Category: Writing

Something happened to me this week. It’s a change I knew was going to happen, but when it did it still left me amazed by the event. A short story I submitted last summer, for a chance at being included in an anthology, is now published. I’ve known for a few months this was going to happen, but now with the moment here, I’m  spinning with awe. I received an email from goodreads Wednesday morning notifying me that my profile is now an author’s profile. An authors profile. The originating author of the Feyland series, Anthea Sharp, lovingly reminded me to get my butt to Amazon and set up my author profile already. Authors profile, that means it happened-I have something published. I’ve been writing full time for three years. I knew this day was going to come, but here I am totally stunned and humbled by the change.

I am so excited for this release. Its an honor to share a cover with the other authors in this anthology. Each of us created standalone stories that are set in the imaginative world created by USA Today bestselling author Anthea Sharp. Feyland is an immersive, virtual reality computer game, that is actually a gateway to the very real realm of faerie.

Chronicle Worlds: Feyland Cover
Chronicle Worlds: Feyland Cover

 

You don’t need to have read the original Feyland books to understand and enjoy the stories in this anthology. Our advanced review copy readers have confirmed the read can be enjoyed without any prior reading or knowledge of Anthea Sharp’s Feyland series. However I must say, there’s a reason Feyland is a best seller. I for sure have some bias, but anyone who follows my reviews knows I’m honest in sharing my opinion. I enjoyed each of the Feyland books. They have solid characters and each one expands the fascinating world that is part fantasy and part science fiction. The first book and Novella can be read for free, and are out on Amazon HERE.

This is the first Chronicle Worlds release by curator Samuel Peralta, owner and genius behind the best selling anthology series the Future Chronicles. A series, which has fourteen titles with several that have hit the overall Amazon Top 10 Bestsellers list. The Chronicle Worlds is a line of anthologies charting new territories of a shared universe, within already-existing worlds.

The special 99c ebook launch price is still going on, you can pick up a copy HERE. We are excited by all of the early reviews and looking forward to the upcoming launch of the paperback version of Chronicle Worlds: Feyland the weekend of July 15th. You can join our virtual Facebook book launch party HERE.

Author George R. R. Martin is famous for killing off beloved characters in his popular Game of Thrones, A Song of Ice and Fire book series. I’ve often wondered however, how he feels about the writer saying, “kill all your darlings.”

I think writer Lisa Cron best describes what happens to a reader when a writer does not abide by the old adage “kill your darlings”. In the chapter Cause and Effect in her book Wired For Story, Cron outlines why digressions are deadly. Explaining the chemistry behind the human need to sense if not see casual connection in everything that is presented to the reader.

Okay, now imagine the story is a car and it’s zooming ahead at sixty miles an hour. You’ve completely surrendered to its momentum; you’re one with the story. Then a real nice field of flowers off to the left catches the writer’s eye. So he slams on the brakes, and you slam your head against the windshield as he hops out and frolics in the meadow. Just for a lovely, lyrical second. Then he’s ready to get back on the road. But will the story still be going sixty? No, because he just brought it to a dead stop, which means-provided he can coax you back into it-the story is now going zero.

Cron’s analogy is exactly what happened to me reading Game of Thrones. I was acclimated to the pacing and characters Martin used through the first three books of the series. Then I read A Feast for Crows (A Song of Ice and Fire #4), and Martin slammed on the breaks and my head hit the windshield. The fans who have only encountered the show are fortunate they did not experience the pain of reading an eight hundred page tomb with none of the characters loved and admired from the first three books in the series. They are privileged to experience the story as it was intended, with books four and five combined into one narrative. They are also lucky that the show’s writers, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, are killing off the many darlings Martin presents in books four and five. My best examples of the darlings killed so far are:

  • Omitting what happened to Berric Dondarrion
  • Omitting the reincarnated Catlyn Stark
  • Never presenting the character Cold Hands
  • What’s happened to Breanne and Pod

These four changes can account for several chapter’s worth of material. I think it’s significant Martin endorsed these deviations from his story on screen. It’s a concession to his readers, admitting what he presented in those chapters was irrelevant to his overall story. If the material is not crucial to the cause and effect of the story then it’s a digression. Those chapters were some of Martin’s digressions, his darlings; scenes he enjoyed and assumed we the reader would as well despite their lack of connection to the progressing story.

I am fascinated by the fact that Martin spent years writing for television, but the choice to remove darlings and condense repetitive material in the last two books was made by his television writers.  As a Game of Thrones fan, I hope Benioff and Weiss push Martin’s focus back to presenting readers with only those chapters relevant to the cause and effect of the story. I would appreciate it if the pacing of Martin’s next installment, Winds of Winter (A Song of Ice and Fire #6), is nothing like A Dance With Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire #5). Where the reader covers a thousand pages while the plot moves forward by a millimeter.

Martin would be doing his readers a service if he were to run his current draft of book six by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. They’ve succeeded in killing Martin’s darling’s, and could point out those needing to be destroyed before his next book goes to print. As Renni Brown & David King present in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, “It’s far better to rewrite your story in a way that makes use of the good stuff than to simply use your story as an excuse for writing the good stuff.”

An author friend of mine posted a positive review of the Kindle book Writing Active Hooks by: Mary Buckham. I’ve heard hooks referred to as lazy writing, and a literary device. As a novice writer I know there’s plenty for me to learn, and other reviewers touted the assignments in the book as great. I’ve taken some Master Level Marketing courses, and I learned a great deal about retail marketing while working as a store executive for Target. I enjoyed learning about the psychology behind where things are placed and why it grabs interest. My interest with this book was peeked, and I bought it.

It’s a quick read, and there’s useful information. Buckham illustrates each of the “classic hook’s” by highlighting writers works in the same way Browne  & King teach with samples in their book Self-Editing For Fiction Writers. None of Beckman’s samples demonstrated hooks I would dub as lazy or read like a literary devices.  A few samples show the progressive improvement of the first line through several drafts. These were very compelling examples and it certainly taught me what each hook is comprised of.

It is Buckham’s assertion that the first line in every book should contain at least one hook, and depending on the genre three to four. She has several reasons why, but the reason that grabbed me was a novice author’s increased chance of their manuscript immediatly standing out against the others floating accross agent and publisher desks.  Is this a fear tactic or solid advice? I think it’s something that can’t hurt, and is worth consideration.

One of Buckman’s assignments is to go to the bookstore or library, seek out new works in the genre you write, and read the first line of eight books.  If there was a Prologue we are to consider this as the start of the story. Buckham also wanted the books examined to be written by new authors, or a new publication. Her rational being how the market changes, and what sold books several years ago does not necessarily sell them now.

Reading this assignment made me grin and sigh.  I’m no expert, but I’m familiar with the fantasy genre. It’s the genre I prefer to read and it is what I write in. I knew before setting foot in the bookstore or skimming the first page of books in my collection that the probability of finding hooks in the first sentence of any fantasy was slim to none.

Eager to see if I was wrong I went out and did the assignment. I was still not holding my breath, as I approached the Fantasy/Science Fiction new release aisle.  The entire end cap by it was filled with leather bound copies of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and no-neither one of these have hooks in the first sentence.

I know I’m being very general, but here’s a list of what I did expect to find.  According to my experience as a Fantasy consumer, the first scene in an epic fantasy usually opens with one of these things:

  • A recitation of who the protagonist is and/or thier heritage.
  • The protagonist observing nature and/or the environment.
  • The protagonist fighting or in a battle of some kind.

Was I right? Yes.

My four year old daughter was with me, and while I sent her on a mission to find book covers with dragons, I compiled my list. I’m grading the number of hooks used based on what I learned from Buckham’s book.  I’m not going to ruin Writing Active Hook’s by explaining the five hooks to you. In all honesty, with what I found, I don’t think I even need to.  The sentences without hooks are not compelling. These writers haven’t failed in their craft. It’s simply a fact they chose not to use a psychological hook at the opening of their book.

The following had no hooks within the first sentence:

  • “My name is Uhthred.”-The Empty Throne by: Bernard Cornwell
  • “Flashes of lightning seared the turbid night sky, illuminating the drawn faces of the men hearing the long wooden oars of the Viking Longship as it fought against the roarings of the unforgiving sea.”- The Eye of Heaven by: Clive Cussler
  • “Shiva gazed at the orange sky.”- The Imortals of Meluha by Amish Tripathi
  • “They stood together on the cliffs surrounds the Ultan and stared accross the rain forest.”- Elves: Rise of the TaiGether by: James Barclay
  • “Thomas Cole suffers no hysterical delusions of uncontrolled behavior beyond that of his sour nature.”-The Beating of His Wings by: Paul Hoffman
  • “Lightning split the night sky above the mast of the Bantu Rey.”- Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk

The following had hooks within the first sentence:

  • “Lady Isabel Amaral plucked another pair of drawers from the chiffonier and tossed them in her companions direction.”-The Golden City by J.Kathleen Cheney
  • “Harkin cracked his whip with an urgency wrought of terror.”- The Highwayman by: R.A. Salvature

Just for fun I went to my collection at home and grabbed eight fantasy books. I took note of the first sentences, and found none of these contained a hook.

  • “Rukbat, in the Sagittarius Sector, was a golden G-type star.” Moretea: Dragonlady of Pern by: Anne McCaffrey
  • “Grand Duke Tremane shivered as a cold draft wisped past the shutters behind him and drifted down the back of his neck.”-Storm Rising by: Mercedes Lackey
  • “This night have dispatched to you four birds, bearing in two parts our agreement with the dragon Tintaglia, to be ratified by the Rain Wild Council.”- Dragon Keeper by: Robin Hobb
  • “Both moons were high, dimming the light of all but the brightest stars.”-Tigana by: Guy Gavriel Kay
  • “A cold wind blew down from the snow-covered mountains, hissing through the narrow streets of Thebe Under Plakos.”-Troy: Shield of Thunder by David Gemmell
  • “Smells of earth and dung drifted slowly past the fog in Errol’s brain.”-A Cast of Stones by: Patrick W. Carr
  • “Kalam rounded a rocky stone ridge and stumbled to a stop before the body of a dying thunderclast.”-The Way of Kings buy: Brandon Sanderson
  • “He had many names.” Blood Song by: Anthony Ryan
  • “We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.-Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

The lack of hooks in this short sampling of data I find fascinating as both a writer and a reader.  While validating my assumption felt good, it had me wondering why. As a fan of fantasy, why am I tolerant of writing that typically does not hook a reader until anywhere between the five and thirty page mark? Is there something more pressing then pulling a reader into the story and engaging them right away?

When I first started reading Fantasy what drove me to pick up a book was the following, and listed in order of importance as: The cover art, my devotion as a fan to tried and true authors, and the blurb on the back. There was only one book in a fifteen year stretch of reading Fantasy where I did not finish a book. That was The Deeds of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon.  I read one hundred or so pages and I was never attached to either the protagonist or the plot. Did her hook’s not resonate with me, or was I just bored to tears? I’m not sure and I never made it past 200 pages.  Moon’s book illustrates my point best in that I was conditioned for long exposition narratives. I was patient and willing to let Moon talk about mud and this female soldier from a farm. I wanted to see her move on to becoming a great warrior but her journey was boring, and Moon had surpassed our trade off.

In my opinion a trade off exisits in the fantasy genre between the reader and the author. If the reader is willing to read one chapter, or say a prologue and one chapter, the Fantasy author will provide a hook, or the big “So What?” Why must the Fantasy reader be so accommodating? Because Fantasy, and I would say Science Fiction as well, takes you someplace you have never been before.  You can’t just drop into the protagonist and automatically understand the daily operations of a Dragon hold, a wizard school, or kingdom full of blue people that eat sand.  Most of the time, in order for the Fantasy story to make sense-for the hook to make sense, the reader needs to be exposed to the fantastical place and learn some important things. Bring the reader up to speed on things not typical in other genre’s. Like a whole new culture or race of people; a magic system; where dragons live; or what army is out to destroy the world.

I don’t think a hook is needed in the first line of a fantasy novel, however I’m not necessarily against finding them. Especially if they are as well crafted as the samples in Beckman’s book.   At some point in every novel hook psychology is present.  We are given the big “So What?” and “This is why you should read more.” It would be no surprise to find an increase of Fantasy authors using hooks in the first sentence of their work. What would be more surprising is if their target audience ever takes notice. It’s my opinion the average Fantasy reader will forgive a new work if a hook is missing from the first line. However in a saturated Fantasy market, for the unpublished and unknown writer, it’s a risk we might want to avoid.

Beta Readers, also sometimes called alpha readers or pre-readers, are informal readers who read written works and provide insight and recommended improvements. The reading is done before a work is released for publication.

I have been blessed with a wonderful team of Beta readers. In the process of finding them, I applied some of the useful information acquired from an author group on Goodreads.  My friend Kate had one especially insightful post. I reached out to Kate, asking her permission to post the wisdom she shared, and see if she would answer a few more questions.

Now, before you read her insight, I need to brag and tell you why Kate knows what she is talking about.  See, I was completely floored when I realized just how much experience Kate has. I can remember faces, but I am bad at remembering names. It takes awhile for my brain to mesh a face with a name, a band with a song, an artist with a painting, or an author with a book. I was a little shocked when I realized who my brain knows as my author friend Kate from Goodreads.  She was in fact, none other than the author Kate Quinn. Her books include: Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, Empress of the Seven Hills, The Serpent and Pearl, and The Lion and the Rose.

Upon realizing this, I saw a big part of my oversight came from the fact Kate has none of the “I’m a big deal book author” attitude. Certainly you could expect it from someone who has authored works with enough notoriety to earn a spot in the limited selection of books sold at Target stores nationwide, and has their work published in several languages. But no, not my friend Kate, which makes me adore her even more.

Kate graciously said yes, and took time away from her current project to tell us more about her experience with Beta readers. This first part is from Kate’s original Goodreads post:

I’ve found that it’s good to have a different variety of beta-readers who you look to for different things. Such as:

1. The Expert. This reader might change from book to book, depending on what you need fact-checked, because this reader doesn’t care about your characters or your pacing, but is reading simply to fact-check you. I had some Roman Army re-enactor types who were good for this. “Make your hero older, it was against Roman regs for a legionary to make centurion before 30.”

2. The Nit-Picker. The person who can be counted on to catch eeeeeeverything little minor mistake. “He can’t wave from the doorway because you already said she saw him *come in.*” I have a goddess named Christi who did this for my last two books.

3. The Language Reader. The reader who hears language like music and will instinctively “hear” where your prose is clunky, where your pacing on a scene is lagging, and hand you the list of verbs you are over-using. For me this is the Dowager Librarian: “Run a word check on `shrug,’ `wink,’ `saunter,’ `shriek,’ and `whisper,’ and cut at least 50% of them.” Yes, Mom.

4. The Big Picture Person. The one with the big-picture eye for story and character development, who can tell you where your story is slowing down or where it needs to be paced up, and who can tell you that your heroine’s turnaround needs to be better set up. Also the Dowager Librarian, for me, as well as Stephanie Dray. (And yes, if you are lucky you will get a Two For One or even Three For One special with some of these beta readers.)

5. The Ideal Demographic. The reader who might not give you much in the way of concrete feedback, but who represents the exact demographic you are trying to hit. For me that’s dear friend Kristen: a voracious bookworm with a solid grounding in history and an enthusiasm for my genre. If she raves about a book of mine, I knowI’ve hit the target. If she’s “It didn’t quite resonate like your last one” I know I’ve got work to do.

6. And finally, The Dark Side. The reader who pushes you to think about going further, whether with your characters or your plot. You’re thinking of writing about an arsonist? This reader suggests a murderer. You want your hero to get beaten up? This reader wants your hero lose a hand. You want your heroine to cheat on her fiance with his friend? This person will suggest she cheat in a threesome with TWO of his friends. Sure, maybe you won’t end up taking the advice. But you’ll consider going further than you ever did before, and it will lead you interesting places. For me, that’s the hubby.

And here are Kate’s answers, to my questions, about her experiences using Beta readers.

1) When did you first start using beta readers?

Only with the last three books, when I finally found myself a writer community and had people I trusted to ask. Before that I mostly did it alone outside a few trusted critique partners.

2) What is the timeframe you allow your team of Beta readers to review your work?

I write big books, so I try to give my beta readers at least 2 weeks to respond. But there are those I know I can count on if I call with a weepy “Can you read this in 4 days because my deadline is insane?” Those are the ones who were reading pages and sending me notes on Christmas Day one year. And I return the favor for them, because they are gems. Beta-reading tends to be a reciprocal process – if someone dropped everything on New Year’s Eve to read all three versions of that scene you wrote with three different endings, then you bet your ass you need to drop everything for them when they need it.

3) I’ve seen links to Beta reader contracts, have you/would you ever use one of these?

Actually, I have NOT heard of those. If it means contracting a stranger to be your beta, think I would rather know someone first so I know what kind of feedback they are likely to be useful for. Beta readers come in various flavors – the Subject Experts, the Language Experts, the Big Picture people, etc. How can you tell that from a contract with a stranger?

4) How do you prep your beta readers?

I sometimes give them a list of up-front instructions: “I’m on a tight timeline, so please star anything you think is crucial to be taken care of, or it won’t happen till after my editor sees it.” I will also sometimes add in-manuscript commentary: “Beta Reader X thought the previous scene would come better from another point of view – what’s your take?” And at the end I generally have questions as well: “Did you feel that the surprise twist was set up well enough? Did you see that romance coming?” But it depends on the work – sometimes you just send the manuscript and let them have at it.

5) What is the best insight you received from one of your beta readers?

Best and toughest: two trusted beta readers told me, three weeks before my deadline, “You need an entirely new viewpoint character.” I cried. But they were completely right, and I made it happen.

6) Do you use all the insight you receive?

Never. Consensus is important – if 5 out of your 6 beta readers are telling you to change something, then you should consider it VERY seriously. But if all 6 are telling you different things, then you just have differing opinions. Take what you think is valuable, what your gut tells you will work, and discard the rest. Because in the end, it is your book.

7) Which is better, kindness or brutal honesty?

Both. Don’t be dishonest in your critique, but some kid gloves are appreciated for the harsh opinions. Rather than saying “Your hero is more boring than watching paint dry,” say “We need to punch up your hero a bit – have you tried making him snarkier?”

8) Who should a writer never use as a beta reader?

Yes-men: the people who will only tell you what you want to hear. Classically this would include friends and family, but that is not true for me – my mother is an absolutely ruthless beta-reader with a great eye for when my language is getting stale and my pace lags (she once wrote “this is dim and stagey” in a margin, which was absolutely true). And I have dear friends who are also writers, and they never hesitate to tell me a scene isn’t working even though they love me. So I wouldn’t say you cannot use your friends and family . . . just be aware of the ones who will only give you “This is great!!!” Because that is not useful.

My computer crashed last Friday. I did the right thing and shut it down the night before. I awoke Friday and turned it on to see what many Mac users know as the white screen of death. My trusty machine would not load the operating system. I made an appointment and with my two younger kids in tow went down to the local Apple store. I hate things like car trouble, a major appliance failure, or computer trouble. It brings up all kinds of concerns that don’t cloud my ordinary everyday. How much is this going to cost? Do we have the money for this? When was my last backup? Will I be able to finish projects x, y, and z? It’s just ugly and I did my best to keep a lid on it and roll with the unknown.IMG_2431

The Apple Store Genius took one look at my Mac and I could see he was looking at a dinosaur; a computer that was top of the line seven years ago when he was graduating high school. I know he’s wondering why I don’t just replace that thing already. To me there’s no need yet. It does what I need it to do. Why would I replace it when I am happy with it? He ran a diagnostic and my hard drive was fine, which was good because my computer has surpassed into an age where an Apple Store will no longer conduct maintenance on my machine. They won’t take my money to fix it? For some unexplained reason my computer could or would not load the current operating software. The Genius was able to have my computer see the last generation of software. Everything was reformatted and I would need to go through a several hour process of updating to the new software, and migrating my information back from my backup at home. If, and it was a hesitant if. The Genius did his best to break the news to me gently. It would work only if my computer did not have the same malfunction when I got home.

It had the same malfunction. I sat at my desk willing a grey apple icon to appear on my screen, but nothing appeared. I sent a text with the bad news to my husband. He asked how much a replacement would be. I replied with the truth, “I have no idea.” I hadn’t let myself covet the new computers. I wanted this one to work. I did my best to proceed with my day by making lunch. Unhappy I picked up the book I’ve been reading, and burrowed under my heated blanket. I spent an hour sulking on the couch while my younger kids played Lego and My Little Pony. My husband called me during a break and laughed at me, teasing that I was already in withdrawal from my computer crack. He made me laugh and I didn’t even try to deny it. “Go, go ahead and get a new one. Just don’t get all the upgrades. I know you-don’t go getting everything.” He said.

It was a big relief to get the go ahead for a new computer. I was excited but it was dampened by guilt over the unanticipated cost and a loving, humbling, gratitude. I rounded my little ones back into the car while going through a back and forth trying to explain to them how I had no more “big coins”, quarters, for candy from the gumball machines they line the mall entrance with.

I stood in front of my dream computer in disbelief. I’ve had my eye on the 27” iMac for a few years. As a digital scrapbooker it was like a car enthusiast fantasizing about a private garage fitted with every tool, jack, and gadget. I could not believe I was in the midst of buying my dream computer. Being a scrapbooker, I went ahead and took a few pictures with my phone hoping to make the experience a little more real. IMG_2436

I did not get to take it home right away, but before the weekend was over I had it home. Time Machine showed my last backup was on May 1st 2014. That was good news. The most heart wrenching, missing files, were pictures from my oldest daughters birthday party from May 2nd. This would be the first time we used our remote backup through Crash Plan. We had been on Carbonite for a few years. There were two disappointments we experienced with them. The first being, after two years my desktop was still not 100% backed up. The other was they would not back up external hard drives. This bothered us, we wanted our video, photo, and my digital scrapbooking external drives backed up. Carbonite does not offer this kind of service. Chris and I changed to Crash Plan after doing some research on Consumer Reports. Crash Plan had my entire Computer, and three external drives backed up in less than 3 months. It was the best feeling to log into our account and see my last back up was the night before my Computer died. I was able to get back every file I was missing.

While this ordeal is still the kind I would avoid at all costs, at least the situation ended better than I anticipated. What did I learn from it?

I’m getting better at pushing away all the “what if” questions. I was able to stay relatively level and I did not loose control of my emotions, or take my frustrations out on anybody else. I really did want to sob uncontrollably for a few hours when I knew my computer was dead, but I didn’t. Sure yes, I did tear up, but there was no sobbing.

I experienced first hand how backing up my computer to all of these places is a good thing. Do what they say-back up and back up often. Keep important files backed up in at least two locations. It’s advice we hear all the time, and every time I’ve heart it I wanted to roll my eyes and respond, “Yes Mom.” But really, the reminders are constant and passionate because the experts are trying to save you from the grief experienced when you don’t backup.

I am over the moon with my new desktop. I’ve never had a graphics card, and this thing has more RAM than I thought was possible. It’s a blessing. Now I just have to use it to do what my husband has been nagging me to do, “finish your book.”

“Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”          -August Wilson

michael-pwns-satan

I am wrestling with a demon today.  I’ve battled this demon a thousand times, and for me this is the same fight different day.  It pounced on me the way it usually does. I’m doing the innocuous, going about my day, and out of nowhere the idea of it gets mentioned or the event itself is brought up.  Bam!  I am transported across a time space continuum to the end of 2003.  I may not journey there physically, but emotionally I never left.  My feelings about this event have never changed, and there is a shame tied to it I do my best to hide.

See the Veterans Administration is doing a survey of women veterans.  They are trying to figure out how and why we female veterans do not use their medical facilities, or apply for  benefits.  I agreed to take part in the forty-five minute phone survey.  Just trying to do my part and help out a government organization that does a lot of good for some good people.  I answered questions while loading my dishwasher and kept tabs on my young children playing Lego in the other room.

I knew the questions would be in the survey.  They had to be.  The government has required the military make every job code in the service branches open to both the male and female genders by 2016.  A tall order in light of the growing rate of reported service related sexual harassment and assault cases.  Of course they were going to ask.  My husband already provided me with the special pamphlet on benefits I am eligible for with the Veterans Administration. I fall into a special new category of those who have experienced “Military Sexual Trauma.”  He gave me the pamphlet over six months ago.  Against my better judgment, I have yet to get placed in the system.  I don’t want to go in and fill out the paperwork.  Setting up a time to enroll would mean I would be planning a future-wrestling match with this old demon.  I also loathe, and utterly hate thinking of myself as a victim.

Right after answering the questions about, “my comfort level seeking mental health treatment at a VA facility”, the sexual trauma questions began.  I felt my back muscles tense as anger rolled in the pit of my stomach.  Each and every question about sexual misconduct received the answer of, “Yes” from me.  By the last of her six questions, I heard myself not letting her finish the question.  Half way through her sentence, I was blurting out a sharp, “Yes!”  When the series of questions ended, I wondered if I needed to have her go back and redo the questions about my mental health.  I was on edge.  Ten years have passed, but talking about it incited me like the events happened this past Tuesday.

I hate to even mention what happened to me.  I look at the inappropriate behavior I was subjected to as minor, compared to what I know happened to other women.  However, I was subpoenaed to Germany to testify against my Command Sargent Major, who was on trail for sexual assault.  The JAG officers who took my sworn statements, told me my testimony was the most compelling, from the pool of evidence submitted by other female officers.  Of the victims who were flown out of country for the trial, I was the only female officer to take the stand.  I can’t argue against these facts.  They indicate what happened to me was not minor.  My mistake first and foremost was in my thinking.  I allowed it to occur because I wanted it to be minor.  I tolerated it.  I tolerated a lot of things because I existed in an environment where many frowned on my presence.  It was an environment, which had been pried open to allow my entrance.  Even though women started working in the regular Army several decades prior to me, many male service members longed for the days when my sex did not pollute their Army.

Call me a fatalist, but I have little faith the level of sexual misconduct or assault cases, which occur each year in the armed services, will go down.  Just like I know there will forever be a porn and prostitution industry, I know these things will occur.  We cannot change the people who commit these crimes.  They exist, and they always will.  You can ignore them like you ignore the porn industry, but not paying them any attention, does not mean they go away.  You can say there is a zero tolerance policy, just like partaking in prostitution is a prosecutable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but I’ve never witnessed these things enforced.

The people committing sex crimes will never be removed from society.  Sexual harassment and inequality will continue.  There is nothing we can do to curb the people who cultivate and embrace a value system that exonerates such behavior.  It’s only just this year, 2014, that a bill has been set in front of the Federal Armed Forces committee that would automatically dishonorable discharge prosecuted sexual misconduct offenders.  Even a whiff of sexual harassment in the civilian workplace will get a person fired.  However the military has long been the champion of letting this behavior slide.  Offenders routinely receiving a slap on the wrist before being sent back to their unit.

I was an officer.  I learned and was a careful study of the high-ranking female officers around me.  These women, each and every one, had dealt with worse treatment.  Each braved an even more rugged prior era of inequality than what I experienced.  A female soldier, generally speaking, is the minority of a minority.  The total number of United States citizens who serve in a branch of the armed forces is about 1%.  Of that 1% females make up about 14.6% of the total armed forces.  I was groomed by these women and taught to pick my battles.  It was a black mark for a female officer to be labeled “excitable” by her male peers.  In order to measure up to my male peers I had to go above and beyond.  To meet a male peers mediocre performance, I had to be exceptional, and being labeled excitable would not help my career.

I had to tolerate a certain level of off color jokes, remarks, or things said in poor taste.  In 2003 I was serving in a time when the Army prided itself in being modern.  There was a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment.  We were all indoctrinated with annual mandatory briefings set with the intent of providing the Army with a harassment free workplace.  Gone were the years of tolerating lewd behavior that would land you in a courtroom if you worked in the civilian sector.

In my opinion, not a whole lot changed.  The most glaring example was when I visited the aviation unit assigned to my higher headquarters in Bosnia.  The Texas Army National Guard was running the day-to-day operations of flying Black Hawks from the airfield at Eagle Base.  Pin up playboy posters were on display under the glass covering their check in desk.  The walls of the Intelligence shop had two full size posters of women wearing, what some might call, bikini bathing suits.  The computer desktop wallpaper of several government workstations displayed half naked women.  I mentioned my observations to my supervisor, and I called my associate out who worked there.  He didn’t see any reason for my objection to his wall art.

All afternoon memories of sitting in military courtroom in Germany on January 8th 2004, played on and off in my mind.  I wrestled with the demon, feeling the pain I felt hearing the testimony of the enlisted soldiers Command Sargent Major Rannenberg sexually assaulted.  I battle guilt I harbor for not stepping up and filing a complaint about Rannenberg’s inappropriate actions towards me.  I didn’t do the right thing.  I was worried about being labeled excitable.  I worried they would tell me  “it was nothing”, or I was “exaggerating the truth”, or “I didn’t know how to take a compliment.”  I could what if all night, but it will never change my decision to ignore something I knew wasn’t okay.

I am disappointed the anger and frustration I feel from this event has not changed.  Time and distance has not done the job of dulling or separating me from the anger I feel whenever I think about what happened.  I guess I need to wrestle with this demon more.  I need to forgive myself.  I decided I need to work towards a goal of not biting off the heads of strangers or survey takers who might unwittingly address this old demon.

*If you or a veteran you know has experienced Military Sexual Trauma, I encourage you to look into the services the Veterans Administration has available on their MST website HERE.

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To pause, is this really a place where nothing is happening when a writer is writing?  For me there is a difference between a pause and a stop.  While my manuscript for my current book is with my beta readers I have chosen not to actively work on it.  My goal is to have a fresh set of eyes when it is time to tackle the edits I get back from my beta readers.  As of now, I have received most of my beta reader’s feedback.  You could say I have a ninety percent solution.

All of the beta reader feedback so far, has pointed out one thing that absolutely needed revision.  After a few days thought I was able to process and draft an idea for the needed change.

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One of my beta reader’s thoughts revealed something important about a character.  There is a characterization choice that could impact the long term, throwing off follow on story lines.  The good news is I don’t need to write new chapters to fix what was pointed out.  The changes required can be subtle or maybe a more dramatic revision of one chapter.  We’ll see, I don’t know yet what the right choice will be.

More pressure to flush this out will arise when my last beta reader’s feedback comes back.  Until then I am in a pause.  I have given my minds focus over to other things.  Actively engaging in other stories.  I don’t like forcing ideas, especially when they involve something this important.  My days have been occupied with everything from the usual mundane housework work, to the tasks I enjoy.  Every once in awhile I hit the play button and I see where my subconscious has gone with my characterization dilemma.  I’ll get a little piece of it, jot it down, and then hit the pause button again.  These pauses work for me, and I revisit the issue at different points in time.  When my emotions are neutral or heightened and I get a glimpse of how they feel at different moments.  These pauses help form the right answer.  I look forward to finding the solution when it is time to hit play again.

Writers Advice #2: “Just do it.”

Sounds simple, and really it actually kind of is.  When acquaintances find out I am writing a book many blurt out, “Where do you have the time?”  I don’t have a good response to this.  Even with the number of times I have been asked this question, I am still a little thrown off by the question.  I feel the urge to answer their question with another question, “What do you mean how do I have time?”  I learned this is not the best response. It usually gets a rambling response revolving around me having four children, which apparently renders me completely void of any time.  The best answer I have come up with, and one people seem to accept is, “I don’t watch a lot of TV.”  It’s the truth, I don’t.  The older I’ve gotten, the less TV I watch.  Even though I love TV-there’s plenty of excellent stuff on.  I am just not dedicated to watching it.  I have other stuff to do, like writing.  Television is not like when I was growing up where it aired once to never be seen again until the show became syndicated.  We all know the good stuff will be there, ready and waiting for our instant gratification, on DVD or on one of the many streaming medias.

Where does my spare time exist?  It is most often found in the morning.  This crazy thing started to happen to me over this past year, I started waking up at 5am, 4am, and yes even 3am on occasion.  I didn’t set an alarm, I just woke up and could not go back to sleep.  My mind was awake and immediately immersed in the story of my book.  I would drag myself from bed and down to my computer to write.  Many times I wanted to go back to sleep.  I knew I had this thing or other to do and it would benefit me to have more sleep.  However I learned I wasn’t going back to sleep.  I just embraced the opportunity to have some uninterrupted time writing.

I don’t turn the story off.  I don’t think I could if I wanted to.  I find myself out somewhere doing my usual mundane routine and the story is there, characters interacting, action happening.  When a particular piece of the story begins to loop, playing over and over, for me it’s better if I get this written down.  It’s distracting and the sooner it’s down the better.  A little notebook is a purse essential for me.  I know this is not a foreign behavior for writers.  A theatre director, who was friends with August Wilson, told me he once witnessed Wilson ransack his car for something to write on.  He pulled an old discarded envelope from his glove box and proceeded to compose a few lines for a play he was working on.

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As writers we should not chase our story away to occupy our thoughts at a more convenient time.  Don’t feel bad for being a daydreamer.  Get them written down when you can.  Be happy you have the problem of being in the flow and not the problem of lacking it.  Stop in the middle of the grocery store and jot down that repeating scene in your head.  Write that character name on the back of a dry cleaning receipt.  If you wake up spontaneously at 4am-go write.

Sometimes people will confess to me that they always wanted to write a book.  They plan to do it someday.  I say, don’t wait.  There is no perfect time, when the stars are aligned, and your life is settled into what you deem are the proper condition suitable to writing.  One of my best friends said, “I hope George R.R. Martin doesn’t die before he finishes the story Game of Thrones.”  I agree, being a realist any one of us might fall susceptible to an unplanned tragic death, and Martin’s really not in the best shape. He does have a fabulous problem, being distracted with the art direction of his HBO series. I hope he does get an ending written before he departs this life.  But if you are putting off your story, it may never get written.

Stop telling yourself you don’t have free time.  Of course you do. You’re just not spending it on writing.  We make time for those things that truly interest us. Quit stalling-Just do it.

Since I started writing a book, a quote by George Bernard Shaw has lingered in the back of my mind.  I was in a Theatre History lecture, at the University of Minnesota, when I heard this quote attributed to him, “Any idiot can write a book, but it takes talent to write a play.”  I found the quote funny the first time I heard it, because Shaw’s plays are stage direction heavy.  He provides details many in the Theatre world consider excessive.  The non-dramatist doesn’t mind reading his plays because of this fact.  His plays are easier to read because the stage directions read like details in a book.

I also found the quote funny because Shaw’s first works were several books.  These books (Immaturity, written 1879, published 1930; The Irrational Knot, written 1880, published 1885; Love Among the Artists, written 1881, published 1887; Cashel Byron’s Profession; written 1882, published 1885) lingered and remained unpublished until after Shaw received notoriety from his plays.  I guess the better quote would be,  “Any idiot can write a book, but it takes talent to get published.” But I would never accuse Shaw of lacking talent.  However I don’t think, based on Shaw’s own writing (How to write a Play-1909) he would say many playwrights are talented.  “As a matter of fact the majority of those who in France and England make a living by writing plays are unknown and, as to education, illiterate. Their names are not worth putting on the playbill, because their audiences neither know nor care who the author is, and often believe that the actors improvise the whole piece, just as they in fact do sometimes improvise the dialogue.” 

While Shaw’s plays have paragraphs of stage directions, I went in the other direction.  I grew up in improve theatre.  My high school did not have the budget to stage musicals in a proscenium.  The fall performance was collaborative performances created through improve.  Some called our stage black box, or an experimental stage.  It’s a minimalist, low budget, very portable way to stage a performance.  I attempted to write all of my plays for this stage.  None of my early plays had a lot of stage directions.  I was following the advice of my favorite playwright August Wilson, “I think that as a playwright, if I detail that environment, then I’m taking away something from them [designers]. I’m taking away their creativity and their ability to have input themselves, not just to follow what the playwright has written. So I do a minimum set description and let the designers create within that.” (African American Review, Spring 2001)

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As a writer with academic training in writing plays, I’ve had a learning curve taking on a book.  My first struggle writing a book was in composing all those “stage directions” I worked so hard to never write before.  My goal is to achieve a balanced narrative.  One with enough detail to spring board the reader into the environment, but not loose them in lengthy narratives. I try not to get to hung up on this. I’m not attempting fancy prose here.  The priority has been just getting it out of my head and written. I would rather be burdened with ideas than busy composing pretty prose that say nothing. My most recent learning struggle has been writing beats into dialogue. Actors don’t appreciate playwrights telling them when to take a dramatic pause, so I’ve never needed to write this kind of thing before.  I’ll have no complaints as long as my struggle remains writing pauses, and not writing dialogue.

Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.  Romans 12:21

eaab5c4035126a0b81e680bb6640ba4aI spent this last Thursday with my neighbor Mandy, her two boys, and my four children.  Our collective group of eight went out to the Mall of America for lunch and a fun day out.  Our children attend grade school together.  Mandy and I compared notes and raved about some of the teachers we love.  How the “Wow teachers” really smoothed over some of the parenting speed bumps we experienced when our kids entered grade school.  It made me reflect back on two teachers who impacted me.

Mrs. Carolyn Gustafson was my 7th Grade English teacher at Battle Creek Middle School.  She always impressed me as someone not happy in her job.  I use to wonder if she was biding her time until she could retire.  She was tough and not the most approachable woman.  I remember her teaching us the poem Paul Revere’s ride, (1860) a poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  To this day I don’t know why she wanted us to memorize it.  In my opinion the poem is a great example of early media manipulation and propaganda.  She made us recite it over and over and over again out loud in class.  Motioning her hands like we were her orchestra, she bounced up and down to the rhythm of our voices.  It was ridiculous, but she was my teacher.  I put my teachers on pedestals, regardless of how mean or strange they might seem.

Mid year she assigned us the task of writing a simple one-page essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up.  Back then everything was hand written and turned in on notebook paper.  My handwriting was average and my spelling was poor.  I wrote about how I wanted to be a writer.  I was an avid reader and I had been writing stories and keeping a journal since the fourth grade.  When I got my corrected essay back she had written a note to me in the margins of my paper, “You will never be a writer because you can’t spell.”  I was a twelve-year-old adolescent girl.  This is an age where the term girl should be synonymous with low self-esteem/self image.  I was a child who not only had an idea of what I wanted to be, I was daring enough to put it to paper.  Her note devastated me and altered the view I had for my future. My ambition was gone.  Mrs. Gustafson told me I couldn’t be a writer, and she would know, she taught English.  The next two years I still wrote, but I no longer dreamed or sought to position myself as someone capable of doing it for anything more than a hobby.

The start of High school was a big relief.  I was in a new school and my self-image improved with the removal of my braces.  My 9th grade English class happened to be called Creative Writing.  My teacher was Mr. John Pikala.  Every morning I trudged up several flights of stairs to reach his classroom in St.Paul Central High School.  Mr. Pikala was one of the happiest teachers I ever witnessed stand in front of a class.  He stood out in general because he never seemed to have a bad day.  His passion kept our attention and I always looked forward to his class.  One day after class he pulled me aside and told me something I never expected to hear.  “Andrea, have you ever thought about being a writer?  I think you should think about it.  You have a talent for writing.”  My response was fast, “Oh no, I can’t be a writer, I’m a terrible speller.”  He laughed and gave a quick reply.  “What?  Well what do you think editors are for?”  Mr. Pikala set me free.  He released me from the cage I quickly built around my ambition.  A cage I built on the foundation Mrs. Gustafson laid.  It is his encouragement, which helped me dare to pick my ambition back up.  Thank you Mr. Pikala for taking that moment and telling me my dreams were not misguided.  You demonstrated what the true heart of an educator should be.

JPP Photo About John Pikala

John Pikala retired from teaching, and lives in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota.  He is part of a spiritual ministry you can find at this LINK.