Writing and Editing

My Eight Step Revision Process

This week I completed the first draft of my new novel (working title To Hemlock Run), the culmination of a bout nine months of daily effort. (Thank you, thank you). It currently stands at about 113,500 words and is basically a good effort, but still has some problems. I would imagine nearly all first drafts do. That’s why they’re called “first” drafts. They are nowhere close to being a finished novel.

Many more drafts will come before the novel is ready for publication.

So, several people (none of whom are writers) have asked when they will be able to read it. I tell them not for a while. The first draft is an important step in writing a novel, but only one step in the writing process. An important one, no doubt, because without it none of the other phases will be possible, but still just one step.

I thought I would devote this week’s post to all the steps I go through in the process of writing a novel. (I imagine the process would be similar were I to be writing a nonfiction book, or collection of stories or poetry).

Step one is to write the first or rough draft.

This is complete. Naturally, I try to write as accomplished a manuscript as I can, but I will not let an oversight stop my progress in the draft either. Some things I realize I mishandled on the first attempt, others I have decided looking back in hindsight, and I assume I will find a few issues I haven’t thought of yet. It is part of the process.

But the draft is finished, so I move on to step two.

Take a break.

I put the manuscript away, close the file and—regardless of how much I’m tempted—refuse to let myself look at it for at least a week. Two weeks is better, but I maintain a minimum of a week’s break between drafts.

Why? Because the creative mind needs a break to replenish the well. Just like anything else, constant stress will gradually result in lower and lower productivity. It’s why people like to take weekends off from their day job, and even a couple of weeks’ vacation. It’s a time to replenish the well. And for someone like myself, who tends to work every day when I’m in the middle of a project, it is important to take that break.

Taking as much time off also helps me return to the draft with a fresh eye. Often the biggest problem we authors face when we go to revise a work is that we see what we’re trying to say, not what we actually said. Staying away from the draft for as long as possible, helps keep your judgment objective.

Step Three: Revising the big things.

This is the step where I got through the work and attempt to fix the larger, structural problems. I look for plot holes, subplots that seem to go nowhere, and incomplete characterizations. In this stage, I also pay much greater attention to the structural markers, such as the three pinch points—plot point one, the mid-point, and plot point two—and make any adjustments necessary. I may add new scenes, or delete scenes, depending on what the story needs.

When I finish with revision the big things, I move to:

Another Break.

I close the file and keep it closed for another week or two, for exactly the same reason I did the first time, to recharge the well.

Step Four: Revising the little things (and any big ones left).

This time, as I go through the manuscript I’m looking for internal consistency, what I call the little things.

If I described a house as made of red brick in chapter one, then of yellow vinyl siding in chapter seventeen, I’ve got a problem. This goes for descriptions of scenery, locations and characters. The goal is logic and consistency. Sometimes, in the heat of writing something I simply forget what I said before and have to correct it. I might have the characters blocking the sun from their eyes as they talk in a certain location one morning, then, several hundred pages later, the plot calls for them to be in the same location at the same time, but in shade. Either the plot needs to change, or the description.

Another break.

For the same reasons and for the same amount of time.

Step Five: Characterizations.

In this run through the manuscript, I concentrate on making sure the characterizations are exactly as I want them to be. (Actually, they will never be exactly what I want, but I need to get as close as my abilities will allow). In To Hemlock Run, for instance, I already know that I’m unhappy with one major character’s depiction. I think she should be more badly effected by some of the events, perhaps even losing her temper a time or two. My gut tells me that, as it’s written now, it doesn’t ring true. She’s too even keeled.

Of course, I will fix any other large and small things I might find, but these will not be my primary focus.

When I’m finished with this step:

Yet another break.

Step Six: Re-writing.

In this step, all the basics of the plot, structure and characterization should be about as fixed as I’m going to get them, so now I concentrate on the actual words and sentences, the prose. I try to create the most beautiful, poetic, prose I can. I create and use similes and metaphors whenever possible. I do my best.

In this step I also try to correct any spelling and grammar issues my prose may have. (Which is usually a thing, because grammar is not my strongest suit, particularly some of the more obscure rules).

Then, again:


Step Seven: editing.

Step seven is where I turn to outside help. I have several beta readers, whose opinions I trust. Each of them gets to read the manuscript and offer any thoughts or suggestions they may have. When those are incorporated or not (just because someone doesn’t care for a certain part or aspect of the story doesn’t necessarily mean I will change it. It just means I will consider changing it). I will then send the manuscript off to a professional editor.


There is a break here, but primarily because I’m waiting for people to read it and get back to me. Until they do, there’s nothing I can do.

Step Eight: consolidating.

This is the final step. I take all the suggestions from my beta readers and my editor and go through the manuscript and decide individually whether each instance needs to be changed and, if so, how to change it. Sometimes there is a lot that needs to be redone. Sometimes there isn’t. (My goal is always to send her a manuscript with nothing for her to do. She says it’s impossible.)

Once these decisions have been made and the necessary changes made, the manuscript is as good as I can make it, at this time with my current skill set. It is ready to be shown to the public.

Simple math will show that this process takes about a minimum of six months, depending on how long each step takes. But that is just a guideline. Each step takes as long as it takes, as do the breaks.

So when will you be able to read To Hemlock Run? My guess would be at least six months from now. Until then, it isn’t worth reading.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Emotionally Driven Fiction

A couple of weekends ago, as many of you have figured out by now, I attended the South Coast Writers Conference. It is always an amazing experience because of the skills I pick up and because of the two full days spent with other writers. There’s something refreshing about that, especially when people in your personal life do not really understand what being a writer really involves.

It is energizing,

Perhaps the best workshop I attended was conducted by Eric Witchey. It was a truly eye-opening day because he laid out for us a (for me) revolutionary new way to look at our work, especially in the revision process. Since his exact method is proprietary and he does not want it published to the general public. I do and will respect that.

But I will discuss the concept underlying his method, because I think it is a new and effective way of looking at what we’re trying to do.

The concept is this: all good fiction, regardless of the genre it fits in, is driven by human emotion.

Notice that it qualifies itself. “All ‘good’ fiction…” Because there is fiction out there that for these purposes doesn’t qualify as “good.” Some is simply written poorly. But there are other examples which are technically written just find, but are completely disposable. They do not leave the reader to contemplate what was written. They do not inspire re-readings. While they may be a pleasant and even entertaining escape for the reader, as soon as the reader finishes them, they are completely forgotten.

If reading were partaking of a meal, rather than leaving you satisfied, in an hour or two you’re hungry again. Good fiction makes you feel like you really ate something. Like you would post it on Facebook.

Emotion drives good fiction. It is emotion that attracts the writer to the story. It is emotion that she tries to evoke with her choice of words and images. It is emotional sympathy that allows a reader to connect with a character.

Note that there are three sets of emotions here, the writer’s; the character’s; and the reader’s. In almost every case, these three sets are not all the same emotion. They can often be completely different emotions. What’s more, a skilled writer can use this fact to manipulate the reader and his emotions in ways that enhance the drama of the work.

Consider Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl. Ms. Flynn presents a husband whose wife has disappeared without a trace. He has done no harm to her, but the community and the police are suspicious. We the readers sympathize with the long-suffering innocent man who cannot prove his innocence. We are rooting for him. Then Ms. Flynn introduces us to his mistress. Suddenly, this man isn’t so sympathetic anymore.

She then has us reading the wife’s diary, which portrays a naïve young woman being abused and manipulated by a sociopathic husband. We now sympathize with the wife and fear the worst for her at the hands of her abusive husband. Then we find out that the diary is a lie, a total fiction created by the wife for the sole purpose of making her husband look bad.

Suddenly, we are rooting for the long-suffering husband again. Ms. Flynn is expertly manipulating our emotional sympathies until we don’t know who to trust. It is an exquisite ride.

We humans are emotional animals. It is emotion that we use to relate to each other through emotional sympathy and this truth is used in the best of fiction. This is true in both a macro analysis of the work as a whole and a micro analysis of each individual scene.

In the workshop, Mr. Witchey used the example of Disney’s Cinderella. Everybody is familiar with the story, correct? The evil step mother, the step sisters, the fairy godmother, and the glass slipper that saves the day? It is part of our culture now.

So what is the emotional driver?

After the death of her father, Cinderella wants to be loved. She wants her step mother and step sisters to love her, but that doesn’t happen. Then, at the end, the most eligible bachelor in the kingdom—the prince—discovers he loves her just as she is. As the saying goes, they live happily ever after.

The macro analysis goes thus: after the death of her father, Cinderella wants to feel loved again; in an effort to win the love of her step-family, she agrees to do all the cleaning, becoming little more than a slave; this does not work; her step-family not only won’t love her, but won’t let her even go to the prince’s ball; just when she’s falling into despair, her fairy godmother steps in and she meets the prince; after the ball, she returns to her cleaning chores, but the prince loves her and sweeps her away. In the end, she is loved and she is happy.

The entire story is propelled by her emotional longing for love. It ends when that longing is satisfied. In a darker story (too dark for Disney) it would also end if she gave up her hope of ever being loved.

The emotion drives the story.

That’s the macro analysis of the story. The same emotional analysis also works on the micro level, on a single scene within the story.

Back to Cinderella. After he father dies, Cinderella wants to be loved by her step-family. (This is the opening emotion, just as in the macro story). She decides the best way to win their love is to be a good girl and cheerfully do as she’s told. So she cleans. However, this still does not win her step-family’s love. Cinderella falls into despair.

At the scene level, the character’s emotion starts at “wanting to be loved,” goes through conflict, and emerges as “despair.” The emotion has changed. This new emotion then becomes the starting point for the next scene.

Each scene within the Cinderella story as a whole follows this pattern. An emotion drives the action, which transforms it into a new emotion, which drives the next scene. Try it. You can plot the entire story as an emotional flow chart.

Now examine your own work. Does it follow this pattern? Are your characters’ emotions driving the action? Can the plot be outlined as an emotional flow chart? If not, it may be the reason that it doesn’t feel right, or readers have trouble connecting with your characters.

I know I am going to look at my own work with this in mind. I will do everything I can to ensure my fiction is driven by emotion.

Writing advice

Schopenhauer’s Rules for Readers (Revised for Writers)

Last weekend I did not post to the blog because I was neck-deep in the South Coast Writers Conference. As always, it was great experience, meeting all sorts of new people and learning new skills and new ways of looking at old ones. The one drawback to an experience like this is that you are flooded with so much information you have no time to internalize what you’ve learned.

It took me three days to establish enough equilibrium again to write anything.

So I will not be sharing what I learned just yet. I need a little more time to make it my own.

So I’m going to write about something I stumbled upon on the web the other day. It was an article (more of a list than a real article) about the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s seven rules for reader’s. I was intrigued and decided to reinterpret them for writers.

So I present Schopenhauer’s Rules For Reading Writers:

Don’t read without reflection.

It is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read. If one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what one has read does not take root, but is for the most part lost.”

I agree, for the most part. If you read nothing but Hemingway for a couple of months, you will begin to assimilate his style unconsciously, whether you want to or not. Pausing to reflect on what you’ve read will speed this process up because you will be engaging both your conscious and unconscious mind.

Don’t waste time with bad books.

The art of not reading is highly important. This consists in not taking a book into one’s hand merely because it is interesting the great public at the time… In order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.”

On this point I have to disagree somewhat with the great philosopher, but only because we are reading to different ends. He is advising students whose goal is to enrich their minds. As aspiring authors, we can learn a great deal from works that aren’t written well, provided we accept that they are not done well. We have to read these with the mindset of asking why they aren’t done well and how we might do it differently to fix the problems.

Don’t read only new books.

What can be more miserable than the fate of a reading public of this kind, that feels always impelled to read the latest writings of extremely commonplace authors who write for money only, and therefore exist in numbers?… It is because people will only read what is the newest instead of what is the best of all ages, that writers remain in the narrow circle of prevailing ideas, and the age sinks deeper and deeper in its own mire.”

Yes. Sometimes the cultural ideas will be dated, as will the mechanics (fiction from the Dickens-Hardy era was allowed to move at a much slower pace than modern fiction) but the rules of drama, characterization, and storytelling remain much the same.

Don’t just buy books; read them!

It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.”

I will be the first to confess that I am guilty of this. I buy three times more books than I can ever read, which does me no good. If you can’t or don’t ever read them, owning them doesn’t help.

Reread important books.

Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.”

I cannot agree with this strongly enough. One can only truly understand how an author structured her work when you know the entire work as a whole. It is only when we reread that we learn how the author constructed the beginning, it’s relationship with the middle and end, and how the author ties everything together. In the first reading, we are caught up in the story (or should be if it’s done well); it is in the second reading that we notice the mechanics that so captured us the first time.

Read the classics.

There is nothing that so greatly recreates the mind as the works of the old classic writers…Is this due to the…greatness of the minds whose works have remained unharmed and untouched for centuries?…This I know, directly we stop (reading classic literature)…a new class of literature will spring up, consisting of writing that is more barbaric, stupid, and worthless than has ever yet existed.”

I don’t know that there’s anything terribly wrong with what Schopenhauer would call “barbaric” literature—or popular fiction as we would call it—but I can see what he is trying to say. As writers, if we no longer familiar ourselves with the great works that have come before us, we will be constantly be reinventing the wheel and therefore make no progress in the art form. Literature becomes static, going over the same ground, generation after generation. The best art builds upon the art that has preceded it. To do that, we need to read it.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Is it “High Concept?”

“Looking for high concept stories.”

Have you ever seen this phrase in the “wants” listings for publications or publishers? I know I have. But I have never understood just what “high concept” meant. (I think some of the editors involved may not either). I had some vague notion that it was some ethereal form of literary wonder, something my suspense fiction surely didn’t have. I assumed my work didn’t qualify. After all, I write horror and suspense. Surely that isn’t “high concept?”

I have finally, years and years later, stumbled upon a working definition. I found it in a guest blog on a Writer’s Digest (I know. Don’t get me started.) site called “The Writer’s Dig.” The guest writer was Jeff Lyons, story editor and story development consultant at Kensington Entertainment. He also teaches at Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio.

I stipulate to Mr. Lyons’ expertise.

According to Mr. Lyons, “high concept” is not a single quality, but a continuum of qualities that you can use to pinpoint the height of the concept present in your story. Each story will have a different combination of seven qualities that can push it toward (or away) from “high concept.”

The seven qualities are:

  1. High level of entertainment value
  2. High degree of originality
  3. Born from a “what if” question
  4. Highly visual
  5. Clear emotional focus
  6. Inclusion of some truly unique element
  7. Mass audience appeal (to a broad general audience, or a large niche audience)

Most stories (however good) do not possess all seven qualities. High concept appears on a continuum, so you might have two qualities represented well, or five qualities represented more weakly and have the same “high concept” value. The more qualities you can identify in your story, the more “high concept” it will be.

But, in order to judge our work more accurately, we need to take a closer look at the seven qualities and what they mean.

High level of entertainment value:

Defining “entertainment value” is as easy as defining art. It’s in the eye of the beholder, which is why it is critically important to get an outside opinion. Have someone you trust explain to you what is purely entertaining about your story. Get a second opinion. Get a third.

High degree of originality:

There are no original stories, someone is saying. True. But there are original approaches to a familiar story. For example, everyone knows the Cinderella story, but not as told by one of the step-sisters.

Born from a “what if” question:

What if dinosaurs were cloned? What if women stopped giving birth? What if Martians invaded the earth? All were the basis of successful, high concept stories.

Highly visual:

High concept stories have a visual quality that is palpable. When you read one, your mind starts conjuring images and you can see the story unfold.

Clear emotional focus:

As with imagery, high-concept stories spark emotion, but not just any emotion. Usually it’s a primal emotional response: fear, joy, hate, love, rage. There are no wishy-washy emotions.

Inclusion of some truly unique element:

Originality is about a fresh approach or perspective. Uniqueness is about being one-of-a-kind. There is absolutely nothing else on the world like it.

Mass audience appeal:

High-concept stories, even if easily categorized into a specific genre, appeals to an audience beyond the narrow confines of that genre’s die-hard fans. It has crossover value. For example, high concept mysteries might appeal to people who don’t consider themselves mystery buffs.

Remember, as Mr. Lyons warns, this list of high-concept qualities is not a method to judge whether your work is good, or bad, or worthy of submission. All it does is give you some idea of whether it qualifies as “high-concept.” It merely is a tool to judge whether you should submit to someone wanting high-concept fiction.

There is plenty of perfectly good fiction that is not—and shouldn’t be—high-concept.

Writing advice

Setting in Fiction

Recently—this morning, actually—I finished a suspense novel by Stephen White titled The Best Revenge. It was a solid novel, good, though not great. I gave it three out of five stars primarily because it didn’t awaken in me that sense of urgency I look for in a good suspense novel. It was interesting and well written. I had no trouble reading it through to the end. But I never felt that sense that everything was on the line. That if the characters didn’t make the correct decisions, everything would be lost.

I haven’t quite figured out why that sense of urgency never appeared in Mr. White’s novel. I’m still mulling it over. My instinct tells me it’s in the way Mr. White handled the point of view, but I’ll have to think it over some more. I’ll let you know.

However, one technique Mr. White used wonderfully did catch my attention and that’s what I’d like to talk about today. That technique is his use of setting to add depth and richness to his narrative.

The Best Revenge takes place in and around the city of Boulder, Colorado and by the time I finished the book, I felt as familiar with the environment as someone who lives there (probably more because locals tend to ignore the sights around them out of familiarity). I love that feeling. It’s one of the benchmarks I have for a well-written story.

Why? Because it’s realistic. Where ever we are we are surrounded by scenery. So are the people we interact with, our friends and our enemies. While we may not consciously notice it, subconsciously we all do. Personally, where I live, you can see the Pacific ocean to the west from most places in town. To the east are steep ridges covered with a thick forest of Douglas fir, cedar, and hemlock. Alder graces the edge of the forest. The river empties into the ocean just north of town. Its valley cuts through the ridges to the east.

Everyone in town, whether they are aware of it or not, is influenced by the landscape around us. It affects the climate. It affects the direction the wind blows (almost always from either the north or south). It affects the job market.

Setting grounds the story, anchoring it to a particular place and time.

The Best Revenge takes place during the end of a hot, dry summer. Every person in town is watching the mountains to the west, hoping for relief in what they call the monsoon season. Every character in the book does it. Characters talk to each other about it. It adds a layer of realism. Where I live, we’re in the middle of a fairly serious drought and it’s a regular topic of conversation.

Setting can provide yet another hurdle the hero must overcome to achieve her goal.

Mr. White didn’t use this aspect as much the he did grounding, but I recently read another book where a massive thunderstorm erupted just as his enemies entered a trap he’d set for them. Within moments, he is blinded by torrential rain and deafened by the wind and the noise of the rain itself. Now, he not only had to overcome the enemy’s shooting skill and intelligence, but he had to deal with the weather too.

Setting will affect how the characters interact with each other, their environment, and how they go about their quest.

In The Best Revenge, the dry heat is an ever-present force. Characters pause to let their cars cool down before climbing in. They seek air conditioning. Feel self-conscious if out in the heat too long. And always is the longing for the arrival of the monsoon rains. Everyone seems to spend some of their down time searching the western mountains for a sign of storm clouds.

So now that we’ve looked at some reasons why we should expend some serious energy on creating the setting, let’s take a look at how to do that.

Less is more

As in most things fiction related, a quick, evocative sketch is much more effective than a lengthy portrait. Most readers don’t have the patience anymore for long descriptive settings. They get bored. When they get bored, they tend to go away. Not what we want.

Long, descriptive passages also bring the pace of the story to a grinding halt. While you’re waxing poetically about the beauties of that mountain stream, absolutely nothing is happening. Your hero is merely standing where you left her, waiting for you to finish.

So is your reader.

Details are everything

In The Best Revenge, Stephen White has one character tell a second to take one route instead of a second because she’ll “miss the commuters.” That’s a detail that speaks of local knowledge. Looking at a map, or a Wikipedia article won’t tell you the back routes the locals use to avoid traffic log jams. It’s a detail that evokes much more than the words express.

Use as many senses as possible

We, as a species, are visually oriented, but that isn’t the only sense we use to experience our surrounding. Don’t forget to include what your character hears, whether it’s the sound of traffic on a nearby freeway or the roar of planes coming into the airport. What about smell? Can your character smell the rotten egg stench of the paper mill? The pines of the nearby forest? What does your character feel? Is it humid? Can she taste salt in the air? What about some of the more ephemeral senses? Does the character feel isolated and alone out on the family ranch? Crowded and claustrophobic amid the city crowds? Frustrated with traffic?

The setting description must be integral to the story

Don’t make a character walk over to a window just so you can describe the mountain vista. If she walks over to the window, it should be for some other reason, such as looking for someone watching her. The description of the mountains should be—should seem anyway—incidental. Remember, locals don’t really revel in the scenery they see every day. It’s just there most of the time. It’s the tourists, those who are seeing it for the first time, who revel in it.

It’s best to know what you’re talking about

Unless you’re a better writer than I am, you cannot fake a good setting. Sure, you can identify the primary landmarks from reading articles and checking maps. You could even find out some local color by interviewing people who have lived there. But, in my opinion, you cannot do justice to a location without actually visiting the place at least once. All the research in the world cannot tell you what it feels like first thing on a spring morning. It can’t tell you what landmarks your lead character could see from his bed room window.

An example, I used to live in Oak Harbor, on Whidbey Island in Washington’s Puget Sound. Now the travel guides will tell you that you can see two volcanic mountains—Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier—and the Olympic Range from Oak Harbor. Mt. Baker is roughly to the northeast, Mt. Rainier to the southeast, and the Olympics to the west. All this is true, but inaccurate.

The truth—and only actually being there would reveal it—is that Mt. Baker was visible probably ninety percent of the time. Mt. Rainier was farther away and could only be seen on the clearest days, probably less than ten percent of the time. The Olympics were fairly close, but since they were to the west and Oak Harbor lay on the east side of Whidbey Island, could only be seen from high ground.

If you had faked the view your character sees from Oak Harbor and got this part wrong, it would ring untrue to everyone who had ever been there.

It’s better to actually know what you’re talking about.

Test it

Take your story (or a portion of it) and change the location. If your original setting is in Manhattan, change the place names to some small town in Kansas (or Yorkshire). If it works just as well in either place without a major rewrite, I’d maintain you need to go back and firmly anchor it in place. Changing location should change the story. The story you write needs to be the story that can ONLY take place where it does. Otherwise it will come across as superficial.

Go back and adjust your setting.

Poetry, writing

A Question of Our Time

I am (almost exactly) halfway through the process of going over the initial proofs of my new novel. If you haven’t done this before, it is a very tedious, time-consuming process. Therefore, this week’s post will be somewhat abbreviated.

Last Saturday, I was privileged to participate in the 9th Annual Port Orford Poet’s Roundup, a day-long series of readings by poets and writers from Oregon’s south coast. It was very good. Each author/poet was given about ten minutes to read and many were very good. I took the opportunity to read a passage from the forthcoming novel.

The day was fun and impressive and the event unofficially marks the beginning of my personal book promotion season. There is only one problem.

No one attended.

Well, not exactly no one, the poets and authors were there, of course. But almost no one who wasn’t scheduled to read from their work attended. As far as the general public was concerned, it never happened. There was zero interest.

I’ve seen this phenomenon before. As an organizer of the South Coast Writers Conference, we have had a great deal of trouble getting more than perfunctory support from the local community. And the local bookstore has given up hosting book signings because, despite numerous posters, notices, and advertising in the local paper, no one ever showed up for them. It wasn’t worth their time or expense.

There seems to be zero local interest in any literary event anyone wants to hold. What I don’t understand is why.

Granted, these days most people aren’t readers, especially of poetry. But some are. It’s a minority, but a sizable minority. Why aren’t they interested in coming to listen to the local authors? Aren’t they a little curious what the writers are working on? Don’t they want to show some support to all the poets’ hard work?

The apparent answer is no. I still haven’t figured out why.

Maybe it has to do with the area I inhabit. It is quite honestly, a scarcely populated rural area. There is an arts community, but the artists are vastly outnumbered by folks fascinated by monster trucks. However, that cannot be the entire explanation, because even the minority interested in the arts don’t come out to these events.

Another possible explanation is that people don’t consider the written word as appropriate performance art. This is possible, though that implies people are disregarding a long, rich history of poets and writers delivering their work verbally, in readings.

Maybe it is a symptom of our modern age and mentality, our need for action and immediate gratification. Maybe the modern person, even the modern reader, does not feel attracted to the thought of sitting for even ten minutes, just listening to someone.

My brother suggested pairing the readings with something more likely to draw the public, like wine tastings. It’s not a bad suggestion, but kind of avoids the underlying question.

Maybe it’s always been this way. I don’t know.

Again, I don’t know. What I do know is how nice it would be if people would celebrate someone publishing their poem like they do scoring a touchdown.

short story

Flash Fiction: “Germ”

Submitted for your consideration.


By the end of winter, feeding everyone was a challenge. All the berries, roots and nuts they’d saved from the summer were long gone and the snow covered anything fresh that might have survived the cold. True, the men and boys hunted nearly every day. Occasionally, they’d bring back a deer to feast upon, but mostly it was rabbits and squirrels.

Just enough to keep them alive.

“Magpie?” her mother said, looking up from the stew she was building over the cook fire. Her brother had snared a rabbit today. “Could you look in the bins and see if there’s any more rice?”

“Yes, Mama.”

Magpie set aside the beadwork she’d been working on and went to the stack of rawhide food containers, though she didn’t think there would be much to find. They’d done everything but scrape the bottoms for a week now.

“Sometimes they like to hide down in the seams.”

Magpie glanced up at her mother. How did she do that?

“Yes, Mama,” she said.

She quickly set aside the container that held what was left of their dried meat and looked through the others for the remains of the rice.

“It is growing warmer every day,” her father said behind her. He was sitting with her older brother beside the fire, warming themselves after a long day trudging through the snow in a fruitless hunt. It was her younger brother who’d snared the rabbit. “The snow is beginning to melt.”

Her brother agreed. “The creeks are running fresh with snowmelt, the willow budding. Soon, the grass will show green again.”

Magpie found the rice container and untied the bindings. The people of her village had spent many days in late summer and early fall gathering the tiny grains from the edges of the lakes around their summer camp. Everyone helped, from the oldest grandfather to the youngest toddler, either with the gathering of the seeds, husking them, or spreading the seeds in the sun to dry. Yet, as hard as everyone worked, there never seemed to be enough.

They always ended up hungry.

She pulled the flaps open and peered inside the container. As she’d expected, it was empty. But she remembered what her mother had said and tipped the container until the fire light fell on the seams at each of the four sides. Sure enough, little grains of rice hid there in the seams.

She tried using her finger to scoop them out and loosened a few, but most seemed to dig further into the seam.

“Something fresh would make this soup so much better.” Her mother said.

“Soon enough. Soon enough,” her father told her. “With the next moon. Earlier if the snow keeps melting.”

Magpie turned the container over and tapped it on the packed earth of the lodge floor. A few of the grains came loose. She hit it again, harder, but only dislodged a few more.

“Are you having trouble, Magpie?” he mother asked.

“No, Mama,” she said. “I’ve got it.”

She slipped the small knife from its sheath at her waist and used the tip of the blade to pry the seeds from the seams of the container. Within a few moments she’d dislodged all the remaining grains of rice.

Magpie returned her knife to its sheath and began to pick the tiny grains of rice from the packed earth floor.

One of the seeds caught her attention. It was different. She separated it from the others and held it up into the light to examine it closer. It looked like the seed had split down the middle and a little white finger grown out of it. The end of the finger had just a touch of green.

It looked like the sprouts that appeared everywhere when the snow went away.

The wispy shadow of an idea began to form in her mind.

“Magpie?” her mother said. “What are you doing?”

“I’m coming,” she said. But before returning to her mother, she set the strange kernel aside, safe from the soup.

The End