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.

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.