Author Interview – Gulp

In my years as an aviation magazine reporter and editor, as a manager, and now as a sometimes newspaper feature writer, I’ve interviewed a few hundred people. The aviation  folks were easy; we spoke a common language. Interviewing prospective employees meant a prescribed set of questions for each applicant, and my recent work writing features means researching some things (like blacksmithing) before I conduct an interview.

Being on the other side of the interview–the one being asked the questions–is even more daunting. Did I say the right thing? Did I really say that? Am I always that inarticulate?

I had some trepidation when an interview with me was to be published at James River Writers’ web site. It just goes to show, even with interviews, having a good editor is important, so many thanks to Melissa P. Gay, author of the blog This Common Reader, for making me sound as if I know what I’m talking about.

To read the interview, click here.

If It’s Friday, It Must be Friday Fictioneers!

Today’s Friday Fictioneers photo brought back many fond memories of weekends at the family farm in Reva, VA. Wild berry bushes were abundant, and my cousins and I, usually under the supervision of one of my uncles, would take buckets and be gone for hours. We’d return to my grandmother’s house with our fingers and tongues and clothes stained and our bellies full. My cousins always went for the blackberries, but the tart, little, red raspberries were my favorite.

This photo was serendipitous too because last Thursday at a special reading event sponsored by my writing group, SWAG Writers, Jim Minick spoke and read from his book, The Blueberry Years. The book is the real story of Minick and his wife’s adventure as blueberry farmers in southwest Virginia. I left the reading with a copy of the book and a desire to plant my back yard in blueberry bushes, because wouldn’t it just be full circle to take the grandkids berry picking?

But, of course, my Friday Fictioneers offering isn’t quite so bucolic. I hope you enjoy “May the Punishment Fit,” then go to Madison Woods’ web site and read some other great 100-word stories. Then, give it a try yourself.

(If you don’t see the link in the story title, hover your cursor over the Friday Fictioneers tab above and select “May the Punishment Fit” from the drop-down menu.)

A Shameless Plug

If you’re enjoying the flash fiction adventures of U.N. spies Mai Fisher and Alexei Bukharin written for Jennie Coughlin’s Rory’s Story Cubes Challenge (Click on the Spy Flash tab above.), you’ll probably love this first collection of short stories about them:

Blood Vengeance is a collection of linked short stories for sale as an eBook at Amazon, and it’s only $3.99! I can even sign your e-copy through

Here’s what a recent reviewer of Blood Vengeance had to say:

“This is as real and intense as it gets. The stories mix real events with fictional characters in a way that makes everything extremely believable. The fact that those events can be researched on the web, where explicit pictures show the extent of the horror, is hair-raising.

“The characters’ expertise takes them to world hotspots. They get the job done while trying to lead normal lives, which is a lost battle. But they try very hard, and live very intensely. I enjoyed their struggles immensely and hope to read more about their undercover work. A great find.”

Give Blood Vengeance a try. You may like it, and then I won’t have to resort to these shameless, buy-my-book-please plugs. 😉

Story Cube Challenge Week 10

This was the hardest one yet, mostly because that damned pyramid showed up again, and I was at a loss how to account for it. Somehow, I managed it.

I’ve studied and written a lot about the Balkan Wars of the 1990’s and especially about the horrors of “ethnic cleansing.” It took me some time to get inspired by this week’s roll of the cubes, but once I thought about the digging image, the story came to me.

Here’s this week’s challenge:

From left to right, here’s what I saw: key; peeking/spying/binoculars; digging/foxhole; alien; giving a present; pyramid; thinking; knocking on a door; eating.

Here’s the story, “Yea, Though I Walk,” and just a note about a little alteration on the web site. I changed the Story Cube Challenge tab above to Spy Flash, which is the title of the manuscript I’m compiling with these stories. So, if you don’t see the link on the title, then hover your cursor over “Spy Flash” and select “Yea, Though I Walk” from the drop-down menu.

Say What?

One of the key skills in writing fiction is mastering dialogue, i.e., making dialogue true to life. Sometimes what sounds perfectly normal in our heads becomes stilted when we read it aloud. Reading your work aloud is an excellent tool for spotting missing words, dangling participles, misplaced modifiers, bad dialogue, etc. (I’d advise against doing that in public places, however, unless you don’t mind explaining yourself to the cop someone will inevitably call.)

You’d think dialogue would be easy given the fact that, well, you engage in it on a daily basis, but, for me, there’s nothing more story-killing than reading dialogue that doesn’t sound “right.”

I recently started reading a series by Kevin Hearne featuring a 2,000-year-old Druid (the last one in existence) who can carry on a conversation with his Irish wolfhound. Oh dear, I thought, this could be bad, really bad. I love it when I’m fooled. Hearne’s conversations between the Druid Atticus and his wolfhound Oberon are engaging enough to advance the story and comical at the right moments. You realize if you could converse with your dog, these are exactly the conversations you would have. It’s great stuff–not for the literary types, of course, but great entertainment.

One way to improve your dialogue is to take a real exchange you’ve had and rewrite it from different viewpoints, e.g., switch places in the conversation or respond the way you would have liked to at the time. And if you want your dialogue to be as true to life as possible, keep a notebook with you and jot down real conversations you overhear at the supermarket, a coffee shop, or a bar. Bars are the best because liquor loosens the inhibitions, and people say things they wouldn’t normally say. Supermarkets are good because most of what you hear is one side of a telephone conversation, and those are intriguing enough, as a writer, you can’t help but supply the other side in your head.

A few months ago I was in the coffee shop that was my regular hangout when I lived in Northern Virginia, and the three young baristas in goth mode were discussing zombie apocalypses in an everyday, commonplace way. I mean, when talking about where zombies come from, you can’t make stuff this good up:

“Voodoo, you know,” one says. “Like, in Africa.”

“Oh, yeah, Africa,” the other agrees.

The only male among them gave a short bark of laughter, a snort really, and said, “Africa. That’s stupid. Zombies come from China.”

“How do you know?” the first one asked.

“Duh, I’m in a bookstore. I read World War Z.

“Dude, that was, like, fiction.”

“Uh, no. It’s an ‘oral history of the zombie war.’ Go look if you don’t believe me.”

“Yeah, right. It’s in the science fiction section.”

“No, it’s not. On my break, I, like, move them all to the history section.”

See, I never would have come up with that on my own. If the story I wrote around that conversation ever gets published, I’ll go back and thank them, provided, of course, they have been changed into zombies. In that case, I’ll thank them before decapitating them.

Listening in on other people’s conversations can be touchy. You have to be surreptitious about it because if someone suspects you’re listening in on their “private” conversation in a public place, they can get upset. (Not that it’s happened to me, of course.) That’s why I prefer capturing snippets of real conversations on a computer or my iPhone. People expect you to have a computer anywhere there’s free wi-fi, so they don’t look twice, and almost everybody texts nowadays.

A caveat here: Don’t be tempted to use the “Record” attributes of your computer or smart phone. Yes, you can capture real dialogue word for word, but if you’re in a state that doesn’t allow taping of third-party conversations without the participants’ permission, you could be in trouble. I mean, who would know, unless you got caught, but there’s the whole ethics thing for me.

If you doubt this can be useful, I’d say just give it a try. Sometimes you might overhear something that clarifies a character for you or puts words in a character’s mouth. Other times you can get a fully developed character dumped in your lap. People are bloody interesting, and their real conversations can take on more meaning rendered in fiction. And how lucky are we that people feel as if public venues are their personal confessionals?

Seeing as how I’ve had very interesting conversations of my own in public places, I’m waiting for the day when I read a story or novel and go, “Hey, that’s me! I said that!”

What about you? Is dialogue easy or difficult for you? Where do you go to hear those jewels of dialogue?

Damselflies and Friday Fictioneers

Friday Fictioneers are coming up in the world–we have our own logo now. Very nice. I’m hoping to see this all over the Internet to show how big this Friday exercise has become.

I’m finally coming down off my Tinker Mountain high (sung to the tune of “Rocky Mountain High”), though I still have to open my notebook and look at the notes from the critique of my novel excerpt–just to make sure I didn’t dream all those nice things people said. I don’t have to pinch myself, thankfully.

Today’s photo prompt you should recognize. It graced the header of Madison Woods’ blog for the whole time we’ve been doing Friday Fictioneers, and I wondered how long before it would be the photo prompt. Turns out it was when Madison migrated her blog to a web site for her own domain name.

For some reason when I saw today’s photo prompt, I remembered a long line of “city boys” I dated from college to…well, a long time. I was much easier on them than my dad was–he always managed to find some country lore or food to embarrass them. (Someday, I’ll write the mountain oyster story.) It was a good weeding out process, I realize now. Decades ago, it would only endear those hapless souls to me more. Such is maturity.

“Not Tonight, Dear” is today’s story, and I’m dedicating it to all those city boys I’ve dated. We weren’t being mean. Honest.

To read more offerings from Friday Fictioneers, go to Madison Woods’ web site and have a read. Better yet, take a stab at writing your own 100-word flash fiction.

Tinker Mountain – Days 4 and 5

The last two days of the Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop were chock full of things to do and probably the best two days of learning I’ve had in a long time.

Thursday started with a craft seminar by Fred Leebron entitled “From Page to Screen,” a primer on adapting your or others’ works for a movie script. Leebron used clips from the film version of his book Six Figures and excerpts from the book itself to show how the screenwriter altered his book for the movie. To adapt successfully a script from a book, Leebron says, “You can’t be too loyal to the book,” but you have to distill the story down to who (protagonist) wants what (goal) and who opposes that (antagonist) then cut everything else.

There were lots of good tips on how to accomplish this, but perhaps I’ll blog on that at a later date.

The workshop session on Day 4 started with our reading aloud our homework from the night before: 1) a real dream and a fake dream, 2) a real event and a made-up event, 3) an author bio where one thing is fake, and 4) the worst opening to a novel or story ever.

The key for exercises 1, 2, and 3 was for your fellow workshoppers to find either dream or either event equally believable, i.e., that the fake one of either wasn’t obvious. The fake item in our bios–that’s the writer we want to be, according to Pinckney. The worst openings were a lot of fun, but we all may have learned too much–Pinckney loved them and said we all needed to continue with the stories we started! Well, I’ll leave it up to you. Here’s my “worst opening ever”–

She stood on the windy promentory, the incessant breeze lifting her long, soft, blond tresses of hair, which surrounded her heart-shaped face like an ethereal halo. The waves crashed against the rocks in time with her pounding pulse. If Roderigo was no more, then she could be no more. To live without his well-formed arms around her, without his perfect pecs hers to caress, was as impossible as ceasing to breathe. She jumped.

A tip from Pinckney: If you’re stuck in a scene in a story or novel, open a new file and write a bad version of it. That’ll clear your writer’s block in no time!

Then, it was hard to believe, but Day 5, the final day, rolled around. I was still dreading my critique, but I was at peace with it, despite a lot of tossing and turning during the night. I’d gotten to know the people in my workshop very well, and there wasn’t a mean person in the bunch. Their comments, I knew, would be worthwhile.

Day 5 started with a powerful craft seminar entitled “Turning to Literature for Writing Prompts: An Exercise in Reading as a Writer,” given by Dan Mueller. Mueller picked an unforgettable short story, “The Girl on the Plane,” by Mary Gaitskill and developed fifteen writing prompts from it. The story itself is about a man who boards a plane and ends up sitting next to a woman who reminds him of a girl he knew in college, a girl he rejected in a particularly horrific way.

A story, says Mueller, becomes unforgettable when there is an image in it, a powerful enough image that if you remove it, you have no story. The fifteen prompts from Gaitskill’s story illustrate what Mueller calls “the power of imagery.” I’m looking forward to writing fifteen stories from those prompts.

The final workshop session of the week started with an unusual exercise, one I’m not going to describe here because if anyone reading this takes a workshop from Pinckney Benedict (and you should), I don’t want to spoil it. The point of the exercise was for us as writers to understand the “allegory of self”–the place in your work where you find yourself, the place where you reveal yourself–and suffer the risk–as a writer.

And the dreaded hour arrived. Time for the critique. My stomach had been upset all morning. I knew I was being silly because I know I’m a good writer, but it’s that overwhelming insecurity you have when others read what you’ve written. I’d submitted the beginning to last year’s NaNoWriMo work, which was an apocalyptic piece about America after a right-wing takeover–not everybody’s cup of tea (no pun intended).

There were no negatives–even the few suggestions were logical, the things your writer’s blinders keep you from seeing. I did become emotional, but not for the reason I feared. I was so moved and uplifted by my fellow writers’ comments and raves I was almost overcome. I’m not going to describe the critique any further either, because I hold it in my heart with gratitude for a wonderful group of people I was privileged to meet and work with for five days–and that was not long enough.

My personal conference with Pinckney left me with a lot of thinking to do. I asked him what my next steps should be, and he indicated I was ready for a low-residency MFA. Wow.

A final panel, consisting of all the instructors, discussed the current state of publishing and how to break into it. Contests are one way, but every panelist emphasized you don’t get published unless you submit. None of the panelists were averse to self-publishing–at least, if they were, they didn’t speak up–but they also emphasized that anyone who self-publishes has to keep quality in mind at all times. Two of the instructors–Leebron and Benedict–have started their own, small publishing houses. They both are interested in new authors, and Benedict, in particular, indicated he prefers to deal directly with authors and not agents. A very thought-provoking and helpful final talk.

And then it was over. That was hard believe. We all felt as if we’d just arrived. We’d learned a lot, but we needed more. Next year seems so far away.

The week for me began on a low note of intimidation and insecurity, and it ended with seven new writer friends and a boost of confidence that will last me a lifetime. Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop is worth the time, the money, and the angst.

Friday Fictioneers From Tinker Mountain

For those of you who’ve wondered, Tinker Mountain is a mountain next door to Hollins University in Roanoke, VA, and is the location of the writers workshop I’ve been attending all this week. Today’s the day my story gets critiqued, but more on that later today.

Being involved in this workshop is certainly inspiring, and one thing I’ve learned is the economy of words. Another way Friday Fictioneers connect with a writer–and I’ve said this before–you learn how to cut and pare until you’re down to the essentials.

Obviously, this week I’m done with the sweet, cutesy stuff and am back to the dark side of things. About time. And I hope you find the title, “The Atheist’s Wish,” just a tad intriguing.

For other offerings (Read my story, and you’ll see that’s a pun.), go to Madison Woods’ blog and have a read or several.

Story Cubes Challenge – Week 9

Moving into the third month of writing flash fiction for Jennie Coughlin’s Story Cube Challenge, I’m seeing the potential in this exercise. Not only am I exploring aspects of characters I thought I knew pretty well, I’m accumulating material for what I think will be a good collection of espionage flash fiction. I’m calling it Spy Flash. Well, I thought it was clever.

As with last week, where I looked a little more into a secondary character, I decided to bring in another character who goes from being primary to secondary and back again a great deal in Mai and Alexei’s professional and personal lives.

Edwin “Snake” Terrell, Jr., is a former Green Beret who is now a CIA field operative. The CIA and the fictional Directorate have a long history of working together, and Terrell, Alexei, and Nelson have shared missions–and other things and people–quite often. He is an interesting character, at least I think so. An inveterate boozer and womanizer, he is a philosopher at heart and has the degrees to prove it. And, as you’ll see, he and Mai have, shall we say, history.

Here’s what I saw this week: (l. to r.) bee; building; dragon; hanging on for dear life; carrying; falling down the stairs; clock/time/0400; magnifying glass/scrutiny; parachute/parachuting/ parachutist

Because it’s not as quotidian as the other items/actions this week, I picked the dragon to center the story around.

You may wonder why in “Here, There Be Dragons” Terrell and Mai are parachuting in the dark into Romania–that’s another story for another time.

If you don’t see the link in the title, hover your cursor over the Story Cubes Challenge tab above and select “Here, There Be Dragons” from the drop-down list. If you want to give this a try yourself, use the picture above, write a story based on the items/actions you see, then post a link to your story in a comment to Jenny Coughlin’s blog post.