Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

From the Speakers: THRILLER by Michael Jackson

I'm a big fan of the horror genre. There are lots of different ways to define horror: books that scare you, make you jumpy, make your imagination go haywire when everything is quiet, give you creeps, etc. Personally, I think the best written ones, the ones that take the most skill, are those that make you think long after you close the covers, books that make you wonder, "What if what happened to those characters happened to me?"

My definition of "horror" is loose. Scary moments can occur in any genre: science fiction, mystery, fantasy, contemporary. Horror is great because it's the thread that ties all genres together.

So, in honor of today's special occasion, the top 5 horror novels I've read:

5. BAND OF BROTHERS by Stephen Ambrose: What's scarier than jumping out of a plane onto a beach at night where Nazi's are trying like hell to kill you and all of your brothers in arms? It could be painfully over for you or your best friend at any moment. Ghosts and goblins are frightening, but if I had lived through what they did, I don't know that I'd ever be scared of anything again in my life.
4. HAUNTED by Chuck Palanuik: Delightfully disturbing the whole way--the actual story wasn't all that scary, but what the people did to each other was troubling to the extreme. The story's frequent nonchalance added a lot to the feeling it left you with. Great book.
3. A GAME OF THRONES by George R.R. Martin: Also not particularly scary in itself, but there were parts that sent a chill up my spine. The nature of the Others is that they are unknown; people say we are scared of the dark because it's unknown, but the Others are like darkness with swords. Not to mention how the characters in this story do some things that exemplify the worst in people.
2. PET SEMETARY by Stephen King: Demented kids are always scary, but the "king" of horror did a wonder on me with the image of the main kid being hit by a truck. Yet, the truly scary part of this book was how the father reacted, how you watched him lose his mind in an effort to get his son back, and my question to myself: Would I have acted any differently?
1. CONGO by Michael Crichton: Perhaps it was because I was younger when I read this one, but CONGO stuck with me. I think it was the feeling of pure helplessness--what are you going to do protect yourself? Fight back? A joke. Run away? No chance. Something has decided that you will die, violently, and there is NOTHING you can do about it.

As you can see, few actual "horror" stories made my top 5 list. That's what I love about horror. Now, I'm about to go write a science fiction story . . . and scare your pants off!

If you have suggestions for scary books I should read, let me know! I definitely want to read the scariest books I can find.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Music Time (pun?)

From the Speakers: HIGHER by Creed

Music is a helluva drug.

People claim they can't workout without their headphones on full volume. Angsty teens close their bedroom doors, turn up their speakers, and listen to singers who can relate to them. It keeps you awake and can put you into a pleasant sleep. It can touch you like a physical thing, make you cry, make you angry, make your hairs stand on end, make you get up and shout.

It can take you higher. Creed would know.

Even Dumbledore says music is "a magic beyond all we do," and I'm inclined to agree.

When I was just starting to write seriously, like as an every day thing, I played the same CD. It was a mixtape of Atreyu songs that began with "The Interlude," which sounds wrong but, as it turned out, was very right. Listening to that amazing track always set the mood, always brought me back to where I left off in the story. Music was, and still is, the catalyst to get my creative juices flowing.

That's why, every day on my blog, I share what's coming from my speakers. I honestly think that some of the stories I've written would be drastically different if a different song had been playing when I wrote them.

Music can make anything you have to focus on easier. Give it a try. Imagine if soldiers listened to music before battle, what they would be capable of.

There's a story there somewhere . . . .

Thursday, October 27, 2011


From the Speakers: ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER by Jimi Hendrix

I think Earnest Hemingway was the one who said to writers, "Kill your darlings." I could be wrong about that credit, but regardless, the point is that writers shouldn't keep good work in their story just because it's good. It has to belong. In other words, if a particular analogy or sentence or whole scene is good on it's own, that's not enough to warrant a place in your story.

I'm pretty sure it was Stephen King who said the formula is: Final draft = First draft minus 10%. (If you couldn't tell, the part of my memory that records quotation credits is shaky at best.) This means that, during the revision process, you should always be taking things out of your story, not putting things in. I tend to be a putter-inner, by nature--there's always just a little bit more I want to say--but a few years of laborious training has (almost) broken me of these tendencies.

It was a big paradigm shift for me to start thinking of editing as "removal" rather than "improvement." But the two go hand in hand. Interestingly, when you look up synonyms to "editing" in Microsoft Word, you get these words: excision, removal, deletion, erasure, expurgation. Antonym? Insertion.

I bring this up because I spent a huge chunk of yesterday trying to weed out words to get a 4500 word story down to 4000 so I could submit to Ray Gun Revival--they read it, offered some ideas, and requested a resubmission. But they like their stories to remain under 4000, so I felt I should oblige. It was tough, but, like every time I've gone on a weeding mission (as I call these efforts), the finished story is much stronger, and you don't miss what's no longer there.

(On a side note, one of the best weeding missions I ever did was for a friend. She had an essay for some application that had to be 500 words, and it was over 1000. She'd already cut it down from 1200, but there wasn't a single word she could do without. When I was done with it, it was 483 words, and she couldn't find where I had removed anything. Booyah.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Season's Greetings

From the Speakers: FINE AGAIN by Seether
Just Read: BETTER by Atul Gawande--Great ideas about performance: diligence, doing right, and ingenuity. Translates nicely to writing, I'd say.
Reading Now: WIZARD'S FIRST RULE by Terry Goodkind

Writing, for me, has proven to be seasonal. In the summer, I'm much more inclined to write longer pieces. Winter brings about an urge to work on description; I tend to write lugubriously dense, slow-paced stories during the colder months.

But when the weather changes daily--either getting cooler and burning or rusting the leaves, or getting warmer and making everything outdoors bigger and fuller--I get into this mood where I have to write as much as I can on as many different stories as I can. More ideas occur to me during spring and autumn--I don't know why, but if I did you can guarantee I'd be milking those reasons year round.

It's kind of nice. It's well-known that autumn is a great season for literature, for sitting outside and watching the leaves change with a good book. Nature does great things for creative minds.

I've recently completed one of the longest short-stories I've ever written. It's 18,600 words, which I believe classifies it as a "novelette". It also classifies it as unsalable, but I'll ignore that little fact and enjoy the accomplishment of it. Now, bring on the autumn: long stories on the back burner while I churn out a high quantity of (hopefully high quality) short stories.

If that means lots of publications to follow soon, you'll be the first to know.

PS--If you were wondering, the water damage at my apartment is 100% cleared up. The poison ivy on my leg could learn a lesson.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Days Like Today

From the Speakers: TIMES LIKE THESE by Foo Fighters

Thank goodness for writing on days like today. . .

Water piped leaked. Guys came yesterday, said it was good to go. Squishy carpet between my toes. Someone else's vegetable soup rising up out of my sink. Gigantic fan blowing all night to dry the carpet. This morning, wet carpet.

Guys came back, one broke my bookshelf. Pages falling onto carpet dampened by I don't know what, but it's brownish. Said we were good to go. Sorry about the vegetable soup--someone's clogged garbage disposal upstairs. Now, two gigantic fans, and a warning that they must continue to blow all night. Squishier carpet between my toes. Standing water in the dishwasher. All around, the hanging scent of mildew moving in. Making itself comfortable.

Repaired the bookshelf, a bit more organized. Took six times as long as it should have. Wearing shoes now to avoid squishy carpet. Almost slipped because of wet shoes on kitchen tile. Carpet ripped up for fans to blow beneath. Can't close the door because of tented carpet. Keep tripping over tented carpet.

Cherry on top: poison ivy on my leg.

Time to get the hell out of reality for a bit and write a story.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tight Margins

From the Speakers: THE IMPERIAL MARCH by John Williams

Quick post today--gotta get back to work.

The crappy thing about stories is they can be so stubborn sometimes. I've hit on this before, but I've found that if I try to force a story into becoming something it isn't--if I try to make it shorter, for example, or longer, or more marketable in any of these ways that don't relate to quality--they simply refuse to budge. In my experience, stories are discovered, and as such, are things. You can not will things into different things, much as you try. Thus, a story that is long must be written as a long story--it is nothing else, and if you try to make it short, you will inevitably be disappointed.

This is the dilemma I've struggled with lately, as stories of fewer than 7500 words are preferred by most markets. But the one I've stumbled upon recently, the one I'm working on, is decidedly longer. At the moment, it is 14000, and I have an inkling that there are at least 2000 words left to be discovered.

I don't know what I'm going to do with it or where I'm going to submit after it's finished. But that's not going to come close to stopping me from finishing it. So, gotta run--this adventure is nearing its climax!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ordinary Things

From the Speakers: SATELLITE by P.O.D

A while ago I said I don't like to write about ordinary people doing ordinary things. Here's why.

First of all, I've always thought of writing as an escape from reality. I grew up in rural North Carolina--there wasn't much to do if you didn't have an imagination. As a middle schooler, just learning to ride the lawn mower on the weekends, I pushed the throttle to the max and pretended I was a pilot. One of my favorite stories came out of it.

So if I write about ordinary people doing ordinary things, where's the escape? Where's the imagination? In college, SO MANY of my peers and instructors wanted stories about normal people having relationships with other normal people. My feeling is that I see so much of this in real life, it would suffocate me if I transfered it over to my fiction. It was all so LITERARY. I wanted to slap them and say, "Who wants to read this? I can just sit on a bench in a crowded mall and see this story take place." Again, where's the imagination?

Not to say the people who write these stories are stupid. Frankly, it's probably harder to write these stories interestingly, and a lot more work, and a lot more editing. So many of these stories have been written that it's tough to make a new one good. In my opinion, these writers could put all that energy and work to better use by writing something with a bit more spice.

Thus, I write and read genres like fantasy and science fiction, westerns, and mysteries. I especially enjoy mixing these genres--my story Good Business, With Guns (see sidebar for link) is a western set in the future, on another planet--because I feel it's a great way to come up with something new and exciting.

So: ordinary people doing ordinary things? No thanks. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things? Absolutely, I'll try it out. Extraordinary people doing extraordinary things?

Now we're talking.

PS--Special thanks to my fellow writer Milo James Fowler, who gave me the tip about showing the books I'm reading over there on the left. Check out his stuff!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

New Looks

From the Speakers: ALICE'S THEME by Danny Elfman
Just Read: THE INNER CIRCLE by Brad Meltzer--A compelling thriller; always like a book with a little extra. This one provided history as well as character-driven tension.
Reading Now: WIZARD'S FIRST RULE by Terry Goodkind

Every now and then--with writing, as with life (as is so often the case)--a new perspective is needed. Pardon my passive voice in that last sentence, but sometimes passive voice is needed (like here) to convey the meaning perfectly. Active voice is the rule among writers, but that doesn't mean passive can't make a welcomed appearance.

Similarly, routine is the rule with writers who are serious about their craft. I heard once that John Grisham wakes up at 6am every morning and writes until lunch. I think Stephen King has a similar regiment, where he writes for four hours and reads for four hours daily. Doubtless, there are writers out there who refuse to sit down without sixteen ounces of ice-cold Dr. Pepper nearby, or maybe they won't put down a word until they perform their daily yoga routine. Whatever it is they do, it helps them get into the mood to sit down and continue working on whatever project they have in mind.

I have a routine, too. It usually involves exercise. But I'm spending this weekend at my parents' house, and I didn't bring my computer. I have theirs, though, and it's a nice one. So today, though nothing was familiar and the view was foreign, I sat down to write a story. I had one that has been elbowing its way to the forefront of my mind lately, and though I'd been ignoring it at my home, its strangeness seemed to fit perfectly with my new locale.

Lo and behold, good things happened.

Sometimes, a switch in perspective is all you need to break free of a rut. Stephen Covey is all about shifts in paradigms. (Google him if you don't know who I mean. Then read his book.)

Thank goodness that this world is big enough that, no matter how well traveled you think you are, there are always new things to make you--and your breath--stop.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

YA Giveaway

From the Speakers: HYMN TO THE FALLEN by John Williams

Finding an agent is probably the hardest, loneliest, and most discouraging of all writing processes.

You have an idea for a story. You sit down a write a story. It's okay. You go back and edit it. It's better. Your eyes hurt from looking at it. Characters you love start to become annoying with their presence. You edit it again. Spend more time with them. The story is great. The best you've ever written. Once again, you love these characters unconditionally. So much so, you must share this story, this novel, with others.

Not so fast!

An agent must send your manuscript out to the publishing companies. But before that, he or she has to agree to represent you. But before that, he or she must request to read your full manuscript. But before that, he or she must read your query letter and sample pages and be impressed enough not to reject you informally. But before that, you must write a query letter. But before that, you must research, heavily, which agent or agents you will submit to.

And you bear all of this alone.

Again, not so fast! Fortunately for us lonely writers, there are those out there who want to help. A few of them live over at YA Confidential ( They're having a giveaway, and those entering can win a critique of their query or sample pages by an agent. What value! I wish I had an agent as a family member or friend or neighbor who could take two seconds to read my query letter and tell me what they thought. It's difficult to know if you're doing well when you get a lot of rejections, but your query letter resembles those examples posted on the web. Does your letter suck? Or is it just that agents reject almost everybody? Probability isn't in your favor as a writer submitting. That's why a (YA? haha!) giveaway like this is so awesome because if you win, your chances of being the best submission possible increase dramatically.

So I'll be keeping my fingers crossed!