What Scoundrels We Fiction Writers Are.

Scoundrels. That’s right. Rogues and villains. Desperadoes. We fiction writers (notice I say we) are all of the above.

Don’t pretend it isn’t true and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Any proper fiction writer can’t help but find themselves in the company of likewise shady characters. Think about it, we lie. We steal. Why, we even commit murder. Sometimes before breakfast and especially when short on coffee. We wage wars and level cities. We do terrible things all in the name of fiction.

Of course I am speaking figuratively (my lawyer told me I had to state this), but we do these things in our writing. We have to do these things in our writing. The very essence of fiction is fabrication. In other words we. are. lying. We create a lie and announce it to the world. We lie and sell those lies. We are paid (if fortunate enough) to lie. It’s storytelling, sure. It’s make-believe, but it all falls into the same basket. Not truth = lying (or insert synonym here if it makes you feel more warm and cuddly). But it’s ok. People want us to lie. They want to hear the falsehoods we create, because they know you’re just spinning a yarn. And for the time they are immersed in our lies, they are entertained; on vacation from the labors of reality.

Lying. That’s the jaywalking of the fiction writer’s world. Let’s move on to bigger fish. We steal. No, I’m not talking about your neighbor’s antique silver flatware, or that sweet corvette you saw in the parking lot. I’m talking about a bigger commodity, a more abstract and invaluable resource. We steal dialogue and names, clothing and hairstyles, memories, experiences, places and events. To be painfully clear, I am not, in any sense talking about the MORTAL SIN of PLAGIARISM. I am talking about observing and recording. Listen to people speak, to their dialect and speech patterns, the topics of conversation and the slang that they use. Write it down, file it away. Sit in a park, the mall, a bus stop, and watch people. Notice that guy checking his watch every 30 seconds? Why? There’s a story. Where’s he going? What or who is he waiting for? Practice studying people and details. You never know when a habit, personality quirk, or article of jewelry or clothing may pop into a story. Write these things down, but also develop your mind to retain these scraps of worldly currency.

I’m always practicing this. I got my haircut the other day, the first time in 90 weeks, and I happened to have the same hairdresser as the last time I was there. I noticed that she had a new tattoo on her wrist and that her nose was pierced. Not that I was stalking her (hadn’t seen her in 90 weeks), but I remembered that she didn’t have those things before. When I commented on her new additions since I’d been in last, she was very surprised that I’d noticed. We are writers. We notice details.

But we don’t stop there, oh no. We murder people on the page. We take unsuspecting characters and BAM. We kill them. That’s just the way it goes. Fiction requires conflict. Conflict often comes at the cost of one or more character’s lives. We make our characters suffer. We make them struggle through seemingly impossible odds to get what they want. We knock them down to their lowest points and then step on their heads. Does this sound like the act of a wholesome creator? No. It sounds like the act of a successful fiction writer.

Point is, don’t deny your true nature. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. Our readers expect it of us. Our craft demands it. And damn it, sometimes it’s just fun. ;]

So get out there, you rogue. You are a card-carrying scoundrel with a license for abstract villainy, all in the name of fiction.

Diabolical laughter is optional but encouraged.

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Time Heals Owl Wounds

No, I am not referring to wounds suffered in owl attacks, although I am sure the same principle applies. And odds are, if you’ve been attacked by an owl, you probably deserved it.

I am referring to, in a purely Potterical analogy, communication. Specifically, those forms of communication that we, as writers, dread. The communication that smacks us back out of the ego-swelling dreams of multimillion dollar advances and movie rights. The rejection.

Whether it come in a letter (a what? a letter. a what? never mind), an email, an owl or a smoke signal, rejections suck. But we all know rejections are part of the game and rejections tell you that you are doing what you are supposed to. You are in the game. You’re creating and sending your children out into the world like mischievous little goblins to tweak the literary ear of the world, to whisper your name to agents and editors while they sleep.

But sometimes, no matter how much armor we wear, rejections get to us. This is especially true for a larger project. Sometimes doubts creep in and while constructive feedback is certainly worth looking into (especially from professionals in the industry), it does not always mean that an entire overhaul is necessary.

After receiving a very constructive, very precise rejection letter on a story that I had every confidence in, I couldn’t help but be bummed. There may have been a bit of moping, some niggling self-doubt. There may have been (and I can neither confirm nor deny this) a momentarily lapse of reason in which I streaked through the neighborhood, singing Lady Gaga and eating tapioca pudding until my run became a bloated, melancholy shuffle and I was picked up by the police. But that’s not important right now.

What I discovered this morning, is that there is a band-aid. Put the piece away and work on something else. I’ve since started another project ( a couple really) and figured I’d come back to the rejected piece after I’d finished the new stuff. But this morning, while reading The Writer magazine and walking on the treadmill (sans pudding and WITH clothes), I started thinking about that first story. The one that had recently been rejected. I thought about the points discussed in the letter and the product I’d turned out. And I thought, I have a good story. And the rejection letter I received (for which I am extremely thankful, given the constructive advice offered) did not say it wasn’t. That thought was my own inner consciousness pouting. Some of the points discussed were minor and some were subjective but overall, it was not that far from going back out again. It needed to go back out again. It had just needed time.

Time separated from my expectation, reaction and attention. Time heals. Time applies a healing balm to that sting and allows us, as writers, to approach our projects with a new sense of appreciation and understanding. It’s like Yoda, riding on the Dalai Lama’s back while he’s water skiing on the backs of dolphins. Who doesn’t want that feeling?

So don’t get discouraged. Take some time and come back to it. Might be a few days, might be a week, might be a month. Focus elsewhere and listen, you’ll know when to come back. Unless you hear a screech-owl. Then I suggest staying the hell away. Time might heal owl wounds but they probably hurt like a son-of-a-bitch.

Tell Me a Story About Leprechaun Love

I’ve watched writers gripping their pen with what could only be construed as a focused debate on whether or not to drive said pencil through their eyeball, thus ending their misery. I mean come on, Mrs. Applebottom’s caramel-colored cat in chapter three is an obvious metaphor for capitalist society infringing on the demands of children brought up bottle-fed instead of smothered against their mother’s breast. And what about a third person, omniscient narrator with occasional amnesia? I know, I’ll write a zombie prom story. Zombie’s are hot, right? No, not any more? What about leprechauns? A leprechaun love story? I’ll go all new media and write it as Facebook status updates. No, I’ll use Post-it notes. And it has to be perfect, NOW. That’s why I am editing the first page again. Yes, it’s the 684th time I’ve rewritten it.

To all of you who write, myself included, I say this: RELAX. Am I being facetious? Yes. But the idea isn’t that far off the mark. We writers are a worrisome lot. We have a lot of tools, dynamics and “moving parts” to contend with in order to produce a quality and entertaining product. However, it seems that the more we write and the more we immerse ourselves in the craft of writing (and don’t ever think for once that writing is not a craft), we forget the most basic and fundamental building block of all. Tell a story.

It’s that easy. Just tell a damn story. At its most basic level, at the core of everything we have learned and will learned, we must never forget the heart of it all: Tell a story.

Of course we need our writers’ tool box. We need to pay attention to technique and style, voice and fundamental dynamics. But these are the things applied to and over the heart of the idea, the story. We have nothing if we have no story. Well, maybe we have a grocery list or a collection of random thoughts about what’s actually buried in the very back of my pantry (and if you know, please tell me). But we need a story. It starts with a story and if you remember that, if you get excited about that, you’ll be alright.

Just…tell me a story.

Now grab that pen, hammer that keyboard, and write that leprechaun love story. Don’t forget Mrs. Applebottom’s caramel-colored cat.

Hey, if you are so inclined (and damn crazy enough), write the story as a flash fiction. 500 words and post it on your blog or website. Put the title to your story and a link to it in a comment below so that we can all appreciate your craziness, I mean creativity. Let’s hear your stories!

Tell us a story!

Anthologies: The Whizzing Monkey of the Short Story World

Anthologies kick ass. There, I said it.

They’re like one of those cool beer samplers at the pub. You order up a tray of sample sizes and start throwing them back. Who the hell knows what you’ll find. What was that caramel colored stout? That was good! Whizzing monkey? And that third one we tried, the one with the long name? Too hoppy, no thanks. The cherry wheat was a surprise…

Yeah, yeah. I could have used a chocolate sampler but you know what? I like beer. You can have the chocolates. Besides, it would have been too Forrest Gumpy had I brought in the box of chocolates.

The point here is how cool anthologies are. Some of you may know this already and I may just be the lone weirdo finally appreciating their value. If not, well then, I suggest you read on. If you already know this…well then, I suggest you read on. What? Nothing. Just go with it.

So, I’ve been reading Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series and being the obsessive, information order reader that I am, I had to do everything in precise sequence. Everything. This meant tracking down the side stories he wrote and reading them in turn. For example, “Something Borrowed” comes between books #7 and #8. This required the acquisition of My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding (edited by P.N. Elrod, St. Martin’s Griffin: New York, 2006. ISBN-13: 978-0-312-34360-6).

The cool thing about anthologies is that you find one with a topic you are interested in, something that strikes your fancy, and you indulge. Zombies? No problem. Transgender circus clowns? Quite possibly. This particular anthology (My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding) contained nine short stories written about or around a wedding with each tale steeped in paranormal roots. So, you’re going into a place you’re already comfortable with. Besides that, you may have been drawn in by a “friend”. For example, I followed Jim Butcher in. If all hell broke loose and things got ugly, I knew he had my back. Point is, you might see a familiar author or two in the credits and trust them enough to spend the cash for a sampling.

Because that’s what it is, a sampling. I read this last anthology knowing only three of the nine authors. Of those three, I hadn’t been too thrilled with one of them. Charlaine Harris. Damn, why’d you make me name names? I started her first Sookie Stackhouse book and couldn’t finish it. But her short story, “Tacky”? Loved it. Loved it enough to give her another chance. In case you’re interested, it’s a story about a vampire/werewolf wedding and it was pretty cool. So there’s one plus, you get to see another side of a writer you may have written off.

But that’s not all you’ll get! Act now and you’ll also get……this set of inside information. That’s right, for the cost of reading the anthology, you’ll be privy to novel info nuggets that might otherwise have you scratching your head. Jim Butcher, in his short story “Something Borrowed”, spins a tale in which he not only propels information forward, but the guy kills a side character. IN A SERVICE ROAD SHORT STORY! And the info is not something that makes the following novel unreadable, or even confusing, but if you had read it, you’d have a whole different appreciation of the scene(s). Whew, that’s a lot to say. I need a Whizzing Monkey. No, not…damn it, take this thing away please. Now my shoes are wet.

But wait. There’s still more! You’ll also discover new authors that you’ll want to read. I’d never read any Susan Krinard, but was fascinated by her story “…Or Forever Hold Your Peace”. I’ve added her to my Nook wishlist. Now there are 9, 216, 542 books waiting to be read. By the same rationale, you’ll get a chance to discover writers that you may not be too fond of. It’s like test driving an author. Ok, maybe that sounds slightly invasive and perhaps not legal (except in Nevada).

So get out there and order up a sampler. Indulge in an anthology or two, you’re bound to find a few pleasant surprises. And if you order a Whizzing Monkey….don’t wear open-toed shoes.

Enjoy, friends!

Stepping Away to Leap Forward

I’ve had a bad few weeks. For months on end, I’d been a voracious sandstorm, scouring the pages and leaving bleached bones of words upon the storied sands. Word counts trembled. My MacBook turned itself on the instant I walked into the room. I measured sleep in minutes and marched steadily toward my goals, dreams and deadlines. Then the Scourge hit.

It wasn’t writer’s block. It wasn’t a “Wall”. It was an insidious and unnameable cloak of stagnation, descending upon me like a Stygian veil. The drive and focus were sucked from my body like I was Chupa Cabra’s last meal. I became a zombie, spending my time away from my computer and away from my projects. As the days passed, the separation between man and word grew larger. Not good.

The sky was not falling, it had fallen. Doom. DOOM! [cue thunder and dramatic rattling of loud rattle devices]

But then we went away. A family vacation to the beauty of the Poconos, Pennsylvania. Hickory Run State Park. I didn’t bring my laptop, or my Nook, not even my BlackBerry. My wife had hers in case of emergency. I wanted no technological poison to get in the way for I knew what I needed to do. I needed to recharge. I needed to embrace the energy permeating the rocks, roots, rivers and brambles of Mistress Nature.

Dance freely with me, wild, Sylvan muse,

upon the lichen bed where lie my tired head.

Dance beneath the whispers of the world whose

ancient tongues breathe life into the dead.”

We hiked trails and climbed over and around rocks and boulders. We scampered over waterfalls and swam in forest streams. We skipped stones in rambling creeks and ate wild berries. It was relaxing. It was simple and damn it, it lifted the plague from my soul. It wasn’t planned, wasn’t even thought of. It just happened.

And now, I’m back in the game. I feel better and I’m back at the keyboard, raring to go. I have stories to tell and characters to share. I”m throwing my arms up and doing the wave. Ok, maybe not that far. Ah hell, yes. I JUST did the wave. Bam! That JUST happened. In other words: Void GONE.

I know we all, as writers, hit sinkholes and quicksand. We lay snares for ourselves or drop rusty old bear traps of stress just waiting to snap our ankles in half. We self-sabotage and distract and often we battle forward. But sometimes all that fighting drains the battery. No charge. Zip. Not even an attempt to defibrillate does anything. Because we’re trying too hard. Sometimes you just need to step away from everything.

A day. A weekend. A week. Get away and recharge. Do something besides writing and Tweeting, texting and blogging. Take a few days away from word counts and edits. Let life take your hand and you’ll find that by stepping away, you will leap forward.

The Best of Both Worlds

We seem to be a world that thrives on dichotomy. Pick a camp and stake your tent, damn it. One world or the other, there is no middle ground. Republican or Democrat. PC or Mac. Marvel or DC. Traditional publishing or independent, do it yourself.

But…wait for it, wait for it….wait. for. it…..

What about doing both? WHAT!? That’s crazy talk, that’s madness, that’s-that’s peanut butter in my chocolate. Uh-huh. See? It works. Hmmmm….peanut buttery goodness.

I just had a revelation, courtesy of freelance penmonkey Chuck Wendig. In a recent blog, he wrote about the death (or lack thereof) of the short story. While markets diminish and payouts decrease, the short story flounders for a home. However, ’tis not the end of the tale. Short story collections are beginning to grow AND they are doing it via self-publication. Writers are taking it upon themselves to put together their own compilations and market them. You can ePub for free and accomplish two things:

1) Get your work out there for others to read. Share those stories! What good are they withering away in your drawer, or in the limbo zone of your hard drive? Let us read them! Showcase your writing, your imagination.

2) Make more money than you would selling to a magazine. You are not going to get rich off your short story collection, but you DO stand a good chance of making more money than what the magazines will give you. Magazines are paying a pittance for your stories, if they take them at all. And it may not be that your writing is no good, or the story sucks. It may just be that there are less magazines, with less money, publishing less stories from an increasing army of writers.

So, if you believe in your work, if you think your stories are awesome and deserve to be heard, do something about it!! Pick up your harp, go to the inn and start singing your ballads!! Figuratively, please. Ballads and harps at the bar might lead you to getting your ass kicked, or at the very least, a beer poured on you.

I have had some success with short stories, but I’ve had my fair share of rejections. Most have come with invitations to submit something else to them, or with compliments coupled with one minute reason why that story didn’t work for them. I’m ok with that. I understand that and I’m not bitter, or losing sleep. It’s part of the business. BUT, I don’t have to keep playing that game. My novel, “Russell Sprout: Imagination Unleashed”, is being shopped the traditional route. I am seeking representation and traditional publishing. I believe that is the best way to seek the audience and market I want.

But with the short stories? They’re good, they’re fun, they need to be read. So, why not do that myself? And that’s what I am going to do! It seemed overwhelming at first, but it’s not that bad and there is a community of daring souls ready to help you along. The night I had the idea, I tweeted with some questions and got immediate answers and advice from Jane George and Steve Montano.

It CAN  be done. It can be fun and rewarding. There are people and resources to help you along. It might get you the attention you need to help go the traditional route on your novel. Writing is an adventure. It’s tearing down the fences and planting your flag.

So, look for my big, black tent in the muddy grounds between tradition and rebellion. While “Russell Sprout: Imagination Unleashed” makes its way through the publishing world, I’ll be standing out front on an old crate, peddling copies of “Rats in the Belfry” soon. Thirteen twisted tales. Thirteen stories I’m not content to let linger in the shadowy abyss.

Writing Can Be a Shard of Wood Under Your Toenail

I’ll preface this by saying that I will never EVER give up writing. Never. Why? Because it’s in my blood. It’s out of my hands. I have no choice.

This qualifies me to call myself a writer AND to be declared certifiably insane. Why? Because writing is NOT easy (usually). Writing is hard work. Sometimes it’s torture. Sometimes it’s a shard of wood shoved deep under your toenail.

I make this statement having experienced both. Last week, while wearing sandals, I drove a shard of wood so far under my toenail that the local torturer’s guild was a bit surprised. So, yes, I am fully aware of the analogy I am making. To say it hurt like hell is like saying that bacon is just kind of good.

Coincidentally, I had a week where the writing was just not even remotely easy. I had to bleed out every sentence, wrestle every single word to the paper. It was torture, it was work. But I didn’t stop. Why? Because I am a writer and sometimes that’s what writing is.

However, like physical wounds, writing wounds heal. You have to give them time and you have to take care of them. So, while the toe healed and the antibiotics fought off infection, I wrote through the agony. I wrote through the “block”, “wall”, “lack of inspiration”, “absent muse”, whatever you want to call it. Sure, word counts were low, but 100 words on the page is better than zero.

I wrote and I struggled and I wrote some more and by the end of the week…I discovered that I had written right through the chapter that was giving me such a hard time. I tell you this to share with new writers, to remind veteran writers, and to shed a light on the craft for those curious about writing.

Writing is hard. Writing is work. Writing can be torture at times. But, writing IS magic and no matter how many shards of wood anyone shoves under my toenails, I’ll never give it up.

Happy writing!!!!!

If you need further proof that writing is difficult, please learn from Don Music and Kermit the Frog..