Friday, July 31, 2009

A Classic or a Bestseller?

I have to ask this, because a friend and I have been talking about this lately and I'd love to know you all's opinions.

Let's say at some point you get a book published. (Come on, reading this blog you know it's gonna happen!)

Would you rather have:

a) the Classic, which becomes an enduring tale that millions read over the years, but wouldn't necessarily get you public approval while you are alive,


b) the Bestseller. Racing up the Charts! Hey look, a Movie! Instant acclaim?

Me, I'm for the classic.

But I'd love to know what you think too.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Place for Ideas, a Random Video, and a Little Success

Seeing how it’s July, and most of us (well, me) are aching to run around outside and not be in front of a computer, I wanted to take this time, or space, to ask other readers what they want in a writing blog? I’m not sure if this will work, but I’m curious as to what people are searching for and not finding.

For example, most of us all know about Duotrope, the website with over 2000 magazines on record. But I would personally like to see what happens AT the magazine after your story has been submitted. So far I’ve found one of my favorite literary journals, The Missouri Review, has a youtube video. If you type in Missouri Review: Life of a Manuscript…you can begin to understand what’s happening after you submit your story to a magazine. It’s pretty cool, and worth a 4-minute view.

That’s about all I have. I did just yesterday receive an acceptance at Every Day Fiction for a flash fiction I wrote. I urge everyone to check out EDF. It’s not a pro market, but it is a great place to maybe get started, or, if you’ve already published, you can still get feedback, and, if your story does quite well, it may even get nominated for a Pushcart Prize, or be put in their anthology.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Urban Fantasy Doesn't Get Better

Last year, I snagged the POD version of Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International.

MHI is an urban fantasy best described as the literary equivalent of B-horror movie romp with accurate gun portrayal. MHI was the best book I read in 2008, and now you can get it from Amazon or your local bookstore.

Because Baen picked it up and republished it on July 28.

How amazingly cool is that?

It’s way cool because it’s an entertaining story, and a great study for new writers on crafting page-turning plotting with outstanding, fresh voicing. The book clocks in at 713 pages (yes, as a new author, it’s 713 pages), but it reads like 320.

Now, there is a really fine back story to MHI about self-promotion and platform for a fiction author, but really, from a writer point of view, the best thing is to just read it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Characters that Resonate Part II

Doug reminds me of the Donald Maass workshop I attended regarding The Breakout Novel back in May. Maass advocates for killer, kick-butt protagonists that capture every human ion within our bodies. Why? Well, there's a (literal) ton of competition out there. How to do this? Well, you're in luck. I took notes!

1. Show a strength right away. As in: within the first five pages. Regardless of how dark and stormy and anti- your protagonist is, we still need to have a reason to care. Adding a heroic quality accomplishes that. (Blake Snyder would call it the "save the cat" moment in screen-writing.)

2. Show a third dimension. Reveal weaknesses, variety, the opposites of your chosen strengths. Adding this extra character dimension surprises us, keeps us off balance, and intrigues us. What happens when your protag, who vehemently detests dishonesty, finds herself lying to a trusted friend? How does she resolve her character flaw? Your exploration makes your character more human, more real, more believable. Added benefit? We keep reading.

3. Create inner conflict. Duh. But seriously: make it strong, dramatic, uncomfortable. Force your protagonist into a situation where s/he is torn between a greatest desire and its opposite. Write a scene where this individual desires or feels pulled into the direction of what s/he has always despised or hated. This could result in a lesson (yes, your character really does need to learn XYZ) or this could result in a greater sense of self-loathing or self-understanding or whatever.

4. Raise the personal stakes. Once you've created the conflict, raise the stakes even higher. Without a personal investment in the conflict -- without the story mattering to the protagonist -- the story will never matter to the reader. Ask yourself: why is this now urgent & necessary? How can the problem get worse? And, ultimately, under what circumstances would my protagonist actually fail to resolve this conflict?

5. Take your protagonist past the brink. Break her. Crush her. Then bring her back from the dead. It's all part of the hero's journey, after all. Without Campbell and Vogel, we might forget that death in some form must be encountered by our intrepid protags.

So, to parrot Doug, what do you do to ensure that your protagonists are well-rounded, dynamic, three-dimensional? How do you flesh them out believably, without (unintentionally) creating ADHD, bi-polar, and frenetic characters? What makes your audience care?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Characters that Resonate

How do you create characters that people love? Do you make them nice? Do you make them do everything right? All the time?

Quite the opposite in fact. Characters that are perfect, are perceived as too perfect, and most readers cannot identify with them. In fact these characters can become cardboard cutouts that the reader hates.

To make your characters believeable and likeable, they have to have faults. Most readers identify with characters that are like them, and everyone has faults. The more your character has faults like your reader, the more the reader will identify with them.

But you have to be careful about what type of faults and how serious the faults are, or you can create a situation where your character is no longer useful.

If your character doubts themselves at every turn and then suddenly takes charge and saves the day, how many people are going to believe it?

Make sure that your character faults are not something that is going to hinder their role in the story.

What kind of faults do your characters have?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Favorite Writing Advice

There is a bridge. It is not the kind of bridge that starts at point A and goes directly to point B. No. It is a bridge that floats on water, like a dock, and it twists and turns just as a maze does. You can get turned around and lost on this bridge. You can circle around to places that you have been before. And you can sit and watch others wondering around. Some will tell you of the other side. Some will tell you how they found their way across before. This bridge, of course, is the bridge that we as aspiring writers are trying to cross. There is a bookstore on the other side. And in that bookstore is a place for our story.

Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, tells the story of how she had to fight and not give up on herself in order to have a book not dumped by an editor who had given her most of her advance already. It is a short chapter called Plot Treatment, and you should read it the next time you are in a book store. Right now this story is my favorite piece of advice on how to make it across the bridge.

What is so wonderful about this story is that she actually fails many times--and it hurts. She could have given up. Many would have, given the same obstacles, but she continues and does things that might seem crazy. If you are looking for inspiration, read those pages. I'm so tempted to tell her story, but I'll just tell you how it starts. Her editor sent her a letter that said, "This is perhaps the hardest letter I've ever had to write."

This is my favorite bit of writing advice right now because it shows that you can be in a state of crisis, or close to failure, but you can also be very close to making your way through to the other side. Anne does more than find the courage to continue. She discovers how to find her story and how to communicate what she wants her story to be. That discovery shows that we--if we are so brave and dedicated--can also find our story and make it to the other side.

What's your favorite bit of writing advice or favorite inspirational writing story?

Have you read Bird by Bird? What did you think?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The future of storytelling

I'm taking a course in digital storytelling.

Here's what I gather thus far: Stories, of course, will never lose their importance to people, but the medium of transmitting stories is evolving quickly.

Here's what I'm wondering: What is the future of the written text, as a stand-alone work, in an increasingly multi-media world? What is the future of books?

Think 2100. (It's hard!) Will there still be books and ebooks around? Or billions of multimedia stories? Or something else, unimaginable to us right now?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Thoughts on silver linings

You know how sometimes you wake up with a word, a sentence, something ringing in your ears? That was me a couple days ago. And the sentence?

"there is a silver lining in everything. Just be open enough to see it & smart enough to act on it."

Agents rejecting you left and right? Look at your query. Check the first chapters of your book. Are they strong enough? Could they be stronger? Does someone other than your Aunt Mary need to read it first?

Publishers taking a long time? Write that next book. You won't have time once you're contracted, to experiment and make yourself better. Now's your chance!

Gone through your list of agents? Take a look at your book. If it's the best you can make it, and you still want to try, sub to smaller publishers yourself. Don't give up!

Got a bad review online, or someone trashed your book? Hey, you got it in front of another person, and they felt strongly enough about what you wrote to write something about it themself...and any publicity (within reason, heh) is good publicity.

Have a block on your writing for some reason? Take a little time out, enjoy life going on around you. Think of other ways to be creative and give your brain a break - maybe it needed it.

While I'm writing these down for me, so that I can remember those silver linings, maybe it helps you too.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Running Questions

I just wanted to offer this quick question to all the writers out there.

Do you have a running question in your mind as you go through your story. What I mean is, as you read, or re-read your story, are you asking yourself if something needs to be answered?

Only recently have I started reading like that. This topic is probably common sense for writers, but I'd never thought about it this way.

I guess some running question examples would be: Who did it? Where are we going? What exactly is going on?

I've been reading my 'finished' novels from years ago, and I realize I don't have a running question. My characters simply run around, doing somewhat interesting stuff without there being any real direction, or mystery, or carrot dangling from a stick.

Maybe, if your style is hyperkinetically literary, you can get away without having a running question, but I'm starting to see that it really helps me gain some perspective.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Writer Places to Recharge Your Soul

Some places are attractive to both book lovers and writers looking to get away.

One great, but not so known place, is Newport, Oregon, on Nye Beach.

Newport not only has a great beach (indeed, the Oregon coast is fundamentally carved out of awesome), and is a picturesque, relaxing beach town, but it also has some fabulous places to stay and write.

One is Sylvia Beach Hotel. Let me just extensively quote their website:

We've been open 22 years now and have an idea of the magic that happens at the Sylvia Beach. There are volumes of journals in all the rooms, including the library. In reading these guest books we have a pretty good idea of how people feel about staying with us. They share with us the peace and revitalization the view itself inspires. Not to mention the walls, the books, the photos, the cats, the art, the fabulous food, and the fellow guests. The frequency with which hotel guests make reservations for their next stay, as they check out, is the best indicator.

This is truly a hotel for book lovers. There are no t.v.'s, no radios, no phones (although 1 public phone are available.) It is a quiet place on most days. Except for the glorious storms. Then the wind howls, the building shakes, and the rain pounds down. Some days it's warm and sunny and the sky is bright blue. Some days there's morning fog. Some days the wind makes you stay inside and read! Some days are rainbow days, the weather just can't decide. The ocean is always present. (The hotel is on a 45 foot bluff right above the surf.) You move into the rhythm of the sea. Perhaps that's why time seems to slow way down, almost to a standstill.

This place is has to be experienced to be believed. The owner decorated each room around an author theme. For example, in the Agatha Christie room, there are clues all around the room from her books. There is a Tolkien room. A Jane Austen room. A scary Edgar Allen Poe room (so not ever staying there!).

And oh my gosh, dinner. So friendly, so good.

For a writer, the sheer amount of book atmosphere infuses this place with pure inspirational goodness. If you stay there and your creative juices remain uncharged, then you have no heart, and should consider putting down the pen.

Fly to Portland, Oregon, or Eugene, and then take a rental car to Newport. An alternate trip is into Portland and then down the Colombian River to Astoria (“It’s not a tumor!”) and then south along historic Highway 101.

There are other great places to stay in Newport. Search around for B&B's, there are many that offer a great beach experience. I've even stayed in a haunted bordello (ha!), but sadly The Oar House Bed and Breakfast in Newport closed.

There you go. Hack Writer Travel Tips for the Writer #1. I can reveal more Pacific Northwest Secrets for writers with the proper application of a good Oregon or Washington wine or micro-brew. Just getting started here folks. In an alternate dimension, I am a travel agent.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

After the End Revisited

I am immersed in writing this month, though not the kind you're thinking of, I'm sure. I'm a facilitator for our local Writing Project's Summer Institute, affiliated with the National Writing Project. The Summer Institute is an intensive four-week graduate level course for teachers of all grade levels and subject areas; we explore the research as well as the nuts and bolts of literacy, all with the mindset of teachers teaching teachers.

I only tell you this to explain the educator angle I'm thinking from these days. And possibly to explain that my current preoccupation with Barry Lane comes from my daily dalliance in his book. I've used his ideas within my classes many times, but every time I re-read or review his chapters, I walk away with something new. I completely recommend After the End for any writer who revises, not just educators who teach the concept.

Four Revision Strategies from After the End:

1. Thoughtshot: looking at what a character is thinking and feeling; often draws frames around stories and essays; places events in a context and gives the reader and the writer a reason to be interested.

2. Snapshot: writing in sharp physical detail; details are boxes inside boxes. One idea unlocks several others, and so on.

3. Explode the Moment: finding the significant moment in the story, then taking a sentence or two and exploding it, scattering details all over the page.

4. Collapse a Century: think shrink; taking a large chunk of time and compressing it down
Revision Strategies: Just like JKB and so many have discussed, there are a myriad of ways to revise. How do you revise? How do you re-vision or re-see your work, especially after you've been immersed in it? Can you really take Lane's ideas and apply them to your work? Or are they just a "teacher trick"? Are these strategies that even skilled and experienced writers can apply?

Monday, July 20, 2009

I was Wrong

A while back Alex wrote a post about writing a synopsis. I posted a couple of comments on it, and said some things that turned out to be not such good advice.

I said that you should leave stuff out so that the agent will want more.

I said that you shouldn't reveal all the why's.

I was wrong.

At Thrillerfest I got a chance to talk with Robert Astle of Robert Astle and Associates Literary Management for a quite a while and pick his brain on what it means to write a synopsis.

First of all a synopsis needs to tell all the major plot points and any important subplots. It should describe each of the important characters and important minor ones.

It should give the major plot twists, and important minor ones.

Sounds like it includes the whole book doesn't it?

Not so fast.

If you've ever read the back cover copy inside a hard cover book, or the book description on, then you've seen part of the synopsis. The basis for most of that copy is the author's book synopsis.

If you follow the same style as one of those descriptions, but include the important twists, and the ending, you've got it.

The only thing that you probably want to add, is a hook at the beginning of the synopsis to garner the agent's interest.

I just finished writing a synopsis for both of the books that I am peddling and I think I understand much better what's involved. The goal is to describe the gist of the story in one or two pages so that an agent can get a quick idea if the story is right for them.

If they like the synopsis, they will look at your sample writing, and if they like that, you're probably on your way.

So read a few of those descriptions, and practice your synopsis writing. You're going to need it at some point.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Do you trust your dreams?

This post is about dreams.

Oh, not those dreams about getting an offer for a movie deal while sipping margaritas by the pool. I mean the actual confused dreams of sleep and whether the dreaming mind has anything of value to offer in the way of stories. I say this because yesterday morning I woke up early with a dream-story in my mind. It seemed so perfect: unique and (almost) complete as a story. An hour later, I wasn't so sure about it anymore. Two hours later, Bah!

Now today, with some perspective, I'm interested in it again. I think what the dream gave me (that is, what I can actually remember of it) is workable as the seed of an idea, but it needs... well, it needs an entire story to go with it. Ahem.

Anyone here ever find inspriation from a dream? Real inspiration that lasted after waking up?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Your first draft

...right now I'm nearing the end of another first draft, and I've been having a conversation with people I know about their first drafts. It seems like we all write in different ways:

- spewing out onto the page, worrying about it in revisions
- making an outline and carrying that thing out, baby, come what may
- making an outline and deviating some
- writing but editing as we go for a cleaner first draft (leaving heavy rewriting for revisions)

I'm the last sort. I like to re-read my last chapter or so, before I start so I have a good indication of where it's going, a cleaned-up first draft, and a stronger idea of changes that will have to be made in revisions (and I note them in the text).

How do you write your first drafts?

The Great American Novel

A friend of mine has always stated that the Great American Novel is Huckleberry Finn. That seems to be the popular choice, followed by The Great Gatsby, maybe Catch-22, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Another argument is that there hasn’t been a Great American Novel yet. These two debates seem to go on no matter what kind of positive illumination a book gets from critics.

Since America is an ever-changing country, with an ever-changing image, and so on and so forth, I was just wondering what you might think represents ‘America’ at this point...narrowing choices by country does seem a little strange, considering how much fiction as a world literature is and always has been. The Great World Novel should be the name for the 21st century...or The Great Globalized Novel.

My votes are a kind of cop-out. I go by century. And if anyone has anything for the 18th century (fiction…I’m hoping) I’d love to hear it.

Huckleberry Finn, 19th century
The Old Man and the Sea, 20th Century
21st Century….???

Anywho…what are your choices?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Full Monty Analysis While Writing

A junior mistake in analysis is to attribute how something is, with why something is.
Isn’t that a confusing statement? Ha! You bet it’s confusing. In writing, both non-fiction and fiction, the difference between the two is the difference from a description of reality versus a description of a false reality.
Even in an epic fantasy, with its own made-up rules and speculation, the false attribution of the How is a sneaky and insidious problem which can turn a novel into mediocre ho-hum.
So what is the difference?
I’m going to use crime fiction because I sometimes pick up a book that tries to be accurate, like a police procedural, but in actuality, contain many inaccuracies. Which is a nice way of saying “bullshit.” Then author then builds major plot points off these inaccuracies. Then I set down the book and read something else. Usually because I feel the main character is a stupid and deserving her fate.
Reality is a harsh mistress. Heh.
How does bad analysis trap authors in this world of insipid characters and flat plots?
Take this following scenario:
Harold chases the one-armed man into a North Portland alley in a fit of rage. Turning the corner, the one-armed man shoots him three times, takes his cell phone and runs away.
This is painful. Harold can barely speak. He tries to yell for help, but no one hears him. Finally, a delivery boy on a bicycle stumbles upon him and calls 911. En route to the hospital, Harold dies.
How did Harold die?
If you said he was shot, then that is the wrong answer from an analytical standpoint.
Why did Harold die?
Harold was shot three times.
How did Harold die?
He bled to death because he did not receive medical attention.
Am I stating the obvious?
Maybe. You can get silly and say, “Harold died because he was stupid in chasing a person he knew was violent into an alley and then got shot.”
But Harold died, literally, because he bled to death. No one heard his cries, and he did not make it to the hospital in time.
In the United States, if Harold had received medical attention sooner, he had a good chance of living. How soon a person winds up in the Emergency Room is the primary factor on how people die when they get shot.
If the one-armed man did not take his cell phone, Harold could have called 911 himself.
Why is this distinction important?
Because it’s real. In Hollywood, people get shot with a small caliber pistol and die as if shot with a high-powered rifle.
Now that’s fine and dandy if I am reading to be entertained. Who cares? Show me the bad guys, give me boobs, a car chase, and an explosion.
In a police procedural, this type of inaccuracy sucks. Or a techno thriller. Even in most speculative fiction.
Let’s go back to the one-armed man. Looking into the scene without the back-story, this man could have been defending himself. After all, he is handicapped. But the moment he took the cell phone, his true nature is revealed. He is cold and calculating. He led his victim to an isolated place, shot him, and took his only means of summoning help.
These nuisances are critically important when plotting, because they avoid clichés and inaccuracies. People have been dying of blood-loss since the dawn of blood. The one-armed man could have stabbed Harold. Poked him with a sharp stick. Being shot by a bad guy is not a magical way to die, and indeed even with modern handguns, shot placement is everything.
We can say Harold died because he was shot by a bad guy.
We can also say I drove to work on the right side of the road this morning.
And thus, we come to the money shot. The Full Monty promised in this blog title.
Writing why Harold died is TELL.
Writing how Harold died is SHOW.
Oooooo… Show vs. Tell. Now doesn’t that sound familiar!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Dialogue: Building Scenes

"Dialogue, as much as anything else, reveals the character to the writer and, ultimately to the reader. I don't have a very clear idea of who the characters are until they start talking." --Joan Didion

How important is dialogue to your WIP? Do you use it at all? Overuse it? Use but sparingly?

More importantly, why do you use it?

Barry Lane says that "it's a general rule to use it, not to give information, but to reveal character...When people speak they reveal themselves. What they fail to say is often as important as what they do say" (After the End 54-55).

I'm reminded, of course, of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants."
Lane references Roland Goodbody's El Dia De Los Muertos (if anyone can find an on-line reference to him or his work, I'd appreciate it).

So this prompted some synapse firing: How do I use dialogue? Is it to develop character? or to develop plot? Does it have to be either/or? What are the arguments for and against each approach? Any thoughts on the matter?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Thrillerfest 2009

I'd like to say that Thrillerfest was a good conference for me, but I can't, because it was AWESOME... It was wrapped in 10 pounds of bacon and dipped in a vat of awesomesauce.

The first day was called Craftfest. It consisted of a number of sessions put on by well known authors to teach you how to become a better writer.

There was a session by Jon Land (who pitches movies to Hollywood) on how to create the perfect pitch. I was able to take what he said and modify my pitch from OK, to phenomenal. I'll post up later some of what changed and why.

There was a session from a criminal psychologist named Michael Weiner on how to create the most evil bad guy. Very creepy session that really highlighted what makes someone evil. FYI, this works for fantasy monsters as well, doesn't have to be a serial killer.

Lee Child talked about how to create a series character. The most interesting point he made was that his lead character didn't change over time as one would expect. Also he didn't spend a lot of time in excruciating details of his physical appearance. Lee said he worked with the reader to use their imagination.

Lisa Gardner talked about how to do a rewrite. She had a system of color coded index cards to analyze your book scene by scene so that you can make sure that you have all the right elements, in the right order. It was very useful.

Thursday morning was spent doing more crafting and the first session was by Donald Maass. OK, everybody bow to the GOD of agents. This guy was amazing. He gave his view on how to make your villain scary. Helpful insights.

James Rollins (who currently has a massive display at Barnes and Nobles) did a session on how to write 3 novels a year and still have a life. The key point was that to do this, all you had to do was 3 pages a day, and if you think about it, 365 x 3 is 1095 pages in a year. So that's probably 3 short novels, but I think the title was meant to garner interest, which it did. His main point was that set a page goal, stick with it, and you will finish novels at a quick pace.

The afternoon was spent pitching to agents. Last time I was at the San Francisco Writer's Conference there were over 350 conference attendants and 11 agents. I think I pitched to three. For Thrillerfest there were 125 attendants and 42 (!!!) agents. I got to pitch to 13 agents and 11 of them wanted the first 100 pages. (OMG, OMG, OMG) And these weren't second tier agents. They were from THE premier NY agencies. If you go to the Thrillerfest link, you can see who they were.

The two agents that said no, were surprising. Well, one not so much, she was looking specifically for historical thrillers. Nope, I don't do that. The other one was really weird. He was the one that I expected to like my military thriller, but he thought it should be YA. Excuse me, swearing nasty soldiers getting blown to pieces in YA???

Thursday night there was a small reception to open up the real Thrillerfest. Earlier in the day I had received an email from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots association updating what's new in aviation, because I am a pilot. There was a story about an author named David Morrell who had just received his pilot's license. Turns out David is one of the key players in Thrillerfest and a prolific author. So I walked up, introduced myself as a pilot and spent about 5 mintues talking pilot stuff. We hit it off well and had some interesting discussions. I told him about my aviation thriller and he seemed interested. (more on this later) Just in case you were wondering who David was, he invented Rambo.

Friday morning's first session was on why we like spies. The panel included Brett Battles, Joseph Finder (one of my favorite authors), Mark Greaney, Gayle Lynds (spy expert), and David Morrell. Before the session started I continued my discussion with David Morrell and offered him a copy of Lost in the Sky, my aviation thriller. He took it from me but they quickly said he couldn't take it. I asked why. He turned to me and said, "because you haven't signed it yet" I took care of that and he took his position on the panel holding my book. (wow!)

The conclusion about why like spies, turned out to be, because we like secrets. Makes sense to me.

The next session asked does technology twist the plot. Authors like Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver, Andrew Grant, Chris Kuzneski, and M.J. Rose were on the panel. This panel was close to my heart because that's pretty much what I write, the unintended consequences of technology. The conclusion was that in thrillers, the technology drives the plot.

Right after lunch there was a session with a number of CIA agents. They didn't reveal a lot of secrets in the panel, but they did talk at length about the amount of information that now exists on the CIA public website. It's a lot.

The fun part was that after the session I was in a three way conversation with author Steve Martini, and a CIA agent discussing secret plots. Pretty friggin cool.

The last two sessions that I attended were How far can violence go in a thriller, and Do you worry that you are giving terrorists ideas. There were certain boundaries that most of the authors would not cross from a violence point of view, mainly because too much, makes the book and character boring. The character has to have contrasting characteristics, or they seem cardboard. As far as giving terrorists ideas, General A. J. Tata summed it up best when he said that he wasn't worried, he'd been dealing with their tactics for years and nothing they do seem to come from fiction books.

And that was where I stopped. I took Saturday off and did some touristy stuff. I was just too burned out to attend anymore sessions.

So what did I learn? I have blogged in the past that meeting agents in person really doesn't buy you much. I was amazed at the reception that I received at Thrillerfest. I think there is one important difference between meeting agents there, and typical writing conferences. The agents at Thrillerfest were specifically looking for thrillers. So I don't have an agent yet, but if the response was any clue, I think a targeted conference does make a difference.

I met some amazing authors, attended some great sessions, and even though it cost me quite a few bucks, I felt it was worth it, and plan on going next year.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

4 Unexpected Benefits to Being in a Writing Group

Right now, I'm sitting in the coffee shop where I wrote much of my novel. I love this place. The coffee is great, the food is good--and cheap--and my writing group meet here every Thursday night for about half a year.

I'm moving out of town tomorrow morning, and that leaves me feeling a sense of loss. Don't get me wrong. I'm excited about the journey ahead. It's just that right in this moment I am realizing that some things worked, and I'd like to reflect a bit on what worked with the writing group. Perhaps it will help you to have a good writing group experience. This was my first group, and I had never made an attempt to join a group before. My biggest reasons were that I thought it might be counter productive, and possibly even negative. The truth, in this case, was the opposite. There were many unexpected benefits of being in the group.



This could have been a negative aspect, but members of the group read each others novel on their own time and meet outside the group to exchange that feedback. Also, the first two chapters got a good focus.

Patrick has quite a few short stories published. He really lead the way by bringing in flash fiction, which was fun to read. I caught the spirit and found that even though I was busy with this and that I could still find the time to write a few short pieces for the writing group. One of those was posted on this blog. It was More Work to Be Done in the City, if you were wondering.


When we first started the group, I don't think that any of us had imagined that we would read a short piece in front of around fifty people at the local university, but that's what happened. And, I can say that it was a great experience, not so much because I felt that I had a great reading that day, but because I could see the personality of the readers showing through as they read. Stories are meant to be heard or read by non-writers. Aspiring writers need to experience stories connecting with people. Even the challenge of having that happen elevates the quality of writing. The focus increases.

It was nice to have one of my group members say that he heard new layers of meaning in the story I read, even though he had read it three times in the writers group. There really is something extraordinary about reading to an audience. Consider how you can do a reading at a school, library, or university.


Before I joined the group, I thought that a writing group would be about giving and receiving feedback. And, it certainly is, to a degree, but I found that it can also be about having a discussion about the craft of writing. There was a guy that was in and out of the group who had what we called a fragile style. It was soft, beautiful, and ephemeral. It seemed that if he followed too much of the standard advice it would destroy his style. And, I think that we each felt that we had once been like that, when we first started writing. It focused on what was important in life more than active verbs and concrete details. It had them, of course, but you could tell that what he was really focused on was the meaning of the moment, and not so much on following the rules. It was like writing innocence. In the end, when he did his reading, I felt that he had made the right revision choices. The images in his story came into focus, but his style retained that quality we all so admired. It was so nice to see how his story evolved and found an audience.


I think the last meeting was a good testament as to how well we all got along. We, meaning the core of the group, had drinks. We talked about life, and love. Our dads and our writing. The point here is that despite all the tough feedback--and there was plenty of that--we liked each other in the end. I once had somebody tell me, in reference to work, that if you are not having fun you are not doing it right. Well, the same principle holds true with a writing group. As a teacher, I can add in that one of the reasons for that is brain chemistry and how we learn. Positive feelings help to create chemical reactions that promote learning. Defensiveness, and negative feelings in general, do the opposite. When giving and receiving feedback, I think it is best to create a sense of trust. And, ironically, that can come from telling someone that you are not a good reader for a piece of writing. I told one of the guys that his story was lost on me, because I could not relate to many of the things he was writing about. His response was that he was glad to hear it because that somehow made my over the top--this story is great--praise of a previous story more believable.

Well, that's it for today, and I might miss my post on next Sunday because of the move. We will wait and see. At any rate, this is my last post from Ellensburg, the place where the air is so hot and dry you get a good electrical zap when you touch your car door.

Any thoughts on writing groups? What have your experiences been?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A non-rambling post with a rambling title in which the author wonders about the usefulness of rambling

Yikes! Isn't that title too long? Did you read it enitrely, or only half-way through? Does it clarify my intentions here, or obscure them?

I'm reading a novel where the author "rambles" about characters' backgrounds, attitudes, goals, etc... By this I mean the writing is long-winded and repetitive - the very opposite, in fact, of what I thought good writing was supposed to be. But it's easy to read, and not (I think) overly tedious, and it does make the characters memorable and very clear.

All of this has me wondering about the benefits of this kind of "rambling" in developing long fiction. I don't think I write that way myself, and maybe that's why I enjoy writing short stories rather than novels. Evidently, I need to practice my rambling skills (but lucky for you, not in this post!)

So, how do you write backstory, attitute, and character goals? Is your writing concise, like a good short story, or rambling, like the successful novel I'm reading which has been reprinted many times?

Friday, July 10, 2009

What's the Rush?

I had a talk with my agent the other day, and she gave me some really good things to chew on.

Namely, what's the rush?

The rush to get published? For what? I have it on good authority, from her and from published authors I'm friends with, that this never gets better. The demands on you only increase, and your time is less.

Now is the time, my agent said, to really push the envelope in your writing. To see what you're capable of. To try different things. With all this rush to get an agent, and then a publishing contract...she said (and I really do think she's on target here) pure writing falls by the wayside in some cases.

Why not prepare yourself as well as you can beforehand?

I think this advice can be extended to almost every aspect and place we're all at in our writing. Whether you're doing a first draft, editing, looking for an agent or looking for a publisher, the way is long, and we need to stop and enjoy the route a little more. (I am lecturing myself as I type this).

So although I've got myself a goal here, I'm not going to worry about it if I don't make it by that exact day. I'll relax on my little raft on the publishing waters and just see where I go.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Example Query Letter (Hook-Summary-Questions)

I wanted to post this query letter of a novel I wrote a year or so back. I’m detached from it right now and have shelved it in order to concentrate on a different novel that is getting more attention. Full disclosure: I’ve sent this to 10 agents in total and have received two requests, so I guess it’s not a bad model. Feel free to slam it, dice it, shred it, or comment on it, but I thought I’d post it because the way it’s organized is pretty much how I organize every query (excluding the address, of course), after a few years of tweaking/experimenting. And so far, it’s been doing pretty well. Of course, if you have any other ideas….
I just thought, if you were lost in a sea of query letter advice, you might like a direct example of something that is having a little (emphasize little) bit of success.

Patrick Parr
123 Avenue.
Dudesville, HI

Dear Such and Such:

Soliloquy is a novel (humor/satire) that deals with a planet of watermelons fighting off pumpkins with opposable stalks. It also deals with Gods, Love, Death, and melons of mass destruction (MMD).

The moment Mike Davis is visited by Zandar, his life changes. He's already a happy guy. He has a loving wife, a good house, and a job that allows him to daydream about the universe. But Zandar needs seeds. Watermelon seeds, and only from Earth. He needs to take them back to his planet so he can save his race from being destroyed by the invading pumpkin army. If Mike is going to help Zandar, he's going to have to go through a couple aliens he may recognize:

-His neighbor, John Steele, a born-again trucker with a knack for reporting suspicious activity and having daydreams of the end of the world, when everyone is in need of pocket-sized New Testaments.

-Roy, a death metal junkie who listens to Master of Puppets by Metallica on the top of his roof 'just to chill'. Roy believes only in himself, and even that's shaky from time to time.

Through it all, Mike has his beautifully opinionated wife, Penny, and a story of a planet divided into two sections: The Squishies, and the Toughies. Will Mike save Zandar and his race of giant-sized melons from extinction? Or is it all completely ridiculous?

An excerpt of Soliloquy has been published in Byline Magazine.

I believe it would appeal to all the Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut fans out there. Also, Christopher Moore fans looking for something just a little different.

Previous work has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Dark Sky Magazine, The Storyteller, and as an Amazon Short, among others.

Thank you so much for your time and consideration. Hope you enjoy it, and I look forward to hearing from you.


Patrick Parr

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Things People Told Me About Writing That Was Full of Crap

Here at the Anthony Pacheco: Hack Writer portion of Adventures in Writing, I like to accent the positive. There is enough negativity in the blog sphere.
On the other hand, it is necessary to review the negative influences on occasion.
If I were to take a WAG (project manager slang for “Wild-Ass Guess”) at positive/negative writing advice, I would categorize it as 70/30. I received outstanding writing advice. There are also tales of woe on the interwebs (and in person), but these tales serve as a pointed reference to “don’t do that.”
I’m a big believer in learning not only from my mistakes, but from your mistakes as well!
Some advice I received, however, sucked. Sucked dead bunnies through a garden hose sucked. This topic is blogged periodically, but it’s good to review the badness in order to recognize the goodness. In no particular order:
**You have to outline
If any singular writing advice caused me grief, this was it. Imagine an outliner who carefully has a three-color index card method of outlining, with each color corresponding to the beginning, middle and end of a novel.
Now tell that person to write a novel without outlining.
She can’t.
The opposite is true for some people.
Thankfully, this advice is becoming passé as modern creative writing techniques recognize a wide variety of plotting styles.
I actually devised my own outlining method. It’s loosey-goosey, but it works for me.
**Before writing a novel, you need to become proficient in writing short stories
This is almost as bad as the outlining advice. There are people who need to write a novel before they can actually write a good short story. I was one of these people. My short stories sucked. Then I wrote a novel. Then my short stories did not suck, because I got it. I learned so much in writing a novel that I learned the necessary elements in storytelling to write a short.
**Your work should contain no derivative elements
Ug. Try writing genre fiction containing not a single element explored by a novel already published. You can’t. I learned that voicing, then, is everything. Your unique voice, rather than your idea, is what sets you apart.
As long as you plot doesn’t suck, that is.
**Write what you know
This isn’t exactly bad advice, but pithy advice. Thanks. That is helpful. Really. Tomorrow I am going to climb into my sentient space ship, which will deliver me to a different planet via FTL with a hyperspace hop, so I can have hot lesbian sex. Cause then I would know what it was like.
Henceforth, this should be “write in your unique voice”. Because that is what people really mean when they say “write what you know.”
**Avoid commas
Man, if ever went down the dark path, duped by well meaning advice--that was the doozey. Swear to God, one of my beta readers was going to KILL ME for not putting commas in appropriate places.
Now, I regularly abuse commas. Commas are my bitches. I am a Comma Pimp. At home, I line commas up on a mirror and snort them.
How about you?
What bad writing advice have you received?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Wall: facing an absent muse

What do you do when your WIP comes to a standstill?

I'm not talking about impromptu dances in the rain. Or national holidays. Or laziness, refusing to put Butt in Chair (BIC). I am not talking about the days you march your muse to the wall, blindfold her, and pummel her body with rubber bullets.

I'm talking about the days when you've done your research. When you've completed your outline and plumped out your character sketches. You've followed the Snowflake Method. You've read your Vogler and drafted the hero's journey and found your shapeshifters, tricksters, mentors, and more.

And the blank screen stares back.

What do you do?

Monday, July 6, 2009

When are you done with your novel?

You come up with an idea, you plan your story (or not), you write your chapters, and at some point you have a first draft.

That version likely won't be ready to publish, so how many iterations does it take to say it's done?

I'd like to say there is a magic number, but there isn't. When you are a beginning writer, it might take 10 iterations to be publication ready. When you have been writing for a long time, it will probably take less, but it might not. If you are really lucky the first draft may good enough, but I highly doubt it.

It takes a lot of iterations because the novel will evolve as you write. There may be scenes at the beginning of the novel, that no longer make sense as the story changes. During editing and revision, those scenes have to be ripped out, or modified.

Some writers iterate on the first chapter until it's good enough to publish, then move onto chapter 2. Once they finish chapter 2, they move onto chapter 3.

I couldn't write this way. I would never finish.I'd be so busy going back and making changes to the beginning all the time, that I'd never reach the end.

I think you're much better off to write a rough version of the complete story, and revise it until it works. Throw out the parts that don't make sense anymore. Revise the parts of the story that suck. Make the language as tight as you possibly can. In between iterations, set the book on the shelf for a while.

So back to my question, when do you know that you're done?

I wait until the book has been left on the shelf for a few weeks, and start reading it through. If I smile when I read it, and I don't immediately make changes to every line, I'm done.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Soul Searching

Right now, for me, it is a time of change.

It is a time of questioning what I want to focus on.

There's writing, running, teaching, and family. Those are some of the big priorities in my life. Oddly, I don't always focus on some of the things that define me, namely running.

Next Sunday I will begin the long drive from Washington to Minnesota, and along the way I will think about my goals. The biggest thing that I want to change, with the new move, is how much I run. I've arranged my work schedule so that I can get a run in first thing, and my wife and I chose a place to live that is just a few blocks away from a lake with a running and biking trail around it. Things seem to be set up to make the dream of being a runner happen again.

How does this relate to writers???

About fifteen years ago I read a book by Steven Covey called SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY EFFECTIVE PEOPLE. In that book was some advice about how important it is to have different quadrants in your life that you value. Part of the idea is that when one area of your life is not going so well you can handle it because you have other areas in your life that are going well. If all that you focus on is writing, what happens when things do not turn out how you want? Somehow I think that I, and you, can move on and make things better when the whole self is not vulnerable. For me, that means time with family, time running, time teaching, and time reading.

Running has other benefits for writers, benefits that you may or may not have discovered. Anthony recently asked us what our favorite book is, and I loved his response. Well, keeping with that way of thinking, I will say that my favorite book right now is the one I just started reading. It's called THE RUNNER'S GUIDE TO THE MEANING OF LIFE. There's a nice chapter on listening to yourself. You should skim through it the next time you are in a bookstore. Here's a sample that shows that running can benefit writers because it helps us to turn our thoughts inward and focus on our writing.

"When I run, I'll often work out several story ideas for an upcoming issue of Runner's World magazine. Or figure out how to reorganize a story that's sitting on my desk, waiting to be edited. Without fail, I think about stories I'd like to write myself when I get the chance ... How strange that running, which seems so outwardly physical, is actually the most thoughtful of activities."

You might think that you don't have time to run or that it would be painful, certainly not fun. Well, I've been discovering a new way to run that is a blast. It's called chasing after my son and daughter as they ride their bikes. There's a lot of stop and go, but it gets me out and moving, and it keeps the kids happy. I challenge you to come up with a form of exercise that is a blast for you. What's nice about this kind of running is that it doesn't look like I am an out of shape runner trying to get back in shape. It just looks like I am out having a good time with my kids. I wouldn't normally care what others think, but I've been living in Ellensburg--a small rodeo town--for about four years now. It's surprising how many friends, co-workers, and baristas see me as I run. That's not a bad thing when I am in shape, but I'd rather not make my attempt to get back into shape a spectacle for people as they drive to Fred Meyers. It's a lot more fun to run out that way and pick up a yogurt smoothie with my kids and then run back.

I've recently been doing some serious soul searching. Perhaps you have too. Running and balancing out priorities is all good, but I've also been thinking about the Pacific Northwest Writers Association contest, and the results. If you read my blog last week you know that it was a painful experience to see that I was not a finalist. Perhaps you've had a similar experience. By the way, I appreciated every one's comments quite a bit. So, here's where I am at with that now that I have received the feedback from two contest judges. Basically, I had a big thumbs up from one judge and a big thumbs down from the other. Go figure! I'll save the judge bashing for when my writers group takes me out for a beer because I am moving, which I really appreciate! Here's a proactive thought: positive thinking. One judge scored my entry as a 22 out of 25 on each of the following two questions. Did the story grab you? Would you read more? The bottom line is that my story, and yours, will probably not appeal to everyone. It matters more that it has a strong appeal to some people. And, for what it is worth, I care very much what people think when I can tell that the story itself clicks with them.

Still, in the end, I like to win. Part of winning seems to be having the luck of getting two people that your story appeals to. As frustrating as this experience has been, it reminds me that the process of finding an agent and a publishing house is the same. It's a matter of finding people the story appeals to. It makes sense for me to try harder to find those people. That's the honest truth.

It's easy to forget how important it is to picture things working out, whether it is writing or running or anything else that is a challenge. At the end of this blog I will post a photo I recently took of my daughter when the family and I were out for one of our running and biking adventures. It doesn't always work out so well, but it is important to remember how much fun adventures can be. That's what keeps the spirit moving, hope and positive memories.

I will sign off with two paragraphs from some recent soul searching. I think that remembering what it was like when the spirit was willing is what I need to do.

Am I considering just cruising on everything, but not being great at anything? I’m not sure. That’s not really what I want. I want to be the best I can be. The best writer, runner, father, husband, teacher, …

Somehow, I believe that I can if my spirit is willing. The spirit sends me soaring down hills and up hills—through the miles that add up to a marathon, and the spirit sends me soaring through hundreds of thousands of words and leaves me longing to write thousands more. Have you ever come to 115,000 words and thought that you need another 115,000 more to really tell the whole story? That’s what happened to me, when the spirit was willing.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Fourth!

Well, today being the fourth of July, I thought I might post something about the document that is celebrated today. We're writers, so I thought it would be interesting to post not about the politics and philosophy behind the Declaration of Independence, but about the actual writing of it.

We often imagine (at least I do) streams of pure, inspired philosophical genius flowing effortlessly from the pen of Thomas Jefferson. But it wasn't like that at all.

The colonies had been at war for a year before Congress decided to pass a declaration stating their independence. Jefferson was one of five men appointed to a committee assigned to draft this declaration, but really, he did not want to be a part of it at all. The committee, led by John Adams, in turn appointed Jefferson to write the draft on his own, and submit it for their review. Jefferson agreed, but very reluctantly.

He wrote his draft in haste, drawing inspiration from his own prior writings and other works he had read - in particular, the Virginia Bill of Rights. Historians are aware of an early "composition draft" and then a "rough draft," which was the one Jefferson submitted to the committee of five. The committee, especially Adams and Benjamin Franklin, suggested changes in word-choice. For example, instead of Jefferson's "sacred and undeniable" truths, they preferred "self-evident" ones. A new copy, called the "fair copy," was made incorporating these changes, and was submitted to Congress.

Adams would later write that he chose Jefferson to write the draft for three reasons: 1) Jefferson was from Virginia, and Virginia had to be in the forefront of things; 2) Jefferson was a better writer than Adams; and 3) Jefferson was better liked than Adams (ouch!)

When the fair copy draft came before Congress, a total of eighty-six changes were made to it, and the draft was cut by about 25%. Jefferson was upset to see these changes. He would later make several hand copies of his original, unchanged composition and send these to his friends.

Adams would later say of the Declaration of Independence that it full of "hackneyed ideas" and material robbed from pamphlets. Jefferson denied that he had stolen material from other sources, but said that he did have many of the things he had previously read on his mind while writing it. Jefferson said his composition was thus an "expression of the American mind," and all the better for it.

The final physical version of the document, the one that bears the authentic signatures, is called the "engrossed copy," and was actually hand-copied by a clerk. So except for Jefferson's signature, we do not even see his penmanship on the most famous version of the document.

A generation after it was first written, Jefferson found himself vigorously defending his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. He later came to be proud of it, and was pleased that it was receiving its due reverence.

So, that's it for me and the "expression of the American mind," 1776-style. I'm off to potato salad and fireworks. Enjoy your holiday!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Hello from Berlin!

I've missed you all terribly.

I thought about what post I wanted to write today all through my new job. "Maybe beginnings?" I mused, translating something with a particularly deft touch. "Perhaps middles?" I wondered as I stared out the window to a lovely fresh summer rain. It made everything so sparkly. "No, definitely endings," I decided as I walked out and into the hot miasma of muggy soup outside the door (did I mention that over here they Do Not Believe in air conditioning?)

Then I knew. No pithy long posts for me today, kids, I want to say thank you for reading. Thanks for commenting, thanks for watching this blog. My fellow writers here I'm just in awe of, their dedication and skills are outstanding.

With these sort of writers going forward, our literary world is in good hands.

Lots of love from the new flat with the NEW INTERNET (as of five minutes ago) in Berlin, and look for that pithy writerly shiz here next week, same bat time, same bat station,


Thursday, July 2, 2009

My First Story

I sat in a pew at my father’s Catholic Church. I was seventeen, and the priest’s monotone voice echoed off the walls, lulling me into some kind of distant hypnosis. I wasn’t sleeping, but I wasn’t awake. And suddenly, an image came into my head. It was some guy I never met chopping wood behind a house. Behind him were hundreds of cut branches. I gave the person a name: Bobby Wagner, and I wrote the scene down on the back of my program, in the blank space at the bottom.

I worked on ‘Bobby Wagner’ throughout the summer, not knowing what the hell I was doing. It started as a longish, sloppy outline of something I knew should probably be even longer. Ideas started popping off as I continued. I put him and a few other friends in a town called Ellis, Illinois. I put them in 1807, since I knew EVERYTHING about 1807…or not.

But I did know Native Americans were kind of still around then, so I made Ellis, Illinois (never been to Illinois either) into a mixed small town of whites and Native Americans, and every now and then a really angry general would come in with his rogue militia and threaten to kick them out. He liked to spit, I remember. A lot.

Thrown in there was a romance between Bobby and Daniella and the invention of baseball. When I entered college, and I realized I had a boatload of time between classes, there were choices to make. I could play video games, watch movies, screw around, or I could write on the top floor of the library in the corner for two hours, then go back and do all that stuff.
Bobby Wagner ended up as a screenplay. 90 pages. I submitted it to Slamdance Screenplay Competition and a judge called me and said: “Good stuff!” 200 fist pumps followed.

Of course I didn’t win…not even close, but someday I want to thank that judge. He could have said something horrible, but that single compliment sent me, for better or worse, down this path, into other screenplays, novels, and whatever else decides to appear.

How about your first story? I did happen to leave out the Atlantis short story I wrote when I was eleven, but it was two pages, and I dropped it in a puddle of mud. (Moment of silence).

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

My Favorite Book

I am asked this question surprisingly often. It goes like this:

“What do you do for fun?”

“Other than playing with the kids, harassing the wife, amusing the dog and playing human scratching post the cats? I am a novelist. Unpublished as of yet.”

“Oh! That’s cool! What’s your favorite book?”

What is my favorite book? What is my favorite book?


Do I talk about Dandelion Wine, which I read a hundred times growing up?

Or The Cat in the Hat, which I would read to my kids until they were asleep? For a year?

Or, perhaps, that rare book I found for my girlfriend in high school in which she, uh, enthusiastically thanked me?

Cities in Flight?

Marooned in Realtime?

Prince Ombra?

Must I choose? Fine.

My favorite book is the book in my hand at the time you ask me!

There. I’ve picked!