Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: A Writer's Retrospective

At the beginning of each new year I set goals:  some personal, some relational, some professional.  And I also gaze back in self-analysis to see how well I did in reaching the goals of the previous year.

As far as my 2013 goals are concerned, I did stretch myself in new ways and in most instances either achieved or surpassed the goals I had set.  Two of my 2013 goals, however, still need work: 

1. I did get into great physical shape through the summer for instance, but have gained 10 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas . . . so this weight has to come off in January!

2. I had set a goal of spending more time with my wife, but with her new job, a full slate of adults in the house, and my ministry and writing goals pressing over the top, this never happened.  And we even shed the TV in 2013 and spent very little time watching movies.

As for my other 2013 goals, I worked hard at raising a lot of money, writing grants, and working with new families at church.  Calvary grew again in 2013, and we achieved several milestones as a congregation, including many professions of faith, baptisms, and a solid plan for growth in the coming years.

As for writing . . . my best year ever.  Including:   

* Published/wrote and-or contracted to write 7 books in 12 months.
* Published at least 120 essays or stories in magazines/journals (I lost count at 120 and will have to do a better job with my record-keeping this year).
* Published around a dozen poems in various journals (again, not sure of the actual count, I just don't remember).

Also, as I calculate my word count for 2013, I think I've easily written over 250,000 words, most for publication. 

And here's another little tidbit I was thinking about:  of the 250,000 words published in 2013, I think my wife read less than 1% of them.  I'm not complaining, mind you (I don't expect her to read what I write).  My family read 0% of what I wrote (but I don't expect them to read my material either, since they lived through it).

In essence, the only persons to read my material in 2013 were the editors/publishers who published my work (or will) and the 3-4 loyal readers who keep me afloat.  I'll also give special thanks to the lady at the check-out counter at CVS pharmacy who sold me that 5-pound bag of black licorice during my dark night of the soul when I was completing my Big Boy. 

Now, enough blogging.  Onward and upward.  I've got a lot of stretching to do in 2014.  

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve Story 2013

Dear Friends,
For many years I have written a Christmas Eve story as a gift to the congregation.  I hope you enjoy this one, entitled, "Up the Chimney".  But most of all I hope you have a merry Christmas, the peace of Christ, and all of the blessings of the new year.


Elrod’s wife had taped the “To Do” list to the refrigerator door.  She knew he would be sleeping late and would, in his usual Saturday fashion, be roaming around the house in his underwear until noon. But her sense of equality had produced the list.  After all, if she had to brave the December elements and the wild furry of the Christmas shoppers at the mall, she wanted to make sure he would be producing a reciprocal effort around the house.
            Her list was long: “Hang Christmas lights on gutters”; “Scrub toilets”; Mop floors”; “Dust stairway rail”; “Bring up Christmas decorations from basement”;  “Shovel steps”; “Water poinsettias”; “Hang stockings on mantle”.   And Elrod noted that his wife, Erma, had added at the bottom of the list—in no veiled threat—“I’ll be home by 8 tonight.  Have everything finished.  And I mean it!”

            Elrod wasn’t frightened of his wife, exactly.  They had, after all, been married for forty-two years and had managed to expedite three kids out of the house while welcoming two grand-children into the mix.  But yet, all things considered, the thought of tangling with a pitbull was preferable to sparing with his wife.  After forty-two years, he’d lost the will to resist and most of his pluck had been digested into bowls of ice cream and consumed by the attentions of his stock portfolio.  Elrod reviewed his wife’s “To Do” list and after soaking his morning toast in buttermilk he cinched his bathrobe around his thickening waist and hastened to fulfill his Saturday destiny.
            The morning was cold—of sub-zero variety—and Elrod could sense the heavy breathing of the furnace as he slid the dial on the thermostat.  The vents puffed and Elrod set out to accomplish his tasks—shuffling about from room to room in his house-slippers as he scratched himself where he needed to be scratched and ignored the cold draft crawling up his backside after he tossed his underwear into the clothes hamper.  First, he brought up the Christmas decorations from the basement—all twelve boxes—and then watered the poinsettias with the remaining dregs of his morning buttermilk.  He scrubbed the toilet and then, in a spirit of protest and a final display of male vulnerability, lowered the seat as his wife had instructed him.

            A few minutes later, hunched over one of the boxes he had brought up from the basement, Elrod cinched his robe again and rummaged through the contents until he found the fireplace stockings.  His wife had always been a stickler for tradition and he knew, by sight and memory, where each stocking was to hang on the mantle.
            Elrod removed his wife’s stocking first—the longest—and examined it carefully for wrinkles.  He recalled that one year he had been forced to flatten, by the careful ministrations of a white-hot iron, each stocking under his wife’s stern and watchful gaze.  He did not want a repeat performance this Christmas, and so he decided to preview the stockings on the mantle before he hung them for keeps.

            Padding over to the fireplace, Elrod draped his wife’s stocking on the mantle in order to examine the substantial volume he would be expected to fill. But there, pondering his future, he suddenly chilled to the cold sweep of air spiraling between his legs and heard, somewhere in the recesses of the chimney, the chirping of birds.  “Lord,” he thought.  He had forgotten to net the chimney in the spring and it had now been infiltrated with starlings.
            Considering the age of the house, Elrod excused himself for this oversight and reasoned that, indeed, the birds could have flown in and built nests by another route—a crack in the masonry, perhaps, or by some hole in the foundation.  And because he had not yet built the first fire of the season, there was no reason for them to fly to coup.

            Retreating to find a flashlight in the pantry, Elrod returned and knelt at the fireplace.  He gazed up into the dark hole where, thirty feet above him, a sliver of sunlight smiled at him through the rusted face of the broken flue.  As he aimed the flashlight into the blackened bricks he once again heard chirping, and when the beam of light hit the nest—a circle of sticks shelved on a small outcropping—the birds went silent.  Still, he could see them up there, and it wouldn’t take much to scatter them.
            Exasperated by the inconvenience, and by the draft of cold air feeding through the broken flue, Elrod struggled to right himself inside the chimney and then stood on trembling knees as he raked his head and back against the sharp edges of the interior bricks.  He had not yet showered, and he reasoned he might be able to repair the flue after dispensing with the birds.  It was an old chimney with many flaws—along with years of residue—and he had not employed a chimney sweep in over a decade. 

            As he managed to pull his arms above his head in the stifling confines of the chimney, Elrod boosted himself by stepping on the iron cradle and hoisted his weight toward the nest with his free hand.  He inched upward, the tight space helping to disperse his weight, and as he propped his other foot on the chain that operated the flue , he felt a swell of confidence in his reach.  He shined the flashlight with his left hand and made a move.
            But suddenly, as he reached for the nest, the chain disintegrated under the arch of his foot and he found himself hanging, precariously, inside the chimney—three feet off the ground.  To make matters worse, his robe had caught on the hardened edges of the hundred-year-old mortar and as his weight had shifted to the front, his arms were pressed above his head in a helpless position.

            He was stuck.  Big time.
            His first inclination was to cry out for help—but the closest neighbor was a thousand yards away.  There was only the cold to contend with—and the sliver of sunlight to appreciate.  And since he didn’t want to rake the flesh from his back and legs struggling to break free, Elrod decided to settle into the chimney and make a day of it.
            He’d already had his breakfast, the morning was almost gone, and if Erma was true to her word—as she always was—he could expect to find relief in eight hours.  Elrod wedged the shimmering flashlight between his palm and the brick fa├žade and stared at the nest where, just inches beyond his reach, a chorus of three small starlings stared down at him through beaked and beaded eyes. 

            “Hello, fellas,” he said aloud, admiring the flat tone of his voice inside the tiny space. 
            An hour passed, maybe three.  Elrod found it difficult to measure time in the darkness, his breath evaporating in the creosote sweetness of year-old ash.  He sang a chorus of “Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall” and hummed four bars of the “Stars and Stripes Forever.”  After a time of silence, he made the switch to Christmas carols and attempted to remember all of the words to “Silent Night”, recalling how, many years before, his son had sang “brown John Virgin” and “sleep in heavenly peas” at a piano recital. 

            Elrod laughed.  He sighed.  And then he wept momentarily over his predicament, tinged with embarrassment, and began to feel the weight of his age defined by the twinges in his joints.  But when he came to his senses he was singing “Ave Maria” at the top of his lungs.  And that’s when one of the birds pooped on his head.
            Elrod, startled by the dot of warmth on his cheek, offered up the question:  “Anything else, Lord?”  And then he fell asleep.

            Elrod dreamed.  He was in flight, arcing high over the winter trees, the world a wonder of snow.  He was not visited by spirits, but was spirit set free from his moorings.  He dreamed that he was dreaming, knew he was dreaming in some darkened shell of memory—and yet he did not want to leave his fancy.  What was it that held him there?  Love, perhaps.  Or some deeper appreciation of the indefinable, which was life and serendipity and the awe of the familiar.  He, like Erma, did not like change—and they had outlived the usefulness of the drafty old house, no longer able to care for its tired rafters and slumping masonry.  He wondered if they had outlived each other, too. But he dreamed himself into peace.
            And then he woke. 

            When he opened his eyes, startled by the sound of footsteps in the living room, Elrod cleared his mind and then blurted out a faint “help!” He cried louder on his second helping.  And then he heard his wife’s voice.
            “Where are you?” she asked.

            “Up here,” he bellowed.  “Up the chimney!”
            Elrod could feel the hot stare of his wife as she peered up into the cavity and gasped.  Her voice was swallowed by his open robe, but through some of her indecipherable gibberish he heard her say, “Now if that isn’t a sight for a woman may age!  No pants . . . and stuck inside the chimney!  And believe you me, buster, you ain’t no Santy Claus!”

            What was it she felt, he wondered?  Rage?  Delight?  Or some perverted sense of incredulity? 
            “Just get me out of here!” he yelled.

            “And how do you propose I do that?” he heard her say.
            He was wondering the same. Had been wondering it, in fact, for the bulk of the day.  “Get the three-footer!  The step stool.  I need something to stand on.”

            The batteries in the flashlight had died during his nap, and Elrod fidgeted painfully in the darkness, hoping against hope that the birds had flown away after they had defiled him.  He wasn’t a Freudian, but he wondered how the implications of this day would play out in the remaining years of his marriage.  Perhaps his wife had seen too much—even through three childbirths—and now all that remained of him was the memory of an open robe and a compelling story that she would recount, over and over again, to her gaggle of friends.
            A minute later Elrod felt a pressure beneath his right foot—a great relief to his spine—and as he pressed his weight back against the chimney he eased out of the sticking-points and released.  Helplessly, the scraps of his torn robe were left dangling inside the pipe-cleaner confines of the chimney.  As he eased himself out, stooping like some Neanderthal without benefit of a loin cloth, Erma was there to greet him with stern instructions.

            “You get a fire going,” she said hurriedly, “and I’ll make some hot chocolate.  You’re blue all over.”
            Elrod made no move to cover himself.  What was the point?  If he had work to do and hot chocolate to drink, he might as well grovel in the ashes like Job.  Reaching up inside the chimney, he pulled his robe loose from its moorings, wiped his face, and then stoked a fire with the scraps.  If the birds had not flown by now, he reasoned, he would smoke them out.

            A warmth glowed.  Elrod hunched over the fire, considered how this scenario had already been played out during the Pleistocene, when the first man had discovered flame and stood round it with admiration.  He cursed the nitwit who had invented the first bath robe, and then understood why his wife always filled his Christmas stocking with fresh underwear.   He wondered if his wife would take snapshots of his backside and post an update on Facebook. 
            Momentarily his wife returned with two mugs filled with steaming Swiss Miss and she didn’t say a word as she sat on the couch and faced the fire.

            “I would appreciate it,” Elrod said, “if you didn’t mention this to the neighbors.”
            His wife, saddened by the implications, suddenly burst into laughter.  “If you aren’t a sight, Elrod,” she said.  “Reminds me of our wedding night.”

            “Is that all?” he asked.  “Stuck in a chimney all day.  Defiled by birds.  Breathing in year-old smoke fumes.  And all you can think about is our honeymoon?”
            “I can think of more,” she said, “but you couldn’t do anything about it.”

            He moved to the couch and kissed her.  She smiled, and then sipped her hot chocolate.  She was about to suggest more.  Even considered it.  It was Christmas, after all, and very near their forty-third wedding anniversary.  Still, there was so much to do.  Christmas would not wait.  The stockings had not yet been hung by the chimney with care.
            Elrod propped a pillow on his lap and sipped his hot chocolate.

            The fire glowed.
            And then Erma turned to him, beaming, and asked, “Well, but have you finished that list?”


Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Outcalt Christmas Letter

Merry Christmas from The Outcalts            

We hope that 2013 was a year of blessings for everyone, and as we prepare for a new year, perhaps we can pause to reflect on the true source of our happiness. Here are a few of our blessings of the past year.

Chelsey and Michael Janney had a year to remember.  Soon after signing a new lease in Bloomington, Chelsey found herself transitioning from her first-year teaching job at Helmsburg Elementary School (Brown County) to a new Indianapolis charter school, The Phalen Leadership Academy (teaching Kindergarten). Michael continues to live in Bloomington—working at the bank and completing more classes toward his degree.  And with Chelsey moving back “home” with parents, these two have done well having a long-distance marriage.  Still, many blessings, and we trust that Michael and Chelsey will celebrate 2014 as the “year of the move” (again).  Naturally, if you want to reach them, you can send all correspondence to Mom & Dad’s address in Brownsburg. 

Logan completed a year at Vincennes University, but in August decided to move back home to pursue other interests.  Through November he was engaged in a variety of work, including internet marketing, lawn care, odd jobs, and organic farming—not to mention filling out job applications (including the Indianapolis Zoo).  The zoo, in fact, is where we think he belongs!  But then it happened—in mid-November Logan interviewed for a sales position at Defender Direct (a home-security company) and a week later was offered a job, which he accepted.  We are proud of Logan and give thanks to God for his new adventure and for this new season in his life.    

Becky continued her role as assistant principal at Lebanon Middle School through mid-November.  And then it happened:  the day before Logan accepted his sales position, Becky began her new job as Interim Principal at Central Elementary in Lebanon.  What a November it was!   In addition to dealing with a multitude of educational changes this year, and attending many sporting events, Becky was most excited about a kitchen renovation at home.  She was also excited, briefly, about the empty-nest—and the idea of spending every evening alone with Todd—but the empty nest is now full again (see above two entries about the adult children and use your imagination).  Becky also organized a superb summer vacation in Michigan where we hosted the entire family over the 4th of July, and she is now busy planning a 30th wedding anniversary trip to Europe next summer (preferably with Todd).
Todd is completing his 10th year as lead pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Brownsburg.  Many changes and blessings in ministry this year, with great people, super-duper staff, and a growing church, including a mission trip to Guatemala.  He has also enjoyed his most productive year as a writer—ever.  All told, he will have completed or contracted for seven books in less than twelve months, but also had more than 100 essays and stories published in 2013.  He has had no life (and no sleep).  His published books in 2013 include, Ten Things You Need to Know about Breast Cancer, For the Love of God, and Husband’s Guide to Breast Cancer.  When he grows up he wants to be a writer . . . and dreams of having more time to sleep with Becky ( at least for eight hours—and we’re talking about sleep here!  They are, after all, too tired to do anything else).            

Merry Christmas!  May God bless you family in 2013.                                                

Friday, December 20, 2013

Doctoring the New Year

Looking ahead to 2014, I note that I have several science fiction stories under consideration.  I had three science fiction stories published in 2013 and hope to improve upon that in the new year. 

Recently, I received a lengthy feedback from a science fiction editor regarding one of my stories--a piece that I'm going to have to rewrite extensively in order for it to fit the hard science the editor noted as missing or contradictory to fact.  But I appreciate feedback like this . . . and obviously this editor took the time to read my entire story.

2014 is going to be an interesting journey.  What with all of the deadlines, pitfalls, paths and potentialities . . . I will need to keep my imagination running wild, too.

I'm not sure about time travel, but it would help if I could live some days twice.  Or clone myself.  Or type on two keyboards simultaneously.

But WHO can do that?   

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Annual Christmas Story

Last year, following on the heels of my annual Christmas Eve story, I received several comments from people who said, "I miss your humor.  When are you going to write a funny Christmas Eve tale?"

Well, this is the year.

But instead of publishing the story and giving it out to the congregation on Christmas eve, I'll be publishing it here . . . on this blog.  I'll be posting the story on Christmas Eve, December 24, around 3 p.m.

And the story?  Let me prepare you.  It's warped.  It's a howler. It has everything you'd ever want in a Christmas eve story, including Christmas decorations, snow, and a chimney.  But people wanted funny.

So, now you know.  Christmas Eve.  December 24th.  3 p.m.  Right here on this same bat channel. 

Oh, and if you want to hear my Christmas eve sermon (which has less humor in it), you can find me at Calvary at 5, 7 & 9 p.m.  The sermon title: "Homecoming".  And if you've been away from your church home too long, I hope you'll return. 

The porch light is on and the door is open.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Big Boy

I just finished my Big Boy . . . which is to say, the largest book manuscript I have ever written.  It's nearly 500 pages, complete with bibliography, glossary, appendices, and footnotes.  It's a Big Boy.  And I wrote the 90,000-word manuscript in nine months (that's 10,000 words a month according to my limited mathematical abilities).

But now that the Big Boy manuscript is complete, I can focus on Short Stuff for a few months.  I've got other Big Boys waiting in the wings, but I need a break.  I can only bite off so much at a time.

I'm grateful for the Big Boy . . . it's a book that will likely be published at the tail end of 2014, a hardback that may be translated into other languages and cross-over between academia and a general audience.  Or, at least, that's the plan.

Still, I'm glad to have the Big Boy behind me.  No doubt I'll have to work with the editor and publisher on this book throughout 2014, and that's often the tougher writing, but at least the submittable draft is complete and now I can press on toward other goals.

And speaking of goals, I've got to schedule an appointment with my wife.  I haven't seen much of her this year.  I wonder what she has been up to?  Word has it that she has a new job.  I wonder . . . would she like to go to Burger King for dinner?    

Friday, December 13, 2013

Publisher Packages (or, Cutting the Cheese)

I am always humbled during this season by the many cards and letters I receive from distant friends and relatives.  I read them all, and I am also grateful for the unexpected gifts that arrive via UPS or Federal Express:  boxes of fruit, cans of nuts, lengths of sausage, tins of cookies.  These gifts make the season all the brighter for my family and are cause for celebration and gratitude.

Yesterday I received an unexpected gift, however:  a large box filled with an assortment of good eating and a fisherman's fillet knife.  The source?  One of the many magazine publishers I write for . . . and in this case an outdoor sportsman's magazine.  (Thank you, Gene!)

I would like to say that I am an expert on outdoor fishing and gaming--but the truth is, I'm like that German sergeant on Hogan's Heroes:  I know nussing!  Which makes my contributions to the magazine all the more intriguing.  I have to learn about my subject matter . . . I have to explore the woods, the lake, the river, or the tackle box as I go.  In this case, I'm always breaking writer's rule #1--which is commonly stated as, "Write about what you know."  But in my case, I'm writing about what I don't know.  But I revel in discovery.

I thank the publisher for this surprising Christmas gift and the size of it.  I should be sending him gifts, though.  He has it backwards.  

In 2014 I hope to be a contributor once again.  I hope to be a regular.  I've now written articles on fly fishing for smallmouth bass, on Indiana beavers, on Great Lakes charter fishing, antique tackle, and ice fishing safety.  But there's always more to learn.  The world is huge, and that's about the size of it.

In the meantime, if I ever do catch a fish (or buy a fishing rod, which might be a pre-requisite now that I think about it) . . . I hope to use the fillet knife.

Or I wonder . . . would that knife work on cheese?  I have a large block of cheddar on the kitchen counter.  And I haven't cut the cheese in a week!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Writing Small

I've never had a problem with writing small.  In fact, I'll write most anything . . . even if the pay is miniscule and the exposure slim.  I have a depression-era mentality and a mind that works as follows:

Me to my wife:  "I just finished writing an article on ice-fishing safety."
Becky:  "But you don't fish.  You aren't safe to live with."
Me:  "The editor says he'll pay."
Becky:  "How much?"
Me:  "Thirty dollars for a thousand words."
Becky:  "But how long will it take you to write that?"
Me:  "Just a few minutes.  What's a thousand words?"
Becky:  "Is it worth your time?"
Me:  "Thirty bucks . . . that's a meal, a half tank of gas, two bags of Starbucks coffee, a nice bottle of wine."
Becky:  "I've never looked at it that way."
Me:  "Well, look at it that way!  Next week I'm writing a piece about fleas."
Becky:  "But you don't know anything about fleas.  You haven't had fleas for years."
Me:  "No, but I've had ticks.  I could write an article about that.  You know, how to attract ticks, how to feed them, how to fatten 'em up.  There's gotta be money in that.  At least thirty dollars."

Small stuff.  I like those assignments.  And since few writers will take them, I say the more the merrier.  Like gnats. 

I love the idea of an infestation. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Fitness in a Bottle

On my office desk I display an assortment of bottles--each containing their respective emollients, benefits and miracles.  Daily, I consume flax seed oil for cholesterol, Vitamins C & E, Glucosamine (for joint repair), and even Saw Palmetto (an herb, with the appearance of marijuana, that is regarded as a key ingredient for prostate health).  I often begin my day by consuming this magical mix of pills . . . and soon afterwards, I sit down to write.

There's no telling what these vitamins and minerals actually do, but in certain cases, I swear by their benefits.  My shoulders and knees feel much improved, for example, after I began swallowing Glucosamine, and I swear my wrists and fingers hold up better under the strain of typing.

But I have always taken supplements.

As a teen, I followed the "Rocky" way and consumed whole eggs, cracked raw out the shell into an open mouth, and in the late 1970s and early 80's I ate desiccated liver tablets, brewer's yeast tablets, and dried milk as a primary source of protein (ala Arnold Schwarzenneger).  Now, I consume the pills in order to stay alive.

Although writing itself is not an aerobic activity, I have discovered that it is important for me to keep my back, knees, and shoulders in good condition.  All of these areas of the body (including the oft neglected abdominals, which I force into submission through hundreds of crunches, jackknives, and hanging leg raises each week) have a direct correlation with being able to sit for long hours in front of a computer.  Neglect the core, and I feel a slippage of output along the outer synapses of the body. 

I'm not sure if there is a direct correlation between these pills and my overall health, but I have not been ill with the flu for over fifteen years, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have experienced a cold deep enough to warrant a sick day.  It could be the pills, or superior genetics, or even my wife's cooking.  Or, perhaps, it's just dumb luck.  But at any rate, I like to think that the pills land me in good health.

That, and I really like the thought of "popping pills".  It sounds so tough, and all of those pills makes me feel like I have a long future as a writer.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Mother of All Mondays

Monday.  The Mother of All Mondays.

Very early this morning I completed two book projects, over 100,000 words all told, and sent the newly-minted manuscripts to their respective editors.  I can't recall ever sending a larger volume of work out on any single day.  But it's a huge relief, too.  100,000 words . . . final-draft-ready-and-done.

There is, of course, a long waiting period between the delivery of manuscripts and the publication date.  I don't know either at this point.  And so, while I'm waiting, I keep writing.  I move on to other projects.  I oil the keys. 

Will I ever deliver 100,000 words again?  I hope so.  I plan to. 

But I might take a brief sabbath, too.

Or, I might read a book.  Preferably one written by someone else.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sleepy Town

For some reason, I've been meeting an increasing number of people who know me as "The guy who never sleeps."  I even met someone last week for the first time (a stranger) who said to me in our initial conversation:  "Oh, I've heard of you . . . you're that guy who never sleeps."

Well, but I do sleep.

Let me explain.

Yes, it is true that I often rise very early in the morning to begin writing.  But this is only because I am an idiot . . . and because I must.   Believe me, I would much rather rise when my wife does (at 5:30 a.m.)  I don't really enjoy getting up at 3 a.m., or at 4:30, or at any time when it is dark.  I don't enjoy being the first person at the gym when it opens at 5 a.m.  Actually, I only do these things to impress my wife, so she won't feel that she is working harder than me (though she does!).  I get up early so my two grown children, and my son-in-law, will continue to love and respect me.  If I sleep late, or allow them to beat me to the coffee pot, then I must settle for Tang . . . and Tang is getting more difficult to find these days since the space program has been de-funded and Nestle discontinued manufacturing "Space Sticks".  (Remember those?)

It is also true that I often stay up late to write.  But again, this is only because I have no life and because my wife and I only couple two times per year (if we happen to think of it or if I can talk her into the mix with chocolates and flowers).  Yes, I would prefer to go to bed early (and with my wife).  I don't like writing at night until Ted Koppel's show airs at 1 a.m. (Wait . . . is Koppel still living?)  It is difficult to write in a dream state, but then, that's when a lot of my science fiction really comes alive, when I can't distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality. 

Now, some of you may think my life is a fantasy . . . but I assure you that I do eat, and drink, and sleep and everything.  Sometimes I eat a bag of licorice.

And yes, I do sleep.  Eventually this pace lands me on the couch, and sometimes I fall asleep behind the wheel of the car and arrive at my destination, my gas tank filled at Sunoco . . . and I have no idea how I got there or why I am eating a Krispy Kreme doughnut.  Sometimes I wake up in the morning to discover that I have slept until 8 a.m. and have missed two writing deadlines.  I have to call these editors and apologize for my delinquency and beg for second-chances.  I eat another Krispy Kreme and wonder how or when an entire box appeared.

So, as you can see . . . I do sleep.  Probably not as much as the average weirdo, but I do sleep.  It's just that my sleep is like a patchwork quilt--I have to piece my sleep together out of irregular patches of time, or stitch a full night's sleep out of two oddly-cut days, and sometimes I have to sew my fingers together so that I can relax. 

Chances are, if you called me at 3 a.m., I'd be writing.  But then, I might also be sleeping.  So don't call.  Not unless you want to meet at Krispy Kreme . . . and you're buying!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Writer Vs. Author

Perhaps there is a moment in every life where one realizes the truth about oneself.  This truth could arrive in the form of lost loves, or forfeited opportunities, or even in the aftermath of some enormous success. 

This year has proven to be that type of realization for me: at least when it comes to certain aspects of my personality and the forces that have shaped my life.

For example, in 2013 I finally realized that I am--and probably always will be--a writer, but not an author.  Authors, after all, have recognizable names, high-profile agents or editors, and have enough contractual clout to warrant a modicum of lifestyle that might feature a change of venue or perhaps an ability to create the next book in relative ease, where all things can be considered and weighed and eventually committed to the page, or even surreptitiously abandoned.

Authors are people who get to write during the daylight hours, perhaps after sleeping late and enjoying a leisurly breakfast followed by a light workout . . . before they sit down to write.

Writers--writers like me--are quite another breed, however.  As a writer, I know that my production (and the rate of it) is the centerpiece of my work.  As a writer, I don't have the option of sleeping late, or enjoying a leisurely breakfast or a light workout.  Rather, my options are fewer.  Drive--and the strength of fortitude and commitment--must win the day if I am to have any hint of "success".  

As a writer, I realize that my work has never been top-tier.  I have no best-sellers, no Top Ten blogs read by thousand of readers, no recognitions to speak of.  Every new contract must be won by sheer force of labor.  To acheive anything as a writer, I must out-write, and sometimes out-wit the more talented authors.  And most often, as my parents taught me and told me as a child, I will not win the day by force of intellect, but by force of habit.  Discipline is paramount for the writer.  Hours and hours of practice.  A writer cannot operate with the mantra, "Early to bed, early to rise" . . . but must rise early and work late. A writer is someone who is willing to write, bearing up under the seemingly insurmountable weight of words and the ideas conveyed through them.  Writers cannot parse time or waste it.  Writers turn five minutes into a poem, or thirty minutes into an essay.  Writers must work.

I cannot explain how or why I have come to this realization.  I wish it were otherwise.  I would prefer to be an author, sipping champaign and hob-knobbing with socialites upon the release of my latest title.  But the truth is, I am a writer, and as soon as one book is completed, there is no time to celebrate its publication or even bask in its appearance on the shelf.  As soon as one book is completed, another begins.  

Thank God there are still publishers out there (and their respective editors) who appreciate writers like me . . . guys (and gals) who can get the job done, who grovel in the dirty business of writing these tens of thousands of mid-list books that carry the publishing industry forward.

I realize I am a writer (and not an author) because I have to push myself to the limit every day.  I have deadlines to meet (and thank God, many of them).  I have to rise early, gulp coffee, and then punish myself in the gym so that my energies and body will not wane, but will hold up under the obligations that have been assigned to me:  the writer.  I return home each day, usually having already written and worked a full load, only to sit once again in the dark and write forward through the evening hours until a new day arrives.  And then, it begins again when I rise a few hours later.  

But I realize authors don't do this.  Writers do.  

At 53 years of age, I realize that the trajectory of my life is unlikely to change.  And I'm not sure I would change it if the opportunity presented itself.  I've been a writer now for over 40 years.  Old habits die hard.

I'm not an author.  I'm a writer.  

I was a writer in 2013.

I will be a writer in 2014, too.      

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Date Me

It's official.  On May 8, 2014, I'll be leading another writing class.  (Location: our Indiana Conference office complex, 9 a.m. -3 p.m.)

Cost: A bargain basement price which includes a Panera Bread catered lunch. 

Who:  Anyone who enjoys writing, has a writing project in tow, or anyone who has nothing better to do.

As a preview, here are just a few of the nuggets participants will receive.

Luxurious Presentation Room
     This fully-operational board room comes standard with carpeting and painted walls and is loaded with lots of extras including drop-lighted ceiling, portable desks, and padded chairs free of chewing gum.

Spacious Bathrooms
     A mere fifty yards down the corridor from the Presentation Room, these restrooms are fully loaded with paper towels and toilet paper (I'm talking plush). Don't sit down unless you have to . . . otherwise, you'll never want to leave.  Each restroom is fully operational and is "echo-free".  Designated "male" and "female" rooms are also a plus, meaning you won't have to mingle in some cut-rate "unisex" option.

Free Index Cards
     Each participant will receive a free index card courtesy of the presenter.  Although this is a highly-secretive procedure, each participant can be assured of receiving one.  Complementary.

Helpful Writing Tips
     This presentation comes fully-loaded, and will answer your most important and pressing writing questions such as:

* What happens if I fall asleep while writing and electrocute myself via salivating on the keyboard?

* What are the most effective ways to write underwater?

* What if my spouse continues to interrupt me while I am writing?  Is this grounds for divorce?  And if so, can you recommend a decent lawyer?

* What happens after I've written a 500-page novel?  Should I burn it?

* In order to project the most "writerly" image, what breed of dog would you recommend I have stuffed and mounted in my office?

* What steps should I take if, by becoming so engrossed in my work, I soil myself?

* How much can I expect to earn from selling my essay entitled, "Everyday Art:  How to Weave Dust Balls, Dryer Lint, and Month-Old Celery Into Priceless Works"?

* Can I get my money back if you stink?

I do hope to see YOU at the writing workshop.  Sign up soon at www.inumc.org.


Monday, December 2, 2013

TV or not TV

Shedding the TV in 2013 has been a remarkable experience.  What with the time I've saved by not watching news programs in the mornings, or sitcoms at night, I've managed to write a large corpus of material.  In fact, I stopped counting mid-year. 

Sure, there are some TV shows I've missed (Pawn Stars, Big Bang Theory) and I've watched even fewer hours of sports (think little NCAA basketball and not one Pacer game), but overall I'd have to say that the TV has become something of an artifact in our house.  Even my wife, son and daughter have eschewed the boob tube . . . and none of us seem to miss it.  But then, we all work long hours, too.

Most of my mornings and evenings have been spent at the keyboard. And I know that I wrote more in 2013 than I've written (and published) in any other year of my life.  In fact, I can look back from this high December perch and wonder:  "How, in fact, did I write over a quarter of a million words in one year?"

Answer:  One hour at a time.  And often, one minute at a time.

A few other gifts that my lack of TV offered this year were:

Single, longest writing session:  fifteen hours (I rented a hotel room for this extravaganza, turned off my cell phone, boiled a pot of coffee, opened a package of protein bars and peeled two bananas . . . and typed non-stop until my back and wrists gave out).  I wrote nearly 20,000 words of finished prose at this one sitting.

Longest manuscript produced:  a nearly 100,000 word whopper that I began writing on January 1, 2013, and completed December 1.

Most essays produced:  all told, over 125 in 2013, with most of these published.

Most conversations with editors and publishers:  Some of my conversations this year--and several face-to-face--were hours in duration.  And I am grateful for these new friendships!

Average number of writing hours per week:  Around 40.  Most of this time was early morning (pre-sunrise) and/or late at night (post-sunset).  I spent a lot of time writing in the dark.  Somehow, only a small percentage of my writing deals with depressing themes.  But depression may have more to do with TV than writing in the dark.  Most mornings I awoke eager to get at the next writing project. 

I'm not sure what all of this will mean for my TV in 2014, but I have a feeling that I'll be watching even less.  In fact, there may come a day when I won't need the tube at all.  I'll be able to wean myself cold turkey and just write. 

The next time Becky and I talk (which could be weeks from now) I'll have to see how she feels about donating the TV to Goodwill.  She probably wouldn't mind at all.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Guest Blogger

True to form, I am posting a guest blog today written by Mark Wilcoxson--his Thanksgiving story created from the six random items consisting of a magic lamp, a toilet brush, a tailpipe, hemmorhoids, dad's mustache trimmings and leftover turkey grease.  Tread lightly readers, this is a story for "Real Men" . . . and the full version can be found on Mark's Facebook page.

Call Me Ish-Male: A Thanksgiving Holiday Tale in the Man Genre
John rolled out of bed frustrated that his this-is-my-magic-lamp pl...
oy hadn’t worked, again.

John had a lot on his mind that morning after Thanksgiving. There was pecan pie in the fridge to be eaten and while John liked warm pecan pie now as much as he liked warm apple pie as a teenager, there was nothing better than the coagulation of pecan juices that takes place over night in a dark, or is it dark, refrigerator.
November means Thanksgiving of course, but recently the implementation of MoVember, that time of year when men grow mustaches for charity, had inspired John to grow a wispy blonde ‘stache that convinced him he could have been Larry Bird if his debilitating hemorrhoids hadn’t prevented him from sitting down on the bench during that sectional matchup with storied Milan and thus being dismissed from the basketball team on the spot for defying a direct order from Coach Watdahale.

Personal hygiene wasn’t something that John, as a male, normally worried too much about, but today he was taking his baby, a 1976 AMC Gremlin he called Patti, to Midas for a new exhaust pipe. An exhaust pipe; John stashed that away in the folds of his brain where he also never washed for tomorrow morning’s

(For more, visit Facebook)


Call me Ish-Male is to man-lore what Gail Sheehy is to estrogen.  Wilcoxson's toilet brush imagery puts one in the frame of mind to eat a twenty-ounce steak and is celebration for getting a 20-point inspection at Midas. 
~Bob Cobb (the "Maistro")

I was languishing as a male until I read Wilcoxson's masterpiece, and then I went from Dead-Beat Dad to Clint Eastwood in one fell swoop.  I couldn't put this one down, and I wasn't even holding it.  
~Ray McKidney (former hand model)

There are men, and then there are MEN.  Wilcoxson and his protagonist, John, take us on the adventure of a lifetime.  From the deep end of the bench, to the bathroom sink, to a greasy auto shop floor . . . this tale will stir your loins and make you want to sue somebody.
~Art Vandalay (circuit court judge)

Reading Wilcoxson's "Call Me Ish-Male" so close to Thanksgiving made me want to puke, which is a killer funny word.  Killer, Jerry!  It also made the thought of my demise more tolerable, which is something I will review with my mentor.  
~Kenny Banya (comic)  



Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Giving Thanks at the Keyboard

Not long ago I had reason to experience a flush of gratitude when I noted a gentleman in a hospital corridor who had lost an arm.  Seeing him there, fresh from his surgery but eager to be discharged, left me with an overwhelming sense of grace.  "There but for the grace of God go I," I said to myself.

In particular, I was thinking about the keyboard, and how difficult it would be to write without the use of arms and fingers.  There can even be thanksgiving over the keyboard, I thought.  This only makes sense to me.  After all, a great many years of my life have been poured through the keys (my time and my talent, I hope).

I also consider how far I've come or, I should say, how much technology has changed the act of writing during my lifetime. 

Years ago, I learned how to type on a manual Underwood--a machine created in the Pleistocene era that had to be pounded into submission in order to make a mark on the page.  Later, after IBM invented the Selectric, a new era dawned and the modus operendi was powered by electricity, deft to the touch.

My first PC--a Radio Shack Tandy 1000 with dual floppy drives (the berries!) and green monochrome monitor landed me in good stead for some years.  I printed from an interchangeable set of daisy wheels and shied away from the dot-matrix printers that, while offering speed, sacrificed the appearance of manual type.

This was followed by, in rather quick succession:  a full-fledged Compaq PC with media software, a Compaq PC with 3 1/2 floppy and hard drive (which I still use), and two Dell laptops, the youngest of which is my primary writing tool and is a whopping eight years young.

Between the Compaq and the latter Dell I've written at least thirty published books, no less than a thousand essays/stories, probably another thousand poems, and untold letters, emails, and blogs.  Well-worn, thread-bare, punished would be the operative words here for these two machines.

Still, I'm grateful for the keyboard, and still feel an elation at the stroke of a key or the appearance of a carefully-crafted sentence.  No doubt that the printing press followed by the PC would be two of the greatest inventions ever concocted by those who never sleep. 

One of these days I'll earn enough from a sale of an essay or a book to warrant purchasing a new PC.  Or perhaps one of these beasts will simply expire gracefully.  But until then, I'll continue to write, to give my royalties away, to have a reason for working into the sunrise. 

I can only hope I keep my fingers through the dark nights.  Somebody needs to write these blogs.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Speaking of Writing

Speaking of Writing . . . my calendar will soon be filled with so many speaking engagements, appearances, book-signings, and readings that I won't have time to write . . . which is what writing is about.  My December is rather flush now, but folks may see me at some of the few remaining bookstores, at some local open-mic nights, or at the Glick Museum for the author's fair late in the month.  (I'll be the lonely guy in the corner that no one is talking to.)

And peeking into 2014 (a mere seven weeks away gang!) I'll be offering some other writing workshops.  I enjoy assisting folks with their projects and helping others to make the connections.

At a Rotary meeting yesterday, where I spoke about being a writer (what could be more boring?), someone asked, "Have you ever suffered from writer's block?"

My answer was, "I don't think I have."

Oddly enough, I can't think of any time in my life when, if sitting down to write, I have come away empty-handed.  I have, however, suffered from other types of blockages such as:

Hamburger Helper Block
     This symptom occurs, usually, after I have cooked HH seven consecutive days for the family meal.  There is usually a revolt, with someone in the family suggesting I order Chinese take-out.  Anything!  But for the love of Mike no more Hamburger Helper! 

Hard Cheese Block
     This occurs if I have eaten too much cheddar.  Enough said.

Andy Griffith Block
      Not usually a factor, but sometimes my wife tries to hide my AG Show DVD's so I can't watch Earnest T. Bass.  She points out that I have seen each show at least twenty-five times and tries to block me from having romantic conversation kickstarted as a string of Barney Fife quotes.  (But listen, have you ever tried to woo a woman into bed by quoting Barney Fife?  It's quite the challenge!  Favorite romantic quote:  "From your head down to your feet, there is nothing half so sweet, as Nita, Nita, beautiful Juanite.")

Floodwater Block
     Occurs each spring when the creek rises at our house.

But enough of this . . . back to that blank page.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Be My Guest

In the coming weeks I will be a guest blogger for several sites, and I'm appreciative for the invitations.  But as I write for other blogs, I had a thought:  Would anyone want to be a guest blogger here?

How about it fans?  Anyone have a book to review?  A funny anecdote to share?  A point of writing advice you'd like to offer?  Or even some of your own writing that you'd like others to know about?

Keep in mind that over 4 1/2 people read this blog daily, so your exposure here would be life-changing.  If your blog is published, you will no longer have the ability to roam around in public without a disguise.  People will recognize you in the bathroom at Harry & Izzy's.  You won't be able to chew a decent mouthful of ravioli without being interrupted by some chain-smoker wanting an autograph.

Still . . . if there are people out there who want to roll the dice, please submit a guest blog for consideration to:


Blogs may also be submitted via snail mail to:

The Blogger Formerly Known as "Big Tater"
575 Northfield Dr.
Brownsburg, IN 46112    

I do invite you to be my guest.  And keep in mind that photos are also welcome.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Odd Balls

Now and again I type my name into Google search, and last week there were over 36,000 sites that popped up.  I have no idea how Google works, heck I don't even know what it is (like, who owns it or is Google better than the Dewey decimal system at the local library . . . ) but evidently whoever this Google guy is, he can locate just about anything that's floating on the clouds of the internet.

Among the weirder and surprising references I found for "me" were these:

* A site equating "Todd Outcalt" with the word Omnilexica @omnilexica.com.  Evidently, I'm part of the definition of this word, whatever it means.

* A writer who quoted me in the most recent issue of Cosmopolitan magazine in regard to marital advice.  Heck, my wife won't even listen to me, why should young women listen to my sexual advice?  And what do I know about sex, anyway?  Well, I know some things, like how to calendar it twice a year and save three and a half minutes for it, but other than that . . . .

* A church that calls themselves the "Bath" church that evidently is using He Said, She Said as part of their adult education curriculum.  Boy, I'll bet that place is lively.

* A literary magazine that recently published one of my short stories entitled "Tango" which contains a cover painting of an eviscerated corpse.  Evidently my fiction makes readers puke.

* A Portland, Oregon radio station that picked up one of the recent essays I wrote about leadership.  The radio station must have reprinted this essay, but made it look enticing by reprinting it in full-color.

* Text from a radio interview I did last year where the host asked for my advice about sex and marriage.  Again, I was just making stuff up, trying to sound authoritative on the air, and I guess the interviewer thought I was a real Casanova who could actually give advice to those young couples who still have energy for sexual activity.  I didn't get into specifics in this interview, but was just expressing a conceptual idea of sex, stuff that my mother told me about years ago but I've never had the guts to try.  My best advice for men at this stage of my life would be:  "Make sure you're healthy enough for sexual activity, and call a doctor if you have an erection lasting longer than six hours."  (Or, if you don't call your doctor, at least brag about it.)

* A website called DocStock, in which I learned that I had a total of 11 "views" of my book Candles in the Dark.  I have no idea what this is or what it means.

* A recommendation by the United Church of Canada for my book, The Best Things in Life Are Free.  Evidently the Canadian church likes this book.

* A reader's choice poll for a recent fiction issue (in which one of my stories appeared) and for which I received 0% of the vote.  

* A listing for the Polish edition of my book, The Healing Touch, on a Polish website.

* My name listed as the presiding pastor in an obituary (not my own obit, but another person presumed to be deceased).

* A church website containing the bio of a pastor who indicates my book, The Healing Touch, was one of the ten most impactful books in her life.  (Go figure.  And no . . . she is not a relative!)

* An out-of-print magazine that had published several of my stories back in the late 1990s.

* A Religion News Magazine that had recently reprinted/recommended an essay I wrote about ordination.  (But really, what do I know about ordination, other than that they are quite beautiful flowers, and I especially enjoy the white ones?) 

* A feature story about 4 women who dated 365 men over the course of one year--and one of them quotes me (again) on the importance of "intimacy" and "communication".  I don't know why these professional daters were looking to me for guidance, but I had to look up the word "intimacy" in the dictionary so I could spell it correctly.  Intimacy?  Heck, I've never been intimate with anyone, you can ask my wife.  We don't even talk about dinner, and the last time we discussed anything of an intimate nature we stopped immediately and went back to reading the newspaper.     
Anyway, you get the picture. Quite frankly, the deeper I went into Google, the scarier things were looking, and I didn't want to learn too much about myself.  I still want to remain a mystery to myself so that, when I look at myself in the mirror, I can say without fear of contradiction:  "I have no idea who you are . . . and why are you looking at me like that?"