2016 Year in (Writing) Review

Whenever I feel like I haven’t produced anything in a while, I look at what stories I’ve posted. 2016 might not have been my most prolific year, but I did write – and post – a little bit over 66,000 words, across 22 stories. I’m not including the work I did on the rewrite of my sci-fi adventure story, or all of the back story snippets I hashed out when the editing wasn’t working to my liking, or the starts to stories I scrapped or set aside because I went back to editing and rewrites, because those have not been seen by eyes other than mine. They would also be a lot harder to calculate.

Not a great year for output, but not as poor as I’d originally suspected when thinking back on it.

2016wordcounts

Not every one of these stories is great, but each one represents a personal effort, and my desire to become a better storyteller. If I had to pick a favorite, I know which one I’d choose…but I won’t say because a parent playing favorites is not a good thing. 😉

For those of you who took time out of your lives to read any of these, and especially to those folks who let me know what they thought, thank you from the depths of my artist’s heart. Hearing that I’ve touched, amused, or entertained someone else with these stories keeps me going day after day.

What was your 2016 year in writing like? Any surprises, challenges, or turnarounds? Here’s looking forward to a strong 2017 in all of our writing goals!

National Author's Day

In addition to being the start of National Novel Writing Month, November 1 has additional significance for American writers: it’s National Author’s Day! Here is some of the history, as supplied by NationalDayCalendar.com:

The idea of setting aside a day to celebrate American authors came from Nellie Verne Burt McPherson, president of the Bement (Illinois) Women’s Club in 1928. McPherson was a teacher and an avid reader throughout her life. During World War I, when she was recuperating in a hospital, she wrote a fan letter to fiction writer Irving Bacheller, telling him how much she had enjoyed his story, “Eben Holden’s Last Day A’Fishin.” Bacheller sent her an autographed copy of another story, and McPherson realized that she could never adequately thank him for his gift. Instead, she showed her appreciation by submitting an idea for a National Author’s Day to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, which passed a resolution setting aside November 1 as a day to honor American writers. In 1949 the day was recognized by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

If you follow the link, you can also read about how you can observe this holiday and support your favorite authors!

I may not be a “real” author – as my in-laws remind me so often, since I’ve only self-published one novel, and it was a fan fiction novel, at that – but I like to think that this day can at least sort of be for me, as well, since writing is such an integral part of my life. I’m also lucky to know personally so many talented published authors and aspiring-to-be-published authors, and I wanted to give a little shout-out to them. If you’ve got a moment, check out their blogs to read about their journeys, and, while you’re there, give them a comment or even click on one of their books to purchase!

Kate Johnston @ 4amwriter.com : writer, coach, editor with several handbooks to guide you in your writing journey

Kourtney Heintz @ kourtneyheintz.com : author of The Six Train to Wisconsin, The Girl Who Ignored Ghosts, and the brand new Highway Thirteen to Manhattan!

Vanessa Chapman @ vanessa-chapman.com : writer with multiple skilful blogs and several articles (at lifehack!) to read

JM McDowell @ jmmcdowell.com : writer (and archaeologist!) of the delightful Meghan Bode series of mysteries, which you can read on her blog

George McNeese @ Project Blacklight : writer with several articles, reviews, and even short stories to share

ShadeTheRaven @ Shade The Raven : writer with lots of short stories to fill your days

Make sure to send a little bit of love to YOUR favorite author, today!

I dared to write. Will you?

Chateau des Alpilles - panoramio

I have a handful of writer friends I’ve been lucky enough to find through the wonders of blogging. One of them is writer/editor Kate Johnston, whom you may also know as 4amwriter on Twitter. Kate recently sent out a challenge: dare to write something new this summer. On her own blog – https://4amwriter.com/ – she offers eager participants looking for summertime motivation to send her a poem, short story, or even part of your novel-in-progress, for reading and general feedback! You also have a chance to win one of these fabulous prizes: a free copy of her e-book (Amazon.com buy link here, if you can’t wait), or an in-depth critique of your work!

Personal plug-time: Kate has given me critique on my own work, and I can attest that the insight and compassion in her feedback helped draw out a better writer in me – and it can do the same for you! So, if you need motivation to get that chapter or story down on paper this summer, this is it. Head over to Kate’s blog for more info! While you’re there, don’t forget to check out her e-books, with strategies and stories for writers of all permutations.

Kate’s “Dare to Write” challenge was just what I needed. I’d been struggling through slow rewrites of my science fiction team adventure story, and my writer’s heart was failing for the lack of progress. When the “Dare to Write” post notification popped up in my inbox, I headed over there right away. Partly because I have always enjoyed writing challenges, especially when I’m in a rut, but also because when a writer and coach like Kate says we should dare to do something, it is always worth the risk. This effort proved to be no different.

It took a few weeks to get down on paper all of the pieces and scenes for this latest “Finding Mister Wright” pre-fic, but I finally put together the short story of how being a parent can throw a romantic evening off-course…but also how that new course can lead to a far better destination. It’s a story I’ve had in my head for many moons, now, and it brought me a lot of joy to get it out of my head and into a form more tangible.

This particular story clocks in at just over 6000 words, so I will give folks here the same warning I gave Kate when I sent it in for the “Dare to Write” challenge: the story is not short, so I understand if length is a deterrent. It also features a minor sex scene between two consenting adults of the same gender, so if that makes you uncomfortable, no hard feelings if you don’t click on the link. I will say that the sex is not so important as what’s happening around it. It may sound strange, but these are as close to real people as I can make them, with personal concerns and hangups as well as desires. I’ve also been trying to temper my sex scenes – especially between these two characters – to lean more toward the PG/PG-13 side than some of the explicitly graphic stuff I’ve written in the past. Being my own judge, I can’t say whether the effort is successful or not, but it certainly has been interesting to swing the pendulum the other way. If you’re interested in checking out this story, you can click the link below:

“Sleepover, or, A Taste of Happiness” [PDF will open in a new tab]
~6000 words / 19 pages DS

Summer is a busy time for many of us, but I hope that you are trying new things and exploring new worlds in your imagination. I also hope that you’ll make time to hop on over to 4amwriter.com to join in on the “Dare to Write” summer writing challenge!

What are your writing goals for this summer? Have you dared to write something new? Or, work more on something older? Let me know in the comments – it all counts!

Image attribution: Thomas Julin [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

That Delicate Scale

Feet on scale

No, not that kind of scale.

scales-backround-rainbow-colors

Not that kind of scale, either.

Scale (PSF)

That’s more like it. Scales as in balance, or, more precisely, the balancing act we all have to find our way to master, to keep ourselves alive and well.

Now, I’m a firm believer in discipline. Back in 2004, I decided I’d had enough of hating my body every time I saw it in the mirror. So, while I was at a work conference and sitting around my hotel room, I made up my mind to start an exercise regime. Just sit-ups and crunches to start, but over time and with research, it grew to include push-ups, weights, squats, leg lifts, and more. Now, I do a variation of my exercise routine every single day, and have done for the last 12 years. I got in the habit of doing it every morning, and it became part of my efforts to balance life, work, health, and happiness.

In 2005, when I was in Japan, I vowed to stay away from my work email. Mostly because I couldn’t be bothered with it, but also because it felt so freeing to be un-tethered from the demands of my job. The freedom and relief I felt from relinquishing that control over work that was thousands of miles away helped me enjoy that vacation so much more. Since then, I’ve made consistent efforts to stay away from work – which mostly means my work email – when I’m on vacation and after-hours. (When I go away, I actually remove the app from my smartphone, so I’m not tempted to check it when I log in.) This is part of my life balance, too, that keeps my mental state healthy.

What feels like many years ago, now, probably around 2005’s NaNoWriMo, I decided to focus a part of my energies more acutely on my writing. Because writing has always brought me joy, and that joy is something I need in my life; it has helped me on more than one occasion to confront, accept, and move past the hardships I’ve had to face. I write every day, mostly on my commute to and from work, because train rides are good for that. But also in the mornings, after I’ve done my exercises and I’m waiting for my tea to steep, when I have a free lunch break, and sometimes when the rest of the family is playing games or watching TV after supper. This is a third part of my life balance, the part that looks after my soul.

Of course, there are other facets to my balancing act: family, work, play, chores, the elusive goal of “mindfulness” and spirituality. They all fall into the daily routine, as well. Because they are responsibilities, though – if we don’t wake up on time, we won’t make it to school; if we don’t wash those dishes, they’ll pile up; if we don’t go grocery shopping, we’ll have to scrounge – they seem to fall more naturally into place on the balance beam. It’s the personal bits that I’ve had to concentrate on, the beats and rests I’ve had to hold myself to with my own willpower, that take conscious effort and dedication. Because the consequences to not incorporating those parts to the balancing act affect me more than anyone else: they’re about my health, my mental state, my joy. Yes, those aspects will affect the people around me over time, especially my family and my closest work colleagues. But what makes me ME is something only I can control, and only I can change. I chose this balance. What about you?

I Really Did Love My Father

…but, for some reason, many of my characters have difficult relationships with their own fathers. It’s the reverse of the Disney Princess situation, where it’s the mothers who are missing (seriously: many Disney Princesses just seem to not have had mothers at all!). In the majority of my stories, main characters challenge their fathers, are estranged from their fathers, their fathers are dead, or some semblance of all three. I honestly don’t know where this particular character detail comes from, since I had a pretty good relationship with my own father, and I honestly did love him. I think the admission of that love is what I’ve enjoyed exploring through these stories of children challenging and reconciling with the patriarchs of their families. Or, maybe it has something to do with the idea of The Patriarch being emotionally removed from his children, so he doesn’t show a lot of love to them. Whatever the reason, the fathers of my characters tend to get the short end of the stick. That must be the reason why, when my characters grow up and have children of their own, they are so determined to be openly loving men to their kids.

Chie, from 1 More Chance!, which I wrote between 2009-2011, rebelled against her father in her choice of boyfriend, but that was a tame conflict compared to the stark animosity Amber showed to her father in Fearless, whose first draft I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2011. Daniel’s conflict with his father, written over the last few weeks and linked to below, is somewhere in the middle between those two perspectives…and, I have to admit, related to some of my own feelings about my dad, which I haven’t examined too closely since he died in 2014.

“Butterfly”
[~13K words / 51 pages Calibri DS- PDF opens in a new window]

This story plays with time in a way I haven’t attempted before, but I’d recently read a novel that jumped back and forth in time in a similar fashion, to share story details between scenes, that I found interesting. I don’t know if I was completely successful in my attempt – I wondered if I should have done more jumping, just to break things up – but I always enjoy writing these characters, and the opportunity felt right.

Two of the guest characters in this story are returns for me, while another is based on a university colleague, and another is an homage to a writer friend’s adventuring archaeologist. I really enjoyed bringing back my own characters into this fold, and I do hope my friends don’t take offense to me envisioning them and their creations in a way that fit into my story. But, that’s the beauty of relationships, right? You never know where they’re going to take you.

On thinking more about it, the challenge of writing this story that I really enjoyed wasn’t so much the technical aspect of skipping around in time or between worlds of my making, but the Daniel character’s uniqueness in this situation, in that he is both a child and a parent, struggling to find the balance between both aspects of himself.

How do your personal relationships with family or friends affect your characters and their stories? Do you ever find yourself writing a little bit about yourself in your stories? From a technical perspective, what are your thoughts on time-jumps in storytelling? I’m happy to hear your answers to any of these questions! (And, if you’re hearty enough to actually read the story, I’m interested to hear your thoughts about that, too!)

Writing, Responsibility, and the Conundrum of Characters with Guns

Since the first flash of a projectile from a barrel around 1000 CE, the gun has had a rich and varied history across most all avenues of life: social, economical, political, and creative. It also has the power to divide people and opinions like no other tool before or since. Let’s be clear: a gun is a tool. It is specifically designed to make easier the task of killing, of human or other animal. Now, one can certainly use a gun to accomplish goals besides killing – say, destruction of a barn wall, for those not well-versed in the skill of shooting a target – but their primary function is to kill, with more power, speed, and accuracy than any other weapon (assuming said gun is in the hands of an expert).

Politics aside, I have always found guns fascinating, especially their varied designs, and how beautiful they can be. Take a look at the craftsmanship in the Colt below:

Colt Autentica

I didn’t grow up around guns, but I had my share of toys for games of ranchers and rustlers with the boys next door, and I talked about them a lot with my father, who’d been an Army sergeant in Vietnam and who’d had an intense respect for firearms and war weaponry in general throughout history. He’d impressed upon me at a young age that guns are dangerous, doubly so if they’re not handled with respect. As I got older, we delved into the specifics of them: “I would much rather you know how to properly use a gun and never have to,” he’d say to me time and again, “than find yourself in a situation where you had to use one but didn’t know how.” He never squelched my interest in them, but he always made sure I understood the inherent danger in them, and the enormous responsibility a person has whenever they pick one up.

I’d written stories with characters who’d used guns since I was a kid: Han Solo’s DL-44 heavy blaster pistol, the Enterprise crew’s type 2 phasers, my D&D-inspired thief’s flintlock pistol. In those early forays, guns were simply weapons of convenience that often made a cool noise or shot a bright laser beam, and I didn’t think much about their impact (pun not intended). It wasn’t until a few years ago, when I wrote the gunsmith in From Hell (A Love Story), that I really thought about what I was saying about guns through my stories when my characters squeezed a trigger. There’s a semi-pivotal moment in the story where this gunsmith and the main character argue about throwing blind cover fire into a crowd of civilians. The gunsmith’s argument is that they’re surrounded by people, while the main character points out, “Yeah, and at least one of them is shooting at us.” The ramifications of their choices follow them through the rest of the book, but it was important to me that both of them realize: odds are good that when you pull out your gun, people will die.

Because I’d grown up being taught to respect – not fear – guns, I wanted that respect to come through in this story. Even in the books and stories I was reading to get a feel for a dirtier galaxy based on the Old West, the characters treated their guns like the closest partners they’d ever have, which was probably pretty close to the case in those wilder frontier times.

temperamental-wife

Stories are not soapboxes, though, and it can be difficult for a writer to separate their personal views from those presented within their prose. Firefights offer great opportunity for excitement, high action, and conflict. But a quick-trigger topic like gun use (ha ha) requires at least some responsibility on the writer’s part. Like any weapon, they’re dangerous, and our stories would lose a measure of realism without addressing just how dangerous they can be. We can do this through the actions, reactions, thoughts, and dialogue of our characters, as well as offering realistic depictions of what happens when those characters use their firearms without awareness, caution, or respect.

Have you ever written a gunslinger? What do you think about guns – or any weapons – in stories? While realism is important, how much do you think a story requires to be seen as effective in its telling?

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