Who by Fire – Fred Stenson

From my Book Reviews blog….

Mary W. Walters: Book Reviews

Who By Fire CoverWho by Fire

Fred Stenson

359 pages, Doubleday

A Human Face for a Complex Issue

A surprising number of the world’s most destructive conflicts can be related in one way or another to differences of opinion over how to manage the Earth’s non-renewable resources. Heated disputes over the ownership, use and fate of fossil fuels rage across scientific, political, economic, historical and cultural boundaries — damaging individual and community relationships as surely as tailing ponds contaminate nearby flora and fauna. Fred Stenson has brought the destructive power of these debates and arguments to a human level in his latest novel, Who by Fire (named, like Leonard Cohen’s song, from the Hebrew prayer/poem “Unetaneh Tokef”).

Bill Ryder is just a boy when a sour-gas plant opens downwind of his parents’ southern Alberta farm. Poisonous gases released during a series of plant malfunctions make the family sick — particularly Billy…

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Turning Writers’ Blocks into Building Blocks, or “What don’t I know?”


blocks__4971835856There is no worse feeling for a fiction writer than coming to a grinding halt in the middle of a story. One day all of your engines are firing, sentence after sentence pours out of you like hot metal, almost faster than you can type – it’s like the characters are alive inside your head and all you need to do is write down what they’re doing. You love the story you are writing and you know that everyone else in the entire world is going to love it, too. You are thinking that at the rate you are going, you’ll be finished by the new year, and rich and famous by next summer (or at least critically acclaimed within the decade).

And then the next day, the magic vanishes. You sit down at your computer as you always do, you start to key in words — but these words don’t fit with the words you wrote yesterday, nor do they even fit with each other very well. So you delete them. You try another sentence. Nope. Nothing good is happening on the screen. You tell yourself that you should ease up on yourself: this isn’t the final draft, it’s just the first one. It doesn’t have to be perfect. But still it isn’t working.

You get up and pace. You lie on your back on your bed or on the floor, and you start feeling nauseated. You go back to the computer, but you find yourself checking Facebook instead of writing. You read the news. You play an online game. Only at the end of the day, do you give up — hoping that tomorrow will return you to your state of authorial grace.

But tomorrow, it’s the same or worse. So you start reading back through what you wrote before you hit the wall — and, horror of horrors — you wonder if that part is any good either.

One day you reach a point where you can’t even bring yourself to open the file where you have saved your story.

What to do?

Some writing gurus will tell you to just keep going. They’ll tell you not to worry about whether what you’re putting down is good or bad… they’ll insist you must simply carry on. “Keep getting your daily quota down on paper,” they say, “and it will all work out.” They will cheerily suggest that you stop the day’s work in the middle of a paragraph so that you can carry on tomorrow … as if you could even write half a paragraph today.

Well, I’ve tried following that advice. As a result, I have printouts of several drafts of a novel called White Work in a box somewhere that, taken together, weigh about 20 lbs. White Work will never be complete because I kept going as advised, and never did find my way out of the mess I was making of it. Everything I did just made it worse. I grew sick and tired of it. Twenty years later, I still can’t look at it.

On other occasions when I’ve hit a wall, I’ve put the project aside, afraid of wrecking it. I’ve decided to wait until inspiration returned. Eventually a couple of those projects went into the fireplace or into my filing cabinet or still languish on my computer, unfinished. When I look at them I have no idea where I was going with them, what made me so keen about them in the first place.

In other words, if you don’t deal with them when they first show up, little blocks can grow into big problems.

Meeting the Block Head-on

I have finally found a solution that works for me when I run into a block, and I hope it works for you as well. It’s not really a solution, I suppose: it’s more of an awareness that you can turn into plan of action.

I have learned that when I find it impossible to move forward on a project, it is because there is something important about the story that I do not know.
Not knowing something erodes my confidence, and when I lack confidence I can’t write. Trying to move forward becomes like trying to walk across a frozen pond when I am not sure whether the ice is solid enough to hold me. My fear of seeing the ice begin to crack, of sinking into the deadly water — of getting trapped beneath the ice — becomes greater than my certainty that I can make it to the other side. I start to slow down, and then I stop. And that’s when I start sinking.

So now, when I find myself grinding to a halt in the middle of a story – as I did recently in my new novel, Seeds and Secrets (which you can watch me writing on Wattpad, one chapter at time, if you are interested) – I ask myself, “What do I not know about this story and its characters that I need to know before I can move on?” (There are lots of things I don’t need to know. I’m not talking about those things.)

“Where have I taken a wrong step?” I ask myself. “How did I get myself out here where the ice is so thin? When is the last time I felt myself on solid ground, and how do I get back there so I can once again move forward strongly?”

Kinds of Missing Information

What I don’t know about my story might be something small. For example, maybe the daughter of my main character was traumatized by the 9-11 coverage, but I’ve just realized that she could not have been traumatized by that event because she wasn’t even born when it occurred. Now I need to change everybody’s age in the whole story, or find the child another trauma.

Or maybe it’s a medium-sized problem. Maybe I haven’t spent enough time thinking about my main character’s best friend. I don’t know why she has turned into such a bitter adult. I realize that I need to spend some time thinking about what led her to become the woman she is now. (I may not actually include this information in my novel, but it’s clear to me that I do need to know it before I can move on.)

Or it might be a really big problem, which is, in my case, what almost always happens when I don’t know how a story is going to turn out. Some writers just keep on writing with no real plot in mind, hoping for the best, and some of those writers get lucky. (Or maybe, as in the case of Marcel Proust and Karl Ove Knausgaard, they just keep writing, and writing, and writing, until they stop.) But most authors, like me, need to know the ending before they can write the middle, or they will come to a grinding halt. (That’s what happened with White Work).

In order overcome a block and move on, sometimes I just need to go back a bit and fix something to make the story feel right again, as in the case of the trauma incident. Sometimes I need to draw a map or a floor plan or a family tree to make sure I’ve got my directions and dates and connections right. And sometimes I have a bigger job ahead of me: I need to figure out and then make notes on the balance of the plot, so I can see where I am going. (In Seeds and Secrets, my most recent problem turned out to be minor: I realized that I had no idea what career my central character had taken up as her employment as an adult: i.e., in the novel’s present tense. I had to decide what career path she’d chosen and how that path logically arose from what had happened to her when she was younger.)

To find missing information in my novel, the last place I want to look is at the novel itself. (That’s where the information is missing from, so why would I look for it there?) Instead, I often find it useful to go for a walk or head to the gym. For some reason, if I deliberately force myself to think about the problem while I’m sweating, the answer usually comes to me. Other times, I take my computer to a coffee shop or a park where I try to shake the solution loose — in my experience, a change of setting is much more likely to create a missing piece than is lying on the bed, staring in panic at the ceiling.

Once I’ve figured out what I don’t know about my novel, and have filled in the necessary cracks in what I’ve already written, I find that the ground again feels solid, and I am able to move forward. The book itself feels better — stronger — when I’ve done this. It’s sort of like turning writers’ blocks into construction materials. And when you know how to do that, you almost start to welcome those blocks when they start to crash down in front of you and bring you to a halt. (Almost.) You realize that if you don’t fix the problem, you are going to sink for sure. But you also begin to trust that you can fix it, given some time and focus, and that when you have –  when you’ve made the ground strong enough again to hold you – the readers who follow after will find it strong as well.


photo credit: turbulentflow via photopin cc

Is “dictating” a story the same as “writing” a story?

Businessman dictating notesIf you record a short story and then transcribe it, did you write a short story?

In my editing life and in my online reading, more and more frequently I am coming across passages of creative writing — both fiction and non-fiction — that “sound” to me as though they have been dictated into digital voice recorders, transcribed (which the apps do for you, in part), and then edited (often minimally) before being released into the world.

Why do I get the sense that some creative prose I’m reading started in an oral format? In part it is the phrasing and vernacular, but particularly it is the way the material unfolds. When we speak, most of us tend to go in circles: repeating ourselves and coming at the same topic from different directions until we get the approach that suits us (and our content) best. Our thoughts are frequently unfinished because we forget what we’ve just said. With writing, we edit out half-formed attempts to say it properly, and only leave the most effective statements. Then we might fiddle with the wording a little or a lot before we move on to the next sentence. Or at least that’s how I do it. I think that when we are working on the page, we take more time to think about what we are saying before we put it down, much less before we put it out there.

Update: My new WattPad friend Maximilian Frick tells me:

“Here’s a great quote from James Joyce that you may or may not know: when informed by an interviewer that some of his contemporaries considered two books a year an average output, Joyce replied: ‘Yes, but how do they do it? They talk them into a typewriter. I feel quite capable of doing that if I wanted to do it. But what’s the use? It isn’t worth doing’.”

Half-finished thoughts, repetitions and other markers have made me suspicious that (for example), at least some of the hundreds of thousands of people (many in their teens) who are posting novels and short fiction on WattPad (and even releasing them as books on Amazon) are not actually “writing” them, as I think of writing. “Writing” to me means creating on a page. It is a different process than speaking thoughts into a recording device.

Please note that I have a friend who is blind who is writing a book by dictating it. (Go, George!) That is a different issue: he is writing in the only way he can, and I believe he approaches his recorded writing as I do the page — i.e. not in haste. But maybe he (and the guy who wrote The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) are some exceptions that prove the rule.

Also, I know that some people write “free fall” — as the thoughts occur to them — not erasing but continuing to write, as Natalie Goldberg suggests doing in Writing Down the Bones, but I would argue that stream-of-consciousness writing is different from stream-of-consciousness speaking, and furthermore that most of it isn’t publishable. Some people might say that they take a long time to consider before they put a sentence into a recorder, and that what I am really arguing against is stream-of-consciousness prosemaking, period. Maybe so.

The question is, does writing on a page and then editing the result lead to a different outcome than talking into a recorder and then transcribing and editing the result? I believe it does.

Does one approach lead to greater literary quality than another? I don’t know. But I think creative writing should be written. Unless you are physically incapable of it.

I remember reading that Barbara Cartland dictated all of her novels, but I don’t call what she did “creative writing.”

Maybe I’m just a snob. And old-fashioned. Maybe the new electronic era means that I should just get with the program. Maybe when young people today say they want to grow up to be writers, they are not necessarily thinking of confronting a blank page (in any form) ever.

I may change my thinking, as I often do, but for now at least, I don’t think that dictating and writing are the same thing. Do you?

Let me know your thoughts — in the poll, the comments section below, or both.

I might write an article about this. (Maybe I just have. Maybe I should attempt to dictate the next one. Maybe articles CAN be dictated. Oh, life is so confusing.)


Book Promotion Tip of the Week #17: Get a media person to complain that there’s too much sex in your novel

Even if he is your own son.

Dan's DV Review“I tried to imagine it was my mom’s coauthor who wrote the sex scenes and that somehow my mom’s role in the writing process did not even involve reading those passages at all. That didn’t work, though.” – Dan Riskin, PhD, bat biologist, host of MONSTERS INSIDE ME on Animal Planet, co-host of DAILY PLANET on Discovery Channel, and author of the forthcoming MOTHER NATURE IS TRYING TO KILL YOU (Simon and Schuster, March 2014).

(Note: I put in the time: I’m entitled to name-drop.)

Introducing the One-Book-Only Book Club: January 1 to 31, 2014

What better time to read a novel about a woman who is struggling to get thin than in January?

TWCD_cover_v2Join other readers and the author for a fun, easy, interesting, on-line book discussion from January 1 to 31, 2014 to read and talk about The Whole Clove Diet: A Novel – the story of 29-year-old Rita Sax Turner’s frustrating and funny but ultimately rewarding journey to rid herself of sixty unwanted pounds (or so. Maybe more. Maybe less).

Each week we’ll read 100 pages, and then we’ll talk about them together. There will be set questions and topics posted at the end of each week, but you can ask the author anything about her thoughts on the book, or talk among yourselves – about the book, families, marriages, walking in the park, your own food-related issues, anything. If you have ever used food for something besides sustenance – like to make you thinner, or fatter, or just plain warm and comfy – you’re going to love reading about Rita.

The Whole Clove Diet tells the story of a young woman caught in a frustrating marriage with two step-kids, a nagging mom, a whiny mother-in-law and no clear plan for her future… well, at least none that she wants to think about. Not long ago she was a slim young thing with her whole future ahead of her, but as her options decline, she is getting fatter and fatter (her words) – not from hunger, but from frustration and rage, and feelings of despair and sadness. Her husband thinks that her getting pregnant would be just the thing, but this idea only makes her feel more trapped. She goes on diet after diet, and guess what? They don’t work. It appears that reducing your calorie intake does not take any weight off your problems.

Rita’s redeeming features include her ability to hope (true of anyone who has ever gone on a diet!), her wits, and her sense of humour (black though it may sometimes be). When an injury gives her an excuse to escape the home-front action for a week, she starts to figure it all out – and to figure herself out. The novel is ultimately a feel-good story that will leave you cheering for Rita (and feeling even more hopeful for yourself, and for those around you who are battling with addictions of any kind).

Some of the issues we’ll be talking about:

  • Is overeating an addiction – just as bulimia and anorexia are now thought to be?
  • How does the western world treat people who are overweight differently than it does people of normal weight?
  • Do we invite any of this treatment ourselves, by how we act when we are above our ideal weights?
  • What is self-discipline? Can you acquire it, and if so, where?
  • What is the difference between deciding to make a life change and resolving to make one?
  • Do women and men approach food differently? How much does this have to do with our historic roles?
  • Does one diet work better than another?

We’ll also get down to the nitty gritty:

  • Why exactly is Rita sexually attracted to a doctor who has been verbally abusive to her?
  • What can Rita do about the fact that her husband’s first wife keeps getting more and more attractive in everyone’s memory the longer she is dead?
  • What IS the recipe for Nanaimo bars?

As we read, your feelings of despair and sympathy for Rita will alternate with a sense that you want to sit down and have a talk with her, or maybe just give her a good shake. But she’ll also make you laugh and cheer.

Find out what the author was thinking when she wrote the novel, and what her own experiences with weight issues (and other addictions) have been, in this perfectly timed opportunity to join a book club that is reading only one book, ever.

Whether you’ve already read The Whole Clove Diet or have been intending to read it – or have never even heard of it until this minute – join us. (Check out the reviews by other readers first, on Amazon or GoodReads, if you’re so inclined.) If you have ever wanted to lose (or gain) a pound or two, are planning to make a new year’s resolution (about anything – the same principles apply if you’re on a weight-loss program, cutting back on the booze or cigarettes, or training for a half marathon), or just love reading some good writing, snuggle up with this book – and with us – for a truly satisfying launch to the new year.

Note: The WCD One-Off Book Club will meet on the The Whole Clove Diet blog, but the discussion will be copied to Mary W. Walters’s Author Page on GoodReads. Regular updates will also appear on the Mary W. Walters, Writer Facebook page, and on Twitter (@MaryWWalters). If you are not an on-line-forum kind of person, you can have printouts of the discussions emailed to you on request, and you can submit questions by email each week that will be answered and/or discussed by the group. (mary at marywwalters dot com)

The Whole Clove Diet is available from amazon.com in both print and e-book versions, and as a Kobo e-book.

Book Promotion Tip of the Week #12: Get Lucky, and Live with the Guilt

To Warn Prospective Buyers or Not To Warn: That Is the Question

This week, the outstanding American novelist Claire Messud published her fourth book of fiction. It is entitled The Woman Upstairs. My first novel (1989) is also entitled The Woman Upstairs.

The publication of Claire Messud’s new novel is an event that I, along with thousands of others, have eagerly anticipated. I read The Emperor’s Children, and was impressed. Messud has won several prestigious writing awards and, according to Wikipedia, was even “considered for the 2003 Granta Best of Young British Novelists list, although none of the three passports she holds is British.” That’s how good she is.

Little did I know that the publication of Messud’s newest book was going to be of some modest financial benefit to me. But it has been: ever since the pre-promotion started on her latest novel, sales of my first novel have increased. Not enough to save me from financial ruin, by any means: we’re talking maybe ten books a week total on amazon, including both the Kindle version and the paperback. (And who knows? Maybe one or two of those book buyers really did intend to buy my book.)

Nonetheless, it makes me uncomfortable. I feel like my book is selling under false pretenses, and that I should put some kind of warning on my book’s page on amazon – BEWARE: THIS MAY NOT BE THE NOVEL YOU THINK IT IS!!!

On the other hand, my name IS on my Woman Upstairs. I’m not trying to impersonate Ms. Messud. And I was there first, having chosen my title very carefully many years ago. (It refers to three entities: to the mother of my protagonist, who is dying in an upstairs room;  to the protagonist’s landlady and friend, who lives on the main floor of the house where Diana has the basement suite: and — of course — to the female correlative of “The Man Upstairs,” which is how some people refer to God.)

Occasionally someone returns a copy of my Woman Upstairs to amazon, and I can hardly blame them: in fact, I am surprised more of the people who have bought my book by mistake have not returned it. Maybe they don’t know they can.

Friends and loved ones tell me I should not feel guilty, but should just accept it. Not much else I can do, short of adding the warning, which is a silly idea really. (Titles are not copyrightable, by the way, and even if they were, I wouldn’t, so don’t even go there.) I sometimes wonder what will happen if Claire Messud’s Woman Upstairs wins some big award.  (You go, girl.)

I also hope that, having bought my book by mistake, perhaps a few people will accidentally read it, and will like it enough to purchase something else I’ve written  — like The Whole Clove Diet: A Novel or The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid.

On the other hand, they might well intentionally read my novel, like it, and then go off and buy other books that Claire Messud has written. I guess that would be fair.

In the meantime, I’ll use some of my ill-gotten gains to purchase The (Other) Woman Upstairs, and maybe that will help to salve my conscience. Even though I was going to buy it anyway.

And I guess I’ll get back to work on my next novel (working title: Moby Dick).

One of these days I’ll update The Militant Writer blog with some more tips on promoting and selling your book, but in the meantime….

The Whole Clove Diet Blog


Amount lost (to Sept 20): 25 lbs

How long it’s taken me (June 20 to Sept. 20): 3 months

Amount spent on diet books, diet programs, diet clubs: $0. Zero. Nada. Nothing. Zilch.

What I eat

Several people have asked me about what I’ve been eating in the past three months.

Please remember that this is NOT a diet: it’s a new way for me to eat, that’s all. So don’t take what I put down here as a routine that needs to be followed. These are just the choices I am making, based on my decision to avoid all processed sugars (including honey and sweeteners, and in that regard also including stevia). I do eat (and enjoy) the sugars that are found in fresh fruits and vegetables, and traces of it in things I am not about to start baking myself — which is mainly bread (whole…

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Jeffrey Getzin: Finding Special Fans and Unexpected Readers

Today I am very pleased to introduce another young(er) writer, Jeffrey Getzin, whom I also met on the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition forum a few years so. He has since self-published his first novel, Prince of Bryanae, a fantasy, so he is another of the significant contingent of writers who have chosen to launch their careers themselves, rather than waiting around for the traditional industry to recognize their talents. I have noticed that a really huge segment of this new crop of independent writer / publishers is working in fantasy: I wonder if it has anything to do with the popularity of fantasy games like World of Warcraft among this generation. There is certainly a crossover readership.

Jeffrey is the person who developed a series of challenging questions for Alison deLuca to respond to, two weeks ago, and now Alison is interviewing him. She encouraged him to talk about his first novel, Prince of Bryanae, and what other writing projects are coming down the chute in the near future. He also offers the wisdom of experience to would-be self-publishers. Thank you both!

If you want to know more about Jeffrey, his writing, or his martial arts achievements, check out his website.

AdL:  Jeff, thanks so much for giving us your thoughts on self-publishing and writing Prince of Bryanae, your fantasy novel. You’ve stressed in other interviews that your main character, Willow, is a strong character. Could you describe her for us?

Jeffrey Getzin

Jeffrey: Thanks, Alison. I’d be delighted to!

In the Kingdom of Bryanae, there is none more feared than Willow, the elven Captain of the King’s Guard. She is one of the deadliest creatures who has ever walked on two legs, having obsessed about weapons and combat for 150 years!

When we first meet her, she’s a bit of a cypher; she’s abrasive, emotionless, and obsessed with discipline, but through the course of the story, we find out why she is this way, and a large part of the book is about Willow coming to terms with her past and becoming a whole person.

As for being strong, oh yes. Yes indeed, she’s strong. She’s dedicated her entire life to self-discipline, and is driven like no protagonist you’ve ever met. She’s like a Terminator with a rapier and pointed ears. Through the course of the book, she suffers countless injuries and runs up against what look to be insurmountable obstacles and unbeatable foes, but Willow never gives up.

AdL: As you went through the writing process, how were you able to access edits and beta reads? What feedback surprised you the most?

Jeffrey: The first reader of Prince of Bryanae was my girlfriend Kate, to whom the book is dedicated. She was my focus group for characters and plot, and I depended heavily on her reactions. If she liked a hero or hated a villain, I knew I was on the right track. If she didn’t react the way I had hoped, I’d tweak the book to bring them more in line with my intentions.

After the first draft was done, successive drafts were read and critiqued by writer friends, writers groups, and even co-workers. Prince of Bryanae went through literally dozens of revision cycles. Even so, I still catch the odd typo to this day!

AdL: Tell us about the language in POB. What words did you create or use to reflect the action in the book?

Jeffrey:  There are several languages spoken in this book.

First, there is Szun Universal, which is the language spoken by most humans in my world. I wrote that language using English, a language which which I have a passing familiarity. ;)

Second, there is the language of the invading humans. Initially, they are simply referred to as “barbarians” but later we learn that they are called Kards. I invented their language.

Third, there is the language spoken by the elves of Willow’s homeland. Initially, I used an invented language, but later in the book, it became the new “default” language and was represented by English. (An interesting side effect of this is that when an elf encountered someone who spoke Szun Universal, previously represented by English, he heard it in a made-up language that sounded English-like.)

Of course, when I say I invented these languages, I don’t mean I went to Tolkien lengths and wrote entire vocabularies. Instead, I got a good feeling of what each language should sound like, and a very rough idea of its grammar. I invented words only as I needed them, though I made sure to reuse them when appropriate for consistency.

[Begin Spoiler]

Finally, the protagonists actually meet an honest-to-god Szun, and not just any Szun but the one who invented Szun Universal! It turns out that over the centuries since its invention, humans have been mangling the language, so when we meet the Szun, he essentially speaks English in its “original form.” I structured this original form borrowing heavily from the Latin grammar, where verbs appear at the end of sentence, but I took it to an even greater extreme, where words are listed in increasing order of “importance” (modified by precedence). The result unusual the least is to say.

[End Spoiler]

AdL: Please share a passage from your book that you really enjoyed writing.

Jeffrey: Here is a passage of which I’m particularly fond. In it, Willow has run into her mother after being estranged for over a hundred years. It was a lot of fun to write because it has snappy dialog, and also, it’s the first time we get a clue about the nature of Willow’s childhood.

“You’re looking well, Waeh-Loh,” said [Willow’s mother]. “Other than the dark circles under your eyes, that is.” Her eyes surveyed Willow, had already glanced at the shabby cowl she wore.

“Thank you, mother,” Willow said, ignoring the barb. “You’re looking well, too.”

And she was. Tee-Ri looked extreme, barbaric, vulgar, yes. But she also looked beautiful, voluptuous. The two appeared about the same age, which was just another of the many lies of time as measured by elves.

The two women regarded each other. Around them, more spectators were arriving on the scene, gawking and chattering among themselves. Two elves in Bryanae: that ought to keep them steeped in gossip for years. Not that they didn’t already have a lot to talk about after Willow’s failures and subsequent demotion.

“Your father sends his regards,” Tee-Ri said.

Willow arched an eyebrow.

“Really? Who is my father these days?”

The corner of Tee-Ri’s mouth twitched. She had always been well adept at lying to herself. No doubt, she had convinced herself that this man really was Willow’s father.

“Jabar,” Tee-Ri said. “The great-grandson.”

“Ah, keeping it in the family, are you?”

Tee-Ri’s nostrils flared, and she sprung towards Willow with a hand raised and the backhand slap already headed towards Willow’s face. She stopped, though, when Willow’s rapier whisked from its sheath and pointed at her throat.

Tee-Ri’s porcelain face turned even whiter as she looked down at the rapier. Her face reddened.

“You would draw steel against your own mother?” she said.

“You would strike your own daughter?”

Tee-Ri took a step back, and Willow lowered her rapier but did not return it to its sheath.

“You’ve changed,” Tee-Ri said.

“You haven’t.”

Tee-Ri’s face registered the wound. For just a moment, she showed her age, and she was a sad, tired woman.

“I’m a practical woman, Waeh-Loh. The world changes, trees sprout, trees die. One either flows with time or is swept aside by it. Surely, you must know this. Or has your life among the humans turned you into one as well?”

“You tell me, Mother. You’ve spent more time in their beds than I have.” Tee-Ri’s cheeks were now a bright red. Willow pressed her attack. “And while you’re at it, Mother, when’s the last time you gave any thought to my real father?”

Tee-Ri raised her hands in half-surrender. She smiled ruefully.

“Like I said, I’m a practical woman.”

“You’re a cold, heartless bitch.”

“Ah,” Tee-Ri said, her eyes sparkling with malice, “and I see you’ve grown up to be just like me. Just look at yourself. Your hair is like straw, your body is a cylindrical lump, and your face looks like it hasn’t smiled in a thousand years. At what point did you decide to stop being a woman, Waeh-Loh? At what point did you decide to stop being an elf? My lovely, smiling, darling daughter has grown up to be a calcified statue of an old man. You can’t even get within a hundred leagues of Bryanae without hearing of the famous stoic elf Willow, that humorless, single-minded shadow of a woman.” Tee-Ri snorted. “Why, I’ll bet you’re still a virgin.”

Willow pressed the point of her rapier against Tee-Ri’s throat again. Willow’s hand shook with the effort to restrain herself.

“You know that’s not true,” Willow said with a small quaver in her voice.

Tee-Ri retreated a step, but Willow advanced, keeping the rapier pressed against her mother’s throat.

“Tell me why I shouldn’t kill you.”

“Because I’m your mother!”

A grim smile played at the corner of Willow’s lips. She pressed the point of her rapier an infinitesimal distance further into Tee-Ri’s throat.

“Not good enough.”

Tee-Ri started to shake. Her eyes cast about, seeking help. All around them, the fair citizens had gathered to watch the spectacle. The mood was of curiosity, though, and not of outrage. The people of Bryanae were excited, yes, but no doubt looked at this confrontation as delightful entertainment.

“There are people around. They’ll see!”

Willow shook her head.

“Not good enough,” she said. She pressed the rapier in a little more. A thin stream of blood trailed down Tee-Ri’s slender white neck.

“Stop it, Waeh-Loh!”

“It’s Willow.”


“Call me Willow. That’s my name now.”

Tee-Ri began to cry and hyperventilate. She inserted sporadic sobs as punctuation.

“You can’t kill me!” she said.

“Oh? Why not?”

Suddenly, Tee-Ri’s eyes focused.

“Because I’m here to deliver Warlord Jabar’s terms.” Buoyed by this revelation, a small smile played upon Tee-Ri’s beautiful, savage face.

A cold lump formed in Willow’s belly.


Tee-Ri’s smile broadened. She took a step away from the rapier. This time Willow didn’t compensate.

“Yes, terms. You didn’t think that it was just a coincidence that I came to see you when I did, did you? Don’t be ridiculous. Terms for the return of your prince, of course.”

AdL: Tell us about self-publishing. What challenges have you encountered?

Jeffrey: At first, I thought that self-publishing was admitting that I couldn’t hack it as a “real” writer. Until only recently, self-publishing was also known as “vanity” publishing, and was considered a form of literary masturbation.

Recently, that’s changed. As the price of print-on-demand publishing has decreased, and with the arrival of portable digital readers such as the Kindle and the Nook, the barriers for admission have lowered for self-publishing, and the value-add of traditional publishers has diminished.

I mean, what do traditional publishers actually do for you?

They critique and edit your book, but this is something you can do yourself if you have enough gumption, elbow grease, and some talented friends.

They engage an artist for the cover photo, but again, you can do this yourself. I was fortunate enough to find Carol Phillips to do my covers and I’d stack her work against the majority of the artists doing “professional” books. There are a lot more talented artists out there, too, so again, it just takes hard work (and money) to locate one and to commission a good cover.

They typeset your book for print. Once more, this is something you can do for yourself with a little research, a little moxie, and a lot of hard work.

Finally, they handle the book promotion. Here is where it gets difficult for the self-publisher, as you have to be your own publicist. It’s difficult, especially if like me, you have a full-time job that doesn’t leave you a lot of spare time.

Nevertheless, self-publishing has many perks. Chief among these is that you have chief and total control of your product. The book that’s published is the book you wanted to publish, not the book some editor felt was more sale-able.

This is, of course, a double-edged sword. A professional agent or editor knows what’s likely to sell. “All” you know is what story you wanted to write. Maybe you’ll luck out and they’ll be the same thing, but maybe you won’t…

AdL: What are some of the unexpected joys that you’ve found in your self-publishing journey?

The least expected and most rewarding experience has been the strong positive reaction I’ve received from such a diverse group of readers. I’ve managed to reach people I never expected to reach, and touch them in ways I’ve never expected to touch them.

For example, while I don’t come right out and say it in my novel, Willow is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It turns out that one of my readers has a soldier for a husband who suffers from PTSD, and they both loved the book! They told me that my portrayal of PTSD was accurate, and they both enjoyed a story where the heroine was a fellow sufferer.

Another surprise came when I learned that the teenaged daughter of an old friend had come across the book, and loved it. Now, Prince of Bryanae is pretty dark in places, and it’s very violent as well, so I never even considered teenaged girls as a target demographic; it just seemed like something that wouldn’t appeal to them. I was delighted to be wrong on this. It absolutely made my day when I heard from her.

However, the most poignant experience has to be regarding my friend Dan Copeland. He and I trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu together, and then he was diagnosed with brain cancer. But Dan was one hell of a fighter, and even showed up to his some of his chemotherapy appointments in his gi (uniform). Well, I gave Dan a copy of the book and he became an enthusiastic supporter of it, even reading it multiple times!

Dan recently lost his fight to cancer, but it touches me that first, I was unexpectedly able to bring some pleasure into his life with this book, and that second, someone as brave and strong as he would could find it worth reading. When you’re diagnosed with brain cancer, you pretty much know the clock is ticking and yet he found it worthwhile to read my book multiple times. I can’t begin to describe how honored I feel by this.

AdL: Are you working on a new book now?

Jeffrey: I have a novella called “Shara and the Haunted Village” that will be coming out soon. It’s about a starving seamstress who leaps at an unexpected chance at riches and adventure when a shadowy pair of adventurers asks her to lead them to a haunted village.

Next in the pipeline is another novella called “A Lesson for the Cyclops,” in which a circus freak falls in love with a rogue who’s on the run (and when is a rogue not on the run?), and how her life changes from the encounter.

After that, I actually have the first book I ever wrote, a prequel to Prince of Bryanae called King of Bryanae. I wrote it many years ago, and while there’s a lot of good stuff in it, there are also many problems with it. I plan to edit and revise this novel and make it something worth selling.

Next, I just started a new story, as yet untitled. I’ve written a single chapter, and I’m not sure where it will lead, or if indeed, it will lead anywhere.

Finally, I have a story for a third novel in my Bryanae series bouncing around in my head. It’s not quite there yet. I need the story to stew a little longer before it’s ready to commit to the page. :-)

AdL: What advice do you have for those who are considering self-publication?

Jeffrey: Write the best book you can. Spell-check. Have lots of beta readers; listen to them. Spell-check again. Revise. Rinse. Repeat. Only when you’ve made your book as good as you possibly can should you start the publication process.

Then, learn to be patient. There are so many good books out there by so many talented authors, that even if you’re the next Harper Lee, it’ll take a long time for your readership to grow.

Finally, develop a thick skin. Not everybody’s going to like your book; indeed, some will hate your book. If you’re not prepared for that, then you should not publish. While most of my reviews have been very positive, I’ve received a few 1- or 2-star reviews that would strip paint from furniture. You have to be able to withstand that if you expect to have any pleasure from the experience.

AdL:. Take a section from Prince of Bryanae, and rewrite it from the point of view of a minor character in the scene to create a short of about 250 words.


The thunderstorm had so thoroughly doused Don-Lan that he felt there wasn’t a dry spot on him. Every piece of fabric he wore was saturated to capacity: every drop of rain just rolled off his clothes onto the splashy mud through which he trudged. Around him, the other elves and the human soldiers sputtered and stumbled alongside him in the swamp that hours ago had been a field.

The princess had given him one job to do: lead them back to Headquarters. It had seemed so simple at the time, but with the rain assaulting them and the sky as black as night, how could he be sure they were heading in the right direction?

Another explosion of thunder deafened him, and moments later, a flash of lighting lit up the field in stark relief. Don-Lan’s heart pounded in his chest, terrified that any moment he and the rest of them would be electrocuted.

The human officer, the one with the mustache, trudged through the mud up to the princess and shouted something into her ear. She said something in reply, shaking her head, and Don-Lan could see the frustration on the human’s face. Then the black human joined the fray and shouted something else.

The princess shouted something unintelligible to first the one with the mustache and then to the black one.

The black man replied, defiance evident in his demeanor. To Don-Lan’s astonishment, the princess slapped him.

The black man bared his teeth in rage and wrapped his hands around the princess’s throat.

Chaos ensued.

Don-Lan ran forward to try to break up the fight. Pree-Var-Us evidently had the same idea, as he was running alongside him. The princess fought against her assailant: kneeing him, scratching and kicking at him, desperate for air. The human officer drew his sword.

Pree-Var-Us waved his arms, shouting at them to stop killing each other, that they had a common foe.

Then there was another blast of thunder, and suddenly Pree-Var-Us had no head. His arms continued to flail, but blood jetted from his neck, and then he fell to the ground and was still.

The black human released the princess, and she and the two humans gawked in astonishment and horror at Pree-Var-Us’s corpse.

(Fiction passages © Jeffrey Getzin)


Should fiction writers avoid obscure words that a few readers might have to look up?

I don’t. One of my role models in that is Anthony Burgess, who started his wonderful novel Earthly Powers with this sentence: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”

I had to go and look up the word “catamite” before I could read any further. (I had to look up a whole lot of other words when I was reading Burgess, too, although sometimes I just figured the meaning out from the context. That method also works most of the time.) I’ve never forgotten what “catamite” means, nor have I ever forgotten that first sentence.

In my writing, if the right word is an obscure word, but it’s the perfect word – in it goes. I know that at least some readers are going to know the word, and the most discerning readers are going to “get” exactly why I used it, and be pleased.  I am incapable of putting in anything but the word that feels right to me. Why should I?

Some of my readers here write steampunk novels and science fiction, and there are often words in those books that are understood only by devotees of the genre: why should general fiction be any different?

Nowadays on Kindle you can look the word up right in the middle of a sentence, and I don’t think it hurts people to learn new ones. I know my life is richer since I read Burgess.

Every word and every comma in my novels and short stories is deliberately, carefully placed. For a reason. The reason has to do with meaning sometimes, and sometimes with rhythm. There is poetry in a sentence, and I need to find it. To me, that is the best part of writing.

How about you?

(P.S. All of that said, do not fear: there are only about five or six truly dense words in The Whole Clove Diet, and all of them are explained right in the sentence either by the narrator or by someone else. I know I am not Burgess. :) )
*Paraskevidekatriaphobia: Fear of Friday the Thirteenth  (the date, not the movie)