Musings on Breathing Life into a Heartless Villain, by Pamela Jean Herber

 

What makes for a memorable antagonist?

I’ve been having trouble with the antagonist in my current novel-in-progress. She’s boring. I have a decent handle on how she operates in her world, and the role she plays in the story, but she feels more like a mathematical formula than a human being. What to do?… Go out in search of a villain I’m excited about who has similar traits to my antagonist.

An intriguing historical villain

In my travels through books, the Internet, and my own memory, I found a deliciously evil woman from the early 1800s who grew up in Bauzelles, France. Her name was Thérèse Humbert.

As a girl, Thérèse was betrayed by her own father. He had raised her to believe she and her family were wealthy aristocrats. When the truth came out upon her father’s death that she was not of nobility, and wouldn’t be inheriting great wealth, Thérèse was robbed of a station in society she believed she was entitled to. Without legitimate means to claim her place, she resorted to her father’s game. Fraud.

She continued to tell the tale of her family’s aristocratic standing. She was able to obtain credit based on soon-to-be received wealth, piling up huge debt buying a lifestyle that gave the appearance of wealth. Along the way, Thérèse’s husband, and her father-in-law covered her debts as best they could, perhaps to protect their own reputations. She convinced bankers to allow debts to go unpaid for long after they were due by weaving story after story of an impending inheritance and a favorable marriage by her sister.

Eventually, Thérèse was arrested, tried, and imprisoned, but not until after she had wreaked havoc on the hopes, reputations, and livelihoods of numerous family members, friends, and business associates. These unsustainable ways lead Thérèse to betray her younger sister in the very way her father had betrayed her.

With only a brief sketch of Thérèse’s life, I’m hooked.

What makes Thérèse Humbert such an interesting character?

  • The fact that Thérèse’s father betrayed her makes her need for money and status believable and heartbreaking. Her actions were still unconscionable, but I sympathize with how she became capable of them.
  • She betrayed her sister in the same way she was betrayed. Wow. Just wow. This makes me worry for not just the family, but for all the descendants, and especially the sister. Will it be possible for her to break the cycle?
  • The younger sister could not have been deceived without the support of family members who knew the truth. Thérèse could not have successfully defrauded so many people without the support of her very victims: family, friends, and business associates.

In light of what I’ve found, what can I try out on my antagonist?

  • Provide a single and traumatic event that drives her need for money and status.
  • Show that her daughter is at risk of falling into the same patterns of behavior.
  • Populate the story with a network of people that support the antagonist.

The villain in the story doesn’t breathe on their own. The person the villain was before the damage, and the people in the villains’s life who have retained their compassion, they are the ones who bring the villain to life.

The Mercy of Magic: Inspiration

by Christina Lay

My post this week is inspired by Matt Lowe’s article last week regarding the many inspirations for his story A Darkquick Sky. He got me to thinking about my story The Mercy of Magic. Both stories are included in ShadowSpinners: A Collection of Dark Tales. Both qualify as dark fiction, and I think it’s fair to say that both arose out of long, tangled love affairs with the fantastic.

My story is high fantasy, and its evolution is really the story of a novel and an entire world I’ve been crafting for several years

. The Mercy of Magic is one of those off-shoots which are so much fun to write once you’ve built a fictional universe in your head, populated it, built up buildings, torn down reality and let your imagination run amok.

Many winding, burrowing roots extend beneath the short story. I could talk about my grandmother’s escape from Czechoslovakia just ahead of Russian tanks. I could ruminate on the peccadillos of working in a Victorian House museum. I could mention my partner’s suicide and how it lead to the long dark winter when I took refuge deep in the comforting world of this fantastic universe emerging from my subconscious. I could laude the benefits of attending weekend getaways with other writers in which we all write a fantasy story in 24 hrs.

All those things laid the foundation, pushed and pulled me toward writing The Mercy of Magic. Even the words, Mercy and Magic, have great weight for me, and the dream of being saved, or at least guided, by a benign spiritual force resides deep in my psyche, even though I “know better”.

But truly, if I had to pick one trigger for this rather bizarre story, I’d have to say “Prague.”

The fictional world, the novel and the short story all sprang from a dream. My heritage is Czech, and as my mom and I discussed visiting the Czech Republic, I had a very vivid dream about wandering, lost, along the streets of a strange, obviously European city. When we finally made it to Prague and were wandering, lost, down a rather nondescript side street, I had an incredible sense of déjà vu. The reality of the city exactly matched the images from the long-ago dream.

As a writer, I can’t help but observe myself observing things. How American of me, I thought, how naïve and tourist-y, to lay any claim on this incredible city with its thousands of years of history, history which extends far beyond the picturesque steeples, imposing castle complex and quaint cobblestoned streets. There’s this rather looming presence in the Czech Republic called The Remains of Communism. Ugly utilitarian industry crowds the middle-aged jewel. And that sprawling, unlovely city is where most natives live and work. The heart of the city is a dream. A dream we all help maintain even while we pummel it to dust with our Nikes and our delusions.

This insight into my own longing for a mystical city to call home was the key to the workings behind the story. The shared dream we maintain, parallel to, beneath and entwined with reality. Thus was born “The Dark Side of Dreaming”, my epic fantasy novel. The epicenter is a medieval city lovingly maintained by a group of dreamers, down through the centuries, where magic and fantasy exist, invisible to the “real” world.

The Mercy of Magic takes place in The City, which is divided and dissected into worlds and realities of its own. The world of reason up in the castle, and down in the muck, the world of magic. Belief and non-belief, glory and horror, fear and hope. mercy and cruelty.

It’s a lot of weight to put on one little fantasy story, and I certainly never planned it. I started with a cool setting, a character’s whispering voice and an inkling of how we create reality through our individual perspective. Add to that a generous helping of Bohemophilia, a fascination with medieval history and the relentless pursuit of evidence to support my new-age theories of ancestral memory, and voila, a story appears.

Matt listed several fictional inspirations for A Darkquick Sky. I have to say most of my influences, beyond the groundbreaking fantasy works of Charles de Lint, are nonfiction. Or, maybe the nonfictional view of how we as a species create and maintain our stories. Below are a few of them.

Prague Mystical CityAlchemy and alchemists

Medieval Reader

Making Waves with Particles, by Eric M. Witchey

Image

Making Waves with Particles,
by Eric M. Witchey

(Image source: Damkier Media Group via iStockPhoto)

Story meaning is both a wave and a particle.

The classic double slit physics experiment works quite well when applied to stories. In fact, slits aren’t even necessary for the experiment. All a writer needs is a pair of eyes, or even just one eye, or even braille. For this little thought experiment, think of the eyes, eye, or fingertips as one slit. When a story passes through that slit, the particle scatter patterns emerge.

Take a look at this text. Here is an ‘A.’ Here is a ‘B.’ Notice that the text you are reading is really just a long string of little black squiggles on a white background. One squiggle after another, the little squiggles appear. Readers scan the squiggles. Every now and then, a little extra white separates one group of squiggles from another group of squiggles, and the reader recognizes that a word has ended and a new one has begun. The squiggles make word patterns, and the word patterns appear in rows, lines.

Lines group together. Paragraphs appear. Scenes appear. Chapters appear. All the little particles line up in rows one after another until they have marched one particle at a time from the first letter of the first page to the last period of the last line on the last page.

Letters, words, lines, paragraphs, etc. are the scattering of the particles on a backdrop. The reader’s eye, eyes, or fingertips pick up each little squiggle and combines it with the next to create words. The reader picks up each word and pulls the meaning from it and combines that meaning with the next. One after another, the reader picks up individual meanings and combines them with other meanings. Patterns emerge.

Notice that in the last paragraph, the description of the reader’s experience included an interesting shift from recognition of the little squiggles to the pulling of meaning from the emerging patterns.

The second slit is the mind’s eye, the eye behind the eye, which is a calm pond into which the particulate words fall like pebbles. Each pebble creates a ripple. The ripples expand and interact. A ripple peak meets a trough, and they cancel into a moment of calm water. Two peaks meet, and they create a new peak that is higher and stronger than either one alone. These rippling interactions of meanings add to or subtract from the power of the reader’s experience. Each ripple has amplitude and frequency. The driving power of the ripple is emotion, and the power of the emotions cancels and amplifies.

A yellow dog playing with a boy is a happy thing to read. A yellow dog dying is a sad thing to read. Alone, each has power in and of itself. Combined with a story’s many other ripples, all of which combine to amplify or cancel, the second image becomes the tear-jerking end to Old Yeller.

Perfect, particulate words and events are not enough. Emotion captured in an individual line, a conflict set, or a single page is not enough. Awareness, intuitively or consciously, of how the particle patterns and wave patterns are related and how the wave patterns interact allows a writer to create the contrasts and amplifications that keep the reader’s mind and emotions focused on the story that emerges from the page. The emotional power of an ending depends on how the ripples created by the first word of the story are amplified or cancelled when combined with subsequent ripples.

For your consideration, examine the following short story for the patterns of particles and for the complimentary and contrasting wave interactions. Please, if you see the particle/waves duality and the power of the interactions between waves, leave a comment and let me know. I hope you enjoy the experience.

The following story was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Prose Award and was first published in The Best New Fiction of 2012. All typos and variations from the published version are my fault and not the fault of the editors. Also, Dr. Hansey is a real doctor. He was my doctor. Use of his name is my bow in his direction. Without him, I would still be sealed in my own metaphorical car in the sun. Namaste, Dr. Hansey.

 

Reunion

Eric M. Witchey

 

The sealed car is heating up under August sun. Gordon lets the sweat roll down from his stubble hairline, along his neck, and under the collar of his linen cabana shirt. It reminds him that he’s on an outing like a normal person.

A family reunion. Lots of people go to them. Now, he does, too.

He tells himself family reunions are happy things. When he was a kid, he remembers them being happy things. He especially remembers galvanized steel tubs filled with water and ice nests cradling huge, sweet watermelons.

For some reason, the memory of one family reunion includes a fixation on a nearby swimming pool he and the other kids weren’t allowed to go to. The chlorine smell of the water, sounds of splashing kids, and squeals of joy and laughter tortured them in heavy August heat.

He supposes the pool, like many memories in his life, is burned into his mind because he couldn’t have it.

Like Sussette.

She still dominates his thoughts, but his meds helped disconnect his actions from those thoughts. He’d finally gotten to the point where he could leave her alone. He’d even deleted her old number from his cell phone. With Dr. Hansey’s help, he’d almost deleted her new one twice. That day would come pretty soon, he was sure.

But the meds hadn’t made it so he could get out of the car, so he watches his family reunion from inside the protective, purifying oven of glass and steel.

Kids run back and forth across the park lawns. Some play soccer. Some play chasing games. There are so many kids. Chaos on the hoof, and he can’t imagine any good will come of it. They’ll crash into things, spill things, break things. If he gets out, they’ll bump him. One might even touch his skin.

The sweat on his neck chills and makes him shudder. That’s what he tells himself.

He’d been a kid. He remembers it whether he wants to or not.

It’s just crazy to sit in the car because he can’t stand the thought of them bouncing around like agitated molecules. They touch everything. They scream and squeal.

He must have been like that. Must have been.

What if he had gotten together with Sussette? They would’ve had kids. She wanted them. She desperately wanted them. He wanted her. He would have agreed to anything to have her.

The restraining order was pointless, really. She had no idea how much power she had over him and how little power he had over her. If she’d asked, he’d have followed her from two feet or fifty yards. He’d have done anything for her, but she hadn’t seen that.

A Frisbee hits the side of the car. The plastic on metal thud startles him. He ducks and sucks in a lung full of hot, vinyl-tainted air. When he realizes he’s okay, he lifts his head enough to peer across the seat and out the passenger side window.

A laughing eightish-year-old boy runs to the car, sees him through the window, and mouths the word, “Sorry.” Then he snags the disk, spins, and lets it fly back toward the field of loose molecules.

Gordon checks the door locks. None of the kids are near him now. He’s safe, and he does a breathing exercise to relax a little, then he thinks back to what it was like when he was a kid.

The first thing he remembers is that he could fly. It’s always the first thing he remembers. He had to be naked, and the day had to be sunny, too. He remembers the warm sun on his skin felt good, like ripe watermelon on the vine tastes — a sweet, spreading liquid rightness flowing into every shadowy nook and cranny of his body and mind. He used to lie down in a field of clover and close his eyes. While his eyes were closed, when the rightness filled him full and replaced every heaviness in him, he would stand up and fly. It wasn’t a super power sort of flying––that fast, driving flying that tore at the air and pushed it aside. It was more of a leaning into the breeze, hands slightly out from his sides and palms forward. He leaned and let the cool air touch his chest, belly, and arms––let it gently lift him from the earth like a kite with no string.

By turning his hands and leaning, he could slide along the waves of wind and rise and fall and move forward or let the wind push him back.

In the heat of the car, he closes his eyes and tries to find that feeling of freedom, of rising above all the ugly stuff that had become his life.

All he finds is orange heat behind closed lids.

All he feels is the drip of sweat on his neck and off the tip of his nose. He can’t even find the smell of the clover or make the heat of the car into the delicious warmth of sun on his bare skin.

“Gordon!” The voice is his mother.

She found him flying in the clover field. Her anger, fear, and shame made her scream, grab, and drag him to the house. She sprayed him with cold water from the hose they used to water the dogs.

“Is that you? Come on out here. Let me look at you!”

It’s not his mother. It’s a man’s voice.

Someone pulls on the car door handle. They tap on the glass. “Gordon!”

He keeps his eyes closed, willing them to believe he’s sleeping, trying to push them away from the car with his thoughts.

He has learned to visualize what he wanted to happen in his life, and he wants that voice to take its body back to the pavilion where barbeque is cooking and adults chat and trade lies and laughter.

The knocking on the window gets harder. “Gordon! Are you all right? Gordon! It’s Andy! Gordon!”

Andy. Of course, it’s Andy’s voice. His cousin. They had played together at these things.

Ball?

Yes––until Andy hit him in the head with a bat.

And running and jumping games.

He remembered Andy pushing him down a flight of three concrete steps.

Now, adult Andy yells at him to leave the protection of his metal shell. If he did, he’d have to walk across the grass. The bouncing, laughing molecules might touch him.

Grown up Andy probably has kids. Maybe the Frisbee boy is Andy’s kid.

Gordon keeps his eyes shut. Andy calls for him a couple more times, then the visualization works and Andy goes away.

Gordon is about to open his eyes when he hears people coming. Many voices. Excited voices. Talking, almost yelling voices. Andy’s is mixed in with them.

“. . . locked in, and I couldn’t get him . . .”

“. . . a hundred and fifty in there. We have to . . .”

“. . . get Zach. Quick, get Doctor Zach . . .”

Too many voices. Too much noise. Even the adults have become loose molecules. The sun has heated them all into agitated Brownian chaos and craziness. He should drive away. He wasn’t ever going to get out of the car. He knows that now. It was pointless to drive the two hundred miles to this stupid park thinking he’d gotten well enough to somehow join his family and act normal.

He opens his eyes just in time to see an arm swinging toward the passenger window. In a slow motion of terror, he sees that the hand on that arm holds a tool of some kind––a red plastic handle with a metal point sticking out of it. The metal hits the window. A spider web of fractures appears, radiating outward to all the edges of the window. The whole thing bows inward, and every tiny fragment of glass frees itself from all the others and explodes inward toward him, showering him in the fragments of his own sheltering window. Cool wind chases the glass with the smell of chlorine and mowed grass.

Then the door is open. Hands reach in. Too many hands. Andy’s hands. Other people’s hands. A pair of child’s hands.

He pushes himself away from them, kicking and pressing his back to the driver’s side door.

Grasping hands find the master lock switch on the key fob dangling from the ignition. The lock on the door behind him pops.

His door opens. He’s out, dragged onto the hot asphalt, surrounded, and held down. It’s a nightmare, the opposite of flying.

He screams and struggles to get up.

“Heat stroke,” a voice says.

“Hysterical,” another says.

They all say things, make noises, talk at him. He can’t hear them all, not all of them, not all at once.

He fights, but they hold him.

“Get back!” Someone yells. “Everybody, get back! Give him air. Give him room.” The someone makes them pull away.

One man, a man with curly red hair and a trimmed beard, kneels next to him. Blue sky surrounds the man’s face. He is a bearded balloon floating in the blue sky. “Gordon?”

Gordon manages a nod.

“I’m Zach, your second cousin. Do you know me?”

He shakes his head.

“It’s been a long time.”

He nods.

“Do you know where you are?”

He manages one word. “Reunion.”

“That’s right. You’re at your family reunion. Do you think you can you drink some water?”

Gordon looks around at the loose circle of towering, momentarily frozen, molecules. Andy’s there. It’s Andy, for sure, taller and fatter, but still Andy with his dark eyes and narrow lips. Five children of various ages stand around his legs. Gordon closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to see them.

“Stay with me,” Zach says.

Gordon opens his eyes. “Hebephobia,” he says, “and OCD.”

“Shit,” Zach says. “Get back! You kids, get back! Go play! Now!”

“Is it contagious?” Andy steps back a few paces.

Gordon closes his eyes against the horrors of his family reunion and tells himself he’s home in his basement lying in the dark on the hard concrete floor. Mowed lawn and sweat smells combined with the hot asphalt against his back makes it hard to believe himself.

“Just keep the kids away, Andy. Get them to the pavilion. You go with them.”

“Is it contagious?” Andy sounds scared.

Somewhere inside, the Gordon lying crying and bleeding at the bottom of three concrete steps catches his breath and smiles.

“Go!” Zach says. A few seconds later, he says, “You can open your eyes if you want to.”

Gordon does. He and Zach are alone.

“Can you sit up?” The second cousin doctor helps him sit. “So, is this some sort of therapy for you?”

“I thought I could do it.”

“You’re here.”

“But I couldn’t get out of the car.”

“You’re out, now.” Doctor Zach tries to be a normal person and chuckle. It sounds flat and wrong. Zach pats him on the back.

“I have to leave,” Gordon says.

“I’ll explain it to them.”

Gordon looks at the pavilion full of people, at Andy standing there with a kid under each arm, talking excitedly with a gray-haired woman and a couple of younger men. The younger men keep looking Gordon’s way.

“Do you think,” Gordon says, “you could wait to tell them?”

“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“No. That’s not it.”

“Why?”

“Just wait. Let Andy’s germs worry him.”

“I’m not sure––”

“Just for one day.”

Zach turns and looks at the pavilion, too. When he turns back, he’s smiling, and the smile looks real. “I’ve known Andy a long time. I think I can do that.”

Gordon nods and lets Zach help him to his car.

When he gets home, Gordon strips, goes out into his privacy-fenced back yard, and lies down in a patch of clover. He closes his eyes and lets the summer sun make his skin delicious. After a while, the delicious starts to sink in deeper and deeper until he’s sure it feels just right, just like he remembers. He stands. Eyes closed and arms at his sides, he leans into the breeze and rises into the embrace of summer winds.

 

 

When Should I Write?

When Should I Write?

by Eric M. Witchey

At a recent conference, I mentioned a number of brain-based techniques I use for production. Several people asked me the perennial question, “When should I write?” I wish I had the answer to that question. I wish it were an easy answer. What I know is that there are two kinds of people… Since there are two kinds of people, there are also two kinds of writers. I know careful, thoughtful writers and intuitive, insightful writers. Of course, I also know that any time I talk about two kinds of anything, I’m getting it wrong and tossing out an entire world of insights that might be useful.

Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, works from an exclusively cognitive or intuitive position. The most hard-core researching, obsessive, analytic writer still has moments where “it came to me that….” The most touchy-feely, woo-woo, let the muse flow through them, channeling characters writer also has moments when they look at their own prose and make conscious decisions about how to revise based on experience or principle. Most of us are somewhere in the middle.

The cold, hard facts are that no two people are exactly alike and no two stories require exactly the same mix of cognitive and intuitive attention. This morning, I wrote a short story in less than an hour. Last week, I wrote a short story of the same length (only 1500 words). It took me twelve hours, including a lot of research, analysis, and revision. Writing fiction always requires a mix of analytic and intuitive skills.

Have you ever notice that doctors tend to miss the fact that all bodies are built differently? Each of us has different thresholds for pain, sensitivity to light, fears, and anxieties. Did you ever wonder how anybody gets good healthcare since all treatments are designed to provide relief and improvement to the average patient as determined in clinical trials?

Doctors are lucky. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to trust them to know what they’re doing. Readers will not tolerate a story based on statistical averages. Each of us is different, and each of us must modify our writing processes and practices to fit our own body, mind, and lifestyle. If we don’t, our work will not be tolerated by our readers.

Certainly, we can modify our lifestyles to support our writing habits, but that’s a life management class. In this blog entry, I want to make sure of two things. First, I want to make sure that writers empower the person who knows their psychology and physiology best. I want them to put that person is in charge of how and when they write. So, you, and only you, must evaluate your performance and make adjustments as needed.

While we can engage in cognitive and intuitive workouts to build both sets of skills and improve the communication between the parts of the brain that engage during the different modes of work, we each still have to bow to our own, personal work styles, experience, and developmental quirks. Since no two of us are the same, nobody can really tell us exactly how the mix should work for any one of us. The only person that can make that determination for a writer is that writer.

Is analytic work easier for you in the morning, the evening, or the afternoon? Whatever your answer, that’s when you should do it. Is intuitive work easier for you in the morning, evening, or afternoon? Whatever your answer, that’s when you should do it.

We can take some guidance from study statistics that report physiological averages.

The averages say that intuitive work is easiest in the first 90 minutes after we wake up. If you need that time to write but fill 90 minutes with a shower, making breakfast, making coffee and reading the paper, you’ve lost that optimum time forever that day. If that’s your creative time, you need to ask yourself what you can do to take advantage of your best creative brain state right after sleeping. You may even ask yourself when (and if) you can take naps during the day in order to restart that brain state.

The averages say that our cognitive skills are strongest in early and late afternoon. Mine simply are not. I’m stupid as hell in the afternoon (except when I’m teaching because then I’m hyped on adrenaline and caffeine). Should you be doing your plot analysis at 2pm? Should you be doing your editing after 1pm? I can’t answer for other writers. I can only say that experimentation will help them decide what will work best for them.

The averages say that our repetitive task skills are least interfered with by other influences in the evening. Uh, that might be a great time for spell checking, eh?

I can’t answer the question, “When should I write?” I can tell people when I write and why. My personal physiology and schedule work something like this on a perfect fiction writing day:

  • AM 6:00 to 9:30: Protein (one egg), vitamins, speed writing warm-up (imagination exercise and technique practice). I then engage in composition for current projects.
  • 9:30: meditation. Email check and respond. Shower
  • 10:00: small snack. Often, it’s a handful of nuts.
  • 10:10-12:00: Some composition. Some revision.
  • PM 12:00-12:30: Lunch (protein). I eat light and avoid carbs at lunch unless I plan to stop working. If I snack, I snack on jerky or nuts because protein allows me to stay alert. Carbohydrates put me to sleep. Different people respond differently.
  • 12:30-2:30: Email check and respond. Revisions.
  • 2:30: Nap or Exercise if I can. The time for this varies throughout the year based on my needs.
  • 3:00-5 or 6: Revisions and/or technical writing/course development/article writing.
  • 5 or 6: Relax, prep dinner, eat.
  • 6:00 to bedtime: Household activities, reading, movies.
  • 10:30 or 11:00: sleep.

I manage my writing to match the fact that my brain is at its most creative early in the day. Even after a nap, I don’t get a full reset of my creative powers. The later in the day it gets, the more I move toward revision and analysis type tasks. Good food and a good night’s sleep are a critical part of my time management. Naps and meditation are part of my productivity process. Loading my brain with writerly thoughts and happy thoughts before bed is important to me. I often skim through silly web sites like I Can Has Cheezburger just before sleep. Exercise is important, even if it’s only a walk to the post office, and only injury keeps me from it. I know these things about myself, so I plan my day based on my experiences with my own mind and body. Only you can know yourself well enough to plan your writing day.

Remember that I said I wanted to make sure of two thing? The second thing is that I want to make sure that you, my dear writer friend, take time to seriously answer the question, “When should I write?”

Whose Ride Is It?

by Eric Witchey

I read fiction because I love a ride through unexpected twists and turns.

Opening a new book is like settling in under rubber-padded restraints in the fiberglass shell of a tiny capsule shaking under the pull of a chain as it rolls up an inclined rail toward the peak of a hill beyond which lies the unknown.  With each word, my adrenaline surges. I anticipate the moment the chain lets go and I hurtle through time and space, pressed and pulled by the ups and downs and twists and turns of human experience molded by the g-forces of plot, sociology, and a cosmology I discover for the first time with each page turned.

It’s my father’s fault, this thrill addiction.  He put me on my first ride when he opened a dog-eared copy of A.E. Van Vogt’s “The Silkie” and read to me by the light of a camp fire.

That’s why I read.

I write for the same reason engineers build faster, scarier rides.  Somewhere along the path, the fascination with the ride became an obsession, and the obsession led to study and analysis of where each tiny, savored thrill was born.  The need to know how fast, how far, how much it took to make a scream erupt from the lips of a rider became a new kind of thrill.

But whose ride is it—the reader’s or the writer’s?

Every writer who has written a first draft has handed their work to someone only to see the tale evoke the same reaction as a ride in a wheel-barrow pushed by a limping man.  Of course, a first draft may have moments of scream generating power, but it also invariably has gaps and dead end forks in the track.  A reader thrown off the ride offers the writer no second chances.

During revisions, we writers often find the story has lost its emotive power over us.  No longer thrilled at the discovery of new hills, new twists, new nuances of character psyche, we may abandon the work or begin new work.  Often we assume the reader will feel the same absence of power what we feel, so we begin creating a new ride in which we can find new highs and lows.

This is a moment of truth for a writer. It is the moment at which the writer has to decide to whom the story belongs, for whom the writer is building the ride.

If the ride is for the writer, the ride is over.  There are no more surprises—no more thrills to be found in the writing.  The emotional power of the images in the writer’s head is complete, fully crystallized and experienced.  The writer has ridden the ride to its end, squealed in delight, screamed in fear, cried at the pain of sacrifice and the ecstasy of love born in their dreamer’s soul.  The writer is exhausted and ready to head for their favorite watering hole for a drink and a sit in the shade.

On the other hand, if the ride belongs to the reader, then the writer is just starting.  The writer knows where the reader should throw up their hands and scream.  Will the reader do it?  Will the reader cry?  Will the reader laugh out loud while sitting in a work place cafeteria turning pages to get to the next dip and the next twist?

Probably not.

About the time the writer is finished developing their own sense of the ride, the reader is only just beginning to be able see framework that suggests the possibility of a ride.  Peaks and troughs and twists and spins in the mind of the writer can be a long, flat track up on stilts to the reader.  It may be high and long, but it is ultimately boring.

To pour the adrenaline into the blood of the reader, the writer has to decide that it is not enough to ride their own vision.  They have to decide to make that vision live in every soul-catching, tear-wrenching, scream-generating detail in the mind of the reader.

To do this, the writer has to come back to the fiction with dual vision: the memory of the ride they have ridden and a self-imposed discipline of innocence that allows the writer to admit to only the images and evocations created by the words on the page.  This discipline requires that the writer ruthlessly revise the text to grab and drive the heart of someone who is coming to the story for the first time, someone who is caught in the restraints looking up the track to the peak of the hill and anticipating the best ride of their life.

The writer has to give up ownership of the ride and give it over to the reader so when the chain stops pulling, when the car hovers at the peak in a meta-stable moment of Newtonian decision, the reader looks out over the track unfolding below in hoops and twists and curves and loops, and the reader screams and reaches for the corner of the page to turn it.

We have to go back to the thing we have built and check every scene for rising stakes, to see that each character is affected emotionally by their experience on the page, to strip away words that flatten the peaks and fill in the troughs the reader craves.  We have to look past our own memory of intention and see how each word adds a beat to or takes a beat from the heart rate of the reader.  When a scene opens on a peak, it has to feed the reader into a trough and bring them to the next rise.  When a scene opens in a trough, it has to fly upward and spin and twist and dump the reader, screaming, crying and laughing, into a turn they could never have anticipated.

When every rider screams in delight, when the most stone-faced rider blanches and smiles as he takes a wobbly step away from the car at the end of the ride, then the writer can smile and head for the drink the shade and begin to dream a new ride, a bigger one, a scarier one, one that will set fire to the blood of a child inside the circle of magic light cast by a camp fire.

Even a Dead Fish Can Float Downstream

by Eric M. Witchey

I just came back from the Short Story America Conference. I taught three classes. I had three stories in the finals of an international, blind competition for short fiction. One of those stories won 2nd place. I’ll have four short stories in the next Short Story America anthology (Vol. IV). I have two in the current anthology (Vol. III). I only have one in Vol. II. It was a good trip.

Yes, I’m bragging a little. Hey, I’m excited. I got a cool plaque and some money. However, there is a point beyond that.

In South Carolina at the conference, writer after writer asked me how I was able to get so many stories in the finals, how I could sell as many as I do, how I could write so many stories, and other similar questions. It’s very hard to answer questions like these. Writers tend to have a lot of themselves invested in their process and beliefs about writing. Also, there are many possible answers, including the band of coffee I buy.

However, the truest answer came to me as an insight some years ago when I was having a bad writing day. Hey, we all have bad writing days, right? Over coffee, a friend started up the “lost story whine.” You know the one. If you haven’t spoken it, you’ve at least heard it. I’ve done both.

“I put my story in the mail six months ago,” He says.

“Uh-huh,” says I.

“I mean, it’s just rude. It’s been in the mail for six months. At least they could send a rejection.”

“Did you query for status?”

“I don’t know if it’s been long enough. I mean, if it still has a chance, I don’t want to. . .”

Did I say I’d had a bad day?

I’d heard enough. I thought, Jesus, quit whining. Anybody can whine.

With that thought, a memory leapt to mind. I was standing in the Officer’s Club at Edwards Air Force Base where my brother was attending Test Pilot School. Class 88-B had their motto on a little plaque under a mounted, dead trout—an upside-down, dead trout.

I spoke their motto to my friend. “Even a Dead Fish can Float Downstream.”

“What?” he asked.

I explained the difference between a dead fish and a live one. A dead fish floats belly-up downstream. A live fish, with head in the current and tail thrashing, doesn’t talk about “my story” in the singular. They say things like, “I forgot where I sent that that one. I’ll have to check my records.”

They know they have to make their numbers in order to live. The average time of rejection (according to my records) is about 3 months. The most times I’ve put a story in the mail before it sold is sixty-five. The least is 1. My average is about seventeen submissions before a sale. So, assuming a story might sell on the seventeenth try, it could also be in the mail for fifty-one months, a little over four years, before it sells.

Yes, that’s years.

If I whine over coffee about one story for four years, that’s a lot of coffee and whining. If the story sells, it likely won’t even pay my barrista’s tips.

That’s a long time to float downstream away from my dreams with my belly in the sun. I hate sunburn.

A live, head-in-current, tail-thrashing fish smiles and happily buys the coffee.

Why?

Because the reason their head is in the stream is so that the stream can bring them bugs and other food. Of course, they can’t catch every bug that floats by, but they can get damn fat on the ones they do catch.

So, I asked my friend how often he wanted to sell a story. One a year? One a month? One a week?

Back then, I was averaging a lazy one or two per quarter. My friend thought that would be great. Envy and comparison. . . That’s a different article.

Here’s the fishy story problem: If a fish has it’s nose in the current, and it snaps at every bug that goes by, and it takes 17 snaps to catch a bug, and a bug goes by every four months, and the fish needs at least one bug every four months to stay alive, how many more bugs need to go by for the fish to live? Unless the fish figures out how to get more bugs from that stream, the fish dies.

In writer’s terms, 1 snap per quarter for seventeen quarters is 4.25 years worth of submissions to get one sale. Of course, as you get bigger, you catch bugs faster. But let’s keep it simple.

Solution?

One at a time, you put stories in the mail. Ten in the mail means you eat once every year and a half or so—rounding to our advantage for ease of narrative. By the time you can eat every year, you’ll also be catching more bugs, say three in ten? So, fifty in the mail means you eat pretty much every quarter.

After my friend walked out and left me with the bill, I gladly paid. I then went home and checked my numbers. Sure enough, with fifty stories in the mail, I make one to three sales every four months.

I’m growing. My tail is getting stronger. All those stories in the mail equal practice and improvement. The bugs are getting easier to catch, and the sunburn on my belly is almost healed.

With my running average of about 50 stories in the mail, I managed to sell a few stories this year. One story won a third place slot in the Irish Aeon Awards. One story won a second place slot at Short Story America. The other eight I sold didn’t win anything except the money I give to baristas. The cool bit for me is that I’m above my average of 1 to 3 per quarter this year, and I don’t think I worked as hard as I did last year. Either that’s a good thing, or I should put my head in stronger currents and thrash that tail harder.

That’s the real answer to my writing friends who asked so earnestly about how I do things. I try hard to be a live fish.

And next time you’re tempted to whine about how long it takes to get a rejection or an acceptance, remember that we control the frequency of both by attention to craft and how often we put a story in the mail. Just look yourself in the mirror and repeats the words, “Even a dead fish can float downstream.” Then, put a tale in the mail.

-End-

Three Happy Fishies, Left to Right: Film Producer, Mark Hunt; Me; Conference Coordinator and Editor, Tim Johnston.

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