Friday, December 13, 2013

Unplugging Story Constipation

Had a former student email me and ask for some of the suggestions I had for his class a few years back for when you've started a short story and are stuck in the middle and don't know where to go. We've all been there.

Here were my thoughts:

(1) think of where the story seems to logically be going, and DON'T DO THAT, (2) consider where readers would be happy to see it go, and DON'T DO THAT, (3) get sky-high on coffee, or good and buzzed on whiskey, and, well, DO THAT for now, (4) say, "Fuck it, this story is too hard," and DON'T DO THAT.

Here were my further, more constructive, thoughts:

Don't be afraid to write the ending that you think is too weird, too obscure, or that nobody will get. As long as it's connected to the rest of the story, it's cool. Don't underestimate your readers. You're not writing for the simplest readers, you're writing for the best readers. Here is something that has worked for me many, many times:

Write an ending that you don't understand but that looks cool image-wise and sounds like it means more than it seems. Now, connect the dots from A (beginning) to C (ending) with B: tension and action and narrative drive. How can you make this bridge?

For example, say I've started a story about an old farmer who is frustrated because his college-age son never stays around to help on summer days and always sneaks off to play tennis. I get to the middle and he's working out in the field, and I get stuck. So, I think of all the obvious stuff: son comes around and helps father more, father learns to respect that his son has other dreams, blah blah blah. Not doing those. Instead, I try to think of a powerful image. I come up with, "Farmer Krewder let his wife's words hang in the air for a moment, and then he took out his pocketknife and starting cutting the string's on Jason's tennis racket one by one. 'You're going to cut yourself,' she said. 'No,' he said. 'There's no blood here.'"

What the hell does that mean? That's what I want to find out when writing the bridge from A to C. Come to find out in this case, Farmer Krewder's wife has explained to him that his son Jason told her he is gay and cares for his tennis partner. The ending I've written seems to show that Dad is not happy or very open about this revelation. I may have to tweak the beginning and the middle some to avoid "deus ex machina" and build further tension in scenes, but the ending has meaning and is not too cliche or common, perhaps.

It's worked for me many times--writing the beginning first, the ending second, and the middle last.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Starting New Stories: a Reliable Way to Avoid the Mythical "Writer's Block"

I've had a couple of former students email me recently expressing their desire to write stories but their frustration that when they sit down, no ideas come to them. As I've said, I don't believe in writer's block--you can write something, but . . . here's an old trick I've used many times and shared with students over the years that can jumpstart your subconscious (which is where the best short story drafting comes from).

It starts today, ideally in your writer's journal (don't have one? Start one. Here's your first entry). Do this: (1) make a list of at least 10 character names (and add to it once a week or so)--make them interesting and varied: Larry "Lemon" Haggerty, Julia Rosebottom, Hines Redd, Carl "Hoggy" Smith, Lisa Jobile, Idaho Richarson, etc. (2) makes a list of 10-15 concrete nouns (add to it as you can)--again, varied: spoon, kitchen matches, lighter, helium birthday balloon, can of sausages, child's princess tiara, etc. (3) make a list of one-sentence desciptions of small, specific settings (add others when you can): backseat of a white '72 Buick Skylark with electrical tape holding the seat leather together; an overgrown flowergarden next to a carport cluttered with junk attached to Old Man Shaver's house; the back stoop of a Chinese restaurant next to a trash bin where stray dogs gather, etc.

Now, one day when you sit down and don't know what to write about, pull out these lists, choose a name, object, and place (or better yet, have someone else do it), and start writing. See where it takes you (sometimes use two names, or two objects--mix it up).

For example: "Some of the dogs barked and whined over by the trash bin, but a mangy hound crept slowly toward Julia Rosebottom with two of the saddest eyes she'd ever seen. He seemed to be looking at the sagging helium birthday balloon that floated just above her head on its string, which she'd wrapped around her pinky like a ring. Julia wiped the tears from her eyes and tried to coax the dog over to the stoop she was sitting on by scratching her fingers against the concrete."

It's rough, but it's a start. There's a character in a place with a situation. Now it's up to me (you! our subconscious) to figure out where the story goes from here.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Talkin' 'Bout God with Little Biggun

Little Biggun is my five-year-old daughter, as most who might be taking a look here know. She's a character, ornery and verbose. Conversations with her can be like trying to read Camus while drunk, with a Faulkner audiobook playing in the background. I'll let the dialogue below speak for itself. She walked into the dining room, where I was trying to work on revisions for a crime noir story about my bad girl, Rose Holmes, for an anthology called Lucky 13.

Her: Daddy, I have a question I've wondered my whole life.

Me: What? And your whole life, huh?

Her: Well, since I was, you know, God-birthed.

Me, laughing: What is it?

Her: Why did God make us?


Me: God made us in the image of himself.

Her: Did God have a big beard like you? And blue eyes like us?

Me (having creepy Hitler thoughts): I don't know. But that means he had an appearance like people, like all people, I guess.

Her: But why did he make us?

Me: Maybe he . . . uh . . . was lonely.

Her: But he had a Mary-wife and Jesus.

Me: Well, he had Jesus as a son--Mary wasn't his wife, she was Joseph's.

Her: But God and Mary had a baby.

Me: Not the way a mama and daddy do it. This was more like magic. It's called an immaculate conception.

Her: Like magic sex?

Me, starting to sweat a lot: YOU KNOW WHAT SEX IS?

Her: Just having a baby together.

Me: That's right.

Her: How could God be lonely? He had all the animals before he made people.

Me: I guess he couldn't talk to them.

Her: Da-aaaad, God could talk to animals. He's God.

Me: I guess you're right.

Her: But people can't talk to them.

Me: Maybe a little with dolphins and monkeys, but not really, no.

Her: How do people do that? Talk with them?

Me: Science.

Her: But I bet God can talk to all of them!

Me: Sure.

Her: Science is stupid.

Me: Some is, some isn't.

Her: Why doesn't God talk to us?

Me: He may listen when he can, when we pray. He's busy.

Her: Busy doing what?

Me: I really have to go to the bathroom.


Her, from the other side of the bathroom door: Dad! Why did God give boys and girls different pee-ers?!


Monday, June 24, 2013

10 Weird Novels That Make Me Question My Own Abilities

I love horror fiction. Crave it. But lately I've whittled things down a bit to try and figure out what it is in a story or book that really grabs me, forces me to immerse myself in the story, engages me to the point of forgetting I'm reading.

It's the weirdness.

I know what I really love the best (along with maybe post-apocalyptic fiction) is "the weird tale." This does go back to the wonderful era with H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard in the original Weird Tales magazine and includes other incarnations of the magazine, including most recently Ann Vandermeer's editorship of it.

But for my definition of "weird tale," I narrow it down to this, to two types of stories: (1) the ordinary, reality-based tale where something weird happens, be it supernatural or uncanny, or other worldly, or even surreal or magical, and real folks have to deal with it, and (2) stories that emphasize the weirdness of real life--the Grotesque or Southern Gothic, as genres, and stories that have a bizarreness to them like a freakshow. For (2), the content has to be very over the top, though, by my definition.

This would discount things like high-fantasy, for example, because it treats everything mythical and magical as a truth or as ordinary.

But I digress . . . so, here, with a definite leaning towards horror, is my list of the 10 Weird Novels That Make Me Question My Own Abilities (an author could only appear once):

10. Pandora Drive, Tim Waggoner
9. Silk, Caitlin Kiernan
8. Revelation, Bentley Little
7. Sineater, Elizabeth Massie
6. Freezer Burn, Joe R. Lansdale
5. The Keeper, Sarah Langan
4. A Choir of Ill Children, Tom Piccirilli
3. From a Buick 8, Stephen King
2. Gone South, Robert McCammon
1. Shadowland, Peter Straub

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

8 Books You Might Like & My E-Book Opinion

I'm not the kind of person that can do a "Year's Best" novel list. Years and years of teaching fiction writing leave me with the clear sense that story preference is just that: preference. It's based upon taste and is subjective, as long as the story is well written, of course (a lot aren't--some writers seem to think the idea alone can carry the story, and they leave craft and language control out for the trash burning). I do think--because I love the form--that I'd be confident enough to do "best" list with short stories, but that might be another day . . .

This said, here're some novels I read in 2012 that I reckon are worth recommending. They may or may not be on my mental "best" list. Not all of 'em were published in 2012. They're just some that I read. My main focus in putting this together is to skip the books I read by well-known or best-selling authors (King, McCammon, etc.) and promote some good writers that some of y'all may not have heard of. And, yes, a few of them might be my friends--but they're not on here because of that; they are on here because they did the work, talked the talk, and walked the walk, and produced a book. Specifically, a book that I enjoyed reading. One that might not be making as much money as it should. And, I'm a writer. I have a lot of writer friends.

One final thing before I give you the list. Out of the 35 or so books I read last year (I remember being able to read 90-100 before I was a writing teacher--sigh), about half of them were e-books. I still love my paperbacks and hardbacks and my favorite reading chair, but being able to read books on my phone (or laptop, etc.) on the spur of a moment has given me a little bit more reading time. I like the luxury. But I still like paper books better. I'm hoping and willing to bet that there is room for both of them for a good long while.

So, give these a look, and see what you think. If it sounds good, help these good folks out a little by grabbing a copy or buying the e-book:

Bad Apple, by Kristi Petersen Schoonover. A dark, surreal tale about a teen named Scree and her unusual family circumstances. Psychological horror at its best. The author has a great sense of voice.

This Dark Earth, by John Hornor Jacobs (though John may be on the verge of being well known, if he isn't already--I just guess that some of y'all might not have read him yet). I love zombie novels, and this is one of the best. Character driven, claustrophobic, unique, and to top it off, the author has real style, a wonderful gift with language.

Fear, by Ronald Kelly. Young Jeb has to deal with a dark legend, that of a part-snake and part-demon flesheater in the backwoods of Tennessee. (Kelly was a force to be reckoned with in the horror genre, and now he is up and at it again.)

Blood and Bullets, by James R. Tuck. Deacon Chalk, bounty hunter. This is not your subtle, blossoming-magic urban fantasy. Tough and action packed. Plenty of supernatural and monster carnage.

The Black Death of Babylon, Edward J. McFadden III. Adventure, mystery, horror, and science fiction . . . this book goes everywhere. A lovers' triangle, secret chambers, a disgusting disease, conspiracies . . .

Overkill, Steven Shrewsbury. Gory, darkly funny, philosophical sword and sorcery fiction about Gorias La Gaul, one tough barbarian. The raw and brutal prose fits the story.

Rabbits in the Garden, Jessica McHugh. Psychological suspense. Asylum fiction, as I call it--I love this setting for stories, and this book doesn't disappoint and goes to some dark and crazy places.

Haunting Obsession, by RJ Sullivan. A good ghost story about how being too obsessed with a dead celebrity can have problematic effects on your life. Daryl Beasley collects all things Maxine Marie and learns this the hard way.

I know I might have forgotten some that deserve to be here, too, but without thumbing through my journal where I log my reading, these came to mind. There were lots of great collections, anthologies, and stories, too, but this list is limited to novels. I hope you'll give some of 'em a read.

Books don't read. People with books read. So, get to it.