The Covid-19 Creative Writing MFA Program

…a recap of my writing studies in 2020.

The fact that so many conventions and seminars adopted an online format this year was a huge opportunity for me to improve my writing, and there’s nothing like constant daily reminders of your own mortality (and losing financial security anyway) as motivation to chase your dreams.

At the start of the year I joined David Farland’s Apex Group. This was enormously helpful because it gave me access to his full set of writing courses at a monthly rate that I could fit into the budget. Going through those classes was helpful, just as I expected, but the twice weekly speakers became a larger part of my writing routine than I ever anticipated. The regular zoom meetings rekindled my excitement whenever it faded.

The free Writers of the Future Online Workshop was worthwhile to work through, and on the contest forums, Wulf Moon’s Super Secrets Workshop gives a book’s worth of advice for short fiction.

I was lucky enough to get into two of Clarion West‘s online workshops during the early scramble to move content online: Landing the Gut Punch with Helen Marshall and Moving from the Novel to the Short Story with Arkady Martine. Both taught lessons that I immediately applied to this year’s writing.

But Fyrecon in November was truly the highlight of my remote learning, with an incredible density of classes for writers. I took Wulf Moon’s plotting workshop and tried to drink from the fire hose of useful material.

I am on track to finish the year with five new short pieces, major revisions to two previous short stories, and between five and six chapters drafted of the current novel. It’s a personal best in number of complete narratives (although not in word count; working through full narratives has been much more helpful this year).

Finally, this year has been a class in professionalism. If I want to break through and make writing something that generates income, I’ll need to meet external deadlines without excuses. I accomplished everything listed above in an average of 2 hours a day, working at the time of day when I feel sluggish and least creative. I kept writing through massive baby-caused sleep deprivation, family deaths, children being always present, and the sound of constant sirens as the city destroyed itself. I’m now certain that if I get to a place where my writing income can justify spending more time on it, I can scale up the number of words that I produce, no matter what happens around me. My next learning goal is to work on storytelling so that those words land.

Finalist in Writers of the Future

“The Healer of Branford” was a Finalist in the Writers of the Future contest, making the shortlist of eight stories for the 3rd Quarter. Those eight stories are passed on to a pool of judges drawn from professional authors, so although it did not place I am filled with warm fuzzy feelings knowing that some authors I really enjoy reading have now read my work.

Full results for the quarter here.

What was the biggest difference between my submission that placed Honorable Mention last year, and this one that placed higher? I’ve been working on many aspects of storytelling, but the single largest insight that I had was into suspense. In June I took the Writers of the Future Online Workshop (which is free) and was really struck by the essay on creating suspense. I revised the story right before submission with the goal of keeping multiple possible outcomes open at each step of the story. This particularly helped the final third, which lost too much tension in the earlier draft.

The Writers of the Future contest has an incredible online community associated with it. Sharing the goal of getting into this specific anthology series helps to cut through much of the subjective non-advice that clogs other online writing communities. The forum is also defined by a spirit of helpfulness in which past winners often stop by to help current entrants succeed. The teacher who’s invested the most into the official forum is Wulf Moon, running his Super Secrets Workshop there, which is a fantastic resource because it covers all the pieces of a functioning story in bite-sized lessons. It’s been an incredibly helpful framework for digesting the writhing mass of writing advice that I stuffed in my skull and I am honored to be officially joining the workshop for the coming year.

I plan to enter every quarter of Volume 38, because this contest provides a unique opportunity to test myself against the same first reader and judge four times a year. I want to prove that I can consistently write at a high level even more than I want to win.

A Defense of Tame Dragons

The fantasy trope of taming dragons has always deeply resonated with me, and I happily inhale stories of human partnership with dragons. Both Chrysophylax and Kazul made the list of possible names for my childhood green iguana. Bob the Bearded Dragon, the current lizard around here, escaped being named Kulingile by one of the hairs he doesn’t have.

So Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s post today, Can (Should) Dragons Be Tamed?, was food for thought that I found tough and chewy. I think it completely misses how tamed dragons are generally used in fantasy stories, which is not as diminished/alluring evil but as a representation of natural wonder.

He acknowledges that many dragons are rooted in nature instead of demonic chaos, and it’s plain to see the inspiration taken from real animals for most of them. The source animal is usually a reptile, either living or extinct (and the animated version of Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon was refreshing because of Toothless’s cat-like mannerisms). As a reptile owner, I argue for separating The Serpent from serpents. In fiction, nature-inspired dragons are functioning as the relationship between Man and Animal writ large, and taming them is a grand exaggerated drama of the joys of domestication.

But it is quite unfair to stop there and categorize natural dragons as being part of “the de-spiritualized material world” when their most common narrative purpose is the opposite: to suddenly and completely reveal the truth of a larger, magical world that fulfills the protagonist’s yearning for more than the ordinary world they inhabit. Encountering a dragon is often the first intrusion of the magical world into the mundane in a fantasy story (I’m linking Penny White as an example because you can read the first few paragraphs including the dragon encounter by clicking Look Inside, and it’s written by an Anglican priest). Dragons are huge and undeniable, unlike a mere glimpse of magic or a fantasy creature that is small and prone to hiding. In these scenes the protagonist is comprehending something larger and more powerful than himself and experiencing awe.

The first glimpse of the dragon is a moment of overwhelming wonder.

Wonder is the encounter with the Other-world, with Faerie, with sacrament. Wonder is the emotion that readers seek in fantasy literature and tame dragons embody it better than any other fantasy creature. The flight sequence is ubiquitous in tame dragon stories: the rider is carried away from his life on the ground to the heavens.

Wonder leaving the world because dragons are threatened or withdrawing is a narrative response to the loss of sacrament in the modern worldview. The tame dragon story is about the hunger for wonder, the desire to seize onto it and make it stay when we do experience transcendent moments, and that those moments can sustain us even though they end. Tame dragons who leave do not abandon their riders. They leave them secure in body and soul (Pete’s Dragon) and usually with the assurance that magic can be found again when you know where to look.

No, a tame dragon is not in the same class as a horse or a pet. This is more often than not the driving conflict in tame dragon narratives that go on for longer than the initial “wow, a dragon” episode. The Temeraire series from Throne of Jade onward is an excellent example.

While this blog post is starting from the supposition that I do not want to glorify evil in my stories, I would argue that the Tame Dragon, better called the Wonderful Dragon, is so firmly established in our culture that he is worthy of a place in the Christian imagination. Wonder, like love, is one of the emotions that points to the divine when we experience it. And dragons are the very embodiment of fantasy wonder to so many people. There is a reason that you can find dragon tchotchkes in every gas station and that so many fantasy fans use the dragon as a sigil. It’s because they are emblems of wonder to today’s dragon consumers, not wickedness.

Fiction writing, particularly pulpy genre writing, is not the same as iconography for the church, which has a codified system of symbolism that we teaching our audience. In addition to considering the past of a symbol, an author has to consider what that symbol means now to the group that they are addressing.

Tame dragons, based on natural wonder, can be an additional use of the fantasy animal without denying dragons as traditional symbols of evil and chaos. After all, when you look to our tame dragons they are almost always fighting beside us as we go up against bigger dragons (see, in 2019, the plots of How To Train Your Dragon and The Priory of the Orange Tree).

Living the Fairy Tale of COVID-19

I bought some magic beans.

It’s what I usually do when stressed. Seeds help me remember that the future will be different than the present. I highly recommend it. And not practical seeds, but seeds that grow into frivolous beauty.

Clivia seeds sprouting.

Clivia miniata seeds are my favorite to stress-buy. They are large and glossy, like a satin Christmas ornament ball. You can handle them. You can even anxiously pull them up and look for the small bump of developing root without ruining the whole endeavor. They feel weighty, magical, and precious.

I grow my clivia indoors and I do not have perfect conditions, so it may be a long wait for flowers, but one seed parent has a light scent and this excites me. I’m interested in fragrant houseplants this year. I am also trying some sinningia tubiflora from seed which will bloom sooner, and plan to order a streptocarpus variety that’s said to have a light scent if we don’t move this year.

In this weird and trying time, please find your magic beans and plant them. Find something with a spectacular and wondrous payoff that you can anticipate, and tend it daily.

Pinecones: Author Notes

Pinecones appears in Fell Beasts and Fair: A Noblebright Fantasy Anthology, published by Spring Song Press.

I love the term “noblebright” that my editor C.J. Brightley coined as a response to the “grimdark” trend that boiled across fantasy. Grimdark’s just not my thing: I prefer getting the opposite feelings from books, and giving the opposite feelings as a writer. So noblebright as a reactionary label had my attention enough to see the call for stories, and I had a half-formed story idea about a dryad who’d fit the “fair beasts” part of the anthology theme.

I’m consciously exploring Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe in all my short stories: that an apparent defeat is itself the mechanism of victory. Some pinecones only open and release their seeds during forest fires. Horrific disaster is part of their process. This idea combined with the flower-dryad as a way that plant-based creatures might reproduce.

Pinecones and dryads as central elements gave me the satyr with his thyrsus staff as my firestarter.

All artwork becomes a record of where you were at the time, and I hope that the hard work I’ve been putting in since Pinecones will show as growth in my next publication. The prose already feels a bit too cautious and stilted to me, and I think that has two causes: first, that I have to piece together my prose from very fractured thoughts with young children in the house, and second, that I relied too much on automated editing software. I plan to write more about the strengths and weaknesses of the latter.

Image by bigdan, licensed via depositphotos.

Why a Eucatastrophe is NOT a Deus Ex Machina

Buckle up for an incredibly niche rant…

The literary concepts of deus ex machina and eucatastrophe are not synonymous. Both are sudden reversals at the climax of a narrative where things are looking grim for our protagonists, but they are distinct narrative devices.

Deus ex machina, “god from the machine,” is a term originating from ancient Greek theater. When the heroes were in an impossible situation and the play was out of time, a god character would be lowered from the rafters above the stage and hand them victory. Today this is widely recognized as flawed storytelling. It breaks the integrity of the story to have an external force resolve the conflict: nothing leading up to this point actually mattered. It feels arbitrary, as if the storyteller had no plan.

The eu (good) catastrophe, the happy disaster, also saves our heroes from an impossible situation. But they are saved because the outcome of their failure is unexpected success. It is not external, but a direct consequence of the story pieces already in play.

Since Tolkien defined the term eucatastrophe in On Fairy Stories, an explicitly religious essay defending fantastic sub-creations that point to the resurrection story as suitable work for Christians, I consider it disingenuous to separate the term from a Catholic mindset when defining it (as Wikipedia has done, and I assume some literature courses). I myself am not Catholic, and the concept can be applied to works that are not religious, but this context helps us see the intended meaning. When Tolkien proposed the term eucatastrophe, we know from the text and his letters that he was thinking of Christ. As a Catholic, he believed that Christ’s complete defeat and death was a necessary part of the process that saves mankind.*

In a eucatastrophe, what looks like a huge loss is the reason that our heroes succeed. It’s not merely an emotional sequence of almost-defeat and then success, but a causal link.

The archetypal example of the eucatastrophe in Tolkien’s work is not the eagles, but Gollum biting the ring from Frodo’s hand. (The eagles are arguably a deus ex machina: with the lines as I draw them, I’d argue that Tolkien used both literary devices to explore his theme of grace.)

The eucatastrophe is not arbitrary, but happens as the storyteller planned it all along. The interference of supernatural grace is not a negation of the characters’ agency but comes in to use the antagonist’s actions, intended to harm the heroes, for their good instead (as in the story of Joseph, Genesis 50:20).

A story with a eucatastrophe gives readers the power to keep going through it instead of engaging in avoidant behavior when they face real difficulties that seem impossible. It teaches them a thought pattern in which growth, better than mere escape, will give their darkest hours meaning in retrospect.

If you remain unconvinced, let us agree to disagree as storytellers and leave it at this:

“Deus ex machina works when it is the point.”

Film Crit Hulk

* Footnote… I am summarizing recklessly here, since theologically this is one of those Big Deals that gets subtle quickly. See any Catholic commentary on Luke 24:26 for the information I consider relevant to this argument, which is Tolkien’s intellectual environment.

Candy Story Update

My submission received an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest for the second quarter of Volume 36.

It stars a candy-maker and is directly inspired by the fantastic mini-documentaries about candy making from Lofty Pursuits and Public Displays of Confection, so I’m eating a bag of their nectar drops to fuel my revisions in the hope that my story will see publication one day.

What do the Victorian Nectar Drops taste like?

In case you’re wondering about the secret, historically accurate taste: honey and marzipan is my best description. The sweetness is more complex than white sugar, and I feel convinced that there’s a tiny almond note in the finish.

The pieces are smaller and more ornate than the last modern hard candy I bought, and feel very precious. The detail, particularly on the starfish, is amazing. The way the pieces fit on your tongue almost changes the taste.

I also realized that I have never actually eaten fresh hard candy in my life and it was as much a revelation as fresh green beans would be if you’ve only ever eaten canned. I was careless about resealing the bag and the last few pieces changed significantly, and dulled into something closer to sugar cubes. So I both recommend that you order some, and that you eat it before the magic fades.