Timesucks and Other Distractions

There are a lot of timesucks out there. Commuting to and from work is one. The day job many of us have is another. Don’t forget the innumerable errands, chores and minutiae that make up our day: brushing our teeth, doing the dishes, laundry, making the bed. Plus the obligatory family events, bathroom breaks -- even sleep. It’s amazing we have any spare time at all!

So how do we find time to do what we really want to do?

This is no Readers Digest article, so I have nothing new to say, but I’ve been practicing simplifying as much as I can. I only watch TV when there is a particular show I want to see, rather than channel surfing. I set times after work where I don’t make any phone calls. And I carve out time to sit at my computer and plunk out sentences on the keyboard.

Sounds like a good plan.

But like any plan, it goes awry in practice. I found that while  I was technically sitting at my computer, I wasn’t writing. I’d get sucked into one of my biggest timesucks – the Internet. Oh, I’d think, I’ll just check my email. Or browse a few news sites. Or check out an interesting thread on reddit. And let’s not even go into the psychologically damaging treks into Facebook.

Sure, getting lost sometimes brings about nuggets of information and interesting bits I might use in a story down the line. But more often, it’s a distraction. The kind of distraction that pulls me out of my internet fugue only to find that what was supposed to be a two minute break has become a near hour down the rabbit hole of clicks and more clicks.

Have I beaten this distraction digression that eats into my writing time?

Sadly, I’m only human. But I do my best. I limit my use on social media, not only because it was a timesuck, but I also found I didn’t like the negativity or political rants.  Maybe it’s just me, but I often feel that even though people are active on social media, none of them are really connecting – it’s all about look at me or see what I’m doing that’s special (and by default, you’re not.) Are people really sharing their lives online? Or are they simply advertising their lives?

But this isn’t a social media rant.

It’s about doing things that make me feel good. And that’s what I’m trying to do: keep doing the good things while limiting the things that make me feel bad.

Strange how hard that can sometimes be.

For those of you who are interested, my next project is coming out early May, a young adult drama called Feel Me Fall. It’ll be up to you to see if I was distracted while writing it.

My Book’s 1st Birthday

A little over a year ago, I entered my dystopian novel Melophobia, which is set in a world where music is illegal, into the Kindle Scout program. It was chosen for publication, and it entered the digital data stream in September 2015. Since then, it’s garnered over 138 ratings on Goodreads, trending near the 4.0 mark. I’ve been really happy with its reception, as well as the promotions that Amazon has done for it, which has expanded my readership beyond anything I could’ve done on my own.

I think the worst thing to happen to writers – or anyone, really – is expectation. Every writer has hopes that their book will rocket to the top of the charts, trend on Twitter, and eventually woo Hollywood. No, none of these things happened, and there is nothing better than a little humbling to keep the ego in check. In the place of stellar fame, however, I’ve discovered pockets of readers who are passionate about the book, from the Philippines to Brazil, and it’s been this groundswell of readers that has made my heart sing. They found the book, not with a massive marketing push from New York, but through their own efforts to try a new book by a relatively new author.  And while I may have nudged my book along the way, these readers found me, and I am ever grateful.

I continue to write books – some in a variety of different genres – and hope to have more stories to share soon. But for now, I wanted to wish a Happy Birthday to Melophobia, as well as all the readers who wrote reviews, commented, and shared on social media. I thank you all!

In Harm's Way

I sometimes feel compelled to read contemporary books, at least to keep up with today's styles, as well as what stories seem to capture audience's attention. But I also love history, and that includes older books. I recently finished IN HARM'S WAY: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of its Survivors, by Doug Stanton, first published in 2001. The subtitle is a mouthful, but every word is true regarding the story within.

The book tells the tale that many of us heard of first in the movie "Jaws" when the character of Quint talks about why he is the way he is from his time on the Indianapolis

Frankly, I was surprised that I hadn't heard of this story before, in high school, or in any college history class. I'm also surprised this hasn't been made into a film as it seems ready-made for a translation to the big screen. But what struck me most is that it read like a real-life horror novel. Those of you who love horror, will be glued to the page. And of course, it's all true, from the delivery of the atom bomb, to the ship's sinking by a Japanese sub, to the horrific survival - and deaths - of the hundreds of men in the ocean, some by elements and drinking salt water, and others, more viciously, by shark attacks.

I highly recommend this read to both history buffs, as well as those who love thrillers. But the book is more than a wartime tale; it's about survival, and I repeatedly found myself wondering if I would've had the courage and fortitude to continue on in the face of seeming hopelessness. Pick up it; you won't regret it.

A Head Full Of Ghosts

You can’t go wrong with a recommendation by Stephen King, and that’s why I picked up A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS by Paul Tremblay -- plus it seemed right for the Halloween season. Those of you who know me know I don’t review books I don’t like, so this is an automatic recommendation. But it’s less about a rating of stars and more about how it made me feel.  Creepy and disturbing are both apt descriptions. There were times I felt, however, it was too clever for its own good, and I almost stopped reading about half-way through, thinking it was too much a play on the oft-referenced THE EXORCIST, in a way that the SCREAM movies are so self-aware.

I also went into this book with a mistaken idea that it was a horror novel. In my view, it is not (unless you consider, as I do, that human nature can be filled with horrors of the very natural kind.) A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS is a psychological drama, albeit a creepy one, and if you strip away the architecture of the plot, it’s really about memory and identity. Minor spoiler alerts ahead.

This is what I loved (as it’s told from an adult looking back on her childhood): it seemed as if anyone who has ever been in therapy could relate to the thematic premise of what happened back then? Why did the adults in my life act the way they did? How can love and hate and terror all circle our lives? And most of all: who am I after all that has happened? Those themes resonate loudly in my own work, and naturally, I found them in A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS. Maybe it wasn’t the author’s intention, but that’s what haunted me after I turned the final page. It’s a book that doesn’t give easy answers and no neatly-tied-up ending. But for me, those are the books I love. The book lingers. I tried to identify the feeling, and I was left with the idea that no matter how much we try to understand, some things will never be understood. Check out A HEAD FULL OF GHOSTS. It’ll be worth your time.

James Morris is the author of the young adult thriller WHAT LIES WITHIN and the New Adult alternate history novel MELOPHOBIA.

Why Writing is Like the Martial Arts

I studied Chinese kenpo karate for over 14 years, finally earning my Black Belt in 2007. I spent years doing drills, sparring, learning to punch and taking punches. Often, the drills were repetitious until my reactions became second nature. I left blood, sweat and tears on the mat. For better or worse, I often earned bruises, pulled muscles and injuries along the way.

And yet, I kept coming back to that community of martial artists, of people gathering to learn a skill which probably had no practical purpose in the real world. No punch stops a bullet. But facing my fears? Learning to control my body? To live in my body and more in the moment? Priceless.

When I earned my Black Belt, my sensei told me something I’ve always remembered: that being a Black Belt didn’t mean I was the best, for if that were the case there would only be a single Black Belt in the entire world at a time. Being a Black Belt meant the journey to mastery had only just begun.

I think of writing the same way.

So many people when they start any martial arts training often ask: how long until I’m a Black Belt?

So many people when they start writing often ask: how long until I get an agent? How long until I get published?

Does the answer really matter?

Yes, it does, you say! To paraphrase Veruca Salt from
“Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory:” I want to publish, and I want it now!

Some of my peers are millionaires and they’ve created TV shows or films you’ve probably watched. Others of us work just as hard, but have day jobs to pay the bills. Yet, the craft and the work remains the same.

Do martial artists learn their art to beat people up? Or do they do it because it gives expression to something deep within?

Do writers write solely to become rich? Or do they write because they love it?

I spent years honing my writing before I ever earned a single cent. I worked as an assistant in TV development reading scores of scripts, absorbing how television shows were structured and paced. I listened to writers who pitched their shows, and I saw which shows my bosses eventually bought, and the reasons why. I took screenwriting classes at UCLA Extension, turning in pages and taking critiques. And I was lucky to find a mentor who encouraged me when I was despondent (a writer’s frequent companion, I would learn).

Even today, I don’t show anyone my earlier work – the earlier work, which at the time I was convinced was excellent. I know now it wasn’t. But I do think of it as a necessary stepping stone, as I needed to write badly in order to grow.

And though I’m a published writer with two books WHAT LIES WITHIN and MELOPHOBIA, a writer with produced television episodes on my resume, and maybe to some a “Black Belt,” I am still learning. There is no Best. There is only persistence, patience, a willingness to learn, and especially the ability to take criticism. In the martial arts, that criticism is often immediate and painful. Oh, you think, I should’ve blocked that; in writing, the criticism comes from teachers or trusted readers who say: this part of the story doesn’t make sense.

In karate, we practiced what were sometimes dull drills, repeating them over and over. The same may be true of writing. Grammar itself is often dull! But it’s the building block for any sentence, which grows into a paragraph, which becomes a chapter, and then a story.

And I learned in karate that the most dangerous thing was never anything physical: it was the ego. The ego, which wants to fight over stupid words. The ego, which needs to defend itself against all sorts of meaningless threats.

The same goes for writing.

Yes, stay true to yourself. Stay true to your voice. But learn to listen, even to those scathing reviews. There might be the smallest seed of instruction hidden within.

Or maybe, just maybe, like the middle fingers flicked on the freeways, you take a deep breath, allow the moment to pass, and realize what’s important: getting back to the mat; getting back to the page, and practicing your art.