Writing

It’s true! Writing very short fiction can improve your novel.

I’ve had great success teaching flash fiction, and my students have gone on to be more widely published, and better writers. But I often hear from people who say something like:

“Oh, that sounds cool, but I don’t write short stories. I mostly write novels.”

Fear not, friend. Flash fiction is for you, too.

Writers Digest suggests learning to write flash because “no matter what you write, stringent word limits can challenge and sharpen your skills in ways that can improve even your long-form work.” Writing great flash requires the same skills as writing a great novel: descriptions that show instead of tell, concise language, poetic (compact yet evocative) style, and clear vision.

Microfiction (work that begins, ends, and feels complete under 1000 words) isn’t a fragment of a story. It’s not a scene without an anchor in the rest of the tale. It is its own moment. That kind of writing focuses on using the best words to speak clearly to your reader, giving them the impression of something larger than that space allows, so they don’t walk away unsatisfied. You want to give enough information so that the rest of the story, the history and potential future, are hinted at, but the reader doesn’t need to see them spelled out in order to have enjoyed what they read. If you can do that with a handful of words, you can do that with a hundred thousand. Even better – you can take away all the bits you don’t need before they get in the way of the words you want, confusing or even boring your reader.

Writing and reading short fiction show you successful ways to tell a story with the excess stripped away. I’ll help you learn the two major approaches to handling the challenging word count: how to write into the space that you have, and how to edit down to your limitations. Applying the lessons from my workshop to your novel will help you cut the fluff from your pages, turning your epic into a lean, thrilling, can’t-put-it-down adventure for your readers. Who doesn’t want that?

Keep an eye out for my next flash fiction workshop! I’ll post my teaching schedule here.

#SFWAPro

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…)

What I’ve Been Watching: The Everybody Dies Edition

I haven’t done a movie review post lately, so this list covers a couple of months of watching. These should all still be available to watch streaming on Netflix and other services. As always, my reviews are mainly about the writing; though of course a film with a great script can still be shot poorly, the writing shines through, while a poorly-written script will still be obvious no matter how much money is thrown into the production. (See below, World War Z.)

Starting with the best:

 

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HOW I LIVE NOW, 2013. Saorse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay. Director: Kevin MacDonald

5/5 stars.

Originally a novel by Meg Rosoff, published 2004 (winner: British Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the American Printz Award for young-adult literature). I haven’t read the novel but from what I can tell, the movie doesn’t diverge from it much, only cutting out scenes/people to get it down to a 1h41m runtime.

This is a beautiful, haunting, and — most importantly — organically logical story of a teenage girl who naively chooses to stay in England on the eve of a war rather than go home to her American father and stepmother, who’d sent her away in the first place. It’s the story of kids who are left stranded when their mom gets called away and isn’t able to return, who are separated, conscripted, and ultimately have to fight their way back to each other. It’s about making a family, making choices, taking risks, and doing so while the adults around them either ignore what they need or actively try to hurt them.

The kids can’t possibly make all of the right choices, even though for a moment it seems they’ll be okay in their country home, away from the mess of the world. That summer paradise is ripped away by the advancing army, and serves as a dreamlike reminder of the innocent joy they’ll never have again. Truly, they never will: some of the kids are killed, and the rest are changed forever. Daisy, the MC, isn’t nice or likeable to begin with, but neither is she cruel. She’s an unhappy teenager, simple as that. She grows over the course of the film, becoming a mother and protector, but the change isn’t capricious. She fails in a lot of ways as she learns to get the important things right.

There are consequences to everyone’s actions. The characters have motivation and agency and needs, and while displayed subtly, they’re also obvious in the context of the story. The director manages to keep the pace moving without rushing too fast or dragging behind. There are no montages; there is nothing shown outside of the Daisy’s experience, yet the story is complete and bursting with detail. It’s tight 3rd person, excellently scripted, and I highly recommend it as an example of how YA storytelling should be done. I normally avoid anything with teenage main characters because it doesn’t speak to my life now, and I don’t get terribly nostalgic for my own past since what I have now is so much better. But I’ve seen this twice now, and would watch it again, because it’s not about “teenagers”. It’s about real, textured, people who just happen to be kids.

(more…)

Writing Process Blog Tour

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam invited me to join this blog relay on writing craft. Her post is here.

1. What am I working on?

I’ve got three big projects right now, as well as a couple of short stories I need to revise, and my editing work. I’m concurrently writing two novels and compiling a mosaic novelette of SF poetry. The working titles are:

  • Sonnets for the Rocket Queen – 144 Shakespearean-style sonnets about love, loss, and space ships.
  • Shades of Gray – first person, female protagonist, modern day, ghost story. Urban fantasy without the tramp stamp. Miéville noir with a female lead.
  • Caudal Ballad – third person PoV, multiple protagonists, surreal/interstitial. Borges meets Nabakov, with traces of Burroughs and Poe.

Shades and Caudal are set in the same universe, same town, at the same time, and explore a series of events from very different perspectives. They don’t need to be read together.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

No one else has read what I read, in exactly the same way, or lived my life, or shares my exact sense of humor. That’s true of all of us. For that alone, I’d like to think what I write is different. When you add to that mix that I write because I have a story in my head I want to get out — instead of for fame, money, respect, or notoriety — and that if I’ve read the same story elsewhere I no longer want to write it, then what I do produce fits into a small space occupied by not much else.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Have you ever read something and thought, “Oh, yeah, that is true”? You learn some fact you didn’t know before, but based on everything else you know, this thing makes sense. I love to read fiction that has that resonance of truth, and I don’t want to put any of my own writing out into the world unless it speaks to me in the same way. It has to answer a question, or provide a viewpoint which clarifies a confusion you didn’t even know you had. I want to feel more alive, more knowledgeable, when I’ve finished a piece of reading. Even if the knowledge is sad.

I’m also interested in mixes of genres or the places where multiple genres lean against each other. I think that when you work in solid, simple, mainstream, genres, whether it’s literary or epic fantasy or hard science fiction, you’re more likely to be retreading the same old ground. There are stories which slip between the cracks, tales that don’t quite fit, and are therefore told a lot less often. Those are the stories I want to tell.

4. How does my writing process work?

My current writing process was developed over years of failing to produce consistent work. Ideas, I have. Ideas are easy. They’re everywhere. I’m lucky that my subconscious, what I call my lizard brain, is strong enough that I can decide I want to work on a story, spend a little time thinking about it, and then move on to another task, another piece of writing. Meanwhile, my lizard brain will keep writing, until one day, it taps me on the shoulder and says, “Here you go.”

The hard part is always writing it down. I’m chronically overbooked, overworked, and exhausted. I don’t have time to read for pleasure, be with my family the way I’d like. So, how do I find time to write?

I carefully manage what I have, and the rest I need, I steal. The managing comes from being organized — two white boards at home, online spreadsheets, Field Notes books in my bags to scribble down thoughts, post-it notes on the wall, documents saved to Drive so I can work on them anywhere. I manage my time like I structure my writing, so I’ve got spreadsheets for how much time is spent on each freelance project, to do lists, and even my daily word count.

Doing that means I’ve got everything I’ve written down whenever I want it, and knowing whether I’ve spent enough time on other projects that day tells me how much I have left for writing. If it’s not enough to get out the part of the story I’m ready to write down, I take what I need from other places. I write instead of going out. I write instead of getting to bed on time. I write on my lunch breaks, before work, while watching tv, during dinner. Not all of those times every day, but whatever I need to make sure that every day, I am writing.

I’m a better writer because of it, and I think that I more fully enjoy the times I spend with my family, partner, friends because I know what I give up to write, and what I give up to be with them. I cherish everything. To me, making time to write feels like having it all.

* I was supposed to tag two more writers who’d then complete this meme and pass it on. Instead, I am tagging all of you. Write your own posts, and leave me a comment with the link so I can go read yours too.

#SFWAPro

It takes three points to make a plot, or, how to write an interesting (complete) story.

A plot, also called a storyline or narrative, is the sequential list of events which make up a story. These events are linked together within the framework of the story, and occur one after the other as the reader progresses through the story. They may not be revealed chronologically, and multiple events may be occurring simultaneously, but the reader — going through the story line by line — is generally only able to see one event at a time. Events may be “seen” in the sense that they are described as happening at that moment, on the page, or they may occur “off stage”. Offstage, unseen, events can be recounted by a character who was there/heard about the event, to a character who is listening to the event being described, or can be hinted at by revealing the ways in which the event affected others without describing the actual event.

While a story can have any number of events, for it to be interesting and complete, it must have three event points on its plot. Less than that, and the story is either incomplete (a vignette or character study) or it usually fails to be interesting. Often, a plot with fewer than three events is both incomplete and boring. Think of it like this:

Event A and/or/but Event B, so Event C.

That’s a complete plot. Without those three points, you’re not telling a story.

Now, before we get more into what is a plot point, we need to rule out all of the things that aren’t:

  • Characters
  • Setting
  • Place
  • Genre
  • Passage of time without implied/stated change of events

A character is a person, or anthopomorphic animal or object, which has stated qualities that set them apart from another similar person/animal/object. Examples:

  • Jenny is a 20-year old white woman.
  • Karl is a 35-year old German white man.
  • Lee is a 15 year-old African-American boy from Texas.
  • Taffy is a ginger long-haired kitten living in a box behind the Wegman’s.
  • Rex is a purple toy dinosaur.

By themselves, those descriptions do not contain events, even when they are giving the character qualities not possessed by all others. Age, color, race, geography — these are not events. They do not place the character within a story. There is no history, no arc, no context.

However, there are descriptions which contain events, and therefore reveal plot points:

  • Jenny is a 20-year old white woman waiting outside the diner for her date to arrive.
  • Karl is a 35-year old unemployed German white man.
  • Lee is a 15 year-old African-American boy from Texas, living in California.
  • Taffy is a ginger long-haired kitten living in a box behind the Wegman’s, where she was abandoned.
  • Rex is a purple toy dinosaur lying in the backyard.

Some of the events are more obvious than others, but each of those characters now is fixed to at least one event. Jenny is waiting, in a particular place, for a date that has not yet begun. In order for her to be there, she had to have made a plan, traveled to the diner, and she has not yet met up with her date. She has three events tied to her in that one sentence. Karl, by being described as unemployed, must have either once been employed but was separated from his job, or is expected to be employed but has failed to do so.

Lee has moved from Texas to California. Taffy used to belong to people, but now she doesn’t. Rex was placed in the backyard, either intentionally or unintentionally, by someone else, or moved there on his own (depending on the type of story). Though more about these events can be inferred because the age, place, and other descriptors imply greater depth to the events (Lee was either moved there by adults who made the decision for him, or ran away, since a 15 year old rarely has the legal right to move alone; if he does, that’s even more complex) they are still single events: one move, one loss of a former life, one moment where the character is no longer where it once was. (more…)