Writing is more than a hobby for me, and I spend a lot of time putting words on the page. So far, none of that has translated into paid work, but I have placed in some writing competitions and broadened the scope of my writing. One of the best ways I’ve found to do that is by tackling writing prompts.
The world of Torthal, the Crossroads series, and my current Jack story (on submission with magazines right now) are all products of writing prompts. Prompts take me out of my comfort zone, allow me to explore ideas I might not otherwise approach, and give me permission to imagine beyond the limits I normally impose on myself. All of these are great ways to expand my writing, but they also do the one other thing I encourage other writers to do. Write.
Boredom with a given idea or character can set in and stunt my desire to write, but a new prompt opens up a new world to explore. That kind of open ended potential really kicks my creative process into high gear. So that has been a powerful lesson for me over the summer, pushing my boundaries and staying in the chair.
Jack stories started in Britain and migrated to America with the colonists. They are short stories (or nursery rhymes) centered on the titular character, Jack. You may know Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack and Jill, and Jack be Nimble, or more esoteric tales like Jack the Giantkiller. American versions of these tales and rhymes exist too, where Jack consistently beats obstacles his brothers Tom and Will are unable to overcome.
I’ve added my take to the character of Jack and given him some new obstacles to overcome. The premise is similar, Jack is a regular guy who encounters decidedly unusual situations and characters. His wit, his compassion, and in this case, his employer allow him to triumph over seemingly impossible odds. Anyway, that is where I’m starting off, I’ll keep you up to date with where Jack’s stories lead me.
For me, writing fiction wasn’t taught, it’s something I’m learning. It’s an ongoing process of revision, trial and error – in fact, too many errors. While I’m sure there are other paths out there, in my experience, the best thing any teacher ever did for my writing was get out of the way, and let me stumble along to the finish line.
The American educational system, such as it is, doesn’t excel at teaching new writers. They may be good at the mechanical aspects of grammar, they are even good at curating good books to read, but building worlds populated by original characters is beyond the scope of any class I ever sat through, including creative writing classes.
I’m sure there are many fine MFA programs out there that could have made a difference in my development. That was not my path, and I can’t speak to that. What I can say as one of the, botched and bungled” writers without that background is that I have learned to write without it. The torture I endured on my path was all self-inflicted, and it left marks I still carry in my prose.
Writing what’s on my mind, even when it’s unpopular.
Lately, I’ve been struggling with writing what’s on my mind. Not my imagination, but my personal opinion. The characters I breathe life into are a reflection of me, but they seldom share my opinions to any great degree. Even the most noble or heroic thoughts in my stories are lofty ideals that I’d hope to embrace if the situation arose.
But that isn’t what I’m getting at. An outlook on life is one thing, choices in the heat of the moment are another, but cherished opinions unchallenged by time and circumstance are where most humans live. How I feel about race, sex, and creed are vital parts of who I am. I don’t write about any of them.
Or at least, I don’t go out of my way to share that. I should though, even if my opinions aren’t especially controversial. Not that every story needs every bit of who I am in it, but someone who reads one of my stories should have a good idea of where I stand. Up until now, I’ve used the iceberg method to imply my opinions. Avoiding expressing my opinions to avoid offense is itself offensive. I have to stand for what I believe in, and it should show on the page.
A lesson from Huckleberry Finn
When I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in high school, I’d recently moved from North Carolina to Iowa. Scenes and subjects in the story felt markedly different to me than the other kids in my class. That didn’t stop me from pointing out those differences, and I hope everyone around me benefitted in some way from hearing a different perspective.
Writing now, in light of memories like Huck Finn, has taken on a more urgent meaning. The subjects I want to tackle in my work are more complex, and those nuances weren’t something I felt confident I had the skill to articulate. But I can’t wait forever to write uncomfortable truths. Sometimes, writing them out helps me untangle my emotions and express my opinions more accurately. No matter what those opinions may be.
Words can make a difference!
On smaller US Navy ships, commissioned officers eat their meals in a wardroom, senior enlisted officers eat in the Chief’s mess, while everyone else eats in a common messdeck. The last ship I served on, the USS Connolly, was no different. But one day, a few sailors decided to carve out a section of seating in the messdecks that only paygrade E-6 could sit at. They called it the First Class mess, and wouldn’t let anyone else sit there.
This didn’t go over well with me. So, I wrote a satirical story about the grumpy old men who wanted to sit alone. One of my friends thought the story was better than I did, and passed out a few copies, one of which went under the Captain’s door. He also didn’t think much of the arrangements and summarily canceled the First Class mess citing my story while he made the announcement to the crew.
I should have kept that grumpy lesson in mind.
Since I got serious about writing I’ve concentrated on world building, memorable characters, and craft (too often leaving craft for last). Along the way, while developing my unique voice, I decided on more than one occasion to avoid topics that were controversial. Limiting any need to address ideas that might alienate my fledgling audience. That sounds foolish even as I write it out. That voice on the page isn’t authentic if I avoid controversy for fear of offending people.
Not writing what I believe drained some of the life from my writing. Learning to include my opinion, even if it’s unpopular, only aids my clarity and composition. I’m the only voice like mine in the wilderness, stifling it hurts me and my tribe as they search for a voice that resonates with them. It’s easy to forget others will read my work and be inspired (or revolted) by what they read. Both are legitimate responses and writing to limit the one is a detriment to the other.
I’m doing my best to write my truth, but it might be messy, just like life.
In December I entered a short story I called “Chantrelle” into the Vocal+ Fiction Awards competition. Today I learned that out of over 13,000 entries, my story was chosen as a finalist! Even if I’m not selected to win my category, I already feel like I’ve won. Impostor syndrome can eat away at a writer’s confidence, and too often the only cure is outside encouragement.
Friends and family can tell me how wonderful my words are on the page. But until you hear that from other writers and editors, that vacuum is fertile soil for doubt to grow. Chantrelle reaching the finalist round in this competition has been confirmation that my efforts at improving my craft have paid off. I took the time to thank my critique group for showing me areas I could improve, so that I don’t continue to repeat the same novice mistakes.
If you’ve read “Chantrelle” or Jerry Farmer’s story “Bridgewater Bingo” on Vocal, I sincerely thank you. If you’d like to check either one out I’ve included the links above. My plan is to share more short stories on Vocal, and to shop others to magazines. My dad always said, “People love a winner.” So expect me to share my wins here as often as I can.
Reading is a topic I should spend more time with on this blog, but too often, I put more emphasis on writing. As important as honing my craft may be, reading plays a huge role in my creative process. Reading not only informs me, it guides my inner editor, and provides the framework for every writing project I undertake. I’ll try to keep this brief but here are three points to consider.
Reading shows me what other writers do.
That doesn’t mean I’ll copy what I see (although it can creep into my thought process). It does mean that I’m informed about my genre, and how other writers approach topics that I will write about. Sometimes other authors show me a great way to share an idea, describe a scene, or portray a character. I’ll take all the help I can get.
Reading is like working out for my brain. I exercise neurons by consuming information. Whether that is a copy of Critias & Timaeus, poems by Bronte, or the rambling narrative of On Writing, my writing will improve by feeding my brain a variety of subjects. Too often, I’ve see (or have been guilty of) staying in the comfort zone of my preferred genre. I wouldn’t understand with nearly as much depth or context without other writer’s works to give me context.
Reading shows me what not to do.
Equally important, other authors can show me things that don’t work. This is as true when I read outside of my genre (often even more so) than when I read the kinds of stories I write. Because craft transcends the type of story an author tells (or shows), it can be easier to see flaws (and successes) when I read a romance story, a detective thriller, or passages from a memoir.
A stumble in bringing a novel to conclusion, missed opportunities in a narrative, or an unsatisfying character arc are easier for me to see in someone else’s writing. In general, I’m too close to my work to be objective about it. I suppose that’s why the Gods invented critique groups. A fresh set of eyes has saved me from myself more times than I can count.
Reading fills my creative well with possibility.
The most obvious thing reading does is expand my horizons. I can see beyond what I can imagine through the works of other authors. There may not be any new thing under the sun, but I have yet to see every old thing either. Reading is the only way to appreciate the vast conglomeration of history, literature, and works of art that came before me. My paltry addition to that mountain of the written word will likely be less than a footnote, but I can’t hope to achieve that without knowing something about my predecessors.
The other facet of that is the pure joy of finding voices that resonate with me. Thoreau, Poe, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Strunk & White, and a thousand other voices that struck a chord with me live on in the words I string together. Without reading beyond my genre, no new chords can join the symphony in my mind. Just the thought of stilling those unheard voices fills me with sadness.
I may not write about it enough, but reading is just as crucial to writing as practicing foreshadowing, grounding your dialogue in the setting, or raising the stakes for your characters. Conflict is meaningless without context. One of the best ways I know to build those added layers is by being informed enough to weave them into my stories, whether by allusion or directly referencing works integral to modern literary culture.
One of the first pieces of writing advice I ever got was, “Write what you know.” Which is great advice, especially when you’re first learning how to write. Experience is a great teacher, and an authentic voice is impossible to craft without real knowledge of your subject matter. At the same time, I was a high school student. What I knew would hardly have made for entertaining stories.
Twenty years later, when I started to write science fiction and fantasy, I realized writing what you know is a double edged sword. I still try to write what I know, the relationships between people. How people act and react in different situations is equally important. But I use my imagination as much as I do my lived experience.
I write what I don’t know too.
I’ve never seen a dragon in real life, or watched an alien delegation sue for peace against a human adversary. But I have written about both. What I know has informed those scenes, but my creativity has to fill in the blanks. Sometimes I’m more successful than others. I couldn’t write speculative fiction without both imagination and experience.
The problem for me, is leaning too heavily into my creative impulse. I can (and have) spent hours (or days) developing a world for my story to occupy. Characters come to life based on the world I created. And the plot I outline is at least in part dictated by the world and characters who populate it. All of this is driven by creativity, but as I’ve said many times, creativity without substance is futile.
The circle is now complete…
The best stories, characters, and settings regardless of how original or creative they may be also feel real to the readers. The best way I know to do that is by crafting believable scenes with relatable characters. I use what I know to wrap the fantastic elements of my stories in terms my audience can identify immediately.
No matter how original or creative I feel my work may be, I also know there is no new thing under the sun. Twists and turns aside, stories follow patterns, and those patterns are timeless. I may invent a new character, scenario, or setting that is unique. But ultimately, some college student in a creative writing class could classify it with no help from me at all.
I hope those of you who celebrate Christmas, Hanukah and the like enjoyed yourselves. Here we are over two years into a pandemic. Who could’ve expected that? I could go on about how vaccines and boosters changed this year from last year, but I’ll try and stick to my writing instead. In 2021 I wrote a lot, even if my NaNoWriMo didn’t go the way I’d planned.
2021 started with a few short stories, and I’ve finished it with a few more. Speaking of short stories, if you haven’t read Chantrelle over on Vocal – please check it out! Chantrelle is in the running for the Vocal+ Fiction Awards, so a few reads (along with likes and subscribes if you’re so inclined) will go a long way in helping me out there.
Besides short stories, I also finished editing Fantastic America and did a lot of pitching and querying for it. Querying is a tough gig, but I hope I learned enough from the process to move my manuscripts to agents who will appreciate the stories I have to tell. Hope springs eternal, after all.
I also finished a personal challenge this year to write 365 consecutive posts here on my page. Even with a few bouts of illness, I was able to pull it off. The result has been infrequent posting ever since, but one of the challenges I’ll take on for 2022 is to post every week. Maybe twice a week if I have more to say.
Long story short (I seem to be writing more short stories than anything lately), I’m still writing. There are more writing contests coming up and I’m busy creating worlds, characters and plots for readers to enjoy in those. I’m definitely not where I’d hoped to be, but I’m not discouraged by that either. I have to keep learning and trying new things.
New Years is upon us, I wish you all a happy and prosperous 2022!
I’ve entered a short story in a contest on Vocal. The more readers I get there, the better my chances in the contest. Chantrelle is an angel gone too soon, but her ties to her beloved are stronger than Death itself. I hope you’ll give her story a read, like, and subscribe to see more stories from me on Vocal.
NaNoWriMo is coming to an end, but my writing is far from over. I have so much to write, and with the holidays, so little time. Not having a schedule to keep to with this blog has been a big help. Although a year ago I was so hyper focused, that I couldn’t imagine the luxury being untethered would give me.
I have a bunch of short stories put together, and both Fantastic America and Midwestern Magicians to edit. With all that on my plate and a house full of grandkids, the work is going slowly, but it is still going. See you in the funny pages- Happy Holidays!
History can be a great tool for writing fiction. You can base settings, characters, and events on historical locations, figures, and circumstances. Alternatively, you can use those same ideas to invent places, people, and episodes. Some of the best stories I’ve ever read blend historical themes (even inaccurate ones) with the imagination of an author.
My debut novel, Fantastic America, uses history from all over the world to inform the characters of dangers they may face. Folklore, written historical accounts, and oral traditions can provide writers with a rich source of material. This material makes worlds that are at once familiar and strangely different from the world we know come to life.
Even without using a recognizable culture, or direct events from history, authors create living, breathing cultures and plots by applying history to other settings. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is essentially, the War of the Roses with fantastic elements. Martin chose the characters and events, but the epic fight to obtain the throne is history rewritten.
Art, architecture, and geography also bring depth to stories. Basing those on historical counterparts simplifies a writer’s task to describe settings and other details. Expand, minimize, or extrapolate from history whatever your story needs. Myths, legends, and cultural beliefs, real or imagined can add more layers to the world an author builds.
I’ve built dozens of worlds with a blend of real and imagined inspirations. My story dictates some of my choices, others are only aesthetic in nature. What works for me may not work for anyone else. Finding what fires your imagination, what fits into your work, and what entertains your audience is far more important than matching (or exceeding) what another author has done before.
A while back I mentioned maps helping my writing process. When I was younger, I loved pouring over maps. I even covered my walls in maps of places I wanted to visit someday. I still have map books to refer to in a pinch, but that is no longer my go to source.
For years I used MapQuest for planning trips. One day, in the earliest iteration of what would become Fantastic America, I needed a map. For whatever reason, instead of MQ, I stumbled onto Google Earth, and I fell in love right away. I use it extensively in planning, research, and during my writing process.
This isn’t a commercial for the program, but I am going to highlight how I use it. For starters, I can pin locations like a real old fashioned wall map. I can pin point some place in the real world or overlay a location I’ve invented for the story. It even lets me add notes to the pin so I don’t have to remember every detail I had in mind (My memory needs all the help it can get).
Speaking of overlays, I can throw highlighted shapes over the terrain. This has been especially valuable when I had an area of effect to visualize or a large structure that doesn’t exist in the real world. When matched with the topographical features of the terrain overlays are even more helpful.
The Streetview function had been even more useful. With it, I can virtually visit just about any place I need to see at ground level. It drops me into cities, parks, archeological sites and more. Even if the detail isn’t great, I get enough information to search other sources or cobble together a decent impression of the location.
A significant amount of my novels take place in the recent past. Google Earth has me covered! I can look back at many locations at least into the 1980’s with supplemental Landsat or aerial photography. In some cases there is even street level data from earlier Google mapping efforts.
The last feature I’ll mention is the wide variety of pictures, panoramas, and location tags the program hosts for context. Tourists, academics, and professional photographers have plastered high traffic locations with great views of their visits. Businesses, museums, and points of interest have location tags that give me a feel for whole neighborhoods.
Best of all, from my perspective, all of this detail is free. For an author on a budget, or someone who finds travel difficult (me on both accounts), a virtual trip makes the most sense. I don’t know if this will help anyone, but the few times I’ve brought it up around other authors, they found the program extremely useful. I hope you do, too!
I love the sense of rebirth as plants come back to life, blushes of color pop up everywhere you look. Seeing people out enjoying warmer weather after a long cold winter makes me smile. Getting out of my house to enjoy the growth and beauty of the world brings me joy, too.
Spring is not my favorite season, although there is plenty to like. Putting away winter coats and clothes, spring cleaning to clear out the house, and enjoying the migration of birds and butterflies. My house sits on the pathway for Monarch butterflies every year.
Still there are things I don’t like, the weather in Spring is rainy. That makes my dogs paws muddy. Which in turn leads to a lot of washing clothes and bedding. Along with more sweeping and mopping than I’ve done since I was in the navy. Springing forward to daylight savings time is annoying, but I’ve dealt with it all my life.
Summer is my favorite season. Life thrives all around us. The weather is less rainy and even when it pours, the rain isn’t always cold. The days are long and the nights are warm. We have a lot of cook outs and bonfires. Swimming is a big past time in our backyard. As is our annual Fourth of July party, which we’ve held even during the pandemic.
So I’m happy to see Spring, but I long for Summer all year. The heat doesn’t bother me, but sometimes the humidity catches me off guard. I’d still rather be warm than cold. So happy Spring to you all, but know I’ll be a little happier still when Summer arrives.
I’ve been a Marvel comics fan since I’ve been able to turn the pages without tearing them. Certainly before I could read. I’m also a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Seeing characters and stories brought to life on the silver screen has made me smile more than a few times. WandaVision blew my mind during it’s 9 episode run, and I am writing a blog post for that series too.
What I want to address, and I haven’t seen anyone else comment on this yet, is a scene from the Falcon and the Winter Soldier. This is a full on spoiler alert for episode two. If you haven’t seen it and plan to, skip the rest of this post. With that warning out of the way…
Sam and Bucky visit the first black Captain America, Isaiah Bradley. I won’t go into a lot of details about Isaiah, that could be a whole blog post by itself. I will say that his story is tragic from any perspective and a commentary on how the U.S. Government and military have treated African Americans. The visit does not go well. Sam and Bucky end up arguing in the street (it is intentionally not even much of an argument).
Here comes the truth bomb. While they are (heatedly) talking, Baltimore police show up. A black man and a white man are out in public (peacefully) disagreeing. The police immediately ask the white man if the black man is bothering him. Bucky is outraged (for us) that the cop doesn’t recognize Sam. Then the first cop’s partner whispers their identities in his ear. Credit to the actor, he does a spot on interpretation of a man who realizes his mistake too late.
Neither Sam nor Bucky are fazed by this. They don’t go on a rant about racial profiling or police assumptions about race in community policing. The commentary is all for the audience. We see a rare moment where super-heroics meets a real world scenario that all too often ends in injustice.
The scene is brief and ends with a warrant issued for Bucky. In a full reversal, the white man is arrested. A subtle means of turning the situation on its head. The rest of the episode, I couldn’t help but return to those few seconds. We got to see, through the lens of the main characters, an unexpected scenario of inequality.
Marvel has a history of exploring injustice and inequality in the comics. This may be one of the first times I’ve seen the MCU tackle this subject. Even on the small screen. Even without fight scenes, super powers or explosions, this truth bomb will keep me coming back for more. I only hope I can address injustice and inequality with such nuanced, realistic portrayals.
Some traditions identify familiar spirits who aid witches and warlocks (among others) to practice their craft. Usually, these helpers take the form of an animal. In Europe this was often a black cat. Familiars in Fantastic America and Midwestern Magicians do not follow this pattern exactly.
Familiars in the Magic Unleashed series are people with an affinity to magic but who are unable to perform spellwork. Instead, familiars are inexorably drawn to wizards with whom their affinity aligns. Each school or kind of magic has a ritual to empower familiars. This also links them to the wizard they will serve. Familiars are not slaves, they retain free will, and can break the link to their wizard.
Life wizards create paladins, fierce protectors of life. Aqueous wizards create tritons, fast swimmers of the deep. Earth wizards create beastmasters, who link with and empower animals to aid their cause. Necromancers create minions, cold and dark enforcers. Chaos wizards create hellions, infernally strong disciples of destruction. Sorcerers create apprentices, their electrically charged defenders.
Arcanists use practical magic. They do not create familiars, but they do sometimes adopt a totem animal that embodies characteristics they admire. The fox for its cunning, the owl for its wisdom, the raven for its intelligence, or the smart and lucky rabbit. These animals are all smaller and hardly menacing but can still outsmart and defeat their adversaries.
There is one other type of familiar that may account for some traditions associating animals with the role of helper. Animals from other realities are, in general, ill suited to life on Earth. Animals stranded here will seek out a wizard attuned to their home, if one is nearby. A wizard can help these animals survive if it is at all possible. In return, the animal can aid the wizard or simply keep them company as an exotic pet.
There are plenty of movies I’ve watched dozens of times. Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life are probably right up there with Star Wars, Empire and Jedi. Once I’ve read a book, I don’t feel the need to revisit it. I think it has to do with how connected I feel to the book.
They say, “The book is always better than the movie.” That feels true for me because I fill in all the pieces of the story with my imagination. No matter how true to the source material a movie is, a director can’t duplicate the stunning world I can create with my imagination. No actor’s performance, no matter how nuanced can capture the mental images I create when reading a story. It’s not even close.
So I guess, for me at least, I revisit movies to capture some of that magic a book gets right by omission. The author gives a reader enough broad strokes to build the world, and a few specific details for their characters, whatever the story needs to progress. The rest of the story should be in my mind anyway. The stories I love the most let me fill in the rest of the details as I read.
That may mean my Emerald City looks nothing like the movie sets, and my theft of the Enterprise from Spacedock looked nothing like Shatner’s heist. They are tiny vignettes of my imagination, inspired by words on a page. Each book I’ve read (usually only one time) has scenes like that, infinitely more real to me than the best film version. Seeing those scenes come to life on screen is exciting, but the internal scene is always better.
Culturally humans tend to gather in ever larger groups. The core of this social arrangement starts with families. Families form clans, who form tribes, who form nations, who the historians tell us go on to found countries and so on. This has been the model for as long as I can remember in every social studies textbook I’ve read.
I don’t especially believe it though. My premise is pretty simple, although I may have some personal bias to believe otherwise. I think people today are pretty much the same as people five thousand years ago. Our science and technology may have changed, but people are still people. We act and react just like our ancestors did.
So here is my argument for families of choice rather than blood relatives as the basis for societies before recorded history. People find others they like and avoid people they don’t like. You can see this in kindergarten classes, college orientations, employees, churches, and even retirement homes. Family remains important of course, but close friends are often just as important.
This isn’t just a modern concept, or one especially true in America. I’ve traveled around the world enough to recognize families of choice when I see them. Life long friends come from all over, not just school chums either; neighbors, co-workers, and fellow hobby enthusiasts qualify here. Humans go out of our way to make connections beyond the family.
In my stories families of choice are implied, I don’t always make a big deal of the social structure, but it’s there. Friends are often the only support a character may have if family is unwilling or unable to provide a shoulder to cry on. This observation came to me from my experiences in life, but it is more real to me for having lived it.
I grew up in North Carolina surrounded by tall pine trees. Not far from home, stood what was left if an old growth forest. Wedged between ever expanding subdivisions north of Raleigh, these trees were a remnant of a remnant. The forest remained a pocket of accessible untamed nature. It was a wilderness to explore when my mother and grandmother were tired of me being indoors too long.
On those days, I grabbed a cloth sack, filled it with a water bottle, and whatever my twelve year old mind envisioned I might need. It turned out I had no idea what that meant. I also grabbed a walking stick, a sapling tree, whittled down to a spear shape with a further sharpened tip. I thought I’d be ready for anything.
Setting out was a simple walk to the edge of my neighborhood. The end of a high privacy fence marked the edge of the wilderness. I entered the canopy of trees and sauntered off on my afternoon adventure. This leg of the journey was intimately familiar. I had to pass through this small stand of trees to reach my Aunt Beulah’s home.
Beulah lived alone on land her husband had sharecropped before he died. I’d discovered Beulah’s home on an earlier expedition and spent many afternoons on her front porch talking and laughing with her. Today I decided to strike out for the real forest beyond Beulah’s garden.
I waved at Aunt Beulah as I passed her house, but kept to my mission. A small barn and paddock for a horse lay beyond the sunflower field I had to cross. The horse was usually in the paddock, but today he was gone. A red clay road ended at the barn leading back towards Mount Vernon Church road, the same paved road I lived on. It represented safety and civilization, I turned away from it for my first glimpse of the real woods.
A foot trail led under a canopy far higher than the stand of trees I’d passed earlier. A towering oak tree dominated a clearing just inside the tree line. Beneath that tree stood the horse from the paddock. It had reins dangling from the bit in its mouth, but no saddle or signs of it’s owner. I froze.
Horses were alien to me. I’d ridden a pony a few times at the state fair, but that was nothing like a full grown horse staring at me alone under an old oak tree. It snorted in dismissal, I posed no threat. The horse went back to grazing or whatever it had been doing when I disturbed it. I sighed in relief that it didn’t care a thing about me.
Still, I gave the horse a wide berth while I made a way around the clearing to where the path picked up again. I stepped back into the foliage and resumed my mission.
It was glorious. The path, like an animal trail, but I didn’t know or care about that at the time, led me right where I wanted to go. Deep in the forest and away from humans altogether.
I found a creek that bubbled as it wound through the woods. There were birds and squirrels everywhere. Spider webs caught the sunlight as I wandered deeper into the trees. Wild plants, ferns and flowers reached up to the sky to catch some sunlight too. That light faded by the time I realized I’d long ago left the path I’d followed.
Afternoon became evening, and darkness fell. I lost all sense of direction. The woods that seemed so enchanting in daylight now held menacing shadows. My little bag with the water bottle held nothing to help me. Outthrust roots in the banks of the creek I’d seen could easily have been snakes that terrified me even then. Sounds of birds and unseen wildlife could have been anything at all coming for an easy meal. I panicked. In the dark, I didn’t know where to go.
I learned a few tough life lessons that evening in the woods. Sometimes, you get in over your head. Before you know it, you’re lost and alone. No one else can help you in those moments. When the dark and scary world closes in, you can sit and cry about it, or figure out how to get yourself out of that predicament. I decided to find a way out. The creek, as scary as it might be in the dark, was my deliverer.
I followed the creek to the red-clay road I’d avoided earlier, followed the road back to the pavement of Mount Vernon, then I followed Mouth Vernon back to my neighborhood, and finally walked in my front door. My mother and grandmother had just started to worry that I hadn’t come home yet. I was far more relieved than either of them seemed at the time.
I have a much healthier appreciation of dangerous situations since then. Using self-reliance, I’ve found my way out of more than a few scary circumstances. My brief walk in the dark could have gone horribly wrong. That lesson I learned after the fact. I keep that in mind too.
I have several reasons for blogging. Partly to share my writing journey. To share bits and pieces of the stories I’m writing. Maybe even to share a bit of who I am as a person. Mostly though I started this blog to build a group of people who share some of the ideas I do. I weave those ideas into my stories, so the hope (pun intended if you’ve read prior posts) is that you’ll like them too.
Jerry Farmer’s short story is the only preview of the Fantastic America world I’ve made available for download yet. He’s terrible, but my beta readers and critique partners love to hate him. Truth be told, I’m not terribly happy with the cover I put on that story either. At the time I wanted to get something out for people to read. Since it was free, I just ran with what I had. Maybe I’ll revisit that as time goes on.
(I’ll also leave the link to that free download at the end of this post if you haven’t read Bridgewater Bingo.)
I also blog to get clarity for ideas may or may not end up in the stories I write. Just because an idea resonates with, doesn’t mean it’s a great idea for those stories. Sometimes sharing those things helps me focus and make creative decisions that would be harder to do without blogging.
Finally, I have a bit or fun sharing things and seeing people react to what I blog about. My journey from first idea to published page is the recurring theme here. But other ideas make their first appearance here too. Maybe a part of my DJ style lives on in the variety of posts I write. What good would a blog be if it wasn’t fun?
At least I haven’t run out of posts to make. I may reevaluate these daily posts when I’m too busy with deadlines and such. So far, I’ve been able to write, and blog as part of my process. If that changes, I’ll be sure to let you know right here. So stay tuned!
My writing process begins with ideas. Usually I ask a what if question. If the story takes place in the same setting as another story, I may explore some other part of that setting, the characters, or how something in that world works. Always there is an underlying idea at work, something that ties it all together.
Then I fill the sandbox. I throw everything I can think of at the moment into that story. I hope it makes sense as I write it, but I can fix, add, or subtract from it after the sandbox is full. All I have to concentrate on in this stage is putting what’s in my mind on the page. It won’t all stick, and that’s alright too.
Whatever my word count is for the story, that’s my objective. I may fall short of that goal and have a story. That’s ok too. There are plenty of ways to embellish ideas, rearrange scenes, or whole chapters. The important thing about a rough draft is for me to tell myself the story. The next stage will sort the rest of it out.
Stage three is where I evaluate what I put on the page. Not every part belongs in every story. I’m still looking at story elements at this point. Does what happens on page one make sense when I reach “The End”? If not I tackle those things first. Once the plot and sequence of events is fleshed out, I have to look at descriptions, dialogue, and characters.
I can still cut, add, or change things. In fact, some of my best ideas for the story don’t find their way onto the page until I’m here. Details I missed before or that need to change as I edit are on the chopping block again. Word count still matters, so somethings that go are replaced, while others are gone forever. I don’t always delete these though. I have an errata file with deleted sections of whatever I’m working on at the time.
The final and longest stage comes next, actual editing. By this point I’m pretty close to my word count target. At this stage I’m focused on how I wrote each section. This is challenging whether I’ve written a short story or a novel. Every word counts in a short story, there is no room for extraneous ideas, or long paragraphs when a short sentence will do. In a novel there is a lot more room for extra words, but as Strunk & White try to remind me, “Vigorous writing is concise.”
Editing takes multiple passes, I’ve rewritten the debut manuscript for Fantastic America at least six times since my developmental edit. The story starts and ends the same way, but the chapters in between have all changed several times. Rewriting is writing, and sometimes it’s the only way to get from mediocre writing to exceptional storytelling. Don’t skimp on the editing, but don’t think you have to rewrite every sentence either.
Once I’ve done what I can, without driving myself insane over the details of the story, I let it sit for a while. Think of this stage as four and a half. Giving myself time to let it go before I give it a last look takes some willpower, but it’s an important part of the process. Authors are too close to their work when it’s fresh on the page. Depending on the deadline I’m facing, I take some time to relax and keep my mind off the pages waiting for me.
I find plenty of things I didn’t notice when I come back, but I try not to be too drastic with any last minute changes. This is the same writing process for all my fiction, whether it’s a short story, novella, or full length novel. Everyone is different, but this is what’s worked for me so far. I expect my process will evolve over time, but for now, this is it!
TANSTAAFL ~ Robert Heinlein. This quote appeared in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, itself an allusion to, “The Sea is a cruel mistress.” The acronym stands for: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. The saying is adopted as a national motto by the loonies of Earth’s separatist lunar colonies. Many of the interconnected outposts were penal colonies like Australia in Heinlein’s novel. They band together to declare independence.
The motto is more than it first appears. Of course there’s always someone or something to pay for lunch (survival, peace, or any other worthy endeavor). It also sums up both the loonies’ determination to live free, and their self-reliance to build a better moon for their children. A lot of the story in the book revolves around changing appreciation for the motto and independence.
Next I chose: “I must not fear. Fear is the mindkiller. Fear is the little death that brings obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. When the fear is gone I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone will be nothing, only I will remain.” ~ Frank Herbert. I memorized this in high school and found it useful on more than one occasion.
Herbert created a galaxy sprawling world for the characters in his Dune series. The “Litany Against Fear” quoted above, is a tiny sliver of Paul Atreides training. Paul uses it first to withstand the pain box test administered by Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. Threatened by her poisonous Gom Jabbar, Paul recites the litany to endure searing agony. The use of the litany is the first glimpse readers have that Paul possesses will and latent abilities beyond his extensive physical and mental training.
Finally, from one of my favorite fantasy series. “Almost dead yesterday, maybe dead tomorrow, but alive, gloriously alive, today.” ~ Robert Jordan. Mattrim Cauthon, a Two Rivers contemporary and fellow Ta’Veren with Perrin Aybarra, Goldeneyes, and Rand Al’Thor, the bloody Dragon Reborn, dropped this beautiful line. Mat is a trickster, loyal friend, and eternal soldier from the Wheel of Time series. This line sums up the life Mat cherishes against the struggles he knows will come again.
Mat is a fascinating character. He’s not ultra-powerful like Rand, or an animalistic dream walker like Perrin. He carries so many memories of so many lifetimes he can’t sort them out, and doesn’t bother trying. He likes what he likes, and says what’s on his mind, even if the consequences turn out for the worst. As the Hornsounder, Mat’s guaranteed a place at the Last Battle. Still, no one foresees him leading the forces of the Dragon, or helping Rand and Perrin at Shayol Ghul.
I’d love to hear some of your favorite quotes, feel free to comment and add them!