The Ballad of Nabs Sorghum Beagle of the Wild Lands

Paul promised Sarah Gailey a ballad about our beagle, Nabs. Nabs, however, is not a ballad beagle. Nabs is a drinking song beagle. Or maybe he just has a drinking song mama; regardless, he can tell everybody this is his song.

‘Twas a cold and gray October day
When the mists rolled o’er the hills.
Through the tangled brush he traveled far,
A lean and hungry cur.
No food for him there was that day tho
The sorghum clouds lay sweet upon his fur.

He was a wild proud hunter.
All feared to cross his path.
His bray echoed brave throughout the woods
And no man knew his name.

For years he wandered all alone
Leaving pups to bear his face
Their mothers pining for his kiss
But never he returned.

For he was Nabs!
Yes, he was Nabs!
Nabs the wild sorghum dog!
He was Nabs!
Yes, he was Nabs!
And he could not be tamed!

But the winter grew cold
And he grew thin.
Ticks his only friends.

He looked to the sky and he said to himself,
“It may be time to say goodbye.
The road, the road, she calls to me,
and I my heart must follow.
So I’ll lay me down on that line of gold
and wait for fate to come.”

For he was Nabs!
Yes, he was Nabs!
Nabs the wild sorghum dog!
He was Nabs!
Yes, he was Nabs!
What fate would be his own?

Tonight he sleeps on pillowtop.
Memory foam pillows too.
Blankets keep him warm as he snores
Betwixt his people two.
His snores rattle rafters.
He eats like a king.
But, oh, there was a price.

In place of ticks,
He deals with cats,
And his balls were gone with a slice!

For he was Nabs!
Yes, he was Nabs!
Nabs the wild sorghum dog!
He was Nabs!
Yes, he was Nabs!
Nabs, the wild sorghum dog!

On Being a (Better) Writer In Three Easyish Steps

We authors, who trade in fictions for a living, are a continuum of all we have seen and heard and, most importantly, all that we have read.
–Neil Gaiman, Trigger Warning

I woke up at 4 a.m. with the end of this piece clear in my mind. I made myself get up and write it down because I liked it. While I was up, I might as well write down the beginning I thought of earlier. Except… I wish I had written that down.

Our lives are full of wishes like that. Yes, most of the time it’s the time of our dentist appointment. (When was that?) But sometimes it’s an amusing anecdote from work. Sometimes it’s a story or recipe from your grandma. Sometimes it’s an award-winning novel that will be read by millions. No matter the topic, no matter the audience, it’s your story. Write it.

I have been fortunate enough to have Angela in my life for inspiration and encouragement. Together we have written three nonfiction books that I think are quite good.

What I haven’t done is write fiction. Angela has and does. I love her stories and am so proud to watch her getting better and better. What I haven’t done is write. Anything. Lately. This is an exhortation to myself as well as to you. Just write.

In that spirit, here are my musings on being a better writer in three easy (some easier than others) steps, as inspired by the stellar Neil Gaiman. Originally, these were my thoughts on writing fiction, but they apply to any type of writing. After all, Neil began as a journalist, and as with all great writers, often his fiction is more true than truth. Now read this. Then write.

Step One: Read

Homework: Read the introduction to at least one of Neil Gaiman’s short story collections. (Extra credit: Visit Neil’s blog and Tumblr.) You will notice a pattern. Neil frequently says something like, “I read STORY by AUTHOR. I liked how AUTHOR wrote STORY. One or more of my stories is inspired by how STORY was told by AUTHOR.”

You’re not out to copy another author’s style, but look how that person tells a story. What do you like? Word choices? Rhythm? Dialog? Description? Read a lot and learn what you like. Turn that into your own style.

Sheer conjecture: I like to think the primary benefit of having a creative writing class is not having a roomful of people telling you their opinions of your story, but having the opportunity to hear how a roomful of people tell a story.

Step Two: Live

Homework: Read the stories from at least one of Neil Gaiman’s short story collections.

Honestly, it takes more than one book, but you start to see the clues. In most (all, I’m quite sure) of Neil’s stories, there is a tiny grain of experience from his life.

Of course there are the tropes common to all of us: love, loss, hope. There are other things, still general, but things that bring the reader a bit closer, things like pubs and private drinking clubs and lonely trips to LA. Then there are things that are singularly Neil — a large house torn down to make room for a cluster of smaller ones, an ominous lamppost on the lane.

To try to dissect a story to understand the author’s inspiration is to rob the story of the sheer joy of reading it. Neil does talk about some of these things, but not to encourage you to go looking for them. Instead, think about how the tiniest thing can become a story.

That trip to the Grand Canyon as a kid? Burst dam epic or Wild West saga? The shock of coming home to find your first pet goldfish dead? A murder mystery or an eco-thriller? A Spanish language billboard in the Vietnamese part of town? A collection of oral histories on food (now available in paperback wherever books are sold)?

Be open to life — cliched message about gifts and blessings here.

Step Three: Write

I warned you that some of the steps are easier than, well, than this one. The first two steps are going to help you do this one better but not more easily.

Better, not well. No doubt, there are prodigies out there who write brilliantly the first time they put pen to paper. I am not one of these people. Let’s assume you aren’t either. (If you are, reading the rest of this won’t take much of your time, and it gives you an excuse to ridicule my advice later.)

Write something. Put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, voice to microphone, brainwaves to cranial implant. (I’m going to assume this advice has staying power.)

Now the important part — Neil says this, so believe it — finish what you start. Saying “meh” and quitting doesn’t make you a writer. Writers don’t create bits and pieces. Writers creates works — works of art.

Art? Most first time writer stuff you’ve seen is crap. Yes, yours; certainly mine. Again, virtually no one is good immediately in their chosen field. None of us are going to run a marathon or dice an onion rapidly or play Chopin flawlessly without a lot of practice first.

Write that first piece, the second, maybe the third. Now put them in a drawer and forget them. Just don’t forget the lessons you learned while writing them. Think about what you would do differently, and do it.

(In these technological times, the above mentioned drawer is likely to be figurative rather than literal. Regardless, don’t shred these early works. If you become famous, your heirs may be able to make a fortune foisting them off on unsuspecting fans. And congratulations on earning your cynic badge.)

Do what though? What do I write? Harry Crews, who lived a life as powerful as his fiction, once said (forgive the paraphrase; this was 25+ years ago): “When I started, I wanted to be a poet, but writing poetry was hard. So I tried short stories – too hard. So I wrote novels. That’s how most of us end up writing novels. That’s just easier.”

Right now, many of you are thinking about a delightful Neil Gaiman sestina and thinking “Wait…”

I’m not saying you’ll Peter Principle your way into your niche; I’m saying you’ll find your groove. Groove — not rut. You’ll hustle through a novel, then electric slide into something else.

With practice, you’ll learn what you like. And by practice, I mean writing and finishing what you start.

Homework: Visit the blog of Chuck Wendig.
If Neil Gaiman is the wise man atop the mountain, Chuck Wendig is the Olympic athlete who drops by the gym to help you with your form. In addition to being a fine writer (and by “fine writer,” I mean “bad-ass mofo.” Hi, Chuck!), Chuck dispenses excellent advice. Like: “Write, Penmonkey, write.” Like stories that move you, Chuck can move you to write with intensely focused words of wisdom.

It’s your life. They’re your stories. Who better to write them? Just write.

If you have fear, you have at least as much bravery. Write it.

If you’re hurting or scared, it won’t last. Write it.

If you’re happy, that won’t last either. Sorry. Write it.

Your stories are worth it. Write them.

And remember, no matter what you write, or who you show it to, we’re with you. We love you.

Your gold star!

It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it’s called Life.
― Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent

My gold star!!!!!

Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind.
― Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

Remember. We love you.

How you say…? Life in Crazy Town

It’s always good to see friends that you haven’t seen in a long time. Talking about family and old stuff you did is nice. But it always leads to the question, “So, what are you doing now?”

How am I supposed to answer that?

Option 1: Pure honesty. “Well, I kinda had a breakdown a few years ago, and ever since then, the federal government has been paying me to stay away from people. Every now and then I get my shit together enough to put out a book. Honestly, Paul gets my shit together enough for us to put out a book. If there were no Paul, I wouldn’t have remembered to brush my hair today. By the way, don’t look at the back of my head. Also, I’m not a good role model for children what with sleeping for 20 hours at a time and all the suicide attempts. Oh, you didn’t know about those? Yeah. The band-aids on my neck aren’t a kooky fashion statement. But I haven’t thought about killing myself for, oh, weeks now at least. Did you know we have 6 cats? Oh, you have to leave now? So soon?”

Option 2: Sort of honesty. “I’m writing full-time now. It’s good, but I miss being around people. I’ve had some health issues, but I’m doing better now.”

Option 3: Straight up lie. “Well, our books have done so great that we’ve been able to pretty much retire. We’re looking into a second home now. The band-aids? I’m having a little work done. I’m getting to that age, you know.”

Jenny Lawson‘s book about mental illness needs to come out already so I can just hand copies to people and go, “Pages x thru z pretty much cover me.” That would make it so much easier. Hopefully, I can get a bulk discount. Or maybe she’ll be nice and offer a crazy people discount. I would qualify.

I dreamed we found 2 cats who then had 18 kittens. So, we had effectively found 20 cats. Paul was horrified. I was surprisingly calm about it. They were all oreos. Luckily, it was just a dream.