You’re Not a Bad Writer If It’s Difficult and You Choose Grace

An exhausted writer lays his head down at his desk.
Image by Nataliya Vaitkevich, Pexels

I think, if any writer says every day is a good writing day, they’re lying. I think it’s okay to struggle. I have to think that because I struggle often.

I think we (as in human beings) tend to believe in The Natural because we all (as in all human beings) want to believe there’s something we each were specifically designed to do. We want to find our life’s purpose, and we want to fulfill it. There’s a bit of the chosen one complex hidden here, but I think it’s typically fine and healthy. 

Where we might go awry is in the logical leap that, if we find our purpose, it should be easy, right? I mean, when you take a pair of jeans that should be your size to the dressing room, they should go on without much tugging or tummy tucking involved.

In my own case, I’ve spent about fifteen years of my life chasing my writing dreams. That’s a long time, and I haven’t felt like I’ve really accomplished much, if I’m being honest. Sure, I’ve had some wins here and there, but most of those could be attributed to stubbornness versus actual skill or talent. Law of averages and all that.

Despite a world that seems resistant, I firmly believe I was put on this earth to tell stories. That isn’t to say I believe in an omnipotent and omniscient deity that had a plan for me when my parents did the deed, but I do think, given all of my talents, desires, passions, etc., I keep coming back to banging thoughts out on a keyboard. It’s the intersection of what I love and what I think I’m pretty good at (nevermind the other half of the Ikigai).

The trouble is writing fiction is difficult, and in my experience, there’s a difficulty creep. That is, as I’ve grown and improved as a storyteller, you might think it would get easier, but it doesn’t. There’s a principle that google’s failing me on right now in which every new discovery begets a certain number of new questions, and I think the pursuit of every artform is probably a lot like that. Not only are we evolving as people, writers, and readers, but with each project, we spark new ideas that we might not have otherwise illuminated, and as we chase those, inspiration strikes again, and writing then becomes a chain or web of stories that probably wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t started somewhere.

All of that is to say any writing worth writing is an act of discovery, and that is necessarily difficult. Therefore, I don’t think any writer should feel difficulty is an indication that the pursuit is in vain. Quite the opposite, I would think. I would imagine, if we asked every writer who achieved a measure of success, none of them would admit to it being easy for them, and I don’t think that would be a lie.

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If She Floats…

A small row boat floats on calm water with a colorful sunset in the background
Photo by Nuno Obey

Please indulge me in some personal blogging.

A friend once told me writing a book is like building a boat, and sometimes, you just have to put it on water and see if it floats.

I’m reflecting on that today. For almost four years, I’ve been working on a boat, and I know every wooden plank, every nut and bolt, every ounce of sealant, every length of canvas. I’ve plugged every hole, smoothed every edge, finished every surface. I’ve obsessed over the details that will never matter in its sea-worthiness, that no one will ever care about, but I will. I’ve neglected my relationships, my career, my well-being. I’ve learned and grown through my dedication to the craft alongside others who were similarly consumed by the idea that they had to make something because there was a voice within them screaming that this thing, this vessel, has to exist. I’ve watched other ships set sail and wept with joy for their buoyancy, and I’ve hoped that one day, the tide might come in, raise my ship from its stand, and carry her out to sea where she just might mingle with all of the others.

My next novel, currently titled American Spirits, is going out to agents now, and if this one sinks, I’ll at least know I did everything I could so that she might sail on the glittering calm waters and ride the swelling waves.

But, oh, if she floats…

Traditional publishing is an intricate apparatus, some processes resembling a Rube Goldberg machine, others reminiscent of a grotesque Clive Barker nightmare, chains and hooks, but alas the gatekeepers are there and serve many purposes. I could digress into a discussion of the values of traditional, indie, and self publishing, but my aim with this one is deliberate. Spend four years on anything, and no one should suggest you’re being frivolous.

Anyway, it’s likely to be a long time before I hear any news regarding an interested agent and then an interested publishing company, if ever. Even if this book gets to that stage, traditional publishing companies have a very long pipeline, so I’m expecting years before knowing if this one floats or sinks. It seems strange to ask anyone to stay tuned because I’m likely to be quiet for a while yet.

In the meantime, there are other stories to tell. I’ll be around. Keep in touch.

A Circuit Closes and Feels Like Completion

Tim reading an excerpt of his story behind a podium and beside a cutout of F. Scott Fitzgerald looking especially dapper
Scott and I hanging out and similarly stylish, though his hair was way better

Last night, I gathered with other members of the DC-Baltimore-area literary community at the Rockville Memorial Library to celebrate the winners, runners up, and honorable mentions of the 2023 F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival Short Story Contest. It was refreshingly wonderful and an all-too-rare reminder why I sit alone and confront blank pages.

Contest Judge Nate Brown said many inspiring and kind things, but one of the sentiments I know I’ll keep with me is the idea that, after everything, what matters most is the writer and the page. There is a lot of good in everything surrounding what writers do, and last night’s celebration was a testament to that. Nate also spoke about the baggage of doing this writing thing, such as all of the rejection many of us face. Most important, though, is that we keep sitting down with the pages.

I like that idea because it so often feels like success in writing is entirely beyond our control, but doing the work is something we can absolutely control. Yes, writers are people, and every person has much to contend with (jobs, families, relationships, illnesses, disabilities, etc.), but because we have control over whether we sit down and write, it’s something we can lose without accountability. It’s easy to do it tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

But if we do it today and today and today, success—however we define it—comes.

This today, I’m riding a high and feeling good because, last night, alongside some very impressive and brilliant writers whom I was grateful to meet, my story, “A Winter Bloom,” was recognized as the contest winner.

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‘A Winter Bloom’ Wins F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival Contest

I was overjoyed to learn my story, “A Winter Bloom,” won this year’s F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival Contest.

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.

Seeking a Sensitivity Reader

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!

Review: Soft Targets by Benjamin Inks

The cover of Soft Targets by Benjamin Inks depicts a soldier cuddling with a sleeping cat. The soldier is in black and white, and the cat is in color.
Cover by Pablo Javier Herrera

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.

Not OK, Computer

Image by Marvel Studios and potentially every artist on the planet; it’s impossible to know for sure. Also, none of them were paid or even acknowledged for their work.

Artistry is one of humanity’s defining traits. Our creative ingenuity makes us special.

So I find it strange that, with the emergence of AI, we’re not using it to make our lives better but to automate creativity.

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.

Review: Justin Cronin’s The Ferryman Casts Magic as It Opens a Speculative Heart

The cover of The Ferryman by Justin Cronin depicts a sail boat on calm seas with an approaching storm.
Cover image by David Baileys, Design by Scott Biel

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.

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How I Define Bad, Good, and Great Writing

A book lays open with some of its pages folded over to create a heart shape.

In my last post, I wrote about some practical tips and approaches for writing better prose. Then someone asked me about the qualities I think make writing good or even great. It was an earnest question, but the question, itself, is a bit of a trap, I think.

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.

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