Here’s To You, the Writer

Boy, I was going to write about something totally different today, until I sat down to write this…Oh well, that’s the way it goes and that’s what I feel. So, here it is…Hope you’re ready for this one!

Writer Gif

It’s tough being a writer. Sometimes, it’s really tough. You face days, week, months (a lifetime?) of creating in silence only to reveal your work in the hope that someone–anyone–out there likes it. That it connects. But during the process you have no idea whether you are will connect or not. It’s not like music or acting, where you can FEEL whether you’re bombing immediately. You just have to move forward, in faith, believing you’re not bombing. That can be tough.

You face being ignored, being rejected, (being laughed at!), being underpaid or not even paid at all! And for what? What? So you can leave a few scraps of papers with your etching on it for later generations.

I’m sorry if I paint too bleak a picture. But here’s the thing…Despite…Despite all these things, there are those of us who do it. Who persist. Despite the rejection, the fear, the trepidation, the low pay…And, most importantly, I want you to know that despite all these things, it’s still worth it. I still believe it’s what I’m here to do.

And maybe, just maybe you feel the same. So, Writer, here’s to you. Despite the long hours, the anxiety, the hard work, the rejection, the low pay. You have found it worth persisting. (After all, you’re here, reading this blog…Aren’t you?). You live, in part, for those great writing days where you really nail it, for that perfect scrap of dialogue, that well-crafted metaphor, the one gesture from your protagonist that says it all without them uttering a single word.

And if someone likes it. Laughs or sighs or weeps when they read it, all the better. And if someone wants to pay you a million dollars to make it into a movie, that’s great too. But it’s the quality of writing and the act itself where the real triumph lies. Not in the awards or money or recognition. All those external things are dust already…The writing…The writing is what remains down a thousand years.

Don’t lose that, that joy, and you’ll keep it up alright. Just like me.

Best of luck, Writer, and I hope I become your reader some day.

Keep it up,

Darius

 

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Writing Update for July

Guys, I’m going to mix it up just a bit…And reserve the last of the month for a post on where my writing is at. I haven’t done this in awhile, so bear with me as I dust off the cobwebs here and break it all down for you.

Writing Cafe BA

The Writing
I have struggled with how to quantify what I accomplish here. The simple answer is: “You can’t.” No matter how much you add up the word counts, it doesn’t really tell you anything about the quality of the work. But here’s the second turn: that isn’t really your business. You’re the writer. Your job is to create. It’s up to editors, writers and critics to do the judgement, the weighing. So, pour yourself a stiff drink and try your best not to worry too much about it.

All that being said (and even that was too much), here’s my word count for July: 7,597 + 1 day for purely plotting/pre-writing. That’s pretty good for one month for me. And remember, this is all on the weekend away from my day job. So, pretty proud of that! The secret sauce here was a stay-cation (vacation where you stay home) which I used to write. I know that’s crazy! I know! I know!

The good news is that those 7,000-some words came through well. I knew where the story was headed (generally) and just let it go. And it worked.

Total Word Count: 7,597.

The Submissions
So, here’s the big lesson learned this month: If you happen to write stuff without speculative elements and you have to submit to “literary fiction” magazines, wait until September to do it!

I had all my victims (er…magazines) lined up. I studied their acceptance rates, what sorts of submissions they look for and their typical response times. I also realized that they accept simultaneous submissions, so I was readying my Blitzkrieg of submissions and slowly, horribly, I came to realize most Lit Magazines are not open for submissions during the summer. Bargh!!! But I did find one publication that was open and sent my story along to them.

I also kept circulating my speculative story (“Pacha-Mama”) which always gets close, but never gets published. Oh well! It’s a great story,  I believe in it and will keep sending it out.

Now that I put this down on a page, I see I could be a lot more active here. Still, there are some stats on the board:

Total Submissions: 2

Acceptances: 0

Rejections: 1


There we go! My handy writing update for July. We’ll return to our regular programming in the next post…And then I’ll do a look at my writing in August.

See you guys next time.

DJ

Writing and All That

Wow! What a busy, crazy, good week!

Scribe_1I won’t get into a detailed breakdown here. I think I will save that for next time, but just know I’ve been writing, editing, submitting stories and working and living my butt off.

I think one of the most important things in life is to always be growing, be learning. And I feel I lost that thread for a while, but now I’m getting it back…In spades.

So, a few things I’ve recently learned:

  1. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you’re FORCED to submit your stories to literary magazines…Don’t do it in the summer. Most of them seem to be shut in the summer and don’t open until Sept. 1…at least. So, lesson learned.
  2. If you’re writing, keep writing. Don’t stop. Every page, every paragraph, every sentence you will slowly become a better writer. I’m not saying you will be published, or famous or rich. But if you practice and work hard, you will get better. Every day, every hour, every minute you put pen to page, you’ll improve, bit by bit.
  3. Critique others writers’ stuff. There’s nothing that can help motivate and teach you about how to be a better writer more than critiquing others’ stuff. And it doesn’t cost you a thing, just a little time.
  4. Make sure your work life (what you to do pay the bills), doesn’t intrude too much on your creative life, but don’t let it drift either. Keep the work you have to do to pay the bills interesting. And make sure you keep learning and growing there too. It’s part of life and it needs to grow and change to keep your interest. And you know what? If it’s interesting and a bit challenging, it could make a good story somewhere later down the road.
  5. Be good to yourself, take time for yourself. You’ll feel it if you’re getting burned out, trust me. And if you do, you need to take a step back. Take a vacation, take a hike. Hang out with some friends. Work and writing are important, but don’t forget to make some time for yourself too.

Not too much on my writing in this post, I know! But life/work/writing has been hectic! Next time, I’ll be back with a fuller, better update on all my writing activities.

Until then. Keep reading, keep writing.

,Darius


Oh! And one tiny bit of additional good news: This blog has now passed 200 followers. That’s right! 201 people out there have decided to tune into my writing thoughts and musings on a regular basis.

I’m humbled and very pleased with the attention the blog has gotten. A big thanks to all of you! I will definitely be keeping this up.

Helping an Old Friend Move

BookmanWay, way, way back in the day, I was a free-lance ad writer/fiction writer living in Southern California. And any day of the week, I could go down to Acres of Books, a Long Beach institution, and browse the shelves. I particularly remember the huge, cavernous back room of that used bookstore that would (or probably should have!) been closed by the Fire Dept. It was also rumored that Ray Bradbury would occasionally stop in to browse too, but I never saw him there. Apparently, they kept about 1 million titles in stock at any given moment! And had no air conditioning! What a magical place!!!

Acres of Books was, lamentably, closed down permanently in 2008. {NOTE TO SELF: If I ever get super-rich, I’m going to buy that building and re-open that store!} But it lives on in YouTube videos and the hearts of its old patrons (myself included). But there was, and is, another used bookstore I would go to, not too far down the road: Bookman.

I have also spent time patrolling Bookman, searching for lost classics and just whiling away a solid afternoon browsing their huge collection. Located a few miles away in Orange, Bookman (surprise! surprise!) is now having trouble surviving. In fact, they’re being forced to move (higher rent maybe?) to a new location nearby.

But here’s the good news: They have set up a GoFundMe page to help with the move. This writer has already donated to the move so that we can keep “one of the last true ‘brick and mortar’ used book stores in Orange County” going. 223 people have already joined me, but they are less than half way to meeting their goal. So, PLEASE, PLEASE, consider making a small donation (even $5 will do!) to this worthy cause. And if you have social media accounts, please amplify and spread the word!

This writer will give you a heart-felt “thank you” for your donation and next time I’m at Bookman (fingers crossed), whiling away another afternoon among the books, I’ll know you all are one of the reasons it’s still here.

Until Next Time,

Darius


PS… This article on Ray Bradbury’s last visit to Acres of Books is a real heart-breaker. In fact, I couldn’t read it to the end. But I’m posting here in the hope that you do.

Key quote:

“I can get a complete education in this bookstore. I wouldn’t have to go to a school. All the books that I need, I’d pull off the shelf, one after another, I’d open them up and there I would be. I come to this book store for the revelations of myself and I will find me in this bookstore.”

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How to Write Better Historical Fiction—In Four Easy Steps

Right now, I’m writing a piece which blends historical fiction and fantasy fiction in a historical setting. I’m hoping you might find some of the advice below useful, whether you’re hoping to write literary-fiction or genre-fiction in a historical setting.

Crusade Number 4

Today, I’ll give you four easy steps I used to make my historical settings richer, deeper and more true-to-life. It’s those little details that you use in world-building which can make a big difference and can really wrap your readers up in the world you’ve created.

(SIDE NOTE: Oddly enough, your humble blogger here, has a college degree in…History! Cue: Gasps by my followers. So, I like to think the following is (semi)-expert advice.)

Here are my Four Steps to Writing Better Historical Fiction…


1. Pick a Date and Place
This is the easy part. Or should be. Once you have a character in mind. You need to set about finding a time for them to live in. Now, this all kind of coalesces at the same time usually, I get that. But once you have someone in mind you have to start really focusing in on specific dates and places.

For example, in my latest story, “The Number Thief,” I chose my character Yusuf and I knew he lived in 13th century Muslim Spain. Then, I focused on the date 1236 and specifically Cordoba. Bam! I had a date and a place.

2. Gather and Read Secondary Sources
Secondary sources are books looking back at a time period. That is, history not written during the time period itself. They are great for giving you an overview, the total landscape of the time. They’re an essential first step to getting your bearings and starting to understand what actually happened. But they shouldn’t be your final step.

So, getting back to my example of Spain in 1236…Some of the good examples of secondary sources for the period are:

In each one of these books a modern scholar looks back and gives their take on a certain time and place. But one of the big drawbacks is that they’re including their own interpretation and point of view, which leads us to…

3. Gather and Read Primary Sources
Now that you have the lay of the land, it’s time to dive into what the people of the time actually thought and experienced. You need to read primary sources, those things written at that time by the actual players in history.

And this is where, I find, you get the real insights. Historians really do a good job of bringing things together and explaining larger trends, but you need the actual players in these historical dramas to explain their inner motivations and desires. And to us, as writers, that’s what is really important! That’s what gives these characters the breath of life—the yearnings and fears which animate and drive them.

What really makes someone want to go on a Crusade? Or join a jihad in opposition to a Crusade? Or embark on a risky commercial venture trading goods across a dangerous piratical-infested sea? Or give everything up to join a convent or become a wandering mystic? Well, thankfully, we have written records from people who did just that.

So again, Spain in 1236…Here are some of the primary sources I’ve used to get me into the mentality of that time:

  • The Song of the Cid by anonymous (Great for getting the mentality of a Spanish crusader and freebooter of the Reconquista!)
  • The Ring of the Dove by ibn Hazm (Great insights into the luxurious court life of Muslim Spain)
  • The Proofs of Prophecy by Abu Hatim al-Razi (A debate between two Muslim philosophers of the time is priceless for what I’m writing! I could almost cut-and-paste the dialogue here—but did not!).

There you go! Your primary sources should give you great insights into your time period from the people who lived it.

4. Capture Your Notes
As you’re going, you should be marking up passages, highlighting things and making mental  notes. (I do!). But then, you have to collect all these notes together and drop them into your piece somehow.

Essentially, there are two ways to do this. First, you can create a separate physical notebook or a Word document. Or you can do what I do, which is simply pepper some of these details into your working outline, as appropriate. And then recall and remember useful bits as you write. The bottom line is that you  have to become a student of that time period. If you’re reading all the right materials, certain important points will stick out and seem to  raise their hands (“Pick me! Pick me!”) at just the right point in your narrative.  Then, you just have to put them in.

For example, through my readings, I learned that the Republic of Pisa had a governing council. This council had the power to vote and approve certain measures. As I looked for a way to wrap up “The Number Thief,” I knew having the last scene where they passed judgment would be perfect. So, I wrote the last scene to incorporate them. It turned out great!

I have also found creating a simple chronology of the time period helps you to not get lost. You can also combine fictional elements into this chronology, if that helps.


That’s it for today! Four easy steps to help you improve your stories which use an historical setting. I know this one is a bit esoteric, but I hope someone out there finds it useful!

That’s all for now. Until next time…

Keep reading, keep writing,

Darius

El Cid’s Infinite Loop

So, lately, I spend a lot of time writing and editing. And doing a little research on top of that. The stuff I’m writing now follows a thread and a character (Yusuf) who first appeared in The Ghul of Yazd, a short story I wrote on a whim. That character lives in medieval Islamic Spain, Cordoba, to be precise.

El Cid

I’m still writing pieces in this vein, so I do a lot of research on 12th century Spain. I read secondary sources (meaning historians looking back at that time), but more and more I’m delving into primary sources (pieces written at the time). I will get more into this primary/secondary divide later, but for now I will only say this: If you’re writing historical fiction or fantasy, the real insights come from primary sources. They’re the only thing that will get you in the mindset of the people who lived all those years ago. Their motivations,  hopes and fears. And as a writer, that’s what you really need to know to breathe life into your characters.

One interesting thing I came across in my research was the personage and fiction of El Cid, the great Christian warrior of medieval Spain who became a national myth. El Cid is not my focus at all, but The Song of the Cid comes from that time period. So I thought, why not read it?

And here’s the most interesting thing: I cracked it open and it begins with El Cid being betrayed at the court of the Castilian king and sent into exile.

They spurred their horses, let the reins hang low,
To their right, leaving Vivar, they saw a hooded crow,
But as they reached Burgos it flew to their left.
My Cid shrugged his shoulders and shook his head:
“Let it be a good sign, Alvar Fanez, for now we’re exiles.”

They ride on into the next town, but everyone shuts the doors and goes inside.

My Cid, Ruy Diaz, rode into Burgos.
His sixty men carried spears, hung with banners.
Men and women came out when they appeared;
Merchants and their wives leaned from their windows, staring
Weeping, overcome with sorrow.
And from their lips, all of them, fell the same prayer:
”Oh God, what a wonderful servant, if only he had a decent Master!”

Sound familiar yet? The horsemen ride on through the town, but the people are afraid to act.

They would have been glad to ask him in, but no one dared;
Don Alfonso, the king, was far too angry.
He’d sent the city a notice, received the night before,
Sealed in dramatic passion, and urgent:
My Cid, Ruy Diaz, was to be turned away,
Given nothing. Whoever dared to disobey
Would lose whatever they owned, their eyes would be torn from their heads.
And their bodies and souls would be lost forever.

Right about here it hit me: “Where have I heard this before?” And I realized that this was, essentially, the setup of every cowboy movie I had ever seen: A just and honest man has been done some injustice. He is cast out physically and/or metaphorically from his home. He has taken his horse to the next town where he will seek to right the wrong. But the townsfolk there, though they support him in their hearts, are afraid to do so.

This is almost exactly the plot of the classic High Noon (yeah, its cliché but you should all watch that Cold War classic!). And is similar to the plot for The Magnificent Seven and many, many other classic cowboy movies. In fact, the opening of A Fistful of Dollars, is not too far from the start of The Song of the Cid.

Now, a lot has been written about archetypes and the collective subconscious and The Hero with a Thousand Faces. And the BBC has boiled all stories EVER WRITTEN down to six basic plots. Sheesh!

But this is what struck me the most about El Cid: Here’s a radically different culture than ours: medieval Spain. With a completely different political/economic/social/cultural system than ours. And yet the first pages of that story could almost be copied verbatim and used as the start to a cowboy or science fiction or adventure movie today.

I guess as a writer that tells me that these tropes, these structures, these myths tap something deep inside us and don’t change much over time. This is why Gilgamesh, the man who wanted immortality, still touches us. Why Ulysses, who just wants to get home, moves us. Why Arjuna, throwing down his bow and refusing to fight his own kin, unsettles us still. And why a Spanish knight, seeking to simply right the wrongs he suffered at the hands of his enemies at court (in modern parlance, “at the office”), is so moving, 800 years later.

So, note to Writer Self: KEEP IT SIMPLE. The same stories that spoke to people a thousand years ago, speak to people today. Great ideas are important, yes, they always will be. But sometimes, in the pursuit of the latest idea or stylistic innovation, we lose sight of simple, good storytelling. Those primal things (injustice, longing for home, family, the desire to leave something behind after we’re gone) are what really drive human beings. And what drives human beings is what drives fictional characters. And what drives characters is what drives great stories…

Something to think about…

Until next time,

Darius

Mix It Up: The Strange Connection between Avicenna and 2 Chainz

Sometimes, doing what you like comes with a price. The price of loneliness, the price of ridicule, the price of just plain obscurity. But great achievement, great art, isn’t about doing what other people want you to do or making stuff just to make money. It’s about listening to that inner voice and following it wherever it leads…

DJ-Khaled_Greg-Noire_Coachella_A010524_

Which brings us to today’s post. I’ve written about following this voice before (writing that story that burns in your belly), but today I want to follow up with a couple of concrete examples of  two guys who did (or are doing) just that. The particular way they are doing it is unique, but not super important: They both took disparate, contrasting things that people felt shouldn’t work together and showed how the could be fused together, beautifully. 


The Kid from the East: Avicenna Avicenna_Portrait_on_Silver_Vase_-_Museum_at_BuAli_Sina_(Avicenna)_Mausoleum_-_Hamadan_-_Western_Iran_(7423560860)
I have been doing a lot of research on medieval Islamic philosophy lately, so I have dug deeper into this guy named Avicenna. Avicenna (from the Persian
ibn Sina) was a young Persian from way back East in what’s now Uzbekistan, at at time when most philosophers were Arabs (preferably from Baghdad). But he had natural talents which couldn’t be ignored. He was able to master mathematics, theology, medicine at a young age becoming
a practicing physician at 18. Soon, he was drawn into the orbit of philosophy. He soon discovered the works of Aristotle, Plato and early Islamic philosophers like al-Kindi. He also discovered the Neo-Platonic school which fused Aristotle, Plato and other influences.

Now, many people at this time thought that Islam and Greek philosophy were completely incompatible. Many felt that the Neo-Platonic philosophy of the ancient, pagan Greeks would never be compatible with a monotheistic faith like Islam. But Avicenna, crazy and talented, thought otherwise.

At some point, he must have realized that the High God of the late pagans was not too different from the Islamic conception of God. Avicenna especially found the NeoPlatonic theory of emanation fit nicely with Islamic theology.

And so, over a long career he lectured, wrote books and developed his own “Avicennan system” which became (as I understand it), the most influential philosophical system in Muslim countries down to the present. And it had a huge influence on the Western philosophers like Thomas Aquinas

In his own time, Avicenna put together something most people never thought would work together and turned into a piece of global culture. But it wasn’t the first, or the last time, that someone did something like that.

The Man from the ATL: 2 Chainz
Speed up to the modern day and there are things most people think would never—or should never—work together. Until the right person comes along, mixes them in just the right proportion and “Bam!” ….A few years later it seems like it was always meant to be.

For example, what, I asked myself, would you get it if you combined: the ominous mood of Renaissance music, Electronic Dance Music sound effects and hip-hop beats? A hot mess, right? Yeah, I thought so.

But somehow, under the right hands, it all comes together.

Case in point, this guy from Atlanta, 2 Chainz. When, I first heard his stuff, that ominous, heavy sound, that sort of lilting piano melody backed up with beats and rhymes…I thought, “Wow, this is different.” Now, he’s not the first to do this (I wouldn’t claim to know who invented this genre!), but he has be doing this style of music for awhile. And the whole time he was making music, he didn’t care if anyone was listening, or coming to his concerts or buying his records. He just wanted to write and play the music and sound he heard in his head. And soon more and more people heard it, started coming to his concerts and buying his records. Including me. And now, it’s as if nothing was ever any different.

We’re the pop stars. Trap rap is pop now. People’s ears have adjusted to what we have to say and how we say it.

And there you have it. Another piece of (soon-to-be) global culture, that most people never saw coming—although all the elements were in plain sight.


What It Means for Cultural Consumers and Creators
I think the bottom line is that consumers and creators of culture have to be open to new things. Now, labels, to an extent, can be good. Going to a bookstore and looking up NeoPlatonic philosophy (if that’s what you dig), can lead you to more good stuff. And streaming Hip-Hop (if that’s your thing), can lead you to more good stuff, too.

But, as a Consumer, to really discover wholly new stuff, you have to dive into a different unknown label. Or maybe turn to a sound or a writer without having any idea who they are. I realize I have a problem with this, but I’m trying to quiet down, look and listen to new stuff more. I  spent years researching and reading Islamic philosophy before I realized it was based on a thing called NeoPlatonic philosophy. I’ve been listening to new hip-hop for months, before I realized it was labeled  “trap music.”

And as a Creator, I have to take those things I like and mix them up, without worrying what others think. For example, I like Victorian Sci-Fi and philosophical-fantasy adventure. (I’m going for a tone now in my latest piece that merges a Platonic dialogue with The Three Musketeers.) Point is, whatever it is, if you’re driven to write something, that’s the path you have to go down. Other people, later, will be there to label what you create. Don’t worry about that, Friend. That’s their job, not yours. 

If you do it well—and if you do it long enough, like Avicenna and 2 Chainz—they will come to you with their labels and their analysis and their weights and measures. That’s up to them, not you. Your job is in the creating.

Get out there and do it.

Good luck.

Darius

Jammin’ on Deadlines

Working hard this week. I am “work-working,” fiction writing and now, blogging a bit. I’m jamming on multiple deadlines, so will keep this short.

aggretsuko-gif

So, a quick update: I’m working on a story and it’s going pretty well. I took a little time out to understand where the plot is headed, got it figured out (thanks, B–!) and now I’m ready to forge ahead. This is my major writing project at this time and everything else writerly (blog, submissions, etc.) is taking a back seat!

I also keep submitting my finished stories to magazines. One piece (The Number Thief) I even sent to a contest (the first time I’ve ever done that!). No movement yet on these, but these things take time.

In addition, I’m Beta-reading a friend’s piece and that has been really interesting and illuminating. And it has made me realize I miss reviewing and critiquing others’ works. It can really be an eye-opening exercise to read other writer’s early drafts. You see that we all struggle with the same things (self-doubt, Show vs. Tell, pacing, etc., etc.,). Can’t wait to to finish reading this and get it back to the author.

I also keep branching out and reading, listening and watching new stuff. The latest is Aggretsuko on Netflix. And it seems fitting that she takes the lead image this post, because I’m feeling a little Aggretsuko myself lately with all these deadlines!

See you next time,

Darius

Listening to Music While Writing

Hey, everybody. How’s it going?

A post today on a writing tweak I’ve started back up this year. As you know, I try to analyze my writing a little and figure out new tweaks that help me become more productive. At the beginning of this year, I said I would try writing with music again.  Well, I am and it’s going well.

 Headphones

Here’s the setup: I just go to the café, get my coffee. Sit down, plug in my laptop and put  on my headphones. Sometimes, I just cruise through my favorite tracks on YouTube, but usually I just dig into the tunes on my PC and press play.

The music does two things, blocks out noise and sets a mood. First, it blocks out the most distracting thing of all: ambient conversation. For a writer, there’s nothing worse than when two people  sit down next to you and start a quite conversation in a language you understand. My ear just latches onto the conversation and can’t let it go. You can forget the dialogue, the details, the prose running through your head! It’s all going to get garbled with bits of dialogue from the REAL humans sitting right next to you. I know it’s  completely NOT these people’s fault, it’s just a natural response. I can’t help it.

Music also sets a mood. So, if I’m writing something dark or brooding, I’ll queue up some Renaissance music (Tallis) or some slow, mellow Hip Hop (2 Chainz). If I’m writing something adventurous or fun, then something Pop (Grouplove, maybe) will do the trick.

So, why do this? Well, I would only do it if it:

  • a) Enhanced productivity (word count).
  • b) Improved quality (better prose).

I feel it does both. Of course, a) is easier to measure. And it does seem that my word counts are higher this year. Music somehow gives me focus or, more correctly, puts me in the (psychological) Zone and keeps me there better than writing without the headphones. And as far as b) goes, I do sense that the prose is better, improved. But that is very hard to judge. I have come to that conclusion simply because I have sneaked back to peak at my writing and I feel it’s solid. At any rate, at the end of this year, I’ll have a perspective on word count.

That’s about it. Something basic I wanted to report. Another tiny thing I do that I’ve noticed enhances productivity and prose. Something you can consider next time you sit down to write.

Until next time. Keep Reading, Keep Writing,

Darius

The Craft: Theseus in the Labyrinth

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

The young king staggered back and stood alone in the darkness. The great beast’s chest heaved one last time and stopped forever. He wiped the bloody sword blade on the hem of his tunic and grabbed a torch from the wall. And in that moment, gazing down at his vanquished enemy, he realized that the real Minotaur, the real man killer of Crete, was not the beast itself, but the labyrinth. The beast that he must slay was not the dead creature on the ground, but the tons of mute rock and wall surrounding him.

Minotaur

The young king walked to the edge of the room, grabbed the rope he had laid on the stone floor, pulled it until it was taut and began to gather it up in his hand…


And cue: today’s hackneyed metaphor…I think writers, like Theseus, have to tread carefully in the labyrinths of their own works. Unless you take the requisite precautions, you run the danger of getting lost and tripped up by your own plot. And perishing deep in a labyrinth of your own making.

Unless you’re one of those lucky few (the “Pantsers”) who can sit down and write a whole work by just “seeing” where it starts, where it ends and some vague scene in the middle, you’re best plotting out your work. (I leave it to you to determine if you’re one of the Elect Pantsers). How do I know this? I’ve learned by bitter experience. I have forged ahead into the heart of labyrinth many times, slayed the beast and then thought…Wait! How the hell do I get out of here!!!??? But it was too late! I had written myself into a corner where only a lame contrivance or a Deus Ex Machina could get me out. And you don’t want to do that!

So…To avoid this situation I always bring a rope (metaphor continuing now!) with me on my writing expeditions. Something I can tug on, in case I get lost deep in the labyrinth. It’s what I call my outline (actually I call it my CSP + K outline). Now, my outline (like the U.S. constitution) is a living document. It’s not written in stone. I can modify at any time, given new developments in the story. And, VERY IMPORTANT POINT: I don’t have to follow what is says at all costs. If a character decides to do something different than I intended (as long as it’s in character), I let them do it! If a relationship between characters matures or develops in unexpected ways as I write—I let them do it. If a scene falls flat, I let it fall flat and think about axing it later. BUT BUT BUT…I always take a few minutes AFTER I’m done writing the scene to see how it affects the outline and where I intend the piece to go. And what I’ve discovered is that these “living changes” tend to have little or no effect on where the piece is headed.

So, along I go through the labyrinth I’m constructing with my outline to guide me…And around each turn and down each corridor I’m picking up the rope, seeing where it came from, and more importantly, where it’s headed. I can’t see too far ahead in the darkness though, so I drop the rope and walk a few more paces on. I pick up the rope again, look up and down the corridor. Yep. Everything looks good. I drop the rope. Walk on again. Pick it up again. No, this is a little off, there’s a turn coming up, so I need to tweak this…and this… and this. OK…Done. I drop the rope and move on…

Got it? The outline lets me see ahead a little and back a little. I use it as guide to where I want to drive the story. It’s not a strict guide—I have to let the characters live and breathe—they drive the action. But the outline lets me make sure the story doesn’t go completely off the rails.

One final note: an outline, paradoxically, is more necessary for a short story than a long piece. I know that sounds crazy! And I do use outlines for both. BUT…A short story is so dense, so quick. You have to know where you’re headed in the first 100 words. You have to bake the plot, character and setting into those first 100. There’s no time to waste! So you need to know where you’re going right out of the gate. I notice that now, when I write a short story, I move quickly from scribbled-down idea to outline to a first draft.  So, if you’re trying to write short stories—don’t skip the outline!

At least, that’s what has worked for me. I’m not saying it will work for you, but still something to consider as you get ready to write or pre-write your next piece.

Good luck and until next time.

Keep reading, keep writing!

,Darius


Apparently, in one variation of the labyrinth myth, Theseus does not even have his sword. He only has his rope/twine. He strangles the beast (though whether he uses the rope/twine to do so is unclear). A very interesting variation of the story!