Book Review – Elevation by Stephen King

Elevation by Stephen King (2018) – Set in King’s signature Main town of Castle Rock, Scott Carey is losing weight. A pound or so a week, for no clear reason. Stranger still is that he’s still wearing the same sized clothes, still looks the same. And when he picks things up, they weigh nothing at all. How long can the weight loss go? And what effect will this have on the people around him?

Let’s get this straight up front. If you’re one of the people who insist that Stephen King is not a great writer, please leave now. With each passing year, with each short story and novel I read, I grow more convinced of the brilliance of the man as a storyteller and writer. He is a craftsman, artist and visionary. They will study King’s work, and read it, for generations to come. If that’s a problem for you, I understand. But let me be clear, that’s your problem, not mine. King is a genius, as this book shows.

The central question of the story is: What’s happening to Scott Carey? His weight continues to fall, while his physical form (including his “front porch”/potbelly) never changes. His muscles retain both size and strength. Which creates its own problem. What happens when muscles built to move 240 pounds are only pushing against 150, 100, 70? King doesn’t try to do too much here. Scott doesn’t know what’s going on, the story is more about how he deals with the challenges. Added in are questions about life in a small conservative town in Maine, and the married lesbian couple who moved in down the street. It’s all done in his signature clean prose, the story unfolding one step at a time.

The book is very short, 146 pages, but he creates characters we care about in a fascinating situation. This was a book I didn’t want to put down, but that I didn’t want to end either. It was over all too soon.

Rating – **** Recommended

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On Writing – Finding Your When

It’s a question I see a lot on writers boards and discussions. Some variation on “How do I find time to write?” For the last two years this question has become an ever greater issue in my life as a writer. So I thought I’d share my thoughts and offer some possible answers.

For the last two plus years, I have been “under-employed”. That means I’m working, but not full time and not at the earnings level someone of my experience would expect. The brutal reality is that I’m working multiple part-time jobs plus as many side gigs as I can. All of which chew up my available time. The time I would use for my writing. Add in to that the physical and mental tiredness that comes with juggling multiple jobs, and the stress of being in constant financial straits. I know I’m not alone in this. In the middle of it all, I want to be writing. I think about my stories all the time.

So where do I find my “when”, the time I can write?

Whenever I can.

There was a time when I had a regular writing schedule. I could arrange my tools the way I like, play the music I enjoy, perhaps with a small glass of an adult beverage at my elbow. Then I could create at my leisure. It’s what most writers dream of doing, I’d guess. Those times are few and far between these days. So I write when I can, for as long as I can. I’m writing this portion of the post during a break at one of my jobs. No, I’m not shirking my duties. This is normal down time I can use for my own purposes. If my supervisor walked in right now, they would be fine with this. I’m blessed to have this time, and it’s a blessing I don’t ignore.

Some days it isn’t available for a variety of reasons. Some days my writing is a quick 15 minutes when I’m writing notes about a story rather than the story itself. Other’s it’s five minutes and the notes are handwritten on a scrap of paper I hope I won’t lose. You make the time and you take the time you can.

Here’s my other thought on the subject. I love storytelling and writing is my primary method these days. But it is NOT the most important thing in my life. Heresy, I know. But if the choice is between writing and taking care of myself, self-care wins. If the choice is between the writing and my marriage, the marriage wins. There are days when the writing stops so I can get out and exercise. If I’m not healthy, I can not write well. If the goal is writing well, then there will be times when the writing needs to take a back seat.

So how do you find your “when”? Stop looking for the “perfect time”, it doesn’t exist. Understand the reality of your life and fit your writing into it. If you love writing, you will find the places you can do it. Combine it with other activities as you can, take the 15 minutes here and there and crush the writing you can achieve there. Make writing a habit and you will find the time. Don’t get hung up on what other people do. I have a friend who gets up every morning at 5 AM to write. She loves it. It would be unimaginable torture for me. I’m happy for her, and I find my writing time elsewhere.

There is no single, perfect answer to the question. But there is a “when” waiting for you. Find it and write!

Peace

JD

What I’m Reading – All The Birds In The Sky

All The Birds In The Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (2016) – Patricia and Laurence are the “weird” kids.  But no one realizes what that really means.  Patricia is a witch who can talk to birds but has no control over her power.  Laurence is a technological genius who can create almost anything.  What makes them different draws them together, then threatens to destroy them and the rest of the planet.

Let me put these items right up front.  Anders is a professional journalist, editor, and writer with credits from some high profile publications.  Published by Tor Books, the novel won the 2017 Nebula and Locus awards, plus was a Hugo finalist.

So my question is this – why isn’t a better book?

To me, it reads like a second draft.  The draft you get after you fix all the typos, punctuation and grammar issues with your first draft.  The one after you’ve plugged the really big holes in your story.  The second draft is the one where the polishing begins (a process that may take multiple more drafts).  It’s also the one where you realize you haven’t explained everything clearly and you’ve left a couple (hopefully only a couple) story lines dangling.  So you fix them to create your third draft.

Except that none of that stuff got fixed.

As I waded through the first 100 pages, I was trying to figure out what Anders was trying to create.  It was going to straddle the fantasy/sci-fi fence, which I have no trouble with at all.  But what KIND of book was it trying to be?  It felt like there was a move towards some Terry Pratchett/Douglas Adams weird/whimsical, but it never committed to it.  Is it a YA book?  Not really.  At times it felt like a middle grades book.  But it never committed to that either.  Turned out that was the least of my issues.

There are language inconsistencies.  Most of the book is told in a casual, colloquial kid/teen/young adult style.  Again, fine.  So when Latinate words or phrases appear out of nowhere and for no clear reason, it was jarring.  Laurence rubs his “occiput” at one point.  At another time, a sternum was bifurcated.  There’s no reason to use these words, there’s no set up for them.  It’s inconsistent and unnecessary.

There are bizarre images used.  At one point, Laurence’s personal school bully grabs him by the collar and is “swung like a shot put”.  What?  The shot put is not swung.

Characters are introduced with no explanation, are given something to do without cause, then shuffled off to the side, also without explanation.  The prime example is the assassin, Theodolphus Rose. (Don’t even get me started on some of the names.  Again, neither rhyme nor reason).  There’s a vague reason he’s decided to kill our two leads, but it’s given no nourishment from the author to bloom. as for the organization to which he belongs?  Mentioned multiple times, but never explored.

As I continued to read, the book struck me as a mash-up of other books.  It begins with a taste of teenage angst stories, mixes in a taste of “A Wrinkle In Time”, then goes for the “Harry Potter” mode, and finally adds a good dose of “The Chronicles of Amber”.  There were probably more, but I stopped caring halfway through.  Every time Anders got rolling, and when she lets the story do its thing the book is enjoyable, she would drop another unpolished piece of storytelling in to mess things up.

There’s an interesting story here, with some characters I’d love to know more about.  After 300+ pages, I felt frustrated and with more questions than answers.  That always feels like an author trying to be clever.

How this mixed up piece of unpolished storytelling won all those awards is beyond me.

If you get through the first 100 pages, the book gets better.  Never right, but better.  I can’t quite bring myself to say you shouldn’t read it, but I can’t say you should either.

On Writing – The Value of Slow

American culture doesn’t teach us to slow down. Our training from an early age is to hurry, go faster, the need for speed. The goal is quick advancement in our careers, to multi-task so we get as much done as possible. The early bird gets the worm, live fast, die young. The list goes on and on.

That mindset has been a constant pressure for me, despite the fact that I am not built that way. It took years for me to realize that I need to take the time to consider before I decide. My snap judgments are not always wrong.  But they are wrong more often than the decisions considered with care. I should also note I am more than capable of over-thinking an issue. The track record for those decisions is even worse!

It’s strange that the importance of slowing down was a lesson learned during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). An event that requires you to hit a certain pace sounds like the opposite of our topic here.  NaNoWriMo led me to a better understanding of myself as a writer. One of those realizations was my desire to get the writing “out of the way”.

I love stories. I love telling stories. The process of writing those stories is frustrating. Like most writers I’ve spoken with, my brain works 100x faster than my hands can write or type. The story that is so clear in my head is a struggle to reduce to the written word on a page. Worse yet, once I’ve “told” the complete story in my head, I have this intense urge to race on to the next story. The result has been dozens of unfinished stories and immense frustration. If I could only write faster!

Nope.

Turns out the answer was the exact opposite. I needed to slow down. Other story ideas  crowd my brain, demanding attention and distracting me from my WIP. So I make the best notes I can (need to include as many details as I can, otherwise they become one of the Lost Ones), and focus back on what I’m doing. By slowing down I spend more time considering how I’m telling this story.  I am more open to an unexpected turn in the story. Slowing down allows me to spend more of my energy on the craft of writing, rather than just the work of it. Working slower means I catch more mistakes in the editing process. Editing used to make me crazy. I’ve written the story, so why aren’t I done? It’s a common plaint of beginning writers. In slowing down, I’ve discovered a new joy in the polishing process. Finding places where less is more and other places where I can expand the story.

In slowing down, I’ve written more in the past five years than in the ten years before. The quality of what I’ve written has increased too. In the past, there were times I struggled to reach simple word count goals. In my headlong rush to get to the end I would skim past all the ideas in a concept. Much like when we slow down on a walk or a ride, now there are all kinds of details missed before and explored now. Today my problem is more often cutting ideas and reduce my output to the count desired.  My work is deeper, more nuanced and deft.  They are better stories created by a better storyteller.

What’s the speed that works for you? Do you write in a headlong rush, then slow to polish? Are you a slow/slow or fast/fast? Have you ever considered the question? I’d love to hear your experience of writing. I invite you to jump into the comments and share.

On Writing – The Value of Slow

American culture doesn’t teach us to slow down. Our training from an early age is to hurry up, go faster, the need for speed. The goal is quick advancement in our careers, to multi-task so that we get as much done as possible. The early bird gets the worm, live fast, die young. The list goes on and on.

That mindset has been a constant pressure for me, despite the fact that I am not built that way. It took years for me to realize that I need to take the time to consider before I make decisions. My snap judgments are not always wrong.  But they are wrong more often than the decisions considered with care. I should also note that I am more than capable of over-thinking an issue as well. The track record for those decisions are even worse!

It’s strange that the importance of slowing down was a lesson learned during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). An event that requires you to hit a certain pace  sounds like the opposite of our topic here.  NaNoWriMo led me to a better understanding of myself as a writer. One of those realizations was my desire to get the writing “out of the way”.

I love stories. I love telling stories. The process of writing those stories is frustrating. Like most writers I’ve spoken with, my brain works 100x faster than my hands can write or type. The story that is so clear in my head is a struggle to reduce to the written word on a page. Worse yet, once I’ve “told” the complete story in my head, I have this intense urge to race on to the next story. The result has been dozens of unfinished stories and immense frustration. If I could only write faster!

Nope.

Turns out the answer was the exact opposite. I needed to slow down. Other story ideas  crowd my brain, demanding attention and distracting me from my WIP. So I make the best notes I can (need to include as many details as I can, otherwise they become on of the Lost Ones), and focus back on what I’m doing. By slowing down I spend more time considering how I’m telling this story.  I am more open to an unexpected turn in the story. Slowing down allows me to spend more of my energy on the craft of writing, rather than just the work of it. Working slower means I catch more mistakes in the editing process. Editing used to make me crazy. I’ve written the story, so why aren’t I done? It’s a common plaint of beginning writers. In slowing down, I’ve discovered a new joy in the polishing process. Finding places where less is more and other places where I can expand the story.

In slowing down, I’ve written more in the five year than in the ten years before. The quality of what I’ve written has increased as well. In the past, there were times when I struggled to reach simple word count goals. In my headlong rush to get to the end I would skim past all the ideas that were in a concept. Much like when we slow down on a walk or a ride, now there are all kinds of details missed before and explored now. Today my problem is more often finding ways to cut ideas and reduce my output to the count desired.  My work is deeper, more nuanced and deft.  They are better stories created by a better story teller.

What’s the speed that works for you? Do you write in headlong rush, then slow to polish? Are you a slow/slow or fast/fast? Have you ever considered the question? I’d love to hear your experience of writing. Feel free to jump into the comments and share.

A Radio Collection (with a story of mine!)

Radio has been an enormous part of my life. Except for a short stint as a muffin baker in a donut shop, radio was my first job out of college. (The muffin baking thing only lasted a couple months) Beginning as a rip/rewrite/read newscaster, I worked my way through every airshift of the day, sports play-by-play/color, copywriter, production director, talk show host, music director, assistant Program Director and Operations Manager in 19 ½ years. I was afternoon drive three times and morning drive twice. My studios ranged from the backrooms of an aluminum siding company to Walt Disney World, from a booth in a mall to a trailer suspended 30 feet in the air.

It was an amazing journey with a band of wonderful professionals and friends.

Radio is filled with storytellers. The best people on-air are natural born storytellers, but they’re not the only ones. Salespeople are skilled storytellers and even the off-air support staff know how to tell the tale. It’s one of three places where I have felt that I had found “my people”.

So I’m amazed that I haven’t seen more books like “Air – A Radio Anthology“. This is a collection of stories from small market radio. It’s also a collection that includes one of my stories.

“A Box And A Blast” tells the true story of me, a small, gray metal box, and trust issues. It was fun to write, wonderful to get the word they had purchased the story, and truly exciting to share with the world.

“Air” is now available for just $12. For all of us with radio in our lives, past or present, I would urge you to consider buying a copy. I don’t make a dime from these sales, but I want to help support the small publishing house that put it together. If you grew up listening to the radio and always wondered what it was like in the studio, I’d recommend this book as well. These are the stories radio folk swap when we gather together. They represent the tiniest scratch of the surface of all the stories we could tell.

And told by folks who know how to tell a story.

You’ll find the book HERE.

Thanks!

What I’m Reading – Zen In The Art of Writing

Zen In The Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury (1990) – A celebration of writing from a master of the 20th Century.

Books on writing fell into two categories for me. The “This is How To Write” category, and books designed to inspire writers category. This slim book (just 158 pages in a small paperback) falls into that second group. Bradbury loves writing and shares that love along with stories about some of his best-known stories (“Fahrenheit 451” and “The Martian Chronicles” get a lot of discussion). He doesn’t present his own experience as a prescription for how the rest of us should pursue our craft. The goal is to help the reader find their own formula for success.

Bradbury’s model is hard for most of us to follow anyway. His career took off in the heyday of the magazine. There was an enormous market for short stories and he mastered the art of cranking them out at a tremendous rate. A short story a week. Every week. For at least ten years. First draft on Monday, second on Tuesday, then third, fourth and fifth on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Sixth draft on Saturday and into the mail it went. He spent Sundays considering ideas for the next story. I would love to work on that schedule, let alone turn out the quality of work he created. Bradbury was able from early in his career to make writing his full-time job. Selling two stories a month kept the wolf from the door. He says he sold 44 stories in 1940 and made $800. That was a lot more money than it is today, but he was still only making enough to pay the bills. Most of us will understand that end of the writing profession.

With the stories are Bradbury’s go to ideas for writing. He believed in making lists of writing prompts for himself. He began with lists of things he liked and didn’t like, titles, descriptions, nouns. Anything that occurred to him, that appealed to him, went into a list. Then he would circle back to those lists for years. Looking for inspiration, looking for the idea that was ready to go now. Ideas that had had the time to sit, mature and grow inside his mind. Out of those lists came a hundred brilliant stories. Of Mars, dead people, his archetype of small town America, and so many other places, people and things. His process covers both the mechanical routines of writing and the inspiration that fuels it.
There are bits of the “How To Write” mindset here, for those who want clearer instructions. Begin by making those lists! Later, in the chapter that gives the book its title, Bradbury offers up four concepts that form his understanding of what any creator must do to create. They are “Work”, “Relaxation”, “Don’t Think”, and “Further Relaxation”. I will leave you to discover on your own his deeper thoughts on those words. I would summarize them by saying that Bradbury felt that creators are often their own worst enemies. We need to get out of our own way.
My takeaway is that Ray Bradbury wants us to immerse ourselves in what we do when we create. To be both the technician and the artist. The result is a book I find deeper and more intriguing than many others. It is a philosophy lesson for writers. A vital reminder in an age that pushes us toward simplistic, mechanical creative processes.

What book on writing do you keep coming back to, and recommending to others?  Leave me a comment with a suggestion!