Thursday, January 6, 2022

Synchronicity and Another Eulogy



Some time ago, I posted about the loss of my father. During the summer of 2018, after dad passed away, I read a book to help me get through the difficult time, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. In it, she discusses the year after she lost her husband, how it took about a year for her to fully realize she had truly lost a loved one. She describes scenes of continuing to expect to see him when waking up in the morning.

Didion is fantastic writer, known not only for her memoirs, but also (and perhaps even moreso) for her engaging essays. She was extremely talented at both fiction and non-fiction as well. I often use her essays in classes I teach.

Over this past Christmas, I unfortunately lost my mother. In a strange case of synchronicity, Didion passed away at the same time my mother went into her hospice care, which did not last long. I found this interesting timing, having read the above mentioned memoir after the loss of my father.

To further compound that synchronicity, I also had a horror poem about death titled "Old Forgotten Grave" published in an anthology titled Alternative Deathiness. The anthology contains numerous short stories and poems about death. I'm particularly proud of this piece and this publication, partially because it also contains a short story by a best selling author, Jim Wright. I wound up reading my short poem in it at mom's eulogy as requested by other family members, who seemed to find piece fitting for the occasion.

I'm not looking for any condolences for losing my mother (although if you did leave some, they would be greatly appreciated), but I thought this was an interesting time to point out how writers sometimes think or look at things. We look for and often find meaning in life's events. Surely, anyone else can do the same, but perhaps it is because writers make it a habit of doing such things that makes reading so important and enjoyable.

Friday, June 25, 2021

Collaborative writing

 

(My dog, Ahsoka, and cat, Serenity, collaboratively sleeping together)

There is something to be said in favor of collaboration when writing. On some level all writing needs to be collaborative. Now I'm not talking about so much collaboration that the story is no longer your own, but on the other end, there can be great advantages to letting others read your story and provide feedback.

Recently, I've managed to find a few beta readers for some of my short stories, and I received incredibly useful feedback. With the internet age, finding beta readers has become easier. Instead of going out and finding people in the real, live, three-dimensional world, one can post on a Facebook group, or other social media platform, that you have a short story you would like feedback on.

In many circles, you may have to pay an editor to do this, but there is a way around this. If you do not have the money to pay an editor, you can offer to read someone else's short story in exchange. The point is, it will cost you something. If you cannot afford to pay money, you will have to pay with time.

I also don't want to take anything away from paying a good editor. If you do have the money, chances are they may provide better feedback. But offering to read someone else's story can certainly be another viable option. Also, it allows you to read what other writers are working on and see how your own work matches up.

I recently had the opportunity to exchange short stories with a few other writers, and the feedback I received was excellent. It is certainly an experience I will try to replicate in the future. It was spot on in almost every case. Keep in mind, your stories are always your own, and you do not have to make changes that you feel will weaken your story. But in my case, the vast majority of suggestions were viable, and helped the stories overall. There were only a few suggestions I chose not to follow because I did not feel comfortable with them.

If you take any creative writing course that is worth anything, you will be asked to change stories and provide and receive feedback. This is almost always the most important part of the course. So if you cannot afford a creative writing course, this can also be an alternative to that as well. So go out and give and get feedback on your current works. It is invariably a key part of the writing process.

Friday, March 19, 2021

After One Year of Covid

 



It's been one year since Covid 19 shut down the entire world, and it seems there is finally land on the horizon. It had been about hundred years since the world saw a good fashioned pandemic (the Spanish flu in 1918 was the last), so we were long overdue.

But now we have a vaccine out for this virus, so we should be seeing its final throes soon. I finally received my first shot today, and will be returning in about four weeks for the follow-up. Additionally, one of the colleges where I teach just announced we are returning to in-person classes in the fall. While there are new variants of the virus emerging, getting the vaccine is supposed to keep us from getting so sick we need hospitalization, or even face death, even from those variants. Factor in that most people are just plain tired of being cooped up, and all indicators show that we this is ending one way or the other.

So what did you accomplish as a writer? And for that matter, what did I accomplish as a writer? Honestly, things were a bit distracting, with not only the pandemic, but also a TON of misinformation about it, and a very contentious presidential election. Factor in the summer of protests from the Black Lives Matter movement, and there was a lot to keep track of. I don't think I'm alone when I say I could have been more productive than I was. But there were areas where I was productive.

I did manage to finish editing my first novel. . . again, after a mentor looked it over. I wrote a query letter for it and sent that out. I also finished my other novel, and began editing it. I sent out a lot of works, and many of them fell to dead letters, but I noticed I'm starting to receive the rejection letters again (which is a very good thing), another sign this pandemic and quarantine are in their final throes. And don't be afraid of those rejection letters. I've started reading those books for my Frankenstein research project again. And yesterday, I finally wrote another short story.

Could I have been more productive than that? Probably, but it also goes to a point I've always suspected was true: the more you do, the more you want to do, and the less you do, the less you want to do. Writing kind of works like that, perhaps more than other aspects of life. So keep plugging away, and I will do the same.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Every Writer's Favorite Topic: Coffee

 



Today I thought I would blog about a very important topic for writers: coffee. The way your take your coffee and how your make it can provide very important information about a writer, and for the writer to be able to describe their characters. I am inspired to write about this for a very important reason: it seems my newest percolator has died. 😞

Before I get too far, that photo above is not my newest percolator. That is the percolator my grandfather used going all the back to when I was a little kid. But I chose to use that photo because not only is that percolator coffee maker still working, but it also makes better tasting coffee than my new percolator system! I don't know what its secret is (magic?), but that damn thing makes the best freaking coffee I've ever tasted (screw you, Starbucks!).

There's a meme that goes around with various coffee makers and what it says about you. Under the percolator system it says you're either pretentious or an old Italian. Well, that percolator pictured is from my Italian side of the family (mom's maiden name was Notarione). Both my parents were big coffee drinkers, my non-Italian dad even moreso than my mother. I can't say my parents knew everything, or that they did everything perfectly, but I can say they were correct about the percolator system being superior to the new drip systems.

So how do I take my coffee? I'm not so traditional that I take it black, but I do need a little cream and sugar. I'm also not a big fan of those longer coffee drink names you can find at Starbucks and other similar places. I have a hard time getting myself to spend as much as those modern coffee shops are asking for a cup of joe. I can't even imagine drinking iced coffee. I don't want to insult anyone who does like these types of coffees, but they are just not me.

Isn't it interesting how much you can learn about a person just by knowing what kind of coffee they drink and how they take it? So how do you like your coffee? And if you are writing, how do your characters take their coffee? Or do they drink coffee? And if they don't drink coffee, what do they drink, and how do they drink it? This can be important information for your readers.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Editing . . . Again.

 

 In a recent blog post, I wrote about editing a novel. Since I recently finished editing that novel, I would like to post an update.

It was the first manuscript I ever finished and edited to the point where I felt it was ready for prime time. By that I mean I felt comfortable enough to send it to agents and publishers, but to get it to that point, I had to edited it over and over again, to the point where it felt like the movie Groundhog Day, I keep living the same novel over and over again. It actually got the point where I promised myself I would never edit it again, so I could concentrate on completing other projects. Or at least I would never edit it again unless a professional like an agent or publisher asked for edits. Of course that would warrant another edit.

Then I applied to the Horror Writers Association to have a mentor, and was assigned one some time later. Since this was my only completed work, I sent him this manuscript. He provided me with some important feedback to the manuscript and pointers about my writing in general, which you can read about in the link above.

Since then, I set out to edit that novel one more time. It had been looked at by a professional author, so that warranted it one last edit. But the process at this point really did feel like Groundhog Day, working on the same thing over and over, reliving the same novel over and over. Well, that process is mercifully over once again. Don't get me wrong, I love that story I created, and feel it has great potential, and even after this many edits, there was some joy in revisiting it one more time.

But once a project like this over, there's nothing left to do but submit it. So I reviewed, once again, how to write a query letter, researched a number of small presses to submit it to, and geared my query toward one particular small press that seemed appropriate for my work. I also sent this query to my mentor, since he mentioned he often looks at former mentees' works from time to time, and I asked for his advice. I was very pleased he did not have any edits to the query. I have sent queries to professional writers before and have always had some edits in the past, so it was nice that for once, I seem to have mastered at least one part of the process. And I do think I wrote a pretty good query this time.

So the next step in the process is to continue editing one of my other novels and get it ready to send off to agents and publishers. This novel is starting from a different place than that previous one was. I think I have learned a lot since that first completed and polished manuscript, so I don't think this one will require nearly as much editing. I will likely also research more agents and small presses to send out that first manuscript, so several places can have a look at it at one time.

Such is the life of a writer: write, edit, submit, repeat.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Lately

 


I confess that lately I have not had as much time as I would like to write fiction, or my Frankenstein project. However, that does not mean I have not been writing. As everywhere else in the world, schools have gone online, and I teach college writing for the majority of my income. I therefore had to convert my classes to an online format. Even though I worked on that throughout the summer, and even took a few training classes to accomplish this, I still had a LOT to do.

This past semester, I taught a total of seven classes as three higher education institutions, and I taught a total of three different classes, a developmental writing class, a beginning composition class, and a research writing class. What it really came down to was essentially the equivalent of writing a college composition textbook that could accommodate all three of those levels of writing. Luckily, I have been teaching for a little over ten years now, off and on, and I had a lot of materials to pick from. I wound up choosing a portion of this old textbook, and a different portion from that one, along with my "all star hall of fame" collection of sample essays to use for the students to pattern their writings after.

This did give me some experience with research writing, and may be some experiences I can use when returning to the Frankenstein project. It also granted me some experience with what works and what does not when teaching online.

The semester has now ended, and after doing some housecleaning, and celebrating the holidays, I am trying to return to fiction writing. A lot of markets seem to be slowing down at accepting and deciding on submissions, however, and the entire publishing world is slowing, partially due to the pandemic, and partially due to the economic impact from the pandemic. It looks like the end of this pandemic is finally on the horizon, but it seems it will also leave us with a world that is far different from what it was before the catastrophe began, just like a good horror story.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Three Tips to Writing Dialogue




Look at this cat and tell me what you think she is saying. (It's one of my four cats, Patch, sitting at the bar in my house, by the way.) I imagine her saying, "What'll you have?" or something similar."What'll" because it is colloquial, improper English, for "What will." People rarely speak in proper English, unless they are giving a speech or something similar. The quote also gives the cat a motive. She has a job to do, tending bar, and to accomplish that motive she first has to find out what drink you desire so she can properly make it. Additionally, it implies that there is someone on the other side of the bar, listening, or not listening, or most accurately, half listening, because that is what people do most of the time, even in conversation. That person may answer right away, or they may hesitate, think, or finish a conversation with someone else before answering. We each have our own motivation and half listen to each other to achieve our own motivations while we deal with the other person's problems are to see how much we have to help them to achieve our own goals.

Is that a pessimistic view of the world? Perhaps, but one that I think is still pretty accurate. As human beings we must negotiate with each other to gain what we want and need. Ideally, there should be give and take. So now the question is, how do we capture that plurality of motives in conversation on the page in a work of fiction?

One aspect of fiction where I seem to excel is writing dialogue. Some of the short stories I've managed to get published were virtually all dialogue. Furthermore, when I receive a personalized rejection, more often than not, they mention that the dialogue was good and seemed natural. While there may be other areas I still need to work on, I do seem to write good dialogue. Therefore, I thought this may be a good time to share what I know about creating good dialogue.

There are three things to remember with writing good dialogue.

1. People rarely, if ever, speak proper English. I assume this is probably true of speakers of other languages as well. We use figures of speech, idioms, slang and often try to appear witty to others. When someone does speak proper English in a normal conversation, we would think of that person as stuffy, uppity, pedantic, arrogant, or other unflattering adjectives. In fact, most people don't even speak in complete sentences. We get distracted, have other thoughts to convey, or just don't have the time.


2. Each character should have their own motivations, and their dialogue should reflect that. Yes, all the time. This is a work of fiction after all. This moves the plot and creates the type of conflict and tension people like to read about. Dialogue can move the plot in this way just as well as the actions, perhaps even better than the actions in many cases.

3. People don't really listen to each other. Have you ever just listened to two people having a conversation. Try it some time. People half listen, but again, are distracted by what was said earlier, or what we want to say, or by, wait, was that a squirrel? We don't have time to listen, so we end up half listening. Watch a Neil Simon play, or a film adaptation, or read one of his plays. He's really good at this aspect, in my opinion.

For another example (okay, one that's not as good Neil Simon, but still . . .), consider the opening conversation to one of my published short stories, "Paranormal Experiment," which was published in parAbnormal Digest some time ago. Rights have reverted back to me at this point.

“What’s wrong, Linda?” Eric asked his translucent girlfriend as she sat on a large wooden box in the college physics laboratory. He placed an opaque hand on her see-through shoulder in a comforting gesture.

     “I’m just not sure I want to go through with this. I mean what if something happens to me?”

     “Awe, come on babe, don’t you trust me? I mean what can happen? You’re already dead, right?”

     “Don’t call me babe! You know I hate that.” She stood up, threw her arms down, and turned away, her faded white dress flowing in the motion, the long belled sleeves trailing behind her. “And how can I forget I’m a ghost and you’re not when you keep reminding me.”

The very opening line asks what is wrong, implying conflict from the very first line. We learn Linda is a ghost by her description. Her motivation is that she is in love with Eric, who wants to experiment on her, and is unsure how far she wants to go to show her love for Eric. Eric's motivation is that he wants to be a famous scientist by conducting the first experiments on a ghost, one which he just happens to be dating. It also seems that Eric is rather a jerk, calling her "babe," a slang term, which she doesn't like. It even seems he may be using her to accomplish success in his career. The final lines add the underlying wedge to their relationship, that she's a ghost and he isn't. (Don't worry, Linda gets her revenge in the end by killing Eric, so he has to give up science, and they live happily ever after . . .  as ghosts.)

So I hope I have helped you come up with great believable dialogue. Please feel free to use these tips to your advantage. Just remember, people don't speak proper English, everyone has motives, and nobody really listens to one another. Now get out there and write great dialogue!