Writing Update for July 2021

A lot of exciting news from Emerald Cove today. First and foremost: John and my new fantasy novel Prophecy’s Malignant Son is now for sale on Amazon. You can find it at: Amazon.com: Prophecy’s Malignant Son: A high fantasy novel eBook: Ruff, Susan and John: Books

The book is available in both paperback and Kindle format. Here is the back cover blurb:

The Prophecy of Lenar promises that a glorious ruler will arise to replace the dying monarch of Aullor. Fabren Lacalian, the half-human apprentice of a dead wizard, knows the terrible truth underlying that promise. That truth murdered his master and, if revealed, could destroy Fabren’s life. Fleeing in terror, he encounters Daraline Graciel, the archivist who first uncovered the prophecy in an ancient tome. Working together, they must stop the prophecy’s deadly march across the land. For corruption has already spread to the royal capital and the situation grows more desperate by the day.

The second piece of good news is that Emerald Cove’s writing critique group is back to live meetings again. We will gather at our favorite Denny’s tonight after more than a year apart. The Zoom meetings during the pandemic were helpful, but nothing replaces actually sitting around a table and talking about books. I can’t wait to see everyone again!

Emerald Cove’s shared world anthology is nearing completion. I’ll probably know more after the meeting tonight, but the last time I spoke with Sue, the cover art was coming along well. While we don’t have an official day for publication yet, we’re getting there.

And finally, John and I have started working on our next novel. More details to come in future posts.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 7/23/2021

When Travel Influences Fantasy Literature

The iconic Merlion statue in Singapore.

A friend (who also loves to travel) suggested that it might be fun for me to blog about how I draw inspiration for my fantasy stories from the real-world places that I visit and photograph. It was a great suggestion, and really got me thinking about the ways in which visiting new places inspires my writing. Overall, I’ve found that travel, and particularly foreign travel, excites my imagination with a sense of “other-worldliness.” Stepping off the plane in a different country can feel like entering a whole new universe with amazing and unexpected sights.

A street in Singapore. I wish I could say more about it, but I didn’t caption the photograph.
Note to self: Always caption your photos!!

In my experience as both a reader and author of fantasy novels, the art of writing fantasy involves a balance between the familiar and the unique. My favorite fantasy novels to read have been those that create original landscapes and cultures, very different from our mundane world. At the same time, the characters in the fantasy story must be familiar enough to allow the reader to empathize with them and care about their world. Travel can inspire fictional works that meet both of those elements.

A pathway in the Bukat Timah nature reserve.

In addition to the general concept of how travel influences writing, there is the more specific topic of which real-world places have influenced my fantasy writing and why.

When I first considered this question, Singapore came to mind immediately. A city with a merlion for its mascot has to be a great influence for a fantasy novelist. It was not that mythical beast, however, that truly caught my imagination during the week that John and I spent visiting the city.

Likewise, the beautiful Bukat Timah Nature Reserve (where I was warned to beware of monkeys accosting tourists to steal food) was not the place that inspired me the most. Both of those sights were very nice and certainly caught my imagination.

The greatest inspiration for me as a fantasy novelist came during a walking tour of the city. The guide took us to see the “wet” market, a collection of vendors selling fish, produce, and spices. As I walked among the stalls looking at the exotic wares, I was amazed. Not only had I never seen many of the food items for sale, I could not even put a name to them.

I am far from a culinary expert, but I have done some cooking and generally know my way around the grocery store produce section. The vegetables and fruit for sale in the Singapore wet market were so far beyond my experience that I might as well have been shopping in Narnia or Chalion.

The memory of wandering among the food stalls, staring in wonder at the strange items has stayed with me over the years. That experience provided part of the inspiration for the food scene in the short story Hospitality, which is scheduled to appear in Emerald Cove’s upcoming shared world anthology.

Apparently, I was so astonished by what I saw, that I never even took a photograph of the market. (Hard to believe, considering I usually take photographs of everything, including the interior of our hotel rooms.) Because I only use my own photos in this blog, I cannot include a picture of that wet market. So I will close this blog with a picture of the not-quite-so-exotic-food-establishment that John and I also visited during the trip. While I cannot say that the food there inspired any fantasy stories, the “Fish McDippers” were tasty and I wish they had them in the U.S.

There is a reason that John and I always eat at least one meal at McDonalds in every country we visit, but that is a story for another day.

-Susan 7/16/2021

p.s. Sue is still working on the cover art for the shared world anthology mentioned above, and it looks great so far!

Fortifications, Walls, and Battlements

A portion of the Great Wall of China.

After I wrote the blog post about castles a few weeks ago, I started considering other types of structures that can be important in fantasy literature. One of the easiest to overlook (no pun intended) is the stone wall. Ranging from hastily constructed piles of rocks to elaborate edifices seen for miles, fortifications can provide both defense for the characters of a story and interesting background landscape.

A portion of Hadrian’s Wall in England.

Even in the real world, old stone fortifications often carry a mythic quality. At one time, it was said that the Great Wall of China was the only man-made structure visible from space. Hadrian’s Wall in England has been included in works of fiction. The “long walls” that connected Athens with its port city of Piraeus are the stuff of legends.

Fortifications around the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Fortified cities are common in fantasy literature. Who can forget the seven levels of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings? I often think of the scene of Pippin and Beregond eating lunch beside the battlements, when I visit fortified cities during my travels.

One of the old towers on the Island of Rhodes.
Battlements on the Island of Rhodes.
A portion of Themistocles’ Wall in Athens. (My scanning software “restored” the color of the old photograph, but I am not photo-editing savvy enough to remove the glare from the display glass. Sorry!)

Fortifications can sometimes be found in unlikely places. When my beloved co-author and I traveled to Athens many years ago, the first archaeological site we visited was not the Acropolis. Instead, it was the portion of Themistocles’ wall on display behind glass in the basement of our hotel.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 7/9/2021

p.s. People seem to be enjoying these photo-blogs so far. Would you like me to continue with them or would you prefer that I return to the more nuts-and-bolts discussions about writing? Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts. Are there any other fantasy-related topics you would like to see in a photo-blog?

Keeping Honest with those Writer’s Resolutions

We’re now half-way through 2021, and it seems like a good time to review your progress on all those writer’s New Year’s resolutions that you made. How is your writing coming? Are you satisfied with your progress? If not, are there things you can do to get back on track? Even one or two little things can be very helpful. The wonderful thing about writing is how patiently your unfinished books wait for you to come back to them.

After giving that advice, I guess I should review my own author resolutions from my January 1 blog post. I’ve actually done a lot better than I thought I would.

So here is my update:

1. I resolve to write at least 500 words of fiction per day until I finish the current fantasy novel that John and I are writing: Prophecy’s Malignant Son. Completed. The galley proofs are currently being reviewed and the book is nearing publication.

2. I resolve to learn more about advertising and marketing our fiction books. I think it’s fair to say that I completed this one. While I still have a lot more to learn, I definitely know more than I did on January 1, 2021.

3. I resolve to develop a marketing strategy before the next book is released to help improve its visibility and to attract potential readers. *Sigh.* I’ve got some ideas for marketing the upcoming book, but my ideas only count as a “marketing strategy” in in the broadest, most generous definition of those two words. I guess it’s time to follow my own advice and get back on track with this resolution.

4. I resolve to come up with a more complete outline for the next novel that John and I write and to start writing that new novel before the end of June. Completed. The outline was finished in June and I already have a very rough draft of the first chapter.

5. I resolve to keep writing and publishing this blog every Friday for the rest 2021. So far, so good. All you wonderful blog readers will have to judge how I do with this one.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 7/2/2021

Visiting the Stones that Speak

Carvings on a stone pillar at Karnak, Egypt.

Last week, my blog discussed ancient ruins and fantasy novels. Today, I want to write about a special subset of that topic: carvings and rock art.

A portion of the Alta rock carvings in Norway.

Humans have been communicating by leaving words and pictures on stone for thousands of years. As a fantasy writer, I find petroglyphs and rock art particularly intriguing. There are stories hidden within the carvings, some of which we can only guess at.

Petroglyphs at Ginko Petrified Forest State Park in Washington.

If you are an aspiring fantasy author, it can be a great experience to visit the places where people recorded their messages for later generations. It is easy to imagine that those ancient people were story-tellers, just as we are, with tales every bit as fantastical as the ones we love.

The Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs, Hawaii

One of my favorite ancient “stones” is the mysterious Phaistos Disc. (It’s actually made from fired clay, not stone.) I’m sure there is an interesting story behind the stamped glyphs on the disc, but its symbols remain enigmatic and very different from other ancient writing and rock art that I have seen.

The Phaistos Disc at the Heraklion Museum on the island of Crete.

Petroglyphs and ancient writings don’t even have to be real to catch the imagination. The “writing” on the walls of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland, for example, always adds enjoyment to what would otherwise be a boring time standing in line.

-Susan 6/25/21

p.s. As always, all photos in this post are mine. The Phaistos Disc picture is almost 30 years old and was scanned from a print of a photo shot in available light with a 35 mm camera. I am embarrassed by the picture quality, but even more embarrassed that I managed to cut off the top of the disc when I took the picture.

Fighting Writing Procrastination

When I told Danny Atwood, my good friend and fellow Emerald Cove author, that I wanted to brainstorm ideas with him about ways to combat writing procrastination, he said, “We should schedule a time to talk about that later.”

Despite that inauspicious opening, we did eventually discuss the topic. Here are some of my take-aways from our talk:

The methods to combat writing procrastination may differ depending on the cause of the procrastination. Often the tasks we put off are the ones we don’t want to do. For example, I can put off housework for years. While that non-preferred-task explanation could apply to writing projects like a school or work assignment, it should not affect our fiction writing. After all, those of us who want to be novelists must like writing or we would not do it. We’re certainly not doing it to get rich.

So why do so many authors who like to write find it hard to sit down at the keyboard?

Feeling the Muse: We all write our best when we are inspired. That’s wonderful when it happens, but if waiting until you “feel the muse” is preventing you from writing, perhaps it’s time to adopt a new strategy. Writing can be a joy, but it is also a discipline. Don’t wait until you’re “in the mood” to write. Set yourself a writing schedule and stick with it. I’ve heard of people who choose a particular time of day to write or block out a certain amount of time, such as an hour a day. My preferred method is to set a word count, such as writing 100 words a day.

If you are going to try this, I suggest that you start with small amounts. Don’t decide that you will write for six hours every day or require yourself to complete 1,000 words every day. You wouldn’t start a home jogging program by running in a marathon. Try writing 50 or 100 words a day or blocking out a short amount of time to write. The important thing is to develop a writing habit through consistency.

And don’t worry about how good the writing is. You can always rewrite later.

That Busy Schedule: If you’re like me, your daily activities will expand to fill whatever amount of free time you have. If you want to write, then you have to make your fiction writing a priority in your schedule. Of course, there are some activities that must come first, such as children, work, school, and health. I am not talking about neglecting important matters.

But what about the rest of the activities that try to dominate our lives? How often do we endlessly flip through kitten or puppy pictures on social media? Right now, even as I type these words, my phone is buzzing every few seconds with a series of group text messages from friends about an rpg we play once a month. If I keep stopping to read those texts, I will never finish this blog post.

If you are serious about your writing, then prioritize your writing instead of those social distractions. The text messages and social media posts will still be there later for you to review.

The same applies to that “shiny new toy” you just bought. Finish your daily writing first and then play that new video game.

The Overwhelming Task: Over the years, I’ve learned that the projects I postpone the longest are the ones that feel overwhelming. When I don’t even know where to begin a huge task, I keep putting it off until I am absolutely forced to confront it.

My personal strategy to combat this type of procrastination is to break the task into smaller, manageable pieces. I might even list those sub-tasks on a piece of paper, so I can check off each one as I complete it. An entire novel can seem like a mountain of work, so I tend to set my writing goals on a much smaller level. My goal will be to finish a single chapter or even an individual scene. Once that is complete, I work on the next goal.

One Additional Strategy: One method Danny uses to fight procrastination involves setting a deadline to exchange writing with another author or group of authors. Our Emerald Cove writer’s critique group meets once a month, and Danny found that he was the most productive on the days just before the meeting. At his suggestion, he and I started additional weekly meetings (via Zoom) to discuss our writing. This weekly writing “deadline” has helped his productivity.

Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 6/4/2021

Blogging About Writing: What My First Year Taught Me

Woohoo! Tomorrow (May 1) is my one-year anniversary for writing this weekly blog. It seems like a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned from blogging for a year.

1. The most important lesson: Engaging in any kind of writing makes me want to write more. When I first started blogging, I was concerned that the need to produce a written post every Friday would take away from my fiction writing time. The result has been the opposite. I’ve done far more fiction writing during the past year than I did during the five previous years. For the first time in my life, I wrote the first draft of an entire novel in six months.

Of course, the pandemic, with its “shelter-at-home” orders, gave me plenty of time to write. Undoubtedly that had a great influence on my ability to create a novel in such a short time. However, based on what I’ve seen from my friends and fellow authors, the pandemic alone cannot account for my recent interest in writing — some of my author friends have written practically nothing since March of 2020. I think this blog saved me from the “pandemic malaise” that seems to have hit so many of my author friends. Writing a weekly post about our books and/or writing in general got me excited about working on our latest novel. (Writing about writing got me excited about writing…who would have guessed?)

2. The second thing I learned: I like blogging much more than journaling. Franky, I’ve never been good at journaling. In the past, when I’ve attempted to keep a journal, my entries have tended toward a spare recitation of the events of my day. (“First we did this. Then we did that.” Nothing literary or even particularly interesting.) Blogging, on the other hand, forces me to select a topic and then focus on it. My thoughts become far more coherent and (I hope) more interesting.

I suppose I could use the same method for journaling — focusing on a new topic in each entry. Even if I did that, however, I don’t think the result would be as satisfying as blogging because no one would read my journal. Which brings me to lesson number three.

3. The third lesson: I enjoy having people read what I write. That probably doesn’t sound like much of a realization — if John and I didn’t want people to read our books, we wouldn’t be Indy authors. It’s no surprise that I get excited every time I find out that someone is reading 60th Hour. What I did not expect was the amount of happiness I felt the first time I discovered that people were reading this blog. I still get a real sense of delight every time people “like” what I have written or choose to follow the blog. (To all of you reading this…thank you! You’re all awesome!)

4. The fourth lesson: Thinking of a new topic to write about each week can be tricky. When I started writing the blog a year ago, I worried that I would run out of things to say. While that has not happened, it came close a couple of times. The need to produce a post every Friday has helped to build my discipline as a writer, but sometimes I arrive at Thursday night with no clue what to write the next day. Fortunately, my idea guy (John) has come through for me on those occasions and I was able to post on schedule.

As those of you who follow this blog know, one of my New Year’s resolutions as an author was to continue posting once a week through the end of 2021. So far, I have succeeded. Will I manage it for the rest of the year? Stay tuned and find out!

-Susan 4/30/2021

Is Fiction Writing Like Exercise?

Prior to the pandemic, did you ever run into this scenario? You pay for a monthly membership to the local fitness center. At first, you’re all excited about the prospect of getting into shape. The friendly trainers at the center give you an orientation to show you how to use the machines, and off you go. At first, you meet your goal of working out regularly. Then life starts getting busy and your visits to the gym grow less frequent. You really want to get back there more often, but there’s just too much going on. While you still visit the gym occasionally, you start feeling guilty about not going more. Eventually, you lose your motivation to go at all, but you keep the gym membership because you know you “really should get back there.” Maybe, there is a bright spot where you get all excited about it again for a couple of weeks before it starts to taper off. Finally you cancel the membership.

Over the years, I’ve seen the same pattern among some amateur writers. They start with a load of enthusiasm (and often real talent), but eventually lose their motivation and stop writing altogether.

I understand the problem. While I’ve never given up writing, I have certainly canceled gym memberships. Trying to stay motivated over the long haul is difficult. Writing can be one of the most rewarding activities in the world, but it is seldom easy, and parts of it can be tedious. It can feel frustrating and discouraging, particularly when you hear about how tight the market is these days and you watch good writers get one rejection letter after another.

When I see a friend lose the motivation to write, it saddens me greatly. I’ve tried various ways over the years to motivate my friends to get back to writing, but have met with mixed results. I don’t even fully understand what motivates me to write fiction. I’ve been writing novels since at least my college days and probably even longer. At times, I have been discouraged. I’ve even slowed down my pace for a while, but I’ve always come back to writing eventually.

The best advice I can give to young writers comes from my own experience: don’t give up. Remember that it will get better. The more you write, the easier it becomes to write more. When you finish that first book or short story, it is an accomplishment to celebrate, even if the only people who ever read your work are your friends and family. Your writing will improve as you go — I’ve seen it happen multiple times with my writer friends over the years.

With respect to physical exercise, on the other hand — ahem — well, let’s just say that If I tried to admonish people to get more exercise, I would be a hypocrite, so I’ll just keep my mouth shut about that. Hmmm…I wonder if exercising your fingers on a keyboard counts?

Talk to you next Friday.

-Susan 4/23/2021

When You’re Bored…Write!

Are you looking for more time to write your novel during your crazy, hectic schedule? Here’s a suggestion: Use those times when you are forced to sit and wait for an appointment. Even during the pandemic, we still occasionally find ourselves in a waiting room (or waiting in the car in a parking lot) for a doctor or dentist appointment. Don’t spend that “downtime” flipping endlessly through email or social media. Start writing fiction instead.

How does that work, you might ask? Obviously, if you have a laptop with you, writing is very easy. Suppose, however, that you typically do your fiction writing on your desktop computer at home? How can you write in a doctor’s office when your computer is miles away?

The answer is easy — make use of the technology you have with you. Most of our electronic communication devices provide some method to type memos. My phone has a free app called “notes” that allows me to use my phone keyboard to type reminders to myself. Yes, the screen is small and the virtual keyboard is awkward to use, but it is possible to compose fiction using it. Once you get home, you can email the note to yourself and cut-and-paste the text of what you’ve written into your existing manuscript. (There may be other phone apps specifically designed for writing, but I have not researched them. I’m just talking about the free apps that come with your phone.)

If you prefer “old school” methods, you can bring a pen and paper with you to write (or use a spiral notepad). This method is slow and also requires you to type what you’ve written into your manuscript when you get home, but it is possible to write that way. I did it for years before we had modern communication technology. Even now, I tend to keep a paper copy of my latest chapter in my purse for proofreading and revision. I pull it out and work on it whenever I am sitting in the car in a parking lot waiting for John to return.

Another great time to write is while riding in commuter mass transit. Planes, trains, and busses all require you to sit for an extended length of time doing nothing. That’s a great opportunity to write. Some mass transit systems will even provide electrical outlets for your laptop. When you’re waiting in an airport lobby (and we all hope to be back there some day after the pandemic), don’t spend your time staring at the video screens above you. Work on your novel instead.

By the way, I am NOT suggesting that you write while you are driving, even if you are sitting in stopped traffic during rush hour. Don’t try it! Even texting while driving is dangerous (and illegal where I come from).

Maybe that’s another good reason (in addition to helping the environment and relieving personal stress) to commute by mass transit when you can. Think of all the writing you can accomplish!

Susan 4/16/2021

Lessons Learned from Writing 500 Words of Fiction Per Day

On January 1, 2021, I took a chance and publicly posted a set of New Year’s resolutions. Among other things, I resolved to continue writing 500 words of original fiction per day until I finished the first draft of our current novel: Prophecy’s Malignant Son. It is now March and somehow (to my astonishment), I have managed to keep up with that resolution. The manuscript just passed the 100,000 word mark, and the first draft should be finished by the end of the month. It is far longer than I originally intended and will require rewriting, but that is a problem for a later day.

In the meantime, I thought I would share a few things I learned from the discipline of writing 500 words of fiction per day.

  1. I am capable of doing it. When I typed those resolutions on January 1, 2021, I really wasn’t sure I could achieve any of them. There are so many things competing for my time these days (despite the pandemic lockdowns) and far too many distractions. Sometimes, after a particularly busy day, I found myself, through sheer stubbornness, finishing my daily quota at 9:00 at night. For anyone who knows me, I am a morning person and my brain tends to shut down by 10:00 p.m. At other times, I was forced to tell my beloved co-author, “No, I can’t watch that yet. I have to finish my 500 words for today.” Fortunately, he has always been understanding and supportive.
  2. It breaks writer’s block. When I took a beginning journalism class in college, the professor often required us to type an entire article, from start to finish, during the two-hour class session. We all had typewriters in front of us on our desks to complete the task. (Yes, they were typewriters, not computers. I went to college when dinosaurs still roamed the earth.) The discipline of being forced to write anything or fail the assignment cured me forever of the fear of a blank sheet of paper. Over the last couple of months, on those days when I got really stuck for what to write to meet my 500 word goal, I found myself falling back into that journalistic mindset — just get words on paper and worry about revising them later.
  3. It produces a novel in record time. John and I started plotting Prophecy’s Malignant Son in September of 2020. Absent unforeseen circumstances (“God willing and the creeks don’t rise,” as my mother used to say), it should be done by the end of March 2021. Prior to last year, I would never have thought myself capable of producing a novel in six or seven months. By contrast, it took John and me almost 20 years to finish and publish 60th Hour.
  4. I cannot sustain that pace forever. When I decided to write at least 500 words a day, I made a mistake. I never gave myself a day off. I have written at least 500 words a day, every single day since January 1 without a break. On some days I could breeze through 700 or even 1000 words with no trouble. At other times, as mentioned above, I completed the daily task near the end of the day through sheer stubbornness. As the weeks have progressed, I gradually realized it is too much for me. I am a person who really needs time off occasionally to avoid burn out. While I intend to keep my 500-words-a-day going until I finish the first draft of the current manuscript (because I made a New Year’s resolution and I am so close to being done), after I finish, I plan to reevaluate the process. I need to find a compromise — a sustainable method of writing — so I can finish books in a reasonable time without burning myself out.

Anyway, I hope these thoughts are helpful for newer Indy authors out there. If any of you would like to share your methods for sustainable writing, I would be delighted to hear them. Feel free to drop me a comment.

-Susan 3/12/2021