Barbara talks with the MNSpec writer’s group about her experience with the publication process of picture books — from original concept, to working with editors and illustrators, to marketing and getting the word out.
2012 marks my second time at the 4th Street Fantasy Convention in Minnesota. Last year’s spec-fic writers’ get-together was called a Conversation, not a Convention, although I did not see the word Conversation used in this year’s description.
This year’s 4th Street Fantasy Whatever-it-was was better in some ways, and worse in others than last year’s.
Whoever did the programming this year did a great job of putting together some High Quality Discussion Panels. Of course, this is the primary reason to attend 4th street. The discussions will fill your head with so many ways to improve your writing that even if it doesn’t explode, you won’t be able to implement them all. Bring a notepad, or a device running evernote, or something to jot down ideas.
The audience is another reason. Authors of all skill levels attend this conference, and all the discussions open up (at least part of the time) to audience questions and observations. The panels were slightly more diverse than last year, I didn’t notice anyone dominating the panels, like last year. Of course the Scribblies were omni-present, but I think they originally started the 4th Street Fantasy event, so that makes sense. Regulars include: Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Patricia Wrede, Emma Bull, Steven Brust, Pamela Dean, and Will Shetterly.
Another thing that remains the same is the Author Social Networking. No, I don’t mean twitterfacebookgoogleplus. I mean actual face-to-face talking with other authors. The downtime between panels. Ganging up with others to take a leisurely stroll to lunch. On Fri/Sat night there is an open music jam, which is primarily traditional folk music, so bring your ukelele.
Registration was the same as last year – to get the discounted price you had to register MONTHS in advance…but the programming wasn’t listed until mere WEEKS before the event. So you pay before you know the programming. Sadly, I’m finding that this is becoming the norm with conventions, but because the topics of 4th Street are focused on speculative fiction authors, there’s little danger in registering early. If you’re a spec-fic author, the content is relevant.
The venue moved to the St. Louis Park Marriott this year, just a block away from the DoubleTree where it was held last year. The good news is that the same great selection of local bars and restaurants is all within walking distance at the West End. The bad news – no inside bar, and the space is much reduced from last year. I particularly missed the merch area where Uncle Hugo’s and other vendors had tables of books and other things for sale, but there was NO room for this at the Mariott. I know selling stuff isn’t the point of the con, but NOT having a venue for book sales at an author convention like this is a shame. But that didn’t mean there weren’t things to purchase….
…because this year, the con instituted an auction that invaded the breaks between panels. The goal of the auction is to raise funds to make 4th street even better next year. But after drinking Diet Coke for an hour and a half, it was frustrating to wait as someone barges in with all the subtlety of a TPT Channel 2 pledge drive, wagging a tentacle-finger, and warning that WE NEED YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE, so we can auction off another item…
Sigh. I appreciate their efforts to raise some cash to make the con better. It’s going to a good cause. However, I have two meager requests:
- Could the items being auctioned be geared more towards authors? Having your manuscript critiqued by Emma Bull and Will Shetterly was a great auction item. Playing poker against Steven Brust? Maybe. But a handful of tentacles signed by the Scribblies? Not so much. I would have bid on having my name or likeness appear in an upcoming Scott Lynch story, but I’ve no interest in his old fire helmet. (Sorry Scott!)
- Could the auction items be listed someplace for silent bidding? Or additionally listed online?
I think the auction would net more money with less interruptions if these two requests were implemented. Also, they could accept donations from participants to auction off, not to mention have a higher quantity of things to offer.
On second thought, a raffle with a handful of possible prizes might net them more money, and again, with fewer interruptions.
One more highlight of the 4th Street Fantasy Convention is Janet Grouchy, aka The Poster Girl For Southern Hospitality. Janet. You. Rock!
I was pleased to see that the Minnesota Speculative Fiction Writers’ Group had a healthy turnout. Abra Staffin-Wiebe, Dana Baird, Michael Merriam, Sherry Merriam, Tyler Tork, Rebecca Chesin, and Sarah E. Olson all made the event entertaining as well as educational.
Fun Things Overheard at 2012 Fourth Street Fantasy Writers’ Convention
I have no idea if these are existing quotes from a source I’m not aware of, or words people pulled out of the aether, but I overheard all these things from the audience at 2012 Fourth Street:
“Theology exists to control the folk process.”
“I blame the Romantics for a lot.”
“…the magic thingawhowhatsit.”
“Collaboration is a violent agreement.”
“The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.”
“Set up a pattern and break it.”
“A single conflict makes a really dull book.”
and most importantly…
“Author Element HandWavium (symbol: HW) has a half life of about half an hour, and emits confusions as it decays…”
I’m sifting through the manuscript of Evil Looks Good, and I’ve run into one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do as a writer – justify my writing.
Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that I wrote Evil Looks Good before I put a structure to it. What started as a 200,000 word free-form quagmire has been boiled down to a 85,000 word painstakingly-arranged work of jaw-dropping genius.
Oddly enough, that was the easy part. Now I’m both discerning and applying a structure to the story, and one way to quickly identify sections of the story that don’t belong is to ask myself this question for each scene in the story:
“Why is this scene important?”
And I don’t mean this in a rhetorical way. I mean, I write out the answer to this question for every single one of the 50-plus scenes that make up the manuscript. What gives this scene the right to be in this story? Who the hell cares whether this scene lives or dies?
Most of the time the answer is easy. You have to introduce new characters. You gotta make things harder for the protagonist. The protagonist and antagonist gotta battle. No conflict = no story. Duh.
But sometimes answering this question is hard. Really hard. So hard that I put the work aside and log into wordpress and blog about how god-awful hard it is.
It’s hard because sometimes, the answer is not obvious. Sometimes the answer is, well, bullshit contrived to keep scenes that I really love in a story where they don’t belong at all. “Because it’s a kewl fight scene in a kewl place!” simply doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for Quentin Tarantino movies. And it doesn’t work for any writer who wants a solid story that won’t be railed by readers.
Readers are not stupid. In fact, they can sometimes see the work more clearly than the author who wrote it, because they aren’t blinded by backstory, implications, intentions, and years of rework. And readers WILL question why the hell each and every scene is in this story. And they WILL know if it’s simply there to pad the word count or because the author couldn’t bear to kill their darlings.
The good news is that if a scene is worth saving, asking yourself why the hell it’s in the story in the first place often gives you the very method for saving it. In many cases I’ve been able to combine scenes or raise the level of importance of scenes, and make them stronger by making them more integral to the main storyline.
And yes, in some cases, I remove scenes that simply don’t add to the story. It hurts to see that work get cut, but it’s a drawback of the method I chose when I started writing without an outline. Perhaps next time I’ll structure my story before writing it, and I can come back here and blog about how difficult THAT method is… But I’ve said on this blog plenty of times that Good Writing is Hard Work. I’m hopeful that this hard work up front pays off for readers in the long run.
Anyway, back to the hard work…
If I’ve mastered anything about writing, it’s How To Put Off Writing By Reading More Books About Writing. And Larry Brooks latest work Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing made me put all my writing on hold until I finished reading it.
Lots of writing books focus on a single aspect of the writing craft. Books on Character, Plot, and such abound. It’s rare books like Stein On Writing by Sol Stein, Story by Robert Mckee and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks that present a top-level perspective of many essential writing aspects at once and shows how they interrelate.
For those dying to know what the six core competencies are:
- Story Structure
- Scene Execution
- Writing Voice
There may be other elements of writing, but I doubt anyone will argue that these six are essential. Story Engineering not only explains each element in detail, but also takes examples from popular bestsellers, and shows you exactly how it’s done.
Tools, Not Rules
My only criticism of Story Engineering is that the useful information is slathered in a thick coating of the author’s opinion on how you should use these tools. He rails against the practice of organic writing (also known as ‘pantsing’) suggesting you must have your story structure in place before writing a word, or you’re signing your own rejection letter.
I’ve already thoroughly examined this topic in a previous blog post, Let the Muse Run Free or Tie Her Down? Organic Writing vs Outlining. The short version is that no one can or should tell you how to write. The six core competencies in Story Engineering are tools, not rules. They are descriptions of good writing, not prescriptions of ‘the way thou shalt write it.’ There is no question that an awareness of these core competencies will make you a better writer. But how you implement them (or knowingly break them) is up to you.
Despite the strong personal opinions, Story Engineering has plenty of excellent core content. Here’s how I recommend approaching the book to get the most out of it:
- Start by previewing Chapter 8 – The Development Process, which presents the top-level concept of a “Beat Sheet” and gives a method for organic writers to implement the six core competencies. Starting with this information will give you a context for the rest of the book. Reading chapter eight again when you get to the end of the book will really gel all the pieces together.
- Skip the first 18 pages. Or read them for what they are, an opinion. In fact, you can safely start at chapter five.
- If you’re the kind of writer who doesn’t outline, bring a lot of salt.
Story Engineering by Larry Brooks reverse-engineers the qualities of bestsellers, breaking down their structure into a generic template that can be used by anyone. Analyzing how stories break down beyond the classic three-part-story-structure is useful for any author, whether you are an outlining story-structuring guru, or a chase-the-muse style of writer.
The Six Core Competencies of Concept, Character, Theme, Story Structure, Scene Execution, and Writing Voice are explained as well as how they work together in bestselling books, making it a great reference for any author. If you can master these six elements (no small task) your writing will find itself in good company.
You can read more helpful author advice (and opinions) at Larry Brooks’ website, storyfix.com.
- Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing (Affiliate link – thanks for your support!)
Which Is Better, Outlining Or Organic Writing?
To outline, or not to outline, that is a fiction-writers battle as old as fiction-writing itself. Books on writing are as polarized about the subject as authors.
Julia Cameron pretty much paved the path of organic writing in her famous book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Although I don’t think she called the process “organic writing” she showed how anyone can channel their own creativity into writing without using an outline.
On the other hand, Larry Brooks latest book Story Engineering trounces on the process of organic writing, calling it “…nothing short of insane,” and stating that “A scene written organically – without a mission – is already being fitted for a casket.”
So who’s right? I’ve tried organic writing myself several times. One result was my first published short story, Big Game which sold on its first submission, and has reviewed quite well. Another result was a disasterous mess of dark fantasy pseudo-manuscript that shall not be named here, and made me wonder if Larry Brooks was right.
I did some research on plotting methods and the comparison of outlining vs organic writing. Here’s a look at the differences between these two methods and my answer to the question of which is better.
What is Organic Writing? (aka ‘Pantsing’)
Organic Writing is writing free-form, without plan or structure, and no real concern about where the writing is going. Check out free writing or automatic writing. The visual equivalent would be an artist doodling until they stumble upon an image. The musical equivalent would be ‘jamming’ in which a person or group simply plays until some musical structure jumps out of the ether and manifests into a song.
Some fiction writers use organic writing as a tool to flush out a scene, a character, or even a story. They write to find out what their character is like, or where the story or scene leads. The author just… writes, letting a spontaneous flow of words rush through them. The author might be as surprised as anyone else about what hits the page. This is sometimes called discovery or exploratory writing.
I call this exploratory writing tactic “Chasing The Muse.” You let the muse out of the bottle and see where she goes. Sometimes she won’t move even if you prod her with a Tazer. That’s called writer’s block. Sometimes she plods along, (which is where this method also gets jokingly referred to as ‘plodding’ as opposed to ‘plotting’) feeding you a stream of words, and you write it all down.
If you’re lucky the muse runs, and it’s your job as an author to keep up. If it’s 2AM and you’re dead tired but you can’t stop because you’ve been possessed by the spirit of an amazing writer with words flowing faster than you can type them… congratulations, you’ve experienced true organic writing.
Some people call this “Pantsing” which is short for “Seat of the Pants Writing.” Mr. T from The A-Team would call it being “On The Jazz.” Some people call it “insane” and begging for a rejection letter. Those opposed to organic writing suggest a different method – Outlining.
What is Outlining?
Outlining is the method of defining the structure of a story before writing any of it. The analogy is often made to building a house. Planning the structure down to the nearest sixteenth of an inch is crucial if you want to build the house with maximum efficiency and minimum waste.
Likewise with story construction, if you plan out how the story will start, end, and all the pieces between, then when you actually sit down to write the story, you know not only what goes where, but why.
There are various systems of outlining. Some people use notecards. Some use the Outline View in Microsoft Word. Some use the Snowflake Method software by Randy Ingermanson. Some just have the story structure in their head.
Regardless of how they do it, the primary difference between outliners and organic writers is that outliners write from A to B, and organic writers write from A.
Which writing method is better?
Which method is better? Let’s take a look at several different aspects of writing that can be affected:
In both methods, you will do lots of work up front on something that influences the final product but will not necessarily be part of it.
Outliners like to point out that much of the organic writer’s work will be edited or cut later. This is true. This is why organic writing is sometimes called “discovery writing” in which case you are discovering the outline.
But isn’t it also true that you’ll spend a lot of time on outlining? And once the outliner’s work is done, isn’t the organic writer thousands of words ahead?
It’s impossible to say which is a faster method for you. There are just too many variables. How fast do you outline? How fast do you write? How detailed an outline do you need before you start writing? You’ll have to answer these questions for yourself, probably by experimenting with both methods to see which is faster for you. And, as my own experience has shown, which method is faster could change on a project-by-project basis.
Which method results in the best quality writing? Outliners make a good case that your writing will flow better if you know where it’s going before you start. But some argue that outlining results in contrived writing and wooden characters, and organic writing begets more natural prose. I once heard someone remark that if the ending doesn’t surprise the author, it won’t surprise anyone else either.
Your mileage may vary. It’s impossible to say which method will result in better quality writing for you.
You see where this is going, don’t you?
Which method is more difficult? It might be more meaningful to consider which method is more fun. If the thought of outlining makes you feel as though you are strapping the muse into a straitjacket… if the constraints of getting from point A to point B give you writer’s block… if the thought of writing thousands of words that might be reworked for hours and/or thrown away makes you reach for the liquor cabinet…
Again, this is a subjective measurement that only you can make for yourself. It’s impossible to say which method will be easier or harder for you.
Really Zero, stop screwing around and tell us! Which method is better?
Sorry folks – after all that analysis, it turns out the whole thing is a trick question. In the logic field of Philosophy, this is what’s known as a False Dichotomy – focusing on two possibilities when there are actually others. In this case, the question of “Which Is Better?” implies that the two can’t both be used.
The truth is you can use both. The wicked truth is that you have to use both.
Structuring and Organic Writing are ingredients, and finding the best possible mix for you is like trying to find the right combination of Jagermeister and Red Bull in your penultimate, writing Jag Bomb.
Let’s take another look at both methods, and see what we missed.
The structural method sounds efficient on the surface. Once the structure is complete, you won’t waste many words filling that structure. Every word you put into that structure will be used to make the story go forward as it should. Very little rework, very little waste. Right?
What exactly are you putting INTO that structure? Well, you know you have to get the scene from plot point A to plot point B, but when it finally comes time to fill that space, how do you do it? What do you fill it with?
That’s right, Organic Writing. At some point you have to stop drawing the outline and start filling it in.
And what happens if you fill that space as directed and when you’re done the scenes are flat? Boring? Contrived? What then? You rewrite.
But what if you rewrite those scenes a dozen times, and they still don’t sing? What if you find the structure is limiting your writing? You restructure.
What happens if your muse starts coloring outside the lines? What happens if your characters won’t behave? What happens if you find a plot hole big enough to sail an aircraft carrier through? What happens if you start writing from point A to point B and discover you’ve ended up at point C, by way of F, Y and the color Blue? What if point C is a far more interesting place than B? Now what do you do?
If you want to keep point C in the story, you’ll have to revisit the structure and adjust everything! You’ll have to change all your foreshadowing, and maybe even the ending… oh boy. Maybe it’s better just to forget you ever discovered point C, get the train back on the structure track and rewrite your way to point B? Rewrite or restructure?
Not quite as easy as you thought, eh? Don’t be fooled. Good writing is hard work.
Organic Writing, Revisited
The organic writing method sounds pretty on the surface. Pretty easy too. So easy in fact, that many writers think they can shortcut the process by organically writing a bestseller out of the air. Don’t be fooled. Good writing is hard work.
You’re going to throw away or rework a lot of that organic writing. You’ll need to go back and check that the plot flows, and the pacing and that all subplots resolve, and you’ll have to go back and check your foreshadowing and make sure all scenes are leading toward an ending you weren’t even aware of when you started…
Wait a minute! What exactly are you doing to that organic writing?
Surprise! You’re putting structure on it. Yes, you can structure your work after it’s written. And you’d better, unless you are journaling or writing poetry.
The Question, Revisited
Every author outlines, whether they do it intentionally, intuitively, subconsciously, naturally or artificially.
Every author writes organically, unless they are writing technical manuals for the military.
Those who outline have to fill their structures with organic writing. Those writing organically have to rework their organic writing to check/create/enforce a structure.
Without a structure, you don’t have a story, you have a dictionary run through a blender. Without organic writing you have a sterile description of a story.
The questions are not “which method is best?” or “should you outline?” The questions are “how do you outline?” and “how much outlining do you do?”
The Middle Path
Structure is a necessary component of ALL fiction, but whether you apply a structural outline before, after, or even during the creative writing process is not important. In other words, you should have a structure to your finished story, but how you get that outline is up to you. Some authors need to discover the story as they go. Some authors need an outline before they can start.
Between the two extremes are an entire purgatory of options that are overlooked by most authors. What if you organically wrote a story structure? What if you loosened up the story structure, and instead of putting the muse in a straitjacket, you got one of those dog leashes that allows some play before setting a boundary? What if you designed multiple ending structures and wrote each one organically to see which was best?
What works best for me is to bounce back and forth between organic writing and outlining. I write organically for a while, then take a step back to look at the big picture, and adjust the outline as necessary. Here is a link to a process called phase drafting which is very similar to what I’ve learned to do on my own. Yes, I rewrite a lot. No, it’s not easy. Need I say it again? Good writing is hard work.
The method that will work best for *you* is… whatever works best for you. If you want to improve your writing, read about organic writing in The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and read about story structure in Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. But don’t let Julia Cameron, Larry Brooks or even me tell you how to write. Learn the ingredients and then mix your own drink to taste.
Part of the adventure of becoming a writer is making the craft your own, and experimenting to find a method that feels good to you and helps you release your best writing.
“It’s All About Sales”
…at least that’s what my friend said. We were talking about web design and web copy writing, but we could just as easily have been talking about writing in general. It made me wonder about the purpose(s) other writers might have for writing novels. Now I’m certainly not going to turn down cash for my writing, and I don’t know an author who would, but that isn’t the primary reason that I write.
What is it then? Why do I write? You’d think a Philosophy major would have asked themselves that question before typing a single word, but I’d never really thought about it before. Why would anyone voluntarily put themselves through such a notoriously frustrating, unflattering, and poorly-paying field that makes a career in porn sound more rewarding? [Read more…]
A Convention for High-Level Author Discussion
The 4th Street Fantasy
Convention Conversation describes itself this way:
- a convention for people who are serious about good fantasy and good stories.
- a weekend of high-quality, high-intensity, mind-stretching fun.
- a single track program sized so that everyone can experience the same panels.
- fascinating conversations.
- an opportunity to promote interest and quality in fantasy literature.
I like that they call it a Conversation, not a Convention. The panel programming is structured like a Convention, but the audience is allowed to interact add, and steer the conversation (under the control of a panel moderator). Some of the best conversation for me was found outside the actual programming, when writers would break into groups between panels, kibitzing in the back room, noshing at nearby venues, assembling in the hotel bar for some social lubrication, or taking over the conference room after hours for a late-night music jam. The ability to digest and process the info with other authors is great because it allows you to take the high-level theory back to the day-to-day applied practice of writing. [Read more…]
Are you fighting a chaotic mess of manuscripts? A plethora of plot outlines? Reams of rejection letters? Do you lose documents and important info? Do you have enough paper on your desk to potty-train a herd of baby Godzillas?
You’re not alone.
I recently did some research on organization specifically for writers and authors, then I presented my findings to the MNSpec Writers Group. I’ll post a link to the podcast here when it goes live, but this blog post highlights five key points from that presentation. [Read more…]
Early Books That Inspired My Path Into Dark Fiction
Someone recently asked me what books I read while growing up that influenced me to write the kind of stories I do. I was a fairly voracious reader in middle/high school, and fully capable of devouring one complete paperback book per day. (It was a long bus ride to school and back.) I was also lucky to have parents who valued reading, and although money was tight, books were considered a necessary expense, like food and clothing.
Much of my early reading was non-fiction, but filled with elements of horror: Bigfoot, The Bermuda Triangle, The Loch Ness Monsters, Witchcraft, Aliens and my favorite subject – Sharks. I decided after seeing the movie Jaws and reading the story, I decided I was going to become an oceanographer, although I didn’t even know what an oceanographer was. But I knew they got to hang out with sharks. Cool.
My taste in fiction took a while to gel. I enjoyed the Encyclopedia Brown series of mystery books, and I have fond memories of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. I remember reading a Hardy Boys adventure and thinking it was utterly lame. Ditto for Nancy Drew. Ugh.I don’t recall why I read the first 35 volumes of the Trixie Belden series of mystery books, but I can safely say that Trixie Belden was my first fictional love.
I latched onto a mystery-adventure series called Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators, the first of which was The Secret of Terror Castle. A cool cover led me to read A Clockwork Orange at far too young an age to appreciate it. And I enjoyed The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings when the only people who read such things were the social outcasts who played Dungeons and Dragons.
Most of the fiction I read was dark, but it was all mystery or fantasy. The very first book I can recall that I would classify as horror or dark fiction would be the first in the Dark Forces series of books, The Game by Les Logan. I hadn’t even finished the book and was looking forward to the next in the series. No doubt if I read any of the Dark Forces books today, I’d find them filled with enough cheese to keep a Taco Bell in business for a month.
I quickly graduated to modern horror classics by Stephen King and Clive Barker. Reading Alan Dean Foster’s Alien late at night in bed with a flashlight was a bad idea. Soon, I found myself branching into older horror classics by authors like Edgar Allen Poe and H.P.Lovecraft. And it wouldn’t be until years later that I decided to write dark fiction myself (a blog post for another day) but these are the roots of my love affair with horror, paranormal and occult fiction.
How about you? Any early books, movies or inspirations that set you on the author’s path you find yourself on?
Who would have thought anyone’s first-ever short story submission would end up becoming their first published work? I’ve been working on the novel Evil Looks Good for years, and something that I ran off as a fun side project ends up in the limelight.
You can read more about how I took some time off from the novel Evil Looks Good to write a short story called Big Game, and my surprise when it was selected to be published in the anthology, The Blackness Within.