Improving Your Creativity, Habit by Habit

Each of us is born creative. Some lose their creativity along the way. If you’d like to write fiction, but don’t think you’re creative enough, I believe you can increase that attribute through effort.

Researchers Carolyn Gregoire and Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman developed a list of habits practiced by creative people. In their book, Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Gregoire and Kaufman introduce and discuss those habits.

However, if you’re trying to improve by practicing good habits, it’s difficult to work on ten all at once. In his self-improvement efforts, Benjamin Franklin tackled just one habit per week. Therefore, I took the ten habits from the Gregoire and Kaufman book and rated them according to how important they are to becoming a better fiction writer. That way you can concentrate on one at a time in your creative journey.

I’ll present each of the habits in reverse order of importance, like any good Top Ten List. The order of the list is mine; other authors might disagree. Each habit is important, and all worth doing. You’ll find you do some already, so you won’t have to work on those.

10. Turning Adversity into Advantage. It’s good to develop your ability to accept failure as part of the process, to learn from it, and to move on. As a writer, your stories will get rejected; some of your books won’t sell; some marketing ideas won’t work; your stories will receive bad reviews. You’ll need to use these misfortunes to improve. As important as this habit is, I judged it the least necessary for developing the type of creativity needed by fiction writers.

9. Solitude. Writing fiction is a solitary endeavor. Creative people need to be able to tune out the world’s noise, to enjoy being alone without feeling lonely. That can be difficult for extreme extroverts. Still, it didn’t rate high on my list, since it’s not a habit you’ll need to practice before you can write. Just write, and you’ll soon get used to being alone.

8. Intuition. As you assemble words into effective sentences, expressive paragraphs, and enjoyable stories, you won’t have time to reason out what works best in every case. Most often you’ll have to go with your gut. This habit is low on the list because it’s hard to practice (try setting out to be more intuitive today) and because it should develop naturally the more you write.

7. Daydreaming. All writers do this. They let their mind wander in unfocused thought, free to go where it will, perhaps to see things anew or to connect the unconnected. The only reason this habit isn’t higher on the list is its low degree of difficulty, for most people.

6. Sensitivity. It’s valuable to be aware of the world and to understand the connections between outside events and your own mood and feelings. You can use that ability to create characters readers will love. For some, this comes naturally but others have to work on it.

5. Passion. There has to be an inner fire, some powerful force driving you to tell a story, to sustain you through the times when writing seems too hard. It’s not an easy habit to practice, though. Moreover, once you experience the success of selling a story, your passion to write more will increase on its own.

4. Openness to Experience. Your muse must be fed, and her diet is experiences. You have to get out in the world, explore new places, meet new people, try new activities, break down the doors of your comfort zone. This is easy for some, but others have to work at it.

3. Mindfulness. A creative person can focus, can think about the world, can think about feelings, and can think about thinking itself. Unlike daydreaming, this is directed, intentional. This is the usual state of writers when writing.

2. Thinking Differently. Creative folks disdain norms, shun convention, and strive for originality. They adopt a unique perspective, and break out of the everyday. Fiction writers must do this, to craft stories that will interest and delight readers. There’s a reason they call them novels, after all.

Drum roll, please. And now, the #1 habit of creative people, the one most important to fiction writers…

1. Imaginative Play. Remember your childhood games? You’d build crude replicas of things that would be huge and perfect in your mind. You’d imagine situations, assume a role, and play it out. No constraints, no rules, no limits. Your mind would ask, “what if…?” and off you’d go. Fiction writers either never outgrow that habit, or find a way to renew it through practice. It’s the essence of creative writing.

You already know what to work on, don’t you? You’ve identified the most difficult habits on the list and you’re set to practice them. Soon you’ll be tapping into hidden reservoirs from which your creative juices will flow. Good luck, Writer, and please take a moment along your wandering, creative journey to leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Are Readers of Science Fiction…Stupid?

Hoisted by their own petard? The very science that science fiction readers adore has now declared them idiots.

Or has it?

Some accounts of a recent scientific study are concluding that reading SF makes people stupid. Researchers Chris Gavaler and Dan Johnson of Washington and Lee University set out to challenge the results of an earlier 2013 study suggesting literary fiction makes readers smarter. These researchers believed whatever was going on in the earlier study had nothing to do with genre, and hoped to prove it.

It might help to know some terms used in the recent study:

  • Theory of Mind (ToM)—the text doesn’t tell readers what a character is feeling or thinking, so they must infer those things.
  • Theory of World (ToW)—the text doesn’t tell readers about the world of the story (physical laws, social norms, etc.), so they must infer those things.

Initially, Gavaler and Johnson suspected ToM would be the same in any genre, but ToW would be more challenging in SF, since the worlds of those stories are so different from our own. Things didn’t work out that way.

They asked 150 randomly selected readers to read a 1000-word short story. Each read one of four versions of the same story:

  • Text 1: set in a small town diner. Character’s thoughts and feelings inferred.
  • Text 2: set in a space station cafeteria. Character’s thoughts and feelings inferred.
  • Text 3: small town diner. Thoughts and feelings stated.
  • Text 4: space station. Thoughts and feelings stated.

Study participants answered questions posed by the researchers. From these answers, the researchers concluded, “Converting the text’s world to science fiction dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality.” “Science fiction readers reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally, and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot.”

According to the study, the SF story readers “appear to have expected an overall simpler story to comprehend, an expectation that overrode the actual qualities of the story itself…the science fiction setting triggered poorer overall reading.”

What should we make of this? Are readers of literary fiction smarter than readers of SF? Does reading SF make you stupid?

Perhaps the study was flawed. Were the participants truly random? Did the texts bias readers against SF? Were the post-reading questions biased in some way?

For the moment, let’s assume the study results are true. They imply the public regards SF as a lowbrow genre in comparison to literary works. There’s a valid reason people believe that. Many early SF stories and a lot of SF movies and TV shows were not high quality. In the early years, not many authors were writing science fiction, but the demand for stories was large, and readers weren’t as sophisticated or discerning as they are now. Science fiction fans of the time focused on settings—the weirder and more outlandish the better—not characters.

Given that history, it’s unsurprising that the public views SF as an uncultured mass-market genre for philistines, despite a huge advancement in the quality of writing in recent decades

Another factor is relevance to the reader’s life. Of the sample texts provided in the study, a reader is far more likely to relate to the scene in the small-town diner than the one in the alien-populated space station. Because of that, the public views science fiction as escapist in nature. SF writers strive to say something relevant about the human experience. Despite that, readers will always feel more distant from SF characters than they do from characters in contemporary literary fiction.

In my view, the study didn’t prove science fiction is for dummies, let alone that it makes people dummies. It showed people are different from each other; that’s why so many genres exist. As science fiction improves in quality, it will delight more readers. Delighting readers, and helping to make them smarter, is the main mission of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Author Interview — Trisha J. Wooldridge

One by one, you’re getting acquainted with the authors whose stories appear in the anthology Dark Luminous Wings. Visiting us today is writer and editor Trisha J. Wooldridge.

Trisha J. Wooldridge writes grown-up horror short stories and weird poetry for anthologies and magazines—some even winning awards! Under her business, A Novel Friend, she’s edited over fifty novels; written over a hundred articles on food, drink, entertainment, horses, music, and writing for over a dozen different publications; designed and written three online college classes; copy edited the MMORPG Dungeons & Dragons Stormreach; edited two geeky anthologies; and has become the events coordinator and consignment manager for Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester. Because she is masochistic when it comes to time management, she created the child-friendly persona of T.J. Wooldridge and published three scary children’s novels, as well as a poem in The Jimmy Fund charity anthology Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. Her recent publications also include two novellas, “Tea with Mr. Fuzzypants” and “Mirror of Hearts.” You can find her most recent work in the 2017 anthologies Gothic Fantasy Supernatural Horror, Dark Luminous Wings, and the collector’s book of the Blackstone Valley Artists Association 2017 Art and Poetry Showcase.

Onward, to the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: How did you get started writing? What prompted you?

Trisha J. Wooldridge: I was always a reader, and when I got started with vocabulary words in school, I realized that I, too, could weave the magic I’d found in books! Vocabulary sentence days and homework were my favorite things; I’d rush home to share my creations with my parents.  When I was 11 or so, I started writing fan fiction (I didn’t know “fan fiction” was a thing at a time) for stuff like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in notebooks, certain—certain!—I would write the first novelization of the comics and cartoon season. Later, I started playing with mashups of my versions of Narnia being visited by the science-minded folk in Madeleine L’Engle’s time series. By the time I hit high school, I was chronicling the adventures of our Dungeons and Dragons characters in story form and passing those out each week…as well as working on an interstellar adventure along the lines of Joanna Russ’s Adventures of Alyx.

 

P.S.: What other authors influenced your writing, and what are a few of your favorite books?

T.J.W.: As mentioned above, I was a huge fan of the Chronicles of Narnia and would read anything I could get my hands on by Madeleine L’Engle.  I was also a massive fan of the DragonLance novels by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, as well as the Drizzt Do’Urden novels by R.A. Salvatore and the Daughter of the Drow series by Elaine Cunningham.  If there were dragons, space ships, monsters, unicorns (especially unicorns!) involved, I wanted to read it.

I also ended up discovering horror as a genre… I loved Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, along with the Goosebumps, Fear Street, and all the teens-in-horrific-peril tales by Christopher Pike that were popular in the 90s.  And, of course, Stephen King.

I also have always loved comics. Particularly the X-Men ones in my youth—because who doesn’t want cool superpowers? As I grew older, though, I discovered the horror and dark fantasy comics, like The Sandman by Neil Gaiman—which led me to devouring everything Gaiman has done, from comics to poetry to children’s books to novels.

 

P.S.: You’ve written science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Which do you consider your primary genre and how did you become interested in it?

T.J.W.: I also do poetry! Though, more than half the poetry falls under the speculative umbrella, too—and much of it is also story-poems with plot and character development. I would say the majority of my prose and a large portion of my poetry, falls under “dark fantasy.” There are almost always fantastical elements (or mundane elements disguised as / mistaken for fantastical), and I am drawn to explore the things that frighten me. I also believe that in exploring the darker parts of life and humanity, the brighter parts end up shining even more—so it is through the most painful and frightening experiences that a character can find and potentially choose to be their best person.

I became interested in such a wide variety of themes, styles, and genres because I read widely. I read widely not only because I just loved stories—but they were a safe place from bullies and awful people. So, I always knew the world was not a safe place, that people were complicated mixes of good and evil, and magic was also a complex compound of literal power and metaphorical power. Thus, my books tend to weave all that together because they are a reflection of the real world, a commentary on the real world, a hope that more good than evil shines through in the world, and a safe place with which one can explore the world.

 

P.S.: Your short story “Cemetery Angels” appears in the recently-released anthology Dark Luminous Wings. Please tell us about that tale and its main character.

T.J.W.: I wrote “Cemetery Angels” a while ago when I was dealing with my father’s death a few years ago. It came from a story I remember as a child—though I don’t recall if it was an urban legend or an actual news story. There were some people, I vaguely remember “college kids”, who were going to cemeteries, breaking into cars while family was visiting the graves, and stealing purses and valuables. I also remember a discussion about locking doors in cemeteries. My mom, actually, was very similar to the mom in the story when it comes for locking doors everywhere. However, when I had taken my mother to visit my father’s grave, she asked me why I’d locked the car in a cemetery. That story had stuck in my mind as something she’d told me, so I was shocked she’d asked, and that exchange stuck in my head for a while, too.

Now, the cemetery where my father (and most of my mother’s family) is buried is an actual Polish Catholic cemetery in Western Massachusetts—and it is a gorgeous cemetery. All of the statues I reference, all of the beautiful stone angels and saints are real (though not necessarily on all my family’s monuments).  And we did visit my mother’s grandparents, and my grandmother, with some frequency as I was growing up—and it was a beautiful ritual (albeit boring for a child who could say the entire “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” in as many breaths).  So, the two main characters are both strongly drawn from my life and my family—particularly my mom, who I wouldn’t doubt would weaponize her oversized purse against anyone threatening her family. And is a very practical person.

 

P.S.: You also work as an editor, a member of that blue-penciled breed that writers love to hate. What is it like being on both sides of that fence?

T.J.W.: I love editing. It works a different side of my brain, and I learn a lot about my own writing by editing. But, moreso, I love asking questions and challenging authors to make their works the best they can be. Being an editor is like someone hiring you to help them with their child—and I say that having also worked as a nanny and tutor in my life.  You grow to love that child and you want the best for them, but you also have the distance of the work not being your child, so you can be more objective and ask some very hard questions that the author might not see because they have that special relationship with that work.

Mind you, I haven’t been looking or advertising for clients for a few years. The authors I work with are authors I have a relationship with or referrals from authors I’ve worked with over several books and sometimes several series. Still, when I send back one of their manuscripts marked back up, my greatest fear is “Oh, I hope this isn’t the round of edits where they discover they actually hate me!” It was a relief, this fall, when an editor who’d worked on one of my novels sent me an email asking a similar question because I’d been away and hadn’t let her know I’d received her notes. She’d done a wonderful job tearing my ms apart, and it was a tough edit—which was perfect, so I told her so when I got back and looked at her notes. So, we editors really don’t want you to hate us, please?

 

P.S.: Do you think your experiences as an editor have helped your writing?

T.J.W.: Absolutely. Without a question. Before I was an editor, I was also a writing tutor—and that also was a massive learning experience when it comes to writing. Part of being a tutor, which is what I bring to my editing clients, is that you also want to nurture the writer. It’s just as important to point out what works as what doesn’t work.  You want your student or your client to walk away from the experience inspired to make their work stronger.

 

P.S.: You attend a number of science fiction, fantasy, and horror conventions. What do you enjoy about those, and where can readers meet you next?

T.J.W.: I am a regular attendee (if not panelist or vendor) at Arisia, Boskone, Conbust, Necon, DragonCon, and Rock and Shock every year. I’m usually a panelist or running a workshop or three at any one of those conventions, and you can often find me at either a Broad Universe or a New England Horror Writers table at most. This year, you’ll also find me at StokerCon, very likely at the NESCBWI (New England Society of Children’s Writers & Illustrators) Conference, possibly at ReaderCon, and I’m not sure what else yet.

What I enjoy about these… Goodness! So much! I started out going as a “student,” because I find panels and workshops offered very educational and I’m a believer of life-long pursuit of learning. Then I started reading my work at them and discovered I love performing and reading aloud. As I went to more, I made friends at these conventions with whom I stay in contact virtually, but only get to hug in-person at these events. Many of these friends have become very dear to me. After that, I started working tables and found I enjoyed meeting people and promoting my new friends’ and colleagues’ books—and making money selling stuff I was in! And after that, I started getting invited to be on panels and to run workshops—and I do love teaching and talking and educating. I could give back to the communities that have given so much to me!

And those don’t even include the very special moments, like sitting on the hallway floor with Lois McMaster Bujold and talking about feminism! Or hanging out with Jim Butcher after moderating a packed urban fantasy panel with him! Or randomly running into Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer after Gaiman won a Shirley Jackson award! Or snickering alongside Jane Yolen about the grammar and editing issues that make both of us cringe!

 

P.S.: Tell us about the Broad Universe organization and your involvement in it.

T.J.W.: Broad Universe is an international non-profit dedicated to supporting, promoting, and celebrating women creators in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and everything in between.  I joined after hearing about it at my second DragonCon, ended up becoming the coordinator for readings and events, moved on to become president, and count the organization as one of the main reasons I’ve been able to make a profession out of my writing and my geekery. I had my first publication with an editor I got to chat with through Broad Universe. It was my friend, and president-before-me, Phoebe Wray, who pushed me to start reading aloud even before I had published anything. Other members, Inanna Arthen and Justine Graykin, taught me about performing and reading aloud. And even more members gave me confidence to submit work, to sell my work, and to keep pushing myself to achieve my dreams of writing professionally. I started editing through friendships I’d forged among Broads, and I made my connections at conventions and with the New England Horror Writers through Broads. Honestly, I wouldn’t be here today without the lessons, connections, and experience I’ve had through Broad Universe.

 

P.S.: Since you first began writing, how has your writing evolved in terms of style, theme, genre, etc.?

T.J.W.: I distinctly remember in grammar school making a mistake on one of those vocabulary exercises I mentioned where I crafted a sentence where “I through a ball” and my mom corrected me… so I’m fairly sure I’ve gotten better since then.

In terms of style, theme, genre, etc…. That’s tough. I’ve probably gotten darker over the years. Thanks to social media, the ease of access for news, the more information we get, I see a lot more darkness. But I also see hope having to shine brighter—so stories of people getting through difficult and dark times, or not, just happen in my head.  So, there is more horror and darkness; and that horror and darkness are more embedded in real life and current social issues.

I’ve also gotten better about tightening my writing. There is still a lot of work to do, but I used to have to cut sometimes 30-40% of a manuscript for it to not be “wordy” and “redundant”. Now it’s more like 20% average, sometimes even less!

As I’ve written more poetry, I also feel I’m more aware of rhythm in my sentence structure, regardless of how I write. And that, also, has helped me with making each word and sentence work harder.

I still tend to lean toward fantasy, fantastical, and magical stories, but I’ve gotten more comfortable in grounding myself in reality and research rather than trusting myself to “make it up,” and I think that makes for a better story, too.

 

P.S.: What is your current work in progress? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

T.J.W.: I usually have five or six WIPs going at once, so I’ll just chat about a few.

Novelwise, I’m working on a children’s book (middle grade) called The Circus Under the Bed. I wrote that last NaNoWriMo (and into January and February following), and now am working on beta edits to clean it up for submission. The story is about the fragments of dreams and nightmares, Figments, that each of us creates when we are startled awake. These Figments create communities traveling from one Under the Bed to another Under the Bed, rescuing the little beings that hide there. Of course, they are terrified of the Dreamers who create them—after all, most are born from those fears!—so when one Figment gets captured by a Dreamer who is also the school bully, its adopted family must leave the Circus’s sanctuary to go on an impossible rescue mission. The poem I wrote to help me with worldbuilding (because, of course, my brain said that I needed to write poetry to go with this prose!) was actually published in Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, a charity anthology for The Jimmy Fund put out by Necon Ebooks.

I’m also working on a novella inspired by Pole to Pole’s In a Cat’s Eye anthology. It ended up being a novella, so it didn’t work…but I love this story just the same. It takes a look at the dark underbelly of breeding show animals by launching into a future where we have special cat shows for genetically modified cats that score for intelligence as well as appearance. One might ask what could go wrong when we make intelligent designer cats and a whole culture around breeding intelligent designer cats… and I explore a few such things. I have notes from my writers group that are several months old that I need to attend to, and then I’ll be looking for a home for it.

I’m also tinkering with an alien invasion novel with an Outlander flavor, set in Scotland with impossible romantic relationships, a dragon / salamander short story, a poetry collection, and going through my many other unfinished projects to see what is viable to work on for 2018.

 

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring writers?

Trisha J. Wooldridge: One thing I’ve seen a lot of aspiring writers do is self-publish their very first novel (or submit it to me while I was an acquiring editor for a mid-sized press)—and 99.9% of the time it was a huge mess.  Not only would a piece need serious editing, but the author needed to learn more on writing craft. Mind you, I fully support all routes to publishing, from self and independent publishing to traditional and “Big Five” contracts. But whether it’s an author with their self-pubbed first novel or an author who is submitting their first novel to a publisher, I ask, “Are you sure it is ready?”

This may be an unpopular opinion or piece of advice, but don’t rush to publish.  Take time to hone your craft. Then take time to learn the business of publishing. But most of all, learn about the craft of writing—not just the fiction part, but the writing you’ll use to market the book. Learn about sales writing, journalistic writing, business writing. Even poetry. All of that helps. And it’s perfectly okay to write things that won’t get published. Think of how many times an Olympic medalist has run a track, swam a lap, practiced a routine. With writing, we need to get our practice time in; we need to allow ourselves to write stories, novels, poetry, etc. that might not get published and be all right with that. By rushing to publish our practice work, we do ourselves a disservice and we do readers a disservice.  Take the time to practice and learn.

 

Thank you very much, Trisha. Great answers, and very helpful advice. Readers can keep up with all things Trisha at her two Facebook pages, her personal one and her author page. Also check out her website and get to know her on Twitter.

Poseidon’s Scribe

Author Interview — James Slater

Imagine discovering a fellow fiction writer at the place where you work. You find someone who, like you, works a day job in your building but authors books on the side. That happened to me recently, and I just had to interview him.

James Slater works at the Washington Navy Yard. He authored the short stories Tuck, Bishop Takes Night, and Ten Bucks, each published in book form. Most recently, he’s written a science fiction novel, Claustrom, the first book in a planned trilogy.

Let’s get to the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: Who are some of your influences? What are a few of your favorite books?

James Slater: When I was in 3rd grade, my family moved out of the city to a 4-acre property in the country in Western Washington state. It was a beautiful place, but both to my benefit and my disappointment, we had no TV signal there. I filled my spare time with reading and music, and the talents I developed as a result have served me throughout my life.

I guess I’ve always been drawn to mystery and adventure. Treasure Island; 20,000 Leagues under the Sea; and Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn were all books I read more than once. When I was in elementary school, I read all the Hardy Boys books the library had on the shelf. Oh, and can’t forget to mention Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. I was quite intrigued by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Now, I didn’t read that one again, and I won’t spoil it, but once you understand the twist, the novelty is gone. I was quite enamored with Catch 22. More recently, The Patrick O’Brian Master and Commander series and Lee Child’s Reacher books became obsessions.

P.S.: How did you come to love science fiction?

J.S.: If I remember correctly, my first science-fiction-esqe books were the Chronicles of Narnia. The fantasy of other worlds and other dimensions tickled something inside my mind. Then I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. And I couldn’t put it down. I think that’s the series that hooked me. I began to scan the library shelves for sci-fi authors and read everything they had to offer. I pretty much always had a book with me. The amazing possibilities of space travel fascinated me. We’d put a man on the moon, and I was sure amazing breakthroughs were just around the corner.

P.S.:    What are the easiest, and the most difficult, aspects of writing for you?

J.S.: The easiest thing to do for me is just to write. On the days that I’ve decided to write, I always set a goal of writing 500 words, and once I start, I’ve never not achieved that goal. Often I double and triple that in a day. Now, the most difficult thing is closely related. And that’s getting started. It’s like a train. Once I’ve stopped, it really takes me tremendous energy to get started again. I struggle to budge that train, and usually my activities at work and home have an impact. I only have a finite amount of mental energy, and if I’m writing appraisals or if we’re in the market for a new home (both turned out to be giant energy sinks), my writing batteries can’t come up with the power to move that train an inch. But once I start and rediscover my writing muses, it’s like the story takes on its own life–and me with it. I’m more like a transcriptionist, struggling to keep up with the storyline.

P.S.:    Please describe your novel, Claustrom. What inspired you to write it?

J.S.: Sure. I like to call it a science fiction adventure. It’s set at the dawn of the third millennium and tells the story of three people, an accountant a security specialist and an heir to a mining fortune, who catch a ride back to Earth from a new high-tech construction project, New Manhattan. They run into some trouble and have to put down on the hostile surface of the prison planet, Claustrom. Each of them has talents and secrets, but only by working together, pooling their knowledge and talents, can they hope to make it home. I took the name from its Latin origins meaning a gate or an enclosure (think of a church’s Cloister) and modified it incidentally as might happen over time, like words that evolve over the centuries. In the end, I liked the subtle suggestion within the name of both a “claw” and a “storm.”

P.S.:    I understand Claustrom is Book 1 of an intended trilogy. When can your readers expect to see the second book?

J.S.: I’m about 80 percent done now with book two. I had intended this one to be a novella, a short prequel project started last November that would fill in some of the backstory of our Claustrom characters. It was supposed to be done by the end of November, but at the end of the month, the train was rolling. I couldn’t stop it, so I went with it. Turns out, it will be a full novel, so I’m shooting for its release in early 2018. So much for the Trilogy, eh? Moving on now to embrace the Tetralogy. I’ve outlined the better part of book three, the sequel to Claustrom, which will introduce the final book in the series. I’ve not outlined that yet and only have a rough idea of how that will play out, but I’m really looking forward to getting started on book three. The current working title is Midway.

P.S.: Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

J.S.: Hmmm. Interesting question. First, I guess I have a pretty vivid imagination. I love to entertain the fantasy of the impossible. Or, at least, the impossible as compared to what we currently perceive as reality. See what I did there? What if I were independently wealthy? What if aliens did land on Earth? What if the Earth is a rest stop on some galactic highway? Second, as I go through my day and the half of my brain that’s filling in plot holes and coming up with twists is aware and looking for new ideas. Here’s an example. One of my co-workers is from Texas, and he was telling a story about wild cougars. So my brain asks, night there not be a giant cat-like creature on a distant planet? Why not? And maybe it has a hunger–you know, for people. So I wrote it in. But check it out. That’s not the end of the story. I go to a writer’s conference, and I’m talking to author Reed Farrell Coleman, a guy who knows a thing or two about rough crime neighborhoods. So he tells me about a crime organization in New York that used a big caged cat as part of their attitude adjustment strategy for those who owed them money. Now, the book was already done by this time, so I’d already envisioned and completed that type of a similar scene. Guess it just goes to show you. Just because you made it up, doesn’t mean that someone hasn’t thought of it–or tried it before. Lots of science fiction has already become reality.

P.S.: In what way is your fiction different from that of other authors in your genre?

J.S.: I think the thing I love most about good stories, especially mysteries, is that there’s always something hidden. The parts almost make sense for a logical assessment of what has happened, but the protagonist, for some reason, doesn’t believe it. Sometimes it’s even just a single element. At the point where the secret is unveiled, the story and the stakes shift. Doyle and Christie were masters of this. Nothing makes sense until the end, and then it all falls into place. So, in addition to being an adventure, I like to have a puzzle to for the protagonist to solve. I love to read Lee Child because his protagonist, as smart and as powerful as he is, usually jumps to the wrong conclusion until he puts it all together for the finale. If the reader has figured it out by the end of the first act, the author has cheated everyone, including himself.

P.S.:    Both you and Poseidon’s Scribe have day jobs at the Washington Navy Yard, and write fiction during your commute to and from work. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that writing process?

J.S.: I think the real advantage is that it gives me an hour or two each day without interruption to read, write, edit and plan. And when I’m on, it works really well. I finished my first book in seven months this way. I guess the real disadvantage is that with other personal, family and career projects and thoughts and emotions, I can easily either get distracted or exhausted. At the end of a day, and I’m on my way home, I may look at my laptop and think that I really want to log some words, but my creative fuel is already spent. Now, I know if I can get past the first few minutes, the writing will reach out and engulf me, but some days I need to read or to listen. Other days, I put on headphones and turn nothing on. Silence, like sleep, is a great rejuvenator for me. Then I’m looking for inspiration and creating energy, not depleting it.

P.S.: On your website, you mention that the Washington Navy Yard shooting in September 2013 influenced you toward becoming a published author. Please expand on the connection between that event and that decision.

J.S.: I think I always wanted to become an author. It was just that my vision of an author was someone who made a living by writing books and had nothing else to do. Now I do a good amount of writing in my current position and had always used the excuse that I’d written so much that I was too tired of writing to write. Looking back, I think that was probably my own code for, “I don’t know how.” I mean, I joked about putting people in my book when they’d do something odd or spectacular. Then the shooting. It affected a lot of people in a lot of different ways. For me, it brought me face-to-face with my own mortality. I realized that if I waited until I retired to start writing a book, I might never finish it. So I started reading. I read like a fiend for a year. Fiction and non-fiction. Some sci-fi; some mystery; some literature. In sci-fi, I wanted to see what I was up against. Amazon now gives you that sneak peak? So I started walking through the latest and greatest contributions to science fiction. The more I read, the more my confidence grew. Clearly there were greats to contend with. John Scalzi. James A. Corey–who is actually two authors–and Ernest Cline. I loved Ready Player One. Oh, and Andy Weir with The Martian. But on the whole, the genre was littered with trash. In my opinion anyway. And I could tell by reading the first chapter. So I realized, suddenly, that not only did I have the desire to write a book, I had limited time, and my talent was, at the very least, on par with other, more established writers in the genre. I think that realization made it possible.

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring fiction writers?

James Slater: I think there are two things. To me, an aspiring fiction writer is someone with both writing talent and a vision. My assessment is that there are many folks out there who would sell the dream of becoming a writer and would do so through selling books about becoming an author. For those, I recommend an approach with a skeptical eye. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Lots of people can sell books. Few can write them.

That said, I think writers should dedicate a good bit of time to reading. If you don’t have time to read, you certainly don’t have time to write.

Second, follow the rules. Novels follow a really standard structure. Following this structure will help bound the project and serve as the first step in breaking the project down into manageable bites.

Third. Write. Follow your structure. Express your style. Don’t stop. Even if it’s just a few sentences or some ideas, keep the effort going. Do it on a regular basis. It will ebb and flow. That’s a normal part of the process. You’ll get distracted. You’ll get off track. You’ll get blocked. Join a writer’s group. Expect criticism and welcome it. It’s a different point of view. Value it, but don’t let it cripple you.

I guess the final piece of advice is not to psych yourself out. Writers often bump into great barriers of self-doubt. There’s a lot of trash out there passing as literature. But if you want to be a writer, you have to write and you have to publish. If you’re struggling to make your book perfect, think of yourself not as an author, but as a perfectionist. Writers write, so think up a great story. Write it. Publish it. Then do it again.

 

Thanks, James. Great answers, and I hope to see you around the building.

Interested readers don’t have to go to the Washington Navy Yard to learn more about James. Check out his website and his Facebook page.

Poseidon’s Scribe

When and Where to Find Me at Chessiecon

You say you’ll be in the Baltimore, MD area during Thanksgiving weekend and you’re up for some SciFi excitement? Lucky you; you can meet lil’ ol’ me, Poseidon’s Scribe, at Chessiecon, a great science fiction convention running from November 24-26 at the Radisson North Baltimore Hotel.

  • On Friday at 3:00, I’ll moderate a panel titled “Is it Easier to Teach an English Major Science, or Teach a Science Major English?” about combating the fears people have about writing science fiction. I’ll be joined by panelists Michelle Markey Butler, Leslie Roy Carter, Nicole Jamison, and Valerie Mikles.
  • At 10:00 on Saturday, I’ll serve as a panelist for “Join the Mod Squad: Enhance Your Moderation Skills,” about how to serve as a moderator for panels at cons. The moderator will be Carl Cipra, and other panelists will be Don Sakers, Heather Rose Jones, and Annalee Flower Horne.
  • Saturday at 8:00 pm, I’ll participate in an Author Meet & Greet where we can chat; I’ll answer your questions and sign books. I’ll be there with other authors J.L. Gribble, Martin Wilsey, Steve Kozeniewski, Michelle D. Sonnier, and Andrew Hiller.
  • Finishing out the weekend, on Sunday at 11:15, I’ll read an excerpt from my science fiction artificial intelligence story “The Cats of Nerio-3” which appears in the anthology In a Cat’s Eye.

Go ahead—try to imagine a better weekend. I knew you couldn’t. I’ll see you at Chessiecon. In addition to super panels, workshops, art, and music, you can even meet—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Is Life Too Short for Re-Reading?

Do you read the same book multiple times? If so, why, and what does that say about you?

With Dr. Carl Sagan’s help, I’ve made the point before that the human lifespan is too short to read all books ever written. You can’t hope to read a tiny sliver of a percentage of them all. Therefore, time spent re-reading a book is time not spent enjoying a book you’ve never read.

Re-reading a book is different from ordering the same meal at a restaurant or re-watching a favorite TV show or movie. Reading a book is a significant investment in time—many hours or days—repeating something you’ve already done.

At this point, you might ask, defensively, “So what? Since I can’t read them all, why not re-read a few I enjoy? And since it will take a few days, why not spend that time doing something I know I’ll like?”

Fair points. Also, I must say, you avid re-readers are in good company. Here are the thoughts of some famous authors on this topic:

  • “Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.” Ernest Hemingway
  • “There’s nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over. When you do, the words get inside you, become a part of you, in a way that words in a book you’ve read only once can’t.” Gail Carson Levine
  • “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” C.S. Lewis
  • “An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. . . . We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading.” C.S. Lewis
  • “No book is worth reading that isn’t worth re-reading.” Susan Sontag
  • “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Oscar Wilde

Reddit has an interesting discussion of this topic. Commenters cited several different reasons to re-read. Some just found it comforting. A few re-read a favorite book during the same month every year, and associated that time of year with that book.

Over at Melissa’s Book World, Melissa says she falls in love with favorite books and their characters. If forced to choose between never starting a new book again or never re-reading a book again, she’d choose never to start a new one, since she couldn’t bear to part with her favorites.

Sara Jonsson came up with 10 good reasons that we re-read, including some interesting rationales like “the movie adaptation is coming out,” and “you have a test on that book tomorrow.”

I’ve noticed the experience of reading a paper or electronic book visually is different from listening to an audiobook. It still counts as re-reading, but the experience is different.

From my research, it appears the prime reason to re-read is the comfort it brings, the familiarity of the known. However, it’s not completely familiar. It’s like trying to go back to your childhood home again, or trying to dip your toe in the same river. You can’t. The experience is different. The book hasn’t changed, but you have.

In subsequent readings, you know what will happen. You won’t have that same sense of wonder, that same eagerness for the action to advance. You have time to relish the clever foreshadowing, the subtle ways the author set things up for the climax, the techniques the author used to draw you in to loving the main character. You couldn’t have noticed these things the first time.

The difference is most stark when decades separate the initial reading from the re-reading. You’ve likely forgotten a lot, so re-reading may repeat some of the joy of a first read. Also, you’ve matured significantly; your interests and outlook have changed. You might dislike a book you once enjoyed, and say you’ve outgrown it. Or you may enjoy other aspects, less concerned with plot and setting, and more with characters, style, and theme.

I’d say reading is important, even vital. If you feel the need to re-read on occasion to sustain your love for the reading experience, then go ahead and re-read, especially books by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Be Positive about Negative Capability

As part of our shared journey through the realm of fiction writing, let’s explore a few rooms within a stately mansion belonging to the English romantic poet, John Keats. In particular, what did he mean by the term negative capability, and how does it relate to creative writing?

photo By William Hilton – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 194

Nearly two centuries ago, on December 21, 1817, Keats wrote a letter to his brothers where he mentioned negative capability:

“…at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

That may be confusing, but here’s what I think he means—If you want to be a great writer, be willing to:

  • delve into the essence of your characters (or objects, like a Grecian Urn),
  • shed your preconceived world-view,
  • abandon any search for meaning or the urge to fit things into a logical structure, and
  • accept any mysteries and ambiguities you find without trying to resolve them.

Keats praises Shakespeare for the Bard’s ability to show us his characters, through their speech and actions, as they would be, without the author’s heavy hand fitting everything into a coherent whole. Keats criticizes Samuel Coleridge for starting with a philosophical vision and fashioning poetic characters to illustrate that vision.

Why did Keats call this approach ‘negative capability?’ The Wikipedia entry offers an electrical explanation. However, I believe Keats was saying that a true poet should negate her own capability (to make judgements; detect patterns; deduce from, or induce to, general principles) and instead immerse herself in the object of study and absorb all that is there, with all its contradictions and inconsistencies.

For those of you still stuck on the word ‘Penetralium’ in Keats’ letter, let me digress a moment. The word refers to a building’s innermost part, like a temple’s sanctuary. By extension, it can mean the secret inner essence of a person—the soul. Keats thought in terms of rooms of the mind, as illustrated by a letter he wrote, which is cited in the Wikipedia article: “I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments…”

For another description of negative capability, see this video with author Julie Burstein, especially from 1:00 to 1:25. Also, check out this post at Keats’ Kingdom, and this one by Dr. Philip Irving Mitchell of Dallas Baptist University.

As for me, I take a nuanced view of negative capability, as it regards creative writing. I agree writers should empathize with their characters, to know them as directly as possible. That keeps all the characters from seeming to be slight variations of the author. I also concur writers should embrace “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.” The worldview of any character and even the universe of the story itself don’t have to fit neatly together in every detail. The writer should approach the characters and story with an open mind, allowing things to develop as they would in their world, not necessarily in step with the worldview of the writer.

But where Keats asserts “the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration,” I suggest this applies to the story as a whole, not just one character. Characters are not works of art for a writer to portray, however empathetically, in isolation. They are part of a greater whole, the story, and that whole—with its plot, themes, style, setting, and characters—is the thing the writer must strive to optimize for reader enjoyment.

I hope you liked our visit to this mansion of John Keats’ mind. It’s time to continue with the rest of the tour, led by your literary tour guide—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Purge the Pompous and Pretentious Padding of Purple Prose

When that editor rejected your story because your prose was “too purple,” she wasn’t referring to your font color. What is purple prose and how can you avoid it?

Purple prose refers to text using overly long and fancy words, elaborate phrases, and flowery language. It overuses abstractions, figurative language, modifiers, similes, and metaphors. It stretches sentences out until the reader drowns in pleasant-sounding but meaningless words.

Since that description is rather subjective, I prefer the simpler version provided by Stephanie Nolan: “Purple prose draws attention to itself.”

That may sound like something you’d have to do intentionally, something requiring extra effort, something easy to avoid. In reality, it’s easy to slip into the trap of writing purple prose. One method is by familiarity. If, like me, you enjoy reading books written in an era when purple prose wasn’t abhorred (looking at you, Jules Verne), then you can come to believe such writing is still acceptable.

Or, like Liz Bureman notes, you can drift into the purple zone when you can’t think of anything relevant to write about the characters or the plot. At such times, you might be tempted to litter the page with long descriptions of the setting, or of a character’s clothing.

Some of you might be thinking I’m being unfair to purple prose. What, you’re asking, is so bad about it? After all, some readers like high-sounding writing with ornate phrases, detailed imagery, and delicious turns of phrase. True, a few readers may enjoy that. However, the purpose of fiction is to tell a story about the human condition. If your prose meanders off on some tangent and strays too far from the characters and plot, most readers today will recognize they’re being cheated. They’ll cease reading, never read anything else you write, and post a harsh review of your book online.

By the way, the term purple prose isn’t exactly new. As Richard Nordquist states, it was coined by Horace (65-68 B.C.) who mentioned purpureus pannus (Latin for purple patch) in his Ars Poetica. Nor is ‘purple prose’ the only label for such writing. Nordquist also cites related terms: Adjectivitis, Bomphiologia, Cacozelia, Euphuism, Gongorism, Grand Style, Overwriting, Bugbear Style, Skotison, Tall Talk, and Verbosity.

For humorous examples of purple prose, skim through the winning entry and dishonorable mentions in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest’s Purple Prose category.

How can you avoid writing purple prose? Early on, the surest method is to have someone else point it out to you. You can hire an editor, join a critique group, or trust a Beta Reader. In time you’ll learn to pick it up yourself while self-editing your work. Look for excessive descriptions, unnecessary adjectives and (especially) adverbs, and any significant deviations away from the action or characters.

Tracy Culleton says whenever you find yourself showing off, that’s a sign you should delete that phrase. However, if it serves the telling of the story, keep it. Stefanie Arroyo says admiring your own phrasing is a danger sign. If you find yourself thinking, “That’s a lovely phrase,” that’s reason enough to consider killing it.

There are a couple of times when purple prose is okay. First, you can certainly use it for humorous effect in a story intended to be funny. Second, feel free to let your prose run purple in your first drafts, so long as you cut out the worst parts in later drafts. In that first draft, your subconscious (or your muse) is having fun lingering on a long description of an object, or setting, or clothing, etc. Maybe some description is called for, but in later drafts you should trim it down to the essentials.

Purple is a fine color, but purple prose is not fine writing. Pledge to purge purple prose from your paragraphs and passages, and proffer all praise for your newly procured perception and proficiency to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Author Interview — Rebecca Gomez Farrell

Every now and then, do you meet someone who just plain gets more done than you do, someone who does it all? These people somehow cram way more into a 24 hour day than you possibly could. They make you feel like you’re living in slow motion while they jet around at hypersonic speed. I felt that way when I encountered author Rebecca Gomez Farrell, who has a story in the upcoming anthology, Dark Luminous Wings. Luckily for you and me, she had four minutes and thirty seven seconds to spare recently, and answered some interview questions.

Rebecca Gomez Farrell writes in all the speculative fiction genres she can conjure up. An associate member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Becca’s shorter works have been published by The Future Fire, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Typehouse literary magazines, and Pulp Literature among other outlets. Meerkat Press just published her debut fantasy novel, Wings Unseen, in August. Her food and drink blog, theGourmez.com, has garnered multiple accolades and influences every tasty bite of her fictional worldbuilding. In the past, she has also contributed her photography skills and commentary to her love of General Hospital, which has been in her blood since the womb. She credits soap operas for heightening her fiction’s romantic elements and appreciating the layers generational history can add to her work.

Here’s the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: How did you get started writing? What prompted you?

Rebecca Gomez Farrell: I’ve wanted to be a writer since childhood. Other than a flirtation with being a veterinarian—cut short once I realized blood was involved—writer has always been my chosen profession. I was writing horror poetry during family vacations as a kid, and I still have my short stories from the second grade. Ghost cats, mean older sisters, and an ominous presence in the attic were reoccurring characters throughout elementary school. I’ve always loved fantasy and horror. Apparently, a little blood is okay with me as long as it’s fictional.

P.S.: Who are some of your influences? What are a few of your favorite books?

R.G.F.: I’m deeply influenced by the fantasy classics, especially J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. I love when a fictional world’s invented history informs the narrative. George R. R. Martin showed how well multiple points-of-view can be pulled off, which my novel also uses. I also take inspiration from important writers on the American experience, including James Baldwin, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut. Favorite books: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler, Banjo by Claude McKay, and the works of the authors I’ve already mentioned.

P.S.: In the fiction world, you write fantasy, romance, horror, and science fiction. In nonfiction, you write food, drink, and travel blogs as well as reviewing TV shows, movies, plays, books, and concerts. Whew! How many projects do you have going at one time, and how do you keep it all organized?

R.G.F.: Too many! That’s a constant challenge for me: prioritizing my projects. I like having my hands in different pots, but I’ve learned to only focus on a couple at a time. I’ve transitioned away from entertainment writing and copyediting so I can focus on my fiction and my blogging. At this point, I’m cutting down on the blogging, too, because I want to use my energy for fiction for as long as I’m able to financially. But I can’t bring myself to let it go completely – I’ve worked hard for my perks like free menu previews and sample wines!

P.S.: Do you use facts and trivia picked up from your nonfiction writing and research in your fiction? If so, can you give an example?

R.G.F.: I do, in as much as any writer’s passions will end up in their works. An example would be that as I’ve honed my senses as a food and drink critic, it’s improved my worldbuilding. Food and drink are such essential parts of the human experience, whether that experience is on Earth or on a secondary world setting. Just today, I revised a Halloween-themed micro-fiction story in which the narrator is lured into an old, abandoned house by the potential for finding an amazing aged Scotch in the alcohol cabinet. Paying attention to the culinary scene also sharpens my writing’s sensuality – describing the smell of a homey chicken soup can conjure up a lot of powerful emotions.

P.S.: Your short story, “Treasure,” will appear in the upcoming anthology Dark Luminous Wings. Eager readers can get introduced to the story with the brief description on your website. Can you tell us something about the story’s setting?

R.G.F.: “Treasure” is a secondary world fantasy. The action primarily takes place in Trilonea, which the protagonist, Enkid, has been taught is dangerous for people from her country to visit. But what she finds are people who live a peaceful, happy, communal existence, and that is very different from the dog-eat-dog world she comes from. The Triloneans also have a sea monster who protects them from others who may be a threat to their way of life…and Enkid must decide if she is.

P.S.: In addition to your other activities, you offer fiction editing services. Has that experience affected your own writing?

R.G.F.: Oh yes. I’m doing more critiquing than editing these days, but both exercise the same part of my brain. Letting myself loose to write a first draft without pausing to edit is difficult and slows me down. I just gave my first workshop on the basics of how to polish a manuscript for submission, and those small mistakes pop into my mind all the time as I write. It’s a challenge to turn off that voice in my head and just get words down. That’s part of why I describe myself as a slow writer. The benefit is that my drafts are very clean, even if they take me forever to get done!

P.S.: It appears you’re a significant presence on Twitter, with nearly 32,000 tweets (averaging over 9 per day) and nearly 5,000 followers. Do you believe tweeting has attracted potential readers to read your fiction?

R.G.F.: Definitely! I draw in different audiences from all my different genres of writing, and that ultimately attracts more eyeballs to my fiction. After all, wine lovers read, fiction readers enjoy a good meal, and so on. The success of that strategy was evident on my recent book tour, when I often had bookstores pulling out more chairs to accommodate the folks who came out to support me from all different aspects of my writing life, sometimes buying books for a friend if they weren’t fantasy fans themselves.

P.S.: Congratulations on the publication of your first novel, the epic fantasy Wings Unseen. It’s getting wonderful reviews so far. What sort of readers should try it out?

R.G.F.: Fans of classic fantasy will enjoy Wings Unseen, because it’s a tale with a deep history and mythos that informs the narrative. If they also like multiple points-of-view and a greater focus on inner transformation than big battles, it’ll be a perfect for them. Some readers may have no stomach for misogynistic behavior, and they won’t get past the first chapter, which I understand. But if they push through, I think they’ll be rewarded with rich character arcs, fast plotting, and twists that lead to a rather optimistic take on the interplay between faith, free will, and our better natures. The light shines ever brighter through darkness.

P.S.: After writing so many short works, including short stories, blog posts, and reviews, did you find it difficult to keep focused while you wrote your novel?

R.G.F.: Ha ha, you’ve discovered why my chapters are so short! In all honestly, I don’t think those shorter forms of writing affect my focus when novel writing. But I do tend to imagine a story in terms of scenes I want to write for it. Once those scenes are written, the rest of the narrative comes together through my piecing together how to best link them to form the overarching plot. So shorter works are my natural tendency, but novel writing requires I find the connective tissue to create a larger whole.

P.S.: You’re co-organizer of the East Bay Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers critique group. Do you recommend that beginning writers join critique groups? Why or why not?

R.G.F.: For beginning writers, just getting the words down is the most important skill to work on. If the beginning writer doesn’t hate writing after accomplishing that first draft, and they want to share their story with the world, I think critique is absolutely essential. Learning how to give and take critique helps us hone our craft so readers can truly connect with the story. Without critique, that story might be obscured by the cobwebs of beginner mistakes. Don’t we want to sweep those away so readers can fully view our masterpieces? Critique is an essential part of getting our stories to the point that they shine.

P.S.: Since you first began writing, how has your writing evolved in terms of style, theme, genre, etc.?

R.G.F.: Well, I’ve moved on from ghost cats to alien-possessed Thanksgiving guests! In all seriousness, I hope I’ve gained a better grasp of plotting, as characters are always the beginning of story for me, and the plot is secondary in terms of my interest. So I’ve worked on having clear through-lines in place for my plots from the beginning of the creative process. I’ve also learned that my love of poetic prose can undermine the effectiveness of my storytelling, so I spend a good amount of time cutting my flowery phrasing down after that first draft. I’ve also been surprised to write a fair bit of humorous science fiction along the way, and I’m more and more interested in the personal essay.

P.S.: You’re working on a second novel, Natural Disasters. Care to provide any hints about what we can expect with that?

R.G.F.: Natural Disasters is a post-apocalyptic novel set in a future Earth in which seasons are no longer differentiated by weather but by the natural disaster most likely to strike within them. The remaining human population migrates from island to island based on where the natural disasters are less extreme each season. The government is composed of psychologists who’ve reduced the suicide rate by using fairy tales to discourage the development of emotional connections, so people are less distraught when a natural disaster claims another life. Oh, and it’s a paranormal romance.

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring writers?

Rebecca Gomez Farrell: Honing your craft is as important as your passion for storytelling. Be open to learning how to become a better writer, and steel yourself for taking rejection and critique along the way. It’s all part of the process, and any true writer will want to tell their stories so well that readers will respond to their passion for it.

 

Thank you, Rebecca. I’ll pass on some links for you interested readers out there, but you’ll have to keep hitting the ‘update’ or ‘reload page’ button since there’s always something new for Rebecca. Find information about her new novel here. Just try to catch up with her on her website, her food, drink, and travel blog, her Instagram page, her personal Facebook page, her author Facebook page, on Twitter, at the Writers’ Meetup group she co-leads, and at the national organization where she’s the SF chapter leader.

Poseidon’s Scribe

Author Interview — Jason J. McCuiston

Over the years, I’ve interviewed plenty of experienced authors. However, it’s also instructive for you beginning writers in my blog audience to hear from an author just beginning his writing adventure. Lucky for you, Jason J. McCuiston stopped by the towering Poseidon’s Scribe mansion and I asked him some questions.

Jason J. McCuiston’s short story “The Last Red Lantern” was published in the anthology Triangulations: Appetites, and was a semifinalist in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest. His story “The Wyvern” will appear in the upcoming anthology Dark Luminous Wings. He’s working on a series titled The Shadow Crusade.

Let’s get to the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: How did you get started writing? What prompted you?

Jason J. McCuiston: I’ve always been a storyteller. When I was little, before I could read or write, I used to draw pictures of cowboys, soldiers, and knights, then sit in my parents’ or grandparents’ laps and tell them these elaborate stories of what was going on in the pictures. Eventually, I got good enough at the drawings that people could see what was going on, and so I gravitated toward a career in art. By the time I finished high school, I had discovered Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and knew I just had to go into comics.

That was my plan when I went to college to study graphic design and illustration. Then, in the mid to late ‘90s, the comics boom busted. While I was working as a security guard after graduating with my near-useless degree, I read an absolutely awful vampire novel and decided I could do that. So I did. I wrote my own absolutely awful vampire novel.

I then flirted with writing, off and on, for the next seven years until I found myself unemployed in 2004, and I decided to write a scifi/fantasy hybrid novel. I had done zero research on the industry (or on the craft for that matter) and yet I cranked out a neo-noir interplanetary heist caper featuring dwarves, elves, and space pirates blasting their way across a cold-war era star system in search of the ancient secret of FTL technology. It was crap but had enough good points that I got a couple requests from agents. These didn’t pan out, of course, so I went out and bought my first book on writing, James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers, and I decided to get serious about becoming a writer.

P.S.: Who are some of your influences? What are a few of your favorite books?

J.J.M.: I have to say I’m heavily influenced by the works of Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft, as well as Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Allan Poe, and Rafael Sabatini. I have to include Lloyd Alexander here as well. I loved his Prydain Chronicles as a kid before I ever read Tolkien, and it doesn’t take much to see the influence of those stories on my own. My favorite contemporary authors are Bernard Cornwell, Jeff Shaara, Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, and Stephen King. My favorite books of all time, in no particular order: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

P.S.: Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

J.J.M.: I love history. I love learning new things. And I love the mysteries you can find in history. I like to say I write in the cracks of history; anytime there’s a question mark on the page, I let my mind fill it in. My story, “1057 A.D.,” for example, is my attempt to answer two questions: What really happened when Edward the Exile returned to England to be named Edward the Confessor’s heir? And why are European vampire stories as equally prevalent in England as they are in Central Europe?

P.S.: From your blog posts, it appears you enjoy horror stories, but have a preference for monsters and magic. What attracts you to that particular sector of the genre?

J.J.M.: The short answer is, I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons. But I’m an escapist at heart. When the antagonist or the obstacle to be overcome in a story has a supernatural or science-fiction element to it, I think it gives the reader a way to process real-world issues in a safer environment. I’ve never been a fan of the slasher flick or torture horror. Our world is too full of real, all-too human monsters to waste my time reading or watching a piece of fiction based on what people are capable of doing to each other. We have the twenty-four hour news cycle for that.

P.S.: Do you illustrate some of your own books? Do those two talents—writing and graphic illustration—mix for you in some way? Do your drawings inspire your writing or the other way around?

J.J.M.: I did some cover mock ups for my completed manuscripts just to put on my website and on my Goodreads profile, but for the most part, I just write the stories now. However, whenever I feel the goblin of writer’s block rearing its ugly head, I break out the sketchbook just to keep the creative juices flowing. Occasionally I’ll sketch characters or scenes from the story I’m working on just for my own benefit, but for me the story usually comes before the imagery.

P.S.: Your story, “The Last Red Lantern,” was published in the anthology Triangulation: Appetites. What can you tell us about that story?

J.J.M.: I don’t recall what inspired me to research the Boxer Rebellion at the time, but I did and out of the horrors of the Siege of Tientsin grew this idea of a young Chinese girl rescued by an American soldier, taken and raised on a Montana Ranch. She later returns to Asia to seek her mother, a legendary leader of the Red Lanterns, an all-woman martial-arts organization. Like most of my stories, it has speculative elements (in this case a warlock and a zombie army) in a historical setting (the eastern edge of the crumbling Russian Empire in 1917). I think it met the theme of the anthology, “Appetites,” because many of us hunger to know where we come from and how our origins can affect who we are.

P.S.: What are the easiest, and the most difficult, aspects of writing for you?

J.J.M.: The easiest part is the actual writing when I get into that zone, where it feels like I’m just transcribing the words and actions of what these characters are saying and doing in this amazing time and space that only exists in my head. Sometimes, in those moments, I feel like I could write the whole manuscript in one draft in one day. The hardest part for me, being a lifelong introvert, is adapting to the social media aspect of self-promotion. Don’t get me wrong, I have met some amazing people (yourself included) via the internet, and I love the sense of community I’ve discovered with other writers. My problem is just trying to get my mind to switch gears from blog posts, tweets, and that sort of thing back to real, honest-to-goodness fiction writing.

P.S.: Are you a member of a writer’s critique group? If so, please tell us about it, and tell us if you think the group has helped your writing.

J.J.M.: It’s not a group, per se, but I’ve got a couple of writer friends with whom I’ve swapped manuscripts this year. The three of us happen to live on different continents, so I affectionately call them my “International Critique Partners.” From G.L. Cromarty, the amazing author of the Divided World Series, I’ve learned a lot about pacing a large-scale plot and how to keep the human element relevant in global dramas. She’s also my social media coach, helping me out of my 20th century shell! Marcus Henson, author of the upcoming Honour Among Thieves novel, is a world-builder extraordinaire, and a master of fast-paced action sequences. Not only have I benefited from studying their impressive skillsets, and getting their constructive criticism, but I’m also recharged by their passion for the craft. Sometimes I love reading writers write about writing more than I enjoy reading fiction.

P.S.: Your story, “The Wyvern,” will appear in the upcoming anthology Dark Luminous Wings. Please tell us a little about the setting and protagonist of that story.

J.J.M.: I love the Fallout video games, and I was replaying Fallout 3 last year when I watched a little horror movie called The Atticus Institute, about the MK Ultra government experiments in the 1960s. In the film, the psychic experiments go completely of the rails when a subject turns out to be demonically possessed instead of being a normal human psychic. So I thought, “What if the world was destroyed not by a nuclear holocaust, but by a supernatural one?” And so I created what I called “The World after Tomorrow;” our world where the human race has finally started to recreate civilization six centuries after magic and monsters have completely reshaped the planet. It became my sandbox where I could just practice the craft of writing; I could write horror stories, westerns, high fantasies, neo-noir detective stories, military adventures, and in the case of “The Wyvern,” a steampunk ghost-ship story set in the skies above the Mojave Desert. As a nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, I wanted the story’s lead, Captain Noah Oggs, to be incapacitated with broken legs when the horror hits his airship the Cibola.

P.S.: You’re writing a series of short stories and novels called The Shadow Crusade. Please tell us about the world and main character of that series.

J.J.M.: The Shadow Crusade begins in the England and Normandy of 1096, just as the First Crusade is getting underway. I was inspired by Umberto Echo’s The Name of the Rose, and really liked the idea of a Sherlock-Holmes style character in the Middle Ages, but of course, me being me, he would have to deal with magic and monsters. Much like the protagonist of your story, “Instability,” Godric is a Renaissance man centuries ahead of his time. However, he is really too smart for his own good sometimes; he is a hedonist and an iconoclast, despite (or because of) being raised by monks. He is a Saxon orphan who is forced to ally with Robert, an introverted and dogmatic Norman squire, in order to save the world from evil. At its heart, the series is about true friendship; two young men have to overcome their racial and social differences in order to rely on one-another and form a lasting bond as strong as brothers.

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring writers?

Jason J. McCuiston: Understand that rejection is just part of the process. If you can’t handle that, do something else. If someone gives you feedback, take it in, digest it, and let it make you better. Also, just because your story is not right for this agent or that editor, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t right for another one. Keep writing, keep revising, keep submitting, and keep going. I have said, “I may write more bad stories than good ones, but I do write good stories.” My goal is to change that ratio, and the only way to do that is to just keep writing. Remember that: writing in itself is the goal, not the means by which we achieve something else. Write good stories and success will take care of itself.

 

Thanks, Jason, for your answers and for mentioning my own story! Readers eager to find out more about Jason can check out his website, his Facebook page, his Twitter feed, and his Goodreads profile.

Poseidon’s Scribe