Posts Tagged ‘Story telling’

Have you ever listened to an older person talk? I don’t mean someone older than you by a year or two or even ten? I’m talking about someone in their sixties and seventies and eighties (and if they are lucky, further up in years). I’m talking about people with a life history.

I’ve heard it said when a child gives you something they think highly of you. It’s the same with older people telling you stories. If one sits down and opens up his or her past to you, it is because they want to share that part of their lives with you.

People don’t talk about the past anymore. Well, they do, but not the history of their lives. They talk about the immediate past. What happened an hour ago or a day ago or last week, maybe even a year or so ago. That’s all well and good, but tell me what happened forty years ago, during the height of the seventies or sixty years ago when teenagers went to drive ins and made out.

Tell me a story about your childhood, how you had to walk to school barefoot every day, up hill both ways, with your books slung over your shoulder in a cloth sack you had to hold with both your hands. Tell me how you had to get up in the morning to make breakfast for your siblings or how after school you would come home and do chores and homework before going outside to climb trees, walk on railroad tracks or fish out at a pond on someone’s land. Tell me about the war. Tell me about segregation. Tell me how you met grandma at church or at a work picnic or how she was your high school sweetheart who you went to the prom with. Tell me about your friends you used to hang out with, the trouble y’all got into, the fun y’all had. Tell me about the first time you kissed someone not related to you. Tell me about the greatest moment, day, summer of your life.

Reminisce for a little while.

People don’t do that anymore. And when they do, does anyone listen?

Older people know how to tell stories. They’re never in a hurry. They want you to sit down in a rocking chair next to them on the front porch (possibly with a tea, some water, a lemonade, maybe a coffee or possibly even a beer or some whiskey). Often times you will hear them say something like, ‘Come sit for a spell. I’d like to tell you a story.’ They might even pat the seat where they want you to plant your bottom.

They want you to see the pictures they paint with their words, so they tell their stories deliberately. They meander along, giving you great descriptions, both about the scenes and the people who take part in them. They give you wonderfully vivid details, sometimes laughing or letting out a ‘whoo wee’ when they reach certain parts. Occasionally, they might slap their knee (or even yours). They spare nothing in the telling of their stories.

You won’t get to the end of their stories in a couple of minutes. You have to sit and listen, sometimes for half an hour. Sometimes longer.

One of the things I know about older folks telling their stories: they want someone to talk to. They want an audience, even if it is just one person. That one person means the world to them. Because at their age, few people are listening.

Like I said earlier, older people know how to tell stories. They know how to engage their audience, and it doesn’t matter how small or how large. It’s an art form that is going away. It’s dying with each one of those older folks who leaves us.

My grandfather was great at telling stories. Sometimes those stories lasted minutes. Sometimes significantly longer. The one thing that rang true with them all was my grandfather took his time with them. He meandered. He said, ‘Come sit for a spell. I want to tell you a story.’ He didn’t care if I was in a hurry, because he wasn’t. He also knew how to capture my attention and he knew the best way to tell a story was by making it relatable.

Fast forward to today. Everyone is in a hurry. Everyone wants things on the surface. They don’t want depth. We have the fast food mentality of our way, right away. Come on. Hurry up. I don’t have time for this. Our story telling has gone that way as well. Everyone wants a fast story. They don’t want to sit for a while as an old man tells the story of how his and a long lost lover’s initials ended up on an oak tree near city hall.  I realize not everyone is that way, but it sure does feel like the majority is.

All that brings us to me. A lot of my ‘style’ as it is came from my grandfather. Though the subject matter is nothing like he would tell, the voice, the way I like to take my time to get into a story, the way I try to pull you in and make my words relatable, is definitely all him. I guess you can say I meander. I don’t hurry. I ask you to come, sit with me for a while.

I’m not as good of a story teller as he was. I doubt I ever will be. To be honest, I’m okay with that. Because I am me. I may have been influenced largely by my grandfather, but I am me and my style is my style. I unpack my stories carefully. Is it for everyone? No. If you are one who wants a quick story that hits you hard with action from beginning to end, then my writing just isn’t going to cut it for you. If you want perfect grammar, yeah, I’m probably not the writer you want to read. If you are someone who expects a lot of cussing and sex and gore in your stories, you won’t find that in my words. If you are looking for technically sound writing, you might not find it in my stories. After all, i tend to write my stories like I’m talking to someone face to face … as if I have an audience of one. Those are the types of stories I enjoy reading, so they are the stories I enjoy telling.

I guess that means I write stories like an older man tells them. I’m okay with that. Because older folks know how to tell a good story.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

AJ

P.S.: If you know an older person, especially one that spends a lot of time alone, go sit with them, go listen to them tell their stories. There is history in their words. If there is one thing I know, everyone wants to live on after they are gone. By telling stories to the younger generation, that is what these older folks are doing. Go sit for a while. You won’t regret it. And you just might make someone’s day.

 

 

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Passion…

Posted: July 1, 2016 by ajbrown in Writing
Tags: , , , ,

I’ve always thought to be truly good at anything you have to be passionate about it. You have to want it more than you want anything else. Essentially, you can’t do it halfway.

I’ve mentioned in the past how I played a lot of basketball when I was a kid. Though I loved football and baseball as well, I was better at basketball than those other two. I began playing basketball when my friend, Tony, moved in two houses down from us. He was the first black kid I had ever met and we became fast friends. He showed me a place where we could play basketball everyday if we wanted to. It was a gym where there were no other white kids.

(A little caveat, if you will: I had wanted to play basketball before meeting Tony, and we had a goal nailed to a tree in our yard. My dad had shown me how to do a lot of things necessary to play basketball, but at the age of ten, I still wasn’t all that great at any of them. But that is a story for another day.)

It was daunting at first, being the only white kid there. I was called a lot of names that could be considered racist. That didn’t bother me. What did bother me was losing all the time. The first few times I went there, I was humiliated; I was played right out of the gym. I am crazy competitive and losing is a bad thing now, and was a horrible thing back then. One day I stopped going there to play, and started going just to watch. I watched how the older kids played, how they dribbled, the way they shot the ball, the way they passed. I watched the way they played defense. I listened to their trash talk, even as I sat in the bleachers and wasn’t even playing.

I watched.

And I watched some more.

Still, I watched.

I took the things I saw in that gym home with me and practiced them in my backyard. I didn’t say anything or ask for help. I just tried to figure out how this guy could do this and that guy could do that, and holy cow, how did he do what he did?  Then I went back to the gym. I still got beat on a regular basis by the older, more experienced players, but I was beginning to figure out the game and how to score and play defense and how to win.

Eventually, I did win. And I continued to win. The White Boy Cracker became one of them and the derogatory remarks faded all together.

The only reason that happened was because I was passionate about the game of basketball. I worked hard at learning everything I could about it. I worked hard at figuring out how to get better and how to beat my opponents. No one worked harder than I did.

No one.

That leads me to writing. I have often spoke about how I was told by one editor I should never write another story, that I just wasn’t good at it and never would be. It was an insult—and solely his opinion.

I have also mentioned how I queried a publisher once in hopes of having a short story collection put out by them and received a response something like, ‘Are you the A.J. Brown who has stories published here, here and here?’ My response was, ‘Yes, I am.’ To which I never heard back from the publisher.

I’m not going to rehash all of that in detail here, but I will say, just like when I was learning how to play basketball, I stopped writing after both of those interactions, but not because I was giving up. Oh no. It was because I needed to learn more. I needed to become a better writer. In order to do that, I had to get quiet, pay attention, and become passionate about the craft of writing.

I know it is cliche to say writing is a craft, but it really is an art form. I often say writing stories is like writing songs that have no music accompanying them. Again, that is for later.

For now, I need to stress passion. I pour myself into my stories. I don’t write anything I feel is going to suck. If I don’t enjoy writing it, then I stop. Why? Because if I don’t enjoy writing the story, what are the chances you, the readers, will enjoy reading the story? Pretty slim, folks. Pretty slim.

I have a desire. No, it is not a dream, but a desire. That desire is to have readers—and a LOT of them. That desire is to have people want my stories. That’s not a dream. It’s a desire. With that desire comes passion. I am so passionate about writing stories that I don’t do things the way everyone else does. No, that does not make me eccentric. I just don’t think a lot of writing is good these days because everyone is writing the same thing, in the same voice, and in the same way as everyone else.

My passion for writing and getting my name out there is so strong it hurts sometimes. No, that doesn’t mean I am suffering for my craft. That means I want this so bad I can taste it. It means, like when I was a kid and playing basketball in a gym of older, more experienced men, I will not be outworked on this.

Will I ever make millions at writing? Probably not. Making a living writing is one of the hardest things to accomplish. But I bet it would be so rewarding. If I want to make a living doing this or if I want more than the readers I have now, then I have to work at it, and work hard. I am just passionate enough about the written word that I can tell you without doubt, no one will outwork me. My desire, though it is a mountain to climb, is a desire like no dream ever was. My passion…there is no rival to it.

One more thing: it is because of that passion and belief in myself that you should pick up one (or all) of my books. I believe you can read that passion and desire in my words. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. Don’t you want to find out for yourself? If so, follow this LINK. You won’t be sorry.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

Plotting Kills My Creativity

Posted: September 2, 2015 by ajbrown in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

I’m not a plotter.  There.  I said it.

I know there are a lot of writers out there who will say I should plot my work, that I should outline my stories or even think some of them out.  I do think a lot of my stories out, but I don’t believe in plotting.

Wait.  Wait!  Put down those torches and pitchforks.  No need to burn me at the stake.  Yeah, it’s dark outside, but lynching is not the way to go here.

Let me explain.  I’ve always thought that plotting out stories restricts the actual storytelling.  I kills the creative process.  I’m not entirely sure some of the greatest writers in the history of literature plotted out there stories.  I’m almost certain many of them didn’t sit at their wooden tables, an oil lamp on just a few inches from their parchment and plume.

‘Hmmm…maybe I should put her in this situation.  Oh, but wait.  What if I do this to her?  Ohhh, yeah, this would be awesome.  I think, maybe, if she did this, then he would do that, and they would do this…oh yeah.  Brilliant stuff.  And we can end it like this.  Amazing.’

Seriously, folks, do we really think Twain and Poe and Hemingway outlined everything they wrote?  What about Dickens?  Sure, they may have jotted down some things they didn’t want to forget, but to completely outline the story?  I don’t believe it.

I’m a fan of flying by my seat.  Not literally.  I don’t have buttwings so stop looking.  Most of my stories come from seeing something or hearing something and the immediate image or thought that comes to mind is generally what I start writing.  I like to get in the car and ride along with the characters.  Sometimes we will poke along, while other times we speed at a breakneck pace that threatens to cave the windshield in and cause us to wreck and splinter our bodies along the roadside.  For me, being in the car with those characters is where the thrill is.  I don’t know what’s going to happen, and they do.  And that’s what makes it exciting.

I won’t sit here and lie and say I don’t actually jot down notes, especially if I am somewhere that I can’t actually write.  But outlining kills the story for me.  Why is that?  Why does outlining kill the story?  Well, the answer is simple:  when I complete an outline I already know the entire story, and therefore, I no longer have the desire to write it.  I know what’s going to happen, so there is no thrill.  I can no longer go along for the ride.  I can no longer watch as the story plays out, the characters doing their thing and me writing it down like an ancient scribe.

It’s a total bummer.

For me, it is always about the story.  It’s always about the entertainment I get out of writing the stories.  It’s also about the entertainment I hope you get when reading the stories I write.  If I lose interest in the story, how do I expect you to keep interest in it?  So, you see, plotting is a bad thing for me.

I do believe in situations.  You want to put your characters in situations where they either get out of it alive or they don’t, and if they do get out of it, they either change for the better or for the worse.  Situations.  Not plot.

Stephen King said in his introduction to Salem’s Lot, that storytelling is as natural as breathing and that plotting is the literary equivalent to artificial respiration (not an exact quote, mind you), and I believe he is correct.  Storytelling should feel natural.  Not stifled.  Not rushed.  Not necessarily grammatically correct, either.  Storytelling should be as natural as having a conversation with someone you are close to.  Plotting doesn’t have that natural feel.

So, I don’t plot.  I don’t enjoy it.  I lose interest in stories when I do plot them out.  And to prove it, I can look in my notebooks and see hundreds of ideas for stories.  Many of the idea stories were written.  But then I can see twenty-five pages of plotting—from beginning to end with the guts all there in the middle—and none of those stories have ever been written.

I don’t fault those who plot.  If it works for you, then do it.  It just doesn’t work for me.  So, if you want to come along with me, take a ride with me and my characters, then just know I’m going for that ride as well.  And maybe we can all enjoy it as the stories unfold.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another…

Everybody has their own path. Every path has many forks in the road. If you take the one to the left it takes you to a different place than if you take the one to the right. One path is going to be tougher than the other. That’s truth. Pure and simple.

Let me give you a little example.

Years ago when Cate and I were still dating we took a trip to the mountains with my family. On that trip I proposed to her. At that point she could have said no, but she said yes. Here’s where our paths forever changed. We were young and in love and I knew I was going to marry her after our first date a year or so earlier. But that’s not the point. Cate could have said no, and things would have drastically changed between us. Honestly, I don’t think we would be together—her saying no probably would have been a major deal breaker.

But she said yes, and on that day our lives went from being on our own separate paths to, a year later, us joining in marriage and creating a path together.

There is another one to this story. While Cate and I were on this trip we went hiking in the Black Mountains of North Carolina. There were three different paths we could have taken: the easy, the intermediate or the hard. Cate had never really done much hiking so we opted for easy. At one point we came to a fork in the path. If we went one way we continued on the easy path. If we went another direction we went on the intermediate path.

We thought we had taken the easy path. No. No, we didn’t. Though we didn’t take the hardest one, we still took one much more difficult than the easy. You see, we had a choice on which path to take: the easy or the not so easy. We took the wrong path and it led us to a harder, much longer hike. By the time we reached the end, I was pulling Cate up steep hills and using tree limbs to pull myself along as well. We were exhausted, but we had conquered the path and made it to the end. We had taken the wrong path, but somehow managed to navigate it, even though it was tougher than the one we meant to take.

Do you get what I’m saying? Life is all about the paths we choose. I’ve always said each decision we make takes us on a different path. If we choose to do drugs that decision takes us on a different, much more difficult path than if we choose not to. Are you married? Great. If you cheat on your spouse, that path just became rocky, at best. If you take this job as oppose to that one your life will forever be changed. Which college you go to changes your path. Everything you do in life, every decision you make takes you on a different path.

As a story teller it is my job to tell a story that has paths throughout it. If a character makes a decision it could alter the direction his/her life goes in.

Paths. That is a Common Thread we can all relate to. Everyone takes them, whether they know it or not. Every decision is a new path.

Let’s talk Cory’s Way and paths.

(If you have not read Cory’s Way, the next few paragraphs contain possible spoilers, all of which are related to the first chapter of the book.)

If Cory’s father doesn’t leave his mother, then Cory doesn’t end up in Century Falls and Gina doesn’t end up working insane hours at a restaurant to try to make ends meet. If the bullies don’t chase him, then he doesn’t run under the overpass and meet Mr. Washington, who, in turn, decides to help Cory get rid of those bullies.

All of these things (decisions) changed the paths for all of the characters involved. How, you ask? Let’s take a closer look at them.

For whatever reason, Cory’s father made a decision to leave the family, which forces Gina to move them away, creating a new, somewhat unpleasant path for Gina and Cory. And, incidentally, the father’s decision also changes his own life (something we don’t see in Cory’s Way). This one decision made by Cory’s father changed the lives of everyone involved in the story, which are quite a few paths. It set the stage for the story itself.

Gina’s absence because she works so much sends Cory on a completely different path than if she were around more. Sure, it’s the only real move she can make to ensure they have food and a roof over their heads, but with his father already gone, he probably could have used having Mom around more often.

We talked about bullying in the first Common Threads post. Well, let’s talk about it again. The Burnette brothers play a huge role in Cory’s Way. We are introduced to them in the third sentence of the first chapter. They make a decision early on (like Dad leaving, we don’t actually see this decision—we just know it by the way the first few paragraphs unfold) that they don’t like Cory and making his life miserable becomes a goal of theirs. That decision changes the entire trajectory and lives of every main character of the story right off the bat.

Cory had a bunch of decisions (paths) he could have made during this opening paragraph. Run from the bullies or fight them? Take the short way beneath the overpass or the long way around it? Toss his book bag or hang onto it? Give up halfway home and let them beat the crap out of him or keep running? Try to fight back. Hide beneath the overpass or keep on trucking? Can you see how any of those decisions could have changed the course of Cory’s life, and by the same token, every major character in the book?

Mr. Washington really only made one significant decision: leave the overpass and run off the Burnette brothers or give Cory away and let them know where he was or force Cory to continue running away. His decision was one of the most important path changers in the entire book. Without it, there is no Cory’s Way.

I’m not going to go beyond the first chapter here, but every single chapter has a path changing decision, just like every single day we, as real people and not make believe ones, make decisions that alter our lives and the trajectory our lives are on.

If you haven’t read Cory’s Way, well I’m going to encourage you to do so. Here’s the thing: I’ve said since day one that everyone will be able to relate to something in this novel. When I say everyone, I mean EVERYONE. I relate to it on many levels, but the one way I truly connect to it is that the story of Cory Maddox was the first such story I wrote in this conversational style. It was the story where I truly found my voice. It’s the story that deepened my love of story telling. It was the story that changed the path of my writing. It’s THE story.

As a writer it is my job to give you something to enjoy, to relate to, to connect to, a common thread that links you to the story. One common thread are paths and the ones we choose in life. Every decision is a fork in the road. Choose one thing and go one way. Choose the other option(s) and go in a different direction(s) all together. Either way, the path is yours to take. Which way will you go?

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

 

 

When he woke this morning, the sun was shining in his face. He cracked an eye and realized, ‘holy cow, I actually got some rest.’ It was a rarity for him. Sleep had not really been a friend of his. She liked to tease him, tell him she was ready for him to come to bed, big boy. Then when he did, she would leave.

This frustrated the guy—let’s just call him J. for now.

So, he would stay awake, often staring into the darkness, wondering if he could count how many times the shadows seemed to shift in the room.

At any rate, when he woke up late for a change, his head wasn’t in its usual state of fogginess. No, it was somewhat clear, not quite like a bright, sunshiney day clear, but more like a glass at a restaurant. It may be clean, but there are still specks on it.

As he lay in bed, still not quite ready to get up—he was already late in doing so, at least his mind told him as much—he pondered. You see, J. is somewhat of a writer. He likes to tell stories and he likes for people to hear/read those stories. But, lately, those stories haven’t been getting read. Probably because he hadn’t been submitting much, and those places he did submit to weren’t accepting much of his work. Yeah, they were saying, ‘great story,’ and ‘we really liked this piece,’ but in the end, many of them were still rejecting the work.

Bummer.

The problem for J. is it wore on his confidence, and he began to lose the one important thing all writers need: a desire to write.

Then came the thought he had been having for a while. Why write? Why do I even want to try anymore?

But wait, another thought came to him. It made more sense than giving up. It made a lot of sense indeed.

‘Why don’t I just start over?’

The previous night he had updated his publishing credits on his blog and realized they had dwindled in recent years. Again, not submitting a lot doesn’t help with that. But, maybe, just maybe, he needed to send some work to a few different places than he had been. Why not try and get his name back out there like he used to?

No, he’s not a big fan of For the Love markets, but if some of them took reprints, he could see submitting to them again. But what about some of the other markets that don’t offer pro rates? Pay is pay, isn’t it?

Yes, he liked that idea. It wouldn’t pay as well, and some wouldn’t pay much at all, but an acceptance and some money and exposure would do his psyche some good. Don’t you think?

‘But am I settling?’ he wondered.

Legit question.

He didn’t believe so. Here is what he told himself:

‘You have to start somewhere. You can still submit to the big dogs, but don’t forget about the smaller ones. Those are the ones that can help you get back into the game.’

Here’s the thing, sometimes you have to step back, and reevaluate the game plan. Sometimes you have to be willing to start small and work your way back up the ladder. It’s like a new job. Most folks start at the bottom and have to work and work and work their way to a promotion. Writing is the same way.

So, here he is, J.—err, A.J.—and he is applying for jobs in the short story world. Hopefully, he’ll get a few callbacks. He may even post what he sends and when and whether or not the stories get accepted, and even the comments.

It’s time to crack some knuckles and get back to work.

~CRACK~

Ouch.

No, he probably shouldn’t crack anything on his body these days.

Until we meet again, my friends…

Halloween has passed.  Yet again, I must wait another 364 days for my favorite day of the year.  Though I love Halloween, it has become a symbol of remembrance and sadness as well.

On Halloween night in 1995, a teenager in my hometown was murdered and set on fire.  He was a good friend of my (soon to be, but as of that moment, not yet) wife.  It was tragic.  I wrote about it here, on Type AJ Negative a couple years ago in a six part series I titled, Closing the Wound.  (Links will be provided at the end of this piece if you would like to read that series.)

Halloween 2013 brought the funeral of a giant of a man in my state, one who I knew and worked for.  I will not give his name, but if you live in South Carolina you probably know who he was.

I went to the funeral of Mr. G (Mr. Giant is what I will call him, Mr. G for short).  It was a packed house with overflow rooms with video feeds set up for those who couldn’t get inside the church’ sanctuary.  The service was nice, very organized and what memorial services tend to be.

However, the rector was a woman who gave a seven or eight minute message. It wasn’t your typical message of ‘get saved while you can,’ but more geared toward what Mr. G really was, what he was about.  I believe they could have taken the rest of the service away and have only her message and it still would have been an amazing memorial.  She was that good.

This woman said a couple things that stood out to me.  One of them I will write about later.  The other one, I want to share with you now.  I’m modifying it just a little, but keeping the content of what she said.

“Mr. G showed us what faith looks like when it is lived out in something bigger than ourselves.”

The rector clearly meant Mr. G’s faith in God and in doing what he thought was right.  I’ve thought and thought about this for the last day since hearing her words.  I think the words that have stuck with me here are ‘bigger than ourselves.’

As I’ve thought and thought and thought and thought some more, I’ve come to realize that life, in and of itself, is bigger than all of us.  Life–what it really, truly is–is so much bigger than the lives we lead.

We are mundane.  We go through the same tasks over and over, day in and day out.  Often times we don’t even try all that hard to accomplish what we want to, or to do what others may ask of us.  We waste so much time worrying about stuff that is out of our hands, out of our control.  We let a lot of our life slip by.

Are we truly living?  Are we truly enjoying the gift we have been given?

That’s up to you to decide.  For me, I can say no.  And that’s my fault.  Have I chased my dream of being a successful writer as hard as I should?  No.  Not even close.  Why is that?  Fear, most likely.  Fear of failure, but also fear of success (which I’ve stated in other posts).

But wait, there is something else.  It’s not just fear.  It’s laziness; it’s not wanting to do the extra work, beyond writing the stories.  Writers have to do more these days to get ahead.  They have to market their work and themselves.  They have to socialize and be accessible to fans and other writers.  They have to be giving of their time, something they feel is better spent writing.  It’s a lot of work, and a lazy writer won’t make it very far in this business.

But guess what, Dear Readers.  We writers have it all wrong.  You see, writing is just that: writing.  There’s nothing special about it.  Sure, a writer can put together a few words to make sentences sound nice, but we have it all wrong.  We’re even calling ourselves the wrong thing.

For years I have said I am not a writer.  I’ve meant it every time I have said it.  Let me repeat that:

I am not a writer.

I will never be a writer.  I am a story teller.  I’ve said it before, and will say it again.  I am a story teller.

As I’ve sat and thought about writing, I realized a huge chunk of the problem with the writing world is everyone is trying to be writers, but so few are trying to be story tellers.

Think about all the stories you heard growing up.  Think about the way they were told.  If they were told the way my grandfather told stories, then you had a picture painted for you.  You could feel the cold or heat of the day.  You could feel the stomach cramps if he said the character was sick.  You could smell a fire burning.  You could hear the whispers or yells, and you could see someone’s mannerisms and movements.  The story wasn’t just about getting from point A to point B.  For my grandfather, the story was about starting at point A, going to point B and ending up at point Z when all was said and done.

Sure, his stories had action, but when he told me one, he told it with a purpose.  There was always a reason to it.  There were always characters and scenery, no matter how short the story.  He made you feel his words.

My grandfather didn’t write the first story.  He wasn’t a writer.  He was a story teller.  I’ve always thought that he would have sold many, many books if he would have written even just one.

But he wasn’t a writer.  No, he wasn’t a writer at all.  (Though he did write a lot of sermons, but that’s for a different day.)  He was a story teller.

And this is what is bigger than we writers.  Story telling…story telling is so much bigger than any writer out there.

I’ve always said I’m a story teller, not a writer.  But I’ve been lazy about the business of writing—and it is a business, no matter which way you look at it.  I’ve been lazy about putting my work out there.  Sure, I have short story collections.  Sure, I have a zombie series.  Sure, I have well over 150 publications to my name.  But I have failed miserably about marketing my work, about letting people know, ‘hey, I’ve been published.’

What good is being published if you don’t advertise it?

Story telling is bigger than us, and we have to treat it as such.  It is bigger than the writer who pens the story.  Words are just words when they are written with no passion, with no fire.

Sadly, marketing is often bigger than us as well.  It has been for me.  But, really, that post is also for another day.

For now, I sit back and think about some of the great storytellers of the past, about the way they wrote the words that told the stories, about how when one of their books are read, you can see and feel and hear and touch and taste it.  That’s what I want to do.

I am not a writer.

I am a story teller.

Until we meet again, my friends…

***

As promised above, I will leave you with the links to Closing the Wound.

https://typeajnegative.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/closing-the-wound-part-i/

https://typeajnegative.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/closing-the-wound-part-ii/

https://typeajnegative.wordpress.com/2011/10/28/closing-the-wound-part-iii/

https://typeajnegative.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/closing-the-wound-part-iv/

https://typeajnegative.wordpress.com/2011/10/30/closing-the-wound-part-v/

https://typeajnegative.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/closing-the-wound-the-final-chapter/

It is the tale, not he who tells it.
–Stephen King
The Breathing Method

Yes, I’ve quoted this before, thank you very much.

If you don’t like King you still have to like that quote. There is more truth in those nine words than you get from any politician.

The sad thing about that quote is so many people, myself included, prefer reading certain authors and if those particular writers don’t write the tales, then they don’t read them.

Yeah, I know. Insane, right?

I like F. Paul Wilson, Iain Banks, that King fellow, Cormac McCarthy, Jack Ketchum and a couple of others, including some early Poppy Z. Brite. I used to read everything I could get my hands on by my favorites. It wasn’t until a couple to five years ago that I started reading stories told by writers outside my favorites circle. By doing this I found some really great stories. Sometimes the writing hasn’t been all that good, but the stories have and it’s all about the stories, right?

With the whole it is the tale, not he who tells it thing in mind, I want to turn you on to an author who not only writes really good—probably the best writer some of you have never heard of—but his stories are some of the best you’ll read, at least until he writes more. Well, that was a long run on sentence.

[[Herbie’s Note: This blog will do the writer in question absolutely no justice. It can’t possibly live up to the writer’s brilliance and ability. End Herbie’s Note]]

Enough dilly-dallying. I speak of John Mantooth, writer extra extraordinaire.

I met John on a writer’s forum a few years ago and even then he was particularly good. Now, particularly good is in the past and somewhat holy cow that was awesome is here in the present.

Recently, Chizine Publications released a collection of short stories that Mantooth wrote titled, Shoebox Train Wreck. Nice title, don’t you think?

Sixteen stories. Two hundred fifty pages. All Mantooth.

Hey, come a little closer to the screen. I want you to understand something:

John Mantooth is one of the best writers out there who a lot of folks don’t know about. He’s also a super nice guy. Every time I read one of his stories I can’t put it down. Very few writers grip me and hold me and make me turn page after page after page until the story is done. John has that ability. Not even King does that. And you can ask my wife how slow a reader I am. With Mantooth, there is no slowing down. I can’t. His words won’t allow it and no, that’s not an embellishment.

Remember how I opened this blog today? It is the tale, not he who tells it. I believe that. So, if you are looking for stories that will keep you glued to the pages until you are done and that will leave you satisfied in the end (other than wanting more of his stories, that is), then you really should pick up a copy of Shoebox Train Wreck, by John Mantooth.

You can find Shoebox Train Wreck here.

I’m pretty certain you won’t be sorry. Herbie gives Mantooth his seal of approval and you guys know how fickle he can be.

Also, you can check out John’s blog, A Bus Full of Losers here

Hold on a second here. There is one more thing I want to point out. John’s story, This Is Where the Road Ends appears in the Snutch Labs collection Tales From the Yellow Rose Diner and Fill Station, which you can find here.

I’ll end this by saying, if you like stories that are told well, then you’re going to love Mantooth’s work. Pick up a copy today. Maybe one day, he’ll be one of your favorites. He’s already one of mine.

Until we meet again, my friends…

Breathing One Word At a Time

Posted: March 23, 2012 by ajbrown in Writing
Tags: , , ,

You may have heard of this writer I’ve liked since I was a kid. His name is King. Stephen King. He’s written a handful of novels that you may have heard of and he’s also penned a couple to a few short stories.

If you haven’t heard of this guy, Stephen King, you may want to look him up.

King is one of the most prolific writers, dare I say, ever. His novels have sold millions. He has inspired thousands of people to give writing a try, myself included.

Unlike most, it’s not King’s novels that inspired me, but his short stories. I love his short stories, his novellas. I devour them. Since I’m a slow reader, you have to understand my version of devour is more like nibbling on a candy bar you want to savor.

What’s this all about, you ask? Is this another article about Stephen King?

Absolutely and absolutely not.

King has been quoted as saying:

When asked, “How do you write?” I invariably answer, “One word at a time.”

That’s a good idea. One word at a time. So often, we as writers, think about the big picture without really thinking in context of how we paint the big picture. Well, if you’re going all literal, then you get your canvas out and your paints and brushes and you paint one brush stroke at a time. But when using writing to paint that picture it starts with the first word and ends with the last one. And those words come one after another–one word at a time.

Remember that next time you sit down to write. You can’t create a story if you don’t write the first word of the first line. And you can’t end a story until you’ve put a period after that last word.

Too often we bog ourselves down because we want our writing to sound intelligent or to beautifully worded, instead of just writing word after word after word. For me, it kills the process when I try to be all pretty with my writing. I’m not a pretty person and I choose not to write prettily on purpose. It’s just not me. Yes, I know I used pretty about four hundred times just now.

I prefer to let my stories breathe, to let them tell themselves and I just ride along in the passenger’s seat. It’s a lot more fun that way. I’ve often called this The Breathing Method.

That brings me to King.

In his novella collection, Different Season, he has a story called, yes, that’s right, The Breathing Method. Granted the two aren’t really related, other than titles, but in the story King writes something very important, that I think holds true to all stories:

The arch was broken in the center by a keystone which jutted out slightly. It was just on the level of my eyes, and although the light was dim, I could read the legend engraved on that stone with no trouble: IT IS THE TALE, NOT HE WHO TELLS IT.

The important part of that passage is the last sentence:

It is the tale, not he who tells it.

We all have our favorite writers. Mine has always been King and I like most everything he has written. There have been portions of books I didn’t care much for, but the way his words go together so effortlessly, so smoothly, brings me back for more every time. It makes his one word at a time statement feel real. It makes his tales feel real.

That’s how we should write. One word at a time.

Writing is easy. Writing well is difficult. But one word at a time… one word at a time is simple and effective and as long as we write that way, we will reach the end of our stories.

Ah, but wait a second. What about this Breathing Method I speak of?

Simple: if you get out the way and let the story tell itself, the story breathes and lives and develops. It may not go in the direction you wanted, but I find most of the time, that’s a good thing. At least with my writing.

I’ll back this up a little with something King said in his book, On Writing:

I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s something I never expected. For a suspense novelist, this is a great thing. I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader. And if I’m not able to guess with any accuracy how the… thing is going to turn out… I can be pretty sure of keeping the reader in a state of page-turning anxiety.

When I read that the first time I’m sure my face lit up. That is what I’ve always thought about writing and characters and stories. If I let the characters dictate the direction of the stories, then the stories will turn out the way the characters want them to. That’s a good thing.

So, one word at a time and the Breathing Method go together. And, as writers, we just need to get out the way. It’s not about us, but the story.

Until we meet again, my friends…

I hold in my hand a wooden crate. It is black. Or, rather it was black. At one time it was simply a bunch of boards nailed together with large holes drilled on two opposite sides for handles. A little sanding, some gray primer and then some good old fashioned black spray paint, and voila, a crate was born of my own two hands. Over the years I have used this crate, not for carrying stuff around in or storing items, but for something else all together.

I now flip the crate over and set it down, open side to the ground, flat side up. It is just large enough for me step up onto with both feet mere inches apart. Now I am standing on this crate. Have you figured it out yet? I’m sure you have.

For those who haven’t, this is my soapbox. I only pull this out when I want to discuss things. No, not rant. If I want to do that I just go off, no soapbox needed. People scurry away when I rant. Some of them laugh because I am very animated when angrily running my mouth.

For those who do not know me, I am AJ—no, that is not Aj. It is A and J. I just prefer no periods behind my initials (I may have to reconsider that, though). I am one of the great pretenders. I, like many others, think I am a writer, though truth be known, I am not. That’s not entirely true. I do write, but I think most everyday average folks think of a writer as either a journalist or a novelist. I am neither of those. However, I am a story writer.

I think that is an appropriate term for me. I have no desires to write a novel and I don’t limit my stories based on word counts. I do not write for editors or publishers. I write for readers. I write stories. I am a story writer. Yeah, redundant, I know. For the sake of this piece I will say I am a short story writer.

If you have followed me at all, you know that I have lamented about the quality of stories being published by both big and small markets. Let me say this: ALL OF US ARE PART OF THIS PROBLEM. If you think you aren’t, then you don’t look in the mirror too often. At one point or other we were/are fledgling writers wanting to get published somewhere… anywhere. It is the nature of the writer to desire to have others read their work. It is also a bit of validation when an editor at any publication likes our story enough to say, ‘hey, I want to publish this.’

Don’t believe me? Answer a question then. When you receive an acceptance, what is the first thing you think? Come on. What is it? Is it, ‘oh, I just made some money.’ Or is it, ‘yes! They accepted my story!’ Which one? I bet it’s the latter of the two. Our validation doesn’t come in the form of money tendered for a few well written words. It comes in those well written words being accepted by someone other than your friend, mom or significant other.

This brings me back to the all of us are part of the problem bit. Many times our stories are not ready to be published. So, Mom or Bob or Sally say they like the story and that you should get it published. Not so fast. I know I’ve gotten stories published and then saw a glaring issue with the logic of the piece or saw a typo that not only I missed, but the editor missed as well or saw how poorly I had written it… I look at stories of mine that were published two or three years ago and I cringe at some of them.

As writers we are blind to our own words. We think everything we write is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Umm… no. It is a pot of something, but gold it is not.

I have strayed from my original thoughts, which I tend to do, so let’s try to get back on track here.

Quality is defined as the general standard or grade of something. This means that something with a low grade is generally held as low quality. Think about it. If you spend four bucks for two McDonald’s cheeseburgers, fries and a coke, you are really getting about four dollars worth of quality, right? However, if you go to Fuddruckers and spend seven bucks on a burger and fries, the food is going to taste better and be more satisfying. The quality of food and tastes is higher at one establishment than the other. (Disclaimer: No offense meant to those who like McDonald’s or for those who work at or own a McDonald’s. Tastes and quality are subjective when it comes to things like food and I think Fuddruckers is better than Mickey D’s. Personal opinion there.)

If you send your kid to a school known for it’s teachers not being all that great and for the rampant rate of violence or teen pregnancies, then there is a good chance your kid is not going to learn much, get beat up or knocked up or all of the above. I know it’s kind of an extreme example, but you get the point. Quality.

This brings me to the quality of fiction that is out there—more importantly the quality of the short fiction form. Or maybe the lack there of.

Let me present you with Exhibit A, an article written by Stephen King in 2007 titled, What Ails the Short Story. It appeared in the New York Times or at least on their website. (Disclaimer #2: Before anyone says this was just his way of ramping up more publicity for Best American Short Stories of 2007, which he edited, read it for what it is, and for what he said.) Read the article here:

What Ails the Short Story

If you read through the article, I hope you gleamed from it a little of what I did. Granted I’m going to be taking a few things out of context, but not by much. If you did not read through it, I would like to quote bits and pieces of it. Fortunately, this is not a book of fiction, so I should be able to quote from it without being sued for stealing/plagiarizing.

What’s not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there.

Hey, you writers, did you catch that? Don’t make me knock on your monitor. That means I would have to get off of my soapbox and right now I don’t wish to do that.

How many times have we read in the guidelines of a publication for us to ‘buy a copy of our publication so you know what we like.’ There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. We should buy the publications we are submitting to, if anything to support them, because most of us short story writers are published in the smaller markets where the owners/publishers/editors are folks with one or two jobs who put these products out as a labor of love. They shell out their own money in order to put out their product. Many of the good smaller markets go for years on the negative side of the profit barrier or fold altogether.

Go back and think about it for a moment. How many publications have we purchased just so we can find out what a market likes so we can, in turn, submit to them with the hopes of getting accepted by them? I have done just that: purchased a copy of a magazine or anthology just to read the stories in them and see if I even stood a chance in getting into them. That’s the wrong reasons to read anything. People should read publications because they enjoy them. We should read with breath held and minds racing, trying to keep up with the words and the images in our heads. My opinion, folks. Just my opinion.

That quote also mentions the dwindling audience that we writers are writing for: other writers (and in many cases, editors). So, herein lies another part of the problem. What about the average reader, or as King puts it, the Constant Reader who wants to be entertained? Have we forgotten about them?

Let’s take this a step further with another quote from that article:

Last year, I read scores of stories that felt … not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers.

There it is again, a reference to writers penning stories for someone(s) other than real readers. There have been times that I have disagreed with some of the things King has said in interviews or articles, but for the most part, I think he hits the nail on the head. As he does here. King wouldn’t say that stories were dead on the page, but I will. I have read many stories—mine included—that have been lifeless, one dimensional wastes of words; stories with no feelings, no mood, no real direction. I am guilty of writing some of these and I try to keep them hidden on the hard drive of my computer. But a few have escaped and now I can’t seem to kill them off. Or at least reel them back in.

As a writer I wish to get published, but am I—are you—writing for the readers enjoyment or just in order to get published? Are you writing stories that hop off the page and grab the readers by the throats or do you go for the tried and true methods? Are you a cookie cutter writer?

Think about it.

Stop staring at me like that. I don’t need to be knocked off my soapbox just yet.

A writer friend of mine, I’ll call him Mr. W. so that he remains anonymous, had this to say when I presented the King article to a group of writers:

He has an interesting take on it. I find I have to agree with him up to a point that a lot of “literary stuffs” is a lot of hubris, filled with a sense of its own importance and relevance.

Something I’ve been mulling over lately is a pattern of stories I’m seeing accepted by a lot of the pro-level sci-fi and fantasy publications.

It might be just me, but it appears that the kinds of stories most of them are taking are pretty much “video games” short stories.

A lot of action, not much character development. A good bit of ho-hum dialogue and no real depth to the stories.

Read that last part again. Go ahead, I have time. There’s not much entertainment value in stories with lack of character development, so-so dialogue, no mood and no depth. Sure, there is action, but if we don’t care about the characters then, really, why should we keep reading beyond the first page? What attachment do we have?

If my friend thinks that a lot of the paying pubs have developed a pattern of stories—never mind that they are ‘ho hum’—then writers will gear their writing in that direction. It is at that point where the art of writing becomes a finger painting instead of an oil work. And, please, remember that writing is an art form, not just putting two words together with two more words and then two more after that and so on. Writing—story telling—is about conveying a message in a manner that leaves the reader wanting more, not just of the story, but of you, the writer.

One of my favorite writers is a guy by the name of Dameion Becknell. Hell of a writer. Hell of a good guy, but I bet you’ve never heard of him. You see, Dameion is a friend of mine who writes vividly brilliant stories that suck you in and leaves you breathless. However, Dameion isn’t in the habit of submitting stories to markets. I fuss at him, nag him, chastise him for keeping his art to himself. If I had the choice between reading something by Dameion and reading ANY well known writer, I would choose Dameion every time. He’s that good. But, you see, Dameion doesn’t write for an editor. He doesn’t write to get published. He doesn’t write to fit the mold of any other writer out there. No, Dameion writes because he loves telling stories—and he has it down to an art form.

And there lies the answer to the short story’s popularity. If you’re a writer and you’re in this business for the dollar bills you can make, then you’re probably in it for the wrong reason. However, if you are a story teller and you want to entertain readers and you write for them (as well as yourself) then you’re probably on the right track.  If you want to tell a story, well, I think you’re ahead of the curve.

The majority of us writers have become those cookie cutter writers. We’re sugar cookies, at best—maybe even just the dough. We need to add some life to those cookies. Put in some chocolate chips. Maybe some nuts or peanut butter. How about some white chocolate or M&M’s?

I’ve often refused to write the way editors and publishers have wanted things written. I’ve always stated that I enjoy writing the way I write, with mood, with feeling and less action than most folks who decide the fate of my submissions care for. But, that’s okay with me. I want to write. And I want to get published. But if that means writing the same boring words that every other writer who wants the same thing, then it’s not for me. I’ve written for editors. I’ve written to get published. And, to be honest, I hated it.

Now, I write to tell stories. I write to entertain. I’m not King—I don’t want to be. But, I also don’t want to write those same self absorbed words that everyone else writes.

A couple of years ago I wrote a story just to write it. I had no intentions of getting it published, but after a year or so I sent it out. It was picked up and a few months later I received an e-mail from the editor. He had forwarded an e-mail he received from a woman who read that story. She said that it so touched her by its beauty and sadness and redemption that it made her cry. As a writer, that is the best thing I could have ever asked for from a reader. To feel my words. I gave that lady an experience in my story and it moved her to tears.

As writers, shouldn’t we strive to move people to feel something? Anything? Shouldn’t we feel something as well? I’ll never be the great American author. I’m not so sure I want to be. A story teller however… now there’s something I can strive for…

Okay, now to hop off the soapbox… I have stories to tell…