Friday, August 28, 2009

The Guitar Experiment

On a whim I brought a guitar to work. I wasn’t sure how people would react, and was a little nervous that they would find it distracting. I keep it on a stand in the corner of my cube, and I put out an open invitation for anyone to come and play any time they choose.

What surprises me is how many people take me up on that offer. Quite often they will go out of their way just to stop by and “get a fix,” or “get it out of their system,” as they say. Some only know one song, and that’s all they can play. Some know a little blues, or jazz, or country. One guy is fairly proficient at bluegrass, and I find it enchanting to listen to. At times a crowd will form and they’ll pass the guitar around and talk music for ten minutes or so before drifting back to work.

I take the guitar with me just before its time to have a meeting. I only know chords, but I can sing and everyone likes to hear me play. They’ll ask me to play a song at random, and I’ll try and find the chords as I sing along. Quite often I’ll get it right—it takes a bit of practice, and some trial and error. I think I’ll look up some funny campfire songs on the Internet, and see what people think.

I served a mission for my church in Spain. I knew many kids that could play the guitar, and I was surprised at how often it drew a crowd. Friends would gather around, and everyone would sing together.

Today one guy asked me how hard it was to learn to play. I told him if you got a book and practiced two to three hours a week, you’d be proficient in about six months. Most of that time is required to build up coordination and finger strength, and good embrasure. He was very impressed with my advice, and told me he felt inspired to take up the hobby.

I get regulars, now, who wander into my cube throughout the day. They’re emphatic that playing helps open up their creativity. I’m learning that quite a few people are very passionate about music, and this has been a great way for me to meet others that I might never talk to, and make friends. Something about music draws people in. Even those who can’t play will stop and listen.

In ancient societies, members of the warrior class were expected to learn an instrument and be able to play a song or two. This was true of the samurai of Japan. They would practice calligraphy or write haiku or play an instrument to occupy their free time—which they had an abundance of when they weren’t fighting. The Vikings and the Saxons, and other Germanic tribes had similar customs. On long winter nights around the hearth in their mead-halls they would entertain each other. Someone would pass around an instrument, and everyone was expected to know something. It was especially important if you were a guest in the hall to be able to share some new song.

I take my guitar with me when I go on church camp-outs. When the sun goes down, I’ll walk from campfire to campfire. When people see me with my guitar they are always enthusiastic. They invite me to come and sit, so they can hear me play. They might never say a word to me, but they’re always friendly. Sometimes they’ll offer a drink or a snack. They’re always disappointed when I leave. I tell them that I have other campfires to visit.

Music brings people together in a very curious way. Even if you’re not that musical like me, it can be a powerful social enabler.

So get a guitar and take it to work. If you bring it, they will come.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Writers

People are often impressed when I tell them that I spend a lot of my free time writing. I am surprised at how many people have come up with story ideas, and are excited to tell me about them. If you’re serious about writing, here are seven things you ought to be doing.

#1: Apply butt to chair
You will never get that story written unless you sit down and do it. This seems like it would go without saying, but you’d be surprised at how easy it is to make excuses not to write. Writing takes a lot of self-discipline. I used to think that great writers are born, not bred. This might be true in some cases, but more than anything else you’ll find that great writers are just persistent.

#2: Join a critique group
You need to be able to take criticism, and you need to be grown up about it. Everyone’s writing needs improvement, and a critique group can help you spot areas where your skill is weak. However, if you’re going to get defensive then you might as well take up another hobby. You’ll never make it past your first rejection slip. Criticism should be respectful, courteous, focused, and specific. If all they tell you is, “I loved it!” then you need to find a new group.

#3: Take courses in writing
Writing fiction is not quite the same as writing non-fiction. Find a course on creative writing. Make sure it teaches how to write dialog, how to craft effective characters, how to construct scenery, how to show and not tell, how to create a plot, and how to use all five senses. Make sure the course requires homework, and has brief critique sessions every time you meet.

#4: Attend writing conventions, symposiums, and workshops
Conventions usually last a day or two, and offer courses of literally every kind. Most symposiums focus on a particular genre: romance, fantasy and sci-fi, thrillers, mainstream, creative nonfiction, etc. Some symposiums are free, but most require a registration fee.

You will get to meet published authors, and hear their words of advice. You will get to meet with agents and editors. You will get to attend workshops where you can get one on one attention for your work. You will make friends with other writers; but most of all, conventions will get you pumped up about writing—and that is vital.

#5: Read books on writing
You will need to build up a personal library of reading material. Find books that cover these subjects:
1. Dialog
2. Characters and Viewpoint
3. Story, Plot and Structure
4. Revision and Self-editing
5. Style

My favorites are:
1. The Lie That Tells a Truth, by John Dufresne
2. Characters and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card
3. Revision and Self Editing, by James Scott Bell
4. Plot & Structure, by James Scott Bell

#6: Join a professional association
Writer’s associations are designed to help you make friends and network with other professional writers in your local community and to help you stay excited about writing. They typically charge annual dues. Most associations hold symposiums during the year, and each month the local chapters will meet and have something different: critique sessions, short workshops, brief lectures, readings, etc.

#7: Learn about the industry
Writers love to write, but too often we forget that publishers have a business to run. In short, you are providing a commodity that they can turn around and sell. Learn how to put your writing in manuscript format. Learn what a query letter is, and when to use one. Learn how to write a cover letter. Learn how to write a summary for a novel.

There are probably a lot of other things I might add in this article, but these seven items will help you quickly pick up what you need to know. Above all else, remember that the best piece of advice is to stick with it. Every time I start writing something new I find it a little easier, and when I finish my work I find that I’ve gotten a little better. Good luck!

Sunday, August 2, 2009


How many nuns would recommend a book? Four out of five? One out of five? I’ve reviewed six books so far. Many of them I gave glowing reviews, but with some of those I’ve wanted to give a stern warning for language, sex, and violence. My rating system, however, didn’t really measure that.

This morning I was mulling things over when Anna, my wife, suggested I rate each story by nuns. Five nuns would be the mother-superior rating. One nun would be for the poor soul who was imprisoned in the abbey by her wicked father who didn’t want her marrying, and all day long she thinks of her lover and has very impure thoughts.

After a little more thought, I decided to make things less subjective by setting some criteria:
• Five nuns = G. No foul language. No sex, although there may be plenty of sexual tension.
• Four nuns = PG. No sex and only mild innuendo. No f-bombs and only mild profanity.
• Three nuns = PG-13. One or two f-bombs. One sex scene, and not too graphic.
• Two nuns = R. Constant swearing. Two or more sex scenes.
• One nun = NC-17. Anything with a rape scene, or anything with very graphic sex. Erotica.

I’m not going to pay much attention to violence unless it is excessive or pointless. Even G-rated movies have violence in them. My kids get stressed out watching Bambi. Go figure.

Steven Gould

It isn’t often that I can’t put down a book and read it straight through in less than a week. I saw the movie that this book is based on, and was thoroughly unimpressed. Don’t bother. After checking Wikipedia I learned that the movie was based on a book, and fans of the book were pretty upset. I checked the reviews on and learned that the book was very highly recommended.

Davey Rice discovers that he can teleport from place to place at will. After running away from home he spends his first few weeks just trying to keep out of danger. The plot is mostly character-driven as he works through the issues in his life trying to overcome a series of challenges of being a run-away child with no legal identification, and picking up the pieces of his life since his mother abandoned the family six years ago.

Did I finish reading? There were no dull spots in this book. Unlike a lot of books I’ve read, the plot keeps going right through to the end, and the action builds steadily. I didn’t want to put it down.

Would I be interested in reading a sequel? I wanted the story to go on. Davey confronts his demons by the end of the novel and the author wraps up things nicely, but I want two things to happen. First, I want to see him find out if there are other jumpers out there, or maybe there are people with other abilities like telekinesis or pyrokinesis or the ability to become invisible. Kind of like the TV series, Heroes. The other plot angle that needs to be explored is, what will he do with his ability the rest of his life? Sooner or later he’s going to run out of money at the rate he’s spending it. He doesn’t want to work for the NSA, but he has the potential to be a super-hero or something. With great power comes great responsibility.

Was the writing good? Yes. It was skillful and well-executed. Scenes were well-researched, and the way the characters acted felt truthful. You really felt for Davey as he worked through the issues that he faced. Gould chose to write this story from a first-person point of view, and that was probably best. We know what’s going on inside Davey’s head, otherwise he would be just another crazy, emo, punk kid. Very nicely done.

Was the story idea interesting? Definitely. I wished he spent more time trying to figure out the limits of his ability, or I wish he had tried to learn more about his ability earlier on in the book. I noticed that by the middle of the book there was no villain, and that started to bug me a little. How long could Davey go on trying to come to terms with his past, but then he saved a woman from an abusive husband who happened to be a cop. When the cop started investigating Davey, the story got really interesting. Then when the NSA got wind of his ability the tension mounted even higher. I like a plot to have this kind of structure, with an even balance of internal and external conflict to work through.

Was the ending satisfying? Yes. The plot went right up to the end, and in the wind-down Davey faced his personal demons and came to terms with them. I really like the story pattern that the author used. I think I would really like to emulate this form.

Final verdict:
• Overall rating: This book is a solid five stars. Very impressive, and not many stories hook me so thoroughly. I would love to see Davey in a sequel.
• How many nuns would recommend this story? Maybe one or two. Make no mistake, even though this book is YA, it is definitely not a story for young teens. The swearing is non-stop. There are several sex scenes, but they are not graphic, and the author does portray Davey as having some morals. There is a male rape scene by a gang of pedophiles near the beginning of the book, which I found rather disturbing.

I found that the story really turned on my creative side. Several times I had to put the book down and free-write for about thirty minutes, just to get all the ideas out of my head. I like a good story like that, something that really turns on the inner muse.

Two and a half years ago when I started writing in earnest, I felt embarrassed when I was forced to admit that as a wannabe writer, I was notoriously under-read. Until then my list of books consisted of Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Earthsea, and of course, Harry Potter. I’m glad to say that I’m finding more to read these days. I’ve read all kinds of stories from all kinds of authors. Some of them I think are wonderful, and some of them I ask myself how they ever got published. Most important, however, I am learning what kinds of things make a story great, and what authors I would most like to emulate.