Monthly Archives: March 2017

The Bucket List: Life’s Journey for Experience

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The bucket list. Most likely, you’ve heard this term before, if not from anything else but the 2007 movie “The Bucket List” with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. (If you haven’t seen this film, you should.)

But what exactly is a bucket list?
In short, it’s a list of things you want to do before you die.
32495254860_a9e3610d0a_kMaybe, that’s a little morbid? After all, it’s reminding you that there’s the ultimate deadline to your existence.

But, buckets lists are amazing. They help you figure out what you want to do with your life. That’s better than coasting along and then only once you’re out of time realizing all the stuff you wish you’d done!

Mark Twain said, “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” While I may not agree that just because a person lives fully means that person is ready to die at any moment, I do believe that one of the reasons people fear death is because they haven’t accomplished all they set out to.

16349247541_c6c2d0d2f4_kIt’s recently that I’ve started thinking about and assembling my bucket list. I have no doubt I’ll add more to it and might even drop some stuff as I grow older, but seeing what I want in writing solidifies it in my mind. It makes my goals more real and provides accountability.

I’m a bit of a homebody, and I suffer from Netflix binges… and getting sucked into the Internet… and researching the things I want to do, but somehow not doing most of them. I wasn’t always this way, but I’ve been so the past number of years. It’s only about the last couple of months that I’ve started altering that.

Creating a bucket list is one step toward that change.

Some of the things on my list I’ve completed; most I haven’t. Here’s 25 things on my bucket list:

  1. Rappel down a waterfall
  2. Ride an airboat
  3. Explore a cave – Accomplished!
  4. Pan for gold/precious stones – Accomplished!
  5. Climb “The Heavenly Stairs” (Mount Huashan Plank Trail in China)
  6. Parasail – Accomplished!
  7. Visit all 7 continents
  8. Relax in a natural hot spring – Accomplished!
  9. Be in four places at once (lay on four corners monument!)
  10. Wade in a cranberry bog
  11. Experience weightlessness (indoor skydiving?)
  12. Climb a volcano
  13. Walk on a glacier – Accomplished!
  14. Be published
  15. Honeymoon in Italy
  16. Take a picture with a tiger (Tiger Kingdom in Thailand?)
  17. Visit Elephant National Park in Thailand and bathe an elephant
  18. See my maternal grandfather’s homeland (travel to Hungary!)
  19. Ice cave in Alaska
  20. Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro (Tanzania)
  21. Relax in a sensory deprivation tank
  22. Wear skinny jeans – Accomplished!
  23. Start a blog – Accomplished!
  24. Adopt a child
  25. Start a fire without matches/a lighter – Accomplished!

There’s so much more on my list, and the funny thing is that once I started thinking of what I wanted to do during my life, I kept wanting to do more and more!

Do you have a bucket list? What’s on it? If you don’t have one, what would you put on your bucket list?

(Photos courtesy of Geraint RowlandNico Trinkhaus, and Bureau of Land Management.)

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Every Good Book Contains One Simple Core Conflict

Writing a novel is no small feat. It takes a lot of time and energy. A novel is an investment, and like all investments, we hope for a payoff. This isn’t always a monetary value. Sometimes, we just want people to enjoy, absorb, and remember what we’ve written.7630486140_5b0503051d_k

Like with all good books, there is a singular, simple core issue that the entire novel is centered around. Maybe it’s having to save your grandmother from the evil troll. Maybe it’s having to get your pregnant girlfriend to the hospital. Or maybe it’s having to quit drinking because of liver damage.

This simple core problem is the main plot. There can be numerous subplots, but everything in the book links back to the main plot.

However, it’s easy, especially for new writers, to write a novel without a central issue. This may not seem like something that could happen. After all, to write a book you have to choose something to write about. So, how does not having a core problem occur?

Instead of focusing on the core issue, we focus on insane surprises and twists, witty banter, over-the-top description, and shocking moments. We end up creating enormously lavish worlds that are missing the key component, so that if we’re asked what’s the story about, we can’t explain it.

This is a problem, because a book without a core issue is fatally flawed.

I critique novels that are works in progress. This means that I read novels that are either being written or revised and provide feedback. One such book I’m about half way through and I’ve been struggling with it. There are parts of the novel that are fantastic and exciting and move the plot along, but more often are the sections that don’t do anything to move the plot forward. They seem contrived, and I’d been grappling with pinning down the underlying issue… I finally discovered it: the core conflict has been lost.

Yikes!

The overall comments for this author were challenging to write, because I had to tell this person that their novel was fatally flawed, without using that phrase.

I finally settled on saying:

  1. You mistake melodrama for drama. Melodrama does not move the plot forward. It injects arguments and fights into the book that come out of nowhere or escalates absurdly fast. They’re injected into the story for the sake of something happening.

How do you fix this?

Consider each character’s baggage. The baggage is the essential subtext that prevents characters from solving the core conflict. It’s the road bumps in the story. Baggage naturally causes conflict. Without it, conflict must be forced onto the characters and scenes, and readers will notice the difference.

  1. You lose sight of the core conflict, or never had one to begin with. Before writing your novel make sure that you can identify the core problem in one concise sentence. Then, keep this core issue in the forefront of your mind. The core problem helps keep the story conflict genuine. Without conflict your story devolves into complicated.

There’s a difference between conflict and complicated?

Yes. Conflict evolves from a single, simple problem that needs solving. Complicated is attempting to throw so much at readers that they don’t realize you can’t explain why the events in your story are occurring.

Regarding the novel from earlier, many of the arguments seemed shoved into the story just to complicate people’s lives, and sometimes there were so many characters that it was difficult to understand what was going on. I was bogged down by confusion and found myself rolling my eyes because the characters were acting like petulant children. I wanted to yell at them, “You’ve got a much bigger issue to worry about. Why are you fighting over this? It doesn’t matter!”

You don’t want readers to have that reaction. They will stop reading.

In the end, take an honest look at your story and characters. Keep what moves the plot along and axe the rest. It won’t be easy, and it’s an excellent idea to have someone who knows how to critique look at your work. It’s too easy for you to miss the mistakes and/or weaknesses in your story.

What’s been your experience with core conflict issues? Got any intriguing tales?

(Picture courtesy of DVIDSHUB.)

 

Gina with the Cross: A Vingette

I first came across vingettes when reading The House on Mango Street. This book is a series of vingettes. Instead of having a single plot, where each chapter flows in chronological order, this novel is more a series of photographs. Each picture shows a scene, a snapshot into a person’s life. In the case of The House on Mango Street, that life is of Esperanza Cordero, as she grows up in an impoverished Latino neighborhood that she’s determined to leave, only to discover that once she fulfills her dream, she’s drawn back through the need to once again see the people she left behind.

Intrigued with the vingette, I decided to try my hand and create a scene that’s more about conjuring meaning through imagery than plot:

Gina with the Cross

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Gina, petite squirrel girl with emergency red flare nails and gold cross necklace, one purple rhinestone and one missing because she liked to pick, was my girlie friend who loved to pray.

“All you have to do is ask for forgiveness,” she said, staring at me, her brown eyes wide. Her hands were clasped tightly in her lap and her elbows were going to leave indents in her knees.

Despite her whispering, her words charged down the pews, bouncing off the stone floor and the stained glass windows. Nail polish puddled around the purple rhinestone in her left index fingernail, trying to suck the stone down into the sea of red.

“Why?” I asked. My hair fell about my face, and as I stared at my friend, her face was cut into strips: pale, pink flesh divided between strands of coarse mud.

“If you don’t, you’ll be excommunicated.” She scooted closer to me, until our knees bumped against each other. “Just tell them what you did.”

I tugged at a loose flap of skin clinging to the edge of my fingernail, twisting it around and around and then yanking. A plum of pain stabbed into my flesh. I yanked again.

What I did? I wanted to breathe, to expel all the air from my lungs. Just shove it all out there and away, but my throat was constricting. A lump formed in it. My lump, a callous, lopsided chunk of lard and ash. Soot-coated and reeking, it slicked against my esophagus, twisting, trying to grind up the soft tissue there.

“I have nothing to apologize for.” I frowned. My voice had choked on itself, like some piglet trying to squeal, but who had its mouth taped shut.

“Don’t say that.” She grabbed my hands, squeezing my fingers until pain spiked up my wrists. “You’re going to Hell, if you don’t.” Her forehead bumped against mine; her breath burned my cheek. “Worse, you’ll be ostracized. What will your pa say if he knew? You’re going to give your ma a heart attack.” Her voice dropped, quivered. “What about me? What am I supposed to do?” Her head started shaking, almost as if it had a life of its own. “I can’t keep this secret.”

I ripped my hands from hers. “Then, don’t.” I rose. Pain spiked through my jaw. It raced down the side of my neck and made my ear throb, a double bass bashing against my eardrum.

The backs of my calves banged against the pew and the wood shrieked against the stone. A few parishioners swiveled around from closer to the altar, but I didn’t care.

I opened my mouth to shout: What are you looking at! You think you know me! You think you know who I am! But no words came out.

My gaze fell to Gina. She stared up at me; her lips parted in a stark O, her Bambi eyes bright in the dim candlelight. “Tell them whatever you want. Whatever makes you sleep better at night.”

My palms pressed against my jeans. My index finger poked through the hole worn at my knee. “You can even tell them that I wanted it. That’s a lie, but you know that’s what they’ll say. I asked for it.” The big cross gleamed in the background. Massive and golden, it hung heavily over the altar, waiting for the perfect moment when its cables would snap and it would crash, banging against the stone, and squashing whoever was standing beneath it. Perhaps I should stand there. Perhaps it would fall on me. “After all, our bodies know when to get pregnant and when not to.”

“Aislinn…” Her hand fluttered to her mouth. I hoped she could feel my eyes piercing her. I hoped they seared her ribs black. “I know you didn’t want it. I know you were forced – I believe you – but…you killed your baby.”

The lump grew larger, churning and elongating. It would turn my throat to stone. “It was never mine.” I spun around and abandoned the pew. My Keds squeaked against the aisle. One of my shoelaces was untied. The white flopped against the red of my shoe, and dragged along the gray stone. I glared at it, but didn’t stop.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Gina hadn’t moved.

Solid oak doors rose in front of me, stretching far above my head and arching. Iron bars locking them in place. I stopped and stared stupidly, my hands frozen at my sides, unable to press the bars. I’d been able to enter this place. I should be able to leave.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood. There were eyes on me.

My nails pierced the palms of my hands – there would be little crescent moon imprints that would refuse to fade – as I slowly turned, my heels digging into the stone. Great, golden eyes from a tilted head, encircled by jagged thorns, watched me. They shouldn’t be able to. The head was pointed down and to the side, the ribs jutting out against the flesh, the stomach caving in, but still the eyes were on me.

I could have been so many things. I’d wanted to be so many things. What was I now, to Him? To everyone?

Noise rose in my throat, shoving upward, scraping and clawing at my tongue and lips, trying to pry my jaw apart. An uproar about to burst free, shredding me from the inside out, but my lump wouldn’t allow it.

I steeled my hands – iron could only burn – and shoved open the doors.

(Picture courtesy of arbyreed.)

When Inspiration Surprises You, Don’t Gag (But You Can Grab Your Towel)

I’m normally not one to share bits and pieces from motivational books. So much so, that a friend and I have a running joke: if something she wants to post makes me roll my eyes and say, “That’s gag worthy,” then she knows it’s sufficiently inspirational. We call it the “gag check.”

But I was flipping through a magazine the other day and came across an excerpt from Agapi Stassinopoulos’ new book, Wake Up to the Joy of You: 52 Meditations and Practices for a Calmer, Happier Life. If I’d only read the blurb on the back cover, I wouldn’t have given a second thought to this book. It begins with, “This is your year of self-discovery, a journey to create a life filled with grace, meaning, zest, peace, and joy,” continues on, “And you’ll learn to trust your creativity, keep your heart open, and connect to the bigger spirit that lives inside you,” and ends, “Use it as a tool to unlock your goodness, and wake up to the joy of you!”

It all sounds a bit melodramatic for my taste. And then, I read the excerpt in the magazine article. This comes from the Weightwatchers magazine (March/April 2017) I discovered laying in the middle of the dining room table at my mother’s house:

“Consider this:14993052203_0b32989fc6_k

  • “You have 37.2 trillion cells in your body (compare that to the 400 billion stars in the galaxy!).
  • “The cells that make up your body are dying and being replaced all the time.
  • “By the time you’ve read this sentence, roughly 25 million cells will have died, but you’ll make 300 billion more as your day unfolds.

“Take a moment in reverence of the miracle of life you are.

“We have nothing to do with making this miracle happen; it’s working in spite of use, our inexhaustible life force. yet we take all this for granted. We worry that our breasts are too small, our butt too big, or our nose too long. If you ever feel insecure, insignificant, or inadequate, remember that there are more cells in your body than stars in the galaxy.”

The excerpt continues on in the article, but I found this part particularly interesting. I’d never thought about the human body that way. I’ve had my share of medical issues, and I’ve known others who’ve had theirs, and often I’m frustrated by how the human body can be both amazing–after all, human beings beat out all other similar lifeforms to survive to the modern age–and damaged. It can sometimes feel like our bodies are constantly failing us, and I occasionally wonder how human beings survived at all.

Then, I read this article, and it is incredible how complex our bodies are. We are dying and renewing every second of every day for all the years we’re alive.We’re not perfect, but we have a lot going for us. One of the biggest things is that we are capable of change. As a species, we might not like change because it’s challenging; it’s so much easier to keep the status quo, but we are able to alter our lives.

As Rob Reiner said, “Everybody talks about wanting to change things and help and fix, but ultimately all you can do is fix yourself. And that’s a lot. Because if you can fix yourself, it has a ripple effect.”

I think this can apply to writing as well, because writing can influence how people see the world. Not only your writing, but what you read. In my writing, I attempt to include deeper, more complex topics beneath the commercial plot, and most of my favorite books do the same. In terms of Stassinopoulos’ novel, just the excerpt made me think about my body differently. What I’ve been able to accomplish, while having medical complications, is amazing. My body is still going strong, despite what I’ve been through. My closest friends are the same way.

Take the time to appreciate your body and all the incredible things it does.

(Photo courtesy of Tom Hall.)