An update on “Chantrelle”

An angel gone too soon…

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.

Why reading is (still) fundamental.

couple reading a book together

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.

So read.

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.

Creativity is great, until it gets in the way of writing.

abstract colorful background of night star

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.

2021 in review:

times square new york

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!

Quick update: I’m still writing!

classic close up draw expensive

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!

NaNoWriMo is in full swing…

book opened on white surface selective focus photography

I got off to a rocky start this year, but now I’m focused and excited about picking the story back up. I’ll keep this short so I can get back to work. I’ve got Alex and Liz to get together in the midpoint of Midwestern Magicians. The real fun parts are about to happen, I’ll keep you posted as my progress continues.

One Last Thought On World Building

world map illustration

Story is more important than Setting.

This is one of the most valuable insights I ever learned as a new writer. No matter how incredible my world may be, how intricate and wondrous the characters, or how thoroughly amazing it feels to me, showing it off without purpose is a failure of my imagination. At best, the story will be little more than a travelogue for an imaginary world. At worst, it flaunts my lack of ability to fully realize the world I spent so much time building. The world should stay in the background for the story my characters and their conflicts bring to life.

This doesn’t mean I skimp on description or details. Those elements should serve the needs of the story, not dominate my narrative. Amazing depictions of imaginary worlds captivate us because they mold the action, or add to the emotional impact of a story. I don’t love Tar Valon because of the White Tower, but because Egwene rose to Amyrlin and repaired the breach in the divided Tower. The Mississippi isn’t a fond part of my memories of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it was dangerous, but because Huck and Jim faced those dangers together.

Effort without purpose is wasted time.

World Building takes a good deal of time and effort. For me, it’s a layered process that includes rewriting sections of the world for the needs of the story. But at each point in the process, each decision as I weave the world together, the story always takes precedence. The coolest idea I’ve ever had won’t make it into a story if it doesn’t serve to bring the audience closer to the characters or conflict.

The opposite is also true, great ideas often propel conflict and deepen our grasp of characters. Luke didn’t want to be a moisture farmer, but he couldn’t abandon his aunt and uncle after all they’d done for him. The Poltergeist wouldn’t have even bothered Carol Ann if the Freeling family’s new house wasn’t built on a cemetery. The story is my focus, not my elaborate setting. No matter how much I love it or how excited I am to show it off to my readers.

World-Building 101 for Sci-fi, Fantasy, and more.

earth wallpaper
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One approach to building immersive worlds:

I do a lot of world-building for my writing. Truth be told, I do a lot of world-building because it’s fun for me. It’s been a while since I did an in-depth world-building post, so here goes. This post won’t be a template or outline for building a world, just my thoughts on various parts of the process and why I enjoy it.

First, some background: In the mid-eighties, I was a kid without other kids to play with in my neighborhood. There was no internet yet, so I didn’t have any social networks to scroll through either. Oh, the humanity! I spent a lot of time looking over maps. From Rand-McNally’s American road atlas to National Geographic maps to just about any paper map I could find, I even decorated my walls with maps for a while.

Besides maps, I also spent several years devouring books and modules from the Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game. One of the standout books in my mind was called the Book of Ultimate Powers. Together these books gave my fertile imagination a chance to explore ideas I’d seen in movies, TV, and comic books. Some of them were hits, others definite misses, but it gave me a lifelong fascination with mixing and matching ideas to make something new.

I built worlds with animal-human hybrids, magical realms that barely followed the laws of physics (even with my poor understanding of physics). I also dabbled in science fiction settings that were strange and new to me. Eventually, I gave up on the Marvel approach and started making worlds and characters without their template, and that is where things took off.

Getting Serious

 My first foray into world-building without marvel was the science fiction universe that eventually became the basis for my Renegade Galaxy short stories. I flailed around in the process for years off and on while I was on active duty. I also spent some time more methodically creating a fantasy world more along the lines of Tolkien and The Silmarillion. Bouncing back and forth between those worlds for a decade made them both rich and diverse.

The process I developed over that time allows me to build a world in days that might have taken a decade back then. I’ll just get to the good stuff now that I’ve shared how I developed this process. My method took twenty years to develop, so there were lots of false starts, failed experiments, and a few shining triumphs along the way. If you can avoid the problems and only pick up the good parts, I may save you some headaches I endured.

I have to start somewhere.

First things first, I decide the kind of concept the story requires. What kind of story am I telling? Is this a novel-length story, something shorter, or a format without those kinds of rules like a D&D campaign? Each may require tweaking the process or limiting the scope of world-building.

Next, I determine the setting. Is this story science fiction, fantasy, horror, paranormal, or something else?. Is the story set in some version of the real world, or does it require a mixture of elements? There are as many settings available as there are minds to imagine them. My decisions shape the rest of my process. Hopefully, your process and mine, no matter how similar, produce wildly different but equally valid results. As long as your story maintains internal consistency, I think your readers will be willing to give you a pass on minor details.

Once I know the kind of story I want to tell and have a vague idea of the setting, it’s time to make this world more concrete (whether they have developed concrete or not). To do that, I branch out into one of two directions. If geography (on a single planet) or interstellar distances will play a key role (among stories with more than one world), I draw a rough map of what I want to include. This map allows me to set up different regions, biomes, geological processes, ocean currents, weather systems, and regional climates that may have affected civilizations or societal developments.

Alternatively, change up the sequence.

The other route is to outline the nations and regions without a map. I draw a map of some kind in virtually every world I build, with the rare exception of real world based stories where I can use Google Earth or actual paper maps. (You see why I mentioned maps earlier. The circle is now complete.) This outline focuses on large-scale conflicts between groups and identifies places I may want to map out in more detail later.

At this point, whichever route I took, I now complete the other (map or macro-lens outline). From here, I drill down to cities, landmarks, historical backstory and flesh out the basic ideas I started in the last step. I want to know the types of governments involved, who makes decisions in this world, and what motivates their interest. If they are pertinent to the story, religions, economic factors, trade routes (and information flow) between groups, military organizations (like Starfleet or the Order of Radiant Knights), population numbers, technology levels, infrastructure, and other social institutions come into play here. Unique magic systems or speculative technologies also start to take shape at this stage.

Have you noticed anyone missing?

All of this comes before I flesh out a single character for the story. But, I’ve had ideas for characters first and built worlds around them, too. If all the pieces come together in the end, the world-building sequence is mainly irrelevant to me. Although going another route may cause me to rewrite as I go, which is never a bad thing, in my eyes at least.

I’ll point out here that none of this is set in stone. The decisions I make about one element of the world may influence others in unforeseen ways. That is all good stuff. Make your world unique but consistent. (Or don’t – it’s your world, your rules!)

By now, I have a pretty good handle on the kind of world where the story will take place. I generally use some of this information to build the characters who will populate the story, but not always the POV character(s) yet. Is my setting one of a guild economy? Maybe my character is working for (or against) a guild. Perhaps they are part of a religion I developed, either on the run from overzealous clerics or trying to return artifacts central to their theology. A prince from a neighboring country may have run off with a woman (or man) to start some version of the Trojan War.

It all comes down to how you use what you’ve got.

Whatever the story, I want to weave all the world-building work into the story to make the characters come to life. Sharing that backstory without an info-dump of how I developed the character is the tricky part for me. I spent so much time building this incredible world, and I don’t want to let it sit idly while my characters stare intently at each other across the room. Ideally, they have poignant dialogue amid the ruins of a fallen city because their goal was last seen in that city, informed by all that world-building that finally makes sense to the reader as the scenes unfold.

Being from a specific place should inform the reader, not bludgeon them with how incredible that region may be. In other words, as much effort as I put into world-building, it should complement the characters that inhabit my pages. Some are cooler than others, of course, just like the real world.

Ultimately, readers want characters they can sympathize with, who do extraordinary (or ordinary) things that they will likely never do in real life. The emotional connection to those characters keeps your readers turning pages and coming back for more stories. If the setting has depth, adds to the story, and comes alive in your pages, they may fall in love with your world as much as any character.

My first writing update since stepping back from daily posts.

I returned to Torthal.

Back to fundamentals for me…

I’ve been working my way through rewrites of stories I started this summer. I picked up Gari’s story and rewrote almost the entire second installment. This week I’ll share his journey with my writer’s group and barring any more substantial rewrites, I’ll have more to share with you about how he’s doing in Torthal. I have high hopes for these characters and the setting. A couple of things I’m considering changing include some of the characters names, and the title for the story.

My next big project is related to Fantastic America, and Midwestern Magicians. As nanowrimo approaches, I plan to finish the work I started last year with at least a rough draft of book two in the series. I’ll keep on writing until I find my footing for the ideas I have outlined already. I love the version of our world in the Magic Unleashed series, and can’t wait to share the other worlds it leads to.

My other summer project was the Centriole. I wrote it for a monthly writing challenge, but it didn’t quite work for that. The story was imaginative and interesting, but it didn’t have a resolution in the five thousand word limit for the contest. Now that the challenge is over, I can overhaul the story and make it more satisfying to read. At least, that’s my plan for it right now.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Failure is often a great teacher though, and not winning or even placing in the challenge highlighted an area I need to work on. I write a lot of short stories, but they aren’t all that short. Strunk & White taught me in high school that, “Vigorous writing is concise.” One of my lessons learned this summer is that I need to work on the concise part.

A story should have a beginning, middle, and end. If I’m at four thousand words of a five thousand word story, I need to have a plan to wrap it up and make that ending worthwhile for my audience. For all the imagination the centriole contained, it did not end well. Ailish ended her story as if it were the intro to a longer piece (which it may still become) but that didn’t do any good for the contest or the readers who wanted an actual conclusion, myself included.

Stay tuned for more updates!

The struggle bus has been parked at my house for over a year.

man sitting on a hood of a school bus
The struggle is real!

In March 2020, the struggle bus quietly parked in front of my house. I didn’t even recognize it at first, but that changed before the ides were out. Caesar might envy me, but he might just roll over and die rather than face the slow death grip covid has inflicted on the world. I’ve been looking for a brighter day throughout the pandemic, and that is where I’ve struggled most.

I dislike change.

The first change I noticed was when all my doctors cancelled my appointments. Routine check ups, non-essential visits, and even some health issues I really wanted to address were pushed back indefinitely (I’m still a month away from a final appointment I managed to rescheduled from March 2020). How I wish that was the only impact.

Stores and restaurants started to close or cut their hours. I’m a night owl by nature, and loved the weirdos like me who shopped overnight to avoid normal people. We were an early casualty of the lockdowns. Of course flattening the curve was just the beginning.

Masks became important, I bought Pedialyte, extra toilet paper (not every roll I could find but enough to last a while), more bottled water than usual, and downloaded the FEMA guide to surviving a pandemic. I didn’t use anything but the water, and I consider myself lucky at that.

When will it end?

The year wore on. Summer, my favorite time of year, went by with hardly any fanfare at all. No gatherings, even for 4th of July. But few people near me got sick, so that’s a blessing all by itself. Still, the isolation wore at us all. Even though I already avoided people, I missed gatherings. Ironic isn’t it?

I took some wild chances for random nights out with friends and managed to avoid getting sick. A few of my rowdier friends went out more, and weren’t so lucky. None of them died, although covid did take people I knew. Shauna Wolf, one of the best writing mentors I ever had the privilege to work with lost her struggle with the disease. It was real, but thankfully distant from my day to day life.

In 2021 a flurry of vaccines became available. They were designed quickly with new mRna technologies I’d read about, but who wants to be first in line for untried vaccines? I’ve read adverse reaction reports since the 90’s, I didn’t want any of that. But I kept reading, and kept watching the news. There were potential dangers to taking the shots, but definite dangers by not getting vaccinated.

Choices shape our chances.

I’m one of those imuno-compromised people who sought out the vaccine fairly early. Not in the first round of doses, but by May of 2021 I had both shots. I didn’t have any side effects, or even a mild adverse reaction. My body may have remembered all the shots I got in boot camp, who knows.

The vaccine and dropping numbers of hospital patients made Summer better in 2021, but it still wasn’t the same. Backyard gatherings were still hit or miss, although our 4th of July party was more like those we’ve had in the past. Children still swam in our pool, and a few people came out to sit by our fire pit. I went out a few times, but even the rowdy crowd at a local bar was less rambunctious than before the pandemic.

You take the good and the bad, add them up, and there you have…

I finally convinced my wife to get the vaccine, after six months of not becoming a zombie. She tested positive for the disease in 2020, but had no symptoms while she quarantined in our house. She just got her second shot today, which is what prompted this rambling post about the struggles I’ve had. My struggles weren’t physical, aside from a kidney stone that I had to have powdered. The pain of the stone, the recovery from the procedure, and the removal of the stent are all near the top of my Never Again list.

Most of what I’ve struggled with has been internal. Stuck in the house with grandkids, my wife, and my thoughts, hasn’t left me much room to vent. Random nights out when I didn’t expect to find big crowds helped, but that only does so much. My thoughts were still melancholy the next day. I have a few go to coping methods, I write, play games on my PC to escape, read and watch TV or movies as a last resort. Only writing and reading feel truly cathartic for me.

“Difficult to see. Always in motion the future is.”

The pandemic is still raging, new variants are cropping up, and debate is ongoing about booster shots. But I feel lucky. I haven’t gotten sick, not even the flu. Knock on wood. Even just typing that makes me feel better. So I guess as long as we have to worry about covid, there will be fewer gatherings, fewer hours to shop or eat out, and one more worry for those of us who worry about everything.

In the mean time, I’ve written more short stories than I have since 2019. I finished and revised (more times than I can count) Fantastic America, wrote the first half of Midwestern Magicians, and started querying agents. I don’t think any of us are happy there is a pandemic going on, but at least I have hope society won’t collapse from it anytime soon. There are many more human culprits to worry about collapsing the modern world anyway…

365th consecutive blog posts!

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This is my 365th consecutive post since August 28th of 2020.

I set out to prove to myself that I could accomplish a few things. One, to come up with new and interesting posts every day for a year. Check. Two, I wanted to share my writing and my writing process. Double check. My original intent was to share my writing journey as I wrote my debut novel, Fantastic America. I checked that box too, but it went by so quickly, the journey ended before the experiment was half over. And finally, as the experiment grew in scope, I wanted to connect with readers and other writers. All boxes checked.

Now that my experiment is over, and successful, I have to decide where to go from here. My first instinct is to only write once a week from now on, but honestly, writing a post a day has become part of my writing habit. Even on days I didn’t write anything else, it felt good to post something here to validate my other efforts. I haven’t decided one way or another yet.

I learned some valuable lessons.

I have learned a few other things during my experiment. I’m not great at getting people to engage with my content. Something I’ve been working on all year. I’ll keep working on that, whether I post every day from here on out or only when I feel like it. I also learned that I am a poor judge of what will stir people’s interest, or maybe I’m still learning how to judge that. I have plenty of work to do either way.

I also learned a bit about how I write. Early on I identified a couple of problems during editing of my posts that I still struggle with sometimes. It turns out I write long sentences. I’m not sure if that is good or bad, but as I recall, William Faulkner wrote long sentences, too. Not that I’m a renowned author of his stature, but at least I’m in good company. Other problems I found Grammarly to be a great help with, so much so that I ignore them until the program points them out.

All the posts I shared here are just the start, I learned just how many stories I have to tell (or show). Just in the past two months, I’ve created Torthal and Fractal, two very different worlds for two very different stories. Once my imagination is free, it runs loose and I build world after world full of stories to share.

Not quite, “So long, and thanks for all the fish…”

Finally, I’d like to thank those of you who’ve found me and stuck with me over the past year. I can count (usually on one hand) on a few of you to like whatever I’ve posted. Even when it was just a post to say I was sick or in the hospital, it still made me smile to see regular followers checking in on me. That may or may not have been your intent, but I told myself that was what you were doing.

Here’s to the next year of The Sorcerers’ Realm. Huzzah!

Proof is in the writing…

I’ve written a lot in the past year about writing, but unless you’ve downloaded the free short story I have hanging out on the side bar of my website, you have no idea if I know what I’m talking about. This post will, I hope, fix that. I am nothing if not a fixer of problems (in my mind at least). So here is a sample of a scene I’ve written, I hope you enjoy it:

Excerpt from, “Midnight at the Sultan’s Palace”

  “The Sultan’s Palace is a bit of a letdown,” Chaz said. He adjusted his glasses and gestured out the van window to emphasize his disappointment to his crew. “I expected a grand mansion with minarets or something. That’s just a fancy three-story house like dozens of others we’ve seen around the French Quarter. We’ll really have to over-sell it to the audience.”

  The pale pink building towered above his oversized van parked across narrow, one-way Dauphine Street. The four men inside craned their necks for a better view of the house. Its’ elegant wrought-iron balconies and railings surrounded the upper floors like the decks of an old riverboat tied to a pier whose passengers were too well off to notice the men in the van below.

  “Three and a half stories,” Barry, his tech guy said. “I found the plans for the place before we came out to film. The house has an elevated basement under the main floor. You can see the little cross-barred windows from here.”

  Chaz couldn’t care less about how many floors there were inside. This investigation was supposed to recharge his audience for the third season of his Spirit Searchers cable TV show. He needed a ratings boost for the network to renew them for season four.

  The Sultan’s Palace had sounded like the perfect December filming location. It was warmer in New Orleans than most places they investigated this time of year. The location had lots of reported activity, from door slamming to full body apparitions. Best of all, unlike Eastern State or Trans-Allegheny, there was no competition from other shows trying to film on the longest night of the year.

Back to writing about writing…


Chaz and his crew are in for more excitement than they planned. Their investigation happens to be on the night that magic returns to the Earth. The spirits of the house come barreling into the present, scaring the cable TV crew out of their minds in the process. I’ll leave the rest up to your imagination until I add this short story to the downloadable content on the site.

The point in sharing this short bit of the opening scene is to show how many of the elements I’ve talked about come together in writing. This snippet grounds you in time and place, New Orleans after the advent of cable TV paranormal programming. It’s 2012 in this case. Description, dialogue, and internal monologue all flesh out the scene as the crew arrives to start their investigation.

Had I shared more of the scene, I could go on about differentiating characters, showing vs. telling, building suspense, depicting action sequences, and showing character growth. All of that is hard to cram into a short story. But once I could do that, scaling it up into chapters was simple. Once I decided I could master the short story, writing a novel length story was well within my grasp.

I just finished the rough draft for my newest short story, The Centriole.

building steps architecture interior

As much as I prattle on about getting my butt in the chair to write, I don’t always push my self to finish what I start. So every chapter or short story I finish feels like a bigger win to me than it might to others. Tonight was one of those nights, I’ve had less than four hours of sleep in the past forty-eight hours. Somehow, I got the story done, and scrubbed through Grammarly to boot.

I’ll let the story sit a day at least before I try to polish it, then share it with my critique group, before submitting it for the monthly challenge. I have most of a week till the deadline, which should be just about long enough. That sounds hectic to me, I’m used to a much more leisurely pace when I write.

Like Hannibal said, “I love it when a plan comes together.” No matter how often I write, or how many new worlds and characters I create, the joy of finishing a project is exquisite. It never gets old, even if it’s just a milestone like finishing a scene I struggled with, or polishing up a chapter in a novel. Each bit of forward progress is its own reward.

I’m worn out but smiling. Sleepy, but proud of myself. Sometimes, I need that little rush of endorphins that tells me I’m making progress. I few likes from readers does the same thing, but feedback from my critique group helps fill that void, too. Writing in a vacuum leaves my soul stagnant, I like to hear back about what I write. Whether it’s glowing praise or a harsh reality check. As long as my work improves, I’m happy to hear either one.

An update on the Centriole…

Short stories are so much fun to write!

The story of the Centriole is coming together, and I have some great twists in mind. It’s another story I’m writing for a monthly challenge. I tried not to build a whole new world just for one short story, but I failed. Fractal is a folded world near the very heart of creation. Life evolved there before it did anywhere else in the universe (several times). Naturally this gave the original inhabitants of Fractal a huge advantage over other more primitive life.

Rather than launch an empire building interstellar civilization, the Uluuan explored the universe, cataloging the species they encountered. They eventually encountered sentient species, but were reluctant to make direct contact. After much debate, the Uluuan extended offers of membership in a union of social, economic, academic, and military to those they deemed worthy of association. More violent or barbarous aliens were left to their own devices.

The Centriole is more than just a club…

The esteemed center of that exploration began (and continues to this day) in the Centriole. It is home to the Society of Explorers, a club of enthusiastic adventurers from thousands of species. Their quest to understand the universe and its former iterations is matched only by their success in amassing knowledge from billions of galaxies. My story focuses on one such Explorer, Ailish Halfnine.

Ailish is on the eve of launching the first full expedition from the Centriole to the primitive planet Earth. She has already scouted the planet alone, and brought back enough data to bring a full team. Her experts will examine our cultures, sample our flora and fauna, and duplicate and collect artifacts from our world.

Is a utopia founded on lies still a utopia?

She is understandably excited, and rushes to the Centriole to meet one last time with the patron of her expedition, Count Baalan of Derent on Time. She expects a routine send off from the Explorers Lounge with the Count’s inner circle, before embarking on a fantastic journey of discovery. All of that does not go entirely to plan. I can’t wait for you to discover the truth along with her.

There are far worse things than zombies and ghosts prowling in the night…

In the world of my debut novel, Fantastic America, zombies and ghosts are the least dangerous things that go bump in the night. After the return of magic, monsters from many worlds reappear in the modern world. Creatures of nightmare, legend, and folklore prove they are all too real.

Unfortunately, animals considered myths by our ancestors are not the only creatures stalking the dark places of the world. Wraiths, shadowy imitations of life seek to terrify and corrupt the living. As magic grows stronger, the creatures it empowers grow bolder, and a scream in the night might not be human at all.

Other, far more potent monsters emerge from other worlds, intent on more than food and shelter. Mortal flesh provides more than nourishment to the fiends in the dark. They can also increase their numbers from victims of their wild hunts. Our ancestors were right to fear the dark, a lesson the modern world will need to relearn.

In the world of the Magic Unleashed series, the monsters in the dark are not content to stay in the shadows. They wait only for enough time, flesh, and blood to leave the darkness behind. No one from the modern world has learned how to fight back against the evils that lurk in darkness and only retreat from the light for the time being. Who will save humanity from such diabolical dangers?

Why describing your setting is so important…

people gathering in dome building
The Pantheon of Rome

The setting for a scene, or series of scenes grounds your story in more ways than one. Locations can impact everything from mood and theme, to climate and time periods. How you describe those elements can make or break a good scene (or scenes). Memorable settings come alive with appropriate (not just detailed) descriptions.

For example, how could I describe the Pantheon of Rome from the picture attached to this post? Depending on the scene I’m writing, there are any number of details that I could include. But the scene, and to an extent, the characters determine what is important for the reader to experience.

Is there action in my Pantheon scene, or is it a a puzzle to be deduced like a Dan Brown thriller? Maybe I’ll try my hand at Romance and describe two history buffs exploring the rotunda. They would notice far different things than a super-sleuth. Perhaps the building and it’s history are irrelevant to my story, and the people crowded inside are the focus of the characters.

It might go something like this:

A shaft of sunlight pierced the ancient oculus in the ceiling of the former temple. It bathed an empty niche high on the wall in vibrant light, as it had for two thousand years. The couple stood transfixed by the light that managed to reach them on the polished marble floor. For just a moment, they could step back in time together.

Even stripped of it’s Roman identity, and festooned with later Catholic regalia, the sight reminded Ian of the glory that was Rome. He squeezed Miranda’s shoulder as they gazed at the wonder of engineering the Pantheon represented to both of them. The crowd of tourists faded away as he imagined statues of the Gods in their niches, and bronze eagles surrounded by laurel wreaths representing the majesty of the Empire.

The characters drive the description but I still have to pick the right details

Ian and Miranda might not even see the same details, but writing the scene with a single character’s Point Of View requires a good understanding of Ian, too. A historian (even an amateur student of history) would pick out different details. Ian is focused on the Roman history of the temple, but in modern times, the Pantheon is a Catholic church. Miranda might pick out those details.

Even two people with similar interests might see things differently. Had I written the scene from Miranda’s POV, the later pieces of Christian decorations might have been her focus. Either way, the couple moving through the space determines what elements the readers see through their perspective.

Fantasy descriptions and real locations can overlap…

The Pantheon of Rome is a fabulous location, but it isn’t a fantasy setting as we know it. One thing I love to do is dress up a real location with fantasy trappings. I can imagine the same setting Ian and Miranda moved through, with an added fantastic element (or several). Not to detract from the real location, but to raise the expectation of the audience.

Perhaps the characters are fleeing a horde of zombies, or are racing against time to perform a ritual in the ancient temple. Only a site standing for thousands of years can give them refuge, or allow the spell to reach its intended effect. The appropriate details would be far different than a casual stroll through the rotunda. Barring the doors, measuring out the space for the ritual, setting up barricades, or lighting ceremonial candles might be more important. Characters and the events they are involved in direct their focus and what details I include in the scene.

You may have noticed some changes around here…

I’m in the last stages of some site updates to clean things up a bit. The changes shouldn’t impact reading my posts at all. If you do run into trouble loading a specific page, please let me know. Everything should be finished and stabilized in a few days at most.

In the mean time, I’ll be adding new download options for free short stories once the updates are done. Some of these are new stories for me, and a couple have been on the shelf fermenting for a few months. I’m excited to share them with you.

My 365 days of consecutive blog posts is coming to an end, too. August 28th will mark a full year of daily posts. I feel like an out of shape runner who can finally see the finish line. My vision is blurry, but I’m almost there. I will probably still post fairly often, but not daily.

Just to keep you in the loop, I’m still working on the Centriole story. I’m mixing genres with it ever so slightly, as science fiction meets fantasy. My take is very human centered, though the perspective readers will see the story from is very alien. Magic remains the great unknown in this story.

I think that’s about all for the end of summer. Kids here are going back to school, I have more peace and quiet, and that should translate into more writing time. I’ll keep my progress posted here, and I hope you’ll check in on me from time to time. And remember, like Heinlein said, TANSTAAFL!

Getting back into my groove has been harder than I expected.

macbook pro

I had a lot of raw emotion to deal with last week, and to be honest, I let it get the better of me for a while. I’ve tried to slide back into my writing routine, tried to follow my advice and get back to it. I failed. Repeatedly.

Failure is a great teacher though, it tells me all the things that don’t work. For one thing, trying to ignore how sad I was didn’t help. Drinking to excess also didn’t help, it was fun while it lasted, but I have new bruises I can’t account for. The only real solution I found was to confront my feelings and get my butt back in the chair.

Funny how that works, isn’t it? I penned a post about how much I’d miss my cat Chloe. What I didn’t mention was any of the stress induced medical conditions that flared up while I was in my feelings. Those are gross, and I’ll spare you all the details. I’m better now.

And since I’m better, I’m back to my desk and pushing out more words. It isn’t exactly work, but without my muse over my shoulder, it does take some effort. The truth is, it feels good to create, to overcome my inner struggle and produce meaningful content. Even if it’s only meaningful to me and a handful of other people.

So, expect to read about Ashley, Gari, and the other new characters I’ve been writing about lately. There are adventures to be had, strange settings to explore, and new conflicts to resolve. I may not be 100% again, but I’m well on my way.

Are we alone in the universe?

blue and white planet display

Catching up takes us to weird topics…

I had a long talk with an old friend today. One of the topics that came up is something I address in my writing. Are humans the only sentient species in the universe? It reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s quote, “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Which is an excellent summation of Enrico Fermi’s famous paradox, probability says we are not alone, “But where is everybody?” It’s been 70 years since Fermi’s comment, and there is still no accepted evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations.

In my writing, I solve the paradox by imagining what that life may look like. I’ve created a number of civilizations who have visited Earth in the past. In my first published short stories, the Renegade Galaxy series, Humanity is part of a small group of interstellar civilizations in the Milky Way. In my fantasy series, Earth is also connected to alien worlds but has played a mostly minor role in their history.

Is there anybody out there?

In real life, Seti (the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence) has yet to find solid proof of alien life. NASA has tantalizing evidence that Mars may have supported life in the past, but has yet to publish anything definitive. I get to bypass reality and speculate, “What if…” in my fiction, but the underlying question remains. Are we alone or not?

The implications are staggering regardless of the answer. Fundamental questions humans have grappled with about why we are here, what our purpose may be, and whether this was all just a big mistake could be answered once and for all. If we’re the center of creation, maybe we are alone. If we’re not, humanity may be more insignificant than we thought. Or so rare as that our sentient nature alone makes us special in the vast void of space.

Maybe it doesn’t matter one way or the other.

Regardless of the answer to Fermi’s question, there is certainty in the stories I tell that we are not alone. Even if we haven’t been visited recently. My biggest practical lesson from either outcome is this: Life goes on. Humans want to live, to thrive, to leave something behind for future generations. Maybe that’s the only purpose we can hold on to with the data we have right now.

Welcome to the crossroads, traveler…

photo of pathway surrounded by fir trees

As I inch closer to 365 consecutive blog posts, I’ve spent a lot of time looking back to plot my course forward. What should I do next? What worked or didn’t work in the last year? What options will I have to make the most of my time? I still don’t have answers to all these questions, but I’m working on it.

In the next few months I plan to write at least four distinct short stories. Two I’ve already started, with Gari on Torthal, and the Explorers Club. I’m entering writing contests with each of them, and hope to build up diversity in my work. Winning any of the contests isn’t really the point for this exercise but it would be nice to place.

As the seasons change, I get nostalgic and restive. I want to hold on to the easy pace of warm summer days, but look forward to a quiet house to write without distractions. Part of me is always looking back even as I try to decide where to go next. Janus, or my idea of that august Roman deity, is never far from my thoughts about coming and going.

A year ago I had an unfinished idea for a book, and little faith that I would ever finish it. Now I have a completed, edited, and polished manuscript. It turns out, that was the easy part. I’m still querying, still writing, and still building up towards whatever future writing may bring me. The one thing I’m not doing while looking back is regretting the steps I’ve taken along the path. My writing journey continues.