Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
I would like to discuss buts. No, not those kind, and not because my kids are going through this phase where every villain from the books they read ends up being renamed to “Poo Poo Butts”. I would like to discuss the innocent conjunction “but”.
We all have our crutch words when we write. Whether they sneak in to our dialogues as borrowings from our own specific way of talking, or into our prose, which ends up cluttering it and acting as a distraction, these words are a natural occurrence for any writer. I’ve discussed how part of my editing process is aimed specifically at weeding out crutch words as much as possible by using word clouds. “Just” is one of mine, for example, and I found during editing that about 70% of the time the word doesn’t actually add anything in terms of meaning, and sentences read much cleaner without it.
“But” on the other hand, seems far less sinister. It’s a lowly conjunction. One would hardly go about trying to eradicate every mention of the word “and” in a story. So what kind of kooky mechanical advice in the same vein as “no adverbs ever under penalty of torture” is this?
I’m not advocating for the elimination of ‘but’ – it’s simply something I’ve noticed I use in my writing as a crutch, specifically for sentence construction. My recent bout of editing, from my novel, to my sci-fi serial to my short stories, made me a little too aware of using the simple addition of ‘but’ to put sentences together. Again, by itself, that’s not a problem. Anyone telling you to never use ‘but’ or to never end your sentence with a preposition are out to lunch, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have awareness of how you construct your complex sentences.
It’s like the classic advice about varying your sentence length. I know for me if I ever encounter three 10-13 word sentences in a row I know I’m in for at least ten minutes of trying to break these up into a more varied rhythm. Same with the use of ‘but’ to build sentences. In one particular short story I’d recently completely, I found three instances of the clause-but-clause sentence in a single paragraph that contained only four other sentences. There’s nothing glaring about writing out a sentence like that, but the human eye and brain is a keen pattern-finding machine, and repetition like this stands out. It feels unnatural, it feels lazy. Try saying three sentences like that in a row, and realize that they need to be spread further apart for that effect to dissipate.
Although it was a little jarring finding this tendency about myself, and adding yet another thing to the ever-growing editing checklist, it’s not entirely surprising why I lean in this particular direction. I find that one of the things I enjoy about my writing is creating contrasts and oxymorons. A lot of this can be found at the micro-level in sentences – a small twist in the direction it was taking, or else created specifically to highlight a juxtaposition. The conjunction ‘but’ is a natural fit for that kind of writing since by its own nature it is intended to create some kind of contrast.
So, with the reason out of the way, let’s not let it become an excuse. None of these contrasts or juxtapositions, as I put it, would land right if the reader was rolling their eyes at another lazily built sentence. So how do we go solving this problem?
The important caveat is again – there’s nothing wrong with using the word, all we’re looking for is breaking apart any clusters of them. The easiest way I found to do this is to search my work for any instance of the Word ‘but’. Newer versions of Word highlight the searched-for word in the entire work, which makes visually scanning pages for clusters really easy. I ignore pretty much every use of the word ‘but’ unless a see several highlights in close proximity. That’s when I stop my quick scrolling and try to figure out how to edit my way out of it.
Sometimes I’m tempted to replace ‘but’ with something similar, like ‘yet’ or ‘though’ and I’m fully aware that this is essentially cheating. So I use this technique sparingly and rather try to pick which of the sentences is the best candidate for revision and focus on that. Usually one, or at most two, sentences from the cluster actually need tweaking, so it’s not the most time-intensive aspect of my editing process.
The best part about editing like this, which is what I found in my campaign against “just”, is that this leaks into the writing process as well. I find myself less inclined to use “just” as I write, and I expect I’ll experiences the same thing with my sentence structure as well.
Sometimes it might not be the most comfortable thing to recognize faults in our writing, but without realizing them, accepting them, and tackling them, there’d be little room for us to grow as writers.
The internet can be a powerful and versatile tool in the arsenal of a writer. And I’m not just talking about Googling weirdly specific forensic questions that in the eyes of a law enforcement algorithm make one indistinguishable from a serial killer. The amount of research a writer can do from their comfort of their own living room is incredible, including visiting faraway places without ever having to leave the house. Or, in my case, revisiting long-shuttered corners of my memory in full colour.
One of the novels I’m currently working on is set in Moscow, and though that was the city of my childhood, I hadn’t been back there in almost twenty years. My main character shares a lot of the same places that I had grown up around, so you’d think it would be easy for me to replicate the setting.
Honestly, if I’d relied on memory alone, it would probably be passable. Any reader who’d never been to Moscow would certainly not know the difference, and even lifelong Muscovites, unless they specifically visited the neighbourhood I was describing, might not immediately notice that something was amiss. That is, won’t notice anything amiss with respect to the general locations and the broad stroke descriptions.
Once we dig down to the details we discover the little problem inherent in the passage of those twenty years. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the protagonist finds themselves uprooted from a life as an immigrant to Canada, and placed into an alternative universe existence where he never left Russia. A lot of the novel therefore revolves around the changes that had happened in Russia and Moscow since he moved, and the contrast to the expectations he had of his homeland after a long separation.
Memory alone would not permit me the experience to write this well. Short of going back to Russia for a tour myself, something that is presently not possible for me, all I’d have to rely on is hearsay. Not only would someone familiar with Moscow likely see through the inevitable missteps, but it would compromise one of the integral themes of my novel and would be a slap in the face of an ever-changing home city and country with which I share a complicated relationship.
So out came Google Maps. I touched on this process in an earlier post about the novel, but this time, I took a stroll through my own neighbourhood, taking intermittent moments to catch my breath while nostalgia and the slightest touch of what could probably be best described as homesickness gripped my chest. Following the path of my protagonist who traced my own childhood steps not only allowed me to remark on what has changed and what stayed the same, but also lent some more ephemeral elements to help with storytelling. A little old lady captured by the Google Street View camera would turn into a side character; a specific piece of graffiti would inspire an internal monologue in the protagonist. It almost felt like plagiarizing real life.
Each of my own observations could be downloaded into the protagonist, since he was essentially experiencing what I was – taking in familiar surroundings after a long separation. When it comes to the first draft, I’m pretty much throwing everything and the kitchen sink at it – every observation, every unlocked memory, gets tossed into the narrative. It’s probably too much at this point. As the novelty wears off and the novel eventually enters subsequent drafts, I’m sure a lot of these tangents would be pruned. In the end, I’m hoping the result is something close to an authentic experience that combines vague memories with refreshed visuals to create a picture of a city.
It’s sometimes easy to forget the kind of information available at our fingertips these days. This is an opportunity that just wasn’t available to our predecessors. To write even remotely believably about a place, the writer had to either absorb a multitude of first-hand accounts to paint their own picture or actually be present there physically. Now, for any major city around the world, a simple click of a button and we’re looking up at world-famous landmarks, sneaking around forgotten side streets, or cruising through the countryside. It’s a convenient and reliable way of providing support to a setting we may not have personally experienced.
A word of caution is that this is in no way a panacea. I’m not entirely convinced that this method of research would be sufficient for an entire work taking place in a setting that the author has never visited. Visuals go a long way but the feel of a place is harder to pin down through a computer screen. Not to mention the flow of life, its people and its culture. More serious research is required here, though I believe a reasonable product can be achieved here as well, made that much easier by all the other research tools that are brought to us by technology and the internet.
The need for proper research, and perhaps some self-reflection as to the advisability of the story/setting combination in the hands of the author, is heightened for certain settings, depending on their relationship to the author themselves. An ethnically WASPish North American author sitting from the comfort of their desk chair may be able to set their whole story in a rural Indian village or the streets of Caracas, but should they? A special sensitivity to place, culture and people is required here, and a reminder that technology is just that, technology, a tool, not the end all and be all of human experience.
So like any literal tool in a handyperson’s toolbox, tools should be used with caution and for their intended purpose, but I encourage playing around with dropping yourself into a setting you’ve never been before, and using that to grow your writing.
I got a bit of a nasty surprise this weekend. As I’ve mentioned in recent posts, my buffer of chapters for my science fiction web serial is growing and I’m gearing up to start releasing installments in the next couple of months. Since I feel like the project has taken on an unprecedent level of seriousness for me, I figured I’d do some additional due diligence before I truly commit. For years, I had been referring to the project as “Drops of the Black Sun”. I had vetted it earlier as the full phrase, and found no similarities, so I went ahead and reserved a domain name, and have been using the name consistently ever since conceiving of it.
This time around, I decided to scrutinize its constituent parts, so I googled “Black Sun” as a separate entity. What I found was that the Black Sun is the name of a crime syndicate in the Star Wars universe. A small issue, I figured. My “Black Sun” didn’t refer to an organization, and even though there’s significant overlap in genres, the crime syndicate formed a relatively minor part of the overall Star Wars lore. I concluded that this wouldn’t be a huge deal.
The other use of “Black Sun” is as a Nazi symbol that is widely associated with neo-fascists and neo-Nazis.
Cue me whispering several bewildered obscenities.
To say that this is a “problem” would be a colossal understatement. Whatever connection works for Star Wars – a crime syndicate being associated with some of the worst villains in human history seems at least somewhat appropriate – there was no way I was going to be associated with this. Not only would I not want the title of my work in any way related to such repugnant ideology, I also wouldn’t want my work to get a signal boost from those searching for the symbol, or vice versa.
I admit I probably should have done more vigorous research at the time I decided that this was the name I was going with, but I knew I had to correct this oversight immediately.
So I had signed up for a new domain name, and scoured my blog for any mention of the original name, replacing it with the shorter and crisper “The Bloodlet Sun”. This was a team effort between myself and my family over the weekend. Even the kids tried to help though their suggestions never made it into the final product.
So in case you’ve been following this blog, and suddenly have noticed this name change, that’s the story behind it. And if there’s any mentions of the original name that I missed somewhere on this site, please point it out to me so I can delete them as well.
As for the new name, I’m glad I got pushed into another brainstorming session, because I quite like it, even though it hasn’t had a chance to grow on me yet. It’s shorter in terms of number of words and number of syllables, and brevity does tend to serve catchy titles best. I retained the image of an ominous sun, though I admit I cheat there a little bit. To use “bloodlet” in the way I use it hear isn’t entirely grammatically “proper” but I like the unusual use and the imagery that it might invoke.
It also allows me to use the longer concept of the Drops of the Bloodset Sun to describe the actual objects in my world without clogging up the title of the work with unnecessary words.
So here’s a lesson to us all – do your due diligence. You never know what might be lurking out there that you simply aren’t aware of that would cause you to send the worst kind of wrong message. I’m just glad I caught it in time, and had a chance to right this mistake.
Last week I mentioned that I’ve been riding a wave of productivity over the last month. The result of this is perceptible progress on all my projects, including the completion of Chapter 2 of The Bloodlet Sun. The only reason I haven’t started posting again is because this time I want to build a bit of a buffer first (not that a buffer would save me from a similar year-long hiatus that I’ve experienced since concluding Chapter 1, but I’m trying to be a little optimistic here). I’m already in the process of editing Chapter 3, and have also almost finished writing the first draft of Chapter 4. I’m hoping to start posting DoBS at a fairly regular weekly schedule in a month or so.
The fascinating challenge I’m facing with Chapter 4 is character naming. A lot of characters get introduced here, and even though I’ve worked on some of them for years, their names have never been set in stone. And I’m finding out that names are a big deal.
Han Solo, Kosh, Daenerys Targaryen, examples from some of my favourite works of sci-fi/fantasy fiction are memorable, punchy and evocative. In the case of the former, can be short, and easy to pronounce, in the case of the latter, longer, and a bit more of a tongue-twister depending on how many drinks deep you are into trying to forget Season 8. A character’s name is a far bigger deal in fiction than it would be in real life. Nothing in the real world is stopping Bill Jones from being the best he can be, but fictional Bill Jones is not going to amount to anything more than being an accountant in a room of other non-descript throwaway accountants preventing Stalactite Sinclair from financing her coup against a brutal dictatorship. So I’ve taken my approach to names seriously, although if my brainstorming of the last few weeks is any indication, perhaps a little too seriously.
In a way, naming the alien characters is a whole lot easier – there are fewer constraints to work with. There’s the species’ or culture’s naming conventions and phonetic inventory to consider, while also keeping an eye out for acceptable syllable structure, but otherwise, the rules here are entirely in my head. Just don’t spit out something with five syllables, three-consonant strings and multiple apostrophes like Shr’ulia’akrgi, and you’re golden. I break, or come close to breaking, the first rule with Thorian naming conventions (as you’ll see more in Chapter 2), but generally I also subscribe to shorter is better. Just look at some of the examples from J. Micharel Straczynkski’s Babylon 5: Kosh, G’Kar, Vir. All three are single syllables that are both palatable to the English speaker, but that could sound alien nonetheless.
The lay of the land for human characters is entirely different. Maybe if I was working in a pure fantasy world, I can be as unconstrained as with my alien names, but I’ve created for myself a specific setting and I have to try to play by the rules of this setting. Without going into any spoilers and simply borrowing from the general description of DoBS – it takes place approximately two thousand years from now, about the same amount of time from a great planetary disaster.
Thinking back on how human society, culture and demographics have changed over the last two thousand years, without a great calamity on top of that, I realize my puny human brain can hardly comprehend that many years into the future. So any “realism” here would be purely aspirational. Not to mention that in my perceived future the Earth has become a far bigger melting pot than it is today, and suddenly using names that exist across our world right now doesn’t seem too appropriate.
At least my inspirational golden standard, Babylon 5, was set about two hundred and fifty years in the future, so names like John Sheridan and Susan Ivanova don’t seem that far out of place. Crank the time scale by a factor of 8 and add all the waves of human migration, and “John Sheridan” might not seem too out of place, but if everyone else’s name was similarly familiar, it would seem like a cop-out.
Granted, I think I could get away with giving those names – I doubt the readership would judge me too harshly for it, but it doesn’t feel right in my own head, and I need to be fully immersed in my own world if I am to bring it to life for someone else. So, let’s take a look at the parameters I set for myself in deciding how to formulate human names in DoBS:
So now that I laid the parameters out, comes the actual hard part. Even though I have those “rules” for my naming conventions, I still need the names to come out naturally. The character rises out of my imagination – they have a personality and a history and first and foremost they are people who are alive, you know, as much as a fictional character can be in my head. Applying some sort of rule-based or flowchart-based approach to their names is mechanical and artificial.
Not only that, but developing a diverse cast of characters based on what would essentially be a checkbox exercise, isn’t exactly progress, it’s lip service, and not at all how representation is supposed to work. I can hardly claim that my characters are people first when their identity came about out of their names, rather than the other way around.
While I don’t want my cast of characters to look like Game of Thrones, or, face it, most of Star Wars, I also don’t want to blunder into this thinking that I already know exactly what I’m doing. I’m terrified of making mistakes, but I’m more terrified of continuing to be part of the problem just for the reason that I don’t want to stick out my head. This preference to do this from the comfort of one’s own experience is what has allowed systemic problems to continue unabated for so long and let’s face it, the fact that I’m even in this position is already a sign of privilege.
So, perhaps the solution is to shut up and write it, and if I mess up, to shut up and right it.
I’ve been working from home for almost three months now, and though challenges remain, the emotional weight of the virus has gradually shifted. Some places are doing better than others and I’m happy that my country, and even my Province within my country, are doing reasonably well. That is not to say there’s any reason to let up, the fight is far from over, but there’s plenty of reasons for hope – that we can come together (with notable exceptions that need not be elaborated on) and make sacrifices to keep each other safe.
Now the world, or at least, more of the world than ever before, is starting to come together to bring the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront, hopefully to the point that it will enact long-lasting changes.
Exercising my own voice in my writing seems so small in comparison to the global events of this year. The voices that have been silenced and have historically not had a chance to speak are not my own and the stories I’m personally working aren’t the ones that need to be shouted from the rooftop right now.
As part of that, I think it’s also crucially important for white authors to read more works by people of colour and for male authors to read more works written by women. I’ve read some excellent literature last year that I would highly recommend, and will make more of a concerted effort to broaden my own experience in the future. I’ve been very interested in the works of N. K. Jemisin and have put her works on my short-term reading list.
With my own writing, I have been a busy beaver for these last few weeks.
I’ve slogged through the “saggy middle” of my novel, which I still think needs some rewriting, or else serious deleting, and have been going through subsequent chapters at a good pace. Hoping to incorporate some beta reader feedback in the next draft, but otherwise seeing a light at the end of this particular tunnel.
The novel that is currently partway through the first draft has also been gaining steam. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of opening up my original outline for it, which I haven’t referred to in more than a year, and now I’m questioning all the choices that led me to veer off the chosen path. As I’ve alluded to in my recent entry on pantsing versus plotting, I just have to trust the process.
The Bloodlet Sun has enjoyed steady progress as well. I’m currently building up a buffer of chapters, and dealing with some interesting problems when it comes to naming characters, which I will discuss in an upcoming post.
I’m writing a short story that I intend to submit to a publication by June 30. I’ve never been the best at deadline work when it comes to my creative writing, but the first draft is about three quarters finished and I’m optimistic I’ll make it. It’s a local publication themed to writing that was inspired during the COVID-19 pandemic, and draws a little bit on the magic realism themes that sometimes crop in my writing.
Speaking of short stories, there’s one I completed recently that draws on my experiences in Russia that I have the audacity to think I can submit for consideration to the New Yorker. There’s really nothing to the process yet somehow the very notion terrifies me and I haven’t been able to click ‘send’ yet. Hopefully that comes in the next week.
Seeing what I can do with my Russian inspirations, my wife recommended I try my hand at my own story – something about the relationship with my dad and how it influenced my identity and journey as an immigrant. I haven’t even cracked a thousand words with this, but already the level of introspection is a little uncomfortable. Lot’s of heavy shit to unpack.
Evidently, I’ve had a lot to say recently, and that goes hand-in-hand with questioning what I have to say as well, which is an active process that any writer in a position of privilege should not neglect. As you can imagine, the environment that gave rise to my Russian-inspired writing was not the most diverse place, the lack of which actually informs some of that writing. So exclusively “writing what I know”, particularly if focused on the first 13 years of my life, would result in my writing continuing to be part of the problem, which is another reason why I prefer to have multiple projects on the go and to challenge myself at every stage of the writing process.
I do hope that as I continue to pursue my passion for writing, I would be able to positively contribute in some way, and if I take any missteps, I fully intend to learn and be better.
On the scale of “plotters” versus “pantsers” – where plotters are those who rely on heavily outlining their stories before they proceed and pantsers are those that prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and see where the story takes them – I am confessed plotter. In fact, my tendency to plot (or is that overplot?) sometimes needlessly delays my projects because I want everything to fall neatly into place first. That is not to say I’m on the extreme end of the scale either. I don’t need to labour over every single plot point, and my short stories mostly get away with a mental roadmap to how it’s supposed to progress. But both the novels I’m working on have started as paragraph-long chapter outlines, and some works are in my version of “development hell” because I’m not comfortable with moving forward until more pieces have fallen into place.
Something needs to be said in favour of being a pantser though. Even with those novels that started as full outlines, both in the writing and editing stage there was significant divergence that perhaps could have been cultivated better with no outline. In fact, some of the newly “off the script” scenes have become some of my favourites, and at least one beta reader agrees with me. As another example, one of the short stories I’m currently finishing up was born as what I thought was a fully-baked idea, but some shower time musings have produced a twist on the ending that I then ended up weaving back through the entire story. Now I’m wondering what is even the point of that story without the new ending – that fully-baked idea seems at best half-baked.
All this makes me wonder if this propensity to outline is more useful or detrimental to my writing. Given the amount of time I spend in the editing phase reworking the plot, and adding and deleting major scenes, is the inordinate amount of time I spend on outlining those scenes in the first place a waste of time? Would I be better served if I just used that time to jump into the writing, let the story take care of itself, and then make the same investment in the editing process that I do now? All food for thought.
I don’t think I’ll ever be, nor do I want to be, a full-on pantser. I can’t just start writing only to discover that the story is going nowhere. It may take a different route, or change its intended destination along the way, but it can’t leave the house without knowing where it’s supposed to end up. I’ve heard of authors, well-established authors, who get a spark of an idea and then just set out to write a book. And then these authors, who’ve written plenty of books in the past, reach the approximate quarter-way mark, realize it’s going nowhere, and just dump the idea altogether. I mean, I get abandoning a project when you realize it’s not quite what you intended, but to have no intention at all and then drop it because it never formed, the thought makes me shudder.
Though the high-risk life of a full-time pantser is decidedly not for me, I’ve been slowly disavowing my overcommitment to plotting. Just last year I decided that if I go the full plotter route, the sci-fi story that had been forming in my head for over a decade would never see the light of day, and since I never intended to be exclusively a genre writer, I thought I’d start releasing here as a serial with a much thinner long-term outline than I’m usually comfortable with. I’m also loosening my restrictions as to how much I edit-as-I-go – prefer to fix plot-related changes in the editing stages instead of constantly rewriting the first draft.
Being able to relax about structure is already paying dividends in the sense that I feel like the writing is growing organically instead of being pushed into some kind of mold by me. It’s kind of weird to think about – I’m the writer, shouldn’t the story follow exactly what I say? I’ve been learning that it’s not exactly the case. If anything, it’s been a historic weakness of my writing – where I want my work to “say” something and I sacrifice quality for the message and come off being preachy. I’ve written a bit about this phenomenon in my post about writing dialogues.
Sometimes though, the story bucks against this original intention, or ends up arriving at the same intention but in more subtle ways.
Recently, I experienced this on a chapter-level as I set out to write Chapter 4 of The Bloodlet Sun. I had only the vaguest idea of what was “supposed” to happen in the chapter – something that could hardly fill a page of writing. But instead of overtly planning all the character movements and dialogues, I tried to imagine myself in the setting, digging deep into the POV character for that chapter. Then I tried to set him in motion, and observe. Some writers say that’s all they need for their writing process – just peek into the room and write down everything that happens. I don’t quite have their powers of being able to drift into alternate words, but it’s the closest I’ve come.
I still had to ask leading questions. What’s the character’s general perception of their situation? What’s their current mood? What’s their primary worry? What’s their short-term and long-term goals? Have they spent too long in this particular setting, so should they keep moving? And so on.
Sure, there’s was a little poking around in the dark involved and a few times the chapter stalled and I had to come away and do something else. But eventually, the chapter grew its own conflict – it told me what the character tensions would be instead of me deciding what the particular tension was going to be.
At the risk of a little hyperbole I have to say it was a weird and exhilarating feeling. Like watching your child take their first steps after you’ve been carrying them around for their entire life. Or better yet, having that child grab you by the hand and lead you somewhere.
I’ve gained a lot out of the experience. Not the least of which is a little bit of confidence that I can write myself out of a wet paper bag. Writing is an art, and by and large, art has no rules, and neither should artists themselves. If you catch yourself that you have certain rigid rules or habits as a writer, perhaps it’s time to push yourself out of your comfort zone a little, and you may find yourself better off for it.
Another month gone by of this madness and I wanted to check in on something else I’ve been seriously unmotivated about, so that I can let you know you’re not the only ones out there who aren’t quite feeling yourselves during quarantine (actually, it’s to make me feel better about all my productivity failures – if I’m being productive about not being productive, it kind of resolves part of the problem). I’ve been pretty much neglecting my publication efforts for the last two months.
If I’m being perfectly candid with myself, the lack of acceptances over the last two years probably has something to do with it. I often come on here to encourage folks to push through the wall of rejections and just keep trying in the face of adversity, but it wouldn’t be adversity if it didn’t have any adverse effects. Sure, I’ve had my share of “good” rejections including one that said my story was in the final fifty for consideration. These are the blinking lights at the end of the tunnel (or the flame that attracts the moth, whichever way you want to look at it), but overall since my last publication in Nashwaak Review in December 2018, things have been pretty grim. And the grimness does get to you.
Whether as a result of the lockdowns or because the academic came to a close, but I feel like editors have been very active since March, and in that time I’ve accumulated about two dozen short story rejections. Normally, these get processed into my big glorious spreadsheet of submissions, I make notations of when I can next submit to a journal, and makes plans for the next rounds of submissions. Currently, this stack is sitting neglected next to my desk, and I haven’t opened my spreadsheet in over a month.
This makes me a little bit sad. Despite the minuscule ratio of my works that have been accepted, I usually enjoy playing the game – organizing journals, figuring out which stories are appropriate for which ones, customizing cover letters, sending my babies off into the real world where they inevitably get smacked around a little bit. It helps that I’m also a chart fiend, as evidenced by my light bullet journal addiction, so updating this gives me a certain pleasure based on that alone. Plus there’s always the promise of success – the more I send out, the more chances there are of being published no matter how small. So when I don’t find joy in something I normally do, it leaves me with a troublesome feeling.
I apologize if I’m being a bit of a downer. If the previous trend has been any indication, the moment I complain about something here is pretty much when I turn it around and start doing it again. Despite my lamentations a couple of weeks ago, I’ve slowly been getting back into editing my work, which is a good sign for finally completing Chapter 2 of The Bloodlet Sun (it’s been over a year, I should be dead of embarrassment but it helps I have very little shame) and a couple of short stories that have been “almost complete” for quite some time.
So too I think in the next week or so I’ll rip off that Band-Aid, update my chart, and start planning out my next flurry of submissions. I guess, in a time where we have to tell ourselves ‘no’ so much for the greater good, it’s hard to keep hearing ‘no’ from an additional source, particularly when it chips away at one of the core parts of your identity. Sure, each rejection is like a mosquito bite, but as someone who once went to a beach in Cuba after nightfall, I know that a having a few dozen simultaneous mosquito bites is a whole different ball game.
I guess what I’m trying to convey is that to be a writer, you need to have thick skin. But having thick skin doesn’t mean it’s impenetrable. Some things will get you down more than others, and right now I’m in my down. I know the next ‘up’ is right around the corner, and if you’re in a down, I hope you find yours too.
If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught me anything is that my job has limited public utility in a time of crisis. Don’t get me wrong, I’m plenty busy doing my small part along with thousands of colleagues in helping the largest university in the Province function during these difficult times, but this is background work, like floating cloud #4 in a grade school production. The real difference-makers at this point are healthcare professional, grocery store workers, delivery people, teachers, and many others I have surely missed.
But while I certainly can’t use my lawyering to make the world a brighter place, I was hoping I could at least do something with my writing. I had mentioned in my previous post that art is important to provide hope in troubled times, and while my own contribution to the literary art has been paltry so far, I found something in my completed works that I thought I would share. “Nightfalls” is one of my older stories and I was very fortunate to have it published in The Nashwaak Review last year. So here it follows in its entirety – an earlier rumination on the perseverance of hope in a dark world. I hope you enjoy it.
It was a cold and windy August evening on the West Coast. Beach goers that looked forward to a nice walk in shorts and sandals were bundled up in autumn jackets desperately hiding their necks behind their collars. The circle of the sun had already dipped into the sea, and slowly melted into the water. The sunset licked the sky with beautiful scarlet tongues and many had stopped to take pictures or to simply hold hands and enjoy the solar descent.
Jonas sat on a park bench and read a book, occasionally glancing up at the mountains that were bathed in an increasingly brilliant pink light. To his right there was a stream that ran under a stone bridge and into a pond. A duck had waddled from the stream up to his feet and quacked a few times to get his attention. Jonas peered over the pages of the book and the bird turned its head sideways and waited. Having nothing to pacify the duck with, he reluctantly returned to his novel. The duck continued to stare quizzically, but eventually gave up and clumsily made its way to the next bench.
It was then, in the middle of a sentence, when he turned his head to the west. He didn’t hear anything; no one had heard anything, but no matter what they were doing, they all jerked their heads to the spot where the bloody orange disc of the sun disappeared beyond the horizon. A cold summer evening had turned much colder.
Bored and without a light by which to read, Jonas got up from the bench, scaring the duck back into the water. A chill had made him shiver. This chill didn’t come from the wind that had snuck its way under his jacket, rather, it had come from within, and spread to the tips of his fingers. He felt an overwhelming presence, as if something was bearing down upon him from the heavens, threatening to make him one with the dirt. He looked up and joined the crowd in standing mesmerized with their noses pointed upwards. A river of black birds had bisected the sky, with every creature heading out where the sky met the sea. All had strained to watch the ominous procession until their necks were sore, as black spot after black spot made its pilgrimage west. No one could say where the river had begun, for it still flowed by the time it was dark, and the birds had dissolved into the black of the night. Jonas walked home stepping through puddles, though it hadn’t rained since the Tuesday of the previous week.
Few slept well that night. Most had tossed and turned and stared at their ceilings, making revisions of various livestock in their heads. Some stayed up to read by the light of a desk lamp, while others simply stayed on their porches, and waited for the sun to come up. And they had waited and waited, but the sunrise wouldn’t come.
Jonas found himself sitting up in bed at three in the morning, without a moment’s rest behind him but with no intention of going back to sleep. He thought he could still hear it – the river as it passed over the city, and the many coarse cries of the birds overhead. The sound was lost somewhere in the wind and it got louder every time he closed his eyes. He went to get a drink of water, and then returned to his bed, where he lay on his back and waited with the others.
The first cries of sorrow had quickly turned into a chorus. As the truth took over, one by one the voices realized that they had been robbed. As the morning slowly turned into the afternoon, there were few who could not face it – the sun had refused to return. Jonas went out into the street, hoping that the darkness was merely a figment of his apartment’s imagination. There, underneath the sub-orange glow of a queue of street lamps, lost and confused souls wandered without a purpose. They all shuffled east in an involuntary daze, searching for the love that stood them up. Jonas watched their faces, pale with fear, the eyes glazed over, and he was drawn to join them. But he held back, retreating into the shadows of the building, shutting the door to his room and praying that this cosmic prank would soon end.
Come next morning, the word ‘morning’ had become obsolete. The night had taken over. It proclaimed the earth as its domain and it had begun to seep into every corner and every heart. It transformed everything it touched and it drew the hope out of every victim. There were stories being passed down about how one felt the cold fingers of the night reach deep inside them, and pull out a thin thread and while it pulled you felt cold and empty, and once it was gone you felt fine but different. No one could really say what was changed except they all knew that they lost something and would never get it back. It was swallowed by the night and they needed daylight to find it, and that is when the final traces of hope had begun to wash from humanity.
Yet, few had resolved to live in a world where time was banished to clocks and watches. No one was willing to make a graveyard out of a planet that was united by a single time of day. And so humanity had come together to wretch the day away from the night. They needed to create a new morning, and a new sense of life amidst death. And thus the night had shattered and split in two. The true night became a time when the lights would all go out. Inside and outside, the surface of the Earth would be consumed by shadow, an invented darkness made so that the day could still hold meaning. Only the moon that drifted overhead and the immortal stars pierced the night.
Day was the hum of the television sets and the glow of chandeliers. It was seeing people outside walking their dogs under the street lamps and talking loudly under the neon signs of corner stores. Smiles crept back onto the faces of pedestrians that Jonas passed on his way home. Once more he occasioned to hear laughter, and a little spark of joy invaded his heart.
Yet the merciless night would not cease its onslaught.
It was an evening, sometime in the month of September when all had already retired to their homes and sipped tea by the candlelight and talked about the days filled with sunshine. Like a jug of icy water drained down their shirts they felt something cascade down their spines that made them all jump up and run to look outside. United by a new horror, they all stood by their windows, and watched the skies with tears in their eyes. On the night of a new moon, when the stars were the only sign that the planet had not fallen out of existence and was still drifting through the universe, those little specs of light were extinguished. Like a shower of sparkles at the end of the fireworks they sizzled and died, and everyone knew that they would soon forget what the moon looked like. The night had consumed the world in an impenetrable cloak of darkness, and they were all left to shiver in a blind panic that fell on them every day.
Once again the Earth drifted through space as a dim sphere, as if mankind never invaded it, never decorated its surface with its inventions. In the pitch black of the night, when even if you strained your eyes you couldn’t make out the contours of your own hand, it was hard to imagine that you weren’t the last person left alive. Lovers touched fingertips in the dark, reminding each other that they were not alone. It was a world without a fifth sense; blind and scared. All would fall silent once the lights would go out. Motionless and tense, in the hours when sight was obsolete, they longed to hear the planet breathing, the world still existing, the night not yet delivering its coup de grace.
One evening, when the world was preparing for another night, Jonas couldn’t find a place for himself in his own home. Restless, as if constantly prodded by a thousand little needless, he went outside when everyone else flooded indoors. He walked along emptying streets, peering into the alleyways where the creatures of the night were already stirring into wakefulness. Those people he had passed eyed him suspiciously and he responded by pursing his lips into a feeble specter of a smile. Aimless yet determined, he pushed through the streets against a current he could not see.
Almost an hour later, only minutes before the dawn of a new night, he found himself on a highway. Once, it had bustled with cars racing up and down its six lanes. Now, he sat on the median, his legs dangling off the concrete divider as he slowly scanned in each direction, seeing nothing but the shimmer of downtown in the distance. Across the road from him, beyond the concrete fence that was scratched up by speeding cars, there was a forest. The trees had barely stood out against the sky, but he could still see them sway, and hear the wind that was caught in their leaves. It was a howling sound that was the siren song of nature, drawing people in, and never letting them out.
They’d already begun to forget the sight of an endless ocean sparkling in the sunlight, and the blue sky that stretched for miles. Forests were gaping black traps that threatened to consume anyone who dared to try to find their way through. Nature had shut its gates and people were reduced to wandering a world of grey concrete and tinted glass, all illuminated by the barren glow of electricity.
His gaze was pushed back onto the highway, his mind warning him about the dangers of daydreaming. Far off to his left where the road went over the hill, he thought he saw someone else. The figure lethargically roamed across the street and disappeared into the shadows of the forest.
Even in large crowds that flooded the streets during the day, Jonas felt alone. Though around him he could see faces, human faces by all accounts, he still felt like he was the only living organism that bobbed in a sea of marionettes. Phantoms that were sent to bring nothing but deceit. Now, in the presence of a shadow he couldn’t be sure was human, he felt the loneliness budge and begin to slip away. He felt that he was not alone, that there was still another soul that drifted like him, in need of answers, instead of just accepting the night, embracing it, and letting it fill every pore. There was still dreaming in the world, naïve as it may have been.
He dwelled on that silhouette as he sat in the middle of the road. What had they come for and where had they gone? What did they think of all of this and had they been able to think at all? Had it been a he or a she? The possibility of a conversation stirred in him a fearful curiosity. It had been months since he talked to anyone. By then he was sure that he would end his days by dissolving into the dark of the night and not reappearing the next morning. He’d be forgotten faster than the moon.
The word had jolted to life an image that had been hibernating for longer than he wanted to admit. He looked up at the sky in the vain hope that he may see a sliver of a crescent, and for the first time ever he saw the unreal beauty of the street lights. They stood defiantly, and they kept the darkness out. They protected him and asked for nothing in return. Like sentinels over a flickering candle they kept the feeble flame alive, so those like Jonas could live to look at them and be thankful.
He hopped down from the concrete slab of the median and the dull echo rolled out over the asphalt. As he walked towards the nearest lamppost, he could hear the sound of his every foot step, in sync with the heartbeats that told him that he was still alive. The short walk felt like a trek; like a journey across a desert whose destination was a drop of dew hanging from a single leaf. He stood under the street light – dead centre of the circle it had drawn on the ground. There was no sound on the street except for the trembling of the light bulb over his head.
He closed his eyes and let the light shine on his face. Behind the murky red glow of his eye lids he imagined the sun. He imagined that instead of the cool wind blowing over his face he felt the warmth sent down from above. At any moment he could open his eyes and be beautifully blinded, and walk around with a green patch floating wherever he looked. He breathed in what he imagined was a warm summer breeze, until he couldn’t take in anymore. As he exhaled, the bulb let out a quiet ‘snap’ and the trembling stopped.
He could no longer tell whether his eyes were open or closed. He blinked in the darkness. He could still see the faint outline of the bulb, but it was merely the dying retinal image – the mind grasping for as long as it could. While his eyes adjusted, the phantom image disappeared, and he was left with nothing. He continued to look up.
There was a sky above him, though he couldn’t be sure. Once, so long ago that he had to wonder whether it was true, it had been littered with stars. The Milky Way was a silver river that flowed from one horizon to the next, and the moon washed fields in a pure blue light. During the day, the sky would be on fire, torched by a mythical creature called ‘the sun’. Now the sky made its own colours. On the dark background, Jonas began to make out dancing waves of navy blue, and slivers of a black violet. There was a tinge of decaying green and the morbid hue of a scabby brown. The shapes and patterns danced in his vision, the night showing all its best evening dresses. He could no longer tell whether this vision was real, or came from inside him – the labour of a mind still longing for wonders. The twisted kaleidoscope continued to spin.
Dizzy, and almost falling into the void that engulfed him, he suddenly heard a ‘pop’ to his left. It came from above, and sounded like a burst of air escaping through tightly shut lips. He turned his head in the direction of the sound, and that’s when he saw it. It glowed with a piercing white light that was almost green and fell from the sky in a smooth arc. It was chased by a long flowing tail that broke apart at its tip into a myriad sparks. A star cast down from the heavens, but nothing like the shooting stars he had seen while bright skies still existed.
The sight of the beautiful glow rushed through his mind and beat its way through hardened layers to reignite him. He watched the shooting star wide-eyed, and with his mouth agape, tracing the line of its movement. It couldn’t have lasted for more than a minute but it felt like hours, like a whole other lifetime had passed before it hit the ground and disappeared in the fields beyond the road.
Once again he was left in the impenetrable dark, yet this time, it could not penetrate into him. He felt the glow from the star inside him, radiating, pushing the black out and keeping it frustrated and stalking around him. Without a second thought, he ran. He ran though he couldn’t see anything around him, couldn’t even be sure he moved at all. The blackness remained unchanged, though he could hear his footsteps and he could feel his breath getting shorter.
Quickly, he felt a sharp pain in his knees and he fell forward. His hands caught something coarse and he knew they were scraped. He cursed himself for forgetting about the concrete median. He climbed over it, and limped across the other side of the highway, knowing that another obstacle awaited him at the end. His steps were impatient, and his heart was racing, and as soon as he felt the slab tap his knee he let go of thinking. Immediately he hopped over and found himself rolling down a small hill and landing into some tall grass. Picking himself up, he bolted once again in the direction of where he saw the star fall into the fields.
He had no idea how far away it was, nor how much he ran. He was only aware of the uneven surface under his feet and the uncomfortable burning that was building in his chest. The air smelled of damp earth and decaying hay. There was something so natural and untainted in that aroma he was sure that he was alone. Humans did not exist, could not exist, but were rather a legend passed between the different parts of his mind.
There was a ditch separating two fields and he found himself elbow deep in sludgy water. He could hear the drops drip into the ditch water as he pulled out his hands. He couldn’t see what was on them and he was glad of it. In the blinding darkness, Jonas could hear the wind knocking the reeds against each other, but the water was so still it made no sound. He heard the whisper of rustling stalks rolled across the field ahead of him. He could feel that it was close, sensed that it fell somewhere nearby and that with this last stretch he could reach it.
He climbed out of the depression and burst into the thicket of waste-high wheat. He pushed past the grass while he was pulled along on the invisible line he drew for himself. He was sure he had long veered off-course; made a circle. He was squinting and cringing in anticipation of finding himself tripping onto the highway again, and bleeding onto the asphalt in defeat. He would lie there until morning, when the lights would come on again and someone would find him. And then he would go home and watch the sun on TV and cry. He hadn’t cried since it started.
When he thought that he must have passed it, he almost did. Standing and wheezing, he looked down onto the faint glow pulsating from the broken soil. He fell to his knees, exhausted. The sweat stained his face and trickled down his back. He could taste it on his lips that were dry from heavy breathing. There was a sharp pain in his chest, and if he had fallen down then and died it would not have surprised him. Yet it had all begun to melt away. The pain faded, the sweat no longer bothered him. There was no sound and no more cold, and the wind had ceased to howl. Instead there was only the tranquility of a cocoon that wrapped itself around Jonas as the faint glow reflected in his pupils.
Gently, he pushed his trembling hands through the dirt and scooped it out. She was a perfect sphere. Alive with its own light, almost blinding and hurting. He looked around and saw that the wheat was still golden like it had been in August. The forest beyond the highway was flush with green, the trees looking like living giants instead of swaying skeletons. When he looked up he could see that the sky directly above him was tinted blue – a slight break that made it seem like the whole thing had cast off the shadow. He laughed. And he let his tears fall onto the star where they disappeared. For the first time since the sunset, it rained, and again the birds had begun to sing. Jonas knew how lucky he was to be there; he trembled at the thought. To be there when the raindrops pattered on the soil and the chirps filled the air. To be there clutching the precious fallen star. To be there when it started. A hailstorm of light.
If I can’t talk about acceptances, which I have been starved for, receiving my last bit of good news almost two years, then I will talk about rejections. Specifically, rejections that include a few kind words that make me think I might not be so bad at this and should keep trying.
A couple of days ago, I received a standard Submittable rejection for one of my genre stories (fantasy? Magic realism? I’ve no clue, but I would put in the same bucket as my previously published “Ursa Major”). In any case, the editor of this particular journal decided to add a post scriptum to the email calling the main conflict in the story a bit vague, and suggesting that some rich world building was being crammed into story that yearns to be something else.
On the face of it, a rejection is still a rejection – there’s no success and no publication at the end of the day. But this is a silly and bleak way of looking at things, and I refuse to do that.
What I found here is two things to be happy about. The first is feedback. Almost any feedback is good feedback, and especially so for feedback that comes from an editor – someone who is steeped in the literary world and likely reading dozens if not more of these stories per week. It’s understandable that individual comments on each manuscript read are impossible, so consider that there was something about the story that caught their eye and motivated them to spend a bit of extra time to offer their opinion. Presumably the editor thought that it worth the effort to offer a helping hand to improve my writing. I choose to believe that it means the editor thought that my writing was worth improving. I think it’s great to walk away with this from a rejection – whether I use this to improve this specific story or the next one I write, I come away richer for it.
The second thing to hold onto is the encouragement hidden in the critique. In about 3,500 words I was able to create a world that seems to be yearning to grow. While perhaps this particular narrative doesn’t work, there is an idea in it that would pique someone’s interest. Great writing is a marriage of skill and idea, and the idea side of things is where I believe my current weakness lies. So hearing someone allude to the fact that I’ve had an idea here that may flourish better in wider pastures makes me think that I might not be completely hopeless on that front.
It may not quite have been the news I wanted to get, but this rejection letter is as important to my writing journey as meeting arbitrary daily writing goals or whatever other kinds of measure of success we place on ourselves as writers.
So here’s a big thank you to this particular editor, and any other editor that had taken a few moments to write some feedback and criticism. You folks make sure the creative world keeps running.
A new year is here, which means it’s a perfect time for annual traditions. Looking back at my previous posts, I’ve decided I’ll start every year with a “What I’ve Read” and a “What I’ve Written” reviews.
The good news is (for whom this is good news other than myself, I’m not sure) I’ve got two charts that I run throughout the year that help me analyze how I did in terms of writing productivity. The first is a straight graph of total words written, plotted against previous years for which I have data:
As you can see from the above graph, 2018 had smashed all previous records, but 2019 still did better. So I’ll take a moment and appreciate that it had been my most productive year. In fact, up until about May, it looked like it was going to leave 2018 firmly in the dust. That long flat line in May was our family vacation following quickly by a work conference, and though it looked like 2019 was recovering some of its pace, the gap really shrank towards the end of the year. I was hoping for a little more separation here by January 1, but if I wanted to look on the bright side, all it means is that any improvement I have in 2020 might look even more impressive.
The second way I record my writing production is through my bullet journal entry, which I have described in a previous post. So I'm providing here the completed one for 2019, with a legend on the right of the page showing what amount of writing activity each colour represents.
Firstly, my attention is drawn to the lonely little purple square on April (though I find, especially in this picture, that it has terrible contrast to dark blue). This was the single day where I had finally broken that two thousand word barrier that I tried to reach in earnest over the last two years. The other thing that’s noticeable is there is a whole lot of blue in this chart – I doubled the number of days where I had written over a thousand words (dark blue) and had 50% more days where I wrote over 500 (light blue).
One stat that stands out as shocking to me when compared with last year (though I suppose not too surprising considering the sea of red) is that there were 192 days where I didn’t write at all – 45 more unproductive days than in 2018. This amounts to more than half the year where I couldn’t muster the ability to write even a single word. How then did I top the previous year’s overall writing productivity?
Given the combination of an increase in both red and blue squares, it seems that the story of this year was particularly productive days rather than consistency. When looking at the increase of red in this log, and also the shrinking gap in the year-by-year comparison, you can plainly see that the last quarter of my year was marred by burnout. All you can do with that is shake it off and approach the new year with some optimism.
The story of 2019, however, isn’t just contained in how many words I wrote and how many days I managed to figuratively “get out of bed” and write something. There were important milestones I achieved this year that I have no reason to downplay.
This was the first full year during which I blogged, posting 25 entries in 2019. Some of these entries also happened to be the first chapter of The Bloodlet Sun. Sure, the second chapter hasn’t been posted yet, but sometimes starting is the hardest part. This was the year that after about a decade in production I’ve shared a draft of my first novel with beta readers, and had already received feedback from one of them. I’m now 50,000 words deep into a story I’ve been reading to my kids since January, and I’ve put some flesh on the outlines of several other projects. I’ve endured another year of ceaseless rejections yet I remain committed to keep trying and to keep improving my writing and to enjoy telling the stories that long to burst from my head. I’m proud of what I had done, while keeping an eye on what I didn’t do, to set myself new goals in 2020.
I hope to write for more than half the days of the year. I hope to reach at least 120,000 words. I hope to finish two more drafts of my novel and to post more than one chapter of The Bloodlet Sun this year. But most importantly, I promise to keep enjoying myself and to never fall out of love with my craft. To keep going, no matter how murky the horizon is.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.