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For a birthday Goat who should have been here, but alas, is not!

It’s always a bit startling when your contemporaries suddenly die. When it happens at a time when you know it’s not the drugs, the booze or whatever else kills them these days and it happens to someone who has loomed so large in your own imagination and in your musical Multiverse, it’s, welll…devastating.

This was my state of mind when my daily fix of snark – also known as Blabbermouth – delivered the news that Peter Steele of Type O Negative had passed away aged 48 on April 14th, 2010. That was also the only day in my entire life where I cried on a bus over the death of a near-stranger…except…he wasn’t.

No band was more important in my world, no voice mattered more (except the usual dead suspects), and no one was more of an inspiration – not so much in his person (I met him twice), but in the music he created with his bands. Without Type O Negative, I would never have begun to write.

And without Peter, I would never have created one character in Quantum Demonology, Saint Peter the former Polish alchemist, whose introduction was this immortal line, said to the Devil at the Chelsea Hotel one early December morning:

“Pay up, asshole. You lost the bet.”

I was in a quandary that day. Because in the chapter I was writing that day, it was April 29th and he was very much alive, and also…immortal.

I decided to plow on regardless. So Saint Peter went on as a friend and a gatekeeper for my female Faust, and lived, so far as I know, happily ever after in Flatbush with a redheaded Norse Goddess…

Long before I ever met/created Saint Peter, who sprang fully fledged off the page and then refused to leave, I wrote about the real deal in several places. Below are the best…

Ode for a Birthday Goat

Halloween in Heaven

and the one it broke my heart to write:

The Day My…

Today would have been/should have been his fiftieth birthday. Alas, it was not to be. But so long as one person remembers you, you are…immortal.

Today, millions of us will make sure he truly is!

He even had the grace to leave his music behind.

Happy (late) birthday, Peter. I do hope you’re showing all those other long-gone Primeval Forces how it’s done…in whatever Heaven you happen to be in!

–  or why I won’t participate in the National Novel Writing Month

On the face of it, it sounds like a great kick in the pants/impetus/motivational tool. Write a novel in a month – which is to say, 50, 000 words – and see where it takes you. So all over the world during this dire and dreary month of November, writers and wannabes everywhere are banging away on their keyboards, filling out their notebooks, sweating over phrasing, plot, syntax, context and development. Several of my friends and fellow bloggers are participating, and I really, truly wish them nothing but the utmost of success.

I’m a writer wannabe myself. So why am I not participating and banging out with the best of them? Why, in fact, do I dig in my heels the most bullish way I know? Really, I don’t think I’m that bad a writer. (You may beg to disagree!) Honest, I can write a novel. In fact, I have written two and have synopses for four more.

Yet, I don’t and I won’t and I shan’t. On principle. Darlings.

Before I’m tarred, feathered, hung and quartered for my heretical stance on Rampant Creativity Romps, let me state a few things.

I believe with my heart and soul that anyone, anyone at all can…learn to write. Which is to say…learn to write in a coherent, logical and cohesive fashion that will relate to readers.

No matter what your theme or subject matter… Yes! You, too can learn to write…

Which is not at all the same thing as saying you will be the next Stephen King/James Patterson/Dan Brown/Stephanie Meyers, to name a few wildly successful novelists. It’s not even very much to do with that nebulous concept called “talent”. I’ll get back to that one in a moment.

Anyone can learn to write, and anyone anywhere can learn to bang out some semblance of a story line that may eventually become the next Kindle/iPad/Amazon/NY Times bestseller sensation.

Or maybe not. Which brings me back to my original premise.

Because what happens to all those millions of hopeful writers once we hit December? How many of them will actually walk the walk, talk the talk and swallow the gazillion compromises they will need to swallow before they see their own names on the books people actually read?

Put another way…How many words, plots and potential Hollywood blockbusters will languish forever in obscurity on hard drives and flash drives and DVD-Rs and notebooks?

Call me an arrogant bitch, but my guess is…most of them.

How many of those writers who wrote with such a fury in November will still be at it come July…polishing and perfecting their deathless November prose, investigating marketing their material, looking into literary agencies and Lulu.com and promotional PR strategies?

Again, I’ll venture…very few.

I say this not because I’m jealous, vindictive, envious of other people’s obvious talents/success, screaming arrogant (arguable!) or just plain mean, but because of the one overriding lesson I’ve learned since I began to write with a fury of my own.

Writing 50,000 words in a month – any month will do – does not make you a writer. Writing a novel, or two, or three does not make you a writer. Publication, even, does not make you a writer. Not even talent makes you a writer. Lots of people have a talent for writing. Not all of them become writers. And not all writers have talent, either.

What makes a writer is a combination of dedication, dogged determination and above all else the compulsion – not just the ability – to write. Write as if your life depends upon it, write as if the Hounds of Hell are on your heels, write to stave off death and despair and the fear of your own mortality, write as if…you can’t NOT write. Write when you’re sick, write when you’re down, write in your head as you go about your day, on the job, on your way home, standing in the checkout line, wonder as I sometimes have, how events in your life can somehow morph into a storyline, a plot device, a…novel.

Write for yourself, write what you want to read. That ephemeral ghost called ‘inspiration’ will sometimes make an appearance and sometimes – most times, in fact – won’t. The very act of nailing your posterior to a chair and opening up a notebook/laptop, wringing out a sentence that lands on the page like a dried up glob of toothpaste will eventually cede way to another sentence. And another. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Have faith when it bores you, have faith when your characters misbehave as they surely will, have faith when you are about as sick of your own twisted mind and story as you can get. Then, once you’ve made it that far, grow a rhinoceros hide for all those rejection letters you will also assuredly get, or all that pointed criticism you will also most assuredly get.

Do all of this, disregard the umpteen million and highly discouraging writing websites and online critique groups that more or less say ‘Just give it up already!’, and have the courage to fall down those rabbit holes of your own imagination. That’s the hard part – to trust the process and trust not being 100% in control.

Fifty thousand words in a month can’t teach you all of that. No one can but you.

On some dark and stormy night – it may be November, it may be January – the feather touch of a new idea will land in your brain to give you goosebumps, and you will find yourself in the throes of the fabled ‘What-if’….

‘What-if’ can strike at any time.

If you’re the type to need an excuse, or just a good, hard kick up the backside and a lot of support, then by all means, see if you can participate in NaNoWriMo. I’ll applaud your courage, and buy or download your book.

But for me, it’s #NaNoWriMo every month and every day of the year, and I don’t even get vacations.

I do it because I can’t not. I do it because I suck at everything else.

I do it because I’m a writer. In November, and in January, and even in July. And fifty thousand words is only halfway through most of the stories I want to tell…and not even a tenth of all the tales I hold in my hands.

Image: gracewhatareyoudoing.blogspot.com

#NaNoWriMo is the official Twitter hashtag for National Novel Writing Month.

 


Lately, when I haven’t been wheezing, playing out the female characters from Pixar’s “Cars”, or playing out all the characters in the Effing Book, where many interesting things have happened lately, I have been catching up on all the fun I ‘ve missed, including devouring several days’ worth of the NY Times, never a bad thing. And there, I came across an article that got me thinking about a phenomenon unique to this day and age – blogging.

Really, the idea is simple. It’s the Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, London, but you don’t have to get dressed, it doesn’t matter if it rains and anyone at all anywhere in the world can read your immortal – or not – words, argue or agree with you, heckle or harangue you. The word is yours, the floor is yours and if you’re even halfway good, so the myth goes, you might even hit the Cinderella jackpot and go on to book deals and the Oprah Book Club!

Stranger things have been known to happen.

And it can be about anything, anything at all! There are – lifestyle blogs, book blogs, political blogs, animal blogs, blogs about blogs. It is, at least in certain parts of the world, freedom of expression at its finest.

Anything goes, and many things do. There’s just one problem with all that online verbosity. It is, however, a big problem.

Nine times out of ten, nine blogs out of ten – you’re writing for an audience of precisely – one. There you are, blowing the world apart by the seams by your sheer, utter, blinding brilliance – or bs, take your pick – on whatever ails you/grabs you/ills you/thrills you at any given moment, and all you’re really doing when push comes to shove is – showing off? Exposing your narcissism? Polishing your ego? Practicing your writing skills – or the total lack thereof?

Because you’re the only one that reads it! And let’s face it, darlings – after a while, even you can find your own dazzling perspicacity rather – lackluster. You want feedback, you want adulation and accolades, you want that book deal and your bottom on Oprah’s couch, frothing at the gills on camera over the subject du jour.

Oh, yes, you do!

Don’t you?

There’s a certain liberation that goes with online identity, You can be anyone, anything you desire. You can open up your mouth and insert your foot, size 5 or 15, but if no one is listening, who cares?

It used to bug me, that I wasn’t one of those bloggers with umpteen zillion followers. Some of those who have many followers I’ve lurked over, wondering what they were doing right that I wasn’t. I even began subscribing to a “how-to-promote-your-blog” newsletter, and then gave up when I realized that I could write the Effing Book and use this modest little soapbox for a verbal test lab, or I could try to create a total Moltenmetalmama brand – like Coca Cola, Astro-Glide and Metallica – and I could whistle for writing a novel.

It would be a screaming shame to see nearly seven years of sweat, blood and many, many tears go down the drain because I got seduced by the blogosphere. I’m arrogant enough to think I’m better than that. Or if I’m not, then my story is.

That article made me aware of something I didn’t even know. That even as I write this now, I’m still ahead of the game, precisely because I have followers – all five of them, and that I care very much indeed about each and every one of them. Only one of you knows me in the real world. (He also knows what happens when I get too close to a tequila bottle – and may forgive me – some day. )

I’m not here, yelling into the void, to polish my own halo or sell my solipsism. I’m not out to make a zillion bucks in ads or even a book deal, although I wouldn’t protest too much if I had one, and I do think that some day, I will – have one.

I’m here to become a better writer, to get my head out of history, to let rip and let go and see where my words will take me. You, my fantabulous reader/followers, are here because you’ve found something interesting to read – or you’ve found an interesting mind – or – you tell me!

That’s six people right there, who didn’t know each other a year ago, all brought together by a few words knitted together by yours truly.

Not so bad. Now, I just have to stay ahead and take care I don’t bore you all to death, so that I end up as – an audience of one.

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It’s damned hard to concentrate on anything so ephemeral as a book when outside your windows, Nature is exploding, full of flowers and scents and greenery. All I want to do is lie on my back in the grass, bare toes buried in the daisies and the dandelions, and look for animals in the clouds with Damien, except there are no clouds at all. The sky is a limitless blue, the grass is the retina-burning green of the best emeralds, and the cherry trees are blooming. As Damien said yesterday: “It’s raining flowers, Mommy.”

So it is. It’s raining flowers. Hurray, hurray, the First of May, outdoors – never mind.

May, and flowers, and cherry trees are all distractions from my current mental toothache, or headache. For a long time, I have suffered a bad case of writer’s block. Not here, and not on my other blog. Blogs are easy – the avoidance actions, to use a psychological term, of would-be writers who can’t write the Important Stuff, the stuff they – vainly, for the most part – think will make them Rich and Famous, or at least rich. I have two rules when I set out to write either of the two blogs I own – first, that it is extemporal. I have one idea when I start, and I have none at all as to how I finish. It’s just a question of seeing where my words will take me at that particular moment. There’s no rehearsal, I don’t write it in my head beforehand, I just – go, and let the whole unholy mess speak for itself. The other rule is that no blog can take more than two hours to write. The one exception – also found here – was a birthday tribute that ended up reading like a besotted funeral eulogy for someone who’s still alive, only because it was cold, raining, and Damien decided to let me suffer for it by constant interruption whenever I located a train of thought. Spelling mistakes, bad sentences and typos are corrected, but other than that, it’s the Standup School of Writing.

I’ve always prided myself on my ability to improvise, ever since I prepared for my graduation by wallowing in sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, rather than Thucydides, Plato and Aristophanes, and I still managed to get a B in my final oral Greek exam.

Smoke and mirrors and an overlarge vocabulary will get you nearly everywhere. There’s a lot to be said for the Act As If philosophy.

Then, there’s that Other Thing. The Important Stuff. The Potentially Rich and Famous Stuff. The stuff that gives me heart palpitations, and performance anxiety, and has me staring at my beloved Macbook for hours wishing someone would please shoot me, now.

For the past seven years, I have been writing a book with the working title “The Effing Book”. For almost two of those years, I was unable to write because I had a baby in the interim, so instead, with the help of a friendly fellow Romanophile PhD student with a large book collection, I did an enormous amount of research on all the facts I got so wrong the first – two – times around.

I called it “The Effing Book”, as in “When ARE you going to finish that (insert expletive) book?” It’s a historical novel set in the early third century in Roman Britain and in pre-Christian Ireland, so there are certain limitations and rules to observe. My facts – such as they are – have to be true to the time, and even more important, the mindset of 1800 years ago. It’s harder than you think, to leave the 21st century behind. Which is partly the reason why I do it to begin with. Imagine a world – with no pollution, no cars, no electricity, no Internet, no TV. You might think that things were simpler then, and in some respects, they were. In all that matters, however, people are people regardless of what time they live in, and so, they screw up their lives and the lives of others every bit as badly as anyone does today.
Nevertheless, I plowed through. I recreated the story to fit the proper historical context, changed things around, introduced a whole new cast of characters and a better class of villain. I started over, if not entirely from scratch, two years ago, and in that time, I also worked at several demanding full-time jobs with strange hours, raised a little boy from toddler terror to preschooler poet – “it’s raining flowers!” – and kept him from drowning one cat in the toilet or microwaving the other one. I also listened to an awful lot of Norse metal, an unhealthy amount of Brooklyn ditto, and a smattering of Irish sean nos folk music as I wrote. I maintained the Buttkicker’s internet addiction and our marriage. And – I wrote. Four chapters.

Four chapters in two years. Admit it – you’re underwhelmed with admiration. They are, if I say so myself, long chapters, a total of some 300+ pages in manuscript. Their facts are 150% accurate – when it comes to historical detail, I have absolute OCD. They are, for the most part, ready for publication, and I put the first three chapters to the test. I became a member of an online writing critique website, and put up different scenes, out of order, for critique.

I braced myself for the worst, and was surprised by what I got. My reviews ran the gamut from “Harry Potter ripoff” (one smartaleck 13-year-old) to “one of the best things I’ve read here so far”. Some of those people I critiqued myself, and in the process, we became friends with a particular kind of disease – The Writing Itch. Friends, that is, with the right to tear into each other’s prose, but luckily, we’re all so fantabulously talented – if unpublished – we rarely have to.

When I got hit by the “wtf happens next” blues, the Buttkicker sprang into action. We would camp out on our respective dilapidated sofas and hash out the storyline. From the very beginning, he’s been as big a part of this as I have – rooting from the sidelines, graciously accepting “I’m writing tonight”, and telling me, in exceedingly plain English, when I suck, and why, and how it might be improved. He has vetoed some ideas and introduced other ones, but he has emphatically not been the one who sits there in front of the screen sweating bullets to achieve perfect prose. It’s all my party, and I can cry if I want to. When a chapter is done, he lies down, eyes closed, and I read it through aloud, sometimes to raves, sometimes not.

Then, wouldn’t you know, I realized something – that I wasn’t writing – enough. Or else that I was writing too – disciplined, too hamstrung by history. I needed an outlet for all my 21st century fits of pique, or else just my fits.

I created this blog, and I let rip.

Meanwhile, every other day or so, I would open up The Effing Book, and stare blankly at the screen and the flashing cursor. Nope, it ain’t happening, not today. Didn’t happen yesterday, either. Not bloody likely tomorrow. I want to browse Net A Porter, instead, badly, and drool over Matthew Williamson, not wrangle with siblings who detest each other to a fratricidal extent or Irish kings being browbeaten by their druids, or deal with total teenaged sexual humiliation. And meanwhile, your protagonist is literally languishing in a fishing boat on the Irish sea, and will be nearly dead in about eighteen hours.

Think about it – how in Hades DO you manage to pull a story – any story – out of the ether and onto paper, and into books?
You do it by sacrificing – family time, spouse time, friend time. You get used to having hairy legs and bushy eyebrows. Your clean clothes can fester in the dryer for – oh, the horror – 12 hours! Women your age meet for coffee and discuss the delights of living without their kids, whereas I left that rather late, deal with a four-year-old, and nitpick my characters, but not nearly so much as I nitpick my prose. I think I’d gladly kill for a grandparent nearby, but alas, the ones that live are 6000 miles away and I am an orphan now.

Tant pis, as the French say.

Mainly, I suspect it boils down to a bad case of performance anxiety. I’m conjuring up ghosts, the ghosts of an age long since past, and in some cases, those ghosts are real enough. I’m conjuring ghosts from cobwebs and book dust through a long, dark tunnel called “history”.

There’s the rub. Now, if I could forget about the “his” part and just settle for the story, I might go somewhere, instead of getting stuck in the flypaper of my own time.

Aha! An idea! So, OK. Tie the kid to a beanbag. Gag the buttkicker. Feed the cats. Here goes.

“Remind me to kill you at my earliest opportunity.”
“Certainly. If you don’t get distracted and I kill you first.”
“You wish, brother.”
“Ah, Antoninus. You have no idea how much!”

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One dark and stormy night, when lightning and thunder were battling it out for supremacy at the height of the summer storm season in Florida, I was – terminally bored. Lethally bored. Existential ennui does not even begin to cover it. No internet, no TV, no DVD player, and no books available I hadn’t already read at least four times before. Going for a walk was naturally out of the question – it was raining – pelting, more like – not cats and dogs, or even frogs, but armadillos outside. There was no distraction available, since the Resident Buttkicker was working late. Our two cats, normally far more fun than any TV sitcom, were parked out on our screened-in porch watching the rain. The house was spotless, even the bathroom. And the closets.

Such a state, any creative willl tell you, can do one of two things. You will either go ever-so slightly crazy trying to pass the time, or you will start something, no matter how bad, just to keep yourself from vaulting over a cliff.

So, I started writing a little story. At the time, I had no corrosive literary ambitions whatsoever. I was just trying to stay semi-sane. And it worked, Within half an hour, I was no longer bored. Within two days, I had 10 pages. Within a week, I had an entire Iron Age Irish tribe yelling simultaneously in my head. If you’ve ever met an Irishman or -woman, you will know that they are loquacious creatures. None of them have shut up since, although they did go suspiciously quiet around the time Damien the Sequel arrived.

By the time I headed back for the desert Southwest, I had seventy pages of a novel buried on the hard drive of a third-hand PowerMac. I had also managed to contract an itch I could not stop scratching. That itch is now in its seventh year, and the novel is in its third rewrite, the one that looks good enough, and credible enough, to eventually land on a bookshelf near you. Or any available MP3-player, I’m open to possibilities.

Along the path from there to here, I learned a few things. No matter how good you think you are, you will suck as a writer until you find that great Holy Grail of all writing – your voice. No matter how good you think you are, you will always suck as a writer if you believe you can’t keep improving. And no matter how bad you know you are, it’s never a bad thing to know spelling and grammar. And last but not least, even if you do write to escape the maelstrom of the 21st century into the vortex of the third century AD, your own life and the events in it will, willingly or otherwise, insinuate itself into your story. Often in ways you don’t expect. People you know will become characters, and so they will surprise you in several dimensions. People you don’t know personally might even become two separate characters, one major player in your story, and one minor.

You know that saying – “don’t get mad, get even?” Should anyone piss you off, in they go, to suffer the torment of uncaring fate, or to suffer in other ways cooked up by your diabolical imagination. Meanwhile, the process of torturing your nemesis can be wonderfully cathartic! And look, Ma – no consequences!

Should you ever meet someone who claims to be a writer, beware. You never know where you might end up – tied to the railroad tracks, buried alive, or ritually murdered and thrown into an Irish bog.

Oh, the possibilities!

The bad news is, if you think it’s tough being married, try writing a novel. And holding down a day job. And maintaining a household. And motherhood. Oh yes, and you’re married, too. To someone who just happens to think you’re going to be the hottest ticket in publishing history, so “why aren’t you writing?”

Now you know why I call him the Resident Buttkicker.

The bad news is, you will never, never, ever be Inspired with a capital I. You will be exhausted after a long day, you will be bored to tears with your story and your irascible characters who are always misbehaving behind your back, you will be sitting in front of your computer waiting, or even wishing lightning would strike you dead, for that visit by the Muse, and it just ain’t happening. Not tonight, not this month. Not, most likely, ever.

The only thing you can do is sit there. Type a sentence. Type the next one.

And long for the day when all you’ll be typing is “The End”.

Knowing full well, that once that turkey is sent out into the world, you will be sitting there, lethally bored. Suddenly, you’ll propel yourself to your laptop and begin typing:

“It was a dark and stormy night”.