Wednesday, September 24, 2014

One Year of Letters

A shameless plug for my newest project: One Year of Letters with my co-authors: Elaina Portugal, Colleen Aune, and Mary Knuckles.

Each week we'll write letters to ourselves, seeking to change the very essence of who we are by facing our challenges and working through our traumas. We hope to find stronger, more authentic women on the other side, but I have no doubt that in the process we'll find hope and courage.

Join us on our journey! If you wrote yourself a letter about this week, about the challenges facing you and how you were going to work through them, what would you say? Say it at One Year of Letters

Friday, September 5, 2014

Idea Thief

As a writer, I have ten ideas a day. One of those is good enough for me to write about, maybe two or three. Out of those, one in one hundred is good enough, broad enough, clear enough to start developing a novel out of. I tell people all OVER the place about ideas I have. No one has ever stolen anything. Have they been inspired to write a similar story? Yes. Have I read a story of another person and said to myself, "I can write that better," yes. Are the stories in any way "the same"? No.

I can write the "same" story I wrote ten years ago, and it will be totally different now. Because my life is different now. Different things resonate with me now. Different things resonate with different people.

I had a friend whose father complained that people stole his ideas. He loved to think up stuff and tinker with stuff. But he never got a patent. Not a single one. So guess what? They didn't "steal" his ideas. They ran with an idea for which he was not willing to put in the work.

Same goes for writing. Unless you wrote it up and started producing it, then no one "stole" your idea. You were just helping them brainstorm. You have to do the work or it doesn't belong to you. And ideas, they're like opinions; they aren't real. They aren't tangible. Now, write it down and it becomes intellectual property. But just think about it, converse about it, ponder it? It's nothing.

On a further note, the anthropic principle of ideas: if an idea is borne of someone else, if they are the ones who breathe life into it and turn it into something which others can experience, then the idea belongs to them. Just by virtue of the fact that THEY gave it life. Next time you have one of those ideas, breathe life into it instead of tossing it around in the air like cash at a strip club, or stuffing into some dark cellar like some dirty secret that will probably get you arrested. Treat it like the royal, beautiful thing it is or else LET IT GO, and move onto something you could do better than anyone else in the whole world.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Freebie: Blackman: The Revolution Short "STL"

This writing is pretty clean, so not only is it a shameless plug for my "Blackman" series of short stories on Amazon (ahem!), but it's also an example of writing fairly free of passive construction, passive voice (there is some), adverbs, etc.


Her words poured over him, cold at first and then biting into his sweat glands like acid.

“I’m not going.”

“What do you mean you’re not going? You’re my wife.”

She stared nails into the palms he proffered. “I am not going to Ferguson, Missouri. People are getting *killed* there. Your stunt with the kid was bad enough. Are you going to take him, too?”

“If he wants to go, I don’t see why not.”

She threw her hands into the air, making strangled noises. Her hair whipped out around her when she turned. The floor creaks diminished as she stamped deeper into the house.

Alone. He’d have to do this alone. Her position was written all over her face, even if he pretended he couldn’t see it. She wouldn’t go. She wouldn’t let him take Big D, their ersatz foster kid. Maybe it was the way her jaw worked or the set of her spine as she left, but he knew. He’d do this alone.

If he did it at all.

People were getting shot. Mike Brown did, and now protesters, too? Maybe it was too dangerous.

Or maybe it was exactly the time. The time to talk peaceful protest. The time to talk signs and words, not guns and knives.

The carpet scrunched under his toes. The cool air (Damn that polar-bear wife!) blew over him, raising the hairs on his arms. Turning the corner to the kitchen, he spotted her cradling the mug of hot cocoa. Damn, she must be upset. Hot cocoa was PMS medication, or Somebody Died therapy. Not some trifling thing.

“A superhero isn’t needed when everything’s OK. He’s needed when it’s dark and dangerous.”

She eyed him over the brim of her cup.


Her voice echoed, hollow and scary, from the ceramic. “You are not a super hero. You are someone who shoots videos, not guns. That shit you pulled at Tops? That ain’t never happening again. And you are NOT going to St. Louis to fight no goddamned race war.”

He tried a smile on: “You know I like it when you talk ghetto.”

A manicured nail sparkled in the kitchen’s light. The middle one.

“I’m going.”

“You are not.”

“I’m going, Madeline. You know I have to. They’re sick out there. Sick with rage. They shootin’ and lootin’ because they can’t find their voice, like when you stormed out of the bedroom. They can’t talk about what’s wrong ‘cause it’s just so much that’s wrong. 300 years and it’s got to stop. And they gotta breathe. And someone’s gotta get them talking instead of fighting. But fightin’s all they know, and it’s all they’ll do unless I go out there and show them otherwise.”

“You’re serious? You think you got some super-powers now? Because you know the names of little kids who steal food. Because you know the name of a beaten prostitute?”

“Because they didn’t shoot Big D. Here, I can show you.”

“Show me?”

Her hand heated his. The air around her smelled like hot cocoa and buttery lotion. A habit she’d picked up from him, putting lotion on every day out of the shower.

The heat of the day beat on them as soon as he opened the door. Gray sky hung over them, sealing them in, as it did most days in August. Rocks stabbed the soles of his feet but he half-jogged through the gap in the fence toward the parking lot.

“Where are we going? Why don’t you have shoes?”

He ignored her. His cheeks hurt from smiling. He pulled her toward the street, slowed down. “Stand here.”

She stood, holding onto the pole of the bus stop sign out of habit. Anchoring herself. “What are you doing?”

“Just stay there.”

The bus stop shelter smelled like piss in the heat, but he ducked behind it anyway, careful not to touch it. Soon enough, the stop light turned yellow and then red. Cars piled up quickly, forming perfect rows, waiting for the light to change.

“Listen up.”

She turned toward his whisper, and he stepped out from behind the shelter. “What—?”

“Shh. Listen.”

Cement struck his heels as he strode toward the stop. At first, nothing. Then a single *chunk* of a door lock.

Madeline’s hair shined gold as she spun toward the sound.

Another step. *chunk, chunk*

Now he was even with the pole. He looked into the passenger window at dyed-red wiry curls. White wrinkled neck dripped over the seat belt.


Chunk. Chunk. Pop chunk chunk pop snap chunk.

He turned back toward his wife, arms up and shining blackly in the sun. “See? Superpowers.”

Her finger came up again. Not to him this time, but to every car stopped at the light. “Fucking racist assholes!” She turned to him, gray eyes flashing. “I’m coming with you.”

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When You Want to Quit

That voice that sounds suspiciously like the most disapproving person in your life will, at some time or another, tell you to give up on writing. You suck. You write like a five-year-old. Stephen King was younger than you when he first published.

And that voice is probably right about most of it. You probably do suck, compared to where you will be in five or ten years. You might write like a five-year-old, if the five-year-old is a wunderkind. Stephen King was, indeed, younger.

But you shouldn’t quit.

That voice is the voice of dissatisfaction with where you are in your writing journey. We all hear that voice. And we’re all faced with a choice: quit or get better.

Because, obviously, that voice won’t let you stay where you are right now.
Quit or get better. Shit or get off the pot.

I’m a proponent of getting better, not quitting. I like to crack open a book right about then, and say to my father’s voice, “We’ll see about that after I learn some stuff.”

Why? Because rarely in life do we get to choose our turning points, but this is one place where we do. We can quit writing, sure, but most of us don’t. That means we can ignore this voice and simply have a fling with writing until the voice comes back, or we can face the voice head-on, arms akimbo and chin outthrust.

Nose in book; red pen on essay.

Accepting critiques or applying lessons in writing manuals are some of the toughest things we do. Acknowledging that our prose isn’t perfect, that our poetry doesn’t evoke, necessarily hurts. It stings. It damages our tiny cat feelings. It sucks.

But if we don’t acknowledge room to improve, we’ll battle all our lives with that voice that says “you aren’t good enough.” Because you know what? We aren’t good enough. We are not good enough today for tomorrow. We do not know everything. Assuming we do is hubris.

“But I can’t afford it. I don’t have time. But it’s my unique writing voice. You just don’t understand my art.”

Listen here: ANYTHING you say back to the voice in your head is an excuse. It’s not the real reason you’re reticent to take that critique. It’s not the reason you’re unwilling to pick up a book. It’s a cover for being afraid. Afraid the voice is right.

So if you acknowledge that the voice is right, you can save yourself a lot of arguing.

But shouldn’t you write for the sheer joy of writing? Yes. You feel super-joyful when you’re wondering whether you should give up your dreams. Time. Of. Your. Life.

Look, writing is awesome. That’s how it got you hooked. And sometimes it sucks, like when you have to sublimate your ego. But it will get awesome again if you get over yourself. Try it.

Just write. And learn. And write some more.

And when you hear that disapproving voice in your head: welcome it. It means that there’s something you need to learn. Dollars to doughnuts, you know what that “thing” is: it’s whatever’s bothering you about your writing. Your characters suck: go study character building. Your world is flat: go study world building. People don’t understand what you mean: study sentence structure. Your prose drags: learn to activate your verbs and select your nouns.

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. It means the end of angst and the beginning of an exciting journey toward awesomeness.

But only if you don’t quit.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Feedback Loop-or How to Become a Better Writer Fast

Feedback. Whether it’s a screeching speaker or screeching colleague, we all learn to hate it, dodge it, avoid it. When someone offers feedback, we may feel like saying, “Go ahead, tell me what’s wrong with me.”

In writing, feedback is easy to get. You post a paragraph or two, and your friends and family, teachers and associates, all tell you it’s wonderful.  You’re the next Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer, and it won’t be long until your books line their shelves.

Yeah, OK.

Part of you knows they’re blowing sunshine. And that little part of you, your internal editor, knows that you need someone to give you the other kind of feedback, the painful kind. Inner editors get demonized in writing circles. You can’t complete Nanowrimo with your inner editor on your back. But that little voice has a purpose, and its purpose is to show you the drivel.

Not that you produce any drivel. That must just be me. So why don’t you take a break and let me talk to your inner editor for the rest of this piece.

Feedback. Screeching. Pointing out flaws. You know you need it, but how are you going to get it? If you post a portion of your masterpiece, people will misunderstand. They’ll lack context. They’ll tell you that you don’t need ten pages of backstory, but you know you do. So what do you do?

You enter the feedback loop.

There’s a reason that many authors start with short stories (event though short stories can be even tougher than novels sometimes). First, it’s simple. Only one plot-line to contend with. Only a character or two. One decision in your climax and Boom! It’s done.

The second is because you get your feedback faster.  You crank out a short story, you get feedback. 95 people say they love it, but that curmudgeon in the corner always talking about “passive voice” starts in on you. And that’s the person you want to listen to. A thousand people singing your praises won’t make you a better writer; facts-based editing will. And there are facts to writing. There are rules.

Short stories also promote good storytelling. Those ten pages of backstory? Yeah, your reader doesn’t need them in a short. So you learn to write without them. That entire chapter of tea and biscuits where you catch your reader up on what’s transpired? Can’t do that in a short story. A lot of classical mistakes can be avoided in a short, so you can teach yourself not to make those mistakes in the first place.

And that’s what does it: what turns you from a dilettante to a real writer is feedback: the scary kind. The harsh kind. The kind that makes you open up textbooks or manuals of style when you feel like refuting what the critic said. The kind that causes you to clap your hands over your ears and scream, “I’m not listening.”
Because your inner editor is listening. Your inner editor is whispering, “yes, this is what’s wrong with it. That makes sense.”

Your inner editor is learning what kind of feedback to give you, so when you do Nanowrimo next year, your draft doesn’t suck quite so bad.

I write short pieces—fiction or essay—almost every day. Not for the half-dozen people I know will purr and rub against my post, but for the one or two people who will nudge their glasses higher on their noses and say, “You don’t need a comma there. This sentence drags. Passive voice.”

Because, really, the only way to get better is to know where we’re screwing up. It’s scary, yes, but also liberating. The first time you post a rough draft and no one has any crap to say about it? Priceless. Or better, when you post something and only noobs are ragging on it, and saying terribly inaccurate stuff: boss. Then you get to correct them AND rock the emotive monster.

Try it. Join a critique group (I know a good one), or a writer’s prompt group (I know a good one), or get a writing coach (I know agood one), and dive into the experience of actually becoming a better writer. The feedback loop is the only way to improve. Get out of your own way and grow!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

When Characters Don't Attack

When Characters Don’t Attack: Wrestling Them Into Your Plot

You’ve heard authors say (and maybe you, yourself, said), “My characters aren’t doing what I wanted them to do,” or “My characters have taken over my book!”

Tell the men in white coats they can go back to the asylum. It’s OK. They’re not crazy. You’re not crazy.

The thing about characters is that they’re not people. They’re distilled people. Not whole, not real, but merely cut-outs. Given salient details about a person, enough to give them a recognizeable personality, a goal, and a mode of behavior, but they aren’t actually sentient. So, when this well-defined character in your head does something strange as dances out from the keyboard, you wonder: how did he do that? And why? And how the heck do I get him to behave?

For our first answer, let’s look at the human brain. All your life, whether you know it or not, you’ve studied psychology: individual, social, group, behavioral, all of it. Why did Mom leave me? Why does Dad get so angry? How can I make her like me? These questions epitomize the search for motivation.

Mom is motivated by fear. Dad is motivated by his disappointment that life never meets his expectations. Julie is motivated by chocolate and by witty conversation. Your character needs to be motivated, too. Not just a little bit, but VERY motivated. Internally, externally, emotionally, logically, your character needs to have such a good argument for doing something that he could not possibly decide any other behavior.

Our brains make assumptions. We leap to what we think is going to happen, not what actually does happen. How do you think we drive? If we waited for the visual signal of the car in front of us to acctually process, we’d have already hit it. So our brain assumes that the car in front of us is stopping as soon as we see the brake lights and hear the screech of the tires. We don’t have to see it stop. We don’t have to feel the impact of our car hitting theirs. We are compelled by our assumptions, by our motivations, to stop the car.

Maybe we don’t need to slam the brakes, so we spill coffee on ourselves and feel silly. That’s OK. It beats dying. Maybe you overmotivate your character, and only one or two of the motivations you use actually provide real meaning. That’s OK. Go ahead and overmotivate them. But don’t you dare undermotivate.

And undermotivated character is a wildcard. It’s willful; it’s disobedient. It’s like a bored teenager: you don’t know what it’s going to do. It could explode. It could implode. It could turn Goth.

When you hear someone say: “My character did x, when I wanted him to do y,” you know it’s an under-motivated character. The vast computer that is the author’s brain calculated the personality of the character, the stimulus, and the motivation the character feels and came up with bupkis.


Time to dig deep into that character’s psyche. Time to examine whether disappointment or chocolate, witty conversation or fear motivates the character, and then provide that in spades for them. Make the situation so bad for the character that he must leap off the building. Make the chocolate smell so good that she must meet the man who baked it. Make the mother so terrified of her own failures that she must leave, to spare her children the heartbreak of her mucked-up life.

Increase the stakes. Drive the tension up. Create circumstances that force the character to do what needs to come next. And any time your character appears to hijack your manuscript, you look them right in the motivations.

A Close Third

Third person point of view(POV) is the most common POV for fiction. Third-person means the narrator is telling a story about some third person (i.e., not you or themselves). Although the days of narration are mostly long behind us, the art and craft of telling a story in third person remains one of the most important skills a writer can master.

A good third-person POV is intimate We may or may not know the thoughts of the character ("limited" if we do not hear their thoughts), but we know their attitude. We see everything through their lens, hovering just behind their ear, along for the ride.

But how do you do it?

If you’re like most writers, your third-person goes something like this: “Amanda walked to the store. She saw the children playing in the sprinklers. From behind her, she smelled the sweet scent of freshly baked cookies. She thought about how much she liked cookies, and how she could use one right about now.”

Using the senses: check. Active construction: check.

“So what’s wrong with that?” you ask.

And I answer with another question: while you’re reading this, where are YOU? You’re with Amanda, sure. But if this were a movie, where is the camera?

It’s somewhere else, looking at Amanda.

Well, heck, if I wanted to watch a movie, I’d go rent one.

No. I want to be IN Amanda. I want to experience her life. I want to be the hero, darn it!

So now, how do we get intimate with Amanda? (Look, I know you are all laughing behind your hands at the double entendre, but focus, grasshoppers, this is important.)

We do it by eliminating as many references to Amanda as we can. We do it by pretending we’re writing a Holodeck program: we can influence the world, but not Amanda. We can react to her, but we can’t make her do anything.

So here’s how it goes. First sentence: “Amanda walked to the store.” How can we make this sentence about her surroundings? Is Amanda tired? Is she happy? We don’t know, so let’s pick one: happy. This influences how she perceives her surroundings.

"The concrete passed underfoot like gray treadmill.” “The miles unspooled behind her.” “The world bounced with her every step, as if jumping for joy.”

Ok, but we haven’t gotten to the store, right? Ah, now you see a major point: showing uses up more words than telling. It “unpacks” the narrative, and brings out experience. And that’s what makes a third-person perspective intimate: the reader becomes the main character, just as completely as in first or the rarely-used second person. So go out there and take the camera out of the sky, or off the ground. Nestle it right behind your POV-character’s ear, and record the sights and sounds from there. Try to limit the number of times you reference your character at all. Let the inanimate objects do the work instead of some distant narrator.