Surly Questions: Angela Goff

Today’s post kicks off a series of interviews I have planned for the Surly Muse blog. Christening this new feature is fellow writer and founder of #WritingEmpire, Angela Goff. Thanks, Angela!

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Second grade was the turning point, when my teacher helped me assemble my first book, filled with the stories and poems I made up in class when I had finished my work early. It wasn’t a class project – she did it just for me. After such encouragement, and seeing my own work in a “real book”, I was smitten with a passion for writing. Thankfully, it’s been a lifelong malady.

2. What made you decide to start Anonymous Legacy?

My decision to abandon Facebook triggered that decision. I realized my best writing energy had siphoned off into witty status lines and photo comments. Then I read multiple blogs by editors, agents and published authors about how to establish a writer’s platform and/or “presence” online. Considering how the internet is integral in all industries now, I saw Anonymous Legacy as an investment, an ongoing resume for my future publisher – but one that had to be built gradually, over an extended period of time. That’s when I shut down my Facebook, set boundaries for myself in regards to texting and social internet time, and really got to work.

3. What was the inspiration behind the #WritingEmpire hashtag on Twitter?

I hear a lot of talk, in person and online, about how there is so much (insert favorite euphemism here) in books today. People enjoy trends and fun reads, but I hear more from writers – and readers – who wish to see new life breathed into the overall quality of fiction writing today. The #WritingEmpire mantra is, at heart, a reminder that if we want to see change in the books we read, then we are the ones who must go out and build it.

4. You have a daily presence on Twitter. What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media?

O goodness. Where do I begin? Coming onto Twitter just before NaNoWriMo was bewildering – there were so many amazing writers that just came out of the woodwork. Nor were they snooty or overbearing, touting their own spiffy writing skills or stealing ideas. They were real. Transparent. They told on themselves. They smacked each other into line. They were there for each other when the frustration hit.

Moreover, I found these are not “fair weather writers” but people in the trenches for the long haul, wet feet and dysentery be hanged. NaNoWriMo is gone, and people are still having word sprints. Asking questions and getting answers. Needing encouragement and finding it. To find an online community of like-minded, dedicated writers who are willing to heckle or word-sprint with you at the drop of a hat (whatever it takes to get it done, y’know?) – that was an amazing blessing. Still is.

5. You’re a teacher as well as a writer. What lessons have your students taught you over the years?

When students – or any writing newbie, actually – ask you to read their work-in-progress, for heavens’ sake – TURN OFF YOUR INNER GRAMMAR TEACHER. Grammar, I’ve learned, is best left for someone else to criticize – or at least should not be a first step – when proofing a budding writer’s creative work. Go for the soul of their creative vision, and help them from there. The rest will fall into place.

6. What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

That readers are like a cider jug – narrow necked, but capable of holding vast amounts of information. This has helped me tremendously in terms of pacing, and learning to drizzle in information so that my readers can swallow whatever complexities I serve them.

7. Who are the most inspirational people in your life when it comes to your writing?

My second, ninth, and twelfth grade English teachers were key. So were my parents (they still are), and my local writer’s group that has been meeting now for about three years. As for authors, the list is endless, but I would say my earliest and most long-reaching inspirations have been Lewis Carroll, C S Lewis and the Brothers Grimm.

8. I see from your web site that you have several projects in the works, including Castle 8. Can you tell us a little about it?

The Underground has been quarantined for centuries, running on the impersonal laws and mechanical system of a “big brother” tyranny that dissolved long ago. Crippled by earthquakes, mired in darkness, victimized by gangs, the Underground is on a path to self-destruction. But the Swackhammer brothers – math genius Greg, illiterate poet Errol, cannibal safe-cracker Finn and the illegally-born March – know there is something more beyond the Underground, that life hasn’t always been this way.

Severed from all history, literature, music and culture for so many generations, no one in the Underground has the least idea how to save, let alone rebuild, their world. The Swackhammers are thrown headlong into that mystery, as they scramble to escape the Underground and recover what was lost – at whatever cost to themselves.

9. Castle 8 seems to tie in your idea of “Anonymous Legacy.” What is the nature of the legacy the characters of Castle 8 must pass on, and how does it relate to your own “Anonymous Legacy”?

My characters must recover a legacy – one that was stolen away by earlier generations, leaving their descendants in perpetuated ignorance. Even those who think themselves in power only have access to fragments, and none in such quantity or coherence that they can easily reconstruct what came before. Whether the Swackhammers will recover that Anonymous Legacy is the journey I intend to present. As a history teacher, I consider these ideas – of recovering what was lost, to not forget your roots and know what has shaped your world – to be critical. We must all come to terms with our past. If we dismiss it, we do so at our own peril.

10. How close is it to completion?

I finished the first hard edit just last week, and plan to go back to it in mid-January. A couple more layers of edits and beta readers are needed before I begin the querying process, but I am certainly a matter of months from doing so – definitely before the next NaNoWriMo. Ideally? I would like to begin querying this summer. We shall see.

11. And now, the cliched question: your top five “desert island” books?

  • Bible
  • The Oxford Book of English Verse
  • Silverlock, by John Myers Myers
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, by C S Lewis
  • A blank journal for writing

A special education teacher by trade, Angela currently has multiple manuscripts in various stages of readiness, and plans to begin querying Castle 8 in the spring. Angela is also part of a close-knit writer’s group known as the Y5, which consistently plans out dignified meetings, only to have them devolve into food fights, hysterical laughter, and plans for world domination. In her spare time she meets with other aspiring authors at various coffeehouses, so as to encourage other kindred spirits while maintaining a quasi-respectable appearance to society. She can be found on Twitter as @Angela_Goff or at her blog:

A Jedi Like Your Father: What Luke Skywalker Taught Me about Writing Characters

For the longest time, I struggled with strong character motivation. Still do, actually. Unless I make a conscious effort to do otherwise, I tend to write reactive characters to whom shit happens — who just sort of blunder from one encounter to another, maybe having an emotion or two about it, but with no all-consuming wants of their own. It’s an instinct I still have to actively fight, even though I know how weak it is writing-wise.

It didn’t click with me until I started examining the stories I loved from the inside, and realized all the best characters have a driving need that moves them forward — and then story circumstances that move them further and further from those goals.

Since I’m a sci-fi / fantasy buff and I love to cite movie examples, let’s go with one of the nerd classics: Star Wars. (I thought about aiming for some literary credibility by busting out, I don’t know, Silas Marner or The Brothers Karamazov or something, but come on, we both know I’d be faking it.)

  • Luke Skywalker wants to get away from his dead-end life on Tattooine. He finds out about Princess Leia, and wants to find out who she is and help her (goals).
  • Hoping to join the Imperial academy (goal), Luke gets frustrated by his uncle, who refuses to let him off the farm (setback). He seeks out Obi-Wan to find out more about Leia (goal) but gets waylaid by Sand People (setback).
  • Later, he manages to get off Tattoine, although it costs him the only family he has left (setback, which then leads to another goal).
  • Now Luke also wants to become a Jedi, and rescue the princess. (goal)
  • He makes a little progress on the whole Jedi thing, but then loses his master when Obi-Wan gets killed by Vader (setback). The Jedi goal won’t get picked up again until the second movie, and won’t be fulfilled until the third.
  • Luke rescues the princess, presumably with romance in mind (goal), but Han breezily cockblocks him (setback). Which turns out to be fortunate for everyone involved, as it prevents Darth Vader from having flipper grandchildren.
  • Having rescued Leia, Luke gets caught up in the Rebellion and the attack on the Death Star… (goal)
  • ….but his new best buddy Han wants nothing to do with it (setback).

The final battle is then one setback after another, as Luke watches his buddies botch their attack runs and get picked off like flies. But, finally, he gets the job done. The Death Star is destroyed (only there’s a second one), Han gets his reward (but no longer seems to care that much), Luke gets the girl (only not really), and everyone is happy but Grand Moff Tarkin and those dead contractors.

This is a pretty basic rundown of Luke’s character arc, which I’m sure has been combed over in painstaking detail by more devoted nerds than myself. The point is, Luke, even though he’s frequently thought of as a whiny kid who just sort of bumbles around, he actually has very clear goals.

You can graph Han Solo much the same way. His basic objective is “get paid,” a goal so beleaguered by setbacks that he begins to question it (“no reward is worth this”). Obi-Wan has more elusive and far-reaching goals, some of which transcend his own death — which, from a story perspective, is pretty cool.

On the other hand, Star Wars does have a character who blunders through the story being batted around by life, who just reacts to things as they come along: C-3PO. Does he make good comic relief? Sure. Would he make a good protagonist? Hell no.

The same goes for Chewie. Okay, calm down, I love Chewie as much as the next Star Wars dweeb, but what’s Chewie’s motivation? It’s kinda Han’s motivation. Follow Han around, collect a paycheck. He’s a good supporting character, but on his own, he doesn’t have much going for him.

Good characters want things. They want things badly — and they frequently don’t get them, until the end of the story. Or, when they do get them, they become gateways to greater, more troublesome motivations. If you want a strong protagonist, you should be able to break down their goal in one succinct sentence. Harry Potter wants to survive (and later defeat) the machinations of Voldemort. Frodo wants to get the Ring to Mount Doom. Roland wants to get to the Dark Tower. Indiana Jones wants to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant. And so on. (Raiders of the Lost Ark is actually a really interesting example, because the hero basically never gets what he wants, which is the Ark in a museum. He loses out at every turn, right through the ending, but the story is compelling anyway because he wants it so damn bad.)

So if you have a story that seems to be flailing around, take a good look at your main character. Much of the time, a directionless story points straight back to a directionless protagonist. Do they have an all-consuming goal that’s constantly moving them forward? If not, you’d better give them one, because an indecisive, noodly protagonist will erode reader sympathy like sulfuric acid. If your characters don’t invest in something emotionally, how do you expect your readers to invested emotionally in your story? It’s simple: they won’t.

Make them want it.

Resolving to Resolve Some Resolute Resolutions

Photo by vinni on Flickr.

With the rapacious materialism of Christmas now behind us, thoughts turn to the new year, a time for new beginnings, fresh starts, and hoary clichés about new beginnings and fresh starts. Look at you, being reborn like a phoenix from the ashes as if you own the place. Why don’t you just turn over some leaves while you’re at it, smart guy?

Of course, with the dreaded new year’s resolutions come the inevitable meta-discussion about the relative worth of new year’s resolutions. So strap in, because if there’s anyone who knows how to set a big deadline-driven goal and then flub it, it’s a writer.

Every December, I see friends make big plans for the next year. At the base level, there’s nothing wrong with this. Unless you’re Leo Babauta and have ascended to some sort of post-goal-setting godhood, it’s probably a good idea to qualify your ambitions. The problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they tend to silently transmogrify into terrifying monoliths of obligation and despair when you’re not looking. Sometimes, even when you are looking.

Personally, I think the New Year’s resolution is the worst sort of crafty, backstabbing goal you can set, in no small part because the failure of the New Year’s resolution is so clichéd that your failure is practically built-in. It seems that when some people (including myself) set their resolutions, they imagine an alternate future version of themselves that doesn’t have the same personality quirks, obligations, and character flaws as the person they are this year.

Unfortunately, chances are that when January 2 rolls along, you’re gonna be the same promise-making, promise-breaking everyperson you were on December 31. Life does not come with heroic montage sequences. But let’s say you’re resolved to make a New Year’s resolution anyway. How do you keep from becoming another risible New Year’s statistic? I advise the following:

Don’t shoot the moon.

Sure, you might lose thirty pounds, run a 10k, finish that novel, take a course in filmmaking, get that promotion, learn to snowboard, bench-press a locomotive, win a hot-dog-eating contest and join the Secret Service all in one year. But chances are you’ll find out (to your considerable alarm) that there are only twenty-four hours in a day. And there’s this sleeping thing. Whose big idea was that?

I know setting a sprawling array of ambitious, life-changing goals is really tempting, because you look forward to that mythical New Year’s of 365 days from now and see yourself as a shining golden god with nothing left to achieve. But, at the risk of sounding like a representative of the Despair Council, that’s probably not going to happen. The problem with setting twenty goals is that you run the chance of feeling like a failure if you “only” complete two, or four, or eight of them.

I’m not saying set goals so modest that you can’t even feel good about achieving them — “I resolve to eat this entire box of peanut butter crackers without stopping to enjoy a beverage,” for example — but set goals you’re at least reasonably sure you can achieve. A little beyond your grasp is fine — a lot beyond your grasp is just self-punishment. And exceeding your own expectations is way more fun than falling short of them.

Never mind what everyone else is doing.

One of the big draws of the New Year’s resolution seems to be that everyone makes said resolutions at the same time, and so somehow support one another by association. In my experience, this isn’t even remotely true. What happens instead is that the first people to break their resolutions share their disappointment with others, who in turn often feel enabled rather than inspired: “Well, if Lloyd didn’t make it through that box of peanut butter crackers without a beverage, I don’t see why I should have to! Diet Pepsi, I hear you callin’!”

Then there are those profoundly annoying people who really do all the stuff they said they were going to do, and leave the rest of us swimming in their wakes like little globular mounds of failure. They’re basically the reason the unspoken New Year’s support group doesn’t work. The nerve. Can’t they have the common courtesy to wash out like the rest of us?

Never mind all that. You have to ignore both ends of the spectrum, keep your head down, set your own bar, and then jump over it. Don’t try to jump over someone else’s. You’ll just hurt yourself. Or you’ll knock down their bar, and they might break it in half and start beating you in the kidneys with it. Great, now you’ve got a clumsy metaphorical bloodbath on your hands.

January 1st is just a day.

It might seem self-evident to say this, but New Year’s is completely arbitrary — just like any other calendar day. You can set the same goal on March 13th or April 9th or June 25th as you can on January 1st. In fact, if you don’t meet your goal today, you can just reset it for tomorrow. Or an hour from now. Meaning you only really fail when you quit.

New Year’s only means something because people say it means something — so just decide that every day means something. Problem solved! Just do yourself a favor and don’t “reset” your goals 364 times in a row, unless you’ve slated Day 365 for making a new resolution called “Drink This Whole Fifth of Old Barn While Playing The Cure’s Disintegration on Repeat.”

You’re not a robot, so don’t speak in binary.

One of the easiest ways to fail at everything you do is to sort everything in your life into two piles: EVERYTHING WENT ACCORDING TO PLAN and OH I FUCKED UP ONE TIME SO NOW IT IS RUINED FOREVER. Life is messy and imperfect, and so too will be your stumbling steps toward goalhood. Your life will frequently be reminiscent of the Keystone Kops as you bumble toward that thing you’re trying to get done. Accept it.

Don’t decide one failure or mistake blows the whole wad, because while you might think you’re being too hard on yourself, you’re actually not. You’re letting yourself off the hook by trading in your goal for a few minutes of guilt. That’s actually a pretty good deal for your brain, even though your brain will try to convince you that you’ve really got it hard while it kicks back with a six-pack of Guilt City Beer and then grabs the remote for a comforting day of Animaniacs reruns — which you’ve earned, on account of all that guilt!

This is a cycle that’s incredibly easy to fall into, which is why it’s so important to recognize and avoid it. Slap that can of Guilt City out of your brain’s hand, and then go see the doctor, because if your brain has hands there’s probably some depleted uranium in your house.

Why did you start this?

Resolutions have a sneaky way of sapping the fun out of goals. Ostensibly, you set a goal because it’s something you want to do. But resolve that goal, and suddenly it’s something you have to do. Resentment sets in and starts poisoning the process. Soon you start looking at that thing that you wanted to do and think oh shit, I’d better do this or I am a wretched husk of a human being without the motivation God gave an eggplant. Yes, very inspirational, you’re sure to do it now!

Instead, consider taking some time to examine your goals and decide if they’re really something you want to achieve. A lot can happen in a year, and goals don’t always need to be immutable — in fact, they probably shouldn’t be. Keep your eye on the prize and remember why you wanted that prize in the first place — otherwise, why are you bothering?

And there you have it. Now, when New Year’s rolls around in a few days, you’ll be armed with the wisdom to resolve the crap out of some goals. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pick up some peanut butter crackers.

Imperium Giveaway Results

First of all, Merry Christmas to all my readers and the great writers and readers I’ve connected with on social media. You guys rock and have made a good year great.

Second, today is the day of the Imperium giveaway. I rolled the dice like a good gamer ought to, and the winners came out:

I’ll be sending out DMs and emails today. Congrats to the winners and thanks to everyone who commented — I wish I could get books for all of you! But hey — if you have a Kindle, I have a copy of Imperium I can loan out through Amazon, so drop me a line if you still want to read it.

[Guest Post] Every Reader Matters

Photo by goXunuReviews on Flickr.
 Today’s post on the value of readership comes from Avalon Jaedra at Writability. Thanks, AvaJae!

It wasn’t long after I jumped into the blogosphere that I realized blogging is very much about the numbers. The number of pageviews, the number of subscribers, the number of blog posts and comments and retweets and inbound and outbound links and the list goes on.

But blogging isn’t just about the numbers—it’s about the people. More than that—it’s about the relationships you build with your readers.

Because your blog stats may measure your readers in numbers, but your readers aren’t numbers, nor do they appreciate being treated like one. Your readers matter — every single one.

And really, when it comes to building your audience, paying attention to your readers is probably one of the best things you can do. Because an audience isn’t built overnight through some enormous explosion of people, it’s built one reader at a time. One relationship at a time.

So how do you build a relationship with your readers?

  • Answer comments. Yes, as in every single one. I recommend installing a commenting system that allows you to reply directly to comments rather than @ mentioning people, but either way you really do need to answer all of your comments if you want to build relationships with your readers.
  • Visit your readers’ blogs. I’m not suggesting you try to visit every single one of your readers blogs all in one day (although kudos to you if you do), but especially once you start to see people making repeat visits to your blog, take the time to see if they have one as well. You never know, you might just find that you like what they have to say just as much as they do you. (Fun fact: This is how I found Dan’s blog.)
  • Talk to your readers through other means. Do your readers have Twitter accounts? Have they liked you on Facebook? Do they have a tumblr or LinkedIn or a Goodreads account? Chances are they do, and taking the extra step to thank them for commenting on your blog via Twitter or whatever other site is a great way to reach out to your readers on sites other than your blog.
  • Repeat. You mean you’ve done all three? Great. Do it again.

Building an audience—especially a well-connected one—takes time, but if you make the effort you’ll find that not only do you have a growing audience, but you have a loyal one.

Without a connection to your audience, the numbers are useless. But don’t just take my word for it, think about it yourself. Would you prefer an audience of 1,000 readers who rarely comment on your posts and nearly never share it with others or an audience of 100 readers you visit your blog daily and comment often?

I know which I would choose every time. What about you?

Ava Jae is a writer, artist and X-men geek. You can find her weekly musings on her blog Writability, follow her on Twitter, or like her Facebook page.

Book Review and Giveaway: Imperium (Nicholas Olivo)

Since purchasing my Kindle, I’ve been consuming a steady diet of books by indie authors (in between heaping helpings of Steven Erikson’s Malazan series). As with traditionally published books, results have been mixed – a couple of turkeys, some serviceable-yet-forgettable first efforts — and then there’s Nicholas Olivo’s Imperium, which made me an instant fan.

I’m not much of an urban fantasy buff by nature. I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get into the Harry Dresden series, and have picked up (and put down) a few other titles. Imperium was the first urban fantasy title in a long while that hooked me right away and kept me hooked.

To summarize: the protagonist, Vincent Corinthos, is a secret agent assigned to investigate paranormal threats in Boston. But in the fey world of the Bright Side, Vincent is literally a god, with supernatural powers fueled by the faith of his worshippers. In that realm, he’s nearly omnipotent; in the everyday world, considerably less so.

When a fellow agent goes missing, Vincent teams up with his partner Megan, his (literally) statuesque girlfriend Petra, and Gearstripper, a gremlin obsessed with fast food and video games. As Vincent digs deeper into the mystery of the missing agent, he uncovers a sinister conspiracy, running afoul of undead, plant golems, crystal soldiers, and, of course, the all-time classic: Nazis. Oh, yeah, and he faces down two of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Just another day at the office.

I think the best fantasy magic creates a set of rules and then abides by them, and Olivo handles this deftly. Vincent’s powers are dependent on the faith of his otherworldly supplicants, and that faith is a limited resource: when it’s gone, he becomes just another human who’s in way over his head. Even in the realm where he is a god, Vincent runs into problems he can’t just magic away. Imperium also plays on the responsibilities of a god to his worshippers and lays some heavy obligations on Vincent, something I wasn’t expecting, but enjoyed a great deal. I’m a sucker for stories that explore the limits of supernatural powers.

Imperium has a fun and diverse supporting cast. My favorite is the gremlin Gearstripper, who is by turns funny, sinister, and sad. (Olivo tied in the historical origins of the gremlins from World War II, which also scored big points with me.) The only mild disappointment was Vincent’s partner Megan, who, while charming, seemed to mostly get by on sex appeal and the occasional gadget. I’m hoping she gets a little more well-rounded in future volumes.

Imperium reads like a great movie or television show — fast-paced, snappy, and heavy on action. It’s not a terribly introspective book, but that works in its favor. I felt there were a few minor flaws — some of the action sequences came off as perfunctory, certain conflicts ended just a bit too easily, and the sense of place in a few scenes fell a little flat. Overall, though, these are quibbles in what is otherwise a wildly entertaining book.

I Liked the Book So Much, I’m Giving it Away

It’s fairly rare that I finish a book and instantly want more, and Imperium has me eagerly looking forward to the next volume. Imperium leaves a number of threads hanging, and it’s clear that old enemies will return and dark secrets will be revealed.

To spread the word about Imperium — because, if you couldn’t tell, I liked it and think people ought to read it — I’m giving away three Kindle copies! If you want one (and c’mon, free book y’all), here’s how to get it:

1) Leave me a blog comment with your email address (Kindle email if you want) or Twitter name.

2) On December 24th, I’ll randomly pick three names from the comments. I’ll post the winners here, as well as on Twitter (@surlymuse), and send out the books!

That’s it. No need to subscribe, or follow me, or anything like that (although you’re welcome to do so if you like). So drop me a comment and maybe get yourself a free Kindle book for Christmas!

You can also check out Nicholas Olivo’s website or look up Imperium on Amazon.(Not an affiliate link. No kickbacks for me!)

Box Set Recollections

It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage.

I imagine every writer has one indelible moment that defined their reading lives — a single book or reading experience that eclipses all the rest and becomes the moment of “that’s when I knew.”

For me, that moment was my twelfth Christmas, when my mom bought me the Foundation Trilogy box set. I hadn’t yet read any Asimov when I unwrapped that gift, but the colorful, evocative Michael Whelan covers fascinated me instantly.

I remember ignoring most of my other gifts and disappearing into the spare bedroom. My grandparents kept that room closed off and unheated year-round, so it was freezing, but I didn’t care. I curled up on the garish purple bedspread, surrounded by my grandmother’s collection of creepy dolls covered in protective plastic, and started plowing my way through the Foundation books.

It took me days to get through them all, of course, but when I finally finished Foundation’s Edge, returning to my own life seemed foreign and almost bland. I lost myself completely in the story, the way only a kid can.

In some ways, I feel like I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since — the rush of completely immersing yourself in a story, letting the outside world fade into an irrelevant fog. It’s happened a few times since — in my later adolescence, I raced through Dragonlance: Legends in a similar fashion, even shedding a manly tear or two at the end. (It’s easy for my older self to wince and snicker with embarrassment at that, but I still wouldn’t trade that memory for anything.)

I’d love to say that reading Lord of the Rings provided a similar experience, but it didn’t — as a youth, I found Tolkien hard to get through, and only began to appreciate his work later in life. (As a kid, I skipped over everything but Gollum and the end, and didn’t get through The Scouring of the Shire until I was about twenty-five.) I did, however, listen to the Mind’s Eye Theater adaptation of Lord of the Rings on cassette a hundred times or more, and to this day will get very cranky when people lambast its shoddy production values in favor of its presumptuous, snooty cousin, the BBC Radio adaptation.

All in all, though, I can probably count those experiences on the fingers of one hand — the aforementioned trilogies, a handful of Stephen King novels, and a random assortment of fantasy and sci-fi books that I can still pick up today and read straight through without ever putting them down. I still bear a love for the paperback boxed set that borders on the fetishistic — I’ll buy a series just because it comes in a box. The boxed set has gone into full remission these days, mostly replaced by the omnibus, and I miss it dearly.

As life marches on, obligations swell while free time seems to wither, and youthful enthusiasm sometimes gives way to jadedness or cynicism masquerading as wisdom. It becomes harder and harder to get caught up in a good story and ignore the world until it’s over. The lengthy book gives way to the movie or the half-hour sitcom, story delivered up in inoffensive bites, the Wonder Bread of narrative. That’s how it often is with me, anyway. I find reading every day now takes conscious effort in an age of easy, shiny distractions.

Of course, if you’re a writer, there’s a whole other peril to wade through — learn enough about craft and it’s easy to start analyzing every story you read, breaking it down into its component parts, clinically examining its merits and flaws, dissecting rather than digesting. Those childhood blinders are awfully hard to get back on once you’ve taken them off, and flipping the “critic switch” can seem downright irresponsible. Some people rediscovered that joy with the Harry Potter books. I didn’t — but I do sometimes envy those who could.

I often think that the greatest gift I could get these days would be providing that sense of immersion to another reader. If I could, just once, sweep someone away with a story, make them neglect their chores, snub their spouses, maybe even refuse to get out of bed all day, because they just had to find out what happened — well, that would probably be the best Christmas ever.

Do you have a reading memory that’s stayed with you like this? If so, please feel free to drop me a comment and tell me about it.

A (Digital) Room of One’s Own

My desk. Yes, those are rubber ducks.

I love seeing people’s writing spaces. From the tidy and well-organized desk to the unruly pile of papers around an overstuffed chair, the writing space can be a great insight into the writer’s mind — and sometimes it’s just fun to see what other people stock their desks with.

But equally as important as the physical space is a writer’s digital space. Unless you write longhand (and more power to you if you do, really), you’re going to have a digital environment in which you work. It’s a bit rarer to get a glimpse of these environments — a desktop screenshot might not, by default, seem very exciting — but I believe that one’s digital space is at least as important as one’s desk or table.

And now, because you totally didn’t ask, here’s a look at mine!

My Digital Space

I have a dual-monitor setup on my machine, which I once thought excessive, and now can barely live without. I hate trying to hunt through taskbars and buttons to find a particular program, and two monitors gives me way more room to breathe. I also run Ubuntu Linux, which means I have a lot more control over the look-and-feel of my workspace. Some people (especially Linux people, it seems) don’t believe aesthetics has any place in computing. I disagree. If you’re a writer, it’s likely you spend hours a day in your computing environment — why not make it an appealing one?

A terrifying glimpse into the world of the first draft.

Anyway. First and foremost, I have a separate login just for writing. (It’s called “writer.” Which I think you will agree is very imaginative.) I customized the menus to take out all the shortcuts to various games and distractions — but primarily, switching to the writer account puts me in the mood to write. It’s a mental signal to get prepared.

On the left monitor, I have my word processor(s) of choice. These days, I mostly use Zim and Write or Die. I use Write or Die to generate the raw text, which I paste into Zim for organizing. I like Zim because it constantly auto-saves to Dropbox, so I never have to worry about losing anything. Between Dropbox, my desktop, my laptop, and my netbook, I have three redundant backups, which is a big load off my mind.

On the right monitor, I have my scene list spreadsheet and my media player. I almost always write to music, and I often create specific playlists for different kinds of writing (I even have one for blogging, which is probably kind of excessive, but there it is). If I open up anything else, like Firefox or Tweetdeck, it also goes in the right monitor. Basically, the left monitor is for raw writing, the right monitor is for everything else.

Does this seem mildly neurotic yet?

“Scene 23: Then A Miracle Occurs”

While it might seem overly specific, this approach works for me. I’ve honed it to perfection over the course of years, figuring out what helped my productivity, and what ended up hindering it. The ability to write in adverse conditions is still a valuable one, but if one has the luxury of a controllable digital space, why clutter it up with distractions?

So, do you have a particular “digital space” for your writing? If so, what’s in it?

[Guest Post] Your Workshop Story Is Probably Shit

Today’s incendiary guest post comes from Tracy McCusker, former editor, published poet, and avowed pottymouth.

There’s a certain kind of story that can be found hanging around self-published short story collections and small-press slush piles. This kind of story has a certain whiff about it. It’s verbose. It’s stylized. It’s littered with impossibly academic sentences. It steps you through a scene without understanding how to frame it–noodly verbs and weak adjectives strewn across the page like chewed-up toys.

Oh yes. I know them well. I’ve read hundreds of these per year for four years.

It’s a workshop story.

When I was working as an editorial intern at Faultline, I read hundreds of short story first-pages. We churned 3,000 submissions. We published 30. It was easy to pick out the stories that wouldn’t make it into the second round of consideration.

There were the usual assortment that never made it in. The prison stories with no self-addressed stamped envelop to return a note to San Quentin. A paranoid city-dwelling protag ranting against the machine. Manuscripts typed out on yellowed paper (the same submission we received the year before). Novel-length stories jammed into fifty pages of tiny print.

But there was a second class of story that caught my eye as I perused the accompanying query letters: the workshop story. These were from the undergrad who’d been told by their adviser that their writing was super-ready for publication, despite numerous red flags that cried “amateur author!” Workshop stories were never rejected out of hand. They were sent dutifully on for consideration. None ever made it to round two. With thousands of submissions for an (unpaid) reading staff of five, workshop stories from aspiring writers didn’t get more than a form rejection slip.

This is not a case of gatekeeping, that’s such a drag. Many of the stories that did get published weren’t the most scintillating pieces of fiction. A certain roughness in quality is par for course for small press stories. A normalizing aesthetic can make a lot of these stories predictable and dull. And we’re talking about the published work. But many of these published stories had their charms: a good head for prose; an interesting character; an interesting voice. The small press was usually the first step on the ladder of the MFA/BFA to build up an reputation. To get in with the lowest rung on the publishing world.

I never grudged the submitters their aspirations.

But the workshop stories, man. They were usually shit.

True Tales of Horror: I was a undergrad workshopper

When I say these workshop stories were shit, I wasn’t sneering at these writers from an ivory tower of publication. I was in my second year of workshop, plugging away at my keyboard by night. Usually I was writing critiques. Once in a while, I pounded out a story. A couple nights before deadline. Or the night of. Day of? You bet.

It was college. Everything was due yesterday, and the pressure was on.

I wrote shit stories. This odoriferous patina clung to everything I did. I thought I wrote pretty sentences, and would preen over my clever turns of phrase. Poet-by-training, prose monkeys couldn’t compete with my 150+ word  sentences that drilled down into the very essence of societal manners merely from a protagonist entering a room.

But those sentences, too, were shit. No one could follow along. The beasts were eating their own tails. Communication was confused with obfuscation. I was making the strokes of art. But they were wild marks. I wasn’t in control of my craft. Not enough to make a unified work that conveyed what was in my brain.

And that was a good thing. Workshop gave me the room to experiment; my peers would pick apart these experiments and give me feedback on what worked and what didn’t. I look back fondly on my workshop stories. They were important stepping-stones in my creative development. But just as life-drawing studies aren’t meant to be published (unless you are that damn famous already), workshop stories are meant to be crammed in a tiny little desk drawer.

Here’s why.

1. Workshop stories are written in the haze of actual workshop.

You bang out a story. Maybe you have one stored up for just such an occasion. You’re writing down to the deadline. Or you smile as you pass around an object that you’ve been coaxing for weeks. If you’re a novice at craft when you make this object under duress or at your leisure, the object will always retain a hue of those novice brush-strokes.

Just like you don’t put your first still life up for sale, your first stories will always retain that youthful hue of partly-successful, partly-unsuccessful experimentation. The worst that can happen is a reader discovers you, reads your work, and forms a prematurely negative opinion about your work. Eventually, you may have an audience for these kinds of stories. The best you can do with this story is release it into the wild for free (or as a bundled freebie). But just as I keep my first drawings from art workshop under lock & key, you might not want readers to see just how bad you were when you started to get serious about craft until you’ve established a name for yourself as a writer.

2. Workshop stories are written for a specific audience.

Workshop stories are written and the around the embryotic fluid of their context: a group that meets weekly to read published authors and stories written for the workshop. This specific audience is at first foreign to you. You all speak different prose languages. If you’re new enough to writing, the stories have the tendency to read the same. Pop culture influence and pop literary influence is palpable.

Over the course of the workshop, this audience is primed by reading the same material, sharing a discussion on craft, reaching a consensus (or at least greater understanding) of the basic rules of writing. By the end of a good workshop, you know who your peers are. You’ve heard them critique you, you’ve heard them praise you. You know in a sense what this audience wants.

Good! You can now write for that audience. The problem is that audience is both super-literate (from having read a bunch of classic authors back-to-back) and familiar with each other (and understanding of particular readers’ wants/dislikes). This audience in no way reflects the reading public. That clever pun on The Death of Ivan Ilyich you made on page 5 that turned the key to the entire plot? Not such a big hit to someone who hasn’t read Tolstoy. Drag.

This can be a good thing. Workshops can be super-critical, influenced by stylistic concerns that your reading public won’t be. Did you eschew writing a first-person narrative about a young woman’s difficulty in a turbid relationship because that’s just so Sylvia Plath? Was your workshop genre-hostile, or even selectively genre hostile (science-fiction is the literary equivalent of gold, noir is hackneyed and artless)? Were the workshoppers just out of sync with your style/concerns/interests? All of these concerns can warp a starting writer’s sense of what they should be writing.  Writing workshops can be insular; the bubble of a 12 to 15 person setting doesn’t always carry through to the outside world.

The reading public isn’t privy to workshop concerns, much in the same way that arguments about counters and stem-height will make a non-typographer’s eyes glaze over. Your actual, non-workshop audience will get ticked off when it senses that you aren’t writing for them.

3. Even worse, some workshop stories are written for no audience.

One of the essential skills that workshop attempts to instill in its writers is how to write stories for an audience. It does this two ways: by showing a writer how their expectations match up to audience reactions; and introducing writers to the audience-community of other writers.

A writer can be led to an audience, but you can’t etc etc. Sometimes a writer will present a first story culled from their life, diary-style, replete with self-referential quirks that make no sense outside of the author’s head. Impenetrable stories are unpleasant reads. (Heaven help us if the author decides to help us out by footnoting it.) Workshop stories–especially early ones–tend to be wrapped up in what the author thinks is meaningful. Workshop authors are novices to prose that bridge the gap between what’s in their head and what’s in the audience’s head. This kind of meaning-making can take years of craft to hone, steady readers, and steady feedback.

Sometimes a writer will self-justify any criticism of their work as being “it’s not for you, it’s for me.” I am never sure how much of this statement covers a bruised ego, and how much of it is an actual writer’s belief that their writing is for themselves. Writing is meant to say something to someone who isn’t yourself.  If a writer is adamant on this point–wonderful! Start a journal.

This phenomenon is not limited to writing workshops. Look for this excuse to crop up approximately everywhere. The impetus to make art that is for oneself is fantastic; but then why insist on exhibiting work meant solely for yourself?

4. Workshop stories lack awareness of style’s function.

The function of style is not to do something stylistic. Style ain’t like clothes, worn and discarded at whim. Style communicates to your readers something essential. If you choose to write in a style that’s outside the norms, you need to make sure it is introduced early, often, and the reader is taught how to “read” the style you’ve chosen. Then you do something awesome with that style to justify its choice.

An example: switching “person” is one of the hardest things to pull off in fiction. If you write a story in third person, we expect it to stay there. James Clavell, however, gave that advice the finger. In Shogun, he would drill down from his omniscient third-person narrator into a close third, where the character’s thoughts, fears, and perceptions would bleed into our consciousness… until in a moment of supreme vulnerability, a character would begin to speak with an I-voice. Then he’d reign in the voice and pull us away from that intimacy. The breech would feel tragic. The tale of the rise of the Tokagawa Shogunate was full of such tragic breeches. Theme and style came together to create an atmosphere of vulnerability and loss that one or the other wouldn’t have  achieved.

And that is awesome.

Workshop stories generally operate on the level of experimentation. There’s the workshop story that plays around with second person (a perennial feature), but doesn’t quite know how to pull along the reader like Maile Meloy does in “Ranch Girl”. Or the workshop story that’s trying out an unreliable narrator, but by withholding too much information, the reader is simply frustrated by the multiplicity of readings rather than reveling in the possibilities Emily Carroll presents us in her supernatural fiction.

Within workshop, dabbling is important; outside of it, you need a more developed sense of just what the hell it is you are doing, and if it’s actually doing it.

5. Workshop stories generally know jack about the camera lens effect.

The camera lens guides what we seen on screen when we’re watching a film or TV show. We’re so inundated with visual culture now that there’s nary a word that can describe the effect that I notice in novice fiction. This is a failure of knowing how to pan, zoom, cut, and focus on information that’s important to the story.

Take a gander at this as an opening paragraph:

Daniel swung his legs over the side of the bed. He was groggy from the night of bad coffee, worse sleep. He got up and moved around his bedroom. He picked up his socks that he’d cast off onto the lamp in a fit of supreme nonchalance. Banging his head into the open drawer that he’d forgotten to close last night, he grumbled. He put the socks in the drawer. He closed it, walked across the room, and trudged out into the living room to make himself some coffee.

Aside from the fact that nothing remotely interesting happened in this paragraph (we learned nothing about the narrator, nothing about his state now aside from some cliched groggy-morning blues), the paragraph shows an extreme failure of the camera lens of the narrative. What about this scene is important? The coffee? The socks? Banging his head? Something that hasn’t even happened in the narrative yet? No matter your genre, every word counts and every second you need to be selling your story to your reader.

I’ll save an extended discussion about the camera lens effect for another post. Suffice to say, the camera lens effect is not a failure of editing (editing would likely clean the sentences up, or remove some of them without addressing the underlying problem). It’s a failure of the writer to choose important details with their camera lens. Instead they’ve focused on what they see the character doing in their head with their internal camera lens. They see it spool past their mind’s eye, so they write it.

Fiction is not about the details, it’s about the story. When a story is overwhelmed with finicky details (and our narrator is not a borderline autistic who needs to put those socks away or his world will be shattered), the scene becomes a waste of time.

It’s a pity (and a pain) that some workshop pieces are montages of scenes just like this one, strung together into a “story” that tells us nothing about its characters.

6. Workshop stories are pretentious, bland, cliched, or some toxic combination of the three.

It’s true. I’ve even written a story that was all three. It was about a young girl being smuggled up to Canada by her father and step-mother with the help of an ex-Vietnam vet. The short story read like a turn-of-the-century novel of manners.

The only cure for this ill is to read more, to read extensively, and to get some damn life experience that can break you out of regurgitating pop culture.

7. Workshop stories are not revised, or barely revised.

Writers everywhere say a story needs to be “edited.” What they actually mean is “revised.” Workshop stories are often not revised before they hit the workshop. The drafts that cause published writers to vomit in their mouth a little when they think back on their first novels? We read those.

Sometimes exclusively.

If you revise it once, or even twice after workshop, most likely you are still revising without a strong idea about how to fix all of the problems with your work because workshop critique was based on a first draft, maybe even an “ideas draft”. Not a finished product. What you need to do is workshop the story again (maybe even again) to receive feedback on a story that’s finally ready to be published. Most of us don’t get the chance to have a workshop story read more than once.

8. The best thing you can do with a workshop story is to forget about it until you can cannibalize it for later work.

I had seven advisers give me feedback on my workshop story! It’s totally my thesis!  I’m a special snowflake!

Here’s the Low-down Diddly Flump about writing programs. Feedback from your advisers is always aimed at the level of writer that you currently are. Feedback will attempt to push you to the next level. But if you’re at the bottom of the rope, you can only claw your way up so fast.

I have received amazing instruction from my writing teachers. Had dozens of them (been one of them), and most of them have been amazing. Yet I have a dim view of writing advice at the university level. I know how many students an adviser/instructor has to wrangle with. There is only so much you can do or say for each student before they’re pushed along to the next juncture. Even feedback on multiple drafts can only do/say so much.

I like to receive feedback from several different sources. A writing group outside the pay bubble. A writing partner who I exchange work with. Dan. A particular reader who I know likes the genre. Another reader who knows diddly-squat about the genre, but is game to give their feedback.

9. How do you know when a work is ready to be published?

If you don’t have reliable feedback of how good a work is (by producing work, sending it out, getting responses/sales), then you can only rely on a host of beta readers. Would they buy your work? Or at least read it without begrudging you the time they spent with it?

If you cannot judge how good your work is, then you need to put it away in a drawer until you have the clarity to evaluate it.

The best technique you can have in your toolkit is this: set aside three short stories, poems, whatever. One a classic from a respected author.  Another a piece by a favorite author written in the past ten years. One a piece you can’t believe was published (preferably also recent). After you have set aside your short story / novella / novel / epic poem for a few months (or years), take it out from that drawer. Read your piece side-by-side with these writers. Maybe your piece isn’t going to be world literature, but are you at least as good as your favorite author? Are you maybe half as good? One-tenth as good?

How about the piece you can’t believe was published? If you’re better than that–go ahead and throw your story into the great blue.

But if you’re not… stuff it back into the drawer.

Because polishing shit just gives you shiny shit.


Writers, what do you do with your workshop stories?


What You Leave Behind

Cartoon by Pictures for Sad Children.

This is a response to “All the Things,” a blog post by Random9q, which is in turn a response to Bullish Ink‘s guest post from earlier this week. Lately with this blog, I’ve aspired to be either pedagogical or humorous — optimally, both at the same time. This entry is a bit more personal — which is not an apology so much as a warning of possible self-absorption ahead.

In her blog post, Random talks about all the things she wants to do, and the overwhelming, sometimes crushing realization that there isn’t enough time in one’s life to do All the Things. In my experience, it’s easy to turn one’s creative drive into a terrifying binary situation where you either indulge all your creative pursuits, or none of them. Or, you may end up being what Ruth calls a “dabbler,” indulging in a little bit of everything, but not doing all that well at any of them.

I suspect this is a common occurrence among creative types — I know a lot of artists both struggling and established, and most of them have polymath aspirations to one degree or another. Writers who are musicians, musicians who are actors, actors who are writers, and so on.

I’ve also been through it myself — and I’m convinced that the key to the Creative Life™ — if we are to capitalize it so breathlessly — is this: The Creative Life is less about what you take with you than what you leave behind.

It comes down to this: craft takes time and hard work. Mastery of craft can take years, probably decades. And building a paying career out of that craft — that’s its own struggle, with its own pitfalls, separate from the act of creation itself.

I think the youthful idealist in many of us dreams of forging a masterpiece from nothing more than the very fire of our souls, and watching as the world catches its breath in astonishment. Hollywood and the infrequent shooting stars of publishing have romanticized the idea of being “discovered” like Audrey Hepburn and whisked into humbling (yet well-deserved) fame, without all that grueling, boring, unsexy legwork.

And if one such vision is compelling, than what about half a dozen? Write the novel, direct the film adaptation of your novel, write the soundtrack, and star in the lead! Why not, right? Shit, program the video game tie-in too while you’re at it, you’ve got nothing going on that week.

I’m not saying everyone thinks this, but if you’re a writer, I’ll bet it’s crept into your daydreams a time or two. And a fine dream it is. But that’s all it is.

To play off an Internet meme: finite creature is finite. Our time and our energy are woefully limited commodities, already divided a hundred different ways among the hungry goblins of our lives. Jobs, families, friends, social commitments, the inconvenient need for food and sleep: all these things, fulfilling as they are, nibble away at our time. And so we have to fit our creative lives into what space is left.

To be successful — to really excel — you’ve got to make room. A whole lot of room. And, unfortunately, it’s probably going to hurt.

Years ago, I used to make electronic music. I learned a lot, and made a lot of progress. I’d almost say I was halfway to good. But then I gave it up.

I used to draw comics, thinking at one point that maybe I’d try that out as a career. I gave that up too.

I used to have a room full of video games. Video games were my life. Hours a day, every day. Gave ’em up.

I don’t regret doing those things, because they were a blast — but neither do I regret leaving them behind, because I gave up those things for a reason: to focus on my writing. Because when I sat down and thought about it, writing was the only thing I would genuinely regret not being serious about. At the end of my life, I didn’t imagine myself thinking, “man, I sure wish I had played more Halo than I did.”

Because it’s entirely possible for you to die with your life’s work to go undone, if you are careless. And, if you don’t let that thought terrify you into paralysis, the knowledge can be a hell of a motivator.

A couple of caveats.

I’m not advising that you laser-focus on one thing, to the exclusion of all else. Not only is that likely to hurt your creativity in the long run, but you run the risk of ending up a crashing bore. Indulge your diversity. But distinguish between passion and hobby, because they are not the same thing.

Nor am I saying that a diverse range of skills isn’t possible; obviously, it is. Many actors, for example, go on to produce and direct, and quite successfully — but they usually do that after making dozens of movies, immersing themselves in their craft for years, learning it from the inside out.

A few prodigals have no doubt mastered all at once, but you may have to make peace with the fact that you might not be one such gifted soul. And I’ll be the first one to say that blows. But there it is.

Of course, Random was talking about game design, which I’m sure takes a broader range of talents than just writing — but you may end up having to outsource and delegate. I’m not really good at that kind of thing, which is why the solitary act of writing has always suited me better.

My point is this: You don’t have to feel bad about dabbling. You don’t have to harbor guilt over doodling around with your guitar when you should be writing, or composing epic porn sonnets while your film goes unedited, or whatever it is you’re doing when you think you should be doing something else.

Dabbling is fine — but you have to realize that you’re dabbling. You have to decide what you’re really serious about. You have to choose that thing. And you have to give up other things. Things you like a lot.

And that’ll suck. But it will suck less than letting the One Thing That Matters lie fallow because you’re afraid to truly commit to it.

You cannot have all the things. Sorry.

And when I say “you,” I guess I really mean “me,” because this is the conversation I had with myself a long time ago, and it started changing my entire world. If you’re letting your desire to do everything keep you from doing anything, then maybe it’s time you had a talk with yourself.