Showing posts with label fiction writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction writing. Show all posts

12 September 2016

Father and Daughter Act

by David and Bridgid Dean

Part One: Father Knows Best

If I had to choose a few adjectives with which to describe my life, it might be these: fortunate…blessed…lucky…providential. It’s not that I haven’t had a few set-backs and trials along the way—I wouldn’t be human if that weren’t true, but I have a lot to be grateful for—I have Bridgid… my daughter.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for her siblings, too: older sister, Tanya, and younger brother, Julian. But, Bridgid and I, over the years, have forged a writing connection. I’ve shared a reading connection with all of them, but Bridgid evolved into a writer and that, as the Wizard says, “Is a horse of a different color.”

In order to properly train her for her chosen profession I’ve required that she read and edit nearly everything I’ve written over the past decade. This was not done, as some may suspect, because I am one of the cheapest SOB’s on the planet, but in order to provide depth to her appreciation of fine literature (mine) and round out her college education. The fact that her editorial eye virtually removed the element of chance in my story acceptance ratio is neither here nor there. I would have done her this fatherly kindness in any event. Plus, I did pay for that education. Now she’s gone and penned a novella.

Yes, for those of you who suspected this was going to be a shameless plug for mylatest non-selling novel, you were wrong. It’s a shameless plug for Bridgid’s book, The Girl In The Forest.

No, it’s not crime fiction like her old man pens, but it does contain intrigue, shady characters, and betrayal. Something we can all relate to. My daughter’s story is set in a world in which the border between reality and myth blurs and no one you meet is exactly whom they may appear to be. It’s fast-moving, readable, and features a very sympathetic heroine. As to how it came about, well, that’s a story I’ll leave for Bridgid to tell, as it’s as unique as the book she’s written. Oh, by the way, I finally returned the favor by helping to edit this, her first published work.

I also want to thank mighty Leigh Lundin for suggesting this post in the first place. Thanks, Leigh!



Part Two: When Life Serves You Lemons…

by Bridgid Dean

Bridgid Dean
Bridgid Dean
The idea behind The Girl in the Forest was born of a rather unfortunate event. In August of 2011, shortly after we were married, my husband and I had a tree fall on our house. Not a limb, and not a small tree, but a massive oak.

We were at a dinner party at my in-laws when it happened; when we drove around the corner and saw our little hundred year old house, half smushed, my Volvo buckled under a thousand pounds of oak, I could only laugh. A crazed, reality-is-standing-on-its-head kind of laugh.

My husband went inside and found the house full of gas. We waited in the back yard for the fire department to arrive, our cat Zelda looking from us, to the tree, to the house, as though asking, "Do you see this?"

After the fire department turned off the gas connection my husband drove us back to his parents' house. We spent the next ten weeks living in their guest room before we acknowledged that this process was going to take a really long time, and we'd better rent something. In the end it was almost a year before our house was fixed and we were able to return home.

Volvo
smushed
Those first two months were incredibly stressful, but things began to look up when we found our rental, the little cottage in the woods. We'd never lived outside of town before- we loved it!

Our landlord had a grand old home on what felt like hundreds of acres, with three rental cottages on the property. Ours was a five hundred square foot cottage surrounded by trees. It had a green metal roof, wisteria climbing the porch railings, and was so small as to be almost one room. We slept in a loft that looked out over the great room and the huge wood stove. As night fell you could sit on the porch and watch the sun set over the Blue Ridge Mountains, linger while the stars came out, then hurry inside when the coyotes started to howl.

The combination of natural beauty, isolation- and even something about the self-contained quality of a house that small- had me, before long, thinking about fairy tales. In so many of them, there is something magical about the cottage in the woods. I suddenly felt I was experiencing a bit of this first hand. Inspired by the surroundings, (and with the peace and quiet to really think!) I began to write the first draft of “The Girl in the Forest.”

This novella is a modern retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story, set it in a town not unlike Charlottesville, VA, where I currently live. The protagonist, Jolie, is new to the town, having moved there after her mother's death. She feels alienated and lonely, friendless at a crappy job, with only a cat for company. The recurring nightmares keep her from sleeping well, and she eventually gets fired from her job. At a bookstore she meets Jamie, a strange man with a past who secures her a job at his friend, Greta's, bakery. As Jolie starts to learn the ropes at this new job, the questions stack up quickly: What are Jamie and Greta planning? Who is Greta running from? And what is the creature that Jolie sees in her dream each night? And, perhaps most puzzling, why is Jolie the only one who can see the cottage in the woods?

It was not until I'd finished writing the fourth draft and handed it to my dad that I realized I'd written something of a Fantasy/Mystery crossover. You might think, after editing so many of my dad's stories, that a fact like this would not sneak up on me. Yet somehow it did, in the same way, I hope, that the inevitable conclusion to my story will sneak up on the unsuspecting readers. Like a coyote, or a wolf, or some other hungry creature, waiting in the shadows of the forest.



Thank you to Leigh Lundin and the SleuthSayers audience for the opportunity to tell my story-it's been a privilege!

27 August 2016

Hey Teach! Why do you do it? (aka Vegetables for Authors)

By Melodie Campbell

It all started in 1992.  I’d won a couple of crime fiction awards, and the local college came calling.
Did I want to come on faculty, and teach in the writing program?  Hell, yes!  (Pass the scotch.)

Over the years, I continued to teach fiction writing, but also picked up English Lit, Marketing (my degree) and a few odd ones, like Animation and Theatre.  Such is the life of an itinerant college prof.  (Pass the scotch.)

Twenty-four years later, I’m a full-time author.  Except for Wednesday nights, when I put on my mask, don a cape, and turn into SUPER TEACH!  (Okay, ‘Crazy Author Prof.’ Too much time alone at a keyboard can be scary.  Pass the scotch.)

Why do I do it?   As September lurks ever nearer, I decided to ask myself that question.  And give a completely honest answer.  Here goes:

1.  It’s not the Money
Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?  Part time profs in Canada are poorly paid.  I’m top rate, at $45 an hour.  I’m only paid for my time in the classroom (3 hours a week).  For every hour in the classroom, I spend at least two hours prepping and marking.  We don’t get paid for that.  At end of term, I spend several days evaluating manuscripts.  We don’t get paid for that either.  This means I am getting paid less than minimum wage.  So I’m not doing it for the money.

2.  It’s not all those Book Sales.
Years ago, an author gal more published than I was at the time said a peculiar thing to me:   “Aspiring writers don’t buy books.”

I found this alarming, but other authors since then have said the same.  They teach a workshop, and students beg for feedback on their manuscripts.  But they don’t buy the teacher’s books.  Not even one.  I find this bizarre, because I would want to see how the instructor practices what she preaches. 
Bemusement aside, I’m careful in my classes not to pressure students to buy my books.  They’ve paid money for the course, and that’s enough.

My point is:  if you think by teaching a course, you are going to get an avalanche of book sales, think again.

So why the heck do you do it, Mel?  That’s time you could invest in writing your own books…

3.  It takes me back to first principles
I teach all three terms.  Every four months, I am reminded about goal/motivation/conflict.  Three act structure.  Viewpoint rules.  Creating compelling characters.  Teaching Crafting a Novel forces me to constantly evaluate my own work, as I do my students’.  It’s like ‘vegetables for authors.’  In other words, good for me.

4.  It’s the People 
By far, the most valuable thing about teaching a night course year after year is it allows me to mix with people who would not normally be part of my crowd.  Adult students of all ages and backgrounds meet up in my classrooms, and many are delightful.  I’ve treasured the varied people I’ve met through the years, and keep in touch with many of them.

Getting to know people other than your own crowd (in my case, other writers) is extremely valuable for an author.  You’re not merely guessing how others different from you may think…you actually *know* people who are different.  This helps you create diverse characters in your fiction who come alive.

As well, you meet people from different professions…doctors, lawyers, salesmen and women, bank officers, government workers, labourers, grad students, Starbucks baristas, roofers, police, firefighters, chefs, paramedics.  I have my own list of people to call on, when I need to do research.

5.  It’s good for my Soul


I'm paying it forward.  Believe it or not, I didn't become an author in a vacuum.  I had two mentors along the way who believed in me.  Michael Crawley and Lou Allin - I hope you are having a fab time in the afterlife.  Hugs all around, when I get there.

Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons.  Some take it for college course credit.  Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes.  Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that, if only temporarily.  But many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  And when I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic.  There is no greater high.

No question, my life is richer through teaching fiction writing, even if my bank account is not.

You can help Melodie’s bank account by buying her humorous books, like The Goddaughter Caper.  This will keep her from writing dreary novels that will depress us all.  Pass the scotch.


On AMAZON



25 April 2016

Brief Encounters of the Story Kind

by Stephen Ross

Writing a book or a short story is like a relationship. You meet a pretty girl (you think of a cool idea for a plot). You discover the girl is super smart and intelligent (the idea has depth and resonance, and is compelling), and you become even more attracted to her. You start on page one (you ask her out), and there begins your relationship in earnest. Your first several dates go off without a hitch, and you make good progress on the first draft. The relationship grows and blossoms.

Without extending this metaphor into the realms of the surreal, you fall madly in love (you get into the zone of writing the story), and love (your writing) flows as poetically as a Shakespearean sonnet on a summer's day.

Pause for sighing. Ahhhh...

But, unlike in the real world, your relationship with your story is doomed to failure because, at some point, the relationship has to end. It must end. You can't keep writing the same story for the rest of your life. There has to be closure. We writers sometimes spend so much time with our creations, they are describable as significant others: loved and cherished, honored and obeyed, and breaking up can be hard to do.

Sometimes, the breakup might be mutually beneficial, especially when the story has been a hard write, and there's been a lot of bickering between you and it in the course of its telling. You know those stories, the ones with lots of long silent nights sat staring at each other, with nothing to say. And you're just mopping up the loose ends, to get it over with, so you can go your separate ways, with both hoping to survive the bitter separation.

Worse, still, is when you leave the story for another. And it sits there, alone, in the café of your soul, drinking endless cups of coffee waiting for your return. And when you do return (after your torrid affair with another story), it's never the same.

For most writers, writing is rewriting. I think only in movies (and in our dreams) does anyone start on page one, spend a couple of months working through to page 400, type in THE END, and then send the completed book off to a publisher (where, of course, it immediately sells and is immediately published)). The first draft is merely the gateway into the story. The real writing comes in the rewriting.

But rewriting can't last forever. How many times can you read over a story and refine it and polish it? Every time through you find something new to fiddle with and adjust: another adverb to throw out, another debatably redundant word or phrase to toss, another he said or she said that can be dropped, because it's quite obvious who is talking.

And every time you get to the end of a read over, you think, yeah, let's do this just one more time.

The best way to end a story is at the train station.


You're about to board the train (to continue on your journey), and your story is going to wave goodbye from the platform. You both know it can't go on, that you must part, that it's over. You're done. All that needs to be said has been said, and you both know it.

The encounter, albeit brief, has come to an end.

Your train departs.

You both wave goodbye.

Tears.

To actually go ahead and shunt this metaphor firmly into the realms of the surreal, your story then becomes your child.

It goes off on its own, and you have little or no more control over it. All you can do is sit back and watch as it grows and makes its way in the world.

Hopefully, it'll graduate from high school (i.e., sell and get published). Hopefully, at least, somebody might say some nice things about it. It might even get lucky and get nominated for an award; it might even win one.

It might even mature into an adult and get picked up by another medium: audio, film, theater, computer game (and who knows what else awaits us in the future). And it might even one day grow up to be considered something rather special: an outstanding story among its peers.

And one thing is absolutely for certain: no "mights "about it. Your story will outlive you. And long after you have gone, someone somewhere may still know of it, have a copy in his or her hand, and perceive a sense of the love that once bloomed.

Shakespeare has been dead for 400 years, and we can still feel the resonance of love in his writing:
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it...

Be seeing you.

P.S. The photo is a still from the 1945 movie Brief Encounter. If you've never seen it, give yourself a treat.

https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.author/
http://www.StephenRoss.net

22 January 2016

The Possiblities Are Endless

By Art Taylor

This week marked the start of the new semester at George Mason University, and except for an immediate snow delay Thursday and the cancellation of classes Friday (and potential syllabus reshuffling), all has been going well.

One of my classes this semester is a fiction workshop, and on the first day, I invited the students one by one to introduce themselves, to provide some background about their writing, and to say what they hoped to get out of the semester ahead in terms of honing their craft. Several of them mentioned various elements of fiction—character, plot, setting—as areas they'd like to focus on, but one student's response seemed particularly frustrated. She said that she simply had trouble finishing her stories.

I asked for clarification about that, since—to my mind—there were at least three different things she might be saying, specifically: 
  1.  I have trouble writing full drafts of stories.
  2.  I have trouble writing endings in particular.
  3.  I can write full drafts and get endings, but no matter how much I revise, the story on the page ever feels done, never seems good enough, never seems like it matches what I pictured in my head, etc. 
Turns out the answer was a little of all of that.

I assured her and the class that many writers have struggled with these same issues. Endings are indeed, for me, often the hardest parts of the story to write. And I'm a constant reviser—even after I've submitted a story for publication, I often keep tinkering with it—so I understand that sense of a story never feeling like it's entirely finished.

I've written elsewhere before—in other blog posts and interviews (so excuse me if you've heard it)—about a lesson I took from the work of sculptor Alberto Giacometti and specifically his Women of Venice series. Back when I worked at the North Carolina Museum of Art, we hosted an exhibition that included one of the sculptures (the series as a whole is pictured to the left), and I was fascinated not just by the artwork itself, the texture of it, the existential starkness of it, but also by the story of how Giacometti created the series. As I understood it, all of them were cast from the same mass of clay, clay which Giacometti worked and shaped and reworked and shaped until eventually it reached a form that he found suitable, at which point he called his brother in to make a cast of the "finished" product.

And then he began working and shaping that same clay again.

In the end, Giacometti ultimately created ten sculptures, each unique in its own way, each with a kinship, clearly, to her sisters, and each—here's the key—equally finished, perhaps equally perfect, as the next in the series.

Over the years, as I've thought and reflected on this anecdote (and hopefully not transmuted it in my own mind from the truth of it), it's become core to my own sense of process. Certainly we can and should keep searching for the best word, the best rhythm of a given sentence, the best flow of a paragraph, the best structure to a story, etc.—but after a point, we could keep working and reworking any choice we've made as writers and it might be tough to say with certainty which revision is better.

I'll likely bring up this story to my fiction workshop later in the semester, and as we embark on the revision section of the course, we'll study Raymond Carver's stories "The Bath" and "A Small Good Thing" in their various incarnations—the same story told in two dramatically different ways, and each with its own strengths and weakness, to the point that in the past when I've taught them, no class can agree which is better, which more finished or complete than the other.

It's not only the new workshop that has me thinking about this, but also a book that I've recently picked up. As I mentioned in my previous post here at SleuthSayers, I like to kick off a writing session by reading a little something about writing: craft essays, exercises, etc. Having finally completed Rules of Thumb, the book that had become a regular companion in that regard, I've just started browsing between two other books: Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (a rereading in that case) and Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which was recently recommended my way.

Though I'm only partway into the Queneau, I'm already fascinated by the project—which reminds me of the Giacometti anecdote but also takes things a step further. Exercises in Style presents a very short story about a man on a bus—an argument, and a chance encounter later the same day, the whole thing barely a half a page in length—and then retells that story 99 different times, determined in each case by certain approaches. "Notations" is the headline of the first version, which presents the story as fragmented notes. "Litotes" tells the story in understatements. "Retrograde" tells it backwards. "Metaphorically" tells it... well, you can see where this goes. In addition to underscoring the fact that there are many, many, perhaps innumerable ways to tell any story—and tell it well each time—Queaneau's project also reminds us that writing is or can be or should be fun, playful even, which is something that I sometimes forget, I'll admit. That's a lesson for my students as well there, some of whom might be as fretful as I often am about my chosen craft.

Queneau's Exercises also remind me of something else too, an idea inherent in all of this: Style is constructed out of a series of choices.

Yes, we hear folks talk about a writer's style as if it's a natural part of their being, or about a writer needing to find his or her own style, as if it's waiting there for each of us if we'll just look hard enough. And maybe after a while, each of us does have a set of approaches and mannerisms, etc. that become like second nature—a part of who we are as writers and instantly recognizable to readers too. But at the same time, I think it's worth recognizing and remembering that the development of that style reflects a series of preferences and opinions and decisions; and an awareness of those preferences, opinions, and decisions—of the impact of those choices—enhances our skills as writers.

At least I hope.

Maybe.

In any case, I'm enjoying the new book, and I'm curious if others have read it—and curious too about a number of other questions. How would you define your own style? Is style something that you have self-consciously cultivated? Do you shift styles depending on the project at hand? Would love to hear, of course, about others experiences!

10 February 2015

Everything That Rises

by David Dean

Flannery O'Connor once wrote a story titled, "Everything That Rises Must Converge".  Like most of her work it's brilliant.  The title alone I found remarkable and has always stuck in my mind.  There was something about those words.  The truth be told, even after reading the story, I still didn't understand the phrase; the choice of the title.  Generally happy in my ignorance, I was content to coast along for many, many years with only the occasional thought about it.  But still it bothered me--those words kept returning.

Georgia has been fortunate to have produced a number of notable writers, many of whom, most I would say, having been female.  First there's Margaret Mitchell of course, there's no getting around her.  You are not allowed to graduate high school in Georgia without at least knowing who wrote "Gone With The Wind".  That question is also included in college entry exams as per state law.  Carson McCullers, the most notable writer my hometown ever produced wrote "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter", "Ballad Of The Sad Café", "Member Of The Wedding", and a number of other great novels.  Of the male persuasion there is Erskine Caldwell, who penned "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre" amongst others.  And of more recent note, James Dickey, of "Deliverance" fame.  All of them formidable talents. 

Then there's Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964).


Flannery made her reputation during the 1950's and 60's predominantly with short stories.  She is one of the reasons that I learned to love them.  Afflicted by lupus, she lived a brief life, succumbing to the disease at 39 and after spending many of those years on a small farm near Milledgeville--notable for being the home of the state's largest psychiatric institution.  She never married, and beyond the occasional lecture at a nearby women's college, lived quietly and obscurely.  Though she certainly achieved a great deal of critical recognition during her lifetime, neither of her two novels became best-sellers.  I like to think she wouldn't have cared.

Like Margaret Mitchell's fictional heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, Ms. O'Connor was a Catholic and of Irish descent.  The more astute of you may have intuited this last from her name.  Also like Scarlett, she was born in the beautiful city of Savannah.  I have stood outside her family's townhouse, but was unable to go inside as it was not open to the public.  Which was a shame.  Beyond these things, Scarlett and Flannery could hardly have been more different.  I doubt Flannery would ever have said, "Fiddle-de-dee!"  I could be wrong.

If you've never read Ms. O'Connor's works, you may be in for a surprise.  This quiet, unpretentious, and devout woman will shock you with the violence, both interiorly, and often, exteriorly, of her characters.  Her stories are often driven by grotesque people, and seemingly depraved behavior.  No one is immune from the mortal upheaval of life, no matter their station, their opinion of themselves, their personal ambitions; their gifts, or their handicaps.  In "Revelation" a woman is devastated by a vision that reveals she may have to share paradise with those she considers undeserving.  A grandmother learns she is willing to trade the lives of her family in order to continue living in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find".  Then there's "Everything That Rises Must Converge", the tale of a mother/son bus ride to the YMCA that ends badly, but may result in wisdom, however unwelcome.  If a single theme could be said to run throughout her writings, it is that all are eligible for redemption: black and white, male and female, saint and criminal, and that everyone, however imperfectly, and sometimes violently, is searching desperately for it. 

Which brings me back to the beginning--what about that title?  Well, when you consider the body of O'Connor's work as the sum total of who she was, the answer may not be so surprising.  It refers to a work by the French priest, philosopher, and scientist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin titled "Omega Point".  Here is the pertinent quote: "Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love!  At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent.  For everything that rises must converge."  Remarkable words from a remarkable (and controversial) man, and embodied in a truly gifted writer. 

Father de Chardin (1881-1955) probably did not know that his theological and philosophical works were influencing a writer in rural Georgia.  On the other hand, most people at that time could not have told you who Fr. de Chardin was (As a side note: Fr. de Chardin was the model for Wm. Peter Blatty's Fr. Merrin in "The Exorcist").   Yet, he was one of those rare and luminous souls whose insight and brilliance have influenced millions of people, while the man himself has largely been forgotten.  Though a priest, he was also a scientist, and participated in the discovery and study of Peking Man.  And it was through his study of science, that he offered an alternative theory to the biblical origins of man--a theory that was controversial at the time and remains so.  *He posited that the  theory of evolution was entirely compatible with the Church's long-held belief that God created man; that, in fact, there was no conflict when one considered that God provided the essential spark to creation itself.  The actual mechanics leading to man's advent should not trouble us, as they were guided by our Creator.  Though many of Fr. de Chardin's teachings do remain unendorsed by the Church, and are suspect in many ways, it is worth noting that Pope Pius XII agreed that the theory of evolution was not incompatible with the Church's teachings, so long as it encompassed man as possessing a soul granted by God Himself, a view  repeated recently by Pope Francis.   

Less known, perhaps, was Fr. de Chardin's more subtle contribution in his capacity as theologian.  **Taking on a long-held belief that only the work of the religious (read priest, nuns, monks, etc...) contributed to the glorification of God, he held that all peoples, in their everyday endeavors, had it within their power to contribute to the sanctification of the world (Opus Dei--the boogeyman of "The Da Vinci Code" holds to this belief, as well--after all, Jesus was a carpenter).  In other words, he contended that by offering up their labors to God, anyone could serve in His glorification. In essence, that we should all be striving to move up, to rise up together..."For everything that rises must converge." 

It seems that Flannery O'Connor and Fr. de Chardin, each in their own way, did exactly that.

*Please note that this interpretation of Fr. de Chardin's theory is my own, and probably poorly represents his intentions.

**Again, I take full responsibility for whatever damage I do here. 

          









             
     


13 January 2015

Story Time

by David Dean

Because I'm bereft of useful ideas about writing, I thought I'd share this little story with you all.  It's written by me and titled "Awake".  Published by Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in it's July 2009 issue, it seems a suitable winter's tale.  Read at bed time it should either put you to sleep, or keep you awake (did you catch how I worked that in?).  I hope that you enjoy it while forgiving the uneven formatting. Correcting it appears to be beyond my skill set.

Awake
            The old man settled back into the tangled welter of sheets and blankets that comprised his bed and sighed.  From somewhere near his feet, his sigh was answered with a similar exhalation.  In the moonlight that leaked around the edges of the drawn curtains, he could just make out the silhouette of two large, pointed ears beneath which two concerned eyes glistened and watched.  Then, as if in agreement, man and dog grunted in unison and lay their heads down once more.

            For the old dog, sleep returned easily and she was soon snoring, but for her master, a lifetime of loss, regret, and now, loneliness, always awaited his return to consciousness and seized him fast in its talons.  To counter this, he had developed a process by which he could sooth his mind of its anxieties and eventually return to sleep.  This method consisted of a simple inventory of all the familiar and comforting sounds that his home and dog made within the overall silence of the greater night.  It always began with his companion.

            Her deep, steady breathing told him all was well, and this provided the first step towards his greater relaxation.  Keeping his own breathing regular while attempting to slow his heart rate at the same time, he allowed his mind to wander through his home of forty years seeking other familiar sounds that reassured him. 

First and foremost was the furnace.  During the winter months, the reliability of its great warming breath held no equal as his ideal of comfort and safety from the elements, and now he looked forward to that series of sounds that heralded its arousal.  The light, tap-tap-tap of the contracting water pipe he had so recently used warned him of the dropping temperature, even as the winds outside scampered with tiny claws across the wall next to his bed.  Then, as if on cue, he perceived the barely audible click of the thermostat signaling from its perch on the wall that the moment for action had arrived.  With pleasurable anticipation, the old man listened for the sounds that must follow. 

From within the greater darkness of the attached garage came the barely audible hiss of gas followed by, after what seemed a long and dangerous time, the business-like snap of the igniter.  Then, with a satisfying, distant roar, the flames were brought into being to warm his home.  In his mind’s eye he could picture the dancing light playing across the stained concrete floor of the garage.  And then, as the finale, the heater fan located beneath the staircase whirred into life as the warm air coming through the vent reached it to trigger its assistance in pushing the warmth up to the second floor.  The house now hummed contentedly to itself as it dispelled the tendrils of cold that had seeped silently through the walls.  The old man secured the blanket beneath his chin, even as his eyes began to dart and play beneath his eyelids.

As sleep began to reclaim him at last, the voices of his wife, Claire, and their children, called to him from somewhere not far away, though their actual figures were still withheld from him.  In the dusty living room, the French clock he had bought her as a gift in Europe began to chime the hour in light, tinkling notes and, like a hypnotist; he counted each one as they sank him deeper and deeper into the welcoming darkness. 

The old man, now decades younger, watched as his lovely young wife toweled off his children next to the pool beneath a benign sun in a peerless sky, and smiled contently.  The only sound that intruded was the reassuring crackle of expanding wood that signaled the triumph of the furnace over the nascent cold; the walls and door frames returning to their intended shapes and sizes.

Claire noticed him watching and returned his smile.  The kids were fussing about being called out of the water and though he could not hear their words; their body language was unmistakable.  A popping sound from somewhere to his left, startled him, and he found himself vaguely troubled as to its source and meaning, but loath to turn away from his wife and children even for a second.  Even so, Claire’s face wavered in his vision like the surface of a pond disturbed with a pebble. When it settled again into the plump-cheeked, grey-eyed features that he was familiar with, her expression had changed to one of concern, the laughing smile having vanished like the sun he could no longer feel nor see above him.  She approached him still carrying a dripping towel. The kids leapt soundlessly into the pool behind her back.

She spoke to him and he strained to hear her words, “Did you remember to lock the front door?” she whispered, the words seeming to come from a great distance.

He stared back at his wife in bereaved silence.  Was this all she had to say to him…her husband of fifty years; after so long a separation?  The mundanity of her words struck him to the heart and a sob caught in his throat that snatched him back to awareness. 

As he opened his eyes, his young wife’s words blew into tatters like an old cobweb, and he struggled to catch them before they vanished.  But the sound that seemed to have prompted them returned to him with terrifying clarity and he understood in that instant that it had come from one place and that place alone—the seventh step of the stairwell outside his bedroom door.  As the furnace switched off and its efforts faded into a long sigh, the house lapsed into the silence of a held breath. Then the dog began to growl…

08 November 2014

Comedy Writer Falls Right Over Cliff - Worst Typos EVER

By Melodie Campbell

Ever make a really bad typo?  I mean really bad.

My worst ever professional mistake was in an Annual Report for a one-hundred-million dollar corporation, when I was the director of marketing and communications.  Unfortunately, an innocent little ‘t’ went missing from the word ‘assets.’  The board was not amused by “This year, we experienced an increase in corporate asses.”

Recently, I found out what one little vowel can do to Rowena and the Dark Lord, book 2 in the Land’s End series.

Okay, REALLY uncool when you misspell the name of your own book on a guest blog.

Rowena and the Dark LARD is probably not the best way to get sales for a ‘Game of Thrones Lite’ fantasy series.

However, as I do write comedy, I'm thinking about a parody.
Is it okay to write a parody of your own book?

Draft one: Rowena and the Dark Lard

Synopsis 1: Rowena moves back to Land’s End and opens up a bakery.

Synopsis 2: Cedric’s use of dark magic goes totally out of control, and so does his appetite.

Synopsis 3: Thane and Rowena return to Land’s End and become pig farmers.

Synopsis 4: Rowena messes up another spell that causes all who look at her to turn into donuts.

Synopsis 5: Rowena kills off Nigella Lawson in a battle with pastry rollers, and assumes the role
of Prime Time Network Food Goddess <sic>.

Synopsis 6: Someone takes a totally justified whack at the author. End of series.

Postscript: Recently was quoted by someone as the author of ROWENA AND THE DORK LORD.  Trial for murder is pending.

Post postscript (where is a Latin scholar when you need one?):  Another contract out for the professional book tour company hired by my publisher last month, who, in all their advertising, inadvertently switched book 3 Rowena and the Viking Warlord to…wait for it…Viking Landlord.  Yup.  Obviously there will be hell to pay if you forget the rent. 

Have you some spectacular typos in your past?  Share them here!  I'll feel better.

16 September 2014

Rangitoto Island, etc.

by Stephen Ross

It's Friday. I'm reclining on an orange sofa in the lunch room (so orange in color, it's probably radioactive). I've got my iPhone open to Google Docs and my wireless keyboard Bluetoothed in. It's my lunch break and I'm trying to think of something to write about, as two of the ideas I had for this week's article have lately been written about.

And then I have a conversation with a friend about Machado de Assis' Dom Casmurro (an excellent read, by the way), and Rangitoto Island, which is on display through the lunch room window. And then I think maybe I should finally visit Rangitoto and research it for a possible short story setting (I've spent about 75% of my life living in Auckland City, and I've never once set sail across that short stretch of water to the island).

And then I'm commuting home. I'd love to be able to write my book/short stories on the bus on my morning and evening commutes, but (and I've tried), there are too many distractions, too many bumps, too many tight corners, and way too many passengers discussing their current critical concerns: "Have you ever been inside a mental institution?" (An actual question put to me from a girl with faraway eyes).


I'm one of those lucky writers who earn their entire living from writing. Words pay my bills. However, the writing of mystery fiction is only a supplemental part of that income. I have a day job in a software company as a technical writer. I write instruction manuals and technical guides (I'm one of those people for whom RTFM holds deep meaning and significance).

Monday to Friday, nine to five, I work at a desk in the middle of an open-plan office. I'm surrounded by software developers -- a form of wildlife that is congenitally noisy and borderline insane (the typical desk of a software developer is an anthropologist's field trip). In fact, I'm quite sure the IT field was invented so that eccentric people would have somewhere warm to gather and work. I just know one day I'm going to arrive at the office in the morning, step out of the elevator, and be passed in the hallway by someone on a unicycle. It's like holding down a job in P.G. Wodehouse's Drones Club.

I could not write fiction at that desk, not in the middle of all that commotion and chatter. And to even write tech documentation, I often have to counter the distraction by putting in earbuds, with industrial-strength construction-yard earmuffs over that, and crank up a LOUD ROCK Spotify playlist (I couldn't write fiction listening to that, either).

And therein hides one of the only real points of this little piece (thankfully, a theme has emerged): that there's a big difference between the mindset required for technical writing and that of fiction writing. They are two very different beasts.

There aren't many adjectives and adverbs used in technical documentation; the "voice" of tech writing is the driest voice in literature. It's the Sahara Desert (without the dunes). It lies somewhere between Walter Cronkite and the voice of HAL the computer (from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey). It is authoritative, wholly objective, direct, and emotionally void, or as a boss once intoned in my early days of tech writing: "You are the voice of God."

To write fiction, I need a completely different environment. Thankfully, at my house, I have a room of one's own. My office (study, writing room, studio, factory, boudoir, cave -- I never know what to call it) is a small room on the second floor, and it has a view of a lake (at least, where the sight of it isn't obscured by the houses across the street).

My writing desk is relatively small (about half the size of my desk at my day job) and has two computer monitors on it placed side by side. Configured like that, I can see six pages of a Microsoft Word document spread out at one time without scrolling (about 1400-1600 words). There is nothing on the off-white wall above the desk and the only thing that moves in the room (apart from me) is the second hand of my wristwatch. It is a distraction-free zone.

To write fiction, I need calmness. I need peace and quiet and zero interruptions to write about murder and mayhem, and it took me years to distill and quantify that state. I need to concentrate. I need to be totally IN the story.

If technical documentation is the voice of God, does that make crime fiction the voice of the Devil?

The only distraction I can't escape in my "room where I write", however, is the sound that pours in from outside in the street. Gentle reader, I live in Noise Zealand.

On weekends, when the sun comes up, New Zealanders go outside. They mow lawns, they whack weeds, they wash cars; they stand in their front yards, drink beer and discuss their current critical concerns. Their kids go abstract expressionistic and decorate the sidewalk with pink chalk, or restage the D-Day landings with lightsabers and soap bubbles, or simply stand in one spot and SCREAM.

To counter this racket on weekends, I'll wedge in my "Bullets" (my noise-reduction earplugs). My Bullet earplugs are rated at 30 decibels, which is enough to muffle and hide most sound. And yes, the soft foam plugs are shaped exactly like bullets (from a .45). Perfect for the crime writer! And if not earplugs, I'll put in my earbuds and go back to Spotify.

Rangitoto Island
Spotify, in case you don't know, is an online music service. You can custom-create playlists, selecting from around 20 million pieces of music, including classical, soundtracks, jazz, funk, and everything in pop from Abba to Zappa. I've created several playlists specifically for writing. One of these is labeled "Writing Background" and contains 20 hours of music, ranging in styles from drone and mediation "atmospheres", to soft lounge music (Disclaimer: I don't own shares in the Spotify company).

Writing at night is another country. After dark, certainly after about 10, the typical suburban New Zealander has gone indoors -- to do what, I don't really know, but it probably involves the Internet, YouTube, and cats. A Wi-Fi scan after dark (or on rainy afternoons) lights up with around 40 different signals, all within a hundred foot radius of my desk.

Natürlich, I write best at night.

Writing fiction is like meditation. Actually, it is meditation -- a creative meditation. If I'm in the zone, I can write. Knocked out of the zone, and I may as well go outside into my front yard and discuss my current critical concerns. With my mailbox. In the moonlight.

And that's the way it is.

Be seeing you.


https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ross.author