Reaching or Digging? Writer Unboxed Redirect

Puppy Gidget's first trip to the beach, she didn't know whether to reach or dig, so she did both.

Puppy Gidget’s first trip to the beach, she didn’t know whether to reach or dig, so she did both.

I’m delighted to have another essay featured on Writer Unboxed today, and I’d love to have your input (here or there). I’ve recently been thinking about High Concept as it relates to the market versus exploring deep themes in my work. (I’ve been focused on the latter, hopefully not too much to the detriment of the former.) Can you think of favorite novels that would rightfully be called High Concept? I’m curious. Please stop by WU and see what it’s all about.

Sorry, I see how long it’s been since I’ve posted here with any regularity. I’m still focused on my current rewrite. But I expect I’ll have a lot to explore once I reach “The End” of that project. Thanks for sticking with me!

F-F-Finally! A New Post! Redirect to F-Word Essay on WU

F-Word 1Hello Blog. Sorry, it’s been a while, I know. But I promise, not without reason. I’ve been f-f-frantically working away on a rewrite of The Severing Son. I’m pleased with what’s developing, but it’s taking a large chunk of my admittedly limited focus and attentions span. But I did manage to write an essay for Writer Unboxed. Which, I always say, is an honor. And also it’s a challenge. No one f-f-phones in a post over on WU. And so, I dug deep, about a subject I have strong and evolving feelings for: the F-Word. Curious? Hope so. Please f-f-feel f-f-free to click on over. (Hint, it’s not the one you might be thinking.)

I do understand that it’s a busy week for most (particularly in the U.S.). In any case, thank you for your support. To my American friends, have a Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s to a safe and productive holiday season!

Series Aspirations: Drawn to the Long Arc

PicMonkey CollageHarping on a Hero:

Over the past few years I’ve frequently mentioned my fondness for the epic fantasies of Robin Hobb, both here and on WU, and via social media. Let’s face it, I’m Fool's Assassina geeky, rabid fan. I not only enjoy Hobb’s books, I feel I’ve learned a great deal about writing fiction by reading her, particularly in regards to character development. So I consider her an inspiration; a mentor of sorts. I’ve recently devoured her most recent release, Fool’s Quest, which is among over a dozen titles set in the same world and the eighth to feature Prince FitzChivalry Farseer and his dear friend and longtime companion known as the Fool (owing to the fact that he was literally a court jester when the pair met as boys).

As I said, I appreciate many aspects of Hobb’s work, but reading this last novel reminded me of a powerful storytelling tool I particularly admire. It’s one you don’t often see utilized, but one I aspire to use in my own work. I’m talking about a complex character arc that unfolds over the course of a series of titles.

Admiring An Epic Life:

When readers first meet FitzChivalry he is a young boy, the bastard son of a king-in-waiting. Fitz is delivered into the hostile confines of his extended family’s royal court, where he is the ultimate outsider. Over the course of two lengthy trilogies, we areRobin Hobb Fool's Quest privy to the unfolding development of a character who is, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating in fantasy fiction. Fitz goes from victimized bastard child to teenaged trained assassin, tool to the very royal family who maintains his ostracized status, to a man without a name or a family, forced into a life in hiding yet still unable to disengage from the Farseers’ use of him. In the first two books of this newest trilogy, we find Fitz in his fifties, a father and husband; a squire hoping to live out his days simply and anonymously, in comfort and among family. (This, of course, is not to be. Otherwise there would be no new trilogy.)

Watching Fitz’s life unfold is so full of delights, I can hardly describe the full effect here. We are witness as the young man who starts off so impetuous, vengeful, and maddeningly unpredictable matures into a (mostly) reliable, loyal, and deeply reflective man; a former killer struggling to tame his demons as he strives for a life of honorable domesticity in a world made safe – in no small way – through his concealed efforts.

I found so much of this eighth Fitz book moving and deeply satisfying. And I realized that it was because it was like watching someone I’d known all of their life finally coming into his own and receiving his just dues after long years of denial. In spite of a plethora of wrenching new developments, my heart swelled again and again in seeing Fitz gaining rightful recognition as a prince of the blood, the unheralded hero of the realm. It’s a sweeping effect that I feel would’ve been all but impossible in the course of a single novel, or even over a lone trilogy.

My Own Efforts:

I say I aspire to utilize this tool, hoping to create more satisfying characters though complex development over the course of a series. Of course the tricky part of that is not just selling the first book, but leaving readers wanting more. But my attempts to create multi-book character arcs go back to the very beginning of my writing endeavors. Hoping to continue to develop my characters over the course of several individual story arcs is one of the reasons I strive for a worthy first offering in my story world. I’ve already had a blast doing this, and several of my characters’ lives have unfolded in surprising ways; ways that are very gratifying to me.

One character who particularly surprised me is a good example. Rohdric of the Amalus clan first appears in book one of my original trilogy as an antagonist. The nephew of a fallen Gothic conquering king, Rohdric is raised as a slave in the Roman world. As he comes of age, the elder Goth slaves aid Rohdric’s escape to their tribal homeland in the hopes of his raising an army of their kinsmen to ride against the imperials who enslave them. This puts him in direct conflict with the story’s protagonist, Thaedan (his cousin, son of the conquering king) who aspires to avoid his father’s murderous lifestyle and keep his people free from imperial conflict.

As a yRohdric from 123rfoung man, Rohdric is brash and bullying, conceited and unscrupulous. He considers himself the good guy, the only Amalus heir trying to do the right thing. By the end of book one, Rohdric has gained a following and breaks away from the Gothic nation to forge his own path. Along the way to personal glory he is humbled by defeat, and is severely injured. The wound is very apparent to others, and has an ongoing effect on him, both from a physiological and a psychological standpoint. After his defeat, he and his men change sides to become foederati (foreign fighters in the service of the Roman army). As a Roman soldier, Rohdric encounters racism and discrimination. Unfolding events force him to a renewed perspective of the injustice of slavery. Even as a former slave, slavery had simply been “the way of things” – unchangeable. What had been a selfishly personal vendetta (to free his kinsmen) becomes genuine compassion. Ultimately, he comes to understand the importance of belonging and of self-sacrifice; of friendship and loyalty; of love and honor.

And that’s just his young adulthood! And it took three books to get that far. Makes me wonder what a long literary life like Fitz’s would hold in store for Rohdric of the Amalus.

It’s the Transformation, Stupid.

“Story is how what happens affects someone in pursuit of a difficult goal and how they change as a result.” ~ Lisa Cron

I love Lisa’s quote, offered up at the onset of a workshop she gave at the Writer Unboxed UnConference last year. It reminds me that the heart of every story is not the protagonist’s goal, nor is it the stuff that happens along the way. The heart of every story lies in how the characters change as a result of the stuff that happens and the achievement (or lack thereof) of the story goal. And of course, with a character who reappears in multiple editions of a series of stories, they will necessarily be changed many times, hopefully with a cumulative effect.

With that in mind, and also keeping in mind I’ve yet to successfully sell such a series, I offer two pieces of advice to series writers wishing to feature (a) recurring character(s): First, be sure to have them change! And second, be sure to have them stay the same!

Conflicted? I know I am. Hopefully your characters will be, too. Allow me to elaborate.

*Have them change! And in each story. Even if they’re a secondary character. Start with the obvious. If the character is maturing, there will be physical changes. How they look as they age, for a start. But go deeper. This is an element that Hobb has mastered, and often it speaks to other changes in Fitz’s life. For example, even though he undergoes ongoing physical mending through a magic called Skill Healing, in the most recent trilogy he’s still become out of shape and out of practice from a martial perspective. He’s often sore and out of breath. Another example: one has only to think of Tyrion Lannister’s disfigured nose to think of how a visible wound can transform a character’s life. It’s an apparent and inescapable symbol both of his bravery in battle and his fall from grace.

But of course we have to go beyond physical change. We must ask ourselves how what’s happened in each story has transformed our characters. After all, psychic scars can be as enduring as physical ones. In what ways have they grown more comfortable in their own skin? In what ways are they even more vulnerable? What fears have they conquered? What new fears have appeared since the last story? What old fears cannot be shaken? What shamefulness lingers, and how does it manifest itself moving forward? Who do they grieve? What do they regret? What about the past makes them proud, or content? How do they self-sabotage that contentedness?

I’m sure that, depending on the nature of the character, you’ll come up with your own list of questions. Just be sure to delve deeply.

*Have them stay the same! Have you ever reencountered someone you knew in prior life, say, at a dinner party, who seems completely different? It happens. They could look different, seem wiser, calmer—even have reversed a previous impassioned position. But more times than not, by the end of the dinner, their old stripes are showing through, aren’t they? Perhaps they’ve had a few drinks, and suddenly there’s a subtle jibe about a longstanding note of discord between you. Or they tell an unflattering story about you—one you could swear you promised one another you’d never share. How much have they really changed? How much is a new façade?

At their core, some characteristics never change. Someone who’s prone to rage may have gained some mastery of their temper. But how often is their anger still there, simmering beneath the surface? Or have you ever met someone who lights up a room with good cheer? That light never seems to diminish, does it? And they seem to stay that way, even if you know them well enough to know the burdens they carry inside but don’t show to the world.

We should ask ourselves not just how readers will recognize our recurring characters, but how they deeply know them. Based on a character’s history, what are readers waiting for them to do? Will the character’s new icy façade melt in empathy? Will their old explosiveness somehow ignite? Is newfound kindness a cover for their old scheming selfishness? In what ways are they still endearing? Or frustrating? What element of their past selves will we most ardently root for to reappear? How long can we tease and yet withhold that element?

It’s important to know which aspects of your returning characters are unalterable. How do their core beliefs and fundamental characteristics come to bear on the changes you explored above?

Gladiator Unleash Hell battleMaking it Epic!

ep·ic /epik/ noun

1 – a long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation.

2 – extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope. <That story was epic!>

I admit, I’ve always been a bit frustrated by the confines of the marketplace’s definition of “novel length.” As a reader, I’ve always favored long books—stories that begin at a hero’s childhood and quite often encompass much of her or his life. I can see how such extended character explorations can still be viable, even in today’s market. Through an extended series—one in which the previous trilogy appeared almost a decade ago—Robin Hobb has provided a brilliant pair of examples in Fitz and the Fool.

I’m drawn to tell these kinds of stories. I want my work to extend beyond the usual or ordinary in scope. So I’m seeking to get it right. I patiently strive to prepare a worthy first offering—one that will lead to the chance to delve into my characters’ many transformative experiences.

After all, I’m not just seeking to publish a story. I’m seeking a career as an epic fantasy author.

And you? Do you have a favorite recurring character? Do you seek to write a series, or have you considered it?

Goth Warrior Photo Copyright: <a href=’’>evdoha / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Regarding…Me? – Redirect to Writers In The Storm Guestpost

A writer trimming his pen, by Jan Ekels (II)The ladies at Writers In the Storm have been generous enough to host me once again. It’s a vibrant, supportive, and insightful community they’ve fostered, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.

The post is one that’s been brewing for quite a while. About ten years, actually. Although I admit I didn’t know it was brewing for over half of that time. I thought I was trying to write a story. And then I thought I was trying to make it worthy of being read by staying true to my characters. I didn’t know I was excavating my own deeper truths. How about you? Do you see your beliefs reflected back to you from the written page? Please stop by and delve a little deeper, won’t you?

Flipping Perspectives – Writer Unboxed Redirect

MC-Escher-Hand-with-Reflecting-Sphere-1935The good news? I’ve published an essay (good news if you enjoy my essays, anyway). The better news? I have the honor of having this essay appear on Writer Unboxed. Yes, that’s made it a very good day, indeed. Think I can make things better still? I think I can. If you keep an open mind. You see, it’s all about the way we see things – even our problems. I recently went through the deliberate exercise of changing my outlook on my writerly circumstances, and I challenge you to do the same.

So please head over to WU and start the metamorphosis. And if you’re so moved, I’d love it if you’d share your thoughts, either over there or here if you’d prefer. I hope you end up feeling as changed as I do as we head into summer.

Thank you for your support!

Oh, Sweet Blindness

Laura Nyro Livin the artist's life“Oh sweet blindness

A little magic, a little kindness

Oh sweet blindness, all over me…” ~Laura Nyro

 Really, Subconscious? I woke up at 4 am the other night with the song Sweet Blindness playing in my head. On repeat. When I got up, it stayed with me. I thought it was odd, as I don’t think I’ve heard the song in at least 20 years. Although it’s not so odd that it would be echoing around in the recesses of my subconscious. My parents were big fans of the band The Fifth Dimension, who made a hit of their cover version of the song in 1968.

I must’ve heard the song hundreds of times growing up. Looking back, it’s just a little ironic that my parents, who rarely drank, would play a song for their children about underage drinking. But The Fifth Dimension were one of those acts with generational crossover appeal (believe me, I know – I was even taken to see them in about 1970, along with many other kids and their “square” parents – young and old clapping along).

But why now, subconscious? A song I haven’t heard in ages, about underage drinking, by a group my parents loved? The song, and the question, stuck with me.

You Know Laura, Right? I eventually found my answer the next day, starting with an online search of both the song Sweet Blindness, and its lyrics. The lyrics were no surprise—I’d remembered them correctly. But the beginnings of my answer came at the bottom of the lyrics page, in the form of the songwriter’s name—Laura Nyro. “Oh yeah,” I thought. I immediately searched for the original Laura Nyro version of the song, and listened. The songwriter had been lurking in the back of my mind for some time. I had been pre-intrigued.

Now things were unfolding for me. Last summer I’d followed the recommendation in a Steven Pressfield post and watched the documentary Inventing David Geffen. Near the onset of his career, long before he became the star-making super-agent, Geffen courted and signed 19 year old Laura. He speaks of her as the one of the brightest, most talented, most underappreciated finds of his multi-decade career. As a huge, lifelong music fan, I was a bit chagrinned that I didn’t know her name. But I surely knew her music, and I’ll bet you do, too.

The songs Laura wrote that became big hits all made the charts as cover songs done by other artists. Besides Sweet Blindness, there were several others made famous by The Fifth Dimension, including Blowin’ Away, Wedding Bell Blues, and my favorite, Stoned Slow Picnic (in which Laura invents the verb “surry,” which I love—more on that later). There were many others, perhaps most notably Stoney End, which only hit the top ten as a cover by Barbara Streisand. There was also Eli’s Comin’, taken to the charts by Three Dog Night. I would be remiss to leave And When I Die from the list, a song made famous by Blood, Sweat & Tears. What amazes me about that last one is that Laura wrote it when she was sixteen. “And when I die, and when I’m gone, there’ll be one child born in this world to carry on…” Pretty deep stuff (sorry, no pun) for a sixteen year old.

“Four leaves on a clover, I’m just a shade of a bit hung over…” ~ Laura Nyro

 An Artist’s Artist: After my 4 am sweet blindness, when my “morning after” arrived, I spent it watching videos and reading interviews and bios, and listening to Laura. Turns out Laura was one of those artist’s artists. You know the ones—artists that never really came to be broadly known, but who are embraced by other hugely talented artists as an inspiration or a seminal influence. I found several interviews and quotes alluding to Laura in this capacity from a broad range of artists, from Elton John to Suzanne Vega to Todd Rundgren; even musicians as diverse as Paul Shaffer and Alice Cooper cite her influence. It’s said that Stevie Wonder wrote If You Really Love Me in tribute to Laura’s style.

Laura with David Geffen in '68

Laura with David Geffen in ’68

In the Geffen documentary, he bemoans the fact that she never really got her due, but he admitted that she never really wanted fame. She disliked being “handled” in the studio, and was uncomfortable in the spotlight. She just wanted to make music. You could hear the regret in Geffen’s voice. You might now better understand my intrigue.

 “Come on baby, do the slow float…” ~L.N.

Cherished Freedom: One of the documentaries I watched was filmed in 1995, less than two years before Laura’s untimely passing at the age of 49. It’s shot in her home, and she’s shown alone on camera, with the interviewer off camera. Her first words are: “It was a beautiful life—very joyful.” She goes on to discuss her life as an artist: “For me, singing is like… It’s the closest I can come to flying. Writing music is like creating musical architecture. It’s my favorite thing to do. I use everything—my spirituality, feminism, motherhood, relationships… It can be frustrating sometimes, if you let yourself check into that energy. You just have to work every day. It’s an important part of my well-being.”

“I don’t accept limitations. I can use whatever I want to in my work. And that, to me, is freedom. It’s a freedom I cherish.”

“It’s a very simple feeling I have about all of this. It’s about an integrated spirituality, built into having an artistic life. It brings me peace.”

In the film she certainly looks and sounds like she’s at peace. And it was filmed after she’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the same type that killed her mother, also at age 49.

“Now, ain’t that sweet-eyed blindness good to me…” ~L.N.

Laura’s Lessons: At the time of my 4 am sweet blindness, I hadn’t been working on a manuscript in several weeks. I’d been flailing back and forth about possible changes to a recently completed manuscript, even before all of the feedback was in. I was certainly in a place where I needed to be told to, “come on, baby, do the slow float.” In contemplation of Laura’s life and her work, I came away refreshed, and with a fresh outlook. Here are the lessons I’m taking to heart:

*Get back to work! Writing is my favorite thing to do. I enjoy using everything—my spirituality, my intelligence, my curiosity. Why would I allow weeks to go by without doing what I love?

*Don’t check into negative energy. There will always be ups and downs, and contradictions in feedback. Those are externals. Why should that have an effect on what I do from day to day?

*Forge your own artistic trail. Laura’s music can be somewhat polarizing. Even her voice is unique enough to be off-putting to some. You either get her and feel her, or you don’t. “Laura was not someone who copied people,” says veteran arranger and producer Charles Calello, who produced her second album. “She was original in every sense of the word.” In spite of that somewhat polarizing originality, it seems to me she never compromised on her art, never altered the path of her musical exploration in response to how her previous work was received. Now that’s a sort of sweet blindness I can aspire to.

*Find your peace through the work. Laura never had a top ten hit as a performer. But she had many top ten hits as a songwriter. She found herself—her identity as an artist—through the work itself. She did her “favorite thing” every day. She cherished the freedom, the expression, the outlet. And she found peace. Even in the face of an often fatal disease, she was able to smile at the camera and say, “It was a beautiful life—very joyful.” And I believe her.

Now, ain’t that sweet-eyed blindness good to me? You bet.

“Can you surry down to a stoned slow picnic?…” ~L.N. (from Stoned Slow Picnic)

Can You Surry? As I said, much ado has been made over Laura’s coining of the verb “surry” in the song Stoned Slow Picnic.  And no, this has nothing to do with a “surrey with the fringe on top.” When asked what it meant, Laura usually said something about liking the sound of it. When asked if it was a contraction of ‘let’s hurry,’ she was resolute: “Absolutely not. Quite the opposite.” David Geffen (who obviously knew her well at the time) explained it as being “a feel. It’s about allowing yourself to experience the joy of life. It’s about slowing down to recognize your happiness.”

I think “to surry” is to live without buying into negative energy, to do what we love, and to recognize the beauty, the freedom of it. If that’s true, then to surry is to move toward finding our peace in an artist’s life. To be able to honestly say, at the end, “It was a beautiful life—very joyful.”

Laura in '96, at peace

Laura in ’96, an artist at peace

So thanks, Laura, for surrying into my life when I needed you. Thanks for the inspiration and the life-lessons. Continue to surry, and be at peace.

How about you? Do you ever wake up with an old song in your head? Are your parents to blame? Will you help me to bring the verb “surry” into the lexicon? Would it matter to you if you were denied the recognition your work seemed to deserved? Can you find your peace through the work? 

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!