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.

You Can Have The “Suprise Kiss” When You Pry It From My Cold, Dead Lips

I am very glad there are so many helpful articles about avoiding sexism and racism in our writing, but why do so many of them make my blood boil?

These articles are a mix of sensible thoughts, badly chosen examples, condescending attitude, and weirdly unhelpful tips for improving your work.  I’ve decided to no longer post those types of articles on Facebook or Twitter, even for the lively debates.  The most recent of these, an article about the harmful effects of sexist tropes applied to male characters, left me with a bad taste and these helpful impressions:

  1. We can only write about well-balanced characters.  No Fatally Flawed People!
  2. All characters must have a wholesome and fulfilling home life, with perfect parents.
  3. Everyone must be a winner, and nobody can be unattractive AND a bad person.
  4. No seducing anybody, male or female, ever.  No changing your mind.
  5. Don’t match negative qualities with stereotypes, or… something…  What?

I get it, writers are trying to help other writers.  I’m trying to pass along helpful tips, too.  But the sheer audacity to feel you can write down a set of rules to control what can or cannot be written about stuns and infuriates me. I will use anything and everything I need to tell the story.  If I get it wrong and readers don’t like it, fine.  I will dig my hole with my own damn shovel, not a borrowed one.

It is the suggestions about sexual assault and rape that really ball up my fists.  There are some very uncomfortable truths about these topics.  Yes, male rape exists.  No, you shouldn’t include rape in the story to make a character more interesting.  Seduction exists.  Changing your mind isn’t rape.  Men and women have the right to change their mind about a situation.  Someone can go from dislike or nervous trepidation to accepting sexual advances without losing consent, and can also reverse that decision.  Consent isn’t a fixed point.

But to suggest that no one should ever write about sexual situations that aren’t 100% consensual to all parties is ridiculous and unrealistic.  Yes, consent and rape are controversial subjects, but to silence writers and other storytellers is sweeping the subject under the rug.  As a writer and a survivor of rape, I Will Not Be Silenced! I will use the emotions, unflinchingly, to tell a story.  You live through it, or you die inside.  You can get professional or spiritual help, but it is the internal self that makes that decision.  Being told I can’t write about all of my experiences, whether in fiction or blogging, is my trigger.

Heart pounding, muscles tensed, skin tingling as my senses expand.  Weight shifting to my toes, ready to fight or take flight.  Hands clenched next to a keyboard as I read a damn article.  On a computer.  In my home.  That is what a f**king trigger is like.  It’s a visceral reaction I found–oddly enough–reading words meant to silence me, not words in some novel (with or without a trigger warning).

Trigger warnings are a nice idea, but unrealistic.  You can’t bubble wrap the world.  You learn to survive, just like with any other type of abuse.  You learn to cope.  To thrive.  In my case, to write.

I guess it’s not too surprising that my plots tend towards Romance (and because I don’t look away from the relationship once it ends up in a bedroom, shifts over to Erotica).  The edges of consent and seduction fascinate me.  The negotiation of ego verses vulnerability, and who you choose, and why.  Who pulls at you, opening your soul, giving you a safe place to simply exist?  Who becomes your bedrock, a stable place to stand and face the world?

Do I think surprise kisses are bad?  NO!  Look, if you misread a situation and go all “50 Shades” in an elevator, you deserve the sexual assault charges.  Attraction doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Consent can be implied through action and reaction.  We are past the formal courtship rituals of bygone eras, and you don’t have to ask for permission and have a clearly stated “Yes” for every level of contact.  Body language exists, learn it.

All first contact, like a touch on the hand, is a risk.  Both the chance for outright rejection, and the chance for pushing a line too far because you misread the situation.  If no one ever took that risk, there will be a lot less love, happiness, and children in the world.  You might as well supply your genetic sample to a computer and let it make the next generation in sterile laboratories.  Personally, I don’t want to live in a world without good surprise kisses, even at the risk of bad surprise kisses.

Life isn’t sanitized for your protection.  Live, laugh, and get messy.  I hope you receive at least one steamy, decadent, toe-curling surprise kiss in your lifetime.  It is well worth the risks.

5 Things I Have Learned About E-Book Reviews

  1. Authors NEED Your Reviews.  Maybe not famous authors (like J.K. Rowling, she’s doing fairly well), but those writing for a small genre e-press or the independent e-publishers really need reviews.  Really, really need those reviews.  If by some chance someone from their social media circle looks their book up, OR they get browsed while someone is swiping through pages and pages of books of a favorite genre, the number and rating of the reviews can make or break that sale.  Most readers learn to shy away from zero to few reviews, or if the reviews are all low stars.  (I’ve learned the hard way that these rough draft monstrosities–typed by a monkey and formatted on LSD–are often not worth the money they’re printed on.  Get it?  Printed?  Sorry.)
  2. Authors Need Hard Numbers.  The numbers game is always changing, and it’s hard to find hard data, but the word on the street is that currently 25 reviews will put an author on the “you might also like” Amazon list.  Fifty puts them in the running for feature exposure and other benefits. Sixty is the minimum rumored for BookBub, often cited as one of the most helpful platforms.  (Personally, already having sixty reviews sounds fairly successful, but I guess it’s just the start of becoming the next big thing.)
  3. Authors Shall Not Engage Their Reviewers.  Thank them, if you wish, on your blog or somewhere else. Don’t get cozy on the review page, you are setting a dangerous precedent.  I think authors get surprised by that first one star review, and jump to defend their work.  Don’t.  Even if it’s a wildly inaccurate review, or even a personal attack.  It is always the author that comes off as unreasonable, and they are the only one with a real stake in the review process.  Goodreads is starting to get a bad reputation for authors getting trashed by other writers and proto-writers, and that includes deliberate catfishing.  Setting your followers on them is probably a bad idea, also.  Mob mentality is particularly nasty in the online world. (Don’t be the orc that whips the trolls into attacking.)
  4. It’s a Review, Not a Book Report.  Keep it short and to the point.  Most people will not bother to read your ten paragraph critique and summary.  A single paragraph, or even a sentence or two, is plenty.  Everybody has things to do, and you can spend the time reading and reviewing another book.  (I also don’t bother with less than a three star review.  For my reasoning check my blog, “Why I Won’t Give a One Star Review.”)
  5. Five Star Reviews Don’t Promise a Good Book.  Sometimes an author has a fan base that is rabid, despite the book being a drug fueled, simian screech pounded into unreadable prose.  Feel free to poke that hornet’s nest with a one star review, but I prefer to back away slowly.  (It’s a tactical withdrawal.  Really.)

I’m still the newcomer to this madhouse of self-publishing, but I’m beginning to find my footing on the black light lit, mattress strewn, maze of contradictions.  My heartfelt thanks go out to those who are helping us noobs, holding our hands and lighting a penlight in the darkness.