Inspiration: Story Idea

I recently had a discussion about story ideas with another author. It spurred me to share the inspiration for my work in progress, The Venerable Dawn: Ascension.

In August 2019, I took a writing class after being eliminated from a Corporate America job for the third time in my career. The first homework assignment asked us to browse through Discover Magazine and find an article that captured our imaginations. The piece I found was “They Cracked This 250-Year-Old Code and Found a Secret Society Inside.” Two parts grabbed my curiosity.

First, this article told how a linguistic specialist used algorithms to crack the Copiale Cipher. But it wasn’t the use of computer technology that interested me. Instead, it was who created the code, the Oculists, a group of ophthalmologists loosely tied to the Freemasons. Throughout history, freethinkers like these doctors formed secret societies to escape the suppression and persecution of the Church, who deemed such groups as heretical.

I’ve always been fascinated by such well-known groups as the Freemasons, Illuminati, and Rosicrucians. Many people are familiar with the Freemasons from the National Treasure movies and the Illuminati from Angels & Demons. Another clandestine group, Priory of Sion, is featured in The De Vinci Code. Nowadays, there are many collegiate not-so-secret societies. The Ivy League groups such as Yale’s Skull and Bones and the Quill and Dagger at Cornell are some of the most notable. Look them up; they are interesting and fun to see who former members are.

The cracking-the-code part of the article caught my attention because of my interest in armchair treasure hunting. It began in a roundabout way, starting when I discovered that Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass included moves for a chess game in the narrative.

Like most everything with me, this fascination dovetailed into the discovery of two incredible books, Masquerade and The Secret.

Masquerade is a picture book by Kit Williams, published in 1979. It includes clues to the location of a golden hare hidden somewhere in Britain. The answer to the elaborate puzzle is hidden in fifteen illustrations. The whereabouts of the gilded woodland creature remained unknown until 2009.

The Secret is a treasure hunt created by Byron Preiss. The clues were included in the book published in 1982. The quest involves searching for twelve boxes buried at secret locations across the US and Canada. The author would reward the finder with a precious gem in exchange for the chests. Only three of them have been found as of October 2019. Some speculate that the remaining boxes may never be found.

In many ways, geocaching and Pokémon Go are today’s treasure hunts. Fun stuff for kids and adults alike. I mean, what’s not to love about going on a quest to find a cache and reviewing the log for those who came before them? Or capturing virtual creatures in real-world locations?

I’m so pumped simply writing this post. It tells me that I followed the right path of inspiration for my story. Now tell me about your inspiration. Or let me know what you think about secret or not-so-secret societies and treasure hunting.

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.  

Copy Editors

The following is a writing assignment in my latest class, Copyediting Certification.

What exactly does a copyeditor do? Many people think a copyeditor and a proofreader are synonymous. Both roles involve correcting grammatical and spelling errors. Thus, they both require a comprehensive understanding of the English language and its usage. However, a copyeditor’s role encompasses much more. 

Let’s start by exploring the publishing process. In general, there are three steps to publishing a novel: the writer and editor make changes to the raw manuscript; the copyeditor makes sure the manuscript is free of grammatical errors, is easy to read, and conforms to the publisher’s style; the proofreader performs quality control to ensure the manuscript is formatted correctly and free of errors. Before going to print, a reader with a fresh perspective may give the manuscript one last quality check.

Now let’s take a closer look at the role of a copyeditor. First, a copyeditor is responsible for performing the initial check for any grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors. Next, a copyeditor fact-checks to make sure everything is accurate and correct. The spelling of names, places, and organizations are double-checked as well as the accuracy of facts, dates, and statistics. Finally, a copyeditor fixes any problems with style and tone to ensure the prose flows and no awkward sentences.

Like other professions, both hard and soft skills are necessary to be a successful copyeditor. Most employers require a bachelor’s degree in English, journalism, communications, or other related field. Copyeditors are passionate about the English language and are often skilled writers themselves. They must have a keen eye and be detail orientated. Good communication and interpersonal skills are needed since copyeditors interact with both the writers and editors too. Exchanges with both of them must be civil and courteous.