Take Your Creativity On A Treasure Hunt


So, I’m in the process of moving into my own place, a new place, a place in need of your used kitchen appliances and unwanted Tupperware. You know, the kinds of things that a guy moving into his own apartment doesn’t necessarily have in his back pocket (not that anyone has these things in their back pocket, because..that’s just…a blender? In your back pocket? That’s just…that would be extremely uncomfortable..and impractical…and potentially impossible. Enough! Figurative back pocket blenders! Ah, that’s better).

But don’t get me wrong, this is not a cry for your cast off, cast iron cooking skillet (but if you’re offering…). No, this is a blog about what an incredibly rich land of story potential and creative opportunity flea markets, auctions, and yard sales are. You see, in my pursuit of outfitting my new place, a place we shall henceforth refer to as THE DEATH STAR! No…..MORDOR!! No…the TARDIS? No….a place we shall henceforth refer to as “Joe’s Place” or “The House of Joe” and occasionally as “the Magnificent Joe Empire” I have been visiting markets and yard sales and such. Those places are absolutely awesome for writers to wander through!! I’ve taken to calling my market treks as “treasure hunting expeditions” because of what you find within and how it relates to writing. So here are my four main points for why flea markets and yard sales are treasure troves waiting for the intrepid writer:

1. Objects as potential stories: You never know WHAT you are going to find while wandering through the market. What’s that old adage? One person’s trash is another persondollhead‘s treasure? There are so many interesting objects just crying out to spark the catalyst of a story. In fact, I once wrote an entire short story about a monkey skull I’d seen at a yard sale! Yes, there was a…no, I don’t know why…no, I did not buy the monkey skull. But wander through, see what grabs your attention and then think about why it did. Was it odd? Scary? Funny? Unique? Start asking yourself questions, ask “what if,” let your imagination start creating a history behind the object. For example, what’s the deal with this creepy doll head I saw? Who did it belong to? Why is it smiling (what does it know that we don’t)? Where’s the rest of the doll? What might that doll have seen? Or take this set of samurai Samuraiswords. They belonged to the seller’s deceased brother. My mind starts going into weird places, like, was his brother slain in battle? Fighting ninjas? Monsters? Monstrous ninjas? Was his brother deceased when he took up the swords? Was he a zombie samurai!? Or maybe they were a family heirloom. Maybe his family served the Shogun of Japan. Maybe those were the Shogun’s swords! Maybe his brother was a crime fighter, or a time traveller, or a thief who had taken them from the home of the descendants of a famous samurai and now they were going to come looking for the swords and they were going to break into “The House of Joe” to get them (because that’s where they’re going) and I’d have to fight them off with the cast iron skillet that I don’t have!

2. Objects as character items: So, you’re trying to get into your character a little more, trying to really understand their personality, make them deeper, more believable. HooflampWhat kinds of objects might they put in their home, or what kinds of objects define them? You can tell a lot about a person by the things he/she might surround themselves with. Maybe Jimbo, your trailer-living private eye and off-season game warden, needs himself a new lamp. Maybe he just won himself a few bucks on a scratch off lottery ticket and he’s got his eyes all set on a new lamp. The kind of lamp the fellas are gonna be jealous of when they come by for bean dip and poker. You know the one, that deer hoof lamp on display in the window at Marshall’s Department Store. Take a walk through the market, see if you can find something that has your character’s name all over it.

3. Object histories as stories: Sometimes you find stories behind the object itself. These are sometimes touching, sometimes beautiful, sometimes remarkable, sad, or scary. Part of the fun of treasure hunting through the markets is talking to the sellers and finding out what they’re selling, and why, and where it came from. Sometimes the stories stand on their own, or sometimes they’re ripe to be tweaked, twisted, and elaborated on. Like my new Hemingway-esque photo (9)trunk/coffee table…this was hand-carved in Italy. An American soldier bought it while stationed overseas. After he passed away, his belongings were collected and placed into a storage unit. The seller bought the unit and everything that came with it, to include papers and letters…letters to a son he’d had with a woman from overseas, a son he’d never spoken to. Stories, people…they’re all around us.

4. Objects spark description: You’ve got this creepy neighbor character that happens to dress up as a clown and do kids’ birthday parties, but you’re not quite sure what kind of clown look you want. Sure, you could Google clown pics and surf the web, or you could get out, get some fresh air, and find that almost every market happens to have at least one person selling a creepy clown picture. Bam! Reference material, fresh air, and the creeps! Really, why are there so many clown paintings? And who hangs these things in their house?

IMG_3594  clown2


So there you have it, four reasons why flea markets and yard sales are so great for writers. Go on, get out there, feed your creativity…and who knows, maybe you’ll come home with a story idea AND a deer hoof lamp (NO, I did NOT buy the deer hoof lamp).

Happy writing, friends!


My ALS #IceBucketChallenge Response


So, my friend, Amy (A.S.) King has so generously slapped me with the icy cold gauntlet of the #IceBucketChallenge. If you are somehow unaware of what this is, it is a fun (and chilly) way to help fight against ALS. You take the challenge, donate what you can, and help spread the word. Plus, you get to watch people dump ice cold water over their heads, on the interwebs. If you don’t accept the challenge, you’re supposed to donate your soul (kidding), and you get called out over the web, and people everywhere will snigger and laugh behind your back and call you names that you have never even heard of. Really though, it’s a good cause, a silly challenge, and an opportunity for a spot of interwebs fun.

Read here for more details: http://www.alsa.org/fight-als/ice-bucket-challenge.html

Anywho, as I was saying, A.S. King Tweet-called me out and so, in gentlemanly fashion, I pick up the gauntlet and respond via this video: Click HERE.


And, I further challenge my wunderbar literary agent, Linda Epstein, and the extremely talented and hilarious writer, R.L. Saunders, to step up and accept the glove of frigid H2O buffoonery with which I have tauntingly slapped them.


Must Have the Precious


Maybe it was the irregular sleep chart patterns. Maybe it was finding that everyone around me was simply breathing too loudly, or too close to me, or that their eyelids made noises when they moved. Maybe it was the incessant pacing, or the growling, or the muttering, or the fact that I answered anyone who dared speak to me in some angry, eldritch language. Or that my eyes were red, or that I was hovering eighteen inches off the floor, shooting lightning bolts from my eyes….

I mean, really, it could have been any one of those things. One of those things that told me…you’ve been away from the words too long


He didn’t write today

Because that’s just it. As writers, we crave the story. We need to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, or chisel to tablet (and if that’s you, you may seriously want to consider upgrading your routine). We need to pour out the words. We need to greet that page or screen (no, stop it, stone tablet writer…I’m not mentioning you. You just need to get with the times). We need to create. In short we need to write, and we need to write frequently. Ideally, every day, even if you can only find the time to get a few words down. A few is better than zero. We NEED to WRITE.

Yes, yeah, I know, I know….life, and jobs, and kids, and raising chickens, and commuting, and cooking, and fatigue and back alley games of ultimate backgammon. Dude, I get it. Life happens. It happens to all of us. And I’m writing this post to let you know that when you turn into a monster, that it’s ok. That it’s NORMAL. You’re a writer. It happens to all of us. It’s an occupational hazard (to everyone around us).

I’m writing this because after two days of zero words and then one where I produced less than I would have liked, I began to feel the symptoms (see paragraph 1). Then I realized, by Neptune’s beard,  we’re like Tolkien’s Gollum, from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings! Our writing is our Precious!

“We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious.” – Gollum

When we are writing and producing, we are clutching our Precious; happy and content and singing weird songs to ourselves in dank caves. What? You don’t? When something steals our time, or life intrudes, or the word count does not add up to much at the end of the week, we may find ourselves running amok, shrieking “They stole it from us! Sneaky little hobbitses. Wicked, tricksy, false!” We grow irritable, confused, anxious, and prone to levitating, speaking in alien tongues and shooting lightning bolts from glowing red eyes.

Don’t shoot lightning bolts from glowing red eyes. Get writing.

WCCI’ve joined Jessica Cooper in holding ourselves accountable by keeping a weekly tally and then posting a pic of it on Twitter #WCC (Word Count Club). Basically you list each date Sun-Sat, with the number next to it, and then a weekly total. Even zeros. That’s right, big ‘ol goose eggs are a helluva a kick in the [deleted for family content's sake]. Seeing three days of zeros is enough to light an inferno under your posterior. There’s no prize, just a visual look at what you’re doing, public accountability, and the admiration and/or commiseration of your fellow writers. So, I’m hoping you’ll join us in Tweeting your #WCC pics.

Hold on to your Precious, my friends….because the Hobbits of life will try and take it from you.

Go To The Mountain

photo (8)

Image courtesy of Heather Demetrios

What does that even mean? Guy disappears from his blog for a month and comes back with cryptic messages about going to some mountain? Well, I’m about to tell you what that means and what it might mean for you. My own journey towards that mountain has taken me away from the interwebs for a bit and, as the universe is so keen  to do, this metaphor has cropped up in Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech and in my friend, Heather Demetrios‘s, Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate lecture.

Go to the Mountain. In Gaiman’s speech, he explains that he imagined where he wanted to be (an author, making good books, able to make a living from his stories, etc.) was a mountain. A distant mountain. It was his goal. Furthermore, he says “…I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”  He explains that he said no to writing jobs (editorial, magazines, etc) that might have paid more money, because at the time it would have taken him away from the mountain. Had they come earlier in his career, he might have taken them (because they’d be closer than he was at the time to the mountain).

This is an absolutely wonderful metaphor. What is your mountain? What is your goal? And are you making decisions to reach that mountain? Will you be like Thorin and the dwarves of Erabor, striving to claim what is yours? Sorry, couldn’t resist an opportunity to throw in a Tolkien analogy.

No one is going to just swoop down from the summit and give you what you want. You have to take strides. You have to leave the comforts of your Shire (now I’m on a Tolkien roll, see what you’ve done?). You have to keep the summit in sight and move ever on and on, choosing those paths that will lead you closer to what you want.

You have to make decisions and you have to move forward. You do…IF you want it bad enough. For each of us, those decisions, those paths, may be very different. It may mean the jobs you take (or do not), the places you live (or do not), the social events you decline, the extraneous activities you cut out, or the sleep you do not get. That journey towards the mountain may mean vast changes for some, and small changes for others. It may mean a change in the people in your life. It may mean surrounding yourself with friends who truly support and encourage and share similar goals and beliefs. It may mean changes in relationships. It may mean a complete life change, an absolute shaking of your personal tree. For some, the decisions may be easy. For others, it may require much more difficult and/or complicated decisions. Easy or hard, minor or major, you make those decisions so that you can move forward, step after step after step, journeying towards that mountain. And that journey can be wonderful, exciting, and full of discovery, life, and love.

Just like our characters, we must move forward to achieve our desires, to reach our goals, to grow and change. We must go to the mountain.

Ask yourself, are you moving towards the mountain, or have you wandered off the path? Are the decisions you make taking you towards your dreams? Are your sights truly set on the mountain? And what does that mean? What ARE your goals? What sits atop that mountainous, snow-capped summit?

I hope you get there, and that you find what you are looking for. In the meantime, keep moving forward.

Go to the Mountain.

Everyone Has a Story to Tell


Everyone is tattooed!

Ok, maybe not “everyone,” but it seems like the majority of people I know, or see, or meet, have at least one tattoo. Age, profession, social class…it doesn’t matter. There are octogenarians getting their first ink; doctors with half-sleeves; Kindergarten teachers with their ribs done. Tattoos are not just for pirates, bikers, rebels, or criminals any more (in truth, tattoos existed as social, religious, and cultural marks long before they became the mark of the rogue or outsider, but that is another story).

I went to the indoor water park the other day and couldn’t help but notice the amount of ink walking around; older men and women, younger men and women, moms, dads, artsy looking folk, or conservative slant…it didn’t matter. There was a lot of ink. As a writer, I observe and record, keeping an eye out for potential story and/or character material. I like to watch and listen for details. So, I pay special attention to what I see. In this instance, people’s tattoos.

Names, and dates, and portraits, and entire scenes; characters and symbols and song lyrics. Each tattoo was unique to that person. I was in getting some of my own work done last week and I askedtattoo one of the guys if anyone still pulled “flash” (pre-drawn pieces of art available as tattoos) off the wall. Not many people do anymore. It’s just like some unspoken tattoo parlor code that you simply must display flash for customers or else your ink dries up and your tattoo machines stop working. But most people come in with custom ideas, or art, and work with the tattoo artist to create ink unique to them. Maybe it’s their grandmother’s picture, or a tribute to a friend who has died. Maybe it’s a passage from a book, or a symbol of what drives them (like a whisk for a chef or something). Whatever it is, it’s meaningful to them; it says something. Because they have something to say and they want to display it on their body, FOREVER, to let the world know/see.

They have a story to tell and they want to share it. Like writers, they have something important enough to say that they are willing to put it out there, to expose themselves, to make a permanent mark.

Writing is the same. Our stories are our ink. Our books are our bodies. Once you publish, post, send, distribute, or share your work, it’s out there; you are exposing yourself. You are displaying something, by choice; something you feel is important enough to share with the world.

We all have stories to tell. As writers, we shouldn’t just be pulling “flash” off the wall. Make it meaningful. Make it count. Make it your own.

We all have stories to tell. What is yours?

Musing on the Magic of Middle-Graders


Having three young boys, I am often reminded of the magic that exists at that age; how their minds process the world. It is a unique blend of awe and curiosity, coupled with slow-drying beliefs based on experience and exposure (like a blob of Elmer’s glue drying on the page, it can still be smeared if pressed upon before drying). It is an age where innocence balances on the border of maturity and imagination still has a healthy part in looking at the world and then looking beyond it, to places that exist in story or dreams; to see things busy adults, or practical minds are either incapable of seeing or simply dismiss. Middle-grade is that wonderful age where children begin to develop independence, while craving adventure; they don’t need the constant security and protection that a younger child requires, and they have not fallen into that hormonal whirlwind of adolescence.

If this age were an era, it might be termed the Age of Discovery.

Summer is almost upon us and middle-graders far and wide will be home, removed from the classroom and homework, lessons and teachers. There will be baseball games, and fireflies, trees to climb, dares, and tag, and hide and go seek, and forts, and bicycles, skateboards, ramps, and races. There might be clubs, and codes, and rock collections.

photo (6)As I write this, there is a fort in my living room, made out of blankets and dining room chairs. There is a jar of tadpoles that the boys came home with yesterday. They (the boys, not the tadpoles) have magic wands they carved themselves out of sticks they found in the woods. They’ve turned the old swing set into a fort and perch in it, hatching plans, while our one-eyed puppy sits up there with them, watching for eavesdroppers. The other night we toasted marshmallows and made S’mores and as the night crept in, the boys danced around in the dark, finding wood for the fire and challenging each other as to who could make the “perfect” S’more. And in the dark, there might be monsters, or fairies and the flames might belch forth jets of dragonfire.

As a father, I encourage these moments of inventiveness and exploration. As an adult, I secretly revel in them, drinking them in like an elixir of youthfulness. As a children’s writer, I record them, adding to the vault of story material and middle-aged relevance.

So take this as a reminder, whether you have children of your own or not, to be mindful of the magic that middle-graders will create, experience, discover, and revel in. Be mindful of it. Let it fuel your inner child. Let it fuel your stories.

And maybe…maybe build a fort of your own. Really, who says that we have to grow up?

where Writing meets Storytelling meets Playtime


IMG_2238I love writing. LOVE it.

I love everything about it and I’d better, right? I’m a writer. If I didn’t love it why would I do it? Because we all know how easy it is… [sarcasm: the use of irony to mock]

But I don’t just love writing, no. I love storytelling. I write to tell stories. I don’t write instruction manuals or greeting cards (and no offense to those who do), I write STORIES.

So, two things: writing and stories. Love them. Good, got that, Joe. You love writing and stories. Ok, but hold on..I’m not done. I also love games that foster creativity, develop and depend on imagination, and encourage storytelling – especially when it involves the writing of stories. I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons and more role-playing game systems than I can remember. I’ve traveled thousands of worlds, in thousands of different bodies. I’ve been beyond the farthest reaches of space and journeyed to the center of the Earth. I’ve led armies and faced unspeakable horrors and ridden airships over sand swept arid wastelands where witches on the backs of scorpions hurled hexes at me. I’ve saved kingdoms and crumbled empires and died a thousand times. I have followed my imagination where it has led me and I’ve done so with groups of like-minded folk.

storiumSo, some of you may have seen me Tweeting and screaming about this thing called Storium. This is not a sales pitch…their Kickstarter campaign is over. Storium is an online storytelling game where you and a group of people share in the telling of a story. Any story you can imagine! The only limits are your imagination. This is an excerpt from their site:

Storium is a web-based online game that you play with friends. It works by turning writing into a multiplayer game. With just your computer, tablet, or smart phone, you can choose from a library of imaginary worlds to play in, or build your own. You create your story’s characters and decide what happens to them. You can tell any kind of story with Storium. The only limit is your imagination.

Storium uses familiar game concepts inspired by card games, role-playing games, video games, and more. In each Storium game, one player is the narrator, and everyone else takes on the role of a character in the story. The narrator creates dramatic challenges for the other players to overcome. In doing so, they move the story forward in a new direction. Everyone gets their turn at telling the story.”

As I write this, I am involved in several games: I am Finnur Helgasson, a Skald, in a viking game; I am Garrett Mackenzie, a young gambler in a game where the Old West meets the X-Men; I am Stephen Kimball, a university professor who has lost everything, in a game about worlds colliding and reality warping; I am Dillon Mcafferty, a young werewolf, in an urban supernatural/fantasy game with witches and vampires; I am Sebastian Grimm, a lucid dreamer in a contemporary Wonderland; and I am Zara Grey, an occultist, in a gritty steampunk game. In each one of these games, the collective storytelling and unfolding tale is so inspiring and exciting to be a part of.

See, the thing is…I do all this on MY time. The stories slowly unfold, when people have time to jump in and write a part, or react. There’s no pressure. I’m playing with people from Sweden, and the UK, and Australia, and California. So, there’s time zones, etc. It’s convenient. So, instead of that twitch to distract myself via Twitter or Facebook surfing, I jump on and play my Storium games.

AND THIS HAS FURTHER FUELED MY WRITING! It’s been like drinking a dozen Red Bulls for my writing. I’ve always said that writers need to take their creative muscles to the gym. I teach my students to do writing exercises, or free writes, to warm up. This is like staying constantly limber. And you know what? It’s made me love writing EVEN MORE (like that’s possible). But it is, it’s made me feel like that 12-year-old who wrote stories in his spiral-bound notebook and shared them with his friends at recess.

It invigorates me every day. It’s pushed me to write even more and the more we write, the better we get.

So, I urge you all to check it out. Writers especially, but you don’t have to be a writer. Not everyone using Storium is. There are all kinds of folks, but the one thing they share is the desire to tell a story and I think that we’re all storytellers at heart. This is a place where you can go to play…and still write, still imagine, still swap tales and meet people with equally wonderful imaginations.

But don’t just take my word for it. 6, 676 other people felt the same way. 6, 676 backers believed in this project enough that the Storium team raised $251,362 (1005% of their goal). They will be able to bring Storium to schools and they’ll be able to provide (at the start) 60 worlds to play in that come from professional game designers, industry giants, award-winning novelists, screenwriters, and storytellers.

I’m happy to have backed this project and I’m excited at what it could mean for so many potential young authors, not to mention how it could be used to encourage writing and reading in a youth growing up in a digital world. I’m using it already with my children. And I’m thankful for how it has given me back my youthful vigor and fueled my enthusiasm for writing.

So, check it out for yourself: STORIUM……   I hope to see you and share a story or two soon.

- j