Category Archives: Rants

Nothing never started gets better.

Or, what flash fiction can do for your writing life.

Nothing never started gets better.

Look, you should see some of the crap I’ve written, including the above.

As a writer who has all too often marks progress with decreasing word counts, as one who has a black belt in self-sabotage, and as one who will snag on a single word choice and spin myself silly, I have managed to learn something, in spite of myself.

Nothing never started gets better.

(You would think by now I would have found a better way to say that.)

What I’m trying to say is here’s what writing’s like:

Most of the time, finished work is a hard-won collage of brief inspirations, grueling transitions, struggling metaphors and delicate passages that shine upon the polishing. At least once every eon, I’ll write something that I love. I grab a pen, scribble something down, then sit back and read it and think: Yeah. Then, I’ll read it again and probably twelve-dozen times, and then aloud at whisper-level, and then to a chair, and then to the cat, and then to my spouse, and still manage to think: Yeah. And if I’m really, really lucky, I can even read it myself again a couple years later and think: You know, that was all right.

This almost never happens.

Okay, it maybe happened once.

Most of the time, finished work is a hard-won collage of brief inspirations, grueling transitions, struggling metaphors and delicate passages that shine upon the polishing. And the things is, if you are writing novel-length works, this takes a vast amount of time (or, if it doesn’t, I hate you). This is time spent alone, in a far land, with no destination in sight. Which is why I’ve learned to love flash fiction.

Flash fiction is creative crack

Flash fiction is creative crack, a palette cleanser, a weekend getaway crammed in a morning. Instant gratification. A quickie in the shower. And in spite of all the fun of that, it’s also a refresher course on writing you can fit into any given morning.

I write scads of them. In spite of the radio silence on the blog these days, I’ve been filling up my personal cloud with the stuff. Generally I’ll write at least one a day. Just because. Because I am a slow and recalcitrant learner in need of constant reminder how this works—how to feed and nurture this writing beast.

Here’s a secret: Ninety percent of the time when I look at the photo prompts on Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers or Al Forbes Sunday Photo Fiction, I blank. I can’t think of anything.

The sacred act of taking an intangible thought from the space between your ears and committing it to a page does something. It’s a promise, it’s a vow, and once it’s out there, stuff happens.But still, I push myself and think no one’s watchingjust do a sentence, and so I do. And it’s almost never any good and doesn’t wind up in the final piece. But still, that act is magic. The sacred act of taking an intangible thought from the space between your ears and committing it to a page does something. It’s a promise, it’s a vow, and once it’s out there, stuff happens.

Because once it’s out there, it makes me think of something else, and maybe it’s completely unrelated but it’s enough to make me scrawl down a few more sentences.

This is the point where I usually decide it’s hopeless. I go take a shower or walk the dog. And that’s when it gets amazing. Because while I’m doing the other shit, the real story happens. All of a sudden the whole thing pops into my head: how to fix what I’ve already written or an even better concept that never even thought of. And while I’m standing there dripping, I scribble down notes on that notebook that I keep just outside the shower for such emergencies. And by the time I’ve done four or five rounds of revisions I actually like it: find some merit or something to be proud of and presto—another edition of Friday Fictioneers.

Most of the stuff I write is pure crap. Clumsy, trite, awkward, stupid, half-formed, grammatically incorrect and painful to read. You probably noticed. But the thing is, I have managed to learn something, even in spite of my attempts to do otherwise:

Nothing Anything you never started gets any better.

Like thinking you’ll win the lottery without ever buying a ticketI used to think ‘I’ll write’ when it’s all fully formed in my head and good enough to commit to the page. Because god forbid I write crap, that it’s wrong, that I have to change it, because well, I thought that’s how it worked. Like thinking I’d win the lottery without ever buying a ticket.

So my writing friends, lost in the wilds of your novels (and you know who you are), if you’re not on flash fiction yet, give it a try.

Whatever it is you need to learn, it’s in there. Flash fiction is the crash course on the thing that’s missing in your work, that thing you need to learn. And if it’s not, it’s at least entertaining. Sprint-training for the creative heart. So come on, you—yes you. Give me twenty words, or a hundred or two or three and see where you wind up.

You can’t improve what you don’t write.

Happy writing.

In Defense of Reading

 

IMG_1923Dear Writer,

I’m breaking up with you.

I apologize…it’s not you. It’s me.

I know you stay up late, typing your fingers raw, crafting your rich characters and your clever tales. But you’re smothering me. There were 1,000,000 new books published just last year.

And yes, I must confess: there’s someone else. His name is [Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Twitter, insert-media-of-choice].

Sincerely,

Your Reader

 

Where did all the readers go?

Back before I had kids, the soul-sucking corporate job and the internet handily attached to the end of my right arm, I’d sometimes read book a day. These days, I’m lucky to finish one in a month.

And while I complain that I’m busy, when those open gaps of time come, what do I do? Lately it’s devour episodes of Treme off Netflix like fine chocolate with a cup of Thirty-thirty. And before Treme, it was Black Mirror and True Detective and Breaking Bad. And I don’t have to tell you mid-century Mad Men what I’m up to on Sunday nights.

What the heck. I apologize, dear writer. Here you are staying up nights, polishing your prose, and I’m too strung out on Tivo to charge my Kindle.

Readers before writers

Serial television has enjoyed a renaissance of late. But ultimately, its franchise food, assembled by the entertainment industry. While it might not be charbroiled pink slime, it’s still processed food when our minds crave more raw and leafy things to digest. We grow lazy on easy entertainment.

Books are built with words, the fundamental blocks of stories, but they require our imagination to digest them. Books aren’t prepackaged fare—well generally not. They demand an active ingredient: the reader.

A resolution to read

stack of books

By ParentingPatch (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And so, with this post, I do hereby solemnly swear, from this day forward to cast aside my Netflix marathons and return to you, esteemed writer. I beseech you to thrill me. But first you must tell me how to find you.

Because with 1,000,000 new offerings just in the past year, I daresay it’s hard to find you.

There are wonderful amazing life-changing works being published. But how to find them? Everything, everything, everything has a  4-star review on Amazon. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad? Four stars, 250 reviews. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer? Four stars, 6789 reviews. What to read, what to read?

It’s all so overwhelming, and when the pursuit so often ends in disappointment, the temptation is to drift into the den, hook up my Netflix IV drip and worry about it later.

So tell me: What do I read?

Seriously, dear writer. this is me, your devoted reader, appealing to you:

What shall I read? What has stirred you? What have you read lately that reached into your soul? What stayed with you, long after the book was gathering dust on the shelf?

I want a book so vivid that when I put it down, the world is black and white. I want lines that haunt me for decades, characters that feel like dear friends forever-missed, a story so compelling I want to call all my buddies and say: do you know about this one?

So tell me, my writerly friends, what shall I read?

In the comments below, tell me the best book you’ve read this year and why it touched you. Doesn’t matter if it’s indie or traditionally published, longstanding classic or unsung masterpiece. No judgment here, no bias to genre.

Tell me, tell the world: what to read.

Oh, and cancel that Netflix membership and join me in the Readolution.

I’m a Dog’s Ass and Other Things my Phone Thinks

My phone hates me. Or maybe it’s not hate so much as sneering disrespect.

IMG_1476Case in point: I manage my calendar on my phone. That’s the wonderful thing with smartphones: everyone trots around with their own personal assistant at the ready. Start my coffee! Turn up the heat! Add four boxes Barefoot wine to the grocery list!

It’s really astounding if you think about it. So there I was, putting my week together  and on Tuesdays I take my dog to agility class. So I said: “Emma dog class”

I’m a dog’s ass

Seriously? I repeat it three times. Each time, my phone smirks back at me: I’m a dog’s ass.

Do I argue with that?

I walk a lot. Gets the wheels turning when I’m writing and part of the appeal of my particular phone was the thought that I could march along and dictate all my profound musings as they occurred to me. Because God forbid I have a deep thought that isn’t saved for posterity.

But my phone is a churlish, inattentive, gum-chewing idiot.

Consider this mystifying entry from my notes:

Voted up for good measure. And it stays that way.

Or this:

Feel the shiver's ink to the base of yours. Bye.

Or this:

Sleep frayed at both ends.

Well I actually sort of like that last one.

But it’s 2015. Haven’t we perfected this technology by now? Maybe it’s me. Maybe after all these years I haven’t mastered the English language. And there are those that read my blog that might argue such. Or maybe my phone thinks I sound like I have a dog’s ass squished against my face. Who knows. But the whole thing is a daily source of frustration.

Play music: the Handsome Family.

Which member of your family do you want to call?

OH MY GOD. It’s moments like this I feel like such a dog’s ass.

What does your phone think of you?

Literary Agents are People Too

No, really.

Way back before I found Agent Sara, while I was still submitting my first novel, I talked about rejection from a writer’s point of view. But there’s another side to the rejection story…

Let me introduce you to Brynn. She’ll get through a stack of submissions by lunch: rejecting one for one too many ellipses, another for having two POV in five pages. She has to. It’s not that she’s cruel or indifferent—she just needs to make a living. She’s buried in a pile of submissions and she wants to help you both—but she can only represent what she can sell.

Yes, it’s Sunday, but she spent the week mired in edits with a writer out of St. Louis—well she had such hopes. But again, it seems a case of them not getting it. Perhaps in this stack lies the next JK Rowling, the next Hemingway even.

She plucks out a query letter: “Dear Mr. Brine:”

Probably no Hemingway today.

She used to have dreams. Her own debut novel won two prestigious awards, but had the thinnest of sales. She was never able to sell the second. Hell, she’s seen the best novel of the century—represented it herself and pitched it to every publishing house she could find. It never sold. That writer works at Cyber Town, stocking shelves. He emailed last week: he hoping for full-time so he can qualify for health insurance.

And then there are the hundreds of submissions that send their perfect, polished query packages, but the stories go flat on fulls. The piles of disappointments, the volumes of misrepresentations. She’s learned to recognize the signs and each word is a clue that might veer her off the page.

It’s a high wire act, step-stop-balance. Gauge the wind. Each move requires certainty. The competition is fierce and reputations have been ruined on allegiance to the wrong manuscript. It takes experience, luck and timing.

Do people read anymore? Sometimes she wonders. Like a shape-shifting beast, the publishing industry seems to morph into something new every ninety days or so. One must be agile, quick and wise.

But even on working-Sundays, there’s hope. She pulls one from the stack. Another post-apocalyptic zombie-mermaid novel; the fifteenth today.

Aw crap.

Beginning

I apologize.

I admit it–I’ve been crushed by full-time work, overtime parenthood and the necessity of periodically digging out from the catastrophe du jour (most recently a twice-flooded basement). For fun, I sneak progress on my WIP at 4:00 am and feel guilty I’m not doing more. But you have never been far from my thoughts, dear reader.

Today, let’s talk about something fresh–something far from where I’m at right now. But maybe you’re there, at the jumping-off place.

Beginning.

tulips-sprouting-ground-23844638What is more filled with bottomless hope and yet more fraught with peril, than beginning? The beginning of anything: be it school, work, love… life. But what I’m thinking of today is the beginning of stories.

They start with words, simple words, composed of letters, curved and straight; spattered on a page like a promised rain, the sort that makes you look up at kitten clouds and wonder: will it pour?

The seed that grew into HitList wasn’t an idea or a concept, but rather a simple sentence, generated in a brainstorming session where I challenged myself and my fellow bloggers to come up with One Hundred Opening Lines.

In that exercise, I had one particular sentence that I couldn’t stop thinking about. What kind of story was attached to it? I plucked it out, tried to guess and when I did, a dam broke. 1,500 words later, I realized an entire book was attached.

The seed that is Kwan Factor was a “what if” that occurred to me on a walk. From there, it went to a workshop scribbled on a scrap, and grew into a universe that I still inhabit.

Beginning.

Beginnings are limitless and treacherous, filled with vast hopes and wild unknowns. They beckon, they implore, they promise. They are an invitation, a bridge to another world, a ticket for an epic journey or an open door to another life. Take them, be it read or write them.

Begin.

Midwesternness

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking with a lovely woman from New York. Why, you may ask, and on that, I’m going to smile and dodge the question. All I’ll say is stay tuned for further developments. But the thing that struck me when I spoke to her was one question—a funny question, asked in a strained voice:

“So you live in Iowa?

She said it with the tone of a woman who was picturing me hunkered down in a covered wagon, the howls of coyotes off in the distance. I think she was worried.

Those of you who’ve ever spent any time in the Midwest know we largely live in the twenty-first century. But it is the second time in a week I’ve heard someone marvel at Midwesternness, like it’s something alien or perhaps a skin condition we might want to have looked at.

Are we truly that different?

Back in 2011 Stephen Bloom wrote a scathing article about Iowa—caused quite an uproar—and whether we were a bunch of rifle-toting rubes or chronically unemployed meth-heads, I was never quite sure. And while it seems there’s no shortage of perceptions about Midwesternness coming from elsewhere, the funny thing is, I think if I polled the Iowans I know, we’d all agree: We’re willing to take you as who you are, not where you’re from.

And maybe that does make us different.

Well–that, and the fact we call soda “pop”.