Book Club: Ringworld

This month’s book club selection was Ringworld by Larry Niven (288 pages).

First published in 1970, it is indicative of the era for a couple of reasons.

Let’s start with the story and plot. Or lack thereof. The blurb sold the book as a tale about discovering an immensely large circular space ribbon constructed by builders of unknown origins. A motley crew consisting of two humans and two aliens set off to investigate. When their ship crash lands on the said ribbon, they trek across thousands of miles of the Ring’s surface. Based on this description, I expected a story to be about the crew’s adventures during their journey, and ultimately, the discovery of the builders and the Ring’s purpose. Unfortunately, it was anything but what I imagined. 

I heard that Ringworld is considered a book of ideas and a conceptional exploration. It’s a fair description because it has little to no plot. There was no conflict or dramatic question raised. No events leading to the resolution or answer. While the worldbuilding kept my interest for a few chapters, I need action to keep me turning the page. And I’m not a big action-type reader either. I prefer mystery and intrigue blended with action.

Exploring the fantastic concepts such as those put forth by Niven must have been riveting for the mid-20th century readers. For this early 21st century bibliophile, the lack of plot left me feeling unsatisfied. I wondered about some of the concepts, but whole chapters dedicated to the scientific explanations weren’t compelling enough to keep me turning the pages. The reason why I only made it through Chapter 6 (page eighty-five).

Now the characters. Some in the group felt they were adequately developed. I was not one of them. Their stereotypes were created, but not their individualism. Nothing about their backstories made them unique. Hence, I was unable to sympathize and invest in them.

The aliens were very cartoonish to me. As a visual person, I struggled with their descriptions. They were challenging to follow, and I had to read them a couple of times before I got an image of them in my mind’s eye. On the other hand, most in the group liked them because their physical appearances were not conventional. I guess I prefer my aliens to be more literal, more humanoid.

The women characters were the most problematic, the universal consensus of the group and all the reviews I’ve read. First, Halrloprillalar Hotrufan (aka “Prill”) is a surviving member of the builders. She belongs to a guild devoted to providing sexual services, entertainment, and companionship. In other words, she’s a whore.

Teela Brown was the other female character, and her role was more prominent than Prill. At least in the first eighty-five pages anyway. As one might expect, she’s portrayed as naïve and witless. Besides being the mission’s lucky charm, her primary role is Louie Wu’s sex toy. If anything, I enjoyed her “luck” trait. She was bred for it, and it was the only magical, non-scientific element in the story. It got me thinking about what if a person possessed perpetual luck, good or bad. Perhaps, there’s a short story in my future.

Also, the female versions of the aliens are non-sentient. They’re non-responsive to or unconscious of sense impressions. Enough said about the sexist characterization of women in the book. For me, the take-away was how far women have come since then. [1]

It must resonate with some readers. It has over 100,000 Goodreads reviews. Almost 80,000, 4- or 5-stars and another 25,000, 3-stars. Plus, it won the Hugo, Locus, Ditmar, and Nebula awards. No doubt, this favorable rating is from diehard scifi fans who like a lot of hard science.

Let me know if you’ve read Ringworld and your impression of it. Share your good, bad, and ugly thoughts about it.


The next book selections are:
February – Shards of Earth by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2021, 592 pages)
March – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953, 182 pages)


[1] We’re still not quite on equal ground as men, but it shouldn’t get in the way of any determined woman getting what she wants. Just remember to pick your battles and use the magic of grace and dignity to accomplish your goals. There’s nothing wrong with closing a door and walking away. Nowadays, many open doors are around the corner. Go find them! 😉

World History 101

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

I’ve spent the last few days organizing my created world file for The Venerable Dawn: Ascension (working title). This file includes everything from the initial dump of my worldbuilding thoughts to the most recent reiteration of its elements. During the first draft, I layered in bits and pieces of worldbuilding throughout the narrative, and like the story, my world evolved. As I worked on the second draft, I experienced a moment where I felt a few of the pieces weren’t cohesive. The logic didn’t flow in my mind, and I decided I needed to spend some time on my World History 101 textbook.

Speculative fiction is set in a created world. Depending on the genre, these universes can be quite elaborate. Those in science fiction and high fantasy, the most intricate. As a contemporary fantasy, my created world parallels our own universe with a slight deviation. Humans with a genetic variation, a magick gene.

Like their terrestrial peers, college-aged trubreds are required to take two courses of World History as part of their indoctrination. And like other gen ed course requirements, the material becomes vague over the years. Many of us can relate to the mandatory US Government classes in high school and college. We remember the basics, but many of the finer details are lost.

Hence, my late thirty-something main characters are continuously reminded to do their homework to refresh their memories by their mentor. Their destinies depend on it. Not one to follow anyone or anything, my protagonist realizes it’s in her best interest to use the history textbook to help her understand and accept her unwelcome fate. If she has no choice in the matter, she’s determined to be prepared as much as possible. Even if it’s nothing but a bunch of hocus-pocus to her.

Someday, I’ll publish my World History 101 textbook as a companion to the series. The current word count is about 17,000 or 40 pages, with more organizing and editing to be completed. For now, I’ve organized the pieces that caused me to pause, and to my delight, they are cohesive. I just needed a refresher.  Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, chapter four.

Happy New Year!

Book Club

Have you heard the advice: learn to write by reading? I think reading is a fundamental part of the apprenticeship. To my dismay, I fail this lesson far too often. Not because I don’t like reading. To the contrary, I love books and good storytelling.

My love of reading started in elementary school. I’d rather huddle under a shady tree with a good book than play with the other kids at recess. This hobby carried into my high school and college years. Though course material took precedence, I managed to do both at the same time by taking a lot of literature classes. Way too many Shakespeare courses, and my favorite, Intro to Science Fiction. I lived the dream, getting college credit for reading the classics by Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury and Herbert to name a few. Later in life, my interest shifted from speculative fiction to mysteries. Martha Grimes, Dick Francis and Sue Grafton.

When career and family dominate life, sacrifices must be made because we can’t do everything.[1] For me, reading was one of the costs. Gone were the days of curling up with a good book all day on the weekends. Instead, it was relegated to when I went to bed. And that was a major fail. Two pages in, and I was in la-la land, dreaming my own fantastical tales.

Yet, I truly believe reading is essential to learning the craft. There is nothing like a well-written and compelling story to inspire my writing. While time isn’t as much of a hurdle now, it still influences my priorities. Once I grab hold of an idea, I become quite driven, and writing takes priority now. When I do read, a lot of the material is about the craft. My solution to overcoming my bad habit – join a book club.

I found an online SciFi group. The catch is I’m more of a fantasy reader than science fiction. I tend to gloss over the scientific explanations, missing essential facets of the story. The result is I don’t always finish the monthly selections. I give it 100 pages. If I struggle to get to this point, I’m out. My library card helps me save valuable space on my bookshelves for those works I genuinely love.  

The unintended benefit is listening to the other readers’ perspectives. These people are avid readers and sci-fi fans. None are writers, but they are so well-read. I love hearing their thoughts about the books. In September, we read Dune, just in time for the movie release in October. I’ve been a huge fan of this classic for too many years to admit. But I heard the strangest viewpoints. Some that never crossed my mind, and in the right forum, I’d like to debate.

If you are like me and undisciplined about reading on a regular basis – join a book club. At the very least, you’ll get to hear what works and doesn’t work for devoted readers. Case in point – hard-core scifi fans don’t like any romance in their stories. Another reason I write fantasy.

BTW, I continue to struggle with the lullaby effect of reading at night. It has to be quite a compelling story for me to get through more than a chapter. Though it is the best cure for falling asleep after those 3am sessions, dumping the ideas flooding my mind into an email. Sweet dreams, friends.


[1] Many try, but few succeed. Pick your battles; stick with what you value the most and give it your all.

The Cycle of Acceptance

One of my favorite parts of writing fiction is putting my characters in shocking situations. To make their worst nightmare come true or make the unthinkable happen. They are key moments in the story for the protagonist like when the main character realizes her father is the villain, and she must kill him to save the world. Or it becomes clear that his lover is leaving him for a woman. In either case, these realizations rock our characters’ world.

In my writing group, I’ve read about characters shattered by a revelation, and within a couple of paragraphs, they have accepted it as their new reality. Then, they move on to the next plot point without a second thought. This scenario guarantees a lengthy critique comment from me. Why? Because that’s not how it happens in real life.

When someone receives life-changing news, they move through the cycle of acceptance. Think about a person’s thought process when they receive a cancer diagnosis. Anyone who’s gotten such terrible news would tell you that it took them a while to process and accept it. Likewise, the stages of grief involve a little bit more than, “Oh no, that’s awful news. I can’t believe he’s gone. Wasn’t there anything the doctors could have done for him? Too bad, I’ll miss him.” A ridiculously simplistic example, but I’ve read some stories where it’s written in such manner.

In my current work-in-progress, a pivotal moment is when my protagonist’s destiny is authenticated. In the opening scene, her potential fate is suggested to her, but nothing is certain until her fate is validated. Throughout the next 20 pages, she gathers information and learns more about her preordained role. Dread starts to settle in because she wants nothing to do with this leadership role.

Finally, the moment of truth is upon her, and her destiny is authenticated. Her initial responses include shock in the form of a panic attack, and when she recovers, a vehement denial. At the end of the scene, she accepts the reality for a split second and asks her companion, “What happens now?” The total word count is about 600 words or about 3 pages.

In the next scene, she reverts to denial until she starts bargaining with herself. She starts to think of ways to avoid assuming this role and the consequences if she throws the challenge per se. Through internal discussion and soul searching, she resolves to get on with the ritual to assume power because it’s the only way to end the nightmare. Her hope is she will fail at some point, allowing her to return to a life of anonymity and solitude.

My protagonist cycles through the phases several times on different levels throughout the book. On a macro level, her character arc. Her transformation from one person to another includes working through the stages. Also, she works through a variation of the process each time she learns something about her past. Sometimes, she gets through the process quickly. Other times, it takes her more time to reach acceptance. It depends on the bombshell dropped on her, and there a few of them.

This approach is fundamental to my writing. I believe it adds depth to my characters when readers understand what they go through when the author puts them in challenging situations. In my protagonist’s case, the poor woman gets blindsided several times when she learns about the lies she’s been living. Showing her range of emotions helps endear her to the readers, and they become invested in what happens to her.  

The takeaway for this post – put your character through the paces.

Self-Editing Your Manuscript

Self-editing. The angst of many writers. They are more comfortable and excited about writing their first draft where they can ignore grammar rules, setting descriptions, and other fundamentals of the craft. No need to worry about showing rather than telling, info-dumping, or using ly-adverbs (yes, I ignored the rule for this post). Just let the ideas flow and get them on paper, i.e., in a Word or Google doc.

All good for those types of writers. It works for many of them. Yet, editing is inevitable, whether traditionally or self-publishing. An agent or small press publisher might bite if the story is good, and the writing is polished. A clean manuscript minimizes their cost in terms of time and money. Good editing is even more important for the indie author. Their sales depend on clean copy. Many self-published books get 1- or 2-star ratings because the writing is poor.

In either case, some effort into self-editing goes a long way. It shows traditional industry professionals that you know the craft of writing. I heard one agent say she can help an author with materials like jacket covers, but she cannot teach someone how to write. Likewise, any good hired editor charges by the hour. A lot of redlining equals a lot of money.

Here’s an overview of my process for those who dread the process or those who don’t know where to start. There are a couple phases: a developmental edit and copyediting/proofreading.

First, a developmental edit of my own work begins with a macro-analysis. I’m a plotter, so my writing process starts with an outline, which evolves as the story unfolds. Yet even as a plotter, I still perform this review because it’s more than an outline. It’s creating what I call scene summaries, and there are four key elements in mine:

Purpose
The reason for each scene. I answer several questions during this analysis. First and foremost, why is it important to the plot? What am I trying to accomplish with this scene? How does it add to the unfolding of the story? Is it necessary to devote an entire scene to it? Can I slip it into another scene?

Synopsis
A summary of what happens in the scene. This step helps with pacing, and it’s related to the purpose. In general, it helps me to see if the scene’s intent is clear to the reader based on what happens in it. Did the action serve its purpose? Or was it too short or too long to carry out its mission? The same analysis is done with dialogue. Does the discussion between characters reveal what the reader needs to know? If anything, writing these synopses are great practice for when I have to write them for selling or marketing my book. Another tip I found helpful: a synopsis is written in present tense like a screenplay.

Character Arcs
All of us know (or should know) that our protagonist’s is not the same person at the beginning and end of the story. They transform from one person to another as a result of what happened to them in the story. This step summarizes their journey, and I complete it for every significant character to ensure they are fully developed. I even document the purpose of the flat or expo characters.

Narrative Tension
This aspect is defined differently by others. In my little writing universe, I describe it as “what keeps the reader turning the page.” It includes suspense, intrigue, and speculation in the form of questions raised, questions answered, and foreshadowing. I identify the carrots I’ve dangled in front of the reader. In addition, I note when details are given to the reader to make sure I leave no questions unanswered.

Another technique I use is more creative in a sense. It involves the use of color to identify various elements in my manuscript. Using different colors, I highlight backstory, worldbuilding, descriptions, and visceral/sensory reactions. In the end, I have a visual picture of how these important components are integrated into the story. A valuable tool for identifying too much or too little of a good thing.

Finally, copyediting and proofreading. The simplest way to check your grammar is to use an online tool. There are several options available, and they are usually free. These automated tools will not catch “everything,” and you don’t have to accept “every” recommended change. Like the program I use doesn’t like my fragmented sentences, but it does keep me honest about using them judiciously. If anything, I get a refresher on the rules because grammar should be second-nature to a writer.

My all-time favorite proofreading tool is the Read-Aloud function. It is a life-saver for me since my fingers can’t keep up with my mind. It catches the dreaded missing words. Likewise, it helps me with the cadence of my writing. Parts that don’t flow well or read awkwardly jump off the page when I hear them.

I used both of the tricks to edit and proof this post. I unabashedly admit that there were lots of redlines.

This process is mine and won’t work for everyone. I’m very detail-oriented and visual. For like-minded writers, they may already use some of these techniques or have other tricks of their own. For those who loath self-editing, perhaps, one or two of my methods will help them successfully conquer this necessary evil. Because self-editing is a fundamental part of commercial writing.  

Earth’s Bounty

One of the most challenging parts of writing The Venerable Dawn: Ascension are composing the magick verses. I’m not a poet by any stretch of the imagination. Yet the verses are poetic in nature. Recently, I penned my favorite.

As summer sets, Gaia offers her bounty,
Ripe fruit as black as night, sweet as mulberries.
But beware. Like the queen’s apple, eternal rest certain,
Unless tempered by the light of fauna, uniquely singular,
And the milk from the fruit on the pregnant vines.

Tell me what do you think. Yes, no, maybe?



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Book Research: The Sphinx and The Art of Seduction

Research for my most recent submission to my critique group included the Sphinx and the art of seduction. Let’s talk about the Sphinx first and save salacious discussion for later.

THE SPHINX
First, the correct spelling of the monolith standing guard over the Great Pyramids of Giza is S-P-H-I-N-X. Someone who shall not be named kept spelling it “sphynx” which is not the same as the Sphinx. A sphynx is a hairless cat. The Sphinx in Egypt is a mythical creature with the head of a human and a lion’s body.

The internet is full of information about the Sphinx, but I was more interested the monument’s little-known facts. Some of its secrets and mysteries. The first is the underground tunnels and chambers. They can be accessed at five points: a hole in the top of the head, another in its back, one at ground level at the end of the monument, a crud doorway on its north side, and a hole between its paws behind the dream stela. Fringe speculation suggests another access point under the Sphinx’s ear, but it has been debunked. It’s actually a fitting used to affix a beard, the remnants of which were found near the paws. Sadly, the underground world of the Sphinx has been excavated more than once and doesn’t hold any more secrets or mysteries. And unlike the Great Pyramids, visitors cannot venture into these tunnels and chambers.

Tunnels and Chambers inside the Sphinx

What’s the dream stela, you ask? It is a rectangular stele (an upright slab similar to a gravestone). According to archeologists, the Sphinx’s stela is about a dream Thutmose IV had as he rested in the shade of the monument. At the time, the Sphinx was covered in sand up to its shoulder, and it promised to make Thutmose ruler of Egypt if he clears the sand away. Thutmose did, and he became king.

The most interesting facts are the Sphinx’s riddles. In Greek mythology, the Sphinx guarded the entrance to the city of Thebes. She would ask travelers a riddle to allow them passage into the city. Anyone who could not answer it was devoured by her. The first riddle: which is the creature that has one voice but has four feet in the morning, two feet in the afternoon, and three feet at night? The answer: Man, who crawls on all fours as a baby, then walks on two feet as an adult, and then uses a cane in old age. Oedipus solved this riddle, and according to the myth, the Sphinx killed herself. There’s a second riddle: There are two sisters; one gives birth to the other, who in turn gives birth to the first. Who are they? The answer is “day and night.” Technically, the riddles aren’t connected to the Egyptian Sphinx, but they are still really cool.

Now for the fun stuff…


THE ART OF SEDUCTION
Bad boy antagonist, Damion is a master of seduction, a purveyor of sensuality. I, on the other hand, am not so proficient at the art. I needed a little help to make his actions and dialogue fit his persona and stumbled upon Robert Greene’s book, The Art of Seduction. Who knew there were nine types of seducers? Not me, so a little bit about each of them for future reference:

The Siren plays on the notion that men are always searching for new experiences and adventures. Her calm, unhurried demeanor combined with a dazzling appearance instantly captures man’s attention. There’s a danger about her. She makes him pursue her, always a bit out of his reach. You know, men like the chase.

The Rake is a man who incessantly pursues a woman by showing her ardent devotion. He seems to be madly in love with her and uses words and language to show his devotion. Like the Siren, there’s a sense of mystery about him. He uses his reputation as a lady’s man and recklessly in love to his advantage. Every woman wants him, but she’s the only one who has him.

The Ideal Lover is a fantasy lover who makes himself irresistible to a woman by giving her what seems to be missing in her life. Think Casanova, who presented himself as the epitome of what a woman desires. Or Madame de Pompadour, who become the adventure that King Louis XV needed in his life. Your homework is to google both of these characters to enrich yourself.

The Dandy offers the kind of forbidden freedom that most people can only dream of but never achieve. A non-traditionalist, a dandy often relies on insolence to attract the opposite sex. But a male dandy is not aggressive. He’s sophisticated and graceful. A metrosexual man. A woman dandy has masculine qualities in her appearance and attire. Examples include Rudolph Valentino, Marlene Dietrich, and Lou von Salome. as prototypical examples of male and female dandies. All of them seduced a large number of people using their ability to break conventions and represent an almost forbidden freedom. More homework for you.

The Natural has an irresistible innocence about him. He’s impish, vulnerable and defenseless, open and spontaneous, traits that make the object of her desire lower his guard. His persona, a refreshing experience in contrast to the daily seriousness of adult life. Greene’s example of this type is Charlie Chaplin. Who do you think is a more contemporary Natural?

Charlie Chaplin, circa 1920

The Coquette plays with emotions. By alternating between unexplained warmth and coldness, he creates tension with anticipation. A sense of insecurity, not knowing what is coming next. A bit narcissistic by making his target relentlessly pursue him until she reaches the point of no return. Then he pulls her back in with a show of warmth and attention.

The Charismatic is self-sufficient and driven. He uses his powerful personality and his way with words to sway emotions. His target looks to him to save her. He seduces her by creating contradictions like cruelty and kindness, power and vulnerability, etc. I admit I fall for charisma because I’m a romantic at heart.

The Star is a fascinating creature with a larger-than-life persona. He appeals to his target’s attraction to the strange and mythical while playing up his human qualities at the same time. Jack Kennedy is a classic example of this type of seducer.

John Fitzgerald KENNEDY. 1952.

Now you have your homework assignment. Let’s have some fun and post your answers (thoughts and questions, too) in the Comments.

Letters From Home

Blair backed her SUV into the double-wide driveway. The taillights blazed red, and it lurched to a stop. She opened the door with such force, it snapped back on her leg. Using her foot, she pushed it open until it held. Her arms loaded with her computer, messenger bag, and lunchbox and her morning coffee cup in her hand, she used her shoulder to shut the door.

The hatch on the rear of the vehicle and the garage door levitated in unison. Blair shuffled through the interior door, greeted by the aroma of chocolate chip cookies. For a moment, she was her seven-year-old self, sneaking one of them from the linoleum countertop. Her computer bag slipped from her shoulder, breaking her reverie.

“I’m home, Grandma.” She dropped her lunchbox and traveler cup on the kitchen counter. Grabbing a cookie cooling on the dishcloth, she walked through the great room into the multipurpose dining room/office.

Grandma sat at her antique writing desk, a dip pen in her hand, scratching on the decades-old stationery. Looking up from her writing, she gazed out the window. “Hello, my dear. How was your day?” Her back to the doorway.

“Hectic as usual. Thank god for the advent of online grocery shopping.” Blair walked over to her grandma and kissed her head. “I don’t know how I’d get it done without it.”

“Like the rest of us did. Driving to the store, walking the aisles, and checking out at the register. It was not so long ago,”

“I remember crowded aisles and long lines.” Blair plopped her bags on her desk in front of the bookcase. She took a bite of her cookie, trying to catch the crumbs with her hand under her mouth.

Grocery shopping was a Saturday morning ritual for her mom and the rest of the world. As a kid too big to sit in the cart, she spent half of the time dodging the baskets of other distracted moms. Boredom replaced her anxiety, waiting in one of many lines snaking around the row of registers.

“How is this week’s batch of cookies?” Grandma dipped the tip of the pen in the ink well. “Do you think your grandpa would approve?”

“For sure.” Blair nodded and stuffed the rest of the cookie into her mouth. “So will your grandson.”

The screech of the yellow school bus’s brakes called her to the window. The bus door swung open, and her son, Drake, bounded down the steps, jumping to the pavement and racing towards the house at full speed. She smiled, and her heart swelled with motherly love.

Blair greeted him in the garage with a monster hug. “Hey, buddy. How was the first day of school?” With skilled efficiency, she loaded the nine white plastic grocery bags in the back of her SUV on her arms.

“It was good.”

“What did you do?” She already knew he did nothing, but asked him anyway.

“We started learning cursive writing. Like Gran uses.” He skipped through the door, putting his new Batman lunchbox on the counter next to her lunch bag. He snatched a warm cookie from the dish towel.

Blair grabbed another one and followed him to the office. He burst into a sprint, excited to tell Grandma about learning cursive writing. He was fascinated by her script and loved to watch her write with the dip pen since he was about four years old. The ebb and flow of the movement across the paper mesmerized him, quieting his fidgeting. Their interaction warmed her heart. She was grateful for this connection between them. And even more thankful for his interest in something at school.

But the imperfection of handwriting made her shiver. The messiness of erasing unwanted words and phrases. Or the dreaded scratch-outs. The time it took to rewrite the material over and over until it was perfect. Pounding on a keyboard was far more productive. The delete and backspace keys, champions of the console. 

“Hi, Gran.” He took a bite of his cookie and embraced his grandma, facing the doorway now.

She kissed his head of messy brown hair. “How was school today?”

Crouching on the floor, Drake opened his new blue camouflage backpack and pulled out a glossy red folder covered in bouncing soccer balls. He opened it and removed a piece of paper from one of the pockets. The letters A-G, upper and lower case, were printed vertically on the left. On each row, practice areas with solid horizontal lines on the top and bottom with a dashed line in the middle.

Drake jumped up and put the worksheet on the writing desk. “Look, Gran. We started learning cursive today.” He pranced in place, his voice bubbling with enthusiasm. 

“Oh, marvelous.” Grandma glanced at Blair over her shoulder. “I thought schools had stopped teaching cursive?”

“News to me. Maybe, they’re bringing it back this year. Why I don’t know since it doesn’t help the kids pass the standardized testing.”

Blair scrounged around in Drake’s backpack, pulling out a thick manila envelope. A white label with ‘Welcome to Third Grade’ printed in block letters was adhered to the front. She unclasped the fastener and pulled out a stack of forms.

“Good lord, I’ll be up half the night, filling out these forms and finishing my brief.” Blair rolled her eyes and slapped the envelope on top of her laptop bag. “Why can’t we sign into our kid’s online account and update anything from last year? Check a box if there are no changes required. This pushing paper is so inefficient.” She struggled to hide her annoyance from Drake.

“Gran, what’s your letter about this week?” Drake asked.

“Now that you’re learning cursive, I’ll tell Grandpa about it.”

“Why do you write to him?” The innocence of a child. The same question every week and the same story.

“It’s how we talked to each other when we were separated during the war. We didn’t have computers, smartphones and the Internet like military families have nowadays. No, we only had pen and paper, and victory mail was our version of email.”

Grandma peered at the framed pictures on the desk. One of Blair’s grandpa in uniform, another of her grandparents on their wedding day. The third one with them and a baby.

“After sending a post, I remember waiting for a reply. For weeks, I anticipated our mailman’s daily deliveries. Twice a day back then. Until one day, it wasn’t the mailman at my door, but a Western Union messenger with a telegram.”

“Grandma, enough. Grandpa has been gone for over seventy-five years now. It’s ridiculous to think he actually gets them?”

“Stop being mean to Gran.” Drake scolded Blair every time she criticized their grandma. He liked her stories. A time before technology complicated their lives with the expectation of instant gratification. Before information and entertainment were at their fingertips. 

“We may be blessed with long life, but I’m glad we aren’t an immortal family. Someday, we will be reunited. Until then, writing letters helps me stay connected with Grandpa.”

“But still cursed because we’ve been forced to live without Grandpa and Mom for so long.” The tone of Blair’s voice, full of melancholy with a tinge of resentment.

Both of their loved ones’ lives were cut short by physical injuries. Grandpa, killed in action during war. Her mom died from injuries she sustained in a horrific crash with an eighteen-wheeler. The accident report stated speeding and improper lane usage as the cause of it. The truck driver, unhurt, was late for his scheduled off-load time. If he missed it, he would have been forced to reschedule for the next day, missing his next load time.

“Because they aren’t physically here with us doesn’t mean we can’t talk to them. It’s just different than what you’re used to. It requires investing time into composing your letter. Then you must be patient, waiting for a response. It’s not like instant messaging.”

“Right, all I need is time.” Blair scowled. “A rare commodity.”

“You should try writing to your mother. She might have some insight to help you get control of your life. Like learning to close the lid on your computer and enjoy your family. And turning off your phone and focusing on your struggling marriage. Romance doesn’t happen with a push of a button. You have to invest time to reap the rewards.”

Grandma folded her letter and stuck it in the envelope addressed to Gene Miller, c/o Resurrection Cemetery, Section 32, Plot 766, Space 1. She licked the seal on the flap and attached a postage stamp to the front. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a letter to get in the post.”

Sitting at the writing desk, Blair watched her grandma emerge from the garage and toddle down to the street. From the periphery, a white truck with the familiar blue sonic eagle logo glided into view. Grandma handed the letter and a paper bakery bag to the mail lady. They exchanged silent words and acknowledged them with head nods and smiles. 

Blair had spoken with the mail lady. She thanked her for indulging her grandma’s irrational hope and asked what she did with the letters. The cemetery administrators told her that they never received them.

The mail lady dismissed the notion of her grandma being delusional with a wave of her hand. She thought her letters were quite sweet and her cookies, delicious. But with firm conviction, she assured Blair that all postal workers were obligated by law to deliver the mail as addressed. What happens after she drops off outgoing mail at the post office, she did not know.

Blair fastened the lids of the Chinese carry-out boxes and put them in the refrigerator. Grandma wiped out the inside of the pastel yellow ceramic cookie jar. ‘Sweet Treats’ accented with green vines of pink and blue flowers advertised its contents. As a cherished wedding gift to her grandparents, the family knew to handle it with care. It’s revered status, another difference of opinion between them, but she respected it.

Grandma gathered up the remaining cookies and put them, one by one, into the jar.

Blair helped her. “I like this part of your ritual.” She smiled.

“Baking for someone is an act of love. A sign of affection.” Grandma placed the lid on top of the jar and pushed it back into the dark corner under the antique white cupboards. “You should try it sometime.”

Blair shook her head and smiled. She admired her grandma’s devotion to her grandpa, even if it was foolish. Like her persistence about Blair slowing down and taking stock of her life. She flipped the switch on the wall. The kitchen went dark except for the stove light.

* * * *

The aroma of scrambled eggs, bacon, and buttered toast permeated the kitchen. Drake and Grandma’s Saturday morning ritual always started with a hearty breakfast, but Blair wished her grandma would use turkey bacon. On the rare occasion that she joined them, she preferred avocado spread on her toast and no bacon.

Blair grabbed a wild berry protein drink from the refrigerator, shaking it with vigor. “What’s the plan for you two today?”

“Gran’s going to help me with my cursive.” Drake maneuvered the stepstool to the counter and slid the cookie jar from the corner. 

“That sounds like a great idea. Maybe, Grandma will let you use her special pen.” The thought of smudged ink made Blair shudder. She loaded up with her work bags and grabbed her travel cup. “I’ll be home around lunchtime.” A bit of guilt pinched her for the white lie. She rarely made it out of the office before three o’clock on the weekends. 

Grandma handed Blair’s lunchbox to her. “In case time gets away from you.” 

Drake took the lid off and reached into the hollow of the jar.

“Hey, come on Buddy. Eat your breakfast before…” Blair’s arms went slack, and her bags dropped to the floor. Her knees buckled. She blinked in disbelief.

“Look, Gran.” Drake pulled his hand out of the jar. “It’s a letter for you.”


This story was submitted to the Reedsy Weekly Writing Prompts contest. The prompt was write about someone who still practices a skill that used to be necessary but has long been replaced by technology.

Book Research

I recently finished my latest submission for my critique group. My usual routine is to take the week off while waiting for my critiques to come in. The time away from writing lets my story simmer for a bit and refreshes my mind in preparation for the next round of 8,000+ words. Something fun I like to do during this time off is look back at what I researched for my latest submission.

My obsession with research comes from two sources: my career as a tax professional and a science fiction literature class. First, substantiation plays a huge role in the field of tax and accounting. An auditor is not going to buy your explanation without proof substantiating your claim. The key to indisputable proof is thorough research of the law as it applies to your facts and circumstances.

Also, a college literature course ingrained the concept of plausibility in my mind. Readers must be able to suspend their disbelief in the created worlds of speculative fiction. Plausibility is achieved on several levels, but research is essential for factual believability. In my created world, a human subspecies is threatened by extinction. In order to be credible, I spent the good half of a day researching extinction.

Hence, research accounts for a lot of my time at the computer. Sometimes, I spend more time researching a topic than writing about it. While I’m a firm believer in doing my homework, I stress about the time it takes away from adding word count to my manuscript. An inner struggle inherently ensues to rationalize that this time is well spent. When I find myself in this place, I remember what I learned from a virtual class with best-selling author, David Baldacci.

An entire lesson of Baldacci’s lecture series was dedicated to research. During one part, he talked about his collection of binders full of notes. As an example, he referenced a 3-inch notebook with his research about nuclear weapons. He used these notes for only two paragraphs in one of his books. Vindication; my research time is a good investment. Oh, and I have a lovely collection of binders, too.

For my last submission, my research topics included:
~ Burns as in first, second, and third-degree burns.
~ Swordsmanship for one never knows when a character might need to lob the head off of a menacing creature.
~ Smaug, the dragon from The Hobbit
~ Body language of horses
~ Ancient woodlands
~ Barn floorplans

Always a fun exercise, but heaven help me if my computer is ever search by authorities of any kind.

Literary Techniques

Recently, I’ve been looking for guidance about writing short stories. Why? Because short stories are recommended for new fiction writers, and I’m new to fiction writing. They help us hone our skills before delving into the complex work of writing a novel. Practice makes perfect. Mistakes can be made without wasting a lot of time because writing is an investment of time. Staying true to my nature, I ignored this advice and dove head-first into a novel. I might be setting myself up for failure, but I feel have nothing to lose at this point.

So if I’m not creating short stories to practice the craft, why am I interested in learning about writing them? Simply said, to make money. According to some sources, making money selling short stories might be as improbable as a new writer tackling a novel. The trade-off is the loss of time spent on my book. But at least, I’ll be practicing my craft using the recommended approach. A win-win from my point of view. And if I’m lucky, I’ll make a few bucks, too.

During my quest to educate myself, I happened upon a book about the subject. The Write Practice Presents: Let’s Write a Short Story! by Joe Bunting. It contains a lot of great content about writing short stories and selling them, too. While I highly recommend this resource, this post is not a book review. It is about something I learned about my own writing during this exploration.

My ah-ha moment occurred while reading a segment about the literary techniques used for award-winning stories. Namely, Pulitzer and Nobel award-winning pieces. Now I am not a literary writer by any stretch of the imagination. My genre of choice is speculative fiction, urban/contemporary fantasies in particular. The style of this genre tends to be edgy; some have a noir feel to them. But my style is more characteristic of literary writing.

Let’s start with a list of the techniques cited:

1. Using long sentences
2. Using short sentences
3. Lyrical prose
4. Making an allusion
5. Using an eponym for character names
6. Be specific
7. A story within a story
8. A wide scope

Using Long Sentences
Whether it’s technical or fiction writing, I tend to write long compound sentences. Here’s an example of my writing:

Holding her Celtic cross necklace in the palm of my hand, I whispered a few verses of her favorite song, “Vincent,” into it and told her to wear it tonight to keep my spirit near her heart.

My sentences aren’t too long. The above example is only thirty-seven words, which is about average for my long sentences. Eleven words less than Cormac McCarthy’s forty-eight-word sentence cited in the book. Neither of them even close to the Tim O’Brien’s seventy-seven word cited example.  

Another difference is both book samples are full of conjunctions whereas I rarely use more than one in my long sentences. Also, they disregard the punctuation rules whereas I’m a stickler about it, even if it’s first draft. I know it’s a fault, but I unabashedly own it.

Using Short Sentences
One of my favorite techniques is punctuating my long sentences with short sentences. It’s so satisfying.

Twilight cast brilliant shades of yellow and orange bleeding into red, purple, and deep blue upon the horizon as we cruised over the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, the gateway to our destination, Sullivan’s Island. Red brake lights flashed intermittently.

They are great at grabbing the readers’ attention after a series of compound sentences or long run-on sentences, full of conjunctions.

Lyrical Prose
My style has a lyrical quality:  

A warm summer breeze scented with the sweet fragrance of nearby lilac blossoms caressed my skin. My grandpa sat next to me. With each gentle rise and fall of the swing, his voice grew stronger and louder, drowning out the static noise ringing in my ears.

I hit the jackpot with this example of my writing. It includes a long, a medium and a short sentence. More importantly, it has quite a rhythmic flow to it. I used it as my illustration because several critique partners commented on its quality. In particular, they noted my descriptive language which I think is characteristic of fantasy writing. But not so much for urban fantasies like my story. Descriptions in this genre are more straightforward, not too fluffy or willowy.

Making an allusion
This term was new to me; I had not heard of it before I read this book. It involves making a reference to another literary work by using an image, a character, or even a direct quote. Most readers won’t recognize when an allusion is made, but it’s exciting for those who “get it.” It adds depth to their reading experience and makes them feel like they connect with the author on a different level.

Technically, I don’t make allusions. Instead, I pepper a lot of symbolism throughout my story. For example, the theme of my story is new beginnings, and I refer to birch trees whenever possible as they are symbolic of new beginnings. A grove of trees is described as a grove of birch trees. A character throws a couple more birch logs onto the fire. Another character makes a cup of tea with Chaga mushroom, which grows on birch trees. Most readers will miss these subtle details, but they will be really cool for the reader who picks up on them.

Using an eponym for character names
Eponym, another literary term I was unfamiliar with, but its definition is simple. It means naming a character after someone famous in some manner. Oddly enough, I was very deliberate when I bestowed my characters with their names. I wanted them to have significance and mean something to the reader. Some of the names I use are Lilith, Sam, Darcy, and Damion. They are a bit cliché, but again, I proudly own it. Other names include a nod to King Arthur and Magnum PI.

I suspect I’m not unlike my peers when it comes to character names. They are something most writers are thoughtful about. If you’re a writer and haven’t thought about the role of your characters’ names, you might to think about them. On a side note, rethink using names that are difficult to pronounce. While they add nuance to your story, they can distract your readers, too.

Be specific
This technique means not speaking in generalizations, and I associate it with the artful use of descriptions. Based on examples in the book, literary writers describe blue birds as blue jays and red birds as cardinals. Or the wind whipped the willow’s branches rather than the tree branches.

If one thing is consistent in my young writing career, it is my descriptions. I’m a very descriptive writer, and critique partners either love them or hate them.

A story within a story
I’m not sure if my story within a story is comparable to this literary technique. Simply put, it means one character tells a story to another character. An example used in the book was from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, where the courtship of Petruchio and Katherina is a play performed for a drunkard who’s made to think he is a nobleman. A little bit of a complicated illustration of the concept, but nonetheless, illustrative.

My story involves a legend about the demise of former rulers. Throughout the tale, details about the legend are revealed, which impact the plot. To me, this scenario seems like a story within a story. In fact, a lot about my Book 2 is included in Book 1.

A wide scope
The scope of most literary novels is national or international, meaning they are set in times of war like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bells Toll set during the Spanish Civil War. Or other notable time periods like The Great Gatsby’s portrayal of the Roaring 20s.

The setting of my story is contemporary, but the legend mentioned above is rooted in the early 19th century England. A time of transition between the Georgian and Victoria eras. The culture and practices of these eras are interwoven throughout my novel. Another technicality where my setting doesn’t quite fit the definition. Yet there is a presence of a historical time period.

Literary writing is about experimental styles and breaking the rules. I’m certainly not an Ernest Hemingway, Margaret Atwood, or Cormac McCarthy. But I think I’m breaking the rules of my chosen genre by using some of the same literary techniques used by them.

More importantly, I didn’t intentionally apply these techniques; they came naturally to me which continues surprise me. It proves we learn about ourselves as we seek knowledge. The take-way is never stop learning, make it hobby.