What Drives Your Fiction?

“The rest of it – and perhaps the best of it – is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”

Stephen King, On Writing


What’s the primary vehicle behind your words?

A sports car, all angry growls and bright headlights screaming in the night?

A sleek roadster, all curves and purrs cruising languid on a Sunday afternoon?

A cozy sedan with air bags, a sunroof, and the best safety ratings in the country?

A tired old junker, barely holding itself together, let alone its own on the road?

There’s a certain headspace writers slip into when creating words and worlds, but there’s another space, a deeper one, that guides the path of those words–the emotional space. Let’s call it the hurt engine.

Some people thrive creatively when their hurt engine is fueled with anger, others work best with a stream of sorrow or happiness, and some can write no matter what emotions are flowing in the real.

Of the five novels I’ve written in as many years, the earliest two were penned when my hurt engine lived up to the name and was, in truth, running on overdrive. The words flowed and the stories poured out, like the perfect mix of gasoline and air through a carburetor. I wrote the first draft of the first novel in forty days and two weeks later started the second. Thirty days later, that first draft was done, too.

Unfortunately, both novels needed heavy-duty edits/rewrites because while the words were driven by hurt, they were twisted by it too. Had I perhaps edited the first novel before penning the second, I might have realized what I’d done wrong. Live and learn, right?

Imagine my surprise when I started the next novel and the words didn’t have the same flow. It didn’t take long to figure out why. My hurt engine was running on a different fuel. I won’t lie, I missed the rush. Instead of zipping along at 95, I was stuck on 50. But I finished the novel nonetheless. The story is cleaner, but I’m a pantser, not a plotter, so my first drafts always have a bit of rust on their edges. My motto is “first draft is for story, second draft is for pretty.”

Sometimes the hurt engine doesn’t affect productivity, but it changes the flavor of the prose. I can tell what was fueling my hurt engine in my fiction by the word choices I make, by the staccato rhythm or the lyrical quality of the sentences.

I’ve since learned that I can trick the hurt engine when needed. I’ve written a story that required a certain taste of sorrow, and even though I wasn’t feeling sad at that moment, I pulled the necessary fuel from a memory and poured that into the story instead.

I’ve also learned how to set things on literary cruise control by swallowing the emotional fuel. The hurt engine becomes a quiet place of numbness. And yes, I can tell what stories I’ve written in that place, too.

Last year I wrote the most deeply personal short story I’ve ever written. I had to dig deep into a place I don’t like for the fuel, but the story is probably my strongest work ever. It sold quickly and well, but no, I’m not going to tell you which story it is.

The only stone in my tire is anger. I can’t write when I’m angry. At all. Sure, I can fire off an expletive-filled email, no problem, but fiction? Impossible. Fortunately, my anger burns bright and hot and then fades. I might still be angry, but the rage fuel tank is empty. And then I get back to work.

So what about you? What fuels your hurt engine? Do you escape your emotions when you write or do you let the emotions paint your words? Do you get blocked when you’re not in the thick of your preferred emotional space?

Try changing your fuel and let’s go for a drive.


Inspiration From the Darkest Places

A quick note about this post: Andrew Liptak and I just announced an anthology of military SF, to be published by Apex Publishing in April, 2014. One of the things that can’t really be explored in press releases is, “Where did this idea come from? What are you trying to accomplish?” And because this is something very personal and dear to me, I asked if I could post it here.

More info on the anthology can be found at War Stories Anthology.

Last year, one of my friends said ‘I love George R. R. Martin because he’s pretty much the only SF writer I’ve seen who really understands what war and its effects are really like’. While I was quick to inundate him with suggestions about other writers who have actual military background, the statement stuck with me.

My friend is a former Army Ranger. He’s done six tours throughout the Middle East, was a staff sergeant, and spent long periods of time imbedded with the local fighters. He will talk for hours about how wonderful the Kurds are, how the generals of the Afghani army have ours beaten in terms of knowledge, and then go off on a rant about the cultural destruction that’s been perpetrated by both sides. Another quote of his: “I wish that my war was the last one, but I know it won’t be.”

He’s the reason I started thinking about an anthology of military SF stories that wasn’t just about war, but about the people touched by war.

I went out to get Greek food with my mom last year, in North Carolina, and we struck up a conversation with one of the owner’s daughters. She told us about how hard it was to get back to Greece, how the current political system affected them, even in America.

I have a friend in Israel right now, who told me last night about seeing troop transports moving north, toward Syria. I have friends in Istanbul, too, and still harbor a deep hope that I’ll be able to travel there some day. I know a couple of people who have been involved in South and Central America…and some who were involved in the Waco and Ruby Ridge conflicts.

I have listened to a Palestinian friend talk about what it’s like to watch your birth country support the destruction of your ancestral home.

We live in a world of war.

I have been so very, very fortunate, because war has never impacted me directly. I’ve never lost a loved one to war, or been forced out of my home, or had to live on wartime rations. I know how much worse things could be.

But I’ve seen what war does. My cousin advocates for soldiers with PTSD. I’ve dated active-service military, and lived in fear of the news. I have friends who are at severe risk of suicide from untreated PTSD. Many of them talk to me when it gets too bad, because they don’t have anyone else who will listen. Many members of my family have served, in various conflicts, in different ways.

The conflict doesn’t end when the guns go silent. Our entire history is marred and shaped by war, by defeat and victory, conflict and pacification. We are all affected and marked by it, whether we realize it or not. We may go a generation or two without being directly involved in a war, but that doesn’t mean we escape it.

No country escapes it, either. Invader or invaded, it changes us, and seldom for the better. The casualties aren’t just measured in bodies.

In War Stories, we want to bring to light those far-reaching ripples, and the dark things beneath the surface. We want to see men and women of all cultures, dealing with the most enduring legacy of humanity: conflict. Civil, religious, global. We want to see people rising above the blood and loss to change things in the most difficult of situations.

This isn’t an anthology about US soldiers, or Middle Eastern wars. It is about the future, and how we will process and come to terms with something that shows no signs of dying out. It’s about the bonds of friendship, cultural evolution, survival, and personal triumph.

The wars of today are where we found the building blocks of this collection, but they are not what we’re looking for. War has evolved constantly, but in leaps and bounds over the last century. What will it be like a century from now? Who will we be fighting? Why? How? What will change?

Those are the stories we’re looking for. It won’t be a pretty, comfortable collection of stories. But hopefully it will be a transformative one.

from start to finish, Illustrating Marisol Brook

In art, thumbnails are preliminary small scale sketches where you can experiment with layout and values before you jump into the final full sized piece. But I’m an impatient, trigger happy artist and I frequently overlook this step.  I work digitally and count on that to save me if I need to back-pedal or re-arrange an illustration to a better place. That doesn’t always work. Recently, art director Jon Schindehette, wrote about the importance of thumbnails, so as I prepared to illustrate Sarah Grey’s The Ballad of Marisol Brook, I began with these:

thumbnails for Marisol Brook

Water is a repeating theme in the Grey’s story; drowning, falling into water, reborn from water, etc, and that’s the symbol I wanted to play with in the illustration. From those thumbnails, I started working this direction:

the ballad of marisol brook by sarah grey WIP1

preliminary sketch for Marisol Brook

However, after working on this piece for a while, I felt it was losing its connection to the story. It’s a cool image and I’ll keep it filed for future use, but to connect it to what Grey had written, I felt I should switch it up a bit. So I did this:

a second preliminary sketch for Marisol Brook

As this version progressed I didn’t like all the horizontals so I took the layer with the red figure, rotated it, resized it, copied multiple versions across the page and played with creating variation in the pattern. (Like Jon Schindehette noted: “…folks that work digitally are more apt to skip [thumbnails] in their process. I found that observation to be quite interesting, and wonder if it has something to do with the fact that most digital artists feel like they can always “make changes”. Yep. Guilty as charged.)

Marisol Brook in Progress

There, I’d finally found my direction. So the real work begins:

Marisol Brook in progress

This part goes on for quite some time. “Finished” is such a subjective word, a teasing balancing act between overworked and not-quite-there. At the end, finding that point usually involves ignoring the image for a while as I work on other stuff, coming back to peek at it intermittently, make more notes, make small changes, leave it again, etc, until I’m satisfied that yes, indeed, it is “finished”

Final illustration for The Ballad of Marisol Brook. Written by Sarah Grey, published at Lightspeed Magazine


So there you go. A glimpse into my process. Speaking of process, here are some notebooks and sketchbooks from famous authors, arists, and visionaries (because I love that kind of stuff).  Also, here’s some more about thumbnails by Dan Dos Santos (because I really need to work on those.)


Your Words are Your Life, Your Death

Lauren Dixon knows how to shoot a rifle. She’s written lingerie catalogs for the Army, talks a lot about vaginas, and does not eat animals unless they ask her to first. Her newest young adult novel, Throwaways, hasn’t killed her, so far. Her creative work has also appeared in Scapezine, Extracts, Oracle, DIAGRAM, Sojourn, INTER, Kadar Koli and (R)evolve (from Naropa University), and was previously nominated for the Best of the Net 2012 award and Best New Poets of 2006 Anthology. A Clarion West 2010 graduate, Dixon edits the literary ‘zine Superficial Flesh, an amalgamation of weird, absurdist literature and art. Dixon previously taught creative writing and literature at University of Texas at Dallas. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry from Texas State University and is poised to receive her doctorate in Literary Studies from the University of Texas-Dallas. Find her online here: www.laurendixon.net.

One word is urgency. It hits us while we sleep; we wake in a stupor, not quite understanding why that sentence begs to be written right now, at 3:44 am, while outside the world rests in a few hours of reprieve. Another word is ephemeral. We don’t write that sentence, we don’t let that story take shape, and it is gone, only tasted for a few seconds. But we live in regret of its passing.

In December, my friend Mike Alexander, who began submitting stories for publication in 1980, the year I was born, who finally made his first sale in 2010, the year I met him at Clarion West, passes away. I’ve known him for two and a half years, and during that time he sells story after story, has been named by Gordon Van Gelder as an up-and-coming writer to watch, and has been nothing but a kind, generous, and self-effacing man. He once got up in arms about the processed ingredients in my vegan deli slices, but other than that, I’ve never seen him angry or bitter. The last time I see him is in November, a month before he passes. I don’t want to write about him in the past tense, will always write about him in the present, forever in the moment, forever with us.

It is now May, six months after Mike has walked out of his body and up to the moon. Since April 15, the day of the Boston Marathon bombings, my grandfather (I call him Papa) has suffered multiple strokes that have landed him in a rehab facility in Bryan, Texas. I leave Seattle for a weekend when I find out a branch of his carotid artery is 100% blocked and there’s nothing they can do to remove it.

My grandfather is 84 years old. A decade ago, he walked off a heart attack in the jungles of Costa Rica. Last Thanksgiving, he walked a one-mile fun walk with my family at a Turkey Trot. The Thanksgiving before that, he took me out to my grandparents’ massive backyard to go turtle hunting. He is always, always, always on the move. He’s written several books about amphibians and reptiles. There’s even a Wikipedia page about him. He’s left-handed like me, has a PhD, has actual species of creatures named after him, and he’s had multiple strokes, and now has very little mobility in his right side.

When my dad and I arrive, it is 5:00 pm, so we walk into the cafeteria where my Papa is having dinner. He’s in a wheelchair, a sky-blue cardigan draped around his shoulders, and there’s a blueberry muffin on his plate. He tries to give it to my Grandma, but she gives most of it back to him. He shows us that he can lift his right arm six inches, which is worlds of improvement from a few days before. Dad rubs Papa’s back to relieve the pain of sitting in a wheelchair. Papa leans forward while Dad works at his muscles. Papa rolls his head from side to side and groans a little.

Later, Grandma forgets we’ve had dinner. She is 83 years old and doesn’t want to eat the snacks my mom has brought her because she doesn’t want to get fat. Grandma has low-blood pressure, and she, who once stood six-feet tall, leans into me, now the same height as my five-foot-eight.

A few days later, a former classmate’s father and grandmother perish in tornadoes that strike Texas, not an hour from my parents’ house. I seethe with the hole that begins to burn through me, the knowledge that death, the final unraveling frame of life, is all happening right now and there is nothing I can do to stop it.

To clear my head, I swim a few laps, do a headstand, go for a jog. Work on an essay about making the impossibility of fantasy a possibility in our world. I pull a muscle or tendon when I stay in a triangle pose too long. I will turn 33 in 13 days, and this is my life.

Nobody is burning out. It’s one little snap at a time, one little tendon pull, too much sugar or meat or alcohol or too little salt, too much attention paid to everyone else.

My Papa pulls at my cardigan, says he likes it. Tells me I should give my boyfriend Lucas a ring, says to tell Lucas to marry me. Says what happened to him, his strokes, can happen to anyone.

Back in Seattle a week later, Lucas and I sit beneath a gnarled tree in the afternoon sun. We drink coffee and Italian sodas and try to soak in a symphony of songbirds. A composer sits down at our table with his dog, who lets loose a stream of urine almost as soon as he sits down. He tells us he left Los Angeles because he didn’t want to be gentrified.

“You’re going to croak,” he says, looking at me. “Don’t ask for permission because they’re not going to give it to you.” Better to be who you are than who they tell you to be.

He is 22 years older than me, the age of my parents, of my father, who shaves my grandfather’s beard, wipes food from the right side of his mouth, and always asks if he can help any of the others whose weakened limbs prevent them from opening their half-pints of milk, from spooning their soup into their mouths.

Don’t ask for permission. A few years ago I felt my words had dishonored me, been part of something inside myself always destined to go rogue, to never answer a direct question directly. Part of something forever transgressive, my ability to write one sentence, then follow it with another, then another, no matter how wrong or sorrowful or regretful it made me feel. And in that way I learned to write about rape, incest, abortion, all wrapped up in the secret loves we have for each other, our fears that the mark of tragedy makes us untouchable, unlovable, unable to even fathom a touch of freedom. Body, a word we later learn to name “taboo.”

I have days, weeks, years left of my life, yet I’m forever touched by the knowledge that the meter is running. I work on my novel, I put it away. My Papa will probably never go back to Costa Rica, and I don’t know if my Grandma will be able to remember my sister’s baby when it is born in June. They are my past, my present, my future. I think of Mike, how his family and loved ones gave us that last chance to write to him, how I thought there had better be stars, how I didn’t know he’d left until the next day, when a crazy man began to yell at me about a government conspiracy hiding on the moon.

“Mike,” I thought, “you’ve left so soon.”

I have been a writer since I was able to pick up a pen. As a baby I ripped pages out of my mother’s books; as a child I loved my fairy tales so much I took them into the bathtub, destroying them when my clumsy fingers lost their grip and gave the books a good dunking. Words, like my family, have been my past, present, future, even when they violate me, cross a line I can never uncross. Nobody ever gave me permission, but I never asked. Nobody ever told me I couldn’t do this, except myself, every time I rediscovered that impulse to veer off course and say too much, to expose taboo and offer a new name for it.

I try to avoid writing about my personal life. Never want to say too much, give anyone or anything too much power in knowing me too well. But time, my body, my Papa’s body, my Grandma’s mind, the composer’s dog’s bladder, there’s only so much before we lose the fight and something else takes the wheel. It can take you 30 years to hit your stride before your body decides you’ve had enough. It can happen tomorrow. But the fact that life can be an unbearably raw, open wound also means there’s a possibility of healing, however slow, however scarred. But if you shut the door on the words too early, give up in the face of cancer, of stroke, of dementia, of fear, the stars destined to come from your pen may well turn to dust.

So I will let my pen transgress. In the face of life rolling up the welcome mat ever so slowly, I give myself permission to say all of these wrong things, to give them a voice. Because there’s no going back, whether my thoughts appear on the page or in our lived world. And the truth is, they’re the same. Maybe we all know this. That’s the wound of writing. Someone out there will see your words as truth, even if in your mind you’ve made it all up. We all come from the same raw materials, after all.

The past, the present, the future – it’s always happening, right here, on the page. In this moment, I am with all of my loved ones, hoping to keep them forever safe in the company of my words. At least here I have the power to grant myself permission to love, to mourn, to be with them even as they transform into our beloved stars.