Sunday, January 12, 2020

How Literature Can Shape Our Understanding of Our Life History

I've argued elsewhere that successful stories/novels have to be about more than just characters wandering around doing stuff. A lot of the manuscripts I see crossing my desk have things happening, characters struggling, but which leave me wondering if there was a point to the story.

Horror/fantasy writer, Den Valdron, provides a powerful essay on the opposite: how a story where not much happens had a profound influence on his understanding of his own life history by providing the central metaphor for his lifestory: http://denvaldron.com/2020/01/08/h-p-lovecraft-and-me/

"That’s what good writing is, I guess. It’s more than just description and people and things happening to other things. It’s all that, and that’s fine, it’s even great. But really good writing touches who we are, it makes us feel, it makes us see ourselves in it, and see it in ourselves. It shows us things."

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Stock Photos

Most stock photos lack diversity, or worse, stereotype minority representation.

This article does a good job of explaining the problem and listing five examples of stock photo sources with appropriately diverse content:

https://contently.com/2019/12/11/5-stock-photo-sites-inclusive-diverse/

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Common Errors #23: That's Not How It Happened

Sometimes authors dig in their heels and resist editorial direction, even when they agree the suggested change would make it a better story. Then why not make the change? Occasionally, they'll admit they just don't feel the piece is worth the additional effort— fair, it's their story/book. Usually, however, their reluctance to make any changes is, "that's not the way it happened."

Drawing on their own life experience, they've written this scene or that character down exactly as it was in real life, just adapted so it's now set in the old West, or Space Station 29, or whatever. They forget that they are writing fiction, not memoir or autobiography. Whatever meaning that scene had in their own life, however great a resource for generating ideas and engaging their senses, such experiences cannot be incorporated too literally. We get to change things in fiction. Have to, really, if we want it to make sense in the context of the new story that's being written. It's not about capturing reality, it's about understanding what meaning the scene could have for the reader.

Or, sometimes the scene is entirely fictional, but that's the way the author pictured it doing their first draft and so that's the way it has to be. This one usually manifests as 'bloat': the scene may be off message or completely unnecessary, but cutting it strikes the author as a betrayal of the vision. That's okay for the first draft, and maybe even the second, but by the third draft it's not about your needs, it's about what the story needs. As one author put it, the first draft is 10% the book, and 90% the author (i.e., about the author's ego), draft five is 50% author and 50% the book, and it takes to draft 10 before it's 100% about the book. If the editor says a scene has to go for the story to remain on message or to skip over the boring bits, listen to the editor.

Of course, one can go too far the other direction, fictionalizing what actually happened so that it becomes not just unrealistic but outright self-indulgent. Sometimes, recalling what that bastard said to you at that party that time, and editing that scene so the "what I should have said" reply you thought of two days later becomes instantaneous clever repartee in the book, works. Maybe that traumatic experience can be rewritten in your novel to include a suitable revenge scene that provides catharsis for readers with similar traumas. But, um, you can see how constantly rewriting life to be perfect can easily go off the rails so that as the hero of your own story, the protagonist is too clever, too powerful, too lucky.

That's why one has editors. If the editor says, "I love your protagonist's repartee", you're good. But if they say, "Really?" then maybe go back to having the hero embarrassed, deflated, and beating a hasty retreat—the way it happened.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Do You Keep Writing? Three Lessons
by Lauren B. Davis

Guest Post. Lauren B.Davis is a critically acclaimed Canadian writer. Her latest novel is The Grimoire of Kensington Market from Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd (ISBN13: 978-1928088707)

Every day I hear from writers who tell me how impossible it is to keep going, how they are broken by this ‘business’ and they see no reason to continue. Often this means they see no reason to continue living, since being a writer/creator/artist is so deeply embedded in the soul as the archetype by which we make meaning in our lives. Without it, the world crumbles.

I understand.

I also understand that hearing these words from someone who has had a modest amount of success as a writer might ring hollow. Easy for me to say, right?

No, not easy. Hard won.

I didn’t publish until I was over forty. So there’s that. All the young people who think if they haven’t published yet, let alone won the Booker or the Pulitzer or the Giller indicates they will never have fulfilling lives as writers are just plain wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

How do I break this down?

I dance. The Bear watches. Maybe that’s not the widest audience, by he is the Bear of my Soul.

First, almost no published writer wins prizes. This has nothing to do with the quality of your work. If that’s what you’re hoping for you are setting yourself up for unending disappointment, based on the entirely unpredictable, arbitrary, often political whims of a tiny group of people you might not even like, or respect. I know people who’ve won these prizes. They had some fun for a while and then, well, life went on. I’ve been on prize committees, and trust me, try as we might vote for the BEST BOOK EVER, it generally doesn’t turn out that way.

Lesson 1) …take care of your LIFE first, for it’s all you’ve got, and your life is not about winning prizes. It’s about where your feet are, at this moment. The writing life is a metaphor for being in co-creation with the Source-Of-All, if you know what I mean. So, right now, jot down five things you value about your life that have nothing to do with prizes… lovers, ice cream, dogs who sleep on the bed, growing tomatoes, making snow angels, creme brulee, the smell of roses after a rain… come on, you can do it.

Second, almost no one publishes, and for those who do, it is as much the luck of timing, relevance, and politics, as it is talent. By which I mean, a lot of really great books never see the light of a bookstore window. How many books (both good and bad) come out in any season? It’s insane. Especially with self-publishing (but that’s another blog). Why am I telling you this? Because it’s true, but also because publishing doesn’t necessarily mean success. Sure it’s nice and I’m glad I’m published, but the truth is that even though I have, for a moment or two, poked my head above the turbulent waves, ultimately I sank out of sight again, while Atwood and Winterson and Franzen and a thousand other writers rose to the tip of the swell. Maybe they’re better writers than I. Fair enough. Might be. So what?

Lesson…2) See lesson 1.

Third…maybe you and I will never publish, let alone win prizes. Maybe we’ll never publish again, let alone win prizes. Maybe we’ll be dumped by a publisher we thought had our backs. that happened to me. Should we keep writing? Should we? Maybe. But maybe not. Maybe it doesn’t please us any longer. Maybe it doesn’t bring us sanity or joy or satisfaction. If those things are true then, hell, I’m done. I’ll save feral cats and abused dogs. I’ll garden. I’ll work for environmental protection and for justice…you know, all the thousand things that make the world better. Not that we can’t do these things while writing, we can and many of us do, but if writing isn’t doing it for us, isn’t filling our souls, isn’t inviting us to surrender to the purpose our souls have for us, then for the love of what-ever-we-find-holy, let’s not do it!

However.

If, when we sit down in front of the computer, or the page, we feel our hearts filling, our spirits settling; if we feel the top of our heads opening and something entering us and wanting to be born, without expectation; if we feel ourselves filled with the wonder of this story’s becoming, this image’s becoming, and if after we have written 500 words or 1,000 for the day we feel elated and elevated and full of satisfaction and peace… then come on, let’s DO that.

Lesson 3… see Lesson 1 and 2 above.

What do you think? Shall we keep creating? Keep writing? Or is there another way you’d like to walk through the world? Tell me.

Reprinted from The Lauren B. Davis blog with permission of the author.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Ten Points About Flash Fiction

A colleague recently asked me to tell him about flash fiction. His writing group's next meeting was going to be about flash and he wanted some background beforehand. "You're the only person I know who has published flash, so what can you tell me?"

Here's my answer:

  1. There are more flash markets than one might think. I've compiled a list of about 50 for myself, but that doesn't include genres I'm not interested in.
  2. Each market defines flash differently (or publishes a different kind of flash, if you prefer). Everyone agrees it's no more than 1500 words, but I've seen 42 words, 50 words, 100 words (which is called a Drabble and has to be exactly 100 words) 140 words (the old Twitter limit) 500 words, 1200 and 1500. Titles are not usually counted, but editors will reject long titles, especially for shorter forms of flash, if they think you're trying to sneak in extra words. On the other hand, a carefully chosen title can orient the reader, suggest an interpretation, and carry a lot of the significance of a flash piece, though of course, that's true of any story title.
  3. It's easier for an editor to take a risk on a new author if the story is 500 words than if it's 5,000. As a subscriber, if I don't like the ending of a 500-word story, I think, "Well, that was a dumb ending", shrug, and move on. No harm done. But if I've read through a 5,000-word story and think, "Well, that was dumb" I might not buy the next issue of that magazine. Why would an editor risk the space for 9,000 words if they can fit in two 4500-word stories—thereby doubling the number of authors in the magazine and on the cover, or eight flash fiction pieces and therefore 8 more sales to authors' mothers? Shorter is generally better if you're trying to break into a market.
  4. Flash doesn't pay a lot. I've seen the occasional contest for $1000, which would definitely be worth it, but we're never going to win that contest, so I don't think that counts. Most markets pay a flat rate of $5 or $25 or at most $50, but that's rare. A few markets claim to pay "professional rates", but they mean 8 cents a word, so at 50 words, that's only $4.00. Given that flash takes as much or more work than a longer short story, return on effort is low. Therefore, many flash markets (like many poetry markets) don't bother with token payments and are simply non-paying.
  5. For many authors, the primary motivation for writing flash is for the challenge of the format (like writing haiku).
  6. Some authors like writing flash because it inflates the number of publications to list in their bios. Again, good flash takes probably takes as long or longer to write as a regular short story, but it may be easier to collect acceptances (see #3, above).
  7. My motivation for writing flash—and why I recommend it to many of my clients—is to learn how to tighten my writing. I am frequently told that my style is too "flowery" or "verbose" and that I need to "tighten" it up. I was never clear what "tightening your writing up" meant until I started writing flash. Writing flash forces you to be more focused, to cut down to the essentials. It teaches you which words can be cut out without any loss of information, what can be implied without being stated, which details you don't need, and so on. I was then able to take those lessons back to my novel writing and really pare down my bloated manuscript to something readable.

    [I'm not, of course, suggesting that all authors need to "tighten up". I have to encourage some clients to expand their abbreviated manuscripts, fill in a little more color commentary, broaden their brush strokes. The point of undertaking flash as a writing exercise is simply to acquire and refine that skill for those who need to develop it and for when it needs to be applied. It's just one tool in the writer's toolbox. Action scenes can probably benefit from tight, staccato writing, but rich description may be in order for another scene in the same manuscript. Knowing how to successfully condense writing, as poets must, is just one of many useful writing skills.]

  8. Ploter vs. Pantser applies to flash, same as any writing. Some people need to outline to make sure their flash is an actual story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Others just start writing to see what comes out, which is fine, as long as you then go back to edit with "beginning, middle and end" as a checklist. Most flash markets complain that they get too many submissions that are just pieces of description or mood pieces or a chunk of dialog, and so on, with no actual story. Fitting the story into 140 words (or whatever) is the challenge. Reading successful flash where others have managed to crame a story into a drabble (or even shorter) is the best way of knowing it can be done, which is the first step in doing it yourself.
  9. Some story ideas are clever but cannot sustain 3000 words. If the idea is the story, then it needs to be flash. Trying to flesh out an idea with redundant characterization and action just makes for a weak story where those things are a distraction rather than a strength. Mini-prose seems to be the better format for idea-stories.
  10. Flash is prose poetry. Same density of words/thought. Same level of difficulty. Same mastery of language. But it doesn't have to rhyme and it doesn't have to have meter and it doesn't require metaphor or etc. I don't "get" poetry myself—I'm too literal-minded and dysgraphia is apparently associated with an inability to do meter. So...flash is a workable alternative to poetry for me.

The truth is, I probably never would have considered writing flash if Karen Schauber hadn't reached out to me to write for her The Group of Seven Reimanged: Contemporary Stories Inspired by Historic Canadian Paintings. Karen helped edit my first flash story and got me hooked. I'm not sure I would have succeeded without her coaching. Watching her take out words from my draft to make room for new words where they were needed to clarify, or take out whole lines (subplots), etc. really taught me how this works. Finding a writers group that does flash (like Vancouver's Flash Fiction group) is likely very helpful to anyone setting out to write it.

You can read two examples of my flash fiction free online in Active Voice and at Drabble.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Editing Graduate Students

An excellent article by a respected academic editor, Mary Rykov, in University Affairs on university perceptions of editors and editing, and why it's generally completely wrong-headed. The Dog Ate My Homework Syndrome and other Tales From an Academic Editor

The one point I would add to her excellent list of points at the conclusion of the essay is the statistic that 50% of those starting a thesis or dissertation fail to complete because they have not been taught how to manage the writing process. Professors make the (understandable) mistake of assuming that writing skills = literacy, when literacy is merely a necessary but not sufficient factor. Being able to write a brilliant term paper does not give one the skills necessary to undertake a sustained writing project, such as a thesis or dissertation. Coaching in how to handle sustained writing would see 85% of that current 50% incomplete rate graduate successfully. It is appalling to me that while students are given at least one and usually multiple courses on research methods, almost no one provides courses in thesis /dissertation writing. Howard Becker identified the problem in the early 1960s, but almost no one has paid any attention, with the result that 50% (in some disciplines, closer to 65%) never finish, even after paying tuition and foregoing income etc and working themselves into nervous wrecks for up to 9 years. A 50% failure rate is obviously a structural, systemic problem (either terrible recruitment screening or a failure to give students the tools they need to succeed) but universities have simply shrugged this off as having 'high standards' Baloney. And this isn't about second language or learning disabilities or any of that--it's because universities train people how to write first draft term papers, not how to rewrite their way through multiple drafts of a thesis.

If you're interested in this topic at all, I have a 32-page Guide to Thesis Writing Strategies that describes the problem in detail.