What would Stephen King do?

King-on-writingSilk’s Post #159 — If you want to learn to be a good writer, you could do worse than read Stephen King. The guy is a legend, but let’s check his credentials anyway:

  • Published 54 novels, 6 non-fiction books, nearly 200 short stories. Yes, he’s been busy.
  • Sold more than 350 million copies of his novels. That’s certainly impressive.
  • Won too many awards to list, including Hugo Award, Bram Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the National Book Foundation, National Medal of Arts … Oh, you get the idea.
  • Written 39 stories that have been turned into movies, including 5 Oscar nominees. Nice sideline, eh?
  • Is reported to be worth 400 million dollars. That should impress anyone who likes to measure success in dollars and cents.

If you’re a writer, though, one particular book nestled in this vast body of work was written just for you: Stephen King On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft. As the huge horde of hungry, not-yet-published writers like me know very well, there’s no shortage of books on writing and publishing written “just for us.” Your shelves, like mine, may be groaning with them. In fact, there’s a whole industry built around selling advice and support to “emerging” writers.

A lot of the books on writing are useful (although prescriptions ought not necessarily be taken as directed), but you probably never heard of most of their authors before you aspired to become a published writer yourself. You can count on your fingers the books “for writers” penned by that super elite level of authors, the bestselling superstars.

Besides King, the ones that immediately come to mind are Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity), Elmore Leonard (10 Rules of Writing), Janet Evanovich (How I Write), Elizabeth George (Write Away), P. D. James (Talking About Detective Fiction), Walter Mosley (This Year You Write Your Novel), Annie Dillard (The Writing Life), and the prolific Margaret Atwood, who has written three books on writing, writers and the writing life (Negotiating with the Dead – a Writer on Writing; Moving Targets – Writing with Intent 1982-2004; and In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination). A few of these books are in the “how to” or coaching category, while others lean toward memoir, but they’re all valuable and often quoted.

Yet the one that stands out most for me is Stephen King’s On Writing. I must admit that King had me at the epigraph, where he set the tone with a pair of quotes:

Honesty’s the best policy.
— Miguel de Cervantes

Liars prosper.
— Anonymous

And the book only gets more circular and thought-provoking from there on, as it spirals deep into the organic heart of King’s writing life. It begins with 100 pages of memoir, called “C.V.” I call it confessions of a congenital writer. This section is larded with gut-wrenching real-life moments. Life is messy and mysterious, it tells us.

We then get to a tiny section titled “What Writing Is,” only to discover that it, too, is messy and mysterious. He opens this section with an answer to its title: “Telepathy, of course.”

Then King proceeds to demonstrate by drawing us into an imaginary scene where writer and reader experience a “meeting of the minds.” That’s the telepathy part, styled as a magic act. It’s a story about storytelling that reminded me of the famous scene in the 1976 movie The Last Tycoon, brilliantly acted by Robert De Niro, with the punchline “the nickel was for the movies.” (You can see it here on You Tube)

King then completely shifts gears, diving into a short how-to section called “Toolbox,” in which he reads us the usual creative writing teacher’s riot act in an entertaining story form. (King was, in fact, a high school English teacher at one time.) He begins with the holy trinity: vocabulary, grammar, style. These are not optional. He steers us to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style as our bible. He warns that hell awaits writers who use adverbs.

Then, happily, class is dismissed and he launches into the section we were waiting for: “On Writing.” Surely this is where the magic is revealed, where King will give up his secrets and teach us how we, too, can become bestselling authors in X number of steps.

At this point, if you’re reading the book, I recommend you go back to the second of King’s three forewords, which begins, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” This is a good reality check.

I won’t elaborate on what’s in this section of the book. You should read it yourself. But I will tell you some things I learned from it. There’s nothing pedantic or even very structured in this book because King is, first and foremost, a storyteller, not a how-to list maker. What I took from On Writing are more like illuminations – ideas that lit up in some brain cell for me as a result of going along for the ride, of reading a non-fiction book written by a great fiction writer.

These are my own interpretations, not a literal list from Stephen King:

The joy of writing: Writing should be a joy. If you love it, you do it. You build your life around it, not the other way around. And that includes omnivorous reading.

The fear factor: Writing is emotionally and intellectually challenging as well as demanding of your time, and taking criticism can be bruising. So you need to have lots of that joy on tap, lose your fear of failure, and just keep writing.

Nature + nurture: Writing your head off is bound to make you a better writer, but you also have to have some native talent to become a really, really good one. Conversely, native talent will not make you a really, really good writer unless you write your head off.

Writing and storytelling: Good writing is a commandment, but storytelling is the holy grail. Writing = the craft; storytelling = the magic. You can learn a craft; magic rises intuitively from the inside out. Craft has rules; magic does not. Writing is a skill; storytelling is a talent.

Storytelling and plotting: These are not, not, NOT the same thing. A story is a tale with a life of its own. A plot is a plan, a map of how to sequence and structure the telling of the story.

OPs vs. NOPs: Forget the binary debate between outlining vs. organic styles of writing (outline people vs. non-outline people, or plotters vs. pantsers). There is no “right way.” Do what feels right. Your first draft will fall somewhere on the spectrum of imperfection no matter how you approach it. At best it will need cosmetic surgery, at worst it will be a Frankenstein that needs errant body parts re-attached in the right place. The story rules. Serve the story, not the process.

Characters drive story: Without characters, there is no story. Without characters who are real, dimensional and engaging – characters worth caring about – there are no readers.

Use your imagination: “Write what you know” isn’t a restriction, it’s an invitation. What you know – or can find out – are the answers to a constant stream of “what if?” questions you must pose. Those answers can come from your own experience, your probing imagination, or your research. Push your intuition and logic. Truth isn’t an average of likelihoods.

Use your senses: All of them. See, feel, hear, smell settings. Listen to dialogue. Pay attention to body language, micro-expressions, conflicts hidden under the surface. Taste foods, air, water, sweat from effort, sweat from fear. Do it every day, wherever you are. Recreate it in writing so that readers sense it too.

Making it matter: Some stories arise from a theme. Some themes emerge organically from a story. Either way works and can be enhanced in rewrite. Themes are a way to give a story more layers, deepen readers’ connection, make it matter to them, make it memorable. You can write a good novel with no theme, but why would you leave out this dimension?

Does all this seem familiar? Probably. Pick up any book on writing and you’ll find these topics covered somewhere, often prescriptively. Funny how you can “know” something – read about it, understand it intellectually – and yet not really experience that “aha!” moment at a deep, intuitive level until someone or something causes you to look at it through different eyes.

That’s what Stephen King’s On Writing did for me. I think it was because of his ability to create a story about story, to personalize it through the memoir material woven through the book. It was a hard book for him to write, every word “a kind of torture,” he admits. He began it in 1997, got half way through it, and put it in the drawer. Eighteen months later, in June of 1999, he “decided to spend the summer finishing the damn writing book.”

Two days later, he was fighting for his life after a horrendous accident in which he was hit by a van while walking down a country lane in Maine. It shattered his leg and hip, broke his ribs, chipped his spine. His story of this personal trauma in a section titled “On Living: A Postscript,” is a dramatic denouement to On Writing. The shock of it lit up the entire text of the book for me, like a bolt of fork lightning.

Five weeks after his accident, King picked up his half-finished manuscript of “the damn writing book” and began to write again:

That first writing session lasted an hour and forty minutes, by far the longest period I’d spent sitting upright since being struck by Smith’s van. When it was over, I was dripping with sweat and almost too exhausted to sit up straight in my wheelchair. The pain in my hip was just short of apocalyptic. And the first 500 words were uniquely terrifying – it was as if I’d never written anything before them in my life. All my old tricks seemed to have deserted me. I stepped from one word to the next like a very old man finding his way across a stream on a zigzag line of wet stones. There was no inspiration that first afternoon, only a kind of stubborn determination and the hope that things would get better if I kept at it.

And, of course, things did get better. Exponentially better.

If the story of this book does not touch you as a writer, it’s time to take up something else. It certainly touched me. While I’ve always acknowledged his great talent and loved a number of his novels – which are mostly outside my genre comfort zone – I’ve never aspired to write like Stephen King. I still don’t.

But what On Writing has inspired me to do is to be more like him. Hence, my new compass point: What would Stephen King do? I’m pretty sure I know what the answer will be nine times out of ten: just keep writing. 


This is the first in an occasional series I’m planning to do on the 5Writers blog of reviews/discussions of books on writing. Stephen King seemed a good place to start. After all he is, well, the King.

Rebooting the Group

Joe’s Post #171

So, can you reboot a writing group? Refocus it? Get its writers writing, again?

It turns out, *spoiler alert*, you can.

On June 13th, we all met and made our declaration of writing intentions. While not as impressive as the declaration of independence or a declaration of love, it did allow us to find a way back to writing, albeit via a winding, and somewhat meandering path.

I don’t think a single one of us went home and wrote 50 pages. But, we did get writing done. Myself, I managed to get 32 pages done, mostly (due to my horrific tendency to procrastinate), in the last week.

But before that, I spent time going back to the basics. Working on my characters, helped by my writing friend and published author, Sean Slater.

Here’s what I learned in this part of the journey

  1. More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    I found that if I had a picture of my character, a whole ton of things fell into place for that character. When I looked at my protagonist’s sister, the one he rushes off to Europe to save, I saw a beautiful woman who didn’t like to smile because of her teeth. And from that, I built not a plot device, but a real person.

2) A book is defined as much by the villain as the hero. It’s something I’ve worked on a lot in the past, but it’s something I REALLY worked on this time around. Again, it started with an idea, I added a picture and then spent two days writing his life story, his fears and hopes, and his hidden secrets.

3) I stopped stressing about drafting the PERFECT opening line. I know it matters, I do. I get that. But I can spend weeks, I kid you not, trying to find that perfect line and still fail. So,  I let got of that and just wrote.

4) I signed up to attend the Surrey Writer’s Conference, and while that alone didn’t inspire me to write more, there is an editor there who may just be looking for the exact type of book that I’m writing. So that inspired me. (So, if you’re thinking of going, know that we’ll be there. At least 3/5 of the 5/5/5).

5) Like playing tennis after not playing tennis for 25 years, it’s hard to do. You get rusty. Nothing flows. There’s lots of sweating and swearing. But if you keep at it, you’ll get better. Faster. Stronger. Like the million dollar man. Personally, I’m not there, yet, but if I keep at it, I have to believe I can get there.

So that’s a quick update.

siwcWho’s going to Surrey this year? Who wants to buy me a drink so I can pitch my novel without it sounding like this, “it’s a story, ah, about, um, a guy, who does this, err, thing and stuff gets in his way, so he has to, you know, do more stuff?”

Hugs!

 

Character matters

My go-to philosophers, Calvin and Hobbs

My go-to philosophers, Calvin and Hobbs

Joe’s Post #167 — Trying to get re-inspired to write has been a bit of a challenge.

I’ve been thinking a lot, which is something I do instead of writing, and this time, my thoughts have turned to character.

I want to make my characters real. Alive. Compelling. Full of good and bad.

I got hammered on a few short stories for lack of character depth. Oh, how much easier it would be to have a written story with theme music and linked sites to show the character’s backstory and they challenges they faced.

But, sadly, I’m not a director. Nor a movie maker. I’m a fiction writer and I need to find a way to bring my characters to life better.

So I looked at the novel I’m reading. No help there. It’s Baldacci and while he’s a best-selling writer and a darned good writer of thrillers, his characters are, at best, shallow and under developed.

Then I watched Babakook with my 13 year old. Apart from being terrified, a light bulb went off. This movie shows people in their worst state. It ripped open their ugly inner selves for the world to see.

And that got me thinking.

Is that what makes a good character?

a-game-of-thrones-book-1-of-a-song-of-ice-and-fireOh, lord there’s a lot of advice on this, but for me, it’s someone who’s complex. Queen Cersei from the Game of Thrones is a vicious, vindictive woman who has sex with her brother. A lot.

Yet…

Yet, she loves her children unconditionally.  No matter what kind of monsters they are.

She has a code. Protect the ones she loves at all costs.

Even if she ignores all the bad stuff. Like, ah, tossing other people’s children from towers.

Doesn’t that make her more compelling?

So how do I make mine compelling?

Make them less…. Good?

Hmmm.

So, I grabbed a glass of wine, sat in my favourite chair and began to challenge my character’s goodness. When my main character is drowning in a WW1 shell hole what if there is someone in there with him? Someone drowning too. Make him not alone. Make it not a lonely struggle.

Good. Hmmm. I’m liking this.

Now, he’s the type of guy who would save the other man. He’s the hero type. But what if instead of saving the other man, in his panic, in his fear of drowning, he steps on top of the other man to free himself? He’s 16. He’s shell-shocked. He’s living out his worst fear…

shell shock What if, later, they called him a hero for what he did in that battle, after he got out of that hole? What if he never told anyone what happened?

What if it became his darkest secret?

What if that moment in the shell hole haunts him forever? Defines him?

Hmmmm. I’m getting closer to making him a more compelling character, right?

Still more to do, but oddly enough, I’m more inspired to write about this guy, and that’s never a bad thing.

So now I need to look at the other characters. Maybe find some good in the villain?

*******

Is this how good characters are made? Or are there any other suggestions?

 

 

Unfinished stories

bedwell-hbr-1977

Silk’s Post #154 — If you’re a writer, you have unfinished business. Don’t try to deny it. I can’t believe there’s a writer alive who doesn’t have at least one half-written manuscript stashed in some bottom drawer. I have two of them, frozen in the middle of the story, like the last-viewed frame of a movie put on “pause” and then forgotten.

But that’s not what this post is about. What I’m talking about is all those little mysteries served up for us every day, snatches of real life stories-in-progress we observe and, if we’re writers, we wonder about.

We don’t know what came before. We don’t know what will come after. All we’re left with is this one glimpse, this one clue, and the twin questions that are ever on the minds of story lovers: What’s the backstory? What happens next?

These moments can be inspirational for a writer because there’s a germ of a story in every scenario. Glimpses of life on the street, in an airport, at the mall, in a restaurant, on the beach … all those good “people watching” places. We can’t help following any interesting little drama that comes our way, to see how it plays out. Really, it’s none of our business.

But writers are like spies. We snoop.

Now, sometimes there’s really no story there. Just boring old, everyday, predictable stuff. After all, if life is full of little mysteries, it’s also full of little clichés. But maybe the writer takes away some bit of noteworthy colour – an accent, a gesture, some tension beneath the surface, or perhaps a micro-expression of tenderness – that can be recalled later to add texture to a scene.

But when you do observe a little piece of mystery, it haunts you. I’ll sketch out one of these incidents from my own life to show you what I mean, a scene seen and not forgotten. It happened years ago, but it still sticks in my mind …

The Runaway

It’s a late October Saturday in Bedwell Harbour, Pender Island, and we’re pushing the envelope on the cruising season in our small, unheated wooden sailboat. Only one other vessel, a 36′ Grand Banks trawler, is anchored in the small bay of a marine park that’s usually chock-a-block with boats in the summer.

We’re two diehard cruisers, apparently, sharing this lonely anchorage in the late-afternoon chill of an overcast day.

As an invisible sunset approaches, an eerie pink blush colours the western sky. I wrap myself in a heavy Cowichan sweater against the damp cold and grab my trusty Nikkormat, intent on capturing an arty portrait of the slightly surrealistic seascape. (The now-faded result is above).

What I also capture is a memory of a mysterious incident that has stayed with me for four decades.

Out of the Grand Banks cabin comes a coatless teenage girl, perhaps 14 or 15 years old. Her body language is agitated, her motions more a product of nervous energy than purpose. A late-middle-aged man follows her on deck. Pursues her, really. He’s the right age to be her grandfather. A woman who looks to be his wife sticks her head out of the cabin door to watch, an anxious expression on her face.

The choreography of the deck scenario is a pantomime of entreaty and rejection. I can’t make out their stuttering conversation because they’re downwind of our boat, but the drama unfolding is clear. He puts a hand out to her, tries to engage. She turns her back, shakes her head, steps away. Like a cat climbing further up a tree to avoid her rescuer, the girl stays out of reach. He advances, she retreats, again and again.

There is no reconciliation to be had, and it’s a small boat. The grandfather and grandmother confer, an intense discussion, their heads together. They keep glancing at the girl now standing alone in the cockpit hugging herself in the wind. Finally, he steps inside the cabin, leaving her to calm down.

Does their conversation go like this?

Grandfather: (frustrated) I can’t get through to her, she’s just unreachable. You can’t help someone who refuses to be helped. So what do we do now?

Grandmother: (calming) Let her simmer down, she just needs some alone time. Don’t worry, she won’t stay out there long, it’s freezing. And she can’t go anywhere.

If that’s what they say, they are wrong.

The girl steps onto the Grand Banks’ transom and pulls the boat’s dinghy in on its painter. It’s a small rowboat, the kind that was common 40 years ago. As the wind picks up, she climbs down, unties the dinghy, and fits the oars into the oar locks.

By the time Grandpa and Grandma come bursting out the cabin door, the girl is halfway to the deserted shore. She pulls at the oars with more fury than coordination. Choppy waves splash against the dinghy and the wind flings salt spray over her. She’s still coatless.

As she nears the narrow beach that fringes the steep, forested shore, I look back toward the Grand Banks at a scene of panic, with both grandparents now standing at the rail, yelling at the girl to come back.

She ignores them. She’s deaf to their increasingly urgent cries. When she hits the beach, she awkwardly jumps out of the dinghy, one foot in the cold water, and drags it partway up on the beach. Then, with one look back, she covers the fringe of beach in a few determined steps and plunges into the forest at a narrow trailhead.

Gone, just like that. The dinghy rocks with the waves breaking on the beach, half on shore, half still in the water. Dusk is approaching.

Back on the Grand Banks, the man and woman seem paralyzed with disbelief. They continue to strain against the rail, calling to the girl who disappeared. Then they stop calling and simply stare toward shore. The man retrieves binoculars from the cabin and scans the forest. They can’t follow her. The dinghy was their only way off the boat.

They retreat to the cabin.

Within half an hour, I hear a powerful outboard engine and our boat rocks from a wake. I go back out in the cockpit to see a small Coast Guard search-and-rescue vessel approaching the stern of the Grand Banks and watch the boat-to-boat conversation, full of urgency and gestures, between the rescuers and the grandparents.

The Coast Guard boat pushes off and follows the dinghy’s path to shore, two of the crew minding the boat and one disappearing up the forest path. Dark is falling quickly.

Then we wait. Coast Guard crew, anxious grandparents, and me – the spying neighbour.

Though I think the search seems like a fool’s errand, it would be unthinkable not to try to find the girl. But it’s now almost dark, and the shore is a vast, forested pile-up of bluffs, threaded with trails and not much else. It’s cold out in the cockpit, and there’s nothing to see. Our portable kerosene heater down below has warmed our small cabin and the brass lamps have been lit. But I can’t tear myself away. I’m hooked.

When I finally see the bouncing flashlight beam on the shoreline and the rescuer emerges from the shadow of the forest – with the girl in tow – I’m shocked, but relieved. She wears his oversized jacket. Her head is down.

They climb back into the search-and-rescue boat and take the dinghy in tow. In flashlight glimpses, I see the Coast Guard vessel stop alongside the Grand Banks and hand the dinghy painter to the skipper.

I wait to see the girl climb on board, back to the embrace of her grandparents, contrite perhaps, her tantrum over. I wonder if the incident is destined to become a future family tale that will be embellished and embroidered with years of re-telling. A colourful story that will be repeated by the girl’s grandchildren someday, to laughter and feigned disbelief.

And then, the rescuers – with the rescued girl – roar off into the night.

What?

Why didn’t they return the girl to her grandparents? But wait – are they her grandparents? Where are her parents? Why was she out on the boat? What was she upset about? Where did the rescuers take her?

You can probably think of a dozen more questions.

The next morning, Sunday, I expect the Grand Banks to depart at first light. It’s understandable that they didn’t up-anchor in the night to follow the girl, but now, in the light of day, they have urgent and unfinished business to attend to.

But they don’t leave. They carry on as though nothing at all happened the night before. Just an older couple enjoying a quiet, relaxing, off-season cruise. We leave at noon. Monday is a workday. They’re still anchored there, dinghy floating placidly off the stern.

Grandpa putters with some minor deck chore. Grandma calls him in for lunch.

The End.

Feel let down? I still do. An unfinished mystery story is an irresistible call to any writer – a call to fill in the blanks. We want to turn the page, and when the next page is missing, we feel compelled to write it.

Give in to that urge, and maybe the half-a-book in the bottom drawer will actually get finished one day!

Snoopy advice

Joe’s Post #166

Super busy week for me so just a few fun things for the writers out there who are struggling…

There are fewer wiser dogs than Snoopy

There are fewer wiser dogs than Snoopy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think I got one like Snoopy did.

I think I got one like Snoopy did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

medium_Peanuts_Writing_Comic

It was a dark and story night

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I hope everyone is well and writing up a storm. Even a dark and stormy storm.

 

Cheers

Joe

 

Writing for fun???

Joe’s Post #163

When did writing become ‘not fun’?

If there's one thing Buddy the Elf knows, it's fun!

If there’s one thing Buddy the Elf knows, it’s fun!

Well, never, really, but there is an aspect of writing that has become a chore and Silk’s post made me realize what.

It’s the idea that the goal – that of getting published – becomes more important than the process of writing. The goal is fraught with all sorts of pitfalls, rejections, and nights curled up in the corner with a carton of ice cream, binge watching Teletubbies on Netflix.

Oh sure, I love do my blog posts, especially my justjoebc blog about being a stepdad, and that’s writing, too, righ?  But tackling a novel, well, that’s a whole different type of writing.

I used to love it. I did. I wrote a good 4 or 5 of them before that love began to fade. And it faded due to a perceived failure on my part. A failure to write well enough, or create a good enough query letter or whatever.

And that failure can drag you down.

Cuz it’s about the goal.

So what if I looked at the process, again?

Why do I love to blog?

Cuz I don’t ever worry about the outcome. I have no goal at this point. One day I would love to pitch the idea of a book about a clueless stepdad trying to figure it all out, but for now, I just write.

As well, with a blog, you’re done quickly. You tell your little story of the day and move on. It’s that simple. No worrying about structure or character or theme or how to integrate a love story into the plot.

Being me, I wondered, could I still have some fun writing something other than a blog? Or a novel?

So, last night, I did just that. I wrote out a short story. 3388 words. Not a long story to be sure, not even one that has a market, but one that was fun to write.

And it was fun. I lost myself in the words. I didn’t stress about hooks or proper attributions or clever rhetorical gimmicks, I simply wrote what was in my head and put it into the computer.

Sort of like what I do with the blog.

So, then why can’t I find a way to do that with my novel?

Technically my book is before this event by a few days.

Technically my book is before this event by a few days.

More thinking will be required, but for now I’m substituting routine for passion. Sort of a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ thing. I get up, write a bit for fun, take a break, then write on my novel until noon. So far I’ve managed to get anywhere from 3 pages to 12 done per day done. Not stellar production, sure, but forward progress, nevertheless, and such progress will eventually allow me to complete another novel.

But that idea of making it fun, again, intrigues me.

I want to get back to that when I write a novel.

I’m just not sure I can clear out all the clutter in my head to do so.

Any ideas?

 

To go or not to go

Joe’s Post #153 —

headerThat is the question.

I’m talking about the Surrey Writer’s Conference. Oct 23rd -24th.

It’s a toss-up this year. Pros and cons.

So I did what I do when I can’t decide.

I make a list. And drink. Here’s the list.

the authors

My best writing buddies, The Five

Top 6 Reasons to Go

  1. I could pitch 2 books to an editor who’s interested in my genre.
  2. There are 3 agents there I could take to about my books.
  3. 9/10 times I get inspired.
  4. The food’s pretty good.
  5. I love to learn and there’s always something to learn.
  6. My best writing buddies are there.

 

Top 5 Reasons Not To Go

  1. don maassDon Maass is NOT there. See #3. He is my biggest inspirer.
  2. No Chuck Wendig, so that means I won’t spend 2 hours laughing my ass off and I do love to laugh my ass off.
  3. It costs a lot of money at a time that I don’t have that money.
  4. Most of the agents showing up don’t want to look at the books I write, or I’ve pitched to them and they’ve rejected my brilliant stories.
  5. I can’t find a full day of things I want to do. There’s a bit Friday and Saturday, but that’s a huge cost for basically 2 half days.
  6. My best writing buddies will not be there. Joe sad.

I tell ya, it’s a tough call. Not that there aren’t some great people there, not that there aren’t a few good workshops, and it’s always amazingly well organized, but this year, I may choose not to go. The weight of the list is clearly on the No side, but then there’s #1 on the Go side.

Is it worth it?

Thoughts?

 

Contest win – sort of

Joe’s Post #150

I was going to write a post about something Stephen King said, but then I got this in my email. It’s not a win. It’s an honorable mention. But at my level, this still has to count for something.

It’s little things like this that keep us going, like a foul ball in the majors or a near miss in Battleship.

“Hello Joe Cummings!

Congratulations! Your entry, Joe’s Job was awarded an Honorable Mention in the 84th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition.

As an Honorable Mention recipient, you will receive 20% off of qualifying purchases in the Writer’s Digest Shop

The top award winners will be listed in the November/December 2015 issue. In addition, the Grand Prize & first place winners in each category will have their story published in the 84th Annual Writer’s Digest Competition Collection. The names of all Honorable Mentions will be listed in the collection. The Competition will be published in November 2015 and will be available for purchase from www.writersdigestshop.com in early 2016.

Again, many congratulations from all of us on the Writer’s Digest team!”

So check out the collection when it comes out. It may not have my submission, but it should have some great ones in there.

Stuck Writing? Try An Interview.

A quick post today. I wanted to share something I tried.

catzzHey, we all get stuck at some point. We reach a scene that just doesn’t work or a character that isn’t right, somehow, or some voice gets stuck in our head that says, go clean the spiders out the garage.

So, that happened to me yesterday. And the day before.

In both cases, I got out of my slump by harkening back to a book I read a while ago. Ok, to be honest, I was wondering around the office biting my fingernails and looking all writerly when I saw the book, but whatever. The book was The Weekend Novelist Writes A Mystery by Robert J.  Ray and Jack Remick

They argue that you should always start with your killer first. And one of the suggestions was interview your antagonist after he’s been caught.

So I took this idea a bit farther.

What if, when you got stuck on something, you stopped and did a quick interview? What if you didn’t just think of interviewing the antagonist? What if you looked at anything and everything? Like location.

hells kitchenLocation:

Me : “Hey, Hell’s Kitchen.”

“Sup bro.”

“Ah, yeah, listen, I don’t get you. Can you tell me something about yourself?”

“I ain’t what I used to be. Got the name from long ago. It kinda just stuck, you know.”

“So you’re not really all about kitchens or hell?”

“You want a punch in the face?”

“Not really, and at the risk of getting my nose mashed in, what do you smell like?”

“The fuck?”

“Seriously. What’s your most favourite smell?”

“Kabobs from the Afghan joint off of 9th. Red door. That smell of roasted meat and slightly burnt onions, it’s heaven.”

“So we’re going kitchen smells?”

“You want more? What about Wilo’s Flower Shop that’s at war with the hot dog vendor that parks his food cart right outside. Kinda hard to smell the roses, right?”

“Sure. I guess. Tell me about your favourite place.”

“Easy 39th st and 9th avenue.”

“What’s there?”

flea market“What’s not? It’s the world’s biggest flea market. Everything’s there. Reminds me of the old days when I was really called Hell’s Kitchen and not Clinton or Midtown West.”

“So you hate what people call you now?”

“Wouldn’t you? I got a proud heritage, you know. I been here a while and now, all of a sudden, people don’t call me by name, like there was something wrong with me, like they don’t love me no more.”

(This goes on for far too long so let me cut to the chase.)

However, by doing this I had several revelations.

First, I may need to see a psychiatrist.

Second, great writers make location a character and by chatting with Mr Kitchen, I began the thought process that lead me deeper into that part of NY.

Lastly, Hell’s Kitchen, AKA Clinton, seems a bit unsure of himself and yes, he’s a he. He’s also a bit of a jerk, and kind of unforgiving, you know, but he wants to avoid the future. Maybe he’s fighting against it in his own way.

So, could I use all this in a story?

You bet. I found that by talking to my city, I began to think about it on a whole new way. Not only did I find more intersesting places, but if you think about a place having a personality, then I would think the lights wouldn’t always work cuz the city’s a little pissed off. Or the sewer line constantly breaks. Or buildings have odd cracks.

I get this may not work for sane people, but hey, if you’re stuck, go interview someone or something. The hero’s car. The Antagonist’s mother. The dog who loves to poo on the victim’s lawn. The mail carrier who delivers mail.

Whatever.

It’s just a different way of getting a new way to look at something and maybe that look will inspire you to get bum back into chair and write.

Whadda think? Am I crazy?

The subjective nature of our business

Joe’s Post #146

twilightOne of the hardest things to come to terms with as a writer is the subjective nature of our business. In simple terms, as much as we try to learn the craft, the techniques, or the tricks of the trade, it comes down to taste. Some people will like it and others won’t. Like the Twilight books. Or cucumber water.

I'll give the plot away.. it's about an ant man.

I’ll give the plot away.. it’s about an ant man.

I was reminded of this when our family went to see Ant-Man. As an editor or publisher (or agent), had this project landed on my desk, I would have rejected it. I mean, hey, it’s about a superhero who’s an ant?

What the hell?

But let’s say I bought the story. Let’s say I even made a movie with Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd and that hot chick from Lost. Let’s say I added some nifty special effects. Let’s say, by the end, I kinda thought it was good.

Well, was it?

The reviews were mixed. The youngest boy thought it was 10/10. He loved the idea of being an ant. He’s eight. The oldest boy thought (I kid you not) that he didn’t connect with the characters and all the emotional stuff seemed just, you know, thrown in. He’s 12 going on 30. The Prettiest-girl-in-the-world gave it 9/10 and for her, that’s really 12/10 since it’s a movie about super heroes and didn’t star Tatum Channing (or Channing Tatum, I can never remember).

I gave it 7/10, mostly for reasons the oldest boy mentioned, but it did make me laugh and I loved the world they brought us into.

And that’s the thing about all creative endeavours. Some people will like it and others want more Tatum.

But why does this matter? Why write about it?

It’s because we’ll always receive a butt load of rejections. Despite our best efforts, these feed all the wrongs dogs that live inside of us. Fear. Doubt. A feeling we’re not good enough.

The truth could be completely different. It’s all subjective. Maybe an editor had read 4 proposals about unicorns mating with jelly fish and yours was the 5th and no matter how good it was, they really were sick of uni-jellies. Or maybe their boss wanted a book about cave dwelling monks who fed on human flesh and you just sent in a story about loving your neighbourhood dog.

Who knows?

rhIt’s why Heinlein’s advice about writing and sending it out, then writing and sending it out, is still the best advice to remember. Get enough stories on enough desks and your odds of getting published are increased exponentially.

Cuz, you see, subjectiveness works in our favour as well.

Let subjectiveness inspire you.

************

So, back to some stuff that I was doing, but forgot about since I’m getting old. Links! Please check them out.

Robert J Sawyer. Great writer, great advice on breaking in.

SFWA – a great organization with plenty of outstanding forums

Nathan Bransford – Again, great advice on a wide variety of writing subjects.