Being a Writer in the Age of Social Media

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Say it Ain’t So by Weezer, Trying My Luck by the Strokes)

Here’s a quick paradox for you.

The traditional writer, the Shakespeare or Poe or Hemingway, is an introvert. Not always (I’m actually a counter-example – ENFP by a small margin), but I think most people would agree that, in order to be a writer, you have to like your alone time. After all, why else would you hide away from people for hours on end, writing your little projects with few hopes of being published?

Wow, dark. I like me today.

Anyway, if you’ve ever shared your writing with someone – and I mean baring your heart and soul through your work – you know how uniquely terrifying that is. If you haven’t shared yet, I can’t blame you, although I will tell you that your writing will not get better if you don’t seek feedback.

It’s a difficult step, to take something that’s been so emotionally and spiritually close to you and push it out into the world for others to shit all over. You might start with just a close friend or a significant other, and then gradually move to people whose opinions tend a little more towards the critical side. If you do it too quickly, you suffer a meltdown (case in point). If you do it too slowly, you won’t learn anything.

But none of this is the point. The point is, in the twenty-first century when everyone’s lives are just vomited out online for everyone else to see, and comment on, and approve or disapprove, and rate, it is expected for us timid writers to “be bold” and strike up a following on social media. I’ve seen dozens of literary agencies who, as part of the application and query for a manuscript, ask for my Twitter account.

Oops. Don’t have one.

Or my Facebook account – which I do have, but is pretty much just a forwarding address for all the things I post here and little else. The truth is, I really dislike social media. It’s hard for me to understand, it feels artificial, and it makes oversharing, lack of intimacy and privacy, and online stalking into serious issues.

My friends don’t get my gripe; they think I’m just being a stick in the mud. Honestly, it’s the same reason I don’t like to take posed pictures. When we as humans are aware we’re being watched, we do weird things that are out of our normal personalities. I guess it’s fear of abnormalcy or being seen as ‘weird’ or something.

If you’ve been reading, you know I have no aversion to being weird. I don’t understand most social conventions, and it seems like social media is a place where those social conventions are even more present and prevalent. For someone like me, who prides himself on being genuine and real in all scenarios (including this blog), it just makes me uncomfortable to see people being… well, not who I’ve grown to love them as.

(In case you were wondering about posed pictures, that’s a little bit different. I love the real little pieces of life, those silly inane memories that always bring a smile to your face. Like, my favorite video of my girlfriend is one where she’s eating a cracker in a really weird way. I don’t see that happening in these plastic fake-smiles posed pictures we find ourselves obligated to take at every social outing. BUT HOLY SHIT DO I LOVE CANDID PHOTOS.)

I just found it ironic that now, when social media is at its height, we writers are being forced into doing stuff that makes us extremely uncomfortable – not just having a presence online, but having an engaging one that makes readers want to check out our stuff. Hell, what if you’re a boring person who writes incredible novels? You shouldn’t be punished for that because you can’t build a social media presence.

And don’t even get me started on “selling yourself”. As if it wasn’t bad enough I go into every interview terrified of the idea of trying to explain why I, a mere speck of dust in the entirety of cosmic existence, deserve to have this job, I now have to go online and try to sell my writings, the pieces of my soul. It’s instantaneous devaluation if people don’t buy into it.

Actually, if I had just one wish for non-writers (or even non-artists) who come into contact with people struggling with works of self-expression, it’s this – know how important this project is to this person. I’m not saying it’s fair, but when you’re creating something so close to you, it can’t help but be tied up in your self-esteem, and when people are dismissive or cruel or hypercritical of that, it can really hurt you somewhere deep.

But hey, I gave in, didn’t I? I made a blog, and I have all of about 18 people (I think?) following me. I promised myself when I started that I would be brutally honest with myself and my public, and never to sacrifice a genuine tone in favor of popularity, or to hide any of my numerous flaws. It’s the most respect I can give to you all, my readers, to be everything I am – and nothing I’m not.

Holy shit, what a hipster post.

Yours, antisocialmedialy,

-R.R. Buck

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Time-Skips in Writing

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Time to Say Goodbye by Jeff and Casey Lee Williams)

Here’s a real whiffler for you.

I’ve been working on a project for the past few months (I think I finished the first draft last year, but the second draft is decently more hellish) and one of the things I had considered was the idea of taking what was supposed to be a full-length novel spanning two years and condense it into a 50,000-word portion of a novel spanning about a year. (And yes, I know that 50,000 words is a novel in its own right, but this is high fantasy, baby.)

One of the nice things about the rewrite is that it’s helping me establish what needs to remain in and what can be taken out. I’ve found that the book can’t – despite my earlier idea about a relentlessly paced fantasy novel – leave out certain amounts of character development and exposition; otherwise, things happen far too fast and the audience isn’t allowed to acclimate to the world.

On the other hand, I’m learning that a lot of cool little details can come out in the woodwork instead of being forced into their own chapters of exposition, which makes it feel more like the reader is discovering the world and not being lectured on it.

Let’s get to the point, shall we? In my first draft especially (but still occurring in my shorter second draft) is the problem of how to fit a year’s worth of activity into 50,000 words. When doing something like this, a writer has to balance between the mundanity of an entire year’s passage – not every moment of that year is going to be the action-packed plot-forwarding character-developing moment the audience wants to read – while still making it seem like actual time has passed and actual growth has occurred.

In other words, you can’t just skip over the whole year (too jarring), you can’t make every single chapter saturated with action and development (too improbable and exhausting), and you can’t put in too many mundane chapters (too boring).

Because my manuscript is intended to be kind of like an adult Harry Potter, I want to examine that series in the context of time skips. And let’s be honest here, the Harry Potter series is one of the best at putting an entire year into a book and making the gaps feel natural, almost imperceptible.

You have a few of those mundane chapters that still manage to accomplish moments of character development and plot forwarding – Harry, Ron, and Hermione in class talking to one another as they mix potions or practice charms, moving the story along as they discuss what to do, but also showing the daily life of a student at Hogwarts. You’re interested in what they’re talking about, but also what they’re doing in class – which makes it all the more exciting when that same spell or potion comes up later in the book, as it always seems to.

You also have passages where Rowling describes the change of seasons in Hogwarts, signaling that a decent amount of time has passed without it feeling like we’re skipping ahead entire months and losing out on part of the story. The accelerations through ‘boring periods’ and the decelerations to interesting snapshots and moments feels perfectly smooth and realistic.

So that’s what I’ll be going for in my book. It’s probably not going to work out as well as expected, but hey, that’s why it’s called Journey Into Writing and not Reed is a Writing God.

Yours, considering rereading The Sorceror’s Stone for research purposes,

-R.R. Buck

 

Lessons From a Failed Query Letter

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Mehna Mehna from the Muppets Show)

Query letters. They suck.

You’ve just written yourself a beautiful 80,000+ word novel and you have to condense it into a single squished trash-compactor pitch. Gone are the days of grandiosity; you now have to showcase your work, establish your tone, share your previous experience, and hook in an agent whose job it is to literally go through dozens of these daily… and all in three to four paragraphs.

Nobody enjoys writing query letters. Well, I shouldn’t necessarily assume that – there are some sickos out there. But a query letter is as important as the work itself; it is the barrier to entry to that exclusive club without a name, where literary agents and publishers share drinks with established authors and book deals are signed.

As you might expect, I have had no success with query letters. I’ve queried for two books, one serious, the other just on a whim when I was getting started writing. I’d like to use this space to examine my serious query and try to interpret (in the lack of any real feedback) why it didn’t work so well.

Here we go:

I’d like to submit for your consideration the first few pages and synopsis of my 109,000-word high fantasy novel, Sleeper, which I consider to be the union of Mistborn and Inception. It’s the story of a young assassin searching for the cause of a citywide conflict, and consequently unveiling a conspiracy that leads to an unlikely place—the city’s well-known but oft-overlooked dream realm.

As Kalin’s youngest blade in the night, Melira Canton isn’t in the practice of lending aid to her city, or even obeying its rigid social laws. That notwithstanding, she’d never assassinate a man who held the king’s coin, symbol of his favor—unless she wasn’t aware of the fact until afterward.

As she races to understand how she could have made such an egregious mistake, Melira stumbles upon a sinister conspiracy involving Kalin’s king. After swearing off his addiction to magic five years ago, King Artura VII has since reclaimed the power of the monarchy and used it to strengthen his hold on the city. Now, his newest ordinance escalates racial tensions and threatens to undermine the entire social hierarchy of Kalin.

With the threat of civil war drawing nearer, Melira’s investigation leads her to the heart of the subterfuge—Kalin’s malevolent dream realm, where the shadowy creatures known as incubi lurk. Though dangerous at night, the incubi are largely disregarded by the Kalinites during the day; it is commonly known that the incubi are restricted to an existence inside of the dream realm.

Commonly known, and not entirely true.

Readers of modern high fantasy will enjoy Sleeper, a fresh and dark twist of the classic fantasy world. Although the novel stands alone, it can be extended into a series.

I am a recent graduate of UCLA with a degree in neuroscience. My writing cocktail is equal parts Brandon Sanderson, Suzanne Collins, and Brent Weeks. I hope it goes down smooth.

Thank you for taking the time to read this query, and for your consideration of Sleeper. I’ve attached the 1050-word prologue below.

So let’s start off with the few things I did well.

First, I didn’t give any extraneous details. I had no previous writing experience at that point, and I didn’t waste time trying to explain why my agent should consider a first-time author. The reality of it is that agents are always down to consider first-time authors – just not the ones who have to try to explain themselves.

I kind of stuck to the three-paragraph format, which I cannot emphasize enough. Unless you are some kind of genius (and then it really doesn’t matter what kind of query you write), you must stick to that format – hook, synopsis, author bio. My synopsis was multi-paragraph, but otherwise, I got to the point quickly and kept the pace over the course of the letter.

I also pointed out that the novel was stand-alone (a white lie, in this case, as it was intended to be the first installment of a series). If you’re a first-time author, agents are more likely to pick you up for a single book than for the beginning of a series (or at least that’s what I’ve heard).

So what did I do wrong? Well, to start, I didn’t establish much of an authorial tone. Sleeper is saturated with dark language and witty characters trying to stave off an oppressive, malevolent force – that should have come across here. Otherwise, we just feel like this is yet another standard fantasy novel about “assassin is forced to save city”.

Also, there was almost a clash of tones with the later portions of the letter. While I loved the “writing cocktail” bit, it gave the letter this dash of humor that seemed really out of place with the darker themes of the synopsis. I need to learn to pick a tone and stick to it.

Finally, the cardinal sin of sins in writing – I told instead of showing. “A fresh and dark twist of the modern fantasy world” is something that should come across through the synopsis and the sample chapters, not from me telling my agent so in the letter.

Not all of these things might have led to the rejections from publishers and agents. It’s possible that it just wasn’t a good time for them, or that the market was saturated. But I really believe when you write a killer query letter, an agent will perk up in their seat and say, “Screw market saturation – this can sell regardless.” And that’s what you’re going for.

Yours, developing a new obsession for pistachios,

-R.R. Buck

Why I’m Not Religious

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: You Can’t Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones)

Okay, let’s settle some things right off the bat so nobody gets upset. I will not in this post be talking about why *BELIEF X* is better than *RELIGION Y* or how *RELIGIOUS POPULATION OMEGA* is ruining our good ole fashioned American Puritan ideals. There’s too much conflict in the world as it is (which is a recurring point, as you’ll see below).

I also will not be using the correct form of religious. Several very smart people in my life have informed me that religion comes from the Latin religio, which means “obligation or bond”, or more informally, ritual. (In case you were wondering, by that definition, we are all technically religious – anyone who has a cup of coffee every morning or performs any ritual they adhere to is religious.)

I will be using the modernized word “religious” to describe ideas and beliefs in organized religions, as opposed to the modernized word “spiritual” to describe ideas and beliefs about God, the afterlife, or other topics/questions usually answered by belief systems, organized or otherwise.

So, to begin the conversation with the terms defined, I would like to say that I consider myself “spiritual”, but not “religious” – in other words, I have beliefs about God, the afterlife, and other questions that I have determined myself, outside of any organized religious structure.

I’ve had a lot of religious influences around me growing up. My father’s side of the family was mostly Presbyterian; my mother’s side, mostly Catholic. Neither of them forced their beliefs on me, although I did have quite a few long conversations with my father about spirituality and belief (and I continue to). Oh, and at least one of my brothers is atheist.

One of my best friends is Catholic, and another was Scientologist for a while until she realized… well, let’s just leave it there. I’ve talked with nondenominational Christians, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Hindus, Buddhists – there are certainly gaps in my knowledge where Judaism and Islam are concerned, and I’m trying to bridge those.

Concerning religion, I have historically said two things to anyone who would listen to me. The first is that, to me, nothing is more inspiring than hearing someone who is truly religious talk about their beliefs – it fills me with so much hope and happiness to see someone sharing a beautiful core part of themselves with me.

The second is that religion produces some of the best and worst people in the world (along with nationalism).

I usually find myself playing devil’s advocate (no pun intended) to folks on either side of the aisle who tell me that either religion is the answer, or science/education/atheism is the answer. (By the way, I am not equating science, education, and atheism – I’ve simply heard all of them opposed to religion in different contexts.)

However, on a long train ride with my girlfriend, we got to talking about this kind of stuff and I felt I found the perfect analogy for what I believe. I see our experiences, thoughts, and beliefs as a kind of a toolkit for understanding and interacting with our world. In a person’s toolkit there might be rationality, logic, and science, as well as history, religion, and morality. (Yes, I’m going to separate morality and religion. Deal with it.)

When I speak to an atheist about why they’re not religious, the answer I hear is the same as when I speak to a religious person about why they’re not atheist. It amounts to, “I can understand the world and my purpose in it completely with my chosen tool.” Now, I want to add that there are much prettier and more intricate, nuanced ways of putting this – I’m just trying to save space, since I’m already running up against 600 words.

So anyway, I see an atheist trying to screw in nails with a screwdriver, and a religious person trying to hammer screws into a fixture, and I just can’t understand why there’s this mutuality going on. I mean, who said that logic couldn’t coexist with religion? (Someone much smarter than me, probably.) However, I always saw it like sensation – there are only so many types of stimuli you can sense with vision, and at a certain point, you have to use audition, or gustation, to get the full picture of things. Likewise, there are some patterns of thought that, to me, transcend or defy logic – questions of religion and God – and when dealing with those things, using logic to try to justify or prosecute religious beliefs is like trying to see a sound.

Maybe it’s just because I was a neuroscience student surrounded by a bunch of people telling me that the soul can be deduced to chemical impulses in our brains. Maybe it’s because I love hanging out with religious people who think the Bible should transcend skepticism. Either way, their argument sounds the same to me – I don’t need a well-rounded toolkit, thanks. I’ll stick with my one pair of pliers.

Let me break here for a moment to say I believe in God(s). I believe in an afterlife, and I believe in a purpose to each individual in this life which will help them become the best person they can possibly be. I find myself to be one of the few people who would define themselves as “spiritual” who think about those kinds of things as much as someone who would define themselves as “religious”.

So why have I not joined an organized religion? I’m not gonna feed you some line of bullshit about how “religions are constrictive” – religions are a tool, just like anything else, and allow for as much interpretation, or lack thereof, as any other tool – but I do believe that no religion adequately aligns with my own beliefs about the divine.

I like to dabble in a little bit of everything. Let’s take a Christian trinity God with the roles redefined under my own rhetoric; throw in some Americanized karma; add a dash of my preferred spice blend of morality derived from many different world religions and finish off with a handful of predestination (I could write a whole other post about why I don’t believe in free will the way we see it).

When people ask, I tell them I’m deist – it’s kind of true, as I do believe in the “clockmaker God” who sets the universe running and then sits back instead of intervening. But it’s so much more than that. It ties in with my beliefs about ethics, my own personal philosophy of optimism and childishness, and my purpose in life. It is so uniquely me, it hurts.

And that’s what I think religion should be. It should be an extension of yourself. If you can find that extension in a pre-composed religion, that’s wonderful for you – all sincerity and love. But if you can’t, I don’t believe you should force yourself into believing something just because the people around you do, or because you don’t feel comfortable or secure without the arms of a god around you at all times.

(That’s another thing – I love when atheists say that religious people are just scared of not having a safety net, because to me, it seems like many atheists are scared of not having free will. Just sounds like two sides of the same coin.)

Anyway, I guess what I’m saying is that I see the world as being this terrifying, cold place where the only way people can survive is to come together. And the most frustrating part is that this is what religion should do (IMO), bring people together! But all I see are the Christians saying their religion is the one true path to God, and the Muslims saying their religion is the one true path to God, and all religions disagreeing with one another and everyone is fighting all these goddamn wars throughout the entirety of history in the name of their ONE TRUE PATH TO SALVATION.

The wonderful thing about belief is that it is yours. You don’t have to believe in anything you don’t want to – despite what some may say. For instance, I don’t want to believe in a God that discriminates. I don’t want to believe in a God that thinks being anything but heterosexual is a sin. I don’t want to believe in a God who has defined a single perfect, correct religion and will not let believers of any other faith in.

I want to believe in a God who loves everyone equally, who doesn’t care whether you’re a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Buddhist, an atheist, a deist, a Zen Gnostic, a Pastafarian, or an occultist, as long as you did the best you could in your life to be the best person you could be. I want to believe in a God who watches over us, loves us, weeps for us when we fail, rejoices with us when we succeed, and cares not for what temple we worship at, or what our ritual is – so long as we stick to it.

So far, I haven’t found something like that in any of the religions I’ve had experience with (although Hinduism is pretty damn close). If I find something more like that along my search, I’ll let you know.

Yours, hoping he didn’t ruin your Easter,

-R.R. Buck

Socioagnosia – A Growing Problem

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: this)

Before you even Google, it’s a made-up word. There’s a similar term called social-emotional agnosia, but it’s not at all what I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is something that’s bothered me my entire life, has strained relationships with friends and family, and is kind of funny but ultimately sad.

I like to joke to people that I was born without the part of my brain that understands social niceties. The subtleties of conversations and things said between the lines, the understanding of what is and is not appropriate in a given social scenario, and the entirety of passive-aggresivism as a form of communication – all of these things are complete voids to me.

I didn’t really notice it very much until the first time I ever asked out a girl. Ah, wonderful memories. Her name was Lindsey Cornelius, and in the one of the last days of eighth grade, I had the audacity to ask her out (having spoken to her about five times previously).

She laughed and said no.

It was the first time I came to realize that there were tiers of social popularity, and that I was not in the top one. (I know, that realization came late, right?) Of course, this trend continued into high school, where all the shit really started hitting the fan.

I had a nice core group of friends and enjoyed making an ass of myself with them, doing things loudly and with little care as to who was watching. It got to a point where my little brother would defend me to his friends, who called me things like “weirdo” and I’m sure worse words.

was a weirdo, and still am. I consider it one of my more endearing traits. But not everyone, especially the people close to me, see it the same way. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had friends or girlfriends take me politely by the arm away from a party or other social setting and tell me, “What you just did was inappropriate.” Or worse, I find out about it a few weeks later, after it’s already left my mind.

See, the thing you have to understand about my family is that there were four boys growing up. Each of us louder than the last, all struggling to get our words – and sometimes our fists – into the conversation. There wasn’t exactly a lot of room for subtlety or passive-aggressive acts. As a matter of fact, there was pretty much no room for that.

My friends were kind enough to indulge me in my deficiency, and I didn’t associate with anyone ‘popular’ in high school, so I didn’t actually learn what it was like to be on the receiving end of passive-aggressive actions until college. And then, oh boy, did I learn.

I had a friend (I don’t believe he reads this, but it will almost certainly be hell for me if he does) who saw many of my habits and actions as being inappropriate. Of course, I never knew this because he never told me outright; instead, he would make passive displays of his frustration – which I am infinitely proud to say I actually picked up on.

Unfortunately, I never knew what he was mad at me for.

See, that’s where passive-aggresivism breaks down for me. I can understand someone wanting to change a behavior but wanting to be tactful about the way they bring it up. But when I notice someone is upset about something and I cannot determine what they are upset about, I get more and more guilty without knowing what to change. And believe me, I want to change it; I just don’t know what it is.

I explain it to people like this – I’m going to Japan for the first time, and I commit some unpardonable faux pas. A Japanese person starts yelling at me in Japanese and I can clearly see they are upset and want me to change something, but I don’t speak Japanese and I don’t know what it is.

Then someone else, well-meaning but frustrating to me, comes along and says, “Well, just learn Japanese!” and I am so down for that. But then I learn that everyone speaks a different dialect of Japanese, and everyone has a different set of social rules, and they all just expect me to know all of this. I ask them to teach me Japanese and they say, “It’s just something you have to know.”

I’m not kidding. People have before told me, “If you’re telling me that you don’t see how that’s inappropriate, you’re bullshitting.” To which there is only one response on my part – a shrug, a sad half-smile, and an apology for something I don’t understand but must be sorry for, under social convention.

I wouldn’t be quite so frustrated about this if it wasn’t for the fact that there was an alternative which is easier, clearer, and in a way more beautiful. It’s called direct honesty, and I work to cultivate it in every important relationship in my life.

You’re upset with me? Tell me why. I will strive to act in a different way, knowing exactly what made you upset and why it’s important.

Some people are wonderful about this, even if it makes them uncomfortable to say, “Hey, what you’re doing right now is pissing me off.” But some people continue to refuse to tell me what’s going on. They think (or I assume they think, because they won’t tell me directly) that I should just know better, that I should be able to pick up on the subtleties. It’s like telling a colorblind person to just know the difference between red and green.

Okay, having finished the rant, I now want to talk about why my beliefs about this are kind of bullshit.

^This guy, am I right?

I didn’t really consider this until some of my coworkers at the library brought it up a few weeks ago. Without going into a long story, I had said something during an interview with a potential staff member that was totally inappropriate. Of course, because I’m me, I didn’t know that until they brought it up a few weeks later, and then I was embarrassed in the extreme.

The conversation evolved from there into something more about the expectations we bring into social interactions. The staff members, both of whom were women of color, encouraged me to consider what I, as a straight white man, might not perceive about the expectations and rules applied to outgroups and minorities in social scenarios.

I have to be honest and say I mentally rolled my eyes at that point – old habits getting the better of me. I’m still struggling to abide by the YH8 principle and sometimes I forget that equity and equality are not the same thing. But later on, when I thought about things with a more level head, I decided that treating my social dysfunction as an excuse to not try to understand others’ headspace was detrimental to my relationships and myself.

Where does this put me on the argument I’ve been having with myself on this post? Well, for one thing, I still don’t believe passive-aggresivism is an okay thing. If my coworkers had never brought up the misconduct at the interview to me, I wouldn’t have been able to learn from it and grow as a person. But I do believe that entering a conversation or social scenario without giving consideration to the different beliefs, standards of propriety, and baggage each other person brings is rude and in some cases oppressive.

Bottom line – I will try my hardest to understand the expectations and rules of social situations in the future. If you know me, you know I will fail. When I do, please tell me in a direct way, so I can keep improving myself towards that golden standard of tolerance and pleasantry that I someday hope to reach.

Rant over.

Yours, cuddled up in a blankie,

-R.R. Buck

Digging Deep as a Writer

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Raytracer by Emperor X)

This is going to be a little bit of an awkward one to write, because I know my girlfriend is reading my posts, but I think it should be said.

Before this, I’ve been sitting in lab waiting for an experiment to wrap up, and two hours of dead time in a quiet lab is a great recipe for writing. So I was working on a chapter in which one of the main characters is… well, in order to avoid spoilers, let’s say one of the main characters is wounded severely.

In this passage, one of the other characters finds this wounded character and – well, here’s the part where I got kind of stuck. See, I was trying to write that sense of panic when a person stumbles upon someone they love who’s in immediate physical harm, but I couldn’t find the right words to say. I couldn’t really access that emotion.

So I did something no sane, healthy person would do. I dug back into my memories and found something terrible.

My girlfriend is diabetic, and she’s great at managing it. In the entire time we’ve been together, there have only been two or three instances where her blood sugar has gotten too low too quickly – for those of you not familiar with the disease, that can result in hypoglycemic seizures.

I feel like I’ve told this story so many time before, but I haven’t fully learned to cope. I’m going to try now.

There was a moment a year or two ago when she spent the night at my place and, when I woke up in the morning, she was seizing next to me in bed.

(Wow, that brought tears back. Give me a second, I’m trying.)

It was one of the most uniquely frightening things that’s ever happened to me. Seeing someone you love in a place where you know nothing you can do can help them…. I can’t even begin to describe it.

All I remember from those first frenzied moments of waking was me saying, over and over, “Oh, shit. Lindsay? Oh, shit.”

Doesn’t exactly make for a great bit of dialogue, does it? But it’s real. And the panic is real.

So, back to my writing. I was trying to capture this feeling of mindless terror in one of my characters, and in order to do so, I closed my eyes and spent a few moments back a year or two ago. Then I wrote exactly what I saw, felt, and thought.

Here’s what came out :

Deira started to scream.

Sera whirled around, scanning the woods. She lay on the ground some several feet away, clawing at her chest, her eyes wide open and glaring at the night sky, sounds of inconceivable pain leaving her mouth.

DEIRA!

Heedless of all noise now, Sera tore through the trees to Deira’s side. He was barely aware of a series of sounds behind him as Lucent did some sort of Signature. He grabbed Di by both shoulders, then released her immediately, afraid of hurting her further but not knowing what else to do. Words were bubbling up from his throat, half-choked by sobs.

“Di… what is it? What’s wrong? Di? Di, what’s hurt?! Di!”

She would not speak, could not. She writhed on the ground, her fingers curled and contorted, her eyes rolling at sights he couldn’t see. The same high keening sound continued to come from her gaping mouth.

“Oh, shit. Oh, shit. Oh, shit.”

He held her, clutching her trembling form to his chest, tears streaming down his face. Words continued to come from him, but he could no longer hear his own voice. He could only perceive her, her screams, her anguish. It consumed him.

Um, so, yeah.

Look, I’m not telling anyone with a trigger to try to relive it for the sake of realism in their writing. What I will tell you is that digging deep, accessing that source of pain, can make your characters – and by extension, your readers – feel that same crushing emotion you felt. It can bring that sense of horror into their minds.

Can we take a minute to let go of this excess emotion? I don’t know about you, but I’m going to take a minute to listen to a happy song. I’ll put it on the playlist at the top when I’m done.

……..

Okay, I’m back. And I want to say that this doesn’t have to be a mechanism only for writing terrible scenes. For instance, let’s take the opposite – how did you feel when you lost your virginity? Got married? Got drunk for the first time? What was your mental state during the best memory you’ve ever had, and how can you translate that to a scene in which your character is feeling the same way?

To make your characters interesting, they have to be the right combination of real and unreal. They have to be real because people have to feel like they understand and know the characters, to identify with them; they have to be unreal so they’re engaging and different than the ‘characters’ we know in real life.

A large part of that realism is in the way characters respond to situations. No one on the face of the earth speaks like one of the leads in CSI unless they’re a total douchebag. On the other hand, the success of a character like Jim Halpert from the Office is due entirely to the (very realistic) way he reacts to situations.

So when you have a scene you need to nail that contains an overload of emotion, you need to make sure you nail it. And it’s really easy to go overboard with the cliches and the standard language and have that emotional scene feel flat and unrealistic. The way you can avoid that is to dig deep and find your own memories, frightening as they may be, to dredge that emotion up and into words.

Side benefit – it’s also very therapeutic to write some of that emotion out. You wouldn’t believe it, but I feel lighter right now. This was almost a confession in some way.

To reiterate, I am not telling you to relive your triggers if you can’t handle them. I’m only saying that, for an overemotional scene to be real and gripping, it has to come from something grounded in reality.

And one of the most wonderful things about nailing a scene – something I’ve only experienced once, as I am still a lowly unpublished novelist – is when someone comes up to you and says, “That’s exactly what it was like for me, and to hear someone else describe it made me feel like I’m not alone.”

Hopefully even just one person reading this will identify with what I’ve written, and then I’ll have done my job.

Whew, who knew I could get so emotional in lab, huh? Thank God for indie acoustic music to calm me down.

Yours, only slightly emotionally exhausted,

-R.R. Buck

Teaser Chapter – Symphony of Legend [High Fantasy Novel]

As promised! Let me know what you all think.

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Under the cloak of an autumn night, Vague observed the inn she’d chosen as bait.

The Stable, it was called. A squat wooden structure in the shape and style of an old cabin, it huddled against the winter chill. Light from within leaked out into the night but did little to chase away the darkness or the cold.

Vague knelt by the open window, her eyes flitting between the faces of those inside. She rummaged through her pack, pushing aside changes of clothing and empty containers of travel food, until she found what she was looking for.

A flute, carved with obvious care from a dark cherrywood but pockmarked with scratches and dents from years of use. Vague stroked the top of it, feeling the grooves that were more familiar to her than anything in the world.

She brought the flute to her lips, softly blowing a perfect nonave through the window. It was barely audible to the folk in the inn, absorbed as they were in their conversations and their drink. Still, it caused a sort of a stir in the atmosphere in the room.

She let her fingers meander, playing a short piece of music. The occupants of the Stable looked to one another in mild confusion, but as the soft wisps of song drifted further indoors, they returned their attention to their beers. Their eyes glazed over and mellow smiles appeared on their faces.

A hint of a grin curled on Vague’s top lip. She pocketed her flute and headed to the front of the inn.

The autumn chill pervaded outdoors, but within the Stable, several lit hearths kept the room warm. Their steady glow lit the worn faces of the farmers and agricults who took their barley beers in small huddled groups. Their quiet murmurs filled the Stable with a comfortable cadence.

Vague crossed the tavern, smoky gray cloak swirling as she made her way towards the back. A few drunken pairs of eyes turned her way, but she was quickly dismissed. Usually, a traveller would have been swamped with good cheer, free drinks, and requests for news from abroad, but tonight, it seemed the people of Summeroak had other, darker things on their minds.

Or perhaps her prelude had ensured her invisibility.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the notice of the innkeeper. He appeared from behind the counter, carrying a tray full of drinks across the tavern floor. He brought them to his patrons, calling each by name; by the time he reached her, the tray was completely empty.

“What’ll it be, friend?”

She met his eyes – or, rather, his plain brown hider lenses.

“You keep a beautiful inn,” she said. The lovingly polished oak, the calm radiance of the hearths… this place was a haven for folk whose life was a struggle for subsistence.

A smile lit the innkeeper’s face. “Much ‘ppreciated.” His accent was soft, rural, and delightful. “Kin I ask what you’re here for? If it’s lodgings, I’m afraid we’re all booked today.” He lowered his voice to a knowing whisper. “Folks’ll be wanting to drink their fill tonight, without worrying about trying to return home in the long hours.”

Vague grimaced. “That is unfortunate. Is there any way you can accomodate for me? I have no objections to sleeping down here by the hearth.”

“I’m sorry, miss. It just won’t do. But how about a warm mug of spiced wine for the road? Free of charge, on account of my not having room for ya.”

The innkeeper began to leave without waiting for a response. Vague almost caught herself smiling again before she remembered why she was here.

“Innkeep?” she called.

The man turned.

“What is your name?”

He scratched the thick beard that decorated his chin. “I’m called Erryn. And you?”

“Vague.”

“That’ll make ya one of them government folks from Imperik, right?”

Vague hesitated, then nodded.

“Strange for you to be so far west.”

She said nothing.

The innkeeper shrugged. “It’ll have to be an extra mighty mug, then. Ya look like you’ve got travelling to do.”

He turned back towards the bar. Vague felt the warm trail of a tear down her cheek.

She turned, scoping out the rest of the bar. She’d come to the right place – she could tell simply from the downturned grimaces of the patrons, the crumpled postures with which they huddled over their mugs. They spoke only infrequently to each other, and when they did their rough tones carried a weight of emotion.

As she scanned, one man lifted his head from a table nearby and caught her eye. A sort of question formed on his face and he stood, wobbling slightly.

Vague withdrew her flute from her pocket and began to play, her fingers wandering seemingly of their own accord. The soft, lilting song rose in volume to match the conversations around her, swelling and swirling around the tavern. It whispered in the ear of each and every patron. Another comfortable lull settled into the Stable.

Vague closed her eyes, caught up in the music. It poured forth from her, gaining force and sway, allowing her for a single moment to forget why she was here.

A loud crash from in front of her put an abrupt end to her song.

It was Erryn. He had dropped her mug, the wine seeping into the floorboards around shattered bits of ceramic.

As the music ceased suddenly, the stupor left the room and the people began to come back to awareness. They glanced around, searching for something they could not describe. Eventually, they returned to their conversations.

Erryn, however, gaped at Vague. “What,” he whispered, “did you just do?”

Vague shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “Relax. I’m an agricult from down south. I wasn’t playing anything in particular.”

“Liar,” Erryn hissed. “You said you were from Imperik. You’re bewitching my people.”

Vague rose to her full height, eyes narrowing. “And you’ve created a sanguinic facade, but you don’t have a drop of red in you. So it would seem that neither of us is being entirely honest.”

Erryn paled, but his voice was steady. “You need to leave. Right now.”

“You don’t understand. I’m here to – “

“I don’t care what you’re here for!”

The words scythed through the atmospheric calm. Several patrons nearby turned and regarded the innkeeper towering over the hooded stranger.

When Vague spoke, Erryn had to lean in to hear. “I’m going to ask you to turn around and leave me alone.” As she spoke, she raised her right hand up into view. Etched into the flesh of her fingertips were five dark tattoos of strange symbols.

“You can’t frighten me with that,” Erryn said, his voice growing louder. “I’ve seen those things before. They’re not nothing but parlor tricks.”

Vague tilted her head to one side. Her hood fell back, revealing a cascade of auburn hair. Her voice remained a touch above a whisper. “Would you really stake the lives of everyone here on your understanding of a magic you’ve never truly known?”

The eyes of nearly everyone in the Stable now regarded the pair at the back. Erryn struggled to form a response, his face now beet-red. Mostly choleric, to be sure.

I’ve lost control of the situation. It would be best to retreat and try a different venue tomorrow night.

“You don’t have to worry,” Vague said. She waved her tattooed hand at him. “I intend to depart immediately.” She brushed past him, taking slight pleasure in the way he jerked back from her touch.

It was only when she was halfway to the door that she noticed the newcomers standing just inside the threshold to the Stable.

They appeared humanoid, at least in form. The resemblance ended there. Three long, naked torsos of knotted muscle and pale flesh heaved with gasping breaths. Under the skin all over the creatures’ bodies, turgid translucent veins coursed with brown fluid. Vague could see the throb of their pulse in every swollen artery.

At their sides they carried swords, the handles thrust into scabbards which hung from their loose ragged leggings. Despite their grotesque appearance, none of the Terravenians had noticed them, attentive as they were to the conflict between Vague and Erryn.

Vague froze. Her left hand reached for a hidden mechanism on the side of her flute. A short blade popped out of the end of the instrument.

“Whoa, now,” Erryn said, palms held up. “I didn’t mean to – “

“Hush,” Vague whispered. Her eyes refused to leave those of the Humorless for even a moment. Faced with the inevitability of conflict, the thumb-length blade of her instrument now seemed puny and insignificant.

The Humorless observed the inn silently for several seconds. Still none of the farmers turned towards the doorway. That was probably better for them.

She took a step forward. Then another. The Humorless locked eyes with her. They had no discernable pupils or irises, only milky white orbs suspended in the same viscous brown fluid that flowed through their veins. They might have been blind, but if they were, they could still somehow sense Vague.

A few more steps forward. She was in striking distance –

From behind her, a woman screamed.

Shit.

The Humorless drew their side swords with soft scraping sounds. The weapons were entirely composed of some sort of glittering black substance, unlike anything Vague had ever seen in her life.

Quadre above… the stories are actually true.

The Humorless moved past her towards the farmers. As Vague leapt at one, the creature batted her aside with the flat of the blade. She was thrown bodily across the room into the side of the bar, landing heavily on her stomach. Her fluteblade clattered to the ground several paces away.

Vague shook her head to clear it, feeling a sharp pain in her side. Knocked breathless with at least one broken rib, she was unable to speak to the villagers. They all sat paralyzed with terror, watching as ghost stories walked among them, wielding blades of night.

The lead Humorless stopped in front of the woman who had screamed. She now sat completely still, tears welling up in her eyes, words falling from trembling lips. “Quadre save me… I am not whole….”

The lead Humorless cocked its head to one side, listening to her prayers. Then it raised its glittering sword high above its head.

Vague snapped her fingers.

The inn shattered.

Every bit of wood in the entire building splintered instantaneously. A deafening roar pierced the room, accompanied by the violent howling of a sudden wind. Villagers sitting by the hearths screamed in agony as logs burst into hot ash and embers that peppered their skin. Those who hadn’t been struck by the explosion scrambled for cover under the sudden maelstrom of woodchips and slivers.

           In mere moments, the destruction had ended. Every single stick of wood in the entire inn had disintegrated, leaving only the stone hearths and the steel foundation beams jutting upwards into the night sky like broken bones. Farmers and agricults alike cowered in place, paying no heed to their fellows who had been tossed aside by the explosion and now lay unconscious on the hard-packed earth.

           Only Vague still stood, one hand stretched out before her. Floating above her palm was a red-hot sphere of scorched fragments of wood, humming softly. Its glow was now the only illumination in the pitch-black night. It lit the curve of her nose, the hawk-like focus in her eyes as she scanned the wreckage.

Someone nearby struggled to stand, shaking off dust and ash. Erryn. His thick brown beard now stained black with soot, he took stock of his inn. A low moan escaped his lips. “You… you Muse! Damn you. Damn you all….”

He fell to his knees and began to sob. Vague paid him no attention. Her eyes flitted from body to body, searching for the creatures. Where in the Ghost’s name were they? She raised her hand higher, casting the light from the orb of burning wood farther into the depths of the wreck.

Something moved under the hearths.

Vague snapped her fingers again – this time her thumb and her little finger – as two of the Humorless leapt at her from the dark corners of the fireplaces. The coalesced ball of wood shot forward in a thick stream of angry red chips, knocking the creatures down. The smell of singed flesh filled the air.

Neither of the Humorless made any noises of pain. They simply rose from where they’d been thrown to the floor, clutching their black blades, the smoldering embers still embedded in their skin. As one they lurched forward, raising their swords to strike.

Vague dodged aside their blows, twisting between flashing dark glass. It helped that now, with her fiery sphere scattered, the only light came from the still-burning skin of the Humorless. As their gossamer eyes sought her in the darkness, she darted forward and swung the blade of her flute towards the neck of the nearest Humorless.

It reacted with inhuman speed, turning and raising its shoulder to catch the blade, which sank in all the way up to the wood. As the Humorless turned, the flute was pulled from her hands; now unarmed, Vague was forced to dance away from the pair of demons.

She snapped her fingers again – this time, the thumb and fourth finger of her left hand – and the metal support beams of the inn twisted downward toward the ground, striking like lightning at several spots between her and the Humorless. One beam pierced straight through the leg of one of the creatures; another slammed into the shoulder of the wounded one, knocking Vague’s flute loose. It clattered to the earth in front of her.

She took a half-moment to study it. The blade glistened with the viscous, brown fluid of the Humorless’ veins.

That was all she needed.

A sudden cold pain jolted through Vague’s arm. She looked up to see that one of the Humorless had thrown its sword at her, slicing through the center of her bicep. Immediately, her right arm went numb, hanging limp to her side.

Vague snapped two new fingers. At her command, the various thin metal support beams swam forward through the air and coalesced into a new orb in her palm. She flicked her wrist and the metal formed into a single solid bar as thick and long as a tree trunk.

The Humorless dashed at her, their blades aimed towards her throat.

She snapped once more.

The iron bar hurtled forward, wrapping itself around the two Humorless. It continued to accelerate, dragging the two struggling creatures far off into the distance. Their howls of frustration soon faded.

Vague rummaged in her pack, which sat undamaged nearby, and procured a power candle, which she lit. A cursory glance around told her that the third Humorless had long since left the wreckage of the Stable. The patrons shied back from the candlelight, whimpering and clutching one another.

She raised trembling fingers to end their lives.

From somewhere in the darkness, a child cried out for her mother. Vague lowered her hand.

“The danger is over for now,” she said. She was greeted with silence, apart from Erryn’s loud sobbing.

“It may yet return. You will need to leave this area. Abandon Summeroak and find new fields eastward. You have been warned.”

Vague pocketed her flute – being careful to retract the blade with the intact sample of Humorless fluid, as the mechanism had been built for sample capture – and turned her back on the charred remains of the inn. From behind her in the darkness, Erryn’s voice floated, whispering the three curses – the most vile oath a person could utter.

“Your body, may it never rot. Your mind, may it never rest. Your soul, may it never be accepted.”

Vague limped away. Her tears remained, to cool the scorched earth.

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If you liked that, let me hear it! I’d be down to post more as I continue working through the draft.

Yours, well-rested,

-R.R. Buck

A Musing About Plot

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: I Burn by Jeff and Casey Lee Williams)

Hey everyone,

I’m one for one on fulfilling my promise to write every day! Here’s to a good start.

Anyway, since I’ll be writing more, my posts will probably be shorter, and several of them will be more musings than lessons. For instance, today I was thinking about my current writing project and how unsure I am about the balance between brevity and comfortable pacing for plot.

So right now I’m working on a book. I think I said before that it was originally supposed to be a trilogy, but then I decided to cut out the fat and squeeze it into one book. And I’m liking the snappy pacing of this new version, of which I am almost a third of the way done.

On the other hand, the exposition is happening really quickly and in really large chunks. Without a few chapters to let my readers get acclimated to the world, I find myself putting everything they need to know in a (*cough cough plot device cough cough*) super-condensed school lesson that, even still, is peppered with other activity.

Pro – the story is moving forward at a rapid pace and it doesn’t leave any room for the reader to put the book down.

Con – all the main characters have already met one another and the reader feels like they need to ‘catch up’ on relationship context

Pro – the extraneous subplots used to fill space in the whole-novel version have been removed, expediting things.

Con – those subplots revealed a lot about the characters’ motivations and personalities, and now I feel like I’m getting less of that coming across in this version.

You can see I’m torn on the subject.

I’m actually starting to see this go the same way as the editing went with The Oasis, my short story – I have a long, overbloated version filled with all those bad writing devices, and then I rewrite as a too-terse, completely gutted version before combining the two in a hybrid that gives the right amount of exposition and understanding while still keeping the pace.

If I’m following that logic, it means that somewhere in the middle of these two extreme versions of the book, there’s a comfortable Goldilocks-style middle ground where the characters are allowed to shine through and – yeah, why not – there might even be some subplots, but the main story still moves along at a nice clip.

Until then, I’m just going to keep writing every day and hope to figure it out. If I do, I’ll let you know.

And to all my fans, a little treat – I’ll release the work-in-progress prelude chapter to the novel tomorrow. So stay tuned!

Yours, wishing he wasn’t in lab,

-R.R. Buck

Heading Out Into the (Writing) World

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Enemy of the World by Four Year Strong)

It’s with a certain sense of sobriety and gravity that I write this post.

Today is officially my last day working at the UCLA library. I’m sitting at my desk, a half hour past the end of my last shift, and although I’ve done this countless times before to write posts, it feels like there’s some kind of a death this time.

I guess the library was a great way for me to extend that gap year, to be able to stay on campus amidst the hub of things, hearing from the students and living by the ferocious rules of the quarter system. Now, knowing that (in my infinite laziness) I probably won’t be coming back onto campus very often, I’m realizing that this was a well-masked ploy to try to pretend I was still in college for as long as possible.

Tomorrow, I won’t be going to work. I won’t have to wake up at any particular time, or get anything in particular done. And if you know me, you will understand how much that scares the shit out of me.

I’ve always felt my life was built around the concepts of momentum and inertia – I had a “core” existence with “core” friends, activities, and habits, and I stuck with them unless something forced me to move in a different direction. For instance, when my grades started dropping in my second year of college, I found the strength to finally exert real, honest effort in my academics to bring my GPA back up in my third and fourth years.

But in between those stark moments of push, where I gather momentum and keep it moving towards something greater, I find myself slowing down. I grow content with the simple things, and I stop trying to make improvements.

I’m not the kind of person to stress out over not making the most of my life. If I could spend the rest of my days watching Netflix with my girlfriend, playing D&D with my apartment, and messing around with writing, I know I would. So believe me when I say that this unemployment period is a real, tangible threat to self-improvement.

It’s also an opportunity.

For the last week or two, I’ve been gearing myself up. I’ve been trying to shake off memories of an unsuccessful job hunt at 16 that caused me to believe I wouldn’t be an asset at a company. I’ve been networking like I never have before, making connections both on and off UCLA campus, trying to forge my future in a communications field. It’s an unprecedented burst of that momentum, and right when I’ve needed it.

I intend to continue that momentum. I’m aiming for improvements far beyond what I’ve dared to imagine for myself before. And, oddly enough, that starts with the dumb little things. I have nothing to do for eight hours every day? Then I’m gonna fill it with all those things I told myself I would do when I had time.

Bitches, I’m gonna exercise every day. And I’m gonna hate myself for it.

I’m gonna write every goddamn day. Blog posts and creative writing, and even a bit of freelance copy if I can get a job or two. You don’t need to hold me to it – I’ll do it myself.

I refuse to let myself get complacent, knowing what it will mean for my life and my self-confidence. I reject the idea that I am not worthy of a job, or a publishing credit.

I used to see posts like this all the time – I still do, on writing forums and on the discussion section of the James Patterson MasterClass page. A whole bunch of people saying, “This is the day I start writing every day.” I remember how it felt to look at those posts and know, know, in my heart that I wouldn’t be that kind of person.

If you’re reading this right now and thinking that same thing, I feel for you. I know I wouldn’t be able to – haven’t been able to, historically – do something like this if I wasn’t facing a few months of unemployment. So don’t you dare tell yourself that you’re a failure just because you’re not ready for something like this. Someday, you will be. Hell, maybe a few weeks from now I’ll be back to writing three posts a week and cringing internally that I had the audacity to say this. I’m human after all.

But damn everything if I’m not gonna give it a try.

Believe in yourself, please. And if you can’t, find a group of loved ones who will believe in you. They’ll keep you on the positive until you’re ready to try for yourself.

Here’s to unemployment, and all the good and bad it can bring.

Yours, hoping,

-R.R. Buck