The Lessons of Pretend

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It might be all fun and games for the characters in my latest story, The Time Travel Situation, but for me this all serious work!

Actually, no, there’s been some genuine fun in writing this piece for me, but I have also covered a few important principles while working on the story, and now it’s time to review what all of those were.

The Work of Children)

Fred Rogers once said “play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” I absolutely believe that this is true. As a child, everything in the world is new. New sights, new people, new emotions, and new ideas. And all these new things must be processed. They must be worked over and understood, they must be laid out alongside of one another to understand all of their joint implications.

Watch a child playing pretend and you will inevitably see ideas and words and feelings that recently made an impression on them crop into their narrative, working their way through the child’s mind and words, until at last the child feels he or she has a bit more of a grasp on the matters.

This is why I started off this whole series by stating that there are no rules in the play of children. There are no necessary elements of plot structure or character arc or anything else we typically expect in a story. Because children aren’t really telling a story, they are trying to have an experience.

And I tried to make this a guiding principle of The Time Travel Situation. While I did give it enough structure that it could still appeal to more mature audiences, I was careful to preserve the sense of children just wanting to explore all the many different things that fascinate them. Thus the story is full of sensory, exploratory, free-flowing fun.

Something Old, Something New)

And to be true to that sense of children working out all the new things that interest them, I had the children make references to real-world media and history. It just wouldn’t have felt authentic to me if the shows and games they were experiencing weren’t bleeding into their playing pretend.

I explained that I didn’t want to overdo the real-world media references, though. Just a quick comment about Star Trek, a quote from Star Wars, and the opening premise of The Journeyman Project. I didn’t want this story to be a vehicle for homages to media, I wanted the references to only be a garnish to the more original narrative I had to tell.

But more prominent than these media references have been the historical ones. For example I have made Blackbeard a central character, a true-to-life pirate that we can read history books about. But I actually made a conscious decision to not go and look up details from the actual history of Edward Teach (Blackbeard’s real name), because I wanted him to be a work of childlike imagination. He’s larger than life, the way a child thinks a pirate should be. The children know absolutely nothing about what he actually was or when and how he died. All they really know is his name and career choice, and the rest for them is pure imagination. I wanted the story to reflect that same blissful ignorance.

A Rush of Ideas)

I also mentioned how these real-world references were part of how I made different worlds overlap in my story. There is the world of the children, their world of pretend, and the worlds of the historical and media figures they reference. Part of the reason for having so many intersecting realms goes back to that notion of children trying to make sense of their reality and playfully combining them to explore their full implications. I wanted the story to show that the children had a lot of different things on their mind. They are thinking about things that interest them, they are trying to explore relationships, they are trying to find an adventure in life that is exciting. All of those themes come out in the things they give voice to while at play.

But naturally this led to a deluge of different elements, and I was anxious about it becoming overwhelming. I wanted it to be indulgent, but not to the point of excess. My hope is that audiences will be able to flow along with the rapid-fire conversations in the same way that one does when having a conversation with a friend. You shift from one topic to another effortlessly, shifting from work to family to personal interests on a whim. It may be chaotic and all-over-the-place, but you still leave feeling satisfied. Because you and your friend weren’t worried about turning your conversation into a three-act story, you were just trying to get a sense of yourselves across.

In my story I want it to be the same. Yes there is some character development, such as with Blackbeard’s change of heart, but mostly I just wanted to have a conversation with you about these kids and try to give you a sense of them through it.

Broken Deals)

Last of all I spoke about stories where the hero needs to surmount the villain, but also needs to retain their honor to the end. I put the children in a compromising situation, one where they had an unacceptable deal setup with Blackbeard. But I couldn’t just have them break their promise or else they would lose their dignity. Therefore it was important to have Blackbeard break the terms first so that they children could be released from their end of the bargain as well.

And originally my intent was for the children to now trick Blackbeard into his own demise, but I realized that that would still feel dishonorable. So instead I allowed Blackbeard to see the error of his ways and genuinely join the children’s cause. This should allow us to enter the conclusion with an air of positivity where everyone’s honor has been preserved.

Now all that remains is to finish the thing! Come back on Thursday as we’ll do exactly that, after which we’ll be on to something different.

My Fifty: #10 – #1

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I am reviewing all fifty of my short stories, ranking them from worst to best. Today I am going over my most favorite entries!

The Top 10)

Believe it or not, having these last two sections be exactly ten entries each was not something I did on purpose. It just so happens that I think these remaining stories really are a tier above the last. A lot of the reason why I feel so is because of personal preference, these ones just speak more directly to me. In any case, these truly are the stories that I am the most proud of having written.

10. The Storm. An old fisherman goes into a storm to bring back a fellow-sailor, which sailor was responsible for a past tragedy.
Once again I went with with beaches, the sea, and gray skies! The symbolism of this piece is extremely blunt: two boats tethered together and weathering a storm as soul-breaking confessions are made. Sometimes it’s better to not be subtle, to just wear your themes on your sleeve and see how far you can push it. I enjoyed being able to really lean into the depth of emotions that I wanted to convey.

9. Free Cleaning Service. A detective is trying to track down a serial killer, and in the process invites the murderer to his own home.
I was woken up in the middle of the night by a nightmare once. So then I posted it on my blog for everyone else to share. You’re welcome. Grim as this piece is, I also can’t help but be impressed at how well it captures the terror I felt that night. I had to translate unspoken sensations into written words, which would elicit the unspoken sensations in the reader. Not an easy thing to do, but I think I found my way through it.

8. Boat of Three. A captain, a sailor, and a pirate are together in a lifeboat, the most precarious of companions in the struggle to survive.
This was yet another example of starting a story in fertile ground, and then just sitting back and letting all sorts of interesting plot developments spring out of it. Although I couldn’t let those ideas grow entirely unhindered, because I already had a strong sense of where I wanted the story to end. Thus I had to steer the herd in the right, general direction, and in the end I felt it was a success. Not only this, I felt it was one my best examples of writing about current issues through allegory.

7. The Soldier’s Last Sleep. A soldier on the frontlines must defend against one wave of the enemy after another in what might be his final stand.
This story emerged from a very simple image: a soldier laying down in his bunk after days of fighting, too exhausted to even remove his boots. But where many stories grow forwards from an idea, this one went backwards. I started to ask “well how did he get this way?” which led me to imagine a long sequence of excruciating labors. This piece was actually very satisfying to write, because I permitted myself to flesh out every scene with layer upon layer of prose, resulting in some of my most favorite lines in all my work.

6. The Anther-Child. A race of creatures that live on the anthers of a flower are menaced by a persistent predator.
I wanted to write a story that was a true fantasy, where the main characters were not human, nor human-like. I wanted it to be very surreal and strange, featuring a species I have never seen in any other story. And when all was said and done, I would say I succeeded. I simply do not know anything else that feels like the world I setup for this piece, and it’s somewhere I would very much like to spend more time.

5. Deep Forest. A strange, insect-like creature awakes after eons of sleep, discovering an unfamiliar world that has yet to be awoken.
When I said The Anther-Child was unlike any other story, I meant any other story than this one! I wrote this one first, and once again it represents a more pure fantasy, with a main character that defies any semblance of being human-like. It eats dirt and has compound eyes and regurgitates a larva that it places in an inner pod to incubate! I loved the freedom that this approach gave me, and still want to spend more time in this space.

4. The Toymaker. Two toys are brought to life, and set on a path to the Great City. But soon they are waylaid, and must strive to ever find the road again.
This piece starts as whimsical and carefree as Winnie-the-Pooh or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but quickly meanders into a grim and harsh world. It strikes an intriguing balance of examining coarse reality, but all through the eyes of un-surrendered innocence. The ending is, I believe, the greatest success I’ve had in sentimentality, and conveys a message that I believe we all could benefit from.

3. Raise the Black Sun. A caravan must bring their wares to a mysterious citadel, weighed down by a sense that they are approaching the end of the world.
Yet another story of mine with a slow burn, this one being the longest and slowest of them all. That gradual escalation was the only option for this one, as its purpose was to capture a deep sense of burden and melancholy. Thus there is a heavy weight that permeates every scene, dragging down the tempo, but slowly rising until it bursts out everywhere in the most explosive conclusion I’ve ever written!

2. Revelate. A group of automatons go about their daily lives, falling in love and concocting schemes against one another.
This is my most intricate piece to date. Its plot occurs in a complete cycle, where the ending transitions seamlessly back into the beginning. It also features characters that evolve into one another through the course of each cycle, done in a way that I have never seen in any other tale. It is therefore one of my boldest pieces from a technical standpoint, and on top of that also presents a sincere and heartfelt drama.

1. Glimmer. A warrior descends to a planet shrouded in darkness. She has come to restore light and life to it at any cost.
This story takes the fight between darkness and light in a very literal sense. The world it presents is stark and barren, with little to distract from the drama at its core. It is another epic in miniature, where the great battle is in the heart of its main protagonist, more than the outer world that she is trying to save. And indeed, her intense earnestness is a very large part of why I like this story so much.

50 Down…)

As I said, I’m very proud of these stories, and I could have certainly made a case for any of the top several being my favorite of all time.

Now I know that none of these works aren’t perfect. I’m aware of pacing issues, inconsistencies, and awkward phrasing in even my favorite stories. And I don’t even mean in the sense of “no story is perfect,” I mean I could do better than this if I gave myself more time. This is why I don’t try to pan any of this off as professional work, and I wouldn’t publish any piece as a commercial product without first putting it through extensive rewrites.

But that is simply the nature and intent of this blog. I have an idea, I explore it for a while, and then I move on. The purpose of these exercises is not to make commercial products, it is to sift through the seeds and find which ones would be worthy of a more thorough production later on.

Some of these I’ve discarded and don’t expect I will ever return to, some of them show a bit of promise if I can just figure out a better approach, and some of them are the beginning of something special.

And I do intend to fully develop some of these ideas down the road. In fact, I’ve already started to do so with one.

…Many More to Go)

But for as many seedlings as I’ve started, I’m nowhere near ready to stop planting more. The pool of ideas is simply too large to stop processing them. And if I do say so myself, I’ve still got some of my best ideas yet to come. In fact I’ve already queued up a few of them for the next story series I publish.

In closing, thank you for being here with me through this long self-examination. These tales have so very much of me laced through them. I wrote them first and foremost for my own benefit, and am forever awed that there are others of you who seem to enjoy them as well.

I do believe that stories are one of the best ways we have to connect to each other. As we each find a part of ourselves in the same themes of the same story we find our common ground.

My Fifty: #20 – #11

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I am reviewing all fifty of my short stories, ranking them from worst to best. Today I will bring us to the threshold of my most treasured work.

Something Special)

The following are the stories that I consider to almost be my favorite work. It’s hard for me to quantify what I feel they are missing…quite possibly nothing. I think it’s just down to a matter of personal preference at this point.

20. A Minute at a Time. A young father is trying to care for his chronically ill son, who is in perpetual discomfort.
I have written several sentimental stories that did not land as well as I had hoped, but this actually succeeded. And a lot of that has to do with the end. At its conclusion the father does not fix his son’s problems. He does not make the bad situation go away. But he does embrace his son’s struggle, and even admits to his own feelings of powerlessness. And so at the end there is a form of healing, but it is that of emotional closure. That sort of honest, bittersweet conclusion brought this story in where other efforts fell short.

19. Phisherman. A hacker who enjoys filtering through the lives of others decides to break into a stranger’s home.
If there is a common trend in my stories, it is that I tend to avoid ordinary, everyday life. With this story I broke that pattern. It is modern, it has no supernatural elements, and it is an examination of a person that could be totally real. And taking this radically different approach did not compromise the piece at all! I think the quality I enjoy most of this story is that its protagonist is unquestionably doing bad things, and needs to be held accountable for his behavior, yet I can’t help but feel a deep pity for him also.

18. The Last Duty. A hermit with a secret shame is visited by a wanderer, whose arrival might not be as random as assumed.
I wanted to write a story that begin with false pretenses. In this piece two characters have their own stories to share, the intersection of which is not made known until a surprise revelation at the end. In addition to the exercise, I also wanted to explore a theme of regretful parenthood and I wanted to explore it to the extreme. The two characters are not merely asking themselves “where did I go wrong,” they are wrestling with the responsibility of having sired the world’s greatest evils!

17. The Noble. A group of medieval slaves find an unlikely savior in the newest member of their chain gang.
I admit that this story ends too quickly. At the time I wrote it, I was still concerned with fitting my stories into a specific number of posts, and sometimes that meant cramming too much into the last chapter. I am including it here, though, because in spite of that I am still very proud of its characterizations, themes, and imagery. Most of all, though, I am proud of the unexpected turn of events at the very center, which in the moment seem a soul-crushing defeat, but actually sows the seed of a later redemption.

16. With the Beast. A family lands on an inherited island, excited to build a new future for themselves.
There isn’t much of an arc here, this piece is mostly about just setting a tone. And in that it definitely succeeded. There is a goodness and an excitement that emanates from the explorers, but it is set apart by a contrasting tone of regret from the reader. Which brings up another distinct element that I’m proud of. The reader is given a voice in this story, and the whole thing is written in a second-person present tense. I suspected that would be weird and off-putting…but it actually works quite well!

15. Does What He Must. A young man in the old west recalls the larger-than-life feats of his father.
I’ve sometimes come into trouble by starting a story without a clear idea of where I wanted to end it. But this piece was an example of how sometimes an expedition into the unknown can turn up gold. All I knew when I started was that I wanted to do a series of scenes that showed the development of a western legend. The fact that it did that, and also came together in an emotional and fitting finale was a wonderful, happy accident!

14. Washed Ashore. Two men wash onto a beach, the lone survivors of a shipwreck, burning with an eternal hatred for each other.
Another mood piece and another shoreline. Something I’ve learned about myself and my writing is that I am captivated by the image of a stormy beach. Here I used it as the flat, gray backdrop behind a dramatic escalation. Things begin with a tone that is longing and wistful, but by the end burns with the promise of destruction and never-ending strife.

13. Once Among the Clouds. A patrol of clouds come across a source of infinite growth, and are seduced by the power it represents.
Well this was certainly a different piece, and it was so for two different reasons. The first, of course, was the choice of clouds as the cast of characters. Coming up with mechanics that reflect those most whimsical of forms was a fun challenge. The other unique element was trying to write an epic drama in miniature. Which I realize sounds like an oxymoron, but was necessary to capture the extremely majestic, yet extremely transient nature of clouds.

12. To the Great Infinite. A man uses his homemade technology to try and map his way into another dimension.
Only my second piece on this blog, and still one of my favorites. I love the sheer creativity of it, particularly the idea of a concrete basement being transformed into a dimension-hopping shuttle. A definite challenge in this was to both invent creative problems for my character to encounter, and then come up with reasonable solutions to them. Perhaps my favorite element, though, was having it cap all that sci-fi extravagance off with a simple moment of leaping into the unknown by pure faith.

11. Slow and Easy, Then Sudden. A sleepy, rural town has a new visitor in town, come to carry out an evil deed.
Another thing that I’ve learned from writing these stories is how much I love the slow burn. This piece begins particularly lighthearted, with a cheerful diner and a warm slice of apple pie, then builds to a climax of cold-blooded murder. In between I was particularly focused on the idea of a man having to work up the hate within him, necessary to being able to carry out such an act of violence.

Come back on Thursday where I will conclude this review with my top ten stories!

My Fifty: #36 – #21

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I am reviewing all fifty of my short stories, ranking them from worst to best. Today I am taking a look at the middle of the pack.

It’s Nice. No More, No Less)

There are always things I can find to improve in my stories, even in my best ones. But this next section is the first batch where I feel there are not any flaws on a fundamental level. I think that they are perfectly fine as they are…and that is all. They’re not life-changing, but they are fine.

36. The Wolf in the Room. Doctors and scientists in a secret facility try to solve the mystery of a man slowly transforming into a wolf.
I enjoyed this unique take on the werewolf. Obviously it has been inspired by other works, such as The Fly, and even Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The application of this body-swapping logic to werewolves is, to my knowledge, original, and I think it does a good job of raising the questions that I wanted it to.

35. In Stars and Stones. The world’s leading astronomers and archaeologists are both discovering the same end-of-the-world event through two very different lenses.
This one was written from a very removed perspective. The voice is similar to a narrator in a documentary, or a news reporter. There are no named characters, no moments of dialogue, but rather a series of escalating events described until a picture of inescapable Armageddon is made clear. It was a fun exercise, and one that presented some refreshing new experiences.

34. The Favored Son. An abbey in a fantasy world is suddenly overrun by a mysterious invasion.
My most recent piece, and one that I frankly struggled with quite a great deal. Right in the middle I followed a tangent that I hadn’t considered before, and found myself making up the story as I went. In the end I felt it came together much better than expected, and I found a few nuggets along the way that I’m glad to have discovered.

33. Three Variations on a Theme. Three different allegories, each centered on the same idea of condemnation and loss.
This was a more free-form, experimental piece. The visuals in it still haunt me, and I believe the separate sections each fit together thematically. My main purpose here was to see how many ways I could express the same idea, which made for an excellent writing exercise, but may result in a redundant reading experience.

32. Revenger of Blood. A Jewish man’s father was a victim of manslaughter, and he struggles with the right course of action to take against the killer.
I like the ideas of this story, I like its slow burn, and I like the resolution that it comes to. But I do take issue with the dialogue of its characters. I was trying to capture that old, biblical style of speaking. And while it is near enough you know what I am going far, it is also far enough from the mark that it feels a bit awkward. If I took the time, this piece could be polished into something really special.

Worth a Look)

There are many elements that I personally value in the previous stories, but if a friend asked me where to start reading my blog, I would not point them to any of the above. I would tell them to start looking from here.

31. Network Down. A man is hunted by a band of murderers in a highly digitized future.
This was a great example of having a single, simple idea (what if anything manufactured in our society could be interfaced with and digitally purchased), and then running with it for as long as possible. And even with so many ideas packed into such a small package, the piece still finds time to build a compelling arc for its main character.

30. Imposed Will. A man is incarcerated in a Victorian-era prison, where a mysterious figure invites him into a world of magic.
I had a lot of fun going down this rabbit hole, revealing one surprise after another. As one of my earlier pieces, I’m sure it could do with some polishing, but the core of it is still quite good. I remember that as soon as I finished the story I came up with several ideas for how I might continue the tale into a more complete novel. Perhaps one day I will get to.

29. Phillip the Mouse. A series of children’s stories, each following the adventures of a small, anthropomorphic mouse.
These stories are very dear to me, given that they are drawn directly from the bedtime stories I tell to my son. They are at times very fun, at others very sentimental, and in both halves very sincere. This is one that I might very well expand into a more complete collection of short stories at some point.

28. The Death of Simon Bowie. An old man’s memories come alive, and mix with one another during his final moments of life.
I set myself quite the task with this one, trying to recreate a mind that is fading, firing random neurons in quick succession, losing its grip of reality, and no longer able to tell the difference between fact and imagination. As the author, I can understand it just fine, but I would imagine for most readers it is very easy to get lost in. And in this case, I’m not so sure that that’s a bad thing!

27. The Changed Dog. Two parents try to change out the old family dog, hoping that their son won’t notice the switch.
Perhaps one of the most grim stories I have written. There were a lot of powerful emotions behind this piece, including those of loss and deception. I have no question that a good deal of what inspired this piece was my son was dealing with the loss of two family pets in quick succession, and me fighting down a temptation to distract him from the hard facts of life that he needed to make his peace with.

26. Sculpting Light. A series of surreal images and loosely associated ideas are presented in a stream.
This is probably the most experimental piece that I’ve ever done. It has no characters and no dialogue, but it does have an arc: that of associated ideas building towards a central idea. And I found it a very refreshing thing to write. It’s just plain different, and allowed me to work on writing muscles that I didn’t even know I had. It’s something that I would definitely like to explore again.

25. Tico the Jester. A small girl plays with her toys, who are powerless to help as she approaches a traumatic experience.
So this was a bit of an interesting approach. I wrote a story where the main character and her arc are not explored in the actual text. The toys in this story just don’t understand anything outside of their small, childish world, and I keep the action limited to their naïve perspective. I think it made for a very intriguing take, with plenty of subtext and room for interpretation.

24. The Last Grasshopper. A grasshopper is the last of his generation, observing the onset of winter, and the end of an era.
Where I live there are a great many grasshoppers, and they only survive a single season, leaving their eggs buried in the ground to hatch the next spring. I don’t remember when, but one day I realized that there must be a grasshopper each year that was the last grasshopper of its generation. That idea gripped me very tightly, and I knew I had to write a story to convey all the emotions that came with it. I feel like they all came out here rather well.

23. Cursed. A father lays wounded and dying. In his final moments he tries to convince his morally weak son to not seek vengeance for what has happened.
This is a very charged piece, with several competing emotions surging forward in equal measure. The son is filled with hate for those that have killed his father, and the father with fear for losing his son’s soul. There is no outwitting an opponent in this duel, no making an argument to convince another, and no test of physical strength. It is only a duel between intense love and intense hate, where only one can prevail in the end.

22. The Cruelty of King Bal’Tath. A king discusses with his counselors the best way to execute vengeance on a district that has betrayed him.
All the time in stories we follow the protagonist as discover, in horror, the evil plot of the main villain. The best of these plots are ingenious in their cruelty, a perfectly dark work of art. With this story I wanted to examine the formation of one of these plans from the villain’s perspective. I wanted to show how he would wrestle to come up with a plan that was not only evil, but unforgettably so.

21. Power Suit Racing. A young man in a futuristic society joins a dangerous racing league to escape the pangs of love.
I just had a lot of fun with this one. The world it takes place in was different from any setting I had experimented with before, and it was nice to explore one aspect of it and then another. I thought that this exploration naturally and seamlessly integrated with a compelling arc, too, which intersection is where the most satisfying story experiences are found.

That’s all I have room for today, come on Monday as we’ll make our way towards my most favorite stories!

My Fifty: #50 – #37

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On Thursday I posted the last section of The Favored Son, which also marked the end of my most recent series.

This isn’t all, though, it also held the distinction of being the fiftieth short story that I’ve completed on this blog. Not too bad for two-and-a-half years. At this rate it will only take me a half century to post a thousand!

Though actually, that might not be quite true. The fact is my stories have been getting longer and longer at a dramatic rate. In the first year-and-a-half of this blog I did forty short stories, and in all of this last year I only did ten!

Which I don’t feel bad about, it’s just an interesting observation. Probably these longer ten-part stories are harder for readers to persevere through than the short one-offs, but the top objective of this blog has always been to just write what I want to write. If anyone else happens to like it, too, then that’s an extra gift and I am very grateful for it, but it really isn’t my driving motivation.

But back to the milestone.

I’m very proud about having made it through fifty stories. And I am proud of the overall quality in them. There have been a couple duds here and there, but as a whole I feel that I’ve been able to express what I wanted to express, and that I’ve been able to write about things that truly matter to me.

So I felt it was time to commemorate this achievement, and the way I’ve chosen to do so is by ranking each of my fifty stories. From worst to best I will list out a short description of each tale, what my personal feelings about it are, and any special challenges that it presented. And these reviews are going to be very influenced by my perspective as the author. My experience while writing the story will be as important as the final quality of it when determining where it ranks.

Fifty stories is going to take a little while to cover, so I will break it out over this week and the next. My regular essays and short stories will be put on a short hiatus until after that.

And now, without further ado, let’s get to it!

It Sounded Better in My Head)

It turns out there are very few of my stories that I consider a complete flop, tales that I would feel very little reason to revisit, even if I had the time. If anything, I would just extract the few parts I do like about these stories and repurpose those into other, more promising stories.

50. Harold and Caroline. A boss and one of his workers are constantly at odds with one another.
For some reason I really struggled while writing this one, redoing multiple scenes multiple times. I think it has a more sentimental ending than it has earned, and I’ve frankly never felt so detached from a happy ending after all of the frustration it took to get there.

49. The Basketball in the Water. A man is meeting with his therapist, discussing his frustrations with his father.
It’s a nice representation of counseling, utilizing actual methods of the profession. But the entire thing was built around a twist ending that feels oddly out of place. My reason for wanting to include that twist was to be true to a dream which inspired the story. Sometimes I need to be able to let go of the initial concept of a story, though, so that it might evolve into something better.

48. Hello, World. A group of programmers inadvertently let loose a virus which strives for world domination.
I’ve included the occasional moment of humor in my stories, but this is the first and only time where I tried to write a comedy. And, given where it is ranking on this list, it might be quite a while before I try it again! I think my main issue here was trying to mix a sense of levity alongside some thick technical-speak. It made the whole piece feel off-balance and lacking a clear voice.

Good Idea, But…)

The next section of my stories are ones that didn’t shine as brightly as I’d hoped when written out, but which I still like the ideas at the core of. There is still potential for them, but they need a different interpretation or a fuller context to really come into their own.

47. The Sweet Bay Tree. A young tree is brought into a multi-purpose room on university campus. Slowly it comes to the realization that it will never leave this place.
I think there was an intriguing idea at the heart of this story, but the main thing I learned from the experience was the importance of finding the right medium to tell a story through. This is something that could work in a soulful song, but as a short-story it just kind of comes and goes without making the intended impact.

46. The Heart of Something Wild. An African Tribe tries to negotiate the shift of power after the old chief dies.
I feel like this story had too many core ideas: the tribe members deciding where their loyalties lied, an examination of a shamed heir, and the relationship being formed with a strange creature. Each of these could have been interesting in their own right, but the blend of them all made for a bit of a distracted concoction.

45. Shade. An altruistic leader sacrifices himself to save a friend that has fallen to the other side.
I have posted many stories that feel like a single chapter from a larger piece. But where most of them feel like they have a complete arc within that larger tale, Shade felt decidedly incomplete. There just wasn’t enough time to care about the characters involved or the events that transpired. What was described could have been an interesting piece, if it had been backed by a novel full of development.

44. I Hated You, Jimmy. A man looks back at his frustrations with a High School bully, and how he finally developed empathy for the boy.
I tried something new with this story: I made the protagonist’s voice change a great deal throughout. Though the entire piece is is couched in the setting of an adult reflecting on his childhood memories, he very much gets caught up in the emotion of the moment, and at different times sounds like a teenager, a young adult, and a mature man. This might work over a longer piece, but in the short story format it resulted in too chaotic and frequent of changes.

43. It’s Tough to Be a God. A man is exiled on a small moon, where he discovers the power to create whatever he wants.
There are a lot of ideas I really like in this. I think a simple man being made into a god and trying to balance out his own ignorant mistakes is fascinating. But the tone of it kept slipping from me. I felt like I kept pushing at the fringes of creature horror, which was not my intention at all. It’s definitely something I’d like to do another take on.

42. Celestials. A solar system is destroyed through a complex chain of events.
I feel that this story fell to the same weakness as The Sweet Bay Tree. It is an interesting idea, and one I think that is worth, it’s just very hard to communicate by a written medium. This tale is full of dense paragraphs that are brimming with chemical and physical terms. I originally envisioned this idea as a short film, and I do believe that that would provide the best experience.

41. Gifts from Daniel Bronn…and Jerry. A sentimental story about an old cynic who is transformed through his work for a rich altruist.
This was my attempt at a feel-good Christmas story like A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life. I still very much like the idea of a man learning compassion by repeatedly being the vehicle for someone else’s kindness, but I can’t help but feel that the ending just didn’t come together in the way I had hoped. It’s not terrible, but I would like to have had the time to experiment with a few alternative versions before hitting submit.

40. Washed Down the River. A detective mystery set in the 70s, where a suburban suicide might actually be foul play.
I had wanted to write a mystery for a long while, and finally decided it was time to try my hand at it. I enjoyed the more measured approach I used, but unfortunately all that slow burn builds up to an end that is disappointingly anticlimactic. It could definitely be reworked, though, and there are many ways it could have a far more exciting conclusion than its current “so I guess no one was really the murderer?”

39. Cael: Darkness and Light. Two isolated scenes of a dark void spilling over the world, and two characters attempting to flee it.
If I were just evaluating the very first scene, I would have placed this much higher. It’s scene of a man dissolved within a void I still find quite gripping. And the second scene has its own interesting ideas as well, but as with Shade it would have had more impact if contained in a greater context. In other pieces I have better learned how to take a vertical slice from a larger tale that still feels complete on its own.

38. The Wedding Scenes. Four vignettes from a single wedding reception.
My very first story on this blog! And while writing those first pieces was pretty grueling at the time, I am actually quite pleased that it turned out as well as it did. In the end it is a bit lopsided, with certain vignettes turning out much better than the others. I could easily drop the weaker sections and just let the others stand on their own.

37. Instructions Not Included. Two boys discover some strange machines that operate on their own set of rules, separate from the laws of nature.
It was nice to write a story about pure discovery, and in that regard I consider it a success. The ending was designed to open the world up to a wealth of future possibilities, but I feel that in this case it was it felt like a hurriedly tacked-on cliffhanger, rather than a natural escalation of all that had come before.

That’s all I have room for today, come on Thursday as we’ll delve into the next sections of my countdown!

The Self-Examined Son

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Usually at the conclusion of each story, I leave a little space at the end to review all the different lessons I gained from writing it, and to summarize all the elements I had been trying to imbue in it. But sometimes these stories run nine chapters long, and there is too much to cover in the little space at the end of the last post. So instead, I will use this entire post to review my current story, The Favored Son, all the things that I think went well, and what I think could be improved on.

Manipulation)

Right before I launched into this story I shared a post discussing how an author gets readers to trust and distrust certain characters from the outset, so that then the audience will accept or reject the philosophies connected to them.

At the time I pointed out how I wrote Tharol and Reis in particular ways to make one likable and the other not, to get the readers to assume one would become the protagonist, and the other the antagonist. That expectation was wholeheartedly affirmed.

A little bit later, I wrote about how this style of manipulation allows the author to guide the reader’s mind to a particular state, and then, knowing what they are expecting, they can either reaffirm or subvert those expectations.

And so, having had this affirmation of Reis as the antagonist and Tharol as the protagonist, I knew the reader would now assume that there would come a standoff between the two of them, a point where they duel over their different ideals and the protagonist would finally overcome the enemy.

And again, this was affirmed in my last post as Tharol defied Reis’s orders and convinced the other youth to do so as well. At that point it may have seemed obvious for Tharol and Reis to cross swords, but I wanted Reis’s downfall to be strictly due to his own hubris, not because Tharol happened to fight better. And so that is what occurred.

You might have noticed that I also setup an expectation for things to go horribly wrong with the battle against the elders by foreshadowing trouble multiple times. There was Tharol feeling uneasy, Tharol going along despite the protesting of his own conscience, and the youth encountering many surreal and unsettling sights along the way. All this was meant to create a sense of discomfort in the reader, and prime them for a scene of failure. Which, again, is exactly what occurred.

Appetizer)

I next wrote about stories that begin with an extended prologue, which gets the audience settled into the tone of the story before the main thrust of the tale begins. I suggested that this was my approach with the first sections of The Favored Son, where the youth first gathered at the centrifuge and Tharol spoke with Master Palthio about his dilemmas of faith.

At this point it should be abundantly clear that the real story was not about those elements, but about the war between the elders and the youth. And its themes evolved into letting go of old expectations to begin something new and about the need to preserve one’s soul even in the most dire of situations.

This isn’t to say that the introduction was entirely disconnected, though. Those opening scenes still laid the roots for several elements in the main story arc. In them I established the basic ideas of Reis’s hunger for power and Tharol’s efforts to listen to his conscience. Thus while my intro largely stands apart from the rest of the tale, it does still remain in connection to it, too.

Things Go Topsy-Turvy)

Then I reached a critical juncture in my story. I was having trouble making that transition into the real thrust of my tale, and suddenly I thought of a better way to go. But that better way changed a great many things, and meant that all the rest of the story would have to change accordingly.

I explained this in great detail at the time, and also shared my realization that it is a perfectly fine thing for an author to have more than one version of their story. Our minds work in tangents, and it is vain to assume our story-crafting won’t branch into multiple interpretations as well.

At the time I considered releasing an alternate version of The Favored Son. I had wondered if that would be redundant though, after all that I would end up writing in this new version. And now that I am at the end of this branch, I actually think there are still a lot of original, worthwhile ideas that have been left on the cutting-room floor.

And so I will be doing another take on The Favored Son. I think I need to rework the opening sequences to better support that alternate form, so I will be rebuilding it from the ground up. Certain elements will be similar, some passages will probably be copied over verbatim, but eventually the two will permanently diverge, at the point where the elders attacked the youth in my current version.

Familiar Haunts)

Next I spoke of stories that revisit the same location multiple times, and how using that familiar backdrop can be used to highlight the changes in the main characters by contrast. The location I was using for this effect was the centrifuge. Previously we saw the students there in a moment of innocent drama. They were quibbling about politics that didn’t really matter, and their fears and anticipations were only minor things.

The second visit took place after the initial attack of the elders, at a point where things had become horrifying, and probably seemed like they couldn’t get any worse. Now we see them returning for the third time, when things have absolutely gotten much, much worse! The unchanging nature of that centrifuge is helping to highlight the darker and darker situation among the youth as it unfolds. Where the location’s broken columns and crumbled stone were originally just an amusing piece of set dressing, now they can be recognized as a foreshadowing for the entire Order.

Pizzazz)

Finally I spoke of inventing new things in a story, simply to entertain the reader. I mentioned as a counterpoint to this, though, that all these crazy, new inventions still need to feel like they belong together. So long as the new creations feel like they originate from the same place, then our illusion of that place as somewhere real can be preserved.

In The Favored Son there are quite a few new creations. There is the strange behavior of the Invaded elders, the reforming Shraying Staffs, the strange physics when one is connected to their core self, and the cryptic hints of the Order’s doctrine.

I like to think that there is a sense of cohesion between all of these, although if I’m honest I kind of just wrote them down as they occurred to me, realized that they didn’t gel together, and then refactored them in my rewrites to bring them more in line with each other. Generally I like to pin down the system and mechanics of a world first, but in this case I kind of just took flight and corrected things as I went. And in the end, I don’t think it was half-bad!

Well that was a lot to cover! Now all that’s left is to finish the tale. Next I will be posting the last section of The Favored Son, and I hope it all comes together in a way that makes the journey satisfying. Come back on Thursday to see the result of that, and then a little bit later we’ll look at the alternate form of it, and consider which version lands better.

Taking Inventory

black and white typewriter on table
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Avoiding Ruts)

Writing stories is one of the best ways to get better at writing stories. Direct practice leads to better performance over time. However, there is another crucial practice that is necessary to more fully improve, and that is to take regular inventory of your work.

If all you do is write, then you will become more refined in the path that you are following, but you will not be able to correct any misalignments in that path. Your later work might be better than your first, but it will also be plowed deeper into your own personal rut.

Every one of us is going to have a personal rut in our work. We will have some tendency that is just wrong, an inherent weakness in our form. It is like running with an incorrect posture, and the more one practices running in that flawed way, the more entrenched in it they will become, the harder it will be to break the posture later on.

Sometimes the path forward requires taking a step back, then, and that is exactly what I intend to do now. I am going to take a step back from my work on Raise the Black Sun, assess its strengths and weaknesses, and consider how I would expand on it, if I were to turn it into a full-sized novel.

 

The Shape of It)

The main stand-out is the overall flow of my story, specifically the fact that its shape is so lopsided. The outline of the story can be summed up as follows: our main character is hired for a doomed venture, he embarks on a journey which is beset by numerous dangers, then arrives at a strange land and spends some time becoming familiar with the locals, he becomes enchanted with a young woman there, and finally witnesses the tragic destruction of his entire world.

Just from that description, it seems that this story wants to be an epic, a story of a long trek that takes the hero far from his home, both literally and in terms of character development. Readers should reach the end, and then look back at the beginning and be amazed at just how far they’ve come.

Given this, the correct balance would be that the bulk of the story (at least half) to take place in the journey that is beset by numerous dangers. Many changes of setting, many rises and falls in tension, and many hurdles to be overcome. Reaching the end should feel exhausting, allowing for a tapering tail until the climatic finish.

This is not the balance that I struck in my story, though. My story, when finished, will be eleven posts, each about two thousand words long, and for those eleven posts the layout is as follows.

Introduction: 1 post
Journey: 2.5 posts
Exploring the secrets of the Coventry: 3.5 posts
Conversation with Mira: 2 posts
Conclusion: 2 posts

As you can see, the journey portion, which should be the bulk of the story, is less than a quarter of the entire work! Now I’m not too surprised about this. When I was writing those portions I wasn’t expecting the scenes at the scenery to take more than another post or two. But I wanted to let things breathe as much as they wanted, and so the imbalance occurred.

This is a natural effect of writing a story without a clear structure in place. I don’t regret it, I enjoyed discovering the tale firsthand alongside my main character, but if I were ever to turn this into a full-sized novel I would now go back and expand the journey portion through more twists and turns until the balance was correct.

 

Reworking It)

Let’s get a little more specific about this, though.

If I did decide to do a second draft of this story, then before anything else I would get my outline sorted out. I would write a brief summary of the story as it exists now, and then balance it out on that blueprint level, enhancing and expanding the journey section of this story. And I do believe the story is structured in a way that it could support a great deal of development there. We’ve already seen a few strange and fantastic things, and there could surely be more.

There is one thing that gets in the way of that, though, which is the fact that our Treksmen spend the majority of their journey unconscious. I like the idea of them surrendering to the Job’s Mind and becoming automatons, and I would still want to keep that to some degree, but they would just have to lose their foreman and awaken back to full consciousness aware far sooner in their journey. Like Frodo taking the ring to Mordor, I would want the audience to be keenly aware of where the party was in their world, and where they had yet to go.

Then comes the matter of how I would actually disrupt their journey. For this I would take note of the classic epic Odysseus, which laid a template for distraction and diversion that is still widely used today. As in that story, my journeyers would be pulled off on winding detours for every step forward they tried to take. Each of these diversions would be a self-contained adventure, leaving the main path, winding about, and then returning to it for the greater narrative to proceed. Sometimes my Treksmen would be returned closer to their destination than where they left it, and sometimes farther away.

And all this would play into the suspense of dwindling numbers among the Treksmen. Every side route would claim another soul or two. We would know more of these wanderer’s names, and as we said farewell to one after another, we would start to wonder if the company would make it to the end at all.

And that would establish the main theme of the journey: that the entire world was opposed to this small band, yet fate required them to prevail. The earth itself would be aware that these men were pushing to Armageddon, and would be a constant friction to stop them, but the undeniable pull of destiny would see Graye through to the end.

And finally I would want their journey to accomplish more than just provide scrying sticks to confirm what the Coventry members already know. As the story stands now, the end of the world would have still come, even if they had never arrived. I would want to change things so that the final sacrifice required their presence, and thus they would truly be the bearers of all destruction.

 

Future Plans)

So that’s how I would rewrite this story if I were to rewrite it, but do I intend to ever do so? Honestly, I would love to, but I can’t find the time for it right now. I’m already working on another novel on the side, with a few more ideas already queued up behind that.

And I don’t want to stop experimenting with new short stories here on my blog to instead do an even longer-form production. But maybe I should? I don’t know. I like sowing new seeds to see what I like, but then I also want to take the good ones to fully maturity. I’m still trying to find the right balance between my creative desires and my time constraints, but perhaps for right now it is enough to know what I would do if I could. What do you think?