New workshop begins Nov 15, 2014: Better Writing Through Brevity

Update 11/13/14: 23 students enrolled; only 2 spots left

Beginning November 15, 2014 – “Better Writing Through Brevity: Writing/Editing Microfiction and Flash” – read, write, critique, and edit short fiction of various lengths, including 140 characters, 1 sentence, 150 words, six sentences, under 500 words, under 1000. Previous students of this class have sold their final pieces to semi- and pro-rate SFF markets.

$60 for 4 weeks:

Sign up here

I will close registration for this workshop when we reach 25 students, to limit the group to a manageable size. If there are still spaces left on November 8, the price will go up to $75. And, yes, you can purchase a registration for a friend. Simply enter their email address on the signup screen when it asks.

When I did this workshop last year, it was a lot of fun! Many of those students are still supporting (and critiquing) each other today.

Please note: All workshops take place in my private online forum, so you can post questions, comments, and writing excerpts without worrying who will see it. Plus, since we have deadlines of a certain day, not a set class hour, you can be anywhere in the world and still participate! With everything online, you won’t miss a thing, no matter what time zone you’re in or what challenges you’re working around.

Wondering how this workshop will improve your novel? Read this.

How does the class work?

A week before the class begins, students will get an email instructing them how to log into the private online forum. Only people in the class will have access to the workshop space. (This means anything posted there is considered “unpublished” and if you like it when it’s polished, you still have the option to submit it for publication.) Anyone who logs in during that pre-class week will be able to start reading the samples in advance. (more…)

Free Fiction: “While Waiting For Your Landlord To Evict You” (Experimental/Literary)

This story is a little different than my other work. It’s creative non-fiction, in that it’s true, but written well (I hope). It covers the first six months of this year — I wrote it before the situation got even worse with the CO/gas leaks a few weeks ago, but I think it’s strong enough that I don’t need to add to it. It’s 2nd person PoV, 3200 words long, and isn’t published anywhere else.

An excerpt:

As the month ticks down, you should lay out all of your options for moving so that you can clearly see you don’t have any.

Find the information for the storage place nearby, the one with cheap little units that hold a single room’s worth of stuff, because you can’t afford bigger and you can probably get your belongings down to that size. While your son is at camp, or school, or asleep – anything, as long as he doesn’t see what’s going on and get spooked – start packing up what you know you want to keep. If he does figure it out, tell him you’re organizing, that the apartment is too little for even the meager amount of things that you own, that you’re a minimalist at heart, anyway.

Give silent thanks each day that he doesn’t ask.

Get the PDF here

Losing the Summer to Depression

I’m used to juggling several things at once. Multi-tasking was the way I learned to cope with a lifetime of ADHD, turning a flaw into a strength (I hope). Even after I started taking medication for it last year, I’m still in the habit of following through in stages, moving from one task to another and back again, so I can focus in smaller chunks and get through them both on time. I think that’s why I didn’t notice those moving pieces getting bigger, and heavier, until the balls in the air became bricks and then boulders and I was buried under it all.

In April, my son lost his afterschool care, and the following week, my job as an admin assistant ended. In May, I started to notice that my bones ached. I stopped working out, put on weight — 20 pounds in 2 months. When I saw my doctor, he said it was “women trouble” and suggested I just accept it. In July, my landlord — who’d been a problem for months — grew worse, his negligence and paranoia turning into outright harassment. (My neighbors think he’s suffering from dementia.) I felt lost, overwhelmed, and trapped, in my apartment, and in my life.

I did what I always do when life gets hard: I shut down. I grew up learning that talking about problems was really just being selfish enough to burden other people with them, so I don’t like to say too much. I’m not sure when all of that turned into depression, but at some point I realized that I was watching a lot more tv than usual, losing track of what day it was, planning projects I never finished, avoiding people, promising that I’d call or write and then not realizing when days or weeks had passed… even just sitting, not doing anything at all. I kept trying to get myself together — the other great lesson I learned from my family is that “depression” is just another way to say “lazy” — and failing. I stopped taking freelance clients. I stopped talking to people. I started panicking whenever my phone would ping, so I turned off all the notifications from Twitter or email, and eventually started turning it off entirely.

After a while I realized that I wasn’t writing, and I’d even stopped reading. At that point I felt like I didn’t even know who I was anymore.

Getting better enough to even talk about it took a lot of little steps. I went back to therapy, and got a chance to lay everything out to someone else; hearing it out loud made me see it was a bigger problem than I’d let myself believe, and also helped me figure out where to start making changes:

At first, I walked a lot. I told myself that if I wasn’t getting anything done, I needed to get outside and go for a walk. Some days I’d walk 5 or 6 miles. I always used to walk as a kid, everywhere, and getting that back felt a little like reclaiming myself. The weight started coming off, which was nice, too.

I started taking editing clients again, slowly, not advertising it but just taking what came my way. Finishing things helped me feel a bit better. I got an opportunity to start working for St. Martin’s Press as a freelancer, and took it. Was asked to interview for a position as an interim Managing Editor for an academic journal, and pursued that (it’s still in progress but moving forward).We got word that after 2 1/2 years of filling out paperwork, my son was finally approved for state-funded services that included afterschool care, so I could go back to work full-time, knowing he’d be safe. I applied for a few admin jobs in town, had a couple of interviews for jobs I didn’t get, and applied for several more.

I focused on the writing I felt I could do, which turned out to be literary fiction, and a non-fic research project I’d thought of when I was still at UPenn a few years ago, and even poetry. Whatever I was inspired to write, I did, instead of limiting myself to a particular genre, theme, or project. Words on the page was better than no words, I told myself. I saw a different doctor and found out I had the onset of arthritis — and all I had to do was start taking aspirin (an anti-inflammatory) every day to feel better.

I decided, after a CO leak in my apartment a few weeks ago, that I needed to get out, so I’ve put in notice and plan to move by the end of October. The firemen who came discovered several gas leaks in the building, and though they’re repaired now, who knows how long they were leaking gas into the building? And that CO leak — I was home at the time. It could have killed me. The only reason it didn’t was because the detectors went off, the same detectors my landlord had refused to install until after I contacted the Building Inspector myself.

And I made a decision to distance myself from some toxic people in my life, and hold on instead to the person who still loved me even with all of this going on.

My life is quieter now. I get out more. I’m getting things done. I hate that I lost so much time I’d rather have spent on working and writing, but I’m trying to use that as motivation to work harder now instead of letting the regret drag me down. I’m not where I want to be yet — I’m still not reading enough, still trying to get completely caught up — but I think, when I am, that this whole experience will have taught me a lot. I like where I’m headed.

But if I let you down this summer, or if I owe you anything, I am sorry.

If you read this and you think to yourself that you understand, you’re feeling the same way: I don’t know that I can offer a lot of advice. Just keep doing as much as you can, push yourself a little more each day, find someone to talk to, and don’t give up for good. Bad day? Okay. That happens. Try again tomorrow. As long as you keep doing that, there’s always the possibility that tomorrow will be a good day. And the next.

And the next.

Art History References for Writers: Visualizing African American Print Culture

“Print culture” includes all forms of printed text and printed visual communication – including books, newspapers, photographs, advertisements, and print art. African Americans not only participated in the creation of this material in general (including contributing to several printing press and photographic innovations) but also documented themselves and others. I wasn’t able to make the African American Expression in Print and Digital Culture conference in Madison a few weeks ago, but the attendees did an excellent job of live-tweeting and sharing links. I used that as a start to put together this list of links for writers who want to use real, actual, history as a reference for their fiction. Rather than make assumptions about what African Americans wore, did, or were involved in at any point in our country’s history, you can instead find out for yourself.

Bernard Arms, uncle of Lewis Arms, poses with his girlfriend Nellie, who he later married. Early 20th century. Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Bernard Arms, uncle of Lewis Arms, poses with his girlfriend Nellie, who he later married. Early 20th century. Credit: Wisconsin Historical Society.

Resources:

The Wisconsin Historical Society has an amazing collection of images online, searchable and sorted by galleries. You can find it here. You might particularly be interested in these galleries:

The Teenie Weenies in the Wildwood, original ink drawing of William Donahey's "Teenie Weenies." via Wisconsin Historical Society

The Teenie Weenies in the Wildwood, original ink drawing of William Donahey’s “Teenie Weenies.” via Wisconsin Historical Society

Image taken by Suzanne Sawyer of “Racist type cuts called ‘Brownies’ or ‘Jim Crows’” – used in printing

Through the Lens of Time: Images of African Americans from the Cook Collection – digital collection of over 250 images of African Americans dating from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, housed at Virginia Commonwealth University

Black History resources at The National Archives – massive collection of photographs, documents, and links to other material online

Texas African American Photography Archive – founded by Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin:

The TAAP archive provides a broad overview of African American photography in the urban and rural areas of Texas, spanning the period from the 1870s to the present and representing a variety of processes and makers. The Archive is unique in its comprehensiveness, and consists of over 50,000 photographic negatives and prints and more than 20 oral histories collected from African American photographers. Most of the items in the Archive have been donated by the photographers and their families, while others have been acquired from private collections.

Library of Congress – enormous searchable online archive (link goes to “African American”)

Western Reserve Historical Society – photograph collections, many online. Also includes newspaper and microfilm collections, as well as historical information

Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection – “This extensive collection contains more than 12,000 photographs depicting African American life from as early as the 1840s through the 1970s.” Housed at Emory.

Pratt Library’s African American Resources

Early Caribbean Digital Archive – “a highly interactive digital scholars lab for the collaborative research and study of pre-C20 Caribbean literature”, includes an archive of digitized texts, and invites scholars to engage with and contribute to the work. Not strictly African-American, it nonetheless represents an important resources for writers working with slave and immigration stories (as well as those writing stories with Caribbean characters). Three online exhibits:

“Downing Family Photo,” ColoredConventions.org

“Downing Family Photo,” ColoredConventions.org

Colored Conventions – digital archive of black political and community organizing in the 19th century. Mainly includes transcribed minutes from events, excellent bibliography here. Site is in progress; plans include maps and data tables (to be added Fall 2014).

Gallon & Black Press Research Collective –  promotes digital research of Black newspapers, includes a huge list of online archives here.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) The Souls of Black Folk, Essays and Sketches Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903 Rare Books Collection

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
The Souls of Black Folk, Essays and Sketches
Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1903
Rare Books Collection

Race and the Design of American Life – “African Americans in 20th Century Commercial Art”. U of Chicago Library exhibit documenting the way African American bodies are used to sell everything from food to shoes to music.

Burrell Communications Group – Wiki article on 1970s ad agency established specifically to market to African Americans,

and to tap into how the Black Aesthetic could also appeal to the general market consumer. It was at this time that Tom Burrell coined the phrase, “Black people are not dark-skinned white people.”

“Black Printers” on White Cards: Information Architecture in the Database of the Early American Book Tradesthe American Antiquarian Society Blog, Molly Hardy – lists a number of African American printers active in the trade in the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries

Books to check out:

“Theresa; a Haytien Tale” (1827) – Free PDF download of an example of pre-twentieth century African American literature, from Just Teach One: Early African American Print project.

Print Culture in a Diverse America (History of Communication), James P Danky (Editor), Wayne A Wiegand (Editor)

The South Carolina Roots of African American Thought, Edited by Rhondda Robinson Thomas and Susanna Ashton

Early African American Print Culture, Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein, Editors

Representing the Race, A New Political History of African American Literature, Gene Andrew Jarrett

The African American Church Community in Rochester, New York, 1900-1940, Ingrid Overacker

All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, Martha S. Jones

This list is intended as a starting place and is by no means exhaustive. Please add your own suggestions in the comments below.

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Summer of Film, Part One (12 mini reviews)

I don’t watch much television, but between Netflix and having three theaters in town, I do see a lot of movies. I made an effort to get out and catch more indies and documentaries this summer, since that’s what I love most, but also branched out into mainstream titles based on YA novels (like How I Live Now, which I reviewed in July) that I normally would have avoided. Plus a couple of geek favorites, because fun is good. Here’s my (first of two) quick review of everything I can remember seeing:

  1. Chef - Might be my favorite fun movie of the summer. The characters were well-conceived and even with a few silly cameos, the whole thing felt solid, with nothing to pull you out of the story. And the soundtrack! Glorious. Will make you want to cook, dance, and love. There were other films that impacted me more, that I’ll carry with me for longer, but if you want entertaining, life affirming (in the sense that life is delicious and you need to go out and taste it), and a happy ending, this is the movie for you.
  2. Detropia - not the best documentary I’ve seen this summer (too long, a bit too disjointed to tell a coherent story) it’s nonetheless an important look at the failure of the American Dream on a massive scale. Detroit went from being the fastest growing city in the US to one that’s collapsed in on itself, in less than 100 years. Do you know why? The film offers an explanation, and the hope that where commerce has failed, art (and starving artists, and gentrification) might thrive.
  3. Divergent – (Based on a novel I haven’t read) Up until the end, I thought this was actually a much better film than I’d expected. Fun, quick, not terribly dumb. Reasonable post-apocalyptic society, realistic consequences for those that didn’t fit or couldn’t keep up, and it was solidly YA in that it focused on a main character who acted her age. There was no sex, no magic powers, nothing that threw you out of the story or the character… until the last 1//4 of the movie. Suddenly, logic goes out the window, and the last 120 seconds of the film is a complete 180 from the story so far. Unless there’s a sequel that shows that bit was all a ruse, and – wait, you know what? No. Not even then. The end was wrong for this movie. It breaks the promises the story makes to the reader at the very beginning. Watch it for a fast course in writing a YA story, with the understanding that the finale is what not to do.
  4. Finding Vivian Maier - Beautifully documented story of holding yourself back. (Resolved: I must stop doing that.) Up there with Jodorowski’s Dune as must-watch documentary of the year. Vivian Maier was a nanny of questionable origins with a deeply private secret – she was also a prolific and talented street photographer. A grad student discovered a box of her photos shortly after she died, and has dedicated himself to researching her, buying up her other work, showing her off to the public, and trying to get her recognized by the art institutions of the world. His journey to uncover the truth of Vivian Maier revealed a woman unknown by those closest to her, one who probably endured abuse and suffering as a child, and who never meant to hide her work for so long… but her own issues got in the way of pursuing a career as a photographer. The images Maier took are deeply moving, and so is this film.
  5. Godzilla (2014) – I am a sucker for all things Gojira. He’s my first kaiju, the one I grew up watching. I own the Gojira / Godzilla, King of the Monsters box set on DVD. I pine for the 1978 Mattel Shogun Godzilla I had when I was a little girl. So, even though I know that American-made Godzilla movies are embarrassingly bad, I will watch them anyway, if only because the 2 hours of suck is the price I have to pay for the 30 seconds of screaming Godzilla roar when the creature’s finally fully revealed. This one sucked less than the 1998 Matthew Broderick version, by an order of magnitude, but still suffers from being based in a very American PoV. The first 42 minutes of the movie set up the main character – who was nothing more than a minor player til then – as the reluctant hero, the American GI who can save us from the mistakes made by the Japanese scientific community. They quickly bring him up to speed, for no real reason (he doesn’t know anything about Godzilla or Mothra or… science… ) other than we need a white male hero, apparently. And there’s a ridiculous amount of stupid, like sending unshielded planes against a kaiju that they KNOW has EMP blast powers. And must we have the same exact “running from a tidal wave” scene in every disaster movie? (PoV: child looking back over dad’s shoulder, guy in car as feet run over his windshield just before the water hits, etc.) Good points: brief shout-out to the Philippines for being the birthplace of Mothra; couple of cute moments, like our hero’s childhood insect terrarium with “mothra” written on the side; some clear homages to 1950s US “giant radioactive monster” movies; halo drop onto Godzilla that was the best few seconds of the film.
  6. Guardians of the Galaxy - took my son to see this; (first movie we’d seen together in a theater in years, because he went through a phase where he was too hyper/bored to watch a whole movie at once, which he seems to be over). He liked Groot most of all; I think Drax and Rocket were my faves. By now you’ve probably seen all the tear downs of this movie, and I’d say they’re mostly right. Plus, it really is different from the comic. It’s fun, but you can’t expect too much out of it or think too hard while you’re watching it.
  7. Jodorowski’s Dune – Started with the documentary, Jodorowski’s Dune, then went back and watched (or rewatched) his films – Fando Y Lis, El Topo, Holy Montain, and Tusk, in that order. I’ll have to do a proper review of all the films together, but for now let me say that this is worth watching, more than once. I adored it, and I am one of those folks who actually knew/read/watched a lot of the work and artists it references. It’s breathtaking to see the expanse of Jodo’s vision, even as you realize how impossible it all was.
  8. Only Lovers Left Alive - I left the theater feeling that the more interesting story was the one told in between what was happening on screen. The film was beautiful, languid, well-acted, and deliciously slow in that way where it’s almost troubling, and you almost need it to speed up, but never quite slows too much to bear. It’s probably the best Jarmusch has done, and the actors were all perfect. But what makes it so wonderful is that the important bits – who made who, why, what kind of people they are and who’s the one behind it all – is never spoken aloud. We see that Swinton’s Eve is the collector, the one who doesn’t create anything on her own, the one in love with life and experience and beauty, but it’s Hiddleston’s Adam (and Hurt’s Marlowe and who knows how many countless others) who are the real artists, the ones she collects, and the ones who inevitably feel the decline and ennui that losing their mortality brings. By changing them into something she can hold on to, Eve is destroying what makes them fascinating, albeit very slowly. In that way, how is she any different from Ava, who takes what she wants and destroys much more quickly?
  9. Philomena – A character study that’s primarily interesting because the characters don’t change much at all from the beginning to the end, except that Coogan’s character softens a bit toward Dench’s, once he’s realized that he’s not doing her a favor so much as being allowed into the private revelations of a woman who was terribly wronged. Philomena was wronged, but can’t quit stop blaming herself, and Sixsmith does end up doing exactly what he sets out to do. Without growth, the story is a little boring — I admit I played a few rounds of “Pixel Dungeon” while watching it — but if you look at the movie’s poster and think “This is my sort of film” then it probably is. Most interesting, to me, was how easily everyone ignored or forgot the horrible way that unwed Irish mothers were treated in those days, and would still be, if it weren’t for the Internet and cell phones and other ways that news travels much faster. The Catholic Church systematically stole children from their (often) loving mothers, shamed the girls for the sin of having gotten pregnant, and sold — yes, for money — their babies right out of their arms. That’s how much power the Church has, that most people can say “well, that’s just how it was”. All of the drama in this story is in that erasure, and if you’re unfamiliar with it, then 2 hours watching Philomena isn’t a waste of time.
  10. The One I Love - How can I review a movie which requires that you don’t spoil any of it? I laughed, I enjoyed myself, I was probably less surprised by the end (because I know the Richard Matheson story this was probably inspired by) but even with that, the movie stuck the landing. It was exactly what it should be. It’s short, it doesn’t try to be more than it is, and if you enjoyed Safety Not Guaranteed, you’ll probably love this.
  11. Thor, The Dark World - If you’ve watched the rest of the new Marvel movies so far, there’s nothing in this to surprise you. Popcorn cinema: bright, shiny, fun, not deep, but hey, everyone in it is very pretty.
  12. Veronica Mars - I was a big fan of the tv show (watched it when it aired, plus a dozen rewatches since it hit Netflix) so I was looking forward to this, but still didn’t want to get my hopes up too high. The film didn’t disappoint. It was exactly what you would have expected, with all of the nostalgic moments you’d hoped for, and a huge number of appearances by now-famous actors who got their start as kids on the show. At the same time, it was darker and grittier than the original show, with more noir lighting choices and and overall message that says “you can never really get out”. Good people get hurt. The moments we want to see – resolutions, love, tenderness – come at a price, including disappointing those who wanted better for Veronica. It helps a lot if you’ve seen the show, but I think it’s a decent movie if you haven’t.

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