Dear Jules Verne

Please forgive me for not having written much sooner.  Of course, you may not be that concerned about my tardiness since you’ve been dead now for 106 years.

There are a great number of things to thank you for, even though belatedly.  I read several of your books in my teenage years.  It was Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea that inspired me to enter my country’s submarine service.  In fact, two of the book’s chapters, ‘Everything by Electricity’ and ‘Some Figures’ spurred me to major in Naval Architecture.

I am also grateful you motivated me to write fiction.  Your novels explored the relationship between man and his latest technology, took readers to exotic and distant locales, contrasted different cultures, and did all those things with scientific accuracy, style, and a touch of humor.  My own stories may be faint imitations, but thank you for confidently blazing the trail on which I now stumble in your footsteps.

You probably receive many letters (or other expressions of gratitude) from geologists inspired by A Journey to the Center of the Earth, astronauts stimulated by From the Earth to the Moon, travelers moved by Around the World in Eighty Days, and science fiction writers motivated by the entire body of your work.  Just add my letter to the stack.

To give you a notion of the depth of admiration felt for you I’ll relate a single incident.  About fifteen years ago I attended a meeting of the North American Jules Verne Society —yes, you have a fan club!  The formal meeting had ended and the membership had retired to one member’s house to continue our discussions sustained by beer and wine.  This fellow’s neighbor came over and listened to our conversations with apparent interest for about five minutes.  He then raised his voice and asked the assembled fans, “You do know Jules Verne is dead, don’t you?”  The room fell silent, and remained so for some time.  In a sense, to many of us, you never died.

On behalf of the English-speaking world, I must apologize for the abysmal early translations of your novels into my language, though I’m not responsible.  It is a measure of your genius that even these literary hatchet jobs couldn’t prevent your works from being enjoyed by millions, even billions.  I promise to do my part to encourage English speakers to read only recent, more faithful, translations.  Or better yet, to read your novels in the original French.

On the subject of apologies, I ask your forgiveness for the pathetic renderings of your works in cinematic formats.  I trust you’ll make some allowance for this, knowing that modern movie scriptwriters and directors are aiming for a different audience than you were.

More English translations of your lesser-known novels appear all the time, and I read these as fast as they appear.  These include: The Floating Island, An Antarctic Mystery, The Mighty Orinoco, Invasion of the Sea, The Meteor Hunt, Adventures of the Rat Family, The Humbug: the American Way of Life, and Paris in the Twentieth Century.  Even now the bookshelf on which I keep your books groans and sags.  No matter; I shall make a longer, stronger shelf!

Please take my story “The Steam Elephant” which appears in Issue 5 of Steampunk Tales,  the sequel to your novels The Demon of Cawnpore and Tigers and Traitors,  in the spirit of fond tribute intended.  What great fun it was to bring your characters together again, but in Africa rather than India.

In gratitude eternal, I raise my wine glass to toast you, my hero and my inspiration.

Thank you,

Steven R. Southard

aka

Poseidon’s Scribe

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For Heart or Market?

Today’s question:  should you write for your heart or for the market?  (Doesn’t it always come down to love or money?)  Beginning writers often ask this, invariably because what they want to write (what their heart is telling them to write) is not selling in the marketplace.  Moreover, when they look at what is selling, they see only cookie-cutter books in neat, well-defined genres, which are not the type of thing they wish to write.

Ideally, of course, the two are the same—what you want to write is exactly the sort of story that’s selling.  Even better is to anticipate the market, to be writing now what the market will soon want, but doesn’t know it wants yet.

Most often, however, your heart is tugging you away from what readers want.  And that takes us back to the question. Should you plug along, scribbling words you enjoy that will never be read, or compromise your integrity and crank out prolefeed for the masses, hating yourself for it every minute?

For short story writers like me, the answer is yes…do both.  Short stories are small enough investments in time that you can write some tales for the sheer fun of it, and others that are more conventional and salable.

You may find yourself facing the same choice at two different times with the same story.  Say you choose your heart and write your tale the way you want to, markets be damned.  That certainly keeps your integrity intact and you feel good about that.  Then you submit for publication and the editor likes the story but suggests significant changes to make it more salable.  Now you’re faced with a decision again—twist the story you love all out of shape to satisfy readers, or keep your writing pure and visible only to those who inhabit your desk drawer?

As we further examine the heart-or-market question, it’s important to go back to your own goals as a writer.  Do you write for the money or do you write because something inside says you must?  If the answer is nearer one extreme than the other, that may help decide which path to pursue.   Trouble is, you might have two equal goals and that just puts you right back on the horns of the dilemma.

One thing to bear in mind as you hone your writing talent is that both the market and your heart are moving things.  We know that reader’s tastes change, and the next hot fiction trend may veer toward the stories you love writing but couldn’t previously sell.  In the same manner (though harder to believe) your own tastes in writing may change.  Once your muse gets bored, you never know what oddball ideas she may whisper to you next.  You could end up writing in a genre you had sworn you’d never condescend to.

If both your heart and the market are changing, then at some point they may approach very closely, and you’ll find yourself enjoying writing for the market.  When that happens, ride the wave as long as possible!

I can’t answer the question for you, but perhaps I’ve provided some factors to consider as you resolve the quandary for yourself.  Look at it this way–what would writing be without some kind of internal battle, some titanic inner war over the course of the soul?  As always, Dear Beginning Writer, your lonely struggles are appreciated and acknowledged by–

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Write What You Know? Really?

One of the oldest sayings about writing is “write what you know.”  Its originator is unknown.  Is this good advice, or bad?

This much is certain; it’s a lucky thing some great writers didn’t actually follow that advice.  For one thing, we never would have had any science fiction or fantasy, since no writer has gone through the experiences of characters in those sorts of stories.

Or have they?

In one sense, all characters encounter problems and experience emotional reactions to those problems, then seek to find a resolution to those problems.  All writers, all prospective writers, and even all people have done these things.  Maybe you haven’t battled menacing wyverns with a magic sword, but you’ve felt fear, had adrenalin rushes, struggled to overcome a difficulty, experienced a feeling like all is lost, grabbed for one last chance, and felt the triumphant glow of victory.  You’ve had the sensations your character will have.  Even though you’re writing about a heroic knight in some never-time of mystical wonder, you’re still—in one sense—writing what you know.

I suspect some long-ago teacher coined the maxim after first giving students a writing assignment and listening to a student complain about not knowing what to write.  The answer “write what you know” isn’t a bad one in that circumstance, since the students aren’t seeking wider publication, and writing about something familiar can free the student from worrying about research or getting facts wrong.

For a writer who is seeking publication, we’ll have to amend the adage.  Write what you know, so long as:

  • It’s not just a list of boring events from your real life;
  • You give us (your readers) an interesting plot and engaging characters;
  • Your descriptions grab us and insert us right into your setting, your story’s world; and
  • Your writing touches something inside us and helps us feel what your main characters feel.

So what you know may be that ugly incident at the school playground from third grade, but don’t give us the play-by-play of that.  Please.  Instead, use the feelings of that long-ago afternoon, but make the events happen in a different time and setting, with different characters.  If your setting is a far-flung planet and your characters are wearing space suits and packing blaster pistols, you might want to do some research to ensure plausibility.  But if you’re true to the emotions you felt on that playground, they’ll come through as genuine in your story and your readers will connect.

So, Beginning Writer, if you’re stuck and don’t know how to get started, try writing what you know, then edit it into what readers want to read.   Just some more free advice from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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In the Mood…

…for writing, I mean.  If you’re an author, how do you get in the best possible mood to write?

Face it, not every moment of the actual process of writing involves the seamless flow of ideas from brain down to fingers typing with frenzied speed on a keyboard.  There are moments (minutes, hours?) spent staring out the window, looking at a world that’s become far more interesting than the problem of figuring out what the next word should be.  At those times, you need a way to get unstuck.

To be clear, I’m not talking about the classic “writer’s block” where you can be stuck for long periods of time—months or years—and unable to get any creative ideas.  I’m talking about the lesser nephew of writer’s block—let’s call it writer’s clog—a temporary condition where your muse has already whispered the story’s basic idea and sketched out a rough plot.  She has since flitted off to Tonga, or wherever she flits to, and left you in charge of the actual writing part.  You’ve worked on the story for a few days, but all of a sudden words aren’t flowing.

Yogi Berra said of baseball, “Ninety percent of this game is half mental,” and I calculate that statement is eighty percent more true of writing.  So your writer’s clog problem is most likely a mental one.  Now, how are you going to stimulate your mind so it wants to write again?

The simplest way for me is to recall the thought process that led me to the story.  That usually conjures up pleasant memories of the initial enthusiasms, the high expectations of how good the story could be.  Back at that earlier time, my muse had just whispered the story idea and it sounded great.  At that moment, I knew the world needed to hear that story and I was excited about the notion of bringing it forth.

But let’s say that’s not working for you.  Consider using this interesting property of your mind—it can associate two things together (like putting two documents in the same file) just because they happened at the same time, no matter how unlike they are.  Let’s say the muse conveyed the story idea to you while you were in the shower, or mowing the lawn, or out for a walk.  Strangely, your mind now connects your story with that experience.  You might be able to regain your passion for the story, and relieve the writer’s clog, by recreating the experience.

Another method is to artificially create a mental association that’s easier to replicate later.  During the first day of writing the story, while the fervor is still there, the muse’s ideas fresh in your mind—you can make your own mental linkage by finding a picture that depicts something about your story (a scene or character) and staring at it.  You could burn some incense or put out some potpourri and stimulate a fragrant linkage.  Or you could play a CD where the music suggests something about the story, thus establishing an aural connection.

Now whenever you see that picture, smell that scent, or play that CD, you will think of your story and likely be in the mood to continue writing it.  Think of it as Writer’s Clog-Be-Gone (patent not exactly pending).

Do you think this technique might work for you?  Has it worked?   Let me know by clicking “Leave a comment.”  It’s down there right below where I sign this entry as…

Poseidon’s Scribe

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A Little Prompting

Would you like to write a story but don’t have any idea what to write about?  Perhaps you often find yourself having this problem.  Once you’re given some external spark, you can write like crazy; it’s just difficult in the beginning to figure out the idea for the story.

In February I mentioned I don’t usually suffer from this problem.  But there must be many who do, given the number of books and websites devoted to helping people solve it.  If you search for “writing prompts” you’ll see what I mean.

No, I won’t be giving you a list of prompts in this blog post, sorry.  My aims are to (1) give you some sources of prompts and (2) suggest some ways you can become self-prompting.  It’s akin to the “give a man a fish” adage.

When it comes to books, I recommend Story Starters by Dr. Lou Willett Stanek, which I had briefly mentioned in a May 15 blog.  Her book is full of brief suggestions, short little prompts you can use to build a story around.  Many of them can be used as the hook–the opening–for your story, after a little alteration.

One website with plenty of prompts is that of Kelly A. Harmon.  Not all of her posts contain prompts, but they are a frequent feature of her site.  And she’s giving them away for free!  The only price is this—if one of her prompts is just the spark you needed to write a story, then out of courtesy you ought to leave a comment thanking her!

Let’s see, I did promise to help you become self-prompting, didn’t I?  It may not be much help to tell you how I do it, but my method just might work for you.  I assign the entire problem to my muse.  (Yes, I know my “muse” is really just the creative side of me, and therefore I’m assigning the problem to myself.  Just go with me here…)  Prompting is my muse’s strength; writing is mine.  It’s just a matter of workload assignment according to aptitude.  What’s more, as long as that’s all I ask of my muse, so far she’s come through for me every time.

Right, that’s no help to you, I know.  Here’s something that might serve you better.  If you examine the common traits of the writing prompts provided by Dr. Stanek and Kelly Harmon, you’ll see the following:

  • They contain a touch of the ordinary. Something links the prompt to everyday life, or at least something within most people’s experience.  In my February 20 blog, I called this the “seed.”
  • They may contain a twist, something that alters the ordinary and makes it unusual, or even extraordinary.
  • They may be related to something visual, a picture or image.  Vision is our primary sense, and seeing something intriguing can be just the thing to spark a story idea.
  • They suggest a problem for someone, or a conflict that someone must resolve.  The conflict may be against someone else, against something in the environment, or against something inside that person.
  • They may involve, or at least suggest, a strong emotion of some kind.
  • They come from the world around us.   You can be prompted by something you actually experience, or by something you read online or in a magazine or newspaper or see on TV.

Those are the elements of a writing prompt. Now you know how Kelly comes up with hers, and how Dr. Stanek wrote a book full of them.  (Don’t tell them I gave away their secret!)  Now you might be able to come up with prompts all on your own.  You may even find, as I suspect, that the initial spark wasn’t your problem all along.  Your real problem is fleshing it out, actually writing an interesting story.

Ah, that would be a subject for another blog post, perhaps one yet to be written by…

Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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