Category Archives: Writing

Putting NaNo to Bed

Another November passes, and another National Novel Writing Month comes to a close.

You win a self-inflicted nervous breakdown! Also your manuscript needs infinity revisions.

I’m proud to have put over 50,000 words into my project, but I’m most excited about connecting and re-connecting with writers in my area. Not only did all four regular members of our base writing group dive into the challenge this year, but a WriMo participant from a few years ago jumped in (and won!). On top of that, I met four writers I didn’t know prior to the NaNoWriMo events.

Not everything went perfectly.

I had the privilege once again of serving as a Municipal Liaison for Japan–specifically Okinawa.

We have three stellar individuals on the mainland who managed the bulk of the nation’s participants. On island, our group had a rough start that forced me to develop some guidelines and contingency plans for future NaNo events–stuff you hope you never have to enforce, but you realize should be in place “just in case.” Yay for opportunities to grow and practice interpersonal skills!

The librarian on Kadena is passionate about writing groups–participating and supporting–so we enjoyed an array of Keurig coffee cups and a constant influx of writing resources. (Anyone need a journal? Here’s a stack. Need a book about researching how bodies decompose? I know a great one we might even have here… Stuck in your manuscript? Try playing around with some poetry magnets or story dice.) Who said libraries aren’t cool?

Great participants and a supportive location made my job easy and enjoyable!

My writing felt like a mess more than usual.

In the past, I approached NaNo like a plotter, laying out the overall course of the story with key milestones I knew I needed to hit as well as rough scene ideas documenting who needed to say or do what and for what purpose. That usually works for me, like following a recipe of cake mix. I have a little bit of freedom to substitute ingredients, and I can change plans in the middle if I really want to do so. “I think I’ll turn this into cupcakes instead of using a standard 9 by 13 cake pan. I’ll switch out the oil with applesauce for a healthier option.”

Some people are “pantsers” who sit down with a blank document and go to town, allowing the muse and the characters they’ve created in their minds to develop on paper in whatever way the story unfolds. More power to all of you who can manage that.

This year, I think I fell in the middle of the two–what some NaNo types call “plantser.” I had much less to go on than my last three NaNo drafts. The rough bones of a story arc bounced around in my mind, and I jotted down certain key points at the bottom of my manuscript Word document, but I had nowhere near the detail or preparation of previous efforts. It showed, as I left myself a lot more notes with questions to follow-up on, gaps or plot holes I could see while writing, even basic details like “insert her mom’s name here.”

On the one hand, “plantsing” gave me enough freedom to do as I pleased, changing up the events in the story as I wrote, to fit new ideas and revelations. It also gave me enough signposts as reminders to keep me moving in my intended direction. “Not saying you have to take the left lane onto I-80, but Chicago is far down the interstate in this direction, so you do you.”

I kept distractions to a (relative) minimum.

My favorite author Brandon Sanderson released the next novel in his massive epic fantasy series, The Stormlight Archives. Those books are so good, my non-fantasy-reading wife even loves them. That has been sitting on my iPad for the last three weeks, taunting me, beckoning with one finger crooked. “Just one chapter… that’s all… won’t take long… come on…”

The Netflix Punisher series came out mid-November, and I am a sucker for Jon Bernthal’s amazing combination of brooding / unhinged. Dude is like the stacks of unstable dynamite from my favorite 80s post-apocalyptic games. Sure, you might gain something by searching this, but you probably ought to back out of the fallout shelter slowly and forget what you saw here. (Fans of Wasteland might know what I’m talking about. The rest of you can take pleasure knowing I suck at analogies.)

I watched one episode the night it came out, then forced myself to close the app.

Thor: Ragnarok was a must-see, so I used that as my reward for getting ahead of schedule early. Justice League was going to be a mid-month reward, but I started falling behind and never found a good time to see it. In 20/20 hindsight, given the reviews and images, maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.

My pained smile when someone asks how NaNoWriMo is coming this year. “Yeah… I’m writing words or something…”

The addiction to video games kept its hooks deep in my flesh-husk. While I pulled away from WoW, and only played a couple hours of the intro of Horizon: Zero Dawn – The Frozen Wilds (omg such a great game), the mindless entertainment bug bit hard about three weeks in. For inexplicable reasons, as I looked at the Blizzard launcher on my PC, I realized that I own Diablo III, and I never played through the fifth act expansion, nor have I tried the necromancer class they added long after the game’s release. Easy fix! A few minutes of monster-grinding and loot-grabbing wouldn’t affect my writing too much, right?

In the course of a week, I played through the whole story and raised my overpowered goddess of death to just shy of max level. “Just one more level… just one more quest… just need to kill this one boss…”

Really, with an army of skeletons fighting for me, it just seems unfair.

I’ve put 75,000 words on various projects this month.

I started this year with a goal of writing a thousand words a day. Like many New Year’s resolutions, that lost steam after the first month or two. By about April I recalculated my goal. (500 words wouldn’t be too bad, right?)

In September, I realized if I cracked down and wrote like NaNoWriMo every month until the end of the year, I would make it. That didn’t pan out, though I exceeded my 1K/day goal. After the last month of grinding, I’m sitting at about 320K, with a few different projects clamoring for my attention. (I’ll post about one of them soon, because it has been both fun and valuable to me.)

Not saying those words are great words… but they’re something I can edit, revise, or cut, which is better than a blank page on screen and a bunch of imagined plot lines in my head.

All of that to say, I’m sort of sorry I was gone for the last month (plus), I’m not too worried because I can see how many or how few views come through, but I’m grateful for those of you who care enough to read this and/or support me, even if it’s just asking, “How’s that writing coming?”

Cue the wild-eyed Superman pain-rictus. “Pretty good,” I say through clenched teeth, choking down my self-loathing. “Everything is fine.”

Plots and Plans

At our bi-weekly Okinawa Military Community Writers meeting, Kyle led off the discussion with an exercise in developing the main idea of a short story, novella, or book. He posted about this and covered the 5 Ws that can help a writer summarize the story they intend to write.

I hope to build on that here with some additional tools or techniques for devising a plot line. Your mileage may vary, but hopefully one of these options will prove useful.

So you want to write a book…

Anyone setting out to write hopes to create something new and interesting, a unique contribution to their genre–and that’s a noble aspiration, of course. That might make some of these formulaic approaches seem unpalatable.

The thing to remember about a formula is it exists because it works.

Readers expect certain elements in particular genres… and this is not bad. A reader should have a decent idea what to expect based on the cover, back copy, and the first few pages. The tale may be familiar in structure, but unique in the telling, which makes it a fun read.

Deviating from the standard plan can be creative. Deviating too much is detrimental unless you telegraph it from the beginning.
In one of his excellent lectures on writing, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson brings up the example of a fellow writer who got published around the same time as Sanderson’s first book, Elantris. Sanderson’s book sold well and launched his career. The other fellow’s book sold poorly. What started as one type of novel (fantasy coming of age) suddenly became an entirely different book (dark and gritty science fiction) about three-quarters of the way in. Obviously other factors could be at work in this example, but when a book doesn’t deliver on its promise, that turns readers away.

That’s where planning and plotting can help. If we understand the commitment we’re making and the steps we should take in order to fulfill that promise, it’s easy to give readers what they will like.

“But I write free and unrestrained,” one may protest. “An outline or plot is a straitjacket in a padded room, an orange jumpsuit in a prison cell. I won’t go willingly.”

Pantsers (those who write by the seat of the pants) can still find use in these tools and structures. However, instead of using one to start an outline, the pantser can use these to guide the first major revision. If we’ve done our job as writers, the rough first draft will have elements of story and theme and proper flow between events, leading from whatever kicks off the thrill ride to the explosive climax. Figuring out the main structure of a story–even a free-writing journey of creativity–can illuminate what works and what fits, or highlight what should be cut to make the end result leaner and tighter.

Get your writing on LOCK

James Scott Bell writes about the LOCK method in Plot and Structure, among other books. The elements are:

  • Lead – a compelling or interesting character we’re going to care about enough to read through an entire novel.
  • Objective – the important goal or need driving this character into action they might otherwise avoid
  • Confrontation – the opposing forces or agents keeping the Lead from a quick solution
  • Knockout – an unexpected yet exciting ending that wraps up the conflict while blowing the reader’s mind

The stakes in the conflict have to be high–usually involving death. That doesn’t mean the lead or some support character must literally be hanging from a cliff or targeted in a sniper’s scope. Death can be professional (disbarred as a lawyer, kicked out of the military, imprisoned for a crime, or simply shamed and humiliated), or personal (divorced by the spouse they love, abandoned or rejected by their child, trapped forever in regret and frustration at what might have been).

Varying the Variables

A technique I picked up from George Guthridge during a fantasy writing workshop involves sorting out the variables and reasons that sum up the conflict, almost like a math formula.

(Variable 1) (verb phrase) (variable 2) because (reason).

For example, “A hopeless loser gets his life mixed up with his wealthy twin because neither knew the other existed.” So we get all the variations on The Prince and the Pauper, such as Freaky Friday, the Parent Trap, and a number of plots for one-off episodes in cartoons and comedy shows.

The trick here is to ensure that most of the equation involves some new or interesting. One of the variables can be boring–the hopeless loser, for example–but the rest must be exciting for the equation to work.

For example, the hopeless modern-day loser is trained to use magic by an enigmatic centuries-old sorcerer because only together can they close the portal to Hell in the middle of Times Square.

Okay, that’s been done, but the point is only one part of that equation feels like it fits in the mundane everyday world.

Filling Out the Outline

Guthridge also taught a skeletal plot structure that lays out the protagonist’s character arc, around which all the rest of the story will build. Here are the pieces of that framework:

  1. The Protagonist (what’s interesting about him or her?)
  2. Has an emotional / inner problem (what’s the backstory that led to this personal issue?)
  3. But an outside problem arises (what happens that forces the protagonist to face their issue and backstory?)
  4. Protagonist tries a solution that not only fails, but makes things worse (how are the stakes raised as a result?)
  5. Repeat 4 with another failed solution that builds the conflict and deepens the crisis
  6. Repeat 4 if you have space for a third failed solution and the resulting increased tension
  7. Protagonist solves the outer problem (without help from God, luck, friends, family, deus ex machina stuff)…
  8. And in so doing also solves or overcomes their inner problem

This will establish the main thrust of your character’s journey. Plotters can use it to start an outline; pantsers can look for how what they’ve written conforms to this kind of arc and revise accordingly.

Characters Change… Maybe?

Some books and speakers insist that a story is a series of events where characters change. This isn’t always true.

While considering the path a character will take (or has taken in the first draft), it may be that he or she remained firm in their convictions, against all the odds and pressure to change. Some stories are about people whose unwavering beliefs carry them through seemingly insurmountable odds. The tension builds with the increasing temptation to give in, and readers wonder, “Will they break? Will they sell out?” We’re satisfied when they don’t. Think of Captain America in the Avengers movies, who states that sometimes when all the world pushes you to move, you have to stand your ground and say, “No, you move.”

Conversely, plenty of stories involve the transition from an old belief or worldview to a new take on reality. Most “apprentice” novels and coming-of-age stories involve an underdog who becomes a master of their craft while developing the internal confidence to stand up for themselves.

A character may stand firm or change views–then we can reveal if their decision will end well or poorly for them. Maybe it’s a mistake with dire consequences, a cautionary tale. The unwavering person might not be able to survive a changing world (alas, Ned Stark!), and the person shifting their beliefs might live to regret their decision. Either of these can be a satisfying (if not happy) resolution to a character’s arc.

Nothing New Under the Sun

None of these structures or techniques are first-seen, unheard of, unique experimental snowflake novels. They don’t have to be. Everything we do and create is derivative of something we’ve seen or experienced–that’s what makes it relatable. The familiarity of the structure puts readers in a comfortable place, but each writer’s individual twists or combinations of ideas build a fresh experience that keeps the writing from feeling like what we’ve seen before. On top of that, no one tells a story exactly the same way; the use of voice and style in writing puts the spice in the casserole of words that will satisfy a hungry reader.

I hope the tools above and the 5 Ws from Kyle’s post help spur some creative writing. Whether following a recipe is easier, or looking at a picture and winging it is preferred, let’s get cooking and serve up something delicious.

Pain for Progress

I am a writer.

It’s not a one-off, not a fluke, not a one-hit wonder. I got confirmation today of upcoming payment for my words by a “real” publisher. In a couple months I’ll get a small check from Simon & Schuster, and one of my stories will appear in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Step Out of Your Comfort Zone, due out on Halloween. 

My story is titled “How Hard Could It Be?”

While a short story submission like that doesn’t take a lot of time or effort, it represents the return on investment, the proof of growth and progress in this self-proclaimed writer status.

A second story published is a signal that I’ve done something with the last several years of “taking writing seriously.” It validates the advice and constructive criticism I’ve received over five years of participating in critique groups. 

For most of us, nothing worth doing comes naturally or easy. Talent won’t make the difference; it’s what we do with our opportunities. Motivation doesn’t make magic happen; small, incremental efforts repeated daily or at least frequently will create results over time. We’re trading a little pain now for something important later. 

Learning to play the piano took eight years of lessons, and over thirty years of ongoing effort… but it’s a skill I get paid for now. Becoming a Spin instructor wasn’t easy, but overcoming the challenge of each session gave me deep satisfaction… and also a paycheck. 

A friend of mine fought his debt and financial status for the last few years, chipping away at the bills and pumping money little by little into savings. He’s getting ready to move, and we talked for a while at the grocery store while he picked up some lunchmeat, some cheese, and some wraps with which to make meals. He chooses to live comfortably yet below his means in order to manage his money better, and now he’s putting half his paycheck into investments every month. By the time he retires from the military, he’ll own a few properties with a plan to purchase more–his invested money earning enough to pay for all his expenses. It took time, discipline, and some pain… living like no one else now so he can live like no one else later, to quote Dave Ramsey.

I read a challenging quote from motivational speaker Jim Rohn yesterday which reaffirmed the thoughts behind this blog: “We all must suffer one of two pains: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons.”

After a long workday of chaos, I want nothing more than to log into Warcraft, rip open some bag of junk food, put something on the TV, and shut off my brain. 

Instead, I came home and headed out the door for some sprints around the neighborhood and gradual climbs on nearby hills. I’ve got a PT test coming up in a month–probably my last one in the Air Force–and I can’t afford to fail. That means putting in the work now so I can see and enjoy the progress later.

Despite the ache and soreness in my knee.

Regardless of the arthritic throbbing in my fused ankles.

Despite the stabbing pain in my big toe for the last few days.

Regardless of what other things I could or should be doing with my time.

Effort leads to results… eventually.

What are the goals and aspirations that float through the void of “someday I’d like to” in your mind? What small steps can you take today to advance toward them?

The Good Suspects

I talked about good being the enemy of the goal in this post. Sometimes we’ve got more tasks than time–more portions than space on the plate.

I picture all these competing interests and demands like a police line-up, and I’m behind the one-way mirror trying to figure out who to blame when I fail to achieve a particular goal.

This isn’t just the cover picture of my old site. It’s a jumble of all those competing interests clamoring for my attention. No wonder my life is a shambles!

I’ve finished two novels, and brought two other manuscripts to the ~75% mark. One got put on hold due to close associations with the classified nature of my military job. The other is a collaboration with a friend in the States and is awaiting some of his hacks on the first draft (plus it still needs the ending). I have another five fantasy novels and two fantasy-westerns loosely outlined, along with seeds of two more modern day dramas… plus a possible light-hearted fantasy project brewing as a break from “serious” books. I want to get those done. I committed to digging in and cranking out words.

That’s when my anti-social life blossomed into a dozen opportunities and conflicting interests.

I took some time for personal reflection to think about my current host of demands. Here’s the wall of “good” formed up like a defensive line to stop my forward advance toward completing my novels:

A guest saw my Dungeons & Dragons books and asked, “You play D&D?” I haven’t played in years… but it’s an itch in the back of my mind. “My friend and I were looking for someone to run a group…”

That expanded into two groups. Then I heard about a potential opportunity for a recurring “learn D&D” tabletop gaming session at the Base Library. My inner nerd wants me to think of all the ways tabletop RPGs encourage social interaction, math skills, group problem-solving, while fostering creativity and relieving stress. Why wouldn’t I jump at that prospect?

The local writers group is about to be sponsored by the Base Library, leading to increased advertisements and marketing. That may mean an influx of writers (one can only hope). But that means that the three or four of us regulars will want to step up our game to ensure we’re providing a welcoming and worthwhile investment of time. This means critiques or feedbacks as well as preparing topics or activities for meetings. The writer in me jumps up and down at the possibilities.

I got to do my first book signing a week ago, which was a surreal experience. We didn’t sell a ton of books (I fear Chicken Soup for the Soul has lost a lot of its original popularity), but I still got to meet some people and shake some hands. On top of that, all the books at the Exchange have one of my bookmarks, pointing people to my site.

I also got word that another Chicken Soup submission is in the running for an upcoming book. So I’m excited to think that I’m garnering some professional recognition for all this effort toward writing.

On that front, NaNoWriMo is coming up – and I want to win again this year. I also serve as the Municipal Liaison for the event, which means organizing and facilitating events for all of Okinawa. That’s a commitment, for sure—one I love and won’t give up.

As a NaNo ML, I got randomly selected to help mentor a five part Creative Writing NaNo Prep course from Wesleyan University on Coursera. It’s an incredible opportunity to not only learn new tools and practice my craft but to provide encouragement to others on the same journey. I’m honored and ecstatic to be a part of it, so I want to give it my best.

But I have a PT test coming up and fitness is always a concern for me. As a military member I have to adhere to standards, and I’m one of those people where if I’m not giving it my constant attention, I slip back into bad habits and a bulging waistline. I’ve got a month and a half before my next test, so I have to be on top of this priority if I want to keep my job.

My faith is a big part of who I am and how my family approaches the obstacles and trials of life. We don’t want to toss all that aside in the jumble of events and obligations, so we’ve been talking with some friends about a Bible study… which sounds awesome. Informal get-togethers for fellowship, praise, and study are one of my favorite spiritual activities. Like a fitness routine, a regular spiritual discipline keeps me focused on what I claim is important to me, while keeping me grounded in what I consider good moral and ethical values. So I don’t want to ignore that.

I had the privilege of filling in on the piano at the Base Chapel for six weeks while one of the musicians was in the States. I love playing music for worship services; it’s something I can say without arrogance that I do quite well. Still, that means a commitment to rehearsals and practice when I don’t know the songs the leader has selected. That’s more time and effort pulled in yet another really good direction.

The other day, I got a text from the guy I assisted asking if I want to play with the service on the regular. That’ll free up the usual pianist to employ some of his other manifold talents, like playing the saxophone. It would be amazing to hear some good sax riffs in the middle of the music; there’s such a rich sound when we can incorporate more than the standard keys / electric guitar / bass. I want to play, of course I do. But that’s another long-term commitment.

My musical skill got me an offer to play for social hour at the upcoming Air Force Ball. I can literally sit an hour at the piano playing nice chit-chat music with my eyes closed, so I thought “sure, why not.” But since agreeing to what I thought would be mindless, easy fun, this turned into an ensemble of violin, flute, and piano, playing a lot of songs I’m only barely familiar with. I have a month to learn 15-20 new songs well enough to play professionally.

Meanwhile I still have a wife and kids, and an office job, not to mention the chaotic demands of the squadron’s flight schedule, where I’m usually one of the top three flyers out of several dozen for hours and sorties on the jet.

I’m not sharing all this to say “Yay, look at my busy life.” It may not come through in the text, but there’s a panicked desperation in my mind as of the man overboard flailing for a life preserver.

Clearly good is becoming the enemy of some goals. I imagine it’s the same for many of us, because modern life and society are relentless in their demands.

But there I am, behind that mirror, looking at all the good suspects arranged before me. The truth is, I don’t need a one-way mirror and a line-up to figure out what’s to blame.

A plain mirror will do just fine.

Good vs the Goal

“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” 

The oft-quoted adage conveys important wisdom. In our efforts to make something the best it can be, we might pour too much effort or time into a project when “good enough” would suffice. Perfection is notoriously impossible to obtain, especially when we rely on our subjective judgment to make determinations. Most of us are never so confident as to say something we do or create is perfect… but it’s what many of us strive for nonetheless.

Wise people recognize when “good” is good enough, and refocus their attention or resources to accomplish the next task instead of perfecting the first.

Yet I find a related lesson as I consider that first quote:

We must not let good become the enemy of our goal.

In life, if we’re open to new ideas and watching for new opportunities, there are always choices and options available which seem appealing or even ideal. It’s too easy to follow these rabbit trails into tangential tasks and irrelevant efforts that feel good but never satisfy our deeper desires.

Motivational speakers and writers issue a common refrain: if you’re going to succeed at the most important thing to you, it has to become the most important thing to you.

Sometimes that means getting up earlier. Working on the weekend. Putting in some hours working at your passion, after you’ve already put in a full day’s work on the job. Other times, it means forsaking what’s appealing for what you’re accomplishing. While friends party or catch a movie, you grind a little more today so you start tomorrow further along the path to the goal. When genuinely good commitments are asked of you, sometimes it means saying, “I can’t do that right now.”

Speaking of financial stability and living within one’s means, Dave Ramsey puts it this way:

“If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else.”

His program applies this principle toward financial management, and participants cut unnecessary or excessive expenses while planning and monitoring their budgets down to the penny. The same concept applies to anyone who sets out to accomplish some difficult and demanding long-term goal–except it means cutting irrelevant activities and expenditures of energy, and focusing in on the actual priorities we claim mean so much.

I’m presuming you’ve already made some goals and decided certain activities are worth your effort–perhaps fitness achievements or weight loss, perhaps a career in writing or art or music, maybe some professional education or advancement with a clearly laid-out path and requirements.

Step one is to figure out what matters to you and commit to it, not as some hobby, thing on the side, or “personal interest.”  Of this you can be certain: Make such a decision, and those good temptations and worthwhile distractions will come out of the woodwork. So what’s the way forward?

Make the most of your time.

Sometimes we can kill two or three birds with one stone. As I type, I’m sitting on the bike, finishing an hour pedaling away. I’m knocking out my exercise for today while getting a blog post typed up while taking time for personal reflection while meeting today’s word count goal.

In a similar vein, while waiting in line at the post office or grocery store, I’ve typed up blogs or short stories, outlined D&D sessions or book ideas, coordinated events or meetings, and so on.

When I feel rushed, I consider my YouTube video history, the “hours played” on various video games, or the Netflix log of shows I’ve watched. We all have 24 hours a day, with probably 8 hours that we allocate as we see fit.

Long-term effort made of small steps and good decisions is the only path to success and accomplishing some of our goals. I can’t get fit in a week of high-intensity workouts and crash-diets. I won’t write a novel by sitting down and cranking out 80,000 words in a couple days. I’m not likely to see a million dollars drop into my bank account so I can pay off all my debts and save for retirement. Regular, disciplined effort is the only way forward.

Small steps add up to big results.

A few hundred words isn’t much, but when I write 500 in the half-hour before work, then 600 at lunch, then 250 while waiting to pay my groceries, then another 800 before bed… that’s how progress is made.

Paying an extra $50 or $100 on a bill until it’s gone means that I have that money plus the amount of the regular bill available to apply elsewhere in the budget. This is a big part of how Dave Ramsey’s program eliminates debt: small steps that build momentum.

Still, all too often there’s a whole gang of “good” calling for my attention.

I may have to learn to say no.

What about you? How do you balance pursuing your interests and passions with the demands of “real life” and other commitments? Got any tips for readers? (That really means please can I steal some good ideas because I’m desperate.) Let me know in a comment below.

 

Compliments and Confidence

I had the privilege of singing the Japanese and American National Anthems for my unit’s Change of Command ceremony this week. It went well. I didn’t make any significant mistakes (that I’m aware of at least). I received several compliments. Some people seemed genuinely surprised.

It got me thinking about the distance between compliments for a job well done, and confidence that we can do a job well.

I spend a lot of time in front of other people–public speaking in the form of leading mission briefs and planning discussions, public singing and musical performance in church bands or for secular functions, and of course… writing.

At a recent writing group, we talked about how hard it can be to accept the compliments or to truly believe “My work is of sufficient quality.” People give compliments to be polite, right? It’s easy to shrug those off or downplay them… after all, that’s the humble thing to do, and no one likes an arrogant jerk, right?

“Oh, it’s no big thing, you know, I’ve been doing this for years… just another day to me. Glad you liked it.”

The reason these thoughts came to mind was because then someone didn’t say something to me about the performance. Immediately doubts and questions arose. Did they not like it? Did they think I sucked? Was I off key? Were they not impressed? Do they care at all? Do they know how good I am? Am I not that good? Why didn’t they say something when all those other people did? What did I do wrong that they didn’t like?

The truth is, none of those things are true.  I didn’t do anything wrong and I did just fine if not awesome (if the compliments are to be believed). Yet that brief moment of silence creates so many questions where none are necessary.

Early on, in singing or speaking or writing, I needed those compliments – I need some praise and assurance. “You are good at this.”  That can become a crutch, a dependency that nags at the back of my mind when I check site views or book reviews. When I participate in a critique group and put my work out there to other writers, I might come at that experience looking for validation instead of constructive feedback.

“Oh, you’re so good at this!”

*fake blush* Thank you, I know…

On the other hand, I don’t want to become arrogant or overconfident about how good I think I am. That’s the danger of believing the compliments a little too easily: acting as though I’ve mastered a thing when I’m really only an amateur.

So I presume and hope that there is a comfortable middle ground—a  place where I can be confident in my abilities while remaining grateful for the praise I earn. Something like the prophets in the Bible following the phrase “Don’t look at their faces.” Don’t try to figure out how everyone feels about what you’re doing–figure out how to do it, and just go for your best.

That’s a place where I’m not dependent on what others think to find my own validation. A place where I know I do pretty fine at X, Y, and Z… but I still want to get better at them.

Today, I’ll be signing books at the Base Exchange and shaking customers’ hands. I have no illusions about how minor a thing it is to get a story published in a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. It’s not the first step to becoming a Stephen King or George Martin.

But a company paid money for my words and put them in print. Salespeople suggested “What if you came and signed books?” Maybe some people will buy it, even if just as a novelty.

So it’s something. And today, that’s enough.

Feedback vs Feel Bad

“Well, I tried to read it, but… sorry, I couldn’t get past the first page.”

If you’ve ever put your creative work out for other to see, you likely did so wincing with trepidation, unsure what to expect.

Do they love it? Do they hate it?

Did he just laugh? At what?

Did she just raise her eyebrows?

Is that interest at a cool turn of phrase, or disgust at some mistake I didn’t catch?

Sometimes the response you get back is empty of value. Other times, it’s thoughtless and crushing.

One of the hardest steps we take as amateur writers is giving others the opportunity to read our work. It feels easier to leave all our poems or stories in files on the computer than to face the judgment we fear.

But unless it’s a private diary or journal, reading is an essential part of the writing process. The audience is the intended recipient of all our word-smithing, and their response is the tool we use to discover what we’re doing well and where we’ve missed the mark.

What if we could witness those important cues and responses in a friendly setting, a “safe space” of sorts? What if we got insight from other writers on a similar journey–people who know not just what we’re going through but how it feels–rather than from “professional readers” whose replies lack technical detail or depth?

Enter the feedback group.

I’ve written about the value of such groups before, so this time, I thought I could show an example of what good feedback looks like:

What He Would Have Wanted–Full Critique

The Word document at that link is a combination of comments and discussion points over aspects of grammar, description, dialogue, and format. I love the comment feature on Word and similar programs for this purpose.

Feedback2.png

Kyle writes epic fantasy, and he also pays great attention to detail. He uses AutoCrit among other programs and services to dig into the weeds on his own writing.

One good example of such detail is that in my original draft, I used “then” 12 times. As an example of the constructive type of feedback, Kyle not only pointed these out but also provided re-writing suggestions for how to avoid them.

Feedback1

Jessica is an avid fantasy reader and helped me see what worked really well in my descriptions.

A newcomer to the group, Natalie mentioned how a portion of dialogue struck her as possibly too modern for the setting.

Judy is a professor at one of the on-base colleges. She saw a lot of meaning in the imagery and word choice that I didn’t anticipate or intend. I can use that feedback to do a better job intentionally incorporating those aspects in future writing.

One point that isn’t captured in the document (because I forgot to add it as a comment): I described Fleuris as having hair the color of carnations… but there are many varieties of carnations. Judy and Kyle assumed red, and Jessica pictured a light pink–which is what I was aiming for. Lesson learned: it’s not a clear description as written.

At the end of the session, Natalie–a newcomer to the group–remarked that the experience was better than she expected or feared. In her career dealing with military writing, she’d seen arguments over whether to use “or” or “and” in order to highlight some meaning in an article. “People spend hours bickering over these minor details,” she said. “I guess I thought it might be like that.”

That fear is common when joining a new community or putting our work out for others to see. But like many things in life, the fear is often far worse than reality.

In a good group, everyone has the same vision of constructive criticism in order to make each other’s work better. In that light, while it may sting a little to realize I’ve made a mistake, I develop from the insight of others and hone my skills for next time.

For anyone wishing to grow as a writer, I can think of no greater resource or method than a solid, constructive feedback group.

Military Community Writers currently meets every two weeks from 10:30 to 12:30 on Saturday at the Kadena Base Library. Our next meeting is July 29th. Got something to share? Come out and take the plunge with the rest of us.

Ups and Downs

I’ve posted about my word count tracker and daily / monthly / yearly goals in the past, but I haven’t provided an update on that in quite some time… probably because I’m disappointed at the low numbers and slow progress. 

Life has been an airplane in severe turbulence for the last two weeks – rapid descents, attempts to climb out of the bumpy ride, moments of radiance above the storm before another cluster of dark clouds obscure everything else.

I know, everyone has results, or excuses–one or the other, rarely both.

My 18-year-old daughter, our oldest child, just got married a week ago. I’m a jumble of equal parts happy celebration and hopeful concern. The Bee heard all our warnings and listened to all our worries. But she remained determined to move forward, and we decided it would be better to stay supportive and connected than to resist and watch her do whatever she pleases without us being a part of her life.

She and her husband just left the island yesterday to head back to the States, where he will probably enlist in the Air Force soon after their return. That’s awesome and provides some certainty of security. 

Our first of four leaving the nest is, naturally, a painful but necessary process. Wifey and I are working through the emotions and adapting to a new normal.

As I typed this, I was sitting at the base exchange getting ready to sign a bunch of copies of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Military Families Edition, in which I am a contributing author. I asked for permission to sign and place an origami bookmark in the two or four copies I expected them to put on the shelves–instead, they decided to order 40 and prepare a display. It’s a cool thought that something of my work will be out there for others to see. 

On top of that, they’re crafting plans for a book signing or at least a meet-and-greet with interested customers. As the manager put it, there’s a community connection and an increased value in “I shook this guy’s hand, I talked with the lady who wrote this story.” (There’s another person on Kadena who contributed, so we’re trying to get both of us into the same place at the same time.)

Signing books at the Base Exchange 

The salespeople in charge of books provided enthusiastic help, placing bookmarks, lining up copies for signatures, and snapping pictures for some eventual publicity. They might even work out a radio spot.

Going from celebrating a wedding, to saying farewell to my daughter and her husband, to experiencing a form of success and publicity as a writer–it’s more chaos than a kindergarten class high on candy and Kool-Aid.

A couple days ago, I drove the newlyweds out to a shopping area so they could get some Indian take-out (my daughter’s last chance to eat at her favorite restaurant on Okinawa) and Japanese candy for relatives in the States. “I’ll just hang out at Starbucks while you do your shopping,” I told them. After all, that writing word count was still looking pretty bleak.

“You could come with us to the candy store when we’re waiting for the food,” she suggested. 

It hit me that pretty soon I’ll have all kinds of time to sit in coffee shops, alone with my writing. I wouldn’t get another such opportunity to have time with my daughter for… well, we’ll see how long it ends up being.

Stickerpics with me third-wheeling
Word counts are a tool, a motivational aid meant to track progress toward the overall goal of completed writing projects. But the word count isn’t the be-all/end-all of writing, and writing isn’t everything there is to life. (It hurts a little to type that.) 

What matters more is the conscious choice about what I’m doing with my time. Word counts can help reveal when my efforts are slipping or when I’m succeeding, but sometimes it’s okay to see that string of zeros. Other things are more important. 

Finding Allies

Readers: This is a scene I wrote for a character in a tabletop roleplaying game, someone out to do good even if their powers are misunderstood and condemned by society at large.


Fleuris ducked down the alleyway between wooden shops and hawker’s stands near the Quay, weaving her way between the meandering peasants ogling things they could never afford. She shot a glance behind her and caught a glimpse of sunlight sparkling off two shields emblazoned with the six-point sun of Aulivar.

Soulforged—champions of Justice and unwavering bastions of virtue. They’d chased her across mountains and rivers, over leagues and tendays. She’d tried to ditch them in the dark corners of every town and city in the ‘Marches, but still they maintained their pursuit.

Even among their zealous order, few sins earned such relentless retribution as necromancy.

If only they could let me explain… if only they could understand.

Her friends would be waiting at the docks… Trenton strumming his lute and singing a sailor chanty, Galla sharpening her longswords, Hakri meditating and memorizing a fresh array of war-spells. But the three companions wouldn’t be enough by themselves to take on the pirate crew… so Fleuris intended to bring help.

It shouldn’t be far now, and the ritual wouldn’t take long—provided the Order lost the trail along the way. Her prize lay at the edge of Mirelenai’s sprawl of ramshackle buildings and flimsy shanties. The dread pirate Bloodhook the Brutal, Captain of the mighty Dire Shark, scourge of the Bay of Raentallas, lay wrapped in tight sheets in a shallow grave outside the town. After the mutiny, Bloodhook’s crew buried him on land to prevent his spirit from returning to the seas he loved and lorded over—one last spiteful jab at the savage master who had beaten them into submission.

Now the Dire Shark sailed the bay once more, tormenting seafaring merchants and plundering their ships’ holds. The Seamistress would pour out a chest full of gems and gold coins on anyone who sent the Dire Shark to the ocean’s floor.

“Seize that girl!” a voice shouted from much too close behind her. Another shouted, “The Ghostskin in purple,” and Fleuris gasped. She zipped down a narrow walkway that stank like an open sewer, trying not to consider the filth staining the hem of her burgundy skirt. The deep violet cloak wrapped around her wispy frame obscured her face from view, and her gloves of thick, black lace helped hide the tell-tale alabaster skin the Order sought.

She hustled through the dim-lit walkway, headed for the sunlight at the far end. A few paces from the street, she stumbled over an unseen obstacle like a tree root, and glanced down, squinting in the darkness. A body of some poverty-stricken peasant lay slumped against a wall, not yet dead a full tenday, judging by the rate of decay.

Fleuris probed the supernatural realm with her heightened senses and latched onto a glowing spark of life hanging in limbo. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the soul, then again to the body on the ground. She yanked the life force from the ether and shoved it into the corpse, then watched the fruit of her labor.

The body clambered to its feet, loosing a swarm of flies and dropping chunks of flesh. Dead eyes stared at Fleuris, waiting.

She doffed her cloak, threw it over the corpse’s shoulders, and sent it a forceful command. Then she slipped into the crowds on the street, her step calm and sure despite the racing thrash of emotions and the rapid drumbeat in her chest.

After passing a few merchants, Fleuris paused at a tailor’s stand and reached for her coinpurse. “How much for the forest green cloak there,” she asked, “with the silver trim?”

While they exchanged offers and counter-offers, Fleuris caught the glimpse of her violet cloak near the walkway she’d passed through. The animated corpse shambled into the street and lumbered away from her, toward the busy docks at the heart of the town.

Fleuris threw the new garment over her shoulders and clasped the smooth material with a silver brooch under her chin. Then she froze in fear. Two dozen paces away, she spotted the pair of Soulforged from the Order, stomping their way through the crowd toward her.

“Undead!” Someone shouted in the distance, and another voice chimed in. “A walking corpse near the Ragged Sail! To arms!”

Other cries joined the throng, and the two Soulforged halted their approach. Then they dashed toward the commotion, swallowing whole the hook and bait she’d left them.

Fleuris turned her back to them and strode away with as casual a pace as she could muster. This road would curve toward the fields and foothills outside the town. A short walk by the bay in the afternoon breeze would lead to the grove which held Bloodhook’s remains.

Buried on a slope within earshot of the sea, but laid in a grave that faced away from the water… With cruel care, the Dire Shark’s crew had chosen the site of Bloodhook’s final resting place.

Not final, Fleuris corrected herself. He will rise again… I’ll see to that. Though he did nothing to atone for his crimes in life, he shall do much to repay them in death.

After all, Trenton and Galla had asked for allies on their quest. They didn’t specify living allies.

 


Note: This was written and inspired partly by discussions about whether a necromancer in D&D could possibly be considered “good.” My thoughts on the subject are found here, but I’d love to hear yours.

The Kinder Choice

Here’s a short story for Rachael Ritchey’s Blog Battle this week, where the word is restraint and the suggested genre is Historical Fiction, specifically Western. 

This is one of my current favorite characters, the gambler prophet whose dice give him insight into what’s to come. But this is a generation later, when the Gift has moved on to a new face – Annabelle Boudreaux, a troubled woman with a deck of cards that calls her to action. 

I really want to turn one of these into a NaNoWriMo book or similar project, but for now, they’ll pop up in short stories.

—-

The moon casts a bright silver light across the plains, and stars twinkle over the Falstaff Saloon. The street smells like manure and tabacca-spit despite the soft pitter-pat of rain, and cigar smoke rolls out the door like a fog. The music inside fills the breeze with a dancin’ tune, the fiddler better than this corrupt town deserves.

Mercado’s whole gang is inside. The man himself is upstairs—chasin’ sporting girls, countin’ blood money, maybe both.  The century may have turned, but men are pretty much the same as ever.

I feel the ache in my bones—joints that have seen a several dozen years complain at the thought of what’s to come. I put this life behind me twenty years ago, and I’m not keen on seeing it claw back out of the plot where I buried it.  

The young brunette next to me slides the last round into the chamber of her revolver. The Devil’s Sharpy, Annabelle Boudreaux has the Gift just like I once did—with a deck of cards instead of my old pair of dice. ‘Course she uses it pretty much the opposite of me.

“This is a mistake, Annabelle.”

“It was a mistake for him to snatch Aideen off the stage—one of many poor choices Mercado’s made over his lifetime.”

Aideen Brannaghan—Annabelle’s half-sister and partner-in-crime, a timid Irish lass who’s decent with a pistol, but deadlier with a pair of knives than anyone I know, once you spark her temper. We could really use her now… but then we wouldn’t need to be here in the first place.

“I meant us, alone, trying to take him down.”

“It’s what the cards said would come to pass.” She laughs, and the whiskey on her breath nearly gets me drunk. I wonder how she sees straight to shoot, but then I remember how the Gift worked in my day. It’d be hard to miss a target all glowed up like an electric lantern.

“Maybe something’s changed,” I venture, knowing how weak and futile the plea must sound.

Annabelle slides out a deck of gleaming cards and fans a dozen in her hand, every card a one-eyed Jack. The hearts catch my eye as important—something she never bothered to explain. I ain’t sussed out all of how she interprets what the Gift shows her.

“You of all people should know better, Mister ‘God’s Shooter’ himself.”

I spit on the ground. “A stupid nickname from a far-fetched story written by a fool.”

“Quite a few stories, or so I hear… the better part of ‘em true.”

“Not a lot of men you can trust. Pretty girl like you has to know that by now.”

“Men lie, but graves don’t. You ready?” She flashes me that smile of hers, then turns away before I can respond.

“You ain’t.” Like most women I’ve cared about, once she gets an idea in her head, there’s no dissuading her. My words are wasted before they’re out my mouth, but I say ‘em anyhow.

“Just try to keep up.”

With that, Annabelle dives through the swinging double doors of the saloon, and thunder booms from the pair of Colts in her slender fingers. The fiddler’s bow screeches to a halt and he dives behind the bar.

“Show some restraint,” I shout over the din, laying down some covering fire at the boys on the second floor. “You can’t just go in guns blazin’ like the Gift is some kind of magic shield.”

Annabelle shoots me a glare. “But that’s what you did for years.”

“An’ I got the scars to prove it.”

She plugs one of Mercado’s goons with a no-look over-the-shoulder shot. Makes me wonder if the Gift works different for her than it did for me. Then she gives me a raised eyebrow. “Pretty sure no one but Lucien ever landed a shot on you, Zack. You can’t lie to a natural born swindler.”

“I’m not talkin’ about my skin, girl. Some hurts, time don’t heal.”

“That much I already know. That’s why I’m here… to give back some of the hurt Mercado done to me and mine.” She fans the hammer and sweeps the room. Three more toughs drop to the hardwood floorboards. Quiet fills the main room downstairs, and there’s a muffled scream from the second floor.

“Aideen,” Annabelle shouts. She dashes up the steps, and I hobble after her quick as my age permits.

Before Annabelle reaches the double-doors of the master suite, gunfire tears through the polished wood. Annabelle shoulders through the doorway, guns at the ready, disappearing from my view.

Unexpected silence hangs over the saloon as I lurch toward the shattered doors. Once I reach the suite, I find Annabelle holding Aideen close, the younger girl half-dressed, her short splash of red hair tucked underneath Annabelle’s chin.

A wisp of smoke curls up from the pistol in Aideen’s shaking hand, and two bodies lay slumped in the corner with large crimson stains in their pretty white waistcoats. “Had to wait until I could get loose,” Aideen whispers. “But I almost—they were going to—“ She trails off, eyes squeezed shut.

Annabelle’s gaze remains fixed. Her hand doesn’t flinch at all, the barrel of her Colt trained on the bead of sweat runnin’ down the furrow between Mercado’s eyebrows. The man sits against the wall clutching the gunshot wound in his leg.

Annabelle’s finger tenses up on the trigger. Then she smirks. “Aideen, go get your knives.”

Aideen starts collecting her things and hands Annabelle one of the long steel blades.

“Let the law clean this up, girl. You done what you set out to do.”

“Oh no,” Annabelle says with a mirthless laugh. “He’s not buying his way off the gallows again. Getting Mercado was just the start. Now we can have some fun.” She turns a hungry grin his way, and he goes whiter than a playing card. “I’ve been waiting years for this, amigo.”

“Annabelle, don’t become the thing you hate. Trust me.”

“This man,” she says, waving the Colt in Mercado’s quivering face, “is a scourge on this whole Territory, a pus-filled boil of infection on the back of humankind.” Her face is red an’ steaming, her eyes like a locomotive furnace at full bore–and Mercado’s tied to the tracks up ahead-a that train. “The things he’s done deserve an eternity of all God’s wrath, and I think it’s fitting we get started in the here and now.”

“Think about what you’re doing, dammit.” I see the pistol flinch in her hand—gotta hope what I’m sayin’ might sink in. “You been given this foresight for a reason, a purpose, something bigger and greater than seekin’ your own self-interest.”

Annabelle swallows hard, and the barrel of the Colt dips toward the floor. “You’re right, Zack,” she says with a long sigh.

Then she blows Mercado’s brains across the wood-paneled wall.

“Christ have mercy, girl, what did I say? Show some restraint!”

Annabelle dumps the empty cartridges on the floor in the spreading pool of blood and hands the knife back to Aideen.

“I did,” she says, colder than a desert night. “You don’t know what all I had planned.”