Serenity Amdist Uncertainty – Writers In The Storm Redirect

121914 Best place to get the bluesSorry I’m late on this. I did a guest post for a very cool blog called Writers In The Storm this past Wednesday. It’s about facing the storm of uncertainty that is a career in writing fiction. And about measuring growth (or my seeming lack of ability to do so), and gaining a capacity for self-evaluation, and finding a bit of inner peace. I’ve been honored by the invitation, and by the essay’s acceptance by the WITS community. It seems to have been a balm for a few folks, as it certainly has been for me. And so I’m sharing it here, in the hopes that it continue to serve that role.

I haven’t been writing for a while. I’m trying to catch up on other, spring-related chores around here. But last night I woke up from a very clear dream about the characters from my recently completed manuscript. And the events of the dream clearly take place after the ending point of the last story. Book two is calling me again, and it fills me with wonder and writerly joy. No matter how far I stray, the world of Dania never fails to call me home.

And so, whether you have the time for the essay or not, I hope you too are always called home. I wish you writerly serenity… Or at least more good days than bad ones, and a semi-serene writing life (as the post explains about mine). Happy Spring! Have a great weekend!

Story Archeology: Unearthing My Vision

“As a writer, one is busy with archaeology.” ~Michael Ondaatje

Bones by Dr.Narin SapaisarnAccidental Archaeologist: Honestly, I didn’t even know I was digging, let alone what I was digging for. Through the decades before I started, I always thought I’d write a book. I’d write someday, you know: “in the future.” Before I started, it really didn’t feel like a burning desire. More like a romantic notion of having an interesting occupation as I moved toward and through my golden years.

Turns out there was a steady pilot light of burning desire deep inside of me all along. And I think that the banked fire within led me to take notice of the archaeological artifacts I had been stumbling across, and to gather and store them away, like curious fossils found on a leisurely beach stroll. Each item was interesting, but they hardly seemed interrelated or valuable.

I’m not sure which of my little found treasures provided the nudge that led to my putting carpenter’s pencil to jobsite notebook, with the spark of a story idea. I’m guessing it was the cumulative trove, so to speak.

Return of the King: Although I’ve credited Tolkien for my interest in history and myth, starting in the sixth grade, it likely began even earlier. Thanks to my parents, I was surrounded by history, via books and through visits to historical sites. After loving Tolkien’s work, and while I took every history class available, I read quite a bit of epic fantasy. But I was always left a bit dissatisfied. During the decades between college and embarking on my writing journey, I read mostly historical nonfiction, with a dash of historical fiction thrown in. But then Tolkien returned to my life with the coming of The Lord of the Rings movies. After enjoying the movie version of Fellowship of the Rings, I reread the trilogy.

The experience reminded me of an elemental part of myself that I’d buried away. Through fiction, I was feeling things I hadn’t felt in half a lifetime. And, although I couldn’t grasp the personal dynamics of my being so moved, I knew I wanted more.

Roots Reach: So I started reading epic fantasy again. I enjoyed some of it, but again, it seemed much of what I found was lacking. Which led me to ponder what I was actually seeking. Was it something about the world building? I would’ve guessed this was it. After all, I was the kind of reader that had read all of the LOTR appendices, who knew Gondorians from Rohirrim. But I came to see how even the most intricate setting and backstory by themselves could not make an epic successful. I also quickly realized that it didn’t matter to me if there were dragons or elves involved. Nor did I care about the type of magic, or even whether there was any magic at all. I started to wonder whether it had to do with the characters. But if what I sought wasn’t necessarily their backgrounds or worlds, was it their goals? Was it the villain, or what they were up against?

Little did I realize, my digging had begun.

From Bits O’ Bones: So while I pondered what to read, and what made a fantasy story more or less effective for me, I sifted my mental sands and came across my aforementioned fossils. One such nugget I’d squirreled away years prior was a former teacher’s theory that Tolkien’s Riders of Rohan were modeled after the Goths. That’s right, he suggested that Eomer and company were based on the barbarous heathens that had been the first to sack Rome. With that fossil already in the sifter, I next came across a distant relation’s theory that our family’s descendants were not only Germans who’d fled persecution in the Rhine region, but that we were descended from the Goths. Yep, Goths. And not just any old Goths, but Goths who’d been ceded land by the Roman government, for their service in fighting for the empire.

Eomer side-glanceWhoa! Another find for my basket. We’re related to the Riders of Rohan? And they weren’t simply barbarous pillagers, but fought for the empire? And they also weren’t necessarily heathens, but somehow ended up being protestants? Huh. So, were these supposed ancestors good guys or bad guys? It suddenly seemed to depend on one’s perspective.

Now I had a couple of bits o’ bone that seemed to fit together. I’d stumbled across enough to fuel my enthusiasm for a large-scale dig.

To Exposed Skeleton: Mind you, I still hadn’t admitted to myself what I was up to. But my excavation was in full swing. I started reading about Goths and Rome online. I ordered a related book or four. Only when a friend asked me why, and I blurted the answer, did I realize it. “I’m going to write a book about them.” From there, I went full throttle. I depleted all three of my region’s libraries of books on related topics. After about a year’s worth of digging, I started to lay out what I’d found for examination. There were a lot of fragments that didn’t exactly fit. And in some cases I’d set aside pieces that I later realized I needed. Construction began in earnest. And before long, I’d laid up an admirable set of connected bones. I didn’t know it wasn’t quite complete when I started writing, but that didn’t matter. Nothing like coming up against an incompletion in your skeleton to motivate a supplemental dig.

Eventually I was satisfied with my story skeleton. Which, of course, incited me to want more.

The Lure of the Flesh: Isn’t that what every good archaeological exhibit does—inspires us to wonder? To seek? In the case of a skeleton, what did this creature look like? Was it a he or a she? How did she behave? What was life like for her? How did she interact with her fellows? Who else lived in her world?

Even though at this point I’d done no study of story craft, I began to see how these questions would flesh a story out, so to speak. This is when I took the facts I’d found in my research and began to apply them to actual humans. It started simply enough. Questions like: How do they look? Where do they live? What do they do all day? Then I went deeper, asking things like: What do they eat? How do they dress? Where do they sleep? And proceeded on with: What sort of rules bind them? Who is in a position of authority over them? What is their level of mobility? How are they restricted?

As I fleshed them out, the issues that arose quite naturally had me asking questions that took me to the next layer: How do they feel.

The Empathetic Archaeologist: Um, yeah—feelings. What a discovery! Feelings would be a big part of envisioning a story. Huh, who knew? So I asked myself a new set of questions. Who do they care about? Why? Who cares about them? Why? What do they want to do? Why? What’s stopping or restricting them from getting what they want? Do others want the same things? Or the opposite?

This is the layer that gave me the clearest vision yet of road ahead. I didn’t know it, but I was plotting the story, creating a rough synopsis via my disorganized notes. And, although I don’t consider myself a plotter, this is where the process came to life for me. I didn’t know much about the craft of writing yet, but I forged ahead, informed by the stories I’d loved. Elemental as they were at first, I found my way to character goals and motivations and conflicts.

One. Step. Beyond! Archaeology: The next layer for me is the most difficult to pinpoint or describe. I think I’ve gleaned various facets of it since I first beganMadness_-_One_Step_Beyond composing. And I’m still working to grasp it all and incorporate it into my work. Beyond our bones and sinew, beyond our obvious needs and desires, human beings are amazingly complex creatures. So much is built into our goals, much of which we veil even from ourselves. So many of our motivations are multi-layered. Many of our best intentions are laced with fear and shame, guilt and selfishness. Hence our conflicts, both internal and external, are just as intricate and complex. And that’s before we add the amazing stuff we humans are capable of feeling and expressing—like love and generosity, loyalty and honor. Comprehending this extra layer—this One. Step. Beyond!—it’s the makings of writerly Madness. I mean that in the best possible way (i.e. addictive, contagious, life-altering, incurable).

You’re Soaking In It: As I say, this step beyond laying out the bones and adding the flesh to a story is the part I still strive to capture. And I’ve only just come to realize—I always will. This is the gig! This is what brought me to the blank page. And I’ve come to understand that’s what brings us to read, as well. We’re searching for ourselves—for what it means to be human. We’re all grappling, and we want to slip into the skins of our favorite characters to see how it’s done, how others are coping and faring. It’s just that some of us are lured to start our own dig. We already have our bits of bones, and we simply haven’t stumbled across another excavation that offers up the right fit for them.

V's Fossils and Artifacts

V’s Fossils and Artifacts

Exhibit Ah-ha! If our stories are like archaeology, my books will be my display pieces. Come over to the glass case out front. Take a peek at the bits of bone I’ve collected and laid up. Interested? Okay, next check out some of my artifacts. Now, are you drawn to take a closer look? Are you willing to take the time, to make the effort, to perceive this archaeologist’s interpretation of time and place—his findings and how they relate to the human condition? Will you find answers? Or at least better questions? If you suspect so, step inside my exhibit. Take a look at my complete rendering—my story. Together we can grapple with the complexities of being human.

Now it’s your dig, my fellow story archaeologists! Tell me about finding your artifacts. Did you know you were digging or collecting? Did you know the bits of bone you’d found fit together? How’s your exhibit coming along?

O.P.B. – On Giving Critique: Writer Unboxed Redirect

Portrait of a Man Reading, by Joseph Wright of DerbyI’m so pleased to have contributed an essay to Writer Unboxed. I’ve said repeatedly that I consider it an honor, and I still feel that way. But I’m particularly pleased today because I haven’t read this essay in while ( I often write them and turn them in weeks in advance). When I wrote this one, I’d just finished critiquing a manuscript for a dear friend, who is so brilliantly talented. The experience had fired me on all cylinders, and I think my enthusiasm comes through. It’s sort of a Karmic coincidence that now, as the essay reappears, I’m in the final stages of readying my own WIP for others to read and critique. A wise mentor of mine said that the best thing we writers can do for one another is read and be read. And taking his advice to the next level, that to really stretch ourselves, we need to strive to earnestly offer and receive and process thoughtful critique.

I’d be honored to have you stop by Writer Unboxed and share your experiences with critiquing. Or feel free to do so here. Here’s to reading and being read!

To Miss Helen, With Appreciation

Miss HelenMissing Miss: I’m already missing Miss Helen. For those who haven’t heard, my mother passed away a week ago last Friday, six days after her 87th birthday. She left us quietly and seemingly painlessly, at home, in her own bed. This was important to her, and a mixed blessing to us. Of course we’re very sad she’s left us. But she did not want to leave the home in which I grew up–a home into which she moved as a young wife and new mother when the house was new, in 1953. We were increasingly concerned for her living there alone. My sister Colleen and my cousin Cathy had been doing a stellar job taking care of her there (thank you both!), but it was becoming clear that a few stop-ins a day were no longer going to be enough to ensure her safe care. In typical Miss Helen fashion, she took the matter into her own hands, and saw to it that we did not have to worry. Strong-willed and independent to the end.

Quite a few people know I refer to my mom as Miss Helen. But I’m not sure how many know the origin of the moniker. You see, she was a remarkably capable retail manager, for a fashion apparel chain called Gantos. All of Gantos’ female employees wore name tags that identified them as “Miss.” For a brief time, she was my boss there, when I was a teen and became the morning maintenance man. Working in four locations, I stayed with Gantos through my college years, and with thanks to Miss Helen, the Gantos location near the MSU campus is where I met my wife. Hence, calling her “Miss Helen” is a nod to her as a competent, take-charge leader; a role model; a source of discipline, determination, and good taste.

Formative Foundation: I lost a lot when I lost my mom. Because of her I: love the beach, know how to cook and clean and do laundry, understand that the world owes me nothing, and that anything worth having is worth the work required to achieve it.  And because this is a writing blog, perhaps most importantly to this aspect ofThe formative novels my life, I am grateful to say that through her came my love of reading. And if I hadn’t become a reader, I certainly wouldn’t have aspired to write. When I left the house where I grew up after the funeral services, I only took a few mementos: a dozen or so pictures and an armload of books. These were books of hers that I know were formative to my writing journey. They are dog-eared and worn. But to me they are treasures.

My cousin Jim, a Methodist minister, performed the funeral services, and beforehand he asked my siblings and I for our recollections and impressions. As you will see if you read on, I am no poet, but this tribute to my mom just sort of flowed out of me before I met with Jim. I’m not sure it’ll translate well for those who didn’t know her, but since many who attended the service asked me for a copy, and I’m not sure who all I promised to send it to, I thought I’d share it here.

To Miss Helen

Bright of eye, a smile so wry, from under thumb but ready

A mate to suit, an anchor root; quiet, kind and steady

With rolled up sleeves and dirty knees, they build a sturdy nest

To family life, to mom and wife, Jane Wyatt knows what’s best

Through frugal years no time for fears, the race is with the rat

But apt our dress, no more—no less, “Oh, you’re not wearing that!”

The homework’s done before our fun, with sass best left unsaid

We claim done chores to head outdoors, “You swept under the bed?”

When two leave home, go out to roam, a ranch becomes a cage

The fresh-faced beauty hits midlife and comes to fear old age

How Stepford, Steel, and valley’s dolls made Cosmo’s ways seem festive

The Feminine Mystique revealed a prism for the restive

Lest we forget the day’s dictate, a woman’s job was flaunting

But out she strove onto a stage, defying dogma daunting

She swiftly found her suited role, purveyor of high fashion

And even quicker did she rise, with wits and guts and passion

As for me, her lessons stuck; I’m clean, I cook, I strive

I’ve made enough mistakes to claim, it’s good to be alive

To Mom I’m grateful for so much, beyond the rent at State

Beyond my life, her greatest gift: my longing to create

She opened up a doorway to a place where I’m unbound

Where Pillars of the Earth were sought, and Far Pavilions found

It seems she never understood her role inside my work

I pray that now she clearly sees this writing gig’s no quirk

If I could send an ending note to reach her up above

I’d let her know she lives on still, there is no end to love

I’d say to her, “Your task is done; we’re clean and try our best,”

I’d tell Miss Helen, “Job well-done. And now it’s time to rest…”

Harbor Springs Porch-Sitters (68 or 69)

Thanks, Mom. For everything. Love you, miss you. Be at peace. Till we meet again. 

Storytelling Tools: Experience and Instinct

Large Forklift - Large LoadAn odd juxtaposition of topics arose during a wonderful recent discussion with a mentor. The topics? Lumberyard procedure and storytelling tools. See? I told you it was odd. But it got me thinking about utilizing tools in a new light. Allow me to explain.

Versatile Tool: My insight starts with the forklift. Some may know the tool by the names fork-truck or lift-truck. Anyone who’s visited a lumberyard has likely witnessed the importance of the forklift to the business. Building materials are often heavy—dangerously so. Unloading trucks and railcars, storing stock, picking specific lots or tallies, and jobsite delivery are all tasks that rely on this marvelous piece of equipment. In a former life, I managed a lumber facility that operated over two dozen forklifts, ranging from small indoor propane models, to very large capacity diesel models. We even had one behemoth capable of lifting and hauling other stalled forklifts to our service shop. Even though we milled, prefinished, and delivered lumber on a broad range of equipment, the forklift was the piece of equipment that was indispensable to all aspects of our operation.

A forklift is really many tools in one piece of equipment. It lifts and lowers loads, as well as tilting them, and is often capable of shifting a load from side to side. It also transports both load and driver, forward and back, and in some cases with a multi-speed transmission, capable of going upwards of 30 mph.

The Daunt of Big Tools: Over the years, I oversaw the training of scores of employees in their operation and ongoing safe use of the forklift. It was a responsibility I never took lightly. Handling a powerful machine that can lift and move loads of massive weight and scale, in close proximity to others, calls for serious and ongoing diligence. One can never allow himself to become blasé about it.

Over the years I noticed that some forklift trainees were daunted by this fairly complex and dangerous machine. Sometimes to the point of becoming overly-cautious and hesitant in their use. Rightfully so. In such cases, it was necessary to build a trainee’s confidence by giving them simple tasks and small loads, out of harm’s way. At the end of the day, you can only read so many manuals or watch so many training videos. At some point, you have to get behind the wheel. The only cure for inexperience is to gain experience.

I suspect you might be starting to glean what my forklift background has to do with my writing epiphany.

An Impetuous Baseline: Allow me to use myself—as a former forklift driver as well as a writer—to illustrate the analogy. I started driving a forklift before I was licensed to drive a car. No, it wasn’t legal. Or safe. But it was a long time ago. Jobsite safety was not the priority it has rightly become. And I was under the supervision of men who had their own jobs to do, and who expected young men to have a natural aptitude for driving and tool use. And, as a typical teenage male, I was anxious to prove them right.

“The young are always ready to give those older than themselves the full benefit of their inexperience.” ~Oscar Wilde

In other words, I was a hotdog, a showoff, eager to test my own limits as well as the limits of this powerful machine. I’d had a few experimental, off-road experiences behind the wheel of a car before my first time on a forklift. And I’d watched a lot of others, both driving cars and operating forklifts, with an avid interest born of the anticipation to drive. So I had a baseline of experience from which I drew my confidence to try my hand at operating this complex piece of equipment. I didn’t know what I was doing, and my early efforts demonstrated my inexperience. Yet I somehow managed to get quite a bit done. And managed to not kill or maim myself or anyone else in the process.

“Never let inexperience get in the way of ambition.” ~Terry Josephson

The same goes for writing fiction. When I started, I was excited to “just do it.” I’d done some experimental, off-road (read: not to be shown) writing in the past. And I’d read a lot of books, with an avid interest born of the anticipation to become an author. What more did I need?

Needless to say, I didn’t know what I was doing, and my initial efforts clearly demonstrated my inexperience. And yet I managed to get quite a bit done. (And the only resulting injuries suffered were by my characters—unless you include the bafflement or boredom of some early readers.)

Caution Born of Experience:

“Intuition is reason in a hurry.” ~Holbrook Jackson

As the years went by, I not only gained skill that eventually became expertise, I came to more fully appreciate both what a forklift was capable of accomplishing, and just how potentially dangerous and costly its ill-use could be. I’d gotten to a point where operating a forklift seemed to come by rote. It felt intuitive. But I was often reckless and rushed. I had near misses and spills. More than I care to admit. Thankfully, my recklessness never led to injury, but it often came with a cost, in time and money due to damage. But with maturity came the wisdom that hurrying with a forklift often led to delay and mishap.

 “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” ~Albert Einstein

I was once a prolific writer. I don’t say this to show off. I produced many pages per day without pause. In the rush to “be finished” and to submit and be read, the words just poured out. It honestly felt good. I got to a point where it felt intuitive. I knew how to drive, and wanted to step on the gas, to get to the damn destination, already. The first draft of my epic fantasy trilogy was over 650,000 words. I was so naïve, I didn’t even know such a length might be considered a pitfall.

It was only through being read and critiqued, and then through trying again, and again, that I realized the cost of my hurry. Six years later, and only through many rewrites, through working with a professional editor and coach, and through many critiques, have I come to realized how much I didn’t know—to find pause to consider how much I still don’t know.

Taking Stock of the Lesson Load: So here I am, a decade into this new gig, experienced but cautious, still eager but mindful of the patience required for success. I doubt I’m as skilled a writer as I once was a forklift operator, but close enough to illustrate my point. The epiphanies I reach are manifold, but the biggest lessons seem to fall into two categories:

1)Structure and Efficiency: As a forklift operator, I learned to see a load of lumber to be built as a series of steps to be addressed. Each order becomes a unit, built with a solid foundation and a stackable shape. Units must then be carefully placed on the truck, in the proper order; delivery routes in the proper succession, to achieve any sort of efficiency. Knowing the optimal structure of a load allows you to more easily handle the addition of complexity. Once beyond a load’s basic size and shape, one must consider geography, urgency, fragility, perishability, to name a few. It’s wise to know the rules, but it also pays to learn how to best break them and when.

As a writer, I’ve learned to see story structure as an aid—a series of steps to be addressed in pursuit of efficient storytelling. From inciting incident to crisis to reaction to climax and resolution, it’s wise to know how to stack the basic blocks of the story I seek to build. If I know the basics of structure, I can then take into account the setting, timeline and peripheral obstacles. To maximize its impact efficiently, I must consider not only the goals and motivations of my characters, I need to be conscious of their worldview and the state of their psyche. After all, it’s not just about delivering my characters to “The End.” Rather, it’s about the changes accrued in making the journey, and the state they arrive in.forklift-auto-dash

2) Complexity and Intuition: As I pointed out, the forklift is a complex and versatile tool. If an operator stopped to think about each and every step, carefully considered each and every lever and pedal individually, with each successive use, it would either slow progress to impracticality, or completely debilitate the attempt. With practice, the operator gains the intuition to size up the load in question, find its center of gravity, lower the forks while steering and accelerating to scoop, tilt and lift while backing, shift gears while steering to avoid obstacles in route, gauge the proper height and alignment upon the approach to a truck bed, etcetera. Advance planning of the steps, and constant surveillance of the surroundings and assessment of the progress are needed, but these additional considerations also come more naturally with experience.

As I said, I’ve become a cautious writer. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also allowed the lessons to make me hesitant, allowed my awareness of the tools to overwhelm my progress. I have put in a lot of practice, and I’ve found my way to successes. I know how to plan and assess progress, and I’ve demonstrated I’m persistent enough to get to “The End.” I long to make progress, and yet I’ve become tentative.

Deliberate Intuitiveness: Thinking about my former skill operating a forklift reminds me to have faith in my experience. I need to get to a place of trusting my instincts again. Not in an impetuous or immature way. It’s not that I believe I have instinctual talent. But I do believe in my innate ability to adjust based on experience, to sublimate my story impulses, to unconsciously apply practiced lessons.

Hefting the Writing LoadI need to trust that I know my way around the levers and pedals of story by rote, and get this story built and delivered. After all, you can’t build an order file until prove you can deliver. And I’ve got a lot of back-stock to work through.

Fork it Over: What’s your intuitive skill? Does it provide a baseline for accumulating expertise? Do you ever find yourself worrying too much about all the levers and pedals of storytelling? Please deliver your load in the comments.

Photo credits: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_rfoxfoto’&gt; / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Shedding Layers/Adding Layers—The Insights and Effects of UnCon

WU UnCon logoLife-Changing Experience: It’s been just over a week since I left Salem. I feel like I’m slowly emerging from the euphoric aftereffect the experience of UnCon produced. I can only now begin to analyze the insights gained and the effects produced.

For those who don’t know what an UnCon is (or was), it’s the brainchild of Writer Unboxed founder Therese Walsh—a five-day gathering of around 100 unboxed writers in Salem, Massachusetts. Not quite a writers’ conference, not quite a retreat, the WU UnConference was totally focused on the craft of writing. There have been some wonderful posts and statuses on the experience, and I identify with them all. Terms like “life-changing” and “transcendent” have been bandied, and not in a frivolous or crass way.

So I’ve been thinking about how I’ve been changed, and how my approach to my work has changed. I was struck by how layers were shed so that layers could be added. Allow me to explain.

Peeling Layers of Fear: One of my favorite posts about UnCon is by my friend Kim Bullock (read it here). Kim gets real about how UnCon and the people there managed to peel away her fears, about herself and about her work. She got me to thinking about my own layers of fear. Sometimes I feel like the little brother in Christmas Story, so bound up in layers I can hardly move ahead.Christmas Story kid bundled up But the experience of UnCon gives me insight as to how far I’ve come in shedding a few layers. I continue to gain freedom of movement to make progress on my journey. Going back to the beginning, to various degrees and at various times, here are some of the layers of fear I’ve been bound by:

*Admitting my writing aspiration—I told very few people when I started that I hoped to write a novel. I feared both that they’d think I’d never pull it off, and that they’d be right. I feared they’d think I was either nuts or a self-absorbed show-off. And I feared honestly asking myself if either of those was actually the case.

*Proclaiming myself a writer—Even after I finished a draft of my trilogy, I very rarely told those I met socially what I actually do (which is that I write fiction with a side of occasional carpentry). When I just said carpenter, it sometimes led to trouble. People would ask me to come and quote jobs for which I hadn’t the time or interest or desire. I finally realized it was easier just to say I was a writer—which also has its own set of obstacles, including dealing with the next item on this list.

*Admitting I’ve been writing for ten years and am still pursuing publication—We’ve all run into non-writers who don’t understand that successful novels aren’t written, but rewritten. Laymen think getting the thing down on the page—that’s the trick, right? Once those of us who are unpublished expose ourselves as writers to the non-writers in our lives, we must brace ourselves for the question: “So, how’s the book coming.” No matter how many manuscripts you’re working on, or how many essays, articles, or shorts you publish, they want to know about “the book.” And this could go on for years! Once I faced the fear and started coming clean, I found I could deal with the question in one of two ways: Smile, nod, and say, “The book is coming along.” Or enter into an explanation of the entire process and what I’m actually working on, and offer some explanation of why it all takes time. It’s a judgement call. Some are interested, some glaze over and/or change the subject. But it’s a layer of fear that you are forced to confront again and again. And the longer it takes, the more I imagine the laymen around me thinking, “Wow—his writing must really suck for this to be taking this long.”

*Telling people what I actually write—I spent many years avoiding telling people I write epic fantasy. I recall shortly after I started occasionally admitting that I write fiction, I met a woman at a party who asked me what I wrote. It was one of the first times I’d been asked by a new acquaintance. She surprised me into blurting, “Epic historical fantasy.” After a few nods and hums of feigned interest as I blathered about my chosen era, she interrupted me to ask: “So do you think you’ll ever write anything… you know, serious?” I honestly think she meant well. But the shock of it left me telling lies and half-truths for years afterward. “I write historical fiction,” or “I write fiction based in the ancient Roman era,” became my go-to answer to the question of what I write. I’m not sure when I overcame the fear of admitting it. I think I just got to a place of: “I don’t give a shit what you think of fantasy—it’s my genre; I’m a geek, and proud of it.” Funny that now, many years hence, I’m often immediately asked in response, “You mean like Game of Thrones?” My, how things change.

*Fear of being read/critiqued—I’ve written about my experiences with beta-readers and with being critiqued before. It’s never been easy for me to take criticism, but it’s certainly gotten easier over the years. It always takes me a day or so to absorb it and see it clearly. So I have never imagined myself taking critique well in a public setting, like a critique group that meets in real life. Despite my shortcomings, having great writer friends who’ve appreciated my work (as opposed to just friends and family) has been hugely encouraging and confidence-building. Even blogging has helped, but being read and critiqued is the ultimate and final layer of fear that I’ve struggled to peel away. And I know that it’s something I’ll have to continue to face, for the rest of my career. It only gets more extreme once your book is out there, being publically reviewed and discussed. (There was a hysterical and cathartic session at UnCon, led by the amazing and successful Erika Robuck, where she and other published author attendees shared their worst reviews. I can see having a sense of humor about my insecurity will help.)

UnCon—The Peel Sessions: Regarding my aforementioned fear of public critique, on day two of UnCon I was placed in a position by an admired mentor to face it. My favorite teacher of craft, Donald Maass, asked me if he could use the opening to my manuscript The Bonds of Blood during his session on micro-tension (a concept I’ve struggled to effectively master in my own work). I knew Don was going to ask the class to deconstruct my work, find its lacking, then together we would find our way to greater micro-tension in the scene. I supposed before arriving in Salem that this would be the most difficult trial I would face that week. To be honest, it was much easier than confronting the inner journey I would subsequently face. During the session, my fellow WUers were very kind and funny in the deconstruction process, and Don made it a fun exercise. I gained a better grasp on micro-tension than I’ve ever gotten from the books or posts (as good as they are). It was a gift. I consider that layer of fear truly and well peeled (for the moment).

So I’ve seen that some fears can be defeated. Some we can at least we can become inured to. But there are some we must face again and again if we are to grow. UnCon shined a light on one of the most important fears of all: Fear of revealing too much of myself—even to myself—through story. Sure, I’ve revealed parts of myself. There was self-revelation in my work before UnCon. But I’ve learned that I must delve deeper. I’ve learned that only through an honest and often difficult look at myself, and a willingness to infuse my work with what I’ve found, can I hope to truly connect in a genuine way.

Taken To Church: What Don asked of us in a later session took me to church. In his soothing voice, WU’s esteemed craft-guru asked us to look inside ourselves. At what we consider shameful, at our deepest truths; at what’s gone wrong in our lives, and at what’s gone right. He asked us to find a feeling we had never had before. Then he asked us to find the moments when our protagonist faces these things—feels these things. The session’s inner probing moved me to the point of filling my eyes with tears. A couple of times, in fact. I was peeled to my core, and I knew that what I’d found there was behind my writing journey. It wasn’t just there beneath the surface of my stories—it was at the root of what drove me to pick up a jobsite notebook and a carpenter’s pencil and write some cryptic notes about a Gothic chieftain’s son and his warrior-woman secret guardian.

From Thread-Bare to Well-Woven: Between the environment and being in the company of other willing souls, I found my way to stripping away the remnant layers. We were asked to dig as well as shed. Lisa Cron behooved us to find the foundations of our stories through backstory. She implored us to find specific moments that informed how our characters responded to the events of our ‘plots.’ “Specifics beget specifics!” was her refrain. For the story is not in what happens, but in how what happens affects our characters in the pursuit of a difficult goal!

So I came home, stripped of some of my longstanding fears, and started digging. The process is revealing the layers of depth that can be achieved. I can now see so far beyond what merely happens. I can see how much more deeply, how much more profoundly, my characters are affected by what happens. I more clearly see how it is all rooted in moments—some which are very specific—that have impacted me and left an impression on my psyche. It’s now clearer to me how my own deepest feelings are rooted in the stories I tell. If I can convey those feelings in a resonant fashion—if I can find my way to my truest self on the page—it’s certain to add richness to the weave of my stories.

Team WU at UnCon 14The UnCon Recipe: The UnCon was dedicated to elevating our shared craft. And through insight and a newfound grasp on the tools, my potential as a storyteller has been elevated. I’m not saying that my experience at UnCon will make my books successful. Success is a relative term. But the tools and insights gained there offer me a course to greater personal satisfaction. And if I remain true to what I’ve been shown, I will find my way to truer connection with readers. Now that’s a recipe for success.

The results in Salem seem magical, but they wouldn’t have come about without dedication and commitment that started at the top and permeated to all involved. So thank you, Therese Walsh. Thank you, Don Maass. Thank you Lisa Cron, Meg Rosoff, Brunonia Barry, Liz Michalski, and all of your fellow presenters and contributors. And thank you to my fellow UnCon attendees. Thank you for your willing commitment to the elevation of craft. Thank you all for being part of that wonderful recipe that resulted in the WU UnConference.

What about you? Are you comfy wearing layers? Or do you easily shed those I’ve remained bundled in? Do you struggle to dig deep for the threads that add richness to what you weave?

Whose Classic?

My classicsAll Lost (on the way to) the Supermarket:

“I’m all lost in the supermarket,

I can no longer shop happily,

I came in for a special offer,

A guaranteed personality…” ~ Joe Strummer and Mick Jones (of The Clash, from Lost in the Supermarket)

I’ve often written about how large a role music plays in my artistic journey. For me, the best part about doing things that are often considered chores, like mowing the lawn or driving twenty minutes each way to the supermarket, is having the opportunity to listen to music as I do them. I might more aptly describe this as getting lost in music while doing something that can be done by rote. It’s always been a big part of my creative process.

So this week both my trip to the grocery store and the time spent mowing the lawn proved to be no exceptions. In both cases I cranked the iPod and got to it, body doing one thing, brain doing a dozen others. Music allows my mind to work in a unique way. The best way I can describe it is to say that music seems to distract me enough to actually allow ideas to flow freely. Sometimes they flow directly from the music or lyrics, other times not so much (as in: seemingly from nowhere). They just flow. But music seems to be the stimulus. I hope that makes enough sense to continue reading. If not, thanks for trying. Please come back for the next post.

Doin’ the Epiphany Shuffle:

 “I was born in the middle,

Maybe too late, everything good had been made, 

So I just get loaded, And never leave my house,

It’s takin’ way too long to figure this out.” ~Tim Showalter (of Strand of Oaks, from Shut In)

Of late, the main thing I’ve been pondering while under my musical spell is the state of my current rewrite. I work through plot issues and character conflicts, of course. But I’m also often wondering if I’m even making it better. Of course my intent is to improve it, but over the years I’ve received enough conflicting feedback on rewrites to keep me guessing. It’s probably a good thing; the intention of my muse to keep me on my toes. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck to always be second-guessing myself. I’ve found it can’t be helped, though.

While mowing, with my iPod on shuffle, the Strand of Oaks lyrics above caught my ear: “Everything good had been made.” In that moment it seemed sort of futile. There are so many great books! Classics! In the moment it felt like all the great stories had already been told. What’s the point?

As I stewed on that notion, along came Just a Song Before I Go, by Crosby, Stills & Nash. Most people would consider them and this song a timeless classic. And I thought, ‘Well, this is a simple story,Rocking Mower a simple melody. Not one of their best.’ But then I knew what made it special: the power of their voices! Such talent! People listened to their later, more subdued songs because they knew and trusted their talent. As I worked that concept through, up pops The Smiths’ How Soon Is Now? “I am the son, and the heir, of nothing in particular.” How strikingly different! And less than ten years apart. Although The Smiths rank high on my list of all-time favorites, it seems I’m in the minority in considering them classic. Less than a decade after the likes of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Beach Boys and The Stones hit their high marks, bands like The Clash and The Police, then The Cure and The Smiths, were changing rock. And yet, were they? Wasn’t it just a unique spin on an existing genre? Who would say that one set of groups supplanted the other?

The clincher of my epiphany came when I heard Wild Horses by… The Sundays? Yep, a venerable Rolling Stones classic, gorgeously rendered by Harriet Wheeler and her jangly post-punk band-mates, twenty-one years after the original. It’s a song I love. Both versions. What a shame it would’ve been if The Sundays had considered it to have been “already done,” not worth their effort. In my book, both versions are timeless classics.

The Song Remains the Same:

“There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” ~Audre Lorde

I admit it. I’ve spent a lot of needless worry. Historical fantasy? Set in an alternative version of ancient Europe? A young man who is the subject of a so-called prophesy? Is he the heir to kingship? Oh Lord! It’s SO been done, right?

What about voice? Do I even have one? Is it unique? Are the elements of my novels novel? Are readers not by now tiring of archaic dialog, my good sirs and ladies? I durst not contemplate. (No, I don’t use durst. ‘Tis in bad taste, is it not?)

Will it ever sell? Can it be made better still? Without compromising my original vision? Will it ever be worthy of a traditional deal? Am I kidding myself? Should I just self-pub and move on? Will I know when enough is enough?

“Know my name, know I mean it,
It’s not as bad as it seems,
And we try in our own way to get better,
Even if we’re alone…”
~Tim Showalter (also from Shut In)

Know this, and know I mean it: None of it matters! I’ve been working on this too long to look back or to have regrets. No matter how many times I revise, the story remains the same. It’s an elaborate attempt to convey the yearnings of my heart. If I’d written it any other way, I wouldn’t have been passionate about it. If I hadn’t been passionate, I wouldn’t have found my voice (yes, I do believe I have one). The conflicts and passions of my characters may not be new. They are merely human. But the way I have felt them in the writing of my stories is uniquely mine. Perhaps that uniqueness can one day be conveyed to readers.

A Choice and a Non-Choice:

“Rejoice, Rejoice! We have no choice, but to carry on…” ~Stephen Stills (from Carry On)

Will I know when enough is enough? Yes, I think I will. And I’m not there yet. I recognize the choice, and I’m trusting my heart on this. I’m not willing to bet my record collection that my work will ever be considered classic. But I think, if I strive on, I have a shot at being on someone’s list of favorites. In a world chockablock full of books and songs, that chance alone is worth the effort. Each of us has a unique voice. It’d be a shame if we didn’t consider it worthy of striving to make it heard. All we can do is carry on, regardless of how we choose to share our work. On this we have no choice.

In the meanwhile, writerly angst and doubt aside, it’s not as bad as it seems. And I try, in my own way, to get better. You do too, I know (or you wouldn’t have followed this crazy thread this far). And even though we work alone, we’re not alone. We have each other. And our music. On shuffle.

How about you? Do you have your own list of classics? Do you think there are any new stories left? Is your voice worthy of being heard?