Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Cat Odyssey


What follows is the true story of my attempt to reunite a cat with his owners, an epic quest that rivals The Odyssey, Gilgamesh and (at times) Dante’s Inferno.

On Thursday August 3, 2017, I was driving home from work. As I entered my neighborhood I noticed a gray tomcat crouched under a parked car. I remembered that my wife told me about an e-mail going around, alerting the neighborhood of a gray cat that appeared to have been separated from his owners. The e-mail asked that we try to catch the cat and take him to the vet so his chip could be read.

I felt for the little guy. After parking my car, I hurried down the street to find him. Initially, the cat was very friendly. He let me pet him and pick him up. He even followed me a couple blocks.

Certain that this was a cat who needed help, I ran home and grabbed one of our pet carriers. He was still waiting for me when I retuned, but (of course) his demeanor changed the second I tried to put him in the carrier.

Below is an artist's rendition of the emotional turmoil suffered getting the cat into a carrier:


Once I FINALLY (and I mean finally) got the cat secure, I hauled him down the street to our house where I planned to call the vet.

I was about two yards away when the cat burst through the front of the carrier and the container fell apart in my hands. Apparently we buy these things from IKEA.

By the time I put the carrier back together, the little fuzz ball had vanished.

I could have gone home and worked on my endless “to do” list. Heck, it was the start of my weekend! I could have gone home and watched Lego Batman 99% guilt free. But I was on a mission to help this animal.

While walking down the street, I asked four neighbors if they’d seen the cat. I also asked if they knew anyone in the area who owned a gray tomcat (I wanted to be certain I wasn’t kidnapping someone’s beloved pet).  No one had seen the cat and everyone confirmed that a gray cat didn’t live on the street.

The closest I got to a lead was when one man pointed to a house and said the woman who lived there owned a gray cat. I knocked on the door and was greeted by (I’m not making this up) a little old lady in a wheel chair who told me, “My cat just died.” She then looked like she was about to cry.

Go me.

Eventually, a couple neighbors spotted the cat. As soon as he was in our sight everyone else said, “He’s all yours” and cleared out.

I crept up on my little friend, caught him and managed to stuff him into the carrier.

Once again, an artist’s rendition of the struggle:


I carried the cat back to our house, awkwardly clutching the carrier so it wouldn’t fall apart again.

The second I opened our front door the cat burst out of the carrier, sprinting into our home.

As you may have guessed, my wife and I own two cats, Maui and Chewie. We’ve had them since they were kittens and they have seldom interacted with other animals. They can’t even stand each other. Hardly a day passes that one of them doesn’t growl, hiss or swipe. 

The second Maui saw the strange cat she ran upstairs and did what she does when she hears thunder:



Chewie, however, may look like this:





But his soul looks like this:




Within seconds both cats were spitting and clawing. They never actually touched, but they came close. I managed to grab Chewie and locked him in the room where we keep his litter pan.

I called my wife and told her what was happening. She was the one who had actually read the e-mail, and she confirmed that the lost cat was gray with a tuxedo pattern, just like the one I’d found. I called the vet to set up a time to check the chip.    

I should note that during all this I had 2% power on my phone so I was constantly running back and forth, to the charger.

Initially, the vet put me on hold. While I waited I tried to calm the poor cat who had cornered himself in our kitchen.  





I should note I didn’t take these photos to capture the magical moment of having a scared cat. We wanted to e-mail them to the neighborhood in case we couldn’t find the owners.

After ten minutes of listening to hold music, I hung up and called the vet again. This time when the receptionist answered I blurted what was happening. She told me to take the cat in right away.

I grabbed a much more secure carrier, forced the cat inside….

(Which looked like this)

…released Chewie from the litter pan room and took the lost cat to the vet. 

By this point I had bonded with the little feline. We were partners on a journey that would end with him reunited with his people.

We reached the vet (for the first time ever I had trouble finding a parking spot) and I carried him inside.

They took us around back right away, scanned the cat for a chip and the nurse told me she would be right back.

I expected her to return with an address or at least a phone number. The cat would then be reunited with his people within the hour and the world would rejoice. 


 Instead she came back with an eighteen-digit ID and a phone number. She told me that legally their office couldn’t help any further. I needed to go home, call the number, give the ID and someone else would take care of the situation from there.

Per the nurse’s instructions I kept the cat in the carrier when I got home. I didn’t want to risk him passing parasites or diseases to my two sheltered puffballs. However, this made the cat howl and scream. And I mean scream. Like I was worried the neighbors were going to call the cops.

I called the number and (of course) got an automated message. I followed the prompts, entered the ID number and was told they couldn’t help me.

I went to their website and was given another phone number.

I called that number.

I was disconnected.

I called the number again.

I was given a third number.

No one answered.

I banged my head against the wall.

At long last I got in touch with someone who said that they had the cat’s information on file. They tried to call the owner but apparently no one answered. They asked if I could keep the cat overnight.

By this point the cat sounded it like a wolverine fighting a wood chipper while barn owls screeched from the sidelines. When I went upstairs to check on my own cats I found them hiding in the corner. Maui was perpetually growling. A few years ago she had growled so much she threw up blood.  

No, we couldn’t keep the cat overnight.

I told the woman I’d drive the cat to the facility myself. Before I hung up I asked what they would do if they couldn’t contact the cat’s owners. She assured me they weren’t a kill shelter. The only reason they would euthanize an animal was if it was sick. She also told me they were the ones who would have to reunite the cat.

So once again, I hauled the cat, who was still howling in the carrier, out to my car. I drove back to where I’d found him, knocked on a few doors, held up the carrier and asked if people knew the owners. I wanted to be ABSOLUTELY certain I couldn’t settle this myself.

The only person who recognized the cat was a sweet elderly woman who said she had seen him around, but no one in the neighborhood owned him.

With no other options, I put the cat back in the car and drove thirty minutes north of Baltimore.


To be fair, the facility I arrived at looked very well maintained and the staff seemed legitimately concerned about their animals’ welfare.

I talked to a woman at reception and she confirmed their policy on putting animals down. She said there was an extremely slim chance that would happen, especially if the cat was friendly (I assured her he was despite the howling). Everything was almost complete when she noticed a bloody scratch on my hand. I told her that was probably a result of my knuckles scraping the carrier when I caught the cat. She said that didn’t matter. If blood was drawn the cat had to be in a ten-day quarantine.

She could tell I was frustrated and assured me that this wouldn’t count against the cat. He would just have to stay away from other animals for ten days.

Finally, there was nothing left for me to do but hand the little guy over. I was about to leave when the receptionist double checked my contact information and said, “Oh, the cat’s registered owners live on your street.”

ARE YOU !@#$ing KIDDING ME!

I had gone through a journey that makes Odysseus look like a stay at home dad and the whole time this cat was in his own neighborhood!

Let’s just say when I got home I treated myself to Chipotle. 

During all this I had been communicating with my wife who was still at work and was also very concerned about the animal. We both decided that we should at least try to find the cat’s owners, to ensure they knew where their pet was.

So we walked to the part of our neighborhood where I found the cat, knocked on a door and a young woman answered. We’d barely finished introducing ourselves when she said, “Yeah! He’s our cat. We know where he is. They called us.”

Within thirty seconds we’d found the owner.

Now you need to understand that this house is in the dead center of where I’d been asking people. This woman literally doesn’t have a single neighbor who knows she owns a cat or lets him outside. There have been e-mails throughout the neighborhood sent by people who think the cat is lost.

So that’s it. That’s my cat odyssey, a tale of blood and tears wasted to “save” a cat who’d been hanging out ten feet from his doorstep. The whole thing is an allegory in nihilism. At the end of the day nothing that happened mattered.

However, one thing that did come from all this is that the following day I walked upstairs and saw something I’d never seen before. Our two cats, who can barely be in the same room with each other, were snuggling.

I have no explanation for this except they were comforting one another. A common enemy had brought them together.

Maybe that counts for something.

Monday, July 24, 2017

An Overlooked Talent Necessary to Become a Successful Author



There are countless talents that an author needs in order to be successful.  Just to name a few, there is: creativity, a comfort with language, an ability to form single sentence hooks and a knack for developing unique, believable characters.

However, there is one talent that is often overlooked: the ability to keep the story fluid. 

I never considered this a skill until a fellow writer complemented my ability to move around various characters and scenes in order to implement feedback. Once I started to think about it, I realized that I seldom hear this skill discussed and have never seen it taught in classes or workshops.

Regardless, keeping a story fluid in your mind is vital to revisions.  When you give your writing to test readers they will (if you’re lucky) give you clear, honest feedback.  Some of the feedback will require you to change plot elements or characters in ways that will send ripples throughout the world you created.    

Something that is often said (but few of us ever believe) is that until your writing is actually published, just about anything in your world can be altered.  Characters can switch genders.  Your story can move from modern day to the 1970’s.  You can go from a third person to first person narrator.

Being an author means living in a paradox in which you create a world that feels real but everything is open to a total overhaul. 

Here are some suggestions as to how we keep a story fluid in our minds:

1)    Just accepting that the story can change.  At some point after college I came to realize that when I showed people my writing there was a very good chance they would give suggestions that would require me to take out entire characters or chapters.  Once I started going to workshops with this attitude it became much easier to implement massive changes.

2)    Outlines can help as long as you don’t overuse them.  Outline the story you currently have in lower case and note changes throughout in all caps so you can see where they are being implemented. This will make it easier to track the changes and how they affect the rest of the tale.   

3)    Look for places in your story that you already know are weak.  These are places where you can bring in characters/scenes/story elements that your readers believe need to be added. 

4)    An oldie but a goodie: Take a week or two to work on other projects.  When you come back you might not be so close to your world and become more open to major alterations.

5)    View your plot elements and characters as puzzle pieces.  This may sound cold hearted but this will make it easier to move various aspects of the story around.  Instead of being overwhelmed by the number of changes you need to make you can just say, “Well I can move the scene in the cabin to before they go to the hardware store and then we can skip this unnecessary scene.”

6)    Never forget, you are lord and master over this world (let’s face it, most novelists have God complexes).  If something needs to be changed, you can make those changes. 

And never forget, you are a writer because you love writing so realizing that you are going to need to re-write major portions of your story only means that you get to do even more of what you love.   

Saturday, April 22, 2017

12 Strategies to Find Time To Write Your Novel


Since we’ve nearly reached May and summer isn’t that far off (a time when our schedules fill up with cookouts, road trips and family obligations) I thought I would write a post on techniques that can be used to find time to write.  I used most of these back when I had a job in the financial industry.  


1)    Keep a Record of How You Spend Your Time: For two weeks keep a journal in which you record how you spend your time in fifteen-minute increments.  When you’re done you’ll probably find one or two things you can live without. This will help you find an hour or two every day that you can devote to writing. 

2)    Record How Much Time You Spend Writing: While I’m writing or editing I literally have a stopwatch going on my computer.  When I stop to take a Facebook or Netflix break I stop the stopwatch.  The stopwatch only goes while I am actually writing.  This way I get a realistic sense of how much time I write every day. I even keep an Excel spreadsheet in which I record my daily times. That way I can track when I’m doing well and when I need to give myself a firm kick in the ass.

3)    Stop watching TV! Or at least bring it down to an hour a day (at most).  This also goes for hours spent watching Internet videos and punishing yourself by reading online comments.  I don’t mean to sound like your agitated grandfather but many of us waste years of our lives focused on entertainment we don’t even enjoy.  We live in the binge-watching era but we also live in an era where we can choose to watch whatever we want whenever we want to.  If there’s a show you’re addicted to save it for when you’re cooking, cleaning or folding laundry.  I appreciate how much we need some time to unwind at the end of the day but in the long run we feel better when we spend time on our art.

4)    Listen to Books on CD. One of the big advices given to aspiring writers is to constantly read.  Obviously this can be difficult for people who aren’t already filling up their schedules by writing novels or short stories.  Your public library is filled with great books on CD that you can listen to in the car.  I would suggest choosing books that may be more plot and character driven (The Song of Ice and Fire series, The Martian, most books by Stephen King, Joe Hill or Gillian Flynn).  Read the books that are more language driven.  My two favorite books to listen to on CD are Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and World War Z.

5)     Tell people you are writing:  Be honest.  This shouldn’t be a secret.  There is nothing to be ashamed of.  Tell your friends and family that you are a writer.  Let them know that this is something important to you.  Ask for help in trying to find time.  I know that many of you might have friends and family who just don’t “get” that you are a writer.  Regardless, try to explain it to them.  They might surprise you.  If they aren’t supportive, don’t let that stop you.  They’re just coming from a different mindset.  That being said, when possible try to surround yourself with people who understand and share your passion. 

6)    Are you a night person or a morning person?  I know that the our mothers tell us to get a goodnight sleep, but you may be one of those people whose schedule is so filled up the only time you can spend writing is when you would otherwise be asleep.  So, if possible, try to get away with one less hour of sleep.  Set your alarm an hour and fifteen minutes earlier (the fifteen minutes are to make sure you are awake) OR have a bit of caffeine around dinner to help you stay up an extra hour.  If you don’t know if you work best in the early morning or late at night, experiment and see what you find. 

7)    Writing at work.  I wouldn’t recommend this for air traffic controllers, however if you have a basic office job, you will probably be able to find time to at least get some brainstorming done.  Writing out full chapters may not be realistic, but if you use outlines you can at least steal five or ten minutes hear or there to jot down thoughts about your next chapter or story.  That way when you do have a larger chunk of time you’ll use it as effectively as possible.  Unless you have a super cool boss I wouldn’t recommend keeping any of these notes on a company computer.  Just use pen and scraps of paper.  

8)    Lunch Breaks: If you have a lunch break that lasts forty-five minutes to an hour, that’s a good chunk of time that can be spent writing.  Find a place to hole away with your lunch (I often used my car) and eat while writing.  I know that lunch is the time in the middle of the day to unwind, but you may feel more energized if you spend the time doing something you love.  

9)    Keep your goals realistic.  I, more than anyone else, would love to be able to spend eight hours a day writing, but that just doesn’t happen (at least not often).  If you set your goals too high you will end up crushed by disappointment.  If you’re just starting out and have a super busy schedule I’d say aim for an hour a day.  That’s a solid hour in which you’re not doing anything but writing.  Writing an hour a day along with scraps of time here or there to jot down notes will mean that you could write the first draft of a novel in a matter of months. 

10)  Write Daily:  Okay, I know that not everyone can write EVERY day (although I am that guy who gets up extra early on Christmas morning to edit because I know I won’t have the time later on).  However, try to write most days.  Even if you slack off for two or three days you’ll lose momentum and start second-guessing yourself.  It doesn’t take long to lose interest in your story and forget to pick up your pen again. 

11)  Reward Yourself: I know that following your passion is its own reward.  However, it never hurts to have something to look forward to.  “Okay I won’t watch a second of television until my stop watch hits sixty minutes.”  Or  “As soon as I’m done editing this chapter I’ll ­­­­eat some (Insert your favorite food here).”  Very often you’ll get so caught up with your story you’ll keep going even after you’ve reached the point where you now deserve the reward.  Never forget, sitting down to write is always harder than actually writing. 

And Finally….

12)  There will NEVER be a perfect time to write: There will always be school or a day job or kids or house repairs or a dog who is allergic to the rug but can’t stop licking it (or all of the above).  We will never have perfect stretches of time to write our novels.  Yes this goes for teachers on summer vacation because those two months will be filled with all of the other things that they put off throughout the year. 

In fact, you don’t want a perfectly free schedule.  Days in which you have nothing to do but write are usually spent waking up late, watching an episode of The Daily Show online, chatting with people on Facebook, doing the laundry, eating lunch, watching a funny cat video…. and oh shit! It’s four in the afternoon, you haven’t written a word and you’re meeting up with friends in half an hour.  

That’s one thing I like about having a job in the evenings. I only have so much time to get done what I needed to get done before I have to go to work.  Writing in limited slots of time motivates me to get my work done as quickly and effectively as possible, rather than eventually getting to them on a lazy Sunday.  Not to get too meta but I wrote this blog in a library while waiting for my wife who will probably come back in an hour.


We all have insanely busy schedules (unless you inherited a large fortune and there’s no one forcing you to work…in which case please adopt me) but if we step back and analyze our schedules we will most likely find chunks of time in which to pursue our art.  In fact, our busy schedules have potential to push us so that we are even more productive and meet our full potential.  

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

4 Types of Novel Outlines: When to Use Them and When to Treat Them Like The Plague


(Just for the record, I used an outline to write this blog about outlines.  So there’s that.)

We live in such overwhelmingly controversial times but somehow whether or not authors should use outlines manages to remain a widely disputed topic.  There are plenty of published novelists who discourage using them and claim that they ruin the creative process. 

For example, Stephen King is known for saying that real writers don’t use outlines.  His son, who writes under the pseudonym Joe Hill, published a novel in 2016 entitled The Fireman in which a main character says (I’m paraphrasing here) that he hopes all writers who use outlines are burned on a pyre of them. 

 While I’m a fan of Stephen King and an even bigger fan of his son, I have to respectfully disagree with the blanket statement to never use these tools.  

Don’t get me wrong, there is a danger to outlining a novel.  Authors (including myself) often waste too much time writing outlines and sometimes rely on them as a crutch. 

While mapping out one’s story can be incredibly helpful, the key is to spend minimal time doing it.  However, it can be essential to creating a clear and concise story that maximizes your creativity.   

Below are four types of novel outlines, when to use them, their benefits and (of course) their drawbacks. 


1) PRE-FIRST DRAFT OUTLINE. 

This is the one you want to spend the least amount of time on because it’s easy to become addicted (yes addicted) to outlining your story to the point that you’re bored with it before you get around to writing the first sentence.  That being said, it can be essential. 

I don’t know how the rest of you get your ideas, but when they strike me they come so fast that if I don’t jot them down on a sheet of paper I will lose them.  (For some reason recording them on a laptop or phone never feels right.)  

(Me)


If I tried to sit down and write out these ideas in the form of a rough draft I would forget half of them before I was off the first page.   Also I’m often in a situation (on the Subway or at work) where I can easily jot down ideas but it wouldn’t be practical to start writing a chapter at that exact moment. 
The key here is that once you have jotted down all of the ideas that naturally arise and you have an idea of where the story starts (of course this might change later on), it’s vital to stop outlining.  The purpose of pre-first draft outlines is to record ideas your brain is throwing at you, not to force yourself to churn out a full story.

I know that we all want the entire story to spring out fully formed like Athena, but when you start your manuscript you don’t need to know every single detail (or even many of the details).  You just need to catch all of your initial ideas before you forget them. If you force the ideas, they’ll feel forced.  You’ll have plenty of time to connect all of the story lines, characters and twists in the many drafts to follow. 


INTERLUDE: A MAJOR PIECE OF ADVICE

Never, under any circumstance, feel like you need to follow your outlines to the letter.  They’re just tools.  Just because you write something down doesn’t make it cannon.   I know that this might seem obvious, but once you have something about your characters/world on paper it can be tempting to stick with it come hell or high water. 

Personally, I very seldom look at my pre-first draft outline while I’m actually writing my first draft.  Just jotting down notes brings the story lines and characters to the front of my brain so I can tell the story that needs to be told.  


2) FIRST DRAFT OUTLINES. 

While I am writing my first draft I very often keep notes or a rough outline of what I imagine will happen in the foreseeable chapters.  This helps because:

1)    I don’t want to forget them.
2)    It’s a guide/reminder of where I want the story to go.   

When I write a chapter or a short story for the very first time I often start out writing it by hand in outline form.  However, as I delve deeper into the scene, I add more dialogue and description until I end up writing the chapter/story in paragraphs.  Therefore, I go from writing an outline to the story itself.  Later, when I type up the chapter/story, I go back and flesh out the beginning of the scene.

The goal is to have ideas flow easily through you so they come organically and you still have the ability to surprise yourself (and therefore the reader).  The outline allows you to organize your thoughts and the story.  However, if you adhere too close to an outline created before you even wrote the first sentence, the story will feel stale.   


3) LIST OUTLINES

So suppose you’re writing the scene where your heroes escape from the villain.  For the sake of an example let’s say they have become trapped in a warlock’s accounting firm.   If the means of their escape comes to you naturally as you are writing, excellent!  Keep up the good work!  Here’s a cookie!  



However, very often solutions like this won’t come right away or what you write is trite and relies too much on coincidence.  This is the kind of situation where a List Outline might come in handy.  (By the way I never actually thought of outlines by these names until I wrote this blog.) 

A List Outline is pretty much like it sounds.  You jot down all of the different ways your heroes can escape, even possibilities you would never, ever use.  This gets the creative blood flowing. 

Your list might look something like this:

1. Stacy’s roommate Ryan breaks into the warlock’s accounting firm and saves them at the last moment.
2. They manage to break a window and climb down on a ladder made of paper clips. 
3. They get to a window and start screaming until the little old lady next door turns up her hearing aid and calls the police.
4. Earlier in the story Stacy finds an amulet that helps her bash through walls. 
5. They type a formula into the warlock’s calculator, which summons a Fraction Demon.  The demon tears the building apart so they can escape. 

You get the idea. 

The reason for this list is that initial ideas in your story (like how characters escape, how couples meet or how heroes get their super powers) tend to be based on ideas we have run into from other stories.  The first ideas that pop into our head are very often cliché and overused, but the more we dig the sooner we will find escape plans, meet cutes and origin stories that are original and fit with the nature of our world. 


4) POST-FIRST DRAFT OUTLINE

Here is the one I use the most. 

Congratulations!  You have written the first draft of your novel!  And this is where you realize that it’s a piece of 

 

But that’s okay, because everyone’s first draft is a piece of 



Basically what you do here is make an outline of the story you wrote in order to map out your manuscript as a whole.  When you are done with this outline (or even while you are completing it) you can look it over and figure out the story you want to tell.  You look for unnecessary characters and chapters that need to be cut, holes where your plot becomes flimsy and you rearrange scenes so that your story has a distinct beginning, middle and end. 

Stories, especially novels, have so many moving parts that it’s often impossible to picture them as a whole.  You sometimes need to actually have a guide that shows you the various steps your characters take in order to remove sections that are extraneous and to develop themes that come about.  This is especially true for plots that are naturally complex or are told in a non-linear fashion. 



I think most writers will agree that rising authors need to do what’s right for them.  Obviously, what I have presented here are examples that I have found helpful.  If you never use outlines and you’re on your third novel that’s fantastic, our brains just work differently.  However if you’re having trouble reworking your first draft or even getting past your first page, don’t let the “real writers don’t use outlines” myth discourage you from implementing these helpful (if sometimes overused) tools.