Tag Archives: Writing

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June Updates

Consumed faced off against fifty other BLKDOG Publishing titles to win Next Best in the 2020 Book of the Year Awards, losing by a mere three-percent for first place. It was a lot of fun, and thank you to everyone for the support. 

Check out my appearance on Marsha Cook’s “Michigan Avenue Media” podcast where we talk shop about writing during Covid, genres and my upcoming short story, A Forest Only Whispers.”

Finally, writers, if you’re looking for a talented set of eyes to edit your work, look no further. I’ve used Add an Eye Editorial Services for the last year, and have had four short stories published, plus one award earned, because of it. Add an Eye knows what they’re talking about and can clean up any manuscript, report or document flawlessly. Rates are extremely fair and the staff is the friendliest on the planet.
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As I Sit in the Hall: A Call for Honest Writing

As I Sit in the Hall: A Call for Honest Writing

It’s late. In a few hours, we’ll wake up and leave for the hospital. It scares my wife. It scares me too. Our son is due in the morning. 

There’s something about creation and death that keeps a person honest. My wife’s latest pregnancy framed a lot for me about my shortcomings, from my terse patience to my all too often bleak perspective of the world. At this moment though, it’s irrelevant. And yet, for as trivial as every issue in the world feels, a whisper tells me to mend my past to honor the future. It’s time to adjust my approach to everything I thought I once knew, including something that’s bothered me for a while… my writing. 

Writers are a funny sort. We begin our literary pilgrimage replicating our favorite authors. Everything starts as a photocopy. At some point though, writers reach a precipice and have to take a leap of faith. We need to bare our souls. It’s frightening to expose yourself in your works. It’s far safer to cloak yourself in the safety of familiar literary voices. Once you strip away that shield though, that’s when authors create the most brilliant, unadulterated works. 

We’re in the delivery room. There are complications. I’m asked to go in the hall while the anesthesiologist works to dull my wife’s pain. It’s quiet, sterile and bare. I want to be composed, but gravity has left my belly. I’m exposed, and it shows. Staff stare as they walk past, studying me like some car accident on the side of the road. 

I’m a strange guy. I laugh when I should cry. I think the house I grew up in was haunted. My dad died when I was a teenager and I never fully dealt with it. I pretend I’m an elf with my friends on weekends. I prefer Shelley to Austen. I’m sure there’s undiagnosed mental illnesses in my family. I don’t want this to bleed any of this onto the pages. Strange stories don’t get published. Weird people don’t sell books.

Now though, after all of this, I’m not so sure. Who we are, both at our strongest and weakest, aren’t blemishes. They’re merits. These little aspects of our lives transforms a story from good to great. Don’t believe me? I wouldn’t either. If I were reading this article a few days ago, I’d roll my eyes. All it takes though is a quick look on any bookshelf and soon you’re reminded.

Sylvia Plath, best known for The Bell Jar, wrote some of her most beautiful works under the weight of depression after her husband’s affair. She used this horrible event to create masterpieces. The battle ultimately caused her to commit suicide. To this day her poems and manuscripts are considered some of the most admired all over the world. 

Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead was inspired by a reoccurring dream he had about zombies when he wrote Zone One. The Princeton teacher’s early work was labeled as scholarly and a prominent voice against racism. So when he was compelled to write about undead, Whitehead was naturally reluctant. He ultimately followed his creative passion, and while there were skeptics, it remains one of his best-selling novels.  

The list goes on and on. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Tender Is the Night while repairing cars and caring for his schizophrenic wife. These hardships helped thread the creative yarns for much of each story’s conflict. Chuck Palahniuk’s award-winning manuscripts put readers in the front seat of self-destructive protagonists marginalized by society. These books are reflections of Palahniuk’s unearthed struggles with homosexuality and proletarianism. Life, death, joy, sadness — these struggles dance on the pages if writers let them. 

There’s a room of doctors surrounding us. My wife is pale. I see blood all over the resident’s rubber gloves. I clench her hand as she screams. I am holding onto the steering wheel with my teeth.     

I’m not saying that authors have to suffer from some debilitating disease or fight a great social war in order to write at their zenith. You just need to be honest. Trust me, I get it. It’s not easy. Often, it’s what makes us most human, most relatable, that we want to hide most. Try it though. Take your experiences and let them flow through characters, settings and worlds. I guarantee you that if you do, you’ll cultivate your greatest works yet. 

My wife is in tears. So am I. Dr. Titus beckons Mallory to push one last time. She does. The Earth stands still. Ronan Frederick Alcala is born. Doctors work on my wife as we embrace our weeping baby. I am standing with one foot on each of our planet’s poles.

I’m weird. I’m at peace with it. In fact, I kind of like it. Maybe I’ll write a story about a man with a toaster for a tail who’s trapped on a planet without fire. Maybe I’ll create a character with a time bomb in her head that sets off a strain of madness in order to hide a secret that could save the world. Maybe I’ll write an adventure about a man who takes his children on a great adventure to achieve their destiny, but instead fulfills his own.  

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You Get Three Wishes

Ask any best-selling author where they were before their first book became a New York Times bestseller or before their big million dollar publishing deal and their answer is the same. They were struggling. They were getting rejected. They were climbing the hill like everyone else. Most of these acclaimed authors will also admit that the struggle is part of the process. It’s a measure of development. It inspires the mind and soul. Just stick with it and the cream rises to the top. 

So if the struggle is just part of the development, then what can a budding or intermediate writer hope for? If the pain is part of the pleasure, what do writers need to continue towards their aspirations of creating that next great American Novel, winning that Pulitzer Prize or becoming one of the most respected authors of all time? Well, if you found a literary genie, and they gave out three wishes, here’s what they should be.  Writers need to be one with rejection, grow with their work and never lose the swagger. Confused? No worries. We will walk through it together. 

The first piece sounds simple enough. Be one with rejection. Don’t let the man get you down. Keep trudging along and not taking no for an answer. A writer needs to understand that most submission-rejections and uninterested replies stem from time tables, undisclosed publishing goals and reviewer preference. You could write a perfectly good story, better than most, and still not make that anthology or get that novel accepted. It’s literally not you, it’s them. Rejection is like bad weather. You can’t avoid it, and occasionally, when an agent or publisher is superb at telling you why they’re passing, you can even grow from it. 

For example, I’ve had agents tell me that my writing is great, but the genre I chose just isn’t selling. Some publishers let me know they’re just tiring of first-person narratives, even if the manuscript is seamless. These bits of commentary remind a storyteller that there is progress, but today is just isn’t the day. Even the common This just doesn’t work for us reply given by many publishers is an indicator to how subjective the industry is. Your work could fit perfectly with other distributer.

The second wish is that a writer grows with their work. All too often, starting authors try to perfect one topic, one idea, one concept, and drive it into the ground. This is a great method for starting out. You can’t be a good writer until your work speaks for itself and focusing on a horror genre or type of dialogue is the perfect way of getting your name out there. As you grow though, and as you master more writing tools, it’s vital to challenge your work. Go out of your comfort zone, write new types of stories and learn to write in first, second and third person perspective. Most importantly, challenge how you look at everything that you write about. 

Long ago when animals could talk, I was an overworked writer living in downtown Chicago with barely a penny to spare. My characters were gritty. My scenery was destitute. My point of view leaned on a survivor’s demeanor. As I grew, advanced my career and had a family, I became happier. I started to understand that not everything needs to bleed noir. You can have genuinely kind characters. You could build honest scenes instead of glum gutters. You could tell a story that makes the reader think about the merits of life, love and everything in between. Challenge your writing in order to broaden your perspective and challenge your perspective in order to improve your writing.  

Finally, never lose your swagger. It’s easy to be confident in a character, plot or manuscript for a short while, but the gods cursed writers to question everything, including themselves. Doubt tethers itself to artists before dropping its anchor in the ocean. Most writers don’t last more than three years before throwing their work in the air and going back to their normal lives. Whether it’s bravado, confidence or just an understanding that you have stories that demand to be told, a part of you has to find that thing that makes you a special writer and run with it. 

Just remember, confidence is the ability to meet life’s hurdles and know that you’ll succeed. An author, someone who typically works alone, gets all the pains of being alone, but none of the encouragement that other careers provide. An author must be self motivating. If they can learn to continue to believe in their work, even when it’s not paying the bills, even when it’s getting dumped on by editors or isn’t meeting personal expectations, they will succeed.

So the next time you’re digging in your backyard and find a rare lamp with a genie’s initials, think about what you will wish for. Success comes with time and dedication. The struggle is part of the process. Still, there’s three major elements that can help you become a master of writing in that span. They are the foundation for anyone who aspires to create greatness in their work. Why not work on making those wishes come true?

“The Bard and the King: The Art of Not Selling Out”

(Quick Read: 4 minutes)

There once was a bard and king that decided to trade places. The bard wanted a royal audience to help make him the most celebrated artist in the kingdom. The king yearned for freedom, and dreamed of strolling freely through the plebeian lands. So the pair traded cap and crown, lute and scepter, then went on their way. It took less than twenty-four hours, followed by three magical texts and two Uber carriages to return everything to normal. Both the king and bard decided that this was the dumbest idea ever, and agreed to never talk about it again. 

Whether your’e a painter, performer or poet, chances are that if you’re trying to make a living off of your art, you’re struggling to find balance. You’re probably trying to find balance in the time spent on building your royal audience. You’re likely trying to find balance in creating new works. Most importantly, you’re most certainly trying to find balance in the inner recesses of your conscience, struggling to decide whether or not your betraying your craft for profit.  

In the art community, you talk to, well…artists. I’ve spoken to photographers, woodworkers and writers. Their thoughts on balance are always the same. Sometimes, I feel more like a sales person than an (insert craft here). I’m a total sellout. So why do creative minds feel like sellouts? Often, it’s because modest Indy Artists don’t have well-heeled sponsors to handle the business end while they focus on their trade. So, they end up becoming the marketer, salesperson and visionary. Needless to say, that’s a tall order that makes most artists to feel icky. So what do they do? They follow their principles and stick to creating, hoping their work will speak for itself. Authors Neil Gaiman and Daniel Handler joked about the idea during a Q&A recently.

Gaiman laughed, “Don Marquis once said that having poetry published was like throwing flower petals over the Grand Canyon and waiting for the boom.” 

Handler added, “I’ve heard it (writing) was like wetting yourself in dark pants – you get a feeling, but no one notices.” 

While it’s in jest, the sentiment is clear. If you’re a budding artist, it’s time to get to work, and being a businessperson is just part of it. You can’t afford to draw lines in the sand. The catch to not selling out is drawing soft borders. Set goals and decide how often you’re going to market weekly. Make time for creating new projects, and understand the first hurdle is often the worst. I’ve added a list of links at the bottom that might help you the process, from reasons why you aren’t selling art to techniques that’ll help you deal with the stress of being an artist. 

No one wants to be a sellout. We’d all like a royal court to instantly give us patrons. We don’t want to be salespeople. We want to be artists. The truth of it is though, that if you’re doing it right, you’ll likely need to be a little of both. It’s the best shot of living happily ever after. 

https://www.artworkarchive.com/blog/5-big-reasons-why-your-art-isn-t-selling

https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-artists-share-rituals-dealing-stress

Author interview: Henry Anderson

Oh the magic of books. What would life be without them? More importantly, where would we be without their authors? We take for granted all of the dreamed up stories on our bookshelves and iPads. We forget about all of the work, love and struggles that goes into each word. 

Today on the Justin Alcala blog, I’m excited to interview Solstice Publishing author, Henry Anderson.  Henry Anderson is a former news reporter who has written for national UK newspapers. He spent time as a farmhand in Australia before working in publishing and journalism. His current novels, “Cape Misfortune” and “The Mouth” are fantastic tales available on amazon. But before you pick them up, let’s learn a little bit about the man behind the stories. Let’s learn about the talented Henry Anderson. 

Thanks for joining us Henry. I wanted to start out by asking about the great journeys you’ve taken to get where you are. What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

I suppose in the old days pilgrimages involved seeing sacred relics like a piece of a saint’s finger. It made things seem much more real. Similarly an artefact like a book or the page of a handwritten manuscript makes the writer seem less remote. Seeing Shakespeare’s birthplace was amazing. I was lucky enough to study at the same college at Oxford University as Oscar Wilde. I visited his grave in Paris. We used to wear green carnations in his honour on exam days.

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Take a step back and think about whether other people will find your writing relevant or important! 

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Self-doubt is the enemy of most art. On a bad day the words look terrible.

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

You have the ability to get something published. Stop procrastinating and get on with it.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I wrote a play once and stood at the back of the audience on the nights it was performed. It was incredible to watch people being so involved with the story. 

What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?

Nothing, unless you are writing autobiography. I suppose if you admire someone you might try and do justice to them. If you feel someone has mistreated you there is always the villain.

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?

I have a screenplay, several short stories and two unfinished novels kicking about. I hope to return to them one day.

What did you edit out of this book?”

Anything that didn’t advance the story. I find if I stray off the path, description or dialogue loses meaning or relevance.

Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

I suffer from a chronic illness called myalgic encephalomyelitis. There are a few hidden references to that. They don’t make any difference to the story but they add a bit of depth for me. I suppose the trick is not to be too self-indulgent.

What was your hardest scene to write?

There is a scene in the book where the characters are travelling astrally, out of the body, over the Pacific. That was difficult. It was the first part of the story that was out-and-out fantasy. There is a devil sitting on my shoulder that is scornful about straying from realism. It’s now one of my favourite scenes.

Henry, what advice do you have for unpublished writers?

The Internet has changed the literary landscape. There is less stigma about self-publishing now. I haven’t self-published yet but would do so in the future rather than hang on to a manuscript for years. You have to roll with the punches and move on.

Henry, thanks so much for joining us on the blog. You can learn more about Henry on his website. All links are provided below. And please be sure to pick up Henry’s latest novel, “Cape Misfortune” available on amazon. 

Cape Misfortune

“Welcome to beautiful Cape Misfortune.  Come for the rugged coastline and unspoiled beaches. Stay for the quaint customs and friendly welcome.”

Just don’t ask about the people who are going missing.

https://www.amazon.com/Henry-Anderson/e/B01JAS49AO?ref=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000

Henry Anderson

https://henryandersonbooks.com

Crimson Street Magazine Contracts Short Horror Story “It Dances Now” By Justin Alcala

When Cecil Gibbs’s mind shatters during the American Civil War, he becomes a battlefield horror. The man slips through the shadows, carving the wounded like art as the war’s first serial killer. However, once word of Cecil’s atrocities hits the ears of Union command, they send in a Pinkerton by the name of Oliver Lamb to investigate. Through his perilous tracking of Cecil, Oliver learns that Cecil might not be alone. Witnesses have glimpsed a shadowy figure dancing along Cecil’s side, whispering instructions to the broken surgeon as he continues his onslaught. 

“It Dances Now” is a short horror story contracted by Crimson Street Magazine. It hit shelves in late summer of 2019. 

http://www.crimsonstreets.com

Forged by Fire: An Editor’s Guide

The truth can be tough, especially in writing. Authors aspire to tell a tale. They gather the courage to put it on paper. They present it to friends and family, receiving a roborant surge of encouragement that emboldens them to pitch query letters.Then finally, a publishing contract is signed and the editing begins. 

The editor, donned in all black complete with cape and eyepatch, sits down to look over the manuscript. The boots they tuck under their desk are worn from crushing dreams. They open up the writer’s story, ready to pounce. On cue, their sharp and evil eye spots an unnecessary comma, the use of then instead of than, and the misspelling of the word, accommodate. The editor clicks their Track Changes option, and the onslaught begins.

Weeks later, the writer receives their manuscript back, marked with enough blood red font to illustrate the Battle of the Bulge graphic novel. Each comment causes the writer to scoff, shout and tremble. Before long, the writer has reworked their story so much that they’re huddled under a blanket in the corner, frozen on page fifty’s complete rewrite of the narrative’s abrupt pace change.

But occasionally, editors don’t just rip apart a manuscript for the sake of their malevolent thirst for pain. Instead, they’re trying to improve the writer’s work. The editor, in their tenure, has learned how a book’s composition works, and asks for mutual trust when developing the manuscript. It’s through constructive criticism, tough questions and needed changes that a writer’s work truly becomes the story it deserves. The strongest steel is forged by the fires of hell.

Letting your writer’s guard down can be tough when it comes to the editing faze. Most self-deprecation authors have already put themselves through the gauntlet. They’ve trudged through drafts and shades of their story for months. By the time editing is abound, some people are emotionally drained. Just remember though that your first draft is not your final result. 

Forged by Fire Blog Pic

I hear a lot of stories about mean editors. There’s a difference between disrespect and critical thinking. If your editor is flashing shade, it might be time to reach out to your publisher. Before you do though, know this. The chances of a writer being oversensitive about their work are far greater than the possibility that the editor enjoys collecting the sentimental skulls of writers for their mantle. Try to accept the fact that you might be going through a phase of denial. Then and only then, can you and your editor merge your talents to truly create something wonderful. 

“Dim Fairy Tales”Contracted by AllThingsThatMatterPress

Umm…this is awesome. AllThingsThatMatterPress has officially contracted Dim Fairy Tales for publication. This will be my third novel, and second within the Plenty Dreadful Universe. I’m very proud to partner with AllThingsThatMatterPress, who has brought the world great books for over ten years. More to come!

https://www.allthingsthatmatterpress.com

https://twitter.com/ATTMPress

The Crowned Maiden: A Christmas Fairytale

Long ago, during the dreaming dawn of history, there lived a young maiden within the hollow of the Harvest Woods. Born on a day when the sun and moon rose as one, it was said that she was destined for greatness, if only she could survive her early hardships. For the girl’s mother passed shortly after giving birth, and soon after, her father was lost to war. Alone amongst the trees and stags, the girl grew up unaided, pitied by the villagers whose fate was far too meager to offer charity. There, within a cottage made of stone and thatch she cared for herself, surviving through the seasons with little more than resolve. 

Yet the maiden never despised her circumstances. Because for her, everything she thought she’d needed was bequeathed to her by the Harvest Woods. It fed her when she hungered, bathed her when she was filthy, and hummed her to sleep under the twinkle of the stars. It gave her friendship in the wildlife, family in the trees, and wisdom in seasons. How she adorned her forest, and in return, the forest adored her. 

Soon though, the young maiden came to understand that although the woods were very dear to her, they could not always offer what she required. For curatives, tools and proper clothing, she was forced to travel to the markets where she traded the forest’s bounty in exchange for the necessities she so desperately needed. And though her fire licked hair and grass colored eyes drew the heads of the young boys, the maiden always returned home to her true love, the forest.   

But time has a way of changing what doesn’t wish to do so. Soon the young maiden grew to be even more beautiful, and although she only desired the woods for the rest of her days, rumors in the village whispered that she would make a fine wife for anyone cunning enough to tame her. So, it was no surprise that once summer began, all the young villagers trudged through the woodlands in search of their bride. Day after day they arrived with offerings of coin, cattle and jewelry, and day after day the maiden declined.

“I owe my hand to the autumn harvest that feeds me,” she’d reply, “and the harboring oaks that keep me safe.”

But the will of men is strong, and their yearnings even stronger. Soon affluent suitors from faraway lands received the maiden’s reputation as a challenge, and came crooning with great promises. They offered feasts fit for kings, castles built for armies, and riches suited for cities. Yet no matter how musical the musician or noble the nobleman, her answer always remained the same. With a gracious smile she’d reply-

“I owe my hand to the autumn harvest that feeds me, and the harboring oaks that keep me safe.”

Then one snowy autumn night, on a week that had three Sundays, fate stepped in. The young maiden had just snuggled into her blanket by the hearth when a wrapping came at her cottage door. It was near the witching hour, and the young maiden answered with warranted trepidation. To her surprise, waiting at her entrance was not some monstrous monster, nor another suitor in silks or admiral in armors. Instead stood a stranger like she’d never seen before. He was tall and regal, stitched together by arcadian beauty. His hair flowed like wheat and his skin colored like honey. He wore a cloak weaved from the fall brush and a tunic of blood red. The stranger bowed when his eyes met the maiden.

“Good evening my Lady,” he greeted. 

“Apologies young Sir,” replied the maiden as she clung to her cottage’s door, “but I’m afraid that I’ll be hearing no more offers this evening.” 

The young man lingered, a simple smile spread across his sharp face. The maiden had seen such persistence before. It would not be long now before the stranger proposed his dowry. She gave a short curtsy and then wished a good night. But as she thrust her arm to secure the cottage door, a fierce breeze whistled from the forest, disputing her intentions. 

“My lady,” said the stranger over the dying wind, “I apologize for my daftness, but allow me to make amends. I am in search of my bride and have finally come to claim you. I adore you and wish to be yours forever.” But to this, the maiden only answered as she had done so many times before. 

“Your words are sweet like plum wine and promising like the morning sun, but I must insist that you go. For I owe my hand to the autumn harvest that feeds me, and the harboring oaks that keep me safe. My loyalty is in the flowers and grass I walk on. I love that only for the rest of my days.”

Contrary to the maiden’s anticipation, the stranger did not grow crestfallen. Instead, he beamed with delight, placing his hand over his heart. With a bold step forward he moved to one knee, digging into his cloak and removing a crown made of branches. The young maiden watched as the bachelor offered a diadem of wood and vine. As the young maiden studied the offering, her own heart began to flutter. Gazing into the young man’s eyes, she felt her very soul stirring and drawing open. For the feeling she had was the same she felt when she stroked a doe or drank from the brook. 

Reaching her arms out, she removed the wood crown from the young man’s hands and placed it over her fiery head of hair. The stranger arose, striding backwards into the trees. As he did, his boots rooted into the frosted soils and his cloak faded into leaves. And as the winds took him up and the earth brought him down, with a whisper and tender smile he bid her farewell.

 “And I will always love you,” he confessed.  

So it went, her and her love together. He fed her when she hungered, bathed her when she was filthy, and hummed her to sleep under the twinkle of the stars. He gave her friendship in the wildlife, family in the trees, and wisdom in seasons. How she adorned her husband, and in return, he adored her.