All posts by B. Muze

Spoiled by Choice

“Mom, can you look at this and tell me what you think?”

My 15 year old son burst into my home office, without knocking, and thrust a short stack of notebook paper at me. On it was his neat, small handwriting. “It’s just a rough draft. Really rough. Like, first draft. I just wrote it and it’s not even finished or anything yet, so ignore all the spelling and stuff.”

I scanned the top page. A few things had been scratched out, but mostly it looked clean. How can a truly rough, handwritten draft be this clean? I’d seen this before from him, however, back when he was allowing me to try to help him on some of his essays in 5th grade. He was now suffering from intermittent testosterone poisoning, which translated into “Leave me alone. Stay out of my life. Don’t talk to me. I don’t need a mother anymore.” I was therefore surprised and honored that he was actually asking me to look at something he did.

“What is this?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Just a story.”

“For school?”

This time his shrug turned into a squirm. His eyes glanced around my office, avoiding me.

“No. It’s just…it’s a story I’ve been thinking of writing.”

Dangerous territory, I realized. He had put me in the position of an elephant stomping through a minefield.

Writing stories is like painting with your own blood. You are making art of your essence and, even if others don’t realize it, they are judging your soul. My son endured a difficult childhood. In his adolescence, he was still struggling with many issues that had been imposed on him by his imperfect parents. I wanted to encourage and uplift him in every way I could, but I couldn’t lie or pretend to like something I didn’t. Especially with literature, my passion drives me to tear apart anything less than great. I get so caught up in the story and the writing that I forget to be tactful.

My son was always a voracious reader and had become a good essay and report writer for school. He had also started posting comments on YouTube videos and in chats online – mostly inflammatory stuff he’d likely regret later, but he loved the outraged responses he would get from his intelligent, factually supported but crazy sounding statements. He hadn’t written any fiction before, however – at least nothing he’d show me. On top of that, he had been viciously critical of my stories when I shared them with my kids. It wasn’t constructive criticism, which I would have loved. Rather, he claimed to hate them all, but not for any specific reason that I could fix. He just declared them stupid. It seemed like he was trying to be hurtful, especially when I later caught him racing with his siblings to be the first to read the next chapter. It had to have crossed his mind that, by asking me to reread something of his, he had put me in a position where I could have retaliated in kind. Of course, I wouldn’t – and he probably knew that.

He also knew that I never read the first drafts of other writers I had agreed to help. I demanded well edited, later drafts that the writers identified as their best efforts. I’m as constructively critical of them as I wish people would be with me, but it is useless effort for first drafts. I believe authors need to know what they are trying to express clearly, before I can help them say it in the best, possible way.

I was tempted to tell my son to finish writing the story, prove to me that he had edited it at least ten times, and get it to the point where he felt ready to publish it, then bring it to me. I was burning with curiosity, however, so this time I made an exception.

It didn’t take me long to read. It was only one scene and he had hooked me well at the opening line. I was intrigued by the characters, the situation, the tension between the young man (older than my son) and his father. I didn’t even see any grammar or spelling mistakes. It was better than any first draft I had ever written. I saw signs of real writing talent in it. It was, however, only one scene.

“Where’s the rest?” I asked, looking vainly at the back of his pages in case he had hid the next part there.

“That’s all I got. I want to know if it is any good before I continue.”

“It’s excellent,” I told him, sincerely. “It has great potential. I want to know what happens next.”

He began to tell me.

I should have stopped him. Telling a story one intends to write is absolutely against my LAW! I know, well enough, that when someone tells a story, the urge to write it too often disappears. I know it isn’t just me, because it has happened with other writers I’ve tried to help. If you only want to tell me a story, I can enjoy that greatly, but if you plan to write the story, maybe even publish it, then you have to write it for me to read, NOT tell me. Period. Yet, he had me hooked so deeply I really wanted to know what happened next. Also, he was sharing with me again, as he used to when he was younger, before the “Get away from me, I don’t need a mother,” phase kicked in. I shouldn’t have, but I let him talk.

I loved the story he was developing, which seemed to have a lot of real promise. Eager to read more, I urged him to write it. He never wrote another word for it.

What he did do was start puzzling out a completely different story. He kept talking with me about that, for months. This time, for his sake, I did my best to insist that he write it, rather than tell me. He refused, claiming he couldn’t decide where to begin.

“You started telling me about it at the point you should probably start writing it,” I said. “You can always change it later, if you think you can do better, so it doesn’t really matter where you start. Always write the first draft with the idea that you’ll rewrite it later. Trying to be perfect with it only crushes creativity.”

He shot me a skeptical look, almost, but not quite, saying out loud, “Yeah? What do you know?” Then he saw my expression. He realized I was waiting for him to say aloud what we both knew he was thinking. He wisely reconsidered.

Every so often, he will tell me about a new twist in that story he is still considering writing someday. It breaks my heart because it has now been over a year and he hasn’t written a single word of it yet. I’m losing hope.

He got distracted for a while by Engineering classes and Engineering club in his high school. For a wondrous period, he seemed to always be tinkering to build something new and interesting. He’d come home delighted, to tell me how well one of his constructions had performed under various tests. He talked about becoming an Engineer someday. I was excited by his excitement. Then he suddenly stopped caring. He stopped doing his homework. He barely passed his last Engineering class and took no more after that.

Now his voice has finished breaking. It has settled into a lovely, resonate, masculine voice and he is playing with singing into a phone app he found to see how low he can go. I hear those beautiful, low tones and think he could, with some training, be an excellent bass. I would love to help him get that training, but he doesn’t want it. He’s just playing with his voice…and my heart. I wonder if he knows how frustrating it is for me to see all the potential in him that he is wasting.

A part of me really doesn’t care what he chooses to do with his life, as long as it is legal and moral. I just want him to be happy. I’m sure I’m a typical parent in this aspect. To see all the potential in him – to write, to design and create, to sing and probably much more of which I am still unaware – all of it taken for granted and ignored… (Sigh).

Perhaps it is a curse to be blessed with so many options. If he had only been potentially excellent at one thing, without hope of doing anything else well, he might have thrown himself into that single ability and could be developing it to greatness already. Sadly, for him, he’s got too many talents, too many interests, and no need to choose. If he doesn’t find something he can put his heart into, it will be truly tragic.

AI generated headshot, close to my image of my character, "Jovai." Free image from Pixabay

Origin of “Jovai”

As a child, I loved singing. I sang even before I could speak. I believed in God from my earliest memories, and I lifted my voice as a gift of thanks to Him.

Shortly after I learned to walk, I developed a love of dance. Music seeped into my body. I welcomed it and transformed it into movement, filling the space around me with my joy. I loved the feeling of flying, falling, and twirling. It felt like becoming nothing and everything all at once, dramatically alive.

When I learned to read, whole, new worlds opened to me. The stories gripped my imagination, excited my curiosity, and compelled me to follow where they led. I became insatiable in my reading, learning the torture of cruel parents who insisted I turn off my lights and go to sleep when all I wanted to do was to read more. Of course, the delight of reading was too much to contain in my little self. I had to share it with others or burst. I began reading aloud to any who would listen – with flying hands and a voice that trembled, whispered, laughed, or soared with all the characters’ feelings. That led to my desire to become an actress.

The only thing I didn’t want to be was a writer. The idea of being trapped, all alone, somewhere silent, facing a blank page, seemed like a version of hell for me.

Then, one day, I ran out of good books to read. I had read everything in my home and school, everything in the local libraries, everything I could borrow from friends. I had read, repeatedly, the great stories and the good stories and even the mediocre stories. I had also read some stories that were so awful I wanted to shout at the pages to somehow make them improve. I was desperate for a new, good story, and it seemed to me that the only way I could get one was to write it myself. Afraid of the isolation writing seemed to require, I resisted this urge until I couldn’t stand it anymore.

When I finally succumbed, I was heartbroken to discover that I wasn’t very good at fiction writing. By that time, grown up, I knew I could easily write books (working in an active, office environment) and was making money as a technical writer. I excelled as a personal assistant in my writing of business correspondences, proposals, reports, etc., but my fiction was not good enough to please me. When I tried to read again the stories I had written, I ended up trashing them. Over and over, story after story, my frustration mounted. At last, I prayed to God to please give me a good story idea and to help me write it well. I suddenly saw in my mind a little girl sitting in a tree, singing. There was an old man watching her, fearsome and frowning. I wondered why he was scowling so. The only way to find out was to write the scene.

Word by word, the story unfolded before me. I typed as quickly as I could to try to keep up, eager to know what was going to happen next. By this time, I had graduated from university and was supporting my mother, who was going through a tough period in her life. I was working a full time day job, coming home to get dinner cooking and to work out, then racing to my bedroom to write. I’d force myself to take a break in order to serve my mother the dinner I’d cooked. Then I’d try to focus on her as she told me of her day or tried to speak of current events. My responses were peppered with insights gleaned from my characters that seemed to relate to things she was saying, until she’d give me a weird look.

“Those people aren’t real, you know,” she’d say.

“Of course not,” I answered with a forced smile, trying not to appear crazy. (I don’t think she was convinced.)

They felt real, however. They did things I had never done. They presented me with points of views and insights I had never considered. They loved and clashed with each other in ways I had never experienced. The typical advice to writers was to write what you know. I was doing the opposite, and I found it fascinating. Sometimes I would pause to look up some topic of which I had written, to see if I had gotten it right. Oddly, it seemed I always had.

I’d sit across from my mother at dinner times, trying to be as encouraging and loving as she needed, while she was rebuilding herself during that challenging period of her life, but I was struggling to hide how much I wanted to return to my world filled with all the people I was enjoying getting to know. I had been so afraid to be isolated and alone with only the blank page in front of me. The truth of it, however, was that I was never in better company, more deeply engaged and excited, as when I was exploring this strange world with the people I had come to love. The pages filled with words as quickly as I could write or type them – so fast that I barely noticed each blank page since it filled so quickly.

This story was good. After writing it, I kept editing – rereading over and over and over again, changing a word here or there, trying to make it perfect. I reread it at least 100 times and probably closer to double or triple that, long after I could not find a single word to change. Every time I’d pick it up, thinking I would just consider a little tweak in one area or another, I would get caught again and end up reading to the end, unable to stop. At last I realized that, if it was good enough to keep catching me like that, it would probably catch others as well.

I sent it to some publishers, got an offer to publish, engaged a literary agent to help me negotiate the contract, and ended up turning down the publishing deal on his advice. He was sure we could do better. I, however, had returned to the real world, taking a break from writing. I was dating again, soon engaged, then, too quickly, married and supporting my husband while he went to law school. I soon got pregnant. My agent asked me to write a different kind of book while he was marketing my first, but once the baby was born, there was no more time for writing. I shelved all my writing projects to make sure I didn’t miss a moment of my new child’s life.

It was over 20 years before I could return to writing, but every year I would pull “Jovai” off my shelves and reread it. Every year it would speak to me in a new way. I discovered new insights I had missed before. Sometimes it seemed eerily prophetic, reflecting conditions in my current life that I had had no way to anticipate back when I had written it. Through my good times and my bad times there was always something in that story that made me feel as if God were right there, beside me, loving me and teaching me something that I needed in that moment. The older I got, the more experienced in this world, the wiser that book seemed to be – far wiser than I have ever been or likely ever will be.

The most difficult part of publishing this story was dividing it into different books. It is an epic, written as one, very long story. To put it all into one tome would make it unwieldly to handle, but as a reader there was never a good place to stop. My editor and I finally settled on a good place to break for the first book, since she insisted on making it a “stand-alone” but, for me, even at that point, even having read it so many times before, I could not have stopped reading. Apparently, many of my reviewers agreed. The only stopping point I could endure was the end of this series. Even so, I have another series planned in the same world but focusing on different characters, a generation later. I use the word “planned” loosely, since I really have no idea what will happen in this new story. My reward for getting “Jovai” and several other pieces I am working on finished, published, and available to the world is that I will finally indulge my desire to write the second series after “The Shaman’s Apprentice” which I’m tentatively calling “Firebird.” So far, I only know the first scene, but that compels me to work and finish everything as quickly as I can so that I can write the rest. I cannot wait to find out what happens next!