26 February 2010

Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules

Continuing the theme of lists of writing tips...
I think this whole thing started with The Guardian's "Ten rules for writing fiction". Check it out.
In particular, Elmore Leonard has an excellent list:
  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" .
  5. Keep your exclamation points ­under control.
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose".
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

We pretty much live by these rules in my critique group.
Which author's tip(s) do you find helpful?

Coming February 28: a new issue of Electric Spec!

24 February 2010

What Readers Want

www.salon.com had an interesting article yesterday: A Reader's Advice to Writers. The bullet points are:
  1. Make your main character want something.
  2. Make your main character do something.
  3. The components of a novel that readers care about most are, in order: story, characters, theme, atmosphere/setting.
  4. Remember that nobody agrees on what a beautiful prose style is and most readers either can't recognize "good writing" or don't value it that much.
  5. A sense of humor couldn't hurt.

I think this is good advice for novelists and short story writers.

What do you think?

Support the Million Writers Award

I'm sure some of our savvy readers and writers already know about this, but the 2010 deadline for the Million Writers is fast approaching (February 28, 2010). The purpose of the storySouth Million Writers Award is to honor and promote the best fiction published in online literary journals and magazines during 2009. This award aims to show that world-class fiction is being published online and to promote this fiction to the larger reading and literary community.

We Electric Spec editors heartily support this concept.

Read more about it here.

Nominate a story here.

20 February 2010

2009 Bram Stoker Award Nominees

It must be award season. :)
The 2009 Bram Stoker Award Nominees were just announced.
  • "Keeping Watch" by Nate Kenyon (Monstrous: 20 Tales of Giant Creature Terror)
  • "The Crossing of Aldo Ray" by Weston Ochse (The Dead That Walk)
  • "In the Porches of My Ears" by Norman Prentiss (Postscripts #18)
  • "The Night Nurse" by Harry Shannon (Horror Drive-in)

For more info, see the Horror Writers Association.
Congratulations to all the nominees!

19 February 2010

2009 Nebula Awards Final Ballot

The SFWA just announced the 2009 Nebula nominees.
Of interest to this group, for short story:
  • “Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela,” Saladin Ahmed (Clockwork Phoenix 2, Norilana Press, Jul09)
  • “I Remember the Future,” Michael A. Burstein (I Remember the Future, Apex Publications, Nov08)
  • “Non-Zero Probabilities,” N. K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld, Nov09)
  • “Spar,” Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld, Oct09)
  • “Going Deep,” James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jun09)
  • “Bridesicle,” Will McIntosh (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jan09)

I found one of the novel nominees interesting: The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Nightshade, Sep09). Recall my post on it.

Read about the 2009 nominees.

Congratulations to all the nominees!

17 February 2010

Soul Mining

A comment from my last spurred some further thought.

I grew up with the idea that writing is essentially personal, that it should speak to you and come from deep inside, and no amount of technique could ever produce something more beautiful than what's really coming from the depth of your experience. Writing workshops here [France] encourage people to express their deeper thoughts rather than learn about technique, to the point that sometimes, you learn very little indeed in the way of technique and craft... What do you think of this?

I think studying craft and technique are important, obviously, but... but. Solid craft will only take you so far if you have no idea what you're trying to say. I find this comment interesting because I've found the opposite to be true here in the States, especially for genre fiction.

There are obvious ramifications of writing from your soul, much less examining it at length. But really, we are all writing from our souls. I think it's impossible to avoid. Whether it's an accident or on purpose separates the wheat from the chaff among writers, and every writer will benefit from taking a good hard look at why they write what they do.

I think it's an oft neglected topic, soul mining, in craft discussions. I do know one writer who tackles it on her blog, Alexandra Sokoloff, who refers to it by way of themes. She says each writer only has a few themes, which they revisit over and over, and she recommends we make a list of favorite books and films and search out their similarities in a first step to discovering personal themes.

Two of my favorite films are THE BOONDOCK SAINTS and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. After making my list, I realized I tend to explore religion and violence pretty often. Some thought and research led me to the theory of just war, or the more specific Latin: jus ad bellum and jus in bello. More thought led me to label one of my personal themes Religiously Motivated Hatred.

I'm not saying that every story you write must be intensely personal, but I think most of what we write is somewhat personal whether we realize it or not. For instance: the last story I sold has a definite theme of jus in bello. But I had never heard of jus in bello when I wrote the story five years ago.

Me, I sometimes wish that I was told a bit less about feeling and a bit more about business, as I tend to write stories that mean a lot to me, and not nearly as much to everyone else. Perhaps it is only a question of balance?

Themes and how they touch us (writers and our readers) are the art of writing, and the art is the foundation of what we do. But in my experience, obviously different than the commenter's, theme is often treated like an absent father who drops his kid fancy gifts every birthday. Everyone knows it's an essential part of our suite of skills, but we don't much like to talk about it, especially since we spend so much time shielding ourselves with our fiction. Much safer to focus on craft - the necessary, yet less fascinating part of our suite of skills. In this way I think we sometimes approach writing backwards. Rather than starting with what moves us, we focus on craft, on mechanics. I think anyone can learn to write well. But what's debatable is whether we can learn to have something to say. At any rate, I think your approach in France is a solid one.

I've found a lot of avoidance when it comes to the business side of things, rooted in the fear of rejection. Why do we fear rejection? Because when we submit our work, we're basically flinging our souls at the marketplace.

I don't mean to make light of your request for more business and craft advice, but really, information is abundant on the Internet. I recommend really any agent blog; Nathan Bransford is my current favorite. But I do think we run the risk of worrying overmuch about things we can't control at the expense of our art, of forsaking our personal themes for fads. That's the definition of selling out, and selling out actually doesn't work very long, if at all. That's why I'm advocating deeper exploration for art's sake. Not at the expense of craft and business, but to provide a necessary foundation for those areas of study.

My most successful stories so far have been some in which I constricted my writing somewhat, in directions I am not normally inclined to take. I'd be interested to know your opinion!

My point with the previous example? Five years ago, I was unconsciously writing the theme of Religiously Motivated Hatred. I still do. The difference? Since then, my meta-cognition required me to laser-focus on it. My writing tightened. I had to leave some of my indulgences behind. They say there are no new stories; I say there are no new themes. Religiously motivated hatred, especially through the eyes of an anti-hero, is a heavily explored theme. That forces me to find fresh approaches, risks, and new directions. Many writers do that unconsciously. I'd argue that serious writers are conscious, and conscientious, about their stories. Good writing is highly controlled communication, and to control it, you have to understand what you're trying to say, what makes your art sing to you.

15 February 2010

Painting the Air

I want to spend a moment talking about writing, like we often do on this blog. But instead of craft and selling and publishing and catching editors' interest, I want you to stop, for just a moment and remember...

You're making art.

Slippery thing, art. Painting the air, is how Monet called it. After 35 years of making art, it's the most apt description I've ever heard. But that's only one part. The other, more important and oft forgotten bit you're painting is you.

Your art lives first and always inside you.

It's there. You just have to find it.

Reach deep. Mine the depths. Laugh. Cry. Scare yourself. Move yourself.

It's awesome when your story speaks to someone else, but never forget the first person your story must speak to is YOU.

07 February 2010

Your Story's Sales Pitch

Let's face it. There's a heck of a lot of competition for selling short stories. Lots of factors go into finally getting your story into the sale column, but very often a major factor is how well your story "sells itself" to the editor. You don't often have the opportunity to "pitch" your story to an editor (don't try it in a cover letter), so instead you have to convey what the best features of your story are right up front. For a story to sell, it has to work on lots of levels, but often there is one aspect of the story that stands out--and that's what you have to sell.

For example, let's say you write a story where the protag is fairly interesting, the plot is sustainable (i.e. not jaw-dropping), but the world is awesome--something nobody's done before. Well, then you better show off that world right away in the best possible light. Get the editor so enamored of your world that he or she may be willing to overlook minor failings in your plotting

Another example. Let's say you've got a great plot concept. Something you think will really stand out. You don't have to show your whole hand right away, but you've got to clue in the editor that it's coming. If you can, do it in the first sentence, or at least the first page. An example from my own writing is when a member of my critique group pointed out two sentences that I originally placed four paragraphs into a story: "At first, Mary thought they’d been burglarized. But there had been no sign of forced entry, and the only things that had been taken were Donny’s memories." Why not move that to the very beginning of your story? asked my critique partner. I did because I knew it would "sell" the story better than my original opening.

So, before doing that final draft of your story, figure out the strongest aspect of the story and then decide if you've done enough to sell it. If you haven't, a gem might just slip through the editor's hands.

05 February 2010

Fantasy: A Connection with Our Mythic Past

I've been reading an interesting book lately, Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination, by Richard Mathews. In chapter one he talks about the origins of literary fantasy.

Fantasy was pervasive in early human cultures. Mathews makes the case that the "...the literary paths of realism and fantasy began to diverge in the 1600s as new systems of learning from the Renaissance brought about a rejection of superstition in favor of science and reason. Until the scientific method began to tame and frame the world, the human imagination had had free rein to explain mundane reality by referring to supernatural forces. ...The great resources of human reason gradually reduced the number of acceptable explanations, however, leaving less room for unrestrained belief and imagination."

And, thus, based on this new science and reason, literary realism was born. "The widespread interest in and market for stories of real life with ordinary, believable characters grew and flourished concurrently with the increasing dominance of the scientific method, the expansion of the industrial revolution, and the unfolding of related historical developments, including changes in printing and publishing technologies, increasing literacy, and a rising middle class."

Mathews says, "Fantasy as a modern literary category all its own took shape through a dialectic with this new literature of realism. The ...modern authors who crafted fantasy as an alternative literary form ...understood that they could create a complex and appealing counterpoint to popular fiction...by imbuing their writing with ancient human impulses toward myth...
The emergence of realism as the mainstream focus for the literary imagination created a clear dialectical pole against which the fantasy genre could counterthrust as a specialized mode of fiction."

So, who knew? Every time we partake in literary fantasy we are experiencing the ancient human paradigm of myth. What do you think?

02 February 2010

Electric Spec Goes Quarterly!

We have exciting news here at Electric Spec: we're going quarterly! You heard right. In 2010 we will be publishing not three, but four, issues.

Issue dates will be
  • February 28, 2010
  • May 31, 2010
  • August 31, 2010
  • November 30,2010

To facilitate this change, we will be publishing five stories per issue. Those of you good at math will deduce that's more stories per year than we previously published. Hurray! So we need you to keep sending your stories in more than ever. And be sure to check out the next issue February 28. Thanks!

01 February 2010

Author Kage Baker loses battle with cancer

Some very sad news: Author Kage Baker lost her battle with cancer on 31 January 2010. Personally, she's one of my favorite authors of all time, and her Company Series are among my favorite books of all time.
Here's more details from SF Scope.

She will be missed.