Today, Hidden Agendas, the sequel to Who Watches the Watchmen?, launched. Yeah, it’s rather lost in the hoopla over National Novel Writing Month, but I wanted it out before the first anniversary of last year’s election.
These two novelettes aren’t exactly historical fiction but more current events or… How about “current political thrillers”? That works.
Both novelettes were certainly cathartic for me to write, and I hope they are for the readers, too.
If you’d like to take a look, go to my Amazon Author Page, and you’ll find them there.
Celebrating The Yellow Scarf
The Yellow Scarf was one of my first novellas, and Facebook just reminded me it came out two years ago.
This novella started out as a 5,000 – 6,000 word short story, which I workshopped at Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. My fellow writers in the workshop and its instructor, Edgar-Nominated Laura Benedict, suggested that it needed more backstory, that perhaps it was too much of a story for a short story.
Armed with their suggestions, I added the backstory, beefed up a character, inserted the imagery of a yellow scarf throughout, and extended the story over the period of a year. The result? A novella based on real events in the Balkan Civil Wars. It’s a story I’m particularly proud of and am glad it’s out in the world.
To celebrate its second birthday, The Yellow Scarf will be on sale for 99 cents Friday only. Again, go to my Amazon Author page (link above) to have a look and buy a copy if you like.
It’s NaNoWriMo Time!
It’s the mad month of November where several hundred thousand people around the world write a 50,000-word novel rough draft in 30 days. Crazy, right? But we’re writers, so it’s expected.
I guess you could say the novelettes, Who Watches the Watchmen? and Hidden Agendas are prequels to this year’s project, A Squalid Procession of Vain Fools. Again, this will be a current events political thriller with some family angst mixed in, just to make it interesting.
This will be my 10th NaNoWriMo, and this year I’m a co-municipal liaison for the Shenandoah Valley region. My municipal liaison and I have lots of online and in-person events planned, and if you’re local to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, come join us. Check out our Facebook page, Shenandoah Valley Wrimos, for times and places.
I kicked us off last night right at midnight with an online write-in, and, boy, I was up way past my bed time! But it’s great fun with great writers.
I’ll also be occasionally posting about my project here, including some (unedited) excerpts, but if you follow me on Instagram (@paduncan1), you’ll see some NaNoWriMo-related graphics along with my other posts.
If you’ve never tried NaNoWriMo, give it a go. No pressure. Well, there is pressure: 50,000 words in 30 days, but for a type A personality like me, bring it on!
“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,/Gang aft angly*.” –Robert Burns, from “To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough”
As you know, I look forward every year to Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. The week-long workshop is the highlight of my writing year. This year, however, was special; the faculty asked if I’d be an alumnae reader. I was thrilled and honored, and because my first novel, A War of Deception, had just come out, it was also serendipitous.
On Sunday evening after everyone’s arrival, we go to dinner, meet with our workshop instructor, meet our fellow work-shoppers, and go over the plan for the week. Because this was my sixth year at Tinker, this has become like a yearly class reunion. A lot of attendees are repeat “offenders.”
I was excited about my workshop, “A Writer’s Retreat,” led by Dan Mueller from the MFA program at the University of New Mexico. Mueller called this a “generative” workshop, meaning we’d read a short story the night before, receive a prompt, and come back the next with something we’d just written to share. It’s certainly a break from the typical workshop where you submit 20-40 pages ahead of time and come prepared to comment in depth on the work of every other person in the workshop.
I left the after-dinner faculty readings with anticipation.
Monday turned out to be a typical Monday. Nothing went right. I’d discovered the night before that I’d neglected to bring enough of a post-operation medication. Annoying and totally my fault for not double-checking or bringing the whole bottle with me instead of filling a pillbox for each day of the week.
A quick call to the doctor’s office, and he called in a prescription to a nearby CVS. After the afternoon craft lecture by Fred Leebron (on using and creating writing prompts; fascinating and erudite as usual), I walked back to the dorm parking lot to get my car and go pick up the medication.
On the drive there, I felt extreme fatigue, in that I wanted to take a serious nap. I attributed it to the fact I’d walked three and a quarter miles that day and I was 10 days post-op for heart surgery.
I got the meds and headed back to Hollins.
Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop used to be the only June event at Hollins. Then, they added a similar workshop for potters. In subsequent years they added a youth music camp and a youth dance camp. The quiet cafeteria became full and boisterous. The parking lots for the main dormitory became overflowing.
As I discovered when I returned from CVS. There was no place to park near the dorm, and by now my fatigue had become acute. After driving around a bit and waiting to see if someone freed up a space, I flagged down a campus security guard, explained my fatigue and its likely cause, and asked for some suggestions. The best he could offer was to park in the fitness center parking lot, close to the dorm but an extra distance to walk. It was all I had.
I took a nap but felt no better. I was still so fatigued, I asked someone to drive me to dinner. Again, I figured I’d pushed myself too hard, post-op. I decided a good night’s rest and driving myself to breakfast the next morning would mean less walking and less of a chance of repeating the fatigue.
A good night’s sleep, and I was ready to go. As the day went on my energy level stayed steady. The workshop was great. I read a piece of flash fiction I’d written the afternoon before and got good feedback. Pinckney Benedict’s craft lecture on “Logos vs Pathos” was intriguing and thought-provoking, again as usual.
I spent the afternoon doing homework in the cafeteria, rather than doing too much walking, had my one-on-one with Dan, and was looking forward to dinner.
As I ate dinner, I felt the fatigue come on again, not as intense as before, but I decided to forego the student readings that evening to make sure I got plenty of sleep.
This time when I got back to the dorm parking lot, there was a parking spot, but by the time I reached the front door of the dorm, I felt as if I’d run a marathon.
In my room, I drank plenty of water and felt better, and I sat down to do a little novel revising. Around eight-thirty, a tickle began at the back of my throat. More water. The tickle became a runny nose, followed by constant coughing, followed by a sore throat and an earache, and sinus pain.
I’ve had hundreds, maybe thousands, of sinus infections in my life, and I knew what this was. Despite that knowledge, I was awake every couple of hours throughout the night coughing.
By morning I knew it was time for Urgent Care, but I also knew I couldn’t drive. One of my writer friends offered to take me. A couple hours later, I was back in my dorm room with new meds and orders to rest.
Rest I was going to do because nothing was going to stop me from that Alumnae Reading on Thursday or so I thought.
And I rested, barely stirring from bed, and thank goodness for Hulu because it’s a dorm room. No television. Friends brought me lunch and dinner, but I only grew worse throughout the day and evening.
Tomorrow I’d be better. I had to be.
I wasn’t better. If anything I was worse, and I should have expected that. I know how my sinus infections go. By now my asthma had become aggravated, and I made the decision to come home.
No Alumnae Reading, and I was pissed. At myself for getting sick; at my body for letting me down.
I’ve several, well, many decades of life under my belt, but in the last several years my usually reliable body has sabotaged me: a foot injury that took months to heal; episodic irregular heart rhythms that left me weak and frightened; a bout with shingles.
This past April in the midst of prepping for A War of Deception‘s release, I had a serious episode of irregular heart rhythm, so much so I had to go to hospital and get shocked back into sinus rhythm, followed a month later by the surgery designed to eliminate the problem.
Then, as I was beginning to feel like the old me again, a sinus infection and bronchitis took from me something I stood to gain validation from.
Now, don’t say I should have prayed harder or been a better person or that it’s God’s plan, because I’m a rationalist. Believe me, if prayer worked, I’d have been healed in a day. And I’m not a bad person; that threat of punishment over trivial matters is what pushed me away from religion.
No, I can’t and won’t accept my age, but I understand my anxiety about the surgery, which kept me from sleeping well for a month, depressed my immune system and helped bring this.
And, no, 20/20 hindsight is not useful nor appreciated.
I’m four and a half days into recovering from bronchitis, but since I have asthma, it takes me weeks rather than days to fully recover. Then, I expect the old me to make a command performance.
Oh, and they asked me to read again at next year’s Alumnae Reading. I’ll be there–one way or another.
If it’s June it must be time for Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop.
I got a memory on Facebook the other day about my first time here in 2012 and how I was terrified of what was going to happen during the critique. I had plotted how I could pack up and move out in the middle of the night.
Turns out it was the best writing experience I had in my life. And the best critique experience. That’s good and bad. Good because I’ve grown so much as a writer because of it; bad because I now expect them all to be that way.
I’ve been every year since 2012, and each time I’ve been validated as a writer, I’ve established a wonderful circle of writer friends, and, frankly, my novel wouldn’t have been published without TMWW.
Trying Something New
This year isn’t the typical submit 40 pages for review and critique. I’m with Dan Mueller, who last year taught a flash fiction workshop in the traditional manner. This year, he’s going to make this a true writing workshop. We’ll get prompts and other inspiration, and we’ll write on the spot.
A daunting task to be sure, but I’m looking forward to it.
They Really Like Me
For the past two years a group of TMWW alumna and I have contributed money for an Alumni Scholarship. This experience has been so meaningful to me, I can’t help but provide part of the means for someone else to be able to get the benefits.
That, along with the publication of my first novel, inspired the faculty to invite me to do an Alumni Reading this Thursday. I was surprised and shocked then honored and humbled. It’s my Sally Field second Oscar moment: “You like me! You really like me!”
I’ve settled into my 1950’s style dorm room and am greeting friends as they check in, listening to Leonard Cohen, and writing this.
It’s going to be a great week.
One of my fellow workshoppers at Tinker Mountain came back from break one morning and asked if anyone was a poet.
“I dabble,” I said.
“Doesn’t everyone?” replied someone else.
“Well,” I said, “I’m writing a haiku a day in 2016. That has to count for something.”
The one who’d posed the poet question said, “I want you to try a poem, and I’ll give you the title: The Wife, The Gun Salesman, and the Alligator.”
For a moment we were all lost, but it eventually struck us. We were at Tinker Mountain the week after the slaughter at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and after a small boy had been grabbed by an alligator at the edge of a lagoon in Disney World. There had been a lot of media coverage trying to establish blame in both incidents. The wife, who was with Omar Mateed when he bought ammo, should have turned him in and so she was to blame. (Turns out it wasn’t the ammo he used for the shooting.) The man who sold him his copy of an AR-15 was notoriously anti-Muslim–his signage bans them from his gun shop–so why didn’t he notice something? It’s likely in the case of the nightclub shooting, we may never know the real reason.
Unlike an incident at a Cincinnati zoo last month where a small child climbed through a fence and fell into a gorilla enclosure, necessitating the killing of a silverback gorilla to save the child, there wasn’t much blame attached to the parents of the child snatched by an alligator at Disney World. (I have my own opinions why, but this is the writing blog, not the defunct political blog.)
“So,” the workshopper said, “three potential bad guys. See what you can do with them.”
A few days after the workshop ended I threw down some free verse. Now, some things are still under investigation, but I did some research before I wrote the verses. Here’s the first attempt:
The Wife, The Gun Salesman, and The Alligator
1. The Wife
I was his virgin on earth, but I told him in paradise there will be more.
One of them may do what I couldn’t: Make you a man.
Instead of kisses, I hand you masculinity in a box.
Bullets for Allah, you’ll say, but I simply wanted you to be a man.
What you wanted, we don’t know beyond veiled glimpses.
Social media; gay dating sites; 911 calls for ISIS.
You wanted our son to grow up in a safe country, as you had.
How safe is he now after you killed forty-nine?
Not virgins, perhaps, but a sacrifice.
How much did I know, and when did I know it?
2. The Gun Salesman
When I was a New York City cop I saw what they did on 9/11.
They buried my brother officers in fire for their pussy god.
We made them pay with Shock and Awe’s blood vengeance.
Make us great by banning rag heads from America.
Send them back to their camels and sand.
If you still feel unsafe, my inventory can help you.
My store is a Muslim-free zone for real Americans to buy real guns.
Didn’t you see the sign when you walked in?
More than the 2nd Amendment, money is god.
How much did I know, and when did I know it?
3. The Alligator
If my brain were larger than three olives, I might understand.
Pleistocene instinct is all that moves me.
Offer me food, I will strike, grasp, submerge.
Stow tomorrow’s meal in mud and silt.
Lurk in shadows, waiting until my olive brain registers decomp.
Tiny thing is no more than an appetizer, but I guard it.
Food is food, and I’ve marked this as mine.
Didn’t they realize the water’s edge is where I hunt?
My tender, sweet morsel isn’t stolen by a rival A. mississippiensis.
How much did I know, and when did I know it?
“This is Good, but…”
I sent it off to the challenger, and he recognized what I’ve known for a long time: I’m primarily a fiction writer and a dabbler at poetry. However, he liked what he read and suggested I keep tweaking it. I put it aside for a few days until today when I got the insane idea I’d rework each verse as a Shakespearean sonnet.
A few hours of trying later, my head exploded, rather like what happens in those commercials for Jet.com. What was I thinking? Iambic pentameter and a rhyming scheme? Obviously, I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But I’m still tweaking, so I compromised. No sonnets but the verses reworked in iambic pentameter. (In high school I was so enamored of iambic pentameter, my English teacher had to plead with me to stop writing my assignments in it.)
A few more hours and a headache later, I had something that I perhaps like a bit more than the first attempt. I’ve carefully counted the lines several times, but it’s likely I’ve screwed it up at some point because, hello, I’m a pretender poet. Here it is:
Verses for Orlando
1. The Wife
I was his virgin here on earth, but I
told him in paradise there will be more.
One of them may do what I could not: Make
you a man. Instead of kisses, I hand
you some masculinity in a box.
Bullets for Allah, you will say, but I
simply wanted you to be a man. What
you wanted, we do not know beyond veiled
glimpses in social media or gay
dating sites; 911 calls for ISIS.
You wanted our son to grow up in a
safe country, as you had. How safe is he
now after you killed forty-nine people?
Not virgins, perhaps, but a sacrifice
on your father’s dark altar of manhood.
2. The Gun Salesman
When I was a New York City cop I
saw what they did on 9/11. They
buried my brother officers in fire
for their pussy god. We made them pay with
Shock and Awe’s vengeance. Make us great again
by banning rag heads from America.
Send them back to their camels and sand, but
if you still feel unsafe, perhaps my cold
inventory can help you. My store’s a
Muslim-free zone for real Americans
to buy real guns. Didn’t you see the sign
when you walked in? More than the sanctity
of the 2nd Amendment, money is
my god, worshipped on my dark altar of
manhood, my inalienable right.
3. The Alligator
If my brain were larger than three olives,
I might understand. Pleistocene instinct
is all that moves me. Offer me food, I
will strike, grasp, submerge. Stow tomorrow’s meal
in mud and silt. Lurk in shadows, waiting
until my olive brain registers the
decomp. The tiny thing is no more than
an appetizer, but I mark it so
no rival A. Mississippiensis
steals my tender, sweet morsel. Food is food,
and didn’t they realize the water’s
edge is where I hunt? Five brothers and I
stalked, hunted, and captured. Sacrificed to
deflect responsibility, killed on
the dark altar of manhood’s need to blame.
Well, thoughts? Comments? More tweaking? Or do I give up?
Why is it all the fun stuff flies by, but the daily grind of life plods along? I suppose it’s because we’re hard-wired for pleasure. Set me down in front of my computer with Scrivener o…
Source: Haiku 366-170 and -171
Since Sunday evening I’ve been at my yearly writergasm, Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. My workshop this year is “Plot and Storytelling,” presented by Pinckney Benedict. I broug…
Source: Haiku 366-160 to 169
When you decide to write a novella, you sit down and write until you have between 7,500 and 40,000 words, depending on genre. However, since thriller/suspense isn’t listed among the genres where the length of novellas is specifically spelled out, I’ve opted to go with the length suggested for literary and romance fiction, 20,000 to 40,000 words.
For my most recent novella, The Yellow Scarf, which debuts today, the history isn’t quite that simple. I never intended for it to be a novella at all.
The second part of the novella started out as a chapter in book one of a draft series called A Perfect Hatred, which is about domestic terrorism in the U.S. I intended that chapter to illustrate how my two covert operatives not only had to switch between missions but also had to deal with a mission interfering with the upcoming holidays.
In a subsequent edit/rewrite of the novel, that chapter got cut, and for some reason I didn’t ditch it completely. A couple of years later, I was searching for some short story material, and I opened the file, changed the ending, and ended up with a short story, originally titled “Justice for Ludmilla.” The story was around 5,000 words, and I was pretty pleased with it.
The short story was a snapshot of a couple of hours in Sarajevo in late fall 1993, at the height of the sniper activity in that city. The Serb Army was entrenched on the ridges surrounding the city, which had hosted the 1984 winter Olympics. Not only did they bombard the city with artillery, but snipers wreaked havoc. A battle of snipers ensued, with Bosnian Muslim civilian snipers and Serb Army snipers hunting each other amid the destruction. Even though both sides sniped at civilians, a preponderance of the sniper killings were Serb Army on civilians. Sarajevo’s main avenue became known as Sniper Alley. My story told of an investigation into a civilian’s death and the investigator’s desire to find the identity of the sniper.
I was so pleased with the story that I work-shopped it at my 2015 Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop genre fiction writing class. The consensus was that everyone liked the story, but they wanted to know more: why was the investigator there, why were there vague hints about something happening the year before, etc. In our one-on-one, the workshop instructor, Laura Benedict, said, “I think this is too powerful for a short story. Why don’t you turn it into a novella?”
In general, workshop instructors are much like agents or editors. They tell you trim, cut, be more concise. Rarely do they ever suggest that you add words or, heaven forbid, expand a short story into a novella. I was stunned by that, but I went home determined to see if I could do it. After all, the back-story to that short story was in my head, i.e., I knew who and what and why but hadn’t wanted to clutter the short story with it. A novella offered definite possibilities.
I put butt in chair and wrote. About 18,000 words later I had a draft novella. I did my usual thing and set it aside for a couple of weeks. When I did a revision I ended up adding a couple thousand words to get it to the 20,000 mark. I shipped it off to a couple of beta readers, who coincidentally had been in the workshop with me, and they gave me great feedback, which I incorporated.
I continued to polish and refine it until I thought I had a good draft, ready for publication. Still, I hired a professional editor to make a final review, and she, too, made some excellent suggestions. More polishing and refining, and today we have the debut of The Yellow Scarf!
If you’re not already intrigued, and I’m sure you are, here’s an excerpt from the back cover copy to intrigue you even more:
A year after being medevacked from the disintegrating Yugoslavia, U.N. spy Mai Fisher is back for a new mission: investigating sniper activity in Sarajevo. On a cold autumn morning she finds herself at the spot in Sniper Alley where, the day before, someone shot a young mother on her way to buy milk for her children. Pushing the limits of safety Mai searches for the sniper’s nest, hoping for a clue to the shooter’s identity. She feels the pull of justice, not just for this mother but also for what Mai lost the year before. Mai’s partner–and husband–Alexei Bukharin ponders whether the Balkans have given his wife a death wish. When Mai’s focus on her mission costs a life, her desire for justice is strengthened, but Alexei understands here in the Balkans sometimes vengeance is the only option.
The Yellow Scarf is available from Amazon as an ebook for your Kindle or Kindle app ($4.99 or free in Kindle Unlimited) or as a paperback ($6.99). If you buy the paperback, you can get the Kindle version for the Matchbook price of $1.99. What a deal! And just in time for your holiday shopping.
It doesn’t take long. A weekend, in fact. You spend five solid days and nights immersed in writing with other writers, and the workshop becomes a routine, something you wake up and look forward to each morning. Then, the week comes to an end, you pack the car, turn in your room key, eat the final meal with people who’ve become family, and go home to face the reality of day-to-day writing.
In the midst of a scene, you turn to ask one of your workshop-mates if something will work, and you realize you’re all alone now, in your writing cave, with only The Google for company. And, well, you miss hearing how great your writing is.
Let’s face it. You learn a lot in a workshop, mainly how other people perceive the words you’ve decided are golden and untouchable. When the emphasis is a positive experience, as it is at Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop, you definitely get the praise, but you also understand what you need to work on to improve your writing. You come away feeling good about yourself and your writing, no matter your level of experience. That daily dose of “I really liked how you…” becomes addictive, and you crave it once you’re home and don’t have anyone telling you how good you are.
And that’s a good thing, because as with anything, complacency will ruin your writing.
Post-workshop, you feel as if you’re writing in a vacuum without those voices saying, “What did you mean here?” You know, the questions you never ask yourself while you’re in creative mode. A workshop goes beyond beta readers or a critique group. Your betas and your critique group members become accustomed and somewhat inured to your style, your characters, your writing. A workshop puts fresh eyes on your work, scrutiny that can put a spotlight on weaknesses you’ve missed.
Now, it does require a leap of faith to put what you’ve sweated blood over in the hands of strangers for them to vivisect while you sit there unable to say a word. I make it sound like a nightmare, and it is daunting; however, you will be a better writer because of it.
But, in the week following the workshop, you can’t help but think, Wow, this time last week, we were going over my short story, or, Was it just a week ago we sat around the lounge and debated the worthiness of James Joyce (uh, no debate there). You miss the company of writers; you miss your family; you miss the challenges they offer you. You lament that you’ll have to wait a year to do this again.
Somehow, you’ll muddle through.
The countdown calendar to the right of this post indicates that, as of today, I have seven days to go before the 2015 Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. I find it amazing this is my fourth one! Three years ago about this time, I was having big second thoughts. For one, I’d never had my work critiqued by strangers, much less a well-respected, actual writer who was my workshop instructor. To say I was a nervous Nellie would freshen that cliché.
But 2012 was all positive with the incredible Pinckney Benedict; 2013 was amazing with the insightful Fred Leebron; and 2014 was an eye-opening experience with a master of genre writing, Laura Benedict. So much so, I’m re-taking her workshop this year, and I hope what I’ve submitted embodies everything I learned from her last year.
As critical as the workshop is now to my writing, the making of writer friends is, in some ways, more important. I have a circle of extremely talented writers who’ll beta-read what I’ve done and point out exactly what I need to do to make it better. More importantly, because we have that shared workshop experience, I respect their opinions. There is no sense of competition; just genuine, meaningful critique. What more could you ask for in a writing workshop?
So, today, I’m positively giddy. I can’t wait for Sunday to get here to head the loaded car south to Roanoke, set foot on the absolutely gorgeous campus of Hollins University (an inspiration in and of itself), and see my writing tribe.
Oh, and, I might get a writing themed tattoo while I’m there. Gasp!