Saturday, October 24, 2015

Writers in the Spotlight: Rob Dinsmoor

This is the first in a series of author interviews in which I will try to get an author to tell me all their secrets in the spirit of Literary Exhibitionism. The spotlight is on, the writer is ready, the interview is about to commence. First up, ROB DINSMOOR! A little about Rob...

Robert Dinsmoor is a freelance writer and yoga teacher. He has published hundreds of articles on health and medicine as well as pieces for Games, Paper, National Lampoon, and Nickelodeon Magazine and scripts for Nickelodeon and MTV.  He has written fictive memoirs titled Tales of the Troupe, The Yoga Divas and Other Stories, and You Can Leave Anytime and co-authored a children’s picture book called Does Dixie Like Me? 

So, Rob, thanks for stopping by my virtual home. I'm about to ask you the tough questions, the literary questions, the complex questions. The kind of questions you sit with, much like a Zen kōan, for hours or days or years. Here we go...
J: Writing is hard.  Why do you do it?
R: It’s a compulsion.  I can’t not write.  It’s an opportunity to have complete control over one small area of my life.

J: Do you write full time or part time?  And what is your writing process/routine?
I’m semi-retired but spend about 20-30 hours a week writing both nonfiction health-medical articles and my fictive memoirs.  My writing process for nonfiction is very different from my fiction work.  For nonfiction, I begin by doing a lot of research on-line, downloading relevant articles and scientific papers.  Then I carefully underline relevant parts of the documents, spread the documents out in front of me, and painstakingly hand-write a very rough draft.  This is a tedious task, requiring a lot of focus, and I take frequent breaks. (Most of my housework gets done while I’m writing these drafts.)  If I need to interview experts on the subject, I like to have good mastery of the material before I talk with them.  I tape and transcribe the interviews, print them out, and underline the information and quotes I might want to use.  Then I rewrite my article according to the new information and carefully insert quotes where they seem to fit. The final stage is editing and making the words flow, so that the reader never has to slow down to figure something out.

For creative work, I write at the keyboard, as I’m a fast typist and want the thoughts to flow quickly.  I start with individual stories or scenes and then patch them together and edit them.  If I get stuck, I jump to the next scene. 

J: When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and who/what were your early influences/inspirations?
R: I wanted to be a writer starting around age 11.  I was a big fan of horror movies, especially Vincent Price movies.  I soon learned that they were based on stories written by someone named Edgar Allan Poe, and that other writers made them into scripts.  It was a mind-blowing revelation that writing stories could actually be a person’s career!  The first stories I wrote were about werewolves.  Then my parents, oddly and wisely, bought me Playboy anthologies of horror and science fiction, and while I didn’t understand all their nuances, they introduced me to more sophisticated writing.  Those writers, including Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, and Jerome Bixby, were remarkably smart and creative, and I started seeing their names in the credits for movies, Twilight Zone, and Star Trek. Gradually, my interests widened to intelligent science fiction, satire, and the world of books as a whole.

J: What was the last book you read?
R: I just finished Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones.  The author is a crime reporter who traced the current epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse to a number of factors.  One was a paradigm shift in the treatment of chronic pain, when pain specialists decided that opiates were very safe based on a widely cited “landmark study” from 1980.  It turns out that it was actually a Letter to the Editor making observations about opiate use in a small number of hospitalized patients.  Using this “landmark study,” pharmaceutical reps began to aggressively market highly addictive opiates for all kinds of pain.  The book also describes the ingenious way black tar heroin was sold all over the U.S. in ways that largely escaped detection by law enforcement.  The book is so fascinating and crisply written, I couldn’t wait get back to it.

J: What do you want readers to take away from reading You Can Leave Anytime?
R: Going through drug/alcohol rehab was such a bizarre experience it took me a few years to get my head around it.  The book is a gentle reminder to other high-functioning alcoholics that things can go downhill very fast.  Second, it’s about trying to make the best of life when you have very little control.  And, as bizarre as my experiences at the “Wetlands” were, I got sober there and stayed sober-- probably as a result of three months of abstinence as well as better understanding of addiction and tools to cope with it.  The book is also about recovery, taking all the dogma with a grain of salt and choosing the methods that work best for you.

J: Do you ever find yourself creatively blocked and, if so, how do you find your way through?
R: Sure.  I usually have a few long-term writing projects going on and, if I hit a snag, I re-read what I’ve written, start to fix and embellish, and pretty soon I’m writing fresh material.  When I really haven’t any idea what to write, I sometimes read some of my best writing, which gives me confidence, and read my favorite authors for inspiration.

J: What’s the most important part of a story (beginning, end, setting, dialogue)? 
R: They’re all important!  I tend to start with a setting, geographical or emotional or both, and invite the reader into that world.  I create that world through the judicious use of sensory details and character.  And dialogue is very important because nothing brings characters to life like what comes out of their mouths.  Beginnings are also important because you have to hook readers or they won’t keep reading.

J: I rather love prompts and post them weekly here. Do you ever use prompts?*
R: Not really.

J: What advice do you have for other writers?
R: Write about you know, even if it’s all made up (like H.P. Lovecraft did).  In terms of character, I always recommend finding the central paradox that defines each character.  Make your violent thug something of a white knight when it comes to women.  Maybe your geek writes bullying letters to the editor.  Make your heroes a little irritating and make us care what happens to your villains.

J: What advice do you have for humor writers?
R: Brevity is the soul of wit.  When it’s time for  the punch line, cut to the chase and don’t put in a lot of extraneous material to distract the reader.  And while it’s important to let your reader in on the joke, don’t explain the joke for them and ruin the pleasure of figuring it out.  The reader must be an accomplice.  If you tell a really good raunchy joke and people laugh, they are just as guilty as you are because they had to make the connection.

J: What’s the best advice you ever received (on writing or anything else)?
R: Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Life is too full of real tragedies to get caught up in minor slights, insults, and disappointments.  I don’t like to live melodramas—I only like to write about them.

J: What are you working on now?
R: One is a short story collection, 32 Dogs, the title of which comes from a poem I wrote about an African American friend in Southern Indiana (where I grew up) whose dogs chased off visiting Klan members. The collection is about the intersection between love and ferocity.  The other is a science fiction novel called Ageless Dilettantes, about a bratty antihero who is somehow invincible to the ravages of age and disease—and is guided by morbid fascination.  Over the course of many decades, he lives through wars, plagues, cults, opium dens, tuberculosis sanatoriums, a half-baked attempt to mimic Houdini’s death-defying escapes, atom bomb tests, and LSD mind control experiments.  In a strange way, it’s autobiographical. 

I look forward to reading the new work, Rob! Thanks for stopping by.

*This week's prompt: Try your hand at comedy writing. Under a thousand words, no more than two characters, and take Rob's advice. I paraphrase: Don't over-explain, just tell the damn joke. Readers are smart, they'll fill in the blanks. 
If you get stuck, read one of Rob's fantastic books to see how it's done.

Friday, October 2, 2015

A Week of Observations: P2

It was another long but rewarding week, and here are a few things I learned (digression: making lists is my new thing - I've been making all kinds of lists lately, and they've been bringing me great joy. Lists are highly recommended. If we get a Yelp for random things the way we're getting a Yelp for people, I would give Lists 5 stars). That said, my week of lessons in a list:
  • Starbucks is fast food (and expensive fast food at that, but the new drive-thrus are freaky cool)
  • I can't do it all; it's okay to turn down work
  • Emu oil can cure almost anything
  • Strange is okay
  • Freelancing work may not pick up for years, but when it picks up, it picks up fast
  • Travel is necessary for artists
  • It's good to practice what I prescribe
  • Not everyone has to "get" everyone else... let it be
  • Sleep is necessary for sanity
  • Complaining doesn't help anything
  • There's a National Coffee Day and I am its newest self-appointed ambassador 
  • Opportunities come in groups
  • Sometime you need to tell people to shut up, even if you don't know them (but only if they're being horribly inappropriate)
  • Investing a little time in organizational efforts reduces a lot of paper shuffling time later
  • I am a sugar addict (it's bad - I need help)
  • Having more than one full-length manuscript complete when submitting work is a very comforting feeling (good vibes are welcome)
  • Making lists keeps me on track
Writing prompt: Try writing a list poem. It can turn the way of flash, or not. I like the idea of writing a list of things in a junk drawer, as outlined on Poetry Soup. But this can be a mere catalyst. 

Observations: Dublin Vacation

Dublin seemed the obvious destination. We would be close to various restaurants and tourist attractions. It would be easy to call a cab or...