In the Clouds with Friday Fictioneers

For the past several weeks, photo prompts for the Friday Fictioneers have come from among the Fictioneers themselves. As beautiful and challenging as Madison Woods’ photos have always been, I must say the other Fictioneers have challenged us as well.

Last week was my photo, and I thank everyone who wrote fascinating, lovely, thrilling, and engaging stories and poems inspired by it. There were lots of wonderful collaborations.

And we have an equally intriguing photo for today–an unusual cloud formation. I’m moved by clouds myself and have taken hundreds of pictures of them over the Blue Ridge Mountains, but today’s photo has a Jupiter-esque quality about it. I even spotted the equivalent of the great red spot in the lower right of the formation.

So, Jupiter. Space. Space travel. Science Fiction. The result is my story, “For the World is Hollow.” The title alone should tell you which old sci-fi show inspired it as well. (Or you can just look at the tags.)

To read other Friday Fictioneers’ stories, click on the frog-like icon after the story, and, as always, if you don’t see the link above, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab at the top of the page and select the story from the drop-down list.

A Life-Changing Event

Thirty years ago today my world turned upside down. Two phone calls bracketed that beautiful late summer day. The first was at just after 0600 and woke me, so my answer was surly and aggravated. No one said anything, and I hung up. Almost twelve hours later, the second phone call came from my mother with the three words that echo in my head almost every day.

“Your Daddy’s dead.”

My life hasn’t been, couldn’t be the same after that, and suicide doesn’t just affect its perpetrator. It alters every family member’s trajectory. Some of us take acute vectors into too many drugs and too much alcohol until we get reeled back to earth. Some of us take it on as a burden we never discard. All of us take on the guilt. Well, unless, of course, you’re incapable of accepting responsibility for anything and blame everyone else, principally your own children.

Therapy is a blessing. Don’t ever hesitate to avail yourself of it. It’s life-saving. And that was my father’s final gift to me.

That first phone call of the day? That was my father. I checked the phone bill after his death. My mother and brother were still asleep, so he was the only one who could have made it. I also live with that every day; not just the cranky way I answered the phone but the fact the last person he chose to call was I.

Here is something I wrote for today, because writing is the only way I handle these things, and I thank you for indulging me.

For Dad

For someone born into privilege, he had a tough life—losing his father as an infant, being farmed out to cousins when his stepfather didn’t want children who weren’t his in the house, betrayal when he married young, going to war as a teenager, having his back broken in five places after World War II was over so he didn’t get a Purple Heart, being told he’d never walk again and defying every doctor who told him that, and much more. He did, however, get to live his dream—having a large, productive farm where he could raise his children and experiment with methods of farming at which the agriculture establishment scoffed.

My father was a brilliant man who could create things from metal and wood and coax amazing crop yields from the soil. He could make a dog or a horse do exactly what he wanted it to do but rarely could achieve the same with his children. We took after him too much for that to succeed. He was astounded by my writing and bragged to his friends I was a pilot. He professed to disdain my brother’s racing career but quietly made certain he had the funds to pursue it.

When you’re fifteen years old and your family has money so you don’t have to work, you resent the fact that you have to spend Saturday afternoons hauling a hay wagon or a silage cart. When you’re twenty-five years old and starting your own career, you appreciate that lesson in hard work.

When you’re a sixteen-year old volunteer for Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, you argue with your father over race. When you’re in college, you see him bring a black man he grew up with and his family to work for him when the man had no other place to go.

When you’re in college protesting a war, you argue with him, the career soldier, over that. Years later, someone tells you he stood alongside the Veterans of Foreign Wars to block American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell from being buried in a Nazi uniform in a national cemetery. And you remember he fought to make certain you had a right to protest, even though he might not agree with why you protested.

I have now been half my life without my father. I hear his voice, have heard his voice every day since he decided he could no longer be in this world. Sometimes I listen to it; many times I don’t, and those are usually the times I should have listened. I missed him particularly on the day I retired from the U.S. government, for he was the one who taught me duty and service and love of country and to question everything.

He was a simple and flawed man who wanted nothing more than to be a farmer and have a family to raise. I was privileged to be one of his children, and, though I sometimes resented the attention he gave troubled youth, I was never so proud when some of those young men he turned from a life of crime called after his death to tell us, “I would never be what I am today if not for Mr. Duncan.” He was far from a perfect human being, but he was a good and decent man and an unwavering father when it counted.

And I miss him still. Every day.

Spy Flash – Week 19

At least I’m doing better in posting a story for last week’s prompt before this week’s comes out. Again, I made a couple of false starts, but I decided to go back to an early Spy Flash story, which I left open-ended. Last week was a pre-quel of sorts; this is a sequel, even though it’s still a bit open-ended. I have an idea what I want to happen to the Ambassador in this story, so I’ll save it for another roll of the cubes.

That earlier story was “A Little Romance,” and it dealt with a tried and true piece of tradecraft using a “swallow” for a “honey trap.” You hire a woman (the swallow) to compromise an official you want to obtain information from or whom you want to coerce into doing something and take pictures of the encounter. This was a standard piece of Soviet tradecraft, and though the CIA would deny it would ever stoop to something so morally ambiguous, don’t believe it.

So, what happens after you set and trip the honey trap? That’s what you’ll find out in “Honor.”

Here’s the roll of the cubes for this week–a little blurry, but readable. 

Here’s what I saw: l. to r. – asleep/sleeping; raising a hand/speaking; out on a limb/ climbing a tree; shouting; knocking on a door; scales/balance/justice; scissors/ cutting; bee; headset/earphones/listening.

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, “Honor,” above, click on the Spy Flash tab at the top of the page and select it from the drop-down list. And if you want to participate in the challenge, write a story of any length using the objects and actions in the picture above, then post a link to your story on Jennie Coughlin’s blog.

A Gathering of Writers

Sorry to take so long to blog about this, but last week was full of events (none writing-related for me; I gave a book party for a friend’s latest book); and I was fighting off a cold. The one-day writers workshop sponsored by Press 53 and Prime Number Magazine in Winston-Salem was a jam-packed day with great instructors and the opportunity to mix and mingle with other writers–one of my favorite things to do.

Press 53 is a small press based in Winston-Salem, NC, and specializes in publishing collections of short stories and poetry. It is also the publisher of Prime Number Magazine, edited by my writer friend, Cliff Garstang. In just seven years of existence, Press 53 is set to release its 100th title some time in October. For the past few years, it has sponsored “A Gathering of Poets.” Prose writers demanded equal time and got it.

As with A Gathering of Poets, the first-ever Gathering of Writers aimed for 53 attendees. The actual count was in the forties, which was promising for a debut. The workshops offered each featured an author published by Press 53 as the instructor, and the topics covered fiction, nonfiction, and publishing. Each instructor gave his or her workshop twice, in the morning and in the afternoon, so you didn’t have to miss one you wanted. As it was, there was time for only four workshops, and six were offered. There’s always next year.

These were the offered workshops:

Creating Immediacy in Fiction, John McNally
Crafting Dialogue that Moves, Valerie Nieman
Going Vertical in Memoir: How to Move your Creative Nonfiction from Slush Pile to Publication Success, Tracy Crow
Creating the World in a Short Story, Clifford Garstang
Scene Construction: Building a Scene Layer by Layer, Susan Woodring
Your Path to Publication, Kim Wright

I signed up for McNally, Nieman, Garstang, and Wright’s workshops.

McNally provided a handout, “20 Things that Lessen Immediacy,” and went over each. Rather sobering to read through the list and see just how many of the 20 “offenses” I’m guilty of, but no more. Very eye-opening and enlightening but practical as well.

Nieman used screenplay excerpts to demonstrate how dialogue in a non-screenplay should read, but the fun part was these were movies we were all familiar with; and workshop participants got to “act out” the dialogue by reading it aloud. Then, we had a short dialogue exercise to write based on a prompt. The prompt was a snippet of a real conversation Nieman had overheard. A lot of fun and very helpful.

Wright, who has been published by a Big Six press, a small press, and self-published gave us the pro’s and con’s of each type of publishing. It was refreshing to hear someone be honest about each type, rather than being all rah-rah Big Six and boo self-publishing. Wright was careful to balance the presentation without showing any favoritism for one form or the other, but she was able to provide good information to help you choose which version might be appropriate for your work. We ended with an exercise where we paired up and described our current works to each other; then, the other person had to give an elevator pitch of your work. Also great fun and showed us just what is important for an effective pitch.

Garstang’s workshop I had seen bits and pieces of before, but as a whole it was a workshop that offered just the practical information with very little fluff. Key to the presentation: Write what you don’t know from the basis of what you do know, and show AND tell. Of course, it was more in-depth that than, and Garstang provided specific references from other writers’ works to illustrate his points. And we left not only with a reading list but suggested exercises as well.

Between the workshops and at lunch, we all had the opportunity to meet each other and discuss writing. I could do that all day, every day. I came away with new Facebook friends, and after listening to those new friends talk about which literary magazines had recently published them, I realized I hadn’t been living up to my resolution to submit more work. Though that wasn’t really a workshop, it was an example to inspire me.

Sometimes the first of anything can be disappointing, but not this–well organized, well produced, and worth every dime spent. I can’t wait until next year’s Gathering of Writers.



A Special (For Me) Friday Fictioneers

The photo prompt for this week’s Friday Fictioneers is one I took this past Spring when I woke to the epitome of “The fog comes on little cat’s feet.” (For photo buffs, I took the photo on a Nikon Coolpix L110 set on “Landscape.”) I could hear the cattle but couldn’t see them, and since I was up early and the fog was a sound suppressor, the quiet really did make me feel as if I’d woken in another time.

Where I live now, even though I’m a born Virginian, I’m on the wrong side of the Civil War. It’s a place where, when I say “Civil War,” strangers feel obligated to speak up and correct me: “The War of Northern Aggression.” Well, bull… pucky. When a group of citizens from a country fight their own countrymen, it’s a civil war.

So, when I re-looked at this photo again to write something for Friday Fictioneers, I looked over the ridges and valleys and imaged the barriers that presented to an escaping slave. (Granted, slavery wasn’t as widespread in the Shenandoah Valley as it was among the planters of the Piedmont in Virginia, but it existed here.) To get to the famous Underground Railroad, a slave from the Valley would have to go north, probably staying in the mountains, go through a gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains, to a Quaker-settled area in what is now Loudoun County. From there, they’d be smuggled farther north into Maryland and Pennsylvania.

I know only in my intuition some Valley slaves probably tried the trek, and I’m sure it’s unknown how many made it and how many didn’t. I, however, wrote a story where someone did succeed, “Pillar of Salt in the Promised Land.”

The Underground Railroad had a specific “code” known to fleeing slaves to hide what brave men and women, on both sides, accomplished. “The Promised Land” was Canada, where many escaped slaves ended up. Some returned after Emancipation; some didn’t.

To read stories by other Friday Fictioneers, click on the frog-like image at the bottom of the story. I’m eager to see the stories written for my photo. If you don’t see the link on the title, “Pillar of Salt in the Promised Land” above, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab at the top of the page and select it from the drop-down menu.

Spy Flash – Week 18

Week 18 was last week, so I’m a little late. I spent the weekend at a writer’s conference (more about that tomorrow) in Winston-Salem, NC, so I’ll use that for an excuse. That and the teepee. (See below.)

Here’s the roll of the cubes for week 18:

Here’s what I saw: l. to r. – bee; the letter L; striking a match; fork in the road; teepee; digging; walking; crying/weeping; house/home.

There, dead center, is what threw me for days. Yes, a teepee.

I’m using these prompts to write espionage flash fiction, so how on earth was I going to connect that to spies?

Since one of the characters I write about was originally born in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, I even researched whether the Scythians, a tribe from the east that conquered most of what became Ukraine, had used yurts (large, well-furnished, collapsible tents moved from campsite to campsite), but I couldn’t confirm it to my satisfaction. (Turns out the Scythians may have been the origin of the Finnish sauna, but that’s another story.)

Then, after an unsuccessful attempt on Monday, I decided that wasn’t a teepee, but a tent. Hey, it’s all about how each person interprets the cubes after all.

The lesson here is sometimes we writers get hung up on a scene, a sentence, a word, which blocks everything else. Once we let go of the hang-up, creativity has room to grow.

This story, “Patience,” is a prequel of sorts to an earlier story, “Here, There be Dragons.”

If you don’t see the link on either title, click on the Spy Flash tab above and select them from the drop-down list. If you want to take the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge, use the photo above and write a story of any length, then post a link to it on Jennie Coughlin’s blog.


Interview, Part 2

To read the second part of Jan Bowman’s interview with me, click here. If you don’t see the link, click on the About Me tab above, and you’ll see the link there.

I always enjoy being interviewed by other writers, and Jan’s insightful questions were great.


Out of the Mouths of Babes – Sort of, Part 2

This is the conclusion of last week’s post on Pixar’s 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling. If you want to refresh yourself on the first 11, click here. Otherwise, read on.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Phenomenal Storytelling

12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, and fifth. Get the obvious out of your way. Surprise yourself.

I’m not certain I completely agree with this, unless it refers to the revision process. I don’t know that the first thing that comes to mind is the obvious or that the obvious is unacceptable. I do agree with “Surprise yourself.” If you let yourself be surprised by your writing, you could get something magical.

13. Give your characters opinions. Passive and malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poisonous to the audience.

Think back to the seemingly most passive character you’ve ever read. Jane Eyre, for example. A mousy, repressed, prim young woman who molded herself into compliance at the horrid school where her aunt sent her, we find she has definite opinions about Rochester and her life at Thornfield. Or Miss Marple. She always seems to sit placidly by while murder happens all around her, but when she lays out the evidence and fingers the murderer, she is almost vicious in her opinions about the suspects. Giving your characters opinions gives them depth, makes them real, because we’re all human. We have opinions. Just ask my friends.

14. Why must you tell this story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

I know the feeling of having something eat at you until you write it down. Sometimes the why isn’t clear until you write the story; then, it all becomes apparent. That’s a great feeling. At a recent panel on creativity, I mentioned how these two characters who are spies tapped me on the shoulder and told me to write about them. My stories about them feed off my sense of social justice, and that’s why I write them.

15. If you were your character in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

This isn’t the same as being in your character’s head. This is you, dropped in the middle of your story, but chances are the way you react is the way your character will react. The reader will believe that.

16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

Let’s face it, a story would be pretty dull unless the character had obstacles to overcome. We don’t ease through life, so why should our characters? Besides, stacking the odds against them is rather fun. And who says a character always has to succeed? That’s the one issue I had with Miss Marple–didn’t she ever make a mistake?

17. No work is wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on. It’ll come back around to be useful later.

It seems I let go and move on a lot, but it does usually come back around to be useful. It’s more than just saving every version of your story or novel. It’s being able to know when something’s not working. For me, it’s staring at the computer screen, unable to compose or revise. If I belabor it, it only becomes worse. Time to move on, but I know it’s waiting for me when I know the time is right.

18. You have to know yourself. The difference between doing your best and fussing over the story is testing, not refining.

“Fussing over the story” is an interesting concept, and it is a fine line between useful refinement and second-guessing every word. I’m definitely guilty of the latter, but as I’ve come to know myself as a writer, I’ve learned to recognize which side of the line I’m on.

19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

I’m sure you’ve been in the middle of a suspenseful story, the proverbial runaway wagon full of women and children headed for the cliff, and the writer doesn’t resolve it in a challenging way. Think of that season of the original TV show Dallas where Bobby Ewing was dead the entire season, but we find at the beginning of the next season it was all a dream. I know I felt cheated.

20. Exercise: Take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How’d you rearrange them into what you do like?

That would certainly be a tremendous exercise in creativity. Consider how many movies you’ve left thinking that you’d wasted your money. Now, think about how you’d rewrite them. I know I wish–and I suspect Disney does too–someone would have rearranged the building blocks of John Carter.

21. You gotta identify with your situation characters, can’t just write “cool.” What would make you act that way?

This is a corollary, I think, to number 15 above. If you have a character do something, you have to think about what would have to happen to make you do the same thing. Otherwise, the character has no depth, and the reader won’t be interested. When I had a character cross a moral line in a story, I did wonder what I would do if faced with the same situation. The result was no coincidence.

22. What’s the essence of your story, the most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

At a recent workshop I attended on creating a world in a short story, the instructor described how a writer he knew one time just wrote the dialogue for a story, no exposition, no character descriptions, just dialogue. That was the economical telling of it, and he went back and added exposition and description–only where it was needed. Maybe the essence of your story is a list of character traits, maybe a location. Whatever it is, recognize it as the infrastructure of a really great story.

So, there you have them. Twenty-two rules to make your writing phenomenal–and without going to work for Pixar. How will you incorporate them in your writing?

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Later this week, look for a post about the very first Press53 “Gathering of Writers,” a one-day intensive workshop in Winston-Salem, NC.

A More Challenging than Usual Friday Fictioneers?

This week’s photo was quite the challenge–as you’ll see when you read the story.

I grew up on a farm which had a lot of forest throughout it, and a walk through the woods revealed some very interesting, natural works of art: two different types of trees whose trunks had fused, trees that grew around or through abandoned farm equipment, a forgotten scythe, rusted almost away, which had been imbedded in a tree branch but which had been “carried” up as the tree grew. Many a bovine skeleton fired my imagination–and followed me in my dreams–back then.

So, this week’s picture made me smile before it stumped me, and then an idea came to me. Some might consider the story, “Thus Endeth the Lesson” blasphemy. Just relax. It’s fiction. Or is it the future?

If you don’t see the link in the story title in the paragraph above, hover your cursor over the Friday Fictioneers tab at the top of the page and select it from the drop-down menu.

To read other offerings (that’s foreshadowing my story, by the way) from Friday Fictioneers, click on the frog-like icon at the bottom of my story and enjoy the fruits of our fecund imaginations.

And I’m Interviewed…Again!

I’ve been pretty popular lately–three interviews in six weeks. Really, all that means is that I like to talk. My friends know that’s true.

This one, though, is special because it was conducted by a new writer friend, Jan Bowman, whom I met at Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. Not only were we in the Stretching Your Fiction class taught by Pinckney Benedict, but we were dorm-mates as well. And I tell you, this veteran of Tinker Mountain knows how to prepare for the week-long workshop: many varieties of wine and snacks so the evenings were, ahem, lively.

To read part one of the interview, click here or hover your cursor over the About Me tab above and click on the link there.