Southern Scotch

Southern Scotch
After the Fall 2016

Monday, September 29, 2014

When I Use the Term Feng Shui, It Means...

...an arrangement of things in MacRathWorld that leaves me with a greater sense of harmony, oneness and peace. Now, the Chinese and even our experts might scorn my definition. But if last night's experience doesn't count as real feng shui, then the word ought to be discontinued. Hear this:

At a glance, when I came home to my new Seattle studio, I saw that I'd made a mistake. I've made my share of slip-ups, but none of them ever struck me in this disturbing way. I had the air mattress in the wrong place and facing the wrong way. To put this in perspective: I only had two pieces of furniture, so all mistakes were magnified.

You reach the living area after a long L-shaped hall, just past the bathroom on the left, then the kitchenette. The living area measures about 16' x 14 '. The tan carpeting is clean and new. On the far wall are two great casement windows with curved tops. On the right side of the room, till my futon's frame is assembled, sits the purple steamer trunk...also doubling as a seat. I'd placed the air mattress against the opposite wall, with the head part just under the window.

Now, I'd done nightly tossing and turning with the bed in this position...but had blamed it on the air mattress. Last night, though, I wondered: wouldn't it be better to swing the mattress around to the right so that it ran along the wall beneath those lovely windows?

Two big things happened instantly:
1) I saw a strange correctness about the change in position. And the room no longer seemed empty--it had a sense of spartan fullness with just a trunk and air mattress.
2) The very second I lay down, I knew the air mattress had not disturbed my sleep. If I lay down on my back--with my head at the left wall--I had a glorious view of both curved top windows above me and two of the large windows on the wall across. If I turned to my right side, my preferred position, the window-side wall 'had my back' and I had a clear view of the room, its wide open space. Furthermore, within easy reach on the window sill above, I could set my cell phone, glasses and a bottle of fresh water.

Next up: a small utility table and chair for use as an interim desk. Placement: on the left wall, not directly across from the trunk. Its surface must always remain clean and clear except for my Stoker Award...a holder for writing utensils...and my work for the next day.

Feng shui. MacRath style. I plan to use this strong physical sense of harmony, clearness and peace as a touchstone for evaluating everything I do now. Does a new book/job/relationship provide that same sense of correctness? Does its new wall 'have my back'? Do I feel natural and free...or somehow forced and constricted.

I feel good to go here now, moving on all eights. Feng shui!


Sunday, September 21, 2014

It's the Tiniest Thing(s) That Can Get You

By the 49th draft of a novel, you'd think that you've got it down pretty well pat. A bit more pruning and prettification, then you'll be set to go. Right? Well...

The enemy at this point is a simple fact of life: with every pass through a novel, our blinders grow more tightened to anything we've missed. We're quite right to search with new fury for typos, spellos and grammos that have slipped past our eagle eyes. At the same time, though, we need to renew our hunt for wrongos that can undo us: inconsistencies, lapses in logic, glitches in the timeline, etc. 

I'd also add to this list small wait-a-second spots. These are especially deadly for writers of suspense, for they break the charmed narrative spell and cause readers to scratch their heads in wonder: Wait a second, haven't we established that the character's wearing brown socks and not green?...Wait a second, now the author's saying that his character was warned by X about Y two or three chapters ago? Where's the warning hidden?...Wait a second, the hero was listed as fourth on a list of seven victims--and now he'll be the third to go?

Wrongos occur for good reasons sometimes, A character was dropped, for example, resulting in the changing of a list. Or the timeline was condensed to add some more oomph to the story or simplify things for the reader. And, not to be too unkind to ourselves, wrongos are inevitable when we're spending months, even years, on our books. Even with the best of charts, our characters' eye colors may change on us...or, God save us, we may forget the color of their socks.

I'm happily hunting for wrongos these days as I work on RC, my new winter release. And each day's work starts with this mindset: small slips are waiting to get me and I need to take them down. I owe that to my readers.

Charge!

Monday, September 15, 2014

On Doing It Over and Over Again



(Not my own new place...not yet.)

One of the first things you learn moving into a studio apartment is the importance of habit. Correction: the imperative. For unless you get into the habit keeping the space clean and neat as you go, it'll turn into a wilderness of confused and angry wonderings: where the devil are my keys? where's my bus pass? who the hell took my flash drives and Altoids? Things tend to pile up quickly...then shift and slide to chaos. And the end result can be a weak sense of helpless despair.

I know: I faced exactly that with my one bedroom apartment in Charlotte. And it took me nearly half a year to sort, prune, organize...and take out a whole lot of trash. In this new smaller space, I knew, I'd be facing worse if I didn't start constructing some far better habits. Today.

As a man who's kicked booze and tobacco--and failed a few times with tobacco--I knew the importance of mindset and realistic thinking. Aristotle put it this way, 'We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence...is not an act but a habit." There's no succeeding at any life commitment in 3 days, 3 weeks or 3 months. And the effort must be not a battle but a daily chance to grow in strength and sense of purpose.

It helps to have clear, powerful vision. I saw an immaculate, spartanly furnished studio. And I saw just what I needed, placed where it belonged with a Zen-like respect for space.

Of immediate importance: staying organized and neat on a strict daily basis. Since I'm furnishing slowly, from scratch, I can't have everything at once: dresser, filing cabinets, desk...These will come. For now, I use cheap plastic modules from Target. One broad slate window sill supports my Stoker Award and a cover blowup of my third book, Mastery. On another I lay out the personal things I'll need for the next day: keys, wallet, etc.The kitchen counter top, just for now, holds one newspaper I haven't finished reading and a couple of pieces of mail, all very neatly arranged.

Nothing, nothing on the floor except what's meant to be there.

Garbage: taken out each day. Every scrap and stitch of it.

Used laundry: in the closet's special bag immediately after use.

Bathroom: spot-cleaned daily, toiletries neatly arranged.

I know, I know. It all sounds so banal. But the spiritual discipline involved is the very stuff of life--what Napoleon Hill once called Cosmic Habitforce.

Zen and the Art of Living in a Studio.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Where Do Good Ideas Come From, They Wonder

When I first started writing, I worried about this endlessly. How did the writers I liked get  their stuff and how could a no one like me get my own? Years later, I'm amazed that any of us need to ask about this. For the themes and ideas we're meant to use are really inseparable from our own lives. Don't confuse that with writing your autobiography--which no one except your family will really want to read. But the images and themes that should be the soul of your writing are concentrated essences you simply can't escape from and shouldn't bother to try: core memories and lessons and dreams and regrets that are uniquely and naturally you.

Here are 2 personal examples to show you what I mean:

1) Born in the US, I lived ten years in Canada as a stateless person, intending to become a Canadian citizen. Bad mistake, I came to see. After a years-long struggle, I was able to go home with a Green Card because of a family petition. Five years later, I became an American for the second time. I tried writing an autobiographical account about my experience. But because it was all about Me and everything I'd been through, I couldn't bear to edit it and it ran on for 600 pages. Almost every U.S. agent praised my writing style...but said the book couldn't be sold.
    I despaired...till I started to wonder: What if I re-created the essence of the story...as a horror novel? A transplanted American who's become Canadian finds and steals a haunted suit that begins to change him into its dead owner. The book became The Suiting. It won me an agent who sold it to Tor as part of my first two-book contract. A Stoker Award followed, then a small option for film. And this came about because I'd stopped looking elsewhere for ideas and also stopped thinking of Me. I'd learned to translate an essence into narrative lingo the readers could get.

2) Today I spent happy time pre-applying for Washington Enhanced ID. More time on the phone setting up an appointment. But I never thought of this as drudgery. Since returning to the States I've always been obsessed with having the proper ID--as if with every move I make I reprove that I'm American. And I also realized today that every book I've written concerns, in one way or another, a stranger who's in a new land...and must fight to establish his spiritual ID.

My best advice on the challenge is this: don't look harder, or further outside yourself, relax into your history--and you'll find all you need right there.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

My Greatest Train Adventure


20th Century Limited



It's funny how our greatest adventures never seem to happen exactly as we'd planned. Now that I'm here in Seattle, after four and half days on trains, I can say:

The only thing that happened even remotely as planned was my rewriting, on the tracks, my upcoming winter thriller--set on the greatest American train: the Twentieth Century Limited. Even so, it took me longer to get going than I had intended.

You see, this should have included a train-bound romance...breathtaking scenery...happy hours spent online with my Kindle Fire...a movie or TV show as well...good food in the diner...all the sleep I needed after five years of working nights...

But in the past, I'd always had a private cabin, with all my meals included. I'd never deigned to travel coach. And in the past I'd always taken the spectacularly scenic route of the California Zephyr. And I'd been younger in the past, a more likely candidate for a hot fling on the rails--especially with my own cabin. And I found it tricky to sleep, even catnap, with my long legs in the coach seats. And I couldn't afford $25 for a meal. And, misery, except for the first train--an 8 hour ride--wi-fi was not included.

Finally, the scenery was nothing to get too excited about--until halfway through Thursday when it began to heat up.

So Reb MacRath, the great positive thinker, wasn't having the time of his life as he'd hoped. Enter the zone of the Big-Time Boo-Hoo...until the scales fell from my eyes. And I saw: I had a rare opportunity here to work without distraction at any time of day or night, even without a table...if I could make one adjustment. Believe me now, I'm serious: I'd never used a laptop as a LAPtop in my life. If I could learn to do that comfortably, using the touch pad or miniscule joystick...I did.

Sometimes using the adapter, sometimes the 2-hour battery, I worked as I had never worked. I worked in my seat, in the little cafe, in the observation car...completing work on the first third of my book.

Now, wait a minute, someone says. That's your greatest train adventure?

Yes, yes, and yes again. I'd had more cinematic train adventures, I'll admit. But nothing I'd seen, said or done on a train had led me to feel this empowered. I'd learned something new, pulled myself from a funk, and used my present discomfort to fuel my dream of that legendary train. I tuned into the rhythms and sounds of my train, transforming them into the Century's. For that long stretch I was as free as any hobo ever.

And so I sign off no with one last loud Yes. I had an amazing adventure. And I'll share the results in November. Till then, racing down the tracks: a tale of mystery, magic and murder...with affectionate nods to the great Oscar Wilde, who would have loved the Century.