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Happy New Year: They’re Not Resolutions, They’re Just Things I Try to Do

goodbye-2013

My wife asked me a few days ago if I had any New Year resolutions. My answer, as it has been just about every year of my life, was no.

I do, however, maintain a mental list of things that I always want to do differently or better. Naturally, with the rollover of the calendar, those things fall under the spotlight a bit more, but they really don’t change much from year to year. Continue reading → Happy New Year: They’re Not Resolutions, They’re Just Things I Try to Do

It’s My Birthday, So You Get the Presents (Spoiler – It’s FREE EBOOKS!)

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Hi, yes … that fateful day has arrived. Today I turn 45.

Given the new realities of the lifespan of healthy humans (and the fact that genetics are working in my favor here), unless I do something (else) monumentally stupid, I fully intend to live at least until the age of 90.

That puts me squarely at the doorstep of midlife. Half my life down, half yet to go.

MV5BMzE1MzMzMTExOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTk0ODkyMw@@._V1._SX640_SY923_For lots of folks (particularly men), this is a time of re-evaluation. To paraphrase Edna Mode in The Incredibles, men this age are often … unstable.

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Me at 45 – A TSFW (Totally Safe for Work) Selfie in Brown

Well, hopefully no more unstable than on any other day. I won’t be going out shopping for a red Porsche Boxter convertible in which I’ll install a significantly younger woman. I married a significantly younger woman, and if there’s any toodling around in exotic sports cars to be done, it will most certainly be done with her.

And any instability anyone might notice was, honestly, probably there already. Folks working with a full deck rarely go into writing for a living, and they certainly don’t become newspaper reporters or novelists.

So, there’s that.

What I do have, however, is a pretty decent sense of accomplishment. I noted in this space not long ago that Stan Lee, dean of Marvel Comics and the creator of most of its characters, didn’t create cornerstone superhero Spider Man until he after he turned 40. Stan is now 90 years old, which means he’s spent the last 50 years not as Stan Lee, but as STAN-friggin’-LEE!!!, who still runs a media empire, hosts a TV show or two and maintains a busy schedule of sci-fi and comic book convention appearances.

colt_45That carries a lot of weight with me because I admire late bloomers. I never aspired to be one of those pain-in-the-ass writers who busts out of the gate at 25 with a Pulitzer Prize-winner (mainly because what those sort of writers produce is usually self-absorbed, whiny crap, but that’s another blog posting).

As someone who got carded for booze up until his 32nd birthday and took 20 years to write his first book, I realized it might take me a while to grow into this whole novelist thing. But once I managed to give birth to that 300+ page baby at the (entirely appropriate, given my genre) age of 42, there’s been no looking back. If I never write anything again, I can rest assured knowing that I have added my own little piece of original creativity to the universe.

And there are other, perhaps more significant, accomplishments, too. I have amazing friends, cultivated over decades, who remain the sort of people I can talk now exactly the way we did when we were in high school or our early jobs. They provide me with a constant source of encouragement and inspiration and I am in awe of a great many of them every day. I can only hope I send back to them just a fraction of the love, support and laughter they send my way.

And most importantly, I have an amazing family – a beautiful wife who supports me with warmth, patience and love through all the ups and downs of this writing life and frequently jumps in to help with a needed dose of reality, and two spectacularly smart, funny and kindhearted children who are always proud to tell their friends and teachers that their daddy is a writer.

But wait a minute. Let’s put the brakes on the sentimentality. Weren’t you promised presents?

Indeed you were.

Without you, the readers, my family and friends would still be with me, my work would still get done and my book – and those I still hope to write – would still be out there. But without readers, a book is only words on a page.

Once you – a stranger – pick it up and begin that first chapter, you become a willing participant in a reality that another has created. It’s like telepathy in a way. I’m putting my thoughts into your head, and in the midst of the trance-state we call “reading,” those thoughts are manifested in your own mind as an alternate reality. Other than unconditional love, I believe it’s the closest thing to magic any of us will ever really experience.

So as my gift to you, starting today I’m offering the Kindle version of Immaculate Deception free for three days through Amazon, in the hope that if you enjoyed it, you’ll be inclined to let others know that they can, as well – and with minimum risk. Other than individually shaking your hands or giving you big, wet kisses, it’s the best I can do.

Really, thank you ever so much. And here’s to another 45 years.

After This Weekend, I’m Renaming Monday “Napday”

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This weekend flew, with the usual basket full of chores and fun topped off with a last-minute, quick turnaround editing assignment from the West Coast that didn’t wrap up until 2 a.m. today. So it’s not that I really need any instruction on this, but it’s good to have some reference material to make sure I’m doing it right.

A Funky Friday Selection in Honor of Papa Getting a Brand New Bag

I’ll be the first person to warn anyone thinking of going into either full-time fiction writing or freelance writing (both of which I do) that the revenue stream is, at best, unpredictable.

That’s been the running theme here at Chez Pruden for a few months. In May, one reliable client decided not to continue with a major account, resulting in less work for me and other freelancers on the team. And just a few weeks ago, another client for a long-term non-fiction book project decided that they didn’t want to pursue their project further.

Not the end of the world, by any means. I’ve had low spots before for far worse reasons, and I’ve continued to mine for work through social media and good, old-fashioned cold calling to prospective clients – basically the things that have to get done to make a buck as a freelancer.

But when all that bad news comes in a two-month span, things can get a little disheartening both professionally and financially. Where normally I’d have visions of dollar signs –  all with three- and four-figure numbers – dancing in my head, lately those dollar signs have been followed only by big, fat goose eggs.

So I went digging again, this time with an eye towards not just freelance gigs, but a short-term on-site arrangement that would allow me to maintain my schedule and earn some predictable income for a few months while the rest of my professional universe righted itself.

Turns out it didn’t take much digging after all. Here I sit at the end of my first week – three full days – at a very nice job working in a university communications department doing things I’m good at and feel very comfortable with. The job is straightforward, the people are nice and I’m out of the house a few days a week without sacrificing my potential to take on other projects or be there for my kids.

In other words, I’m TCB – taking care of business. And doing it any way I know how.

Because in the end it’s all about contributing to the cause. If you’re single, that cause is paying your bills, covering your wants and having some beer money left over. If you’re married or otherwise entangled domestically, the cause is supporting the family unit. Am I bummed my other projects fell through? Absolutely. But finding something to fill in the blanks in a reliable manner softens the blow.

The question is really, what’s your definition of happiness? For many people it’s just code for doing whatever you damn well please. I’d argue that this is an inaccurate and inevitably disappointing perspective. Happiness for me is contributing – adding some funds to the family pot, creating good art, being there for my family and being willing to tamp down the bad stuff in favor of the good.

I like to think it’s a great example for anyone digging for work – freelance or not. Sometimes the perfect job presents itself, and sometimes you just have to take the jobs that present themselves until the perfect one comes along. In spite of my distaste for the platitudes people dish out in times of crisis, sometimes one closed door does lead to one that’s open. You just have to be willing to find that door, and then have the courage to walk through.

I do indeed have a brand new bag, and it will do quite nicely until the next one comes along.

Hulk SMASH deadline!

I was in full-on magazine writer mode today. Cranked out 1,300 quality words for a freelance story with the able assistance of my neighborhood Cosi, their free wi-fi, and the 3/4 of my family who decided to go to the movies this afternoon (Monsters University, in case you’re interested – consensus from the 5-year-old, 9-year-old and 30-*cough*-year-old was “awesome”).

It’s always easy to talk about how we as writers should shoot for a certain number of words per day, but for the work-at-home writer (particularly with school out for the summer), getting any done is sometimes a challenge.

I find the biggest thing standing in my way isn’t writer’s block or something silly like that (I don’t think I’ve ever been truly blocked).

Instead it’s that lingering fear that as soon as I drop into a serious writing groove (and you other writers out there know just what I mean) where I just have to keep going, something or someone will interrupt. There will be meals to prepare, sibling battles to negotiate, some minor bit of home repair or housekeeping, oh, I don’t know … a freakin’ meteorite might decide to crash into my front yard.

(Honestly, some days it feels like that’s all that’s missing. Fate/gods/universal forces, don’t take that as an invitation, OK?)

As a result, when there’s a big deadline looming or some writing work that just has to get done, leaving the home base is often the best option for all parties involved. Let that meteorite smolder in its crater until I get home. If I don’t know it’s there, I’ll actually be able to get some stuff done.

Jak Smyrl and the Joy of the Picasso Napkin

Jak Smyrl Rockin' Horse

There’s an old story about a woman who approached Pablo Picasso in a cafe and asked him to draw her something on a napkin. However, before he would give it to her he asked for an exorbitant sum of money because that tiny sketch represented the culmination of his life’s work up to that point.

Not many of us ever actually cross paths with a great artist, let alone get up the gumption to ask him or her to create something just for us. Still fewer will have an artist create on his own something so very personalized that it could only ever be yours, and then hand it to you as a mere throwaway gesture.

Jak Smyrl self portrait
Jak Smyrl in a typically rendered self-portrait.

I was fortunate enough to have that happen to me thanks to a gentleman named Jak Smyrl.

He was the first staff artist for The State newspaper, the major daily newspaper that covers Columbia, S.C., and the surrounding area. His satirical map of South Carolina (rife with intentional misspellings and regional in-jokes) was first published in the late 1960s and since then has become iconic. His style mimics that of many of the best Mad magazine artists with a flair that was straight-up Southern.

Back in 1995, when I was a young reporter and columnist at the Chronicle-Independent in Camden, S.C., Jak, who had retired to Camden, was suggested to me as someone who could create a logo for Rockin’ Horse ’96 (top).

Rockin’ Horse was a concert that grew out of a newspaper column I wrote calling for more entertainment surrounding the Carolina Cup steeplechase event, which annually brings in more than 60,000 visitors and millions of dollars to the town of about 8,000 or 9,000 people. The concert was held on the grounds of Historic Camden as a benefit for the Revolutionary War historic site.

In the absence of our own newspaper staff artist I could hire to do the logo on the side (we got all our editorial cartoons from syndicates), one of the ladies in the layout department suggested I get in touch with Mr. Smyrl. She described him in loose terms as a former artist for The State, a description that really only scratched the surface.

We met at his home studio and I did a rough sketch of what I was looking for. He gave me an anticipated date of delivery for the final image and we worked out terms that were entirely too reasonable for someone of his stature (I seem to recall he asked about $100 for the image).

When I went to pick up the sketch, he was out of the house, but he had left it for Jak Smyrl Scott Noteme in a manilla envelope adorned with the personalized image you see to the right. As a result, an item that would otherwise have been recycled or tossed in the trash became, for me, a valuable work of art.

Jak, who died in 2007, is the subject of a new exhibit that was recently dedicated at the University of South Carolina. That means a significant number of people who actually know what they’re talking about considered his work a valid subject for study and appreciation.

I’m not sure where the rocking horse-and-jockey drawing I commissioned for the concert stands in that body of work, but I do know it adorned t-shirts, tickets and banners associated with the event. If you lived in or visited Camden in the spring of 1996, chances are you or someone you know could still find a Rockin’ Horse ’96 tee stuffed in the back of a drawer somewhere.

Maybe if I contacted the University of South Carolina they’d ask to include it. If so, I’d happily donate it to the collection.

However, as for that small bit of an ordinary manilla envelope that in a few pen strokes became something only for me, that I’ll treasure as my own little napkin from Picasso.