A Decade Remembered

For my work, I was tasked in combing through ten years’ worth of Starke County Leaders to find highlights from the last decade. It’s only natural, while making your way through almost 500 editions of a newspaper, that I began to think about the highlights from my own life.

Dictionary.com defines highlight as “an important, conspicuous, memorable, or enjoyable event, scene, part, or the like.”

I think it’s important to consider the fact that a highlight can include negative events as well as positive ones. After all, you can’t take the good without taking the bad. For example, look what happens to the Jedi Order when you don’t study the Dark Side of the Force. You end up on the bad side of Order 66. Nobody wants that.

Here are some of the highlights from my own personal decade:
– I celebrated my one-year wedding anniversary on July 11, 2010.
– In March 2010, I wrote this joke: Q. What do you call a sleep walking nun? A. A Roaming Catholic. It was received with mild success.
– In 2011, I went back to school at IUSB. Instead of Computer Science, I began studying English.
– In December 2012, I wrote a 1,600-word paper on King Arthur’s court collapsing due Marxist Theory. It was pretty spectacular.
– My grandfather, James Norton, passed away on March 7, 2013. He was a great man, role model, and grandpa.
– Signed with Permuted Press to have my book series published in February 2014.
– Spent an amazing week in Seattle for the American Writers & Publishers (AWP) conference with fellow IUSB writing friends.
– In 2014 I got a mortgage for a home in Plymouth with my wife of five years.
– On March 2, 2015, I found out that Permuted Press cancelled the book contract.
– I finished my college education at IUSB in May 2015. It took me 11 years, but I did it.
– Left my job at IUSB and started work at the Pilot News Group, where I’m still employed and loving it.
– Found out I had a ginormous blood clot in my left leg. That was fun (sarcasm).
– November 2015 I signed a new book contract with Burning Willow Press for that series that was earlier canceled.
– In 2017 I became a published author. Since then I’ve published three books, four short stories, and a combined book with several other authors.
– After a two-year separation my wife and I divorced in 2018. This event ended nine years together.
– When BWP closed in 2019, my books were once again homeless. But only for a day when Random Evolved Media offered to pick them up.

There have been many other good and bad highlights that I won’t mention. From the list above, it looks to me as if my life has been filled with more bad memories than good. That might make some people feel depressed. Admittedly, there were times during the last ten years that I feel deep into depression. I still do sometimes.

Since I’m a nerd, I thought of this quote from the BBC show, Doctor Who. “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things,” says The Doctor, portrayed by Matt Smith. “The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t always spoil the good things and make them unimportant.”

There’s no way of knowing what the next ten years will throw at us. However, as long as we cherish that pile of good things while learning how to overcome the pile of bad things, I’m sure I’ll be writing another decade rewrap. And hopefully you’ll be here to read it.

Goodbye 2010-2019 and hello 2020-2029!

See you all next year.

Books make the best gifts

Okay, so maybe books don’t make the best gifts. I’ll admit that I’d rather be given a Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ over a Stephen King book. One exception to that if the Stephen King book was a first edition signed copy. If my “Secret Santa” was looking to gift me one of those phones, then make sure it’s able to be on the Sprint network. Just saying. Now onto this week’s rant.

There are many reasons why books make the perfect gift. Here are some reasons why:

1. Books are easily transportable. You can’t take a 72-inch flat screen television with you to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and watch as you wait in line to renew your driver’s license. You also can’t take a Playstation 4 with you to a government meeting and play the new Star Wars game a few minutes before the meeting convenes. I’ve tried. You just end up with council members giving you weird looks as you try to plug an HDMI cable into the monitors. Books can be taken with you wherever you go. It doesn’t matter where you go: churches, meetings, the BMV, even the bathroom. All of those places and more, a book can be taken with you. Last detail about that: if you’re borrowing a book from the library or a friend, don’t take it into the bathroom. That’s common courtesy.

2. Books are cheap. If you’re like me, a writer, you can’t really afford to spend a bunch of money on Christmas presents. I mean, you could spend rent and bill money to buy that perfect, albeit expensive, gift for your loved one. You might be asking them for a place to stay while you catch up on bills, but whatever. Books are the perfect alternative. You don’t have to drop $400 dollars on a book unless it’s a signed first edition of Stephen King.

3. Books are personalized. Fantasy, Horror, Romance, Science Fiction, etc. Everyone has a preference when it comes to works of fiction. Or non-fiction. Choosing the perfect book for that person tells you that you know them enough to know what types of books they like to enjoy. Televisions aren’t personal like a book can be. Just make sure you take in deciding which book is right.

4. Books require no assembly. Unless you buy a book from Ikea, you don’t need to assemble anything the night before Christmas. Plus, they need no batteries. I can’t tell you the money I’ve spent buying batteries for gifts that didn’t include them.

5. Books make the perfect re-gift. When you’re finished reading a book, you can pass them on as a White Elephant book. If you’re like me, you wear a book out in the first reading. I typically crack a spine of a book more than I crack my own. If it’s a hardback, then maybe that’d be an okay book as a regular gift. However, if you bend the edges of the pages like I do, then maybe consider buying a newer version.

6. Books don’t hurt as much as other things. Have you ever stepped on a bunch of Legos? Have you ever banged your head on a television? Stepping on the edge of a book, a pointy hardcover, is a pretty difficult thing to do. I don’t think I’ve ever done that.
Literature is something that I’ve tried to purchase for my friends and relatives for birthdays and Christmas gifts. Personally, I like hunting for the right book. Sure, it may take time but that’s what makes gifts so enjoyable. Remember that old saying, “It’s the thought that counts?” Books personify that sentiment.

Happy hunting and merry Christmas!

Victory is Sweet

When it comes to games, I’m pretty competitive. Of course, if you ask my nieces and nephews, they’ll tell you I’m ruthless. When playing Risk, I’ll backstab my allies. When playing Sorry, I’m not sorry. I don’t try to collect four of the same kind in the game of Spoons. I just pass cards and wait for the first spoon to be grabbed.

In Candyland, there is no mercy.

Because of my ruthlessness, I’ve been accused of being too hard on the kiddos. Whenever I’m accused of this, I defend myself by stating that I want my nieces and nephews to win. And I do want them to win, but I want them to win because they achieved it. I want them to learn that if you want something in this world, you need to work for it.

When one of my nieces started playing Candyland, my wife (at the time) and I played. I took my turn, my wife took her turn, and then my niece took her turn. Now, if you’ve never played Candyland, the game doesn’t use dice to advance. Instead, you draw cards from the top of the deck and then advance to that color or location. My niece had drawn the Chocolate Swamp card that advanced her to the end of the board. While my niece was celebrating, I looked at my wife suspiciously. It only took one look at her mischievous smile to know that she’d rigged the deck. I understand that my niece was like three or four at the time, but it was irritating that my wife had just handed the victory to her.

Now, I know what you all are saying. “But Jim, it’s your niece. She’s like three-years old.” Or, “But Jim, it’s only Candyland.” Or “But Jim, you’re a monster.”

Believe me, I’ve heard all of these before. Sure, it’s only Candyland. But what about after Candyland? If we allow children to become used to winning because “it’s only Candyland,” then they’ll become used to winning. And like it or not, we can’t win all the time.

As an author and a survivor of a failed marriage, I know about not winning all the time.
When my two nephews started playing chess, I never let them win. My oldest nephew was about five or six at the time when he started playing the game. My second oldest nephew started about the same age. Both are formidable opponents to this day. In fact, I recently played my second oldest at a game and he nearly had me in checkmate.

proud uncle2
My nephew upon realizing he’d just checkmated his uncle.

I’m not a chess genius, but I’m pretty good. And with that ruthlessness, I’ve become elevated to a Bobby Fischer legend status in that household. My sister has beaten me less than a handful of times, and I think my brother-in-law had beaten me once. Other than that, I’m undefeated.

Well, that was until Zeke, the oldest at 12 years of age, defeated his uncle. He didn’t even know it at the time. It wasn’t until I extended my hand in defeat that he realized he had me in checkmate. The legend was defeated.

Seeing his face flush in realization and the gigantic smile was worth the six or seven years of being ruthless. He won because of his own cunning and merit, not because I gave the victory to him.

The publishing world is like a ruthless uncle. It will never hand you a publishing deal. It wants you to do the work. Write that novel, submit it, wait all of those agonizing months, and suffer rejections. Maybe, you’ll taste victory.

Don’t quit playing the game. Even if you receive rejection letter after rejection letter, keep it up. Strengthen your game, know your opponent, and plow ahead. My nephew could have given up playing the game. I assure you he had moments after a crushing defeat where he thought I was undefeatable. The next day when I’d walk into their house he’d say “Uncle Jim, let’s play chess. This time I’m going to beat you.”

proud uncle
Victory is Sweet!

I promised my nephews and niece that if someone defeated me at chess, I’d take that person to Dairy Queen for a reward. Last night, I did just that. We ate medium Oreo Cookie Jar Blizzards while talking about the game. Just a smiling teenager and his proud (and now humbled) uncle. For my nephew, victory never tasted sweeter.

If my nephew can topple that undefeatable and ruthless uncle, then you can get that book/poem/artwork/ (insert whatever goal you have) accomplished. Do the work, persevere, and never quit. Maybe then, you too, can taste victory.

The Social Writer: Blogging Platforms

Continuing with the series The Social Writer, this week I’ll be talking about blogging platforms. Now, last week I discussed why a writer might want to begin his/her own blog. Let’s say you decided to take my advice and start a blog. But then there’s a hitch: you don’t know what blogging platform to host your awesome blog.

Well, have no fear, Mastering the Craft is here!

blogging for writersRecapping from last week, I am still reading Robin Houghton’s book “Blogging for Writers: How Authors and Writers build successful blogs.” It’s published by Writer’s Digest so you know it’s going to be full of stuff that writer’s will want to know. In all seriousness, so far I’ve found it to be full of stuff that I, as a writer, would want to know. If you’d rather go out and buy the book instead of reading this column, I’d fully understand.

So, back to the task at hand. You’ve probably visited or heard of some of the blogging platforms I’ll be discussing shortly. You might be wondering though, what exactly is a blogging platform? Houghton describes them as “the software that powers a blog. You could think of it as the underlying construction, like a house-is it timber-framed or brick-built? Once the house is built, you may not be able to tell. Most blog platforms do pretty much the same job.”

There are so many of these platforms out there and it’d take more effort than I’d like to spend so I’m going to give a summary of three of the more popular ones. Here goes.

WordPress.com. This is the platform my website uses (www.james-master.com) and I find it very comfortable to use, yet also a little challenging. Let’s say it’s for intermediate level internet users. Prices can range from Free to $45 per month. Of course with most things, the more you pay the more perks you have access to. Stages include Free, Blogger ($3/month), Personal ($5/month), Premium ($8/month), Business ($25/month), and eCommerce ($45/month). All of those prices are billed yearly. That’s how they get you. You think, of that’s not a bad price, but then you’re panicking when they want you to pay a crazy amount.

Screenshot (40)
Screenshot of the pricing and what it includes from WordPress.com

 

• Blogger.com. I had no idea that Blogger.com was owned by Google so automatically I was logged into my webpage. “It’s like trading off some control for more convenience,” writes one review site. The site also states that Blogger has very little in terms of content management. While you can buy a custom domain, a blogger on Blogger.com is free and you get essentially unlimited resources to run your blog. I might actually try this one.

Wix.com is the third blogging platform. They have a basic free package like all the others, but then they have their four different levels including Combo ($13/month), Unlimited ($17/month), Pro ($22/month), and VIP ($39/month). The one thing that I like about WordPress.com is that they tell you ahead of time that the price is billed monthly. With Wix.com, they say the price, but only tell you it’s billed yearly later on. For instance, the Pro plan is $22 per month if you pay for one year. If you pay it month-to-month it’s $27 per month. Of course, if you pay for three years it’s only $16/month. So there’s that.

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Pricing and what it includes from Wix.com

 

Here’s what you need to think about when making the choice of where your blog is going to call home: Do you like the look and feel of the blogging platform sites? Do you have the budget for the higher tiers? What are the goals for your blog when thinking about the future?

The last piece of advice I can give you is this: search for other blogs that use the platform you’re thinking about. Do your research. Read some reviews about it. And always remember that you can start on the free option and then upgrade to a higher tier later on.

If you use a blogging platform, let me know in the comments which one and if you like it or if you are looking for a different one. If so, which one?

The Social Writer: The Art of the Blog

It takes amazing willpower to enter Barnes & Nobles without walking out a book. Apparently, I have absolutely no willpower because I left with three books. One of them was a book titled “Blogging for Writers: How Authors and Writers Build Successful Blogs” written by Robin Houghton.

blogging for writersIn my experience, as an author, social media has its advantages and disadvantages. On the negative side, I waste a lot of time endlessly scrolling through Facebook and Twitter when I should be writing. However, in this technological age it’s imperative that authors risk the temptation. Not only can social media introduce you to other writers, but you can use it to introduce yourself and your books to literally millions of people. This week’s Mastering the Craft will discuss what is a blog and other topics.

Houghton starts things off by explaining that a blog “is simply a particular type of website, for the main part consisting of posts (articles) usually date-stamped, and organized in reverse chronology so that the visitor always sees the most recent post first.”

My website is exactly that. If you head over to https://james-master.com/category/mastering-the-craft/ you’ll find all of my Mastering the Craft columns in reverse chronological order. My first bit of advice is this: if you’re going to write a blog, write about something that interests you. On my website you’ll find articles about my writing journey, but you’ll also find some sample fiction as well as a section that compares movies against the films they were adapted from.  Your readers can tell if your interested in the subject. At least, if you’re a decent writer.

There are three attributes all blogs should contain: frequency, brevity, and personality. In my experience, frequency is the easiest of the three but it’s also the easiest to fail at. I know how that sounds, but it’s true. If your blog doesn’t have fresh content for your readers, they won’t come back to it. Imagine if your local newspaper quit publishing on their normal schedule. You’d quit buying and reading it right? Same goes with blogs. It’s all about schedule. Set a reminder on your phone to site down and write a post. Heck, write five of them on your day off and schedule them to post automatically for the future. Once you get into that rhythm, it’s all downhill from there.

Brevity is the one I struggle at the most. When writing short stories, I often exceed or come very close to the maximum word limit because there’s just so much to tell. You wouldn’t really think it, but crafting a good micro-fiction, a short story consisting of under 1,000 words, is pure artwork. I struggle with writing one of these columns in under 1,000 words. You guys don’t know it, but I delete so many puns and pop culture references because I try to keep these around 900 words. You have to convey your point and its arguments in a concise and interesting manner yet not write a novel. It’s tough.
Personality is somewhat difficult to convey through your writing. Developing your blogging persona is important. Houghton writes:

“Perhaps the idea of sharing anything to do with your personal life makes you feel uncomfortable. That’s fine, but decide where you personally draw the line. It’s different for everyone. If blogging their daily life and work routine, some bloggers are happy to mention their family members by name, but won’t post photos of them. Others have no problems with that, but don’t use real names.”

When I write Mastering the Craft, I take a conversational approach as if I’m sitting down with you at a café drinking coffee. Which I am mostly, drinking coffee that is. I don’t share names of my friends or relatives though, opting to use pronouns instead. Sure, you could be a creeper and search for the names of my sisters or my ex-wife, maybe even comb through my Facebook friends list. It’s easy to do.

Another aspect of personality is: how transparent will you be? Mastering the Craft often blends my writing life with my… well, my real life. If you read one of my columns, you’ll find that, more often than not, that there’s a deeper meaning. Sure, they’re all about writing but they’re also so much more.  Houghton writes that “not everyone wants to lay themselves bare by mentioning rejections, spats, loss of motivation, or other negative aspects of their writing life. Others revel in it and find visitor numbers and comments increase when their blog posts are at their most raw and honest.” It’s really about your comfort level.

Like I mentioned above, brevity is the thing I’m worst at and now I’m looking at the word count exceeding 800 words. Alas, my dear readers, it’s time we part for another week. I’ve only just purchased this book but if you’re interested in getting into blogging, it’s definitely worth it.

Writing is not Life

Writing is not life

 

Around this time of year, I always contemplate about the past. For good reason too. Ten years ago, my wife and I were married. Four years ago, I graduated college. Three years ago, after a quick downward spiral my wife went to live in another state. One year ago, our divorce was finalized. All these things happened around June or July.

It’s easy to focus on the negatives of your life. When I look back throughout the length of my 33 years, I tend to remember the negatives more than I do the positives. However, today I’d like to talk about one of the positives of my life. My ability to write.

My earliest memory of creatively writing is in the fifth or sixth grade. My parents were in the process of their divorce and my family was fractured. Jeff, my best friend to this very day, and I spent just about every recess on the playground with our notebooks and our pencils. We wrote about dinosaurs mainly because of our fascination with the film Jurassic Park (1993). I wish I’d kept those notebooks. Not to publish of course, because they’d be atrocious. Just for the memories.

My next memory of writing comes during seventh grade. It was a Creative Writing class, my first intramural elective. I wrote a short story called “High School Horror.” The plot centered on a serial killer inside a school killing all the bullies with a well sharpened pencil. If I had to psychoanalyze myself, I’d have to say that I wrote this as an emotional response to my first few grades of being bullied. In the summer between sixth and seventh grade I had started gaining weight and kids can be cruel. This was before all the gun violence in schools. If it’d been after, my teacher wouldn’t have commended my attention to detail. She’d be alerting me to the principal and I probably would’ve been kicked out. Zero tolerance and all.

I didn’t really write anything in high school until my senior year. However, during that last semester of school I started writing a fantasy that, to this day, has never been finished. Maybe I wrote it in order to come to terms with having to face the real world. I’d come back to it throughout the next few years because my reality was pretty terrible.

The first year my wife and I spent together, we rented a house on Ewing Street in South Bend. It was a two bedroom with a partially completed basement. The plan was to have that second room as part office and part craft room. However, as things go, life doesn’t go according to plan. My in-laws came to stay with us. So now we had four adults, one teenager, three dogs, and a cat living in that tiny, tiny home. My in-laws didn’t work for a living and spent all day at the house. I completed my first book, now published, because I spent my time at home stuck in the isolation of that intended office (now turned into a bedroom) writing.

When my divorce was finalized, I wrote a manuscript. I poured into it all of the pain, suffering, and every depressed-filled moment I went through during the two years of separation. The entire story was written in under two months on a spiral legal pad with a fountain pen. The main character was me, but without my faith in God. And it ended with the main character’s suicide.

The years of 2017 and 2018 were the lowest point in my 33 years of life. At least so far, but I pray I never go through that misery again. As I look back on these low points in my life, two things are crystal clear to me. The first is that the ability to write is my coping mechanism. I’ve found that I write best when I’m an emotional wreck.

Before I wrote this column, I was looking through Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and in it I read this:

“There have been times when for me the act of writing has been a little act of faith, a spit in the eye of despair. The second half of this book was written in that spirit. I gutted it out, as we used to say when we were kids. Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life. That was something I found out in the summer of 1999, when a man driving a blue van almost killed me.”

When I read that paragraph, I knew what my column would be about. Writing isn’t life, but it’s a way back to it.

The second thing is that even when life is bad, God is good. It’s difficult to comprehend the idea of a loving God allowing bad things to happen to those that believe. I’m not a theologian, but I think about it this way: when crafting a sword, you have to heat the metal and hammer it into the desired shape. After a series of hammering, reheating, and more hammering you have your desired weapon. If it’s strong enough and doesn’t break, it’s something that you can take into battle. (That’s a very rough explanation of sword making and doesn’t go into every facet but work with me here.)

I believe that God wants us to be the best forms of ourselves. Just like a character in a story, in order to become better we have to overcome overwhelming obstacles.

“Protect me, God, because I trust in you. I said to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord. Every good thing I have comes from you,’” says Psalm 16:1-2.

Yes, God allowed these things to happen, but He gave me the ability to write. Without that ability, things would’ve been different.