Category: The Writing Process

Advice on planning, drafting, and revising the written word. Industry information regarding branding, publishing, and marketing. This includes my personal experience founding Rune Bear, a digital literary magazine devoted to flashy weird fiction.

The Horror Writer

The Horror Writer: A Study of Craft and Identity in the Horror Genre is a comprehensive resource on writing horror. Interviews and essays cover a range of topics from inspiration to productivity, literary elements to marketing, exacerbating your reader’s sense of existential dread to publicizing your book in an oversaturated industry. I especially liked Chat Lutzke’s instructions on hooking the reader through empathetic, universal fears, Kenneth W. Cain’s near-prose essay on maintaining tension, and Kevin J. Kennedy’s frank, personable, and immensely useful observations about the writing profession. I could go on, but then I’d be spoiling this anthology’s secrets. Overall, a treasure trove of good information for the emergent and established alike (including those uninterested in writing specifically for the horror genre).

The book is available for purchase here.

Madeline Miller — Writing Things

Back in January, I bought tickets to see Madeline Miller at the Tattered Cover.

A lot’s happened since then.

Luckily, in response to the pandemic, the Tattered Cover didn’t cancel the conference, but moved the Author Reading and Q&A to Zoom.

Hair the color of gingerbread, Madeline Miller appeared on my computer screen, on my writing desk, in my apartment; a celebrity encounter a little too intimate for my wife and myself. We repeatedly worried she could see or hear us, and we whispered sheepishly throughout the event.

(She couldn’t see us and the mikes were muted.)

Our awkwardness aside, the format was brilliant, with Len Vlahos (one of the bookstore’s owners) acting as interlocutor and host. Madeline Miller read from her work, her writing beautiful as Greek poetry, and talked briefly about childcare and cat ownership during the COVID-19 crisis. Her cat’s name is Sif, by the way, the Norse Goddess of Spring.

One of the themes of her talk was how classic literature can provide us context for modern problems. Miller employed the famous saying that there’s ‘nothing new under the sun.’ Humanity struggles, now and then, with many of the same things. Her first example was The Illiad. In Book One, a plague spreads through the Greek host and its leaders botch their response, ego and rage making for poor decision-making. How familiar. Her second example was Cassandra, the Trojan princess, who always presented the truth, despite being cursed by Apollo to never be believed. In many versions of the myth, Cassandra incurred the god’s wrath by refusing to be his lover. How prescient, Miller said, to have a woman struggling to tell her truth but no one will listen.

The central focus of the talk, however, was Circe.

To those unfamiliar, Madeline Miller’s best known novels are retellings of famous Greek myths, using a contemporary style combined with ancient backdrops. Her two great novels are The Song of Achilles and Circe, the famous sorceress from The Odyssey.

Purpose

Madeline Miller was very clear about how intention guided her approach to Circle. Years ago, when she first read The Odyssey, Miller was disappointed by Homer’s depiction of the famous meeting between Odysseus and Circle. Here were two smart and complicated people, but while Odysseus was brave and clever, Circle merely fell to her knees before his sword then invited him to bed. “The phallic sword did not escape my notice,” Miller added. Furthermore, Odysseus was one of the most curious men in Greek literature, and Miller was puzzled why he never asked Circle about turning men to pigs.

Later, Miller realized Odysseus was also the greatest liar of Greek literature, and that Circle’s section of the epic was reported from his point of view while he was trying to impress a royal court. Odysseus was a man concerned about his reputation and status; by glorifying Circle’s beauty and his sexual conquest, Odysseus was really saying look how great I am!

“Odysseus has told his story for the last 3,000 years,” Miller said. “It was time for Circe to speak for herself.”

There were other elements the author was interested in incorporating into the narrative, like motherhood as its own epic story, and how Circle wasn’t born into power, but used witchcraft, a skill and passion that Miller likened to art. The author also wanted to redeem Circe from her villainization; to respond to male anxiety about female power. Writing Circe, therefore, was an attempt to give the sorceress a full psychological portrait. “This is a story about a woman coming into her power and into her voice in a world hostile to women in power and the female voice,” Miller said.

In other words, Circe was always intended to be a feminist take on the character, just as Song of Achilles was intended as a queer take on Achilles and Patroclus.

Process

In regards to process, Madeline Miller was more ambiguous. She described the craft as a mystery, the reason the ancients spoke of inspiration as a muse.

“My role is to keep showing up to the work,” she said. To sit down every day, to focus, to write, to try her best to tell her characters’ story.

When asked, Miller said she doesn’t really outline. Instead, she has the ending of her novel fixed firmly in her mind. The problem is finding the beginning, the first line. “I know where to shoot the arrow, the target,” she said, “I just don’t know where to stand to shoot.”

Research

“I research as I go,” Miller said. “When I get to a section, I deep dive. Only 1% of what I learn makes it into the novel. Any more would be deadly.”

An important aspect of history writing, she added, was the material culture. An author must give the story a real physicality. The knives, the broaches, the snakes, the beetles, they were all inspired by real finds and studies.

“What something looks like might not make it into the story, but it’s important for the writer to know,” she said. Miller also traveled to Greece to smell the olive groves, to look at the sea, to observe the light on the wall.

Voice

As for the author’s ability to give characters real voices, Miller relies on her theatrical background. One strategy is to read dialogue aloud. Another is to make very intentional decisions about word choice based on a character’s background or mental state. Would this person be contemplative or easily angered? And what would their metaphorical language be; the way they process the world? Circe, living deeply in the woods, draws on nature as her source for context. Patroclus, in rejection of the war-glory tempting Achilles, uses the metaphors of daily life, reflecting Sappho and the ancient poets of ordinary experience.

Overall, I was not surprised to find Madeline Miller as brilliant as her fiction. If you ever have the opportunity to sit in on her talks, I would highly recommend the experience.

 

Unpublished — “Cuidado”

Another example of how COVID-19 is affecting everyone these days. A multitude of magazines have stalled, and a few are folding up due to economic hardships.

This includes an anthology which was about to publish one of my poems. The editors sent me this email:

We are unfortunately now forced to make the decision to not finalize the Impact anthology as we will most likely no longer have the financial means to carry the second URL (Unincorporated.site) for our magazine.

We are honestly barely holding on to our primary literary magazine and may have to fold indefinitely.

The future is unknown as Las Vegas has taken a dramatic hit financially because of the pandemic. Many of our volunteer local readers and editors are no longer employed or only partially employed.

We appreciate all the work that was sent and enjoyed reading many of them. It was a laborious effort and we were already having to make hard decisions regarding which pieces to include.

There were so many wonderful pieces, yours included. This was the hardest decision we had to make but didn’t want to leave our contributors in limbo any longer than we already have.

Helen: A Literary Magazine is (and hopefully will be again) a biannual magazine that celebrates literary works and fine art reflecting ‘the spirit of Southern Nevada.’ (Although I’m not from the area, the editors found my poem reflected an important conflict in their community.) The magazine takes its name from the “First Lady of Las Vegas,” Helen J. Stewart, a pioneer who helped forge the valley in the 1880s.​ They have an internal division called Unincorporated which specializes in anthologies and collections, including Impact. They also run Breedlove, a literary arts blog. As of April 2020, Helen is on indefinite hiatus.

Impact was going to be an anthology focused on Social Justice, ranging from personal experiences to works of fiction. The hope was to expand readers’ perspective on what social justice means and its effects and after effects in our society. Hopefully, those many contributors and their pieces will find other opportunities to publish, to shed a menagerie of lights on our conflicts and corruptions, those things we must repair before we pass the world to our children.

Writing Process — “Rona of the Els”

Electric Spec posted my thoughts on my upcoming short story, “Rona of the Els,” which will publish in their May 2020 issue. I tried my best to keep the explanation brief and spoiler-free. I was 99% successful.

Here’s the blurb:

Electric Spec is a not-for-profit speculative magazine that publishes four times per year. “Rona of the Els” will be available on May 31st.

Behind-the-Quarterly

For a long time I’ve envisioned Rune Bear Magazine divided between Weekly and Quarterly. We would publish weekly stories under 300 words, but we would also have a seasonal writing contest.

Unfortunately, the Quarterly page on our website has looked like this for two years:

The guy we put in charge of Quarterly turned out to be a dud, so we let him go and I took over the contest. Instead of long-form writing, I decided to pull back to the flashiest flash fiction — the Drabble. Stories of 100 words exactly.

With $10 rewarded to the winner.

My editors came up with a list of prompts, democratically selected one, we hired an artist, and boom—I’m proud to announce that Rune Bear Quarterly is open for submissions until April 30, 2020. May will be a reading & selection period with the winner announced on May 31st.

The Spring 2020 prompt is “Weird Wild West” and the inspirational image (by no means the only interpretation of the prompt) is a dragon stealing a cowboy’s horse. This piece was made by the very talented Hari Nezumi, although in the future we will be relying on in-house artist Robin Stranahan.

 

Naming a Therapy Robot

Art by Lucy Arnold

I needed a name for a therapy robot, so I turned to the Facebook masses. While I’ve decided on my character’s name without their help (Selor, short for Counselor), here are some of the best suggestions:

    • 6MUND
    • Sigmund Droid, Siggie for short
    • Counselor Troid
    • IKR-4U
    • RU-OK
    • OK2BU
    • ANX-13T (“anxi-i-e-tee”)
    • HAP-E (Humanlike Artificial Psychologist, Model E)
    • DAD (Disease Analytic Droid)
    • FRIEND (Fully Relational Interpersonal Emotional Nurturing Device)

Joe Hill — Writing Things

Joe Hill, the legendary offspring of the legendary Stephen King (and a damn good writer in his own right, I’m guessing his constant connection to his father must be irksome), came to the Tattered Cover to discuss his short story collection, Full Throttle, and writing in general.

With a friendly, comedic demeanor, and those classic glasses and beard, Hill spoke about his own experience in the publishing industry and read aloud an unpublished short story. The Q&A lasted an hour, followed by another hour of signatures and photos, but I was able to glean a few writerly advicey things.

Here they are:

Good ideas do not necessarily
translate into a good story.

Joe Hill cautioned that one-sentence ideas don’t necessarily make for a story. He mentioned that he was very good at making an elevator pitch, and yet “the better I got it the more I became convinced it’s completely unimportant.” Of course a good concept pulls people in. Nosferatu, for example, has a great pitch: “What if a guy had a car that ran on human souls instead of gasoline?” But, while Hill said he comes up with two or three ideas a week, “it takes me about a month to write a short story and it takes me about three years to write a novel.” The work isn’t coming up with the idea, but what the next four hundred pages will look like; and part of his second-guessing and insecurity regards whether the fundamental idea will be altered irreconcilably, or if the idea must guide the direction of the piece, or if the concept is harming instead of benefiting.

“I’m orderly on the outside,” Hill said. “But inside it’s total chaos.”

The most interesting characters
start as mysteries to the author.

When asked whether he’s a plotter or a panster, Joe Hill said he’s “definitely in the latter camp.” Outlines do not work for him precisely because the most “exciting part of writing a short story or novel is falling in love with a character and wanting to learn about them.” How could he predict in an outline how a character will interact or conflict with others? How he or she will deal with the crisis at hand? According to Joe Hill: “There’s stuff about them that I can’t see but I feel will be revealed if I put them under pressure. Plot is the instrument to create pressure that will force the truth from my lead characters. I can’t plot out a outline about what they’re going to do or how they will respond to trouble because I don’t know who they are yet. … What do they hate, what do they love, what are their daydreams? I can only find that stuff out by churning out a lot of material.”

Sometimes write scenes for the reader and sometimes write scenes for you.

For a four hundred page book, Joe Hill will write a seven hundred page draft. All of which is a quest to discover who his characters are, how they tick and tock and talk. So some of his scenes are written for readers; they’re “part of the journey” the reader is on. But some scenes are necessary only for Hill to know how his characters might respond to this situation or that squabble. Those ‘scenes for me’ get cut, of course, but they help Hill solve the mystery of his characters.

James Brandon — Writing Things

James Brandon, author of Ziggy, Stardust & Me, came to visit my library. In fact, we were his first official school visit.

Brandon spoke of his experience growing up as a gay teenager when homosexuality was considered a sin and aberration and not another sexual orientation among many. He showed us awkward photos from high school, complaining that “I didn’t know what to do with my hair.” Now, in plaid and jeans, with friendly glasses, a high forehead, and hair at a near-coiff, he’d definitely figured out what to do with it. But the point of his lecture was to “Believe in Yourself.”

Brandon also spoke about forgotten LBGT histoy, including the year when the DSM stopped listing homosexuality as a mental disease. On a slide he showed us how a Chicago newspaper described the event: “20,000,000 Gay People Cured!” We learned about the Gay Liberation Front and Doctor Anonymous and the barbaric treatments used to ‘cure queerness.’ And we learned how an author can connect his own intimate life experience with greater historical events.

Brandon also imparted some excellent advice for our audience’s creative writers:

  • Writing is creating real life characters. As an actor, I need to research how to embody a person. As a writer, I need to research how to embody twenty persons. One of the techniques I remember reading on the internet was to write fifty things a reader will never know about your character. I decided to go further and filled a spiral notebook for each character. Dialogue became easier because I knew about the secret conflicts my characters were dealing with.”
  • Research will unlock the greatest mysteries of your novel.”
  • “I needed to tell this story because I wasn’t seeing me out there. I wanted to write not by looking in but looking out.”
  • “It’s okay if your book takes a while. Writing my book took about 18 months to go from draft zero to draft one. Then I wrote about a hundred drafts before I turned in my manuscript to my agent, and she and I rewrote the book three more times (which took another two years) before submitting it to publishers.”
  • Most important, believe in yourself. And be you. We don’t need anything less than who you are. And your differences are your most beautiful you. We suffer without it.”