Writing and Reading Short Fiction

I got back from my first residency in the MFA Program at Goddard ten days ago, and feel as though my involvement in the program is already contributing to my growth as a writer.

I've been writing and reading daily, and approaching both with a more critical eye. The things I learned working with my fellow students and the teachers at Goddard have already been helpful in pushing me to stretch beyond my comfort-zone.

My focus this semester is in short fiction, so I'm spending time each morning writing stories; followed by reading a mix of books, both collections of short fiction and books on writing short fiction (and other books on craft).

I've written eight short stories so far, and have a line-up of twenty-three books I'm excited to read and prepare annotations for (I've finished one so far, and am halfway through the second).

I'm lucky to have the support of my family and friends and fans ... Puck and Miles, our dogs, help me get started and stay on task everyday. 

My wife Gail is, as always, my first pair of outside eyes on everything I write. All these years I've been writing, telling stories, she's been the angel on my shoulder reining me in, pushing me on, helping me polish and tweak my writing with her clear and constant and measured voice.

It's an exciting and scary new world I'm exploring; I'm thankful for my team.



MFAW at Goddard College

I've started my first residency at Goddard College, in Plainfield, Vermont, in their MFA-Writing program.

My cohort of twenty students will get together, along with other cohorts and the faculty members to read and write, and to share what we read and write; also to attend workshops and lectures, and to design our individual courses of study for the coming semester, once the residency is at an end.

It's a creativity-rich environment, and after days spent talking about books and writing, and sharing books and writing with everyone in the college, I fall into bed exhausted but feeling my brain stretched and strained in new and exciting ways.

One of the things that most drew me to Goddard is the lack of boxiness of their program. Creative writing is by its nature a highly variable beast, and we're allowed, encouraged even, to pursue our writing, and educational growth, in the way that best suits us. It's a rigorous program, with lots of reading and writing for each student during every semester and residency, but we only use the material that will help further our craft, and our writing.

I've been fascinated by the diversity of teachers and students here, not in terms of race, sex, orientation, beliefs, etc. (although that is certainly rich as well), but in their, our, thinking and production of creative writing. It's amazing to see and hear how broad and deep the oceans of writing creatively can be ... I've spent my whole life looking at a smaller bay, and am only now exploring the vastness.

I spend my days choosing between multiple workshops and lectures: which ones can I afford to miss, which ones must I see? I'm filling my notebook with thoughts and ideas and tips gleaned from these wonderful people; a page in the back of my notebook is filling with ideas for stories and scenes and characters in my own writing.

It's an exciting program, and I truly feel the only limitations are those I set through perceptual or intellectual shuttering ... I cannot wait to explore this new world, and my place in it.



What a difference a year makes ....

I'm a father, a husband, a brother, a son, a friend, a writer, and, as always ... I'm a 

It's been a year since my wife Gail accepted a position at Landmark College, and we kicked around the idea of me writing full-time. Since that miraculous set of life-changing talks for all of us our life has been busy and filled with change and adjustments and joy and love and smiles, and some stress.

I've written somewhere around a quarter of a million words, working on various projects. I'm working on a collection of shorts and novellas, a fantasy novel, and a cookbook, while keeping the rest of the plates in a busy life spinning atop their various poles.

The idea for the collection, "A Long Line of Doors" came to me almost exactly a year ago, when we'd decided to make the move away from the ADKs and towards our new life ... I knew that life would be too busy for contiguous blocks of writing days (or even times), so I started making a list of story ideas I'd had; once I got started, they just kept coming.

A number of the stories are standalones, but some of them are a glimpse into the world of a new potential series ... all of them were fun to write.

The project I'm perhaps most excited about is "Oasis", the first book in a fantasy trilogy that's been kicking around in my head for a couple of years. It's filled with magic and magical places, monsters and old secrets, powerful wizards, dark intrigue, and a strong princess unjustly banished to a penal colony filled with the worst criminals in the whole world.

One of the things that attracted to the house we ended up buying was the fact that because it had at one point been subdivided, with an apartment downstairs, there's a spare kitchen down by my office. I spend a part of every day cooking (it also keeps me close to the coffee). I've had fun experimenting with some esoteric forms of food and drink, and can't wait to share my love for food and cooking with readers through the cookbook that's in the works.

Besides Gail, perhaps my biggest supporter on a daily basis is Miles, a rescue Labrador who's lived with us for most of a decade. He loves coming to work in the SmartPig office, and his unflagging moral support gives me strength when the words are hard to find.

Even with all that's going on, I've managed to keep the romance fresh with the love of my life, Gail (as can be seen in the Valentine's Day card I made for her this year). We're excited to be taking a trip to Amsterdam and Iceland later this month to celebrate the coming of our 20th anniversary of being married. 

None of the stories would ever have escaped the confines of my brain without the support and love of my partner in crime and life and love.

Thanks for reading! - Jamie


Spring's Blood Pumping



Ting, ting


The dogs and I watched the old farmer drill holes, tap spiles, then hang buckets this afternoon.

I was eager to go and ask: wasn't it early, how long to fill up, does he have to move them around on the tree.

Puck and Miles were eager to rush out stiff-legged, all barks and sniffing and peeing on stuff.

We didn't.

Later, after the old farmer had disappeared, we checked out the couple-dozen buckets he'd hung on ancient maples guarding the ancient dirt road.

I stopped squelching through meltwater and rim-ice on puddles, the boys stopped huffing and bounding through snow that's been through a dozen freeze/thaw cycles ... and we heard it.



Tunk, tunk


The centuries old sugar maple surrendering her sap to yet another assault from yet another farmer.

Empty buckets make the best noise, like a Connecticut steel-drum band, a rhythmic and tonal system all its own. I stand as still as I'm able, shushing the boys when they get impatient to find the next smell, next stick, next thing to pee on ... listening.

Now that I'm focused, I can hear tings and tunks and plonks up and down the line of tree, like neighbors talking back and forth after going away or hunkering down for the winter.

They're saying spring has come, bleeding to change the season, singing a tympanic song to the darkening day about lightness and warmth to come.

I look both ways for witnesses, crunch into the snow a few feet, lift the bucket lid, then dip a finger in and taste Spring.


Island Dreaming, and Words

My parents have fled the cold and winter storms of the Northeast for a week or two each year for the last dozen or so, and landed somewhere in Florida each time ... this year they invited me, knowing that I had the time and would probably enjoy writing outside in air that doesn't hurt my face.

I flew down the morning after a huge storm in New Hampshire, abandoning Gail and Puck and Miles to the elements, and JetBlued my way down to Fort Myers. The above shows me driving over a lovely causeway/bridge into the Sanibel and Captiva Islands Archipelago.

Yesterday was lovely from sun-up to sun-down, and I spent most of it hiding from the sun like it wanted to kill me (which it does) in a gazebo, typing and telling myself a new story, about a new world. I'm working on a Fantasy Novel titled (at the moment) "Oasis", and having fun exploring the world and characters and the trouble they get themselves into, and hopefully out of ... you can see two maps of the primary contininent of the world bracketing my Chromebook.

I drank lots of coffee, stopped for brief swims every hour or two, and kept my eyes and ears open for the promised alligators (no joy, they were in hiding apparently).

This guy sunning himself on a palm tree next to my gazebo worked hard to convince me that he was an alligator, just little (or far away ... he tried it both ways).

After my final chunk of writing for the day I took a long swim and stretch in the pool and then walked the pretty beach for a bit, finding this little shell on my way back, in a pile of discards, which for some reason made me feel badly for it.

It was a wonderful first day, I got some good writing done (although not putting up the numbers I would have liked, in a perfect world), and I'm looking forward to the next couple of days of writing and swimming and possible alligator-baiting down here in paradise, before returning to my other paradise ... home with Gail and Puck and Miles.



Sitting down to write a first draft

I'm about ready to start typing.

I've been prepping for writing my next novel, "Oasis" for a while, and it's working. My head is full of story and characters and conflict and the world in which the story will take place.

There's a map of the world (more than one, actually), and some geo-biographies about all of the major and minor provinces. I know the twenty first and second tier characters pretty well. The arc of the story is planned out in some detail (I like to signpost major points, and then let the path from point to point write itself with the help of my fingers and the lunatics living in the back of my skull). I have enough coffee on-deck and ready to go to get the Mormon Tabernacle Choir jittery until the end of winter.

Now, it's time to begin ... it's as simple, and as difficult, as that.

Stephen King was right. I've done it before, but it's still scary ... every time.

I just need to acknowledge that the planning is done, and that the time has come to start flinging words at the wall, in the hope that something worthwhile will stick.

The first draft of any story is rough and ugly and messy, but it allows you to move on to the following steps, in which you hopefully prune and graft and polish your ideas into a book that you can be proud of ... and that people enjoy reading.

I have to remind myself every time that I'm just letting the story out of my head to play for the first time: that it doesn't need to be perfect, that I can fix it in later iterations, that the worst draft on paper is better than the best story living in my head.

I don't necessarily agree with this sentiment (although who am I to disagree with Ernest?), but I like to think I understand where he was coming from, what he meant, when he said it.

Nobody writes a polished story in one draft.       Nobody.

The best you can hope for is to give a fair approximation of the story, and by exposing it to the light of day, give yourself a chance to keep working on it over time to get it over the finish line.

My job over the next several weeks, maybe months (hard to say, I've never written a fantasy novel before), is to relax into the daily chaos of writing, exploring, transcribing, inventing, documenting the adventures of a group of characters I'm still getting to know in a world that nobody has ever visited before.

I'm excited and scared and eager and ready.

Wish me luck, 



Holiday Travel and Writing

Merry Christmas, and glad tidings of whatever seasonal holidays you choose to observe, or celebrate, or ignore!

My favorite concept of giving at this time of year involves an Icelandic tradition:

Now that I've said my bit on that, without having to pronounce it, let's get to the point of this blog ....

Ben is on his Christmas break from school, and together we made a plan to return to our old stomping grounds to visit with friends, and do some skiing. I found what turned out to be a fantastic AirBnB, we've been having a great time this week, visiting the place we used to live, the Adirondacks.

This is the actual view from the kitchen table of our house. If you look closely, you can see glare from the overhead light reflecting on the window. I spent a few delightful days reading and writing here, in Wilmington, enjoying the view of the snowy field in front of me, and Whiteface in the distance (where Ben was skiing).

I've been working on my upcoming fantasy novel, "Oasis", but had a brain-worm bothering me recently, getting in the way of full immersion in the process and product. Something I read or heard or saw got me thinking about a nasty, but real, psychological experiment done at Yale a million years ago; I finally broke down and wrote a short story, taking the experiment around the bend and down the street from the, admittedly twisted, real-life occurrences surrounding the original/actual experiments.

A lovely place to write a nasty story ... literally my heart's fondest desire.

This morning started dark and stormy, but has cleared off a bit. I dropped Ben off at the mountain for a half-day of skiing, while I'm doing a bit of reading, a bit of writing, as well as the cleaning and packing associated with the end of a thoroughly pleasant, if too short, visit to a lovely place.

I'm looking forward to the New Year, and cannot wait to see what's waiting down the road.

12/22/2016, Wilmington, NY


Year's End Update and Future Plans

Since moving to New Hampshire at the end of July, I've been able to spend more time than ever working on my writing ... planning and crafting and writing and editing stories for what I had presumed was a collection of vignettes and shorts and novellas. I had also been working on a high-fantasy novel, Oasis, that I envision as the first installment in a trilogy about murder and intrigue in a magical world powered by blood. In addition to those two, I've also been doing a bit of work with preliminary plans for something partway between a cookbook and an collection of essays on my long term love-affair with food and the kitchen arts.

Imagine my surprise when in a pair of meetings, on both Friday and this morning, of the SmartPig Executive Sub-Committee on Future Planning and Activities, my Minion-in-chief told me that I've really been working on at least eight projects:

  1. A Long Line of Doors - a peek into a number of worlds of characters I enjoy, dealing with the problems that make a story worth telling
  2. Oasis - a story that begins with an infant dropped into a penal colony in the middle of a endless desert as part of the interruption/replacement of a royal family in a kingdom of magic
  3. a collection of short crime fiction
  4. a collection of stories set in a zombocalypse with a disparate array of characters coming together from all corners of the world, each struggling with different aspects of their new and broken world
  5. a novel built around Conan Crow, a detective based in Keene, NH, with whom I've fallen in love
  6. a novel built around Deb Greene, an animal control officer in Chesterfield, NH, who solves crime in the manned of Sherlock Holmes, with the help of a stray named Watson
  7. a cookbook and collection of essays exploring my love of food and kitchen-play
  8. a duo (possibly trio) of Tyler Cunningham novellas: one tying up some things suggested at the end of Thunderstruck, another exploring some Tyler relationship issues I've always wondered about, and the third (if it exists) with Tyler falling into a messy murder in northern Iceland
My wife Gail is hard at work reading her way through a pile of stories, and organizing them into multiple piles after a mix of big picture and small grammar talk about each one ... it's a lovely way to wile away a Sunday morning.

Our new home in Westmoreland, NH, is an inspiring and challenging place to live and write. I love watching morning come through the trees each day, and finding which times are best for writing in each golden spot in the new house is a pleasant way to fill the writing times.

I've enjoyed exploring the roads and paths and woods of our new digs, luxuriating in the differing sounds and scents and feel of this place, as opposed the Adirondacks, my home for the last 20 years.

Miles and Puck love the new house and life we've made in New Hampshire. They get more time with me every day (the above is a picture of them sharing a dog bed in my office in the downstairs of the new house), and are a constant source of love and light and words. They also give me an excuse to get out and walk, exploring the spaces between paved roads and human habitation.

I hope to have something to share with some beta-reading volunteers soon, and with the rest of my readers not too long after that ... Happy Holidays!

Jamie, Westmoreland, 12/4


Master Google Voice Typing With This 5 Minute Read

I had filed the experience away until a writer whose work and work ethic I admire greatly (Jonathan Maberry) posted on FB that he'd had his hand bitten by a dog, and, knowing how much he writes day to day, I replied that he should consider Google Voice Typing.

Having seen my reply, another writer got in touch and asked me some great questions about it, and when I'd answered his questions, it occurred to me that I should share my thoughts here.

Last year, while still working in a Special Education classroom, I used Google Voice Typing to great effect, both personally and with a select group of my students.

In general, I like the feedback and pacing of typing by hand, although anyone watching me type tends to cringe and gnash their teeth, watching me type mostly with four fingers and one thumb.

I had a couple of students who were hampered in their writing output by motor control or speed, lack of familiarity with the keyboard, or discomfort with the level of multitasking required when typing and thinking; for them, Voice Typing seemed like the perfect answer.

It's not perfect. It can be frustrating for people to use in the beginning, and the final product requires some checking for formatting, word selection, capitalization, but I found it incredibly useful with some of my students. Some were able to increase their writing output in a forty minute period from a sentence or two to hundreds of words, and the freedom/relief/release they felt was miraculous.

The Voice Typing tool can be found in the 'Tools' dropdown menu, and is the sixth item down, conveniently marked with a microphone icon. To use it you need a computer with access to the Internet, a Google Drive account, and a microphone.

I found that while I could use the built-in microphone in my computer, my students struggled with it, and the use of a headset reduced frustration, increased clarity, and made the whole process move more quickly and smoothly.

I bought this microphone headset with a USB plug, which worked perfectly with all of the computers in my room; my students were quickly comfortable with the headset, and appreciated how they blocked outside noise, and helped them focus on their work.

The key is for each person to find the best pace and volume for them to speak, allowing the hardware and software to get as many words as quickly as is possible. People will still have to go back through their finished documents for punctuation, word choice, and the like, but Google has provided a guide to help users get the most out of Google Voice Typing.

If you have further questions, please get in touch with through the comments on this blog, or via email at jsheffield@gmail.com




No longer my home, but ....

My son Ben and I drove up to the Adirondacks to spend a week with my parents at Camp. It was the first time in 20 years that they weren't essentially coming to visit me; the first time I didn't live up here, there, in the Adirondacks.

It felt bizarre driving through the woods that I know so well, but it not being my home. A year ago, I would have said that I'd always be here, always be an Adirondacker.

I think I will be ... the connection is too strong to severed by virtue of my mailing address. 

I can feel the roads and paths and ponds and swamps all around me, as I drive and walk and paddle; just as with my fictional character Tyler Cunningham, I can see the map of places and events and feelings at all times, making me feel grounded, even in a place that's no longer quite home.

While I was driving yesterday, we turned off the Northway at exit 29, and cut through a particularly quiet part of the park between the open grave of Frontier Town and the sleepy near-nothing of Newcomb, so we could stop at a market my mother loves in Tupper Lake for meat for the grill (my specialty and primary duty when at camp). I took a shortcut at one point on an unmarked road that my GPS didn't show, and my son asked how I knew where to go.

It was odd, trying to explain ... the map, or directional markers/beacons in my head. I've read about pigeons having small magnetized pellets in their head, which help them homing; it must be the same with me.

Ben and I were the first to arrive at camp yesterday afternoon, as we normally are (I hate being late, and like being at the lake, and so it goes), and we spent the next few hours in a gentle and accustomed process of putting away too much food, hugging it out with family as they arrived, smelling the woods and water, swimming with dogs, going to bed at a ridiculously early hour.

This morning, I was the first up (another camp tradition), and sitting on the outside steps with my first cup of coffee (note the descriptor 'first'), I thought about my place in the world ... my new place in the world.

I live in New Hampshire ... what a strange quintet of words. I'm an Adirondacker, I write Adirondack mysteries, how can I live in New Hampshire?

The answer is, of course, that place is temporary and temporal. I live in New Hampshire, but the Adirondacks live in me. I have a perfect record of my version of the Park in my head, complete with sights and sounds and smells and tastes and the way it all feels (weak sun on pale skin,  lakewater drying off me absent a towel, picnic grit in the bite of a sandwich ... all of it).

I didn't come up to this camp on Upper Saranac with my family to say goodbye to the Adirondacks (or to bury Caesar), but to reacquaint myself with a lifelong friend in a slightly different way.

My mail goes to a house in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, but when I'm asleep (or awake) and dreaming of Tyler, my mind goes to these woods, these waters, these dark and lonely places that first grabbed my soul when I was six months old.

It's not my home, but it's something big, something important, something that will be in me wherever I am, wherever I live.

Anyway, enough meandering/maunderingfor the moment ... SmartPig and I are moving forward, in either place (really in both). The summer has been busy and disruptive, both physically and mentally, but now I'm ready to get back to the work (and play) of writing.

  • I'm working on a collection of short pieces that I hope to release in January
  • I'm starting work on a book about food and cooking (nearly a cookbook, but not quite, both more and less)
  • I'm having fun building the world and people and rules for magic in the world of "Oasis", the high-fantasy novel I'll be writing over the winter
  • A few Tyler Cunningham stories are still kicking around in my head, and may find their way out this winter ... either as novellas, or in the form of an outline for a novel
  • I'm producing a podcast, the first episode of which should be out later this week
Thanks for waiting, and I'll see you in the woods!