Lights Out

When I sit down to write, I become Hammie the Squirrel.

OOH SHINY!

OOH SHINY!

Everything is more interesting than starting the project. “What’s on Facebook? I should check my mail on Lord of the Rings Online. I probably am due for a weekly gift. Which episode of Everybody Loves Raymond is my wife watching? Oh, that one? There’s a hilarious scene coming up I don’t want to miss. What’s going on in the world, CNN?”

I picked up an idea from a blog recently. The writer suggested typing blindfolded as a means to eliminate distractions.

I play piano very well. I can close my eyes and play songs I know by heart, because my hands are used to the muscle movements required to hit the right notes. Could it be the same with the keyboard?

Of course it could. If you’ve taken classical typing courses, with the ASDF JKL-Sem method, you probably already know how to type without looking at the keys or perhaps even the screen. If you’re like me, with no formal typing training but a lot of practice sitting at a computer expressing thoughts, you still might have a system for typing that allows you to do so with eyes closed.

I decided to try this method. Last night, sitting on my bed, I threw my fleece blanket over my head, popped some Lindsey Stirling into my iPod earbuds, and took one last glance to see what keys my fingers were resting on.

Within minutes I had pumped out 400 words with few errors, and an eagerness to keep going. I took a short break, and started again. I finished a 1200 word section of my current novel with no real issues or errors.

What about editing? I have to edit anyway, so if I can silence the editor’s voice while trying to simply write, even better.

The one drawback came close to the end of my effort, since I started around midnight. (Can’t help it. Strike when the iron is hot.) I am a coffeeholic, and a sleep-deprivation criminal. Four hours a night is doing good for me. (It’s not good for me, but it’s doing better than some nights when I get carried away with my various distractions.)

Even with the awesome beat behind Lindsey’s violin, the music kept trying to carry me off into dreams. Sitting on my bed in the comfort of the blanket probably contributed to that as well.

I nonetheless gave the piece a quick edit, read it to my wife, and enjoyed her positive reaction.

Considering I spent about two hours sitting in front of my computer earlier that evening, alternating between pointless Internet browsing and drowsy head-nodding, I counted this venture as a success.

Have you heard of this, or tried this before?

What are some of the ways you mitigate the power of distractions to your writing?

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Using Pain

From www.quotespedia.info

No image in the blog, no readers of the blog.

The quote isn’t news to anyone, I’m sure. But it is truth that we have to consider when we write. No one’s interested in a story without struggle, a character without conflict, a plot without pain.

If I want to move the reader, I think I ought to have been moved in a similar way in the past. Then I need to take that and pour all of it, unvarnished, unprettified, into the feelings and emotions of the character.

At our writer’s critique group, I’ve been submitting pieces of various stories, testing out how to write different magic systems or mechanics. If the non-fantasy-reader Christian ladies can make sense of what I write, and if they enjoy it, then I think I’m communicating clearly.

Last week I submitted yet another “Chapter 1” involving the outcast in a small village. My fellow writers connected with this character. They got her motivations, her feelings, her concerns. All said it was fantastic, a couple said it was the best they’d seen of my work thus far.

I have to think that’s because I borrowed from my real life experiences to glimpse how this character feels.

About a month ago, I had an evaluation at work, and I screwed up a couple of items. The overall grade was a passing score, but it felt like failure. I had to complete some additional training to get back up to speed before being allowed to work on my own.

When I went to work in the days following that failure, I would see grins on people’s faces and wonder, were they laughing at me? If a conversation stopped abruptly, or started up as soon as I left a room, were they talking about me? How did my friends and close coworkers feel about my grade? They all said nice things, but did they really mean it? After all, I’d seen this happen to other people before. I’ve probably talked about those other people.

Voices whispering, judgmental smirks, expressions of disappointment… these haunted me for days. To some extent, I still hear them by default.

I put all of this into my outcast character’s mind. I transcribed my thoughts in italics in her voice and put words to my fears.

And in doing so, I got the best feedback I’ve had thus far.

An assassin that can bend time, sure, that’s cool. Might be fun to read. A commoner thrust into the military machine because he has the power to hear the voice of the Elements, okay, fine. Seems interesting, maybe.

But everyone knows what it’s like to feel alone in a room full of people, to hear laughter and know that it’s about me. That’s a character readers can relate to and understand.

Using painful experiences lets me lock the reader in on the main character’s heart. Then I can throw in cool powers and technology. Or not.

Either way, the critique story is getting a chapter 2 next time, not another chapter 1.

Further Self-Publishing Resources

This was another fantastic article on the subject.

Reading these gets me excited… not because I think I have some magic market-shattering bestseller hiding in my head waiting to hit the Kindle, but because what once seemed so lofty and unattainable – putting a book on the market, subject to the whims of the editors and publishers – now seems easily within reach.

I’m encouraged. Hope you are too.

Character Issues

“We demand an ending! Our story’s worth defending!”

The Halfling chanted and waved a large cardboard sign as he stomped back and forth. His cloak and bandolier of throwing knives betrayed his profession – more than a burglar, darker than a common thief. The cherubic features of his face twisted in rage.

And he was not alone.

A reporter described the scene into the camera. “Creation in Crisis: Discontented characters on strike! This is Jessie Storm reporting live at the scene in the Unfinished Works folder, where several key members of various plotlines have come forward to express their displeasure.”

A warrior marched in full plate armor, the shaft of his sign tucked away under a tower shield that glimmered in the noonday sun. Behind him, an old man in a diner uniform hobbled with a cane, his voice croaking out the protest cry. “Our story’s worth defending!”

A person much like a wild-haired midget trundled along in the line, holding up a sign and staring in silence. His rattle shook with each step, issuing a faint shuuu-Ka. Next came a woman in gleaming armor, her icy blue eyes like scales weighing the hearts of the crowd. A woman in flowing robes trailed behind her, with eyes drooping down between furtive glances at the onlookers. 

A cloaked assassin stood off to the side. Jessie Storm approached and asked, “Miss, do you have any comment?”

“I saw this coming,” the assassin muttered. “And I already know they’re not going to change anything. The joys of seeing the future before it happens… I can identify and avoid lost causes… even the good ones.”

“That’s… depressing,” Jessie fumbled for words.

The assassin’s frustrations burst. “No, what’s depressing is being left trying to escape after a hit, standing in the middle of a busy street just because the Creator is caught up with some other idea at the moment.”

Jessie backed away and turned to the protestors. She knelt down to ask the midget, “And why are you here?”

He paused his march and locked eyes with the reporter. Then the woman in armor spoke. “He never says anything. Just plays that bone-rattle of his. I think he’s not right in the head.”

“Not surprising,” she added, “since – as I hear tell – the Creator left him aware of a source of great power that could satisfy his hunger, but never gave him the chance to take hold of it.”

“I can see how that might be maddening,” Jessie replied.

“No, maddening is being left unconscious in the middle of a fight, not sure if your friends even win the day.”

The shy woman behind her mumbled something, and the warrior woman spun around. “I know you say we were about to win, but I don’t know for sure. Can’t you see how irritating that is?”

Then the halfling spoke up. “At least He didn’t leave off mid-sentence with what happened to you. ‘The hook whip latched onto Ellers and the bloody man yanked with all his might. Ellers flew several feet and crashed into the ground, then slid and.”

Jessie looked at the protestors, all of whom seemed to ignore the halfling. “I’ll bite. And what?”

“That’s it!” he barked. “Then slid and.” The sign waved back and forth as the halfling vented. “He couldn’t even be bothered to finish the sentence. That’s where He left me… sliding across the floor and.

The woman in robes spoke up. “Oh, it’s so hard for you, isn’t it. ‘The Creator didn’t finish my fight scene. Waah!'” She pointed a finger. “I don’t even know if I’m in my right mind, or if the power I’ve discovered is going to help me or kill me.”

Jessie turned back to the camera. “There you have it, folks. A Creator who has abdicated His responsibilities… unfinished scenes, abandoned plotlines. Will these characters ever get the answers they seek? Stay tuned to Channel–”

A voice boomed from the heavens.

“Cease this nonsense. You think you have it bad now…”

In the distance a new folder opened, shedding inviting light onto the crowd. Another appeared from the ether on the other side of town. Letters flashed across the sky. At first, the onlookers stepped forward, but then they recoiled.

The letters on the first read, Game of Thrones-style storytelling with a subtitle Red Wedding.

On the second, Twilight Fan Fiction.

The crowd dispersed, each returning to their own stories and settings.

Sometimes it was better to be forgotten.

The Day She Saw the President

I caught a WordPress blog about writing a story in 24 hours, and they referred to a short story contest as an opportunity to test out their suggested course of brainstorming and writing. “Sure, why not,” I thought. And so I paid my $5 entry fee, got the rules, and awaited the start of the contest, wondering what the writing prompt might be. Here’s what we received:

Holding the sleeping infant on her shoulder, she
gazed peacefully at her surroundings. Tourists
wandered in and out of stores, an old man was
setting up his easel by the lakeshore, and a
child’s balloon escaped into the breeze. A
moment later, she looked up as shouts startled
her and the baby. Everybody was running in
her direction…
– and the max word count: 950 words.

With that in mind… here’s my entry.

THE DAY SHE SAW THE PRESIDENT

The future:
Two figures stepped through the war-torn radioactive Midwest ash fields, their helmet lamps bright in the haze. Dust hung in the air behind them near the cracked edge of a dry lakebed, the only significant change in scenery for miles.
Dane peered into the chronoscope and surveyed Chicago from twenty three years earlier. The viewfinder centered on a woman holding a baby near Millenium Park. Dane handed the scope to his companion. His comm crackled, “You sure this is the moment, Z?”
She checked the device. “That’s the day. That’s her.”
Z doffed her pack and drew out three silver cylinders. She planted their bases in the ground. A triangle of blue light glowed between them. “You sure these will work?”
Dane adjusted controls on his pad. “It’s like jumping out of a plane into a tornado with a bow and arrow, trying to hit a paper target on a board at a hundred yards… with a thousand other boards whipping around in there too.”
“So… no, I’m not sure.” He stretched out his hand. “You coming?”
“Yeah. Let’s fix this mess.” She took hold and they vanished.

The present:
Holding the sleeping infant, Melanie McCullough gazed at her surroundings to pass the time. Tourists wandered in and out of stores, an old man set up his easel by the lakeshore, and a child’s balloon escaped into the breeze.
Melanie patted her baby’s back and listened to her soft snoring. “You’re missing out, Lins.” A sterling silver bracelet on the baby’s arm clinked in rhythm. A soldier’s face looked out from the photo in the bracelet. Her husband Gavin had been gone four months, killed in Afghanistan. It felt like decades.
“Your daddy would’ve loved to be here,” Melanie whispered with a sniff. “This was where he asked me to be Mrs. McCullough.”
Shouts startled her and the baby. Everybody was running in her direction. “What’s happening?” she called out over the child’s cries.
“He came early,” an elderly man replied. “The speech is about to start.”
Melanie joined the stream flowing toward the stage. “Come on, sweetie, today you get to see the President.”

The past:
Dressed in thrift store clothes, Z and Dane crossed Monroe Drive to join the audience. Z checked her gear; Dane scanned the crowd.
“President’s on in two minutes,” he said. “Care to identify my target?”
“Woman in a red blouse holding a baby, on the bridge.” Z reached into her neckline and drew out dog tags with jewelry on a chain. “She yelled last time I came here, made me miss my shot.”
“Lovely.” Dane searched for the woman as they approached. “All we need is another Kennedy incident.”
“You’re going to stop her,” Z said. “So that won’t happen.” She paused, then held out her tags and chain. “Give her these.”
“Will do.” Dane fiddled with the jewelry on the chain. “Art Institute, Sharp Building. Twenty-eighth floor.”
“I’ve got this.”

The present:
Melanie squirmed between clusters of people for a better angle, but the crowd pushed her back. Viewers waited all morning to keep good spots on the lawn and would not budge.
“We need to get closer, Lins,” Melanie said. “I can’t see a thing.” The baby cooed, unconcerned.
Secret Service agents stood at the stage corners. Others lined up before the audience. “Hail to the Chief” blared from the speakers. Applause and cheers swelled in anticipation.
Melanie backtracked to the serpentine pedestrian bridge over Columbus Drive. People packed the railing, but Melanie found a view between those in front of her. She sighed. “Better than nothing.”
The President strode to the lectern and waved. “It’s the President, Lins,” Melanie said, clapping with affected joy. The baby clapped too.
A woman on one knee at the east edge of the amphitheater’s lawn caught Melanie’s eye. The stranger ignored the speech, but watched the nearest Secret Service agents intently. Dirty brown hair and baggy clothes masked the woman’s appearance. She thrust her hand into her backpack as if rummaging for a missing belonging.
After two quick glances, the stranger checked her watch and stood. Gunmetal shone. She raised a bulky pistol and took aim through its scope.
Melanie opened her mouth to scream when a hand clamped over her face.

The past:
Dane wrapped one hand over the woman’s mouth, cradling the baby with his arm. Almost too late, he thought. He pulled them from the bridge’s railing. The woman kicked and struggled against him as he shushed her in vain. Bystanders turned to see what was happening.
“It’s okay,” Dane said to the woman as much as to the others. He pressed Z’s chain into the woman’s hand as he released her. “She said to give you this.”
Down below, Z pulled the pistol’s trigger. The silent laser light was invisible in the sun. Someone shrieked. Agents responded. Two shots rang out and Z crumpled to the ground bleeding. Then everyone screamed.
The sniper rifle that once took the President’s life never fired, because Z hit her mark first.
World War Three never happened.
Dane moved to the rail to see Z as she faded out of existence. The woman gasped behind him. Then Dane faded too.

The future:
Two women sat on a blanket in the grass across from Lake Michigan. The amber sunset reflected off the shimmering water. Melanie smiled and took her daughter’s hand. “Oh, your father would’ve loved to be here, Lins.”
Then she pulled out the beaded chain with a tarnished silver baby bracelet and its duplicate, next to dog tags from a war that never was, marked Lindsey McCullough. “Let me tell you about the day you saw the President…”

Burst the Bubble

“I thought my book was good enough… and then I went to critique group, and found out it’s like a cake without the frosting.”

That’s a quote from one of the members of our monthly writing group.

Whatever I do, whatever I create, I do not operate in a vacuum. I want to know what my customer wants, and whether my product meets their needs or interests.

Keeping my babies to myself is safe, comfortable. A story or song I write sounds great to me, so the temptation is to hold on tight.

But we learn from the insights and yes criticism of others. We find out what works and what falls flat. If you’re creative in any vein, don’t give in to the safety of the bubble. Find a group, find a critic. Do it in person if you can, online if you can’t.

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. – Proverbs