Lessons Learned From the Bike: Time, Practice and Potholes

I was finishing a ride on the Highline Canal Trail. I was riding on the sidewalk on the highway overpass, because there is no room to ride safely in the street. I saw a pedestrian coming toward me, and, rather than stopping, I hugged the right side of the sidewalk, allowing the pedestrian to keep to her right.

What I didn’t see was the manhole cover with a huge pothole. I hit it going full speed (granted, my full speed is only about 13 mph). It jolted every bolt and joint on both my body and my bike. It unseated me and my feet flew off the pedals (I don’t clip in). Within seconds, my feet found their placing, I regained my seat, and Blue2 and I rode merrily on.

I haven’t been riding long, but I realized that a couple of years ago, this would have been a very painful accident. I would not just have been unseated, I would have crashed miserably, either going over the handlebars or not being able to regain balance.

Life is like that. I have learned that sometimes you can’t assume that what looks like a leaf is actually a leaf. Sometimes it’s a rock. Sometimes the puddle is deeper than you think. And you never see beforehand the nail that lodges in your tire.

But with enough time, with enough practice, huge potholes don’t have to end in a crash. Nothing but time and practice will give you the skill and balance you need to keep seated and keep moving on.

Put in the time. Don’t let the potholes make you crash. No matter what it is in your life. Writing. Music. Family. Friends. God. Put in the time. Keep moving on.


Makin’ It Strong: He Said/She Said

Makin’ It Strong: He Said/She Said

As an editor, I’ve seen some bad writing, some good writing, some great writing. I’ve seen a few grammar mistakes that mar otherwise good manuscripts, and I’ve seen writing made weaker by taking the easy way out. I will be addressing some of these “easy” writing tricks that sap the strength out of your writing.

original-758275-1We’ve all been there. You’re engrossed in a book, come across a passage with a great deal of dialogue and suddenly you can’t figure out who’s talking. You maybe go up to the last time you saw, “he said,” and then work your way back down. Nothing takes you out of the story faster.

As writers, we want our readers to lose themselves in the story, not the dialogue.

Some writers avoid this trap by using the he said/she said attribution, known as a dialogue tag, every single time. That gets tiresome for the reader as well as the writer. So some writers fall into the seductive trap of either adding adverbs (he said warily, she said sarcastically) or using a substitute word called a “said-bookism.” These can be subtle (he explained, she replied) or a glaring distraction (he chuckled, she peeped). Why is it a distraction? Try it right now. Say something while chuckling or peeping at the same time. It’s not natural. It’s not how real people talk. And if you try that in real life, people will start avoiding you.

The beauty of the word “said” is that it provides a signpost so people don’t get lost, but it blends seamlessly into the background of the story. It’s a word we don’t pay attention to; our eyes skim over it, subconsciously noting the signpost but staying within the world of the story. Isn’t that what we as writers want for our readers?

That doesn’t mean the writer should never use an adverb tag. A well-placed adverb is like a pinch of salt. Too much ruins the dish. But the right amount adds flavor and makes the dish memorable. At times, a subtle said-bookism may be a better choice than an adverb, e.g., she whispered vs. she said softly. Remember, as a writer, you want your readers to come away remembering your story, your characters, your dialogue—in other words, the heart of your book—rather than someone chuckling, peeping, exclaiming, shrieking, growling, hissing and chortling.

Said-bookisms and adverb tags are unnecessary to strong writing. A reader should not have to be told that a biting remark is sarcastic. And in fact, why are we “telling” at all? Show don’t tell. If the reader can’t tell from the situation, then you haven’t done your job as a writer. As Rob Hart with LitReactor wrote, “Dialogue tags are a crutch. They’re a distraction from what you should really be doing: Conveying things through actions, word choice and mannerisms” (https://litreactor.com/columns/on-dialogue-tags-why-anything-besides-said-and-asked-is-lazy-writing — read the article; you’ll enjoy it).

By the way, not everyone agrees with this. There is an entire movement called “Said Is Dead,” which offers scores of words to use instead of the dreaded said. We’ve all done it at times. It seems more literary. But to paraphrase William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White, keep it simple, stupid.

So what do you need to do? Read over your current piece of writing. Read it out loud. Read it the way you wrote it, with every bellow, chuckle, and growl added in. Does it sound like dialogue sounds in real life? Probably not. Take out the adverbs and said-bookisms. Use he said/she said as signposts in longer pieces of dialogue. How does it read now? Does it sound more natural? If you find places where you feel you have to have an adverb, consider rewriting the dialogue or the narrative beats surrounding the dialogue to show rather than tell.

Revise your writing. Make it strong.

Writing and Grief

My mother’s death has left me with … nothing. Maybe I should just say that it has left me. At times I feel in a fog. At times I forget. At times I remember and grief wrings at my heart the way my mother used to wring out wet clothes. It’s been three weeks. And there’s a nagging feeling that I should get back to life.

In some ways I have. I’ve been biking. I’ve been working. I’ve been going to church, going to dinner, going out with friends. In some of that, there is forgetfulness. On the bike, I can lose everything else and just focus on the sky, the trees, the sunlight, the feeling of the saddle, the peddles, the wind. At work, I can focus on the tasks that need to be done–although some of the bigger tasks feel beyond me at the moment.

Being with friends or family means grief can’t be overwhelming. I want to be with them, I want to TALK, I want to cry and scream and yell “MY MOM IS DEAD.” Instead, we talk of normal life, sometimes of inconsequentials. My words get clogged in my throat, unable to get past the tears traffic-jammed there. I want to cry out to them “help me in my unbelief.” Tell me that she still lives in the afterlife. Tell me that this isn’t the end. Tell me that I will see her again, that she right now is with my dad.

I want to be held while I cry, I want someone to say, “Shhh, everything is alright.”

In other words, I want my mom.

I should get back to life. So not just bike riding or working. I should get back to writing. Just a few words, I tell myself. She wouldn’t want me to stop writing. And yet, it feels so unimportant. Who the hell cares about a rescue operation run out of a bakery? Or a sin-eater named Moth? Or any of the other stories I’ve started and can’t finish. Words on a page don’t seem to mean anything compared to the ashes that rest beside me. They aren’t as solid as a graven headstone.

And yet words were important to her. She loved reading. Some of my earliest memories of her were in a library picking out books to read. She passed that love of reading on to me, and I was so excited when I got old enough to pick books out of the same section of the library that my mom frequented. She loved fiction, mainly mysteries, thrillers, horror, and she shaped a lot of my early reading years. To this day, I can remember the characters of those early books.

So again I ask the question of myself–who the hell cares? Are these things unimportant. No. They connect us to each other, and in some mystical, spiritual way, maybe my words will still connect me to my mom.

I should get back to life. Back to my life. Back to writing. Back to Moth. Back to the Salvatore bakery. As unimportant as they seem sometimes, they are my life.

Even as I write that, another part of me says “tomorrow.” Because right now, it just hurts too much.


A Short Story Warning

short storyI’ve been thinking about e-publishing one or two of my novels. One of them I’m pretty sure will never see the light of traditional publishing because of its subject matter. It would just be too hard of a sell. However, I think it’s worthy to be read, and so I’m considering jumping in to the somewhat murky, yet rapidly moving waters of e-books.

In preparation for that, I’m going to post some of my short stories here on the blog.

I’m not much of a short story writer; I prefer to ramble and wander and discover the story while letting the characters find their voice, where a short story needs to be sharply defined from the beginning. For a look at an excellent short story, visit 13 Periods a Year. This blogger promises 13 short stories this year, and after reading and re-reading the first one, I can’t wait for the rest. (Definitely read her short story, but don’t forget to come back here. I’ll wait.)

I am posting a warning about my short stories before I lob them at you. Not all my stories are appropriate for all readers. Some might find them offensive. Some of them are. Some are meant to be. I will do my best to post something at the beginning to let you know that the story that follows might have objectionable content.

I have written a short story called “Wisp” that I will be posting in five installments over the next few days. Each installment is its own story, and all five interlock to make the whole. It’s a somewhat existential look at five major themes in life: birth, family, sex, religion and work. I hope that you look forward to reading them as much as I look forward to posting them.

Feedback is definitely desired and encouraged.

Lessons Learned from the Bike, Part One

balance-balance-motivational-1310443928I’ve been riding a bike since May 2012. Not very long. I love it, though, and I’ve found that no matter what is going on in my life, it’s all made better by time in the saddle. There is a sign on a bike trail in Fort Collins, Colorado, that my daughter pointed out to me when we went riding a couple of months ago. It reads “Let it all go.” That’s so true. In the saddle, I can let it all go and just focus on the ride.

I’ve learned a few things while on the bike, and I think they apply to so-called “real life.” Let me say right here that these are my own lessons learned. They may not apply to everyone, and they may not be true for every cyclist. Here’s a few in no particular order.

1. Any ride is better than no ride. Sometimes my mind will trick me that I don’t have enough time in one single chunk to do something. “I can’t write–I only have 20 minutes.” Biking has taught me the fallacy of that. Only 20 minutes? No problem. I can still get a very short three-mile ride in. While that isn’t much, any ride is better than no ride. And writing two paragraphs is better than not writing at all. Grab what you can when you can.

This also applies to exercise. Riding a bike is great exercise. And while you may at times feel that you can’t spend enough time to make it worthwhile, or that you don’t go fast enough nor far enough, remember this: you are lapping everyone who is sitting on the couch.

2. When confronted with the choice to go uphill or down, choose uphill. I’m all about options, and generally speaking, the more options you have, the better. If you choose to go downhill, you have eliminated the easy option, basically leaving you with no options. If you choose uphill, you can always change your mind if you really need to. Going uphill has a lot of benefits. The first, of course, is that eventually, you’ll go down the other side, wind rushing through your hair, joy flooding your exhilarated body. Second, the view is better from the top. You can look back at the hill you’ve just climbed, the accomplishment you have achieved, the challenge you have conquered and say, “Wow, I did that!”

In child development, if the parent does everything for the child, the child never achieves a sense of accomplishment and learns instead to be helpless and dependent. We develop self-esteem and self-confidence only by conquering the difficult. Choose uphill. Say yes to the challenge.

3. When going uphill, go small. This goes along with the one above. If you’ve chosen to go uphill, there are going to be times that you are sure you won’t be able to make it. That’s especially true in life. Some challenges feel unconquerable. In that case, it’s best to look at the short distances. As the joke goes–how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Don’t look at the whole hill; focus instead on the few yards in front of you. Look ahead a little ways and pick a target. On one hill that I used to regularly ride, I would pick my target and give myself permission to turn around when I reached that target. I never turned around. I always without fail picked another target and kept going.

I read an article recently by Kimberly Turner about resolutions for writing, and she made this point. Looking at the big picture is necessary so you know where you’re going, but looking at it too long can be overwhelming. Get the big picture, the big hill, in mind and then make smaller goals. Instead of saying, “I’m going to write that novel this year,” break it down and say, “I’m going to write chapter one this week.” Instead of saying, “I’m going to lose 25 pounds this year,” say “I’m going to eat healthy today,” and “I’m going to lose two pounds this month.”

4. Keep moving. Life is movement. It pushes forward, struggles, surges, creeps. It is never still. Growth is movement. To stop moving is to become stagnant, to die. To ride a bike is movement. You can’t ride a bike and be still at the same time. If in life you feel you are stuck, move. If you are depressed, move. If you are uncertain which path to take, take one. MOVE. As Winston Churchill said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.” Nothing lasts forever. If you are going through bad times, they will not last. Keep moving.

I wish I could say that you will not fall off your bike if you keep moving. You no doubt will take a spill at some point while biking. But it is a certainty that you will fall off if you don’t move at all.

I live in Colorado, where I can look out my window at any given moment and see the mountains. And they are beautiful, majestic, breathtaking. But my heart longs to be on the beach with its ceaseless movement. Life is movement. Growth is movement. Learning is movement. Biking is movement.

5. It’s all about you. When I first started riding, I would approach this one hill and kill myself trying to maintain my speed. It took a lot of the joy out of hitting that hill, because I just couldn’t ride it as fast as what I thought I should. I have riding friends, and I was judging myself–a fledgling rider–on their distances and speeds.

Sometimes in life people will judge you based on their own standards. Sometimes you will judge yourself based on how they live their lives. But the truth is, no one sits in your saddle but you. No one resides in your skin but you. No one rides your path but you. That’s right–it’s all about you. Shinedown has a song called “What a Shame.” The first line of the chorus is “What a shame, what a shame to judge a life that you can’t change.”

Don’t let anyone else’s judgment change who you are–either when you’re riding or in life. We in the church are famous for doing that to others, judging them without knowing their lives, motivations, choices, challenges as if we had the right. I will write more about that in a future blog post.

6. Announce yourself. While it is all about you, recognize that you are part of a community. When you are on a bike and are approaching a pedestrian, you are supposed to announce yourself. “On your left.” This keeps them from unwittingly stepping out in front of you and hurting themselves, you and your bike. So it is in life. Announce yourself. This doesn’t mean that when you walk into a party you have to throw your arms open wide and belt out “Here I am! Embrace me!” It means say hello. It means reach out to someone else. Greet people. Smile. As a pastor at my old church used to say, “Be kind to everyone you meet, because everyone you meet is carrying a heavy load.”

I don’t just announce myself to the pedestrians on the bike path. I have a bell on my bike and I love ringing it. It’s a happy sound, and God knows we could use more happy sounds in this often sorrowful world. I ring the bell at other bikers. It’s a recognition that we are in a special community, that we both know the joys of pedal pumping. I saw a little girl one time and I know the joy on her face matched my own, and when I rang my bell and she rang hers in return, I felt like I’d met a sister, even though 40-plus years separated us.

There’s the first set. One final story–not because it fits in any particular category, but because it makes me happy when I remember it.

Squirrels are always something to watch out for. They’re fast, they’re unpredictable, and they always think they can beat you. Not long ago, I was riding on the street (sometimes I like to avoid the bike paths because I can build up better speed that way–no pedestrians to worry about), when a squirrel darted in front of me. I braked and it got by me. But there was an accelerating SUV on the other side, and I was pretty sure the squirrel would be flattened roadkill in no time. But if the driver didn’t see the squirrel, he no doubt saw my look of horror and my shoulders scrunched up by my ears in preparation of impending squirrel doom, and he braked. The squirrel made it safely to the tree on the other side of the road, and as the driver passed me, he gave me a huge smile and a thumbs up.

Community, a simple shared moment, happens even in unlikely circumstances.

Until my next bike post, wear your helmet, look both ways, settle in the saddle, and ride on.

I Used to Be …

In reviewing how things have gone this past year, I could focus on all the bad things that have happened, and there have been a number of them, both personally and communally. However, since I have struggled with depression lately, I’ve decided that focusing on the negative isn’t going to help anyone, me included.

So I thought instead about some positive personal events and a purchase I made this last year that have had a good deal of importance for me. First, the purchase. In May, I bought a bike and named her Baby Blue. I had a bike when I was a kid but I never rode it, because I walked everywhere. But a friend of mine talks a lot about biking, and so I thought I would give it a try. I fell in love. Biking has become not just something I do, but someone I am. I am a cyclist. I don’t go extremely fast nor extremely far. I’m working up to that. But there is a feeling when I’m in the saddle that is unlike almost anything else. It calms me. It frees me. It helps me to refocus. I plan on writing a post in the very near future called “Lessons Learned from the Bike.” There have been many, and I’d like to share them with anyone who cares to read them.

One thing that I’ve wanted to do while riding is get to the point of being so comfortable with it that I can lose myself to everything else and think about my writing, that as the pedals turn, so will the creative wheels in my brain and I’ll envision scenes with great clarity.

I have been able to take a couple of trips this year, trips I call my “walkabouts,” most of them to beach areas. I love the beach. There is something about the ceaseless movement of the tide that speaks to me. I’ve had the good fortune to watch the sun set on the water, and I saw a moon rise that made me feel incredibly joyful to be in that place at that moment.

One thing I have done on my walkabouts is write. Well, that’s always been the plan. This year has seen very little writing. There’s something in the back of my brain that whispers, “You used to be a writer,” and I feel the sadness, the longing in those words, the tug which is as ceaseless as the tides. I used to be a writer. I created worlds and people and events. I miss it.

I have my suspicions of where the drive to write went, of how this particular writer ended up on a death bed. I won’t discuss that here other than to say I’m aware of it. I’m not sure it can be overcome or resurrected. There’s no going back to who I was before, so I need to find a way through it. Perhaps that means just pushing through until I tap that creative spirit again. Perhaps it means writing something different, becoming a different sort of writer. I’m hoping that writing this here will make me accountable to something or someone.

I have been unable to finish much of anything. I have the beginnings of several novels and a few short stories, and I can’t seem to find the motivation, or maybe the sheer guts it takes, to finish. I will briefly summarize the plots of various manuscripts I have begun. These are characters I have created who deserve to see the light of day, to see a finish to their stories.

The Mikes (5 chapters finished as well as numerous random chapters) is about one woman’s sexual journey and exploration. i started writing this because I knew it would sell and I’m tired of writing “literature” that no one wants. So I wanted something steamy and fun. I started it long before 50 Shades of Grey came out, and it is much, much better, even in its infancy. Like 50 Shades, it deals with the BDSM lifestyle, but unlike 50 Shades, this manuscript has actually been researched. After reading parts of 50 Shades of Grey, I have to wonder if she did any research at all or talked with anyone who actually lives this lifestyle. However, her book coming out when it did knocked some of the wind out of my literary sails. Like a sucker punch. Even if I get it published now (well, if I get it written, that is), mine will look derivative. Redundant and regurgitated.

The Sin Eater, two chapters in. It’s actually untitled so far, and while it isn’t about an actual sin eater, the concept is close enough. My main character is Moth, a young but ageless woman who does what a sin eater does–bears the sin of others as they prepare to die. My secondary character is Jasper, the sin eater in training, so to speak, except he doesn’t want the job and his drug addiction keeps him from doing what he knows is right.

The Salvatore Series, book one. Another untitled one, two chapters in. This is another one I started in order to be commercial. My plan is for it to be a series of action/romance novels, and the front for the rescue operation is Salvatores, an Italian bakery. There are hot men, sexy women, etc., etc., etc. Or there will be, once it gets out of my imagination and onto the computer. I like my idea, like where it’s going, like my main characters as well as the characters who will come later in the series.

Framing of the Shrew, comedic murder mystery, Eight chapters finished. Woohoo! Eight chapters. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Certainly compared to the others. But it dug in its heels and refused to go further. I know what the problem was. A character came in uninvited and wants to be the romantic interest for my main character, who is a college professor accused of murdering one of her students. I didn’t want him to be the romantic interest. I had someone else in mind. So I wrote part of another chapter and promptly lost all interest. (Sidebar to any writers out there–don’t make this mistake. Let your novel go where it wants to go, because like a mule, it won’t go anywhere it doesn’t want to go.)

Finally, there is the screenplay for my novel Justified Means. I’ve got about the first 25 minutes, and it’s rolling along pretty well. Except that I stopped working on it. Yes, even now sitting here writing all this, I’m thinking a great big WTF? There’s no reason I shouldn’t be done with any of these. Russell Crowe as God. It’ll be fabulous!

I’ve got a couple of others, but these are the ones that I ache for, the ones that if I abandon them, there will be a yawning, engulfing hole in my stomach, like a healthy pregnancy that’s been aborted.

I’m telling you about them so that every now and then someone might say, “Hey, are you working on that novel? You know, the great one about …” Fill in the blank. Hold me accountable. Make me feel uncomfortable with the question. I dare ya. Read the chapters that I start posting on here and either tear them to shreds with criticism or beg me for more. Oh, and if you want to vote which one I should pursue first, feel free to tell me.

I promise I won’t ignore you the way I’ve tried to ignore the little voice inside that says “You used to be a writer.”