The Book that Wouldn’t Die

By Elizabeth Engstrom

Years ago I wrote a book called Guys Named Bob. I loved this book. My agent hated the ending, but at my insistence, he sent it out anyway. It got attention from two major publishers, but they all wanted me to change the ending. I, in my ridiculous “artiste” attitude, politely declined. So the book sat on the shelf for a decade.

This is the book that made me research how to write erotica. This is the book that spawned my (infamous) weekend workshops and conference talks on how to write sizzling sex scenes. I had two unconventional people falling for each other in an unconventional setting amidst much turmoil and emotional upheaval. I discovered that I like my sex scenes with a light, significant touch. And so they are, in this book.

GNB Cover image

Recently, I took a fresh look at Guys Named Bob again. I saw what the agent/editors objections were to the ending, and decided that I could “alter” the ending, and in fact, I needed to.  I saw what they saw, given the time that had passed and the accompanying difference in perspective. Not to mention the difference in my attitudes about my career.

The ending didn’t exactly change, but in its alteration, I see better results for every character. I am very happy with the new ending. I brought it up to date, edited it, and my publisher just released the paperback and Kindle versions of Guys Named Bob.

You can read the first chapter here. You can buy a copy here.

I hope you do, and if you like it, please leave a review on Amazon and Goodreads.

Creativity in General (and in Particular)

by Elizabeth Engstrom

Many of my writer friends engage in a variety of creative endeavors. Some are painters of exquisite artworks. Some sing. Some dance. Some quilt, or do stained glass. I knit and dabble in this and that. But mostly, we write.

Anyone who writes knows the exasperation of the inadequacies of language. With every sentence we write, with every idea we speak, we invite misunderstanding.

It occurs to me that if we had perfect mind-to-mind communications, if we could communicate our thoughts thoroughly—including all history, nuance, and emotion—in a sublime little info packet upload, there would be no need for language.

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If we had no need for language, would our need for a creative outlet vanish?  We would no longer strive to explain, to clarify, to enlighten. We would no longer need to defend, to support, to go to the enormously great lengths we go to in order to express ourselves.

We as a species, would be much the poorer.

Who would we be without the inspirational art, the moving music, the inestimable beauty, the revealing literature that has come from the anguished soul?

We would be bereft.

We might actually discover that we really have nothing to say to one another.

I often say that writers are the keepers of the literature, the chroniclers of our times. But we are much more than that. We are the ones who wrestle with language, endeavoring to explain that which has no explanation, to describe the indescribable, to put motive to that which is inexplicable.

Writers reach deep within themselves to comprehend their inner truth, and then grapple with the insufficient words of language, so that we might express it well enough to touch another’s inner truth. I have been touched many times by the brilliant writings of fearless authors, and have been changed by that interaction. That is my goal as a writer: to touch another. To make a difference.

Clearly, artists of every type spend time in anguish. A friend once told me that it is just as hard to write a bad book as it is to write a good book, and I believe that to be true. In either case, the author suffered to express.

As we go through our days, we might take a moment to appreciate the things that adorn our homes, offices, lives. Every single thing that we see was crafted by someone who put some part of their heart and soul into their work. We take it all for granted, but we should not, lest our work be dismissed as easily.

Write What You Know

By Elizabeth Engstrom

I’ve been fortunate to have a career writing and teaching fiction. I love fiction. I love reading it, I love writing it (sometimes), and most of all, I love watching a new writing student’s fire ignite with the passion for his or her own fiction.

This is why I am annoyed by one of the biggest truths and biggest lies that circulate and recirculate around the writing world—academic and otherwise—which is “write what you know.” I am annoyed because it is misunderstood.

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If I took this advice on its face value, I would write about a middle-aged, middle-class woman, married with children, average income, average height, average experiences. I make dinner, I keep house, I do the laundry, I go into my home office and write. I can’t imagine anything more boring to write about than my life.

This is not to say that my life is boring; far from it. But it would not make good fiction.

There are other things that I know about, and they require a broader, deeper investigation of the advice to “write what you know.” I know about love. I know about the first blush of a crush, I know the deep and abiding knowledge of another person for whom I would gladly give my life. I know about loss. I know the chest-crushing experience of grief and the periodic waves of it that have rendered me unable to move. I know joy, and anger, and frustration to the breaking point. I know anxiety, stress, and responsibility far beyond my ability to be the adult-in-charge. I know about betrayal and infidelity. I know paralyzing fear. I know soaring, thrilling triumph and how to put it all into perspective.

This is what I know, and this is what I write about. And because I write about these things, I can write from the point of view of a man, or an alien, or in a place I’ve never lived, in a time far before or after my limited lifespan. That is the imaginative, tale-telling aspect of fiction.

While many people would resonate with trying to figure out what to cook for dinner, my readers deeply resonate with my portrayal and reaction to a cancer diagnosis. Or the face-slap of a dear friend’s betrayal. These are the things I know that you know. These are the things that you can and should write about, because fiction is about adding your voice to the chorus.

Writers are the keepers of the literature, the chroniclers of our times. Your voice is important, and you must speak your truth. Not about choosing where to buy your produce, but how you reacted to the major upheavals in your life. Your voice is unique. It adds depth to the choir.

Write boldly. Write courageously. Write what you know.

Team Work

By Elizabeth Engstrom

About two years ago, Matthew Lowes, game writer/designer, asked me to edit the rule book for his new game, Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls. I got the manuscript, but it didn’t have any of the charts, graphs, or illustrations of the finished book. I couldn’t really follow the instructions, so I just carried on, looking for typos, sentence structure awkwardness, etc. Much of it was repetitive, as there are the Basic Rules, then the Expert Rules, which includes the Basic Game. Then the Rules for Two Players, which includes the rules for the Advanced Game, which of course includes the rules for the Basic Game. You get the idea. So my work was rote, and gave my imagination time to roam.

In the game, the player delves into the underground Labyrinth, there to meet monsters (Really? What kind of monsters?), find treasure (Really? What kind of treasure?), and encounter and endure all manner of adventures. At some point, the player must weigh how many resources he has left in order to turn around and make it back out of the labyrinth before losing all his light, or his food, or his life.

It’s a fun game. While reading through the rule book without real comprehension, I started to wonder: Who would delve into the underground labyrinth, and why? Pretty soon I had an idea. And then I had an idea of what kind of monsters that particular character would encounter, and what kind of treasure he would search for and find, or not find.

I finished editing, and when I returned the manuscript back to Matt, I said, “I could write a novel based on this game scenario.”

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Fast forward six months. The game came out to great acclaim, the accompanying deck of Tarot Cards with art by Josephe Vandel is exquisite, and a small group of writers got together to learn to play. Within a couple of weeks, ten or so authors signed on to write books loosely based on the Labyrinth of Souls.

My book is the first one to drop, only because I finished it first. Published by ShadowSpinners Press, authors to come include Matthew Lowes himself, Christina Lay, Eric Witchey, Stephen Vessels, John Reed, Mary Lowd, Pamela Herber, Cheryl Owen-Wilson, Cynthia Ray, and likely others. We plan a big launch of the first five books at this November’s World Fantasy Convention in  San Antonio, Texas.

The best part of this experience has been being part of the team. We’re all stupendously supportive of each other as we encourage the writing, the rewriting, the editing, the promotion. We even had a memorable weekend away, where instead of partying, the great room was silent except for the quiet tapping of keyboards. We helped each other that weekend with plot, character, and setting, and talked about the unique problems of writing a book that takes place underground. I’m not much for collaboration, but if this is what it tastes like, I will gladly change my opinion. I’ve read three of the novels-to-come, and they are extraordinary, each entirely different from one another.

I invite you to join us in the Labyrinth of Souls, to read these books as they come out, one every month, and bask, as I have, in the astonishingly unique vision each author has for this world.

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

scarecrow on fire(image source sanniely istockphoto)

Burn the Scarecrow to Keep the Reader Awake All Night

by Eric Witchey

I write fiction, and I teach fiction writers. In fact, I teach a lot. One of the recurring frustrations I have is that students talk about their long-form manuscripts under development in terms of chapters.

“Well, Chapter 7 is about how she stands up to the bully in her gym class…”

As a teacher, I have two problems with statements like this. First, it is an event-driven description of the story content. That’s a topic for another time. Second, and this is the point today, the student is describing their story in terms of chapters rather than dramatics.

Chapters aren’t really part of the development of a story. They are part of the final polish, and a sharp writer will use them for pacing by placing the chapter breaks carefully at spots that will force the reader to keep reading.

Given the student’s desire to improve by discussing their story and the above statement, the frustrated teacher me must start asking a long string of questions about character, premise, psychology, sociology, emotional arcs, intermediate emotional states, opposition of will, and on and on and on in order to figure out what dramatic story elements are in play at the moment under discussion.

So, this essay is a bit of self-defense. While it doesn’t describe the myriad issues implied or named above, it does take a look at just exactly what chapter breaks do.

Writers who write enough come to realize that the dramatic scene is the building block of all stories. I’m not going to go into all the variants and exceptions here because that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I’m going to talk about how story questions and chapter placement influence the reader’s immersion and need to keep reading.

Before I go there, I want to define what I said above. A classic, dramatic scene transforms character emotion through conflict. The Point of View Character (POVC) or Main Character (MC) enter the scene carrying an emotional state and a personal agenda of some kind. Note that I said “or.” The POVC may or may not also be the MC. That’s a topic for another day, but think in terms of the narrative difference between Hunger Games and Sherlock Holmes. Hunger Games is in first person, present tense from the POV of Katniss. She is both POVC and MC. Sherlock Holmes is Watson telling the stories of Homes. Watson is the POVC. Holmes is the MC.

Where was I? Oh, yes. Ignoring the POVC vs. MC difference for now, the POVC enters the scene with an emotional state and an agenda. They then proceed to encounter opposition to their agenda. Like any normal human being, the have an emotional shift because of opposition.

Think about what it’s like to be having a good day on vacation until you try to pay for lunch and discover that your debit card has been cancelled because the bank thinks your lunch in another state is unusual activity. Emotional response to opposition of your agenda, yes?

Okay, so the POVC goes through a few attempts to get what they want. They try some different tactics. Their emotions change. They might succeed. They might fail. However, they leave the scene with a new emotional state (or the same emotional state for different reasons).

All good. However, a scene is not a chapter. A scene is just a dramatic unit in which character change is caused. Sometimes, a scene is a whole story. Sometimes 70 scenes make up the whole story. That’s one of the differences between flash fiction and a novel.

So, why is it that most of the time the first scene of a novel is not able to stand alone as a short story? Emotion happened. Conflict happened. Change happened. New emotion came out of it.

There are a number of reasons a first scene probably doesn’t stand alone. I won’t address them all here. Here, I’ll say that the first scene of a novel includes material that causes the reader to feel a sense of curiosity or urgency about what will come in the next and subsequence scenes. The text installs “dramatic story questions” in the heart/mind of the reader.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll define dramatic story questions types as 1, 2, and 3. They are, respectively, 1) short-term, 2) mid-term, and 3) long-term.

Long-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader very early in the story. They will not be answered until the end of the story. “Will Dorothy ever get home from Oz?”

Mid-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in any scene in the story. They will be answered in some subsequent scene. “Will Dorothy make it from the Munchkin village to the Emerald City?”

Short-term story questions are questions installed in the heart/mind of the reader in a scene. They will be answered in that same scene. “Will the Cowardly Lion eat Toto?”

The scene is the dramatic building block. It changes character emotionally and psychologically.

The story questions keep the reader reading (assuming many other things have also been done well).

Assuming the POVC and MC are the same character, as they quite often are, their path through the story is scene-to-scene. Each scene generates questions. The first questions generated will be very short-term. “Why is Dorothy worried for Toto when she gets home?”

Before that question is answered, a mid-term question is launched. “Why are there storm clouds on the horizon?”

Before or at the moment the short-term question gets answered, a new one is launched. Before or at the moment the mid-term question is answered, a new one gets launched.

Now, here is the very important bit. If at any time all the short-term and mid-term questions have been answered at once, the reader will leave the story. Mind you, they might come back and pick it up to see how the long-term question comes out. However, that’s not a good bet.

Here’s where the chapter problem arises. Writers who talk about their books in terms of chapters tend to place their chapter breaks at the moments where several short-term and at least one mid-term story question have just been answered. It’s like they are placing their chapter breaks in the best possible way to release the reader from the story.

Placing the chapter breaks after the story is completely finished allows the writer to choose the moments just after a new story question has been launched. In other words, the writer will set the Scarecrow on fire and end the chapter.

Consider a reader who is in bed reading and has decided, “Well, I’m up too late. I’ll just read another three pages—just to the end of the chapter.” In the last page of the chapter, the Scarecrow is set on fire. Chapter ends. New chapter opens with the battle to put out the fire. Essentially, the chapter ended right smack in the middle of a scene. It ended right after a powerful story question was installed in the heart/mind of the reader. However, the climax of the scene is only a page away.

The reader justifies: “One. Little. Page. More.”

By the time that fire is out, a mid-term question has been launched. “Can Dorothy and her friends overcome and malice of the Wicked Witch of the West?”

The reader turns another page and decides that they will just read to the end of this chapter. It’s only seven more pages.

Okay, the example I used here is a classic sort of cliff-hanger, but the concept is not at all limited to cliff-hanging. Social and psychological story questions are often more compelling than such action-oriented, life-threatening story questions. It’s just easier and more fun to set the Scarecrow on fire in this essay than it would be to describe the deeper identity dissonance of a character’s realizations about themselves and whether they will take responsibility for damage to the fragile psychology of a child under their care.

Chapter breaks are pacing tools. They are not dramatic units.

-End-

One Legendary Evening

By Elizabeth Engstrom

There is a legend that tells of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein sitting down in front of the fireplace one evening with a bottle of brandy, and each of them burning one million unpublished words. To date I’ve been unable to authenticate this legend, but it doesn’t really matter whether or not it is true. I like to think it is, and I choose to think that for many reasons.

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The main reason I like this story is that it tells me that I am not alone with my quirky propensities.

I have a propensity to keep everything I write. I’m not the only writer whose filing cabinet is filling up with unpublished, unpublishable writings. Why do we cling to these things? Because we may look at them some day and discover that they had mutated over the years into something useful?

This lore also tells me that even the great writers—the writers of legend—have dead end ideas, bad books, worthless prose. They don’t consider their every word golden, and neither should I. (Tony Hillerman says he has a whole file cabinet full of first chapters.) They practice their craft, and don’t subject their fans to their practicings. I thank them for that.

I wonder what went into that fire of Heinlein and Bradbury. What brilliant poetry, intriguing concepts from the minds of those two gentlemen will be forever lost to our body of American literature? With Heinlein long dead and Bradbury recently so, what would Christie’s get for those manuscript pages on the auction block?

While I long to read fresh material by these two men, I’m glad they had the courage to reduce those pages to ashes, rather than to let me at their files of rejected prose and aborted projects. Why would I want to lessen my opinion of them by reading their worst, when I have been privileged to read their best?

How was this plan conceived, and how did they go about choosing what went the way of the flames? Were these things unpublished because of the authors’ internal editors or the editors of some publishing house? Did they ball up the pages and toss them in with cavalier bravado, or did they gently, reverently, lay stacks of pages upon the logs? And what did they talk about as they fed the fire? Did they tell bawdy jokes, or gossip about other writers and their work or their love lives, or did they complain about the changing aspects of the publishing industry? Was this an unburdening, cathartic evening, or a memorial service filled with melancholy of stories that could have been?

Two men who wrote with typewriters and carbon paper, pre-computer, pre-Xerox, each burning the equivalent of ten 100,000-word novels. It gives me pause.

Some day, I hope a writer hears about the same ritual as performed by me and one of my contemporaries, and considers it with the same amount of speculation. But to have a million unpublished words is a huge undertaking.

I best get busy.

Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

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Our Stories Can Save Us, by Eric Witchey

Human survival depends on how we manage our relationship with four, fundamental variables. The variables aren’t really in dispute, but the amount of time we have in which to change our relationship to them is. Simply put, the four variables are as follows:

  1. We live in a fragile, closed system, a little blue marble called Earth.
  2. Earth has finite resources: biodiversity, air, water, minerals, fossil fuels, etc.
  3. We have unchecked population growth.
  4. We rely on growth-based economies.

Yes, yes… I know. Solar radiation enters the system. There’s some hope there. However, we aren’t making new materials. We aren’t adding iron ore to our planet. We aren’t increasing the amount of natural gas and oil in the ground. We aren’t somehow magically manufacturing more water to add to the poisoned water and water ecosystems in a way that will fundamentally change the direction of the deterioration arrow.

The four variables stand, but we argue endlessly about what we should do to lengthen the time we have before those four variables result in an extinction level crash.

Note that I say extinction level crash and not the end of the world. As my astute Physicist brother once told me, “Human beings aren’t going to end the world. We will only end ourselves. The planet was here long before we were, and it will be here long after we are gone.”

And now you’re wondering how the four variables relate to writing.

Well, it’s like this. Telling stories is an ancient tradition that goes all the way back to the beginnings of language use. We erect monkeys have always told stories. We tell them to ourselves to justify stealing bananas from one another. We tell them to our friends and family to create bonding in social systems. We tell them to one another to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated and to ensure that our tribe thrives. One of the most common themes in the stories we have told throughout time is the theme of our village being better than their village. Every hero has a nemesis.

Want to see that theme playing out in a modern social context in America? Go to any Friday or Saturday night high school football game in the country. Observe the cheering, the colors, and the parking lot fights.

Harmless, right? Maybe. The value of team sports debate isn’t what this little blog is about. The point is that the “us vs. them” story is there to see. You can even observe the symbolic battle over land resources playing out on the field.

Don’t get me wrong, here. I love a good game. That’s really not the point. The purpose and value of story is the point.

Story telling is the easiest thing we do. It is also the most complex thing we do as human beings. Putting together a solid narrative, especially on paper, has more in common with interacting wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean than it does with the linear, deceptive advice given to creative writing students. We put the little black squiggles in a row, and that creates an illusion of linear activity; however, the squiggles are just the medium of transfer for the story. The story in one mind is transferred through the little black squiggles into the mind of another person. Minds, unfortunately, are not so linear. They are messy places. They are endless impulses layered and ever changing, arranging, and rearranging into patterns that somehow magically become mind—thought, personality, memory, dreams, hopes, beliefs, learning, and maybe even soul.

Okay, I’m not all that sure about the last one. I have some opinions on what soul is, but I won’t go there in this blog entry. Maybe another time.

Story is, however, the human mind generating a dream-like experience based on sensory input. No two people read the same story quite the same way. No two people write a story quite the same way. Let’s just set aside the fact that no two people have the same life experiences. That, by itself, is enough to prove the last point. However, the endless shifts in levels of neurotransmitters, the organization of dendritic networks, the infinitesimal distances between axons and dendrites, the hormonal and electrical potentials, and the endless layering of all of these things and many more means that it is impossible for each of us to experience what any other person is experiencing when we hear or read a story.

Yes, we all tell stories. We all know that stories are essential to our survival. We all know that we are alive today because someone, somewhere way back in the dim past figured out how to tell a story that included the idea that a sharp stick held at the dull end can keep you alive a little longer than no stick at all.

We told stories to keep our families alive. We told stories to keep our tribes alive. We told stories to make sure everyone in our tribe knew how to behave to ensure that we would thrive. We told stories to explain things that made us uncomfortable because worrying too much about the bright lights in the sky meant we weren’t planting and reaping and breeding. We told stories to make sure that members of our tribe didn’t kill other members of our tribe, but it was totally okay to kill members of any other tribe trying to kill our mammoths.

These stories are part of who we are. They must change if we want to survive.

Every person on Earth lives in a closed system with finite resources, unchecked population growth, and growth-based economies. Any decision, personal or political, that does not mitigate or eliminate one or more of those four variables is a tacit agreement to genocide.

Sadly, we still tell ourselves stories that reinforce tribal behaviors like breeding means healthy tribes, acquisition of resources means more for us, control of territory means we are strong, and us vs. them.

Yet, as there has always been, there is some hope because of story tellers, shamans of the written word, wizards of the wave form and the mind.

If a corporation, government, or individual is telling a story that supports the use of growth-based economy in an ever-shrinking world, they are telling a story that asks millions of people to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit. If any organization tells a tale of policy that will increase population growth without providing compensating increases in resources for the new human beings, they are telling a tale of death for others. If we see a story on the news or on our feeds and it talks of the terrible crimes of protestors attempting to stop pollution, then we are seeing mercenary story-tellers attempt to shorten the time of humanity on this little rock.

For those of us who tell stories for entertainment and edification, fiction writers, we have an obligation to create stories that become viral in a way that suggests new modes of survival.

Heroism has at times been described as the successful search for the grail, and the grail has always been associated with healing and abundance. The stories of today, no less than the stick-holding stories of ten thousand years ago, are about creating visions for survival of the tribe. The only real difference is that the tribe is larger and more complex than it has ever been. We are one tribe that spans the entire Earth.

Story telling and story receiving are more complex than the interaction of wave forms on the surface of the Pacific Ocean. However, human beings have always been built to do this amazing thing—to share tales that will help us all survive. Those of us who tell the tales must step up and tell the stories that lead the imaginations of the members of our tribe to an understanding that holding the blunt end of the new pointy stick means having the ability to embrace people who don’t, and physiologically should never be expected to, think the way we do. We must tell the tales that show that every drop of water on this planet is sacred, that every hole we dig hurts us, that every child we force into the world must be fed, and that taking in order to have more means hurting people who will, by direct causal effect, have less.

Look carefully at every story produced and presented. Find the four variables in each tale. Does that story help slow population growth? Does that story reduce our dependence on the market growth that drives economies? Does that story slow the rate of use of nonrenewable resources? Does that story open the world to distant horizons so that our system, and the minds within it, are no longer closed?

-End-