English Scares Me (or Why I Need an Editor)

Yesterday, I tweeted that writing fiction in English is sometimes intimidating to me, because English is my second language (Danish being my first). I got a couple of responses, encouraging me to write about it, and to remember the wonderful writers that came before me, who also wrote in English though it was a second language to them. Joseph Conrad and Karen Blixen come to mind, not that I would otherwise compare myself to these masters.

When I write stuff like what you are reading now, I don’t think so much about my choice of words, sentence and paragraph structure and that sort of thing. When I write fiction, those are all very important elements of portraying characters, describing locations and setting the scene. That is when I am sometimes hit with the intimidation stick – it’s easy to feel like my vocabulary is too limited, or that my style is too heavily influenced by something else.

For writing my initial draft, I try not to let it hold me back too much. The important thing is getting the story down and try to make it hold up structurally. Second draft is where language starts taking a front seat.

Thinking about it, I realized that many native English speakers also struggle with writing, for very similar reasons. Maybe we all compare ourselves to those we admire, whether we want to or not. That might make anyone doubt their abilities. The only real answer I have come up with is this: use an editor!

Best case scenario, find a professional who knows what they are doing, and have them give you notes. You can point out what your exact doubts are, and they will keep an eye out for it. And they will point out stuff you haven’t even thought of. I have written books both with and without the help of an editor, and it just confirmed that having that extra set of eyes does make a huge difference.

I have met writers who say: I can’t afford an editor. I usually counter by asking how long it took them to finish the first draft. Often the answer is several years. My point is: if your story is important enough that you will spend years of your life writing it, it should also be worth a few bucks to have an editor help you polish off the details. Many freelance editors are surprisingly affordable and willing to negotiate (they know most writers aren’t exactly rolling in cash).

If you can’t find an editor you like, use your network – if you’re writing a science fiction novel and your buddy is a hardcore sci-fi nerd, by all means have him take a look – just remember that friends don’t always make the most honest critics, because nobody likes to potentially upset their friends. It helps if your friend is a writing pro of some sort, so they have an understanding of what goes into structuring and writing a story. Librarians, teachers and journalists can make for excellent editor replacements.

Halloween Flash Fiction

I love a good short story. I love writing exercises too, and when I recently read Wil Wheaton’s flash fiction story “The Monster In My Closet“, I felt the familiar smack of inspiration hitting me in the back of my mind.

In his post, Wil talks about the little horror stories he used to enjoy as a kid and about writing a short story and putting it out there without editing it too much. Well, I remember those little stories too, and wanted to add a flash fiction story of my own.

So here it is, just in time for Halloween…
(Want to save it for later? Download the pdf.)

The Last Trick or Treat

Every street has an Evil House. That one place where all the kids know not to go, and if you should happen to shoot a ball into that front yard, you write it off as lost forever. The house on our street had been empty since before I was born and it was in bad repair. Some of the windows were broken, the paint had nearly all peeled off and shingles had come off the roof in patches. The yard was so overgrown there was no telling what might be hiding in the tall grass, or in the shade of two large oak trees that hid most of the house from view.

There was a walking path of cracked, mossy tiles leading through a rusty iron fence, past the oak trees and up to the front porch. Once I ventured as far as the trees, to get a better glimpse of the house itself. It was a sunny day and when I saw it, the house looked more sad than evil, just broken down and abandoned. Still, I felt good about overcoming my fear and taking a closer look.

Naturally, I boasted about my adventure like any eight-year-old would, and the other kids on my street were duly impressed. Even Lanky Jones, whose dad was going to buy him a car next summer, had nodded with respect at my brave venture. Then freckle faced Molly had to go and ruin it all by saying she didn’t believe me. She wanted proof!

I don’t hit girls, but if I did, I would have hit Molly for sure. There was a smile on her face like she didn’t even care if I was telling the truth or not. She just wanted to cause trouble for me, and it worked. Soon some of the other kids, most of them older than me, began to question the truth of my tale.

“You did NOT walk all the way past the trees!” Molly shrieked.

“Did too!” I said.

“Did not!” she said.

“Want me to do it again?” I said. “I will, and you can see for yourself.” I felt fairly certain I could find the courage to walk up there a second time, especially with the likes of Lanky Jones paying me notice. I should have guessed that simply walking up to the trees was not enough for Molly.

“If you’re so brave,” she said, “why don’t you do it on Halloween night?”

The other kids all liked that idea. There was much murmuring, nodding of heads and grinning. I was the only one who didn’t seem to care much for Molly’s plan, but what could I do? I was the one who had been bragging and now I was caught. It was a fiendishly smart plan. Halloween was not only the creepiest, most evil night of the year, it was also one of the few nights we kids were allowed to go out after dark. Molly smirked and sensed victory.

“Are you scared?” she asked mockingly.

“No,” I said, trying my best to puff out my chest and look as tough as Lanky. “I’m not scared. It makes no difference to me if it’s halloween.”

And so it was. Eventually summer ended and school began again, and I hoped no one would remember Molly’s dare by the time October came around. But of course, I was wrong. With two weeks to go, she made sure to bring it up in front of everyone.

The next day, I walked by the old house again. I stopped and took a good look. The yard was overgrown and the trees were large and gnarly, but it was the house that was truly scary. Slowly, I began to hatch a plan to get back at Molly. I would go up the path as far as the trees using a flashlight to light my way. Then, as I got to the old oaks, I would click the light off and quickly hide. Maybe even let out a scream. And then I would wait and watch as the others began to worry, slink off home, and the next time I saw them, I would pretend to not remember anything at all. My plan was spooky and creepy and perfect.

And then the night was upon us; it was halloween. Six of us were gathered in front of the Evil House. Lanky Jones was there, so were the pudgy Wesley twins, and Anna Milton – the prettiest girl in my class, invited especially by Molly just so I wouldn’t back out at the last second.

As confident as I had been in my plan, my cool went out the window as soon as I was standing there, looking down the narrow path of tiles, leading into darkness. It was different at night. It felt like the darkness could eat you up if you ventured too far into it. If you squinted, you could barely make out the outline of the house itself, like a monster waiting in the dark. I reminded myself that I didn’t have to go all the way to the house, and that the trees wouldn’t harm me, just hide me from sight.

The twins both hooted and cheered as I took the first few steps. I looked back and saw Anna with her eyes wide open, Molly with her familiar smirk, and Lanky Jones cracking his knuckles in what I chose to read as a sign of respect. Then I turned on my flashlight and turned back towards the dark path before me.

“Remember,” Molly yelled, “it’s bad luck to step on the cracks.”

Everyone laughed, even Lanky, as I involuntarily looked down at my feet. If she was right, I was doomed, I thought at the sight of no less than three cracks coming together under my shoe. I shook off her attempt to rattle me, and kept walking.

It seemed like forever before I got to the trees, I could see the house more clearly now and a chill ran down my spine. Was the front door open? Was that the faintest flicker of a light in there? Or maybe just the light from my flashlight being reflected off a shard of broken glass? The wind picked up and seemed to whisper in my ear. I had to hurry up and hide before my courage ran out.

I screamed and turned off my light. Then I ran to the nearest tree and hid behind its thick, knotted trunk. I could see the other kids out there under the street lights. They were standing on the tips of their toes, peering into the dark, trying to spot me. It made me smile when I saw Anna say something with a worried look on her face. I could not make out the words, but she pointed towards the house as she spoke, and Molly did not seem too pleased about it. The two twins were fidgeting. As seconds became minutes, I felt less scared myself, now that I was watching my plan unfold. I had to bite my lip to avoid laughing.

Finally, Lanky Jones stepped forward and said something. He pulled out a flashlight of his own and pointed up the path. The twins turned white and tried to back away, but the other kids wouldn’t have it, and soon they all started up the path. I began to worry that they would spot me. With nowhere to run, I pressed myself up against the tree and tried to blend in. As long as Lanky’s light did not sweep directly across me, I had a chance of staying hidden.

Soon enough, I could hear them approaching.

“I really don’t think this is a good idea,” said one of the Wesleys, his voice a hoarse whisper.

“Shut up and keep walking.” said Lanky Jones.

“Look!” Molly said, her voice shaky and low. “The front door.”

“Do you think he went inside?” Anna asked Molly.

“We’re going in to find him,” Lanky said. “We all heard the scream. If he is trouble, we owe it to him to help.”

“I don’t owe him anything,” Molly protested.

“You dared him to do this,” Lanky shot back. “You owe him more than the rest of us combined.”

“Hurry up,” Anna said. “if he is in trouble we shouldn’t waste time fighting about it.”

They were at the front porch now. I could hardly believe they were all about to go inside, looking for me. The door being open was a lucky break, I thought, and again I almost burst out laughing. In the meantime, the old porch creaked loudly as other kids climbed the steps to the front door. Quiet as mice they went inside, one at a time.

As the last Wesley stepped inside the door suddenly slammed shut behind him. The sound was so loud, I thought my heart was going to jump right out of my throat. I screamed then, I’m not going to lie about that, and ran as fast as I could back home. That was the last time I ever went trick or treating. And no one ever saw Molly, the Wesley twins, Anna or Lanky Jones again.

Festering Ideas and Fantasy Fun

The following is from my notes to “The Whale Omen” – a fantasy roleplaying adventure based off of an older project – my very first attempt at writing a novel, when I was still but a young and innocent teenager. That novel was in itself inspired by an experimental gaming campaign I co-ran with a friend.

I love how ideas can sit and fester for years, blend with other ideas and influences, and come back out looking all new and shiny again.

The reason it came back, was that I started reading the excellent fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R. R. Martin. That made me think of the novel I had written (which I am not ashamed to say, barely deserves even getting mentioned in the same paragraph as mr. Martin’s epic series), which in turn inspired me to want to rewrite it now, 15+ years later. The only thing is, I’m already not writing one novel.

Still, I could not shake it. So, I turned it into a gaming adventure once more, which may yet inspire even further writing later.

The point I’m making is this: the good ideas can be recycled, transmuted and disguised many times over the years. The trick is to keep working with it, or at least that’s my theory.

The Whale Omen Intro

“The Whale Omen” is fantasy with a nordic medieval flavor. The characters are from a clan at the top of Rockbite Bay in the far and barren north, a village of whalers. Magic exists in this world but is rare and regarded with fear and suspicion. The characters are skilled but normal people with a personal tie to this village; it is their home. Once coastal raiders, the people here now catch whales and do trade instead, and live longer, happier lives for it.

Every spring, whales in great numbers pass by and the whalers go out with nets and harpoons. The villagers use everything from their catch. But this year is different. The whales came late, and when they arrived, they were all dead. Bloated, foul smelling carcasses floated past the village for three days.

Many think it is an omen, and the survival of the village is at stake. No whales means nothing to trade but a few sheep and barrels of salted herring. Not enough.