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401

No, not the Web Error 401. This is post number 401, meaning, 400 blogs have been posted to date on the Writers Co-op. So let’s look at post number one and judge how we’ve done. Here it is, from APRIL 26, 2016, by Curtis Bausse. How do you think we have fared over the years?

co-op stuff

The first post. And to me has fallen the honour. Seriously, it is an honour. Firstly, because it’s a vote of trust from my fellow co-operators, secondly because this post is the first of a long, rich and innovative series (no point starting a blog otherwise, right?). As more posts come, this one will slip out of sight and mind, but it will always remain the first, the one in which the Writer’s Co-op became public. So thank you, Amber, Atthys, GD and Mimi for putting your trust in me.

Let me begin by explaining. The five of us ‘met’ on Book Country, a website where writers post their work for peer review and critiques. Though lately it’s become very sleepy, it’s not a bad site, and it has a discussion board where I’ve found many a useful piece of advice. And some time ago a thread was started by GD Deckard, in which he wrote the following: I’m thinking of a site that new writers can use to promote their books. How, exactly, depends on what the writers themselves want. Writers are creative people, so together we could come up with creative ways to help one another that we might not think of on our own. How would you like to see a Writers’ Co-op work?

Well, it took us a while, but here we are – The Writers’ Co-op. Five people who write in different genres but who all share a similar commitment to the craft and the graft of writing.

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The craft…

Building Stonehenge

and the graft

But why come together? What can this site do that a personal one can’t? Well, as GD says, for a project like this, many minds are better than one. And the method is in the title – cooperate. This is a site where we swap and share news, opinions and experiences about writing, from first paragraph to finished product and beyond. Especially beyond. Because who wants to write a book and then not promote it? That’s like a painter working for years on a picture, then turning it to the wall. So here in the Co-op we try things out, see what works and what doesn’t, and tell each other about it. And not just each other, obviously. We happen to be the five that started it off, but we don’t intend to stay whispering in our corner. The Co-op welcomes anyone who’s willing to invest a little time and effort into promoting books worth reading.

What can you expect to find here? Since there’s nothing new under the sun, I do admit the innovation bit could be a challenge, but we’ll try our best, I promise. There’ll be anecdotes and analysis, thoughtfulness and humour, awards and recommendations, opinions, rants and wackiness. We don’t expect to work miracles and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. But what we do take seriously is writing itself. Which means we’re also keen to help writers explore whatever path might lead somewhere interesting, and help readers find good writing. If that sounds like a programme you could tune in to, you’ve come to the right place. Drop us a line, tell us what you’re up to. Maybe we’ll end up travelling the path together. Whichever one it turns out to be.

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About Writers, editing, Stories, writing technique

Show Me

While screening stories submitted to Sci-Fi Lampoon magazine, it occurred to me that editing means the opportunity to find new stories to share with others. What does that mean? It can’t mean only stories that the editor personally likes. Good stories appeal to a wider variety of readers than any one person can imagine.

So what makes a story appeal to a wide variety of readers? Common themes help, of course, because more readers will identify with the story. But I suspect the real key is participation. Think of it this way: Would you rather sit in an audience and listen to a comedian or a lecturer? The lecturer may tell you interesting things but the comedian will draw you in and make you participate. Would you rather laugh or be lectured?

Yup. I’m talking “Show don’t tell,” my favorite explanation of which remains the quote by Russian novelist Anton Chekhov.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
“Show don’t tell” entices the imagination. That lets the reader participate in the story.

Writers have used many creative ways to draw readers into their stories and the ‘Net is full of examples. Chekhov’s is an immersive description.
Some are half-thoughts that invite the reader to complete the image.

“She said only, ‘He spent the night rocking my world.'”

Or juxtaposed images that show something of the character’s character.

“I drive way too fast to worry about cholesterol.”
-Steven Wright.

What is your favorite way to show the reader your characters, to draw then into your world?

Me, I favor dialogue. It can allow the reader to imagine the details.

“You had a vibrator?”
She nodded. “I pulled a lot of guard duty. You know how boring that is?”

It’s not enough to tell a reader anything. You have to show them something.

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writing technique

Words, the long and the short of it

How many different words do you need to know in order to write a book? The works of James Joyce (excluding Finnegan’s Wake) include almost 30,000 unique words, which is a lot. You certainly don’t need that many. But not using them doesn’t necessarily mean not knowing them. According to the researchers at Test Your Vocab, an average native speaker knows 10,000 words by the age of eight, expanding to 20,000 to 35,000 words when they are adults. In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker puts the number higher – 60,000 words for an adult. But as he points out, “people can recognise vastly more words than they have occasion to use.” Furthermore, the unique word criterion may not be the best, since it counts, for example, walk, walks, walking and walked as separate words. If we count lemmas, or word families, instead, we have just one there – walk – and our vocabulary knowledge shrinks accordingly. Linguist Stuart Webb estimates that an adult native speaker knows 15,000 to 20,000 lemmas.

In our everyday conversation, we generally make do with far fewer. With 5000 words, we can have a decent, though limited, conversation, while with 10,000 the number of topics we can discuss increases dramatically. Theoretically, then, we could make do with three or four thousand words to write a novel. Original literature is written for the EFL market using only the two or three thousand most frequent words in English. I’ve read a number myself (a character in Painter Palaver produces such books), and it’s like being immersed in water at body temperature, meeting no resistance but getting no challenge either. Kind of dull, let’s say, even when the story’s decent.

That’s not to say we need to go the James Joyce way – there’s no link between size of vocabulary and quality of writing. Or rather I see it like the link between money and happiness – there has to be a basic amount, but above a certain threshold, you get no extra benefit.

What does this mean for writers? Notably that their productive vocabulary needs to be more readily accessible to them than it is to most non-writers. If you’re anything like me, a sizeable chunk of your time is spent searching for the ‘right’ word. In fact I hope for your sake that you’re not too much like me in that respect, because I suspect I spend far more time on that than most writers. That’s because I suffer from language attrition. For most of my life I’ve been exposed to far more French than English, so although English is my native tongue, I’ve now reached the point where I’m forgetting it. Anyone who tries learning a second language knows that without regular practice, it’s extremely hard to remember, but the same can apply to a first language. Not the syntax, which is largely mastered by the age of three and remains accessible thereafter, but the vocabulary. Words are easy to learn but also easy to forget.

As a result, I experience the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon more often than most : you know the word exists, you have an idea of its ‘shape’ – number of syllables, stress pattern, maybe a vowel sound or two – but the actual word won’t come. But I dare say you’ve experienced it too (am I right there? Comments welcome!) My assumption is that it’s part and parcel of every writer’s experience, and is one reason (amongst many others) why writing is such a challenging activity.

How do I cope? A combination of two approaches. The first is to accept it, recognise that good books can be written without recourse to an extensive vocabulary, and concentrate on using the words I do know to maximum effect. But while that may work to some extent, there are still many occasions when the word I want, the only one that will do, plays hard to get, like a key you’re trying to fish out of a drain hole. Only one thing for it in that case – the thesaurus.

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” Whether Stephen King, who wrote that in 1988, has changed his mind with advancing age I don’t know, but without a thesaurus I’d be sunk. The proviso is that I use it exclusively to fish those keys from the drain hole – words I once knew and used regularly, but can’t quite reach anymore. Not for me the word that struts onto the page like a garishly dressed dandy whose only aim is to upstage all the other words quietly doing their job. I just want the word that knows its place, fits alongside the others, and lets the sentence flow. Upon which contumacious rodomontade I shall terminate.

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Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Let’s Show Off

Recently, several of us explored ways to expand our little co-op. Having failed to heed the Universal Caution against volunteering, I volunteered to organize two ongoing projects — Writing Prompts and Critique Groups — that might induce authors to participate. Most of those who commented on my ideas supported them. (I suspect they were just happy somebody offered to do something, but I am grateful nonetheless.)

Let’s begin with a Writing Prompt. This isn’t a competition, but all submissions will be shown off in a Show Case posted here on Writers Co-op. Here are some guidelines: Pick a genre, any genre. Use approximately 6 to 1,000 words. The goal is to stretch our author muscles and produce a piece worth sharing with our friends.

The first prompt is: Atrophied.

Submission Instructions: By Monday, October 4, attach your work (as a .docx or .pdf) to an email addressed to me at stranscht@sbcglobal.net. I’ll put them together in a Show Case post here on Writers Co-op for Friday, October 8. (I’m thinking this could be a bi-weekly challenge. What do you think?)

And if we all share these projects through our own personal blogs, Facebook pages, and soapboxes, authors who have never heard of Writers Co-op might take part, too.

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editing, Writers Co-op Anthology

Thoughts on Editing and Rabbit Hole V?

By Tom ‘DocTom’ Wolosz

How often we recall, with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a…editor and missed him and killed a publisher. But we remember, with charity, that his intentions were good.

-Mark Twain. Letter to Henry Alden, 11 November 1906.

First you have the writer who can write but can’t spell. Then you have the editor who can spell but can’t write.

-anonymous

Well folks, Curtis Bausse is currently putting the finishing touches on Rabbit Hole IV, and we hope to have it published in October.  Since this was the first time I’ve ever edited an anthology, I thought I might offer some thoughts on the experience. Especially since this will all lead to the question: “Will there be a Rabbit Hole V?”

           Let me start by thanking Curtis and Atthys Gage for all their help and hard work on RH IV.  They read through close to a hundred submissions, helping with the accept/reject decisions, and also were kind enough to edit some of the accepted stories.  I definitely learned one thing from them — it is very important to have feedback from multiple sources in making these decisions.

            Why? Well, each reader sees stories in their own unique way.  I can say that among the stories included in RH IV those we all agreed on initially constitute a distinct minority.  But there’s nothing wrong with that! With the publication of an anthology, we seek to engage a diverse readership, and you can’t do that when only one editor makes all the decisions.  I’d say that each of us saw stories we liked go to the reject bin, just as each of us got some of our choices approved (I should also point out that there were no intense disputes — we discussed, agreed, and moved on). The result is like a candy sampler, lots of delicious variety. It’d be a pretty poor sampler if all the candies were the same, eh?

            Another reason for multiple input is we are all apt to look at different aspects of writing. I, for instance, tend to read the story for plot, for ideas.  The result is that I end up ignoring a lot of the mechanicals of writing on a first run through.  In at least a couple of cases I was all in favor of a story based on concept, only to be alerted to the fact that the writing was particularly sloppy, or the overall structure was poor.  After re-reading I came to agree that the amount of line editing required would be enormous, so into the reject bin it went.  On the other hand, there are stories that are quite nicely written, but go nowhere, or are simply stories you’ve read a thousand times before with nothing special about them.  Again, these get weeded out when a few people are contributing to the decisions.

            So having three editors working on the decisions makes a big difference.

            Some other thoughts on editing:

            I am mainly a line editor. If a story has major structural flaws, has pages of extraneous material, etc. I just vote to reject it.  My guiding principle is that it is the author’s story, not mine.  I try, in small ways, to help make it better, to make it as presentable and polished a work as possible, but I don’t try to rewrite it.  I have some small experience with editing extremes, both from reading through stories by friends that appeared in independently published anthologies like ours but where no actual editing appears to have occurred (typos, etc., by the dozen), to dealing with an editor so impressed with their own credentials that their orders to rewrite character, plot, etc. where like bolts tossed from on high by Zeus himself.  Let’s just say I find it best to be in the middle.  Offer helpful advice, but if it’s rejected just remember that my name isn’t under the title of the story. Also, never demand, and never, ever argue with the writer (it’s their story!).

            Let me end this by just stating that the above is my personal philosophy. There were no bad experiences editing RH IV. Working with my co-editors and all the writers involved was a real pleasure.

            Last thought (I can hear your sighs of relief!). If there is an RH V, a theme is okay, but it shouldn’t be too restrictive.  While it might sound cool, a very, very, specific theme is literally asking writers to come up with a story specifically for this anthology — which basically pays nothing.  I think the result is fewer submissions than might otherwise be received, with many of them ignoring the theme totally.  Remember, a broader net catches more fish.

            Okay, so think about it. Should there be a Rabbit Hole V?  If so, I’ll be happy to take on the editing chores again, but I will definitely need two volunteers to read submissions and help make decisions.  Also, they should each expect to be asked to edit three or four of the accepted stories (the anthology generally contains about thirty stories, so I’d be doing twenty-two to twenty-four of them). 

            Thoughts? Comments? Volunteers?

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About Writers, Freedom of Writing, inspiration, Uncategorized, world-building, Writers Co-op

JK Rowling Loves Minecraft

Novelist, screenwriter and film director Alex Garland is a big fan of BioShock, loosely based on Ayn Rand’ self-interest-championing philosophy of objectivism as outlined in her novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

Harlan Ellison collaborated with Cyberdreams and game writer David Sears to create “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, “a PC horror game based on his short story of the same name.

Tom Clancy is well-known in the gaming industry, especially for his Rainbow Six military and espionage games.

Authors play video games for the same fun & relaxation reasons others do and they sometimes pick up tips on world building, scene progression, and character differentation.

I play video games to push thoughts of what I’m writing aside, to someplace in my mind where they’re free to evolve without me consciously picking at them. For me, much of life is like swinging through trees. You have to regularly let go to make any progress.

Do you play video games? Which ones do you prefer? And, do they in any way contribute to your writing?

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About Writers, blogging, inspiration, Literary critique, Uncategorized, Welcome, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Musing Upon Three Quotes

“To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” 
― Anne Rice 

“My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.” 
― Joyce Carol Oates 

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.  

— Ursula K. Le Guin 

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Is there a through-line connecting these quotes from three great writers? (I refuse to use the condescending first-part phrasal adjective “female” or “woman” in this instance. If we don’t routinely wall off male writers into a genitalia-defined ghetto when referring to their words and/or works, why would I perpetrate such a wince-inducing, overt-labelling job here re: “women writers”? Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates and Ursula K. Le Guin: great writers all. Period, the end. So why remark on their gender in this extended parenthetical thought? To address head-on the cynical, tiresome suspicion from some quarters that I chose three women writers to comment on in order to demonstrate how feminist/woke I am. :::sigh::: What a time to be alive and posting on “teh internets”. Well, that’s the kind of post this is going to be: one part stream-of-consciousness, one part thoughtful musing, one part—hopefully—synthesis of disparate elements into a unified whole. Tell me if I’ve failed, won’t you?) 

Let’s take Anne Rice’s quote first: ““To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” Notice that she doesn’t insist the writer must make a fool of themselves; merely that one risks making a fool of themselves when they write. What could Rice possibly mean by this? 

Your interpretation may vary, but mine is as follows: There are a million, myriad ways a writer may face-plant in public. Errors of fact; mistranslations/misuse of foreign words and phrases; a question of style: writing that strikes one reader as “too flowery”, another as “too minimalist”; a theme that resonates with the writer and not the reader; vocabulary that is deemed either too high- or low-brow; metaphors that misfire and/or characters that seem eminently plausible, relatable and realistic to one set of readers, whilst striking another set of readers as wildly implausible, unrelatable and unrealistic. One simply cannot satisfy all readers all the time; not all art appeals to all people—for all time. (It might, but oftentimes—let us face hard facts here without flinching—oftentimes doesn’t.) As an artist we must accept this discomfiting fact and therefore write with our “ideal reader” in mind—whoever we imagine they might be. But if we push boundaries with our art—if we dare to question certain perceived “eternal verities” of politics (political thought that falls outside the Overton window), sex (outside the heteronormative) and/or religion (especially as regards atheistic or agnostic thought—though this is rapidly changing: “unaffiliated” or “unbelieving/unchurched” constitutes a growing body of the American electorate) then we embark upon a steep uphill climb re: widespread acclaim and/or acceptance of our work. Or as Joyce Carol Oates has put it: “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.” 

Which brings us to another quote of Joyce Carol Oates’: the second one referenced at the beginning of this piece: “My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.” This echoes Kafka: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Now, the quibble with such assertions is this: We’re not always in the mood for a paradigm-shattering, psychologically transformative piece of art, are we? Sometimes (most of the time?) we want our reading to be the equivalent of comfort food: nourishing, tasty, familiar, filling. (We’re being honest with one another, yes?) However— I think we can agree that the best interpretive literature (to use Prof. Laurence Perrine’s term) expands our storehouse of life-lived experience and thus has the knock-on secondary effect—if the writing is psychologically astute, richly drawn and compelling—of working to increase both our understanding of the internal and external worlds. Fiction is not a lie that tells the truth: It is the concretized (black letters) fossil record (captured on paper or electronic storage device) of transfixing hypnogogic visions (author’s imagination/subconscious) that allows others, upon reading (a remarkable, semi-mystical experience in which both hemispheres of the brain fire in tandem) to embody alternate lives (viewpoint characters) and thus witness at one remove (sensory impressions received, albeit not from phenomena in the real world) the result of various played-out stratagems and the consequences of certain thoughts, impulses and actions (plot). What we make of all the aforementioned constitutes theme + meaning.

Lies? Truth? Irrelevant, as regards evaluating the efficacy and impact of well-wrought fiction (unless you’re a Victorian moralist). Nabokov had it right: What makes a writer great is the spell-binding quality of their prose: that ability to enrapture, enchant, seduce. A critic once remarked of Anne Rice: “You surrender to her, as if in a voluptuous dream.” Exactly right. Interview with the Vampire, Servant of the Bones, Pandora, Vittorio the Vampire, the Sleeping Beauty trilogy. Story after story from Joyce Carol Oates has found me perched on the edge of my chair: terrified to discover what might happen next to her characters if I continue reading; too breathless and engrossed to stop. Her writing raises my pulse rate—while I marvel at the assured confidence and deftness of her prose, and the probing intelligence behind it. Ursula K. Le Guin: a national treasure (now deceased; alas!): the kind of writer whose seemingly effortless prose and command of narrative compels reading of her fiction; whose formidable intellectual gifts of analysis, insight and plain speaking glossed by a lifetime of lightly worn learning (her essays) elicit wolf-whistles of awe and appreciation. God, I wish I’d written that! Thought that. Felt that. (But you didn’t—till you’d first read Le Guin.)

And now we arrive at Ursula K. Le Guin’s quote: “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.” 

In a single pithy observation this quote of Le Guin’s (with its attendant subtext) encapsulates the terror and the glory of fictioneering—to say nothing of the alternating cycles of hyperbolic mania and melancholic despair a psychologically unmoored writer might fall prey to.  

I was going to write another thousand words unpacking what I meant to convey in the paragraph above, but for brevity and concision Le Guin’s quote really cannot be improved upon. The challenge facing the writer is to provide the telling details of their story in expertly paced and vividly concretized fashion so that the reader may—insofar as is psychically possible—inhabit a close facsimile of the world the author envisaged; moreover, the writer should have a tale worth telling (almost all do), to have something to say about it beyond the mere fashioning of plot (many don’t), and the hard-won mastery of craft acquired through a lifetime of practice in order to tell their story well (the difference—oftentimes but not always—between the professional and the amateur). The challenge of the reader is to have read as widely and deeply as possible in order to engage with story on its own terms: neither willfully misreading, nor misconstruing, a text into what it is not. If this process fails what are we left with? Miscommunication or hopeless muddle, mere “black marks on wood pulp” signifying nothing.

In sum: The writer indeed risks making a fool of themselves when he or she sits down to write—especially if the chosen subject matter, characters described and/or over-all theme is decidedly iconoclastic or otherwise at variance with received wisdom and popular attitudes. And what a pity that oftentimes proves to be!—that great work, from great artists, oftentimes goes misremarked [sic], undervalued and genre-ghettoized until such time as an artist’s ideal reader rises up with the passion and critical acumen necessary to articulate the areté (ancient Greek: excellence in kind) of a given writer and their works. 

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Uncategorized

No Elvis Cadillac for you, Mom.

  • by Mimi Speike

Okay, I saw this yesterday. It sparked an idea for a post, so I jumped on it. Now I see it’s all over the web. You’ve read this already. No problem. I never intended to talk about Tarentino. I’m going to talk about me, and you, and our less-than-supportive families. Who ought to give us some respect, but mostly don’t.

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Maybe none of you obsess about your family the way I do about mine. Maybe you all had (relatively) normal families. (I know Carl is the exception.) I think about writing a piece, for Medium probably: Lies my father told me. He lied often, I only realized it after I was grown and my siblings and I compared notes. He bent reality to be what he wanted it to be. He told me when I was at Syracuse that my cousin had failed the physical to be drafted into the army. He was required to have an operation on his knee to make him acceptable. I understand now that he made that up to shame my brother, who was trying to escape the draft any way he could, and that bugged the hell out of Dad. Another of his fibs: he invented an abandoned wife and child for the creep boyfriend of my sister, to disparage him. (Joe didn’t need disparaging, believe me. His treatment of my Sis spoke for itself.)

The lies, the manipulation, that’s another issue, to deal with elsewhere. I grew up in my little bubble of misery. My brother seemed to be oblivious to what was going on and I resent him for it to this day.

My brother and sister do not read my work willingly. Nor do my nieces. I don’t twist arms. I send a chapter or two, with the instruction: don’t feel you have to comment, just tell me where you stopped. If that’s in the third paragraph, fine. That’s all you need to tell me.

The only meaty (dumb, but meaty) comment I’ve ever gotten was from my sister, who told me, I can’t understand this Shakespearian English. I change our modern word order a tad and throw in a few archaic terms and she calls it Shakespearian. Christ Almighty!

Oh, my brother told me: “I’m not a reader.” He told me this about fifteen years ago. I was stunned. Not a reader! He graduated from Harvard. All these years I had no clue. We were not close, despite being twins.

His wife, or ex-wife, they still live together, she claims to be a huge reader. Has she looked at my stuff? Not that I know of.

I’ve been on Sly and Celestine, Maisie too (in an earlier version), for forty years. I never informed any of them that I write until twenty years ago, anticipating the reaction: “Guess what my crackpot sister is up to now.”

My husband is solidly behind me, thank god. He’s a heavy reader, of nonfiction. He’s also the only person I ever met who owns more books than I do. He loves what I’ve written, though I know he doesn’t appreciate my finesse with words. He speaks English well, but it is is not his first language. He loves Sly for the history I build in. He’s all for history. Educate while you entertain. References to the Arabic origin of math and physics, super! More, he wants more of that. It’s never enough for him. He’s always ready to jump on a problem and research it for me.

My brother’s major complaint about me is that I’ve drifted through life, not making plans, kind of like the way I write, come to think of it. I believe this annoys him more than all the bad choices I’ve made with my life. He probably views my writing as my latest whim. A forty-year whim. Yeah, right. If he respects what I’m doing, he doesn’t show it.

If it makes me money, if I leave an estate of any worth, I’ve made up my mind. My nieces aren’t getting anything from it. I sent one of them a snippet a while back, with my usual instruction. She emailed me back: I’ve passed this on to my father. She’s a creative. She makes art. She’s studied acting, seriously, at a top acting school in NYC. I would have thought she’d at least be curious about what I’ve written. Apparently not.

Families don’t owe us a read, but it would be nice to be taken seriously. Does your family see you as a joke: Still wasting your time on that pipe dream of yours? Oh god, another story! This one’s about a mouse!

They don’t even visit my Facebook page, to look at the art. That’s easy enough to do. A friend of my niece, a cartoonist, visits and comments regularly. Not my one and only next-generation close relation.

She’s maybe gonna regret that one of these days. My money’s going to the folks who supported me, who encouraged me. I’m with Quentin Tarentino on that. I’ll leave money to my sister, with the understanding that none of it is passed on to Meda.

I’ll leave it to her friend the cartoonist, creating wonderful, fun LGBTQ-themed small publications, and doing community outreach, leading graphic novel-creation workshops in San Francisco at senior centers for the hanging-out retired, and in after-school programs, for kids. Any amount I’m able to bequeath, I may give it to Alex. He’ll put it to good use, I’m sure. Alex Leslie Combs, find him on Facebook. I admire his spirit, and his talent.

It’s not that I long for my relations’ praise. Anything they say, I would discount it. I have serious doubts about their literary judgment. I merely hope that, after a lifetime of missteps great and small, I am finally doing something admirable with my talent, that I was never able to exploit to my satisfaction.

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About Writers, book promotion, Uncategorized, writing technique

A Heroine’s Journey

  • by Mike Van Horn

I just started reading “The Heroine’s Journey” by Gail Carriger. I opened to the Intro and read this:

Here is the Hero’s Journey in one pithy sentence: Increasingly isolated protagonist stomps around prodding evil with pointy bits, eventually fatally prods baddie, gains glory and honor.

Here is the Heroine’s Journey in one pithy sentence: Increasingly networked protagonist strides around with good friends, prodding them and others on to victory, together.

This brought tears to my eyes; then I laughed out loud. The heroine’s journey is the way I write my stories. Her second sentence could be a blurb for my trilogy.

Hey, I even have a heroine—singer Selena M, who sings real songs. My stories are told from her perspective.

I’ve been so frustrated trying to cram my stories into the framework of the hero’s journey, and they just don’t fit.

I write science fiction. The standard sci fi trope is to fight the nasty evil aliens who are out to invade Earth and destroy humankind. Ray guns and blasters and dogfights in space using World War II tactics. Stories like this no longer grab my attention.

My heroine Selena is a renowned singer who’s reluctant to sing her most meaningful songs because they make her feel vulnerable. She rescues an injured alien whose spaceship crashed on her hillside. The alien is also a singer, who ran away from home because she wasn’t allowed to sing her heartfelt songs, and set out with friends to explore the galaxy. The two help each other recapture their passion for singing.

A theme of my trilogy is Selena’s efforts to come to terms with her singing. How to honor it as the passion of her life. How to balance performing with flying off into space. How to perform her music on other worlds.

On this journey she forms multiple partnerships. With the alien that crashed. With two other women; they become the Three Spaceketeers. With several powerful men, including one modeled after Elon Musk. With a raunchy country singer and a brash New York agent. With two aliens who rescue her when she’s marooned in deep space. She trains a small AI device to develop a personality so it can be her companion when she’s alone in space. All of these help her on her adventures, help her when she’s in a jam, and saves her life multiple times.

Her antagonists are not bloodthirsty alien monsters but officious government bureaucrats who want to grab the alien technology for themselves. She doesn’t kill them; she outsmarts them.

She strides around with good friends, and they prod each other to victory. Yes, I like that! Heroine’s journey.

*   *   *

I explore several ideas in my stories that I may share with you in future posts:

— Why are aliens friendly? What happened to the hostile aliens?

— If aliens come to Earth, what do they want?

— What do aliens look like? Not too humanoid, not too weird. Why? How does convergent evolution play out?

— Why haven’t alien races spread throughout the galaxy, including Earth?

— Do the aliens evolve higher and higher intelligence?

— How does one plausibly leap between stars?

*   *   *

Mike’s trilogy includes:

— Aliens Crashed in My Back Yard

— My Spaceship Calls Out to Me

— Spacegirl Yearning

He’s now working on “book 4 of the trilogy”:

— Alien Invasion: There Goes the Neighborhood

Check these out on galaxytalltales.com. Available as ebooks and paperbacks.

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Why, I Write!

by Scott D. Vander Ploeg
[This essay derives from a prompt: “Why I Write,” which I’ve slightly altered.]

Yes, I do. 

George Orwell tells us that it is important to know the background of a writer in order to understand his or her “emotional attitude,” which influences the subject matter the writer chooses and is the impetus that sends the writer forward in writing. He also says that he knew he would be a writer when he was just a child.

I did not. I did not know what my future might be, and instead opted to chase crawdads in the creek with my best friend, Brian. We spent our days playing a great variety of games, some we made up ourselves. My emotional attitude was all about play. Writing came much later, but it is all about play, too.

I recall an early love for reading, and as a means to impress my eighth-grade teacher, Ms. Oleanor, I tried wading through The Brothers Karamazov, knowing little about Russia or that each character had around five different names. I wrote for her a short story that involved a Formula I race track and a very tall pagoda (liked that word) that toppled over onto the contestants.

After this magnum opus, I went fallow in my literary efforts, and wrote the required assignments without great lust for the work. I wrote a senior thesis on censorship, and learned how not to develop a research paper. When I attended college, at Purdue U, as an English major I was in a minority among the throng of engineers and sciency types. In my junior year, I wrote fluffy features stories for the college student newspaper, the Purdue Exponent. Other college writing? Well, of course essays and term papers, and when I look back on these I’m embarrassed by the level of mechanical error. I clearly did not think correctness was all that important. It is not lost on me that as an English composition essay teacher, I would be correcting student writing, and that if I had been my student, I probably would have failed myself. Cosmic payback.

My own college English composition course experience was dismal. For instructor, I had lucked into getting a real professor instead of a TA, Dr. Leslie Field. He was a Thomas Wolfe scholar, and smoked a pipe in class, leaning back, long legs extended, while he regaled us with stories about drinking with the great author himself, and his time as a soldier in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Field’s pedagogic strategy was mimicry—read essays then write in the style of that author. It was an old strategy. I later learned this was a fairly mindless way to generate compositional expertise. He first assigned us to read a series of essays by none other than George Orwell—“Shooting an Elephant,” “A Hanging,” and “Politics and the English Language.” We read these and he told us what we should understand from them. We nodded our heads. Then he had the audacity to assign us to turn in our first essay of the semester.

I was flabbergasted, gob-smacked, and describable by lots of other funny sounding words that denote complete and utter dismay. I had no idea what to do, what to write about, and the damned thing was due on the next Monday. I looked around for the equivalent of an elephant in “must” that needed shooting. The former corn fields of West Lafayette, Indiana, were not offering anything comparable. I sweated proverbial bullets, finally drafting something that could best be described as “lunatic,” about my dorm living conditions, and worried about flunking out in my first semester. Surprisingly, he liked it, and I got a solid B for the sheer wackiness of my idea.

And I really loved new words. Don’t recall where the advice came from (Mortimer J. Adler?), but it was that we should keep a note card as book mark, and when we see a new word, write it down and find a synonym definition to write next to the word. If the word pops up again, we are to play a game to see if we can remember it, and then check on the card. I did this with the somewhat fusty Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and added a couple dozen new words to my tacit vocabulary. I remember Stowe used the word “vociferously” several times.

Still, I was not much of a writer. I was a vociferous reader, and a pretty good teacher, even though I did not take up the quill myself.  It is impossible to completely avoid hypocrisy, I believe, but I made the effort. In one advanced writing class, I told the students that if they found places to submit their writing, I would write and submit along with them. My student, Patricia, had found that the regional NPR radio affiliate, WKMS, out of Murray, Kentucky, would accept contributed essays from the listening public. She sent one in, it was accepted, and she drove to Murray State U to record it. Then it was my turn. I did it, too. It was good fun. She quit after writing a few, finding it to be too much work and hassle. I kept going, recording around 120 such 3-4 minute spots. The following, heavily edited and excerpted, is my 22nd radio commentary, from June 12, 1999:

It was with great surprise that I nodded my head when I was recently introduced to a stranger with these words: “This is Scott—he’s a really good writer.” I had never before been assigned that label. I did not know how to wrap my mind around it—a vocation, an occupation, an obsession? In any case, I found the moment absolutely delicious. My chest expanded in egotism. In spite of the prevailing anti-intellectualism and the pop culture of distractions, as a people we tend to admire our writers. We grant them a special status in our secular hierarchy, as though they possess special wisdom, sages who open their hands and reveal words the readers try to snatch away, like when the young “grasshopper” Kwai Chang Caine tried to snatch a rock from his master’s palm in the television series, Kung Fu. I yearned for that kind of attention….

I want to tell stories and be the guy who magnetically attracts others to listen, the fellow who is always ready with a joke, always the one who must be invited to the party. Judging from the novels and movies about writers, such as in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, publishers would probably disagree and think the authors are a burden and a curse. Ironically, the industry depends on writers, though it doesn’t always treat them well.

Lastly for you listeners, I write now because I just can’t stop myself. Robert Frost was asked why he wrote poetry, and replied that it is because he had one hell of a good time doing it. Yes, it is something that is fun to do—for those who have acquired a taste for it. It is work, hard work, but it is fun work (for me). This is fun in a deep and meaningful sense, a way to assert my essential humanity. Words and word-play are a manifestation of an internal dialogue between me and myself, the auto-pilot Bloomian stream-of-conscious that runs on a loop in the mind. Writing provides an inner game of signification that is the difference between the dream of life and the sleep of death. I am the words I am, the “I am” of who I am, or as Popeye says—“I yam what I yam!”

I dissertated in 1993, a work on thematic self-reflexivity in the poetry of John Donne. I read up on Donne and Donne criticism for years, and started to put together an extended essay in the previous summer. It failed. I learned the next spring that my dissertation director, Dr. John T. Shawcross, was planning to retire. It was push-time. I began writing as soon as the spring semester concluded in early May, and by mid-August had around 180 pages drafted. Generally, I would go to the college and work in the evenings, finishing at two or three in the morning. I began submitting chapters and with revising, and completing the draft, it grew to 340 pages. While this may seem rather plodding information, what I want to convey is something that I was surprised to learn: that there was great joy in the act of sustained writing. I loved it. I was so caught up in my writing that it accompanied me when I drove home. One time, at 3 a.m., I realized I was blowing through a red stop light at a major intersection, completely captivated by thoughts of what I had just drafted. It was all-encompassing and I was all in. I found joy in writing. Since then, I write when I can, because I love doing it.

In an effort to better inform the other faculty, who also had dim understanding of what we taught, and the staff and advisors, I started writing humanities “nuggets”—brief explanations of literary or artistic things going on around us. I sent these via the email system at our college. After the first few, I realized these nuggets might have a home in the local newspaper. The newspaper’s editor agreed and I began a column, writing articles of just a couple hundred words on a weekly basis. I kept them light and friendly. After writing a hundred of such, I retired the column, though the editor wanted me to continue (it was an unpaid gig).

The take away: When asked why I write, like Orwell I can come up with several reasons. I think the better question is why in the world wouldn’t I write? It is such serious fun to play with language, to orchestrate the essay, to paint with words—when I am thus engaged, I am at my very best. To me, writing is simply the most intense playfulness I can find. In the middle of the Twentieth-century, Jean Piaget studied how children play and from what he learned developed theories about education, his genetic epistemology. The process approach to teaching composition that I was led to use in some ways derived from this.

In my study of the varieties of literary criticism, I was attracted to phenomenological or reader-response theory. It may be more of a sociological brand, but in some ways I think play-theory, because of its similar interactive nature, appeals to me even more. In 1938 a Dutch historian and cultural observer, Johan Huizinga, wrote an investigation of the way that mankind is involved in play, titling his work Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. The Latinate first words of the title mean ‘mankind playing.’ With a nod to his idea of playfulness, I give you, Homo Scripturam, ‘mankind writing,’ or for me in particular, Homo Scribbler.

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