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.

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!

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.

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.

East is West

The woods appeared unchanged on the other side of the archway. Hanging near the horizon, the sun warmed the chill of the previous night as it began its climb. The yellow and orange foliage glistened in its rays. Dew on the green ground cover freshened the air like clean bed linens. The girl basked in the splendor of the new day before continuing her exploration of this unknown path.

Venturing further away from the entrance, the sunlight faded, and a long shadow followed her. A few fireflies blinked in the depths of the forest. As twilight waned, thousands twinkled in every direction, illuminating her way. A cool breeze whistled through the trees, intensifying their enchanting flashes. Mesmerized, she ambled down the path without purpose.

Darkness descended upon the woods. The lightning bugs danced around her. Using her hand, she brushed a few of them away from her face. She imagined her breath’s web ensnaring an errant bug. The trail of luminous juice that it left in its wake as it traveled down her throat. The thought of the magical properties it might have. She giggled and skipped along her way.

The hum of their wings chimed in her ears, compelling her to twirl and prance down the trail. Her movement synchronized with their tune. The trill of flutes, fiddles, and mandolins filled the woodland. But she stopped dead in her tracks when she heard a tiny voice ask, “Won’t you join us in our merriment?”


My inspiration for this bit of fiction was originally posted on Instagram (suzeq221) as part of my #wednesdaywriting initiative. I’d love to hear your story idea inspired by this photo. Where does your imagination take you?

Dear Critique Partner

Let me start by thanking you for your thoughtful feedback about my recent submission. It’s apparent you spent a considerable amount of time on it.

First, I hope my effort to provide a good clean copy for your review didn’t go unnoticed. I don’t believe in submitting a first draft because it inevitably includes more telling than showing, the dreaded info-dumping and careless grammar mistakes. I don’t want these obvious issues to hinder your review. I want you to focus your expertise on the story elements like plot, characters, dialogue, and worldbuilding. I think I accomplished this goal as most of your comments are related to what I’m looking for.

I noticed several of your comments were tagged “it’s only my opinionandit’s your story.” Yes, it is my story, and I want your opinion. I want to know what you learned about the world in which my story takes place in. Do you understand their culture and customs? Their magic system? Do my characters have depth, their own voice? Do you know what they look like? Do you care? Are my descriptions flat? Or over-the-top and distracting? In your opinion, what do you think about the pacing, dialogue, the rhythm and flow of the prose? Was there enough tension? So please, please give me your opinion.

Where you commented you couldn’t remember or recall certain details, I understand. There are gaps in time between the review of chapters. I have the same problem at times. But being a hoarder pays off when it happens to me. I think I have every critique I’ve ever written. The hardest part about looking to see if I missed something is the time it takes to find the right submission. Most of the time, it’s my forgetfulness. If it’s not, I let the writer know to make the detail in question more memorable.

Another favorite comment of mine is “I’m not very good at explaining myself.” I’m sure you’ve gotten it a time or two yourself. I struggle with this remark because we’re writers. Describing a character’s thoughts, their emotions, and actions, and the settings are the essence of our work. So, shouldn’t we be able to convey our thoughts in a critique? I know it can take some time to find the right words to express ourselves, but take whatever time you need to voice your impression. Otherwise, don’t make the comment if you can’t explain it. Right?

Many thanks for a couple of your suggestions. One of them triggered an ah-ha moment about how to fix a pacing problem that’s been testing my patience. Another inspired me to approach the description of a scene from a different angle. The result was a black and white noir-type setting. Escorted by the detective, the protag trudged down the shady hallway in a surreal daze. Nondescript gray walls, gray doors, gray linoleum. The dim overhead lights cast shadows as they marched towards their destination. The morgue. White walls, shiny white floor, bright lights, and the stark reality. A truly wonderful writing experience for me. Thank you so much for the inspiration.

Oh, and by the way, my main character is a woman, not a man. Just want to make sure you knew since you used the masculine pronoun “he” throughout your review.

Sincerely,
Suzanne

* * * * *

The above post is my cynical look at the critique process. It is a vital part of writing, and I honestly appreciate and enjoy the feedback I receive. But at times, I question its authenticity. Yes, we are reminded to take critique comments “with a grain of salt”, which literally means to not take something literally, but to view it with skepticism. What’s the point of the critique then?