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(Friday Fiction) A Formal Introduction

Writing 150This week I wanted to focus more on a graceful exit for my stories. A lot of them just stop, or I hastily construct a way for things to end when I feel the need to wrap things up. To be honest, it’s kind of sloppy and I need to get better at it. Most of the time my ideas come with a really strong starting point, but I honestly have no idea what to do for an ending. So now’s the time to focus on that.

This week, Kevin meets a few more people who live in the mysterious house across the street.

“What did you do?” The voice of an old woman was the first thing Kevin heard when he came to. A lightning bolt of pain crashed through his forehead, convincing him to keep his eyes closed for the time being.

“Nothing!” A younger woman replied. It took him a moment to recognize Tefir; the steely poise in her words were gone, replaced by the affronted exasperation of every teenager Kevin had ever met.

“Lianna?” The old woman pulled someone into the room with her tone.

Lianna’s voice was shockingly close. “Nothing happened, Mistress. They were just talking, and then he saw me.”

“Oh, so you’re gonna believe her and not me?” Tefir sounded angry and hurt.

“Mmmm, and you know exactly why, Tefiretti, Teller of Tales.”

“How many times am I going to have to say I’m sorry about that whole thing before you forgive me?”

“Oh, child, I already forgave you. But I ain’t forgotten about it. I told you how it is with trust, Teffie. Once you break it, it’s never going to be fixed all the way. And this is too important for me not to be sure. If it makes you feel better, I’m sorry for not believing you.”

“It doesn’t,” Tefir said, though it obviously did. “I don’t think he’s one of us. He doesn’t look or feel any different.”

“No, but he’s got the blood.”

“How can you tell?”

“You could too if you stop being so standoffish and look at him. Probably an uncle or a grandfather. You know his kin?”

“No’m.”

“Well, we’ll find out before too long. He’s got to stop pretending he’s still asleep though.”

“What?”

“He woke up a few minutes ago, but he’s being smart about it. Ain’t you, Colin?” The old woman laughed, and Kevin felt a light, but firm, punch on his shoulder.

“His name is Kevin.” Tefir punched him again. “Hey. Wake up. How come you didn’t tell me you’ve got the blood?”

Kevin opened his eyes. Tefir was hovering above him to his right, while a short, wizened woman peered down at him from his left. Next to her was the gigantic, shaggy head of the lioness, burning gold irises fixed on him with a predator’s intensity. The women both had stars in their eyes, which were big and black and swirling with glittering specks.

Kevin forced down the panic rising in his stomach. This wasn’t a dream. This was really happening.

“Hey,” Tefir said, and leaned down to stare. “How come you didn’t tell me you had kin?”

“I…don’t know what you’re talking about.” Kevin shook his head, like it would clear the dull throbbing ache making his thoughts slow and obscure. He tilted to his side to get up, but the old woman’s hand pushed him back down with surprising strength. “I have no idea what either of you are saying. Got the blood? What the hell is that?”

The old woman swatted his chest. “Language.”

“Sorry, ma’am.” Kevin apologized automatically.

“It’s all right, young man. You all shook up, ain’t you?” She smiled, her mouth rubbery and wide, teeth impossibly white and even. “That’s all right. You’re gonna be OK.”

“Wait. Where–”

“You’re in my house, in a guest room. We had Lianna pull you in and upstairs so we could have a look at you.” The old woman glanced at the lion, who narrowed her eyes. “You a bit too heavy for one of us to carry. For both of us, probably.”

Kevin relaxed. “What happened?”

“You fell down the stairs,” Tefir said.

“Because you had a big ass lion on your porch!”

“Language, young man. I’m not gonna warn you again.” The threat in the old woman’s voice was vague, but solid.

“I’m sorry if I scared you,” the lion spoke. Her voice was smooth and human. It was like she was a cartoon character with some celebrity saying her lines. “My name is Lianna. I’m the guardian for the Wayfarer House.”

“The what?”

Tefir, Lianna and the old woman glanced at each other, asking a silent question Kevin couldn’t even hope to guess at. The old woman spoke first. “Why don’t you two go back out on the porch? I’ll finish up here.”

“Couldn’t I tell him?” Tefir’s face pleaded with the old woman, who shook her head. She sucked her teeth and walked out. The lion padded out behind, her flanks noisily brushing the door frame. Only when the lion’s tail curled around the door knob to pull it shut did the woman turn her attention back to Kevin.

“You’re gonna have a lot of questions, but I ain’t gonna be able to give you a whole lot of answers yet.” The old woman patted his arm, then reached behind her to pull up a chair. “Sorry about that, but that’s the way it is. I’ll tell you what I can, but I can only tell you everything after you settle in a spell.”

Kevin blinked and shifted, rising until he was at least leaning against the headboard. “I’m…ma’am, I don’t know what’s going on here, but I promise I won’t tell anybody about your lion or whatever. I’ll go back home and leave you folks alone.”

The old woman shook her head and grinned. “Nah, you ain’t. You can’t, not now. But that’s OK; we’re gonna show you a thing or two to get your feet underneath you, and then you can decide what you want to do.”

“I want to go home.”

The woman laughed. “Oh, child, bless your heart! Nothing’s stopping you, but you’re gonna see stuff over there that don’t make no sense either, and if you tell your ma about it she’s just gonna think you’re crazy. You better just drink your tea and listen to what I have to say.”

Kevin didn’t know how he knew, but he looked to the bedstand at his left knowing that there was a cup there. He took it, and smelled it, then tasted it. He pictured scruffy, waxy plants stretched out over a sun-baked landscape at once, and the vivid nature of the image disturbed him more than anything.

“Good, ain’t it?” The woman smiled. “It’ll help with the headache. Now, people call me Auntie Bones, and that’s what I want you to call me, got it? I know you’ve got to be wondering why my eyes are all swirly and what not, so let’s start there.

“You might have guessed this already, but I ain’t fully human. Neither is Teffie. We got stories inside us, you see — real, honest-to-God magic. Now, a story only works if you believe in it, which is why we keep to ourselves for the most part. People ain’t got time for that kind of stuff any more. But some people, some of you got this itch, or catch a scent on the wind, or something, that leads you here. For you, that means somebody in your family is just like us, and a little bit of that found its way inside of you. That’s what we mean when we say you got the blood. You ain’t fully human, either.”

Kevin heard the words, but he couldn’t accept them. Everything about the room — the size of it, and the lights, and the bed he was on — felt unreal. Some large part of his brain wanted to reject what the old woman was saying immediately, but there was some small part that wouldn’t let him. It was crazy, and he knew it. But he believed her.

“What, so you’re an alien?” The only beings Kevin ever saw with eyes like her were those aliens on those UFO shows.

“Mm-mm, child. Well, not the way you’re thinking. But we don’t really belong here. And we can’t get home. So we make do. And people like you help us do that.”

“How?”

“By helping us tell our stories.” Auntie Bones settled into a more serious tone, looking at Kevin intently. It was unsettling.

“That’s it?”

“Child, the story’s all we got. It’s the whole reason we’re here. If you don’t help us tell it, we forget it, and a whole piece of the world dies right then and there.”

Kevin looked down at his teacup. He was shocked to find it was empty. He didn’t even like the taste of it that much. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Auntie Bones sagged in her chair. “Not now. But it will. In the meantime, you’re hired. I want you back here tomorrow morning for training.”

“Wait, what?” Kevin blinked and sat up.

The old woman laughed and got to her feet, shuffling towards the door. “I like you, Kevin. You don’t know nothing, but I like you. See you tomorrow, hear? Now, stay as long as you want, but you should be feeling better about now. When you’re ready to go, just open the door and go down the stairs. Try not to fall.”

Kevin sat back against the headboard as the cackle of Auntie Bones echoed outside of the room. The cup in his hands was curiously warm, and when he looked down at it he nearly spilled the tea all over his lap. He wanted to throw it across the room; this was like that black magic his mother had warned him about. Instead, he took another sip, trying to calm his jangled nerves.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2017 in Sleepwalkers, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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(Writing) Clarion Write-A-Thon, Week 3

Self Improvement 150During week 2 of the Clarion Write-A-Thon, I set a goal for 15,000 total words written and $200 raised for the Clarion Workshop. How did I do? Well, I got up to 11,951 words and raised $175 so far; I didn’t hit either goal, but that’s all right. It just means that I need to kick it into high gear this week!

My goal for week 3 of the Write-A-Thon is to hit 25,000 words by midnight next Saturday; that means 13,049 words written this week (more than I’ve written in the two weeks of the fundraiser), but I’m confident I can hit that. I’d like to raise $250 this week, which means another $75 in donations. That shouldn’t be TOO much trouble, but I’ll definitely have to raise my fundraising game to do it.

So what happened last week? Honestly, I ran out of steam at the end of the week and I’m not entirely sure why. These things don’t need a reason, of course. My brain chemistry might have just decided it needed to be on a low ebb, so when I really needed to push ahead I throttled back and tried to take it easier. While I don’t regret doing that — self-care is absolutely important, after all — it is a little concerning. It would be best to find a way to be relaxed AND productive, but that’s having your cake and eating it too, especially when you’re trying to build a habit.

My writing, especially towards the end of the week, was slow mostly because I started doubting what I was doing. It’s difficult to find your voice when your inner critic keeps blasting you for pulling away from your comfort zone or taking risks. I’ve gotten better at dealing with that, but I’m still not 100%. Especially with short stories, the closer I get to an ending the harder it gets to drive towards it.

Endings terrify me, and I’m not sure why. My creative process doesn’t really account for them, which is kind of strange. I think it’s because endings are SO important, especially when it comes to the kinds of stories I like to write, that thinking about them just fills me with a white-hot dread that overloads me. What does an ending look like? I ask myself. I don’t know, I reply, but does anything ever TRULY end? Fair enough, I say, and think of eighty new stories all with no idea how to pull them together for a satisfying end.

So it’s clear overcoming that fear is something that will need to happen. That’ll take a lot of work, dedicated practice, and focus. The good news is that “Demolition” will be the very first chance I’ll get to work on that, with the ending scenes being written either today or tomorrow, depending. It’ll feel really great to have a completed first draft of that for a “win”, so that’ll be a big part of my focus for the next couple of days. Once that’s done, I’ll compile it and let it rest for a little bit, then turn my attention to the next Jackalope Serial Company project.

Here at The Writing Desk, I’ll have the final batch of DisneyFest reviews up on Wednesday and a bit of Changeling fiction up on Friday. “The Wayfarer House” was all right, but again — I feel the ending was weak. Too many bits of fiction use slipping into unconsciousness as a means to end, especially when it feels abrupt, so I have to work on finding other ways of gracefully exiting a piece after 1500 words or so. That’s the aim Friday: really bring the piece home with a strong, considered ending.

That’s my plan for this week! I’m off today for an oral surgery consultation and Friday will hopefully be nice and productive, so the three-day work-week should really help me get caught up on what I need to. How about you folks? Where are you with your own creative projects, and what’s your artistic plan for the coming week? Let me know in the comments, and be sure to pass along any tips you might have to hold yourself to your goals!

As always, if you would like to donate to the Clarion Write-A-Thon, my profile page is here. A donation will send money to the Clarion Workshop regardless of my word count, and would be much appreciated! However, a pledge will encourage me to hit my goal if you’d like to go that way: a pledge of 1/10 cent per word ($0.001) would mean $50 if I hit my goal, while a pledge of 1/20 cent per word ($0.0005) would mean $25. Please chip in, if you can!

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2017 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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(Friday Fiction) The Wayfarer House

Gaming 150Now that the 20th anniversary edition of Changeling: the Dreaming has dropped, it’s time to start re-establishing the setting! Hooray! C20 updates the Kithain for the modern world, progressing the story from the classic World of Darkness and cleaning up a lot of the squishier ideas that never quite got hammered out in 2nd Edition. 

Going back to Baltimore got me thinking about what modern-day Changeling would look like in the Duchy of the Chesapeake. Here’s a first pass at an idea for a freehold in the heart of West Baltimore.

It didn’t matter how early you got up in the summer; the day was going to get started without you. That’s why the sunlight was already glinting off the candy wrappers and smashed bottles in the street at 7 in the morning, and why the crickets were already sawing away when Kevin stepped onto his front porch. It wasn’t hot yet, but the insects were warning him already — “Brother, you’d better find some shade in a few hours so you don’t melt.”

Kevin really hated mornings like this one. You couldn’t even enjoy it because you had so much to do before the sun got too high. Neighbors were breaking the unspoken rule that you just didn’t start lawnmowers before nine because they knew now was the only time to do it. Down the block, he could hear Mr. Gordon puttering away on that ancient gas cutter; there was a weed-whacker going one street over; in the distance, someone was taking an electric trimmer to their hedges. The drone of the motors told him the same thing the crickets were, and it made the morning feel urgent, almost panicky. It riled him.

He sat on the railing and watched the neighborhood. There weren’t a lot of people out, but the ones that were moved with purpose. After the sun beat every living thing back to their pockets of shade, the block would be live with people jawing and fanning themselves on the porches. People would go visit each other, especially when a pitcher of lemonade or sweet tea came out, but that was all the movement you would see until the sun went down. Even then, it’d be too hot to do much besides cook a little something or play a quick game of basketball. This day, like so many in July, would be a long, slow torpor punctuated by brief sprints of movement before all of your energy was sapped again. These few hours were all people had to feel like people; it wouldn’t be long before it was too hot to be in the house without an air conditioner, and who could afford one of those?

So people were out, walking to the corner store, or watering their plants, or getting to the gas station or liquor store a few blocks down the road. The only people who were just sitting on the porch were him and the girl across the street at the Hotel.

It was just a house, but everybody called it the Hotel. As far as Kevin knew, only three people lived there — an ancient old lady with glasses that made her look like some kind of beetle; a short woman who never stopped moving or talking, who could go from laughing to murderously angry as fast as you could blink; and a girl, about his age, who carried herself like an honest-to-God princess. The three women had a ton of people over at their place all the time, though. Some were fairly regular, but most weren’t. The only white people Kevin ever saw that weren’t on TV or at the mall were at the Hotel. They would come out on the porch in the evenings and chat, with plates of food or big glasses of something alcoholic probably, and while the faces were mostly different it seemed like all three of them knew every single one.

Kevin had always wondered what was up with the Hotel, but his mother told him to mind his own business when he asked. The women never bothered the neighbors, despite all the traffic, and the neighborhood left them alone in kind. But that didn’t sit right with him. People around these parts were mostly quiet, and mostly private, but everybody still knew everybody else’s business. Nobody knew anything about the women at the Hotel, and nobody seemed the least bit curious about them except him.

He looked up and down the street, but there wasn’t anyone unusual coming or going. It almost never happened, but the girl at the Hotel was completely alone.

Without thinking about it, Kevin got up and walked across the street. He stopped at the iron fence, his hand hovering on the latch. Something in the back of his brain told him that he probably shouldn’t just walk into somebody else’s yard uninvited. So he called up to the girl watching him from the porch.

“Hey. Can I come over?” He instantly regretted asking like that. He was seventeen years old, not seven.

The girl looked at him, her chin held high. Then she looked away and down the street. “I guess.”

Kevin pushed the gate open. The metal wasn’t iron, but it sure looked like it; it was lighter, though, and cool to the touch. He stepped through it and up to the steps while the gate swung shut behind him. “My name’s Kevin. I, uh, live over there.” He pointed to his house, across the street and one lot over.

“I know where you live, Kevin.” The girl was looking at him again. From his spot at the bottom of the stairs, she actually did look kind of royal. She was in a cheap plastic chair, but it might as well have been a throne. “What do you need?”

 

“Nothing.” Kevin smiled, unsure why he was so nervous. “I just wanted to say hey.”

“Oh.” The girl seemed almost disappointed. “Hey.” She looked down the street again, and suddenly broke into a smile.

Kevin stared at her. She was one of those Erykah Badu types, always in form-fitting dresses or pants that looked expensive, hair wrapped in a scarf all bundled up tight. Today’s outfit was a sleeveless dress that was emerald in the shade but a glaring yellow in the sun. Her headwrap matched, and somehow she managed to get long earrings with (probably) fake pearls jangling around a single emerald. She looked pretty tight. Her family must have had money. What did they do in that house?

She looked back his way and he quickly focused on the stairs. He looked back up at her when he thought it was safe. “So what’s your name?”

She looked at him for a moment, like she was judging him. Normally Kevin would have been offended, but here he just felt exposed. “Why don’t you come up on the porch? I’m not going to stab you.”

“I know that.” Kevin smiled again, trying to be friendly but just looking nervous. “I just didn’t want to be rude or nothing.”

“Oh. I said you could come over, though. It ain’t rude to come up on my porch after I invited you.” She looked down the street again. “My name is Tefir.”

“Tefir?” Kevin swirled the syllables around in his mouth and decided he liked them. “What’s that mean?”

“That’s private.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Kevin tried to make out what she was staring at down the street. He thought he saw some lightning bugs in a little swarm, but that didn’t make any sense. It must have been a trick of the light.

“It’s OK. Nothing wrong with being curious.” She smiled at him. “What does Kevin mean?”

“I don’t know. Probably king or something.”

“So you’re a king then?”

“I didn’t say all that.” Was this girl making fun of him or something? What was he doing here? “Just…you know…something cool, like, this big deal that you can’t live up to.”

Tefir laughed. “Not with that attitude. I don’t know what Kevin means either, but I bet it means something like ‘bold’ or ‘seeker’.”

“Yeah? What makes you say that?”

“I don’t know, just a feeling.” Tefir sat back in her chair and folded her hands in her lap. “How come you never asked to come over before now?”

Kevin shrugged. It felt like he was sweating, but it wasn’t hot enough for that. “You always have company.”

Tefir checked him with her eyes. “Yeah, we do. But they’re friendly. I know Ma wouldn’t mind fixing you a plate if you wanted.”

“All right, I’ll come over then.” Kevin heard himself say that before he thought it through. It would be a little hard to explain that to his mom. “Who are all these people who come over, though?”

Tefir shrugged, then looked down the street. “Just some of Ma’s friends is all. She’s been all over, so she knows a lot of people. She gives ’em a place to stay when they’re in town.”

“Yeah? Was your mom in a band or something?”

Tefir laughed. “Naw. Military. Uh, kind of. But she retired and settled down here. I think she misses going different places, but at least different places can come to her now.”

“Doesn’t it feel weird having all these strangers in your house?” Kevin tried to imagine his mother having company every day, and couldn’t see any way it didn’t end with somebody getting killed.

“Mm-mm. It’s fine. I write letters and send emails to people all over the world. I can go anywhere and know that there’s somewhere I can stay if I need to. I like that.”

“So you want to travel?”

Tefir shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe. I might get my mom’s old job, so I’d pretty much have to.”

Kevin blinked. “I can’t imagine you in the military, though. They wouldn’t allow headwraps.”

“Religious exception.”

“You’re Muslim?”

“No.”

“What then?”

“You wouldn’t have heard of it.”

“Some African thing?”

“Something like that.” Tefir snorted. She looked away from the street and at a corner of her porch, then laughed.

Kevin followed her eyes and screamed. He could have sworn there was nothing there before, but a giant lioness sprawled out in the corner now, so big her forepaws were just a few feet from him though her back was against the railing some twenty feet away. Her tail thumped the porch noisily and she startled at the sound. She rose up on front paws as he scrambled down the stairs; to his amazement, she looked surprised.

“Teffie,” the great cat said, “I think he can see me.”

 

“What the fuck?” Kevin felt like there was a rock in his lungs. He couldn’t breathe. He looked back at Tefir to find that she, too, had changed.

She was taller than before, her bearing regal, almost statuesque. Her skin was a perfect mahogany, and her eyes…her eyes…

They were huge and black, with white flecks inside that swirled and twinkled as he stared. They looked like the sky at night, a milky swirl of stars bending and straightening like a whip cracked in slow motion. They were beautiful and frightening and impossible. Kevin couldn’t look away, but he had to run.

His heel caught air instead of the ground as he tried to back down the steps. He tumbled into the dark before he knew what happened.

 
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Posted by on July 7, 2017 in RPGs, Writing

 

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(Writing) Clarion Write-A-Thon, Week 2

Self Improvement 150This summer I’ll be participating in the Clarion Write-A-Thon, a fundraiser for the Clarion Workshop. What is Clarion, you ask? Why, it’s the pre-eminent six-week intensive for budding writers in sci-fi and fantasy and it’s going on RIGHT NOW. The Write-A-Thon takes place during the workshop as a way to encourage writers to…well, do what they do best AND to make sure this wonderful resource is able to attract the very best teachers and students every year. This year, my goal is to write 50,000 words and raise $500 in donations.

In week 1, I raised $125 ($100 in pledges, $25 in donations) and I’ve written 4500 words. Not bad, but I know I can do so much better! If you’re interested in helping out, you can make a pledge (where your final donation is tied to my word count) or a donation at my author’s page here.

Last week was a little crowded. The 4×10 schedule is something I’m still adjusting to, and there were a LOT of calls to Baltimore. Mom is in a rehab center, trying to regain mobility in her hips, and she’s having a rough time. As much as she says she likes being alone, she really does need frequent contact with familiar people and that’s harder to come by where she is. She’s also changed pain medications, so I’m fairly sure there are withdrawal issues there (she was taking prescription codeine). That, combined with loads of free time to ruminate on the loss of her daughter and husband, is just not putting her in a great place.

That’s given me incentive to move forward on a number of things, though. We’re going to have to do something about the house; I’m thinking that it might be a good idea to have someone go through it, room by room, to tidy up and mark everything that is OK for keeping, salvageable, and what should just be tossed. I really need to try and get Mom’s finances in order. There are so many outstanding bills and services that should be scrapped, so I’ll need to make a ton of calls there just to simplify things. And once that’s done, we can turn towards a few long-term projects, like finding an assisted-living home for her and (finally) going through the process of handling the estate and benefits of my missing (and presumed dead) father.

That’s a lot to do over the summer, in addition to building a solid writing practice. But I’m for it! Last week I worked on “Demolition” for the most part, the short story that a generous patron won during the LAST Write-A-Thon I’ve participated in. I finally shaped an outline and are roughly ⅓ done with the first draft. The voice for one of the characters really came into its own in this really fun way, and I’m looking forward to ride that momentum through the end of the story. Hopefully, I’ll be finished with that this week — I’m thinking the final word count for the rough draft will be about 6000-6500 words.

In addition to that, I’ll be working on a few missives here at The Writing Desk. Wednesday, the penultimate set of reviews for DisneyFest will go up, with my take on Big Hero 6, Inside Out, and The Good Dinosaur. On Friday, the weekly fiction will shine a light on The Wayfarer’s House, a location that I’m building for my Baltimore World of Darkness setting.

All in all, the goal for this week is to bring my word count up to 15,000 (only counting short stories and The Writing Desk entries) and my total donations up to $200. Can I do it? YES I CAN! All that’s left is the doing.

Oh, and since this is my first entry this month, I thought I’d point you lovely folks to my Patreon, the Jackalope Serial Company. For the low low price of $1 per episode, you could receive serials featuring gay furry sci-fi and fantasy! This month’s serial is a “test run” for a shared universe I’d like to build with modern gay folks getting into all kinds of improbable shenanigans!

That’s it for today, now that I’ve spent this entire entry plugging things. See you on Wednesday, folks!

 
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Posted by on July 3, 2017 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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(Personal) Mission Statement

Myth 150This is an amazing world, inhabited by amazing people. We don’t have to go very far to see an animal or plant that does something incredible, if we stop to think about it. All around us, there are countless people each with their own rich inner worlds and intense, beautiful, heartbreaking stories. I think the single greatest challenge facing humankind today is the inability to maintain a perspective that allows us to live in harmony with each other and the world we share. This planet is the only home we’ve got, and as our population grows it’s going to be more and more important to focus on the impact each of us has on it and what that means for our friends, family, neighbors and fellow human beings. It’s frustrating to see that as thinking more about one another becomes more and more necessary for our survival, we seem to becoming more selfish, short-sighted and small-minded. I have no idea if this is a trend that can be stopped, much less reversed. But I don’t want to live in a world where there’s no hope of that happening, so I have to hope that it can — and will. It’s my mission in life to help connect people as much as possible, and to remind them that an attitude of collaboration is so much better than one of competition.

All of us move through our days with blinders, trapped in the narrative of our own making. We’re the protagonists of our stories, so everything that happens to us is filtered through that lens. If something prevents us from achieving our goals, it’s bad or unfair; if it gets us closer to where we want to be, then it’s great. The people who agree with us and help us out are good; those that don’t hold the same values as us, or who want something that we want, or who are just too different from us to relate to — they’re bad. Over time, this narrative becomes stronger and our belief in it absolute. We never question what the same reality looks like to someone else; we stop imagining what a situation looks like if we’re not the star of our own story.

So we start thinking that what’s good for us is good for everyone, or ignoring the complex and often invisible forces that have helped us along the way in addition to our own hard work. Our tolerance for other perspectives erodes, bit by bit, until we’re simply incapable of even imagining what the world looks like to someone else. We even become incapable of thinking that the world COULD look different to someone else. Our opinions become fact; other ones become wrong, even evil. We start to disconnect from more and more people until our world is small and hard, an oasis that must be defended from anything that would seek to change it. In extreme, everyone who doesn’t think exactly like we do becomes an enemy to strike down. Our way of life is a beacon of good; anything different, therefore, must be evil that is to be eradicated. Once that becomes our story, it’s nearly impossible to think it could be anything else.

But it has to be if any of us want to avoid a bad ending. We can’t keep alienating each other, dismissing the perspective and experience of other people. If we don’t learn to see what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes, we’re not going to stop fighting each other until no one’s left — or until there is nothing left to fight for.

I know where this idea can lead. So Jakebe, you might say, does that mean we have to understand why neo-Nazis see me as sub-human in order to avoid all-out war? Is that the message I’m supposed to take from this? Am I supposed to tolerate someone else’s awful idea just because not tolerating it means we can’t live together? No, of course not. Neo-Nazi ideology, or any intolerant, bigoted idea, should not be entertained or given quarter in civilized discourse. I cannot abide anyone who holds the idea that I’m fundamentally inferior simply because of who I am, and I cannot ask anyone else to do that either.

But, at the same time, the people who hold these ideas are not monsters. They are not fundamentally inferior, either. They hold abhorrent ideas and as long as they do I have no interest in entertaining them or their toxic perspective. But I try very hard not to forget that they’re people, and that whatever it is inside them that made them that way is also within me. That hatred, that fear, all of those awful emotions that make us shrink in on ourselves — that’s in me too. I could get there somehow, some day.

It’s very important for me to remember that, and to remind other people. We live in incredibly divisive times and just how our divisions are mended is really difficult for me to see. But we’re going to have to find a way to live together. And in order for that to happen, we have to stop seeing each other as monsters — or as pure evil, or unthinking hordes, or weak snowflakes, or enemies. We are connected, as difficult as that is to fathom, and each one of us has a hand in creating the world we live in. As flawed and frightening it is, we each have to look at what we’re doing to contribute to it for good or ill.

Personally, that means trying to be mindful of the role I play in someone else’s story. In every interaction, I try to be what someone needs in order to make their story that much better — though I know how often I fall off the mark. That doesn’t mean that I’m never challenging or that I never set myself up as an antagonist; if that’s what is needed, then that’s what I’ll do. I’m not going to subsume myself for the sake of someone else’s story.

It mostly means, though, that I won’t cause conflict needlessly if I can help it. I try to remind myself that each person who talks to me has their own story they’re moving through, and each “scene” with me is a chance to get them closer to where they want to be. If it feels like where they want to be is someplace that will actually lead to harm, I try to redirect that desire towards something better if I can help it; and if I can’t, then I try to be as honest and direct as possible. Which is the hardest, because I really get anxious about conflict.

As a writer, this means that I want to use my stories to remind people of the connections we share, the values that are most important to me, and ultimately a vision of what the world could be like if we just did a better job of looking out for one another. I want people to come away with a desire to engage with the world and with their fellow human beings; even if the story is a tragedy, I want it to be one that fosters compassion in someone else.

My life, my purpose, is to be structured around this goal. I want to live the way I’d want everyone to live — mindful of the responsibilities we have for one another, but to see that responsibility as a joy and an honor. To me, there is no greater thing than inspiring your fellow humans to live well, to encourage them to feel connected with the world around them, not above it or in enmity of it.

I know that I fail at this goal frequently, and I’m trying to get better. I may never achieve perfection with it, but that’s not the point; the point is the process, the attempt to get there. Even if I never reach my destination, the journey is what makes me a better person.

 

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(Writing) The View From 10,000 Feet

Self Improvement 150There are a few things that are preventing me from finishing up stories on a consistent basis: a general lack of self-discipline, toxic perfectionism, time management skills, and an inability to stick through the end of a project. As I’ve gotten older and learned more about how my brain works, I’ve realized that developing a process for these things is probably the way to go. By breaking down each story into a series of actionable steps, the focus becomes about getting to the next part — not this free-floating, vague goal to eventually finish a short story some day.

Now that I’m nearly done with the editing pass for “Stable Love,” this monstrous commission that I had taken on years ago, I’m ready to move on to new stories — which is an excellent time to take a step back to develop some basic framework for how to move through writing them. This will be a work in progress, no doubt; I also realize that not every story is going to take to the same basic process, and some modifications will be needed from time to time. Still, we have to start somewhere, so let’s call this the beta version of my story-writing process, meant to take me from idea-generating to a story ready for submission or publication.

Since my big weakness is structure, I’ll need to take care that I pay attention to that in both the pre-writing and editing stages. With pre-writing, I’m hoping I can use character, setting and scene summaries to dive deep into the things that excite me most about the story, refining the core kernel so that it extends through pretty much everything else. What am I really doing with this story? What do I want to communicate to the reader? What do I want the audience to feel once they’ve finished? Answering those questions up front will give me something of a ‘north star’ to guide my decisions in writing and editing after that.

Pre-Writing. This is obviously the first step. I’m a bit of a pantser, mostly because attempts to plot my stories ahead of time don’t go so well. Main characters fight the plot, with some previously undiscovered trait or desire. I’ll think about a scene or direction for the story and decide that some other thing is way more exciting. Usually, the story is unrecognizable halfway through my planned outline because various changes add up.

So there has to be a better way to outline. In pre-writing, thinking about the kind of story I want to write, the effect I’d like it to have, and what the journey of the main character will be like is essential. Everything extends out from that, right? Especially in a short story, where there’s limited space to get the job done, you pretty much have to have that north star guiding every decision you make.

So: step one is figuring out the theme/purpose of the story — even if it’s just to titillate or have fun. After that, writing up the main character, the arc of their journey, and the conflict they need to deal with is the thing to do. From there, brainstorming other characters, situations and ideas to support that main theme should round things out from there.

When I’m done with pre-writing, I should have the main theme, the main character, the primary conflict and resolution, supporting characters, setting, and a rough skeleton of how things should go. For now, I’d like to stick to ‘tentpole’ plot points — the things that NEED to happen in order for the story to work — so I can forge a path towards them however the characters dictate.

First Draft. Now that I have a general direction for the story, the first draft is the pass with only one goal. FINISH. No editing, no doubling back, no overthinking. I’ve got the plan; stick to the plan. FINISH. There will be time for editing and revision later, but the most important thing is getting to write “THE END”. Once that’s done, chances are I’ll let the story marinate in its own juices for a few days to clear my head a bit and get the chance to look at it with fresh eyes.

Second Draft. After a few days’ rest for the story, I’d like to take it out of the drawer and read it over to see how much of it works. Here is where the bulk of the revisions will come. If there’s a better idea for getting the effect I want, or if the characters decide to take the story in a different direction, here is where that will happen. This draft, I think, will be the one where I look at all of the major stuff — theme, setting, character — to see if these aspects are consistent, interesting, and hold up well.

To be honest, I think this step will be the most difficult for me. It’s hard for me to read my own work, especially with a critical eye, and feel like I can actually work with it. I don’t know how many other writers have this problem, but I really hate reading my own stories — things will come off lame, or repetitive, or just boring. It’s much easier to just write something and throw it out there, forgetting about it once it’s been thrown up.

But honestly, that’s a form of cowardice and certainly no way to get better. Being able to take a hard look at your own work with an eye towards making it better is essential if I’m going to expect to get better as a writer. It’s also a way to encourage self-awareness, which might be the reason I have such a hard time with it. Right now, writing is a sensitive area for me, and most of us don’t like working with the parts of ourselves that get hurt easily.

Beta Read. Once the second draft is done, I’d like to submit the story to a few folks for a beta read. Depending on the story, the beta readers could be anyone from my writing group, a few close friends, or the patrons who are encouraging me to write more and write better. The feedback that I get from this group will help me know how close I’ve hit the target and which scenes, characters, or themes I should work on moving forward. It’s important to know that the story isn’t complete here; that it’s still a work-in-progress, but at this point it’s a good idea to show it to others for additional perspective.

Third Draft. This is where the final version of the story takes shape, more or less. Armed with the feedback of my beta readers and a clearer sense of what the actual North Star for my story should be, I can take a hard look at the pieces of the story — scenes, characters, transitions — and figure out how to make them strong and lean. Things that I like but don’t quite serve the story are excised here, and the basic structure of the narrative is set. This is also where I can settle in and try a new thing or two, planting seeds in early scenes that will bear fruit later. Since I know where the story is going, I can look for opportunities to plant signposts with that knowledge.

Polishing Draft. After a few more days in a drawer, it’s time to take out the story and polish it up. The plan is for this to be the final draft; knowing that the bulk of the story is where I want it to be, I can spend some energy “punching up” scenes, descriptions and characters so that they pop in ways that make the story as enjoyable as possible while also emphasizing the things that I really want to lean into. Once the story goes through it’s polished fourth draft, it’s ready to be submitted to a website or publication with the hope that it’ll be selected for something neat.

I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to write a story under this process; if I outline a week for each draft, that would make it a month for each one. I’m sure that’ll get faster as I become more confident and capable as a writer, and I really don’t mind the long gestation for the story. A story that makes slow progress towards publication is better than what I have been doing.

I read a blog entry on another site — I forget which or else I would link to it — that likened editing/drafting passes as hitting one circle closer to the bull’s eye each time, and I like that. That first draft, unless it’s a total disaster, should hit the outer ring of the target. Each edit should feel like a better shot, until at last you hit exactly where you’re aiming. As a young writer, I’m pretty sure I’ll have to settle for a more generous definition of the bull’s eye, but that’s OK. Getting closer with each story will almost certainly happen, and there’s simply no such thing as a perfect story.

Hopefully thinking of my writing process this way will encourage me to push through the difficulty of finishing up the draft as well as the humbling experience of reading over it and picking it apart. I know it’s silly to not want to read my own work while simultaneously hoping other people will (and like it), so that’s definitely an impulse I’ll have to get over.

What do you think, dear readers? Is this a fairly decent plan, or have I missed something? What are YOUR writing processes like? I’m really curious!

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2017 in Self-Reflection, Writing

 

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(Friday Fiction) The Only Winning Move

Writing 150I keep thinking about the Br’er idea — I think it’s a potent one that could be used to explore a lot of different themes floating in my head about the black experience. I just need to drill down into it and find out where the trouble spots are; I understand not everything is going to scan, and my inexperience with both writing and social metaphor can lead me to dangerous minefields without me even realizing it.

So here’s a bit of fiction set there, just to explore one or two aspects of the world.

Rone found his mother in the dining room, sweeping vigorously and muttering to herself. He stopped in the doorway with his ears perked to see if he could make out what she was saying, but could only make out snatches. Enough to know she was muttering about him. Wisps of his fur were floating up around every stroke of the broom, performing lazy somersaults before floating back down to the wooden floor. The sunlight caught strands as they danced. It made the whole room look like some kind of weird snow globe.

He folded his burning ears and hunched his shoulders around the pit of embarrassment in his stomach. The facility he had come from was air-conditioned the entire 18 months he was there, and since he was never allowed outside he never had to deal with the weather — just sixty degree air blowing from the vents all hours of the day. In that environment the worst thing he had to deal with was dry air, at least until they discovered his fur responded well to leave-in conditioner.

But he was back home now. It was April in Baltimore, and the weather was beginning to turn warm. He started to shed his first night back and hadn’t stopped since.

The scientists told him that his fur was virtually indistinguishable from that of an actual rabbit. Maybe a bit longer, maybe a bit thicker, but just as soft and fluffy. A few of them had even joked he should keep any sheddings to sell as sweater material. He didn’t really like the joke; it was gross imagining people walking around in clothes made from his fur, and he didn’t think there was any way he could shed that much.

A week of eighty-degree-plus days quickly disabused him of that notion. He spent more than an hour each morning brushing out his pelt and discarding blown coat. There was a trash bag full of it in his bedroom, and even still the air was saturated with it. If his mother found it as gross as he did, there’s no wonder she would be muttering about him now.

And that’s why he was here. Maybe there was a way to come to some arrangement that made everyone more comfortable.

He walked up behind her and grunted. He hadn’t learned to use his throat or strange muzzle yet, but the scientists said he might eventually learn to speak in another year or two. In the meantime, he had to learn sign language to communicate — an unexpected benefit of his…condition. Even though they were prompted to, his family hadn’t beyond a few phrases and most of the alphabet. That meant communicating through spelling slowly or simply writing things down.

Mom didn’t seem to notice him until he tapped her on the shoulder. She whirled with a start, nearly hitting him with her broom; he leapt back, his powerful legs nearly launching him into the ceiling and then into the table as he landed. He clutched the edge to steady himself, his eyes wide and his heart racing. She looked just as surprised.

“Boy, don’t sneak up on me like that!” she said, turning towards him. “You know how I get when I’m cleaning.”

Rone dipped his ears and nodded. He did indeed. He pointed to the broom and made sweeping motions, then pointed to himself. It was crude pantomime, but he hoped it was good enough to get his point across.

She blinked at him, her eyes unfocusing as she worked out what he meant. Then she shook her head. “Oh, no…thank you, though. I got this. It sure would be nice if you stopped shedding so much, though.”

Mom must have saw the way his ears flattened. “Never mind. I know you can’t help it. What did you want?”

Rone pulled out his phone and stylus. He had prepared for this. He showed her the few sentences he had written out in his Note app for this.

I think it would be best if I cleaned out the basement and stayed there for now, don’t you?

His mother stared at the phone for a long time, then looked at him. “No. Where is all the stuff in the basement now going to go? Why would you want to move your room down there?”

Rone took the phone back and typed with his stylus as quickly as he could. He wished, for the millionth time, that fur-covered fingertips didn’t prevent him from using a touchscreen. It’s cooler down there, which means I’ll shed less. It’s more private. And you won’t get as much hair floating around. We could move the basement stuff up to my room.

Mom read his phone, then shook her head. “You wouldn’t be able to move all that stuff out of the basement up to your room. Those doctors said you shouldn’t be lifting heavy things right now.”

Rone rolled his eyes. The scientists weren’t sure if his back would be able to take a lot of strain. The spines of rabbits were fairly sturdy, but had a tendency to break if they struggled too hard. The fact was no one had any idea how Rone’s body worked, even him. This was all completely uncharted territory.

I’ll be fine, Rone wrote. Besides, I can get Neek to help me.

“When?” Mom snorted, she gave the phone back to him and began sweeping again. “She’s not going to help you move furniture after she gets off work. You’re lying to yourself if you think she is.”

Rone stood there, tapping at the phone with his stylus, then erasing all the things he was about to say. One advantage of being mute is you couldn’t blurt out something you would regret nearly as easily. After a few moments, Mom stopped again and sighed.

“How about we get some of those fans from the basement and put them up in your room? Maybe that would cool things down in there, OK?” She took a step towards him and put a hesitant hand on his shoulder. “I know this ain’t easy on you, being home like this after all that time. It’s rough on all of us. We just have to…get through this until things feel like normal again.”

Rone stared at her for a moment, then nodded. Mom gave him a weak smile, then went back to sweeping.

He slipped away silently, resolving to move himself down to the basement the next time Mom and Neek went out to church. It’d be tough to get everything done in those few hours, but he was pretty sure he could.

He had to feel like he had some control over his life, even if it meant pushing things with his family. Somehow, one small corner of the world had to be his.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2017 in Furries, Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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