Writing with Spectators

In his book The Way the Future Was, the late science fiction author Frederik Pohl stated, “Writing is not a spectator sport.” Oh, yeah? I set out to prove him wrong.

I rented a football stadium, hired two commentators, and advertised for several thousand of my fans to watch me write. Here’s the transcript, as broadcast:

Pat: “It’s a beautiful afternoon here at the stadium and we’ve got quite a crowd for this amazing event. Wouldn’t you say so, John?”

John: “No doubt about that, Pat, weather-wise and crowd-size-wise. But this is the first time I’ve covered one of these writer athletes, and I’m not sure what to expect.”

Pat: “It’s a first for both of us. Look, the writer himself has entered the field and is making his way to the center, and the crowd’s cheering.”

John: “I like his confidence. You can see it in his walk. He’s not swaggering or strutting, just striding with confidence. I like that.”

Pat: “Tonight’s writer is Steven R. Southard. He’s been writing for several seasons already, and his career is on an upswing. He’s reached midfield now and is sitting at the desk there. The crowd is settling down. I’m guessing things will start soon.”

John: “I’m a bit confused, Pat. There’s no team with him. No opposing team out there, either. Not a single referee, and no coaches pacing the sidelines.”

Pat: “I guess that’s the way writing is, John. Must be a solitary thing. Look, Steve has turned on his computer. The stadium scoreboard is off so I don’t know if time has started or not.”

John: “I think we must have a second-rate writer, here, Pat. This guy is just staring into space. He hasn’t typed a thing. Now he’s sipping some coffee. I sorta expected more action, typing-wise.”

Pat: “Maybe fiction writing isn’t all typing. Apparently there is some amount of thinking involved, too.”

John: “If he keeps this up, he’s going to be traded in the off-season. This is just the kind of lazy work ethic that…hold on. He’s typing on the keyboard now. He’s actually typing.”

Pat: “True, John, he is. We can’t see the words from here. We’ll see if we can get a close-up view. He’s definitely pounding out some prose.”

John: “And the crowd’s getting into it, too. They can sense the energy. Still, he might want to work on his posture, because—uh, oh. He stopped. Did he call for a timeout? We’re back to that staring-into-space play that didn’t work before. How many timeouts do they allow in this sport?”

Pat: “I’m not sure, but we’re going to cut to a commercial break. Don’t change the channel, folks. There’s more exciting action coming up.”

——————————————————–

Pat: “We’re back, live at the stadium. There was some activity during the break.”

John: (odd sound, possibly yawning) “Yeah, but it was the wrong kinda action, Pat. No typing at all. Southard got up from his chair and paced around the desk a few times, gesturing and talking to himself. He’s not going to get any stories written that way.”

Pat: “He sure isn’t. A lot of fans seem to agree too, and are leaving for the parking lot. It’s hard to know if our writer is making any progress down there on the field.”

John: “Progress? He hardly moves. I can’t stand this anymore. This isn’t a sport! The boredom is killing me. I’d rather watch goalposts rust, or wait for Astroturf to grow. I’m leaving.”

Pat: “We’ve only been here fifteen minutes, John.”

John: “Then why do I feel fifteen years older, age-wise?”

The broadcast ended soon after that when both commentators and all the camera operators left. Perhaps Frederik Pohl was right after all, um, correctness-wise. From now on, writing will return to being a non-spectator event for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Writing Aloud

Most writers type the first drafts of their stories. A few, like me, hand-write their first drafts. Perhaps you’d like to try a third way…dictating your stories.

That’s right. Forget the keyboard or pen. Just speak your story into a recording device.

Reasons

Why might you want to do that? On her site, Cindy Grigg offers 13 compelling reasons. I was struck by the first one, speed. After getting used to dictating stories, many writers find they can crank out their first draft prose much faster. That saves time and makes them more prolific.

Thomas A. Edison dictating in 1907

You might also benefit from the increased mobility. Speaking into your handheld digital voice recorder or cellphone, you’re freed from the shackles of your desk and chair and the need to have two hands on a keyboard. You can wander around the house, around the neighborhood, through the nearest park. The walking (1) keeps you healthier, (2) avoids any chance of eye strain or repetitive motion injuries, and (3) provides more varied stimulation for your senses that you can work into your fiction.

I think Grigg is onto something, too, in listing strengthened storytelling voice as another advantage. I’ve advised writers to read near-final drafts aloud before submitting them as a way of improving readability. Why not speak it aloud from the start?

Further, when dictating, it’s easier to turn off your inner editor. I’ve mentioned before how important that is when creating your first draft.

Methods

The objective is to get words from your head into word processor text. When you type on a keyboard, the process is direct. If you write by hand, there’s another step when you transcribe from your handwritten pages and type it on the keyboard.

For dictation methods, you can speak into your computer microphone or your cellphone and make use of speech recognition software to convert your words directly into digital text.

Or you can use a digital voice recorder or cell phone to record your voice into a .wav or MP3 format. Then you’ll go through a second step, to transcribe the words from one of those formats into the word processor. You can do that by (1) listening and typing them yourself, (2) paying someone else to do that, like Kevin J. Anderson does, or (3) playing your voice back into your computer’s speech recognition software.

The Adjustment

Shifting from typing or handwriting to dictation takes some getting used to. Be prepared for some discomfort at first. According to Monica Leonelle, in her interview with Joanna Penn, the shift can take a few months before you’re used to it.

My Experience

A few years ago, I tried Dragon NaturallySpeaking speech recognition software. I was able to train the Dragon, but I couldn’t get comfortable speaking my first drafts that way. I returned to writing by hand.

I’m having second thoughts about dictation now. For years, I’ve adapted my fiction writing to accommodate my day job. I’ll be retiring soon, so my writing habits will have to change. Perhaps writing aloud will prove to be the new optimum method for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

22 Ways to Celebrate Science Fiction Day

Today is National Science Fiction Day. Wait…National SF Day? Since no nation officially recognizes it, I suggest we rename it Galactic Science Fiction Day. After all, the Milky Way Galaxy has officially recognized it. Don’t believe me? Prove me wrong.

Dr. Isaac Asimov

January 2 is an apt date for SF Day. It’s Isaac Asimov’s birthday. Maybe. I seem to recall reading that Isaac wasn’t 100% sure of his birthdate. That ambiguity makes the date even more fitting.

Also, January 2 is so close to the beginning of the year that it seems to retain a connection to the recent past while also causing us to think about the promise of the year ahead. Rather a nice metaphor for SF.

If you’re wondering just how to celebrate SF Day, well, fellow Earthling, you’ve beamed to the right blog post. Here’s a list of 22 ways to celebrate. I hoped to list all 42 ways, but Heinlein’s Star Beast ate 20 of them.

  1. Read a SF short story or novel. If you need a suggestion for which to read, may I (ahem) recommend any of my stories? Click the Stories tab. Or you could read Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, a classic that’s 200 years old this year.
  2. Watch a SF movie or TV show. Luckily, there are plenty of quality choices these days.

That takes care of the two obvious ways to celebrate. Now on to the more unconventional ways:

  1. Prepare and serve some SF-themed food and drink. You can get some great ideas for this in posts by Mike Brotherton, Meg Shields, Meredith Woerner and at a site called aliencuisine.com. There are, by the way, at least two mixed drink recipes called the Captain Nemo—this one, and this one.
  2. Listen to some SF-inspired music. You have plenty from which to choose, including movie and TV show sound tracks and various SF-inspired rock songs.
  3. Dress as your favorite SF character.
  4. Play a SF-themed video game.
  5. Write a fan email or letter to your favorite (living) SF author. (The Poseidon’s Scribe blog accepts comments. Just saying.)
  6. Write a review of a favorite SF story or novel.
  7. Build a model of your favorite SF vehicle.
  8. Grab a partner and play a game of 3-dimensional chess.

If your celebratory mood takes a creative twist, consider the following:

  1. Compose, or just hum, your very own SF song.
  2. Draw a picture of a musical instrument of the future.
  3. Write a SF-inspired poem.
  4. Imagine how life could be different for someone like you living 100 or 1000 years from now.
  5. Pick a current trend you’ve observed (social, governmental, or any type of trend), and extrapolate it in your mind, imagining the future implications.
  6. Make a list of possible future sports, or ways science may influence current sports.
  7. Draw or write a description of the most bizarre alien you can think of.
  8. Draw or write a description of your own SF vehicle. It can be any type of vehicle, traveling through (or within or athwart, or whateverwhichway) any medium.
  9. Draw or write a description of the house (or other building) of the future.
  10. Imagine what your current job will be like for workers 100 or 1000 years from now.
  11. Imagine your favorite super-power. What is it? What problems might occur if you had it? What scientific advances might have to happen for you to get that super-power?
  12. Write an outline for your own SF story or novel or screenplay. Or write the whole tale.

Happy Natio—er, I mean Galactic Science Fiction Day. Perhaps you can think of ways to celebrate that are beyond the imagination of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Orwell or Wells—Can Science Save Humanity?

Will Science save humankind, or lead us to our doom? The Internet is buzzing lately with various online outlets reprinting this article by Richard Gunderman in The Conversation, about a debate between H. G. Wells and George Orwell on this topic.

H.G. Wells, best known for his science fiction novels such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, believed science was the best hope for humanity’s future. George Orwell, an essayist, critic, and author of 1984 and Animal Farm, took a less optimistic view.

The article makes it sound like a lively back-and-forth argument ensued, but from the essays cited, it seems rather one-sided. In the early 1940s, H.G. Wells was in his late 70s and near death. George Orwell was in his late 30s, (though not too far from his own death at 46). From what I can glean, this was mostly Orwell criticizing Wells, not the other way around.

Before we explore the ‘debate,’ let me define terms. Science is a systematic process for gaining knowledge about the universe through experimentation. Since it involves the accumulation of knowledge, it’s unlikely that Science, by itself, can either save or destroy humanity. I think of Engineering as the application of scientific knowledge to design, invent, and produce useful products.

When both Wells and Orwell refer to Science, I think they meant to include Engineering. For the purpose of this blogpost, I’ll use that same shorthand meaning of Science.

Wells grew up in an era far different from Orwell’s. He saw the rapid development of science—automobiles, submarines, airplanes, relativity, skyscrapers, rocketry, and medicine—and foresaw amazing wonders that would benefit mankind. He figured the same scientific process that could produce those wonders could also lead to better government if we placed scientists in charge.

Let’s give Wells some credit, though. He was no Pollyanna. Many of his novels portrayed the misuse of science for destructive ends. But George Orwell seized on some of Wells’ more optimistic—though lesser known—writings.

In the early 1940s, Orwell watched with growing horror at the growth of Hitler’s Germany and saw it as the embodiment of Wells’ ideas, a nation of submarines, rockets, and airplanes, with science-minded people running the show. To Orwell, Deutschland was no Utopia. He castigated Wells in a couple of scathing essays.

In his article in The Conversation, Gunderman claims the debate is still relevant today. It’s been 75 years since Orwell penned his criticisms; have we learned enough to settle the argument?

Since that time, Science has split the atom to provide electricity, visited the Marianas Trench, landed on the Moon, built and commercialized the Internet, put instant communication in our pockets, sent probes to explore the outer planets, multiplied crop yields, mapped the human genome, and extended lifespans through medical breakthroughs.

On the other hand, Science also brought us nuclear weapons, the Apollo 1 fire and two space shuttle disasters, Chernobyl, computer viruses, armed drones, and electronic spying. Soon, perhaps, an artificial intelligence Singularity may be looming.

In my view, science is a tool, like a knife or hammer. People can use it for good or evil. It amplifies our capacity for both. The concepts of good or evil reside in the individual human mind. To ask if Science will save humanity is like asking if a hammer will save humanity. It depends on how we use the tool.

The real question is whether our good natures will prevail over our evil ones. I think there are far more good people than evil ones, but the evil ones have greater influence per capita. For some reason, a few clever evil people can sway many good people to their side.

So far, across the span of human time our good natures have won out and the products of science have proffered more benefits than harm. On average, life is better now than in the past, for most. But it’s a close thing, and our history shows frequent backsliding.

Whether humanity achieves Utopia, destroys itself, or some outcome in between, Science will deserve neither credit nor blame. Only the human capacity for love or hate will determine our future. And that’s the realm of fiction writers like—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Defeating Distraction, Finding Focus

You’re writing at a good pace, but then get distracted, torn away from your story. You hate when that happens, but sometimes the diversion is irresistible. What causes that, and how can you prevent it?

We live in a distraction-rich environment. Even before the Internet, there were rooms to clean, library books to return, lawns to mow, desk items to straighten, and windows to gaze through. Today, there are Facebook posts to like, tweets to retweet, texts to answer, online stores to shop in, blog posts to read, and new sites to explore.

Still, this tendency to get distracted doesn’t make sense, does it? You sat down fully intending to write your story. Then things went awry; that best-laid plan went askew, you diverted to a tangent. Why does that happen?

Let’s separate two types of distraction—external and internal—and tackle each separately.

External Distractions

These attack you from outside and appeal to one or more senses. A funny show comes on TV, a favorite song blares from the radio, the cat snuggles against you, a pleasant aroma wafts from the kitchen.

The cure for these might seem simple; just eliminate external sources of distraction. Write in a bare, soundproof room with the door shut, on a computer disconnected from the net.

That might work for some, but for many of us it’s not practical. It’s better to start by eliminating your most common, most alluring distractions if you can. As for the others, learn to become aware when a distractor is pulling you away. At the onset of each distraction, make a conscious decision to allow it or not.

Consider setting up a “focus object,” an inspirational something to redirect you toward your story, akin to the busts of Beethoven atop pianos. I made a framed picture of Jules Verne with the caption “Keep writing, Steve,” and mounted it above my desk. Pick a focus object specific to you and glance at it when you feel the tug of some external interruption.

Internal Distractions

The internal ones are worse, since your own mind assails you and there’s no one else to blame. Your mind wanders away from your story and suddenly there’s something else needing your attention. You have a bill due today; this story idea needs additional research; you’re wondering what that old high school friend is up to.

These generally occur when you’re stuck and need to solve an unexpected story problem. You feel you have to pause and think before writing further. That’s the moment when your brain takes a meandering walk.

As with external distractions, part of the cure is learning to recognize the distraction at the moment it occurs. If you were truly stuck just before that instant, maybe a short break is just the thing you need. Your subconscious can work on the problem while you’re engaged in the distracting activity.

If you were making progress right before that moment, ask yourself this question: “Is this the best use of my time right now?” On occasion, the distraction will be the best answer. Most times, you’ll realize you should return to your story.

Final Thoughts

Visualization is another technique for dealing with distractions. Keep a vision of you finishing your story, admiring it, and submitting it for publication. Think of how good that will feel. Use that vision to get you focused back on writing.

Recognize, too, that you can’t stay focused forever. You need to give your brain a rest. The Pomodoro Technique can be a way to promote both proper focusing and reasonable breaks.

You’ll find more great advice on dealing with distractions at this post by Leo Babauta and this one by Margarita Tartakovsky.

I hope you enjoyed… Sorry, I’ve got to go. Something else has attracted the attention of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

4 Ways to Fix the Boring Parts

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the dull parts cut out of it.” Is that the secret to good fiction writing? Can it be that simple?

Let’s say you’re looking over the story you just finished writing and you see a section where the action really drags. While writing, it seemed necessary to describe a scene fully or explain a character’s backstory so later plot actions would make sense. Now you’re torn. Should you follow Hitchcock’s advice and just cut that section, or leave it in at the risk of boring your readers?

I recommend using the following process to deal with boring sections of your story:

  1. No matter what the nature of boring part, and no matter what attribute makes it boring, ask if you really need it at all. If readers can still follow the plot or identify with the characters without that part, or if it’s some superfluous tangent, then obey Alfred and cut it out. (Okay, you can save the text in some ‘deleted darlings’ file for use in a different story if you want, but cut it out of this one.)
  2. If the boring part of your story feels like the action is dragging and it could use some interesting twist, see author Steve Parolini’s entertaining post. He’ll delight you with 12 plot twists you can use. As you read them, you’ll realize there are many more; the dozen he gives you may suggest others that will fit your story better. Note: these twists may well send your story in unplanned (but definitely unboring) directions.
  3. If the boring part is a setting depiction, or a description of character backstory, or a detailed explanation of some aspect of the story, it’s possible you really do need to convey that information somehow. That part, though currently boring, is necessary for the reader to enjoy or understand the story. For this situation, turn to this post by mooderino, (which also has a wonderfully fitting image), who provides three options for that boring part:
    1. Move it later. Don’t put it at the beginning, but save it for a point when the reader is hooked on the story and the protagonist.
    2. Move it to a scene when that character is alone. The reader isn’t expecting much action in these scenes, and the reader is catching her breath from a previous action scene.
    3. Split it up and sprinkle it around. Perhaps you can insert pieces of the information into more interesting scenes, thus allowing those details to emerge as the story moves along.
  4. If none of the preceding steps really work for you; if that boring part reveals something important about the plot, character, or setting; then take the risk and leave it right where it is. That’s the advice of author Richard Riley in this post. You might just want to edit that boring part to put more energy in the words, but other than that, just leave it.

If this has helped you deal with a boring section of your story, leave a comment, but be careful not to wake up—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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