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Writing-Tip Wednesday: Short Fiction Anthologies — When Does an Idea Become a Story?

Galactic Stew, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier What is the difference between an idea and a story? It sounds like a basic question, but we have just begun the Zombies Need Brains Kickstarter for the coming year’s anthologies, and once again I am hoping to co-edit one of the collections. (This year, I co-edited the Galactic Stew anthology; last year it was Temporally Deactivated. I also had stories in both, writing as D.B. Jackson.) In past years, one of the most common issues we have found with submitted stories is that they fail to move beyond being an idea. They introduce a concept, often an intriguing one. But that is all they do.

Hence today’s post.

Temporally Deactivated, edited by David B. Coe and Joshua B. Palmatier I have touched on the subject of creative ideas in other Writing-Tip Wednesday posts this year (here and here), and I have also spent a bit of time on tips for short fiction writers (here). Today, though, I would like delve in a bit deeper, in order to spell out what distinguishes a story from a partially developed idea.

Let me begin with this: Every successful fictional story blossomed from an idea. Not every idea yields a story. That’s just fact. Some of the “best” ideas I’ve had kind of fizzled out before becoming anything close to a story. I find this frustrating of course. I expect all writers must. But, as I say, it’s simply the way it is. Some ideas “have legs,” while others don’t.

The problem comes when we write an idea and submit it as a story. Not to be too simplistic, but a story has a beginning, middle, and end. It involves characters and emotion, and it carries those characters through changes that a reader can trace. Too often when reading through submissions for past anthologies, I have encountered pieces that introduce a concept and a set of characters, but do no more than that.

Let’s take a for instance: The theme for this next anthology I’ll be co-editing is “Derelict.” We are looking for stories about abandoned or wrecked ships, be they sailing vessels, spacecraft, or something else that we haven’t even considered. Someone might come up with an idea for, say, a haunted shipwreck (and I would urge you to look beyond this for an idea — we are going to get LOTS of haunted shipwreck stories) that traps the unwitting and makes them permanent members of the ghost crew still onboard. Cool idea, right? But what are we going to do with that idea? It’s not enough simply to show us a character being ensnared in this way. That is no more than an illustration of the idea.

It becomes a story when we follow a character through that transformation in a way that dips into emotion and creates a true character arc. Perhaps an elderly woman has come to an island from which her grandfather once sailed a hundred years before. She was estranged from her parents while they were alive, and has lost her siblings to age and disease. She seeks some connection to the family she has lost. Knowing that her great grandfather died here on the island in a storm a century ago, she goes out to the site of the wreck. While there, she realizes that ghosts still inhabit the ship, and venturing closer, she sees a man she recognizes from ancient family photos or portraits. She makes contact with him, but that isn’t enough for her. In the end, she chooses to join that crew and become a wraith like her grandfather, seeking in that ghostly partnership solace for all she lost in life. THAT would be a story. (In fact, maybe that will be my story for the anthology…) We have taken an idea and turned it into a narrative that has emotional weight, that allows our point of view character to develop and progress.

Coming up with the idea is only step one in a far more complex process. We want to think of the most unusual, emotionally potent way to express that idea. And, I would add that this is not something we can usually do in five hundred words, or a thousand, or even two thousand. I don’t like to say that word count is essential to a story, but the fact is true flash fiction is VERY hard to do well, particularly with intriguing speculative fiction ideas. It CAN be done, of course. But generally speaking, full development of an idea for a themed anthology — into a story that touches on emotion, that traces a meaningful arc for our main character or characters — demands that we write more than a couple of pages.

I would urge you to think about this as August gives way to September, and the open call for the Zombies Need Brains anthologies approaches. In the meantime, the Kickstarter is well underway. In our first week, we have already funded well beyond the halfway mark, which bodes well for the ultimate success of the campaign. But please consider helping us out. We have a great roster of anchor authors, and our list of authors chosen from open submissions could include you!

Best of luck, and keep writing.

Monday Musings: Lightning Round!

Sometimes my Monday Musings posts are pretty easy to write – a topic comes to me and I riff on it or rant about it. Other times, nothing comes to me at all, and just getting started is next to impossible.

And there are days like today, when I have about 20 things to say and not a lot to say about any of them.

So, welcome to the Monday Musings Lightning Round!!

This coming week, Joe Biden is expected to announce his running mate, and in the lead-up to the announcement, things in the upper echelon of the Democratic Party have been getting surreal. Seriously. First of all, why Biden would have angry old white men on his VP selection committee is beyond me. Don’t get me wrong. I like Joe. I will vote for him with conviction if not enthusiasm. But doesn’t he pretty much have the angry old white man demographic covered on his own? Does he really need Ed Rendell and Chris Dodd to be part of this conversation?

And what the hell is the matter with those two? Rendell complains that Kamala Harris, a leading candidate for the VP slot, and my personal favorite, is “too ambitious,” a charge only ever leveled at women. Ambition in men is seen as a good thing. Why not Kamala? And excuse me, but every person who has ever run for President or announced their willingness to be VP is, by definition, ambitious. What the hell am I missing here? This would be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, but sadly Dodd has him beaten. Old Chris has been complaining that Harris hasn’t been “contrite” enough in conversations about her primary campaign attacks on Biden. When in the history of politics has any male candidate for ANYTHING ever had to express contrition as a prerequisite for a political post? I’ve been a Democrat all my life, and so I feel funny saying this, but Chris Dodd and Ed Rendell need to shut their fucking mouths.

The other night, Donald Trump announced that he was going to issue an executive order requiring that health insurance companies cover pre-existing conditions. He called this “a big deal” and said it had never been done before. Which, of course, is not at all true. This was, and still is, a cornerstone of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a law that even now the Trump Administration is trying to convince the Supreme Court to overturn. Is he just that ill-informed? Is he just that cynical? Is he both? Is he just a moron? Inquiring minds want to know.

The continued viability of Major League Baseball’s abridged 2020 season is balanced on a knife’s edge. Outbreaks among several teams, most recently the St. Louis Cardinals, have caused game cancellations across the league. This abbreviated season, scheduled for 60 games rather than the usual 162, is only about two weeks old, but already I find it hard to imagine how it lasts more than a month. Other professional sports leagues, notably the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, have created “bubbles” in single venues – places where players, team staff, and press are isolated from anyone else. MLB, on the other hand, has allowed its teams to travel to their home cities. The results have been predictably poor. Seems like it’s just a matter of time before the season is called off.

As you might have guessed, I’m a baseball fan, and I am getting my baseball fix not from watching games on TV, but from playing in an online Stratomatic league with a group of friends and acquaintances. Basically, we all get to draft our teams from a large pool of all-time greats, our choices limited by a strict salary cap, and then the computer plays out the season while we tinker with our lineups, pitching rotations, and strategies. SO MUCH FUN! I know: It’s entertainment for nerds. But I love it. This is our second league since the pandemic began. In the first, my team was middle of the pack. Not great, but not terrible. I was in the hunt for a wild card playoff spot until the last two weeks, when the proverbial wheels came off. This new season, with all new teams, is going pretty well for my crew (which includes Ted Williams, Tom Seaver, and Joe Morgan), but it’s too early to draw any conclusions.

Like all of you, I’m sure, the pandemic is getting to me a bit. I would love to go out for dinner, or have a get-together with a bunch of friends. I miss my daughters terribly, having not seen either of them for way, way too long. But I count myself so fortunate for the simple reason that I love my spouse and she, for reasons surpassing understanding, seems to love me back. She goes to work every weekday, and I am working on stuff at home, but in the evenings and on weekends we basically have each other. And that’s enough. We cook together, watch TV or movies together, sip wine or Scotch or beers together. We talk a lot. We also sit next to each other on the couch reading our books or playing on our phones, saying not a word. And that’s nice, too. Here’s a phrase I never thought I’d type: There is no one with whom I would rather endure a pandemic…

I’m writing this outside on our porch (she’s working on the porch as well). It’s hot, but the breeze is picking up. We have one hummingbird feeder in the garden fronting the porch and another hanging off the porch to the side. And there must be at least ten hummingbirds harassing and chasing each other around the feeders, facing off in midair like hovercraft, buzzing past us at breakneck speeds, their wings whistling. I’m no more than ten feet from the nearest feeder, and they’re so intent on one another that they couldn’t care less about me. It’s quite entertaining, although now and then they buzz by so close to my head, that I duck belatedly.

And with that, I will wish you a wonderful week. Thanks for playing Monday Musings Lightning Round with me!

Photo Friday: Fifteen Years Ago Today

Today’s Photo Friday images were captured exactly fifteen years ago — August 7, 2005. We had moved to Australia for the year only days before, leaving the States on August 1 and arriving at Sydney Airport August 3 (it’s an International Dateline thing). After taking a few days to settle into our home in Wollongong, along the Illawarra Coast south of Sydney, we went up to the big city to explore.

Erin, our younger daughter, who was all of six at the time, wanted to touch the Sydney Opera House. It wasn’t enough to see it, we had to touch it. Hence the picture of Nancy, Alex, and Erin doing just that. And, I’ll admit that, after snapping the photo, I touched the Opera House as well. It would have been bad luck not to.

We had a glorious day in Sydney — we visited museums, shopped, ate out, got ice cream, walked across the Harbour Bridge. Several months later, as our memorable year Down Under was drawing to a close, we returned to the Opera House to see a magnificent production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Honestly, I can’t believe it’s been fifteen years.

Wishing you all a wonderful weekend. Stay safe. Be kind to one another.Family at the Sydney Opera House Sydney Opera House and family

Writing-Tip Wednesday: The ABCs of Character

Last week, I wrote about befriending our characters, as a way of using empathy to improve our character development. This week I would like to continue the discussion of character work by taking a slightly different approach to creating and enriching the people we write about in our books and stories.

I first came up with this formulation about a decade ago, while preparing to teach at the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop, which then took place at Myrtle Beach. I have since used it at conventions, in workshops, and in an Odyssey Online course I taught several years ago. I refer to it as “The ABCs of Character,” because it gets at the basics, and because it uses a handy mnemonic.

The ABCs are “Attributes, Backstory, and Circumstances,” and they cover the elements of character that I like to think about as I “build” the person in question.

Let’s start with Attributes: These are basic facts that define who the character appears to be to the outside world. They include, but are not limited to, the following: name, age, gender identity, racial identity, national and religious identities, occupation, family/partnership situation (single, married, married with children, widowed, etc.), appearance (eye color, hair color, body type, etc.) socio-economic status, education level, and pretty much anything else we deem essential to identifying this person. If our world is a magical one, and this person has access to magic, or if it’s a tech world, and our character has special techie abilities, then that information would fit here as well. This is important stuff, but it’s fairly superficial. The deeper issues come next.

Backstory: This is where we start to delve into our character’s past. What has happened to her so far in her life? Where is she from? What kind of childhood did she have? Was she happy? Did she have lots of advantages growing up? Or was hers a more difficult upbringing? Were her parents around? Were they kind? Abusive? Indifferent? What has she survived? Is there darkness in her past?

Backstory is where our character’s secrets lie. And in those secrets may lie the seeds of conflict that will inform our story. This is also where we might find the roots of our character’s strengths and weaknesses. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how very important backstory can be to all that will happen to our character and, even more to the point, how she might respond to adversity.

Finally, we have Circumstance: This is the immediate situation our character finds herself in as our story begins. This is where attributes and backstory meet our inciting event. Perhaps something has happened to change a key attribute. She has lost a job. She has found out her partner is cheating on her. A beloved friend or relation has died. Or… She has won the lottery, gotten her dream job, or discovered that she is the true heir to the throne of Whatever-Land. You get the idea. Big things have happened and her life has changed.

This event, for good or for ill, has dredged up some key element(s) of her backstory — a rivalry with a sibling, a dynamic in her relationship with her family, a buried memory that circumstance uncovers. Or this new circumstance calls on her to draw upon those strengths and weaknesses that are rooted in her life experience. This change, this inciting event, is where our story begins. This is where our character begins to figure out what motivates her, what she wants, and what obstacles she will face in trying to attain her goals.

Pretty straight-forward, right?

Let’s put this technique to use by using Gollum, from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a case-study.

Gollum’s Attributes: Gollum is several hundred years old. He is basically bald, he has overlarge blue eyes. He is small, wiry, very strong for his stature. It would be generous to say that he dresses poorly and in a minimalist way… He likes to eat fish. And he has this Ring that he just loves. A lot. I mean, he really, really loves this Ring. He calls it “Precious” for God’s sake. You might say he’s a little obsessed with it. He has no friends. And he likes to talk about himself in the second person, like royalty. Except he calls himself “Precious,” too. He has issues.Gollum, Lord of the Rings

Gollum’s Backstory: He was once one of the River Folk, a branch of the Hobbit people. His name wasn’t always Gollum. It used to be Sméagol And, to be honest, the Ring wasn’t originally his. It belonged to his cousin, Déagol, who found it while they were fishing on Sméagol’s birthday. When Sméagol saw the Ring he fell in love with it, and he murdered his cousin to get it. His obsession intensified, and the Ring stretched out his life for centuries. He retreated into caves, existed in utter isolation as little more than an animal. He hunted, hid, tolerated the presence of orcs. Mostly he looked at his Ring.

Gollum’s Circumstance: Gollum has lost the Ring and he is hell-bent on getting it back. It seems that is slipped from his grasp and wound up in the hands of — ironically — another Hobbit. He is forced to leave the lonely comfort of his cave and venture once more into a world that he fears, one that looks upon him with disgust and contempt. He is captured by agents of the dark who torture him for information about the Ring, which tells him that others are looking for it as well. He must find it first, even if it means killing the Hobbit or Hobbits who have it.

And there we are. The ABCs of character. Attributes, Backstory, Circumstance. Give it a try. You might find it helpful to conceive your main characters in this way.

Best of luck and keep writing!

Monday Musings: Booze. Yes, That’s Right… Booze

I’m not going to lie to you. Nancy and I enjoy a nice bottle of wine. We like Scotch, too. And Bourbon. And tequila, rum, rye, Irish whiskey, beer, and cider. Nancy enjoys a nice Port. I like gin. But that’s all.

Oh, wait. We like Limoncello, too. And Kahlua. Most liqueurs, really. Except Amaretto. Although, under the right circumstances…

Observers in the media have talked a lot about how much more people are drinking during the pandemic, and we can attest to that. Sort of. But not really.

The truth is, we enjoy our drinks pretty much all the time, regardless of global health crises. We rarely drink to excess. Honestly. We do not drink to get drunk. Frankly, the booze we drink isn’t cheap, so we can’t afford to drink a ton. We sip, we enjoy, we mix different drinks depending on season, mood, and what we have in the house. It is a hobby as much as anything else.

So what are our favorites? Join me for a short journey through our bar….

I’ll start with this: I LOVE Scotch. I didn’t always. My father was a Scotch drinker, and as a kid and a young man I thought even good Scotches tasted like something you’d get from an apothecary. As I’ve matured, though (hmmm, somewhere Nancy is laughing at the thought of me being at all mature…) I have developed a deep appreciation for many different Scotches. My favorite single malts right now are the Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old Highland, the Aberlour 16 Year Old (also a Highland), and the Glenmorangie Quinta Ruben 14 Year Old, which is aged in Port casks. I also enjoy the Balvenie 14 Year Old Caribbean Cask, which is aged in rum casks.

My father’s favorite was a blended Scotch — Dewar’s White Label, which is our staple for making my current favorite cocktail: the Rusty Nail. This is Scotch mixed in equal parts with Drambuie, a liqueur made from Scotch, honey, and spices. It works with any Scotch really. I find it hard to justify using an expensive single malt in a mixed drink – hence the Dewars. But I know people who swear that a good Rusty Nail requires top shelf Scotch.

My taste in Scotch trends away from the smokey, peaty Single Malts of the Islay region, but my current favorite among our Irish whiskeys is Connemara Peated whiskey from Kilbeggan Distilling Company. It is smokey on the front end with a sweet finish, and I just love it. Nancy likes it, too, but her preferred Irish these days is the Tullamore Dew Caribbean Rum Cask Finish. While in Ireland last summer, we spent one late afternoon at a bar being served by a very friendly, knowledgeable, and accommodating barkeeper. He let us taste a bunch of different whiskeys from Tullamore, Jameson, and a few other distilleries, and we both liked the Tullamore rum cask best.

We drink a fair amount of Bourbon, too, sometimes straight, sometimes mixed – Nancy makes her own mint syrup from mint in the garden, and the resulting mint juleps are amazing. For mixed drinks, we usually use Buffalo Trace, a moderately priced, flavorful Bourbon out of Frankfurt, Kentucky. For sipping, Nancy likes the Knob Creek 120 Proof Single Barrel Reserve. It’s remarkably smooth, especially given the alcohol content, and just plain tasty. I like Breckenridge Bourbon Whiskey, a blend out of Colorado that is made with corn mash, rye mash, and unmalted barley. It has a lovely caramel flavor and it goes down so easy. Too easy, perhaps.

Other whiskeys we enjoy include the Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey and the High West Double Rye.

Our tastes in other liquors tend to be far less refined and particular than our whiskey preferences. We know people who sip tequila and rum the way we sip Scotch and Bourbon, and they can go on about them the way I just have about the whiskeys. But for Nancy and me, other hard alcohols tend to be mixers – things we use in cocktails. We love margaritas when we’re having Mexican or Southwestern cuisine, which we cook with some frequency. Our margaritas are pretty simple: tequila, or sometimes mezcal (a Mexican spirit also made from agave, but cooked and fermented in a manner that imparts to the liquor a smokey, savory flavor); Cointreau (or some other orange liqueur, but Cointreau is far and away our favorite); and fresh lime juice. Yum.

Our rum cocktail of choice these days is a Jamaican mule. Rum, fresh lime juice, and a strong ginger beer. Mules come in many varieties, largely dependent on the alcohol used. The best known is a Moscow Mule, made with vodka instead of rum, but one can also try a Kentucky mule, made with Bourbon, or an Irish mule, made with Irish Whiskey, or a Mexican mule, made with tequila, or… Well, you get the idea.

Finally, when Nancy and I aren’t drinking the harder stuff, or one of her home-brewed beers (she makes a porter, a stout, an IPA, and is today experimenting with an Irish ale), we love a decent wine. Our current favorites: Red – we’ve been drinking an ancient vine Mourvedre made by Cline Cellars in Sonoma, California. Mourvedre is a full bodied red with a fruity taste and peppery finish. We love it. And White – we love just about any Sauvignon Blanc that comes from the Marlboro region on the South Island of New Zealand. The Marlboro Sauvignon Blancs we like best tend to be citrusy, crisp, and dry – the perfect wine for a hot summer afternoon. These days, the labels we prefer are Kim Crawford and Whitehaven.

So, who’s thirsty? The advantage of posting on Monday is that I get to write these posts on the weekend. My musings took me to booze, and now I can go and enjoy some sort of libation. Cheers!

Wishing you a great week.

Photo Friday: Silvery Checkerspot

Another crazy week gone by, another month in the books for 2020: the year that lasted forever and yet somehow flew by. I honestly don’t understand what has happened to my sense of time.

This butterfly has been hanging around in Nancy’s garden, mostly on the Cheyenne Spirit Echinacea, with two of his friends. He is a Silvery Checkerspot, a not-so-common garden and open country butterfly that can be found in much of the Eastern U.S. With his wings open, he is barely two inches across. I won’t tell you how many photos I had to take of him to get a couple of good ones. Let’s just say he wasn’t the most cooperative butterfly I’ve ever encountered…

Wishing you a wonderful weekend. Be well, be good to one another.Silvery Checkerspot I, by David B. Coe

Silvery Checkerspot II, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: The Day I Fell In Love With Baseball

I was seven years old, the youngest child by far in a household that revered baseball. I didn’t remember the exact date, but today we live in an age of marvels, and all I had to do was Google a few key phrases from the storyline of the game. August 30, 1970. That was the day I fell in love with baseball.

We were a family divided. My sister, Liz, and my brother Jim, the siblings closest to me in years, both rooted for the Yankees. Liz was — and remains — a fanatic. Jim cared less than the rest of us, but in our household, at that time, one chose a team. My oldest brother, Bill, had been a New York Giants fan until their relocation to San Francisco. He idolized Willie Mays all his life. He attended college in Boston, remained there after graduating, and — to this day, I struggle to speak the words — became a Red Sox fan. In the battle of New York teams, though, he and my father rooted for the Mets. Bill hated the Yankees the way my father hated Richard Nixon. Only my mother remained above the fray. I believe she refused to root for one particular team because she didn’t want to appear to favor one child over another.

Liz and Jim convinced me that I liked the Yankees. Jim lived at home; Liz was in college, but came home with some frequency. I attribute their victory on the battleground of team loyalties to proximity and, in Liz’s case, her single-minded determination that I. Would. Be. A. Yankees. Fan.

In that summer of 1970 I was still learning the game. I have no memory of having watched baseball before then, though no doubt I did. My baseball consciousness dates from that summer, from that day. August 30th.

Why?

Because on that day Mickey Mantle, our household’s Most Beloved Yankee, made his debut as a Yankee coach. He’d retired the year before, after a Hall of Fame career foreshortened by knee injuries and, the world later learned, excessive drinking. Mantle’s return to Yankee Stadium, and in particular his appearance in the first base coach’s box in the fourth inning, was a big deal in New York. So much so, that I resolved to watch the game. We had a color TV at that point, but it was downstairs in the family den, and clearly my father and mother were watching something else on the good set.

I was exiled to my parents’ room, home of our old black and white television. The game was on WPIX, channel 11, the Yankees’ local affiliate. It was sponsored, like all Yankee games at that time, by Schaefer Beer — “The one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” Yes, that was really the slogan. Quite a distance from “Please drink responsibly.”

Roy White, Yankees # 6, LF. 1972 Topps cardThe Yankees were playing the Minnesota Twins, a powerful team lead by perennial all-star Tony Oliva and future Hall of Fame slugger Harmon Killebrew. The Twins jumped out to an early lead, gave a run back, but still led 2-1 in the fifth inning, the second inning of Mantle’s stint as coach. The Yankees managed to load the bases and, with two outs, their left fielder, a guy named Roy White, stepped to the plate.

At this point, I was riveted to the game. I was in the process of realizing that I really, really liked baseball. I enjoyed following the broadcast on my own, without anyone else trying to explain stuff to me. But, of course, I was desperate for the Yankees to tie things up or take the lead. It didn’t seem right that Mickey Mantle should lose his first game as coach.

The Twins pitcher was a nineteen-year-old rookie named Bert Blyleven. I later learned that he was from the Netherlands, like both my grandparents on my father’s side. For much of his stellar career, he was the only Dutch player in the Major Leagues. He won a lot of games and struck out a lot of players with a strong fastball and a wicked curve. He, too, was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame. In 1970, I knew none of this, and wouldn’t have cared. We needed runs!

Roy White hit Blyleven’s first pitch to what was known in New York as Death Valley, the vast expanse of Yankee Stadium’s left field. Oliva, a fine defensive player, drifted back to the wall, but could only watch as White’s fly cleared the fence for a grand slam home run. Yankees 5-2. I am certain that I cheered and jumped up and down, no doubt earning a rebuke from my father downstairs.

That proved to be the final score. Mickey had his first coaching win. And I had a new favorite player. From that time until his retirement in 1979, Roy White was my hero. He wasn’t as well-known as some other Yankees, but he was quietly consistent. He got his share of hits, drew a lot of walks, hit the occasional long ball, played a solid if unspectacular left field, and always comported himself with class and dignity.

My memories of that day fifty years ago are remarkably clear, but the game as I was getting to know it then feels a long way removed from where we are now.

With baseball’s return this past weekend, to empty stadiums with pre-recorded cheers and, in some cases, cardboard cut-out fans, I feel especially nostalgic for the baseball of my youth. I still love the game, though I find my affection for it tested by too many strikeouts and an over-reliance on the home run, by unbearable delays in play and rule changes that rankle, by steroids and cheating scandals, by labor disputes between millionaire players who are barely older than my children and billionaire owners who seem to care only about their bottom lines.

I haven’t stopped rooting for the Yankees, although I will admit to a brief flirtation with the Mets in the mid-80s, when their young, dynamic stars were New York’s darlings. I tend to attach to players as much as to teams. Roy White. Dwight Gooden and Daryl Strawberry. Derek Jeter. Now Aaron Judge. But it is the game itself that I love. Yes, I complain about the pace of play, but part of what draws me to baseball is the absence of a clock. Time is meted out in pitches and outs and innings — the perfect units with which to mark the passage of a languid summer afternoon or evening. And there is nothing in sports that I enjoy more than the baseball playoffs and World Series. I watch every game and lament the end of the postseason the way I once lamented the end of summer vacation.

That said, I can’t get as excited about the game as I used to, for all the reasons I mentioned before, and for a host of reasons that have everything to do with me and nothing to do with the game. Perhaps it’s inevitable that middle age should lessen our passion for such things. Family, friends, work, a world in need of salvation and healing — these are the concerns that consume me today. And yet, on some level, I remain that seven-year-old kid waiting for the clutch hit or the crucial strikeout. I miss the days when my greatest worries were about the Yankees’ upcoming series against the Sox and the possibility that this year’s Roy White wouldn’t be in the pack of baseball cards I’d just bought.

A simpler time.

I wish you all a wonderful week.

Photo Friday: Who Is That In the Cloud?

Good morning! Another week is ending, which means it’s Photo Friday here at the blog. Today’s photo was taken during an early morning walk a week or so ago. I had only my phone with me, but the image came out well, capturing the majesty of that cloud, the stillness of the lake, and that lovely light-limned edge of cloud reflected on the water’s surface.

I see a face in the cloud. I wonder if you do, too. I haven’t been able to decide who it looks like. Suggestions?

Wishing you a safe, healthful, lovely weekend.

Morning Cloud Reflection, by David B. Coe

Writing-Tip Wednesday: World Building Lessons I’d Forgotten

Back in early March, I posted about creating magic systems, and said then that I expected I would post about world building at least once more over the course of the year. And so here I am, making myself a prophet (because right now making myself a profit is proving difficult [rim shot]).

I am world building again, for the first time in a while, actually. The last time I created a world whole-cloth was when I began work on the Islevale Cycle, which was several years ago. I have a completed novel that my agent and I are shopping around, but that is set in our world with only a small speculative fiction element. My other most recent work has been in the Thieftaker universe, which I developed nearly a decade ago. I’ve written a couple of Fearsson short stories, but that world even pre-dates the Thieftaker world (though the books took longer to find their way into print).

My point being that it feels a little odd to be immersed again in world building, and several times over the past few weeks I have had to remind myself of lessons I thought I had internalized long ago. So I figured I would share some of these lessons with you.

1) Begin with questions: As I said in that March post, I love world building. There is something thrilling about starting from scratch with limitless possibilities. I had forgotten, however, how overwhelming the process can feel, particularly at the outset, when ideas are amorphous and we don’t yet grasp what we need to discover about our world. And so I like to start with a series of questions, which serve to rationalize and structure my task. (This, by the way, is how I approach research as well; I see research and world building as connected parts of the same creative act.) That list of questions is long, and early on, as I learn more and more about my world, the list continues to expand, the addition of new questions outpacing my ability to answer them. Eventually, though, the questions get answered and the contours of my world — literal and figurative — come into relief.

2) Organize from the outset: I am not nearly as organized as some assume I am, or as I would like to be. Too often, my impulse is to dive into my world building and research and jot down what I find as quickly as I can. The result is haphazard to say the least. I do much better when I slow myself down from the start and make an effort to keep orderly notes. That means using Scrivener as it is meant to be used, as a catch-all for ALL world building and research. Already with this new project, I have not been as good in this regard as I would like to be. But the first step toward curing myself is recognizing that I have a problem, right? Right??

3) Consult with smart people: This new project of mine is NOT fantasy. It’s science fiction, almost space-opera-ish. I know. I can’t believe it either. But there it is. And so I know even less about my subject matter than I usually do at this stage. I have been in touch with literal rocket scientists about this stuff, and I’m learning a lot. Chances are, no matter the nature of the project we’re working on, we know someone — or we know someone who knows someone — who can help us fill in gaps in our knowledge base. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, or acquaintances, or even perfect strangers. The truth is, most people like to talk about the things they know, they like to help people, and they often think it’s pretty cool to learn we’re writing a book about something that fascinates them. Moreover, institutions like police departments and medical examiners offices, not to mention museums, government agencies, and scientific institutions, often have public relations offices that are there to answer our questions. Avail yourself of these resources.

4) Let your brain go wild: Plotting our books takes time and precision. It’s hard work, in part because we are forced to reign in our creative impulses a bit in order to come up with narratives that are logical, that make sense to our readers. World building is hard, too, and it also requires a certain rationality. But, as I said before, it is a time of possibility. We can choose what it means to be logical in this new setting. Decisions that will become immutable once we begin to write, remain fluid for now. This is the stage in the process when our imaginations should be most at liberty to roam. Enjoy that freedom.

5) Finally, be patient: Most of the time, I measure my work output in terms of pages and word counts. Progress is tangible and easily quantified. World building isn’t like that. At this stage of a project, I spend much of my time staring out the window, thinking, trying to come up with ideas, with names, with histories and forms of government and religions and the like. It is an amorphous, sloppy process that is nearly impossible to measure in any concrete way. This bothers me — it always has. I grow impatient. I chide myself for not “getting more done.” I have been world building for this new series for, like, two weeks, and already I’m railing at myself for not being done. Just for the sake of comparison, I took three months to research the Thieftaker books, so I need to cut myself some slack. World building is work. It might not break down into units that are easily counted and banked, but it’s work nevertheless. And if you’re like me, and you chafe at that sort of thing… Well, give yourself a break. That’s what I plan to do. Because I have a lot more world building to do.

Keep writing!

Monday Musings: Covid-19 and America’s Character Flaw

Many of you know that I have a Ph.D. in U.S. History. My years of studying America’s past have taught me a lot and left me fully aware of the dangers inherent in making broad, sweeping generalizations. And yet…

I believe our nation is failing so completely in combatting Covid-19 at least in part because we, as a society and as a nation, are not capable of doing what we must to succeed. The ethos of American culture, such as it is, revolves around “individualism” and “personal liberty,” values that are fundamentally antithetical to communal sacrifice and collective thinking. The pandemic was bound to hit us hardest, because we are not wired for the sort of social solutions needed to combat it.

Right now, the United States, which accounts for about 4% of the world’s population, has seen approximately one quarter of all reported cases and deaths worldwide. Yes, there are legitimate questions about the accuracy of the figures released by a few other countries, but there can be no doubt that the U.S. is faring far worse against Covid-19 than it should, and far, far, FAR worse than the countries we consider our peers and closest allies. Some of the blame for this falls squarely on the Trump Administration, whose response has been scattershot, ineffective, and deeply irresponsible. Some of the blame falls on local politicians, who have parroted Trump’s denials and lies. Some of the blame can also be tied to the size of the United States, and the diffuse nature of our various levels of government.

But that is also where we start to see the impact of our obsession with “liberty.” Months ago, the Federal Government should have issued an order requiring the use of face masks in all public places. But many state leaders would have screamed bloody murder at such “Federal overreach.” Localities, they would argue, ought to have the final say in what sort of dictates are imposed on their citizens.

Unless those dictates are deemed too onerous by the Liberty Junkies. Brian Kemp (Moron — Georgia) has sued the mayor of Atlanta, Keesha Lance Bottoms, and the Atlanta city council, because they dared to issue a mandatory mask order, in violation of his ban on such orders from all localities in the state. Kemp claims to believe that people ought to wear masks, but he is adamantly opposed to making this mandatory. Similar debates are taking place all across my state of Tennessee. A coalition of doctors here asked our governor, Bill Lee (Spineless — Tennessee), to issue a mask mandate. He refused, instead authorizing county mayors to issue such directives if they so choose. Too many have chosen not to, including one who said explicitly, “We were debating masks when we should be discussing liberty, freedom, and personal responsibility.”

I want to ask these people if their belief in personal responsibility extends to driving 100 mph on their county roads, or if their troopers will still be ticketing for that. To my mind there is little difference between speed limits and mask requirements. Experts tell us that filling the roads with drivers who drive at excessive speeds will lead to property damage, injuries, and deaths. Controlling speeds is a matter of public safety. Experts tell us that the spread of coronavirus will be slowed by people wearing masks that protect themselves and others from the spray of infected liquids that results from human respiration and conversation, not to mention coughing and sneezing. It, too, is a matter of public safety.

Will wearing masks prevent all new infections? Of course not. Nor will speed limit laws prevent all accidents. Is it possible that someone not wearing a mask will manage to avoid getting sick and infecting others? Sure, it’s possible. And it’s possible that some asshole driving 97 on a twisty county road will reach home alive. That doesn’t make it a good idea.

The problem is, the Liberty Junkies have never gotten over being nine years old and shouting “It’s a free country!” every time someone tells them to do something they don’t want to do. Honestly, I don’t understand the vehement reaction of mask-wearing. It’s just not that big a deal. Even if it were more onerous, though, that wouldn’t change the essential facts: Wearing a mask makes each of us less vulnerable to the disease. It makes it less likely that we will spread Covid to someone else. And, by keeping us healthy, it also protects our friends and loved ones from subsequent infection. That, to my mind, should be the end of the discussion.

In New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and many European countries, infection rates spiked and then subsided because people took quickly to masking, to social distancing, and to complete and prolonged economic inactivity. And, actually, those steps briefly worked here, too. For just a moment, we had started to get a handle on this thing. The advice of the experts worked. (And, I’ll add, it also didn’t hurt that all of the other countries I mentioned have universal health care coverage, making it easier for the sick to get the treatment they needed.)

But here, too many people still refused to wear masks and to distance, and attempts to close down the economy were met with impatience and outright resistance. It doesn’t help that many in Congress have been unwilling to extend the sort of financial relief that would make a lengthy economic shutdown less destructive. That’s part of the American obsession with individualism as well. As a nation, we don’t want “socialized” anything. We don’t want to give people “handouts,” even when such benefits are precisely what circumstances demand. Because somehow catering to the public welfare in such a way is equated with “weakness” and moral turpitude.

Lots of factors have contributed to our country’s disastrous response to the pandemic, and I believe the Trump Administration bears much responsibility. But I would argue as well that Trump and his lackeys couldn’t get away with their demonization of experts and their rejection of masks and other simple, proven methods to contain the virus, if our national culture didn’t make such tactics so easy. For too long, we have idolized America’s “rugged individual” and fetishized “personal freedom.” Is it any wonder that so many in this nation find it perfectly acceptable to ignore the common good?