I’ll be teaching a class

Hey, peeps!

As some of you found out last week, I’ve got some stuff in the hopper, some stuff comin’ up, and a new novella for your (hopefully) reading pleasure. Here, in case you missed that info.

I will also be attending the GCLS conference in Dallas this June. I’ll be on a panel and doing some chat stuff and all that good stuff. Oh, here’s the schedule, so you can see what’s up.

Yes, that’s me, there, teaching a master class. Not that I’m a “mas-tah” type, mind you. That’s just what these kinds of things are called. So I thought I’d provide a little bit o’ info for you, so you can see what this class is all about.

It’s called “Setting at the End of the World.” Uh-huh. One of those cryptic Andi things. Here’s the description:

Setting is part of the infrastructure of fiction narrative. Setting can determine plot arc, characterization, and subplots. The WHERE of a story is, in a sense, another character, because it can play into regional differences, the culture behind a character’s motivations and identity, and the parameters of actions that characters can take.

Authors can overlook it or don’t use its potential in their work. They take it for granted (easy to do, people. Don’t think I haven’t, either), and don’t observe the things that go on even in the every day places around them. Therefore, what I encourage authors to do — those who are just starting out and those who have been at it for a while — is to take an extreme scenario and use that as a backdrop to practice character sketches and plot outlines.

An extreme setting gets people out of their usual place, both literally and figuratively, and encourages them to pick its elements apart and apply those lessons to the settings with which they’re more comfortable.

So in this class, we’ll be working with a post-apocalyptic setting on Earth and explore how something like that can affect characters, their relationships with each other and the world around them, and the overall narrative structures and plot arcs of the fictional scenarios we come up with during the session. When we’re done, I hope to have demonstrated how important setting can be as an element in fiction, and ways to effectively integrate it into story-telling. I also hope to stimulate the powers of observation of those who participate, so that they take that with them back to their writing with which they can create deeper, richer layers for their narratives.

There you go. Sound groovy? Well, if you’re going to be at GCLS, hope you check it out.

Otherwise, happy writing, happy reading, happy Monday!

Ah, the importance of editors

Hi, fellow readers and writers! And assorted peeps!

I’ve been on the road for a few days. When I travel, I take books. Actual paperbacks. OMG, like, I must be some kind of antique! Don’t worry, I also take my Kindle, but I generally have at least 1 paperback, usually 2. This time, I had 5, because I was going to be on the road for a few days.

Anyway, I had a couple of thrillers by a writer I enjoy reading, an urban fantasy by another writer I enjoy reading, and two novels by urban fantasy authors new to me. All of these paperbacks are published by mainstream houses, big imprints.

One of my writing colleagues says that when you read a novel and all of its parts are working as they should (plot, characterization, dialogue, narrative style), then you don’t stop reading. You flow with the text from beginning to end (maybe stopping to re-read something because it was really cool or really struck you). But if the parts aren’t working, you’ll know because it’s like hitting a pothole when you’re driving. Or coming to a traffic light where you sit for a while.

And that’s exactly what happened while reading one of the books by an urban fantasy author whose work I didn’t know.

The things that interrupt my reading flow are the dreaded “telling and not showing,” stilted dialogue, plot holes, and misspellings. Typos I can understand because I’m an editor, and I get that not everything will be caught. We do the best we can, but a few get through. I can forgive a typo here and there in a book. However, misspellings are another matter. An editor needs to know how to spell and which form of a word is correct. In one of these books, editors dropped the ball. In the other, they let a couple things slip through. Editing is, in some ways, an art. But like any art, it requires extensive knowledge of writing and grammatical mechanics. Editors need to be painstaking in their work. They need to be detail-oriented. And sometimes, that just doesn’t happen. Even at the big houses.


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What the X-Files taught me about series

Hey, Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who engage in this American holiday.

I’m not really big on the holidays (as in Thanksgiving-Christmas), as some of you know, but I do enjoy the bit of time off I can take to catch up on my chillaxin’.

So I took yesterday off and basically freebased over half of Season 1 of the X-Files. I’m up to episode 15 (there are 24). It’s been years since I’ve watched the series, and though the costumes, hairstyles (and shut up, but I’m trying to bring back Mulder’s look), cars, and technology are dated (season 1 premiered in 1993), the writing and characters remain strong. Not every episode, mind you. There were some episodes that just didn’t work (like this one; sorry Chris Carter. Just. . .no.), but for the most part, it remains a strong show with episodes that still creep me out.

source (re-sized here)

Basically, if you want to write a series — any series — and keep it going for a long time, use the X-Files as a potential model. Not in terms of what actually the show is about, but rather how its infrastructure is put together.

Continue on for my ode to the X-Files. . .

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How-to writing books

Hi, kids–

One of the ironies of writing is that we tend to read other writers’ guides on how to write. And we should, because there are some really good writing guides out there. It’s important to have guides on hand to grammar and punctuation, guides that help us figure out infrastructure, and tips that we can implement in our own writing to take our games to the next level. And then there are inspirational writing guides that can make you feel warm and fuzzy after you’ve had writing issues.

So here are a few of my suggestions.

For mystery writers, check out Chris Roerden‘s Don’t Murder Your Mystery (that link will also show you another of her great guides, Don’t Sabotage Your Submission). The tips in that book you can use for other genres, as well.

Looking to write more descriptively? Try Rebecca McClanahan‘s Word Painting. It includes instruction and exercises, as well as examples from the masters, classic and contemporary.

Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s already on its 10th anniversary. Part memoir, part guide, this handy toolkit will address just about everything you need in your bag o’ writing tricks. The fundamentals, my friends. Plus, it’s a warm, intimate look at King’s early life and how he himself approaches writing. But don’t just listen to me. Go check out the link.

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones (originally published in 1986, but it was updated in 2005). This is sort of a “Zen and the art of liberating your inner writer” kinda book. Might not be everyone’s style, but it’s a different approach and delves into creativity and its potential spiritual elements.

Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. It does not matter that this book first started life as an in-house writing guide for college students in 1918 by Cornell’s William Strunk. Nor does it matter that this pup got new life in 1959 when E.B. White revised Strunk’s 1935 edition. It’s freakin’ timeless, this book, and addresses things like the most misspelled words, common word usage errors, and proper punctuation. The book does have its critics, but it’s a nice brick to have in your writing framework.

Also get on over to Keith Cronin‘s recent blog over at Writer Unboxed to see his list of suggestions for writing guides. We overlap in a couple of places, but that’s okay. I like his list and I’m going to take his suggestions on a couple of things.

And here’s a list by Jon Winokur over at HuffPo (from 2010, but that’s quite okay).

Hopefully, that’ll get you started. Happy reading, happy writing!

More processing

I was reading the latest issue of Writer’s Digest (I highly recommend you try a subscription to this mag — it usually contains good writing and promo tips for authors plus interviews with authors) and came across an interview with Andre Dubus III, who wrote The House of Sand and Fog (among many others). The film based on that book was an Oscar nominee. The book itself was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Dubus is a larger-than-life kinda guy. Boston brawler born, who looks like the literary love child of John Mellencamp and Kurt Russell (that’s Zachary Petit’s description and I agree), he’s comfortable sharing a laugh and a pint as well as writing these intensely dark and poignant stories that leave us wrung out, alone, and wondering where the good is in being human. He taps the deep and lives his truth, which may be why his writing resonates with so many.

How does he do it? I like to find out about other writers’ processes. That is, the actual mechanical things they do to prepare for a writing session. Here’s Dubus’ process, from the article in Writer’s Digest:

“Andre Dubus III is both artist and businessman. It’s methodical: Every morning, Dubus wakes up and takes his kids to school (he lives in Massachusetts with his wife, who is a professional dancer, and two of his three children). He returns home. It’s empty of everyone except the dog. He takes a cup of black dark roast coffee down to the basement, where he’s built a 5-by-11 sound-proofed room. He sits at a desk in front of a blank wall, types the previous day’s longhand writing into the computer, then turns the machine off. He sharpens a pencil with a knife, reads three or four poems — for ‘the high bar of language that poets always give us prose writers’ — and then stares at the page.

‘I try to put myself in a state of openness and receptivity and not try to say anything and not think it, but dream it. And then I pick up where I left off.’

He writes for two to three hours, goes to the gym to clear his head (he still works out ‘like a demon’), and that’s it.

When it comes to creating a piece of writing, Dubus believes the story has to percolate in our mind — and that you shouldn’t write it too early.

‘There’s a profound difference between making something up and imagining it,’ he says. ‘Imagining it instead is falling into your psyche, your imagination, and finding some aspiring writer asks him a career question, he says he gets uncomfortable — he’s happy to help, but wants to know if the person has done the real work first: painstakingly crafted the words.”
From “Meet the Real Andre Dubus III,” by Zachary Petit (Writer’s Digest, July/August 2012), p. 43.

The interview itself is not available on the Writer’s Digest site unless you’re a subscriber (it’s in the print version, though), but you can get some of Dubus’ other words of wisdom from the site HERE.

So, writers. What’s your process? Does it seem to work? Would you change it if you thought it would open new windows for you? Just curious.

Happy Sunday.

Groovy Writing Links!

Hi, kids–

Got some groovy linkage here you might find useful for your writing and publishing selves.

Keith Cronin tells us: DARE TO SUCK! Great advice, because all writers (at least all the ones I know) go through a phase where everything they write or try to write feels like it’s no better than drunken monkey poo thrown liberally across greasy burger wrappers. That’s okay! Write it anyway! Or skip the scene that’s giving you nervous hives and write another one. The important thing is to keep writing, because you need that momentum (and if you want to find out more about Keith, click here).

Lydia Sharp says: It’s okay to watch movies and TV shows! Cuz you can learn cool things that translate into fiction writing! I agree. Catch her post about 5 ways novelists can benefit from doing that. And find more Lydia here.

Meg Wolitzer at the New York Times gives us some food for thought about the state of women’s fiction and women writing fiction. Go see. And find out more about Meg Wolitzer here.

The problem of knock-off ebooks at Amazon (that is, copy-cat books based on legitimate titles that Amazon posts). Check the comment thread, too, on that one. I guess my question on that one would be: If you know the title and author of the book you want, why would you buy a knock-off with a slightly different title/author? Hmmm.

And Stevie Carroll has a discussion about female friendships in fiction going over at Women and Words. Readers, you might want to check that out and offer suggestions to Stevie and others about books that have female friendships. Find Stevie at her LiveJournal here.

All right, friends. Happy reading, happy writing, and happy Tuesday! And please do feel free to provide links you think will benefit us here in The Situation Room in the comments. Cheers!

I’m processing, here…

Hi, kids!

Writers talk quite a bit about “process.” Basically, your process involves the methods you employ to churn out that book/story/script/whatever you’re working on. Every writer’s process is different, so don’t freak out if you find out some writer somewhere does something like makes painstakingly detailed outlines and character sketches and that’s not something you do so oh, my god, maybe you’re doing this writing all wrong and holy crap you’re going to start keeping SRSLY outta control detailed notes and organize them alphabetically/chronologically because YES that must be how it’s done. And so on and so forth.

Point being, that might not be what works for you, though I, too, have had those moments where I think that I must be doing this writing thing wrong, because I don’t do X, Y, or Z or I do something that some other writer doesn’t do. I learned, over time, this important statement:


That is, you do what works for you. Process and work = two sides of the same coin.

With that in mind, I leave you with Joe Bunting, at The Write Practice, who has provided Jack Kerouac’s 31 Beliefs About Writing.

Happy travels!

Driven to detraction

I was thinking today about how writing can be an exercise in beating your head against a wall sometimes. You think that you’ve come so far since your fledgling steps into the mysterious world of craft and wordage, and then you read something that completely blows your mind and you wonder why the heck you can’t write like that yet, though you’ve been doing all the things you need to do.

You attend workshops. Maybe you have a writers’ group. You’ve got a good editor who works with you and you send bits of your manuscripts to writers you suspect are better than you to provide feedback and guidance. You read writing guide books, you do exercises in infrastructure and narrative, you maybe see a sort of evolution in your own pages, you get all the feedback you can, you develop a self-editor, and you study structure.

And then you read something so mind-bogglingly lovely that it leaves you both wallowing in appreciation and feeling as if you just got kicked in the teeth.

A few months back I shared a bit of writing on a social media website that I thought was exquisitely rendered and I posted a comment about how I was going back to the drawing board, so that I could get better, and perhaps approach the level of writing that the piece I had shared demonstrated to me. Somebody else commented right after that in response to me (and I’m paraphrasing here) that no matter how hard I tried, I would never write the way the author of the piece I’d shared would, that I would basically never attain it.

That comment stuck first in my craw and then in the back of my mind. Writers are a sensitive lot, after all.

But I came to understand something in the wake of that comment. No, I will never write like the author of the piece I so admired, for the simple reason that I am someone else, with a different style and narrative voice. I can’t say whether I will attain the level of craftsmanship and wordsmithing that I thought this other author approached, because my view in this matter may be subjective, and some out there will most likely think this other author isn’t all that, anyway.

That’s the other thing I took away from that comment. Not everything I write will resonate with everyone (it obviously hasn’t with that commenter), but that’s okay. I’m not necessarily writing for everyone. I’m writing the stories in my head, as I see them, and I’m striving to tell them in the best possible way that I can, through the alchemy of craft and voice. I know craft can improve with practice and attention, and I know that in that journey, somewhere, is my writer’s voice. Where it takes me remains to be seen.

Happy Tuesday.

And for a supercalifragilistic blog on “voice” and finding it, click here.

Characters and historical context

Hey, kids!

I heard a story on NPR on Saturday (yeah, I’m a geek. I listen to NPR on the weekends!) about the approaching “cashless society.” This dude tried an experiment, where he didn’t use cash for two months. He has a smart phone with the apps that allow you to purchase things with the codes, and he liked the ease of not carrying cash around, but some things, he noted, needed cash. For example, tipping. He ended up having to stiff people, and that really bothered him. And he also noted that some people still prefer the anonymity of cash when making purchases, and he acknowledged that with cash, there are no hidden fees. It is what it is.

The story got me thinking. I still carry cash for tips and small purchases, and “just in case.” I never travel without cash, and I never leave the house without at least a few bucks and some change. Call me weird. It’s how I grew up, and it’s a habit I’ve refused to break.

So what does this have to do with writing characters? Well, click on and find out!

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