Thought experiment

Recently while doing a rather repetitive task, my mind began to wander and I thought of how uninteresting the story of the hour spent doing this activity would be. My imagination began running away with itself, and I began to wonder the following.

What if you spent an entire year specifically eschewing anything boring? In fact, what if you took that a step further and were determined to only doing things that–when told later–would make for truly the most exciting stories? When you then look back on your life in that one year, how different from your present life would it be twelve months later?

I feel on one hand like this would be a very dangerous experiment, of course, but it would make for a truly fascinating short-term memoir. It also perhaps smacks of the “I want it now” mentality of the times we live in. We expect excitement or at least an alleviation from boredom every minute of every day, and that’s neither realistic nor practical. Still, I have to admit liking a culture where waiting in line is no longer interminable, so long as you have a fully-charged cell phone, and where many of the most time- and labor-consuming clerical tasks are automated or simpler.

More broadly, I’m usually quite fascinated with books about people taking on challenges like this, whether it be committing to optimism or walking across a continent or making all of Julia Child’s recipes or what have you. The common ground with all such writing and doing is twofold. First, it’s the actual act of wanting to do something strange and different, to shake up your life and use it as some sort of example for others of how you, too, can be crazy in a confined, usually safe, way. And two, it’s the further act of then memorializing the experience as a memoir. Not of your life, not an organic work looking back on a specific time, but a constructed one, wherein you seek to document that which you also create. As a memoir subgenre, it’s kind of fascinating, and if also used as an act of activism (as with something like Super Size Me, for example) it can also say larger and broader things about society and culture and be an agent of change.

Am I brave enough to ever take something like this on? I don’t know. Perhaps with a safe experiment like that pursued for a shorter amount of time, I could embark on my constructed memoir idea with essays covering weeks instead of months. A journey of a thousand miles, as they say, begins with a single step.

Women in Horror Month

February is Women in Horror Month. Even though I don’t only write horror, it is one of the genres I read widely and write frequently. I always consider myself a “speculative fiction generalist,” but to many folks that primarily means science fiction. Horror was the first genre I was widely published in, however, and horror novels were the first pieces of adult contemporary fiction I read without a school assignment involved.

As part of WIHM, Mocha Memoirs Press has released a collection of women in horror, entitled The Grotesquerie, edited by Eden Royce. My short story “Dharma” appears in this anthology, alongside pieces by Michele Garber, Chantal Boudreau, M. Von Schussler, Kris Freestone, Marianne Halbert, Nicole DeGennaro, Rie Sheridan Rose, Lisamarie Lamb, M.J. Pack, Marcia Colette, Nicky Peabody, Caryn Studham Sartorus, Violet Tempest, Jessica Housand-Weaver, Selah Janel, Evelyn Deshane, Kierce Sevren, Carrie Martin, Lilliana Rose, Ekaterina Tikhoniouk, and Vivian Caethe. I’m honored to be a part of this collection, which is available in both paperback and ebook.

There are more women writing horror than you think, but in this post-Anne Rice/Stephenie Meyer world we think more of paranormal romance or quasi-literary horror, or they’ve been mostly writing for the YA market. But I think there’s a need for more women writing adult horror, and doing so in particular ways that perhaps speak to either a feminist mindset or at least a mindset that acknowledges that gender itself can be fodder for some reason interesting discussions of identity and terror. Some of the most disturbing stories I’ve ever read are by women.

My own horror mostly involves themes of transmogrification. Not shape-shifting usually, not often a voluntary or magical transformation, but the sheer body horror of physical nature altered in terrifying, painful, and often permanent ways. While certainly male horror authors deal with similar subjects, I see this theme less frequently in their work, and when I do there isn’t quite as much focus on the sensations associated with such changes. Is this because women are uniquely suited to writing about this concept, due to a deeper connection to the body? Obviously everyone’s body goes through transformations over time due to normal things like puberty and aging, but only women’s bodies also go through monthly changes and the potential change of pregnancy. Women’s bodies, too, are judged more harshly in the broader cultural landscape for undergoing changes, as our bodies are co-opted as being more an object than an identity or functional container/conveyer owned by individual women. Do we own ourselves, or do governments and photographs and media outlets own us? Are we the sum of how we choose to present ourselves to the world or are we merely things? The idea of no longer being in control of our physicality is terrifying, and it’s something that I think is a uniquely female experience.

As the month goes on, I’ll be discussing a few female horror authors’ work and talking more about The Grotesquerie collection.

Minor Short-Term Illness and Working from Home

While I do have a day job, writing is still part of my professional endeavors. A recent battle with a nasty flu had me thinking about whether or not I should be trying to write while sick, which led me to ponder those who are about to write full-time or work from a home office in any other field.

For independent contractors who don’t get a non-hourly salary, working when you’re sick may be a necessity. But I can tell you that in the midst of the worst of my fever dreams, congested head, and muddled brain, I would absolutely not have been able to write a single coherent word. Novelists and those who teach long-form fiction writing will all agree that a first draft is garbage anyway and the real writing comes in revision, but do you really want to have to slog through a medicine-fogged first draft? Why make this even more of an uphill battle if you don’t want to?

Certain kinds of illness can still be fought through, of course, and if writing actually helps you take your mind off the pain, go for it. What I’m advocating here is simply not beating yourself up over not working while sick. I didn’t get to do a lot of the things I love while I had the flu, including totally non-writing-related activities, but I knew I’d be able to resume them once I felt better.

The write-every-day advice (which I think is still vital to a healthy output of work and maintenance of your skills) is only good if you allow for the same kinds of things you would if you worked a 9-to-5 gig, such as sick leave and vacation days. Give yourself a break. The blank page will be there when you feel better.

Literary vs. Popular Fiction

A good friend of mine asked me this week to clarify the difference between literary and popular fiction. Ah, the eternal question! I decided to take a very informal Twitter poll and crowdsource the answer. Got some great replies from authors, editors, friends, and followers.

Some other choice responses included “popular fiction is Twitter, literary fiction is Livejournal,” “Literary is what they make you read in school. Popular is what you read instead and then have to fake the book report,” “Literary focuses on the internal and pop on the external,” “Pop fiction is rock music, and literary fiction is the opera.” I love all of these replies, partly because they seem to skew “yay popular fiction!” but also because it all goes to show that there is no consistent response (other than that I know a lot of really funny people).

Personally, I don’t make a ton of distinction other than that “realistic” or “non-genre” fiction is probably meant to be considered “literary,” or perhaps that popular fiction is the movies that win technical Academy Awards, whereas literary fiction is the movies that win for acting and directing. Literary is important, fancy, thinky, whatever any of that means. Popular or genre fiction is popcorn, fluff, unimportant, bubblegum, unintellectual and whatnot.

Except we can all think of examples of bad literary fiction and we can all think of examples of popular novels that are just as experimental and thought-chewy as literary fiction. Is the distinction the academy? Libraries? Things that are classics rather than just flashes in the pan? Is it akin to musicians with 50-year careers of selling out arenas versus one-hit wonders? Is it the distinction between PBS and Lifetime? Vincent Van Gogh versus Andy Warhol?

Even if I polled literature scholars, I would get different answers. Most people who are avid consumers of fiction would still be able to take ten books and sort them into the two piles, even if they hadn’t read them. As the saying goes, “you know it when you see it.” But is seeing it a matter of snobbery? Bestseller lists? Contemporary versus classic status?

What about The Catcher in the Rye? Literary, I suppose, but if we had this discussion in 1951, it would probably be considered popular, as it was controversial, profane, and a runaway bestseller. What about China Miéville? Popular, we might say, but he eschews genre pigeonholing and has a doctorate in International Relations and thus is hardly the generator of your average pulp sci fi.

I’ve heard people joke that to write literary fiction you should write a popular novel and cut the first and last chapter. I’ve also heard that literary fiction is about big themes, big truths, and everything inside is just used as hollow symbolism. Yet truly great speculative fiction is all about positing possibilities, proposing ideas and themes and truths. Is speculative fiction automatically non-literary?

Perhaps it’s the author’s intention of “art versus craft” or “write to tell a story versus write to produce art.” I would argue that you can do both. Is Downton Abbey high art or a soap opera? Should we ignore Joyce Carol Oates’ forays into gothic horror because she also writes things with “themes”?

I guess my point here is that the distinction often boils down to the tastes of the reader or scholar. Telling a story with a good plot or telling a story with a compelling theme, purpose, or character study is still all about telling a story, and ultimately I want to be the sort of author who can grow, stretch, change, and experiment.

Write the story you want to read. Read the story that draws you in. Labels? In 2014? That’s so last century.

Low-Residency MFA Programs

I’ve written a little bit before about my experience in Seton Hill University’s MFA program. A low-residency degree is a good fit for me, due to my job and mortgage and family, but it’s not for everyone. If you like working independently, online learning, and intermittent travel, then a low-residency degree is a great option. However, if you need face-to-face contact and constant encouragement from classmates and faculty, a low-res design may be a poor fit. MFA programs—particularly in fiction—are uniquely well-suited to a low-residency model, but other types of degrees wouldn’t work this way. I’m extremely happy with my choice of SHU’s program. I’ve learned so much and worked with fabulous people, both faculty and students, and my graduating cohort is a tight-knit bunch full of encouragement and creativity. SHU’s degree specifically focuses on Writing Popular Fiction, which is perfect for the types of writing I do. Literary fiction or poetry writers should look elsewhere, but if it’s a sideline (and I do write a fair bit of literary fiction as well) this is still a good program. I can track the improvement of my writing over the course of the first half of the program, and my rate of publication acceptance has increased .5%.

If you’re considering a graduate degree in creative writing, decide whether you want to attend school traditionally or not. Furthermore, a low-residency MFA is not the same as an online degree program but should be seen more as a mixed-mode learning option with face-to-face class time compressed into several shorter blocks of time rather than spread out over an entire term. SHU’s MFA involves attending six week-long residencies, where you may wind up doing coursework or attending events that relate to your studies for up to sixty hours for each of those weeks. Thus to call it just an “online” program is super misleading, in my estimation.

Celebrating 60 Posts!

This is the sixtieth post I’ve made to this blog since I started it back in November of 2011, just after We Shadows Have Offended was first published. Since then, I’ve done series on National Novel Writing Month, writing and yoga, steampunk, and general writing advice. I’ve had six new short stories published (with another in press), I released three chapbook collections of short stories (some new, some old), and I secured a publisher for my first full-length novel, The Red Eye. I also began pursuing my MFA at Seton Hill University, through which I’ve met some amazing writers among both the students and faculty.

But 2011 isn’t when I became a writer, of course. At the signing/reading events for SIDEKICKS!, that was a common question: When do you begin writing? I struggled with my response. I began writing with the goal of pursuing publication as long ago as 1998 or so, and I started getting far more serious about that in 2002, the first time I did NaNoWriMo. But I’ve always written stories, going back to elementary school when I wasted stacks of paper printing out lavish epics which I would occasionally also illustrate. (I sincerely hope these never leave the confines of my parents’ garage.) I’ve also always been a reader, curled up on my butterfly-festooned bedspread devouring things ordered from the newsprint sheets of Scholastic Books. In high school, my stack of schoolbooks always had a novel teetering on top, and I’d sneak chapters of The Stand in between Crime and Punishment and Great Expectations during study hall.

To my students, I’m Methuselah, but for an author I’m still young. The career of a writer can be blessedly long and often blossoms—if it is to blossom at all—in one’s thirties. You’re no longer so young as to have nothing to say, but you still have enough optimism that you’re willing to try something so ridiculous and financially unrewarding.

Perhaps this is also why the protagonist of The Red Eye is in his mid-thirties. At the time I started that book, I was weary of YA coming-of-age stories and wanted to see what would happen when someone discovers his “chosen one” status during that oh-so-fun decade when you’re just as likely to have pimples as wrinkles. I made my protagonist a dreaded “man-child,” irresponsible and hard-drinking, but I also gave him a failed marriage, a professional full-time job, and a grown-up love story, because that’s the kind of POV I wanted to see and could relate to. I can certainly understand and appreciate the struggles of twentysomethings from observing them at work, but I’m delighted to be done with high school and wasn’t interested in revisiting it in my fiction.

Then again, maybe I’m particularly well-suited to consider writing “new adult,” that liminal stage of moving from one’s early- to mid-twenties, when you are indeed on the precipice of change but you may have already gotten a mortgage, as I see these folks every day, trying to balance school and work and sometimes even families. I’m excited to see where that genre goes in the next few years, just as I’m excited to embark on this next phase of my writing career.
Here’s to sixty more blog posts and a whole lot more fun stuff to write about.

Turning your book into a game

I just got back from Gen Con, the annual gaming convention in Indianapolis. I’m a casual gamer when it comes to RPGs—I like storyline, I like character, and I like hanging out with people, but I really hate rules and prefer them to be invisible and simple. On the other hand, when it comes to board games, I am an absolute fiend. I love all kinds, from political strategy to Trivial Pursuit to complicated role-playing hybrids based on movies and TV. My favorite RPG hybrid is A Touch of Evil, from Flying Frog Productions (and no, they’re not paying me; I just really dig the game). It has all the elements I appreciate: collaborative play, storyline, characters, and rules that are complicated enough to be a challenge but simple enough that they quickly become invisible once you master them. There are a lot of similar games out there, but most of them are needlessly complicated and often based too heavily on their source properties. The other cool things about ATOE are that it’s an all-original setting and premise, it comes with a soundtrack album, and the company is constantly putting out expansions, all of which enhance the game without breaking your budget.

Thinking about ATOE in particular got me interested in the idea of turning something I’ve written into a game, or simply writing a game from scratch. The pitfall of the former, however, is that it should still be a fun game unto itself regardless of its ties to its source material. A board game I really dig is actually based on Star Trek, and I’m barely interested in any variations of that property. But I like the game because it pings all the same things I like about ATOE: it’s straightforward, character-driven, and collaborative. (Side note: it has fun playing pieces. I also like games with lots of little moving parts, tokens, and weirdly-shaped pawns, and all my favorites tend to have those elements. I think I just like playing with toys without having to call it that.)

So as I contemplate what it would mean to write and design a game based on my writing, I would need to investigate how to let players in who are both unfamiliar with the source material, potentially reluctant/beginner gamers in general, while also being challenging enough to satisfy the more serious gamers. One concept a lot of the board/RPG hybrids employ is multiple layers of rules based on the level of your players, as well as using expansion packs to enhance existing rules.

Game production itself can be as basic or as complicated as you want to get. Some of the most complex games use only decks of cards or a small set of dice, whereas some of the simplest have twenty-pound boxes full of accoutrements. You’ll probably want to stay small and simple to start, gradually expanding as you play test.

And play test you must. Get friends together, teach them the rules, and get feedback from them, fix what doesn’t work and add more of what does.

Look at your game as an additional piece of promo for your source work, if it’s a spinoff, but do treat it as its own property, too. This isn’t merely advertising. A good tie-in game should be relevant and engaging in its own right.

How I increased my writing productivity with a $40 piece of hardware

I write where and when I have two seconds to spare, but one thing I was rarely using to write was the netbook computer I got specifically for writing. My obstacle? I couldn’t install Office on it easily without a DVD drive, and netbooks—for the sake of weight—don’t come with optical drives. So I put it off, I limped along with freeware and copying things to .rtf files and converting them where and when I could. I tried a bunch of different workarounds and alternatives to the real Microsoft product (and I’m no MS loyalist or anything, but Office is the standard in most environments, and it makes things like reading track changes and comments from editors incredibly easy). At the end of the day, however, I knew I had to figure something out; it had gotten to the point where I was starting to price new desktop machines, totally negating the point and portability (and price!) of my netbook.

On July 12, I went to my local big box electronics giant. Ten minutes later, I was $40 poorer and had an external USB DVD RW drive. I installed Office that same afternoon, and proceeded to finish a 100-page editing project I’d been putting off. If I hadn’t done this simple thing, I would have had to carve time out for this project when I could use a Word-installed machines, typically on weekends. I finished the editing project in exactly 19 days because I could do it in mornings before work, afternoons and evenings after work, and on weekends. Had I done it piecemeal, I would still be working on it.

So the point of this post is not to say that a DVD drive will make you a more productive writer. It’s what helped me, because it was something I needed. Look at what your equivalent obstacle is. Sometimes we make things harder on ourselves for no good reason. I can afford forty bucks. Your technology, time, or effort block might not even be that expensive to fix—heck, it could be free. On the other hand, it might be significantly pricier. If I didn’t already have the netbook and a copy of MS Office, this would have been more like a $400 outlay. But if the obstacle is something that can be overcome quickly, easily, and creatively, why aren’t you doing it? Laziness? Procrastination? Fear?

I think there’s probably something in the back of my head that knew that if I did this, it would mean I had to write more consistently, because there was no other excuse not to. So maybe my fear wasn’t of failure, it was of success—success at creating a regular writing practice and getting pieces out the door more regularly. If I wasn’t publishing as much before, I could always claim it was hard for me to get enough writing hours in. Now, if I’m not publishing as much, I don’t have that as an excuse and must examine why my output is still low. The happy result of this simple addition to my home office has shown me that I’m capable of a better output, as I’ve managed to place some short stories this summer and have several more in various stages of completion, not to mention my novels-in-progress. I also managed to get The Red Eye ready to go, so in a roundabout way, this $40 piece of hardware led me to the impending publication of my first novel.

If you’re feeling not so much writer’s block as writer’s laziness, see if something as simple could shake you out of that rut, too.

Short and long fiction word counts

The first question I usually get asked about writing short stories is how long they’re supposed to be. Here, in one handy spot, is everything you ever wanted to know about word counts, though in some cases the answers lead to more questions.

Flash fiction (a.k.a. microfiction) is 1,000 words or fewer. Flash fiction of exactly 100 words is called a “drabble.”

Anything from 1,000 words to 15,000 can be a short story, though the closer you get into the tens of thousands of words, you’re veering into novella territory.

Novellas are usually thought of as 15,000 to 50,000. The seldom-used term “novelette” can be given to anything on the shorter end of that, but the distinction is arbitrary and, in my opinion, sounds belittling. There’s something elegant and romantic about the word “novella” that, to my ear, “novelette” does not have. (It doesn’t help that Smurfette has rendered the –ette suffix demeaning, fake, sexist, and juvenile.)

Novels, then, are 50,000 words and up, and epublishing has made further preferences a bit fuzzy. Time was 60K was the sweet spot for literary fiction and 80K for genre fiction (those fantasy fans like their epics, went the thinking).

My novella We Shadows Have Offended clocks in at 16,715 words, which I suppose puts it in the maligned “novelette” column, and my forthcoming novel The Red Eye is in the 55,000 word range. While these are both on the shorter end, I’ve also been working on an urban fantasy novel for about three years now that not only isn’t done yet but is already over 90,000 words, so it’s not as if I’m incapable of long stuff; that’s just how these two pieces worked out. The Red Eye‘s first draft was originally written for NaNoWriMo, but another of my NaNo novels is 65K. It’s really just what feels organic for the story.

Duotrope, the publishing market search engine extraordinaire, defines flash the same way I have, short story as 1,000-7,500 words, novelette as 7,500-15,000, novella as 15K to 40K, and novel as 40K and above. I strongly disagree with their start of novel-length at 40,000, but again, epublishing has changed the game a bit. I suppose if I read a 40K-word ebook I would feel it was meatier than the average novella, but I still might find it on the short side.

More tips on being a more productive writer!

Earlier this month, I talked about an excellent workshop I attended that changed the way I thought about my writing habits. Today, I want to show you the result of that workshop.


Yes, I’m censoring some titles because I don’t want to spoil some publication and project surprises coming down the pike.

The above spreadsheet has increased my writing output and happiness and decreased my stress levels, and it’s so simple. Some of my deadlines are editor-, publisher-, or school-imposed (e.g. The Curiosity Killers is my thesis novel for my MFA program, and therefore it has set monthly deadlines), and some of them are self-imposed (e.g. The Wraithmaker and Late Bloomer are not currently under contract, but they’re first drafts of books that I want to get done by the end of 2014). But by putting in self-imposed deadlines, I also am doing a better job of prioritizing which items I need to work on a little bit more. The titles in green must be worked on every day for a shorter amount of time; the titles in yellow, orange, and red have deadlines coming up sooner; and the titles in grey are on the back burner until other items are done. I have goals for how many minutes per day I want to work on higher-priority titles, and sometimes I’m making it and sometimes I’m not. But the point is to work on the high-priority titles every day, even if it’s for 10, 20, or 30 minutes.

Am I perfect at it yet? No, clearly not, as evidenced by the fact that some of the projects’ last date worked on is last week despite their appearance in the “every day” sections. But because a lot of this is indeed self-imposed, it’s okay. At least I am making some headway, and at least I am thinking about (and usually doing) high-priority writing every single day.

It’s essentially the NaNoWriMo concept made a little more practical. The best way to keep discipline with writing? Write every day. Full stop. There’s no secret weapon, there’s no shortcut, it’s just sitting down and doing the work. By tracking it, I’ve now got clear evidence of how my discipline is going. Before, I was scattershot and simply tried to work a little on too many pieces all at once. Now I feel a lot more systematic in my approach.