Tag: writing tip

Y is for Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, and Procrastination #atozchallenge

Day Y of the 2013 Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: yesterday, today, tomorrow, and procrastination.

As evident by 4 days’ worth of posts all posted in a couple hours, I have a problem with procrastination. Or not enough of a problem with procrastination.

My thinking goes like this:

  • I have something that needs done by tomorrow.
  • I could work on it today. But I could be doing other more fun stuff today, like napping or reading or being sucked into YouTube or cleaning the ceiling fans.
  • Yesterday/last time I procrastinated, I ended up working super hard at the last minute and getting it done.
  • Therefore, I can procrastinate now just fine.

Fortunately right now I’m mostly working with self-imposed writing deadlines: my upcoming short story book release, May’s Story-A-Day challenge, a short story collection coming out in December. But I’m also starting grad school in a couple weeks, so deadlines will have a lot more meaning.

How do you overcome procrastination?

W is for Writing Resources #atozchallenge

Day W of the 2013 Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: writing resources.


  • Duotrope: subscription-based listing of 4000+ places to submit short stories and poems; gives stats on each publication such as time until response, pay rate, acceptance rate, etc. Definitely worth the price.

General Writing Tips

  • Daily Writing Tips: exactly what it says; a mini lesson on grammar, vocab, punctuation, style, voice, etc, delivered to your inbox six days a week.
  • BubbleCow: tutorials and advice on self-publishing and marketing



  • Scribophile: karma-based critique site where points earned by critting others are spent on posting your own work for crits. Plus a vibrant community of forums and focused writing groups.

If you’re a writer, what resources do you find helpful?

J is for Jesus’s abs #atozchallenge

Day J of the 2013 Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: Jesus’s abs.

A few weeks ago, I came home to this picture on a brochure for a local religious group. This guy is what is commonly referred to as “White Jesus.” It’s a well-known fact that since Jesus was a Jewish carpenter from the Middle East, he would most likely not have brown hair, pale skin, or blue eyes (you can’t see his eyes in this picture but I’m sure they’re blue). But that hasn’t stopped generations of WASPs from portraying him this way, or ignorant Americans from declaring that the Bible should be read in its original English.

Similarly, I’m pulled out of many stories I read when the author gets details wrong. Little things, that could easily be checked. For example, one story I’m beta-reading is set in Michigan, and the plow comes by and plows everyone’s sidewalks and driveways.  Yeah, I wish that was how it worked! Another story has characters stargazing in mid-summer, and they see Orion in the night sky, even though he’s a winter constellation.

It might be big things, too. Like using English terminology for a story set in Seattle. Anachronistic things in historical stories, like inventions 50 years before they were invented.

In my own stories, I try to fact-check as much as possible. For example, I recently wrote a story about guys in a small rock band. One thing my beta-readers were quick to point out was that the guys would load their own equipment, not roadies. And in a story involving a scene set in Iraq, I asked several people who’d been there to fact-check it. They pointed out terminology and protocols that would be fine to a civilian, but stuck out to military personnel.

When you read a story and come across wrong details, what’s your reaction?

And as a writer, how much effort do you put into fact-checking your own stories?

A picture is worth a hundred stories

One of my hobbies is genealogy. I love the research aspect of it – hunting for overlooked relatives with misspelled names on censuses, finding an elusive obituary with my mad Google skills, identifying a long-lost relative that cracks open a whole new branch.

More than that though, I love the stories that make my ancestors come alive. Unfortunately, all that’s usually passed down is names and dates, with nothing that makes someone a real living person.  But occasionally, you come across an old photo that gives you tons of details into the life of someone who died decades or centuries ago.

I’m lucky that my grandmother and great-grandmother both loved not only taking pictures of their daily lives, but scrapbooking as well.  I’m in possession of boxes of old photos that I’m slowly scanning to share with relatives scattered around the globe.

I recently scanned my grandmother’s wedding album, and tonight when she was over for dinner, I asked her to identify someone in one of the pictures.

Rather than just confirm that the man hiding in the back row is indeed her stepfather, she told me about where the picture was taken (her mom’s dining room), details about the furniture (that cabinet is made with all pegs, no nails), and what the wedding party went on to do (marriage, dentistry).

She further explained that she and the maid of honor were best friends and frequently double-dated. The maid of honor didn’t like my future grandfather, and my grandmother didn’t like the maid of honor’s future husband (the best man in this wedding, who was good friends with my grandfather). So one night when the two guys asked the two girls out, my grandma and her friend blew them off instead. The young men wanted to know why, and the girls just said, “Eh.” This happened again the next week, so my grandpa asked my grandma to go skating with him, solo.  They were married six months later.

Looking at this picture, there are so many other stories (all true): a woman who left a man to marry his brother. Another woman who left her own husband to run off with an older married man and live under an alias while they traveled the country as truck drivers during the Depression. A bootlegger uncle. An arranged marriage. A mother who sent her young illegitimate son to live with family in America. An overly-protective mother who undermined her child’s marriage. A woman left widowed with 5 kids after her husband killed himself.

What can your old pictures tell you?

Author interview: Samyann

This week’s interview is with historical romance author Samyann, who’s just released Yesterday: A Novel of Reincarnation.

In Yesterday, Amanda is afraid that everyone she loves will leave her.  But then she meets police officer Mark and is hit by a sense of familiarity.  Guided by her elderly godmother Mary, Amanda uses past life regression analysis to connect with the story of Bonnie, a girl growing up in the shadow of the Civil War and later in 1870’s Chicago.  As the novel progresses, Amanda must decide just how much influence her past will have on her future with Mark.

Samyann recently chatted with me about writing historically accurate stories, self-publishing, and reincarnation.

Me:  Your novel, Yesterday, has three settings: Chicago today, Chicago in 1871, and Charleston, SC, during the Civil War.  Obviously as a native of Chicago you know a lot about the first one.  How much research did you have to do for the other settings?

Samyann: Being a native Chicagoan, it’s not really surprising that I have, over time, picked up quite a bit of the history of the city. I think I learned about much of the Great Chicago Fire history when I was pre-teen. For example, the fact that Chicago’s streets were made of wood blocks covered with tar prior to the fire. There was more research with regard to South Carolina and the Civil War era. The fact that the internet is available to make such research pretty simple, it not only didn’t take very long, but has supplied me with a great deal of information that isn’t in the book.

Me:  Did you travel to Charleston while you were writing the book?

Samyann: Not while working on Yesterday. But, in a previous life, I traveled a great deal. Charleston, and the King Street Antique District, which is part of Yesterday, was visited. I didn’t visit St. Michael’s Church, though. I wish I had, simply because of the awesome history of the bells.

Me:  Previous life as in a hundred and fifty years ago? :D

Samyann: Pretty close!

Me:  What kind of websites were the most helpful to you in your research?

Samyann: The websites that helped the most were library, newspaper archives, and city sites. An example is The Charleston Mercury website. Bonnie’s father, one of the characters in Yesterday, reads about the battle of Shiloh in the paper. This battle was chronicled by The Charleston Mercury, and you can read about it on-line today. There are also quite a few sites devoted to the Civil War. Dates were relevant to accurately convey character ages. Chicago has it’s own valuable resources, such as the Chicago History Museum and website, Historical Society, too. These helped a great deal given the fact that Lincoln, an Illinois politician, is factored into the story, if only for the escape of the characters into Lincoln Park from the Chicago Fire.

Me:  The Chicago History Museum provided you with a picture for your cover, right?

Samyann: That’s correct. It is a terrific diorama that can be seen at the Chicago History Museum, at LaSalle Street and North Avenue.

Me:  Did you just call them up and ask to use it for your cover?

Samyann: Yes. I simply made a phone call. There is an agreement I had to sign, which allows for a certain number of copies. If I manage to sell ‘X’ number of copies of their image, the agreement will be re-written. I will be delighted to re-write the contract ;-)

Me:  Past-life regression therapy plays a huge role in your novel.  Did that require a lot of research too, or were you already familiar with it?

Samyann:  I think the concept of regression is something everyone has wondered about. I’ve the same fundamental knowledge about the topic as everybody … that and curiosity, primarily. Toss in some imagination, and voila. Seriously, I did do considerable research into the process of regression, bringing someone into an ethereal state. I wanted people who are studied in the process, and even those who are not, to sense reality. The concept of using the pendulum of the clock as opposed to the hypnotist swinging a shiny object or watch just seemed logical.

Me: I think you’re definitely right, that everyone has wondered about reincarnation at some point.  Given that, and all you probably discovered with your research, how plausible do you think your story is?  In other words, do you believe in reincarnation?

Samyann:  As indicated in Yesterday, a few billion people on earth believe in reincarnation, so I’m not sure I’d put up a very good case against the concept. I think the plausibility is there, sufficient enough for the reader to simply ask themselves, “what if … or why not?”

Me: Way to dodge the question.  :)

Samyann:  Cool, huh.

Me:  If it is possible, who do you think you might have been in a previous life?  Someone famous? Some ordinary?

Samyann:  I’m sure someone equally as ordinary as I am today.

Me:  What about the idea in the story that our paths are connected with someone else, throughout all our lives? Do you think that’s possible too?

Samyann: Why not? That’s a concept in reincarnation called “soul pods,” traveling through many lives within a group of souls. In reality, the entire concept of reincarnation is speculative, with many different thoughts. I don’t think anyone could say with a degree of surety that any one possibility is impossible. That negates the idea of speculation, which is basically what Yesterday is about.

Me:  You definitely have a soul pod going in Yesterday, with Amanda, Mark, and Mary connected both in the present and the past.  I think from a reader’s perspective, though, it makes it a lot easier to connect the two stories.  Amanda=Bonnie. Amanda’s struggles parallel Bonnie’s struggles.

Samyann:  Don’t forget Oprah and Electra :-) [my note: those are Amanda’s and Bonnie’s cats]

Me:  It goes to show that while Yesterday is a romance, it’s not just about the love story between Amanda and Mark; it’s about coming to grips with your past and letting go of it so you can move forward.  Do you think this theme is something that’ll resonate with your readers?

Samyann:  I hope so. I’d like the reader to grasp that happiness is in reach for everyone. But, your happiness today is in your future today, not your past … Yesterday.  EWWWW, how cool is that!

Me:  How similar is Amanda’s character to you?

Samyann: Well, she’s young and beautiful, so we can nix that part :-). Maybe a few decades ago we would have had more in common. Primarily I think, if anything, some of my life experiences might be in her character, a bit. But, they’re also in the other characters. Mary’s in particular.

Me: I think Mary might be my favorite character.  She’s the ideal old woman – lively and comfortable enough with herself to say and do whatever she wants.  That’s how I plan to be when I’m old.

Samyann:  She’ll tell you to have at it, and “don’t pick fly shit outta pepper.”

Me:  That’s disgusting, by the way.

Samyann: LOL

Me:  On a completely non-disgusting topic, you self-published not only a hard copy of your book, but you’ll soon have an e-book and an audio book.  What are your overall thoughts on the whole process?

Samyann:  That it takes time. Lots and lots of time. That it’s not as expensive as I thought it would be. Granted, I did spend a bit to have a custom cover design, and purchased the services of a narrator for the audiobook. But, beyond that, the entire publishing process has been free. I think given the state of affairs with the publishing business today, what an individual with average tech-savvy ability can do, there really is no option anymore. Why would I use a conventional publisher to do what I can do? The biggest marketing effort they do for you is to list your book with Amazon and a few other on-line and bricks & mortar bookstores like Barnes & Noble. Well, I can do that myself so I fail to see why I shouldn’t.

Me:  So you’d do the same thing for your next novel?

Samyann: Absolutely. Unless some big publishing outfit offers me a huge advance, which we know won’t happen.

Me: I just read a quote by author Jon Scalzi, who said, “Hey, I became a writer to get rich.”  Is that your motivation?

Samyann:  No. I write because it’s fun, I’m retired with little else to do, and I always wanted to write when I had the time. When you’re retired, everyday is Saturday.

Me: Fair enough.  :)  What tips do you have for other writers who want to get published?

Samyann:  If you have what you believe to be a good story, and others have told you it’s a good story … don’t wait for the gatekeepers (agents), do it yourself. There are many avenues. Get your book read by others, join a critique site. Yesterday-Chapter 1 had close to 100 critiques. Many people need to tell you that you have a good story, not just “mom.”

Make sure to check out Samyann’s book, Yesterday: A Novel of Reincarnation.  You can also connect with her on Twitter – @Samyann_Writer – or at her website.

Author interview: Laurie Paulsen

Today I’m lucky enough to be interviewing author Laurie Paulsen, whose book Grasping at Shadows: A Collection of Short Stories, has just come out.  She recently chatted with me about what she puts into her dark horror stories and why, as well as sharing some advice for fellow writers.

Me: Okay, first question: Why do you write such dark stories?

Laurie: It’s funny, because I’ve tried to write other types of stories, but they’ve never felt “meaty” to me. My mind wanders, I lose interest. Maybe I write dark stories because they’re the stories I like most to read. That may be a circular answer.

I also like watching how characters face the worst possible experiences. I identify with them, like I hope other people do, and it’s revealing to imagine living through (or not) traumatic events.

Me: You mention you like to read dark stories.  What are some of your favorites?

Laurie: Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge is amazing. It’s a short novel; he’s also written several short stories, all of which are great (those I’ve been able to find.) Everybody mentions Stephen King, but I do admire his ability to create memorable characters. I still think of the Petrie boy from Salem’s Lot, and I read that book in the late 70’s (I think.)  Dan Simmons writes everything, and I liked his Children of the Night very much. Also, Carrion Comfort scared the crap out of me, in a building tension sort of way. I never took Frankenstein very seriously until I read the book, and the level of disturbing accomplished in that book is impressive. A short, intense read.

Me: Speaking of tension – what is it that you find so scary in stories?  In some of your stories – for instance, “Retribution,” Night Dust,” and “Ritual Magic,” you show us the bad stuff that lurks in the dark.  But in others – like “Basement Jacks” – it could easily be portrayed as the main character’s imagination.  Which to you is scarier – identifying what’s there, or just hinting at it?

Laurie: I’ve seen way too many horror films that start strong and then peter out, once you figure out what’s really going on. So, the imagination can do a lot for the story, allowing people to picture their own version of a particular terror. Regarding the stories in which I try to be specific, I probably started out with that particular image in my head and built the story around it. That happens a lot. I find children especially frightening, when there’s something “off” about them – so, I use that often. It may appear I enjoy doing horrible things to children in my stories, but really, they’re the scary ones.

Me: I’d definitely agree with that.  “Basement Jacks,” about a little girl whose walls talk to her, is freaky.

Laurie: I remember thinking the threat in “Basement Jacks” was so clearly supernatural, but several people have read it as a story of child neglect. Layers, man. I’ve got layers.

Me: You certainly do, and I think with those layers your stories can be read over and over again, because they don’t rely on a gimmick ending.  It’s a great thing to read in short stories, where you have to cram in so much.  Do you try to write with a specific word count in mind, or do you let the story decide how long it should be?

Laurie: Thank you for that. I’m happy they work all right, and love that they’re re-readable. I don’t typically work toward a word count, but start with a specific image or nugget of an idea and just see where it goes. Sometimes it goes absolutely nowhere, and I end up in the kitchen with a sandwich. Other times, it’ll grow legs and run off with me. I’m still working on developing the skills for longer work. I’d love to write novels, eventually.

I’m very conscious as I write of not boring people. That may be why there’s so much crammed into relatively few words.

Me: I assume your novels would be just as dark as your short stories?

Laurie: Likely. I wish I could write romance, actually. Maybe I’ll pull off a dark romance.

Me: Dark as in everyone dies, or dark as in half the couple is undead?  Or a combination?

Laurie: Sooo many possibilities, right? I bet a lot of people would die and horribly, possibly one of the main characters, and the Hero of the story would emerge scarred but ready to love again. Or, something. I haven’t written often from the Creature’s POV, so zombie love would probably be out.

Me: You seem to have that theme – moving on – in a lot of your stories. You say in your book description, “To lose everything and continue makes them gods.”  But it seems to me the stories aren’t just about continuing; it’s about finding a connection between those living and those dead, and then finding closure within that connection.  Would you agree with this theme?  And was it intentional?

Laurie: That’s an amazing analysis. Yes, I think closure is a big deal for me, in general. Closure and connection are so intertwined, so it’s a natural flow from one to the other. I access my own pain when I’m trying to create an authentic moment for one of my characters, and along with that comes the unresolved longing for peace. In a way, I suppose I revisit that missing element over and over – it’s powerful, and universal. Everyone’s lost something, feels that hole left behind. I want to trigger that for people when they read, so we connect with each other in a squirmy, intimate kind of way. I see it as a particular kind of courage, that endurance in the face of loss. I admire it, I guess, and would like to embody that more often. As far as intention, I’ve only specifically aimed for closure in two stories, neither of which are in this collection.

Me: I think what makes your stories so re-readable is that the characters don’t often get that closure.  The one that sticks out the most for me is “Abandoned But Not Forgotten.”  I don’t want to give away the ending, but the last line was great.  It really left me wanting to know more.

Laurie: Thank you – I really like that story, the sweetness of it. I see the main character as working toward her ability to make peace with her loneliness, while missing a huge opportunity at the same time.

Me: You also have two stories where half the couple has died, and the remaining person reacts to the loss by trying to maintain the connection – “Killing Chickens is Easy” and “Comfort in a Time of Gray.” I think those are memorable because they’re searching to keep that connection, when they need to move on.  Do you think those are stories that are easier for people to relate to, rather than something about werewolves?

Not that I’m knocking your werewolf story.  That one was also about connecting with the dead and finding a way to move on.

Laurie: I admit I’m happier when my characters don’t find happiness. For some reason, it allows me to believe because the story isn’t finished for them, it isn’t for me, either. I think the relationship in the story being one grounded in some kind of reality, rather than a hairy beast chasing someone through the desert (scary, but not so immediately real) gives people an easier “in” to the real meat of the story. So, I can see your point about feeling more accessible. No suspension of disbelief to wade through before getting to the good stuff, so to speak.

Also, short stories sometimes require a shorthand, in order to communicate enough to set a scene or relationship in a shorter amount of time. So, monsters require specific description to really be there for people. Humans beating each other up already exists in this world. Bam, there it is.

Me: I wouldn’t say any of your characters really found much happiness in this collection.  But I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of happy endings either.

Laurie: Yeah, no train to HappyTown pulls through this station. Not this time, anyway.

Me: What are your current projects, and will you go the same route as you did with Grasping at Shadows?

Laurie: Currently, I have plans to work on a second collection – the stories are written, but need revision. I expect to e-publish that collection, too – it’s been a great experience with this one, I gotta say. I have no fewer than eight novels started. I think I might have an attention span problem, but am determined to master the form.

Me: Last question for you: What tips do you have for other authors who want to get published?

Laurie: The traditional market is extremely competitive – so many great writers out there, and a limited number of opportunities to be seen. I’d suggest accepting lower-paying publications to build an audience, doing your best to keep your best foot forward when dealing with editors, publishers, cohorts (word gets around, I understand,) and not fearing the self-publishing route.

As far as writing goes, everyone has their own practice that works best for them. There’s no one right way to write well. But I would say that cultivating a rich environment from which to grow those stories is important. That means reading all sorts of stuff, learning as much as possible about the world and how it works, and not being afraid to play with it. That’s all I’ve got, I think. Unless I left out something important.

Me: I think that’s great advice. Anything else you’d like to add?  About writing, horror stories, life in general?

Laurie: Golly. Yes. Like many writers, I can get angsty about the whole exercise. What am I doing? What’s the point? Why am I even trying, when I’ll never … et cetera. Every time I’ve convinced myself I was done, that the struggle wasn’t worth it, I found a way back in. I think my subconscious found it for me, and my friends shoved me gently back to my desk. I’d like to urge anyone who writes or who wants to write not to give up. It’s an endeavor that will drive you nuts sometimes, but the rewards are amazing. Do it. Stop thinking so much and just do it.

Me: Exactly. There are so many options now too – you can self-publish, submit to billions of publications at all levels, share it with your friends on a blog, even hide it in your desk drawer.  But if you want to write, do it.

Laurie: Yes! It’s not about selling that blockbuster, so much. It’s about the unique connection writers and readers have, across those pages. It’s a kind of magic, really.

Make sure to check out Laurie’s book, Grasping at Shadows: A Collection of Short Stories.  You can also connect with her on Twitter – @PaulsenLM – or at her blog.

Stories based on songs

Ever since a Scribophile writing contest a year or two ago, which asked us to write a story based on the song “The Riddle” by Nik Kershaw, I’ve developed a bit of a crush on the guy and his music.  I’m not sure why, exactly – everything I’d heard by him was early 80’s pop, which isn’t the most remarkable music.  And let’s not even mention his hair.

As I listened to more of his songs – really listened, paying attention not just to the sound but the lyrics and themes – I decided it would be fun to write a story based on each one of them.  Maybe stick them in their own collection someday.

I mentioned it in my writing group, and the other day I received an email about the project:

I was wondering if you would be able to give me some answers re writing stories based on songs.

You said in a thread not too long that you’re currently attempting to write a story for every song Nik Kershaw has ever released. (That’s so cool, btw). That’s something I’ve been intrigued by (with?) for quite some time and I’ve also attempted something similar for NaNo 2010. So, the questions:

  1. What about those songs that don’t tell a story you can use or don’t inspire one? Do you just keep listening to the song until you think of something?
  2. Do you listen to the song while writing the story? 
  3. In your opinion, how much does the song has to affect the story? For example, a story having just the same theme/atmosphere as a song… would that qualify? 

Rather than just email him back, I thought I’d share my answers here.

  1. I planned to listen to each song multiple times, write a story, and then move onto the next song.  I started with his first album, The Riddle.  I listened to “Don Quixote,” and I wrote a story.  Then I moved onto the next song, “Know How.”  I had an idea for a story, and characters, but not enough of a plot.  So I stopped listening to that album.  Then the car adapter for my iPod died and all I had to listen to was the same songs on the radio, or the same songs on his 15 Minutes album.  A couple songs gave me ideas right away, and others after listening several times.  Some I’m still not sure about.
    As this is a project that’ll probably take forever to finish, and there are over 100 songs to listen to, I think it’s better to just write as inspiration hits, since forcing myself to write results in crap.
  2. I have a hard time writing when I don’t have complete silence, which is why I tend to do most of my writing late at night when no one’s awake.  I’ll listen to the song several times before I start writing, as well as look at the lyrics.  And it might take me several times of listening before I get a story idea.
  3. The first story I wrote, “Wise Men Fold,” was based on a song that Kershaw admits makes no sense.  So for that one, I just pulled out a few pieces.  For “Don Quixote,” the second one, I tried to stick with the theme of the song – a guy who considers himself a hero but is actually pathetic.  And I threw in details from the song.  For another I’m currently writing, “Billy,” about a guy who’s been emasculated by his wife, the story is what happens after his drinking buddies convince him he’s whipped.  Another, “God Bless,” pulls out just one line – “Praise be this coffee machine” – to become a satirical prayer to the almighty coffee god. 

    I think with over 100 songs, there’s a lot of room to change things up.  And, of course, the fact that no one I know has ever heard of Nik Kershaw, let alone his songs other than maybe “Wouldn’t It Be Good.”

Have you ever written stories based on songs?  Any tips you’d like to share?

Huh? Knowing your audience

The class I taught is part of a national program, and as such, we have a standardized post-test we give at the end of the year (I won’t get started on the idiocy of teaching to the test, I promise).  Although I taught high school, many of my students are reading far below grade level, a problem many students across the country face (that I also won’t rant about here).

Here’s one of the test questions:

Which of the following are negative attitudes that create bad feelings toward others?
A. Sympathetic, tolerant, and involved
B. Impartial, decisive, and motivated
C. Idealistic, thrifty, and serious
D. Secretive, complacent and distant

Want to guess how many of my students got that question right?

About 25%.

Several students asked me what sympathetic means, and impartial, and idealistic and thrifty and complacent.  Quite a few more just guessed, and got the questions wrong.  However, I know if I’d given the kids the question as short answer, they could’ve all answered it correctly.

In another similar situation, a month ago I took some students to a day-long team-building workshop.  One of the activities was that the teams had to make various machines (mostly appliances) out of their bodies.  It was a lot of fun, except the kids (many being low-income minorities) didn’t know what a food processor was.  Or an espresso machine.  They lost points as the clock ticked away while we judges tried to explain it to them.

Same thing with logic puzzles – most of the kids had never seen them before, so they didn’t know how to complete them.

What’s this have to do with writing?

Make sure you know your audience.  Slang in dialogue, jargon to describe the setting, even big words used unnecessarily – all could alienate your readers.  I’m not suggesting that you dumb down your stories; just have in mind who you’re writing for.

For example, I recently read Kim Stanley Robinon’s Mars trilogy.  All the characters are scientists, and the books are about the colonization of Mars and the terraforming process.  So there are tons of hardcore geology terms, specific rocketry terms, detailed economic terms.  For this book, it makes sense because the audience is (presumably) nerds such as myself who revel in accurate, realistic hard science in their sci-fi novels. Now, if the audience were people reading for the romance among the characters, they’d throw it across the room.

Like the test makers I mentioned at the beginning of this post, know your audience’s limitations.  Let them reject your story for the plot or characters or theme, not because they can’t understand it.

Have you ever stopped reading something because you couldn’t understand the vocabulary?  Or ever had anyone stop reading something of yours because of your word choice?

Plausible lies and the importance of research

Earlier this week, one of my students decided he didn’t want to be at school.  He asked his first block teacher to use the restroom, and proceeded to call the school from his cellphone.  According to him, and corroborated by the school secretary, the conversation went something like this:

R: “R won’t be in school today. He has the flu.”
Secretary: “R, I can tell this is you.”
R: “No, this is R’s, um, step-dad. Brian.”
Secretary: “I’m going to call this number back.  It better not be R, or he’s going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Phone rings.  R doesn’t answer.

5 minutes later, R tries again:
R: “R won’t be in school today. He has the flu.”
Secretary: “And who am I speaking with this time?”
R: “This is R’s uncle. Um, Brian.”

My students have no boundaries with me, and no fear of self-incrimination, so in second block R told me all about his attempts to get out of school.  He was genuinely baffled as to why they didn’t work.

I explained to him that:

  • although he’s 18, he sounds like a student, not an adult.
  • he needs to have a game plan! “I know.  I can’t think under pressure.”
  • he needs to do research first.  The school’s policy is that they won’t talk to anyone who’s not listed as a contact, which includes made up stepdads (R’s parents are married) and uncles (Uncle Brian is allegedly real).  IF he wanted his plan to work, R should’ve pretended to be his dad right away.

So, what does this have to do with writing?

R’s story not only was full of noticeable holes, its lack of plausibility insulted his listener’s intelligence, and she in turn refused to talk with him.

If you’re not careful with believable details, and the attitude with which you present your plausible lies, your audience could easily put down your story.

And from experience, this happens.  I’ve been that reader.  Most recently, I picked up a book by a guy from my hometown.  He had the whole thing setting – businesses at their actual real life locations, streets by name in the right place, actual terrain where it should be.

And then he threw in crackwhores walking the streets that my students actually live on, and blazing gang war shootouts in broad daylight.

So I put the book down, because to me, that was insulting.  Yes, my hometown has issues with gangs, but even in the worst parts of towns they’re not having roving turf wars.  And as many times as I’ve driven around, I’ve never seen prostitutes actually working the corners.  In short, his novel was implausible and insulting.

So, take a lesson from R, and that horrible book (which I wanted to like, I really did!):  If you don’t take the time to research obvious things, then bash your reader over the head with its incredibility, don’t be surprised if your reader walks away.

Guest post: Short Story Tips

Elliot Anderson, a member of a writing site to which I belong, had some great tips today for writing short stories (although in my opinion they can easily be applied to any storytelling).  With his permission, I’m reposting them here:

Showing vs Telling
Despite the fact that this is repeated over and over in the community. People seem to forget this in every story I READ. I swear, if I had a penny for everytime somebody pretended they understood this rule, yet never incorporated it into their writing…. This is really the #1 thing you can do to improve your writing. Lots of things fall into place if you understand this simple rule.

Draft 1: Telling
It was Christmas Eve, and it was windy in the city that night. She stood on the street corner alone. She was beautiful and wealthy, with sharp features and brown hair. 11 months ago she had married her boyfriend from college, Tom. She was off the market, and happy. Sort of. His parents, whom she loathed, were hours late to pick her up from Grand Central. She pulled out her phone to call them but slipped on a piece of ice. She sat there, crying. But a car drove past and a man got out. And that’s when she saw him: brown hair, brown eyes, tan, with a jawline that could cut scene progress. He asked her if she was okay and helped her stand up but she had broken her high heel and she slipped again and fell awkwardly onto him as he kneeled to pick up her broken phone. She apologized profusely and wanted to think of a way to ask him for a ride, but she knew that was ridiculous and unwifelike and so she remained silent. He then offered her a car ride in a bold manner and knowing that her husband always caved when he would say something bold and she would pretend she had not heard. So she pretended like she had not heard this man’s offer. She felt that was a fair way to go about things. He didn’t cave at all, in fact he flourished, unlike her wimpy husband. She laughed. And he led her back to his car.

Wow, my god. Boring. Unfortunately most people think that this can pass as “ficton/literature/writing”. Let’s find an excuse to show this stuff via imagery, sensory descriptions, action, subtext, dialogue-subtext, or suggestive dialogue, or flat out dialogue. My last resort is generally to be the narrator telling information. Too many writers take the easy way out, it’s very easy to just tell information, it’s much harder to show it seductively, subtlely.

Draft 2: Showing
She stood alone on the corner of 42nd and Madison, clutching her sable fur chiffon around her shoulders in one hand, and in the other her thumb stroked the band of her wedding ring: twisting the glistening diamond back and forth in the clouded moonlight. A taxi cab sloshed up to the curb beside her, and the window came down.

“Taxi?” The man asked with a smile, looking her up, down; and back up again.

“Oh, I’m waiting for someone,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Thanks though.” She gave a quick, polite smile as the canyonous winter citywind picked up again, chilling her teeth.

“Well, Merry Christmas.” The cab driver said.

She nodded.

He leaned back into the driver-seat. The window went back up, and he sped off.

“We’ll see.” She mouthed with a roll of her eyes, pulling her brown hair out from between her lips. She turned away from the wind and the street to make yet another phone call, and as she did, her heel caught an edge of black-ice and she fell backwards: wincing as her ass and then palms hit the ground, straining her wrist. She sat there in the moon: a long tear fell from her eye, which she wiped away, and in her other eye she blinked her tears back.

A car passed on the opposite side of the road, slowing down in a blur of red brake-light. A man got out, and stepped into a light jog across the slushtracked streets. “You alright?” He called out to her.

“I’m fine.” She replied as she got up. And then she saw him, and sat back down again. She sniffled with a bite of her lip and shook her head with a smile: “Oh, no, I’m fine. Really.”

He put his hands out. She took them, and he brought her to her feet. He let go of her cold fingers to kneel and pick up her phone.

She had not noticed her broken heel and stumbled backwards again, grabbing his brown hair, and then his shoulder for balance.

“Wow,” he laughed.

She let go of his shoulder, and stood on one foot. Balanced. “Oh. My god,” she said clutching her hands to her chest with nervous laughter: “I am so sorry.”

He stood up and handed her the phone; it was broken. He smelled like car exhaust and espresso. She wanted to say anything, but he looked through her and said: “Does my lady need a ride tonight?”

And she heard him, but she tested him with a fake curl of the lip: “Um, come again, Sir?”

And he said: “Absolutely.” And he knelt down in front of her again.

She put her hands down, still clutching her strained wrist which held her shattered phone.

“What?…are you doing.”

“Oh, well the ‘Sir’ thing.” He smiled with his faded brown eyes. “I was hoping Her majesty would knight me.”

She burst out laughing and made a face: “What?”

“Nevermind. ” he said, standing up. “Hey you still need that ride? Let’s go, it’s gotta be cold out here for a bird like you.” And he put his arm inside the fur cloak and under her arm for her support and led her to the warmth of the car.

Alright so let’s talk about what we didn’t say. Since often that is more powerful. We didn’t mention Tom’s name because we couldn’t find an excuse to do so in this scene. We didn’t mention their marriage of 11 months because again we couldn’t find an excuse and the twisting of the ring suggest it is rather new, but her bitterness suggests that the honeymoon has worn off, and the twisting of it suggests that she may be ready to psychologically take it off or that it is a bit uncomfortable We used a very forgettable taxi driver to illustrate that it was either Christmas Eve or Christmas, that she is waiting for someone, that she is bitter about waiting, and that she is bitter perhaps about whoever is coming to pick her up. We never mention the in laws, we’ll have more than enough opportunity to show their character flaws that she hates and how she reacts to them. We present our secondary character immediately and begin the real plot nearly immediately. We don’t act like he is a statue or a portrait. We let dialogue, subtext, and some subtle description paint a very clear picture of who he is as a person. It helps that he is charming and not boring. Boring people are difficult to describe by showing (very easy to describe by telling). One could actually argue that we made him -too good- i.e. he is unbelievable and it’s pretty obvious that she is into him already. But at least we didn’t do what we did in Draft 1 which was give EVERYTHING AWAY…

In the 2nd draft, the only thing we told in this entire scene was that she was standing alone. You could argue we said that a cab pulled up next to her, but we didn’t say it pulled up next to her, we said it sloshed up next to her, which is imagery and evokes the sound of a wet road. Everything else was shown. Notice how it takes alot more space on paper to show than to tell.

On Ruining Drama/Conflict/Suspense…
Another thing that should be mentioned. When you get into telling, the reader gets spoiled. They feel like they are entitled to all this information, and then you end up giving away things that ruin suspense and drama. In this case in the first draft, we give away her relationship with Tom in word for word detail which is something that we could have spent 100 pages exploring fully had we not outright said it. We then give away the current suspense-thread which is who is picking her up, and how she feels about them. In Draft 1 we give away the fact that shes basically psychologically over her husband and has found a new suitor. In Draft 2 none of this is explicitly stated and isn’t even really obvious implicitly, but in some deep sense the reader knows that there is drama ahead and it is juicy.

3-D Characters
Another thing I’ve noticed is that I think authors are scared to make their characters look bad or take the wrong shape, form, color, personality, etc in the reader’s head, so they get into this habit of telling them things. In this scene we definitely risked making this girl look like a bit of a bitch. We will have to remedy that, if she is going to be our hero and we don’t want her to be a bitch, then we need to find a way to show her being graceful and kind before we see her in a bad mood again. But what we don’t do is pander and tell and give everything away and insist on handing out a cardboard cutout of the character with their traits and backstory listed on the back. So that you and I and the readers all have the exact same image of the character. We let the characters breathe, and we let them possibly look “wrong” in the readers eye, and we let them possibly lose some “respect” in the readers eye. But we do our best within the confines of advancing the story @ pace. Characters need to exist primarily in your head with random notes on paper. Not the other way around. I.E. if we put a note for “ruthless” under “Scarface” and created “Scarface” to be completely ruthless, then he would have been all about killing women and children. And yet he is completely ruthless, but he is also realistic. He isn’t a fucking notecard that gives orders to your characters. I feel like some writers do this, they list characteristics and refuse to let their characters operate outside of these bounds. This is a great way to make your characters really predictable, if that is what you are going for.

Style & Voice
Another thing that becomes apparent in draft 2 is that we are starting to develop style and voice. Your unique and individual style and voice come through much more clearly when you show things. When you tell them, you sound like everyone else who -thinks- they can write.

Creativity & Intuition
Showing lets you get creative, but requires you to be a good problem solver as well. You have to figure out how to show things without being too showy and obvious and boring about it. You get opportunities to show, smell, taste, hear. And you get to start being subtle and sly, which is the work of the right brain. The reader enjoys this. The reader loves to have to intuitively decipher things: that is imagination, that is good. Don’t be afraid to be vague about things if you are writing for adults let them pick up on the small things, don’t outright tell them what they can “guess”. In the end plot answers most questions, and a good edit will show you what you need to fix. Almost everything can go unanswered, really. Also, showing makes the world more alive, lets you bring in characters to affect your hero and lets your characters become alive through the events they encounter and the places they go. We aren’t just told they reacted and felt X, we get to see what they did and why.

Thematic Elements
Last but not least, what is evident in draft 2 is that we are starting to see already in the first paragraph: possible themeatic elements. Possible symbols include the moon, the diamond ring, the streets, the city, or even the color brown (associated with him). I.E. if we want to invoke in the reader the sum of her frustrations and her readiness to perhaps end her marriage….again we can simply show her twisting the ring. But again the point is to be subtle and not overdo it or make it obvious. If we want to invoke the feeling of her being alone, we can use the moon. We created a man for whom she might leave her husband and who will change her life for the better: by having him come down the other side of the road, park, cross the street and ask her if she’d like a ride. We’ll find a way to show that he is observant and has a good memory and is always on time later to reinforce his superiority. This signifies her unfulfilled desire(the road which is what she is staring longingly at/a car/ride) and an oppositition(coming the other way of the taxi) to what she has come to expect, (carelessness, coldness, tardiness and forgetfulness). The point here is that when you start to show the reader these elements, you start to learn how you can subtly and carefully abuse them to get emotions out of your reader.

Now on another note completely, in short story you need to distinguish between plot and meta-plot. For instance if we are telling a story here about a girl meeting her husband at his parents house in Manhattan for Christmas, where she falls for another guy, after seeing in one weekend her husbands worst features and another man’s best features. We need to talk about meta-plot, i.e. how can we abuse the time of year, the setting, etc. so as to not only let this happen but to symbolize it as well. For instance we can symbolize the guy she is going to fall for as her true Christmas present. I.E.

“She pictured how she would undress him in her mind: she’d untie his scarf, peel off his jacket and shirt, throw them on the ground in a crumpled pile and she’d run her fingers over his skin, skin she had never felt before.”

and later on….We can symbolize the failures of her husband with negative Christmas imagery I.E. She’ll ask her husband to make a fire, and he’ll struggle to even open the chimney flue, and he’ll be covered in coal and soot after the debacle, only to get mad at her for not helping. To contrast this, we can emphasize the “warm” and maybe even “fire”like features/personality of the man she will end up falling for.

The point is that we chose Christmas because it is one of those times when women expect men to come through in certain ways, and it provides a perfect opportunity for her to cheat on him because this is the city, rather than back home where everyone seems to know each other. In addition, the imagery is rich and we can easily abuse it, we just have to stay subtle.

In other words, what is going on in the world/plot should be reflective or run contrary to what what is going on in your characters mind/life. And what is going on in their mind should be reflective of what you believe to be the meaning/moral/non-moral/point of the story. There is no excuse to have a random or seemingly unrelated unsymbolical unreflective pointless setting or plot to your short story.

So if our plot is something like “A woman meets husband (Tom) at his parents home in Manhattan for Christmas, but falls for another man(Dawes) after seeing Tom at his absolute worst, and Dawes at his absolute best.” But what is the point? The drama and conflict is good and all. But if the point is not to get a laugh from the reader, i.e. we are not writing comedy, then we need to have a point that is unspoken but is driven home. Not only is it important that we remain true to proving this premise(and thus keeping our plot directed and know when the story is over) but it is important that we remain loyal to this premise (again to keep our plot directed and to prevent confusion within the reader). For instance we could write a premise for this plot of “adultery is bad” since we haven’t written the end yet, it is possible that we could make that premise work, but it would be weak. A better premise would be something like “sometimes you need to break the rules to remember why you made them” i.e. “sometimes you need to find love outside of your marriage to remember why you fell in love in the first place” or maybe even “marriage cannot prevent true love” (if we want her to truly fall in love with this new guy). Another premise we could work with is “it is a man’s duty to keep his wife interested in him”. How about this premise: “old love is more powerful than new love” (we could make the new guy and her have a bit of history together). I could go on and on and on. Alright I’m bored, but the point is. Once you have organized, told and proven your story according to this point/premise, then you need to wrap it up and your story is done. You need to be consistent here. If you backstab yourself by abandoning your premise halfway through, the story will never reach its potential. Blah blah. I read far too many stories on this site without any actual point to them other than “I had a cool climax scene in mind and wanted to write!!!!”

Me again.  What are your thoughts on Elliot’s writing tips? Agree or disagree?  Do you write as he suggests, or do you have other methods and insights that work better for you?

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