At the Mirror: Lines in the Sand

If you’re like me, there are times when you come across a quality of writing that exists only in your dreams. This piece is a seamless collaboration between Jimmi Campkin & Basilike Pappa. It swept me away. I hope you enjoy it.

Lines in the Sand (part 1)

by Jimmi Campkin & Basilike Pappa

To call you love would twist my tongue.

I never sing love songs with eyes shut; and neither would I share junk food behind the Hilton with you – exhaust fumes, saucy lips, a light breeze through our hair– before we kiss and go to bed as animals turned pets, our biggest sin forgetting to floss.

But from the moment you said my name, sanity performed a pagan dance, silver jewels gleaming naked.

So why not conspire against the national demand for ironed sheets, and go riding drunk under the moon? Sneaking into each other, we will exchange bass lines, starry eyes, blinding treasures and the secrets to a perfect kill. And if we turn each other into poems in the flesh, we can always blame the weather or a collapsing bridge.

From the moment you said my name, my senses did a pagan dance, spitting out neon, perfumes, smearing lipstick on it all.

So why not kiss all the way down a perfect fall?

But I’d never call you love – I’d rather bite my tongue.

*

My earliest memory of you; on a trampoline, your hair backlit by a radioactive green sun, and one hand reaching for the pale blue above.

Another early memory; a crowd of no-one, pointless under-formed bodies and ill-fitting clothes, and a pair of eyes that parted them like the red sea, like a blowtorch through ice. Your eyes weren’t shimmering, or beautiful like those described by the shit poets you detested so much. You carried harpoons with hooked blades …

 

Continue Reading: Lines in the Sand (part 1): Jimmi Campkin & Basilike Pappa

Writers’ Critique Groups

I just had the great pleasure of visiting my old writer’s critique group, a few people who became dear friends over the five years I was part of the group. It seems a good time to revisit the importance of peer feedback:

My first book was a masterpiece, of course. I poured my heart onto the pages, begged my family to read it, and labored over revisions until it was undeniably sublime. Then I sent my newborn tome to agents and publishers, certain they’d coo with delight and sign me up with a fat advance. The result: Reject…Reject…Reject…Reject…Reject…

“What went wrong?” silly, starry-eyed me asked, a clueless look on my face. Little did I know (literally).

I discovered the answer to that question when I joined a writers’ critique group. With tender support and pointed criticism, my peers taught me that my baby was far from beautiful. Apparently, I was determined to describe every character’s point of view in every scene. Among other lame verbs, I found “was” extremely handy. I overwrote with reams of tedious detail; I could sink an insomniac into a coma. This embarrassing confession encompasses only a teeny-weeny sliver of my writing transgressions, but you get the idea. My baby was a toad.

The good news? After two years with my critique group, the toddler emerged transformed. I landed a publisher and the rest is history. I know now that well-informed, honest feedback is essential to learning and refining my craft, and joining a critique group was the smartest step I took in my writing career. Without hesitation, I advise all new writers to find one or start your own.

Group Composition

Not all groups are alike and finding the right group is like finding the right therapist, sometimes you have to work at it to get a good fit. You want the truth, but in a way that’s helpful and encourages you to grow. Some groups are loosey-goosey, others more formally structured. Learn as much as you can about the expectations of a group and be honest with yourself about your needs and the time commitment you’re prepared to make.

A few considerations:

  1. Not everyone in a critique group needs to write in the same genre, but there may certain drawbacks to being the only romance writer in a group of military sci-fi writers.
  2. Four to five members is ideal, providing sufficient feedback while not overwhelming members with critiques.
  3. A mix of male and female participants is great for garnering different perspectives.
  4. Though some writers may prefer a group with equivalent experience, a mix of new and seasoned members can be extremely rewarding.
  5. If a group experience leaves you discouraged or angry, don’t stay. Groups are supposed to vitalize your love of writing, not drain your enthusiasm.

Structural Norms

Structure varies group to group. Some meet face-to-face, others are entirely on-line. In general, guidelines for effective critiquing are the same, but I’m a strong proponent of in-person feedback where it’s easy to elaborate on comments, ask/answer questions, and take advantage of group brainstorming and discussion.

However a group is structured, there will be norms related to timing, length of submissions, and how critiques are returned to the authors. My critique group met twice a month for approximately three hours. We emailed submissions and received critiques between meetings. During our meetings, we elaborated on our critiques and answered questions for the author. (Set time limits if meetings run over. Don’t skip someone’s work.)

Receiving Feedback

Rarely do two people provide the same advice, and sometimes what one person loves, another would “suggest tweaking.” Sally may be great at tracking emotional themes; Margo is the queen of punctuation. Larry gives a man’s perspective of … well, everything. Jenny adores lurid descriptions, and Katie is the verb-police. Everyone brings something to the table and the author uses what’s helpful and dumps the rest.

Some writers submit first drafts, others a final product, and most something in between. What a writer turns in for critiquing will flavor what comes back. A critique of an early draft may point at awkward dialog, holes in the story, and believability of action and emotion. For a later draft, the critique may focus on word choice, phrasing, grammar, and/or punctuation. Remember, a critique group does not eliminate the need for careful editing prior to submission or publication.

Giving Feedback

A critique group is different from a support group, though they overlap. My mother is a one-woman support group; she loves everything I’ve written since I was six. Critique groups, on the other hand, should offer a balance of support and criticism. Writing is personal, and when a writer shares his work and asks for feedback, it’s an act of trust, worthy of respect.

An effective critique starts by emphasizing the strengths of the work. An initial focus on the writer’s successes makes hearing suggestions easier on the ears and heart. There’s always something positive to comment on – story, scene, character, dialog, a description, humor, rapport, tension, punctuation, word choice, grammar, pace. A critique is successful if a writer feels good about his or her work and eager to tackle the hurdles.

When we critique another person’s writing we are commenting on the work, not the person. We are cognizant of our personal preferences and writing style and separate these from our critiques. The most helpful criticism is specific to the piece. It points to a word, scene, or paragraph and explains what isn’t working for the reader. Then the writer can see exactly where the challenge lies, learn about another’s perspective, and make a choice. Broad negative statements aren’t only signs of a poorly-crafted critique, they’re unhelpful and demoralizing. Broad positive statements are fine, but grounding positive feedback with examples shows the writer the strengths they can build on.

A note of encouragement: When I joined my critique group, none of us were published. Five years later, we all were! Happy Writing!

A Writer goes to the Dump

images (1)From the Archives:

I’m a proponent of the belief that every experience contributes priceless raw material to a writer’s treasure chest. I’m a hoarder, cramming the niches of my brain with sensory inputs, emotional extremes, and reams of interesting and often useless information. No detail is too small, especially if it is painful or gross.

My husband’s back is on the fritz, so this morning I made my first solo trek to the town dump. Not a chore I anticipated with delight, I adjusted my mindset and used it as an experience-gathering expedition, adding several disgusting sensory inputs to my writing stockpile.

There are a few things you should know in order to fully appreciate this literary endeavor:

  1. It’s January in Oregon. That means it’s raining.
  2. Due to a series of unplanned mix-ups and timing obstacles, my husband hasn’t been to the dump in six months.
  3. Our trashcans are missing lids, having blown away during his previous dump trips (no comment).
  4. The back of our pick-up truck is full of logs.

After two cups of coffee, I don my wool hat, an old pair of mittens, a ratty coat, and my sneakers (a mistake). I clamber into the back of the pick-up, and start pitching logs over the side. My mittens are soaked within thirty seconds, and though I try to lift with my legs, my back is now whining like a teenager. Despite my freezing fingers, I’ve worked up a sweat and my wool hat is itchy on my forehead. As I kick a forty-pound log off the tailgate, I contemplate all the miserable discomfort I’ll subject my characters to and conjure up a few choice words for husbands that I stash away for future literary reference.

With the truck empty, I skirt the log pile and slog over to the trashcans. They’re lined up against a tall retaining wall with a mountain of trash bags piled on top of them. This was hubby’s solution to critters, which was not entirely effective, I might add. The top bags aren’t overly nasty, and half of them are bulging with stuff for recycling. I sling the lighter recycling into the truck bed and then lug the rest like a yoked peasant with no hope for a better life. Such is the back-breaking toil my villagers will endure for their cruel masters.  The conditions will be dismal—wet, filthy, and cold.

Now, I’ve unearthed the cans and, of course, the bags of rotted garbage are submerged (no lids, remember). They’ve been stewing in a fetid swill for months. I tip the cans over and the brown water pours out with a ripe stench that makes my head spin. It’s swamp water with half-decomposed bodies, the reek of a medieval midden heap. Thank goodness, it’s not summer or everything would be crawling with maggots and swarming with flies. I gag and breathe through my mouth.

The water-logged bags are bloated pigs and weigh a ton. I stab them with a pointed stick. Putrid water bursts out, drenching my sneakers. Lacking a choice, I heave them up with my soaked mittens.  They leak and dribble on my jeans. Not caring anymore, my brain numb to the horror, I grunt as I heft them to the tailgate. I’m a slave in the dank sewers outside the castle walls. I reek of death and drowning. Foul water splatters and pools in the truck bed. My poor characters are going to despise me.

The F350 is our chore truck, driven far less than our cars. I climb in and the distinctive odor of mouse shit assaults my nose.  Somewhere—in the seat cushion probably—a comfy little mouse family is waiting out the winter. To my core, I know the turds are lethal, but I make the ultimate sacrifice for the king of the castle and head to the dump. The truck smells so gross I roll down the windows for the ten-mile ride to town. Rain blows in with a stinging wind, but I bravely endure it over the stink. And I’ll remember this for when my protagonists hunker down in an old lean-to, thankful to suffer the icy drafts over the reek of vermin as they labor to rid the realm of evil.

Then, I arrive at the dump…

Emotional Writing

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The first book that ever made me cry was Charlotte’s Web. At age ten, I wept for a dead spider, my tender initiation into literary grief. I still remember the cathartic feeling of those tears and the sense that I’d touched something profound and mysterious to the human experience. Did E.B. White intend to change the course of a little girl’s life? Hmm…the power of books…

As an adult, I earned a degree in pastoral counseling and volunteered in several capacities as a grief counselor. I journeyed alongside children and families who’d suffered the death of a parent or sibling, and the elderly who would soon embark on their own profound and mysterious transitions. The unsolved murder of my youngest brother in 2003 brought the whole experience home, up close and personal.

So, what does this have to do with writing? As a reader, emotional authenticity is key to my immersion in a story. I swear I can tell if a writer is baring his heart on the page, or regurgitating sentiment witnessed on a movie screen. This doesn’t mean that we as writers must personally endure every painful loss that our characters’ experience. Loss is loss, fear is fear, and they’re often transferable with a little imagination (of which we artists have plenty).

What it means to me is that we have to be willing to fully travel those paths when they present themselves, in life, and yes, in those great books (and movies) that strum our heartstrings. We need to be explorers of our emotional pain, brave enough to embrace it, to pick it apart and feel its sting. We need to dig into the fear that underlies our emotional wounds and speaks ultimately to the human condition—that each of us is here only temporarily. That we matter immensely and matter not at all.

There are days of writing and crying, snot-nosed and puffy-eyed, breathing through my mouth with a roll of toilet paper at my elbow. When I write about loss or pain or a main character’s death, I know where my tears originate. I hope that if someday you read such a scene, you’ll be genuinely moved. Then I’ll have done my job.

The Lover’s Moon

Lover's Moon

In my fantasy worlds, the Lover’s Moon ushers in the ripeness of summer. Fiddleheads unfurl on the mountain paths and the high meadow blooms with fireweed, toadflax, and pearl everlasting. In the villages, the lanes bake and the heat rises in liquid ribbons. It’s a moon of full-bellies,  bare feet and water warm enough for swimming, of golden hay and long lazy days.  On the sea, it’s a time of genial winds, promises of love, and sails billowing with sunshine.

For anyone romantic at heart, the full Lover’s Moon smiles tonight.

Jan Steen Revelry at an Inn - en.wikimedia.org

Jan Steen Revelry at an Inn – en.wikimedia.org

Excerpt from the Lover’s Moon, Eye of Sun
(Percy is going to create a little diversion)

The Crow’s Nest bustled with seamen, yardsmen, and scurrying serving maids. Caron crowded them into a corner, sharing a long table with men from the Gale Breaker and Seabourne. A few crewmen hoisted their tankards in a boisterous greeting. Edin had never patronized such a chaotic and raucous place. Seamen sloshed well beyond their cups, and he couldn’t tell whether they were getting along or apt to throw punches. Caron suggested the mash for supper, and he took the recommendation, barely able to think straight with all the noise.

The food hearty, he ate like a starved man. One of the crewmen sharing the long table leaned toward him. The skinny seaman sported a crooked nose and hair that might have been trimmed by a blind man in a stiff wind. “How’s yer mash? Good ain’t it?”

Edin pushed away his empty plate. “We’ve been living on old bread and watered oats, complements of your governors.”

“It weren’t fish, anyway,” the young man said.

“Percy got fish nigh up his gills,” a flaxen-haired man explained. “Name’s Hywel and that’s me brother, Malven.” He pointed to the beardless version of himself sitting across the table.

“Fish mornin’, noon, and evenin’,” Percy muttered. “Can’t tolerate it no more.”

“Quit cookin’ fish then,” Malven said. “Yer the blame cook.”

“Pull up somethin’ aside fish and I will.”

“Mutton would be good,” the bearded older brother said. “Hook us a good shank of sheep off Ramsey.”

Percy thought that worth a laugh and ordered more ale.

“Don’t mind the fish stew,” Hywel said. “Like it with potatoes. Good when they come in again.”

“Still fish,” Percy muttered.

“Good crab off Ross and Whitnee,” Hywel said. “Crab’s worth the work.”

“Still fish.”

“Crab’s not fish,” Malven said. “It’s crab.”

“It’s a sort of fish,” the skinny cook insisted.

“It don’t got fins, Perce.”

“Neither do a clam, ya idiot.”

“A clam ain’t a fish neither.”

Eyeing Malven, Percy downed his ale. “If it’s from the sea, it’s fish.”

“Lot’s from the sea that ain’t fish,” Hywel said. “Rocks and weed. Sand.”

“We’re talkin’ about fish, not sand!” Percy shouted with a grin.

“Just sayin’ not everything in the sea is fish,” Hywel said.

“If it come from the sea, looks like fish, tastes like fish, is fish.” Percy pushed back his chair, thumping into a bald warrior at the next table who growled and gave him a shove. Percy bolted up and faced the shiny-headed hulk. “Now, that weren’t necessary. We was just talkin’ about what’s fish.”

“And I’ve heard enough,” the man snarled. “Fish have gills. That’s how you know they’re fish.”

Percy’s face turned scarlet. He lifted the edge of the warriors’ table and spilled every tankard the length of it. Before Malven could stop him, he took an off-balance swing at the warrior who popped him in his crooked nose. Percy howled, grabbed a tankard, and smashed it into a bearded warrior’s cheek. The man shoved Percy so hard he flew off his feet, landing on the suppers of the Gale Breaker’s crew.

“He pushed me on ya!” Percy shouted, his arms protecting his face. “Blame warriors, wreckin’ yer supper.” The Gale Breaker’s crew tossed Percy back toward the warriors, but Hywel caught his arm and yanked him out of the path of a right hook that would have lopped off his head. A man from the Gale Breaker spun around and thundered a punch into the bald warrior’s belly and head-butted him in the face, breaking his nose. Another warrior with a puckered scar on his chin picked up a chair and hurled it at the Gale Breaker’s crew. The seamen erupted, climbing over tables and throwing fists at any warrior in range. The proprietor roared from the end of the room, but he was far too late.

(Coming in August!)

Writing for the audience of…me.

pixabay image compilation

pixabay image compilation

Days before Sunwielder first hit the press in 2014, my publisher emailed me a question. “Sunwielder has a little of everything: war, romance, love, friendship, violence, and humor. What audience did you write it for?”

Good question.

It’s a blessing she and I communicated by email, or she would have seen the clueless, dumb-ass look on my face, my mouth forming my snappy, cutting-edge reply, “Uh…Oops.”

Without a doubt, the inquiry got me thinking, and to be honest, it wasn’t the first time I’ve contemplated the idea of writing with an audience in mind. I suppose many authors do, and from a marketing perspective, having a target consumer in mind is…um…what’s the word…imperative?

But I can’t write that way, at least not intentionally. My stories feel more organic than that, coalescing in the puny nutshell of my brain and suddenly cracking open into consciousness. I can only write from the inside out, and therefore, I wonder, is the audience…me?

The answer in a way is “yes.” The stories and characters compel me to put them to paper; the themes invade the little globe of my life. They can’t help but reflect elements of my worldview, my real and imagined experiences, my despairs and hopes. If I consider this question logically, why would any artist put heart and soul into a work of art she or he didn’t like?

As a person entering the last third of life, I spend a portion of my idle minutes musing over past choices and the myriad shifts they prompted in the winding path of my own story. This sunny-afternoon, garden-gazing pondering definitely informed Sunwielder. Those who most “get” the book, it seems, share this stage of life with me and the accompanying tendency toward reflection. So, yeah, the audience is probably “yours truly.” Thankfully, I’m a fairly run-of-the-mill human being to which a few souls out there can relate.

So, why does Sunwielder have a little of everything? I suppose because that’s how I perceive the complexity and poignancy of an authentic life. What human life isn’t a conglomeration of different bits, a pie chart of multiple, disparate wedges forming a whole? Gryff Worden, the Sunwielder, needs to be relatable, and though the details of his story may differ from ours, I’d argue that the reality of the way choices sculpt his life is universal to us all.

Sunwielder will be reissued within the week as a self-published book. Stay tuned.

How Outlining Saved my Writer’s Soul

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all images complements of pixabay

Well, that’s probably an overstatement, but it did save years of revisions, which is almost the same thing.

I wrote my first book as a pantser, diving into the pages like a love-struck teenager. I was possessed, channeling characters like a medium with a direct link to the great novel in the sky. I loved the inspired feeling of freeing my characters to ramble shilly-shally where they would as they told their own stories. They had entire lives of their own; who was I to tell them what to do.

Halfway through my first draft, one of my secondary characters (a guy named Conall) informed me that not only was he refusing to die, but he wanted to be the main character! He lobbied the other characters, and being the personable guy his is, he got the other mutineers to agree. I was stuck and had to go back and rewrite the first half of the book!

Diana's BookAnd as you can imagine, by this time, it wasn’t your normal-sized book either. With all the escapades and tangents my characters insisted upon taking, the tome ended up a whopping 190,000 words.

Oh. My. Goodness. Help!

So, outlining is something that I learned the very-hard way. The end result of my initial foray into writing was two extra years of revisions. I pared away whole scenes, chapters, and characters – over 60,000 words. I felt like I was being flayed. It was excruciating!

I’m a true believer in the mighty outline.

For me, outlining a story is a monstrously important step in terms of how painful the editing process will be down the road. I learned that a well-thought out plot/outline is going to save tons of time, keep the story tight, the scenes relevant, and help tie up dangling threads. I won’t have big issues with wandering chapters, cavernous holes, and out-of-the blue surprises. I won’t be doing as much slashing, back-tracking, and rewriting just to get the story right.

GravestoneYet, what about the thrill, you ask? What about the addictive creativity of not knowing what’s coming next? What about inspiration, the free will of your characters? Trust me, as an outliner, you don’t have to erect a tombstone over your dead muse’s grave.

Aside from the usual wisdom to find what works for you, my advice would be to develop (or locate) an outlining method that still allows plenty of room for creativity. In other words, leave space for inspiration! My outlines are fluid and morph right up until I pop a period on the epilog.

This is going to sound like the polar opposite of “fluid,” but I keep track of my outlines in Excel. (Word, post-it notes, charts, and diagrams are fine too, of course). Most outliners suggest starting with the basic bullets of the story and growing it from there. I tend to jot down what I know from my musings – some of it detailed, some of it loose and full of gaps.

With those rough bones in place, the fun of fleshing out the story begins. I expand, add detail, fill logic gaps, and think through how to get from A to B and have it make sense. The joy of Excel is that I can insert, delete, reorder, and expand rows as the story takes shape. I can lump rows together into rough chapters. I can insert rows to capture bits of dialog or scenes that bubble into my brain.

At some point, hopefully, I’ve also started writing. Here’s where the old unpredictability and creativity kicks in. Over and over again, new ideas form, something unexpected happens, and characters run off and implement ideas of their own as if they’re in charge.

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Like a benevolent dictator, I routinely call the insurgents into the boardroom for some outline brainstorming. We figure out where we need to backpedal, adjust dialog, add/modify/delete scenes, and place Chekov’s gun on the mantel. Together, we re-plan future scenes, trash everything they just wrecked, plug plot holes, mend broken threads, and get the whole outline making sense and flowing again.

By the way, outlines are also potent cures for writer’s block. I may not be in the mood to write, but I always know what comes next.

Are you a happy pantser, outliner, or something in between?

Happy Writing!