What the things I repeat tell me about my focus

As a writer and someone who writes about writing (insert obligatory “dancing about architecture”-type comment here), there are two things that I tend to worry about more often than all the other things I worry about: repetition and focus.

This applies to my fiction writing as well as whatever half-baked principles and ideas about writing I may spout off. (Just kidding; all my ideas are fully baked.) Case in point: in one of my fiction workshops in graduate school, when my story was up for discussion, a friend of mine* started off by saying “this has the trifecta of a Jeffrey Ricker story: love, longing, and loss.” As the discussion went on, I missed a few things because I kept wondering, wait, is this story a retread? Am I just writing the same thing over and over?

It was a different story from all the others I’d submitted that year—different characters, plots, settings—but as I mentally scrolled through my pile of stories for that class, it was true. I was writing about people longing for other people, losing other people, and loving and unloving other people.

Love, longing, loss. Surely there’s more to the world than that, isn’t there? On the other hand, those three things count for a lot, don’t they?

When I sit down to write a blog entry or a letter to you about writing—about the things I think about when it comes to writing—at some point in the process I usually flip back through the last few entries/letters I’ve written to confirm that I’m not rewriting the same thing I sent a month or three months (or six months) earlier. And sometimes, while it’s not word for word the same letter I sent, the topics and the points are… well, familiar.

photo by Matthew Hamilton, Unsplash

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A story, “Multiverse,” at Phoebe Journal

I submitted “Multiverse” to Phoebe Journal, the litmag of George Mason University, for their fiction contest, and while it didn’t win, apparently the contest readers liked it enough that they named it their Reader’s Choice entry. Here’s the first bit:

You learn about the multiverse theory from your Facebook feed, when a story about it appears above a photo someone posts of your best friend from high school. It’s unexpected, that photo. He’s in his forties, like you, and he looks almost the same as back then…and yet, not. It takes a moment to pinpoint: His smile doesn’t reach his eyes. He used to smile with his whole body, his eyes most of all. Not now.

His sadness makes you wonder, and the multiverse theory makes you think about worlds in which you tried to kiss him….

Cover of Phoebe Journal 46.2

It’s not a long story at all. You can read the rest of it here. There’s more fabulous writing available there, too.

I’m not so much proud of this story as bemused by it, as it seemed to be one of those that emerged almost whole, unbidden, out of the ether. Mind you, I don’t really think writing works that way. A kernel of this idea has been in the back of my mind since—well, since high school, if you must know. It just needed the right spark to catch fire, and honestly, a friend’s Facebook post (back before I ditched my personal Facebook profile) provided the necessary catalyst.

I also need to thank my friend, fellow writer Ruth Daniell, for her valuable feedback on it before I sent it in. (Ruth is a fantastic writer, by the way; you should read anything she publishes.)

I hope you enjoy it.

Want to get published more? Embrace rejection—an update

rejected

Image by Judith E. Bell/Flickr

I got the nicest rejection letter recently.

No, I’m totally serious. I wanted to write them back and say thank you; thank you for rejecting my work!

Are they going to publish it? No. Did I win any sort of consolation prize (like, you know, money)? No. Is my name going to be on some list of notoriety as a result? Well, my name is probably on a list somewhere already, and not in the good way, but let’s not dwell on that.

So, you ask, what makes you so happy that they rejected your work? Well, this:

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A story: Scorned, from The Lavender Menace

Oh, this one was so much fun to write. I love writing bad guys as much as actors love playing villains, I think. I mean, admit it: Who do you think had more fun playing their character on Dynasty, Linda Evans or Joan Collins? Yeah, exactly.

The best part of this, though, was probably the editing process. Tom Cardamone really had great feedback that helped me improve the story and make it darker and “a little more Arkham,” as he put it. After I finished this, I considered revisiting the characters later, maybe a reunion of sorts between Marcus and the good doctor.

I’m still wondering who would come out on top in that confrontation….

(If you like the story, subscribe to my newsletter to read more like it.)

“Scorned” appeared in The Lavender Menace: Tales of Queer Villainy! published by Northwest Press. You can get a copy here. And check out the follow-up, Absolute Power: Tales of Queer Villainy!

“You’re new.”

Marcus Harris had never seen the woman standing in the visitor’s vestibule adjacent to his cell, but her white coat, worn over a charcoal business suit, blared “psychologist.” She wore glasses and kept her curly blonde hair shoulder length. Sitting in the plastic chair reserved for visitors (who never came), she crossed her legs and settled a clipboard over her knees. When she smiled at him, it was completely unconvincing.

“I’m Dr. Emily Wheeling,” she said. “The warden asked me to come see you this morning and ask you a few questions.”

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A cautionary social media tale

[TL;DR–social media delights in distracting you and wasting your time. Minutes/hours spent tweeting or posting are minutes/hours not spent writing. Is that how you want to be spending your time? Also, commenting on a trending hashtag brings out the crazies like you wouldn’t believe. Don’t feed them, whatever you do. Their appetite is bottomless.]

Hashtags on Twitter can be great, right? You can find a lot of information and links about a particular topic or event pretty quickly. Some of my favorites are #FridayReads, where people tell you about the books they’re reading as of (you guessed it) Friday. I also liked #SAS16 when I was at the Saints & SInners Literary Festival in New Orleans. And stumbling across #PitchWars got me some really useful feedback on a work in progress. (Thanks, Michael Mammay and Dan Kobold.)

So when I saw a hashtag that said #BoycottHawaii, I thought, “What’s that about?” and clicked on it.

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A story: “At the End of the Leash”

Cover of Fool for Love: New Gay FictionYou never forget your first, right? This story was the first one I ever published. It still holds a special place in my heart, but when I looked at it now, it struck me that I didn’t realize at the time how long it was. Over 8,000 words? Seems excessive to me now. I’m a more concise writer, I think.

This story originally appeared in the anthology Fool for Love: New Gay Fiction edited by R.D. Cochrane and Timothy J. Lambert and published by Cleis Press. A lot of the authors in here have become friends of mine, as have the editors.

This story may have established a pattern for a lot of my future stories, in that they too revolve around love and somehow manage to work dogs into the equation.

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Next week, a story

(TL/DR, sign up for my email newsletter and next week you’ll get a short story from me. I promise not to be spammy or sell your name, because people who do that have a special place in hell where they’re forced to be roommates with Ann Coulter and Kellyanne Conway. And Chris Christie lives next door. Ew, right?)

This week I officially rejoined the ranks of the full-time workforce. I won’t bore you with the details about that (and they really are boring), but it gives me an opportunity to talk about consistency, time management, changes to my weekly email (which haven’t been all that weekly of late), and the value we place (or don’t place, rather) on fiction.

I’m not the sort of writer who thinks “you have to write every day without fail and it has to be  X number of words or you’re a complete failure why do you even call yourself a writer just give it up already.”

Photo of an old fashioned typewriter by Sergey Zolkin.

Note, this is not my typewriter. Do I wish it was? You betcha.

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Having a lot of class (I hope)

In case you live in St. Louis, I wanted to tell you about some classes I’m teaching at St. Louis Community College’s Meramec campus this spring. This past fall, alas, was a bit of a bust given some unfortunate computer/web-related snafus that meant only one of my classes showed up in the college’s online calendar. Which meant not enough people signed up for any of them, which meant suddenly my Tuesday nights and weekends were free. Given all that, you’d think I would have gotten more writing done last fall, right?

Anyway! Here’s what I’ll be teaching this spring. You can also find them all on STLCC’s website (whew!):

Feb. 25: Social Media for Writers. (Hey, that’s Saturday! Yep, there’s still room in this one.) Oh, the irony, right? It’s not lost on me that the person with the love/hate relationship with Facebook (let’s face it, mostly hate) is teaching a class on setting up all the crap that makes a “platform.” No, I’m not fond of that term, either. So why is the guy who keeps taking social media sabbaticals and who junked his personal Facebook profile last year teaching this class?

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There’s always something you can do

I’ll be honest. I had a little freakout this week.

keep-calm-and-carry-onI don’t even know if anyone but me noticed it, since so much of my life happens within the confines of my skull. (For this fact, the test of the world should probably be happy.) Suffice it to say, on my lunch hour when I usually write, I spent too much time reading too much of the news, figured societal collapse was inevitable within the next six months, so what the hell was the point in anything anyway, especially stories?

You can imagine this is not a great mindset to encourage writing.

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On coffee, captains, and characters

I’m planning to teach a workshop this summer at the community college on creating characters, so that’s had me thinking: What makes our favorite characters our favorite characters? It’s never quite the same thing every time, is it?

If you follow me on any social media, it’ll be no surprise to you that I am a big fan of Captain Kathryn Janeway.

captain_janeway2

Total badass coffee achiever

For those not in the know, she’s the commanding officer of the U.S.S. Voyager on the TV series Star Trek: Voyager, which ran from the late ‘90s to 2001. If you follow along on Instagram, or Twitter, or (ugh) Facebook, you’ll notice I post a lot of gifs featuring her fairly regularly. (There’s a reason I tag them #DailyJaneway, after all.)

No, she’s not a literary character (unless you count the Star Trek novels in which her character appears, and I do recommend Jeri Taylor’s Mosaic when it comes to that), but what makes her so compelling? Yes, Kate Mulgrew, the actress who portrays her, is a big reason I love her character so much, but beyond that, what is it about her? Is it some combination of background and character traits? Is it her love for coffee? (OK, that might play into it.) Is it that she’s from the Midwest and I’ve spent most of my life there, against my better judgment? Is it that she’s a scientist at heart? Maybe it’s that she stands up to anyone, no matter how big a bully they are. She’ll do anything for her crew, and she’ll tread along a narrow, confusing path between expediency and principle in order to get them home. She’s flawed and imperfect and completely determined.

She’s not black and white. She’s fabulously complicated.

She has a problem, she needs a solution, and the space between those two points is huge and full of conflicts. She’s not as noble as Jean-Luc Picard, not as tragic as Ben Sisko, and not as cavalier as Jim Kirk. (We won’t talk about Archer. Sorry.) She’s not always likable, but I’d say she’s the most relatable person to sit in the captain’s chair in any version of Star Trek.

For me, at least. And that’s why I keep coming back to her. And why I keep thinking about the things that make her a great character to me, so that I can tap that kind of complication when I’m working on my own characters, even a gay high school teenager who’s the son of an Amazon.

(See? Even when I start off talking about Star Trek, it all comes back to the writing.)