Searching for Peace: The Strange Adventures of Biff and the Fox

Hot Dog

To download Searching for Peace: The Strange Adventures of Biff and the Fox, click here.

I started posting the Searching for Peace blogs in December 2014 and into March 2015. All two people who read my blog were astounded by the sheer absurdity of the posts and read them only so they could laugh at me. But that’s OK, I laugh at myself and the blog posts gave three people a reason to laugh.

By the time March rolled around Biff and the Fox still hadn’t found peace, though they’d almost come close somewhere in their minds. So, this is an unfinished story, serialized over several months. Boy…my two readers were pissed.

They said, unison, “We hate you, Biff, for doing this. There’s no ending. Where’s the ending? It’s like losing power just before the end of a mystery movie or missing the last five minutes of a Leafs game when they’re up 5 points and still manage to lose. We want to see how they do that. We want to see how Biff and the Fox either find peace or don’t find peace. Where’s the ending, Biff, where?”

All I can think of is this: Successful or not, if the search for peace ever ends, we’re screwed.

 

Writing Hurts Like Hell – Breaking the Story Board

Cover_wo_border

I encourage my writing students to create a story board before starting their novels. I stole the idea from Walt Disney, who created a visual story board for the animated cartoon movie Snow White. I think is was something like a half mile long. This isn’t exactly what I do, not having half a mile of wall space.

I use one large card for each scene. Each card indicates the names of the characters in the scene and, very briefly, what happens in each scene. The cards look something like this:

3

 

The story board is a form of visual plotting. You can see how the story progresses. You can see where you might need more development, where scenes are missing, where you might need a previous scene to make a later scene make sense, and where you might need to delete a scene because it doesn’t advance the story. It gives you new ideas for more scenes and new directions for the story.

The story board creates a structure for your novel, so that when you start writing, you know where you’re going and how to get there. Starting off with that structure burned into your head saves a hell of a lot of time, cuts down the chances of getting writer’s block and makes it possible to get back into the writing if you’re away from it for a while. It also allows you to put together a realistic writing schedule because you can see what has to be done and the scope of what has to be done.

All this said, there may come a time when the story itself takes over, when the actual writing reaches a point where the story board doesn’t make any sense and you just have to write.

OK, the blood-sucking editor of the Twisted Tails anthologies, J, just said, “But Biff, you spent all that time sweating and suffering over a story board…and then…and then…you have nothing. Ha ha!”

And the fox said, “Ha ha!”

“Hey fox,” I said. “Guess how J writes a novel?”

“With brilliance, insight and feeling,” said the fox.

“Thanks, fox,” said J, smiling like a self-satisfied Canadian, who’s actually an American living in New Mexico.

“No!” I said. “He sleeps. Yes, he goes to sleep with a laptop in his lap and dreams. And while he’s dreaming, he records the dream and when he wakes up…presto…novel finished. And perfectly formatted.”

Just as J and the fox were about to say nasty things about me, I ran into my bedroom and crawled under my bed with my desktop computer. I can hear them shuffling around my apartment looking for me, but I know they’re afraid to look under my bed, fearing whatever stuff a writer hides under his bed. Like the stuff I got from my stag party about thirty years ago. I won’t get into details that might even scare me.

So yes, this just happened to me. I had the story board completed for my next novel, the details of which I won’t get into because they might even scare me. I estimated a short novel of about 60,000 words. I had everything worked out, plotted, carded, and on the wall at my studio.

But, as I approached the 60,000 word mark, things started to happen. The characters started doing things that I hadn’t planned. The story line started finding new paths that wandered far away from the story board. Tomorrow, I’m going to break the 80,000 word mark…and I’ll be nowhere near finished.

So, am I sorry I bothered putting all that time and effort into a story board?

No.

Now, I should mention one other thing. I created that story board three years ago. Then, I took three years off to study photography. I came back to the novel a few months ago. I had the story board to come back to for re-orientation. But more important, I had a structure in my head that had three years to simmer and evolve. I dumped the opening chapter for something that, after three years of second thought, worked much better, and then continued with the original plan.

But, like I said, around 60,000 words things started to get out of hand.

I think J and the fox are looking for me in my refrigerator, and eating everything in it as they look. I didn’t know foxes ate avocadoes. I didn’t know editors ate.

But get this. It’s working. Each day when I start to write, the words are gushing out. New ideas and new directions are falling into the manuscript line inspired rain.

The fox said, “Did someone just say ‘inspired rain’?”

“That sounds like something dumb that Biff would say,” said J. “He’s still here. The refrigerator is empty. Let’s find him.”

So I have to make this fast. The story board gives you a structure to start with. It organizes your brain, and your creative instincts, around that structure. And once you have that structure, you can toss it when the story goes its own way. Without the structure to begin with, you would never have gotten to that point where the story would have taken off on its own.

Now, having said all that, there are writers who never use a story board. I mean, some writers just all asleep with a laptop in their laps. The story board is meant for people like me…busy people with fulltime jobs and myriad other things to do.

If you’re not writing fulltime…take the time to do a story board, especially if it’s your first novel. Get that structure in your head and, if the time comes, dump it and just let your story take you where it will go.

“Hey J,” said the fox. “Biff’s under his bed. And…holy shit look at the stuff…oh…the stuff!

Oh, shit.

Winter and My Dead Money Tree

money-plant-5

OK…I think I’ve established that I hate winter. I hate the snow, the cold…et al…infinitely. All of that…the cold, the lack of smell, the lack of abundant color…the things you can physically see, smell and feel…are just one bottomless crater in my feelings about winter.

“So, Biff,” said the fox, “what else chills you about winter?”

“Good, one, fox,” said J, the notorious blood-sucking editor, as he laughed.

Oh shit. They’re back. I can’t even wallow in self pity by myself. And the fox was wearing a fox fur coat. “Oh, come on, fox,” I said. “You’re definitely related to that coat on some level.”

“I like to keep my ancestors close,” said the fox through a terrifying smile. If you’ve never seen a fox smile…don’t.

So, Biff,” said J, “I’m working on another anthology.”

Shit, I thought, more sleepless nights. More calls in the dead of the darkness: “Write, Biff, write. Need stories. Need your pain. Need your suffering.”

This is how editors talk to writers…even the editors that write.

“A…another…anthology?” I mumbled, lips quaking, sweat rolling.

“Yep,” said J. “It’s going to be a Twisted Tails anthology. I’m calling it Twisted Tails: The Ultimate Pain.”

“I like it,” said the fox. “It has a pizzazz ring to it. Does Biff get to suffer?”

“He sure does,” said J. “But that’s OK. Biff likes to suffer. It gives him an excuse to wallow in self pity. Right, Biff?”

I felt like a fly caught between a steaming pile of shit and a Snickers bar. But I wasn’t going to let the sinister editor get the best of me. “I wallow…therefore I am!” I blurted. Wondering as the words came out of my mouth…wtf.

The fox and J laughed for hours. And hours. Into days and nights and weeks. They laughed for weeks as I wallowed. “You guys almost finished?” I said.

They immediately stopped laughing and stared at me, straight-faced. “You don’t like the sound of laughter?” said J.

“You hate laughter?” said the fox.

I wasn’t taking any more of this shit. “CAN WE GET BACK TO WINTER?” I suggested.

The fox and J looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and said together, “OK, Biff, winter.”

I took a deep breath, composed myself, took another deep breath, composed myself some more and said, “It’s like death.”

Simultaneously, the fox and J yawned.

“C’mon guys,” I said. “Look around! Everything’s covered in a shroud of snow. A shroud! There’s no smell, no warmth…nobody’s wearing shorts and t-shirts. No sandals. The beaches are closed. The swimming pools are empty. The outdoor patios for every bar and coffee shop in town are closed. As far as I can see, there’s not a single happy blade of grass. Winter is death and death is winter and all I want to do is wallow in self pity and cry for every blade of grass buried under a shroud of snow. And I want to put on shorts and sandals and a t-shirt, curl up under my bed and wait for spring.”

“Whoa,” said J. “That was good wallow,  Biff. Are those tears in your eyes?

“Yep,” said the fox. “Biff’s crying. Ah…Biff…did we make you cry?”

They laughed again. For days and weeks. Laughed as a tsunami of tears washed over my face. “And my money tree died,” I said.

The fox and J looked at my dead money tree, browned with death and wondering, “Wtf?” And they laughed some more.

Under the Parking Lot

green-3

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I want to make it annoyingly clear that I hate winter. I know I’ve made promises to people that I’ll try to get along with winter…and I have. I’ve actually gotten out of bed a few times. Like right now. I put on clothes and buried myself in a winter parka. I went into the the parking lot, into the frigid January daylight which, as soon as I stepped outdoors, turned to overcast skies, and a sub-zero wind that would lay a membrane of frost around Hell whipped out of the frozen air.

“Hey, Biff,” said the fox. “Like my new coat?”

Damn fox was wearing a mink coat.

“You do understand that you might be related to that coat, don’t you?”

“Are you giving the fox a hard time again, Biff?”

I looked behind me. Floating in the air in lotus position and wearing a 10 gallon hat full of steaming hot water from which pipes extended to form a circular heating system around him was J. Richard Jacobs, aka J. He wore a housecoat with a ninja turtle motif.

“J,” I said. “So, that really was you the other day, sitting on my kitchen counter.”

“Yes, Biff, it was. I read your blog and realized that the fox wasn’t making your life miserable enough. It takes an editor make life truly painful for a writer…even one like you, who just barely meets the qualifications for being literate and can’t follow simple formatting standards.”

“Biff,” said the fox, “J and I talked about your plans and your purpose for being. We decided that your search for peace was…well, you know…kind of futile. I mean, look around. Nobody wants peace anymore. There’s no money in it. There’re no movies in it. And besides, people like hating each other.”

“We don’t necessarily like our conclusions,” said J, “but, yes, the fox is right…we put more effort into hating than we do into loving.”

“Hating is more profitable,” said the fox. “And it makes for better best sellers.”

“People have more fun hating than loving,” said J. “Haven’t you ever watched reality TV? It’s what we’ve become.”

“It’s all a big TV show with bad script writers,” said the fox.

“So we’ve decided that you need to focus your less than ample talents on something else,” said J.

I felt like I was between a brick wall and a thousand foot precipice with flying demons trying to bite my ass off. “OK,” I said. “I’m game. What should I focus on?”

The fox and J went silent. They looked at each other. They looked around. They looked at me. They looked back at each other. They looked up. They looked down. They looked all around. J started to speak…but looked up instead. The fox scratched his head…and looked at J.

J suddenly smiled and beamed and the pipes surrounding him tooted.

I swear…they tooted.

“I have an idea,” he said. The fox snapped to attention. I dropped my forehead into my right palm. This was going to be bad. I mean…he tooted.

“Biff,” he said, “it’s time for you to come to grips with winter.

***

There followed two hours of silence as J’s words tumbled around inside my head trying to fall into some kind of coherent meaning. J and the fox stared at me during this time. Just…stared.

***

There followed another two hours during which I chased J and the fox around the parking lot, needing desperately to beat both of them to death with my camera.

***

Just as I was about to bring my camera down onto the head of the mink-coated fox, a lid in the parking lot flipped down and I fell into the paving.

How did I never notice this before? I thought.

I tumbled through a tunnel under the parking lot, thinking, This is probably how Alice must have felt.

It seemed like I tumbled for several minutes that turned into several hours and turned into days and into months…and entire lifetimes flashed by my right and my left and right through my head and body as I tumbled into the openings of void after void and I thought: How did I not know this about the parking lot?

Eventually, I landed, camera in hand, on the walking bridge. So I took a couple of pictures before the other two figured out where I was and set out to torment me.

And I still hate winter.

 green-2

 

 

Coming to Grips with Winter (and a horrifying ending)

I hate winter. I hate snow. I hate the cold, the dark, the icy roads, the shoveling and scraping but, most of all I hate the absence of color and aroma. This is why I love taking pictures in winter.

Yes, there’s the beauty of snow-capped and ice-framed trees…the sublime quiet of their form and texture. Like this…

1-2017

But you can only take so many thousands of pictures like this before you say, “I want a living leaf. My imaginary kingdom for a living leaf.

And some color would be nice

So, beloved Canon 5D2 in hand, I ventured out into the cold Canadian winterscape in search of color (after kissing the camera of course) (and the Sigma 24-70 lens) (after having my lips stuck to my wonderful Kia Soul just a few days ago, I patted my Soul affectionately and said, “Good girl.”) (and then left my Soul behind).

I walked for miles. And miles. And miles with a song sitting vaguely at the edge of my mind, but ever elusive. I traversed vast snow-shrouded fields, trekked to the summits of cloud-touching snow banks and giggled as I made now-angels to mark my path so that I could find my way back.

All this within the borders of Freddie Beach, a small city perched precariously at the edge of the Earth.

Just as I was about to scream, “Oh shit!” to the gods and those who haunt the forests with snowmobiles and snowshoes…and thermos full of tasty hot chocolate (which, at the time, was sitting safely on my kitchen counter wondering wtf)…I spotted the color. It was muted and almost shy, like something recently birthed from the frozen ground.

2-2017

I quickly cleaned my lens and set my camera to ISO 200 (it was overcast), f/11 (to bring out a world of detail), 1/240 (because I was shaking from the cold) and 70mm (because there was no way I was going to struggle across that wasteland of white up to the subject).

I think, at one time, this might have been an ice house…a structure used to keep winter within its walls year ’round to preserve food. Or it might have been someone’s pot garden…a structure used to keep summer within its walls year ’round.

I took three pictures, using different compositions. I rejected the two with dragons flying out of the door. They seemed so out of place, and I would have been accused of gratuitous Photoshopping.

It wasn’t until I processed the image that I saw it.

A dust spot…rearing its ugly head at the top left of the image. Just as I was about to eliminate it with the Spot Remover, I thought, That’s not a dust spot. That’s a dragon flying into the void of another Canadian winter. So I left it in…for those who still believe in dragons. See it?

Back to the moment, though, I suddenly had an urge to crawl under my bed with a thermos of hot chocolate and wait for spring to arrive.

When I arrived home…the hot chocolate was gone and I had a feeling of something ominous present. And I heard a voice, “Serves you right, Biff.”

I looked at the counter behind me. Sitting on it with a terrible smile was…the fox! And beside him, smiling just as evilly was…the soul-sucking editor of the Twisted Tails Anthologies…J Richard Jacobs.

He ground his teeth together and said, slowly, coldly, blood-suckingly, “Hello, Biff.”

(To be continued)

 

Building a Path for Your Voice

trees

I’ve heard a lot about this thing called the writer’s voice…as though it’s some magical sound thingy that slides through the night and whispers breezes of joy into the ears of the reader…or rips through the fabric of the reader’s comfort zone and leaves a path of raised eyebrows and bumpy skin.

I’ve heard about this thing called the writer’s voice that readers and editors and critics wrap tightly around a pedestal and raise it into the sky with each successive publication of “THIS NEW VOICE!”

And therein lies the secret of becoming a successful writer: finding that distinctive voice that will distinguish you from the rest of the pack and vault you into riches and fame or critically correct obscurity. And your writing doesn’t even have to be good. It can be crap. But if it’s distinctive crap, it’ll sell…once the voice is out there, recognized, familiar and well-marketed.

But voice isn’t a style. Styles can be copied. It’s more like a personal resonance, a sense of the rhythm and flow of the way words would be used if they were read out load on a street corner, rise above the traffic and human bustle and still be heard. It’s the rhythm and flow of a human presence as distinctive as fingerprints and DNA…a rich flow of visual diction as well-composed as a great painting or photograph. It’s the rendering of thought through words so that it can’t be mistaken for any other voice.

The man who punctuates every sentence and thought with “fuck” is just as distinctive and memorable as a great orator. Once you hear it, you’ll never forget it no matter how much you’d like to…and you’ll always recognize it.

“So, Biff,” said the fox, “where do you find this thing called voice?”

“You don’t find it,” I said. “It finds you.”

“And just how might it find you?” said the fox, a little too arrogantly for my liking.

“Well,” I said, “one way is through mindless writing.”

“You’re joking, right?” said the fox.

“Let me explain…”

I teach a writing workshop call Writing Hurts Like Hell (and it does). In the first class I introduce my students to a this thing called mindless writing that I borrowed from Dorothea Brandt, who introduced it in her 1934 book On Becoming a Writer. It’s a little book, but it’s big on wisdom and great advice for anyone with aspirations of becoming a writer.

Here’s the gist of it: pick a word, a topic, a thought, a dream, a memory, a sentence, an object within view, a feeling, a concern, a theme, a conversation you overheard, a scent, a worry…anything that pops into your head.

Pick a length of time you intend to write. Start with five minutes. Being the cruel malicious bastard I am, I make my students start with fifteen minutes. Some of them run screaming from the class and drink too much for the rest of their lives. Now, start writing (preferably by hand with a pencil, pen or stick and sand…this has actually been proven to engage the mind more than a keyboard) about your chosen whatever.

Here’s the catch…you can’t stop writing until you’ve reached the time you set for yourself. If you stop to correct something, rewrite it or change it in any that will make it different from what you wrote…God will kill you. You have to keep writing even if you run out of things to say about your chosen whatever. You might have to change to another whatever or just repeat the last sentence you wrote until something new comes along. When this happens to my students, they write something like, “I hate this bastard, Biff. I hate him. I hate him. I hate him!” Surprisingly, this can occasionally lead to some genuinely insightful mindless writing.

But it’s worth the pain.

Mindless writing helps bring out the individual voice without judgement, editing or criticism. That voice that’s always inside you trying to get out, but pushed back inside with left brain thoughts like, “This is too flowery.” “This is too plain.” “This sucks.” We tend to write the way others expect us to write so we write for them, not for ourselves. We write in such a way as to gain the approval of those for whom we write, even if they’re imaginary spectres looking over our shoulders, and if we imagine they don’t approve of what we’re written, we scratch it out, delete it…deny it.

The last place you’ll find your own personal voice is in the approval of others. It just won’t happen.

Do this every morning. That’s the best time. It’ll give the right side of your head a boost that’ll charge your mundane day with creativity. But more importantly, the more you do it, the easier it will become. It will gain coherency, structure and uniqueness. Your voice will find you. It’s in there…you just have to give it a pathway out.

“So,” said the fox, “any other ways to find your voice?”

“Yep,” I said. “Get into arguments with yourself.”

“But…”

It’s a little like mindless writing except it has a definite structure: a dialogue. You write something down, complete with quotation marks and then disagree with what you said, complete with quotation marks. Then defend your statement. And go back and forth like this for a page or two or more if you’re really into it. You’d be surprised at how many times you’ll lose an argument with yourself.

The key to letting your voice find you with this way is to believe everything you say, on both sides of the argument. You’ll develop an objectivity that rises above criticism because your the one criticizing on both sides of the fence. You’ll rise above the na sayers because you will be them…along with the yea sayers. Think of it as a battle between your right brain and your left brain taking place in the stadium of your left brain.

Always good to hedge your bets.

Argue hard and furiously. And, unlike total all-out extreme mindless writing, you can stop and think about your arguments and counter arguments.

So how does your voice find you in this medley of dissention? Well, nothing brings out the inner self as convincingly as a good heated argument. Argue with yourself when you’re feeling kind of groovy. Argue with yourself when you’re angry at something. Argue with yourself when you have nothing else to do. Hell…have a drunken argument with yourself. Yell at yourself. Yell back. Sometimes, do some name-calling. You’d be surprised at what you may call yourself that might give pause for thought.

One little hint…keep it in writing. Don’t get into a shoving match or a fist fight. That’s called “hearing voices in the head.” That’s not what you want.

Keep this up and after a while, you’ll find one side winning more and more frequently. That’s your voice. You’ll know when you hear it because it will have found you.

This is one I don’t teach in my workshop because if I give away all my secrets, they won’t need me anymore and they’ll kill me. This is how Kung Fu masters die.

One last way to let your voice find you…blog. But write in a word processing program first…or pen, pencil, stick in sand. That way you’ll be writing for yourself. Then decide what you want to share and what you want to keep for yourself…and revise accordingly. Not giving a flying bat’s ass what anyone thinks about me…I never delete anything. I wrote it for myself…it’s my fucking voice and I argued and wrote mindlessly for millennia to get it, so put up or shut up.

Don’t mean to insult either of you, but that’s how I feel. You should feel the same way too.

(Next blog on voice…voice in photography…coming soon…or later.)

BTW, stopped making my daily decisions today. Reached where I wanted to be. Now to just go with the flow because I know where to swing the rudder.