Ekfa-wha? It sounds like a skin condition, but stick with me for a moment. Ekphrasis is literary commentary on a piece of visual art. In this case, it refers to a short story that I wrote influenced by a sculpture.
A while back, I participated in Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s 2014 “Art & Words Show” held in Fort Worth, Texas. It was sort of a writer-artist exchange program. I submitted a flash fiction story and and an artist produced visual art inspired by the story–in this case, two paintings based upon my piece “Keith Crust’s Lucky Number.” In exchange, I selected a piece of visual art that appealed to me and wrote a story inspired by that art.
I chose–and I mean chose. When Bonnie released the artist selections to us writers, I was there on the second so I could get my first choice–I chose Pam Stern’s sculpture Tuscan Women. It was just so haunting I was sure I would have something to say about it. Pam’s work combines portrait busts of women with architecture. I know, right? So compelling.
It took me a while to work out the story I wanted to tell about the women holding a Tuscan village on their heads, and about the much darker forces implied by the heavy black sketching at the base of the sculpture. Finally, I discovered that it was an origin story that I had to tell.
The audio version of my story, “The Island of White Houses” is now available from Drabblecast. I’m really pleased with the recording. Narrator Norm Sherman makes the story feel darker and spookier than I usually think of it. His version is definitely ominous. Which is what’s great about podcasts: each telling of a story creates something new. I also love the artwork by artist Susan Reagel.
Writing is a solitary practice. The writer sits (or stands) alone at her desk, with a notebook or keyboard and a cup of stimulant beverage. The writer listens, but only to imaginary people. The writer speaks, but only to herself. Ok, also sometimes to the domestic automatons, e.g.: “&*$! cat! Plonk your furry butt somewhere other than my keyboard!”
Earlier this month, I unzipped the cocoon a fraction of a milimmeter and poked forth a tentative feeler. Finding the environment not entirely hostile, I took myself downtown to Boxcar Books to read to the public from my novel-in-progress.
I shared the marquee with two other local SFF writers, Richard Durisen and Michelle Hartz. I read from an early chapter in which my protagonist interviews for a job at the Paradise Pony Park. It introduces the main character, some of the unique aspects of the plot (viz. haunted ponies), and ends on a “tell me more” note. I had considered reading a different scene from later in the book, mainly because it was a self-contained ghost story with a fair bit of drama. But when I was rehearsing, I realized I would have to voice four different teenage girl characters. That’s a stretch for even an experienced reader, and my acting talents just weren’t up to the job.
A novel takes a long time to write. And even longer to see publication. A public reading is a chance for your manuscript to stroll around town, take the air, and see the sights. If you’re lucky, it begins to make friends. In this case, audience reaction was positive, and afterwards, over instant coffee, mixed nuts, and rice krispie treats, several people asked if the book was finished. Regrettably, I had to tell them about the unexpected delay. Still, it gave me a boost, and I’m excited about revising the book into the best story it can be. If they like it this well now, just imagine how they’re going to feel when it’s complete!
There’s still a long way to go, of course. And no one is going to do those revisions but me. But being connected to a community can make the trials easier to bear. Join me next month for thoughts on using peer accountability to get your writing where you want it to be.
As for this weekend, I’m heading off to Indianapolis for even more community at Mo*Con IX.
P.S. I feel like this post should have footnotes or something with references to pertinent information. I guess it’s just the librarian in me. So here goes:
The three most important things you need to know about reading aloud are: Prepare, Project, and Make Eye Contact! Those three things will improve any reading by about 70%. I’ve attended readings where the author bends over the book and speed-reads through a chapter without once looking up. This is not a good plan.
If you want to work on that other 30%, delve into this helpful series by author, voice talent, and puppeteer, Mary Robinette Kowal. For example, she explains why it would have been a bad idea for me to try to do all of those similar voices.
This time last year, 13 writers from around the country headed to Los Angeles to take part in the Writers of the Future workshop and awards ceremony. For many, this was their first professional publication. We bonded, we hung upon the wise words of workshop leaders Tim Powers and David Farland. We wrote a 24-hour story. We ate perhaps a smidge too much greasy food. But that was 12 long months ago, and the question arises: What have they been doing since then? Are these really the writers of the future?
Several stories from Writers of the Future Vol. 29 were featured in the Tangent Online Recommended Readings List for 2013 (“Master Belladino’s Mask,” “Cop for a Day,” “The Ghost Wife of Arlington,” “Dreameater,” “Planetary Scouts,” “Twelve Seconds,” and “The Grande Complication.” Other winners had new stories singled out as reader favorites: Marina J. Lostetter took 2nd place in both the Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest and the IGMS Readers’ Choice Awards. WotF Grand Prize winner Tina Gower won first place in the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery and Suspense (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Futuristic category) for her unpublished novel, Identity. Brian Trent’s “A Matter of Shapespace” was voted 2013 Apex Magazine Story of the Year.
Alex has done narration work for Lightspeed Magazine and the anthology series Apocalypse Triptych, edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey. He has also appeared as an actor in an episode of True Crime with Aphrodite Jones as well as several independent films.
My novel-writing journey has taken an unexpected turn. Last month, I sent my completed novel draft to four beta-readers, including Barbara J. Webb, co-instructor at the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop I attended in June 2013.
Barbara and I had a Skype call a few weeks ago to talk about my manuscript. She praised me for “paying attention during the workshop,” agreed that yes, 88,000 words is too long, pointed out the many other things I had done wrong, and then she dropped the bombshell:
“My main recommendation is set this book down. Write a new book before you come back to this.”
My plan, my very existence, for the next few months was founded on the notion that I’d be whipping this thing into shape and sending it out to agents by autumn. But now she wants me to take (at least!) 3-4 months off and write a whole new novel first? And she was very clear: time off doing nothing wouldn’t count, and neither would spending that time writing short stories. It had to be a new novel, from scratch.
The first thing I did was panic. The second thing I did was check with my neighborhood writing confidant Ashley Pérez–was this Barbara woman out of her mind? But Ashley said no, she thought I should take her advice. Since she’s published two novels and contracted a third, I conceded she might know a thing or two about it.
Problem is, since I was planning on revising this story, I hadn’t been giving a lot of brain space to what I wanted to write next. And now I needed to start a new novel. Preferably tomorrow! (Well, okay, in a week or two.) What to do?
If you’re not feeling visual, there are other ways of pre-writing, such as freewriting and asking yourself questions about the nebulous story mass wobbling around in your brain case. Holly Lisle has a really good list of intriguing questions here.
Now it’s time for me to put on my smock and get out the scissors and glue, because I’ve got a lot of imagining to do. Wish me luck!–And let me know if you have any tried-and-true prewriting techniques.
I am a writer who–like many of you–routinely deals with rejection from editors, setbacks, uncooperative drafts, lost opportunities, time constraints, deadlines, idea droughts, revision hell, and other unfriendly aspects of the writing life. One December, after I’d had a particularly awful week, I needed some perspective. Surely I had done something right that year I could be happy about?
It’s 20F outside in the middle of the afternoon. I have a terrible cold that makes me as sharp and lively as a dehydrated blueberry. I tried to work on my novel this morning and I couldn’t make sense of my notes from last session (Thank Goodness there are notes, at least). I’m at about the 3/4 mark on this draft and realizing how very much important structural stuff I left until “later.” I really want to be done with it and getting reader feedback, but I still have pretty much all of Part IV to go. So I thought maybe I needed to look back and see how far I have already come with this novel. Maybe I can’t say “I Did It” to a finished novel, but there are lot of pieces I Did Do.
November 2012: Breakneck zero draft for NaNoWriMo, based on February’s outline. This is where I learned to give my protagonist a problem I cared about. I hit the end of the outline about 10,000 words short of the 50,000-word goal. I kept writing. Those last 10,000 words? That’s when I learned who all my characters really were–they weren’t in service to the plot anymore, and I had the freedom to get to know them.
March 2013: Apply for and acceptance to CSSF Novel Writers Workshop. Whew!
June 2013: Two weeks of wisdom, example, outline, imagination, and the Glorious Fishbowl at the CSSF Workshop in Lawrence, KS.
June 2013: Receive IAC grant.
July-September 2013: First *real* draft of novel.
October-December 2013: Preparing draft for beta-readers.
I knew, of course, that writing a novel is a lot of work. But I think our little primate brains protect us from understanding the full scope of how much ‘a lot’ really is. I don’t regret my decision to go down this revision-paved road. And for 2014? It’s going to be finished. This novel is hitting the road, knocking on the doors of agents and editors.
You know all those fairy tales about being lost in the forest? You start off feeling daring and intrepid and the next thing you know, the sun goes down and the path isn’t where you thought it was and there are scary noises in the trees and ah! what just grabbed my leg?
Revising a novel is kind of like that. You’ve got your main character, and she’s got a goal, and you’ve planned a couple of setbacks for her and maybe a little romantic interest off to one side and….whoa! where did that two-headed plesiosaur come from? I mean, it’s cute the way it flaps its fins and begs for dried squid chips, but your story is supposed to be set in 1950s Vienna. And since when did your heroine start tearing tissues into confetti and weeping at soap commercials? Your character sheet says she’s “strong and capable.”
As all readers of fairy tales know, there is one secret weapon against the fatal forest. The well-prepared adventurer intuits that the forest is not to be trusted and prepares accordingly:
When going into that dark wood of an early novel revision, reverse outlining is your trail of breadcrumbs. Plus, you get to play with colored paper and feel massively organized.
What is reverse outlining? For me, it meant going back over every scene I had written in the first draft and writing down the important parts of the scene on the front of the card. On the back of the card, I made notes to myself for the revision. What changes needed to be made? What was missing? (Usually transitions into the scene) What was excessive and needed to be trimmed? (pretty much everything to do with meandering around an unanchored setting) What was just plain wrong? (oops! Cousin Stella isn’t supposed to be pregnant anymore.)
When I finished my first draft I had a folder in Scrivener with about 20 new scenes (or scenelets) that weren’t in the original outline, that I had written spontaneously while thinking through the first draft. I didn’t have a place for them yet, but I knew they filled a hole in the story. The card process helped me find a place to slot in the new scenes.
Now that I’m about 40% of the way through the second draft, I cling desperately to these cards. The forest is dark and scary and haunted by plesiosaurs. But I have my trail of neon index cards shining through the poisonous smog, and I tiptoe carefully from one to the next, writing wrongs, adding settings, and erasing pregnancies, one card at a time.
The tabs on the left for P1, P2, & P3 divide the story arc into Acts (P= “Part”). Part 4 is lurking behind the cards standing on end on the right, which are homeless scenes that I’m pretty sure I know where they want to go. The blue tab on the right is my current location. When I finish a scene in the current draft, the scene card moves in front of that blue tab. I cannot tell you how good that feels.
Have you tried reverse outlining? Feel free to share what works for you. Tips on taming plesiosaurs also welcome.
My short story, “The Wanderer King” is now available at Podcastle for your listening pleasure.
We steer clear of the mines–that’s Fixer territory. The Wanderers are dangerous, too, ever since they came fighting back around Day 30. But there’s always been less of them–less in all, and less because they scatter through the woods on their business instead of fixing to the towns and mines.
We step along to the city, fitting the crown on all we come across. We sleep in the darkest part of the day when the sky dips to dark blue. At first, in the country, there aren’t many heads to try. But we come up on the city, and we slow. We even try it on Fixers because Pansy says the King is the King and it doesn’t matter whose body he’s in. “The King is for all,” Pansy says. “Anyone can carry the King.”
Prior to the workshop, we had all submitted the first three chapters of our novel-in-progress plus a complete synopsis. Kij read our sacrificial offerings and summed up her reaction with an inventory of our collective crimes. Use the handy-dandy checklist below and see how your first novel holds up.
Common Problems of First Novels
Not Enough Plot. It can be hard to wrap your head around just how big a novel is. First-timers often try to stretch a thin little string of circumstance over 200+ pages. Other possible offenses: Too Much Plot and Poorly-Paced Plot.
Rushed Scenes. When discussing my chapters, Kij pointed out places where she wanted more description and more setting, and my instinct was to resist. “But that’s boring,” I’d think, “I have to get to the action.” While struggling with short fiction, I had trained myself to mercilessly stamp out every curlicue of narrative elaboration. Now that hard-won skill was working against me. Novel readers look for different pleasures than short story readers: they need immersion, and they need time to settle in.
Churning. Looking at that vast expanse of blank pages you have to fill, it’s easy to get panicky and start throwing incidents at the page. You slap on an explosion here, a gunfight there, sprinkle a one-eyed ogre army over Chapter Five, top it off with a messy break-up and call it a plot. But activity doesn’t = plot. A plot is a sequence of events in which each event causes the next, leading to the central conflict. A lot of flashy unrelated action will never get you there.
Stakes Aren’t High Enough. You’re not going to convince a reader to go along for a novel-length ride if all that’s at stake is whether your protagonist is going to have a bagel or a Belgian waffle for breakfast. Your stakes don’t have to be mortal danger or the fate of the universe, but whatever you choose must feel like annihilation for your character. Extra Credit:Writing Excuses 7.47: Raising the Stakes.
Lack of Agency. Related to #3. Activity also doesn’t = agency. First novels often feature characters pushed around by circumstance, or ones that don’t initiate activity. Your protagonist must go out into the world and cause things to happen. Preferably bad things that will hurt him/her and rain misery on their hapless head.
Backstory & Exposition Poorly Managed. This one happens in short-story land, too. The reader gets a couple of pages of a scene with a good hook and then everything screeches to a halt while the author explains the full timeline of events since the protagonist’s birth*.
Poor POV Choices. Novels typically have more characters than short fiction, and can handle multiple points-of-view. But are you choosing them wisely? Are you switching POVs at the right places? Kij suggests that more than one POV can improve your story, but if you introduce too many, you’re more likely to trip yourself up. Analyze your POV changes and ask yourself if they are the best interest of your story. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 4.13: Juggling Multiple Viewpoints.
Anemic Description. Characters need to be grounded in their environment. I did this one wrong and so did pretty much everyone else. If your story is set in the Wild West, the reader needs to know not just how it looks, but how it smells, how to saddle a horse, and how long it takes to travel by train. Useful description is what makes a world feel real to a reader. Extra Credit: Writing Excuses 6.11: Making Your Descriptions Do More Than One Thing.