This story is precious to me, there’s a hefty amount of prestige and history associated with this festival, and it’s in my hometown. It feels like something of an alignment, pieces of a puzzle finding their right place.
I’ll be attending a ceremony on Oct. 12 where I and the other winners, finalists, and honorable mentions will be reading from our pieces. Having read the other stories, I’m humbled mine is in such great company, and I’m eager to meet everyone involved with this year’s contest.
My sincere gratitude to everyone who gave this story their time, energy, and consideration. I’m deeply honored this story found others who thought something about it was worthwhile.
Read “A Winter Bloom” here, and read the other pieces and judge commentary here. If you’re in the area, consider attending the festival on October 21. You can register in advance here.
I’m currently seeking a sensitivity reader for issues of Mexican culture and heritage, Spanish-English translations, authentic representation, and experience with discrimination and U.S. immigration for a post-apocalyptic/horror road novel (107k words). I prefer readers with experience in sensitivity reading and publishing, but I’m willing to work with anyone who can share their lived experience with me and help me get this aspect of my novel right. The novel features one primary character of Mexican descent (specifically Jalisco), but he’s not the perspective character (so that might be a bit lighter of a lift). Trigger warnings include racism, religion (Christianity), politics, assault, physical violence, trauma, and profanity. I’m negotiable on rates, but I’m certainly on a budget. Please contact me if interested or with referrals. Thank you for your help in getting this right!
I don’t read a lot of military fiction. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien will forever occupy a space on my bookshelf, but I feel like few people who become good soldiers are predisposed to being good writers. The mindsets would seem to be contradictory (independent thought versus collective thought, you get me), which isn’t to say there aren’t good military fiction writers, just that I think they’re rare.
I think Benjamin Inks is something of a rarity, and I think there’s an important distinction to be made with regard to his debut book, Soft Targets: this isn’t a collection of stories about soldiers so much as it’s a collection of stories about people who are soldiers. Similarly, Inks is a veteran, but I think it’s important to know he’s a writer who’s also a veteran. These stories demonstrate, while he was serving in the military, he was observing his world with the depth of perception and thought of a writer in conflict.
I think comparisons to Tim O’Brien are fair. Inks isn’t writing about the nature of war so much as he’s writing about the nature of living with it, all aspects of the before, during, and after. This is a book of stories about people and how war affects us, and the stories are told by someone who knows that effect intimately.
I found many of these stories deeply affecting. “Learning to Be You” is maybe the best piece of literature I’ve read this year, and “Love in the Time of Combat Injuries” is as close as you can get to a romantic comedy in a veteran’s hospital while maintaining authenticity.
Authenticity is important, too. These are stories by a veteran who not only lived the life of the soldier but lives it still. Its authenticity is evident in the book’s every pore and unmistakable in its inspiration; these stories are unlike any you’re likely to read elsewhere because the experiences they’re based on are unique and lived.
Furthermore, Inks calls into question the very idea of “veteran,” not to disrespect the title but to lift it up. Inks ponders whether “soldier” is something someone becomes or if it’s something they’ve always been and always will be. He explores what that means in scale, from the very intimate to the societal and cultural to the cosmic.
There are a lot of deep, heavy thoughts in this book, and I think its physical size betrays its material weight. At the same time, stories like “Jack Fleming Lives!” and “American Nesting Dolls” offer some levity while exploring the nature of storytelling in regards to the stories soldiers tell themselves. Are they even true? Or do they obscure the truth for the sake of coping? Is there truth in the obscurity itself? I think Tim O’Brien would have a lot to say about that.
If you’re looking for some military fiction that will provoke deep thoughts and move your humanity in ways you are either craving (even if you aren’t a soldier) or have never actually experienced (especially if you’re not a soldier), Soft Targets is a good bet. For my money, Soft Targets gives me such a humanizing and normalizing view of soldiers that we so rarely get. We see them without their weapons and body armor. We see them, and we connect with them, and we feel for them, and we love them for who, not what, they are.
I won’t be watching Secret Invasion. If you haven’t heard, Disney—the most powerful and profitable entertainment studio the world has ever known—opted to exploit AI, plagiarize real artists, and save a few bucks to generate the show’s opening credits sequence. They claim the method fits the show’s themes.
It’s a story about spies fighting shapeshifting aliens.
It’s a shame because many real artists did work on the series, and I’m sure it’s great. My hope is Disney, Marvel, Method Studios, and the show’s producers change course, hire actual artists to create a new opening credits sequence, and commit to never using AI-generated creative content again.
Let’s leverage AI to do the work nobody wants to do, and let’s empower people to do the work they actually want to do, especially if that work explores human creativity in any form.
When I started reading The Ferryman, the latest novel by Justin Cronin, I had a sense that I pretty much knew what I was in for. I was wrong.
To use a rollercoaster metaphor (because I think cliches should be played with, not dispensed), sometimes a book offers a clear day and you can see all of the ascents and dives, twists and turns, before that first ratcheting climb even begins. Sometimes the fog rolls in off the bay and you can’t see a damned thing, so you just hold on as you’re taken up and then dropped into a gray void. The Ferryman is a bit like riding a rollercoaster inside of a mirror maze. You think you see what’s coming, but what you actually see is a reflection of yourself, eyes and mouth agape, an embarrassing squeal ringing off your tongue.
Rollercoaster aside, The Ferryman isn’t a thriller. It’s not a plot-driven story seeking to play with your expectations for the next twist. Don’t get me wrong. This book will thrill you. Even when you’re reading it and you think, maybe this is a thriller, that’s the mirror again. It’s almost as if Cronin is begging you to ask yourself why you’re trying to pin this book down at all, and it challenges you conceptually in the most extreme ends of the creative spectrum. So, let’s shed the labels. It’s a story about intimate, life-affirming love shared between partners, family, or friends. It’s a story about cosmic philosophies regarding our species and its fundamental state of being. And it’s a story about everything in between.
The Ferryman is a book of wonder, mystery, heartache, and existence. It’s a beautiful book, and it’s a terrifying book. It’s a book that will immerse you in calm waters, and it’s a book that will exhilarate you with violent storm surges.
If nothing else, The Ferryman is a book with a concept that, if you’d told me everything about it—spoiled it utterly—I would have said a book like that can’t work. And yet it does, and that fact, above every nit-picky reservation or petty grievance a reader might have, elevates The Ferryman to something like a literary magic trick.
I have a short story out today in the new issue of Haven Speculative. Please give it a read if you’re inclined to do such things. It has an apocalyptic ruin, robots, and a man with life-creating power and a heap of good intentions. Let’s see what he does with it.
My tips, generally speaking, will be broad or even unbearably mechanical. Some might consider them vague or esoteric. Others might consider them unhelpful.
Without turning this post into one about creative writing pedagogy, I think it’s vital to grant writers the space to be themselves, to explore their own tastes and desires in literature, to become the writer they were meant to be not the writer the world thinks they should be. (I acknowledge there are writers who want to write to market, and that’s great, but I’m not the best teacher for those writers.)
Which is to say I’m never going to tell you what to do. I’m going to try to guide you toward figuring that out for yourself.
So when I was asked how I see the lines between bad, good, and great writing, I felt a little wary of defining bad, good, and great writing for others. I think saying the lines between them are subjective is a bit of a copout, and I think it’s wrong. I think we can define good art, though importantly, I think the bar for what constitutes good art should be set perhaps shockingly (to some) low.
I think it’s important to know your strengths as a writer. That way, you can embrace them and lean into them but also challenge yourself to grow in other ways.
One of the most common pieces of positive feedback I get is about my prose. It’s nice to hear, because I’ve worked very hard to develop that as a strength.
Now, I’m not claiming I am the best proser that ever did prose. I’m simply saying I think my ability to construct a sentence is one of my strengths. I have many weaknesses. Believe me, no one knows my weaknesses as a writer better than me.
I attribute some of my prose acumen to one of my other artistic loves: music. There was a time in my life when I considered myself a musician, and for many reasons, I shifted focus to fiction. However, I think the time I spent studying, composing, and thinking about music tuned me toward the melody of words. Some writers struggle with voice and tone in their writing. Those are elements that come naturally to me. I often tell people I can’t write a character until I hear them speaking to me. I usually get a funny look for that, but it’s true. Every character, at least the way I write them, has a voice, a musicality that gives their personality color. Once I hear them, my job is to help readers hear them, too, using text. That’s the goal, anyway.
I do think some writers are naturally inclined toward writing good prose. Writers are, and this is true, people, and every person has natural abilities. That isn’t to say I believe in the “it” gene for anything, really. I think everyone can write good prose if that is what they want from their writing.
What are your strengths? What are your goals? How can you leverage your strengths to achieve your goals?
A couple of summers ago, I was very fortunate to be able to travel for research on my novel in progress. With funding from the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center, I got in my car and drove from my home in Virginia to the U.S.-Mexico border. I’m not talking too much about the novel yet, but you can bet it’s set somewhere between Virginia and the U.S.-Mexico border.
Anyway, the trip was both harrowing and amazing. It was that uncertain summer of Covid in which we had vaccines but we weren’t really sure if everyone was getting them or if they even worked, and on top of that, I was dealing with some ailments that necessitated medical attention and I was in my head about the fact that I was going to some fairly remote parts of the country.
I tend to do that. Get in my head about stuff.
But I did it! I went there and back again (and the only ring involved symbolizes my love for my wife).
Two years and hundreds of thousands of words in the novel later, the trip has been incredibly inspirational and informative to the point that I’ve been, perhaps unwittingly, working on a personal narrative essay about it, too.
The Cheuse Center has been publishing short works inspired by their fellows’ trips, and Leeya Mehta, interim director of the center, contacted me about contributing. I ended up sending her many more words than she likely expected or wanted, but we were able to focus in on one portion of my essay in progress about my novel in progress.
For you fellow authors, if you can go to the places you’re writing about, I highly recommend it. I am saying this more and more these days, but to become a better writer, you have to read, write, AND live. There is no substitute for getting away from your computer and experiencing the world you want to write about (yes, even if you’re writing about alien worlds, you should look to ours as reference points, but also, your alien world should, in some way, reflect our world, and I’m in my head about this, aren’t I?).
Digression aside, I have much more confidence in this novel because of the travel afforded to me by this fellowship, and that’s because the novel is much better for it. If you’re an MFA student in the GMU creative writing program, apply for this fellowship.
It’s been a while since I’ve read a good ghost story, and there’s a reason for that. The genre has become so defined by its tropes that it’s formed its own subgenre of reality TV, which itself has tropes. Genres evolve, but between evolutions, they fall out of favor, the proverbial haunted house going inactive during the daylight hours.
Now, I’m loving what Mike Flanagan is doing with ghost stories on film. He seems to be progressing the genre into character-driven territory in which the horror is driven by environment instead of gorey thrills. As above, so below, what Flanagan brings to film, Craig DiLouie is bringing to literature.
His latest, Episode Thirteen is a further evolution to the ghost story genre, taking a ghost hunting reality TV show and fictionalizing one particular hunt where the show maybe gets a little too real.