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.

Three Sources That Are The Lizard’s Lips!

But Joe, lizards don’t have lips.

I know! That’s what makes these books so AWESOME. They instantly make lizards have lips, when lizards..read them..or…it’s a surreal expression, ok? The books just rock!

These are three books that I use and have used to farm, develop, discover and embellish stories and ideas. They are wonderfully imaginative and useful tomes and I wanted to share them with you. So, here they are, in reverse chronological order of the time they entered my life:

1. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable -[17th ed., Rev. by John Ayto, Collins: New York, 2005. ISBN 0061121207. 1,523 pages. Hardcover]

This may be the most diverse, most surprising “reference” book I have ever opened. Every page is packed with stories waiting to be told. People, places, occurrences, expressions, items, myths, folklore, tradition, all manner of wonderful information. There are stories waiting on every page. Let’s say you want to write a short story and need an idea spark. Just flip open to a random page and stab your finger down:

Hellfire Club – “Originally, a club founded in Dublin in 1735 to facilitate its members’ indulgence in drink, debauchery and diabolism. Although they mostly met at the Eagle Tavern, where they would down large quantities of scultheen (a mixture of whiskey and butter), in the…..said to involve the sacrifice of cats and at least one Dwarf…….There is a story that…..”

Mirza – “(Persian, ‘son of a lord’) When fixed to a surname it is a title of honor, but when annexed to the surname it means a prince of the blood royal”

Violet, on the tyrant’s grave, The – Ok, that just sounds like a cool story title (“Violet on the tyrant’s grave) “The reference from Tennyson’s “Aylmer’s Field’ (1864) is to Nero. It is said that some unknown hand went by night and strewed violets over his grave. At his death his statues are said to have been ‘crowned with garlands of flowers’

So, you get the idea. All kinds of cool things to add into a story, or base a story around. Obscure facts and paths that maybe you would never think to look up or research. It’s all here, at your fingertips, in one huge book. Yes, there is a unicorn on the front. And yes, said unicorn has perhaps the biggest horn I have ever seen on a unicorn. But that’s good, that’s ok. That’s a unicorn with confidence. That’s a unicorn that says “This book is so invaluable that if you do not buy it and use it, I will spear you through the midsection with my vorpal horn of DOOM!” There is an 18th edition available now, but I have the unicorn and the unicorn threatened my life if I did not report on its edition.

So, what are you waiting for? The mass clicking of book buying fingers should ring across the internet right now. You’ll thank me. Really, you will. And you won’t be gored by an angry unicorn. So, you have that going for you.

2. Encyclopedia of Spirits (the ultimate guide to the magic of faeries, genies, demons, ghosts, gods & goddesses) Wow that was a long title to type. [Judika Illes, HarperOne: New York, 2009. ISBN 9780061350245  1,056 pages. Hardcover]

This book is filled with characters and their stories I have never heard of, but also with fresh material on those I am familiar with. The encyclopedia crosses cultures, geography and time, presenting a very expansive collection. I have found myself just reading it for entertainment, let alone for story material. Within this book, you can discover character traits, plot lines, entire story arcs and interesting morsels to drizzle across your story like chocolate sauce on ice cream.

The book is laid out in a very “user-friendly” format. Entries are extensive, ranging from a quarter page to two or more pages. There are interesting pop out quotes and sidebars as well as an entire opening chapter on general questions and answers, like mirror travel, runes and spirit/dream communication. It all makes for very cool story material. I believe that having this book on your shelf might make you dance like a Tündér (Hungarian. Charming, beautiful and benevolent Fairies that are incredibly wealthy and live on remote mountaintops in fabulous castles, surrounded by beautiful gardens. Want to know more? Read p. 974). Without this book, you might be ill prepared for the wild rumpus of the Kallikantzari. Nobody wants to be unprepared for the wild rumpus of the Kallikantzari. I will tell you this: have a fire ready and you’ll know their leader by the rooster he rides.

3. Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus (Compiled by Christine A. Lindberg, Oxford: New York, 2004. ISBN 1,088 pages. Hardcover] Ok, ok, I know what you might be saying. Yes, there are a ton of free online thesauruses and most computer programs have them, but this is different. Not only does this offer the gamut of lexicon gold, it includes all kinds of word banks and tables designed with writers in mind. There are word notes and pop outs on the right contextual word choice for certain word selections. There are word trees demonstrating cycles of synonyms to antonyms. Directives toward more literary appropriate synonyms and formal vs. informal choices. Entire specific examples of things like coffee types and constellations, of house types and horse breeds. This is more than just a collection of alternate word selections. This is developed for the wordsmith. It contains language guides and grammar brush ups, proofreader’s marking notations and writing prompts. The usage notes and contextual examples offer great insight into the building blocks of our sentence composition. I give this three thumbs up! What? Yeah, I borrowed a hand for a minute.

So, check these out. They’re great references and help to keep the imagination mill grinding out stories. If nothing else, you’ll have huge muscles from lugging around over 3,000 pages or you’ll be able to aptly describe the Mackinaw blanket Tellus Máter performed a Sellinger’s round upon.

Hope you find them as resourceful as I did! And hey, if you pick up one of these books and put it to use, drop a comment here and let us know where it led you!! Happy writing!