Finding Your Voice



What I do when something smells just a bit presumptuous.

Yes, I know, this is primarily a writer’s blog, though I have been known to go off the rails topically now and again. I’ve seen a lot of other writer’s blogs and there are more than a few that seemed geared at telling you, the reader, how to write. Since very few of these blogs, including the one you’re currently reading,  are authored by anyone you’ve ever heard of, that has always smelled just a bit presumptuous to me.


Anyone who has read my blog at all will know that even when I am talking about writing, I generally just focus on my experiences in the craft, things I’ve done or thought about doing or wish I could do, (like sell a damn copy or two of my novels!) and much less on preaching to you, the reader, (yes I’m going to keep doing that all the way through), how I think you should go about writing your novel, short story, memoir, cook book, etc.

Today, at first glance, it may seem like I doing that. Because today I want to offer a teeny-tiny nugget of advice. Ok, it may continue to seem that way at second glance as well. Ok, all the glances.


This is me.

I’m not doing it because I think I’m “up here” and you, the reader, are “down there.” I’m doing it because I think it may be important and helpful.


Again, this is based on my experience and not some random, hair-brained theory that I dreamed up while mowing the lawn or something. (I live in a wonderful apartment complex and get my lawn mowed professionally, so that whole field of philosophical pondering is closed to me.) Because dig this, (as we used to say back when I started writing): I’ve been doing this for most of my life, and I’m starting to collect some significant years now. I’m not an NYT best selling author, but I know what I know, based on close to fifty years of putting words on paper. So now I’m letting you into the super-secret VIP lounge that is my mind. Don’t trip over the broken floorboards.

In all of that time, I’ve learned many lessons pertaining to this craft, but there are two that rise high above all the others.

  1. Stay true to the story
  2. Find your voice

I’ll talk briefly about the first, then drone on and on for hours about the second, (that’s a Monty Python reference… I’m not really going to do that to you, the reader.)

Stay True to the Story

Staying true to the story, as I define it, means worry a whole hell of a lot less about what other people, including you, the reader or in this case the writer, think should happen. Yes, I include the writer in the list of people to ignore. A story is a road map from point “A” to point “Z”, with many stops along the way, and anyone, to some extent, can write one. But a good story, while still satisfying the “A” to “Z” criteria, will have a life of its own, and it may not give a damn about your road map. If you’re writing along, whistling like Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat Willie,” and you suddenly encounter something in your story that you did not anticipate, there’s a very good chance that it’s exactly what was missing. And you, the writer, did not even realize it. Someone may look at it and wonder what you were thinking and advise to you take it out, but if it makes the story work, if it fits in with the organism, if not the road map, then tell them to shove off and leave it in. See where it takes you.

Being true to the story also gives you the ability to flex your writer’s muscles a little. It may require things of you that you, the writer, did not even know you were capable of doing, and that, my friends, is an awesome feeling. My wife will tell you that there have been times when she’s been in our living room, watching something educational and edifying on the television device, (because that’s all that’s on TV, right?) and she will suddenly hear a war-whoopish sound emanate from my writing box, (or “office” as some people call it). That sound was made by me after I’ve written something so much better than I thought I could ever write, and the adrenaline rush that it gives me manifests itself in an ear-splitting vocalization.

But now onto the main thing I wanted to talk about. (“Damn this guy takes a long time to get to the point,” said you, the reader).

Finding Your Voice


You can bet she’s found her voice!

Finding your voice is something that only time and honesty can make happen for you. The writer. (Ha! You thought I wasn’t going to do it that time, didn’t you?)


I have had the opportunity to work with some wonderful, amazing high school-aged writers in the past couple of years, and I am constantly blown away by the quality of work they are producing at an age when I aspired to be a writer, but in looking back at my journals from the time period, I realize that “aspiring” was about all I was doing. Their skill at writing dialog, at crafting rich, easy to visualize settings, and their ability to create memorable characters is miles beyond what I was doing at age 16-18.

But what is very obvious to me, as I listen to them read their work at our Tuesday night writer’s group, is that they haven’t totally found their voice. Not yet. It’s almost as if they are writing in a manner that they think they must if they’re to be able to call themselves writers. Does that make sense? What I’m saying is they seem to have a preconceived notion of how a writer must say and do things, and they don’t necessarily come across as someone who is comfortable in what they’re saying and doing. They are chasing a standard, rather than looking for a way to tell the story in their own voice.

The same is true of some of the adult authors in our group. While I believe that finding one’s voice as a writer requires time, the passage of time doesn’t guarantee that the skill will be developed. That’s where the second element comes in: honesty.

Finding your voice is as much about learning how not to say something as it is learning how to do so. And that’s where the honesty comes in. One of the things that hindered me in my early writing was that I rarely read anything I’d written after it was done, and I never revised. My oeuvre from the 1970’s to mid-1980’s is just one continual first draft. When, years later, I did start reading that stuff, I saw, every now and again, a nugget of something worthwhile, buried in a huge mound of manure. I realized that in those immature writings I was not the least bit honest with myself about what I was doing. I assumed that because I’d written something down on paper, it must be good. I was a good writer after all. Everybody told me so.

But the vast majority of it was filled with words that I shouldn’t have used and phrases that I shouldn’t have put together. I was doing what I thought I a writer was supposed to do, not what I was supposed to do.

This is a point overlooked by almost as many adult writers as young writers. We’re still not saying things the way we want to say them, we’re saying them the way we think we should be saying them. That makes for dishonest writing, done in someone else’s voice, not your own.

That doesn’t mean you have to write only about what you know experientially. I write about wizards and dragons in a world that doesn’t really exist. This does not draw from my personal experience, (although back in my more chemically liberated days I may have thought I’d actually seen these things).

The trick is that I write about these fantastical things by filtering them through my experience. Thus when I want to write dialogue between two bumbling, not-too-bright sailors who are piloting the single-masted sloop which is bringing a stow-away from his home to a new life and a grand adventure he’d never even dreamed of, I do it in a way that sounds true to me. Here. I’ll give you a taste:

“I’m tellin’ ya, I heard someone talkin’ in this hold! Singin’ even!” came the now familiar voice of the sailor he called “Crane-man.”

“And I’m tellin’ ya, yer nuts! We loaded in this cargo ourselves! Do ya recall loadin’ in any people? Cuz I sure don’t!” shouted the second, who Ban had named “Big-words,” because the other had teased him about that back on the dock in Tarteel.

“Well o’ course we loaded it ourselves. We’re all there is!”

Even in his impaired state, Ban realized this was good news. If the small ship’s crew indeed consisted solely of these two half-wits he had a better chance of getting through the voyage alive. But first he had to get them to reseal the hatch.

“And regardless, I heard someone singin’,” Crane-man continued. “Now are ya gonna hold the lamp and go down with me to check it out?”

“Listen, if ya want to poke around in that stinky hold, then be my guest. I ain’t climbin’ down,” said Big-words.

“Yer useless. Why yer mother didn’t just drown ya at birth I’ll never know! At least hand me over the lantern.”

“Here take it. I’ll even lower the ladder for ya.”

Ban could see the lantern’s light playing off the ceiling of the hold as Crane-man reached it down through the hatch, and he heard the rope ladder unroll and hit the deck below the opening. A moment later he heard another sound: that of Crane-man cursing as he lost his grip on the ladder and fell eight feet to the hold’s deck, followed by the sound of the lantern shattering.

“Perfect, ya damn fool!” shouted Big-words from above. “Now ya set the cargo on fire. I hope ya burn right along with it!”

“Shut up and fill a bucket, ya wizzle-worm!” Crane man screamed back. “My breeches are burnin’.”

I can’t tell you how much fun I had writing the entire story of Ban Alawar’s sea voyage, or how much my spell checker hated it. The particular dialect of the sailors was based solely on how I imagined a pair of ignorant bumblers would sound. It would have never worked if I’d tried to write how I supposed someone else would expect them to sound.

Even more challenging, though equally fun, was imagining how Ban, who is twelve-years-old, would think and speak if he was drunk, which he was in this scene. [Ed. note – in no way does the author support or condone underage drinking.] Ok, I’ll give you one more sample, but that’s it. If you want any more, go buy the damn book!

The experience was not unpleasant, he’d decided. He felt jolly and at ease. It made him feel like singing, which he knew better than to do, or perhaps like dancing, which he didn’t have room to do. So instead he just lay in the small space that existed between his home among the wicker baskets and the other stacks of goods nearby. He lay there and thought about profound things.

Girls smell so much better than we boys do, he thought. I know some, who can afford it, put perfume on themselves. But even girls without perfume smell nice. I like girls. Girls are wonderful. And they smell nice. Did I say that already?  So do those pink flowers that mother loves so much. I remember when I was young I used to pick them for her, before I found out how much easier it was just to steal her a bouquet. She never scolded me when I brought them to her, even after I started lifting them.

“Do you know what else?” he said aloud, not realizing he’d begun to do so. “Dragons smell pretty nice too. I didn’t expect them to. Most of the animals I’ve been around stink to the Next Plane. But that wizard who told me I couldn’t join the army had his dragon standing nearby and when I walked by it, it smelled really nice. Like spices or something.”

This was the extent of young Ban’s profundity. Girls smell nice. And so do dragons. The subtle trick of going from thinking to speaking out loud, and eventually to singing at the top of his lungs (nope… you gotta buy the book if you want to hear Ban sing), was I device of which I am quite proud, because that, in my voice, is how it would happen. It’s believable. It’s honest.

I can’t really give you a set of steps to take or tools to use to enable you to find your voice as a writer, aside from the two I’ve already given. Keep writing, and thereby gaining experience at doing so, and at every step of the way be honest with yourself. Keep asking yourself, “Is this how I really want to say this? Is this how I would say it, if I were speaking to someone about this situation?”

Over time, if you continually do this, you will find a couple of things have happened:

  1. You will begin to be really happy with your writing. It will sound right to you, and it will spur you on to even better work as you go.
  2. You will begin to notice that your writing doesn’t really sound like anyone else’s writing. This is a great moment. When you come to recognize your voice in writing and know that no one else in the entire world sounds quite like you, you may find yourself letting out a war-whoop or two. Just see if you don’t.


00boring prophet life of brian

This is also me

OK. I’m done being the boring prophet from The Life of Brian now. (“…Obadiah, his servants. There shall, in that time, be rumors of things going astray, erm, and there shall be a great confusion as to where things really are, and nobody will really know where lieth those little things wi– with the sort of raffia work base that has an attachment. At this time, a friend shall lose his friend’s hammer and the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o’clock. Yea, it is written in the book of Cyril that, in that time, shall the third one…”) That’s two Monty Python references in a single blog post. You’re welcome.


It’s time for me to crawl into my writer’s box and get some work done. And since today my writer’s box is actually a study room at the public library, I’m going to need to curb the war-whooping. Although the door is shut. Maybe I’ll get away with it without being tossed. We’ll see.


Meet Bjorn

001This is Bjorn. He’s happy to meet you. Bjorn sits on the corner of my laptop while I work and he sticks his yellow tongue out at me.

Before I tell you his story I should warn you that if hearing about people’s struggles with mental illness are upsetting or distasteful to you, then this isn’t the blog post to read. Bjorn doesn’t care if you stay or if you go. He’ll give you the razz either way.

He may not look like much to you. After all, he’s just a Mr. Potatohead toy, and a cheap one at that. He didn’t come with dozens of interchangeable parts, just the elements you see here. (Remember when Mr. Potatohead came with felt eyebrows you could stick behind the eyes? I always thought they made him look like Groucho Marx). In fact, to every human being in the world, he’s nothing more than a silly toy.

But to my wife and daughter and myself, he represents a lot more.

I’ve talked in the past, on this forum and others, about my struggles with mental illness. I’ve talked about the soul crushing depression which began when I was very young and continued through my adult life, coming to a head in 2009 when my son entered the military.

At the time of my first hospitalization in 2011, I was at the lowest point in my life. I’d like to say that that visit turned everything around for me, and started me on the road to the place I occupy today, (which, it is important to emphasize, is a much, much better place). And maybe it did. But it certainly did not feel that way.

I don’t remember a lot about what I thought and felt during the days I was there. I can’t even remember off the top of my head how long I was in… it feels like maybe ten days? Regardless, I worked hard during the time I was there to convince the people that mattered that it would be ok to let me out. That was pretty much my only goal because it took me about twenty seconds on the inside to realize that I needed to be outside.

However, when I got home I was, in all honesty, probably in worse shape than when I’d gone it. I was now living on a daily cocktail of psychopharmaceuticals which may very well have been restructuring my brain chemicals but were also wreaking havoc on just about every other part of my body. I was a hateful, horrible way to live.

My poor wife and daughter were amazing, however, and one of the first things they did when I got home was to ask me if there was anything I wanted. I remember, through the fog of the medicines, asking them to get me a toy. A few hours later they brought me my buddy, Bjorn.

They were a little nervous that I wouldn’t like him. I hadn’t given them much to go on, after all, just asking for a toy. But for not being sure what to get, they couldn’t have made a better selection.

I remember looking at the box he came in and being attracted to its bright colors. It was a happy box. Then I opened it and his half-dozen or so parts tumbled onto the bed next to me. The act of putting him together was both the first constructive and first creative thing I had done in a very long time. Seeing him come alive piece by piece, (which sounds very Mary Shelly-ish as I type it now), was an exercise in victory. With each limb attached, he became a little more whole, and eventually, when I pushed his hardhat down onto his head, he was complete. Even in my diminished state, the metaphor was not lost on me. If I could put Bjorn together, maybe I could do the same thing to myself.

After he was done, I kept him on my nightstand, and I looked over at him often. Knowing that he’d be there, giving me the razz, was a comfort, an anchor.

For the next few years, I led a pretty miserable existence. Getting through the day at all was a win. Eventually, though, my wife and I realized that I wasn’t getting better, and if anything I might have been going downhill a bit.

There are photos of me taken during that dark stretch, but I do not like to look at them. I’ve never been much for looking at “dead things in the water” as Frodo says, and that is exactly what I see in those photos.

So it was decided a second stay in the hospital was needed. What I didn’t know at that time, for she has only recently told me this, was that if I didn’t improve during and after this stay, my wife, who clearly was being put through way more than she signed on for, was considering placing me in a group home on a permanent basis. She had reached the end of her personal resources, emotionally.

But I went in not know this, as I said, and instead had only my own motivations to work through. This stay was different. I decided that I wanted to do more than convince my doctors to let me out. I decided I need to work through my own darkness and see about the possibility of coming out of it.

There is irony here. During my first stay, I was a very model patient. I attended group therapy, I spent a lot of time in the community room, getting to know the other people on the ward, watching a lot of TV and playing board games.

During my second stay, I remained in my room pretty much constantly, reading books. I read more books during that stay, (which I think was a little longer, maybe 12 days), than I’d ever read in such a concentrated amount of time. I read all three of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, a volume from Barns & Nobel which contained five full H.G. Wells novels, and then I started reading books from the small library on the ward. In total, I think I read fourteen books during the time I was there.

I didn’t go to group therapy and I didn’t interact with the other people who were on the ward.

But here’s a funny thing: the doctors responded by beginning to decrease my medications. A couple they just cut out altogether, till eventually, I was only taking two. And I started to feel better. Between the removal of the vast number of chemicals I was ingesting and the total literary immersion, I started to see things improve. I started to see things differently. I started to experience a foreign, funny feeling that at the time I could not identify. I gradually came to realize that it was hope.

Now, I’d like to tell you that from the day I got out the second time, everything was great, but I can’t. I was still seeing a therapist weekly, still taking two psych meds and in the midst of everything, we moved from the house we’d lived in for 16 years, which was an experience that tested my coping abilities to the maximum extent. I hated every minute of the task, and it seemed to me like it went on for years, though it was only a period of a month or so.

Eventually, though, Kimmy and I got into our little apartment. It was small compared to what we’d been used to, and it required that we divest ourselves of huge amounts of possessions collected over the course of our lives together. There just wasn’t room for all of our stuff.

That proved to be cathartic. It’s amazing how much of what we carry around with us from place to place is nothing more that: moveable chains with no function other than to be carried around. When they were gone, freedom broke out like an uprising.

I’d like to tell you that since we moved everything has improved… so I will. We moved into our apartment in May of 2015. Since then I’ve written and published three books. I write constantly. Aside from these blog posts and the novels, (the fourth of which, as I’ve hinted here recently, is almost two-thirds complete), I have my own website, I’ve published numerous poems on the website, I maintain a good old fashioned pen and paper journal, and I’m a regular annoyance on Twitter and Facebook. Let’s face it I’m everywhere!

BlueAnd earlier this year the final medication, which I’d been taking primarily to help me sleep, went the way of all things, and the only thing that alters my brain chemistry is the rush I get when I read something that I wrote and realize it’s just about as damn good as it could possibly be. And the occasional Labatt’s Blue. Let’s not be ridiculous here.

So now my old buddy Bjorn watches everything I write, sitting constantly at the periphery of my vision, his tongue still poking out to remind me not to take myself too seriously. And to remind me that if I never sell another book, if no one ever reads another word I write, I have still won a victory far too major to discount.

Thanks, Bjorn.


The Honeymoon

MHRsmallIn the midst of all the excitement over the release of my second novel in the Cerah of Quadar series, (perhaps you’ve heard? Many Hidden Rooms is now available?) I haven’t done much writing about what I’m writing currently. (Don’t you hate writers that write about writing? I should write something about that one day!)

This seems like as good a time as any to correct that. I’m currently 18 first-draft chapters into the third Cerah of Quadar book, entitled A New Shadow. It has been a somewhat different experience than writing the first two books.

I found the process has evolved over the course of the three, which I suppose is a logical outcome. Everything changes, and if you’re working hard at it, hopefully it changes for the better.

ADC CH final03When I wrote A Dark Clock, (perhaps you’ve heard? A Dark Clock is still available!), I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had an idea, and I started writing and hoped that eventually, I’d end up with a book. Thankfully that’s what happened. With Many Hidden Rooms, I knew exactly where I was going, and I only had to figure out how to get there. Thankfully that’s what happened.

The third book deals with a new generation, with new challenges and a new shadow, oddly enough [ed. note: see title above] cast upon the planet. What I’m running into here is a new phenomenon for me. I don’t know if I will be able to fit the scope of story I’ve envisioned into the same format that characterized the first two. As I said I’m eighteen chapters in, and I’m just beginning to get to the heart of the story.

I should probably explain what I mean when I speak of format. The first two books worked out, totally organically, to be 30 chapters in length, with a 31st chapter that served as a teaser for the book that followed. I am not 100% sure I’ll be able to do that again.

honeymoon-beach-sand-overwater-bungalowOf course, we’re still on the honeymoon. The first draft of any book is all about plunking words down on the screen and not worrying much about if it’s any damn good. (I can tell you right now: it isn’t!) Like any relationship in its early stages, you overlook a lot of faults that will later drive you to places you do not want to go. It’s all about getting to know one another. It’s about good feelings.



Kind of how writing book three feels.

So the fact that I’m feeling with each new chapter that there’s so much more that I need to fit isn’t really freaking me out… too much.


The folks on my mailing list, (perhaps you’ve heard? You too can join my mailing list), are going to receive some insider info about A New Shadow very soon that will discuss some of the intricacies and specifics that separate the storyline from what’s come before but I won’t cut you out of the sizzle altogether. I will tell you this: book three will end with a short teaser chapter that holds a twist which will make the first two seem positively blasé. Your face will literally look like this:



This will be YOUR FACE!!


Something Very Old



This is the first picture I allowed taken of me in four years. (Couldn’t lay my hands on the uncaptioned version).

There are no photographs of me taken between July of 1983 and July of 1987. That is because I spent those four years “casting the smallest shadow I could.” (I quote a poem I wrote from that time period.)


They were dark years, bookended by the month and year my first wife left me, and slightly after I met the woman who would become the love of my life. Thirty years later I pose for pictures often. I am no longer afraid of my shadow.

I don’t often think about those years now, but today something happened to bring them flooding back in a very stark, gritty way. I stumbled upon a journal I did not remember existing, opened on June 6, 1984, not quite a year after my first marriage ended. I remember writing in the days and months after July of ’83, but those things were written on legal pads and envelopes and toilet paper and napkins. I don’t remember a single word I wrote on any of those scraps, but I remember them being among the best writing I’ve ever done, even now. After all, as I told my friend a little while ago, they were written using only pain and adrenaline. Mostly pain.

But eventually I got myself together enough to buy a marble composition book, and I actually filled it. (When I first pulled it off the shelf I expected it to have been abandoned, half-empty. And before you make any comments, the glass is always half full, but the journal is always half empty.)

I haven’t read much of it yet because I’m not too eager to dredge those feeling up at this point in my life. But I did open it, and the first thing I read was possibly one of the more profound things I’ve ever scribbled down. It might mean nothing to you, and after reading it you might think, “He thought that was profound? He probably gets emotional reading cans of peaches at the store!” (I do, but that’s not the point.) Listen, I love ya, but this was my soul laid bare, so I suppose it only makes sense that it’s sounding deep to me today. Anyway, here it is:

What a man does with his life is no more or less than what he refuses to do with it. One is just the old stiff negative of the other. At some point, or perhaps at a number of points, he will stand in review of these two worlds – of the done and the undone. And always there is balance. Always the undone will reluctantly and angrily equal the done. For every book he never writes, his heart has pumped a beat. For every bridge he does not build, his feet have walked a mile.

But balance can be an uneasy cloak to wear. More than once when the scales have come to rest with the needle straight up, despair has come like a paid assassin. No man is safe from his own perfection. It can swallow him so quickly that as he is digested, he can only lie back to be consumed, perhaps shaking his head a bit. There is no way to fight the Absolute.

In the end, even the weakest man must bow down to himself, and that is seldom easy.

Maybe it’s because I caught a whiff of the man I was when I wrote that, but I was shaken by the reading. As I transcribed it just now it marked the third time I’ve read it, probably the only three times I’ve ever read it because I didn’t read what I wrote back then. I just got it onto paper as quickly as possible, believing I’d spit a little of the poison that I was living on in lieu of food and water and air, and maybe that bit being gone, I might live a moment longer.



Sniff, sniff! Bwah!

My point, though, is that after three readings it hasn’t turned to tin. It may just be that on July 5, 1984, eleven days shy of one year from her leaving, I managed to capture just a small peek at the abyss into which I looked every day. And maybe, without even realizing it, that being a day that I didn’t die, I gave myself permission to one day dare to look there again, this time as a (mostly) detached observer.


There, I’ve shared it with you. Do with it what you will. I’m going to read some peach cans.