Writing Exercise: Word Choice

One writing exercise I appreciate for reminding me how much I still have to learn I simply call Word Choice. I find a word with which I am unfamilar and that is the subject and title of a short story. It sometimes takes a little research, but it also stretches you.

My word today, and the title of the below story, is “Boanthropy” which has a long history before coming into English, as old as Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

“Three today, just like this.” My host patted his belly proudly, stroking its enormous girth as he reclined on the reinforced Turkish devan. “I plan to put on another seven stone before year’s end then capping out towards the middle of next year—though if the good doctor’s tincture and injections give my bones some assistance I may go on for some more.” His squashed and swollen face beamed like a ruddy spotlight at me.
“Fascinating!” I excitedly reached for the salt shaker for my plate, dipping my wrinkly glove dangerously close to a jelly dish. “Doktor Weiss, I had read about your prowess but truly the sight is magnificent. From fourteen stone to over sixty… I can hardly believe it!”
“The effect is certainly overwhelming at first.” The German cradled his wine glass. “I plan to beat that arrogant Aussie at his own game. A specially-bred enzyme or two and a third stomach, plus my bone serum which I dare not divulge. An incredible contest, coming from that Frenchman’s archaeological find. To think, the original mutation would be found in an 18th century tomb!” His eyes were crafty, greedy with some soft and far-off gleam of honor and recognition.
“What could you possibly do for his bones? I daresay they are already stretched to the limit.” I put a careful forkful of yam and chicken onto my tongue thoughtfully.
“I dare not say. Too much is at stake, and I should hate to suspect you, friend.”
“And well he should not!” The mass of flesh at the head of the table thundered. “I’ll catch that bastard in Melbourne and trounce him right there on the red carpet!” He rose, his bulk obscuring the historic wall-sconces lighting the exquisite hall. “Bahaha! Fancy the look on his face, Weiss?”
“It will be glorious, mein Herr.” The doctor checked his watch. “Speaking of, you should go to your rest now. I think the garage for tonight–you’ll need the protein later this evening.”
“Aha, excellent. A good suggestion, I do feel a bit voracious this evening and the chicken is not doing for it this evening. Sorry to excuse myself, but such is the life of a celebrity—I trust you two will enjoy the evening.” He looked between us, and the doctor bowed his head.
“Of course. It would be impossible to hold such a generous host from his goals for mere propriety.” I lifted my wine. “To your health!” The doctor joined the toast as the titan downed the pitcher like a shot glass and took his exit, rumbling across the floor and out the expansive doorway.
“My God, Herr Doktor.”
“Impressed?”
“Overwhelmed!” I tossed back the rest of my wine and shook my head. “How does he sustain such bulk—to still move and breathe easily, to work in the gym as he says!”
“There are some…drawbacks.” He frowned, a brief flicker of discontent crossed his face. “Most of his meals are simply a matter of sustenance proper. He will go up to four dinners soon, atop of breakfast and the large repast at two in the morning. By the end he’ll be eating constantly just to keep the weight on.”
“So how does he gain any then? How do these self-styled megahumans gain against such nutritional and caloric tolls?”
He eyed me over his spectacles, grey mustache still deeply frowning. “Trade secret, I’m afraid. Just like getting started.”
“Ah. No prying intended, I hope I haven’t offended.”
His hand fluttered. “I knew you when you were born, you have been curious your whole life. Though, I must ask a favor of you.”
“To not ask again?” I chortled as I took up the spoon for the custard, but his icy grip on my hand startled me. I met his eyes, startled.
“Stay in your room upstairs tonight. Don’t go out to the show.”
“But it’s one night only, and Michael got the whole crew tickets to celebrate me being in town!” His grip tightened like a vise against my mild wriggle to be free.
“Don’t.”
“Tell me why not then. What’s going on?” I narrowed my eyes and released the custard spoon with a soggy splop, mirrored a moment later by my heart in my chest when he answered.
“It’s the full moon.”

I like it. It’s good raw material, but I was not sure what the setting was. Was I going for something like Bioshock, a vintage scifi from an alternate 1950’s universe, or was I aiming for 2077 or some nonsense? I didn’t know, so there’s not a strong sense of when the story is to really be immersive. Poor setting, even if the plot is fairly bracing: Mixing clinical lycanthropy with a specific variety and making it a man-playing-God scenario is spicy. I’ll likely revisit it to turn it into something later, it was very enjoyable.

Mythmaking

They say that sometimes the earth will grow dark, for a great wolf tries to eat the sun.
They say there were once giants, who walked the land and would eat those that smelled overmuch like Christians.
They say there was once a boy born who never grew taller than a hand is long, but that he made up for his size with cunning and bravery.
They say there was once a cat who was smart enough to talk and wear clothing like a man, and that is why cats are so much harder to cow, teach, and intimidate than dogs.
They say sometimes a star will fall to earth, and it grants a wish to the one who throws it back up into the heavens.
They say barriers of running water and sunlight will keep all supernatural monsters of ill intent away from you, and keep you safe.
They say that under the ice of Antarctica there is a secret tunnel where you can go and meet the strange and alien people living within the earth, down below the oceans.

Mankind has created all manner of myths, sparks of imagination and passion, fire and smoke. Every myth has its origins in truth, too. Even if you choose not to believe accounts from the days of the Romans, or the detailed memories of the oral histories and runestones of the Northmen, or the writings of Catholic monks, dragons can be believed from dinosaur bones at least. All kinds of stories have grown over the years, whether they are silly like the Easter Bunny or serious like how nations are made of laws instead of people who share heritage and language; fish stories are the least of our troubles and tangles with mythology!

I’m a firm believer in knowing your foes, and mythology the most pleasant and entertaining of foes to a truth-seeking and civilized soul. Join me today in writing a myth about why February has fewer days than the other months—it need not be long or drawn out! Here is my story…

Chronos, the great master Time himself, had given command of the shining days of the future to twelve of his children: The first, Janu, was an anxious boy and eager to please, so he kept his hand tight about the days and lets them go one by one, each much darker than most other months. His older brother Decem also holds onto the days and so they are dark, but that is because he is lazy and does things at the last minute. Jul and Aug were boistrous twins, young and happy, and in their hot energy they fling the days away into the hot rays of the sun rapidly so the days are very long in the summers. The oldest boys June and Octo are the most mature and sensible, so they are very balanced in sending out the days. Mara, April, and May all try to measure up to their oldest sister Sept, who is most beautiful, but they are always trying so hard and excited that they never quite capture her level of grace. Februa, the youngest girl, felt she could never ever do so well as her sisters or her brothers, and so towards the beginning she lost heart and went down to the pond to sulk, putting her days out one by one and watching their reflection in the water. She was absent, thinking sad thoughts in her little heart, and before she knew it a big fat frog had eaten up two of her days by mistake. “Oh no, you bad frog!” She cried, and tried to catch him, but the frog leapt away. She hasn’t stopped feeling sorry for herself and so each year the frog snags a few of her days, but sometimes she does catch him; that’s why in leap years we get an extra day in February!

Did you enjoy the myth? How did yours turn out? Share it with someone, or put it in the comments below!

Practice Writing Through Short Stories – Beta Exercises

Extra post with the promised writing exercises I had promised the class attendees. Each is designed to help focus on a different aspect of writing.

Color writing – Choose a color, and write down the first physical thing and the first abstract thing which comes to mind; such as ‘yellow,’ ‘flower,’ and “sadness.” Begin writing using these elements. Throwing words down onto the page and freeing your mind from planning to tap into your momentary inspiration is the key here, building the discipline to take a moment of inspiration and turning it into an actual bit of writing. This is practice making the words flow when you turn the spigot. It might be messy and that’s ok. The discipline of writing when you sit down to write, putting words on the page, is vital to saying the phrase, “Yes I can write.”

Circular writing – Take a common phrase or a sentence, something familiar to you, something a friend just said, something you overheard; this will be the first and last sentence in your story. Fill in the middle in a meaningful way. This is an exercise in exploring the nuance and meaning in even small details, and the condensation of ideas.

Symbol walk – Go for a walk and deliberately experience everything you can while on the walk, then come back and write your experience, then turn the walk into a story by personifying different elements. This is an exercise to improve your writing’s pacing and arcs, seeing and making patterns out of experiences. If you’re having trouble on with this one, focus on one thing: The clouds, the trees, the grass, the sounds of people or cars, etc. Focus your personification or interaction or internal process on that one symbol. Add more to practice complexity, which is difficult even for the seasoned.

Inside out – Choose one element of the place where you are writing, then build the story outward from that. Take, for instance, a red pencil, and then go from there. This is an exercise to fuel links in your imagination and improve detail-work in your writing.

Remnant – Choose a favorite world or story of yours, and write a short scene or story for that work. This is different from fan fiction, because you are aiming to match the tone and not changing anything about the world or story: You are mimicking and seeking to learn by following. This is practice making your writing more varied and marketable, as well as polishing your consistency of setting.

Devil’s Advocate – Choose a social issue you feel strongly about, then write a short story that justifies the opposite stance, or portrays characters with the opposing view as right or correct. This will help you improve your handling and writing of characters.

Precision – Write a story with only thirty words. Write the arc from setting the scene to the finish, and practice combing through your work to communicate as deeply as possible with each word. The better you can get your point across with fewer words, the easier it will be to capture your readers’ attention.

I will periodically post more, and I will also let you guys know when I have reworked the workshops. Thanks for showing up, I hope you all are excited about continuing to develop your writing talents. Feel free to let me know when you write something that you are proud of, I’m always excited to see someone happy about their work and play.

Workshops!

My wife and I traveled to Tucson recently for the Festival of Books put on by the Arizona Daily Star. Good show, large and busy convention grounds on the University of Arizona campus. Plenty of booths for books and all manner of non-book attractions as well.

While I was debuting my book Spring, I had the pleasure of attending a few of the free workshops and book-signings. Some were very good, some were a writer using a platform strictly to shill for their book, and some were very basic. On the whole, it was only the middling writers that were ignorable: Several of the significant names gave very good talks at a high level, and several of the new authors were possessed of the shine of excitement that makes me pay attention. The midline writers were the ones for whom convention appearances were just another checkmark, and the ones I saw just did not come with much enthusiasm and moxie. I look forward to going again next year.

After the two-day festival, I held two writing workshops that I am in the process of building into courses. The target was for younger students, and I had to cut down the time by almost half—I had intended to do full-day workshops but did both in the same afternoon and evening. They went fairly well, though I am of course improving them and going over the recordings with a fine-toothed comb.

One of the main failures was not having a handout for the various exercises that we did, or to assist with the takeaways—I am now convinced that every workshop should absolutely have a physical takeaway in addition to any notes or activities you participate in. People come to workshops with the takeaway in mind, and want something to carry back. In the modern format, you need to be better than an online video or a blog post for people to be willing to come to meet you on your schedule. I really look forward to doing another Beta-level run of these two courses in the Wichita area alongside a new one, “Sex Ed Through Shakespeare” that is aimed to help people navigate the sociosexual marketplace of modern times that is often confusing and deeply hurtful when not merely intimidating. It will not be the birds and the bees, kids, go talk to your parents for that.

Shakespeare is timeless because his works deal with the inherent issues of our inner man. Jealousy, doubt, schemes of ambitious and selfish individuals, the rise and fall of families and the fleeting mists of power that men constantly grasp at. While I was reading the jaw-droppingly beautiful Venus and Adonis I was blown away by how useful the clear marching out of unrequited love and passion danced through the stanzas, and how much it could help anyone who is confused by the increasingly deadly dance of love. So look forward to that coming up soon!

Published!

The goal of so many dreamers, who stake their hopes upon it.

Well, let me tell you now, young heart: Being published is extremely easy. It also has never mattered so little. Everyone has a book, nowadays. There’s a global competition to write one in a month every Autumn.

What most people do not discuss when they reveal their desire to write a book is that they really crave attention. They want to be approved of, to get the rush of affirmation that being published gives. To see your creation, your thoughts, your work and skill in someone else’s hands, to see them pouring your energy into their very core through the grimoires that you authored. It is something that easily lights a young heart, especially in a creative one.

So if getting published is easy and means very little, you now have to change how you think and redefine your goals, young writer. If you really want that, there are a thousand simpler and easier ways to get it. Go volunteer. Get skilled at something and offer free classes. Or do the hard part and write a book and do the time and invest the energy to get it published and popular. It takes a lot of doing, especially the traditional way, and the publishing industry has its many dirty secrets about just how fair it really is hidden just as deep as Hollywood did before this last year. Money and power go to every system’s head until they break down, and then someone forges a new system and it repeats. Let me give you the best piece of advice I ever got: Don’t publish to be published, publish when you have an effect you want to see happen.

I wrote a full three-hundred thirty-five page book in high school, and had storyboarded another one in middle school and written many of the scenes. I could have attempted to publish either of them, and likely could have gotten enough support and knowhow to succeed and see them up online or in my local bookstores. I did not. I chose not to, even after all the hours typing away, reading fastidiously and fretting over a comma. The only thing it would have done is stroked my ego, because my work was garbage even though the ideas and characters and stories still hold up well to my eye. Just trash. If I had them published, I would have to marry that work as the starting pieces of my writing career.

So here I am, years later, with a book I am proud to have published and out on the market. It is published under a brand that was eager to have it, and I am thrilled to be writing the rest of the series now, one for each of the four seasons. Once I find a place where I want the two stories I wrote in my teenage years to strike for effect—be it money, brand identity, audience-building, teaching, some higher purpose than my own ego—I will go back and rewrite them with the skills I have sharpened and developed and forged anew.

So practice, and never fear being strict in your criticism. Compare yourself with the people who are out there, making money and visiting their rabid fan clubs and signing books to loyal readers. Young heart, curate your future and take your time making sure the foundation is thick and strong and placed upon solid ground.

You will never regret it, and some things cannot be undone or redone as easily as a manuscript. Guard your name and reputation, for once you put something in writing it stays.

Old Scribbles and Throwaways

I have a box of old papers from my childhood: Church bulletins, napkins, ragged journal pages and curled and faded sticky-notes. At any given time I might call any one of them junk, but when I sit to write and do not feel a particular creative spark I have found a simple glance at the box sometimes jars me into remembering.

I became enthralled with other worlds, with the godlike power to mould and shape and reason out whole countries and cities, empires that spanned the void and people who walked the ether as though the worlds were neighborhood houses, magicians and dragons and monsters that defied definition to my child-mind. That spark has been tended, and though it may get blown out from the candle I carry I always remember to keep close at hand something to light my fire again, and a place to record valuable tinder.

There are three indispensable tools, for those who desire to write for a living:
– Memories of the past: This is knowledge of the world, evergreen and ever-growing, as well as remembering what it’s like not to know fully. Without that you will grow conceited and stop advancing into productive drive and high-quality works.
– Concrete for the future: Without clear goals, nothing will be achieved just as without hurdles to jump or lines in the track and a timer running a sprinter is merely a lad at play. You need metrics to produce your best; some people love time crunches or competitions, making money or love sharing their stories… the motivation and where exactly the chalk-lines stand in the field is up to the individual, but without them you will drift. These are actually the bricks that build a city.
– A slate for the present: Many great ideas are lost each day for want of a pen and a napkin, and many stories have been told of how a wonderful bit of writing was once begun very humbly. Keep a notebook and pen always at hand, even if you usually use a smartphone or electronic record like I do. You can’t regret it, and you don’t have to blind yourself to record a dream or some terrific vision either. Get comfortable writing in a journal too. A daily devotion to remembering will harden your mind and sharpen its teeth to catch ideas for you to use as you solve problems letter and word by sentence and paragraph by page and chapter.

In taking a break between publishing my first book and compiling the other three in the series, I came to realize just how important the habit of daily writing and journaling is to my creative process, and just how vital it is to have the ability to jot down a quick idea to resolve later and keep it from distracting me yet also not losing it. They only appeared in reflection, and I wondered what all had been recorded. Almost forty pages, line by line, of new ideas, characters, cities and speeches and plots and stories and stubs of differing grades. If I ever find a place for them in my continued work, I have only the close proximity of my tools and the mindfulness that I developed to thank.

These four books—my first—are all compilations from my past and present that reach forward into my future from a daily habit of writing. I chose to publish them because they might help others. Perhaps even you. It is no small drive that makes an artist, but a great one that flows from the heart with strong enough hands to keep it from running away with the head; it is all too easy to forget that wrangling it takes time, devoted time that you must choose to limit your focus, shut off sections of your imagination or turn them inward to focus on one area.

But you cannot waste things, or you may be found wanting them later. Start building your shoe box and that pile of ratty old journals you’re certain nobody will ever want to read. They can’t be your muse when you’re older if you don’t make them now to remind you, you cannot leave a legacy to inspire fans and enrich your children’s lives if you leave only your public persona behind, you cannot afford to forget where you have come from if you wish to live a compassionate and graceful life. Set up your marker-stones and remember for tomorrow instead of simply passing through like a migrating animal. The moments of life and health we are given are even more precious than our simple ideas, and we can use them well.