Daydreaming “In Calabria”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeter S. Beagle published “The Last Unicorn” in 1968.  He was twenty-nine.  I was born the same year, so that book was not immediately on my reading list.

In fact, I did not discover the story until the 1982 animated film.  It would not be an exaggeration to say it helped shape my life.  It was one of many films and books that molded my view of the world, including my fascination and love for animation, movies, storytelling, myths, and fairy tales.  I never grew out of those first loves, and over time I learned that was a fine thing.  I still dream of the Red Bull, waves of unicorns coming in on the tide, human folly, and a unicorn’s regret.

I was in my twenties before I got a hold of a copy of the book he had written.  It was sublime.  I found more of Mr. Beagle’s books in my thirties and forties, but not all, to my current embarrassment.  The books I read were all very fine things.  He’s not a rock-star author, nor a household name, but I adore his command of language.  His prose weaves a subtle spell created from ethereal mists and hard labor.

I was shocked to find his latest work, “In Calabria,” in my local library’s new arrivals, but in a pleasant way.  I honestly didn’t realize he was still writing at 78.  This is a new goal for me, to be still publishable at that age, even if it’s too late to match being published in my twenties.

So, I’m currently in book-dream-land.  It’s a timely vacation, since I am at a point in my life where I need help believing in the intangible magics, like love, justice, and hope.  Writer whining, unhelpful suggestions, and ridiculous posturing will be lacking this week, and maybe, that is a fine thing, too.

Happy writing, and please support your local library!

How Do I Avoid ALL of the Vampire Tropes and Clichés When Writing About Vampires?

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How do you avoid ALL of the Vampire tropes and clichés when writing about Vampires?

You can’t.

Seriously, you can’t.  If you have a story idea, just write it.  Yes, it has all been done and said before, especially if it involves vampires.  Or dystopian futures.  Or romance.  Or aliens. Or magic.  Or pretty much everything you can think of.

Who cares?  Do you have an idea?  A twist?  Are you mixing in science?  Or back to gothic supernatural?  Horror?  Something lighter?  Does it sound like it would be fun to write?  Then write it.  Later you can decide if it is useable or publishable.  People love this stuff for a reason, and a good story is always a good story.  Just don’t tell the same old story in the same old way.  Tell YOUR version.  Don’t you realize that EVERYBODY ELSE GOT IT WRONG!

I follow a couple of writer’s  Facebook pages, and I keep seeing questions like the title of this blog (or similar questions), over and over.  I used to comment, but I was one of many voices, and lost in the landslide of opinion.  Now, I just shake my head and scroll past.

Your choices are to not write about vampires at all, or just get in there and mix things up.  Play with the tropes.  Joke about them, and laugh with the reader.  Or make them scary, again.  Turn ideas on their head, inside out and upside down.  Build a world with hard and fast rules, or merely guidelines.  Find the source material and mine out the purest elements.  Take the mythology apart for the parts you want, and ignore what doesn’t work for you.

It doesn’t matter who or how many have written about vampires before.  Nobody else in the world has the exact personal mythology as you.  It is made up of all of the stories you have come across, real and fictional, liked or not, and the order they arrived in your life.  You are different from everyone else. Books, movies, family secrets, TV, conversations, cultural traditions, arguments, lucky happenings, personal tragedies; they all affect how YOU see the world.

Tropes and clichés–as annoying as they can be–are our shared mythology.  Don’t fear them.  They are your friends.  They show us that we are similar enough to understand each other, but different enough to learn from each other’s point of view.  They link us to people we have never met.

Don’t let writing what you love make you afraid of being repetitive.  Write the story you want to read.  If you decide you want to be published, then revise and edit to current standards.  It’s hard work, so decide if it’s worth it.

Just remember lots of people won’t like it , no matter what it is.  Make peace with that, or tell them to feck off, whichever is your style.  Hopefully, you will find an audience that loves the world and characters you created, and beg you for more.

Most importantly, and in the words of Noah Lukeman, “Don’t bore the reader.”

Writer’s Crack!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWriter’s crack is real!  No, this isn’t about the pants-sliding-down-while-you-type crack, like the plumber’s crack of comedy gold.  We’re talking about things that put you into a frenzy to write a newly inspired story.  Every writer has triggers, and if you’re lucky you can find them and use them to get out of a slump.

A couple of years ago, while browsing through a used book store, I found a book about English fairy tales and–of course–purchased it.  (That’s it, up on the need-to-read shelf.  The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by W. Y. Evens-Wentz.)  The subject has always fascinated me; it was not my first, and certainly not my last such book.  Some weeks later, on a lazy Saturday afternoon, I had a moment to crack it open.  The introduction (Yes, I read introductions, prologues, glossaries, appendices, and maps.) was both pleasantly surprising and completely cringe-worthy, in the way of dusty, old, and almost forgotten books.  Apparently, I had in my hand a recent reissue of a book that JRR Tolkien had referenced for his world building.  Even more pleased with my lucky find, and hopefully under the influence of a little mystical foresight, I happily delved into the first chapter…

AND FIRMLY SHUT IT, bookmarked on chapter two.  The after images in my head, while my body lay snugly anchored on my couch with the book clasped in unmoving hands, spun like leaves heralding the start of a stormy spring.  The stories!  Characters!  Battles!  Lighting, tempests, swords, grief, love, fear, and loss that is an ache that pierces to the soul’s depth.

I held completely still.  The overfull brain must not be disturbed.  A new/old world sloshed against the sides of it.  For a dry and dated tome, first published in 1911, it held a surprising lushness.

I was aware of movement deep in my psyche.  There was something lurking in my mind.  Lurking like an elder god and getting called to the surface.  The Leviathan rises, or worse…

Unfortunately, I already had three multi-book story arcs that had been clawing at the insides of my skull, rudely pushing each other out of line and snarling to be first.  I closed that wonderful book HARD–like the doors of Tartarus–just to preserve my soul from the punishments I likely deserved.  It contained the breath of Titans snoring, and (as anyone who has lived with a chronic snorer learns) I heard the sound of something nearing an awakening.

It sits on my shelf, unobtrusively, but whispering to me I quiet moments.  I know that like Pandora, I am doomed to open it…

Eventually.  For now, it sits.  It’s writer’s crack, or something like.

Hopefully, a story is really in there, but I think I may need to be a more experienced writer to do it justice.  It’s not the only story I have saved for later in my career.  For now, I have my other stories that I am currently passionate about, and willing to learn on.

This past weekend I added three more of The Lost Library book series to my shelf, risking collusion among them.  Myths are my weakness, and my wellspring.  I–apparently–like to live dangerously.

And that, folks, is about as close as I get to a written book review.  Not an Amazon review (I’ll do those anytime for books I like, especially for independent authors), but an actual blog review.  It’s not my thing, and lots of other people do a really good job of them.  And despite the heavy-handed use of metaphor in this post, it really doesn’t begin to describe what was happening to my brain.

But, I am curious if this has ever happened to any of you?

The Low-Budget Writing Program: Part 4 When the Manuscript Goes in the Garbage…

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When the manuscript is going to the garbage can, what do you save?

I’ve been lucky enough to have writer friends who will loan me books they think will be helpful to me. It’s amazing how timely these incidents can be. My observations of synchronicity in my own life make me more aware when my instincts tell me to do things–random things–even when I don’t know why.  Even if I will never know why.

So, I am going to insert a passage from a book I’ve just read, and I’m not going to tell you who the author is, or what the title is, yet.  Just play along, as if it’s your manuscript…

On impulse, I held up her manuscript.  “Okay,” I said.  “We both know there’s a problem and we don’t know how to fix it.  Let’s pretend for a minute that I’m going to throw this manuscript into the garbage.”

She leaned forward in her seat, hands gripping the arms of her chair.  I dropped the manuscript onto the floor beside me.

“It’s gone.  Into the garbage.  You’re never going to be able to write it now.  You’ll never see the characters again.  I want you to think about that.”

I could feel her thinking.

“If you could reach in and pick out just one part of that story, just one thing you don’t want to let go of, what would it be?”

Did you come up with anything?  Instinctually, did you grab for something in your own WIP?  I sure did. Hold on to that thought.

The book I got that from?  “Writing Romance” (Self-Counsel Press, Bellingham, WA 1997) by Vanessa Grant.  It’s written in the workbook style and full of helpful information, and I have found it far more useful than I thought I should.  Since it is nearly twenty years old some of the information is outdated because publishing and the internet has changed, but the Romance genre still has a lot of the same expectations.  Vanessa Grant has a soothing but insightful way of picking apart what makes a good, satisfying story.  She cautions, throughout her book, that anything not working for the entire story must be cut.  (My Sci-fi Romance has some issues I can’t afford to ignore.)

But tucked into that genre specific writing book was THAT little gem.  The Vanessa Grant Garbage Can Test.  Brilliant.   There is a formal exercise included in the book, but I found the narrative  of the original incident far more helpful.  Since my blog is geared for newer writers, like myself, I couldn’t help but pass on that little bit of insight.

WHY are you writing your particular story?  You need to know.  If you lose what is important to you, how can you hope to make it important to a reader?  Anything that doesn’t serve the core of the story will be cut out (and filed away for another story).

Anyway, my own copy of this book will go into the permanent collection of my after-the-rough-draft revision guides.  The rest of the books in that helpful collection are in this article, safely tucked next to the rescued manuscripts that took part in the above nerve-wracking photo shoot.

Back to my revisions.  Good luck with your own WIP.

The Low-Budget Writing Program: Part 3 Take Over the Literary World!

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This is a short post since it’s my vacation week, and there aren’t many writers tackling how to take over the literary world.

To date I have only found John Warner, the master of the fake famous writer quote, in the form of his helpful “Fondling Your Muse” (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati 2005).  From the confusing dedication to the ridiculous blurbs on the back of the book, it’s packed with awful rules-to-live-by and terrible advice. He explains how and why to write your Manifesto, the place you alternately smash all writers who have come before AND promise to be the light in a dark, sewer-like world.  He also touches on the importance of preparing your Acceptance speech for all those awards you are going to receive.  Don’t miss the quiz, “So You Want To Be A Writer,” that proves only a self-destructive ego-maniac would choose to be a writer.  There is also some stuff about writing, like plot, character, and point of view and such nonsense.  I wasn’t paying attention.  I was envisioning the life of wealthy ease he promised if I followed his path to writerly fame.

Seriously, if you need to share in venting about the ridiculous contradictions of a writer’s life, or you just need a break from Serious Writer Stuff, pick it up and enjoy.

If you missed last week’s post, “The Monster in My Manuscript,” it was about books that will help you analyze and revise your rough draft.

Next week I will start in on the topic of syntax and grammar, in “How to Slay the Many-Headed Grammar Hydra!” [OR, I will keep putting that blog off, in a state of numb panic over my inexperience, and next post about putting your manuscript in the garbage.]

The Low-Budget Writing Program: Part 2 The Monster in My Manuscript

Just when I think there may be some breathing room between culture crises, along comes another one.  Now, almost everyone I know or follow is pointing fingers at one issue or group as being the sum of all the world’s problems.  I think the biggest problem is too many people are screaming their opinions and not taking the time to listen to the real problems.  There is some big picture stuff happening in our culture, but we only see the symptoms.  It’s like those Magic Eye pictures, you have to step back and change your focus, then you see the three-dimensional shark.  Time to wake up, people!

Meanwhile, I will stay in my book-lined safe space and tell you about the “How to” writing books that helped me to understand that the very raw first drafts I scribbled were worth developing into manuscripts, and how I was able to approach revision.

The first of these, and the book I consider the benchmark for storytelling, is “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” (Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, CA 1998) by Christopher Vogler.  It analyzes Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey theory, one of the most basic story structures, from the point of view of a veteran story consultant and scriptwriter.  Vogler really delves into why this kind of story speaks to humans, and cites plenty of examples to help you to understand the concepts.  He even gives workbook questions at the end of each chapter to help you apply the concepts to your favorite stories.  If you read through it, with your own finished rough draft in mind, I think you can’t help but see ways to improve your work.  Vogler admits that any and all of the guideline he presents can be broken, sometimes to great effect, but it’s easier to be a breakout writer if you already know what is expected and actually works. [Since posting this, I have had a chance to read the third edition (2007) of this book.  Vogler goes much deeper and broader into the theory, and you really shouldn’t miss it!]

Because of the popularity of  writing stories from the woman’s point-of-view, usually more introspective and self-creative than the Hero’s Journey, many articles are being written to accommodate this shift of focus.  Personally, I haven’t found any of these articles to be half as effective as “The Virgin’s Promise” (Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, CA 2009) by Kim Hudson.  This book maps out the journey stages of self-awareness found in many Fairy Tales, and the mythical princess breaking out of her tower plotline.  It is similar to the Hero’s Journey in some ways, but widely different in others.  Don’t assume this it is only for female characters, because it is about the idea of growing beyond the role society has placed on you.  In my current work-in-progress it is the male antagonist/love interest who is firmly on this path, and it was easier to understand him once I knew this.

Another way to check your rough draft is to run it past Noah Lukeman, a prominent New York literary agent, in the form of his book, “The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life” ( St. Martins Griffin, New York 2002).  It is written in a crisp, insightful way developed from his many years of reading manuscripts.  (Over fifty thousand in five years.  Yikes!) The first two chapters are full of questions you had better have an answer to, before you send your work to an agent or publisher.  Probably the biggest impression I got from his advice was Don’t Bore The Reader!  Boredom equals an unfinished or discarded book; a book that doesn’t get recommended, and word-of-mouth is the best promotional tool for a writer.  I personally love his Sahara-dry wit and no-nonsense advice.  Mr. Lukeman also has another book high on my reading list called “The First Five Pages” that I suspect will be just as important to read, since that is where you hook your reader into the whole story.

“How to Write a Damn Good Novel” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1987) by James N. Frey is another excellent resource you can use to refine your story.  He covers the usual topics of character, conflict, plot, climax, voice, etc… in a very readable and engaging way, but also covers such in-depth topics as theme, premise, and symbolism in a way that makes sense to the writer and satisfies the reader (and how to not over-use these hidden gems).  The age of this book makes it a bit out of date in the current e-book and internet savvy world, but you should still be able to wield those skills he tries so hard to instill. I won’t re-read it after every first draft, but once a year or so might be a good idea.

Another important book, if the sheer number of sticky paper tags sprouting from the closed book is any indication, is “By Cunning & Craft” (Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati 2007) by Peter Selgin.  He covers many of the same topics as the other books, but everyone has their own spin on the way to address and analyze the questions EVERY writer asks themselves when trying to tell a story.  Mr. Selgin has a deeply insightful way of choosing the tone and style of a particular story, and–more importantly–why.  The subtle nuances of storytelling are his to command, and he will show you by example.  He also encourages you to be as true as possible to your voice, as a writer, while still producing a marketable book.  The chapter on Revision is a well written pat on the head, a tight hug, and some wise words as you are sent on your way.

My internal conflict between the writer’s voice and marketability prompted me to grab onto “The Joy of Writing Sex” (Story Press, Cincinnati 1996) by Elizabeth Benedict with both hands when I found it by chance in a used book store, and to not let go until I had it home.  It was one of very few books that addressed this topic when it was published and completely novel in its approach, although now her advice is the standard model for mainstream novels.  Current trends in off-mainstream books have shifted away from “Less is more” and graphic detail is standard for some sub-genres, especially the many bastard children of Romance and all of the other Speculative Fiction genres, not to mention the increasing popularity of Erotica.  Still, I got a lot out of her examples of restrained detail, along with a greatly increased reading list.  And even this main proponent of “less is more” nearly tittered in horrified fascination as she gave a few examples of the bolder, more graphic writers of her time.  My biggest take away from her book was to be subtle if you can, but if you can’t… go all out!

These are the books I have kept as valued hard copies on my book shelf, and I have saved them for going back to if stuck or confused about my writing.  This is a tiny sample of what is available, so please, feel free to add any books I haven’t mentioned in the comments.  What helped YOU on the road to becoming a writer?  It may just be the one book that will help the next writer coming along.

If you missed it, last week the blog was about “Butt in Chair” and getting the first draft finished.  Next week will be something about how to “Take Over the Literary World!”

The Low-Budget Writing Program: Part 1 Butt in Chair

The political and social issues just keep coming in hits I can’t seem to process, let alone blog about.  So, I’ve decided to work on that annotated bibliography I promised here.  Hopefully it will give other up-and-coming writers a helping hand, although it’s a steadying hand from the side, not pulling you up from a higher place.  This first installment addresses the issue of getting your butt into the chair and making a start.

Stephen King’s “On Writing” (Pocket Books, New York 2001) is the first book that helped me realize it was ok to write the way I was already writing.  High school taught me the proper way to write, with outlines and stuff, but I spent more than twenty years with little to no actual writing, just outlines and notes. When I turned forty-five some mental block must have released, and I started writing prose every free moment. After a year of writing I realized I should do something with it, and started looking for answers.  Stephen King (by way of a used book store) stepped in.  His own story of writing–ignoring people who said it was trash, learning to streamline it for readability, his lucky break that lead to a prolific career–all gave me hope.  I was late to the game, but so what.  Here is the place I learned to just write.  Write until it’s done. Butt in chair.  Just write. Let it suck.  Just finish.  If you do, you are way ahead of all the writers that want to find the time to write but never do, and there are legions of them.

Terry Brooks’ “Sometimes the Magic Works” (Ballantine Books, New York 2003) was back to the proper way to write, with outlines and plans, but he added a caveat to his advice.  It’s ok to write without a plan, it is STILL writing, and writing is the important bit.  The only bit.  His gentle suggestion to organize, outline, and analyze after the story is finished, so you know where you flubbed and need to revise, was the best advice I ever received.  His story of being the rebound guy after Tolkien, and often maligned for being a copy-cat (despite their ways of telling a story being completely different) was a nice added bonus.  Another author’s story of his lucky break gave me hope to someday be so lucky, but I had to write something first.

If fear of failure is your issue, and it’s keeping your butt out of the chair, give “Art & Fear” (Capra Press, Santa Barbara 1993) by David Bayles & Ted Orland a try.  The advice is general, for artists of every type, but the issues we face are nearly identical.  You have the right to express yourself, and it can be a real job–that you are paid to do–if you work to master your medium. Art is work.  Inspiration leads to the drive for mastery, then mastery frees you to work inspired and unfettered.  Put your butt in the chair and write. Become the wordsmith, dialogue master, builder of worlds, and teller of tales.  Breathe out words like air, until you find your writing voice.

If inspiration is your problem, then “Writing From the Inner Self” (Harper Perennial, New York 1991) by Elaine Farris Hughes is helpful.  This isn’t a problem of mine, being a victim of too many ideas, but while perusing through the book I discovered many ways of approaching a plot hole or dry patch.  It’s worth having a copy on your self for stuck-in-mental-quicksand days.  There are also thousands of places to get daily writing prompts and inspiration programs. I follow a couple on WordPress and Facebook.

If your blocks go deeper, and you have a scientific bent to your thinking, then “The Midnight Disease” (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston 2004) by Alice W. Flaherty digs into the biology, psychology and philosophy of writers and why they write.  She writes as both a neurologist and a person suffering/blessed with hypergraphia.  Some may think she is biased because of her condition, but I think it adds a depth of understanding to the issue of the sometimes fragile/sometimes titanium nature of the writer’s brain.

These are the most helpful of the books that I have read to date on the issue of “Butt in Chair”.  I have “Bird by Bird” on my list, but haven’t managed it yet in the whirlwind of writing, revision, editing, blogging, social branding, and networking I’ve experienced in the last two years.  I’m a big proponent of “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear,” so I’m keeping my eye out.

I hope you find this list useful.  Next week, unless I get distracted (squirrel!), we will take a look at analyzing your manuscript, tentatively tilted “Monster in My Manuscript.” Until then…

Happy Writing.