It will all get better soon

A poem I wrote to a friend, who will probably never read it. I know things will get better if you just have hope and keep moving forward. We’re here for you.

 

Don’t tell me that you’re feeling fine
Because I won’t pretend it’s true
Your eyes are red, your smile false
And your laughs are all too few

Behind the cheap facade of “fine”
Lies the friend I used to know
The pressure must be building
As the cracks begin to show

I know it’s just a habit
Filler words to string along
But please don’t say you’re sorry
You’ve done nothing wrong

Speaking of your habits
And those you ought to break
Take care of yourself for once
And everyone else, forsake

You’ve been selfless for so long
And that hasn’t been returned
It’s time you know the feeling
Of receiving what you’ve earned

I know I haven’t known you long
But believe me when I say
You can count on me to be there
Any time, any place, any day

I hate to see you broken down
Consumed by all that’s dark
I wish I could fix everything
That’s stripped your smile stark

You may be feeling lost and down
But this is not the end
Just breathe, and please remember
It will all get better soon, my friend.

What is speculative fiction?

As an avid worldbuilder, I find that my writing tends to gravitate toward speculative fiction. This is the answer I’ve been giving lately when asked what I write, and it almost always results in the same question: “Isn’t all fiction speculative?” I thought that at first, too. But the answer, surprisingly, is no.

Speculative fiction (sometimes called spec-fic) is an umbrella term for a wide variety of fiction genres. Fiction itself, of course, just means “made up.” But something can be made up and still have the possibility of happening, like a billionaire falling in love with his secretary, or two brothers fighting for the same woman’s attention. To make it speculative, you have to ask the question “what if…?” outside the realm of what is possible in our real world. For example, if that billionaire were to put on a metal suit and face off with an alien army, or if those two brothers were vampires. Aliens and vampires don’t actually exist, they change the “rules” of the real world, so all we can do is speculate how they would affect it. Hence the term “speculative” fiction.

Worldbuilding is a staple of this blanket genre, because when you bring something impossible into the mix, you have to explain to your readers just how it would work. Whether your story is set on another planet altogether or simply adds a single element to our own, there is some worldbuilding involved. The less you change our known world with your “what if,” the less you’ll have to build.

Although fantasy is the main genre that comes to mind when someone hears the term “worldbuilding,” speculative fiction touches upon a lot of major genres. The most popular include fantasy, science fiction, superhero, horror, and alternate history. Let’s take a closer look to help you understand how it all fits together.

Fantasy

Fantasy is borne of imagination. This vast genre revolves around fictional elements (whether large-scale like secondary worlds or small like a single creature) that question the rules of our known world. Mythological creatures, created species, aliens, gods, magic—none of these exist in the real world, therefore any stories that ask “what if these were real?” are speculative. And in the fantasy genre, that’s all of them. Some examples include Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, Chronicles of Narnia, and The Wheel of Time.

Science fiction

This genre tackles the potential consequences of advanced scientific and technological innovation, solidly based on our past and present knowledge, and is usually set sometime in the future. The speculation comes into play when you add in unknown elements like time travel, aliens, and space travel to worlds we have yet to discover. Some examples of speculative sci-fi include Doctor Who, Star Trek, Star Wars, The Martian, The War of the Worlds, and Ender’s Game.

Superhero

A self-explanatory genre, this focuses on people who have extraordinary or super-human powers and fight evil (thus making them heroes). Having powers is purely speculative (as far as we know). It most often takes place in our own real world, tossing in a super-powered hero and their dark nemesis. There are superheroes who don’t have actual powers, like Batman or Iron Man, but they share every other element with those who do, so they still count. Examples abound in the comic world, though most notable are the superheroes (and supervillains) created by Marvel and DC, such as The Flash, Wonder Woman, Vandal Savage, Spider-Man, Scarlet Witch, and Doctor Doom.

Horror

This genre aims to frighten. A lot of horror and suspense is not speculative and could actually happen. Serial killers, wild animal attacks, people with exaggerated mental illness—that sort of thing. When you add in monsters, ghosts, and other paranormal or supernatural beings and events, it becomes speculative. Examples include The Exorcist, Dracula, Frankenstein, It, Coraline, and The Haunting of Hill House.

Alternate history

This fascinating genre explores what the world would be like if history had taken a different turn. If Hitler would have succeeded. If the South had won the civil war. If the Black Death had killed far more than it did. Anything from small events to global ones count here, and since history quite clearly went the way it did and can’t be changed (that we know of), alternate outcomes are purely speculative. Examples include The Man in the High Castle, 11/22/1963, Making History, Bring the Jubilee, The Years of Rice and Salt, and Fatherland.

 

A lot of these genres can be combined to form wonderful speculative mash-ups (and also some awkward ones, but I won’t judge). If you look through these genres and analyze what can make them speculative, you’ll begin to see what sort of worldbuilding had to be done to make readers believe such things might actually exist. Essentially, though, they can’t exist in our world, not with our current knowledge of how things work.

Which brings me to my final point: the unavoidable change in what we think we know. Speculative fiction is only speculative as long as it breaks our “rules.” But we’re always learning things and growing as an intelligent species. Aliens might be speculative fiction right now, but what happens when we discover another world with a sentient life form? It becomes real. Once upon a time, people believed the earth was flat. Back then, stories about “going around the world” were speculative. Until we learned it was round. So, times change, knowledge deepens, and what is speculative now might not always be. But until such time as we prove these fantastical elements are true, we have to figure out how they might exist. We have to ask “what if…?” and do a little bit of worldbuilding to back up our theory.

As I said, it’s a large umbrella term and most stories can be further classified into a more specific genre, but hopefully now when someone tells you they write speculative fiction, you’ll know what they mean.

Ego & Envy

I wrote this in February and wasn’t sure what to do with it, because it’s much more…straightforward…than I usually like to be. But sometimes, we just have to deal with people in our lives (even for a short time) who make us want to yell and scream and throw things. This is for those people.

 

Get off your high horse
You’re breaking the poor creature’s back

You don’t know everything
You aren’t a god among men

Mockery sprays from my tongue
As I waggle it at your back

I stop myself
I don’t want my face to stick this way
Full of self-righteousness
Like yours

You’re doing it again

Sometimes
You make a good point
But you could be nicer about it

I can be a dick, too
See?
Watch me get on my high pony

Tall enough to keep my pride
Without looking down on others

Short enough that those around me
Aren’t staring at an ass

I’m not talking about your horse

Help me into the saddle
You’re an expert at this too, aren’t you?

What else do you know
Oh Wise and Learned One?
All the secrets of life, I presume

How we can have everything we want
If we listen to you
Because you have it all

Yes, you do
All in your head

I don’t have everything
But I have enough to stand on
A small pedestal that doesn’t buck

All I want now
Is to watch you fall off
And break your arrogance at my feet

The funny thing is
What I used to want

Was a taller horse
Like yours

8 Ways to Show Foreign Languages in Fiction

There are many ways to add depth and interest to a story. One of my favorites is using terms and phrases from a foreign language; they can lend your story a more immersive experience into a culture or region. This applies both to cultures based in the real world and ones you’ve created.

Whether you’re using an existing language (like Spanish or German) or one you’ve constructed yourself, the vast majority of your readership isn’t going to understand right away. They don’t all speak Russian, let alone Na’vi or Dothraki. Thankfully, there are many clever ways to show the meanings behind these terms while keeping things flowing naturally.

Read through the scene you want to insert your foreign language into, and be sure to take note of your narrative voice and what information your character has access to. That information will help you decide which method is best for each situation.

1. The most common method is to allude to the meaning of the foreign terms through the surrounding dialogue. Usually, this is part of a back-and-forth exchange where one character’s foreign question or statement is responded to in English, using contextual clues that leave little ambiguity to their meaning.

“Ti amo, mio marito,” she whispered.
He held his wife close. “I love you, too, honey.”

2. Another popular method is to explain the meaning in the narrative. Just like with dialogue, you use contextual clues to show the reader what it means. This can either be given bluntly or subtly hinted at, as long as it gets the point across. However, with this method, the meaning is more or less paraphrased in lieu of an exact translation.

The sorcerer waved his hand before the wall, calling on the ancient spirits. “Venardi ama doya!

3. A less desirable (but still viable) option is to have these terms listed in a glossary or dictionary in the back of the book. Not all fantasy books have a glossary—not all need them—and I don’t recommend adding one just for a handful of phrases, unless you think there are enough other strange fantasy terms in your book that warrant using one.

So lek þi’tla (so LEK thee-till-ah) — (Tl’ysian): “By the wind’s word.” Adds emphasis to a statement, implying “The wind said it, so it must be true.” Also used to show truth and honesty, much like “I swear it to be true.”

4. You could also—if it fits the story—have a character there to translate. This one is straightforward, but should be done properly to keep from feeling forced or like an info-dump. Try to keep things natural.

The prophet waved her arms wildly and shouted into the crowd. “Alydali bursa chrisael!
A local woman must have caught the confusion on my face, because she leaned over and whispered, “She’s telling everyone that she won’t take no for an answer.”

5. When you have a heavy amount of a foreign language and no viable way to imply its meaning naturally, you could always leave out the foreign words and write it in English, explaining through the narrative that the character is speaking in another language altogether. After all, not every instance has to be written out exactly.

In his native tongue, the witch doctor chanted to his gods and prayed for clear skies. It was rough and guttural, a language that had been out of use for centuries beyond the edges of this village. I considered praying with him, but I wasn’t sure the old gods spoke English.

6. If the character has no idea what is being said or done, has no idea what the language is supposed to be saying, or has nothing to clue them into it, then you can use that to your advantage as well. Sometimes, these are the most fun.

Hattie listened to the sorceress’ words, trying to make out anything that seemed familiar.
Sa hasa sha na pala. Joya na sa sha pala.” The sorceress rocked in her seat, eyes still shut tight, muttering more words that sounded like gibberish.
Whatever she was saying, hopefully it would help. For all Hattie knew, the woman could have been cursing her to hell.

7. Maybe, along those same lines, your character isn’t fluent in the language but does know a few words. That could also give you just enough of the language to clue in the reader without being a direct info-dump.

She tried to keep up with the fast pace of the ritual, but her limited knowledge of the Ashanti language left her more disconnected by the minute. She was able to catch a few words here and there—staff, sacrifice, mercy. It all sounded very mysterious.

8. Finally, there is the less used option, which I wouldn’t recommend personally. It’s mostly used in children’s stories or with just the right omniscient narrative voice—one where the narrator knows what it means and gives a translation immediately after the text.

Bidamo jolantis!” the witch cried out. Her words roughly translated to “kill the beast!” and the entire mob surged in agreement.

In the end, as long as the reader can infer the meaning or you show the character’s thoughts on the strange language, it will seem natural to the story. If you’re still stuck on which method to use, try to put yourself in the character’s place. What would you do? Are there any methods you like that I didn’t list?

For more worldbuilding tips and ideas, join me on Facebook in Worldbuilder’s Muse.

Constructing Free Verse

Today I’d like to talk about the poetic structure involved in writing free verse. We’ll go over what free verse is, the problem with most free verse, and some things to consider when writing it.

I know what you’re thinking. “But it’s called free verse because it doesn’t have any rules or structure!”

That’s true. Free verse is known for its lack of hard-and-fast rules and its fluidity in structural form. It can take any shape, any size, any length; it can have meter or none; it can rhyme or not. You have complete creative license with any and all poetic devices available. But those freedoms are vastly misunderstood by the majority of “poets” who write it.

Poetry in general is an art form.

It is an expression of emotion, thought, and mindfulness. It should be well thought out, meaningful, and made on purpose. While many poets believe that this only applies to a poetic structure involving meter and rhyme in an exact form, it is a fact that even in free verse, good poetry is still well thought out, meaningful, and made on purpose.

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Disappointments by Vivian Gilbert Zabel

I’m not an expert. I’ll state that now. But I have been involved in the world of poetry for the better half of my life, and there are certain things you learn when you put forth the effort to improve. As with any writing, no one starts out perfect, and we are never done learning.

 

The problem with a lot of free verse

Some of you are going to be offended by this. I’m sorry, I really am—but if this offends you, then you especially need to read it.

The problem with a lot of free verse is that it has absolutely no energy put into it at all. Many “poets” (and I use that term loosely) simply scribble down a chain of thoughts or string together words that they associate with an emotion or theme. They throw in dramatic line breaks at random and use one-word lines frequently. They use big, fancy words and try to sound deep and wise, though often times this comes across as pretentious and nonsensical. It doesn’t flow, and their lack of attention to detail is glaring. Yet still they wave it in front of their friends and shout, “Look, I’m a poet!”

Many of those flaws are actually based on preference and can be done well. It is possible to write a poem of one-word lines. Whether a poet uses fancy or plain language is up to them. The tone of a poem can be deep or nonsensical. However, what sets the good poetry apart is that it is well thought out, meaningful, and made on purpose. Getting tired of hearing those three things yet? Good. Remember them.

 

Consider this

There are a number of things that you should consider when writing in free verse. None of these steps limit your poetry in any way, as they are not restrictions but are considerations and tools for improvement. You don’t have to use all of these. You can, but you don’t have to. Just like baking a cake, you don’t have to use every ingredient in the kitchen. But you should use more than one. One of the biggest flaws in free verse is that many “poets” only get through step 1 and stop. Don’t do that. That’s not free verse, it’s free writing.

  1. The first thing you write down should definitely be your thoughts, emotions, and the chain of mental images that come to you freely. Don’t worry about perfecting structure, line breaks, or wording here. Just let it flow. As with any writing, you will need to revise, review, and revise some more. You can’t edit a blank page.
  2. Go through what you wrote and consider the theme and tone you want your poem to convey. Remove anything that doesn’t apply. The initial writing should be free, but the final product should be focused. The more you stray from the topic, the less sense and power your poem will hold.
  3. Consider your line order. Does it flow smoothly from start to finish? Are there any parts that should be rearranged? Poems tell a story in some way, even if they are capturing a single moment in time. Make sure the progression of emotion makes sense to achieve your desired effect. The most powerful lines will be the first and last in the poem. Make them count.
  4. Look closer at your word choice. Your poem will have an overarching tone to it, and the words you use play a large part in portraying that, so choose them wisely. Whether you prefer big, fancy words, plain and simple ones, or a balance of both, make sure you’re being true to your intended tone.
  5. Read through each line carefully, and pay attention to where your lines start and end. The way you split your poem on its lines will determine where the emphasis lies and what parts readers pay the most attention to. In many cases, the last word on a line has the most emphasis, so keep that in mind. Consider words that have double meanings, spots that have a natural pause, and ways to pull the reader to the next line.
  6. Along the same vein, consider the length of your lines. Longer lines take more time to read, appear darker and packed together, and they allow for more complete thoughts. Therefore, they lend a more serious quality to your work. Shorter lines are surrounded by more white space on the page and are read quickly, giving them a lighter feel. Playing with this can make the reading feel smooth or jarring. Think about the ride you want to bring your readers on and the tone/theme you’re aiming for. These are all affected by line length.
  7. Read your poem out loud and listen to how it sounds. Even without rhyme or meter, your poem should flow naturally when spoken out loud. A lot of free verse is used in spoken-word poetry, so look up a few examples to see if this is something you’re interested in. (Button Poetry is a popular one.) Reading it out loud allows your ears to hear flaws your eyes will miss, and it can help you find tricky spots that need work.

 

Lead by example

As I said, I’m not an expert. I still have a lot to learn. But I do my best to put energy into each poem to make it the best it can be. So, now, I’m going to share with you a free verse poem I wrote earlier this year. I walked myself through all seven of these steps and revised it quite a few times to get this result. You may or may not like it—either way is fine—but hopefully you can see each of the steps involved and how they played a part in making this what it is.

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Although you can’t see step 1 in there, this poem began twice as long. It had lines going in a few different directions, including where You were in relation to me and how it made me feel.

But when I went into step 2, I realized that the point of my poem was about being second best. So I took out all the excess and focused on the lines that put me in second place.

The lines weren’t in this order to begin with, either. The story this is telling goes through all the ways You don’t prioritize me in Your life, so for step 3, I wanted to end with emphasis on the fact that I have recognized how unimportant I am to You.

For step 4, I really tuned into my word choice and placement. I prefer smaller, more direct words in my poetry to show that even “complicated” emotions can be simplified with the truth. I used repetition to show that You claim to love a lot of things…except, apparently, me. In the first stanza, I only reference myself once while using You four times to emphasize how much it’s all about You. I make sure that each preposition I use expresses being covered by something or being equal to something else, but never higher. I also countered “lay” in the first stanza with “stand” in the second, showing that while you put me down, I can lift myself up.

Step 5 was tricky. I made sure to capitalize on the repeating phrase “you love” and to place each preposition on its own line. Combined, this expresses the sentiment that it doesn’t matter what “you love,” but that You love it more than me. Each of the second stanza’s five lines has a lot of emphasis that counters the entire first stanza. “I” is first and above the rest of the lines. The first two lines together show that I have feelings, too. I want to stand “above” for once. More so, I want to stand above “anything.” Even something small. It’s a powerful ending that conveys desperation and hopelessness, despite standing up for myself and admitting how You’ve made me feel.

I went out on my own for step 6. I wanted this to be a more serious poem, but I didn’t want long lines and lots of words. I wanted to keep things simple and truthful. For that reason, I decided to keep the entire poem short and to the point.

Step 7 is the real reason it is what it is. I read it out loud every time I made a change, until it had a nice sound to it and seemed to progress naturally. Hearing my words out loud helped me get a feel for what fit and what didn’t, as well as what felt forced.

 

What do you think?

I hope this has given you some insight into how you can make your free verse stand out. If you put some energy into it and contemplate how you’ve structured it, I know you’ll do great! When you’re reading it by other poets, try to pay attention to these steps and see if you can understand why the author made the choices they did and what emphasis and importance each part has (hopefully they also put some energy into it). Doing this will help you learn to analyze free verse a bit better, allowing you to offer more constructive critique on it, and it will show you what kind of free verse you enjoy most. Hopefully kinds that are well thought out, meaningful, and made on purpose.

Inspiration: Issa

Poetry is one of my favorite things to write. Not that I’ve got big dreams to be a poet or anything, but it’s a form of writing I’ve always admired. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of “modern poets” are just free writing and calling it a work of art. True poetry takes so much more than that (in my humble opinion) and takes hard work and multiple rewrites to tell a story, to capture a moment, to make a reader feel. I love when I read one that not only flows beautifully and uses simple, vivid imagery but also strikes a chord in my heart.

That said, you’re going to roll your eyes when you read this one, because it’s absolutely nothing like the poetry that I normally fall in love with. But I’m a huge fan of poems about impermanence, circumspection, and simple joy, and when you love something, you don’t question how you love it. You just do.

I shared this with my favorite poetry group recently, and I was prompted by a friend to share it on my blog as well. It was a great idea, because I am in love with this poem and I want you all to see it, too. More than that, I want you to understand the way I view it and how I connect with it, because then you can better understand me. This is a very old poem and one of my all-time favorites, by Kobayashi Issa. He was a Buddhist poet and considered one of Japan’s “Great Four” haiku masters.

I’m going to roll over,
so please move, cricket.

That’s it. Nine words. It’s not even a real poem, really—not in any traditional or modern sense. But I love it because these two lines speak more to me than a poem of fifty. It so fully captured what we should strive for as souls that I could reflect on it for hours.

And the reason this inspires me is because it teaches me that a poem doesn’t have to try super hard. It doesn’t have to rhyme. It doesn’t have to use big words or be metaphoric or intentionally deep. It can be simple, short, and easy. A little bit goes a long way, and you can speak volumes with a simple sentence.

To me, this speaks of life and self-love. “I’m going to roll over.” This is what I’m going to do, because I want to and because I need to. I am confident in my choices and I will not change my ways for anyone else, because this is my life. I have to focus on myself first and foremost, because I only get the one life I’m living. I have to love myself and do what it takes to take care of myself.

However, he continues with “so please move.” Just because I’m confident in myself and my choices doesn’t mean I have to be selfish or inconsiderate. I’m telling those around me what I’m planning so they are informed, just as I would like them to do for me. I make my choices based on what I know. And I should use my manners, say my pleases and thank-yous, because even acting in my own interests, I can be kind and considerate. My path might head in a direction of my choosing, but I don’t have to be so unmoving that I don’t step to the side to avoid a tree root, or climb over a rock, or wait for a passing cricket.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, this is all said to a “cricket.” My place in this world, as a human, is not always at the top, and we are not the only creatures in it. Being kind is not limited to just humanity. Even down to the basest life forms, I should strive to be aware of those around me. As denoted by the first line, I don’t have to cater to others to be happy, but I should take them into consideration. Even those that I might automatically write off as “less important” than me (in whatever the situation is, at least) I should step back and think about where they are and how my actions might affect them. I don’t have to change my decisions, but I should alter their execution to be mindful of others. If I want to eat a piece of cake, I should—but it doesn’t hurt to offer a slice to the other people in the room, either.

And that is the power of Issa and his poetry. As simple and almost laughable as it might be, I hope you understand now why it is one of my favorites and how poetry, in all its forms, can both surprise you and humble you. I hope, at the very least, it’s inspired you.

The Pros and Cons of Collaborative Writing

In April 2018, the Collaborative Writing Challenge released Army of Brass, their seventh collaborative novel and a fun steampunk adventure. During the launch, more and more people were talking about collaborative writing. How do you do it? Is it hard? What are the benefits? Today I’m going to talk about all of that and more, with a feature from the coordinator of the novel herself, Phoebe Darqueling.

 


What is collaborative writing?

Collaborative writing is a single story crafted by more than one writer. Even just two people working together constitute a collaborative effort. The methods they choose to use may differ, but the result is the same: a coherent novel.

In some situations, multiple minds are put together in the creation while only one or two people do the actual writing itself. Often times, many writers will take turns writing a continuous plot line using the same characters, setting, and conflict. Every contribution to the work is a part of what makes it what it is, no matter how small or insignificant they may think their part was. It’s all for the greater good! 😉

Why you should do it: the pros

  • Strengths and weaknesses often even out. A lot of writers struggle at the thought of coming up with a full plot on their own. Some excel at the story’s beginning and setting characters on a path. Some are brilliant at twisting up an ending and neatly tying up loose ends. Some craft daring adventures but have no idea how to get a character into that situation. With a collaboration, everyone gets to let their strong points shine.
  • Choices, choices! Most collaborative works are told from multiple points of view, leaving each author with the choice of who they want to write from or what scene they want to tackle. It keeps things fun and often allows everyone to write the character they are most comfortable with.
  • More writers means less work for each person. Sometimes, just the idea of writing 70,000 words (give or take a few ten thousand) can cause quite a bit of anxiety. That’s a lot of words! Working with other writers not only gives you a bit of a break in between sections, but it also helps make that daunting task seem a bit more manageable. I might struggle with writing 70,000 words, but I  can write 2,500 a few times and be okay.
  • Less chance of writer’s block. If you get stuck on a scene, no worries. Just hand it over to the next writer and let them take the wheel. When it comes back around to you, you’ll be less likely to get stuck because you’ll be considering a new scene or angle at that point.
  • A surprise at every turn! One of the most fun and challenging aspects of collaborations is seeing where other authors take the story. You might envision the main character meeting a new love interest in the abandoned city, while the next author might actually write them confronting a new villain! (Or both? Plot twist!) It’s exciting to get that next chapter and see what you have to work with. It never gets boring, that’s for sure.
  • Marketing efforts are doubled. When you write and publish a book on your own, you take sole responsibility for marketing that book and getting it in the hands of readers. When you work with others, that book becomes everyone’s “baby” and you all do your best to see it succeed. More people marketing it means higher visibility and therefore a better chance of it getting out there.

Challenges you may face: the cons

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  • Differences of opinion. This is the one everyone worries about the most. You may not all agree on the direction the story is heading or on certain additions other authors might add. You’ll need to work out ahead of time how you’ll handle these instances: you’ll have to be willing to either work together to alter the story line or you’ll have to be able to let go of your previously planned direction and work with what you’re given. Not every chapter will go the way you envision it unless you’re the one writing it, so be prepared to change your plans at a chapter’s notice.
  • Surprise, surprise! Although surprises are listed as a pro in the above list, they are also considered a con. Not everyone is always so thrilled about a surprise twist just before their chapter, and sometimes they can be hard to work with. Especially when it steers the story in a completely different direction. Accommodating these new plot lines, characters, or twists can be a huge challenge, and could cause anxiety for some writers. It’s also one of the most rewarding feelings when you  manage it, so again, this is just as much a pro as a con.
  • Dropouts. One of the biggest things that sees collaborative works fail is having people drop out of the writing. In larger groups, this isn’t as big of an issue, but one-on-one or in small groups, this can devastate a story. Especially if the dropout decides to pull all of their written chapters as well. I’ve seen half-finished collaborations practically start over because of authors having a disagreement and pulling their work.
  • Delays. Another issue that could arise is when an author is supposed to be writing but mysteriously disappears and doesn’t respond to messages for days or weeks on end. This also includes the “excusers”: those writers who always have an excuse for why their writing is late or delayed and are always saying “I’m working on it, I promise! I”ll have it done tomorrow!” then take a week to finish up. These can be avoided by having a set writing schedule with the stipulation that the writing will skip ahead to the next writer after a certain amount of time, but not all collaborations follow schedules. Delays can mean losing steam, losing motivation, and losing interest in the story altogether.
  • Missing marketing. It might take a group to make a collaborative story, but it only takes one person to market it, right? Some authors won’t tell you they feel this way until you’re already in the marketing stages, and it’s frustrating. They feel as if the writing itself was their part, and that it’s not their job to push it to the readers. They’ve done the “hard work” in their eyes. If this isn’t established early on, you may find yourself doing all of the marketing for a group that doesn’t seem to care nearly as much as they did when they were writing.

 

All in all, the pros and cons are fairly balanced. Some of them can even be switched for certain people. Some authors see sharing the work as a con, while others think the discussions that arise from differences of opinion help shape the final product. You’ll need to give it a shot and see for yourself just how well collaborative writing fits your style (or doesn’t). It’s worth a try, anyway. And there’s a lot you’ll find yourself learning along the way.

 


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How does it work?

I’ve personally attempted collaborative writing four different ways, and each had its own challenges and rewards. There are many variations to these, so I’ll keep it basic.

Method 1: the think tank

This form of collaborative writing focuses on the story’s creation more than on the writing itself. A group of contributors come together to discuss characters, personalities, relationships, conflicts, back stories, plot lines, and twists. Once a detailed idea is hammered out and agreed upon, one or two writers pen it down in novel form. Typically, a general story line is decided upon and then each chapter or scene is discussed in depth before they’re written to ensure all major details will be included.

Method 2: one-on-one

This involves two authors alternating the writing, either by chapter or scene, and discussing the potential story lines in between. This method works great for close friends or for people who know that they get along, communicate well, and have similar writing styles. Because this involves such close contact, I don’t recommend it for total strangers. Not that it can’t work with strangers, it just tends to be a bit harder, as close friends are more likely to be a bit more expecting and accepting of what the other might come up with.

Method 3: a group effort

One of my favorite methods is the group effort. Three or more writers (with no real limitation on how many, though more is harder to manage) take turns writing a chapter each. In this method, an overarching plot is rarely decided ahead of time, leaving each author to direct the story any way they like. This gets you the most surprises in the story but can also potentially have the most disagreements. You’ll want to make sure everyone is in frequent contact, and have a plan for the off-chance that someone drops out or gets delayed. In my experience, this is the method that has the most pros and cons to it, and is also one of the most rewarding to finish.

Method 4: organized submissions

This is the method they use over at the Collaborative Writing Challenge (CWC) and it’s another favorite of mine. It’s well organized and gives a large number of writers a fair shot at being included without sacrificing the story’s potential. It works on a submission basis, where 3-5 writers are all given the previously written chapter and a list of reference notes (including character bios, settings, and plot lines). The writers each take a shot writing the next chapter in the story, and a story coordinator reads the submissions and chooses the best fit. Writers have the option of attempting multiple chapters, so if their first chapter isn’t chosen, they still get another try. Even if you don’t get any chapters into the story, the writing itself is a wonderful experience and most writers agree that they are glad they participated.

 


The making of Army of Brass

Most collaborations tend to be plot-heavy. That wasn’t the case here. I’m more than pleased with the way Army of Brass turned out. It is by far the most detailed of the CWC novels to date and combines more characters, intrigue, development, and subplots than any previous novel. It sounds intense, but those writers handled it with ease. I’m thoroughly impressed by the authors who participated and what they were able to bring to the table.

In addition to being the most in-depth of the CWC’s novels, it was also a new genre for the writers. Steampunk hadn’t been done before, and the story coordinator for this project, Phoebe Darqueling, went above and beyond to make sure everyone had all the information they might need to get started, including the definition, common tropes, and examples of the fun and quirky genre. Here’s what she had to say about her experience as a coordinator, challenges she faced, and being on the “other side” of the collaborative writing process.

Despite a lack of familiarity with the genre, many of the CWC writers stepped up to the challenge and performed brilliantly. Others were clearly intimidated, and I had several weeks with very few or no submissions at all. On top of that, with so many intertwined storylines, trying to find balance and keep them all rolling along was another challenge. It made it very difficult to choose more than one chapter at a time because the authors often tried to advance several plotlines within one chapter, and this multi-pronged approach often couldn’t be reconciled with other submissions.

Now that I was on the other side of the decision-making process, I gained a whole new appreciation for what “rejection” means and the many factors involved choosing works by different authors and making them fit together. During the editing process, I did quite a bit of splitting and reorganizing the order of chapters to achieve the balance and pacing the story deserved. In addition, my own editing experience helped me to go back and add a few vital sentences here and there to create a coherent whole, and I think the writers and readers alike will be very pleased with the results. In fact, Army of Brass is already being hailed as the best novel produced by the Collaborative Writing Challenge, so thank you to everyone who contributed your time and creativity to the process.

This was one of the most challenging and rewarding collaborations I’ve ever had the honor of being a part of, and I’m so glad I got to experience it, because this was my first true steampunk story, too.

 


For anyone who hasn’t experienced collaborative writing, I fully recommend you give it a try. Not only will it challenge you as a writer, but it deepens your understanding of a story’s balance and pacing. It teaches you to analyze previous chapters and explore potential outcomes as well as how to tie together seemingly disconnected plot lines. Your communication skills will gain a boost as you work alongside other authors, and you’ll end up with a really fun writing credit to add to your resume!

If you’re still unsure, check out Army of Brass for yourself and see what collaborative writing can produce. 🙂

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Read Chapter 1 of Army of Brass NOW on Steampunk Journal.
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Order your e-book copy of Army of Brass on Amazon.

Anxiety

My OCD hits me like a whisper in a crowded room, with each new habit speaking so quietly I have to keep asking “What?” until I realize it’s screaming and I’ve just gone deaf from all the noise.

My esteem is an overflowing trash bag that sticks in the can, and every time I try to lift it, the bag tears at the seams.

My heart is an empty wine bottle that I keep tipping into my glass, hoping there might be a drop left to soothe my racing pulse.

My stress comforts me like a razor, carving “I am alive” into my arm along with a happy face because I’m nothing if not positive.

My concentration wanders the horizon, collecting vague shapes, unsure if they’re rocks or gems but not needing much of either.

My motivation is an endless supply of potatoes and a thousand recipes, but I don’t have any other ingredients and I’ve lost my taste for french fries.

My anger is a roller coaster, but it’s not the ride itself. It’s the bent rails and rusted tracks, the loose screws and rickety support beams.

My happiness waits in traffic, hitting every red light on the way home, while my self-doubt tailgates so closely I’m constantly bracing myself for impact.

My hope is ice melting in a glass, waiting to cool a drink that never gets poured.

On the bright side, if I wait long enough, my glass will be half-full of water.

The Messenger

I hate my job.

I know why I’m here; I know why it has to be done. But it doesn’t make it any easier. The funny thing is that I’m just the messenger. No postal worker cries this much when they deliver a letter.

That’s really not funny at all; I don’t know why I said that.

I hate my job.

With a reluctant sigh, I trudge down the familiar staircase. Counting the steps helps keep my mind off my task, but eventually I lose myself and a new count begins, this one counting back through time to each job I’ve done. I remember every single one in haunting detail.

Thankfully, I reach the bottom of the staircase before I can start counting my tears as well. My emotions get tucked away into their dark corner where I reprimand them and tell them to stay; stay put! Stay, or else I’ll…I’ll…

It’s an empty threat. My shoulders slump and I shake my head. Stay or I’ll break, I tell them. Please, just stay. Let me get through one more job.

Before me stands a doorway. It holds a simple door, made of cheap processed wood with a fresh layer of pink paint. Though I’ve never been through this door before, it resembles so many others whose thresholds I’ve crossed. I take a deep breath and straighten my spine, lengthening my torso and lifting my chin. It is time.

I slip inside, gently closing the door behind me. The carpet mutes my footfalls but the subflooring creaks softly with each step. A small lamp sits on a dresser by the far wall, giving off just enough light for me to see where I’m going. I don’t need the light, though—I can hear the faint beat of an infant’s heart echoing in my head, guiding me.

A wooden crib lines the wall to my left, and my legs grow weak at the sight of it.

Let me get through one more job.

When I step up to the railing, I close my eyes. The fading heartbeat tells me what I’ll see when I look down.

It’s just another delivery. I can do this. I’ve done this millions of times; what’s one more? It’s not like this is the end or anything. Just the quickest route to the next beginning.

I open my eyes to see the most beautiful infant in the world lying there on her side. I think I say that about every one of them. Each child is so beautiful, so precious. Her skin looks as soft as the clouds and her tiny fingers are so small, I can’t help but place my pinky in her hand. Even with the state she’s in, she curls her little fingers around mine.

Her heart beats faster now, working so hard to pump oxygen throughout her fragile body. Sadly, a decorative pillow covers her teeny nose and mouth, and she can’t fill her lungs with fresh air. I want so badly to move her, to help her, to save her in this life. But, that’s not my job.

I hate my job.

I let out a whimper as hot tears stream down my cheeks. My breath catches in my throat, and I look at a baby monitor sitting on a nearby shelf. My gaze drifts to the door, and I hold my breath as I pray the parents heard me. Pray they woke and wondered if they had truly heard anything at all. Pray they decide to check on their newborn baby girl just for a second, just to be sure.

My tears never stop. I blink until I can at least see my surroundings, then I return my attention to the sleeping child. It is time.

As quietly as possible, I slip my hands beneath her and wait, focusing on the warmth of her skin and the puttering of her failing heart. Like a song coming to a close, the beat fades into nothingness and the heat of her life begins cooling almost instantly.

I lift the infant to my chest and wrap my arms around her. She looks so peaceful. I suppose she is, now. Smoothing back the soft wisps of blonde hair on her head, I turn and carry her back to the door.

I pause at the base of the staircase and glance back down the hall. They’ll never understand. They’ll never forgive themselves. I wish I could console them when they find out. Tell them it wasn’t their fault. Tell them she’ll be okay.

But, that’s not my job.

The least I can do is give them one last night of peaceful sleep, as I know they won’t rest well again for a long time. And so, as quietly as I can manage, I creep up the long staircase with the baby against my chest. I whisper soothing words and hum age-old melodies.

I never count the steps on the way back up.

I know why I’m here; I know why it has to be done. I glance over my shoulder at how far we’ve come, knowing there is no going back. Not for her, anyway. I’ll have to go back for the next job.

I may just be a messenger, but this feels too personal and it doesn’t seem fair. Why can’t I deliver happy news or long-lost greetings? Why not Christmas cards or get-well wishes?

Why must I always deliver death?

I hate my job.

 


This short story was inspired by a writing prompt. The prompt was:

As quietly as possible, she lifted the sleeping infant from the crib and crept up the staircase.

If this story or prompt inspired you, let me know in the comments!

The Storm Approaches

I’m slowly merging my dream journal into my blog. I get a lot of inspiration from my dreams, and I’m excited to share them with you. I hope they inspire you the way they have inspired me. Welcome to my Dreamverse!

 


June 15, 2011

This dream must have been a foretelling; there’s no other explanation. However, for you to understand why I believed this to be true, I must first give you a brief summary of what was going on in my life at that time (in 2011).

My dad and ex-stepmother were divorcing. Regardless of who lived where and who got along with who, my husband planned on leaving the day after I had this dream to go pick up one of my younger sisters from Florida.

The day before, my ex-stepmother had written to me saying that unless certain plans were laid out within twenty-four hours of her letter, my sister would not be able to visit at all. Those were the exact words I had dreaded for the previous six months—that somehow, some way, someone would tell me I couldn’t see my sister. Despite us “kids” not wanting to be caught up as collateral damage, we were anyway. So we laid out those plans, but I was in constant fear she would tell me once again that I couldn’t see her. This is where my dream comes in.

* * *

The next morning arrived bright and early. My husband was packed and ready for Florida and had everything he needed to bring our two-year-old son along for the trip to pick up my sister from Orlando.

Not twenty minutes before he had planned to hit the road, my ex-stepmother called.

“I’m sorry,” she said without an ounce of sorrow in her voice, “and I don’t know how else to say this than to just say it, but your sister can’t come out there. You have a tornado heading straight for your house, and I don’t want her out there with that.”

Anger surged through my veins. How would she know if we were about to get a tornado? Huffing, I checked the weather channel, but sure enough, there was indeed a tornado. In fact, there were two. One safely drifted away from us, but the second was heading directly toward us and moving fast.

As quickly as we could manage, we gathered the important items we needed—a small folder of identification documents and three stuffed animals. (In all reality, this really is what we would likely reach for first. I refuse to allow Cherry Bear, Bunny, or Monkey to perish. They have been with me and my husband, respectively, all our lives.) We then bagged up food, drinks, blankets, and flashlights and took them to the round metal building behind our garage. We figured this was the safest place to ride out a tornado. At the time, we were using the building as a brooder for pheasant chicks, but at that exact moment, we didn’t mind sharing the space.

We had everything ready to wait out the storm and pray for our safety, so we each grabbed one of our two children and locked ourselves in the round room.

As the storm approached, even though the sky grew darker by the minute, everything took on varying shades of brown coated in sunlight. The wind picked up, gathering small rocks, dirt, and debris in its swirling gusts. I lay down, holding my two-month-old baby tightly, constantly switching between squeezing him or his older brother. I considered what might happen if the storm became strong enough to lift the small metal building; I couldn’t bear the thought of losing either of my children.

Suddenly, we heard voices just outside the room. We cautiously opened the door to a small group of people looking to buy some birds. We knew the storm was moving fast, but my husband went outside anyway to show off our flock and our brooders. While he talked business with our potential buyers, I looked back at the house and saw my mom walking toward me.

Apparently, she had been worried for the boys, so she decided to come over and make sure everyone was all right.

When my husband finished selling a few birds, a crack of thunder brought our eyes to the sky. The outer reaches of the clouds were almost upon us, stretching out like a dark shadow all the way to the horizon.

And so we huddled together in the round metal building: myself, my husband, my mom, and my two little boys. We braced ourselves—

And I woke up.

* * *

With the divorce in my family and a few issues in my husband’s family as well, it was obvious a storm had hit our lives. Of this dream and the clear foretelling it held, I had this to say that next morning: “We have secluded ourselves and are ready to brace for impact. But why was it important that we sell some birds first? What does that symbolize? Why would my ex-stepmother want to stop me from seeing my sister? Why was my mom there when she lives halfway across the country? A storm was moving away from us, too—what did that represent and why must another hit so soon?”