When the Last Story is Told

Four days until NaNoWriMo starts, and I’m not sure yet if I’m excited or intimidated.

I was introduced to NaNoWriMo back in 2010, but I didn’t start participating until the following year. To date, I have yet to complete the 50,000 word goal. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing, though. As of this moment, my “Writings” file on my computer takes up just under 1.3 GB of space and contains 893 files. Of course, some of those files are cover art and some are plot/character/world notes, but I’d still say the writing takes up a notable portion of that number. Of the things I’ve actually tallied, I’ve written roughly 680,000 words since 2006. (And that doesn’t include the blogs, outlines, world lore, hand-written stories, and research papers that I’ve written over the years). And on top of that, I have a list of “want-to-finish” books that literally, if I were to finish one every 12 months (completely not realistic for the severely ADD me), I would still be 61 years old by the time I finished writing the last one. (And that would be dependent on a guarantee I wouldn’t come up with any other stories during that length of time).

As I’ve been mulling over this information, along with the thought of starting a brand new project when I already have three big ones I haven’t finished yet, the question came to me: When does a writer decide that they have told their last story?

I’ve heard it said that a writer is merely a person who has a story to tell. And though I definitely feel like I have stories to tell, I haven’t really been coming up with anything new recently. Maybe this isn’t a big deal to most people, but it’s a strange feeling to me, the person who, even just a few years, would tell a family member or friend, “Guess what,” and would immediately get the response, “You came up with a new story.”

It’s made me wonder, do writers run out of stories? Or is it merely because I have an overload of story ideas right now that I’m just too overwhelmed to come up with something new?

I don’t really have an answer, but I wonder if I’m the only one who has ever pondered this, or if it’s a more common question than I realized.

On the upside, there have been several highly successful authors who published their major works after the age of 40, so maybe this dry spell is just a chance for me to catch up and weed out all the ideas that would just fall flat on their faces. And in the meantime, I’ll probably use NaNoWriMo as a chance to propel those projects forward.

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It’s All Perspective

Currently listening to “Book of Days” by David Arkenstone & Kathleen Fisher.

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This picture pretty much sums up my attempt at blogging yesterday. It also is, more or less, what I met when stepping out the door this morning. My life is never dull, that’s for sure.

I live on a small farm outside of Austin, TX. It’s the same piece of property that my family has lived on for the past 60 or so years, a place that is very near and dear to my heart, but somewhere in the mix of rushing to and from work (which is an hour away thanks to traffic) and my obsession with electronics (I have been having way too much fun with my MMOs and screen capture software as of late), I sometimes forget what a blessing (and endless source of entertainment) my rural life is.

There is only a small pasture that separates my house from my grandparents’ house, and because we are usually too busy to mow the acre or so of yard space around our house (the rest of the land is intended for pastureland), we usually end up bringing their cows and donkeys into the yard to do the job for us. Which would be fine, except that the rest of my family has taken great pleasure in regularly feeding the creatures treats, making them as much of a nuisance as an asset.

To add to the excitement of it all, recently one of our cats (the only one of three that was indoor-outdoor; the other two have been indoor all their lives) got injured in a fight with another cat, which has resulted in permanent house arrest (long story) and the “cone of shame,” much to his chagrin.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been very tired recently (part of the reason I couldn’t come up with anything to write yesterday), and today has been no exception. I dragged myself out of bed late this morning and spent a good portion of my time wandering around the house in a zombie-like daze trying to remember what it was I was supposed to be doing. (I am not, in any sense of the word, a “morning person”). By the time I did wake up enough to actually be coherent, it was almost time to leave for work.

I quickly threw some food into my lunchbox, gathered up my things, and headed for the front door when I noticed a little black shadow leering just behind the coffee table. It was our injured cat, Pepe, who decided early on in his recovery that he was through with house life and has been trying to make a break for the great outdoors ever since, cone-of-shame or no. This morning was no exception, and I could tell, judging by the look on that face peering at me from inside the reflector-rimmed, black fabric cone, that if I so much as cracked that door, he was going to make a run for it.

I was already running late by this point and definitely didn’t have time to try to herd a cat around our expansive yard, so I abandoned the idea of leaving the easy way, grabbed up my belongings and shoes, and hauled everything into the laundry room. It’s a slightly longer walk from that side of the house, but at least there’s an extra door on that end that separates the yard from the plotting inmate.

With the laundry room door closed and Pepe no longer a concern, I slipped on my boots, picked my stuff up again, and opened the door. It took about two seconds for a nearby cow to realize there was someone at the “treat door,” and the next thing I knew, not only was I balancing my belongings and trying to lock the door, but I was also trying to keep livestock out of the laundry room at the same time.

“No cows in the laundry room,” I scolded as I turned to head toward the car.

Then came the bleating of the goats nearby, who are also beggars in their own right, and by the time I had driven down to the end of the drive, opened the gate, parked on the other side, and closed the gate again, I couldn’t help but stop and laugh for a minute. What a way to start my day.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite sets of books – or, rather, audiobooks, because as we have previously established, I was not much of a reader as a kid – was the All Creatures Great and Small set written by British author James Herriot. Herriot had a way of making veterinary work and farm life seem infinitely entertaining, and I think I’m really beginning to appreciate that outlook on life now.

I’ve written before about how life seems different depending on how you look at it. I think I had forgotten this somewhere along the way between my first years in college and now, but as I was dodging animals this morning, I began to realize that part of the reason I had forgotten how to find the humorous side of life was because I was taking the little things for granted. Yeah, it’s a pain to dodge escapee cats and greedy livestock, but I don’t think I would want to live any other way. And if I can just keep thinking that way, I am sure there will always be a funny story to tell at the end of the day.

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It’s All Uphill Till the End

Currently listening to “Desire” by Do As Infinity.

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Today I had the pleasure of eating lunch with the library director for my undergrad university’s library, who was my supervisor during the four-ish years I worked in the library and is a personal friend of mine now. She had come to Austin for a librarian’s convention, and since I missed seeing her the last time I was in her “neck of the woods,” I definitely wasn’t going to miss the chance to see her while she was in my own hometown.

While waiting for our food to arrive, she told me about the convention and some of the things that were going on at the library, and I told her about my school and work. Somewhere along the way, we got to talking about writing, and she mentioned that she was considering trying her hand at creative writing. She then asked me what I considered to be the hardest part of the writing process.

I had to think about this one for a moment. Even for those of us who have an unhealthy addiction to writing, there are always times when we feel like the end product isn’t worth the struggle put into it. At least, I have yet to meet an author who has never had at least one day where he or she felt like it was a struggle just to get a sentence completed. What an author considers to be the “hardest part” of writing, however, varies widely from person to person and moment to moment.

After some thought, I told her that I thought probably the middle was the hardest part for me. And usually, it is. For me, I’m really good at coming up with ideas. I can concoct an explosive intro or a climactic and dramatic ending in my sleep, but that middle part…that’s where it gets me. And once I get to that middle part, writing begins to feel less like a hobby and more like a chore.

For a writer like me, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by that invisible mountain peak which is the middle of my story, all the details and intricacies that have to be crafted just right to smoothly transition from that grand beginning into that dramatic ending and somehow compel my audience to keep reading the whole way through. It is something that can easily become overwhelming.

I think that what keeps writers like me going forward through all of that, though, is the thought of how good we know it will feel when we finally finish that middle mountain peak and begin rolling like a freight train toward the end. The feeling of accomplishment when I finally hold that book in my hands makes all those hours of sweat and tears worth the effort, even though I inevitably forget how much effort goes into writing a quality piece when I start the next project and wonder, “Am I gonna ever get through this?”

So if you’re like me and struggling through the middle of your project right now, just remember that the end result will be well worth the effort put into it now. Also know that you’re not alone. Just keep moving forward until you see the other side.

Life Lens

Currently listening to “Lord of the Dance” by Cu Chulainn.

When I was a kid, it seemed that everything was a potential story. I could look at a cloud and see a unicorn or a dolphin take form in the rise and fall of the billowing white. I could drag a little wagon in circles around my grandparents’ house and imagine I was travelling the Oregon Trail. I could even pick up a couple of sticks and imagine that they were antlers that belonged to super magical talking deer. (Yeah, I was a special child…). Back then, there was nothing that seemed too silly…except for my older cousin’s logic, but more on that another day.

Over the last few days I’ve done several posts mulling over my recent inability to compel myself to write. There are a lot of factors that can affect a person’s ability to think creatively, and often more than one reason is the culprit. But overall, I’d say life in general is to blame.

Having been in love with writing since my earliest years, I must say that seeing myself slip away from my creative way of thinking has been both frightening and depressing to me. Instead of seeing unicorns and dolphins when I look up at a cloud now, I see visibly condensed moisture. No matter how hard I try, those dolphins and unicorns never take form for me. When I try to daydream, I rarely get very far before my mind tells me, “That’s illogical. That could never happen because of X, Y, and Z.” And eventually, I stop coming up with new material, because all I can see is the most basic and realistic version of what is in front of me.

I was thinking about this earlier today as I went with the youth group I help lead to a lake clean-up out on Lake Travis here in Austin, TX. We arrived early, while it was still relatively cool, (Texas version of cool, mind you), and then set out to comb the lakeshore for trash needing to be picked up.

About halfway into our cleanup, my group and I came across this.

On first glance, it was fairly obvious what this was: a boat that had gotten a bad leak in it and had subsequently been abandoned. I glanced at it and thought, “Well, that’s depressing,” before setting off after the rest of the group. Several feet away, though, I paused.

“Actually, that’s kinda cool,” I thought. “Maybe I’ll take a picture before I keep going.”

I fished around in my bag for my phone to take a picture, and as I began to position the image in my screen, I thought, “What if I used a lens filter? I wonder what this would look like then.”

And that’s when it hit me. To write well is to filter the world through a mental lens.

They say that everyone has a story to tell. It’s just that not everyone is able to filter that story through the lens of inspiration. I think children are able to filter their world more easily than those of us who have lived through years of disappointment, hurt, and struggle. Some writers never lose that sense of wonder, constantly filtering their struggles through a lens of what could be. I admire people like that.

For my part, I was raised in a family where you had to think realistically. Every choice I made came with a litany of questions of why I made the choice and a lecture on why or how I could have done better if I had been more realistic/done something differently. I think there is a very real and necessary place for realistic thinking, but when it becomes the focus, eventually the creative lens gets smudged and it becomes increasingly more difficult to see the world as anything more than a dreary panorama of cold, hard facts.

And so my conclusion on this thought? For those of us who may have been losing our creative way due to all the realistic thinking, it’s about time we take another look at life. That abandoned boat can either be just that – an abandoned machine – or it can be the mysterious and forlorn opening to a mystery of the lonely boat tied to the shoreline, waiting for a master that will never return. It’s all in how you look at it. Also, don’t be afraid every once in a while to tell your brain, “I don’t care if it can happen in the real world. It can, and will, happen in mine.”

I think it’s about time we reclaim that missing lens, before it shatters and ends up gone forever.

Living Description

Currently listening to “Cherry Blossoms in Winter” by the Yoshida Brothers.

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There’s a Studio Ghibli movie that seems to have been forgotten somewhere in the mix of all the fantasy and sword-wielding that exists in the world of anime, and its name is From Up On Poppy Hill. The story, set in 1960s Japan, centers around the everyday life of a young girl and her crush as they strive to save their clubhouse from being knocked down and replaced with a modern building.

The young heroine is surrounded by a wide range of interesting characters since she lives in and works at a boarding house. One of the characters living at the boarding house is Sachiko (pictured above), an art student who spends a good half of her time in the movie dragging herself out of bed. Why do I bring this up? Well, in one scene that stuck out very clearly in my mind, Sachiko groggily sits up, looks around, and mutters, “What day is it?”

I decided she was my long lost twin after that.

Somehow I forgot yesterday that it was even a new day and I missed a post, so I’ll try to make up for it here.

As I’ve mentioned before, I started working on my MLS (Masters of Library Science) degree this semester, and for one of the assignments, I was required to go to a library I had never been to before and compile a list of observations on it, ranging from the layout of the library to the type of people who came there. The kicker? I had to go to a library I had never been to before. The assignment isn’t due till later this month, but considering my tendency toward forgetting what day it is, I figured it would be better to turn the assignment in early than to end up doing the opposite.

With that in mind, I took the day off from work yesterday and drove to a nearby town to do my observation at the public library there. I spent some time roaming around the place and taking into account the way the library looked and the way the people there interacted with each other. Then I sat down and addressed the first question, which was, “What does the library look like?  Does it have aesthetic appeal, why or why not?”

I glanced around again, then began to jot down notes:

  • White walls
  • Metal shelves
  • Industrial-type lighting
  • Basic carpet floors
  • Chairs & tables mostly light-stained wood

I was working on this list when something suddenly occurred to me. In answering this first question, I was doing the very thing that I do for all my books: describing my world.

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Back when I was in high school, my AP English teacher assigned us the task of writing a descriptive “essay,” which was literally a descriptive scene of whatever variety we chose. Of course, me being the long-winded fantasy writer that I am, I wrote a several-page-long scene from a story I had been working on, finishing it in the course of maybe a day, while all my classmates struggled to come up with a paragraph. Finally, one of my friends came up to me and asked, “How do you do this?”

“Find a picture,” I had told her. “Ask yourself, what is going on in this picture? If you were there, what would you be hearing? What would you be feeling? What would you be seeing? What would you be tasting? Write these things down and put them into a paragraph. Pretend you are there and you are describing everything going on around you to someone who isn’t.”

For her, this helped a lot, and she was able to finish the assignment with very little trouble. To me, this seemed basic, but I do realize now that description is a lot more complicated for most people than it is for me.

It really depends on the type of writing you do, but description still ranks as one of the most important aspects of writing out there. You can have a great plot idea, but unless you can engage your readers, your project will never be more than words on a page to them.

I think that in an age where everyone is so accustomed to seeing their story on a screen, description through words is becoming a lost art. Every word, every punctuation mark has the potential to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, but that image is dependent on how those words and punctuation marks are arranged by the writer.

I remember visiting a historical house several years back, (it may have been the Mark Twain house, but I’m not sure), and while there, the tour guide told us that the furniture and decorations had been arranged as they would have been during the lifetime of the owner. This had been made possible, the tour guide said, because the people who had visited the house had described, in detail, the appearance and arrangement of everything from the sofa to the ash tray in their letters to friends and family members back home.

Now that is the art of description.

So how does that apply to us today? I think any writer, no matter how experienced, can benefit from doing what I did for my assignment and what those visitors of the past did in their time, which is learn to describe the environment around them, particularly those of us who specialize in fantasy, since the richness of our created worlds comes from our ability to take what we have seen and mold it into something we haven’t.

If you’re a writer, I encourage you to take a couple hours and explore your hometown. Take a walk through the historical district. Visit a coffee shop. Go to the public library. Then pull out a pen and paper or your laptop (I prefer pen and paper since I feel like ideas flow better that way) and describe what you see there. That way, someday your explanation will go from, “White walls, metal shelves, and industrial-type lightning,” to:

“The quiet hum of whispered conversations filled the air of the library’s main room. Young children giggled softly over newly-discovered books as older patrons tapped away at computer keyboards, while bright, early-afternoon sunlight filtered in through the glass doors leading into the lobby, glowing against off-white walls and painted metal shelves. The natural light of the day was offset only by the long, industrial light fixtures that hung above the stacks loaded with books.”

Any place, no matter how mundane, can become a story in and of itself if you use the right words.

Have any other suggestions for how to improve description? I’m always interested in learning new ways to improve my writing, so please feel free to share. And in the meantime, happy reading!

Concept: “Write Like You’re Already Famous”

Currently listening to “Still” by AbeMao.

Life has been a roller coaster ride for me for years, but it seems like since leaving college I have been in a series of dizzying spirals, especially when it comes to my writing. (If any of you have ridden Goliath at the San Antonio Six Flags location, you know exactly what I’m talking about).

It’s hard to believe how much time has passed since my last entry here on my blog, and I cannot apologize enough to my readers for that. But hopefully that’s about to change.

This fall I started two new endeavors:

  1. Grad School: I’m doing a Masters in Library Science (hopefully with a focus on either archives, academic, or research libraries).
  2. Freelance writing: I have never had much confidence in my writing abilities, but so far I’ve had no trouble with approvals on the projects I’ve done. More on that later, though.

For a while now I’ve been feeling a stagnation in my writing (I think I’ve written about that before, actually), but today, while working on an assignment for class, I noticed that I had a notification from Twitter. Now, I am, as most people know by now, woefully bad about keeping up with social media, but since getting a smartphone a year ago, the notification system has helped some with that. (Yay, technology!). The notification was telling me that several of the people I followed (a large portion of the people I follow on Twitter are writers like myself) had shared a post about a book called “Write Like You’re Already Famous.” The post contained an image with a quote on it that really struck me.

write like you're already famousView the post here: https://twitter.com/MisterSalesman/status/773109805032566784

I’ve noticed that somewhere in the grand scope of self-publishing, the doubts and stresses of life have slowly crept in. I had considered freelance writing in the past, but doubted that I could ever write anything worth paying for. (Which is silly, I suppose, since I have been paid for articles I’ve written in the past). And somehow that fear of failure has slowly transitioned into my personal writing as well. I believe most people call it “writer’s anxiety.”

This Twitter post, however, struck me. It suggests that in order to become a more successful writer, one should start by writing a 300-word blog post every day. For me, 300 words is not much (actually, I’ve already exceeded the 300-word goal with my rambling today). I don’t know why I never thought to try this before, but I’d say it’s worth a shot as a way of getting myself back into my writing, which I have missed a great deal.

So with that being said, I suppose I should get back to my homework, but I aim to be around here more from now on. To those of you who may be facing the same struggles as myself, I hope this little suggestion will encourage you as much as it has me. And maybe some day soon I’ll be able to do a review of the book as well. For now, best wishes to readers and writers alike. Cheers!

A New Look

Hey everyone! This is just going to be a quick update.

For those of you who have been following my blog for some time now, you might notice some major changes recently. Firstly, there’s a new domain name now.

I started this blog back in 2011 as a college freshman with absolutely no idea how to utilize social media (not that I’m much better about it now) and even less knowledge of marketing. I started blogging mostly because everyone else in the writing club I was a part of did it. I called it “Gilleland Creations,” thinking that I would randomly post about what I created on here (doodles, poems, stories, etc). What it turned into, however, was a site dedicated mostly to my novels and the art of writing. Thus, the name “Gilleland Creations” was not only a bit difficult to remember, it was actually a little misleading, too. So, with that in mind, I decided today that it was time to change the domain name to something simpler: my name.

The other change you’ll notice is the change in theme (page layout). The theme that I have had up until this point is the same one I chose five years ago when I launched the blog. With a new name, I figured it was time for a new look, too.

For the next week or so, you’ll probably see a few more changes as I try to see what works for me and what doesn’t. To those of you who have been following me for a while, thank you for all your support. I hope you continue to enjoy my work. And to those of you who may have just recently found me, I hope you’ll endure the messiness of all the changes my website is going through and stick around for the long haul. Thanks, and happy reading!