Freedom of Writing, inspiration, Stories, writing prompt

What an idea!

Photo by Tracy Lee, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Some years ago, after rejecting an author’s short story for the Book a Break Anthology, I received a reply in which she acknowledged that a weakness in her story was the idea itself. In actual fact, her idea wasn’t bad; there followed a discussion in which we agreed that while a poor idea brilliantly executed will always be better than a brilliant idea poorly executed, it’s better yet to have a brilliant idea brilliantly executed.  

I’m not sure how or when an idea strikes me as brilliant enough to be developed. The more that development proceeds, it will at some point, inevitably, stop seeming brilliant and turn into a struggle to find the words that will do the original vision justice. For that to happen, though, it had to come through all the previous stages of development unscathed – which means it must have been brilliant enough in the first place, right?

I currently have 72 files in the Ideas folder on my laptop, but the number of actual ideas is much higher because most of them are in a single document. They might run to a couple of lines or a paragraph; often they’re just a few words. Those that emerge from this survival of the fittest are rewarded with a document file to themselves; eventually, they may even get a folder.

The folder stage is reserved for the elite. By that time the text may run from 3000 to 20000 words. I currently have 16 folders, but half of them are gathering the substantial amount of dust that lands on my keyboard. That still makes eight active ideas to keep an eye on, by which I mean that any article I spot related to that idea will be read, sorted into the folder, and may lead to an addition or amendment to the text. But that’s a matter of minutes; at any given time there’s really only one idea bubbling away at the front – the others gently simmer further back.

Whether any of these ideas is brilliant is obviously debatable. And the point remains that it isn’t having ideas that’s hard, it’s doing something decent with them. But brilliant or not, all ideas start with a little spark in the brain that either gathers strength or fizzles out. Putting them in my Ideas folder means that some at least have a chance of surviving, sometimes emerging many years later, like Brood X (though rather less numerous).

As to where they come from, the sources are multiple, but I’m currently drawn to the zaniness one regularly comes across browsing the news. A few examples:

French police say they are building a case against an international gang of toy thieves specialising in stealing Lego – and they have warned specialist shops and even parents to be aware of a global trade in the bricks.

A mafia fugitive has been caught in the Caribbean after appearing on YouTube cooking videos in which he hid his face but inadvertently showed his distinctive tattoos.

In the flesh, Jeanne Pouchain appears very much alive and well. Convincing the French authorities of this has proven another matter. After being declared dead by a court, Pouchain has spent three years trying to have herself officially resuscitated.

A Welsh man has issued a public call to help find two Irish men who helped him return home from Australia in 1965 by packing him up and mailing him in a crate.

Whether any of these will be developed remains to be seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jeanne Pouchain eventually makes it past the next couple of stages, reaching the point where the hard slog begins.

And you? How do you handle your ideas?

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About Writers, inspiration, Stories, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

CONNECTIONS

A story can emerge into consciousness when we connect the dots in unexpected ways. Dead people have to outnumber the living. Can you put your sock on the wrong foot? What are the odds a computer will develop intelligence on its own? How in hell can a meat sack travel the interstellar distances between stars -maybe, we’ll just have to ride our planet and see where it takes us? In a society of adamantly diverse groups, can any be right, or are there universal truths to unite us? If you survive a nuclear war and the radiation doesn’t kill you, how do you not starve to death? How many NGOs are strictly for profit? Is slavery really immoral or simply economic? How do we personally change when we go from a normal life into a real war? Are we essentially a stupid species, using up our planet’s resources, knowing all the while this has to end badly?
That these are all story ideas, I know, having written each of them. Writers think the damndest things.

My condo overlooks a golf course here in Southwest Florida and early this morning, while watching the caretakers keeping it smooth and green, it occurred to me that a really challenging golf course would be one that is not maintained. Connect that thought to determined golfers, years into a post-apocalyptic world, and you have a story, maybe sad, maybe satirical, maybe uplifting -the writer decides.

How we connect our thoughts, the bridges between them, can build any story. Mimi Speike creates charmingly delightful illustrated works, Carl E. Reed slams the senses with intellectually-pointed outrage, Curtis Bausse has given us intricately devised detective stories, Perry Palin uses his sense of nature to inform his characters of their own nature. Connecting what we know in unexpected ways may be close to a definition of creativity and that applies to any genre.

What were you thinking, just before a story idea popped into your awareness?

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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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Stories, Writers Co-op Anthology

Rabbit Hole pre-order

Volume 3 of The Rabbit Hole (ebook) is now available for pre-order.

Romantically weird, weirdly romantic: 27 stories that take you down the rabbit hole to love. But if love never did run smooth, here it goes wild – this is love that twists and torments, plunges and prowls, love that crosses boundaries unknown. Oysters and aliens, ghost and gods, stalkers and stars – there’s no limit to the forms that love can take. Why, that toaster – be honest now – are you sure it doesn’t arouse a burning desire?

Tragedy, humour, mystery, drama, hope – Volume 3 of The Rabbit Hole brings you love in its most mischievous guises, from cunning and cruel to cloud nine bliss. Confirmation, if any were needed, that love is a weird, but many-splendoured thing.

Anyone who pre-orders now (at the special launch price of $0.99) will have it delivered to their reading device on 9th October. On that date the paperback will also be available for puchase.

Pre-order links:

Amazon Apple Barnes&Noble Kobo

And in another great deal Volume 0 will be free on Amazon from 1st to 5th October.

Weirdness awaits you!

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Stories, Writers Co-op Anthology

Rabbit Hole 0 pre-order

The Rabbit Hole Vol 0_2-web

It’s here, folks! Well, not fully until the official launch date on July 17th, but you can pre-order now at the special launch discount price of $0.99. That’s for the ebook – there’s no pre-order for the paperback.

Some people say that doing pre-orders on Amazon isn’t a good idea because unlike the other online retailers, Amazon doesn’t wait till the launch date but calculate the sales rank using pre-order figures. This means that on the launch date itself, you’re less likely to hit a top spot in the sales rank because the pre-orders have already been counted. But nice as it would be to be up with the bestsellers, I’m not that concerned about our sales rank spike on launch date. I’d rather see a steady number of sales spread over a longer period.

So go for it! A bunch of great stories for $0.99 – what’s not to like?

Amazon            Apple              Barnes & Noble              Kobo

Later in the year, Rabbit Hole 3 will come out. At that point we’ll organise a Facebook event – games, quizzes, and a bundle of stuff to win. Stay tuned for more Rabbit Hole news!

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book reviews, Stories, Writers Co-op, Writers Co-op Anthology

The Rabbit Hole Volume Zero

The Rabbit Hole Vol 0_2-web

The world is weird. If any proof was needed, the first few months of 2020 provided it. But did we need proof? Didn’t we already know that you only have to scratch the surface to see the weirdness beneath? Sometimes it oozes out, suppurates, infects; sometimes it leaps out, takes root and blossoms.

We get used to it, carry on as if it wasn’t there. But we have it inside us – we are weird. What you see as normal is just the sum of abnormalities that you experienced last week, yesterday, this morning – so of course you’ll experience it tomorrow. Or will you?

Zero. Now, that’s a strange number. Its first recorded use was in ancient Babylon, but it didn’t reach Europe till the 12th Century. A round hole of nothing, containing everything. Black hole, wormhole, sinkhole, loophole… is it the beginning or the end? Welcome to the Rabbit Hole. Weird.

Volume Zero of The Rabbit Hole is a collection of texts from 12 invited authors who have also participated, with different texts, in the other volumes. Though published chronologically between volumes 2 and 3, it can be seen as an introduction, offering a good entry point to the series as a whole.

It’s due for release on 17th July, but if you want to read it straightaway, no problem – fill in this brief form and I’ll send you an Advance Review Copy so that you can post an honest review on Amazon when it is launched. Naturally we’re looking for as many reviews as possible, but please note that reviews from friends and family of contributing authors are not accepted.

The volume contains 3 poems and 10 stories ranging from 650 to 18000 words,  170 pages in all. Contributing authors are Art Lasky, Paul Stansbury, CB Droege, Tom Bont, David Rogers, Barry Rosen, a stump, S.T. Ranscht, Marc Sorondo, Mitchell Grabois, Curtis Bausse and Boris Glikman.

 

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About Writers, book sales, editing, inspiration, Literary critique, publishing, Stories, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

My First Story

 – by Adam Stump

When I chose to start writing fiction professionally (if that’s what you could call what I do–professional), I didn’t do so because I thought that I’d make money (I’ve made about $12), and I didn’t do it because I thought I was a good writer (I have yet to win my Pulitzer). I did it because I had stories to tell. If anything, I’m a storyteller, not a writer. I only write when the storytelling muse abducts me (usually at 2AM), and I feel like I have a story worth sharing. These stories usually percolate in my subconscious for months or even years before I write them down. When I finally do write them down, they come out mostly complete and usually pretty good.

As such, after my decision to write a story to be published (by someone else), I chose a story that had been rolling around without any clear definition in my brain for quite some time. I used a lot of elements from my childhood in upstate New York as well as a story I had heard while I lived in Pittsburgh. I remember furiously clacking away on my keyboard as the story poured onto the screen of my laptop.

The recipe for that story was: One part nostalgia, one part adventure, and one part terror. I produced a story that I thought was one of the best that I had ever read. It truly was one of the best I had ever read, because it was exactly what I wanted to read.

That first story taught me a lot about writing. I was so proud of it that I sent it to several friends because I thought that they would enjoy it. They, in turn, tore the story to shreds (in my mind, anyway). As I picked up the proverbial pieces of my story (and morale) from the floor, I was in shock. I didn’t know how anyone else wouldn’t find the story to be the best that they had ever read.

Then, I re-read my story and saw that the critiques (that’s really what they were, not attacks) that my friends made were accurate, valid, and necessary. I performed my first ever critical revision on my first ever story. I shaved a couple thousand words of nostalgic description, I increased some characters, rewrote a few scenes, deleted some scenes, and (most shocking of all), I changed the name of the story.

The story was originally titled “The Storm Drain.” Can you imagine reading a story with a title like that? I can’t. My best friend and inspiration for writing, N.D. Coley, told me to change the title. I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry, I wanted to punch a hole through the wall. But he was 100% right. I changed the name of the story to “Keep Off the Grass.” It’s a line in the story, and he told me that the story had named itself. In retrospect, I agree.

After learning that I’m not the best writer in the world and that I need critical feedback and revision and even title changes, I produced a decent version of the story and began shopping around for a publication to publish this electronic packet of blood, sweat, and tears. I got rejection after rejection after rejection. I knew that I could self-publish, but I thought that this story was good enough to be accepted by someone else for publication–others would view the story as something worth sharing with their readers.

Every rejection letter that came back was virtually the same: “This story is just an homage to Stephen King’s Stand By Me,” a book I’ve never read and a movie that I’ve never seen. I didn’t even know the premise of the book/movie. I’ve since googled it and can see that the comparisons are valid. However, it doesn’t negate the fact that “Keep Off the Grass” is a good story. I’d also say that, for all the valid criticism, there are only so many plots out there when it comes to general fiction. I happened to stumble upon a plot that Stephen King stumbled upon, as well. The plot doesn’t belong to him or to me, but to the consciousness–the ethos–of storytelling.

Fast forward a few years and countless rejection letters to today. I opened up my email and the first thing that I saw was an acceptance letter from an editor who wants to share my story in his magazine. He didn’t say anything about Stephen King or Stand By Me. He said that it was a good story and he wanted to feature it in the upcoming issue of his magazine.

I wasn’t prepared for the emotions that would follow from reading that email. I literally wanted to scream and shout. I wanted to pound on pots and pans and run outside screaming that I had been published. I felt even more elated than I did when I actually received my first acceptance letter way back when. Why? Because this is my first story, and it’s part of my story. It’s still nostalgic for me, even if it’s been heavily edited and gone through a couple critical revisions since the first time I sat down to my laptop to capture it in writing.

The purpose of this post, though, isn’t just to give you some history of my writing, but to encourage you the reader. Have you written a story? Has it been rejected, but you still think it’s a good story? Keep at it. If you truly believe it’s a good story, keep sending it out. Don’t give up! I thought this story would be my first published story. It’s not. It’s a few years old now. If I wrote it today, it would probably be a different story. However, it is what it is. And it’s a success story. It certainly didn’t start that way. If you’re discouraged with your writing, don’t be. If it’s really good stuff, others will recognize it. As authors, we might have little control over the body of the story–maybe it’s the muse or maybe it’s the editorial team dictating the story–but we still control how the story begins and, ultimately, how the story ends!

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About Writers, book reviews, inspiration, Poetry, Stories, Uncategorized, world-building, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Probing Dhalgren

“Be glad you’re not just a character scrawled in the margins of somebody else’s lost notebook: you’d be deadly dull.”

The first time I read Samuel R. Delaney’s masterpiece, I didn’t know a couple of things. In 1975, I was neither privy to writing techniques nor did I know that Dhalgren would become recognized as one of the most profound science fiction novels of all time. I was simply riveted by the setting and the characters. When my Lady gave me an unusual edition this Christmas, I re-read that story I remembered so well from 44 years ago. (It never occurred to me at the time that I would see the year 2020 either, but, that’s another blog.)

If you write sci-fi, then you must attempt to read, or re-read, Dhalgren. If the first scene grabs you, you will be reluctant to put it down 800 pages later. Disclaimer: Like Joyce’s Ulysses, you can’t understand Dhalgren until you’ve read it and once you’ve read it, you can’t explain it. But here are three clues.

Dhalgren presents reality on the edge of perception, before we process it. “Even if the quotidian surface sits on it a bit askew.”

+++Finally Dragon Lady called down: “You still okay…?”
+++“Yeah.” Kidd took a breath. “I’ll tie the rope around him. You can haul him up.” He slipped the rope from under his arms, pulled it over his head, but left it around one shoulder; he stepped forward on the oozy filth, stooped, and tugged a leg from where it had wedged between two blackened bumper plates.
+++“… is he alive?” Thirteen called.
+++Kidd took another breath. “Naw.” He pulled at the arm, got a grip around the chest, which was all soft against him. His own shirt front soaked immediately. Blood dribbled along his forearm. Standing, he dragged the body back a step. A foot caught, pulled free; the leg fell back against his thigh — his thigh wet, warm, to the knee. Dragging it, limp, reaching for the rope, he thought: Is this what turns on blood and blade freaks? He thought of Tak, he thought of George, hunted in himself for any idle sexuality: he found it, disconcertingly, a small warmth above the loins that, as he bared his teeth and the rope slid through his sticky hand, went out. “Let me have another couple of feet!” Well, he had found it before in auto wrecks, in blue plush, in roots, in wet wood with the bark just stripped.

In that moment before we process reality, censorship is not possible.

Often, the real world occurs on the edge of a dream.

Ahead, he could see the taller buildings. Smoke had gnawed away the upper stories. Stealthily, he descended into the injured city.
It does not offer me any protection, this mist; rather a refracting grid through which to view the violent machine, explore the technocracy of the eye itself, spelunk the semi-circular canal. I am traveling my own optic nerve.

Note the slip from third person into first person.

The story is show-no-tell to the point where the reader knows no more than is seen through the eyes of the main character, who struggles to understand what he is experiencing.

The smoke was so thick he wondered if the glass were opaque and he only misremembered it as clear–
Well–” Madam Brown pushed open the cracked door– “what do you think of the Richards after your first day on the job?”
“I don’t think anything.” Kidd stretched in the over-thick night. “I’m just an observer.”

In the end, each reader is left with their own thoughts about Dhalgren. “I would never presume to say what they meant,” Ernest Newboy, the poet, says when asked what poems mean. To me, Dhalgren is epic poetry in prose.

And that’s all I got; three clues and an ongoing fascination. What did you take away from this novel?

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publishing, Stories

Would you like to be a literary judge?

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Before we started The Rabbit Hole here at the Writers’ Co-op, I edited three anthologies called the Book a Break. They contained stories selected from submissions to a literary competition I ran, which attracted a fair bit of attention. I’ve now compiled all the stories into a bumper edition called 83 because, well, there are 83 stories in it. The aim now is to produce a Best of the Book a Break compilation. For that, the 83 stories will be whittled down to 40 or so, comprising those already commended plus 20 to 25 others, selected from the 58 other stories.

I could of course decide myself which stories to include. But as these things are subjective, I’d feel more serene if I had a few other opinions. So here’s your chance to be a literary judge. It’s very simple – all you need do is give a mark out of 5 to each of the 58 stories.

What do the judges get? A list of simple criteria to help them decide (see below), a free copy of the 83 stories, plenty of time to read them (the stories have a 2000 word limit, and the deadline is 31st April) and their name credited in the Best of the Book a Break compilation. The proceeds go to the Against Malaria Foundation.

Interested? Drop me a line via the contact page on this site.

 

Guidelines:
5: Yes! Took me straight into its world and left me thinking about it afterwards.
4: Great story – characters, dialogue and narrative all very well done. Comic, dramatic or disturbing, it hit the mark.
3: Good story, nicely told, but lacking that extra bit that would make it sparkle.
2: A bit hit and miss but enjoyable all the same.
1: Mildly interesting, but didn’t really work for me.
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About Writers, Literary Agents, publishing, Stories, writing technique

Juvenilia

mansfield

I’ve recently read a few short stories by Katherine Mansfield: Germans at Meat, The Baron, The Luft Bad and other equally unknown titles which don’t figure in any ‘best of’ collection of her work. This is because they come from her very first collection, In a German Pension, published in 1911, when she was just 22. They were written during her stay in the Pension Müller, Bavaria, where her mother, suspecting she may have had a lesbian relationship, took her for ‘a course of cold baths and wholesome exercise.’

In a German Pension went through three editions, but then the publisher went bankrupt. Mansfield wasn’t disappointed by this; on the contrary, she no longer liked the stories, and when, after being recognised as one of the leading authors of her day, she was begged by another publisher to let him reprint them, she wrote, ‘I cannot have it reprinted under any circumstances. It is far too immature, and I don’t even acknowledge it today. I can’t go foisting that kind of stuff on the public. It’s not good enough.’ This was despite the fact that she was sorely in need of the money it would have brought her.

Was she right? Yes, I dare say, by the high standards she set herself. The stories lack the depth and intensity of her later work – although, rereading that, I sometimes find it a little febrile, a little too intense. But it would have been a great shame if John Middleton Murry, her second husband, hadn’t included In a German Pension in the complete collection of her stories he edited after her death. They are superbly written, with a deliciously mischievous, biting wit that renders in writing what comes across in the best cartoon caricatures.

Reading it, I thought, ‘Wow! To be writing that so young!’ Writers often repudiate juvenilia, and with good reason, but I would have given my eye teeth to be able to write like that at 21. I thought back to my own beginning: I finished my first novel at 26, about a group of friends in the mid-1970s, driving round France and Spain in a restless search for meaningfulness and adventure. I’d repudiate it now, I guess, but it wasn’t entirely cringeworthy. It earned me an appointment with an agent, who said if she’d read it ten years earlier, she’d have snapped it up. But by then, there were lots of similar explorations of the prevailing counterculture, and it didn’t break new ground. She had her finger firmly on the zeitgeist, and advised me to write a family saga instead, but I never did. Perhaps I should have.

Is there an age at which writers peak? Must good writing be apparent already when young? Mansfield is far from the only one whose talent was obvious so early. This New Yorker article sets the question in perspective, while for those who fear they may be past it already, there’s also ample evidence that it’s never too late to write a book.

Any thoughts on the matter? When you recall your first attempts, do you cringe, puff with pride, or sit somewhere in between?

 

 

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