Transition Stories

I’ve been struggling to write a new story for a year now. During all these months and discarded words and shifting ideas, (and some angst blog posts!) I’ve put a lot of thought into why this one is so hard. I’m finally recognizing these things.

My writing has changed. Not the process, but the stories that come to me. I don’t even really read the genre I always wrote in – mysteries – any more. I have spent this past month clinging to what I used to do, only to realize I’ve been letting go for some time without knowing it. I think a seed of change fell when Sam died. The third year anniversary of his death will be here in days. Another seed when my sister died. That first anniversary was just here. Another seed was the arrival of COVID-19. The virus forced me to look at old nightmares and fears and why I move through life the way I do.

All of those things make me lean more, now, to stories about loss and grief and letting go, and the need to believe that myth and magic are still out there somewhere.

I’ve been trying to make the new story into something its not. Even the characters have been trying to tell me to knock it off. Last week I wrote a scene of dialog between two characters. After, I wondered if I’d given away too much, too soon. But then it dawned on me why I kept going back to that scene. One character says to the other ‘in other words it could be this, or that, or something else entirely!’ and I realized they were telling me I didn’t have a clue what the story was about.

And all of that makes me realize I have to finally, fully, let go of what I wanted this to be originally, and let the characters live their story. I also realized that this one may simply be a transition story for myself that never gets published or shared. It may be my way of learning what no longer works. I think this will actually end up being a short story or novella. The ending feels near.

This story is set in a place I visit but don’t live. I love that area but in writing, I feel like a visitor, just touching the surface of the land. That works okay in one way because the protagonist is a visitor, so the place won’t feel like home to her until the end. But it’s shown me the words don’t flow as easily on land I’m not immersed in.

Recently I was talking over all this with a friend who is having similar struggles with her art. She suggested I take a notepad and walk in the woods. When she said that, I felt a sense of ‘that’s what’s missing’ and a tingle of excitement that another story is out there waiting.

It makes me realize that the forest and mountains are where the stories are that really sink into my soul. That’s where the magic and mystery and myths are. That was brought home to me even more yesterday when I met with two friends to talk about an old abandoned homestead out in the woods. I immediately felt that pull – who were its people? Where did they go? Why were they there? What was out there in the woods with them?

I’m not surprised by this because I’ve always preferred the settings of woods and mountains. It’s just been brought home even more now.

So, this one set between sea and land will be my transition as I slowly figure out how to move forward. It’s almost like being a brand-new writer again – learning the process of what works and what doesn’t. What to hang on to and what to let go of.

And how to turn toward all those new stories waiting out there in the trees.

‘This Deep Panic’ Book Trailer

I think a few of my friends were skeptical when I said I wanted to make a book trailer. I’d seen several on media sites and some were fantastic – like movie trailers – and some were not so great. I was lucky enough to know a fantastic cinematographer who was willing to take on the project. Because I couldn’t afford licenses for music, Sam went to friends of his, who created the soundtrack.

If you’re not familiar with Sam Nuttman, take a look at his website.

We spent a lot of time getting ready, which was a learning experience for me. Sam read the book and pulled out the scenes he thought would translate to a short video. He then created storyboards and he worked on dialog and timing, since obviously a video that is less than two minutes can’t show a whole novel.

Kaiti Hylands created character sketches for our storyboards.

I put out a ‘casting call’ for friends, asking them to come out in the rain for two days, for no pay, and just to hang out and have fun. And believe it or not, they did! An added challenge was making sure everyone stayed in their ‘pods’, kept their social distancing in place, and wore masks.

I couldn’t figure out antlers for the windigo monster, played by the only one with acting experience, Jim Burgess. But my friend Sabrina jumped in, finding antlers and showing up with a box of bones, ace bandaging, bags, rope, and moss. Jim showed up more prepared than I was, with costuming and props.

We shot scenes with the Windigo along a popular hiking trail. There were hikers that passed on the trail during the time that Jim and his antlers moved through the trees. I wish I could have known what they were thinking as they picked up their pace.

We need to applaud Beth, the sister of my friend Karen, who came to be in the video and got more than she expected. Sabrina and Karen had way too much fun using fake body parts. Beth had to lie on pavement in the rain for the shots. At one point, Sam yelled ‘cut!’ and those in the scene all wandered away. But Beth didn’t hear, so she kept lying there in the rain, perfectly still, true to her role. Next to her, Sam had the camera rolling for the next shots. Eventually he glanced down and saw her, asked if she was comfortable, and let her know she could get up. I have to admit, there was a lot of laughing. I’m glad her scenes ended up in the final cut. She deserved it.

The crew did an awesome job with makeup, not only creating injuries, but taking my friend Gloria Two-Feathers, who is a children’s author, and transforming her into the Stone Woman.

We shot scenes at night in the parking lot near the Index Town Wall where rock climbers go. We’d hoped to show a part from the book where a piece of scalp is on the hood of a car. So my husband took a hunk of chicken, rubbed in dog hair I collected from our floor, and topped that off with fake blood. After filming, instead of bagging it up to take home and throw away, he tossed it into the woods, thinking it would be raccoon food. Unfortunately, it was pitch black out there. He ended up tossing it so that it hung up on a branch at the edge of the climber’s trail, much to the consternation of climbers who later saw it. That scene didn’t make the final cut because the chicken just kind of went ‘splat’ on the windshield.

Angela and her wonder-dog Bailey, normally work ski patrol, with Bailey excelling at avalanche rescue. Angela had to run and fall at the right spot so that she landed in front of a severed leg (fake of course). Bailey loved this new game, running along with Angela. Sam was on the ground, camera in hand, and Bailey would get in front of him so her bottom was in his face, tail going madly. At one point she thought the leg was much better than a stick to shake and run around with. We wondered then if we could do some sort of blooper reel.

Having never been involved in something like this, I thought people would show up, say their lines, and go home. I didn’t realize that they would have to say their lines multiple times. That some would have to fall to the wet forest floor over and over, landing just right on their mark. That some would have to drive an old truck many times through shallow flooding conveniently provided by local beavers. All these friends ended up out there in the rain for two full days.

I started this wanting something to look forward to and something that would be a fun day with friends in a community I love. And that’s exactly what it was.

I now have a professional book trailer that I’m almost afraid is better than the book (being my own worst critic).

But more importantly, in this horrible year of 2020 with so many sad things surrounding us, there are two days that will be gems in my memory, filled with laughter and rain and woods and mountains and most importantly, friends.

So, if, after reading all this, you’d like to see the end result, here you go.

Interview With Author Dustin R. Cummings

Dustin has worked harder than most writers I know to polish his first novel. The result of all that hard work is the upcoming publication of his first novel, Exiles of a Gilded Moon. Following is our interview, and please feel free to place comments here for Dustin.

1. What made you decide to write in the fantasy genre?

Fantasy has been one of my favorite genres for as long as I can remember. The power to shape an entire world with the stroke of a pen and to transport a reader within its environs, is something that has always captivated me. 
I grew up reading both fantasy and sci-fi books from a variety of authors, and watching fantasy films. These experiences left a deep impression and really sparked my imagination. As a writer, I feel that fantasy allows for unlimited possibilities. It gives writers and readers an opportunity to examine facets of the human experience through an imaginary lens, less encumbered with the biases of our present world.

2. You did an amazing amount of work with multiple revisions. What helped you stick with this project, or believe in it so strongly?

This  story began as an idea that I had as a teenager. During my senior year French class, my teacher often reminded us that different works of art inspired each other, such as DeBussy’s Le Mer, which I believe was inspired by Hiroshige’s Wave over Kanagawa. One day, we were asked to paint something abstract. I chose to paint an alien sky dominated by a ringed planet and its orbiting moons. The perspective of the viewer is looking up at the sky from one of the moons. At that moment, I asked myself what kind of story could I create based upon such an usual scene. Over the years, I imagined and wrote what a civilization depicted in this painting might look like.
It took a significant effort to finish my manuscript. I think what helped me stick with the project was seeking to honor that original, irresistible idea that entered my teenage mind. Furthermore, working with you as my professional editor really encouraged me to work harder to perfect my manuscript. Finally, the positive response from my early readers pushed me to complete my story and share it with the world. 

3. What was the hardest part of this process for you?

I think the hardest part was coming to realize that a draft is not static, and everything is up for revision or change. Once I accepted that, I was able to reimagine my manuscript and make it a much more compelling story.  

4. What was an early experience where you learned words had power?

My parents are excellent story tellers, and their stories really influenced me. They would often share moments about their upbringing in South America, during dinner. From an early age, I learned the power of description, and how words could evoke images and feelings, and seemingly transport you to places you’ve never even been. 

5. How did you select the names for your characters?

I have an obsession with words, especially unique sounding ones.  I chose the names for my main characters based on iterations of names and places that I’ve come across over the years. I tried to make them as unique as possible, to evoke the different cultures and peoples described in the story. As is evident, many names are familiar, and evoke various cultures. I tried to make all of the names relatable and pronounceable. 

6. Because you chose the fantasy genre, you had to do a lot of world building. What things helped you envision this world?

I have a vivid imagination and I sought to conjure images of places that would have a mixture of familiar and foreign qualities. I’ve been inspired by many things, such as my own family’s roots in South America. I’ve also been inspired by a variety of climates from watching PBS and National Geographic as a child, to traveling to different countries around the world as an adult. Oftentimes, the most random of events have inspired a setting in my book, from wandering through various neighborhoods, to remembering a conversation I might’ve had with a family member. It’s hard to predict where and when inspiration will strike!

7. Exiles of a Gilded Moon is the first in a trilogy. When you are finished with this series, do you feel you will continue writing, and continue in the fantasy genre?

I do see myself continuing to write in fantasy. There is so much room for growth in this genre, and so many stories that have yet to be told. I can certainly see writing more stories based in the Exiles universe, or perhaps another. 

8. You once mentioned that you were intrigued by how a society can collapse, which led partly to this book. Have all the things going on in the world right now changed how you feel a society collapses?

When I started this book as a teenager, I was certainly influenced by the unforgettable events of September 11th and the subsequent wars in the first decade of the 21st century. I find complex societies such as our own, with their vexing problems, boundless opportunities, and staggering contradictions to be a never-ending source of intrigue. I often reflect upon how people lead their lives amid the nexus of extreme decadence and inequality, such as we have experienced in the past several years. I particularly try to imagine how individuals and families confront and adapt to a dramatic societal shift, when all of the rigid boundaries and traditions are destroyed or are reordered in some significant way. 
Sometimes collapse is sudden, such as during war. Sometimes collapse is gradual, like the breakdown of competent governance, and citizens don’t even realize it until after it happens. Dramatic shifts such as these, how we understand them and overcome them, are the essence of the human story. This why storytelling is so important, across all cultures. I hope my story contributes to this tradition in some small way. 

9. Since this is your first novel, how did your writing process develop and change, from when you first started writing, to now?

My writing process changed considerably during the process.  I feel that I’ve definitely improved at describing scenes, emotions, etc. rather than telling  everything. I feel that I have also improved my dialogue and differentiating the characters, so that their individual voices come through. 

10. Was there one part in Exiles of a Gilded Moon that you, as a writer, didn’t see coming, or were surprised by?

There were several parts that surprised me, and these occurred during the revisions.  I ended up writing several new chapters that were inspired by new events in my life, several years after I had finished the original manuscript. Despite the significant difference in time, the chronology of the story fit very well with the new chapters.  I am very satisfied with the result.  

11. What was the best lesson you learned during this writing process?

Persistence has been key, and the willingness to listen to constructive criticism from readers and editors. Also I’ve learned that time to simply think and reflect about my writing has been quintessential to making it better. 

12. What one question do you wish I’d asked?

What message do you hope readers get from your book?
I really hope readers see the importance of family and friendship throughout the story.  Though relationships are not always perfect, they are important and essential to the wellbeing and survival all of the characters.  
I also want readers to question their own societies. I want them to see that what is known to be true can change in an instant. What was once an impossibility can become a reality.  I want readers to place themselves in the characters’ positions and imagine how they might endure and adapt to a society in turmoil.

Thank you, Dustin, for taking the time to answer these questions. It’s always a challenge to come up with questions that authors want to answer, and aren’t just stock questions like ‘where do you get your ideas?’. If anyone is interested in seeing more of Dustin’s work, or taking a peek at Exiles of a Gilded Moon, feel free to follow the link below.