Tag Archives: writing

What’s Your Reason for Writing?

By Mark Stevens

No doubt soon you’ll be walking around your house knee-deep in royalty checks.

At some point, you’ll probably stop reading the reviews.

Even the good ones.

Yawn. Another rave.

Until then, why are you on this ride? Are you driven? Just because? Is it art to you?

Or commerce?

I watched two documentaries recently.

One was “Finding Vivian Maier” about a unique street photographer whose work has exploded after her death. Vivian Maier was completely overlooked during her lifetime. She never promoted her work. Her possessions and an enormous stash of her photographs (the negatives) were bought—cheaply—at an auction of stuff in Chicago. The stash included uncashed social security checks. She wasn’t in it for the money. Clearly. Now, the world is studying her work. And marveling.

I highly recommend the film (which itself is very well put together).

The other documentary was about famous back-up singers. Is that an oxymoron? Probably. That’s the point. They are back-up singers. If you like music, “20 Feet from Stardom” is must-see. The portraits are fascinating—Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer. And others. They probably sang on hundreds of songs you know by heart. They sing the key licks, the little juicy bits you hum along with.

Also recommended.

Talent? By the truckload.

Artists? In every way, shape and form.

Some try to step up to the limelight, become the lead. Others hang back on purpose. They are fine with the shadows, but every bit as integral to the lead singer (and the act) but fine with the supporting role. They are, in fact, highly sought-after artists in their supporting roles.

Is there a heartbreak? Yes. Dashed hopes? Yes. But the overall message is they are in it for the moment—the expression. Every one of them had (has) pride in their accomplishments.

Moral of the story?

With Vivian Maier, she followed nobody’s script and nobody’s expectations for what constituted a “good” photograph. She took pictures of small moments, odd people, strange situations and left her view of the world for the rest of us to enjoy.

With the back-up singers, they were told what words to sing, what notes to hit. They brought their skills to the studio or the live stage and accepted (in varying degrees) their roles.

What’s your reason for writing? Are you okay with doing it—just because?

Are you doing your own thing? Listening to your own voice? Or are you a back-up, following someone else’s vision and script?

(I think there is good in both approaches.)

Me? I hope I do a little of both.

Reilly_The Enlisted Men's ClubFinal note: A bit of blatant self-promotion for my pal Gary Reilly, whom I’ve written about before. Gary wrote 25 novels with no encouragement from “the industry.” He died in 2011 and left those 25 novels behind, just because. His sixth posthumous book launches at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 14 at the Tattered Cover in Denver. The Enlisted Men’s Club is the first of his Vietnam-era novels following the publication of five comic novels about a Denver taxi driver (including two Colorado Book Award nominees). The tone of the war-era novel, of course, is very different. But the mark of the artist is the same. An artist at work. Just because.

 

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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

My Affair … by Author Terri Benson

Terri Benson1I’m having an affair. It’s OK, my husband knows all about it. In fact, he’s kind of been involved in all my affairs and he likes it.

Oh, all right! My affairs are in my books. My hunky love interests are my heroes and, even if they don’t vaguely resemble me, I’m the gorgeous heroine. That’s one of the reasons I absolutely love to write. I get to experience everything I ever dreamed, and I’m not going to get put in jail or divorced for it. Although, I did have a co-worker who read my book say they’d never look at me the same way again…

Anyway, the thing is, what I really mean (sorry, got carried away!) is that writing lets us be anything and anyone we want. We can create people we love to hate, or hate to love. We can change the world into any kind of place that suits our fancy (and our characters), and it can be centuries ago, or centuries in the future, or in an alternate future in an alternate universe. Whew.

Where else can you think up some diabolical way to kill someone off, and not worry that you’ll be carted off to the pokey? You don’t even have to use real methods, because writers can invent them. Need a poison or a weapon that doesn’t really exist, or a language to have a rousing argument in, or a pet that has one eye and one horn and flies and eats peo… (ooops, sorry, again) – you’re a writer, you can make one up that is believable!

You can write from the perspective of a child, or an animal, or a God (or Goddess) or an angst-ridden teen, or an omniscient person of the first order or whatever. But what we all must do is write something that’s worth reading. I believe that even if we don’t intend to publish what we write, we shouldn’t waste our words on something that doesn’t move us, or our readers. Of course, I’m talking fiction here, because it’s kind of hard to move your readers when you’re writing a technical manual on gear ratios (I’m sure someone out there will argue that point, but who’s writing this, anyway!?).

What I’m getting at is that we have the absolutely best job in the world—writing. We have no limits, no restrictions, no rules (except those darn editor-people ones). The only thing that would make it better is if we were guaranteed to get paid for each and every one of the words we put on paper, but hey, life’s a bitch, sometimes. At least we have fun not getting paid. Revel in your gift of words. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s “not a real job” because you can’t quit the other one and pursue writing full time (or if you can, God, I hate you!). Keep putting those letters and words and paragraphs on the page. We’re entertaining the world, after all.

Words! Gotta love ‘em.

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As a life-long writer, Terri Benson has one published novel (An Unsinkable Love), award winning short stories, and over a hundred articles – many award winning – in local and regional magazines and on-line e-zines. She has been a member of RMFW for the last several years, and her employer provides the location for the Western Slope events. She is currently promoting Western Slope events for the RMFW Publicity Committee, pelting RMFW with articles for the newsletter, and randomly blogging.

Her book, An Unsinkable Love, is temporarily down as the publisher has recently been bought and her rights reverted. But never fear, she shall overcome and those of you clamoring for a copy shall be satisfied! Visit Terri at her website. She can also be found on Facebook.

Word Nerds – Will Work for Proper Punctuation … by Trai Cartwright

I always suspected I was a little weird about words (strange, odd, peculiar, uncanny—yes, I prefer uncanny). Recently, I taught a seminar for Delve Online which proved I was absolutely correct.

As a kid I was a voracious reader, but I was also a ruthless one. If I caught a typo in a book, it was like a betrayal. How could these professional writers make such a blatant mistake??

To which the sane response would be: egads, go outside and play with some others kids, would you?? My response: pull out a piece of paper and write a letter to the writer to let him know the error of his ways.

Like I said, I’m uncanny. Or maybe just weird. It took many years and an infinite number of typo sightings for me to realize that two things were happening: one, humans were at work and humans make mistakes (lord knows with all the typos I’ve released into the world, even typo fascists aren’t perfect). And two, I had a unique eye.

They just jump out at me, and every time, I have to think about what the correct grammar or punctuation or spelling would be. Have to. So OCD.

At this Delve discussion of editing last weekend, I joined Tiffany Yates Martin, another self-proclaimed Word Nerd and professional editor for a raucous good time discussing typos. Okay, our attendees began slipping out the door one at a time, no doubt in fear of their safety, but Tiffany and I had a blast. You can’t put two Word Nerds together without us gleefully and loudly sharing favorite examples of our obsession.

Hers: “His brothers John and Jim went into town.” Harmless enough, right? But without commas, she doesn’t know if it’s “his brothers, John, and Jim,” ergo a whole gang of folks, like, at least four, or was it just two people? Ergo, John and Jim are the brothers.

My example was the use of the onomatopoeia “klunng” in a fight sequence. When I first read it I stopped cold and thought – why two n’s? The answer seemed obvious: three n’s would make the reading humorous (klunnng), and this was a serious scene. Meanwhile, one n doesn’t provide that ominous resonance to which the writer aspired.

Yes, this was the content of our delightful session. Don’t judge.

I say thank goodness for people like Tiffany and me and Conan the Grammarian.

We obsess so you don’t have to.

Like many with this crazy fixation, I’ve turned it into a service I provide for other writers. Part of my Story Consultant business includes copy editing. This goes beyond just fixing commas; I have the idea that if writers can understand their own grammar tics, they can overcome them and thus improve their writing on a line-by-line basis.

For example, writers have a tendency to start every sentence the same way. Or suddenly we’ll go on a thirty page jag of ellipses…or em-dashes—

Or, we’ll use the same phrase, one that’s cliché, one that’s sure to turn off the readers (they smiled at each other; he gazed at her; he turned away—ugh!).

I love that stuff. Not just because they just sort of leap out at me (again, in other people’s writing; I hire an editor for my own), or that it soothes my OCD. I love it because once a writer starts tuning herself in to those grammar tics, she’s plugging into the heart of writing. No, the story won’t be better for having excised every double space between sentences, but it will be better told for it.

And you won’t risk having some pesky twelve-year-old writing to let you know that on page 28, you mixed tenses, and on page 74, “letters” was plural when it should have been singular…

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Trai-Cartwright-HeadshotTrai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.

The Colorado Gold Contest for Unpublished Novelists

noimageYou’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:

The contest is open now for submissions.
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 the Details Right

By Mark Stevens

If I had to pick a favorite prose stylist, it might be John Updike.

(I don’t have to pick, do I?)

Some think his stuff is over-written. I happen to think he was a poet whether he was writing fiction or criticism. Or poetry.

In fact, Updike published eight volumes of poetry in addition to everything else—novels, short stories, and reams of art and literary criticism. Updike died at age 76 and, one of many fascinating tidbits I gleaned from reading Adam Begley’s new biography of the man (Updike), he even wrote his last poem about four weeks before he died.

Prolific? To say the least. David Foster Wallace once asked: “Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?” (I’ve seen that quote without attribution, too. Was it Wallace?)

Updike wrote three hours a day come hell or high water. He was widely hailed for his style and for his ability to elevate ordinary days and ordinary feelings, layered with human depth. He was jaded, wicked, heartfelt, crude, raunchy. And elegant, too.

But he couldn’t rely purely on his imagination. One thing Begley makes clear in his lengthy and highly enjoyable portrait is that John Updike believed in research. Nearly thirty years after he started writing for The New Yorker magazine, after worldwide success and a Pulitzer Prize (the first of two), John Updike still believed in getting the details right.

Stevens_rabbitrichPreparing to to write the third book in his “Rabbit” tetralogy (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, Rabbit at Rest), Updike decided to give his hero Harry Angstrom a new job, running a Toyota dealership in Pennsylvania. For the most part, Updike drew stories from the people and situations that were close at hand—either right down the street or at least familiar social circles. (His critics hate this about him.) As such, he knew nothing about car dealerships.

Updike, writes Begley, “rolled up his sleeves and went to work.” He hired help to untangle the “arcane protocols” of automobile finances and the corporate structure of a dealership—how salesmen are compensated, how many support staff work in the back office, and paperwork involved in importing cars and more. He visited dealerships in the Boston area. “He aimed for, and achieved, a degree of detail so convincing that the publisher felt obliged to append to the legal boilerplate on the copyright page a specific disclaimer: ‘No actual Toyota agency in southeastern Pennsylvania is known to the author or in any way depicted herein.’ ”

Credibility.

As George Saunders talks about (see this March 4 post by Mark), it’s about making the moments on the page “undeniable.” Even with his flashy style and a vocabulary that seemed like it knew no bounds, Updike started with getting the details right.

Rabbit is Rich, by the way, won another Pulitzer.

Final thought: I wish I had the kind of time a full-time writer would have to do this kind of research, but I recently spent a full day driving around Rio Blanco County with Deputy Sheriff John Scott. We drove for hours talking about life and crime around Meeker and upriver toward the Flat Tops Wilderness. I left with a fresh load of powerful details and many ways to (try and) give my new story another chance to be undeniable.
Stevens_Deputy John Scott (800x600)
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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.

Getting in Bed with Your Co-Writer: The Art of Collaborative Writing (Part Two)

By Kym O’Connell-Todd and Mark Todd

Kym and Mark ToddThis is the second in a three-part installment on strategies we’ve found successful as collaborative writers. In the first part, we discussed things to look for in a compatible partner. In this part, we’ll explore examples of how that plays out in practice.

Duo-writing isn’t for everyone, but one clear 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.

The best writers say to write what you know. That’s exactly what we did when we wrote our paranormal comedy-adventure series, the Silverville Saga. We drew upon real personalities and real situations that we’ve experienced or heard about living in the mountainous West. As you’ll recall at the end of the previous post, we cited an example of a scene where sheriff investigators and coroners from adjoining counties come together at the county line to decide who has to take possession of a decomposed corpse. That event – or something close – actually took place between Gunnison and an adjoining county. To be truthful, many of the situations in our first and second books from the series happened somewhere in at least one of our pasts.

For instance, in the first book, Little Greed Men, 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.

The other scene from that same book we cited last time – the one in the embalming room – draws authenticity since Mark’s family owned a mortuary business. But writers contribute more than real-life experiences to a collaborative project. In our case, 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.

Kym has a keen ear for dialog: she can hear the way different characters should talk, and the result is a distinct voice for each. Mark’s characters all tend to talk just like Mark. But Mark bravely jumps right into a scene while Kym endlessly stares at the screen waiting for the right words to come. Kym constantly plays devil’s advocate when it comes to defending the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. If she can’t buy it, she won’t let it happen. Mark, on the other hand, happily plows through a scenario with little regard to where it comes from or where it’s going. That has its advantages, though. Mark, being a college professor and natural nerd, is  never at a loss for how to phrase things. But he tends to embellish, sometimes inserting too much literary texture (that’s the poet in him coming through). Kym champions a more nonintrusive voice, constantly reminding Mark of the kinds of books we both like to read.

Above all else, we prefer escapism – mysteries by John Sanford, Sarah Paretsky, Greg Iles, and Val McDermid; thrillers by Preston and Child, of course, but also those by John Case, Andrew Klavan, Dan Brown, Nelson DeMille, and Michael Crichton; warped fantasies (no dragons or elves) by Jonathan Carroll, Christopher Moore, Mario Acevedo, and Ramsey Campbell; sci-fi by Connie Willis, Charles Sheffield, Cordwainer Smith, John Barnes, Orson Scott Card, and Cory Doctorow. These lists could go on and on.

Okay, we do sometimes read something a little more high-brow. We like Laurie Wagner Buyer, Annie Proulx, Anita Diamant, Sara Gruen, Stacy Richter, Lorrie Moore. And yes, we even read the Pushcarts to keep our pulse on up-and-coming authors.

We read a lot because we think it helps our writing. And we’re shameless when it comes to stealing techniques that impress us. John Case gave The Genesis Code a twist in the final sentence of the book. We liked it so well that we added a final-sentence twist to Little Greed Men – or we thought we had, until the editors read it. Days before our novel went to press, we ate lunch with the publishers to pitch them the sequel. When the conversation came back to the first book, they asked if we planned to reveal the hidden identity of one of the major characters. We thought we had through implied exposition along the way as well as in our original final sentence. They didn’t get it. We rushed home and rewrote the last two paragraphs and final sentence, making that character’s identity unmistakable. It’s a decision we’ve never regretted, and almost all of our readers tell us they didn’t expect that ending. “Oh yeah,” one reader told us, “there were hints throughout the book. I just didn’t put it together until the end.”

Here’s a perfect example of what rigid writing can do to the quality of a story. We just knew the ambiguity at the end of Little Greed Men was enough to clue in our readers. We were wrong. We’ve been wrong about lots of things in our co-writing endeavors
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Several years ago, we wanted to tell an alternate history about Ankh-sen-amun, the wife of King Tut. We read lots of books, did tons of research, and then sat down to outline the story arc. We wrote extensive summaries for twenty-two carefully crafted chapters, and thought to ourselves, “Man, this book is going to write itself!” While this may work for some writers, the strategy completely killed our passion for the project. We remained steadfast and followed our outline to every detail. By six chapters, we’d gotten pretty bored. We hadn’t allowed the characters any voice in where the story was going. We all became miserable, and that manuscript still sits in a drawer at Chapter Six.

What’s become more workable for us is to create a broad-stroke outline that gives us the flexibility to still listen to our characters along the way. They may not always want to go where we had originally planned, and we’ve discovered we’d best listen to them.

We loved the movie, Romancing the Stone, about an author (played by Kathleen Turner) in search of a relationship that could match her novel series’ protagonist. Eventually she found her love (Played by Michael Douglass – gee, imagine that), but falling in love wasn’t easy.

We both tend to fall in love with our mouthiest, out most opinionated and pushy characters, but we don’t always relate to them in the same way. And certainly not like Kathleen Turner’s character did. And the process of encountering characters who take over our stories has really challenged Mark’s notion of how characters come about from the unconscious.

Our experience has produced characters who seem to have emerged at the same time for us both. Take Denton Fine in The Silverville Swindle. He was a nice enough guy from the start – so nice we got bored with him. Originally, we’d tagged Denton as our protagonist, but he turned out to be a little too white-bread for our taste. Same with our real-life friends. If they’re not quirky and eccentric, they don’t make our lunch-date list for long.

Pleasance Pantiwycke, from All Plucked Up, on the other hand, always makes our A-list for lunch. She’s a risk-taker and a slob, a black-marketeer and former female professional wrestler. Who wouldn’t enjoy her conversation? It only took a few pages for her to take over the sequel and become our protagonist.

Switch gears to Skippy from our first novel. She’s the only prominent female in the story, and one would think that Kym would empathize with her personality. Not so. Kym didn’t like spending time with her at all. Getting inside a woman’s head has always been more difficult for Kym, who finds it much easier to relate to men. Ironically, Mark got along with her just fine. This character serves as the main love interest for Billy, the story’s protagonist. We talked at length about how far their intimacy should go and decided, in the end, that it wouldn’t go far at all.

Here’s why: Several years ago, we’d bought a book on how to write erotica, hoping to make scads of money on the romance book wagon. We sat down and drafted out a torrid love scene, but it was simply too embarrassing to put into words. At least our words. “Love shaft” and “hot tunnel of passion” seemed like ridiculous and corny expressions that readers of the genre expected. We know it sells; we just couldn’t do it. When it came to shaping the relationship between Skippy and Billy, we offered a lukewarm story arc, and our editors cried foul. Either consummate that relationship or back it off, they said. We backed off and left it up to the imagination of the readers. For two authors that insist that co-writing is like good sex, we still can’t figure out why we can’t pen erotica.

Billy, don’t ask us why, turned into a protagonist that readers tend to like. We made him a cheat and a conman, and neither one of us really cared much for him. He was central, as the story unfolded, and we got stuck with him. He was also a cast member whose characteristics came from a sleazy guy we both knew years ago. We’re not naming names, but he always used to hit on Kym. Which brings us to where we find our characters. Most are composites of personality types of people everyone knows: Grady, the curmudgeon rancher; Buford, the self-interested town promoter; Howard, the endearing village simpleton – all Silverville Swindle cast members. Maybe it’s telling that we were most attached to Howard and easily crawled inside his head:

Howard liked to pedal. He didn’t have to think about anything else – just push the right foot down and then push the left foot down. Sometimes he went so slow that his bike would wobble, but then he’d stand up on his pedals and pump until he sped up fast enough that it felt like flying.

In some ways, it reminded him of massaging limbs. Whenever he helped Mr. Fine embalm bodies, Howard’s job was to squeeze the arms and legs so the blood could come out and the embalming fluid could go in. At least, that’s what Mr. Fine said it was for. First the right leg, and then the left leg. Just like pedaling.

Howard looks at the world in a very simple way that makes sense to the child in all of us, and it was soothing to write from his perspective, taking everything at face value.

Buford is modeled after a specific person, but again we’re not naming names. It’s been interesting to us to watch our community try to guess his real identity. No one ever has, and probably won’t. Buford and all of our characters emerge from some weird shared consciousness where we meet and get to know the folks who live within the city limits of Silverville and the environs.

But that’s not the strangest part of co-writing. Next time we’ll talk about those characters we didn’t know could exist when you’re a writing duo – those that somehow mysteriously leap from our collective minds and take over our stories…

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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.

Inspiration

By Jeanne Stein

Recently I was asked to talk about what inspires me as a writer and a person. My first automatic response was everything. But then I realized I might be confusing inspiration with the process of creation—-taking an idea and developing it into a story.

Two different things.

The muse that sparks an idea can be anything. I get ideas from newspapers, television shows, eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations, other books. Ideas float on the air like dandelion snow. You only have to hold out your hand to grab one. Ideas are the beginning of the creative process.

Inspiration is something else. Inspiration is what makes me sit down at the computer everyday. It’s what helps me through the dark days when it seems I’m fighting a losing battle against the indifference of critics and sometimes even my agent and editor. It’s fighting the urge to give up when a brand new writer comes out of nowhere and wins that huge contract complete with movie and TV rights and a six-figure advance. And then reading the book and realizing, it is that good.

We all need inspiration. Something to recharge the soul and get us excited about life. It’s that voice inside that says keep going. It’s the message I hoped my character Anna Strong would impart. It’s the voice that says women are strong and clever and capable of great bravery—-with or without super powers.

I’ve come to believe a writer needs to be his or her own inspiration. We need to have faith in our abilities and the determination to persevere. We can take strength from those around us, but ultimately, we our responsible for ourselves.

We are all our own inspiration.

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Jeanne C. SteinJeanne Stein is the bestselling author of the Urban Fantasy series, The Anna Strong Vampire Chronicles. Her award winning series has been picked up in three foreign countries and her short stories published in collections here in the US and the UK. Her latest Anna book, Blood Bond, was released August 27, 2013. Jeanne’s newest endeavor is in collaboration with author Samantha Sommersby: The Fallen Siren Series. Published under the pseudonym S. J. Harper, the first book in that series, Cursed, was released Oct. 2013, book two, Reckoning, will be out this October.

S. J. Harper: http://fallensiren.com/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000177556968

The Second Book is Like Sex … by Aaron Michael Ritchey

Aaron_Michael_Ritchey.jpgWell, Long Live the Suicide King is now in the world. It’s in the collection of books that human beings have produced. I have an ISBN for it, which is the second ISBN I have. Two down and another hundred to go. Edgar Rice Burroughs said that if you wrote a hundred books, at least a couple might be good. So that is the plan.

Now, I’ve been asked if the second time is better, worse, easier, harder?

It’s infinitely easier. Like sex.

My first time with actual sex was a disaster. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say no one, not the warmest, fuzziest romance writer nor the sleaziest porn producer could capture the tragi-comedy of my first sexual experience. But I’d like to think I got better with the whole sex thing. I did it right at least twice: both the sex thing and the book thing.

I wrote the book, edited the book, and got the book out into the world. Which for me is a minor miracle. I used to write books and book and books and then shelve them because I was too afraid to query agents or editors. And I knew that what I had was blech, but my next idea? My next magnum opus would shatter the publishing world with its brilliance. With the fire of a new idea scorching me, I would start with the lovely blank page and churn out another novel no one would ever read. And so on and so on and so on. It was good practice, but in the end, for me, if I am not seeking out readers, writing becomes an exercise of self-pleasure. And that is what I did alone for years and years.

Ritchey_Suicide KingI don’t get to sit on books anymore. I’ve spent decades working on my writing, and for me to not share my books with the world because of self-centered fear is a crime. And sad. I’ve lived most of my life too terrified to move, but not anymore.

Yes, the second book was easier. I know so much more about pre-orders, about reviews, about starting early, about the kind of marketing material I need. And I didn’t dread my book launches because a book launch is a party I throw for all the people I love.

I’m excited about hand-selling my new book, however odd it might be. The Never Prayer had a nice hook. Angels, demons, love, sure. The new book is my happy, little suicide book. It’s funny, but yeah, it’s about suicide. Yikes. However, it’s also about hope, donuts, Christian girls, the ‘hood, and a very Laurence Fishburne villain.

Like 13 Reasons Why meets The Matrix! Without the sci-fi element.

Yes, I’m still nervous about having another book out there. And yeah, I have high hopes and impossible dreams swimming around in my head, but do you know what?

I’m enjoying the process.

For right this second, I don’t need riches and fame to be happy about my writing career. I’m enjoying where I am and what I am doing right now, which is a miracle. And at times? I even pine for my pre-published days!

But that is a waste, longing for the past.

I’m doing the deal right now. I’m writing books and I’m finding publishers for them. Not big publishers, but publishers, and I’m excited about the prospect of going rogue and independently publishing.

So to celebrate, I’ll be doing a little giveaway, not just my new book, Long Live the Suicide King, but also Black by Catherine Winters and The Prophetess: At Risk by Linda Rohrbough.

All you have to do is leave a comment on this post by the end of Saturday (May 3rd) that describes one good thing about the writing life you are experiencing right now. Or, if you’re not a writer, something good about reading books, owning books, buying books, shelving books, underlining books, or anything book!

I’ll mail you out the books and it will be epic! Free books!

Life is sweet!

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Aaron Michael Ritchey’s first novel, The Never Prayer, was published in March of 2012 to a fanfare of sparkling reviews including an almost win in the RMFW Gold contest. Since then he’s been paid to write steampunk, cyberpunk, and sci-fi western short stories, two of which will appear in a new fiction magazine, FICTIONVALE. His second novel, Long Live the Suicide King, is out and giving hope to the masses. As a former story addict and television connoisseur, he lives in Colorado with his wife and two ancient goddesses posing as his daughters.

For more about him, his books, and how to overcome artistic angst, visit his website. He’s on Facebook as Aaron Michael Ritchey and he tweets – @aaronmritchey.

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.