Do You Blindside Yourself With Your Writing? If Not, Why Not?

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“Surprise yourself.  If you can bring the story – or let it bring you – to a place that amazes you, then you can surprise your reader.” —– Chuck Palahniuk

Has your writing ever blindsided you? Have your characters ever caught you off guard by saying or doing something clever or revealing a bit of information that you yourself didn’t know? When re-reading a piece that you set aside to cool, have you ever wondered where the ideas, voices, and speculative elements came from and if you have any more of that inside you?

The answer is: Of course there’s more.

Writing is a journey of discovery, and one of the great pleasures of storytelling is that you discover the amazing things that dwell in your brain, things about yourself and your thought processes that you might not otherwise uncover. And besides self-expression, isn’t that the major point of writing?

So, how do you blindside yourself with your talent? You simply let go.

Get out of your own head and write on instinct. Park the perfectionist on the soft shoulder and write your ever-loving heart out. This is part and parcel of learning to be kind to yourself as you write. Your genius can’t flow steadily with someone backseat editing the entire trip. You can always swing back around and pick up the bugger when you’re ready to begin the rewrite.

And don’t begin your story fretting about how it’ll end. Your story is smarter than you give it credit for. When it’s done, you’ll see the pop-up timer.

It’s important to keep in mind whenever you pick up a pen or touch fingertips to keyboard that you’re doing it from a position on the shoulders of the literary giants who came before you, the ones who surprised you with their words, so every time you write, you should follow their lead and surprise yourself.

Sally Forth and be surprising yourself writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

PS. If you have roughly an hour to kill—-I know, it’s the internet and you’ve got memes to see and threads to troll—-you could do a lot worse than lending an ear to Ray Bradbury’s 2001 “Telling the Truth” keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea.

Not only does he counsel aspiring writers to spend their time writing lots of short stories—-even if they’re mostly bad, there’s gotta be a couple of good ones in the bunch—-but he also suggests to write with joy and for fun, and to let yourself be surprised by your writing and by life.

Sometimes Ya Just Gotta Write Badly in Order to Write Goodly

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“The first draft of anything is shit.” ― Ernest Hemingway

Story ideas are like Christmas come early. You just can’t wait to unwrap them to reveal the goodies they hold. They also have the distinction of being a brand-spanking-new toy to play with. Your interest and enthusiasm levels are high and you’re chomping at the bit to transcribe your brilliant newborn onto paper. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

Then, somewhere along the way—-usually in the middle of Act 2—-the bloom is off the rose and finishing the piece becomes an arduous, nigh impossible task because either your interest has changed or your inspiration got a flat tire and you don’t have a spare in the trunk. The first telltale sign of trouble is that very last sentence you wrote that just doesn’t seem to work, no matter how you tweak it.

My advice? Let it be bad.

Your goal at this stage should be to get through your first draft as quickly as possible. It’s like that saying, you can’t see the forest for the trees. Well, that sentence or paragraph that you’re stuck writing and re-writing is the tree and you still have plenty more trees to clear before worrying about how pretty and perfect your forest is.

So, write through to the end, then you can take a step back, see the real shape of your story, and go about the process of polishing it to perfection—-or as close to that as you’re able to manage. But in order to get to that place, you first have to give yourself permission to write badly.

You can start by promising yourself you won’t tell anyone just how eye-burningly awful the first draft was and we’ll all be none the wiser. You can keep a secret, can’t you?

Sally forth and be courageously bad writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

The Long Haul to Fifty Short Stories

“I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live. They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice.” ― Andre Dubus

I began writing when I was young.

Well, back then I drew pictures and wrote little stories beneath them in a prehistoric blog-like fashion. The first story I remember writing was about God. Couldn’t have been more than five years old at the time and I’m sure it wasn’t much of a story. The only reason I remember it is because I was punished for it. Not the story so much as the crayon drawing of God accompanying it. Just a bearded man sitting on a chair in the clouds. To this day I have no idea why it sparked so much anger.

In school, I devoured comic books and my storytelling reflected this as I scribbled comic panels in my composition notebooks and sometimes my textbooks if I ran out of paper. I only shifted gears to prose after Frank Herbert absolutely blew my mind with the first book in his Dune series that I read in the sixth grade to impress a girl named Jeanette Baker.

It was her favorite book.

Ultimately, she wasn’t all that impressed by either me or my ability to read feudal interstellar societal science fiction, but Paul Atreides, The Bene Gesserit, The Fremen, and The Spice Melange left a lasting impression on me.

Unavoidable circumstances after college pulled me away from writing for longer that I’m happy to admit, but today marks the completion of my fiftieth short story since I was lured back into writing after reading a copy of Harlan Ellison’s short story collection, Strange Wine, in a public library tucked away in Portsmouth Virginia.

Another mind altering experience, as Harlan introduced me to the world of speculative fiction.

This milestone doesn’t include my detours into graphic novel self-publishing or article, and short/feature length screenwriting. Nor does it include the many and various unfinished stories that inhabit my Story Box Full of Regret. A handful were sold to a number of low level zines during the halcyon days of snail mail querying and submissions and only thirteen have been forever filed away in the fad drawer due to outdated themes.

Of the remaining thirty-seven stories, only six are so cringe-inducingly bad that I refuse to revise them. They serve as a reminder of just how awful my writing can be when I’m off my game and a yardstick as to how far I’ve come since my far-too-late-in-life return to the medium (no advice please, I’ve already written two posts on the subject and I’m well aware of the ages of the older first published authors).

The twenty on the rung above are all inspired by actual events, ripped from the pages of my journal—-when I used to keep a journal—-and fictionalized into speculative and science fiction, horror and modern day twisted fairy tale pieces. This was when I followed that old chestnut piece of writing advice, Write what you know. These stories know the terrain well enough since they’ve been around the block a time or two. All they need is a bit of a touch up, light revision at the most, before they make their rounds again. I’m confident they’ll find a home somewhere,

The final eleven are hatchlings, newbie stories that are a tad more introspective and feature solid speculative elements. I’m a proud Papa so I must admit that these tales are my best, though if I had my druthers I would have planted their roots more firmly in the soil of either horror or science fiction instead of having them languish somewhere in the bleed of the two genres.

Of these, four are out for approval which leaves seven that I’m in the midst of revising before they join their brothers and sisters in the cold cruel world. The aim, naturally is to send them all out so that can quit bugging me about wanting to be read. They can be so annoying that way.

Thanks for humoring me as I wool-gathered.

Sally forth and be writeful.

©2013 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

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Drop From the Sky to Rescue You

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“I’d run my whole life long to reach you; paddle my way across Atlantic and Pacific; traverse Jungle and Desert to find you; climb cliffs and drop from the sky to rescue you. Anything to be close to you. Any way to say I love you.” ― Heather Kris Thomas, A Place for You and Me

I was sitting around today, lamenting the upcoming series finale of Breaking Bad, while admiring the writing staff’s brilliant ability to jam the show’s characters up in impossible situations and finding creative ways to extricate them from no-way-out scenarios. Which, of course, got me thinking about The Art of the Rescue.

Don’t worry, this post is gonna be a light one. No how-to instructions—-although there is a list, I’m a writer, it’s in my blood, sue me—-or tips and tricks. Just a brief look at a few of the more common variety rescue archetypes:

Damsel/Dude in Distress

The person in distress is essentially a beloved character who has been rendered helpless and placed in danger in order to distract or delay the protagonist, leaving the villain to get on with their nefarious scheme.

Save the Girl/Guy

Different from the example above, here the person in danger is the love interest of the protagonist and when it comes time for the hero to make the sadistic choice of whether to save the life of the one she/he loves over anybody (companions, friends, family) or anything (a city, the world, the universe) else, there’s a moment of hesitation.

The trick is to have your main character struggle with the choice for the right length of time. Too short and your protagonist can come across as cold-hearted. Too long and they wallow in a pool of wishy-washiness.

A possible workaround would be for your hero to come up with a third option where both rescues can be achieved, and if you can pull this off properly, your main character wins the coveted medal for the clever badassdom.

The Dive Rescue

You’ve seen this time and time again.

A young child chases their runaway ball or some poor, unsuspecting sod wanders out into the street and lands smack dab in the path of a speeding semi-truck—whose horn works but the brakes don’t— and a character rushes out to snatch the child from impending doom, or dive-shoves the person out of harm’s way.

The variant of this is a character on the sidelines who dives into the path of a bullet or knife or other projectile weapon. This character tends to yell, “No!”, often in slow motion and lives long enough to confess their true feelings for the protagonist or to offer the one crucial piece of advice needed for the hero to complete their task.

If You Go, We All Go

Hand in hand—no pun intended—with the dive save, this rescue occurs when someone falls off a roof or a cliff to their most certain death… but, just before they slip out of reach, another character dives and catches them by the wrist. Then, as they both start slipping over the edge, another person catches the last person’s wrist, and so on and so on…

One Last Thing Before I Die

One of the protagonist’s friends or allies is presumably killed in the midst of a struggle and now the hero is on the ropes and is about to meet their end… when, just in the nick of time, the but-I-thought-you-were-dead-friend/ally intervenes and saves the main character’s life, giving them the Heroic Resolve to keep fighting. This risen from the dead character actually survives about fifty percent of the time.

The Big Guns Arrive

When a character—who can also be the protagonist in this scenario—is staring certain death in the face, and resigns themselves to it, because they know nothing can save him/her now…

BOOM! The door kicks in and standing in the doorway is the cavalry, ready to chew bubblegum and kick some ass! And they’re all out of… you get the drift.

Typically a ragtag bunch of minor characters whom the protagonist has saved in the past have banded together to mount a rescue. The great thing about these guys is that they don’t always succeed in stomping a new mudhole in the baddie’s keister. Their primary function is to free the protagonist and let her/him do all the heavy lifting.

One final thought before i let you go, the thing you need to be mindful of when penning your last minute rescue is avoiding the dreaded pit of Deus ex Machina:

Latin for god out of the machine, the term stems from ancient Greek theater and refers to scenes in which a crane (machine) was used to lower actors or statues playing a god or gods (deus) onto the stage to set things right, often near the end of the play.

Modern day Deus Ex Machina occurs when some new event, character, ability, or object solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in a sudden, unexpected way. Classic examples include:

  • In Homer’s The Odyssey, after Odysseus and Telemachus slaughter the suitors, the families of the suitors show up at the farm of Laertes seeking vengeance. As a battle is about to begin, Athena appears in the last few lines of the poem and tells both parties to stop, to which they comply.
  • In William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, just as the protagonist Ralph is about to be killed by the band of “hunters” at the end of the story, a ship appears from nowhere onto the island, drawn by the smoke produced by the wildfire on the island. One of the ship’s officers rescues Ralph. He and the rest of the boys are then taken from the island.
  • In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with Jim apprehended in the heart of the South and Huck unable to rescue him, Tom Sawyer reenters the story, having come hundreds of miles downriver to visit a relative. Huck’s reunion with Tom gives him the opportunity to free Jim and allows a channel for the resolution of all dangling storylines that the book had left behind in St. Petersburg, Missouri.
  • In Molière’s The School for Wives, Agnès is suddenly found out to have been betrothed all along to another man, which spares her from having to marry Arnolphe.
  • In Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, scientists race to find a way to contain an extremely dangerous extraterrestrial virus. In the end, they fail and the virus escapes into the atmosphere, but conveniently for mankind the virus mutates into a completely harmless form.

Sometimes it’s unavoidable. You will inevitably come to a place in one of your many and various stories where you’ve painted yourself into a corner with no other way out. If this should happen and you decide to coax god out of the machine, make sure your surprise solution not only moves the story forward but also causes minimal damage to the overall tone and ambiance of your piece.

Sally forth and be rescuingly writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

A Poignant Story, Simply Told

In my daily ‘net wanderings I tripped and fell over the above ad from Thailand for a mobile phone company—which really doesn’t factor into the story at all—that serves as a prime example of simple story telling.

All the elements of dramatic structure are present. But instead of creating a long-winded post that most wouldn’t read, I’ve decided to take my own advice and keep it simple. Though not a poet, I wrote my thoughts on the subject in verse:

I have banged on ad nauseum in some previous post
About the best stories told are where less is the most
Abandon complex words you once deem so refined
As it tends to leave more than a few readers behind
Complication wasn’t missed or mourned when it died
As people pursued minimalism, a life more simplified
Leave the clutter behind and your work unpolluted
And remember the old adage:

I said I wasn’t a poet, now you see that it’s true, not only does mama know it, but my daddy do, too.

Sally forth and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Rise of the Fallen 722nd

Usually, I don’t actively participate in writing prompts. Not that I have a snobbish attitude towards them, anything that gets the creative juices flowing and entices you to write is okay in my book, I’ve simply never encountered a suggested prompt sentence, paragraph or picture that inspired me. Until I stumbled upon the Noriyoshi Orai gem shown above.

Blindsided by an idea, I began scribbling notes of a futuristic war set in the past with the intention of re-imaging it as a zugzwang story using a fairy tale twist. Why a fairy tale? Because the old ones are replete with heavy messages, drenched in misfortunes of the world, and yet faith, perseverance, and sometimes sheer luck, can turn the tide in overcoming life’s trials. I wanted to present it as an old story, told in archaic language, laced with a subtle message still relevant to the modern world.

If you ever want to hear your muse laugh, tell her your lofty goals for a story before you’ve written it.

“Rise of the Fallen 722nd” began life as a story examining patriotism, loyalty, and the enduring human spirit in the face of the ultimate no-win scenario. The outline wasn’t difficult to put on paper. The story itself? That’s a different matter altogether. It went through the draft mill four times, each revision drastically different from the one before. Only one patch of dialogue survived from the original piece.

Futuristic war? Check. Set in the past? Check. Zugzwang? Double check. Fairy tale twist? Not so much. The fairy tale elements weakened the integrity of the overall structure and sadly had to be put down like Old Yeller. Still, it was fun to write.

It just left home today to knock on editor doors in search of its new home, so fingers crossed.

Sally forth and be writeful.

©2013 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Creative Commons License

Swing Away, Merrill… Even If Every Editor Rejects Your Best Work

“Perseverance is the hard work you do after you get tired of doing the hard work you already did.” —– Newt Gingrich

Just yesterday I was chatting with a fellow writer who was in dire need of some commiseration. She had slaved over a story for nearly two years, rewriting draft after draft following feedback from writer friends, and polishing and refining it until she was not only happy with it but considered it her best work to date. And she wasn’t wrong. It’s a pretty damn solid story.

When it was old enough, she released the story from the nest and let it fly to her targeted list of the publishing houses a story of this type was properly suited for. It wasn’t her first time at the rodeo, so she knew precisely what she was doing.

Skip ahead past the anxiety filled months of the story crossing the desks of slush readers and editors to the point of contact, only to discover that her baby, the bestest story she’d ever produced, had been rejected by everyone on her list. Majors and minors alike. Which, of course, raised the question:

What does a writer do when they’ve put their all into a story and no one wants it?

The answer is obvious, and I’m sure you’re already thinking it before you’ve read it here:

You put your bestest, unwanted story away for later use, and you start writing again. Instead of moping and getting down on yourself and allowing them pesky writing demons to take up valuable real estate in your head, start your next project. And it doesn’t have to be some laboriously over-complicated piece. If you’ve got something easy-breezy on the back burner, something you can bang out relatively quickly, why not give it a go? A sort of cleansing of the palate before your next magnum opus–and there will be another magnum opus, trust me on this.

My old man was a fountain of homespun wisdom and one of his favorites was, “nothing beats failure like a try.” And he was right. Perseverance trumps rejection. That’s the advice I gave my friend and that’s the advice I’m giving you. Since she’s a diehard Mets fan—-a trait she shares with my mother—-I tried delivering it with my best baseball analogy:

When you submit your work, you’re like a hitter crowding the plate in order to have a better swing at pitches on the outside half of the plate. Rejection slips are the brushback pitches, fastballs coming at you high and inside, designed to intimidate and force you away from the plate. If they make you quit the game, you didn’t really come to the stadium to play ball. And sometimes opportunity also comes at you high and tight, so, swing away, Merrill. Merrill, swing away.

Of course she laughed at this because she knows I don’t know squat about baseball and my analogy stunk, but it lifted her spirit so despite looking like an idiot, job well done, I’d say.

Well, it’s half past wrap up time, but you know me, as long as there are famous authors to quote, I never travel alone. They’ll take the mic in a second and talk to you a bit about rejection—sans the baseball references, i promise. Until next time…

Sally forth and be writeful.

— Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.” — Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“Was I bitter? Absolutely. Hurt? You bet your sweet ass I was hurt. Who doesn’t feel a part of their heart break at rejection. You ask yourself every question you can think of, what, why, how come, and then your sadness turns to anger. That’s my favorite part. It drives me, feeds me, and makes one hell of a story.” — Jennifer Salaiz

“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” — Henri J.M. Nouwen

“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” — Sylvia Plath

“You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” — Ray Bradbury

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Taking It On The Chin: The Graceful Art Of Accepting Rejection
Wanna Succeed as a Writer? Buddy Up to Failure, it’s the Best Friendship You’ll Ever Make
Fending Off Them Pesky Writing Demons