I am the Hero

It’s been a challenging year here at wendyvogelbooks.com.  I’ve been a cancer survivor since 2011, and last summer it decided to drop by for a visit.  It ate my left hip, which has been replaced by the T-800 (with built-in rocket launcher and smoothie machine), and has proceeded to enjoy my liver, bits of lung, and the top of my skull. This is not a nice cancer, and has already outstayed its welcome.

There’s a quote from the podcast Welcome to Nightvale which I have printed on a T-shirt.  It says, “Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you.”  It’s always been quirkily cute, a little a-ha moment of pondering if you’re the hero of a story, or just a side character in someone else’s tale.  The truth is, of course, that we’re all both.

But suddenly the quote hit home for me.  I wasn’t the hero after all.  I’m going to die a lot sooner than I expected, and it’s not going to be pretty.  Someone will learn something from, or be moved by my death to do some wondrous thing, forever relegating my life to the trope of: “inspiration for someone else’s heroic deeds.”

And then I thought about it some more.

I used to be a marathon runner.  Last May I ran a half-marathon, and a couple of obstacle course runs over last summer.  In August my hip broke out from under me, and the world crumbled into pieces.  Now all I do is doctor’s appointments.

But today I walked two miles without a cane.  I got out there onto my old running path and limped along.  I’ll pay for it tomorrow, and that’s okay.

The point is, I’m overcoming this.  Fighting through it.  And that got me thinking about how we write stories.

A hero’s story is never a smooth passage from one point to another. That’s a boring story which no one would ever want to read. As writers, our job is to make the hero’s life a misery.  We throw obstacle after obstacle into their path, each one getting more and more difficult until the final battle, which seems hopeless.  Surely this time the hero will fall.  There’s no way to triumph over such a powerful antagonist, the boss monster that eats lesser heroes for brunch.

But that’s what I’m doing.

The obstacles in front of me have grown.  Beating cancer the first time was pretty easy.  It ran and hid, licking its wounds to the point that the reader forgot it was ever there.  Reconstructive surgeries piled up, but I plowed through.  I ran more. Biked more. Wrote books.  Got published. Got popular.  Signed contracts and gave lectures and mentored in both of my professional fields. And now the cancer’s back, stronger than ever.

And I’m beating it.

The fight is slow.  There won’t be a climactic final battle to leave the readers cheering over a decisive victory for the good guys.  But today I walked two miles without a cane.  After spending all of last fall on a walker, I’ve gone from needing my husband to lift my legs into bed to walking two miles without assistance.

The obstacles in front of me have gotten bigger, because a hero’s journey is one of ever-increasing peril.

I’m not a side character in someone else’s story.

I’m fighting the boss monster.

Because I’m the hero, and that’s what heroes do.

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Today’s featured interview author is William Thatch, whose story “Barely A Story” is included in the anthology “A Flash of Words.”

If you had to do one thing differently with your story, what would it be?
Well, Johnny–may I call you Johnny? Great! I don’t think I’d do anything differently. It came out as I wanted. Maybe I would make sure it was exactly 1500 words like the first draft was.

What was the inspiration for your story?
“Maybe It’s Because” by Trevor Moore. It is the first story I’ve written that, from the word ‘go,’ I meant for it to be an interpretation of the song. I always loved the twist.

Was there a time when writing where you had to sit back stunned at what just happened? If so, what was it?
The whole thing, really, Johnny. I wrote the entire thing in two sittings, and, aside from one joke that got cut, it is exactly as I wrote it in the first draft. Sometimes things just click the first time when you’re as good as I am.

What do you think is the key to writing a compelling flash story?
It’s difficult to say. This is the only flash fiction story I’ve ever written. For me, it was diving into the scene as soon as possible, but not leaving it too isolated and in a vacuum. There has to be context, but you can’t get too pinned down trying to get the whole context across.

Do you write every day?
I don’t. I should. I want to, but Johnny, it’s just so hard. There are a lot of things to be done in a day, and some days it’s not a day to write. Sometimes, it’s just a day to daydream and write down whatever you bring in from the aether.

Does your sexual orientation play a role in the development of your character?
What? No. Johnny, no. Basil is a bear. How does my sexuality play a role in Basil’s development? You’re just being weird, Johnny. I’m seriously considering walking away from this interview if you get weird again.

Was this the first time you wrote a flash fiction story?
I already answered this, Johnny! Jesus, are you not even listening to me? Put your phone down, that is completely unprofessional!

What was your favorite story in the book besides your own?
Why are you trying to make this interview about someone else, Johnny? I’m the one here. I haven’t even had a chance to read the other stories, I’m none-too-thrilled about your conduct here, mister. Make this about me, the greatest writer in the history of ever, or we are done, Johnny, done!

Apart from writing, what do you do for fun?
I watch an inordinate amount of pornography. Just, like, an unhealthy amount. Priests come by once a week to bless the property. And I find it really rude you ask, Johnny. That dirty laundry shouldn’t be aired publicly but look what you made me do!

Which author(s) influenced your writing the most?
Probably J.K. Rowling, but again, you’re making it about other people. What’s your game, Johnny?

Can you relate to any of the characters in your flash fiction story?
Oh, definitely Basil. I’m always breaking into people’s house looking for honey, and then eating people’s heads. It’s the best way to spend a Saturday, I feel. A little sweet honey and then a little sweet blood of the innocent.

What is your writing space like?
A big corner desk that is organized chaos. Cluttered, but in a way that I understand it. I have a two-monitor set-up for my computer so that I can write on one screen and watch all of the porn on the other. Like all the greats. I’m, like, 93% sure that’s how Rowling wrote all of Harry Potter.

Did your story turn out the way you planned, or were there some surprises along the way?
The only surprise was that I was pleased with it, given that it was my first flash fiction. I was expecting to go over the word count. So, the only true surprise, Johnny, was just how amazing I was on the first try. I’m pretty great.

How long did it take to write your story?
A couple of hours over a couple of days. The story came quick. I hear you have that problem, Johnny. Hey-o!

Do you think writing flash fiction is a challenge with the word restriction?
I was expecting it to be, and I still expect it to be. I might have just gotten lucky with this one.

If you were on death row, what would you want your last meal to be?
The blood of my executioner. If the executioner is dead from exsanguination, then he can’t execute me. It’s an ingenious ploy to avoid ever being executed. You see, Johnny, you gotta think. If you don’t think, that executioner will get you.

What is a quote that you find inspirational/motivates you to write?
“I’m the greatest ever.” You know who said that, Johnny? Me. I said that. That’s why I’m saying it. So, I can quote me. It’s my interview, Johnny, stop making it about someone else. It’s really a dick move on your part, and I’m tired of your shit. I’m leaving this interview, and you have no one to blame but yourself!

Pick up a copy of “A Flash of Words” in paperback or eBook at any book retailer worldwide, including Amazon. If purchased directly from Scout Media, you will receive a FREE companion soundtrack CD!!

scoutmediabooksmusic.com

The next AFOW author interview!

Today, my featured author is Lozzi Counsell whose story “The Consequences of Grief” is included in the anthology A Flash of Words. Enjoy her interview, and check out the anthology!

What was the inspiration for your story?
When I was studying creative writing at uni, a fellow author (can’t remember who unfortunately) came to give a talk. We practised an exercise where we shut our eyes and Imagined ourselves led down. Where are you led? What’s the weather like? Take notice of your surroundings. I imagined myself in a dark field at night.

After taking notice of your surroundings (eyes still shut), turn your head to the left, there is a shadow approaching. Wait for it to get closer. What or whom is it? When they reach you, what do they want? I imagined my cat who had died years back approaching me.

From this I came up with an idea about going to a field to visit my dead cat every night because I couldn’t let her go. The cat soon became a child and ended up as the basis behind my story.

Was there a time when writing where you had to sit back stunned at what just happened? If so, what was it?
The ending. It wasn’t what I was originally going to go with, but I thought it would give the most emotional impact.

What do you think is the key to writing a compelling flash story?
For me it would be not too many characters. I sometimes get a bit lost when someone has a lot of characters, but especially in flash fiction there’s just not enough time to learn who each and every character is if there’s too many of them.

Apart from writing, what do you do for fun?
I’m very crafty and am always making things. Painting is an especially big hobby of mine — mostly watercolour animals.

Can you relate to any of the characters in your flash fiction story?
Yes, I really relate to the MC. I am not a parent myself, but I still know what it’s like to grieve.

If you were on death row, what would you want your last meal to be?
Easy. A chicken chaat from my local Indian restaurant as a starter. Afterwards, an Oreo crunch waffle from Kaspa’s and also Kinder Bueno cookie dough. For drinks, a Coke Zero, Oreo milkshake and Snickers milkshake.

 

 

 

A Flash of Words interviews are here!

Hi, gang!

It’s that time again.  I have a story in a cool anthology called A Flash of Words, available now from Scout Media. In the coming weeks I’ll be featuring interviews with the authors of some of the stories, so stay tuned for the stories behind the stories, and check out the anthology for a whole lot of quick fiction.

Today, I am featuring author Dawn Taylor , whose story “For the Want of a Name” is included in the anthology A Flash of Words, alongside my own brand-new story, “Special Delivery.”

1. What was the inspiration for your story?
My friend shared his childhood memory of coveting a radio, but being too poor to buy it. As he told me the story, I imagined him as a young boy going into the store to look at the radio and wishing he could buy it. I originally wrote the story as a birthday gift to him, but when my editor told me it was such a powerful story told in few words, I submitted it for publication.

2. What do you think is the key to writing a compelling flash story?
My best advice is to convey one scene or emotion. Your word limit doesn’t allow you to offer much more.

3.How long did it take you to write your story?
About one hour, I already had the inspiration.

4.. Do I write everyday?
No. Do I think about writing everyday? Yes.

Pick up a copy of “A Flash of Words” in paperback or eBook at any book retailer worldwide, including Amazon. If purchased directly from Scout Media, you will recieve a FREE companion soundtrack CD!! #ScoutMedia #AFOW
http://www.scoutmediabooksmusic.com/a-flash-of-words

It’s almost here…

The final book of the Horizon Alpha trilogy releases this fall. Just a bit more polish, and we’ll return to Tau Ceti e one last time.

The stakes are higher.

The ‘saurs are hungrier.

And if we can’t get a shuttle back to the mother ship, everyone’s going to die.

Homecoming Release promo (1)

 

Why Writers Suck at Writing Their Own Jacket Copy

Writing the actual book is the fun part. It all goes downhill from there.

I’m often reminded of this when I peruse the feeds of all the online writing groups I belong to. Writer after writer posts their query letter or back jacket copy for critique, and it becomes obvious that for some reason the person who cobbled together eighty thousand words of a novel is exactly the wrong person to write the teaser paragraphs that are intended to hook an agent or publisher, or a reader in a bookstore.

We’re just terrible at it. I include myself in this without embarrassment.

I saw an example of it this week. A writer in an online group posted his potential jacket copy for the group’s help. It was a great character study that told us a lot about the main character, but basically nothing about the plot of the book. We had no idea what struggles she might be facing or what stakes would befall her if she failed in whatever she was trying to accomplish. In short, we got a great look at what makes the character special, but no clue at all what makes the STORY special.

So that’s what pretty much everybody told him. And he took it to heart.

Today he posted another version.  This one is an exhaustive look at the plot, event by event. I’m sure some of those events are super-interesting, but now it’s way too much. It’s just a plot synopsis, and if you are a writer, you’ll know that “synopsis” is the single most horrible word in the English language.

This got me thinking about why we’re all so bad at writing jacket copy for our own books, and often so good at writing it for someone else’s. I think it’s because we’re way too close to our stories.

If you ask a writer what’s great about their book, they’ll likely tell you, “Everything.”  We think every word, every plot point, every character and motivation are absolutely perfect. Otherwise we’d never let it get published.  But this is a huge problem when you’re trying to distill your book into two or three paragraphs for a query letter or ad copy.

If I ask you why your child is great, chances are you could give me an hour-long laundry list of all the things you love about your kid.  But what if I ask you what your kid does better than almost any other kid? You’ll think for a moment and come up with something like, “She’s on an all-star soccer team, and last week she gave half her lunch to a kid in her class that forgot his lunch money.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Instead of “All-around greatest kid ever,” we have, “athletic and compassionate.”  We’re drilling down to the “specialness” of this kid.

This is what we have to do with our books.

Jacket copy should be a burlesque show, not a hardcore XXX money-shot-to-the-face adult film. It needs to show us just enough to make us scream for more, but not so much that we already know the whole plot. We should be left wondering, “What’s under that feather?” and not, “How’s she going to get that stain out?”

I’m convinced that most of the time, someone else is better at finding those feather-covered bits than the author of the book in question. We either want to give you the hardcore-everything-right-now version, or we leave things so vague that you aren’t sure if you’re going to see a burlesque show or an actual Canadian Goose.

I always have someone else help me with jacket copy, and I  enjoy helping other writers work on their own. Finding the balance of “just enough feathers” is a tricky walk, but the end result should be an audience that can’t wait to hit “Buy Now” and see what all that shimmy is about.

It’s All In Your Head

I love the Olympics.

For two years at a time, I could not care less about sports. I don’t watch sports on TV, I don’t go to sporting events, and when I’m running, I’m always listening to an audiobook, so it doesn’t count as exercise so much as story time.  But that all changes when I hear that Olympic anthem.

I’ll watch anything. Doesn’t matter what sport it is. Summer or Winter Games, whether the USA is in medal contention or not…if it’s on TV, I’ll watch it.  And I can’t help but notice how little the difference is between taking home a medal and going home empty-handed.

The athletes at the Games are all at the top of their performance.  All the skaters can do a triple axel, and all the bobsledders can hop in and steer.  The skeleton sliders all know how to sign their wills before they jump on that ridiculous sled going headfirst at 80 miles an hour down a sheet of solid ice.

In bobsled this year, the difference between the gold medal finish and the guy in 20th place was 2.5 seconds.  In skeleton, it was less than a second.  Between the gold and silver medal women’s figure skaters was 1.31 point, out of over 200 points scored.

The difference between winning and losing is all mental at that level.  Every athlete is capable of performing to within a tiny fraction of the expertise of their competitors.   What makes a winner is their ability to control their minds.

You can see it in the warmups. They’re nervous, excited, trying to focus on what they have to do to get that medal.  Some of the skiers and snowboarders who’ve been to the Games multiple times are able to relax and concentrate, while others who are newer get completely psyched out.  They make mistakes they would never make at home where the only danger is… the potential for broken bones, paralysis, brain damage, and death.  But not medals. When that gold is on the line, it eats at their minds, and you can see it in their faces before their runs.

Of course I’m going to relate this to writing, because when you’re a writer, everything relates to writing.

Once a writer reaches a certain level of skill (which we call “Craft”, and it’s thing like grammar and punctuation, but also sentence structure, plot development, character arcs and all the things you shouldn’t notice when you read a good book because they feel so natural), we’re all on a fairly level playing field. There are standouts, as in every career, but the vast majority of us are at a similar plane of competence.  We can all write a good story.

That’s where the mental part comes in.  I’ve seen it so many times.  The really talented writers who can’t get out of their own way enough to actually finish a novel.  The ones who finish, but get mired in the process of finding an agent or publisher and never follow through.  Some of those will give up and self-publish something that isn’t ready, and the poor reviews or lack of sales will destroy them.  Others will just give up and quit writing.

It becomes a mental game, and there’s no gold medal at the end. Finishing the race of completing a novel leads to the new race of editing and revision. Finishing that race leads to the soul-crushing exercise of trying to get an agent to represent you.  Finishing that process leads to more revisions and edits, and on to the soul-crushing exercise of submitting the manuscript to publishers.  And if you’re lucky enough to cross that particular finish line, now you get to begin the lifelong process of promoting your book so it doesn’t languish at the bottom of the sales charts where no one will ever read it.

I know writers who are turning out stuff that’s better than most of what’s published by the Big 5.  You’ll never read their work, though, because they get stuck on one of those early races and can’t get past it.  I know of plenty who aren’t so skilled at the craft, but excel at the mental game, and are out there making a living by never giving up.

As in bobsledding, alpine skiing, or figure skating, the difference between the winners and the also-rans of writing is often measured in tiny percentiles.  When I watch the Olympic athletes compete, I’m only seeing the finished product…their published novel of work.  I’m not seeing the years of sacrifice it took them to get to the starting line.  I only see what they can do today, when the pressure is on.  When you read a novel, you’re only seeing the gold medal race, and not the years of work and practice it took to produce it.

The Games are coming to a close now, and I won’t likely watch a lot of sports again until the next time a torch is lit. But I’m working on my own mental game, practicing my literary triple axel and my headfirst slide down the ice track.  When you read a novel with my name on it, I hope you can hear my anthem playing, and see that gold medal hung around my neck.  And now it’s back to the practice rink to get ready for the next Olympics.