Friday, September 30, 2011

truth stranger than fiction

Writing is hard. One of the tricky things about fiction is to write things that seem true but aren't. So, when truth seems fictional then we're really in trouble! This brings me to Improbable Research; they collect (and sometimes conduct) improbable research. Last night they announced the winners of their 2011 Ig Nobel Prize. Here are some of the real (!) topics that won:

  • an airborn wasabi alarm (to awaken sleeping people in case of an emergency)
  • how a strong urge to urinate affects decision making
  • the Theory of Structured Procrastination: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that's even more important.
  • the discovery that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle
  • predictions of the end of the world teach us to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations
  • the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank

So, writers, beware: don't write about any of this stuff. :)
No one would think they seem true!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

character names

I went back to work on an older writing project recently. And, then, I went back to work on an even older project. (I like working on two projects at the same time. When I get stuck on one, I can change gears and work on the other.) Imagine my surprise when I realized both these older projects have a character with the same name. I also was surprised that one of them has the same name as one of the characters in the project I just turned in. Good grief! I'm totally in a character name rut!

A tool I like to use to pick names is the U.S. Social Security Administration's website: Popular Baby Names. I think using popular names helps readers identify with characters. The site is great, moreover, because you can input the year of birth and get the top names for that year. For example, in 1910, the top names were John and Mary. In 1960, the top names were David and Mary. And in 2010, the top names were Jacob and Isabella. Hhm... I'm starting to see why I have some character names repeated. :)

How do you pick your character names? How do you avoid repeating names?

Monday, September 26, 2011

The End

Are these the best two words in the English language or what? Today is the day the students in my MFA class have to turn in their thesis novels. Frankly, this is somewhat of a relief for me. This is the end of rewriting, the end of revising, the end of tinkering, the end of 'word-smithing', the end of... Well, you get the idea.

Deadlines are sometimes a relief.

Congratulations, fellow students, for all your hard work! Congrats on finishing your novels!

How about you? What do you think of deadlines?

Friday, September 23, 2011

all hail the muse

Recently, I went back to a project that's been on the back burner. This is not a project that had been going well. I think I've been working on it part time for two years. Ugh. :( The plot wasn't working and I had to backtrack twice and throw chapters out. I had hit on the idea of introducing a new pov character that seemed promising...

So, anyway, this week I forced myself to sit down and work on it (even though I didn't want to). Imagine my surprise when this time it's coming together beautifully! I'm thinking of all kinds of neat plot twists and fun supporting characters.

What can I say but: All Hail the Muse!

What can I take away from this? I'll tell you what worked for me.

  1. I discovered there's really only one physical location where I seem to be able to write a lot. This is somewhat illogical on my part, but there it is. I need to quit fighting it, and accept it. So, I need to use my limited time in this space very carefully. I need to turn off all distractions and just write. So, one reason it works is minimal distractions. Another reason it works: the physical setup of the computer keyboard and screen are very comfortable.
  2. I need to write regularly here--like every day--even when I don't want to.
  3. I need to think about the story/brainstorm when I'm not using precious writing time. For me, when I'm commuting to and from my day job seems to be a good time. (And I need to jot down ideas so I don't forget them!)

Hopefully, the muse will stick around for a while.

How about you? Do you have any tips for enticing the muse?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

fear and growth

A couple writer friends of mine have been instructed to utilize a certain new technology. They don't want to. As their complaints have grown more strident and unpleasant, I suspect their reluctance stems from fear. Personally, I was very uncomfortable when I had to try this particular tech. I often get that same uncomfortable feeling when I have to stare down a blank page or screen. Comfort is a key word here. At conference someone said something that resonated with me: you need to move out of your comfort zone to improve as a writer.
This adage really applies everywhere. It's only by being in our "uncomfortable zone", by facing our fears, that we grow as human beings. In fact, if something makes us uncomfortable or afraid, that's probably a sign we should pursue it. Fear should never stop us--with the obvious caveat of physical confrontations with wild animals, or similar!

What do you think? Have you faced down any fears lately?

Monday, September 19, 2011

book reviews

Book reviews of one's work can be tricky. There are those that say any publicity is good publicity. There are those that can't read reviews of their work. Certainly reader reviews such as on Amazon have made everyone a critic. I'm not sure if this is good or bad.

As writers, however, we should know how to write a good book review. The Los Angeles Review of Books is an example of how we should do it. See, for example, their article(s) on Kim Stanley Robinson's California trilogy: Pacific Overture. Interesting!

How about you? Do you read your own reviews? Do you write reviews?

Friday, September 16, 2011

writer plus readers

We had an interesting discussion of a short story this week in my writers' workshop. The reactions and interpretations to the story were all over the board. It reminded me of how subjective fiction is, like other art. A piece of fiction doesn't truly come to life until a reader perceives and interprets it--and readers always bring their whole lives/backstory to that task. So, a story is different for every reader.

More specifically, the story in question was Raymond Carver's Cathedral. We all agreed that the writing was masterfully minimal and the characterization was extremely effective. Most agreed that the protagonist was a bigot and appeared to experience an epiphany of compassion/understanding in the end. We disagreed, however, on what it meant. Did the protagonist act or react? Did the protagonist truly change? Or did he just change for the moment? Did he realize he'd changed? And if he didn't realize it, was it still meaningful? To whom? The protagonist? The reader?

Did you read it? What do you think?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


I went to a writers conference this past weekend. This week it's been interesting to hear and see the 'post-game' analysis and reactions of my writer friends. After the initial euphoria and exhaustion wears off, a common reaction seems to be frenzy? consternation? Something along those lines. They seem to think: I have to do a bunch of things differently, and I have to fix a bunch of things, and I have to do it all RIGHT NOW. (And I admit, I'm not immune to such thoughts.)

I've been reading Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer by Jeff VanderMeer and he has a section in the middle called "Gut-Check" in which he recommends writers eat, sleep, don't do drugs, take time to relax and exercise, etc. These are basically all common sense things. The fact that VanderMeer has to tell writers to do this, makes me think writers are in danger of losing perspective! Or maybe even our minds. :)

So, writers, certainly, try to improve your craft, but also live your lives. Try to capture the joy of creating new characters, stories, worlds. Remember why you got into writing in the first place. Keep your perspective!

I'll try. How about you?

Monday, September 12, 2011

manic monday

I had a super-busy weekend and didn't do any writing or revising per se. In a mere two weeks my final MFA thesis is due. Plus, I have my usual responsibilities like work and critique group, etc. Ack! I'm feeling a bit manic. Correction: I'm feeling a lot manic.

I know a lot of my fellow students are feeling the same. What we need are some stress management tips.
I looked around and here's what I found:
  • Reframe problems to view from a more positive perspective.
  • Look at the big picture and take perspective.
  • Adjust (lower!) your standards.
  • Don’t try to control the uncontrollable.
  • Look for the upside, for the positive.
  • Share your feelings.

Well, I've got that last tip down pat. Ack. :)

Does anyone have any good stress management tips?

Friday, September 9, 2011

writers conferences

As you read this I'm at a writers conference, specifically, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers' annual Colorado Gold Conference, held in Denver. I'll be volunteering, including running a short story workshop, hosting "Literature and Liquour" in the bar, hosting one of the networking dinner tables, and moderating some panels throughout the weekend. I'll be pitching my new book to an editor that would be a perfect fit. Maybe I'll hit an agent or two with my elevator pitch in the elevator. :) I'll be attending a number of informative panels and workshops. But, best of all, I'll get to catch up with a bunch of writer friends and meet some new ones.

I mention all this not to brag but to encourage everyone to go to a conference. Conferences rock! They get us away from our computers and into real-life human interactions with other writers! They rejuvenate us, get our creative juices flowing!

If that's not reason enough, they have awesome networking opportunities. You never know when you might help yourself or someone else along the path of success. Last year, for example, one of my critique partners sat at my networking dinner table and ended up having the agent ask him for his manuscript. Huzzah! I've even seen folks set up on-line critique groups in the bar!

There are a large number of conferences. To be the most effective do your research. Where will your ideal agent or editor be? Where will you be able to pitch to said agent or editor? Actually, for SF and Fantasy writers something to consider is: Nebula Awards Weekend. This is chock-full of industry professionals and for some reason few writers go.

Another tip: for the biggest bang for your buck, volunteer. Often this results in reduced or waived conference fees.

Anyone know of any good conferences?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

who's your demo?

I just discovered an awesome writer who seems to know a lot about social media: Kristen Lamb. Check out her blog. Recently, she discussed "the typical non-reader." She said, There is a misconception that non-readers don't read. They DO read, they just happen to be highly selective. Wow!

A couple weeks ago she said, what is our REAL demographic? Anyone in need of informing or entertaining. THAT demographic is MASSIVE and when we writers mobilize THAT sector of society—the fat part of the bell curve—this is when literary history is made.

The DaVinci Code, the Harry Potter Series, Twilight, Tuesdays with Morrie, Water for Elephants, The Help all ignited a passion for stories in people who normally would not have defined themselves as avid readers.
Wow again! This lady is smart!

Personally, I'm going to have rethink this whole demographic thing. How do we reach anyone/everyone in need of entertaining? What do you think?

Monday, September 5, 2011

don't quit your day job!

On this holiday it's fun to imagine what it would be like to be a full-time writer. But I know quite a few fiction authors and they invariably say things like "Don't quit your day job." (And not just to me, to every aspiring writer they come across.) The inconvenient truth is it's hard to make a living as a fiction writer. Agent Chip MacGregor posted a nice blog entry last summer about this very thing: Making a Living at Writing. He breaks it down into how many books you need to have in print or coming out, etc. Very helpful!

How about you? Do you have a plan in place? Will you, or did you, quit your day job?

Friday, September 2, 2011

the twitter experiment

I'm taking a class right now where we're actually required to sign up for twitter and follow some authors. Ultimately, we're going to analyze their tweets as to whether we thought they were effective or what. I got geared up yesterday (yes, I know I'm late to the party) and it's wild how different the various authors are. Some first impressions: One author tweets literally every ten minutes; she's very entertaining but I can't help thinking Get a real life, honey! One author only tweets quotes from her books. Oh, dear! This doesn't work at all. One author seems to only tweet commerical information about his books. Not good.

What might work to sell books would be to follow the actual fictional characters. I'll have to look some of my faves up to see if they tweet. Or, I could tweet one of my characters... That could be interesting!

Anyway, anyone have any good tweeting experiences? Know any good tweeters I should follow? (Feel free to include yourself.) Thanks!