Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Fulfilled

The definition of purpose is the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.  When this blog was born, way back in the bygone year of 2008, its purpose was another outlet for me to share my long form thoughts and, hopefully, to entertain.  I posted semi-regularly, mostly about food, and we had some laughs.  Over time the purpose of the blog evolved, although food seemed to be a theme that prevailed (note to self: you really should think less about food).

I write for fun, to some people that may sound strange but I enjoy it.  For years I toyed with the idea of writing a book and researched the best practices for becoming a writer.  Over and over again the message I found was to write and write often.  So the purpose of this blog became a play ground for an aspiring writer.

I wrote on a variety of topics from my own neurosis to food, from interpersonal relationships to food, from highlighting my favorite action movie stars to highlighting my favorite restaurants (seriously man, stop thinking about food).  While this blog was still a forum to share my long form thoughts and entertain, it was more importantly a place for me to see what I could accomplish with the written word; a place to flex my burgeoning author muscles.

Much of my writing dealt with my observations and opinions about the things I witnessed or experienced.  My favorite posts, though, were when I could tell a story.  I love to tell stories, I always have.  For me the best stories are those that are only mostly true, stories that have a strong footing in reality with a splash of fiction for flavor.

As a missionary, for five months, I lived and worked in Mandeville, Jamaica.  Number 4 Cotton Tree Road housed six missionaries, including myself.  Missionaries were paired in companionships and assigned to work in specific areas.  Each night we would return home from our assigned fields of labor and swap stories of our daily adventures.  I remember one particular night I began to regale the other two companionships with a hilarious encounter between us, a Rastafarian man and his machete.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw my companion burst into the room and seat himself on the bed to my right.  He looked up at me with all the glee and wonder of a child on Christmas morning.  His complete engagement and anticipation for the story caused me to pause.  I looked down at him and said, "Why are you looking at me like that?  You know what happens, man, you were there."  His reply has always stuck with me.  He said, "I know, but it always sounds better when you tell it."

You see, I knew I could tell stories but I still wasn't sure if I could write.  After years of posting my inane ramblings here on this blog I decided to take a crack at a short and simple story and dip my toe into the frightening world of publishing.  I wrote a fictional account of an exchange between a hippopotamus father and his hippopotamus son, which I thought lent itself to a children's picture book.  After some thorough Internet research, I sent it to one literary agent that I determined was a good fit for my story.  I was soundly, but politely, rejected.  It hit me harder than I thought.  Immediately I doubted whether I could handle such an outcome with a story that I would need to invest months, if not years, in to tell properly.  I still had this blog and so, after licking my wounds for several weeks, I dusted myself off and moved on.

Nearly two years later my brother heard me telling bed time stories to my children about a bird and an iguana.  He attempted to cajole me into writing them down and seeking to have them published.  I shared with him my previously undisclosed failure and he scoffed at me and told me I should try again.  Mostly to shut him up, I decided to polish up my original story and even took a stab at illustrating it myself (my hippopotamus skills are on point).  This time I sent it to several literary agents with the hope of increasing my chances, but also to have more evidence to prove how difficult it is to get published.  I was again met with disappointment in the former but succeeded brilliantly in proving the latter.  By now, however, I had put so much time and effort into it that I thought it would be a waste to just let it die; so I chose to publish it myself as an ebook.  It was so simple, and free, that I wonder if it might be a viable option should I attempt a novel.

As a test I compiled the majority of the posts from this blog into one book.  In just under a week I had published It's Called Helping...You're Welcome.  With that safety net, the very next day I started working on an idea I had been carrying around with me for fifteen years.  Once I had completed the first draft of my novel I went back to the well one last time to turn a 2009 post, about a harrowing experience in the Hellsgate wilderness, into a novella titled The Gorge.

These were all key milestones on my journey to becoming a published author, a dream that will be realized this February when The Land of Look Behind hits a book shelf near you.  So it is with profound gratitude that I say farewell to this blog as it has fulfilled its purpose.  Today a new site is born with a new purpose and I couldn't be more thrilled.  Welcome to aaronblaylock.com (so far no food).

Friday, July 10, 2015

Original

I subscribe to Herman Melville’s notion that it’s “better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation”.  I accept that we are all products of our experiences and are thus influenced by those who’ve come before us, but I pride myself on being an original.  (With one notable exception: I would secretly love to meet my doppelganger.  So if you are an attractive middle-aged balding man with caramel skin, an orthodontally corrected smile and a cushiony figure, look me up.  Let’s do lunch, or possibly Parent Trap someone.)

With my stories originality is doubly important to me, which is problematic when readers generally look for comparable works to group your book with.  When I gave a brief and basic synopsis of my first novel to a friend he said, “So it’s like the Tennis Shoe books?”  I wanted to die.  That is not to say that I don’t like the Tennis Shoe books, on the contrary, but my story has next to nothing in common with Mr. Heimerdinger’s stories and I set out to create something that I believe is unique. 

I would never wish to rehash something someone else had done.  I even shy away from repeating things that I myself have created.  To retread, reinvent or reimagine a thing is fine and can be entertaining and in some ways new and fresh, but it’s not something I want to do (I even removed ‘I myself’ from that sentence because I used it in the previous sentence #truestory).

Here in lies my problem.  I am currently working on my second novel, and have been since late last year.  It deals with our inner thoughts and a heavenly bureau charged with cataloging them.  Just after I had the idea for this story I heard that Pixar would release a film in 2015 called Inside Out that dealt with our inner emotions and I thought, “Uh oh.”  Still it sounded different enough, so I put that worry to the back of my mind and began to work on my story. 

Today I had the pleasure to go to the movies with my wife and watch Inside Out.  First, let me say that I love love love loved this film.  I would recommend it to anyone.  Matter of fact, if you have not seen it you should go immediately (after you finish reading this of course).  Having said that though, my heart sank from the opening frames as it was markedly similar to the imagery I used in my story to frame an integral part of the plot.  After that, thankfully, I am happy to report that Mr. Docter and Mr. Del Carmen went in a wonderfully different direction and there were very few parallels between their story and mine.  However, I can already hear the comments when I describe my next book, “So it’s like Inside Out”. 

My own personal Sadness took control for a few minutes, and a bit of Anger, as a contemplated how I could light the digital copy of my work on fire.  I really considered shelving the whole thing because of two minutes of a movie.  Upon further reflection I decided that this is a story worth telling regardless of comparisons.

After some serious soul searching I have reached the conclusion that a comparison doesn’t diminish your work but in many ways can help your readers.  While I still place a high value on originality, and that is the bar I will continually try to surpass, if someone finds similarities elsewhere from their experiences or influences I will no longer look for the closest, biggest rock to crawl under (unless it’s 50 Shades of Anything, then you will find me with a cinderblock necktie looking for the nearest neighborhood pool).

Disclaimer: I fully recognize the irony of starting a blog on originality with a quote from someone else and ending it with a 2 Big Bald Guys joke I borrowed from Jason Day.  #hypocrisy

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Self Imposed



As a freelance sports reporter I grew accustom to working under deadlines.  If your game was slotted for the paper then your write up better beat the print deadline, regardless of whether or not your game went long.  I quickly learned that deadlines were a great way to elevate your heart rate and raise the old blood pressure, particularly when the sports desk was calling for an update on your submission.

Fun Fact: the term deadline came from a line drawn around a military prison.  Cross the line and get shot…dead.

For more creative and less structured pursuits I have found success when applying self-imposed deadlines (the newspaper kind, not the military prison kind).  When writing my first novel, available February 9, 2016 (shameless plug), I kicked around the idea for nearly fifteen years before I got serious.  I began writing my story in early 2013 and made wonderful progress until mid-summer.  I went months without writing and when I picked it up again I tortured myself for the time lost.  I decided not to let that happen again.  For 2014 I would have one goal and one goal only.  Finish my book.  I already had a good start and a framework for how to proceed.  I just needed to push myself to do the actual work.

In the hopes of being helpful (It’s Called Helping…You’reWelcome) I wanted to share how I did it, what worked well, and what didn’t.

First, I set a deadline.  I chose my birthday (November 4th for those who’d like to send gifts) as an arbitrary date of completion.   In hindsight that was pretty stupid.  I did not consider my project or my progress in selecting the date.  I had no idea if I could make it by then or if it would even take that long, and I didn’t specify what “completion” meant.  Was that my first draft or my final?  Turns out I finished my first draft in August but several re-writes later I did make my November deadline with a final draft.

You need to be specific and qualify what success will look like.  You also need to be realistic but at the same time remove the wiggle room from your inner procrastinator.  You aren’t going to write a full length novel in four weeks but at the same time I shouldn’t give myself four weeks to, say, write this blog.  There’s no formula for striking this balance but you know you.  Be honest, set goals that you can reach and be prepared to hold yourself accountable.

The second thing I did was to set smaller, short term, goals.  This was my attempt to be specific and this was actually the most helpful thing I did.  I set daily writing goals.  First, I tried to set a page count but that didn’t work for me.  Some days I could crank out four pages while other days I could hardly muster one.  I quickly abandoned that and set daily time-based goals.  I blocked out time in my schedule and devoted that to writing.  Regardless of the progress I made I could look at the day and honestly say I devoted the prescribed amount of time to my goal, rather than crucify myself for not making a page count.  The key is setting attainable goals.  Being rigid and inflexible is counterproductive.   Don’t excuse yourself or let yourself off the hook, however, be willing to adapt your short term goals to something that makes sense for you and can create momentum.

Next, involve someone else.  I am very protective of my stories and didn’t tell too many people what I was working on, but I know me and if I didn’t have someone to be accountable to things might slide.  I enlisted my wife as my editor and accountability buddy.  I would give her pages, a chapter at a time, and report my progress to her.  She wasn’t the goal police but it helped to have someone who would know if I failed to follow through with what I set out to do.  One thing that I wished I had done was to post a timeline somewhere I could see it.  That is something I have done this time around and it has already yielded huge benefits.  Not only do I have a reminder of where I’m headed but I have a visual representation of how I am doing, which makes the next step easier.

Celebrate your accomplishments.  When you set a goal set a reward for meeting that goal while you’re at it.  For instance, I wanted to complete chapter three of my current project by the end of this week and if I did I was going to write this blog entry on self-imposed deadlines.  (That’s right, I know how to get down)  Check and check.  It feels good.

The flip side, though, is holding yourself accountable if you fail to meet your deadline.  I am not suggesting you hire prison guards to shoot you if you pass a deadline (although that would no doubt be effective), but you should definitely forgo any carrot you dangled for yourself and possibly impose a penalty that will hurt.  I decided that if I did not complete my manuscript by my deadline that there would be no birthday freebies for me.  For those of you who know me, you know how painful that would have been.  Fortunately, I enjoyed my BBQ Bacon Blue Burger at Joe’s Farm Grill and my wife was spared watching me sob in the fetal position all day long on my birthday.

So this time around I nearly made the same mistakes again.  I arbitrarily set the end of the year as a target for my next project, however, when I looked at where I was and what needed to be done I moved my date to February 9th. (Where have I seen that date before?)  So now I guess you are all my accountability buddies.  I have the schedule up on my whiteboard and a series of smaller rewards (yes they are food based, don’t judge).  If I don’t make my deadline I want you all to come up to me at my launch party with a disappointed look on your face and shake your head in haughty derision.  (Penalty imposed)

Friday, May 22, 2015

Dreams May Come

Last week I received an email that simply read,

Dear Mr. Blaylock,

Thank you for your submission. Our acquisitions editors loved your story, and it is in the final stages of our review process to be considered for publication. We will have our decision in the next day or two.

Thank you,

Cedar Fort, Inc. | Fiction Department









My heart leapt in my chest.  I read it over and over again.  Seriously, I’ve committed it to memory.  I immediately called my wife and read it to her.  She asked, “What does it mean?”

I didn’t know how to answer.  Six months ago I finished my first novel.  With that huge check mark off the old bucket list, I looked to publish it.  I sent several query letters to literary agents but was ultimately met with disappointment.  One Friday night, on a date with my wife, we went to Seagull Book (that’s right, we know how to live it up) and looked at the various publishers.  I visited their websites and submitted my entire manuscript, not just a synopsis, to Cedar Fort.  With great trepidation I clicked submit as was the first time, in its entirety, my work had left my possession.  Realizing the situation was beyond my control I started my next project and, in an effort to improve my writing, even entered a short story competition.  The plan was to take a break from my novel and circle back with fresh eyes later this year.  Flash forward to last week and the email above.

What did it mean?  I tried to analyze (or over-analyze to be more accurate) every detail.  I noticed the “Dear Mr. Blaylock” was in a different font than the rest of the text and feared that suggested it was a form letter.  But it said they loved my story, that’s not form letter language, that’s personal and positive. 

“…the final stages of our review process.”  WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?!  What is the process?  I pictured a dark tribunal surrounding a well-lit table where my manuscript lay; a cloaked figure looming over it with a Caesar-like thumbs up or thumbs down to decide its fate. 

“…considered for publication”, my heart’s desire.   All I could ask was to be considered.  Just to know that my story had been considered was thrilling.

“We will have our decision in the next day or two.”  A day or two?!  The agony, the anxiety, the horror.  Why send this email just to imbue the reader with false hope?  Surely this email was a good sign, a formality or matter of due course.  You don’t know that, and don’t call me Shirley.

Throughout the restless night that followed the cloaked figure haunted my consciousness.  I worried for my little manuscript and did not dare to dream of what might be.  Mercifully, I was rescued from a second night of tossing and turning when I received an email the following morning.

Hi, Aaron!

Thank you for submitting The Land of Look Behind to us. You had me on the edge of my seat the entire time…I think we have the perfect market for this story. We would like to publish your book! Congratulations! 

Cedar Fort, Inc. | Fiction Acquisition Editor

My entire body trembled as I shakenly dialed the phone.  My wife answered and I began to read to her without even a hello.  She failed to choke back the tears and in a trembling voice said “You did it.”

The only person on earth who could truly appreciate what this means to me is my wife.  It was fifteen years ago that I conceived the idea for this story.  Camping by myself in the mountains, I had gone to pray and consider a possible future that I hoped would involve her.  I took a notebook with me and began to write the framework for a story that had been swirling around in my head.  Neither my story nor my love life came about exactly as I imagined but as I type this I have the girl of my dreams on the couch to my right and a release date for my story in my inbox.

So, boys and girls, mark your calendars for February 9, 2016 and stay tuned for what dreams may come.

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