The Muse (guest post by Mr. Todd Skaggs)

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages…today I have for you a very special treat. I have commenced with beating my controlling personality into submission and handed over the keys to the blog to fellow writer, Todd Skaggs. He wants you to know that his blog, Cooking For One, is not a cooking blog and that this collection of thoughts, photos, rantings, music and other assorted crap that amuses him can be found at http://randomtzp.blogspot.com/. Show him some love, won’t you? And without further ado…

The Muse

The concept of a muse has prevailed among creative types since they first graced the text and lore of the ancient Greek. Later adopted by the Romans, the Muses, still considered goddesses in the Pantheon, solidified their place in the collective unconscious of any one sitting in front of a keyboard at 12:01AM when they have to be up in five short hours to report to their “day job.”

The Muses–sometimes three, sometimes nine depending on which dead poet you consult–are the source and blame in most cases of inspiration or lack thereof.

But what is inspiration? That’s a good question.

Duh, Todd. That’s why you’re writing this post, isn’t it? To tell us what inspiration is and how to bottle it?

Maybe. The problem with that is, what inspires me may completely turn you off from doing anything creative in the least. None the less, as writers and wordsmiths, I think it only helps us in the long run to delve a little deeper in to this topic. If only to have a backup plan for when the Muses decide to pile in to a VW microbus and follow Phish around the Pacific Northwest on their tenth “farewell we mean it this time” tour.

I don’t think the type of writer you are matters in this conversation either. The planner with their spreadsheets and pages of notes and outlines or the pantser with their freshly cracked knuckles huddled expectantly over the keyboard will find the same sort of spark. Oh sure, the source is different for everyone. But that spark…that spark is unmistakable.

You know it when it hits–at least I hope you do. For me, as a consummate panster, the inspiration usually comes in the form of a movie. Not some reconstituted bilge water from Hollywood. No, the movies I’m talking about are the ones in my mind. The ones that threaten to take over my waking life so completely that some of the basic societal norms are overlooked. In the midst of working on a piece, I once showed up for work fully dressed, minus the shirt I had neglected to put on under my winter coat. For me it’s a movie that plays out. And when that movie starts, I know I have a limited window to capture the essence of that movie or it’s gone.

But Todd, you haven’t really told us what inspires you or how you know you’re being inspired.

I can’t tell you what inspires me. I don’t know where the stories, or blog posts, or poems actually come from. And if you’re being honest, you probably didn’t really expect me to.

I can tell you, though, what makes me receptive to the inspiration.

Being still. When I am in a place where I can be still, I find that ideas start flowing more freely through the theater of my mind. I see snippets of a scene, like a movie trailer. I write them down or describe them to the tape recorder. If I am awake, I very rarely find myself without a tool upon which to preserve those initial sketches–whether a notebook, recorder, or the voice memo app on my phone, I am seldom without a means to capture some facet of the story. It may be the barest of shells of the story. An outline which threatens to make me a planner. It may be the first and last paragraph of a piece. It could just be a title and a plot point.

The key is, it doesn’t matter what we’re fed. As authors true to ourselves, we have to have some way of recording even that faintest spark of inspiration.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I wrote everything above that came before this paragraph over two weeks ago. And it’s probably bullshit. That’s not to say that it might not resonate with you. I hope that it does. One of the things that inspires me as a writer is the hope that something I write will inspire some kind of creativity in others.

But I don’t have a muse. I find inspiration in the things that take my breath away. Like this:

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This picture is from my family’s farm in Kentucky. It’s not nearly as breathtaking as the real thing–trust me on that. When something takes my breath away, it causes me to remember something very simple–living in the now. When I live in the now, I see beauty all around me and things fall in to place. That story arc….the remnant of an idea that I was fighting with as I was getting ready for work–all of it clicks in to one glorious place.

When that happens, I have to write. As much as I need to have that breathing start back up again, I have to expel those creative energies.

The inspiration is there. Inside me. It always was. I just have to stop long enough, be still long enough, to listen. And act.

And I guess, looking back over this, that whole bit near the middle about being still was pretty on point. Looks like I just needed to get out of my own way and let the words fall where they may. Full contact writing is never an easy thing to get used to. And if you’re going to heed the call of the Muses and actively seek your source of inspiration, you should take up your shield an armor. The battle you will fight to get those words to page is not without peril.

But the reward…that’s the good stuff. It’s why we do what we do and court the Muses in the first place.

Peace,

-A.T.

Treetops (Or, Why Jackson Pollock Has Nothing on Me…)

I have this interest that very few people are aware of. It’s a bit different, but then all the great ones always have been. Here goes…(deep breath…exhale)…I like to take photographs of nature. Ah, you say, so does everyone else. And you would be correct. But my interest goes beyond the everyday photos of a duck on a pond or the purple of Spring’s first rhododendron bloom. What I enjoy is taking photos of treetops. From the ground up. Here, let me show you…

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 Utilizing the sky as a canvas, the treetops add a splash of color against it. To me, they resemble abstract paintings, each one beautiful and different. Mother Nature’s own Jackson Pollocks. Just like any other photos, the results are altered by the amount of light and shadow…

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 Every season offers a different canvas, a different palette of colors to choose from. Autumn presents a very broad palette…

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While Winter can be stark, yet just as remarkable…

(and no, this is not a B&W photo)

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 Now, I could go on and on about why I enjoy photographing treetops, (it’s like painting the sky)but I’m not an art instructor. And as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. So for me, these speak volumes…

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(I seemed to have misplaced most of my Spring and Summer treetop photos. They’re stunning and probably on my old laptop. When I come across them, I will post them at a later date.)

 

The First Rule of Write Club…

Writing, like boxing, is an individual sport. Unless they’re co-authoring a research paper or in the rare case of attempting to collaborate on a novel (many of us like the idea of this, but fear the execution), writers generally spend countless hours working solo, locked away in self-induced solitary confinement. True, there may be other people around at times, (if they’re writing at a coffee shop or local drinking establishment) but the writer won’t know these people personally. There’s no pressure to keep up conversation with them, nor match them shot for shot while trying to forget someone. To the writer blistering their laptop’s keyboard or feverishly draining their pen’s ink onto notebooks, those other people may as well not even be there. The only company a writer keeps whilst writing is that of their characters. Hemingway probably said something like that once, but nobody really knows for sure.

But every once in awhile (like every third Wednesday or second Saturday of the month) we writers like to seek out the fellowship of other like-minded souls, which often comes in the form of a writing group. If you’re considering joining a local writing group, keep in mind that just like any other club, there are both pros and cons to the association. And above all else, there are rules. Unspoken as they may be, there are definitely rules that govern writing groups. Especially if the group is to be successful. And if you don’t want it to be successful, then why bother?

Ergo, the rules of write club are as follows…

  • The first rule of write club is you DO talk about your writing group. Especially to other writers. There is no need for secrecy here, and gaining new members occasionally is actually beneficial. There is the potential of a group becoming too large, but if kept to a manageable size, the broader and more diverse the group’s members in terms of experience and level of knowledge the better. Like with any good business, you want your group to thrive and grow. New blood is seldom a bad thing.
  • The second rule of write club is that continued attendance, while not mandatory, is strongly encouraged. While life dictates that one must miss a meeting from time to time, a group can only function with purpose if those within it show up and participate on a regular basis. If members aren’t showing up, the integrity of the group is hampered and the work being done within it suffers. (Then Rule #1 comes back into play)
  • The third rule of write club is you must demonstrate goodwill at all times. When requesting a critique from others, you must be willing to accept said feedback graciously, regardless of your level of agreement. Most often, the critique you receive will be legitimate and useful, if not favorable. But this won’t always be the case. Just keep in mind that while you may not agree with the feedback, it shouldn’t be taken as an offense or an all-encompassing indictment of your writing ability. It’s one person’s opinion, and you know what? You even asked for it. Learn what you can from it and move on.
  • The fourth rule of write club is, if you are continually asking for feedback, you must be prepared to offer it as well. Reciprocation is paramount, and with more substantial feedback than simply ‘I liked it.’ Feedback like this wouldn’t help you, and it won’t help anyone else, either. Take the time. Do the work. They did it for you.
  • The fifth and final rule of write club is that everyone must do their part in making all group members feel secure enough to speak openly within its confines. If any member doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up, either at the fear of being ridiculed, their thoughts brushed off or otherwise, they won’t get their questions answered. Not only won’t they get the benefits of being in a writing group, but they won’t grow as a writer, either. And honestly, isn’t that why most of us join a writing group in the first place?

So there you have it. Now spread the love.

The Importance of the Opening Chapter (Or, How Much is Your Money/Time Worth To You?)

How important is the first chapter of a book? Oh, I don’t know. How important is that first bite of steak you’re about to drop $30 dollars on at the new steakhouse everyone’s been talking about? It’s all about first impressions. If that first bite is too rare, full of gristle or just plain bad tasting, are you going to continue eating it or are you going to send it back for something else? For me, I’m sending it back. I rather like my money and if I’m going to spend that much of it on a meal, that meal better be everything I hoped it would be.

The same goes for the first chapter of a book. Like my money, my time is important to me. My ‘books to be read’ stack continues to grow by the day. I’ve already resigned myself to the fact I’ll never get through them all. The reality is there will still be unread books on my shelves long after I’m dead and gone. So when I pick up a new book, that first chapter better interest me. It doesn’t have to be the best piece of writing I’ve ever read. It doesn’t have to lay the entire story at my feet. But it better at least pique my interest. It should compel me to read on for one reason or another. Preferably because I care for the characters already, though that’s not an absolute requirement of mine. A chapter that simply makes me wonder ‘what’s gonna happen next?’ will suffice. Otherwise, like that bad steak, I’m sending that particular book back for something else. And I’ve done this more than a few times.

Now some people will say, ‘give it a chance. It might get better.’ But no. First impressions, remember? Right or wrong, I figure if the author can’t come up with a compelling first chapter, how interesting could the rest of the book be? And how much time do I want to waste ‘hoping’ the book gets better. Remember that growing stack of books I mentioned? Well, they’re not going to read themselves. And if somebody is going to read them, I would prefer that somebody be me. I was the one, after all, who shelled out the cash for them in the first place. Otherwise, think of all the great steak I could’ve bought instead.

Wanna Play a Game?

Here’s how it works:
Take a look at the bracket. There are 64 movies listed that will go head to head. For example, The Godfather will go up against Rocky, Talladega Nights will compete against The Jerk and so on. Votes will be cast to determine everyone’s favorite between the two. The movie with the most votes will move on to the next round. We will continue this for the next couple of weeks until there is only one movie left standing.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to decide NOW (before voting starts tomorrow, 3/9) which of the 3 movies you think has the best chance to win it all. At the end, if the winning movie is in your list of 3, then you have a chance to win either a gift card  to Amazon or Starbucks or your choice of 3 signed books.
It’s easy, it’s fun, so let me your top 3 and get ready to start voting tomorrow!
MMM Bracket

“It’s a major award…”

No leg lamps here. Instead, I present my original story that won the grand prize in Highfield Press’s Autumn 2015 contest. Here is “Connection”…

The crack of the first volley chases tiny black birds from the treetops. Squirrels scurry toward those places where squirrels tend to hide. I too jump, even though I knew it was coming. I just didn’t know when. But now, at least, I know where they are in the service. Notable words of commendation have already been spoken. The flag folded and presented. It’s all very ceremonious and dignified. My grandfather would have been proud.

The second round of gunshots echoes the first. Seconds later, the third and final volley sounds and reluctantly fades. One last brass button on my wool overcoat, and I turn toward the source.

The sound of autumn beneath my highly-polished shoes fills the void as I amble through the cemetery. Pleasant as it might be, the familiar crunching of dry leaves being returned to the soil isn’t my focus. The opening notes of Taps beckons me to make an appearance. The solemn bugling billows up from just over the next hill, bringing with it my pride. As I make my way passed row after row of granite headstones, I know I’m late. I’ve almost missed the ceremony entirely. But for reasons that are solely mine, I’m in no hurry to join the show already in progress. My spiritless gait reflects my motivation, or lack thereof. It can’t be feigned.

“They’re playing your song, Grandpa Joe.” I’m on the fence about whether he can hear me. But I don’t yet want to give in to doubt, so I speak the words as if he were walking broadside. Our connection had always been strong, but circumstances have never been as they are now, and I’m not sure where it stands.

Take away the stone markers, clumps of dried flowers and miniature American flags poking up from the ground like patriotic dandelions, and the cemetery would look very much like the property where we used to hunt upland game. When I was younger, pheasants were my grandfather’s nemesis, and the weather on the best days was just like this. The air crisp. The sky filled with shades of orange against a blue backdrop as trees let go of their summer green.

“You know, Josh,” he would sometimes say as we hiked the hills and valleys, shotguns cradled in the nooks of our arms, “you don’t have to follow in my footsteps. There are safer places than the Corps to hang your hat.”

Even now, as the familiar words are replayed, my mind remains unchanged. There was no other path for me. I was always going to follow in his footsteps whether he wanted me to or not. I was not going to be deterred. Not then, and not now.

The final note of Taps fades out over the valley. When it’s gone, the crinkling of leaves takes up the soundtrack to my stroll. I imagine the pastor offering the final prayer, wanting to send folks away with hope in their hearts instead of despair, but he’s still out of earshot. My plan is to get there just in time to see everyone, but not a moment sooner. Relatives not seen for years will have come from several states away. Hugs will be doled out like charity pamphlets as everyone rises from the rows of chairs setup uniformly beside the coffin. Respects will be paid. It won’t be long before the tears will be drying up and tissues tucked away for the next occasion warranting a dry eye.

A large maroon canvas emerges beyond the crest of the hill. My pace slows even more, and the next breath I take is edged with resolution. The tent’s shadow comes into view, and within it, the crowd is clad in blacks and dark greys. All familiar faces, solemn, yet staunch. My aunt Gweneth is there with her teenage girls. They’ve gotten so big. It’s good to see my father’s cousin, Richard, and I wish the circumstances were different. Even my grandfather’s younger brother, Bill, who’s been confined to a wheelchair since a grain silo accident in ’98, has made the trip. My parents are in a corner, huddled in quiet conversation with the pastor.

Five men dressed in various military regalia stand with their rifles against their chests. My attention is drawn to them, and I recognize two from my grandfather’s VFW post. I think another man is from the recruiting center in the strip mall beside the bookstore downtown. Ironically, he’s the one that recruited me, as if I needed recruiting. The faces of the other two men look vaguely familiar, but their names escape me.

I make my way toward the crowd.

No one stops me as I approach the tent. No one even notices, and it’s a strange sensation. I move through the crowd until I reach the foot of the casket, its glossy finish a steel blue, its handles polished silver. It’s a casket worthy of a decorated Marine back from Afghanistan, early and against his will. My grandfather would be proud.

My enlistment photo, where I’m seated full of determination in front of Old Glory, my cover a brilliant white and my navy blue jacket tightly pressed, sits propped on an easel beside the coffin. It’s a larger version of the one gracing my parents’ mantel, perched beside the encased flag from my grandfather’s funeral. I suppose a second wood and glass triangle will be joining it soon.

My eyes trail to the headstone marking the grave beside mine. Five years of wind, rain and snow have softened the slab’s rough edges, smoothed its finish. Seeing my grandfather’s name etched in the formidable stone brings out a modest smile. It’s when a hand comes to rest on my shoulder that a wave of relief cleanses me. I feel his touch for the first time in years, and I know everything’s going to be okay. The connection is still there.

 

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This story is dedicated to the bravery, sacrifice and memory of LCPL Joshua B. McDaniels. Rest in peace, soldier. Your work is done.

A New England State of Mind

So my current WIP is set entirely in Massachusetts, primarily on Cape Cod. (Simply ‘The Cape’ to those of you fortunate enough to be personally familiar with the area). Since the location is very prominent in the story, I have been submersing myself in all things Mass/Cape Cod lately. Everything from photos I took on my trip to the area in the fall of 2014, to nautical maps of the coastline, to my new 2016 New England wall calendar (which has brilliant photos, but no description of what or where the photos are. WTH?), all for the sake of staying in that New England mindset while I write.

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But somehow, it doesn’t seem like enough. I’m finding that I would really like to take a quick weekend trip back there and do a little more research, soak up everything the area has to offer. Or at least as much as I can in two days. Eat the food, drive the streets, talk to the people and take a thousand more photos. But on the other hand, I keep asking myself, ‘who do you think you are, Hemingway? Jack London?’ We have this thing nowadays called ‘the Internet.’ People don’t travel for novel research anymore. Anything you would ever want to know about an area or culture is only a few mouse clicks away. Go ahead. Google it and I bet you’ll find what you’re looking for.

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Still, there’s just something about the authenticity of first-hand research that makes me think the novel would benefit greatly from a quick trip; to really infuse the essence of New England and Cape Cod into the story. But then, I also love to travel, so maybe that part of me is subconsciously encouraging the trip, passing itself off as the writer in search of authenticity. Who knows? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Either way, with or without my own trip, I hope to provide readers of my next book with a little journey to an area I fell in love with long before I ever visited.

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Saying Goodbye to an Amazing Year

As we kiss 2015 goodbye, I have to say, I’m a little sad to see it go. From a writing standpoint especially, this has been one hell of a year. I experienced so many firsts, crossed so many things off my bucket list that made 2015 an incredibly memorable year for me. From signing my first book contracts for both BONE WHITE and BLACKENED, to then seeing those books on actual bookstore shelves, to sitting on convention panels and giving a workshop to a writer’s group. I survived my first public reading in front of a small, yet very supportive audience and was asked by a former college professor to come back and speak to a couple of their classes. The icing on the proverbial cake was seeing a promotion for BONE WHITE triple its projected amount of sales, making it a best-seller on multiple sites.

And while none of this is allowing me to say goodbye to the day job, I am having a hell of a lot of fun with it. But truly, none of it would even be possible without an incredibly encouraging and faithful support group behind me. From my ever-supportive wife and kids who allow me the time and money I need to chase this crazy dream, to my mother who still champions my every achievement, to my publisher who has opened so many doors for me, I thank you all. Your encouragement is appreciated more than you know.

I would also like to thank my ever-patient and supportive friends who no doubt get tired of my exhaustive, yet essential promotion, yet never cut me loose because of it. To the reviewers who have taken the time to offer kind words about my writing, (and a little constructive criticism from time to time), I thank you. Keep it coming.

And finally, to anyone and everyone who has shelled out hard-earned money to purchase any of my labors of love, I thank you wholeheartedly for taking a chance on me. I hope to never disappoint.

With the greatest support group any writer could ever ask for, I am more than excited to see what 2016 has in store. I’m not sure it could possibly live up to 2015, but I can’t wait to find out. Best wishes to all of you and Happy New Year!

 

 

A Black(ened) Friday Sales Event!

Signed books make excellent, personal gifts for the readers on your holiday list! Celebrate Black Friday this year by skipping the lines at the big book store and picking up a sale-priced book direct from the author. Or better yet, bundle two or three books together and save even more. I’m not just offering 15% off the cover price, I’m also throwing in free shipping to anywhere in the U.S.!

I will add a personalized message to the recipient and together, we can make the people on your list feel that much more special this year.

Message me on FB, or email me for instructions on how to pay through Paypal. The books will ship within 2 or 3 days, plenty of time for them to arrive for the holidays! It’s literally, just that easy.

Price List:

Bone White – $10.20 + free shipping

Blackened – $11.90 + free shipping

Shadows Remain – $6.80 + free shipping

Swallowing the Worm – $6.80 + free shipping

* Bone White + Blackened – $21.00 + free shipping

* Inquire about other available bundles

“Seriously, this is one damn good book.”

So I got this review the other day from a horror-related website, Horror Underground. They review everything from books, movies, toys, games…pretty much anything related to the dark genre. Ironically enough, I was walking out of the new Peanuts movie with my youngest when I got the notification that one of their reviewers had just finished my first novel, Bone White. By the tone of the tweet they sent out, it sounded like the forthcoming review was going to be a positive one. I got pretty excited. I couldn’t have imagined it would turn out as well as it did. Having your book called a ‘must-read’ by a reviewer is hardly a bad thing. Check out the review for yourself…

http://horrorunderground.org/2015/11/08/bone-white-is-a-must-read-psycho-slasher/