New Year, New Words

January 1, 2011

happy-new-year-2011I’ve been out of the writing scene for some time now. It’s been more than 6 months since I’ve written anything worthwhile.

I’d love to tell you that the absence was due to some extenuating circumstances but, if the truth must be told, I don’t really have a solid reason. The last half of 2010 was certainly busy and stressful (in ways I won’t bore you with here) but no more so than previous years. In all honesty, I just don’t know why I stopped writing.

But I woke this morning blustering with resolve to get back to the keyboard. Certainly it has something to do with that crisp, fresh potential that January 1st always seems to bring, but there’s a little more to it than that. For the last six months I’ve felt a curious hole in my life. Something intangible but definitely there, and growing day-by-day.

I didn’t know what it was until my wife pointed out that I’m “not happy when I’m not writing”. It was one of those simple statements that just sank into me like an arrow. Too simple to be profound, but too profound to be self-evident. I realized that if there was just one resolution I aimed for this year, it should be to make myself happier… so it follows that I should be writing.

And here I am. Oorah as the Marines might say…

But my Neo screen is blank. My fingers have hovered, unproductive, over the keyboard for the past hour; my eyes closed, the only sound in the room my own tinnitus (I played one too many loud gigs back in my band years). Scenes and characters flitted across my minds eye, too fast to catch and too wily to capture, tantalizingly close but in the end no more than shadows and silhouettes. The old specter of perfectionism reared up too and no matter how many times I told myself to quit it and just start typing, it wouldn’t go away.

My screen is still blank.

I’ve just experienced my first writers block of 2011.

Oorah.

So I find myself here, firing up the old blog again. ‘Even if I can’t tell a story today, I’ll damn well write something’, I told myself. Perhaps later tonight or tomorrow the muse will visit me and the fingers will fly once more, but for now this post will have to do…

I hope I’m back. And I’m sorry I was gone for so long.

~CGW

Bards and Sages Quarterly have just published their July 2010 issue in which you can find my short story “Jennifer Weary’s Legacy”.

This was a fun piece to write. It originated in a writing prompt from the Internet Movie Database horror forum’s short story competition. The theme was “darkness“, so I decided to just take it literally and make darkness the main character – bored, depressed, and obsessed with it’s relegation to the lonely hours.

It’s probably the fastest story I ever wrote, all coming together in a single draft in about 30 minutes of writing, with only minimal rewrites needed. I wish they all came this easily…

The anthology can be purchased on Amazon here.

~CGW

Craig Watson Waiting for Red
My short story “Waiting for Red” was recently re-published in SHALLA magazine – Volume 5.

It’s appearing in the Edgar Allan Poe issue nestled amongst a number of works by the master himself. Way to make my story seem inferior! But nonetheless I’m grateful for the honor. You can purchase the magazine on Amazon for $14.99.

Waiting for Red was conceived from a writing exercise prompt at the Milwaukee Writers Workshop. The prompt was to write a story that took place while waiting for a red light, and involved one character that was several hundred years old, blind, and obsessive compulsive. It was first published in Reflection’s Edge Magazine – August 2008 Issue.

~CGW

The music of fiction

May 21, 2010


God help me, I’m learning poetry.

Let me elaborate on that: I’m an awful poet but I recently decided I would study it a little more as a means to hopefully liven up my everyday writing.

When I was back in school (which for all you young-un’s out there is practically as long ago as the invention of the wheel) I switched-off whenever the subject of poetry was broached. It was an alien world to me – filled with strange terminology: meters and caesuras, end-stops and enjambments, trochees and spondees, iambs and dactyls. Dactyls for chrissakes – like the prehistoric bird – WTF?

This wasn’t writing to me, it wasn’t art. It was more akin to math. Too much structure, not enough freedom. Too much thought, not enough emotion. Screw those turtleneck-wearing, pretentious ponces with their coffee cups and fake upper-class accents; that world wasn’t for me. I wanted to be a storyteller dammit. I wanted to talk about ghosts and monsters, starships and serial killers, not about being as lonely as a cloud or about keeping my head when all about me were losing theirs.

How much of a shock it was then, to start studying it again as an adult and to come to realize I’ve been using the techniques of poetry all along, in a roundabout way at least. I won’t say I was “a poet and I didn’t know it“, because that would be a dirty insult to all the true poets in the world who actually study and master their craft, but I’d been at least toeing the line without realizing it. I guess in a way, you could say I’ve been pissing in poetry’s backyard.

How so?

I think I always understood intuitively that good fiction has a cadence to it – a musicality of sorts that, while not as evident as when it’s structured into verses and stanzas, is still vastly important to the overall quality of the prose. Characters, for instance can live and breathe or stagnate and die depending on the cadence of their dialogue. In a narrative description, the way the flow of words relate to each other may be equally as important as the words themselves in setting a scene or evoking a mood. The music the words make together can really make the difference between okay writing and truly great writing.

Whenever I write, for as long as I can remember, I’ve always read the passages back to myself out loud. This is why I don’t like writing in public, because when you start blathering about demons in a crowded Starbucks in the middle of the afternoon you tend to get a few funny looks. I never quite realized why I was doing this until I started looking into poetry again. I knew it always led me to dramatic revisions and usually (hopefully) to a better story, but I wasn’t quite sure how or why.

Now I think I understand.

When we read our own words aloud we can really get our senses around them. Instead of existing only as fragile concepts in our silent minds, they become real, textural things – physical shapes in our lips and tongues; literal waves of air pushed into our ears. When you make the words real like that, it’s much easier to hear the musicality of them. You can hear the stressed and unstressed syllables, you can hear the beats of the punctuation, and just as importantly you can hear the white-space that surrounds and contains them.

I sense I’m in imminent danger of sounding like a literary snob here, so I think I’ll wrap it up. Good prose may not be structured into meters with fixed feet and a common patterns, but it is certainly musical. Here’s an exercise for you: pick up your favorite book and open it to a random page. Read a few passages, but read them aloud and listen to them. I almost guarantee you’ll be able to hear the music of the words.

~CGW

Words on the air

May 14, 2010

I’m currently reading Neil Gaiman’s 2006 collection of short stories and poems entitled Fragile Things. I make no secret that I’m a huge fan of Gaiman. His imagination is peerless and his writing is, in my opinion, exquisite. His mastery over words is almost as pure and perfect as that of the king of all storytellers – Ray Bradbury.

I wanted to share an excerpt from the introduction of Fragile Things that brought tears to my eyes and made me once again, feel value and purpose as a storyteller…

As I write this now, it occurs to me that the peculiarity of most things we think of as fragile is how tough they truly are. There were tricks we did with eggs, as children, to show how they were, in reality, tiny load-bearing marble halls; while the beat of the wings of a butterfly in the right place, we are told, can create a hurricane across an ocean. Hearts may break, but hearts are the toughest of muscles, able to pump for a lifetime, seventy times a minute, and scarcely falter along the way. Even dreams, the most delicate and intangible of things, can prove remarkably difficult to kill.

Stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds’ eggs and human hearts and dreams, are also fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks. Or they are words on the air, composed of sounds and ideas – abstract, invisible, gone once they’ve been spoken – and what could be more frail than that? But some stories, small, simple ones about setting out on adventures or people doing wonders, tales of miracles and monsters, have outlasted all the people who told them, and some of them have outlasted the lands in which they were created.

~Neil Gaiman

I strongly recommend Fragile Things – it’s one of the most diverse and entertaining collections of short stories I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.

~CGW

Last year, my friends Boone Dryden of the JB Dryden Company, and Niki Robinson of Robinson Writers spearheaded the first ever unconference for writers held in the Milwaukee area. An unconference is participant-driven event where all attendees are free to either attend or present. You can share your knowledge with others by hosting your own individual session, or you can just sit back and enjoy the socializing and creative inspiration.

Last year’s WriteCamp was a phenomenal success. I’m not sure of the exact attendee figures but it felt like close to a hundred people showed up – familiar faces and complete strangers alike all coming together in the name of words. Not only did I learn a lot from the sessions I attended and make a lot of new friends, but I also went home inspired and feeling like I was part of a burgeoning creative-writing community in the metro area. The event was extremely friendly and it does the heart good to spend a day around smiling faces. Oh, did I mention I got a sweet T-shirt and free dinner too?

WriteCamp 2010 is schedule for Saturday, June 5th from 9am-5pm at the Hide House in Milwaukee. The address is 2625 South. Greeley, Suite 100, Milwaukee, WI 53207. And you can learn more about it on the WriteCamp 2 website .

Oh, and it’s FREE.

No matter what kind of writer (or aspiring writer) you are, if you’re in or around the Milwaukee area on June 5th, don’t miss it!

~CGW

I want to talk about the Horror 101 project. The book is starting to get some of the recognition it deserves and I wanted to bring it to the attention of any horror fans that might be reading.

Just a quick note: this isn’t a sales pitch… I don’t get any royalties from this work, I just think it’s a lot of fun and a worthy read for any horror movie fan.

Horror 101 came into being when editor Aaron Christensen decided to rally together the large pool of knowledge found on the Internet Movie Database’s Horror Community into a cohesive work of literature. Over the course of many months he worked hard to solicit and combine some very interesting essays on 101 of the most influential horror movies from the dawn of cinema to the present day. I was lucky enough to be one of the members he approached and my essay – The Uninvited – can be found on page 282.

What makes the book so much fun, and so unusual, is the angle from which Christensen requested the essays. He required that instead of only discussing the movies themselves, each entry also discusses the personal affect and influence the movie had on the author. The result is 101 essays of a very personal nature and the book offers as much of an insight into the psyche of the horror fan as it does into the movies themselves. The passion and verve that each author has for the genre really shines through and elevates Horror 101 far above most other dry and scholarly books about horror movies.

If you’re interested in reading the book, you can purchase it on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Horror-101-List-Monster-Movies/dp/1887664793.

~CGW

The Ageless Art

March 27, 2010

I recently came across this article on BBC News about the Bookbite campaign to encourage the over-60s to discover and develop their interest in creative reading and writing. I think it’s a great idea, and the article got me to thinking about how storytelling is one of the few arts that is truly not age-discriminatory.

In fact the argument could be made that writing is one of the few arts that tends to get better with age. Certainly the stories of a youth or young adult may have a higher level of passion, energy or enthusiasm about them, but surely the finer details – nuances in theme, character-relationships, and lessons-learned – can only get better with the experience that comes from age.

I worry sometimes about the longevity of my full-time career as a graphic designer. Talented new designers are emerging from universities by the bucket-load each and every year and sooner or later that stigma that comes with age will probably rise up to challenge me in my career progression. Who would you trust to give you the liveliest, most current design – the fifty year old, white haired man in the shirt and tie, or the energetic twenty-something with the ripped jeans and the t-shirt that says “Sex, Drugs, Helvetica Bold”?

See what I mean?

But I realized I have no similar worries about my writing. I suspect that every day that passes, every new person I meet, and every trial and tribulation that puts a new wrinkle on my forehead will only make my stories more honest, more refined, and most importantly more real.

I wonder if there are any readers of this blog out there that are in their finer years? If so, please weigh in… I’d love to hear from you!

~CGW (35 years old and progressing)

The Time We Waste

February 20, 2010

Imagine you’re sitting in a small room, staring at a pattern of tiny, multicolored squares on the carpet tile beneath your feet. It forms a constellation of pixel-shapes curiously reminiscent of a Tetris screenshot. You are holding the hand of a person you love deeply. Occasionally you give it a reassuring squeeze.

There’s nothing outwardly scary about the room – it’s quiet, air-conditioned, and it has a soothing beige and gray color scheme. But you know that any moment a doctor is going to walk through the door holding a test result, and he’s going to tell you whether or not the person you love – the person whose hand you are holding tightly – has cancer.

The possibility thickens the air around you, making it hot and hard to breathe. The quietness of the room seems to have a weight all of its own; it feels cruelly designed to let you hear the maelstrom of your own thoughts as clearly as possible. Even the neutrality of the decor seems threatening – a reminder of how truly mundane and inevitable something like death is, no matter how much we pretend it’s a special circumstance.

This very room is where I found myself sitting earlier this week. The person whose hand I was holding was my wife. Her test was for Leukemia.

The doctor – a very pleasant and soft spoken man – entered the room after ten of the longest minutes of our lives. He went over the numbers on the blood panel and took his sweet time before getting to the point. We held our breath. Eventually he announced that the results were negative – there was no cancer.

The relief was not as sudden and bright as you might suspect. For the previous three weeks the weight of the possibility of Leukemia had been pressing down hard on us both. I guess you don’t just spring back up from something like that quickly. Instead, you stay hunkered down for a while, like a blade of grass that’s been living under the weight of a rock. You’re eternally grateful for the second chance of course, but at the same time you’re still on the defensive, expecting the worst to come at any moment from some hidden angle.

Such an experience inevitably leads you to question the manner in which you’ve been living your life. Every aspect of your previous daily routine comes under close scrutiny. The veil is lifted – albeit briefly – and for just a moment you understand the fragility of life. You begin to look at everything you’re doing and ask things like: Is this worthwhile? Is this necessary? Is this a valid mode of thinking? Is this a skillful action? Is this a waste of my time?

If there’s one lesson my wife and I have decided to take away from all this, it’s that the biggest waste of time of all is worry.

One might build a case for certain negative emotions having positive results: the emotion of fear, for example, can be a life preserver under certain circumstances; anger can be a strong motivator and a catalyst to action. But worry, it seems to me now, is a fruitless exercise in attempting to predict an unknowable future. It is perhaps the most useless of all emotions.

Tenzin Gyatso – the fourteenth Dalai Lama – is said to have once been asked about the best way to confront anxiety. His response was that if you have a worry you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If there is something you can do about it, there is no need to worry, but if there is nothing you can do about it, there is also no need to worry.

With the events of the past two months fresh in my mind, I believe this to be one of the truest and most useful statements I’ve ever heard.

When it comes to writing a story, there’s often some worry involved, even if you don’t quite consciously recognize it. You might worry about whether or not it’s a good story (whatever “good” may mean); you might worry if it’s publishable, or if your editor will find it agreeable; you might be concerned over your grammar or spelling, or anxious about how your friends and family will receive it, or how viciously the members of your local writing critique group will tear it apart. After all, a tremendous amount of blood, sweat and tears goes into a story. You pour months of your life into an artistic creation, and then you set it free, hoping that out there, in the big wide world, it will find some measure of success.

In my personal experience, such background worries have been expressed as a curious form of perfectionism. Perfectionism, I’ve come to realize, is not a virtue of a writer but rather an affliction. It leads to doubt in the story being told or in one’s ability to tell it. It leads to boxes full of half-written stories – perfect beginnings without endings. It leads to procrastination and to wonderful tales that exist only in the mind and never on the page. Perhaps worst of all, it leads to time spent in re-writes that should have been spent pushing doggedly ahead to the finish line. All these dire circumstances are based only on the subtle worry that the story somehow won’t be good enough.

But here’s the rub: I don’t believe believe that any story can be perfect, at least not qualitatively. Certainly perfection can be attributed by individual readers, but I don’t think there’s an inherent quality, or an essence of adequacy, contained within the story itself. What is perfection for one reader may be the very definition of failure for another. What offends one reader will amuse another. What entertains one reader will bore another. You can’t write a story that the world will inevitably embrace. All you can do is write something that’s good enough for you, and hope that the world catches on to your vision.

In that doctor’s room – waiting for the results of my wife’s test – perfection fell away. It no longer existed. All that was left was a deep and powerful sense of the unknowable quality of time. I did not know how much longer I would have to spend by her side. In spite of the happy outcome, I still do not know how much longer I will have by her side. No one ever can. I might step outside tomorrow and get hit by bus. All we can do is spend our time wisely, not living in the past or trying to predict the future… and especially not worrying about things.

If you worry about your stories, if you spend all your time trying to perfect just one of them, then I say such concerns are foolish. Put the pen to the paper and write, damn it! Write your impermanent, temporary little heart out. By all means, do your best and set high standards for yourself, but don’t ever let those standards get in the way of moving forward.

Write like there is no tomorrow because, well…
There may not be…

~CGW

The Great Human Constant

February 2, 2010

I owe an apology and an explanation to my regular readers. More than a month has drifted by since I last posted and oh what a month it’s been…

In early January my wife exerienced what we thought was nothing more than an inner ear infection or blockage, but when it didn’t go away we discovered it was something more serious. She was sent for a head MRI to check for the presence of tumors on the auditory nerve and the possibility of stroke – two tests which fortunately came back clear. After several audiograms and a second opinion consultation, she was diagnosed with idiopathic unilateral sudden sensorineural hearing loss. In simpler terms, she has gone mostly deaf in one ear due to nerve damage of unknown origin. SSHL is largely a mystery in the world of otological medicine. It can be caused by viral infection, by certain drugs such as antibiotics, by diabetic vascular events, and a host of other factors. Sometimes it just happens without cause.

We are now faced with adapting to a variety of new circumstances. Because her balance is off she cannot drive (or even walk that well) until she learns to compensate for the dizziness. She has persistent (and possibly permament) tinnitus in the damaged ear which is causing her a great deal of mental stress. Hearing aids are not covered by our health insurance, although we may have a case for a disability insurance claim. It’s a whole lot of big changes that came about virtually overnight. Needless to say, the blog was the furthest thing from my mind, and my writing has taken a month-long hiatus as well.

As stressful as the month has been, it has served as a wake-up call and a much needed reminder to me of the fragility of our human condition. When I was sitting in the diagnostic center watching my wife in the MRI tube, all past worries and petty arguments fell into perspective and the world suddenly seemed very simple – both in an awful and paradoxically beautiful way. I’ve looked at my wife these past few weeks with gratitude for every moment we can spend together and I don’t think I’ve felt this depth of love since our wedding day almost a decade ago.

Buddhists have a conceptual view of the universe that entails three main factors which they call the three marks of existence. The first of these is the fact of impermanence. It’s a reality we’re all aware of on a conscious level – that nothing lasts – but often it’s not until life steps up and slaps us in the face that we feel this fundamental truth in our hearts and genuinely understand it. Our circumstances are subject to continual change. The most stable of relationships will come to an end; the most powerful of people will grow old and ultimately die; empires will crumble and new ones will rise in their stead; seasons will cycle; perceptions will shift…

Paradoxical as it may be, it seems the one great constant of the human experience is change.

To bring this blog back on course, I want to get back to thinking about the art of storytelling. Surely, in light of this great constant, we can say that the most enduring stories must encompass great change in the life of a character. It’s not the stories about love that are compelling, it’s the ones about a change in the circumstances of love that touch us the most deeply – those about love lost, love gained, or love transformed. Romeo and Juliet did not start their tragic tale already in love and end it in the same state… that would have been an awfully boring story.

And what about death? It seems to me that death features powerfully in just about every literary genre out there – even in the most popular of children’s books. Pick up any literary “masterpiece” and I’ll warrant you’ll find it has a meditation on death at it’s core. And what is death if not the greatest change any of us can undergo in our experience of being human? It’s that final transition from the known to the unknown. A story that deals with death – or with the upheavals that death has wrought among those still alive – automatically bears witness to a truth of the human condition.

Action stories, thrillers, and many horror tales are really stories about a transition from a status of apparent security to a place of deep discomfort. We all spend our lives cultivating an illusion of security – we put up our fire alarms, pad our savings accounts, insure our belongings, do our exercises and eat our greens all in a vain effort to stave off the change that is inevitably coming. In thriller stories, the condition usually returns to a sense of security by the climax. In horror there is often no such return to safety, which – one could argue – makes horror the more honest genre.

In subtler ways, most stories deal with internal change that has profound consequences for the characters undergoing it – changes in opinion, changes in ideals, changes in self-image, changes in understanding etc. These “revelation” stories are often some of the most satisfying forms of story to read.

But I don’t think that change alone is the engine that drives a story. Rather, it’s the variety of ways our characters respond to the changes we thrust upon them that matters. It’s one of the most satisfying experiences for an author when a character takes on a seeming life of their own and begins to respond to changes in ways even the author themselves could not predict. In a way it’s downright spooky. When a character admirably handles the circumstances we toss their way, we have a triumphant arc; when a character caves to the change we may well have a tale of tragedy on our hands.

It’s been a month of change for my wife and I, and though my writing schedule has suffered, I’m deeply grateful for the wake-up call it’s given me. The future is always uncertain and what we do in the moment is all that counts. I think perhaps now it’s time to roll with the punches and put some new words on the page…

~CGW

rosalidamedina.com

January 5, 2010

Fear not, writing-oriented posts shall resume shortly, in the meantime here’s a quick commercial break…

Rosa_website-collage

Last night my dear friend Rosa announced that she had launched her costume design website – rosalidamedina.com – so I wanted to take a moment to point a little traffic her way.

Rosa’s work is phenomenal and chances are you’ve seen some of it already, here and there, but I won’t gush about her talent because the work speaks for itself. What I will gush about is what the website doesn’t tell you – that Rosa is one of the kindest souls anyone could wish to meet and that success couldn’t have come to a nicer and more deserving person.

So if you like hot costumes, hot models, and even hotter artwork… please go take a look!

~CGW

What’s your status?

December 24, 2009

Before they write a scene, a lot of authors carefully consider components like setting, goal, obstacle, conflict, and resolution, but how many think about status?

Today Mayor Tom Barrett visited my workplace for a short Q&A session for his upcoming 2010 gubernatorial race. He seemed like a nice guy but I found myself wondering how I would act if the two of us were alone in a room having a direct, one-on-one conversation together.

In terms of social status, he’s the Mayor of the City of Milwaukee, and potential future Governor of the State – practically a couple of steps away from the Presidency; and me – well, I’m a couple of runs of bad luck from bedding down beneath a cardboard box in a back-alley.

But on the flip side of the coin I’m not a U.S. Citizen, and I don’t have voting rights, so his political power has little consequence for me. I’ve had the experience of living in two countries (and on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line) while to the best of my knowledge he’s only lived in one state his entire life – and, for the most part, only one city.

If this were a game of Top Trumps, his career experience would quash mine, while my world experience might quash his. So, in a one-on-one conversation with this influential man, would I be calm or flustered? Assertive or nervous? Would I maintain eye contact or shuffle around looking at my feet? Would I have something to say or would I be lost for words?

Who would control the scene?

It was my wife that got me thinking about the element of status in fiction. Status is a commonly used tool in improvisational comedy. During scene sketches, the comedians tend to play to a particular status on stage – a “pecking order” if you will, where each characters’ sense of self-worth determines how they will act and how they will influence the events of the scene. A skit might have a number of status “transfers” or “inversions”, where dominance is passed back and forth between characters, making it more dynamic and interesting for the audience.

Aside from the fact that us fiction writers have the luxury of taking our time and revising our decisions, we’re really not that much different from improv comics. Sure, they can devise a coherent scene in real-time while it takes us days of hair-pulling, cussing and excessive caffeine consumption to get one right, but the techniques are similar. Status can be just as versatile a tool for the writer as it can for the improviser.

Think of strong scenes from your favorite books or movies and you’ll probably discover they contain a heavy element of status competition or some kind of riveting status reversal. Right now I’m thinking of one of my favorite movie moments – the scene in “A Few Good Men” where the powerful Colonel Jessop arrogantly tries to leave the court stand only to be told by Kaffee, an inexperienced lawyer, to sit down because he hasn’t finished with him yet – a brilliant and subtle reversal of power and the start of a scene so suspenseful that went down in motion picture history.

So how can we utilize status in a written scene?

Going back to my hypothetical one-on-one meeting with the Mayor, you can see that status in a scene isn’t necessarily defined by social position. While the social rank might be crystal clear (e.g. judge and plaintiff, manager and employee, warden and prisoner, king and subject, teacher and student etc.) the person of highest status isn’t necessarily the one with the highest social rank but instead the one who dominates the events regardless of social rank. For example, an employee might hold sway over his boss because he knows something the boss wants to keep secret; a kings’ consult might be the real influence on the realm while the king is just a puppet ruler; a strong-willed waitress might be condescending to a customer… it’s all about the underlying, sometimes unconscious, power struggle in everyday situations.

In writing, the status of a character can come through in a number of words and actions. The Improv Wiki has a wonderful list of behavioral traits that show if a character is high status or low status. Here are a few examples…

High Status Behaviours

    Calm and collected body language
    Maintaining eye contact
    Speaking directly and with certainty
    Not caring about other characters’ reactions
    Making leadership decisions
    Ignoring other characters

Low Status Behaviors

    Nervous and awkward body language
    Not maintaining eye contact
    Speaking in halting, indirect sentences
    Asking permission or explaining ones actions
    Looking for approval
    Avoiding leadership decisions

I’d suggest if you want to use the tool of status in a scene, ask yourself three questions:

1) What is the status of each character as the scene begins?
2) What do I need the status of each character to be when the scene ends?
3) Is there a moment where an interesting reversal of power can take place?

These three questions can lead you down interesting pathways.

One final word on the balance of power. I have a theory (entirely unproven) that the very best power struggles are those that are subtle and close contests. There’s not much tension or suspense in a scene where one character clearly has unbeatable power over another, but if two characters are almost equally weighted, and the reader knows that the balance of power could shift at any moment, well there’s a page-turner for you!

~CGW

I came across a piece of horror fiction online today that I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of before. Apparently it’s a bit of an underground internet phenomenon, causing a large amount of talk and speculation across – how do the kids say it these days – teh intarwebs [sic].

The reason I’m surprised it escaped me until now is that it’s possibly the most chilling experience I’ve ever had from reading a piece of horror writing. As I’ve spent virtually every night since my tenth birthday with a horror story in my hands at bedtime, that’s really saying something. Neither Poe, nor Lovecraft, nor Hawthorne ever scared me the way this tale did. I actually felt physical anxiety as I was reading it and, better still, after I’d finished I stepped out of the office into the unlit hallway of my apartment and for the first time in years, I was just a little afraid of the dark.

The story isn’t a traditional tale (although a little research afterward led me to understand that it is adapted – or at least ripped off – from a regular story… more on this later). Instead, it takes the form of an imperfectly written blog by an adventure caver by the name of Ted.

You know, I won’t go into any details about the events of the tale. I’ll just post the link and let you read it yourselves instead. (Note: it’s quite a long read – took me an hour and a half).

Link: Ted the Caver

Go on an read it… pour yourself a mug of cocoa first and wear something warm… you’ll want the sense of security.

All done?

What did you think?

For me this is a fascinating glimpse into the psychology of horror fiction. The imperfections of the site, the addition of the photographs and sketches, and the prosaic, journal style of the writing all added to its effectiveness. It felt like the fiction equivalent of The Blair Witch Project.

Curiously, the material on the site seems to be pulled almost verbatim from a more traditional 1987 short story by Thomas Lera called The Fear of Darkness*(see edit below).

You can read that version of the story HERE (PDF format).

What’s curious to me, is that the PDF short story, while more “professionally” written, is nowhere near as effective as the experimental fiction of ‘Ted the Caver’ blog. This got me thinking about the countless formats and methods of storytelling open to us horror writers. It made realize that while colorful narrative and riveting dialogue may be the ‘right way’ to tell a story, it may not necessarily be the best way to scare people.

~CGW

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* Note: It was brought to my attention that the Ted the Caver page may actually be the original story, while the Thomas Lera version may in fact be a later work trying to pass itself off as the original. Some research into this reveals a quite convincing post allegedly by the author of the Ted the Caver story which can be read here.

It seems speculation has been rife for several years on a variety of discussion forums as to which is the original work. You will have to determine which you believe. Regardless, it doesn’t change the interesting fact that the same story, in virtually identical language, told in two dramatically different mediums has differing affects on the reader and that’s definitely something to ponder. ~CGW

On Not Looking Back

November 27, 2009

A couple of days ago I hit the 50,000 word count for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The story – a horror western set in the Montana territory in 1880 – is barely halfway through, and it’s undeniably first-draft quality. It has characters suddenly appearing without prior setup because I realized they were necessary, several scenes that don’t particularly make sense, and enough cliche to pad a whole Roland Emmerich movie, but that’s okay.

It’s okay because 50,000 words of terrible first-draft is better than no words at all.

Anyone who has participated in NaNoWriMo has probably had the experience of someone asking them what it’s all about. When you explain it most people nod politely, say “cool”, then go away thinking you’re insane, but some folks say exactly what’s on their mind. The conversation often goes something like this:

“NaNoWriMo is where you have to write 50,000 words in a month.”

“Cool, what do you win?”

“Err, Nothing.”

“Then what’s the point?”

Well the point is to spend an intensive month training yourself in the most difficult (and most important) discipline of fiction writing: The fine art of NOT LOOKING BACK.

Some authors might be able to write scene-by-scene, revising and polishing each one as they go, but in my experience such people are about as rare as the Dalai Lama. In the vast majority of cases to stop and look back before you reach the finish line means certain death for the story.

During a first draft, you have to write like the hounds of hell are nipping at your heels. You have to write like that big wall of fire from Independence Day is only ten feet behind you, throwing cars and people around with CGI abandon. You wouldn’t stop and look back in those situations. But what many people don’t realize is when you’re writing a story, there’s something coming along behind you too, and it’s just as dangerous as hell hounds or tidal waves of flame. It’s a huge wall of procrastination and perfectionism, and if you let it catch up with you well, there goes the neighborhood…

My wife (bless her genius little heart) put it very succinctly. She said that writing a story is like giving birth to a baby: You can’t stop to clean up a baby halfway through the birthing process. You just have to push and push and push. What comes out will be ugly and bloody, but then you can clean it up and start to nurture its growth from there.

I can’t stress enough how important coming to understand this concept has been to me. I’ve been an aspiring writer my entire life, and as a younger adult, I completed countless finely-imagined, beautifully-polished single scenes. I have a big box full of them. Any one of them could have been part of a decent story, if it wasn’t for the fact that I killed them by stopping and looking back.

So to all aspiring fiction writers out there, I implore you to participate in NaNoWriMo next November. Because it doesn’t matter how beautiful your prose is, nor how perfect your grammar, nor how unique your characters, nor how well-imagined your scenes. If you don’t learn the fine art of Not Looking Back, you risk forever being a writer of unfinished work.

~CGW

Alphasmart Neo Review

November 14, 2009

Alphasmart Neo

Imagine sitting down to write and not having to wait for your laptop to boot up. Imagine simply pressing a single ON button and jumping instantly to the last place in your story where you left off. Imagine 700 hours of typing time on just three AAA batteries or 30 hours on a rechargeable powerpack. Imagine the increased productivity of not having distracting access to games or the internet. Imagine not having to worry about saving a file because every single keystroke you make is automatically saved as you make it…

You’re imagining the Alphasmart Neo.

The Neo is a tool designed primarily for classrooms, a durable, simplistic “laptop” for education purposes, but it is also the perfect tool for portable writing. It is basically a keyboard with a screen built into it, rugged, very basic, and perfect for the on-the-go fiction writer.

Needless to say, when I heard about the Neo I had to have one, so I scraped up my pennies and purchased one. Since you can’t buy them in stores this was a blind buy from online, something I’m not personally very comfortable with; in this age of crappy build quality, I generally like to touch and feel a product before I drop cash on it. But when my Neo arrived promptly – just one day after placing the order – I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. It was well packed, well built, and all the components were there. For the first time in just about as long as I can remember, I felt like I’d got my money’s worth from a company.

So on with a quick review, for anyone who might be considering one…

First up, it’s light… 1.75lbs. Even lighter than a typical Netbook, but it feels tough in your hands, like you could drop it and not worry about breaking it, which for a klutz like me is a very good thing. The Neo provides a comfortable and quiet, full size keyboard, which was much easier for me to type on than even a standard laptop keyboard. It has enough storage room for about 130,000 words – a good sized novel. I’m discovering that it’s very intuitive to use. I didn’t even have to refer to the instruction manual to get started on it. I basically hit the ON key after I’d put the batteries in and I was typing within seconds.

It comes with a CD of software called “Alphasmart Manager” that you install on your PC. After that, you plug in the Neo with the provided USB cable, hit “send” and your whole story dumps straight into Word. Not too shabby at all. You can also send word documents to your Neo and control the settings from the software, but I haven’t messed with that much yet so I can’t comment on it.

On the slightly negative side, all the pictures I’d looked at of the Neo online made it out to be black, or at least a deep, tasteful green. So I was a little surprised when I pulled it out of the box and found it to be a fairly ugly forest/olive green instead. In the name of accuracy, I Photoshopped the pictures you see in this review to more accurately reflect the color. Not that the color really matters for such an awesome writing tool of course, but I can’t for the life of me figure out why the company didn’t just go for a sleek black paint job instead of an offensive green.

So the color is one little gripe, and a very minor one at that. The only other small issue is that the Neo doesn’t have a backlight on the screen. This is not a problem in any room with even minimal lighting or outdoors where you can adjust the contrast of the LCD to be clearly visible, but if you’re wanting to write in the dark, say in a smoky bar, then you’re going to need a flashlight. I understand in part why they did this – because if you left it on it would suck your batteries dry in no time – but the option would have been nice. I can only hope they include it in a future model.

Alphasmart Neo ScreenThe LCD screen provides six lines of visible text (at its smallest setting) which I find is just right. One of my concerns before buying it was that I wouldn’t be able to see and feel the “white-space” flow of my story the same way I can on a word document, but I haven’t found it to be an issue so far, and I’ve already written 7,000 words on the thing.

Alphasmart Carry CaseFinally, for an extra $25 I purchased a portfolio style carrying case which is really quite excellent. It’s stylish and protective and has plenty of room for pens, business cards, usb drives etc.

Some writers have a hard time with distractions. I can say this with authority because I am one of them. On my home PC I’m likely to spend fifteen minutes of every “writing” hour playing on Facebook instead. But if you take the Neo to a coffee shop then you have no choice but to sit and write. You can do nothing but press that ON button and let your imagination fly, and to me, that’s priceless.

~CGW

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