Let’s Talk About Clean Prose!

Well, I really do suck at updating a blog regularly. Let’s ignore that and get right to the point, the pen’s point if you will.

Some of you may have heard that the Golden Crown Literary Society is meeting up this weekend for their annual conference. This conference hosts the Golden Crown Literary award ceremony, a pretty big deal in lesbian fiction.

I try to read most of the books that win a Goldie, though I have some catching up to do. Currently, I am slogging through The Dark Wife by Sarah Diemer, which won a Goldie in the Speculative Fiction category for 2012. About halfway through the story I set it down to check out some of the reviews on GoodReads (which I’m glad I did!) to see how others thought about it.

A lot of people had the same thing to say: I wanted to like this book, really! I think that mantra is the only thing powering me through this novel. I want to like it. Badly. Who wouldn’t want to? It’s a lesbian retelling of the story of Persephone and Hades, except without the freaky kidnapping. It’s gold! Or it should have been.

Before I continue any further, I want to say that Sarah Diemer is a good writer. The prose just fell flat for me in The Dark Wife, which made it all the more disappointing in light of its Goldie. Many of the repeated problems in the prose were minor, slap-of-the-wrist fixes that are often shot down by a writer’s extremely talented editor. Since Ms. Diemer self-published this story, I’m guessing she did not have a horde of editors to sound off ideas with. As a result, the story had some repetitive problems that many writers suffer from.

And before you start thinking that editors just rinse out the originality of a story and writers need to be free and fuck the system man its overrated you be free as a bird and do whatevah you want!, just stop. Stop right there. Because (finally) we’ve hit the point of this update.

When we write, we owe it to our readers to deliver a polished story that fully accomplishes what we wrote it to accomplish. Things like purple prose, excessive dialogue tags, too many commas, and awkward syntax get in the way of meeting that goal (unless your goal is to highlight those problems in writing).

Why do they get in the way? I’ll tell you.

One or two prose-oddities in a story are good. But what if that obtuse prose keeps popping up? What if the main character keeps having heavy, weepy, rageful, ecstatic FEELINGS on every single page? It would be like eating cake for every single meal. Eventually, you’re going to get sick of the cake.

And I eventually get sick of overly thought-out prose. I think one of my favorite things to hate on is using two verbs to describe one action. This is a nice touch when it’s an important action to highlight. It’s different, so it tells the reader, “Hey! Something interesting is happening. Wake up!”
But if every single person needs two actions to highlight one (ie, he barked a laugh, she skipped a hop, he bellowed a shout) it’s going to get exhausting. The same thing goes for adverbs: Slowly, carefully, lowered down from the ledge, Sammy walked herself down the path.

Do you see what I mean? This sentence highlights actions first, the person second, and the destination last. People consistently, pathologically arrange sentences with the person first, the action second, and any objects or destinations last. This sentence tells me that the actions are more important than the person. Used sparingly, tricks like this are useful. Used consistently, you can get some very unhappy readers.

This kind of prose distracts people by nature. It forces the reader’s brain to decipher something, and not in a this-makes-me-think-about-deeper-issues-that-resonate-with-our-chaotic-and-dissonant-world sort of way. The reader gets pulled out of the story. If that is your goal, then congratulations, get to it.

But there are stories out there that use this prose. They use it without meaning to give their readers mental whiplash. This prose highlights the author and their pen strokes, not the characters and their world. But the story is about the characters and their world, okay?

Here’s the problem. The prose keeps the reader from getting what you (dear writer) want them to get out of the story. It’s something we all struggle with, myself included. It’s also something we can fix if we just paid attention to our own damn sentences.

I think that’s the advisory for today. Pay attention to your sentences. Never just write something and call it good. Re-read it, first! Hell, I even proof-read this blog before I posted it. And I found messy sentences. Good job, me. You get a gold star.

So readers, did you enjoy anything in this post? Let me know! I want to hear your thoughts on writing creatively and effectively. Leave a comment, please.

Less Is More

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How many times have you heard that little piece of advice, hmm? A lot probably, but I want to talk about it again in relation to some of my recent activities. But first let me say, “hi, how are all of you? How have you been? My handful of regular readers, I’ve missed you!” Sorry for vanishing, but I was sucked in by this torrential force known as academia. While I was away I wrote articles for journals, arranged to go to a conference in Canada (and hopefully lead a panel), and learned more than I ever needed to know about Utopianism. Brain = full. Now to cherish my month of pseudo-freedom by goofing around on the internet.

But this is not goofing around. This is serious business. In my time away, I also sent a short story out to some different anthologies. It got rejected every single time, sadly, but I plan to keep trying. Recently, I got caught up talking to a colleague who used to run a journal in my field. He heard that I was sending this story out and failing to get in, and said I should read it for a class one day. That translates to me reading a reject story to fifteen of my peers and one brilliant pioneer of science fiction studies. No pressure, right?

So I sent the story out to some friends for some quick edits. The two that got back to me said the same thing, “We need more.” The emotion was not translating on the page, and they wanted to see the character’s feelings.

I struggled with this kind of feedback, because I always hated writing about my character’s emotions in excess. Nobody wants to hear what you have to whine about, protagonist. Shut up and do what you’re supposed to do. Your actions will convey the emotions. I always made sure to show something happening rather than say, “She felt sad” because really, how much more imprecise can you be after “sad”? Sad means something different for every single person, so I always try to show the emotions through physical actions. A person jumps. They frown. They have a nervous tick I describe comically. There’s something to tell what kind of pressure or elation that character might be feeling, and it certainly does not take place in the form of an adjective.

Now, this isn’t a hard rule. Of course the simple adjective gets out every now and then. It’s necessary for good writing to be varied. But I was having a hard time seeing how I could bring the emotions of these characters to the forefront without explicitly saying, “Character Y was pissed off”.

But I tried anyways, and I read the story to the class. Some of the changes I made worked really well. I changed the beginning to show the terrifying enemy my protagonist faces. It was an emotionally charged scene. It really sucked a reader in… And then there were some scenes that flopped. I added some inner dialogue from the protagonist like my readers suggested. It felt flat when I read it aloud, though. There were literally moments when I was reading when I thought, “Why the hell is this in here?”

At the end of my reading, the professor, my colleague, was impressed. He asked, “And have you published this, yet?”

So I explained to him the tragic tale of rejection after rejection I had faced. Before I started submitting it places, I had won some local readings with it, so I thought it would actually stand a chance. After the class ended, the professor gave me some advice, “You know. It’s really quite good, and this is coming from someone who reads a lot of fiction. My only suggestion for you would be this: less is more.”

So, this man who edited a national journal had found some value in the story. Granted, he’s probably more fond of me than an anonymous reader, considering we work together. But his comment makes sense. I was trying to add more where the story really did not need more. I added to the beginning, and that worked out, but nothing else really needed extra. In fact, there were some scenes I could have done away with entirely. They were dull. They did not contribute emotion or meaning, and so the readers who wanted me to add more reacted against these scenes.

What I think I am trying to convey is this: sometimes, the answer to bringing the emotion is cutting out the vapid and empty parts. It’s easier to tell more with less of a story when the parts there express so much already. This might seem like a ramble, or a really long way to say “less is more” but I think it is some valuable tips on writing that every reader or author could benefit from. I also thought it was the perfect way to resume regular updates, which I sincerely hope will stay regular.

Before I go, I want to fill my readers in on my schedule. Over the next month, I will be finishing a novel with my coauthor, Rae D Magdon, for publication within the next few months. I will also be working on my story Chronicles of Osota: Warrior, a fantasy novel to be released some time in the next few months. For those of you who are fans of my fictionpress or fanfiction.net stories, I will be updating those as well, hopefully. Anyways, happy holidays, and please comment if you have any thoughts to share on the craft of writing, this topic, or anything else you with to discuss.

Indie Publishing – A How-To

Now that I’ve published a novel, I’ve gotten to reflect on the whole process of actually writing one and getting it out there in the world. I’ve also gotten the chance to spiral into panic attacks every now and then whenever I stop to think of what people might think of the writing.  I mean, it’s a little bit of a big deal. I wrote a romance novel. With lesbians. And BDSM. And one of the lesbians is a Republican! OH GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE?

But so far, the feedback has been positive, so apparently it has been a good thing. The novel has been selling better than my coauthor or I could have predicted, which is a little astounding, and even trying to think of what future sales might be is unfathomable at the moment. So why is indie publishing working for us? Why are we so lucky to be doing well when most indie books never sell over 150 copies and we’ve doubled that in a matter of days? (BTW, it’s All The Pretty Things. Check us out on amazon or goodreads!)

I think the answer lies in fanfiction. Now listen up class, here’s the lesson for the day.

Fanfiction is a legitimate form of writing. I honestly believe this. People constantly put it down as being a lesser form, or not real writing, but I think Rae and I have only done so well in our publishing adventure thus far because we have supported the fanfiction community so much over the years, and thus we have a built-in following. If I had any advice to give to writers looking to self-publish, it would be to start writing fanfiction. Write it now.

Fanfiction does an important thing in that it allows the exploration of otherwise impossible scenarios in certain worlds. It also allows a writer to work with a world that has already been built and focus on the character dynamics instead of world-building, which can be tiring and tedious work. It’s a good form of practice, and I think writers should be flattered when people choose their world of fiction to write a fanfic in.

Let’s go with a metaphor. You, the writer, are a young child. Your story, the world you have built, is this vast, ultimate sandbox that you have stumbled upon. The sandbox starts out empty, but you soon bring supplies to it like buckets and shovels, and perhaps the garden hose to make those structures stick together. If you ask your mom real nice, maybe she gets you those special molding kits for super castles.

Either way, as the time goes by you’ve made a pretty kick-ass castle in your sandbox. All the other kids think it’s the coolest thing ever, the perfect start to your new fiefdom. Some of the kids stop and comment on it, tell you how nice it is. You’re beaming with pride because your creation is being enjoyed by others.

And then one kid stops and asks if they can play in the sandbox with you.

You look around and see there’s some room left, but you’ve been thinking maybe you want to construct your village a certain way, and what if this kid messes up everything? What if they make a complete wreck of your newly constructed world? Well, too bad, because in the world of fiction, no one is going to stop that kid from getting in the sandbox and playing with you.

No one is going to stop a writer from producing fanfiction about your work if it’s good enough. And as long as they’re not earning a direct profit from it, what’s the problem? You might have an awesome time with that kid in your sandbox. You might have a whole bunch of kids help you complete the sandbox city you’ve planned out. Maybe you’ll exchange ideas. Maybe these kids will take note of certain ideas and take them home to use in their sandbox. Maybe you’ve just helped them become a better writer without even trying.

Fanfiction is the other kids wanting to play in your sandbox. You can invite them in, or you can be the brat on the playground and tell them to shove off, but the community of writers is a loving one, and doesn’t take kindly to uptight jackasses. I’m not saying everyone has a right to steal ideas, but I am saying everyone has a right to write. Fanfiction is a perfectly acceptable form of writing. It’s just as good as other writing, just as legitimate if done properly. The only difference is you will not earn a direct profit from writing it. You will, however, gain a loving and supporting community of eager readers.

So, find yourself a fandom. Read up on the popular fanfics. Get to the writing. If you don’t wanna write fanfics, then you better be a clever blogger or be the world’s most popular guy on twitter or tumblr, because these social media sites really are the only other way to draw readers to your indie book. I wish all indie publishers out there the best of luck, and invite you all to share your thoughts on writing, fanfiction, indie publishing, or whatever happens to be on your mind.

NaNoWriMo is approaching!

Last year, a certain time-sucking video game released on November 11 (coughskyrimcough) and in preparation for it, I spent all of October doing my homework before the game released so I could spend more time playing it. This year, November is all about Nanowrimo for me (National Novel Writing Month) and I’m in it to win it, or so I’d like to think.

Nanowrimo is the challenge to write 50,000 words within the month of November within a single novel, a new novel that has no prior chapter written. Of course, we can bend this rule to make allowances, but you get the idea: 50,000 words. They gotta be in a story. Every year I delude myself, saying, “I can do this!” and every year I collapse into a mess of tears and failure right around November 15 or so. I think the most I got out ever was 30,000 words. Does that make Nanowrimo a waste of time? No! Those 30,000 words, or 22,0000, or 17,000 might be “failed” attempts, but I got something out of them. I got stories that I could continue to work on. That’s why we march into Nanowrimo every year with the unrealistic expectation of completing it and feeling okay with ourselves when we drop out. This year, though, I’m getting some strategies together:

  1. Bring some friends: sucker other people into doing this with you. That way, you have a support system in place to back you up and encourage you every step of the way. It also makes the event more fun when you host Nano parties with them or just general get-togethers.
  2. Plan: Spend the last half of October laying out some groundwork. Think out your story. Decide what you want to happen in it. Jot down notes and outlines. Most importantly: get a list of character names assembled beforehand. I cannot tell how many hours I have spent trying to think of the perfect name for a character. If you don’t have one ready while you’re writing, throw in a generic, a standby that you can fill in later. The writing train doesn’t stop for anything in November.
  3. Write over the daily amount, always: If you do the math, 50,000 words comes out to about 1667 words each day in November. Keeping that in mind, you should always write more than this, always. There will be a day where it is physically impossible for you to write anything. There will be stretches of days like this, so make your writing time count.
  4. If you fall off the wagon, don’t stress: You might not make it to 50,000, and that’s okay. Most people who make it to the end of Nanowrimo either have a lot of time on their hands or give up any semblance of a social life. It’s okay if you don’t make it. Most people go in knowing in the back of their minds that the might not get all the way through. The point is that you tried and you have something new for it.
  5. Get everything else done first: You know you have some things to do in November. Do them now if you can. They can’t trip you up during Nano if they’re not around to do it.

These are a few starter tips that I employ when prepping for Nanowrimo. I hope someone has a use for these. Or perhaps someone has more helpful ideas! I’m open for sharing! Let me know!

Why We are Embarrassed about Romance Writing

The goods on WritingNot too long ago, a member of my creative writing group wrote for the first time a sex scene and read it aloud to us. Now, this person is a pretty decent writer. They were featured in an anthology before and is head of an editorial board this year. This person knows the craft. They just never wrote a sex scene before. What this writer read to us was atrocious, to say the least. When I gave feedback it was difficult to justify my opinion, however, considering I spent the whole reading complaining about the excess of cock (in a humoristic manner). I’m a lesbian and the scene was two guys going at it. Where do I have an opinion, right? How am I supposed to know what works?

Well, dear reader, hold on tight. Here comes the good stuff.

When we think of erotic fiction, what comes to mind first? Maybe 50 Shades of Grey? Or perhaps those $2 trashy romance novels at the used bookstore? Whatever it is, there is usually an accompanied sense of shame behind the thought of “erotic” romance writing. Women and men smuggle their romance books out of stores like they were loading up on bricks of cocaine or something. Decent people would not be caught reading that material, of course. And despite the social taboo, people do read it. It’s one of the best-selling genres.

With this social stigma behind the genre comes the problems for writers. Who would dare write such a thing? Usually people dismiss romance writing as an easy mark they dare not dirty their hands with or say sex scenes ae just too much for them to handle. They say they’re not qualified for whatever reason. Because the sex scene is granted this mystical status from writers, it often creates the most anxieties when people attempt to write it.

Which brings me back to our writer from the beginning. This sex scene was about 8 pages long and took place between two men. It covered a variety of activities and kept a good pace.

Despite this person’s ability, the writing fell flat. The characters were little more than body parts and the prose nothing but stitched-together buzz words meant to get a rise out of the intended audience (pun intended as well). But why did this happen? Why did the writer think it was all right or perhaps necessary to shove aside character building and meaning in the story when the characters decided to do the nasty? Another scene between the characters (not a sex scene) read beautifully. It made people cry. And the characters actually felt like characters. It’s not like they felt like two different sets between the scenes. It’s that the sex scene did not have characters.

Here lies the problem: we have somehow decided that good writing does not include the sex scene of a story. In fact, people often judge the merit of a romance novel by asking if the sex scene can be left out. If a sex scene is not regarded as necessary in any way, why bother writing it? This is where the sense of embarrassment can enter behind the writing. Somehow, this piece is just a load of fan-service, and a real writer would not bother with it.

This is wrong though. I think if a story is going to have sex scenes, they better be important in some way. The big thing about writing is to never include excess. If a scene is not essential, cut it away. Is that not the mantra of our generation’s writing style? That means the characters cannot just become body parts. Words cannot just be inserted because they are associated with pornographic images. Sex scenes should be used in stories to create a deeper sense of character or explore elements of the story the reader could not understand otherwise. Yes, we are provoking a physical response, but it should never be exclusive to a person’s sexual preference. That means there’s an emotional tie-in. We are emotionally invested in these characters, and that feeling should not disappear in the writing, ever.

Actually, I would like to issue a challenge to writers everywhere: include a sex scene in your work. Do not treat it like a shameful smoke-and-mirrors trick to garner more readers. Treat it like an important, integral part of the story that cannot be done away with and write it so that it needs to be there. It can be done. I have read stories where almost all the character development happens within sex scenes. I’ve read stories where there’s the one big sex scene, like it’s the pay-off for getting through the book. Make it more than that. Make it part of the story in a genuine way. The emotional bridge between a reader and the characters is too important to simply discard when scenes get a little intense.

So, I would also like to invite you all to share your thoughts on the subject. Did my rant make any sense? Do I have a point here? I think discussion is the only way to wade through difficult topics like this one.

Accomplishments, Talking to Melissa Marr, and Being a Writer

Recently, I did something I had not yet done as a writer: I placed first in a writing contest. I mean, yeah, I’ve gotten second and honorable mentions; I’ve placed “best in category x”, but never had I swept the whole show away. Last night I did though.

For my efforts, I got a $50 gift card that I quickly emptied by purchasing some self-congratulatory books (“The Difference Engine”, “Leviathan Wakes” and William Gibson’s newest collection of essays. They’re all fabulous. I suggest reading them). I also got something more valuable than money. I got a chance to speak one-on-one with young adult fiction author Melissa Marr. Now, I am not a fan of her books or anything. I have only read small excerpts. But from what I did read, I could tell she knew her craft. I got to ask her about publishing, what to do, what to avoid, you know the questions.

And you know what? She gave me the most sound and concise advice I have ever received in the history of asking about publishing. For that I thank you, Melissa Marr. I don’t want to quote her, but she made it very clear that if I wanted my sole occupation in life to be writing, I needed an agent.

That got me thinking. Do I want to be just a writer? Or am I happy with it being a side-gig?

The novels I usually write are popular with a very small, very loyal fanbase. Lesbian fiction of any kind won’t get you rich nine times out of ten, but I did not win the contest with lesbian fiction. I won it with steampunk.

So my writing career may branch out. I think I’m at the point where I’m thinking, ‘I’ll write whatever I damn well please,’ which is fine for now. In the victory haze of the contest, I spoke with a lot of friends and family members about being a writer. My grandmother commented to me that I was the only one in the family with the sheer willpower to sit down and write for extended periods of time. I told her that having that patience to sit down and write was all one needed to be a writer.

And it’s true. Writers need to be willing to invest lifetimes into this thing. They need to be desperate and hopeful enough to devote hours to a manuscript then doggedly pursue routes of publication. Writers hardly get the respect they deserve because of the romanticized image of a person sitting at the keyboard and typing out pages and turning them into bricks of gold. Well, writing is a lot messier and time-consuming than that. Writing as a career sort of has a catch-22 to it. On one end, people have the misconception that writers are born great; on the other, they think anyone can do it.

The real answer lies in the middle. Anyone who wants to be a writer desperately enough can do it. Not anyone who wants to get rich. Anyone who honestly, truly wants to write, to say something worthwhile will find a way to do it, and not all of those avenues may involve an immediate payout. A true writer puts pen to paper or fingertip to keyboard with the desire to convey an emotion, thought, event, whatever that has affected them in some way and will affect their readers. We don’t al have immaculate grammar. We don’t all have perfect Standard accents when we speak. We are just crazy enough to sit still and listen to the words in our heads.