When in Doubt, Go with Sweetness

Ideas can strike writers at any time, and often without warning.  They can frustrate and baffle, but they can also give us wings as we soar aloft, above mountain peaks and green, lush uplands where our imaginations roam unhindered.  In short, ideas can be magic.



But what if, after the initial euphoria has worn off and you step back to examine your idea with the cold, hard light of objectivity, you realize that it’s not a perfect fit for a particular market; it doesn’t neatly fall into a trendy category; it doesn’t reflect what’s on the bestseller lists or the prime display shelves at the local bookstore.



Even so, you can’t deny that you feel genuinely excited about the idea, the scope, the characters you can create that will populate the pages.  You feel a connection to the project.  It’s a story you feel meant to write, and you know, you are sure, that once you begin, it will be a genuine labor of love.



But who will read it if it’s not in vogue, if it represents an outlier, a literary orphan as it were, searching vainly for a hot genre or category or concept to which it can attach itself?

Do you rework the idea, a few tweaks here, several major plot shifts there, perhaps a new character or two, to give it the best chance to sell?  Or do you leave it as is, determined to write your story as authentically as possible?



Friends and fellow writers, agents and editors may offer advice, hoping to clarify the problem.  But you discover that the more advice you receive, the cloudier the issue becomes.

What to do?


The 1985 Chicago Bears are one of the most iconic teams in NFL history.  The Bears that year compiled a 15-1 regular-season record and demolished the New York Giants and (then) Los Angeles Rams in the NFC playoffs, winning the two games by a combined score of 45-0.  Then in Super Bowl XX, the Bears crushed the New England Patriots, 46-10.  Many people consider the ’85 Bears to be the best single-season team of all time.



The heart and soul of the team, unquestionably, was Walter Payton.  Payton had been a star running back for the Bears since his rookie year of 1975.  For years, while the team around him struggled, Payton set records and reached milestones.  Nicknamed “Sweetness” for his ability to elude defenders with ease, Payton was universally respected league-wide.  As the 1985 season unfolded, analysts, players, and fans were in agreement–finally, after all his years in the league toiling for an also-ran, it was nice to see Payton play on a gifted team overall and have the chance to win a championship.



No one admired Payton more than his coach, Mike Ditka, himself a former player for the Bears.  Ditka was not shy in proclaiming Walter Payton the greatest football player he had ever been associated with.  And so, with the Bears running away with Super Bowl XX, the stage seemed set for Payton to cap off his illustrious career–not simply with a Super Bowl win but with the honor of scoring a touchdown in the game.



It would not be easy.  The one thing the Patriots did well in the contest was contain Payton.  They keyed on him relentlessly, and he had no room to run.  Even so, late in the third quarter, with the Bears already winning 37-3, they found themselves at the New England 1-yard line.  Here it was.  Simply hand the ball off to “Sweetness,” and let him score, a fitting reward for one who had done so much for so long for the Bears and the city of Chicago.



Instead, Coach Mike Ditka chose to give the ball to a pop-culture sensation named William “The Refrigerator” Perry, a 308-pound defensive lineman (in an era when 300-pound linemen were rare) who occasionally doubled as a running back when the team got close to the end zone.  Perry was a decent player, but far from a superstar.  What’s more, he was only a rookie.  He had not played for the team through the lean years of the 1970s and early 1980s as Walter Payton had.  He was a solid contributor, it was true, but more than anything, he was trending, the flavor of the moment, one of the top personalities of 1985.  It can be argued, especially when it came to Perry’s scoring touchdowns, that he was a fad, a 300-pound flash-in-the-pan, a one-hit wonder.



But it was William Perry who scored that Super Bowl touchdown.  Walter Payton never did reach the end zone that day.



Mike Ditka was not the kind of coach who second-guessed himself.  Confident, brash, self-assured, he made his calls and stood by them.  But this was one decision that would haunt him.

Much later, years after the Bears’ emphatic Super Bowl victory, and more than a decade removed from Payton’s death to a rare liver disorder, Ditka, now retired from coaching, admitted in an interview that giving the ball to the Refrigerator, instead of allowing Payton–the team mainstay, its leader who had missed only one game in his entire NFL career–the chance to score in the biggest game of his life was the one lingering regret from his coaching career.



Looking at the expression on the old coach’s face, you could see how much he wished he could go back in time and reconsider his decision.

He should have given the ball to “Sweetness.”


When the idea for The Eye-Dancers came to me, I knew almost immediately that the four main characters, all boys, would be based on some of the friends I knew while growing up.  I further knew that they would be twelve years old over the course of the novel.  Since publishing the book, there have been some who have criticized this decision.  I should have made one of the main characters a girl, they argued, or made the characters a little older, or both.  And from a purely marketing standpoint, they may be right.



The thing is, I believe that writing is an act of love.  It is a way–perhaps the best way–for us to share what’s important to us with the world.  It is our chance to tell stories uniquely our own, to infuse them with our experiences, points of view, joys, fears, opinions, and quirks.

I suppose a writer can indeed reshape an original, inspired idea, twisting it, contorting it, redefining it to fit in.  If vampire fiction is hot, then turn the main character into a vampire, even if, in the original conception, he was just a boy, as mortal as any of us.  If dystopian settings are in fashion, then maybe the writer can alter the time and place of the idea and write a tale set against the backdrop of a dark and repressive future age.  Or, if little green aliens with big black eyes are all the rage . . .



And by all means, if an idea originally strikes in a form such as this, if it occurs organically on its own, then there indeed is another story to tell about vampires or dytopian societies or little green aliens.

But if the idea that hits, suddenly, jarring you to the core with its power, lighting a creative fuse that can only be unleashed through the words pouring out onto the page . . . if that idea does not contain anything that’s trending . . .

Don’t worry about.  Write it the way it is–the way it’s meant to be.  Who knows?  You may unleash a new trend.

There will always be another “Refrigerator.”

But there is only one “Sweetness.”



Thanks so much for reading!


An Escape . . . and a Confrontation

It’s unavoidable, really, and it’s a question that needs to be asked of anyone who spends a good deal of his or her time creating stories out of the ether, as it were, searching for ideas that resonate and entertain, ideas that will take readers by the hand and lead them to high, rocky promontories overlooking new and exotic lands.



What is storytelling?  What does it represent?  Why do we write?  Is creative storytelling, particularly speculative fiction, nothing more than an escape, an imaginative flight of fancy that takes writers and readers far away from the world they inhabit?



On one level, perhaps.  After all, what author can deny the heady thrill of the first-draft rush, when words spill out like lava, flowing, steaming, too hot to touch?  Or the excitement of vicariously living through characters that seem so real, so vivid, we talk to them out loud as we wash the dishes or drive along a lonely stretch of country road on a blue-skied day, the windows rolled down?  Or the fascination of building a world, of crafting, brick by literary brick, the cities, towns, inhabitants, monsters, laws, and social customs of places thousands of light-years, or millennia, from our own earth? And what reader, what lover of the imaginative places, asking the questions of “What if?” and “Why not?” can deny the enjoyment of devouring words on the page (or the e-reader screen, as the case may be!), getting lost in the story, being swept away by the scope and wonder of the events?



An escape?  A journey to a distant land, far beyond the sight line of our everyday existence?  Indeed.  Storytelling is that.

But it’s other things, too.


When I was a boy, I used to love to explore the pond that lay, like a magnet attracting my attention, several hundred yards behind the high school where my older brothers and sister attended, and where I myself would one day attend.   And on a pleasant, sunny, warm early October afternoon when I was seven years old, I asked my friend Matt to come along and see if we could find any toads or carp or perhaps, if we were really lucky, some salamanders frolicking in the shallows.



It was a Saturday, and my brother, who played fullback for the varsity football team, was out on the field, leading his team to victory.  But I didn’t care about any of that.  The sun was shining.  I was bored.  I wanted to do something.  So I asked my parents if Matt and I could head over to the pond.  “Sure,” they said.  “But be careful.  And don’t be long.”  I assured them we wouldn’t be.  After all, what could go wrong?  The pond wasn’t far away, and it wasn’t like we planned to swim in it.  We’d just stroll along the dirt path that wound its way behind the pond and around to the other side.



I was so familiar with the path, having explored it dozens of times before with my father, I could have navigated it blindfolded.  Matt and I walked slowly, looking this way and that, not wanting to miss anything good.  Lily pads formed green oases in the water and cattails grew luxuriously by the pond’s edge, as the dirt path circled back, behind the pond, shrouded by poplars and maples, the leaves just beginning to turn gold and crimson and burnt orange, readying themselves for the autumn color show to come.  The hum of insects filled the air, and we spied a dragonfly zigzagging its way inches above the surface of the pond.



Back here, behind the pond, there was a chain-link fence to our right.  Beyond it lay the backyards of neighborhood homes, incongruous against the wild growth that flanked the path.  Normally I paid no notice to the homes.  They were a distraction, a sign of civilization I didn’t want to acknowledge.  I preferred to believe I was exploring uncharted territory in the rain forests or jungles, cutting through thick undergrowth, on the lookout for exotic new species of flora or fauna.  The neighborhood homes had no place in these imaginary expeditions of mine.



But on that day, that brilliant early October day of my childhood, there was no way to ignore them.

“Hey, kids,” a voice suddenly rang out.  Matt and I turned around.  On the other side of the fence, his long brown hair stringy, unwashed, a smiling teenager stood.  “What’cha doin’?”



It was hard to focus on his words.  My attention was locked on the shotgun he held, cradling it with both hands.  I looked at Matt.  His eyes were wide, glued to the gun.

“So here’s the deal,” the teenager said.  For all I knew, he was a student at the high school, maybe someone my brother knew.  Maybe he shared homeroom or study hall or trigonometry with him.  Maybe they talked, hung out in the halls.

None of that mattered now.  All that mattered were the words he said next:  “I’m gonna count to seven.  Not ten or fifteen or twenty.  Seven.”  He raised the shotgun, ever so slightly.  “And when I get to seven, you two better be gone.  ‘Cause if you’re not, I’m gonna blow your heads off.”  He smiled, pointed an index finger at us, and pretend-shot us with it.  “Got it?”

For a moment, I just stood there, unreality washing over me like a poisonous waterfall.  How could this be happening?



“One,” the teenager with the stringy hair said, and Matt took off, not waiting for him to count to two, running down the path, in the direction of the football field, which was hidden from view behind the leaves and tangles of plants and trees.  I still stood there, stunned.  I looked at the gun, aimed now, right at my head.  Peering through the opening, into the barrel of the shotgun, all I could see was black.



“Two,” he said.  That did it.  I turned around and ran; I ran so fast I was sure I’d trip and fall.  I caught up to Matt, and we ran together, all the way back to the bleachers, where my parents sat and clapped, and where things seemed normal again.



I never told them, or anyone, about that day.  It was something better left forgotten.


But we never really forget, do we?  Not really.

Near the end of The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant and Marc Kuslanski are held at gunpoint.  Mitchell, at one juncture, looks at the barrel of the shotgun, its “black, empty mouth” pointed directly at his head.  And yes, as I wrote that scene, I felt myself pulled back, back, to the path behind the pond, to the day when I looked into the “black, empty mouth” of the gun myself.

But that’s the way storytelling is, I think–a blend of the imaginative and the real, the fantastic and the actual.  Bits and pieces of our lives scatter through the pages of our fiction like literary calling cards, giving voice to memories and dreams and fears and hopes that, though they may occasionally flicker, never die.



“Fantasy’s hardly an escape from reality,” author Lloyd Alexander once said.  “It’s a way of understanding it.”

As we weave the stories, even the ones from beyond the stars, in galaxies and worlds on the other side of the void, so far away we can scarcely even imagine the distance; as we get lost in the adventure and mystery and journey of the story, we can never really escape.



Because as we write, and as we read, we must, inevitably, come face-to-face with the reflection in our own personal mirror.



Thanks so much for reading!


A New Year, A New Resolve

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been the sort of person who makes New Year’s resolutions.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s because, growing up, in that faraway land of the twentieth century, I witnessed so many people I knew break their resolutions by the second week of January.  The whole thing just seemed silly to me.



I remember, as a kid, too, questioning the wisdom of the calendar.  There was one particularly snowy and blustery New Year’s Day, in Rochester, New York, when I was ten years old.  I asked my older brother, eighteen at the time, why we began a new year in the dead of winter, when the world outside was a monochrome of whites and grays, a black-and-white landscape devoid of color, absent of growth.  Shouldn’t the new year begin in the spring, when the grass turns green and the flowers bloom?



He just looked at me, frowned, and shrugged.  It was the kind of shrug that said, “What in the world are you talking about?  Get real.” And then he proceeded to tell me his New Year’s resolution . . .

This year, though, as I continue working on the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, as I push ahead with various and sundry projects, I have decided to make a few resolutions of my own.

1.  I resolve to stop checking my Amazon sales ranking every day.  It’s a self-defeating habit for the most part, and besides, can anyone out there explain the mathematics behind the ranking?  It fluctuates wildly from day to day, sale to sale.  I am sure there are good, solid theories and algorithms behind it, but from this author’s perspective, it’s a roller-coaster ride.  (Now, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I need to check my Amazon sales ranking . . .)



2.  I resolve to never split another infinitive–to never do that, ever again.



3.  I resolve to avoid all cliches in my writing.  At the end of the day, it’s originality that counts.  And you do the best you can, and let the chips fall where they may.  It is what it is.



4.  I resolve to stop making any more New Year’s resolutions . . . evidently, they just don’t work for me.

Well–perhaps that’s not entirely true.  There may be a couple of resolutions that I can feel strongly about, that I can get behind and use as motivation as the new year dawns.

The first is–I am resolving, here and now, to do everything I can to finish the first draft of the sequel to The Eye-Dancers before the end of this calendar year.  The sequel (still untitled!) is approximately half-finished.  Much has been accomplished, but much still needs to get done.  This past year was inordinately chaotic for me, on several fronts, which, admittedly, slowed down the writing process.  But in 2015, no excuses.  I aim to complete the sequel this year and, of course, discover an appropriate title!



But there is another resolution I want to make, and would like to appeal to everyone to join in.

The world we live in moves fast.  We are bombarded with news, headlines, videos, texts, emails, shopping lists, equipment to fix, doctors to visit, bills to pay, money to earn, responsibilities to meet.  Sometimes, it seems, we’re twisting and turning, in the eye of the storm, the wind and the rain battering, swirling, unceasing.



In the midst of all of this, it’s easy to drift, stumble, wander along an unknown woodland path at dusk and find that, by nightfall, we’re lost, unable to find our way back home.



And so, in 2015, at some point, hopefully far more than just once, I resolve to take a deep breath, turn everything off, and just be still.

I resolve to look up at the night sky when it’s clear–perhaps in the luxurious warmth of midsummer, amidst the hoot owls and rodents and crickets playing their fiddles from somewhere hidden, unseen in the dark; perhaps in the soft, white silence of February, my breath visible like smoke upon the air–and count the stars, ponder them, admire them, and wonder at the possibilities.



I resolve to make time, somehow, some way, to allow that wonder to manifest itself in me.

Will you join me?

Read your favorite novel at a slow, leisurely pace.  Watch a Frank Capra classic with the smartphone turned off.  Sing a song off-key with no one watching, or with everyone watching.  Flip through an old comic book you used to enjoy when you were a kid.  Learn a new craft or hobby, not because you “should,” but because you want to.  Draw a picture.  Finish that book you’re working on (note to self!).  Write a poem.  Smile at a corny joke, or tell one.  Curl up on the sofa and watch reruns of your favorite sitcom.




Do something fun.

Do something you love.




I wish you all a wonderful, blessed, and creative 2015.  Let’s make it our best year yet.



Thanks so much for reading!


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