About Writers, inspiration, Writers Co-op

Hobby Anyone?

That’s a photo of Vladimir Nabokov chasing butterflies.
Ayn Rand collected stamps, Emily Dickinson baked, Dostoyevsky gambled, Tolkien was a conlang* wizard, Tolstoy played chess, and Franz Kafka amassed an extensive collection of pornography.

Mark Twain, friends with Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, obsessed over science and technology. He even patented three inventions of his own.

Why? Flannery O’Connor suggested, “Fiction writing is very seldom a matter of saying things; it is a matter of showing things. Any discipline can help your writing. Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look.” I couldn’t agree more.

That may be why E. E. Cummings painted daily, creating 1,600+ drawings, oil paintings, sketches, and watercolors. Other writers who used art to better visualize included Henry Miller, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, and Sylvia Plath. And of course, our own Mimi Speike comes to mind.

What about you? I use photography to “see” things I might otherwise not glance at twice.
What’s your hobby?

~

*conlang is a word used here in an attempt to pay back Carl E. Reed for constantly making me look up words.

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About Writers, Freedom of Writing, Uncategorized, Welcome

Welcome To My Coffice

by Scott D. Vander Ploeg

As I write this, piped in music is playing in the background. On some occasions, live music happens here. I look up and see some of the art works of my friend, Carl Berges. Around me there are people reading—books or newspapers or magazines or online feeds. Kids sometimes open up board games and play them with gleeful abandon. Politicians sometimes arrive to ask for voters’ opinions. In one corner, a small group of people are planning a business venture. The staff’s culinary efforts have made available a variety of breakfast items, and made-to-order lunch sandwiches. On one wall, people have created a multicolor inked communal graffito. A little over three years ago, a history professor and a literature professor lectured here, about solar eclipses. Poetry has been aired here.

I’m an advocate for the humanities, the subjects that involve the celebration of our most human activities: music, art, literature, philosophy, languages, drama, sculpture, architecture, and more. Often, a person who wants to experience one of these will go to a particular venue or event and experience that one kind of humanities subject: drama in a theatre, music at an auditorium, etc. Where, though, might people go if they want a mix of these wonderous arts?

The savvy reader will already know that I am at a coffee house, in particular: Madisonville Kentucky’s Big City Market Café. If in Owensboro, I might be ensconced in an egg-shaped chair (channeling Mork) at The Crème Coffee House. If I was in East Lansing, MI, I might be admiring the tattoos of the baristas at the Espresso Royal. Back in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, in my youth, I sat for hours at Atz’s Ice Cream Shoppe, guzzling cup after cup while reading the Riverside edition of the complete works of Bill Shakespeare. The downtown coffee shop adorned its walls with used burlap coffee sacks.

While wintering in Florida this year, I spent time at Cocoa Beach’s Juice and Java Café, and the Osario’s in Cocoa Village. I prefer independent coffee houses, but am pleased that Panera and Starbucks provide alternative locations. In the environs of Vernon Hills suburban Chicago Illinois, I rotate between four different Panera’s Bread Co. shops. According to the anniversary email they sent this Spring, my Unlimited Coffee Subscription saved me $338.52 over 138 cups.

Currently, I have succeeded in getting a dozen of my writings published since I began this effort last September, nine months ago. I have another twenty under consideration at various journals. All of these, and more, were written at coffee houses. I know many prefer to write at home, but I think there is an argument for not doing this work there. It hasn’t become popular yet, but I offer the word “coffice” for those like me who rely on the coffee house to conduct business.

At the coffice I am not distracted by laundry, food preparation, and having to straighten up after myself. At the coffice I can focus on my writing. There is just the right amount of activity to keep me awake. And then yes, I like coffee.

Coffee was discovered in Africa in the 9th century AD. Its use became common in the Middle East in the late 1400s. Turkey and Morocco became deeply invested in it. It arrived in Europe in the 1600s, and the English coffee house became a fad in the 1700s. Turkish and/or Greek coffee is a particularly strong drink made from a powdered coffee, found like a muddy estuary at the bottom of the cup. I like mine “orto”—slightly sweet. One of my favorite memories is of ordering an espresso at an outdoor café in the 14th Arrondissement of Paris, France, under the shadow of the Tour Montparnasse. In homage to Hemmingway, I sipped a cup at the Café du Dôme, which was just around the corner from the apartment where I crashed for a few months at my cousin’s apartment in the early 1980s.

While the tavern had an earlier history of drawing people together for discussion and predictable argument, the coffee house encouraged more serious and sustained discussion, as the patrons there were stimulated by caffeine rather than depressed by alcohol. Today’s version of the coffee house is augmented by technology—so that wireless internet access is mandatory, and people are commonly found staring at laptops and using their smartphones while slurping down a cappuccino or frothy latte.

So the coffee house is the bastion and bulwark of the humanities, to an extent. I note that the addition of coffee shops in some places indicates a gentrification effect, suggesting a kind of cultural invasion, or an economic upsurge—good or bad as that may be, depending on who is losing or gaining as a result. I have been to the original Starbucks, in Seattle, WA, and have my obligatory memento: a Pike’s Place coffee mug. It’s huge! While I’m pleased at this, I know that some believe that the Starbucking of America is a kind of blight—and that “baristas don’t let friends drink Starbucks.” I would bet cold cash money that more people recognize the Starbucks logo/image than they do the Presidential Seal.  

After a hectic day, there is nothing better than sitting back with a cup of coffee at my local coffee house. This is when I can reflect on a variety of subjects, such as coffee houses, and write about them! I soak in the ambience—art, music, whatever I’m reading—and the caffeine—and walk away refreshed, ready to take on the rest of the day’s challenges.

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About Writers, world-building, writing technique

How much world?

Alex’s Sci-Fi World by Matt Schaefer

I don’t write, or even read, much sci-fi, but I do have a trilogy planned that takes place on another planet. I don’t know if it qualifies as sci-fi since the inhabitants are as human-like as hobbits and face very human problems. Really it’s just an excuse for me to give free rein to my imagination by writing a story about humans without the constraint of respecting earthly reality.

But of course they inhabit a world which has other constraints, so I’ll have to decide how much of that world to describe. In other words, the world-building issue. We always have it, but a story set on earth can rely on shared assumptions about how the world operates. Not so on another planet, where we can make the world as we want, but then we have to replace those unwritten assumptions with explicit information. What will my inhabitants eat? How will they dress? Travel? Communicate? What are their towns and cities like? The list is almost endless.

Here are a few thoughts on the matter from some proper sci-fi writers:

Alastair Reynolds. My approach to world-building is a bit smoke and mirrors – there’s only as much as you need to carry the story. I think of it as one of those sets they used to have for cowboy films: the facades look good, but if you walk around the back, it’s all props and plywood. I don’t want to sound lazy, but I want to do as little as possible. I don’t need to know how the sewage system works to tell a story about someone on another planet.

Nnedi Okorafor. My stories tend to start with the characters. Then I look through their eyes (or however they “see”), minds, perspectives to observe the world. Typically this happens the moment the character exists. So I know the world not long after I know the characters. I walk through it, I smell the air, listen to the gossip, observe its insect world, hear its history through various perspectives, and so on … I experience it.

AnnLeckie. I try to choose details that are real – the whole of human history and culture is fantastically varied – and that seem to fit together. In real life, cultures and histories are full of things that contradict each other. There will be one common narrative of how things happen, how people live and eat and so on, but people won’t actually always do things that way. I try to include such moments, because it makes my world more three-dimensional. I also leave some things unexplained or just referred to, as though the world is much bigger than just this one story and won’t all fit in the pages.

Kim Stanley Robinson. I don’t like the term world-building. I’d say there’s no such thing – it’s a term out of a vocabulary that grew in writing workshops to help writers talk about the craft of fiction. But the writer should remember that these diagnostic terms are not what the reader feels while reading: the reader reads in a kind of dreamlike state in which the events of a story really happen. So the writer should focus on somehow forwarding the story. That’s the only imperative: make that “willing suspension of disbelief” go into action, and take the reader away.

These are just excerpts – the full article is here. It’s given me some useful pointers on how to set about it. But I’m sure you have others – whether you write sci-fi or not, how do you build your worlds?

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About Writers

It’s fun, right?

Sarah Waters: When you approach your desk in the morning, do you ever find yourself wanting to run screaming in the opposite direction? If so, how do you get yourself to sit down and start writing? (I’m asking for a friend.)
Hilary Mantel: I haven’t the energy for running and screaming but often I want to lie and groan under a tarpaulin.

Many years ago I went to a writers’ round table conference at the Edinburgh Literary Festival. I only recall two of the participants now: Gore Vidal (because he was Gore Vidal), and the late, great Beryl Bainbridge, on account of her reply to a question from a member of the audience.

‘How,’ she was asked, ‘do you overcome the urge to stay away from your desk and do all the other things that need to be done, such as the housework?’ For a moment, Bainbridge was flummoxed, as if trying to get her head round such a bizarre question. Then she explained that she’d never had that urge; her urge was to write, which was what she did while the house descended into chaos and grime around her.

I’m fully with Bainbridge here. (Not, I hasten to add, because Mrs B does the housework – she’s kept busy by her own projects, so it’s only when a certain threshold is reached that we tackle the chaos and grime.) It might even be said that searching for an excuse not to write means that you’re not really a writer. Significantly, in her question to Mantel, Sarah Waters added that she was asking for a friend; I’m sure that she, indubitably a writer, approaches her desk very differently.

Up to a point, though, I can see where Mantel is coming from when she says that being a novelist is no fun. The frustration when a paragraph won’t come right, the anxiety when the plot won’t hold together, the dreadful uncertainty about where the whole thing is heading. John Banville puts it more strikingly: ‘Writing a novel is like wading through wet sand, at night, in a storm, with no lantern to guide one’s steps and no lighthouse to warn of the submerged reefs and wrecks that lie ahead.’

But none of this deters me enough to keep me away from my desk. I love the challenge of solving the problems as I go, I love seeing each draft get successively richer, more detailed, and I love the satisfaction that comes with knowing when I’ve got something right. Sure, the end result always falls short of the vision, but that’s what spurs me on to write the next one. No one’s denying it’s an effort, there’s always a struggle involved. But surely that’s where the pleasure lies, isn’t it? A vaccuum cleaner? What’s that?

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About Writers, inspiration, marketing, Welcome, Writers Co-op

I Find the Covid To Be…

Finish that statement as you like. Me, I find the Covid to be rife with story fodder. It provides common references for readers that benefit any genre.

Horror, obviously. The Covid is acidic and round, with spikes that bind to your cell’s outer membrane. As it sits against the cell, more spikes come out, like grappling hooks and soon, its acid burns a hole through the membrane and the virus slips inside. At this point, your body’s defenses cannot find and kill the virus. Your cell is now doomed.
The membrane of the virus dissolves, the genes of the virus spill into the cell, penetrate to the cell nucleus, insert themselves into the cell’s genome, and begin producing copies of the virus. Meanwhile, those spikes have been disintegrating the cell’s outer membrane.
The time it takes for a virus to burst a cell varies, but about 10 hours is not uncommon. Then, a swarm of 100,000 to one million new viruses explode your cell.
That’s real horror.

Or the Thriller genres. No one alive has ever experienced this strong a pandemic, so conspiracy theories abound. Don’t ignore that market of paranoid readers who fear and hate other readers.

And of course, that most popular of genres, Romance: “She could never forget the man she loved because she carried his Covid.”

But, maybe I’m feeling cynical? Six months of quarantine will do that. How about you? How is the Covid affecting your writing life?

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About Writers, blogging, Research

Pushing the Sci Envelope

Science fiction authors used to push the envelope of knowledge. Rocket ships dropped out of space to land on their tails. GORT, the robot, walked among us in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Arthur C. Clarke submitted a manuscript to Wireless World magazine proposing global communication through geostationary satellites in 1945. These concepts are major industries, today, of course. In fact, today’s science seems to have sprinted ahead of fiction.

I stumbled upon an article about “working memory.” That’s cognitive scientists’ speak for how many potentially conflicting bits of information we can hold in out head. If a point requires more working memory than I have, I just won’t “get it.” Take the example of face masks during a pandemic. There is conflicting information in the media about the usefulness of face masks. The article correlated working memory with face mask use and found that people with less working memory tended to not wear masks. When it comes to complex situations, not everyone “gets it.”

The working memory article gave me a simple idea for a story, that the world is becoming more complex and as it does so, more and more people just won’t “get it.” What happens, I wondered, when the world reaches a point where not enough people understand the complexity of it to keep it running? Does it all break down? Chaos? Lost in my own thoughts, I Googled “complexity and chaos.” And, whoops! I stepped in it.

Turns out, there is a body of scientific study called “complexity science.” Most of it is baffling mathematics. I’m a writer, not a mathematician. But I write hard science fiction, so I have to get the science right and present it in a way to make the fiction entertaining. Luckily, I found A simple guide to chaos and complexity. It’s a scholarly paper written in (mostly) plain English for the health services and I have (some) background in medical care. I now have an inkling of how little I know.

Maybe we should stick to writing stories about things we know? A simple idea is turning into a year or more of research and writing. I used to approach science through fiction and now, I have to approach fiction through science? But enough complaining. Curiosity is addictive. What if people really are limited in how complex a life they can handle? What if our civilization does continue becoming more complex? Will chaos result? What-if is how sci-fi pushes the envelope of knowledge.

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About Writers, writing technique

Sterne plans

030718-09-Laurence-Sterne-Literature-History

There has been a couple of mentions of Tristram Shandy on this blog, which led me to have another look at this ‘most modern of 18th century novels’. That’s from the blurb on the back of the Norton Critical edition, which also comes with a number of essays commenting on the work. One of these essays, by Wayne Booth, is called Did Sterne Complete Tristram Shandy?

It’s a good question. Sterne wrote his book in nine volumes released over eight years, the last one a few months before his death. The full title was The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, but the narrator, Tristram himself, doesn’t make a physical appearance till almost half way through. For the good reason that he isn’t yet born: the first volumes deal with the circumstances and consequences of his conception.

Sterne is a master of the digression and so bewitchingly precise is his portrayal of his father and his uncle that the reader willingly follows; but at times it does seem that the book is, as E.M. Forster called it, a muddle. Stern was surely the original pantser – someone who writes by the seat of their pants.

 

Nonetheless, Wayne Booth argues that Sterne in fact was a planner. And he points out several examples of foreshadowing that come together in the final volume. I don’t know. It’s not a question I’ve ever asked myself. To me the muddle is entertaining. But in Booth’s prose, it sounds plausible.

These days, foreshadowing is easy, if only retroactively. We can zip back and forth within a text to add the details which give it more cohesion. If I discover late in the book that my character needs a scarf, I can go back and add it to an earlier scene. That wasn’t available in Sterne’s day, at least not to a writer of his spontaneity. The manuscript shows few traces of revision.

As time goes on, I’m drawn increasingly to planning. That might be because I once wrote a long, complex novel, largely unplanned, which took me 20 years. Alas, it didn’t enjoy the popularity of Tristram Shandy, so I turned to crime (well, not literally). Obviously, foreshadowing is vital there: that scarf could well be the murder weapon, so you can’t have it appear from nowhere.

But planning is more than joining the dots. It’s placing the dots in the first place. The number of chapters, the character arcs, the plot beats, the pace. How detailed the plan is depends on each author, but at some point the chapter by chapter outline mutates into the first draft.

My planning has recently become more ambitious. From a single novel to start with, it now stretches over a series of four. It’s the same principle, but dealing with six main characters who feature throughout, so each character’s arc needs to be thought through to the end. I love the challenge of that. But the plan evolves from the idea, not the other way round. I sometimes read about a book’s ‘ideal structure’, but in my opinion, to push an idea into a plan like the one below leaves little room for the organic growth of the story.

book recipe

If you’re thinking of planning a series, here are some useful tips. J.K. Rowling planned the whole of her seven-book series at the start; Emile Zola wrote 20 novels about the Rougon-Macquart family. Me? Four is the limit. I’ve got too many other things to write.

 

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About Writers, inspiration, Uncategorized

Behind the Story

Authors are creative people. Give us an interesting idea or a memorable experience, and we’ll create a world, populate it with believable characters, and tell their stories. Not that you have to wait for the gift. Jack London famously said, “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”

A WWII a bombardier dealt with the horrors of war in his memories for years before a line suddenly popped into his head: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, [the as yet unnamed main character] fell madly in love with him.” Joseph Heller began writing a short story that gripped him for years before it became the novel, Catch-22.

One of many women growing up in the deep south of segregation watched her father defend two black men against a charge of murdering a white businessman. They were hanged. That father and son had no chance in 1919 Alabama. Harper Lee turned her childhood experiences into To Kill A Mockingbird.

Creativity is sometimes reaction. J.D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye as a personal reaction against war. He had several chapters with him when he landed on D-Day. It can also be misleading. Russian and American novelist Vladimir Nabokov read German and lived 15 years in Berlin, beginning in 1922. He could have read the short story, “Lolita,” written by prominent Berlin author Heinz von Lichberg in 1919. The similarities with Nabokov’s Lolita are numerous.

What about you? What lies behind your stories?

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About Writers, writing technique

The Weight of Fiction

Barbell_Feature-732x549

‘The two most depressing words in the English language are ‘literary fiction’. (David Hare, playwright).

Hare doesn’t elaborate, but it isn’t hard to see what he means. ‘Literary fiction’ is where anything that isn’t obviously in any other genre gets shoved. Literary fiction is perceived as more profound, harder to read, but ultimately more rewarding than genre fiction. As the Dactyl Foundation puts it, ‘The subject of the work is engaged with something that might be called weighty, questioning how we think, how we make meaning, why things happen the way they do, how we decide what’s right or wrong, or musing over what might have been.’ The consequence of such weightiness is that literary fiction sells less well than genre fiction and even fewer writers make any money out of it. To label a book ‘literary’ will have many a reader running in the opposite direction, because what can a ‘weighty’ book be but heavy going?

When I started out writing, I had literary aspirations. I still do in fact, if by that you mean books that don’t fit into other marketing categories. I have several such WIPs on the back burner, but in the meantime, having decided a while back to write books which would, I hoped, be more commercial, I’ve opted for crime.

Why not romance or science fiction? I don’t remember giving the matter any thought – the choice was almost instinctive. If I look for a reason now, I’d say it was Ten Little Niggers (published in the US, for obvious reasons, as And Then There Were None, but I read the UK’s 1963 Fontana edition, and still see the cover in my mind – the UK title wasn’t changed till 1986). Christie’s novel had it all: claustrophobic setting, relentless succession of deaths, gradual elimination of suspects until, utterly bamboozled, I cried out, ‘So who was it? It’s not possible!’ – only to discover that not only was it possible, but the murderer (and Agatha) had fooled me all along. Inevitably, having read that book, it would never occur to me to write a novel called Leonora in Love or Glitch in the Galaxy.

I take issue, however, with the Dactyl Foundation’s pronouncement. There’s no reason why genre fiction, whether crime or any other, shouldn’t also question how we think or decide what’s right or wrong. Consider these excerpts from top crime writers’ analyses of their favourite crime novels:

Val McDermid on Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Heights: ‘Although Hill’s roots were firmly in the traditional English detective novel, he brought to it an ambivalence and ambiguity that allowed him to display the complexities of contemporary life.’

Sophie Hannah on Agatha Christie’s The Hollow: ‘As well as being a perfectly constructed mystery, it’s a gripping, acutely observed story about a group of people, their ambitions, loves and regrets.’

SJ Watson on Daphné du Maurier’s Rebecca: ‘A dark, brooding psychological thriller, hauntingly beautiful, […] but more importantly, this is an exploration of power, of the men who have it and the women who don’t, and the secrets told to preserve it.’

Susie Steiner on Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution: ‘What stays in the mind is the Peak District community of Scarsdale, the investigator as outsider trying to permeate its secrets. And the sheer quality of the writing.’

Jacob Ross on Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park: ‘A crime novel – like any story – succeeds or fails on the basis of character. Renko confirms this for me every time. It is an incredible feat of character portrayal.’

Other choices in the list speak for themselves: Crime and Punishment, Bleak House, The Moonstone… What is striking is the stress on factors other than plot, such as character, mood, and setting. Proof, surely, that a good crime novel is about a lot more than a detective solving a murder.

The same is true, I’m sure, of any genre. Literariness and weightiness are two different things, and for all the supposed profundity it implies, the label ‘literary’ is more of a burden than an accolade. David Hare is right to be depressed.

 

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About Writers, blogging, book promotion, book sales, marketing, Uncategorized, Welcome, Writers Co-op

Promote Yourself & Your Work on the Writers Co-op

Because some have asked, we are re-printing our first post, by Curtis Bausse, APRIL 26, 2016.

Here we are!

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.

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.

Authors & Editors & AnyOne
at all in the Writing Life are invited to
Promote Yourself & Your Work at
The Writers Co-op.
Email
GD<at>Deckard<dot><one>

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