Tag Archives: Scott Driscoll

Essays #amwriting

One area of writing that we’ve all heard of, but don’t often think about, are Essays. However, if we want to be published, writing and submitting essays is an opportunity the unknown author should exploit.

Essays are not just that bane of every school child’s existence—essays are where some of the best works of western literature can be found. Essays are short, magazine-length or blog post length articles. They are non-fiction and are frequently opinion pieces, but sometimes they are brief memoirs of a singular experience. Essays are pieces we have all read and which have moved us in some way, for good or ill.

 

In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.”

The word essay also means to attempt—and why this meaning is important will emerge later.

But let’s look at essays, starting with Sir Francis Bacon, renaissance author, courtier, and the father of deductive reasoning. The life and works of this English essayist and statesman had a major impact in his day and still resonate in modern literature. Essayes: Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. Seene and Allowed (1597) was his first published book.

The 1999 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes  91 quotations from the Essays. No author is quoted so many times unless their work has struck a chord with centuries of readers.

  • “Knowledge itself is power.”
  • “Riches are a good handmaid, but the worst mistress.”

Aldous Huxley‘s book Jesting Pilate, an Intellectual Holiday had as its epigraph, “What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.” These lines were quoted from Bacon’s essay “Of Truth.”  Huxley himself was a brilliant essayist, and according to Wikipedia, he defined essays in this way: “essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference.” These three poles (or worlds in which the essay may exist) are:

  • The personal and the autobiographical: The essayists that feel most comfortable in this pole “write fragments of reflective autobiography and look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description.”
  • The objective, the factual, and the concrete-particular: The essayists that write from this pole “do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. Their art consists of setting forth, passing judgement upon, and drawing general conclusions from the relevant data.”
  • The abstract-universal: In this pole “we find those essayists who do their work in the world of high abstractions,” who are never personal and who seldom mention the particular facts of experience. (end quote)

Essays offer an author the opportunity to use prose to expound ideas and values. Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays—by which he meant attempts. He used the term to characterize these short pieces as “attempts” to put his thoughts into writing. Montaigne’s essays grew out of his work that was then known as “commonplacing.” These were published books that were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Think of them as mini-encyclopedias.

Sir Francis Bacon and Aldous Huxley are two men whose works shaped modern literature, and they did it though essays.

I highly recommend reading essays to expand your imagination. Essays offer us ideas, philosophical, sociological, and ask us to examine our values.  This examination of the world through the eyes of essayists offers us many insights which will make their way into our own work in ways both seen and unseen, such as Huxley’s reference of Bacon’s work.

Some contemporary essayists I have read and who left an impression on me (some good, some bad) are:

John McPhee, The Search for Marvin Gardens published in the September 9, 1972 issue of The New Yorker

Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself (published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1959)

David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster” (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004)

George Saunders, “The Braindead MegaPhone” (Essays by George Saunders) (published by Riverhead, 2007)

Norman Mailer was not my cup of tea, but he might be yours. Great writing is not always comfortable, but it always challenges your view of the world. I didn’t like Mailer’s voice or style.

Essays most frequently appear in magazines, so that is where to look for awesome contemporary work by today’s best-known authors of mainstream fiction—and much of it is sitting around in waiting-rooms the world over. If you fly Alaska Airlines (as I usually always do) take a look at that magazine they provide you with. You will find essays by authors like Scott Driscoll.

Essays are also frequently referred to as “Creative Non-Fiction” which sounds like an oxymoron—after all, “creative truthing” is “lying.” Nowadays “creative truthing” is business as usual from Washington D.C., but politics aside, get creative with your ideas and philosophies—put them in an essay.

Several prestigious literary magazines are open for submissions, a mix of well-known and little-known or new magazines that welcome creative non-fiction: memoirs, personal essays, lyrical essays, and more. Go to the website, Authors Publish, and there you will find a list of publications seeking submission.

You can also find a long list of open calls at Submittable. I trust and use this app to find open calls and to track where my own submissions are in the process.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Essay,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Essay&oldid=815813680 (accessed December 18, 2017).

Wikipedia contributors, “Essays (Francis Bacon),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Essays_(Francis_Bacon)&oldid=811671029 (accessed December 18, 2017).

Essays–the vegan discusses Bacon and other meaty reads, ©2015, by Connie J. Jasperson  https://conniejjasperson.com/2015/08/10/essays-the-vegan…ther-meaty-reads/

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#amwriting: SW Washington Writers Conference, What I learned from @RobertDugoni

This last weekend I attended the Southwest Washington Writers Conference. I was also privileged to attend a class called Creating Plots for Page Turners, given by the keynote speaker, Robert Dugoni.

I say privileged, for this reason. Robert Dugoni is a bestselling author of thrillers, My Sister’s Grave being the book that caught my attention several years ago. Dugoni understands what makes a gripping story.

As I sat in the class, it became clear to me that attention to writing craft is integral to his work, but he also sees it from a slightly different angle. While he covered many things which I will discuss in my next blog post, several things pertain to recent posts of mine, regarding the first draft.

Bob asked a question I found intriguing: “What is your purpose as an author?” There were several different replies. He said, “Your characters must entertain the reader. Never stop entertaining.”

That was my thought, exactly. So how do we entertain our reader? What should we avoid?

One of the main pitfalls of the first draft is the info dump. These boring stretches of background info are mostly for you, the author, and are meant to set the scene in your mind. You know the rules, and don’t want them in the finished piece, but they slip into your work in insidious ways:

  1. Is the information you are about to dispense relevant to the character and his/her immediate need? Does it advance the story?
  2. Resist the urge to include character bios and random local history with the introduction of each new face or place—let that information come out only if needed. Dispense background info in small packets and only as needed.
  3. Resist the urge to explain every move, every thought your character has. This is probably the most annoying thing an author can do.
  4. Is a flashback a scene or a recollection? Recollections are boring info dumps. Scenes take the reader back in time and make them a part of a defining moment. Write scenes, not recollections.
  5. Opinions about the scene or the character, or anything—author intrusion is to be avoided.
  6. Don’t be lazy—show the story, even when it is simpler to tell it.

Points 3, 4, and 5 were concepts I consider in my own work, but never really thought about and hadn’t articulated them. They are critical and do bear mentioning here.

A question Dugoni asked was one I have often considered and discussed here. “What is a story?” The answers varied, but the one he wanted, and with which I agreed, is the story is the journey.

Frequently, stalled creativity is the result of the author having lost sight of the character’s journey, both the physical and the emotional journey.

Dugoni offered a solution for when that is the case: Ask yourself, “What is the character’s physical journey/quest?” You must ensure each character has a journey, a quest, but Dugoni adds third aspect–a dream. That idea that the journey/quest is also a dream that must be fulfilled resonated with me.

Then, consider the emotional journey. Why do these people continue in the face of great challenges? Is it love, anger, fear, duty, greed, honor, jealousy, or some deeper emotion that drives them?

Find that emotion, and you will find your character’s motivation.

Then ask yourself what happens if they don’t succeed? What are the consequences of failure?

  1. What is the public risk?
  2. What is the private risk?

Something important is at stake, or there is no story. Once you discover what it is and how it affects the characters’ emotions, the story will come together.

Classes like this are why I attend writer’s conferences. Robert Dugoni, Scott Driscoll, Cat Rambo—these people have the knowledge I need, and they are wonderful, accessible people who freely discuss all aspects of the craft in seminars, frequently at conferences I can afford and which are near me.

The companionship and support of other authors has been invaluable to me, and I have made every effort to repay their many kindnesses by supporting them in their endeavors. The friends I have made through this career are as dear to me as any I grew up with, and that circle widens with every conference I attend.

You may meet writers who are local to your area, and they will know of good writing groups near your home. They will also know about resources you can draw on, reference books you may not have heard of. If you are serious about the craft, you will seek out the company of other writers.

Find a conference in your area, and see what turns up. You may find yourself learning from a master.

Robert Dugoni’s most recent book, Close to Home launched Sept 5th and has garnered well over 65 customer reviews on Amazon in the first week alone and maintains a 4.5 star rating.

THE BLURB:

New York Times bestselling author Robert Dugoni’s acclaimed series continues as Tracy Crosswhite is thrown headlong into the path of a killer conspiracy.

While investigating the hit-and-run death of a young boy, Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite makes a startling discovery: the suspect is an active-duty serviceman at a local naval base. After a key piece of case evidence goes missing, he is cleared of charges in a military court. But Tracy knows she can’t turn her back on this kind of injustice.

When she uncovers the driver’s ties to a rash of recent heroin overdoses in the city, she realizes that this isn’t just a case of the military protecting its own. It runs much deeper than that, and the accused wasn’t acting alone. For Tracy, it’s all hitting very close to home.

As Tracy moves closer to uncovering the truth behind this insidious conspiracy, she’s putting herself in harm’s way. And the only people she can rely on to make it out alive might be those she can no longer trust.

*

Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Best Selling Author of The Tracy Crosswhite series, My Sister’s Grave, Her Final Breath, In the Clearing, and The Trapped Girl. The Crosswhite Series has sold more than 2,000,000 books and My Sister’s Grave has been optioned for television series development. He is also the author of the best-selling David Sloane series, The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm, Murder One, and The Conviction. He is also the author of the stand-alone novels The 7th Canon, a 2017 finalist for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best novel, The Cyanide Canary, A Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and several short stories. Robert is the recipient of the Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction, and the Friends of Mystery, Spotted Owl Award for the best novel in the Pacific Northwest. He is a two time finalist for the International Thriller Writers award and the Mystery Writers of America Award for best novel. His David Sloane novels have twice been nominated for the Harper Lee Award for legal fiction. His books are sold worldwide in more than 25 countries and have been translated into more than two dozen languages including French, German, Italian and Spanish.

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#amwriting: Interview with Scott Driscoll

As part of my lead up to #NaNoWriMo2016 and November’s month of literary madness, I am continuing my series of guest interviews. Today, we are speaking with the always intriguing Scott Driscoll.

Scott is an award-winning writing instructor at UW Continuing and Professional Education, is a well-known journalist and editor, and is the author of Better You Go Home, a literary novel which takes the reader to Prague shortly after the Velvet Revolution. (My review can be read here.)

I have attended several seminars offered by Scott through PNWA, and have always come away feeling inspired.

CJJ: What books influenced you most as young reader?

SD: Like most children, I liked any story that fueled my imagination, such as Aesop’s Fables, Grimm Fairy Tales, and the like. Somewhere in middle school I discovered a preference for realism and actually read, and was fascinated by, Moby Dick. I distinctly remember going to class and sniffing the palms of my hands, convinced I’d somehow got ambergris, which never really washes off, on my hands. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men also impressed me greatly at that age. I found American social realism (aka naturalism), such as anything by Drieser, dreary beyond belief.

CJJ: How did these books influence your early writing?

SD: The dreary books I was forced to read in adolescence and as a young teen led me to conclude that you had to be pedantic and stuffy to be a writer and that turned me off to writing fiction altogether. The exceptions would be Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and E. A. Poe stories. Those were exciting. What I didn’t realize until later is that I was looking for a voice that spoke to me. I really didn’t hear that voice until I encountered French existential novelists like Camus and Jean Genet (especially in The Thief’s Journal, a fictionalized memoir). Compared with potted stories like de Maupassant’s, these took me into what felt like a word wilderness, where you could easily get off trail and run into danger and I loved that feeling. I also discovered and loved Dostoevsky and Kafka. There was a darkness and urgency and psychological depth in that writing that I could not find in American authors, until, in college, I discovered the novels of Norman Mailer and Edward Abbey and now I had a voice that was raw and stories that were more about the psychological life of the characters and less about managing a plot. Not that I had anything against plot. It was the raw power of the words I needed to fall in love with first.

CJJ: You have said elsewhere that “Writing for me is about applying form to the mysteries we suffer.” Can you expand a little on this idea?

SD: I borrowed that phrase from Wright Morris. On my blog site I wrote about the first time, as an adult, I tried to write fiction. I was 21 years old, taking a break from college, living in Darwin, Australia and working warehouse and restaurant jobs to save money so I could travel on. With time on my hands, and a depressing lack of anything better to do, I essentially locked myself in my boarding house room, sat under the paddle fan, and spent several hours writing nothing. What I lacked, I realized, was not the ability to write, but knowledge of form. Without an understanding of story structure, I would churn out a stream of words that was nothing more than a verbal outpouring of my inner angst, the kind of sophomoric, I realized that day, drivel that excites only high school English teachers, who are grateful for any grammatical verbal pyrotechnics. Without an understanding of form, I could not begin to solve the mysteries I knew were locked up inside me.

CJJ: You have also said “Any story that involves a quest – and that is most stories – starts with a disturbing event known to writers and film-makers as the “inciting incident.” What is the most important thing for an author to consider when creating this event?

SD: It took me a long time to accept that any story with any kind of plot must start with a disturbance. But once you accept that, what does it really mean? A disturbance, as in, someone gets mugged, a bank gets robbed, aliens land, a shark throws a vacation resort town into chaos? If it’s just event for event’s sake, anything is possible and nothing is particularly meaningful. Rather, an inciting incident must disturb a balance that pertains in the hero’s world, and must do so by working against a deeply held value, so that the hero, we can be sure, will not shrug it off as simply bad news but rather will be forced to react in a way that will further endanger the balance in that familiar world.

Better You Go Home Scott DriscollCJJ: When did you first have the idea to write “Better You Go Home,” and how long did it take to complete it?

SD: In 1994, three and a half years after the Velvet Revolution, I went to the Czech Republic to track down family that my Czech relatives in Iowa had stopped communicating with. I found the village, the farmhouse, met some people, but had been too cheap to hire a translator and didn’t get beyond discovering that there was some unspeakable mystery, some “inciting incident,” that had created a rift in the family. In 1999, armed with better information sent to me by a cousin who’d followed my lead to that village, and armed this time with a translator, my father and I went back to this village and heard stories, and reviewed records, and I learned enough that I felt I could write a novel with this family mystery at its heart. At the time I had quit writing fiction (needing to make money) and started instead writing for magazines, and between that and teaching and being divorced and raising a child, I really didn’t have time to write a novel (but stayed up late virtually every night reading everything I could get my hands on related to the topic). A couple years later, needing to get back to fiction, I started in pretending I was writing chapters, but really just produced fluff based on my research. From the time I began writing chapters that could stick, and publication, ten years went by.  I had told my wife—we married just before the time I got serious with this novel—I’d have it done in two years. Our son likes to remind me that he was ten when it was published. I remind him that I was busy. But, really, honestly, it took so long because my early understanding of the story lacked the form that would allow me to finally tell the story. Much of my groping in the early years could have been circumvented had I discovered that form early in the process.

CJJ: Once a new work is in progress, what are the main hurdles you have to overcome in laying down the first draft?

SD: That depends. If it’s a short story, I will usually allow myself to have a crude idea based on a situation that sets forth from a known inciting incident with a disturbed character but without a known outcome, just set forth and go, knowing the real story will emerge in the re-writes anyway. With a novel, it’s worth doing more planning.  Once you have your premise, the first hurdle you have to overcome is finding a basic story structure that will naturally lead to a surprising but inevitable outcome. Then you work on your characters, that is, you start with characters in mind, but now you have to imagine how the events required by the story structure you have imagined will be causally connected to the characters’ needs and wants and fears and expressed and hidden desires. Without causal connections you just have meaningless events. Once causal connections are asserted, you encounter another hurdle. The characters begin to morph according the logical requirements of the causal connections you have asserted. Without a strong sense of the story structure, things can quickly morph into an ugly, hydra-headed monster, ie, chapters screaming to be thrown away.

CJJ: What are you working on now?

SD:  Two things. First, a collection of connected stories that show a young couple starting off careers and family and that show how that trajectory unfolds over the years. For my raw material, I am using stories published years ago, but that I felt never broke through to their bigger potential. Will I achieve that now? Let’s just say, I know a whole lot more about writing now than I did then. I only hope that I can recapture the immediacy that can easily get lost behind a command of technique. My second project, still in the planning stages, is a sci-fi time travel novel. This will be my first attempt at a popular fiction genre. I was put up to it by an editor friend. My wife was intrigued by the idea of me writing a novel that had the potential to make some money. Having handed over an 18,000 word treatise, that covers my idea for the story nearly chapter by chapter, I am now excited to get to work.

CJJ: What books can you recommend for new writers who are just beginning to learn the craft?

SD: The best book on craft, generally, is Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, now in its ninth edition. That said, Story by Robert McKee, though written for screenplay writers, contains the best craft talks, with illustrations from films, on plot and character and scene that I have ever come across. I would definitely start with those two, then add Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham, as an enhancement to what McKee has to say. Then, they should all get their hands on What If, the third edition, edited by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. (Do not let Amazon trick you into buying the inadequate first edition.) This book is full of mini-lessons and exercises for writers who know about craft but need practice.

CJJ: Where can people find your classes and seminars this fall?

SD: In fall 2016, starting the first week of October, I am teaching one section of Literary Fiction I, the introductory course, and one section of Advanced Fiction Writing, a course intended for writers of both literary and popular fiction who’ve had experience with taking writing classes or who have extensive writing experience. Both classes are offered through the University of Washington in the Professional and Continuing Education department. If interested, folks should go to www.keeplearning.uw.edu and look for these courses, or, if they have questions, seek more details at www.pce.uw.edu. They can also email me at sdriscol@uw.edu. I also teach a summer workshop class and that is posted on my blog site. http://www.scottdriscollblogs.wordpress.com.

  • In the meantime, I am a guest editor reviewing manuscripts at the fall 2016 Write On The Sound conference and will be at the Edmonds, WA site on Saturday Oct 1 and Sunday Oct 2. On Nov. 10, I will be a guest workshop leader at the November meeting of the Skagit Valley Writer’s League, held in Mt. Vernon, WA. Those interested can peruse their web site for more information. In May, 2017, I will be a workshop leader, lecturer etc. at the Write On The River conference held in Wenatchee, WA

 

Scott, thank you so much, for being a part of this little series on the craft of writing. As always, you are a joy to talk to!


scott-driscoll1 Scott Driscoll can be found 

 

 

 

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#amwriting: the struggle is the story

A point that was raised on another blog I follow is something many authors struggle with: devising the complicating events that raise levels of risk for the protagonist, and also for the antagonist. A compelling story evolves when the antagonist is strong, but not omnipotent. The protagonist must also be stronger than she thought she was, but still not omnipotent.

Small hindrances must occur between the larger events, frustrating the journey. These things delay the protagonist, and sometimes send them down the wrong path, but as each is overcome the reader feels a small sense of satisfaction. Following the protagonist as he/she is negotiating these detours is what makes the story captivating, in my opinion.

If you have a story of any length, short or long, you can’t have people sitting around idly chit-chatting. Conversations must have a purpose, and be designed to advance the plot. Information emerges that the protagonist (or antagonist) must know. The reader discovers this at the same time as the characters.

Better You Go Home Scott DriscollIn the literary novel Better You Go Home by Scott Driscoll, Chico Lenoch, a Seattle attorney, is desperately ill and needs a family member to donate a kidney. None of his family members here locally are suitable donors. He has always wondered about his family in the Czech Republic, which his father won’t discuss, and has recently discovered he has a half-sister still living there. He journeys there to find his sister, and in the process, he unearths the secrets his father and mother left behind. As each terrible secret is revealed, hindrances arise. Danger, political fallout, personal vendettas, and a growing concern for his sister conspire with Chico’s failing health to keep him from achieving his goal.

If the path had been easy, Chico’s story would have been an exploration of a man with a problem, but not real exciting. Because of the roadblocks, it’s a taut thriller, and his journey comes to an unexpected and electrifying conclusion.

TA patch of Dry Skin, Stephen Swartzhis notion of making the path difficult is explored well in  Stephen Swartz’s literary fantasy, A Dry Patch of Skin. The story opens in Croatia but moves to Oklahoma. This tale is a fantasy in the sense it’s an exploration of vampirism, but is literary and gripping in its plausibility. Two of my favorite lines of all time are in the opening chapters of this novel:

Mirrors are such odd devices, and whoever invented them should have been killed. They purport to show us the true state of affairs and yet everything is distorted.

The protagonist, a man of Hungarian descent, named Stefan Székely, has a disturbing genetic skin condition and embarks on a quest to find a cure, desperate to somehow salvage his relationship with Penny. He has a job as a phlebotomist, which allows him to conceal his ailment, but eventually he is unable to hide it. Many roadblocks arise, interfering with Stefan’s success, forcing him to seek a cure in Budapest, but even that trip is fraught with frustrations. Because of those hindrances, the tension builds toward the end, making for a gripping read. The novel ends in an unexpected fashion and is one that stayed with me for a long time after.

Both these novels detail a seemingly ordinary thing—a person dealing with a life-threatening illness, both seeking a cure that seems like it should be easy but which becomes virtually impossible. In both novels, the roadblocks and detours along the journey create compelling narratives I found impossible to put down.

e.m. forster plot memeBoth are set in a contemporary setting, and both have surprising endings that could only have been arrived at because of the roadblocks and hindrances placed in the paths of the protagonists.

This is why we can’t make it easy for our characters. The struggle is the story.

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The Writers’ Toolbox: Seminars, workshops, and conferences

via buzzfeed

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One basic tool every author needs in his/her toolbox is the Writers’ Seminar. These are workshops offered by people who have mastered certain aspects of the craft, and are your way to gain more knowledge of the craft.

They are classes, focusing on every aspect of writing, from the story arc to character development. You can also get classes in how to court agents and editors, if the traditional route is your choice, or conversely, advice on negotiating the rough seas of indie publishing. In this craft, there is never an end to the learning process.

But what if you are housebound and can’t get to a conference? Three excellent resources for an intensive online 3 part seminar are Scott Driscoll’s courses through The Writer’s Workshop ($500.00 each, plus textbook, see the website for more information. Length- and quality-wise these classes are the equivalent of a college course–where else will you get this kind of education for the cost of an average 4 day seminar?)

What about actually finding and physically attending seminars and events? That is where you will meet authors, both famous and infamous, known and not yet known.  You will meet people in the industry who will enlighten you and also help you up the ladder to success.

I love writers’ seminars, and attend every one I can afford to get to–and cost is an issue. But there are many budget-friendly seminars out there, many offered by your local library system.

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For me, it’s about being in a community of authors who are all seeking the same thing–a little more knowledge about the craft. Everyone who attends a writers’ conference, seminar or workshop is serious about the craft, and just in conversation with other attendees you can find great inspiration to help fuel your own creative muse.

How does one find these things? Google (or Bing) is your friend here:

A short list of Seminars, Workshops, and Conferences in Western Washington—check websites for the next seminars offered:

  • Hugo House ($60.00 to join-cost per event may vary)
  • PNWA Writers Conference ($65.00 to join PNWA + cost of 4-day conference–can be pricey. With early registration 2015 conference was $425.00 + the cost of room. Continental breakfasts and two dinners were included, and being vegan I brought my own food. Altogether I spent nearly $1000.00, but was able to do so in 2 chunks.)
  • Southwest Washington Writers Conference ($60.00 early registration, 1 day conference) VERY GOOD INVESTMENT!
  • Port Townsend Writers Conference (10 day conference, Tuition ranges from $150.00 for one or two classes to $900 for the full 10-days, includes room with meals==$90.00 per day–a steal!)
  • Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (costs of individual events vary, average seminar under $200.00) (Terry Persun is giving a seminar most indies could benefit from on taming the beast that is Amazon there August 22, 2015 from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm–get to it if you can!)
  • Clarion West Writers Workshop (Specializing in speculative fiction,  offering everything from seminars to a highly respected 6-week workshop for $3,800.00.  Costs vary, average one-day event $130.00)
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via buzzfeed

But what if you have little or no $$ to spare for food much less a conferences? For the love of Tolstoy, check out your local library! They are an unbelievably great, free or exceedingly low-cost resource.

For example, the Tumwater, Washington branch of the Timberland Regional Library system has several upcoming seminars offered by author and writing coach Lindsay Schopfer, at no cost to the attendee– the library has hired him as a bonus for the aspiring authors among their patrons. These seminars are not fluff–Lindsay gives good, solid, technical classes for serious authors, so if you are in this area check out the schedule and try to attend.

via buzzfeed

via buzzfeed

Check out your local library, and see what is available for the starving author!

Now that you know what is available in my area, check your own area and see what you can find. You will be amazed at the wide variety of good one-day conferences, multi-day events, and continuing education courses that are available. While most have some cost attached to them, the author who is determined to improve within the craft and who has little or no money can find something that will fit his budget just by doing a little research at the local library.

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Essays–the vegan discusses Bacon and other meaty reads

consider the lobsterWe have talked a lot about fiction and writing novels as well as short stories. You might think that outside of journalism and blogging there isn’t much left for an author. But there is another area of writing that we’ve all heard of but don’t often think about. They are Essays.

Essays are not just that bane of every school child’s existence–essays are where some of the best works of western literature can be found.

We shall go to the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, and ask the holy guru “what is an essay”: “Essays have been defined as “prose composition with a focused subject of discussion” or a “long, systematic discourse”.

Well–that was distinctly un-enlightening.

In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.”

The word essay also means to attempt–and why this meaning is important will emerge later.

But let’s take a look at essays, starting with Sir Francis Bacon, renaissance author, courtier, and father of deductive reasoning. The life and works of this English essayist and statesman had a major impact in his day and still resonate in modern literature. Essayes: Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. Seene and Allowed (1597) was his first published book.

The 1999 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes  91 quotations from the Essays. No one gets that many quotes unless his work has struck a chord with centuries of readers.

  • “Knowledge itself is power.”
  • “Riches are a good handmaid, but the worst mistress”

MusicAtNightAldous Huxley‘s book Jesting Pilate, an Intellectual Holiday had as its epigraph, “What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer” quoted from Bacon’s essay “Of Truth”.  Huxley himself was a brilliant essayist and, according to Wikipedia, he defined essays in this way: “essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference”. These three poles (or worlds in which the essay may exist) are:

  • The personal and the autobiographical: The essayists that feel most comfortable in this pole “write fragments of reflective autobiography and look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description”.
  • The objective, the factual, and the concrete-particular: The essayists that write from this pole “do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. Their art consists on setting forth, passing judgement upon, and drawing general conclusions from the relevant data”.
  • The abstract-universal: In this pole “we find those essayists who do their work in the world of high abstractions”, who are never personal and who seldom mention the particular facts of experience. (end quote)

Essays offer an author the opportunity to use prose to expound ideas and values. Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays–by which he meant attempts. He used the term to characterize these short pieces as “attempts” to put his thoughts into writing. Montaigne’s essays grew out of his work that was then known as “commonplacing”:  published books that were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Think of them as mini-encyclopedias.

Sir Francis Bacon and Aldous Huxley are two men whose works shaped modern literature and they did it though essays.

I highly recommend reading essays as a way to expand your imagination. Essays offer us ideas, philosophical, sociological, and ask us to examine our values.  This examination of the world through the eyes of essayists offers us many insights which will make their way into our own work in ways both seen and unseen, such as Huxley’s reference of Bacon’s work.

Some contemporary essayists I have read and who left an impression on me (some good, some bad) are:

Original_New_Yorker_coverJohn McPhee, The Search for Marvin Gardens published in the September 9, 1972 issue of The New Yorker

Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself (published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1959)

David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster” (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004)

George Saunders, “The Braindead MegaPhone” (Essays by George Saunders) (published by Riverhead, 2007)

Norman Mailer was definitely not my cup of tea, but he might be yours. Great writing is not always comfortable, but it always challenges your view of the world. I still didn’t like it.

Essays most frequently appear in magazines, so that is where to look for awesome contemporary work by today’s best-known authors of mainstream fiction–and much of it is sitting around in waiting-rooms the world over. If you fly Alaska Airlines (as I usually always do) take a look at that magazine they provide you with. You will find essays by authors like Scott Driscoll.

Essays are also frequently referred to as “Creative Non-Fiction” which sounds like an oxymoron–after all, when we are growing up “creative truthing” was called “lying.”  Get creative with your ideas and philosophies–put them in an essay.

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Epiphany, and the Writers’ Conference

PNWA 2015 My Books in the Bookstore

Epiphany.

A sudden revelation.

A moment in time where suddenly you understand the why of a certain thing. For a writer this can mean the plot suddenly unthickens and we know what we need to do!

This often happens when I am in traffic and completely unable to put said revelation into practice, but hey, we go with what we have, right?

I had several such moments of glory while in Seattle at the PNWA 2015 Writers Conference this last week. Fortunately I was able to immediately put my chicken-scratched notes into a more readable form via the little Android tablet, and these flashes of knowledge will soon be causing some positive changes in my current works-in-progress.

Over the next few months a lot of what the speakers and teachers had to say will filter through my mind and into this blog, but first I need meditate on it until I know what their insights mean to me on a practical level.

Better You Go Home Scott DriscollI attended two seminars offered by Scott Driscoll, who cuts right to the chase and explains his ideas clearly. One was on understanding your characters’ values and how the evolution of those core values fundamentally drives the story, and the other was on the inciting incident. Those two seminars dovetailed beautifully, and I had my first “I know what I need to do” moment after leaving the one on identifying and understanding the values (or ethics) your characters hold dear. If you ever get a chance to go to a seminar offered by him, I would recommend you do it.

Another speaker whose seminar really motivated me was offered by Bill Carty, on the intersection of ‘poetry and the everyday’ as a means for generating our own poems. (Yes, I have a dark side–I write poetry when no one is watching.)

I listened to my good friend, Janet Oakleyspeaking on a panel about bringing the past to life, when writing historical fiction. That too had an “ah hah!” moment.

Bharti Kirchner gave a seminar on the five essential elements of a short story, and she is an intriguing speaker. As you know, I am a strong proponent of writing short stories as exercise, to develop your writing chops, and I came away from that class knowing how to organize my thoughts so that a short story will remain short, and not accidentally turn into a novella or an epic trilogy.

Doublesight--Terry PersunI wanted to attend the seminar on using language with intention that was offered by Terry Persun and his daughter, Nicole Persun, but I had a conflict and had to choose which class served a more immediate need, so I was unable to attend it. But all is not lost–I will be purchasing the download of that seminar. I had several wonderful conversations with Terry and he will be writing a guest post for this blog, perhaps on that subject.

Instead of that, I attended a class offered by Lindsay Schopfer on identifying the sub-genres of science fiction and fantasy so that when a book is published you can best identify your intended target audience. This is absolutely critical because when you go to publish, your publishing platform will always ask you what your “BISAC code” is. BISAC is an acronym for Book Industry Subject and Category subject headings, which are a mainstay in the industry and required for participation in many databases.

The Beast Hunter, Lindsay SchopferKnowing if you are writing Epic Fantasy or High Fantasy is critical when it comes to marketing your book to the proper audience, as die-hard readers of each sub-genre have strong feelings about what constitutes their favorite genre. Thus, there are certain tropes readers of those genres will expect, so proper labeling is critical if want your target audience to read your book.

Being able to immerse myself in learning the craft is absolutely wonderful, and I look forward to this conference every year. This year William Kenower  offered the final seminar of the event. Bill is an intriguing, energetic speaker who gets his listeners involved in what he teaching. His seminar on reconnecting with your confidence was quite appropriate for me, as I sometimes  listen to my inner critic and forget the joy I have in writing.

my sisters grave robert dugoniOther people spoke, Andre Dubus III and Robert Dugoni-two men with vastly different experiences and different styles of writing, and yet both had something to say that moved me in one way or another.  J.A. Jance, Nancy Kress , Elizabeth Boyle and Kevin O’Brien were on a panel that was fun to listen to.

If you are serious about writing, I highly recommend that you seek out and attend writing conferences. A great deal of good information can be found on the internet, but there is something about the networking and actually talking shop with the other authors that fires creativity and keeps the creativity flowing through the veins.

I suggest that you actively google writers’ conferences in your area, and see if you can find one that is affordable and offers sessions by respected authors in a wide variety of genres, and who are welcoming to authors who intend to go indie as well as those who hope to be traditionally published. It will be money well-spent.

An intriguing thing happened at this conference during the book signing event. A highly respected agent (who shall remain unnamed) stopped by my table and looked over my books. He picked up Tower of Bones, and leafed through it, checking out the cover and the graphics, and also the maps. Pausing, he asked if I was indie published, and I explained I was, through a publishing group, Myrddin Publishing. He then paid me the highest compliment ever–my books were “highly professional.”

That interaction proves how important it is to put your best work out there. When you do that, you can be proud to play on that not-so-level playing field.

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Gearing up for #PNWA2015

House of Sand and Fog Andre Dubus III

I love conventions. Especially writer’s conventions, where the craft of writing is the central theme, so that is why I look forward to the PNWA convention every year. Two weeks from now, that is where I will be, along with fellow Myrddin Publishing Group editor and bff, Irene Roth Luvaul.

It is horribly expensive, but for me, it is so worth it.

This year, Andre Dubus III will be the keynote speaker. While I frequently read literary fiction, I have to say I didn’t really enjoy his book, House of Sand and Fog, although it was excellently crafted. I found it exceedingly depressing, as I did most books touted by Oprah’s Book Club, which I generally don’t find to be much of a recommendation any more. Oprah is a wonderful lady, but her tastes in literature are far different than mine.

Let’s face it–I’m an escape-reader. I read to get away from the misery of the world, so while the story is thought-provoking, and worthy of every honor it has received, I didn’t enjoy it. I prefer happy endings.

But that doesn’t really matter–I want to hear what he has to say. I don’t care for George R.R. Martin‘s work either. But I love to hear George speak, and so I am looking forward to hearing what Andre Dubus III has to say.

SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL AUTHORSMy hubby took a vacation-day yesterday, giving himself a 4 day weekend to help me take my books 75 miles north to Bellevue. 3 hours each direction, inching along I-5 and I-405 in 90 degree heat–what fun!

This was so they can  be included in the PNWA July 16-19 convention’s Friday Autograph Party event. I’m pretty excited about that. My good friend, Lindsay Schopfer will also be signing books, as will 58 other authors.

I’ll be showcasing the World of Neveyah series, and Huw the Bard, so 4 books for the signing event. But all my books will be there.

Every attendee will receive an Ebook copy of Tales from the Dreamtime courtesy of Smashwords. I so wish I could give them each a copy of the audio book–Craig Allen’s narration is simply amazing.

I really enjoy the PNWA conference. A lot of people who are going the traditional route use it to pitch to agents and editors, but that doesn’t interest me. I am happy as an indie and have no plans to court a large publisher.

What I am interested in are the seminars on the craft of writing. Every year I come away from this event feeling completely inspired, and ready to write.

Friday morning Irene and I will attend the annual meeting. I do have some concerns which I have made a list of, and wish I lived closer to Seattle to be more of a volunteer. Living 75 miles away limits what I can do to help out, but I could do some virtual assisting, if there is an option for that.

Also, I will be attending seminars given by Scott Driscoll, Robert Dugoni, and Lindsay Schopfer.

creamy_wild_rice_and_mushroom_soup_recipe

creamy wild rice and mushroom soup w/coconut milk

All in all, I think it will be a fun event, and am planning my food ahead for it, as the vegan can never count on the kindness of strangers when it comes to food. The wise vegan author travels well-prepared to stay in a room with no microwave, in a hotel that is less than understanding about what constitutes a vegan meal.

I can honestly say I am NOT looking forward to the dinners, but will be well-able to provide for myself, and who needs food anyway–were gonna be talking books!

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Elements of the Story: the story arc

Elements of the Story 1st Quarter of the MSWhen I first began writing, I wasn’t concerned with the nuts-and-bolts aspects of a tale–I wrote stories to read to my children, and I wrote stories I wanted to read. The stories lived in my mind, and I got a great deal of pleasure from writing them. It never occurred to me to submit them to a publisher, and I wouldn’t have known how to do that anyway.

It wasn’t until my youngest child was in high-school that I began thinking about writing as a vocation, and began looking for places to submit my work. So my evolution as a writer was: I began by writing songs in high-school and also writing poetry, graduated to writing fairytales for my kids and short stories for myself, and finally began my serious attempt at a novel in 1996.

2nd quarter of the manuscriptI began writing for my own pleasure, and had no idea of how to plot a novel. Since that first attempt at a novel, I have completed six novels, and am working on 3 more at this time. Each book has been an improvement over the previous one. Through working with good editors and educating myself,  I feel like I finally understand how  a good novel is constructed.

In my early books, I didn’t understand the way a good story worked. I knew one when I read one, but I didn’t really understand what made that story immersive and memorable.

I had a grasp of how to create characters, and I had a good idea for the basic plot,  but I was weak in the area of structuring the novel. Once I realized that weakness, I set out to resolve it.

For the last two years, that has been the area I’ve worked hardest on putting into practice, and for those who have beta-read my yet to be published work, that change in my understanding of how to write a novel is clear.

Now, I have an instinctive understanding that the evolution of the story can be graphed out in an arc–the Story Arc. I had heard of this concept, and in writing groups some authors will talk about it as if they understand it, but when you read their work it’s clear they don’t.

It wasn’t until Scott Driscoll, author of Better You Go Home gave a seminar on it last year that the pieces fell into place for me.

The Story Arc copy

Some books are character-driven, others are event-driven. ALL of them follow an arc.  For my personal reading pleasure, I prefer Literary Fantasy, which has a character-driven plot. Events happen, often in a fantasy setting, but the growth of the characters is the central theme, and the events are just the means to enable that growth.

3rd qtr of manuscriptI write literary fantasy, with some emphasis on the fantasy. My own books, as in Huw the Bard, tend to be more character-driven than action oriented, as the Hero’s Journey is what intrigues me, but large events occur that cause personal growth. Whether your books are character- or event-driven, there must be an arc to the story.

We have talked about the way the manuscript can be divided into quarters.  Let’s consider the midpoint. The midpoint of the story arc begins the second half of the book. The first calamities have occurred and up to this point, the characters have been reacting to the antagonist’s moves.

The midpoint of the story arc is the Turning-Point, the place where there is no turning back. Consider J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit: At the midpoint, Bilbo is committed to seeing the Dwarves regain their home, and Smaug is routed, but at great cost. Now, he can see only disaster ahead of them, if Thorin continues down the moral path he has chosen.  Bilbo has been changing, but now he shows his true courage, by hiding the Arkenstone. Then he takes matters into his own hands in order to head off the impending war.  Bilbo tries to ransom the Arkenstone , but Thorin refuses to see reason. He banishes Bilbo, and battle is inevitable.

This arc is the same in every good, well-plotted novel: in the first half of the book everything had gone to hell, emotions were high, and the situation was sometimes chaotic, but the protagonist thought he had a grip on it. The Midpoint is the place where the already-high emotions really intensify, and the action does too. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed, and there is no stopping it or turning back now. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

4th qtr of MSThe second half is where the villain shines–the evil one is on a roll and it’s his ballgame. The truth underlying the conflict now emerges, and it culminates in the third calamity, the third plot point. This is also where the villain’s weaknesses begin to emerge, and the hero must somehow exploit them.

The third quarter of the book, from the midpoint to the third plot point is critical. These events tear the hero down, break him emotionally and physically so that in the final fourth of the book he can be rebuilt, stronger, and ready to face the villain on equal terms.

The third quarter of the book frequently sets the hero on the path to enlightenment, but first he must undergo a symbolic death and rebirth.

If you want to read classic fantasy where this type of story arc is really clear and yet the stories are strongly character driven, you should read:

magii of cyador

 

 

Magi’i of Cyador and Scion of Cyador by L. E. Modessit Jr. (2 books)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pawn_of_Prophecy_cover

 

 

 

The Belgariad by David Eddings (5 book series)

 

 

 

 

Green_Angel_Tower_P1

 

 

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams (4 paperbacks, 3 hard bound or ebooks)

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Dark, Gothic, and hurtling toward disaster

Steampunks  by Kyle Cassidy

Steampunks by Kyle Cassidy

Well…apparently my current scifi work-in-progress, a short story, is steampunk. Who knew? My good friend, author Lee French, figured it out yesterday at our regular Tuesday morning brainstorming session at Panera. After she pointed it out, I could see it clearly, despite my original thought that because I had set it on a mining-colony world, it was a scifi tale.

I was a little surprised I hadn’t seen it earlier, and once it was pointed out, I could see why I was struggling with the tale–I didn’t know what I was writing.

It began as an exercise in writing from the point of view of the flâneur–the man of leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. Click here for Scott Driscoll‘s great blogpost on the flâneur. In short, he tells us that: “With a flâneur narrating, you can remove the noticing consciousness from your point of view character to accomplish other purposes.”  

The flâneur  is frequently found in literature from the 19th century.  The story is filtered through his eyes and perceptions–it distances the reader from the immediacy of the scene, so be forewarned: genre-nazis and arm-chair editors who want the material delivered in 60 second sound-bytes of action won’t love it. Literary fantasy explores the meaning of life or looks at real issues, and I tend to write from that aspect. Often, the fantastic setting is just a means to posing a series of questions. Sometimes the quest the hero faces is in fact an allegory for something else. I read good literary fantasy–it tends to be written by men and women who can actually write. Not only are the words and sentences pregnant with meaning, but they are often beautifully constructed, and I learn the craft of writing from reading it.

The Rainy Day, Gustave Caillebotte

The Rainy Day, Gustave Caillebotte

My flâneur is Martin Daniels, a young, wealthy, retired crystallographer. He spends his time roaming his city’s streets and sitting in sidewalk cafés observing his fellow citizens, and making social and aesthetic observations. He regularly finds himself crossing paths with one man in particular, Jenner: a self-made man who came up through the mines.

Jenner is battering against the prevailing social barriers which stand in the way of his achieving a political office that he covets, using whatever means at his disposal. He is uncouth, a barely civilized rough-neck with a bad reputation, but something about him draws Martin’s attention, and so he finds himself both observing Jenner, and listening to the whispered gossip that surrounds the man.

One day, as Jenner is passing Martin’s table,  his hat blows off and Martin catches it, returning it to him. Jenner then introduces himself, and admits that he has been watching Martin for some time. He has a task for Martin, one that intrigues him enough to bring him out of retirement. Thus begins an odd relationship.

Thus my flâneur ceases to be merely an observer, and becomes my protagonist, yet he is reporting the events from the distance of his memory, so he is still the observer.

aesthetic definitionSo what is Steampunk?  Mike Perschon, in his dissertation, The Steampunk Aesthetic: Technofantasies in a Neo-Victorian Retrofuture, has described it as “…an aesthetic that mixes three features: technofantasy, neo-Victorianism, and Retrofuturism.” The key word here is aesthetic.

So how does that relate to my short story? When I looked at it with a critical eye, I realized it incorporates all three of those devices:

Technofantasy: Technology that lacks plausibility, or utilizes fantasy elements as the force or motive behind an action or process. No explanations will be given. The technology exists within the story, not the real world.

Neo-Victorianism: A setting that evokes the nineteenth century, whether it is set there or  not. In my tale, the use of the flâneur evokes a 19th century atmosphere, as do the other constraints I had inadvertently written into it.

Retrofuturism: How we think the past viewed the future. It is set in the distant future, but it is a future I think Victor Hugo would have recognized.

I have always perceived steampunk as cogs and diodes, dark atmosphere, rather Gothic, and with a plot that has the protagonists hurtling toward disaster. Now I know it is all that and more. They hurtle toward disaster, with a nineteenth century flair.

Thus my sci-fi flâneur is now the protagonist in a steampunk mystery. This short story, which had sort of stalled, is now back on track and fun to write. Through writing short stories we have the opportunity to write in different genres, and stretch our writing-wings.

I learn more about the craft of writing with each tale, and that fires me up, helping me see my longer works with fresh eyes.

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