#amwriting: learning from the masters: Kurt Vonnegut

Timequake(Vonnegut)I haven’t written about Kurt Vonnegut in a while, and I believe it’s time to revisit him and his wisdom. I am dusting off a piece I wrote several years ago, as it has merit in my writing life today.

Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) was one of my literary heroes. He was considered to be one of the most outrageously creative writers of our time, and indeed time figures prominently in much of his work – such as in his semi-autobiographical novel, Timequake. In this novel, he writes about trying to write a story. He understood writers’ block, because he had experienced it. Reading Timequake is like seeing my own struggle to write reflected in another author’s life.

His most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five came out of his experiences in WWII as a prisoner of war. Vonnegut understood being a prisoner of war because he had experienced it.

In 1982, Vonnegut wrote a short piece for the International Paper Company, titled simply, ‘How to Write with Style.’ He began his essay by first considering the question of “why we should strive to improve our writing style”:

  1. “Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowder-head — or worse, they will stop reading you.”

For me as both an editor and a reader, this is a critical point, because if you, as an author, become irate at hearing honest opinions from your beta readers or editors, you are doing them a disservice. We all experience this feeling of shock and dismay, but do take the medicine and try to understand what your reader saw that wasn’t up to par.

My most painful moments have been at the hands of editors who truly wanted to help me improve my work. I thank God they cared enough to tell me the truth.

If you’re doing this only for your ego, then, by all means, enjoy writing whatever falls out of your head. Do it and have fun, but don’t show it to anyone for if you do, your ego is in for a bruising.

That joy and abandonment is how a first draft should be written. But, if you have a first draft, don’t ask me what I think of it, no matter how proud you are unless you want my perspective because we all know every ms has flaws.

After Vonnegut had explained why authors must work to improve their knowledge of the craft, he went on to present 7 more concepts authors must strive to achieve:

  1. Find a subject you care about.

Let’s be real – if we don’t have a passion for our subject, it’s difficult to wax poetic about it. But when you are passionate, you can’t stop discussing it. It takes all your attention, and you find new things to say about it every day.

  1. Do not ramble, though.

What a sense of humor!  He was right – keep it brief!  Don’t spend 50 words when 10 will do.  The longer a sentence is, the more opportunity an author has to weaken it.  I am terrible at putting this concept into action.

  1. Keep it simple.

(note to self) Simplicity is the key to Not Rambling!

  1. Have the guts to cut.

Sometimes an author is in love with a particular sentence or paragraph – and it may be one which, to an editor, doesn’t really work. You must be prepared to divorce the sentences you are married to. This happens to me all the time – and now I try not to cry when my most beautiful, alliterative prose is given the boot.  Nine times out of ten tossing out the offending gibberish improves the reader’s experience. After all, this isn’t only an ego trip – it’s the reader I’m writing for, right?

  1. Sound like yourself.

You may find this to be a ‘Well, duh!’ moment, but take a moment to think about how you actually speak.  Do you say “I shall meet you anon.” …er…no… probably not.  I usually say, “I’ll meet you as soon as I can.”  Write it the way it feels most comfortable to say it. (Thank you, my many wonderful editors, for helping me to understand this concept!)

  1. Say what you mean to say.

Another ‘Well, duh!’ moment, you might say, but think about how hard it is to express your thoughts when you are trying to tell a stranger how to get from your house to the Walmart in the next town just south of you. Use the words that most clearly express your thoughts. Don’t use vague words to describe simple things – don’t say ‘red marks that started to bleed slightly’ if what you’re describing are ‘bloody scratches.’

  1. Pity the readers.

kurt-vonnegut_quoteDon’t make your readers want to put down your book at the end of the first page. Write the sort of story you want to read – put yourself in the reader’s place.  All we dedicated readers really want is the best tale we’ve ever read!

Is that too much to ask?

No, and maybe.  We’re only human after all so mixed in with our flashes of literary brilliance are the occasional things which do well for lining the bottom of the bird-cage.

As writers, we struggle to grow every day, and yes, there are times when what we put to paper isn’t our best work.  But that is where having the guts to cut is important.

I just hate it when one of my most beautiful turns of phrase during the first draft of a tale becomes not-so-pretty in the second draft and ends up on the verbiage-heap when the editing is done!

Sometimes we find ourselves writing in a desert, a place where the words won’t come. We feel that our work is dry and uninspiring, but I guarantee the most famous and well-loved authors have suffered the same dry-spells, suffered the same feelings of miserable failure we aspiring indies feel.

When I read their beautiful, harsh, and diverse work, I am inspired. I believe I can do this crazy thing. I remind myself that, for me, it’s not about numbers and sales, because it can’t be. For me, it has to be about improving the quality of my work and the telling of the tales I have locked in my brain and getting them out there in book form to the best of my ability.

Reading and understanding how the great authors write is one of the keys to unlocking our own potential. We indies have to use every tool we have available in this rough business, and we have to know what we want to achieve.

I want to achieve great sales, of course. But more than that I want to write compelling tales that move my readers. I may never achieve the first, but I think I can do the second.

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#fridayfiction: The Bolthole, part 1

The Coffee HouseEddie MacNess watched as the casket containing the body of his captain was lowered into the ground. Gertie Smith and Dame Bess had fixed Marien’s corpse up so well, you’d never know she’d taken a sword to the gut.

He fought the sense of foreboding that had been growing since the ambush two days before. Mad Marien McAllister had been the consummate mercenary and a good leader. With her as captain, he’d believed he’d stay a Wolf forever, but as Eddie looked around the large group gathered around the grave, he saw the same uncertainty reflected in the faces of fully half of his brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

He could feel his son, seventeen-year-old Billy, standing just behind him and knew the lad was wondering the same things he was. Eddie and Billy stood at the rear of the crowd as they were well over six and a half feet tall, the two tallest men in the Wolves, or perhaps anywhere. Eddie was known among the mercenaries as Easy Eddie, because of his genial nature, while Billy hadn’t earned a merc’s nickname other than “the beanpole” yet. He was the image of Eddie at his age, and there was no man larger than Easy Eddie MacNess.

Despite being rail thin and having the cherubic face of a boy, Billy had been a merc since the day he turned fifteen and was legally old enough to sign a contract. Eddie was fiercely proud of him. His son had good instincts and thought like a mercenary. He was captain material, showing initiative even at his young age. But, thinking as a father, Eddie didn’t want his son working under a weak captain.

Marien had been crazier any woman he’d ever known, but she’d never let her spirited nature affect business. Unfortunately, even though her blade had slowed, Marien had insisted on going out on the occasional short, safe job, and that had been the death of her. The utter stupidity of it made Eddie feel ill, even though he knew it would likely be the end of him too.  It was a rare merc who stayed working long enough to collect a pension. Most left the road as soon as they made enough to start a business or a family, and the stubborn ones died in the saddle.

She’d made a will years before, as all mercs were encouraged to do, and Eddie had witnessed it. Her son, Bastard John McAllister, would inherit all her possessions and the right to lead the Wolves. Eddie couldn’t help regarding the heir to Marien’s empire from the corners of his eyes.

The Wolves had maintained a good reputation under her leadership. How things would change after the Bastard took over, Eddie didn’t know, and that was the source of his foreboding.

John reeked of ale, as usual. His mother had just died; that was true. But he always smelled of too much ale. Drunk or sober, Bastard John had a volatile temper, and it clouded his judgment. Weak captains lost good mercs to bad decisions.

During Eddie’s ruminations, the traveling friar had finished his sermon. Marien was neatly buried, and the tamped soil was sprinkled liberally with holy water to keep her soul safe from Old Grim. With the solemnity and prayers out of the way, the townspeople drifted over to the Powder Keg, followed by the Wolves.

As Eddie and Billy walked back to the inn, they saw that a crowd had gathered to pay their respects. The townsfolk now wandered about inside the public common room gossiping, or outside where a white-haired traveling bard in his colorful robes had set up in the muddy square playing his harp and telling a tale praising Marien’s bravery.

“Listen to his accent—he’s a long way from the Eynier Valley.” Billy kept his voice low. “He’s not just an entertainer. He’s one of the old, important ones. It seems a little coincidental that one so advanced in age would chance along just in time for the funeral. He’s here to see what’s going to happen with the will.”

Eddie agreed. “Likely so. Those Southern bards know more about what goes on here in the north than they admit. Nothing they do is accidental. Any change in who runs things draws their attention, even here in the North.”

Billy laughed. “Songs about the youthful indiscretions of Mad Marien and old, dead, King Hargis will be popping up all up and down the trade road.”

As they made their way through the crowd, townsfolk stopped them, praising Marien’s virtues and making free with the ale and food that the Wolves had pulled together for the wake in the large common room. Occasional snatches of muted conversations drifted to them, indicating how even the townspeople were worried about how things would change with her passing.

The townsfolk seemed pleased that Elma McClain had finally agreed to hang up her sword and marry the Bastard although, for the life of him, Eddie couldn’t understand why she would do such a thing. Still, she brewed good ale and would handle running the Powder Keg, which she had regularly done when Marien was on the road. It was a sure thing the Bastard didn’t know how to be an innkeeper, and the only thing he knew about ale was how to drink it.

But Elma should know better than to tie herself to the Bastard. She knew what he was like, better than anyone, seeing as how she had a seven-year-old daughter by him.

The Wolves had gathered in their private parlor, where they had nearly finished the last of the formalities required by the Mercenary Code. All that was left was the reading of Marien’s will and getting John’s signature on a few documents.

Because of Marien’s relationship with the late King Hargis and her position as the leader of the Wolves, the man who was to take care of the legalities was old Eustace De Portiers, the Lord Dogwalker. He was known familiarly as Old Squash and was the man who served as the king’s secretary. He and his knights had arrived from Castleton just as the Wolves were closing up Marien’s grave, bringing Lady Marien McAllister’s will, along with several other documents transferring Marien’s authority to act as a magistrate for Somber Flats to her son and legal heir.

Eddie watched as the Bastard signed all the paperwork with his customary flair:

Bastard John's signature, transparency, kunstler script copy

That was only right—after all, he was the king’s illegitimate half-uncle, and proud of it. Old Squash had brought a letter of condolence from young King Henri to his uncle, of which the boy king’s mother, and currently regent, was likely unaware.

Eddie was in a quandary. The Bastard was now officially the captain of the Wolves, and that meant dealing with his erratic behavior and bastardly disposition.

“At least Elma can cook.” Chicken Mickey spoke from near Eddie’s elbow. Mick had taken her death hard and was already well into the ale barrel, something Eddie had rarely seen. “God knows that will be a positive change.” Smaller than most women, the bandy-legged old man had been the provisioner for the Wolves since the day Marien had received the patent to form her mercenary company as a gift from old King Hargis.

The Bastard would never be the kind of leader his mother had been, but he was a sharp negotiator and understood how the mercenary business worked. With Dave Watts, his cousin, acting as his lieutenant and smoothing things over, the Wolves should do well enough under his leadership.

The trouble was, John had an uncanny knack for making friends with highwaymen and ne’er-do-wells. There was no telling who he would hire—and Eddie didn’t want to deal with that as well as his drunken misbehavior. At last, he came to the conclusion he should have come to long ago.

He could leave and start a company of his own. He’d inherited an old house when his mother passed on, so he could operate out of there. It was nothing much, just a rambling lodge built forty years before by his grandfather who had held a high office under a long-dead king, a place for an avid fisherman to escape the stress of Castleton and royal commitments.

Eddie had grown up there. The family fortunes had faltered, and his distinctly un-noble, hardworking father had managed to turn it into a self-supporting farm despite the wood-wraiths and firesprites that infested the deep woods.

The house was a good two hours ride from the nearest village, a quarry town called Dervy. In its favor, the lodge was situated on the big bend of the River Limpwater halfway between Somber Flats and the capital city, Castleton. It was only a five-hour ride north from the Powder Keg, so Eddie had made the journey every two or three weeks, whenever he had a few days free, to see his parents, and after their deaths, to check on his home.

Another thing the house had going for it–if he wanted to start a business there, the muddy track listed on maps as the King’s Highway went right past it. The main trade road south from the capital city of Castleton, the rutted trail ran the length of the country all the way down to the southern port of Ludwellyn. Long caravans of merchants and their heavily laden wagons would be passing his gate regularly, two or three times a month.

He could tap into that business if he gave it a bit of thought. Times were hard all over. Highwaymen and beasts borne of majik waited at every blind corner and narrow place along the trade road, hoping for easy pickings. That meant there was more than enough guard-work for everyone. And lately, the stonemasons of Dervy had been complaining that no one was ever available to guard them when they needed to travel, putting them in considerable danger.

He was hesitant, only because he wasn’t sure if anyone other than his son would want to go with him. He didn’t even know if Gertie Smith, the lady merc he was in love with would leave with him. He hoped she might, but Gertie had a mind of her own.

He’d found her working at her father’s smithy in Bekenberg. When he collected his armor and paid the master smith for it, Gertie had walked away from her father’s forge, taking up her sword and leaving Bekenberg with him. Then she convinced Eddie to take his son off his aging mother’s hands.

Gertie had been better than good to Billy, raising him until he came of age as if he was her son, despite the closeness of their ages. But she had refused to marry Eddie, and wouldn’t give up the sword for him. In Eddie’s mind, this meant if he struck out on his own, she might not leave the Wolves .

“Eddie MacNess?” The Lord Dogwalker’s quavering voice got his attention. “If you’re witnessing, I need your signature here and here on these and then you can all get on with enjoying the wake.” Feeling guilty for even thinking about leaving, Eddie did as requested, putting his signature as witness to all the paperwork, as did Dirty Dave Watts and Cob John McNally. Once the Bastard and Old Squash had finished all the required signings and witnessings, the elderly knight began rolling his copies into his case, preparing to leave.

Eddie looked up, seeing Walter Besom, known as Iron-fist, gesturing with slight jerks of his head toward the door. Once outside, Walter drew him off even further. His slightly more pronounced Lanque accent indicated he also had been drinking more heavily than usual. “I ain’t signing on with the Bastard. I have my boy, Willie, to think about. Who knows what sort of degenerates the Bastard will sign on here? But I don’t want to drag my son all the way down to Bekenberg to the Ravens or up in the mountains to Wister and the Badgers. We need to do something on our own, maybe out of Galwye. You should be leading us.”

A wave of relief swept through him, and the stress seemed to leave Eddie’s shoulders. “I’ve been thinking that way too. But how about we do this out of my dad’s old place? It’s plenty big enough to hold a small company if we set it up the way the Badgers did their lodge up in Wister.”

Walter’s face broke into a smile, and he clasped Eddie’s shoulder. “I like that. We’ll get our customers from Dervy, and a fair amount from Castleton, so we won’t cut into the Bastard’s business at all. But you’d better grab the Lord Dogwalker while he’s here, and have him get the paperwork started.”

Gertie Smith stepped out of the shadows, stopping in front of them. “I’m going with you. Cob John can handle all the smithing that needs to be done here in Somber Flats. I’m not giving up the sword for you, but I go wherever you do. As long you don’t tie me down.”

“You know I’d never do that.” Eddie’s arms went around her, and he felt dizzy with relief. Gertie was the best part of his life, outside of his son, but he couldn’t have forced her to come with him. “I’ve enough saved to buy you a small anvil. I can set you up with a little forge behind the house so you can pound hot metal all you want.”

“I’d like that. Someday I’ll leave the road and take up my hammer for real, but not yet.” She kissed him soundly.

The three walked back toward the front door. Walter said, “The Bastard’s offering contracts all next week, now that the funeral is over and the paperwork is done. It might get a bit difficult when we don’t sign on with him.”

“He’ll get over it,” Gertie said. “He’ll whine, but he’ll be fine once he sees how he can benefit from it.”

Eddie cornered Old Squash just as he and his knights were mounting up to head back to Castleton. When Eddie explained that he wanted to break away and form his own mercenary company, the old man nodded. “That’s a good idea. The area around Dervy needs a band of mercenaries, and it would give my lads and me a dry spot to sleep when we’re on missions like this one. We’ll have to camp out tonight, which, at my age, I don’t enjoy.”

He sighed heavily, the weight of his myriad duties clearly written on his somber features. “The road through there is so dangerous that even highwaymen avoid it. If you clean out the nuisance-beasts, I’ll make sure you get your patent from the queen regent. She’s not that fond of the Wolves, what with the Bastard being a royal bastard and all, so she’ll agree with no argument.”

Eddie agreed, on one condition. “We don’t have bespelled shields, so we can’t fight firedrakes or dragons. Those sorts of beasts are for your lads to take care of. But we’ll eliminate anything else.”

“I haven’t heard of anything like that along there. It’s too rural, with no livestock to attract the big beasts, so it’s mostly the usual. You know, wood-wraiths, bears, wildcats, or the occasional nest of firesprites suddenly popping up in the middle of the trail, delaying the caravans.” Old Squash shrugged. “The merchants don’t like that, so the queen regent’s guards get sent out looking for things of that nature. But the road is long, and they can’t be everywhere.”

They shook hands, and the Lord Dogwalker and his men departed.

To be continued

Part 2 will post on Friday, July 29, 2016


“The Bolthole, in two parts” © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved

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#amwriting: Physician to The Vampire

John William Polidori (7 September 1795 – 24 August 1821) was an English writer and physician. He was best known for his involvement in the Romantic movement, an artistic, literary, musical and intellectual movement that originated in Europe toward the end of the 18th century. He is considered by many as the originator of the vampire genre of fantasy fiction. His most successful work was the short story The Vampyre (1819), which was the first published, modern vampire story.

Perhaps because John Polidori was a physician, he was able to bring all the disparate elements of 19th-century vampirism mythology into a coherent, compelling short story.  With just that one short story, he spawned an entire literary genre.

How did this come about? The story had its genesis in the summer of 1816, the Year Without a Summer when Europe and parts of North America underwent a severe climate abnormality.

Lord Byron and his young, twenty-year-old physician, John Polidori were staying at the Villa Diodati by Lake Geneva.

On the run from creditors and Shelley’s ailing, understandably jealous wife, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who later became Mary Shelley) and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s stepsister, visited them.

The group was kept indoors by the incessant rain of that cold, wet, unpleasant summer during a three-day stretch in June. Bored at being cooped up, the five turned to telling fantastic tales, and which inspired them to write their own.

Reportedly, they were fueled by ghost stories such as the Fantasmagoriana, William Beckford’s Vathek, and laudanum, to which Byron was addicted. Mary Shelley, in collaboration with Percy Bysshe Shelley, produced what would become Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

Polidori was the outsider, the man who was only included as he was in the employ of Byron. Lord Byron made him the butt of many jokes at dinner parties, taking great pleasure in humiliating him. This cruel treatment of anyone in his power was well documented by his contemporaries.

the-vampyrePolidori was inspired by a fragmentary story of Byron’s, Fragment of a Novel (1816), which is also known as “A Fragment” and “The Burial: A Fragment.” Over the course of several mornings, he wrote “The Vampyre.” The manuscript was overlooked for three years when it was discovered by a disreputable publisher, Henry Colburn. He published it in his New Monthly Magazine under the title “The Vampyre: A Tale by Lord Byron.” It was received with acclaim, much to Polidori’s surprise and chagrin.

Polidori struggled to assert his rights to the work, and Lord Byron did have the grace to declare promptly the work was Polidori’s and not his. Despite that assertion, proper credit for authorship of the story was muddy for many years.

Still, Byron was firm that he was not the author. Apparently, Byron felt that the destruction of a man’s soul was no great thing, but theft of his intellectual property was a crime.

Polidori’s work had an immense impact on his contemporary readers. Numerous editions and translations of the tale were published. The influence of The Vampyre as described by Polidori has continued into the twenty-first century, as until recently, his work was frequently considered the primary source of what is accepted as “canon” when writing about vampirism.

What are the traditional tropes of vampire fantasy? First of all, we must think Lord Byron. He was an arrogant, self-centered, charismatic, sociopath with a gift for writing brilliant poetry. From birth, Byron suffered from a deformity of his right foot and by the time he hired Polidori, he was addicted to laudanum which had been prescribed for the pain. He treated the young Polidori atrociously, engendering deep antipathy for his patient in the young doctor.

John_William_Polidori_by_F.G._GainsfordWithin the pages of Polidori’s diary, I see “The Vampyre” as an allegory of Byron’s abuse of John Polidori himself. It is easy to visualize Byron as a man possessed of the power to drain one of their soul when seen through the eyes of the man he had in his power, and whom he treated abominably as an employer.

Byron was described as the devourer of souls in the book, Glenarvon, by Lady Caroline Lamb, one of Byron’s former lovers.  “Ruthven” is the name Lady Caroline Lamb referred to Byron as in her novel. Polidori had read Glenarvon that summer, and blatantly used Lamb’s protagonist’s name for his vampire, and Byron proudly admitted he was the role model.

The Public Domain Review article, The Poet, the Physician and the Birth of the Modern Vampire, says this about the rocky relationship between Polidori and Byron:

“It was no great leap for Polidori to believe that Byron was sucking the life from him, just as others had accused Byron of possessing a charismatic power that eclipsed their own identities. Amelia Opie, one of the many women Byron had charmed, described him as having “such a voice as the devil tempted Eve with; you feared its fascination the moment you heard it,” a mesmeric quality that critics also found in his verse, which had, according to the critic Thomas Jones de Powis, “the facility of…bringing the minds of his readers into a state of vassalage or subjection.”

So we know vampires are charismatic and seductive. Their bite would enslave their victims. Folktales from hundreds of years ago tell us they can take the form of bats and fly through the windows of even the tallest buildings. Historically, vampires are powerful, but unable to withstand the light of day, which would burn them, and destroy them forever.

A patch of Dry Skin, Stephen SwartzHowever, that which was once canon regarding vampires is no longer set in stone.

Modern vampires are often able to stay outside during the day, and some even sparkle.  Many are model citizens who get their blood from robbing blood banks.

I love Stephen Swartz’s medical take on vampirism in his book, A Dry Patch of Skin.

But underneath it all, I still have a fondness for the mad, bad, dangerous to know Lord Byron style of vampire.

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#amwriting: Sturm und Drang

hp-touchsmart-320-1030-full-setMy main, desktop computer died on Saturday. It’s been limping along for a while. We had into the shop about six months ago, and should have known then it was terminal. The thing is, while I love Sturm und Drang in my literature, I prefer my electronic life to be stress-free.

Limping along on my ancient, half-functional laptop, I can get by well enough to write the odd blogpost or work on my own work. But the screen is too small for me to use to edit for a client. Also, I can’t do any work requiring Photoshop, as that program is on my dead dinosaur.

I have my headphones on and the laptop strategically positioned, so it blocks the 50-inch technological disaster that is our TV and which seems to take up an entire wall. It also needs replacing as a series of vertical lines obscures the view on part of the screen but I doubt that will happen this year–TV is not that important. Music is mostly my form of entertainment.

Greg’s laptop is older than this one, although he is keeping it alive. All our technology is older than dirt. So, after I finish writing this blogpost, we are going shopping and two new machines will come to our house.

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s talk about Sturm und Drang. The English translation is literally, Storm and stress.

Google defines it as: a literary and artistic movement in Germany in the late 18th century, influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and characterized by the expression of emotional unrest and a rejection of neoclassical literary norms.

What does this mean in simpler terms?

Sturm und Drang as a literary form evolved during the time of the American Revolutionary War, which a period of global unrest and great hardship, especially in Europe. The main feature is the expression of high emotions, strong reactions to events, and often, rebellion against rationalism. It is characterized by violent individualism and complex emotions. Literature and music written in this style were aimed at shocking the audience and infusing them with extremes of emotion.

Classical literature in this style began in 1772 with “Prometheus,” a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in which the character of the mythic Prometheus addresses God (as Zeus) in misotheistic accusation and defiance. Misotheism is the hatred of God, or the Gods, in literature described as stemming from a moment in a person’s life where one feels the gods have abused and abandoned him. Misotheism requires a firm belief in a God or Gods.

Again, Wikipedia tells us this: Prometheus is the creative and rebellious spirit which, rejected by God, angrily defies him and asserts itself; Ganymede is the boyish self which is adored and seduced by God. One is the lone defiant, the other the yielding acolyte. As the humanist poet, Goethe presents both identities as aspects or forms of the human condition.

Modern genre and indie literature using this style can be found as an underlying trope in Cyberpunk.

Wikipedia defines Cyberpunk as: a subgenre of science fiction in a future setting that tends to focus on the society of the proverbial “high tech low life[1][2] featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as information technology and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.[3]

DoAndroidsDreamIt is exemplified by post-industrial dystopias that tend to feature wide divisions in the social order and extreme chaos in society. Protagonists acquire and make use of technology in ways never anticipated by its original inventors (“the street finds its own uses for things”).  Much of the genre’s atmosphere is heavily film noir, and  employs techniques and style reminiscent of detective fiction.

The difference between classical Sturm und Drang and modern Cyberpunk is Technology and Industry are the Gods whose knowledge the mortals desire, and whom they seek to replace. All aspects of Sturm und Drang can be found in Cyberpunk.

Cyberpunk began as a niche rebellion by authors like Phillip K. Dick, and is now mainstreamed and growing in popularity.

Authors writing in the early days of speculative fiction were Indies who were finding success getting short stories published in popular sci-fi magazines, and who were fortunate enough to have some farsighted editors take chances with publishing their longer work. They formed publishing companies and became giants. That opportunity will always be out there.

Indie authors have a great deal of latitude in their choice of what to write, as we can write and publish edgy work that would be deemed too chancy by traditional publishers. Authors always engage in artistic rebellion, and society always appreciates it—years afterward.

And tonight, I will continue my artistic rebellion while getting my new computing thing, whatever it shall be, up and running.

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#FlashFictionFriday: Astorica

800px-Ladies_safety_bicycles1889Chance Jensen approached The Duck Walk Inn, aiming for the front door. It was classier than most of Astorica’s cocktail lounges, and was the third place she’d looked that afternoon. She entered, peering around to see if Jack was there.

He was, and ignoring the worried glances from the few men who were present in the otherwise empty bar, she walked toward him.

Stella, the bartender, chatted with Chuck Moore, Astorica’s lone hooker. Chuck’s clientele was comprised mostly of lonely, blue-collar laborers, women who worked in the shipyard. Stella nodded at Chance, as she lit Chuck’s cigarette.

Chuck exhaled a cloud of smoke, and glared at Chance. “You’ve been neglecting him, Chance Jensen. Don’t take your husband for granted. You’re a lucky woman to have a man like Jack. He shouldn’t be sitting in a place like this.”

“I know. I’ll do better, I promise.” She did have to smile, getting advice on her marriage from the local whore. But, she supposed, Chuck had seen plenty of marriages fail.

“Good. I don’t want to have this conversation again.” With a flounce, Chuck turned back to Stella.

The nervous-looking men at the corner table had moved their handbags to hide their cocktails, obviously regretting their decision to be so daring as to go into a cocktail lounge unaccompanied.

Jack looked out of place at the bar, dressed in his usual proper, suburban, house-husband style. He glanced up from his iced-tea. “What do you want? I’m not going back unless you’ve changed your mind.”

“Jack, we had a quarrel. I’m sorry I shouted. But, you can’t file for a divorce, as you don’t have grounds. I don’t beat you or cheat on you. You’re just angry because I can’t afford to buy you a bicycle like Loris did her husband.”

Jack straightened his sweater and crossed his trouser-clad legs. “You’re right, I am unhappy about that. I might not be able to get a divorce, but I don’t need one. I’m not interested in dating, so I have no desire to be single. But no law says I have to share your roof. If I got a job as a waiter or a housekeeper, I could support myself and buy my own bicycle. One with a good-sized basket for carrying things.”

Chance attempted to reason with him. “Jack, if you took a job outside our home what would people think? They’d think I can’t manage on my salary. I’m just starting out with this company. I don’t need that kind of image dogging me, holding me back, or I’ll never be promoted. They’re assigning me better routes now, so things will improve. I promise.”

He burst out, “I have needs too, you know. I want to go places, and do things. I’m tired of being cooped up, with nothing to do but slave away, making sure that when you come home, you find a clean house and a hot meal. Where’s the joy in that?” Jack wiped a tear, a sure sign he was really worked up. His voice, however, was calm. “It’s just, if we had a child, I would feel needed. I don’t have a purpose, Chance.” He met her eyes. “Give me a purpose, and I’ll stay.”

Chance sighed. It always came back to that. “I’d like a child too. I don’t know why we haven’t been blessed. We’re both healthy. There’s no reason we haven’t conceived.”

Jack looked around the room. “See? They’re the same as me. We’re bored stiff. Playing bridge on Tuesdays and going to Tupperware parties just doesn’t fill the void. It’s not just us. Fewer and fewer babies—something’s wrong with this world, and no one will admit it.” He stared down at his handbag. “It’s more than that. It’s everything. I get up at five to cook  breakfast and fix your lunch. The darkest corners in our house are so clean they glow in the dark! I do laundry. I wash windows. Every day, the same things.”

Chance started to agree, but Jack cut her off.

“At ten I get all dressed up and take the bus to the market, then I haul the groceries home and put them away. Once that’s done, I change and go out to work in the flower beds, because God forbid the neighbors should see an untidy yard! Once every bloody just-sprouting weed has been yanked, I prepare your dinner, and fifteen minutes before you get home I get all dolled up, just to look good while I serve you dinner. Then I have to clean the kitchen. The next day it starts all over again. My life revolves around cooking, cleaning, and what the damned neighbors might think of us.”

Hoping to calm him, Chance said,“I know it’s difficult for you, depending on public transportation. But I’m a truck driver. You knew that when you married me. Maybe I’m not as romantic or rich as the wives in your soap operas, but I do try. Don’t I give you a large enough allowance? I never ask how you spend it. I don’t care if you have lunch out with the boys, or have your hair done twice a week. I love you! I married you for keeps, and I respect the vows we took.”

“You could tell me you love me more often.” Jack sat  hunched in on himself.

“I know. I’m not good at saying how I feel.” Chance put her hand on his shoulder. “I’ll try to do better.”

Jack burst out, “I could learn to drive, but men aren’t allowed to. I could vote and help pass laws that would improve society, but no, men aren’t allowed to. We’re too emotional, too high strung to be allowed the same privileges as women.”

Desperate to head off the men’s emancipation argument, Chance said, “I know you’d be great at all those things, better than some women if I’m truthful. But it’s the way things are, and we have to live with it. And guess what—I got a raise, today.”

Jack’s eyes it up. “Really? That’s wonderful.”

Pressing her advantage, Chance said, “You know what that means? We can save up for your bicycle. If we’re careful, next month you can buy it.”

Picking up his handbag, Jack stood up. “Let’s go home. I’ll make a pie to celebrate your raise.”

Relief flooded Chance. Taking his elbow, she opened the door for Jack and guided him across the parking lot, reminding herself that men were the fairer sex, and required gentle handling. Chuck was right–she had been neglecting Jack’s emotional needs. She resolved to be more attentive.

She loved Jack , but he confused her. He had an overabundance of paternal instincts. It occurred to her that a puppy might take Jack’s mind off things. And, it just so happened Chance’s new boss, Carol, was trying to find homes for six dachshund puppies.

That was a brilliant idea. She’d gain favor with the boss and surprise Jack with a puppy, solving both problems in one swoop. Smiling, Chase opened the car door for her husband, helping him into the sedan.


“Astorica” © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved

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Filed under #FlashFictionFriday, Fantasy, writing

#amwriting: The Query Letter

My Writing LifeEvery author, indie or traditionally published, comes to a point in their career where they must craft a query letter. For many, avoiding having to do that is one of the reasons they went indie in the first place.

Most editors and publishers want a 1 page, 300-word description of your novel. They want the hook and the essence of that novel in 2 paragraphs, and they want to get a feel for who you are. Both aspects of this 1-page extravaganza must intrigue them. Every editor and agent has a website detailing the way they want queries submitted. In general, they want letters/emails that follow a certain pattern, and that basic format is readily available via the internet.

The www.NYBookEditors.com website has this to say about query letters: “You must walk a very fine line between selling your manuscript without coming across like the parent who knows his kid is the best player on the bench.”

That, my friends, is more complicated than it sounds. Of course, we are firm believers that what we wrote IS the best player on the bench. I’ve always known that about my children and my books!

Anyway, back to the query letter. I’ve attended several seminars on the subject and written many of them. I’ve had good results and also bad results with mine. The best place I have found with a simple description of what your query letter should look like is at the NY Book Editors website.

In essence, what they tell you is this:

  1. Format your letter this way:
  • Your address at the top of the page, right justified.
  • The agent’s address, this time left justified.
  1. Use a personalized greeting where you acknowledge the agent or editor by name.
  2. Keep the body of your query letter to three to five paragraphs.

The 1st paragraph is where you introduce yourself. If you have a connection with the agent or editor you are approaching, say you met at a convention or seminar, or you are a fan of one the authors they represent, mention that. Briefly.

If you have no previous connection, NY Editors suggest you get down to business right away with your attempt to sell your book. Their point of view on this is that you only have a few paragraphs to sell your book, so make those words count.

In the 1st paragraph are the 3 most important things to include:

  1. Title
  2. Genre
  3. Word count

The 2nd paragraph must give a brief description of the work—showcase the plot, and show why you think it is a good fit for this agent/editor. Do this in one paragraph, and don’t give it the hard sell.

The 3rd paragraph should be a quick bio of you, your published works, and whatever awards you have acquired. If samples of your work are available on your website, say so.

This is most important: don’t forget to double-check your letter for typos and spelling errors. We all make them and we don’t want them to be our legacy.

As I have said, my luck with queries has been uneven. I think query letters are like ice cream—you just have to cross your fingers and hope your query arrives on a day when the person in question is in the mood for a story exactly like what you are selling.

Query letter image

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#amwriting: holding indies to a higher standard

Hamlet Poster Benedict CumberbatchI haven’t been able to read as much lately as I normally do and I miss it. However, time spent editing for clients and then trying to write has seriously cut into my ability to read. When I am editing for a client, I can’t disengage my mind from that mindset, which means I have a terrible time reading for pleasure. In fact, I haven’t written a book review in months. Lately, I am lucky to read two or three pages before falling out of the book. Thus I have been reading poetry and resorting to audio books.

When I am in an editing mindset, I notice things a casual reader might not, and I can’t just enjoy the book. And I am not talking indies here—I mean books published by the Big 5 traditional publishers. I keep finding things they could have phrased more actively, or should possibly have cut. These are things an average reader will never notice, and are examples of why authors must have a thick skin.

Typos and editing mistakes are pretty much taken for granted when left in mass-market paperbacks by the Big 5 Publishers, but woe to the indie who neglects to notice a repeated ‘and’ or any other editing error. Also, the Big 5 publishers are allowed to take questionable chances with “style,” such as Alexander Chee did when writing The Queen of the Night, allowing lazy habits we indies could never get away with.

I was unable to actually read the book, as it must have been too tiring for him to use closed quotations to indicate dialogue. The reader has no idea someone is speaking until they’re halfway through a conversation, and have to re-read it. I loved what I could read of it, so I had to resort to the audio book, which was the only way I could get through it.

As an editor, it’s incomprehensible to me why an editor for a large publisher would accept a manuscript that is as annoying as that one flaw makes this otherwise remarkable book.

It is also proof that large publishers (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in this case) are just as guilty as indies when it comes to making strange decisions that can negatively affect sales. They may have done this to elevate it to a “status” read, a must-buy literary name-dropper for those who wish to appear fashionably cultured. If so, it’s a disservice to work that is brilliant despite a flaw that would be fatal if it were to appear in an Indie author’s work.

However, though we can’t take avant garde chances with style, indies DO get to take chances with content, writing and publishing stories that traditionally published authors most likely wouldn’t be allowed to do. If a book might not sell, it won’t be published by a large publisher, because that is what they are in the business to do. However, once an indie has a best seller with a plot the Big 5 would deem sure to fail, traditional publishers will leap on it and the market will soon be glutted. (Can you say Fifty Shades of Grey?)

George R.R.Martin bormatting issue 1 via book blog page views, margaret ebySometimes the errors and flaws in the work sold by the traditional publishing houses are hilarious, as we saw in the first Kindle edition of George R.R.Martin’s A Feast For Crows. That was a formatting error, not an error on Martin’s part, so some poor intern probably got raked over the coals for it, as the book had to be pulled, reformatted, and republished as quickly as possible.

The thing is, errors do creep into even the most carefully examined texts and manuscripts. Usually, no one dies from it, but sometimes there are consequences, as in the case of the infamous Wicked Bible. The publishers paid a hefty price: Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, the royal printers in London, were fined £300 (£43,586 as of 2015) and deprived of their printing license.

Indies are held to a far more rigid code by most readers than the traditional publishers are because the internet is rife with disparaging rhetoric pointing the finger at us. And while the Big 5 traditional publishers are just as guilty of rushing-to-publish unreadable crap, the truth is, many new self-published authors haven’t yet gotten the hang of the publishing business, and often their books are rife with things they will later wish they hadn’t been so eager to publish.

Having learned my own lessons the hard way, I have made changes in how I review my own work. Besides working closely with a professional editor, I now have a solid group of friends who comb my completed manuscripts for errors and gross cut-and-paste errors. We can only hope we have caught them all. When you are an indie, it takes a village to help you get your book fit for the public to read.

Anyway—my editor’s hat is firmly on my head these days, and that means I can’t enjoy casual reading for a while more. This mindset slows my own writing output to nearly nothing because I am stupidly self-editing instead of just letting the words flow.

When I am editing I am looking for all varieties of mistakes–not just structural, grammatical, and glaring punctuation errors. I am also looking for things that will interfere with formatting the final manuscript for upload to Kindle or Smashwords, and I hope I find them all for my client, but it makes writing my own work challenging.

joyce corrections on his msAs an editor, I do my best. But, nothing is ever sure, and I won’t see the manuscript after I send my client the final suggested corrections. Mistakes can be made right up to the last minute while the client is making those adjustments, so someone else will have to proof-read her work.

Remember, you, as the author, have the responsibility for the final eye on your manuscript. So when my client has finished making revisions, she will have her posse check the manuscript over for the slings and arrows of publishing fate.

I will be done with my current editing project soon, and I plan to take a break from editing for a short while when that happens. Then I will let my mindset slide back into the joy-of-reading mode. I look forward to resting my editorial mind and over-indulging in the work of my many favorite authors.

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