Writer’s Workshop III

R. LEE SMITH’S SIMPLE EIGHT-WEEK SYMPOSIUM ON THE ART OF STORYTELLING:

WAT R WERDS?

Lesson 3. Coloring Outside the Outlines

 

Welcome back, class!…and Caroline. If you’ll just take your seats—hilarious, Caroline, now put your chair down and sit on it. Perhaps I could be allowed to begin, if the opening comedy act has concluded? Thank you. Ahem.

We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.

That up there is my second-favorite quote ever from the works of Mark Twain (my favorite, in case you were curious, is, “I always liked dead people, and done all I could for ‘em.” Both are from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is odd, because that’s probably my least favorite of his books) and the perfect way to lead off today’s lesson, which is about whether or not books are MADE or just happen, by which I mean it is about outlines.

Years ago, years before I started publishing or even thought about it…hell, years before I had written anything but fanfiction, I knew I wanted to write for a living. In fact, apart from a short phase in my early teens when I wanted to be a mortician, being a writer was all I ever wanted to be. From the moment I could read, I was writing stories of my own. My mother, bless her, kept many of my earliest works. They are adorably awful. And many are illustrated! Also awfully. That is neither here nor there, I only mention it so that when I tell you I have been attending lectures and panels on how to write fiction since I was twelve years old, you know I’m not kidding. Seriously, my mother took me to sci-fi conventions and let me off the leash, utterly unsupervised, and I went to the damn panels. Even the other nerds thought I was a nerd.

So while I cannot back this up with anything but my own experience, it has been the substance of that experience that aspiring first-time writers are under enormous pressure to outline their books. Being twelve the first time I heard this advice, I had no real idea of what this meant, so I went about it in the same way I’d outline an essay for school. I have lost the original somewhere over the long course of my misspent life, but my first outline would have looked something like this:

* * *

Outline

 

* * *

You may all recognize this as possibly the worst and most clichéd adventure story ever in the history of ever. I was twelve. To paraphrase one of my own characters, I cannot emphasize enough the twelveness of that whole situation. Anyway, moving on.

From that very first panel I’ve attended to the very last, I have heard it said that most writers fall into one of two categories—those who plan their books and those who just start writing. To wit, there are Those Who Outline Plots and Those Who Write By The Seat Of Their Pants. To put it even more succinctly, there are Plotters and Pantsers.

I fall somewhere in the middle and I’m sure I’m not alone. To be honest, it’s as difficult for me to imagine someone actually being able to adhere to a pre-written outline without deviation, from first page to last, as it is to imagine someone just sitting down and writing a book without a concordance or notes of any kind. This is not to say that I think either one of those ideas is wrong. If it works for you, it’s the right way to write. Period. But for those of you who are new to this path and perhaps struggling to sort through all the conflicting advice, let me lay out some Pros and Cons to both sides.

Let’s get the ball rolling with Outlines.

PRO: ORGANIZATION. The most obvious benefit to writing an outline is that it, well, outlines things. Certainly one of the biggest hurdles a new writer faces once they actually sit down to write for the very first time is to figure out how to take an idea and put it on paper. After all, when you have a 120k-word novel floating around in the ephemeral mist of your head (or a 270k-word novel, if you’re me), figuring out where to start can be a daunting task (hint: it’s not always the beginning). If outlines do nothing else, they help to get that tangle of anchorless thoughts, scenes and characters in order. It limits the possibility of continuity errors and helps a writer keep track of details that could easily get lost in oceans of text. The more world-building goes into a book, the more likely it is that a writer will contradict him- or herself: Are the flowers of the greeblefrond blue or purple? Are there one hundred fifty-one social castes within the Norblux culture or one hundred fifteen? How the hell long did it take Amber and Meoraq to walk from their meeting place nearish Tothax to the Shrine of Xi’Matezh anyway?

There's a fine line between organized and crazy, though, so be careful.

There’s a fine line between organized and crazy, though, so be careful.

PRO: DIRECTION. Once you’ve established a path for your story to follow, it’s important not to stray too far from it. Or at least, that’s what I’m told by authors who are a hell of a lot more successful than I am and therefore probably know what they’re talking about. And again, when you’re new to this and you’ve got ten thousand great scenes for the same book knocking around in your skull, it’s easy to get carried away. An outline acts as a stern governess standing just behind you with a yardstick in her fist, reminding you that your characters can’t get attacked by basilisks in Chapter Three because, a) they’re on a boat and basilisks can’t swim, and b) they’re attacked by badgers in Chapter Ten, and you wouldn’t want to get too repetitive, and c) they’re in the real world and basilisks are mythical.

PRO: MOTIVATION: Writing an outline at the beginning of your project gives you a physical visual means of tracking your progress, something that can be enormously encouraging, especially if you’re not fortunate enough to be able to sit down and just write for hours at a time every day because, you know, you have a life. When you are only able to write for ten minutes here, half an hour there, partly on the computer, partly in a notebook, sometimes on a napkin or the back of your arm, it’s easy to feel like you didn’t write anything. But when you have an outline, you can say, “I finished the jet ski chase and introduced the talking monkey, so tomorrow, I can get right to work on the volcano sacrifice.” Also, speaking from experience, I can tell you there’s a real sense of accomplishment that comes from updating a Work-In-Progress bar. Knowing at the outset that your book will have twenty chapters gives you an end-point, so that as you write, you can see at a glance when you are 5%, 40%, or 90% done. Whereas those of us who write without outlines can only guess how many words, pages or chapters we’re going to need and we’re usually wrong, so the end-point keeps moving and those percentages mean nothing. I know, ‘the struggle is real,’ right? Well, it is. Writing isn’t always easy or fun, and there can be weeks when you work at it all day and feel like you haven’t done anything. The word count may be going up and up and up, but that sure doesn’t mean the story is moving. There are always going to be days when you need a reason to keep at it and nothing beats the tactile satisfaction of crossing a scene off a list or updating a WIP bar.

PRO: COMPLETION. Probably the best reason to write an outline is that it forces a writer to actually sit down and really think about their book, from beginning to end and every part in between. And while this can spoil a lot of the spontaneity and mystery of the creative process, it cannot be denied that it is helpful to know how a book is going to end or even that there is an ending. Hands down, the most widespread reason given for why a book was not finished is some variation of “It ran out of steam,” which is obfuscated double-talk designed to avert the blame for not knowing what happened next. Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you books never run out of steam. Sometimes, there’s just not enough story in your story. It happens. But it’s a whole lot easier to spot when it’s down on paper and the weak spots, dangling threads and gaping void of an ending is right in front of you in black and white.

CON: INFLEXIBLE. The major problem with working with outlines is that they can lock you into a schedule the story doesn’t always want to follow. Now when I say ‘lock,’ obviously I don’t mean the Plot Police are going to bust in through your door and cuff you just because you decided the postpone the marshmallow fluff wrestling scene for a chapter so you can have one of the villain’s minions get eaten by a Utahraptor. Look, every book is going to have a Utahraptor sooner or later and minions are going to get eaten. No one plans these things, they just happen. And certainly having an outline doesn’t mean you must adhere to it at all times, no exceptions, and that for every scene you invent or omit, the Orc-Lord of Outline-land throws a puppy into a furnace. All I’m saying is, an outline provides a writer with structure, but structures are, by their very nature, rigid. Making a conscious decision to ignore your outline in order to pursue an interesting white rabbit can and does have consequences. You have to be able to grow or shrink to accommodate yourself to the size of the door you find on the other side of the rabbit hole, and if you can’t do that, you shouldn’t jump. It ain’t all tea and cakes.

I do likes me a metaphor, don't I?

I do likes me a metaphor, don’t I?

So if working with an outline is so advantageous and clarifying, why would anyone deliberately work without one, you ask? Oh…you didn’t ask? Someone should really ask. Anyone? Well, screw it, it’s on the lesson plan, so I’m just going to pretend someone asked. Why would anyone work without one, you ask? Well, let’s explore some reasons you might prefer to write blind.

PRO: FREEDOM. There’s a reason I write fiction and not reference books on funeral practices throughout history or the medical, magical and culinary uses of plants, both subjects on which I am damn well versed. You could be given the most interesting subject in the world—say, sexual symbolism in religious iconography—but, and maybe it’s just me, but as soon as I am told I have to write a paper on it, it becomes a chore and I become the world’s whiniest overgrown toddler, stomping my feet upstairs and throwing my Cheerios like I’d rather be writing my own damn epitaph instead of that. Meanwhile, in an alternate timeline, while researching religious iconography for my book, I will stumble on the subject of sexual symbolism therein and study it for the rest of the day in happy fascination, thinking, Why hasn’t anyone written a book on this? I need this book! I should write this book! And I really don’t think I’m alone. Fiction writers are inherently creative-types and creative-types have a natural resistance to authority, even their own. Maybe even especially their own. I personally have a competitive streak a mile wide and I love throwing down with the other writers in my groups on word sprints or challenges or NaNoWriMo pledges, but I simply cannot make myself be accountable to myself. An outline is just The Man, man. I gotta be free if I’m gonna be me.

PRO: DISCOVERY. When I was a very small child, I once heard it said (by whom, I no longer remember. If you recognize the quote, please let me know so I can give it proper credit, because I have spent two hours searching the interwebs to no avail), that the less you know, the more you get to learn. It made an impression on me, I think, because of that word “get”. I was small enough then to be in school, yet old enough to wish I wasn’t, and the implication that learning was somehow a reward has stuck in my head like the Chili’s baby-back ribs jingle is now probably stuck in yours. Heh heh. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand that quote a bit better. (babyback babyback babyback…I want my babyback babyback babyback CHILEEEEEES! Baby back riiiiiiiibs!) And there really is something exhilarating about taking that plunge, not knowing where it will lead, only that it will take you someplace new and wondrous. I suppose that outline-writers feel the same way to some degree babyback, in the same way that the Grand Canyon is majestic as fuck even if you set off to find it with a road map and a GPS navigator dictating every stop and turn along the way, I just happen to believe babyback babyback babyback that setting off on a road trip and ending up at the Grand Canyon purely by chance is even more amazing, because even if the destination is the same, the planner made a plan and knew where they’d end up, while the roadtripper could have ended up anywhere, as likely to end up at Prairie Dog Town as the Grand Canyon.

Which is also fun. I've been here. Did I get my picture taken with the giant prairie dog and pet the six-legged steer? Yes, I did.

Which is also fun. I’ve been here. Did I get my picture taken with the giant prairie dog and pet the six-legged steer? Yes, I did.

PRO: MOMENTUM. If writing with an outline can be described as walking up a set of stairs, with each step clearly marked and landings at obvious and evenly-spaced intervals, then writing without one is a lot like jumping out of an airplane. I’ve done both, and I can attest that, while it is comforting to have a handrail to hold onto and see the numbers painted on the doors counting themselves off as you climb steadily higher, it can also be a bit of a slog. Whereas taking that jump, falling faster and faster until you hit that brilliant moment of terminal velocity, writing like the wind and watching the world grow huge before you, trusting that your chute will open and flutter you safely to earth, but always knowing it might not, it really might, and this wild, wonderful, nerve-wracking moment could all end with a bounce and a crack and a sharp cut to black. But no one pushed you out of that airplane, did they? You jumped. And you’d jump again, because that feeling is really addictive. I have, as I’ve said, written both with and without an outline. I think my personal best, as far as pages written in a single day, with an outline was about thirteen pages. And as I recall, they were pretty polished, as a first draft goes. Most of the time, my outlined-work averages five or six pages in a working day, and they’re usually pretty good pages. They may or may not make the final cut, but I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any outlined-scenes I cut because I was unhappy with the work that went into them. Without an outline, on the other hand, my personal best was an honest-to-God eighty-two pages. You read that right. Eighty-two rollicking, sloppy, out-of-control pages. I jumped from that plane and I fell hard. I think my second-best was about forty pages, I often do thirty, I usually do twenty, and I think I can honestly say I’ve never done less than thirteen, ever. Of course, with one noted exception (Cottonwood), all my outline-less work is rough as sharkskin and needs a lot of reworking to make it readable. Which brings me to the biggest Con of taking the Pantser-route.

CON: OH, JUST SO MUCH RE-WRITING, GUYS. LIKE, JUST SO MUCH. FOR SERIALS. So you’re writing your first novel and it’s going great. You’re two hundred pages in and still going strong. It’s just a roller coaster of a book, nothing but cover-to-cover marshmallow fluff wrestling, jet ski chases, and sizzling-hot Utahraptors.

Fuck Yeah!  a new novel by R.Lee Smith

Fuck Yeah! a new novel by R.Lee Smith

And there you are, on lucky Chapter Thirteen, as your heroine and hero are standing on a rocky outcropping in Nepal, as one does, when suddenly! An avalanche! How exciting! The hero is swept away by icy death and the heroine plummets through a crevasse into…a lost temple! Okay, but you really don’t want the hero to be killed, because introducing a new love interest two hundred pages in is obnoxious. So before exploring the temple, you’ve really got to go find him. Maybe he’s got GPS in his phone. That’s a thing now, right? Maybe not a given, though…you should go back and allude to it in some way so the reader knows it’s there. Okay, so you flip all the way back to Chapter Three and have the heroine find him in the crowded marketplace by the GPS in his phone instead of just seeing him over by the ferret vendor. That works. The heroine digs out the hero, exchanges a few quips and some sexual tension, and it’s back to the temple! Exploration! Discovery! Wait, it’s going to be dark in there. Do they have flashlights? Well, it’s okay, they have phones. They won’t work forever, but they’ll work long enough to find, I don’t know, a torch or something. Wait, how would they light the torch? It’s not like either of them planned to go temple-spelunking when they fell into this madcap adventure. Maybe one of them smokes. Okay, make a note and sprinkle a few cigarettes or, you know, “whatever one smokes” throughout the earlier chapters. Okay, torch is located and lit! The hero and heroine make their way through the temple to the relic chamber and there, in pool of unlikely sunlight, is the very thing they’ve come all this way to find! It couldn’t be, but yes, it’s…it’s Narselkin’s Cradle! Both rush over and fall to their knees. The hero excitedly reaches to open the relic, but the heroine quickly stops him. Reading the hieroglyphs—wait, does the reader know she can read hieroglyphs? Go back to Chapter Two in the research scene and throw in some hieroglyphs…

You get the point. While you probably already understood that writing by the seat of your pants means not having any idea what’s going to happen, you may not have realized that it also means you might not have any idea what’s already happened. Writing without an outline almost always means continuity hiccups, contradictions, dangling threads, dead ends and delicious Chili’s babyback ribs. By and large, I write books twice as long in half the time without an outline as I write with one, BUT! It takes easily three times as long to edit and polish (exception: Cottonwood).

At the beginning of this ridiculously long post, I made the statement that, despite what panelists so often tell us, there is a wide, grey line between the extremes of Plots and Pants. These days, I create a concordance for each book, in which I keep my timeline, all my character sketches and personality profiles, inspiring pictures, links to reference material, deleted and alternate scenes, and any little relevant doodles and notes. Some of you may be wondering how I can claim to ever write without an outline if I admit I do this. Well, most of this, I put together after the first draft, or at least, after I’ve written everything I “see” clearly. Essentially, I write without an outline for as long as it comes easily, then start making notes and constructing my concordance. Here, for the first time, I break the body of the book down into chapters, so it’s easier to identify which ones are complete and which ones are still missing scenes. I then flip back to the beginning and take each chapter one by one, filling in the blank spaces until the story is told. So, in essence, I jump down the rabbit hole, then take the stairs back up. Never quite as high, mind you, but still with a hell of a view of the Grand Canyon.

Congratulations. That is the most mixed metaphor of all time.

Congratulations. That is the most mixed metaphor of all time.

Welp, that’s it for another week, class! See you all next time!

…kind of hungry. Think I’ll stop at Chili’s on the way home. I don’t know why, but I’m really feeling the ribs tonight…

Writer’s Workshop II

R. LEE SMITH’S SIMPLE EIGHT-WEEK SYMPOSIUM ON THE ART OF STORY-TELLING:

WAT R WERDS?

2. Living Vicariously Through Imaginary People

 

Good Morning, class! Welcome back! I think I see a few new faces out there. Wonderful. The subject of today’s lecture is character creation and I swear before the four right hands of Lord Shiva, Caroline, if you don’t put that phone away, I will eat it right in front of you. And then I will slap my stomach until I dial that phone and call that phone’s phone and when its tiny little phone babies answer, I will tell them Mommy Phone isn’t coming home because Caroline wouldn’t stop texting in class!

Thank you. Let’s begin. Characters.

The short list.

The short list.

 

I think we can all agree that creating believable characters is the penultimate thing a writer can do for his or her book, second only to editing. Even the story you are telling is not as important, in my opinion, as the characters through which you are telling it. And I’m not just talking about the protagonist here. It isn’t enough just to want what the hero wants; the reader has to feel what the hero feels, and more than that, fear/hate the antagonist, fall in the love with the love interest, laugh at the comic relief and, most important of all, shake hands with all of them on the last page and walk away as friends.

And let’s face it, a book is the very worst way to go about it. There’s a reason no one makes text adventure games anymore. It’s easy to make an audience fall in love with the hero when you can show them sexy abs and a roguish wink. There is a very real, very broad degree of separation when you are reduced to simply talking about it. Without, I might, the benefit of gestures, facial expression or tonal emphasis to augment your words. How, then, does one go about creating characters that live and breathe through a medium that is as inherently lifeless as plain text?

When addressing this subject in an American literature class, William Faulkner had this to say: I would say to get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says. It’s the ingestion and then the gestation. You’ve got to know the character. You’ve got to believe in him. You’ve got to feel that he is alive, and then, of course, you will have to do a certain amount of picking and choosing among the possibilities of his action, so that his actions fit the character which you believe in. After that, the business of putting him down on paper is mechanical.

And while me and ol’ Bill don’t always see eye to eye on what makes a good story, in the above regard, he is dead right. Writing is work, don’t get me wrong, and that work is not always easy, but if you find yourself struggling to force a character to do what you want him to do, you might want to take a step back and really ask yourself why. It’s been my personal experience that if your characters have stopped talking to you, it’s because you’ve done something to piss them off. I mean, sure we fight anyway, but we stay together because the story is worth telling.

...and the make-up sex is fantastic.

…and the make-up sex is fantastic.

 

So getting to know your character is paramount and the first step to doing that is to create one, preferably one you won’t mind living with for a while, because the two of you (or ten of you, or thirty of you, or however many characters inhabit your book’s world) are about to be on some extremely intimate terms. But how do you do that?

Well, sometimes you get lucky and a character will leap out of your forehead, fully-armored and spear in hand, but far more often, you have to work at it. Personally, I’m a very visual writer. I rarely imagine a scene with words at all. More often, I ‘see’ it in my mind like a movie and just try to describe what I’m seeing. So when I start to write on a book, very often, it begins with several days of me just sitting quietly, getting to know my characters. I ought to be embarrassed of how many times I’ve started a book with no notion at all of what’s going to happen, I just follow the characters and trust they’ll take me to where the story is.

Having said that, I feel like I need to stop right now and tell you there are many ways to describe a character and physical appearance is the very least of them. So many new writers invest so much page-space to how their characters, especially their protagonist, looks…and too often, it seems to be done solely so the reader gets the point that the character looks ‘cool’.

Having a distinctive appearance is by no means a bad thing, but it shouldn’t be the main focus of a character’s development. It certainly shouldn’t be what you want the reader to remember best about your book. This goes double for how your character dresses. Even in steampunk stories, a whalebone corset with clockwork accessories and an octopus embroidered in copper thread on the stomacher is no substitution for a personality. When in that first blush of creation, by all means, jot down the broad strokes of how you see your character, but if you don’t know what color her eyes are or whether he dresses to the right or the left, don’t dwell on it. Maybe you’ll ‘see’ it later on in the process and maybe you won’t. Forget ‘What does she look like?’ and focus on the real things you want your readers to remember. How does her mind work? When scripting her dialogue, take a little time to show the reader what she thinks before she talks. The two don’t always agree in real life; nor should they in books. What does she say and how does she say it? And then what does she do?  How does she react to others? How do others react to her? And especially, how does she react to herself?

So we’re all agreed: An emotional description is of far more value than a physical one. And as a general rule, major characters should have stronger and more rounded personalities than minor ones. Okay, yeah, we all get that, but how do we do it? On my bookshelf, I have a copy of The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus. Seriously, look into these. Any time I find myself leaning too heavily on one trait, I look it up and boom, instant list of positive and negative aspects of that trait, as well as possible reasons for having developed it, examples of thought processes and commonly associated behaviors, and traits in other characters that could bring out the best or worst in them. These are the things that turn a character’s static personality into a many-layered personality profile.

Yeah, we’re getting into the real writer’s talk now, aren’t we? Look up how to create characters in fiction and you’ll get more than 12,000,000 hits. Granted, most of these are porn. But look into the rest of them and you’ll see a lot of recurring themes that all seem to use the same powerpoint words.

We hear a lot about dynamic characters, those who change and grow over the course of a story, versus static characters, who are more fixed in their mold, usually with the strong suggestion that dynamic = good, static = bad. As writers, we are constantly pushed to develop characters that are complex and full of hidden depths and conflicts that go tumbling around like rocks in the river of your plot, until they come out at the end, far from where they started and a little worn down, but polished. Well, at the risk of pissing in that river, I say that’s the wrong way to think about it.

And don't piss in rivers. Come on, people, Nature drinks out of that.

And don’t piss in rivers. Come on, people, Nature drinks out of that.

 

True, your characters should grow and change along their own story arc as the book progresses. They should always act on and react to developments in the plot, but they should also be recognizably the same character that readers met and back in the beginning of their journey. So instead of thinking about dynamic and static characters, think about dynamic and static character traits. Amber, from my own The Last Hour of Gann, has strength as her main personality trait. She is stubborn, independent and strong-willed to a fault. Over the course of the book, she had to lose everything she had always used as a measure of her own strength: her home, her family, her health, herself. She had to let go of her crippling need to do everything herself, to ask for help and, most difficult of all for her, accept it even when she didn’t ask. And as she did so, (hopefully) her stubbornness became steadfastness and she changed from someone who thought she couldn’t depend on anyone but herself to someone others could depend on, and she learned that two people together will always be stronger than two people apart. None of these traits changed, exactly, but they did evolve, and it’s important to remember that evolution never happens for no reason.

In books, as in life, while all people possess the power to change, they tend not to unless they have no other choice. People grow only when there’s room to grow, and usually the reason there’s suddenly all this room is because something else was violently removed. Think about that while you’re creating your character, considering not only all the character has to do, but all they have to lose. Over the course of nine novels, my heroes have lost homes, parents, children, friends, lovers…hell, their home worlds, their humanity, their faith, their innocence, their honor, and even their lives. A character’s journey is not and should not be an easy one by any means, not for the reader and not for the writer.

So why do we do it? Why, when it’s so easy to just dip into the collective pool of conscious symbolism, grab a stereotype, slap a name on it, and just move on? Well, I’ll tell you why. When you take out that crisp white sheet of paper—

Seriously, R. Lee, what century are you in?

Seriously, R. Lee, what century are you in?

 

—or open up that brand new document (happy? Sheesh), you have the power to shape a person out of a jumble of letters and breathe life into them, life so rich and vibrant that total strangers will also be able to see them and hear them…hate them and fall in love with them…cheer for them and grieve for them and in no small way own them and be owned by them. When you write, you invite readers to open up a book and climb inside, to shed themselves and live instead within these completely imaginary lives, and by doing so, enrich their own, and goddamn, that is magic.

Writer’s Workshop Wednesday

R. LEE SMITH’S SIMPLE EIGHT-WEEK SYMPOSIUM ON THE ART OF STORYTELLING:

WAT R WERDS?

1. Rules For Beginning Writers (and why you should break them)

Good morning, class! It’s nice to see you all showed up for this week’s lecture. Come in, take your seats, put away your phones, take out your pencils and your notebooks, and let’s begin. My name is R. Lee Smith and I write books. This has led some people to think I know how to write books and further, that I have relevant insights on the process to pass on to other people, a notion that—I see that phone, Caroline!—that I greet with a due sense of trepidation and incredulity, but what ho, let’s go.

In my opinion, there can be no better way to begin this series than with a quick look at some of the advice I have been given over the years. And, if any of you out there are writers, you’ve probably heard some, most, or all of these ‘tips’ yourself.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Every one of the rules we’re about to talk about comes from an established author a hell of a lot more successful than I am. I won’t be naming names here. A few minutes on the search engine of your choice will bring you right to these gems, assuming you’ve miraculously managed not to have them flung up on your Facebook page by well-meaning friends and relatives already. Likewise, I do not suggest this is necessarily bad advice. If you actually do look them up at the source, you’ll find most of these rules accompanied by supporting statements that better explain the author’s reasons for advocating them, and it grossly misrepresents them when I do not include those additional notes here.

Trust me, I’m not doing that to make the rule-writers look like dicks. I’m doing it because we inexperienced writers typically are not hearing these rules from the original authors, complete with examples and suggestions and supportive pats on the head. We just get inundated with a never-ending list of Dos and Don’ts that we tend to grasp at because, with very few exceptions, writing is not the road to overnight success. Google “Best-sellers rejected” and take a good, long look at all the million-dollar books no one wanted to touch. Self-publishing is an even steeper uphill climb. At the last writer’s convention I attended, one of the panelists made the announcement that the average self-published author can expect to keep his or her day job for ten years before it is possible to make enough money to support him- or herself just by writing. In fact, of the six authors on that panel, five of them still had day jobs, and all of them had written industry best-sellers. On a personal note, my own book, Heat, sold exactly two copies during its first two years of publication, and one of them was to my sister. Hell, during that same time period, Olivia was also available and didn’t even sell one copy! (Not even to my sister.)

The point I’m trying to make here is, writers spend a lot of time staring rejection in the face. And when you do that, day in and day out, for a couple years, you can get to wondering, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ And as soon as you start asking that out loud, well-meaning souls may start to give you ‘Tips’ like…

“Hook your readers from the first line of the first paragraph of the first page.” This is probably the first piece of advice any new writer hears. I’m not going to sit here and tell you a good hook isn’t important. It absolutely is. What I am going to tell you is that hook needs to be appropriate to the story you’re telling. That opening scene sets the tone for the entire book. If you’ve written a soul-searching romantic drama about a man who loses himself in the Australian outback and finds love with a wallaby rehabilitator, it does not begin with car crashes and explosions.

Mad props to my cover artist. I read her that line and she delivered without batting an eye. I’m printing this out poster-sized and hanging it on my bathroom wall.

Mad props to my cover artist. I read her that line and she delivered without batting an eye. I’m printing this out poster-sized and hanging it on my bathroom wall.

“Listen to how people really talk and write dialogue accordingly.” When was the last time you really listened to how people really talk? Yes, good dialogue is essential to good storytelling and yes, bad dialogue is a book-killer, but if you made a word-for-word transcription of your actual daily dialogue and let someone else read it, my bet is they’d think you were on drugs.

We become used to the speech patterns of our close friends and family members, as they become used to ours, and we mentally translate one another’s incoherent gabblish until we don’t even hear it anymore. Accents, regional slang, inside jokes, and just so much profanity clutters up the straightforward message we think we’re saying, but to an outside set of ears, you and your friends sitting around the table at Denny’s might as well be a gritty reboot of The Usual Suspects with an all-Benicio Del Toro lineup.

Dialogue should, must, feel natural, but natural doesn’t always mean true-to-life. The best advice I can give you on this regard is to “run” your dialogue. Say it out loud and really listen to yourself. How does it flow off the tongue? How does it hit the ear? If you’re running out of breath before you hit those commas and periods, break it down into smaller sentences. If the sentences are so short, you’re starting to sound like a Dick and Jane primer, build it up with some conjunctions.

Something else to remember is that your main characters should each have their own distinct voice, their own unique color to their speech. Your reader should be able to read dialogue entirely without tags (ie, Bob said, Sally said, Zebediah said) and still know exactly who’s talking just by how they’re talking. I have read so many books where all the characters sound exactly the same. It’s bad all the time, but I find it especially galling when the speaker is supposedly a thousand years old or an alien or some other paranormal entity, who uses the same slang and knows all the same pop culture references as the contemporary human characters. For that matter, utilize the urban dictionary sparingly when it comes to your contemporary human characters, too. Trying too hard to make your characters talk ‘cool’ comes across as exactly that: Trying too hard.

 “Stick to writing what you know.” This is probably the one I personally have heard the most often and no matter how much I think I’m over it, it never fails to get on my nerves when I have to hear it again. What a boring world this would be if people only wrote about the things they had first-hand, practical experience with! Look, I get it. You should never use a word if you’re not sure of its meaning (unless the point is to make the character using it look like an ignorant ass) and you should always at least research the setting of your scene, especially if you’re using a real-world location, but don’t think that just because you live in Nome, Alaska, all of your characters have to live there, too. Hell, most of my books don’t even take place on Earth! A little imagination and a lot of research can take you anywhere.

“Tension is the most important element of any scene.” James Scott Bell once said that the best novels, the ones that stay with you all the way to the end—and beyond—have the threat of death hanging over every scene. He quickly went on to point out there are more kinds of death than the purely physical, and taken in that light, he had a point, however, too many times this is interpreted as a command to inject drama (and worse, melodrama) into each and every scene. You may think you’re writing an adrenaline-fueled roller coaster of a novel, but remember, roller coasters have ups and downs. Fear is vital to suspense, and danger is what makes your hero’s successes into triumphs, but never forget that tension is exhausting. I’ve spoken before about how humor can amplify horror, just by giving you that little giggle before the jumpscare. Well, it’s equally as important in romantic scenes. Giving the hero and heroine time to connect, to relax, to just be with each other gives them something to lose. Resist the temptation to remind the readers that these quiet times can’t last, what with the Big Evil closing in on them and certain death and all; letting the readers think of these things for themselves has ten times the emotional punch of just being told that it’s poignant.

“Don’t make the reader work too hard. Don’t use long sentences, big words, or specialized terminology. Keep it simple.” Here’s a simple sentence for you with small words: Bite me. I’m not writing a Baby’s First Pop-Up Book of Erotic Horror here.

They...They actually have those?

They…They actually have those?

My point is, I get that riddling your book with obscure, outdated words and phrases is distracting. Anything that breaks the reader out of the story, like stopping to consult a dictionary, should be avoided. You may think a broader vocabulary makes your writing more impressive, this line of reasoning goes, when it really just sounds pretentious and overworked. Ideally, the reader shouldn’t even notice how the words are put together, because they are so involved in the story. Well, I can see what those people are trying to say, and I even agree up to a point, but words are weapons in a writer’s hand and you don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. This rule-writer went on to specifically call out writers who use run-on sentences as…how did he put it?…as a substitute for tension. Well, as the great Curly Howard once said, I resemble that remark and I also kind of resent it. Let’s use something from one of my books as an example.

Here, according to the above rule-writer, is how I do it wrong: Ana had heard the expression ‘a chill went up his spine’ and thought she understood it, but it was not until that moment, when the icy point of that intangible scythe dug in at the small of her back and pulled itself up, unzipping her like a doll and exposing all her wiring to the dead air of this place that she really knew what a chilling thought was, because there was no fucking way he could have done that.

So, I guess this is how I’d do it right: Ana had heard the expression ‘a chill went up his spine’. She thought she understood it. It was not until that moment that she really knew what a chilling thought was. There was no fucking way he could have done that.

Now maybe it’s just because I wrote it, but I prefer the first version. It has that tumbling, chaotic feel that, yeah, I do think ratchets up the tension, Mr. Rule-Writer! Especially as opposed to the second version, which I find cold and distancing. That Spartan style of writing does have its place—I use it all the time, when I want to show my character detaching under pressure and not being swept up and carried off by it—but it can sure be over-used, and it looks just as wrong under those circumstances as when a writer over-uses a run-on sentence. And that brings us right to…

“The Chicago Manual of Style for Authors is your new bible.” No, it’s not. No. It’s. Not. See what I did there? That’s a major no-no, but I’ll bet you a million doughnuts, you heard a whole different tone, even though I used the same exact words. That being said, it is so easy to over-use. Like, just…so easy, guys. Every writer should own a book on grammar and punctuation. I don’t care if it’s the Chicago Manual or the Idiot’s Guide (my personal favorite as far as punctuation is Eats Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss), but you get that book, you read that book, and you re-read that book at least once a year, because backsliding is an insidious bitch and bad habits get harder to break the longer you let them grow comfortable.

“Every character should be sympathetic and relatable and have his or her own story.” This is an adaptation of the old acting adage about how there are no small roles, only small actors. For those of you unfamiliar with that saying, it was coined mainly to placate the actors with small roles so they’d shut the hell up and let the star take the stage. It works the same way in books. There are main characters and there are secondary characters, and tertiary and quad…quadrary?…quadru…There are levels of importance, is what I’m saying.

Let’s look at Back to the Future II. That very last scene (Uh, spoiler alert, I guess? You know what? No. No spoiler alert. It’s been 25 years and frankly, if you haven’t seen the complete BttF Trilogy, you deserve worse than a spoiling), when Marty is left stranded in the past after lightning strikes the Delorean and disappears before he can go back to the present, and that Western Union guy drives up and delivers the letter from Doc in 1885? Well, that courier may have been absolutely the most pivotal person in that scene, but he doesn’t need a name or a wife or a scar with an interesting story or a hobby or food allergies. He just needs to give Marty the damn letter and make a wisecrack about how long they’ve had it lying around the office. That’s it. That’s all you need to know about him.

Just as an exercise, make a list of all the characters in your own book in order of importance. Then rip it up and throw the pieces at your cat. Ha hahaha ha! Stupid cat. Now pick a scene at random and rank each character’s importance on a scale from one to ten. Now rip that up and throw it at the cat, too. The point of this exercise is not to do anything about that number, as much as it is just to make yourself think about the level of importance each character has in each and every scene.

Yeah. It's nice to know you had a good reason. Dick.

Yeah. It’s nice to know you had a good reason. Dick.

Be aware of your characters. Don’t let the extras upstage the talent. And before I move on to the next rule on the list, let me also take a moment to address the bit about making every character sympathetic and relatable, because those are two entirely different things. There is a seriously annoying trend in books and especially movies these days to make everyone, even the villain, a sympathetic one. When Maleficent came out, I wanted to hurl a battle axe through the screen at the Cursing scene. It was great that she had a tragic backstory and a reason for turning twisted and evil, but don’t you fucking dumb down that story by making her Briar Rose’s guardian angel all those years. That fairy straight up wanted to kill that child. She was hurt and it made her lash out and hurt others and that was what made her awesome and chilling and badass. You take that away from her and it doesn’t make her sympathetic, it just makes it impossible to take her seriously as a villain. She can still have her clarifying moment of redemption when she lets go of her vengeance and chooses to do good, but it only has an impact if you allow her to be evil in the first place.

“Never have more than ten named characters in a book.” And this is one of the reasons I decided to address the whole Rules of Writing thing, because so many of them directly contradict one another. So, okay, all of your characters are supposed to be multi-faceted and dynamic, with epic backstories, strengths and flaws and favorite colors, but not names?! No, sorry, can’t get behind this one at all. I don’t think that every character that appears in your book needs a name (see that Western Union guy from the previous entry), but I do think names should be used as necessary to improve readability and flow of the story. That means that if it is natural for a bit-character to introduce themselves, introduce them, even if you never see them again. “But won’t this confuse the reader by cluttering up their limited memory space with a lot of superfluous names?” you ask. No, I don’t think it will. I direct your attention to the movie Ghostbusters (the real one). You’ve all seen that seven thousand times, right? Quick, what was the name of the dean at the university where the team did research before they went into the private sector? Hey! I saw that! Give me the phone, Caroline. Give it to me. You’ve been warned. You’ll get it back at the end of the class. Ahem. Yes, he had a name and yes, you saw and/or heard it. You don’t remember it because it wasn’t important. And yet he was given one because him not having one would have been more jarring than just saying, Dean Yeager.

“Don’t care about your characters.” Honest to God, I heard this one at a writer’s convention, from a best-selling author to a roomful of budding authors. Now, I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and say that what she maybe meant was, you can’t care so much about your characters that you don’t want them to fail or get hurt or, you know, die. (It happens.)

I have also heard the so-called advice that, regardless of how wonderful and beautiful and amazing you think your book is, ten years from now, no one who read it will remember your characters or the plot beyond, if you were lucky, the broadest of broad strokes, so don’t waste your time and energy on building spun-sugar castles for people who were just looking to stuff their faces and move on to the next bowl of sweets. Seriously. Someone said that. And yes, you could rationalize it by saying that what she meant was, readers are, by and large, voracious in their appetites, and that while an author may only write a few books in their career, or even a few dozen, a reader will read hundreds, if not thousands, if not tens of thousands. I’ve read enough books to completely fill a U-Haul truck, literally, and I’m sure I don’t remember more than maybe 3% of them by title or author and not that many more by plot. So yeah, it makes sense, sort of, to advise people not to get so hung up on details that the book itself may never be finished, especially as odds are good, it’s not going to fall into that 3%.

Yeah, but no. You need to care about your characters. All of them. The good guys, the bad guys, all of them. You need to hurt for them, you need to hope for them, you need to sweat when they struggle and bleed when they get cut. You need to care, because if you don’t, why should your readers?

“Avoid flat, one-dimensional storytelling. Use symbolism to establish themes without resorting to narrative.” Okay, everybody wants their book to be deep and thought-provoking and stimulate endless coffee house debates on the significance of the rotting pumpkin, but there’s a limit, you know? Who hasn’t read ‘that’ book? The one where the author picks some heavy-handed theme—say, war is bad—and then crams a subtle reminder into each and every scene. There’s a field of poppies in Chapter One, a hawk eating a dove in Chapter Two, a branch breaking off an olive tree in Chapter Three…and pretty soon, you’re not even reading anymore, you’re just taking a mental shot every time you see a new metaphor. Do use symbolism, just dial it back. Believe me, you’d much rather have half your readers not get the significance of that pumpkin and still have something to discover on their next reading, then have all of them roll their eyes at it once and never touch your book again.

*sniff* It's just so...so beautiful.

*sniff* It’s just so…so beautiful.

Well, it looks like time’s up for this week’s lesson, so let me leave you with the only advice I’ve ever been given that I have always found to be helpful. My mother—a librarian, a reader, a writer and an all-around magnificent nerd—once said, “Learn the rules before you break them,” and if you take nothing else away from today’s lesson, take that. Any rule can be successfully broken, as long as you do it well, with precision and style, which you will never be able to do unless you make yourself familiar with them.

Writer’s Workshop Wednesday Is Coming

Okay, from reading the comments lately, I’m sensing that in my effort to express myself and be emphatic, my last post concerning Pool’s suspended status may have come across as angry. I need to be clear here. I’m not angry. I don’t blame my Romance readers or feel bullied by them. I made what I believe was a sound decision and if it was motivated mainly by the thought of losing readers and, by extension, future funds, well, that’s why I call writing my job and not my hobby.

Look, it’s like this: Say I owned an ice cream shop. There’s a lot of ice cream shops in the world, a lot of ice cream shops just in my city. Most of them are bigger than me and have the advantage of brand-recognition. I, of course, do not feel threatened by this, because I know I serve up my own flavors that the big ice cream shops in general do not supply. They serve vanilla, chocolate, strawberry…maybe a salted caramel cone once in a while, or a strawberry cheesecake ripple, or funky berry blend, but for the most part, their customers know what they’re going to get and the big shop delivers and that’s why they’re the biggest and best known.

That’s cool (get it? Ice cream), because I serve the flavors you don’t get anywhere else. I’m talking maple-bacon sundae, pumpkin and white chocolate chip, cinnamon and chili-pepper swirl, lingonberry and banana. And these are great flavors and most of my customers love them, but they are not for everyone. And this is a business and it has expenses like every other business, including but certainly not limited to putting something in my fridge at home besides ice cream, and that means that as much fun as I have blending up flavors and even trying them out on my family and friends, if the majority of my customers don’t like a certain flavor, I don’t put it out there. My honey-roasted mealworm ripple tastes amazing, but it’s not what most people expect, and if I can keep those customers merely by offering sweet corn and jalapeno instead, that’s what I’ll do. They’re still trying something outside their comfort zone, I’m still not serving up plain vanilla, everyone’s happy!

Mmmmm, mealworms.

Mmmmm, mealworms.

I hope that’s cleared that up, because I like a friendly atmosphere and I truly believe my readers are some of the most open-minded people in the world. They’d have to be, wouldn’t they?

So! Moving on to the real reason for today’s post!

I write books for a living, and because I write books for a living, I have a number of relatives, friends and casual acquaintances who keep their eyes open on the internet for any helpful advice aimed at people who want to write books for a living. In fact, because two of my sisters and my father write, and because we all live in the same household, hardly a day goes by that one of us doesn’t get a thought-provoking little something forwarded to us or posted to our timeline or physically placed in our reluctant hands.

A short time ago, my sister got two of these gems in one day—the first, a list of common mistakes new writers make, and the other a checklist of things an author should always try to do first before resorting to using a flashback. We discussed these lists for a good hour, first with each other and then the other writing members of the family, and we reached one ultimate consensus: There is a lot of advice directed at new authors out there on that internet, but an unfair percentage of it is bollocks. Well-meaning bollocks, mostly, but some big old hairy dangling bollocks nonetheless.

God help me, I image-searched that. What was I thinking? Here is a kitten instead.

God help me, I image-searched that. What was I thinking? Here is a kitten instead.

At the same time, my own advice until now has also been a musky heap of jockstrap filler, well-intentioned as I am. I am still so astonished and tickled that people even read my books that I can’t even begin to wrap my head around telling people how to write them. And since I want to avoid giving the same stupid checklists of dos and don’ts, up until now, my advice has consisted mainly of stuff like finding your voice, learning the craft and not expecting to get famous overnight. I’m sure most of you recognize that as being simultaneously great advice and also completely useless.

Recently, I was once again asked about my own creative process and what advice I would give to new writers, and it got me thinking about my answer in a whole new way. Not necessarily about what advice I’d give, but more about why I wouldn’t give the advice that’s already out there. And because I am trying, like, so hard to blog more regularly, I have decided to blow this simple subject out into an eight-week symposium I shall call “R. Lee Smith’s Simple Eight-Week Symposium on the Art of Storytelling,” subtitled, “WAT R WERDS?”

I hope you all brought your textbook.

Note that even the book about how I write a book is easily 100 pages long.

Only $89.99 at the University Bookstore!

I will be posting lessons every Wednesday or, as it shall henceforth be known, Writer’s Workshop Wednesday, beginning with Lesson One: Rules for Beginning Writers (and why you should break them). Hope to see you all there!

About the Author

So I asked my father for a few words to help close out this feature I’ve been running on his book (sing it with me if you know the words!), The Children of Omm: The Unmaking of the Worm.

“About what?” he asked.

“Anything,” I replied. “Talk about the book. Talk about you. Talk about you writing the book. Talk about burritos for all I care. Just talk.”

“Burritos,” he mused, wandering off in the direction of his room and leaving me with a cold chill running up my spine as I realized I might very well be ending this month-long sneak peek with a thesis on Tex-Mex cuisine. To my relief, my father delivered a few thoughts about world-building and the craft of writing.

***

The first foundations of any yarn spinner are laid by a careful observation of the human condition. Just as you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, it is impossible to craft an entire world, let alone dozens of individual characters, and have them knock about together in breathtaking and creatively unpredictable ways without some understanding of how things and people work together, and there is no more inexhaustible fount of inspiration than those we rub shoulders with every day.

Serious people-watching, however, requires that we cast out all personal expectations of how people should work before beginning and focus instead on how, in fact, we actually struggle to function in daily life. Unraveling the motivations of those around us—without prejudgment (something that is fatal to genuine understanding) and without appearing to examine them under a dissecting microscope—is both endlessly diverting and highly instructive, and invaluable to world building and character development. Having spent a goodly number of years in this activity, I find that throwing characters (whose personalities and background only I as the author know perfectly) together in a world of my own creation to be hugely entertaining. But there is far more than entertainment value in literature.

Once a very long time ago I took a class in French literature at the University of Washington. To introduce the coursework to the students, the teacher asked each of us in turn why we read works of fiction and then listened without comment as each of us tried to divine what it was our instructor wanted to hear. It seemed to me as I listened to a fair amount of intellectual drivel that most of the class had missed the point. Seventy, or even eighty or ninety years, is too short a period of time to experience all that life has to offer, I said. By engaging in the worlds a skillful writer of fiction offers those who read, we may expand our horizons far beyond the confines personal experience imposes in the brief time allotted us. The teacher agreed with me. I aced the class.

You want to shed your limitations? Read!

 

reading

This message brought to you by the power of imagination.

 

From the time I was dandled on my father’s knee, I knew what I wanted to do: I was going to marry my mother (I didn’t) and grow up to be just like my father (I had rather more success there). On my way to the present, my dreams changed, as dreams will, but a few things remained constant: I would graduate from college, get a good job, marry a wonderful woman and we would raise a passel of happy kids.

In the 60’s it was still possible to put yourself through college by working summers and part time, and that’s what I did. Time passed, and before I knew it, the order was reversed—I was working full time and attending the University of Washington part time. Still, I refused to mortgage my future with student debt, and so a simple Bachelor’s degree took us ten years. In the meantime, I found and married the woman of my dreams, Kathryn, a librarian just finishing her degree, and we settled down to gathering children about us (some came in the usual way, but we did not turn up our noses at the cast-offs from others’ failed families, taking in disabled foster children and adopting several).

By the time our firstborn was 18 months old, Kathryn had noticed a book which listed children’s stories too good to be missed and we had started reading to the kids every night before bedtime. That time became sacred to us both and inviolate by any. By the time our kids reached kindergarten, they could all read, and did so voraciously. They were writing before they left their teens. And now, last of all, I have found writing. It feels like coming home.

PS: Do you want to give your children a leg up in life? Read to them—endlessly.

***

 

Here’s That Announcement I Promised

Thanks so much to all my readers and blog-followers for your support and encouragement during last month’s Author Spotlight as my dad premiered his first novel. It means a lot to me. He is hard at work on the third novel and the second should be coming out this summer, once edits/blurb/cover crap is dealt with. Now, as promised, I have an announcement concerning my own plans for publication this year, which I think I can sum up by saying there’s good news and bad news. And because I’m a ‘rip the band-aid off fast and then kiss it better’ kind of person, I’ll start with the bad news first.

catastrophe

Relax. It’s not that bad.

 

Some of you have been asking where Pool is. (*cue ominous music*) The short answer is, on my computer. The slightly longer answer is, where it’s likely to stay.

 

Look, here’s the thing. I don’t read reviews. And the reason I don’t read reviews is because sometimes people–nice people, well-meaning people, people who love children and dogs and are not in the least slavering trolls hiding under bridges and grinding authors’ bones to make their bread–say hurtful things about the books that I have worked very hard on. And yeah, I know, all right? I know that anytime you throw something out in the public forum, you invite people to make their opinions publicly known. And I’m fine with that! I am! They can say whatever they want, positive OR negative, but I reserve the right not to have to hear about it, because while that pile of reviews is mostly flowers and only a teensy bit shit (and in many cases, well-deserved shit at that), and intellectually I understand that I need to gather up the flowers and let the shit slide off, emotionally, I will be smelling that shit for years.  So I don’t read reviews, because I have found that the easiest way of dealing with shit is not to jump in the fucking pile and roll around in it.

I really ran with that metaphor, didn’t I? Moving on.

So after Land of the Beautiful Dead came out, I was unavoidably exposed to some reviews. And the vast majority were overwhelmingly positive! But. Even in the midst of these otherwise glowing piles of flowery praise, lurked a whiff of criticism I have oft heard before, which I will paraphrase here as along the lines of, “I almost didn’t get this book because the author doesn’t always deliver a Happily Ever After.”

And I get it. I do. Because I don’t. And the reason I don’t is because I don’t write Romances.

I don’t write Romances. I don’t read Romances.  I don’t understand Romances. I write Horror/Sci-Fi/Fantasy that occasionally crossover into Erotica, but I don’t write Romances, and here’s the thing: The Happily Ever After in a Horror genre, or Sci-Fi or Fantasy or even Erotica, is NOTHING LIKE the Happily Ever After of a Romance. So these readers who have this complaint are 100% correct and 100% entitled to feel/voice their dissatisfaction, and especially 100% right to warn others that my books may not deliver a “good” ending. I would much rather lose potential readers who I know would not be happy reading my books than have them buy it, read it, and hate it.

Those readers are going to hate Pool.

Pool is not a Romance.

Pool does not have a Romance-genre Happily Ever After.

Pool doesn’t even have a “good” Horror-genre ending.

Pool is a B-Movie creature-feature all the fucking way, and I love it, and I will not put my baby book in a brand-new pair of sneakers and pack it a lunch and write its name on a flower-shaped nametag that I pin to its brand-new jacket and wave goodbye as it gets on the big-book bus KNOWING GODDAMN WELL it’s coming home in tears.

cryingchildfnaf

Like this, only even more sad.

I’m not a Romance writer, is I guess what you should take away from all this, and more importantly, I am not willing to become a Romance writer just to sell books. I’m just going to do what I do and let the readers do what they do, and eventually, we’ll sort ourselves out, but eventually is a long way off and my career is still very young. I’m lucky to be able to do this writing-gig for a living, especially considering how long I’ve been doing it, but that could change if I alienate my fanbase this early in the game. So, no, I’m not going to shoehorn a romantic plotline into a B-Horror book, but I’m also not going to put out a book I know the vast majority of readers are just going to hate.

So, yeah. I may change my mind in the future, but as of this moment, I have no plans to publish Pool.

This naturally raises the issue of just what is next on my short-list of projects. Well, I have a number of cards tacked up on the ol’ Write This board, but I think what I’m really going to do is take a year off and think about things. You see, two years ago, I was working on Pool when my sister walked up to me and said, “We’re going to the RT Convention in New Orleans,” and I said, “New Orleans? Awesome!” and then I said, “What does RT stand for?” and she said, “Romantic Times,” and I said, “I’m not a romance writer,” and she said, “Pack your alligator hat, we’re going,” and so as I was packing my alligator hat, she came back and said, “Oh, and I’m going to have space on one of the freebie tables, so I want you to write a 20k word novella we can put on it,” and I said, “I can’t write a grocery list less than twenty thousand words,” and she said, “Just do it and make it romantic,” so I went grumbling over to my computer and stared at it, thinking, ‘What’s romantic? Hmmm. Romantic, romantic, romantic…and short. Short and romantic. Oh! Zombies!’ and started work on what was to become Land of the Beautiful Dead (which turned out to be more than TEN TIMES the wordcount I was ordered to produce, but that’s okay because we didn’t get space on the freebie table after all).

I told you that story to tell you this one: Land of the Beautiful Dead was tough to write. This is in part because I wasn’t planning to write it. Most of my books percolate around in the back of my head for a long time before I start typing it into life, and with the exception of Cottonwood, I never start writing until I know how it begins and how it ends. I went into LotBD cold and blind and it was an uphill struggle the whole way. But it was also difficult to write because, seriously, the zombie apocalypse made for a bleak, depressing world and that was the world I had to inhabit for the nearly two years it took to write. I was having a resurgence of health issues at the same time, so I always felt scummy and tired, and I’m sure that added its own flavor to the finished soup, and the ending was…let’s just say non-traditional. Especially for a Romance, which, let’s be honest here, IS what I was attempting to write with that one. Seriously. Land of the Beautiful Dead is what I consider a Romance. This is why I don’t write them, folks.

Sexy.

The romantic possibilities are endless…like the hordes of ravening undead.

 

Because I was having a hard time at ‘work’, after I got done with my daily quota of LotBD writing, I would unwind with a little ‘me time’ in the form of fanfiction. I find fanfic relaxing, in the sense that I don’t have to build anything, just wind up my own toys and let them go in someone else’s world. Plus, since I can’t publish it, there’s no pressure to make it readable or likeable or profitable or anythingable. I can just write.

When I finished LotBD, I continued to noodle around on my fanfiction story, thinking that I would put it up when the new year started and get back to work on Pool. Then, as I said, the reviews for Beautiful Dead started appearing and people started sending them to me, and then I got sick again and as I was lying on my bed of pain, I began to think about the fact that I really am damned lucky I can do this for a living, and how that is by no means guaranteed to continue if I put out a book that straight-up spits in the eye of the successful romance formula, and yadda yadda yadda, you don’t need to hear this twice. Point is, since I didn’t have Pool to work on, I continued noodling around on my fanfiction, and eventually I reached the point where it stopped being scenes and notes and turned into a book.

At this point, I called my sister into the room and said, “I’m writing something I can’t sell. Tell me to stop.”

She said, “Change the names and sell the book.”

I laughed and laughed and laughed and said, “No. I get crap enough from people who think I already did that with Cottonwood. This book legit does not work outside of the source world. It doesn’t matter what I change, anybody who reads it is going to know what it is and where it came from. I cannot sell this book. Tell me to stop writing it.”

She said, “Do you want to stop?”

“Hell, no,” I said.

She said, “Write the book.”

I said, “If I write this book, I won’t have anything else to publish this year, and I can’t publish this book. If I write this book, this whole year might as well be a wash. If I write this book–”

She said, “Is it a good story?”

I said, “I think so.”

She said, “Do you want to tell it?”

I said, “Yes.”

She said, “If no one ever reads it, will you be sorry?”

I said, “I don’t care if no one reads it. I just said I can’t publish it.”

She said, “If you don’t tell it, will you be sorry?”

“Yes,” I said.

She said, “Write the book.”

shut up

 

So I’m writing the book. And as so often happens with me, once I started writing, I just couldn’t stop. The book is divided into five parts (it’s not a series, these aren’t stand-alone stories, just five parts of one novel, similar to the structure of Olivia), and each part is shaping up to be around 200 pages, so yeah, the end result will be easily 1000 pages long. Of fanfiction. Hey, it beats working.

Anyway, I finished the first part and am nearly done with the second, when my father asked when we were going to read it. We had just finished his beta-read-through of his second novel, you see, and he is really into this whole, how-writers-write thing. I explained that since I couldn’t publish it, I wasn’t planning on doing a beta-read. This confused him. He told me he failed to understand what one had to do with the other, and the more I tried to explain, the more I realized he was probably right. So, what the hell, I took the first part of the book downstairs, gathered my betas and my family, and we read it.

Honestly, this was possibly the best thing I could have done, because I not only got feedback from some of the people who knew the source material, but I got feedback from the people who had never heard of the source material. So my work was judged as fanfiction, but also as a standalone story. And the second thing I was asked afterwards was when it was going to be posted. (The first thing was, “You can’t end it there! What the hell?”) I explained, gently, that it was fanfiction and could not be published. It was explained to me, gently, that it could still be posted and made public, even if I couldn’t sell it.

For some reason, this option had not yet occurred to me, in spite of the fact that I read fanfic all the freaking time. All of which I have told you, just to tell you that there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is, I won’t be publishing Pool. The good news is, I will be posting Everything Is All Right after all. The bad news is, most of you probably won’t like it. The good news is, at least you won’t have to pay for it!

So what is Everything Is All Right based on? Well, I could just tell you, but I think it’d be more fun if you guessed. Here are some clues:

  1. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I absolutely despise fanfiction that is not based 100% in the world of the source material. So if it was Star Trek fanfict (hint: It’s not), my story would not make the crew  students at Enterprise High in the year 2016, where the plot of the book was mainly concerned with who was taking who to the Prom. That shit’s stupid. So if you go back and look at the snippets I’ve already posted, the source material absolutely would fit within those parameters, i.e., somewhere in the contemporary US of A.
  2. This is not a crossover. Apart from the Original Characters and other elements I bring to the pot directly from my imagination, everything within the book occurs wholly within the source material’s world.
  3. The source material is NOT a movie or TV show or comic book. Neither is it real-life celebrity fanfiction. I shouldn’t even have to say that. Writing smut about real-life celebrities is not fanfiction, it’s a stalker manifesto. The source material is very much a fictional setting with fictional characters.
  4. The source material is fairly recent, initially made public in summer of 2014, right about the time I was heading off to that fabled RT Convention in New Orleans. It achieved international acclaim and has produced a number of subsequent installments of source material and commercially-available merchandise. There is, in short, a damned good chance you’ve at least heard of it, even if you’re not yourself a fan.
  5. The characters of Ana and Rider, as mentioned in my previous posts, are Original Characters and have no connection to the source material whatsoever. In fact, I’m not sure there’s anything in those excerpts that tie in to the source. Neither is the image I used taken from the source material, although I consider it a clue.
  6. My fanfic references four locations from the source material, as well as fourteen characters, four of whom are main characters along with Ana, my OC. As previously mentioned, one of them is a musician. He plays the guitar. Music plays a small, yet important role in the source material as well.
  7. The source material is very much set in the Horror genre and I expound upon many of its original themes. In fact, this is the first time I have actually felt compelled to include a Trigger Warning, due to recurring themes of violence towards children.

Finally, while not a clue per se, I feel I ought to stop here and say that while the source material contained absolutely no sexy times, fanfic would not be fanfic without inappropriate mash-ups and lemony goodness. And I will say right now the sex scenes I wrote for this book are easily the weirdest I’ve ever written or am ever likely to write.

It’ll be interesting to see what your guesses are. Because I kind of want the guessing to go wild, I won’t be answering comments this go-round, because I don’t want to put an end to it too quickly by saying if you’re wrong or right. I’m just going to give it some time, say a week or two, and then post the answer, along with maybe some more snippets.

I WILL NOT BE POSTING THE ENTIRE BOOK HERE ON THIS BLOG. I know, I know, it seems like the ideal place, except, holy cow, this stuff is dark and I was not kidding about the trigger warning. Those of my followers who do not want to be subjected to it should not have to unfollow me to avoid it. So! My plan is to start posting on Fanfiction.net (and maybe some other places, if I can find a solid fanbase) by the end of the month, releasing one chapter each week. As each chapter goes up, I will make an announcement here, including a less-triggery excerpt and a link, and anyone who wants to can hop on over to Fanfiction.net to check it out. As I say, the book is divided into five parts. The first part is completely written and ready to post; the second part is about 80% written; the third part is maybe 40%; the fourth part is maybe 25%; and I got nothing of the last part except the ending right now.

 

Wow, this was a long post! But I hope it has answered some questions and I look forward to reading the comments!

The Unmaking of the Worm Actually Concludes, For Real This Time, I’m Serious

I was only going to use the first chapter of my father’s book, The Children of Omm: The Unmaking of the Worm, when I ran this sneak peek, because I’m one of those who believes a little nibble is more enticing than a full feast, which is why I don’t run a lot of sneak peeks of my own Works in Progress (also because I hate blogging, but whatevs). However, I’m also a big believer in letting the work speak for itself and I cannot do my father’s Voice justice unless you also get a peek at the second chapter, in which the reader actually meets the future heroes: Chemnat and Colnor, the two princes whose quest to reclaim their kingdom from the Worm’s coils is kinda sorta the whole point of the first book. Not the series, I feel I ought to add; the series spans whole lifetimes of Men and Elves (and Dwarves? I think there are Dwarves in the third book). The Unmaking of the Worm is Natty and Nori’s tale; the Curse of Cancr belongs to Delany and Matian, and I don’t know yet whose story is spun out in the third installment, only that it won’t be either of those that came before.

All of this is my way of saying that, although the differences in writing style are apparent in each of the previous three sections, Introduction, Prologue and Chapter One, the other parts of the book featuring the heroes as young boys is even more different, and I’d like to show it off. So here is Chapter Two, in its entirety. Yes, you read that right. Unlike a certain author whose name I resemble, my father is the very source of brevity when need be and if a chapter is only five pages long, so be it.

dadsbook

CHAPTER TWO: The Cottage

The boys awoke amid a pile of pillows and blankets, each in the bottom of a basket that bumped and jostled at the sides of the donkey, Djolli, trotting along after Cable. However, this exciting discovery only held their attention for bare minutes—just until they decided that they were hungry. Cable set them down next to a spring that bubbled merrily out of the ground. He pointed out that there were no fancy toilet facilities there and sent them to a nearby clump of bushes. Then he told them to wash in the spring. This was accompanied by much splashing and giggling, and when they were done, the boys were more wet than dry and huddled shivering in woolen cloaks, wide-eyed and looking around them at the forest.

Breakfast was a much-wrinkled brown apple and spice cakes. “Enjoy them, dears,” Hannah told them. “There won’t be any more for a while, I’m afraid.”

“Why?” Chemnat asked. He was four, and ‘Why?’ was his favorite question.

“Because,” Colnor replied authoritatively. He was five and knew everything. (This is my favorite line in the whole book–RLee Smith) But furrows soon appeared in his forehead. ”Yeah, why, Momma Hannah?” he asked in turn.

“Because we are off on a camping trip,” Hanna answered calmly, “and we get to eat camping food.”

The boys continued to look puzzled, so Cable explained, “You’ll find that it’s great stuff. He smiled conspiratorially. “We get to eat what we catch, and cook over a campfire and other neat things.”

“There will be no campfires for a while, though.” Hannah cautioned. “We will be eating cold for a week or so.”

“Why?” Chemnat asked.

And so it went. The boys would not hear of getting back in the baskets and insisted on walking, but their short legs did not carry them far. Soon they were sitting, Chemnat on Djolli between the baskets and Colnor in the saddle on Pesky, the Pony.

“Why can’t I ride the pony?” Chemnat whined.

“Because I’m bigger, and bigger boys need to ride bigger horses,” Colnor explained matter-of-factly to his younger brother. But Chemnat wasn’t arguing very hard. Djolli seemed plenty big enough to him whose biggest ride to date had been the wooden rocking horse inhabiting a corner of their nursery.

Long before the boys awoke that morning, Hannah had led their company by a little-known pathway through the edge of the wood thick with brush and saplings into the deep woods by the light of a small candle lantern. Three of the sides had been covered with opaque material allowing only a narrow beam of light to go before them in order to prevent any watcher who might have been posted on the outer walls to note their entry into the forest. Daylight had brought them into tall trees with very little undergrowth interspersed with streams and wide, grassy meadows. They rested at one of these in the afternoon and ate something dry and tasteless as dust, which Momma Hannah called travel bread and which was a far cry from the sugar cookies they were more accustomed to, with a morsel of hard, nutty-tasting cheese and a handful of raisins to complete the meal. Soon they were once again on the move.

When they finally stopped, it was after nightfall at a rather rustic hunter’s camp composed of four mud-chinked log walls covered with thatch with an open space where a door would have gone if there had been one. A small fire pit inside and just enough floor space for a few bedrolls completed the available comforts. Through the door, moonlight glimmered on the surface of a wide beaver pond, in the center of which a large pile of mud and logs indicated the presence of the beaver family lodge.

The boys, who had alternately ridden, walked or slept the day away in their baskets, were anxious to explore. Since the walls of their shelter mostly hid the fire pit from prying eyes, Cable soon set about building a small fire. Momma Hannah rummaged about in the various packs for fixings to make their stay as pleasant as possible under the circumstances, all the while trying to impress them with a stern description of the wild and ferocious creatures that had once inhabited the fearsome woods and glades of the Fang ‘n Claw Forest. Her purpose, of course, had been to keep her charges from wandering away from the camp and it succeeded wonderfully.

A long arm of the Fang ‘n Claw (which began practically at the back door of the Columns Keep Castle) blanketed a line of rolling hills stretching north and west three hundred miles as the crow flies to Spring Hills where it joined the old forest lying east of the foothills of Craigot’s Tor. But here the land began imperceptibly to rise, each hill higher than the last until deciduous forests heavy with maple, alder, elm and oak yielded way to majestic sequoia, cedar, fir and hemlock reaching high to the craggy peaks above. There, snow covered the rocky pinnacle of Craigot’s Tor and the solitary snow leopard hunted the careless mountain goat while the giant teratorn surveyed its kingdom from where it hovered effortlessly above them in the heavens.

Wolves and the occasional bear were known to hunt these woods far from the habitations of men—even badgers and a variety of forest cats—but fiercer creatures had once haunted these woods, and then, men had been the prey. Although few records spoke of those days and the things that lurked in those ancient and eldritch forests—and no such books had been available to the young princes in their nursery at Columns Keep—legends told of creations older than Humans who lingered long after their evil masters had fallen in mighty struggles lost out of time. But if Momma Hannah watered down her tales for the ears of four and five year old boys, their imaginations and the darkness of the night supplied many of the more gruesome details her accounts glossed over, and neither boy ventured beyond the lintels of the cabin for any reason whatever without keeping a careful hold of Cable’s hand.

 

***

 

The following morning they breakfasted on beaver, which Cable had caught in a snare laid down during the night. After Momma Hannah loaded the last of the packs on their animals, she knelt down in front of her charges, and said, her eyes twinkling, “Colnor is such a stuffy name, much too stuffy a name for a camping trip. What shall we call you?”

Colnor looked up at her with alarm. He’d never given any thought to his name. He didn’t know what made a name stuffy, or why stuffy was bad, but Momma Hannah always knew best, so he looked at her anxiously and waited.

“I know,” she said, brightening. ”We’ll call you Nori; that’s such a nifty name.”

Colnor laughed with relief, and promptly forgot all about ever having had another.

Chemnat was making little jumping motions and whining, “What about me? What about me?”

“Yes, Mum. What about him?” asked Cable mock seriously, surreptitiously removing a bit of mita leaf from his tongue. “Whatever can you do with a name like Chemnat?”

“Why,” she answered him smartly, “we shall call him Natty, and if he’s not very good, we shall call him Naughty Natty.” She wrinkled up the end of her nose and touched his with her finger. “But we shall never have to call him that because he’s always very, very good.” She stood up. “Now, up on Djolli. Or would you rather walk first?” she asked.

“Walk,” cried Nori.

“Ride,” shouted Nattty, running to the burro.

And so began the second day of their camping trip, following a rough track that ran through the trees. Before long, however, Natty began to squirm. “Are we there yet?” he called plaintively.

Nori looked down at Cable walking beside Djolli and nodded his head vigorously in agreement.

Cable lifted one and then the other down. “That is not the way of grand adventures,” he told them expansively, as they rushed to the base of a nearby tree and began to pee. “Each day there are new things to see, squirrels to count, the sounds of the forest to learn and identify. Each night there is a camp to make and a story to tell. And the following day, it begins again.”

Natty returned and lifted his arms to Cable to be picked up. ”Besides,” Cable added, bending down to lift Nori onto Pesky’s back. “Where would you rather be?”

To this, neither boy had a ready answer.

“There, you see?” Hannah said. “All is just as it should be.”

And so the day continued, Cable pointing out the various small animals that stopped their work to chitter, chirp or whistle at the intruders into their daily occupations and telling them the stories he had heard at his mother’s knee. Hannah, of course, interrupted periodically with small embellishments or details he had forgotten. And so the days began to run together in one continuous and always pleasant now.

At first, Momma Hannah led them furtively, seeking to travel by terrain which would leave little for anyone to follow, with Cable frequently searching the back trail for signs of pursuit, but there was none. By the end of the second week, their bodies hardened to the rigors of the trail and the routines of camp life, the princes grew stronger and even Hannah could walk all day without tiring. They traveled more openly now, joining animal trails that took them westward through the forest bordering a southern tributary of the Gray River. The land continued its gradual rising, but though there were frequent showers, the weather was growing milder and green had come to be the dominant color. By the beginning of June, evergreen needles joined with the broadleaves on the forest floor and from the west, mountains could be seen to approach them whenever they crossed open meadowlands. Streams and rivers, meandering and calm in the lowlands, began to rush headlong and white down along the bottoms of the steeper valleys of the foothills.

Rough tracks and pathways that crossed their path from time to time gave indication of the sporadic presence of people and they caught occasional glimpses of villages through the trees, but still the group camped alone. As midsummer’s eve approached, it became plain even to the boys that they were approaching someplace well known to Momma Hannah. She began to name the streams and massive boulders they passed. Each individual peak that came into view as they ascended the valley floor she called by name, telling stories of the people who had once lived and died there.

By now their trail led them north, completely around the base of an unusually large mountain peak and up a steep meadow until, mounting a low saddle, they looked out east into the shadow of the mountains over a broad expanse of open, rolling hills where no forest grew, east and north as far as the eye could see. Cable took the pack animals several hundred paces off the trail to a shepherd’s cot, now standing empty. There they made camp for the night.

Early next morning, Hannah led her charges, still rubbing sleep from their eyes, to where they could look eastward to the rising sun. Sunlight had transformed the somber evening vista with glorious light. Below them lay a patchwork of hills marked here and there with crofts, each boasting a well or stream, houses and an assortment of outbuildings. Well-tended garden plots and pens for sheep, goats, chickens and pigs were everywhere in evidence. Smoke rose in thin, gray ribbons to the sky, and in that hazy distance small black dots went about their morning chores as they had for untold generations.

“Now we are home,” Hannah told them. “Come, let us make breakfast quickly and be off to the Cottage.”

 

***

 

It must not be imagined that this announcement seemed in any way odd to the boys. At Columns Keep, they had known only the nursery and the orchard where Momma Hannah had ruled their world and overseen their play. Until they attained the age of six, when tutors and arms masters would be chosen for them and their studies organized to fill their every waking hour with lessons, training, exercises and mindless tedium, they had no part to play in the affairs of the kingdom. Their task was simply to survive childhood. The King and Queen were much involved in affairs of state and only rarely saw their offspring. They had each other for playmate until their tutors and others placed in authority over them would choose regular companions for them and their education proper began in earnest. And so, although the castle was no longer in evidence, their home was with Momma Hannah and nothing had really changed by moving their place of residence four hundred miles by foot from the valley bottoms at Gray Waters to the foothills below Craigot’s Tor. Spring Hills was quite the same as Columns Keep to them. In a short time, following Cable’s example, the boys discontinued the appellation Momma Hannah, and simply called their caregiver Momma and later Mum.

What Hannah called the Cottage was actually its own world, as were most of the crofts established in those foothills. Built on the outside entirely of stone and timbers and lined with rough wood paneling inside, the family home boasted a large main living area, the back half dedicated to food preparation with a table and a large cooking hearth. The front half contained many chairs and two wooden couches, which often found use as a seat for the many visitors they received during the day and to sleep the occasional overnight guest. At need, they might also serve as a hospice bed for some little boy incautious enough to admit to a fever or a sniffle where Mum might hover over his every need and Cable dose him from the vast pharmacopoeia he kept in his room.

Two very large rooms led off from this main room. One was reserved for Hannah and contained, besides a large bed, a loom and spinning wheel. Additionally there were numerous tables and shelves laden with all those terribly interesting things forbidden to the curiosity and grubby fingers of small boys. And books—there were books everywhere. The other room belonged to Cable and, if anything, was larger than his mother’s. It was equipped with a small fireplace with attached drying oven. Bunches of herbs hung from the ceiling. One wall held drawers ranging from very large to very small. Other walls held shelves lined with jars, boxes and vials filled with powders and liquids, the contents of which either tasted foul or made little boys sneeze. Books and rolls of parchment took up what space was not otherwise thus occupied. A large worktable occupied the middle of the floor under which Cable kept a cot that he pulled out at night to sleep on. A sleeping loft above the two bedrooms where odds and ends were stored and the boys slept, and a well-stocked pantry off the kitchen, completed the main house.

The outbuildings included a stone springhouse where water bubbled up out of the ground all year long with enclosed areas for heating water and washing clothes as well as a tub for bathing. A drying shed with plenty of racks out front to hold fruits and vegetables for summer drying, a smokehouse for the hams, sausages and cheeses they produced, a separate cottage for their irascible handyman, Gregor, and his wife, Silverhair, and their restless son, Mudge (who looked after the sheep, goats and their one cow, but who was spending more and more time looking after one of the girls down in the village) and a privy were scattered about a yard separated from the garden by a low, stone fence. A stable with hayloft provided for the beasts and a pasture hedged in with well-tended thorn bushes led off from the stable. The few things they could not produce they bartered for at a central village the locals called Sheep Haven.

Imperceptibly, Nori and Natty’s days began to include fetching wood and building fires in the hearth in the morning, preparing food for meals and washing dishes out at the spring house, some work in the garden and caring for the animals, but Momma and Cable made most of it feel like play and they didn’t mind. At night, Hannah would take down one of her books and read stories to them. She called it history, but it was just stories and they grew to love them. As they became more familiar with each tale, being read to turned into reading, an activity both boys enjoyed.

In time, they forgot about any other existence. Harvest time drifted into the short, cold days and long nights of winter. Spring saw lambing and shearing time with Mudge and a neighbor combining flocks in summer, switching every so ofter as shepherd on the high pastures for a bit of time at home. During the warm summer days Nori was privileged to accompany Mudge to the high pastures to watch the sheep and learn to master the use of his first sling. Natty, who was not deemed old enough to tend to the sheep, companied with Cable into the fields on his search for roots and herbs, or explored the many streams and rivulets that wound their way among the hills trying to master the ways of the wily trout.

The following spring Mudge and Gregor set about building another cottage where Mudge and Lilly married on midsummer’s day. Although they were welcome at the new cottage during building, doing small jobs and generally being underfoot, the boys were soon forced to learn about respect for others’ privacy once the newlyweds settled into their new home.

Over the ensuing years, the brothers settled into the rhythm of life in the shadow of Craigot’s Tor, working when work was called for and learning letters and ciphers when that was called for, with plenty of time to pursue private interests. Nori loved books, and spent as much time as he could lost in their many pages while Natty loved the outdoors and woodcraft, and would be forever gone exploring were it not for the time his Mum insisted he spend at his lessons. Cable, too, demanded their time, teaching them to understand the natural world, the use of maps, learning to navigate by the stars and the many medicinal properties of plants and minerals, and their preparation into tisanes, tinctures, poultices and salves at which Cable was particularly knowledgeable. Neighbors from near and far seemed to rely on his knowledge both for their own health complaints and for those of their animals, and he was always ready to prescribe a goodly number of these preparations both for their use as well as his own.

At the beginning of each summer Cable, made a pilgrimage to a valley in the foothills east of Craigot’s Tor. Sheltered as it was from the clouds laden with moisture traveling inland from the Sea West in late autumn, Camillia’s Valley remained free from the snow that filled the majority of the mountain valleys of the Dwarf Mountains during the winters. Moreover, thanks to the placement of Old Man’s Mountain at the north end of the valley and warmed by hot springs from the same thermal vents which fed Warm Lake higher in the mountains, the little valley’s mini-climate was rich with the plant life necessary to the apothecary’s art, among them the tea which was his mother’s favorite beverage.

But that was far from the only reason he returned there each year, for the eastern slope of Craigot’s Tor was also the home to a thriving population of mita bushes. Although Cable often praised their taste and fragrance, if you asked him directly about it, he would have admitted they were a most potent tonic also, and they grew there plenteously. That alone would have kept him returning year after year, but by great good fortune, the north end of Camillia’s Lake supported the only population of Soma flowers he knew of. And it was only by replacing mita leaf, which awoke him each morning and sustained him throughout the day, with the soporifics contained in the Soma blossom that he ingested at bedtime that he had found it possible to sleep at night.

Accordingly, when the boys were eleven and twelve and Hannah was expecting to midwife three new births in the nearby villages, Cable rounded up Pesky the Pony and Djolli the Burro, put together enough food to last them the two weeks he anticipated it would take to go and return with enough tea to see their Mum through until the next summer and keep him supplied with the medicinals he preferred, and they departed for this annual journey. By then, Nori and Natty were fairly competent to take care of themselves on such a trip, having accompanied their elder brother many times on his search for the herbals and medicinals with which he saw to the healing needs of the folks of Spring Hills and their animals. The journey passed without incident, at least until they got home.

Cable and the boys unloaded the animals at the drying shed and then Cable took Pesky and Djolli down to the barn. When their Mum came out to oversee the withering and steaming of the newly harvested leaves and to begin preparations for rolling and drying her favorite tea, Nori studiously avoided meeting his mother’s eyes while Natty stood grinning over his work. A surreptitious glance from Nori to his younger brother and then back to her, caused Hannah to examine her youngest more closely. That was when she noticed the unmistakably aromatic smell of mita leaf coming from his direction.

Without a word, she marched both boys up to the house, and ordered Natty to spit the wad of green fiber into the fire. Then she gathered up two loaves of freshly baked bread, a round of cheese and some dried cherries, placed them in a pack, which he gave to Natty along with his bedroll. She tossed Nori’s bedroll to him and told them to deliver the food to Mudge up with the sheep, and not to return before they found him. By the time Cable was headed up to the Cottage from the barn, the boys were headed up the trail to the high valleys and Hannah was waiting for him by the door.

Nothing was ever said to either of the boys about the incident, but, on their return, Cable mumbled something that might have been an apology to Nate for introducing him to the stimulant properties of mita leaf without a sound medical reason while Hannah stood disapprovingly by. The whole thing was eventually forgotten, or at least never spoken of again, although conversation around the Cottage was somewhat strained for the next few weeks.

In all, it was a good life. The seasons followed one another in turn and the boys got older and more responsible. But like all good things, it came too soon to an end.