Round Three

I made it to the third and final round of the 2014 Short Story Challenge. My story, “Blood and Guts,” was second among the top five for the prompts: historical fiction, a farmer, saving a life. The story is based on how my father earned his bronze star in WWII. So, yay, me!

The annual Short Story Challenge started with hundreds of writers from all over the world. Round one winnowed that down to 200; round two leaves forty of us vying for ten prize packages, which include some writing software, a writer’s concierge service (still trying to figure that out), and an e-book publishing package. Oh, and money. The first place winner gets $1,500, second place $500, third place $250, and fourth place $100. Places five through ten get no money but a varying degree of other prizes.

The top five from my group of prompts consists of three women and two men, from Florida, Virginia, Nevada, Great Britain, and Denmark. The only thing I wish we could do is read the top five stories from each group after the announcement of the results. The synopses sound interesting. If you want to see all the results for round two, click here.

Round three is the corker: twenty-four hours to write a 1,500-word story based on a set of prompts I’ll get one minute before midnight on May 2. Doable, unless the prompt isn’t in my wheelhouse. If that’s the case, I may pull my first all-nighter since, well, a long time ago.


Not So Lost in Translation

On Sunday, I attended a wonderful literary gathering entitled, “The Translated World: Reading and Discussion on Art and Translation.” It featured eight local writers, each assigned to discuss how they use translation in their writing. Those writers were Angela Carter, Stan Galloway, Shannon Curtis, Cliff Garstang, Indigo Eriksen, Chad Gusler, Susan Facknitz, and Paul Somers. The session was moderated by Michael Trocchia and held in a wonderful used book and record store in Staunton, Virginia, named Black Swan.

If you’re thinking the obvious meaning of translation–translating from one language to another–that’s only part of it. In the arts, translation also means bringing something from one context to another or bringing something non-linguistic to the linguistic in symbolic form.

The basic definition of translate is to move from one place to another, and that did bring to mind an archaic use of the word translate I read in some old English mystery or the other. However, as several of the writers pointed out translation has no fixed meaning and is relational to the person doing the translating.

Before the session started a few of us were talking about translating but in that basic sense of rendering one language into another. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered translation as a multi-layered concept. Then, I realized that in my writing, I take historical events and “translate” them into fictional stories, keeping the history intact but  changing the context in which the events get perceived.

Hey, I’m not a rube after all.

Perhaps the most vivid depiction of translation was Indigo Eriksen’s presentation, wherein she read a poem she had written and a local student of Vietnamese decent played the music the poem evoked in her. Duyen Phan played a one-stringed Vietnamese instrument called a dan bau. Google it and watch a video of someone playing it because I can’t being to “translate” how it’s played except to say it’s extraordinary. Then, Eriksen and Phan changed the translation by having Phan play the music and Eriksen read a poem the music evoked.

Dan Bau

A dan bau


Phan concluded by playing well-known western music on the dan bau, and, again, words are paltry in attempting to describe the ethereal sounds this instrument made in such young hands. This was a perfect physical representation of what translation means in art.

And did I mention I love where I live where such great opportunities for expanding my literary knowledge exist?

Hooligans and Friday Fictioneers

I usually watch my grandkids, whom I fondly call The Hooligans, one day a week, but schedules change. This week I had them Wednesday and Friday. Wednesday was nice and sunny. Today was rainy, which meant all day inside with a five-year-old and a three-year-old (aka The Threenager, which is a three-year-old with the piss-poor attitude of a thirteen-year-old). The five-year-old knows that “Mamo writes books,” but today we had an interesting discussion about telling the truth (meaning I caught him in a small fib), which went something like this:

Me: I’m a writer. I can make things up.
Him: But, Mamo, when you make up things, that’s lying.
Me: Not when you’re a writer. You get to make things up.
Him: And it’s not lying?
Me: No, it’s telling stories, like the books we read.
Him: (very thoughtful) So, it’s like lying, but it’s okay to lie when you’re a writer.

Out of the mouths of babes.

Of course, he’s asked me to read him one of my stories, but that has to wait until he’s a little old. No, a lot older.

Friday Fictioneers LogoToday’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt is a little dark, as in underexposed, but my story, “Lift Every Voice,” is dark on purpose. As usual, if you don’t see the link in the title above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list. And if I’ve offended anyone religious, no apology offered: I’m an atheist who just got through all the Easter to-do without being unduly offended.

And the Revising Goes On and On and…

The writing project which has obsessed me for the past six weeks to two months is a rewrite/revision of the first book in a series I’ve planned entitled A Perfect Hatred. If you go to my brand new author website to the Works in Progress tab, you can read a synopsis of each book in the series.

This is a project I’ve worked on since 1997, when I happened to be in Oklahoma City when the trial for Timothy McVeigh ended in Denver. I became intrigued by the rabid hatred of this man, perhaps well-deserved for his horrific act, but I wondered if there were more to the story. As I researched, I saw that his story of how he came to be the Oklahoma City Bomber would be a great vehicle to discuss, through fiction, a political movement I’ve long believed to be a clear and present danger to the United States.

Of course, this draft novel started out as one book, a collection of widely disconnected scenes in reality. As I researched and added my fictional version of real events and provided the transitions between scenes, it swelled to nearly 200,000 words. I split it into two books, did more revising and more writing, and ended up with nearly half a million words over three books. Too much. Way, way too much.

A writer friend told me not to worry about it because people don’t have a concept of page numbers in e-books, but, no, it was way too bloated. About three years ago, after having another friend, who is a PhD candidate in English, read it, I began another revision, starting with book one, which I pared down to about 140,000 words. Overall among the three books, I probably cut nearly 300 pages.

And it still wasn’t enough.

I further split it into four books, against the advice of the same writer friend who said length doesn’t matter in an e-book. Then, I put it aside for a full year, didn’t look at any of the four books. Earlier this year, I decided it was time to start again with a total rewrite. Instead of importing the Word file of Book One into Scrivener and editing, I split the screen on my MacBook, with the Word file on one side and a brand new Scrivener file on the other, and I started rewriting. Or maybe just writing.

A few days in, and the results weren’t promising. I had pared and cut and condensed a lot, but I’d also expanded some scenes to the point where, when I reached a particular point in the story, I’d ended up adding more than a thousand words overall.

That didn’t bode well. I went back over what I’d added. No, that was necessary because it filled a hole, but I had to resolve to be a tad more vicious in killing my darlings. Now, at two chapters away from the end, I’ve cut whole chapters, reduced lengthy sections of expository dialogue to summaries, and even done the Virginia Woolf “and then time passed” thing. It’s probably going to come in at around 115,000 words. Better, but there may be room for more cutting.

The issue is real espionage involves a lot of researching, a lot of briefings, and a lot of meetings. Even in light of all its flaws in stretching the truth, the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” is a prime example of how it works: Sometimes it takes years, and the needed intelligence comes in by accident or coincidence. Alan Furst’s books are rich in historical detail as well as the painstaking process of being a spy and not getting caught. Some people don’t like getting bogged down in those details, but I feel you do real spies a disservice if you don’t show what it’s really like.

In real life you don’t go to M for a five-minute explanation of the mission over a glass of Scotch. You don’t go to Q for a collection of implausible gadgets. You get a data-dump. As one special forces guy I know once said to me, “You read every scrap of paper you get because you never know which bit of information will save your life.”

In my drive to make my spies authentic, I’m in the tough place of making that mundane information-gathering lifestyle interesting while conforming to the vague publication industry standard that 100,000-plus words are too much.

Give up? Never. Carry on? Of course. Books two, three, and four need to lose the bloat, too.

The Play’s The Thing–

This week I went to two performances of my one-act play, “Yo’ Momma,” which was one of six winners of Ampersand Arts “Bar Hopping” contest. The production was awesome, the actors were fantastic, and the director captured the essence of my story perfectly. I did a little drama in high school (over and above the usual adolescent angst), and this was a great reminder of how a good actor can find nuance in your words you never knew was there.

Here’s an example. The main thrust of the play is a conversation in a bar between an upwardly mobile white woman and a jive black dude. The way I wrote it was simple: Woman enters bar, sits at bar, man begins to speak. Here’s the way the actors portrayed it: Woman enters bar, sits at bar, man moves his stool closer, woman shifts purse to the arm opposite the man, woman turns so that mostly her back is to the man. Nuances, but they brought out the racial tension in the conversation far better than a thousand words could. I was blown away.

There were even subtle difference between their performance on Tuesday night and on Wednesday night, but I was excited about and proud of both. If you’re interested in seeing it, I was allowed to video it; click here to go to my Facebook Author Page. Look for the April 16 post.

Friday Fictioneers LogoThis week’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt was challenging, but I decided to go for the nuances and not be literal. First Contact stories are some of my favorite science fiction tropes, and, unlike Star Trek’s interpretation (a peaceful encounter with Vulcans), most first contacts end badly. “One Small Step” is my interpretation. As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.


New Author Web Site

For the past several years, I’ve combined my author website (which every social media advisor says an author must have) with my writing blog (another apparent must for a writer) right here on this site, Unexpected Paths. It worked well in the beginning, but now it’s a bit of a muddle. Hence, the decision to create a separate web page which contains my bio, publishing history, contact info, events, etc. Though the new webpage is published, it’s still a draft as far as I’m concerned, and I’ll be making changes and enhancements to it in the next few days.

Click here for the new website.

Unexpected Paths will continue to be the site for my writing blog and for publishing my Friday Fictioneers and Flash! Friday stories, in addition to blog posts about writing, writing conferences, and, well, all things writing. It’s appearance may change somewhat, but for the most part the change will be seamless.

I’d appreciate any comments you might have on the new site–anything to make it better!

The Prodigal Returns – 2

Friday Fictioneers LogoAs some of you have noticed, I took a long break from Friday Fictioneers, not because I’d grown tired of it or uninspired, but because I needed to re-focus on other aspects of my writing. Every week, though, the photo prompt would show up in my Facebook feed, and I’d look away because I knew if I saw the picture, I’d get distracted from what I had set myself to do.

I’ve written here before about the toll that winter takes on me–not enough light, joints which are creakier every year in the cold–and I knew I could concentrate on only one writing thing at a time; I knew I couldn’t juggle the several flash fiction events I do every week with the need to do a massive rewrite of a manuscript. So, the manuscript won out. Sorry.

But I can’t stop to think about the Friday Fictioneers stories that might have been. I’m back, and I missed you guys.

And, of course, for my first story after my hiatus, I chose dystopia and speculative fiction. I mean, what else would I write? “Memento Mori,” I hope, will make you think about all those roadside and street-side impromptu memorials which crop up after a tragedy. As usual, if you can see the link in the title a couple of lines above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab; then select the story from the drop-down list.

The Prodigal Returns

It’s been over a month since my last substantive post here–on the first day of AWP. It’s not that I haven’t been writing; I have. Mostly re-writing. I haven’t been writing my political blog; I haven’t done Friday Fictioneers; I haven’t done Flash! Friday. I’ve not put my finger on quite why, other than the obvious: winter doldrums, lingering nasty weather, and overall write-on-a-self-imposed-deadline burnout.

So, here’s a summary: AWP was great; I had story selected as a finalist in a national contest; the agent loved my writing but decided my novel wasn’t for him; the Virginia Festival of the book was wonderful (though I’ll confess I wish I’d been a panelist instead of in the audience); I had a story rejected for an anthology about a week after an anthology appeared with one of my stories in it; I had an editor solicit a story from me “for consideration;” and we’re about ten days away from the staging of my ten-minute play, “Yo’ Momma,” which was a winner in the Ampersand Arts “Bar Hopping” Contest.

Then, on Sunday, I got tagged in a Facebook post: “Name 15 authors who’ve influenced you and who will always stick with you.” Once I started thinking about that, I began to jot down names and decided this would be a much better blog post than a comment on a Facebook post.

I’m back!

Here are the fifteen authors who’ve influenced me with a brief explanation of how and why, divided into women and men but listed in alphabetical order so as not to give away who is/was the most influential.

Louisa May Alcott – She embodied for me the woman writer’s struggle to be accepted for what you are by society and family.

Margaret Atwood – She shows the world that dystopian fiction can be intelligent and well-wrought, and that makes her worthy of emulation.

Jane Austen – For her time, she wielded a sharp pen of sarcasm, feminism, and egalitarianism, and, damn, but she could turn a phrase.

Charlotte Bronte – She showed me that romance and happy endings aren’t elusive after all.

Ursula K. LeGuin – She is a pioneer in one of my favorite genres, science fiction, and I first heard “write what you want to write” from her.

Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters – She taught me that romantic pairs as protagonists can carry a series (or several series in her case) and that the romance doesn’t detract from a good mystery story.

Sara Paretsky – She showed me your female protagonist can take care of herself and not be dependent upon a man and still be popular (and don’t let editors tell you otherwise) and that plots suffused with liberal politics can be, too.

Kate Wilhelm – She showed that female writers could write “hard” science sci-fi stories and be respected by her male colleagues, even the stodgy ones.

Honorable Mentions: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Octavia Butler, Shirley Jackson, Doris Lessing, Flannery O’Connor,

Isaac Asimov – As well as being one of the most prolific authors of the twentieth century, he showed me you could tell a story and educate people at the same time.

Harlan Ellison – As well as being an ardent admirer of LeGuin, he showed me that you could and should go into the dark areas of the mind and write about them. He also spent fifteen minutes with me once and told me to never, ever give up writing.

William Faulker – He showed me what every writer from the south needs to accept–our history is both full of joy and worthy of embarrassment.

Thomas Hardy – I love this man’s prose. He can take pages to relate a nanosecond of plot, but you don’t mind.

Stephen King – He showed me that when you write about the horrific, at least do it in a way which elevates it.

Boris Pasternak – He showed me how an artist should stand up for the integrity of his or her work and that an epic should truly be an epic.

Kurt Vonnegut – He showed me that a good story is worth spending weeks, months, even years to perfect.

Honorable Mentions: Mikhail Bulgakov, Fredreich Engels, Seamus Heaney, James Joyce, V. I. Lenin, Karl Marx, Vladimir Nabokov, William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy

Now, fifteen of the writers who read this need to do the same. 😉