The Merry Dredgers Blog Tour: Answering Your Writing-Related Questions
Answering Your Writing-Related Questions
by Jeremy C. Shipp
For the sake of this post, I decided to hop around from social media platform to social media platform, collecting writing-related questions from aspiring and established authors. I visited Facebook, Twitter, Mastodon, Hive, Mammoth, Swarm, Toilet Bowl, Void, Eldritch Cucumber, Flibbertigibbet, Tally-ho, Razzmatazz, the Other Void, Giant Brain, Giant Brian, Egg, the Lost City of Atlantis, the Found City of Atlantis, Cookie Jar, Dimension Number 8364883, Eldritch Pickle. Anyway, here are some of the questions people had for me, along with my attempts to answer them.
On Twitter, Tonya R. Moore asked, “How do you brainstorm new story ideas? What is your process?”
Often, story ideas will pop into my head when I’m not actively brainstorming. I’ll be doing dishes or driving to the grocery store or dusting the possessed mannequins in the attic, and then, pop, story idea.
Other times, when the great cosmic muse isn’t cooperating, I’ll sit down and brainstorm.
Here’s a little technique I came up with years ago that might help other writers out there when they don’t know what to write next.
First, make a list of five people, places, things, or ideas that you find fascinating in some way. You don’t need to be an expert on any of these five things. They just need to light up your mind or your heart or your spleen.
Your list might end up looking something like this:
- Underground bunker
Next, write a short scene that incorporates all five of your people, places, things, ideas. Pack your scene with sensory details. Include at least one character who’s experiencing a strong emotion.
Using my list, I could write a scene about a guy working in his slug-infested underground bunker, trying to create a cute taxidermied animal hybrid made from a bunny, a baby deer, and a raccoon. As he works, blood drips into his tea. Maybe he ran out on his family years ago, and he’s now determined to find a way back into his daughter’s life. Perhaps this taxidermied animal hybrid is a birthday present. Of course, this is merely a summary of the scene I could write based on the list.
Even if you don’t end up using the exact scene you create for a short story or novel, the exercise will likely spark some story ideas that you could expand upon.
On Mastodon, Mark A. Rayner asked, “What is better: pleasing yourself or pleasing your audience?”
Personally, I think that pleasing yourself and pleasing your audience aren’t always mutually exclusive. There’s a sort of magic swirling inside books created by authors who love what they’re writing and who feel passionate about their artistic vision.
Writing can be frustrating and brain-wrenching at times, but I believe it’s important to write from a place of enthusiasm. I love my books, and does that mean everyone in the world will love them? Nah. But staying true to myself means that the book will connect with readers who get me and my vision.
On Mastodon, Fredatron asked, “How do you personally judge when a story is finished?”
Here’s a peek at my novel-writing process:
When writing a book, I tend to edit as I go. I obsess over every sentence, every word. I write like a snail crawling over molasses. Once I finish a fairly-polished first draft, I tell myself, “Phew, I’m done!” But I won’t be done. I continue rewriting and making smaller edits until I feel ready to submit the book to a publisher. At this point, if the novel is accepted for publication, I do more rewrites and edits until my editor and I are both happy. And we say, “Phew, we’re done!” But we won’t be done. I still might make a few more changes.
On Mastodon, ShemThePenman asked, “What is your advice for beginners? How to find your own voice?”
My best chunk of advice would be to experiment with your voice as much as possible. One way to accomplish this would be to compose a series of flash stories or short scenes. With each new piece, try modifying your voice and style. Write one scene using lyrical prose. In another scene, try expressing yourself in a more straightforward and minimalistic way. Write a scene with a humorous tone. Write one packed full of vivid architectural details. And on and on. Through such experimentation, you can begin to discover what stylistic choices you find satisfying and effective. What choices do you feel help express the thoughts and feelings and ideas you want to share with your readers? We talk a lot about engaging our readers, but what stylistic choices keep you engaged as the writer? What makes you excited to continue writing?
THE MERRY DREDGERS by Jeremy C. Shipp
RELEASE DATE: April 26, 2023
GENRE: Dark Fantasy / Horror
Seraphina Ramon will stop at nothing to find out the truth about why her sister Eff is in a coma after a very suspicious “accident.” Even if it means infiltrating the last place Seraphina knows Eff was alive: a once-abandoned amusement park now populated by a community of cultists.
Follow Seraphina through the mouth of the Goblin: To the right, a wolf-themed roller coaster rests on the blackened earth, curled up like a dead snake. To the left, an animatronic Humpty Dumpty falls off a concrete castle and shatters on the ground, only to reform itself moments later. Up ahead, cultists giggle as they meditate in a hall of mirrors. This is the last place in the world Seraphina wants to be, but the best way to investigate this bizarre cult, is to join them.
When I first started working as a princess, I felt a little self-conscious peeking through a gap in the fence into a client’s yard. Nowadays, it comes as second nature. Through a knothole, I see a French bulldog in a polka-dot bowtie, squirming on his back and sunning his round, speckled belly. I also see a rustic-looking shed with a massive window. In the window, I see the severed heads of bobcats and boars and black bears. I wonder for a moment if the hunter who owns this shed only kills animals that start with the letter b. No, there’s a sheep’s head right there. Ah, but is it a bighorn sheep?
My attention shifts away from the shed because a little girl appears with glittery stickers covering her arms like tattoo sleeves. She tickles the armpits of the French bulldog for a while, and then she lies down beside him on the well-manicured lawn. A boy with a buzzcut appears and drops a balloon onto the girl’s stomach.
The taxidermy shed gives me Norman Bates vibes, but at least there are actual children at this children’s party. That isn’t always the case. Now and again, guys will book you for a bachelor party, or worse. I haven’t experienced this myself, but I visit the princess forums and I read the stories.
Now that I’m feeling somewhat safe, I make my way to the front of the house where I make my grand entrance. Sometimes a parent will speak with me one-on-one before leading me to the heart of the party, but most of the time I’m greeted at the door by a horde of wide-eyed, yipping children. This time around, three girls spill out of the front entrance before I can even ring the doorbell.
Children soon surround me on the front porch, and I sing the Greeting Song. Or croak is more accurate, as this is my seventh party this week and I’m losing my voice. To those children who come close enough, I gently tap them on the head with my magic wand.
After I finish singing, a young mother shakes my hand and leaves behind a smear of frosting on my glove. She tells me her name, although her voice is too soft for me to hear it, and she leads me into the house to the birthday girl, who also politely shakes my hand. While I sing the girl the Birthday Princess Song, she stares down at an astronaut doll bent in strange angles on the hardwood floor. Even when I present her with a magic wand of her very own, she takes it without looking at me and doesn’t say a word. I don’t mind.
I sing a couple more songs and teach the children to do the fairy tale shuffle.
Eventually, the birthday girl musters up enough courage to approach me and say, “Do you want to see my dog?”
“Oh yes,” I say, in the sickly-sweet manner that feels almost normal to me at this point. “I do so love animals.”
There aren’t any songs in the princess guidebook that are meant for pets, but I made one up about a year ago. Through song, I tell the French bulldog that his heart is full of gold and that his nose is very cold. I won’t be winning any Grammys for my lyrics, I know, but the kids gobble this ditty up.
One of the good things about princess work, compared to my other jobs, is that time almost always passes swiftly. One minute I’m painting a golden tiara onto a girl’s chubby face, and the next, I’m packing my rainbow duffle bag to head out.
Before I leave the yard, the girl with stickers covering her arms hops toward me. “Are you a real princess?” she says.
“What do you think?” I say, because according to the guidebook, a princess can’t answer a question about her true identity with the truth, or with a lie.
The girl stares at me with her head tilted far to the side. After a few moments of scrupulous inspection, she peels a tiger sticker off her arm and holds the object out to me. “You can have this, if you want.”
“Thank you ever so much.”
I take the sticker, and the girl waits silently until I press the gift onto my arm. Then she dashes away.
On my way back to the house, I have to pass by the taxidermy shed. I see a bison and bunnies and what might be a band-tailed pigeon. I see the open-mouthed face of a black bear, forever roaring in agony or anger, or some combination of the two. I wonder why the hunter only keeps the heads, and what he does with the bodies. Does he pile the headless corpses in a pickup truck and dump them gracelessly in a landfill? Does he sell the carcasses to some eccentric artist who attaches mannequin heads to the torsos and displays them in his living room?
The buzzcut kid stands near the shed with a stone in his hand that looks much too large for him to lift, but somehow he’s managing the feat. He tosses the stone at the glass, and I hold my breath. Thankfully, the stone turns out to be made of foam or some other harmless material.
I keep walking.
Back inside the house, I find the young mother whispering to someone on her phone. She meets my eyes and gives me an apologetic look, and then she faces the wall and continues whispering.
“You’re a talented singer,” says a man standing to my side. He towers over me, wearing a Taxi Driver t-shirt. Throughout this afternoon, I caught this guy gaping at me on multiple occasions.
“Thank you,” I say, in a voice still slightly princess-like. There are children within earshot, and I don’t want to shatter the illusion.
“You have a lot of potential, and I’m not just saying that.” He sits on the arm of a couch and crosses his arms over his chest. “If you’ve ever considered trying out for one of those singing competition shows, I could help you with that. I know people. I can help you skip all the initial auditions and fast-track you through the process. If you want to leave me your number, we can talk more about this later. What do you think?”
“That sounds great, dad twice my age with a magician’s goatee. Thank you for hitting on me at a children’s birthday party inside a stranger’s house. There’s nothing I love more.” That’s what I want to say, but princesses are incapable of such sarcasm.
“Thanks,” I say. “But I’m not interested.”
“We wouldn’t have to talk about singing. People say I’m a talented conversationalist.”
“I’m not interested,” I say, quietly, in my own voice.
I turn around and approach the birthday girl’s mother. Behind me, the goatee guy mumbles something that sounds like, “Somebody’s moody.”
Ultimately, waiting for the young mother to finish her phone call proves fruitless. She doesn’t give me a tip. Not even a bad one. She probably doesn’t know how little I’m being paid, but maybe I’m giving her too much credit.
On the drive home, my scrap heap of a sedan makes a noise like a dying pig. I don’t have the cash or credit or energy to deal with a shrieking vehicle right now, so I turn up the volume of my podcast and try to drown out the cacophony. It doesn’t really work.
Eventually I turn off the podcast, because I’m not paying enough attention. I’m thinking about everything I want to do tonight. There’s always so much I want to do after work. But as the drive continues and the fairy tale fades, my adrenaline rush becomes an adrenaline walk, which will become an adrenaline crawl into bed. As soon as I step out of my car, I suddenly feel the full force of my exhaustion.
In my head, I can hear my friend Alvin chastising me for giving so much of myself to these silly parties. I’m wasting my talent, he says. Some casting director out there will see me for the star I am, if I just get back to the grind. Alvin’s a sweet person, as far as great big liars go. How long has it been since I spoke with Alvin outside of my own head? I should call him tonight. Then again, I’m sure he’s busy living a real, substantial life. He doesn’t need me grumbling about my existence for thirty minutes straight.
Before heading up to my apartment, I check my mail. I pull out six postcards, each one depicting a Humpty Dumpty statue with a crack in his skull. His grin looks sadistic. The other sides of the postcards are jam-packed with microscopic scribbles that are nigh indecipherable. Even without checking for a signature, I can tell these missives are from Eff. She always did have the handwriting of a rabid mouse.
Why she sent me six postcards instead of her usual rambling phone text, I have no clue. There’s a chance she’ll give me some explanation in her messages, and then again, she might not. My sister can be inexplicable at times.
In my apartment, I dismantle my gown and purge my face of the ghost-white foundation and enormous purple eyelids. Transformed into a regular human being once again, I pour myself some diet soda and a splash or four of pink gin. I know it sounds weird, but try it. You’ll see.
Right as I sink my aching bones into the ugliest, comfiest couch on the planet, Heracles meows at me from across the room.
“You already have food in your dish,” I say. “I can see it from here.”
He meows again.
I’m a pushover, so even before taking a sip of my drink, I get up and open a small can of cat food and plop the contents onto the not-quite-as-fresh blob of food.
“Is that better?” I say.
Heracles eats, and I pet the top of his head with a forefinger before returning to the couch.
I sip my drink and place the postcards Humpty-down on the coffee table and study the messages. Apparently, the cards come together to form one long letter, because only one missive starts with Dear Phina, and only one ends with Love, Eff.
I take another sip and squint and begin to read.
First of all, I want you to know that I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. Picture me grinning like a jack-o’-lantern as you read through the rest of this. Picture me with a candle inside my heart, warming me from within, never burning out. That’s how I feel these days. So don’t worry about me, no matter what pessimistic ideas come to your mind in the next few minutes.
Anyway, I’m writing to you primarily because I want to catch up, but I also need a little help. I should probably start by telling you that a few months ago I joined a really cool community. I know when I say the word community, you’re automatically going to think the word cult. I know you can’t help yourself. I also know that when I assure you I’m not in a cult, you’re going to think, “That’s exactly what someone in a cult would say.” But really, Phina, this place is more of a mind and body retreat than anything else. We’re all about self-actualization and meditation and shit like that. I can already imagine the multipage rant you’re planning on sending me about why I’m definitely in a cult and I’m being brainwashed, so let me help ease—
The first postcard ends abruptly at this point. Since Eff didn’t take the time to indicate the order of the cards, I have to search through them all and guess which one comes next. Ah, this one seems right.
—some of your concerns before you scream them at me. One: no one here has asked me for money. Not the owner of the retreat, not the followers. Nobody. Honestly, these are the least greedy people I’ve ever come across. Two: I’m not being exploited, in any sense of the word. The leader of the retreat isn’t some sex-crazed maniac who wants me as his fourteenth wife. Three: no one is keeping me from returning to the big wide world, and I can do so whenever I feel like it. You might think it’s strange that I’m writing to you on postcards instead of texting, but none of us use phones or computers here. Before you ask: no one forced me to get rid of my phone. I wanted to break my addiction, for my own sake. We do have an emergency landline, so it’s not like we can’t call a plumber if the pipes burst. We’re not super isolated. I also thought writing you letters would be fun. Isn’t this fun? Three: wait, I already wrote three. Damn it. Now I can’t remember what other points I wanted to make here, but maybe I’ll think of them later. Even after all my reassurances, I’m sure you’re still worried as hell about me, and I guess I appreciate that. You’re a good sister. Hopefully I’ve at least—
The postcard ends here.
I find the next one.
—alleviated your fears a fraction of an inch. Anyway, like I mentioned earlier, I do have a small favor to ask of you. I’m sure your anxiety is through the roof right now, so remember to picture me with my jack-o’-lantern face and my cinnamon candle heart. I’m fine. I’m better than fine. Recently though I told a few of my friends here about George the Demon. I told them about what George did to me. For the most part, everyone here reacted very supportively. These are nice people, Phina. There is one guy, though, who keeps joking about how he wants to find George and break his legs or throw him down a well or stuff like that. I’m ninety-five percent sure that he’s joking, but then again, guys who joke like this aren’t always joking. The joking in itself didn’t worry me too much until I started having some disturbing visions about George. I know you’re the Scully to my Mulder, and you don’t believe in psychic powers or visions or shit. I don’t know if you’re capable of doing so, but I want—
I grab the next postcard.
—you to attempt to turn off your preconceived notions about reality for a second and open your mind to the possibility that psychic phenomena are a natural part of our world. Did you do it? You probably didn’t. Whether you believe me or not, I’ve always been a little bit psychic. I don’t know if you remember, but Auntie Gloria thought you and me both had links to otherworldly forces, and she knew what she was talking about. She could tell when the phone was about to ring and when someone was coming to the door. You can’t deny that we both dreamed about losing dad before anyone even knew he was sick. I’ve never taken my powers too seriously until I started living at the retreat. We cultivate an atmosphere of self-discovery here. We spend time alone, meditating, gazing into our own souls. It’s difficult to explain with words. Honestly, I’ve always been a little afraid of that part of myself that sees beyond normal perceptions. Here, though, that part of me feels like it’s waking up. And I like it, most of the time. I’m learning to control it. I’m learning that this mystical aspect of myself is as normal as my jack-o’-lantern smile or my candle heart. I know you don’t believe any of this but I—
I fumble for the next postcard.
—hope you can be happy for me, nevertheless. I’m finally starting to feel like the real Eff. It’s scary. And exhilarating. I sit in a dark room, alone, and I’m inundated with the citrusy scent of peonies and the crackling of a campfire and the feeling of sticking your hand in a barrel of dried beans and so much beautiful shit like that. This is how I experience my gift most of the time. Every once in a while though, I see George with shards of glass in his face and part of his bone sticking out of his arm. I feel his terror like it’s my own. My main problem is that I don’t know what these images and feelings mean. Am I seeing something that’s already happened, or will happen, or might? What I’m afraid of is that my friend who keeps joking about hurting George actually went through with it. He left the community for a few days recently, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’m probably worrying over nothing. Nevertheless, I was wondering if you could check on the Demon for me? Make sure he’s—
Here’s the next one.
—alive and breathing? He was always such a damn luddite, so you might have to go check up on him in person. I’m eighty percent sure that these visions are nothing to worry about. Maybe George is going to die forty years from now, and that’s what I’m experiencing. Maybe part of me needs to experience his passing so that he can stop living like some almighty demigod inside my head. He’s a pathetic mortal, just like the rest of us. That’s one theory anyway. Whatever the case may be, it would do me a world of good if you could see how George is doing. I would be forever in your debt, although I suppose I already am. Anyway, how have you been? Are you still a princess?
For I-don’t-know-how-many seconds, I stare at Eff’s signature, as if I can scry some secret meaning from the way she signed her name. I can’t.
I stack the postcards in order and place them in the drawer of the coffee table, where I keep all the important bills and papers I need to deal with posthaste. Leaning back on the couch again, I notice Heracles curled up on the threadbare cushion beside me. He rolls onto his back and when I pet his belly, he gently grabs hold of me with his claws and gnaws on my hand.
“Let go, Hare,” I say.
What I need to do, first and foremost, is to think carefully about everything Eff told me. I wish I could do this now, but I’m the sort of tired that even caffeine can’t fix. My sister wants me to picture her as some jubilant pumpkin. Well, picture me as a popped party balloon. Picture me as a stone made of foam, incapable of smashing a single window. That’s the sort of tired I am.
I get into bed, because the sooner I sleep, the sooner I can figure out where to go from here. Right now, all I know for sure is that my sister definitely joined a cult, and I need to find a way to save her.