Sunday, August 29, 2010
Not many have the chutzpa to say that. So many of us writer types know what we want to be. We all have that dream of being debt free, of having what we write pay our mortgages and beat back our student loan officers. And while I'm pretty sure writing hasn't made Bev a millionaire (who knows, I could be wrong), it is her indelible strength and confidence that has endeared so many to her. She's a classy southern lady and, beyond that, she's an impeccable writer.
Writing in college became commonplace for me. I studied under two great and prolific novelists as I've exhaustively mentioned on this blog. Part of the tutelage I experienced with them both was a certain literary festival in New Orleans. The Tennessee Williams Festival celebrates the playwright's life in the city and the unflappable style with which he created, in my opinion, some of the best pieces of fiction art our country has ever seen.
Sadly, due to the ravages that have fallen on the city during Katrina and the asinine budget cut our "good" Governor has seen fit to institute, the festival is in very real danger of ending. For twenty-five years the festival has ushered in some of the greatest local and international artists, writers, actors, directors and even Williams' one of a kind brother.
Bev showed me, through her active participation on the festival board, that writers need each other. She showed me that whatever stage in your writing career or whether you're simply a fan of the written word, commraderie among the creative must be cultivated. It must be fostered by helping and learning from one another. This festival has done so much for me. I have learned more from the writers on various panels and from Bev than I could possibly express to you here.
New Orleans and our entire state for that matter, has been ravaged quite brutally over the past five years. We have seen life-long residents still absent from the city. We have seen our locals lose so much because of the storm and in the Gulf because of the oil spill. We're still fighting, but sometimes that fight can be more than we can handle.
Pepsi is offering fifty thousand dollars to organizations of the Gulf Coast who have been affected by the damages done on her shores. The Tennessee Williams Festival is one tiny spot away from being among the top ten recipients of this award.
I am asking a favor from each of you. I'm not asking you to give money. I'm not asking for a handout. I am simply asking that you give the festival two minutes of your time. Please vote and share information about this award. Log on here to vote for the festival and help them to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary and the one hundredth birthday of Mr. Williams the way only the Big Easy can.
We appreciate it more than you can know!
Please RT and share!
Saturday, August 28, 2010
I expect much from books. I expect to be dazzled. I expect to be wrapped up in a story, in characters I either love or loathe. What I don’t normally expect, is to be overwhelmed and awed by what I read. Sure, there are works that have changed my thinking. There are writers whose talent and ability are so awe-inspiring that I feel somehow pathetic by comparison. But reading a collection about relationships shouldn’t have left me gobsmacked. It shouldn’t have left me thinking for days afterward about how these relationships, in their own unimaginable way, shifted my awareness of what fiction should be.
Fungus of the Heart, a vivid, wildly artistic collection by Jeremy C. Shipp, did just that. I sat down and read, watching through lenses contorted to reveal things I could not imagine. I saw through his eyes and the view was distorted and beautiful. It’s a collection about relationships. Full stop. There is no other way to explain it. Now, these aren’t relationships you’re going to hear about on Oprah or hovering around the coffeemaker at work. These relationships run the gamut from misogynistic men and the females they ‘own’ to sprites who think they are jack-o-lanterns and the creatures of death and violence that love them.
In Shipp’s world, we are introduced to characters full of discord, full of self-loathing and the connections they make and are forced into with the world around them. And those worlds? Disturbing, frightening and absolutely infectious. We are drawn in by the conflicts they face, by the horrible sensibilities of each villain and victim and their ultimate desire to bond, to forgive or simply survive. Shipp creates universes where ghosts act as therapists, where an Oak tree makes her daughter promise to save a world she cannot connect with; where vampires take on many identities, but mainly those of, “boy bands and idol singers.”
Shipp told me that Fungus of the Heart was a map to his values— the respect he has for relationships and the importance of those relationships in his own life. But his characters are beyond flawed. They do their best to disrespect the relationships they have and the result is disastrous. He says his characters, “have emotional, physical, spiritual needs, but are often screwed up in one way or another, and so they don’t know how to get their needs met in a healthy way.”
The beauty in all these flawed characters is the way in which their journeys are chronicled. It isn’t alliteration or some sad attempt of using plot devices that gets these stories across. Shipp’s above that. But he has a inimitable voice and that voice comes alive, is made real with every harrowing misadventure his characters take. In all honesty, I’ve never read anything like this. Not ever, and that’s saying a lot. I read far more than I should. But, I was swept up in every war-ravaged landscape, in each village, in every hut I traveled to in this collection. I cared about these haunting characters, wanted to reach out and connect, wanted, sometimes, to give them a smack across the head. Ultimately, however, I know it was Shipp’s very clever, astonishing voice that drew me in, that made me think, made me keep thinking.
When you read this collection, bear in mind that you’re not in for horror stories or stories drawn in a manner you’ve ever read. You’re in for a something surreal, something beautifully fantastic and I promise you, you won’t be bothered by the battle scars you walk away with. You’ll be grateful, satisfied that you bear those marks, proud that you took the journey right along with these misguided, damaged characters.
Friday, August 20, 2010
The topic was world-building. How important is world-building in fiction? Is it a necessity in all genres? How does one go about describing said world while avoiding info dumping?
Of course, my fellow scribes had the answers we all need and I’d love to share their wealth of knowledge on the topic at hand. (For a more detailed view of our discussion, check out last night’s transcripts which should be up soon).
World-building is important, in my humble opinion, because it grants realism to your story— it puts your reader ‘in’ your story. It gives your characters authority which makes your story believable. Realism, despite the genre, picks your readers up and places them dead center of the universe you’ve created. Description of your world, or place or setting, helps the reader to understand why she should care about your protagonist and the misadventures that happen along in your plot. In short, it makes your reader identify with your characters, which makes them more interested, which garners a base. Quite simple, right?
So, if world building is so important, how can it be done effectively? Last night there were loads and loads of suggestions. All interesting, all valid, I thought, but the one technique, (for lack of better term), that I really found especially helpful, is sensory explanation.
Explaining what a characters feels, sees, tastes, hears, etc, is an open door to relating to your readers about the external influences of your character. It also furthers the inclusion of your reader into the story. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.
I’m going to dork out and use Rowling because, yes, I’m a fan girl, but also because she’s a master at world building:
The last shop was narrow and shabby. Peeling gold letters over the door read Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C. A single wand lay on a faded purple cushion in the dusty window.
A tinkling bell rang somewhere in the depths of the shop as they stepped inside. It was a tiny place, empty except for a single, spindly chair that Hagrid sat on to wait. Harry felt strangely as though he had entered a very strict library; he swallowed a lot of new questions that had just occurred to him and looked instead at the thousands of narrow boxes piled neatly right up to the ceiling. For some reason, the back of his neck prickled. The very dust and silence in here seemed to tingle with some secret magic.
Now, what if Rowling would have given us the bare facts without all of Harry’s sensory interpretations?
The last shop was a wand shop. The letters over the door read Ollivanders: Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C. A wand lay on a cushion in the window.
A bell rang in the shop as they stepped inside. Hagrid sat on a chair to wait. Harry swallowed a lot of new questions that had just occurred to him and looked instead at the boxes piled up to the ceiling.
Clearly, the edited version is extreme, but the gist is accurate. With the second paragraph, which excludes any sensory details, we know only where Harry is and what he sees. But we have no real indication of what to make of Ollivander’s. With the exception of the word “wand” this shop could have been any shop in just about any place. But it is Rowling’s descriptors that give us a real sense of place. We know, from Harry’s point of view, that the shop is a tiny little place, very old and very cluttered. We know that Harry is a smidgen freaked out by the shop and that he feels some odd sense of reverence and déjà vu. Why do we know this? Because we are ‘in’ Harry’s mind and we are seeing, hearing and feeling what he feels.
That, folks, is what world building is all about.
Our readers have to know what our characters know (or don’t know as the case may be). And in turn, we have to know the world we’re building. After all, asking a reader to join you in a world you’ve created and have not fully imagined is like asking someone who has never driven to take the wheel on a road trip. It’s inauthentic and trust me, your readers will know.
And world-building isn’t necessitated only in genre fiction. Literary fiction also requires a unique world. Thinking about ‘Streetcar Named Desire’ anywhere else than in New Orleans. How did the city influence Blanche? Did the sights and sounds of the city lend itself to the overall feel of the story?
There are others of course: Anything Faulkner gave us set outside of the south would have felt awkward, I think. Hemingway’s vivid retelling of the thrill of the safari or McCarthy’s desolate landscape of the world post-apocalypse. World building/setting/place, if done correctly, can and, I think, should be just as important as your antagonist’s motivation or the conflict your main character overcomes. (A more thorough explanation of the importance of place can be found here).
There are other ways to explain your world, ways that take another avenue without sensory overload, but I don’t want to overwhelm you with a bunch of techniques that I’m sure you’re already well aware of. Again, see the transcripts for more.
The two most critical aspects about world-building—the ones that I have found necessary while writing—is knowing, (and I mean absolute knowledge here), the world you are creating and expressing that through your characters point of view. The latter is doubly fun when you’ve got multiple points of view.
So, what if you’re stuck? What if you have no idea how to build these worlds? What if you’ve become clustered in that most loathed place that all writers get in (read: the block)? Well, I hope I can help you with that as well.
The lovely writing mentor, who I’ve gushed about frequently on my little blog, gave me some great exercises for the block. These can help if you’re stuck, as I have been, in the middle. Or if you just need a bit of a boost to get the muse in the mood to inspire.
For stuck-in-the-middle issues:
Mary Gordon said this: "I always know my endings, but mid-way through the book, usually I find out it's not the ending at all." Ask yourself if you are too set on keeping the "nifty" ending you envisioned when you thought up the plot of the book. Maybe you can't write to that ending because it's not the right one. If you're locking your mind into "it has to turn out this way," then you're forcing something on your characters that they don't want.
If that doesn’t work, put the book aside, take some time away from it, don't think about it for a while, then go back and re-read it and sometimes that time a part will help the natural flow reemerge so that you, hopefully, can't write fast enough.
Exercises for the dreaded b-l-o-c-k:
1. First make sure you REALLY know your characters, especially your main character. Use an artist's pad and write down everything about your character: political party, the music they listen to, how much money they have in the bank, etc. Then, cut out photos of what you imagine your character may look like and paste them on the pad.
2. For setting, draw your character’s town, the houses, the workplaces, on and on. Any detail that would spark something for future use in the plot.
3. Have your character write you a letter that begins "What you don't know about me that you need to know." Free write until they tell you the secret they're keeping from you that you didn't understand. Not understanding the character's secrets oftentimes keeps us from understanding their real motivation.
4. Have someone else read your book out loud to you. You hear things that you don't hear when you read it yourself.
5. Play the ‘What If’ game. “What if…she did this or what if so and so said this.” Don’t think about it, just scribble anything that pops in your mind. What if she robbed a bank? What would happen? How would she feel? What would she do next? There are always consequences both good and bad for every action we take. If we overeat, we get indigestion. If we said something mean, we may feel guilty OR if we're not a nice person, we may enjoy seeing someone suffer.
6. Finally, you may do something as simple as change from first person to third and realize that gives you what you're looking for.
One last thought: Sometimes the story that has you stuck, isn’t the story you should be writing at the moment. It doesn’t mean the story is dead and should be forgotten—it just means that at this point in your life, you aren’t ready to write that story. Don’t forget about it. Come back when it’s time and if you, as the writer, know your voice, trust me, you’ll know when the time is right.
*Note* The above exercises came from Bev, for the most part, and not me. Thanks, Bev. You are a rock star!
Tuesday, August 17, 2010
In which the MC, Keilee , has just 'met' her first fairy. Let's just say she's a little freaked out. There has been a wreck and her best friend, Cameron and her mom's annoying friend, Wills, have gone to see if they can help.
The growl vanished and Keilee looked up when she heard a police siren, two small beeps that whooped loud over the noise of the rain. She saw Wills leading Cameron back, letting the paramedics work on the injured driver. Then, from the shadow of a wide oak tree, Keilee saw a form, a mass so haggard, that her stomach turned. It crouched behind Wills and Cameron as they watched the police ushering cars around the wreckage. Keilee sat up, resting her elbows against the dash to get a clearer look at the creature, her hands coming up to cover her mouth when a policeman’s flashlight shifted across its body.
Despite the crouch, it was clearly tall, the legs as dark as a tree trunk, as thin as a light pole. It had wide, looming shoulders, odd and disproportional to the frail legs. A thick wool cape with a fur-lined collar draped over the shoulders, the hem wet against the rain-soaked sidewalk. It seemed unable to stay stationary, moving its thick body from side to side as it watched Wills, narrowing its white, bugged eyes at his head.
“Hey,” Keilee shouted, slapping her hands against the windshield. “Look behind you.” She balled her fist and banged the glass hoping Wills would see her. The creature was joined by another, the pair of them intent on Wills, shifting their bodies into a pounce. When one of the creatures extended a claw— no fingers, no hands, just razor sharp claws that were twisted and long— Keilee darted over the seat and slammed her hand against the car horn.
Cameron jumped and Wills’ head jerked up toward her. They both ran across the street, Cameron unlocking the door and sliding in, flinging water out of her hair and off her arms. Wills trailed behind her, then stopped at the back of the car and Keilee watched him fumble with the handle, his eyes focused on the creatures now retracting, shuffling back and out of sight.
Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Some writers just get ‘it.’ I’m sure you know what I mean. You’ve read works, thumbed through stories that make you, the aspiring writer, cringe in jealous envy and bask in amazement. Some writers simply have the ability to fashion a story so compelling, so real, that the only logical reaction is outright adoration. Gaiman did it for me with “Sandman.” King had me with “Salem’s Lot” and now, Jeremy C. Shipp has hooked me with “Those Below” and the forthcoming “Fungus of the Heart.”
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Shipp and what I discovered was that the dark wit and brilliant imagery comes from a man intrinsically aware of his own voice. Shipp is the Bram Stoker nominated author of books such as “Cursed” and” Vacation” and has been published (previously and forthcoming) in Cemetery Dance, ChiZine, Apex Magazine, Pseudopod, and Withersin.
In his own words, Shipp enjoys living in Southern California in a moderately haunted Victorian farmhouse called Rose Cottage. He lives there with his wife, a couple of mighty cats, and a legion of yard gnomes. The gnomes like him. The clowns living in his attic--not so much.
You've been quoted as saying of your novels, "Vacation, is a map to my brain. Sheep and Wolves, is a map to my fears. And Cursed is a map to my heart." Does that mean that Fungus of the Heart is a map of your soul? What can you tell us about this book and the genesis of writing it?
You might say that Fungus of the Heart is a map to my values. And what I value most is relationships. And so, Fungus of the Heart is full of stories about families, friendships, lovers. I believe that treating others with respect is the most important thing in the world, and therefore, many of my characters are disrespectful. My characters have emotional, physical, spiritual needs, but my characters are often screwed up in one way or another, and so they don’t know how to get their needs met in a healthy way. Therein lies the horror.
What is your writing process? Are you an organic writer or does there have to be some organization in your process?
I usually start out with a shard of an idea. Maybe an aspect of a character, or a fragment of a plot. Then I brainstorm for a while, and after that, I get writing. I never outline, although I do carry around a notebook with me almost everywhere I go, so I can write down any ideas I have about the story I’m working on. Usually, I know where my tales are going to end up, but I never know exactly how I’m going to get there. I like not knowing everything. I like putting my characters in impossible situations and letting them find their own ways out.
Was there one person that influenced you early on to write?
There wasn’t one person in particular. My fourth grade teacher asked her students write fiction stories from time to time, and I really enjoyed that experience. Also, in elementary school, I loved to read, and I loved when my father read to me. Some of my favorite authors were HG Wells, Alexandre Dumas, Jules Verne. I also fell in love with storytelling thanks to filmmakers like George Lucas, Terry Gilliam, Jim Henson. And so, because of all these books and films and people, I decided to write my first novel when I was thirteen, and I’ve been writing almost constantly ever since.
How different do you think your life would be if you didn't write? Do you think you would use some other medium to create? What would it be?
If I wasn’t a writer, I’d probably snap and become one of the clowns in my attic. Truthfully though, I’d most likely become a singer or a filmmaker. I love singing, playing the guitar, playing the piano. The only reason I don’t sing and play more is because writing is my greatest passion and it takes up so much of my time.
How long into the submitting process did you get your first publication?
When I was 18, my creative writing teacher, Phillip Brugalette, encouraged me to send out my work. And so I did. About two months later, I received my first acceptance letter for a story called “Love Thy Demon.”
How did you/do you handle rejection?
For the first couple years of my writing career, I didn’t handle rejection very well. I was a pimply, shy teenager, and I spent much of my free time feeling sorry for myself, and the rejection letters gave me yet another excuse to be hard on myself. Thankfully, though, by learning to deal with rejection, I became a stronger, more confident person. These days, when I hit a pothole on my journey as a writer, I just thank my lucky stars that I’m alive, and I’m moving forward.
Why don't Rose Cottage's clowns like you? Did you key their tiny car?
The leader of the attic clowns once threw a maggot and broken glass pie at my face. I didn’t laugh at his joke, and so they’ve held a grudge against me ever since.
For those readers who don't know, can you give us the distinction between Horror and Bizarro fiction? Which do you prefer to write?
Bizarro is the genre of the weird. Bizarro fiction tends to be not only strange, but thought-provoking and fun to read. Bizarro isn’t necessarily horrifying, and Horror isn’t necessarily bizarre, but most of my work tends to be a combination of Bizarro and Horror.
If you knew tomorrow was your last day on earth, how would you spend your time?
I would play with my cats, hang out with my family, cuddle with my wife. I would eat a peanut butter and watermelon sandwich. I would tell everyone I love that I love them, and I would thank them for the joy they’ve brought me. Then I would say goodbye.
If any writers inspire or influence you, who are they?
Some authors who inspire me are Arundhati Roy, Lois Lowry, Haruki Murakami, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Francesca Lia Block, Anthony Burgess, Gregory Maguire, Amy Hempel.
What kind of fiction can you not bring yourself to read and why?
I will not read fiction written by attic clowns. Not because the clowns don’t write good stories. They do. But they print their books using Smurf blood, and that just isn’t right.
I read "Those Below" from Love and Sacrifice and I absolutely loved it. Can you tell us what inspired you to write this story?
I’m glad you enjoyed the tale. I wrote “Those Below” because of the systemic and personal racism that saturates our world. In most stories, the zombies eat the people, but in “Those Below,” the people consume the zombies, in a metaphorical sense.
What can we expect from you next?
I’m working on a new novel, a middle grade book, a comic book series, a horror screenplay. There may also be a stage musical in the works, as well as a film based on one of my books. In addition to all this, I’m planning on forming a yard gnome choir and an attic clown Vaudeville act.
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Those days were absolute, as vivid now to her as they had been the moment they began. She could still feel the ache of her muscles, the raw strain in her limbs from pulling her father away from the chaos and into the belly of their bunker.
She still saw his weak body dying as she held him in her lap, felt the rattle of gunfire and aggression above ringing into her senses. She still smelled the tang of blood on her hands as they wiped over her father’s wounded temple, still heard his voice harsh and stubborn as he made her promise to leave him, to leave for the mountains were she would be safe. She waited a week, long past the moment her father’s body had grown cold, before she managed to obey him.
Anissa walked away from the darkness of the night, pushing back the memories of the past. Ignoring the chill on her skin, she went into what had once been her kitchen, grabbing what remained of the dried meat she’d brought back with her, thankful for the meager comfort of her father’s home. She heard Harding stirring, and checked him for a fever, relieved to find his skin cool and dry. She pulled the thin blanket over his chest then sat down again, her feet dangling from the large, glassless window.
“It is still night?” he asked, his voice surprising Anissa. The silence had been so profound for so long, that his voice sounded abnormal to her, out of place. She nodded, answering him and attempted to help Harding as he struggled to sit next to her. His color was better and he smelled clean, like the calendula. They watched the moon dip and the fires in the horizon smoldering into thin plumes.
“Can you eat?” she asked, offering him the cold jerky in her hand. He smiled and Anissa tore it in half, turning away from him when their fingers touched.
The silence was something she’d never grown accustomed to. There were no birds, no crickets chirping their songs. All was still, soundless and black. Their new world seemed old and broken. She counted each breath she took and was reminded of her father, of the times they would watch the stars fading.
“My father is buried over there, beneath the ridge,” she said, giving flippant notice to the burn in her eyes.
Harding sat closer, his shoulder touching hers. “Was it the Guard?” he asked and she nodded, not able to find her voice. “I should have been here.”
“Yes,” she said, wiping her fingers against her jeans. “You should have.”
Thursday, August 5, 2010
Not everyone loves a cliff hanger. In fact, I'd say that many readers, yours truly included, feel cheated by an evil cliffie. But should satisfying the reader be the primary focus for a writer? I'd guess that answer is subjective, but for me it's two fold. Yes, you need to satisfy your reader. Yes, you want them to feel as though the time they've invested in your characters and their stories has not been an empty waste. However, you also want to tell the story you intended. You want to the plot to unfold, the characters to develop in the manner you envisioned. It is a slippery slope, this threading the line of happy reader/happy writer, but it is not an impossible one.
There have been books I've read that have left me unsatisfied. These occur mainly in series, so one can be forgiving if we know there is more to come. However, intentionally withholding information, deliberately starting a new conflict at the end of a book is just, to me, a pathetic little plot device.
In our chat tonight, Les Edgerton author of HOOKED: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go, gave us his two cents. (For more in-depth discussion see his guest blog post here). Essentially, and I'm being abrupt with this summary, Edgerton said that cheating the reader, is cheating yourself. "If you don't resolve the story problem, the reader is definitely cheated." The result of that could be loss of readership and in extreme cases, loss of credibility as a writer.
Plot devices, such as the horrid evil cliffie won't endear you to anyone, not really. Oh sure, you may find yourself attaining a larger, devoted reader base who will see no fault in your work, but how sincere are they? How do you know if you've just got a large group of fangirls and boys who'll read your grocery list?
To satisfy the reader and yourself, you have to straddle that line. Edgerton makes it quite simple: "Good writing provides the skeleton and the reader needs to do the work of providing the flesh...[a satisfying ending] should contain a win and a loss and not be tied up neatly." And, "good endings should surprise, but, upon reflection, make perfect sense."
Our 'real lives' consist of us constantly staying away from conflict, keeping a distance from drama, but in fiction, you need to seek it out. You need to "seek it out at every opportunity."
So be true to your vision. Tell the story you want to tell, but be cognizant of your ending. Don't cheat your readers out of their satisfying ending. Find the morsels of growth, the ending that doesn't come wrapped up in a big, red bow. There is no need for a 'happily ever after.' There is only the requirement of 'happily for now.'
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
It was the smoke that gave him away. It billowed above his head, snaking up into the humidity of Sunday summer in The Quarter and made Mercy certain he’d been infected. She stood with her shoulder resting on the corner of the building, watching, near a dumpster that smelled of burnt fudge and week old crawfish.
The man was leaning against his arm, stretched out on the white brick of the building, his head was down, body tilted and sluggish. The back of his shirt stuck to his shoulders by a film of sweat and his short black hair looked like slick oil. He kept looking over his shoulder, scanning any passersby that came near him.
The smoke grew thicker, the color shifting between gray and white, as it shot out and floated above him like a crown. Mercy knew what would be next. First the smoke jutting out through flared nostrils, the nose elongating into a snout and then the sharp scales that grew on the face and spread to the neck, then the chest until it covered the body-- until the leaking spores of poison settled into the skin. It was their deadliest weapon, that poison, how they recruited, how they killed.