Friday, 29 April 2011

That's what she said: punctuation in dialogue

If I had a penny for every time new writers made this mistake, I'd be richer than Amanda Hocking. You know what I'm talking about: punctuation. Specifically, punctuation involving quotation marks.

I don't know what it is, exactly, about quotation marks that makes perfectly capable writers suddenly punctuate like they're drunk texting. Here, I'll give you an example:

"I can't believe it." She said. 

No! Bad! Rule #1: When using the tag "she said," or for that matter "he said," or "[name] said," use a comma (instead of a period) before the end quotation mark and use lowercase for the dialogue tag. That's because in this case, "she said" is just clarifying that she, in fact, said it. This gives us:

"I can't believe it," she said.

Rule #2: If a sentence ends with a comma or exclamation point, keep that and put the next part in lowercase:

"Do you really believe that?" he said.

"Yes!" she replied.

But wait! There's more. #3: When a sentence describing an action follows the quote, you don't need a comma or lowercase.

"That actually happened!" She started waving her hands in the air to prove her point.

"It totally did not." He said this while looking at the floor.

So, to recoup: comma (or original punctuation for anything but a period) and no caps for just "she said" (or "she rambled" or "she monologued" or anything like that), but continue normally for a regular sentence. This sounds logical but I see new writers flummoxed by this a lot.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

He who writes with monsters...

Research can be bad too. I mean, it's good to know things, but like some guy once said, "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

Blue Star deals very heavily with death. Very heavily. And I want my deaths to be as accurate as possible, because that's stuff I can't make up, and I just can't allow myself to write stuff like that without doing a little research. Or a lot, as the case may be.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Economic Fiction: Opportunity and Outward Effects

This week, we keep the focus on the character and define a bit more clearly what a choice needs to mean. Every time a character makes a choice, they give up the alternate. They can’t go left and right.

In economics, they call this opportunity cost. You lose your alternate options by picking one. This is important to fiction because your characters should be feeling the effects of the road less traveled. You should have them acutely aware of the option they gave up.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Journalism = life lessons

Journalism = life lessons

As the title suggests, I've learned over these past three years that being a journalist has helped me in many areas of life outside of the news office. For anyone wondering what you could possibly do with a degree in English or Communications, here's a good idea of how being in the journalism business can impact your life.

When I first started working for The Express back in 2008, I wasn't quite sold on the idea of being a journalist. I took the internship because yes, I could write decently and no, I wasn't really good anything else. Over the years, my internship has led me on some pretty interesting adventures, introduced me to many wonderful people in the community, and has given me the opportunity to expand hone my writing style and skills...not to mention the behind the scenes access to events, free food, free movie tickets and gift cards from happy people whom I've written favorably about. And I've gotten a lot out of these things.

1. The connections. I know about 15 prominent members of the community that I could ask for letters of recommendation for should I ever need them. They are supportive, interesting and I can learn a lot from them. If I ever need anything around town, I know who to talk to. I know the best places to eat, who works there, and who owns them and the hours and phone numbers of all local businesses. I could pretty much be tour guide: Clinton County PA edition.

2. I can apply things I've learned in the office to other jobs. When I went for an interview to work in the financial aid office at my school, the woman interviewing me stressed the importance of confidentiality and was very concerned with students knowing how important it is. I was please I could tell her, oh yes, I know all about that from working at the newspaper and how important it is to keep sources anonymous who wish to remain so. I got the job. Then, when I moved on to work in the campus writing center I could tell the professor who was considering me that, oh yes, I know how to talk to people, I know how to get people to think critically though asking leading questions...I work at a newspaper. I got the job. Now, one wouldn't think you could apply journalism skills to a restaurant job, but you would be surprised.

Recently, it has come to my attention that I will need a second summer job. My friend works are the best restaurant in town and was able to get me an interview with the boss. She explained that I would need to work fast and deal with attitudes as it could get stressful when there are a lot of customers in the evening. Oh yes, I said, I'm used to working quickly under strict deadlines, I work at a newspaper. Also, everyone is always stressed and grumpy during deadline times at the newspaper. I got the job. (My friend who got me the job now in charge of training me) He went through all the stuff I had to do for the job and expected me to remember, where things were and the names of co-workers the first time he told me the information. Oh yes, I could recite it back to him (in detail) and do the job correctly, I'm used to taking in a lot of information really fast, I work at a newspaper and I have to interview people who talk really fast and remember what they told me.

3. The adventures. I've gotten to fly in an airplane, attend expensive dinners, meet government officials, cover high profile court cases, attend a Hindu wedding ceremony, get a history lesson from people who have lived 100 years and much, much more. Not to mention hear many touching and harrowing stories of people who have suffered great loss or experienced such tragedy and were able to overcome, and make the best of it, like the story of the mission worker who was in Haiti during the earthquake or the 15 year old cheerleader who died of cancer and inspired her team members to fundraise to help others.

4. Writing skills. The ability to convey your point quickly, briefly, clearly and in a way that everyone can understand is pretty much journalism 101. And who wouldn't want to apply this is creative writing as well? In today's day and age, everyone wants everything quickly and not to mention identifying major plot points to grab readers is a skill all writers should strive for anyway. Journalism has helped me master this in my writing of leads for stories and I've applied to my fiction too.

5. The free stuff...well this speaks for itself. Its good stuff, and I don't have to pay for it. What's not to love? Plus, there is always food in the office that I can eat for free. A lot of people bring in goodies for us as a sign of appreciation.

So to anyone out there considering journalism, go for it! You won't be disappointed.

Monday, 25 April 2011


Everyone starts a story differently. Not just when they sit down to write; the planning stages differ widely from person to person. For me, it also differs story to story. Some are inspired by a feeling I want to convey, some by a line I want to say. Sometimes a character will be wandering around in my head, clamoring for a story. Sometimes a world will pop up, fully formed, and beg for a story to give it purpose.

Of my current projects, one sprung up simply because I have a deadline. I started out knowing I wanted alliterative poetry and wrote a bunch of garbage until I had a few things I thought were salvageable, then worked on those. It's now semi-coherent but still in need of editing.

Another, China, was spawned in a moment of intense feeling that I wanted to excise from myself by putting it on paper. It still serves essentially the same purpose, but has grown, of necessity, to have characters and overarching plot.

The werewolf romance was born when I was reading yet another of them, and decided that I should write one, to justify all of my reading of them as 'research.' Then I started diving into real research - legends, actual behavior and statistics for mundane wolves, population maps - and that shaped a lot of the beginnings of the story, since I wanted to be able to portray a lot of things missing from most of the genre in terms of the relationship between werewolves and real wolves (as in, have werewolves act more like wolves than macho men with 'roid-rage, much as I love macho men).

The Zimmerverse was born from a series of interconnected short stories I might eventually edit. It started as simply a platform for fairy tale retellings, and then I fell in love with a world in which this sort of thing could happen. Over the course of more stories, it unfolded further, until it became the world of Alexander, demanding a novel to explore it.

The collaborations were spawned in conversations with close friends who are also fellow writers, a cascading stream of 'what if's that ended up on a page.

Most blog posts start similarly, from a discussion. Sometimes they'll be sparked by reading other blog posts or by my own reaction to reading other things. They're part of a wider discourse on writing and the publishing industry, so they're much more open-ended, and not as self-contained.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Stories Are Like Bullets: Aim at One Target

I'm sure you're all tired of hearing me explain what many of you already know, so I'll try and make this the last of this particular series of posts, and get into something more savory next week.

The last of Vonnegut's eight rules that I will discuss is number seven, quoted below for those who don't recall it from week one:

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

This is one of the less-obvious of the rules, and one which rarely is followed as much as it should be. Writers often try to look at their piece and tailor it to 'Market Well' or to appeal to a 'Wider Audience,' and often end up diluting or perverting something that started as a good piece of fiction. This is a tricky rule for some people to stomach because they think that if their piece doesn't appeal or fit a certain mold, nobody will be interested in it. This is only half-true. If the story isn't any good, nobody will be interested in it. If you spend the time to make sure you are writing your story for the purposes of getting a good story, and not for purposes of who will or won't be interested in it, chances are you will have a piece that is good enough to gain interest.

A piece doesn't need to be liked, or be on a pleasant topic, to sell. One of Shakespeare's earliest tragedies, Titus Adronicus, gets a lot of criticism, both for content and style, yet it was as popular as it was brutal during it's hayday. For a more modern example, I suppose I could point out Eragon or Twilight, which have both sold extremely well, despite appealing to very specific groups, and drawing harsh criticisim from many, many other groups. In the end, your story doesn't need to please a wide audience, and most stories won't. But if you write well enough, there WILL be an audience, and their vastness may surprise you.

I'm pretty sure this is the same point your parents were trying t0 make when they lied to you about growing up to be the first president-cowboy-astronaut-superhero, actually. Who knew they had something worth listening to?

Ugh. This post makes me feel all good-guyish. I'll do my best to dash your dreams next week to make up for this.

Friday, 22 April 2011

How much would you pay for an ebook?

I've asked a lot of people the above question, and I've received a lot of different answers. Some people would pay $6, others wouldn't balk at $8.99 or $9.99 if they really wanted to read it.

Yet many of the Top 100 bestsellers on Amazon are priced at 99 cents to $2.99 for indie authors. So although many people may not admit it, a low price will move copies. Currently, I've priced my book at $3.95, and nobody's balked at the price, and some people have told me it's too low. After all, people shell out $4.20 for a coffee that will last an afternoon; why not more for a book that will last many hours? So I may bump up the price, and debut my next book somewhere along the lines of $4.99 - $5.99, especially since I'm planning for it to be a little longer.

So far, these look like reasonable guidelines:

99 cents to $1.99: novella or short story collection (under 150 pages)
$2.99 and up: novel, or collection of novellas and short stories ranging about 150+ pages

But of course, it depends on genre. In romance, 99 cents seems to be popular. Romance novels are written to be read and enjoyed quickly, and readers buy many of them, so keeping the price low makes sense. For a sci-fi novel that ranges 400+ pages and might take many hours to read, $5.99 might seem like a fairer price.

I'd like to conduct experiments and surveys as to what the best price is, but even retailers vary on prices. A paperback might be anywhere from $10 to $17. Hardcover can be a wild card. $18.99? $24.99?

I'm really interested in what the "upper limit" of prices are, though--at what point will a reader look at an ebook's price and say, "No way"? For me, it's about $5. Any higher than that, and I'll usually grab the paperback.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Cocaine is the top illegal import into the United States.

I often joke that I started writing Blue Star so that I wouldn’t have to take up a real drug habit. That shit can be real nasty, yo. Like meth? Yeah, I am never trying that—the visuals they used in middle school of people tearing their skin off with cheese graters and their fingernails and stuff really stuck with me.

Anyway. Blue Star, in the story, is the street name for this drug I made up. It’s first and foremost a hallucinogen like LSD, but it’s got these crazy other properties too. So what do I need to do? Research. As always.

To Google!

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Economic Fiction: Incentives and Disincentives

So, we understand that characters make choices with how to use limited resources. We also understand that those characters need drive, and they need values.

Once they have these things, how do they decide between two courses of action?

Obviously, the first factor is deciding if their choice helps them with their goal or not. But what about choosing between two likely paths?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

How blogging helps my writing, a personal opinion.

Hello everyone, its me again, the non-writing writer.

As somebody who is struggling to get back into writing, I'd like to point out that my experience has been that blogging is an effective tool to get you off of your ass, and actually putting words onto paper. This is in large part because you can get feedback from real people, and it doesn't always feel like you are doing everything alone. I know that sometimes, I can feel really lost without somebody there helping me.

Take for example, this collaborative. I know that each and every one of my "blogmates" is also a member of a huge, longstanding support network. For sure, if I had a question, and I posted it here, they would do their honest best to help me figure out the answer. I know that this would be true even if my question wasn't about writing. If I didn't have a blog, I don't know that I could organize all the answers from the people I most care about, let alone having them in the same place.

Its also an attitude/motivation thing. If I am already writing two or three blog posts in one day, I might as well commit at least a few paragraphs to some creative writing. I wouldn't write at all if it wasn't for blogging. I know this, because before I blogged, I didn't. Months would go by, and I hadn't written a single word, except for maybe letters to friends. Certainly though, nothing creative or even intelligible.

Blogging helps me stay motivated, and furthermore, it is something that I enjoy. I go out with my camera sometimes with the expressed intent of taking photos to put up on my blog(s). Blogging, you know that nobody is going to assign you a grade at the end, giving you a pass or a fail. When I can pick the topics that I want to talk about, and go where I want to with them, the world is my oyster. Blogging can be freedom to be absolutely creative, and just write to your heart's content.

In a nutshell, if you are somebody like me, who just needs a little motivation to get writing... Try keeping a blog, and invite your friends to read it. Its habit forming, and writing is a habit we want to form, right? Pretty soon, you'll be writing stories and poems, maybe even a novel. Why? Because you were writing anyway, and because it feels sooooo good.

Monday, 18 April 2011

You Need An Editor

Yes, you do. Don't argue with me.

Everyone needs one.

Even if you're self-publishing. Actually, especially if you're self-publishing, because when selfpublishing you're in control of all aspects of the production and it shows that you don't respect yourself or your work if you don't get an editor.

I don't mean a friend who always got good grades in English and is willing to look it over, either. I mean an editor. At the very least a copy-editor who will go through and read each word and make sure the commas are appropriately placed and that you didn't change a character's nickname from Timmie to Timmy halfway into Chapter Five and that you're using the correct spelling of 'disc' for the context and the correct spelling of 'grey' for your country.

Editors tend to be an investment, and sometimes selfpublishers will balk at the price. But when you consider how much of your money you've already invested into your work in terms of hours of focus, it's usually going to be worth it.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Characters, (Designing and Feeding Thereof)

Stories are made of characters. It follows that if you want to write good stories, you need to have well-designed characters. Many times, the design of a character winds up being what sells a book, sometimes more so than the plot (Ian Fleming, I'm looking at you), and dynamic, well-thought out characters are usually the first thing people think of when reflecting on an author or a piece of fiction.

Last week I mentioned eight rules that Kurt Vonnegut wrote for fictioneers. One of my favorite of these is number three, which states:

"Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water."

While definitely not the kind of advice that can help you craft characters to steal hearts and sell books with, it is definitely something to keep in mind during character design. Most writers know to give their main characters goals and aspirations, but it is important to remember that every character, even those who fall in the 'everybody else' category, need to have goals and motivations and reasons to do whatever it is that they do. For your focal characters, you need to make sure that these motivations make sense and are consistent with their actions. A desire to bring honor to your family rarely involves kicking in doors and waving a sword, and greed doesn't make characters leap to block bullets. It's also important to realize that a character's goals affect more than just their general actions, it bleeds into their personality, their relationships, their appearance, everything.

One way I like to check the realism/believability value of my characters is to compare them to real people. Hopefully you aren't going to find your characters real-world counterpart, but you should still be able to draw parallels. "My friend George likes computers, went to school to be a programmer, but dropped out and plays video games instead," can have lots of parallels with, "My character, Eli, is a humble servant to the house of Wobblestein, but when faced with a hearty bribe, happily abandoned his allegiance and pocketed seven hundred pieces of silver." You can also try to draw parallels in history, theology, and even other literature. If you can't find anything remotely similar to your clinically depressed medieval soldier who decides that a path of revenge and womanizing is the way to solve his problems, that's not a hint that your character is original, it's usually a hint that he is not a well-designed character.

A lot of this may sound similar to Pat's "Economic Fiction" series of posts, mostly because it is. In order to avoid the Idiot Plot, characters need to have motivations that drive actions and make economic sense. Not everyone can get everything they want, so it is up to you, the author, to decide who will place what value upon what. Only after that decision is made can you begin to write something of any value or plot.

Friday, 15 April 2011

The Ultimate Rule of Magic Part II: Magic Users

Welcome back to my brief series of posts on the use of magic in your story. As some of you may recall, in my last post I gave you my Ultimate Rule of Magic. In the interest of saving you a few clicks to go back and remember that rule, I'm gonna post it here for you again. Ready? Here it comes:

A magic user can use magic to do absolutely anything they can imagine, provided that they have the magical energy required to do so.

As promised, today I will be discussing one of the implications. So before you get too far into that sentence looking for something to discuss, I'm going to stop you at the third word. Those first three words there, "A magic user," mean a lot.

Specifically, you need to define who can even use magic in your story. And while to a degree I'm discussing just amongst your characters, I'm also discussing the world at large. Is it possible that everyone can use magic in your story? That's for you to decide. It's equally possible that only some people can. Or even that everyone can, but not everyone can use all kinds of it.

Even with that, you still need to decide who actually uses it (which in some cases, but not all, means who knows how to). For instance, in my current story-in-progress, Phoenix Mage, one type of magic user is a mage, which I define in the story as someone with magical energy as an essential part of them. All mages are, of course, capable of using magic. Not all of them, however, actually do. Most of them don't even know they are mages. And to show that you don't need to know how to use magic to actually do so, not all of my mages that do use magic know they're using magic of even have any control over it. Plenty of them use it on instinct without even noticing.

Furthermore, you don't need to limit yourself to one type of magic user. My story also defines another group of magic users called shamans as people who manipulate and use magic that is naturally found in the environment. A notable difference, however, is that logic itself will dictate that shamans MUST know that they use magic and they MUST know how to do so. Which of course doesn't even mention that you have to use magic to be a shaman.

This of course, leads to my next point. Once you've decided who can use magic and why they can use it, you need to let logic take it's course. If the only access to magic in your world is through having sex, you can expect that no one who can use magic in your world is a virgin. In fact, you'd probably expect them all to be sexual deviants who have sex at the drop of a dime (depending on how much they like magic and/or sex). The way someone accesses magic WILL affect the way they act. The sex magician is much more likely to try and seduce someone to get their way, for instance, than the magic user who gets their power from respecting nature or something like that.

This doesn't set hard and fast rules (unless your story calls for it), but it is something to keep in mind as far as suspension of disbelief goes. If the magic user who gets their power from nature sets fire to a forest, I expect a damn good reason for it, and so will your readers.

Got it? If so, good. If not, drop a comment and I can try to clarify. That's it for this week, I'll see you again in another couple weeks with Part III.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

And the British have Harold Shipman.

I started Blue Star summer of 2010. There were a few things I had to research to get started.

First and foremost, serial killers, America’s most romanticized sociopaths. I needed to know as much as I possibly could until my attention span ran out. Now, I’m a big fan of murder mysteries—have been for years—so I at least had an idea of what I was getting into writing one. And I knew it was going to be gruesome. (I’m a big fan of Wire in the Blood and Criminal Minds and that sort of thing. Crime dramas are fun!) How gruesome? Gruesome. Serial killers, baby.

So I went to Google. Hey man, don’t judge me. It led me to many websites on serial killers, but the one I remember was the FBI’s website. Yeah, they’ve got one, and it was actually highly informative.
Naturally, I checked out Wikipedia as well. They put things very succinctly, and often have links you can bounce to for further information.
Things blur a little here. I think once I verified I was going to be making a serial killer, I needed to get down to the nitty-gritty and start emulating the masters.

Yes, good ole Wikipedia. Don’t look at me like that, I’m not doing this for school, it doesn’t have to be cited or anything. Anyway, Wiki is concise and for the most part accurate.
First, I went here, to the list of unidentified serial killers. You know them—Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer, the Original Night Stalker. Well, even the more obscure ones are on here. This is what I needed. These were the guys that got away…how did they do it?

As it turns out, for the most part, they got away because technology was shit and procedures were shit. Look them over. My memory isn’t great, but if I recall correctly a lot of them were working in the times before the computer, our greatest technological boom of recent years. Before the internet, and databases, and INSTANT INSTANT INSTANT. Communication was a little harder back then and information didn’t get around as quickly, and forensics weren’t the same back then either.

Okay, how about the ones that didn’t get away with it? I’m talking big bad guys here: Bundy, Gacy, Dahmer, Berkowitz. Pretty looking bunch of guys, aren’t they? (Well, Bundy, yeah, okay.) There were others I poked at, but I can’t remember them right now except for the Unabomber and Ed Gein. What was I looking for? Everything. Methodology, motives, cooldown periods. These were some bad, fucked up people, and I was going to read all about them. Had to get into the mind of the killer, right?

It was sometime around reading what Dahlmer did to his victims that the weight of their actions suddenly came crashing down. Holy shit. This was disgusting. This was disturbing. This was all kinds of wrong, and the fact that these people had ever done this was wrong, and the fact that people out there would do this was wrong. It was terrible and horrific. (Seriously, go read the articles, and try to imagine plumbing full of rotting human flesh.)

This was grim stuff, and it put me in exactly the kind of mindset I needed.

(As an amusing note, I found a book last year at Barnes and Noble about serial killers, in alphabetical order. Can’t deny I was tempted to buy it.)

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Economic Fiction: Purpose and Principles

Last week I introduced you to economics as a subject. I also promised you I'd explain how to use economics to improve your fiction.

We begin with behavior. Have you ever done anything completely randomly? If you said yes, I'd question you.

'Well, I went to the movie just because I felt like it!'

Of course. You felt like it. It wasn't random, even if it wasn't preplanned.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Book to Movie = Book to Fail?

You are sitting down to watch your favorite TV program and of course you turn in right as it goes to commercial. After a round of McDonald’s ads and insurance claims, a movie preview comes on for a new movie that you quickly recognize. It’s your favorite book! And its being turned into a movie! Huzzah!

You are extremely excited and rush to the movie theater the day it comes out...but somewhere between the opening scene and end credits your face screws up into a frown of disgust and you are left wondering: “what the hell did I just see?” What you thought was going to be your favorite book portrayed in all its glorious detail was some poor excuse for a film where the plot does not match anything you remember reading and the only resemblance the character bare to the book are their names.

More often than not, this happens with book to movie adaptions. Many book loyalist are left wondering why…or WHY!?! The answer is simple. 1. The author of the book often has little to no say in how the movie is produced. They hardly ever have any input in the script or direction. 2. Hollywood makes no promise that they will be true to the book and escape charges of thinly veiled plagiarism by the addition of: “Based on the book by (author name goes here)” usually appearing in the opening credits.

Does it fail, yes? Is there anything we can do about it? Not really.

However, some authors hold out until they are approached by, or can find a producer who is willing to compromise. One of my literary heroes, Anne Rice, for example, will not sign any movie deals unless her vision of her characters and plots are upheld. The lady who does not even allow fanfiction of her work, is particularly sensitive when it comes to her characters. After the film adaption of her book “Queen of the Damned” was a failure…and nothing like the original text…she is very wary of movie deals.

Also, it must be mentioned that some movie producers and directors are respectful to the text. Peter Jackson with his adaption of “The Lord of the Rings” comes to mind. Love it or hate it, one has to admit, that it is pretty close to the gospel of Tolkien with only a few alterations (mostly in “The Two Towers”) and omissions for time’s sake.

But what about those annoying little details that readers and fans love that movie producers skim over? One of the most popular criticisms: Harry Potter’s eyes, for example. In the books, I’m fairly certain it was mentioned on the first 3 pages that he has green eyes and is repeated throughout the series, probably no fewer than 20 times. In the movies: blue eyes. In the most recent film adaption of one of my personal favorite stories, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” Oscar Wilde tells us that Dorian is blond, and once again, this is repeated at least 20 times through the book. In the movie, he has dark brown/black hair. These things I really don’t understand. They can sink the bloody Titanic, successfully reenact epic battles and space shuttle launches and make dinosaurs walk the earth again, but they can’t get a character’s hair and eye color right? I’m at a loss with this one.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The List Never Ends

So, after seeing Shadow's goals, I thought it'd be fun to list mine, since I don't tend to talk about my explicit writing goals. I have writing industry goals: getting the next issue of Island Writer out, getting Theory Train a money-making enterprise, finding more editing work. And publishing.

But before I publish, I need to finish writing the stories.

My baby, and the furthest along right now, is Alexander, the first story in a series I'm fondly calling the Zimmerverse. It's almost forty thousand words long, and the first half is undergoing its second revision with the help of the Lolwhat critique group on Google Docs. By the end of this year I want Alexander finished and ready to go to press. I'm not sure yet whether I'll submit to publishing houses or do it myself: part of that may depend on how much blog traffic I'm getting at the time.

I also want to win the Faulkner Prism, which might be a bit more ambitious, since it does rely on winning contests consistently over the course of the summer, which is also the busy season at work. Part of that goal is writing a quality short story or poem every month for the next three, and then every two weeks until September. I managed it reasonably well last summer, but I was also considerably less busy, so we'll see how it goes.

I'm also participating in three collaborations, with my friends Tristan, Lynn, and Mason. The one with Tristan suffers for want of plot, which we're working on, the one with Lynn is proceeding quite well, if slowly, since we're both busy and have other writing projects, and the one with Mason has mostly devolved onto me, since he moved on after we finished the first in what was meant to be a series.

In the past few months, I've also decided that I want to write a werewolf romance novel. I have 2500 words and a folder full of research. It's progressing, but I don't have a definite end-date. I may try to get the first draft done during this year's NaNoWriMo, as November is a slow month in bike stores.

I'm also working on a semi-auto-biographical spy novel set in post-apocalyptic China -yes, there is emphasis on the 'semi' aspect- and a long-ish running story about gods. I want more of those done, though the Zimmerverse is my highest priority right now.

Saturday, 9 April 2011


Most of what I know in terms of writing comes from reading, and most of what I read are short stories. This isn't to say I don't read novels, but I usually read about 1 novel to 10 or 20 short stories. Many writers who are most famous for their novels, ie., Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Vonnegut (Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five), and Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anne Karenina), also have an impressive collection of short stories that I have had the opportunity to pour through.

In almost all of these short stories, you can see commonly followed rules and a distinctive style. Kurt Vonnegut, at the beginning of his short story anthology Bagombo Snuffbox, gives eight rules, as follows:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Now, these are all great rules to write by and occasionally ignore. But for now, I'd like to focus on numbers one and five, which address something which often gets de-prioritized in short stories: making them short.
I know, it kinda sounds odd of me to insinuate that people don't know how to keep their short stories short, but there is a difference between a story that happens to lack length and a good short story. Every sentence and every word costs time and space, and if your reader lacks the first or your publisher lacks the second, you'll never even get your story out of the notebook. Besides that, people want their time to be used efficiently, and if you take five pages to say something you could have done in the space and time of four, your reader will know it, and won't be above holding it against you.

This is a rule that, while Vonnegut wrote it for short fiction, can be made to apply to any writing. It holds just as, if not more, true in poetry, for example. Here, word are counted and unnecessary lines can not only waste time and space, but also tend to majorly obstruct flow and style. Journalism also benefits from the use of brevity. If you can keep your reports concentrated and focused, you not only hold a piece that will read and inform better, but one which will take up less space, a trait that, especially in print journalism, can be the difference between the writer who gets printed and praised, and the one who goes hungry.

Before you all take a proverbial (or non-proverbial) weed whacker to your story, I should probably let you know that almost as soon as he wrote these rules, Vonnegut mentioned that they get broken. It's important to keep in mind that there is a time for everything, and a thing for every time... or something to that effect. JD Salinger spent days agonizing over a single word, and has wonderful stories to show for his effort, but that is not the only way to do things. Rambling is never advisable, but some topics require a bit of a rant, some things need to be repeated, and some stories are downright painful to end. Only the individual writer can make the final call on just how long is too long or long enough, but it's important to keep in mind that what you are willing to write isn't always what another is willing to read.

I'll probably address a few more of these rules next week, and look forward to writing at you again.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Can't get started with your writing? Read this

A lot of people have asked me over the years, "How do I become a writer? Where do I start?" 

My answer used to be, "I don't know. Pick up a pen and write something down?" I was facing the same question myself. But now that I've actually finished a book, I can sit back and think about what was useful for me and what wasn't.

Things you need to be able to write:

1. A quiet place. I wrote most of my novel in the library when I was studying for my writing degree at my first college, and I thought about the plot while walking around the campus. I soaked up a lot of the inspiration around me, and some of the architecture there (including above-ground tunnels) made it into the book.

2. Resources. If you're one for writing guides or just need inspiration, Bird by Bird and On Writing are the books I always recommend to new authors. Bird by Bird is especially good, because it's a heartfelt book that at the same time takes a "down in the trenches" approach to coaching new writers: the author lays everything out and tells it like it is.

The Elements of Style is also a must for any writer. It's short; go grab a copy and read it. I also found Eats, Shoots & Leaves to be a hilarious grammar resource (but other people have said it's boring, so I might just be a grammar geek).

If you're looking to write an ebook, Zoe Winters' Becoming an Indie Author is a great resource as well. For news in e-publishing, J. A. Konrath's blog is a must-read.

If you're a poet, In the Palm of Your Hand is an excellent book to learn some skills and read examples of fascinating poetry.

3. Time. I did most of my writing late at night or between classes. If I had a day off, I wrote. During nursing school I could go months at a time without writing, but during the summer I jumped right back into it and worked on the draft of a new book. Nowadays I dash off notes and entire poems on my phone while waiting for the bus.

It takes some effort to find spare time, but most people have more of it than they realize. I've seen people write dozens of tweets in a single day, then type, "I never have enough time to write!" Don't be that person.

4. Good software. I once used RoughDraft, because it was a lightweight program that did a lot, especially due to its "Notepad" function (each file has a little sidebar you can use to write notes).

I had to start using Word for school, however, so now I often type in that and outline in OneNote, which I find indispensable for organizing a new book (one tab for plot outlines, one tab for character lists, etc), so I have everything in one place. If I forget what eye color a character has, or where they're supposed to be in the next scene, I can flip back and find out quickly.

5. Writing buddies. If no one you know is an aspiring writer, try finding a writing forum online; AbsoluteWrite is a really comprehensive one.

One thing that really sped up my writing was finding "betas"--essentially, people to read, and give thoughts on, my writing. My first betas were friends and siblings, and I would deliver paper copies of my chapters to them. Eventually this led to me e-mailing them, and finally using Google Docs to create files that everyone could read together and pile notes on. It's a lot of fun, and it's a good motivator to keep writing when you have instant feedback.

6. An idea. Whether you're writing poetry, a short story, a novel or anything else, you really need to find something you believe in to write about. This is the most important and yet elusive part of writing. My ideas usually come in the form of a thought that grabs me and won't let me go.

The original thoughts for my book Flyday went something like this: What if a girl had a time machine that could take her anywhere she wanted to go? And what if she encountered a man accused of murder, and found that her future actions might have caused it? I wondered where the story went, and I wrote it.

Someone once told me, "I write because the books I'd want to read aren't written yet." This is a good way to think about writing. What would you want to read if you saw it on the shelf? Write it.

This post originally appeared on A Writer's Notes.

Thursday, 7 April 2011


I'm gonna pour one out for my homie Diana Wynne Jones.
Y'all might or might not have heard, but she died recently.

She's been one of my favorite authors for years. I have all of the Chrestomanci books, and have loved and reread them many times. I was stoked when I heard they were making Howl's Moving Castle into a movie. (And I've read and own the sequel too. Awesome.) I got a kick out of The Dark Lord of Derkhelm, and Deep Secret made me all nostalgic for the one convention I've been to (LosCon, 2005) even if I didn't like the book so much.

And her writing book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a must read for any aspiring fantasy writer out there. It's high/mid fantasy, not urban, but even if you don't write it you'll get a hoot if you read fantasy, because you'll be going "Yes! That's always bugged me too!"

The tragedy is that even though she's been a prolific and influential fantasy writer, I learned about her death a day after it happened, and someone else learned even later than I did. It just wasn't publicized that much. And that is a shame. A damn shame. She deserved better than that. She was an amazing writer, and helped mold some of the contemporary fantasy authors of our generation (did you know that she and Neil Gaiman were friends and fans of each other's work?).

Shine on, sweet princess, and sleep well.

Hints About Writing A Story: an article by Diana Wynne Jones

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Economic Fiction: What is Economics?

So, I introduced myself, but I'll get a little bit more specific about my interests. In addition to writing and blogging, which I love, I'm interested in business. As my partners in crime here will attest, I'm very business focused and treat everything like a combination of a game and a business. It's all serious, and it's all fun.

One subject I took for my business degree is economics, and I can't even begin to describe how useful that class is. Seriously, if you've never taken economics courses, you should try them! But you don't have to take my word on it, I'll give you a quick introduction to using economic principles in fiction.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

What I'd like to write.

I think its appropriate to open a dialogue in a writing blog with a list of the things that I hope to write someday soon, and why I want to write them. I think I know better than anybody here how daunting it can be to get back into writing, after a long hiatus. Most of my fellow lunatics can't remember a time when they weren't writing. Huh, maybe that's why I'm here? Anyway, this should give me a clear list of things to work toward, and give others an idea of who I am, and maybe where I’m coming from.

Before I do that, let me share a little about my history with writing. I was one of those typical angsty teenagers, writing about all the trials of high school. I can remember some particularly dark pieces coming shortly after I broke up with my first serious boyfriend. Of course, it was all ridiculous. There was always this burning thought though, that if I just pushed myself, I could write something great. Still, I never tried.

Then, something got in the way. Suddenly, not just writing, but all creativity was something that I didn't "have time" for. My life was overtaken by social interaction and at best, reading. It was great for a few years, but this hunger to write is creeping up on me, and I don't know how long I can go without satisfying it. So, lets get some ideas on paper, shall we?

I’d like to write a series of short stories, exploring the seven deadly sins. This idea has been done to death by writers everywhere, but still, it seems like it would be fun, especially if I could make it happen in 5000 words or less each time. If I could get these finished by the time seven months is up, I would be happy.

I’d like to write a poem every day for 30 days. Largely just to get me writing again, but also because I think poetry is the best way to get your most basic thoughts on paper, because there often isn’t any room to beat around the bush. I will do this starting the day after the half marathon, and maybe use the same blog, I’m not sure yet.

I want to write an erotica novel. Plain and simple. I want to do this by the end of the year. I don't know how realistic this one is.

Eventually, I want to write a book about my opinions on the current situation, and future of Canadian Politics, and also what we should do about it. This goal is probably my most serious, but also the furthest away. If I do follow my goal to get a PhD,I am going to have to write a thesis, so maybe… Maybe, this is the answer.

I am learning very slowly about myself that I need to write these things down and set hard deadlines, or they will never be finished. I just want to get writing again, but it is terrifying. I am afraid that nothing I write will be any good, and I am afraid that nobody will like them.

Monday, 4 April 2011


One of the most interesting things I've noticed in the piles and piles of romance novels I read is that romance itself is not usually the primary theme.

Security tends to feature more prominently: physical, financial, psychological and emotional.

First, the physical: so many Harlequin men are tall, dark, handsome, and muscular because that means they are physically imposing. They can protect Heroine from harm and beat up bad guys and Heroine has to lean up to kiss him.

Financially, when was the last time anyone read about a poor Duke? Even if Hero is a manual laborer, he'll be at least comfortable. That's because living happily ever after in a dingy one-bedroom third-floor walk-up is not anyone's idea of romance.

Psychological security is one of the hardest to define, since it has a lot of overlap with emotional. One of the biggest ways psychological security is woven into romance is in that Heroine will not be awkwardly more intelligent than Hero, and if she is, he'll think it's sexy, not be threatened. Heroine is free and safe to be exactly who she wishes to be.

Emotional security is the one at the heart of romance: by The End, both Hero and Heroine must know that the other loves them completely. The love must be mutual, providing security that Heroine nor Hero will not have their heart broken later. In true Western fashion, the love will also be monogamous, and promise to last lifetimes.

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Starting Out

I said it before, and I definitely mean it: the fellow writers on this blog are amazing, and I respect each one of them immensely. Everyone here has a very specific and unique style of writing they use, which suits them well, but that I could never pull off myself. In particular, KB uses a very distinctive style, but one that I think would counter my own so horribly I'd never be able to draw from it.

The main reason behind this is her lack of chapter-breaking. She does it in such a way that makes you hesitant to stop reading. Personally, though, I need chapter breaks in anything I write for more than 5000 words, so despite admiring KB's work, I could never do anything like it myself.

I think the reason I need chapter breaks is that I enjoy starting things. This isn't to say that I don't like finishing them, because I do, but I love to start things. Anything, really. I'm pretty sure the use of the phrase 'Want to start...' could be used to talk me into about anything.

The start of a story, though, is unique and, for me, always a challenge. When you start a story, a chapter, or, really, any form of writing, storytelling, or entertainment, you need to be able to hook people. I like to use sound for this effect, though there are dozens of ways to go about it, and I'll try to cover some of the more common and (in my opinion) effective ones below:

BOOM: Not sure if there is a word for this. But, in essence, start your story/chapter/scene with a powerful onomatopoeia. If you are walking down the street, and hear a loud "KASHOOM!" echoing from the street, you aren't likely to look away. Same applies to when you're reading. If there's one thing I learned from my years as a comic-book-enthusiast, it's that some good POW, BANG, WHAM, and SOCK is enough to keep people reading, if only to find the source or results of the noise.

Pretty colors: This is another fairly common one. You present the reader with a powerful or striking image that burns itself into their minds. This is one I see a lot in post-apocalypse settings, and it is also a favorite to movie makers. Sunset over broken cityscapes, blood sprayed across the snow, and even a well-done description of a character all fall into this category, and serve to feed the mind's eye with enough candy to get them reading a bit further. In general, I oppose taking time to simply describe and describe, but at the start, you can get away with it a lot more.

The ____ is ____: Give us the setting/plot. Bluntly. The president is dead. The world is green. My cat is sick. I am a robot. (These are not related, by the way. Though if anyone gives me a story which starts like this will probably earn bonus points.) "Why should I read this?" the reader asks. Sometimes, it's best to just tell 'em, and tell 'em good. You can cater the intensity of this to fit your story, theme, and mood, but I always did like to start with a blunt punch to the face. This is another one I see a lot with post-modern settings, or disaster/incident-stories.

Pants on my head!: An unusual scene is always a good way to hook the reader from the beginning. Because if your story starts out in the middle of a crazy situation, who could resist reading, even if only for the sake of curiosity? I know the only reason I got past page one of some books is because it started out with something so unusual, ridiculous, or intriguing that my curiosity got the better of me, allowing me to swallow that worm hard.

I don't know. Maybe I'm the only person around who enjoys starting a story this much. And obviously there are lots of other ways to open up a story, but these are all fairly common, safe, and effective. Maybe this all seems rather cut-and-print textbook, and has you saying, "We already knew that, Seth, I can see why you get stuck on the end of the week," But it's all quite fascinating to me, and loads of fun.

And who knows. If I can help you guys out the next time you are stuck on an opening for your chapter, short story, or book, all the better.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Ultimate Rule of Magic Part I

Magic is a fun thing to work with in your writing. In a lot of ways, it can make things easier. You can put people in situations that seem almost entirely inescapable, and then get them out of it. Oh, you killed the main character’s love interest? Just magic them back to life! But the thing is, then things get out of hand. If you can bring her back to life with magic, then why couldn’t you use magic to stop her from dying in the first place? For that matter, why is there even a conflict in the story? Couldn’t you just magic away any problems that show up?

And so you realize that for your story to be worth reading at all, your magic needs some rules. This being magic, you can choose to ignore some major laws of physics (although you can choose not to, as well). At the most basic level, I’ve found that all magic use in a story needs one specific rule:

A magic user can use magic to do absolutely anything they can imagine, provided that they have the magical energy required to do so.

That rule is what I use in my own writing. I apply it to any story I see that has magic in it. And if somewhere in a story with magic my rule doesn't fit, then I know that the author wasn't thinking about how magic works in their story.

The thing about the rule is that it's both restrictive and freeing at the same time. It forces you to make some decisions about how magic works in your world. But it gives you absolute freedom with those decisions. It doesn't even require that they be consistent (although if they aren't, you'd better have some justification).

My first series of posts is going to discuss this rule, and all the implications of it that I can think of. So for now, I'll see you next post.