Three Years In

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I looked at the things I wrote for my second anniversary and was shocked to realize how recent it all felt. I remember writing those things as if it had been yesterday!

Three years of consistent writing feels pretty good. More and more I have the sense that this really is my work. Not the work that I do for pay and not the work that I do for duty. The work that I freely choose for myself because I love it.

Statistics)

116 new posts were added to my tally this year, divided across 12 updates to my novel, 7 short stories, 50 essays, and a review of my first 50 short stories. The main trend that stands out to me is how much longer these “short” stories have been becoming! In my first year my writing produced 27 short stories and in the second it produced 19. This year it produced only 7?! That is an incredibly small number, but is it any wonder when three of them were Raise the Black Sun and the two variations on The Favored Son?

Altogether I added 203,000 words to my blog, bringing my three-year total to 619,407. Obviously not all of those words are in the form of a story, but more than half of them are.

The first draft for my novel With the Beast is at 74,000 total words, up from 42,500 a year ago. Clearly the progress there has slowed considerably, though I am still faithfully plugging away at it.

Years 1 and 2 had around 88 new followers each, but this year I was able to add 117, bringing my total to 293! Also 8 new countries read my blog for the first time, bringing the total there to 72.

Looking Forward)

It’s become something of a tradition for me to revise my approach to this blog at the beginning of each new year and I will be doing so again this time around. I’m not changing things just for the sake of changing things, though, this is all meant to help me in my growth as a writer.

The change that I am going to make is to introduce a new series for this blog, one where I take my previous work and revise it to its most ideal form. The intention is that at the end of this process my work would be worthy of professional publishing. Here are the reasons why I am making this change:

First and foremost is to help me achieve a higher level of quality as a writer. I am now two-thirds of the way through the first draft of my novel and I want to be well-rehearsed when it comes time to start its refining process. I’ve had plenty of practice at coming up with new ideas and hashing out a rough first draft, but I’m still lacking skills in the revision process and I don’t want to wait until the last second to begin developing those.

The second reason is because it just feels wrong to away from my short stories that show high potential. I can almost hear them begging me to take them up to the next level, but I’ve always been divided between that and a desire to keep seeding new ideas. At long last I think I’ve figured out a way that I can continue to cultivate my ideas to see which ones show the most promise, and then start polishing those promising ones until they reach their full potential. To be clear, not every one of my short stories will be getting this refinement process, only the ones that I feel are my absolute best work.

And lastly I get so sick of looking back at my old work and seeing all manner of typos and awkward phrases. I mean I churn these stories out on a pretty tight deadline, so I understand how all those errors get in there, but I don’t want to leave you all thinking that that is the best work I am capable of! I know I can do better and I intend to show it.

So how am I going to make time for this new refining series? I’m going to pull back the reins on my story series a little bit.

Currently each of my weekly story posts weighs in at about 2,500 words while my essays are only 1,000 words. I am now going to make three posts a week, all of them at the same 1,000 word quota. So on Monday you’ll see my 1,000-word essay, on Wednesday you’ll get the 1,000-word story chapter, and on Friday I’ll finish the week with a 1,000-word refinement. These numbers might adjust as I find the right balance, but you’ll see this plan go into effect starting this next week.

And Thank You)

At the end of each year I’ve paused to ask myself “so do I want to go another year?” And as before the answer this year is a resounding yes! This is the most rewarding hobby I have ever had and I don’t see me quitting it anytime soon.

And once again I want to thank you for being a part of this adventure with me. I’ve gone to some pretty strange and exciting places in these stories and I’m grateful to have not made the trip alone. As I’ve said before, these aren’t just stories to me, they are the way I process and express my own self. They are the journal of my soul. I take very seriously the kindness you show when you listen to the thoughts of my heart.

Thank you for that.

Taking a Look Back: Part Two

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Here we are with just more section left in The Favored Son: Alternate! This Thursday I’ll post the conclusion, then be ready to move on to something new. A week ago I took a look at half of the lessons I learned during this long process, today we’ll be looking at the rest. Without further ado, let’s dive right in.

Relationship Stuff)

The story opened with a group of boys who, if not the best of friends, still felt the kinship of being in the same order. Obviously things did not remain that way, though. I always knew that betrayal and drawing lines in the sand was going to a major component of this tale, and I recently wrote about that very concept. With this story I specifically wanted to focus on Tharol’s reaction to being betrayed, and how pre-emptively strikes against the coming treason. On the one hand I wanted his actions to feel clever and resourceful, while on the other I wanted to question the morality of resorting to the same sort of underhanded tactics as his foes. Even if we feel Reis deserved what he got, I think it is still a pitiable moment when he realizes what his friend has done to him.

I also talked about the hero’s relationship to him- or herself. Many tales remove one support from the protagonist after another, until at last they stand alone. By the end of the story Tharol has discovered that half of the boys in the order are traitors, and the other half have mistaken him for being a traitor himself! Not only this, but as we learned last week, even his mentor was trying to cast him off from the order for his own good. Tharol needed to be made alone so that he wouldn’t be dragged down with the ship. I think that is a very compelling notion, and if I ever expand on this narrative that would be an ongoing theme in the plot that followed.

I also spoke about a story’s relationship to the audience, and how it strives to be relatable to us in our everyday lives, or else in our private fantasies. Tharol is experiencing a situation that not many readers will be able to directly identify with, but my hope is that he reacts to the events in the same way that the reader would if in that same situation. If I managed to pull it off, then he becomes a vehicle for the audience to feel like they went through the experiences with Tharol.

Forms of Communication)

Storytelling is a form of communication. And having had many years to explore the possibilities of story-communication, humanity has developed some very nuanced techniques. I dedicated one of my posts to consider protagonists that say one thing but imply another, who have jumbled feelings on the same matter, and who have to deal with multiple relationships intersecting with each other.

I tried to include elements of this in my story as well. I think one of my best implementations of this was after Master Palthio had been poisoned and Tharol was left alone in the room with Beesk, Inol, and Reis. Each of the other boys turns and makes meaningful eye contact with him, all without seeing that the others are doing the same thing. At this moment the audience is aware that each of them is believing a different reality. Beesk and Inol think Tharol is afraid that a boy accidentally brought poisoned wine to the dinner, and Reis thinks that Tharol suspects Beesk and Inol of trying to pull a fast one on him. But in reality Tharol knows that Reis is the guilty party, and now he must carefully play all the different sides so that no ones becomes suspicious of how much he really knows.

I spent another of my blog posts discussing communication through forms other than dialogue. Specifically I called out how a story can use scenes of action to drive plot and character development. Laced through The Favored Son were a number of competitions and fights, and I tried to lace each of these with special meaning. The scuffle between Tharol and the pickpocket in the marketplace showed the expertise Master Palthio was weaving into his boys, the standoff between Lord Amathur and the rebels showed how little Tharol understands about the politics around him, and the several practice duels reinforced the growing rifts between the boys. And at the end of the story we are seeing all of the separate lines become lethal as competing ideologies are proved by the sword.

And the Others)

Finally there were two other one-off lessons that I explored while writing this story. The first had to do with the flow of character development, and how it can be a steady arc, or it can be a fluctuating river, or it can be a firm stillness. Tharol’s development has the most natural progression of all the characters. Sometimes his growth accelerates and sometimes it plateaus, but overall it is consistent from start to finish. For Reis there is a certain ambiguity during half of the story, as we really aren’t sure what he is all about. Then, as we reveal him to be a traitor, his development suddenly spikes rapidly. And Master Palthio is a constant throughout the whole story, never really changing, yet suddenly seen in a far clearer light at the end.

Finally I spoke about the use of suspense in a story. It is used when the audience is waiting for some unknown fallout, whether negative or positive. If negative it generates anxiety, if positive it generates anticipation.

There is a lot of waiting in my story. We know things are going to go down, but we don’t know what. A grave, yet nebulous, threat hangs over the entire story, giving us anxiety. At the same time, we see Tharol setting wheels in motion with the poisoned wine in an attempt to counter whatever is coming, and this gives us a sense of anticipation. I tried to build up both halves of suspense in equal measure, then let both of them crash out in the climatic finale. This is meant to provide an ending that is both positive and negative, and hopefully extremely satisfying in each.

Having done all this, all that remains is to wrap up all the loose ends of the story. Come back this Thursday when I post the final chapter of The Favored Son: Alternate, and let’s see if I can put a bow on everything that I’ve learned along the way!

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.

A Fitting End

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Back to Basics)

Some elements of storytelling are so ubiquitous that they are taken for granted…at least until you start writing a story of your own and then have to pause and ask yourself “wait, how does that actually work?”

One such example is that of writing a story with a satisfying ending. We all know that a story should have one of these, and we all can tell whether a story has it or not, but when it comes to crafting one of your own…how?

It seems like such a simple question should have an obvious answer, but often it is the simplest questions that prove the most troubling. I would contend that a great number of published authors still do not know what it is that makes for a good ending, they just look for it in other tales and then try to imitate those scenes in their own.

Having to resort to imitation is a limitation, though, and it is worth diving into some core concepts to truly master one’s craft. The category of “good endings” is much too broad to cover with just one post, but I would like to take a look at just one kind of satisfying conclusion a story can have. Here are the specific steps I used to try and use that particular finish in each of the stories from my latest series.

 

The Opposite End)

I started things off with The Soldier’s Last Sleep, which featured a soldier facing down wave after wave of enemy forces, just trying to hold onto his life until reinforcements came to relieve him. It wasn’t a war story about accomplishing an all-important mission, or giving a great sacrifice for the greater good, it was about surviving, pure and simple. Private Bradley’s single great task was to hold on to himself one moment at a time.

I dragged this sequence out for quite a long while, hopefully long enough for it to really weigh on the reader how terrible a burden just continuing to survive could be. I wanted them to be thoroughly exhausted by the strain of holding on, and feel as utterly depleted as Bradley did when at last he was replaced by fresh troops.

Then Bradley’s whole world suddenly changed. There were no more enemies trying to kill him, no more demands that had to be made of his body and mind. Now at last he was able to unclench, and I had a brief sequence explaining the torrent that rushed out of him in that release.

But that was not quite where the story ended. I do not believe the absence of a quality is the same thing as the opposite of it. I did not want the world to just stop weighing him down, I wanted it to actively lift him up. And so I added a brief moment where he learns that the war has passed, and all the machines for war-making are now being used as transports to take him back home.

Writing a story that pushes in one direction to then finish with an ending in the opposite direction is one way to make a satisfying close to a story. It gives the story a sense of transaction, a cathartic this-for-that, which naturally suggests a sense of completion.

 

The Invention)

I tried a variation on this with my next story, The Cruelty of King Bal’Tath. This story feels a lot more direct. It opens with a king presenting a problem, his desire to punish a rogue district in his kingdom. Each of his assistants present a solution, each trying to find a crueler invention than the last, but each leaving the king ultimately dissatisfied.

Because, like a story, an act of legend is not just about making things bigger and bigger. Too often I see stories that try to escalate things in the final act with something like “well now the big baddie is threatening to destroy two innocent homesteads.” A story that ends with a bigger firefight and larger explosions doesn’t really feel like an evolution on what came before, only an iteration, and therefore a less fulfilling end.

A story does need to have a sense of escalation throughout its body, but its ending should feature something more than just being “bigger.” It ought to present something novel, something which takes everything prior and transforms it in a way that feels like a revelation.

King Bal’Tath calls out this very  point, and explains that a truly memorable action is one which feels like a new invention, and also one which feels poetic in its balance of cause and effect. He then presents his own solution, and also the ending to the story. It is an answer meant to be satisfying in its harrowing sense of karma. The end he proposes is not just crueler, it is fittingly crueler. He want the people to betray their own conscience first, and by that sow the seeds of their own destruction. Thus once again we have that idea of a transaction, but also we have added the idea of a new invention. This doubles down on the psychological sense of proper completion.

 

Hidden Meaning)

I took this same idea in a somewhat different direction with my next story, Washed Down the River. This tale featured a pair of detectives working a case from clue to clue until its final revelation. Once again, though, I did not want the final revelation to simply feel like all the others that happened along the way, only bigger, I wanted it to feel fundamentally different. Also it needed to somehow be a fitting response to everything that had followed before.

Thus, at the end my two detectives do not only crack the case, one of them figures out the secret of the other: that he is dying of cancer. That there is a secret is no secret, the audience is well aware that something is amiss in James Daley from very early on in the tale, but exactly what that is should come as a new revelation.

But, in keeping with our theme, I tried to lay the story out so that this final revelation was a direct reflection of all that had come before. The great hope in writing a story like this is for the audience to not be able to guess the ending before it happens, but then be satisfied that it was the only “right” conclusion once they have seen it.

I have mentioned in a previous post that this sounds like a paradox, yet the more paradoxically unfamiliar-familiar you can make your ending, the more satisfying it often is. I think this helps bring greater definition to that idea of a “new invention” ending that I mentioned before. Another way to express that is for the ending of a story to not only fitting, but to be surprisingly so.

 

Cultivating the End)

But could we have an ending with that same sense of transaction and invention, though without the element of surprise? That was the challenge I tried to tackle with my most recent story, Slow and Easy, Then Sudden. Here we met a character who feels warm and friendly at the start, but with every passing interaction becomes more sinister and foreboding. This tension is only ever expressed in words and emotions, but is held back from having any physical, cathartic release.

Of course that line is finally crossed at the end. At this point I don’t think it came as a surprise to any reader when he gave violent expression to his brooding and assassinated a man in cold blood. But even though that part of the end was not a surprise, the moment immediately before, when he suddenly kills a hare, I believe was very shocking. Thus I am trying to have my cake and eat it too. The final moments feel both unsuspected and novel, but also heavily anticipated.

Even without the killing of the hare I think this conclusion would have been satisfying, though less memorable, because the story still did evolve in that final moment of assassination. Yes, it had hinted at murder previous to that moment, and it built up anticipation for it, but neither hinting or anticipation at violence is the same as actually witnessing its occurrence.

 

Anticipation, surprise, invention, transaction. If there is one consistent theme to sum up all of these ideas, I would say that all of the endings to these stories I wrote is have featured a turn of some sort. Rather than having the story’s tail taper out quietly into nothingness, each time I have had it do a sudden about-face and look back on all the plot that has come before. These are endings that reflect on the rest of their tale.

As I said at the outset, this is not the only way to write a satisfying conclusion, but is it a way. Cultivate your ending, let it reap what has been sown, something related to its build-up, and yet elevated into a new form that goes further than anything previous.

Thus far in this series, my stories have signaled their endings more and more clearly, while still retaining that satisfying moment of uncovering something novel at the end. With this series’ next and final entry I will try to push this line still further. Right from the outset I will state what will happen at the end, I will lay the exact expectations for what that conclusion will look like, and I will try to have that finale still feel novel and satisfying. Come back on Monday to see the first entry in that story.

Two Years In

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Wow! I’ll be honest, the first year of this blog dragged very slowly for me. By the time I hit my first anniversary I felt I had accomplished a herculean task.

This second year? It blew right by.

I don’t know. Maybe that means I wasn’t pushing myself and my work lacked sincere effort. I definitely sweat a whole lot less when I look at the blank page at the beginning of each new story! But on the other hand, a lot of the pieces I am proudest of came out in this second year.

Two years might not sound very short, but frankly I am amazed at how quickly writing has become just an ordinary part of my day-to-day. I write. It’s simply what I do.

 

Statistics)

And I’ve been doing a lot of it! This year I made 118 posts and added 19 short stories and 52 essays. Last year saw 27 short stories, so it would seem that I’ve started making them considerably longer! I hadn’t realized I was doing that, and don’t really have any opinions whether that is a good or a bad thing, I just thought it was an interesting observation.

I wrote 196,000 words this year, compared to 220,000 last year (so maybe the stories aren’t getting longer?), though this doesn’t tell the entire story. Because in addition to this story blog, I also added a second spiritually themed one, where I wrote an additional 124,000 words, though obviously those words are not in a story format. But again, this isn’t the complete picture, because I also started working on my novel With the Beast, and in total wrote 42,500 words of my first draft (we won’t even count the 36,000-word outline that preceded working on that draft!).

If you lump all of those together, I have 362,500 words to show for this year, 582,500 once combined with last year. One more year like this and I’ll be knocking at the door of that coveted one-million-words mark!

Followers rose up to 176, almost exactly doubling the 87 from last year. 17 new countries have discovered my blog, bringing that total up to 64. Once again, I’m amazed at those numbers. I do a big, fat nothing to try and grow my following, and that anyone reads this at all is mind-blowing to me.

 

Looking Forward)

Last anniversary I kicked things off by starting work on my novel and beginning an entirely new blog. This year is not going to be so dramatic. I’ll still be continuing with my three regular series (Show, Don’t Tell; Story of the Storyteller; Writer’s Toolkit), and I’ll still be continuing work on my novel.

I will do a couple little things to commemorate this new year, though. For starters, I am going to now include snippets of the latest work in my novel as part of my monthly reports on it. Starting tomorrow you can get a more direct feel for how its style and tone.

Secondly, I am going to extend a special invitation to all of my readers. Recently I started working with a “writing buddy” that I met here on WordPress. We’ve been reviewing one another’s work and its been a very positive experience, both for the constructive feedback provided and for the simple pleasure of getting to know a fellow human. For a while now I’ve wanted to get to know my readers better, and even to help them out with whatever I can. I’ll be extending an offer for just that tomorrow, and I hope you’ll be willing to give it a look.

 

And Thank You)

As I thought of how to express my thanks, I looked at what I wrote at this blog’s last anniversary and couldn’t think of a better way to say it. All these words still hold completely true for me.

So once again I want to thank you all for your support. Perhaps just coming and reading doesn’t seem like much, but really it is. These aren’t just stories to me, they are the way I process and express my own self. Everyone wants to be heard, and you have listened to me.

Thank you for that.