Workouts and Writing

So I’m working on a new thing, which I’m really excited about. I’ve written some 12,000 words over the last week, and I’m feeling pretty good about my characters and plot outline. And of course, it has that delicious ‘new baby’ appeal. Fresh beginnings are so much fun! Until I hit that inevitable slump that always kicks in for me somewhere between a third and halfway through the novel.

I’ve also started a home-style fitness bootcamp of sorts, seeing as summer is just around the corner and I’m not very happy with the situation of things around the equator, so to speak. Today was my first day, and I’ve been having fun organizing charts with exercises for each day and that sort of thing. I did my daily quota and feel great.

Only thing is… It’s all still shiny new and full of sparkles. I just know that by the time the second week rolls around I’m going to be looking for any excuse to take a day off. And you all know that pattern, right? A day off becomes two, and pretty soon that awesome exercise routine is buried under a pile of procrastination.

A bit like my writing slumps.

But I’ve trained myself to get over those slow times in writing. The bits where you suddenly hate your gorgeous new project with a passion, where the sparkle has worn off and you’re convinced your outline sucks. I’ve learned to take a couple of days off to binge-watch Arrow or to read a pile of someone else’s work, and then I’m back, stronger than before, sure of my step and ready to keyboard the heck out of that stalled story.

So now I just have to figure out how to apply that to exercise, and power through those slump days (and yes, I’m totally saying that in my head in the voice of the Geico camel). I have this rosy view of a golden future where I nail both the story and the ab flab. It’s going to be a great summer!

Or else you’ll find me hiding under my procrastination pile come September.

To Critique and be Critiqued: a hard but necessary art

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I was at my local Barnes and Noble last week, sitting with a writing buddy and redoing the opening of my most recent work in progress. I had received some great critique feedback at the NESCBWI conference in April and I’d finally figured out how to make my opening stronger. Beginnings are hard, and mine…just wasn’t working out.

But no biggie; that’s what all those little tappity-tap things on your keyboard are for: fixing the weak bits and making everything stronger.

I’d been sitting on those edits for a week and a half, gathering the courage to jump in and start again. Because if you think editing is hard, critiques are even harder, and I just had to take the time to let this one sink in a little before I was ready to get back to work.

Those who know me, or who read this blog, will know I’m a big fan of critique groups, either in ‘real life’ or online. I know my writing has improved tremendously since I began sharing my work with others, and in turn reading their work in an attempt to share my oh-so-not-very-profound wisdom.

It’s not easy, though. It really isn’t. Critiquing someone else’s work is a delicate business. You want to be encouraging but you also want to help make that person’s work better, stronger. It’s a fine balance. And when you put your work out there for someone else to read, you’re hoping for the same thing: enough encouragement to keep on going, along with enough feedback to know where you’re heading.

Critiquing and, in turn, being critiqued really is a vital part of the process if you intend to grow as a writer. Because if you eventually get published, you’re going to have to deal with editorial notes and endless rewrites. No one is going to look at your work and go: “Oh, it’s perfect just as it is. A precious jewel. Let’s not even copy-edit, let’s throw it straight out there for public consumption.”

Yeah. Not going to happen.

I’m slowly learning the art of taking criticism on the chin and putting it to work for you. Because it stings, I’m not going to lie. It always stings. But then, once the dust settles, you find yourself nodding along slowly. “Ahh, I get it. That makes sense.” And then you sit down and make the changes and gosh darn it if your work isn’t all the better afterwards.

I started out small, following the critiques section at the SFF Chronicles forum. Then I slowly gained a trusted group of online friends who were willing to beta read my work, and let me practice my fledgling critique skills on their own novels. The next step was my real life critique group; learning to say things straight to someone’s face and hear it right back at you. And at the recent conference I mentioned, I took it one step further and booked a couple of critique sessions with literary agents.

You know what? Each of these steps has been a learning curve, a whole new process. And my writing is all the richer for it. It’s hard to write all on your own, without feedback, without guidance. Pick up a book – any book – and you’ll probably find the acknowledgements are full of beta (or early) readers, writing groups, agents and editors. They say it takes a village to raise a child… It certainly takes a whole network of support to write a novel. And you’re the only one who can set that up.

Spotlight on Short Story Writing with Nathan Hystad

Canadian speculative fiction writer Nathan Hystad isn’t afraid to dip his toe in any waters, however deep they may be. His preferred genres are horror, paranormal and science fiction, but he’s been known to write fantasy on occasion, along with a whole line-up of strange and mysterious sub-genres.

Nathan has published stories in four anthologies so far, with another four submissions already accepted into anthologies this year alone. His work has also appeared in a growing list of online magazines. And I haven’t even mentioned his flash fiction yet!

Although Nathan is currently working on a novel, he has focused mainly on writing short stories, which is a whole art form in itself. To squeeze worldbuilding, character background and an entire story arc into anything between 300 and 10,000 words takes a lot of skill, as those struggling to edit their 250,000-word epic fantasies will agree. So I was pleased as anything when Nathan agreed to answer a few questions on short story writing.

Juliana: I’ve tried my hand at a few short stories and they’re surprisingly hard to write. What is it about short stories that appeals to you?

Nathan: When I started writing, I jumped into a novel. I quickly realized I had no idea how to write well, so I started to write shorter pieces to work on the basics. Then I found I had a lot of ideas creeping out of my head and the only way to get them all out was to write. I really like shorts because you can start a world, and have a cool story in a few days, and move on to the next thing. I also like the ability to write so many types of stories and genres. There is something nice about being able to do a complete story in a short time, as opposed to writing a book. I find my writing time is sporadic, so shorts have worked well for me.

Juliana: What do you find is the hardest part in the process?

Nathan: I think the wow factor is the hardest part. It’s also hard to pack a full story into so few words, with no ‘telling’ so you have to show and hint at things properly. Short stories aren’t for everyone, and a lot of readers never buy or think of anthologies. I think they are a great way to see a variety of ideas on any particular subject. So you have to have something special in them, whether it’s a theme, character, or zinger of an ending.

Juliana: Would you mind sharing a few tips for short story writing?

Nathan: Sure. In my stories, I like to start with an intro that sets the mood. Mine are usually a little strange or dark, so I sometimes have a scene introducing the ‘monster’ with some tension. To sell a story, you need to have a good start. Some publishers get so many submissions that regardless of the payoff, the start has to grab them instantly. It’s the old ‘Hit the ground’ running idea we hear about as writers. It is very important. The next scene tends to slow down and builds until the climax. There is nothing better than reading something and knowing something will happen, but not knowing how or when. I also love to do a doozy of a last scene. One thing I am working at doing is focusing on one character for the most part. The stories where I’ve had too many POV’s (Point of views) tend to not be received as well. So keep it simple, and don’t jump around too much. The more stories I write, and the more beta feedback and publisher feedback I get, the better I’m getting at knowing what is being looked for. I adapt quickly and I think it’s because of this that I’ve been able to place a decent amount of stories in a short time.

Juliana: Do you write a story to fit a certain theme, say for an anthology? Or do you write the stories as they come to you and then try to find them a home?

Nathan: I have done both. I started by writing for a few calls and then just kept writing an assortment of stories. There are a lot of places to place a Ghost story, or horror in general. It’s the more specific that are harder to place if they aren’t accepted to the specific submission call. So it varies, and I like that. I guess the more specific ones would be much harder to place if they are rejected, and rejection is a big part of the game. So at this time I haven’t written a lot of stories for the very specific ie. Lovecraftian Robot Romance set in Canada.

Juliana: Leading on from the last question, what are your top sources of inspiration?

Nathan: I loved the serial TV shows growing up. Are You Afraid of the Dark, Goosebumps, when I was a kid…then Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone. Also X-Files, Star Trek, Star Wars…all of those influence the way my brain thinks of ideas. I also read a lot. There is never a time when I don’t have a book on the go, so my imagination is always being spurred on by something new and exciting.

Juliana: You’ve been having a lot of success with publishing your stories. What are your publishing tips? Is it simply a case of perseverance or is there more to it?

Nathan: I think that some of it was luck. Kraxon Magazine gave me my first ‘Yes’ with Central Park in the Dark, and I will forever be thankful for that. He has given a lot of great people’s stories a home on his site. Then Tickety Boo Press took ‘A Haunting Past’. I think getting over the initial hump of getting published was all I needed. With that I got some confidence, and I also have had amazing people at my side. With people like you, Juliana, helping me with Beta reading, and improving my stories, I have been able to have polished pieces that might stand out for that reason. So it is imperative that you send as polished of a piece as possible. Don’t write a first draft, and fire if off into the world. Get it beta read, and take the advice of your colleagues. An outside perspective is very important in making sure your pieces are always improving.

I remember talking with Em (E.J.Tett) about it, and she said that it can be like a snowball. Once you get a yes, the momentum keeps going. That being said, you have to work your butt off to get those yeses. You have to keep writing, subbing, writing, and subbing. Not every story needs to be put out there to the world, but as an author, we know which ones we really want to find a home. Then you can get to know some of the publishers, and maybe next time you can get in with them because they enjoyed your work, and you were nice to work with etc. I have also made a habit of trying to spread myself out there. I think getting stories into multiple publisher’s anthologies is a good way to make contacts and network.

If I can give one piece of advice, it’s this. Never give up. Even though I’ve started to see a lot more acceptances, my spreadsheet of submissions has much more Red (rejection) than Yellow (acceptance). So when you start out and get the rejections, and they were kind enough to give you any criticism, use that to better your story, or your next story. Don’t get upset, and dejected, just keep working at it and keep writing and subbing. It will all eventually come together.

Juliana: Would you mind sharing some of your favorite authors with us?

Nathan: I have always been a huge fan of reading fantasy. I don’t write it often (though I do have a fantasy short being published this year) but I love to read it. Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Robin Hobb, and Stephen King probably top my list. I read a lot of authors and they all bring something different to the table for me, whether it’s me learning from them or just getting lost in their stories.

Juliana: Thank you very much, Nathan, for taking part in the blog’s first Spotlight, and sharing such great advice. And… is it weird that now I really want to read some Lovecraftian Robot Romance set in Canada?

Nathan Hystad can be found blogging on his website, http://nathanhystad.com, and his work is in the anthologies Malevolence: Tales from Beyond the Veil, Whispers from the Past: Fright and Fear, Tales Told in the Dark 4, and Beyond Science Fiction May 2015. Some of his magazine work includes Kraxon and Saturday Night Magazine (for the last, type Nathan Hystad in the search box on the stories page to find his three shorts).

NESCBWI 15 – Think Outside The Crayon Box

A week ago I was rushing around madly, checking I hadn’t forgotten anything, and preparing to drive up to Springfield, MA for the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ annual spring conference.

I’d heard great things about this conference; that it was a little smaller than the New York one I attended last year, and a little friendlier, simply because everyone stays on at the hotel and doesn’t scatter around the city. I’d signed up for my first ever agent critique sessions. I had an amazing line-up of workshops to go to. That I was excited was probably the understatement of the year.

And the best part? The best part was that I wasn’t a ‘newbie’ travelling there on my own anymore. I actually knew a few people, either from twitter or from the New York conference. Bestest of all? Almost my entire critique group was going. I had backup. This was huge. I’m not a naturally outgoing person; I can fake it pretty well (I think!), but it’s hard. So having conference buddies was a big relief.

Now the conference has come and gone I can definitely say this was a very pleasant experience. The atmosphere was relaxed, great conversations were had in between and after the panels and workshops, and I didn’t spontaneously combust out of fear at my critique sessions.

Some of my personal programming highlights:

  • Keynote speeches – excellent, all of them, but we’re talking about personal favorites and my own was Jo Knowles, who made everyone cry – happy tears, though;
  • Great editing workshops by Katie Carroll (Post its! Pretty colors! Fun!) and Lea Wait, who gave us a fabulous checklist which I can’t wait to use;
  • Pitchapalooza run by the Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry (dare to get up on the stage and pitch your story in only one minute? No, but I did clap enthusiastically…);
  • The Saturday night diversity panel, featuring among other great writers my critique partner Cindy Rodriguez – great discussion on the subject;
  • Mining Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales to Write Fantasy, with Katie Carroll – very inspiring;
  • Fun workshops on worldbuilding with the best titles of the whole lot: Habitat for Superhumanity with Mike Jung and Killer Robots, Time Portals and Wizards with Carter Hasegawa;
  • And a workshop on writing LGBTQ characters by Ellen Wittlinger, which turned out to be full of great advice for writing any type of character.

But as I’d been warned, the best moments were the in-between ones, the impromptu conversations and the hanging out at night. It was truly a fantastic experience, one I hope to repeat next year. I’ll finish up with a few choice snippets of wisdom from some of the weekend’s workshops, and a reminder: getting out of your shell and facing an event like this hurts less than you would imagine. And guess what? It might even be a ton of fun.

Katie Carroll: Go beyond the Cinderella story when searching for inspiration. Think and read outside your comfort zone, and find what resonates with you by mining your own mind and heart. (on mining myths and fairy tales to write fantasy)

Ellen Wittlinger: ‘Otherness is transferable’, Lee Wind. Once you get to know someone, your prejudices fall away. You can ‘know’ someone through a book, face your prejudices by getting to know a character. (on why you should write LGBTQ characters)

Mike Jung: Once you’ve established the rules for your world, follow them consistently. (on worldbuilding)

Carter Hasegawa: Question everything in your world, push all the limits and take it further. (on strong worldbuilding without holes)

Katie Carroll: With the exception of opening, escalation, climax, and closing, the purpose of a scene is to move the plot forward and/or to develop a character. If it’s not doing either, consider if it needs to be there. (on revision and editing)

Setting up the bookstore
Setting up the bookstore
Critique group R&R
Critique group R&R
View from my hotel room
View from my hotel room

Why Is A Birthday Like A Writing Desk?

(Apologies to Lewis Carroll for mangling his famous riddle, but I couldn’t make the Raven fit!)

I turned 43 a week ago, which is fine by me. I have to admit, I’m loving my forties. My thirties went by in a wonderful, manic rush of house moves and babies and toddlers and general child-rearing delicious craziness. Not that I’m done with child-rearing (who is, ever?), but now, at 10 and 12, they’re young people with their own firm opinions and busy schedules. I have time of my own again and it’s quite frankly wonderful.

I started writing novels the year I turned 40. For over 20 years I had written nothing but poetry (some of it not bad; one was even published) and cringingly awful ‘literary’ diaries (the diaries were really, really bad; I eventually came to my senses and threw them all out).

Writing was a passion, a compulsion, but one I didn’t dare give in to, too busy with jobs and dating and marriage and babies. So I scribbled little bits here, and little bits there, always telling myself that one day, someday, when I was ready, I would write.

I was never ready.

I kept putting it off. There was always a reason. I was too tired, too busy. Then suddenly I turned 40 and I realized I wasn’t really too tired any more. The nights of wakeful babies and toddlers were long gone. There was no reason to rush through my to-do list while the children were in preschool so I could give them my full attention when they got home; they were elementary school kids now, and free time was more about Minecraft than finger painting. It was a light bulb moment. There was no reason I couldn’t do the laundry in the afternoon instead.

There were no more reasons.

I worked out that I could get in a good two hours of work each day before I had to pick up the kids from school at lunchtime (we lived in Brazil, so shorter school hours). In August that year I began writing a middle grade story, and two months later I was typing those magic words ‘The End.’

Now, it was only a short 20,000-word novel, but it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It was a ‘real’ story. And I was hooked. By December I’d written the second and third in what I had planned out as a 4 book series. It felt amazing!

Since that 40th birthday a lot has happened. I joined a very supportive online SFF forum with a busy writers community. I moved to the USA and joined the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I went to my first writer’s conference, found a critique group and honed my skills. My word count crept up and up as I moved from those first 20k-word novels to 80k YA novels.

I’ve met other writers since then who had the same sort of light bulb moment. For many it was growing children, for others retirement, or a change in job circumstance. There’s no universal ‘right’ moment, just the moment when it all suddenly makes sense to you, personally.

But eventually, that moment arrives. And it shines.

Light bulb.

Happy Sunday

It’s Sunday. The sun is shining, and up here in the wilds of suburban Connecticut it finally looks like spring. Things are stirring in the earth – stirring, I tell you! And, after several weeks where I could think of nothing but the characters from my most recently completed novel, I have new things stirring in my brain.

I had a long blog post on perseverance planned for today, but you know what? It’s Sunday and the sun is shining. Go enjoy the day, take a long walk or maybe write some new words. Perseverance will still be here tomorrow.

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Abendau’s Heir

Anyone who knows me, knows that lately I’ve been enthusing all over Twitter, Facebook and the Chrons (and yes, this blog too) about Jo Zebedee’s debut space opera Abendau’s Heir, Book 1 of the Inheritance Trilogy.

I’m always happy to support my fellow writers, especially those who are just starting out, but this one is special. Not just because it’s a very good book (which it is) but because I was lucky enough to have been one of Jo’s beta readers, way in the back and beyond when I was still learning what beta readers were supposed to do (and making quite a hash of it, most likely).

So when I picked up my digital copy of Abendau (physical copy should be landing in Northern Ireland today for Jo to sign!) I was understandably awestruck. This is the second published book I’ve had the chance to beta read (the first was Emma Jane’s beautifully spooky romance Shuttered), and since I already knew the basics of the story, what an experience to be able to sit back and enjoy the storytelling itself, marveling at the polished product.

From Amazon: Kare’s seen planets destroyed by the relentless expansion of his mother’s empire. Children killed. His own family murdered. With her power to manipulate minds she may be invincible. 

Only he has the power to stop her. Kare must either face the horrifying future his father foretold for him, or allow the sacrifice of millions of people to his mother’s ambition. But in opposing her, he risks everything: his friends, his loved ones… even his sanity.

Sounds dark? Well, yes it is rather. But needfully dark, not dark for the sake of shock-value bleakness. Because sometimes stories need to tread down the shadowed paths and lead us into horrible places and terrible consequences.

In Abendau’s Heir, Jo addresses something a lot of us have probably often wondered about: the chosen one trope and what it actually means to be that chosen one. I mean, really? How many of us would actually want that burden thrust upon us, and if we did, how would we deal with it?

She talks about that in this rather nice interview on Nathan Hystad‘s blog, and again on SFF World.

Abendau’s Heir is a story that covers a lot of time; it starts with the tale of Ealyn Varnon and then switches to his son Kare, spanning some twenty-odd years in the process. We have glimpses of a young Kare, on the run from the Empress with his father and twin sister, then later a teenage Kare who we then get to watch grow up. Yet all this jumping around in time doesn’t feel awkward, it flows smoothly from one scene to the next and helps us understand how Kare becomes the man he is, and why he makes the choices that he does.

I don’t read a lot of SF, being more of a fantasy girl myself. But although Abendau’s Heir is set in a vast, beautifully developed space scenario, this isn’t really about space, or space battles, or planetary landings. It’s about people: shy, frightened, happy, sad, troubled, awkward and just plain nasty people. And Jo does this very well indeed.

I’m looking forward to Book 2, which I haven’t read so it will be a pleasant surprise (and if anyone tries to spoiler it I shall stick my fingers in my ears and sing la-la-la-la-la). But more than that; with Abendau’s Heir, Jo has shown herself to be a star on the rise. I know she has a myriad of different projects underway, and I’ll be watching excitedly to see what she comes up with next.

abendau

Of Snow and Sheep

Here in Connecticut, April came rampaging in like a belligerent old ram. The mean-looking type with the big bad horns that Aries horoscopes always feature. The sort of creature that stands its ground, shakes those big bad horns and declares that “Winter ain’t over till I say so.”

I will now illustrate with a photo of my garden:

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You see my point? That old ram is just a big, obstinate, obstreperous meenie. It’s also supposed to represent all those born under the blessed sign of Aries. My own star sign, coincidentally. It’s said to epitomize all the pig-headed stubbornness of the Aries, the side of us that just won’t give up, no matter how many times we’re pushed over. That whole stick-your-chin-in-the-air-and-keep-going thing.

Guess what? If you’re a writer, that’s probably you as well. It’s hard work, this here writing gig. If you’re unpublished, you’re struggling to get your foot on the first rung. If you’re published, you’re trying hard not to grab a snake instead of a ladder and slide back a few spaces, or even all the way back to the beginning of the game board. Because even with all your hard work, you might still roll the wrong number on the dice.

So that’s us. Writer-folk. Hard-headed, stubborn, determined to meet whatever may come with horns down and at the ready.

And fabulously obstreperous.

Into The Woods: embrace the dark

Yesterday we rented ‘Into the Woods’, which I’d already seen with my daughter at the movies, and loved. Now it was time for a rewatch, and to share with my husband and son. After the movie finished, there was some debate on whether spoilery things that happen towards the end should happen at all. Because it takes a turn for the dark, right after all the happily-ever-afters take place. And I like that.

I like that the story doesn’t finish on a sunny everyone-loves-everyone note. Because no one’s story ends with the words ‘I do’, or the cuddly baby, or the fortune achieved. That’s just the start of everything else that comes next. And sometimes what comes next is good, but at other times it’s the breaking storm, the dark cloud, the sweeping wind. Because life is wild and unpredictable, and sometimes Things Just Happen.

That got me started thinking about books with that wild and unpredictable flair, that feeling of ‘hey, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Stories that take what you’re expecting and turn it around. The ride down the rabbit-hole which, instead of following a logical order and reaching a pleasing end, simply gets odder and odder. The journey to dispose of a ring that gets more and more painful, without respite, and then ultimately would face failure if not for serendipity.

In the best sort of stories, my favorites, people die, they get hurt, they falter and fail. I don’t like this sort of story because I enjoy reading about suffering, but because life can be harsh and a good tale needs to reflect the darkness that lurks beyond our sunny spot.

If you haven’t watched ‘Into the Woods’ yet, please do. For the wonderful songs, the fabulous twisting and tangling of traditional fairytales, and the great characters. But, most of all, for the darkness that lingers on throughout, at the corner of the screen, just waiting to pounce.

Into The Woods

Critique Groups

Critique and writing groups rock. Seriously, if you aren’t yet part of some sort of real life or virtual writing community that can give you support and help you cut through all the inevitable BS that gets tangled up in the good bits of your writing, then get thee to one right now.

My writing group is worth gold. Solid, 24k gold. We laugh together, hold each other’s hands when querying or on submission and brainstorm together. We aren’t afraid to hold a sharp scalpel to each other’s work. We often meet up just to hang out and write – in fact, in about an hour I’m off to our local bookstore to do just that, sit down with my friends and write.

I also belong to a fabulous online community, the SFF Chronicles (take heed, spec fic writers). The Chrons has a great aspiring authors forum, where you can ask any odd question that pops up along the way. Like ‘how do you get a horse into a tunnel?’ or ‘Should I go for a meteor or a dinosaur as my climax?’ Or one of my recent faves: ‘Help me figure out how to kill my rock monster!’ We also have a critiques forum for small excerpts; you haven’t lived until you’ve survived having something pulled apart and put back together stronger by the very knowledgeable Chronners. I’ve met great beta readers there – we take turns reading work for each other and giving feedback.

So if you don’t have this sort of support yet, I’d consider looking into it. You can find local groups pretty easily nowadays (I know my town library hosts one), and there are a wealth of great online communities like the one I belong to.

No one is an island, yadda yadda, bla bla bla. You know where this is going. Yeah, I like to sit at home alone in a tea-fuelled fog and write as much as the rest of you; antisocial little beasties, us writers. But try stepping outside your word cave (even if only virtually) and connecting with other writers. I can promise you there will be no regrets. Only solid, 24k gold rewards.