Skip to content

J. M. Butler Posts

A Sad Conclusion to a Difficult Week

It has been a difficult week. I can’t go into all the details because of others’ privacy and family requests, but several individuals who meant quite a great deal to me and to my family passed away. Some in accidents. Some from cancer. The culmination in this week came on Thursday when I came down to discover my beloved little Attila was dead.

Three years ago, my husband and I purchased two orphan gerbils from different pet shops in celebration of our marriage and the start of our final year in law school. Attila was a slim blond gerbil with a white underbelly and large black eyes. He had a fierce disposition, and it took me almost two weeks to train him to come onto my hand without nipping me. At first, he dominated his adopted brother, Ghengis. We had to keep them separate for almost two months, trying to introduce them slowly. Playing with them. Holding them.

We split the large glass tank with chicken wire so that they could sniff each other and get used to one another’s scent. On weekends, we put them in a large tub with dried white sand to let them dig and play. By the end of the second month, the two were fast friends, though Attila was always the leader.

He was quite healthy as well. In fact, his strength proved to be a bit of a problem as he would often rearrange the tank in hazardous ways. He never showed any signs of illness, but on August 14, I found him on his side, motionless. As soon as I saw him, I knew he had passed. He was over three years old, and I had just cared for him the night before. I hope that it was quick and painless. His little body had already gone cold when James and I wrapped him up and took him out for burial.

Ghengis did not cope well with the death. Ghengis was always quieter and more timid than Attila, though he was a little fighter in his own right. When we found him at the pet store, he was a little on the sickly side. According to the pet shop worker, he had been alone for a couple weeks, which really isn’t good for gerbils. Someone had bought up two of his brothers, but she didn’t have room for a third gerbil. (On a side note, if you are ever purchasing gerbils, please don’t ever just leave one behind. It can be so challenging to reintroduce them to other gerbils, and yet they are social creatures.) The worker might have been playing on my sympathies, but regardless, we took little Ghengis home. He was about half Attila’s side with dark brown fur on the top with a black undercoat and grey stomach. His black eyes were a bit softer than Attila’s, but he was just as smart.

He swiftly decided that he liked being snuggled. It only took a few days to convince him that sitting on a hand was an excellent way to receive sunflower seeds and yogurt chips, two of his favorites. For the first few weeks, he was quite intimidated by Attila, yet he often crept along the side of the chicken wire to curl up alongside him while Attila slept. Though at first Attila responded harshly on the other side of the wire, he soon stooped protesting.

Sadly, little Ghengis struggled with his stomach for most of his life. The scent glands gerbils have on their stomachs sometimes become enflamed, and they may even rupture. Over the past few months, Ghengis’s glands had become severely enflamed, bleeding and seeping. We took him to the vet to get the necessary medication. He took it well. Whenever he lay down to sleep, particularly when he was recovering from the fever, Attila curled up on top of him and kept him warm. It seemed like Ghengis was recovering. But two days before Attila died, Ghengis stopped eating.

I couldn’t tempt him with anything. Yogurt chips and sunflower seeds no longer drew his attention. Attila had never enjoyed special treats, but that had been the one guaranteed way to draw Ghengis out from the lower tunnels. When I found Attila in the tank, Ghengis sat in the corner next to him, hunched up, his little head bowed.

After we returned from buying Attila, Ghengis became even more withdrawn. He retreated into an empty oatmeal container and refused to come out for food or anything. Even when it was time to give him his medicine, I couldn’t retrieve him. He remained in hiding for a full day, and I allowed it. I knew he needed to grieve, and I knew from talking to other gerbil owners that the loss of a cage mate is particularly traumatizing. But when the following day rolled around, I knew he had to be treated.

When I at last coaxed Ghengis out, he could barely walk. He had been chewing on his paws and his stomach. He’d also scratched his eye. My heart dropped when I saw him. He seemed to have deteriorated overnight. Tears choking me, I called the vet at once and then prepared a small box. Deep down, I knew what this meant. James scooped him up, and we took him to the vet.

The vet told us what we already feared. Ghengis needed to be put down. Even though he had not eaten for only a few days, he had lost too much weight. That alone he might have returned from, but the biting and the stomach injuries were just too severe. I tried to hold Ghengis to comfort him, but he bit me five times. James tried to hold him then, but Ghengis bit him twice. (It really wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Ghengis wasn’t strong enough to do much more than slightly cut the skin.)

The vet held him and gave him the injection. Then he let me comfort Ghengis. All I could do was rub his head. But it was like I was saying goodbye to both Ghengis and Attila at once. It only took a couple minutes. And holding him to say goodbye, I felt myself starting to break.

Objectively, there’s no reason why this little bundle of fur should have been what broke me down. After all, I have watched others buried this week, received disappointing news that will have a far greater impact on mine and my family’s long term plans. Yet somehow…holding that tiny corpse made me weep more than anything else. I had been strong through everything else. Through writing the tributes, comforting the families, and reminiscing over old times as well as imagining the times never to be had. Maybe it’s because those points weren’t about me. There were other people there who needed to grieve and who were in far more pain. But when dealing with Ghengis and Attila, it was just my husband, myself, and the vet in a little sterile room.

Doctor Who and Second Chances

Today has been a busy day, filled with cleaning, reading, sorting, and more. The best part of the more was that James and I finally got to start Doctor Who Season 7 on Netflix. As far as Netflix goes, it’s hard to wait for them to get the series updated, but when they do, the wonderful thing is getting to do a mass marathon. After James and I have children, we probably won’t be able to do this. But for now, we’re enjoying it.

And so, as it has been months since we’ve seen a new Doctor Who episode and months spent avoiding all the spoilers, it has been such a treat to watch this season. The funny thing is that when Matt Smith first became the doctor, I did not like him that much. My heart was still with David Tennant. It wasn’t just the fact that he was a great actor with tremendous enthusiasm. The way that the Tenth Doctor ended made me so sad. His final words, in particular, almost guaranteed that I would be set against the new doctor, no matter how amazing he was. Add to that the fact that Matt Smith was quite distinct from David Tennant and the tone of the show changed along with his arrival, and I struggled.
James felt the same way. We were in our third year in law school when we got to see the first Matt Smith episode of Doctor Who. My immediate reaction was that it was not as good. It just didn’t feel right. The whole fairy tale theme felt off to me, and Amy Pond and Rory Williams, though having potential, just didn’t grab me he same way as some of the other companions did. In fact, that particular season of Doctor Who actually had more episodes than usual that I actively disliked.
Yet, for whatever the reason, I have this odd compulsion to finish things. Even television series I’m not that fond of. And then I have to watch at least the first couple episodes to see if I like it better the next time through (unless it’s just unbearable, which is what Attack on Titans was for me). So I watched all of Season 5. My husband and I agreed that it wasn’t as good as the previous ones, but…still, I had to give this epic series a second chance. So I did, and, not surprisingly, I liked it even more.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that Season 5 is perfect any more than the previous seasons were. And there are still a handful of episodes that I dislike. At the same time though, I have worked my way through the subsequent seasons, and now as I am watching Season 7 (and actually quite enjoying it), I am realizing how much I will miss Matt Smith as the doctor. In fact, right now, it’s just about time for Amy and Rory to say farewell, and I just realized how attached I am to them.
What’s incredible is the way that a character (just as much as an actor portraying a character) can grow on one. I never expected to get so emotionally wrapped up in these particular characters. Not every character can achieve this. And not every character will have that effect on every viewer. But when it does happen, it is something special. And I am happy to be along for the ride.

Mermaid Bride Completed

Two days ago, I completed the rough draft for Mermaid Bride. What was intended to just be a short story of no more than 8,000 words turned into a novella. It’s over 30,000 now, and I suspect that by the time I am done editing and revising it, it will be closer to 40,000 or 50,000.

It’s funny the way that that happens. It seems that once I get into a story, the story starts to unfold. The characters want to come out and play. The Banshee Queen was supposed to only be a minor character. The conflict between Ishana and Vishtan was supposed to be quite brief. In fact, I really wanted that focal point to be on Ishana and Uaso. They do remain at the core, of course. But Ishana’s choice and the struggle that she faces becomes so much more important in this.

The story itself is not so simple as it once was. In fact, it wound up going full circle in some respects. Ishana started off as a rather bland character for me to become a kind of character that I had never worked with before.

It was fun working in the Ethiopian and Syrian cultural flavors. It does bother me that a number of my readers thought I was just being creative in the descriptions when in fact I’ve drawn inspiration from another culture. So I will try to make that clearer throughout the revision.

Regardless, Mermaid Bride turned out to be far more of a joy to write than I anticipated. Even though it kept getting longer and longer, it expanded in ways that added to the story rather than dragging it down. The next project I will likely start after this is A Single Glance as part of the Celtic Princess Tour. We shall see if it takes off, but I’m thrilled to dig into it again.

That Low Point You Feel


Sometimes it’s just hard being a writer. You pour yourself into the stories you’re writing, mold the worlds, craft the characters, and give it your all. Then you set that little story out into the world, hoping that maybe…just maybe it’s good enough to do something. And inevitably, someone will dislike it. Someone may hate it. Or…perhaps the one that hurts the most, they’ll read it, and they just won’t care one way or the other.

And often it seems that those readers and their comments show up on the same day when everything else is going bad. When your car breaks down. When a pay check gets lost in the mail. When you accidentally slam your pinky finger in the door because you weren’t paying attention.

And at that low point, you may find yourself wondering, why do I try? And it’s a fair question. Artistic individuals pour their souls into their work. It is a labor of love.

So what do you do? You pick yourself up. You remember why you write what you write. At this point, the desire for fame and fortune alone aren’t going to be enough to carry you through. Not at the lowest point. Not when you’re fighting depression or anxiety or fear. So write it down. Put it somewhere you will see it.

And now comes the hard part. Look at that comment or feedback and determine whether it’s a fair assessment. Is it a true weakness of the story? Is there something that you have failed to do? While it could be that the reader just wasn’t in your target audience, you should at least consider it. And if you realize it’s a weakness, then you fix it.

It’s hard. But when that low point hits, you have to keep going. Maybe you’ll need to take a little break, or perhaps even a longer one. But you need to make sure that you get back and you get going. The low point won’t last forever. One day, it will leave.

Forging Ahead When Discouraged and Depressed

Effective writing requires pouring out your soul onto the page. Over the years, I’ve often struggled with depression. And I don’t just mean feeling down or low. That happens regularly. It’s a battle to stay above those lines sometimes. Depression itself is more than just a sad mood or a down mood. It is soul sucking and draining at an entirely different level, one that sometimes feels as if it will never go away.

Sometimes I wonder if the reason that this becomes such an enormous issue is because as writers we must constantly pour out our hearts and souls into the pages, and we never know whether we are doing it well. Then when feedback does come, it’s often brief or negative. And few things hurt more than the realization that perhaps what you did was not the best or perhaps you did not do as well as you thought or perhaps you failed entirely.

Yet the thing that seems most important to me in all this is pushing on through those low points. I know I’ll be writing about that again soon. It’s frustrating to run into a reader who just doesn’t get your story or who just doesn’t enjoy it. That’s to be expected, but it doesn’t make it any more enjoyable. This is more of a rambling post, so my apologies.

But when you’re feeling down and depressed, take a break if you must. But make sure that you forge on ahead. Don’t let the grief, weariness, depression, or discouragement stop you from forging on.

Engaging the Senses

It took me quite awhile to realize one of the secrets for engaging prose, and it turned out that the secret was to engage all the senses. In storytelling, sight and sound often feature heavily in the descriptions. After all, they are the primary senses used in absorbing a new situation. Particularly if you’re telling someone about them.

But one of the big things in memory and sensory connection involves the other three senses: scent, taste, and touch. In terms of overall effect, I’ve found that scent is probably one of the most powerful to introduce. In many respects, it’s changed the way I even look at scenes. I find myself asking what would be the first thing I would smell. It makes an enormous difference, and those little details tend to make the scene so much more vivid.

It’s tricky to do this in fantasy sometimes. The fruits, flowers, vegetables, spices, and so forth may not be the same as the ones here on Earth. In fact, in a good fantasy world, there will probably be a number of new scents. It’s important to work these in with other scents that the readers will recognize. After all, who would know what yen blossoms smell like? I know what they smell like in my head, but the truth is my readers won’t. I have to make sure that I convey this to my readers. That means I have one of two options. I can either describe the scent in detail when it’s appropriate, or I can use a scent that my readers will be able to imagine such as pumpkin spice or rose.

Obviously, you don’t want to overindulge on the olfactory. After all, it can only do so much, and it’s hard to find synonyms for smell, scent, and so forth. And it’s important not to filter the narrative. But with the proper balance, scent can be a powerful asset.

Death of a Beloved Character


For me, one of the hardest things to do is kill off a beloved character, but sometimes, there’s just no other choice. Sometimes the plot simply demands it.

This isn’t giving away too much of Tue-Rah Identity Revealed but there is a minor spoiler. Cohsaw dies. He actually dies in the second chapter, and…guess what…he stays dead.

For a lot of readers, this is probably more of a sad event. It’s not that big of a deal. The fact is that they don’t really know him at this point. They’ll get to know him more as the story goes along, but at the point of his death, he’s a casualty of the villains. But for me, killing off Cohsaw was heartbreaking. I sobbed.

See, as a writer, I know everything about Cohsaw. I know that his favorite color is blue. I know that he hates eating carrots and ibza roots, but he does because he believes it makes him stronger. I know he has a crush on Opali, a Machat girl who is three years older than him. And I know that the thing he wants most is to make his dad, one of the most proficient and well known prophets of the Machat, proud. He’s a young man of deep principles and convictions, and his commonsense doesn’t always shine through. When he believes that something needs to be done, he does it.

All of these little things add to his character for me. I know that he has a little scar on the inside of his elbow from when he tried to cut out some of his Machat markings and failed. And the reader is never going to know most of these details.

But I don’t think that that makes the details wasted in any sense. After all, I know these things about him, and, even if I don’t explain them, they’re implied. Little details tend to work their way into a story without the writer even realizing it. They provide information for the overall flavor. They say that only 90 percent of the worldbuilding ever goes through. That may be the case.

The one thing that is true is that when you invest so much in the creation of these characters, their deaths become so much more intense and painful. I wanted to save Cohsaw. I wanted him to be able to have that happy future that I wanted for him. But he never will. He needed to die to move the plot forward. And just because it’s painful doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to happen. So here’s to Cohsaw and all the other beloved characters that writers have to off. It’s one of the hardest things, but may it always improve the story.

Creating Worlds in Stories (Just Rambling)

One of my favorite parts of writing fantasy and science fiction is the creation of the world. It’s nothing like what God did, obviously. But just trying to envision this world, the different people who will live within it, the fauna, the flora, and so much more.

Often it feels like a conflict between being logical and creative. The creative part of my mind wants to go abstract and flowing, throwing together all of these different concepts and images for the overall look and feel. But the logical part demands that they make sense.

For instance, in Tue-Rah, I have several invented races including the Vawtrians, Machat, and Neyeb in addition to humans (referred to in the series as Awdawms).  The Vawtrians are a race of shapeshifters, but the trickiest part was evaluating what kind of world they would come from that would lead to the culture that I want them to have. They are brutal and fierce, but at the same time, they hold civilization and law in high regard because they are determined to avoid the appearance of animals in as many respects as possible. Shapeshifting forms the core of their culture.

So this is just a rambling post looking at what I love with it. It’s not just about feeling and beauty, but logic can have its place. I’m still getting used to this whole posting and just getting in the habit. I guess the takeaway would be have fun creating and don’t be afraid to ask the questions for why things are the way that they are in your fantasy world.


Bitterness is one of the things I hate to see in writers, both as a reader and as a fellow writer. It’s a thousand times worse when it’s combined with ego.

Lately, I’ve been seeing a number of writers bemoaning the standards in the writing world, the state of the publishing world in general, and the overall stupidity of readers. Everyone needs a place to vent. The risk of venting online is that those ventings can last forever. The other risk of perpetual venting is that resentment and bitterness may start to grow. Rather than purging the negative emotions, it can sometimes cause them to fester. By letting them out, these negative feelings are then reinforced and brought back in.

Here’s the deal. The writing world is not fair. I can’t think of any place that is fair. The publishing world has developed a series of standards that are intended first and foremost to bring in money. While that might seem to some like it’s spitting in the face of the art form, it’s actually not. Publishers want to make money, sure. But they have to have money to get the books out there. And while on the author end, I get why it’s so frustrating that a publisher isn’t willing to take a chance, no writer deserves to be published without earning it. And someone has to care for the business.

The problem comes when bitterness sucks the joy from the writing process. Writing is hard work. Finding an audience is a hard work. Most writers will never be recognized for their abilities, and not everyone with a platform deserves one for the quality of her writing. But bitterness does nothing more than weaken us as writers. When I let bitterness take hold of me, it does nothing but ruin my enjoyment of the craft.

From a reader’s perspective, it makes me uneasy about connecting with that author. The writers whom I am most loyal to, aside from the greats, are those writers who I have connected with personally. Whether their works will stand the test of time like Lord of the Rings or Treasure Island remains to be seen, but I am loyal to them because I have gotten to know them as individuals. Bitter people make me uneasy because they are often just looking for someone to spew their venom on. And so if I am reading a writer’s blog or commentary on a site, I sometimes take note if they seem excessively bitter, and I make it a point to avoid those individuals. That sort of sentiment typically bleeds through into the writing itself, and it can be remarkably offputting.

Again this isn’t meant to criticize those who need to vent. It hurts. It’s painful. Writing is so difficult. And sometimes we just need to let that out. But don’t let the bitterness remain. It can be devastating.

Day One of A – Z Challenge: Introduction Authentic Writing

So I heard about the A – Z Challenge, and, since I’ve been putting this off long enough, I decided to do it.

This is a huge step for me because I’m such a perfectionist that I didn’t want to start writing regularly on my blog until I had the site all up and developed the way I wanted it to be. And it certainly isn’t. Every day, I’m working on it a little bit, though I’m getting to the point where I may just need to hire someone. Still, I’d really like to learn how to do it.

Perfectionism is one of my weaknesses. It’s not so much the fact that I am a perfectionist as the fact that I allow that desire for perfection to derail my goals and projects. I have revised some short stories more than 40 times. I get frustrated because I keep finding mistakes. Having a desire to do my best isn’t a bad thing. Most people have that. But when the determination to do the best and to be perfect becomes a roadblock, it has to be stopped.

I have to accept that I sometimes make numerous mistakes that I can’t catch. No matter how many times I check. Perhaps it’s there to keep me humble. Perhaps I’m just blind to a certain number of errors, lol. I don’t know. But the good thing is that mistakes can be corrected. I’ll still do my best, but I’ll recognize that doing my best does not necessarily mean that it is going to be perfect on the first go through.

So the theme for this month’s posts will be on authentic and organic writing, writing that reads as if it comes straight out of the soul while still being understandable, creative, and engaging.


%d bloggers like this: