Category Archives: Writing

The Basement

I’ve been listening to too much NF (lies! I love all his music) and the Mansion reference at the beginning of this is aimed at his first big album. All his albums and singles are great, and worth checking out.

I am also a fan of spoken-word style poetry with loose structure, soft rhymes, and rhythmic phrasing. I occasionally write such pieces as the lyrical equivalent of emotional venting on a given subject or feeling.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the human condition and the “bad wolf” in the popular analogy about two wolves. Really, I wrote it to ensure I sent something in for our critique group, but it led to some conversation and deeper thoughts after the meeting.

We talked about whether there was something “more” in the proverbial basement, psychologically speaking. While I can’t claim any significant trauma or tragedy in my past, I do habitually shove my frustrations and emotions down to shut them up–partly because I try to pick battles worth fighting, and partly because I try too hard to avoid conflict.

All that stuff festers and builds up, if not checked or dealt with. Contemplating that led to this bit of “poetry.”

The Basement

To borrow from Mansion, maybe build an expansion

I’m considering action toward the house that I’m trapped in,

all these feelings I’ve wrapped in the lines that I’ve crapped in

to documents tapping the keys like I’m rapping

but I know I’m lacking—-Lotsa talk but no backing,

lotsa thoughts but still slacking, lotsa dreams but they’re stacking

like firewood packed in a shack getting racked up

for hacking to kindling I’m axing the questions

I’m tracking the lessons but passing up chances

amassing like cancer, outlasting the answer

by lapsing in trances and grasping at fancies

and fables and falsehoods in fashion

like all of the lies that I cash in

when I choose to live out excuses

and act satisfied when I know that I tried

with far less than the best of my passion

 

I know there’s something in the basement, but I thought I boarded that door,

Did I make a mistake in the placement, did I open a hole in the floor?

Don’t you think that’s some kind of statement, do you wanna know what came before?

Maybe this goes beyond entertainment, we ain’t creative writing no more

When the fear or the pain or the hatred rears its head through the holes that it tore

I don’t know if I can restrain it if I open up down to my core

If I can’t even start to explain it, how could I hope to win such a war

All these white-washed walls’ll be painted blood-red with emotional gore

some kind of lore, some kind of more that I’ve held back in store,

some kind of knowledge encountered before,

maybe I took a mental detour,

maybe I turned something painful I learned,

some experience earned,

some life lesson I spurned,

like a victim got burned,

a prisoner blamed and unnamed,

restrained and contained

 

Like a blur that you see for a minute

at the edge of peripheral vision

but when you turn your eye to look in it

what you thought was right there—now it isn’t

and the hairs on your neck start to raisin’

like there’s someone behind you appraising

all the weakness in you, like he’s gazing

at the prey that he’s planning on tasting

And those holes in the floor are his ceiling,

when he’s looking at them I start feeling

like he’s reaching up through it and stealing

all the joy and the possible healing

all the good things I say, he rewrites em,

all the good deeds I do, redefines em,

absolution? he keeps it behind him

in the dark where he knows I won’t find him,

and his voice echoes up from the stairwell

with a challenge he knows I won’t bear well,

“Wanna come down and play Show and Don’t Tell?”

‘cause he tells me confession won’t fare well

all the pain in my heart, I will hold it,

try to trap it, collapse it, enfold it

in a poem or song where I’ve told it,

in a part but never the full bit,

that would take recognizing the whole of role

of the beast that retreats to my soul pit

and I’d rather just give it the bullet,

got my hand on the trigger—can’t pull it,

so it stays in the place where I placed it,

I guess it’s the guest in the basement

Crawl Space Inside, by Newell Post. (Public Domain)

An Alpha Among Betas

Some days, writing is hard.

I’m not even talking about the deeply emotional, soul-searching stuff like the Hemingway quote about bleeding all over your typewriter. (If you’re doing that to your computer, get yourself checked by a doctor. Get your computer checked, too–they’re not waterproof, let alone blood-proof.)

I know, it’s supposed to be as easy as pouring words onto a page, knowing they’re garbage, so that you have something to sculpt or reshape into actual quality. It’s dumping sand into the sandbox so you can eventually build your little castle.

Like that kid in the sandbox, the castle of words I see in my mind is often quite different from what everyone else sees in the real world.

A little outside perspective is necessary.

Enter the beta reader!

Beta readers are the folks who get to see first (and second, and fifth) drafts of a novel. They’re the trusted friends and fellow writers who have the opportunity to give the vitally important reader perspective to a novelist. They can let a writer know what parts are working great and what parts need more work, long before the draft gets submitted to a publisher or to a self-publishing service.

If you’re working with a publishing house or agent, you’re probably paying for editing, or it’s part of some arrangement with your creative overlords. If you’re self-publishing, it can be liberating to avoid all the hurdles and onerous steps of the traditional process, but you’re also left in desperate need of that outsider perspective.

I’ve been blessed to have several beta readers along the way, each of whom helped make my efforts better. One of them, a friend named David, just came to Okinawa for a month-long, work-related trip, and we had the chance to bounce ideas back and forth as I look at my meager efforts on book 2.

David is a great example of how to be a beta reader. What does he do right?

  1. He gets into the setting and questions world-building.
    “If your magic system works this way, then how do you have an economy? It can’t be based on precious metals if people can simply conjure metals.”
    “It would be difficult to be a classical atheist or even agnostic in a world where people literally manifest symbols of power granted from the Divine, so have you thought about how that might change social interactions and expectations?”
    The messages in the pic above are another example, this time questioning the details of the magic system. While I had an answer, I also noted that I didn’t communicate the concept clearly enough in the story to prevent the question from being asked.
  2. He challenges the writing when it doesn’t fit the character. 
    “You made your main characters sound like middle school girls playing around and laughing when… I mean, the town might not still be on fire but several buildings are still smoldering, and Lyllithe just got kicked out of her religious order, not to mention the attack in the woods… that whole dialogue feels wrong.”
    A beta reader can also tell you which characters are hitting the mark and which feel forgettable.
    “You’ve got Lyl and Jo, and they’re great… and then there’s… uh… Blade Guy with the knives, and Mage Guy who casts spells, and the Other Guy who is scarred. I don’t know anything really about them, and so I don’t really care about them yet.”
  3. He offers tough but fair criticism that is genuinely constructive.
    Feedback like “You’re trying too hard” or “this is bad” is terrible, as it doesn’t offer any corrective option. Feedback like “I liked it” is so vague that it doesn’t identify any positive quality to capitalize upon. I suppose no feedback at all is the worst sort.
    Instead of any of that, I get moments like, “One thing to do in the future may be to pick a single metaphor or simile. There’s a lot of instances where you choose two, where one might have done. Like a child caught between two slices of cake, or pieces of candy.”
    Feedback on the actual writing is the first thing that comes to mind when discussing what makes a beta reader good, but I put it last for this reason:
    Writers need this kind of attention to the quality of their writing, but a grammatically correct manuscript might still be full of plot holes and flat characters.

David and I talked on the way to the airport yesterday, as he is headed back to the States. “It’s a unique experience,” he said of reading my book and peppering me with friendly, well-intentioned grief. “It’s not every book I read where I know the author and can message them with challenges or questions about their work. It’s not like I can email Stephen King and ask, ‘Hey, what were you thinking here?'”

Sometimes that’s exactly what we need to hear… preferably before we publish.

If you want to support a friend who is a writer, offer to be a beta reader for their work… then follow through. 

 

Letting Go (Short Story)

I slip in the back door, and a scented wave of cinnamon and sugar hits me, an intended welcoming warmth that I don’t feel. I head for the stairs, hoping to make it to my room before—

“You’re back!” Mom’s voice sounds strained, her cheerful tone forced. Like always. “How was the mall?”

I shrug. “Boring.”

She pulls a plate of snickerdoodles off the stovetop. “I made some treats for Sunday school, and thought you might like some of the extras. They’re fresh out of the oven.”

“I’m not that hungry, Mom. There’s half a dozen. Dinner’s in an hour.” I feel like she should be the one thinking about that. Still, I’m not about to turn the offer down, not entirely. I snatch one off the plate and let my teeth sink into the soft, sweet cookie.

She watches me with concern, that same disturbed look she’s been giving me every night for the last few years. “Well,” she says, “I thought… maybe Thomas would like some? They’re his favorite.”

I roll my eyes and set the plate on the counter. “I’m not dealing with this again today. I have homework.” Maybe Dad will eat the other ones, or I’ll just snack on them during school tomorrow.

School… yeah right. Sitting at the dining table with a couple workbooks and an iPad is “school” as much as the first aid kit in the bathroom makes it a hospital. Homeschooling is supposed to be close, intimate… but the way my parents run things, it’s about giving me busy work so they can avoid dealing with me. I’m fine with that—I try to avoid them, too.

“Don’t forget,” Mom yells down the hallway as I make my escape, “we have an appointment with Nick tomorrow.”

I whirl and let loose. “Can we stop pretending that calling Doctor Greene by his first name takes away the fact he’s a shrink you’re making me see because you think I’m crazy?”

Mom lets out that defeated sigh of hers, the one that means she will leave me alone. It’s a stalemate, but I’ll take it.

I walk past Thomas’s room—always empty, always immaculate—and slam my door before flopping onto my bed. Tomorrow’s a big day; I know that’s why they made the appointment. Five years ago, Thomas and I took off on our bikes, and only one of us came home.

* * * * *

“Hello! Good to see you,” Nick says, with a too-white smile and “Happy Holidays” disposition. I don’t mind calling him Nick, even though I’ll argue with my parents about it. To them, and to him, it probably seems cool, a way of relating to the kids he sees. Whatever. It’s all part of the show we’re putting on here. Thirty minutes of fun and entertainment, and the clock starts now.

He’s got two folding chairs in front of his desk, and a love seat in the corner where Mom and Dad could sit together, if Dad ever bothered to show up. I take the one on the left and sink into a slouch, arms crossed, hoodie shading my view.

“Mrs. Talbach,” Nick says in his overly chipper tone. He turns to me, glances at the empty seat, and says, “I’m really glad Thomas could be here today.”

I kick the extra chair aside with a huff. “It’s just me, Nick,” I hiss, “just like the last five times. What are we paying you for again?”

As soon as I say it, Mom’s emotional rubber band snaps—I can feel her burning glare on the back of my neck. “Mind your tone and watch your manners. You’re not paying him for anything—”

“Darci,” Nick says, cutting her off. His tone is solid and firm. “Maybe you’d like a mug of cocoa? Someone at the front desk can help you.”

He takes a seat beside his desk, his eyes on her. He watches in silence, removing any doubt about the directive nature of his suggestion.

I try not to smirk, and I keep my back to Mom until the door clicks shut.

“So,” Nick says, elbows on knees, chin resting on his laced fingers. “Still pushing your mother’s buttons?”

“As much as she pushes mine.”

“You realize your parents have been through a lot, too, don’t you? Today, especially. The memory of the accident hits them as hard as it does you.”

Of course I realize that… but they didn’t see what happened.

Nick glances at the empty chair. “You say that Thomas isn’t with you anymore, but I’m afraid you’re telling me what you think I want to hear. It’s easy to put on an act for the doctor every two weeks, and you’re a smart kid, no doubt about it. Smart enough to figure that out.”

I stare at him from beneath my hood. That’s most of what Dad pays for—Nick and me staring at each other in silence. Maybe that’s part of why he stopped coming.

“You can be honest with me,” Nick says. “No sign of Thomas at all?”

“I let him go. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Move on?”

“Yes, well, you’re a… complex case, in my experience,” Nick replies. His fingers stroke the thick file on the edge of the desk. “In any event, after a traumatic episode, you’re right, it’s important to keep moving forward in life. However, we all want to be sure the direction you’re moving in is healthy. That it leads somewhere better than where you were when we first met.”

Same old speech. “Who’s to say what’s better, Nick?”

“Great question. I think that’s when you benefit most from the perspectives of others—the people who love you, the people you love. Those, like me, who want what’s best for you.”

Out the window, I can see a dozen kids scrambling all over a school playground across the street. Climbing, swinging, chasing, laughing. I miss those days.

Nick leans over and twists the stick; the venetian blinds snap shut. “Tell me about Fairmont Junior High.”

“Sucked.”

“I imagine so, given some of these comics and stories you wrote.” He slides a couple yellowed sheets of paper out from the folder. On one of them, a pair of stick figures fight their way through a school infested with zombies. On another, there’s a list of names titled ‘People I Hope Die.’

I sigh and stare at Nick’s wall of degrees in glossy frames.

Nick points at the comic. “‘Timmy and Tommy Versus the Zombies,’ a tale of twin boys, taking on the mindless horde of cold adults and mean classmates that you had to deal with every day. That’s kind of funny. Maybe a little bit like life?”

When I don’t respond, Nick presses his point. “You drew this, what, a year after he passed away? Do you think maybe you were expressing some feelings you weren’t able to process otherwise?”

I shrug.

“Of course,” Nick continues, “Fairmont had a zero-tolerance policy for anything perceived as threats, so when your teacher found this list, you had to—”

“No! That’s not why we homeschool, okay?”

Nick sits back at the outburst, but gestures for me to elaborate. I’m surprised that came out, but I’m so sick of them worrying about problems and phantoms I’ve already outgrown.

“How do you think it felt,” I say, “being the only kid in middle school with an imaginary friend? Being the kid who freaked out if anyone sat next to him in the cafeteria… Teachers had to keep one desk empty rather than put up with me losing it in the middle of class…”

Nick nods, pretending he knows what it’s like. “That’s why I’m glad we’ve made progress,” he says gently, and gestures at the empty seat. “Some, at least.”

“Whatever. If we made so much progress, what the hell am I doing here?”

“Like I said, you’re complex. There’s still more going on, and I don’t know if you’re ready or willing to address it.”

I shake my head, and my lips curl in frustration. “I’m fine with how things are now. I’m finally fine. I’ve moved on. That’s all I wanted, all I needed. I just wish everybody else would back off and stop trying to tell me what’s best for me.”

“You say that, but—”

“Isn’t it time to go?” I grab the small digital clock he has on his desk—turned away from the patients, of course, but always visible from his chair—and check the time. Ten more minutes. Dammit.

“It’s a sign of progress that you no longer require the additional space and consideration you once expected from everyone,” Nick drones, flipping through records of previous visits. “That’s an important step, but as I review your history, I wonder if we are moving in a healthy direction. One significant concern when dealing with delusions related to trauma is that…”

I’m done with this. My mind shuts down and my eyes wander over the decorations around the room: the dream-catcher some kid made in art class, the framed newspaper story with Nick’s picture, the carved African trickster guy hunched over his flute whose name I can never remember.

“—unable to distinguish,” he continues, “between the real and the imaginary in other parts of life, affecting relationships, job performance—or, in your case, academics—and basic social integration.”

Nick leans forward and gives me his oh-so-caring face. I wonder how many times he practiced that in med school. “What I’m saying is, I can’t just ignore these other symptoms.”

“They’re not symptoms,” I growl. I’m so tired of him and everyone else not listening to what I’m saying about me. “Stop treating me like I have a problem. I had a problem. It’s gone now.”

“You have to want to get well before—”

I fly out of the seat and kick it down behind me. “I am well!”

I had a twin. We did everything together. He got into an accident and died, and that sucks, and nothing’s gonna fix that. I did what I could and let go.

Now I wish they would.

Before Nick can give me another one of his touchy-feely speeches, I storm out the door into the lobby, past Mom and her cup of Swiss Miss, past the secretary’s stupid bulging eyes, past some other waiting mom and her teenage daughter. I leave them all stunned and slam the outer door on my way to the parking lot, slipping my earbuds in. I just want to be alone with the fresh air and my music.

Moments later, Nick leads Mom out the door and checks what I’m doing before continuing his conversation with her. I pause the music on my phone so I can hear, and keep pacing around Mom’s car, eyes on the ground, the perfect image of a distracted teen.

“—following the right approach, Mrs. Talbach. There’s more pain deep inside that he doesn’t want to deal with just yet, and this is his way of coping—or rather, ignoring and suppressing that hurt. Keep on pressing him about why he let go of Thomas.”

“But he gets so angry,” Mom says, her voice quivering like she’s going to cry again. “And he just shuts down whenever I say his name.”

“This is important. It’s going to be a hard road; I won’t lie to you, it’s probably going to be almost as bad as…” He glances at me and leaves the rest unsaid.

The kids on the playground are still shrieking with delight, dashing to and fro. I remember recess with my brother, when we challenged each other to ever-higher climbs and ever-farther jumps off the swings. Always one-upping each other, never afraid of the risks. That, and pranking the teachers in grade school, who never could tell us apart.

“Talk to Jared,” Nick says, referring to Dad. “Please, encourage him to come next time. He’s burying his pain, too. Maybe helping his son will draw both of them out of their shells.”

Mom nods. “I’ll try.”

Can’t wait to see the train wreck tonight when she brings that up.

* * * * *

“I’m not going back, Darci,” Dad shouts. “I tried that psycho-babble bull. We’re throwin’ money at that guy every month, and for what?”

They always think their fights are some kind of secret, something I don’t notice because it happens after dark, behind closed doors. Even quiet voices carry through the vents; shouts come through loud and clear. The doors and walls aren’t nearly as soundproof as their minds.

“Honey,” Mom pleads, “there has to be some way to make things better.” I hear the crack in her voice as she adds, “I can’t lose him too.”

“Wasn’t it that quack’s idea to let the imaginary friend crap run its course in the first place? Then all of a sudden, we’re supposed to stop playing along. Where did that get us, huh?”

Like I’m some garbage video game they’re playing… Push A to expose pain; tap B to speed recovery; use right trigger to unlock closer relationship.

“Doctor Greene says we need to keep talking to Thomas,” Mom insists, her voice ragged. That tone—she’s barely holding together. It’s the threshold before the bubbling pot boils over.

“Darci, he keeps saying Thomas isn’t there anymore.” For once I have the tiny spark of hope that maybe someone believes me. “He’s not doing any of that imaginary crap like before. Maybe we’re only going to make things worse if we press the issue.”

“I can’t pretend that—I won’t accept that he—God, Jared, every time he acts like this, I feel like I’m grieving all over again.”

Dad says nothing. I get where Mom’s coming from, but she doesn’t know what Thomas went through, either.

“So… what do we do?” Mom sounds broken.

“Hell if I know.”

* * * * *

“Let’s talk about that day.” Nick isn’t even trying to go slow today.

“Fine. There’s not much to say. We rode our bikes up the steep hill on Hoffman Street, up to the train tracks. Nobody rides down that hill—it’s crazy. I told Thomas he didn’t have to do it, I told him he won the bet. I chickened out.”

“Is that right?”

“He said it wouldn’t be fair if he didn’t go through with it.”

Nick sits back, giving me a suspicious eye. “What did you say to that?”

I look around the room, trying to focus on anything else. Mom didn’t bother coming in this time. Dad called about some last-minute meeting at the office, so Mom stayed in the car fighting with him over the phone while I checked myself in for my appointment.

Against my will, the memories flash through my mind: my brother lurching forward and pedaling like mad, building up speed before the descent, my hand reaching out as if I could pluck him off the bike from ten feet away. “I didn’t have time to say anything.”

For an instant, I feel the onset of tears, the old hurt like a hand wrapped around my heart, squeezing into a fist. It was my fault. I goaded him into it. He lost control—I should’ve known that would happen—and went into traffic on Garfield Avenue at the bottom of the hill…

“Thomas,” Nick says, “it’s not healthy. All that guilt, all that blame, that crushing burden? You’ve been carrying it too long.”

My eyes drop to that folder on the desk, the name “Thomas Talbach” written in thick black Sharpie. Of course that fat secretary had me booked under the wrong name, the same one on Nick’s file. As he waits for me to answer, Nick taps his fingers on the folder almost like he’s pointing out the mistake everyone keeps making.

Just like how the hospital put the wrong name on the death certificate.

Just like the gravestone.

I don’t need any help. I don’t have any burden to put down. My only problem is I don’t know how to get everyone else to see that.

“My name,” I mutter, “is Timothy.”

Nick locks eyes with me, his face stern, his tone hard. “You need to let go, Thomas.”

“That’s the thing, Nick. I already did.”

 

Delusions and Adventures – Two Open Submission Opportunities

Writer friends and followers:

While there are a host of magazines and collections that often solicit submissions, two recent options caught my eye.

ApparitionLit runs a quarterly open solicitation for submissions of poetry and short fiction, with some appropriately thrilling or mysterious theme. This quarter is “delusion,” but unfortunately, the session is about to close (Feb 28th).

They’re accepting works with a theme of vision from May 15-31, and submission guidelines can be found here.

Find a quiet place, listen to the voices in your head, and write out all your inner pain… easy!

 

 

 

 

 

Since I’ve been focused on preparing my own submission, I failed as a blogger and provided those links far too late for anyone else to benefit. To make up for this heinous misdeed, here is another opportunity for short story submissions:

Rachel Ritchey is organizing a short story contest for adventure fantasy and sci-fi pieces as part of an anthology to raise money for charity. The inspiration for this piece is a cover picture provided with the submission details at the link above.

This contest just opened up today (Feb 26th) and runs until March 16th.

Now my guilty conscience is (somewhat) appeased, and I can get back to working on my own pieces.

1K a Day Achievement Unlocked

Quality writing doesn’t happen by magic or mere desire. Improving any discipline takes a large quantity of effort

For me, this meant 1,000 words a day. Here’s how I got there:

In 2016, out of curiosity and as a bit of personal challenge, I counted the words I wrote all year-long. “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” the motivational gurus say. I thought I’d see where I was at before trying to improve. I built a spreadsheet tracker on my iPad and watched the numbers build up over the course of the year. I surpassed 215K, or about 600 words per day on average.

In 2017, I decided I would set a particular goal–something that pushed me past what I had done the year before, but something I could actually manage.

I belonged to a group on Facebook where writers commit to writing 500 words a day, and I’ve seen several sites or groups set their quota around that number. ( 4thewords – a writing game website where I do a lot of my drafts, sets 444 as the daily goal). Jeff Goins is a writer who has built a platform out of encouraging others to write their own 500 words a day. I figured I’d take that and double it because I’m so hardcore! (kidding!)

I declared my goal: 1000 words a day on average. I knew there would be days where I didn’t write a single word, so I added that caveat at the end.

I built a new spreadsheet for 2017 and adjusted the formulas to fit each week and month. I had also started using a Bullet Journal recently, and got sucked into the Pinterest-perfect trackers and spreads I saw online. I decided to make a daily pixelated word count page in my journal, with colors representing how much I did or didn’t write.

Far too much brown in the mix.

Over the course of 2017, I adjusted my expectations here and there… some months had far too many 0 entries or brown squares on my tracker, and I started thinking, “Maybe I’ll hit 300K total… maybe I’ll hit 250K… maybe I can just do better than last year.”

November is National Novel Writing Month, where participants try to write a novel of 50,000 words or more between November 1st and 30th. I knew I would score some significant word count during that month, but it wouldn’t be enough.

Four months out from the new year, I realized that if I wrote at NaNoWriMo pace for the rest of the year (50,000 words in a month), I could meet my goal. That realization was followed by several days of less than 1000 words.

NaNo actually produced some great results for me, coupled with a family journaling project, so I cranked out over 80,000 words in that single month. December slowed down a bit, but I still managed to do more than 1K a day average, and on the 31st, I crossed my finish line with a year-long total of 365,468 words.

Now I’m not claiming those words are quality, but I firmly believe that the key to producing some quality is a quantity of effort. The work creates opportunities for quality to bloom.

It’s like saying “I will spend quality time with my kids.” That doesn’t happen by saying, “Okay bud, we got 10 minutes of real quality time. Go.” It happens by spending frequent time together, which makes room for those few, magical moments to blossom into memories that last.

It’s the same with writing, or so I tell myself. With that in mind, I saw Jeff Goins post about starting the year off with a 500-a-day challenge. Since his influence sparked my original goal, I’ll try his method and commit to writing 500 words every day for at least all of January. They may not all be great words, but that’s not the point.

Happy new year to all of you following or glancing at this in your Facebook / WordPress feed. I hope your 2017 was filled with accomplishments and your 2018 looks promising. What goals are you setting for this year?

I Feel Attacked

Saw this a while back, after having some conversations with a writer friend from my local group. “Dave,” he said, “one thing I noticed was consistency in spelling. Which things are capitalized and which are not. That sort of thing.”

Guess what’s #1 on Ellen Brock’s list?

D’oh!!

Seriously, though, if you’re self-publishing or working on a manuscript to submit to traditional publishing, here are a lot of pitfalls to avoid.

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.