About Writers, blogging, book sales, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

WHAT’S SELLING?

Colleen Hoover wrote six of the “Top 10 Selling Books, 2022 Year-to-Date.”
https://www.npd.com/news/entertainment-top-10/2022/top-10-books/
Colleen Hoover is an American author of romance and young adult fiction. Many of her works were self-published before being picked up by a publishing house. As of October 2022, Hoover has sold more than 20 million books.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colleen_Hoover

Who knew? It never occurred to me that one author had cornered the market with romance and young adult fiction. That is quite an accomplishment!

I intended to blog about the different kinds of best sellers from various authors as evidence that it could happen to any of us. Publishing a book should be like buying a lotto ticket. For a brief moment, we should be able to fantasize a miracle. But it turns out that the chances of having a best seller are not much better than the chances of winning the lottery.

I would have already known this, of course, if I were insisting on writing a best seller. Not to evoke the taste of sour grapes, but I know the difference between writing and fantasizing. I enjoy both but writing is satisfying and real.

So I guess the real question here is, why do you write?

Advertisement
Standard
About Writers, book promotion, Freedom of Writing, inspiration, The Writing Life

What It’s Really About

By SM Webb
Graphic courtesy of usurnsonline.com

Sometimes a story comes to me out of nowhere, and I can’t pinpoint the trigger. But my debut YA novel, Spirited, was different.

It was spring of 2020 when my then 11yo son walked into the kitchen early one morning to fill up his water bottle. He looked at me and said, “I think God needs to bring more people to heaven because the world needs more angels.” Then he just… walked out. On with his day, on with his pre-teen life, leaving me with a gaping mouth and mind spinning in different directions. That night, I drafted a short story set in a dystopian world that I later shelved as too depressing. Depression is a well-saturated market. I wanted to write about hope—about the light at the end of the tunnel and beyond.

So, I embarked on the 2 year journey of writing Spirited between working full time and raising 3 kids. The story spawned from one insightful comment and a whole lot of what ifs. What if the world just needs more angels? What if those angels need help and that help comes in the form of spirit guides? Ohh what if there are spirit warriors, too? What if 2 teens who don’t like each other on earth had to learn to work together as spirit guides in the afterlife? What if the reason those teens don’t like each other is because they have made assumptions about the other, as people tend to do. What if there are secrets that come out in the afterlife? What if, what if, what if…

Last spring, I attended a writer’s conference where a speaker discussed elevator pitches and encouraged writers to follow up their elevator pitch with a statement that begins with “It’s really about…” This exercise brought me back to my son’s comment. I could have just posted it on social media, collected a handful of “Awws” in the comments, and moved on. Why did I feel compelled to write this story? What am I trying to accomplish?

Here is what I ended up with:

Spirited is a young adult series about the afterlife where two teenage girls who annoy each other die in a crash and must learn to work together as spirit guides.

It’s really about bringing comfort and hope to people who fear death or are stuck in grief.

That’s a heavy lift for a teen fantasy novel, I know, but I personally find solace in fantasy. What if I can provide readers with a dreamy alternative to loss? What if something in Cassidy’s or Sienna’s story resonates with readers on a personal level? What if Spirited distracts readers from grief or fear just enough to make room for hope? What if, what if, what if…

What about you? What is the It’s really about… statement for your WIP or most recent book?

I will be releasing Advanced Reader Copies of Spirited in December in exchange for honest reviews by people interested in reading it. Please let me know if you or someone you know has an interest.

Standard
About Writers, book promotion, inspiration, marketing, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, Welcome, Writers Co-op

Book Fair!

Our own Victor Acquista (above, center) was one of two featured speakers at the Naples Book Fair. Attendance yesterday was in the hundreds, a surprising number for a small town like Naples unless you know that Naples has known a few known writers. Current authors in residence include Robin Cook, Dave Barry and Janet Evanovich. Ben Bova and Robert Ludlum have passed on, but they may have attended, unseen. I punctuated my own arrival by accidentally knocking a framed book cover off Victor’s table. People around the hall looked when the glass smashed to the floor. Being a friend though, I didn’t charge him for the unexpected publicity.

Victor’s talk illustrated the structure of the story by reminding us of the many stories in each of our own lives. We live small stories daily and larger ones as the years pass until finally, we have lived the beginning, the middle, and the end that is our life’s story.

Like his talents, Victor’s books range from wellness to science fiction. The former came from his years as a physician, the latter from current explorations of the human psyche, a journey that often leads serious writers to the sci-fi genre.

BOOKS BY VICTOR ACQUISTA

Revelation, *Serpent Rising, Sentient (including the German edition Sentient: Genetik und Alternative Weltgeschichte,) The Einstein Protocol, Health Wise: Integral Lessons in Transformation, Pathways to Health: An Integral Guidebook.
*Serpent Rising won Best New Age Fiction in the 2021 International Book Awards

Victor’s short stories have appeared in the Sci Fi Roundtable Anthologies The Quantum Soul and Gods of Clay.

And, of course, he helped to edit our anthology The Rabbit Hole: Weird Stories Volume Three (special issue: Weird Romance)

https://www.amazon.com/s?i=digital-text&rh=p_27%3AVictor+Acquista

INTERESTED IN PODCASTS?
Check out Podfobler Productions
https://victoracquista.com/podfobler-productions/

Book Fair Main Hall
Ray Jensen & Meridith Bunting
Susan Sachs Levine
Victor Acquista

https://VictorAcquista.com

Standard
editing, Magic and Science, Research, world-building

Working through the “science” of the Multiverse.

Since discussion of multiverse and time travel hijacked Carl’s stellar post “Surviving the Destructive Critique” I thought I would alleviate the diminishing line commentary (those really are annoying … there must be a better way,) with a post dedicated to the conversation of multiverse and time travel. I think a discussion about creative license and technical norm divergence (AKA what-if?), would be fun. The engine of sci-fi and fantasy runs on these notions. (In my opinion, of course.)

In this iteration of MvA (Multiverse Anthropologist), I began to understand why my story lacked credibility, not only for my readers, but for me. The story is there, in my head in full cinematic entirety. Now I just need to translate from archaic, subcutaneous imagery to proper English. 

“But what about creative license?” Me ego says to meself.

Gently, because egos are so fragile, “Gov, you can be as creative as you like, but if you want people to understand you, you need some basis for them to relate.”

My ego, the self centric, gave me a blank stare. “nevermind. You keep pushing the ideas my way, I’ll polish ‘em up a bit.”

That sorted, my researcher got to work. There is still a long way to go, but thanks to input, feedback and some serious thoughtful what-ifs, here is my work-in-progress theory of multiverse and time travel:

I have learned, from theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, that gravity acts as a membrane. 

Ah, a relatable point.” 

I didn’t know, until I encountered this theory, that I was searching for a mechanism, or term, or point within the vastness of stars and theories that resonated with my own experience and level of scientific knowledge. The word membrane, took me back to my early college years of studying kinesiology (I thought I wanted to be a PE teacher like my Dad … another story for another time). There was a lot of biology and chemistry in those courses, even a cadaver. I found it all fascinating, but never knew what to do with any of it, until now.

What’s the purpose of a membrane and how does that relate to time travel and the multiverse? First lets just deal with multiverse. From the NIH National Library of Medicine I found an essay by Helen Watson entitled “Biological Membranes” (link here: Biological membranes – PMC (nih.gov)). Perfect! Now I have a clear explanation and possible mechanism for moving between verses. Thank you Helen. 

Membranes, in my head, look like Saran Wrap (and no, not the wadded up mess it becomes when I try to tear it off the roll,) as it stretches over a bowl or platter. It’s nearly invisible. Now there is a problem with this, I can see what’s in the bowl. But if an invisible membrane is separating verses, should we not “see” or perceive the other verses. That is overwhelming, and makes me think of this comment by Carl:

 “Well, this was just free-wheeling speculation. A story idea: Given an infinite multiverse, perhaps one reality is constantly shifting into another with merely a .00000001 percent difference between them–initially. Though with every passing micro-second…”

Side note thought: If only the average reader knew how deep we dig, just to make a story plausible. I suppose writing from intrinsic knowledge solidifies your own conviction of the “truth” imbuing confidence into your words and keeping your reader happily engaged.

OKAY. So my verses are possibly, somehow, saran wrapped, now what. 

I have a structure, and some basic mechanisms for manipulation of the membrane. Of course answering one question, begets a host of questions. For me, this is where research begins a dive to diminishing returns. I stop and ask, “Am I writing to the science, or am I using the science to make my story believable and credible? In this case, science does weigh heavily, so definitely 2 + 2 needs to equal 4. That’s the ‘universally’ accepted knowledge. Applying thisrationaleto membranes, the basic “known” properties should be standard, i.e. permeability, functional purpose etc. Broad properties, which in detail can be manipulated to fit my narrative. In other words, apply creative license as long as it plays within the rules of believability. If my membranes do something that membranes typically don’t do, then I run the risk of losing credibility, UNLESS, it is explained rationally, within the confines of the narrative. 

Ok, I’ve established my logic, how does multiverse operate? I believe human understanding of the Universe searches for organizational reference points. Like a library. Yes, yes “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig. That was pretty tidy. But while a neat concept and fun story, my characters need to live, experience and remember their experiences. This brings me to time travel. A truly fascinating concept, and perhaps a component of multiverse travel with strict parameters, but as a wise man once said, “Pick one and create your world!” ~ GD Deckard

I choose Multiverse. Still, time travel dances about the subject and it does need to be addressed and put to bed. I’ll get there.

According to “Adventravia’s Verse Jump Mission Manual” 

Mission statement:

The moment life traveled from the liquid depths of earth to the rocky shores, Humans set out on the path of exploration. As each unknown is explored,  we continue our forward trajectory. Our newest frontier, The Multiverse. As Intrepid, Adventurous explorers, it is our duty to catalog our explorations for the generations who follow. The Enigmatic Multiverse has become our future for human expansion.

Humans.So caught up in our own grandeur. Anyhow, this is all that is written in the manual so far … I’m loosely using a NASA manual for shuttle missions as a template to keep it real. 

My vision: (subject to change based on new ideas and evidence)

The device Dunia creates for Verse travel, initially punched a hole in the membrane leading to some undesirable results. Further research taught her how to “gently” squeeze through the porous membranes by disguising the traveler as a “substance” that is “legal” to pass. Much like a drug interacting with a cell in the human body, the whole osmosis thing. And I’m off to brush up on cellular function.

Much like Sue and John fall back on Mathematics, I relate to biology. Chemistry is fascinating. I didn’t spend enough time in those classes, however. I see the make up of our universe from a biological stand point, while understanding that mathematics does much of the detail explaination. I think once I am comfortable with “science” of my world, I can further populate it with my cast of characters. 

I wonder? In some other verse, were Dunia and Sophia friends? HAHAHAHA.

Alright, I look forward to having my theory picked apart and questioned. 

Standard
About Writers, book reviews, Uncategorized, writing technique

Surviving the Destructive Critique

Now here’s a topic you almost never see raised in writers’ groups. For good reason—by-and-large, it’s much more helpful to approach this topic from the opposite, positive perspective: that is to say, how to give and receive a constructive review. (Note: throughout this blog post I shall use the terms “critique” and “review” interchangeably.)

So first, let’s enumerate the attributes and practices of a constructive reviewer (of which Sue, Tom and Atthys—among others—are masters).  

A constructive reviewer will:

1.) Flag problematic areas of text without resorting to snark or sniping. 

2.) Find something genuinely positive (supported by the writing) to highlight. 

3.) Frame suggestions as “I thought at this point” or “have you considered?” or “this puts me in mind of _____; did you intend . . . ?” Shun emphatic: “You really f#cked up here, pal!” declarative statements.

4.) Avoid commenting on how the writing impacted their emotional state (unless positive). 

5.) Read the writer’s text carefully. 

6.) Understand that a self-deprecating sense of wry humor and/or “in-the-trenches-with-you” camaraderie engenders trust and openness. (Animals expose their bellies to show trust. Proffering your manuscript to another person and asking for a critique is, existentially speaking, a similar act.) 

7.) Always remember: Respect earns respect.

8.) Be more coach than oracle. (Quick: Who were your favorite teachers in school? The coldly imperious, doctrinaire and/or sarcastic set? Those who talked at you instead of with you? No, I didn’t think so . . .) 

9. Respect the reviewed writer for taking chances, even if—in the reviewer’s opinion—the writer failed to accomplish what they set out to do. 

10. Critique the writing for what it is, not for what it is not. This doesn’t mean that the reviewer should refrain from addressing errors in the text (of grammar, historicity, inauthentic dialogue, etc.) It means that the reviewer doesn’t react to a writer’s tragic text by telling them it would work better if it were a little less tragic—a comedy, perhaps. Or a one-panel New Yorker cartoon. (“Does it have to be a story?”) That kind of thing. 

One note before proceeding: a neutral review is not a destructive review. A neutral review (usually given when the reviewer is pressed for time) simply highlights what is not working in the text for the reviewer in as direct and succinct a manner as possible without cushioning “rah-rah” statements to soften the blows of critique. I prefer neutral reviews of my work. As I’ve stated: It saves time. The reviewer isn’t racking their brains for positive things to say immediately before and after highlighting a problematic area of the text. This technique is called “the critique sandwich”. (Example: “Your story moves at a brisk pace until that extended info dump re: malfunctioning doggie squeak toys on pp. 23-25did you intend the reader to be amused as well as somewhat overwhelmed by insider industry knowledge?though overall the book’s pacing and deft, incisive strokes of characterization . . .”) The critique sandwich certainly helps “the medicine go down”but can be mentally exhausting for the reviewer, as well as somewhat patronizing to the reviewed.

Now let’s talk about the destructive review. Dear literary gods in their manifold heavens, where to begin?

Perhaps by listening to a quote of Joyce Carol Oates: “I believe that any form of art is a species of exploration and transgression. … Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment.” 

If you write an effective piece of fiction—albeit one that demolishes unexamined verities and/or probes the circumstances and motivations of the darker, more perverse aspects of human nature—brace for snarling contempt, histrionic outrage and bitter vituperation from some quarters as your reward. Or baffled confessions that are actually thinly veiled protestations: “Why did you choose subject x? Employ technique y? Adopt tone z? It made me crazy! I don’t know what you’re trying to do here…”

That’s if you write an effective piece of fiction. Now if you should stumble and write an ineffective piece of fiction . . . 

We all might wish that the professional literary world be full of warm, compassionate human beings who communicate their empathy, intelligence and professional wisdom by expressing themselves with tact, courtesy and rueful good humor to all and sundry. Yes, we all might so wish! Alas, this is not the case. And there is no one better skilled at flaying with words than a practiced writer. You think your uncle Joe’s or cousin Suzie’s offhand, inarticulate comments misreading your text were upsetting? Wait till an accomplished fictioneer starts in on you! For economy of motion and maximum impact in the deliverance of “death-by-a-thousand-cuts-criticisms” the work of a pro cannot be matched. It is a thing of beauty: oftentimes as ID-tickling amusing as it is abrupt, nasty, idiosyncratic and censorious. (See: Poe vs. Longfellow, Hemingway vs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Foster Wallace vs. John Updike, Mark Twain vs. Bret Harte, H. G. Wells vs. Henry James, etc.)

Exhibit A: I am now going to share with you a critique experience I recently had with a professional writer who considers themselves a friend. (Name withheld to protect their privacy.) Not solely to vent (though of course there is that aspect to the matter) but because I think others can learn from it.

Disguising certain particulars of what exactly was said, here is how my professional reviewer delivered a critique of a couple pieces of writing I asked him to review. He: 

1.) Made repeated references to how the writing had negatively impacted his emotional state. (No warning of “don’t send me triggering stories concerning subject X” beforehand.) 

2.) Urged that I directly quote a writer mentioned in one of my texts. (But I did quote that writer: twice. In that very same text. What were we saying about close reading, please?) 

3.) Smarmily and testily informed me that I should be billed for causing him to “read 32,000 words of Carl E. Reed text” over the course of five stories. (I sent six. And specifically noted beforehand: “Please choose one . . . or two . . . to comment on. I’ve submitted six to give you review options, not homework; good grief!” I could not have been clearer in my intentions/expectations. Mind you, this whilst simultaneously working my way through one of his 500-page novels. “I should bill you for reading 175,000 words . . .”) 

4.) Suggested I have my protagonist (in a horror story) fight someone or something to be “more like Indiana Jones”. Then—comically, almost in the very next sentence—objected that the three black-robed antagonists my protagonist did fight toward the latter end of the tale put him in mind of “Luke Skywalker fighting in the tree”. So . . . no fighting, then? Or fighting that doesn’t—in any way, shape or form—put one in mind of fighting done by someone else, sometime earlier or later, elsewhere? I’m confused. 

5.) Made absurd, off-the-wall suggestions re: multiple stories that would have completely demolished or transformed beyond all recognition authorial narrative flow, plot, tone and theme. (Example: complained that a bookish, sociopathic, high I.Q. juvenile monster in one of my tales wrote glowingly in his journal of the writings of Ayn Rand and others instead of being influenced by TikToc videos.)

6.) Ignored themes and metaphors (literalized or otherwise). My reviewer was completely blind/impervious/indifferent to same. I mean, nary a word mentioned regarding what is to me the central justification for the existence of literature: what the machinations of plot and the collision of divers characters within a story mean; what it all adds up to re: commentary on the human condition.

7.)  Made cutting comments throughout the text whenever he encountered wordage deemed problematic. (Full disclosure: He apologized in a prefatory email for the many “dyspeptic comments” my writing prompted him to articulate.)  

8.) Flagged as textual “errors” subtleties that were lost on him. (Example: In one instance, I described a person smoking a cigarette exhaling “blue-gray smoke”. Later, a passing truck backfires and emits a pungent whiff of “blue-gray smoke”. This is an intentional highlighting and callback to the fact that the truck is emitting a whiff of smoke every bit as toxic as the smoker’s cigarette: the identical phrasing of similar events in differing instances serving to create a leitmotif, which itself underlines and dramatizes the hot-house, claustrophobic toxicity addressed in the tale.) 

9.) Seemed more interested in crafting cutting comments than in reading closely, deeply and well. One story (whose tone, plot and thematic material was influenced by my currently reading Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us; Simon Critchley) I submitted to him for review opened with the following epigraph:

…………………………..

Tragedy is built of one part fate, one part willing surrender to nihilistic impulses and perverse compulsions. It is both existential horror and chaotic mystery, striking the person of Apollonian and Dionysian temperament alike. Above all else, tragedy crushes the spirit and breaks the mind, leaving psychic ruin—and manifold death—in its wake.

—Anonymous

…………………………..

A richer, more lapidary and polysyllabic than normal use of the mother tongue, perhaps; but hardly impenetrable or so confoundingly recondite that it defeats comprehension. It draws upon philosophy, psychology, mysticism and ancient Greek theatrical art (tragedy) for its meaning. His response?

“Wow, this quote! I had a tough time following the bangs of this nailgun procession of ideas. I’ve torn it apart a couple of times and it still doesn’t make sense.”

I could go on, but to what end? Why include an entirely superfluous point #10? I think you get the picture. My industry professional (20+ novels and counting to date) “friendly” reviewer was angry, distraught (remember: triggered by the material), contemptuous, sarcastic, belittling and resolutely downbeat throughout his back-handed, teeth-gritted, unforgivably sloppy critique of my work. It amounted to an act of intellectual violence.

Yes, there were occasional helpful suggestions made and errors flagged during the course of the critique. (Example: He flagged the use of the word “astronaut” in a 1930s pulp sci-fi tale as an anachronism. Nice catch! And quite right. I changed the word to “spaceman”.) The problem is, the ratio of these constructive-to-destructive comments was running at something like 20-to-1. Nevertheless . . .

The trick when receiving a destructive critique is to salvage what you can from the morass of misreading, misattribution (of authorial intent and accomplishment + references back to things in the text that simply aren’t there; or that are there and were slighted/overlooked/denigrated), sarcastic comments and wildly wrong-footed, bizarre suggestions. (Sarcasm kills communication, which is exactly what it is intended to do. It is the lowest form of wit, as the joke is always assumed to have been made.)

So . . . How did I react?  

With as much decency, kindness and appreciation as I could muster.  

His bad day did not mean that I needed to become completely unglued. Though it hurt. Maaannn, it hurt . . . ! (Don’t deny the reality of your feelings; acknowledge and manage them. Stay grounded and real. And remember: to the world-at-large this is a meaningless—even somewhat comical—overwrought piffle. Writer drama; heh! :::person pulls up chair; dives hand into bag of popcorn:::)

I thanked him for putting in so much time (you always—always!—owe your reviewer thanks; no exceptions), demurred re: a couple of his factually wrong/misreading comments (citing brief, pertinent reasons proving why he was wrong drawn directly from the texts he disparaged), and stated (not apologized) that I would never have submitted material to him that was intentionally triggering. Then I assured him that the overall message he’d communicated was well and truly received. Crystal clear. Five-by-five. As a postscript, I closed by offering truthful, sincere and measured praise of his penultimate novel. (Be a class act!)

And now we come to the over-arching, brutal, dispiriting truth of the matter, friends and neighbors—fellow knights of the quill—earnest midnight (or is that crack of dawn, or mid-day?) tireless scritch-scribblers: As you begin to get noticed in the particular genre in which you write, the venomous bitchy darts directed your way from certain quarters (“friendly” and otherwise) only increase in number, toxicity and force. Those who have made it are oftentimes annoyed that a new “proud bird, beautified with our feathers” dares to preen and strut his or her colors before editors who have turned a considering, speculative eye your way. Many writers have a zero-sum view of the publishing game: If you are on the rise, they must be on the decline. (“Whenever a friend succeeds, I die a little.”—Gore Vidal) Or you’re “doing it all wrong”: Your choice of subject matter, perspective, and/or technique offends and irritates. It’s not what they do or the way they do it, you see. Or they’ve simply taken it upon themselves to properly initiate you into the blood guild with the requisite amount of sneering contempt and/or self-transfixing snide witticisms. (“My, aren’t I clever/funny/tough!”) 

At some point in their writing life (amateur, semi-pro or pro) a writer will have their work subjected to destructive critique. Count on it. The trick is to weather this distressing experience with as much dignity as you can muster. Do as little self-defensive squawking as possible, earnestly endeavor to recognize and implement the constructive criticisms proffered by your savage reviewer, and most of all—most especially of all—continue to write afterward.

If you are truly a writer, you have no other choice. You must continue to write—with courage and skill, heart and intelligence—as best you know how. 

Believe that your ideal reader is out there. 

Have faith that practice in the craft will improve your literary skills. (And read, read, read—everything that interests you, regardless of whether or not it falls within your chosen genre.)

Have I mentioned that your ideal reader—the one who “gets you”—is out there? 

You deserve to find each other.

And you will—if you continue to write . . . and learn . . . and grow.

:::::Dispatch from the forward edge of the battle area 10/28/22: Yours Truly, Carl E. Reed:::::

Standard
editing, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Notes from an editor (jg.)

I thought I’d take a moment to mention that “The Rabbit Hole, volume 5: Just…Plain…Weird” has been put to bed.  Release date is October 31st (Happy Halloween!).

While it is difficult to follow past posts by Carl and Sue (among others) on the subject of criticism, let me offer some comments from the viewpoint of an (admittedly amateur) editor.

First off, no matter how much an editor would like to give some hints or suggestions along with a rejection slip, it’s just not possible since we are only allowed 24 hours in a day (although I will post some helpful [?] hints below).  This last go around we had over 220 submissions from which we chose 37 stories.  Now consider, we are a non-paying publication, with a volunteer staff (me, Curtis, and GD).  Imagine what it’s like at major magazines and publishing houses swamped with mountainous “slush piles”, along with submissions from agents of well-known authors.  (Something I assume most, if not all, reading this to be well aware of.) If I remember correctly, Molly Barton, one of the initial creators of our sorely missed Book Country, stated that it was her inability to help aspiring authors with criticism, etc. that led to the idea of a site where writers could help other writers.

Second, the accept/reject decision.  Ah, if only this were easy.  We are all human (no AI editors yet, that I know of — thank God!), and we all have our likes and dislikes.  That’s why I insist on having three editors for the decision-making process.  Editors should be like a clichéd tv family of siblings (e.g., a bookish one, a dumb one and the jock), only in this case with different likes and dislikes (genre 1, genre 2, and literary).  Why?  Because it keeps the resulting anthology diverse in tone and substance, but that diversity of opinion also results in a diversity of approach.  I think Curtis, GD, and I made a good team for RH V (GD replaced Atthys who worked on RH IV), because when their comments came in, I often felt like I was in the US Congress—no one agreed on anything (with rare exceptions).  The most common initial vote was 1 Yes, 1 No, and 1 Maybe.  It’s good to have a range of tastes from the more literary to the more pulpish, action or fantasy stories.  Everyone gets their say, and decisions get made. (BTW, no one ever threatened to hold their breath until they turned blue in fighting for a story). Remember, weird, like humor, ranges from the subtle to the outrageous!

In my case, when I first look over a submission, I read for plot (I find this kind of funny because if I have any strengths as an editor, it’s as a line editor).  As a result, I have initially advocated for stories (which didn’t make the cut) only to realize, on rereading following the receipt of another editor’s negative comments, that despite being a good story it was poorly written.  There was one, submitted for RH IV, which I remember really liking, but following that reread, had to admit that I didn’t have a month to turn it into acceptable English (a total rewrite of someone else’s story isn’t my job anyway). 

Well, I did promise some hints (feel free to share).  So here they are (and I apologize ahead of time if anyone is offended):

  1. Please read the call for stories, and/or the publication’s descriptive blurb, carefully!  The editors know what the theme of their publication is, and so should you. What do you think would happen if you submitted a story about growing up in Middle America for a cookbook compiling only flaming chili recipes? Or maybe a story about the great time you had getting drunk in college to Alcoholics Anonymous magazine? Why wait for the rejection slip? It’s a real shame when we get a beautifully written story about a little girl raising her first puppy or about an author mulling their life while facing his or her final days, but we’re specifically looking for, and asked for, weird stories. 
  2. Weird and gross are two very different things!  If necessary, look up the definitions.  While potty humor works well in elementary school and at frat parties, it doesn’t age well in print.  (I’ll spare you examples.)
  3. Submit fan fiction to fan magazines.  Enough said.
  4. Look, it may be true that every plot in this universe has been, in some fashion or other, previously used in a story or novel.  But please, please, at least try to add sufficient originality to your effort to avoid a red flag waving in the wind proclaiming to the reader, “You’ve read, or seen, this already!”  We had rehashes of “Through the Looking Glass” and “Alice in Wonderland”, but the worst was the blatant rip-off of Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (except the meanies were, I kid you not, commas! Yes, big, fat, flying, killer punctuation marks that impaled people with their pointy bits!  I’ll give the author this much, it was reasonably well written, but such a blatant rip-off we just had to pass on it (and no, it wasn’t a satire)).
  5. Note: a jokey narrator generally comes off as a wise-ass, not a wit. Pass.
  6. Please have someone who has a reasonable grasp of the English language read your story before you submit — and take their advice. Please.
  7. Never, ever, ever submit a first draft. (Yes, that means that just because you’ve completed the text of the story, it does not mean you are finished.)
  8. Gibberish is not weird, it’s just gibberish.
  9. This should actually be 8a) if written while stoned — Please don’t submit it.
  10. A personal bug-a-boo.  If you haven’t got an ending for your story, you haven’t got a story.  Others might disagree, but from my perspective, a good writer should know both how a story starts and how to end it. 
  11. And finally, please put your name and contact information at the top of the first page of your story.  I often had this wonderful experience teaching technical writing.  It seems people assume that since they have their name on the email containing the story file that grants immediate author recognition.  Instead it means, after downloading the story file into the “To Be Read” queue, the editor has to go search through email to see who sent it. (I, being nice, will.  I assume that larger publications just send “To Whom It May Concern” rejections slips when you inquire six months later.)

Let me finish by saying that despite all of the above, it has been a real joy working with Curtis, GD, and Atthys (on RH IV).  They are insightful, knowledgeable, and understand how to arrive at a group decision even if it means rejecting a personal favorite.  The Rabbit Hole IV and V would not have been the lovely anthologies they are without them.

So, after all my venting, let me ask — any interest in Rabbit Hole 6?

Standard
The Writing Life

THANK YOU, SUE!

Happy Anniversary to our Show Case contributors. Sue Ranscht started it all one year ago.

Authors submit pieces written around a theme and we all comment on them. Those comments include sharp critique as well as praise and they spark discussions about writing and living the writing life. A hundred comments is not unusual and is remarkable, considering that we are a small (albeit passionate) group.

Sample comments worth sharing again:

On Critiques
“Skip the buttering up; get right to the brutality. Saves time. I do not intend to be “brutal” with you — just direct. Okay? Know that I honor everyone who faced down the blank screen to create something of note where there was naught but a void of words before. Truly! Writers write. You are a writer — which leapfrogs you over 90% of the idle ‘someday-I-will’ daydreamers.”
– Carl E. Reed

“I know valid criticism can be disheartening, but don’t even consider stopping. Not even in the furthest corners of your subconscious.”
– John Correll

Farce
“To lighten this up a bit, it was also the case that Kirk was something of a womanizer, or alien-womanizer, and the character often fell into some fleshy imbroglio with a green or blue or other busty hominoid female. How fitting then that Shatner/Kirk rode into space in what can only be described as a giant dildo, a phallus symbolic of his character’s most characteristic trait – a penis in space.”
– Scott D. Vander Ploeg

Rules of Writing
When the rules make sense (as some do and some don’t), it’s better to follow them much of the time but sometimes bend or break them in a thought-out way. This metarule has been stated in many ways by many people. I like the wording in:
«Know the rules, so you can break them effectively.» ~ Dalai Lama XIV”
– Barry Rosen

The Writing life
“Today I finally get to sit at my desk and tackle Multiverse travel. Which means lots of research, reading and answering questions. For me this is fun. My husband gives me the raised eyebrow as he settles into his own fun (heating ducts, boiler pumps, sheet metal etc.)
We all have our loves!”
– Sandy Randall

“Great samples from fellow writers. I am at a buffet table and have overeaten in a good way. Thank you all!”
– Victor Acquista

Experiences that influence our writing
“Monday a young friend of mine attempted suicide. She’s still in the ICU with a heart rate that won’t go above 42 unless they pump her full of adrenaline. They’re contemplating a pacemaker.
Demons have a way of obliterating hope.”
– Sue Ranscht

Happy Notes
“I have written many song parodies as a fun side project, changing the lyrics of famous songs. Some of these parodies have been performed by professional musicians, and I have videos of some of their performances. And I agree with you totally regarding Ayse’s performance. She is a professional opera singer who usually sings arias in operas and in recitals, so I was lucky enough to have her perform my parody.
– Boris Glikman

Fun Writing
“The assailant sprang up, silhouetted by the flickering lamp, and limped toward the street. The roaring monster appeared, lighting the alley like a runway. The assailant shrank from the behemoth machine as it rolled past. Jan laughed maniacally. Those morons were afraid of an automated street cleaner.”
– Christy Moceri

Research
“Around 1586 Kelley told Dee he’d had a vision. An angel had revealed to him that the two men should engage in wife-swapping. And so they did, for a time. That will be fun to write.”
– Mimi Speike

Make writing more fun with Show Case.
Click “Show Case” at the top of this page for details.

And thank Sue for this!

(P.S. To order your very own “Thank You Sue” hoodie, send a sizable donation to Roy@LetsPretend.com)

Standard
Uncategorized

Writing Irrational Beauty

By JOHN CORRELL

Precision and perfection dwell solely in the realm of the infinite. And I claim perfection but never reach it because something better, always better, steals away my hope of perfect victory.

Perfection portrays an impossible ideal, while precision attempts perfection in practice.

But when is practice perfect? I draw a perfect circle, but no matter the accuracy of my hand, the refinement of my compass, or the sharpness of my pencil, my best knows better. Never perfect. So I ask a computer for the perfect circle, and it heats up and runs and runs. Years, decades, millennia, and eons, it hums.

To create the perfect circle, it needs to calculate the never-ending irrational number — π (pi). A never-ending calculation for a never-ending number. Infinite — perfection.

Okay, what does this have to do with writing? Let me clear up my irrationals before I explain.

π is just one of many irrational numbers. And an irrational is any number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers. Divide the top by the bottom, and the numbers after the decimal just grow and grow. It is not a repeating number like ⅓’s 0.333333…. It just goes on without sequence or sense.

And one particular irrational number draws the attention of artists and theologians alike. The number of ‘perfect’ proportions, the divine φ (phi), the golden ratio (1.61803398875…). And if writing is an art, then φ’s ratios may apply.

I’ll illustrate this mathematical concept with Gary Provost’s advice to write musically:

The first paragraph mocks a hideous passport photo with the subject centered on banality. A dull ratio of 1.

The second paragraph rhythmical screams ratios, whether conscious or not. The highlighting colors help show the sentence word count of 2-9-1-3-9-4-7-53; interestingly, the proportion of non-blue to blue (the longest sentence to the rest) becomes 35/53 or 0.66037735849056603773584…. This is similar to the rational repeating number, ⅔, an infinite cousin of the golden ratio. And ⅔’s 0.666666…, like Gary’s paragraph ratio, sits in the ballpark with 1/φ’s 0.618033988749854683792717082….

In the shadow of φ, the second paragraph attains a pleasing, artistic state of ratios, or, let’s say, ratioality.

Now, we don’t need to be precise with the golden ratio. For one thing, the golden is impossible to derive in a finite amount of time. At best, φ provides a rough guide, give or take a few words or more.

Sort of, maybe. Am I fooling myself?

I have the worst sense of lyrical writing and poetry committed, criminally, to a page. I must be grasping at straws. In my utter inadequacy, I’m using the wrong tools and words. The instrument of mathematics, a set of tools to model the real and the imagined foolishly harnessed for art? What am I thinking? Can I use a virtual logic formed in our heads, where assumptions, axioms, and postulates scramble to best fit our prejudiced points of view? Where’s the art in that? These irrationals hide nothing golden, mystical, or divine. Like a chainsaw or jackhammer, they are no better. But for me, these are familiar implements. They hold a certain unexplainable beauty, and in the right hands, even a chainsaw creates beauty.

Perhaps, ratioality can provide a template to understand and improve our compositions, whether in illustration, music, or writing. For example, the visual artist turned musician Brian Eno uses his visual composition expertise to create appealing music. So in turn, I hope that the mathematical application of ratios can enhance our mastery of successful writing. And remember, the golden ratio is but one of many proportions, and variety, even in math, provides spice.

Ratioality, studied and applied, can fine tune our messages’ tone, like the mood inducing musical selection of modes, rhythms, and tempos.

We can never grasp these imagined mental gadgets, these infinite irrational numbers. Never in a billion trillion lifetimes. That’s why they’re called irrational. Yet, these oddities call us like false prophets in a mistaken cloud of spirituality and other-worldliness. Infinity dazzles. But just like a notion of God and an unattainable idea of perfection, these numbers can inspire us with a hope of better, if nothing else.

Standard
About Writers, editing, Writers Co-op, writing technique

How Not to Fix Your Writing Problems in 1,289 Easy Lessons

Photo credit: Dmitry Demidov

I’ve always been a writer, but I didn’t start writing seriously, with a critical eye to my own work, until I was 32. Because I’m prone to obsession, I have spent the past seven years inhaling everything I can find about story craft. I forged myself into a ruthless self-editor – I even got an editor’s certification! I have read dozens of craft books, from Weiland to McKee. I spent about three years and an embarrassing amount of money intensively studying one particular Theory of Everything which… ended badly.

I did it all because I believed that my process was flawed. That I should be faster. That my characters and stories should be more compelling – according to a popular definition of “compelling.” When I’m struggling to make the pieces of my stories fit together, I wanted a solution that allowed everything to click neatly into place. I wanted to stop agonizing over creative decisions.

I wanted a shortcut.

I wanted this even though my stories don’t fit into a fixed story type or genre. Romance? Action? Science Fiction? Literary? All of the above. My work is a giant conglomeration of all the stuff I love to read, and I read everything from post-apocalyptic romance to John Irving. An editor friend once remarked that you can’t have a lot of internal character development in an action story, to which I replied, “Hold my beer!” I saw in an instant of clarity that what I do isn’t inferior… it’s unique.

The craft I studied brought me a lot of value. I am more confident in my skills. I can now see the underlying structure in almost anything, including my own work. In the past, when I hit a “stuck point,” I just gave up on that story. I had binders and binders full of pieces of story, but nothing coherent. Now I don’t give up. I can define the problem. I bide my time, knowing I will work it out.

But did all this effort fix my flawed writing process? Am I the world’s most efficient writer now? Do I know exactly where I fit in the pantheon of genres? No.

No amount of study can substitute for the experience of writing. There are tools that can help you along the way, but even the most obsessive, careful planner cannot avoid the chaos when you finally put pen to paper. That’s where the struggle is and that’s where the magic happens. I synthesized everything I learned to plan my books in advance, only to discover that meticulous planning cannot save me. It certainly hasn’t prevented me from getting stuck. And I have learned that what is innovative, and moving, and thought-provoking about my work cannot be found in a craft book. It can only be found when I have the courage to put the most authentic part of myself on the page.

What is my process now, after all that study? Whatever works. Sometimes I reference specific craft paradigms, sometimes I read voraciously, and sometimes I pants my ass off. Sometimes, like now, I spend three months in utter paralysis, wishing I were the kind of writer who could churn out a mediocre scene and get on with it.

But I can’t change that about myself. And I’m done trying.

As I said to my friend the other day, “There’s no secret. Read books. Write a lot. Suffer.”

Trust me – if there were a universal solution, I would have found it!

That may be a disappointment to new writers hoping to unlock some mystical secret to perfect storytelling, but it’s also kind of liberating in a way, isn’t it? I get to find my own way. I don’t have to use someone else’s yardstick to determine if what I’m doing has value. I know that it does. And I’m going to keep doing it.

For as long as it takes.

Christy Moceri writes romantic thrillers in science fiction settings. Her current WIP, Battle Fatigue, is about a war-weary General caught between the demands of his career and his affinity for a mysterious woman who attacks him with a hand stunner.

Standard
Uncategorized

The Power of an Honest Critique

by S.T. Ranscht

An Editor’s Eye. Not really as scary as it looks. (Photo credit: S.T. Ranscht)

There’s a word that describes authors who believe their work would not benefit from an honest critique: Wrong. To be clear, an honest critique is not a harsh judgment of the author’s manuscript. It’s a thoughtful analysis that is constructive, helpful, and — hopefully — kind. It lets the author know what works and what doesn’t work for that reader. It explains why what doesn’t work doesn’t work, but it does not tell the author exactly what to do to fix it. Neil Gaiman’s advice to authors sums it up:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Neil Gaiman

Both parties to any critique have some obligations to the process and each other to ensure its integrity and success. Chronologically, of course, the author comes first, but because the author also comes third, let’s start with the second party, the reader who critiques.

There are certain qualities the reader really should possess. First, it helps tremendously if they’re literate. Even more than that, they should commit, just for the purpose of critiquing, to read the manuscript carefully. Like, every word. After all, the author went to all that effort to write every word, so it’s only right that the reader should put in commensurate effort to read them. After all, a legitimate critique point might turn out to be, “Trimming unnecessary verbiage would tighten the pace, particularly building to and including the climax.” Or, to express a point that works, the reader might say, “Your use of language imbues your work with a lyrical quality.”

Sometimes authors ask for feedback about specific things, like whether or not the dialogue is natural. Or if the characters’ relationships convey enough depth. Or if there needs to be more world building. It is helpful — even necessary — for the reader to address these points, but the author’s request doesn’t limit the reader’s responses to only those items. It will be equally helpful for the author to become aware of other parts of the manuscript that might confuse the reader or seem to defy the internal logic of the writing. If you’re left wondering, “What is the author trying to say?” you probably won’t be the only reader to feel that way. The author needs to know that.

A few words of caution. It may happen that the manuscript you face seems so riddled with problems that your frustration crafts some cunningly snarky or scathingly sarcastic observations you are sorely tempted to share. Resist. You might be right, but it would be neither helpful nor kind. Then, too, you may someday be on the receiving end of that particular critique partnership, and you know what they say about karma…

If you are the author in our original scenario, you might think you did your part when you submitted your baby manuscript to the judgment of a reader, and now all you have to do is sit back and watch the compliments roll in.

*ahem* Wrong.

Let me amend that. Most casual critique partners will not read your work with an editor’s eye. Their analysis will be more superficial than deep. Not because they are lazy, but simply because the are readers first, not trained editors, and they have a natural desire to focus on the positive, especially if the author is someone they don’t know well. Unless you are paying an editor or having your work reviewed by an editor who has the power to publish it or not, an author must encourage their readers/beta readers to speak freely, and then openly acknowledge the validity of the thoughts they’ve shared so you can establish mutual trust.

When an author receives an honest critique, chances are it will include both positive and critical observations. The first obligation the author has is to resist — or overcome — becoming defensive. Take a step back from your creator’s eye view of the manuscript, and look at it objectively. (Yes, I know — that’s easy for me to say, isn’t it?) However, once you accept that the reader has shared their honest feedback, your second obligation is to examine how you might incorporate it to improve your writing.

And improve your writing it will.

Your mileage may vary, but I assert this from the experience of being both a reader with an editor’s eye, and a writer who has received both gingerly offered criticism and more direct editor’s eye notes. I’ve learned to value both and nurture the relationships that offer them, because even I see the improvement in my writing that results from accepting honestly offered constructive criticism.

Even more important than that self-serving, improved writing motive, I have developed trusting relationships I will value for the rest of my life.

That’s the power of an honest critique.

Standard