Interview Series: Interview with author Mary E. Lowd

By Cynthia Ray

The creative process has always fascinated me, and especially how it works for individual artists and writers.  I’ll be delving into this in a series of interviews with authors near and far.   In the first of this series, we meet Mary E. Lowd.  I met Mary in a writing group in Oregon, and I was immediately drawn to her quirky humor, and her warm, insightful stories.   She’s had three novels and more than eighty short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish.

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Mary, what can you tell us about your work, and yourself as an author?
I write science-fiction and furry fiction.  That means spaceships and talking animals.  I have been known to write the occasional piece of contemporary science-fiction, and some of the animals I write about can’t talk.  But mostly, I like to write stories that have spaceships and talking animals.  So, it should come as no surprise that the novel series I’ve been working on for the last decade is called Otters In Space.

I self-published the first Otters In Space novel in 2010.  Then I discovered the furry fandom, and I spent the next year tirelessly trying to sell my self-published novel to an actual furry publisher.  In 2012, Otters In Space was re-released by FurPlanet, and I could not have been prouder of that swirly emblem with two paw-prints emblazoned on the back cover of my book, pronouncing it a FurPlanet book.  Since then, I’ve had two more novels published by FurPlanet, a collection of short stories, and I’ve become the editor for their annual anthology ROAR.  The third Otters In Space novel is in the final editing phases now and will hopefully come out later this year or early next year.

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That’s good to hear.  I’ve been waiting for that book to come out.  It’s themes are very relevant to the environment that we find ourselves in today.  So, why do you write?
I write because I have to.  It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.  Even before I could read, my mom encouraged me to tell stories, and she’d write them down for me.  Two of my earliest works were “Sally Cat and the Six Magic Balls” and “Salamander.”  One was a fantasy story about a cat (so, the kind of thing that I still write) and the other was a personal narrative of the day that I caught a salamander.

Once I could actually write the words down myself, writing became my escape.  Why would you spend a day in middle school when you could use the notebook paper in front of you to escape to the Serengeti where a poodle is trying to steal the throne from a blind lion?  (I believe that story was heavily influenced by Gary Larson’s The Far Side.)  I spent most of middle school surrounded by the cheerful woodland creatures of Great Oak Abbey, a place which bore a striking resemblance to Brian Jacques’ Redwall Abbey.  Then after reading C.J. Cherryh’s The Pride of Chanur, I moved to outer space with a crew of tiger-like aliens and spent all of high school on their spaceship with them.

These days, why would I live in a country that failed to elect its first woman president this fall when I could instead hang out in deep space with all kinds of animal-like aliens?  At this point, I’ve spent so much of my life writing that I get twitchy if I go very long without doing it.  Writing is something that I have to do, so I may as well make use of it.

I like your idea of hanging out in deep space.  I’ve heard they have a woman president on Mars.  But seriously, what does Creative Process mean to you?  What is yours?
There are a lot of ways to go about writing, and a strategy that works for you at one time may be a complete dead-end later.  So, I guess I believe that creative processes are always evolving.  As such, I’ll tell you about a strategy that’s worked out really well for me this year.

Last summer, I’d been stuck trying to finish Otters In Space 3 for so long — tying up loose threads and managing continuity with three previously published novels in the same world — that I was sick to death of writing a long work.  I wanted the freedom of writing something much shorter.  So I started playing something I call The Flash Fiction Game.

I got three decks of cards — two story-telling decks from a toy store (one fairy tale themed, the other robot themed) and a deck of animal guide cards.  In the morning, I’d draw a card from each deck, and by the end of the day, I had to finish a complete piece of flash fiction inspired by those three cards.  Animal + robot element + fairy tale element added up to furry space opera for me, so I wrote several dozen pieces of flash fiction set in my Crossroads Station universe by the end of the fall.  Some days, the cards clicked with each other, and it was easy.  Other days, I’d stare at those cards at a complete loss, and every word was a struggle.  But I’d still finish something resembling a complete piece of flash fiction, and finishing a complete story is a huge rush.

So, overall, I ended up with a bunch of stories — some mediocre, but some surprisingly excellent (five of them have been accepted by Daily Science Fiction) — and a huge boost to my confidence.  If you find yourself feeling lost or stuck, it’s a strategy I’d highly recommend giving a try.  Though, it won’t work for everybody.  That’s the thing about creative processes — they’re unique to each person, and even for a single person they’re always evolving.

Yes, the process is unique for each person; thats what makes it so interesting, but there are similarities, aren’t there?   Let me ask you another question.  What is the hardest thing you have worked through?
I nearly died when my daughter was born — if I’d lived in Jane Austen times, I’m sure I would have.  The recovery was brutal — both physically for myself and emotionally for my family, as my husband was deeply scarred by almost losing me.  Human reproduction is a cruel joke.  Of course, I’ve used those feelings to inspire stories.  One of my most successful stories — “Foreknowledge” (http://www.apex-magazine.com/foreknowledge/) — remixed many of my actual feelings into a fictional scenario.  It’s the story I’ve been most often told is my best; it also makes a lot of people cry.  I couldn’t have given it the same immediacy and power without mining my own experiences for kernels of truth.

Thank you for sharing that experience.  What a positive way to work through it.  What is the most revealing thing you have learned about yourself by writing?

I’m a cat who wishes she were a dog.  Or an otter.  I actually didn’t realize this directly from my writing; although, it was right there on the page, staring at me.  Even so, it took a fan coming up to me at a furry convention and telling me that he loved my novel because he’s a cat who wishes he were an otter too.  The main character in each of my novels so far is a cat who wishes she were a dog or otter.  If you don’t speak the language of animal archetypes, this means that I’m particular and persnickety, but I aspire to be care-free and fun-loving.  Though, I think it’s much more elegant and carries far greater nuance in the language of furries:  I’m a cat who wishes she were a dog.

And finally, if you were going to tell aspiring authors one thing, what would it be?
It will be hard.  It will get easier.   Write about animals — they’re fun to write, and people like to read about them.

Learn more at www.marylowd.com, or read much of her short fiction at www.deepskyanchor.com.

https://www.amazon.com/Otters-In-Space-Search-Havana/dp/1614500436
https://www.amazon.com/Otters-Space-Jupiter-Deadly-Volume/dp/1614501181
https://www.amazon.com/Dogs-World-Mary-E-Lowd/dp/1614502374
https://www.amazon.com/Necromouser-Other-Magical-Cats/dp/1614502838/

 

 

 

 

 

Is a Sentence a Story?

Is a Sentence a Story?
By Cynthia Ray

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It is said that Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) and called it his best work.

There are contests and websites dedicated to the one sentence “story”. Is one sentence a story? A haiku perhaps, an engaging thought or intriguing question, but is it a bona-fide story?

There are anthologies of 55 word stories, and books of 500-word fiction. They are interesting, artistic and sometimes haunting and beautiful, but when I  settle in on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a good book, I turn to longer, in depth, even rambling books, trilogies and Russian novels.

Is the one sentence story a sign that our attention span as readers has shortened, or have we simply added and expanded to the craft, playing with words in new and fun ways?

In my writing group, I got feedback on the length of my stories, and it reminded me of the fable of the three bears. Some were toooo long, some were tooooo short, and a few were just right, and it made me ask, “Is there a perfect length for a story?”

Some short stories were perfect in their 500-word essence. Others required 10,000 words just to get started. It made me think of the creative process; when I start a story, I don’t know how long it will be. I’ve started out to write a novel and ended up with a 3000-word short story, and I’ve started with a short story that turned into a much longer project.

In the end, word count is just another aspect of story telling, to be considered along with tone, theme, conflict, plot, characters and everything else. It is not that important to focus on, except when we don’t get it right. A story that is too long or short can leave your reader feeling bored, or unsatisfied, without knowing why.

As Neil Gaman said:

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How Do I Pitch MY Genre? by Eric Witchey

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How Do I Pitch My Genre? by Eric Witchey

After teaching a class, volunteering to help Timberline Review sell subscriptions, and signing my newly launched novel at this year’s Willamette Writer’s Conference, I was walking along a hallway minding my own business and wondering if I could get back to my room to take a nap before I had to face another room full of 100 people. A personable guy said hi and caught my attention. He was a volunteer gate keeper outside the pitch and critique room where aspirants bring their hearts and souls for fine tuning before presenting them in ten minute chunks to agents and editors looking for commodities from which to make a living. Making eye contact, I became aware of my surroundings and realized that the room was understaffed and several people were waiting for a chance to get what might be critical advice. So, I volunteered to take a few pitches and help hone them.

Mind you, there’s actually plenty of help for this kind of thing. The conference ran pitch practice sessions before the conference. They ran pitch practice sessions at the conference. Most of the people pitching had practiced with friends, family, and crit groups. And, as a last chance for final revision and preparation, the conference had a pitch practice room, into which I walked.

I sat down, and the kind people at the conference showed four nervous writers my way—one at a time. I had fifteen minutes to help each.

The four writers had been coached to provide half-page synoptic summaries of their books, and each showed up with pages that did that. The idea, as I understood it, was to give a sense of genre, of character, of content, and of market potential.

Well, that list seems pretty obvious to most people. After all, a science fiction adventure isn’t the same as a historical romance, right?

Wrong.

What was not so obvious is that these people were terrified and clinging to every bit of advice they had ever been given in the hope that it would touch the hearts of jaded professionals and give up a result that would change the writers’ lives and let them connect their hearts through their words to the world.

Can you say, “TERRIFIED?”

One had a fantasy romance. One had a historical novel. One had a non-fiction book on how to talk to kids about sex. One had a cryptobiography. All had decent concepts that could fly in the market. Mind you, I hadn’t read the stories themselves. I only had access to a few pages of pitches and the problems the writers had encountered in trying to sell their stories.

So, we got to work.

In three of the four cases, I realized I didn’t have much to add to the long-form pitches the writers had honed. However, I did have the communication consultant skills and personal experience of 25 years of freelance work. So, I gave all three exactly the same thing.

Emotion.

Twenty years ago, in 1996, I pitched my first novel—a novel that later sold in Poland, but that’s another story. While practicing with my good friend Gail McNally (no, not the actress), I was proud of what I had done and of the fact that I had memorized my pitches cold. Gail listened kindly—eyes closed, nodding, pinching her nose. When I was done, she said, “That might work if you put the emotion in.”

Huh? Obviously, she had missed something because I knew it was a brilliant pitch. After all, I had read about pitching. I had talked to other people. I had carefully crafted my pitch. I had a 30 second pitch, a three-minute pitch, a full page pitch, a five-page synoptic outline, and a full synoptic outline. I was freaking loaded for literary bear.

What the hell does emotion have to do with selling the product?

So, long story short, I lost the argument and rewrote it all with an emphasis on character emotional change.

My first time pitch nailed an editor and let me choose between several interested agents.

Why? I now know it was because stories are not about things or events. Stories are about how people change emotionally and psychologically. Things and events only facilitate the changes.

Yes…. The things and events have to be “interesting and unique,” but they are only truly interesting in that they are connected to emotional change.

So, I helped each one of my three fiction charges fashion a one- or two-line pitch that captured the three Cs:

Character, Conflict, and Change.

You could say it is really only two Cs because Character is really made up of an emotional/psychological state, and Change is really just the character as they appear after they change because of the conflict. So, really, it’s just Character, Conflict, and Character, but that’s a bit confusing and doesn’t really sound right in a culture that likes to think in threes.

Essentially, we put our heads together and came up with statements like:

Soul and psyche torn down to nothing by the murder of her family, outcast 1940’s gay homemaker Millicent Monroe faces insurgent Nazis in the Iowa farmlands and consequently discovers deep connection to the community, land, and country that persecuted her.

Okay, that’s not really one of them, but maybe I’ll write that book. We’ll see.

Anyway, three of the four walked away with a similar statement and some communication consulting advice about how to speak, how to make eye contact, when to pause, and how to manage the transition to their larger already prepared pitch.

One, however, didn’t. That one makes the other three all the more interesting. The fourth person had career as a sex education lecturer, consultant, and therapist. She had a values-neutral book about how to talk to kids about sex. Her problem was also emotion, but it wasn’t the emotion of the book and characters. Her problem was that every time she pitched the book, people’s “sex stuff” came up and interfered with their ability to see the product she offered. Her problem was that she needed to disarm her audience’s emotions in order to allow them to look at her work.

That was interesting, so we worked the same problem from the opposite direction and provided her with language that identified her platform and established a context in which the content created result for the readers who bought the book. We brainstormed keywords that would frame the conversation in terms of platform, product, and market. I also recommended that she add an additional agent I knew to her pitch list.

Results?

Over the following couple of days, one-by-one, each of the four sought me out to share their excitement and success. Each one hit—and not just once. They all got requests from every agent and editor they pitched. All of them.

Why?

Here’s the bit that isn’t as obvious. These writers had been prepared by professionals to walk in and deliver fairly lengthy pitches that made use of the time available—ten minutes. Those pitches might have done fine by themselves without my help. However, agents and editors don’t take pitches in order to hear the story that takes a book-length manuscript to tell. The take pitches to filter the masses through sieve in order to find the writers who control character and story. If a writer truly controls the craft of presenting character and story, then the writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly.

Conversely, if a writer can state character, core conflict, and change succinctly, it is likely that they control craft well enough to deliver story. When a writer succinctly states the emotional core of character, the conflict that changes them, and the new emotional makeup of the character, agents and editors hear much more than is stated. The result is that they sit up, quite literally, and start to ask questions that can only be answered by reading the manuscript. So, the pitch creates a conversation that leads to a request for pages.

In the unique case of the non-fiction writer, the emotionally charged material wasn’t the problem. The problem was to help people see the product rather than let their emotional response to product become the primary experience of their encounter. It is really a mirror image of the same problem.

But it’s different for different genres, right?

Nope. Genre doesn’t matter on the heart and story level. Never has. Never will. Genre is marketing category. Yes, you don’t pitch space opera to a commercial woman’s fiction editor. Don’t be entirely daft. However, genre isn’t story. Genre is only a taxonomic label for expectations concerning things and events. Sometimes, genre influences the mix of techniques used for telling a story, but genre has nothing to do with heart and soul and hopes and dreams. The story comes from the writer’s heart and seeks to touch the reader’s heart. Pitching is about letting a potential buyer know that the writer understands heart and controls story craft well enough to deliver emotion to the reader.

-End-

Your Money or Your Muse

by Christina Lay

Not long ago I read an informative post about marketing for self-publishing writers and – surprise surprise – it rubbed me the wrong way. Not because I didn’t believe the writer’s observations, but because I’d prefer it if they weren’t true.

Her advice was, in a nutshell, when deciding what to write, you should “follow the market”. Okay, sure. If you’re one goal as a writer is to make money, this makes perfect sense. But what about following your heart, your muse, the inner voice that tells you which stories move you and which stories are just “meh”? This can be inexplicable to non-writers who tend to ask “why don’t you write the next Harry Potter Twilight Fifty Shades of the Davinci Fill In the Blank?” The writer of the aforementioned article, who writes (wrote?) YA, says she’s giving up on YA because kids don’t have disposable income. Hmmm.

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Naturally, if you’re every bit as fired up to write a steamy thriller as you are that novel length prose poem exploring the social aspects of embroidery in the 1700s, I’d fully support a decision to go with the thriller. But if you love writing YA, do you really need to abandon it because you haven’t hit the mark with readers yet?

She also says she’s giving up a series she loves because it’s not selling. Again ,this might be totally legitimate if you’ve got other projects singing their siren song in your ear, but I’d really question the impulse to give up all the blood, sweat and tears you’ve put into a series solely based on financial considerations. I happen to think this is how we get inundated with mediocre shlock. Writers giving up what they love for what they know they can “crank out” and what, according to the numbers, people want to read.

I actually had one acquaintance suggest that I write what people want to read. If you can tell me (and the rest of the publishing world) what the next Harry Potter Twilight Fifty Shades of Divinci will be, do tell. But the truth is, what’s hot right now might be dead in the water tomorrow. What’s languishing in the backwaters of Amazon’s sub sub categories might suddenly leap into the bestseller ranks. Do I really want to let algorithms and rankings choose which stories I write?

Not so much. I was recently invited to write a book in a shared-world series. The idea was interesting, so I came up with an off-the-cuff idea and accepted. I have to admit I was more interested in riding on the coat tails of the more established authors included in the project than I was in the story I’d come up with, but I was sure I could find “the juice” and make the premise work for me. That book was one of the least rewarding things I’ve written. Yes, it had its moments, enough to get me through, but as I sent off my submission I wasn’t congratulating myself on a job done, but thinking “well, no writing is wasted writing”. In other words, I learned how to tough it out through a financially motivated project, but it left me feeling drained and hollow rather than triumphant. And when you finish an entire freakin’ novel, you should feel triumphant, at least for a little while.

Now I admit I’m not the best person to take marketing advice from (a glance at my Amazon rankings will tell the sad tale) but one thing I can tell you without hesitation is that I love to write. I am that annoying person who eagerly shuffles to the desk every single day and writes. Somehow, despite being under-published and underpaid, I’ve carved out a writing life for myself, and I have not done it by letting the market make my writing choices for me. So I guess my counter advice to “follow the market” is to ask yourself why you’re writing. Ask yourself what you want to write, which is often what you want to read. Ask yourself how you’re going to assign value to your work. Is it how much money you make, or how much joy it gives you? Then, make your choice. And with any luck, what you really want to write will become what people really want to read.

dennis

Three Questions

by Matthew Lowes

2016-02-03 17.46.31I thought I would follow up my post from last month on some of the influences for my story “A Darkquick Sky”, which appeared in ShadowSpinners, A Collection of Dark Tales, by attempting to answer a few questions related to my work in general.

What book do you feel has had the most influence on you as a writer?

If I had to pick one, I’d say The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux, because reading it, in between my sophomore and junior year in high school, really inspired me to want to write fiction. But many many books have influenced me as a writer, both from before and after that time. As a kid my favorite reading materials included The Savage Sword of Conan, which I acquired with my saved allowance after walking several miles to a drugstore where they sold comic books, and A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry, which I found on my parents’ bookshelf. As an adult, all the books that have blown me away or changed my life, regardless of genre, are a constant inspiration and influence. Here’s a few favorites off the top of this constantly evolving list:

Narrow Road to the Interior – Basho
The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
Tarzan of the Apes – Edgar Rice Burroughs
Middlemarch – George Elliot
Mona Lisa Overdrive – William Gibson
The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
Victoria – Knut Hamsun
Beowulf – tr. Seamus Heaney
Dune – Frank Herbert
Against Nature – J.K. Huysmans
Snow Country – Yasunari Kawabata
West with the Night – Beryl Markham
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Tropic of Capricorn – Henry Miller
Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind – Hayao Miyazaki
Gateway – Frederik Pohl
Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
Dracula – Bram Stoker
Perfume – Patrick Suskind
Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
The Aeneid – Virgil
The Time Machine – H.G. Wells

Of your own work, what is your favorite?

That is a difficult question. I think all writers must develop a fondness for their own stories … even the ones that didn’t pan out. But to say one doesn’t have favorites would be dodging the question I suppose. A story called “Waking the Forest” comes to mind, as it’s one of my more serious and perhaps literary stories. But there are many others, and I would be remiss not to mention the epic trilogy of fantasy novels I spent twelve years writing. A lot of sweat and love goes into such a long project, and I’d have to say above all it is my favorite.

What’s up next for you?

I have so many works in progress at the moment, and I’m very excited about all of them. I recently finished a hugely successful $23,000 Kickstarter campaign to fund a tabletop card game called Labyrinth of Souls, and I’ll be working on that intensively until we ship to our backers in June. I have a number of other game projects in various stages of development. I should have a new short story ebook coming out soon called “The Menace of Dupere”, and I’m working toward putting together a collection of my horror stories. I’m currently seeking an agent and/or publisher for my trilogy of fantasy novels, and I have a number of ideas for my next novel waiting in the wings. And at some point I’m going to finish that time traveling wizard story I started a few months back …

You can find out more about my work on my website: matthewlowes.com

OMG! Stories are Fractal, by Eric Witchey

Fractal Star

Computer Generated Image – A Mathematical Fractal Structure. Source: ClaudeLux from iStockPhoto.

OMG! Stories are Fractal

by Eric Witchey

One of the amazing things the human brain does is follow complex stories and derive satisfying meaning from them. The mind perceives and matches patterns, and it conflates those patterns into ever larger patterns.

Walter Kintsch, a researcher working in text recognition, understanding, and cognitive science long before his department decided to call him a professor of psychology and neuroscience, described this conflation as “chunking.” We now take the term for granted and abuse it in many incorrect contexts, but that’s another story.

Human beings can, in effect, see both the forest and the tree at the same time or separately. We can see “those three trees over there” even though they are in the forest. We can see “that stand of Cedars and Douglas Fir.” We can also see all of the above as the forest as a whole. We can even see a whole bunch of forests as the Pacific Northwest conifer biome.

On the language side of things, the same concept means we can see a little black squiggle and think, “letter.” We can see three letters as a syllable. A couple of syllables become a word. The words become phrases. We collect phrases into clauses, clauses into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes.

This goes on and on: scenes to sequences; sequences to movements (acts); movements to stories (novels). We can even accumulate a satisfying group of novels into a series we can hold in our minds (Please, George R. R. Martin, finish yours. You once made me write a novella overnight. I know you can do it. Okay, I know it’s not the same, but please do finish).

This week, an interesting meme has been making the rounds. A group of mathematicians did a statistical text analysis of famous stories. They concluded that stories contain fractal and multifractal patterns.

Article title: The World’s Greatest Literature Reveals Multifractals and Cascades of Consciousness.

I read the article because I like linguistics and cognitive science. When these things touch on story, it always catches my eye. You see, as a writer I’m a little bit broken. It’s not enough for me to just tell the story. I have a financially unhealthy obsession with understanding how and why the story worked to create an experience in the heart and mind of the reader.

So, I read the article.

Then, I started laughing out loud.

Here’s why. Story tellers from the dawn of time have not only known what the mathematicians just discovered, they have been manipulating it and making use of it consciously since the first Shaman told the first instructional hunting tale by the light of a campfire.

A good story is made up of smaller, interwoven good stories. Additionally, a good story depends on the reader’s experiences to work.

I’ll explain further by first providing a couple of definitions of the term “fractal.”

Google definition: a curve or geometric figure, each part of which has the same statistical character as the whole. Fractals are useful in modeling structures (such as eroded coastlines or snowflakes) in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales, and in describing partly random or chaotic phenomena such as crystal growth, fluid turbulence, and galaxy formation.

From the Fractal Foundation: A fractal is a never-ending pattern. Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop.

Now, a multifractal is, in essence, groups of fractals that interact (are woven together). I’ll add that any use of the term fractal in our current cultural zeitgeist must include a reference to recursion and to the Mandelbrot Set, which is a set of numbers that, when applied through a function, can be placed in an algorithm that calls instances of itself in order to create an infinite geometric pattern made up of instances of itself.

Google the two terms: “fractal” and “Mandelbrot Set.”

You find millions of hits that include graphics of the classic example of fractal geometry. For the lazy geeks among you, here is the Wikipedia description of the Mandelbrot Set.

The Mandelbrot set is the set of complex numbers c for which the function f(z)=z²+c does not diverge when iterated, i.e., for which the sequence f(0), f(f(0)), etc., remains bounded.

My first exposure to the idea was in Jeffery D. Yetter’s basement in the 1980s. Jeff was an accomplished microchip engineer at Hewlett Packard in Ft. Collins, Co, and for fun in his spare time he explored various computational concepts. One, and this was around ’82 or ‘83, was the new fractal geometry that scientific computers, of the type to which he had access, could demonstrate by plotting out the Mandelbrot Set. I won’t go deeper into that experience in this blog post. It is important only in that it had a strong impact on my understanding of human pattern recognition.

For now, I’m just saying that the human pattern matching brain’s fascination with the construct is not new. Review M. C. Escher. Chase the concept of the chambered nautilus through art and geometric history. Hell, just read up on Dante’s cosmology, the Rosicrucian Rose, Free Masonry, or the Knights Templar. You can follow the history of the fractal rabbit hole all the way down into the next rabbit hole, ad nausea. Go for it.

The point here is that this “discovery” amused me on two levels. First, the scientists didn’t discover anything. They merely found a new way to plot a known phenomenon. Second, they speculated that their plotting method might be used to automatically categorize stories into genres.

That second one really cracked me up. It might end up as fodder for a whole series of articles on the nature of genre and the mathematicians’ misunderstanding of the concept.

Here, I’m more interested in exploring the idea that a story is an instance of stories, which are in turn interwoven instances of stories.

One of my many teachers, and in some ways one of the more influential, is a man named James N. Frey. Jim introduced me to many important things. One of them was Lajos Egri’s seminal work on play writing, The Art of Dramatic Writing. In that book, Egri suggests a concept he calls “premise,” which he goes on to show can be used as a controlling tool to help determine the course of a story.

Frey demonstrated the use of this tool to me over and over. I was pretty thick. It took me a while. Even so, he probably saved me ten years of failed trial and error as a writer. I’m not as smart as some of my peers, so I had to consciously learn things they took for granted—like how to tell a story.

My early understanding of the concept let me work it as a sort of statement of purpose for a story. For example, the entire play of Romeo and Juliet could be characterized in a premise of the form: X leads to Y. The form is important. A premise, in this context, is not just a concept or idea. It is more of a conclusion that is proven by the story.

Yes, we could come up with a dozen possible arbitrary fillers for X and Y.

Examples:

  • Love leads to suicide.
  • Romance leads to death.
  • Early adolescent romantic obsession amid family rivalry leads to rebellion, despair, and suicide.

Hopefully, you can see why the last one is more useful as a tool for describing what might and might not belong in the play—and that is what the tool is for.

By either defining or coming to understand a “premise” of this type for a specific story, the writer can test the contents of a story to determine if elements in a draft belong, should be revised, or should be cut.

Yes, that’s a simplistic description. A more robust explanation is not the point of this post. As did Jim, I teach week long seminars just to show people how to use this apparently simple tool quickly and effectively while engaging in story development or revision.

The fun part today is that this form of “X leads to Y” is one characterized aspect of the fractal geometry of story.

Each movement of the story (often called an act) is made up of an instance of the formula. If not, the reader has trouble tracking and conflating the myriad details of the story in a way that allows them to grasp the overall power of the experience.

So, Romeo and Juliet breaks down into movements (acts) like this:

Note: I use the term movements for novel writing reasons I won’t go into here. Romeo and Juliet is a play. Textual stories and plays to be acted on a stage are different in important ways when a writer is thinking in terms of development. For example, a play does not have, strictly speaking, a point of view character. The audience views all the characters on stage simultaneously rather than viewing the staged story through the internal, filtered experience of one character.

  • The premise for the overall story: Early adolescent romantic obsession amid family rivalry leads to rebellion, despair, and suicide.
  • Act I Premise: Early adolescent romantic obsession leads to frustration, anger, and new obsession.
  • Act II: Frustration, anger, and new obsession leads to romantic connection and joy.
  • Act III: Romantic connection and joy leads to fear, frustration, near despair, and slight hope.
  • Act IV: Fear, frustration, near despair, and slight hope leads to anxiety, concern, and grief.
  • Act V: Anxiety, concern, and grief leads to despair and suicide.

The five premises combine to demonstrate, complete, or build the overarching premise.

Inside each act are scenes. The scenes can also be characterized in the same way. One act is made up of a list of “X leads to Y” statements that allow testing of scene content to see if the scenes cumulative add up to the premise statement for the act.

In writing short stories or novels, movements are made up of scene sequences. A scene sequence is a group of scenes that culminate and an emotional/psychological shift in character from which recovery to a previous state is not possible.

Now, because story is emotionally and dramatically fractal, an instance of story can be made up of instances of stories. That is, Romeo and Juliet is made up of five acts, each of which is dramatically similar in form to the overall story. Each act is made up of sequences, each of which is dramatically similar in form. Each sequence is made up of scenes, each of which…

I hope you get the idea.

The article talks about multifractals. That is, they describe a sort of tangled fractal geometry. Consider for a second that a piece of flash fiction can be one small scene. At the same time, it can be a full story. It can be a complete set of conflicts and results. It is both forest and tree. Now, consider that multiple flash pieces can be combined to create sequences, movements, and even novels. Each piece can stand alone. Each piece can interact with other pieces on various levels. All can combine, be chunked, in ways that cause the reader to experience layered (multifractal) story. Writers just haven’t been calling the structures they work with by that name.

Ah, but we aren’t done quite yet. The thing that the mathematicians, statisticians, computer scientists, and cognitive scientists who discovered this new method of plotting out the multifractal organization of story content right down to the sentence level have missed is that the textual patterns they are plotting are actually the presentation of “chunks” that trigger the reader’s emotional reaction to content.

Notice that the act level premise statements for Romeo and Juliet are of the “X leads to Y” form, but X and Y are emotional states rather that events or actions.

Stories are about how people change and the consequences of those changes for the characters (or lack of changes in the case of tragedies). The reader automatically compares and contrasts the consequences in the story against their experiences in the real world. From that, the reader creates their sense of the significance they take away from the experience of reading the tale. In fact, the reader is constantly subconsciously testing their world against the world of the characters.

Nobody gets goosebumps, tears, or an ear-to-ear grin from reading a story they can’t compare their experience to on some level.

Over the years of practicing craft and teaching, I’ve marveled at this relationship between character emotional change and reader emotional states. I’ve also had to come up with a way of describing it in order to help writers develop and control stories. In 2005, I published a concept in an article in Writer’s Digest. It’s the ED ACE concept. The emotionally fractal nature of story really begins to pop out when examining story through the ED ACE filter.

The idea is that ED ACE characterizes the emotional logic the reader must be able to follow in order for a story to maintain dramatic continuity. All the elements of ED ACE must always be available to the reader either explicitly or through implication by the text. ED ACE works like this:

  • Emotion drives
  • Decision, which drives
  • Action (including speaking), which generates
  • Conflict (the opposition of wills), which results in a new
  • Emotion

The interesting part to me as both a writer and a teacher is that this pattern recurs in direct correlation with possible premise statements. It also recurs as instances of itself. That is, you can describe an entire novel with it. The C in that one novel-level ED ACE cycle then expands into ED ACE cycles that describe the movements. The C in each of those ED ACE cycles then expand into ED ACE cycles that describe the scene sequences that make up a movement. The C then expands into…

The sequence continues, as you would expect of a fractal tool.

While a pyramid graphic would be a better presentation because each level has an increase in the number of elements that make up the level above it, here’s what it looks like in a list. Each of the following elements can be captured by use of an ED ACE description:

  • Book Series
  • Novels inside a series
  • Movements inside a novel
  • Scene Sequences inside a movement
  • Scenes inside a sequence
  • Conflict sets inside a scene
  • Conflict inside conflict sets
  • Dialectic sets (emotional tactical changes (a.k.a. beats)) inside conflicts
  • Dialectic pairs inside dialectic sets
  • Sentences inside dialectic sets (though this is not always applicable).
  • Syntactic/pragmatic tension inside sentences

Generally speaking, development or analysis of story is a little more emotionally messy. After all, we are talking multifractals. I’m fond of pointing to the opening scene of Snow Falling on Cedars for an example of how these structures can be nested (entangled) effectively. However, selling a story doesn’t require that such nesting take place.

Also, the usefulness of the tool is limited once you get below the Dialect Pair level. However, the dynamic can be demonstrated, though not always, below that level. At that point, it is more useful to think of the patterns in terms of emotional resonance and contrasts rather than actual, full ED ACE cycles. Of course, if the ED ACE cycle is understood down to the dialectic pairs level, then the emotional/psychological states of the characters are also known. Word choice, setting decisions, background content, and even sounds can then be chosen based on those known emotions and what the writer wants the reader to feel.

At this point, people tend to think I’m nuts.

Well, yes.

Still, look up the Poe’s 1846 essay, “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he describes the development of “The Raven” and having starting with sounds of grief and despair before building upward to the completion of the poem.

I’m nuts in a good way. Once you’ve finished reading this, try out the tools described below on “The Raven.”

The point here is that scientists have “discovered” a relationship between the reader’s experience and the dramatically fractal nature of story that writers have been aware of and taking advantage of for, literally, thousands and thousands of years.

Still not sure they have rediscovered one of the spokes of the wheel? Google “Fractal Storytelling.” The term, fractal, arrived on the scene in the early 80s, but the concept in story development is ancient. The spokes of the wheel have been repackaged and rebranded, but they still contribute to its roll.

Yeah, sure, Eric. Whatever. But what does that mean in terms of writing my story?

It means that many hours of trial and error can be managed in a way that lets us take advantage of the reader’s mode of organizing story in their mind. It means we can look at how story is processed by the reader, how emotional change is critical to that processing, and how the logic of emotional change is managed dramatically and collapsed into layers of ever larger generalizations.

With that knowledge, we can determine whether a line, a dialectic pair, a set, a … are contributing to the reader’s process of understanding emotional change within story.

So, what did the statistical analysis described in the meme article discover? Nothing? No. They discovered a method of demonstrating mathematically that these structures exist. They showed that stream of consciousness writing includes “idea cascades” that demonstrate a sort of fractal domino effect the write engages in while writing. They demonstrated that mathematicians can have fun thinking deeply about story structure. Now, they need to hook up a few folks to an EEG or tuck them into an MRI machine and read to them to see if they can find a correlation between emotional responses and the multifractal peaks and troughs their graphs show.

I’m running out of time and space, so I’ll demonstrate the above by providing an excerpt from a handout from a class I teach. The excerpt describes two layers of a silly little father’s day story I sold to Daily Science Fiction in 2014. The following example was written up for a seminar I taught at the WordCrafters in Eugene conference in 2015.

Here’s the gratuitous plug link for good folks doing good work:

http://wordcraftersineugene.org/

Try out the following techniques. Play with them. Break them. Let me know how it goes. My apologies in advance for the incomplete nature of the instructions below. Please keep in mind that the text was pulled from a 300 page book that accompanied the on-site lecture and exercises from a week-long seminar.

While the excerpt below describes prototyping a short story, the tool becomes much more useful as the tale becomes larger. For convenience, I have also included the actual short story at the end of this post. I’m not claiming it is a great story. In fact, its simplicity lets you see the patterns functioning. In a great work of literature, the patterns might (or might not) be intertwined at a level that would require computer statistical analysis for discovery and exposition.

Note: The except below includes a concept from an article I did for Writer’s Digest Magazine, the Irreconcilable Self. That’s a topic for another day.

Nested ED ACE Paradigm for Fast Prototyping

No two stories start at the same point in a writer’s process. Sometimes, we see an image. Story grows from that. Sometimes, we feel a character’s problems. Story grows from that. Sometimes, we know the climax, and story grows from that. Sometimes, we suddenly understand a climactic moment or a darkest moment or the emotional power of a turn of phrase that haunts us for days before we sit down to write. Story can grow from any of those.

The interesting thing, at least to me, is that no matter where a story starts, stories end up containing textual and dramatic patterns of success that readers rely on in order to draw meaning and emotional impact from the words on the page. Those patterns of success tend to appear in many, many stories.

While not all stories include the same textual and dramatic patterns of success, some patterns of success appear so often that they have value as planning tools. One, three, five, and seven act structures are patterns that appear over and over and receive conscious attention during story development. The concept of an act is a pattern of success. Christopher Vogler’s characterization of The Hero’s Journey is a dramatic pattern of success that is made up of many smaller patterns of success. The characterization of story structure as status quo conflict, inciting incident, rising action, climax, and dénouement is a useful, dramatic pattern of success. Another pattern of dramatic success is basic scene structure described as an establishing moment that displays scene agendas and is followed by interaction of opposing wills that lead to one of four possible dramatic outcomes (Jack Bickham’s Scene and Structure) such that the outcome ends the story or drives the next scene. Dramatic dialectic in dialog is a pattern of success. These patterns of success can be descriptive, but they can also be used as tools during development.

All of these meta descriptions are patterns of success that we can point to over and over in the stories we love. In and of themselves, they don’t cause a story to be good. However, ignoring the fact that they repeatedly appear in successful stories is a mistake. They contribute even if they don’t guarantee success in the mind and heart of the reader.

So it is with ED ACE.

If ED ACE is a functioning, fractal dramatic meta description tool and story drives the hidden irreconcilable self to climax/resolution, then it should be possible to describe traditional story dramatic development as a recursive exposition of ED ACE. In other words, if I can describe a story at many levels by using ED ACE, I should be able to design a story at many levels by using ED ACE.

Before trying to develop a new story, test ED ACE against an existing story to see if it is truly descriptive on many levels. In the “Describing a Story” section of this document, the process has been applied to a short, short story.

Describing a Story

The following is a description of a short story that sold to one of the more popular online science fiction magazines. Each table represents an ED ACE cycle in the story. The level numbers designate layers.

The nature of a project will change the way the numbers are used. For example, a piece of flash fiction may only use level 0 because the entire story is one, short conflict set. A short, short might have three conflict sets in one scene, like “Vincent’s First Bass.” In that case, 0 represents the overall story, which is only one scene. 1 represents the conflict sets within the scene. No additional layers are really needed. However, a novel might use all of the following:

  • 0 overall story.
  • 1 movements
  • 2 scene sequences inside a movement
  • 3 scenes inside a sequence
  • 4 conflict sets inside a scene
  • 5 conflicts inside a conflict set
  • 6 dialectics inside a conflict

The following sequence of tables represent a set of descriptive tests for “Vincent’ First Bass.” The level 0 table is a shorthand description of the overall story. The level 1 tables represent the conflict sets.

In the case of “Vincent’s First Bass,” the theme connected to Vincent’s Irreconcilable Self (IS) is self-acceptance. Vincent does not know he needs to reconcile his belief that he is loveable with his belief that he is isolated from love. He does know that he wants to please his rarely seen father. His efforts to please create greater strain on these irreconcilable belief positions. The strain grows until he is forced to resolve this irreconcilable self (I.S.) by fully embracing an aspect of self he has denied. That resolution provides solution and delivers the acceptance he craves.

In essence, Vincent’s distress forces him to discover a suppressed superpower. For me, that makes the story easier to write than a story demonstrating a more subtle development of IS. However, the descriptive process is the same regardless. This story just makes it very easy to demonstate.

The Lajos Egri overarching premise might be, “Confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, and a desire to please lead to family connection, confidence, love and respect.

0 (Level) Label: Vincent’s First Bass.

Overall Story.

Emotion Confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, desire to please
Decision To fish with Dad.
Action Fishes.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. Dad.; V vs. self.
Emotion Confidence, love, respect.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 1

Standing.

Emotion Confusion, anxiety, uncertainty, desire to please
Decision To stand.
Action Stands.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. self.
Emotion Uncertainty. Insecurity. Fear of embarrassment.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 2

First Cast.

Emotion Uncertainty. Insecurity. Fear of embarrassment.
Decision To Cast.
Action Casts. Fails.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. self.
Emotion Worse Frustration. Embarrassment. Insecurity. Certain of judgment by others.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 3

Second Cast.

Emotion Worse Frustration. Embarrassment. Insecurity. Certain of judgment by others.
Decision To try again.
Action Tries again. Fails
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. self.
Emotion Even worse Frustration. Embarrassment. Insecurity.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 4

Third Cast.

Emotion Worse Frustration. Embarrassment. Insecurity. Humiliation.
Decision To try again.
Action Tries again. Succeeds.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. self.
Emotion Relief. Renewed confidence.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 5

Reasoning.

Emotion Renewed confidence.
Decision Share with Father.
Action Shares with Father.
Conflict V vs. Dad.
Emotion Confusion. Uncertainty.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 6

Retrieval.

Emotion Confusion. Uncertainty
Decision Reel.
Action Reels. Follows instructions. Invents term.
Conflict V vs. E.; V vs. Dad. V vs. self.
Emotion Relief. Acceptance. Pleasure.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Conflict 7

Fight Fish.

Emotion Relief. Acceptance. Pleasure.
Decision Fight fish.
Action Fights fish.
Conflict V vs. Fish (E).; V vs. self.
Emotion Fear. Insecurity. Frustration.

 

1 Vincent’s First Bass.

Climax/Resolution

Climax Catch.

Emotion Fear. Insecurity. Frustration. Fear of embarrassment.
Decision Fight.
Action Fights.
Conflict V vs. Fish (E).; V vs. self. Revelation.
Emotion Confidence, love, respect.

Finer levels of expansion are possible but not as useful for prototyping such a short story. For example, it is possible to describe dialectic pairs and beats in terms of ED ACE, but that level of detailed analysis is rarely useful during early prototyping.

If the tool is descriptive as an analysis tool, then perhaps it can be used as a design tool. Consider your story. If you can fill out the ED ACE paradigm at any level, then you can begin to imagine and manage the relationship of that level to other levels.

Note, however, that it is important to be sure of the level at which you are working. Crossing levels during use of this tool will result in confusion. The tool functions horizontally but not vertically across levels. That is, apply it to the novel as a whole or to the movements in order, but don’t attempt to apply it in a way that includes both the novel as a whole and the movements at the same time.

Before Beginning

Before beginning an ED ACE fast prototyping session, the author needs to know the answer to a key question. The level of depth at which the question is answered isn’t as important at the beginning. Later, as the process of development continues, the author will either create or discover finer and finer levels of detail. It is, however, important that the author answer the following two questions before trying to prototype the story:

  1. Who is the story about?
  2. What is the deep personal identity issue of which that character is at least partially unaware that will change (or not change if a tragedy) and allow them to experience life differently?

Often but not always, the main character, the person the story is about, is the character that:

  • changes the most,
  • has the most to lose on a personal (and identity) level,
  • is in the position of decision that will cause the greatest impact on others, and
  • represents the thematic heart of the story in terms of success or failure within the structure of the tale.

When fast prototyping, the author does not need to know how the character connects to the above list of dramatic functions. The author needs to know on some level that the character does connect to some, or all, of the dramatic functions in the list. The author also needs to know the character’s name, the expected core theme, and the character’s deepest internal limitations—their Irreconcilable Self. The irreconcilable self is the answer to the second question posed above.

It is possible to engage in this type of fast development without knowing the theme and IS. The prototyping process can be useful in finding the theme and IS. Once they are found, the process often begins again.

Fast Prototyping Process

While this process can be used as an analysis and diagnostic tool during revision, the purpose of this document is to present it as a development tool. The process described below presents a normal sequence for quickly developing core story elements prior to composition. That said, there is absolutely no reason that the process could not apply after composition of a discovery draft. In that case, it would be a tool for clarifying the discoveries in order to determine which bits of spontaneously composed text serve, or do not serve, the story.

  1. Start anywhere, but define Character until IS is clear.
  2. Once IS is clear, define top level ED ACE for whole story (See Romeo and Juliet example).
  3. Note that linear design is not the goal. Departure and return to tool is acceptable at any time for any reason.
  4. Define I.S. and the climax that results in or from I.S. resolution. Answer these questions:
    1. Does I.S. resolution drive the climax (death and rebirth followed by renewed focus and directed behavior)?
    2. Does the climax result in I.S. resolution?
  5. Brainstorm E steps by largest structure to smallest. Book before act; Act before movement; movement before scene sequence; sequence before scene. Feel free to fill in D, A, C notes as you go, but the real juice here is the E steps because they will let you brainstorm cooler D, A, and C content later.
    1. A Note on Emotional Anchor Points: Once the IS has become clear, it can be very useful to identify key changes to the character’s psychological and emotional makeup that must take place in order for the character to arrive at their moment of transformation. If climax comes either as a result of transformation or at the moment of transformation, then knowing these key moments of emotional change allows the writer to manage the emotional logic of the story and the construction of the scenes that will lead to the changes in a manner that appears to be organic to the reader.
  6. Evaluate each scene-level E step for veracity and power for intended audience.
  7. Find core moments (from whatever paradigm you prefer or from any mix you prefer: Hero’s Journey, Screenplay Structure, Darkest Moment, etc.).
  8. Brainstorm compelling scene moments that create and exploit the E elements of those moments.
  9. Brainstorm and fill in D, A, and C for all scenes.
  10. Speed write anchor scenes without revision.
  11. Reconsider scenes and test for believability of character emotional states and choices.
  12. Throw away material that does not work.
  13. Reimagine new material (brainstorm again).
  14. Fast writing.
  15. Repeat any steps at any time as needed. Normally, steps 4-14 are revisited a number of times. Steps 8-14 are revisited more often. Steps 12-14 are revisited most often.
  16. Once “finished,” the same process can be used to address flaws after beta-reader feedback or while in editorial cycle.

Vincent’s First Bass

Eric Witchey

Sold to Daily Science Fiction in February of 2014. Printed as a Father’s Day Story

 

“Go ahead,” his father said. “Stand up.”

Vince was a Vanderpender ninth-grader, and he’d seen flat-bottomed punts in his art history courses. Not that he liked art history. He was a math boy, but he’d seen pictures of men fishing from boats like his dad’s.

He and his dad had started rowing before sunrise. Now, they floated on glassy water in a back bay of Oleanta Lake in the rolling hill country near the Ohio river. Wisps of steam rose off the water, and a bird somewhere made a really spooky cry. At least his father told him it was a bird. A loon, he’d said. Vince wasn’t sure if the name was a joke or not. The cry sounded crazy, and he supposed someone might have named a bird that made that sound the loon.

“It’s safe,” his father said.

He nodded. The boat moved if Vince moved. He could feel it. It was action-reaction—simple Newtonian physics. He should be able to compensate. The variables were known: his weight, height, angle of lean, center of mass, the friction coefficient of the surface area of the bottom of the boat against the lake water.

“Fish are waiting,” his father said. “Daylight’s-a-wastin’, and they won’t wait forever for us to pluck ’em out’a the lake.”

His father? Vince barely remembered the man. He was weather-tanned and tall, broad like a weight-lifter but dressed in his olive green game warden’s uniform. He was a myth, a wild country legend that Vince’s mother despised.

Feet braced wide for a better center of gravity, he slipped his blue-jeaned butt forward off the front bench of the punt. Knees bent to create springs to absorb movement, he managed to stand.

“Good.” His father sat, hands on oars, making casual, micro-movements to steady the boat. “It’s really just physics,” he said. “I hear from the school you’re really good at that stuff.” His father handed him a fishing rod.

Vince managed to nod without falling out of the boat.

“The reel goes on the bottom,” his father said. “Open faced-reels hang down below the rod for balance.”

Vince let the reel drop low. The stem that held the reel to the rod slipped in between his fingers.

“Don’t worry, son,” his father said. He let go of an oar and adjusted his cap. “I’ll teach you what you need to know.”

Vince was sure he looked like a rank beginner. He hated looking like a beginner in front of this man, which was pretty silly since they’d only just met. But his father was a Fish and Wildlife warden, and for the first time he could remember, he was spending time with his father like other kids. Of course, he’d seen the look in his father’s eyes in the eyes of kids at school and in the eyes of other kids’ fathers. The look said it all. Vince was a geek.

“The rod is a spring,” his father said.

“Cool.” Vince heard the shake in his voice. A spring, he thought. Knowable variables. Algebra. No worries. He measured the length and taper with his mind’s eye. He bounced the tip to test material tensioning against the weight of the bulbous gold and fluorescent gold lure at the rod tip.

“Let a little line out,” his father said.

He bounced the tip again. The bright lure bounced. The silver, oval plate spinning on its side tinkled and flashed in the morning sun. No line came out. He tried to pull the line out.

“No,” his father said. “Throw the bale, Son.”

“The what?”

“The wire around the edge of the spool.”

Vince nodded. “Oh.” There was a rigid chrome wire around the edge of the reel. The line left the spool and slipped under a little guide on that wire. “Do I throw the whole rod?”

His father laughed at him.

Not good. Hot embarrassment burned his face. He should have said no when the lawyer came to Vanderpender for him. It was a moment of decision. He had created the wrong universe with his decision. He should have picked the universe in which he went to the chess tournament in New Mexico, but some other Vince was in that universe now.

“Sorry,” his father said. “You’ll learn. Try to relax. Hold the rod in your right hand and lift the bale away from the face of the reel until it clicks.

He listened. He did exactly what he’d been told. The bale clicked open, and the lure dropped like the lead weight it mostly was. It hit the bottom of the punt and made a metallic clank. Vince wanted to melt away and hide from the steady eyes of his father. “Sorry,” he said.

“No need,” his father said. “That’s supposed to happen.”

“Really?”

“Yup.”

He searched the tanned lines of his father’s face for signs of suppressed ridicule or judgment. All he saw was joy and confidence.

His game warden dad said, “Now, crank the handle with your left hand.”

He did. The bale snapped back over the reel face and picked up the line. The spool turned, and the lure lifted from the bottom of the boat.

“Stop.” his father said.

Vince did. The lure hung a foot or so off the rod tip. Vince started to feel a little confidence. He thought he was getting it. A counterweighted lever: reel underslung, fulcrum at his wrist, tapered fiberglass spring, eighteen inches of eight-pound test monofilament with plus or minus 3 percent elasticity and a two ounce weight dangling like a pendulum.

Manageable variables.

The boat rocked.

Vince almost lost his balance. It was a lot to keep track of: rod, reel, line, boat, balance. . . The equations danced in his head, but he managed to keep the numbers clean and ordered.

“It’s okay,” his father said. “My fault. We were drifting near a submerged stump.”

“We could crash?” Vince asked. “And sink?”

His father laughed again. The laugh echoed off the Ohio hills. The weird bird trilled it’s eerie response. “Bump and maybe rock,” his father said. “Even if we had a hole the size of a basketball in the bottom, the boat would float. The seats are full of buoyant foam.”

“Do I cast now?” Vince had once seen a guy cast while clicking through YouTube channels. The title of the video had been, “Surface Tension,” and Vince had thought the video was about molecular cohesion. Instead, it was about a man who went fishing after a fight with his wife.

“Yeah,” his father said. “There’s big bass in these stumps. With a little luck, you’ll pick one up.”

He swung the rod tip back and let the pendulum weight ride its arc. He felt the rod-spring load. He calculated the rate of load and the point of maximum arc. He pushed the rod forward against the maximum loading to increase the loading. He snapped his arm forward and let the rod tip unload.

The weighted lure came forward, swung fast around the rod tip, and spun in a fast eighteen inch circle around the whipping tip. The lure went nowhere.

This sucked. He was sure he had done the calculations right. The weight should have pulled line out and gone approximately thirty yards in a rising twenty degree arc over the plane of the water’s surface.

“Try again,” his father said. “This time get ready for your cast by hooking and holding the line with your index finger then throwing the bale.”

Vince nodded. He considered tossing the whole rod into the lake. He could probably get away with it. His father wouldn’t know it wasn’t just a stupid kid’s accident. Instead, he opened the chrome wire covering the face of his spin-caster. It rotated out and clicked into place. The gold and fluorescent lure dropped to the punt bottom again.

His father chuckled.

Vince’s face warmed. He avoided his father’s gaze, instead he looked away and off across the misty pond. Cold, wet air filled his nostrils with the smell of algae, muck banks, and the surrounding forest. This wasn’t his world. It was all wrong. He sniffed and blinked back tears. He’d made the same mistake twice.

“I’m sorry, son. I should have said to pull your finger in tight. Like this.” His father reached up and wrapped a large, calloused hand around Vince’s small, pale hand. He positioned Vince’s hand and finger. “Like you’re squeezing a trigger so the line doesn’t fall away.”

Vince reeled in his line. He pulled his finger tight against the line. He threw the bale again.

“We need to get out together more,” his father said. “Too much time in those math books makes you forget how to explore possibilities. If everything is by the numbers—all formulas and figures, physics and calculations—you start thinking you have to have a right answer every time. It’s just not true, Son. Some things don’t have right answers. Some things, you have just have to feel to really understand.”

Vince set the tip of the rod back. He flipped it forward. He pointed his finger at his target. The line released, and the lure arced out over the lake. He said, “Twenty degrees. Three meters of rise. Sixty meters of travel.” The lure splashed down.

“Perfect!” his father said. “That was perfect. You’ve been practicing.”

“Conservation of angular momentum augmented by the spring loading of the fiberglass tip resulting from momentum. The lure weighs 2.5 ounces, according to the package. The tensile strength of the line is 8 lbs. The thickness is negligible. Elasticity is maybe 3% over three meters. The coil friction in unwinding is a primary variable in achievable distance and must be weighed in a function against the acceleration imparted by unloading the fiberglass spring.”

His father stared at him, his olive green cap high on his forehead. “What?”

“Formulas and figures, Dad. A right answer.”

“Uh-huh.” His father recovered a bit. “Maybe there’s math for that cast, but there’s no math for the brain of a fish.”

“The Rule of Very Large Numbers. Chaos Theory and I suspect a certain amount of quantum synchronicity could be applied.” Vince grinned. Fishing was starting to make sense.

“You’re saying you can tell how to catch a fish using math?”

“I’m saying that if a person really needed to, he could probably figure out where the fish are and when they would bite by knowing a lot about where the fish aren’t and when they don’t bite.”

“I have to get you away from your mother and her damn boarding schools before you’re ruined,” his father said.

Vince was confused. He thought he’d done it right. He cranked his reel, and the bale locked shut. The rod tip dipped, and Vince jerked his arm up.

“Easy, boy. Take it easy. That’s just the lure hitting bottom. Water’s not deep here. Only about ten feet. Just reel the lure in.”

He nodded. He reeled. The line cut a V-shaped wake in the water.

“Feel the tip bumping? That’s the lure action, son. You want that. Reel too slow, the rod tip gets quiet. Reel too fast, and the lure spins differently. You need to get the lure to look like a fish moving along with a gimp fin.”

“Point five revolutions of the crank per second. Spindle rotation is 3.5 RPS. Tip bob at 2 BPS.”

“BPS?”

Vince grinned. “Bobs per second. I made it up.”

His father actually laughed at his joke.

The rod tip pulled hard. It went down almost to the water.

“Lift the tip.” his father said.

Vince lifted the tip of the rod over his head. He felt the deep drag of something heavy on the line.

“Okay, now reel enough to keep the line taught but not enough to drag the fish in.”

“How big is the fish?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then how do I know how hard to reel?”

“Feel it in your hands.”

“How?” Vince was frantic. He had no math for this. His numbers left him, and the line was darting to one side, the tip following. He tried to reel, but the rod bucked in his hand. He lost his grip on the crank.

The V slipped sideways one way, then the other. The bent rod tip followed like it was alive.

“Feel that?” his father asked. “You have to feel the fish now. Keep the tip high. Lead him.”

“How!? Where!?”

“It’s a big fish, boy. A damn big one.”

Vince recovered the crank. He reeled. He felt the pull of the fish, but it didn’t mean anything. It was just pull. His reel clicked. Line dragged out against the gears of the reel.

“I’m reeling, but the line goes out.”

“Good. That’s good. Just keep tension on the line.”

“The line’s still going out.”

“The drag is set to let a big fish pull without breaking the line.”

“How strong is the drag?”

“I don’t know.”

Vince didn’t like it. He didn’t like it at all. There were too many variables, too many possibilities. If he lost a big fish, his father would laugh at him again. He couldn’t lose the fish. Couldn’t!

The fish darted left hard.

“Keep him out of the logs!” his father called. He pulled on the oars. Vince almost fell. He lifted the tip to the right as high as he could. His mind raced. He wanted to see the fish, to know what he had hooked.

The answer came to him in a blinding flash, a white hot thought born of the need to see his father smile. It wasn’t Newtonian at all. It was a probability alignment problem. Quantum geometry. He had to force the correct configuration of line, rod tension, and fish movement. He might be able to create a synchronous probability point and access universal potentials.

He lead the fish with the rod tip. He didn’t have time to crunch the numbers. A perfectly correct answer would take years and computers he didn’t have. He had to approximate, to find the configuration. Odds were stacked badly against him. The dark energy rip expansion death of the universe had better numbers than him landing this fish.

He had to try.

“Feel it,” his father yelled.

Of course, he thought. His father understood fishing—could feel it. So could he.

The rod tip dipped. The fish turned. The boat twisted. The line made a sound like a piano wire breaking.

A universe Vince did not want to live in was about to be spawned by his failure. Vince’s mind raced, searching for the feel of the thing, the way of it, the moment of solution.

He found it in a white-hot flash of understanding, and the sound of the loon bird stopped. The tiny lapping of waves against the side of the boat went silent. He and his father stood on the still deck of the punt. The line went out from the tip of the rod to the surface of the water. Tendrils of motionless mist hovered in the silent air. Breeze-driven ripples stood in long wave lines, motionless, even where interference effects cancelled or amplified the intersecting wave forms. Fifty feet from the boat, a large-mouth bass hung in the air, frozen, surrounded by motionless water spray and refraction rainbows.

“What the Hell?” his father said.

“Hold this,” Vince said. He handed his father the rod. “Keep the line tight. Don’t let the rod tip dip.”

His father’s mouth gaped. Still, he nodded and took the rod.

Vince stepped out of the boat and walked across the surface of the lake to the fish. He carefully unhooked the bass then walked back to the boat. He put the bass in the five-gallon paint bucket they had brought for their catch.

“Okay,” he said, “Give me the rod.”

Silent, eyes wide, his father gave the rod back.

Vince gave the reel a sharp crank. The rod tip snapped upward. The line streaked up out of the water, slicing a line of spray across the surface of the lake. The lure shot back toward the boat, a steaming red-hot streak. It hooked his father’s cap and dragged it right across the boat and into the lake. Hat, lure, and lake boiled and steamed.

“What in Sam Hill?!” His father put a hand to his bare head.

“Sorry, Dad.” Vince reeled in the cap.

“Holy Mary and Joseph!” his father said.

Vince unhooked the warm, wet hat and handed it to his father.

The mist twisted. The ripples rolled. The weird bird called out across the empty lake.

He’d done it. Vince inhaled a lung full of the fresh, lake air. He’d caught his first fish, and his father seemed impressed. Finally, he looked in the bucket at his fish. It was a big one. Maybe six pounds. The fish thrashed it’s tail and splashed water up out of the bucket.

“You got it,” his father said. “It’s real.”

“Did I do it right?” Vince asked.

“You walked out there and got the fish.” His father pointed out over the water.

“I did okay?”

“How?”

“I didn’t do it right?”

“What did you do?”

“Are you mad at me?”

Vince’s father dropped his oars and let them float free in their oar locks. He twisted his cap to get the water out. He put the wet hat back on his head. “No, Vince. I’m not mad. I just don’t understand what you did. It all happened so fast. The sun must have gotten to me. I could have sworn you walked out on the water and picked up the fish. Hell, it looked like the fish just waited in mid-jump for you to come and get it.”

“I was afraid it would get away,” Vince said.

“So you walked out and got it?”

Vince nodded. Embarrassed that he hadn’t done what his father had wanted. “How was I supposed to do it?”

His father looked at the fish in the bucket. Then he looked at his son. “Boy,” he said, “You did it exactly the way you were supposed to. I just didn’t know you had it in you. I’ve never been more impressed by anyone or anything in my whole life.”

Vince beamed. He reached in the bucket to touch his fish.

“Can we let it go, Dad?”

His father grinned at him and nodded.

Shocked, Vince looked at his father. “If you like. I mean, I just did what you told me. I was afraid I’d lose him. You told me to just feel it.”

“Son, you’ve got a feel for it you didn’t learn from your old man, and if you’re willing, I’d sure love to learn it.”

“Sure, Dad.” Vince lifted the bucket and let the bass slip back into the lake.

-END-

Tales and the Walk-by Hugging, by Eric Witchey

Hug

Source: Nicolas McComber, istockphoto.

Tales and the Walk-by Hugging, by Eric Witchey

Why do we write? For money? For fame? For immortality? To validate our own view of the world? To prove something?

A recent experience at the grocery store brought new clarity to my answer to this question.

People who know me well know that I’ve been involved in a soul-sucking legal battle with corrupt corporate forces for the last five years. I more-or-less won that battle a couple months ago. Thank God. However, it was a terrible, wearing experience thrust upon me by corporate greed and corruption. About a month before that battle finally ended, I was feeling the wearying weight of it as soon as I woke up on a particular Thursday. I got up, engaged my autopilot, and shuffled off to the kitchen to fry a couple eggs and brew some coffee.

There were no eggs in the fridge. I had a Tourette’s moment and hoped the neighbors didn’t hear me.

I struggled making coffee. I screwed it up twice before I got a cup of coffee I could drink. I then discovered I had no half-and-half. Another Tourette’s moment.

I need cream. I can’t drink coffee without it. No, dammit, I refuse to drink coffee without it—and I don’t want any of that fake creamer crap, either. It’s not much to ask of the universe, but I do ask that my coffee have decent cream.

So, in rare existential form, I accepted defeat and acknowledged the fated fact that I was going to get a late start on the day. After making a list of three things to pick up at the grocery, I plugged in my earbuds to continue listening to my current audio book, The Disappearing Spoon, and headed down to Freddie’s, my local grocery.

In the more-or-less gray mental fog of my normal, pre-coffee dysthymic depressive experience, I found myself thinking about my brother-in-law’s illness, the periodic table, my lawyer, and the emotionally flat affect of the fiction I’d been producing. Somehow, I was pretty sure all these things were related, but I was too emotionally gray to force myself to tease out the relationships, preferring instead to let the words from the audio device intertwine themselves into my nonlinear interior monolog.

At the front door to the grocery, I encountered a crowd of very old people. Weaving my way through them, it dawned on me that I was seeing a crowd waiting for the bus service that takes otherwise house-bound seniors to get groceries. My 90-year-old British ex-pat neighbor lady, whom I take to doctor’s appointments and have tea with, had graced me with narrated versions of a few of her epic quests via these busses. The crowd seemed to be waiting, and a new thread showed up in my mental playlist.

Someday, if I’m lucky enough to live so long, I might be in that group. Do you think fiction groups and role playing games will be big in retirement homes when I get there? I hope so.

So, I passed on through, picked up my basket, and entered the store. Immediately, I was almost run over by a hurrying elderly woman. I saw her out of the corner of my eye and froze before we collided. It would have been like a Smart Car hitting a Peterbilt loaded with lumber. Just to be clear, her maybe 80 pound osteoporosis body was the whizzing Smart Car. My plodding, 180 pound meat suit was the overloaded truck.

I motioned for her to go ahead of me into the produce area. She nodded and hurried past, and I wondered what she might have forgotten. It occurred to me briefly that in such situations I almost always defer to others. I rarely feel like I’m late for anything, and I’m lucky that I don’t generally have to worry about my influence on other people’s schedules. Her bus was probably due to leave soon, and I certainly had no reason to slow her down.

Methodically, I found my cream, orange juice, and eggs while learning from my audio book that Madam Currie was believed by other women in her time to be a bit morally loose.

Just as M. Currie was gleefully pulling two male colleagues into a dark closet to show them a sample of material—material we would now call extremely hazardous—that glowed in the dark, I found a short checkout line at the 12 items and below lanes. I pulled my earbuds from my ears, put away my audio device, and prepared to engage with actual people.

A senior woman had beaten me to the line. She was engaged in a friendly chat with the checkout lady. From the look of it, I inferred that the old woman was getting in her once a week conversation with another human being, so I tried to relax and look unhurried in order to give her time to get her joy.

In the back of my mind, I wondered why I was doing that. Wasn’t I supposed to look like I was in a hurry and had very important things to do? Shouldn’t I cross my arms, scowl, and tap my foot?

I wondered what it would take to hype myself to that level of pointless behavior. I didn’t think I could it. I suppose that was because I wasn’t in a hurry and didn’t have really important things to do that hadn’t already been screwed by my lack of eggs and half-and-half.

So, I waited.

I scanned the tabloids.

I miss The World News Report. I used to read it in the checkout line. Now-a-days, I only see celebrity mags. There is not one single UFO alien bat baby hybrid LA housewife in the batch of broadsides. I wondered if that said something about our declining cultural sense of whimsy and humor?

The senior lady moved on, and the checkout lady checked out my “fewer than twelve items.” We said the normal things, and in mid-sentence, she grabbed something off the counter and bolted away as if I had just threatened to eat her soul. I checked my admittedly coffee-starved memory and confirmed that I had not, in fact, threatened to eat her soul.

She chased down the senior lady, who had only managed to get about ten yards closer to the front door. Apparently, the lady had left an item behind. The checkout woman and the senior chatted for a minute. The package changed hands.

In keeping with my previous musings, I thought to myself, this is where I’m supposed to get angry and say something rude. You’re not on script, Eric. Maybe with coffee I can be meaner.

The checkout lady came back and sheepishly finished ringing me up.

I saw a couple of boxes on the counter, and I asked if those might also belong to the senior lady.

Checkout lady sheepishly said, “No.”

I smiled, gathered up my bags, and for no reason I can name said, “It’s good that you are a kind soul.”

She lit up like a searchlight. We both parted, smiling.

I was smiling, but actually I was still living in my land of gray mists and muted mental tones. I was nearly to the front door when I realized she had felt guilty for making me wait while she helped the senior lady. A few steps later, I realized that I had said the right thing to let her feel some pride in what she had done. A few steps after that, I saw the Starbucks sign at the corner of the front of the grocery.

I thought I sprinted to the Starbucks, but I suspect I only managed a pre-senior shuffle. I had a gift card from my sister, and I planned to cut the fog with a serious coffee gift.

While waiting for my order, I watched the counter clerk and barista and realized that they had almost identical “I’m concentrating” expressions. While picking up my much needed 20 ounce, triple shot, vanilla latte, I asked the barista if the two of them were related.

She said no, and she asked me why I thought that.

I said, “You both make the same facial ‘I’m working’ expressions.”

Walking away, nursing my coffee, I heard the barista repeat what I said. The two women busted out laughing hard. I’m not sure why it was funny, but I’m glad it was.

In the lobby, there was still a crowd of seniors. I squeezed past a guy in a Steven Hawking wheelchair. He seemed about to panic because he was kind of boxed in and couldn’t easily shift his chair out of my way. He looked almost terrified.

I put a hand on his shoulder and gently said, “It’s okay. You’re fine.” He relaxed, and I slipped past him and moved on.

Crossing the lobby it occurred to me that I had just had a fairly nice sequence of interactions that took place mainly because I wasn’t in a hurry and have a habit of looking into people’s faces and thinking about how they feel and behave.

It’s a writer thing, or maybe I’m a writer because of it.

Anyway, I found myself thinking how sad it was that being in that “not in a hurry” space is not rewarded by our culture. Rather, our nation has one of the highest rates of anxiety illness in the world.

Still, I was only a few sips into my coffee, and this was all sort of mist-shrouded idle thought.

Outside the front door of the grocery, I actually met my neighbor lady friend—the bad-ass, blitz surviving war bride now in her tough as nails 90s. She was on her shopping run, and we had a smiling chat. I confirmed the next couple dates we had discussed for taking her to the doctor. She was thrilled. I was glad she was thrilled, and we also parted smiling.

I shuffled off to my car. On the way, my thoughts turned back to legal battles, flat fiction, bill paying, a lawn that needed mowing, allergies that would suck when I mowed the lawn, a deadline that was already past, and the general gray fog of living. At my car, I put my latte on the roof, fumbled for my keys, and heard a woman call out, “Hey!”

I was vaguely aware that I was pretty much alone in that part of the parking lot, and I had that little adrenaline moment where you realize that conversations that begin with “Hey!” rarely go well.

Keys a little tighter in my striking hand, I turned to face my assailant.

A fairly cute, red-headed thirty-something woman was walking purposefully toward me, her arms outstretched, her hands up high, and her fingers flipping in and out like people do when they are signaling that they are about to dock for a hug.

My assumptions were quick and fleeting.

She was a student I had forgotten.

She was someone from a seminar I had taught.

She was mentally compromised in an attractive, baby-faced, benign sort of way. She–

And she was on me and wrapping her arms around me.

I felt no fear or worry. I just accepted the hug and gave as good as I got. It was actually a very warm, caring sort of hug, and it was not at all what I expected—as if I had time to expect anything at all.

She pulled back, held my shoulders, looked directly into my eyes, and said in kind, sincere, and deliberate tones, “You, have a nice day.”

As she was turning to walk away, I said, “Thank you. You too.”

And she was gone. I was the victim of a walk-by hugging.

I have no idea what it was about. I speculated on whether she was behind me in the que or whether she had overheard me making arrangements to take my friend to the doctor. Somehow, I needed to equate the experience with some sort of reward for something I had done.

How sad that in that moment it couldn’t just have been two nice people acknowledging one another.

In that moment, the why wasn’t as important as getting groceries in the car and finding out if M. Currie scored in the closet. I gave up on speculation.

  1. Currie didn’t score. She just got accused of naughtiness that she didn’t actually get to enjoy.

While arranging things and self in the car, it dawned on me that perhaps our acquisition-based culture teaches us to be pricks to each other, but the universe actually does reward us for being in the moment and kind to one another. The rewards just don’t have anything to do with culturally ingrained symbols of status-based success.

The rest of my day was one, long smile. The lawyer called to tell me we were winning. A conference called to invite me to a long seminar of teaching before the actual conference. Writing went well. I even noticed some little sparks of actual emotion in my prose.

For weeks, I found myself wondering if I could get away with walk-by huggings. In the end, I decided the middle-aged, frumpy writer-guy would not get the same reception from his victims that the cute redhead got.

Why do we write? We write because we can, for just the time it takes to read a story, let people calm down and be in themselves and in an imagined community that includes emotional connection to others. We write because we can see beyond the kind of car, the prestige of neighborhood, and the status of a rung on the corporate ladder. We can tell stories bring people who would never meet or interact into one another’s lives for a little while, and when they look up from the stories, they can see one another a little more completely—a little more compassionately and clearly. We write because we can reach out to others and give them time and a hug that leaves them smiling for the rest of the day. We write because stories of hope translating into success and connection are desperately needed in a world that has taught us not to make eye contact with the person standing next to us.

And some of us write because we can’t get away with walk-by huggings.

-End-