Emotional Terrain: Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Vanessa Blakeslee’s first short fiction collection Train Shots was recently published by Burrow Press. In it we meet characters ranging from a drug-addicted doctor to a Britney Spears-like “pop princess” in places ranging from Costa Rica to Pennsylvania to Florida. Vanessa recently took time from her reading tour and Edward F. Albee Foundation residency to talk about the collection, her characters, and the burgeoning Orlando literary scene.

Emotional Terrain: Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee

Toasted Cheese: We discovered that we kind of traded places (I grew up all over Florida and moved to Pennsylvania; you moved to Florida from a different part of Pennsylvania). “Barbecue Rabbit” technically could take place anywhere but it’s set in Pennsylvania and feels like a Pennsylvania story down to the bones. Pennsylvania also dips a toe into the title story as well. I’m curious about the perspective of someone who isn’t shaking Pennsylvania from her boots the same way I can’t shake Florida. Do you think there’s something particular that stays with you when you make a geographic or culture change or is it simply our life experience in play?

Vanessa Blakeslee: It’s uncanny that you ask this because right now I’m revisiting a project that I’ve been working on over the past few summers set in northeast Pennsylvania, where I grew up. For a while I didn’t think Pennsylvania was an itch I wanted to scratch as a fiction writer but while at Vermont College, I wrote a story called “Shadow Boxes” that took place in my hometown. The story later won the Bosque Fiction Prize and got shortlisted for a number of others. This prompted me to consider that maybe there was more to mine in the subject matter (apparently so). I’m two or three stories away from a completed first draft. I’m still early in the process—and who knows how the manuscript may change—but so far the project feels very much in the tradition of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, both books I greatly admire.

Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee

I think when you’ve spent a significant portion of your life somewhere, those particulars of place can’t help but stay with you. You undergo moments of humiliation and joy in an array of locales, from the grocery store where you landed your first job (and maybe your first love), say, to the woods where you walked with your grandmother, to the school parking lot where you got beaten up. Those memories become ingrained in the landscape, whether your returns are real or imagined. At the same time you’re shaped by the natural world—even if that world is New York City—down to the climate and weather, and the cultural milieu that is inhabited by the people there. You can’t escape those factors, nor should you; they’re what knit inhabitants together across economic divides, the insular peculiarities of individual families, age, and time. And over time, it’s as if the heaviness of memory pressurizes one’s sensory knowledge of a place with the emotional terrain—that’s when you’ve got real gold to mine from, as a writer.

TC: It seems like you’re being tagged specifically as a “Florida writer.” It never feels dismissive but it doesn’t feel complete when I read it. How do you interpret “Florida writer,” if not simply “I live and write in Florida?”

VB: Again, I think this has more to do with the emotional terrain in my fiction rather than the concrete specifics of place. Most Floridians are from somewhere else, many from the Northeast who chose to make Florida their home for a number of reasons—so you have a vast number of residents who didn’t spend their childhoods there, and are in some way deliberately starting a new chapter in life. There’s a sense of displacement there, of transition—perhaps even frontier. Transplants set out to move there with hope and optimism, if only for the weather and lifestyle—so you’ve got everyone from college students to retirees showing up, brimming with desire and dreams. We’re now the third largest state; all of this growth happened so quickly that you have radically different people colliding on one narrow peninsula. All of this makes for unique conflict scenarios as well as emotional terrain for fiction.

As for the label, I don’t mind being called a Florida writer because I do write a lot about my adopted state—just watch out if I move somewhere else! Because I write what I write, and I certainly don’t feel pressure to be a “Florida writer.” If that’s how others chose to see my work, fine, but ultimately labels fall short and backfire. Literature is vastly bigger than any convenient labels we can come up with.

TC: There’s incredible diversity in the state (people, backgrounds, geography). What do you find inspiring about Florida?

VB: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my eyes peeled for what happens in my backyard, or my neighbors’ backyards. But Florida, and Orlando in particular, has such a variety of establishments, parks, neighborhoods, malls, etc., in part due to the tourist economy, that I think the city offers plenty in terms of choosing lively backdrops for fiction. PR’s, the Tex-Mex restaurant, was an obvious one since I worked there for five years. I wasn’t surprised when the restaurant worked into my imagination, both in “Clock In” and “Train Shots” (also in “Arthur and George: The Quest” which didn’t make it into this collection but is available online at Drunken Boat).

The landscape and climate inspire me a great deal. In the case of “The Lung,” I had fun setting that story during a summer of raging wildfires rather than a more expected scenario. There’s no “hurricane story” in the book, for example, and I kind of like that. I like bringing readers into the real world of a place, and the reality is that Florida’s chilly winters and torrential summer downpours are much more evocative of what life is like here than the occasional devastating hurricane season.

TC: What do you wish more non-residents knew?

VB: That the literary scene in Orlando has really taken off. We have our longstanding traditions, like the annual Winter with the Writers festival at Rollins College, which brings in A-list poets and writers every February. Over the past five years, I’ve noticed a renewed energy and enthusiasm within the writing community. The University of Central Florida now offers the MFA in Writing, plus the University of Tampa has a low-residency program. The Jack Kerouac Writers-in-Residence Project hosts a new writer every three months; those residents come from every corner of the globe and bring new lifeblood. Burrow Press, the publisher of Train Shots, showcases noteworthy talent several times a year at its up-and-coming reading series, Functionally Literate. Peruse the weekly event listings during the school year and you’ll find the calendar packed with literary events—so many, you’ll often find yourself missing out.

I love where the Orlando lit scene is at right now. It’s just big enough that we’ve got a considerable pool of varied and burgeoning talent, yet small and intimate enough that most of us know each other and love nothing more than cheering each other on, absent of petty jealousies and competition. I’m not claiming that we’re the Brooklyn of the South yet—maybe in another eight or ten years—but we’re definitely on our way. I couldn’t be happier to be here right now, because I deeply sense that we—not just as a literary scene, but as a city—are fast approaching coming into our own. Ultimately the lit scene will change as Orlando grows; the egos will flare up as the intimacy dies. I hope that doesn’t happen for a long time yet. I can only describe our literary scene as being a place of true community, love and support. I’m ever grateful for it, and excited for its future.

TC: No matter where your story is set, your settings are specific and vibrant (“Welcome, Lost Dogs” struck me in this way). Do you think of setting as a character in its own right or more of a backdrop for particular situations or people?

VB: It depends on the story. My fiction arises very much from setting. I’m not so much an image-driven writer; often I find myself fascinated by hearing anecdotes of people stuck in unusual circumstances, and my stories grow out of exploring those predicaments. Setting very much drives a story such as, “Welcome, Lost Dogs” or “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” In “Princess of Pop” setting looms so large, it functions almost as another character: the pop star is falling apart, she chooses to hole up in the hotel where Joplin died, and the story pretty much remains there.

In others, where the setting takes more of a backseat to the conflict—“Ask Jesus” comes to mind, as well as “The Lung” and even “Hospice of the Au Pair”—I crafted the setting to create a certain desired effect. I suppose a premise has to contain a certain peculiarity for me to set it in Florida—a juxtaposition of the inherent natural beauty abundant in this state, as well as an extreme, perhaps comically absurd, element of the grotesque—one might call it the New Southern Gothic, or even Florida Gothic, who knows? For instance, “The Lung” could have taken place anywhere. But since it’s a story about smoking, disease and the impermanence of nature, I set it in Florida during a summer of raging wildfires. Likewise, I chose for the protagonist to work in the field of environmental protection and have a green thumb.

Conversely, “Hospice of the Au Pair,” about a WASPy middle-class girl who falls in love with a morphine-addicted doctor, was originally set in Florida but something about the premise and setting rang as too expected, somehow. Maybe it came off too consciously as “another kooky Florida story,” and therefore gimmicky. In that case, changing the backdrop to Costa Rica injected the story—if you don’t mind the pun—with just the right unusual details to make it truly fresh and believable.

TC: Some of your characters aren’t written to provoke sympathy or likeability but they’re compelling and realistic (Sam in “Hospice of the Au Pair” stands out to me). When writing short fiction, how deeply do you get into your characters? Do you let their backgrounds evolve as you work or do you begin with their histories in mind?

VB: Short fiction doesn’t leave much room for backstory so I don’t spend too much time on characters’ histories aside from nailing down the immediate situation they’ve just come out of offstage, which has propelled them into the crisis they’re facing now. Much of the time this is very thin, just a couple of lines at the outset. Then, as the story progresses and a gap opens up where a bit of backstory information is called for to shed light on the present situation, I’ll make something up that is ideally both idiosyncratic to the individuals, setting, etc., and also inevitably fitting.

For instance, I don’t know much about Sam, the expat doctor in “Hospice of the Au Pair,” but in the final scene in the yard, he notices the blazing colors of the tropical trees. Why does he notice them? What’s the significance of this gesture? I tied it back to the autumns of his boyhood in the northern United States, a purer time which he very much yearns to return to now, via his own, albeit fractured, family. So I feel that I do get into characters as deeply as when writing a novel, but you’re just in and out so quickly with the short form. And in a way it’s very freeing, not having to come up with as much backstory to fuel the narrative moment. Although I’ll add that even with a novel, writers usually don’t need as much character history as they think they do—a story centers on what’s happening now, after all, not back then. There, too, I find myself making up the material I need as I plug along. With novels, I feel like there’s more of a sense of character history but that’s an element best left to the subconscious to work on. In composing first drafts, I’m hyper-focused on pushing the action forward.

TC: Your characters seem to come from a place of great empathy and insight. I’m curious about how and where you observe people for inspiration.

VB: Thank you. I draw upon people I meet in real life as a starting point for my characters but often I combine traits from different individuals. If you’re writing character-driven literary fiction, then as you craft motivation and plot you have to exaggerate or diminish certain traits of a protagonist as he or she navigates the situation and the obstacles flung in front of them. To what degree you manipulate those traits and to what effect, therein lies the art. Characters, even ones rooted in real life, inevitably take on their own shape because the form demands that you invent and embellish.

The characters I felt closest to while writing the stories were the narrator in “Welcome, Lost Dogs,” the pop icon protagonist in “Princess of Pop,” as well as the female heroines in “The Sponge Diver” and “Don’t Forget the Beignets.” I also felt close to P.T., the engineer in “Train Shots.” While all of the characters I just cited are female with the exception of P.T., I wouldn’t say that sharing the same gender has as much to do with “closeness,” however—rather, it’s a certain emotional terrain that we occupy, or that those characters spring from. I have lived, in brief spurts, the isolating experience of being an expat “caught between countries.” I have been in romantic relationships with varying degrees of power dynamics, for good and for ill. As fiction writers we talk a lot about what we “reveal and conceal” on the page, and I’m fascinated by how relationships operate that way, too—how much of privacy contains secrecy, and when does secrecy cross over into deception?

The character of Margot in “The Lung” I found a bit slippery to capture at first, because I see her as so different from me. She’s very much the strong, no-nonsense woman I aspire to be; perhaps, in recent years I’ve made strides toward becoming more like her. The troubled Ethan was often hairy to handle in scene—figuring out exactly what his objectives were, and where his motivations were coming from. Same thing with Jono, the love interest in “The Sponge Diver.” In revision, it became apparent that the story’s quiet power lay in the potential to make both of the characters responsible for their relationship’s demise, but getting that to happen, pinpointing and rendering vivid those tiny moments of miscommunication and masquerade that build to bring it down, was tricky.

While my life is a far-cry from that of a celebrity or train engineer, in emotional terms we’re not so different. That’s what I aim to do in my fiction—illuminate how we all struggle with loneliness and disenchantment even when we are “living the dream,” whatever that dream is, and often especially after we achieve expertise or status. Doubt, despair, feeling like a fraud, whether in our vocation or in our efforts to love others—I don’t think any of us escapes our time on this planet without grappling with these things. At what point does the despair become too much? P.T. wonders in “Train Shots”—a poignant and worthwhile question, one which echoes back to the protagonist’s crisis in “Princess of Pop.”

TC: Looking back weeks after reading Train Shots, “Princess of Pop” is the story that stayed with me most strongly. I was just telling my husband about it over the weekend. I think it’s because it’s a character we think we already know.

Speaking of characters, I have to ask: is Erica in “Ask Jesus” the same Erica, mentioned but never seen, from “Clock In?”

VB: I’ll say this: I did deliberately chose the name Erica for both stories so that the reader might have the option to make that connection. But it’s up to the reader to decide.

TC: There’s a romantic or sexual relationship in every Train Shots story, whether currently happening in the center (“Ask Jesus”) or the periphery of the story (“Train Shots”) or in the past but looming over the characters (“Uninvited Guests”). I feel like a lot of writers, particularly in short fiction, stay away from sexuality in the story unless it’s directly involved in the plot instead of acknowledging that it’s primary to human nature.

VB: Biological impulses and sexual desire drive the world; we like to believe we’re more sophisticated than that, but it’s naïve to believe so. Literary fiction, at its most basic level, is about connection and disconnection between men and women, and while all stories don’t have to be centered on love and sex—that would be rather mundane—its absence in storytelling is as noticeable as an elephant in the room.

Writing literary sex, whether funny or awkward or passionate or violent, is just like facing any other scene you’ve got to capture; there’s no need for gratuitous detail, but you have to stare. Sex—the lack of it, the yearning for it, and the messy consequences of our romantic pursuits—occupies a great deal of our adult lives. That concept of emotional terrain crops up. Would P.T., the engineer in “Train Shots,” be so distraught if not for his longtime companion having broken up with him three days before the young woman’s suicide? How much of the Princess of Pop’s turmoil is wrapped up in her status as a sex symbol, her identity stolen by corporate interests and molded into a pawn from when she was barely a teen? No doubt her hypersexualized image influenced Erica, the character from “Ask Jesus” in some way, in how she chooses to modify her body to fit what the culture deems sexy—which plays with her head and takes a toll on her marriage.

So maybe it’s just the way I see the world, that sex and sexuality are integral to the messes we get ourselves into even when a situation doesn’t overtly appear that way. What do human beings long for most but freedom and intimacy—how do we go about pursuing both? What do we sacrifice? I’m fascinated by this.

TC: One example of a story with a sexual relationship is “The Sponge Diver,” which was originally published in Toasted Cheese. Most (all?) of the stories in Train Shots are previously published. Did you do much or any rewriting between the previously published versions of the stories and the versions that appear in the collection? How did you prepare the stories for the collection? Did you do your own editing or collaborate with an editor or publisher?

VB: I started many of these stories, including “The Sponge Diver,” as an MFA student at Vermont College. In the years since, I kept revising them as they were accepted for publication in literary journals and along the way, kept sending out the manuscript to small press contests for book-length collections. Twice, the full manuscript placed as a finalist, although under different titles.

I kept playing with the stories to include, the order and the title. Just as I found myself exhausted of submitting it through the contest system, Ryan Rivas (the editor at Burrow Press) approached me about possibly launching my debut collection. At the time I was writing a craft blog for the Burrow Press Review. He had come to know me as a hard worker and an active member of the literary scene and he knew I’d been publishing in well-regarded places. He read the manuscript in January 2013 and afterwards contacted me with a firm offer. For the next several months, we went back and forth deciding which stories to swap out and which to include.

Train Shots

Train Shots (Burrow Press, 2014)

Ryan’s philosophy is that assembling a story collection is a lot like putting together a music album, and he’s absolutely right. We left out certain stories not because they lacked merit but because the ones chosen must speak to each other in a particular, resonating way. I’d describe the process as very hands-on; I absolutely loved the thorough scrutiny we both brought to the manuscript as a team. On my own, I’d never been able to come up with a satisfying order. Ryan had a terrific eye—and ear, I might add—for which stories belonged where, a vision of the book as a living, breathing whole. Whereas I’d worked on the stories for so long on my own, I think I’d become too close to them. So I’d say I was ultimately surprised and thrilled by the final “playlist,” not to mention profoundly grateful.

I was also surprised by how heavily we edited, and even revised in some cases, certain stories. All of them had been published before. I think it’s easy for emerging writers to assume that once a journal has published a story, there’s no more work to be done, which is far from the case. This is the stage where you have the opportunity to refine and bring your work to the next level, so you’re really presenting your best—to zero in on repeated diction and unwieldy syntax, to make sure the final notes of each story truly sing. We had a deadline, of course, but we took our time. I believe our efforts paid off.

I had always wanted to include the flash fiction, “Clock In,” as the opening, as it uses second person and literally invites the reader into the world of the book. “Train Shots” is one of my most memorable and usual stories, so we knew we’d include that one from the beginning; the tone and theme made it a ready contender for final spot, and usually the placement of the title story bears weight, so that made sense—Train Shots. But also there’s a double-meaning to the phrase “train shots.” In one sense, the collection is a journey, the reader peering in on different characters in various settings, glimpsing a “shot” of these individuals’ lives before the train zooms on. Then in the title story itself, P.T. eats dinner at a dive bar alongside the tracks in Winter Park, where the bartenders offer “train shot” drink specials when the trains go by.

As for the order, we probably considered twice as many stories than what ended up making the final cut. We eliminated ones that would contain beats or subject matter too similar to others, and sought a balance in narrative perspectives and moods, from light to dark. I recommend to anyone who is seriously putting together a collection to get together with a trusted writer friend or teacher and employ another pair of eyes, at least, to help you select and juggle the order—doing so would have saved me a lot of grief and time.

TC: Travel and transition are themes in Train Shots and the pieces seem to have a sense of motion to them. What has been your journey as a writer so far? How did you begin? Who encouraged you? How long have you been publishing?

VB: I’ve been writing since I was six. As a child I made up stories constantly—whether by playacting with Thundercats action figures or sitting down at my mom’s electric typewriter until I used up all the ribbon. By high school and my first year of college, I had largely set aside my own imaginative writings. My sophomore year I studied abroad in Australia, and I can only describe my time there as a spiritual awakening of sorts, the kind born from travel and spending time intensely with a congenial group of very different people. When I came back, I enrolled in my first creative writing workshop and within the first few classes, knew that this would be my path. Still, I didn’t publish my first story until 29—“The Lung” which appeared in Cimarron Review.

Two short essays of mine provide a fairly succinct snapshot of my writing journey leading up to Train Shots: “The Corner Booth” and “Paradise Lost,” both of which can be found online at The Paris Review Daily. They are also far more lyrical and lively than any answer I could supply here.

TC: Where is your next journey? More publishing? Short fiction? A novel? Another collection? Do you like to plan where you’re going or see where fate takes you?

VB: All of the above. At the moment I’m at the Edward F. Albee Foundation residency in Montauk, NY and will be working on what I envision will be a novel-in-stories set in Pennsylvania. In between, I’ve been working on essays, book reviews, and the occasional poem. Lately I’ve been drawn to speculative and dystopian fiction, and hope to write a futuristic novel—although not until the book promo for Train Shots dies down, because the new novel project requires research and a trip or two. My agent is currently shopping my first novel, so with luck that will get picked up soon.

TC: Where can we find you online?

VB: For events and book news, vanessablakeslee.com. For my thoughts on the writing life, interviews, book reviews, guest blog posts and the like, visit Vanessa Blakeslee: On Writing. You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and my new favorite, Instagram.


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What’s Your Creative Process?

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I was at a late summer barbeque at one of my friend’s homes when one of the people at my table (a non-writer) asked me about the writing craft. “So what is your creative process?” His question jarred me. “My creative process?” I echoed. Did I even have a process—never mind a creative one?

“You know, “ he said, with a smile. “How do you tap into the stories?”

“I don’t,” I said without thinking. This attracted the attention of the people sitting with us who were just before only half-listening to our conversation. “I don’t tap into stories,” I explained. “They tap into me.” I thought that might satisfy him. It was reasonable response and true, but I was wrong.

“How does that usually happen?” he prodded. What was meant to be a casual question, small talk at the picnic table, had turned into something deeply personal. I don’t think my new friend realized the intimacy of the question. He picked up his corn-on-the-cob and took a bite and waited for my answer…

First, I thought about rituals. I don’t open a twenty-year-old bottle of scotch when I begin to write a new story; drinking makes me tired. Neither do I exercise beforehand. I don’t need the extra endorphins because I’m happy when I’m writing. I don’t frequent coffeehouses all day and write while surrounded by locals. This may have worked for Ernest Hemingway but I’m no Hemingway. Not even close. So how do I answer this inquisitive man’s question? How do I tell a perfect stranger that I hear voices?

Some days I hear only one or two; other days I hear several conversations, beginning, ending or in medias res. I hear arguments in earnest, decisions being pondered and executed, revelations, secrets, lies, plots and once in a while, a bloody knuckle sandwich being delivered. Other days, I can listen in on the internal monologues of these ambiguous specters, their private soliloquies full of emotion and sentiment that may or may not connect to the plot of the story I’m currently working on. Yet I am so enraptured by their dialogue that my fingers cramp as I try to capture the moment on Post-it notes. I’m no mind reader and I’m not crazy. The voices I hear are characters—my characters from the stories I write, characters who drop in on me unexpectedly and keep me up at night with their problems. And there is no off button. I have to listen to them until they reach the end of their scene or parley is declared.

Years ago, someone else asked me a similarly profound question. They asked if I knew how all my stories ended before I finished them. I told the questioner that I was a fiction writer and had learned it was best to just let the story write itself, that what my characters did on my pages was entirely up to them. Occasionally, I did navigate them here and there around the dead ends and roadblocks but overall, they did the driving, over the bumps and through the frequent potholes. Thus, a new definition for character-driven story came into my craft. Could this be my creative process?

When it’s time to write, I sit back in my chair and tune in like I’m watching reality TV. Sometimes I feel like I am a Hollywood producer, sitting in my canvas director’s chair watching a movie being shot, the one that’s playing inside my head. This helps me to avoid the dreaded writer’s block and takes the pressure off me when its time to turn the computer on. It’s not my fault if the characters are having a bad day.

Still, my characters can be very cunning. I know this because lately in addition to hearing their dialogue inside my writer’s head, I have begun to see and smell them as they manifest themselves evocatively, channeling through my senses. They make themselves known to me in small ways throughout the day.

Recently I was escorting a small group of young students to their classrooms. A larger group was ahead of us on the stairs. As the kids were trudging their way upward, I saw the small golden head of one of my characters lean over the banister, her pixie face gazing downward at me as the sun’s rays captured the moment. Ashlin. Reminding me that she is still sitting in the bleachers over center ice waiting for her next scene. Other times it is an earthy smell, the muddy boots left dripping outside a classroom door signaling Seamus, another young character or the sound of jingling keys—that would be Hector, whose pockets are lined with quarters.

My characters haunt me like lost little ghost children. They surround me until their expectations are met, their stories committed to my mental hard drive, and I let them, for they are my muses. My inspiration. I hear voices and see people that aren’t there. Don’t call me crazy; call me a writer.

I turned to my new friend across from me who was still patiently waiting for my response. He caught my glance. I knew my words would not be my most eloquent, at best economic and simple, bordering on facetious, but it was the truth and all I had to offer. He put the cob of corn back on his plate and wiped his mouth with his napkin as I reached for my Chardonnay. Our eyes met again and I smiled. “I hear voices.”

 

Time has passed since that fateful backyard barbecue. Today I have several parties marked on my calendar. The first is a wedding in May. I plan to wear my favorite green dress and gold sandals. I’m looking forward to the champagne, the fancy appetizers, the chocolate fountain, and schmoozing with the other guests.

Will I tell people that I am a writer? Probably not. However, if I am found out, this time my responses to questions about my writing life will be eloquent, witty, and humorous.  And how do I know this?  I know this for a fact because I have taken the time to prepare myself. I went on several interviews with myself recently. Most took place in traffic this past winter while commuting to and from work—yes, I was alone in the car—and I feel pretty confident discussing my second vocation—the one that is not my day job—with friends and new acquaintances alike. I even hope to meet my corn-on-the-cob friend for a reprise of our conversation at this year’s holiday barbecue.

And how about you? Are you prepared to talk about your personal habits and thoughts on the subject of your writing? What will you say when a stranger hands you a glass of punch and asks, “What’s your creative process?”


14-04

Not Your Average Writer’s Block

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

Attention Deficit Writing Dilemma, noun, a writer’s behavioral dilemma characterized by a high volume of creativity followed by an overwhelming lack of writing focus and stamina, disabling the writer from completing a single piece of fiction or non-fiction prose.

In case you didn’t know, this is not your average writer’s block. This is something different. Writers who suffer from this tragic dilemma have not fallen out with their muses. They do not have minds that are at an “absolute blank” or lack writerly ambitions or aspirations or scholarly ideas. They are frustrated, like writers suffering from the conventional writer’s block, but for the opposite reason. Their frustration is the result of an overactive muse (not an absent one), of creative energy in overdrive that leaves the writer feeling mentally breathless, exhausted or overwhelmed.

Often, these particular writers are very prolific. They may have dozens of great ideas and thoughts constantly flowing in their heads, vying for their attention and brain space in which to grow. It may sound like a writer’s heaven, but it isn’t. (Trust me. I know this from personal experience.) The end result is still the same: No copy.

Background Image: Saad Faruque/Flickr (CC-by-sa).

Background Image: Saad Faruque/Flickr (CC-by-sa).

Does this sound familiar?

The crux of this writerly dilemma lies not in the ideas or thoughts themselves, but in the ability to stay singularly focused on one, avoiding distraction from all the other great ideas that keep arising.

“Hey, Writer! I’ve got a new word for you to try on: fug.”

“Yo writer-dude, that new character has like no purpose. Get rid of him.”

“You said you were going to write an essay on BBQ customs.”

“Equity and The Importance of Cat Licenses in a Dog-eat-Dog Society.”

“Here’s the perfect ending for Chapter 7…”

“Psst… Why not write a book review for Toasted Cheese?”

People who suffer from Attention Deficit Writing Dilemma often have a difficult time finishing their writing projects. Because ideas are always present, these writers are great starters and are frequently working on several projects at once. Unfortunately, instead of finishing any one of them, these writers just move on, abandoning one writing project to jump to the next with promises to return later. And much like their characters they may be stuck in several climaxes that are too dizzying for them to sort out, contemplate, and complete.

In essence, these writers are like air traffic controllers who are solely responsible for the safety of a dozen or more planes in the air and on the ground. They are the ultimate jugglers. For the writer, each of these planes represents one of their written works in progress.

Can you juggle?

This is what it looks like: One or two stories are taxiing down a runway—Go writer! Two are in a circular hover pattern, waiting for the writer to finish that last chapter or piece of dialog. Wait. There’s more. Some new works have just arrived and have no writing space. Others have run out of fuel. One older piece of work is being diverted to another place—not over the rainbow or into cyberspace to a stream of agents or publishers, but sadly to the bottom drawer that is already half-filled with abandoned stories and crashed essays.

What’s in your bottom drawer?

With all the fiction and non-fiction in the air and on the ground the writer can be very stressed. What’s more, in most cases there is no OFF button for these folks. If there is, then it is frequently stuck. They can’t tell their muses to take off because often they have several muses who seem to work even harder than they do. Even if one were to go away, there still would be a crowd of them hovering around the writer, inspiring the writer to, of course, write something else.

Sound like anyone you may know?

Most writers are constantly writing even if they do not fully realize it. They are list-makers, leaving behind trails of Post-its on various topics that need to be addressed by them at some fuzzy later date. They are bloggers, chatters, journal-writers and diarists. They are the writers of letters—from the old-fashioned friendly note to business letters, editorials, queries, and more. And no surprise, they often write outside of a single genre: Horror and Essay, Chick Lit and Sci-Fi, Mystery and Memoir…

The same may apply to their reading. These writers perhaps read two or three books at once, also in various genres and platforms. They often annotate their personal books and are the ones who tear articles out of magazines in public waiting rooms when no one is looking—for later.

The trick is to find balance, dear writer.

Because there is always something to write about, these writers don’t know the meaning of boredom. In fact, many have interests outside of writing. Their bodies are constantly in motion almost mirroring their minds. It’s surprisingly therapeutic. Some writers find that physical exercise silences their muses. Others find meditation helpful. They practice yoga, calming their bodies with the breath, or they channel their energy through volunteer work. Another set like to use their hands to build and create things like backyard projects, gardening, knitting and cooking, sculpting, and painting

And these separate interests allow for some mental rest that these writers crave. Writers who live with friends or families have an added perk: Their significant others tend to be great interruptions and often provide distraction. The same may be true for pet owners. My dogs require frequent daily attention, especially the new puppy that is not fully trained. Having a job helps, too. A paycheck is non-negotiable for most. Although it may provide fodder for writing, a job is still one of the best mental kill switches for many writers mainly because it pays for paper, pens, and PCs and, of course, the other necessities of life.

*

There you have it. Attention Deficit Writing Dilemma. An invisible and disabling predicament that perhaps has been distressing you or someone you know at one time or another. If the family and friends, the various hobbies and the paycheck do not work, then you might also consider trying the A Pen in Each Handexercises that accompany this article. They may provide some relief and assist in navigating all your writing projects to their ultimate destinations, as well.


14-02

Horror and Sorrow and Beauty: Interview with Mercedes M. Yardley

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Mercedes M. Yardley writes “whimsical horror.” Her happy endings might have every character die or go mad. Her characters might have holes in their hands, through which stars fall to Earth (incidentally, stars can prevent you from peeling Granny Smiths by knocking knives out of your hole-free hands). She would tag her new novel with #lovehurts and considers herself a “pantser” when it comes to her characters. She won Reddit’s /r/Fantasy 2013 Best Short Fiction “Stabby” for Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love.

While reading her work, you don’t want to put it down. Then you realize you have to put it down in order to go find more (and sometimes to eat, drink, see the sun, etc.). Her delicate yet powerful prose sends unique characters on fascinating journeys and she has cultivated a faithful fanbase. Her first novel, Nameless, was published this month by Ragnarok Publications.

Interview with Mercedes M. Yardley

Toasted Cheese: Let’s start with important stuff. Tell us about the connection to your close personal friend Gloria Gaynor.

Yardley1

Mercedes M. Yardley

Mercedes M. Yardley: Gloria and I are like this. BFFs. She calls every morning to get my fashion advice. I totally tell her to go with the white hat. Nobody can rock it like she does.

Ha, no, actually, I’m one of many authors in an anthology that she put out. Somebody sent me an email saying there was a call for submissions and she thought it might be up my alley. The theme is how Ms. Gaynor’s song “I Will Survive” has inspired us in one way or another. I sat down and wrote an essay about being knocked flat once or twice (or a million times) in life, and how I was trying to get my roar back.

Being in the book is a fangurl’s dream for me. Ms. Gaynor personalized my copy of the book and the CD she made to go with it. I’m a real geek when it comes to things like this.

TC: I discovered your work through Shock Totem. How did you get involved with the journal? Could you share a little about your journey from contributor to contributing editor to editor emeritus (so to speak)?

MMY: I wrote a black, funny little story called “Murder for Beginners”. It was one of my very first sales, actually, to a new and intriguing dark fantasy magazine called Shock Totem.

The staff was nuts. Ken Wood, the editor, sent this awesome rejection letter that was irreverent and hilarious. I later found out that he had originally rejected “Murder for Beginners” but the other staff liked it enough to fight for it. Thankfully mob… er, majority rule is how Shock Totem works.

I started hanging out on the forums. It was the first forum I ever frequented, and it was just a lot of fun. The staff and I hit it off beautifully. After a while, they asked if I would be interested in coming aboard.

It was a big decision, quite honestly. I loved the staff and the stories and the magazine, but I was afraid that it would take too much time from my own writing. I was also afraid that the dark subject matter would get to me. But ultimately I decided to jump, and it was one of the very best decisions I ever made. I loved it. Loved all of it. Seeing things from the other side of the desk was amazing. Staff became family for me. Shock Totem became a huge part of my life.

But things change. I have three kiddos now, and two of them are medically fragile. Three kids are so much more difficult than two. I started publishing a little bit more, and I realized that I was being stretched too thin. I was sick all of the time. I was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. I was dropping balls left and right. I really felt like a failure.

I realized that I had to make some changes to keep myself healthy in every way. I started cutting things out. Eventually I realized that I needed to let Shock Totem go, and it was really tough. I miss it every day. But it’s time to focus on writing novels full time. Everything has a season.

TC: I recently had to make a declaration that if it wasn’t about family, my own writing, or Toasted Cheese, I had to let it go. You’ve just done something similar. Do you feel freer and more productive yet or is an “overstretched” element hanging on?

MMY: I admire you for making that commitment. I know it isn’t easy.

I hope to feel freer. Right now, I’m still exhausted and over-committed. I don’t prize my time like I should. I need to be more selfish with it. Right now I dole it out left and right and then I’m surprised when I look at the clock and it’s midnight. I’ve done things for everybody else, but what about my manuscript? ARG!

TC: You belong to a writing group. Is your group face to face or online? What does it give you to belong to a group? What happens in your group (writing talk, commiseration, editing help, brainstorming, etc.)?

MMY: My writer’s group is called The Illiterati, or The Interdimensional Wombats. Don’t ask, because I’ve long since forgot how that all came about.

Yardley2We meet face-to-face in the Wombat Lair every Tuesday for about three hours. And we do everything. Read each other’s work. Brainstorm. Edit. Fight. Eat pizza. Hold write-ins. Celebrate birthdays. We’re family in every sense of the word. We even argue like it, sometimes.

We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We know each other’s potential. Our main goal as a group is to make sure that we don’t let each other send something out that’s subpar. Anything less than our best.

Ideally, we’ll all move to a commune together. We’ll raise bees, grow our own vegetables, and hold writer’s retreats at our place. There’s an island in Chile that would be perfect for us. You know. After we buy it for twelve million dollars.

I’m also in a secret online group called The Pit Crew. It’s cobbled together by a few Illiterati, some members of Shock Totem. My literary nemesis takes part. There’s another horror writer whom I adore. This one is much more laid back. More quick reads and minor suggestions. Questions about the business.

The Illiterati is out for blood. The secret Pit Crew is backup. Though I guess we’re not secret anymore. 😛

TC: That makes me want to do an evil laugh and rub my hands in little circles.

Do you have an Ideal Reader? Is it a real person or a construct? Describe the person or audience for whom you write.

MMY: I actually wrote Nameless for my friend, Janyece. We’ve known each other since we were two or three. She’s my oldest friend. So in that sense, she was my first and only Ideal Reader. I’ve never specifically written for somebody before.

Yardley3Well, perhaps that isn’t true. I write the book for the characters. I write as though they’re reading, and I’m telling their stories. My short story “Black Mary”, for instance, is about a kidnapped little girl. Am I telling her story honestly enough? Truthfully enough? Delicately enough. Am I handling the situation with the respect and tenderness that it deserves? I’ve come to the realization that people identify with the characters and situations, especially the dark, painful ones. Sure, I’m writing about a person that doesn’t exist, but the pain she experiences is real. I’ve been astounded at some of the emails I’ve received, saying how people identified with characters, especially Montessa from Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu: A Tale of Atomic Love.

So I write to her. Montessa and Mary and Azhar and Reed Taylor and the characters I’m writing about. It’s perhaps a bizarre way to do it, but keeps the story true.

TC: Tell us about Nameless, which comes out this month. Who are your main characters and what do they want? What’s the journey they undertake?

MMY: Ah, Nameless! Nameless is one of my favorites. I wrote this very quickly, originally. I was writing a chapter a day for my friend. Then I lost two of my triplets at birth, and I couldn’t work on anything for a bit. It was a joy to come back to, when I finally did.

Luna Masterson has been able to see demons from a very young age. Everybody thinks that she’s crazy except for her father. He checks out while she and her brother are still fairly young, so they’re growing up on their own.

She’s mouthy. She rides a motorcycle, partly for the thrill and partly to keep people away from her. Sorry, there isn’t room for anybody else on here. Them’s the breaks. But she loves her brother, Seth, fiercely, and especially his baby girl, Lydia. She’d do anything for them, and she does.

Seth is very organized and logical. His ex-wife was a beautiful and vindictive woman named Sparkles, and she left Seth and Lydia for another man. So he’s trying to pull himself together, keep a job, and raise his daughter by himself. That’s where Luna comes in.

Reed Taylor is one of my favorite characters of all time. He’s a recovering addict who doesn’t see demons, but he falls for Luna. He has his own secrets.

And Mouth is a demon of some import, fairly high in the demonic hierarchy. He’s hanging around Luna for his own reasons. He and Reed Taylor loathe each other. I love putting them together and hearing the retorts fly.

They’re a diverse group of people. Ultimately, they’re all lonely and they’re trying their very best. They’ll get it wrong, of course. But they’ll also do some things right. If Nameless had a tag, I’d say it would be “Love hurts.”

TC: You’ve written several short stories, published a collection of shorts, and now you’re putting out novels. Do you have a preferred story length?

MMY: I adore flash fiction. It appeals to my short attention span and it allows me to tell several stories versus telling one story in a novella or novel. But in a longer piece of work, you get to explore things in a way that you can’t in a short story. It’s allowed to be a little more lush. I really enjoy that.

I think I’ll always think in short stories, but novellas and novels are my new playground.

TC: Do you write on a regular basis or as the mood (or your schedule) allows?

MMY: Excuse me while I sit in the corner and laugh uproariously.

TC: Yeah, every writer likes that one, along with the advice to “write at least (random word count) every day” when there are full time jobs, parenting, illness, and life in general competing for your time.

MMY: I would love to write every day. Ideally, that’s the case. And I try. But things always seem to get in the way. So I write as my schedule allows. I’m always in the mood. Writing is what I want to do more than anything else, besides spending time with my family. But real life seems to demand its time, too.

TC: You’ve said that you write quickly and passionately, then go back and give the pieces a couple of light polishes and that’s it. Have you always worked this way or is it a method you’ve developed to suit your work, needs, or time schedule?

MMY: Not only is it the way that I work, but it’s the way I live my life. Whatever project I’m doing at the time, I’m 110% into it. Passionately, wildly. It consumes me. I throw everything I have into it, and do so until something else comes up and interrupts. Then the flame cools and I can go back over it with a more refined eye later.

Short, intense bursts, and then reality. I’ve always done this, and it works well for me.

Yardley4TC: When I read your collection Beautiful Sorrows, I was moved by its magical realism, how you handle it with a light touch while it’s intrinsic to the stories. Do you find readers to be excited, put off, or a combination of both when they encounter something like a talking star or river?

MMY: Of course every reader is different. Some really seem to like the delicacy of magical realism. Pixie eggs grow in the corner of windows. The desert leaves footprints as it stalks around your front door. Boys hang stars, naturally. I think there’s charm to it, and some readers really seem to enjoy the sweetness.

Then again, I get readers who are very vocal in their distaste. There needs to be a reason for the pixie egg. Why do they grow there, exactly? Is it the humidity? A nexus? A blessing or curse? It drives some people crazy that these things aren’t explained. “So that guy just walked through the wall and began brushing her hair? How does he do that? Why?”

Their brains are beautifully mechanical. Gorgeously logical. That isn’t how my mind works. Dig too deep into the meaning of things and it loses its magic. Don’t tell me why. Simply show me that it happens, and I’ll follow you there. I want to believe.

TC: Speaking of magical realism and genre, your stories have strong horror elements, maybe even a bit Gothic or outright romantic. In terms of genre, do you like to color within the lines or do you like something a little more like watercolor that runs and blends together? Also could you tell us about “whimsical horror”?

Yardley5MMY: “Whimsical horror” is a description that I made up. My work isn’t tra-la-la light and it isn’t straight-up horror. It’s stuck somewhere in the middle in a genre that I’m told doesn’t exist. I needed a way to describe it quickly so people’s eyes don’t glaze over. So I found the phrase that was most apt, and “whimsical horror” was it.

Your description of watercolor that blends together is beautiful. And I think that’s how I write. I write what I find lovely and/or horrifying at the time. I find that horror and sorrow and beauty are closely linked. They all cause this type of exquisite pain. I also find that writing helps me work through my current thought processes and issues of the moment, so naturally my emotions come to the forefront. Horror, despite the stigma that is associated it, is all about emotion. So I find that lovely.

TC: You say that the main characters in Apocalyptic Montessa and Nuclear Lulu are “wonderfully, beautifully broken people.” When creating characters, do you have their flaws in mind from the outset or do they develop as you work?

MMY: Lu had a fire within him. Montessa was dead, only her body hadn’t caught up with her soul. They were going to fall in love, and it would be wonderful and tragic.

That’s all I had when I started. I’m a pantser to the extreme. I have a gem of an idea and then sit down and write. The characters are fleshed out as I go. Ha, even the plot is created as I go! I have no idea what’s going to happen. In my favorite novel that I ever wrote, I didn’t know if the main character would live or die until I wrote the final chapter! So I don’t have their flaws in mind when I sit down to create. I’m as much of a reader as I am a writer. I sit at the keyboard and I’m excited to see what’s going to occur in the story that day.

TC: Two themes I find consistent in your work are hope and love. Is this a conscious statement you’re making with your work or something else, like an extension of your personality that naturally comes through?

MMY: I want there to be hope in the story. Of course, my idea of hope is usually a little different than most people’s. One of the guys in my writer’s group, Ryan Bridger, and I got into a friendly little brawl about my definition of happy endings.

“All of my stories have happy endings,” I said. “They’re all about hope.”

“Which happy ending?” he said. “The one where they all die?”

“They don’t all die!”

“Or how about the one where she’s abused, freezing to death, and possibly crazy?”

“She escaped, Ryan. Doesn’t get much happier than that.”

“What about the one where—”

“Just shut up, okay? Shut. It.”

I guess what I’m saying is that life is bleak. It just is. But we’re survivors. Humans are resilient. There’s always a silver lining. Always something worth striving for. I hope that’s something that always comes through, because it’s something that I very much believe.

TC: You seem to be a natural creatrix, not just with words but with food and you’ve tried knitting (i.e. “stabbing …beautiful yarn with sharp sticks ”). What are the last few things you’ve made that didn’t involve words?

Yardley6MMY: Oh, I love to make things! I make all sorts of things. I like to work with paper, so I make a lot of cards. I also make different types of jewelry. I especially like to work with stones. Wire wrapping, beading. I made a few sets of really fun dragon horns. I love baking. Trifles. Cakes. I make my own Twix candy bars, and my own peanut butter cups. In fact, one of my favorite things was getting all of the horror writers to help me make peanut butter cups at 2:30 in the morning at Killercon convention this year. We didn’t have any rolling pins so they crushed up the graham crackers with tequila bottles. It was definitely memorable!

I like making things. It really makes me happy. Really gives me joy.

More Mercedes:


14-01

Absolute Blank: 2013 Recap

Finding Forrester: A Film Review and Quandary About the Writing Craft

Absolute Blank

By Shelley Carpenter (harpspeed)

I recently watched the film Finding Forrester (2000) directed by Gus Van Sant. I saw it years ago and revisited it only this time with my writer’s lens. The film is about a fictional author named William Forrester (Sean Connery) who writes the great American novel and then disappears from the literary world like a Salingeresque legend until he is “found” by edgy teenager Jamal Wallace (Rob Brown), whom Forrester catches breaking into his Bronx apartment.

There inside the top floor apartment overlooking the basketball courts, Jamal discovers a writer’s haven as Forrester’s home is filled with books, typewriters, file cabinets, stacks of papers, and artifacts. Jamal, who meant no harm to Forrester, whose escapade was done on a dare, scrambles out of Forrester’s door forgetting his backpack and inside it, his writing journals. Consequently, this unexpected encounter leads to a cat-and-mouse game of words that aligns the two characters in purpose and, later, in friendship.

Finding Forrester: A Film Review and Quandary About the Writing Craft

What I like the most about the film are the short discourses the pair have concerning the craft of writing that often end in disagreement and argument. The chemistry between the two very different and likeable characters is amplified by Sean Connery’s magnanimous presence that made me almost believe he was William Forrester. They are archetypes: the wise master and stubborn young apprentice. Classic.

One such exchange concerns the usage of conjunctions. Forrester believes the use of a conjunction to begin a sentence is sloppy, egregious writing. Jamal disagrees and very eloquently defends its usage:

“It was a firm rule,” Jamal explains. “Sometimes if you use a basic conjunction at the start of a sentence it can make it stand out a little bit. And that may be what the writer’s trying to do.”

Forrester raises his eyebrow. “And what is the risk?”

“Well, the risk is doing it too much. It’s a distraction and it could give your piece a run-on feeling. But for the most part the rule on using and or but at the start of the sentence is pretty shaky even though it’s still taught in too many schools by too many professors. Some of the best writers have been ignoring that rule for years—including you.”

Beyond their relationship and the journeys these characters face is another theme just below the surface, one I recall hearing about several times in my undergraduate classes and in conversations with fellow writers. It is a common question that can be applied to many subjects, a quandary much like the chicken-and-egg riddle tailored to the writing craft: is talent in writing something a person is born with or is it something that can be taught? A gift or an education?

It would seem that Jamal’s character fell into both categories. From the beginning one can see the burgeoning writer. His writing is both meaningful and cathartic. Jamal behaves like a writer, hungry to learn and disciplined. He carries a journal and often pauses in his day to record his thoughts. It is Forrester who makes the connection. He is the one who recognizes Jamal as a writer regardless of Jamal’s young age or social status in the community.

Jamal’s self-awareness of himself as a writer is also notable. He wants to be better and is humble enough to know that his writing would improve greatly under Forrester’s guidance. He is also ambitious and pursues Forrester relentlessly for it in the film. He baffles school administrators, teachers, and professors alike with his intelligence and talent. Some believe in him and award him with opportunity while others don’t, and call him out for it: Jamal is accused of plagiarism.

Is writing a gift or is it something that can be taught? The film, Finding Forrester, is metaphoric in this quandary. Writers are indeed driven by desire beyond self-improvement, the heart of which is simply the love of the craft—the absolute joy in making meaning with words, putting those words into sentences and forming paragraphs and pages until there is no more to be said. It’s a love affair that we are born into, a gift we inherit, pursue, and enjoy all our lives. And that is something that just can’t be taught.

Yet there are other facets to the craft such as ambition. Like Jamal, many writers possess that personal ambition—an overwhelming desire to be better at what we do best: write. Writers may identify with the young Jamal but how many of us have a Pulitzer Prize-winning mentor like Forrester? Instead, we seek out our own “Forresters” by learning about the craft from a variety of resources: books, undergraduate and graduate programs, author talks and lectures, fellowships in various writing communities, etc. So, yes, there is some education to the craft. And that education serves a dual purpose: improving the caliber of one’s writing and creating new sources of inspiration to draw from.


13-12

Alien Worlds

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

Even with all the new special effects, the majority of aliens in the movies and on television tend to be humanoid. Sure, we all know that’s because you have human actors underneath the pointed ears or the tusked faces. But we don’t have that restriction when we are writing. Our aliens can be as alien as we want to make them.

So why do so many alien societies feel like the emotional equivalent of human actors in alien costumes?

Robert Lynn Asprin has a multiverse of creatures to pull from in his Myth Adventures series, but at core, all the different species act like regular humans and are pretty much indistinguishable culturally from humans. Elves in many books are simply humans with pointy ears and some magic talent. Even plants seem to develop human characteristics once they are sentient. At least Tolkien’s Ents moved slowly. But beyond viewing other life forms as “hasty” they still tended to think like humans while they were in front of the reading audience.

Part of that, of course, is because we are humans, and no matter what we do, we are writing from a human perspective. We want to be able to relate to our characters, so there does need to be some element of humanness to them. But is there a way to make aliens, alien worlds and societies, or even just “other” worlds and societies, feel less like the ones we know and more… well… alien?

When you sit down to build a world, you usually start out with a neat idea. Run with it. But take a good look at the ideas you use, and dig deeply into the consequences of your choices. This is what will make your aliens truly alien. Each time you make a choice about your alien and your alien world, ask yourself: what does it mean? Dig deep into the implications, so that you can build up a consistent picture based on your choices.

Background image: Garrette/Flickr (CC-by)

Background image: Garrette/Flickr (CC-by)

The Consequences of Physique

Sometimes the starting idea is about the type of creature you are creating. Maybe you would start with something like, “What if my aliens were giant lizards?” So you make them giant lizards. Now, you can, of course, have your giant lizards wander around talking and acting like humans. But wouldn’t it be more interesting if they acted like lizards instead of humans in lizard suits? Are they cold-blooded like Earth lizards? Then pay close attention to how they react to temperatures. Have them slow down when it gets cold. Or sleep when it gets hot.

If your reptiles have the ability to climb walls and stick to ceilings the way geckos do, then they should think like wall climbers, not ground walkers. Walls and floors and ceilings would be accessible. What does that sort of freedom do to the mind? Maybe they lay eggs in nests and leave the eggs to hatch, so that their children are born needing to fend for themselves. What would that lack of parental involvement mean for a lizard society? There wouldn’t be a close bond between children and parents. In fact, children may not even know their parents in such a case. So there would need to be some mechanism by which children become functioning members of a lizard society that is different from the “raise your kids to be members of society” model.

Ask Yourself:

  • If I’m basing my alien on a real creature, what things affect that creature?
  • How does that sort of creature behave when it’s alone? When it’s in a group of its own kind? When it’s with other kinds of creatures?
  • What are the implications of the physical characteristics I’ve picked?
  • What types of environments will my alien do well in? In what ways will it do well?
  • What types of environments will limit my alien? In what way will it be limited?
  • What are the implications of how my alien race reproduces?
  • What does this method of reproduction imply about my alien society?
  • What does it imply for my alien characters?

The Consequences of Environment

Sometimes you start with the type of world you are building. Consider the uniqueness of that world. Use that to explore what it means for your societies, and how it would affect the mindset of your alien characters. What if your aliens lived in gravity-free space? There would be no concept of down. Or friction. They would think in terms of propelling, action, and reaction. This sort of thinking should be implicit in your character’s words and thoughts. The word “walk” for instance, would be relatively meaningless to a gravity-free society. If your aliens live and breathe underwater, they will not have any native concept of fire. Their idea of day and night will be governed by the light patterns through the water—they may not, if they live deep enough under water, have any concept of a sun, or sky. So they wouldn’t be talking or thinking about these things as a matter of course.

Also think about the natural hazards your aliens would normally worry about, and the implications of these hazards. If predators are common, your aliens might prefer to travel in groups, or with some kind of weapon. If the terrain is difficult to navigate, your alien society might preferentially honor the members who are more agile. Think about ways your aliens might have evolved to cope with these hazards, and build that into the alien behavior.

Ask yourself:

  • What normal things around you would you think about or talk about that your aliens just wouldn’t know anything about?
  • What things around your aliens would they think about or know about that humans wouldn’t?
  • What things in the environment are important to your alien society?
  • What are the implications of the physical terrain for individuals? What are the implications of the physical terrain for society?
  • What sorts of plants and animals are on your world? How do individuals deal with these plants and animals? What deeper implications might there be for the alien society?
  • Is food and water plentiful? If not, how do your aliens deal with that?

Think about the words your aliens might use to describe their environment. What might be missing from their language? Would they need words we don’t use?

The Consequences of Cultural Norms

Sometimes you start off with a neat cultural idea. When you go this route, take the time to really explore the cultural nucleus. Try not to impose your own culture on it, however. Let’s say you think, “Hey, how about a planet ruled by women instead of men?” Think about what this would really be like. Don’t just flip each “he” to a “she” and each “she” to a “he” and make it about male-like women oppressing female-like men. (Yes, I’m thinking of something specific here. For a prime example of what not to do, I point to you the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Angel One.”) Instead, take a look at examples of matrilineal cultures, or animal cultures where the female dominates (like bonobos) and use those instead. Or come up with a society that you think the women around you might build.

Or let’s say you have a society where your alien could only have one child, ever. What would that restriction mean in terms of how members of that society treat their children? You could end up with a society where children are never allowed to do anything, and are kept in a total bubble until adulthood. Or one where no one has children early, but wait until they are able to ensure its safety and comfort. Every child might be the most important thing in an adult’s life, every child’s death a devastation to the gene pool.

By exploring any cultural norms you want to impose to the absolute limit, you can build a very rich alien society that goes deeper than a human in alien clothing society would.

Ask Yourself:

  • What effect does this cultural norm have on an individual? What does it imply about day-to-day living?
  • What effect does this cultural norm have on society as a whole?
  • Are there hidden ways in which I am imposing my own cultural norms, even if they don’t really apply to this society?
  • Am I basing this culture on a similar culture that already exists?
  • What is the same about that culture and mine?
  • What is different? How would those differences change what is going on?
  • Is my culture self-consistent?
  • Do I have conflicting norms? If my norms conflict, do they do so intentionally? What kinds of choices would be facing members of my alien society because of these conflicts?
  • What sorts of assumptions am I making about my society?
  • Which of these assumptions am I making deliberately? Which am I making unconsciously?

Thing about connections. Think about consequences. Keep digging beneath the surface of your ideas. The more deeply you can explore the implications of your choices, the more unique and alien your characters and their world will be.


13-11

 

Absolute Blank 2014

It’s almost November, and that means it’s time to start thinking about—and scheduling—Absolute Blank articles for 2014.

We know our author interviews are always popular, and we also know a lot of authors follow us on Twitter and Facebook, so we’ve set up an interview request form. If you’re an author with at least one book published (or forthcoming in 2014) and you’d be interested in being interviewed, tell us about yourself and share why you’d make an awesome interview subject.

As always, if you’re interested in writing an article, here are the article guidelines.

And, if there’s a writing-related topic you’d like to see us cover in the coming year, let us know. Contact us at editors [at] toasted-cheese.com.

We look forward to hearing from you!