Spy Flash 2 Gets a Name!

The stories collected under Spy Flash 2 have graciously arranged themselves as a novel in stories involving two key events in the careers of Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin, covert operatives for the United Nations Intelligence Directorate. The novel in stories will be ready for publication in early 2014.

For those not familiar with the term, “novel in stories,” let me try to help. Each story can stand alone, but, collected, they have a complete story arc involving the same characters and events. They can span a short amount of time or, as in this case, a period of years.

A novel in stories is slightly different from “linked short stories,” which are also stand-alone and use characters from one story in another story, but linked short stories do not have a story arc. They are separate and distinct, even unrelated, other than the appearance of a character from a previous story. My previous books, Blood Vengeance and Spy Flash, could be considered collections of linked stories.

Examples of novels in stories include Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout or A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan or What the Zhang Boys Know by Clifford Garstang.

Of course, since the stories decided they formed enough of an over-reaching arc to be called a novel, they needed a title snappier than “Spy Flash 2.” After much deliberation and debate, I’m pleased to announce that title, taken from a three-part story in the collection:

THE BETTER SPY

Yes, I rather like that myself. Check back periodically for updates and other announcements. Comments and suggestions I gratefully accept.

And here’s a little bonus, a draft cover:

(c) Phyllis Anne Duncan

(c) Phyllis Anne Duncan

A Friday Fictioneers Anniversary

Today marks one year since our fearless leader Rochelle Wisoff-Fields took over the reins of Friday Fictioneers from our intrepid founder Madison Woods, and it’s true. Time flies when you’re having fun. Rochelle has worked tirelessly at making Friday Fictioneers the “go-to” flash fiction site, and her success is marked by the fact that we “charter members” keep going strong while we add new participants every week. Three cheers for Rochelle!

National Novel Writing Month is just a week away, and I’m all set with character sketches, plot outlines, and plenty of enthusiasm thanks to an online workshop put on by my other writers group, Shenandoah Valley Writers. We called the workshop “Finish That Novel!” but we based it on The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris. The book had some good points and not-so-good points, but the exercises were certainly useful to me in that I realized I needed some back story to make this novel more understandable.

This year’s NaNoWriMo project is Book Two of a series on the attacks of 9/11. The series is called Meeting the Enemy. Book One, drafted after last year’s NaNoWriMo, is Terror; Book Two is Retribution; Book Three is Rendition.

I’m also working on a sequel to my collection of espionage short stories, Spy Flash. Spy Flash II will also be short stories, but they collectively form what’s called a novel in stories. I hope to have that ready to go after the first of the year.

So, I may be going to my last writing workshop of my year of conferencing/workshopping this coming Saturday (“Ending it All” at WriterHouse in Charlottesville), but the writing work continues.

This week’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt, taken by our fearless leader herself, was a bit of a challenge to the challenge I posed for myself. I’d decided that for the spooky month of October, all my Friday Fictioneers stories would have an edge of the paranormal. This week’s still-life had me scratching my head, wondering how on earth… Then, I remembered the title of a 1982 movie, and off I went from there. My story, “Noisy Ghost,” isn’t quite as scary as that movie, but I hope it’s a little chilling.

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title in the paragraph above, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.

Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

When you cultivate a group of writer friends and ask them to read and critique stories and manuscripts, an important obligation as a good writer friend is to reciprocate. So, when one writer friend who gave me excellent feedback on my work in progress asked me to do the same for hers, I jumped at the chance. I’d seen the first two chapters of her WIP in my last two workshops at Tinker Mountain and had been eager to read more.

I was so eager, in fact, when I picked up the MS yesterday morning, I didn’t put it down all day–which is why Monday’s post is happening on Tuesday. But it’s great when something lives up to your expectations. When my friend’s book gets published–and it will–this will be my first experience with the evolution of someone’s work other than my own, and it’s a humbling experience. Humbling, in that I felt honored she asked me to read it, that she values my opinion.

Here’s the thing. She doesn’t expect sycophantic raving about how good it is. (Trust me, though, it is that good.) She wants a writer’s eye and honest criticism, which she’ll get from me. Again, I got that from her, and I’ll return it in kind. And I’ll get a little thrill when I buy my copy, knowing I helped in some small way. So looking forward to that.

And new topic. I’ve been working on the next set of stories for Spy Flash 2. (In case you didn’t know it, last year I published a collection of my espionage short stories, Spy Flash. To read all about it, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Published Works tab, then click on Spy Flash from the drop-down list. You can click through to purchase it from Amazon.com, and, oh, by the way, if you buy the paperback, you can download the Kindle version for free. Commercial over.) One thing which has stood out for me is the way odd words unconsciously work their way into a story.

One story had an inordinate use of the word “just” and not the adjective, as in a “just cause,” but the adverb, as in “at this moment” or “in the immediate past.” Okay, one or two usages, maybe, but I found this usage in a couple of sentences per paragraph. I don’t remember typing them; it was as if they “just” appeared. Of course, that’s not the case. The word popped into my head–quite a few times, apparently–and I wrote it. In most cases, there was no need to substitute a better word; deleting “just” made the sentence stronger.

A few weeks ago, I had the same thing happen with the word “always.” Ack! Where are these crutch words coming from?

I suspect because I do a lot of “pressure writing,” i.e., meeting deadlines and word count goals I’ve mostly set for myself, they filter in, and I let that happen because subconsciously I know they’ll come out in the wash, or edit. What surprises me, though, is how often they show up.

And now I’ll bring this back around to the original topic. This is why having a group of writers who’ll critique you with honesty is important. They won’t let you get away with “just” and “always” or whatever crutch word creeps into your work. If you don’t have a group, find one or create one. Social media are great for this. Part of the joy of writer conferences is meeting and networking with many different types of writers from all over. Social media allow you to form critique groups without having to be face-to-face, and, even then, there’s FaceTime and Skype.

Don’t fear the critique. Embrace it. And watch out for those crutch words.

Holy Friday Fictioneers!

I got the first feedback from a beta reader for the novel I’m been finalizing. Apparently, I hit on all cylinders with this novel, at least with her. She’s a writer as well, and I respect her opinion, so I’m a pretty happy camper. One out of four means I’m batting .250. Respectable, but let’s hope my batting average improves.

I’ve mentioned that my head has been so deep into that particular novel’s rewrites and revisions that I’ve been having issues doing much of anything else the past couple of weeks. Then, last night I dreamed about my two spies–yes, writers dream of their characters; it’s another thing which makes us special. I woke this morning with the inclination to work on a new piece featuring them. I’m stoked! I’ve got Pandora tuned to the Metallica channel, and I’m reading to rock some Spy Flash!

Friday Fictioneers LogoFirst, though, is today’s Friday Fictioneers story, “Necessary Sacrifices.” Maybe it was the Metallica, but when I saw the photo prompt, which is beyond creepy to me, I had to dip a toe in the supernatural/horror pool.

As usual, if you don’t see the link in the story title above, scroll to the top of this page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

Friday Fictioneers May Day!

Friday Fictioneers LogoA busy writing week, this week. On Tuesday evening, I finished a year-long rewrite of my magnum opus, A Perfect Hatred. A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about heading in a new direction with it, but that was really an add-on to the changes I had already decided on some time before. To learn more about what will be a four-book series, click here, or click on the Works in Progress tab above.

I’ve been writing this series since June 1997, and what started out as about 300 pages of disconnected scenes, and after almost as much research as for a master’s thesis, became four, very complex novels, though they do not stand alone. The plan is to begin publishing them next year, culminating in book four appearing in the month of the twentieth anniversary of the historical event that inspired the series.

I also identified four writing contests I want to participate in, and the first one had a due date of next Tuesday, so I began working on a brand-new piece for that. This first contest is to celebrate the fifth anniversary of a great writing space in Charlottesville, VA, called WriterHouse (click here for more information about this wonderful place). Because it’s the fifth, or emerald, anniversary, the contest submissions have to revolve somehow around “emerald.” That was quite a challenge, and I learned far more about that particular gem stone than I ever thought I would, but I came up with something I really like.

Then, I had my usual Monday writing blog post, my usual Wednesday political blog post, plus this, good old Friday Fictioneers. But to go is Friday! Flash, another flash fiction weekly exercise I participate in. Oh, and I forgot to mention, the Rory’s Story Cubes Challenge is back on, so I’m working on the continuation of Spy Flash 2.

Today’s Friday Fictioneers offering, “Post-Modern Ossuary,” is based on a photo of an incredible building in Barcelona, Spain. Even if you don’t read my story, read the one by our Friday Fictioneers maven, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields, to get the history behind both a remarkable photo and a fascinating building.

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story’s title above, scroll to the top of this page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, then select the story from the drop-down list.

No Foolin’

Today, I could have played a major April Fools joke on the rest of you by “announcing” that I’d just been offered a six-figure advance and a multiple-book contract from one of the “Big Six.” I could have, but I won’t because it’s likely the joke would be on me. So, no advance, no book contract; just constant editing and revising and hoping.

I get frustrated at times with the lack of new material I’m producing. I retired to have more time to write, and I have written more and more constantly than before I retired; but it seems at times that I do more re-writing than writing.

No difference, you say. Writing is writing. True, but I miss the mad rush of researching and drafting that comes with a whole new project. Granted, I participate in National Novel Writing Month every November, which means I have created five, original manuscripts in five years.

The first one was a semi-autobiographical piece, which, after re-reading it, I realized was 200+ pages of self-indulgent whining. It has, however, been a good source of short stories.

The second one I have edited, revised, and re-written to the point where it’s as ready as it will ever be for pitching to possible agents.

For the third one, I took a risk and killed off one of my characters, a bold move that turned out fairly well. It also helped me face the loss of my long-term relationship and address the emotions that involved; however, the character wasn’t ready to die and told me so. The good news is, I’m meshing this manuscript with another one I developed shortly after the events of September 11, 2001. So, all is not lost.

The fourth one is one that I really enjoyed writing. It’s the closest thing to a sci-fi novel I’ve ever written–a story about a dire future after the Tea Party takes over the government. Dark and political, it was a rough draft I was very proud of, and, in fact, the first 5,000 words I submitted for critique in last year’s Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop. The reception it received was awesome. (It helps that the workshop instructor, Pinckney Benedict, is a fan of dystopian fiction.) Then, I re-read Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale, for a book club and went, “Oops.” It had been two decades almost since I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, but apparently I channeled Atwood when I wrote my manuscript. (Channeling Atwood could be a good thing.) However, since it got such good feedback, it’s definitely something to work on.

The fifth one, last year, was a completely different work for me, a straight-up literary fiction novel that intersects an event in a small town during World War II with an event in the same town in present day. The protagonist is a successful romance writer married to a not-so-successful novelist, and all is just lovely until they find the bones of a baby in the wall of a room they’re renovating. I always put a NaNoWriMo draft aside for six months before I start revising, so next month is when I’ll pull it out and start polishing it.

So, what am I whining about? Well, after an amazing amount of creativity in the late 1990s and early 2000s wherein I dashed out six novel-length manuscripts featuring my two favorite spies, Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin, as they work for the fictional United Nations Intelligence Directorate, I haven’t produced a new novel featuring them since 2002. Yes, I’ve been revising and re-writing all those original manuscripts, but I’ve missed creating a new adventure for them. I have been writing short stories featuring them (Spy Flash, published in December 2012), but aside from that, Mai and Alexei walked away from a mission in 2001; and we’ve heard nothing from them since.

You’ve written all you can about them, you might say. No, I feel they have a lot of adventures in them, and I’ve made notes about those adventures. Merely, focusing on improving my craft and establishing a bit of a name for myself as a flash fiction writer has become my immediate focus.

That’s why I need that multiple-book contract, publishers. I’ve always been well-motivated by deadlines, so take a chance. Tell me you want three books, four, or five, and I’ll get right on them.

Don’t forget, this is National Poetry Month. Take a break from fantasy or cozy mysteries and read a poet you’ve never read before.

The Year of Writing Constantly

At least that’s the way it felt, but that’s a good thing.

About a year ago, I blogged about getting more serious about writing and establishing a writing work schedule that included developing new material, editing/revising WIPs, and submitting stories for publication. Here is the schedule I came up with:

Monday 0800 – 1000: Blog about writing or publish a book review on my blog
1400 – 1700: Edit/revise a novel WIP

Tuesday 0800 – 1100: Edit/revise a short story or identify a publication to submit to
1400 – 1700: Edit/revise a novel WIP

Wednesday 0900 – 1100: Blog about politics
1400 – 1700: Edit/revise a novel WIP

Thursday 0800 – 1100: Edit/revise a short story or identify a publication to submit to
1400 – 1700: Something new—a short story or a novel idea

Friday 0800 – 1000: Blog about writing, publish a book review on my blog, and/or 100-word flash fiction
1300 – 1500: Submissions—the actual act of doing so—or developing a query letter

Saturday and Sunday: Two to three hours of reading and/or writing reviews

The good news is the blogging, editing/revising, and writing original material went very well, as did the reading and reviewing. I had several reviews published, and I read approximately fifty books this year, a record for me.

The bad news is even though I submitted more times than I did the previous year–ten altogether–and I had three short stories published, I didn’t submit as much as I had planned. The rejections made me focus on whether getting short stories published in literary or genre publications was a goal I still wanted to pursue or whether getting a novel or two ready for agent query was what I wanted.

I decided the latter was where I needed to put my energy. I continued to write 100-word flash fiction for Friday Fictioneers, and I turned several of those stories into a manuscript I have submitted to a fiction chapbook contest. I also wrote slightly longer flash fiction for a writer friend’s Rory’s Story Cube Challenge. Those stories became the flash fiction collection recently published entitled Spy Flash. Late in the year, I started participating in the Flash! Friday challenge from the Shenandoah Valley Writers–two of my entries have won the weekly challenge.

I joined a fiction critique group this year and put a novel-length manuscript through the critique process. A War of Deception was an interesting piece to write. It initially started out as a fictional account of uncovering a mole in the FBI, but a subplot rose that I fleshed out more at the suggestion of the critique group members. This is a manuscript I think is in good enough shape to query to agents, and that’s my big New Year’s Writing Resolution. A second manuscript, Self-Inflicted Wounds, is before the critique group now.

I finished the rough draft of a totally new novel-length piece for National Novel Writing Month, which I’ll begin revising in the spring. A major revision to Self-Inflicted Wounds will be on tap for 2013 as well. Friday Fictioneers and Friday! Flash will continue, as will the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge–there could be a Spy Flash 2 in the future! Both the writing and the political blogs will continue, too.

And there’s always that trilogy on domestic terrorism I’ve worked on for the past fifteen years.

I didn’t put this in the writing schedule, but I resolved this year to attend more writing conferences and workshops, and six was the magic number. The Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop was the most challenging but the most rewarding. I’m starting a bit earlier for 2013, with the Roanoke Writers Conference in January.

Overall, the writing work schedule was a success, even if I didn’t adhere to it exactly as I designed it. I think if I hadn’t been flexible about it, I probably wouldn’t have accomplished as much as I did.

So, Happy New Year to all my readers and my writer friends. I’m looking forward to journeying next year with all of you down that unexpected path toward publication.

Spy Flash Published!

Both the paperback and the Kindle version of Spy Flash are now available for sale at Amazon.com, so it was an exciting writing weekend for me here in the Valley, capped off by a nice mention of Spy Flash‘s publication in my local newspaper, The News Leader. When you open your Sunday paper and see a picture of your book cover and the headline, “Staunton author’s spy tale is enticing,” the rest of the day goes by in a blissful blur. (Click on the headline to read the entire article.)

Am I bragging? Well, yes, I suppose I am, but when you’re an unknown author, you generate all the publicity you can get. I’m especially proud of the stories in Spy Flash and how they showcase my two main characters, so boast a little, I will. However, what I won’t do is bug you to death with constant begging pleas to “buy my book.” It’s there, it’s available, I think it’s good, but it’s entirely up to you. I mean, it would be nice to be able to pay the electricity bill this month. Just kidding.

So, here are the details. If you want to buy the paperback or Kindle version of Spy Flash (a deal at $14.95 or $5.99 respectively), click here. Or you can click on the cover image on the righthand side of this post. If you want me to sign your copy, scroll to the top of this post, click on the “Contact” tab, and shoot me an e-mail.

This is the exciting part about writing–looking at a shelf and seeing your title and name on the spine of a book, holding that book in your hands and seeing your words on a page. It’s why we write, it’s what we live for, and it keeps us going. Most of us aren’t in this to make a gazillion dollars–if we’re realists and understand the publishing industry, we’re not. My wish is for people to just read and enjoy my work. That’s my compensation, so go on. Help make me a wealthy woman.

On another note, a piece of 100-word flash fiction I entered in the Shenandoah Valley Writers Flash! Friday contest was a winner. (Click on the Flash! Friday tab at the top of this page and select “First Contact.”) Not a bad way to start a Monday.

An Early Holiday Present

December seems to be a month of publishing firsts for me–my first collection of short stories, Rarely Well Behaved (out of print) appeared in December 2000. I remember when the proof copy arrived as if it were yesterday. Never before had I held a real book with my name on it as the author. I had approved the cover (based on my suggestions) a Scan 2few weeks before, but to see it on the book was a whole different experience. As I flipped the pages and saw my words there, I thought perhaps I was dreaming.

When I “refreshed” the short stories in Rarely Well Behaved this past year and reissued them as two eBooks then paperbacks with new covers, I was pretty excited, but it wasn’t the same kind of feeling as holding your first published work in your hands.

I’m hoping the past is prologue for a whole new collection of short stories–short, short stories–coming out this month. (Fingers crossed that it won’t take me twelve years for the next book.)

Spy Flash is a collection of flash fiction stories I’ve written over the past year in response to Jennie Coughlin’s Rory’s Story Cube Challenge. Each week Jennie posted a picture of a roll of a nine-cube combination of object and action Story Cubes, and based on those objects and actions, I wrote a story, usually of fewer than 2,000 words. There was some cube repetition, and I pounded my head on the desk a couple of times trying to think of different ways to use a pyramid, beyond the obvious.

About ten stories into the adventure, which I initially intended just to use to explore back story on the two main characters in my novels, I starting thinking about what to do with the stories. Somewhere along the line, I decided I would compile them into a collection of linked flash fiction. Even though I’m sure it’s been done, I thought that rather clever. (Hey, I’m an infrequently published writer; someone needs to brag on me.) I also thought the possible title clever as well. I mean, what else would you call flash fiction about spies except Spy Flash?

I then decided once the story count reached twenty-five, that’s when I’d compile them into a collection. I began the compilation again about ten stories in, and the first thing I noticed was that inserting them into the manuscript in the order I’d written them and published them on my blog resulted in massive incoherence. So much incoherence, in fact, I doubted the decision to compile them after all. They were linked in that they were about the same people in a specific profession, but because I had moved back and forth on the timeline of their careers, the vignettes were a jumble. For a while, I couldn’t come up with a solution. I liked each story individually, but I didn’t like the whole they made.

So, I set the idea aside awhile–always a good thing. I continued to write the stories, but I really felt as if I were just compounding the problem. Finally, when I had the twenty-five stories, I printed the manuscript and skimmed it. Still a jumble. Then, I had one of those forehead-smacking, “duh” moments and rearranged the stories in chronological order. Hello! The whole thing made sense now. It had a logical flow, and, if anything, the stories were even more linked. Then, I found if I added transitions and references to earlier stories, what had been a jumble of disconnected snapshots became a big, coherent picture.

Once I completed a revised draft of the manuscript, I realized I hadn’t been this excited about a work of mine since Rarely Well Behaved.

And the cover for Spy Flash? I wanted something dark and mysterious, something that conveyed spying as well as the less exciting aspects of espionage. What better than a black Spy Flash Cover 2.dofile folder and an all-seeing eye?

As of today, I’m waiting for the proof copy of Spy Flash to arrive, and I know when I hold it in my hands I’ll have that giddy feeling of accomplishment. I’m a much better writer twelve years down the road thanks to a lot of people, and I’ll be just as proud of Spy Flash as I was of Rarely Well Behaved. I’ll again rue that my Dad won’t see it and that my brother–the guy who hated to read but read my first book–won’t see this one.

For a long moment I’ll savor that feeling of “yay, me, look what I did,” then reality will set in–lining up book signings and arranging the publicity because, hey, I’m not John LeCarre or Alan Furst. I’m just Phyllis Anne Duncan, who’s pretty excited about the publication of her second, original book of short stories.