by Jeff Bowles
We’re starting a new monthly writing challenge series here on Writing to Be Read. Have you ever read a book or a short story and thought to yourself, I can do way better than this? Well, here’s your chance. Write Me Better will highlight a new prose passage by a different author each month, ranging from masterful to, well, just plain amateurish. Anyone and everyone will be open for a little revision, Shakespeare, Steven King, Ernest Hemingway, even the folks who write for this blog, and maybe someday down the line if you’re up for it, even you. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to rewrite what’s already been written. Give it a new style, a new focus. Make it a comedy routine or just plain tear it to shreds. It’s up to you! The following month, I’ll show off my version, and then we’ll look at some of yours. Sound Fun?
Our first piece comes from a little known master named Jeff Bowles. Before you go getting excited, this is one of the first short stories I ever wrote, and yes, I was being cheeky with the whole “master” thing. See for yourself. Let me forewarn all you armchair authors, this passage is not for the faint of heart. It’s bad. I mean real bad. So bad I had to write dozens of other stories just to wash the taste from my mouth. Okay, here we go. This is a little thing I like to call Tsar Alexei. Now Write me Better!
They hunt me even now. Aristocrat boyars, holy men, those who profess loyalty and who have received my kindness. All of them, cursing me in their thoughts even as they toast to my divine rule. A tsar must anticipate dissent. Even on the day of his wedding, he must be on guard and govern with an iron will. These things are expected of me, of Ivan’s son, Alexei. Russia needs Alexei. Even the malcontents gathered here need Alexei.
Regrettably, I am not Alexei. I’m not even human. But these are small matters; always, confidence is key.
I have allowed only two others to sit with me at the main banquet table, a fact which surely displeases the boyars and Metropolitan Boris, the head of the church. Boris rubs his bald head as his eyes trace the empty length of my table. I simply tip my glass to him and smile.
My bride, my lovely Tsarina Sofia sits beside me. Her dark hair flows along her neck, shimmering with highlights of brown and deep red in the candlelight. Her royal wedding necklace glints and sparkles. Her supple lips upturn in a smile as she examines a knife that belonged to Vasily III. She is happy. Her thoughts are of her troubled beginnings, of famine, of my grace and judgment in choosing her, above all others in Muskovy, to be mine.
“Are you well, my love?” I say.
Sofia smiles. “Yes. I could not have dreamed of all this, Alexei.”
“I always hoped to marry, but…”
“Now you are tsarina. You were granted fortune when you least expected it. I understand completely.”
I touch Sofia’s hand. Her cheeks darken; her eyes widen. She smiles again.
Fëdor, my loyal servant, nudges me. I chose him first as honorific thousandman for the ceremony. Were he any other man, I would kill him for the distraction.
“Alexei,” he says, “please, we must speak in private.”
I try my best to swallow my anger. “I know, Fëdor. I knew when the celebration began, and I knew in the procession. I’ve known these past three days. It’s difficult to forget when your lapdog constantly nibbles at your heel.”
“I’m sorry, Alexei.” Fëdor averts his eyes. His large brow tightens and his thick lips purse. “But you must hear the message from our…from the Lord.”
“Speak openly. None here would dream of harming me.”
“Fëdor, I am tsar, yes? Wasn’t it I, through sheer power and intelligence, that supplanted that feeble-minded Vladimir?”
“It was,” says Fëdor.
“Then respect me. Respect my bride and my guests, and only distract me from the festivities as long as you must. Speak openly.”
Okay, everybody, that does it for this month. Don’t forget to rewrite the above passage and share it in the comment section. Adios!
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The first Wednesday of every month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.
The Creator in the Creative
Creativity is a hard thing to nail down. I should know. I’ve tried many times. It’s universal, yet it can also be inconsistent. It’s one of the most primal urges we have, but many people stifle the creative impulse within themselves, which must suit them, but which is really a damn shame, if you ask me.
Sometimes, our creativity is like a good friend. At other times, it abandons us completely. In the face of tragedy, trauma, or just a really nasty string of bad luck, who the hell feels like writing anything? It’s hard to make cool stuff when you’re feeling low. But our creativity is never really gone for good.
In some spiritual traditions, the creative drive is an extension of the same lifeforce with which we make babies and raise families. I kind of like that sentiment, because in many ways, the projects we take on, the stories we tell, the art we make, it’s not unlike our very own precious yet finicky offspring. If there is a central intelligence in the universe, a oneness to all things, then certainly creativity is the most primary law residing therein. After all, most people’s concept of God is God, The Creator, not God, That Lazy Dude.
I’ve been creating things my whole life. I like to write songs, like to tell stories, I paint sometimes, and the fact of the matter is I never feel more at peace and connected than when I’m knee-deep in my work. It’s a buzz, really. It keeps me feeling good all day long. It’s also kind of frustrating sometimes, as I’m sure you’ll agree. To write a novel, for instance, requires intense focus and a terrible long-term memory, because if I actually thought about how often I’ve failed, I probably wouldn’t want to write at all.
If not for the unsettled nature of these things, I could live my life inside my art and never leave. Never even peek my head out to see what’s happening in the world. I also don’t have any children, which simplifies things, I suppose. My wife and I had no luck conceiving. As much as 15% of couples have fertility issues, and it makes you wonder about the connection between that essential lifeforce inside us and our ability to propagate on any level. I know that during the worst of our disappointment, I wrote more than I ever had before. Story after story after story. Mostly sad, sometimes nightmarish. It’s funny how your mental and emotional states can seep into your writing.
I had to learn to get good at creation, because for a very long time, it felt like there was nothing else for me. One can almost imagine the cosmos having one or two sloppy first drafts. There were many days I opted to spend time alone, probably because it was painful for me to see my wife in such misery. We were both hurting. We both needed to feel our pain, and then hopefully one day, to heal from it. She really wanted to be a mom, and as it slowly became clear she wouldn’t get that chance, I pursued her in ways I hoped would get through to her, despite her depression and angst. I wrote a lot about fertility. I wrote about miscarriages and frustration and having a life you’re not sure you want anymore. And I have to wonder if I had become a father, would I have worked even half as hard? I needed that energy out of me, needed to express it in some constructive way.
And I guess that’s the point, isn’t it? One little act of creation has the power to shape the world. Some people even believe we have the ability to create our own realities through sheer willpower. In New Age spirituality, they call it the Law of Attraction or the Law of Resonance. The spiritual self-help book The Secret cracked that whole thing open for mass consumption, though the basic metaphysical presumptions behind it are reportedly eons old. What is consciousness? Can you feel it? Manipulate it? Is consciousness conscious in the sense that it walks and talks and blinks and cracks a joke now and then? Or is it patient and observant within us, sleeping yet not asleep, wistful and dreaming while we strut around, the emperors of our little empires?
Many people perceive malleable seams in the fabric of reality. In practical application, sitting down to write a story is not unlike constructing a whole universe from thin air. Making gold from lead, that’s sort of the joy of being alive. At least it is for me. The fires that forge whatever I want, they burn brightly. It’s not such a stretch to imagine an unconscious connection between what I dream and how I live. And some forms of creativity are born in even hotter fires still.
Love, I’m certain, has spurred more creative endeavors than any other human experience. Unrequited love, for sure. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt the sting for someone unavailable or uninterested, but honestly, it makes for fantastic art. Hallelujah, at least it’s good for something, right? There is a kind of sacred triumvirate between the heart, the head, and the drive to create. I love my wife dearly. I love that I am afforded the joy of loving her. I write for her as much as for anything else. It’s a privilege and a wonder.
We can drive ourselves crazy stewing in our own unexpressed romantic juices. And it’s not like artists aren’t known for craziness, right? Take a van Gogh, lop off the tip of one ear for a woman, and they’ll never let you hear the end of it (pun not intended). It’s a matter of pride for some, carrying that torch. I prefer to carry nothing at all, or at least a slice of pizza or something, but that’s just me.
It begs the question, do we have to be in pain to make good art? Or perhaps in some kind of rapture? Religious art is made in the latter, pop songs and pop books the former. Peak experience is universal, though not in any form universally understood. The creative mind is often also the jealous and overly dramatic mind. Love makes you feel that way. I suppose pain does, too. All the tragedies of the world couldn’t fit into a million books, but don’t think people haven’t tried.
Essentially, creativity is a salve. It’s soothing. It boosts your brain chemistry, all those wonderful joy hormones, and it produces an effect like falling in love. Surely, if there is something of a higher nature in us, our creativity is its first mile marker. If you’re a particularly creative individual—and if you’re reading this article, I figure you must be—then wear it proudly, and don’t forget it’s one of the things that makes you who you are. I wouldn’t even know myself as Jeff Bowles if I couldn’t put the right words down on the page or strike just the right notes on a guitar.
High-mindedness is all well and good, but the truth is you’re human, you’re mortal, and at some point you will not exist in the form you enjoy now. Which makes it even more crucial for you to follow your star and use your talents and your natural spark and intelligence to turn lead into gold. Never underestimate the power of a good mystery. Perhaps it doesn’t matter where our creativity comes from, how it manifests. Maybe it’s enough that we perform the work of our kind, which is to say, the work of the universe itself.
Have you created something great recently? Something you’re really proud of? Share it in the comments section below. And meet me back here same time next month. We’ll have another chat. 😊
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Finding the Right Writing Group
Every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.
A good writing group is something of a rarity. Not because there aren’t hordes of talented writers out there looking to provide and receive feedback in a friendly, encouraging environment, but because finding a writing group that complements your own experience and skill level can be tricky.
I’ve belonged to several writing groups, and I’ve even backed out of a couple because I could tell they wouldn’t be a good fit. It’s good to have a group, especially if you’re just starting out. The feedback provided by peers can be enormously conducive to leapfrogging higher and higher up the skill chain. Sort of like leveling up in a role-playing game. Forgive me for mixing metaphors, but my level ten warlock leapfrogger was once a paltry and underpowered level one.
A lot of us come from a liberal arts background, so we’re familiar with what a writing group entails. Many humanities majors find college-level workshops and seminars frustrating, because the feedback offered can vary so wildly from asinine to inspired to well-meaning yet unhelpful. Like I said, skill level is important. One of the first criterions for finding a group that fits is understanding you won’t get much out of peers who’re more or less skilled than you are. It may sound kind of cold, but don’t join a group of newbies if you aren’t one. You’ll have to be honest with yourself here. It just won’t do you any good if you can’t incorporate someone’s feedback because it’s either too advanced or too basic.
Another major criterion for finding a good group is to meet with people who have similar tastes and interests. Probably not going to help much to show your young adult romance novel to a bunch of hardcore military sci-fi buffs. Well, not necessarily. It’s not so much that folks who’re interested in other genres can’t help you. It’s just that they’re not as likely to know the ins and outs of what you do, and that can be problematic if they encourage you to change elements of your stories that are perfectly fine and otherwise perfectly saleable.
Internet writing groups can be a great place to start. My first major group out of college was an online science fiction forum. I shoveled a hell of a lot of stories through that place, and the feedback I received proved enormously helpful. The other writers there preferred a different strain of speculative fiction than I did, but my style and theirs were close enough it didn’t matter in the long run. Plus, I got to develop my voice in a dynamic environment, exacting, demanding, yet also encouraging. That’s kind of the sweet spot.
Finding an online group is as easy as a Google search. For the more agoraphobic amongst you, it doesn’t even require you to leave the house, but it stands to reason, meeting people face-to-face is almost always the preferred method. There’s likely to be some local writing groups in your area, especially if you live in the city. Just Google it; see what’s out there. Might take some trial and error, but if you can find a workshop environment you like, you might even be able to sniff out a publishing opportunity or two. Plus you get to socialize with other writers. We’re a friendly bunch, once you get to know us. Just don’t feed the horror guys. They’ve got something nasty growing in their guts.
Don’t forget, too, that there are plenty of great, more-or-less reasonably priced national workshops. Thousands of people pour into conferences, cons, and other smaller workshops every year, and participating in them can be pretty exciting. The basic point is that although you write in a vacuum, your work is ultimately meaningless if you can’t see its flaws and acquire the ability to revise appropriately and then publish it. And you want to get published, right? Right.
Last but not least, you could always go for an MFA. Speaking of seriously expensive, how about those Major of Fine Arts degrees, huh? I’m kidding (not at all kidding). I’m an MFA guy, so I know how valuable a good academic writing program can be. One thing of note, MFAs tend to focus on literary fiction, which means you’ll have to look around a bit if you’re more into the popular stuff. I come from such a place, however. I know from whence I speak.
MFA degrees are pricey, but the upshot is once you’ve got that nice shiny diploma, you can teach. Now that may either floor you or make you queasy. Not everyone is built for academia, after all. Still, to have the option, and to have acquired expertise along the way, it’s a valuable proposition, no?
The basic truth is that writers are pretty secluded creatures most of the time, and it can be of enormous benefit to get out into the world and exchange words and ideas with like-minded people. We never really grow out of the need for it, either. Sure, publishing may become easier the longer you do it, but the writing itself most assuredly won’t. And like I said, it’s difficult to see the flaws in our own work. Think like a muscle. Resistance make stronger.
And don’t be afraid if you’ve never been a part of something like this before. One of the biggest crimes I can think of in the world of art is talented people keeping that talent to themselves. They could be wonderful, masterful. Who’d ever know? You’ve got to start somewhere. Plus, having a good group often gives you that little kick in the ass you need to keep your nose to the grindstone. That’s never a bad thing. Gentle kicks in the ass, now. Remember, it’s a sensitive area.
Regardless of what road you travel by, keep working through the long months and years and eventually you’ll find the right alchemical reaction to become the writer you want to become. Just know that a good group can help you make the transition in half the time. Think long and hard about maintaining your personal writing bubble indefinitely. Good art does not, should not, and never will exist in a vacuum. I’ll stake my claim on that one.
Show people what you can do. Otherwise, all your significant, burgeoning ability is akin to a world-class meal prepared for four yet fed to the dog. Yeah, the dog’s happy, but he’s not likely to praise you for your exceptional flavors. Until next month, everyone. Pep talk over. Now go out there and be some doggy!
. . . body. Go out there and be somebody. Sorry.
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Did you come here looking for great words of wisdom on “Jeff’s Pep Talk”? Don’t despair. You can find them this month on this Sunday, October 6, right here on Writing to be Read. Don’t miss it!