  At some point in every discussion we had over the past several years, she would interrupt our current conversation to ask why she was still here.  During our lives we may come to realize a sense of purpose for our life, but can we every truly know why we are here, whose lives we have impacted and how we fit into the grand design?  I do not recall her struggling with this concept ever until she was unable to physically do much more than pass the time.

The news of her passing was not much of a surprise when the early morning caller uttered the not unexpected words.  Timing is always a surprise no matter how prepared you think you are.  The stale morning air had not yet been replaced with the aroma of coffee brewing.  I snatched my phone from the nightstand and,without focusing my sleepy eyes, I heard the only voice I expected to hear without seeing clearly the name the appeared on the screen.

My first feeling was relief.  Relief for her, mostly.  Relief for the caller.  Even maybe a little relief for me.  Then that sinking feeling started in my stomach and soon engulfed my whole body.  My shoulders rolled forward, my abs tightened, and my neck compressed.  She was gone and I would never see her again.  Each of my hands grasped its partner’s arm in comfort.  I had known her my whole life.  Tears welled in my eyes but no cry crossed my lips.  She was the last of the gang of four.  The last real connection to a time long before any of my own memories.

Regret rose from my gut next.  It wasn’t part of the loss I felt for her, but it was the regret for what I missed with her three counterparts.  This emotion circled back to recollecting the loss I felt when each of the others had passed.  This time, thought, it wasn’t loss of a person but loss of the unknown.  Each one left with so much knowledge and so many memories when they passed.  Unless they had shared this with others or through some recorded medium, it was all now lost forever.

I was only five when the first passed.  I didn’t even know what was happening and to this day have no memory of this time.  Over the years I have dreamt of what our relationship might have been like with him in my life.  My imagination battled with two possible outcomes—my interests would have developed to match his or that he would find renewed interest in the activities I learned to embrace.

To this day, I regret that I did not ask another member of the quartet and the person closest to him many questions before she departed.  I was an adult when it was her time to go.  She passed less than a day after I left her side for the final time and my first thought was, “I should have asked her more.  Asked her more about him. Asked her more about herself.  Asked her more about their past, their history, everything.”

I had the chance and took it with the last of the four.  There was still not enough time to learn and record it all.  By this time I had started too late and so many of her memories had faded.  As I researched her past and we discussed my findings, I felt as if I was reminding her of the things she had forgotten as much as she was helping me to learn more about her history which will forever be my history, too.

As memories of my loved ones float through my thoughts, I realized it may be too late to ask those who are gone important questions about our past, yet it isn’t too late to ask the living.  Grief is so much about regret.  Regret for what we did not do.  Regret for what we could have done.  We cannot always come to terms with these regrets, but if we recognize an opportunity before it is lost we may be able to minimize that potential regret.

After I wrote this, I began to think about some my own regrets I had with so many of my relatives.  It was that very day that I began drafting e-mails to all of my living relatives asking them to record a story, memory or simply their thoughts about any of our relatives.  I may not be able to have all my questions answered, but I still had time to collect their stories.  I will be sending these out over the next few months.  I am certain of those who will absolutely respond, but I am eager to see who surprises me with a response.

The Pleasures and Pains of Binge Watching

This has become my true pleasure of late.  Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m obsessed.  I am amazed at the large selection of past TV shows that I’ve never heard of before, that were competing with other programs to held my interest when originally broadcast, or that I simply never got into at the time.  Add in the numerous new content offerings that are readily available on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video and my watch-list is packed full.

I was binge watching shows I had saved on the DVR long before the term was even coined.  Since my wife and I do not always enjoy the same programs, I would save several episodes of Lost, Fringe, and Chuck on the DVR during their current seasons so I could sit down to watch when I had the TV to myself.  Since then, I have watched Twin Peaks, Supernatural and a couple of seasons of The X Files.  My wife and I have binge watched the first season of The Blacklist and The Killing.

I compare binge watching to reading a novel or collection of novels.  I’m not talking about when you settle in to catch up on reality programs.  I’m talking about taking in one or more full seasons of a drama or comedy.  As I have finally caught up to the current season of Supernatural (Yes, I have binge watched all 9 prior seasons over the past 2 months), I am now searching out my next streaming adventure.  I just fell into Supernatural from a Netflix recommendation, so finding a replacement that lives up to Supernatural’s standards or those of other shows I have loved might take some work.  I have put quite a bit of thought into what my favorite shows have in common that make them so enjoyable to me.  Like anyone who keeps returning to Agatha Christie books after searching high and low for a mystery that lives up to the standards she developed, I too am looking for the next Lost, Fringe or Supernatural.

To be a success in my eyes, I have put together the following keys to a thrilling binge watching adventure:

  • The overall concept needs to have a storyline that continues from episode to episode, season to season, building to a climax and leaving you hanging at each season finale.  Binge watching offers the advantage here – you don’t have to wait several months for the next season to begin to discover what happens next.
  • We need a long term relationship with the characters to feel truly connected to the show.  Essentially the same cast of characters should be included from episode to episode so we can root for those we like and root against the characters we don’t.  Sure, some of our favorite characters will need to die, but if they do, their deaths need to be worth it in the end.  As we hope our lives have meaning, the same is true for those characters who are lost.
  • As with any good novel, each and every scene should move the story forward, add suspense and work toward the ultimate ending the reader waits for until the very last page is turned.  Good episodic television will do the same with each episode acting as a chapter of a book, teasing the viewer/reader with new information which leads to the final reveal or intentionally down the wrong path.  This, I think, is why most reality TV is a big turn-off for me.  With most popular reality programs, each episode stands on its own, more like a short story than a novel.
  • There must be an end, or at least the expectation that the characters we love and have been rooting for will reach some type of closure for this part of their lives.  Lost, yes I know, there is a raging debate about the ending.  It may not be the ending the faithful viewers hoped for, but I will argue there is an end.  I recall my wife saying halfway through season 1, “If they end up to be dead from the beginning and the island is just purgatory, I am going to be so pissed.”  She barely made it through Season 2 and felt vindicated when I told her the end since she didn’t “waste” watching 4 more seasons to see the ending she had predicted.  I, on the other hand, absolutely loved the show so waste was never a term I used for my time spent watching, then rewatching (at least twice) all six seasons.  Supernatural, my current guilty pleasure, seems to have had several “ends” already.  Although I do not want the series to come to a close, I look forward to a time where the writers will find a way to wrap up all that has happened to the Winchester brothers.

As with any unexpected use of technology, I see the trend in binge watching as an important transition for television.  With more people cutting the cable and focusing on shows that they find important rather than “whatever happens to be on”, television executives will need to be more in tune with this new form of viewing.  Netflix and Amazon Instant Video have already embraced this method of viewing as they release entire seasons at once rather than one episode a week over the course of a season.  Sure, if we happen to binge watch an entire new season immediately after it debuts, we will need to wait several months or a year if and when a new season is produced.  If it catches our attention, most of us will certainly be back.

Another great thing about binge watching is that if it doesn’t grab my attention I can quickly move on to the next show.  But if I am hooked, I can wallow in pleasure watching episode after episode without having to wait a week or more for the story to continue. 

It seems like I have addressed mostly the pleasures, so if I must, here are the pains – I just spent about 150 hours watching Supernatural (probably why I haven’t posted much to this blog for well over a month).  I’m now way behind in my reading – the Kindle books are stacking up, so it’s a good thing they are essentially weightless.  I have a persistent itch to view another episode or start another show in my queue, but I really do have other things I need to do!  Now I’m worried that I may need to find a binge watching addiction support group soon.

Now for the real pain – I made it to the end of the 9th season of Supernatural earlier this week.  I am eager to start season 10, but since I didn’t even know the show existed until February of this year, I came late to the party so my DVR only includes the current season’s episodes 10 and forward.  Sure, I can get the first 9 episodes by buying them on iTunes, but since I don’t own any other episode, it seems like a waste to own this small sub-collection of episodes.  The withdrawal I’m feeling of not being able to see instantly what happens next is the real pain I’m feeling now.  Although I’m excited that Supernatural may continue for several more seasons, maybe for my binge watching guilty pleasures I should stick with shows that have reached their series finales.

I’d be interested to know your binge watching guilty pleasures since I need to fill some time until I can start watching Supernatural season 10.  If you don’t have any show suggestions, let me know if there are any other keys to a successful series are that make you come back for more.

Recording and Developing the Snippets in my Head

At the strangest times – walking through an airport, in the shower, vacuuming the house – snippets of scenes just appear in my head.  If I am in the right mood when they come, I can encourage and nurture their development.  If they are strong enough and I find myself at a place where I can actually record them, these scenes will make it into my Idea Project file in Scrivener.  Some may never find it to a place in a story, while others are nothing more than a way to recollect a feeling.  Eventually I know many of these snippets can be reworked to fit another idea I have floating around that may be more developed.

It was at the airport of all places.  I never see anyone I know in those vast hallways with thousands of people milling and rushing about.  When I was younger I would imagine running into all sorts of people I knew from childhood through adulthood at the airport.  Traveling alone was more exciting then.  Now it’s a lonely chore.

I saw him first, but before I could avert my eyes we were locked.  He was squat, chubby, little man, but his confidence and skill at intimidation made his targets shrink before him.  Upon catching my eye, his shoulders rolled back and his spine straightened starting at his neck and extending fully to his lower back.

His intimidating walk toward me forced by shoulders to narrow and every one of my vertebra to compress.  I felt three inches shorter while my insides turned to goo.

“So you think you’re a big shot now.  Telling me, of all people, what to do.  You were the failure I needed.  You just don’t know it.”  No positive words, probably because his vocabulary didn’t even include such words, were ever emitted from his mouth.

My jaw clenched tighter with every syllable his nasal voice uttered.

“No one will ever tell me what to do,” he continued.  “You, . . ., them, you’re all incompetent.”

Like a petulant child, I couldn’t hold back anymore.  “You lied to me!” I erupted.

His head cocked to the left and a grin slid across his face.  “No shit.  Did you really think I was ever giving anything up.  You didn’t think this through.  Those corporate dumb asses are all about checking things off their lists.  You were simply a check mark to them and a pawn to me.  My winning pawn.  You are a nothing.”

My shoulders slouched and my eyes lowered.  His evil stare burned my forehead as if etching his own claim to my soul.

“That was the worst decision I ever made in my life,” I uttered meekly.

“You didn’t make that decision I made it for you with that offer.  You should know by now that I’m smarter than anyone you will ever cross, which is why you are the loser.”  Satisfied at squashing me again, he turned to go.

My mind raced for the right comeback that never comes until it’s too late.  This time the words found their way to my lips.  “You’re right, I had no choice.  But that wasn’t my worst move.”

“What?” he spun around defensively.  He seemed to grow another inch as he leaned in to me.

Regaining some of my own stature, I stated with only the slightest tremor in my voice, “Believing that a single honest word could ever come from your mouth.”

“Don’t cross me or I will take you down further than I already have,” he emphasized with a fat boney finger in my chest forcing me to lean back on my heels.  “I’ve done it before.”  His hot air, and that’s all it really was, blew from his every orifice.

As I stood before him, watching the blood rise through his face, my confidence grew.  As with any bully, he couldn’t take someone actually standing up to him.  Slowly he began to shrink to the weaselly little man he truly was.

“You didn’t take me down!  You are so naive.”

“Talk about naive, you little bastard,” he said trying to interrupt.

“You gave me my freedom,” I continued ignoring his outburst.  “You let me fly, soar!  You gave me sight, opened my eyes.”

He stood straighter as my mouth utter such trite phrases.

“You never even gave me a chance,” I concluded.

“GAVE you a chance?  I never had any intention of giving you a chance.”  I stared back at him without speaking.  He couldn’t stand my silence and babbled on like the criminal who thinks he has an edge.  “Why would I give you a chance?  You have to earn it.”

“Earn it?  Right!  How do you expect I could ever earn something you had no intention of giving?”  For the first time since I caught his eyes I could no longer feel the blood thumping through my veins.  “You made up you mind about me before I ever started.  There was nothing I could have done to earn it and YOU know it!”

His face was blank.  It was my clue that he didn’t get it and never would.

“You’ll fail at this job, too,” he lashed out.  “You’ll always be a failure.”

“You have no concept of people, emotions, or rational thought,” I said almost feeling sorry for him.  “You’ll die a lonely, lonely little man in a room, alone!”  My chest heaved, expanding the breadth of my shoulders and straightening my spine.  “Your mind festers with your own erroneous ideas and the lies you choose to believe.  I now see you for a fool and eventually the world will see it, too.”

With a subtle, almost imperceptible, shake of my head I turned and walked away.  My confidence had been restored by the most unlikely person.  I knew that I hadn’t even made a dent in his own reality even though mine was beginning to be rebuilt.  This was all about me and that was okay.  His cold, lonely heart could not care less about my feelings or my reaction.  I didn’t turn around, but could still feel his now cold stare watching me walk away.

With the understanding that this is simply a scene from what would eventually become a larger piece of work and that much of the character development and descriptions would be included in other scenes, I welcome your comments and critiques.