Reflections, Lessons Over A Year of Writing–Seriously

The world of writing is a big old labyrinth without a map, guidebook, rules … logic (sometimes), you get the point. So here is one writer’s pause and reflection over a year’s worth of world crafting.

Last year I upped my game a bit in the writing world. I worked hard on the lessons flash/short story form teach about construction and took more chances on submissions. This paid off. I had twenty-two submissions over the calendar year of 2017 with three-and-one-half (I’ll explain in a moment) accepted for publication. The half comes from being asked to expand on a pitch and write a test draft, which ultimately didn’t make it in. Alright, so the three-ish doesn’t sound that great … but compare to that 2016 when I had thirty-nine submissions with only three acceptances. This increase was due to several factors. One, by working with a writers group I got better at the core craft. The stories I am churning out now are stronger and more focused thanks to their feedback and support. Two, I have gotten better at selecting the markets I was sending to instead of the scatter-shot of the first year. Three, luck. Never discount luck when submitting.

Alright, now anyone who knows me is well aware I like a meatier story. Novel length is where my plotting side goes to. Applying the lessons of short story format I have found it a bit easier to approach newer ideas on formation, and editing is a touch easier. But this is simple improvement that happens with time … let’s get into the nitty gritty in no real order of importance.

Lesson One: there is a story in everything! Some are flashes, some are shorts, and some are too large to be contained. The trick is realizing when you’re shoe-horning a big scope tale into a flash and instead of cramming, let it breathe! This year I grew frustrated with a short story that I have been trying to get out into the world for about two years. Every time it comes back. I asked my writers group to no-holds barred give it a rending and let me know what was triggering the rejections. The verdict came back from my trusted readers: There is more than one story in here–either cut back to one or expand on this other one. I scratched my head for MONTHS over this feedback as I couldn’t decide what to do. Then … Christmas came, and on the Eve at the stroke of midnight I lost my beloved silvermuzzled border collie, Ashenpaw. In my grief I wrote another story of an angel dog, joining Ion’s “Chain Lightning” … and it dawned on me. There IS more to this story. A whole lot more. 2018’s project is now to forge a full novel out of my vision of what happens when our beloved dogs pass on.

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Ion and Ashenpaw, the real inspiration behind the Ethereal Dogs Project, my WIP

Lesson Two: a writers group is invaluable. Writing is a grueling and lonely craft. Suffering the lows together helps. In the shorter format acceptance percentages average close to 1% or LESS. That means you are bound to see a lot of rejections even if you rock! This can be for many reasons: wrong tone for their collection, another story like it, editor had a bad day etc. Could have nothing to do with your skills. So you have to be able to gauge how you’re really doing. A good group will share success and failures, give honest and valued feedback, and ultimately teach you to start finding your writing self. Not every piece of feedback will work for you. 😉 Not everyone is Hemingway or King … which leads me to three.

Lesson Three: there is a lot of information on How To … out there, you CAN’T follow it all. So don’t! Learning how to critically evaluate these tidbits is important. But we can’t (and shouldn’t) all write like Hemingway! What makes for great King suspense/horror doesn’t work so great for Tolkien fantasy fans. The key is finding the elements you like to read and want in your stories then learn how to implement them. Good beta-readers in a writing group are awesome for this. You’ll be able to see what come across and what trips them up. You will also find loads of articles out there about adverbs/adjectives, ellipsis, dream sequences, prologues, dialog tags (said vs bookisms)–I could go on for an Illiad length saga. The point is everyone has an opinion. You won’t be able to satisfy everyone, nor should you try. Learn the basic rules, then learn how to stylistically break them. Good fiction isn’t written with pristine grammar. After all, in common English we break the rules all over the place. A grammar correct book can be boring. The key is to present your work in a way that the prose doesn’t get in the way of itself–see, I don’t mean free reign to do whatever you want, the result must be clear to readers. Again, betas who know you will help here. I’m not everyone’s cup of coffee in that I tend toward the purple-prose end. But this is my natural writer’s voice. In revisions I catch the areas that nag, but leave the rest because it suits my work. Style is something that comes with time. You can’t force it. Let it come.

Lesson Four: writing frequently helps, especially when you let the pressure off yourself. Do a fun short challenge. Use a random prompt and see what comes out of it. In a writers group do raw challenges with little clean-up time before posting to see what comes naturally. You learn a LOT by doing this. What comes to you first? How do you build a story (character, setting, threat)? What elements are you good at? What elements do you struggle with? These tidbits will aid you in identifying what your strengths are weaknesses are. Some writers are great at dialog, some are great at beginnings, some at endings, or actions sequences, or non-action scene buildings … etc. Use excercises like this to learn who you are as a writing. You can take these dabblings and expand them later if you love the idea.

Lesson Five: be fearless in your own space. Don’t restrict yourself. You have an idea? Explore it. You don’t have to show anyone if you don’t want. But you never know what comes from just exploring. A simple meandering story can turn onto a path you never would have thought of and spark a whole new adventure. Every page is a blank map of a world, don’t be afraid to simply wander for a bit. Editing is where you refocus after the discovery.

Lesson Six: be YOU. If you have a story to tell, tell it. Get it onto the proverbial page anyway you can, however long it takes. Don’t let anyone tell you not to. And if they do–they aren’t your audience. Writing takes bravery when we share our visions with the world. This isn’t easy, but if the story isn’t what you wanted to say it won’t come across right, from the heart. Keep your convictions. To me there is an older audience out there seeking animal-centric stories. I will write it, they will come.

Remember–there is no map, this journey is yours. Take the step, and the one after, and the one after that … see you on the road!

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The Harpening

One would think that living in a shire surrounded by the next generation of elite story-tellers would be captivating. Well, life in the shire of Coarrunn is boring as watching moss grow on a fallen log. I’ve been here now for a couple years learning my bardic skills from Master Bard Ais from sun-up to sun-down. Nothing but sit your fuzzy rear here and listen.

We’re bards! We’re supposed to tell!

“Ealaidh.” Seinn, an adolescent wolf several years older than me, ruffled the hair between my ears as he joined me by the river. “Aren’t you supposed to be listening to Ais’s lecture on the Bones of Lore.”

I mock-yawned and smirked. “Makes me snore.”

“This isn’t rhyming class.”

With a toothy grin, I replied, “Why all the sass?”

He rolled his eyes. “You’re such a pain.”

“I can’t complain.”

Tweaking my ear, he couldn’t help a little grin. “That cheeky-nature of yours is going to get you into trouble.”

I wrapped my arms around my legs and sighed. “I just want to do something besides listen all day. We’re minstrels-in-training, shouldn’t we be playing instruments, singing, and stuff?”

Seinn adjusted the red scarf around his neck, a nervous habit of his. “Well, yeah, eventually. I mean, I am, but you won’t for a few more turns of the seasons.”

I shot bolt upright. “What? A few more … what will I be doing in all that time … listening to snore-fests?”

“Fraid so. It’s what the novice whelps do. Now, let’s go.” He turned and trudged off.

I lingered by the rippling stream, finding its voice more interesting than my tutor’s. The sensation of a glare burning at my back stirred me to my footpaws. I kicked a pebble and the water swallowed my offering. Grimly, I embraced my fate and followed Seinn back towards the shire.

We passed by the glade where his harping class was about to start. The wolf offered me a hard glare and pointed over the hill to where Ais would be lecturing. With my shoulders rolled forward, I padded on … until I heard the paws of my fellow slan on the strings.

The tinkling beauty called me. Scampering through the brush I edged to the backside of the class to watch as row after row of older novice bards plucked dutifully in echo of the Master Harpist at the front. The lure pulled me, my footpaws nearly dancing, toward an empty harp at the back of the group.

My paws itched, a sensation so dire that if I didn’t touch the strings to make them sing I would cease to exist. The world lived suspended in those strings and playing them released it.

The first touch, tentative, but it brought forth a delicate cascade of sound. My heart leapt. I slid onto the seat and listened to the tune as played by the Master. Fingers shifted, already knowing the way. The moment the silence fell, I repeated the simple tune with the others. Stopping at the end felt like clogging a river. But I listened again. This time more notes than what I had heard poured through. They didn’t stop at the end of the passage.

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Behind my closed eyes, the glade dissolved to be replaced by a mighty star-fall and a celestial river of brilliant lights. Rich blues, purples, and pinks danced in the void. Around me will-o-wisps flickered in brilliant sequences. A speckled beast dove through the celestial waters, one of the mighty dragon-kin. She arched her head and extended her frill releasing a mighty roar that shook the heavens.

A paw grasped my shoulder. I opened my eyes to find the Master Harpist staring at me in awe, a strange twitch to the corner of his eye. “Young one, you should not be playing yet. You have yet to master your powers.”

I withdrew my claws from the strings and folded my paws pleadingly. “But, I must play … ”

He extended a paw over the class, drawing my attention to it. Every student, even Seinn sat slack-jawed staring at the glimmering images projected in the air around me … my celestial river! “You must release them from your enchantment, whelp.” He knelt before me, gazing into my eyes. “In all my years, I have never seen one of such raw power. No, you must be careful and learn slowly or you may convince a beast that something is there when it is not. Or lead them to be lost to the past.”

I stared at the strings, glimpsing the other bards trapped in my image fog. “I … I don’t know how.”

The Master Harpist heaved a sigh. “And that proves my point. You, most of all, must refrain until Ais has tempered your abilities. For now, I want you to mimic what I play.” He carefully plucked out a sequence.

When he finished, I played it. The moment I struck the last note, the bards all blinked and the dreamy expression faded. Seinn stared at me, confusion in his unblinking gaze.

The Master Harpist took my paws and folded them in my lap. “Now, you don’t touch another harp, understand?”

I couldn’t even nod. The lingering sensation of completeness called to me to touch the strings. The instrument itself promised power sweet and alluring. Without even knowing it I had enchanted a dozen other bards-in-training into an enthralled image fog.

My claw drifted toward a string. The Master Harpist pushed it back away. “There’s another class you should be in right now. Your time will come, whelp. But it is most definitely not now. Off with you before you steal my students again.”

Dutifully I left, over my shoulder I watched planning my next chance to play. At least I was no longer bored.

The Blind Division

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Blind Division

 I know why you have come, human. I know why you stand here reeling in confusion. An ill-wind blows across your world. You wish to ask, how did this happen? You ask how could an ancient creature like myself possibly comprehend … oh, but I do. Perhaps more deeply than you can imagine. All I ask is shelve the human ego for a moment and listen to the truth I tell, of the gravest mistake the slan ever made. There is no easy way to tell this, but I will try.

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The slan once were a single race, the god Cernunnos bestowed his gift on all our kind, despite the lowly animals we originated from. Mangan, brucach, faol, radan, and cugar, we lived side-by-side in mixed shires sharing the magic we were god-blessed with. Magic ran in our veins. Every slan who drew breath shifted into their ancient form at will. That was precisely where the names of our kinds came from. The faol, like myself, could transform into a dire-wolf. The act of shifting healed wounds. A highly useful skill full of strength and stamina. For eons we basked in the benefits of our gift, our peaceful culture thrived.

That was until fate lashed out and a shadow darkened the land. On the nights of the full moon a ravenous beast tore through shires and dragged off innocent slan, from whelps to elderly. For ten years shire-folk lived in fear of this menace stalking in the dark, aware it was at least one, if not more, of their own. In the heart of a shire Uachdaran called out to his fellow faol that mingling with the other sects of the slan is what brought this accursed punishment. Magic, he decreed, was uncontrollable and a danger to all.

Most didn’t give his youthful ignorance a second thought, especially once the attacks ceased and peace returned to the lands. But Uachdaran did not back away from his belief. He beat his breast in every shire, and gradually faol flocked to him. The once-few grew into an army driven by fear of the ‘feral’ side of our race. Before long he abandoned the forested valleys and took his followers into the craggy hills. Walls of stone, he demanded, would keep them safe from the influence of the ‘feral’ magic. Within the walls of the first city, populated only by faol, he invoked a harsh ritual. All who wished his protection must subject themselves to the thorn of the yellow rose. Once a slan is pricked the poison prevents magic, even shifting, for a full mooncycle. Cycle after cycle, his followers bound rose stems to their arms to prove their devotion. A sea of flowery yellow pennants twisted the wills of thousands.

In the shadow of his impenetrable city, others took up a similar cry until there were segregated cities of ‘rose pledged’ folk. Cities of solely brucach, or mangan. The land of Caledonia closed up behind walls of division where the ‘feral’ were treated with suspicion.

The fear of their ‘wild’ cousins manifested into a raging fire. Driven into a frenzy by the war drums of the self-declared nobility, who claimed to be protecting their followers, the battles began. Armored squads trampled and burned shires. Folk were dragged into the city walls and bound with thorns. Those who refused to be bound were slain. Bards and druids entered the cities at their peril. Attempts to ease the fear only resulted in torture, paws and jaws broken, bodies bound in thorns cast down like scree on the mountain to a long and lingering death. Most hid to protect the vast collected knowledge, leaving many shires to fend for themselves.

Through the spark of one panicked voice, a war spanned generations. Only shires veiled by the magic of defiant bards and druids evaded the painful fate as our race lost our blessing to the tongue of fear. Pierced by the thorns, the youth behind stone walls grew up never knowing what they truly were. Their suppressed gift became a horror story whispered by the hearth … the truth of the deadly decade buried and forgotten. All the collective heard was that a shifted slan is nothing more than a feral mindless beast. They gazed upon carvings on the walls of their proud armies slaying shifted beasts, never aware that the dire-wolf on the end of the lance was one their own kind. Kin murdered kin in a glorified procession of cleansing.

What a shameful lie. The shift steals none of our sense. But I tell you what can, fear. The tongue of an unchecked paranoid individual convinced there is a reason to hate can do more damage than any shifted beast ever has … and that is why, effectively, the race of slan is now extinct.

Here I am, centuries later, an immortal Traveler, burdened to keep the history and watch it ever repeat, again and again.

The world bows as one voice treats opinion as fact and drowns out all other reason. One paranoid voice drums up hatred without stopping to listen to anything but confirming echoes. One vengeful voice builds a wall against an imaginary threat, blindly dividing the world into countless shards.

I have witnessed civil war before. I have seen it eliminate a once thriving culture. Seen it destroy magic … and now, I hear the cadence of the war drums building again. The blind division born of ignorant fear, and already the panicked stand with stones in their hands ready to stack them.

Open your eyes! Please, I beg of you! This has happened before, in your time, not just mine. The candles are already blowing out, the light is dwindling. Rekindle the flame of true understanding, quell the hysteria that kills innocents. Only knowledge can banish the boogeyman before the vile whispers drive your blade into the heart of your brother, before you wall up your sister.

Once the poison of hysteria takes root, there is no going back.

So wake up, before it is too late. The entire human race is too precious to lose.

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The Troubling Division

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The floodgates have opened. Social media is drowned in a deluge of outrage, terror, fear, rage. Washed away in the torrent is the one thing the world needs: reason.

ForAll

In recent years equality has become a major topic. And it should be. There is no doubt that right now society is a mess. There is a disturbing current of incidents going on. Yes, it is fueled by problems poisoning the social structure. Let’s face facts, shit is happening to good people because of things they can’t (or shouldn’t have to) control. You know what I mean: ethnicity, religion, gender, age, socio-ecomic class, etc.

So, a spark gets ignited somewhere, people start to talk, memes get posted and then, oh God—the flame wars! “How can you support THEM?!” “Don’t say it that way!” “If you say that you are WRONG!” “Why are you sharing THAT meme?” “Kill all those (insert hot button topic here, you’ve seen this before).”

The sad part is the reading between the lines. To see good people arguing over simple words when in truth they are after the same end goal. At least I think that’s what we’re after … equality … right?

There is reason I pause and stumble there. The reason is this. I have witnessed people flat out called racists for offering support to the whole human race.

Yes. Please stop and process that for a moment. Let me repeat:

“You are a racist if you share a meme that supports uniting all of humanity.”

I hang my head. Is unity not the end goal? Or have I got it wrong? Often people who share solidarity are approached with statements concerning how it undercuts the movement and dismisses the problem ignoring the issues. We hear the burning house analogy.

Well, folks. Guess what, there is more than one ‘burning house’. The root of the problem is bigger than any one ethnicity. In fact it is far more reaching than ethnicity alone. Pardon me for acknowledging them all instead of focusing on one and one alone.

Now, I could list all the houses individually. But if I started that list would be immense. When I condense it and say that all lives matter it is because I yearn for society to progress toward the true goal where every human being is seen as just that: a fellow human being. We shouldn’t be breaking it down into groups for any reason. We are all members of … wait for it …

One. Human. Race.

Here’s an example of a meme that triggers the response. It says: “All cops aren’t bad, all African Americans aren’t thugs, all whites aren’t racists. If we come together and unite as one, we can be an unstoppable force.” What is the problem with sharing this? Which statement isn’t true? Are all cops bad? All African Americans thugs? All whites racists? Is uniting a bad thing? Seriously, how is this undermining moving toward equality?

Running agility with my dogs has taught me something about basic communication. In agility when you run focusing on the problem often you will accidentally send your dog on that mistake. However, when you approach the course with your goal in mind, i.e. the intended obstacle, you stand a better chance of success.

This is a life lesson that applies to the human animal as well. Let’s face it folks, we are not vegetables or minerals. We are animals too. We work better focusing on the positive which makes the end goal easier. But doing that does not mean we are ignoring the underlying problem. We are merely looking at the bigger picture, working toward the end goal. Equality. For everyone. Please don’t try to shame others into focusing on one group’s needs, and only theirs. Personally, I give a shit about the rights of all human beings regardless of who they are so long as they treat others with respect. I feel it’s terribly biased to be told only to post about one.

The one thing that these accusations does accomplish is pushing barbs into the sides of people who are actually supportive of progress. Rather than arguing semantics with a supporter, save the history lessons for those who need it, the ones who clearly segregate. If we want true equality we need to stop the divide and unite as

One. Human. Race.

The Legacy of Fear

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A sword can slay whatever lies in its path. But fear is a devastating weapon, it cuts down lives generations down the path in a journey without end.

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A gathering of great minds, past and future.

That ancient adage clings to my slannic mind of late. I mourn for your world, humanity, because as a Traveler I know where this is headed. The true-master bards have not seen your fate specifically, but we have seen the signs before, ages past, in our kind. Mark me well …

For many ages slan lived a peaceful existence in shires nestled into the woodlands. Our kinds intermingled and hardly gave mind to our differing races. Whether we were cugar, mangan, faol, radan, or brucach mattered not – the god Cernunnos had made us what we were: all of us slan. The shires grew in number, our culture thrived, and we bards enjoyed revelry much of our days. Only rarely were we asked to sit judgement over a petty crime. Slan were free to pay homage to whichever deity they pleased. Free to select their mate regardless of race or talents. It was a legacy of prosperity. Our society was rich beyond compare …

… until the harmony faded into discord.

The wave started small. An aftershock from a tragic event involving magic. One voice cried out in fear that the ‘beast’, though concurred, would re-emerge! Why? Because the event proved any one of us could be turned against slan. The magic of the shape-shift, a gift from the gods to heal and restore, embodied the paranoia that could come hunting in the night. A beast sent to slaughter. Magic, a part of us all, became the first target of fear.

The voice fostered that fear and the flocks came in droves. More voices cried out and pulled into further divisions. Soon, those who turned their backs on the once-ways built stone walls to protect them from their wild and primitive ‘enemies’. Each stronghold divided by race, unwilling to let a faol live amongst a brucach, or a mangan amongst the cugar. Their world became shattered into fragments guarded by swords and pikes, shielded by armor against corruption of their own decree. They selected which deities the whole of their population would follow. And in an effort to kill magic they poisoned the blood of every subject, stealing any chance they would have of becoming their true selves. For they were afraid the beast within would tear through and stalk the night!

In the shires we clung to one another, intermingled and distraught as our world was decimated. Fires burned in the valleys when the armies marched to force the followers of the once-ways into death or blood-poisoning. Magic-talents slaughtered by the thousands not by sword or poison, but by fear.

The words resonated through the generations. Parent taught whelp to hate those different in race, creed, and talent. The flames of hatred divided us … yet we were all still slan. They just refused to see it. A magic that healed and restored, a magic that was at the core of our ancient spirits, lay twisted into the dark saga of a beast to be feared. A creature to be banished. It became law that any who tapped that sacred well and refused to suppress their ability must be put to death.

The hillsides, stripped of their once ancient forests, became populated with nothing more burial cairns.

The bardic circle watched as time eroded the society we had been birthed in … until it vanished. For once the shire-born slan were eradicated, the strongholds turned on one another. Their society born of fear of an enemy, they created a new monster to slay.

We watched our world die at the hands of ignorance and fear. We watched as kin slayed kin over misunderstanding and superstition. We watched as belief drove hundreds to slaughter out of hatred.

We bore witness to a legacy of fear spread unchecked until all that remains of the slan is the memories sung to the stones … our songs. The funeral durge instead of a celebration of our once vast diversity.

Humanity, the world is in your hands now. Daily cries go up of the atrocities perpetuated against one another. Regardless of their reason: creed, race, religion, gender, orientation, job, age … why do these unreasonable divisions keep festering anew? You are all human at the core … just as we were all slan.

A legacy of fear … is all that humanity will leave behind?

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Ealaidh, the Traveler

Symbols that Build, Symbols that Break

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BardicSummons

“When you look what do you see? … don’t fear to look deeper.” ~Ealaidh

Welcome back.

I just finished the most amusing discussion with my human friend about symbols. We’ve all heard that old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, likewise a symbol can embody complex ideals.

Take the kenaz for example:

Kenaz

This rune is vital to the slannic bards. Displayed on necklaces, it tells others that we serve our race as lore-keepers, judges, and entertainers. Even the material the pendant is made from is significant. A novice bard’s is made from leather. A master bard’s, carved from wood. If one is a Traveler, or a true-master bard selected by the god Taliesin, the kenaz is comprised of a special metallic stone imbued with special properties.

What special properties, you ask? Well, all a Traveler need do is think of an instrument and the kenaz becomes it. Whether you want a drum, a tin-whistle, a harp… or even in modern times, yes–an electric guitar. It’s a convenient way of ensuring we aren’t burden by an veritable orchestra of instruments.

You can imagine, wandering on footpaw that would become quite heavy.

There is a danger to wearing the kenaz as well. For when everyone knows that you are a source of logic and reason, you quickly become a target during upheaval. There was a time when we Travelers had little choice but to cast a guise over our runes for our very survival.

Like my experience with the mixtured nature of symbols, my human friend reflected on a story of a man who became defined by them. She has been recording some lost chapters of his life for the world to come to know the core of this man.

From his birth, Erik hid his face behind a mask.

PhantomMask

He had every reason, for despite his extraordinary gifts, he was disfigured and the world was reviled his monstrous face. But his spirit craved beauty. He collected things that fascinated him. He accumulated the most astonishing skills to build devices and buildings that left onlookers in awe.

None of it mattered. The world only saw the mask– the monster beneath.

Weary of humanity’s game and heartsick after the loss of his greatest treasure, Erik exiled himself and tried to begin a-new. Only in America he found that his strange mask was not the only barrier.

Here he was an immigrant! Though he may have brought a meager fortune with him, the shine of the coin mattered nothing. He was an immigrant to be confined to the Bowery ward for that reason above any other.

This new world underestimated his ambition to create. Fettered by society’s bias Erik put his boundless spirit into one goal–sharing his visions with the world through his architecture.

Against the odds he earned enough to commission the one thing he would need to show the elite he was a gentlemen. His signet ring.

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The silver compass: a tool gifted to him by his stone-mason mentor. The most prized possession of an architect essential for creating master works.

The quill: the writing utensil that documented his other passion, music.

And of course his one and only initial: E. For Erik possessed no sir-name. Despite this, he claimed the status of a gentleman by his own merit.

Mask and signet. Shield and pennant. Sometimes they protect us, sometimes they define us. Sometimes they endanger or even fight us!

For Erik, his symbols have been all of these… if you like to read his story, my human friend has been recording it here: Nightingale’s Odyssey

Until next time, my friends.