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?

Interview With Ani Bolton, Author of Steel and Song (The Aileron Chronicles #1)

Steel and Song coverI’m stoked to feature my guest for several reasons. First and foremost (and the impetus to this interview) is her new book, Steel and Song. This book really knocked my socks off (which, as many of you know, is quite a feat as I love my socks). Trust me, even if you read no further, and you love a well-crafted steampunk alt-historical world populated with relatable characters in briskly-paced story, head over and download Steel and Song, by Ani Bolton. In fact, go do that now, then come back and read on.

I’m also excited because Ani is actually the writerly alter-ego of Kathleen Bolton, who is one of the co-founders of Writer Unboxed, which is the home-base of my writing community. Kath has been my boss, both as the project manager of WU’s former review site, Reader Unboxed, and as the original editor-in-chief of the WU newsletter, Writer Inboxed (now on hiatus). She’s also been a wonderful mentor, an inspiration, and a friend for some years. And now, with Steel and Song, she’s schooling me again.

As you’ll see in the interview, our work shares some similarities, and her technique and style have been a shining example for taking a story to the next level. So, without  further ado, please enjoy a bit of inspiration from my old friend/new role model.

Interview With Ani Bolton:

Vaughn Roycroft: I want to ask you about your use of historical elements, because I rely heavily on actual history as well. S&S is filled with magical and fantastic elements, but it feels heavily grounded (in my opinion) because of the real history you’ve woven in. Did you set out with the intent of creating an “alternate history” piece? Do you think utilizing real history is an advantage to you as a writer or an enhancement to the work in general?

Ani Bolton: I came from writing historical fiction as my first love (I actually have a useless graduate degree in early modern European history, shhhh), therefore, weaving in actual historical events but giving them that alt-world feel comes naturally. I’m a history junkie and I’m inspired by real-life events. I do think using real history as a world-building technique adds verisimilitude and a sense of “this could actually have happened”, which allows the reader to immerse themselves more fully into the alt-universe created.

VR: I recall an essay you did for Writer Unboxed a few years ago in which you recommended Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August. Were you always drawn to WWI, or to the Russian scenario during the era? If yes, why so?

AB: I’m kind of a war junkie in general. But I find WWI an interesting historical moment, where the 19th century and the 20th century clash. Aristocratic privilege was under siege by revolutionaries; mechanized war was replacing cavalry charges, and the lines between classes were blurring. Plus, the stakes could not be higher. It’s an era full of interesting contradictions, which of course makes it ideal for storytelling.

When I began drafting what would now become Steel & Song, I had a close loved one deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The US propaganda machine was in full swing, and as a historian I could see the eerie parallels to the jingoism and nationalism that took place in earlier wars.  Peace through War. Freedom through Oppression. We’re destroying your country to save it. The ones making the greatest sacrifices in a time of war are, as always, on the bottom of the ladder. So I wanted to tell a story with characters who slowly discover that their society is both cancerous and opulent, and give them terrible choices to make. The Russian Empire in the era of the last Czar Nicholas mapped perfectly. Plus, it’s just cool.

I do find it interesting that I was writing Steel & Song around the same times as Suzanne Collins was probably drafting out Hunger Games; dystopian fiction in general was taking off. I think we were all drinking from the same well.

 Felix Schwormstädt, Zeppelin L38 Attacking England, 1916

Felix Schwormstädt, Zeppelin L38 Attacking England, 1916

VR: There are so many layers of conflict in the story (beyond the Grand Duchy versus the Franks, there is the Novgorod versus gytrash, and even other ethnic gytrash versus Sámi). I found it really interesting that those born with magic were relegated to an inferior social status. The book makes a solid statement about social conflict and the fear behind racism and class stratification. Were these themes on your radar at the onset, or did they develop during the process?

AB: I definitely took cues from the racial oppression in Europe during the fin de siècle where there were fears of Jews, gypsies, and generally anything that was considered “other” and how intellectuals rationalized bigotry with bogus scientific theories. For Steel & Song, I thought it would be interesting to tell the story of a character whose being could either be the country’s agent of destruction or its salvation—which way is it going to go? I haven’t really decided. As a storyteller, you want to go for the throat and be sure that your character’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness.

 VR: You chose to present Tova via a first-person perspective and Dashkov via third-person. Although I really enjoyed this nuanced approach, I wonder if you’d be willing to share some insight as to how this developed on the page. Do you prefer one POV over the other as a writer? As a reader?

I prefer to write in first person POV but honestly, the two different POV techniques were how the characters spoke to me. Tova came to me fully formed: her voice was complete and it was in first person. Dashkov took a little longer. I also thought using close third for Dashkov would allow me to use close third for other characters without it coming from left field—for example, I cut Oleg’s POV scenes on the advice of several betas (koff,Therese and Jeanne,koff). They weren’t as enchanted with his brutishness as I was, LOL.

VR: You’ve done a masterful job of weaving in backstory as the narrative unfolds, both with Tova and with Dashkov. Did you delve into their backstories before you began, or did their pasts reveal themselves to you as you wrote? (Sort of a tricky way of asking the “pantser versus plotter” question, isn’t it?)

AB: Thank you! Backstory is a tricky beast, especially when writing an alt-world novel because you need enough to ground the reader and hook them without resorting to an info dump. I am a plotter, but backstory is where I pants it. I think letting the backstory emerge naturally rather than hewing a plot to a backstory allows for surprises.

And sometimes it’s helpful to just drop the hint that there’s something about a character’s past that readers should pay attention to, and come back to it later.

VR: I’m slightly ashamed to admit that this is my very first Steampunk novel. For me, the concept of an airwitch is totally unique, and so creative. And I love that their magic is limited and can even turn harmful if overused. Could you share your perspectives on magic with us?

AB: A long time ago, I read something from the paranormal novelist Holly Lisle who said that “magic must come with a price”. That stuck with me. It’s also the overarching theme of most of my books: what is taken must also be given. What could be higher stakes than magic that can kill the wielder? Plus, it’s sort of boring if every problem can be solved with magic. A problem solved by magic must lead to a bigger problem.

Steampunk and dieselpunk (cyberpunk and biopunk also) are thriving subgenres of science fiction right now. I love the mashup aspect of it, where novelists can draw from all sorts of inspirations and mush them up. Fantasy with a sci-fi twist. That’s kind of my thing anyway.

VR: I can’t let you get away without asking about Writer Unboxed Publishing. Do you think launching this book under the WU mantle has been helpful? And, if you don’t mind: if so, how so? Is there anything else you can tell us about WU’s exciting new venture? (Such as: are you going to be taking submissions in the foreseeable future? ;-) )

AB: LOL, I can’t say much about Writer Unboxed Publishing right now, but what I can tell you that Therese and I are in serious discussions about it. Launching Steel & Song through the WU imprint with the support of the WU community has been hugely helpful, and we are gleaning valuable metrics about marketing and co-branding, which is the strength of WU brand. We want the venture to benefit both the author and the publisher. We’ll have more to share about it soon, promise!

Kathleen BoltonAbout Ani Bolton:

Ani Bolton’s love of storytelling started when she was a kid, ignited by Laura Ingalls and Nellie Olsen’s epic smackdown, which stole her sleep on a school night. She’s been scribbling stories ever since.

Her novels blend her love of history and adventure with romance, magic and the occasional foray into the weird.Her alter ego is Kathleen Bolton, co-founder of Writer Unboxed, a writing community. She’s written a number of novels under a variety of pen names.

 Find out more about Ani at the following hangouts:  Twitter: @Ani.Bolton; her website; Tumblr if you’re into WWI, gifs of cats being magical, and ‘punk (steam and diesel—she’s equal opportunity); and Facebook, which is like her Tumblr page but with more pictures. Actually, her Facebook page is kind of a mess.

Thank you again for featuring me, Vaughn!

Just A Pup

FourLeaf's Surfer Girl, aka Gidget - 7 weeks old

FourLeaf’s Surfer Girl, aka Gidget – 7 weeks old

A Difficult Circle to Draw: Those of you who know me know that I am a dog lover. The last time I wrote a canine-connected post here was in February, when I delivered the sad news of the loss of our beloved Belle. I genuinely appreciate the outpouring of heartfelt condolences and support the post initiated. It was a very healing process, indeed.

We still sorely miss our Belle. The loss lingers, hitting us in unexpected ways. Today’s post is about dealing with the opposite—with the circle of life starting over again. And yet, as you’ll see, there are surprising similarities between the two extremes. If we are Facebook friends, you undoubtedly know that we have a new puppy in our lives. The steady stream of photos there are sort of my version of Rafiki holding up Simba for the appraisal of the realm.Rafiki displaying Simba

FourLeaf’s Surfer Girl, a.k.a. Gidget, arrived in our home at seven weeks of age in mid-May. She’s fourteen weeks old to the day as of the writing of this post. And she’s mostly adorable (I’ve heard people joke that puppies are cute so that we don’t kill them – I am once again reminded how bitingly funny that joke is). And quite often she’s even fun to have around. And so, in spite of life’s occasional trials and sorrows, the circle continues.

Consumed by Chaos: Gidget has now lived exactly half her life with us, and in some ways it feels like half a lifetime to me, too. It’s embarrassing to admit, but the chaos of having a puppy has more or less consumed my life these past seven weeks. The bursts of unbridled energy combined with a mouthful of needle teeth and no concept of manners can be utterly exhausting. Thank God puppies sleep sixteen to eighteen hours a day. Any more hours of that level of vitality would make raising one nigh unbearable. I’d forgotten what a relief it is to close a kennel door (as I did just before starting this post).

All of this gives me a renewed sense of appreciation for those of you who have kids and jobs outside of the house, let alone a pet (or pets), and still manage to get some writing done. I can see that it’s going to take much more focus from me, and rapid improvement from our new family member, for me to get my current rewrite done anytime soon.

Lessons at the Near End of the Leash: Sometimes I feel a bit of resentment for having to deal with such a turbulent presence in our house, in the stead of my dear lost writing partner. And I suffer occasional pangs of guilt over my increasing affection for Gidget (it’s not logical, but it feels like a betrayal to Belle). And yet I think having had so much of my attention and effort tied up in caring for and training our new family member has had its benefits. It’s a diversion from loss and grief over her predecessor. The overall experience has been a healing one. And, when I pay heed to the being at the near end of the leash, it’s been enlightening and growth inducing as well.

So, without further ado (and before she wakes up, and I’m back at it), I give you Gidget’s Puppy Lessons for Writers:

Pink puppy collar (9 weeks)*“Aww, isn’t that cute?” Sure, a puppy seems to be as cute as a cartoon character, or a stuffed animal. At least from the outside looking in. I’m always shocked when a parent blithely encourages a very small and unsteady child to approach and touch an animal that can’t possibly be relied upon to behave; one that is also teething and has a mouthful of fishhooks. I know—they’re just playing, right? I’d remind you how rough retriever pups’ play is by showing you the scars on my hands and arms. It’s nothing that won’t heal, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting.

It’s very similar to when outsiders hear that you are a writer, isn’t it? You can almost hear it in their voices: “Aww, isn’t that cute?” They think we’re cartoon characters, scribbling down our little stories—livin’ the dream. They can’t know about the angst the blank page can induce, or the fortitude it takes to overcome writerly dread and hit the send button—to feel the sting of even a playfully tough critique. When someone’s stroking me about how great the writer’s life must be, it’s almost enough to make me want to unexpectedly bite. “What? I was just playing,” I’d say. “It’ll heal.”

Gidget’s Lesson: Although it takes time and maturity, we can inhibit our antisocial impulses, and learn to appreciate that those who pay attention to us mostly mean well. We know that no one really likes a rough patting on the head, but those who pat are oblivious. So just take it in the spirit in which it’s intended, and move on.

*Renewed Sense of Wonder: When was the last time you really appreciated the dew on every blade of grass, or marveled at the grace of a dragonfly? How about the splendor of the sun reflecting on the lake, or the rhythm of waves lapping on the shore? What about the feel of sun-warmed sand on your belly? How evocative is the echoing honking of a passing flock of geese in the gray of dawn? I must admit, it had been a while since I was up that early, let alone stopped and watched geese flying over. But I got chills in watching my puppy’s wide-eyed appraisal.Digging in the dune (10 weeks)

To a puppy everything is new. Every person is a marvel, there to be met and known. Every other animal is a magnificent wonder. Every new dog is a potential best friend.

Gidget’s Lesson: Seeing the world through a puppy’s eyes is a real gift. Life’s fascinating details can become peripheral to our attention if we don’t take note. And isn’t the best writing born of noticing?

*There Is No Finish Line: I keep wondering when this puppy thing will be over. When do those needle teeth fall out again? How long before we can rely on her to come when we call? When will she just chill out with us while we read or watch TV? When will she become my writing partner, and hang out in my office with me during the day (without demanding three-quarters of my attention)?

It’s pretty easy to remember the latter halves of Belle’s and Maggie’s lives, when they were ideal companions. It’s convenient to forget the years of training and the frustrating days along the way. For the first three years of Belle’s life, if she found a dead fish on the beach, the only thing on her mind was whether to roll on it or eat it (depending on the state of rot, I suppose). Paying heed to my bellowing was not even on her radar. And yet, at some point, we could easily call her off of a dead fish. It took time, patience, and a lot of soapy baths to get there. Even then, heaven knows she was no angel. Heaven also knows that her selective hearing loss was not due to her advancing age so much as to her lifelong bouts of stubbornness.

Gidget’s Lesson: This lesson is more of a reminder. Raising a canine companion is about the evolution of a relationship. The bonding and the improved reliability are gradual. It takes daily dedication and practice. And there are going to be setbacks. When reversals happen, all that can be done is to begin again. (I think the similarity to the evolution of the writing life is evident without further explanation, don’t you?)

Staying Playful:

Gidget Goes to the beach (8 weeks)

“Dogs and people aren’t normal mammals. Most mammals play a lot when they’re young and then gradually become more sedate… There are few other animals, besides dogs and humans, who also show high levels of play as adults…Overall, the young of any species are much quicker to welcome change than their elders… From a broad perspective, adult humans are amazingly flexible compared to the adults of other species. Our love of play goes hand in hand with that flexibility, and it’s one of the defining characteristics of our bond with our dogs.” ~Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D. (from The Other End of the Leash)

Some days I think I’m getting too old for this puppy thing. On a recent trying day I even told my wife that I thought this was the last time. “The next one’s going to be an adult rescue,” I vowed. But on the good days, I’m not so sure. And history indicates I have a short memory for these types of vows. Perhaps Gidget is just the ticket to shaking this staid writer back to flexibility—both physically and mentally. A reminder to stay playful, about my work and my life, might be just what I need right now.

First water fetch (12 weeks)I’ve noticed that, through happenstance during play, Gidget is learning and growing. By being interested in a toy bumper, and chasing it, she’s learned both to swim and retrieve—both important aspects of the serious work of her lineage. Labs were originally bred to haul nets in the frigid Atlantic, after all. Through play, she’s gaining the skills and the aptitude for work. And it’ll be work she’ll enjoy for the rest of her life.

Gidget sees every waking hour as a chance to play. Perhaps I should take that approach to my own work. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing to stay a pup.

Paying Homage to Predecessors:  I said at the onset that there were surprising similarities to this post and the one I wrote after Belle’s passing. The lessons I note that Belle taught me are about patience, finding the joy in chaos, showing up every day, and that a job well-done was reward in and of itself. I’ll be damned if those aren’t lessons needed for raising a puppy. I also once wrote that because of Maggie before her, Belle had a specially blessed life. Now it’s Belle’s turn to pass along the blessing.

Not a day goes by that I am not grateful to Belle for the lessons she taught me—lessons so keenly needed now. And she’s there for me when I lose my patience, too—reminding me that I can do this. Belle reminds me that if I could survive her puppyhood, I can deal with just about anything the world dishes up. I close my eyes, then look skyward and take a deep breath, and I realize this puppy will be worth it.

So I will end this post as I ended that last one, by publicly restating: “Thank you, Miss. For everything—for all the lessons, all the stories, all the laughs and tears. I promise you, they will not go to waste. I will never forget.” It’s important to remind myself, because I’m still learning, still growing. It’s important because, after all, in many respects I’m really still just a pup.

I'm a big girl - Gidget at 14 weeks.

I’m a big girl – Gidget at 14 weeks.

How about you? Are just still “just a pup”? Give me your puppy stories. Do they apply to your writing journey? 

Author Journeys Interview – Redirect to John Robin’s Blog

 Autumn HazelhurstWU–Friendship Fountainhead: I’ve recently gotten to know a fellow fantasy writer, John Robin, and you’ll never guess where. Just kidding. I know you’ve guessed we became acquainted through Writer Unboxed–where else? John was kind enough to select me as his first subject for a new series he’s calling Author Journeys. I’m grateful. In the process, John and I discovered we have much in common as writers. I’m looking forward to watching his journey unfold.

The Road Goes Ever On: I’ve been interviewed before, and I’ve interviewed others, but John’s offer came at a good time for me. I recently came to a fork in my writerly road, and I’ve finally decided which path forward I will take. I haven’t abandoned the trilogy, but I’m going to set it aside for a few months. I think a break from book one rewrites will do me some good. Instead I have been working on a rewrite of my fourth manuscript, The Severing Son, which is the story of the rise and fall of Vahldan the Bold–the father of Thaedan, the primary protagonist of the the trilogy. It’s a long one–the longest of four very long manuscripts. I can now see how this book can be broken into yet another trilogy–one that will precede The Broken Oaths trilogy.  Two of my very dear friends and colleagues have been gracious enough to read The Severing Son and their praise and insightful critique have me very excited to dig into the project. Hopefully the work will lead me back to a rewrite of book one of Broken Oaths with a fresh outlook.

So you see, the chosen path will most likely lead me back to the characters that brought me to this crazy-making dance. It may be the long way around, but it seems fitting. I’ve rarely taken the easy road, but I continue to learn a lot along the way.

Please head over to John’s blog, and share a bit of your journey, and take a minute to check out what John is up to.  Happy Independence Day to my American friends. Happy summer to all!

Written To Death – Writer Unboxed Redirect

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_A_Walk_at_DuskOnce again, I am honored to have one of my essays featured on Writer Unboxed. I never quite know when these opportunities might arise, and it seems a bit unfortunate to me that I chose a fairly heavy topic (death) and that my chance occurred on a sunny (here in the Mighty Mitten, anyway) early summer Friday. It may be a heavy subject, but I tried to keep my take lighthearted. Those of you who’ve read my work know that I do not shy away from the topic on the page. And I’m fairly certain that upon closer examination, death plays a role in your work as well. After all, death is a part of life. Hence, it should be a part of story.

On that sunny note, Happy Friday, everyone. Please smile as you head over and check out Written to Death, on the best darn writing blog on the interwebs, and the mothership to my writing community, Writer Unboxed.

Story Research – Letting the Brain Assist the Heart

Research BooksAn Intricate Mess:

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to think of an empty desk?” ~Albert Einstein

I’ve written about my approach to world-building before, in general here, and in regards to names and naming here. But my friend Heather Reed recently undertook a new historical fantasy project, and she asked me specifically about my approach to researching the Broken Oaths trilogy. In looking back at my notes, I’m both excited for her and amazed.

Excited because they remind me of the adventure of the hunt, and the thrill of discovery. But amazed by the wide and disparate variety of sources that I mined for my story elements. In wading through what can only be called a disorganized mess, it’s a wonder that I was able to arrive at anything coherent.

This is one of the reasons I subscribe to the notion of a story muse. I’m the antithesis of organized, which seems contrary to being a good researcher. And yet somehow I was able to pull a story out of my intricate mess.

As an example, I give you my namey-namer cheat-sheet (see photo). It’s a simple 81/2” x 11” sheet of plainLOBO Cheat-sheet white paper that started out as a short list of possible character names. It’s now covered, front and back, with hundreds of names and obscure references. Please note there is very little means of organization, other than a handful of breakdowns by character group. And yet it continues to serve me well. I’m not sure how I find such a crazy resource helpful, but every time I need to check a name, this is my go-to reference. Honestly, I rarely need it. It’s mostly in issues such as: “Now what’s that secondary character’s grandmother’s name again?” And somehow I know what part of which side to look to find gramma’s name. This from a guy who honestly can’t recall his own phone number. Go figure.

Getting Wet:

“Pearls do not lie on the seashore. He who desires one must dive.” ~Chinese Proverb

We’re in the information age, right? And with so much access to a mighty river of information, the toughest part is going to be finding the tributaries and offshoots that apply to your story. In order to do that, sticking your toe in will not do. You’re going to have to get wet.

JORDANES Origins & Deeds of the GothsAnd you never know where the currents will carry you. For example, my quest for original source material about the Goths swiftly revealed a scarcity. Which is why I was so excited to find one of the few existing documents about the Goths by a Goth—Jordanes’ The Origin and Deeds of the Goths. Although I quickly realized Jordanes was writing about previous generations with few specific references and an obvious quantity of bluster, one note caught my attention and held it. He claimed that the Greek myth of the Amazons originated with the Ancient Greeks’ discovery of a group of Goth women whose husbands and sons had left them on the north shore of the Black Sea to raid in Persia and Egypt. I was fascinated, and it led to months of study of the Amazons and related myths and topics. And ultimately, to my creation of the Skolani—an all-female warrior sect that plays a prominent role in all of my work. All from a paragraph in an ancient treatise. There were no kickass warrior women on my radar at the onset, but oh-how-glad I am that I was willing to dive and found my way to them. They are most certainly a pearl.

There’s a lot to take in, on most any subject. But it’s difficult to pick and choose your sources. I say dive in and let it wash over you. Go with the flow. You might end up somewhere you like.

Panning For Gold:

“The subconscious is a hundred times smarter than we are. We’re just taking dictation.” ~Steven Pressfield

In hindsight, I wish I’d worried less about delving for specifics. I wish I’d gone in with only the idea that I was going to educate myself and feed my enthusiasm, knowing the rest would more or less take care of itself. Because that’s what ended up happening.

As another example, in my research of the Goths, I began by broadly perusing subjects pertaining to the Germanic Tribes at the height of the Roman Empire. I studied their social structure and kingship. I went on to study their laws and mores, settlement layouts, agriculture, games and amusements, clothing and jewelry, migration (causes and effects), and their weapons and warfare. What I really wanted was more specific information about how they governed themselves. Sadly, there is little information, and much of it is conflicting.

futhark ring hiltsBut in the course of my search, as I studied the last topic—weapons and warfare—I now see what became the roots of my solution. There is an entry in my notes from a book called Battle-ax People, by Olivia Vlahos. The note pertains to the expense and significance of swords, and how certain swords became important relics passed from father to son, occasionally symbolizing a legacy of chieftainship. From another book called The Everyday Life of Barbarians: Goths, Franks, and Vandals, by Malcom Todd, I note that some important swords are inscribed with oaths, and occasionally such oaths appeared in the form of rune rings, attached to the hilt. The two notes are only a few sentences each, and were taken several months apart. And yet they clearly led to the Futhark swords of the Gottari ruling clans—the symbolic relics which represent the leadership of my two ruling clans.

I don’t see any notation that I’d put the two together—inherited swords symbolic of leadership and rune rings on hilts—at the time. But when it came time to outline, a symbol was needed, and there they were: the Futhark swords. I invented much of the rest of the elements of their governance from other tidbits gleaned over the course of my research, and it all fell into place once I had the Futhark swords. So I’d advise you not to bother looking for bright baubles as you go. Just scoop it in. Your muse (or your subconscious) will sift through for the gems.

Take It From Me (Or Don’t):

It might seem silly, now that you’ve read this far, that a guy who admits he’s a disorganized and somewhat aimless researcher is now going to give you advice on researching. But I am (going to give advice, not silly—or is it both?). Take it or leave it. It’s all in good fun (as any research for fiction should be).

*Find your passion! As I say, this should be fun. If you’re passionate about your subject or era, your research will not only be easy, but a pleasure—something you’ll look forward to doing.

*Give yourself ENOUGH time, but not ENDLESS time. If you’re having fun researching, as you should, you might find a point of diminishing returns. At some point we all have to stop researching and start writing.

*Start online, but zero in with books. Nothing beats the internet for gaining a broader understanding of a topic or era. But you’ll soon realize that if you want any depth and citation, you need to go to books. I buy as many as I can, but for most of us, trips to the library become an indispensable part of any major research project.

*Don’t be afraid to follow the rabbit down the hole. I think I’ve pretty well illustrated this point. If you’re writing about Goths and Romans in the 4th Century AD, don’t be afraid to spend a few months chasing Amazons across Ancient Greece and beyond. Or something along those lines.LOBO Research Notes

 Let Your Brain Assist Your Heart:

“I’ve noticed this effect: When writers undertake to write a story, the insights and information they need to write it well tend to arrive unasked for. Those things arrive at the right moments, perfectly timed gifts from the story god.

Or, is it rather that an author’s brain, working on a story, begins to grab available information and synthesize it, which is to say bend, blend and meld it to the purposes of the story?

Is it magic, serendipity or synthesis? Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s accidental. I think authors make it happen. It’s the brain assisting the heart.” ~Donald Maass

Don’s quote above is from a comment he made on a wonderful WU post this week. The post is largely about the mysterious and seemingly random serendipity of the power of the brain, by Maureen Seaberg, the co-author of Struck by Genius. And, as he often does, for me Don took the post to a whole new level.

The Dreamer, by Caspar David Friedrich (1835)I allotted a year to research when I began my manuscript in earnest. And I ended up with a pile of notebooks even larger than the one pictured above. But once I started writing, I rarely dug through that disorganized mess (perhaps in part because it was disorganized). The insights and information I needed tended to arrive as perfectly timed gifts from the story god. Or did my brain somehow know better than my conscious self which bits to grasp and gather, to then “bend, blend and meld to the purposes of the story”? Either way, I’m glad I somehow found my way to allowing my brain to assist my heart.

Moving forward, I’m hoping I can repeat the process, but I’m not too worried. I’ve already stumbled onto streams that have led my subconscious to begin the bending, blending and melding all over again.

Now it’s your turn. Is your research organized? Do your notebooks have color-coded tabs and an index? Do you trust that your brain will know better than your conscious self, and will assist your heart?