A Web of Ink and Paper

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Giles sits in a corner near the back, wearing a dark fedora. He watches as a man enters the coffee shop and places an order for a grande Americano, waits for the man to hand over his money and receive his change, follows the man with his eyes as he makes his way to a seat near a distant window.

The man is not actually a man at all, but something else. Something dangerous.

Giles reaches into his pocket, produces a faded leather notebook and silver fountain pen and begins to write. He works carefully, starting with the coarser, superficial details and slowly working his way to the more refined. They are special words. Words of power.

Giles does his best to capture the essence of the man, though even words such as these are only crude approximations. They reach inside and bind him, pair with flesh and bone and spirit, tearing him out of space and time like a coupon from the local newspaper.

It isn’t until he’s nearly finished that the man by the window notices, and by then he’s already fading like an overexposed negative. He bolts from his seat and stumbles backward, opens his mouth in shock, ambles toward Giles like a wounded soldier.

The patrons of the coffee shop have taken notice. Some scream. Others run. More than a few gawk stupidly, cell phones at the forefront. God, thinks Giles, these are the creatures he’s sworn to protect?

Before the man can take ten steps he’s already disappeared, torn from the fabric of reality and bound forever in a web of ink and paper.

Giles caps his pen, closes the leather notebook and strolls to the door, ready to tackle his next assignment.

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The Faceless Man

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He wanders the world, the Faceless Man, journeys from city to city, always in search of items to add to his collection. When you answer your door he won’t say a word; indeed he cannot, for he has no mouth with which to speak. Instead he’ll incline his head, ever so slightly, all the while clutching a black leather-bound book to his chest with reverence.

He’ll open to the first page, always blank, and bid you gaze upon its fallow surface. Then dutifully, curiously, you’ll look to see what all the fuss is about, and before you know what’s happened you’ll have been pulled inside, transformed from a creature of flesh and blood to an indeterminate being of pen and ink.

He will take you home and place you atop a dusty shelf. From time to time he’ll pull you back down, sit in his favorite armchair to read and drink your loneliness, your madness, your despair, savoring them like a rare vintage.

You’ll never die, but you’ll spend eternity wishing that you had.

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Writing is Hard

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It really is.

Sure, you have the occasional explosion of creativity that spatters the walls of your mind, so that all you have to do is scrape the surface to create beautiful prose without really trying. This kind of intense inspiration can last for days, even weeks or months. But there inevitably come in every writer’s life moments when the ideas are gone, when all you can do is huddle in a dark corner with your hands over your eyes, wondering how suddenly it could have all been snatched away.

When the honeymoon is over, when you’re no longer in the throes of passion, doting over the muse with her intimately whispered secrets, when you’re left to limp alone across the desert of mediocrity and self-doubt, that’s when your dedication to the craft must not waver. It’s at the height of desperation that your faith in what you were created to do will be tested, a faith that’s critical if you’re to find the strength you need to continue stumbling blind in the dark, placing one clumsy word after another.

Good consistent writing is borne of hard work and discipline. You must be able to reach into the dusty corners of your mind, to wander through the labyrinthine corridors of consciousness, twisting and turning into infinity, diligently searching until at long last you stumble over deposits of the rarest substance there is, that raw clay of the mind, forged in the furnace of your imagination. You must shape, mold and sculpt this clay into something unique, something beautiful, something that catches the light of common everyday experience and reflects it back in all the colors of the philosophical rainbow.

Writing asks for nothing less than your soul. You must offer it willingly, allow it to be consumed by and absorbed into your stories, articles and blogs, and in so doing, allow your soul to be laid bare before the world, so that your deepest self is vulnerable to scorn and criticism.

Writing is emotionally draining, time consuming and is often without reward. Very few reap any compensation for their work at all, and of those who do, but a small percentage are blessed with the means to make a living through their art alone.

Yet, despite much hardship, the Writer takes joy in his work, for the soul of the Writer has, in spite of everything, accomplished what it was created to do. Like the One who created the Writer, he can gaze upon his work, a product of his blood and tears, and at last proclaim, “it is good.”

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Getting Up and Trying Again

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Last week was really rough. I fell way behind on my reading and writing. I stopped interacting with people. I just kind of shut down and logged out of the world for a few days.

My dream for some time has been to be a full-time writer. In the past year, I’ve slowly built up a presence online, have shared the little finished work that I have with those who were interested, have made some good friends and have made some significant progress on my novels and short stories. But last week, something happened.

I suddenly got depressed and listless. I took a long look at all the hard work that’s required just for me to maintain what I’ve already created, then took another long look at all the work I have left to do before I ever come close to reaching my goals, and for a few days I just gave up. I stopped reading. I stopped writing. Everything that I’m passionate about came to a sudden grinding halt.

I want to blame this on the fact that I have a full-time career as a backend web developer that demands 40+ hours each week. I want to blame this on the fact that I’m tired when I come home, that the last thing I want to do is work for another couple of hours each night before I go to bed, only to repeat the cycle once more. I want to blame this on the fact that putting in 15-20 hours each week just isn’t enough, that to do my writing justice I need more time. But in the end, those are all just excuses.

I gave up because I chose to despair instead of working even harder to prove to myself that writing is what I really want to do. I made bad choices. There’s nothing I can say in my defense. In fact, I should be counting my blessings, because I have a job that finances what I love in my off hours and a roof over my head, because there are so many people out there who don’t even have jobs, or who work 60-80 hours each week and even then barely manage to make ends meet.

Fortunately, for every bad choice, there’s always an opportunity for another good choice. Even if you’ve spent your entire life turning left, you can always choose to turn right instead. This is my right turn. This is my choice to jump back into the game.

The fact is that writing is my passion. It’s what I was born to do. I can’t see myself doing anything else. If work gets tough and I have to put in extra hours, if I have to push through the pain and find time to write even when my body cries out for sleep, that just means I have an opportunity to prove to myself and to others how much I really want this. And someday, when I find success (whether great or small), I can look back on what I accomplished in spite of the pain and appreciate it all the more.

For a very select few, the winners of life’s lottery, things come easy. But those people rarely accomplish anything great, because they don’t know how to appreciate what’s been handed to them. They don’t realize how precious their finite lives here on Earth are, because they’ve never had to worry about it being taken away from them. I’ve decided I don’t want to win the lottery. I want to earn whatever success I can find, because only then can I appreciate it; only then can I take what I’ve worked hard for and know how to turn it into something even better.

I would appreciate any prayers (if you believe in prayer) and well wishes you choose to send my way. I can’t do this without God, and I also can’t do this without you, my loyal readers. It’s in large part because of you that I find the courage to articulate the stories that are written in the depths of my heart. Without you, none of what I’ve built so far would be possible.

I’ll keep writing, and hopefully you’ll keep reading and we can continue on this long and fruitful journey together.

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A Real Magic Power That You Possess

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The casting of spells is pretty standard fare in fantasy. We read about practitioners of magic, people who have the power to shape the world through the mere utterance of sacred words. Battles are won. Fortunes are found. Lives are forever changed. We find ourselves intrigued, and we idly fantasize about what it might be like were we to possess similar powers.

What if I were to tell you that you do? What if I were to tell you that there are certain words which, when spoken, have the power to change the world?

Words are powerful.

It’s through words that the will exerts its influence over the world. Words, effectively organized and strategically expressed, grab hold of our hearts and persuade us to act in accordance with their desires. Words are forces capable of extraordinary things. They unite people with a common purpose. They give birth to nations and empires. They give wings to scientific and technological breakthroughs that sweep the world, curing diseases and raising the standard of living to new and unparalleled heights.

Can one voice really change the world?

It always starts with a single individual, calling out into an ocean of other voices.

Uttered in isolation, the words wander in the midst of chaos, searching. They soon join with others who are sympathetic to their cause. These other voices soon conform to the will of the original, so that what was once a solitary sound is now a chorus. This chorus continues, tumbling like an avalanche, picking up other voices along the way. Soon these words, originally uttered by a single person, become a deafening maelstrom so fierce in its power that they become difficult or impossible to ignore.

Even words that don’t spread far beyond your circle of influence are capable of great things. Carefully crafted words forge enduring relationships. They give birth to friends, families and communities. They have the power to build people up, to encourage and inspire others in pursuits that, despite your own limited influence, nevertheless have the power to transform the world in unexpected ways.

But words have a dark side.

Like any great and powerful force, words can be used for good or for evil. Words have sparked war and genocide as often as they have inspired peace. They have oppressed as often as they have sought freedom. They have driven people toward suspicion, hate, persecution and murder as often as they have urged tolerance and mutual respect.

With great power comes great responsibility.

We must take great care in what we write and in how we speak. We should avoid gossip, slander and bigotry. We must strive always to tell the truth, to put what we have to say at the service of others. Words uttered in anger and self-interest have the power to destroy lives, relationships, families, communities, even the world as we know it.

Conversely, words uttered with sincerity and loving conviction, with a purpose ordered toward the common good, they have the power to build people up, to heal relationships, to instill fresh ideas and a renewed sense of purpose in a world that has been made better for the presence of your own unique voice.

How will you use this magic power?

The world is full of voices, some changing things for the better, others changing things for the worst. You can use your powers for good or for evil. Which will you choose?

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Does Reading About Evil Make You Evil?

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I love dark fiction. I’ve always been fascinated by the problem of evil, and literature that grapples with diabolical themes gives me an opportunity to explore this very difficult subject in all of its many facets. I get to enter into the minds and souls of those who do evil, and am able to witness first hand the torment and destruction wrought by their wicked hands.  Is there something wrong with me? Is my fascination with evil the sign of a disturbed and demented mind?

Critics of dark fiction argue that stories which address sinister themes outside of a strictly didactic context necessarily glorify evil, and conclude that the act of reading such literature is, by extension, also evil. Conversely, proponents of dark fiction argue that evil is an inescapable part of life, and that we should not be afraid to tell the truth about it in literature. Which of these two voices should we listen to?

A distinction must be made.

Critics of dark fiction make the mistake of conflating two separate and distinct desires. They argue that because one hungers for an understanding of evil, that they must therefore hunger for evil itself. This is a non sequitur. Is a police officer evil for his fascination with the criminal mind, regardless of the fact that his motivation stems from a desire to prevent further criminal activity? To the contrary, his desire to know evil is rooted in a desire to do good.

FIctional characters enable us to know the mind of evil without becoming evil.

A desire to understand is an inextricable component of our human nature. We don’t just want to know what people do. We want to know why. What motivates someone to make certain choices? Why does one man decide to save a life while another decides to commit murder?

By entering the mind of a fictional character, we can discover answers to these questions. We are privy to their thoughts, their emotions, they’re motivations. We aren’t just exposed to the evil deeds they commit. We’re exposed to the rationale behind those evil deeds. This is very important, because only when we understand the causes of evil can we ever be in a position to do something about it.

Learning about evil teaches us how to be good.

One of the most potent ways to learn is by example. When we see a person act a certain way and observe the result, we take that experience with us as if it were our own. When a person’s actions have a positive outcome, we’re conditioned to emulate their behavior. Conversely, when a person’s actions have a negative outcome, we learn to avoid it.

An accurate portrayal of evil will necessarily showcase the consequences of bad behavior. Sometimes, these consequences will be practical in nature. A bank robber, for example, might slip up during a heist and leave behind clues that eventually lead to his arrest. Sometimes, the consequences will be more spiritual or psychological. A character in a novel might, for example, get away with murder. But if the author has a firm grasp of the human psyche, he will, simply by knowing his character well, reveal the terrible transformation that takes place inside his mind, now irrevocably tainted. From this devastating case study, we are given an opportunity to reflect on what evil can do to us if we allow it into our own hearts.

And, we witness first hand the pain and suffering that evil inflicts on others. We see lives reduced to ruin by greed and malice. We feel a deep sense of desolation and loss. We walk through a desert of despair, barren of all things good, and our hearts howl from their deepest depths for something better. Prolonged exposure to darkness makes the most miniscule act of kindness blaze like the sun. It makes us more sensitive to a right way of living.

In short, reading about evil makes us better people.

Encountering evil in stories reminds us that evil exists outside of stories.

It’s easy to drift through life, comfortable, complacent, apathetic to the suffering of others. Unless we’ve experienced hardship personally, it’s difficult for us to sympathize with those who have.

But when we encounter terrorists, thieves and murderers in fiction, we are reminded that these same criminals also exist in the real world. We are forced to confront an uncomfortable truth that we would otherwise prefer to brush aside. We are forced to watch as innocent characters weep and wail and gnash their teeth in unending agony at the hands of evildoers, and we are reminded that the same thing happens to real people. This awareness breeds empathy, which in turn breeds a genuine love for the rest of our human family and a desire to act against the injustices that afflict them.

Refusing to acknowledge evil is untruthful.

The world is not all pink fluffy bunnies, sunshine and rainbows. Art that intentionally ignores or attempts to sugar coat the darker realities of human life is a distortion, a twisted half-truth that is not only deceitful but dangerous. A selective view of the world through rose colored glasses enables us to look away as innocent people suffer. It allows us to pretend that the world is better than it is, that it’s ok for us to withdraw into ourselves and ignore the plights of others who are less fortunate.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with art that zeroes in on goodness and innocence, any more than there is something wrong with art that doesn’t. A balanced outlook is essential to a healthy understanding of the world, and we need also to be reminded of all the things that are good and right. But we must never turn a blind eye to evil. We must be willing to stare it down, to meet its malignant eyes gaze for gaze.

There is tragic beauty in dark literature.

When characters suffer, we cry for them. When an evildoer gets away with murder, we flush with anger and outrage. A good balance of light and dark allows us to explore the full spectrum of human emotions, which in turn leads us to a better understanding of ourselves. This is why the ancients devised great epics that dealt regularly with death and loss, as well as why great tragedies like Romeo and Juliet resonate so strongly and continue to persist throughout the ages.

Conclusion

Critics of dark fiction misunderstand us. They perceive a great multitude of maligned individuals prancing through the streets, approving of and even praising evil deeds. But nothing could be further from the truth. As lovers of dark fiction, we are those who are most sensitive to the devastating effects of evil. We are those who are most profoundly disturbed by its manifestation in the world. We are those who recognize more than anything else the terrible evil within ourselves. We are the ones who desire most of all to be better than we are.

We can respond to evil in one of two ways. We can bury our heads in the sand, sing Kumbaya and foolishly hope that evil will someday pass us over, that we can somehow wish it away, conquer it simply by refusing to acknowledge that it exists. Or we can face it, study it, try to understand our adversary so that we can better prepare for the task of striking it down. Which will you choose?

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2 Ways That Characters Are More Intimate Than Best Friends, Husbands and Wives

If you’re like me, reading fiction usually involves an endless string of love affairs and heart breaks. It’s always the same. I meet someone new. I fall in love. I’m on an emotional roller coaster. I burst with joy when my character is happy. My heart aches when my character is hurt. I’ll invest hours of my time into the relationship, only for it to come to a sudden abrupt end when there are no pages left to turn.

The relationship between Reader and Character is intense and intimate. What follows are two ways in which this relationship is more intimate than those we share with our closest friends and spouses.

1. You, Along With the Author, Are a Character’s Co-creator.

In real life, when you meet another person, what follows is purely a process of discovery. Who that person is has already been fully defined, independent of you. A real person always exists outside your mind. You may be lead to believe certain things about who that person is based on your own observations and biases, but whether or not those beliefs are correct has nothing to do with you.

By contrast, while the author might provide you with certain details regarding what a character looks like, what he thinks about or what happens to him throughout the story, he’s only partially defined. It’s up to you to provide the missing pieces. Unlike a real person, your character only has the fullness of his existence inside your mind. As a result, it’s as much a process of creation as it is one of discovery. Together, with the author, you give life to this other person.

The unique role that you have as a character’s co-creator is what allows you to understand him so intimately. Who he is depends in part on who you are. Because of this, you know this person more completely than you could know anyone else.

2. The Relationship Between Reader and Character Has No Boundaries.

In your relationships with real people, there are always boundaries. Between husbands, wives and best friends, there are always secrets. When dealing with real people, you can only completely know yourself. What your friends and spouses experience in their own minds you can only experience imperfectly through what they choose to reveal.

In your relationships with fictional people, this is not the case. In fiction, a character’s innermost thoughts, desires and motivations are all laid bare before you. You can peer directly into a character’s mind and soul. You can know a character better than he knows himself.

Conclusion

There’s a reason we connect so profoundly with well written characters. It’s basic human nature to crave love and intimacy. We strive to know others, for it’s in knowing that we can love. The fictional characters we encounter in stories might not be real, but the love that we have for them most certainly is. It’s a very unique kind of love, one that, in some ways at least, exceeds that which we have even for those real people who we hold closest of all.

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Who Am I?

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Hello! My name is Jeff, and I’m a writer.

Well, hold on.

I should probably lay one secret to rest before we embark on this journey together. My name isn’t really Jeff. It’s James. Jeff Coleman is a pen name that I dreamed up a few months ago, based on the initials of my first and last name. When I first decided to share my stories with the world, I was shy and unsure. I believed that a pseudonym could provide me with comfort and security, and that, to a certain extent, it could protect me from failure. But as time wore on, I began to realize that in order to forge genuine lasting relationships built on friendship and trust, I would ultimately have to put my true self out there, including my real name. I realized that failure is a part of life, and that I could grow closer to my friends and readers by being honest and open about my mistakes from the start. Though I’ve grown attached to the name Jeff and plan to continue using it, I’d like my readers to know who Jeff really is. So, let me extend to you a warm virtual hand in greeting. “Hi, my name is James, and it’s very nice to meet you!”

Now, with that out of the way…

Who am I? That’s not an easy question to answer. It’s not that I don’t know who I am (although I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always know the answer as well as I’d like.) I just find it difficult to figure out what to say or how to say it. Don’t worry, the irony of being a writer and having trouble describing myself is not lost on me…

Let’s start with the reason for this blog in the first place.

I love to tell stories. I’ve been writing since third grade — in fact, if you’re really lucky, I’ll post the story that started it all, a tale about a leprechaun who loves green food, in a future blog 😉 I’ve always had my “head in the clouds,” as the old cliché goes. There was a very brief period in my life between seventh and eighth grade when I believed I was too old to play and use my imagination and that it was time to start thinking and acting like an “adult.” Thank God I grew out of that!

As a kid, I was obsessed with fantasy. I loved to dream of worlds that were different from our own, and could spend hours exploring the vast and limitless vistas of the imagination. I was picked on a lot growing up, so while the other kids were out socializing or playing sports, I was indoors by myself reading books. It wasn’t great from a developmental point of view, but it did give me a unique perspective, as well as plenty of time to think and imagine.

I also came to love and appreciate the beauty of reality through the lens of science. I was fortunate enough to have a dad who could answer many of the vexing questions that kids will inevitably ask, and his ability to explain things to me in a way that I could understand sparked a fire in my heart that would only grow with time. When I wasn’t dreaming about witches and wizards or knights and dragons, I was thinking about atoms and molecules or electricity and magnetism.

As an adult, my passions began to coalesce into two branches: art and science. In college, I attended a ton of classes in English and Fine Art Photography before finally deciding to transfer into Computer Science, and along the way I had a very intense and passionate love affair with Math and Physics. It’s with both perspectives, art and science, that I’ve attempted to make sense of this strange thing we call the universe.

Interestingly enough, my upbringing was as much religious as it was scientific, and for this reason, I’ve always had a deeply spiritual outlook on life. I’m Catholic by creed, and take my faith seriously, though for many years now I’ve been deeply confused about the things I believe, and have had to ask myself a lot of very tough questions. I’ve had all of my core assumptions repeatedly called into question and have, for years, felt adrift in a sea of uncertainty and anxiety. Yet, for all the discomfort, it’s that very same doubt which has seeded my heart with a profound love of philosophy and a hunger to know and understand exactly what the world is and why it’s here.

When I was younger, I used to worry about doing everything right. I was afraid that minor mistakes could have catastrophic consequences. But now, as I look back on my life, I see just how perfectly everything fits together. I’ve come to view my life as a mosaic built from the smallest of moments which, in and of themselves, seem random and insignificant, yet when brought together form a beautifully choreographed whole. There is no doubt in my mind that we exist in this world for a reason.

And that’s where we come full circle.

I believe that my purpose is to tell stories.

I’m not delusional or arrogant enough to think that my stories are God’s gift to the world, or that without them the world would be a cold and dreary void. Writing is simply a part of who I am. I want to tell stories, and I want to share those stories with others.

What have I been working on?

I published my first short story, The Sign, a few months ago. I’ve also completed the first draft of a middle grade children’s fantasy about a boy who, with a magic wand, accidentally makes his sister disappear. Finally, I’m working on two novels for adults.

Do I have any favorite books?

I’m glad you asked 😉 There are a few books and authors which hold a special place in my heart. They are, in no particular order: “The Dark Tower” and “The Shining,” by Stephen King; “Neverwhere,” “American Gods” and “Coraline” by Neil Gaiman; “Harry Potter,” by J.K. Rowling; and “The Stranger,” by Albert Camus.

Honorable mention also goes to “Charlotte’s Web,” by E.B. White; “The Night Circus,” by Erin Morgenstern; “Ender’s Game,” by Orson Scott Card; and “The Name of the Wind,” by Patrick Rothfuss.

Anything else?

Not really. I just wanted to give you some idea of who I am. A very special bond exists between Writer and Reader, and I believe that this bond is more easily formed when the two know each other first.

And who are you? I’d love for you to introduce yourself in the comments below.

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