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My Top 5 Most Useful Books About Fiction Writing

Craft of Writing, Writing

Let’s face it, writing a good story is hard. It’s entirely different from telling your best friend the story about what happened Friday night. Face to face stories are easier, because you have tone of voice and inflections, as well as body language, to help convey your meaning. With a novel or short story, you only have the words.

I am an addict. I admit it. I have more books on the craft of writing than my local library does, I’d bet. I use these books for my writing, of course, but also for when I’m editing or teaching other writers. I learn a lot from reading the stories of authors, but there’s also a place for an educational slant — for having an explanation of why something works.

To that end, I’m listing my Top 5 craft of fiction writing books. These books sit on the shelf right beside my desk. They’re always right there.

Now, these are the top 5, but they’re not in any specific order. You can’t really say that a book about creating character is better (or worse) than a book about writing a synopsis. They’re about different things. So while this is a Top 5 post, it’s not a ranked top 5.

Also, a while back, I wrote a post about my two favorite books on revision. Since I’ve already mentioned those, I’m not going to include them here.

And with all that said, here we go!

Writing the Breakout Novel

by Donald Maass

I got this book relatively early on in my fiction writing journey and it really opened my eyes to the idea that a book can be planned. Not in an outlining sort of way (which it can, of course, and which I was highly resistant to doing at the time), but in a larger-scale sort of way. From a 30,000 foot view, so to speak.

The purpose of the book is to write a novel that pushes past the mid-list and becomes a breakout seller. Think Harry Potter, The Martian, 50 Shades of Grey. A book that captures the minds of millions of people, rather than thousands or hundreds.

Donald Maass, who is a very successful agent who owns his own agency, identifies the things that he observes as pillars of a breakout novel. With section headings like Premise, Stakes, Time and Place, Characters, etc, this is a high-level view of story creation that every author can benefit from.

Beginnings, Middles & Ends

by Nancy Kress

What author hasn’t struggling with slogging through the middle of their novel? We’ve lost the bright, shiny feeling of the beginning and we’re not yet at the exciting, climactic end. There’s a reason many novels are abandoned in the middle. Fiction writing isn’t always easy.

Nancy Kress addresses all these things — the bright, shiny, the exciting, climactic, and the slogging — in her book. She gives authors tools on how to stay on track in their fiction writing, especially in the middle, which is arguably the longest part of a novel.

Each chapter ends with exercises designed to give writers practice in implementing the author’s suggestions. Some of the exercises involve reading and identifying things she’s discussed (such as reader expectations after the beginning), some involve writing, both new and assessment of current writing.

If you have trouble finishing your stories, you might find this book especially helpful.

Writing the Fiction Synopsis: A step by step approach

by Pam McCutcheon

If you’ve ever struggled with creating a synopsis, this book will be your savior! There are actually very few books on writing a good synopsis (compared to other writing topics). Mostly, writers are just expected to figure it out, maybe from talking to other writers, maybe by osmosis. In recent years, there have been a few more books (but only a few), yet this one, written almost twenty years ago and for most of that time the only book on synopsis writing, is still the gold standard.

McCutcheon takes you through the steps of writing a synopsis using three relatively well-known movies as her test subjects. She provides a number of worksheets to help you along, but that are also useful in the writing process, as well. She focuses not just on what should be in the synopsis, but also on tone and voice, as well.

This book also has exercises at the end of each chapter, but the result, if you do them all, is that you’ll have a synopsis by the time you’ve finished the book.

Characters & Viewpoint

by Orson Scott Card

This is probably one of my most recommended books. A lot of newer writers don’t understand the difference between omniscient point of view and 3rd person limited point of view, and so I often see a lot of what is called head-hopping: jumping from different points of view within the same scene, paragraph, or even sentence. This book explains those points of view very clearly, using a camera lens as illustration. I’ve seen more than one writer have an “Ah-ha!” moment after reading the section on viewpoint.


The guidance about character creation is also valuable, especially in conjunction with the character creation advice in the other books on this page. Card gives information about where characters come from and what makes for a good fictional characters. And then goes into more in-depth things, such as how the reader should feel about the character, what the stakes are for the character within the story, and transformations.

This is one of those books that I believe should be on every writer’s shelf!

Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction

edited by Michael A. Arnzen & Heidi Ruby Miller

I’m a bit biased about this book, I admit, because I have an article in it called, “Demystifying What Editors Want.” However, even if I didn’t have work in it, I would still have this book by my desk.


It’s a collection of over eighty essays about everything about writing popular fiction, from craft topics to life balance topics to promoting and marketing. Contributors include authors from all over the genre spectrum, from smaller published authors to mid-list authors to heavy hitters like David Morrell (First Blood [Rambo] and others), Tom Monteleone (Borderland Books), Nancy Kress (her name should look familiar 😉 ), and Tess Gerritson (Harvest and others). I’ll sometimes pick it up and just choose an essay to read when I’ve got 5 minutes. There’s always something to learn.

I often joke that this is my MFA program in a $30 book (the Kindle version is only $10!). 🙂 This is a really comprehensive collection of experiences and advice from authors and editors working within the commercial fiction publishing industry.

Okay, so those are my Top 5 books for fiction writing. I’ve tried to choose books that run the gamut of information that authors need to know about, from character creation, to doing the writing, to stuff needed to get published.

What fiction writing books do you find indispensable? Drop a line down in the comments!

Keep writing!

Quick Edits: Pronouns

Craft of Writing, Quick Edits, Writing

Quick Edits is a short feature where I give quick editing advice on how to handle common problems in fiction writing.

Pronouns

If you have two or more people of the same gender in the same scene, it’s easy to use pronouns in a confusing way. (I’ll be using male/female pronouns in these examples, but neutral and non-gendered pronouns are also subject to this issue.)

Say Tina enters a room and sees her sister, Marcy, who has been missing since the day before.

She ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and her bag fell onto the floor.

We might assume that the subject (she) is Tina herself. And that the first “her” is Marcy. But think for a moment. Couldn’t the subject (she) also be Marcy? The sentence works that way too. And then the first “her” would be Tina. And we have no idea, either way, which of them dropped their bag. See how that can be confusing?

I generally advise, at the very least on the sentence level, but it’s probably even more effective on the paragraph level, to choose one character for whom you’ll substitute pronouns.

So pick either Tina or Marcy as being the one that can have the pronouns. And the other, you’ll use her name. This doesn’t mean you can only use pronouns for that character.  You can still use the pronoun character’s name. Just don’t use pronouns for the non-pronoun character.

So the sentence could be changed to look something like this:

Marcy ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Tina’s bag fell onto the floor.

Or this:

Tina ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Tina’s bag fell onto the floor.

Or this:

Tina ran over and gripped her in a bear hug, and Marcy’s bag fell onto the floor.

See how the same sentence with ambiguous pronouns could be clarified to mean a lot of different things? We should shoot for clarity in our writing, and this is one that is really easy to flub up! But it’s a pretty simple fix, as you can see.

Are there any editing issues you run into that you’d like covered in the Quick Edits series? Drop a comment below!

Keep writing,

No, Virginia, There’s No Such Thing as Writer’s Block

Craft of Writing, Writing

Ten years ago, I’d have fought you if you’d told me writer’s block didn’t exist. I would have told you that you were crazy, that of course it existed! Because I experienced it and how dare you tell me I’m a literary hypochondriac!

Now, I realize that people who told me that then — and lit fires of guilt in my heart — were right. Writer’s block doesn’t exist. Now, that isn’t to say that a writer won’t have trouble getting words on a page. Of course, some days are worse (sometimes a lot worse) than others. But there is no real block. There’s not some outside force that is taking away our ability to write. It’s not like there is poison on our keyboards that will kill us when we sit down to type.

I’ve found that “block” is generally one of two things: avoidance or apathy. They can show up together, but it’s usually at least one or the other.

Avoidance

I find that this usually happens when I feel pressured or when I feel guilty or sometimes when I’m afraid I’m going to write crap.

Often the pressure and the guilt are tied together and both relate to when I’ve slacked off or dropped the ball on my writing goals. I feel pressure, mostly internally, but sometimes a perceived external pressure too, because I’m “behind.” It’s like I feel that other people are judging me for being a writer who doesn’t write.

And then there’s the overcompensating for the guilt: I didn’t write yesterday, for whatever reason, and now I have to write twice as much today to get “caught up.”

And, of course, then I feel crappy, because obviously I’m failing as a writer, so guilt starts really eating at me.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I handle guilt and procrastination pressure in the most efficient way.

I stop doing everything.

Because I’ve found that helps with “feeling behind.” *nods* Really. It does. *cough*

As I’m sure you know, it doesn’t help at all. But that stopping is the writer’s block. It’s the avoidance of doing what I need to be doing because of emotions — guilt, fear, pressure.

Apathy

Apathy often goes hand-in-hand with avoidance, but rather than being about my emotions, this one is about the work itself.

Apathy happens when I have absolutely no interest in or excitement for what I’m writing. Have you had that happen? You just put off doing your writing because you’re just not that into it. “It’s not you,” I tell the story. “It’s me. I’m just not that into you.”

Apathy can also happen as a result of outside things. Perhaps you got a rejection letter, or someone close to you gave you bad criticism on something you wrote, an idea you had, or even just the thought that you could possibly be a writer (I hate it when writers have people like this in their families 🙁 ).

So it becomes infinitely easier to not write.

How to get out of the “writer’s block” rut

We all hate this answer, but the best way to get out of the rut is to write. Even if you just open a screen and start writing about how you don’t feel like writing or about how you feel you have writer’s block. The act of actually writing will get you going. Eventually, you’ll be able to shift to something you’re supposed to be working on. But even if you don’t shift today, getting into the habit of doing the writing is a good portion of the writer’s block battle in itself.

Here’s the other important bit here: When you’re writing, give yourself permission to suck.

Go into the writing with the idea that whatever comes out at the other end could very well be the most awful, horrendous, gross piece of writing to ever exist in the history of humanity.

And that that’s perfectly okay.

I find that once I’ve given myself permission not to write the Great American Novel in the first draft, my words come much more easily.

When you're #amwriting, give yourself permission to suck. #writetip #writerslife Click To Tweet

Strike apathy out by throwing a curve ball

Basically, be mean to your characters. Here are two questions that are great at getting you out of a boring story:

What is the worst thing that can happen to your character, from their perspective?

And I mean the worst, barring death (unless that’s a thing that characters can come back from in your story 🙂 ). Is it the death of their partner? Is it losing their job? Is it finding that the treasure at the end of their quest is really just a stone?

Whatever it is, from the character’s persepective, that is the worst thing that can happen, make it happen. Then see how exciting the story becomes!

What is something that your character would never do or want to do?

Perhaps betraying their best friend is something they’d never want to do. Maybe stealing or lying is outside their moral code. Maybe it’s something as simple as going on an adventure that’s completely outside of the character’s normal mindset.

Once you’ve got the thing they’d most likely never do, figure out a way to make them have to do it. Put them between a rock and a hard place such that they must choose to do that thing that is abhorrent to them. You’ll be amazed at how more interested in your story you’ll be (and, of course, you’re reader will be once it’s published!).

In the end, I’ve discovered that writer’s block is really the act of avoiding writing. Writing is simply putting words on paper (or a screen). And I don’t need a muse or brilliant words in order to do that. It’s okay if I write utter tripe. So instead of just staring at the screen or, worse, avoiding the screen altogether, I’ll put tripe on the screen.

Remember: You can fix anything you write. But you can’t fix a blank page.

Remember: You can fix anything you write. But you can't fix a blank page. #amwriting Click To Tweet

How do you handle the urge to avoid your screen? Any tips on battling that thing that people call “writer’s block”? Drop them in the comments below!

 

 

 

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Why and How to Limit Flashbacks in Your Fiction

Craft of Writing, Writing

What Are Flashbacks?

Flashbacks are breaks in the current story that are written in order to give the reader background information, something from the past, usually for what’s about to happen. Flashbacks are a legitimate storytelling tool — don’t let anyone tell you they’re not.

But like many tools in fiction writing (like adverbs, speech tags, etc), their use should be limited. The more background information you can insert into your stories without using flashbacks, the more skilled you are as a writer.

For me, I don’t consider a sentence or two to be a flashback. A flashback generally is a full blown scene, anywhere from a couple paragraph to pages. A flashback is turning your car around and driving back to the place, versus a quick glance in the sideview mirror.

Why Should You Limit Flashbacks?

The biggest reason to limit your use of flashbacks is because flashbacks pull your reader out of the story you’re telling.

Think about watching a movie with someone. Say it’s the second movie in a series. Would you find it distracting if your friend paused the movie every third scene to explain something from the first movie that he thinks would be good for you to know for this movie? It would probably get annoying after about half an hour. And, what might be worse, is you might be more interested in the stories your friend is telling you, rather than the story you’re watching.

When you use flashbacks, you’re essentially hitting the pause button on the story you’re trying to tell and you’re asking the reader to invest in a *different* story for a little while. Be sparse with this sort of request of your reader. Because the more often they’re distracted from the story you’re telling, the more likely they are not to feel invested enough to return to it.

How Do You Limit Your Use of Flashbacks?

When thinking about flashbacks, there are three things you should consider particularly.

Is it necessary?

Does the reader actually need information that you’re conveying in the flashback? Sometimes flashback scenes are ways for the author to convey things that the reader will already have inferred. Sometimes flashback scenes are included simply because the author wrote it and feels like it should be in there.

Think about what your key pieces of information being conveyed are. And then think about whether your reader actually needs them.

Must it be conveyed at this place in the story and in this way?

When I’m editing, it’s not uncommon for me to see a three or four page flashback where there’s only a single piece of information that’s important. That piece of information could have simply been dropped into the current story line in a sentence or two rather than yanking the reader into a flashback. Again, assess what the key pieces of information you’re trying to convey are and think about where else in the story you might weave them in, instead.

Sometimes, the flashback is important but the placement isn’t ideal. Consider your entire story; is there a better place for this flashback?

Is it?

Are you starting a new scene and rehashing everything that happened since the last scene?

If you’re telling the reader about everything that happened since the previous scene, there’s no reason not to start it from the the end of the previous scene, rather than some time later, then flashing back to what happened in the interval. This bouncing around in time can be confusing for your reader and it’s unnecessary. If you’ve decided that what’s happened between the previous scene and this scene is important enough to be on the page, then it doesn’t make any sense for it to be a flashback rather than simply part of the current story line.

The exception is if the actions between the scenes can be done in a sentence or two (which isn’t, by our definition here, a flashback anyway).

As a note before I sign off: one type of writing where you should especially avoid flashbacks is short stories. Most of the time, there just isn’t enough space in the story to support flashbacks. It ends up being a waste of precious words when you already have a limit as you do for a short story. Of course, it can be done, but as a general rule, it shouldn’t, unless you know you can do it very, very well.

How about you? Do you struggle with too many flashbacks or not knowing whether to include one or not? Comment below!

 

 

 

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Do You Only Make Your Target Word Count During NaNoWriMo?

Craft of Writing, Writing

Motivation and Procrastination

Some writers have the drive to write even when they’re not at the computer (or the notepad). For some, they’ll ignore most of the rest of their life in order to get their words done. I’m not really like that. When I’m not writing, I forget that I like to write. This is especially problematic for me when I’m in editorial mode for clients, because it’s more challenging to get back into creative mode, which causes me to forget for even longer that I like writing.

My Struggle with BICHOK

As an editor, I advise my writerly clients to get their Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard. You’ve probably heard that or something similar, if you frequent any sort of writer groups, whether in real life or on Facebook or some other social platform.

As a writer, I struggle with this myself. For some reason, I put off writing, as if it’s a chore like doing the dishes (which I also put off! lol). It’s really not until I’m in my chair and actually in the midst of belting out words that I realize how much I missed it and wonder why I waited so long to get back into the chair. And you’d think that when I make this revelation that the next time I have a plan to sit down to write, I’ll remember it and be excited. But no, I still think it’s doing the dishes. *sigh*

My Most Productive Writing Time Period

I was lucky enough to be able to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree at Seton Hill University. During this program, students have a required page count that they are responsible to write each month. This number is decided on in conjunction with the student’s mentor for the semester, so it’s not arbitrary and the student has input in the decision. The common amount is 30 pages per month. There is also a critique group of, usually, two other students to whom a student sends these pages as well. So, at the least, you have three people every month who are waiting for your words.

As you might imagine, the years I was in that program were the most productive of my writing life.

If You’re Like Me…

…you do much better when you know someone is waiting for your work. I think this is a common issue for writers. It’s easy to push our writing off in favor of doing something with the kids, binge watching a few more episodes of Supernatural, reading the new Stephen King book, playing Halo, doing game night with friends, or even *gasp* doing the dishes. Sometimes it seems like we’ll do anything else aside from writing. Even when we know how much we like to do it.

But when there’s someone who’s looking over your shoulder, watching your progress…

Well, that changes everything.

A Tool to Help — AAMP

AAMP is the Author Accountability Mastermind Program. It’s designed to help you by giving you someone else to be accountable to. Essentially, you have your own personal cheerleading drill sergeant. 🙂

Why I created AAMP

At the beginning of the year, I joined the Single Malt Mastermind, which is helmed by Matthew Kimberley, who’s a fantastic sales and marketing instructor in the entrepreneurial space. While I was somewhat skeptical as to whether it would be useful for me, I was happily surprised. Having someone who watched what I was doing, even if he wasn’t directly involved at all, helped in making me much more productive. Knowing I had to write that email at the end of every week helped me keep my head in the game.

How does AAMP work?

AAMP is modeled on Matthew’s program, but structured a little differently and tailored for writers. There are two versions. A semi-automated version and a more personalized version. Whichever version you choose, you will receive an e-mail each Friday with writing tips, tricks, and/or advice. Then, depending on whether you’re a RockStar or a MegaStar, you’ll fill out a survey or reply to the e-mail directly.

RockStars will know that I’m reviewing the survey responses and I send out e-mails randomly to members for encouragement, help, or just to touch base. RockStars won’t get a personal response every week, but may get one any week.

Megastars have a slightly different path. They don’t fill out a survey. Instead, they reply directly to the e-mail and answer three questions. In the early part of the next week, I sent MegaStars — all MegaStars — a personal response.

Whichever version of AAMP you choose, I’m there, keeping tabs, checking in, and cheering you on!

When you can get access to AAMP

AAMP officially launches on August 1. That’s right. Just one week from tomorrow! There will be membership bonuses and a discount for everyone who signs up on Opening Day!

Want to make sure you’re in the loop?

2 Amazing Books Teach You How to Self-Edit Your Story

Craft of Writing

What I’m Listening To: “That’s Amore!” by Dean Martin — I’m feeling old school today 😉

Something Cool: I just signed up for TSA Pre-Check. I’ll let you know how it goes when I travel on it for the first time! Pre-publication edit: I was approved for this in 3 days! I’m not sure what that says for my dangerousness. o.O

~~

I hate doing revisions.

That might seem a pretty bold statement for someone who edits for a living.

When I was in my MFA program at Seton Hill University, the thing I always dreaded was doing my own revisions. I loved helping my fellow students improve their work. But my own stuff? Hated it.

Because I dislike it so much, I spent a lot of time reading different ways to approach self-editing. Now, a thing I’ve learned about myself recently is that, for myself, I can work the hell out of a system. Seriously, I can take a system (a self-editing system or really any other) and make it work for whatever situation I need it for. I just can’t make one up from scratch. So I took bits and pieces from a bunch of different places and worked them together, which ended up with me Frankensteining my own system.

And I think that’s the way most writers need to do it. Figure out the bits that work for you and work the hell out of them.

There have been two books, among many, that have stood out as the most helpful for me.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King

I first discovered this one during my grad program. It was one of the recommended books listed in the Writing Popular Fiction handbook. It’s also the one that I consistently encourage the authors who work with me to get. It is an invaluable resource.

Pros

  • It explains, in detail, why things work or don’t work and why they’re the gold standard (or not).
  • It’s been around for a very long time and both the authors know their stuff.
  • It’s easy to find information between the Table of Contents and the detailed Index.

Cons

  • It’s a little bit dry by today’s standards.

Even with the dryness, this is still my #1 go-to for self-editing help.

This book was really the one that explained so much to me about why good writing is good writing. It has dedicated chapters on voice, internal monologue, show and tell (because that’s something we’re all familiar with!), dialogue mechanics and lots of other stuff. There’s so much good info packed between these covers!

Revision & Self-Editing by James Scott Bell

This is a book in the Write Great Fiction series put out by Writer’s Digest Books. This one is an easier read, because it’s broken up into smaller bits with sidebars and other visual breaks that make it feel easier on the eye. And the information here is just as valuable as SEFW. There’s a bit of overlap between the two books, of course, but this also covers its own ground as well.

Pros

  • It’s an easy read with a lot of visually interesting asides.
  • It’s written in the first person, in a very conversational style, so it’s as if the author is speaking directly to you.
  • It’s a great book to read even before you get to self-editing, like while you’re working on your first draft.

Cons

  • None really.

One of the cool things about this book is that it covers a lot of general writing topics that writers struggle with, such as middles (you know, that part of the book where you want to throw your manuscript into the fire?), point of view, exposition, as well as the standards like show and tell.

I found that the first third or so of the book is very useful before you even write your first draft. There are sections on characters, theme, descriptions, dialogue, etc. This part of the book covers most aspects of what you need to know to get things pretty clean on that initial draft, which, of course, makes the revisions easier!

Both books summarize their chapters and provide exercises to practice what you’ve learned. And both books should be on your shelf! 🙂

Do you own Self Editing for Fiction Writers or Revision & Self-Editing? What do you think of them?


 

 

 

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So You’ve Finished the First Novel of Your Series! Now What?

Craft of Writing, Publishing, Writing

 

I was at Dragon*Con over Labor Day weekend and was on a couple panels. While on an editors’ panel there was a question from the audience about whether someone should mention in a query letter that the novel being submitted is the first of a trilogy (or series) and the next two books are already written.

Now, you’ll get lots of advice on this question, either way. Yes, mention it and no, don’t. That’s not  my topic.

The interesting thing that one of the panelists brought up had to do with whether to write a trilogy or series as an unpublished author. The gist wasn’t to discourage the planning of a series, but to point out that, financially and creatively, it doesn’t make sense to start the second book of your series before the first book is sold. The panelist said, “Finish your book, polish it, sent it out, then start on something new.”

I hadn’t really thought of it in such bald terms, but I agree with this sentiment. The first book I wrote has a sequel, but I haven’t started writing it (much to my little sister’s chagrin). I didn’t really think about why, except that I needed to concentrate on getting the first book sold.

From a strictly numerical odds standpoint, it makes no sense to start on the second book. If you fail to sell the first, then complete the second, you have two complete books (yay!), but only one salable book. If you had started on a brand new book (even if it’s for another series), then you have two completed books and two books you can send out to agents.

For so many of us, the ideas lend themselves to trilogies or series. And once we’re ensconced in a world, it is hard to let it go, but if you’re an unpublished author with your first book complete, consider moving on to an entirely different project as you shop that first book around. If you sell that book, great! You can switch over to the series at any time. If you don’t sell the first book, when you get the other book done, you have something else to shop around. Two completed books, two salable projects.

Work smarter, not harder. 🙂

On Reading in One’s Genre…

Craft of Writing, Reading, Writing

A writer should read within his/her genre, absolutely. The obvious reasons are because you learn what’s been selling in your genre, what others have done, etc. You can consciously study others’ work. However, what is not as obvious is that reading deeply in your genre also allows you to subconsciously learn the mechanisms of that genre. You absorb how to write it. As an example, when I was young, I read voraciously in the horror genre (back, yknow, when there was one :p). I mean I would probably read thirty books in a year, just in horror. Some of it was awful, some of it was amazing. As a writer now, I don’t write horror, per se, but some of my stories do contain horrific elements. Those are the easiest bits to write for me. Those scenes tend to need the least revision and editing. And I firmly believe that it’s because of how deeply I read in that genre.

As an editor, I know right away when an author hasn’t read much in the genre she is trying to write in. Why? Because the settings are stock, the characters tend to be stereotypical and the plot is often predictable. And it’s because they don’t know what went before them. They don’t know the tropes of their genre, therefore that cannot avoid or otherwise set the tropes on their ears. You can’t play with something if you don’t know it exists.

Every genre has its rules, its reader expectations and its tropes and, as writers, we have to be educated in those items. In the same way that one cannot *effectively* break the rules of grammar unless one is very familiar with those rules, the effectiveness of writing within a genre is going to be tied directly to knowledge of that genre.

Do you read in your genre? Classics? Current stories? Why or why not?

Back to School!

Craft of Writing, MFA, SHU, Writing

 

So you might recall that in June 2008, I received my Master of Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. In July 2009, we found out that SHU got approval to confer a Master of Fine Arts degree, which is the terminal degree in creative fields. This is desirable for those who want to teach at the university level (and for those who like a lot of initials after their names. I won’t disclose which I am 😉 ). Alum were given the option to come back for half the necessary hours and receive a MFA, so a slew of us have descended on that lovely campus and probably scared all the new students silly.

The program has changed a bit since I graduated. The main difference is the inclusion of online classes. (This is what kept me so busy the first half of the year.) There are a total of five classes: three genre reading classes, a teaching popular fiction class and a writing popular fiction class. The genre readings are fun, for the most part. Choice of genre class is left up to the student. So far, I’ve taken a horror class and a mystery classics class. Both of those genres figure a lot into my writing. I’ve also taken the teaching class, which was very, very challenging. I’d forgotten how time consuming and mentally intensive reading academic non-fiction is! I learned a lot from that class though and I’m glad I took it. Because I was doing so much reading last term, I’ll be reviewing the readings and notes from the teaching class. Expect some posts on that before the year is out!

I have one more genre reading class (it’s going to be YA/middle grade) and the writing about popular fiction class, which I believe is going to be taught by Nicole Peeler, who’s new faculty at SHU. I’m taking the writing pop fic class this term and the reading in January.

This term, I’m back on with the writing component! Last semester, since I took three reading-intensive classes, I opted to wait to take a writing section. As a result of all that reading, I got no writing done at all during the term! My own fault, but I’m really glad I’m getting back to it. For the writing term this semester, I’m going to be working on a middle grade paranormal called Keepers of the Key. It’s about a set of twin girls who discover they’re the guardians of Pandora’s box. I’m very excited about it. I did a rough and dirty draft for NaNoWriMo last year, but it needs LOTS of love, so that’s my project for this writing term. The title will most likely change, since it applied to the original concept (which was a short story) but no longer does. I suck at titles. Maybe I should suggest that as a class: Titling for Dummies. Anyway, that’s an entirely different post.

The other component to the SHU MFA are the residencies. We all descend on the SHU campus for five days of brain-leakingly (yeah, I went there) intensive modules and critique sessions. We meet with our mentor and critique partners for the term (I’ve got two rocking partners!). We make merry and go on very little sleep. This residency was a blast, but exhausting, for a number of reasons. Alcohol may or may not have been involved. But that is, also, another post, which will probably come tomorrow-ish.

I’m going to be reviving my What I’ve Learned posts, which include stuff from the program as well as stuff I pick up along the way which helps with writing, rewriting, revising, proofing, submitting and the overall publishing process. So look for those in the near future, as well!

Onward! To the keyboard!

Just Read: “Darkness Absolute: The Standards of Excellence in Horror Fiction” by Douglas E. Winter

Craft of Writing, Horror, MFA, Reading, SHU, Writing

 

Are you a horror writer? Yes? Have you read Doug Winter’s essay, “Darkness Absolute” in On Writing Horror? If you haven’t, you should purchase that assemblage of essays collected and edited by Mort Castle and read Doug’s. It’s mandatory reading for horror writers. I don’t care that you didn’t know that. Get there, now.

“Horror is not a genre. It is an emotion.” (125)

Although I expect some might find this controversial, I think it is dead-on. What makes horror horror is the fear factor. Without it, there is no horror. Interestingly, I think horror is most closely aligned with romance in this regard. Romance is also an emotion. Without love, there is no romance “genre.”

Winter goes on to point out that horror “can be found in all great literature” (125). This is also true. Certainly, the seminal works like Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and the works of Poe are horror, without a doubt. But horror also shows up in “Heart of Darkness” by Conrad (horror of man’s descent into madness), Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (horror of political and social anarchy) and “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes (horror of loss of self).

Winter also touches on the need for reality in horror. He argues that we need normality in horror in order to bring out the horrific elements. Again, I agree. In the same way that alternative music can only exist if it’s different than the music played on Top 40 stations, horror is only effective if it can be contrasted with what is “normal.”

Other topics in the essay include subversion, monsters, originality and characterization. It’s a must-read for horror writers, but non-horror writers can also gain a lot from the information here. I really recommend this highly!