#Mentoring #WritingTips – Make Every Word Count

Today I want to address words and how to make them count. I know I’ll get some pushback on this from the masses but remember: these are only my opinions. Use what works for you.

When I start mentoring someone new, I ask them to go through their story and remove a certain word first thing. The word, “that”. This word is what I call an empty calorie (junk food) among the serving of healthy words. It’s become overused these days because it’s common speak (street talk, as I call it).

Try it. Go through one paragraph and remove the word that if it doesn’t change the sentence. Now read it again. Does it sound more concise? Do you miss the word if it’s gone? Does it give your sentence a “gut punch” effect? Finally, does it make your words and their delivery sound more confident?

Trust me, I still have to go through and remove them from my own writing. What I’ve noticed, however, is it’s such an overused and unnecessary word, it drenches the pages. I couldn’t believe it when I pulled 6 books off the shelf to peruse the first page, how many jumped off the page at me. I couldn’t continue reading because the sheer number of “that’s” took me out of the story before it ever began.

Go through your own story in Word. Do a word search for “that” and see how many times you’ve used it. Is it 20 times? 50? More?

The next step after removing unnecessary “that’s” is to search for any word ending in -ly.

Here’s where I get challenged most often: using an -ly adverb is lazy. I know. Hearing it stings. That’s what mentoring is, though. Correcting bad habits and creating good ones.

Ok, why do we remove them?

Reason number 1: Most -ly adverbs (quickly, slowly, quietly) can be considered perspective.

Example: He backed up slowly.

How slow? If someone is backing up, are they surprised? Afraid? Dizzy?

Try using your words and make them count.

He took a few steps back. Each step was tentative, seeking the ground beneath him to keep from tripping.

Or

I raised my hand in slow motion, the room spinning around me.

Or

Unsure of where the chair was, I took one slow step back before the other followed.

See how it gives the sentences a better visual? Instead of using “slowly” I gave a better idea of what slowly looked like.

Most times, you can change the position of a few words to eliminate the -ly word and it will make the sentence sound more confident, leaving the reader with a solid description of what’s happening. Adding -ly gives a meek sound to your words and gives the impression of a week vocabulary.

Are you up for the challenge? Give this a try and let me know if it worked for you. Do you feel it made your story more confident sounding? I’d love to hear from you!


If you love these tips and want more, please comment and share!

Step 1: Begin

One of the hardest things to remember in any part of your life is to stop and return to the beginning. Think about it for a moment: You’re deep within a plot of a story you began with so much excitement. You’re staring at the words but you get frustrated because something isn’t right. Maybe the characters are flat, your protagonist isn’t doing what (s)he’s supposed to, or perhaps you can’t figure out where to go next.

Any of this sound familiar?

When I mentor, one of the things I try to convey is how to keep connecting things. Connections are a constant reminder to your reader. It says, “Hey, pay attention”, and it gives tiny fireworks of moments to the readers mind.

They don’t have to be big things. It may be a secret thought, something subtle and delicate, connecting your character and the reader. But it makes the connection personal and intimate, and in turn, unforgettable.

It can also create a three dimensional version of your character, allowing the suspension of believability to become stronger.

Example: Your character seems to know a lot for their age.

Go back to step one. The character knows a lot because…?

  1. Maybe they were a gifted student
  2. One of their parents taught them things at an advanced level due to their own level of expertise
  3. They were part of an experiment which enhanced their learning capabilities
  4. They are supernatural (vampire, werewolf, etc)

Do you see how it gives opportunity for storytelling? You know these things about your character. Now you have to create this for the reader without a boring info dump.

Which is more engaging?

Marie was smarter than most girls at her school. She was always getting A’s without ever studying.

Or

Marie glanced at the page. Her father taught her to speed read as a child, allowing her to take in more information at a rapid rate. She smiled when she overheard her classmates making up wild stories of how she never studied.

In the second example we are in on the secret. We know Marie’s dad taught her to speed read, she enjoyed the speculation from her classmates, and it increases our perception of who Marie really is.

When I write, I like to create time lines. When your eye has a guide, it stays focused. I know where my story starts and where it ends. Everything between must connect the two points. If I get stuck, I slide back to step one.

Who is my main character?

What is the connection between the main character and the story?

What is the conflict?

What is the resolution?

Asking these questions will always circle you back to the beginning. Knowing your roots is only the first part. Letting them expand and settle into the earth is a skill we can all learn.


If this article has helped, please pass it on and comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Conversations with Mentors: Daniel Chernault

I’ve interviewed several of the mentors who brought me to where I am today. In the upcoming weeks, you’ll see them posted here. Though none of them are in the publishing industry, the things I learned from their expertise still apply. I hope through this series, many of you will find something to take away from it, be inspired, and share so others can learn, too.

I met Dan when I was working for a car dealership a few years ago. I walked in with no prior experience in accounting and sat down with him and his assistant CFO for an interview. I was immediately drawn to Dan’s candor and sense of humor. There aren’t many people who can mix the two without one of two things happening.

A: No one takes you seriously because you’re trying to be a “comedian” or
B: No one likes you because you’re too honest and get labeled an “asshole”

The honesty was a breath of fresh air. In the course of two years, I grew to respect Dan more and more. One of the most intelligent people I had ever met, he was open to sharing his knowledge if “you weren’t an idiot”. (I may, or may not be quoting him. I plead the fifth.)

If you could handle the task, Dan gave it to you. And in the short time I worked for him, I learned an incredible amount of things. It showed me what my own potential was, it allowed me to never settle (once I learned one thing, he tossed me another), and it taught me to trust my gut. Even if I was wrong. And yes, I was wrong a lot. He never made me feel stupid when I was, but rather used it as a learning experience. See, it’s ok to be wrong if you are genuinely willing and capable of learning. Being open, and being vulnerable to being wrong is how you grow. In fact, it made me more confident. It taught me to ask questions, think critically, and never settle.

One of the things I learned from Dan which I apply to running Stitched Smile Publications is to ask: “Is this the best you can do?” If it isn’t the best work you can turn in, then don’t settle for “good enough”. (I really hate that term!)

If it’s your best, it’s your best. Own it. Learn from it. Get better.

Experiences make us who we are and if we constantly shy away from being uncomfortable or being vulnerable, if we never take a risk in life, we’re condemned to being a box of crayons: Individual colors neatly packed in cardboard. Same colors, same label, no matter how bright the outside is.


LV: Tell us a little about yourself. What your line of work is and area(s) of expertise

I’ve been in the automobile business forever.  43 years or so.  I worked as a Zone Manager for the Ford Motor Company, as a controller is some small dealerships after I left Ford, and as General Manager of a Chevy dealership.  I spent four years with the National Automobile Dealers Association as a consultant and financial management instructor.  I spent the last 24 years as Chief Financial Officer of the Russell & Smith Auto Group in Houston.  Much of what I’ve done has been accounting-related, with the rest being sales.  I’m currently Vice President of Sales for ProBilling and Funding, a company which offers receivables management products.

LV: What things motivated your “younger” self to succeed?

Probably the two summers I spent working as a construction laborer, or maybe it was my high school job at McDonalds…..  Seriously, I just never thought there was anything I couldn’t do.  I think that was our attitude when I was in college (late 60’s).  We just knew we would be successful.  It helped that big corporations were actively recruiting us, and it was not unusual for one of us to receive a number of employment offers prior to graduation.

LV: A lot of people struggle with feelings of failure. When we look at our mentors and leaders, we sometimes forget they are human and have gone through similar experiences. Can you recall a time when you felt your lowest? Tell us about it and how you got through.

Probably getting fired from what I thought was going to be my dream job in Atlanta.  I left that thinking, “I’m tired of the car business.  Maybe it’s time to find another line of work”.  I spent about a month doing nothing constructive, almost trying to avoid looking for another job.  I finally got off my ***, put my resume together, and, within a couple of months, had five job offers in hand.  It never really occurred to me, once I finally started looking,  that I might not find the type of job I was seeking, only that it might take some time.  The average time between jobs for my type of job was around four months, I think I solved it in three.  You just have to be like the “little engine that could”.

LV: You served in the military for many years and rose through the ranks through hard work. Did the military teach you that, or do you feel like people are born with a natural desire to be a leader?

 Hmmmmm…..    The military, or at least the Army, turns ordinary people into remarkable leaders, whether they want to or not.  I don’t believe you are born with the desire to be a leader, I think you become a leader when you need to be one, or when you are needed to be one.

LV: What are your biggest strengths, and weakness?

Biggest Strength:  I never give up or give in.

Biggest Weakness:  I never give up or give in.

LV: What do you do to keep yourself centered with everything you have going on in your life?

I asked my father a similar question; my step mother had a number of health issues, life wasn’t going well, and it had to be tough.  I asked him how managed everything, and he basically said “Put one foot in front of the other.  Repeat”.  The best way to remain centered is to keep doing what needs to be done.  The rest of it will take care of itself.

LV: What traits do you look for in a person prior to making the decision to invest time into teaching them? And once you’ve begun to mentor them, what are your expectations?

Not to disparage testing……but I think you just know who that person is. It’s not about education, or age, or anything actually measurable.   It doesn’t take long to figure out if a person wants to learn.  The results come fairly quickly.  My expectations are simple:  they learn what I’m teaching, show me that they’ve learned it, and then show that they’re able to go to the next learning level without being told what it is.  I value creativity, and the ability to think.

I’m often guilty of giving somewhat vague guidance.  That’s on purpose; let’s see what the person you’re mentoring can do with this.  That’s designed to drive the unwary completely crazy.    I had a Drill Sergeant in Basic Training who kept saying, “Got no time for slow learners”.  He was right, at least for what we’re discussing.

LV: I know you read a lot. What are some of your most recommended books?

This is the answer which gets rotten fruit thrown at me, but my favorite book is Atlas Shrugged.  I first read it when I was about 15, and I’ve worn out several copies.  If you have a few hours I’ll be glad to explain what it’s really about.

After that?  Anything by John LeCarre.  Anything by Charles Dickens.  The entire Inspector Morse series by Colin Dexter.  I’m kind of a nut for British murder mysteries, so you can toss in Agatha Christie, and P.D. James.

I like to read books about business.  Not business books.  One of my all-time favorite books about business was called, “From Those Wonderful People Who Gave You Pearl Harbor”.  It was written by a New York advertising executive, and chronicled his life in the ad business.  Really interesting insights, along with being absolutely hilarious.  I’m sure it’s long out of print.

For business books I highly recommend Peter Drucker’s “Management”.   Some things just don’t go out of style.  Actually, any of Drucker’s books are good.

LV: One of the things I admire about you is how you can take an idea and run with it using what you’ve learned from past experiences and then adding your own touch. What is your method for deciding if something is a worth pursuing, or if you should discard it?

First, did I even understand the idea?  The best ideas are the simple ones, and the ones that take too much explanation probably aren’t the right fit.  Warren Buffet said, “I don’t invest in things I don’t understand”.  I’m with him.

Second, does it sound like us?  Any idea, whether it comes from inside or outside, has to be something that fits with our culture.  If it doesn’t, it won’t work.

Third, is it actually legal? There are some great ideas which may be legal in one state, but not another.  One of my students at NADA heard about an idea to place used vehicle for sale ads in the newspaper without identifying the dealership, only putting the phone number in the ad.  Turns out that the person who had given him the idea was from state where that type of ad was legal but, unfortunately for my student, it wasn’t legal in his state.  The state DMV suspended the dealership sales license for two weeks.

Fourth, is it going to make our lives better?  The best idea I ever heard came from a meeting that Ford put on, and made us think about what was going on in the dealership.  One of the focus items was employee morale.  What came out of that meeting was that we were going to build a lunchroom in one of the buildings which had some unused space.  We built the room, put in vending machines, microwaves, tables and chairs, and the employees absolutely loved it.

Fifth, and the really important one, is whether we can actually implement the idea and keep it implemented.  I’ve seen a lot of great ideas and programs for which the dealerships have paid lots of money die within a few months of launch.  There are always excuses and reasons why the program failed, but the biggest one is that there was no buy-in and no plan to solve that.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told, “yeah, we used to do that, but I guess we stopped”.  And nobody noticed or cared.  On to the next magic solution.

LV: Sales is a hard business. Whenever you begin a business, sales and marketing are its bread and butter. Without it, your business starves. Are there certain tactics that work across the board, regardless of what kind of business it is? What are they, in your opinion?

You have to show that you are different and be able to rise above the clutter of other businesses in the same line of work. I was reading today about a number of companies which have tried to become the next Facebook.  I had never heard of any of them.  I wonder why they failed to gain any large number of users?  Apparently, even Google had one, with about 500,000 supposed subscribers.  They announced this week that they were ending the service….and nobody actually noticed.  It’s one thing to start a business.  It’s quite another to prove to your public that you have a product to which they need to give the time of day.  If your business plan is to just be like the other guys, you’ll fail.

Google gained prominence by simply being better than everybody else.  They’ve become so good they’re now a verb.  We don’t search the web; we Google it.

Gallery Furniture is a furniture store in Houston.  A furniture store in a world of furniture stores.  It is owned by a gentleman called “Mattress Mack”.  He does is own television commercials.  HORRIBLE commercials.  Stuff that no self-respecting ad agency would create.  And yet……he has a huge operation, everybody knows who he is and he probably makes a ton of money doing it.  He managed to rise above the clutter.  He also promises same day delivery.  “Gallery Furniture Delivers Today”.  He’s hit that line really hard, and has billboards all over Houston which simply have the word “TODAY” on them.  Powerful stuff.  He blows the rest of the competition away.

The internet has made the process much more difficult.  I just Googled “car dealer”.  It said there were 539,000,000 results.  Tough to get noticed in all of that clutter.

LV: You retired from the military, and not too long ago you retired from another longtime career only to begin a new journey. First of all, congratulations on both achievements-but I do question your definition of “retirement”! Secondly, do you find it to be a trait in successful people to never stop working? Or do you feel it is your Achilles heel?

I think successful people never stop working, or at least never stop thinking.  It may be everybody’s dream to spend their “golden” years sitting on the beach sipping a beer….but what do you do the second week?  If you can move from a sixty hour a week job to a twenty hour a week job which still gives you the opportunity to use your talents, why not?  I retired, in large part, because I was just tired of doing the same thing every day.  It didn’t mean I wanted to quit working – it meant that I wanted to quit that job.  I now have much better control of how I spend my time, which is currently half in Houston and half in Play del Carmen, Mexico.  Much better than having to be at my desk everyday…..

LV: What words of advice would you give to someone who has a dream of success but has no point of reference of where to begin?

Take risks.  Take the job nobody else wants – it might be the perfect place for you to learn.  Don’t be afraid to move on to the next job – and make sure it’s a better one than the one you’re leaving.

LV: And finally, who are the mentors and people you admire, and why?

Mentors, not so many.  At the time I started working, the idea of mentoring hadn’t made it into the business world.

People I admire?  The ones who stood up for what was right, no matter what the cost.  The ones who told the truth, however inconvenient.  We seem to have a shortage of them lately.

For Fun:

  • What’s your favorite quote?

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon we’re talking about real money”.  Everett Dirksen.  It’s believed that Dirksen didn’t actually say that, but he said it sounded so good that he never denied saying it.

  • Tell me about the closest person in your life who you’re comfortable talking about. What would they say if I asked them, ‘What is the one characteristic they totally dig about you?’

No comment.

  • Name a song/artist we can listen to, to get a good feel for who you are.

“Girl from Ipanema”.  Stan Getz/Astrid Gilberto/Joao Gilberto.  Written by Antonio Carlos Jobim.  Set me on the path to love jazz and Brazilian music.

The Guide to Handling a Bad Review

One of the things I hear a lot about or get asked about are reviews.

Let me begin by saying this: as a new author I fell into this trap and it’s a very ugly trap to be in.

Reviews are never going to be 5 star across the board. In fact, having some bad reviews mixed into the gushing and glowing reviews is a good thing. It gives you and your book credibility. If a reader sees nothing but five stars they believe the reviewers are your friends and family.

So rule number one? Embrace the negative reviews.

Embrace them? Absolutely.

Every well thought out review has validity to it. Read it. Process it. Do better. The end.

Rule number two: Do. Not. Respond.

A lot of bad reviewers are also great “trollers”. Don’t get caught up in the fodder storm. You’ll end up wearing shit even if you “win” … which you won’t. It only makes you look bad in the end.

Rule number three: see rule number one, rinse, repeat.

Trust me, I know the temptation to chime in and set people straight. Let’s pick one of my own and put it out there.

I had a “duo” pick up a free copy of my book and review it. A review which seemed to be done in Facebook messenger then copied and pasted on their “review site”.

Reading the review was torture. It felt like a text-based, Mean Girls episode. It was incredibly juvenile but the worst part was when they said I needed serious edits when they themselves could not spell. Including “LOL” in a review is the first clue to run. Anyone who uses “OMG” and “LOL” in a review meant to be taken seriously isn’t worth my time of being upset, let alone a response. And believe me, I value my time.

You’re sending out a piece of art. Art is subjective. Not everyone gets your art and not everyone should. You’re not writing a how-to book so don’t expect everyone to understand your idea.

However, if your negatives outweigh the positives it might be something you need to consider. Take it as a learning experience and move forward. If you’re too busy reading and lamenting over a review you’re not writing and working towards something new. Your readers who enjoy your work are waiting. Get over it, dust your shoulders off, dry your tears, and get to work.

If you allow a nasty reviewer to keep you from doing what you love you’re not meant to be an author. This industry is cut-throat and you are supposed to be the expert. Get back to it or get into your cage. There’s no room for weak spines in horror.

Have you received a bad review? How did you handle it? Want to share a bad review and let us critique it for a good laugh? Leave it in comments!

Remember this one important fact: You write because you love to. Who cares if a couple people don’t like it? Are they so important it’s worth you losing your passion? Let me help you with the answer. No. No they aren’t.

And if you’re a reviewer who likes being nasty and rude for kicks? Go get a hug. Internet trolls are so 1997. It’s time to grow up. And get spellcheck “LOL”.

Blood and Champagne (2)

Once a week, I will post a new addition to the story. If you enjoy it, please leave a comment, share, and subscribe.

As always, everything included on my blog and posts are © Lisa Vasquez and may not be reposted or used anywhere without my written consent. 

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All image rights belong to Drew Posada

 

“Your Mistress says I may have my way with you,” Fay tucked the letter back into the envelope. Letting her eyes take in the solid frame of the man standing in front of her, she tossed her invitation onto the side table. The man stood there, unmoving, obedient and loyal. Let’s test the extent of his loyalty, she thought to herself. He towered over her by at least a foot, and the wingspan of his “V” shaped lats, tapered into aslim waist making him quite appealing.

“Turn around,” she whispered, shrugging her robe off one shoulder.

The man complied. His face gave nothing away, but she could see the subtle flare of his nostrils, taking in the scent of her. His pupils expanded, and his thousand-yard stare came into focus.

“Take me.”

His rigid, military posture crumbled, and he lunged forward until his body was pressed against hers. Scooping her up, he pulled Fay’s legs around his waist and threw her against the wall. The lamp teetered on top of the dresser next to them as they assaulted one another with unbridled lust.

Hours later, she was staring into his eyes, pupils fixed and dilated.

“It’s time for Cinderella to get ready for the ball.”

Rolling across him, she let her fingers lace with his. As she slid off the bed, she pulled him toward the edge until he fell. When his skull hit the cement floor beneath the five-star carpet, there was a crunch as the bone fractured. Fay continued to pull until she had him splayed across the plastic. Standing over him, she pressed her hands to her hips. The image of her naked body staring back at her in the mirror, she contemplated how to dispose of the body. Glancing at the watch on the messenger’s wrist, she could see she had less than five hours before she would meet up with the woman who called herself, “O”.

Related image

Madrigals, Book 10

The door to Fay’s room opened and she hung the “Do Not Disturb” sign from the handle outside. Shutting it, she reached up and engaged the hotel lock to deter anyone from interrupting her work. She walked back to the bed and stared down at the tools set out against a black latex blanket. It was time to tune the world out and begin.

Pinching the earbud which dangled from around her neck, she placed them into her ear canals. Reaching into her belt, she pulled out her IPod and selected a piece. Thumbing her finger over the touchscreen, she raised the volume to max. When the first note began, she closed her eyes, allowing her head to tilt back. This was her safe place.

Lowering her chin, her eyes opened again. She opened up her black medical bag and removed a syringe along with a small vial. Sinking the needle into the tiny bottle, she tipped both upward and pulled on the plunger until it was full. Replacing the vial, she set the syringe on a tray. She needed to select her tools. Gloved fingers passed over each stainless steel piece until she came to the bone cutter. Lifting the twelve inch blade, she examined it for balance as she would any of her daggers or knives. They say, “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” but nothing compared to the glint of light off steel, for her.

Fay smiled.

“This will do, nicely.”

To the sound of the soprano’s gentle song in her ears, she continued to select her tools: a scalpel, toothed forceps, spinal cord remover, and scissors. She would have to work fast, now. The smell of ammonia would cause alarm in the neighboring rooms. With a flip of the exhaust fan switch, Fay slid her mask on with the 3M filters and protective eyewear.

With her tray in hand, she stood at the bathroom door and smiled at the messenger who was upside down, rigged over the shower. The incision to his jugular drained the blood from his body, and he was a beautiful shade of death. The top of his skull had already been removed, and his brain, along with several other organs, were neatly sliced. Each was individually sealed and placed into the cooler, which was sitting on the bathroom counter.

As the music carried through the earbuds, a chorus signaled it was her cue to begin:

Languisce al fin chi dalla vita parte
e di morte il dolore
l’affligge sì che in crude pene more.
Ahi, che quello son io,
dolcissimo cor mio,
che da voi parto e, per mia crudel sorte,
la vita lascio e me ne vado a morte.

Yes, she thought between the slow, melody of words, He who is departing this life now languishes. The translation of the words touched a deep part of her. Someplace buried in the halls of her psyche where empathy went to die.

Fay placed the tray next to the cooler, and faced the shower with the hanging messenger. Bending over, she popped the cap off of the ammonia bottle and picked up the sponge next to it. Tipping the bottle, she saturated the sponge and began to wipe down the body until he was clean. It was at this stage she allowed herself to envision the finale. Killing was not only a duty, it was an honor. An honor she took as serious as every art form she was forced to master. Arranging the bodies was no different to her than arranging her orchids or shaping her bonsai trees.

“The instruction shows the way and the method,” her handler would say to her, reciting an old Proverb, “The vision is the work of one who has wished to see.”

With her scalpel in hand, Fay’s vision came. With a well-trained hand, she pressed the tip of the butterfly scalpel into the skin and slid it into a downward curve, peeling a piece of the back away from the fascia.  Using only wire and twine, she attached the flap into the position of a wing and sewed it to the messenger’s arm. She moved to the other side and repeated the flaying of skin, careful to keep the same length and thickness. Symmetry needed to be achieved for this piece to be acceptable. What blood was left in the male’s body trickled down creating its own natural pattern. Beautiful chaos, she mused as her hand slid the second flap of skin into place.

Fay took a step back and tipped her head. A few steps to the left, then to the right, and she began again. This time, she brought her scalpel to the outer thigh. She needed to be more careful with this area, so the skin did not tear.

“It’s ok,” she whispered, “I’m patient.”

Sliding her other hand underneath the skin as she cut, she felt the sticky pull as it was separated. The messenger was physically fit, so part of the challenge was knowing there was only a small layer of subcutaneous fat to work with. When she worked the skin apart from the thigh, she used the twine again. The wing she created from his back, was stretched gently until she was able to fasten it to the left thigh.

“Beautiful,” she said, standing back, again.

Nuclear Solstice (Unedited, WIP)

So this story is a work in progress. Posting them here motivates me. I am trying to be more consistent and show my writing style. Most people know me as the CEO of Stitched Smile Publications but don’t know who I am as a writer. I want to change that. I’m a woman of many crowns and writing happens to be one of my passions.  Posting them unedited allows a couple of things to happen:

  1. I show the difference a well-edited work makes when going from rough stone to diamond.
  2. To practice what I preach to those who I mentor, “No one shits out gold.”
  3. Knowing people are waiting on the story helps me stay excited about it.

This work is UNEDITED, so if you are unable to read something until it has been edited, please keep scrolling along. I do welcome thoughts, insights, comments. 

Without further ado, here it is


nuclearsolstice header blog

NUCLEAR SOLSTICE

© 2018, Lisa Vasquez
Do not distribute, print, or use without prior written consent.

 

The world was blanketed in white, and quiet. The atmosphere was almost tranquil in its existence under the half-light between day and night. Sybil watched from her vantage noting how nothing shimmered under the muted rays of the long-forgotten sun. Nothing caught its filtered rays in a magical way. It was silent like a child hiding beneath the covers until the boogeyman retreated beneath the bed. All around her, the world was a perpetual mono-chromatic landscape of white, grays, and blacks. Still glancing up at the sky, Sybil observed as the clouds hung low, snuffing out the life of the sun, forever concealing the battle raging in the unseen heavens. A storm trampled above, the sound broke the dead air. She heard the thunderous growls chasing electric spears with no promise of rain anytime soon. Sybil released a slow, steady exhale then lowered her head. Reaching up with one hand she pulled back the hood of her parka, allowing the smooth, pale skin of her scalp to breathe. With her other hand, she tightened her grip on her spear which doubled as a walking stick.  

Listening close, Sybil stretched her senses. Always on alert, she remained attentive. In this world of muffled noise, it was not easy to pick up sound of predators, or of a potential meal. Successful hunters used tricks from ancient civilizations learned before all the books were burned. When the last library went up in flames, the elders once said, “all hope went with it”. Now, over a hundred years later, humanity was reduced to living in caves, once more at the bottom of the food chain. Nightly stories around the campfire told of the new “man”, evolved with the help of the governments in the year 2018. DNA enhancing testosterone levels in both male and females gave them rage-like aggression. Crouching low, the warnings of her tribe’s leaders replayed in Sybil’s head as she slid her fingers through the layer of ash covering the earth.  

These new humans were the experiments of the governments who united in a ploy to create the perfect soldier, never heeding to the superiority of Nature to do her own bidding with the fate of their evolution. One cannot play God without remembering Mother Nature was a controlling bitch. She ruled the game of checks and balances. 

Looking out to the south, Sybil gripped her walking stick tighter. The Dead Lands lie between her home, and the Forbidden Place where the Evolved resided. The stories of those who died made her heart heavy and she let out a breath to relieve some of the pressure on her chest.  

Those who survived “The War” weren’t the lucky ones like they say, Sybil thought. The ones who died instantly were. Lost in a reverie which could not be her own, she saw it so clear; Seconds after the first flash blinded the world, billions of souls left the earth following the dark cloud creeping over the sky, trapped in its hell. As a child, the elders used thunder and lightning as nighttime tales aimed at scaring her and other children into behaving.  

“You must always be silent,” her mother whispered, “Always stay close. I cannot keep you from danger if you do not listen to me, Sybil.” 

“Yes, mother,” she whispered back, shrinking into her tattered blanket. Her dark eyes pulled away from her mother’s and toward the campfire. The amber flames flapped and crackled, illuminating the cave walls. It was cold and damp despite the heat emanating from the fire, and the coughs of the others in their caravan echoed from their chambers in the murky distance. Water dripped into underwater canals, and every night she fell asleep to the faint smells of Sulphur, and feces. 

No, they were not the lucky ones. When the first billion people died, others were left disfigured with burns, and later if the burns didn’t kill you, radiation would be waiting. Less than one percent of the population survived. This included diplomats and wealthy who were locked away in bunkers, and the anomalies: “Human Cockroaches”. We were given the nickname, because like the insects, we survived the nuclear war. We weren’t the elite, personally selected humans. To them, the ones who almost destroyed the world, we were insignificant. To them we were foul vermin in need of extermination. Because of this, Sybil bore witness to the horrors of watching as each night one of her caravan family disappeared. 

Year 2118, Month Unknown 

 

The family was settled in for the night and only the hushed whispers of families could be heard through the various cavern “rooms”. Meager campfires crackled and popped. The small flames stoked by the “watchers” throughout the night. The fires weren’t going for warmth, though they did offer a comforting feel to the features of those who slept around it. The main purpose of the fires was for light. Keeping them small meant little smoke would rise from exhaust holes above. Too much, and the new man, called Aethers, would find them. 

Living in caves had changed humans in addition to the effects of the chemicals of war. Lack of sunlight on the surface was nothing compared to the lack of light beneath the earth. The eyes of those beneath adapted, growing more sensitive to light. The most color any of them saw now were the brilliant fluorescent glows from algae and insects when the campfire lights went out. Having spent years in the subterranean, the changes in them became more obvious. Most of them lost pigmentation in their eyes, leaving their irises a pale variation of their former color. Their skin was smooth, almost pore-less, and translucent. A lack of high calorie food transformed them into waif-like creatures who, in the old years, resembled the fictitious race of elves. At the surface, they appeared ethereal as their skin captured the half-light and illuminated. 

Sybil was dozing off to sleep when she heard the whoosh of air pass by her. Opening her eyes, she saw the flames from the campfire bend in one direction causing her to sit up straight. Looking around, she saw the watcher facing away from her, looking into one of the tunnels leading to the next “room” of the cavern.  

“What was th—“ her whispered cut off by the motion of his hand raising up. He pressed an index finger to his lips and Sybil froze in fear. The watcher’s stealth footsteps led him to the next opening, his hand wrapped around the hilt of his makeshift dagger and listened. After a few moments of hearing nothing he seemed to relax. He turned back to face her again, and he offered a small reassuring smile. 

“It’s ok—“ his began, his eyes then bulged and his hands grasped his neck. Confused, Sybil used her hands and dug the heels of her feet into the ground, to back scoot into the shadows. When the watcher fell to the ground, a cloaked figure stood in his place staring at her until she choked out a scream. In the rush of the others waking, it disappeared, leaving Sybil in hysterics.  

“What’s happened?” One of the men called out. He came closer and stumbled over the limp body of the watcher. Whispers began to fill the room growing louder and louder. The noise traveled to the outer rooms in the cave where others began to stir and rise. Watchers from every direction ran in to see what was causing the disturbance, and like a chain reaction, the news made it to every den. 

“What was it, Sybil? Did you see anything?” Their faces began to crowd around her, suffocating her with their questions.  

“I-I don’t know,” she stammered, “Just eyes. Like a shadow.” 

One by one they turned to each other, passing the information … or what little there was. Delphi, the leader of their caravan, appeared and the crowd spread, allowing him to pass. Sybil’s eyes widened, then lowered with the bow of her head.  

When he was standing before her, he reached his hand out to lift her chin, forcing her eyes to meet his. He stared down at her with his pale amber gaze. From beneath the hood of his weather-torn robes, she could see he had kind features. Wrinkles around his eyes creased when he smiled at her, his long white beard and mustache raised with the corners of his mouth.  

“Peace, child,” he spoke, and everyone around him fell into silence. Only the deacons of their tribe were ever allowed to speak with Delphi. No one had heard his voice in years until now. Sybil’s mother watched from over his shoulder, her hands tucked into her chest in a show of her anxiety. Was her daughter in trouble? Would she be held responsible? 

Dropping his hand from her chin, Delphi crouched before Sybil and her locked gaze followed him. He reached for her hand this time and held it in his. It was large and warm in comparison to hers.  

“It’s ok, Sybil,” he said, and everyone behind him leaned in to hear him speak again, “Try to remember everything you saw. I’m here with you now, and nothing will harm you.” 

Nodding to the hypnotic tone in his voice, Sybil recounted what happened detail by detail, as she remembered it. When she was done, she realized she was trembling again, and a layer of sweat covered her brow and hairline. Inside her chest, her heart was throttling.  

“Very good, Sybil,” Delphi said with another smile. He stood, and gave her hand a squeeze before turning to the deacons behind him, “Bring her to my den. She is in my care, now.” 

Sybil’s mother’s eyes grew large before turning toward Delphi. She lowered her gaze and took the hem of his sleeve to her lips, giving him reverent thanks. Before he walked away, he brushed his hand over her head and bent to kiss it. The collective inhale of everyone in attendance filled the den as they lowered their head as a show of respect. Delphi was the closest thing to royalty in the new world. He led them to safety more times than they could count, and always seemed to be one step ahead of the (XXX) in their ploy to eradicate them from the face of the earth. Without him, their family would’ve been wiped out at the dawn of its existence.  

The deacon to Delphi’s left, Iapetus, faced Sybil and offered his hand to her. When she reached out to take it, he shifted his weight to the staff he held in his other hand and turned, guiding her to follow them. Beside Iapetus, Sybil felt smaller than she was. He seemed to be made from the stone walls, each muscle in his exposed arm appeared to be hand chiseled. The staff he gripped in his massive hand was created from a combination of the limestone, and marble found all around them. Clusters of raw crystal surrounded the tip where a repurposed piece of steel formed a spearhead. He was Delphi’s advisor, and also rumored to be his son. Looking up into his face, Sybil could see the similarities. 

“Don’t be frightened,” his rough voice whispered to her, “We will keep you safe, now.” 

Sybil offered a half smile. There was no malice in Iapetus’ mannerisms. She could feel the goodness in him right through the connection of their palms. Turning her head over her shoulder, Delphi’s other deacon, Crius, offered his hand to her mother, Dione. Dione reached out to take it, then followed her daughter and the procession out of the den. 

All around them, eyes watched and silent thoughts threatened to fill the room with overwhelming emotion. Jealousy, happiness, confusion, and anxiety collided on the surface of the unspoken question, “What happens, now?” 

As if she could hear the thoughts of all those around them the head watcher, Eos, spoke. Her soft tone was raspy like an Autumn wind through the trees, bristling against dried leaves. It was this way, they said, because she never spoke unless it was an absolute necessity-and when she did, her words were as strong as she, herself, was. 

“There is no cause for further worry,” she paused to sweep her eyes over those standing before her, “Security is increased with double watchers, and traps have been lain.” 

There was a unified sigh of relief. 

“Go now,” she continued, “Help us by staying together. Watch one another. Never go anywhere alone.” 

Like docile cattle, the crowd began to move. One followed the other until everyone was once again settled into their dens, and tucked into their blankets and furs. When the last whisper died out, the watchers lit extra candles to cast the shadows away, and stood guard this way for the rest of the week. 

# # # 

 

Getting used to living with Delphi was an adjustment for Sybil. She’d never known her father, and Delphi’s watchful eye could be unsettling. It’s like he sees everything, she thought to herself while tiptoeing across the marble floor. Delphi’s den was decorated in rare furs which she found fascinating. In all the years she was alive, Sybil never saw a real animal while it was alive. Whenever the hunters returned with meat, it was already stripped of any useable hide and fur, leaving it smooth, sometimes still stained pink with blood, but most times it was gray and colorless like the world around them. 

Slipping her fingers through the dark fur hanging from the wall, she closed her eyes and exhaled. It was the softest thing she’d ever felt. The furs in the den were a sign of status, but they were coarse in texture. This was like nothing she ever knew. Tears welled in her eyes and she leaned in, pressing her cheek against it. Her chest tightened and she held in a sob. What creature must this have been, she wondered, to wear something so beautiful 

Burying her face into it, she mourned for the beast even without knowing what it was, or if it was dangerous. 

“It came from a panther,” Delphi’s airy voice broke the moment causing Sybil to jolt, “They are extinct, now.” 

Sybil’s face crumpled and pinched, holding back more tears, “You killed it?” 

“No, no, child,” Delphi chuckled and shook his head, “You think I could do such a thing?” 

“Well, I …” she paused, a sense of shame rising to the surface in her cheeks, “I just see all the animals skinned and eaten.” 

“We must eat, yes?” 

“Yes, but …” 

“What makes one creature better than another?” 

Sybil’s jaw slackened as she attempted words, but she remained silent taking his in. He could tell he was making her work out her ideas with the presentation of a new one. This pleased him. 

“I did not kill the panther,” he said, walking toward the fur. His hand caressed the black hairs with affection, something sad creeping into his eyes, “It was my friend.” 

“Your friend? I don’t understand.” 

“I saved its life, it saved mine,” Delphi looked down at her and smiled, “And then we were friends.” 

“Then, how did your friend die” Sybil asked, letting her fingers tangle in the fur she was still stroking without realizing it. 

“Protecting me, one last time from the soldiers,” his eyes looked far away as he told the memory. Behind his glassy gaze, she could tell he was seeing it all over again, whatever happened, “I wanted to keep him near me always so I brought his fur back to my den.” 

He took in a deep breath and dropped his hand. 

“I did not want to wear it like some trophy, and I did not want to walk over it. So, here it sits on my wall near the fire to keep it warm, where we can both reminisce and talk.” 

Tears fell down Sybil’s cheeks. She only had one friend, and she died from sickness many years ago. It made her sad, the memories of her friends face seemed to fade more every day. 

“Will you sit with us, this evening?” 

Sybil blinked and looked at him. 

“Come,” he motioned to the campfire, “Let’s talk about Kobalos, and the mischief he caused.” 

A smile spread across her face and Delphi mirrored it with his own. She let out a quick laugh and so did he before sitting down and nodding with his head to the place opposite him. Sybil accepted the offer and sat down. There, they laughed and talked until the small hours of the night. When she could keep her eyes open no more, her mother appeared at the door with Crius for an escort. 

“I should take her for some sleep,” Dione said, her head lowered as she took a step forward.  

Delphi pulled his gaze away from Sybil who finally gave in to sleep and turned to Dione. 

“She still doesn’t know, does she?” 

Dione flicked her eyes up once to look upon her daughter, then back down to the floor again. 

“No, she does not.” 

Standing, Delphi gave the cue for Crius to leave. The deacon seemed lost in a moment of indecisiveness but bowed and exited the den. When he was gone, Delphi moved closer to Dione and lifted her chin with the tips of his fingers. When her eyes met his, he searched for answers in them. 

“Did I dishonor you in some way, Dione?” 

The suggestion itself pried her eyes open until they were wide with shock. 

“N-no,” she whispered firmly, “I did not want her to be raised with expectation or privilege.” 

“It’s hardly a privileged life we live,” he laughed. 

“You know what I mean, Delphi. The others can be cruel.” 

The corners of his eyes turned downward in sadness and he opened his mouth to debate but her finger pressed against them. 

“You cannot change hardened hearts, and you cannot manipulate human emotion of those who will not allow joy in their lives,” she sighed and leaned in, “we are a peaceful tribe, but it is a careful, delicate balance.” 

“Am I not allowed,” he began, pulling her finger from his lips and pressing his forehead to hers, “To experience some form of balance?” 

“You must lead men and women who know no concept of such a thing. Envy is a toxin we cannot afford.” 

Delphi could only nod his head to her wisdom. Her hand still cupped within his, he brought her palm to his lips and kissed it, then turned it toward herself to lay it on her chest. 

“I love only you, Dione,” his whisper hung between the two, “And I will honor your wishes but I will protect her with my life.” 

Dione’s shoulders dropped, giving in to his wishes. With a nod, she offered him one final smile before she pulled away and moved to her daughter. Sybil stirred as she was lifted into her mother’s strong, but wiry arms. Soon, Dione would not be able to hold her this way. Moving past the fire toward the doorway, she turned mouthing the words, “I love only you,” then exited. 

 

# # # 

 

The commotion from the adjoining den woke Sybil with a start. Two weeks had passed since the incident with the shadow-man and three more had gone missing. Nightmares filled her dreams. Lying there listening to the others voice their fears, she pulled the threadbare blanket up to her chin. They are scared, she thought, closing her eyes tight. Tears threatened to form behind her lids but she managed to push them back, opening them again. After a taking in a couple deep breaths, she slid upright and twisted her body so her legs hung over the side of her bed. As quiet as she could, she pushed forward setting her feet on the floor. She heard a noise near the door and stopped, lifting her gaze to seek the source of it. The chatter continued beyond, growing louder as moments passed. Walking her fingers toward her robe, she pulled it close and clung to it. She had no way of knowing whether it was night or day from where she was until she looked at the candle flickering on the table. It was burned down. Morning, her mind answered, and her stomach confirmed with a growl.  

Tugging the robe around her, she tied it place around her waist and stood. She used her toes to fish her shoes out from under the bed before pushing her feet inside, one at a time. Behind her, something stirred again making her shoulders tighten. Sybil spun on a heel and was confronted with Crius’ form standing inside the doorway. She dropped her hands to the knot in her belt and curled the end its fabric around her finger.  

“Why are you standing there,” Sybil asked, the confidence in her voice betrayed by a nervous fidget. Her finger curled into the end of the belt, looping it around the same finger, again. 

“I heard you stirring, I came to check on you,” he answered, letting his eyes drop to the opening of her robe crossing low on her chest in a “V”.  

“It’s customary to announce yourself before entering a room of opposite gender.” 

Crius’ smile was smug and he bowed in mockery. 

“Forgive me, madame,” he said, the words purring forth from his lips like a cat toying with its prey. Sybil’s heart fluttered a little faster with the extra dose of adrenaline pumping through her veins. Her nostrils widened, flaring at the corners, allowing more oxygen to enter her lungs and she felt her legs tremble.  

Don’t show him your weakness, she chided herself. Straightening her back, she looked away and turned to pick up the candle. Glancing at him over her shoulder, she forced a smirk. 

“I’m sure it won’t happen again,” she said in a warning tone, extending the candle forward to shed light on the room a bit more. She could see Crius did not move. Rolling her eyes, she willed her feet to move and stalked past him. The more distance she could put between them, the better she felt though she could still feel his eyes on her. Sybil couldn’t figure out what it was about him but she felt immediate danger whenever he cornered her in such a way-something which became a habit in the last few weeks. His guise of being her guardian was not convincing at all. Ulterior intention loomed behind his eyes, watching from the dark like the shadow-man. 

Putting Crius behind her, she padded into the next den. It was open and large enough to fit their entire tribe. Though no one spoke in loud tones, the combined whispers grew, sounding like the rush of a waterfall. Nothing distinct could be captured unless you were close enough, but unrest was evident in the tension suffocating the air all around. Their faces turned into one another, no one seemed to notice as she walked by. At the center of the den, Delphi sat in silence. He looked worn down and tired. Scratching at his beard, he looked up before pushing to his feet. The room went silent. Delphi held onto it, letting the absence of their whispers weigh down on them. It was deafening. 

“All of you have a right to complain, and all of you are right,” he began, “We are in danger.” 

The tribe continued their silence but many of them hung their head in shame, others due to hopelessness. Sybil had never witnessed this type of behavior from them, even when food was scarce.  

Sweeping his eyes across his people, the invisible connection pulling their attention from the floor to him once again, “We knew this time would come. Some have prepared for it their whole lives and passed it down to their children.” 

Eyes widened throughout the tribe, still fixed on their leader. 

“We must go to war,” he said, “It is time to end this, once and for all. For our sake, and for our children. We will not be afraid to sleep another night.” 

The crowd responded with the tapping of two fingers against their palm, a way of applauding without creating too much sound.  

“But remember,” Delphi said, calling back order, “War comes with death … theirs and ours.”  

Letting his warning dangle in the air, he turned and nodded to Iapetus. The deacon stepped in front of Delphi and the crowd parted, leading a path to where Sybil stood alone. She could feel her eyes still large and round from the shock of the word. War? She repeated over and over in her mind, Death? She was wringing her finger into the fabric of her belt again, lost in her own world when she heard Iapetus speak in a gentle tone into her ear, “Make way, Sybil.” 

His eyes were always soft and genuine, unlike Crius’. She swallowed a breath realizing she’d been holding it. All she could do was nod and step to the side in obedience, lowering her head as Delphi was lead past. 

 

(To be continued)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Get Serious About Writing

Image result for quill and ink

Having done enough conventions and literary panels this year, I wanted to address the question I seem to get most often: How do I stay on track?

Many authors, especially those are who “new” to the craft, struggle with this but it is not exclusive to them. Veteran authors have this issue, too. So how do we stay on track? Stick around! I’ll break it down for you in a couple ways which have worked for me. These aren’t guarantees, nothing works for everyone. Take what works for you and discard what doesn’t.

Comment, share, and re-post if you found something helpful!

Exercise


Physical exercise works for a lot of people but what I’m talking about right now are mental exercises. You have to write often if you’re to get acquainted with the process of writing. Oh yes, there is a process.

The writing process is complex and intricate. You have a singular idea and you must tell it in such a way your readers are able to follow. The trick-no, the skill, is to not allow your reader to be removed from the story. It involves having engaging characters who they can relate to in some way, rhythmic flow and cadence, and making every word count.

Dedication


Work ethic is imperative to becoming a serious writer. Deadlines can be crippling to some authors, and some are invigorated by them. Either way, deadlines are a real thing and a part of writing, like it or not. If you’re writing for “fun” deadlines don’t figure into the equation.

Depending on how long your story is, dedication is required to get through an entire length of story. Day in and day out, you must spend time with the characters you brought to life. It’s a relationship which doesn’t end until the story does.

A writer’s dedication is test when they go through the editing process. You may think you’re done when you type “The End” but the end is only the beginning. Refining your words is the crux of many authors who put in the time, only to go through it all over again. Repeatedly.

The biggest challenge to dedication is your own resolve. Are you committed to this? Yes? Ok, great! Now the real work begins.

Critique/Mentoring


Though these are two different things, I put them together because you must go through at least one (both preferably) to earn your quill. No one shits out gold. Everyone requires editing and critique of some form.

We know what the story is from our perspective. Now, we need to know what others get out of it. This does not mean you must write to appease everyone. If you try, you’ve failed before you’ve put a single word down. What I mean is you must understand how your words form images in other people’s minds. If you have to explain it to your mentor/critique person, you’ll more than likely have to explain it to the readers. This is my mantra and you should also take it into consideration. It’s always better to have several eyes on the story.

Read Your Work Aloud


This is an important skill to learn.

Why? Because

  1. if you’re looking to get published, you’ll face live readings.
  2. it helps you connect the words you write with the flow of natural speaking/cadence/flow

If it doesn’t sound right to you, it most likely does not sound right to readers. I think this is pretty cut and dry.

Having a timeline or outline helps, too.  More in the next post about that.

Read all the time. Read Everything.


Reading works of other authors is non-negotiable. Pull from what you read and learn from it. What works? What doesn’t? What did you love? What did you not like? How can you do better?

Some authors use the excuse, “I don’t want to be influenced by what I’ve read.”

If you’re writing fiction, read non-fiction and vice versa. There’s a way around the “influence” card. Read a shampoo bottle, read up on marketing, check out a book on “How to write” in your own genre.

And oh yeah, last but not least …

Stop Making Excuses


Write every single day. It can be 50 words, it can be 1000 words. Don’t let anyone tell you what your own goal is unless they suggest you aim to be better than you were yesterday.

Excuses are road blocks you set up for yourself. Without them you can accomplish anything.