Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What Do Readers Want?

As part of my ROW80 goals (I know, I started early) I decided to read The Art of Compelling Fiction by Christopher Leland (Story Press, 1998). In his first chapter, he addresses the critical issue of what the reader wants. First, I think this is a brilliant place to start. After all, we won't sell books and stories without readers and second, I think this is an aspect often overlooked by writers.

Leland lists four different purposes a reader has for reading:

To Learn About Themselves -- I think this is the basis for my short story, "Seeing Sarah," and some of my other works. That story puts an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation (being called to the deathbed of his ex-wife) and challenges readers to ask themselves what they would do in a similar situation.

To Learn About Others -- Not just other people, but other places as well. This is why I read. Right now I'm reading Killer Angels about the Battle of Gettysburg, a book that allows me to get to know the men that led that battle, from both sides. Another favorite book of mine is Ursala K. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness, in which she creates her own world and culture. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is another example of this. A short story of mine, "The Best Part of the Chicken," targets this group.

Escapism -- I am working on a techno-thriller that addresses this need and I think this makes up the overwhelming majority of books and stories on the market.

Same Old Story -- Some stories are classics that are worth retelling. I've always wanted to set "Richard III" in the future.

Now, this doesn't mean a particular reader will read just one type of book. While that might be the case, there is a lot of back-and-forth in what one reader reads and even an overlap of some of these categories: an escapist novel can tell us about ourselves or others and a "same old story" can be a good escapist work.

What about you, do you write for yourself, or for your reader? In which category do you works fall?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

ROW80 Goals: First Draft

Okay...I've decided to plunge into ROW80 and here are my preliminary goals:

1) Read three writing magazines each month: Writer's Digest, Poets and Writers, and Writer. I have plenty of back issues and can get them from the library, or just resubscribe. Haven't decided yet.

2) Participate in Three Writer's Digest On-Line Seminars: I've always wanted to sign up for one of these but have never made the time. I want to change that.

3) Write One Short Story or Article Each Month: I have a lot in the queue, now it's time to get going on them. I am not going to count freelance or targeted articles, just ones I do for me.

4) One Submission/Query a Day: I have a lot on the shelf and other ideas, including a non-fiction book proposal, so while this seems like a lot, I do think I'll be able to get this done.

5) Three Blog Entries/Week for This Blog and My Customer Service Blog: This shouldn't be hard. I have plenty of topics. I do not plan to include my ROW80 check ins.

6) Sign Up For a Spring Semester Class

7) Customer Service / Techno-Thriller Book: Finish one chapter/week each.

8) Read Three Craft Books: Titles TBD but I have a few in mind. UPDATE: I am going to read Thanks, But This Isn't For Us, The Art of Compelling Fiction, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing, and Writer's Digest University.


9) Read More Fiction: Three Fiction Books (Killer Angels, Angela's Ashes, and one other...), one to three short stories a week.

10) Read More Blogs/Emails: One blog, Writer's Digest email, and Every Day Fiction each day.

Okay writer friends, what do you think? Too much? Too little? Just write?

What Is Your Writing Average?

I read an interesting article in a back issue of Writer's Digest the other day. I'm sorry I can't cite the specific source...I tore the page out, set it aside, and promptly lost it. If you know it, please post it and I'll do the same if I find it. (UPDATE: The article was from the Feb '10 issue of Writer's Digest and was called "There's No Such Thing as a Failed Story" by John Smolens. It was an "MFAInsider" feature.)

The article talked about writers being .200 hitters. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with baseball, a .200 hitter is one who gets a hit once for every five times at bat. It's a bit more complicated than that since a few types of at bats (walks, etc) are not counted, but you get the gist. Compare that with good hitters who usually hit around .300. Basically, if a player is a .200 hitter they better hope they are a great defensive player, have great speed, or know how to pitch.

But what the author was trying to tell us is that .200 is good for writers - in fact, it's really good if a few other factors are considered.

He contends that for every five stories we start, only one is worthy of finishing. I can see this. I've started a few stories that have stalled for one reason or another. Some of which I had high hopes for. There were other stories that I finished, but maybe should have abandoned. But, I would say one in five is true for this. I know it's hard for writers to give up on a story, or even article, but sometimes they are better in gestation than they are on paper.

Now that yo have a finished story, it will sell right? Not necessarily. According to this article, only one in five finished stories will be worthy enough to be published in a journal or magazine - worthy. What this tells me is that for every five stories I sent out, only one will really have a chance of finding a home and even then, it will be a long haul.

As a budding writer one thing I've realized is that writing the story is only half the work - selling it is the other half and often requires as much, if not more, than the writing itself.

So don't give up if you haven't achieved success yet. Stick with it, learn the craft, and success will follow. We've all heard stories of writers (and others) who were turned down numerous times before being accepted - Dr. Seuss, JK Rowling, and Colonel Sanders!

Happy Writings!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Following in the Footsteps of Giants

I live in St. Louis, only 90 minutes south of Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal, MO. I've been going there for years and can't count the number of visits I've made - with parents, girlfriends, wives, children, and even by myself. All have been memorable and every time I go, there is something new to see or do. It's a great experience and a wonderful homage to one America's finest writers.

During the April Missouri Writer's Guild Conference I had the pleasure of meeting the director of the Mark Twain Boyhood home and one of the most enthusiastic Mark Twain fans I've ever met -- quite possibly the most enthusiastic in existence. She invited me for a tour and I took her up on her offer over Labor Day Weekend.

Even though I've visited countless times before, this was my first visit as a serious writer, so I was able to take in the sites with a new perspective. Cindy (my tour guide) took me through Twain's boyhood home, the town, and "Injun Joe's Cave." She related what we were looking at to his stories, most notably Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. That's when it dawned on me that I was walking in the footsteps of a giant. Here Mark Twain strolled the streets--he ate, worked, studied, played and maybe even loved in this small Missouri town. What's more, he took these experiences and turned them into wonderful stories.

As writers, we often take our own experiences and weave them into tales of fiction. By walking in Twain's footsteps I learned how he took a few events from his life, added some embellishments, and created two American classics. We don't have to write exactly what happened. Instead, we can start with just a few basics and let our imagination do the rest. It was truly inspirational.

I came to realize that Tom Sawyer is so popular because it is the story of a boy -- as told from that boy's perspective. Mark Twain nailed it because Tom Sawyer was looking at the world not through the eyes of an adult, but through the eyes of a boy. He transported us back through the past to our own childhood and did it so well because he used his own experiences as a boy, making the depiction a very genuine one and to which we all, since we were all children at one time, can easily relate. And that is the magic of good writer - to transport the reader from their own world into that of the writer.

This not only applies to settings and perspective, but to support characters as well. Injun Joe, Huck Finn, Becky Thatcher, even Jim were all based on real-life people. The magic is that the characters didn't necessarily have to depict their real-life inspirations accurately, but just enough so that the characters are seen as genuine, allowing the reader to better relate to them. They can be amalgamations of different people, or maybe just extrapolations of one or more of that person's more notable characteristics. Becky Thatcher just wasn't the girl who lived across the street, she became the "girl next door." Injun Joe wasn't the scary looking guy who lived in town, but a killer. Huck Finn didn't just come from a poor family, his dad was the town drunk. Too many times "flat" characters are just that - flat. To add de[th,

John Steinbeck (his hometown of Salinas and Monterrey California are also notable places to visit) has done this (characters in Cannery Row are based on some of his friends) and I've done this myself. In my short story, "Billy," the main female character was based on someone I know. I asked myself what would happen is you take one of her personality traits (seeing the world through a very narrow perspective) and extrapolate that to encompass the loss of a child. In "Seeing Sarah" I take another ex and put her on her deathbed. What would she do? How would the main character (me) react? A new short story of mine, "The Best Part of the Chicken," is based on an experience I had in SE MO following a major ice storm. In that story, I blended characters, neighborhoods, and experiences into one interaction. Of course, you have to be careful not to depict a person too accurately, lest they be recognized, a problem John Cheever used to have.

I learned a lot that weekend in Hannibal -- or at least received confirmation of what I already knew -- that good writing comes from us, the writer, and our past -- story, events, characters, even setting. If you ever want to overcome writer's block, think about something that happened in your past, or someone you knew (or both), and let your imagination do the rest.


- Take a person from your life and insert him or her into a unique situation.
- Take a person or event and ask a "what if?" question, or project that person/event into the future - or even past.
- Take a person in your life, isolate one or two characteristics, and build a new character based on those characteristics.
- Take a few people and settings and mix them all up into one event.
- Take a person you know and put them into an historical setting.
- Imagine your city in the future and set a past event in that future setting.
- Take a situation from your past and write about it, with you reacting differently.
- Take an event from your life and write about it from the other person's perspective.

Happy Writing!