10 September 2013

Villains we love to hate

I just read a great article from Writer's Digest on how to make more compelling antagonists.  (Side note, if you have not already signed up for the Writer's Digest FREE newsletter, then you can do so here.  You will not regret it, I assure you.)

One of the things I disagreed with partially about the article was that abstracts (war, poverty, etc.) cannot be effective villains.  For most of us, we couldn't pull off making poverty, for instance, an effective villain, but there are those who have done it - but as the article states, these authors do it by putting a human face on the abstraction.  Most notably in my mind, is Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind.  Although poverty is not the main antagonist, it is a weapon wielded by a major player (namely, Ambrose the Baron-heir).  Also, it's a constant threat to young Kvothe.  At times we forget, alongside him, that he is in constant peril of financial doom, but it's still there, lurking, just beyond the periphery.  (If you haven't yet read The Name of the Wind, or The Wise Man's Fear, then I'm afraid you're missing out on possibly one of the greatest fantasy writers of our time.  Also, Penny Arcade would apply the label "villain" to you. And if you don't empathize with yourself, even now so laden with this label of villainy, then perhaps writing better villains isn't yet within your grasp.)

In short, there you have it - a way to make even the most abstract, yet deadly, things into suitable villains, thanks to the example of Patrick Rothfuss (and, of course, Dickens also used poverty like a cudgel about his heroes' heads).

Live on the Page.

06 September 2013

About Depression

This is apt to be a bit of a longer post, but I ask you to bear with me.  If you want to skip right to the fun part of this post, just light on over to hyperbole and a half.  For those intrepid souls who want to venture into the wilderness of this post: "Fare forward, travellers [sic]."

"Art doesn't come from happiness; it comes from pain," or at least that's what a friend told me in high school (and who didn't suffer enough pain during those formative years to create a masterpiece?).  Numerous studies have shown a strong correlation between depression, bipolar disorder, and creativity.  Kay Redfield Jamison wrote an extraordinary book about this phenomenon called Touched with Fire.

Even with the numerous resources available to discuss depression, even with 10% of the US population reporting depression, even with the ever-lessening stigma on seeking psychotherapy, it is still incredibly difficult to explain depression to someone who has not been depressed.  There's a two part exploration of what it means to be depressed over at hyperbole and a half which is poignant and humorous.  Likely you will laugh and then feel awkward about having done so.  But it's less bad than laughing at a funeral (and less public, so bonus).  

Really the only thing that isn't covered in Brosh's description of the "depression experience" is the spiral of guilt that comes from looking around and seeing all the things you "should have" done.  Basically, this chemical imbalance is self-fueling after a certain point, because obviously, feeling bad (and not having anything "real" to show for feeling bad) is no excuse to not get work done, so you're just lazy, etc.  (Not true, but then we humans are all to able to believe lies - especially about ourselves).

The initial part of being treated isn't much better than the full blown depression, either.  There's the fear that we'll be somehow less without our disorder, but that's just a form of codependency (like in an abusive relationship).  The first two or so weeks of treatment are the hardest, because all of a sudden one feels the same bleakness of spirit, but one has energy.  It ought to come as no surprise then, that the tendency towards actually committing suicide during this time is a more common occurrence.

As Brosh mentions in the second half of her depression exploration, the first emotion to come back will likely be anger, and you'll be angry at everything, because it just feels good to feel something, anything again.  Don't worry, it gets better from there.

Now, as a writer, what can you do with that soul-crushing period of blackness?  Well, that's where stories and poems can come from.  Everyone's depression is different, so write about it, write about your struggle and eventual triumph, write about what color the depression felt (mine was grey, endlessly grey), write about the hero you created within yourself to battle the depression beast.  Most importantly, as a writer, write.  As long as you write, you aren't defeated.   

22 August 2013

....And we're back

Well, as promised, the blog is back in the middle of August (well, okay, so it's the end of August).  During the hiatus, I finished moving in and setting up the apartment, I read a few books, and I wrote -- far less than I probably ought to have.

What does this mean for you, my valued readers?  It means I have resources for you, of course!  (And it's not even your birthday! - unless it is, in which case, happy birthday).  The first one is Amazon's Mechanical Turk (AKA MTurk), which posts a large number of small jobs and surveys for which you can make a little bit of money (and I do mean little, I've logged a few hours and pulled down about $1/hour), but apparently once you establish yourself a bit, there are higher paying jobs out there, just don't expect to quit your day job by this time next week.  To establish yourself, you'll need to have a high approval rating and a few thousand HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks) entered.  Most of them are data entry, so if you really focus and have some mad typing skills, you ought to be able to do maybe 60 or 70 an hour depending on load times.  So invest a little under 20 hours to break a thousand hits.

Also, if you're looking for freelance jobs and you have the time to take the qualification tests, elance.com can be a source of additional income, but be aware that most jobs are highly competitive.  Unless you have some great references that will endorse your page, don't expect to start off making minimum wage for your work (still better than Mturk, likely).  You can make 40 free proposals on varying projects, then you'll have to pay to get more, but hopefully in 40 proposals, you'll land at least a couple jobs.  Regardless, it's good practice writing quickly and to the point.

A quick look around the Elance market will reveal that many people are looking for SEO-friendly copy - if your SEO isn't up to snuff , then there are several resources available - which is good news for all of us.  For the most up to date resources, I recommend a quick google or bing! search.  Like all writing skills, the best thing to do for SEO is to practice.  One way to practice is to start working on it with your own blog or website - with Google Analytics, you ought to be able to trend different articles and see if your SEO is drawing more hits.

So that's it for this installment, keep tuned for early next week, as I'll be addressing a common problem that us creative types face: Depression.

Thanks for reading.

15 July 2013

Temporary Hiatus.

Sorry for leaving you all hanging for so long.  Currently, I'm on the back end of moving and a few other things that have dug into my reading time (one of these things being BBC's Wallander series starring Kenneth Brannagh, which I emphatically recommend for the absolute intensity of the dialogue and the fabulous acting - also, note the use of off-screen sounds. Also, you can read the books).

So the upshoot of all this (and the fact that I'm now caught up to all the craft books that I've read in the last few years) is that I'll be on a bit of an hiatus until about mid-august.  When I come back, don't worry, I'll bring presents.

Thanks for reading.

28 June 2013

How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, & Science Fiction, A Review

As far as craft books go, How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, & Science Fiction edited by J.N. Williamson is a bit outside the normal variety.  This book actually houses a series of essays on writing "Speculative Fiction" as a whole genre.  Whether we as Fantasy or Science Fiction writers think about it, the fact is we need what the Horror writers have: the ability to make readers worry.  The bulk of these essays will tell you just how to do that, using the fears you already have locked inside your own mind.  If that sounds scary, then you're off to a good start.  If you feel the fear in the scene, while you're writing it, then you have good odds of a reader (who is NOT in control of the story) feeling that same level of fear.

"Redream the Fictive Dream" as we learned in Gardner's The Art of Fiction.  This is a key harped on again and again by the masterful writers in these essays.  There's also a really handy list of publications for SF&Fantasy magazines (some of which are out of print now, but that's what libraries are for).  In short this book is chock full of useful bits of information beyond just craft.  These writers knew the business in 1987, and much of their advice still holds.  The biggest piece is: write the absolutely best story you can.

If you're looking for a craft book that you can nibble in convenient pieces, then this is a solid choice.  The essays by Koontz and Bradbury are always a joy to read, and some authors you might not even know have pieces that easily compete with these two masters.

Not all of us can have a mentor in writing, but thanks to books like How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, & Science Fiction we can have something like a mentor (or a dozen mentors).

As always, thanks for reading.  Now get back to writing.

21 June 2013

Writing the Breakout Novel, A Review

Why does your character deserve to win?  Why does s/he deserve to even live?  These are the questions that Donald Maass will ask you point-blank either in person at a conference or in his fabulous book How to Write the Breakout Novel. Then he'll give you the answer: because s/he is human.  Human life is valuable - as humans we all innately believe that, but how easy it is for us authors to forget that as we craft these characters that we love!

If one were to take nothing else from this book - that lesson of the innate humanity of one's characters ought to be enough to revitalize one's craft.  Maass doesn't stop there, however.  He goes on to explain how to drive that humanity into the hearts of one's readers, how to show the pain and revelations of one's innately human character.  This is why people read - they read to worry, and Maass, as a super agent for over 100 authors, many of whom are bestsellers, knows how to use that reason to a writer's advantage.

Beyond this, Maass discusses the trends in publishing up through the beginning of the 21st Century and how readership is changing (for more information, read his Writing 21st Century Fiction, which covers emerging genres and mash-up genres that are turning mainstream, as well as discussing the actual impact of e-readers/e-publishing).  At the end of Writing the Breakout Novel, Maass gives some how-to's on selling the manuscript that you've polished to the best of your ability (and of course you only query the very best novel you can write at this moment, right?).  Pitch tips, how to live if one does breakout (hint: a Porsche should not be the first purchase one makes after getting published), etc.

For the mid-list author, emerging professional, or the nearly-ready novelist, this is an incredibly handy tool for seeing into the at-times murky business of publishing and querying.  I wouldn't make it a must-read for a creative writing class, but one would be wise to read this book alongside normal curriculum if one aims to make it to more mainstream bookshelves.

As always, thanks for reading.  Now get back to that project.

The Key, A Review

James N. Frey's The Key is a wonderful resources that takes Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, and shows one how to use it as a writing tool.  For anyone interested in using archetypes in their writing, this is a must-have.

Obviously, as a Fantasy writer, this book especially appeals to me, but Frey demonstrates starting with the introduction, why Mythical writing is in fact present in almost every story from Madame Bovary to Crime and Punishment, and why this book will help you (yes, you specifically) become a better writer.

As you'll recall from The Art of Dramatic Writing, good stories require excellent orchestration of characters - not just protagonists, but antagonists as well.  A real mythological/epic-proportioned hero(ine) requires a villain that is at least the hero(ine)'s equal, and in fact the villain ought to be better and more resourceful in some areas.  Frey delivers some tools to evaluate these two pillars of writing a mythological story and tips on how to make that story really pop into life.

The one caveat with this method of story-telling is getting too wrapped up in the checklists and losing focus on the story and characters themselves.  However, Frey equips his readers with how to really familiarize themselves with their own characters while going through the checklists - and he even mentions that not every mythological story has all of the elements listed.  In fact, if one were to use all the elements, one would come up with a rather busy story.  He advises to pick a few and work with them.  Only use what you need.

I'd rate this book as a good read - not quite as necessary to read as How to Write a damn good Novel or its counterpart, but it's a valuable resource, especially for analyzing one's own work.

If you're inclined to watch the Edgar Winter/Simon Pegg movie Hot Fuzz, I'd recommend reading this book, then watching the movie again.  You'll see that it is ripe with mythological elements.

Write on, dear readers.

07 June 2013

The Art of War for Writers, A Review

The Art of War for Writers by James Scott Bell stands alone in this series of reviews thus far.  Bell has developed a book that is so straightforward and filled with such useful yet broad advice, that it's hard to classify it.

The Art of War for Writers makes writing feel more epic, which is something that all of us need now and then.  Seamus Heaney isn't exactly sitting over our shoulders, churning out verses of our heroic entanglements with the Grendels of our own doubts, you know?  Now, if in fact Seamus Heaney does do that for you, we should maybe hang out sometime, if you're not too busy.  (Please?)

Seriously however, James Scott Bell delivers advice drawn from his own experiences as a prolific writer as well as other greats as John D. MacDonald (mystery writer extraordinaire) and Stephen King.  The main thrust of this book isn't actually how to make one better at writing, but how to make one self a better writer in the professional sense.  Bell offers strategies and tactics on how to develop the discipline and will necessary to become a real writer - in the published sense.  The fact of the matter, he argues, boils down to one thing: professionalism.  Basically, agents and editors don't invest in books - they invest in careers, so while you're out querying that new masterpiece that is absolutely the best book that you can produce right now, you ought to be also working on your next project.

James Scott Bell's advice also focuses on strategies for expanding one's craft, from utilizing pseudo-cut-up techniques (William S. Burroughs style) to closing one's eyes to squelch the inner-critic.  You won't be disappointed by this seemingly strange advice, if for no other reason than it forces you to reexamine your work in a new way.

This would be an excellent text for graduate and upper-level undergraduate writing classes, not because of the advice on developing craft (although The Art of War for Writers offers some excellent tidbits on that as well), but because it will instill the necessity for looking at writing as a career - that means one is in it for the long haul.

"The trick is not in becoming a writer, it is staying a writer" (Harlan Ellison, excerpted from The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell, 12).

Thanks for reading, now get to writing!

31 May 2013

On Becoming A Novelist, A Review

I apologize for the late post, regular scheduling will resume tomorrow.

For the genre novelist, On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner is a hard resource to swallow.  Gardner doesn't mince words over storytelling, and as with his The Art of Fiction, he compares pornographers and thriller writers, but the fact is in modern publishing, Gardner has incredibly useful advice whether one is just beginning one's career or mid-career (as most novelists are throughout their lives.  Writers don't retire - except heels first).

The most important lessons in On Becoming a Novelist are 1) that even the best advice can be detrimental to one's own voice and style, and 2) that writing one great story is better and more worthy than writing one hundred bad ones.

The  possible hang up with this second bit of advice is that in writing, as Harlan Coben says, "quantity inevitably produces quality."  So, when you query - make damn sure it's your best and most worthy story, but don't let the fear of failing in a story keep you from writing.

Besides these bits of advice are reminders of the lessons we learned in Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing. Review is always useful.  Also, Gardner shares insights into his own process and schedule which may stretch your own habits or at least make you aware of other available tools.  And what is a craft without tools?

Overall, I'd rate this title highly as a resource for any author, and while it might not make a terrific teaching text, it would be an excellent companion to any Creative Writing course.

As always, thanks for reading.

"What I learned from [Lennis Dunlap], in short, is that a writer must take infinite pains -- if he writes only one great story in his life, that is better than writing a hundred bad ones -- and that finally the pains the writer takes must be his own." (Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, 19)

24 May 2013

Writers [on Writing], vol. 2, A review

Well folks, strictly speaking this isn't a book directly on craft, but then again, strictly speaking I forgot to pack the book I planned on reviewing before flying 1500 miles, so... Regardless, this is a fabulous book filled with encouragement and practical advice from big hitters like Stephen Fry (he discusses writing Revenge), Margaret Atwood, and Arthur Miller as well as others.

These essays are so good, that I've taken to reading one every morning (alternating between Vol II, and Vol. I) before  I begin the work of writing.  Probably the best part about these essays is their generous spirit and the candid look into how other writers choose what to write about or how they seek to improve their craft.  A few essays are about what happens after one gets published (the inane question of what tools to write with rather than how to garner ideas - because in the end every writer will have to choose their own tools, and the "right tool" won't magically create the right idea).  Since this is a collection of essays garnered from the New York Times series under the same name, I wager most of you in larger cities can check them out from the local library (and maybe check into a quiet room at the same time, which is always a treat - check out a dictionary you haven't used before, too, and then you've got a party).

This isn't a book I'd add to a curriculum of Creative Writing, but since it has such a disparate collection of authorial voices and tones, I would recommend it to any writer regardless of genre bounds as an excellent additional resource, because even when one is in a creative writing class, it's important to remember that one is not alone - that others have gone before, and like Sir Isaac Newton, one can stand atop the shoulders of giants.

As always, thanks for reading.

10 May 2013

Ernest Hemingway on Writing, A Review

Well, dear reader, it's that time of the week again: Craft Book Review Time, of course.  This week I've got a special treat for you, but how about I let Woody Allen introduce him:
All right, now we're ready to talk about one of the most lauded American Writers of the 20th Century: Ernest Hemingway.  Editor Larry W. Phillips notes in his preface that Hemingway thought it bad luck to discuss his process, but by the end of his career, Hemingway had done an awful lot of just that.  Across the decades of Hemingway's career, Phillips has distilled these wonderful quotes and snippets from Hemingway's letters, interviews, books, and short stories which illuminates the enigmatic and boisterous writer's style.

Of these findings, besides the wealth of useful information and lovely encouragement (honestly, who of us isn't at least a bit pleased and encouraged to discover that literary geniuses struggled to meet word counts?), my favorite tidbits are Hemingway's letters to "Scott" Fitzgerald.  The lesson I learned from these letters to Scott is if you see someone wasting their talents seeking approval from one particular person, it's okay to write abuse to them (seeing as Hemingway had few friends, perhaps this is the wrong lesson to take).  Seriously though, it's good to see that literary greats were people, too, and they got just as fed up when someone wasn't achieving their potential as we lowly readers do.

I highly recommend giving Ernest Hemingway on Writing a read.  It might not change your views on how to write (although mine did adjust a bit, when Hemingway said he only kept about 1 in 91 pages), but it will certainly bring this literary great down to a level where you can try to compete with him, and if you're not trying to be a champion at craft, then what is it all for?

08 May 2013

Pentatonix at the Knitting Factory

7. May 2013 Spokane, WA - The hit A Capella band Pentatonix played a gig at the Knitting Factory with their customary generosity of spirit.  For the three people who have not heard of Pentatonix, I've posted my personal favorite below, which features Kevin “K.O.” Olusola's signature "celloboxing" alongside the wonderfully talented internet sensation Lindsey Sterling.  
For those reader who have never been to the Knitting Factory, it's a wild experience.  Part bar, part intimate performance space, this dark paneled venue feels at once classic with its gallery seating and modern with an SMS-based open forum (which proved a scathing critique of our American education system).

Once Pentatonix (PTX) took the stage, the SMS-forum stopped.  Pentatonix opened with their warm bass beats and thrumming energy.  Avi Kaplan laid down a bass line that could be felt.  In addition to the classic pieces that won PTX Season 3 of The Sing Off, they sang new covers, including a live version of the above song, that was incredible even without Lindsey Sterling (anathema! I know, I know).  They also served up a slice of their formation with Lady Gaga's "Telephone," which, according to front man Scott Hoying, was the "Wow, this might be the start of something special" moment for the group.  On 4 June 2011, the trio (Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, and Mitch Grassi) welcomed Avi Kaplan (formerly with Fermota Nowhere) and Kevin Olusola (Original Celloboxer) to their team, thus becoming the Pentatonix.

And if their music isn't enough to leave you wondering what the heck you've done with your life lately, their biographies certainly will.  Kevin graduated pre-med from Yale University, speaks fluent Chinese, and is by all accounts hilarious (oh, he also soloed at Carnegie Hall on both Cello and Saxophone).  Avi is a master of Mongolian Overtone Singing, a technique which allows him to sing two notes at once - a skill that gave this five person group a serious edge over the competition.  The three core members (Scott, Mitch, and Kirstie) all grew up in Arlington, TX (don't say Texas never did anything for you) and can carve up tri-part harmonies with ease.

They closed out the sparkling night with a serenade to one lucky audience member, Melina, who responded with "Hell, yeah" to being sung to.  A mock heroic rendition of "Let's Get It On" ensued.  Avi then unveiled his new original piece "Peaceful World."  A piece that took the warm tones of Pentatonix and drenched them in heavy rain to create a mist of hope.

Their encore performance of Florence + The Machine's "Dog Days are Over" was a striking competitor even for the talented Ms. Florence Welch.  Then PTX topped that with another encore, this time of Fun's "We are Young" which got the whole audience singing.

In sum, PTX is a band you need to see to really believe, and the Knitting Factory's full bar was simply a lovely addition.

03 May 2013

Imaginative Writing, The Elements of Craft, A Review

I'm going to come straight out and say that I am not in love with Imaginative Writing, The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway.  There are multiple reasons for this, but the major one is simply that it carries a bunch of stock advice that can be found in other sources (often presented better) - HOWEVER, this book does have it all in one volume, and it tackles one particularly pernicious myth with admirable aplomb: namely, "Show, don't tell."  Which as veteran writers, we all know that bit of advice is, frankly, bullshit.

Janet Burroway gives excellent examples of published prose (by well regarded writers) in Chapter 2: Voice, which have some very tell-heavy elements.  The reason for the "show, don't tell" axiom is boredom.  If a writer completely eschews scene (showing) for summary (telling) then the reader is likely to get bored, because summary resolves tension too quickly.  For instance, if I were to summarize Misery by Stephen King, it would go something like this:

A famous writer gets in a car crash and is rescued by an obsessed fan.  After an attempt to escape, she breaks both of his ankles using a sledgehammer.  After a second attempt, she removes his left arm (so that he can still write).  In the end he escapes, but only barely.

So the breaking of body parts, likely caused you to shudder a bit, but there's not really tension there.  Which is why showing is important, but if an author doesn't summarize some things, then the book would never end (cf. anything by Melville).  John D. MacDonald (writer of the Travis McGee mystery series) is a mastery at summarizing things that don't really matter except to add ambiance, usually small talk.  Summary can still reveal character, but teachers don't want to read a bunch of really boring prose, so this mythical axiom has been past down through the ages.  Next time someone tells you, "show, don't tell," just substitute in, "This section bored me."  It's a more useful rubric.

The real strength of Imaginative Writing is that it covers all three major veins of creative writing (Creative Non-fiction, Fiction, and Poetry), and it has metric tons worth of writing exercises, and as Harlan Coben said in his WD interview, "This is a profession where quantity eventually creates quality."

This text was used as the main primer for 2 of my 3 major fiction writing courses during undergrad.  As a beginning primer, it's acceptable, but I still argue in favor of The Art of Dramatic Writing and others, but of course I've always aimed to be a novelist, and noveling is a hell of a thing to teach in one semester.  I imagine that's what graduate courses are for - I'll let you know when I take one.

So bottom line: If you want extensive exercises to stretch your craft: check this book out.  If you're satisfied with the exercises found in Gardner's The Art of Fiction, then move on.

Cheers, and as always, thank you for reading.

If you have any craft book recommendations, please leave them in the comments.

26 April 2013

Characters and Viewpoint, A Review

I'm putting all my Cards on the table with this post.  Characters & Viewpoint is the only other craft book I've read by Orson Scott Card.  This is a much more general book on craft than last week's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, but it covers some of the same material - all in greater depth however.  If you  write or plan to write SF&Fantasy, then I recommend reading both.  If you don't, then check last week's post for the section that is really helpful, then dive in to this book.

Card obviously talks about Characters and how to establish the correct viewpoint for your story - pretty straightforward title.  He does it all with his characteristic wit and generosity, in fact closing his book with a heart-felt wish to see us all stand alongside him on the bookshelves.

The real emphasis is on how to build riveting characters that don't get lost in the noise of misused/too-many names (we all remember reading Russian novels, right?) or upstaged by our minor characters.  As you'll remember from Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing, one of the keys to having truly memorable characters is to properly orchestrate all of your characters (and if a novel isn't an orchestra, then what is it?). Card gets into the real nuts and bolts of orchestration, not the least of which is sexual tension, which is easy to establish, but hard to maintain and handle well.  Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game might not exactly drip with sexual tension - in fact there's none - but Card clearly knows how to handle sexual tension and gives examples of other authors and shows that have done admirably in that department.

I wouldn't declare this book mandatory reading for an undergraduate writing degree, but I would say that it's very helpful for those of us that spend more time on Milieu and Event than we do on Character  (Card brings up the MICE quotient from How to Write SF&F*).  Even if you're a master at drawing characters, this book will help you figure out what to do with them now that you have them.

And if none of that appeals to you, how about new ways to develop ideas and smoothly transform your characters over the story arc? Remember that we don't want jumping conflict or characterization or Lajos Egri will haunt us.

If all else fails, at least this book will give you another justification for people watching, and what writer doesn't love that?

*MICE is shorthand for Milieu, Idea, Character, Event.  Each author has his or her own preference on which of these elements to focus: Tolkien was Milieu, or he wouldn't have created 11 languages; C.S. Lewis was Idea driven or his novels wouldn't be allegory; Dan Brown is Event focused or his novels might read slower - relentless pacing covers a multitude of sins; Young-Ha Kim (I Have the Right to Destroy Myself) is Character driven or his novel wouldn't be the gem that it is. If you haven't read I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, I recommend it; not many authors can capture the tone of two rudderless characters and still make the story arresting.

19 April 2013

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, A review

Before I dive into this review, let's take a moment to collect ourselves.  The American nation has been horrified at the events of this week (The Boston Marathon Massacre - a title that hearkens back to our revolutionary days - and then the MIT shooting last night and continued manhunt today).  There will be a lot of people looking for answers, faith-shaken to the core.  As writers we all seek to make sense of the world around us by writing stories.  If the jumbled cast of characters in our own minds can sort things out and reach some sort of satisfying conclusion, then maybe humanity has a chance after all.  Arguably this has always been the function of the story teller.  But how can we order our stories with such atrocities swirling about us?  This is where poetry comes in.  Novels make people think, but the immediacy of poems delivers emotion.  Share poems with each other, write a poem or two, then get back to what you do best: writing stories.

Glancing at the title, you, being observant as well as clever, noticed that this is a genre-specific craft book.  While that might be a turn-off to some, there is one section that I recommend to ANY writer: around page 120, there is a section on how to train someone to read your stories.  Card's maxim from his days as a playwright is "The audience never lies."  So you need to find someone that is willing to just read your story and tell you where characters get too similar or things get boring.  There's a bit more to it than that, but this is a really useful resource.  As a non-SF&F writer, this is not a must-have book, so check it out from your library (Inter-library loan is a valuable resource).  Non-SF&F writers, class dismissed.

The rest of us: get ready for some valuable advice not just on how to write better but on how to cope with the realities of living as a writer.

Some writers have labeled Science Fiction and Fantasy (a twin genre with serious boundaries between the two, as I'll cover later) as the "Ghetto" of the writing industry.  Once you're lumped there, you're stuck for good.  The face of the current publishing industry in changing and magical elements (often called magical realism) are fairly normal now, so I wager that it's possible to break out of the "Ghetto," but even if you can't do it under your own name - well, that' s what pen names are for.

Card opens his book on the differences between Fantasy and SF, namely feudal-style buildings versus plastic and rivets.  Obviously there's a bit more to that, but that's the kernel of the idea.

The next 3 Chapters are based around what can be the most confusing part of writing SF&F: world-building, story construction, and writing well (with a special emphasis on exposition).
We all love world-building, otherwise we wouldn't be writing - or at least we wouldn't be writing SF&F.  We'd write literary fiction or thrillers.  Because of this love, the process of world-building is a bit dangerous for us.  Tolkien invented something like eleven languages for his world, but then he was a linguaphile.  Each of us has our own niche that really draws us in during this phase.  Unfortunately, Card doesn't have an answer for when enough is enough - so you still have to answer that yourself, BUT! he does have a really useful rubric for keeping in mind how each decision impacts everything else in your world.
Story construction:  If you're mostly a world builder, then choosing the viewpoint character will likely be the hardest part.  The best question Card asks here is "Who hurts the most?"  That person is the one you want for your protagonist, but not necessarily the viewpoint character (remember The Great Gatsby?).  Readers read to worry.  So that ought to be the guiding principle for viewpoint characters.  Who will see the really important events in your world?  Who will show the reader what to care about?
EXPOSITION - unlike capital letters - can be deadly dull.  To really see how exposition is handled well, I recommend reading thrillers.  In order to be an effective thriller writer, one has to give the reader just enough information to know what's going on and guess what might happen - but never a drop more than that and never less.  Less is cheating, more is stultifying.  In this chapter Card also has some hard hitting advice on how to read with an eye to revising and tightening your own story.

The last chapter talks about the realities of the writing life: the late royalties checks, the rejected manuscripts (yes, even after previous publication), the fluctuation of publisher advances.  And mor great advice on the business of writing.

In short, as an SF&F writer, this is a must-have book.  Sit at the feet of a master and learn. Then get back to your own projects.

12 April 2013

How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, A Review

"Tell them to write as honestly as they can. Tell them to ponder their characters to make sure that the emotions their characters feel and the decisions their characters make - their choices, their courses of action - are consistent with the characters they have envisioned.  And tell them to check and recheck each sentence to be sure they have communicated what they intended to communicate.  And to ask themselves, What does this sentence say? Are its nuances the nuances I want? Tell them that's what they have to do if they aspire to write a damn good novel."  - Lester Gorn

There are a few things How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, Advanced Techniques is not: it is not a magic wand, it is not a waste of time, it is not light reading, and it is not a book for the beginning writer.  This book assumes that you have a reasonable grasp on how to formulate a plot, write characters, and handle a premise (without which your plot is just another absurdist comedy regardless of your pacing or gripping action sequences.  Premise is what your book aims to prove in around 80,000 words).  If you haven't spent at least a few thousand hours on writing, then this book likely will not be as useful to you as another book on the bare bones of writing.

As promised in the title, Frey delivers hard hitting advice on how to write with increased complexity and realism.  He starts off with a chapter on the Fictive dream - which it is your job as the author to induce - and how it's not in fact a dream at all, but a trance.  The following chapters are like nested for-loops (for the coders) or the dreams within a dream from Inception (for everyone else).  If you're one of the three people that hasn't seen Inception, basically it's a multi-layered frame tale like that old shaggy dog about the scout leader telling a story about the scout leader telling a story about the scout leader ad nauseum.  EXCEPT!  Your stories better only induce nausea from terror and wicked descriptions, not boredom, or your writing dreams are DOA.

Frey will guide you through how to really craft the telling details that will make your minor characters pop without taking over the scene, how to redream the fictive dream yourself while editing, further tips on orchestration (which Lajos Egri discusses in his masterpiece), and most importantly of all: Multiple Premises. While the story has one premise (let's use Macbeth, because I like Scotch), say "Ruthless Ambition leads to destruction," the protagonist(s) might have quite another: "Power belongs to those who can seize opportunity" (Lady Macbeth), or "Betrayal earns death" (Banquo).  However, what Frey means here is that a single story can contain TWO main story premises, but for this to work you need two equally strong protagonists (hence why orchestration is covered before this chapter).  This means that you'll have 2 climaxes (they should be near each other), 2 moments of truth (the protagonist must choose either to sacrifice his/her lover and live or risk death themselves), etc.  For example, you could have "Selfish Love leads to Desolation" (Male Lead) and "Tyranny sows the seeds for Freedom" (Female Lead).  In fact, those could be the arguable premises for Ibsen's The Doll House.

Bottom line, get some writing under your belt (if you read this blog, likely you already DO have a non-trivial amount of writing under your belt), buy this book, and enjoy the confidence of the James N. Frey's 100% guarantee: work hard, learn well, re-dream the dream, eat the delicious pie of publication.
Just keep in mind that Jack London worked hard, and for him that meant 18 hours a day 7 days a week locked in his office writing, but then again, when he started he could barely string a sentence together.
Also, Mr. London is dead.  Whereas you are still alive and therefore your potential is limitless.  Now get back to work.

05 April 2013

The Art of Fiction, A Review

I promised to review How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, Advanced Techniques, by James N. Frey, but I feel that today's review is more important for those sniffing out good craft books.

Along with How to Write a Damn Good Novel and The Art of Dramatic Writing, I think John Gardner's The Art of Fiction should be required reading for any introductory Fiction Writing course.  It comes laden with superb exercises (conveniently condensed in the back of the book), exercises specifically honed to work on only a handful of aspects at once.  This solid book will likely introduce you (I mean you specifically not you as in "one") to new vocabulary, because Gardner doesn't fear sounding erudite.  He's writing for a group that wants to be the upper crust and will not settle for "mere fiction" but strive for art.

That being said, many creative writing teachers will tell you that all genre writing is "mere fiction," a thought echoed by Gardner, who lumps pornographers and cheap thriller writers together in the same sentence.  However, in today's modern market for writing, mere fiction will not get you onto the shelves.  People want their fantasy to comment on their real world problems, their thrillers to show that the world is scarier than a riding a rollercoaster in Hell while blindfolded and seated next to some black widow demon with wings - but that this world can STILL be conquered by hope and perseverance (and maybe a little luck).  People want characters that actually are impacted by the events around them.  If you pick up any Stephen King or Dean Koontz book, you'll be able to figure that out.

Here's the bottom line: The Art of Fiction will give you concrete examples and advice on how to write more than mere fiction, and all in the wonderful tone of one of the greatest writing instructors of the Twentieth Century.  His book also pinpoints common errors and failures in order to direct students through the maze of writing.  In addition, Gardner will arm you with the tools you need to analyze Kafka-esque novels, and the firm grounding to see that the novelist's job is not dead, not discarded, not outmoded.

Pick up a copy, start reading, and throw out all thoughts you once had of settling for "mere fiction." Life's too short, as John Gardner knew.  Once you have digested some of his words, set yourself at the typewriter (I can't be the only one who likes the machine gun fire of mechanical creation) and get to work writing - some of his exercises are fabulous pre-writing warmups.

04 April 2013

A Mythological Kick to the Balls

If that title got your attention then you are likely a male or you're wondering the best way to hurt one.  In the latter case, I invite you to continue reading, but your mileage may vary.

I just got back from an evening with Sherman Alexie held in the intimate Beasley Coliseum with about a thousand of Alexie's closest friends that Professors assigned to him.  Honestly though, it was a riotously good time, and I'll always be grateful that my sister sent me.  In addition to winning both the PEN Faulkner and Hemingway awards (and National Book awards & c. & c.), Mr. Alexie is a gregarious public speaker and righteously irreverent.

The night began with an introduction dripping with jealousy, as is only befitting for such an accomplished author, then Sherman Alexie took the stage.  "Margot [the MC] has aged well.  Me?  Not so much, but that's okay, because I have money," and with those words all the bets I had placed on what this evening would be like were collected by the house - but I still won.  Alexie told stories about what it was like growing up rural and Indian poor, making fun of government issued food (including but not limited to "Canned Whole Chicken" - as the label so generously said, despite the fact that it was in fact IN a can and so redundant).  He did say that he missed the USDA cheese, however.  "My mother still sends me hunks of that cheese."
The kicker about his poor stories came about his dentist - you see, Indian Healthcare only authorizes once annual major oral surgery and Mr. Alexie had forty-two teeth.  I'll wait and let you count how many you have.  Spoiler alert: most people have 32.  So, Alexie had to have ten teeth pulled all in one day.  He did it in shifts, but that's not even the punchline.  The punchline was that this dentist believed that Indians only felt 50% of the pain that white people do.  Guess how much Novocaine he used?  Yup, 50%.  (Now we're getting to the title).  "I'm still waiting for him.  I'm a lot bigger now.  He'll say, 'Hi, remember me?  I was your dentist when you were a kid,' and I'll answer him with a kick to the crotch.  I'm not talking some small kick - I mean a BIG kick, a mythological kick.  Someday a grandmother will take her daughter up to the watchtower, climb the ladder to the tower, open the hatch, climb on the roof and point one  long finger. 'You see those two stars?'"  Alexie paused.  "I'll wait for you all to get it."  By this point most of the audience is howling with laughter like a pack of mad hyenas, then Alexie stage-whispers into the microphone, "Is he talking about balls?"
Much of the night carried on in a similar fashion, with Alexie demonstrating his mastery of brevity and the genius of leaving just enough unsaid.  As Oscar Wilde said, "Brevity is the Soul of Wit."  Alexie has plenty of soul.
Speaking of the soul, let's talk religion, because he certainly did.  "All creation myths are bullshit."  He went on to say how he went to a Catholic conference (being Catholic himself), and he listened to this woman give a beautiful discussion on reading the bible literally, specifically focused on the Garden of Eden.  An old Indian matriarch leaned over to Alexie and asked what he thought.  "Well, I think the Garden of Eden is beautiful; I'm not convinced but it sure sounds nice."
To which she replied, "It's bullshit.  You know how humans really came into the earth?  Lightning struck a log and the people walked out."
At this point in the story, Mr. Alexie gave the audience a knowing look.  "That's much more plausible."  Another rapture of laughter.  Then he talked about how we all came from Africa, walked across the Sinai peninsula, got a little lighter (brown skin like Osama bin Laden - let's pause here and consider that Jesus looked a lot more like bin Laden or Hussein than he did Brad Pitt) then moved across Russia and over the Bering Straight Land Bridge, "Indian's will say, 'That didn't exist!' Shut the fuck up, yes it did." So that's how people moved across the world with a lot of "Fuck you, I'm out of here"s in between.
The most enjoyable part of the whole evening was how it built on itself.  Alexie demonstrated his same mastery of storytelling by bringing back and adding depth and nuance to his previous statements.  He signed off with an incredibly moving statement.  "We survive you [white people] by storytelling.  We survive you by storytelling, and you love us for it."

Thanks for reading.  Now enough procrastinating, get back to your own stories.

29 March 2013

How to Write a Damn Good Novel, A Review

All right ladies and gents, I promised you a review of a craft book that will kick your writing in the balls or punch it in the ovaries.  James N. Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel IS that craft book - just in case a curse in the title wasn't an indication of that.

This is a great book filled with information that will help you really see whether you have the perspective it takes to be a writer.  Frey opens with a segment on subspecies Homo Fictus, a term he uses to explain why fictional characters CANNOT be real people.  My favorite little segment on the Homo Fictus explains why your heroine should never, ever, ever be the "idiot in the attic."  Homo Fictus always behaves up to their maximum potential - never beyond, never beneath.  So, your teenage babysitter armed with a flashlight and an ever-present cell phone will not in fact storm the serial killer's lair in the attic.  She'll call the cops and get the heck out of Dodge.

By far the meat of the book focuses on the integral parts of storytelling, with special emphasis on how to create sympathetic characters by manipulating the opening situations and thus the reader's emotions.  To really hook a reader you, as the author, have to give the reader someone with whom they connect.  That doesn't mean your character has to be likable; look at Scrooge.  Dickens wants Scrooge to be loathed, and no one will contest that Dickens succeeded - otherwise why would "Scrooge" still be an insult over a century later?

The book ends with a rubric on how to assess one's writing groups.  This rubric was especially helpful to me, because I had just moved 1300 miles and had fallen in with a new writing group, a group that could have quickly damned my own push for writing mastery.  These writers had no negative comments to say about anything someone else brought in - in short this was a "fluff" group.  Unless you need a group to keep you coming back to the page (accountability is important for everyone), then the only group worth joining is one that will tear your work apart.  Frey calls these groups "destructive" but the fact is they're just serious about their craft.  If you don't have the guts to keep bringing in a piece for repeated stripping down and whipping, then you won't get any better.  This is also a good place to practice separating your self from your art.  You are not your novel, your novel is not your child, etc.  Your novel is a piece of work.  If a carpenter got upset at someone for criticizing a rickety table, do you think s/he'd ever make a dime?  Of course not.

This is my second favorite book on craft, and one that I cannot recommend highly enough.  Go out, buy it, read it, and if you don't feel that you're a better writer for it, leave a comment and I'll provide my e-mail address for your strongly-worded hate mail.

As always, thanks for reading.  Now get back to writing.

26 March 2013

Your First Novel, a review

Here's a review of Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitberg.

This is a freebie, because honestly there's not much content that you can't get faster and better and with less "positive thinking"/"visualization"/"dreams can come true" bullshit from another book on craft.  Now, I'm on a bit of an anti-positive thinking kick,  because I'm reading Bright-Sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich.  If you're as tired of hearing "think it and it will come true" stories from Joel Osteen and his ilk, then this is a book that will be actually useful for you.

Your First Novel opens with a great foreword by Dennis Lehane and his overnight/ten year success that emphasizes the hard work it takes to be a writer, while the next two chapters encourage you to dream about your success, and it will be sure to come to you.  That is a load of bollocks.  Any writer worth their salt will try to tell you to steer clear of writing, to run while you still have a chance, but if you're reading this review and looking for books on craft, then it's already too late.

If you actually want something worth reading that's still inspirational, I'd recommend the NYT Writer's on Writing volumes I and II.  Essays about writing by writers, it's hard to beat.

Cheers, and write on, dear readers.

22 March 2013

The Art of Dramatic Writing, A Review

This series will kick off with a review of The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.  Readers will remember that I featured this book in a short story, which can be found here.

Lajos Egri's book, while focusing on the art of becoming a playwright, is very probably the most important book on craft I've ever read.  If you want to write a novel, but haven't started yet, here's my advice: write down all the notes and ideas you have, but do not set a word of it to paper until you've read The Art of Dramatic Writing.  If you read no other book on craft - you'd better read more books on craft, but this is THE place to start.  The word premise gets tossed around in most of the books this series will feature, but no one drives it home like Lajos Egri.  "The Premise is a tyrant who permits you to go only one way - the way of absolute proof."

There are many other useful chapters about orchestration, unity of opposites, crafting a smoothly rising conflict, but the work he does on premise, first of all, is straight up ballsy.  He wrote a book that overturned thousands of years of how people look at writing by taking a scientific approach to it.  Bear in mind that it was written in the 1930s so some of the science (germ theory/medicine) is highly dated, but his points are not invalidated.  So what is a premise?  In short, a premise is the heart and brain of your novel; without it you are doomed to write an insipid story.  The premise is what the story aims to prove.  Let's look at a few examples:
Macbeth - Ruthless ambition leads to ruin
Romeo and Juliet - Great Love transcends hate and death
Ender's Game - The burden of leadership requires isolation and suffering
Mistborn - Tyranny leads to revolt.

Now if you look at some of these, you might be able to draw a different premise, but that premise will have the same elements mentioned in my own premises.  In short, a premise is the absolute synopsis of the story.  Let's look at Macbeth: Ruthless ambition leads to ruin.  There are three parts to every good premise, 1) Character (Ruthless Ambition, Lady and Lord Macbeth), 2) Promise of Conflict (leads to -> something will challenge the Ruthless Ambition or an opportunity will present itself, which leads inevitably to conflict), 3) Resolution (Ruin, Macbeth's death).  Every truly great story has these three elements included in the premise.  With a clear premise, your story will have much better odds at being successful in telling the story you want to tell.  Without a premise, you're sunk.

All in all, I will go on record saying that the single greatest failure of my undergraduate creative writing curriculum was that this was not required reading.  If you read the book and take its advice to heart, it will save you the years of stumbling around in your own stories that I spent wasted in my own.

20 March 2013


So we all know that Hemingway is famous for saying, "Write drunk; edit sober." But I just now realized why that approach would be so useful.  Each morning Hemingway edited everything he had written the day before, usually he was up by 5AM.  I imagine splitting headaches are a good way to prevent any phrase that does not absolutely sing from slipping past the grouchy editorial eye.

What the rest of this year will look like.

So far this year has featured new themes every month, mostly centered around humor, but since I've been reading a lot of craft books over the last year and a half, I figured I'd share my findings.  So, for the remainder of the year (or until I run out of books on craft), each week will feature a new review of a book on craft.  The posts will be uploaded on Fridays at noon PDT.  Here's a list of what the next few weeks will look like in no particular order.

1. The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri
2. How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey
3. How to Write a Damn Good Novel II: Advanced Techniques, James N. Frey
4. The Key, James N. Frey
5. The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell
6. On Becoming a Novelist, John Gardner
7. The Art of Fiction, John Gardner
8. How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy, & Science Fiction; ed. Williamson
9. Characters & Viewpoint, Elements of Writing; Writer's Digest Book series.
10. How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, Orson Scott Card
11. Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass
12. Getting Your Book Published for Dummies, Zackheim
13. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft

The list will get longer as the year progresses.  The reviews will consist of what was useful, what was not, and whether or not it should be required reading for Undergraduate Creative Writing.

14 March 2013

Books that Should Never Happen, IV

Genre: Cooking
Having Substance: An Insomniac's Guide to Sleeping Better

"A no-nonsense guide for amateur pill poppers. My favorite recipe is undoubtedly the 'Sleepless in Seattle' cocktail with an Ambien twist."  

07 March 2013

Books that Should Never Happen, III

Doubling Down on Douchebaggery: A comprehensive how-to on living bitterly

Reviews:  "I laughed, I cried, I ran over my spouse's dog."

"All these years, I thought my unhappiness was my own fault.  Now, I know it's yours."

05 March 2013

Books that Should Never Happen, II

Charlie Don't Surf: an Explorer's Guide to the Hidden Beauties of Vietnam, a book on tape, narrated by Sgt. Kilgore.

So racism and failed wars, yeah...

03 March 2013

Books that should never Happen, I

Welcome to March!  This month, I'll be featuring the titles of Books that should never be written.
Genre: Self-help/Inspirational
Teetotaler: How I Drank my Way to Sobriety. 

SPOILER ALERT:  The protagonist dies.

27 February 2013

Superhero Story

Hey all, sorry for missing the last two posts, I got really caught up in some paid editing work.  So today (for the last February short story), my wife requested a Superhero story which is something I've never written before.  I hope you all enjoy it.


Super Heroine (with an e, so it’s legal)

            Murder – yes that was it!  “One key death,” wasn’t that what he’d always said?  Maurice looked at the body at his feet, its cooling blood staining the white shag carpet.  The letter opener was still sticky in his trembling grasp.  Had he done it?  Had he really done it?  Maurice stepped around the body, giving it a wide berth.  Certainly, he’d imagined – but that was where he stopped: in his mind.  When he tried to spool through his memories, the last thing he remembered doing was locking the door to his house.  The analytic side of his brain noted how interesting it was that he’d blocked the entire event from his mind, but the rest of his mind screamed to turn tail and run.  The rest won.  He dropped the letter opener and walked as calmly as possible through the reception area, turn right and called for an elevator. 
            In his panic, he didn’t notice that he never heard the letter opener hit the ground. 
            Angela Marks knelt over the body of Carl Grant, feeling the shag carpet squish like mud beneath her shoes.  Five holes punctured Grant’s shirt and chest, one of the stabs obviously hit the sod in the heart.  Yep, there it was, just below the solar plexus.  If Marks had to guess it was a lucky shot, rather than a trained strike.  The wounds were semi-circular, smooth.  She wanted to say he’d been done it with a pen, but the holes were too big – besides, Grant only had fountain pens in his square steel pen trough.  With a red-nailed finger, she prodded the wounds, sending a short dribble of crimson down across Grant’s white shirt.  Blood was nothing new to Marks.  She’d been doing this job for ten years, more or less – mostly more.  Of course, no one else knew she was doing the job – that was the real problem of being dead, no appreciation. 
            Contrary to popular belief, “crossing over” doesn’t grant any sort of extra sensory perception, besides the ability to see other ghosts, but people saw them all the time in real life.  They just didn’t know how to contextualize the sightings.  Americans discounted the sightings as floaters in their eyes, or a sudden shift in the light, or just a reflection off a mirror or window.  Now, according to one of Marks’s friends, in South America, certain groups revered ghosts as signs from their gods, or a blessing from a favored saint.  That was enough of a kick for some that they stayed around.  Those ghosts rarely got noticed in life, so earning a sort of spooky celebrity brought them joy.  Marks just thought it sounded deadly dull.  No, she needed satisfaction, the satisfaction only work could bring.  Besides, the perks of being a god didn’t do much for a ghost: watching sacrificed food rot wasn’t her idea of a good time. 
            Marks shook her head and focused on the task at hand.  Shaking her head didn’t give her the same satisfactory sloshing of the brain that it did in life, but it was an ingrained habit, why bother to change now?  Carl Grant was still warm to the touch, which meant very little to Marks, since her average temperature was around 32*F, but the blood on the floor was still fairly fluid, not too sticky, sort of like warmed honey.  Grant must have died only an hour or two before she got pulled there.  She rifled through his wallet and pockets again.  California ID, even though he’d been in New York for several years, judging by the general state of “settled-inness” of his office.  The chair had been sat in enough to show a perfect mold of his bony ass.  A silver ring stained the teak desk, presumably where Grant habitually kept his coffee mug.  His pockets held three door keys, one presumably for a loft, the other two for the office.  A separate keyring held a key with “Ferrari” etched into the guitar pick-shaped head.  That was a crime in its own right, but Marks doubted anyone would kill a man for having a racing car in a city where the top speed it would likely ever see was thirty miles per hour.  She checked the wallet a third time.  Something was missing, she was sure of it, but how she’d figure out what was beyond her.  Four credit cards, probably all near their limit, judging by Grant’s lifestyle; no cash; no receipts, which didn’t concern Marks, since he likely paid for all his business expenses with plastic and tracked the receipts online; no photos;  four sticky-notes where normal people kept cash, each with a PIN disguised as a receipt MCdonald’s: $44.12, AMerican Dental: $32.55, V-charge: $17.17, Discovery Channel.com: $77.90, all of which would be more convincing if Grant actually carried any other receipts.  Marks was always impressed when only marginally clever people ended up making as much money as Grant did,  and judging by the crystal clock next to the stainless steel pen trough, Grant had incredibly expensive taste to go with his money and probably went to the cinema too often.  His silver Omega watch matched the one from the latest Bond film, his shoes were tailored white and black wingtips like Denzel Washington’s shoes in American Gangster.  Marks smiled ruefully.  Clearly, she spent too much time at the cinema.  Although, there were a surprising number of murders in cinemas around the country, so at least she could write off some of that as work-related. 
            The clock said it was about twenty past three, so Marks had maybe another two hours to figure out who killed Grant.  She sat in the chair and steepled her fingers.  Her job would be a lot easier if she could just leave the room, but if she did that she might randomly teleport to a different crime scene.  Even after ten or eleven years (time was pretty relative to ghosts) of working this job, she wasn’t quite clear on the rules.  If the door had been open, she could leave, but since it was closed, she was limited to this immediate area.  Something about the space being closed, limited her mobility.  Marks shrugged and rifled through the desk drawers.  Notebooks and files sat at right angles, perfectly centered in the drawers.  Grants was organized, she had to admit that.  She looked at the pen trough again.  It was slightly askew, but the clock beside it formed a perfect right angle with the edges of the desk.  Something had been taken out of the pen trough – and not by Grant. 
            In the bottom left-hand drawer, a square laptop lay under a tightly wrapped charger.  Marks pulled both out and ran the plug to the cleverly hidden socket under the desk – she couldn’t use it, but the local PD certainly could.  She’d tried using a computer once after she died, but all that did was scare the bejeebas out of the next person to use it in the public library, since the only thing the machine would do afterwards was play the movie Whitenoise on repeat, which would have been bad enough, but the movie hadn’t even been filmed yet.  That public library closed a year later. 
            Marks looked over the rest of the room.  A small camera lens glinted just above the potted plant in the corner near the window.  It was a good place to hide a camera, with the sun always off to the side, glare from the lens would be minimal. 
            Just then a portly man with a weak mustache opened the door.  He stared at Marks, then at the laptop.  A bloody letter opener was caught in the cuff of his khaki pants.  The wild look in his eye, said that he didn’t know where his murder weapon was.  He gaze shifted from Marks to the laptop, then to the body.  A feminine shriek escaped his lips.  He made a mad dash to the video camera by the potted and pulled on the lens with both hands.  The only thing he succeeded at was upsetting the plant and himself.  The letter opener slid from his cuff, bounced once on the shag carpet, then stopped.  The man looked around to make sure no one noticed. 
            Marks smirked and walked over to the door.  The man still hadn’t noticed another presence in the room with him apparently, or he was too worried to consider that he wouldn’t feel a camera watching him.  Marks toed the door shut and took a step nearer the man. 
            He yelped, scrambled to his feet, and ran at the door.  Gingerly as she could, Marks set her foot in front of the running man and shoved him in the back.  He landed head first with a crash, moaned, then was still. 
            All in all, it wasn’t Marks’s finest work, but she’d set everything up that the PD would need; if they wanted more, then they should find a way to get her a more permanent body.  

20 February 2013

The Morning After

20. February 2013

            Today’s story

The Morning After
            The morning broke like a borrowed china plate – or at least that’s what Nick’s head felt like.  Cold pavement stretched and slithered in to his left; the sky throbbed to his right, but he couldn’t see any skittering pieces of his head.  Slowly, he righted the world.  The pavement fell away, the set itself under his bare feet.  Sirens wailed in the distance – his feet leapt forward to run, but he stumbled and crashed into a green garbage bin.  Glass chimed as the bin rolled forward.  Nick gripped it to steady himself, then blinked hard.  The wails passed by the end of the alley like black and white banshees.  The pavement twitched once more then died and lay flat. 
            Nick held a hand against his head.  His eyes traced down the sleeves – but… there were no sleeves.  In fact, his feet weren’t just bare, all of him was.  One thought crawled across his brain, which he was sure would leak out his ears at any moment, and the thought was this: “What the hell happened last night?” 
            Nick turned around, and he saw someone else lying in the alley, but they were fully clothed in a red hoodie – wait.  That was his hoodie!  He walked over and poked the guy with his toe.  “Hey!” Poke.  “Hey, chum, that’s my hoodie.” His next poke was arrested by a sudden realization:  those were his jeans, too, or at least his belt.  When he leaned forward to rummage through the pockets, his hand brushed against the man’s face.  The skin was cold, and come to think of it, the lips had a blue tinge to them. 
            Nick shouted, “Hey, hey somebody!   This guy’s dead back here!  He’s dead, and he’s wearing…”  Nick stopped.  He was going to say, “wearing my clothes,” but he considered that might be suspicious.  “I mean, here I am, naked as the day I was born –”
“–and this… this stiff is wearing my clothes.  What will the police make of that?”  Nick was sure what the psychiatrist would make of it: something Freudian no doubt about that.  It was then he decided that he needed to get out of there – and fast.  Without pausing to consider the odds of a naked white boy getting across town without being noticed, Nick charged out of the alley – and spilled into a black horse drawn carriage.  The door closed behind him, and the carriage lumbered forward.  Nick pounded on the upholstered door, causing the lantern to swing wildly.  Each time his fist hit the door, a bell sounded in the distance, reverberating like a hammer hitting a nail. 
            Nick planted his feet on the other door and slammed his shoulder against the upholstery.  The door flew open, leaving Nick half-hanging out of the carriage – by virtue of his flailing hand catching the door rail – Chicago falling away beneath him, further and further.  His arm groaned, his fingers ached.  Sweat slicked his grip on the brass rail.  The carriage turned, Nick spilled out the door.  He was going to fall! 
            Suddenly, something grabbed him by the back of the neck.  The fingers felt rough, like fine sand paper. 
            Nick turned to look at what grabbed him, but he just saw a flash of black cloak, then he was shoved back into the lantern-lit carriage and the door slammed shut.  On his back, panting, two words caught his attention.  There were etched into the dark wooden roof with some silvery metal.  “Death Express.”  

19 February 2013


19. February 2013

Hey again, sorry for the late update.  I don’t actually have an excuse handy (unless fighting off a swarm of dragons and reading a lot count as excuses).  But the good news for you all is this: a story today AND tomorrow.  Whoa, it’s like Christmas early… or something.  Right, so here’s the story.  It’s set in a world I’m currently building for my latest Manuscript.  Enjoy!  And don’t forget, if you want a story about something specific, feel free to leave a comment to say so. 
Spoiler/warning: this has to do with an abusive relationship, so if that’s something that you’d rather not read or deal with, then please skip over this story. 

by Heydon Hensley

Aleyah woke before the dawn spread its sacred crimson fingers over the clay and lime houses of Ba’atzelone.  Her husband, Daveen, had been out late – again.  Ostensibly he did business with the dentists after nightfall, but she never saw any more money come from this business – nor did it explain why he wore his best djellaba, or why he always came back smelling like rose water.  Dentists weren’t dirty enough to demand a ceremonial cleaning before resting, and she doubted that the dentists gave Daveen free use of their baths.  The public baths were closed by that time of night.  Whoever this “dentist” was, she must have been wealthy.  Aleyah bit her lip as she stared at him spread across the cushions in the main room.  It was a discredit to think so of her husband, but what other conclusions could she draw?  Especially considering that Daveen never came to their bed anymore.  No, Daveen was in the market for a second wife. 
            Aleyah checked a sigh and set in to the morning’s work.  She measured out the flour and kneaded it with water and oil.  Then she mixed in her yeast lump and kneaded again, rolling out symmetrical loaves of dough.  From the last loaf, she pinched off a chunk of dough and set it in a jar.  Next she produced a small hoop of wire and carved in Alhazar’s holy star in each loaf: eight points, two each towards the four Winds, symmetrical about both the horizontal and the vertical.  The scooped out dough, she placed with the rest of the yeast lump.  She carefully transferred the loafs onto her clay tray.  Daveen was a good provider.  They never went hungry, nor did the mint run too low to invite a traveler in for tea.  What did it matter really if Daveen was out late in his best djellaba? 
            The call for As-Salaat rang out from the mosques over Ba’atzelone.  The minarets hummed in reply.  The call rang out again: “Alhazar Ak-bar.  Alhazar Ak-bar.”  Daveen shook awake, ignored Aleyah and stepped out to their door mat for prayers.  Dawn cupped the city walls then slid over the city like the warm hand of a lover – like Daveen’s hand over the woman last night, Aleyah thought.  She pinched her lips closed and performed her prayers.  That done, she hefted the clay tray and stepped around Daveen on her way to the neighborhood bakery.  
            The fires were hot, and the coals were raked.  That meant that Ibn’Shan tended the bakery today.  Her husband had lost himself to the demon of drink, but no one said that openly.  In retaliation, Ibn’Shan volunteered twice as often as any other neighborhood wife in the bakery.  If she was visible in public, then he couldn’t hit her.  Aleyah swallowed hard, imagining herself in Ibn’Shan’s position soon, if Daveen really was searching for another wife.  Ibn’Shan nodded at Aleyah.  Aleyah set down her tray and performed the Irka’at, kissing her fist before touching her forehead and heart.  Ibn’Shan returned the Irka’at then went back to tending the duties of the bakery.  Aleyah took up the wooden bread spade with a firm hand and shoveled her loaves into the oven.  The handle twisted in her grasp, pinching her lifeline smartly, but Aleyah kept shoving in loaf after loaf.  She should have suspected it really.  Daveen had been doing well with his business – and… and she had not been doing well bearing children.  She latched the oven door with a finality she didn’t feel. 
            Heat shimmered over the packed turmeric roads like a charmed cobra, as she counted out the cook time for her loaves.  Aleyah should be grateful.  Daveen wasn’t given to anything illegal – he didn’t drink or chase hashish.  But he did have a temper, and that was what her meetings at the Women’s National League warned about more even than drink.  Perhaps soon Aleyah would be at the bakery as often as Ibn’Shan.  Pop. She opened the oven and scooped her loaves onto her tray.  All the WNL meetings in the world couldn’t convince her that she had not driven her husband away – not just away but into the arms of another.  When the last loaf was out of the oven, she stood aside so someone else could use oven.  She dripped lemon and oil into a bowl and painted over her loaves with a horsehair brush.  The brush caught in a groove of Alhazar’s star and tore off a chunk of crust.  Aleyah’s nostrils flared.  She set the loaf aside for the Beggar’s Pile, then forced her hand to steady and relax.  The last few loaves slid under her brush smoothly. 
Daveen stared moodily at the brown bread, like a guilty schoolboy who just hasn’t been caught yet, or so Aleyah thought as she mixed the cinnamon and honey into the morning couscous. 
            Daveen’s fingers drummed on the table. Tick-da-da-tum, tick-da-da-tum.  “Light a fire under yourself already.  I had a late night earning money for your lazy bones.” 
            The five fingered words tore at her heart.  Pain pressed against her eyes.  Pain and fear.  If she didn’t have to be in public, he’d hit her.  She knew he would.  With a second wife, he wouldn’t stop at words.  He’d keep her caged in this house, cooking his food, cleaning his clothes, and he’d hide her blackened face in the darkness of their home.  Even if someone did see, what would that change?  It would be expected.  The WNL couldn’t stop it.  Aleyah set the pot of couscous in front of him with a warm loaf of bread.  “I beg forgiveness, husband.” 
            He ignored her and wolfed down the meal, as if he had not eaten in many days.  When he was finished, he burped his appreciation then said, “Get to the baths, woman.  Your grime insults Alhazar.” 
            Aleyah felt the words rise from her throat before she could reel them back down.  “At least my grime is not on my soul.”  Silence swept between them like a jinn.  The air crackled with energy, his black eyes on her brown.  The color fled from her face, her lips. 
            His hand, curved like a knife, trembled for a moment beside her pale face, before whipping across her cheek knuckles first.  “Is this gratitude?”  Daveen spoke low, his words an even growl in his throat.  “Is this what I deserve for feeding you, for clothing you?”  He shoved the table away and stomped through their blue door into the day’s heat. 
            Aleyah touched her cheek and stared.  Blood dribbled from where his ring caught her.  For a long time she stared vacantly after him, unaware of the pain, of the blood, aware only that she had slashed at him with her tongue, and she was aware – acutely aware – that she’d liked it.  She could feel better about his late nights, his absence from their bed, because she had the truth now.  He wasn’t some competent suitor – he was just another philanderer, and that truth protected her. 

15 February 2013


So today's short story is a story about an incredibly ballsy writer: Lajos Egri, as a fairy tale.

Once upon a time, there lived a confused tyrant, who made demands one way, but actually wanted something else altogether - like ordering ice cream, but really wanting pizza.  The problem was, this tyrant didn't know he was confused.  He just thought people were stupid when it came to hearing his orders.  This Tyrant was named Aristotle, and he sat upon his throne named Poetics for more than two millenia, with hundreds of thousands of loyal subjects.  A sniveling lot that didn't dare countermand ol' Aristotle's orders, because how could someone be wrong for two thousand years?  That's a ridiculous notion.  These subjects were called writers.  Sure there were a few rebels that made an impact in how other writers viewed Aristotle's tyranny, but they were the exception - not the rule: Shakespeare, Cervantes, Chekhov.  But even some of these rebels did not know they were rebelling.  Accidental freedom fighters, as it were.  You see, Aristotle demanded that ACTION was more important than CHARACTER, which of course is similar to saying that a sword or a gun is more important than the soldier carrying it, or the crucifix is more important than the person hanging from it.  Because, you see, action can only be driven BY character, and in the early twentieth century, one man dared stand up against two thousand years of traditional tyranny, and say, "Hey, now this is patently ridiculous - shouldn't the characters matter at all?  After all, aren't they in fact what the play (you see, this hero was a playwright) about?"  That man, that titan of the craft was Lajos Egri.  He dared question why the common consensus was that a play couldn't be judged to be good or bad without actually performing the play.  The brave Lajos took up his pen and struck again and again at Aristotle the tyrant, but Aristotle would not easily die, and in fact the tyrant still lurks in the dark corners of classrooms, preying on the traditionalists and enslaving new subjects, while Lajos harries the edges of the tyrant empire, whittling it down, shedding light on error.

And just what epic weapon did Lajos Egri create to combat the empire of Poetics? Why, The Art of Dramatic Writing of course.

Seriously, though, this book will change how you view Poetics. And maybe even writing itself.  Although, Lajos Egri does set up another tyrant: Premise.
"The Premise is a tyrant that permits only one way - the way of absolute proof" (Egri 109).

Thanks for reading.

13 February 2013

Pope Trejo

So the Pope has resigned (first time in 600 years).  Because of this, today is a special edition of February short stories.  Thanks to reader Zach for the idea on this.

Vatican City
"Time to get down with the Brown."  The rightfully chosen Pope Danny Trejo (as himself) has been ousted by a vengeful old order.  Now it's time for payback.  Danny Trejo joins forces with outraged Catholics and lays siege to the Vatican.  

11 February 2013

Thirty-Seven Hours

11. February 2013

            Today’s story is because of a request for something a bit more… uplifting than implied suicide or broken-hearted teenagers.  So here’s a short thriller with a happy ending(?) or so I claim.  Anyway, hopefully you get some chills out of it at the very least. 
            This is partly inspired by the Gothic tradition of ETA Hoffman.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Gothic tradition, it doesn't mean that his stories only wore black or painted their faces with make-up.  Around the turn of the twentieth century, science had explained enough of the world to sort of debunk fairy tales, so a few writers decided to re-instill the fear of fairy tales.  ETA Hoffman was one of the foremost, setting stories in Germanic regions that tended to be heavily wooded and have long histories of mysticism and barbarism (werewolves and shamans).  Edgar Allan Poe was credited with transposing this new form to the New World (American Gothic). Cheers and thanks for reading. 

Thirty-Seven Hours
by Heydon Hensley

That was what they said: thirty-seven hours and ten tons of rock.  But it was longer – it must have been.  Or time doesn’t exist in Hell.  Trapped beneath an entire mountain, the smell of coal climbing into his nostrils and burrowing into his skin.  Occasionally, another miner would moan somewhere – out there – away from him, away from his wall of stone, or they’d claw towards him, nails scratching, scratching against the stone like skeletal fingers.  Then the rubble would shift, and everyone would scream, and the coal would carry the cry halfway to hell, before the cry was too exhausted to continue and just stopped – before he got too exhausted. 
            It wasn’t so bad, not really.  Just the scratching, the scratching like some servant of the Metal Queen, clawing up from the deeps to pull him down, to drag him into the deep, broken leg dangling behind.  He wasn’t sure his leg would come with him.  It burned like a coal fire, slow and hot enough to melt steel.  The pain was good, he told himself, it meant he’d keep the leg.  If he didn’t move then no one would be able to find him, he’d be safe – and closed his eyes so the darkness couldn’t crawl in, take him over, spread out over his skin like the coal –
            He screamed.  Monitors and nurses sang a chorus of expletives like a refrain.  The white room, sterile light, white sheets sank beneath a cloud of smoke – then he was back. 

            Back, with the scratching, always scratching further down the tunnel, clawing its way closer in the pitch, like a dragging pick or hungry fingers.  He couldn’t scream – had to stay still – had to hide, the slightest whisper of noise, and it would find him – drag him away to forget the sun.  Sweat slid down his nose, dripped off and hit his belt buckle.  Plop. It echoed down the long throat, he could almost see it.  The walls coruscating to force him down into the stomach – into the deep, to the cold, to forget – to forget the warmth of his wife, the sun –

            A warm hand touched his cheek.  Warm and soft.  The sweat seemed to disappear.  For a moment his fears eased, the scratching paused, held back by this soft hand.  Murmurs drifted through the coal smoke.  “He’s going to… not uncommon… post-traumatic stress… keep him sedated…”
            “His leg?” A voice touched with sunlight. 
            His leg felt light, it almost didn’t hurt – almost.  So it was there, it had to be there.  This warm hand and sunlit voice kept his leg attached, kept the scratching at bay.  He just needed to hear that voice, to let it crawl into him and chase out the black, the scratching deep.  

08 February 2013

Immortal Roses

8. February 2013

I’ve been reading Four Quartets by T.S. Elliot, which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone with an interest or knowledge in Quantum Theory, or temporal philosophy, or just straight out beautiful, compressed prose.   It was recommended to me by a Physics professor friend of mine.  If you haven’t read poetry before, then just remember to take it slow.  Just like a question on a test, you won’t get the whole answer without going back over the problem to verify your accuracy.  Unlike a test, the answer you get will change depending on where you are in your life when you read the poem. 

Anyway, here’s the story for today.  It’s the shortest one so far.  Hopefully it’s also the best. 

Immortal Roses
by Heydon Hensley
            In the rose garden, sun streaming between the knit blanket of clouds, T.S. Elliot came to him.  “That which is only living/ can only die. Words, after speech, reach/ into the silence.”  Somehow these words comforted him, as he cupped a scarlet rose in one hand and snipped the stem, just below the throat.  Like this rose, he was only living, could only die, but see how beautiful the rose was in death: head full of crimson, youthful, green arms still frolicking, still reaching for the sun.  Surely this was better than growing – blooming too much – into a flatness, only to drop beauty petal by petal until, naked, freezing in the winter and dying, withered, ugly, detested.  But see how, chopped from the rest, it stands out – vibrant always in the mind.  No one would remember it drooping, being thrown out.  The vigor, the vibrance – these would be remembered and in the remembrance, achieve immortality. 
            If a rose could achieve immortality in death, then how much more so himself?  Yes, certainly.  If that which lives, dies, then that which dies while life still burns brightly… These wrist – his stem… what a trifle to pay for immortal youth, vigor. 
            He reached down and snipped another rose.  

06 February 2013

The Diary

6. Feb 2013

So this piece of flash fiction was inspired by a fabulous piece by Elizabeth Talent called, “No One’s a Mystery.”  If you haven’t read it, then do yourself a favor and fix that.  The whole piece is around 300 words long (maybe less).  The compression and tight prose really blur the lines between fiction and poetry. 

The rest of this month, I'll be working with Flash Fiction for a few reasons, 1) it will eat up less of your time, 2) it will eat up less of my time, and 3) flash fiction teaches a great deal about the economy of words, and the importance of subtext which allows the story to unfold off the page.  

Perhaps the most concise piece of flash fiction comes from Hemingway (allegedly, anyway).  

"For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn."  

Enough history.  Here's the story.  I hope you enjoy it. 

The Diary
by Heydon Hensley
            The diary he had given her felt heavy as a dime in her palm.  She turned it over, remembering the truck, his hand forcing her down while his wife’s Cadillac sped by. 
            How does one address a diary?  It had no feelings, not empty as it was. 
            “Dear Self,” she wrote, but she mumbled, “I guess.” 
            I have to do it today.  For three weeks, I’ve told myself that I would do it, but today – today I’m so in love that I’m sick.  Kirk won’t leave his wife for me.  Who was I ever to hope that such a great man would want me?  Over our three years together, I’d hoped, but – I still feel all tingly every time I remember our first time together.  Every sixteen year old deserves such a great man her first time.  Kirk makes me so happy, I just want to burst.  That’s the hardest thing.  I can’t tell anybody about how happy I am.  I suggested it to Kirk once, and he cuffed me.  Not hard, you know, not mean, just stern. 
            But that’s why I have to do it – to end things with him.  I just love him too much to risk hurting him.  He says people wouldn’t understand if they knew.  What’s not to understand?  Love doesn’t discriminate over ages, and my love for him would make me ten times the wife he’s currently got.  I can cook and clean as good as anybody!  That’s just me hoping, reaching for what can’t be mine, what I don’t deserve.  I’ll sneak out tonight to be with him one last time.  His truck’s always so warm at night.  Maybe I’ll show him what I wrote.  He’ll be glad I’m using his present.
            Love Always.