Are You Published?

By Amy Rivers

An author walks into a conference. She smiles, shakes hands, and introduces herself to fellow authors. Then someone asks the question, “are you published?” She immediately starts to sweat. Why you ask? Because this loaded question is frequently followed by some variation of the qualifying question, “Who did you publish with?” 

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Are You Living in A Novel?

By David E. Sharp

Among my early writings was a theatrical production about an evening of fine dining gone horribly wrong. Faux pas are made. The kitchen catches fire. A food critic dies. Twice. You get the idea.

We staged it in a restaurant with no stage. The audience simply enjoyed it from a unique perspective of being part of the set, seated at tables, eating their dinner as they “eavesdropped” on the events unfolding around them.

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Craft Books: The Fine Dining Experience

By Shelley Widhalm

Reading fiction is like having a sweet chocolatey snack, but reading and writing books is the main course, the wine and dessert combined. And if you haven’t heard it by now, reading all of the books is one of the foundational ways of improving your writing mind.

If reading fiction is the chocolate soufflé of this dining metaphor. Craft books serve as the main course. I dig the main course. I am constantly working on the craft. Nothing like a prime filet mignon or a solid cauliflower steak to fuel the body. A skillful wine pairing brings out the best of the meal. You can relish the nuances of flavor and spice in both the food and the glass. I am inspired by these little nuggets whenever I experience burnout or the doldrums. And the dessert because . . . well, because.

Writing is my profession—I’m a professional writer and editor. Some people consider it a hobby because I am working on getting traditionally published. I’ve been writing for 20-plus years, meaning I’ve read dozens of writing books to learn and improve my craft, collecting a few favorites along the way.

Most of the books I purchased and can’t give up, but some I checked out from the library, feeling sad they can’t have a place on my bookshelf.

Everything in moderation, apparently.

The most satisfying five offer a little bit of everything: solid main dish, perfect wine pairings, and of course, dessert.

The Book for Plotters And Pantsers

Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel, Lisa Cron.

Main Dish: I love the concept of the third rail, so essential for hooking readers and developing successful novels. The third rail is about the viewpoint character’s internal struggle. Everything in the story must point to this struggle—the plot, the action, and the details. The conflict is what the character must learn, overcome, and deal with internally to solve the problem presented by the external plot. The external and internal layers of the story must be woven with the plot, beginning to end. 

Wine: I love workbooks, and this book helps you identify the character’s internal struggle, then blueprint your novel’s opening, the ending, the characters, the why (what your character cares about), and the unexplored world of the WHAT (the point you want to make and that will tell you what internal problem the story is about).

Dessert:  I am working through the exercises to help me as I write my next novel. It’s about a sex-crazed, insecure journalist whose world is sent into an uproar by the arrival of an IT professional on break from responsibility. 

The Book to Address The Basics

Crafting Novels & Short Stories: The Complete Guide to Writing Great Fiction, The Editors of Writer’s Digest.

Main Course: Written in essay format, the book covers the basics of the writing craft with sections on character, plot and conflict, point of view, setting and backstory, dialog, description, and word choice—the idea is to help writers identify what’s working and what isn’t working for them.

Between sections, there are tips for the writing life, such as how to get started and feed your creativity. There are comparisons between long-form and short-form writing or novels, short stories, flash fiction, and novellas. For instance, the short form foregoes the middle of books and has just a beginning and end, and the number of characters and scenes is limited.

Wine: Writer’s block makes me want to drink, but I just keep to coffee and one or two glasses of my fav. Elizabeth Sims writes about writer’s block in her essay, “Start Me Up,” “When your writing feels heavy and effortful, chances are your imagination is tired. Adding some nastiness can work wonders.”

Sims suggests upping the antics by doing some free writing and applying what you dig up in the story, such as greater character depth or more exciting action. When I think of nastiness, I think of making things super hard for the character and then letting her squirm. 

Dessert: Here, it’s found in Appendix A, “Fiction Genre Descriptions.” I learned about Roman A Clefs, novels that incorporate real people and events under the guise of fiction, and all the different mystery and romance sub-genres. My fav is Glitz (not just because I like to dress up and be all sparkly), but also because I want to learn about “wealthy characters with high-powered positions in careers that are considered glamorous … and are set in exciting or exotic locales.”

I want to go to an exciting locale like the bar … where there’s . . . um, wine. 

The Critical Book

Conflict & Suspense, James Scott Bell 

Main Dish: The book is divided into two parts, the first about conflict and the second about suspense—no surprises there, given the title! What’s excellent is Bell’s advice about brainstorming for conflict and understanding conflict from the foundations to the structure and how it interweaves all the elements of a story.

Suspense involves much the same, and Bell advises stretching the tension. The key to tension is waiting, and the longer, the better. Tension is created by providing the viewpoint character a scene goal. Something keeps the protagonist from resolving the conflict, and the character suffers a setback. Throw in the ticking clock, such as attaching a time limit.

Add obstacles to prevent character relief, releasing that tension at the last moment (not just in the climax, but in more minor time pressures along the way).

Dessert: For each scene, set up the Objective, Obstacle, and Outcome and strive for something surprising, such as in the dialog, a character action, or an event. The great thing about dessert is the surprise that you still have room for it. This sentence toward the end of the book is a spoiler.

Still, it sums up why a full meal is essential to a pleasant gastronomic experience(or read). “If your story is paced with confrontation and tension and complications and surprises and twists and cliff-hangers and emotions, you may have a shot at a writing career.”

The Wildly Strong Reactions Book

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott 

Main Dish: This is the meal that everyone loves or loves to hate. You know, like “Hawaiian Pizza”. Though written in a random musing sort of way, this book offers a lot of great writing tips. I like how Lamott describes the process of the writer needing to get out of her own way and that if you keep writing, the words will arrive. She recommends starting small with short assignments and writing as much as possible through a small picture frame.

Wine: This is the best part of the meal. Like the best part of writing, the wine is the shitty first draft, where you get to let it all out. Later drafts are where the good writing comes in, like wine that ferments with time.

Lamott says, “Writing is not rapturous,” but instead takes the process to figure out what’s happening in the story, such as the direction and the beautiful sentences that take removing to get to the core. It takes letting the unconscious do its work, and if monitored too tightly, it will say, “Shut up and go away.”

Dessert: Perfectionism is okay for sweet gooey caramel and chocolate, but in writing, it can block playfulness and inventiveness, taking away the fun. That’s not good for me because I place pleasure high on my Hierarchy of Needs. Lamott is all about the mini-sized Milky Way bar, perfect in a pinch without the need for a lengthy preparation.

The Vegetable Book: Not Always Delicious, But Necessary for A Balanced Diet

Have You Eaten Grandma? Or, the Live-Saving Importance of Correct Punctuation, Grammar, and Good English, Gyles Brandreth 

Main Course: This writer and chancellor of the University of Chester add humor to his informal grammar and punctuation rules guide. While also gives some fun comparisons between American and British English, including how unusual words are spelled and different word usages. Calling himself the “punctuation perfectionist,” Brandreth uses a storytelling format to explain the rules. He provides compelling examples of punctuation, dashes, apostrophes, prefixes, and plurals (really, check it out!).

Wine: Brandreth says, “Punctuation is essential to clear communication. Without punctuation, no one knows what’s going on.” You might not know what’s going on if you drink too much wine. That’s why I like to stop at a glass. Period. The period is the most fundamental of all punctuation marks, by the way.

Dessert: I like the “Extra Rules” and “The Rules: Guidance for Good Communication.” He says, “You can start a sentence with a conjunction now and then.” (And that makes me so happy!) I like his five A’s: Be accurate, ambitious, adventurous, accepting, and aware. To be adventurous in grammar, “Dare to be different in the words you use and how you use them.”

I have other favorite writing books, but I can’t find them. I put them in boxes, and I lost the boxes somewhere in my storage unit. I’m sad about that, but I’ll move on since there are other books in the sea (or was that fish?). In fact, I’m happy when I think about eating, drinking, and being merry with my wine and my dessert, and when I’m writing, reading books about writing, or writing about writing.

Story Genius

Crafting Novels & Short Stories

Conflict and Suspense

Have You Eaten Grandma?

A Story about Stories

By Brian Kaufman

I would argue that almost every story idea has already been told. The secret to originality is two-fold. First, make the story truly yours (there being only one of you). And second, layer the thing until unpacking it is like separating strands of angel hair pasta. 

It is an energetic, first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist.

It helps to be a little crazy. My guess is that the readers of this blog are fellow travelers in crazy land, so let me relate a tale of stories, storytellers, and stories about storytellers.

Hunter S. Thompson said that he first heard the term “Gonzo” from a Boston editor, who claimed the word was Boston slang for “weird.” Other suggestions for the word’s origin include the Italian word for rude and the Spanish word for foolish.

This distinctive brand of journalism was never intended to be objective. In fact, the gonzo writer takes center stage, making personal observations and reactions the entire point.

“The writer must be a participant in the scene . . . like a film director who writes his own scripts, does his own camera work, and somehow manages to film the action as the protagonist, or at least the main character.”

~Hunter S. Thompson

I went back to school at Colorado State University when I was in my late forties, hoping to eventually switch careers. I did. I was fortunate to take a literature course from an incredible professor who regularly gave us enough rope to hang ourselves. For example, after reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he charged the class with demonstrating what Hunter S. was all about.

My idea was to perform a prank—something Thompson was famous for. 

Thompson once celebrated Jack Nicholson’s birthday by launching a 40-million-candlepower flare overhead and pointing a spotlight directly at Nicholson’s home while playing a tape of pig shrieks through a loudspeaker. Thompson then fired a few rounds from his handgun. He expected Nicholson to come out and praise this creative way of saying, “Happy Birthday!” 

Surprisingly, the actor stayed inside.

A friend spent an insane night with Hunter S. on another occasion, setting fire to a boat. The friend concluded his account with the observation that if you thought you were in on Hunter’s jokes, you were the joke.

This last thought hatched an idea. 

I told the good professor my plan and convinced him to miss a lecture and turn the class over to a substitute.

In a meeting with the class, I explained part of my idea. We would produce a performance art piece exhibiting the worst behaviors in upper education history and film the substitute teacher’s reactions. One of the students had a video camera. We brainstormed some hilarious gags, turning our creativity loose. No handguns, though.

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

~Hunter S. Thompson

I arranged the substitute professor myself. She came to mind because I thought she could dead-pan her way through an hour without giving anything away. When I explained what I had in mind, she jumped at the chance.

The class, however, did not know that the substitute prof would be in on the shenanigans. More on that later.

“No, we are getting ahead of our story, and only a jackass would do that.”

~Hunter S. Thompson

The appointed day arrived. Every member of the class participated in the insanity. Let me share some of the best moments with you:

  • One student gave a show-and-tell presentation on pets. Unfortunately, he had terrible luck with pets. They’d all died, so he showed a flow chart of his past dead pets, even managing some tears.
  • Everyone was welcome to speak, but not everyone at once, so we had a system. Whoever held the “free speech” stuffed animal had the floor. Better, there were two stuffed animals—one blue and one pink—for male and female students. These were passed (or thrown) to allow new speakers.
  • The mock class assignment was to present personal reactions to Nabokov’s Lolita. I gave a brief presentation on the author’s Biblical references. (Hint: there are no Biblical references in Lolita, so I made them up.)
  • One young lady explained that the novel resonated with her because of her relationship with her seventh-grade history professor. (Some laughter can be horrifying.)
  • Another student noted the edition of Lolita we were reading had a picture of a girl with a bicycle on the cover. She then talked about her first bicycle . . . for ten minutes.
  • Throughout, students lurched out of their chairs, announcing that they needed to go to the restroom. Six female students went together at one point.

As I mentioned, the festivities were filmed. Our cameraman narrated and commented throughout, adding a layer of self-referencing. After a while, we forgot all about the assignment. We were too busy reveling in silliness.

“We’d be fools not to ride this strange torpedo all the way out to the end.”

~Hunter S. Thompson

We delivered the finished VHS tape to our regular, beloved professor and waited for the next class to hear his verdict.

The professor was solemn when he arrived (late) to class, carrying a letter. He felt that perhaps we’d gotten a little out of hand. The substitute, he explained, had reported us to the Dean, and we would be facing an inquiry and possible expulsion.

Disbelieving students glared at me. Angry muttering was heard.

Then, our dear professor said, “I’m just kidding.” He added a kicker. “By the way, Brian set you all up. The substitute was a plant.”

If you think you’re in on the joke, friends, you are the joke. Our professor understood perfectly, something I realized there, under the bus.

I am a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson. His prose draws a jagged line between insightful, poetic, and insane. I never took his kind of lifestyle plunge, but my toe’s been in the water enough to understand a little and be inspired by it.

Steampunk is a literary genre that seeks to reverse engineer technology and present it in a historical (usually Victorian) format. I recently co-wrote a novel with Aaron Spriggs (The Strange and Savage Life of a Brass-Key Journalist – Piston Valve Press). Not content with bringing modern tech back into the past, we also brought a cultural phenomenon—gonzo journalism—to the 1870s. My share of the toad-licking insanity that ensues started in a CSU classroom.

One last story (and this was a story about stories—untangle that). A friend of a friend claimed to have gone to Woody Creek to get his copy of Fear and Loathing autographed. When he came upon the author, he made his request. Thompson threw the book on the ground, pulled out his pistol, and shot it.

Best autograph ever.

Some Things Are Too Strange And Too Strong

By Katie Lewis

Growing up, I was a voracious reader. I always completed the reading challenges to get my personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut. I circled at least one book every month when we got the Scholastic book magazine back in ye olden days before the internet.

And every summer, I completed the summer reading challenge at the library. While I read just about everything, however, it was the books that went against the grain that inspired me the most to put pen to paper myself.

Start ‘Em Young
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Books I Blame

by David E. Sharp

I was not born with a laptop and a mug of black coffee in my hands. This is a fact for which my mother is still grateful. It took a lot of tragic, misguiding circumstances to set me on my course to become a writer. The story, as I tell it, goes like this:

I was browsing through a bookstore one day. I pulled a volume off the shelf to examine it. As I flipped through the pages, I felt a sharp pain in my hand. The book had given me a nasty paper cut. Thinking nothing of it, I proceeded through the day and eventually went to bed.

The following day, I found a shitty first draft in my handwriting. It got longer every night. I am now cursed to undergo a hideous transformation every night (I get scruffy whiskers and develop an unquenchable thirst for potent coffee). I fear it will continue until I receive a bad review written in silver ink, finally killing the beast!

The story, as I tell it, is a lie.

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The Books That Made Me

By Brian Kaufman

Along the lines of “everything happens for a reason,” my wife believes that everything that happens and everyone you meet is there to teach you something. I don’t argue with that—if you care to learn from your experiences, you will.

The other thing to know is that I have read many books in my life. Some of those books helped make me, for better or worse, the writer I am now. Some titles are books on the craft. Others were novels that inspired me or showed me a new direction for my writing. My choices are a fine mix of classics and oddities. But all of them taught me something.

Start with my early reading. My first books were comics and Golden Books. Those first stories taught me the elements of fiction—theme (The Little Engine that Could), setting (A Day on the Farm), and plot (Scuffy the Tugboat).

I loved A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh tales the most. My folks even bought me Disney LPs with stories narrated by Sterling Holloway. (If you never heard the man’s voice, you missed out.)

As an adult, I understand the brilliance of Milne’s books—nostalgic, layered, and above all else, kind. As an adult, I see complex texts that can be interpreted differently. For example, I recently discovered the speculation that the residents of Hundred Acre Wood each represented a mental health diagnosis. A Canadian Medical Association Journal article suggested that Pooh suffered from OCD and ADHD. Milne taught me that simple stories told in clean, straightforward prose can be incredibly complex.

My first chapter books were classic Victorian science fiction. Jules Verne (A Journey to the Center of the Earth/From the Earth to the Moon) and H.G. Wells (The Time Machine) sparked a lifetime love of reading and an appreciation of speculative fiction. 

When I was in junior high, a friend slipped me a copy of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and told me to read the first chapter. That was my introduction to a narrative so gripping that I simply couldn’t put it down—that thing editors advise for the opening pages of your dream novel. I experienced the same thing when I read Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. I have not yet crafted an opening that grabs readers by the throat like that, but it’s on my bucket list.

Character is the element of fiction and poetry that intrigues me most. The image of Tennyson’s Ulysses pitching one last adventure to the ghosts of his dead friends inspired me. As did the bluster and greatness in equal measure of Charles Portis’s Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Because I love complex characters, I am a fan of Jane Austen, particularly Sense and Sensibility. I was similarly inspired by Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Male authors don’t always do an excellent job with female characters. McMurtry made me want to dig deeper.

Well, the first man that comes along that can read Latin is invited to rob us as far as I’m concerned. I’d like a chance to shoot at a educated man once in my life.

Captain Gus McCrae, Lonesome Dove

I have a small selection of books on craft on my Always Keep shelf. The one that impacted me most was John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. Chapter Five—Common Errors—is the single best piece of writing about writing I’ve encountered. I made a computer list of his notes, adding bonus errors that I’m personally prone to. It’s a prodigious list, I assure you. I don’t think I’ve gone a month without reviewing my notes. 

I would recommend Philip Gerard’s Writing a Book That Makes a Difference because that’s something most writers want to do. I also loved Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life. Charles Schulz was a subversive. Many of his cartoons were a sly commentary on art and artists.

I am a big believer in literary arcs. Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole and Joe Pike stories inspired my ideas about character arcs. Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry introduced me to the notion of symbolic arcs. 

Umberto Ecco’s The Name of the Rose gave me an appreciation for thematic density. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged amazed me for the sheer scope of what the author attempted. 

Lately, I’ve been reminded of additional elements of craft thanks to some excellent new novels. A love of lush prose and musical dialog sparked by Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was refreshed when I read Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing. It’s a narrative so pleasant to the ears that I bought an audio version just to hear the words spoken out loud.

Colson Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle reminded me that fictional characters have jobs and can be deeply involved in the everyday details of business. You might think that the requirements of drama demand the removal of such things. (If you’re really old, you’ll remember that Ozzie Nelson had no visible job.)

But Whitehead reminded me that the ins and outs of the furniture business can be every bit as gripping as the shady business of crime. 

Some books taught me what not to do. Such stories can be inspirational in a backhanded sort of way. 

It’s one of the most commonly quoted Stephen King-isms. “Books are a uniquely portable magic. If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

The NCW book bazaar happens on June 11th, which means there are books just waiting to inspire you. Buy books. Get busy.

A Conference Intervention

By The NCW Leadership Team

We are all gearing up for the conference. It’s been a while. Yes, we’re putting on a hybrid event this year. Sure, we hosted an amazing virtual conference last year. But for some of us it’s time to step out of the Zoom box and see people IRL.

It’s safe to say, writers tend to stay on the introvert side of things, so even if the last few years hadn’t been a dumpster fire, we might be struggling with meeting people face to face.

Sometimes it serves our creative mojos to peek our heads out of our doors and mingle. With people.

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The Conference Survival Handbook

By David E. Sharp

Blah, blah blah, conferences are a boon to writers. Blah, blah, blah, you are going to learn so much. Buckle up, because this the hard sell. Beyond the panels, the topical sessions, and the opportunity to connect with other writers, a conference grants you the unparalleled prospect of meeting industry professionals.

Go Forth And Meet Your People!
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Adventurer: Answer The Sirens’ Call

By Katie Lewis

Choosing to attend a writer’s conference can be a daunting quest. Beyond the general social anxiety, there’s also the practical worry of wanting to ensure we spend our limited time and money wisely. I put out the call to adventure, dear wanderers lo though we are sometimes wary of putting ourselves at risk.

While we all have different reasons for making that challenging decision (landing an agent being the least important factor), all that matters is what you take away, what you learn, and how your thinking evolves as a result.

We attend conferences to learn, to inspire, and to have an opportunity to put on something other than sweatpants.

Photo Courtesy of Memedroid
My first attempt was also the worst.

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