The Island of Misfit Posts #2: No Enemy But Time

Like its predecessor, Discouraged by Discouragement, this pesky fella here is another one of those posts that didn’t quite turn out as expected and ended up on the cutting room floor (though a part of its sentiment made its way into You’re Where You Are). Caught somewhere between my musings of growing older while still struggling with the craft and my intent of advising impatient writers to slow down, the post started taking the shape of something neither fish, flesh, nor good red herring:

“Do you think, I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable!” — Julius Caesar

When you reach a certain age, you become acutely aware of time, how much you’ve squandered on things you swore were important at the moment, and how little you still have left in your account. Whenever I get the time brain bug, I’m always brought back to the line from Delmore Schwartz’s poem, Calmly We Walk through This April’s Day (quoted in that horrendous film Star Trek: Generations), “Time is the fire in which we burn.” I love that line. It resonates within me.

But I digress.

Many aspiring authors feel the pressures of time, either believing because of their age that they’ve gotten a late start in the writing process and need to play catch up, or simply haven’t got the proper time to devote to a writing regime, so they attempt to bang out herculean writing tasks without bothering to first learn the rules. They assume because they’ve taken on board the advice to write everyday that their skill set automatically improves and mistakes auto-correct themselves. They read, as instructed, but fail to apply storytelling rules—plotting, story goals, scenes and sequences, the purpose of characters, effective use of dialogue—to their own work.

That’s not to say their writing is bad, it simply lacks a consistent quality. A beautiful bit of prose or a dynamic character can easily get lost in the quagmire of weak grammar, poor pacing, and a meandering plot. Recognizing it can sometimes be hard to turn an objective eye on your own writing, here are a few questions to ask yourself, to see if you need to go back to writers boot camp:

1. Do you tell a story?

I assume you’re familiar with the phrase, “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” This applies to your writing as well, especially when you’re concentrating on your piece at the word choice and sentence structure level. Sometimes it helps to take a step back and get a big picture view of what you’re attempting to do, what it is you’re really trying to write about. The answer isn’t always as clear cut as you’d imagine.

2. Is your writing concise?

This one’s a toughie, because it calls on you to chuck out everything you learned in school about the proper way to write an essay. Well, this ain’t about writing essays, bub (or bubette, no gender discrimination here) and the rules of pacing language are different in fiction. The first rule you need to learn is: Never use a long sentence when a short one does the same job.

3. Are you addicted to adjectives and adverbs?

Adjectives and adverbs are among the more hotly debated issues in the writing community, and while opinions vary, the common rule of thumb is less is more. It can be hard to spot over usage while writing so when you’re done with your piece, look for chains–a string of adjective and adverb two or greater—and whittle it down until you’re left with one or two essential ones. Also worth bearing in mind, when you feel the need to modify a noun or a verb, make sure they need to be modified. If they do, select the best word to convey your meaning.

4. Are you familiar with the word “subtle?”

Your audience is smarter than you realize. There’s no need for you to spell everything out in exacting detail. And, believe it or not, some folks actually enjoy interpreting things for themselves.

5. Should you be shifting viewpoints?

Hopping from one character’s head to another without causing audience confusion requires a certain level of skill, and I’m certainly not suggesting that you shouldn’t be doing it (and if I told you not to, you’d rush out and do it anyway) but why not baby step your way towards it? Work on mastering the one character viewpoint first.

6. Do you show too much?

Yes, the standard rule is “show, don’t tell” but you don’t need to show everything. When in doubt, refer to Elmore Leonard’s rule,”Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

7. Do you create apathetic characters?

You’re an artist, your work is all about the truth, even in fiction. I get it. I’ve been there. But creating a realistic character based on your current bout of apathy, depression, or (heaven forbid) suicidal thoughts, often doesn’t make for good reading. Your characters must have wants and needs to push the plot forward. Audiences have no need to read stories where the characters have no desire to live or accomplish something.

8. Is your antagonist one dimensional?

Villains that are evil for evil’s sake are boring. Flesh them out with wants and needs like you would your main character. And remember, every villain is a hero in their own mind.

9. Does your dialogue matter?

Yes, leaving white on the page is a good thing as no one like slogging through dense blocks of description, but are you breaking up paragraphs with bits of meaningless chatter? Dialogue should be used as a communication between characters that evokes reaction. One characters says something that another character reacts to, which sparks a reaction, and so on, until the scene concludes. If you have no idea what your character has to say, then you don’t know your character well enough.

10. Can you write an ending?

Some people excel at writing beginnings, and that all they’re good at. Each chapter is a new beginning, with no middle to be found and as for an ending? I’m sure you can work out the answer to that. Other people get off to a slow start in the beginning, come into their own in the middle and peter out at the finish line. Let’s face it, endings are tough. Not only must you keep it clear and simple while you deliver on the promise of the premise (without being didactic), but you have to tie up all your story’s loose ends, and if you’re planning to surprise your audience, it shouldn’t be with an inappropriate twist, added for shock value. Keep in mind that writing the words “The End” doesn’t finish a story if it has no resolution.

In truth, I couldn’t finish it because I wasn’t in the proper frame of mind at the time. Although it might not be visible in the post, that damned time brain bug kept nagging at me, not with words, but with a feeling — the feeling of being left behind in the race for achievement. Before you say a word, I know better. In fact, one of my favorite quotes on this matter comes from the now-famous commencement speech, Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97:

“The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.”

But we’re human, aren’t we? And sometimes knowing a truth doesn’t prevent you from feeling the exact opposite.

Sally forth and be time-ignoringly writeful.

The Island of Misfit Posts #1: Discouraged by Discouragement

When I sit down to write these posts, I never know what they’ll be about beforehand. It’s a first-thought-that-hits-me-stream-of-consciousness sort of thing. Sometimes they’re on point, other times they meander a bit, but as stated in the About This Site section, the posts are less about me attempting to appear clever or knowledgeable (what are the odds, really?), and more about getting myself into a proper writing frame of mind with a warm-up exercise. Mental calisthenics, if you will.

As you might imagine, it doesn’t always go to plan. Case in point: the post below. Inspired in part by Susannah Breslin’s Forbes article, Why You Shouldn’t Be A Writer, and Martin Levin’s, You Suck And So Does Your Writing—which is more about petty squabbles between notable literary figures (how I would have combined the two ideas is anyone’s guess)—it was meant to be a discouragement piece, you know, separating the wheat from the chaff, and all that, that started out like this:

Of All the Things You Could Do With Your Life, Why On Earth Would You Purposely Choose To Be A Writer?

Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question, but one you should be prepared to ask yourself and answer before undertaking writing in any fashion as a serious profession. Among the more common reasons I’ve come across in my travels are:

1. No commuting and every day is Pajama Friday!

I can’t fault your logic here because commuting is generally a nightmare and what’s better than tooling around your house in a onesie all day long like an agoraphobic superhero? Sadly, it isn’t a good enough reason to want to be a writer, especially since there other telecommuting positions that offer more stability and better chances at becoming a career.

2. What better way is there to make a ton of dough and roll around in my piles of cash?

Well, you could try your hand at playing the lottery or betting the ponies, for starters. Rich writers are the exception to the rule. The majority of people who claim writing as a profession, work their mental fingers to the bone, producing material for years before they even get a glimpse at recognition, let alone a healthy paycheck. Instead of rolling in piles of cash, you’ll most likely be rolling up your coins, praying your landlord accepts pennies for rent.

3. Nothing better than being my own boss with flexible hours!

Flexible hours? Been writing long? Writing is a huge commitment that commandeers your entire life with absolutely no guarantee of any sort of financial gain. As stated earlier, there are other work-from-home opportunities that are far more secure and come equipped with a steady payday. And being your own boss isn’t the sipping Mai Tais under a beach umbrella fantasy you imagine it to be. First off, there’s no one to delegate all the donkey work to, and your brain doesn’t simply punch out when the working day has ended. Writing–and the guilt of not writing–never leaves you in peace until the article/book/screenplay/project has been completed.

4. It would be amazing to see my best-selling book in a bookstore/my script turned into a blockbuster feature film/win the Pulitzer Prize for my groundbreaking article series.

Who wouldn’t want any of those things? While we’re daydreaming, I’d also like to be an astronaut so that I can save the planet from extraterrestrial threats, be the smartest man in any room I’m in so that I can solve all the world’s problems and become Earth President, and build a safe-box time machine–that protects me from any sort of injury–equipped with a high end movie camera in order to jump back and forth in time to make the ultimate series of historical documentaries.

Now that my feet have touched terra firma and I’m once again grounded in reality, I can tell you that while it’s great to dream big, fame is one of the worst reasons to choose writing as a profession.

But the post wasn’t really working for me because I could feel myself getting snarkier as the piece went on, which wasn’t my intent going in. So, I decided to step off my soapbox and kill the post. And there it sat in my trash for days, forgotten like Charlie-In-The-Box, Dolly, Spotted Elephant, and King Moonracer. But it miraculously survived deletion during my numerous trash emptying sessions. This had to be a sign. What sign, I hadn’t the faintest, but I decided to attempt recycling it into a less judgmental, more positive message:

Writers are born critics who will criticize any and everything that crosses their paths, especially fellow writers. They will issue their assessments and commentary with the righteousness of having had their opinions validated by the Mount Horeb burning bush. These are the writers who cut open veins and bleed for the love of the craft, whose skulls ring with haunting voices that cannot be silenced until exorcized onto the page, who believe in their heart of hearts that the only words that deserve to be written are the truths that need to be told.

I can’t lie, sometimes I feel the same way.

But I’m not as bothered by it anymore because I know firsthand that the writing process has its own way of weeding out the fly-by-night scribblers, posers, and pretenders with the obstacles it scatters on the long and winding path to a completed project. Whether your driving force is money, fame, to impress a person/people, burning need, or love of the art form, you will still experience your fair share of procrastination, anxiety, writer’s block, time crunches, lack of motivation, fear of rejection, judgment of peers, and impatience of selling a piece.

If you can repeatedly bash your head into these walls, get up, dust yourself off and continue to write, who am I to question your motives? That, my friends, is the best I can do fer ya, today.

Sally forth and be encouragely writeful.

21 Writing Lessons A Wise Man Would Share (and no, I’m not calling myself wise)

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  1. Commitment is what transforms an idea floating around in your head into reality. Putting pen to paper speaks boldly of your intentions to write and are the actions which speak louder than the words. It is making the time when there is none. Coming through time after time after time, year after year after year. Commitment is the stuff character is made of; the power to shape ethereal things. It is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism.
  2. No one is perfect. The quicker this is realized the faster you can get on with being excellent. Start every morning ready to write harder than you did the day before and plot further than you ever imagine.
  3. Avoid over-explaining yourself in writing. Be confident that your audience is intelligent enough to understand.
  4. Write down what’s most important to you in your writing career and the steps to accomplish that goal and show up for it. Sometimes we tend to do the things that are most important to us when it’s written down.
  5. Play the hand you’re dealt. Stop envying someone else’s talent or success. Have the courage to face your own writing challenges head-on. It builds character. Start looking for a way through instead of a way out.
  6. Become a student of life. Learn something new every day. The day you stop learning is the day you become obsolete so keep learning and keep writing.
  7. No more excuses. Stop making excuses for not writing and replace them with ways to do better writing. Excuses are a waste of time and energy.
  8. Never be ashamed to tell anyone you’re a writer, whether you’re published or not. The definition of a writer is a person who writes or is able to write. Being ashamed to acknowledge this fact to people speaks to self-doubt, which is a desire killer.
  9. Never be afraid of a writing challenge. If you never strive to be more than what you are, you’ll never truly know what you can become.
  10. Be of service to other writers. Pointing people in the right direction is such a small thing. Give advice to those who ask for it. Offer support to those who want it. We’re all here to teach as well as learn.
  11. Work like hell. If you want to earn a living as a writer, that is. Treat it like a profession, put your absolute best foot forward and be thorough. Cross every “T” and dot every “I”.
  12. Discover yourself. Find your passion, and life purpose, and pursue them…then write about them.
  13. Don’t take it personally. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge and laugh at something that you’ve written in the past that’s just plain awful. Self-awareness and self-confidence show that you’re comfortable in your own skin.
  14. Manage your time. Our situation and environment are ever-changing so be careful not to confuse the things that are urgent with the things that are important. Look for time wasters and eliminate them.
  15. Ask for help. Writing can be tough and although you do a majority of it alone, you should never write in a total vacuum and there’s no shame in seeking advice when you’re stuck.
  16. Do your homework. Know what you’re getting into before you start writing in a particular field, format, or genre. Doing your homework reduces uncertainty and fear.
  17. Daydream often. Your imagination is a muscle that requires exercise and daydreaming is an excellent way to flex it. Embrace and preserve your daydreams at all costs.
  18. Forgive and set free. Freeing your mind to write is almost as important as actually sitting down to write, so cultivate a healthy dose of forgiveness and set someone free. Learn to forgive others and stop carrying those bags of hate, guilt, or regret.
  19. Stay one step ahead. Avoid big fish/small pond thinking if at all possible. If you’ve mastered a particular style of writing, why not be proactive, take the initiative, and see what other types of writing challenges are out there for you?
  20. Love yourself. Become your own priority. Strive to be the you, you want to be. Once you accomplish this, it will show in your writing, trust me.
  21. Finish what you’ve started. Avoid the urge to stray. Distractions are the writer’s most fearsome adversary. Avoid jumping off a project because a better idea has come along. Jot the better idea down, set it aside, and come back to it when you’re done with your current project.

Sally forth and be wisely writeful.

50 Questions That Can Help Free Your Mind (to concentrate on writing…hopefully)

 

The common advice for freeing your mind to write is to create a journal. I’m fairly certain that most of you have either 1) created a journal that you may or may not keep current, or 2) heard the advice and decided journaling isn’t for you (hey, it happens).

So, what other options do you have when you’ve lost your self in a quagmire of self-pity, mundane daily obligations, and insurmountable life woes and can’t quite seem to maintain your true identity or nurture your creative center?

Why, you slap on your pith helmet, turn your gaze inward, and explore that largely ignored country of your core self, naturally. And the best way to accomplish this is with the list below. Why a list? Because you’re a writer and writers love lists.

Be advised that there are no right or wrong answers because sometimes simply asking the right questions is the answer.

  1. How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
  2. Which is worse, failing or never trying?
  3. If life is so short, why do we do so many things we don’t like and like so many things we don’t do?
  4. When it’s all said and done, will you have said more than you’ve done?
  5. What is the one thing you would most like to change about the world?
  6. If happiness was the national currency, what kind of work would make you rich?
  7. Are you doing what you believe in, or are you settling for what you are doing?
  8. If the average human life span was 40 years, how would you live your life differently?
  9. To what degree have you actually controlled the course your life has taken?
  10. Are you more worried about doing things right, or doing the right things?
  11. You are having lunch with three people you respect and admire. They all start criticizing a close friend of yours, not knowing she/he is your friend. The criticism is distasteful and unjustified. What do you do?
  12. If you could offer a newborn child only one piece of advice, what would it be?
  13. Would you break the law to save a loved one?
  14. Have you ever seen insanity where you later saw creativity?
  15. What is something you know you do differently than most people?
  16. How come the things that make you happy don’t make everyone happy?
  17. What is one thing have you not done that you really want to do? What’s holding you back?
  18. Are you holding onto something you need to let go of?
  19. If you had to move to a state or country besides the one you currently live in, where would you move and why?
  20. Do you push the elevator button more than once? Do you really believe it makes the elevator faster?
  21. Would you rather be a worried genius or a joyful simpleton?
  22. Why are you, you?
  23. Have you been the kind of friend you want as a friend?
  24. Which is worse, when a good friend moves away, or losing touch with a good friend who lives right near you?
  25. What are you most grateful for?
  26. Would you rather lose all of your old memories, or never be able to make new ones?
  27. Is it possible to know the truth without challenging it first?
  28. Has your greatest fear ever come true?
  29. Do you remember that time 5 years ago when you were extremely upset? Does it really matter now?
  30. What is your happiest childhood memory? What makes it so special?
  31. At what time in your recent past have you felt most passionate and alive?
  32. If not now, then when?
  33. If you haven’t achieved it yet, what do you have to lose?
  34. Have you ever been with someone, said nothing, and walked away feeling like you just had the best conversation ever?
  35. Why do religions that support love cause so many wars?
  36. Is it possible to know, without a doubt, what is good and what is evil?
  37. If you just won a million dollars, would you quit your job?
  38. Would you rather have less work to do, or more work you actually enjoy doing?
  39. Do you feel like you’ve lived this day a hundred times before?
  40. When was the last time you marched into the dark with only the soft glow of an idea you strongly believed in?
  41. If you knew that everyone you know was going to die tomorrow, who would you visit today?
  42. Would you be willing to reduce your life expectancy by 10 years to become extremely attractive or famous?
  43. What is the difference between being alive and truly living?
  44. When is it time to stop calculating risk and rewards, and just go ahead and do what you know is right?
  45. If we learn from our mistakes, why are we always so afraid to make a mistake?
  46. What would you do differently if you knew nobody would judge you?
  47. When was the last time you noticed the sound of your own breathing?
  48. What do you love? Have any of your recent actions openly expressed this love?
  49. In 5 years from now, will you remember what you did yesterday? What about the day before that? Or the day before that?
  50. Decisions are being made right now. The question is: Are you making them for yourself, or are you letting others make them for you?

Sally forth and be free-mindedly writeful.

Hone, Hone, Hone Your Writing Craft, Gently on the Page

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I hate to be the one to break it to you, but solid writing skills don’t suddenly blossom overnight. Like any skill, it has to be learned before it can be mastered. Your writing ability is a weapon unique to you, no one else has your voice, but raw talent isn’t enough to help you wield this weapon effectively. First, it needs to be honed by patience, determination, experience, and the 10 practical tips listed below:

  1. WRITE EVERY DAYWriting is a muscle that needs to be exercised to get stronger. The blank page is that jogger’s path in the park you walk past everyday, the treadmill tucked in the corner of the garage, the exercise DVD that never quite found its way into the player, the dusty and unused gym membership you purchased at the beginning of the New Year. It’s the thing you need to show up for every day in order to get it to work for you.
  2. DON’T PROCRASTINATE – Sometimes you can be too smart for your own good. Knowing how difficult and painfully agonizing writing can be, you begin hearing the siren call of all the things that attempt to lure you away from planting your butt in a chair and committing words to the page. Sometimes you justify it with useful endeavors (housework, laundry, errands, and the like), other times you hide behind the white lie of doing research on the internet, or you flat out vegetate and do absolutely nothing at all. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with any of these activities…you simply don’t do them when it’s time to write.
  3. FIGHT THROUGH WRITER’S BLOCK – I’ve already addressed this in a previous post and since I’m not in the mood to repeat myself, you can read my thoughts on writer’s block, as well as some possible solutions to get you back into the flow here.
  4. LEARN FROM THE MASTERS – You may have noticed (head to the back of the class if you haven’t) that I continuously post lists featuring the thoughts, rules, and writing habits of famous authors. The reason should be obvious. They’ve been where you are now, handled what you’re currently struggling with…and they made it through. Who better to get advice from?  It’s like that old story:

    A man walks down the street, not paying attention where he’s going and falls into a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, “Hey you. Can you help me out?”  The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, “Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by, “Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?”  And the friend jumps in the hole. The man is dumbfounded, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

  5. FIND YOUR MUSEIf you haven’t found your muse yet, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. And woe betide the scribe who only seeks inspiration online. There’s a time to interweb—truth of the matter, you can overload your brain to the point of creative blockage or total shutdown—and a time to get back to basics by venturing out into the world to experience things that catch your attention and identify the things that motivate you to be creative.
  6. KILL YOUR DARLINGS – You love your stories to the point of looking at them through the eyes of a proud parent. Nothing wrong with that, you should be proud of them, they’re your creation, after all. But are they healthy? Are they at the right weight or are they unnecessarily bloated? Editing is the balance in your writing, the order in chaos, and it’s every bit as grueling as struggling through writer’s block. But once you master this, you’ll be amazed to discover how your writing style changes.
  7. ASK FOR FEEDBACK – Don’t even fix your mouth to ask me why. You know the reasons (you’ll become a better writer, writing will become a less painful process, blah-blah-blah). When you might need feedback is probably a better question to ask. Maybe you’ve just plotted out a story and want to run the idea past a family member or friend? Or perhaps you’re halfway through a draft and you’re unsure about the direction you’ve decided to take. Essentially, asking for feedback helps you break out of the isolation of writing and you’re no longer working in a vacuum, wondering whether or not you’re making yourself understood. Seeking feedback from others is taking positive, constructive steps to improve your own writing and develop as a writer. And develop a tough skin because not all of the feedback you get will be positive.
  8. READ, READ, READ – Stephen King once wrote, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” and if you don’t believe that and don’t like to read, you shouldn’t pursue writing as a profession. Reading good writing can teach you about structure, dialogue, pacing, plot, using symbols and imagery to convey a point. Reading expert writing gives you something to strive for, as well as keeping you humble; there will always be writers out there who are better than you, just accept it. You can even learn lessons from reading bad writing (Why doesn’t the dialogue flow? Why are scenes dragging? Why don’t i care about the characters?).
  9. STUDY THE RULES, THEN BREAK THEMLearning to be a more efficient writer can be a chore—it’s always daunting trying to adopt a new way of working. Stepping outside your comfort zone is never fun and rules generally tend to seem restrictive. But before you ask, “Why can’t I just pick and choose stuff that suits me?” consider that in order to be able to choose the bits to use and the parts to leave behind, it’s necessary to first learn all the rules before you can go cherry-picking through them.
  10. KEEP THE DEMONS AT BAY – That brainbox of yours is a Pandora’s Box jam-packed with surprises and miracles and as-yet-untapped genius…and the counterbalance to that are the demons that nurture that tortured writer’s spirit you possess. They feed on rejection and whisper fear and doubt in your ear, but since they’re a necessary evil, it’s important that you develop the ability to silence them while you’re writing. Nothing gets between you and your writing, especially not some crabs in a barrel mind demons.

Sally forth and be honing-your-craftly writeful.

Strong Roots Amongst The Clay

Clay Boy

Content Warning: This story contains violence and relationship abuse. Reader discretion is advised.

Once there was a kindly woman who was known all about the town as Lovely Lucy, not so much for her appearance, for she was endowed with plain features—which wasn’t a bad thing at all—but she was called this because she was arguably one of the sweetest people who ever walked the face of the planet. The only parts of her life that suffered were her love life and her inability to bear children.

One morning, Lucy went to market and spoke with the town sculptor, who made statues large and small, some for himself and some which he sold. Lucy hadn’t much money so she explained what she wanted to do and begged the sculptor to spare some clay and promised to pay him another day. The sculptor remembered how Lucy had brought soup and sat by his bedside when he had taken ill, and gladly gave her as much of his special clay as she could carry, free of charge.

Thanking the sculptor for his kindness, Lucy rushed home and began working on a life-sized statue of a boy, aged five. She made the little boy perfect. His reddish-brown features depicted an unblemished beauty and innocence such as no real boy had ever possessed. Although she had no skill at sculpting, she crafted the statue with such love that upon first glance it seemed to be a live boy standing still. She took great care in painting her little angel, making his eyes blue like the sky, his lips and cheeks pink like the sunset and his hair black as twilight.

Lucy marveled at her creation. She held his little clay hand, kissed his rosy cheek, and told him many times a day how much she loved him. When she went out to market, he was always in her mind, and she searched for presents for him – flat, smooth rocks for skipping across the lake, seashells for tooting like horns, and twigs and vines woven into a ball. She bartered her baked goods for hand-me-down children’s clothing and dressed him in different outfits each day. She even brought him a puppy from the neighbor’s litter for company while she was away.

Lucy was not able to manage the other part of her suffering as easily. For reasons unknown to anyone, she attracted the wrong sort of suitors and was far too kind of heart to dismiss them, despite their many transgressions against her. It pained the townsfolk to see a woman so intelligent in all other respects remain so foolish in love.

Her most recent failed relationship was with a traveler who suspected her of being unfaithful one day when she had gone out to market, so he barred her from her own house and drew obscene pictures of her and posted them about town. Lucy begged and pleaded with the traveler and after a week or so, he changed his opinion and let her back into her home to be reunited with her clay boy.

That evening the traveler fixed her dinner and his mouth was sweet with words of love and a possible reconciliation. Cautious at first, Lucy finally let her guard fall, assured that his feelings and his intentions were genuine. That was the last thing she remembered before she awoke the following afternoon, face down in her bedding. She felt groggy and her body ached in unspeakable places as though she had been violated. She knew she had been drugged.

Lucy reported the incident to the authorities. The traveler confronted her in public, on the road from the market, after the authorities questioned him. Wishing to avoid an argument, she simply turned to walk away. Her next waking recollection was being bound to a chair in her home. The traveler had struck her a cowardly blow to the back of the head. She was helpless as he raged against her with rock and branch. But fortune smiled upon her when a neighbor heard her cries of anguish and contacted the authorities. This time, he was imprisoned.

From his prison cell, the traveler requested an audience with Lucy, and she, having a forgiving nature, went to visit. And his tongue was dipped in honey and he spoke sweetness and there was yet again talk of a possible reconciliation, which she honestly considered.

All was calm and happy between Lucy and the traveler when he was once again a free man. They sat together and talked, went out to the seashore and walked, and the traveler also lavished attention on the clay boy. All seemed right with the world and Lucy’s life was as close to being perfect as it had ever been.

Until one night she bolted upright out of a sound sleep and found the traveler standing over her, eyes doused in rage.

“I know you play me for a fool!” He spat through gritted teeth. “I know you have taken a lover! Who is it? The neighbor? The sculptor? Tell me who it is or you will never know a moment’s peace ever again!”

When she did not answer, he stormed out of the room and Lucy hoped he would leave the house but instead the sound of his thunderous footsteps headed in the direction of her private room—the room where the clay boy lived.

“No!” she cried as she dashed from her bed.

In the private room, she found the traveler with the wood axe resting over one shoulder. He stood next to her perfect little boy.

“Shhh,” he said. “If you wake him up, I will have to kill him.”

Lucy hadn’t a clue what to do so she started begging for the statue’s life, whispering as not to anger the traveler.

“What can I do?” she kept asking him. “What can I do to make this right?”

The traveler commanded her to her knees and she did this without a second thought. “Down on all fours.” And she complied. Then he made her crawl from the room backward, back into her bedroom.

“Now, on your knees,” he said, closing the door behind him. “Close your eyes and smile.” She was nervous, of course, but she obeyed. The next thing she felt was the ax handle as it smashed into her mouth, shattering her front teeth.

“Your life is mine! Your sad statue is mine! You both will cease to exist if I so wish it!” the traveler ranted.

She felt his foot on her shoulder, pushing her over, toppling her flat on her back. She wanted to look at him but was afraid, so she squeezed her eyes shut as he straddled her and beat her. Her head swam with pain, but Lucy knew she couldn’t scream for fear of this madman destroying her little boy, so she took the beating until she passed out.

Lucy dreamed that she was an eagle soaring through clouds misted with morning dew above a river where children frolicked and although she was too high to hear the sounds of their tiny voices, she knew they were happy and having fun. But something tugged at her tail feathers like a dragging weight, pulling her back down to a place she did not want to go, a place of pain and sorrow—

When she woke up, regaining consciousness piece by piece, she was surrounded by the sharp claws of searing pain that pawed at her like a hungry animal. As her mind struggled for clarity she wondered where she was. In her bed? But how did she get there?

All around, the walls were covered in blood, so much blood. Too much to be her own. Then she saw the bits and pieces. Parts that belonged at one time to a whole, red soaked clumps of the remnants of the traveler. Divided from one another and from life itself by the wood ax buried in the man’s severed head.

She looked at her hands. Had she done this terrible thing? Then she heard a voice, tiny tingly, that chirped in song, “Not to worry, not to fear, everything is fine, Mama, I am here.”

She stared at a living boy whose eyes were blue as the sky, cheeks the color of the sunset and hair as black as twilight.

He hugged her neck and kissed her cheek and whispered, “I love you, too.”

About Strong Roots Amongst the Clay: As a kid I never had much interest in fairy tales. In fact, I hated them. My mother told me that someone had given her a book about Squanto, also known as Tisquantum—the Native American of the Patuxet tribe who assisted the Pilgrims after their first winter in the New World—thinking it was a book of fairy tales. And where Mother Goose and The Brothers Grimm failed to put me at rest at night, the adventures of Squanto did the job nicely.

And I wouldn’t fully appreciate the cultural richness and power of fairy tales until revisiting them in the 1980’s. For the longest time I searched for something to spark an idea for a fairy tale story that I probably would never bother writing—there’s a difference between the wanting of a thing and the doing of a thing.

Then one day a violent true story was relayed to me by a coworker at a retail job that I absolutely hated (the job, not the coworker) and the first thought that popped into my mind—after showing proper concern for my coworker, of course—was to incorporate elements of her story (with her consent, naturally) to give my fairy tale story a spin.

At the time I wrote the story, I wasn’t a fan of the fairy tale narration. I didn’t like reading it and I didn’t like writing it. I’m still not a big fan of a lot of the story’s voice,  but finally sitting down and writing a fairy tale piece taught me appreciation of it.

I’m still not sure if I like the ending or not. There’s a fine line between chilling and cheesy and I’m not sure which side I’m on.

Tiny Stories: Aeton and Ioasephyn

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

Minds Eye

Aeton was made for Ioasephyn, and she for him, of this there was never any doubt. Formed during The Great Making and united in an unbreakable union when the world was in its infancy, the couple consummated their love as the molten planet cooled. Theirs was the first love and the fulcrum on which all love that followed would be balanced.

In the days before there were others, Aeton and Ioasephyn relaxed in fields of spun gold and stared upward, watching as the void caught fire, pinprick flames burst into life throughout the inky black and became stars. As the landmasses grew restless and pulled away from one another, separating the waters into greater and lesser portions, the pair frolicked while the planet went through its growing pains.

When others came, some as a byproduct of their union, and the rest from elsewhere, they watched as gatherings became villages became towns became cities, and the overpopulated cities became nations. There were those who sought to rule these nations, some successfully, others less so. Aeton and Ioasephyn had seen the noblest of endeavors corrupted by pettiness, jealousy, and greed and wished to separate themselves from the inevitable outcomes.

Time passed for everyone but the young lovers. Their children grew older, as did friends. Not all were accepting of the fact, so they vanished from the daily workings of societies, and only visited occasionally when curiosity got the better of them.

One such visit proved disastrous for Ioasephyn when someone in a new city recognized her. She thought enough time had passed and the world had forgotten them. How could she have known that she and Aeton had become the stuff of legend? A legend planted in the soil of truth, watered by myth in each retelling until it sprouted the belief that their blood, the liquid of pure first love, granted eternal life.

They surrounded her, the entire city did, and forced her into a prison until they consulted with an elder on the precise details of the ritual needed to extract the blood for the immortality elixir.

Aeton was on the opposite side of the world when he felt Ioasephyn’s fear tug at his heart. He pleaded with the moon to create a tide that would carry him to his true love’s side. It obliged and he rode the waters day and night without rest until he arrived at the city that held her.

Without delay, he met with the officials who held the love of his life and attempted to reason with them. With a father’s patience, he listened to their wild tales and struggled to dispel the myths. He told them the truth in the Voice of Authority, but they paid no heed and took him prisoner as well.

The legend warned that the couple’s invincible power was only focused in their union, so the jailers locked Aeton and Ioasephyn in cages separated far enough apart so they could not touch. Upon seeing one another, the lovers wept for they knew their demise would soon come. But they were not angry, instead, they pitied those who were unable to see the world through their eyes. The love they declared for one another stood the test of the sometimes wondrous, sometimes terrifying times they lived through, and it would survive this as well.

Though they accepted their fates, Aeton couldn’t bear the thought of Ioasephyn not existing, so he hid her away somewhere no one would ever think to find her. He hid her in plain sight, tucked away in the corner of the mind’s eye of everyone in existence. He spoke the words of the incantation in his native tongue, acquired at the dawn of language when words contained magic.

Unbeknownst to Aeton, Ioasephyn had done the same to him. They truly were of one mind.

So now they lived where visionaries and dreamers created and though they often tended to their own affairs, sometimes they could be glimpsed frolicking on the cusp of thoughts or relaxing in fields of gossamer daydreams, staring upward and watching as the void caught fire, pinprick flames burst into life throughout the inky black to become brand new ideas and art.

 

Swing Away, Merrill…Even If Every Editor Rejects Your Best Work

 

Swing away merrill

“Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” — Newt Gingrich

Recently, I chatted with a fellow writer in dire need of commiseration. She slaved over a story for nearly two years, rewriting draft after draft following feedback from writer friends and polishing and refining it until she was not only happy with it but considered it her best work to date. And she wasn’t wrong. It’s a pretty damn solid story.

When it was old enough, she released the story from the nest and let it fly to her targeted list of the publishing houses a story of this type was properly suited for. It wasn’t her first time at the rodeo, so she knew precisely what she was doing.

Skip ahead past the anxiety-filled months of the story crossing the desks of slush readers and editors to the point of contact, only to discover that her baby, the best story she’d ever produced, had been rejected by everyone on her list. Majors and minors alike. Which, of course, raised the question:

What does a writer do when they’ve put their all into a story and no one wants it?

The answer is obvious, and I’m sure you’re already thinking it before you’ve read it here:

You put your best, unwanted story away for later use, and you start writing again. Instead of moping and getting down on yourself and allowing them pesky writing demons to take up valuable real estate in your head, start your next project. And it doesn’t have to be some laboriously over-complicated piece. If you’ve got something easy-breezy on the back burner, something you can bang out relatively quickly, why not give it a go? A sort of cleansing of the palate before your next magnum opus—and there will be another magnum opus, trust me on this.

My old man was a fountain of homespun wisdom and one of his favorites was:

“Nothing beats failure like a try.”

And he was right. Perseverance trumps rejection. That’s the advice I gave my friend and that’s the advice I’m giving you. Since she’s a diehard Mets fan—a trait she shares with my mother—I tried delivering it with my best baseball analogy:

When you submit your work, you’re like a hitter crowding the plate in order to have a better swing at pitches on the outside half of the plate. Rejection slips are the brushback pitches, fastballs coming at you high and inside, designed to intimidate and force you away from the plate. If they make you quit the game, you didn’t really come to the stadium to play ball. And sometimes opportunity also comes at you high and tight, so—to quote M. Night Shyamalan’s movie, “Signs”—Swing away, Merrill. Merrill, swing away.

Of course, she laughed at this because she knows I don’t know squat about baseball and my analogy stunk, but it lifted her spirit, so despite looking like an idiot, job well done, I’d say.

Well, it’s half past wrap-up time, but you know me, as long as there are famous authors to quote, I never travel alone. They’ll take the mic in a second and talk to you a bit about rejection—sans the baseball references, I promise. Until next time…

Sally forth and be swinging-at-the-pitches-ly writeful, my friend.

charles-bukowski-hulton-getty

“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.” — Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“Was I bitter? Absolutely. Hurt? You bet your sweet ass I was hurt. Who doesn’t feel a part of their heart break at rejection. You ask yourself every question you can think of, what, why, how come, and then your sadness turns to anger. That’s my favorite part. It drives me, feeds me, and makes one hell of a story.” — Jennifer Salaiz

henri-j-m-nouwen

“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” — Henri J.M. Nouwen

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” — Sylvia Plath

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” — Ray Bradbury

Related articles:

Taking It On The Chin: The Graceful Art Of Accepting Rejection

It Ain’t Impossible Once Somebody Gets It Done

Wanna Succeed as a Writer? Buddy Up to Failure, it’s the Best Friendship You’ll Ever Make

You’re Where You Are Because of Who You Are (but that ain’t necessarily a bad thing)

Tiny Stories: The Wooden Cup

Popular belief has it that the universe is comprised of atoms. In reality, the universe is actually made up of…

For the want of a meal, I have committed heinous crimes.

No pride or shame attached to the deeds. Eating is a necessity and needs must when the devil drives and hunger calls. The irony? Now I am permitted to dine on any foodstuff my heart desires. I decline, of course. I have no need for reminders of the pleasures of existence. Starvation is the repast I will take to my grave.

I am urged to repent and give myself wholly to my maker. This will not happen by a long chalk. Religion is that ever-elusive thing that cannot find purchase upon the coral reef of my soul. Mine is a spirit unmoved by any deity, higher or lower. The only salvation made available to me when I confront my ultimate fate is to allow oblivion to enfold me within her inky embrace.

“I seek no holy counsel from a curate,” I inform my jailors. “I wish to spend my last hours in solitude.”

This request is ignored.

A female visitor, not a member of the clergy to my knowledge, is ushered into my cell. Her face—beautiful, though not for her features—is unfamiliar to me, but the light in her eyes and the gentle warmth radiating from her tell me all I need to know. She is no threat.

She says nothing as she sits on the far corner of my bedding, cradling a cup hewn from wood in her delicate hands. I do not profess to be a learned man but I know my letters and the shapes carved into the sides of the cup are of no language written today.

Smiling, she offers the cup and makes a motion suggesting that I drink. For the life of me—a peculiar turn of phrase considering my position—I cannot explain why I accept the cup or why at her urging I touch its brim to my lips but in my grasp, this simple wooden vessel is heavy with importance, rich with history, and my will, while I am in contact with it, is no longer my own.

The cup is filled with a liquid that after one sip I somehow know to be the tears belonging to the kin of my victims, shed from pain and loss, anger and grief. There are even tears of empathy, which I believe come from this woman, herself. And when those collected salted drops greet my lips the flavor is replete, not with revenge, but with the surprising splendor of the bittersweet serenity of a loving quiet purpose and a hint of forgiveness.

I drink and drink until there is no more and am momentarily reluctant to release the cup.

Purpose fulfilled, the silent woman, still proffering that unnaturally kind smile, is escorted from my chamber. Her simple and bizarre act of sharing those tears sparks an ember within me, a dormant faith I had no inkling existed, and now I know sorrow and regret for the things that I have done. I am also granted a glimpse of the path of amendment, redemption, and peace I shall not live to follow.

Unskilled in the workings of asking for and receiving mercy and forgiveness, am I and for this reason, I fear the gates of the reward which exist beyond this all too limited flesh will undoubtedly deny me entrance. But waste not your prayers on my unworthy soul, for by the time you come to read this missive, I shall no longer be.

Oblivion is to be my final destination after all.

Taking It On The Chin: The Graceful Art Of Accepting Rejection

“Was I bitter? Absolutely. Hurt? You bet your sweet ass I was hurt. Who doesn’t feel a part of their heart break at rejection. You ask yourself every question you can think of, what, why, how come, and then your sadness turns to anger. That’s my favorite part. It drives me, feeds me, and makes one hell of a story.” ― Jennifer Salaiz

Rejection is akin to getting sucker-punched in the gut and, as a writer, you know this because you’ve undoubtedly experienced it in one form or another. We all have. Even with this blog, as harmless as it is, I sometimes receive comments that take issue with or flat-out reject things I’ve posted (hey, it happens, and you can’t fault people for having opinions that differ from your own).

While it’s no big secret that we all seek acceptance, rejection—impossible to avoid once your work steps out of the For-Your-Eyes-Only comfort zone and into the hands of the reading public—is an important part of your journey if your intention is to develop as a person and grow as a writer.

After you’ve gone through your initial grieving period (don’t deny or bury your feelings because that’s just not healthy), try these suggestions on for size to help you cope during the initial rejection rough patch:

1. Take yourself out of the equation

Your written piece is your baby, forever tethered to you by an unseen and intangible umbilical cord, and although it will always be a part of you, when someone disapproves of your work, they’re not necessarily rejecting you, the person.

Yes, I’m well aware it’s impossible to completely divorce yourself from something you’ve created. Especially when that sly critter Self-Doubt sidles up beside you and makes you question if there’s something wrong with you or your talent. But instead of taking this to heart and allowing it to consume you, you need to adjust your thinking.

When your work is rejected it’s usually more a reflection of the viewpoint, needs, or requirements of the person making the decision. The thoughts in your work may not align themselves with the thoughts of the target audience, which doesn’t necessarily make it bad, it’s simply not a piece that fits into their jigsaw puzzle.

Of course, if they offer you a reason why your work was rejected, you shouldn’t rush to dismiss it. Take a step back, look at the critique objectively, and if it has merit, consider incorporating it into your next draft.

2. Anticipate rejection

It’s coming whether you like it or not, so why not bake yourself a big ole Bundt cake, put the kettle on, and have yourself a little nosh when it arrives.

When writing, if you expect rejection, what it should do is make you up your game by challenging you to raise the yardstick, push the envelope and send your best work out into the world. And before you mistake my meaning, I’m not asking you to get down on your work and take the negative view that your writing isn’t good enough and never will be. I just want you to adjust your mental outlook. It’s like the saying goes, “Hope for the best, expect the worst.” It cuts down on the disappointment that may come later on.

Also, don’t let a verbal or written rejection kill your drive and lead you down the path of procrastination. Use it to become a better, stronger writer.

3. Stay focused

You can’t control your peers, society, or the world at large, so why not concentrate on your own thoughts, feelings, actions, and behaviors? Just because you’re not gifted with the inhuman ability to alter reality, doesn’t mean you’re powerless to alter your personal reality. By turning your focus inward, you acknowledge what you want and realize you have the power to set events in motion to achieve your goals.

How does this apply to rejection? You may be able to avoid the downward spiral of self-doubt by accepting there will always be cynics who are entitled to their opinions, be they informed or otherwise, and said opinions do not—and I repeat do not—have power over you. Instead of focusing on their negativity, turn your attention to what you can control, apply what you’ve learned from their comments, and move forward to produce more powerful work.

4. Spot the merit in rejection

I know I’ve taken an “it’s them, not you” approach in this post but honestly, not all rejection is unfounded. We’ve all produced work that exists on different levels. Some writings strike the right chord with the majority of your audience and others miss the mark by scant inches and even a country mile. This is when you let slip your inner critic and examine your work for uninspiring ideas, a poor approach, confusing views, unclear writing, passive voice, etc.

It also helps to learn to self-question, which is far and away different from self-doubt. Turning detective and analyzing why the editor in question didn’t accept the story, what were they looking for and what you could have done differently to meet their needs, may help you decipher learning points of which you were previously unaware.

A word of caution: Unless you have a personal connection with an editor or publisher, I would advise against contacting them directly to ask why your work was rejected. While you may see it as a means to improve your craft, your intent may be misconstrued. You never want to gain the reputation of being that writer. Or, perhaps you do. In that case, have at it. Who am I to tell you what to do?

5. Understand that rejection is growth

You’ve heard the saying, “One step forward, two steps back,” and you might believe receiving a rejection is taking those two soul-crushing backward steps, but you, my friend, are absolutely 100% incorrect. It’s the one step forward to understanding what people are looking for in the real world and how you can progress your writing to accomplish your objectives.

And if you have a piece of writing that has received more than a few rejections, instead of chucking it in the drawer of misfit tales, why not give it the once-over one more time, taking all the constructive comments into account while you do it. You just might find that you can spot and understand the weak points in your story’s structure and fortify them with the experience you’ve gained from learning how to cope with, deconstruct and master the lessons within the criticism you’ve received.

As I said from the start, you’re not the only person who’s dealt with rejection. Click this link to view some of the rejection letters received by bestselling authors. If they can handle it and press on, so can you.

Sally forth and be brush-your-shoulders-offingly writeful, my friend.