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1. SCBWI Retreat 2015: Workshops with Grown-Ups (and FOOD!)



Last weekend I was away from home for 4 days in the historic village of Evesham, near Worcester, doing another of my dream jobs. It involved enormous amounts of eating (best rhubarb crumble I ever tasted), sketching in the sunshine, listening to stories, chatting into the night over glasses of wine... oh, and also delivering workshops and portfolio advice for members of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

I knew the SCBWI retreat was to be held in a lovely old house with pretty grounds, but I was completely gob-smacked when my taxi stopped outside a long, Tudor house, all timbers and thatch. I was shown up a big, wooden staircase into a lovely old room, whose floorboards sloped down into one corner. I unpacked with a smile.


We kicked off about an hour later, with a brilliant getting-to-know-you exercise run by fellow author/illustrators, Loretta Schauer and Alexis Deacon. We paired up and had to draw or describe events from each other's past, stimulated by silly questions like: When have you injured yourself as a result of your own stupidity?

Then I ran my first session of the weekend: teaching people how to make concertina sketchbooks. 




SCBWI had provided a big pile of watercolour paper. We set to, cutting and sticking. We cut up old cardboard boxes for the covers - it worked a treat. Then we all filed into the dining room for the first feast of many.



After dinner, we had a book review cum storytelling session, where we each read a favourite picture book to the rest of the group. There were 30 of us, so it took a while, but was a lovely way to spend the evening.

Next morning was a workshop by Alexis. He taught us techniques for making narratives more interesting, looking at the potential for using dishonest characters with hidden motivations. We all tried to create a story, though mine ran out of steam half way through. After coffee and biccies, we had a bit of free time, so I took my newly-minted sketchbook into the grounds:


Then it was lunch (yum), followed by an interesting talk by Andrea MacDonald, Senior Editor at Random House, about what makes a good picture book:


I did a couple of one-to-one advice sessions next. I found a lovely little summer house tucked away at the foot of the garden, which was perfect for a cost chat. people had booked appointments with me and I did my best to be wise and helpful with first an illustrator, then an author:


My 2nd workshop used the sketchbooks we made earlier. I wanted to explore the idea of finding a narrative in a place, of capturing the essence of a particular period of time using words and pictures, but doing it through close observation, recording what we could see, hear and smell. This is of course something which I am very used to doing in my sketchbooks, and I thought it might make a good source of inspiration.

I sat under a big tree and rang a bell. People gathered from around the grounds. Some had been playing croquet on the lawn!


We had expected mostly illustrators to take up the challenge, but a few authors went for it too. I showed the work I'd done since I arrived, as an example, and talked through easy techniques for getting instant results with watercolour (it was a revelation to most people that you could paint with clear water first, to control the colour), then everyone dispersed for an hour or so of experimentation.


After dinner (yum), we gathered in the conference room and, in small groups, talked though our work-in-progress. Each group then chose the strongest 3 pieces of work for each person - a great idea, as your own favourite bits of work are not necessarily your best and a fresh perspective is very useful. All the work was then displayed for everyone to browse and the next thing I knew, it was midnight!


Sunday began with my main workshop (after breakfast of course - yum). I devised a technique for drawing a journey, one piece at a time, to build up the elements of a story. Only, to put a fly in the ointment and get people out of their comfort-zone, many of the components were chosen randomly, by a neighbour. For me, the challenge was making it work, when about a third of the delegates were not illustrators. Still, it seemed to go extremely well. After coffee (and biccies) people took it in turns to pin up their drawing and tell their story.


Some ideas were hilarious, some were quite dark, some narratives were in a bit of a tangle, which the group helped to sort out: the brainstorming of 30 creative minds, all focussed on progressing one story idea was fantastic to watch.


The 'house cat' decided he wanted to join in. He demanded to be let in from the rain through the French windows, jumped up on the tables, walked across people's work, then took at seat near the front to listen:


After this of course, it was time for lunch (yum). Then we had another talk, this time by Emily Lamm, once my editor at Gullane (who worked with me on Swap!), now working as Commissioning Editor at Hachette. She gave some excellent advice on what editors are looking for and things to try / avoid in your writing. I tried to capture her and highlights from what she was saying in the concertina sketchbook:


I had two more mentoring sessions during the afternoon, sadly in the house this time, as rain was still bouncing around outside. Then Alexis did a demo session, showing how he draws with ink, using different kinds of brushes (in various stages of decay): 


I had my final one-to-one session, then at 7pm the gong sounded and it was time for another glorious dinner. I was impressed with the fact that the veggie choice for every meal was just as adventurous and delicious as its meat counterpart. We were all so impressed as a group that we asked for the chef and kitchen staff to come out and gave them a huge round of applause.

After dinner, we took a group photo in the garden:


Then we were all given a postcard, onto which we had to write three achievable goals for the next 3 months. The illustrators decorated the front of their cards. We stuck stamps on and handed them back to Loretta, whose job it was to post them all back to us in three months time. Good idea, or what?

We stayed up chatting and drinking and taking photos of each other until late, a gradually dwindling group. Finally, at 1am, the last dregs gave up the ghost and headed for bed.

Next morning, I packed my suitcase then luxuriated over my final breakfast (yum):


Then gradually, a few at a time, people had to leave (cue hugging...). It had been such a rich weekend, we all felt rather sad to be on our way. I was so sad that I had to buy myself a present from the gift shop (a VERY funky necklace).


Thank you to Loretta and all the team at SCBWI for inviting me to take part. It was a joy. Thanks as well to Sue Eves and Paul Morton, for the photos.

It was lovely to meet everyone, including the rather amazing Alexis Deacon, who's head is just stuffed with crazy story-stuff. And you know the really good news? I get to do it all again next year, as it's a 2-year invitation!

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2. Mem Fox Keynote: Inside the Writer's Head: The Writerly Thoughts that Lead to Success

Lovely Mem, the best
readalouder in the Universe!
Mem Fox is here! If you haven't read her wonderful picture books, you are missing out, and you ALSO must read her fantastic book, Reading Magic.

Lin calls her, "the best, single creator in the picture book world."

"In any good story, there's a beginning, a middle, and an end, and only one of two themes: either a quest; or a stranger comes to town. This morning, I am the stranger."

Mem acknowledges the illustrators in the room, she says we all know a successful picture book is a half and half affair. But she says the rest of the morning is all about Mem.

Mem reads Hattie and the Fox, and the audience plays the part of the cow. We are really good at it.


Instead of a mic drop, Mem has perfected the book drop

Mem tells us a little bit of her origin story, it's very similar to Wonder Woman's, but includes taking children's literature courses.

"I know far too much about children's books now to write with any comfort."

Mem knows she will have to read the whole book out loud, over and over again to check for any number of literary sins she has committed.

Mem knows whatever picturebook story warms the hearts of adults will probably be the same picturebook story that makes children want to throw up.


Mem talks about how a good picture book that has a subject that resonates for a child has to be something the author has felt or experienced first. Mem reads Wilfred Gordon MacDonald Partridge for us, something that came out of her first visit to her 90-year-old grandfather. She then reads The Magic Hat for us.

When Mem writes a book, she keeps four different children in mind:
"One is on my lap, a tiny kid. One is sitting by me on a couch. One is snuggled up in bed, the last is in a crowd of children, listening to a teacher read my story aloud."

"I am aware in my position as a children's book creator that I am a
brain developer and a developer of speech, an artist who paints with words, a musician who makes words sing. I can kindle an interest in reading, or kill it.

The responsibility is so overwhelming that I can walk away from a draft for months."

Word choice: Don't choose an interesting or difficult word just to be different, choose the right word, and don't dumb down your word choice to patronize to children, Mem mentions Tomi Ungerer's The Beast of Monsieur Racine. 

Mem is going to talk about rhythm! The audience can't wait. If you aren't here, do yourself a favor and grab Reading Magic and read that, and watch or listen to Mem reading:


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3. Interesting blog posts about writing – w/e July 31st 2015



Here’s my selection of interesting (and sometimes amusing) posts about writing from the last weekabout writing from the last week:

Advice for Authors from a Bookseller’s Perspective (Tracy Hahn-Burkett)
www.writerunboxed.com/2015/07/30/advice-for-authors-from-a-booksellers-perspective/

Surviving the Space Between: A Writer’s Journey (Heather Webb) [Jon’s Pick of the week]
www.writerunboxed.com/2015/07/25/surviving-the-space-between-a-writers-journey/

21 Self-Editing Secrets to Make Your Book Shine (Jerry Jenkins)
www.jerryjenkins.com/21-self-editing-secrets-to-make-your-book-shine

Living in the White Space (Liz Michalski)
http://writerunboxed.com/2015/07/29/living-in-the-white-space/

Never Self Promote (Rachelle Gardner)
www.booksandsuch.com/blog/never-self-promote/

Does Your Freelance Writing Career Need to Grow Up? (Tamar Auber)
www.thewritelife.com/freelance-writing-career-grow-up/

Does Genre Matter? (Diana Hurwitz)
www.bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/2015/07/does-genre-matter.html

How Not to Get Sued When Writing about Real People (Ed Sikov)
https://litreactor.com/columns/how-not-to-get-sued-when-writing-about-real-people

6 Ways to Make Your Editor Stop Yelling At You (Lisa Lepki)
www.thewritelife.com/self-editing-tips/

How a Book Becomes a Movie (Jane Friedman)
www.janefriedman.com/2015/07/27/how-a-book-becomes-a-movie/

If you found these useful, you may also like my personal selection of the most interesting blog posts from 2014, and last week’s list.

If you have a particular favorite among these, please let the author know (and me too, if you have time).  Also, if you've a link to a great post that isn't here, feel free to share.

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4. Of Purpose, Audience, and Language Guides


There are lots of reasons that the University of New Hampshire, where I'm currently working toward a Ph.D. in Literature, should be in the news. It's a great school, with oodles of marvelous faculty and students doing all sorts of interesting things. Like any large institution, it's got its problems (I personally think the English Department is underappreciated by the Powers That Be, and that the university as a whole is not paying nearly enough attention to the wonderful programs that don't fall under that godawful acronym-of-the-moment STEM, but of course I'm biased...) Whatever the problems, though, I've been very happy at the university, and I'm proud to be associated with it.

But Donald Trump and Fox News or somebody discovered a guide to inclusive language gathering dust in a corner of the UNH website and decided that this was worth denouncing as loudly as possible, and from there it spread all over the world. The UNH administration, of course, quickly distanced themselves from the web page and then today it was taken down. I expect they're being honest when they say they didn't know about the page. Most people didn't know about the page. The website has long been rhizomatic, and for a while just finding the academic calendar was a challenge because it was hidden in a forest of other stuff.

I, however, did know about the page. In fact, I used it with my students and until today had a link to it on my Proofreading Guidelines sheet. It led to some interesting conversations with students, so I found it a valuable teaching tool. I thought some of the recommendations in the guidelines were excellent and some were badly worded and some just seemed silly to me, like something more appropriate to an Onion article. ("People of advanced age" supposedly being way better than any other term for our elders reads like a banal parody of political correctness. Also, never ever ever ever call me a "person of advanced age" when I become old. Indeed, I would like to be known as an old fart. If I manage to achieve elderliness — and it is, seriously, a great accomplishment, as my amazing, 93-year-old grandmother [who calls herself "an old lady"] would, I hope, agree — if I somehow achieve that, then I will insist on being known as an old fart. But if you would rather be called a person of advanced age rather than a senior or an elder or an old fart, then I will respect your wishes.)



The extremity of the guide was actually why I found it useful pedagogically. Inevitably, the students would find some of the ideas ridiculous, alienating, and even angering. That makes for good class discussion. In at least one class, we actually talked about the section that got Donald Trump and Fox and apparently everybody else so upset — the recommendation to be careful with the term "American". Typically, students responded to that recommendation with the same incredulity and incomprehension that Trump et al. did. Understandably so. We're surrounded by the idea that the word "American" equals "United States", and in much usage it does. I sometimes use it that way myself. It's difficult not to. But I also remember a Canadian acquaintance when I was in college saying, in response to my usage, "You know, the U.S. isn't the whole of North America. You just think you are." Ouch. And then when I was in Mexico for a summer of language study, at least one of our teachers made fun of us for saying something like, "Oh, no, I'm not from Mexico, I'm from America!"

We don't have another good noun/adjective for the country (United Statesian is so cumbersome!), and the Canadians can say Canadian and the Mexicans can say Mexican and so we kind of just fall back on American. And have for centuries. So it goes. But it's worth being aware that some people don't like it, because then as a writer or speaker you can try to be sensitive to this dislike, if being sensitive to what people dislike is important to you.

This and other recommendations in the guidelines lead to valuable discussion with students because such discussion helps us think more clearly about words and language. The guide had some helpful guidance about other things that people might take offense to, whether the gentle, somewhat mocking offense of my Canadian acquaintance and Mexican teachers, or more serious, deeper offense over more serious, deeper issues.

It all comes down to the two things that govern so many writing tasks: purpose and audience. (When I'm teaching First-Year Composition, I always tell them on the first day that by the end of the course they'll be very tired of hearing the words purpose and audience.) If your purpose is to reach as wide an audience as possible, then it's best to try to avoid inadvertently offending that audience. Just ask anybody in PR or marketing who didn't realize their brilliant idea would alienate a big, or at least vocal, section of the audience for whatever they were supposed to sell. Ultimately, you can't avoid offending everybody — indeed, it's hardly desireable, as some people probably deserve to be offended — but what offends different people (and why) is useful knowledge, I think. In any case, it's much better to be offensive when you're trying to be offensive than when you're not trying to be and discover much to your surprise, embarrassment, and perhaps horror, that you actually are. (As we used to say [before we were people of advanced age]: been there, done that.)

Advice about inclusive language is similar to advice I give about grammar and spelling errors. All of my students should know by the time they've had me as a teacher that the prohibitions against such things as splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions or starting sentences with conjunctions or any number of other silly rules are just that: silly. They often lead to bad writing, and their usefulness is questionable at best. However, I think every writer should know and understand all the old and generally silly prohibitions. Why? Because you will, at some point in your life, encounter someone who really, deeply cares. And you should be able to explain yourself, because the person who really, deeply cares might be somebody you want to impress or convince about something.

In fact, that's why I give my students my long and probably very boring proofreading guide. I want them to impress me, and I don't want my pet peeves about language and usage to get in the way. (No matter how anti-hierarchical we all might want to be, ultimately I'm the guy responsible for my students' grades, and so it's in their best interests to know what my pet peeves are.) They can dismiss my pet peeves as silly or irrelevant if they want, but they can't say they don't know what they are. Indeed, if I say to a student, "Why did you use 'he/she' when my proofreading guidelines specifically say I would prefer for you not to use that construction in my class," and they respond with a thoughtful answer, I may not be convinced by their logic, but I will be impressed that they gave it thought; if, on the other hand, they respond, "Oh, I didn't read that, even though you said it was important and could affect our grade," then I will not be impressed, and my not being impressed may not be a good thing for their grade. Such is life.

But really my purpose here was just to say that despite all the horrible things said about that poor little language guide, I will miss it. True, it shouldn't have looked so official if it were not (I, too, thought it was pretty official, though clearly it was not binding and was little read). The UNH statement is wrong, though, when it says, "Speech guides or codes have no place at any American university." I don't like the idea of speech codes much, either, because speech codes sounds punitive and authoritarian, but guides — well, I like guides. Guides can be useful, especially if you're feeling lost. As a university, we're a big place full of people who come from all over the country and the world, people who have vastly different experiences, people who use language in all sorts of different ways and have all sorts of different feelings about the languages we use. It can be helpful to know that somebody might consider something offensive that I've never even given a second thought to, and helpful to know why that is, so that I can assess how much effort I want to put into rethinking my own language use. The guide to inclusive language had its flaws, certainly, but it was a useful jumping off point for conversation and education. I'll continue to have similar conversations with students (my own proofreading guide has plenty in it to talk about and debate), and will continue to think such conversations are not about somehow curtailing speech, but are in fact about freeing it by empowering speakers to be more aware of what they say and how the words they use affect other people.

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5. The question of belonging

“Don’t discuss the writer’s life. Never speculate about his intentions.” Such were the imperatives when writing literary criticism at school and university. The text was an absolute object to be dissected for what it was, with no reference to where it came from. This conferred on the critic the dignity of the scientist. It’s surprising they didn’t ask us to wear white coats.

The post The question of belonging appeared first on OUPblog.

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6. Common Mistakes

What are common writing mistakes editors see and how do you avoid them?

http://www.adventuresinyapublishing.com/2015/06/interview-with-emma-d-dryden.html

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7. Notes on the Aesthetics of New American Stories


Ben Marcus's 2004 anthology The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories is a wonderfully rich collection for a book of its type. I remember first reading it with all the excitement of discovery — even the stories I didn't like seemed somehow invigorating in the way they made me dislike them. I've used the book with a couple of classes I've taught, and I've recommended it to many people.

I was overjoyed, then, when I heard that Marcus was doing a follow up, and I got it as soon as I could: New American Stories. I started reading immediately.

Expectations can kill us. The primary emotion I felt while reading New American Stories was disappointment. It's not that the stories are bad — they aren't — but that the book as a whole felt a bit narrow, a bit repetitive. I skipped around from story to story, dashing in search of surprise, but it was rare. I tried to isolate the source of my disappointment, of my lack of surprise: Was it the subject matter? No, this isn't quite Best American Rich White People. Was it the structure of the stories? Maybe a little bit, generally, as even the handful of structurally adventurous stories here feel perfectly in line with the structurally adventurous stories of 50 years ago, and somewhat tame in comparison to the structurally adventurous stories of 80-100 years ago. But that wasn't really what was bothering me.

And then I realized: It was the style, the rhythm. The paragraphs and, especially, the sentences. It wasn't that each story had the same style as the one I'd just read, but that most (not all) of the stories felt like stylistic family members.

And then I thought: What this book really demonstrates is the deep, abiding, and highly dispersed influence of Gordon Lish. Lish's shadow stretches across the majority of tales in Marcus's book, as it did the previous book, and understandably so: not only is Lish a good candidate for the title of the most influential editor of "literary" short fiction in the US in the second half of the twentieth century ... but Marcus was nurtured by him, with Lish publishing quite a bit of his early work in The Quarterly and then publishing Marcus's first book, The Age of Wire and String. (The title of both the Anchor Book and New American Stories is a bit of a give-away, too: the subtitle of Lish's The Quarterly was "The Magazine of New American Writing".) The effect feels more repetitious in the new book, perhaps because I'm now a decade older and have all those more years of reading short stories behind me (including readings tons for the Best American Fantasy anthologies); but also, I expect, because the new book is more than 200 pages longer, and so the opportunity for repetition is greater.

It's not that either the Anchor Book or New American Stories is an anthology of stuff from the School of Lish (as Sven Birkerts called it back in the '80s). Some of Lish's students are, indeed, in these books — in the new one, I know that Sam Lipsyte, Joy Williams, Christine Schutt, and Deb Olin Unferth all studied and/or were edited by him, and Don DeLillo is a good friend and admirer of him. Plenty of the writers in the book may never have even heard of Gordon Lish. The influence is easily picked up from the writers Lish not only guided or influenced directly, but venerated by publishing them or saying good things about them to the world. Lish didn't just teach people to write in a particular way; he taught them to value particular moves in texts.

The writers in New American Stories are all different in their approaches and backgrounds, certainly, and at least a few of them are writers whose work Lish would not himself value, but there's a bit of an echo between them, the echo of the Lishian sentence (the best analysis of which is probably that of Jason Lucarelli in "The Consecution of Gordon Lish"). These are stories that (overall) value straightforward diction, relatively simple sentence constructions, and conversational tones and syntax. They prefer the concrete and the active. Many are built with odd repetitions and quirky juxtapositions.

You can feel it in the first lines — Lish famously calls first sentences the "attack sentence" and reportedly tells students, "Your attack sentence is a provoking sentence. You follow it with a series of provoking sentences."

Here are some opening sentences from New American Stories (I'll identify the writers later):
1.) Davis called, told me he was dying.
2.) "What you got there, then?"
3.) "Just let me out of here, man," said Cora Booth. "I'm sick. I'm dying."
4.) Four of them were on one side of a dim room.
5.) Like in the old days, I came out of the dry creek behind the house and did my little tap on the kitchen window.
6.) "What are you doing?" a guy asked her.
7.) It was the day before his cousin's funeral and Del ended up at the Suds washing his black jeans at midnight.
8.) Once, for about a month or two, I decided I was going to be a different kind of guy.
9.) "I don't know why I committed us to any of those things," Otto said.
10.) The day I got my period, my mother and father took me to pick my madman.
11.) I know when people will die.
12.) Root canal is one fifty, give or take, depending on who's doing it to you.
The first six of those are the entire first paragraph of the story. All of the sentences are pretty short, with the longest being #5 at 24 words. (And #3 is actually 3 sentences.) The diction is simple, with most of the words being one or two syllables, and none more than three syllables. Four of the openings are direct dialogue, with implied dialogue in others (e.g. #1). All of the openings are about people. The word guy appears more than once.

I chose these openings pretty much randomly by flipping through the book, and I only organized them to put the ones that are a paragraph unto themselves together. The 20 other stories that I have not sampled here would generally seem similar. From those 20 other stories, here are the opening sentences that, to my eyes and ears, seem most different from those above:
A.) Father comes home after many years of forgetting us, of not sending us money, of not loving us, not visiting us, not anything us, and parks in the shack, unable to move, unable to talk properly, unable to anything, vomiting and vomiting, Jesus, just vomiting and defecating on himself, and it smelling like something dead in there, dead and rotting, his body a black, terrible stick; I come in from playing Find bin Laden and he is there.

B.) Though alien to the world's ancient past, young blood runs similar circles.

C.) After they shot the body several times, they cut its throat with a scaling knife; after that, they pinched its nostrils and funneled sulfuric acid into its mouth; while some set to yanking the body's toenails out with a set of pliers, others fashioned a noose from a utility cord they had found in the trunk of their car.
A and C are longer than 1-12 (behold: semi-colons!), and B is not quite about a human being. Interestingly, they're all about bodies, bodily fluid, and, in the case of A and C, pain, death, suffering. A is notable for its lyricism, B for its weirdness, C for having the only 4-syllable word that I've noticed among any of these opening sentences ("utility"). These are, then, the most extreme and radical opening sentences in the book.

Most of the writers of all of these sentences, whether 1-12 or A-C, likely do not know Gordon Lish's commandments for writing attack sentences. But I suspect we see the influence of Lish in two ways here: first, in how Lish has influenced Marcus's taste, since the one thing we can say about all of these stories is that Ben Marcus valued them; second, in how Lish's protégés have gone on themselves to influence the perception of what is "good writing" in the lit world.

Let's look at who the writers are:
1.) Sam Lipsyte
2.) Zadie Smith
3.) Wells Tower
4.) Jesse Ball
5.) George Saunders
6.) Maureen McHugh
7.) Donald Ray Pollock
8.) Kelly Link
9.) Deborah Eisenberg
10.) Lucy Corin
11.) Deb Olin Unferth
12.) Charles Yu
A.) NoViolet Bulawayo
B.) Rachel B. Glaser
C.) Kyle Coma-Thompson
(It's amusing to note that the two writers whose opening sentences include the word "guy" are Maureen McHugh and Kelly Link — writers who admire each other, and Kelly Link's own Small Beer Press published McHugh's [excellent] story collections. There's nothing to say about this coincidence except that Ben Marcus apparently likes opening sentences that include the word guy.)

The only Lish students I know of among those writers are Lipsyte and Unferth. But sentences 1-12 seem to me more similar than different in their approach. To know how much of this is just Marcus's own taste selecting stories that have such sentences and how much is stylistic similarity between the writers generally, we would have to examine collections of each writers' stories and see if they tend to begin their stories in the same way. That work is more than I can do right now, but it would be an interesting research project.

Compared to most of the writers in New American Stories, the writers of A-C have fewer books published by major publishers and fewer awards (though NoViolet Bulawayo won the Caine Prize and her book, from which the story "Shhhh" is taken, has done very well — still, until recently she was not part of the big lit machine), and I think this matters. One of my disappointments with New American Stories is how much it reprints writers who have been published by major publishers and won major prizes. I had had hopes that the book would be more eclectic and surprising than this. For all his attempts at variety, what Marcus has given us overall is a bunch of stories that are valued by the kinds of people who give out major literary awards. And they are good stories — I don't mean anything I say here to reflect badly on any of the individual stories, many of which are extraordinary and all of which are in some way or another interesting. But the range of stories in the book is more narrow than I had hoped for.

Coming back to Lish, what's interesting is how his taste has so defined what I think of as the establishment avant-garde. We should put "avant-garde" in quotes, though, because it's not really out in front, and it's not particularly innovative anymore — indeed, it's the establishment because its structures and rhythms are passed down through writing workshops, editorial decisions, and awards committees. You can see this in the case of somebody like Gary Lutz, a Lishian who may not be well known to the general public, but who has had a significant influence on a lot of contemporary short story writers in the lit world, as well as on creative writing teachers, particularly through his essay/lecture "The Sentence Is a Lonely Place" (which I've myself recommended to some advanced writing students because it demonstrates to an overwhelming degree the depth with which one can think about sentences).

The effect of all this is to create a relatively narrow range for what is recognizable as "quality" in a short story. The familiar replicates itself. What a discourse community can perceive as good and bad, effective and ineffective, quality and kitsch depends very much on what it has previously seen as good, bad, effective, ineffective, quality, kitsch. Sometimes, that can be liberatory — Charles Yu, Maureen McHugh, and Kelly Link might be dismissed as writers of genre fiction if their tone and style was not close enough to that of the other writers in the anthology to sound familiar and thus be recognizable as part of the family of quality. I love that they're part of this book, but to understand why they fit so well in it, we don't have to speculate about the growing acceptance of genre content in the lit world, but simply note the similarity of tone, syntax, and diction to what is also here.

There's a long history to the particular qualities celebrated by Marcus and most of the writers he likes, and it's a history that predates Lish — if these stories feel like they have a lot of family resemblances, then it may be because they are the stylistic grandchildren of Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. (Or, to make a different comparison, the music they seem to favor is that of chamber concerts and small indie rock bands, not jazz clubs. Indeed, the echoes I couldn't hear at all in these stories are the echoes of jazzier writers like Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. Maybe I'm tone deaf.)

So perhaps it is best to think of New American Stories as a kind of family portrait, a reunion of the offspring (whether they know it or not) of Grandma Gertrude and Grandpapa Ernie by way of Daddy Gordon (and maybe Mama Amy Hempel), along with a couple of kids who seem to have wandered in from the neighbor's house and who are nice to have around because they liven things up.  New American Stories is a good anthology, well worth reading, full of interesting stuff. It is not, though, a broad representation of what short stories can do or be, and for all its writers' concern with tone, resonance, and rhythm, the songs they play sound more alike than not.

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8. Interesting blog posts about writing – w/e July 24th 2015



Here’s my selection of interesting (and sometimes amusing) posts about writing from the last weekabout writing from the last week:

Why Your Non-Disclosure Agreement Is Probably a Bad Idea (Jane Friedman)
www.janefriedman.com/2015/07/24/nondisclosure-agreements/

The Art of the Pitch and Synopsis (George Cotronis)
https://litreactor.com/columns/the-art-of-the-pitch-and-synopsis

The Uproar Over Amazon Customer Reviews (Rachelle Gardner)
www.booksandsuch.com/blog/amazon-customer-reviews/

How to Know You’re Really a Writer (Jerry Jenkins)
www.jerryjenkins.com/know-youre-really-writer/

5 Nonfiction Writing Techniques That Will Keep Readers Turning Pages (Alexander Limberg)
www.thewritelife.com/nonfiction-writing-techniques/

Common First Page Issues (Ava Jae)
www.blog.janicehardy.com/2015/07/common-first-page-issues.html

Best Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received: Rhythm in Writing Makes a BIG Difference (Adriana Mather)
www.querytracker.blogspot.com/2015/07/best-writing-advice-ive-ever-received.html

The Problem With Flash Forwards as an Opening Scene (Janice Hardy)
http://blog.janicehardy.com/2015/07/the-problem-with-flash-forwards-as.html

When Marketing Goes Too Far (Janet Kobobel Grant)
www.booksandsuch.com/blog/when-marketing-goes-too-far/

Tips and tricks for school visits - interview with TBA authors (Gemma Cooper)
http://jennybent.blogspot.com/2015/07/tips-and-tricks-for-school-visits.html

4 Tips for Recovering from a Poor First Impression (Mary Keeley)
www.booksandsuch.com/blog/4-tips-for-recovering-from-a-poor-first-impression/


If you found these useful, you may also like my personal selection of the most interesting blog posts from 2014, and last week’s list.

If you have a particular favorite among these, please let the author know (and me too, if you have time).  Also, if you've a link to a great post that isn't here, feel free to share.

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9. Matt Fraction speaks on collaborators and credit

Sex_Criminals_Cover.jpg

Can NO ONE get this “credit” thing right? A few days ago we noted artist Chip Zdarsky standing up for Matt Fraction, writing of Sex Criminals, after only Zdarsky was mentioned on the Harvey Awards ballot. Now an io9 article entitled 6 Reasons Why Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye Is One of Marvel’s Greatest Comics touched off another round of what we were talking about yesterday , with artists being left off the “ownership” of comics with increasing frequency.

And predictably, Fraction responded, expanded the list of key collaborators to the editors, colorists and letterers who make it all possible:

The comics I write rely on collaboration and most especially my collaborators. I write projects specifically for the people that draw them – and oftentimes color and letter them, too.

Without David Aja there would be no HAWKEYE.

Without Annie Wu, Kate would not have gone west. Without Matt Hollingsworth, Lucky would not have solved a crime. Without Chris the Winter Friends wouldn’t exist and nobody would’ve said anything in any of the books anyway. Without Steve Wacker there would be no book at all.

Without Chom Zduggitty there is no SEX CRIMINALS.


More in the link, but there is something in the air for sure.

Just for the record, the Beat policy is to credit writer AND artists whenever a book’s creators are mentioned. We don’t achieve 100% success on that because of lapses duw to time and concentration, but they are lapses, not policy, and if we lapse, feel free to point it out.

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10. New Winter Book

We have just completed the final edits on our new winter story told in verse.  We are now beginning the illustration process.  We are so excited about this next story and can’t wait to hear your feedback.  Here’s a few hints about what our next story will be about.  Aren’t they just beautiful?  What other animal reminds you of winter?

Red Fox 3

 

 

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) on snow at sunset, Kamchatka, Russia

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) on snow at sunset, Kamchatka, Russia


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11. 48 days, day 37-38: the beating heart

{{ I am chronicling 48 days of writing before my July 31 travel. If you are chronicling your summer writing/days and would like to share, please link or comment so we can all cheer one another through. Strength to your sword arm!}}

Taken at Tallulah Gorge in the North Georgia mountains a few years ago... writing is kind of like this... looking for the best view to tackle the story.
Well, it rained again, and I slept again, and I got to work again, and I ate a PopTart. All good.

I'm back to Rachel and also back to another picture book I've worked on, off and on, for about five years (maybe more). There's nothing to say I can't work on this new/old idea, too, is there? No, and honestly, it feels easier to me right now.

Easier meaning... doable. Totally made up out of whole cloth. The sky's the limit! This is an idea that came to me that I fiddled with, got some words down on paper, fiddled some more, left to simmer, came back to add a little, left to stew while I wrote other things, traveled, looked at it from time to time and felt that tingle... yes, I love this idea... keep it. With an idea that has no tie to a real person, place, or event, there are no borders, no boundaries, no stops. I miss that.

I have spent several years writing historical fiction, which has taught me so very much and has stretched me as a writer. I'm grateful for it. It occurs to me now, as I am able to be home and pay attention to my days, that I miss the relative ease of realistic fiction, of fantasy, poetry, essay, memoir, myth.

It's all hard, but there is an element of who cares what the history says, write whatever you want! in these mysterious genres, and whenever I'm working on this new/old book I feel the little thrill of discovery, the zing! of contentment, thee lightening of the load, the giddyness of aiieeeeee! this is fun! I can go anywhere I want! It's like bumper cars! Bang! Oops! Back up! Bang! hahahaha!

Of course I can't go anywhere I want in the end, but in the mess-making phase, I certainly can. Oh how I have missed it!  ONE WIDE SKY is a book I wrote in rhymed couplets, 88 words, about the joys of the natural world, a counting book. My research was just outside my door. The Aurora County books were cut from the whole cloth of my childhood summers in Mississippi.

Maybe that was part of my malaise... it can feel burdensome to be tied to a timeline of years or events or facts or figures... or all four at once, and for such a long time. (There is also a very useful and helpful structure offered up when tied to those things -- another story for another time.) So I am working on Rachel, but I am largely letting her go when I stumble on research holes, and that's when I unburden myself, and give myself to this new/old manuscript where anything goes. Anything!

I love making this mess. I remind myself that this 48 days was for experimenting, so experiment all you want right now, Debbie -- you'll have to settle in soon enough, make a firm decision when you're back from California, and begin to plow forward. And it will be okay. You will have had your breathing space, I say. Right now: B-I-C. Butt In Chair. Put in some hours. Make a mess. GO.

That's where I've been for the past two days. It feels good. The rain has helped with the watering. I want to talk at some point about the ordering of energies and time and how much we have in a day to give to any one task in front of us. Another day, though. I'm going back to the page.

Let's call the new/old picture book "the Merton book." There is this line by Merton I have long loved and am working with: "There is no way of telling people they are all walking around shining like the sun."

Right there lies the beating heart of everything I write.

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12. Advice


Stephen Dixon:
Good advice for writers: Write very hard, keep the prose lively and original, never sell out, never overexcuse yourself why you're not writing, never let a word of yours be edited unless you think the editing is helping that work, never despair about not being published, not being recognized, not getting that grant, not getting reviewed or the attention you think you deserve. In fact, never think you deserve anything. Be thankful you are able to write and enjoy writing. What I also wouldn't do is show my unpublished work to my friends. Let agents and editors see it — people who can get you published —and maybe your best friend or spouse, if not letting them see it causes friction in your relationship. To just write and not worry too much about the perfect phrase and the right grammar unless the wrong grammar confuses the line, and to become the characters, and to live through, on the page, the experiences you're writing about. To involve yourself totally with your characters and situations and never be afraid of writing about anything. To never resort to cheap tricks, silly lines that you know are silly — pat endings, words, phrases, situations, and to turn the TV off and keep it off except if it's showing something as good as a good Ingmar Bergman movie. To keep reading, only the best works, carry a book with you everywhere, even in your car in case you get caught in some hours-long gridlock. To be totally honest about yourself in your writing and never take the shortest, fastest, easiest way out. To give up writing when it's given to you, or just rest when it dictates a need for resting; though to continue writing is you're still excited by writing. To be as generous as your time permits to young writers who have gone through the same thing as you (that is, once you become as old as I am now). To not write because you want to be an artist or to say you're a writer. And to be honest about the good stuff that other writers, old and your contemporaries, do too. 

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13. Interesting blog posts about writing – w/e July 17th 2015



Here’s my selection of interesting (and sometimes amusing) posts about writing from the last weekabout writing from the last week:

How to Start a Blog: A Step-by-Step Guide for Writers (Susan Shain)
www.thewritelife.com/how-to-start-a-blog/

In Our CyberVillage: So Much Anger (Porter Anderson)
www.writerunboxed.com/2015/07/17/in-our-cybervillage-square-why-not-ask-first/

Productivity Methods for Writers (George Cotronis)
https://litreactor.com/columns/productivity-methods-for-writers

What Traditionally-Published And Indie Authors Can Learn (gasp) FROM EACH OTHER (Melissa F. Olson)
https://litreactor.com/columns/what-traditionally-published-and-indie-authors-can-learn-gasp-from-each-other

How to Use Writing Prompts to Become a Better Writer (Emily Wenstrom)
www.thewritelife.com/how-to-use-writing-prompts/

Creating an Author Business Plan: Our Marketing Plan (Marcy Kennedy)
http://blog.janicehardy.com/2015/07/creating-author-business-plan-our.html

Using Pinterest to Market Children’s Picture Books (Darcy Pattison)
www.janefriedman.com/2015/07/16/pinterest-market-childrens-books/

Business Musings: Fighting the Wrong War (Kristine Katherine Rusch)
www.kriswrites.com/2015/07/15/business-musings-fighting-the-wrong-war/

Don’t Speak: The Power of What’s Left Unsaid When Crafting Dialogue (Bonnie Randall)
www.blog.janicehardy.com/2015/07/dont-speak-power-of-whats-left-unsaid.html

The Introvert’s Guide to Conferences (Rachelle Gardner)
www.booksandsuch.com/blog/introverts-guide-conferences/

A Post for the New, Unsure, Intimidated First-time Novelist (Larry Brooks)
www.storyfix.com/a-post-for-the-new-intimidated-unsure-first-time-novelist

The Line Between Self-Promotion and Spam (Annie Neugebauer)
www.writerunboxed.com/2015/07/11/ask-annie-the-line-between-self-promotion-and-spam/ Jon’s Pick of the Week



If you found these useful, you may also like my personal selection of the most interesting blog posts from 2014, and last week’s list.

If you have a particular favorite among these, please let the author know (and me too, if you have time).  Also, if you've a link to a great post that isn't here, feel free to share.

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14. 48 days, day 32-33, fried okra focus

{{ I am chronicling 48 days of writing before my July 31 travel. If you are chronicling your summer writing/days and would like to share, please link or comment so we can all cheer one another through. Strength to your sword arm! }}

Well, the new project won out. Doesn't it always? It's actually an old project that I have been batting around with my agent for at least a year and a half, saying I'm going to propose, and that I have shied away from tackling because it will take dedicated time and focus.

But it's new in that this proposal must be written from the ground up, a structure figured out for it, and a persuasive argument made for it, cogently and smartly. It's a professional document that must include all pertinent facts, history, goals, sales information, curriculum connections, and arguments for.

And it was doable yesterday because I understand what it entails, and because it's finite. Sometimes, when you are stuck, trying to create art out of whole cloth, it helps to tackle something concrete.

Writing the proposal required me to make decisions after all the "what-if" I chewed on for so long with my agent and with trusted friends. It's a relief to make decisions and close doors, even for this eternal processor. Putting words to paper and understanding my motivations better helped me clarify just what it is I want to do with this project, and what it is I want to offer, and what it is I want to write.

I spent many hours intensely focused on this yesterday, and frustrated, too, because I am so disorganized that it's hard to find the photos I want, the statistics I want, the comparisons and the sources I need. But I got it half-done, maybe 3/4, and I could see the shape of the proposal and how it could be effective, before I knocked off for supper with friends.

I had to MAKE MYSELF GO TO SUPPER, which is a clear sign for me that I'm on to something. Whether somebody else thinks so or not, well, we'll see. I was excited to get back to it this morning, and I've been working all day on finishing. I took a break for okra fried by Jim (I loooooove fried okra), and will spend the rest of the afternoon on this proposal, then go swimming (a story for later).

My goal is to have this proposal off my plate and onto my agent's by the end of the week. Which is tomorrow. I can do it. I am almost there. By the end of the day I will have it in shape enough to go swim on it, work in the garden and then sleep on it, and then -- VOILA -- I will be able to say I have FINISHED something. Halleluia, Mississippi! (That is a hint!)

It's mostly spinach. But some days you just really need some fried okra.

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15. Writer Wednesday: Grammar Lovers Unite

It's no secret I love grammar. Yes, I'm one of those weird people who enjoys grammar rules—following them and reciting them for others. ;) I grew up with my mother correcting my grammar. I think I had an edge in school because I was so familiar with grammar rules from hearing them at home. So thanks, Mom!

In college I took a grammar course and was probably the only one in my class who actually enjoyed it. My professor even asked me to teach the other students when they had trouble understanding how to convert passive voice to active voice. My trick with grammar is that I come up with my own ways to remember the rules and tricks to correcting common grammatical errors.

Does that mean my manuscripts are free of grammatical errors? I wish! As a writer and editor, I can tell you that editing your own work is impossible. You simply can't catch all your own mistakes. Being that I'm a fast drafter, I make a lot of errors in my first drafts because my fingers are faster than my grammar. ;) But, while some dread revision and fixing their grammar, I love it. Break out the red, purple, and green pens. (Yes, I really do edit in those colors when I'm editing on paper.) Bring on the delete key.

But do you know what I love the most about grammar? Breaking the rules. I know, I know. You're probably thinking, "But, Kelly, you just said you love grammar rules. Why would you break them?" The answer is simple. I write in the first person, which means my narration takes on the MC's voice, just like dialogue takes on the voice of the speaker. And let's be honest. Most people do not speak with perfect grammar. Not even me, a grammar lover. So I get to break the rules while still embracing them. Ah, the beauty of being a writer.

Are there any grammar rules you love to break? Or are there any that you really can't stand?

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16. Summer School


Are you ready to delve deeper into your book plots? Join me at Kidlit Summer School!

If you haven’t registered yet, click here to do so by July 20 to be eligible to win prizes, participate in special webinars and a private Kidlit Summer School Facebook community!

What is Summer School?

The brainchild of authors Kami Kinard and Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Here is a little about it (from their website nerdychickswrite.com):

Kami and Sudipta both enjoy writing, and teaching writing, so their idea was to create a program that offers in-depth writing advice on a particular topic each summer. The 2014 focus was on character development. The 2015 focus will be on plotting in children’s literature.

Daily blog posts by authors and writing professionals will offer inspiration and help you hone your craft. Our “faculty” includes award-winning PB, MG and YA authors!
Kidlit Summer School is for anyone one who loves to write children’s literature, from accomplished writers, to those just starting out.

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17. Interesting blog posts about writing – w/e July 10th 2015



Here’s my selection of interesting (and sometimes amusing) posts about writing from the last weekabout writing from the last week:

6 Tricks for Writing Eye-Catching Headlines Your Editor Will Love (John William Dye)
www.thewritelife.com/writing-headlines-your-editor-will-love/

Why Query Letters Matter to Self-Published Authors, Too (Janice Hardy)
http://blog.janicehardy.com/2015/07/why-query-letters-matter-to-self.html

Hope for Independent Bookstores (Mary Keeley)
www.booksandsuch.com/blog/hope-for-independent-bookstores/

Ask a Literary Agent: What Do You Look for in a Query Letter? (Lauren Sharp)
www.thewritelife.com/ask-a-literary-agent-query-letter/

How Publishers Make Decisions About What to Publish: The Book P&L (Jane Friedman)
www.janefriedman.com/2015/07/08/book-pl/

Eleven Tips For A Successful Book Signing (Rob Hart)
https://litreactor.com/columns/eleven-tips-for-a-successful-book-signing

What Amazon Knows (Karen Wester Newton)
http://carmenspage.blogspot.com/2015/07/what-amazon-knows.html

Openings: Intrigue Versus Engagement (Donald Maass)
http://writerunboxed.com/2015/07/01/openings-intrigue-versus-engagement/

Why "Start With the Action" Messes Up So Many Writers (Janice Hardy)
http://blog.janicehardy.com/2015/07/why-start-with-action-messes-up-so-many.html

5 On: Nathan Bransford (Chris Jane)
www.janefriedman.com/2015/07/01/5-on-nathan-bransford/

Online Is IRL (Chuck Wendig)
www.terribleminds.com/ramble/2015/06/29/online-is-irl/

Summer Tips: What’s a Writer to Do? (Michelle Ule)
www.booksandsuch.com/blog/summer-tips-whats-a-writer-to-do/


If you found these useful, you may also like my personal selection of the most interesting blog posts from 2014, and last week’s list.

If you have a particular favorite among these, please let the author know (and me too, if you have time).  Also, if you've a link to a great post that isn't here, feel free to share.

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18. A Debut Lesson: The Trouble with Measuring Success with Lori Goldstein + Giveaway

We're so excited to have Lori Goldstein on the blog today, especially since she and her book Becoming Jinn were one of our First Five Pages Workshop success stories in 2013! VOYA gave Becoming Jinn a starred review saying: "The genie theme is original and appealing. Azra is likable; her struggles--even factoring in the genie issue--are real and relatable. This well-written title . . . will not stay on the shelf."

A Debut Lesson: The Trouble with Measuring Success


We all want it even if we don’t come right out and say it: success. The trouble is, success is a moving target, constantly changing.

There was a time when “making it” was signing with an agent. When “success” was getting the book deal. “Who cares if my book hits ‘The List’? I’ll have a book on the shelves!”

Been there, said that? Yeah, me too.

Cut to two months after release. “Who cares if my book hits ‘The List’?” I do. Turns out, a lot.

Been there too? The good thing is, you and I are not alone in having hopes and dreams and goals. And those are good things to have. That’s how we got published in the first place.

Being a writer takes guts. And cojones. We who go down this path are as arrogant and cocky as we are insecure and plagued with self-doubt. Think about it: there are thousands of people trying to get a book deal every year. Agents read hundreds of query letters a week. To send a query out is to believe your work is better than the rest, that your manuscript can and should be published, that your book deserves space on bookstore and library shelves alongside household names like John Green or Suzanne Collins or J.K. Rowling (depending on your luck with the alphabet). Arrogant and cocky.

When you sign your first book publishing contract, you may think the self-doubt disappears. What few will admit is that the opposite is true. Let’s skip past the fears that come when working with an editor for the first time as here I’m talking about what happens around release.

Read more »

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19. GrammoWriMO!

What’s a GrammoWriMo?

Every November, thousands of writers hammer out words in an epic event called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. Writers “win” by completing a 50,000 word novel draft in just 30 days. Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No. To date, over 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published including Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

But not everyone can manage 50,000 words in a month. That’s one reason why Grammarly, the company behind the popular automated proofreader, created GrammoWriMo in 2013. People around the world use Grammarly software to refine their writing, so the company leveraged their status as a global resource to unite hundreds of writers from dozens of countries and cultures to craft a novel together.

In the first ever GrammoWriMo, about 300 writers collaborated on a group novel they submitted as a part of the NaNoWriMo challenge. Not only did they have to weave the voices of hundreds of different writers into one story, but they had just one month to complete the draft. The GrammoWriMo contributors embraced the challenge. The results? A well-written, cohesive novel, The Lonely Wish-Giver, follows the journey of a girl with the unique job of fulfilling wishes. In 2014, 500 new GrammoWriMo participants submitted their contributions. The resulting novel, Frozen by Fire, weaves the perspectives of multiple characters living in the Italian town of Pompeii in 79 C.E. during the time of the disastrous Mount Vesuvius eruption. Both are available as ebooks on Amazon.com, with proceeds benefitting charities.

Putting Grammarly’s Automated Proofreader to the Test

Each year, Grammarly puts their software to the test proofreading the GrammoWriMo draft. In 2014, they analyzed the results, uncovered the most common errors writers made, and summarized them in this infographic.

Grammowrimo five writing mistakes

Grammarly found that writers of all levels tended to misuse commas, which was the number one error. Incorrect capitalization came in a close second, followed by wordiness, and missing determiners such as “a,” “an,” and “the.” 

Why do talented wordsmiths make these pesky gaffes? Fiction writers often set grammar rules aside when they’re trying to stay in the creative flow. Add deadlines and you’ve got a writer who may not have time for the meticulous editing a manuscript requires. Grammarly provides writers with a “second set of eyes” to guide them through the proofreading process after all that fast-and-furious drafting is complete.

You’re the Writer

No program can replace a human editor making artistic and stylistic choices. Grammarly shines when helping the writer sort out the finer details—where to place that comma or how to tighten up a wordy sentence, for example. Whenever it detects an error, it provides an explanation card to guide the writer toward a conscious decision about what to edit and what to leave alone. Removing some of the obstacles to good writing frees the writer to move beyond nit-picking errors to focusing on the bigger picture of style and content. Give it a whirl on your next draft and see for yourself!

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20. I feel like a proud parent

When I first left my day job and was scrambling a bit for money, I taught an 8-week mystery-writing class at my local bookstore, Annie Blooms Books.  I've also taught one-off classes here and there for a long time, more as a way to give back than to make money.

Sometimes i don't even make any money. For example, on July 18th I'm teaching a class on plotting as a fundraiser for Write Around Portland.  It costs $35 and all the money goes to the organization.

This year, I've also taught that class for Left Coast Crime and for Oregon Literary Arts.  A few years ago, I taught a class on how to start a series.

Well, one of the guys who was in that class, Curtis C. Chen, came up to me after my signing at Powells, and told me he had just made a two-book deal and had been going over the old notes from my series class to help him approach his series.



And then today, I saw that another one of my old students, Lisa Alber, had also made a deal:



And last year, Cindy Brown, a woman from one of my original classes who went on to be my friend, made a three-book deal.  The first book, MacDeath, is laugh-out-loud funny (a rare thing) and I'm in the middle of reading an advance copy of her second, The Sound of Murder, which is even funnier.

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21. The Importance of Respecting Your Own Writing

Recently I received a query in which the author seemed embarrassed about the genre she was writing in. Sadly, I see this a lot and not just from querying authors, but from published authors as well. It's discouraging and disheartening.

See, I love the books I represent and I love the authors I represent. I'm proud of each one and excited to introduce them to new readers. Most importantly, I respect every author of every genre, even those I don't represent.

Sitting down to write a book in any genre, of any length is no easy task. I couldn't do it and I know many in publishing who feel the same way. It's why we aren't writers. So don't let someone else tell you that what you're writing isn't a "real book" or isn't important. It is. And if you can't be proud of your book how are you going to convince other people it's something they want to buy and read? Learn to love what you're writing now and it will show later when you're trying to build your brand.

--jhf

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22. Gender Roles and the Heroine

Your world is your own; traditional gender roles need not apply. This means that even if your fantasy is inspired by 1300s France, you can still have women being professors at universities or leading armies. A classic image that comes to mind of a woman in history is the passive homemaker waiting for her husband to come back from war. There were certainly quite a few of those, but that image doesn’t account for what these women actually did while waiting. The result is a picture where a lady stands at the threshold of her manor looking wistfully out the horizon to catch a shadow of her husband. In reality, she was probably too damn busy making sure her crop yield would cover both her taxes and the food needs of her household. Since stories tend to focus on the epic, and since fantasy in particular isn’t usually about actual, historical daily life, the public perception of gender roles in history is still a little stuck in this romanticized notion of passive and desperate reliance on men. The people that read these stories then go on to write their own, continuing the vicious, misinformed cycle that can even go so far as to influence society’s perception of present-day reality. Literature is an extremely powerful brainwashing tool.

Here’s the thing. Only you can break this oversaturation and constant recycling of “women had no power back then.” A good way to do that is by doing some research in unbiased gender history and exposing the public to the shocking notion that humans didn’t have the luxury to lock fifty percent of the population into an ivory tower.

Another way to do it is to write an awesome book where you totally reinvent gender roles within your world. And you can start as small as with your main character’s background story.

Alter the Intention

If you have a girl whose character arc depends on her being extremely sheltered at the start, don’t let the reason she’s sheltered rely on the fact that she’s female. Not only is it kind of lazy, it’s dependent on exactly the sort of cultural norm you’re trying to steer away from. Instead, it could be that a kidnapping attempt in her early childhood led to her parents overreacting. If she’s not allowed to learn swordplay, it could be because her family believes she’d never have use for it since they’d always be protecting her. If she’s being forced to marry against her will, it’s because they want to make sure she’s always provided for. The idea is that the driving forces behind her important life events will have little to do with the basic fact that she’s female. If you change the intention and complicate the reasoning from “because she’s a girl” to something less gender-related, it becomes actual logic that can be used in plot and character development: The story starts with her running away from the arranged marriage, arranged because her family’s misguided but genuine concern for her well-being is blinding them to her misery. Just as she’s trying to adjust to the novelty of freedom, the attempted kidnappers resurface, suddenly throwing her into crippling self-doubt. She can’t physically fight back against them because she’s weak; but she’s weak not because she’s a girl, but because she was never taught how to fight. The story that ends up being told is not one about a girl struggling against the patriarchy but one about a girl overcoming insecurity ingrained from childhood by an overprotective family she feels she cannot return to.

Weaknesses Are Allowed

Women are traditionally viewed as the weaker and more submissive sex. Breaking out of this view in your story might lead you to the conclusion that your main girl character has to be physically and emotionally strong. A common thing I come across (and sometimes catch myself writing) is a female character who overcompensates for all those damsels in distress by being ridiculously tough in every way possible. This “strong female protagonist”, often patronisingly described as feisty, turns into a caricature of a person instead of a representation of reality. For example, the girl above who was protected all her life and never learned to fight still probably won’t be able to fight very well just a few months after she’s left home. Maybe she’ll never be able to fight well. Some people are just uncoordinated. This means that she’ll inevitably have to rely on those around her for physical protection. And that’s totally fine. Because again, the reason she’s physically weak is because she just is. That doesn’t mean she’s not crafty and can’t help out in different ways. It just means that when one of those kidnappers shows up, she won’t be the one fighting them; that role will go to the person protecting her. She doesn’t have to have all the qualities of the “strong female protagonist”. She first and foremost has to be a believable person.

Background Characters

By the way, that girl’s protector can easily be a lady. The kidnappers can also be ladies. All of the characters can be ladies. Why not? A lot of times the opposite is true, with men occupying all active roles and women left to the job of “plot device”, up there in importance with Tree #2 in the elementary school play. In an attempt to remedy this, some people, while still having women as mostly weak and submissive, will nevertheless have a couple of ladies in incredibly powerful leadership roles. This is excellent; it shows that women in that writer’s world are able to achieve a position that relies on their intelligence and strength. However, these stories often miss the women in less powerful roles. These women have to climb that ladder somehow. They didn’t get to the top overnight, which means they have to have had a lower status in the past. Regardless, women will often be absent from starting or midrange roles. You don’t usually see a woman as a foot soldier, unless she’s a main character. And even if you do, she’s always something more; undiscovered prodigy bomb technician that diffuses the bomb at the last minute; master sniper that helps them hit their target; top-class martial artist that leads them through a push. She’s never just a bumbling soldier who didn’t clean her gun properly, like so many of the other male peons are.

It all goes back to the initial lack of women in these stories, and the attempt to rectify this lack. During this attempt, the women become special, having skills that are sometimes better than those of most men. At first glance this doesn’t seem bad, because it seems to show women who are powerful and successful in roles traditionally held by men. But there’s a sneaky kind of damage to it: it implies that women can only be in these roles if their skill sets are abnormally high. The best thing you can do for gender equality in your world is to take a bunch of women, put them on the front lines with the men, kill them all, and then have everybody react with equal grief. None of this “Even the women were killed!” None of this “Women and children first!” (…Well, children first, yes.)

Which leads me to my last point.

Don’t Make It a Big Deal

If, in your world, traditional gender roles don’t apply, then you don’t have to justify why one of the best warriors in the land is a woman. Similarly, you have to remember to make some of the most mediocre warriors women as well. The worst thing you can do is have people constantly commenting on how strong she is for a woman, or how she’s the only woman in her class, or how even though she’s a fighter she still knows how to cook. Nobody cares.  The men also probably know how to cook. It’s an important part of being an independent person. Drawing attention to the woman’s gender will take power away from why she’s as successful as she is: because she’s strong, because she’s skilled, and because she learned how to fight. You never hear phrases like, “Yeah he’s a pretty good fighter for a man.” Though, you might hear, “Yeah he sews pretty well for a man.” And that is just as damaging for the other side.

Gender Still Exists

Gender is a thing, and it’s foolish to ignore it…which seems to contradict everything I’ve just said. Still, physically, men and women are different. This will always result in situations where one character might be better at completing a task than another simply because of their gender. The key is that one gender should never be excluded from the possibility of doing that task, excepting in obviously physically limiting situations (because I just know that somebody’s going to say that a man can’t birth a child). And even in a world of equality, there will always be some outlying group of misogynists or misandrists itching to push people down. They can be part of your story too. And if your story is good at putting on display the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and if those strengths and weaknesses are well-developed and don’t rely on gender, then it can expose the individual and shared features that your characters possess, and most importantly, uncover how absolutely ridiculous those misogynists and misandrists are.

Because oh my god. If you could build a world like the one I’ve described, I would read that book. I would read that book so hard.

So please write it.

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23. Sprout Wings

Hi folks, I struggled with this blog. So many pressures from every side. Writing is not in a vacuum. It is in the real world, and this world is full of troubles, big and small.  I began to think about an idea I have always held this weekend.  If you fall in a pit, get up on the side closest to where you to want go, crawl out, and keep on going. A new idea came to me. 

Why don’t you just sprout wings and fly away?

How? I mean sprouting wings would be a pretty big miracle and this is the age of information and reason. We don’t live in a world that is NOT clinging to mysterious. I wondered about the idea of sprouting wings. It felt very evolutionary to me.  You know, life adapts, and a lifetime of crawling out of pits made me long for something more. An evolutionary step seemed better than the same old reaction to stupidity.

Perhaps this is the heart of what makes us human -- three dimensional thinking. Your stories will pop if you think about making your characters evolve.  We tend to the ordinary, consider the extraordinary.  I think the best writers don’t wrap it all up. They deal in imagery and theme.  The unseen world is how they live their days.  Writing is to akin to dreaming, except you are awake. Our dreams can be chaotic and meaningless, but they can also help us make sense of the chaotic meaningless world.  Those words you are putting on the page, you are bringing light into darkness.  Keep going!

Finally, I considered my idea of sprouting wings. There is nothing new under the sun. An old scripture whispered within me: They that hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They shall soar on wings like the eagles. It is strange how the words of the Prophet Isaiah from around 720  BCE  resonate within me today. I love writers. They are thinking ahead. They are reaching to the ages ahead.  They see into the murky darkness of the future and they see you.

As you write, think about shining into the darkness of the future. You have the potential to transform the world. 

I will be back next week with more of TEENSPublish. I hope that you keep writing. Someone needs those stories. 

A sneak peek at an illustration for my soon to be indie published picture book: CHICKENS DON'T TAKE OVER HALLOWEEN!


Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint 

Isaiah 40; 28-31.   Write this on your heart, folks.  

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24. “And Then She Ate the Wolf: Volume 1″

NEW RELEASE!

New to Amazon…BUY TODAY!
covervolume1

BUY TODAY!

A touch of whimsy, dash of dark, and ample sarcasm, this edgy new series is to be enjoyed by adults, or rather, those who refuse to grow up.

There is much more going on behind my eye-catching character artwork from Instagram than mere captions have cited. I am excited to share the tales and backstory to each, and truly bring to life the people behind those big eyes life!

This art and short fiction just can’t be fully enjoyed squinted and crammed down to a micro-scale IG frame…now you can stop squinting, OPEN YOUR EYES and BUY TODAY!!

It delights me so to hear what you think, so kind readers, send the good, the bad, the twisty or ugly my way by way of review…

For those who enjoy…beware and be pleased this is only the first volume…

GET ‘AND THEN SHE SWALLOWED THE WOLF: VOLUME 1″ ON AMAZON TODAY!

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25. Writer Wednesday: Amazon's New Review Policy

I'm sure most of you have seen or heard about how Amazon is removing reviews and not allowing people to review certain books because they believe the reviewer knows the author. If you haven't seen this yet, here is how the notice to the reviewer begins:
“We removed your Customer Reviews because you know the author personally.”
There's another message that says something to the effect of: You are ineligible to review this book...

Authors and reviewers seem to be in an uproar about this. Today, I want to share my feelings on it. As an author, I love reaching out to readers. I have my FB group, Kelly's Coven, and I interact with readers on my FB author page, FB profile page, Twitter, my website, Goodreads, you name it! So does this mean all those people I interact with will no longer be able to post reviews? I highly doubt Amazon will be able to keep track of them all, but I'm sure the number of reviews I have per book will decrease.

So what does this mean? Personally, I don't plan to change anything. Not one thing, because I LOVE talking to readers. Sure, I want reviews because they are important to a book's success. But more than that, I want to have a genuine relationship with my readers. So if I have to sacrifice reviews to keep my readers happy, I will.

I'm not going to stop interacting with anyone who wants to discuss my books with me. I love you all and talking to you is one of my favorite things about being an author.

What do you think about Amazon's new policy?

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