Weekend Assignment: What’s Hot? What’s Cool?

Yes, we’re knee deep in Summer, and the Northeast (not where I live)  is now like a well-done burger left on a Fourth of July Barbecue for too long.  And the grass is always greener on the other side, as they say, so our thoughts turn to how to stay cool in our warmer climes.  And here comes this week’s Weekend Assignemt to ask:

Summer is well underway now. If you live in the northern hemisphere, the days are long and the sun is on its way to being about as hot as it gets in your particular climate. How do you stay cool when the weather gets hot?

Well, of course, I stay cool by being cool.  Because I’m cool.

But enough about me.

You’re here because you want to know about all of the cool stuff I say and do here.  Like, how cool is my writing?  And how cool is Fantasy and Sci Fi?  Oh… wait… that’s not what this Weekend Assignment is about at all, is it?

Maybe this is supposed to be about how I hit the beach every summer, or go the pool each week.  Well… I’m a desk-jockey and evening MBA student.  No beach for me!  (Perhaps more’s the pitty.)  And, I can’t swim.  (Dear Wife has threatened on numerous occassions to make me take swimming lessons after I finish my MBA, if for no other reason that to equip me to rescue drowning children.)

Is it about how I use AC?  I use AC.

Bam!  Instant cool.

(Thanks to B.T., we actually have to keep it cooler in our house than we normally would, because we don’t want the poor tyke to overheat.)

Or maybe this post should be about how Dear Wife and I like to take weekend trips – when time permits (which it usually doesn’t) – up to the mountains, where it’s cooler (and where the views are much cooler) to get away from it all. 

Well, to be honest with myself… I’m quite frankly not sure what to make of this topic.  Mostly, I’m stretching, here.

But you know what is cool, these days?  Steampunk.  So… tomorrow I’m gonna drop some Steampunkery on y’all.  Stay tuned.

Writing Quote: Metaphors

Today’s writing quote comes from an author whose work I’m rather fond of (I’ve read several of his books, and they are very intelligent and articulate books).

Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space. 

~Orson Scott Card

Metaphors are one of those tools of style that writers have at their disposal, but few writers master their use.  In the wrong hands, a metaphor becomes a blunt instrument, good only for pounding the nails of common things, or worse, it becomes a cliché.  But in more practiced hands, they become as Lyra’s Alethiometer, revealing the truth of things in unexpected ways. Continue reading

Friday Flash: Where It All Began

Someday I’ll write a sci-fi or something else like that in response to T.S. Bazelli’s weekly writing prompt.  I thought it would be this week, if I wrote anything, but that’s not what happened.  Instead, as is often the case, fantasy happened.  The challenge this week was to focus on setting:

The Challenge: Write a story (1000 words or less) that is set in a place you have never been. This place can be real or imagined. The theme: “home”

I sort of cheated, though.  I used a place I really had been to (the Dun Beag fort outside Dingle, Ireland) as the source of inspiration for the setting of this tale, even if the place itself is “imagined”.  (Also, of course, it’s just over 1,000 words, but I do that almost every time, so that’s not new.  This one’s 1,306 words long.)  And so, let’s take it back to:

Where It All Began

By: Stephen A. Watkins, Jr.

Sea foam sprayed up as waves crashed against the cliffs of Dun Chuain, where Aran was born.  At the very edge of the cliff, as though a stray wind might rip it from the cliffside and send it plunging into the churning waters a hundred feet below, rose the House of Dun Chuain.  It was a small wooden manse – long oak planks, steeply-pitched roof, and a watchtower – growing out of a mortared stone foundation some seven feet in height.  The current House was built seventy-five years ago, and the gray wood showed its age, but the House of Dun Chuain had been inhabited for several centuries.  Around the cliffside manor were the remains of the old village – stone huts and walls built without mortar, stacked with exacting care, by Aran’s ancestors. Continue reading

Sundry Stories & Links

Because of the way things are for the next few weeks… today’s post is a bit on the content-free side.  Rather than me talking about interesting and cool things and you being compelled to reply to my thoughts in the comments, I’ll offer a short dose of links:

First, have you, dear reader, read and commented on some of my recent “flash” stories I’ve posted here.  If not… know that I crave comments – even negative criticism is helpful and useful to me as a writer (especially if I plan to take any of these and polish them into perfect little gems).  Therefore, go and read, if you have not already, these recent stories:

After the Quest is Done: The quest of Cadoc the Paladin is at an end, and the hero at last can rest… But what if he has no home to return to?

From that Eternal Summer Isle: Mark didn’t believe in god, or the afterlife… He also didn’t believe he could die, until he did…

The Steed and the Page Boy: In the aftermath of a terrible battle, two survivors find hope in each other – while the title leaves something to be desired, I happen to think this is one of the better stories I’ve posted here.

Okay… so now that you’ve sampled a few stories I have to offer here, I invite you to go and read the stories of others:

Dragon Shells: Aidan Fritz nominated me for the “One Lovely Blogger” award, and penned this dragon-inspired tale as a result: a knight and a priest prepare to infiltrate the dragon’s layer, seeking a treasure more precious than gold to save their ailing queen.

Glass Half-empty: T.S. Bazelli’s 3-part Steampunk Noir crossover flash miniseries magnum opus: Detective Claude Russo is engaged by an unexpected client to investigate the dalliances of the preternaturally handsome Duke Elroy, who will soon be holding a masked ball on his airship!

Red: Another Bazelli favorite.  Here’s the part of Red Riding Hood’s story that they didn’t tell you in grade-school… Rosalyn knows her father won’t accept her love for Tom… but there has to be a way for them to be together.

A Gift for Mother: The last of the Bazelli links for today, a sci-fi with a very human heart: Simon has always been cared for by Mother, the central computer on a ship hurtling through space…

The End of an Endless Ladder: J.P. Cabit tells a tale of yearning for something more: There’s a ladder that stretches from the Moon to the Earth… it hasn’t been used in ages.  But what really lies at its other end?

Happy Birthday, Facebook Friend: Eric J. Krause tells a creepy tale for a digital age: Crystal only recently started using Facebook, and now she’s started receiving strangely personal posts from someone she doesn’t remember friending.

Bite: Harry Markov takes on a classic fairy-tale: Snow White awakens at the “kiss” of her prince to a world that’s very unlike the one she lived in before the apple.

The Defeated: Melissa Webb weaves patriotism and zombies in this surreal tale: “America never dies…”

May I Come In: Another by Melissa Webb, about the stories grandfathers tell: Tom doesn’t believe the story grandpa spins about knocking before entering…

And that’s all for today.  There are many more great little flash snippets out there on the old internets, but I’ve not  had time to read them all nor to dig them up and link them here.  In the meantime: enjoy.

Review: Wheel of Time Books 1 thru 12

So, over the holiday weekend, I finally finished The Gathering Storm, the twelfth book in the “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan.  I’d mentioned some time ago that when I finish this book, I’d do a review of the series up to this point.  My reasoning for doing a review of the series, and not of just this book, is that by this point fans of the series are likely to know whether or not they want to read the next book, whereas people who’ve never read these books are more likely to want to start from the beginning.  So, a review is of little worth to the former (especially some ten months after the book’s release) and the latter will be more interested to know if the series as a whole is worth investing in.  So, here’s my review: the good, the bad, and the ugly of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.

(I will try to keep this review spoiler-light, as it is intended for those who’ve never read the books, but I can’t promise I won’t mistakenly slip one in here or there.) Continue reading

Weekend Assignment: Fantasy Camp

Weekend Assignment this week asks to imagine myself the keynote speaker at a “fantasy camp”…

Guess what? You have been offered the chance to be the keynote speaker at a world famous fantasy camp! Great! Tell us what kind of camp it is, and what makes you such an expert!

So… what am I an expert in?

I guess that would be… Fantasy!

So, yes, if I were suddenly transported to a magical world where I was an invited guest-speaker and an expert in anything, it would be something to do with the fantasy and speculative fiction genres.  So, the “fantasy camp” in question would probably be some kind of convention where I’d be a panel-speaker or some-such as that.  There are a lot of real-world sci-fi-themed conventions, but I’d have to be at one that was slanted slightly more toward the fantasy end of the spectrum.   Likewise, it could be a fantasy-themed writer’s convocation, or a writing workshop of some sort.   Why it would have to lean more toward fantasy than sci-fi gets to the second part of the question: why am I an expert?

That, obviously, is because I primarily write fantasy stories.  Sure I’ll dabble in sci-fi and other speculative genres, but fantasy is my mainstay.  Not only is it what I primarily write, though, it’s also what I primarily read, when given the opportunity to read.  So, in an ideal world, I’d be both very widely read in fantasy and a published author in the same genre.  Those two notes of cred would make me an ideal “invited guest speaker” at just such an event.

In the meantime, and in the real-world… I’ll continue doing what I do best, and hobble away at my keyboard churning out stories that I hope are worth reading… As I continue to improve the latter part of that equation will be more and more true, and over time, this idealized “fantasy” world may just come close to touching on reality!

The Week Ahead

While today may be a “hiatus” day for me, I nonetheless have a small treat for you all.  For those of you who don’t already follow fellow writer/blogger J.P. Cabit’s blog, I’ve got a guest post up over as of Saturday.  It’s a little musing on the history and ideosyncrosies of the English Language – my native tongue.  So, if that’s the kind of thing that tickles your fancy, go check out my “Love Letter to English“.

Other than that – this is going to be a very tough week for me, here.  I have things going on in school every night this week.  And that’s to say nothing of finding time for regular studying/project work/assignments.  Monday and Wednesday are classes as normal.  Tomorrow is the next “STAR” practice session.  Thursday is another workshop on interview techniques.  Friday is another official “schmoozing” event.

Next week will be more of the same – almost every day will have something going on.  So, when there’s that much going on, you know what comes next: something’s gotta give.  And that means posts for the next few weeks are going to be a little fewer and farther between.  We’re getting to the real “crunch” of this whole MBA experiment – here’s the part that can make or break me, and I need it to make me.

Writing Quote: Neurosis & Emotion

Touching on the theme of fellow blogger/writer-in-training T.S. Bazelli’s writing prompt for last week, I’ve been thinking on the importance of emotion in what we write.  Perhaps that’s why this quote jumped out at me.

The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone’s neurosis, and we’d have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads.

~William Styron

Neurosis, itself, is a bit of a loaded term, implying mental disorder, irrational behavior, and bizarre phobias.  But I think there’s something to be learned from the deeper implications of Styron’s quote, here.  And that’s that a simple, happy, unchallenged life provides little by way of grist for the writer’s mill.

The raw materials of the writer’s craft are, first, words, and second, emotions.  Emotions are the stuff of human beings, and insofar as a writer can capture emotions with words, then a writer has the ability to create characters that are compelling and engaging.  And that’s not a feat easily done.

The point suggested here is simple: it’s easier to write about emotions when you’ve felt emotions.  And a good story – a story with compelling characters and a compelling plot – is a story in which the characters are not always happy.  Characters in such a state of that by implication have no challenge, no urgent need, no impetus with which to drive the story.  The fuel of the story is the character’s dissatisfaction, regret, pain, confusion, uncertainty, fear, love, obsession, passion, hunger.  Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention.  Need is the mother of plot – a character has to have an unmet need, and a character with an unmet need is a character with a complex emotional response.

So chew on that for a while, as you contemplate the midbook lull… what need leaves your character unfulfilled?  How does she or he feel about that?

Happy writing.

Friday Flash: The Steed and the Page Boy

So, I says to myself the other day: “Self!  There are far too few dragons here on your site.  Why are there not more dragons?”

And then Bazelli goes and posts this prompt for the week:

The challenge: Keep one emotion in the forefront of your mind while you write a scene (1000 words or less) but do not tell us what that emotion is. The story should speak for itself. The theme this week: “flight

And what do you suppose I’m supposed to do with that?  Oh wait.

So, here’s this week’s Friday Flash, coming at you at 1,266 words.

The Steed and the Page Boy

By: Stephen A. Watkins, Jr.

Valigash surveyed the burning fields and the ranks of the fallen.  The assault against Dethlak’s horde had turned into a route, and even Valigash himself had not emerged from the debacle unscathed.  He limped as he picked his way through the corpses, searching for some sign of his companion, Hibold.  Here and there, the moans of the fatally injured rose to Valigash’s ears, but he could spare them no comfort.  Where the ground was not trampled, grass blackened by fire still flickered and glowed .  Smoke drifted through the air on oily currents.  Hibold lived, if only barely, and Valigash would need to find him if anything from this day would be salvaged.   Luckily, Dethlak’s horde had withdrawn – though victorious they were not without heavy losses.  Yet, time was short.  So Valigash searched. Continue reading

Who Wants to be a S.T.A.R.?

So, you know what I do when I’m not at work on the day job crunching numbers, in class learning MBA-ninjutsu, at home studying MBA-ninjutsu, or fulfilling my role as a husband, father, and provider?

I write stories!

But these days, it’s not the kind of stories you think, mostly.  Instead of winged mythical beasts, young heros answering the call to adventure, sage advisors, evil warlords, and fantastic magical journeys, the stories I’m working on are a little more mundane, a little more personal, and a little more pertinent to my immediate future.  I’m writing “S.T.A.R.” stories.

What’s a “STAR” story, you ask?  Why, I’m glad you asked, for it is the purpose of this blog post to answer that very question.

STAR, I learned, stands for “Situation, Task, Action, Resolution”.  It refers to the preferred format for answering certain kinds of “behavioral interview” questions.  That’s the kind of question you get in an interview that starts out like “Tell me about a time in your last job when you had to do X…”

Answering a question in STAR format means you summarize the experience in an easily digested nugget that gets to the heart of the capability you’re trying to demonstrate.  Need to prove you can handle difficult customer interactions?  There’s a STAR for that.  Need to demonstrate that you can meet the needs of high-powered corporate execs?  There’s a STAR for that. 

The way you do this is to start by giving a very short, 15-second run-down of the “situation” you faced.  This is the set-up of the story: the background details. You take the interviewer’s “Tell me about a time when X…” and you run with it.  “X happened when I faced Y situation.”  Then segue into “Task”: this is what you had to do in order to deal with X problem in Y situation.  This is just a quick primer, kind of like foreshadowing, to tell the interviewer where you’re going with this.  Then you get down to the meat of the story, your “Action”.  This is where you describe, in some detail, what you actually did to handle that situation.  In a 2-minutes-or-less interview response, this is where you’ll spend most of your time, 30-seconds to a minute, most likely. And it has be to specific to what you did, not what your team did or what your boss ordered you to do or anything like that.  Spin it personal (but keep it factual).  The action is your story’s climax.  Finally, you bring the story to it’s denouement, by revealing the “Result”: what happened as a result of your action.  Did what you do bring about a change?  Did it have a financial impact?  Did it impress your supervisors or peers?  Did it land you a promotion?  Quantifiable results are better.

These STAR stories are much harder to write in practice than they are to describe.  Frankly, most of us don’t keep detailed notes about what we did on the job, and when.  Some of us have just enough foresight to be regularly updating our resume with our current job duties.  But unless you’ve been trained to look for these sorts of story-worthy experiences ahead of time, you’re not keeping track of them.  And by the time you get around to remembering and writing these stories in preparation for interviews, it’s usually too late to dig up some quantifiable impact measures.

This is the place in which I find myself.  I’ll be expected to master the STAR format before impending Alumni Mock-Interviews (where we will practice our interviewing skills).  If I show poorly… well… that’s not good for me.  But I’m having a lot of trouble with these stories.  I realize that I need to write them ahead of time – partly because I’m a better writer than I am an off-the-cuff speaker, and partly because it’s been tough to come up with viable examples from my work and educational history that can work to answer some of these questions.  Preparing in advance is the only way this can work.

But, then I sit and I think and I ponder, and I just can’t figure out how to answer a question like “Tell me about a time when you failed.  How did you handle that?”  It’s a barbed question, and you know it’s barbed from the get-go.  The interviewer isn’t setting you up to look like an ass – they just want to know that you can learn from your mistakes and improve the next time.  But… sometimes our mistakes aren’t so easily distilled to a 60-second soundbite.  And what we learn from them can fill volumes.  And, more often than not, those mistakes are personal, and not professional in nature at all.  And most mistakes… well… you just can’t talk about them in polite company.

A lot of time is spent in MBA school learning a lot of the hard “quant” skills that MBAs are so famed for.  But the hard stuff isn’t really, well, the “hard” stuff.  The really difficult things that you learn are these supposed “soft” skills.  They’re so tough to master because there’s no formula for getting the right answer.  But really, there is a right answer.  And there’s a wrong answer.  Good luck finding your way there, because the only way to find it is to learn it by experience.

So… Alumni Mock Interviews are coming up soon – on July 31st.  I better get cracking!