The Bleak & The Blue: Home Decorating for Artists and Writers

Mexico_-_Musée_Frida_Kahlo_-_Entrée

This is Frida Kahlo’s backyard. On the left, you can just barely see inside through the back door, and standing just above head level is a paper mache monster, arms outstretched. Frida’s house was full of such figures, the kinds of strange folk art that inspired her the most. Biographies of the artist show pictures of her inside a home that would never make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens–it’s cluttered, sometimes tacky, and visually staggering. But it is not a space decorated for hosting chic dinner parties or relaxing after a long day in the board room. It is a space decorated and designed to stimulate an artist to create work.

For the last two years, I have had to work very hard to siphon up anything out of my well of stories. The part of me that dreams has felt … empty, as if what I had left inside it was choked with mud. I’ve gotten some good things out of there, but at the result of much harder work than I used to use, and with much more polishing and scrubbing to get it shipshape.

For the last two years, I’ve lived in a house that my husband and I haven’t actually decorated. We used to live in a larger apartment, and over the years of living there, we had filled the place with artwork. Even the ceiling was decorated–we hung dried leaves and tiny Lego sculptures on fishing line. But since we’ve been here in our house, we’ve been struggling to make decisions about decor. We wanted to get to know the house. And we wanted things to look, well,  pretty.

Last week, I finally, finally got a copy of Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, which I’ve had on hold at the library since December. And turning the pages, I suddenly understood why my well had gone dry. It was my house. It was the blank cream-colored walls and the bookshelves that are still filled willy-nilly from our move–the comic books mixed up with the hiking books, the treasured volumes about Picasso and Frida jammed into a bottom shelf that had been hidden by the laundry basket? Everything in this house is bland, bland, and quiet.

It’s time to redecorate. My husband and I are artists (he paints, I write), and we work at home. If we want our house to work for us, it needs to be more than a place to hang out and eat dinner–it needs to be a laboratory of ideas, an inspiration incubator.

Here is Guillermo Del Toro to share his studio, a place called “Bleak House” (or when he’s feeling silly, “The Man Cave”).

I think he’s got the right idea about how to decorate for artists. I can’t wait to get to work on my office!

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Three Things Make My Writing Life

"Keyboard and Cress" from wetwebwork on Flickr. This photos is Creative Commons licensed.

“Keyboard and Cress” from wetwebwork on Flickr. This photos is Creative Commons licensed.

There are really not a lot of absolute rules for writing, just a bunch of guidelines and advice from other writers — “this is what works for me.”

It’s up to each of us to distill all of this collegial advice and our own experiences into something that “works for me.”

So I’ve been blogging on writing long enough now, that three things have emerged as my “Guiding Principles” for the kind of writing life I want to lead.  I pass them on in the hope that maybe you’ll find something useful in my approach.

Finish 

“Finish what you write,” says Neil Gaiman, and it’s pretty great advice. You can learn a lot from writing story fragments, but you can’t go very far in your career if you don’t have finished stories to send out into the world. The first time I actually finished a story, I had this weird, pins and needles sensation. Oh wow. I did it. I still get that sensation every time.

Finish your stories, even if you think they don’t work. I’m certainly not the kind of writer who figures everything out in the first go –my stories live and die in revisions.  Sometimes I can’t even see the big picture until I have a finished draft.

Beyond that, I think of finishing a story as a bit of a level up. Links in a chain. Every story I write teaches me things that help me in the next one, and the next. Even if one of these stories ultimately gets trunked, I know I’m experimenting, learning new techniques, and building a body of work. I’m building confidence to tackle the next challenge I set for myself.

Some stories are worth sweating over, while from some stories you’ll get what you need even if you never write the ending. It’s okay. Some stories you ulimately have to abandon. But it’s better to build a habit of finishing them.

Be You

Ted Chiang was one of our “Mystery Muses” when I attended Clarion West. He urged us to write the things we wanted to read.

“What are you not getting out of what you read? It’s your job to write it.”

He also told us to cultivate a unique voice, to write the stories we liked to write — even if it means not finding popular or commercial success. That can be a tricky road to take, to be sure. But Ted’s been successful in finding his own path.

I got similar advice from no less than Ray Bradbury when I timidly told him at a book signing that I was a writer, too. I figure if it works for Ted and Ray, it should work for me!

Ask yourself, will I be happy following popular trends, writing things I think other people want to read? Or will I only be happy writing my deepest loves, hates, and fears?

There’s no right answer, except “are you writing what you love?” Keep in mind that can change from story to story, from project to project. Just because one story is a deeply psychological exploration on a theme doesn’t mean the next one can’t be an homage to all the things you loved about Star Wars. 

Be you. Write what moves you. What you love. There are readers out there waiting for a voice just like yours.

Be Kind

The internet gives us many opportunities to be a dick. As Will Wheaton says, don’t be.

We’re all a pile of opinions, biases, blindnesses, righteous anger, disagreements, social anxieties, political ideologies, loves, hates, and fears. Treat other writers, readers, fans, and colleagues with respect and kindness. Even when it’s hard. Even when they don’t deserve it. Maybe especially when they don’t. As much as possible.

But most importantly —  be kind to yourself. This is a hard sort of life. Writing is lonely. Opportunities for mingling with other writers can be scarce. We put our innermost vulnerabilities out there for all to see, so rejections can seem personal, even though they aren’t. Other writers (younger writers, older writers, good writers, bad writers, etc.) will always seem to be more successful that you feel you are. Impostor syndrome will kick in. Acknowledge that it’s hard. That you feel like you aren’t where you want to be — those feelings can help spur you to get where you want to go!

But be careful of getting too caught up on those feelings. They aren’t the whole story, and they can distract and impede sometimes more than they can help.

Finish. Be You. Be kind to others, be kind to you. It’s working so far.

 

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Hitting the trail

 

By karol m from arizona, USA (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So my book is out. Well, it’s sort of out. If you go to the publisher, you can order the paperback edition. In about a week, you’ll be able to order the ebook. And if you look at the listing on Amazon, it’s due out April 15th. But basically, my book is leaving for its big adventure out in the world.

Did you ever play the Oregon Trail game? There’s a whole sequence at the beginning when you pick up supplies and load your wagons. There are a lot of decisions to be made. Do you choose oxen or mules? Do you buy one spare axle or two? How much ammunition do you bring along? And every choice you make, you know it’s going to affect your ability to survive along the way.

That’s how I’ve felt during this pre-release period. There’s so much to do that might help promote a book. And there are so many small things to think about! For example, my book cover wasn’t finalized when the information went to the book distributor’s catalog, so Amazon and Goodreads had a mock-up of my cover. Since I’m new to all of this, I had to figure out how to get it changed and then jump through the right hoops to make it happen. (In case you’re wondering, the number of people on Goodreads who added the book as “to-read” doubled the day it changed.) There are interviews to schedule, blog posts to beg for, and press releases to write. Planning a reading at the local bookstore was its own challenge. Thank goodness for all the good advice Mary Kowal has shared over the years, because while I may not have an idea of what I’ll wear to my reading, at least I know what pens to bring and how to choose the right selection to share.

I have no idea how far my little book will go or whether it will be successful. Maybe people will like it, maybe they won’t. I can only keep my fingers crossed that all the work I put into it will have created a good read. But I can’t waste too much energy worrying about it–I’ve got to focus on writing my next book and all the short stories I’ve promised people I would write. The pioneers knew that after they got done walking to Oregon, they’d have to build their own houses and start a farm.  I don’t feel too bad for myself.

Unless I get dysentery.

 

dysentery

 

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You’re a Beautiful Grain of Sand, by J. C. Hutchins

Oh, you silly, naive little thing. You want to be a writer.

Didn’t you get the memo? The pay is lousy. If you’re with the Big Six-Now-Five, your publisher will barely promote your stuff (and you’ll never earn out your advance). If you self-publish, your wordbaby will be lost in a sea of other self-pubbed stuff, doomed to drown in the surrounding crappily-Photoshopped ebook covers.

But most important of all, naive thing: All the stories have been told.

That idea you’ve got? For that novel? Been done. It’s derivative tripe, a thousand-times told. Sure, your friends say it’s packed with book-selling genre tropes — but that’s just a polite way of saying it’s cliched to Hell and back.

Your spurs, naive thing. Take ‘em off. Hang ‘em up.

*cautiously looks around*

Pst. Hey. So, are they gone? You know, the pretenders? The people who incessantly talk about writing stories but never actually do? Did I scare ‘em off? Is it just us now, the people who’re actually crazy enough to keep typing, despite the market uncertainty and the endless waves of self-doubt? Is it just us wordherders?

Whew. Good.

Hi.

So all that bugaboo stuff I said up top? It’s still pretty much all true. You gotta be pretty wrongheaded to want to make a living at this racket. Competition for attention is piranha-tank fierce. The money is often insultingly bad. And yes, it’s true — there aren’t any new stories.

It’s all been done before. It really, sincerely has. And on its surface, that’s a dreadful and disheartening thing to know. Take 1977’s wildly original Star Wars: It’s widely regarded as a remixed frappe of Akira Kurosawa’s films The Hidden Fortress, Sanjuro and Yojimbo. And Yojimbo was inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel, Red Harvest! It’s turtles all the way down, my friends.

So where does that leave you, and your manuscript?

We’ll get to that in a sec. First, let’s take a look-see at this weird story-in-progress called Life.

You know the tale: We’re born, we grow up, grow old, die. In that three-act adventure, there are dozens of rites of passages: first kisses, first loves, first jobs, first cars, first homes. Children. Illness. Recovery. Ecstasy, doldrums, despair. Parents grow old and wither. Our childhood heroes die. Our friends die. Our best friends die.

There are a hundred-hundred milestones on this road. And as we experience these things, they feel fresh and raw. That’s because they’re new, to us.

But it’s all been lived before. The path is soggy and well-trodden. Strip away the fashion and technology — the parachute pants, the push-up bras, horseless carriages and iPads — and the arc of our lives, examining it globally, isn’t especially different from others’. It’s been like this for centuries. Bummer, dude.

But of course it’s different. It’s absolutely different. Grains of sand look the same on a beach, but go granular, baby, and your brain’ll implode from the colorful and wild variations.

(You’re not a beautiful snowflake, see. You’re a beautiful grain of sand. Sand is better. Tougher. More versatile. All-weather.)

You’re a clever wordherder, so you know where I’m going with this. It’s not your life; it’s how you live it. It’s not your book; it’s how you write it.

I recently launched a fun ebook project called The 33. It’s an episodic adventure series, presented a bit like a TV show, about 33 misfits who been tasked to save the world from a never-ending stream of ruthless criminals, malicious technologies and hostile supernatural beings.

At first glance, it’s familiar turf: a team of misfits … all with dodgy pasts … saving the world on a regular basis. The nods to some of my favorite childhood stories — from Godzilla to Knight Rider — might appear pretty familiar, too. But those are just ingredients, see? It’s all in the baking. It’s all in the telling. It’s all in the characters.

Those ingredients can be as unique as you are. This is what the salty vets mean when they say “Write what you know.” They’re not telling you to Mary Sue your way through a manuscript. It’s the lessons you’ve learned, the perspectives you have, the voice you possess — a voice that’s different from anyone else’s. Perhaps “Write what you know” should actually be “Write what you are.”

Be conscious of your creative influences, and the inevitable well-tread paths that lie ahead in your manuscript. Pay witting homage to them, if you wish. But above all, thoughtfully process your narrative through you, mindful of the unique perspective you have — that granularly, wonderfully unique life you’ve led.

Suddenly, your story will change. It’ll improve. It won’t be as familiar as you fear. It’ll be fresh. And fellow wordherders, that’s what editors and readers are actually jonesing for. Familiar turf ain’t a bad thing. A fresh perspective on it — a gentle remix, much like George Lucas created all those years ago — is what makes it noteworthy. And purchase-worthy.

J.C. Hutchins crafts award-winning transmedia narratives, screenplays and novels for companies such as 20th Century Fox, A&E, Cinemax, Discovery, FOX Broadcasting, Infiniti, Macmillan Publishers and Harebrained Schemes. He has been profiled by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR’s Weekend Edition, ABC Radio and the BBC. Learn more about him, and The 33, at JCHutchins.net.

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Four Tips on the Ancient and Venerable Art of Infodumping — guest post, Jonathan Wood

Let me introduce our guest writer to you.  NO HERO by Jonathan Wood

Jonathan Wood is as tremendously entertaining as only an Englishman living in New York could be. His first novel, No Hero, which chronicles one Oxford cop’s confrontation with cosmic horror, was so funny and rad that is being re-released in just a few short weeks. (I have to confess that it was one of my favorite books I read in 2012!) I couldn’t be more delighted to have this Lovecraftian gentleman sharing pointers with us.

 

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Four Tips on the Ancient and Venerable Art of Infodumping

Come close, young grasshhopper. Tell me, what have you learned? Yes: infodumping is bad.

All writers learn early that infodumping is one of the cardinal sins. Thou shalt not infodump if thou wantest anyone to ever finish reading your stuff. And it’s good advice. I’m not here to tear it down. Face facts: nobody wants to read your 2000 word tract on muffin flavors of the 1870s. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is.

Except this advice can leave you in a bit of trouble if a working knowledge of the muffin flavors of the 1870s is critical to your plot. This is a steampunk bakery-oriented murder mystery, and the apocryphal artificial cherry flavoring is what the entire time-dilation mcguffin pivots around goddamit.

Well, the good news is that if it’s information the audience needs to know then you’re already halfway there. Infodumping is only a heinous crime when it’s self-indulgent, when it’s extraneous information that doesn’t help push forward another part of the book, be it plot, setting, or character.

So let’s assume this is necessary information. That just leaves you with the dumping part.

1) Little by little

Just like any pile of shit, an infodump is harder to spot the smaller it is. So the first trick is to break the larger dump up into chunks as small as possible and then scatter them through the book. Only give the information the reader absolutley has to know at that moment. Nothing else. Anything that can come later, include later.

2) Mask the flavor

Even if you’re conveying only as little information as possible, you can still be left with a fairly sizable dump. So mask the flavor. Cut the infodump with a little high octane action. Sitting down with a baker to learn about muffin flavors is boring. Learning about muffin flavors while a steampowered death-bot tries to shoot the baker with a death ray is fun. Simple as that. Hide the infodump in amongst something else and soon everyone will be chowing down.

3) Use your characters against your readers

Readers identify with characters. They want what the character wants. So if you can establish your character’s urgent need to learn about muffin flavoring then you have also established your readers urgent need.

This trick can often lead to the outsider character who needs things explained to them. I used to worry this might seem like a little bit of a cheap gambit, but as long as you have a strong character and they have a strong need to know, then readers tend to be very forgiving. And it sure beats a “Well as you know, Sally…” speech.

4) Be an entertainer

For the most part, people are reading fiction for fun. The reason infodumps aren’t fun is because they’re dry boring chunks of information. But they don’t have to be. We’ve all had the fun teacher. We’ve all seen the cool TED lecturer who brings the information to life. Be that person. You’re a writer. You have a unique, exciting, entertaining voice. Make your infodump sing and dance. Put it in the mouth of a funny character, a depressed character, a deranged serial-killing character. Have it downloaded into a character’s brain by an AI. Make it fun. Hell, if you do that you can even move into muffin flour consistency and not lose too many folk along the way.

And that’s pretty much it. A nice round number like “Ten Tips” would have made for a better post heading, but I don’t think you need any more than four. All you really need to do is work out what it is with you and this muffin obsession. Seriously, it’s getting a little weird.

***

Jonathan Wood is an Englishman in New York. There’s a story in there involving falling in love and flunking out of med school, but in the end it all worked out all right, and, quite frankly, the medical community is far better off without him, so we won’t go into it here. His debut novel, No Hero was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a funny, dark, rip-roaring adventure with a lot of heart, highly recommended for urban fantasy and light science fiction readers alike.” Barnesandnoble.com listed it has one of the 20 best paranormal fantasies of the past decade, and Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels described it as, “so funny I laughed out loud.” His short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Chizine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, as well as anthologies such as The Book of Cthulhu 2 and The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Year One.

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Hot Baths in the Desert (Dealing with Anxiety)

I’ve been taking a lot of hot baths lately. Long ones. Often with a bowl full of grapes to eat (seriously) and always with a book. It’s my coping mechanism when anxiety hits. My son constantly chides me about the book part; he doesn’t approve of the curl of moistened pages, finds it disrespectful to the book. I understand, but persist. Steamed book pages are the least of my worries. More on my mind each time I fill the tub is the fact that living in Tucson AZ, over half of my water has to be piped in from long distances; the fragility of tap water in the desert. I curl up in the steaming water, skin turning red, fingers and toes wrinkling, and I feel bad for the trees outside that could use this water more than me. (I’m thinking about a method of pumping water out of the tub into a portable basin that can transport the bathwater to the thirsty plants outside. But that hasn’t happened yet.)  When not fretting over wasted water I fret over all the other things I could be doing with the time. (I did mention these are long baths). Illustrations to be finished. Emails to be answered. Housework to do. (Blog posts to write.)

A shower would be more efficient.

But sometimes there is anxiety to be dealt with and hot water up to my chin is required. I appreciated Theodora Goss’ experience of emerging from  Depression and Sandra Wickham’s practical advice to rest when you are sick and Andrew Romine’s admitting to not writing through stressful times. I’m finding comfort and solidarity in the repeated message to “take care of yourself!” (Incidentally, I also quite enjoyed Christopher Cokinos’ essay about the hypocrisy footprint of a nature writer owning a pool in Tucson AZ.) So, I’m taking baths. Later, when the anxiety bores of getting soaked and leaves me for drier climes, I’ll get back to taking showers and being all efficient (and maybe actually figure out that bathwater recycling device.)

Meanwhile, what’s your prefered coping mechanism for dealing with anxiety?

 

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(Not) Writing My Way Through Stressful Times

The last two months have not been easy. Long hours at the day job, unexpected travel, a major death in the family, stressful Christmas, several close friends in distress, and almost six full weeks of both of us being sick on top of that.

But I’m not here to whine, not really. Everyone has days/weeks/months/years like that. (Too many people to count, if I judge by my social media feeds.)

What I wanted to talk about today is how the hell do you keep your writing mojo going in the face of so many disruptive life events?

The answer for me, is, I barely did. For most of the month of December, I couldn’t concentrate on fiction for more than a minute or two at a time. Even when I had the rare twenty minutes or so to myself.

The answer for others is, writing is that constant thing that gets them through all of life’s BS, from work stress, to souring relationships, and even through great personal struggles like serious illness. I have the deepest respect for people who manage to keep working in the face of that.

This post isn’t about “finding the time to write” in the middle of the usual ups and downs of life. If you’re going to write at all, you’re going to find some way to overcome the day-to-day distractions. (Plus, I think I’ve sort of written that post before! :P)

I wanted to talk about some strategies for writing through major disruptive periods of life. (Well, MY strategies, anyway. Like with all things process-related, these are intensely individual. YMMV.)

Don’t Write.

Sometimes, when you sprain that ankle, or break that leg, the best thing you can do is stay off of it. Under proper medical care, of course, you do everything you can to leave it alone. Let it heal. Let it rest.

Our creativity is like that, too. Sometimes it takes a blow that it needs time to recover from–like grief for a loved one who’s passed. For me, at least, I needed not to worry about the daily word count or untangling the plot of the short story I was working on before the craziness began. I couldn’t even imagine pulling out the novel. Well, I tried once, and stared at it like it was a big gray lump of wet dog hair.

I gave myself permission to rest. Of course, my writer-guilt brain cranked into overdrive every once in awhile, especially when I saw my friends and colleagues post about word counts, daily progress, and even sales, online. When I put my weight on my creativity though, it hurt. So I took a deep breath and did my best to ignore my writer-guilt brain.

Recharge.

Watch a bunch of movies. Good ones, bad ones. Genre. Documentaries. Oscar-bait. Read comics, books, interesting articles. Play some video games. Fill that Creative Well. It’s almost like creating something yourself. Kind of. You’ll absorb the energy, ideas, and they’ll be there when you need them later.

Spend time with people you love and that love you. This is probably the biggest part of recharging for me. Have a quiet dinner with friends. Play D&D with your sister who’s all of a sudden taken up the hobby and loving it (yay!). Plan and cook a special meal for your family. Be with them.

Sit on the riverbank (or beach, or mountain trail, or at a campfire) and stare into the beauty of this time, this moment and don’t think about anything at all. Exercise. Meditate. Pray. Any and all three, according to your desires and beliefs.

Do write. A little bit, anyway.

It was difficult for me to focus my efforts into a coherent beam of creativity. But I made notes when an idea struck. Or jotted down a phrase or two of dialogue that welled up from the depths of my brain. Don’t stifle or shut off all of your creative thoughts, but capture them for examination later. I had a couple of new story ideas come along while I wasn’t looking. There was no way I could write them right away, but the ideas are still there.

I knew that my log-jam began to break-up for me when I sketched out a hypothetical D&D game on the way back to L.A. I hadn’t played for over a year (not counting the Christmastime game), but the unrestrainable urge to plan out a campaign I may or may not ever play was the first trickle of a flood of creativity.

That kind of writing, the kind that doesn’t have word counts or deadlines, but only pure excitement and joy — can be the way back to to the keyboard. For me it was D&D. For you it might be fan-fic, or a blog post on your favorite movie, or album, comic book, or TV show.

(RPGs have always been my version of fan-fic. In fact, D&D is probably what got me into writing in the first place, but that’s a story for another blog post.)

You’ll find your way back. Give yourself permission to wander a bit.

I’d love to hear about your wanderings in the comments.

 

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Stick Your Landings

Endings. Every story has one, but not every story has a good one. What makes some of them work and the rest of them fail? Well, let’s take a look at them.

If you do a quick Google search for “kinds of endings,” you find a lot of different ways to categorize the varieties of endings in stories, but it’s easiest to say that endings fall into two general categories: resolved and unresolved. In a resolved ending, the conflicts and issues are mostly tied up. In an unresolved ending, the issues are left open, and the reader is allowed to imagine how the characters and issues will carry forward. But within these two broad categories lies a lot of room to maneuver. Here are some good subcategories of ending:

  • Resolved, positive: not only are the major problems solved, but the protagonist comes out ahead. A good example of this that I just watched was Penelope. It’s the story of a cursed girl born with a pig’s nose who thinks she must find an aristocratic mate to break her curse. But her real problems–her lack of knowledge of the real world, inability to function outside her cloistered existence, difficult relationship with her mother, and forced low self esteem–are actually all resolved through her own hard work. Also, a romance with a commoner becomes possible, and she gets to date a man who really loves her.  What makes this ending work is that the problems were carefully revealed throughout the film and that we cared about Penelope. Our emotional connection to the main character made us want her to have a happy ending.
  • Resolved, negative: in this story ending, all the problems are resolved, but the protagonists find themselves worse off. Hamlet is a good example, because Hamlet succeeds in revealing the corruption of the court and wreaking vengeance on his uncle, but he himself dies. What makes this ending work is the character’s conviction. If we as readers really believe in what the character is fighting for,  we can’t help but appreciate their success even though they die. Similarly, this story might have the problems be revealed as solvable, but the character dies or is thwarted, with heart-breaking results. As long as the problem is revealed to have a solution, I think it’s safe to say the story is resolved.
  • Unresolved A (stealth resolution): in this story line, we don’t see how the problems could actually be solved, but we have some solid ideas or certain hope that they will be. [The stealth resolution can have an unhappy variant: we have some solid ideas about how to solve the problem, but we can see the main character will never succeed.] For example, in Gone With the Wind, Scarlett is back at Tara and has just lost the man she spent years trying to pretend she didn’t love. But after all the plants and set-ups, the reader is pretty sure that if Scarlett sets her mind on getting him back, she will. The vast majority of “unresolved” endings are actually “stealth resolved.” There is a distinct satisfaction to this kind of ending, but it only works if the characters and the situations have been carefully painted and the reader feels like he or she can accurately predict their future. Another example might be Blade Runner, where many questions blossom at the end, but the main conflicts have worked themselves out, or The Giver, by Lois Lowry, where we don’t know if Jonas ever finds freedom, but we do know that he has made his choice to turn away from his community’s morality, thus resolving his painful internal conflict. In literary fiction, we often see the way people can have happy endings, but we know they will never achieve them, due their internal flaws. One example of this is The Pilgrim Hawk, by Glenway Wescott, where we know the couple who owned the hawk will never really sort out their marriage.
  • Unresolved B (commentary of loose ends): in this story line, the problems are not actually solved and we either have no idea how they could be or have too many potential solutions. These stories are rare. A good example would probably be Mulholland Drive, a film that plays with dense layers of storyline and symbolism to create a puzzle. Just sorting out who is who is satisfying, let alone figuring out what everyone’s problem might be. In these stories, the ending is usually most pleasing when the story is a puzzle or when the lack of resolution reflects a philosophical outlook of a character or the author.

The key to any ending is look at the way problems and conflicts are established within your story. If your problems come from a deep character flaw or a broken social situation, those problems may not be surmountable. In that case, it makes sense to end your story with an unresolved ending — probably Unresolved A, because you want the reader to be able to make a clear judgment about your character or that social situation. (And if you’re not sure whether you want your reader to make judgments about characters and social situations, let me give you hint: yes. It’s okay for those judgments to fall outside of the strict realm of black-and-white, good-and-bad, cardboard cut-outs, but well-rounded does not mean wishy-washy.) The wonderful thing about having a story revolve around an insurmountable problem is that it can add a sense of scope to your story. A lot of the greatest works of literature–think Of Mice and Men1984Mrs. Dalloway–have endings where the problems do not go away at the end of the book, and the main characters are left in worse shape than they began (or, you know, dead).

On the other hand, if your problems are surmountable, then the emotional resonance of your ending has to lie in the characters. If they can win in the end, we have to be able to root for them. Maybe they’re incredibly passionate about their cause. Maybe they’re really funny. Maybe they’re flawed in a way that we can’t help but identify with. Look at the film and novel About a Boy (by Nick Hornby). The main character is a rich, boring, bored ex-musician. His biggest concern is how to fill up each day until he dies, and if he did die, no one on Earth would really miss him. But the reader can’t help wanting him to change and become a better person–because he’s utterly self-aware that his life is hollow and he’s just wasting it away. He just doesn’t have any clue or incentive to do anything about it. And haven’t we all had those days, days where we can’t get off the couch, even though our eyes hurt and we’re really tired of watching reality tv, but what would even be the point of doing anything else? Don’t we totally understand? So when the story ends, and that main character has succeeded and is happy, it makes us happy. It’s like being a Northwesterner and seeing the Seahawks go to the Super Bowl: you can’t help but cheer a little.

So ask yourself, when you’re putting those final edits into place and you’re just about to add that magical “####” at the bottom of your manuscript: why did I make this ending the way I did? Is my story a big puzzle and my ending one last tantalizing clue that will leave my reader asking deep questions about humanity? Or is my story the gripping tale of a woman fighting for her life, and my ending is the triumphant success–or perhaps a heart-breaking failure? And most importantly, what the heck does your ending tell the reader about the most important conflict in your story?

If your story doesn’t help us understand the deepest and most central conflict in your story, than you’ve dropped the ball. You misfired. You didn’t stick your landing.

1024px-Erika_Fasana_-_DismountEvery story — whether it’s a novel or a bit of flash fiction —  is a gymnastics routine. Your characters and conflicts are the muscles in your legs that will launch you into backflips and twists. Your prose is your posture and the movements of your hands, the tiny lines in your joints and your fingers. You can get everything right, but if you don’t stick your landing, you won’t come home with the gold medal.

So look carefully at your endings. Then go out there and nail ‘em.

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Quick-and-Dirty Tips for Polishing Your Prose

So, you’ve brainstormed, written, and rewritten. The plot is sufficiently exciting, the theme powerful, the dialogue realistic, the characters complex and believable, the ending unpredictable yet perfectly fitting. Point-of-view and tense issues have been addressed, grammatical errors corrected, clichés banished. But yet…after reading your piece one last time, a lingering dissatisfaction remains. It doesn’t seem as good as the stuff published in your target market and you can’t identify why. Or, you’ve submitted and received back one or more personal rejections saying, “Close,” or “A near miss.”

If this sounds familiar, it may be that while you have no major structural, thematic, or believability problems, and no egregious errors, your line-to-line prose lacks polish. To stand out in a slush pile of hundreds not only do you need a very-good-to-great story, but your language needs to shine.

Mired in short story revisions of late, I’ve been thinking a lot about such things and jotted down a few points to remember while editing. My suggestions for improving prose can be lumped into three categories: brevity, clarity, and impact (which, of course, overlap to some degree).

I.          Brevity: concise expression (Google). Or as Strunk and White state, “Omit needless words.” (Elements of Style)

  • If it’s possible to shorten sentences without sacrificing meaning or style, do so.

The princess was just waking up when she heard the door to her room open with a creak.

INSTEAD:

A creaking door woke the princess.

  • Cut “stage direction” (uninteresting and unnecessary descriptions of action). The reader will fill in the blanks.

She swung her legs out of the bed and slid her feet into her slippers, then got up and walked over to the door to see who was there.

INSTEAD:

She jumped up and flung the door open.

  • Avoid repetition.
    • For example, describing the same thing multiple ways:

On the horizon the sun sat like an egg yolk, golden yellow and ripe with potential. Its amber rays reached across the fields with the promise of a new day. A beacon a hope, a call to morning, the harbinger of spring. And did I mention yellow?

While there’s nothing wrong with poetic language, each line should add something new—unless an idea’s so important it’s worthy of special emphasis (which usually isn’t the case). Otherwise, just pick the best line and go with it.

    • Or repeating the same information at various points in the story:

Princess Bethany…  She was the king’s daughter… As princess, it was her duty… “But I’m a princess!”

We get it.

II.        Clarity: freedom from indistinctness and ambiguity (Dictionary.com).

  • Be specific rather than generic.

The pub was in the poorest section of town.

INSTEAD:

The Smelly Badger sat in a rutted alley across from the docks, where the reek of fish guts hung heavy in the air and not even the Queen’s Guard dared venture except in numbers.

  • Rework vague sentences.

It was all too much for him.

INSTEAD:

Jared sunk to the floor as the events of the last few months—the car accident, his wife’s cancer diagnosis, and now the accusations from his childhood friend—washed over him.

III.       Impact:  forceful contact (Dictionary.com) or, in a writing context, powerful or pithy language.

  • Review each use of was/were or is/are and replace them if possible.

The wind was blowing so hard the shutters were rattling against the window frames.

INSTEAD:

Gusting wind rattled the shutters against the window frames.

  • Replace bland verbs with more interesting and descriptive ones. (*Except for “said.” Fancy speech tags (e.g. “hissed,” “screeched,” “spat” etc.) draw unwarranted attention and create a sense of melodrama.)

He walked out.

INSTEAD:

He stomped out. / He tiptoed out. / He traipsed out. / He darted out.

  • Avoid abstractions (e.g. loved, wanted, wished, felt, hated, etc.)—show rather than tell.

He wanted the puppy more than anything.

INSTEAD:

Risking a case of hives, a two-week grounding, or worse, Jared visited the puppy each afternoon, feeding it a corner of his lunchtime sandwich.

  • Vary your sentence structure. Look for patterns (e.g. same length or construction, always opening with a proper noun or pronoun, etc.) and mix things up.

This is by no means a complete list, but covers the deficiencies I’m most likely to find in my own work and about which I need frequent reminders. I find it useful to do several editing passes looking for different things each time, as I have a hard time focusing on everything at once. It’s easy to get distracted by the content of the story; become enamored with my characters or an especially witty line of dialogue. So, I do one or more sweeps for content, then focus on the nitty-gritty: a sentence-by-sentence review coupled with liberal use of Word’s “Find” feature to root out weak language. Not fun work, but necessary, at least for me.

Two excellent resources for further reading are: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, and The 10% Solution: Self-Editing for the Modern Writer by Ken Rand.

Have any further tips or hints? I’d love to hear them!

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Follow These Five Principles to Writing Mastery (in 10,000 hours or less!)

I like the concept of the 10,000 Hour Rule, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. Boiled down to its essence, it states that 10,000 hours of practice leads to expertise or mastery of a skill. The Rule is overly simplistic and not universally applicable, but it highlights the importance of hard work as a key factor in individual success.

Here’s how I break down and apply the 10,000 Hour Rule to my writing life:

10,000 hours: This is approximately 20 years at ten hours per week. This gives me some perspective of how much I need to invest in improving my skills and for how long. If I’m impatient, increasing my weekly hours to 20 per week will help me achieve mastery in 10 years. I see this as almost metaphorical, as opposed to an actual measure towards a specifically achievable goal. In other words, I’m in this for the long haul. If I want to get better faster, I need to sacrifice more of other things, and keep this up over a long period of time.

Practice: I define this as smart, deliberate, focused time spent improving my writing. I’m not just logging hours–I’m investing in activities designed to make me a better writer. I elaborate on this below.

Expertise: I want to be a strong enough writer that editors and readers find it difficult to pass over my work. I’m willing to invest 10,000 hours in achieving this level of storytelling mastery.

Here are five principles that I’m using to help me decide how to intelligently invest my 10,000 hours.

1. Seek out challenges:

Break out of those comfortable patterns! For example, I noticed recently that all my stories follow straightforward chronological structure, so I chose to write a story with several parallel narratives (my one story sale last year!). Along these lines, I write a lot of horror and urban fantasy, so I’m considering work on a police procedural and a hard SF story. I tend to write from close third-person or first-person POV, so maybe it’s time for me to try an omniscient narrator. The opportunity to experiment is one reason I prefer writing in the short form, at least during this early portion of my training. I know it’s scary to try new things. I’ve definitely made mistakes and embarrassed myself, but I believe the potential for growth is worth this risk over the long haul.

2. Attend workshops and classes:

We’re very lucky to be writers in the SF space. We have a strong culture of fostering and supporting aspiring writers. We’ve got the Clarion Workshops, Odyssey, Viable Paradise, Taos Toolbox, the CSSF Workshops, and many more–I don’t think that any other genre has as many respected opportunities for writers to learn directly from professionals in the field. As an undergrad, I attended creative writing classes taught by UC Irvine MFA students who offered valuable lessons and made me start thinking seriously about writing as a craft. And I’m scared now to even glance at stories that I wrote before I went to the Clarion West workshop.

3. Get feedback:

I’m slowly learning which of my first readers provide the critiques that teach me something new. They point out strengths as well as those things which not only improve a single story, but have the potential to make me a better writer overall. I’m in a writing group with some of the best authors in the business, and I’m striving to recognize this as as a tremendous opportunity and to submit stories to my group, even though some of these wonderful people intimidate the hell out of me. Treasure your best critiquers!

Side note: one might think that the majority of ones time at the Clarion West Workshop would be spent producing new stories, but we spent the equivalent of a full-time job–with overtime–reading, critiquing and listening to critiques of our stories.

4. Study fiction:

This emphasis is one of the biggest changes I’ve made in my writing life during the past year. First, I’m reading a number of books on craft. Instead of reading these works all at once, I read a bit at a time, in parallel with my own writing. This gives me the opportunity to both apply the new techniques I learn to my own stories. Second, I deliberately seek out and read the best works in the field and ask myself what their authors did differently that made many of us take note. My favorite stories to study are the ones that suck me in and make me forget to study, so that I have to go back and attempt to dissect them again. (And again, sometimes!)

My current craft reads are Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook and David Madden’s Revising Fiction. I strongly recommend both, for very different reasons.

5. Connect with peers and mentors:

First of all, attend conferences and writing retreats. The Rainforest Writers Village is one of my annual favorites, because you can write with other writers, which is hard to do at conferences.

My favorite idols aren’t the demigods of our field *cough*NeilGaiman*cough*, but my friends who are perhaps a year or three ahead of me (like my Tracie, and all of the inkpunks!). I know them and their lives well enough to know what I need to emulate to achieve success, which habits I need to break or adopt. I know what sacrifices they make and how they carve writing time out of their hectic, distraction-filled lives. My writing friends and colleagues are a source of endless encouragement and commiseration, both in-person and via twitter and Facebook and email. I depend on them–on you all–for the strength to keep pursuing my long-term writing goals.

FYI: 10,000 hours spent connecting with peers on Facebook will not make you a better writer. It may (if you challenge yourself in a deliberate, focused manner) make you better at connecting with your peers on Facebook.

I’d like to emphasize that nothing is a substitute for writing. Bottom line: If I want to become a better writer, I have to write. But like with any investment, I’d like to maximize my return, so I want to invest wisely.

I’d love to hear from you all–what do you think about the 10,000 hour Rule? Do you have any tips for smart and deliberate practice? Do you have any books on craft that you’d recommend?

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