Time for a Little Criticism

I am now at a sought-after point in the writing process. I have both completed a rough draft of my latest manuscript in the Bobby Navarro mystery series, and I have edited it as well. Now, I would probably want to change something any time I read a story I’ve written, so I can never tell if it is the best it can be, or not. At some point, I need outside feedback—criticism. My reviewer may end up thinking the whole thing was a colossal failure, or fell apart completely at some point. It’s wait-and-see time. Believe me—not easy.

In everyday life, we talk about being willing to listen to criticism. In writing, we talk about having our work critiqued. In either case, no one is eager to hear their creative efforts are crummy, their brilliance banal, or their talent tenuous. I’m no exception, but I do feel that constructive criticism can be a highly valuable commodity. However, getting the most from a critique of our work requires more than just letting others have their say. Here are five components of making criticism constructive when you are on the receiving end.

 1.        The first requirement for making criticism constructive on the receiving end, is to listen to it, and resist temptation to defend what we did. It’s not an argument. The goal is not to decide who wins. Learning from the criticism is the sought-after goal here, and that is only accomplished when the emphasis is placed on hearing, and understanding, what the criticism is. Similarly, it’s important not to succumb to another temptation, explaining why the behavior, writing, whatever, was the way it was in the first place. Just listen, get it straight, and take it under advisement—with sincere appreciation.

2.       That last part—with sincere appreciation—is very important. It’s not easy to accept criticism, but it should be appreciated. That doesn’t mean surround yourself with nags and nasty enemies. It does mean that criticism can help you improve yourself or your work, and is a valuable means toward that end. There are a lot of things written on how to be a good this-or-that. There are usually no books written about what we, as individuals, are doing wrong. Good criticism is worth a lot, treat it accordingly.

3.       Do something with the criticism once it’s received. A wonderful thing about computers, is that it is so easy to save numerous versions of our work. We don’t have to throw out the original, to try something different. Too wordy? Try cutting down, and examining the results. Someone suggests getting rid of a passage of particularly beautiful prose? Cut it. One click can save the treasured bit of writing. Chances are, you will never use it, but it hurts less to cut something, when we know it is saved should we ever find a better place to use it. The important thing, is to try seeing how the effected portion of writing works when revised.

4.       Have more than one source of feedback. If you receive a difficult-to-take bit of criticism, it can be more convincing and easier to take if you hear it from more than one source. I once had a whole writing group tell me a piece I had written was terrible. I had thought it was great. Hearing it from the whole group was convincing, even though disappointing. On another occasion, one reader thought a story was the best I had written, another thought it was the worst. Who can say? Receiving criticism is a learning opportunity. Multiple sources offer a greater opportunity for you to learn, and that’s what it’s all about.

5.       You own the final product. Accepting criticism does not remove one’s own responsibility for the final product. Simply making suggested changes, without working to understand them and the reason for their suggestion is disrespectful to oneself and one’s own work. Sometimes the criticism is best rejected, although the rejection should be saved until after the criticism has been received, understood, analyzed, and tried-out. But, in the end, you own the results, and must accept that ownership in an informed and responsible manner. By the way, when you keep in mind that you have the final say, it makes it easier to pay attention to whatever criticism you are dealing with.

 So, with all this in mind, now I’ll have to wait and see what happens, and then get back to work on producing the finished manuscript so I can put Bobby Navarro back on the road. And, speaking of being on the road, I recently saw this beauty.  Any thoughts?

New Year, new Resolutions

It’s that time again. People are making, or already have made, personal resolutions to kick off the new year. As we all know, these New Year’s Resolutions seldom last. Some never get started. Nevertheless, I love it, and I refuse to believe you are too old to accomplish change. After all, aging is all about changing, and getting used to changes. You know, that arthritic pain is just a part of aging—get used to it. Doing your chores is just a part of life—get used to it. Ha, if you think eighth grade is tough, wait until you get to high school—get used to it. So, let’s be realistic, if we are supposed to get used to unpleasant stuff, why not get used to something becoming better? Why not get used to something we want?

With that said, the road to good intentions. . .etc. I remember quitting smoking. Not easy. Failed more than once. Finally hit on a plan that worked. . . so far, at least. (I put it that way in order not to get cocky. Getting cocky leads to failure. And, who knows? I may fail again. . .although it’s been around fifty years now.) When I was quitting, I didn’t tell others that’s what I was doing. Didn’t want to jinx the effort. When asked why I wasn’t lighting up, I’d just say I didn’t want one right then. I even carried a pack of cigarettes around with me so I wouldn’t be tempted if someone offered. I had my own; I just didn’t want one. Technically, it was true. I was dying for a cigarette, but in my head I didn’t want one. So, you don’t have to tell others what you resolve, just carry out the resolution one day at a time, and–get used to it. After a while, it becomes a habit.

Last year, I resolved to achieve more balance in my life. Nothing too specific, although finishing the novel I had underway was part of what I had in mind. I wanted a modest resolution. You see, I had resolved to achieve better balance before. Guess what?

One of the things that helped me with the balance thing this time, was my wife, Lesley, convincing me it was better to write for an hour, or even a half hour, than not to write. I had previously relied on waiting until I could find a bigger chunk of time down the road. That didn’t happen. Little bits worked. A little bit every day accumulates over time. So, it’s not just setting a modest goal, it’s doing modest bits of behavior in the right direction on a regular basis. Forget about big changes, it’s the little bits of change that add up to success.

f course, if this sounds like I now lead a well-balanced life—forget it. You can believe it or not, but I have a lot of improvement yet to achieve. No, really! But, it’s like when I stopped smoking—I did better this past year. . .for more time. And, as for those times when I did anything but better—we need to learn from our failures, it’s how we gain successes.

So, what’s in store for this year? I’m not saying. We had a great getaway for New Years, and I hope to continue moving ahead on my work in progress and have the next Bobby Navarro mystery out this spring, or summer. Beyond that, I’m just picking out one little thing I want to do differently, and trying to take regular steps in the right direction. How about you?

 

A Time to Cheer

I had hoped to finish the rough draft of my current novel by Christmas, but I told myself and others my goal was to finish by New Years, because you never know what might pop up to get in the way. Happily, I have finished the rough draft. It’s a great feeling. Of course, last time I finished the rough draft of a manuscript, I ended up completely rewriting the whole thing. I had lost my voice. I had been reading Robert Parker, one of my favorites, and started sounding like a cross between Parker and me. I don’t think that will be a problem this time, but it’s always nerve-wracking to await someone’s response to what you have written. Of course, until then, I have a lot of work to do editing and tuning the present manuscript. Nevertheless, I’m excited to be on track for getting this Bobby Navarro sequel out this coming spring/summer. And, for a few days, it’s time to celebrate.

Of course, when the draft was finished the other day, I enjoyed glass of scotch. That was the official celebration. One of the things I’m aware of when I come to the end of a manuscript is that I feel eager to finish it, but reluctant to let go of the characters and the story. Afterwards, there is a mixture of feeling relief, accomplishment, and loss. The nice thing about writing a series, is that I will be able to work with the main character again. Last night, I had ideas running through my head about another Bobby Navarro story when I was supposed to be getting to sleep, but that’s not what I meant about looking forward to working with my protagonist again.

I remember a Kathy Bates movie, Misery, when a writer celebrated the end of his manuscript with a single cigarette and a glass of wine. Of course, if you saw the movie, you know what came next. I wouldn’t want to have been in his shoes.

Now, I am taking a little time to let the manuscript cool off before beginning the editing process. In the meantime, I have the chance to ride my own motorcycle, play a round of golf, and maybe do some hiking. That’s the advantage of finishing a draft while in Florida. Yesterday, I took a ride down an unfamiliar road that turned out to have a wildlife management area, Du Puis Management Area along one side of the roadway. The area offers hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, and even camping. It’s not far away from where we are located, so I’m looking forward to visiting there again.

Over the past months, I have enjoyed hearing from some of you who have visited my blog, and I look forward to bringing more news of Bobby’s travels and adventures in the coming year. Thank you for your support.

 I wish you all happy holidays, and a great year ahead.

Glenn Nilson

A Writer’s Lament

A Writer's Lament
I cannot think of a thing to write,
And here it is, Saturday night.
Something for my blog is due
And I’ve not one idea that I can use.
My mind is empty
I’m drawing a blank
I couldn’t turn a phrase
With a platinum crank
All I’ve done
This week and last
Is to work on my novel
To get it done fast.
I’ve still fifteen thousand
Words yet to go
But, I’ve forgotten what happens
At the end, and so
I’m stuck.
 I had some ideas, at first,
And a plan
For a story exciting
In a setting so grand.
With characters you’ll never
Want to forget
And an ending that will blow
Your mind to bits.
That was then.
This is now.
If I can’t get moving
I’ll soon have a cow. 
And, I still have my holiday
Shopping to do.
My credit card is maxed-out
And the bills are due.
I know people say, ‘tis a time to be jolly,
Hang up a wreath,
Some bells and fake holly.
But, Lord, if I weren’t brain dead,
I could finish my blog,
Have a drink,
Go to bed.
So, before I conclude
This writer’s lament
Let me wish you great joy
And a holiday well-spent
From me and my protag
Bobby Navarro


At Home

Feeling at-home can apply in a lot of situations. I used to feel that way in airports a long time ago when I traveled on business. A familiar airport offered a feeling of sanctuary. I could relax until my flight was ready for boarding. I could read, or do some work on my laptop. There were no external demands or likely interruptions. I once enjoyed something of the same feeling when I commuted to and from downtown Los Angeles. Admittedly, that was prior to cellphones.

Where I grew up, people used the expression, “Please make yourself at-home”, meaning they wanted you to feel comfortable with them and in their house. As snowbirds, my wife Lesley and I look forward to seeing people we haven’t seen in months each time we perform our biannual trek north or south. As we were indulging in our morning walk recently here in rural Florida, some friends we encountered said, “Welcome home”. Our southern friends more often say, “Welcome back”, the assumption being that home is somewhere in the North. These friends live here year-around, so this has become home to them, and I took their comment as a warm gesture back into the fold, a recognition of our belonging.

We live on a canal, and treasure viewing the wildlife parading back and forth. Tall egrets stand on the shore, looking to spear a meal in the opaque waters reflecting palm trees standing tall in the background. A green heron wading in the shallows darts its head out to feed on insects along the water’s surface. Two limpkins strut nearby, loudly proclaiming ownership of the canal, and an anhinga flaps its outstretched wings to dry off in a patch of fading sunlight, ignoring the limpkins. In the distance, a flock of white birds explodes into the evening sky, swooping, and wheeling several times before settling into the branches of tall oaks for the coming nightfall. A train sounds its horn as it approaches the crossings it must pass on its northerly run. I inhale deeply, to drink it all in, and suddenly I’m at home again in our southern location. Happens every time. Things are friendly and pleasant, but I get the sense of being at home here when I’m outside, enjoying the wildlife.

My series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, feels at-home when the highway vibrates up through the fast-rolling tires of his Harley and exhaust pipes sound a familiar melody. He’ll also feel at-home when night falls and he locates an inviting motel, or sets-up in a campground, builds a fire and suddenly there’s the fragrant scent of cedar smoke or crackling birch wood in the evening air.

I think Bobby feels more at home when he’s on the road than when an adventure is over, and he’s back in his rental. I suspect he’s not alone in that regard. How about you, or your protagonist? What provides a sense of home, or home-away-from-home, for you or your favorite character?

 

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Limpkin at Dusk

 

A Mystery for the Times

We spent this past week making final preparations for, and then completing, our semi-annual trek south. The first day out was unusually warm and pleasant. Although we got on the road no earlier than in past years, we both felt it had been less stressful this time. Better organization. We enjoyed a beautiful fall drive through the hills of New York and Pennsylvania to reach our first night’s destination. Then had snacks, a drink, and a pleasant dinner. By that time, we were curious how the election was going, and spent the evening transfixed by the unexpected results. Well, not completely unexpected in that this election seemed beyond belief all along.

Since election night, I have found it impossible not to dwell on the whole, arduous affair. That’s why this blog is so behind my expected posting date. It took time to gather focus. Now, we’ve largely unpacked and settled into our place in rural Florida, and I’m thinking I need to get back to my current novel, another in the Bobby Navarro series. It’s a story with a victim, a killer, and an amateur detective, and you can be sure good will win out in the end. After all, it’s not a Greek tragedy—it’s a murder mystery.

I love a good mystery. I don’t consider them merely entertainment, escape or, as some do, a lesser form of literature. Of course, a good mystery is entertaining, and can take us away from the cares and stresses of the day. That’s a plus in my book. Good mysteries can also inspire us to think about things we might not have even known about before, or introduce us to a setting with which we are totally unfamiliar. Mysteries do include meaningful depictions of bad deeds and events, and often of bad people, but are not usually filled with gratuitous sex and violence intended merely as cheap thrills. They are neither simplistic, nor hopefully, duplistic, while presenting a cast of characters to be sorted out as to who’s guilty of the murder, and who is not. But, there’s always more to the story than simply whodunit. That’s what makes them worth reading.

A good mystery can make us think about social issues and the morals and values we believe this country has struggled to achieve. I’m glad I’m a writer—a mystery writer. Writing good mysteries is one way to oppose bigotry, hatred, violence and greed in a format in which good ultimately prevails. Something for the times.

Change of Season

I think the geese are moving south. They have been forming into flocks and flying around the area lately, but less so than they were a week ago. A good many of the trees that peeked with fall foliage a week ago have lost their leaves to the wind and the cold temperatures that have taken over this part of upstate New York. My wife thinks it’s depressing. I’ve been sort of cooped-up inside the house the past several days due to a pulled muscle (getting better) in my back, so I’ve been looking out the windows and thinking how much I’d like to go for a hike—to better enjoy this weather. Not that I feel motivated to get outside and work on the things remaining to be done before we head south—I’d just like to take time to hike.  I like the way the woods change this time of year. Without the heavy canopy of leaves, I’m able to see the spectacular tree limbs and trunks. I can see farther through the woods, as well. Deer and other animals, even though more wary now that they are exposed, have become more visible. Instead of just hearing a squirrel chirping somewhere off in the trees, I can see it sitting at the base of an exposed branch.

Even driving is different now. The yellows and purples of autumn fields have given way to browner vistas, and weed stalks topped with frosted, dried flower heads make me think of rattles shaking in the chill winds. Sometimes I get a glimpse of an abandoned structure—an empty house, or collapsed barn—through the bare trees, and I like to think about who the occupants were and what their lives were like when winter used to come to this land decades ago.

I agree, this late fall season is moody, but I love it. It makes me start thinking about things like a pot of baked beans, maybe with some cornbread. I get eager to dig out that winter ski jacket, and boots are suddenly more inviting than the shoes I’ve been wearing most of the time until now. But it’s not just wood stoves and comfort food. There is something about the coming cold that almost resonates poetically, or philosophically, with that part of me I joke about as my “Walander” side, (from the television scenes set in a bleak Swedish landscape). I love this time of year, and this weather. At least, for now.

There’s another reason for this focus as well. You see, I’ve been working on my latest Bobby Navarro manuscript, set in south Florida, where Bobby is camping in Key Largo—in the winter. I wouldn’t take him there in the summer. So, think about it. . .  Bobby is not the sort of guy who hauls his motorcycle on a trailer so he can ride around once he gets somewhere. No, he had to drive down to the Keys on his Harley. It suddenly occurred to me, that Bobby wouldn’t want to ride back north in the middle of winter, with ice and snow on the road. That’s not how you treat your motorcycle. Those aren’t good riding conditions, either. I know. Well, I’ve figured out a couple possible solutions to the situation, but there are probably others as well, and my solution isn’t revealed until about thirty-five thousand words from where I am at the moment—about half way to the finish line. Any ideas?                                           

 

Life on Schedule

In one way or another, it seems we all live by them—schedules I mean. For many of us, an ideal vacation has meant getting rid of the daily schedules of work and everything else. Stay up late, because you don’t have to get up at any particular time in the morning. That sort of thing. And, of course, retirement is something we think about as a period in our lives when we can live according to our whims, not on a schedule. In the same vein, I’ve never liked waking to an alarm, another form of scheduled activity. More often than not, I have trouble getting to sleep when I use an alarm because I know it’s set to go off early and I’m not going to get much sleep.

We have reached that time of year when our scheduled transition to rural Florida is fast approaching. Work that still remains has to be rescheduled due to the closing window of opportunity I have been working against all summer. Vehicle inspections and maintenance have to be accomplished before the semiannual trek south. Florida medical appointments have to be set up before all of the arriving winter visitors push availabilities way off. I also have to push work on my manuscript-in-progress forward, which means fitting more writing into my schedule.

It was my intent to achieve a more balanced lifestyle this season here in the North. I was going to give myself more time for things other than house projects, too. Well, so much for good intentions. Now, I have to consider extreme measures to achieve my goals. Getting more efficient is obviously in order. The answer to greater efficiency? Scheduling my time. That includes my writing time, which has to consist of both the creative bit—writing—and the business side of it, which includes book promotions and the sort. If I don’t set up some workable schedule, the most pressing task will take over my time and life will continue as before—behind schedule. Of course, if I’m going to set up a meaningful daily work schedule, I should make sure I get up at a reasonable hour to get everything on the schedule done. That means setting an alarm. And, I’ll have to put reminders on my computer to change task

at scheduled times, and schedule a break for a few minutes so I don’t sit at the computer too long. Next, I’ll have to punch a time clock to keep track of how I’m doing on my schedule.

My series protagonist, Bobby Navarro is luckier. He doesn’t need an alarm clock, or to be living by any particular schedule. He rides his motorcycle, goes camping, meets people and solves murders. It doesn’t seem fair that I should have to schedule my life more rigorously in order to write about him not living on one. Oh well. . .

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Village Bookstores and the Green Toad

I hear bookstores have become a rarity. For a writer, this is not a good thing. For a reader, it is saddening as well. I still like small bookstores—village bookstores. This Saturday, Lesley Diehl and I did a book signing in the Green Toad. It was fun bringing my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, in my latest publication, Murder on the Mother Road, to both new and returning readers via the signing.

The Green Toad is a bookstore in nearby Oneonta, New York, and is a terrific instance of what a village bookstore can offer. Next door to the Green Toad, is the Latte Lounge, a coffee shop. The two businesses made a large opening in the wall dividing them, allowing customers to drift from one to the other. The Green Toad has some very comfortable easy chairs as well, and you can bring an espresso, latte, or whatever, from next door, sit down and start reading the book you just bought, or are thinking about buying.  It’s a comfortable, homey, and thoroughly inviting setting.

In addition to a great selection of books, the Green Toad carries an array of perfect gift objects. Of course, books make wonderful gifts, too. One man bought a book from each of us as gifts for his mother. As a people-watcher, I was interested to see who visited the store, and how they went about locating a purchase. Oneonta is a college town, and I was delighted to see a large number of young people, who appeared to be students, at the bookstore. There were older people as well, and a few parents with their children.

As the days turn chilly, and people are less likely to take coffee, snacks or lunch sitting at outdoor tables fronting some of the eateries along the street, the Green Toad will become even more inviting. What better way to spend a little time, than cozying up to a good mystery and a cup of coffee where you might also bump into a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Village book stores, like village libraries, are a treasure, both in fond memories and current busy lifestyles.

Vacation or Staycation?

 

I looked it up in a dictionary and read that a vacation is a period of suspension of work, study other activity, usually used for rest, recreation or travel. Now, the dictionary didn’t say how long the period has to be for a trip to be a vacation or how far. And, my dictionary, being nearly as old as myself, didn’t even have a “staycation” entry, so I had to ask Cortana on my computer. It turns out, a staycation involves doing things within driving distance from home, and sleeping in my own bed.

Well, we needed a break, but couldn’t get completely away from work for a “real” vacation.  We started off with an overnight with some friends to an old hotel at a village about an hour and a half away. Okay, we didn’t return home to sleep that night, but was it still a vacation? And, I took my computer and did some writing. Isn’t that work? Well, it’s something I love doing when I travel, and getting back to work on my next novel feels more like enjoying a suspension of projects than anything else. Most importantly, it was really enjoyable. The food was terrific, (always a big thing with me), and conversation with our friends in lieu of nightly television was wonderful.

The next few days, we couldn’t readily get away from home for other overnights. Lesley had writing commitments for multiple blog tours, etc., and our newly-seeded yard needed to be watered every night. Besides, with a little self-permission to go off our diets, (breaking from normal routine), we were able to come up with some great meals on our own, not to mention the pleasure of sitting on our back deck with a glass of wine, reveling in the fact that our stream bank project is finished. We also visited an art museum, went hiking and ate out whenever it suited our pleasure. On top of that, I got in my first round of golf for the season. Oh, and I got in some more writing on my next novel, Murder in Key Largo, (or Killed in Key Largo, I haven’t decided which yet), in my Bobby Navarro mystery series.

At some point, I asked myself whether Bobby would take a vacation. He rides all over the country on his Harley whenever he gets the chance, but that’s often a matter of taking the long way home. In the current work-in-progress he is actually attempting to take a vacation, but, what with becoming involved in solving another murder, can I really call it a vacation?

So, vacation or staycation? You decide. I learned something though. I learned how refreshing an afternoon hike, or visit to some local attraction can be. It was certainly worth the time away from most of our regular work. My hope is that we will do more of this in the months ahead. Your thoughts?