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!

The Thankful Writer

As I write this, I’m sitting in the living room of my aunts and mother’s home. It’s mid-afternoon and we’re all waiting for Thanksgiving Dinner. My sister’s family and I piled into their van early in the morning to travel to Illinois where our aunt and mother live. It’s a rather short trip, just under three hours, and we were fortunate not to experience any kind of traffic. We stopped for gasoline once and I was able to refuel my caffeine tank while my brother-in-law filled the van’s. The dinner we had consisted of turkey, ham, potato casserole, cheesy broccoli, and some type of cranberry concoction. It was delicious. When we finished and washed the dishes, we had dessert. As tradition dictates, that dessert was pumpkin pie with whipped cream. While we devoured the pie, the Disney Plus movie “Noelle” played. That too was pretty good. Sure, it had a lot of product placement and a predictable ending, but the casting was great and the humor was flawless.

Overall it was a rather perfect day free of any kind of drama.

To say that I have a lot to be thankful for is an understatement. The first thing that I’m thankful for is my family. My family has supported me and has had my back even at my darkest, lowest moments. I count myself blessed to be apart of this family. Another thing I’m thankful for is my job. As an author, it’s difficult to find a job that grants the flexibility needed to actually get some book writing done. It’s also very fulfilling and entertaining. Covering the news, you will always get something different coming across your desk. Being able to help get the word out on various topics, organizations, and causes is something that I take pride in. I’ve also made many friends and acquaintances in my four and a half years as a news writer.

My faith is something that I don’t touch on very often during these times together. That’s something I could talk about later on, but for now let me just say that without God, I might’ve succumbed to the devastating depression that followed my separation and divorce. I’m so thankful for all the things that God has done for me, even if some of those things weren’t all that great.

One of the final things that I’m thankful for is… you. The reader. You’re the one that reads my weekly rants, my articles, and (hopefully) my books. Without you guys, I might not be here every week ranting about one thing or another. I’d most likely be working at a gas station on third shift. As a side note, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. I had worked third shift at a gas station in South Bend and I despised it. Working nights at a gas station in the south edge of a minor city in Northern Indiana was boring and soul-crushing. However, I did meet a lot of interesting individuals during those nights. An example was this one guy that was walking to Kokomo from Michigan because he was kicked out of the state.

There’s always one person on my Facebook feed that likes to remind their friends that this holiday was based on White people taking advantage of the natives. Whether that was the case or not, it really doesn’t matter much because the past is the past.

What does matter is that on Thanksgiving, we acknowledge the blessings that we have been given. We need to remember that not everyone has been blessed as we have. For me, I know that things could have gone a very different route if it hadn’t been for my family, my God, my job, and readers like you.

So, what I guess what I’m trying to say is… thanks.

The Curse of the Written Word

Keeping up with this month’s theme of the spooky and creepy, I want to share my feelings about one of the curses of the Written Word. Don’t worry, it’s not really one of those curses that’ll turn you into a frog, newt, or any other amphibian. I don’t have that power.

But I do have another power granted to me by the Written Word.

See, words have power. The power to create, to sustain, to build up, and to grant freedom. Take the United States Declaration of Independence for example. Written in 1776, this document explained why 13 colonies sought to free themselves from the Kingdom of Great Britain.

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

You can’t tell me those two paragraphs are simply a well-connected string of words and punctuation. Those words have meaning. They, and the entire document that follows them, contain a power that has created a nation, has sustained that nation for over 200 years, has built up other countries that have sought independence, and has granted freedom to an unmeasurable number of men, women, and children.

People say magic doesn’t exist. Whenever I hear that claim, I ask them if they’ve ever read a book.

With all powerful things, there are neglectful people that use it haphazardly. And, of course, there are evil people that use it for abusive practices. Look at Twitter to see some of those abusive practices.

You might be thinking, “Jim, who are you to accuse us of abusing the power of the written word?” Because, dear reader: I’m a horrible practitioner of the written word. If you’ve read my past rants, you’ll know what I think of both James Patterson and the State of Michigan. Unlike the Founding Fathers, I’ve never used my power for good when it came to those two subjects.

Recently, I’ve been using it without thinking of the implications. The true curse of the written word is that it’s hard to interpret a message from a friend. I remember when I was married, my wife accused me once that I didn’t love her. It was on a way home from work. She was sitting in the passenger seat of our van and I was driving. She was abnormally silent, and I knew something was up. You could always tell when she was angry about something when she was quiet. Silence, in this case, was deadly.
After spending some time coaxing her into talking, she responded that I hadn’t ended a text with “I love you.”

It didn’t help that I laughed when she said that. I couldn’t help it. I thought I’d accidently done something wrong. After a few more minutes of driving in silence (her anger had renewed and grown after my outburst of laughter), she informed me that when I had texted back “Sure, Taco Bell sounds good” and I had left out those essential three words, the message was interpreted that while I loved Taco Bell, I somehow didn’t love her. So, after that day, I’d always text back with those three words. Even when I was indisposed. Example: “I’ll be downstairs in a minute. I’m using the bathroom… I love you.”

It’s been my experience that I often text something I think it funny, but when others read it, they are offended, confused, or think I’m serious. That’s why if I ever text you, you’ll usually receive another text saying “lol jk.” For those that don’t know lol means laugh out loud and jk means just kidding.

It hits me hard when I hear back from people that I’ve offended them by something I’ve texted. I recently hurt someone close to me due to this. It’s painful for them, and it’s painful for me.

Texting someone is convenient, but we lose something in the translation between word of mouth and the written word. That’s the true curse of the written word.

As Uncle Ben once said to one of my favorite superhero’s: “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

Treat the power you have. Don’t trick people with it.

Finding the Time to Read

With only about 93 (at the time of this writing) days left in the year, I fear I’m going to fail another one of my New Year Resolutions I had made just 272 days ago. I’d failed just about every other resolution too, but this one was the one that I thought I’d be able to finish. It was the goal of reading 50 books in 2019. So far, I’ve finished 23 books this year. I keep track in my Goodreads app. If you’ve never tried GoodReads, I highly suggest it. If a group of librarians decided to get together and create a social media app, then that’s Goodreads.

Sidenote, follow me on Goodreads here.

There’s a quote from Stephen King I always like to pull out and dust off when people ask me what’s the big deal about reading. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

As writers, we must keep our skills sharpened. One way of doing that is reading books of different genres. By doing this, writers glean nuggets of wisdom from within the pages of those books. Examples of what to do, and what not to do. That means reading books that aren’t great.

One of the problems about reading is that it seems like I never have the time to actually sit down and enjoy it.

I remember when Stephen King released The Dark Tower. It was the very last book in his Dark Tower series. It came out Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2004. I graduated from high school in 2004 and had recently started college at IUSB. At that time, I was also working at the gas station in North Liberty. Back then it was still Citgo, right before they changed ownership to LuckyMart. Getting back on track, that weekend after the book was released, I had the weekend off. I’m not too sure how I was that lucky, maybe it was Ka (only fans of the book would get that). I read the entire book, all 845 pages, in that single weekend. I remember where I spent most of that weekend. It was on the couch of our living room (at the time I was still living at home). I remember crying at both sad and happy moments of the book. I also remember feeling that sense of shock at reading the ending of King’s magnum opus.

Having a weekend off is a rarity now a days.

King once said that books are “uniquely portable magic.” It’s important that we don’t forget that. As adults, we need to remember that and take time out of our day to read. It’s tough trying to find the time to read. As we get older, our lives get more complicated and we have more commitments and sometimes we just don’t have the time.

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Listen to audiobooks while to and from work. I work about 30 minutes away from where I live. That’s about an hour of book consumption each day. Typically, books can last from four to seven hours. It depends on the length of the book. Think about this. There’s no commercials and no songs you don’t like. Whenever I look at what to listen to, I normally go for series. This spring I burned through the entirety of The Lunar Chronicles written by Marissa Meyer. When you get a talented voice actor that can enchant you mixed with superb storytelling, you’ll never want to press the pause button. Currently, I’m in book three of The Chronicles of Narnia (The Horse and His Boy).

 

  • Read an ebook on your phone. Waiting in line. Arriving at a movie theater a few minutes before the film starts. Sitting in the lobby of a busy BMV because you were too lazy to make an appointment. Eating dinner at a restaurant by yourself because that blind-date stood you up. All of these situations can be made better by reading an ebook. The great thing about an ebook is that you don’t need to have the Kindle app. There’s a variety of apps that’ll allow you to read books. And if you have a library card, then there’s Hoopla and Overdrive. Read my earlier post about the benefits of a library card here.

 

  • Sitting on the toilet. Let’s be completely honest we each other. There’s nothing to do except your “business” when you’re in the bathroom. Why not bring a paperback? Instead of playing Candy Crush on your phone (don’t deny it), just open up your Kindle app and read a few pages. Please be a little courteous, don’t take a borrowed book into the bathroom. That’s a bit icky. And, it’s probably not the first time that borrowed paperback has seen the bathroom. You didn’t think those were chocolate pudding stains, did you?

 

That’s it for this week. I know, it’s a shorter rant then what you’re usually used to, but I was too busy reading. See what I did there? Now go read something!

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: 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.