A Doorway to Friday Fictioneers

I normally post my Friday Fictioneers story on, well, Friday, because it ain’t Thursday Fictioneers. However, bright and early tomorrow I head to the airport for a weekend trip to New England to visit some old friends. I probably won’t get much writing done, but it’ll be fun.

After this weekend, the countdown to this year’s National Novel Writing Month begins, but in October I need to lock down that manuscript I had out to beta readers and get it ready to send off to my workshop instructor. Lots of nerves going on there. And I have two more Spy Flash stories to finish so I can get that next volume in a state to be edited and hopefully ready for publishing at the first of the year. In between all that will be Thanksgiving and Christmas. Oh, and a writing conference.

Yeah, retirements means sitting on your ass and doing nothing. Sure it does. Wouldn’t trade it for the world, or a job.

Friday Fictioneers LogoSo, for a long-time Whovian (Google it), today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt was just too tempting. Think of it not as fan faction but, rather, an homage with a twist. What else would you come up with after seeing the photo but a story about a door to nowhere, or maybe somewhere?

My story is “Time and Relative Dimension.” As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the top of the page, click on the tab for Friday Fictioneers, and select it from the drop-down list.

Defying a Ban

Today’s writing blog post crosses ever so slightly over into political commentary, so if you have qualms about my protesting the fact people want to ban books, you might want to skip this post.

Satanic Verses

Written work has probably been banned since the beginning of written communication. I’m sure some Cro-Magnon shaman who disagreed with the way a hunt was depicted on a cave wall forbad his or her tribe to view it. And, as it’s always been, forbidding someone from seeing something usually results in an overwhelming desire to see the forbidden thing.

Religion and political power always seem to raise their heads in these disputes. You can’t read this book because it goes against the Bible. Only if you’ve read the Old Testament do you appreciate that irony. People who look to the Bible as their moral guide in deciding which books you should and shouldn’t read conveniently overlook the fact that particular book is rife with rape, murder, infanticide, lust, political corruption, and incest among other distasteful things, which go largely unpunished. Governments have banned works–Stalin’s successors didn’t like the way Boris Pasternak portrayed the Soviet system and banned Doctor Zhivago; the Nazis held massive book-burnings designed to expunge the Reich of anything with a Jewish or Communist taint; Salman Rushdie had a fatwa issued against him by Islamic fundamentalists for The Satanic Verses.

Of course, Pasternak received a Nobel (for his poetry) two months after Doctor Zhivago was published outside the Soviet Union. The Nazis met their inevitable end in the spring of 1945. Rushdie, after being guarded in undisclosed locations for years, has a long (a very long) list of awards, including the Booker. All, as well as countless other examples, are testaments to the power of the written word and the fact people don’t like being told what they can and can’t read.

And lest you think this is a thing of the past or only occurs in regressive dictatorships, think again. A county in North Carolina recently banned 1952’s The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. Considered one of the best books about racial identity and prejudice, The Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953 and has been a mainstay on high school reading lists since. Just not in a particular county in North Carolina, where a school board member said, “I didn’t find any literary value.” (Translation: Our precious white boys and girls do not need to read about the problems with racial identity; it might make them tolerant.) After that county’s decision, sales of The Invisible Man shot up, for which, I’m sure, the Ellison estate is truly grateful.

When we write–at least when I do–we don’t think about whether or not our work will be banned by some religious prig or overbearing politician. Self-censoring is just as bad as government or church censorship. It inhibits our craft. Do my fingers hesitate over the f-word when I’m writing? No, because if I drop the f-bomb, it’s because it’s central to the character using it. We have to write the story that’s in us. Anything we do to alter that means it’s not the right story and that we’re not truly writers.

This last week of September is the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. Libraries around the country highlight books, which have been banned for various reasons, putting them on display and encouraging people to check them out. Librarians are quite often at the forefront of complaints about books, and it’s the courageous ones who stand up to the book-burners, whether literal or figurative. (Click here for a list of ALA’s most challenged books from 2000 – 2009. Some won’t surprise you; others will shock you.)

If you don’t want your child to read the Harry Potter series or R. L. Stine or Toni Morrison or Ralph Ellison, then don’t buy those books. Tell your child they’re not to be read. (Understand, though, that forbidding something makes it ever so much more desirable.) You’ll end up with an intellectually stunted child who won’t be able to handle the real world, but that’s your choice.

However, don’t tell me I can’t read them or that my child can’t read them. Is that limiting your First Amendment rights? No, because you’re free to opine all you want about what you find objectionable about a particular book, but you can’t force your narrow-minded opinion on others whose minds are open to knowledge.

There is no irony in the fact that the books people seek to ban are the ones which expand our knowledge, which challenge facts we shouldn’t accept on face value. Trust me, I never would have learned about the real facts of life (and not the confused mess my mother told me because she found sex disgusting) had one classmate not circulated a much-thumbed copy of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask. I never would have learned to question authority without Animal Farm or 1984. I never would have understood the horrors of war if not for The Red Badge of Courage or All’s Quiet on the Western Front. I never would have learned about the negative aspects of letting money rule your life if not for The Great Gatsby or Bonfire of the Vanities. I would have followed my family into intolerance had I not read To Kill a Mockingbird or, yes, The Invisible Man. And, I never would have learned about the dangers of banning books if I hadn’t read Fahrenheit 451. Somewhere in America, at some point, all those books I mentioned have been banned, and, thank goodness, those bans didn’t work.

Even now, when I hear some puritanical school board has banned a book, I want to read it. I want to know what they’re afraid of so I can emulate the author. Yes, that’s how I’ll know I’ve “made it” as a writer–when some troglodyte bans a book I’ve written.

Celebrate Banned Books Week–read a banned book in public and piss off a book-burner. You’ll feel better for it.

Fall Friday Fictioneers

Sunday, September 22, is the first day of fall. Fall! Fall? How did that happen, I mean, besides the obvious motion of the Milky Way, our Sun, and our planet? Wasn’t it just January?

Fall happens to be my favorite time of year. I like the crisp, cool air and the wonderful colors. I like the shift of light and the constellations predominant in the fall-to-winter sky. I love it when my BFF Orion returns. The season just seems to energize me physically as well as creatively. National Novel Writing Month comes up in the middle of fall, and I’ve never had a problem coming up with those 50,000 words.

Fall makes me nostalgic as well, remembering Thanksgiving and time spent with my Dad. When he was still in the Army, I counted the days until he came home for the holidays, and I had some disappointments when politics meant he got deployed to West Germany too often.

Friday Fictioneers LogoI think nostalgia came to mind when I saw today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt–a second-hand store, an out-of-date wedding dress, an elderly man. They led to the story, “Reminiscing,” something a little fluffier than I usually write. Yes, I can do fluff! As usual, if you can see the link on the story title, then scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

And a wish of happiness and love to Friday Fictioneers original founder, Madison Woods, for her wedding this weekend. Gotta love those happy endings.

Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

When you cultivate a group of writer friends and ask them to read and critique stories and manuscripts, an important obligation as a good writer friend is to reciprocate. So, when one writer friend who gave me excellent feedback on my work in progress asked me to do the same for hers, I jumped at the chance. I’d seen the first two chapters of her WIP in my last two workshops at Tinker Mountain and had been eager to read more.

I was so eager, in fact, when I picked up the MS yesterday morning, I didn’t put it down all day–which is why Monday’s post is happening on Tuesday. But it’s great when something lives up to your expectations. When my friend’s book gets published–and it will–this will be my first experience with the evolution of someone’s work other than my own, and it’s a humbling experience. Humbling, in that I felt honored she asked me to read it, that she values my opinion.

Here’s the thing. She doesn’t expect sycophantic raving about how good it is. (Trust me, though, it is that good.) She wants a writer’s eye and honest criticism, which she’ll get from me. Again, I got that from her, and I’ll return it in kind. And I’ll get a little thrill when I buy my copy, knowing I helped in some small way. So looking forward to that.

And new topic. I’ve been working on the next set of stories for Spy Flash 2. (In case you didn’t know it, last year I published a collection of my espionage short stories, Spy Flash. To read all about it, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Published Works tab, then click on Spy Flash from the drop-down list. You can click through to purchase it from Amazon.com, and, oh, by the way, if you buy the paperback, you can download the Kindle version for free. Commercial over.) One thing which has stood out for me is the way odd words unconsciously work their way into a story.

One story had an inordinate use of the word “just” and not the adjective, as in a “just cause,” but the adverb, as in “at this moment” or “in the immediate past.” Okay, one or two usages, maybe, but I found this usage in a couple of sentences per paragraph. I don’t remember typing them; it was as if they “just” appeared. Of course, that’s not the case. The word popped into my head–quite a few times, apparently–and I wrote it. In most cases, there was no need to substitute a better word; deleting “just” made the sentence stronger.

A few weeks ago, I had the same thing happen with the word “always.” Ack! Where are these crutch words coming from?

I suspect because I do a lot of “pressure writing,” i.e., meeting deadlines and word count goals I’ve mostly set for myself, they filter in, and I let that happen because subconsciously I know they’ll come out in the wash, or edit. What surprises me, though, is how often they show up.

And now I’ll bring this back around to the original topic. This is why having a group of writers who’ll critique you with honesty is important. They won’t let you get away with “just” and “always” or whatever crutch word creeps into your work. If you don’t have a group, find one or create one. Social media are great for this. Part of the joy of writer conferences is meeting and networking with many different types of writers from all over. Social media allow you to form critique groups without having to be face-to-face, and, even then, there’s FaceTime and Skype.

Don’t fear the critique. Embrace it. And watch out for those crutch words.

Friday Fictioneers and Icons

We use icons in our writing all the time, especially so when place is critical to the plot. A cozy mystery set in London, and a mention of Big Ben or the Tower of London is obligatory. What would a Cold War thriller be without a mention of The Berlin Wall or The Kremlin? Central Park is the venue of many a murder in a crime procedural set in New York City. I’m sure you can think of many others.

Mentioning an icon is the quick, easy way to put the reader into exactly where in your world the action takes place. Trust me, say “Central Park,” and the average reader knows exactly where the story takes place. Even if he or she has never been to New York City, a reader has seen enough pictures or TV shows to be able to place the locale.

Writers who invent new worlds or use more obscure locales have to do more description of place and setting so the reader can “see” it. Especially if you make up your own town or city, you have to provide just the right balance of back story to make the place believable.  For example, The Lord of the Rings trilogy or The Hobbit wouldn’t be the same without the vivid, rich descriptions of Middle Earth or Mordor. We need to see all those different kingdoms in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice books because they are just as crucial to the story as any of the characters. Striking that balance can be difficult, because you can bog the reader down in minutia.

Friday Fictioneers LogoThe photo prompt for this week’s Friday Fictioneers is one of those icons where just one glance at it, and you know exactly where you are. You may even know “when you are” by the type of picture or the other items in it. Juxtaposed as it was with the twelfth anniversary of September 11, 2001, it will likely evoke many emotionally charged 100-word stories this week. That’s a good thing, because we must never forget.

The picture prompted one of my rare forays into poetry, probably a good thing, the rarity, that is. We recently lost the great Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, and his poetry always had a strong sense of place, even for an American one generation removed from her Irish roots. His poems could put me in a peat bog, on a battlefield, in a thatched-roof hut, even though I’ve never seen those things with my own eyes. I’ve tried to do that in “The New Colossus.” As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tag, then select the story from the drop-down list.

Line Editing Blues

Well, not blues actually, but that caught your attention, didn’t it?

One of my beta readers for the novel I’ve been working on exclusively this summer not only sent comments back but a line-edit of the manuscript as well. And here’s the lesson learned: No matter how great an editor you are (and I have thirty-plus years’ experience editing other people), you cannot use yourself as your final editor. This beta reader didn’t find many typos (my bane), but she did find overuse of words, overextended dialogue, and over-explaining. However, those incidents of “overage” weren’t pervasive, just here and there, and I can make those fixes, easy-peasy.

Her general comments as well were good, and here’s another lesson. There is one suggestion she made, with which, right now, I disagree. It’s the merest hint of a new relationship for one of the characters at the very end of the work, and since I’m a sucker for happy endings (I didn’t get one), I don’t want to cut that. Don’t get me wrong. I respect this writer’s opinion, but for now I’m leaving it as is (maybe a little editing to make it even more subtle, though). I am, however, open to cutting it completely based on additional feedback.

When you’re open to feedback from others, especially people whose writing you respect and admire, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how their comments/edits improve your work. When I saw this beta reader’s line-edits, I smacked my forehead so often I may have given myself a concussion. They were obvious, so why didn’t I see them?

Duh, because it’s my work, and don’t you know my words are all gems?

Except when they aren’t. That’s why we’re word-blind for our own stuff. You can edit and revise, revise and edit, and then someone else still points out something you need to fix. These aren’t “happy to glad” edits; they tighten the work, they make the story more tense and intense, and they improve the overall product. I am forever grateful, and she and the other beta readers will be high on the list in the Acknowledgement section of the published work. When this novel gets published (I’m being positive, here), I know it will be in large part because these fellow writers helped make it publishable.

So, Indie authors, the next time you decry the use of professional editing and/or the use of beta readers because you think they’ll ruin your stellar work, think again. Let’s open our minds to the possibility they can make a good work brilliant.

September Friday Fictioneers

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh so mellow.

Some lyrics from one of my favorite songs, “Try to Remember,” from the great musical The Fantasticks. Except that life has been anything but slow and mellow because, hey, it’s September already. How did that happen?

However, fall is my favorite time of year, with the colors changing and the air cooling. From my deck the mountains are crisp and clear, and you can see why they’re named the “Blue Ridge.” Fall is a great time of year for writing, for creativity in general. It must be the colors or the change in the angle of light or the unrelenting march of the need to do holiday shopping. I shift from writing in my office to writing on my screened-in porch or my deck. The air is fresh, the ragweed is annoying, but there’s just something about change in the air which makes for great writing.

A little progress report on the novel draft I sent out to beta readers: I’ve got three sets of comments back, and there are no major gaps and gaffes, just some great line-edit suggestions and some plot-enhancement comments. I’ll get started on that next week, and then I’ll have a decent third draft to send to my workshop instructor for his opinion. Exciting stuff, and I have a really good feeling about this manuscript.

Friday Fictioneers LogoAs inspiring as the change of seasons can be, the photo prompt for Friday Fictioneers is downright rousing. One look and a lot of memories came back–packing up my grandmother’s knick-knacks from her apartment after she died. Because I lived in an apartment then a small townhouse, they stayed packed for almost forty years. When I moved into my new house, I had room for a curio cabinet, so I unwrapped them (great to read newspapers from 1973!), and they’re now on display in my guest room.

Each one has a story behind it–some were gifts from her husband, my stepgrandfather. Some she bought for herself. Some of them my brother and I gave her for birthdays or Christmas. I suspect the same is true of the tchotchkes in today’s photo prompt, which inspired me to write “Memory Lane.”

If you can’t see the link in the title in the paragraph above, scroll to the top of this page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.