Writing Exercise: Memorial Day tribute

I planned to delve into writing this weekend, mixing those responsibilities with other chores around the house. I needed to regain momentum on Project Two, which had stalled during the pandemic; ironically, I was also fighting the lingering effects of my own bout with Covid. I knew I would have plenty of optimism when I finally sat at the keyboard, even if I had no idea where to begin.

That’s when Serendipity paid a visit.

Goodnight, Saigon by Billy Joel came up on my playlist, and his lyrics drew me in like I was watching a movie. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but your mind’s eye takes over, even as your body goes through the motions of dressing and pouring coffee. I’m not even sure of the sequence of events: my mind connected the song to Memorial Day and a scene where Samor rejoins his companions after they’ve lost someone. There was nothing; then there was something.

I grabbed the computer, put the song on repeat, and 30 minutes later, I had this.

Samor greeted his companions as they gathered to him. Their welcome was genuine, their words warm. But he read something else on their faces that he hadn’t seen before. Or rather, he realized he hadn’t had the skills to interpret the tragedies that lay there. The worry that creased Hochness’s brow; the crow’s feet that used to merrily step away from the corners of Oafsson’s eyes. Even the betrayer Chork, addled as his mind remained, seemed more sedate against the bonds that held him to the litter. A weight drug at them all, anchoring them to the battle where they’d lost their friend and compatriot. The look of survivors, a mix of gratitude and guilt, made worse by each condemning beat of their living hearts.

His past naiveté angered him, but mostly it saddened him. No words seemed important enough, nor considerate or meaningful enough to break the silence of the moment. And so, he took his cue from his friends, yes, that is what they were now, and he embraced them silently and exchanged knowing looks that would have been inscrutable to the person he used to be. In the strength he gave, he felt more returned. They knew he knew. They accepted him and were grateful that he offered to share the burden.

Samor recognized this understanding wouldn’t have come from a lifetime of study. Simple words upon the page were shallow, going no deeper than the ink that sank into the paper – practically lies for their misinterpretation of the awful reality. The knowledge was horrible, and he wished he’d never acquired it. A small voice between his ears reminded him it was a necessary experience for the future leader of Empyrelia, a land destined for war, but he could derive no comfort from that. He hoped he never would.

I’ve never been in a war, nor lost someone in combat. I will never be able to fully replicate those experiences on the written page, but that is not my intent. Long ago, I realized there were things expressed by my father’s face that I would never be able to read; there was context in his words I would never comprehend. One of my jobs as a writer is to help others understand that they cannot understand, and that is the goal of a piece like this, with Samor being the conduit. On this Memorial Day weekend, it seemed an important thing to share.

Thanks for indulging me and for remembering those who have fallen in defense of America. If you’re interested in the writing stuff, read on.

Alright, let’s pause a second to breathe and let go of some of that weight. Warm up your coffee and we’ll take a look at the other purpose of this post: what are my observations or comments as a writer?

It’s a first pass, lightly edited after a rewritten sentence or two. The organization is largely unchanged, though what I expected to be a simple paragraph grew into three. I’m pretty happy with the language and variety of words. I’m going to review this for overuse of know/understand/comprehend, which is a habit I recognized during the editing of Project One. Additionally, I would argue that “important enough” and “meaningful enough” in the same sentence is redundant, though I’m keeping it for now because I like the rhythm and flow of the sentence and its place in the paragraph.

It’s heavy, yeah, one of the heaviest things I’ve written. I wonder about its inclusion in a YA fantasy novel that includes lighter fare, such as dragons, threadwolves, and ice demons. It’s too fresh for me to be objective, but I don’t think I’ll tone it down. One of my writing principles is to be truthful to my characters’ situations. In books and movies, I feel that the weight of the grief and survivor’s guilt is often glossed over so we can get to the celebration of life, the raising of goblets, if you will. This pain is important for Samor and The Reader to recognize on this journey together. There will be time later to toast to their companion’s memory, and that’s a fun scene I also look forward to sharing.

As I mentioned above, it took about 30 minutes to write those three paragraphs. The writing is tighter and more polished than it often is after that short a time, so I’m pleased. I’m also grateful to have written something with personal meeting; it’s been a few years since Only Some Came Back, which I wrote for Veterans’ Day.

Some writing days are like that – everything just comes together. You sit back and go, “Huh. I like how that came out, even if it’s different than I anticipated.” It’s funny, as easy as that was, this post took about two additional hours to write. That’s just how it goes. Good luck with your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, May 2022

Tighten Up Your Writing #8

I have a day off from the office and I’m trying to savage my final draft like a drunken barbarian. The Project One manuscript ended at nearly 190K words, and that’s an awful lot for many reasons. It’s a big investment for a reader, not to mention a publisher. It also sets a precedent for future books, and that’s a writing pace I’m uncertain I can maintain. It feels heavy, both literally and metaphorically.

Amidst the edits, cuts, and barbarically setting the countryside ablaze, I came upon this sentence:

  • Tildy also noted that it was still as quiet as she remembered.

It tripped me because my brain registered “still” as a synonym for “quiet”. Well, if that’s confusing, does the sentence work without that unnecessary word?

  • Tildy also noted that it was as quiet as she remembered.

It does!

I wonder if I’ll be able to make similar cuts, the way I did here and here? A quick Ctrl-F showed 192 instances. Some will likely remain, but others will have to go. And then there’s this:

Screencap of Tildy Silverleaf and the Starfall Omen, showing 5 instances of the word "still"

Well, that’s embarrassing, but a fine example of how difficult it is for a writer to be objective when editing their own work. If you’re curious, I deleted the first three, rewrote the fourth out, and kept the fifth. Only 187 left to go.

For more tips (and embarrassing admissions), we recommend these posts. Good luck with your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, May 13, 2022

I’d been thinking about quitting

I didn’t want to write this post.

I’m sure some of that came from the societal stigma about showing vulnerability and my extreme reluctance to share personal aspects of my life. I think the greater issue, however, was the fear that such an admission would transform thought into reality if it reached the written page.

I wrote a draft of this post in mid-September after a rough couple weeks, when stressors and disappointments had piled upon another. I’d found myself angering easily or venting frustration in situations where it wasn’t warranted. My novel always appeared to be the catalyst: not having time, not being inspired, delivering garbage when I did sit down.

It wasn’t the first time I’d had similar feelings, but these were more acute and my defenses were down.

My writing time was precious and I was wasting it, and this realization was eating me alive.

There’s a betraying voice in your head that suggests the simplest solution: Quit doing the thing that’s causing pain. Just walk away.

Because writing is the primary way I express emotion, my head started drafting a post along those lines. The admission hurt, and that feeling intensified as I fleshed it out, because it reflected the abandonment of something I’ve wanted my whole life.

I sat at the computer that morning with little optimism and a negligibly more determination. I didn’t want to write this post…and I told myself over and again that I was pretty sure I wasn’t quitting.

Then I happened to read the following passage I’d copied from a book, and my perspective changed.

“You have to understand his motivation,” Michael said. “A writer can spend years working on a book he isn’t sure will ever sell. What makes him do it?”

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

No joke, it was like a switch flipped. A flood of positive memories surged through my brain, washing away the dark thoughts that had taken root. I decided that, yes, I was going to write this post, but I wasn’t going to take the “woe is me, writing is hard” approach (if there’s one kind of writing I’m certain people don’t want to read – aside from advertising – it’s that).

And so, I used the Delete key many, many times to get the post you’re reading now.

Writing and telling compelling stories is hard, make no mistake about that, and with any difficult task, there are highs and lows. There will be a few black days, and sometimes you will feel crushed or trapped. There will be days where the lying voices are very convincing, but quitting does not bring the bliss they promise.

Writing this post was cathartic, though perhaps not at the intellectual level a person might assume. No – and apologies in advance – it was more analogous to vomiting up the thing that made you sick. You can wallow in misery, which I’d been doing for a couple weeks, or you can stick your finger in your throat and get it out. Our bodies are miraculous things. They know when something doesn’t belong, and it’s unnatural to fight that. Our heads are the same way. Intellectually, we recognize the blackest thoughts, even when there is little illumination for us to see that.

In closing, here’s another admission, though an easier one to share. I stopped writing this post at the last paragraph and set it aside for months. My purpose for writing it, a desire to lift my spirits, had been achieved. Rejuvenated, I immediately went back to writing and the following weeks were happier. I’ve completed it for your sake and mine. We might not need reassurance or a kick in the pants today, but on another day we will. And this post will be waiting for us.

Good luck with your writing!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, March 2022

The Nonverbal Kid’s influence on my writing

My younger son, Benji, is nonverbal and autistic. I don’t share it much because one of my primary responsibilities is protecting his dignity and privacy. And it’s usually not relevant to this site. But like any person important to you, his influence is always there in my writing, nevertheless. In this post I’ll share one of the ways my craft has changed because of him.

Ben has a limited vocabulary, though his communication includes expressive gestures and sounds, not just words. In talking to us (people who clearly are too dim to understand), he’s practically speaking three languages, and often, more than one at a time. It’s not his problem when we can’t figure out the translation; it’s ours.

To an outsider, however, it might create an uncomfortable situation. Not because that person is a bigot who despises neurodiversity, but because they are walking in unfamiliar territory. I liken it to me meeting a Black man for the first time (in my memory, he looks like actor Brock Peters in his Star Trek days). I was just a little kid, terribly shy around strangers, and before me stood a person so completely unlike every person I’d known in my secluded little rural town. At least, that’s the lie your brain tells you. In every aspect that I could see except skin color, he was like my neighbors.

I hadn’t been taught to hate or even dislike Black people; I just had some unintended bias to push past because my world was filled with people who looked like me and had basically the same beliefs and ancestry.

It’s one thing to know there are a variety of people in the world. Seeing them is another. Further still, interacting with them changes your perspective in significant ways. Watching Black people on TV wasn’t the same as meeting them. And meeting one certainly wasn’t the same as having people like him in my daily life.

I choose to believe the same lack of experience is true for people who aren’t sure how to react around Ben. It could be uncomfortable at first, but the smallest effort by them can overcome that. I don’t think they can do it alone, however. As Ben’s father, I believe one of my responsibilities is to help people with this, which also helps him.

Now, I grew up as a Boy Scout and I’ve always cheered for the underdog. I’m predisposed to helping others and recognizing those who are disadvantaged. But there’s a distinction between that and being an advocate. Believe it or not (sarcasm), there’s a difference between adding a rainbow frame to my Facebook picture and standing up to LGBTQ bigotry when people post it. Advocacy requires deliberate action, and I can help by leading through example, by sharing posts like this, and by injecting it into my books.

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Learn about your writing by talking with people

At a recent happy hour for a departing colleague and friend (aka Trusted Reader #3), the subject of my writing came up several times. I’m at the point where I enjoy this more than I once did. Part of it is comfort, part is the practice of refining my synopsis, and part is knowing more about the story and what I’m doing as a writer.

I’ve written about the difficulties I’ve had here and here.

As stressful or scary as this might feel, it’s an important part of the writing process. Even if you never want a person to read your writing (which I consider a shame – share with us!), it will help you as a writer.

I’ve talked about the importance of developing this skill in the context of pitching your story. But there’s another benefit, and that’s to the story itself.

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Word Casualties #10 – For the love of all that’s holy

Sometimes….you might just plop gibberish upon the page.

When I’m in the zone, I type around 100 words per minute. That’s not elite status, but I’m definitely moving. My brain, however, is processing the story much faster. Passages aren’t necessarily being fed to the page in order, and oftentimes, sentences aren’t landing with the words in their intended sequence. It’s a bit of a wires-crossed thing that requires some adaptation, patience, and editing.

An unfortunate, though sometimes hilarious consequence, is some serious gibberish. Although it breaks my rhythm, I usually delete these things immediately because they’re too horrid to live on the page another moment. However, since I started this series of Casualties posts, I’ve decided to save some of the better ones as examples of just how wrong an experienced writer can go.

As always, I’ve created some definitions, and the correct words (if I’ve deciphered them) follow that.

CASUALTIES

Hiuefully – a well-saturated color

Initiatititive – making the first move on a sexy date

Tjamls – beasts of burden that tjaverse the djesert

Habyart – a question posed to the entrants of rural art shows: “Habyart?” “Yessaidoo!”

Consticuous – something stuck to the wall and definitely out of place

Priviledge – born with the right to stand upon the precipice

Viluminous – an evil glow

Predigestion – what happens to chewed food slathered in saliva

Predamentary – the basics for stalking prey

Harbordence – a thick fog hanging heavy upon the docks

Trhaventily – seriously, I got nothing here. A flower? A kind of fancy silk lace?

CORRECT SPELLINGS

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Writing Update: August 7, 2021

I started working on Samor’s new story in December 2019. It’s been a journey of considerable challenges and delights. Some things have gone very well. Others, hmm, not so much.

Part of my writing process is reflection. I regularly look back at what I’ve accomplished. I think it’s a critical step because writing a book is a difficult journey filled with self-doubt. When your energy is low or your mental defenses are down, abandoning a draft can feel like the only viable option. But take heart! Energy always returns. Defenses are rebuilt! Reminding yourself of your good work will replenish your creative tank.

Here’s a list of ten accomplishments and discoveries of the last twenty months.

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Writing Is Weird

It’s a Friday afternoon, and I’ve had the day off from work. Ahem, a day off from the office job. It’s allowed me to put in some writing work. I knocked out just over 2,000 words today, interspersed with some family responsibilities. As satisfying as the day has been, that’s not my purpose for this post.

I’ll just say it aloud: Writing is weird. It really is. You sit, you think, you write out thoughts. Some day, not today, they make sense. Hopefully, to others besides yourself.

I planned to write something of a scene today, and as I consider the labyrinthine journey I took as I worked, I’m surprised – and pleased – with the results. For those of you interested in the writing process, I whipped up a quick post to shed some light on my own methods and madness. Be advised, Dear Reader, this will be a strange walk through one writer’s mind and his storytelling process. Consider yourself well-warned.

* * * * *

In my second novel, my protagonist has been raised without any knowledge of his past life. Like his sister Tildy in the first book, the world thinks Samor dead. But as the children of a Queen and King, their worlds are filled with paintings, books, people, and other references that provide insight into their family and their early lives. The children do not realize this, but assuming I do a proper job, the Reader will.

As I was getting ready for the day, I started debating what I might write about. My mind followed Samor’s book journey and decided I would have him discover the painting of his parents. Tildy does a similar thing in her book, and neither of them recognize the experience for what it is: the first time either of them have beheld their parents – or the infant images of themselves.

Parallel scenes like this are one of the reasons I wanted to tell their stories in separate books. It also allows a fair amount of compare and contrast, which is a handy way to derive inspiration: Oh, Tildy handled the experience this way? How would her brother handle it differently? And what are their shared reactions?

OK, so I’ve set a goal, a destination, for my scene. How do I get there? (For spoiler-y reasons that I won’t explain here, the portraits have been hidden. The why isn’t important to the scene.) I now needed a beginning and a middle.

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Oh, You Just Sat Down and Wrote?

It’s 7:30 on a Sunday night. Beside me sits a glass of whisky and ice. I’ve poisoned it, some might say, with Coca-Cola. And that’s fine for this ending to a long day because I’m desirous of the effects, if not so much the taste.

Much of these first three paragraphs was written, and re-written in the car this evening, while listening to Neil Gaiman’s The View From The Cheap Seats (It’s one of three books I’m currently enjoying. The softcover Brimstone by Preston & Child sits beside the whisky glass and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone awaits my ears when I get to bed, whenever that might be.).

The Gaiman writing is good, as he usually is, but I think there’s more than that pleasure contained in this particular work. It also contains some unspoken encouragement for writers, and I wonder if other people realize that when they read it.

I’ve hardly been writing since the pandemic was declared in March. The Gaiman book, and another huge relief that occurred this week, have served to remove some of the weight that’s been crushing me. Today, some pent up energy was released.

I’ve already mentioned that I began writing this post ahead of time, and that’s much like the new story I sat down to type this morning. Similarly, it formed in my head before I knew I was going to do any writing. As I showered today, two distinct lines popped into my head, as though I had discovered a thing that existed or was remembering something whispered to me in my sleep.

The first was a title: The Time Travel Tinkerer.

The second was the opening: Putter was a tinkerer, a time traveler, and a bastard. At least, that’s how people would have viewed him, if they’d known what he’d done. Or would do, depending on their places in time.

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Squeezing in writing time

As I mentioned in Whatcha writing during isolation?, I hadn’t been doing much writing. Thinking, yes; time at the keyboard, no. I also stated that I was taking a break.

I think that means different things to writers than many other people. You see, much like the famous Ross and Rachel argument on Friends, whether I was on a break could be debated.

We. Were. On. A. Break!

Since it’s Fathers’ Day, and I’m writing, I think you know the winner in my particular debate.

I was putting a lot of thought into the future of the series, and I don’t mean whether I’d get published or whether I should shelve the project. I was contemplating the ongoing storyline and the eventual intersection of Tildy and her lost brother, Samor (for a little preliminary info on him, go here: the Prince).

Much needs to happen to create the dynamic between them when they meet. Without being too spoiler-y, they are both heirs to the throne. Due to the patriarchy of their society, many will favor him; however, as the first-born, Tildy will also have a legitimate claim, as far a many are concerned.

Before I digress too far, there are beats in the story that must be hit and I need to determine the best books for them to occur. When does Tildy realize this? Book 2. When does Samor achieve that? Book 3. And so on.

So, I’ve been taking notes. Lots of ’em.

Yesterday, I found myself with a little free time. I pulled up Evernote and started popping notes into the appropriate manuscripts. After an hour or two, I’d added maybe 30 total notes into nine manuscripts. You can verify that here: Progress Tracker.

That’s….an ambitious project.

Yeah, which is why I need to understand where the overall story is headed. Otherwise, the – let’s call it writing math – isn’t going to add up at the end.

Equally important, it was a telling thing because I wasn’t “in the writing mood” and the house was hardly free of distractions. The perfect writing environment isn’t sustainable for a married guy working through a pandemic as Summer arrives with two dogs and two kids. I’ve changed my approach to ensure I’m spending my time working, not waiting. Fortunately, I started that transformation years ago.

For me, writing has never been limited to words appearing on a page. Having a similar philosophy will help you spend more time working and less time waiting. Good luck!

–Mike


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© Michael Wallevand, June 2020