Tag Archives: writing

Six Short Story Traps and Quick Escapes, Plus a Giveaway

By Lori DeBoer

Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.” Henry nailed it; writing short is more challenging than writing long. There is promise and magic inherent in the short story, but there are common common traps that waylay unwary writers.

Many traps are caused by the form itself. Short stories create a sense of mystery, because their small footprint requires them to allude to larger themes, rather than hitting readers squarely over the head with them. Short story writers should look for the epiphany, the transcendent moment. A strong piece of short writing almost always focuses on a moment of profound realization, of creating that singular, atmospheric effect.

As V.S. Pritchett noted, a short story is “something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.”

Joseph O’Connor, writing in Dublin in 1997 in his introduction to his Fish Anthology: Dog Days and Other Stories, had this to say about the form: “The short story is one of the greatest, most challenging, most infuriating forms of literature. They look so easy! That’s the thing about really good short stories. They don’t read like they were written. They read like they simply grew on the page. When we read the work of a short story maestro like Joyce or Frank O’Connor or Richard Ford or Alice Munro or Mary Lavin, we think, yes, there is just a rightness about that sentence, that image, that line of speech. But anyone who has ever tried to write a short story will know just how tough it is to hit that reverberating note, to say something – anything at all – worthwhile about the human condition, in five thousand words or less. It’s hard.”

The shorter the piece, the more perfect and polished it must be. That’s why many writers come to short stories later in their careers. Writing in this genre requires a sense of precision; everything counts, nothing is extraneous or by chance. A short piece of fiction at once a work of art, as closely related to poetry as it is to its long cousin, the novel. Yet, it still must still contain elements of story.

With these parameters, it’s relatively easy for a newbie writer to go astray, but it’s also easier for a beginner to fix short pieces. Let’s talk about some traps that imperil the untutored writer.

 

The trap of writing too large

A good short story is concise, I repeat, and creates a singular effect. For example, Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories create a sense of dissonance and eerie unease in the reader. Kevin Brockmeier’s short stories rely on a punchy absurdity with profound moments of realization. Antonia Nelson’s short stories contrast everyday reality with points of pain and crisis. Beginners go awry by trying to say too much. They cram too many story lines or encompass too large a period of time into their stories. When you do this, you simply skim the surface, and end up writing a story treatment or plot outline for a novel.

Quick escape:  Contain your short stories to a short time frame and only two or three settings. When I write a short story, I find it useful to shoot for something really short, such as a prose poem. When things get out of hand, as they often do, I’ve then ended up with an actual short story rather than a novel.

 

The trap of writing too small

It’s fine to shoot for shorter, but a typical short story is larger than a poem or piece of flash fiction. You end up writing too small when you have a weak premise or trivial theme; the result is a story that lumbers along, trying to pick up speed. Trivial themes arise when there’s nothing at stake and really no point in the main characters to pursue their story goal. You’ll know you have a trivial theme when you are finding it hard to stretch your story out to five pages or more, or if your characters are all sitting around drinking coffee or smoking weed. If you find yourself not caring about what happens to the characters, neither will your reader. If you feel you are writing a narrative that is merely experimental or for effect, chances are you are writing too small. If there’s no heart in your story, you might also be writing too small.

Quick escape: Make your story events arise out of character goals set in each scene. The stories unfold because of the consequences of each decision the main character makes. Doing so automatically enlarges the story.

 

The trap of too much backstory, too early

If you’ve been trapped at a party with a stranger who is regaling you with all the sordid details of their life, you’ve experienced too much backstory. It’s harder for writers to realize they are doing this, because you don’t actually see your reader backing away. Backstory for the fiction writer functions the same as research; as a creator, you need to know all that background to make sense of what you are writing. That doesn’t mean the reader needs an info dump at the beginning. A prologue is nothing more than formalized backstory, and unless it’s done very cleverly, most agents and editors hate prologues. Backstory works best when it comes in at points where the reader needs to know some personal history to make sense of the character’s motivations. The current story line needs to be taut and tense enough—like a clothesline—to hold up a certain amount of backstory.

Quick escape: Think of backstory as being on a “need to know” basis. Dribble it in judicious, gossipy bits, instead of throwing it in one big chunk at the front of the story.

 

The trap of too many characters

Unlike the novel or the epic series, short stories occupy a small stage. If you have too many characters crowding that space, it becomes difficult for the writer to clearly convey what’s going on. Too many characters dilute a story’s singular effect. The crowd of characters makes it difficult for the reader to hone in on individual voices or mannerisms, to differentiate the important players from the walk-ons. As a bonus trap, when you have a group of characters on the stage, beginning writers resort to moving them around as a group, rather than letting each person occupy space fully. Symptomatic sentences read like this: “Everyone chuckled” or “we all nodded our heads.” If you can’t move your characters around individually, they are just cluttering your story up and taking up word count that you could better use for something else.

Quick escape:  Think of the cast size of your short story as being akin to a duet or quartet, rather than a full orchestra.

The trap of writing too loose

Short stories are typically more experimental and atmospheric, with an attention on the language as much as the actual action. While it is true that short stories do not need to be as plot driven as novels, beginning writers should stick with the tried and true elements of storytelling. In the hands of a beginning writer, a postmodern, nonlinear story is harder to pull off. A short story that is too much a pastiche, or series of impressions, tend to make something read in an episodic manner. The longer the story, the more strain on the reader. It’s hard to build a singular effect if the disparate scenes don’t hold together and showy writing can turn quickly into something that is self-indulgent. As a bonus trap, without a traditional narrative, it’s hard for beginning writers to sort out what happens next. Without the main point of view character having story goals and consequences in each scene, the writer may end up writing in circles.

Quick escape: Have a little structure, a blueprint, a map, a plan. Understand the traditional function of storytelling and break that rule only when you have mastered the ability to keep tension on the page and your story in motion.

 

The trap of moralizing

It is true that stories have profound power, but writers who come to their stories with an agenda—to instruct, convert or reform the reader—put the storytelling in the wrong harness. Such stories always suffer from becoming thinly-disguised lectures, with the narratives so stilted and dull that readers simply stop reading.

Quick escape: Be aware that you are standing on a soap box and then step off it. Let the moral lessons stem naturally from the storytelling, and not the other way around. Throw yourself into telling a riveting story with engaging characters and trust that your values and beliefs will be present in an organic, natural way.

 

These are just a few of the traps that short story writers can fall into, but there’s more. If you’d like the full list, plus some of simple strategies for making a short story more publishable, please hop over to my website and sign up for my monthly newsletter. The address is: www.lorideboer.net. The signup form is on the home page, two-thirds of the way down.

I’d also love to hear your suggestions for traps that waylay unwary short story writers. If you comment below, before May 1, 2014, and give me permission to quote you, I’ll throw your name in the hat for a drawing for a $20 gift certificate from Amazon.com. You’ll use it only on books, of course.

Happy writing!

 

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and director of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman, Pithead Chapel and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award. For more information, visit her website and blog or connect with her on Google+.

Authors Who Overcame Hardships and Still Kicked Butt … by Lori DeBoer

By Lori DeBoer

The road to publishing can take years to travel, and it comes with a steep learning curve. Sometimes, the obstacles to success seem insurmountable. Life gets hard.

Everyone has off periods, when your writing time gets waylaid by other responsibilities. And it’s a real kick in the teeth if, when you do finally find yourself in your writing chair, the work itself turns out to be hard going. Like hauling rocks.

When I feel like I am hauling rocks, it helps to pull out my list of authors who had to overcome problems, the kind of problems that would make me roll up in a ball and never get out of bed. These are not the kind of first-world problems I currently have, such as, coffee hurts my gut and I can’t drink milk in it anymore. I whine about it a lot, but it’s not a genuine problem.

The authors I am talking about had great Dickensonian personal tragedies to overcome. (You’ll see how ironic my use of the term “Dickensonian” in a moment.) Some of them are modern, of course, but the fact that they were born into a time with electricity and flush toilets does not make their problems trivial.

Example one:

Lauren Hillenbrand was just nineteen years old when she became bed-bound with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. In an interview with Beliefnet.com (“What Price Glory?”), she says that her biggest challenge has been exhaustion. “I’ve spent about six of the last 14 years completely bedridden,” she said. “At times, I have been unable to bathe myself. I have gotten so bad I couldn’t really feed myself and a couple of times I needed someone to spoon feed me. I have had trouble rolling over in bed.”

Nevertheless, in 1988, after watching the Kentucky Derby, she was inspired to submit a piece to a racing magazine, Turf and Sport Digest, who asked her to keep writing. In 1996, while doing research, she gravitated to the story of Seabiscuit, one of the greatest racehorses in history, and his trainer and owner, who all overcome extraordinary odds. The book became a New York Times bestseller and was made into a movie. Hillenbrand said that writing the book was difficult, on the physical level, but that it fed her emotionally and spiritually.

Example two:

Jean-Dominique Bauby dictated his bestselling book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by blinking his left eye. It’s a beautiful little book that was made into a motion picture and is well worth picking up for anyone who loves transformative storytelling. Bauby, a former Elle editor, wrote it after a stroke that left him with locked-in syndrome. The dictation process took around ten months. His assistant recited the French alphabet in order of its most frequent letters and Bauby blinked to chose letters. Each word took approximately two minutes to formulate. Three days after the book was published, Bauby died of pneumonia.

This list goes on: Barbara Kingsolver wrote her first book while suffering from insomnia while she was pregnant; she had to hide in the closet while writing so she didn’t disturb her ex husband. Victor Frankl wrote one of the most influential books of this century, Man’s Search for Meaning, despite having spent time imprisoned in concentration camps and having his wife and family killed by Nazis. We all know that J.K. Rowling was a struggling single mom when she created the Harry Potter series, although she really downplays that story these days. John Milton wrote “Paradise Lost” after he went blind at the age of 43. He was also poverty-stricken.

You probably don’t know that, two days after his twelfth birthday, Charles Dickens was sent to work for a little over a year at the Warren’s Blacking Factory in a desperate attempt to keep his father out of prison for his failure to repay a debt. It failed, and the entire family, except Charles and his sister Fanny, moved into his father’s cell at Marshalsea Prison. His books capture the straits in which the lower classes found themselves at that time, because he lived it.

I’d like to add to my list of tragedy-surmounting, butt-kicking authors. Who inspires you?

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and director of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman, Pithead Chapel and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award. For more information, visit her website and blog.

The Colorado Gold Writing Contest Opened for Submission on April 1st

Tomorrow we shine the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Spotlight on Chris Devlin, Contest Chair. She has a big job, and we aim to help her out a little by spreading the word about this outstanding opportunity for unpublished writers.

Laptop_writingYou’ve been working hard on your manuscript–writing, revising, self-editing, then rewriting after your critique group reviews your efforts. Now you have your first finished novel. What should you do next?

For over thirty years, the Colorado Gold contest for unpublished writers has given aspiring novelists the chance to get their work in front of an acquiring agent or editor while also providing feedback and encouragement for the craft of writing.

Writers enter the first 20 pages of a manuscript plus a 3 to 4 page synopsis in one of six categories. Two judges from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers will evaluate and score each entry. The top five submissions scoring 130 points or more in each category will make the finals and will then be judged by one of the agents or editors attending the Colorado Gold Conference.

One winner will be named in each category. Winners receive $100 and a certificate. The remaining finalists receive $30 and a certificate. Winners will be announced at the Colorado Gold Writers Conference awards banquet September 6th, 2014, at the Westin Hotel in Westminster, Colorado.

The 2014 Contest Categories are:

Action/Thriller
Mainstream
Mystery/Suspense
Romance
Speculative Fiction
Young Adult

The contest final judges have been announced. You’ll find those names on the website as well (the link is at the end of this post).

Contest Dates:

Opens April 1, 2014 at midnight.
Closes June 1, 2014, 11:59 PM MST.

Entry Fee:

$30 per entry or $55 per entry to receive a critique from one of the first two judges.

By now, I’m sure you’re chomping at the bit to know how to enter. First you head over the RMFW Website and check out the Contest Page. That’s where you’ll find the links to the 2014 Official Rules and Entry Instructions.

Good luck!

Getting in Bed with Your Co-Writer: The Art of Collaborative Writing

By Kym O’Connell-Todd and Mark Todd

Kym and Mark ToddFor us, successful collaborative writing is like good sex.

First comes foreplay: we begin to brainstorm, teasing out seductive story lines to see if there’s something that we both want to spend time developing. And we’ve been doing this long enough that we already have a pretty good idea of what turns on our partner. As the passion for our story builds, we become excited as character and plot flesh out. We then get into the rhythm of storytelling, thrusting ideas from our sweaty little brains deep into the body of our tale. The heat finally culminates in an orgasmic release when we write the words “The End.”

But before you rush out to find a co-writer, remember that not everyone is going to be a willing (or a satisfactory) partner. The chemistry has to work. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to find someone who’s good in bed, but rather someone who possesses similar mental, emotional, and professional writing compatibilities. One of the greatest advantages to co-writing is that two minds are always better than one when it comes to solving problems and bouncing ideas off one another. One person can temper the other. A plot point may not sound as workable when it’s verbalized to a co-author.

Of course, everyone engages in some level of co-writing to get that story into print. Even adamant solitary writers. Agents, editors, and publishers are all going to give their two cents’ worth, and you’re going to want to listen to at least some of it. Once your work reaches the hands of readers, and you develop an audience, you’ll want to consider what works for them so they continue to support your habit. That doesn’t mean that you sacrifice the integrity of your writing, but you’ll want to tailor your books to sell. A good friend of ours had a collection of short stories accepted by a university press, but after they insisted on drastic changes, he withdrew the collection. In this case, the two failed to strike a satisfactory partnership. When he finally found the right press for his words, did they suggest changes? Sure, but they were ones he thought improved the overall work.

In yet another situation, a publisher paired a different friend of ours, a well-published science fiction author, with an aeronautics specialist. The specialist focused meticulously on the science while our friend just wanted to tell a good tale. Inflated egos weighed heavily on the whole project, and we listened to our friend complain for a year as the book trudged toward publication.

As in all forms of co-writing, ego has to go out the window. No drama queens or kings allowed. If you’re going to partner up with another author for that next book, you both must feel free to offer ideas the other can shoot down or spin in a different direction. Ideally, neither party takes offense. Both authors must possess similar work ethics, demonstrate a willingness to meet deadlines, and stay on task. Think of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, the writing duo who created The Relic, The Cabinet of Curiosities, and multiple other page-turning thrillers. And they live half a continent apart.

How do they do it? You’ll have to ask them. But we suspect they use an electronic version of “transom writing.” Transoms are those windows over doors that open for ventilation. You’ve seen them; they’re in virtually every schoolhouse across the nation. In transom writing, each author writes a passage and then passes it on to the co-writer, who then takes responsibility for writing the next section. They exchange drafts back and forth like circulating air through a transom. It’s a kind of turn writing. Preston and Child co-author some books and individually author others. And they do it all well. Still, in their collaborative projects, we can spot now and then a subtle change of voices among chapters – a shift in favorite vocabulary and rhythms of syntax. That’s what tells us they’re turn writing.

We don’t do that.

We’re a lot more intimate in our approach.

Our readers tell us they can’t detect any shift in voice in our writing. That’s because there isn’t any:

FADE IN:
Kym and Mark sit on the bed, crouched over a laptop. Mark types as they talk.

KYM
(dictating)
Pleasance stood atop the Pyramid of Kukulcán, hoping to –

MARK
(interrupting)
– escape the sticky mid-summer –

KYM
(interrupting)
– swelter.

MARK
Yeah, I like that. And then how ‘bout, Trying to ignore the sweat that pooled at her bosom.

KYM
No, change that to between her breasts.

Mark deletes and retypes.

KYM (CONT’D)
And we need to describe the jungle before we get to the sweaty breasts.

Mark moves the cursor to the end of the first sentence.

MARK
(typing)
The Yucatán jungle stretched in all directions, islands of –

KYM
– stone ruins occasionally interrupting the monotonous green –

MARK
– of dwarfed cedar and chakah trees.

They give each other a high five.
FADE OUT

Okay, that may not have been exactly the way we wrote that particular passage from our novel, All Plucked Up, but it’s how we co-author – one of us starts a sentence and the other finishes it. Plus, Mark is dyslexic and Kym catches misspellings as we go along. (We’re doing it right now as we type this article.) In our case, Mark is the typist because Kym can’t use the touch pad on the laptop. It’s all pretty efficient except when one of our six house cats jumps on the keyboard. There’s nothing transom-like in the way we compose at the sentence level. And this technique allows us to test out loud as we go along just how naturally the words flow on the page.

We’d be the first to admit that this is probably not the fastest way to write for most people. But it works for us because we like to write together, and we decide up front on a project that we both feel passionate about. The biggest challenge, of course, is to find or block out regular periods of time when we’re both available. Kym is an early-morning person (she’s up before the sun) while Mark isn’t even coherent until 11 a.m. Our best compromise falls mid day, and we plan accordingly.

Todd_finalgreedIt also helps that we both have equally twisted senses of humor. In our first novel for the same Silverville Saga Series, Little Greed Men, we have a scene where the sheriffs of two counties meet to decide jurisdiction over unidentified human remains found more or less straddling the line:

“It’s not Silver County’s problem,” Carl said at last.

“Wait a minute!” the other sheriff objected. “You guys found as many bones on your side as we did.”

“C’mon, Andy, you’ve got the skull,” Carl said. “That officially gives you more bone mass than we have.”

“Yeah, but you guys have the teeth.”

“We don’t know for sure those dentures are that fellow’s teeth. Maybe somebody was out here hiking and dropped them.” Carl looked pretty satisfied with his deduction.

“Oh man, that ain’t right. We had to bury one earlier this spring. You haven’t had one in a couple of years.”

They argued back and forth for several minutes . . .

To us, this scene was a howl to write, and we were having too much fun to worry much about whether or not readers would agree. We enjoy this type of book, and we hoped the same kind of readers would discover our novel. More important to us was writing true to what we thought was funny.

The best writers say to write what you know. That’s exactly what we did with the Silverville Saga Series. We drew upon real personalities and real situations that we’ve experienced or heard about living in the mountainous West. The scene above – or something close – actually took place between Gunnison and an adjoining county. To be truthful, nearly all of the situations in our book happened somewhere in at least one of our pasts.

For instance, we inserted an anecdote where townsfolk flee from an apparently rabid dog with a frothing mouth. That dog, in reality, was Kym’s childhood pet. “Roscoe” had helped himself to a meringue pie cooling on someone’s front steps. The dog scared the wits out of the neighborhood until the cook discovered her empty pie plate.

Another scene in the book has a real sense of authenticity since Mark’s family owned a mortuary business:

Buford gawked at the open shelves neatly stacked with rows of embalming fluid bottles, instruments, and linens. He’d never been in the room long enough before to get a close look at the mysterious equipment kept there. Picking up a cardboard box, he plucked out a small pink disc that was shaped like half a hollow marble.

“What are these?”

Howard dropped his towel into a hamper. “They’re eye cups. We stick them under the eyelids after someone dies.” Then he added, “So the eyes won’t sink.”

Buford took two of the little cups and raised them to his own eyes, squinting to hold them in place like two plastic monocles. “Like this?”

He heard the door open behind him and turned, blindly, in that direction.

“Buford, what are you doing in here?”

Opening his eyes, Buford felt the cups slide down his cheeks toward the floor. Denton stood with his hands on his hips, and he didn’t look pleased.

Of course, Mark never played with eye caps. (At least he never got caught.)

The advantage should be obvious – two heads mean two sets of experiences. It also means two sets of critical eyes because we each bring to the “Writing Bed” individual strengths that mitigate the individual weaknesses. Kym’s journalism background makes her succinct to a fault. Mark, on the other hand, comes from the halls of academia and doesn’t know when to quit. Somewhere between these two extremes is the point we shoot for using each other’s complementary strengths.

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Todd_outhouse_final_cover(sm)Co-authors Kym O’Connell-Todd & Mark Todd are co-authors of the Silverville Saga Series, paranormal adventure comedies that take place in an “ordinary” community sitting on intersecting ley lines – punching holes in everyday reality, causing extraordinary coincidences and the random UFO, an occasional curse, a ghost or two, and even a bit of time-travel now and then.

You can learn more about Kym and Mark and their books at the website and blog. They can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Those Little Bells

By Mark Stevens

(This blog is a note to self. Thanks for letting me share.)

I recently read a New Yorker profile of the writer Lydia Davis and I felt as if I’d entered a very calm, clear space.

It’s a long piece, by Dana Goodyear, but it’s behind a paywall at the New Yorker web site so I thought I’d highlight one major point here. I highly recommend that you track down a copy (March 17, 2014).

Lydia Davis is a very-short-story writer. The New Yorker piece calls her “one of the most original minds in American fiction today.” There much to be gleaned from reading the entire profile.

Davis is 66 years old now and still writes regularly. She’s inspired by unlikely vignettes she encounters throughout the day. Unlikely and unusual. You get the impression her writing mind never shuts down.

Since this blog can’t cover everything, here’s one bit that stuck with me: Lydia Davis thinks about every word.

Yeah, sure, whatever. Writers think about every word—don’t we?

Not on the Davis scale.

Lydia Davis is after precision in the words like…

(Actually, I’m afraid to write a metaphor right about now.)

For Davis, there are no throwaways.

“A little bell goes off in my head first,” she says. “I know something’s wrong here.”

Demonstrating her point for Goodyear, Davis read an image from a published novel:

“A paper bag stuffed with empty wine bottles.”

Spot the issue?

“I thought about that,” says Davis. “You’d think he could get away with it, but he can’t, because ‘stuffed’ is a verb that comes from material. It’s soft, so it’s a problem to stuff it with something hard.”

Davis concludes: “Whenever I read this kind of thing, it tells me the writer is not sensitive to the full value of the idea of comparison.”

I thought to myself: yikes.

Yes, high standards. Not surprising for a woman who was once married to master stylist Paul Auster and, to mention many other accomplishments in her long writing career, translated Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way from French to English. (Some critics lashed Davis for her preference for “obscure cognates” over than going with “flashier English renderings.”)

It’s the old lesson: every word counts. Every word has meaning. Every word carries weight.

Do everything you can to avoid ringing those little bells.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014.

Find Your Weirdness

By Julie Luek

Julie Luek1I’m almost fifty. There it is in black and white, a milestone in my life. My kids, 23 and 18, are flying the coop this year, out into the world to pursue their passions. My daughter, bless her heart, has inherited my creative passions and will pursue her love of music. She’s not choosing an easy road, nor one that will automatically lead to a steady job and income. I won’t discourage her though. I remember being her age, wanting to pursue English as a major, and my engineer father strongly suggesting (with his financial support) I pursue something more “sensible”. It turns out there’s nothing practical in studying a subject you have no love for.

Life ended up all right though. I got the MA that helped me land a satisfying job in higher education. I found it challenging and fulfilling for over 20 years until the day, three years ago, when I didn’t. At some point you realize you can’t fight your passion and no longer want to. Time is short. Three years ago I did the unpractical and walked away from a good career to pursue this writing gig.

I’m glad to say I haven’t looked back. It hasn’t been easy, and although I’ve had small successes, it’s not like the world of publishing has opened its arms to me in a warm and grateful embrace. Publishing is a fickle lover. Like most of you, I have to work hard and snuggle up to a lot of rejection to get my writing out there.

Luek_pathposteraAlong the way, I’ve also had to define who I am as a writer and what I want to write. It’s been a journey of self-discovery. I began by trying to write short stories. Baby steps, like little stories to prompts on Writer’s Digest. I entered a few contests and, eventually, even wrote a full-length, fiction manuscript. (It was pretty awful, by the way.) I also read a lot… a lot… of books, on story development, plot development, saving cats, the writing life, and how to put fire in my fiction. The more I read, the more I wrote (some really bad stuff), the more I realized I didn’t want to write fiction. But writers write novels. We all know that.

It took me three years to get it through in my thick head and probably thicker ego, that my first love is reading nonfiction and it follows, my true passion is writing nonfiction. It’s satisfying for me to see my articles in magazines, my essays on international writing sites like She Writes, and even an essay in Chicken Soup for The Soul. It’s like coming home.

The other day I read this quote by Annie Dillard:

Read for pleasure. If you like Tolstoy, read Tolstoy; if you like Dostoevsky, read Dostoevsky. Push it a little, but don’t read something totally alien to your nature and then say, “I’ll never be able to write like that.” Of course you won’t. Read books you’d like to write. If you want to write literature, read literature. Write books you’d like to read. Follow your own weirdness.

This is why I made the decision to try other supportive organizations for nonfiction, outside of RMFW. (Although thank goodness the friends I made here haven’t abandoned me!) It’s why I play around with writing styles and topics on my blog Julie Luek, and it’s why I keep sending pithy little ditties off to the Chicken Soup folks. I’ve even finally worked up the courage to test the waters on a book idea again; this time, of course, a nonfiction manuscript.

Like Ms. Dillard says, I have to follow my own weirdness. What’s yours?

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Julie Luek is a writer, living in the mountains of Colorado, published in numerous regional and national magazines, Chicken Soup For The Soul, and a regular contributor to the sites She Writes and Joyful Home and Life. She authors two blogs, Julie Luek and A Thought Grows. As an observer and participator in her own life, she continually rediscovers her purpose, learns to let go and not take herself too seriously. Julie believes if we generously share our stories and hearts we can all learn, laugh, and grow together.

Stay with the FLOW

By D A Gordon

Ann GordonDuring the last twelve months I have edited, critiqued and judged a bunch of stories. This is partly due to the fact that I belong to five writing groups and I’m a contest judge. Because I’m a semi-retired English teacher and technical writer, I tend to scan for grammatical errors when I first look at a page.

But this year I’ve started looking for something else as I critique fiction: Flow.

What Flow Does for Us

When our sentences and paragraphs flow, readers find it enjoyable to keep reading; they’ll turn page after page because the mental and emotional flow makes comprehension effortless – the words easily flow through mind, the characters come alive, and we don’t want to put the book down. When the story flows, we continue to read with little concept of passing time.

Gordon_Christmas-Meadows-Utah_smallIt doesn’t take non-stop action to keep the audience reading. What helps satisfy the reader is when the action, dialog, and narration flow uninterrupted, like a valley stream with no dams or boulders.

Misplaced Backstory

The other day I reviewed five chapters of an unpublished novel for a friend. She had a good plot and an interesting protagonist. But she had a bad habit of adding a sentence or two of backstory the minute any character came on the scene instead of waiting for a better time. This completely stopped the flow and left me thinking, Now, what?

For instance, some good guys were running toward the fort to get away from the monsters. During this pursuit the stakes were high and everyone was breathing hard, scared witless and running fast to reach safety before being torn limb from limb. When a soldier in the fort saw them coming, he opened the gate to let them in and should have just as quickly closed the gate afterwards while everyone caught their breath and said, Thanks George, you saved our lives.

But sadly, no. As soon as the attentive soldier opened the gate, the author stopped us in mid action to explain who the solder was, including his place at the fort and his relationship with the people running for their lives.

Because I was caught up in the action sequence, this interruption stopped me cold. At that moment I didn’t care about the soldier’s relationship to the frightened people or to the fort; I just wanted the action to keep going until it reached a logical conclusion. Then later, maybe over dinner, I could learn who the guy was and why he mattered.

Reading Can Be Hard Work

Good fiction has a rhythm that readers can feel, and they’ll want to keep reading in order to keep that feeling. But when the reader starts having trouble following the sequence of events and has to back track several lines or paragraphs to pick up the trail again, this is a sign the flow has stopped.

This can be bad news for the author because the reader may decide it’s time to get a soda and not return.

Breaking the flow isn’t the same as surprising your reader with a piano falling from the sky. Surprise is good. But incongruent activities or discordant dialog frustrate the reader because it breaks up the flow.

Flow stoppers make the story more difficult to stay with, and instead of being easy and enjoyable, reading becomes hard work.

Checking the Flow

A great way to check the flow of your writing is to have someone else read it, someone who is also a writer or at least a prolific reader. That’s where writing groups with critique sessions are mighty handy.

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Ann Gordon a writer and editor who lives in Moab, Utah. She’s a chapter president with the League of Utah Writers. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Writing and Juggling

By Kristi Helvig

Kristi HelvigIn light of the upcoming launch for my sci-fi debut, BURN OUT, someone asked me in an interview about how I managed to balance my work as a psychologist, my writing obligations, and parenting two young children. I laughed because ‘balanced’ is the last word I’d use to describe myself right now. Coinciding with my book launch is the due date for edits on Book 2. In the midst of said edits and book launch is my youngest child’s birthday. To give you an idea of how crazed I’ve been, when I asked what she wanted for her birthday, she said, “For you to stay off your computer the whole day.” (Cue massive maternal guilt).

Under these two deadlines, I’ve turned from the super-involved parent who takes their kids to parks and musuems to the one who mutters “yeah, sure” when they call out from the other room asking if they can take a knife, scissors, and crazy-glue upstairs for ‘a project.’ After several days spent editing on the couch in sweatpants last week, my husband almost burst into song when I announced I was going to shower. Okay, he actually did burst into song, and that song was “Hallelujah.” I wish I was kidding.

As writers, we’re always juggling. Whether it’s time spent promoting vs. writing, day job vs. writing, laundry vs. writing, etc., it’s hard to hit that sweet spot where we feel balanced. Though I have no magic answers for this, the following things have helped me along the way.

Helvig_BURN OUT Cover1)  Prioritize the tasks at hand. My motto: deadlines and family first, everything else where it fits. I still make time to walk the dog, volunteer in the kids’ classrooms, and do yoga because those things matter to me—plus yoga helps to offset the vast quantities of chocolate I eat while editing. Sadly, laundry hasn’t seemed to fit anywhere lately. I was going to include a picture of the current state of our laundry basket, or rather the mountain of clothes that ate our basket, but it’s just too embarrassing. Even with writing related tasks, I’m a firm believer in old-school ‘to-do’ lists and arrange things by dates of importance. There is something satisfying about crossing things off of lists.

2)  Enlist help. My family has fair warning when I’m entering the Deadline Zone—just like the Twilight Zone but without the cool background music. My awesomely supportive hubby will take the kids out for outings so I can have quiet writing time, and make dinners, etc. Then we’ll switch when he’s under a time crunch. My oldest is slowly taking on some household chores, though even he doesn’t see the appeal of laundry. Even when it’s not a matter of deadlines, there is always some sort of chaos in the schedule, so it’s important to have a plan in place to manage it. Juggling is easiest when there are more hands to handle the balls.

3) Schedule non-juggling time. Even if it’s just an afternoon at the movies with a friend or a weekend away in the mountains with family, it’s so important to take time away from the insanity. It makes all the times when you are juggling more bearable.

In the end, I think it’s impossible to be perfectly balanced all of the time. If you know otherwise, please tell me your secret! I’ve come to accept that there will be times, like now, where I’m barely hanging on, and that’s okay. Things seem to go in cycles and there’s comfort in the knowledge that in a few weeks time, I’m going to be a showering and laundry machine. Unless someone wants to come do my laundry—I’m totally open to that.

What are your tips for maintaining balance in your life? Anyone else’s laundry basket qualify as a Colorado Fourteener?

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Kristi Helvig is a Ph.D. clinical psychologist turned sci-fi/fantasy author. She muses about Star Trek, space monkeys, and other assorted topics at her website. Kristi resides in sunny Colorado with her hubby, two kiddos, and behaviorally-challenged dogs. Follow her on Twitter or find her on Facebook. Her publisher, Egmont USA, is giving away 5 finished copies of BURN OUT on Goodreads through April 17th.

The Importance of a Good Beta Reader

by Katriena Knights

If you’ve seriously pursued writing for any amount of time, you know you can’t be trusted to judge your own work. Scenes that seem wonderfully constructed in our heads are completely incomprehensible to other people. Glorious flights of poetic prose are actually pools of verbal quicksand from which no reader will ever safely return. It’s a sad truth, but a truth nonetheless.

This is why we need Beta readers.

A good Beta reader will help you find those holes in your manuscript where your brain fills in the details but a reader gets confused or completely lost. She’ll find continuity errors, wobbles in character development, and help you figure out where you’ve indulged yourself too much and could really stand to cut things down a bit.

A really good Beta reader will call you on the phone and say, “Hey, mostly I liked the story, but there’s this one thing I HATE with the BURNING PASSION of a THOUSAND MILLION SUNS. Change it.”

True story.

Yes, we’re still speaking.

My Beta reader iBloodontheIce-ART-Smallers also my best friend. She doesn’t just read my manuscripts, she also feeds me story ideas. For example, my upcoming novel from Samhain, Blood on the Ice, is entirely and completely her fault. And yes, she betaed it for me. A couple of times.

Early in the writing process, she read through some chapters and said, “Wait. Your game schedule is a complete mess.” And then she sent me a link and said, “Use this.”

The link was the entire Chicago Blackhawks schedule from the 1955-1956 season, when the NHL only had six teams. “Just plug your six vampire teams into this schedule. That way it’ll make more sense.”

I think I banged my head against a wall for fifteen minutes. It worked, though. Using the actual schedule—even though I did tweak it a little—added a background continuity that made the Vampire Hockey League more realistic. And if there’s anything that needs added realism, it’s a hockey league populated entirely by vampires.

When my final draft was ready, she told me we could get together over Instant Message on Memorial Day and go through the manuscript. I figured we’d chat for a little while, I’d make a few notes, and then I’d be off to finish my submission-ready draft.

Eight hours later (you read that right—EIGHT. HOURS. LATER.), I had about 25 pages of notes copied and pasted out of IM into a document. I was also really freaking hungry. Over the next few days, I reordered several scenes, added some exposition, and took out an entire character. (You know how they say to kill your babies? This was an ACTUAL BABY. Her whole subplot got removed. Poor thing. Maybe she’ll fit into the next book.)

That right there is what every writer needs in a good Beta reader.

I’m always grateful that my BFF happens to have a ridiculously good story sense and isn’t afraid to tell me when stuff just plain sucks. It’s the kind of objective eye every writer needs. I can’t tell you how to find your own—all I know is you can’t have mine.

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Katriena Knights wrote her first poem with she was three years old and had to dictate it to her mother under the bathroom door (her timing has never been very good). Now she’s the author of several paranormal and contemporary romances. She grew up in a miniscule town in Illinois, and now lives in a miniscule town in Colorado with her two children and a variety of pets. For more about Katriena, visit her website and blog

Don’t Listen to Mr. Scrooge

By Lucinda Stein

Lucinda SteinHistory. Research. “Bah, humbug!” some might say. But as an author, I’ve found writing historical fiction brings surprising benefits.

A writer needs a good understanding of the time period, including clothing and hairstyles, transportation, customs, lifestyles, political and social trends, architecture, etc. Whew! Research takes time and effort. But like writing a book, take it one day at a time, bit by bit. The good news? Ideas for characters and scenes will constantly spring to life.

I’m currently working on a rough draft for a novel set in Depression-era Oklahoma. There’s a wealth of information available on this time period. But I need information specific to a particular state. Writers can access state historical society websites rich in old photos, documents, and researched articles. Many states also maintain online digital historical newspapers.

My protagonist is a Comanche woman, so I need to explore the unique aspect of a Native American living during this time. While searching online for the tribal website, I serendipitously came across haunting photographs of abandoned three-story buildings. Turned out it was a boarding school dating back to 1883 with students in attendance for over a century. Bingo! I “enrolled” my protagonist in the school. Added bonus—the website referred readers to a nonfiction book published by the University of Nebraska.

This leads me to the subject of resources. As a retired librarian, I like to use primary sources of information for authenticity and a definite sense of the time period. I purchased the aforementioned book and discovered it included interviews with former students. What a wealth of ideas for the chapters in which my protagonist attends the school. I also located a biography about a Native American man from Oklahoma. I wanted the book for two reasons—it was the same time period that takes place in my novel, and it included the man’s experiences growing up on an Oklahoma farm, something I had decided would be my book’s initial setting.

Stein_Tattered CoversI also found a historical novel set in Oklahoma during the Depression. Why use fiction to write fiction? This resource was valuable since the novel was written by a reputable author who knows the state well. The author is a university professor from Oklahoma whose family dates back to this time period. I took special note of the natural landscape described in the book and paid close attention to references on life during the Depression. Of course, this book is only one of many resources used to gather information.

In the beginning, I create several lists for information I’ll need in my story. As I continue to research, I add new details to my digital file. For example, I have a list for Prohibition. One list includes native plants of Oklahoma. Another list contains specifics about the Depression such as shanty towns, hopping trains, and the plight of the homeless.

I also create a timeline for my story. It’s important to know what was going on in the country and even the world during that time. Noteworthy items are included in my timeline. In the process of writing my rough draft, I frequently refer to my timeline for additional ideas for new scenes and plot points.

In writing fiction, the writer enjoys exploration of his/her protagonist and the challenge of navigating through a plot. On top of that, the creator of historical fiction weaves history into the dramatic life of a believable character. As in reading any well-written novel, the reader learns new things along the way, so it is as a writer of historical fiction. I come away with a new perspective on history—just as I hope my readers will.

Sometimes I feel my research practically writes the novel for me. In reality, it’s more like continual brainstorming. For example, I discovered popular bands of the era and—voilà—a scene with a speakeasy hidden at the rear of a building came to life. Another illustration of research inspiring story ideas: During the Depression, movies proved a popular diversion from difficult times. One movie of this era was Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff. I created a scene in which I compare crude surgical practices for tuberculosis patients to Dr. Frankenstein’s bizarre experiments. Amazing where research will lead you. Even Bonnie Parker (as in Bonnie and Clyde) makes a brief debut in my novel. Who said historical fiction can’t be fun?

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Lucinda Stein lives on the Western Slope of Colorado with her husband and her shelter-rescue dog, Opie. Her novel, Three Threads Woven, was a 2010 WILLA Finalist and her short story, Sulfur Springs, won the 2011 LAURA Short Fiction Award judged by Pam Houston. Her short stories have appeared in Fine Lines, The South Dakota Review, and Women Writing the West online. Her recent novel, Tattered Covers, is a mix of contemporary and historical fiction.

Enter to win a free copy of Tattered Covers. Place “free copy” in the subject field of your email and send to: lucinda (at) lucindastein (dot) com.