Recommendations for the Masses

Is your Tuesday plagued by the sense that Monday is repeating itself? Are you looking for ways to avoid doing work/writing/planning a world takeover and inventing a shrinking ray? If you answered “yes!” to any of the previous questions, look no further.

CHUK is a serial story/novel about the Louisiana town of Bayou Bonhomme. There’s BBQ, cults, murders, mystery, and a veritable menagerie of monsters. Penned by Jessica B. Bell (the nefarious, nasty, and not-very-nice alter ego of Helena Hann-Basquiat), this tale is almost at a close–but there’s still time to catch up!

You think your day is bad? Sean Smithson’s probably had worse. He’s self-deprecating in the best of ways as he recounts various tales of woe and humiliation. He also has a book!

Ashley Alleyne also has plenty of stories of his embarrassment for your entertainment, along with general stories that are amusing, poignant, and honest. Jennie Saia (who is clever and funny and smart) likes him, and that’s endorsement enough for me.

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Am I Really Just Lazy? (Or Can You Write What You Don’t Know?)

This is a question that has been plaguing me for the past few weeks…okay, okay…the past few months. I had a novel in the works–my first non-fantasy novel, in fact–I had an outline, I had a cast of characters, I could even see how the whole thing would come together. Then, I got stuck. I wanted to set my novel in modern day London. Blame Sherlock, blame my inability to write about Texas, but I just couldn’t imagine a better backdrop for a story with old family trees and political intrigue. 

There’s a slight problem. Despite countless hours spent binge-watching British TV, reading British novels, and occasionally thinking with a British accent, I haven’t been to England since I was about twelve. Over a decade ago (sidebar–what). I don’t know the neighbo(u)rhoods, the (s)language, the normal day-to-day feel of the city. The description that usually comes fairly easily to me feels stilted–it’s usually some version of cold and gray, even though my London experience was made up of blazing sun and temperatures in the 90s.

I don’t think it helped that I workshopped the first two chapters for class last semester. The feedback was so helpful and I’m glad I had the chance to receive critique, but I’ve never workshopped a novel before and I find myself “self-editing” as I write, which is a killer for my already tenuous confidence in the project.

I’m in a course this semester that’s all about archival research–I thought it would be helpful, and it could be, but after hearing my professor talk about the YEARS she spent just doing research for the biography she wrote, I don’t know if I could handle it. I’ve thought about re-situating the story in Boston or New Orleans, and Texas has been suggested. I have to admit, New Orleans is tempting. I don’t know a whole lot about the city, but I know more about it and general Southern culture than I do about London. There’s also the thought that a trip to New Orleans for research would be much more within the realm of affordability than a trip to the UK. In case you’re interested in what this mystery novel is about, look no further.

Tell No Tales

The family that schemes together, stays together

Clara’s life is not what one would call luxurious, but it suits her. After escaping the clutches of her power-hungry family at thirteen and living with her maternal grandfather, Clara is content to live out her life in anonymity—with no one the wiser that she is part of the powerful Lacey family. A “chance” meeting in a cemetery disrupts the plans Clara had for her life and she finds herself thrust headfirst into the intrigue and secrecy she fought so hard to escape.

“Is there a point to this whining?” you may be wondering (if you’ve made it this far) and yes, yes there is! 

This is a call to writers out there–have you ever started a project and decided to completely change something in the framework as basic and yet major as setting? Did it work? Have you written a story set in a (real-world) place unfamiliar to you? Did you do research, did you visit?

I hope these won’t be questions asked to the void–I would really appreciate and enjoy some discussion. 

The Failure of the Ego

Writer’s block is only a failure of the ego. – Norman Mailer

We discussed this quote last night in one of my classes and, while I’m sure I’ve heard it before, it was especially fitting for me at the moment. I’ve been working on a lengthier piece (I almost hate to call it a novel since all novel attempts for the past 11 years have tanked in one way or another) and I’m constantly trying to edit myself as I go.

This is certainly not good for the ego as the first step of revision is realizing everything you’ve written is terrible. Or, as Hemingway so eloquently put it, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Therefore, since the hit to one’s ego is inevitable, I might as well put it off until I’ve come to a point where I THINK the story is finished. Then, once I go back and revise, I’ll realize it’s all awful. But that will be okay, because it’s only the first draft. 

Happy writing, if you write, happy reading, if you read. And if you do neither–think about picking one up. I suggest reading if you enjoy your sanity. 

Thursday Thoughts: The Stereotypes That Bind

Now, before you roll your eyes or run away, this is not going to be a political post. I promise. While I sometimes discuss politics on this forum, today is not the day. I have been mulling over some thoughts lately about stereotyping as it relates to writing, especially “genre” writing. A post from a great blog I just started following volleyed the idea back to the forefront of my mind. You can (and should) read it here. In it Misha Burnett discusses the origins of different “genres” as well as how they have been manipulated, reversed, and inverted over time. He points out that literature (and arguably any creative venture) is in constant flux, a refreshing contrast to a more widely held thought. A more commonly held idea states that “nothing is unique” or “everything has been done before.” It’s a terribly depressing thought. But there is also the sage advice a professor gave me: “steal from other writers.” Obviously he was not condoning plagiarism, instead he was telling us to borrow, to twist, to bend things that have been done before and to make them our own.

       One of the examples Mr. Burnett uses is horror fiction and particularly vampire fiction. *cue reader eye-roll* Stay with me on this one. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was arguably the first “popular fiction” novel on vampires (to my limited knowledge), but obviously it wasn’t the last. That book spawned countless more creative works dealing with vampires, from Anne Rice’s novels to The Series That Shall Not Be Named, to the content on the shelves of the Young Adult section in any bookstore, to my current guilty pleasure, the TV show “Vampire Diaries.” So my question is: What’s wrong with that? People say that vampire fiction, or werewolf fiction, or any of the current “trendy” topics are so cliche and that real writers wouldn’t waste their time with such a topic. Watch out, because Bram Stoker and Anne Rice might come after you with a stake. I agree that there is plenty of  t e r r i b l e  Young Adult (and Adult) fiction that has been spawned by the vampire craze, but take a walk down the Adult Romance aisle and tell me that is all good writing.  I’m using vampire fiction as an example because a) too much Netflix and b) my generation is the generation that raved over Twilight…er…The Series That Shall Not Be Named. I’ve said before, I’ve read the books, seen the movies (even went to a few midnight premieres), and enjoyed them. The Twilight series is entertaining. It’s not high quality, academia writing–but why should it be?

       Harry Potter can easily join the conversation as well. J.K. Rowling is not the first person to write about boarding school, magic, or witches and wizards, but she spun the common subjects her way. If you boil it down to its barest bones, Harry Potter is a coming of age story and, as every high school English class I ever took taught me, bildungsroman has been around since the dawn of time. So why do we look down our noses with disdain when writers choose to write about subjects that are popular or “cliche”? In one sense, the saying that “nothing is new” is encouraging; you have plenty of examples to learn from as you seek to create something that has your personal fingerprints all over it. So to writers: if you want to write about vampires–do it. If you want to write detective novels–do it. But make it your own.

       To readers: read whatever you want to read, reading should be about enjoyment and if you learn something or are inspired or affected along the way, so much the better. Readers have another responsibility, too, and that is to try new things. If you are a fantasy reader (guilty) read some non-fantasy, read some autobiographies, read some classics. This applies to writers as well–read voraciously, whatever you can get your hands on. If you hate a book, never read it again (I suggest getting cheap/used/kindle books just in case). If you love it, read it again until it falls apart, until the pages are stained with tears and crumbs and dirt and memories. But don’t let the stereotypes of genre bind you, cage you in, or prevent you from reading, writing, and experiencing.

An Exercise in Flash Fiction: Writing Tip Wednesday

For those of you that are unaware, Flash Fiction is a genre of writing where the word count is v e r y limited. Often exactly 100 words. Sometimes six. Now, if you write (or are an avid reader) the thought of only 100 words (or less!) may make you scoff: “That isn’t fiction,” or “That isn’t a story.” No? I suggest you go read the Six Word Stories linked above and tell me again. This is coming from a reformed Flash Fiction Denounce-r. I’ve mentioned before (probably ad nauseum) that I tend to write longer pieces. It has taken me years to realize that in some ways this has become a crutch. My method is often “why use one really good word when you can use four pretty good words to describe a color, or a tree, or a sunset.” See Mark Twain: “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

A friend who writes poetry suggested a literary magazine contest to me that was accepting Flash Fiction of 1,000 words or less. When I came to a stopping point for the piece I wanted to submit, I had about 2,000 written and the thought of paring that down to 1,000 was agony. However, it forced me to take a look at my writing with the air of someone performing a dissection. This was true Frankensteining. And it was difficult. Almost impossibly so. I was so attached to words and sentences and descriptions that I didn’t realize they were weighing down the piece. I’ve been taught over and over about “tight writing” and even shown what that looks like. I have even managed to write it (according to a professor) and that piece was one that got me into graduate school, so perhaps he was right. So why is it so difficult to recognize the eight extra pairs of socks and two superfluous pair of pants, and the three t-shirts I don’t need that I cram into the story suitcase? Can you tell I am a chronic over-packer?

Sometimes I think the downfall in being a writer is this weird amalgamation of pride and insecurity. It’s a two-headed monster or a double-edged sword, or whatever name you want to call it. Because oftentimes the inability to trim away the gristle is the refusal to admit that something could have traveled from your head to your fingertips that isn’t mahhhhvelous. That’s where the pride comes in. Then, there’s that part of you that knows you can write flowing, intricately wrought imagery but your dialogue is a pile of garbage, so you hide it behind the distraction of your pretty pictures. But that’s like putting brick or stucco on the outside of a port-o-potty. It still reeks. While this may seem like I’m beating the dead horse of the need to edit, it’s an element of writing that needs to be revisited and revisited and revisited. It’s part of the process. The mass amounts of words you put on paper…er…word document…is all part of the process, too. You may need to write about your character’s backstory from birth, but that doesn’t mean your audience needs to read it.

So, if you write or perhaps would just like to try your hand at writing, try some Flash Fiction. I think it may be my new personal way of breaking through the giant wall of writer’s block with which I have been struggling. Writing, like any other skill, takes practice, even if you just write 100 words. Or six. It’s almost like Tetris, in a way. You have to rearrange words and find new words and try to find ways of expressing yourself so that everything fits and makes sense. Another great thing about Flash Fiction is that it always packs a punch. I will be uploading my 100 word stories here. So check back from time to time!

Advice I Chose to Ignore

In classes and on blogs, I have read advice on writing–how to write, what to write, when to write, and on and on it goes.  Some people will tell you that you have to write short stories as a young writer because no one will read a 400 page draft of your novel if you don’t have some sort of previous experience/publication as a reference. Others will tell you that you absolutely cannot write “genre” fiction if you want to be taken seriously.  There is good advice and bad–much of it specific to the writer. I do believe there is truth in learning the rules before you choose to break them…but break them you probably will.

The Advice: Write What You Know

One of my favorite authors of ALL TIME told me this when I had the opportunity to attend a lecture he gave. At first I took his words as gospel because, come on, I was fan-girling that I was even in the same room. But then, I started to consider what he said, perhaps not the way he intended it, and I was disheartened. What did I, a young, female college student from a happy, secure childhood know about anything? I let this advice fester for a long time, bothered by the implications. If I could only write what I know then I might as well give up. No one wants to hear the day-to-day complaints of someone who has the kind of life many people lust after.

Finally I began to ask myself some things: Is it limiting to write what you know? Is that even a real thing? I write male characters, but I am female. I write fantasy and those places certainly don’t exist. I write love but I have never been in it. I write heartbreak when I have never felt it. I write loss when I have barely experienced it. I write murder but have never committed it.

If we only wrote what we knew, the literary world would be filled with the mundane, the 8-5, the unrelenting normalcy in which we live.  There would be no tales of dragons or far off space or the Nicholas Sparks brand of love. Maybe as writers, it is our job to delve into the unknown and bring a piece of it back to those that cannot go there themselves.

The Advice: Outline

I have had numerous professors/fellow writers/people who would not know writing if it punched them in the nether regions tell me that outlining is the only way to go. To them I say, “Not for me, thanks.” Maybe it’s an inherent dislike of being told what to do–especially when concerning my writing–or maybe that technique simply doesn’t work for me. It makes writing feel too much like an assignment and gives it a rigidity that I believe is the nemesis of creativity and inspiration. Once my story starts going, I may jot down a loose list of who will go where and do what, but inevitably that list is filled with gaps and vague descriptions such as : “A and B go here to do…something. A battle ensues.” Hardly a concise and developed plan of the story. But that’s just the way my mind works. I have my major scenes in mind and the rest fills itself in as I go. If outlining works for you, carry on. If not, don’t feel compelled to do it because someone said that was the only right way.

The Advice: Write Something Other Than Fantasy

This is more of a past tense rejection (I have since been forced to follow this advice). Interestingly enough, my first forays into writing were very much set in the real world with realistic, every day characters and problems. But fantasy (reading and writing) has always been my first love and I don’t anticipate that changing soon. However, since fantasy on my part tends toward the epic, I was forced to write out of my comfort zone (which is advice every writer should take) for classes. I ended up with material that got me into graduate school, and that was well received by my classmates–proving to your very reluctant narrator that I can and should write non-fantasy fiction. This advice is specific to me, but, if someone ever tells you to stop writing what you love, I give you permission to spit on them and walk away. Or just walk away, whatever. It’s true that you should try other styles and genres and settings, if only to find out where your weaknesses and strengths lie. Perhaps you are excellent at descriptions but your dialogue is lacking–switching genres can give you a chance to experiment with things that did not fit in the situation in which you originally placed them.

 

In other words, take each piece of advice someone gives you with a grain of salt and a good deal of thought. It could be that you need to take their advice to heart and it could be that you need to decide to take bits of it or ignore it altogether. In the end, it’s your writing, for better or for worse, for published or for unpublished, in agony and in ecstasy, for as long as you both shall live.

Unrelated to writing: Don’t eat that, don’t drink that, don’t touch that, don’t text him back, and don’t you think you’ve had enough?

But I’ll let you make your own mistakes in your real life.

Writing Tip Thursday: “Money is in the Rewrite”

I’m trying to blog with some consistency (again) and I think I may try to do a sort of Writer’s Tip Thursday. Mostly it will be things I have learned or am still learning from my own personal writing experience.

If you have been following my blog/ever personally speak to me, you probably know that back in December I concluded my undergraduate studies and applied for Graduate School. An MFA in Creative Writing no less. Three rejection letters in, I finally got some good news. At last, the first phrase was “Congratulations on your acceptance!” and not “Thank you for your interest…but no thanks.”

In my last post, I discussed the importance of words and how the meaning behind them can have all the difference in the world. It’s funny how a little compliment can linger in our mind, bringing a smile to our lips days later or how a sharp word can cling, constantly pricking and poking us like a splinter we cannot seem to remove. Oftentimes, we have no idea the impact our words can have. I have been upset to realize that something callous I said has deeply hurt someone, when I had no idea of it being taken in such a way. I have also been overjoyed/embarrassed to discover that something I said was a source of encouragement or inspiration when I felt like I was speaking to the empty air.

Once words are spoken, we cannot have them back again. As much as I rehearse arguments or discussions ahead of time, in the heat of the moment, all of that disappears and I my carefully conceived speech becomes an incoherent jumble. However, most of the time, your spoken words will eventually fade or become blunted by time and age.The written word is a tricky thing. While it can be manipulated and prodded and shaped and re-shaped and torn apart and sewn back together–once it is printed or sent out into cyberspace, it is imprinted forever.. Surely we have realized by now that nothing published online truly disappears. But this wasn’t mean to be a post on kindness or tact or internet common sense.

I think that as writers, although perhaps this is only true for young writers, we often think our words are set in stone. Or perhaps this is just a personal struggle. I don’t know why, but I have always had difficulty with the concept of a “draft.” Maybe it’s narcissism. Maybe it’s sheer pigheadedness, of which I have often been accused. I will write out one copy and consider it complete, when it is far from. I have difficulty editing myself; I either think a story is wonderful the way it is (10% of the time) or it’s as good as it’s going to get (70%) OR it’s complete garbage (20%). (Math again, guys. This is big.) Unfortunately…none of these  opinions are true.

As my creative writing professor would often say: “The money is in the re-write.”

I’m going to take that as both literal and metaphorical. Literally, if you revise enough and get to a point where your writing is publishable, you can (in theory) make money. Metaphorically, the only way you can get down to the flesh and blood and beating heart of your story and what you want to say comes from editing and trimming away the fat and the fluff.

A fellow blogger, Pen, gave me permission to steal her term “Frankensteining” (in reference to editing) yesterday. Obviously, everyone knows the story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. If you didn’t know that the monster’s name is NOT Frankenstein…congratulations, you learned something new today! This term is appealing due to the allusion and the mental image it creates. Sometimes, we writers spend our time hunched over our notebooks or laptops crafting together bits and pieces of things and waiting for the bolt of inspiration to strike, bringing our story to life. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten that turns into a great, big shambling monster that staggers around and grunts instead of speaking with the poise and precision and brilliance we envisioned. So then it’s back to the drawing board/cutting room/laboratory.

One of the things that I find most difficult about editing is letting things go. I say, “But this sentence…it’s a work of literary genius!” Maybe it is (it isn’t.) But maybe it would fit better in another story. Maybe that line of dialogue I wrote could crop up in another scene or another piece all together. It’s all about getting down to the heart and soul of your piece. Because that’s when Frankenstein’s “monster,” became truly terrifying and marvelous, when he transformed into an intelligent and articulate creature, capable of wreaking havoc upon the world around him.

So, if you write, learn (as I need to do) to pick up the pen as though it were a scalpel and cut away everything that is unneeded and everything that drags your writing down. Get down to the heart of the matter and begin there. It doesn’t matter how pretty the binding is or how supple the flesh, because if what is beneath the skin is a jumbled, rotting mess, then what’s the point?

What do you think?

Five Things Your Writer Friends Want You to Know (but don’t know how to tell you)

If you’re friends with a writer (today is definitely one of those days where I want to put that in quotations)  then there are a few things you should know.

1) You probably don’t want to end up in one of their stories.  Chances are, a character even loosely based on you is going to come out as more of a caricature. Yes, it could possibly be an endearing portrait of your quirks and foibles, or it could be that your entire outer persona is flayed to the bone, exposing all of your bad habits and annoying traits.  So don’t ask to be put in your writer friend’s story…if they’re having a bad day, chances are your character will, too.

There are exceptions, as there are to everything–having a character be inspired by a friend or family member is less risky, because that comes about organically and you realize that a character you’ve written has all of the good traits and a few of the downfalls of someone you love.  However, if you harass your writer friend about naming a character after you or if your friend is safe in knowing that you will probably never read their writing, expect some brutally honest portrayals of your lesser points.

2) If you ask what their story is “about” you can expect one of two things: a short sentence that is the bare bones of the story or a thirty minute long dialogue breaking down the finer points and cartwheeling off into an analysis of the major characters. Why is this? Because usually, “Well..um..it’s about this guy and his brother…but they’re not really brothers…but you don’t know that until the end…and…basically the first guy is just trying to save the kingdom,” is the easiest way out.  Of course, that doesn’t seem to satisfy everyone. Often they follow up with: “Oh, so like, what happens?”

This is when you look at the person asking the questions (who, I might add is usually not a close friend, because they’re (a) already tired of hearing about the problems you’re facing with your plot or (b) they’re just so awed that you wrote more than 10 pages on something that anything else you say will be like gospel) and give them this look.  I call it the “do you really want to know?” look. It’s that look you give your parents when they ask what time you got home last night or how much money you spent on those shoes.

The interest is flattering–to a point. Writers can usually tell when you are just making small talk and when you are actually interested in what they have to say. If you’re not interested in hearing all the gory details of their latest effort and have absolutely no interest in reading it, then settle for the one sentence description and move on. We can tell when you don’t really want to know, and we don’t really want to tell you–especially if the story is currently stuck in limbo and we know our characters are standing around wherever we left them, bored and waiting for something to happen while we struggle with writer’s block.

3) Don’t tell us you want to read our writing if you don’t. It’s that simple. Having people you know read your writing is so much more terrifying than letting strangers get a peek into your innermost thoughts. (Exception: graduate school admissions readers.) If you read our writing and hate it, we will know either by the fact that it never comes up in conversation ever again, or by the inordinate amount of praise you give us on a five page short story about nonsense.

4) If you tell us you want to read our writing, are sincere, AND we actually go to the effort to get it into your hands, please actually read it.  There’s a special kind of torture that one goes through knowing their story is sitting in someone’s email inbox and wondering if they’ve read it yet.

“It’s been three days…did they hate it? Did they read it? Are they so amazed they haven’t been able to even type an email in response?”

So please, for our sanity and yours, read the darned sample and give us some sort of sign–smoke signal, carrier pigeon, text– that you read the thing. Or that you didn’t. We understand your life is busy and you don’t always have time to read the first 90 pages of our epic novel in two days. But, the fact that we even gave you a chance to peer into the crazy, mixed up place that is inside our heads usually means we trust you and your opinion. Consider it a compliment and act accordingly.

5) Don’t tell them what to write about. One of the more awkward things you can say to a writer is: “Well why don’t you write about ABC?”
“Well…because I don’t want to.  ABC is boring and I would rather go to the dentist than write a single sentence referring to ABC,” is unfortunately not a polite answer to give to the people asking these questions.

This question usually seems to come from people who don’t know you or your writing well. I assume it comes from some deeply imbedded need to give you advice you neither want nor need. I’ll let you in on a little secret: if we wanted to write about ABC, we would have. And we know you would not appreciate us saying: “If you’re so interested in ABC why don’t YOU write about it.”

But hey, if you REALLY want to be immortalized in fiction, you should probably subject your writer friends to ALL of these situations. And then come find me so I can say, “I told you so.”