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Chicken Feathers

April 6, 2015

Tags: writing courage and cowardice

I let the story and its very real characters find and travel the paths upon which they insist. It completely defeats the "writer as God" attitude exhibited by many writers and beginners, but that's the way it works for me. Usually.

Okay, the current work is titled The War Whisperer, told from the point of view of an orphan who, at the age of twelve, is drafted into a secret quasi-governmental school for agent/assassins. Jerome Track did horrific things to be considered for this school for killers. At the school more horrific things happened, which changed everything, and those pages were very difficult to write. Then Jerome and his adopted sister graduate and become agents in this shadow organization that "resolves democracy and negotiation resistant problems" in favor of the U.S. So they and their handler go down to South America to await the arrival of an important terrorist leader: Object, termination.

Then the story did what it often does when I allow it to go its own way. They found a situation while they were waiting for the terrorist leader, a situation that called for some killing--a lot of killing. (1) The killings would bring justice to a terrible long-standing wrong; (2) the killings would liberate a terribly used and abused group of children; (3) The fact of the killings would better accomplish the ends sought by performing the lone assassination; (4) This is where the characters of Jerome and his sister demand to go; and (5) This really is where the story needs to go. It fits so well its absence seems a glaring omission. Those are the "for" reasons to go in that direction.

The "against" reasons can all be summed up by the term "chicken feathers." This term is applied to writers who write around or eliminate tough scenes for reasons of cowardice. Such scenes might reveal hidden desires, real or imagined by the reader. "God, this Longyear is perverse! Did you read that scene in [Title] where he has his character do [sick, cruel, and/or perverse behavior]. I lost one friend after she read one of the sex scenes in my novel Sea of Glass because, "I know the only reason that would be in there is because that's your secret desire."(!) I did mention to her that, in the same novel, I killed off about four billion men, women, and children, and that I didn't and don't want to do any such thing, but to no avail.

One reason I blossomed in chicken feathers at this point in The War Whisperer is because I really didn't want to do the killings. The scene involves executing just under two hundred teenaged boys. The boys are despicable, true. Their deaths do much toward defeating the sworn enemies of peace and civilization, true. In addition, it is a small number of deaths compared to others that have taken place in stories of mine, also true. In Sea of Glass I killed half the human race. That was done through a computer, however. In The War Whisperer, the killings would be hands-on, toe-to-toe, eyeball-to-eyeball, all the begging, cries of pain, and death rattles audible to Jerome and his sister, the killers, the odors of gun smoke, fire, and blood clinging to them like skins.

Amazing how many different ways there are not to write. Downhill skiing, plumbing repairs, extended gigs in Schenectady, and finally the burner of most of my writing time: illness. I got good and sick, a cough whose violence convinced me I would give myself a heart attack, plugged sinuses, bronchitis, and antibiotics that left me wrestling with constant nausea. Then one of my teeth broke off! Who could write with all that going on?

But as I said in a recent TV interview, I'm on all the time. My work hours are 24-7. Awake, asleep, I am always trying this character against that situation, finding wrinkles, seeing how this might fit or that might work, bits of dialog, how this word fits with that situation or character. And I discuss these machinations with my story characters. In brief, after a month of illness, obligation fulfillment, and procrastination, I have polished the fact and the implementation of these executions with all of the involved characters, and it is more than a done deal. We all are simply waiting for me to get off my duff and put it in the manuscript.

About twenty years ago I was attending a retreat for male incest survivors. It was a weekend long workshop in picking up the crap before it can be let go. Very heavy going. On Saturday night, for a break in all emotional workouts, we had a talent show. Singers, musicians, a juggler, an artist, and I read a story of mine. One of the young men attending the retreat earlier identified himself to me as a writer, and he asked me what of his he should read at the talent show. "Whatever you think is your best," I answered.

"How do I know what's best?" he asked.

"Whatever was the hardest to write," I said. "Pick that."

I attended the full talent show, eager to hear what the young man had selected to read. In the end, he read nothing.

Chicken feathers: it's a roadblock between you and the best writing you can do. In one's writing, one reveals much about oneself. Need to kill someone stab-by-scream in your story? Do the characters and the action point directly to an explicit graphic sex scene? Do you write around such using the excuses of being anti-violence, or disapproving of graphic sex scenes or vulgar language or certain lifestyles, etc.? Speaking only for myself, the test of my writing integrity is whether I go around such roadblocks or fight my way through them. When I try to go around, the story usually stalls at the roadblock. When I fight my way through, I get to find out what the remainder of the story will be.

So, now that I have written this (my last excuse for not attacking the roadblock) I continue with The War Whisperer, Book Four "Misty," and may god help us every one.


  1. April 10, 2015 7:17 PM EDT
    May, in fact, ALL the gods help us every one so we can get a Barry Longyear story published.
    I remember a Dick van Dyke show in which Rob (his character) left son and wife and went out to a cabin in the woods where there would be no distractions and he could, by gosh, WRITE.
    Instead, he put on a cowboy belt and practiced his fast draw.
    I've heard of other writers who, facing a deadline, decide to polish all the silver, or finally repair that leaky faucet.
    Or, worst of all, waste time on Facebook.
    Illness can be accepted as a reason, not an excuse.
    So I hope, for my own expectations of another great Barry Longyear story, you get and stay well.
    And of course I hope you get and stay well because I have such strong admiration and respect for you as you.
    - Michael Morrison
  2. April 14, 2015 2:58 AM EDT
    Yeah, I'm familiar with the 'Chickenfeathers' when I write fanfiction stories. In my case, it's usually caused by embarassment. I find it helps to mentally pretend when I am writing that I will never actually let anyone ever read or see my story.
    - Ann Morgan
  3. July 7, 2015 10:27 AM EDT
    Cluck...cluck,cluck. Now that we have a word for it, and it is well defined. I am so using that with my writers.If you remember me, I won the ISFIC contest for WindyCon back in the 90's and thanked you on stage - you gave me a huge hug in the aisle as I came down. It was your workshop really that was better than any college course or workshop I had ever been to. You taught a lot about courage and putting yourself out there. I decided to be an artist for awhile, and now I am firmly back with writing and pushing my copy of your writing book...the old old one, around my crit group friends. Two friends published and now it's my turn to finish my first novel. So I better get a grip on these missing scenes and the plot turn, cuz they will happen and I just need to do it. Flap flap, I am flying, morphing into a more predatory bird than a chicken....I hope! Thank you for the hope!
    - Susan Wachowski

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Barry B. Longyear is the first writer to win the Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer all in the same year. In addition to his acclaimed Enemy Mine Series, his works include the Circus World and Infinity Hold series, Sea of Glass, other SF & fantasy novels, recovery and writing instruction works, and numerous short stories.