Choice and Choices Across the Worlds We Inhabit and Create

Lately, I’ve been thinking about choice, and choices, in the worlds I inhabit, and in those I create. The living and fictional beings that I live with are defined by their choices, or by the way they act and react to their perception of having choices.

To have agency, to be able to make choices and act on one’s own behalf, is not just freedom, it’s power. The power to pick your path through time, to dodge some obstacles, and intentionally run head-on into others, defines us as individuals; it’s what makes us real, even when we make the wrong choices, or are wrong about having choices at all.

The efforts to control or alter the ecosystem within which a being exists does more than keep them warm or fed or sheltered, these efforts communicate to the world the things that being wants, the things they fear, and their priorities among the wants and fears they have.

I began exploring this idea by thinking about the animals who live with me in my corner of the world. Dogs and tortoises and fish and shrimp; all of them living in artificial ecosystems that I control to a greater or lesser extent. As a body, their agency, their range of choices upon which they can act on their behalf, is limited, by design, by me. The interesting thing within the scope of this consideration is to explore and examine the choices that they can and do make, and to draw conclusions, and meaning, from those actions about who these animals are: what they want, what they fear, and what are their priorities.

The dogs, Puck and Olive, are, at least nominally, holding up their end of a bargain that my ancestors made with their ancestors 50,000 years ago: a straight-up exchange of food (and some other minor considerations) for protection. Over those millennia, both sides have become conditioned to feel love for the other as a two-way reinforcement to the deal, the promise, we all made. I can feel the shape and solidity of our deal in the way that Puck climbs up into bed with me each night, spooning, but with his head facing away from mine, towards the door, in the direction an attack might come from. Olive’s approach to the compact is more complicated, especially with me, as in her previous life she seems to have been actively abused by men, and passively neglected in general; she accepts our offerings of food and seems to mostly trust me, but is not as invested in the protection aspects of the deal as is Puck. The differences in how similar dogs act and react under similar conditions give me a view into their inner lives.

The tortoises I live with, in particular, an old Russian Tortoise, a rescue I call Chili (whose previous human had sadly named him Smirnoff), inspire thoughts about choice in a different light than is cast by the relationship I have, and have had, with dogs. Chili lived a small life in a small Tupperware container prior to coming to live with us in New Hampshire; despite moving into a bigger enclosure with better environmental conditions and food than he was used to in his previous life, he was grumpy and on a hunger strike for the first month and a half we lived together. Tortoises don’t like change, so he chose not to eat for six weeks, which didn’t hurt me, although it worried me plenty. After offering, and then throwing away perfectly good food for forty days and forty nights, one day, same food, he began to eat. Another aspect of his early days with me was hiding, burying himself; apparently, that’s a common tortoise thing when they’re young or scared or in new surroundings. After a few months, he grew sufficiently comfortable with my comings and goings and offerings and not eating him that he took to napping all over the place, wherever and whenever the mood took him. This suggests a trust that I won’t attack him in his sleep, but he still doesn’t like me. My other tortoises are curious about me, watching me while I write this essay, or following my movements around the office when caring for them or bringing food, and will come over for scratches on their heads or shells; Chili not only will not allow scratches, but if my hand stays in his enclosure and in one place for long enough, he’ll move in and bite me (I’ve tested it, with him and the others, he’s the sole biter among my five torts). The fact that he both trusts and dislikes me makes our troubled relationship interesting, and I will admit to spending extra time and effort trying to win him over (to date with a marked lack of success).

I’ve had a small aquaponic aquarium setup in the bathroom for years. I like the waterfall-esque noise it brings to the whole downstairs, love the applied science of filtering water through plants, and grow treats for one of my tortoises who enjoys nibbling pothos leaves (not Chili, although I’ve offered them to him). The fish, a betta, recognizes and can differentiate me from my wife or son, as evidenced by the fact that when I go into the bathroom he comes over to remind me to feed him (and he generally hides when my wife or son comes in). We don’t have much of a relationship beyond his desire for food from me, but that seems to be enough for both of us. It has occurred to me that if he learned to approach my wife and son with his friendly-seeming antics at the front of his little tank that he might get fed three times as often, but either he hasn’t figured that out yet, or he doesn’t want the extra food (alternately, maybe he tried it a few times, and they ignored him, so he saves his best swimming performances for me).

I’ve been working on a novel for a while, tinkering with the story and setting and characters, trying to get everything to feel right. A big part of it for me, with this novel, was in getting to know the various characters, in taking the time to write ‘field-trips’ for them (writing exercises in which they’d explore their world a bit under my watchful, but hopefully detached, observation) to see how they’d act and react in the fictional setting I’d built for them; to get a feel for them and for the choices they’d make. After running them through myriad different scenarios, I felt as though I was getting to know them, and was able to get back to the story I’d been trying to tell previously. It was interesting to me how their choices were such a large part of who they are.

Sometimes my subjects of study, organic and written, can help me understand them even when their choices are phony, or when any choice leads to the same outcome. Puck comes into my office to sleep at my feet when I’m writing, I think he sees it as his job to help. Olive sometimes pees inside, even when the door to their fenced run is open, I think it’s because she doesn’t want to get her feet cold or wet. They both get fed twice a day regardless of their being spectacularly or poorly behaved on any given day; this may make those choices particularly their own, particularly demonstrative of who they are. Choices made when those choices are without consequence present an interesting look into the makeup of any real or imagined being.

I find myself observing people in the supermarket, in books I read, on TV shows I’m watching, and giving them “choice-test”, seeing if I can figure out what choices they’re making, why they’re making them, and what it says about them and their priorities; it also makes me wonder about one of the nuggets of wisdom that a character in a favorite movie once dropped.


Automatic Writing?


Automatic writing or psychography is a claimed psychic ability allowing a person to produce written words without consciously writing. The words purportedly arise from a spiritual or supernatural source.

I don't engage in automatic writing, although it sometimes feels like it.

I often don't know where the words come from... that seems like a startling admission for a writer to make, but it's true. Although I'm a plotter rather than a pantser when it comes to my writing, I sometimes end up surprised by what comes out of my brain through my fingers.

A week ago, I wrote a section of the novel I'm working on, a mystery, in which one of the protagonists related a story about his maternal grandfather and an odd encounter with a polar bear in Iceland to a pair of tertiary antagonists. I enjoyed the story as it came out and found its home in my story (a meta-story?) but had no idea how and why it would fit.

Often, when I'm writing a first draft, I don't worry about the how and why, or even if, it fits. I've got a general framework of the story in notes and on my working storyboard, so I feel free to let my mind wander a bit within that framework and am usually pleased with the results; when I'm not, when it doesn't work out, I can always chop the offending, or oddly fitting, piece.

In this case, though, I really had no idea about the transition from the story my character had related back to the flow of the larger story in which that character was operating/existing; so I put that part of the novel away, and worked on other things for a few days, hoping that it would come to me eventually.

Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't... there have been times when I had to prune a whole section from my work because the transition to the next part never came. 

Luckily, the connection came to me yesterday, although I didn't know it when I sat down to begin writing. My wife and I are on the Maine Coast for a few days, and she stayed down at the beach after our morning walk along the low-tide line while I poured a third cup of coffee, started Spotifying with some classical guitar noodling, and opened up the gDoc.

The words started pouring out, rushing through my fingers, Elmore (the protagonist) explaining the connection between his story and the story he was in to both me and to the Scozzofava cousins (the antagonists) at the same time. It felt like a nearly perfect fit (like everything in the first draft, it'll take some polish in subsequent drafts, but it felt right).

I wrote for four hours, minus breaks for coffee input and outflow, and then the words slowly trickled to a stop. The encounter, which is critical for a lot of the closing of the novel, had come together better than I had hoped, and after setting up the next chapter, my brain signaled my fingers that we were done for the day.

When the writing comes as a surprise to me as it flows out onto the computer screen, it can be a temptation to attribute it to the supernatural, but I think there's an easier, and more rational, answer.

I believe that parts of my brain I'm not fully aware of, not fully in control of, have been mulling over the story while I read and write other things for a couple of days; that the part I refer to as 'my backbrain', which I think of as a tiny attic-space in y skull in which a little old man wearing one of those old-timey banker's visors sifts through boxes of papers and photos and write notes to me in calligraphy using a quill and emerald-green ink, is always working on the story.

I love being surprised by what the guy in the back of my skull has to say, and love the interplay between my conscious and subconscious (or unconscious), and what they think about the tale the three of them are spinning in our first drafts.

It's not supernatural, but I'm not convinced it's not a kind of magic.


Gorilla vs. Guerilla Marketing, Amazon, Chapbooks, and Democratizing Writing

I posted on my blog about a month ago that I had in mind to produce a chapbook.

I fell in love with the idea of chapbooks when I learned about them at a residency during my MFA at Goddard College. Traditionally, a chapbook was a small/short book with a collection of essays or poems or stories, plainly bound and distributed cheaply or for free. My plan had been to find a few related stories I'd written and physically produce a chapbook to distribute by hand in my part of the world (I live right down by the NH, VT, MA border).

Covid got in the way of my plans, in that nowadays people don't pick up things that other people have left about; many people don't go out to bookstores and coffeeshops and parks, which were the spots I had planned to leave my chapbook.

Since I was still fond of the concept, I decided to go ahead, and the stories I'd written that most easily lent themselves to collecting were about, or dealt with, dogs. I worked with my wife to polish and edit the stories, discarding a few, adding a few that had felt as though they were 'missing' from the assemblage.

Having dropped the appealing idea of guerilla marketing through the action of distributing my writing throughout the local area in the hopes that people would like what they read and seek out more, I switched my approach to make use of gorilla marketing... more properly, 800-pound gorilla marketing.

Amazon, or more precisely, Amazon's KDP, is one of the largest publishers and distributors of print books and ebooks on the planet. If I couldn't go small, why not go huge, if I couldn't reach out locally, why not extend my reach across the whole planet?

That's what I did.

Using KDP's free website and production aids, I made my chapbook and it is now available all over the world. You can find my chapbook on my Amazon Author Page.

I write using a Chromebook for all sorts of reasons, so my output is in GoogleDocs, which works just fine for this process (although if you use MS Word, that's fine too, possibly a bit better/easier for reasons I'll explain below).

Recipe for a KDP Chapbook:
  • Establish the basics of your chapbook on your KDP bookshelf by hitting the "Create a New Title" button and filling in the information they ask for in the blanks.
  • Once you have the stories for the chapbook selected and edited, assemble them into one unified document.
  • If you want, you can include front matter and back matter and a table of contents if you'd like, but you don't have to... I included a lighter version of all of these things in my chapbook, because I wanted to, there aren't any rules, so do what you want.
  • Chapbooks are traditionally 40 pages or less, but mine was 83 pages, cover to cover... again, don't worry about it.
  • I used some pictures of my own for the front and back covers, and used the KDP Cover Creator, which is free, and like all of KDP has exhaustive tutorial documents and videos.
  • Once I had all of the above done, I went back in and adjusted the size of my book from 6X9 to 5.5X8.5... I did this for two reasons: first, I like the idea of a smaller book; second, this is a paper size that Gdocs has, so I didn't have to mess around and complicate my life trying to adjust or translate paper sizes.
  • I saved/downloaded the unified document into PDF format because, for some reason, KDP likes PDF.
  • Upload the PDF document to KDP using the buttons provided in the book "blank" you created in the first step of this recipe.
  • Check over how KDP translated and presented your book, cover and all... I don't know why, but there are almost always issues with an extra page or odd header issues, but you can fix that in the document, resave it as a new PDF, and re-upload.
  • Once you've got everything looking the way you want you can shift gears and begin thinking about pricing and distribution and making it an ebook as well as a print book... I priced mine at 99¢ for an ebook and $5 for a printed book; I did that because I like the idea of a cheap book, and getting my stories into the hands of anyone who want to read them (I also have to admit that I like poking a tiny stick into the eye of the publishing world that makes even tiny paperback $15-$20 nowadays, and routinely charges twice that for hardcovers).
  • Once you've done all of that, you're ready to hit the "Publish" button, then waiting while Amazon does whatever they do for 12-24 hours before your book goes live.
I'm planning to keep producing chapbooks, both collections and novellas, as time goes on... I hope you enjoy them, and that the word spread about this cool idea of smaller chunks of reading and writing.

If you have questions about the process, my process, my book or books, or about anything having to do with my writing, please get in touch. - JS


SmartPig Chapbooks Series, #1, "Dog is My Co-Pilot"

I'd never heard of, or thought about, chapbooks before learning about them while at Goddard, in pursuit of my MFA.

Chapbooks are simply tiny books. They're normally 20-40 page collections of poetry, fiction, essays, or some mix of a couple of things. I've decided to release a series of chapbooks based on an assortment of short stories that I love, but that haven't, to date, fit in any of the full-length books I'm working on.

My original plan was to follow an older chapbook tradition of printing, binding, and distributing the books by hand (well, by printer, stapler, and coffeeshop anyway), but Covid-19 got in the ways of those plans, so I'll be producing and distributing them through Amazon's KDP (Kindle Desktop Publishing).

I've gone this way with a number of my books for many reasons, the main ones being:
  • zero initial outlay of cash
  • ease of publishing in print and ebook formats
  • reach for readership
I continue to hear horror stories about writers talked into paying thousands of dollars to publish their work, boxes of which end up living in their basement, only appreciated by mold and mildew and mice. It takes very little time and effort to set up your new book for FREE using Amazon's publishing tools, including a free ISBN for your book.

At the end of the process, you upload a pdf or doc document, formatted to their specifications, and can have it produced in print, ebook, or both.

The real winner for me, as I imagine it would be for most writers, is the reach that Amazon, the 800-pound gorilla of the publishing world, has to offer for you and your book. My first book, Here Be Monsters, has sold about 10,000 copies worldwide since publication in 2013. I got feedback from a reader in Australia who was reading the print version within a month of hitting the "SUBMIT" button on KDP, and one day a few years ago sold a few dozen copies in Amazon's Indian market (I like thinking about a huge bookclub in Delhi discussing my Adirondack Murder Mystery).

I've gathered nine stories that I love into a collection for the chapbook, and have put them together in a preliminary ordering for my beta-reader to look over. The collection, as it stands now, is seventy-seven pages, a touch long for a chapbook, but if all nine stories work together and feel right to me and my readers when we're done, I won't worry about it.

My aim is to produce this chapbook, to learn about the process and feel through experimentation, and then to follow this one up with three more short collections of short fiction that all share some common theme.  My plan is to produce and sell the chapbooks through Amazon for under $5 for a print copy, and for 99¢ for the ebook version.

The cover above was produced using the KDP "Cover Creator" software, which is free and formats the text and images to fit the cover size that you select for your book... I'm a big fan because it's free, it's relatively easy to use, and I think it yields nice looking covers (disclosure: all of my books have made use of the KDP cover creator, and I like the way they look).

If you're interested, and/or have questions about the chapbook or how I use KDP, please feel free to get in touch with me... I'll try to answer your questions, and if they seem to have a broad appeal, I might address them in a blog entry.

Thanks for reading! - JS


My Ten Things....

My Ten

I recently read an article about Yo-Yo Ma, and how he's getting through the pandemic and isolation... it's a brilliant piece and he's an astonishing man, gifted and generous and kind and compassionate and thoughtful in multiple senses of the word.

(picture from NYT)

The article is titled: "Yo-Yo Ma Tries to Bring Us Comfort and Hope" (click the link to check it out).

A part of the article was his discussion about ten things that have helped him through the weeks, and months, of isolation and stress... I liked his list, and the thought behind it, enough that I worked to generate my own, which I'm sharing below.

  1. My family. Starting and ending the day with my wife, checking in with my son throughout the day, talking with my sister and parents on the phone… all these things make me feel secure that in a world I have very little control over, my social cornerstones are still there.

  2. My tortoises. I live with five tortoises, a Redfoot Tortoise, a Hingeback Tortoise, a Black Mountain Tortoise, and two Russian Tortoises. Without me, specifically, they’d die; that’s an awesome responsibility in every sense of the word. The daily and weekly routines associated with their caretaking grounds me.

  3. My Dogs. Puck and Olive love me. They think I’m a much better person than I am, which constantly pulls me towards that better Jamie. Gail and Ben could (and often do) care for them, so in a very real sense, the dogs give me much more than I give them. Puck normally sleeps spooned up with me (he’s the big spoon), and Olive checks in on me on a schedule of her own devising throughout the day and night, delivering kisses and flea-bites as she perceives that I need them.

  4. My friends. I’m not as good a friend as I should be. I always mean to do better at the little things that maintain friendships, but they fall out of my head before long. As a result (possibly by unconscious or subconscious design), I don’t have a lot of friends. The ones I have managed to keep over the years are special and interesting people all over the world and hearing from them via FB or email or Teams meeting or the occasional phone call keeps me tethered to “The Outside World” in a way that the previous three things cannot. Friends are the $20 bills in your jeans pockets that mother-time steals when you let her do your laundry.

  5. Music. Spotify is one of the drugs I use to maintain my sanity in the sea of craziness that the USA has become at the intersection of pandemic and race-riots and our idiot-king. I curate and steal and hoard playlists like a junkie, secure in the knowledge that this one or that one will come in handy when my mood jumps (or is pushed) off a cliff. I firmly believe that music can help to reprogram my mental state and body-chemistry.

  6. Cooking. I’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the kitchen since we locked out the rest of the world. A sourdough pretentiously named Prometheus has been a big part of recent experiments, but I’ve also been making pizzas from scratch, a Mexican hot sauce based on a Korean hot sauce, and fermented foods and drinks of all kinds. It’s a pleasant and useful distraction from worries about the things we all worry about, and utilitarian, since we can’t go out to eat (it’s amazing how much we used to eat out or order in).

  7. Writing. Of course, who knows why I waited until number seven to talk about writing. I write every day, some for sharing online, some for future publication, some just to let off steam from a pressure valve that otherwise might sail past the redline and end up in some cartoony explosion. I’m working on a novel along with a quartet of novellas, a quartet of chapbook collections of shorts, and a couple of individual stories that don’t fit anywhere else.

  8. News Aggregators. I read a lot of news. Lots of the news these days is depressing or fake or horrific or repetitive, so I use a number of news aggregators to filter and sort my news for me. I like reading a bit about Covid-19, a bit about the POS-POTUS, along with lots of articles about the environment, tortoises, cooking, writing, TV/movies, and a number of areas of interest… I get these things in nearly the perfect proportions from the apps I use.

  9. Reading. Besides news, I read a fair amount of fiction (not as much as I should, or would like to, but I keep meaning to fix that). I’ve found in the COVID months that I enjoy re-reading stuff I’ve enjoyed in the past. Good stories are a shelter I can climb down into and hide for as long as necessary, letting the words wash over my brain, soothing things, letting the lizard-bits at the base of my skull do the repaired necessary to keep me functioning another day/week/month.

  10. Drinking. I drink a lot. Certainly more water than anyone you likely know (thanks to Sj√∂gren's Syndrome), probably more coffee than you’d think, and perhaps less bourbon than you’d guess. The act of bringing liquids into my body is control, controlling metabolism and health and mood and energy with a simple sip or swallow.

I'd love to hear from you about what things (ten or otherwise) have helped you through the recent months... thanks for reading!

Be safe and healthy - JS


Housesitting Writing Retreat How-To

I'm trying something new. 

I'm on a writing retreat in someone else's house; I didn't break-in, they invited me (I'm like a vampire in that respect, I only enter other people's places when invited... in other respects, I'm not at all like a vampire).

It's a lovely house near Boston... lots of room, lots of light, lots of privacy and quiet. I love writing in my home for all sorts of reasons, but sometimes enjoy writing someplace else for precisely those reasons.

I find things to do besides write. I noodle around in the SmartPig kitchen. I play with the dogs. I watch TV and cook with/for my family. I do laundry or dishes. I feed and soak and measure the tortoises. I go grocery shopping more frequently than seems absolutely necessary. There are lots of ways to distract myself from writing when I'm at home.

When I go to Starbucks or my parents' house or to Goddard to watch friends graduate, I generally get a lot of writing done. It occurred to me that I could make a habit of periodically finding a way to get out of the house for a few days of writing.

The next thing that occurred to me is that I'd like to find a way to do that without having to spend a ton of money to do that writing... I found a way.

Trusted Housesitters is that way, for me. I found their website and joined and tried to find a couple of housesits close by, in case they were a scam (they weren't). I'm staying in a person's house for four days while they're away, taking care of their cats, Taz and Mack.

Trusted Housesitter is the middleman, connecting a person in need of place to stay with a person in need of a person to stay in their house and take care of their beasts. They have them all over the world, and it seems like it could be a great way to travel.

I love staying in AirBnbs because you avoid the lifelessness of hotels, but with this, I get to stay for free and to hang out with animals (if you don't like animals, this might be a downside, but since I do like animals, a lot, it's an upside). I get to live, for a while, in a neighborhood, as a local. I can cook my own meals, walk around and get a feel for someplace new, and most importantly... write, in peace and quiet and private and for free.

The house I'm living in this week is spacious and lovely and has several places to write and read and lounge.

It has a lovely and functional and well-stocked kitchen. I've mostly made coffee so far, but also a few meals, and there's a beautiful grocery store a few minutes walk away from the house that I'm dying to explore for treats/rewards for myself for the excellent writing days ahead.

Another living room at the front of the house, on the quiet street. I've done some reading there as well as in the living room back by the kitchen.

Between the two, there's a room with a piano in it, and while I'm horrible on a piano, it's fun to noodle around on it, and the cats aren't judging me (out loud at least).

The house is filled with lovely and spacious bedrooms with great light... I could probably sleep in a different one every night, but that'd be more cleanup for me in the end (I want to leave the house, and cats, in good shape so that the owner will give me a good review upon their return so that I can get more housesitting gigs in the future).

The bathrooms are lovely and modern and make my shower-singing sound even better than usual... the cats don't agree, but that's fine with all of us.

I periodically look up from my writing to find the cats staring at me with murder, or at least distrust, in their eyes but as long as I'm opening cans for them every twelve hours (and scooping litter once a day) I'm pretty sure they'll restrain themselves for the duration of my stay.

If you're interested in Trusted Housesitters (and honestly, why wouldn't you be, even if you're not looking for a writing retreat), you can follow one of the links I've scattered throughout the blog above and check out the site. The bonus is that if you use the link I posted, you'll get 25% off their annual fee of $109 (adjusts to $81.75, if you were wondering)... on first look that might seem like a lot for a middleman website, but I figure mine's already more than paid for itself with this first stay (probably with the first night).

In the spirit of full disclosure, if you sign up with TH, I get two months added to my membership, but that's not why I'm sharing it... I'm sharing it because I think it's a wonderful idea, a wonderful service (for both parties), a wonderful way to explore the world while staying out of hotels, and a wonderful way to get some writing done.

Anyway, I wanted to share what I'm doing this week, and what I hope to be doing more of in the future... TH has housesits in Egypt and Iceland and Mexico and Australia and Scotland and Italy, and I want to try them all!

I'm working on my next novel, "The World Beneath the World", while I'm here, and so far, I've been getting some good writing done.



Plans for 2020

Welcome to the new year!

My latest book, a collection of short stories, is doing well on Amazon and in some of the indie bookstores I've been working with for a while. I've gotten some good reviews online and through word of mouth.

I've heard from a few people who loved the Tyler books that they didn't love this collection... that's OK. Not all books are for all people, not everyone has to like everything an author publishes. I like the stories in the collection, a lot, and think they provide readers with a clean window into what I'm writing and thinking about or was at the time I wrote them.

I'm currently about 20k words deep into my next book, a mystery novel, and am excited about the way this first draft feels. I'm hoping to finish my first pass in March, then start the process of rewrites and edits through the spring and summer, with an eye towards publication in the fall or winter.

I had a great visit to Goddard last week. I went primarily to see some members of my original cohort who were graduating a semester after me, but also to enjoy a few days of writing retreat with a friend and fellow MFAW graduate. Both were fantastic!

I'll be going to the AWP conference in San Antonio in March, representing Goddard, and remembering the Alamo. It's something I've looked longingly at previously but never been able to talk myself into before now.

I've got my CV in for a number of teaching jobs, fingers crossed, but will keep pushing for more and different work and writing options and opportunities.

Thanks for reading, and for spreading the word.